CARELESS by The Tanner Triplets

Several times during the past few days, Chris had ridden out to an outcropping overlooking Nettie's ranch from where he was able to watch Vin’s progress through the tracker's spyglass. He knew he should just ride down and help the others with Vin but he couldn’t. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to but every time he saw Vin struggling to take a single step the anger would build and he would have to leave. If he had been asked the day Vin got shot who he was mad at he would have said JD, but now Chris wasn’t so sure. He was mad at himself. For not being alert to what JD was doing. For distracting Vin instead of letting him ride on out of the path of that bullet. For not catching Vin  when he fell. And now, he simply didn't have the guts to stand by and watch him suffer.

Chris sighed as he came to the hill and pulled Pony to a stop. He tied the black to a tree then climbed the incline. Chris hid himself behind some bushes and looked down at the house. Nathan had set up a schedule for Vin’s exercise and Chris knew they would be outside with Vin at this time. He watched Vin struggle to take a step between the wooden bars the others had made. Vin held onto the bars as he tried to get his brain to signal his legs to move. Chris could see Josiah standing behind Vin in case he fell.

Walking was still impossible for Vin, but, three weeks ago, he wasn't able to stand more than a couple of seconds without someone holding onto him. Now, with just a little help, he was able to pull himself up out of the wheelchair, and once he was standing, he was able to stay that way, at least until he tripped over his own feet.

"Come on, Vin, just move your right foot," Chris urged.

Chris was surprised as Vin’s right foot jerked forward as if he had heard Chris. From his vantage point, Chris noticed that Vin was leaning forward with his body more than his shuffling stride could accommodate, and after two more steps the inevitable happened and he lost his balance and fell forward.

Josiah easily caught Vin before he hit the ground. Chris watched as Vin angrily tried to push Josiah off. He knew Vin was no match for the preacher, but his anger was fueld by frustration and helplessness and he continued to fight until Josiah grabbed him in a bear hug and pinned his arms to his side. Seeing that resistence was getting him nowhere, Vin appeared to calm down. Josiah got him back on his feet  so they could try again. Through the spyglass, Chris studied Vin's face. All he saw there was pain, fatigue and despair, the tracker's bright, intelligent eyes cast downward in defeat. Chris had seen enough. He couldn’t watch his best friend go through this. He mounted up and headed for town.

+ + + + + + +

Buck walked Beavis out of the livery and swung onto the gray’s back. It was his turn to patrol outside of town and he wanted to get it done before it got too hot. As he headed out he saw Chris come from the street next to Digger Dan’s. Buck trotted his horse over to Chris and pulled up.

"Howdy, pard," Buck said.

"Buck," Chris said coldly.

"Headin’ out on patrol," Buck said ignoring Chris attitude.

"No need I already did," Chris said as he turned his horse towards the livery.

"So what are ya gonna do for the rest of the day?" Buck asked as he rode alongside Chris.

"I’ll find something."

"Why don’t we go out and see Vin?"

"Not today."

"You bastard," Buck said grabbing Pony’s reins and pulling the horse to a stop. "I thought Vin was your friend. You ain’t been out to see him once. He started to walk some did you know that? Ezra’s also got him saying a few words. Nothing clear but we can understand him."

"And your point is?" Chris said, glaring at Buck. Chris wasn’t prepared for the punch Buck delivered to his jaw, so hard that he barely stayed in the saddle.

"Point is Vin needs you!" Buck said angrily. "He asks for you every day and every day I gotta break that boy's heart and I’m tired of it."

Buck thought maybe he might get through to Chris but one look in his friend’s eyes and he knew he hadn’t. Buck saw something else but Chris looked away before he could decide what. Buck just shook his head and spurred Beavis out of town. Chris rubbed his jaw and watched Buck go.

Buck tried to cool his anger as he rode to Nettie's. He knew Chris was mad but couldn’t figure out why. The shooting was an accident, and even if it hadn't been, Vin hadn't asked to be hurt like he was. Buck's knuckles were starting to ache from punching Chris. He hoped Chris's jaw felt the same way. Goddammed stubborn bastard. The thing was, Buck knew in his heart that it wasn't that Chris didn't care about Vin. He just wondered if Vin knew that.

+ + + + + + +

Riding up to the Wells' house , he was surprised when he didn’t see anyone working with Vin, at least not outside where Vin liked to be.

"Yo the house," Buck called as he pulled up by the hitching rail.

"Hello, Buck," Nettie said from the porch as he dismounted.

"Where is everybody?"

"Inside," Nettie replied sadly.

"Vin alright?" Buck asked when he saw the look on her face.

"Yes and no," she said as she led Buck inside.

"Nathan what’s going on?" Buck asked.

"I wish I knew," Josiah said. "We were working outside... he fell, but I caught him, so he didn't get hurt. I got him on his feet again, but he said 'no more' and he wouldn't do anything else. JD put him to bed and now he's just lying there.... I think he's given up, Buck."

"Maybe he’s just tired," Buck suggested. "Y’all have been at him for almost three weeks without a break."

"I don’t think that’s it," Nathan sighed. "He’s disappointed and frustrated."

"And depressed," Josiah added.

"It’s like he's suddenly made up his mind this ain’t gonna work and he doesn't even want to try," JD sighed.

"Did ya talk to him?" Buck asked.

"Thought we’d leave him alone for a bit," Nathan said.

"I think that’s a terrible idea," Buck said headed for Vin’s room. "I’m gonna talk to him."

Buck opened the door and stepped inside. Vin was curled on his side facing away from the door. He now had enough control over his body that he was able to sleep in whatever position he wanted - and he didn't seem to realize how far he had come from lying flat on his back unable to move at all.

Buck sat on the bed next to him."Hey, Pard, hear you’ve given up," Buck said. "I guess you’re allowed. I mean we have been pushing pretty hard to get you on your feet. Reckon we can just as easily push you around in that wheelchair."

Vin curled in on himself, as if he were trying to escape Buck's scrutiny. Buck leaned over to look at Vin’s face. The tracker wasn’t able to hide the look of fear in his eyes. Buck shook his head and grabbed Vin’s shoulders to turn him on his back. Vin tried to resist but his body wouldn’t respond. The only thing he could do was turn his head away from Buck. Buck smiled and gently grabbed Vin’s chin to turn his head back towards him. So, Vin closed his eyes so he wouldn’t have to look at Buck.

"I know you’re scared Vin," Buck said. "Who wouldn’t be? But you listen and you listen good. Won’t matter to us if you want to quit and never walk again. We’ll stick by you no matter what. But the person you’ll be hurting is yourself."

Buck could see tears falling from Vin’s closed eyes. The ladies man grabbed Vin’s shoulders and pulled him into his arms. He rubbed Vin’s back as Vin weakly punched Buck’s shoulders in anger.

"We know you’re hurtin' Vin," Buck said. "So are we. You don't know how hard it is to see you like this."

"Risss," Vin said as he finally stopped struggling and dropped his head on Buck’s shoulder.

"I think Chris is more scared than you are," Buck laughed finally realizing the look in Chris’s eyes earlier. Buck hugged Vin tighter. "He needs you, Vin. We all do."

"Can't... want... me... fw..riend," Vin sobbed. Buck had no idea what Vin was trying to say, but, it didn't matter. The pain in Vin's voice told him enough. All Buck could do was hold him as he cried. After a few minutes he felt Vin relax against him and Buck knew Vin was asleep. He lay Vin back on the pillows and covered him with a blanket. Buck turned to go out and saw Josiah standing in the doorway.

"That was nicely done," Josiah smiled. "Ever think about becoming a clergyman? That smooth talking of yours would charm you parishioners."

"Wouldn’t be able to handle the celibacy part," Buck smiled. "Now if I can only talk some sense into Chris."

"I hope so too," Josiah said as he stepped out of the room. "Nettie says Vin calls for him during the night."

"That settles it," Buck said , his decision made. "I’ll drag his sorry ass out here if I have to hog tie him and throw him on a horse. What are you going to do with Vin?"

"Ezra is coming out later to work with him," Josiah said. "We’ll keep it a quiet day unless Vin wants to try walking outside again."

"Just remind Ezra what I told him," Buck said.

"That you don’t want Vin talking like him when he’s done," Josiah smiled.

"That’s all we would need is the two of them spouting them fancy words," Buck growled. "I’ll see you later."

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat in the saloon twirling a whiskey glass on the table. He thought about what Buck said and knew he was right. He knew Vin needed him but he was too afraid to go out to see him.

There he’d finally admitted it to himself.

The deadly gunslinger Chris Larabee was afraid. He was afraid he wouldn't know what to say to Vin... What did you say to a man whom you once trusted with your life, who now had lost so much that you could never get back for him? Vin had lost everything... his freedom, his independence, his dignity.

Then it hit Chris like the slug Buck had delivered to his jaw earlier. Vin had lost so much, that he couldn't give him back, but there was still one thing that mattered that Chris could give him. Himself. If only he wasn't such a goddam coward. He just couldn't face Vin, not like he was. It was too painful for him.

Chris poured himself a shot and drank it down. He went to pour himself another one and stopped. This wasn’t what he wanted. Chris stood up and threw the bottle against the wall. The other patrons in the salon looked up then quickly looked away when they saw that it was Chris who had thrown the bottle. Chris leaned back in his chair trying to get up the courage to do what he really wanted to do... what he had to do... walk out the door, get on his horse and ride out to Nettie’s.


Alone in the quiet bedroom, Vin tried to collect his thoughts. That wasn't as easy for him to do as it had been before he got hurt, but, he was getting better at it. Hell, he was gettin' better at everything, so, why was he lyin' here feelin' sorry for himself?

He knew the answer to that. Chris Larabee, hiding up there on that outcropping, staring at him through his own spyglass, had apparently forgotten how good Vin's eyesight - and his ability to notice changes in his surroundings - was. He might have thought he was hiding, but Vin had known he was up there, every time he showed up. Known it from the first day.

Why couldn't the man face him? Had he become that much of a spectacle that Chris could only look at him when he thought no one was around to notice?

Well, fuck him. He had thought Chris was his friend, but if this was the gunfighter's idea of friendship - turning his back on Vin when he needed his friends the most - then he could rot in hell for all Vin cared.

Vin sniffed involuntarily. That wasn't true. He did care, and because he cared it hurt that Chris didn't. It hurt bad.

But Vin was no stranger to pain, and he would get through this hurt, too.

+ + + + + + +

Buck rode into town hot and tired. On his way back from Nettie’s he saw that Mrs. Jerkin’s cows had gotten out again and helped to round them up. Buck wasn’t looking forward to facing Chris in this condition but he had promised he would for Vin’s sake. But first he wanted a beer. Buck dismounted and tied Beavis to the hitching rail. He stepped up on the boardwalk headed through the batwing doors just as Chris was coming out.

"Chris we need to talk," Buck said as he grabbed Chris’s arm.

"Not now," Chris said shaking off Buck’s hand.

"Yes now," Buck said angrily.

"God damn it, Buck, you were right," Chris said angrily. "Vin needs me I’m heading out to Nettie’s."

"Vin needs you and I’m dragging you…" Buck stopped in mid tirade. "What did you say?"

"You were right," Chris said. "Now you coming with me?"

"You bet," Buck said and untied Beavis.

+ + + + + + +

Despite his dispondency earlier in the day, Vin worked with Ezra for almost three hours and then wanted to try walking again. Josiah smiled at Vin’s newfound determination. Nathan thought he should rest but Vin adamantly said no.

Josiah and Nathan took him outside to the bars, and Ezra and JD went along to provide encouragement by placing bets on how far Vin would get with each successive attempt. Vin would glare at them only to be rewarded by a flash of Ezra's gold tooth.

After almost an hour of struggling to make it more than a few steps, Josiah could tell Vin was tiring , both physically and emotionally, but the younger man refused to stop and rest.

Eventually, though, his weakened body betrayed him and he was at the middle of the bars when he lost his balance again. Josiah tried to grab him, and out of sheer frustration, Vin attempted to push him away. Josiah lost his hold and Vin went down hard, banging the side of his face against one of the bars and landing painfully on his healing shoulder. When Josiah went to help him and Vin awkwardly kicked him.

"Lea.. me.. 'lone!" Vin sobbed.

Josiah backed away, deciding it was best to leave Vin where he was until he had calmed down enough to accept help.

"Is that the best a Tanner can do?" a familiar voice said from behind them.

Vin, Nathan, JD and Josiah all turned to see Chris standing there, casually puffing on his cheroot with his arms folded expectantly across his chest. Buck was with him, but made no move to intervene.

"Fuck you!" Vin said angrily.

"Woohoo now that came out loud and clear," Buck laughed. "Ezra if you taught him that I approve."

"Really Mr. Wilmington I would never reduce myself to such a common vulgarity," Ezra replied. "Although I am not at all certain I don't share the sentiment." The gambler looked accusingly at Chris.

They all held their breath as Chris approached Vin.

"Get up," Chris commanded.

"Go... 'way!" Vin snapped. "Don'.... need.... you... son...bitch."

Chris bent down and forcefully and pulled Vin to his feet.

"What is he doing?" JD asked , concerned by Chris's less-than-gentle manner.

"Watch," Ezra smiled.

Chris stood Vin back up and planted his hands on the bars. Vin stood there staring at him, his blue eyes dark with anger and resentment.

Chris ignored it, and when he was certain Vin wasn't going to fall, he walked to the other end of the bars.

"Now walk," Chris commanded. Josiah moved in to stand behind Vin. "No," Chris put up a hand to keep Josiah back. "Maybe if he knows you ain't there to catch him, he won't fall on his sorry ass."

"Now, wait a minute, Chris.... " Nathan began.

"Leave him be!" Chris commanded. "He can walk or he can sit in the dirt. His call."

"Damn... you," Vin hissed, but, as Josiah reluctantly backed off, he moved his feet.

Chris kept taunting him and asking if that was the best he could do, until Vin's only thought was to get to him and punch him in the mouth to shut him up. He never even realized he'd made it all the way to end of the bars until he was close enough to take a swing and ended up falling into Chris’s arms. Chris was ready for him and braced himself to take Vin's weight as he collapsed against him.

"Sona... bitch..." Vin's voice hitched as he let Chris wrap his arms around him, all of the fight suddenly gone out of him.

"You did it Vin," Chris whispered to him as he held Vin tight. "I’m sorry I didn’t come out here sooner, pard, but I'm here for ya' now."

Vin wasn’t paying attention to what Chris was saying. All that mattered was that he was here. Now Vin knew he had a chance. Vin hugged Chris as tight as he could. He never wanted him to leave. Chris smiled knowing exactly what Vin was thinking.

"I won’t let you down again, Vin," Chris said softly. "I swear."


At Nettie's invitation, Chris stayed for dinner that night. Vin insisted on feeding himself, even though it was much faster and less messy to let Nettie feed him. He also got more food into him if Nettie helped, but he was determined to not to appear so helpless in front of Chris. It wasn't easy, though. It was hard enough for him to get the fork from the plate to his mouth, but even before he got that far, he had to chase the food around the plate. His hands still lacked the coordination to use the utensil properly.

Chris watched him make a mess - was staring at him, in fact - until Vin became so uncomfortable he quit eating altogether.

"You can't be full Vin," Chris said, noting the large amount of food still on the plate.

Vin just shrugged.

"Nettie, bring your biscuit tin over here," Chris said.

Nettie was irked by the fact Chris had made Vin self-conscious of his disability. She had an urge to take the biscuit tin and whack the gunslinger a good one upside the head with it, but, she sensed he was up to something, and was curious to find out what it was. She fetched the tin and handed it to him.

Chris took Vin's fork and scooped mashed potatoes into two of the six biscuit compartments. Then, he did the same with Vin's beans. Nettie had already cut Vin's pork chop up into small peices, so he scooped those up and put them in the last two compartments. Then, he replaced the fork with a spoon and handed it to Vin.

Vin shot him an angry glance, even though he wasn't sure what he was mad about, exactly.

"Try it now," Chris said.

Vin quickly discovered that it was much easier to scoop the food up from the small compartments using a spoon instead of pushing it around a plate with a flat fork. It might not have looked too graceful, but, by the time everyone else was finished eating, Vin was done, too, and he'd been able to almost enjoy the meal with his friends instead of concentrating on not turning Nettie's table into a hog slop.

"I don't know why we didn't think of that," Josiah said, pointing to the now empty biscuit tin.

Chris wanted to say that Sarah had thought up the idea when Adam was learning to feed himself, but, he let it go. He didn't think Vin needed to hear that. "Man's gotta eat," was all he said.

Vin gave him the barest hint of a smile, and Chris suggested they go out on the porch for awhile. Everyone knew he meant for it to be just him and Vin, so no one else made a move to tag along, except for JD, who rushed over to help Vin. Chris held up a hand motioning the kid back. The scowl on his face was proof that he still hadn't forgiven JD, and the boy, quickly backed off.

Chris carefully urged Vin to his feet and then held him close to steady him. Nathan shot Josiah a concerned look - he didn't think Vin was ready to walk without the support of the bars. But all of them saw the silent communication pass between Chris and Vin....

I ain't gonna let you fall

I know.

Vin shuffled his feet along slowly, while Chris patiently slowed his stride and let Vin set the pace. He had one arm hooked around Vin's waist and the fingers of his opposite hand entwined with Vin's to that their arms were locked together. He was shocked and dismayed at how thin and fragile Vin felt in his arms, and when he saw the tracker beginning to tire after a few steps, he fought the urge to pick him up and carry him. He'd let him fall before he'd make him feel helpless.

Finally, they reached the porch and Chris settled Vin in the rocking chair and then went to his horse. He came back with a bottle of whiskey and a tin cup. He poured some in the cup and laced Vin's fingers through the handle so he could hold it.

Vin gave him a wry smile. "Nathan... say... no," he nodded at the cup.

Chris was a master at controlling his expression, so he knew he gave no outward sign of how painful he found the tracker's slow, difficult speech. He concentrated instead on the fact that he was pretty sure he knew what Vin was trying to tell him.

"Nathan don't gotta know everything." Grinning, he added a little more whiskey to Vin's cup.

Vin took a swallow. The liquor had a bite, but it felt good going down. He'd missed drinking whiskey with Chris. And funny as it seemed, he understood why it had been so hard for Chris to be with him. Perhaps more than any of the others, Chris understood what he was feeling, and he thought, maybe, what happened to him hurt Chris almost as much as it did him.

It was preying on Vin's mind that Chris blamed JD, though. He'd tried to tell Josiah, and Nathan... and hell, even JD, that he knew the kid wasn't to blame, but he just couldn't speak well enough yet to get such a complicated point across. Even so, he had to try.


Chris took a swallow from his bottle. He didn't know how easy it was going to be to actually try and have a conversation with Vin. Hell, that was hard enough when you could understand what the man was trying to say. Not that they needed to talk that much. Most of the time, they just sat together, enjoying each other's company. He would have been happy to do that now, but he could see Vin wanted to say something. "Yeah, Vin?"

"J... D... not... hurt..."

Chris frowned. "Yeah, wasn't he the lucky one?"

Dammit Larabee, let me finish!

"No... hurt Vin."

"I know he hurt you. I'd make the little fucker pay for it if I thought it would accomplish anything."

"NO!" Vin blurted. Goddammit that ain't what I'm tryin' to tell ya!

Chris put a hand on his arm. "It's okay Vin. I know the kid's sorry about what he did. I ain't gonna take it any further."

Vin leaned his head against the back of the rocker and sighed. This was so hard. He tried again. "JD... guns... not... shoot."

Chris frowned. Did Vin not believe JD had shot him? "Vin... I was there. I saw it. Buck saw it, too. It was a stupid accident, but JD did do this to you."

Aw hell. Vin downed the rest of his whiskey. The truth was just going to have to wait.


Josiah stood at the end of the parallel bars and watched as Vin struggled to walk. He had to fight his instincts to hover behind Vin in case he fell. Josiah gripped the bars silently urging Vin to make it to the end. The man on the other end wasn’t so quiet. Chris cursed Vin as much as he encouraged him. Vin, ironically, seemed to thrive on this and did much better than when they were coddling him. Ever since Chris had come to Nettie’s two days ago Vin had been trying harder than ever to walk and had made noticeable progress. The tracker still got frustrated that things weren’t coming as fast as he would like. He’d get angry and try to push them away, and his small vocabulary now included several curse words.

Vin had stopped just short of Chris. He'd walked the complete length of the bars without stumbling, but the effort had exhausted him.

"You can do better than that, Tanner," Chris taunted. "You gonna stop just short of the end?"

Josiah smiled just imagining the deadly look Vin was throwing Chris’s way. He watched as Vin took a firmer hold of the bars and walked the last few steps. Vin collapsed into Chris’s arms. Josiah smiled as Chris patted Vin on his back as he held him up.

"Do you want to try something new?" Chris asked and Vin nodded.

"What do you have in mind, Chris?" Josiah asked walking over.

"We’re going to forget the bars," Chris began as he struggled to walk Vin out from the bars. "You stand a few feet away and Vin will walk to you."

"I don’t think that’s such a good idea," Josiah said.

"Yes!" Vin said determined to try.

"You sure?" Josiah asked. He could see Vin was tired, but the younger man  nodded.

Chris stood Vin in front of him. He held Vin up until he sensed that Vin had found his balance and was ready. Vin tried to stand straight but was afraid to let go of Chris.

"You can do it Vin," Chris encouraged, and then chided, "And you better, because we don’t have all day."

Vin finally let Chris go and stood for a few seconds. Chris stepped back just out of Vin’s reach. Vin put his right foot forward and started to teeter off balance. He tried to keep from falling but couldn’t. Josiah rushed forward but it was Chris who grabbed Vin before he hit the ground.

"I got ya," Chris said as Vin desperately held on. "I won’t let you fall."

"Here ya go, Chris," Josiah said pushing the wheelchair over. "Have him sit down."

They got Vin into the wheelchair and he looked dejectedly down at his lap. Chris pushed Vin over to the porch. He poured water into a wooden mug and held it out to Vin. When Vin wouldn’t take it Chris grabbed Vin’s right hand and curled his fingers around the handle.

"Have some water, Vin," Chris said.

"No," Vin growled and would have dropped the mug but Chris wouldn’t let him.

"You’re sweaty and it’s hot, now drink," Chris ordered. "If you won’t do it yourself I’ll hold the cup to your lips like a baby."

Josiah saw Vin take a firmer hold on the mug and slowly raise it to his mouth. Vin’s right hand didn’t shake as much as it used to but it still pained Josiah to watch the slow progress of the mug. When Vin was finished he defiantly threw the mug at Chris. The throw was weak and Chris caught the mug. Instead of being mad Chris just smiled.

"That’s more like the Tanner I know," Chris remarked and was rewarded with a lopsided smile form Vin.

"I think you're just tired, Vin," Josiah said.

Vin shook his head and they waited patiently as Vin tried to find the words. "Dizzzz…" he forced out.

"Dizzy?" Chris asked and Vin nodded.

"Wob…eee," Vin said and sighed when they didn’t understand.

"Wobe, woobee," Josiah repeated then it hit him. "Wobbly? Off balance?"

"Yup," Vin smiled.

"We’ll have to ask Nathan about that when he gets back," Chris said standing up. "Gonna take Pony out for some exercise."

"Me," Vin said as he reached out and grabbed Chris’s hand.

Chris looked down and saw the longing in Vin’s eyes. "You want to come with me?" he asked and Vin nodded. "I don’t know, Vin..."

"What could it hurt?" Josiah asked. "You’ll be there to hold him."

"Why not," Chris smiled squeezing Vin’s hand. ‘You’re probably going stir crazy here."

Chris continued to the barn and Josiah waited with Vin. The others had gone into town for supplies while JD and Casey had gone fishing. Josiah hid a smiled as Vin started to become impatient. Just when Josiah thought Vin would bust Chris walked Pony out of the barn. Chris stopped Pony by the porch.

"Chris why don’t you bring Pony over to Vin," Josiah suggested when he saw Vin trying to get out of the chair by himself.

Chris did as Josiah said and Vin grabbed the stirrup and pulled himself to a standing position. This was the fist time Vin had done that and Josiah patted Chris’s shoulder. Vin looked at them and smiled.

"Now!" Vin demanded and they both laughed.

"He’s getting pretty demanding," Josiah smiled.

"You mean ornery," Chris contradicted.

Vin wanted to mount by himself so they let him try. After a few attempts Vin admitted defeat and let Josiah lift him into the saddle. Chris mounted and rode pillion behind the saddle. Josiah laughed as Vin clumsily gathered the reins. Chris shook his head but didn’t try to take them from him. Chris lightly tapped Pony’s flanks and the black moved out. Vin started to slip from the saddle and Chris grabbed him.

"Think I better steer until you get used to it again," Chris said and took the reins from Vin.

Vin reluctantly released the reins and held the saddle horn. Chris tapped Pony again and they were off. Chris kept Pony to a walk and headed for the road.

"No," Vin said.

"Okay, where too?"

"Llaa." Vin started but become frustrated when the word wouldn’t come.

"Sound it out, Vin," Chris said patiently. He knew Vin wanted to go to the lake but he wanted Vin to say it.

"Laaaa…" Vin stopped and glared at Chris. He knew that Chris knew he wanted to go to the lake.

"Yeah I know," Chris laughed. "But I want you to say it. You asked for cake the other night just take a way the Kay sound and add the lay sound."

Ezra had come up with the idea of making the sounds for each of the letters. Vin seemed to pick it up faster that way so they all tried it. Only Ezra seemed to have more patience than the rest of them. Vin’s attention span was short and he’d sometimes forget a sound quickly.

"Lay.Kay.K," Vin sounded out.

"Almost," Chris said. "Take away the Kay sound."

Vin tried to take the reins from Chris then kicked Pony. The black started forward at a trot but Chris pulled him back. Pony became confused at the conflicting signals and danced in place. Chris held tight to the struggling Vin as he tried to calm Pony.

"Enough!" Chris shouted finally losing his patience. "He's gonna toss us both."

Vin stopped struggling and Chris was able to calm the black. Chris could feel Vin breathing fast as he held him. He knew Vin was angry and waited until Vin got himself back under control. Vin finally relaxed and let out a shuddering breath.

"Lay…ka," Vin said quietly.

Chris just smiled and tapped Pony’s side. The horse began to walk and Chris swung him off the road and headed north.

"See that wasn’t so hard," Chris teased and Vin turned to give him a dirty look.

Chris laughed and took a tighter hold of Vin as he asked Pony to canter. The horse lengthened his stride and went into an easy lope. Chris felt Vin relax into the horse's easy gate and he tried an experiment. He let Vin go and the tracker had no problem keeping his balance. Chris thought his might be a way they could get Vin to regain his balance on the ground. Chris knew Vin wouldn’t protest being able to ride every day.

They topped a small rise and the lake came into view. Chris pulled Pony to a walk and Vin started leaning to the left. Vin held the horn and righted himself. Chris walked Pony to the lake and stopped by the shore. He let the reins slipped through his fingers as Pony bent to get a drink. The sun was hot and Chris could feel the sweat sliding down his back.

"SSS…im?" Vin asked.

"Not today," Chris said not pushing Vin to say "swim" right. "Can’t protect us if somebody comes trying to collect on that bounty. We’ll have to bring one of the others."

Vin sighed and leaned back against Chris. The ride had been great but he was getting tired. Chris sensed this and went to gather the reins. Vin stopped him and shook his head no.

"We’ll stay for a little longer," Chris said. "But I don’t feel like holding you in the saddle if you fall asleep. You’re too damned heavy."

Vin knew Chris was only teasing. He smiled and leaned his head back and made a snoring sound. Chris jabbed him in the ribs and Vin jumped.

"Smart alec," Chris said. "Let’s head back. It’s almost time for lunch."

Vin nodded and Chris gathered the reins. Pony was reluctant to leave the grass he was eating but responded when Chris became more persistent. Chris asked the black to canter and the horse eagerly moved out. As they came to the road they saw Nathan, Buck and Nettie coming back from town. They waited for them by the side of the road

"Well look at you," Buck said as he pulled up beside Pony.

"What do you think you’re doing?" Nathan asked. "What if he fell?"

"Doubt Chris would let him fall," Buck laughed. "Besides I haven’t seen Vin look so relaxed."

"Besides, Nathan, Vin has better balance up here than he does on the ground, " Chris said as he tapped Pony’s sides.

Nathan could see Chris was right. Vin was steering Pony and sitting up not leaning against Chris. Nathan did notice that Chris was holding the reins further back but he was letting Vin steer.

"When he’s up on a horse it looks like nothing ever happened," Nettie commented.

"That’s why we have to be careful," Chris said. "Vin looks perfectly fine up here. Next time I want at least two of us just in case."

"Ssss…im?" Vin asked.

"You have a one track mind," Chris growled. "First lunch, then you’re going to rest."

"What does he want?" Buck asked.

"Made the mistake of letting him convince me to go to the lake," Chris said. "Now he wants to go swimming."

"That might be a good idea," Nathan said thoughtfully. "The water would hold him up. Maybe tomorrow we can work with him at the lake."

"Na…ow!" Vin said emphatically.

"Tomorrow!" Chris yelled. "You no good stubborn, pig headed Texan!"

Vin smiled and winked at Buck. Buck burst out laughing and Chris gave him a dirty look.

"What?" Chris demanded.

"Vin is having a little fun with you," Buck replied.

"Oh yeah," Chris said menacingly. He was glad Vin’s sense of humor was coming back. "Well just you wait, Vin. I’ll make your life a living hell tomorrow."

"On second thought maybe we better not go to the lake," Nathan said reconsidering. You might drown each other."

Nettie smiled indulgently as the three men continued to argue. Occasionally Vin would throw in his two cents. They got to the ranch and Josiah met them by the house. He had made lunch while they were gone. Josiah pushed the wheelchair over next to Pony and helped Chris get Vin down. They went to put Vin in the chair and he shook his had no.

"Walk," Vin said.

"Alright," Josiah smiled and grabbed Vin’s arm.

Chris took his other arm and they headed for the house. Vin walked the few steps to the the porch but the steps defeated him. Josiah didn’t say anything and just lifted Vin up the three steps. Once inside they settled Vin at the table. Josiah had made fried chicken and they all dug in. Vin sat with his elbows on the table as he ate his corn on the cob. When Buck went to do the same thing Nettie swatted him.

"You always did like Vin best," Buck grumbled.

"What was that young man?" Nettie asked raising her spoon.

"Nothin’ ma’am," Buck said quickly.

They all laughed and Nettie patted Buck’s cheek. When lunch was finished Nettie brought out what was left of the chocolate cake from the night before. She cut each of them a big piece and placed the plates in front of them.  She put Vin's piece in a bowl and gave him a spoon instead of a fork. He worked very hard to get the cake into his mouth without dropping any, but Chris could see how tired he was by how unsteady his hand was.

He took the spoon from him. "Lemme help you, Vin," he said, and was surprised that it didn't seem as awkward as he thought it would as he spooned the cake into Vin's mouth, although he did smile inwardly at the thought that had it been anything but cake, Vin might have balked at accepting help.

When Vin was finished he leaned back with a contented sigh. He clearly needed to rest, but Nathan wanted to massage his muscles so they wouldn’t stiffen up.

"O…side," Vin said.

"No, Vin, try again," Nathan said. "Think of each of the sounds."

Aw hell, not again, Vin thought, glaring at Nathan. You know what I want!

"Vin…" Chris said with a glare of his own.

Vin sighed and tried again. "O…ta…saeye…da!"

They all smiled and Vin rolled his eyes. Josiah got Vin out to the porch and Chris spread the quilt over the worn boards. Vin tried to open the buttons on his shirt but was having a tough time. Chris stepped in when it looked like he was about to rip off the buttons. He got Vin’s shirt off and put an arm behind his shoulders to support him as he leaned back.

Vin shrugged him off. "I do!" he said, before he fell on his side with a loud thump that made them all wince.

"Ouch!" Buck cringed.

Vin ignored them and rolled over onto his stomach. Nathan started working on  his shoulders and back, and in no time Vin was asleep. When Nathan was finished he draped Vin’s shirt over his back and started on his legs.

"It helps that he knows you're here, " Nathan commented, looking directly at Chris. "He's doing good."

"He's still got a long way to go, though," Buck sighed.

"He’ll get there," Chris said confidently. "One step at a time."

"Yup," Josiah agreed. "And a little help from his friends."


JD couldn’t believe he was doing this. If Chris ever found out he was a dead man. For the past week they had been letting Vin ride because it helped his coordination when he was trying to walk. But, whenever Vin went riding Chris  had insisted two of the others always went with him.

Today was different, though. The others were all in town. A cattle drive had passed closed to Four Corners and some of the cowhands had gotten out of line. Josiah and Ezra hadn’t been able to handle it alone and had sent for the others. Chris had reluctantly left JD with Vin. Nettie told him not to worry, that she wouldn’t let them get into any trouble. Except Nettie had hadn't counted on Doris Motts wrenching her back and needing someone to look after her little ones while her husband rode to Eagle Bend to fetch her sister.

Before she left for the Motts' place, Nettie had made Vin and JD promise not to do anything stupid, but as soon as Nettie's wagon was out of sight Vin wanted to go riding. JD said no because it was only him. Casey was there, though, and had piped up saying that she could just as easily ride with the two of them. Vin had agreed and half an hour later JD found himself riding next to Vin and Casey. He really didn’t think this was what Chris had in mind.

"I think we better head back," JD suggested.

"Don’t be silly," Casey said smiling. "We haven’t gone that far yet. Besides Vin doesn’t want to go back yet, right?"

Vin shook his head no and JD sighed. He could see why Chris was worried when Vin went riding. The sharpshooter looked perfectly normal while sitting on a horse. After a few days Vin was able to ride on his own and with the addition of his hat and his hide coat you’d never have known there was anything wrong with him. JD knew Vin was trying to assert his independence but did he have to do it while JD was watching him? JD glanced nervously around.

"Quit your worryin’," Casey said slapping his arm. "My horse is gettin' restless.... I’m gonna run her for a bit."

JD watched as Casey spurred her horse forward. Vin held Pony back so he wouldn’t follow. Chris had insisted Vin ride the more reliable black and not the rambunctious Peso. Vin had balked at first but when Chris wouldn’t budge on the matter Vin relented. Vin and JD rode alone for awhile when three men came cantering down the hill towards them. They were forced to pull up when the three men stopped their horses in front of them on the road.

"Well, well if it isn’t Vin Tanner,"  a scruffy red-head spoke up.

JD thought he recognized him.. He'd seen him around town the last two times he'd been there. Just passing through, he'd said, but he had asked to many questions and had made JD uncomfortable.

"Poster we got says your worth $500," the blond with him said as he almost casually rested his gun on the pommel of his saddle.

JD's mind went numb with pure terror. This was exactly what Chris had feared would happen....

"Was just waiting for that gal to leave," said the third. "We ain’t ones for hurting women."

"You boys don’t want to do this," JD said with more confidence then he felt.

"Sure we do, don’t we Tom?" the redhead said.

"Yup we do, Ben," Tom said smiling. "Right Mac?"

"That’s right," Mac said nodding. "Now you can make this easy or you can make it hard. I want you to throw down your guns."

Vin warily watched the three men. He knew they were amateurs but they had all the advantages here. All Vin could think was how stupid he’d been convincing JD to ride out alone. He knew he couldn’t let JD get hurt. Vin didn’t have a gun and knew that JD couldn’t be forced to give up his or they would be in trouble. Vin gripped the reins tighter then spurred Pony straight for Tom. Tom’s horse screamed in protest as he was knocked out of the way. Tom was thrown from the horse and landed hard. JD had followed Vin’s lead and spurred Milagro after Pony.

The element of surprise worked to their advantage, and they managed to get past the trio and head for the protection of a rock outcropping. Vin just prayed none of them was a marksman.

"Shoot 'em!" Tom bellowed as he tried to remount.

JD heard the gunshots an instant before he felt a searing pain in his shoulder. He gripped the horn of the saddle and held on. Suddenly Vin veered to the left and JD was thankful that Milagro followed. Vin pulled up Pony behind some rocks and dismounted. JD could hear Vin cursing as his legs gave out and he fell to the ground with a painful thud, the wind knocked out of him. JD dismounted and went to help Vin as a wave of dizziness sweep over him. When he was able to see clearly again he saw Vin crawling towards cover behind the rocks. JD followed and when Vin looked over at him he saw the blood on his left shoulder.

Shit! Vin cursed and tried to get a look at JD’s shoulder.

JD could feel Vin pulling the shirt away from the wound and winced. Vin tried to rip his shirt but his hands wouldn’t cooperate. JD heard him cursing as the first bullet ricocheted off the rock that protected them.

"You ain’t got a chance," Tom yelled. "Just give yourself up."

Vin wanted to shout his defiance but couldn’t. How could he have been so stupid? Chris was going to kill him. Not only had he endangered his own life but JD’s as well. Hell Vin figured Chris would have to wait in line after Buck before he would get a chance to kill him. Vin eased himself up on the rock to see if he could spot where the three would-be bounty hunters were holed up. He could see them about fifty yards away behind a few rocks of their own. Vin eased back with a sigh then grabbed one of JD’s Colts out of his holster.

"No, Vin," JD said grabbing his arm.

"Go… to," Vin mumbled not able to concentrate getting the words right. "Me… faul."

"No it ain’t," JD said. "I should never have let you convince me to go riding. If it’s anybody's fault it’s mine."

Vin smiled as they each took blame for this incident. He knew they could sit here for hours arguing who was at fault but that certainly wasn’t going to help. Vin’s hand shook as he pulled the hammer back on the Colt.

"Think you can handle it?" JD asked as he pulled his second Colt.

JD watched as Vin shrugged and placed the barrel of the gun on the rock ledge to steady it. He gazed down the barrel adusting his aim. It wasn't as easy as shooting a rifle, but Vin could hit a target with almost anything, including a bow. Or at least, he could before. He had no idea if his shooting ability had been affected by having his brain all scrambled up like it was. He reckoned he was about to find out.

JD watched in satisfaction as Vin’s aim was true and he hit the exposed leg of one of their assailants. They both heard a satisfying yelp and they smiled. They watched as the three men tried to better hide themselves. JD just hoped Casey didn’t do anything stupid and come back to help.

Casey, meanwhile, watched from the ridge above the trail and knew what she had to do.

+ + + + + + +

Chris shoved the cowhand into the cell and slammed the door. He put the key in the lock and turned it.

"You can’t lock us up," the cowboy shouted.

"I just did," Chris said casually.

He really didn’t need this. They’d already arrested five cowhands and the small jail was starting to get crowded. Besides Chris would have preferred to be out at Nettie’s with Vin. Something was nagging at him but he didn’t know what. Chris walked out on the porch and sat in the chair. He pulled out a cheroot and placed it between his lips. He took a match out of his pocket and struck it on the arm of the chair. Chris held the match to the cheroot and pulled in a deep drag. He let the acrid smoke out slowly blowing out the match as he leaned back. Chris surveyed the now quiet town. He saw Josiah over by Digger Dan’s keeping an eye on the remaining cowhands. Buck was across the street at Inez’s place doing the same thing. Nathan was up in his clinic tending to one of the cowhands who had been shot. Ezra was sitting by Buck holding a steak to his eye. The gambler had tried to break up a fight at the saloon and ended up with a black eye for his troubles.

Chris heard the sound of thundering hooves and sat up. He watched as Casey came charging around the corner from the hotel headed straight for the jail. She pulled up her horse in front of Chris and he felt a chill run down his back.

"Chris!" she yelled. "JD and Vin are in trouble."

"At the house?" he asked as Buck and the others came over.

"No we went riding and…"

"What!" Chris bellowed. "Buck get Nathan. Josiah, go saddle the horses. Ezra can you handle things here?"

"I’ll do my best," Ezra said.

"Now what the hell happened?" Chris yelled.

"Three men have Vin and JD pinned down," Casey said. "I can show you where... I ain't sure what happened... I was ridin' ahead," she bowed her head slightly, wondering if Chris would be angry that she was obviously a willing participant in Vin and JD's misadventure.

"Damn you Tanner!" Chris cursed. "Can’t he do what I ask just once!"

Nathan and Buck came running down the stairs as Josiah led their horses from the barn. Chris angrily threw down the cheroot and walked towards the horses. He grabbed Pesos’ reins and the black danced away form him.

"You better let me take him," Buck said offering Chris Beavis. "You just move faster compared to Vin."

Chris took Beavis reins and swung up on the gray's back. Buck was barely seated as Peso took off following the others as they thundered out of town following Casey.


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