Conscience

Thinking the two men sitting on the boardwalk had fallen asleep in the morning sun would be an easy mistake to make. It could also be a deadly mistake. One wore all black, the other shades of tan. Both had their hats pulled low over their eyes. Both were aware of the stranger approaching. Neither gave any outward sign of that awareness. The man in black began to worry it might be a bounty hunter looking for his young friend. The younger man considered the same possibility but felt no fear. Not with his self appointed big brother at his side. Instead he observed and took stock of the stranger. Clothes that were good quality but not fancy, showing signs of a long ride on the trail. Well used guns that had been cared for. Average height, solid build. Dark brown eyes that glanced at him then focused on the man seated next to him.

"Chris Larabee. I'm calling you out."

Chris looked up from under his hat and met the strangers glare with his own. "Who are you?"

"Your conscience."

"You're stupid," Vin informed the stranger in a matter-of-fact tone.

Chris hid a smile. Vin's smart alec mouth tended to show at odd times, a fact the older man enjoyed but would never admit.

Then the strangers eyes did focus on Vin; who noticed they look many degrees colder but didn't realize that his own eyes, which had been the warm blue of a summer sky were now the frozen ice blue of a glacier.

"My business isn't with you."

"That's where you're wrong. If you want Chris you have to deal with me." Vin didn't consider himself to be giving a warning or making a threat, just stating an obvious truth.

"And me."

All three men looked over to see Buck standing nearby. Though a large man, he was able to move silently when he choose and had not been noticed as he walked up.

JD steped out of the Saloon. "My good friend, Colt, thinks you're in over your head." His hands resting on the distinctive ivory handled Colt Lighnings at his waist made his meaning clear.

"The odds are most definitely not in your favor," noted the gambler in a southern drawl, as he followed JD out of the Saloon.

The stranger looked back to his target. "So this is how you do it now Larabee? Five to one? That's against the code."

"So's callin' a man out without givin' him your name." Chris reminded him before asking again his earlier question. "Who are you?"

"My name is Jacob Kirkland. Son of Marcus Kirkland. Brother of Samantha Kirkland."

Chris' body tensed as if the names were physical blows hitting him and his tanned face drained of color . The others were so intent on Chris and Jacob that they didn't notice Bucks face also going pale while his blue eyes darkened with pain.

Jacob saw Chris' reaction and was pleased by it. "So, you do remember. I'll see you tomorrow at noon. You'll find me a more worthy opponent than my sister. I've spent the last five years getting ready for this and am going to enjoy watching you bleed."

"So you're here for revenge?" Despite his still pale face Chris soft voice was laced with steel.

"I'm here for your soul."

"Can't give you what I don't have." His casual tone made the statement all the more chilling, especially to his friends.

"So you admit you're a soulless killer. At least you're an honest man. See you tomorrow."

The five friends were silent as they watched Jacob Kirkland walk to the hotel. Their leader was first to break the silence. "Get Josiah and Nathan. We'll meet in the jail."

By unspoken agreement JD headed to the Church, Ezra to the Clinic, leaving Chris to walk to the jail flanked by his two closest friends. While his body unerringly traveled the familiar path, his mind was lost in the past. Remembering a time he would have sacrificed a great deal to be able to forget.

Once the Seven were together Chris began his tale. "You all know that after I. . .lost Sara and Adam I made some bad choices, did things I'm not proud of. The worst was killing Samantha Kirkland. Marcus Kirkland and I had a history, from during the war. We ran into each other again a few months after the fire, we were both drunk. He called me out, he lost. As I was about to walk away I heard the sound of a gun cocking behind me. I turned and fired without looking first." The regret in his voice turned to self loathing. "I'm so damned good that even drunk and shooting unsighted I hit the person. The gun I heard was being held by Marcus' 10 year old daughter Samantha. I killed an innocent girl who was trying to help her father."

When Buck spoke his voice has none of it's usual good humor and his eyes were still dark. "Chris, she was gonna shoot you in the back. It was self defense."

"You don't know she was going to shoot me." Buck disagreed with his best friend.

"Yea, I do. I was there, remember?"

Knowing Buck would rather not remember being there that night, and that this isn't the time to deal with the issue, Chris let it go for the moment and answered indirectly. "She was 10 years old. I could have easily stopped her without killing her. I could have shot her in the arm. I could have grabbed the gun from her hand. There are a dozen things I could have done and not killed a child."

Ezra decided to bring the discussion forward in time to the immediate problem. "Mr. Larabee, . . . Chris, you cannot change the past, or what happened to the girl. Right now we need to decide how to handle the brother." He looked at Josiah and Nathan. "One Jacob Kirkland, Samantha's brother, showed up this morning and called Chris out. Tomorrow at noon."

"What's to decide? Tomorrow at noon Chris goes out and deals with this guy. The guy ends up dead or leaves town and everything's fine." Even as he said this, part of JD, the part that had grown up since he arrived in Four Corners, knew it wouldn't be that simple.

As usual, Buck was the one to explain, and confirm JD's worst fears. "He won't just leave JD. Jacob's not going to end this 'til he kills Chris or Chris kills him."

"I already killed his father and sister, how can I kill him too?" Chris asked this of himself more than to the men around him. No one had an answer.

Vin's quiet voice broke the uneasy silence. "Where was Jacob when this happened? Why'd he wait 'til now ta show up?"

"I heard he was back east at some college," supplied Buck.

Ezra's southern drawl answered the second question. "He said that he has been "getting ready for this". I would imagine that he refers to being ready to shoot against Chris Larabee. He knew he'd have to be very, very fast if he wanted any chance of beating Mr. Larabee. Developing that kind of speed usually takes years of practice."

JD wasn't satisfied with that. "Most guys that good are well known, they get talked about, written about. If he's so fast now, why haven't we heard of him before?"

Nathan spoke for the first time. "He wouldn't want Chris to know he was coming. And he wouldn't want to risk gettin' killed by someone else before he could face Chris."

Josiah looked over at their gambler. "Ezra, do you think he's bluffing? Counting on Chris' guilt to keep him from fighting. Then he'd have his revenge by calling Chris a coward."

Ezra answered without needing to think it over, having asked himself the same question. "No. His look and manner are those of a man who can back his play. He means to fight Mr. Larabee. He may be aware of the guilt Mr. Larabee feels and intend to use that as his . . .Ace up his sleeve." He made eye contact with Chris before continuing. "It is a winning card, but he can only play that card if you allow him to. What happened to that girl five years ago was a tragic accident, letting her brother kill you will not bring her back."

"You think I don't know that, Ezra?" Chris snarled.

Nathan took on the, for him unusual, role of defending Ezra. "Calm down, that's not what he was sayin'."

After a deep, calming breath Chris spoke again. "I know. I'm sorry, Ez. OK, you all know what's goin' on now. I don't think sitting here talkin' will solve the problem. Anyone got anything else to add right now?" Silence was his answer. "Let's keep an eye on things, and him, in case there's more to this or he has friends. We can meet at the Saloon tonight or early tomorrow to talk, when we've had time to think things over."

This got nods and murmurs of approval as the men moved to leave. JD stayed behind and signaled Buck to stay also. After watching Chris head toward the Church with Josiah, Vin trailing behind them, watching over them, Buck sat back down.

"What's up, JD?"

"That was going to be my question. What's going on with you? What happened to you that night?"

"Nothing happened to me that night. I . . .didn't get involved." Buck hoped this answer would satisfy JD since this is one story he really doesn't want to share with his young friend.

"Well, you couldn't. They had to be one on one. That's the rule. So why are you hurting now?"

"You aren't gonna let this go, are ya?" Buck asked in a resigned tone. He didn't bother asking how JD knew he was hurting. The boy was perceptive naturally and learning to be observant. Not in the league of Vin or Ezra yet, he didn't have their experience, but with two such expert teachers he was learning fast.

JD grinned at him, eyes flashing in victory. "Nope. So you might as well talk to me."

"I was there that night. I was supposed to watch Chris' back. I'm his best friend, that's what friends do, right? Well, I didn't, I froze. I saw the girl aim the gun at his back and I froze, did nothin'. I would have let her shoot him. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. A girl aiming a gun and ready to fire. A girl."

JD tried to reason with his older friend. "What could you have done, Buck? You couldn't kill her."

"Like Chris said, a grown man against a girl. I could have stopped her without killin' her. But I didn't do anything. I didn't even warn Chris she was there, it's lucky he heard the gun. I wasn't drunk, I don't have that excuse. It's a damn good thing being drunk doesn't slow Chris down or hurt his aim. If he was any other man he would have died that night, and it would have been my fault."

"But he isn't any other man, and he didn't die. You can't beat yourself up over something that didn't happen." JD hated seeing the man he considered a big brother in so much pain.

"But if I'd done something, stopped her, Chris wouldn't have had to shoot her. He woudn't have the guilt or the brother out for his blood"

"You heard what Ezra said, you can't change what happened."

"No, but I can do what I'm supposed to and watch Chis' back this time." "And this time you have 5 other men to help." Buck was happier at the thought but still unsure. "Hope that'll be enough. Chris has a habit of walking in front of gun barrels."

"He also has a habit of walking away alive." JD reminded his older friend. "Come on. Let's go check around town."

Felling a bit better Buck figured JD deserved some teasing for getting him to talk. "Maybe you'll even get to see Casey. I think she and Miss Nettie were coming inta town today."

He was rewarded by seeing JD blush as he hurried for the door.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Ezra cornered his quarry in the Hotel lobby. "Mr. Kirkland. Allow me to introduce myself. Mr. Ezra P. Standish. I am afraid we got off to a poor start earlier."

Jacob nodded in acknowledgement but refused to shake the outstretched hand. "You're Larabee's friend. That's all I need to know about you."

Ezra lowered his hand with a tight smile in recognition of the insult. "Yes, I am his friend. And as his friend I'm asking you to leave, and I'm willing to make it worth your while."

"You think you can buy me off? Bribe me?" Jacob looked almost amused by the thought.

"No," admited the gambler, "I did not really think so, not with cash, but it never hurts to try. They say every man has his price. What's yours?"

Jacob thought for a moment then smirked. "A blood price, Chris Larabee's blood. That's my price."

"Is it his blood you want, or his pain? Consider this, the worst thing you can do to Mr. Larabee is to let him live. He is tortured by his guilt. If you kill him you end that suffering."

"I'll send him to hell. How is that ending his suffering?"

"Mr. Larabee has already lived his hell in this life. He will NOT be seeing it in the next. That I can promise you with great confidence."

Jacob was stunned with disbelief. "You can't believe a man who murders innocent girls is going to heaven?"

"As I understand it, that innocent girl was about to shoot a man in the back. You see, I know the details, but more importantly, I know the man. Mr. Larabee has saved at least two lives for every one he has taken."

"Maybe you're right. Maybe that will earn him God's forgiveness, but it won't earn him mine."

Having expected that answer Ezra continued. "Understood. But I would ask you to think about what I have said. The worst thing you could do to Mr. Larabee is leave him to his own guilt."

"Didn't you hear him admit earlier that he didn't have a soul?" Jacobs asked in a mocking voice.

"Yes, but unlike you I know what he meant. His wife and young son were killed in a fire not long before he met up with your father. As far as Mr. Larabee is concerned they were his soul and he lost them."

"So that gives him the right to kill others? It excuses his actions?" Jacob demanded.

"No, it most definitely does not excuse them. But it does explain them. One last thing before I leave you. This conversation has been speaking as if it is certain that you will win, but that is not a certainty, far from it. Going against Chris Larabee is suicide. I realize you may be anxious to see your sister again, but I'm sure she would be willing to wait for a reunion. Good day to you, Sir." Having learned what he had wanted to Ezra walked out of the Hotel.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Josiah said nothing as Chris fell into step beside him, knowing he needed to talk, but not in public. He saw Vin following them and knew he'd make sure they weren't disturbed or overheard. Once they were seated in cool dimness of the old church Chris spoke.

"You didn't say much back in the jail."

"You learn more by listening than talking. And you're one to talk about not sayin' much."

Despite his mood Chis grinned slightly. "I'm listening."

Josiah's instinct told him that his friend needed to talk about what happened; that he had never talked about that night before, not even with Buck or Vin, his usual confidantes. "Anything can be taken to extremes, you need to talk sometimes. It can help put things in perspective."

"I've spent the last two years trying to forget most of the three years before. Not too hard considering how much of that time I'd spent drunk But that night stays clear. You believe in Hell, right?"Josiah answered with a silent nod. "I think Hell is going to be us reliving the evil things we did in our lives. And maybe seeing the ways we could have done them right."

The ex-preacher decided he'd heard enough. "Hold it there, Chris. What you did wasn't evil. What you did was wrong but it wasn't evil. A bear kills a man, or a child, is the bear evil? No. It was acting on instinct. That's what you were doing. Acting on instinct. A sense of self preservation. You were in the middle of a gun fight, you heard a gun, you reacted."

"I'm not an animal, I'm a man. And I didn't have to kill her to save myself."

"You just said it. You're a man. Men make mistakes. A lesser man would blame it on being drunk, or on the other man for having his daughter there. You're not, you haven't even tried to. You're taking responsibility for what you did."

"What I did was. . ."

Josiah interrupted, "What if it had been me, or Vin? What if Buck had shot her before you did? Would you hold any of us to the standard you're holding yourself to? No, you'd understand and forgive. Just like you understood and forgave JD when he shot Annie."

"JD wasn't trying to shoot Annie. And he's a kid, I'm not."

"You weren't "trying" to shoot Samantha. Annie was unarmed. Samantha had a gun aimed at your back. She was trying to shoot you."

"The girl had just watched me kill her father."

"You didn't know she was there watching that. Her father did and he fought you, that makes that his responsibility not yours. It's good to take responsibility for your actions, but not another's. They need to do that themselves. Your burden is heavy enough as it is, don't add anyone else's on top of it. What would you have done if you had known she was there?"

"Told him to get her out of there. Postponed the challenge. I don't know, something."

"To bad her father didn't do something. If he had she would have lived."

The black clad man couldn't believe what he'd heard. "So you're saying it's his fault?"

"I'm saying there's plenty of blame to go around. A lot of things were done wrong that night. It was a chain of events, any one thing being changed, by anyone, could have saved the girl. Have you ever heard of "trial by combat"?"

Having a feeling he knew where is question is leading, Chris answered. "Two men fight, whoever wins is right in the eyes of the law."

"Basically. It was back when Church and Law were more connected than they are now. They believed that God decided the outcome, gave strength to the one in the right. The innocent man could not lose. God would not allow it."

"So you're saying I should think of this as my trial? If I win I'm innocent, absolved?" Chris asked in a somewhat cynical voice. "

Something like that."

Chris was quiet for a long time; thinking about what Josiah had said and wishing he could forgive himself for his past, for what he had become. Josiah sat silently, glad to know that his friend had listened to what was said. Wondering what else he could say to help him more, but wise enough to know that in the end it was up to Chris.

"How can I ask him to forgive me when I can't forgive myself?"

"You can't, and even if you could it wouldn't change things. He isn't here to forgive you, he's here to fight you. Buck was right, this is going to end with one of you dead, it's up to you who that will be. Like Ezra said, if you let him play on your guilt he will win. If you don't there's no way he can out draw you."

"I thought you said it was up to God?"

"No, I said they believed it was. I believe you're a good man and a fast draw. I believe innocent men can be killed, but I also believe that God protects good men."

"Thanks, Josiah. Right now I think I'm gonna go for a ride. Clear my head."

"Not a bad idea," approved Josiah.

"I'd suggest takin' Vin with ya." "I was plannin' to. Don't think he'd let me leave town without him right now, anyway."

"No, I don't think he would either. He's almost as protective of you as you are of him." Josiah smiled as he teased his friend. He put a comforting hand on Chris shoulder as they walked towards the door.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Seeing Chris and Vin walk into the Saloon Ezra excused himself from the poker game he was involved in and took a seat at the Seven's table. When Lara brought the usual bottle of Whiskey and glasses Vin motioned her to wait. He poured two generous drinks then handed her the bottle. "Thanks, Lara. That's all for tonight unless Ezra wants something."

Chris glared at Vin but said nothing, unwilling to force Lara into choosing between their instructions. Vin's smirk told him Vin was counting on that reaction.

Ezra looked at Lara before answering. "Nothing for now, Lara. Thank you."

She nodded and left, curious about their behavior, but knowing the men well enough to understand that prying would be a bad idea. She'd heard enough rumors earlier in the day to have a good idea as to what was going on.

"Viiiinnn." The drawn out name was both a warning and a demand for an explanation.

Ezra spoke first. "Mr. Tanner is correct in his actions. Now is not the time for you to dive into a bottle. When I first met you I was reminded of a line from Shakespeare. "The ruins of the noblest man that ever lived," the Bard spoke of you Chris; but over the last two years you've rebuilt your life, your soul. Letting Jacob Kirkland undo that would be worse than letting him kill you."

Vin reminded the older man of something he already knew, "Being drunk got ya into this mess. It will not get ya out."

Chris downed his drink in one gulp then conceded the point. "All right. That's it for tonight. But after this is over. . ."

The other two shared a pleased look, knowing they had won. After taking a sip of his drink Vin looked at Ezra. "Saw ya follow Jacob into the Hotel this mornin'. Did ya find out anything that could help?"

Ezra was silent, feeling both amazed and pleased. Vin's belief that he had been trying to get information to help them instead of looking out for himself was still surprising to him, even after two years and he was touched by his friends trust. "No, unfortunately. I simply confirmed that he is not bluffing and that he cannot be bribed."

"You tried to bribe him?" Chris wasn't sure whether to be amused or angry at the idea.

"It was the quickest way to ascertain his sincerity. Every man has their price. I needed to know his. Unfortunately his price is your blood. It is true that the only thing worse than a scoundrel is a man of principle."

"We may have to discuss that concept sometime, Brother Ezra," commented Josiah as he took his seat. Buck and JD were right behind him.

Ezra nodded slightly in Josiah's direction. "I look forward to it Mr. Sanchez."

Vin wasn't sure he correctly followed the conversation. "What are you talking about, Ez?"

"If he were a scoundrel he would have accepted money and left. Problem solved. Instead he is a man of principles and Chris, uh, we, still have to deal with him tomorrow."

"No, Ezra, you were right. I have to deal with him tomorrow." Chris held up his hand to quiet the protests he knew were coming. "I know you men want to help and I'm grateful. But I caused this problem and I have to deal with it. Jacob was right when he said the code is one on one not Seven to one."

"That code could get you killed." Observed Nathan. He pulled an empty chair from the next table and sat with the others.

"It hasn't yet. It's saved my life many times."

Nathan wanted an explanation. "What do ya mean?"

"There are a lot of men who want to fight me. Most of 'em are afraid to. But if they could get together and challenge me as a group . . ."

"I see your point. Earlier you were cursing your skill but that skill might just get you out of this mess. I had an idea. Most men wouldn't be able to pull this off, not for sure, but you can." Nathan's instincts as a healer were to heal the wound in his friends mind and heart. He knew that wouldn't be easy after it being allowed to fester for five years, but was determined to try. He also knew it could be dangerous for Chris to start despising his own strengths out of guilt.

JD was impatient as ever. "What is it, Nate?"

"Chris can shoot him in the arm so he can't shoot back. Then I fix up his arm and nobody gets killed. Like I said, most men are either to slow or not accurate 'nuff to pull something like that in the middle of a gun duel, but you could, Chris."

"Good plan Nathan, but what happens when he heals up and comes back? And I think he will come back, if he will even leave."

"So, what, you let him kill you? Are we back to that?" Demanded Buck, upset with his best friends unwillingness to look for a good ending.

"Buck, you should know better than anyone, I died five years ago, this would just be a formality."

"Like Hell I know that. Maybe three or four years ago you could have gotten away with that, but not anymore. You've started to live again. I can't believe you're willin' to give that up."

Ezra took his turn next. "I'll tell you the same thing I told Mr. Kirkland. I know you want to see your family again but they are, I'm confident, willing to wait for the reunion."

Buck saw the opening Ezra gave him and used it. "He's right ya know. You just give up and let that boy kill you and Sara will give you a piece of her mind instead of a kiss when you see her on the other side."

Josiah added his voice to his friends. "There is also what letting Jacob kill you will do to him. He may have learned to shoot but I doubt he's ever shot, much less killed, a man. He doesn't know what that does to a man. You do. Do you really want to be the one to teach him that lesson? I know it's his choice, but you have the ability to make that choice for him."

"So I kill him to keep him from being a killer?"

"Sometimes life doesn't give you good choices, only hard ones."

Buck decided to change the subject slightly. "There is one good thing we learned today. Jacob stayed in his room a lot and kept to himself when he was out. That means he is alone and that he isn't a distraction for an attack on the town or something else like that."

Nathan agreed with Buck's conclusion but wasn't so sure it was a good thing. "So we don't have to worry about the town, just Chris. Only problem with that is it's usually less work keeping the town in one piece than keeping you six in one piece."

Josiah was in complete agreement. "Amen to that, Brother Nathan."

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Chris Larabee woke as his body jerked upright. The only sound in the room was his own heavy breathing. The echos of his scream had already died. Moments later a fist pounding on the door broke the silence.

"Chris?"

The door creaked open and he met the worried gaze of his best friend. Buck's eyes instinctively scanned the room. "You OK, Pard? What happened?"

"Nightmare." Came the terse answer. Between the two men it as all the answer needed.

Buck walked the rest of the way into the room and closed the door. He'd slept in his own room, an unusual occurrence, for fear this would happen. He'd originally chosen his room so he could be near his best friend if he was needed, though Chris would never admit it Buck knew the nightmares took a heavy toll on him. Buck was thankful Chris nightmares were mostly a thing of the past, unless something happened to trigger them.

"Oh. Which one?" With Jacob here he knew which one, but asked anyway.

"Kirkland. When I turned around it wasn't Samantha I'd shot. It was Adam. I'd killed Adam. I shot without looking and Adam died." As he spoke he watched the scene replay itself in his minds eye and was caught back in the nightmare vision. Shooting Marcus. Hearing a gun cocking behind him. Shooting as he turned. Finally seeing the face of the person he shot, the face of his own son. Dead before he hit the ground, dead at his hand. When his wife and son had died he'd thought nothing could be worse. The first time he had this dream he'd learned his mistake. The thought of Adam dying at his own hand was worse, much, much, worse.

"NO!" Bucks near shout brought Chris back to reality, as intended. "Chris, it was a nightmare. You did not shoot Adam. You know that."

"But I could have. You know how he loved to sneak up on me."

"And I know you never carried a gun around him. You have enough to deal with thinking about Samantha and Jacob. Don't torture yourself about Adam. You can't afford that right now."

Chris knew his friend was right, but was still shaken by the nightmare. "What am I gonna do, Buck?"

"Right now, try to get some more sleep. At noon, what you have to do. You might want ta try Nate's idea. I know I said he won't stop 'til one of ya is dead, but I've been wrong before. Maybe if you wound him, he'll figure out he can't beat you and leave. Nathan was right that you're one of the few men accurate enough and fast enough to pull that off. Even if he doesn't leave you'll have bought us some more time to come up with somethin' better."

"Earlier you asked if I remembered you being there. I do. I remember you getting me off the street and up to my room. I remember you dealing with the Sheriff, and the townfolk. I remember you never giving up on me, even after what I did."

"You shouldn't have had to do it, if I had . . ."

"No, Buck. It was my fight. You were right not to get involved. It was a little girl. I know you. There is no way you could do anything to hurt a child. You're better than that, Better than-"

"DON"T SAY IT! Don't even THINK it. You are a good man, one I've been proud to call my friend. And you know damn well I'm no saint."

"Buck, if I lose,"

Buck refused to listen, "Don't talk like that. You ain't gonna lose."

"Buck, listen to me, I need you to promise me something. If I lose you take care of the others. 'Specially Vin and JD. Josiah can take care of their souls, and Nathan can heal their bodies, but only if you stay together. You have to be the leader, keep 'em together. Don't let this break the rest of you up. Promise me?"

"OK, I promise. But you have to promise me something. You have to try to stay alive. You promise me you won't just walk out there and let him shoot you."

"I promise. Now go back to bed. You need all the beauty sleep you can get." He smiled slightly to let his friend know he wa teasing him, then turned serious. "And Buck, thanks."

"Any time, Pard, anytime." The dark haired man assured his friend before leaving.

Knowing from experience it would be a while before he could sleep again Chris made himself comfortable, then started wishing for a drink. He considered going to the Saloon to try and get a drink but stayed in his room. No matter how bad he wanted the Whiskey he knew his friends were right. Getting drunk wouldn't solve his problem. But at least he could forget it for a while, he thought sourly. He started running different possibilities for what could happen tomorrow in his mind to distract himself from reliving the past.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7 As the sun rose Vin got out of his wagon to see Chris coming out of the Saloon with two cups of coffee. He sat beside his friend and reached for the extended cup. When the cups were empty the young tracker decided he'd waited long enough.

"Would you let me turn myself in at Tascosa if I didn't have a way to clear my name?"

The older man answered immediately. "Of course not. You know that."

"Why not?"

Chis wasn't sure where Vin was taking this conversation, but gave the obvious answer. "Because you'd get yourself killed."

"So what makes you think I'll let you get yourself killed?"

"What are you sayin'?"

"You wouldn't let me go to Tascosa without a way to clear my name and I won't let you fight Jacob if you won't try to stay alive."

Chris voice took on an edge as he answered. "Not your decision, Vin."

Vin corrected his older friend. "I can make it mine if I have to. Shoot him soon as he walks out of the hotel, before either of ya have a chance to draw. If it's the only way to keep ya alive I'll do it. But I hope I won't have to. I don't want to lose your friendship, but if that's the price of keepin' you alive I'll pay it."

"You're my friend, my brother, nothing you could do will change that. But you have to let me do this my way. I'm asking as a friend, but if I have to I'll make it an order from your leader. I don't want to do that."

The younger man relented. "Alright. But if you go out there and let him shoot you I'll go ta Tascosa and turn myself in. Since you'll be dead ya won't be able to stop me. You may not be able to fight him to save yourself, but how 'bout to save me?"

"That's not fair, Vin," accused Chris.

"I'm not trying to be fair, I'm trying to keep you alive," Vin informed the older man with a smirk. He then reached into his pocket and pulled out a carefully folder piece of paper. He hesitated for a full minute. Looking down at the paper then at Chris, but refusing to make eye contact and allow his big brother to read his thoughts, which worried Chris.

"Vin?" asked Chris in a tone he had often used with Adam. Gentle, but still demanding attention. Blue eyes met hazel.Vin's full of uncertainty. Chris' asking for trust. The tracker slowly extended his hand.

"Wrote this for you last night."

Chris took the offered paper and opened it. Feeling proud of Vin's progress in learning to read and write as he saw the neat script he read. . .

Looks like the weight of the world's

On your shoulders

And every night a bullet wears your name

I don't envy you but I want to say

You better get your guns

I know you think you're going crazy

Just when it seems everything's

Gonna work itself out

They drive you right back down

They christened you with whiskey

Now there's fire running through your veins

And there's trouble blowing like a hurricane

Gonna need a miracle

'Cause it's all on the line

But I won't let you down

(No I won't let you down)

If you need me I'll come running

I won't let you down... no, no

You're looking for salvation

You thought that it'd be shining

Like an angel's light

Well, the angels left this nation

And salvation caught the last train

Out tonight

He lost one hell of a fight

Gonna need a miracle

'Cause your heart's on the line

And your heartbeat is slowing downYour feet are grounded still

You're reaching for the sky

You can't let 'em clip your wings

'Cause I believe that you can fly

Gonna need a miracle

'Cause your heart's doing time

And your conscience is calling you out

You could walk away

But I know you were born to fight

So, better get your guns

"Thank you. I'm not sure what to say."

"Say you won't leave me." His voice was a mixture of demand and plea.

"Not if I can help it." Chris assured him.

Before Chris could say more JD's voice grabbed their attention. "Hey guys."

He was relieved to see them sitting there, talking and having coffee as they did almost every morning. Even knowing what was coming later it was reassuring to see them acting as if were a normal day. Both men greeted him as he joined them. Chris carefully refolded and pocketed the poem.

Vin looked at his unofficial boss. "I'm going to take a patrol around outside town, just ta be safe. See ya in a couple hours."

At Chris' nod he turned toward the livery, then looked back. "Think about what I said, Cowboy." He caught the mock glare directed at him as he again turned to leave, and this time kept going; content that the friendship was still strong, and that he was the only man who could safely turn his back to Chris Larabee after calling him a cowboy.

Instead of going inside JD sat in the now empty chair beside Chris. While not unheard of it was unusual enough to get the older mans attention, so he asked, "What's on your mind JD? Noon?"

"Sort of. I know you can beat him. You'll do what you have to, whatever that ends up being. Mostly I'm thinking about what you said to me after Annie died. You told me that if I was perfect I wouldn't be one of you. You don't expect the rest of us to be perfect, but you expect yourself to. You're one of us. That means you make mistakes like the rest of us. When I first got here I idolized you so much it was hard to see that, but now I do. After I came back you said that I couldn't let one thing, no matter how bad, ruin my life, like you almost had. That I needed to make sure I never did the same thing wrong again and to do all the good things I could to make up for what I'd done, to balance it out, good for bad."

"You remember all that?"

"Yeah. Did you mean it or were you just trying to make me feel better?"

Chris was quiet for a long time. He knew JD had him. No way he could say he didn't mean what he'd told JD. But if he admited he meant it JD could use the "advise" on him. He almost smiled but suppressed it, the kid was learning fast and he was proud of him. "I wasn't sain' it just to make you feel better."

Their conversation was cut short by the appearance of Jacob. They watched in silence as he headed to the stables. Chris was glad to see Vin already saddled and riding away from the stables.

JD quickly stood. "I'll keep an eye on him from the jail." At Chris' nod he hurried off down the street.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

At midday Four Corners would usually be bustling with activity, but today it was very quiet. Even Jacob, a stranger to the town, could sense the difference as he stepped out of the hotel. The seven friends standing together outside the Saloon noticed him and their leader stepped forward a few paces.

Jacob looked into eyes that seemed bruised from the pain in them. Not the eyes of a man who killed without thought or remorse. What he saw made him, for a moment, reconsider his new plan; then the moment was gone. "I withdraw my challenge."

Hope flared in Chris heart, and eyes. "Why?"

Knowing he didn't have to answer, but wanting to taunt Chris, Jacob replied. "Something your fancy Southern friend said. Asked if I wanted you dead, or in pain. Said that killing you would end your pain. And I do want you in pain, so you live. He also said you wouldn't go to Hell when you died so I'm going to make your life Hell. I'm going to do to you what you did to me. An eye for an eye. Isn't that right Preacher Man?" As he said this his gaze moved to Josiah, then returned to Chris before he continued, "I'm going to kill the ones you love. The only question left is who to start with." He pointedly focused on Vin, having sensed the bond between them the day before.

By threatening Chris' friends he had stepped over the line and signed his own death warrant; he was blissfully naive of that fact, but the other men present were not.

"Not so fast. I'm calling you out." Chris said quickly, before Jacob could challenge Vin. He was impressed with the young sharpshooters near perfect accuracy over unbelievable distances; but knew that's what Vin was, a sharp shooter, not a gunfighter. Hazel eyes captured blue and looked for understanding through their unique bond. As usual Vin knew what Chris was thinking and let that show in his gaze for Chris to read. Satisfied with their silent communication Chris returned his attention to Jacob.

When Jacob saw Chris eyes again he was stunned, and not a little scared, by the change. Gone was the pain, replaced by an anger so intensely cold it seemed to burn; and below those eyes was a feral smile that looked almost as benign as a hunting tigers. He got the uneasy feeling that he was the prey.

As Chris walked into the street Buck took a step to stand beside Vin. "Like you said yesterday, he's an idiot."

"Sure is."

"Least it solves our problems," Buck noted, the usual humor finally back in his voice.

"Sure does," agreed Vin.

Both broke into relieved smiles, but kept their eyes glued to the men in the street.

"How does him being an idiot solve our problems?" Came JD's curious question.

Buck explained, "Now he's threatened us, 'specially Vin, we don't have to worry about Chris being willing to shoot him. Or about him feeling guilty after."

JD's only response was a smile to match theirs.

Out on the street Jacob was feeling like an idiot for not considering that even if he withdrew his challenge Chris could reverse that and challenge him. Something else the gambler had told him the day before echoed in his mind. "Going against Chris Larabee is suicide." His hand went for his gun.

Chris saw the movement and drew. His bullet ripped through Jacob's arm tearing nerves and muscle. The reflexive tightening of his finger sent his bullet harmlessly into the ground a good distance in front of his opponent. The small explosion was followed by a thud as his gun fell from his deadened hand.

Nathan picked up his bag and hurried to the injured man. After wrapping a bandage tightly around the wound to stop the bleeding he stood. "Let's get to the Clinic so I can treat it proper, 'fore you lose more blood or it gets infected."

"One minute Nate." Requested a quiet, deadly calm voice.

At the healer's OK Chris spoke to Jacob. "You're leaving. Whether it's on your horse or in a pine box is up ta you. After Nathan patches you up, I see you near one of my men I kill you."

"You could have killed me just now."

"No, I couldn't. I owed you. Now were even. Now I can."

Jacob started to sway from a combination of blood loss and the beginnings of shock; JD reached out to help the healer steady the injured man then guide him to the Clinic. Seeing that the danger was past the towns people came out to the street.

The first to reach the Seven was a small blonde whirlwind that launched itself at Chris. Fortunately he'd already holstered his gun and easily caught the young boy.

"Mama said you might not be able to take me fishing tomorrow like you promised. Does this mean you can?" Billy Travis asked in an excited voice.

Chris smiled affectionately at the boy. "Yea, it does. Think we can talk your Ma into packing us a lunch to eat?"

Billy turned slightly in the strong arms holding him to see his mother nearby. The relieved look still on her face changed to a smile before she answered. "I think I can manage that. If you eat your vegetables tonight at dinner."

"Maaa." Groaned Billy.

Chris winked at Mary over Billy's head. "Sounds fair to me."

The lovely blonde took her son as others crowd around. Chris and the four remaining peace keepers retreated to the Saloon; none of them wanting to deal with a crowd at the moment. The town people let them go, content to know the Seven are all safe.

Half an hour later Nathan and JD appeared. Nathan answered the questions he knew were coming before they were voiced. "He's gonna be fine. Used some carbolic to stop any infection and sewed 'im up."

"He agreed to spend the rest of the day in his room recovering and leave first thing in the morning. I asked Mr. McKay over at the hotel to keep an eye open and let us know if he leaves the building."

"Good thinkin', JD," praised Chris.

Though more confident than when he'd arrived in Four Corners two years ago the young man beamed with pride at the compliment from the man he still thought of as a hero, even if a flawed, human hero. In some ways he liked that better, since it meant he could also have him as a friend, instead of just a distant, unapproachable hero figure.

Inez and Lara approached the Seven's table carrying trays. The pair sported matching ear to ear grins as they set out the food. Lara's tray also held a bottle of wine.

Ezra picked it up and checked the label. "Well, well, this is extravagant," drawled the gambler.

"It's on the house. I've been saving it for a special occasion and this feels right." Lara explained to the men.

"Wherever did you acquire it, my dear?"

"Back east. Brought it with me. Thought I could sell it if I ever needed a little quick money on the trip west," answered Lara as she took the wine in question from Ezra to pour the drinks.

Once that was done Inez and Lara left the men to enjoy their meal. Before the others could begin Josiah picked up his glass and spoke. "I would like to propose a toast. It's from one of my favorite stories. All for one. . ."

"And one for all," chorused Seven voices.

THE END