Die Hard The Hunter

by Heather Hillsden

Tom Clay arrived in town on the evening of the second day after Vin and Ezra had left.

He rode in with Sam Peterson, the man JD had sent to fetch him, with four big blue-tick hounds trotting at the heels of the rangy dun stallion between his knees. Not one of the black and grey-speckled dogs weighed less than eighty pounds, and the townspeople stopped and stared at the odd little group as they made their way down towards the Sheriffs office and stopped outside.

The young peacekeeper was sitting outside talking to Chris when Peterson and Clay brought their horses to a halt in front of the hitching rail. The big, sandy-haired Clay dismounted and strode straight up to Chris as he climbed languidly to his feet.

"Tom Clay," he said brusquely, holding out his hand. "I hear you got cougar trouble."

"A mite," Chris agreed, shaking the offered hand. "Chris Larabee – JD Dunne." He indicated the young peacekeeper, and Clay nodded briefly.

"Sam tells me a couple of fellas have already gone looking for it. Either of ‘em know sic ‘em about tracking?"

JD bristled angrily, but Chris glared at him and he subsided. Here was a man who was direct and to the point – much like himself – and he could appreciate the need to know all the facts.

"I’d say so. Vin lived amongst the Comanche’s for a while, so I figger some of their savvy must have rubbed off on him." Chris grinned, but there was a challenge in his eyes. Clay studied him for a moment, and then he relaxed, a broad smile spreading across his face when he realised that the man in black had his measure.

"Fair enough. Do you want to make a start now, or wait ‘til morning?"

Chris shrugged. "It’s your call. Do you reckon those dogs of yours need a rest or what?"

Clay threw his head back and laughed out loud. "Those hounds are running fools, like my dun! We’ve a few hours of daylight left, so we may’s well make a start."

"Alright. We can reach Carter’s place by nightfall, and make a start from there at first light." Chris turned to the young man beside him. "JD, can you go find Buck and tell him we’re heading out now?"

"Sure, no problem, Chris."

As JD hurried away in search of the ladies man, Chris thanked Peterson and ushered Tom Clay into the office.

"Take the weight off your feet," he said. "And I’ll tell you what we know about this cat."

+ + + + + + +

Vin groaned and opened his eyes cautiously, wondering why he felt so uncomfortable, and then he realised his cheek was pressed painfully against the trunk of a tree, and his injured arm was tucked awkwardly beneath his body, throbbing in time with his heartbeat. Slowly he levered himself into a sitting position, drawing a sharp breath as the blood raced through previously cramped muscles, and he cursed the weakness that had caused him to pass out.

When he lifted his hand to push damp hair from his eyes, he could feel the clamminess of his skin, and his mouth was as dry as paper as he glanced up at the darkening sky and wondered how long he had lain senseless on the ground. The campfire provided the clues when he glanced at it; it had burnt down to a few dying embers, and he knew that a number of hours had passed since he’d last fed it.

Pulling himself to his feet, careful to take it slow this time, he turned to check on Ezra. The gambler was still unconscious, his breath coming in shallow gasps as he moved fitfully beneath the blanket. The cloth that had been draped across his forehead had slipped to the ground, and was now bone dry, so Vin poured more water onto it and positioned it back across the other’s brow. He touched his hand briefly to Ezra’s cheek, feeling the warmth in the skin beneath his fingertips; the Southerner didn’t seem to be any better, but at least he was no worse.

However, Vin was now beginning to doubt his own stamina; his hands trembled violently as he took a long pull of the tepid liquid, and his skin burned when he splashed some on his face. It was his fault that Ezra was injured, and he owed it to the Southerner to look out for him until help arrived. It was the least he could do for his friend, but would he be able to fulfil that obligation?

Gathering together the remaining tinder, he began to build the fire again, coaxing it back into life. It was going to be a long night, and he at least wanted a blaze large enough to deter most predators – just in case he fell asleep.

+ + + + + + +

Tom Clay’s hounds had spent a restless night shut in the barn at Jess Carter’s homestead, but when morning came, and they were taken to the spot where the cougar had snatched the lamb, the blue-ticks came into their own. Picking up the scent of the mountain lion, the pack had taken off, their baying song ringing out across the prairie, and Chris, Buck, and Clay had had to push their mounts hard to keep up.

It was almost midday when the dogs finally paused, the trail having brought them to the edge of a shallow creek. The three men dismounted, giving their blowing horses a chance to rest and drink as the hounds cast about up and down river, trying to catch some scent of their quarry.

"We’ll rest up for an hour or so," Clay said. "Then push on for a few more hours this afternoon."

"Fine. No sense in wearing the horses out," Chris agreed.

They sat in the shade of a tree, and shared the fresh bread and cheese that Jess Carter’s wife had given them, relaxing for about two hours before Clay called his pack to order and they resumed the hunt.

Late afternoon found them no nearer to their quarry, so Chris called it a day. While he and Buck made camp, Clay went hunting for game, returning a short while later with a deer slung over his shoulder. Cutting the choicest steaks from the kill, he handed them to Buck for cooking, and then divided the remains of the carcass between the hounds.

"I don’t suppose we’ll need to keep watch tonight," Chris remarked, as he handed round the coffee.

Clay shook his head. "No – the boys’ll sound off if we get any unwelcome visitors."

The men settled down for the evening, enjoying the thick venison steaks. At Buck’s insistence, Clay was persuaded to share tales of some of his cougar hunts, and his stories kept them occupied until it was time to turn in.

It took Chris a long time to drift off to sleep, and he lay awake for nearly an hour, wondering about Vin and Ezra, and watching the dogs prowl around the camp.

+ + + + + + +

They had been riding for several hours the following morning, when the dogs had lost the scent and Clay had had to resort to tracking by sight, a slow but necessary process until the dogs found the mountain lion’s trail again

It was Buck who first spotted the ominous sign.

"Chris." He called his friend’s attention to the birds, and the gunslinger followed his gaze to where the buzzards swooped and glided on the thermals thrown up by the steep incline.

"Let’s go."

Chris swung into the saddle of his black, and urged it up the slope, laying heels against its side as they galloped towards the circling carrion. Only something dead or dying would cause those scavengers to gather, and in this wild, untamed land it was the unwritten duty of any man to investigate.

As they crested the ridge, they could see the large, dark bulk of a body on the ground. Clay called his hounds to heel as they rode towards the stiffening body of a horse, and Chris felt a sudden, unexplained sense of foreboding. His gelding snorted, nervous as the scent of death was carried to its nostrils, and Chris dismounted leaving the black ground-hitched as he stepped forward to check the dead horse.

He approached the head first, and he could see immediately what had caused the animal's demise. Its halter was attached to a length of rope, and it was this rope that had wrapped itself around the horse’s legs as it ran – from who knew what – and the animal had crashed down, breaking its neck. The gunslinger studied the animal carefully, and then his heart skipped a beat as he spotted the mark burned into the shoulder.


The tone of that one word made the ladies man slip from his saddle, and he hurried to his friend’s side without any comment. He followed Chris’ pointing finger, and sucked in a breath through his teeth.

"Aw, Hell!" he muttered, recognising the distinctive brand that belonged to the Four Corners Livery.

"What is it?" Clay demanded, and Buck turned to him, his face troubled.

"It looks like the packhorse that our two friends had with them," he explained. "Looks like it cut loose from a picket line for some reason, and took off in a panic."

"But why?" Chris asked, stepping back and scooping up his mount’s reins.

"A cougar’ll do that for you," Clay pointed out. "It’ll drive a horse into such a frenzy it won’t know what it’s doing."

"D’you think Vin and Ezra caught up with that cat?" Buck speculated, swinging into the saddle of his grey.

"I don’t know." Clay shrugged his shoulders. "How well can this Vin fella track? Do you think he might’ve by now?"


Chris, at least, had confidence in the Texan’s abilities, and Tom Clay’s words had worried him. How could a cougar have got into the camp – for the horses to be picketed, the two men had to have stopped for the night – and was the packhorse all they’d lost?

"Well, let me turn these critters loose again, and we’ll find out soon enough."

A gesture from Clay sent the dogs forward, noses to the ground and tails straight up in the air as they searched for the scent. Suddenly they were off and running, their eerie sing-song baying sounding once more. Buck touched spurs to his grey as he galloped alongside Chris, and he threw a quick glance at his friend.

The gunslinger’s face was impassive, but the hazel eyes mirrored the concern and fear that Buck himself felt.

+ + + + + + +

Vin had almost given up trying to stay alert.

He sat beside Ezra, with his back against the tree and his sawn-off Winchester across his lap, and tried hard just to stay awake. He had checked the gambler’s bandages several times over the last couple of hours, relieved that the infection seemed to be held at bay, and he had kept him cool by placing wet cloths across his forehead, his throat, and his chest.

Ezra remained unconscious and his temperature was still high, but at least he no longer thrashed about and aggravated his injuries; the blood loss and the fever coursing through him had so weakened his body that he no longer had the strength.

For his part, Vin felt like Hell. He, too, was burning up, his head felt as if it would explode at any moment, and any attempt to move brought him close to passing out. He could barely feel his left arm now; the swelling had spread down to his fingers, and he hadn’t checked the wounds all day. It was simply too painful.

He had dozed on and off through the day, and now the afternoon was just beginning to give way to early evening. Vin knew he ought to gather some more wood for the fire, to keep the blaze going through yet another endless night, but he just couldn’t summon up the energy.

Suddenly he heard a faint sound, vaguely familiar and yet oddly unexpected. It sounded like the howling of wolves, but his confused mind translated it as the baying of hounds, and it seemed to be getting closer.

Struggling up, Vin stood swaying gently, his feet straddling the gambler’s outstretched legs, as he levered a bullet into the chamber of the Winchester, ready for whatever might happen. The baying of the hounds drew nearer, and he heard a rustling amongst the trees. Bringing the rifle up to his shoulder, Vin tried - and failed - to stop the barrel wavering. His finger tightened on the trigger as the first dark canine head shoved its way through the brush, and he gritted his teeth. He could only hope that he could get off one or two telling shots before the beasts attacked. The hammer came back just as a familiar voice shouted his name.

"Vin – no!"

+ + + + + + +

Chris leaned over the neck of the racing black quarter horse as he, Buck, and Tom Clay tried to keep pace with the hounds. The four blue-ticks had picked up the scent a little way past the dead horse, and they hadn’t stopped running yet.

Clay yelled information at the other two as they followed the pack; each time the dogs sounded a different note it meant something to the big man, and he relayed the changes to them. Suddenly the tone of the dogs deepened, becoming coarser and more excited in pitch, and Clay turned a grinning face to the gunslinger.

"Sounds like they’ve got that cat treed," he shouted, urging his dun stallion on faster across the grassland towards a large stand of trees. "Hey, that’s odd," he stated, slowing his horse as he approached the trees and saw his hounds milling around in some confusion.

"What's odd?" Buck asked, drawing rein beside him.

"I'm not sure," Clay admitted, a frown on his face. "It's almost like they've lost it - but then they wouldn't have stopped, unless... " He trailed off, lowering his gaze.

"Unless what?" Chris prompted, edging his horse closer to Clay's dun stallion.

"Unless they've found something else." The big man glanced at the two friends as he dropped from the dun's back. "It'd probably be best to go on foot from here."

The gunslinger thought back to the dead packhorse, and his own forebodings, and his imagination supplied the rest. Buck was obviously thinking along the same lines, and he saw the flicker of trepidation on the other man’s face.

"I'll go, Chris," he said, swinging down from the saddle and drawing his rifle from its boot. "You stay here with the horses - just in case that cat's still around."

The ladies man gave Larabee no chance to argue, handing the grey's reins to him as he hurried off after Clay. Chris dismounted and gathered up the reins of Clay's dun, leading the horses forward slowly, as the others disappeared amongst the trees. He tried not to think about what they might find.

The four hounds were frantically sniffing at the ground as Clay and Buck approached, and they turned to their master as though seeking guidance.

"What's the problem?" Buck asked softly, bringing his rifle into a ready position.

"There's definitely something up ahead," Clay confirmed, his hand resting on the head of the lead dog. He scratched it behind the ears, and then sent it forward once more, the other three following on its heels.

Buck and Clay forced their way through the undergrowth, drifting a little way apart as they followed the dogs. It was Buck who emerged first into the clearing by the creek, and the sight that met his eyes chilled his blood.

Just beyond the slightly smouldering fire he saw Ezra lying on the ground, with the tracker standing protectively over him, and his sawn-off Winchester coming round to bear on the leader of Tom Clay's hounds!

"Vin - no!" he yelled, stepping forward in an attempt to distract the younger man.

"Buck?" The rifle wavered, and the muzzle dipped until it was pointed at the ground, and Vin glanced up as the ladies man came towards him.

"Yeah – it’s ‘ol Buck!" He took the rifle from the tracker’s unresisting fingers and laid it on the ground. He could see how exhausted he was, but his first concern was for the unconscious man by his feet. Grasping Vin’s shoulder, he gently moved him out of the way, and raised his voice in a yell. "Tom! Chris! I’ve found them!"

Clay appeared almost immediately; he had been just behind Buck and he pulled four leashes from his pocket, fastening one to each dogs collar and looping them around a tree.

"I’ll go find Chris," he said, as Buck dropped to his knees beside the gambler. The ladies man nodded as he felt Ezra’s forehead, and then pulled back the blanket covering his body, drawing a sharp breath as he studied the scratches and the crude bandages.

"What happened, Vin?" There was no answer, and he glanced up, his expression concerned. The Texan hadn’t moved; he was still leaning against the tree, and his eyes were glazed and half closed. "Vin!" Buck’s voice was sharper this time, and the tracker jumped, blue eyes focussing with some difficulty on the older man. "What happened to Ezra?"

"Cougar. It jumped us… " Vin hesitated, his brow furrowed as he tried to concentrate. "Yesterday morning, I think. I… " He paused again, and he looked just about all in. "Seems like days ago," he finished wearily.

Chris and Clay stepped into the clearing, just in time to hear Vin’s comments, and the gunslinger handed his horse’s reins to the hound dog man as he came up beside his friend.

"Vin? You okay?" The Texan pushed himself away from the tree as he turned to look at Chris, and he staggered as the ground lurched beneath his feet. "Easy there." The gunslinger reached out to steady him, his fingers closing about the tracker’s left arm.

Vin’s face turned white, and he gave a pain-filled gasp as he suddenly crumpled. His collapse took Chris completely by surprise; he caught his friend’s limp body as the tracker’s dead weight bore them both to the ground, and he sank to his knees, cradling the Texan’s unconscious form against his chest.


Buck looked up from the gambler as he saw the two men go down, and he saw the worry on Chris’ face.

"What happened?" he asked, as the gunslinger tilted Vin’s face up towards him.

"I don’t know. He just passed out." Chris eased him down carefully, and then glanced up as a hand dropped lightly on his shoulder.

"You’ve got your hands full here," Tom Clay said, studying the two unconscious men. "I’ll see to the horses and sort the camp out. We’re not going anywhere else tonight."

"Much obliged," Chris replied gratefully as the man walked away. Vin gave a soft groan, and the gunslinger rested his hand lightly on the tracker’s head as he spoke to Buck. "How’s Ezra?"

"Holding his own, I’d say." Buck had checked the Southerner’s wounds and found them mostly clean, but his breathing was shallow and his skin still unnaturally warm to the touch. "I reckon Vin’s been taking good care of him, but we need to get some water into him."

Chris’ eyes darted around the clearing until he spotted the canteens. He tossed one across to Buck. "See if you can get him to drink some then," he said.

"I’ll do my best. What about Vin?"

Chris frowned, focussing his attention to the tracker. "I don’t know yet."

He laid his hand against the younger man’s forehead, feeling the clamminess beneath his palm. He still didn’t know what had caused Vin’s collapse; he only knew that the suddenness of it had frightened him. Slipping the Texan’s jacket open to check for any injuries, he wondered at his lack of shirt, and then paused as Vin moaned again. Chris’ eyes narrowed as he saw the bandages under his left sleeve, and he carefully eased Vin’s arms from his coat.

"Dear God!" he breathed, as he studied the blood-encrusted cloth. Pulling Vin’s knife from its sheath, he cut through the soiled bandages. The cloth had stuck to the wounds so, rather than pull them free, Chris snatched up the other canteen and poured water onto the material, to soak it away.

Buck took the lid from the canteen Chris had tossed him, and had just slipped his arm under Ezra’s shoulders when the gambler roused, green eyes flickering open and blinking in confusion at the face he saw bending over him.

"B… uck?" The word was little more that a throaty rasp.

"Take it easy, Ezra." The ladies man gave him a reassuring smile. "It’s gonna be okay now."

The Southerner shifted slightly, face contorting with pain as the movement tugged at his wounds. "The cougar… " he began.

"We know. Vin told us."

"Vin!" Ezra coughed, and tried to sit up, slumping back with a groan against the arm that supported him. "Where…?"

Buck didn’t hesitate, the lie tumbling easily from his lips to save the gambler any further anxiety. "He’s talking to Chris. Now, how about some of this water?"

He held the canteen to Ezra’s lips, until the gambler had quenched his thirst, and then he lay back with a sigh, closing his eyes as lassitude crept over him.

"My thanks, Mr. Wilmington," he mumbled, drifting off into sleep once more.

"My pleasure, Ezra," Buck replied softly, easing the Southerner down carefully, so as not to wake him. He pulled the cover back up and turned his attention to Chris and Vin.


Buck saw the gunslinger trying to soak the strips of material from Vin’s arm, and he scrambled across to kneel on the other side of the tracker.

"Damn him," Chris swore softly. "I know what he’s done." He could see now that Vin had neglected his own injuries in his concern for Ezra, and it was that which had led to his sudden collapse. The gunslinger pulled the last of the material away, and Buck cursed as well.

"Sweet Jesus!" he breathed.

Vin’s arm was sore and inflamed, the angry looking wounds oozing pus and gore. The swelling went from his elbow all the way down to his fingers, and when Chris dabbed at it with a wet cloth the Texan groaned and tried to pull away.

"I’d say the cougar caught them both," Buck told Chris, resting his hand lightly on the tracker’s shoulder.

"This is really bad," Chris stated, hazel eyes troubled as he glanced up at Buck. "It looks like his whole arm’s poisoned."

"I’ll put some water on. Hot poultices may draw some of the poison out." As Buck climbed to his feet, the gunslinger caught his arm.

"How’s Ezra doing?"

"Better’n Vin," was all the ladies man said, as he strode down to the creek.

+ + + + + + +

It was mid-morning when Buck and Clay finished making the travois for Ezra to travel on. The gambler had spent a very restless night, his fretful movements aggravating and tearing open his wounds, but at least they had managed to get some more water into him and he was no longer quite so dehydrated. Vin, on the other hand, was giving them all cause for concern.

Clay had found the body of the mountain lion some distance from the camp and, reading the signs carefully, he pieced together the story for Chris and Buck fairly accurately. The only thing he wasn’t sure about was which of the two men it had attacked first. That was something only Vin or Ezra could tell them.

After a sombre supper, Buck had continued with the care of Ezra. The gambler’s fever seemed to be coming down, much to everybody’s relief, although his thrashings and ramblings hadn’t stopped, but Vin had hardly stirred. Larabee had spent most of the night sitting beside the young Texan, changing the poultices and trying to keep him cool, but there had been no improvement in his condition.

They fastened the travois behind Clay’s dun stallion, and loaded Ezra on it, piling the blankets around him to make the journey as comfortable as possible. They also roped the gambler’s saddle to the front poles.

Vin was boosted onto the back of Chris’ gelding, and the gunslinger sprang up behind him, putting his arms around the unconscious man’s chest to prevent him falling off. The tracker’s fingers instinctively grasped the black mane as he leaned his head back against the other man’s shoulder, and Chris tightened his grip as Vin relaxed trustingly against him.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra was fighting for his life.

He could feel the weight of the cat on him, could feel the claws tearing into his flesh, and he tried desperately to ward off the ferocious attack. He knew his companion was close by, but he couldn’t find him, no matter how hard he searched.

"Vin – Vin!" he cried, arms flailing as he tried to protect his face and throat. Suddenly, something closed about his wrists – and he came to with a strangled cry as Josiah grabbed his arms.

"Rest easy, son," the ex-preacher soothed. "There are no demons here."

Ezra sagged back, eyes closing with relief when he realised he was lying on the cot in Nathan’s clinic. He tried to slow his breathing as Josiah continued to smear some kind of salve over the scratches on his shoulders, relaxing as the pleasant smelling unguent eased the throbbing. However, the respite only lasted if he didn’t move.

As Josiah finished with the salve, and wiped his hands on a cloth, Ezra struggled to sit up. He had barely raised his shoulders when the pain came back with a vengeance, fire burning across his stomach, and he flopped back with a hoarse cry.

"Careful, Ezra." Josiah wiped his sweaty face with a cool cloth, his hands firm and gentle. "Nathan won’t thank you if tear those stitches." He grinned as the gambler eyed him wearily. "Besides, unlike Daniel, you don’t have the strength yet to tackle another lion."

Ezra found a faint smile from somewhere. "Mr. Sanchez, at this precise moment I don’t believe I could even wrestle a kitten!"

Josiah chuckled. "I think Vin would echo your sentiments if he could."

"Vin?" The gambler frowned, forcing his weary eyelids open. "What…? Where…?"

Josiah’s smile faded as he glanced across the room, and the gambler followed his gaze. Vin lay in the bed against the far wall, with Chris Larabee seated beside him. Nathan hovered nearby, wringing sheets from a bucket of water and packing them around the Texan’s naked body.

"I… but… What happened?"

"You didn’t know?" The ex-preacher realised that Ezra was genuinely confused. "The cougar got him, too. Your injuries were bad enough – but Nathan is still worried that he might lose his arm."

"Dear Lord – no!" the gambler breathed, and Josiah was surprised at the abject misery in the green eyes and the stricken look on his face. Ezra stared across at the tracker for a long moment, seeing how his arm was swathed in bandages from shoulder to fingertips. He saw the black-clad gunslinger wiping Vin’s brow, and he knew Chris wouldn’t be here if the situation weren’t so desperate.

"Vin's strong," Josiah said reassuringly. "And Nathan'll do everything he can."

"What if... it's not enough?" Ezra gulped, his breathing quickening as unexpected panic pushed him towards hysteria. The prospect of Vin being so disabled terrified him.

"Calm down, son." The ex-preacher knew that Ezra's own injuries and the fever that still had a grip on him was causing his agitation, and he didn't want him tearing open the wounds again. He picked up a glass and slipped his arm under Ezra's shoulders. "Drink," he ordered sternly.

The gambler took a cautious sip, but Josiah wouldn't let him rest until he had drunk it all. "Good boy. Now sleep."

"He lied to me," Ezra whispered miserably, his eyelids drooping as Josiah pulled the thin sheet up to his chin. He yawned as the sleeping draught began to take effect, and the ex-preacher pushed the sweat-damp hair from the Southerner's brow.

"Who lied to you?" he asked with a frown, but he got no reply. He threw a brief glance in the tracker's direction, and offered up a silent prayer. "You just get some sleep. Things’ll look different in the morning."

The powerful sedative and the soothing touch had the desired effect, and Ezra was asleep almost before Josiah had finished his sentence.

+ + + + + + +

When Ezra next opened his eyes, he wasn’t quite sure what it was that had awoken him. At first he thought it was the closing of the clinic door; he could hear footsteps retreating down the steps, boards creaking despite an attempt to be quiet, but then he realised it was a sound from the other bed that had disturbed him.

The gambler had no idea what time of day it was – the light was quite dim and it could have been early morning or late evening – but he could sense that he was alone in the clinic with the injured tracker, and that Vin was in some distress.

Flinging back the sheet, Ezra sat up and swung his legs out of bed, wincing as his stitches pulled. Pulling the sheet around his waist, he eased himself up off of the bed, and padded barefoot across the room, dropping into the chair he had seen Chris Larabee occupying some time – some hours? – earlier.

Leaning forward, he studied the tracker with hooded eyes, seeing the sheen of sweat on his skin, and hearing the faint groans that spilled from his lips. He reached into the basin of water and wrung the cloth out, dabbing its cool, wetness around the Texan’s throat and face.

"It’s alright, Vin," he murmured, laying the cloth across the tracker’s fevered brow. "It’s alright." Ezra laid his palm lightly against the bandages that covered Vin’s arm, running his hand carefully down until he could feel the other’s fingers. The Texan’s hand was warm and supple to his touch, and he squeezed it gently, hoping that Nathan had been as successful as Josiah thought he would in combating the infection.

"I owe you my life," he continued softly, shifting in the chair until he found a more comfortable position. "And that’s something I’ll not forget."

Vin’s mouth twitched, and Ezra thought he saw a faint smile curve the lips. He leaned back and closed his eyes, waiting for Nathan to return.

The hand on his arm made him jump, and he gasped as he was startled out of his doze.

"Vin!" he exclaimed, staring at the bed, but the tracker was still unconscious.

"Sorry, Ezra. I didn’t mean to startle you."

Chris Larabee stood over him, a smile brightening his face for the first time in many days. His hand rested lightly on the gambler’s shoulder, but his hazel eyes were fixed on the person lying so still on the bed.

"That’s quite alright, Mr. Larabee." Ezra had regained his composure, or at least as much as he could with the sheet barely covering his embarrassment. "Mr. Tanner seemed a little… restless. I thought I could calm him down"

"I know." The gunslinger’s smile widened. "Nathan checked on you both last night. Vin’s fever’s broke, and it looks like he’s gonna be fine!"

"Really?" Ezra glanced at the tracker in relief, but then his eyes narrowed. "Last night?" he queried. He straightened in the chair, feeling the cramp and stiffness in his muscles.

"Yeah! You’ve been asleep in that seat for about twelve hours. D’you feel like getting back in bed?"

The gambler tried to stand up, and failed the first time, but managed it on the second attempt with Chris’ hand under his elbow.

"Is he really going to be okay? His arm…?"

The gunslinger nodded. "Ezra – trust me. Vin’s gonna be fine."

The Southerner could hear the conviction in Larabee’s words, and he believed him. Chris had gone through all kinds of Hell over Vin - he had gone through all kinds of Hell over Vin! – but the tracker was on the road to recovery.

There was a lot Ezra wanted to say to him, a lot he wanted to thank him for, but at the moment all he could think was ‘Die Hard The Hunter’!

The cougar had died – but he and Vin had survived, and that was all that mattered!


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