Chapter 1
Chris was seething. His anger knew no bounds as he stalked across the street and disappeared into the alley.

"Storm’s a’comin’," Josiah said watching the black clad figure until he was out of sight.

"Wouldn’t like ta be in Vin’s shoes right about now," Buck added as he yanked a stunned figure lying on the ground by the scruff of the neck and dragged him to his feet.

Noticing movement to his right, he turned sharply and grabbed JD by the arm as the young sheriff made to follow their angry leader. "And where d’you think you’re goin’?"

"It’s my fault, Buck. Can’t let him take it alone."

Buck rolled his head from side to side in annoyance and raised his eyes skyward, trying to keep a hold on the struggling man he had plucked from the ground. He kicked him hard in the shin, causing the sweating man to issue a loud exclamation of pain. It had the desired effect and halted him from trying to free himself from the ladies' man's strong grasp.

Smiling in satisfaction, Buck turned back to his wide eyed young friend, who he also still held firmly by the arm.

"Best you leave that alone for now, JD. Vin can handle it better than you." He smiled and shook his head. "Hell! Better than any of us if the truth be known."


"Hey Brother, take one o’ these." Josiah thrust the young outlaw he had been holding in a steel grip at JD, not giving him time to think about it. "We gotta lock these three up before they figure out how to get away."

Buck smiled as he looked at the three outlaws, one being held by each of them. He cast his eyes around at the debris left over from the gunfight. Nathan and Ezra were checking on a fallen bank robber. They had already sent for the undertaker to rid the street of two bodies, courtesy of Vin and Chris.

As the three men began their journey to the jailhouse, Buck lifted his shoulders and winced when he heard the angry voice of their leader resounding from somewhere out of sight behind them.

* * * * * * *

Vin climbed groggily to his feet, shaking his head slowly in an effort to rid himself of the fuzziness and disorientation he was experiencing, not to mention the shrill ringing in his ears.

When he could see relatively clearly again he staggered drunkenly to the ladder leading down from the roof and descended cautiously. As one of his feet touched the bottom rung, he let out a gasp of surprise as he was grabbed and pulled the rest of the way down. He felt himself being spun around and grunted as he was pushed against the wall. The quick movement made his vision blurred and distorted as it fought to stay focused.

He grimaced as a loud voice boomed into every corner of his aching head.

"What the hell do you think you were doin’?"

Vin looked up into the flashing green eyes before him. He shrugged a shoulder and met the stare head on.

"I was savin’ JD from gettin’ hisself killed," he said calmly into the green embers of fury spitting fire at him.

He moved away from the wall and started to walk past his angry friend but was grabbed roughly by the arm and spun around once more to face Chris Larabee’s furious face.

"Yeah, and gettin’ yourself killed in his place," the angry voice hissed back.

Vin wondered how Chris could hiss and shout at the same time, he couldn’t remember ever seeing the likes of it before. The blue eyes remained steady as he answered in a dead pan Texan drawl. "I ain’t dead."

Chris’s face seethed with anger just looking for a way out. His whole body was tensed stiffly as he looked back at the calm blue eyes. It was then that his own eyes were drawn to the deep, bloody crease on the side of Vin’s forehead. The blood was trickling down the tracker's face and dripping onto his buckskinned shoulder.

Some of Chris’s anger ebbed away and was replaced by concern as he noticed, for the first time, the pale face and the slightly unstable stance of his friend.

"No, you ain’t dead yet. But that’s more through luck than judgement," he finally responded to Vin’s last statement. He pointed a finger at the tracker. "We’re gonna talk some more about this, Vin."

"Nothin’ ta talk about. JD needed help. I helped ‘im."

The anger threatened to return to Chris’s tumultuous body, but was momentarily halted by another person entering the alley and running up to them.

"Everyone alright here?" Nathan asked.

As he approached, he could see that Vin and Chris were having strong words. But his healer instincts had kicked in and he knew there was a chance that Vin could have been hurt.

Chris nodded his head towards Vin. "This damn, hot headed Texan ain’t."

The two sets of eyes remained locked. One calm with a hint of defiance, the other spitting green fire.

Nathan walked towards the men and Chris stepped back as the healer grabbed Vin’s arm.

"S’nothin’ Nate. A gals slap’d hurt more."

Chris snorted as Nathan ignored Vin’s comment and studied the wound to the sharpshooter’s forehead.

"Well, we’re goin’ ta the clinic anyway."

"Aw Nate, c’mon. ‘m tired. Don’t need t’."

Nathan smiled and began leading the tracker by the arm. "Well, if ya will do these darn stupid, foolhardy things, ya can’t expect not ta need fixin’ up."

"T’weren’t foolhardy. Was what I had t’ do."

Chris was following behind and knew Vin’s last comment was directed more at him than Nathan.

"Left m’ hat on the roof." Vin tried to turn back at this realisation, but Nathan’s grip held fast to his arm.

"We’ll get it later, no-ones gonna find it there," said the healer, pulling the tracker along towards the clinic.

"I’ll go get it."

The two men in front glanced over their shoulders at the sound of Chris’s voice. Vin grinned.

"Don’t know why you’re so attached to the darn thing. Hell, hardly ever leaves your head," Chris mumbled as he turned around and headed back the way he had come. "Unless it gets shot off that is," Chris threw back over his shoulder.

Vin and Nathan looked at one another and shared an amused smile

As he walked back towards the alley, Chris’s thoughts ran through what had happened less than an hour before.

* * * * * * *

Seven men had ridden into town, and Josiah had seen them enter the bank from where he sat outside the saloon. He knew without a glimmer of doubt that they were going to be trouble. He quietly rose from his chair and headed inside to alert the other six peacekeepers, who were inside eating lunch.

Leaving their food, the men ran from the saloon and took up their positions. Vin was on the roof almost opposite the bank, the others scattered themselves around, making sure every angle was covered. Chris and Nathan huddled behind a horse trough to the left of the bank, Buck and JD squatted behind some barrels on the right, Josiah pinned himself against the wall of an alley and Ezra placed himself on the opposite side of the street using wooden crates as cover.

As the robbers had run from the bank, thinking they had a clean getaway, Ezra noticed one of them pull up short and raise his gun. In horror the gambler realised that Josiah had been spotted. He raised his own gun and fired just before the robber did.

Chris’s thoughts momentarily came back to the present as he began climbing the ladder leading to the roof Vin had been stationed on. Reaching the top, he immediately spotted Vin’s hat and walking over to it he picked it up.

He froze as he noticed the blood staining one side of the dusty hat in his hand, reminding him of how close he had come once again to losing his best friend. But this time it was through Vin’s own stupidity. His mouth set in a hard line as his anger started to rise inside of him once again.

He turned to leave, intent on having a serious talk with Vin, and he caught sight of the undertaker in the street below him. Ezra, who was sitting in a chair outside the jail, tipped his hat at the gunslinger who he’d noticed on the roof. Chris nodded in reply.

Walking towards the ladder that led back down to the alley, Vin’s bloodstained hat held firmly in his grasp, his mind once again drifted back to the events that had taken place earlier.

All hell had broken loose after Ezra fired his gun. Another two robbers were gunned down in the street in quick succession. The others remained elusive as they tried to reach their horses. One of them managed to get to his mount and tried to get into the saddle. JD didn’t want any of these men to get away, enabling them to wreak havoc in another town. He could see that the other three were pretty much pinned down by the gunfire and, breaking cover he stood and fired at the almost free robber. But he missed his target every time.

The robber got away.

And JD’s guns were empty of bullets.

One of the other three outlaws noticed JD was in the open and prepared to take aim.

Vin, from his high vantage point had seen these events unfold. He was in the middle of reloading his gun when he saw the man take aim at JD. Knowing he had no time to think, he jumped to his feet from where he had been kneeling, using a wall as cover. He ran forward, towards the edge of the roof, yelling.

"JD! Get the hell outta the way! Look out!"

Everyone’s attention was drawn to the roof, including the outlaw who had been aiming his gun at JD. The man turned his sights onto the figure on the roof and taking aim, he pulled the trigger, giving JD time to reach the safety of cover once more.

Soon after that it was all over, and the remaining robbers were overpowered.

Chris’s mind came back to the present and his body shuddered after reliving these events. He‘d seen Vin’s head disappear after the outlaws shot, and had waited, his eyes riveted to the roof, for what seemed like hours, for the head to become visible again. He remembered releasing a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding when he saw Vin’s tousled head once more come into view. He’d been angry as hell at JD for breaking cover the way he had but most of his anger had been redirected to Vin, for doing the self same thing.

With his rage now bordering on fury he left the alley and stormed towards the two distant figures that were still making their way slowly towards the clinic.

Ezra watched from his perch outside the jail. He decided with a slight nod of his head that he would not like to be the recipient of the words of wrath that were clearly going to be spat from Chris’s mouth very shortly. Turning to Buck who was thinking along similar lines he voiced his next thought.

"I find it hard to believe that Mr Larabee did not invent steam. When you take into account the amount that emanates from his person."

Buck grinned and then winced in sympathy for the stricken sharpshooter as he watched Chris finally catch up with the two men as they made their way slowly up the steps towards the clinic. He recognised his old friend’s stance. The way he held his body. It did not bode well for Vin. Hell, it didn’t bode well for any them! Vin could be as ornery as a beaver with nothing to chew on, and if Chris said the wrong thing to him Buck knew all hell would be let loose. Thinking on this his sympathy suddenly switched to a certain healer who was going to be caught right in the middle of the argument that was clearly about to take place.

* * * * * * *

As they reached the top of the steps Chris saw Vin giving Nathan a pleading look.

"I’m comin’ in there, and we’re havin’ this thing out, Vin," Chris’s determined voice came from behind them and left little room for argument.

"Nothin’ t’ have out," Vin threw over his shoulder. "Did what I had ta do."

Nathan opened the clinic door and they all stepped inside. He knew Chris and Vin had to talk, he just wished it wasn’t now. He could see that Vin had a monster of a headache by the pinched look on his face. He led the unsteady tracker to a chair and pushed him into it by the shoulder.

Chris stood against the wall just inside the door. "Here’s your hat," he ground out through clenched teeth as he threw the said article onto the bed.

He turned his eyes away from the bloodstains and sighed. Taking off his own hat he ran his fingers through his fair hair.

He didn’t need this. Hell, these were grown men and they kept screwing up. No, he’d got that wrong, they didn’t, but right now he was perplexed. Vin could be hot headed yes, but when the chips were down and the pressure was on, Vin was cool, calm and collected. Until now anyway.

What the hell had happened?

He looked over and watched as Nathan helped Vin out of his buckskin coat.

"Don’t need m’ coat off, Nate. It’s m’ head that hurts," Vin drawled tiredly.

Nathan looked at him triumphantly. "Ah, so ya admit that it hurts now huh?"

The healer smiled at Vin’s slip. He would normally never admit to being hurt, or anything hurting. "Just wanna make ya more comfortable, Vin. Yer lookin’ a mite hot."

"That’s not ‘cause o’ m’ coat. It’s ‘cause o’ that ornery gunslinger standin’ in the shadows over there, holdin’ up the wall." Vin nodded his head in the direction of the door. "He best stop glarin’ like that else his face’ll get stuck that way, dontcha reckon, Nate?" The healer gave Vin an exasperated look, wishing he would not say things that were bound to make the situation worse.

Chris gritted his teeth again but said nothing. He watched as Nathan began to clean up the gash on the side of Vin’s forehead. It was deep and the clean water made it flow steadily with blood once more.

Chris closed his eyes as he realised once again how close they had come to losing Vin. The thought fuelled his anger again as he remembered the tracker’s rash actions earlier that day.

"Half an inch to the left and we’d be buryin’ that scrawny ass of yours."

Nathan’s shoulders tensed at Chris’s words. He knew the storm was coming but had hoped it wouldn’t be until he finished patching Vin up.

Vin leaned sideways on the chair to look past Nathan at the black clad figure in the shadows. "No ya wouldn’t," he responded as Nathan impatiently pushed him back into the chair. "Y’d be takin’ m’ body t’ Tascosa t’ get the bounty."

Chris would not be put off by wise ass Texan comments.

"Why’d you break cover, Vin? Thought you knew that was the number one golden rule. You don’t break cover. All it gets is your head shot off!" Chris’s angry voice was laced with frustration. He could not believe that he was standing here having this argument with Vin. If it had been JD he could understand it. He made a mental note that he would have to talk to JD about this too. After all, it had been the young sheriff who’d broken cover first.

"Was loadin’ m’ gun. Didn’t have much choice. Had ta warn JD." Vin flinched back as Nathan applied carbolic to his head wound. "B’sides, almost missed me, ain’t even hardly got a headache."

"Ya will have if ya don’t quit yer yellin’." Nathan paused in his task to look sternly at the tracker, and Vin looked back at him, surprised that he had indeed been shouting. He hadn’t even realised. Settling back in his chair, he decided he was not going to let Chris rile him. Besides, he’d lied, he did have a headache. It felt like his brain was growing inside his head, getting bigger with every painful throb, hitting his skull as it tried to escape.

Nathan looked into Vin’s eyes. It worried him that the tracker was squinting and blinking a lot, as though he were trying to focus. His brow furrowed and he was about to say something else when Vin’s voice stopped him.

"Have t’ yell t’ get through that thick muddle of a head he’s got," he said more quietly. "Anyways, s’my head. I’ll do the worryin’ ‘bout it."

Chris stepped forward into the light. He wanted to bring his point home, and wanted to be face to face with Vin when he did.

Nathan moved away from his patient to find a bandage and Chris moved in to stand over the pale faced tracker.

Sensing his approach, Vin looked up at the annoyed face of his friend. Chris’s features showed determination and Vin sighed and sat resignedly in his chair. Knowing that he would have to hear the gunslinger out whether he wanted to or not.

"Vin, all I’m sayin’…" Chris stopped and decided to correct his last word. "All I’m askin’ is that, next time, just step back and ponder before you jump feet first into trouble. Alright?"

The two men looked at each other, saying nothing for a while. Each scrutinising the others face.

Chris had tried to stem his anger when he made his last speech. He knew Vin was hurting and didn’t want to get him riled. But at the same time, he wanted to get the message over to him. Make him think about the action he had taken earlier. Yes, JD could have been killed, but surely there was a better way of saving his life than drawing yourself into the line of fire instead. And hell, Vin was being so calm about it! That was enough to get anyone’s hunkers up. And Chris had to admit; even to himself, that it was easier to get him all fired up than a lot of people.

Vin looked steadily back at Chris. He could see that he was trying to rein in his anger. But, why did he have to keep on with this? It was over and done with now. Why couldn’t he just let it go? He bristled in annoyance as he thought on what Chris had been saying to him. Hell, he wasn’t a child who needed lessons in how to act. He was a grown man who had survived on his own since he was knee high to a grasshopper.

His brows furrowed as he recalled Chris’s last words. "Step back and ponder?" he said aloud. "What hell kinda thing t’ say is that? How can ya step back and ponder when ya got about a split second t’ decide atween life n’ death, Larabee?"

"It’s just a sayin’. Somethin’ my Ma used to say to me," Chris replied. "It’s the message behind it I’m tryin’ to get through to you, Vin."

Vin’s calm façade disappeared. It was his turn to be angry. He felt it rising in him. Starting at his toes and working it’s way up through his legs, he stood up out of the chair as the anger slowly rose into his chest and out through his fingers. Continuing it’s red hot journey until it reached his aching head. Then it needed release.

"I didn’t have a Ma t’ tell me t’ ponder. I had t’ figure it out fer m’self," the raspy voice was venomous as it continued. "I did what I thought was right at the time. I ain’t no youngun needs learnin’. So don’t go tellin’ me I should step back and ponder ‘cause it’s a pile o’ horse shit."

Vin’s body shook with rage. Who the hell did Chris think he was? Preaching to him like he was ten years old. He didn’t have to take that. Hell, there was no way he was going to take that.

Nathan stood watching the two men. They were standing inches away from each other. Rage etched on both of their faces. They were leaning forward towards each other with their arms rigid at their sides, both men’s hands clenched into fists. They were both stubborn and Nathan knew that neither man was going to back down.

The stand off was starting to shatter the healer’s nerves. These two men standing before him could be lethal killers. No wonder he’d seen men quake in their boots at the sight of them. Should he intervene? After all, Vin was his patient at the moment. He held back as he sensed that Chris was about to come back with another onslaught.

The gunslinger had let Vin’s words seep in slowly. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. His face contorted into infuriated lines of unabated rage.

"You damn smart assed son of a…"

A hissing, spitting angry Texan voice cut him off. "Don’t ya dare say it. Don’t ya ever say that, d’ya hear? Not ever."

Vin’s eyes were full of angry tears and Chris, initially stunned by the tracker's outburst, winced as he realised what he had been about to say. Vin was very protective of his Mothers memory and had immediately jumped on the fact that Chris was about to insult her. Whether it was intentional or not.

"Vin…" Chris reached out an arm to his friend. An olive branch.

But Vin rejected it.

Seeing the black clad arm reaching out towards him he recoiled from it. The quick movement made him dizzy. He wobbled on unsteady legs and, closing his eyes, reached out for something to grab onto.

Nathan shot forward and caught hold of Vin’s arm to steady him. "Vin, think ya should lay down for a while," he said quietly to the swaying tracker.

Vin shrugged him off and, grabbing his hat and coat, he staggered towards the door. "Ain’t stayin’ nowhere I don’t want t’," he threw back over his shoulder. "An’ I didn’t have to ponder that neither," he spat out as he shot a glance at Chris.

Nathan’s shoulders sagged resignedly. Why did he bother? He hadn’t even had a chance to bandage Vin’s head and he had been thinking on putting a couple of stitches in the wound too. He knew that if Vin hadn’t been so het up he would probably have taken his advice and rested for a while. As it was now, Nathan just hoped he wouldn’t take it into his head to saddle up Peso and gallop off to who knew where.

Chris could also see that Vin was in a bad way and stepped towards him as he reached the door. "Vin...," he said quietly.

Vin spun around and quickly reached for the wall as he once more went dizzy.

"Go t’ hell, Larabee," he growled out before turning away. Pushing himself away from the wall he flung open the door and stormed out of the clinic, slamming the door behind him.

Chris cursed and opened the door, ready to follow Vin. Nathan grabbed him with both hands on his arm, causing him to stop and turn to face the healer.

The look on his face told Nathan that he was not happy with the healer's action. But that did not put him off.

"Leave ‘im be Chris. He don’t need this now. I figure he got the message. ‘n maybe ya better think on whether you’da stayed hidden while ya pondered, if you’da been up there."

Chris stared hard at the healer, his words hitting him like rocks. Yes, He would have stepped back and pondered, he told himself. Well, he wouldn’t have broken cover like Vin did anyway; not without figuring things out first. Okay, so it was a strange way of telling someone to look before they leap but hey, they were his Ma’s words and that was good enough for him.

Breaking free from Nathan’s grip he spun around without replying and walked briskly along the veranda.

Nathan yelled after the retreating back. Worry etched into every word. "Think he’s got double vision Chris, he’s not seein’ straight. Watch out for ‘im."

Chris’s back stiffened at Nathan’s words. Great, something else to worry about, he thought as he reached the steps and made his way down to the boardwalk.

His emotions were in turmoil, anger and concern contradicting each other, but he still couldn’t stop a small smile from touching his lips as Vin’s words about pondering came back to him. He had to agree that Vin was right. You couldn’t ponder when you had a crisis on your hands. But that was how his Ma had put it and that was how he would remember it.

The smile disappeared from his lips, his face now taking on a determined look.

Yes, he was going to teach Vin that he had to step back and ponder.

Whether he liked the damn words or not.


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