Chapter 10
Chris knelt beside Vin as he reached him and gently placed a hand on the tracker's shoulder. He looked over and saw that Nathan had Ezra in hand and warned the others away from Vin with a look. He knew Vin didn’t like to be crowded and felt the slight shoulder tense beneath his fingers at his touch and the last thing they needed to do was panic Vin in his obviously bad physical condition.

Chris’s heart was hammering in his chest, partly from relief that they’d found Vin and Ezra and partly from dread at the thought that they may lose them again to their injuries. He noted the trouble Vin was having with his breathing and felt helpless to know what to do.


The gunslinger looked up and over at Nathan who looked to be about ready to come over to them. He held up his hand. "I’ve got him Nate…not yet," Chris told him and Nathan nodded, trusting that the blond knew Vin’s temperament and inner demons better than any of them did. His healer instincts wanted to rush over and get to healing, but his common sense told him that he could make things worse by pushing Vin before he was ready. With a last long look at the tracker he turned his attention back to Ezra who was slapping his hand away every time he tried to examine him.

Chris could hear the others talking quietly to Ezra, but his attention was firmly fixed on Vin, who still hadn’t acknowledged his presence, even though he could sense that Vin knew he was there beside him.

He wondered on what had happened to the two men since last time he’d seen them, it was obvious that they’d been through a major ordeal, and Chris had many questions…but they were questions that could wait. First, they had to assess Vin and Ezra’s conditions and start them on the road to recovery.

He watched as Vin slowly raised his head, and for the first time since he’d reached him, Chris noted that Vin still had his hat; admittedly it wasn’t on his head but dangling from its string down the tracker's back, but he still had it. He tried to hold back the smile that threatened to break out on his face and watched Vin intently as his blue eyes finally came to rest on Chris’s face.

* * * * * * *

Vin stayed on his knees with his head bowed, trying to catch his breath. Exhaustion was overtaking his body and he had to concentrate to summon all of his strength...what little there was of it.

He felt a hand on his shoulder and knew without having to look that it was Chris. He could hear voices in his ear, but couldn’t make out any words. He was still getting over the shock that they’d made it back to town. At times out there, he’d doubted whether they would have made it home. But here they were.

The trail had been long, hot and filled with pain. The only things that kept him going had been the need to get Ezra to Nathan, and the thought of the bathhouse. In fact, he was sure that, the determination to keep the promise he’d made to himself was the key factor in getting them home.

Every time he’d stumbled, or fallen, or hurt more than he thought he could bear, he closed his eyes and imagined the bathhouse, and the bath with the warm water that he could sink into as soon as he got them home. That had kept him going, it had made him take the steps he didn’t know he could make, and had brought them home.

The same thought made him raise his head now, and his pained blue eyes instantly met with worried green ones.

"Still got your hat I see," he heard Chris say, and noted the smile on the gunslinger’s face that any other time he would gladly have wiped off with a right hook.

But not today.

He continued to stare at the blonde and watched Chris’s expression grow serious once more.

"Vin? You with us pard?"

Vin knew he had to answer somehow, but couldn’t seem to move his lips. He nodded, too exhausted to do anything else. Until a thought struck him.

"Ezra," he whispered, the word almost lost on the wind. "…been shot." The tracker's blue eyes darted to where he knew Ezra should be, but all he saw were blurry movements. He moved his eyes back to Chris as he heard him speak.

"S’okay Vin. Nathan’s got him. We’re all here, and we’re gonna get you both to the clinic."

"No!" Vin protested, moving his shoulder weakly in an effort to displace Chris’s hand that still remained there.

Chris pulled his head back, shocked at Vin’s reaction. He looked around and noticed a small crowd had gathered around the seven men, all muttering and murmuring to each other. He caught Nathan’s eye and the healer raised his eyebrows at Vin’s outburst.

Chris shrugged and turned his attention back to Vin.

"Let’s get ‘em out of here," he heard Nathan say, as he continued to study the tracker’s bruised face. He was obviously sporting a fever and had a mountain of injuries, but Vin continued to look defiant.

"Josiah, help me with Ezra," Nathan continued, grabbing one of the gambler’s arms gently.

"I have walked this far, I can walk the short distance to the clinic," Ezra stated emphatically, trying to break free from Nathan’s grasp.

"Ezra, you’ve got friends to help you now," Josiah reasoned as they pulled him to his feet.

"I had a friend to help me then," Ezra said quietly, looking over at Vin who was struggling to free himself from Chris’s and Buck’s hands.

"Let go o’ me!" Vin growled looking ahead, down the street.

Chris was getting exasperated, and tired. His shoulder was burning and all he wanted to do right about then was shoot an ornery Texan and lie down. "Vin calm down...Nathan, he’s delirious," he called out.

"I am not, I jus’ don’t need ya man handlin’ me, I got somethin’ I gotta do," Vin answered, wondering why his words sounded slurred.

Nathan started to walk over, leaving Ezra in Josiah’s and JD’s grasp. He could see the blood on the bandage on Vin’s leg and the flush in the tracker’s cheeks. He cast his eyes quickly over Vin’s body as he approached. Blood caked his head and bruises covered his face and Vin’s hunched position told the healer that he probably had rib injuries too. Nathan’s heart gave a small leap of dread, he hated to see his friends hurt, and he knew that his two latest patients had been through an awful ordeal.

Vin continued to struggle and turned angry eyes on Nathan as he reached them. "Get near me, and I’ll shoot ya."

"Vin, I wanna take a look at ya," Nathan started.

"Later, got somethin’ t’ do."

With all of the energy Vin possessed he pushed the hands away from him and looked from one to the other of the startled men. "…somethin’ I need t’ do," he told them again softly, blinking to try and clear his vision.

"He has a promise to fulfil," Ezra said as JD and Josiah took a firmer hold on him to stop him from falling over.

Five puzzled faces turned to look at Ezra as he added. "Let him go." Each man was suddenly more curious to know what had happened to their two friends while they’d been missing, they’d obviously had quite an adventure, but now was not the time to ask.

They all turned back to look at Vin and watched as he limped and staggered slowly along the street, the crowd parting to let him through.

"Hell!" Chris exclaimed jogging to Vin’s aid as the tracker crumpled to his knees.

Nathan and Buck were right behind him and Vin raised his head and glared at each of them in turn. "Can’t ya jus’ let me be?" he pleaded.

Chris took hold of the tracker under his arm and guided him slowly to his feet. "I’ll take care of it," he told the other two men, who stood helplessly by. "You go with Ezra."

Nathan rocked backwards and forwards on his heels for a moment, desperately wanting…needing…to help his friend. He knew what he should really do was get the others to lift the tracker off his feet and carry him up to the clinic, but the look he saw in Vin’s eyes made him falter. The determination on the bruised face finally made him make up his mind. With a sigh he nodded to Chris and mouthed ‘Get ‘im t’ me soon as ya can.’ He took one last sweeping look over the tracker, deciding that he needed his head read to let Vin go off on a whim in his condition…but let him he would. "Let’s get Ez t’ the clinic afore he bleeds t’ death," he told JD and Josiah as he walked back towards them and Ezra.

Five men, two supporting Ezra and two walking behind, made their way along the street each glancing back at intervals, following Vin’s progress.

The crowd slowly dispersed.

"Let go o’ me, Larabee."

"You’re gonna fall over if I don’t help you, Vin," Chris replied, tightening his hold instead of loosening it. "What is this craziness anyhow? You got a death wish?"

Vin didn’t answer, but continued to make his way up the street.

"Vin, listen to me," Chris tried again. "You gotta go to the clinic, whatever this thing is that you gotta do, surely it can wait a while."

Vin stopped walking, and on shaky legs, turned flashing blue eyes on the blonde man. "Either help me t’ where I’m goin’ or let go." He growled, closing his eyes and swaying as a wave of dizziness descended on him, making him unwittingly grab Chris by his shirt for support.

Chris was dumbfounded. Had Vin lost his mind? It was obvious that the tracker had head injuries, but he seemed to know what he was doing, however foolish it was. "…stubborn, bounty totin’ Texan," Chris said finally, meeting the hard blue stare head on when the tracker’s eyes opened.

"Better’n bein’ a growlin’, advice throwin’ cowboy." Vin growled back, before turning and starting up the street once more.

Chris smiled, despite himself. Boy, he’d missed this sorry assed Texan and his wise cracks.

The two men continued slowly along the street. Vin holding tight to Chris’s arm and Chris, in turn holding tightly to Vin, despite the pain that it was causing in his injured shoulder. They stopped as they reached the step leading onto the boardwalk, and Vin looked at it despairingly.

"Wonderin’ how you’re gonna get up there?" Chris asked.

"Taken t’ readin’ minds now, Larabee?" Vin replied, making a half hearted effort at a joke.

"Thought I already did that."

Vin turned his head slowly until the two men’s eyes locked. ‘Guess ya do.’ The tracker replied with a look.

‘No guessin’ about it.’ Chris’s eyes answered.

"Where we goin?" Chris finally asked aloud as he helped the tracker to negotiate the step.

"We’re here," Vin answered, stopping suddenly.

Chris frowned in puzzlement when he realised they were standing outside the bathhouse.

"You’re gonna take a bath?" he asked, his voice getting higher at the end of the question.

"What’s wrong with that?" Vin asked defensively.

"Nothin’," Chris shrugged. "Just a strange time to be havin’ a bath." He turned a serious expression to the tracker. "Vin, you should be in the clinic, not on some pilgrimage to the bathhouse."

Vin raised himself up in height as much as his sore body would allow. "Either help me in there, or let go o’ me," he said determinedly, putting his hand against the wall to steady himself.

"Alright, don’t lose your britches. Let’s go to the bathhouse."

"Ezra already did that," Vin said softly with the hint of a smile on his bruised face.

Chris looked at Vin curiously after the strange comment but said nothing. He reached out and pushed the door open, leading Vin through into the cool interior.

Ling Ho was at the desk and raised startled eyebrows as he took in the sight before him. Vin was leaning heavily against Chris now, looking to all the world as though he had fought a hundred buffalo and helped the cavalry out too...and it wasn’t clear whether he’d won.

"Mr Vin…Mr Chris," he said, shuffling out from behind the desk.

"Ling, can you get a bath ready for Vin here, not too hot," Chris instructed.

"Sure thing, Mr Larabee," the Chinese man answered, running around the back of the room and through a door.

Vin sighed heavily, and leaned further into Chris. His breathing was rugged and Chris could feel the heat of fever coming from the tracker’s body.

"C’mon pard, lets find you a chair," Chris whispered; leading the Texan over to a bath and helping him sink into a seat.

Vin’s sigh of relief almost brought tears to Chris’s eyes. He couldn’t begin to know the pain Vin was suffering, but here he was, waiting to take a bath. He’d met all sorts of people on his travels, but never had he met anyone like Vin Tanner.

"I’m alright now, Chris," Vin breathed. "Ya can go, yer hurt too. Don’t think I didn’t notice the sling…hard t’ miss."

"You mind your business, I’ll mind mine, Tanner," Chris replied.

Both men looked up as Ling Ho reappeared with a bucket, followed by two helpers.

"Not long…will soon have a nice bath for you Mr Vin," he informed the tracker, who smiled gently and watched as two more buckets of water were added to the first in the bath.

Vin attempted to reach down and pull off his boots, but hissed in pain before he’d moved six inches. He sat back up slowly, and took a few shallow breaths to ready himself for a second attempt.

"Does it say anything in your sorry assed Texan rulebook that a friend can’t help you off with your boots?" Chris asked, not being able to stand to watch his friend in so much discomfort.

Vin looked up at Chris and sighed softly. "Reckon not," he rasped. "But, don’t see as how yer gonna be much help with only one arm y’ can use."

"You underestimate the Larabee power," Chris replied with a smile and then concentrated on the task at hand.

He slowly got to his knees and grabbed Vin’s boot around the heel with his hand, making sure he had a firm grasp, and began to pull. He could feel Vin pulling his leg the other way and hated hearing the gasps of pain that the tracker couldn’t hold back. With a final almighty tug the boot slid from Vin’s foot sending Chris sailing backwards and landing on his back, the boot still held tightly in his hand. He held back a groan, but flinched at the pain it caused in his injured shoulder. But with determination he rolled himself upright and back onto his knees, in readiness to pull off his friend’s other boot. He and Vin were both dreading this, as it was the foot that was attached to Vin’s injured leg.

"The bath is ready Mr Vin." Ling Ho informed the tracker. He was aware of the struggle the two men were having and his eyes took in the latest situation quickly.

"I can help you yes?" he asked, kneeling beside Chris before either of them replied.

Vin and Chris looked at one another. Both were proud men, and would normally rather handle a challenge on their own. But neither of them were stupid, and they knew that Ling Ho’s offer of help was a God send.

The two peacekeepers nodded in unison and Ling Ho and Chris took a firm hold of Vin’s boot, while the tracker prepared himself to pull in the opposite direction.

Chris raised his eyes to meet Vin’s. "Ready?" he asked.

"As I’ll ever be," Vin answered.

The three men began pulling, two one way and one the other, and soon the boot began to slide off. Vin let out a loud pain filled groan as the boot finally slid off and Ling Ho caught Chris before he toppled backwards again.

Chris was quickly at Vin’s side. The tracker had his head bent and was taking in small gasps of air. He lifted his head and looked at Chris through two water-filled blue eyes.

"Thanks," he choked out, and nodded to Ling Ho as the man quietly told them he was going back to the front desk.

Vin pushed himself determinedly to his feet, favouring his injured thigh as he attempted to remove his jacket. Clenching his teeth tight, he tried to shrug out of the damp garment. He grimaced when every muscle and bone above his waistline screamed at him to stop.

His head snapped around when he felt the jacket being eased carefully from his shoulders, and his gaze was met by two worried green eyes.

"Thanks." His voice was hoarse and tight with pain. "…can manage now."

He slowly pulled the braces from his shoulders and undid his gunbelt, fully aware of the watching eyes of his friend.

Dropping the gunbelt next to the bathtub, within easy reach, he went to pull off his pants, letting out a groan at the pain it caused. Sweat covered his fevered face and he tried once more as he sensed movement beside him.

"Vin, you gonna let me help?" The emerald gaze was on the ugly red wound, visible through the tear in Vin’s drawers that came into view as the tracker’s pants slid to his ankles. Chris knew he should be dragging the stubborn Texan to the clinic, but realised that the man before him had a mission he was bent on completing.

"…told ya…I can manage." Vin’s eyes looked defiant and Chris sighed resignedly and shrugged.

Grabbing the curtain and pulling it towards him to hide him and the tub, Vin looked up at his hovering companion. "Come past the drape, I’ll shoot ya."

Chris snorted. "You couldn’t lift your gun." He strained his neck as the curtain was pulled between them, cutting off his view. His lips twitched at the mumbled curses he could hear from the other man.

The gunslinger sighed again, dropping into a chair and wincing as he rubbed gingerly at his shoulder. He felt hot, and knew it would be a while yet before he’d combated his own injury.

"What ya doin’?" Vin was easing out of his shirt as he asked the question. His eyes raked over the multitude of colours that arrayed his torso. Different shades of blue and yellow bruises adorned his upper body, looking to him like one of the pale paintings he’d seen hanging in the hotel. He chuckled at his own thoughts; comparing himself to a painting…he must be sick.

"Was about to ask you the same thing," Chris responded. A smile tugged at his lips, this time at the craziness of the situation. He’d been worrying himself sick about Vin, and here was the scruffy, stubborn, ornery Texan taking a damn bath.

Vin didn’t answer straight away, but kept a wary eye on the shadow on the other side of the curtain. He cried out in pain when he pulled his drawers away from the wound in his leg and he saw the shadow move.

"Stay that side, Larabee." The growled warning was loaded with pain as he held onto the tub until the stars stopped flashing in front of his eyes. The sweat was dripping down his face now, from exertion and fever.

Chris settled again reluctantly, his instincts screaming at him to throw aside the curtain and shake some sense into his sick friend. "If I hear you thump to the ground, can I come past then, so’s I can pick your sorry ass up off the floor?"

Vin chuckled as awareness returned; although the contents of his small corner had gone a little blurry again. That damn head injury…or was it two? He couldn’t remember anymore. "Ain’t likely t’ happen."

Chris heard the water rippling as Vin climbed carefully into the tub.

"Ya can go now, if ya got a mind to."

The blond winced at Vin’s agony filled words, he would never fully understand the man on the other side of the curtain. He was his best friend, but sometimes the things that drove him stumped Larabee completely, seeming to have no logic. But still, he was his friend, and although he might not understand some of the things Vin did, he somehow knew that they were things that had to be done. He placed a hand over his sling, slid down the chair and crossed his legs at the ankles. "Nope. I’m comfy right here."

Vin snorted and then groaned, resting his head against the back of the tub. He could feel Chris’s tension; sensed it every time the blond wanted to drag the curtain back and help him. It felt good to have someone looking out for him, but it felt confining too. He wasn’t used to having someone hovering and fussing…but he reckoned he was gonna have to learn to adjust.

Larabee’s quizzical gaze rested on the outline of the shaggy head through the curtain. There was a question he couldn’t hold back any longer. "What’s the bath all about, Vin?"

He heard a sigh, and then the rippling sound of water as the Texan moved in the tub.

"Ain’t it enough that I’m dirty?" The voice was tired.


Vin shot Chris’s shadow an impatient look. "…man promises himself somethin’, he keeps that promise. ‘Cause he’s the only one’s gonna," the tracker sighed contentedly as the soothing water began to ease the ache in his bones. The only discomfort he felt right then was the burning in his leg.

Chris frowned and cocked an eyebrow. "That make sense?"

Vin let out a low breath. "I mean, if I can’t trust m’self to keep a promise, how can I ‘spect someone else to?"

"So, you promised yourself a bath when you got back?" Chris was wondering if Vin’s head injuries were even more serious than they looked.

"Told m’self, when I got back, was gonna have me a bath…kept me goin’."

Larabee heard the tremor in Vin’s voice. He’d seen his friend’s leg wound, and could only imagine what other injuries the Texan carried. He wondered, not for the first time, how he and Ezra had made it back. He shook his head again. He imagined Vin stumbling along with Ezra, with a picture of the bathhouse in his head, and the determined look of the trackers’s face. Hell, who was he to ridicule the fact that his best friend was taking a bath after being missing, stabbed and obviously beaten. If that’s what he wanted, then so be it.

"Go check on Ezra."

Vin’s tired voice brought Chris out of his pondering. "Ezra’s in good hands, he’s okay. I wanna make sure you are."

"Larabee, yer a stubborn, tight britched, cuss."

The gunslinger heard an angry splash. "Look who’s talkin’, Tanner." He grinned. For a few moments, all that could be heard was the sound of water moving as Vin shifted in the tub.

"What you gonna do after your bath?" Chris asked finally.

"Reckon I’ll go on up t’ Nathan. M’ leg hurts a mite." Vin’s eyes closed and the room spun around again. Cupping his hands, he splashed water over his face.

"No kidding," Chris swallowed, thinking of the angry red wound. Heck, the fact that Tanner was still conscious, let alone lucid was somewhere near a miracle. The blond’s eyes suddenly grew wide, he hadn’t heard any movement for a while.

"Vin!" he called loudly, reaching for the curtain. He closed his eyes tight and clenched his teeth as pain ripped through his shoulder.

Loud noises and splashing water filled the air along with Texan curses that threatened to turn the air blue. "Geez, Larabee…was sleepin’."

Gulping hard, Chris hissed out his relief and settled back into the chair with a sigh. "Nathan isn’t too happy about you wanderin’ off." His voice was strained, the throbbing in his shoulder making his stomach churn.

"I wish he’d leave us t’ tend t’ our own bruises." The tracker's eyes were fixed on the shadow of his friend, his keen ears not missing the pain in Chris’s voice.

Larabee rolled his eyes, thankful that his injury had settled again. "Looks like more than bruises to me, Vin." His voice was gentle. "Anyway, you said you were going to see him."

"Yeah, an’ when I’m ready I will," the stubborn voice returned. "Hope Ez is doin’ okay."

The worry in Vin’s voice made Chris sigh. "Yeah, seems like you two had quite an adventure out there." He tried not to make the comment sound searching.

"That’s one word fer it…weren’t no bed o’ roses that’s fer sure."

"They all dead?" Chris braced himself.

"Who?" The sharpshooter’s voice was weary again.

"The gang."

"Not all of ‘em." Vin yawned, and ran his fingers across his hot forehead.

"You shoot any?" It was like pulling teeth.

"Only thing I shot was a horse."

The blond’s brows rose again. "Care to explain that?" He was beginning to think Vin was delirious.

"Not now Chris, later alright? ‘M tired ‘n hurtin’." The Texan covered his face with his hands. Would his head ever stop thumping?

"How many left?" Chris had to ask, this was too important to leave.

"Left?" The tracker was almost asleep.

Larabee ran fingers through his hair impatiently. "The gang…how many are left?"

"Three, I think…not sure what happened after we left." The Texan voice was slurred.

Chris frowned. "Left? Don’t you mean escaped?"

"Well, we kinda left." Vin nodded as he agreed with himself. "Jake let us go."


Vin growled. "Ya got more questions than a judge. It’s a long story, I ain’t tellin’ it now. Jus’ need peace, an’ I ain’t gettin’ it with ya here."

Chris persisted. "They could come here, if they’re still alive."

"They were headin’ this way."

"What?" Chris sat up straight. "…Hell…" He grimaced and clutched his arm. "Anything else you care to share with me?" he asked through gritted teeth.

"Yeah, yer too ornery…an’ when yer hurt yer even worse." Vin was half asleep, but a small frown was on his face, from the pain he could hear in his friends voice.

"One of these days, Vin, so help me…"

The dosing sharpshooter waved a hand in the air. "Yeah, heard it all b’fore, yer all mouth n’ tight trousers." The water was getting cool and he shivered. Figuring it was time to get out of the bath he opened an eye and looked at his soiled clothing on the floor.


The tired query made the blond bite back the urge to continue with his questions. "Yeah, Vin?"

"Reckon ya could leave me t’ get out o’ the bath private, an’ get some fresh clothes from m’ wagon?"

"Think I can handle that, can you manage?"

"Sure I can…made it this far didn’t I?" He rubbed his eyes and didn’t see Chris peeking around the curtain.

The blond needed to assure himself Vin could be left for a while. He took a deep breath and shuddered at the bruising he saw on Vin’s face and body.

The Texan opened an eye and, seeing Chris, raised an eyebrow. "Ya still here, Larabee? The water’s getting’ a mite cold."

"I’m goin’. Just call for Ling Ho if you get in trouble while I’m gone."

Vin nodded, too exhausted now to argue as he watched the head disappear. Slowly, he grabbed the sides of the tub, and prepared for the agony that was imminent when he climbed out.

* * * * * * *

Chris paused at the door, and had to use all of his will power not to go running to his friend’s aid when he heard the grunts and groans of pain coming from behind the curtain.

"Stubborn Texan cuss…" he hissed as he shut off any further sounds and left the bathhouse.

He walked slowly to Vin’s wagon, fighting off the dizziness he was starting to experience. At one point he faltered in his steps and closed his eyes as his body swayed slightly. When the spell passed, he continued across the street, not aware of the two watchful blue eyes following his progress. His back stiffened and he looked around sensing something, but put it down to his slight fever.

Reaching the wagon he climbed in and soon found some clean clothes for the Texan. Picking up a sheet, he tore a long strip off so Vin had something to tie around his leg wound. He chuckled, thinking of the Tanner tongue lashing he would get when Vin saw he’d destroyed his linen. A pained frown replaced the smile as the motion of tearing the sheet sent a strong ripple of agony through his injured arm.

"…not now, Larabee…" he told himself through clenched teeth. "…no time…" all the same, he waited for the pain to subside before he moved.

Climbing down from the wagon, he spun around, and went for his gun as he sensed someone there. His head swam and he reached out and gripped the side of Vin’s wagon until he felt steady.


Two concerned blue eyes looked at him as their owner helped him to a sitting position. "You need rest," the rogue stated. "I can take those to Vin." He reached over to take the clothes from the blond.

"No!" Chris cradled the bundle against his chest. "I got it, he’s feelin’ sensitive."

Buck nodded, understanding Vin’s privacy. "You gotta rest though, and Vin should be in the clinic."

"Don’t you think I know that?" The Larabee glare lanced into Buck’s face.

"I’m sorry." The dark head dipped. "Everythin’s just crazy."

Chris’s gaze softened. "I know…" he looked toward the clinic. "How’s Ezra?"

An amused smile spread across Buck’s face. "Cussin’, Ezra style, but he’s got an infected wound, he was shot, but the bullet wasn’t in there."

Chris nodded, and Buck’s face turned sombre again.

"How’s Vin?"

The gunslinger shrugged. "Not good, but he’s as stubborn as the horse he rides."

Buck chuckled. "Need some help with him?"

"No thanks, think it’s best if I handle it."

Buck nodded and squeezed Chris’s uninjured shoulder. "I’ll check on him later." He waved a finger at Chris. "Get some rest, ok?"

"I will when I can." The blond watched the dark head turn away. A wicked smile touched the corners of his mouth, as he tucked Vin’s clothes under his slinged arm.

"…and Buck…"

The ladies' man turned back, smiling, and wasn’t prepared for the right hook that connected hard with his jaw. He looked up from his position on the ground, his eyes quizzical as they came into contact with the blond standing over him.

Two green eyes twinkled. "I owed you that…don’t ever hit me again." Not waiting for an answer, Chris turned and headed for the bathhouse.

Before the rogue knew where he was, JD was helping him to his feet.

"Buck? What did Chris do that for?" The younger man’s eyes were wide.

The ladies' man rubbed his jaw and smiled. "Just a payback between friends." He grinned wide at the youth. "He loves me!" Putting an arm around JD’s shoulders he steered the puzzled sheriff towards the saloon. "Did I ever tell ya about the time when Miss Davina…"

JD rolled his eyes as the pair went through the batwing doors.

* * * * * * *

When Chris entered the bathhouse, Vin was sitting in the chair with a towel wrapped around his waist. His head was bowed and to anyone around, he appeared to be asleep. The blond closed the door as gently as he could and crept forward towards his friend.

"Lucky I can figure out that slithery walk o’ yers, Larabee, or y’d be full o’ lead about now."

Chris quickened his pace, a grin plastered on his handsome face, despite his concern over Vin’s slurred speech. "Got your clothes, you ungrateful sleep in a wagon Texan."

"Much obliged." The sharpshooter started to stand but fell back into the chair again.

Standing over him, Chris’s worried green gaze raked over the Texan’s body. "Let me help you, okay?"

The voice was gentle and Vin felt an overwhelming desire to cry. Silently cursing his weakness, he turned two squinting blue eyes up to meet his friend’s gaze.

He swallowed and grew angry at himself when moisture filled his eyes. He was finally past the point where he could function on his own and knew he had to admit defeat.

Seeing Vin’s head dip once Chris let out a breath of relief as he knelt in front of the tracker and took the makeshift bandage from the bundle.

Vin looked at him again and his eyes stopped at the sling. "Y’ were shot?"

"Yeah." Chris tried to control his rolling stomach as he tied the cloth around the sharpshooter’s wound. The Texan’s skin was warm to the touch, and worry returned tenfold.


"With a gun." Chris’s teasing smile was met by two twinkling blue eyes.

"I’d think o’ somethin’ t’ say t’ that if m’ head didn’t hurt so darn much."

Chris turned and retrieved the clean drawers from the pile, saying nothing. He knew Vin had to be really hurting to even mention he was in pain. He concentrated on helping Vin, pushing aside anything else.

"Nathan’s gonna be mad ya took yer arm out o’ that sling."

Chris faltered in his movements and looked up at his friend. "He’s gonna be madder at you."

Vin nodded slowly, but a hiss of pain cut off anything he was about to say as sweat beaded on his face.



Chris swallowed and carefully put each of the Texan’s feet into the drawers. Pulling them up as far as he could he stopped and looked up to meet Vin’s eyes.

Grunting, the tracker stood and took one side of the garment while Chris took the other, both pulling the drawers over the slim hips.

The Texan pulled the towel away from his body and Chris once again tried not to let his eyes be drawn to the mottled bruises covering the sharpshooter.

"Going to see Nathan now?"

"When I’m dressed…don’t want this t’ kill me, fought too long and too hard t’ die now."

Chris nodded, happy in the knowledge that he wouldn’t have to give Vin another head wound to get him to the clinic.

The process of dressing the Texan took longer than normal, and Ling Ho watched from his desk. He often wondered at the friendship of these two men, and wished that he had what they shared. It made him gulp at the care that was evident, and only could nod as the two bid him farewell as they leaned on each other and left the bathhouse.

* * * * * * *

Nathan raised his head as the clinic door opened and, realising who it was, raced over to help the struggling men. Grabbing Vin on the other side to Chris, he led them to a cot and eased the tracker until he was sitting.

"Came t’ see how…Ez was…doin’," Vin gasped, blinking the sweat from his eyes.

The healer looked hard at the Texan and shared a look with Chris who’d seated himself in the chair nearby. "Where ya been?"

"The Bathhouse," Chris answered, raising his brows. "Vin wanted to take a bath."

The healer looked puzzled for a moment but decided not to ask. He didn’t understand half of the things his friends did, and had given up trying to long ago. Nathan’s soft brown eyes turned back to Vin. "Will ya let me look at ya while yer here?" he knew he had to tread carefully with the injured man.

"’m leg’s clean…’m fine," Vin rasped, feeling claustrophobic at the thought of spending time in the clinic.

"Just let me look, it won’t take long." The healer could see the fever in the bright blue eyes and wanted to scream at him to lie down.

Vin looked at Nathan, knowing he could no longer deny the fact that he needed help. He just hated coming out and saying it. Shrugging, he nodded his head. He could easily have given in to his tiredness, but he had to fight it. Let Nathan do his mother hen bit and then he could go and rest in his wagon. He glanced over at Ezra, who was asleep. He squinted to try and get a clear picture from his stinging eyes.

"Wanna lay down, Vin?"

The tracker turned dazed blue eyes to the voice of the healer. "Reckon I can sit." Somehow, Nathan had got his jacket off and his braces were dangling from his waist. His eyes caught sight of the red stain on his thigh. "Ah hell, these’r clean," he groaned.

Nathan sighed, and gently eased Vin back onto the pillows, carefully lifting his legs onto the bed.

Chris watched, too tired to move, but needing to be there. He blinked as his friend’s boots were dropped to the floor with a thud and green eyes followed the path of tan pants, as they were eased from the slight frame.

Nathan stilled his movements as Vin released a pain filled groan and gripped the healer's arm tight.

"I’m sorry, Vin."

"I jus’ got…dressed, now yer takin’ it…off…again."

Chris and Nathan shared a smile and the healer motioned to a bowl with a nod of his head. The gunslinger nodded and soon had a cool cloth on Vin’s forehead.

Peeling off the bandage Nathan eyed the leg wound. "At least the bath ya took cleaned this a little bit," he observed, reaching for a cloth and some carbolic.

Vin looked up at the healer with hooded eyes. "Yeah, Jake cleaned it up some too."

The tracker suddenly gripped either side of the blankets and hissed as a raw pain ran up and down his leg. "…he didn’t hurt s’damn much either," he ground out.

The Texan relaxed into the soft folds of the bed and let the sounds of the clinic fade into the background. He fought to keep awake, trying to figure out what was gnawing at the back of his fuzzy mind. He knew there was a question he should be asking; knew there was something he wanted to know; but his weary body won before he could recall, and finally, his eyelids fluttered and closed.

Chris blew out air in a sigh of relief. He thought his friend would never give up. He rubbed tentatively at his sore shoulder and leaned back in the chair, grimacing.

Nathan looked up from his task of cleaning the knife wound in Vin’s leg, and tutted, but before he could say anything Chris held up a hand.

"I don’t need to hear it right now, Nate. You can say ‘I told you so’ later…just tell me how he’s doin’."

The healer shook his head and sighed, exasperated with the blond, but at the same time, understanding how he felt.

"Don’t know how he was still walkin’, Chris."

The gunslinger chuffed out a laugh. "It’s that Tanner grit of his, I’ll be damned if I’ll ever understand it."

It was Nathan’s turn to chuff. "Me neither, but right now, I’m sure glad he’s got it…it’s what kept him alive I reckon."

"So, he’ll be okay?"

Nathan’s serious brown eyes looked into Chris’s green. "Lemme finish Chris, he’s totin’ a whole lot of hurt on his body…don’t wanna raise our hopes if there’s somethin’ lurkin’ I don’t know about yet. Only just started to check ‘im over."

Chris nodded, he knew his best friend was in good hands. His mind wouldn’t let him think that Vin may have life threatening injuries somewhere on his body, but as he watched Nathan carefully ease off Vin’s shirt his heart bounced against his chin. The sharpshooter’s body was adorned with bruises of every colour, in fact, he was one big bruise. He hadn’t realised when he’d caught a quick glance in the bathhouse.

He must have inhaled audibly because Nathan was talking to him again, trying to reassure him. "Chris, bruises always look bad, could be nothin’…"

The voice trailed off, even Nathan couldn’t give out too many guarantees.

"Nate…we can’t let anything happen to him…we can’t." the voice was soft, almost inaudible as Chris hung his head, feeling suddenly drained of all energy.

"If it’s in our power…we won’t." Nathan reached out a hand and placed it on Chris’s shoulder.

The blond turned pained green eyes to his dark skinned friend. "Then it’s gotta be in our power Nate…six just don’t work for me."


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