Hero Worship Can Come in Handy

    Author: Hombre

Notes: Sure someone has written along similar lines. Hope mine is not too alike. Ages since I did a Chris story. So here it is! There is another in the pipeline too. What is the matter with me? Thanks to one of J.T Edson's Western stories for the blanket trick.

"Help! Help! Can anyone hear me?" a young girl's voice called in the distance.

Chris kicked his horse toward the sound and nearly ran over the child who was jumping up and down in the middle of the path in agitation. He smiled as he climbed down from his horse and then approached her slowly.

"What's the matter?" he inquired.

"Oh, Mr. Larabee. It's Penny. She hurt her ankle as we were walking by the river and she fell in and I can't get her out," the girl replied breathlessly.

Chris studied the girl intently as he tried to think of her name. She obviously knew him so she must be from town. He had to admit that he did remember the injured girl though. Penny Miller was her name. She was rather hard to forget actually because she always had her hair piled up on top of her head like an unruly haystack. The blond had often wondered how she achieved the effect. Ezra had even been known to offer bets on windy days to determine how long the tresses would stay in place. That gambler would be able to convince people to place bets against the likelihood of Summer following Spring every year, Chris thought with a smile.

The blond felt a hand tugging his sleeve and he looked down and suddenly remembered where he was. As he studied the child, her name finally flew into his mind. Jane! Jane Porter. Yes, now I remember, he said to himself as he squatted in front of the anxious child. He reached out a hand and she took it quickly and started pulling him onward. He nearly lost his footing as he was pulled upright and forward and he stumbled after her with spurs jingling.

"Hurry up. She's over this way. I've been here ages waiting for someone to come," Jane said as she tugged him along insistently.

"Okay, kid. I'm coming. Just hold yer horses or you'll fall and hurt yerself too."

"There she is!" Jane exclaimed excitedly as she pointed to the riverbank. Penny was standing waist-deep in the river and was keeping a tight hold on some reeds to help her stay upright.

Chris quickened his pace and reached down to pull the child out of the water. He sat the sobbing girl down on the grass well away from the water and knelt beside her. The child's lower half was soaking wet but her top half was only damp to the touch, indicating how long she'd been waiting. Her hair had well and truly escaped whatever method was used to keep it in check and it now totally covered her face.

"Hey, Penny. You hurt yer ankle?" he asked as he swept back the child's hair so he could see her eyes. A tear-stained, dirty face was revealed.

"Yeah. Hurts," the child replied as she wiped her nose up her bare arm from wrist to elbow.

Chris grimaced and asked, "Left or right?"


"Okay. Let me look at it for you and then I'll take you back to town." He reached out and studied the joint and saw it was quite swollen. He couldn't tell if it was just sprained or broken so he splinted it anyway just to be safe. He then gently lifted her into his arms and headed back to where he'd left his horse. Jane skipped and hopped along beside him as she gave an account of what they had been doing all day. Chris tried to concentrate on what she was telling him but he wasn't one for conversation. He nodded in what he hoped were the correct places but the child talked nonstop and didn't give him a chance to reply anyway.

When he reached his horse he got a blanket from behind the saddle and wrapped the child up in it after replacing some of her clothes with a few of his. He lifted Penny up in front of the saddle so he could hold her on the way home and then mounted behind her before pulling Jane up behind him. He picked up his reins and got a careful hold on the injured child round her waist. He felt arms encircle him from behind as he started his horse homeward and the hold tightened the further he went. He could feel Jane leaning her head against his back and he smiled. It reminded him of the times he'd taken Adam for rides.

He reached town fairly soon afterwards and pulled up outside the clinic. He put Jane down first and then dismounted before taking Penny in his arms again and heading up the stairs to see Nathan. The child he held looked up into his face adoringly and snuggled in closer to his chest. She felt so important being carried by the feared gunfighter and she couldn't wait to tell all her friends. Jane looked on jealously and wished it was her being carried by the handsome blond and not Penny.

Chris knocked on the door and carried Penny in when Nathan opened it. The blond explained what had happened and left the injured child in Nathan's capable hands.

"Come on, Jane. Let's get you back to yer ma. S'pect she's wondering where you've got to." He opened the door and indicated for her to go out in front of him. She did and waited out on the balcony for him. The black-clad man, meanwhile, turned back to the healer and said, "I'll tell Penny's parents what's happened too, Nate."

"Thanks, Chris. Can you get one of them to collect her?"

The blond nodded and walked outside and headed for the stairs expecting Jane to follow behind. Instead he felt the child take his hand again. He looked down and Jane smiled up at him with what she considered to be an irresistible smile. All Chris saw though was a gap-toothed grin from a child with a very muddy face. He smiled back, slightly embarrassed and started off down the stairs with the child still clinging to his hand.

Not quite the sort of image I want to project to any outlaws who might be watching, he thought to himself. Hope none of the boys are about either. Don't think I could stand the jokes. His wish as usual went unanswered.

As he passed by the saloon, Buck cannoned through the doors and nearly knocked him over. The ladies' man saw who Chris had with him and saw the way the child now clung to his friend's arm with both hands.

"Hello sweetheart. What ya doin' with Chris?" the tall gunman asked with a broad grin.

"He saved Penny's life. He's taking me home now," Jane replied earnestly as she looked up at Buck before transferring her gaze back to Chris.

"Really?" The ladies' man turned his attention to his friend. "Well, looks like you've got a friend for life there, Chris. Cradle-snatcher."

"I'll see you later, Bucklin. I ain't taking a comment like that lying down," Chris said quietly as he turned a scornful look on his friend.

"Oh, boy. I'd better leave town, hadn't I? I'm so scared," the mustached man laughed.

Chris gave him another disgusted look and then continued on his way. Buck watched him walk away before turning back into the saloon to tell the others what he'd seen. Chris, meanwhile, completed his tasks and returned to the saloon for a well-earned drink. He was unaware he was being watched from a distance by Penny. Her father had come to collect her and they were on the opposite boardwalk heading home. The child looked across at Chris as he stalked along the boardwalk with the fluid movements of a tiger. He was not walking fast but he covered a lot of ground with each long stride. She sighed as she watched the blond enter the saloon and wished she could live the day over again so he could rescue her once more.

Chris wandered toward the bar and saw the rest of the men were all there at their usual table waiting for him and he sighed in resignation.

Buck saw him coming and he got up and stood behind Josiah for protection. "Seen yer girlfriend safely home, Chris?" he asked insolently as he caught his friend's eye.

"You'll be laughing in the other side of yer face if yer not careful, Bucklin. Just let it be," Chris said as he sank into a chair and took a sip from the beer that Vin placed in front of him.

"How did ya save Penny's life then, cowboy?" the tracker asked with a slight grin on his lips. He liked seeing Chris embarrassed. He was usually so sure of himself it made a change for him to look a bit vulnerable.

"I didn't. She was exaggerating. I only brought her home 'cause she'd hurt her ankle and fallen in the river. Weren't nothing special," the blond growled.

"Oh, so modest, Mr. Larabee," Ezra grinned. "She seemed to think that you snatched her from the jaws of almost certain death."

"Crap," the blond scowled.

"Well, Penny doesn't concur. I had to visit Nathan on a medical note......"

"Yeah, right," Chris moaned, knowing full well that the gambler had gone on a fact-finding mission to the clinic to get all the details first hand.

Ezra continued unperturbed, "....and Penny was taking great delight in telling several dimpled friends how you swept her into your arms and fought off all manner of creatures to get her home safely. I'd say you may have a severe case of hero-worship to contend with."

"Oh, shoot. Why me?" Chris said despairingly. Even as he spoke, a clamor of children's voices could be heard on the boardwalk outside.

"I do believe it's started already," Ezra commented dryly as he turned to look out the door.

Chris swung round and saw several youthful female faces looking over or under the batwing doors depending on the child's height. He felt that he could only handle one child at a time at the moment and even then only in small doses and this situation had reached his limit. The blond paled noticeably and groaned. "Oh, Jeez. What the hell do I do?"

"They'll soon forget all about it in a couple of days, Chris. Just ride the storm until they get bored with you," Buck said with a broad smile.

"That's very helpful. Thanks for nothing, Bucklin," the blond said sourly.

"All I can suggest is that you only come out at night. The little darlings should be safely tucked up in bed by then," Ezra said as he flashed his gold tooth.

"God, can't someone give me better advice than that? I need an instant solution. I don't wanna be followed around by a bunch of girls all day."

"Oh I don't know Chris I think it would be cute."

"Shut up Bucklin." The blond finished his drink in one gulp, stood up and hurried out the door without a backward glance.

He walked along the boardwalk with the huddle of children following behind at a safe distance. He quickened his pace and almost ran along to his room. He shut the door with a sigh and leant his back against it while he regained his breath. The blond couldn't decide why he was acting in this way. He liked children but since Adam had died he'd found it hard to be around them. They reminded him of what he'd lost and he supposed avoiding the group of youngsters now was an unconscious reaction that showed he still didn't want to face up to his sorrow. Mary's son, Billy, though had somehow managed to find a way into his heart and he smiled when he thought of the young boy. Chris sighed again and wandered over to the window and looked out into the street and grinned as he saw the children split up and disappear.

"Hope I'll get a bit of peace and quiet now." He stretched out on the bed and went to sleep to dream about being pursued by a posse of rampaging children.


The next morning he rose and wandered along to the saloon for breakfast. Despite the early hour, he saw Buck sitting outside with Penny talking animatedly beside him. Chris stopped short and did an abrupt about turn. He still had one foot in the air and was balancing on the ball of the other one when a shrill voice shouted, "Mr. Larabee! Mr. Larabee!"

"Jeez," he muttered to himself as he put his foot to the ground slowly and bowed his head. He felt like running away but he didn't think it would be good to be seen trying to escape a child. He reluctantly turned back and walked toward them and said, "Hey Penny. Glad to see you're okay."

The little girl blushed and stood fidgeting in front of him. Chris looked down at her and didn't quite know what to do next. He always found boys much easier to deal with than girls and he was totally at a loss.

Buck laughed quietly at his friend's unease and decided to put him out of his misery. "Penny? Come on, sweetheart. Chris needs to have his breakfast and he gets a bit tetchy when he's hungry. He's got a lot that needs doin' too so I'd better get you back home before yer folks start fretting."

Chris nodded his thanks and dived into the saloon in relief and hurried to the counter. "Inez? Strong black coffee please and make it doubly sweet."

He leant against the bar and sighed as he contemplated his problem. Inez placed a steaming mug of coffee in front of him and he took a long sip. He smiled in contentment and picked up the plate of food that was also given to him and wandered over to his favorite table. He managed to eat his breakfast without any interruptions and he patted his stomach in satisfaction when he'd finished. He lit a cigar and enjoyed the aroma before sitting back in his chair and closing his eyes for a few minutes. Inez disturbed his rest when she collected his plate and mug and he sighed and rose with a heart-felt groan and headed to the jail to meet up with Josiah.

"Hey, Josiah. I'm gonna head out of town for a while. Thought I might look in on some of the homesteaders to make sure everything's okay." Yeah and if you believe that you'll believe anything. Yer running away, that's what yer doin' Larabee.

"Sure, Chris. What do you want the rest of us to do?" the preacher asked as he lounged in the chair behind the desk and studied the blond closely.

"Same as yesterday. Ain't much doing at the moment, thank God. See ya this afternoon." Chris nodded and went to get his horse ready and then rode out of town.

He sighed as he reached the town limits and kicked his horse into a trot. He needed a bit of time on his own and he took pleasure in only hearing the sound of his horse's hooves striking the ground rhythmically. He could feel the quiet and solitude doing him good. He began to relax so he slowed his horse to a walk again now he had gone a good few miles from town.

He approached a small canyon and pushed his horse into the entrance but it spooked suddenly. He kicked it onward and then patted its neck encouragingly after it continued on its way again without any bother. He studied the walls as he rode through but could see nothing that might have startled his mount. He reached the other end after about an hour and was just about to ride into the open when he heard a gunshot. Chris hastened toward the sound and discovered a group of men standing next to someone on the ground. One man was kneeling beside the body and going through the person's pockets.

A hidden sentry who'd been placed high up on the canyon wall saw Chris coming and sent a bullet toward him. The blond hadn't seen the man from first to last and didn't even get a chance to fire his own weapon in reply. Chris grunted as the bullet caught him in the upper chest and catapulted him off the back of his horse. Shoulda been better prepared, Larabee, he said to himself. Only got yerself to blame. Jeez, that's a hell of an epitaph. He looked up at the sky and tried to concentrate on the clouds as his vision began to blur. He closed his eyes briefly and opened them again as he heard footsteps approaching him.

"Shit, it's Larabee!" a voice said angrily. "You damned idiot! We're gonna be hunted down by his friends now."

"They won't know it was us. They'll never find him here and he won't be alive much longer anyway by the look of him. Even if, by some miracle, they do find him they won't be able to follow us."

"They've got that damned tracker. He can find anything or anyone over any type of terrain. He's like a damned human bloodhound."

"Well, I know a few tricks for disguising sign and we'll be safe when we reach the caves again. Come on, let's get going."

The men ran to where they'd hidden their horses and Chris heard them ride away. He tried to sit up but cried out at the pain in his body. He lay totally still and waited impatiently for some strength to return but instead of feeling stronger he felt increasingly weak. The blond became alert when he thought he heard movement nearby and he tried to crane his neck to look in the appropriate direction. Suddenly Penny came into his view leading a pony slowly behind her.


"Mr. Larabee. You're hurt. What can I do to help?" the child asked seriously as she sat down beside him.

"What you doing here?" the blond asked wearily. "You weren't following me, were you?"

The girl looked sheepish and dropped her gaze. Chris sighed but also thanked his lucky stars that she had. He reached out a hand and gritted his teeth at the pain the movement created as he patted her arm. She looked up and met his green eyes again and he smiled at her gratefully.

"Can you find yer way back to town?" he asked after a minute's silence had passed.

She nodded and made moves to rise. He reached out a hand again and stopped her so she retook her seat and looked at him expectantly.

"Be careful, will ya? Go and get Nate and bring him here. Can you do that, darlin'?"

"Sure, Mr. Larabee. I'll be quick. My pony's real fast." Penny stood up and ran to the pony and Chris heard her hurry away.

He closed his eyes again before using the last of his strength to move out of sight of the main canyon path. When he'd found a comfortable spot he relaxed and gave way to the blackness that had been continually calling him.


Penny rode for all she was worth and flew into town, coming to a sliding halt under the clinic. She jumped off and stumbled as her ankle gave way under her. She bit her lip and hobbled to the stairs and climbed them carefully while shouting, "Mr. Jackson?" at the top of her voice.

Nathan heard her call and opened the door just as she reached the top step. "Penny? You hurt yer ankle again? I told you to rest it, didn't I?" he said with a kind smile.

"No. It's Mr. Larabee. He's hurt bad. He was shot. You've gotta come quick."

The healer frowned worriedly. "Slow down, Penny. Chris went out of town. You weren't out there too, were you?"

"Yes. I followed him. I know I shouldn't have but I couldn't help it."

"Come inside and sit down while I find a few of the others. You okay on yer own?"

Penny nodded and Nathan ran to the saloon and saw Ezra at his usual poker table. The gambler was alone and playing solitaire. The healer approached him and tapped his friend's shoulder when he didn't look up. "Ezra, I need you. Chris ran into some trouble and has been shot outside town," Nathan said when Ezra's green eyes met his.

"Good Lord. We'd better not delay then. Do you need me to do anything for you before we leave?"

"Yeah. Round up as many of the others as you can. I'll get Josiah and hitch up a wagon. We'll meet you at the livery, okay?" Nathan said.

Ezra put a finger to his hat brim in agreement and hurried out to find Vin and the others. He ran down the center of the street regardless of any traffic or pedestrians and came to a halt by the tracker's wagon. These boots are certainly not conducive for using at the faster paces, the gambler thought as his feet began throbbing in pain. He looked up and met Vin's eyes as the tracker turned round in surprise at Ezra's hasty arrival.

"Mr. Tanner? Duty calls. Our illustrious leader is in dire straits and needs our assistance forthwith," the gambler relayed as he stood with hands on knees trying to regain his breath.

"Can't you ever say anything in simple terms? No wonder yer out of breath after spouting that mouthful," Vin remarked as he collected his rifle and gun belt. "Vin, yer needed would have been enough."

"Something I am not is simple Mr. Tanner."

Vin said quietly with a smile, "That's debatable."

Ezra scowled as he overheard the comment and said irritably, "You understood my meaning, didn't you? What difference does it make how I communicate as long as you know what I mean."

"I was just making an observation. I don't need a lecture, Ez. Where are we goin' then?"

"The livery." The con man grinned and then asked sarcastically, "Was that plain enough?"

"Yeah, great Ez. Yer definitely improving. Soon have ya whipped into shape and just uttering one syllable at a time." Vin headed off in the building's direction and Ezra ran to catch up with him.

"What's up with Chris anyway?" the tracker asked as they walked.

"He's been shot while out of town apparently. Penny, his little shadow, was following him at the time and came back to get Nathan."

"How far from town?" the tracker asked anxiously as he quickened his pace.

"I have no idea. Nathan just gave me the bare essentials and then dispatched me to find you and the others."

"See there ya go again, wasting air. Don't know, would have done the job just as well," the tracker said with a quiet smile.

"Picky, picky," Ezra said sounding very disgruntled.

The two men arrived at the livery and saw that Nathan and Josiah were still hitching the team of horses. Vin remained with them to saddle to riding horses while Ezra ran to find JD and Buck. The con man returned soon after with his two friends in tow and then helped Vin finish getting the horses ready.

Nathan went back to the clinic to pick up Penny and also collected some medical supplies. He then lifted the girl onto the wagon seat and climbed up beside her and picked up the reins. The other men were already mounted and the procession of animals left town hurriedly.


They arrived at their destination quickly after receiving very good directions from Penny. The girl pointed where she'd last seen Chris so Vin dismounted and studied the ground. He walked to the side of the path after looking at the sign and found his friend hidden there.

"Nate? Over here," the tracker called loudly as he knelt down beside the unconscious man anxiously.

The healer appeared at his side and undid Chris's shirt quickly so he could get a better look at the wound hidden beneath. The black-clad man moaned as the torn flesh was touched and his eyes opened briefly.

"Chris? It's Nate. Can you hear me?"

The blond's eyes re-opened and he tried to focus on Nathan. His vision kept going in and out of focus and he moaned in frustration as he raised a hand to rub his optics. He blinked rapidly and squinted again. "Shit," he said when the picture remained the same.

"Don't move too much, Chris. You still got the bullet in there. I'm gonna get you back to town, okay?" the healer said.

"Don't feel so good, Nate."

"I know but once I've got the bullet out you'll be as good as new." Nathan looked up and indicated for Josiah to help him move the gunfighter to the wagon.

The rest of the men moved out of the way to give them room to move and Ezra reached out a hand to keep a grip on Penny. Josiah bent down and lifted the blond gently and turned round to head in the required direction. Chris groaned loudly and the edges of his vision changed from red to black and back again. He closed his eyes and felt as if his chest was on fire. Every breath sent a stabbing pain through his entire body and he gasped after each inhalation. Nathan hurried ahead and undid the tailgate and Josiah lifted Chris up onto the wagon bed and climbed up beside him to help get him settled.

"Nate?" Vin called from where he was studying the ground with concentration. "There's some tracks up ahead and I'd like to go after them. Do you need us or can I take the others with me?"

"As long as you leave me Josiah you can have the others. Good luck and take care, Vin."

"Sure. You do the same and we'll see you back in town at some point." The tracker put a finger to his hat brim and lifted Penny up onto the wagon seat.

"Caves!" Chris said suddenly.

"What's that, pard?" Buck asked.

"They were heading for some caves," Chris mumbled.

"Well, there's quite a few round here but thanks for telling us, cowboy. It may give us an idea later on which ones they're heading for when I've followed the tracks for a while," Vin said as he mounted his horse. He turned and watched as the wagon headed back to town before giving his full attention to the other peacekeepers. "Okay. Let's see what we can find, boys."

The men pulled in behind him and left him to follow the tracks silently. He dismounted several times to check more closely and he shook his head and sighed loudly.

"What's up, pard?" Buck asked anxiously.

"Someone knows a trick or two about hiding sign. They're damn good too. This could be a long job, Bucklin," Vin replied as he removed his hat and wiped his brow on his sleeve wearily.

"Just take yer time, Vin. As long as we get there in the end it don't matter how long it takes."

"Quite right, Mr. Wilmington. I'm sure you are being modest Mr. Tanner. You are the best tracker I've ever known, admittedly I haven't known many but let's not be picky. I have every faith in you."

"That makes me feel a whole heap better, Ezra," Vin said with a smile. He said it sarcastically but the gambler could tell he meant exactly what he said by the look in his eye. Ezra tipped his head in acknowledgement and Vin continued on his way with a smile.


Josiah drove the wagon back to town and pulled up outside the clinic. Nathan had stayed in the wagon bed with his patient on the journey and he was glad they had finally got home. Chris was drifting in and out of consciousness and was starting to get a fever. Josiah hopped down from his seat and hurried round to carry the blond up the stairs.

"How is he, Nate?" the preacher asked anxiously as he looked at the gunfighter.

"Be glad when I get the bullet out. He's real pale."

"Come on, Brother Chris." Josiah picked his friend up as Nathan handed him down and he set off on his next journey.

Nathan was just about to jump down from the wagon when he spotted Mary, so he waved at her and she crossed the street to meet him. "Mary? Chris's hurt. Can you take Penny home for me? She found him and has been real helpful, ain't ya honey?" the healer said has he patted the child's hair.

"Yeah. I found him and came to get Mr. Jackson," the child said excitedly as Mary took her hand.

"Well, you tell me all about it in a minute. Nathan? Do you need any help? Is Chris alright?" the blonde asked anxiously.

"Shot in the chest. He's pretty sick but I hope he'll recover. I need to get up to him, Mrs. Travis. Come up later if you want to see him," the healer said as he hurried away.

Penny looked up at Mrs. Travis and asked innocently, "You love him, don't you?"

Mary looked down startled and asked, "Who?"

"Mr. Larabee."

"I am concerned for his welfare as any other person would be," Mary said with a slight smile.

"That's not what Mrs. Potter says," Penny said as Mary guided her away.

Up in the clinic, Nathan prepared to dig the bullet out of the gunfighter's chest. He found the ether and a rag and held it over Chris's nose and mouth to put him to sleep. The blond struggled to start with but soon settled as the anaesthetic took hold.

Josiah moved to stand by Chris's head while Nathan found what else he would need to treat the man. The healer raised his eyes and smiled at Josiah before putting the probe in the opening in Chris's chest. After quite some time he found the bullet and extracted it carefully.

"Broke a rib by the look of it," he muttered when he'd finished. He reached out a hand and felt Chris's brow gently and then stitched and bandaged the gunfighter's chest.

"Well done, Nate. You go and get some rest. I'll watch him for a while," Josiah offered as he helped the healer tidy up.

"Okay, but come get me if anything happens. Mary said she might come and visit too. I saw her outside when we got back."

"Okay, I'll watch for her. Other than keeping Chris cool, is there anything else you want me to do?" the big man asked.

"No. I'll give him some herbal medicine when he wakes up." The healer patted Josiah's back and went to the saloon to get some food.


Back out on the trail Vin had come to a halt at the top of an arroyo. He squatted down into the loose soil and stared about him in confusion. The tracks had just disappeared.

Buck got down and joined him. "What's the matter, Vin?"

"Look for yerself. They've vanished. I bet they used the old blanket trick. This is gonna take some time, boys. You'd better wait here and I'll come back when I've found them again."

"Sure, pard. We'll be here."

Vin left his horse behind and traveled on foot. He circled back and forth and finally after an hour found the tracks again. He hurried back to the others and remounted his horse.

"Found 'em and they're not too far ahead neither."

The men followed him again and they began to make better time and it seemed the gang assumed they had lost their pursuers.

"What's the blanket trick, Vin?" JD asked.

"You lay a blanket on the ground and move yer horse onto it. The blanket spreads its weight so it don't make no tracks. You then put another blanket in front of that and move the horse onto that one instead. Pick up the one it's just got off and put that in front again for it to move onto next. Understand? It takes ages to do but it sure works well."

"Jeez. I'd rather run fast than waste time doin' all that."

"It ain't a waste of time, kid. It delayed us long enough, didn't it? They would have got away but they've got sloppy now. A blind horse could follow the trail they've left now. They thought they'd lost us but the ain't."

"See what you mean," JD said as his eyes looked at the sign the men had left. He could see it well into the distance. "Do you have any idea where they're heading?"

"Well, seeing as Chris gave us the clue of caves I guess they're heading to those mountains there. If they get there we don't stand a chance of catching 'em so we've got some hard riding to do," Vin said and immediately kicked his horse into a lope.

The other men spurred their mounts on as well and it wasn't long before the gang came into sight. They were still quite far ahead but Vin had already got an idea in mind because he knew the land's layout well.

"I know a short cut which it looks like they're unaware of. Follow me but take care 'cause it's a bit treacherous."

The men let the tracker lead the way and they were certainly glad of the warning he had given. The track suddenly narrowed and then the land fell away in a sheer drop on one side.

Ezra peeked over the edge and regretted it immediately. "Oh, good God. Mr. Tanner, is this your idea of a bit treacherous? God knows what you would consider to be deadly. Horse? Please don't trip because I have no desire to find out just how far the drop is in reality."

"Quit griping, will ya?" Buck said with a grin. "It's only a couple of hundred feet."

"Well, unless you're riding Pegasus I wouldn't be too complacent, Bucklin. Accidents can happen so quickly."

"I didn't know you cared, Ez."

"I don't. I just don't want to be the one who has to scrape your mangled body off the landscape when you fall," the gambler retorted with a grim smile.

"So kind."

"Shut up, you two. We're getting close," Vin whispered angrily from up ahead.

The men rode out onto a plateau that overlooked the only entrance to the mountain hideout. Buck turned his head and saw the gang was now behind them.

"Well done, Vin. This is ideal," the ladies' man praised as he patted the tracker's back in congratulations.

"Right. I assume you can all hit them from this high up?" the tracker asked as he looked at his friends.

He received nods from the accompanying men and they set about getting ready to greet their quarry. They spread out behind the numerous rocks for cover and waited patiently until the gang drew near.

"I'll give them a warning which I dare say they'll ignore and you then have my permission to take them out, boys," Vin instructed. He turned his attention to the gang again and called from his hiding place. "Hold it right there. We're taking you in for nearly killing a peacekeeper."

The gang stopped and looked up to where the voice had called from in an attempt to catch sight of who had spoken. They then kicked their steeds toward the entrance to the caves in a vain attempt to get to safety.

Vin and his men opened fire and while Buck and Ezra fired in front of the gang to stop them reaching the caves the other two men aimed at the gang. Vin ducked back behind his cover when one bullet came too close for comfort. He swore as he wiped the dust from his eyes and then reloaded his weapon quickly.

Buck turned his attention to the man who was nearest the entrance of the caves and liable to escape. The tall gunman stood up and snapped off a quick shot and heard his target scream as the bullet struck his head.

The sound of gunfire eventually ceased from below as the last outlaw hit the dirt. The peacekeepers stood up warily and then slowly made their way down to the dead gang's position. They checked the men over but not one had survived.

"Oh well. Saves toting 'em back to town. JD, catch the horses and we'd better makes tracks. It's gonna be dark soon," the longhaired tracker instructed.

The youngster rounded up as many of the loose horses as he could and men spread the mounts between them. Buck collected all the weapons and then the men turned for home, their mission accomplished.


Chris woke in the evening and turned his head to one side when he felt someone else's presence. He saw Josiah sitting beside him and he reached out a hand and touched the man's arm lightly. The preacher stirred and slowly opened his eyes after rubbing them with a thumb and forefinger.

"Josiah?" the blond said quietly.

"Chris? Are you alright?" the big man asked anxiously as he sat up straight.

"I'm okay. Don't feel like moving too much though 'cause it hurts. Could I have a drink?"

"Sure. Nathan's left some medicine too. Do you want that now or after?"

"First, I s'pose. Water might take the taste away afterwards," Chris said with a weary smile.

"Gonna have to move ya, Chris. Let me know if it hurts too bad." Josiah sat on the bed and lifted Chris slowly and gently but stopped immediately when Chris cried out loudly.

"Ah, shit," the blond gasped quietly after a minute had passed.

"All right son, don't fret. I'll just hold you where you are until you feel better. Just say when I can move you again." The preacher held the man steady and watched him anxiously. He put out his free hand and felt the injured man's brow but it wasn't too hot. "Do you feel alright except for the pain?"

"Yeah but that's enough, Josiah. It's all I can handle at the moment. It's like I'm being continually stabbed," the blond replied breathlessly.

"I know. Hopefully Nate's medicine will help but I'll go get him if it don't do any good."

"Thanks, Josiah. I think I can move a bit more now." Chris bit his lip and Josiah lifted him slightly higher.

The preacher picked up the mug of medicine and held it to the blond's lips and then gave him a few sips of water to follow. Josiah laid him back down and Chris sighed loudly and closed his eyes instantly. The big man patted the blond's hand and sat back to continue his vigil but was disturbed when there was a knock at the door and Mary walked in quietly.

Josiah stood up hastily and said, "Mrs. Travis. Did you want to see Chris?"

"If that's alright. I won't stay long but I thought I'd just see how he was."

"I'll wait outside but he's asleep at the moment anyway." Josiah looked down at the injured man before he moved to the door and watched the blonde woman take up the seat by Chris's bed. The preacher smiled as he walked outside, lit a cigar and inhaled the resulting smoke.

Mary reappeared after half an hour and blushed when Josiah smiled broadly at her. The woman said quietly, "I didn't wake him but tell him I visited, won't you, Josiah?"

The big man grinned and said, "Sure thing Mrs. Travis. I'll be sure to tell him but he'll be sorry to have missed ya." Josiah watched her walk away before going back inside the clinic to watch over his friend.


Vin and his companions returned to town in the evening and headed wearily to the livery. After seeing to their horses they set off to the clinic to see how Chris was. Vin knocked on the door and pushed it open quietly and peeked inside. Nathan looked up and beckoned him in before putting a finger to his lips to ask them to be quiet.

"How is he?" the tracker whispered.

"Got the bullet out but he's in a lot of pain. Been asleep most of the time, which is good. It'll let him get some of his strength back."

"We'll come back in the morning then. Don't wanna disturb him now. If he does wake though, can you tell him we caught the men that shot him?"

"Sure I will, Vin. See ya later."

The men retired to the saloon and satisfied their thirsts and hunger before going to their rooms to catch up on some sleep. All except Ezra that is. He stood and joined a poker game that was just about to commence. Vin looked back and shook his head in wonder. How does he do it? Out all day riding hard and then up all night playing poker. He ain't human, the tracker thought wryly before pushing his way out onto the boardwalk to head back to his wagon.


After a very lucrative card game that finished mid-morning the next day, Ezra rose from the table and swept his winnings into his pocket. Too late for sleeping. Perhaps I'll visit Mr. Larabee. The gambler set off toward the clinic and climbed the stairs. He knocked the door quietly and entered the room when he heard voices inside. He looked toward the bed and saw Chris was awake and that he already had a visitor. It was Penny.

The con man grinned broadly and said, "Ah, I see you have company. I won't intrude."

"Intrude dammit, Standish," Chris growled through gritted teeth and with a pleading look on his face.

"Language in front of your savior, Mr. Larabee! Anyone would think you weren't grateful to your guardian angel," Ezra reprimanded as he patted the girl's head. "How long have you been here, darlin'?"

"I was here early, Mr. Standish. I thought Mr. Larabee might be lonely and need cheering up."

"Well, that's very thoughtful. Ain't that just the most thoughtful thing, Chris?"

"Yeah, it sure is. Thank you Penny," the gunfighter said quietly as he fixed Ezra with a stare.

Ezra took the hint and put a hand on the child's shoulder and said, "I think you've done a sterling job sweetheart but I'll take over now. I expect you've got better things to do than sitting indoors with a cantankerous gunfighter on such a beautiful day."

"No, I don't," Penny disagreed.

"Well, Chris needs to get some rest so I think it best if you go now. You can return tomorrow though, I expect," the gambler flicked a quick look to Chris and saw the man shaking his head negatively. The con man smiled and herded the child to the door and closed it firmly behind her.

"Thanks, Ez. I was liable to need a new pair of ears. She never stops talking," the gunfighter sighed and settled back on the pillows. As the two men talked there was another knock at the door. "If it's someone under four foot tall, I don't wanna see 'em," Chris said forcefully.

Ezra smiled and went to the door. He opened it a crack and looked out and saw JD and Vin standing on the balcony. He turned back to Chris and said, "Does one young man standing about five foot and a barley corn high and one slightly older gentleman who's about five foot eight suit you?"

"What? What the hell you talking about now?" the blond asked irritably.

"JD and Vin are here to see you," the gambler laughed.

"Okay. Show 'em in. I can handle them alright."

Ezra stood back and beckoned the two men in. "Sorry for the security check but Chris had a small visitor earlier and he needs a break from little people."

"You sure you're up to seeing us, cowboy?" Vin asked as he stood by the bed and looked down at his friend.

"Yeah. I just want a bit of peace and quiet. You don't talk much anyway and I only have to shout once at JD to shut him up."

"What about Ez? He talks nonstop," JD complained.

"I'll just shoot him if he opens his mouth," Chris grinned.

"So kind. Consider my lip buttoned henceforth," the dark-haired man said quietly before pinching his lips closed with the sides of the forefinger and thumb on his right hand.

"Promises, promises," Chris said as he laughed softly before falling asleep.

The End

Email: hombre55@hotmail.com