Till We Meet Again

by Laurie Ann

The wearied rider continued his steady trek back to Four Corners, stopping only to switch horses. Chris didn't want to overburden his or Vin's horses by the extra weight. Vin's pulse was still there, but growing fainter. Nathan would know what to do to help Vin.

Riding along in solitude, he was able to dwell upon all that happened. It was all his fault...all of it. He should have kept riding past Four Corners that fateful day. Chris shook his blonde head, remembering how close he came to going in a different direction. So many things would have been different. Vin wouldn't have been put through the atrocities Ella had forced on him, and maybe even cleared his name since Eli Joe wouldn't have been shot dead. All he seemed to do was bring was bring destruction. First to Sarah and Adam, then his friendship with Buck, and now to Vin.

Hearing the sound of several horses approaching, Chris cautiously drew out his revolver, stopping his horse and tightening his grip around Vin with his left arm. Nothing was stopping him from his mission.

"It's Chris!" a youthful voice shouted out into the quiet.

The gun fell limply by Chris' side. It was JD and the others. He couldn't muster up the relief his friend's arrival would have normally brought, his nerves raw and emotions spent. There was only one person he cared to see. "Nathan?" he called out.

"Right here," the black healer answered, picking up his pace. He didn't like the sight of the bundle cradled protectively in Chris' arms. Vin was hurt...and by the look on the gunfighter's face, it was bad. As he rode up, his heart sank when he viewed Vin's ghastly pale features, a tinge of blue coloring the lips. The tracker appeared to be in critical condition.

"Let's git him down and let me have a better look," Nathan told Chris in a calming tone, "and while I'm doin' that, you can tell us what happened."

Buck, Ezra, and JD dismounted, watching on in stunned silence. It was as if the man lying motionless on the ground was a stranger, not the energetic friend they knew. Had the rescue attempt failed?

"Damn!" Nathan mumbled under his breath while checking the injuries. "He's been'bout bled dry."

Chris lowered his head, his eyes staring blankly at the healer as he forced his mouth to move. "She had him tied to a chair, with long tubes coming from his arm. One was attached to some sort of hand pump...and the blood was dripping into a jar...." He couldn't describe anymore, the recollection numbing his mind.

Nathan jerked his head up in alarm. He had seen procedures Chris was describing during the war...but it was done to dead men. Hiding his fury over Ella's cruelty to his young friend, he continued to probe. "The blood loss has caused shock ta set in. Ya did a good job in keepin' him warm, Chris. Kept him alive."

"Where is that bitch?" Buck demanded through gritted teeth.

"Dead." Chris kept staring down at Vin, the pale moonlight casting the sharpshooter's face in a more dramatic fashion, making the whole scene before him a nightmare. If he hadn't felt the pulse himself, he'd swear he was looking down at a corpse.

"Ya sure?" Buck insisted. He knew how upset his old friend was, but he had to be certain. Vin needed to be protected, and shooting Ella square between the eyes was the best way he could think of to ensure that goal.

"She went into the house and it crashed down on her," Chris muttered.

"Crashed down on her?" Ezra asked, confused. Houses just didn't fall over without some cause. "What forced those events?"

"The house was on fire, she ran in, and it collapsed," Chris answered.

"Vin's gonna make it..right?" JD asked Nathan, voicing the question all were wondering silently to themselves. "We can hurry back and you can get him better...."

Nathan re-wrapped Vin's form in the velvet, adding a blanket that was tucked under his saddle. He didn't look up, incapable of meeting their questioning gazes.

"Nathan?" Chris asked forcefully.

"What? It's damn near four in the mornin'...no light 'cept the moon... How the hell I'm 'posed ta tell for sure?" The words came out angrier than intended, but he wasn't God. They were expecting him to perform some miracle that he couldn't humanly fulfill. He ran his hand over his face in exasperation. How he wished there was something he could do, but there wasn't. And how could he tell them, Chris in particular, that Vin was dying and it was only a matter of time? Especially when he didn't want to face the reality himself.

"Let's just git him back home," Nathan said without answering directly about Vin's true condition. "Josiah's there and I know he'd want ta see him." Once they were back in Four Corners he would have to come clean, but maybe God would be gracious and grant them a miracle. It was the only hope Vin had.

"Why are you all here?" Chris finally realized as he mounted his horse. "What about the Briggers? They could still pose a threat to Vin."

"Had a shoot out with 'em," Buck explained, helping Nathan lift Vin back into Chris' waiting arms. "Sure ya don't want me ta carry him a spell?"


Buck nodded, understanding completely. No one would be able to separate Chris from Vin's side. "The Briggers are dead. When they couldn't find ya, they got all riled up and we had ta take 'em down. Also got that measly, no account hotel clerk in jail. Ella hired him a while back so she could roam 'round town without anyone knowin'."

"Made certain he obtained the evening rounds of the hotel," Ezra added. "We also discovered plans the late Miss Gaines had schemed. We have not had time to decipher them because concern for Mr. Tanner was foremost in our minds. When the Brigger's were disposed of, we immediately came rushing to assist in any way."

Giving the side of Vin's head a soft pat, Buck's eye's misted. That murdering woman had harmed his friend, his younger brother. He wiped at his eyes, his determination strong. "I'm gonna ride back ta Red Fork and make sure she's dead."

Chris mulled over Buck's words. "Maybe you should," he said quietly.

"Ah shall accompany you, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra offered, glancing sadly over at Vin. As much as he hated to leave his stricken comrade, he too wanted to make sure Ella Gaines would never threaten Vin again. "There is also small details to tidy up. How did the fire start?"

The gunman shrugged. "I think Ella started it. It was going strong when I was finally able to get Vin and me out."

"Just her body?" Buck asked.

Silas Brigger entered Chris' mind. He had never left the house. "Two inside and outside."

"Me'n Ezra will take care of it, ol' Pard," Buck said with a reassuring tug on Chris' arm. "You just worry 'bout gittin' that boy home and well." With a parting look to Vin, the ladies' man prayed it wouldn't be the last time he saw Vin Tanner alive.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah paced nervously back and forth on the walkway in front of the jail. Dawn was coming on the horizon and he feared things didn't go well with Vin's rescue. Shouldn't they have been here by now? All hell had broken out after Chris' departure, the result being six bodies lying in state at the mortician's. In their drugged state, the Briggers weren't a challenge. The gun battle was over in a matter of seconds.

Three riders appeared in the distance, the one in the middle, dressed in black, catching the former priest's attention. It was Chris...they were back! His elation turned to concern as the riders neared, the blue bundle in the gunman's arms coming into view.

"Dear Lord...," Josiah prayed, his eyes upward, "please don't let that be Vin's body...."

He hurried over to the riders, fear gripping his heart when he caught a peek of Vin's colorless face. "Is he...?" The words strangled in his throat.

"Alive," Nathan said without much emotion. "We gotta take him ta my place and git him warmed up."

As the healer dismounted, Josiah quietly went up beside Chris' horse. "Let me help you with your load, Brother," the large man said softly, reaching out his arms to lift the form of his young friend down.

Chris' vacant eyes focused on Josiah. He didn't want to release his hold, as if the action would take Vin from him forever. Yet he knew the ex-priest had a soft spot in his heart for the tracker. Vin was Josiah's staunchest defender when the former preacher was suspected of murder. Even Josiah himself wasn't sure of his innocence, being engulfed in a alcohol induced daze. Chris wouldn't deny Josiah this one request. With a short nod, the gunman placed his best friend in Josiah's capable hands.

The minute the door to his clinic opened, Nathan flew into action. Even though common sense told him his endeavors would be pointless, in his heart he couldn't give up on Vin. He had to try everything humanly possible before telling Chris.

Nathan stitched up the wound in Vin's arm, shaking his head in disbelief at how much blood had been drained. It was a miracle in itself that the young tracker was still clinging to life. Would this be the only miracle they'd receive? The cut on Vin's chest only needed a few stitches, the purpose of the laceration a mystery. He frowned angrily as he placed a clean bandage over it. Ella probably did it as a form of torture.

Sitting down in a chair situated in the corner of the room, Chris watched the scene before him intently. Nothing seemed real, with Nathan and Josiah rushing around, trying anything they could to warm Vin up. He could see the worry and futility written on their faces. Was it hopeless?

Folding his arms resolutely over his chest, Chris threw the man in the bed a serious glare. Tanner wouldn't give up. And he wasn't going to let him. Walking over, he nudged Josiah aside, grasping a hold of Vin's forearm under the covers. Giving a quick glance to Nathan and Josiah, the gunman tilted his head towards the door. He wanted some time alone.

Sighing, Nathan agreed. There was nothing more he could do but wait. The rest was up to Vin....and to God. "I'm gonna look through some of my books and see if there's anything else I can try," he said. "I'll be back in about half an hour. Ya'll let me know if there's the slightest change in his condition."

"I'll help you look," Josiah added, following the healer out the doorway.

With his two friends gone, Chris turned back to Vin, giving the forearm a squeeze. He had so much he wanted to say...but he couldn't form the words. How could he express the gratitude he had for their friendship? Or the sorrow he felt for placing Vin in this situation? It was a paradox. By allowing Vin to creep into his soul, he also endangered the tracker. Maybe it was better if they hadn't met. He'd be the only one suffering now, in his spiral of destruction...a life Vin helped lead him from.

Leaning in close to Vin's face, Chris heard the labored breathing. Each breath of air Vin took was a struggle, just like everything else in his young life. It wasn't right. He sat there mutely for several minutes, the frustration building to a high intensity. Vin wasn't the one who made the mistake with Ella. Why should he be the one fighting for his life? All Vin tried to do was tell the truth, exposing her lies.

"Ain't he gone through enough?" Chris asked heavenward. He pulled out the weathered harmonica that Vin prized. "He shouldn't have to pay because of a sorry sonovabitch like me...."

The figure in the bed blurred in front of him as Chris pressed the musical instrument into Vin's unresponsive hand. "I should be buying you a whiskey instead of watching you fight to stay alive," he said with a voice choked with emotion, A a drink to the best damn friend a man could ask for...." The gunfighter fought back the tears threatening to escape. He couldn't give in to his fears. Vin was going to make it.

Josiah stood quietly at the opening of the doorway, having unintentionally overheard Chris' plaintive prayer. His heart began to bleed as he watched the two friends in silence, unwilling to barge into Chris' personal time with Vin. He couldn't begin to fathom what would happen to the gunfighter if Vin didn't make it, and from what little Nathan had told him, it wouldn't be long before they found out. Guilt was written all over Chris' face, and Vin's passing would only fuel it more. Beginning to turn away, the former preacher heard Chris call out to him.

"Did Nathan find out anything?"

Walking into the room, Josiah shook his head. "He's still looking. Seems he's done all that he can for Vin. There ain't much you can do for shock." Smiling down sadly at the person lying in the bed, he gently ruffled the golden-brown hair on top of the tracker's head. "This one's special...if anyone can make it, Vin will. He's got plenty of reasons to try."

Chris nodded, clinging to Josiah's words as proof Vin was going to survive.

"Ain't it amazing what can happen with just one action?" Josiah said thoughtfully, saying an inner prayer for wisdom. He would need the wisdom of Solomon to save Chris Larabee from himself.

Surprised, Chris looked at Josiah. Was he blaming him for what Ella did? The gunfighter's face fell despondently. It was all his fault...he couldn't forget that.

Watching Chris' reaction, Josiah continued. It was as he feared, Chris was bearing the brunt of it all. "Yep, because one man was willing to help another, something special happens...bringing two strangers together, who in turn bring in five more. The Lord does bless in the strangest of ways."

"A blessing?" Chris scoffed. He pointed angrily at Vin. "You call this a damn blessing?"

"I do."

"I was always told a blessing was something you benefitted from! All meeting me's done was throw his life into hell!" Chris snapped.

"How do you figure that?" Josiah asked calmly. He knew Chris needed to get this out before it exploded inside him.

"Look at him! If I had kept riding past this damn town like I originally planned...he wouldn't be fighting to live!" Chris bolted out of his chair and stood before the preacher, as if daring the man of the cloth to disagree.

"No," Josiah agreed, "he'd been dead way before that."


"Both Vin and Nathan would have died that day. I doubt if Vin would have been able to fight off all those men by himself. And what about that Indian village? The rest of us wouldn't have been rounded up and Anderson probably would've killed them. You coming into town was a blessing."

"But Eli Joe...," Chris added, "I shot and killed Vin's one chance at clearing his name."

"Only because you were saving Vin's life," Josiah reminded his friend. "Vin doesn't blame you for that or for this. He doesn't regret having met you. You changed his life, and I know he's mighty thankful it happened. Can you honestly sit there and tell me that you wish you hadn't met Vin? That he hasn't changed your life?"

Unable to look Josiah in the face, Chris sank back down in his chair. "If I had shot Ella the first time back at the ranch...."

Josiah walked behind Chris' chair and placed a supportive hand on the gunfighter's shoulder. "Adam and Eve lived in paradise...saw God face to face, yet they fell for the lies of a serpent. There are always things we shouldn't or should have done, but in the end...it doesn't change what happened. We can only learn from it and do it differently next time."

"What if there isn't a next time for Vin?" Chris asked bitterly, his eyes resting on the sharpshooter. "What can I learn if he's dead?"

With a parting squeeze to Chris' shoulder, the large ex-priest went to the other side of Vin's bed. "Then we remember what he gave us, and honoring his memory by continuing on. He would want us to."

Josiah's voice drifted out of Chris' head, replaced by Ella's. "Do you want to bury him in the cold, unforgiving ground? To rot away, the only thing left of his life is a memory that fades in time?" Forcing the sickly tempting thought of the glass coffin from his mind, the man dressed in black buried his head in his hand. He had to push anything she said as far from himself as possible. Vin was the only thing he needed to concentrate on.

+ + + + + + +

Buck entered inside the clinic, with Ezra close behind. The ride back to Four Corners had been terribly upsetting. First there was the specter of Vin's condition, followed by the disgusting things they found inside the tracker's wagon. Hitching up their horses to the rig, the two men drove it home, both hoping their friend was still alive. But that was nothing compared to what Ezra read from the hotel's monogrammed paper.

The ladies' man cringed when he remembered the stunned expression Ezra wore when he finally placed the papers down. He couldn't recall the gambler losing his composed manner quite so quickly. After being told the details of the notes...it was all Buck could do to keep from bursting into an uncontrollable fury.

Pausing outside the doorway that held Vin...Buck took a deep breath. Chris had to be told about what was in the scribbled papers. He also wanted to be reassured that what he heard couldn't have happened, but with what he viewed in the wagon...he feared it did. With a nod to Ezra, who stayed outside with Josiah, Nathan and JD, the ladies' man ventured in.

"Chris?" Buck asked softly as he inched inside the room. Immediately his eyes turned to the man lying unmoving in the bed. Tears sprang into his dark blue eyes, as the lanky gunslinger went to the other side of the bed. Blankets were piled high over the sharpshooter, the white face the only thing showing who the occupant of the bed was. How could anyone be so cruel to Vin?

"Getting better?" Buck wondered out loud with a quick swipe at his eyes with his shirt sleeve. Vin looked like death itself...a sight Buck almost couldn't stand to view. Right then he regretted that Ella was dead. He wanted to make her suffer, as if it would lessen the ache in his big heart

Chris only stared ahead. Minutes ago Nathan had been in to check on Vin, the healer's features speaking volumes. Vin was getting worse. There was nothing more Nathan could do.

"We uh...brought Vin's wagon back," Buck muttered, unsure if he should speak at all. Should he mention the notes? Maybe Chris shouldn't see them....

The gunfighter nodded. "Did you see her body?"

"Two bodies inside, like ya said," Buck acknowledged. The bodies were too badly burned to tell for sure what sex they were, but two bodies nonetheless. "We only found one outside. One of those Briggers. Sheriff showed up too...guess ya could see the fire for miles. Seemed almost glad ta hear Ella died in the fire."

"Bishop must've survived," Chris said absently. "Probably not for long."

"Ya know 'bout him bein' Ella's brother?" Buck said without thinking. Shock was an understatement when it came to his reaction at finding Bishop Crenshaw was Ella's brother. There was many more sinister details in those notes.

"How do you know about him?" Chris shot up. His mind remembered the papers Ezra mentioned earlier, the plans they found in the hotel. "Where are those damn plans of hers?"

"Chris, take it easy...."

"Where's Ezra?"

"Outside the door, talkin' ta the others," Buck managed to say before Chris stormed by him.

Josiah, Nathan, and JD were reading through the scribbled in notes in horrified silence when Chris ripped them from their grasps. Ezra had felt they should see the details of Vin's ordeal to better help their friend in his recovery. There would be emotional scars as well as physical. Chris was a more difficult problem...seeing the notes would only deepen the wound inside the gunman. Maybe after Vin was better.....

Two, icy green eyes fixed themselves on the gambler. "Why the hell didn't you give them to me?"

Before Ezra could explain, Chris flew back into the room, retaking his place beside Vin's bed. Buck backed himself out, unwilling to watch the pain that he knew would soon encompass Chris' face after he read through them.

"Did she really do that stuff to Vin?" JD asked as Buck came and stood next to him.

"She did," Nathan nodded with a heavy sigh. "He was drained of blood from an embalming technique used during the war. The cut on his chest would fit with the first ritual described."

"There was also a ring of blood in the center of the wagon, with an alter in the middle of it," Buck added with a frown. The scene fit with the second ritual mentioned. "She ain't no human bein', she's a damn demon from Hell!"

"A ritual of unification," Josiah muttered, his insides seething. "What she put our young brother through...."

Ezra put a hand on Josiah's shaking fist. "As much as Ah find her deeds horrific and unimaginable, she is gone, and we need to concentrate on the victim of her designs."

The others fell silent. Ezra was absolutely right. There was nothing they could do concerning Ella Gaines, but there was still a friend fighting for his life.

+ + + + + + +

Every detail was in the papers the gunman held in his hands. Ella thought of everything, even using the information of Vin's bounty to hold off a stay in prison. The night clerk at the hotel was used as a go-between, sending messages to whomever Ella wanted...even to a glass maker for a specially made coffin.

A shiver ran through Chris' body when he read about Ella's inspirations for the blood bonding techniques. It was a blend of several myths from different cultures...all leading to one conclusion. To become one with another, it had to be done through a bloody ritual.

"I should have shot her," Chris muttered, giving Vin's forearm a squeeze. I'm so damn sorry, Vin, he thought to the figure in the bed.

The tracker's body suddenly bolted, the mouth opening as if he was gasping for air. Panic filled Chris as he watched his friend. Placing his hands upon Vin's shoulders, the gunman tried to calm the trembling body.

"Nathan!" Chris yelled frantically.

Rushing inside, the healer went to Vin, his eyes meeting briefly with Chris'. The body beneath their hands grew deathly still, alarming the two men.

"No...," Chris whispered.

"Dammit," Nathan cursed, grabbing his stethoscope. He tore off the covers. "Don't be doin' this, Vin...c'mon now...breathe...."

The four other peacekeepers filtered into the room, their eyes glued to the figure of their friend. Prayers instantly filled the air as Nathan searched for any sign of life. Ripping the stethoscope from his ears, the dark skinned healer threw it across the room in grief and frustration. Vin's heart was no longer beating.

Chris placed a hand against the side of Vin's head. You don't have to fight anymore. Rest easy, Vin. A pain so intense overtook Chris' insides, the force of it was suffocating. He couldn't bear to feel that awful ache in his heart. It was happening all over again...the incredible guilt and anguish that hammered him unmercifully after Sarah and Adam died. In that instant, the rest of Chris Larabee's soul shattered in an inner scream. A vacuous look came into the gunman's eyes as he pushed past his friends and outside the clinic. He couldn't stay in this room...seeing the other's grief...seeing Vin's lifeless body.

No one made an attempt to go after Chris, their own grief too hard to bear. Buck had entertained the idea of going after his old friend, but what could he say to comfort? Tears flowed unheeded down the lanky gunslinger's face. He had lost two friends this day. Chris would leave soon after Vin's burial, a death wish haunting his every waking moment. Every inch of Four Corners would remind the gunman of Vin, and Buck knew that would torture him. Larabee wouldn't be at ease until he was dead as well.

Ezra dabbed at his wet eyes with his silk handkerchief, giving Vin a two finger salute. Though not as educated as he was, Vin Tanner was truly wiser than his years. So much living had been crammed into such a short life. He was going to miss his scruffy young friend terribly.

Looking about him at the grief stricken faces, Josiah glanced down at Vin, stroking the top of the sharpshooter's head. Without even knowing it, Vin had managed to touch the lives of each of them deeply. The ex-priest knew he'd miss the tracker's quiet strength and giving spirit.

"Dear Lord," Josiah prayed silently, 'save Chris." Vin wouldn't want Chris to suffer anymore than he had. He bent down near Vin. "Maybe you better bend the Lord's ear some too. You know how stubborn Chris is." Despite the tears rolling down his cheek, Josiah smiled warmly. "I'm grateful to have known you, Vin Tanner." The large man stepped back and joined the others.

With fingers rubbing at his tired and stinging eyes, Nathan shook his head over and over. He knew Vin's chances for survival were dim, but he desperately hoped that by some miracle his friend could pull through. Vin had saved his life, but the healer couldn't save his in the end.

JD chocked back a sob struggling in his throat. Vin couldn't be dead. Through wet eyes he stared helplessly at the body, unable to accept the sharpshooter was gone. He realized now how much they all relied on Vin, how he was always there, ready to help whenever needed. It was something he never dwelled upon, only took for granted. Then there was Vin's influence on Chris. The youth's heart sank even further when he thought about the gunman. The look on Chris' face when he left was devoid of any emotion.....

A sharp intake of air caught JD's attention. Glancing at the bed, his hazel eyes grew as he watched Vin's lifeless chest move. He was breathing! Vin was breathing! Unable to speak, the young sheriff grabbed Buck's arm, pointing to the bed.

Buck placed a supportive arm around JD's shoulders. "We'll be taking him out soon, son. Need ta have some time with him first," he said sadly.

"Didn't you...," JD sputtered out, "didn't you all notice? It's Vin...."

"Huh?" Nathan lifted his head. He thought for a brief moment he had heard something, but dismissed it, his grief overriding any of his thoughts. "What about Vin?" Glancing over, he sprang into action. There was movement in the area of Vin's chest!

"Thank you oh merciful God in Heaven," Josiah boomed happily throughout the room.

"Well, Mr. Jackson...? Is our friend truly among us again?" Ezra asked impatiently.

"C'mon, Nathan!" Buck implored, almost dancing due to excitement.

A gigantic smile broke out over Nathan's face. "He's alive! I don't know how...but he is. The pulse is still weak, but it's stronger than what it was before...."

"I never noticed anything when I was near him before," Josiah muttered in disbelief. "I guess we were all so wrapped up in our sorrow to notice anything else."

"I gotta tell Chris!" JD said as he literally ran from the room.

+ + + + + + +

The black gelding came to a stop in front of the small, wooden shanty Chris called home. Home...the gunfighter snorted in disgust as he dismounted. He never should have entertained ideas about settling down, having friends.... Didn't he tell Vin people died who got too close? Scanning the landscape, he found a grassy knoll that would give the tracker a perfect eternal view of the area. Chris stalled near his horse, incapable of moving further. Why couldn't he accept the fact Vin was gone? Why was there still this stupid notion deep inside his best friend was alive? The feeling was almost paralyzing in it's intensity, making him doubt what he knew was true. If Vin was dead, why did he still sense their connection? Why couldn't he shut that out?

"Chris!" The gunman turned to see JD riding towards him like the hounds of Hell were on his trail. His eyes narrowed as the youth jumped from his saddle in one swift motion. He didn't want any company. He didn't want anything anymore.

"JD," Chris began irritably.

"He's alive...," JD said between gulps of air. "Vin ain't dead....."

Chris grasped JD by the forearms, searching the face intently. "Are you sure? Did you see for yourself?"

"I sure did. Nathan said his pulse is better than what it was before," JD smiled, pleased beyond words to see sparks light up in Chris' eyes. "I come to get you because...."

"Tell me later," Chris interrupted, his mind and heart racing with renewed hope. "I have to get to him!"

+ + + + + + +

Lifting his head off the folded arms draped over the side of Vin's bed, Chris rubbed at his sleep filled eyes. It wasn't the most comfortable of naps he's had, but it was rest. Nathan had been haranguing him for three days to get some proper sleep since Vin's dramatic return from the dead. The healer assured him that with every passing hour the tracker was getting stronger, each day bettering his chances of survival. It was the if and when Vin awoke that was now of concern. Chris had listened patiently as the healer described the many things that could happen because of shock induced coma, but the gunman never had any doubts that Vin wouldn't wake up...it was only a matter of time. He stretched his lean frame, almost missing the whispered voice beside him.

"I-I knew...knew ya were comin'," the pale lips forced out.

Grabbing a pitcher of water and pouring out a glass, Chris then gingerly lifted Vin's torso up against his chest, allowing the younger man a few quick sips before lying him back down. He knew he was supposed to get Nathan when Vin regained consciousness, but he didn't want to miss this discussion for the world. It was what he had been waiting for for days.

"Can't just let me have an uneventful day, can you Tanner," he said with a broad smile, his heart leaping with euphoria at the sound of the raspy voice.

"Rec-reckon that's what...what friend's are fer," Vin mumbled. He felt his head being lifted up off the pillow, a few more precious drops of water soothing his parched throat. Through heavy eyelids he watched Chris grin down at him, the sight of the normally serious Chris Larabee smiling so much, causing him to laugh mentally.

"Grinnin'...lookin' like a dang...fool," Vin uttered sleepily, the exertion of speech zapping his strength.

"What?" The smile disappeared. Chris narrowed his eyes as he huffed out a breath of mock indignation. "That's the last time I'm going to be happy to see your worthless hide...."

"That's...that's more like it," Vin muttered. He was being pulled back into sleep, one deep, burning question he had to know before he succumbed....

Chris watched Vin struggle to speak, his soul immediately sensing what his friend was needing to know. "She's dead," Chris whispered, "she can't hurt you no more."

"Or...or...you...," Vin gasped before his head rolled towards the inner part of Chris' arm, his steady breathing reassuring the gunman he was okay.

Pulling his arm gently out from under the tracker's head, Chris glanced up, his mind saying a prayer...a prayer to a God he had abandoned years before. An enormous smile enveloped his handsome face as he glanced down at Vin. Maybe there was a God after all.

+ + + + + + +

In a quiet town an hour north of Red Fork, a doctor smiled down at his stirring patient. Having survived her more serious ailments and smoke inhalation, the doctor was pleased with her recovery. He only wished the young man who brought her in had survived. Placing the lady into his care, the young man immediately collapsed, dying seconds later from the gunshot wound in his side. That was only one of two things he had yet to reveal to the woman.

Two brown eyes fluttered open, looking up at the kind in face before her. She realized she had been drifting in and out of sleep, but never stayed awake long enough to ask questions. She was ready now.

"Glad to see you awake," the doctor said softly.

"My baby?" the woman asked frantically.

The doctor lowered his head. She had to be told. "I'm sorry, but the baby and your brother didn't survive."

"My baby...," Ella whimpered. "He killed my baby...."

"No, he didn't," the doctor hurried to assure the distraught lady, misunderstanding her accusation. "He saved your life. He carried you here mortally wounded. The baby died due to your other injuries. Did you have a fall? Or maybe something crash upon you? Your body was incredibly battered, indicating a massive fall."

Ella didn't hear him. Her baby was gone...Chris' child was dead. Her anguish mingled with fury as all that was inside her soul lashed out into the silence of the room with one piercing scream. The one responsible for her son's murder was going to pay....


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