The Guardian

by Lynda

Warnings: Some mild language

Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction. I don't own the Magnificent Seven nor do I make any money off this story. It is purely for entertainment.

Acknowledgements: A very, very special thanks to SueN for the beta job and her encouragement to this first time writer.

Chris carried his saddle and gear over to some large rocks. Placing them on the ground, he gazed out over the sparkling blue lake. The scene was breathtaking. High up in the mountains, the lake was surrounded by lush forests and snow covered peaks.

"Gotta say this, Vin," he said to his companion, who was unloading their pack horse, "you sure do know how to pick 'em."

Vin walked up beside him and stood quietly for several minutes, soaking in the serene beauty that lay before them.

"A few years ago, ran 'cross a ol' Cheyenne. He'd been left behind when the rest o' his band was tryin' ta outrun the Cavalry."

Chris looked sharply at Vin. The tracker shifted his eyes to his friend without moving his head. The corner of his mouth turned up slightly as he silently acknowledged what Chris was thinking.

"Nah, it weren' that way," he said as his gaze returned to the lake. "Two Bears was old. Knew that he'd slow 'em down. Knew his days were numbered. The band held a ceremony honorin' him, then he left 'fore they did so he wouldn' have t' watch 'em go. He walked inta the woods t' die."

Vin paused, remembering how he had met the old man. Noticing Chris's look of interest, he began telling him how he'd met the old Indian.

+ + + + + + +

The tracker, having just finished turning in a bounty a little further north, was using a trail known to few except the Indians to return to the low country on his way to the border towns, in the hopesg to eat. Throughout the trip and subsequent camp preparations the old man had said nothing. Actually, he seemed to be unaware that Vin was even there. The only time he acknowledged his presence was when Vin helped him down from the horse.

All the while Vin had been fixing their dinner the Indian had been sitting, leaning against a rock with his eyes closed. Vin thought he was asleep. But when he took him some of the rabbit he'd cooked he was surprised when the old man suddenly opened his eyes to look up at Vin before he tried to wake him. Accepting the food and the cup of coffee that Vin brought, he slowly started eating.

Vin returned to the fire and his own dinner. About half way through his second cup of coffee the old man got up and haltingly made his way over to the campfire. He held out his cup and when Vin motioned toward the pot, he gave a short nod. The tracker poured him some more coffee, when once again the Indian surprised him by saying, "Thanks."

"Ya speak English," he said accusingly.

He was rewarded with a soft chuckle from the old Indian and after a moment Vin chuckled, too. He had forgotten how much Indians loved to tease those they like, so Vin considered this a good sign.

After drinking his coffee, the old man made a short visit to the woods and, when he returned, he laid down by the fire and went to sleep.

Vin cleaned up, then spread out his bedroll. Glancing over at the sleeping man and noticing the way he was curled up, he sighed and took his blankets and gently laid them over the old man. He moved his saddle closer to the fire, put a couple of more logs on it, pulled his jacket tight around him and fell asleep.

+ + + + + + +

The next couple of days passed in much the same way, although the old man did not say anything more. When Vin asked him which way to go, he merely pointed, and they kept going, always to higher country.

When they finally reached the lake, the young sharpshooter was awestruck by the breathtaking beauty of the landscape. The large, shimmering, sapphire lake looked like it had been scooped out of the tops of the mountains which still had snow on their peaks. He wondered how in all his wanderings and his time with the Indians, he had never heard anything about this lake.

As soon as he helped the Indian down, the old one went to the lake's edge. Raising his arms to the heavens he began to chant a prayer of thanks. Vin stood reverently, not understanding the words but sensing the emotion behind them. Silently he gave his own thanks, for their safe journey and for the magnificence before them.

The old man remained sitting on the shore while Vin set up the camp and prepared dinner. Over their second cup of coffee after eating, Two Bears haltingly told Vin his name, that he was a medicine man and why he had come to the lake. Vin felt honored that he had trusted him enough to share this with him.

It was then that he told Vin about the sacred lake and the spirit that protected it. At the end of his story he gave Vin the amulet that he wore around his neck. He told Vin that as long as he wore it the same spirit would protect him, if he believed. The tracker accepted the gift, knowing that to refuse would dishonor the old man. Even though Vin wasn' t sure if he believed the legend, he wore the necklace to honor the Indian's memory.

As they had in the past few days, the aged medicine man lay down beside the fire, wrapped in Vin's blankets, and Vin lay closer to the roaring fire, since it was colder in the mountains. They slept. But sometime during the crisp, clear night, with the lullaby of the night creatures in the background, the gentle spirit of the old man let lose its earthly ties and went to join the ancestors.

Vin buried Two Bears and then, with a last look at the beautiful lake, resumed his journey.

+ + + + + + +

Mentally, Vin shook free of the memories. "I brought him here. Said it's sacred. When he died, I buried 'im. Didn' know the way o' his people but figured what's important was I honored his spirit."

A few moments passed, then Vin turned and resumed unpacking and setting up the camp.

Chris stood awhile thinking about what his younger friend had told him. Looking out at the pristine scene, he could understand why the Indians held it in such high regard. More important, though, was the little piece of himself that Vin had just shared with him.

Once the campsite was set up and dinner fixed and eaten, the two friends sat companionably over their coffee, enjoying the quiet peace. As the darkness deepened, the millions of stars became visible. They shone like diamonds on black velvet. The tranquility of the setting, the soothing sounds of the night and sheer exhaustion soon overtook the men. They prepared for bed and quickly fell into a soul-restoring sleep.

+ + + + + + +

Life in town for the past few weeks had been hectic. The seven peacekeepers had often been forced to split up to deal with, among other things, delivering prisoners to the army, a series of cattle rustlings and several fights that had broken out when drovers from a passing trail drive had decided to let off a little steam. Manpower and nerves had been stretched thin. So, as soon as things had calmed down, Vin had decided that he needed to put some distance between him and the town.

The tracker had noticed that the mantle of leadership was beginning to take a toll on Larabee. He was even more taciturn than usual and was drinking more, which definitely didn' t help his mood. So Vin had asked him to come along.

Well 'asked' wasn' t exactly the word. The hardened gunslinger had become increasingly more difficult to get along with. The townspeople were giving him a wide berth as he glared his way down the street. Even his friends were avoiding him if at all possible. That is, all his friends but one.

Vin seemed to be immune to all the glares, barks and growls, but when he noticed the others' tempers were on short fuses, he decided it would be best for all concerned, especially him since he had to listen to all the others bitching about Chris, if he got them both out of town for a while.

Of course, convincing Chris was another matter entirely. Larabee stubbornly resisted, insisting that he didn' t need any 'fuckin' vacation' , he was fine. Finally, Buck, risking life and limb, threatened to hogtie him and throw him over the damn horse, explaining in terms as only Buck could just why Larabee needed to get away. Backed up by the others, Chris grudgingly admitted that maybe a few days without the stress of keeping the peace, might be beneficial to everyone. At least it might keep him from shooting one of his friends.

As they got further and further away from town, Vin could tell by the way Chris held himself that he was already beginning to relax.

Larabee glanced at the sharpshooter. Seeing the smirk on the younger man's face, he frowned. "What?" he growled.

Tanner's grin widened, but, not buying his friend's sour mood, he didn' t say anything.

Chris glared at him for a minute before breaking into a reluctant smile himself. "Ya think y' re smart don' cha'

The tracker just smirked.

"Smart-ass is more like it," the gunslinger huffed.

+ + + + + + +

Vin heard the deep sigh and looked over to see the contented expression on the hardened gunman's face. He smiled as Chris noticed him watching. Larabee didn' t even pretend to be put out with his younger companion. He just shook his head and grinned in acknowledgement.

This was exactly what he needed, hell, what both of them needed. The past couple of days had been spent with a little fishing, a little hunting, but mostly in just relishing the peace of their surroundings and in the quiet camaraderie

of a deep friendship.

Conversation was sparse, but then little was required or wanted by the two very private men. They were comfortable with the silence and with each other.

Their third night, sleep came easier. Their bodies were tired from physical exertion and the thinner mountain air rather than from worry and the weight of responsibility. But their restful slumber was harshly interrupted by a piercing, unearthly scream that had both men jumping up and scrambling for their firearms.

"Jesus, Vin, what the hell was that?" Chris shouted as his eyes frantically searched the dark line of trees beyond the clearing. The silvery glow of the full moon casting eerie shadows.

Vin didn' t answer as he made his way over to try and calm the panicked horses, keeping a wary eye out for whatever was lurking in the dark forest.

Before he could settle the animals another long eerie howl split the night. Chris hurried over to help Vin as the terrified animals threatened to break free of their tethers.

Several minutes passed. Finally, the men were able to regain some control. As they continued to soothe the frightened beasts, Vin's thoughts turned to what could have made a cry like that. In all his wilderness experience, he had never heard anything like it.

"Think it was some sort o' wild cat?" the gunslinger asked, half hoping the tracker would say yes, but knowing even befor he asked what the answer was going to be.

"Ain' t like nothin' I ever heard," Vin said, confirming what Chris had suspected and that was forming a cold lump of dread in the pit of his stomach.

"I was afraid you were gonna say that."

Nodding slightly, Tanner continued, "Best ta keep a watch the rest o' the night. This high up, it's hard ta tell how close the thing is."

Chris grunted in agreement. "Don' t think I could sleep anymore anyway."

+ + + + + + +

Daybreak found Vin preparing to leave the camp. He was going to try and find some sign of whatever animal was prowling around out there.

After a brief argument it was finally agreed, begrudgingly on the leader's part, that Chris would stay with the horses, in case they were what it wanted. Vin promised that he would be back before dusk. Sooner if he found what he was looking for.

+ + + + + + +

He headed east. Slowly in widening arcs away from the camp, he searched for sign.

It was getting close to noon when he stopped to rest for a spell. The sky had become overcast, hiding the sun. Vin knew that he was probably going to have to cut his hunt short. The threat of rain was getting stronger and he wanted to be back in camp before it broke loose.

He ate some jerky and drank some water from the canteen he carried. Then, suddenly feeling the lack of sleep from the night before, he leaned his head back against a tree trunk and closed his eyes for a few minutes. When he opened them, he was looking up, and there, on a freshly broken branch, was a tuft of hair.

He stood and, as he approached the limb, a chill went through him. He reached up to grab the fur and realized that whatever had passed through here had to have been at least a head taller than he.

Once it was in his hand, he discovered that it more resembled hair...but not like any he had ever seen. It was long, very coarse and dark brown. Then there was the smell. Vin was positive that he had never run across anything that stunk as bad as this.

Vin's eyes narrowed as he scanned the surrounding forest. Absent-mindedly, he rubbed the hair between his fingers, as he tried to figure out what kind of creature had left it.

There were some bears, grizzlies for instance, that, standing on hind legs, could be over six feet tall. But this wasn't like any bear fur that he knew of.

Uneasily he debated whether or not to turn back. He was no longer really sure if he wanted to find out what might be roaming around out here.

Out of habit, he squatted and started carefully brushing away the debris on the forest floor. It took him a few minutes, but a few yards further on, in some softer dirt, he found a partial print. As he studied the indentation, his foreboding grew, because, as incredible as it seemed, the track strongly resembled part of a foot and three toes, three very big toes.

Slowly Vin stood, trying to understand what the sign was telling him, but before he could decipher the evidence, he heard a faint sound, much like a large body moving through the underbrush.

He peered in the direction the of the noise. Not daring to move, he intently surveyed the area, hoping to catch a glimpse of what was moving out there.

After several minutes, he was beginning to think he might have imagined it, when he caught a blurred movement out of the corner of his eye.

Turning sharply in that direction, he drew his sawed-off and cocked a round into the chamber. Cautiously, he moved forward. Because of the increasing gloom, it was difficult to make out distinctive shapes. He thought he saw a change in the shadows and headed towards it.

Whatever it was, it was moving deeper into the woods and was keeping to the more shaded areas. The thickening cloud cover made the dense forest as black as night in places.

Vin stopped. It was getting darker and the wind was picking up with the coming storm, causing the shadows to shift more and obscuring any sound. He knew it was stupid to continue. He had no idea what the creature was, and it now had most of the advantage. Vin was on its turf. Besides, he really didn' t want to get caught out in what was starting to shape up as a violent thunderstorm.

The tracker estimated that, on a straight line, he was about a mile, more or less, from their camp. The air was heavy with the smell of rain. Thunder rumbled and the atmosphere was charged.

+ + + + + + +

The storm was on him faster than he expected. The downpour severely limited his vision. Hurrying as much as possible while looking for some shelter, Vin didn't see the drop-off until it was too late. His left foot slipped off the ledge. Frantically he grabbed at the edge, clawing at grass, mud or whatever he could reach, desperately trying to break his fall.

+ + + + + + +

Cold, so cold. That was the first thing he was aware of as consciousness slowly returned, cold and wet. It was still raining. Not like the earlier driving downpour, but a slow, gentle, soaking rain.

Vin realized that some time had passed, maybe five or six hours, because there wasn' t much light left. He was also becoming acutely conscious of his body's various aches and pains, not the least of which was a pounding headache.

He tried lifting his head and immediately regreted it. His vision dimmed and he saw stars as the pain lanced through his skull like a hot poker.

Slowly, he lowered his head back to the ground, his eyes tightly closed against the throbbing and the nausea.

When the churning in his stomach and the hammering in his brain had eased somewhat, he decided to keep his eyes closed for the time being and take an inventory of the rest of his aches and pains, which were making themselves more known to him by the minute.

Gingerly moving each part of his body, he worked his way down, attempting to assess the damage. Despite the pain, he figured he was mostly just banged up. But he was fairly certain he had a concussion, since he had been unconscious and his head felt like it just might explode.

He was feeling better about things because he was able to move most of his body without too much discomfort, until he got to his right leg. Cautiously he tried to move it, but stopped abruptly as excrutiating pain shot up his leg. He cried out in agony. His fingers dug into the mud. His breath came in short rapid pants, and despite the cold, he broke out into a sweat.

Forcing himself to relax, he got his breathing under control. Once that was accomplished, he knew he was going to have to actually look at his leg. He also knew that it was not going to be an easy task, considering what happened the last time he tried to raise his head.

Slowly, he started pushing himself up on his elbows. The dizziness returned, and he closed his eyes to ride it out. When the lightheadedness and pounding eased enough, he continued. Repeating this process a couple of times, he eventually had raised himself enough to see his leg. A sinking feeling crept over him as he realized that his fall had dislodged some rocks. His leg appeared to be firmly wedged by several against a large partially buried boulder.

With his left foot, he was able to move some of the smaller ones, but there were a couple of much bigger rocks that had him pinned.

Attempting to push them out of the way once again sent waves of white-hot pain shooting up his leg. Squeezing his eyes tightly and biting his lip, he tried to not to lose consciousness as the agony increased ten-fold when muscles spasmed.

He laid back down, panting. 'Shit', he thought, 'now what the hell am I gonna do'

He made himself take some slow, deep breaths, trying to think past the pain and his growing concern. His first thoughts were that Chris didn't know where he was, and that with all this rain Larabee wouldn't be able to track him.

Forcing himself to find a practical solution to his predicament, he considered his options. Raising his head slightly, he looked around for something to lever the bigger rocks with. Not finding anything close, he sighed in frustration.

His gun, maybe. He figured that since he wasn't that far away, if he fired his gun, Chris would hear it. That would at least give him a direction to start looking, 'cause, he smiled grimly, if he knew the gunslinger, he would be about ready to shoot him for not being back on time. Hell, he was close to shootin' him before he left.

His hand slipped down to pull his sawed-off, but his questing fingers found only an empty holster. Now his concern was turning into panic, as he frantically gropped around in search of the weapon. He quickly realized that without the gun, not only would he not be able to signal Chris, but he was defenseless.

Desperately searching with his other hand, he found that he still had his knife. 'Thank God,' he breathed. He wasn't totally without protection. At least now, if some animal decided he would make a good dinner, he would have a fighting chance.

That didn't solve his main problem, though. How the hell was he going to get out of this mess Appreciating the irony of it, it occurred to him that if he was out here long enough, the buzzards would lead Chris to him.

A mirthless chuckle escaped him. He must be getting delirious, he reasoned, because in reality, there just wasn't anything funny about this whole thing.

Despite the pain and his shivering with the growing cold and his rising fever, he lost his fight with consciousness and slipped into a fitful sleep.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was almost out of his mind with worry. He'd known this was a bad idea, from the start. Why he had let Vin talk him into letting him go off on his own he would never know. They should have just packed up and gone home. But the tracker was confident that he could find the unfamiliar animal, determine whether or not it was a threat, take care of it if it was, and then enjoy the rest of their vacation.

The older man had vehemently expressed his objections while the quiet sharpshooter collected the gear he thought he would need and let his friend rant. When it looked like Larabee was running out of steam, he, with deceptive calm, asked him if he doubted his ability to take care of the situation. Denying that he lacked faith in Vin's skills, he argued that he should be there to cover his back, just in case. Vin countered by saying that he wasn' t sure what kind of terrain his search would lead him through, so it was safer to leave the animals here with someone to protect them, besides they would just slow him up. He could cover more ground on foot, and alone.

Running out of arguments, and seeing that Vin was going to go no matter what he said and since knocking him on the head and tying him up wasn' t a viable option, although he seriously considered it for a half a second--he grudgingly agreed.

Now Chris was berating himself, for letting Vin talk him into this. 'Stubborn, pig-headed tracker.' The gunslinger's anger was a direct reflection of his fear that sonething had happened to his friend.

'Damn,' Larabee silently cursed as he threw more logs on the fire. Nothing he could do while it was dark, but come first light, he was gonna find his wayward partner and then he was gonna shoot him.

+ + + + + + +

He could hear them. Slowly they were getting closer, as they discovered that, other than making a lot of noise, he wasn't much of a threat.

He had awakened out of a restless sleep. Disoriented, he didn't understand at first what the soft shuffling and panting noises meant. Then realization hit him, hard. His heart hammering in his chest, he gripped his knife. Although it was pitch-black, he peered anxiously around him, trying to see where they were.

"Get the fuck out of here!" he screamed, viciously, blindly stabbing the air around him.

He knew it was futile, but it was the only thing he could think of to do.

So he continued, praying to a higher power for some kind of miracle. He waited for them to start closing in, then he yelled, cussed and waved his knife to scare them off.

Each time, they would scurry off, but each time they would come back, closer.

Vin knew what they were, wolves, a pack on the hunt. He also knew it was just a matter of time before the leader decided he was a minimal threat and lead an all out attack. When it came to that, he might be able to take care of one or two, but not the whole pack.

Time became meaningless; minutes seemed to stretch into hours as he waited for the inevitable. He was tiring and wasn' t sure how much longer he could last. Then suddenly, swiftly and silently, they were on him. He barely had time to think when he heard the first one howl in pain as he instinctively lashed out with the blade.

Pain ripped through him, as one of the animals bit into his thigh. Using his free arm he batted at one attacker, while stabbing at the one that had bitten him. His momentary gratification at hearing a howl of pain, was short lived as another leapt into the fray. The twisting and turning causing the trapped leg to scream with agony, but he was oblivious to it as he fought desperately for his life.

Then an echoing, terrifying wail pierced the night, followed by a thud and the yipping of a wounded canine. One followed the other in quick succession.

All Vin was aware of was a large blur, then it was over. The attack was over, the wolves were gone. His harsh breathing and pounding heart thundered in his head as he tried to make sense of what was happening. There was an overpowering stench, then white hot agony as the rocks were moved from his trapped leg. He screamed, then, overwhelmed with pain, fever and exhaustion, fell into blackness.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was frantic. He had heard the hideous cry, much like the night before, but somehow even more frightening because he knew that Vin was out there and so was it. He had also heard what sounded like wolves howling and fighting. A feeling of cold dread deep in the pit of his stomach told him that somehow it had something to do with Vin and there wasn' t a damn thing he could do about it.

The horses again panicked over the eerie howl. Once he calmed them down, his concerns for his best friend intensified by leaps and bounds. For then he realized what he hadn' t heard--gunshots. He wanted to believe that meant Vin wasn' t involved, but deep in his soul he knew that he was. For some reason, Vin was not able to use his gun, and that knowledge, along with his feeling of complete helplessness, was driving Chris Larabee nearly insane with frustration and fear.

So he paced, needing to do something. The horses were still skittish, either from their earlier fright, or the anxiety they were picking up from Larabee.

Suddenly he heard a noise in the trees opposite him, across the fire. Instantly, his gun was in his hand, preparing to meet the intruder.

Slowly, as if it knew sudden movement would result in a misinterpretation of intentions, it made its way into the circle of light.

Chris stood transfixed, afraid to make a move that would startle it. Walking cautiously toward the fire, watching the gunman warily, was a creature unlike anything he had ever encountered, or for that matter ever heard of, and that creature was carrying the limp form of Vin Tanner.

The thing was huge, maybe seven, seven and a half feet tall and almost twice as broad as a man, and was completely covered with long hair. Even though he was upwind from it, he could still smell it, and so could the horses. They were near crazy with fear and Chris was afraid they would break their tethers in their frenzy, but he didn't dare turn his back on the creature to take care of them.

Moving with great care, the thing approached the fire. Locking eyes with the immobile gunslinger, it slowly and very gently laid the injured man down. Despite his own apprehension, Chris could see intelligence in the wary eyes.

As he watched, mesmerized, the creature stroked the unconscious tracker's forehead, its actions in no way threatening. Then it put its hand on his friend's chest and let it lay there for a few seconds, ignoring the man in black and the gun being held on it. It gazed down at Vin, then reached under the tattered shirt and pulled out something on a cord around the young man's neck.

Leaving it laying on Vin's chest, the creature once again looked at Chris, slowly rose, turned and walked back into the forest.

Struggling to comprehend what had just happened, it took Chris a couple of minutes to realize that the thing was gone and his friend was actually there on the ground. A low moan from Vin mobilized Larabee. He would have to sort all of this out later; now he needed to take care of his friend.

Chris knelt at Vin's side. At first glance he could see a wound high on the right side of his head that was covered with dried blood. There were other bruises and scrapes on the tracker's face and hands. His shirt was torn in several places, as were his pants. The only other visible wound was on his left thigh, and it was wet with fresh blood.

Deciding that he first needed to get the bleeding under control, the gunslinger used his knife to cut away the pants, leaving the thigh exposed. He could see puncture wounds, like an animal bite. None of them were gushing blood, just oozing, so he elected to get things ready to treat the injuries before giving Vin a more thorough exam.

Having now spent enough time with Nathan and the wilderness trained tracker, Chris had, out of necessity, learned a little about herbs and some of the basics in using them. Vin always carried some dried herbs with him.

He got their bedrolls, laid one on the ground, rolled Vin to his side, tucked one under him, then rolled him back, covering him with the other blanket. Next he filled the coffee pot and a kettle they used for stew with fresh water and set them to boil.

Vin kept the herbs in a parfleche he kept handy in his saddlebag. Chris removed from the larger bundle several smaller ones, each marked with a different beaded symbol. The tracker had carefully and patiently explained to him which herb was in which packet and what it was mainly used for.

As he dumped the contents of two of them into the containers of water, he prayed that he remembered correctly what his friend had told him. One for helping to clean the wounds and to help control the bleeding--Vin had said it was better if this one were fresh, and had shown him the leafy plant with white flowers and how to pick it for use, but dried was next best--and the other a combination of herbs for the fever and to help fight infection.

While waiting for the medicines to simmer and steep, Chris finished undressing the young man and assessing the damage. Vin was a mass of bruises and scrapes. The most serious appeared to be the head wound and the animal bite on his thigh, and Chris was pretty certain, that the right leg was broken below the knee. About half way down the shin, there was a lot of swelling. It was almost black from the bruising and when he gingerly touched it, the tracker moaned and moved restlessly.

Not wanting to jostle the leg too much, Chris decided that he probably should splint it first. That way it would be stabilized if Vin started moving while he was tending to the other wounds.

The gunslinger gathered most of their clean clothing. Then he found some tree branches which he broke into four nearly equal lengths. He tore the clothes into strips. Tying two sticks together, he padded them, then used them to splint the leg.

Vin had laid quietly and without moving until Chris had started to manipulate his leg. Then he groaned and tried to pull away from the source of his pain. Larabee muttered soothing sounds while he continued his work.

Chris wasn't sure if Vin was responding to his voice or if he just lost consciousness, but the young man calmed down and quit struggling. That made it much easier to immobilize the leg without the fear of causing further damage.

The medicines had been brewing for several minutes. He removed them from the fire to steep and cool. Wetting some rags, he started removing most of the dried blood and dirt.

By the time that was done, the decoctions had cooled down. He placed some rags under Vin's thigh to keep the blanket from getting wet, then poured some of the cleansing liquid directly onto the puncture wounds.

He soaked the wounds thoroughly, hoping to get them as clean as possible, knowing that the bite would be the most likely to get infected.

Next, using the same medicine, he dampened fresh cloths and used them on the other scrapes and lacerations. A couple of them, including the one on Vin's head, could use some stitches, but he wasn't Nathan, so they would have to make do.

Satisfied that he had cleaned the wounds as best he could, he bandaged the ones on his thigh and head. He could already feel the heat begining to radiate off the sharpshooter.

Chris poured some of the medicinal brew into a cup. He was able to rouse the somnulant tracker enough to get him to drink most of it before Vin weakly pushed his hand away.

Gently lowering his friend back to the ground, the gunslinger sat back on his haunches, suddenly overcome with weariness. He closed his eyes, and scrubbed them with the palms of his hands.

He looked down at his now peacefully sleeping friend, and his gaze came to rest on what was hanging around his neck. Curious, Chris lifted it to look at it closer. That...thing had pulled it out of Vin's shirt, like it had known it was there.

Holding the amulet in his hand, Chris remembered the story that Vin had told him. Unconsciously, his eyes strayed to the forest where the creature had disappeared. Shaking his head sharply, he quickly replaced the token, not quite ready to go where his thoughts were leading.

He checked to make sure that Vin was resting peacefully. He pulled his saddle close to the younger man and settled in to keep watch.

+ + + + + + +

Chris awoke to full daylight. He sat up, disconcerted that he had fallen asleep, but not really surprised, having gone almost two days without.

Fighting the muzziness of too little rest, he became aware of someone watching him. He turned his head to see if Vin was alright, only to find a pair of tired but clear blue eyes watching him.

Chris smiled with relief and moved closer. Vin's eyes followed him, and the injured man managed a weak smile of his own.

"Hey Cowboy, how ya feelin'"

Vin opened his mouth slightly, but when nothing came out. He tried to clear his throat and licked dry lips.

"Hang on," Chris commanded as he reached for a cup and poured some water. Supporting Vin's head, he helped him drink.

The injured man greedily consumed the whole cup. With the last drop, he whispered, "More."

Chris chuckled softly when his "no" earned him a scowl from the tracker.

"Let's see how that sets, first. Don' hanker you throwin' up all o'er me."

A mischievous gleam appeared in Vin's eyes as he considered the idea. Chris said a silent, thankful prayer that the man was still here and well enough to be thinking about it.

Chris frowned. "Don' even think about it."

Vin gave him a small, lopsided grin, then his eyelids slid shut as sleep reclaimed him.

+ + + + + + +

Throughout the day Chris tended to his friend, giving him water and the herbal drink. He cleaned the wounds and changed the bandages.

Later that evening, while Chris was preparing some dinner, he heard a weak groan. He turned to find Vin struggling to sit up.

"What the hell do ya think y' re doin' ?" Chris demanded as he made his way over to his patient, who was panting and sweating with exertion.

Chris placed his hands on Vin's shoulders to halt the young man's efforts.

Vin glared up at the gunslinger. "Need t' move. 'M tired a layin' here."

Sighing, Chris said, "Ya ain' t well enough t' be gettin' up." When that failed to stop the tracker, he asked, "OK, how 'bout I bring a saddle over here an' we' ll prop ya up a bit"

Knowing that Chris was right but unwilling to admit it, Vin grudgingly agreed. Truth be told, just that little bit of exertion had worn him out, but damned if he was gonna let Larabee know it.

Chris watched Vin anxiously, noting that the tracker looked decidedly paler as he leaned back and closed his eyes.

After several minutes, when his breathing had slowed some, he said without opening his eyes, "Y' c'n stop starin' at me. 'm fine."

Grinning, Chris said, "I made some broth. Think you could handle some"

Vin grimaced. "Ya gotta steak?"

"Sure, that's what I used t' make the broth."

The tracker squinted up at him. "Ya used jerky," he accused.

Laughing outright at the cantankerous sharpshooter, he brought him a cup of the warm liquid and helped him drink it. Vin complied, but not without some half-hearted complaining. Chris noted thankfully that he didn't seem quite as warm.

"C'n I least have some coffee?" Vin grouchily asked.

Chris rolled his eyes and gave a long-suffering sigh. "Half a cup, an' don' tell Nathan."

Vin grinned and sighed with contentment when Chris handed him a cup half filled with slightly watered-down brew.

Chris poured himself a cup and for several minutes they sat quietly, enjoying the sunset, until Chris caught Vin periodically glancing toward the woods with a puzzled frown on his face.

"Do ya remember what happened?" Chris casually inquired.

Vin hesitated, looking intently at his partner, then back at the woods, before answering, "Some...storm came up faster 'an I thought. Was hurryin' t' get t' shelter, didn' pay attention as close as I shoulda." He paused, "I slipped, fell off a ledge, hit m' head. When I woke up I'd lost m' gun and m' leg was caught. Still had m' knife, though. Good thing, too. Later, not sure what time, I was attacked by wolves."

Now there was a long pause, as the tracker gathered his thoughts. Chris waited patiently.

"Then...things get a bit hazy. Knew I was a goner, but aimed t' go down fightin' . Couldn' see very good, but all of a sudden som' thin' was after them wolves, pullin' 'em off a me. Then it was gettin' the rocks off a m' leg an' then I blacked out. Next thing I knew, I woke here.

The last was said with a question in his voice and wide blue eyes looked to Chris as if he might be able to povide the answers.

Chris stared down at his coffee for a few minutes before clearing his throat and meeting his friend's eyes, "I c'n tell ya what ya wanta know...but ain' sure y' re gonna b'lieve it...not sure I b'lieve it, an' I saw it."

Chris's eyes drifted toward the trees as he described to Vin the creature that had rescued him and brought him back to camp. When he finished, both men sat in contemplative silence.

Finally, Vin ventured, "Maybe, when we tell people what happened, we should keep tha' part t' ourselves."


Seeing Vin blinking and trying to stifle a yawn, Chris rose, poured another cup of the herbal tea and stood over him menancingly until he drank it all.

Only managing a weak glare, Tanner drank the contents, then almost immediately fell asleep. Chris, barely able to keep his own eyes open, made sure there was enough wood for the fire, then settled down close to Vin, making sure his gun was within easy reach, and fell into an exhausted sleep.

+ + + + + + +

The next few days were spent in resting, and, for Vin, healing enough to make the long trip home. They were no longer troubled by disturbances at night. The two, by mutual consent, didn't discuss the events of that day.

With directions from Vin, Chris was able to find the spot where Vin had fallen and recovered the Winchester and knife. He found where the sharpshooter was trapped. There were many wolf tracks and the large human-like footprints of the creature that had rescued Vin.

Finally Vin felt like he could ride, even with his broken right leg. They would make the trip back with frequent stops for rest.

As they left the beautiful lake, held sacred by the Indians, a long eerie howl echoed among the mountain peaks.

The End

Many Native American tribes have legends that tell of a large man-like creature. In most of these stories he is described as a 'protector'. Many see him as part human and part animal, which gives him a special relationship between the four-legged and the two-legged. The Lakota call Bigfoot Chiye-tanka (big brother), and he is regarded as a being that is part physical and part spiritual, easily moving between the two worlds. This is the reason it has been so hard to prove the existence of this creature.

Comments to: