by JIN

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Part 2
Bright points of light wavered in front of his eyes, and it took him long minutes to realize they were stars. They looked odd, though – arranged in some sort of peculiar pattern that he couldn’t quite make out.

Vin would know. For a man without any schooling, Tanner somehow knew a little something about most of everything. And he especially knew about signs and skies and stars and such.

He knew his mind was wandering, but he couldn’t seem to pull it together. Maybe if he sat up . . . now that was a bad idea. The annoying ache in his shoulder exploded into a piercing, burning, excruciating pain that shot clear down his left side.

Chris gingerly lowered his body back to the ground and took a deep breath. Something had gone seriously wrong, and he’d damn well better figure it out quick. He turned his head just a little to the right.

Vin’s still body lay only a few feet from his own.

He was up then, ignoring the pain and the dizziness and the nausea that assaulted him. A quick flash of memory penetrated his foggy mind - Vin had been shot.

In the light of the full moon, Chris was able to see the blood that saturated Tanner’s hair and coated his face in a ghastly mask. But he was alive, that was the important thing – the only thing. Larabee was strangely sure of that without seeing a single sign of life from the injured man.

He’d be dead soon, though – they both would if he didn’t get a handle on the situation. Chris could tell by the blood pooling under the tracker’s head that he’d laid there awhile. Could tell by the blood that saturated his own shirt that both of them had been out for too long, bled for too long.

What time was it? He peered up at the sky once more, knowing it wouldn’t help him in the least. Vin would know, he supposed. Or at least he’d make something up that made it look like he knew. Chris often wondered just how many times Tanner had strung them all along with something he’d supposedly learned from his Indian friends.

Damn, he couldn’t stay focused. He needed to get to his horse and find the bandages Nathan had sent. He needed to find something else, too. You’d think he’d been the one shot in the head, the way his brain was addled.

When it hit him - when he realized, a cold fear clenched his gut. Luke! He stumbled on drunken legs and scanned the surrounding area, but the canopy of trees blocked the moonlight and threw long shadows on the ground. He tried to call out for the boy, his voice sounding like a dried-up rasp. It didn’t matter anyway. If Luke were able to answer, he’d have been there beside them. Either he was hurt, too, or gone. Please, please not dead, Chris prayed. He was just a boy – a boy who trusted the gunslinger to keep him safe.

Something pulled at the edges of his mind – there was something he should remember about all of this, but in the meantime, he and Vin were bleeding to death. He had to keep a clear head – take care of one problem at a time. He couldn’t search for the boy now; Tanner had to be the priority. The gunslinger had only just made it to his horse, when he slid limply to the ground. Vin’s bloody face briefly floated before him, but even the urgency to help his friend could not keep the darkness from taking him away once more.

It was dawn when Chris opened his eyes again, that same bloody face the first image that entered his mind. With a long, low moan, he pulled himself up into a sitting position, leaning heavily on his right arm. The pain and the dizziness nearly forced him back to the ground as he tried hard to focus his eyes. Glancing in the area where his friend had fallen, he noted despairingly that the tracker still had not moved.

He noted too, with much relief, that no other bloody bodies littered the campsite. Maybe Luke had gone for help? But as wonderful as that thought was, he knew it was not probable. Whoever attacked him and Vin, did it for a reason. And he had a terrible hunch that reason was Luke. Once again, the feeling that he should remember something tugged at his mind, but there was nothing to be done about it now. He had to get Vin to Nathan.

Using the trunk of a nearby tree for support, Chris pulled himself up onto his feet. It occurred to him then that it would be easier to ride his horse over to where his friend lay, than to attempt to carry the needed supplies with one arm. Throwing himself up onto the saddle with nothing close to his usual grace, he cried out as his injured arm impacted with the horn. The bullet must still be in there, as much as it hurt and as bad as he felt. Time was working against them, he thought wearily. He wouldn’t be much help to Vin for much longer.

Chris dismounted only slightly less clumsily, and knelt next to his best friend. Awkward with only one working arm, the blond attempted to wet a cloth and wipe his friend’s face. Vin looked awful. A long, deep gash scored the left side of his head, and Chris swallowed the fear that stuck fast in his throat. He wasn’t even going to think about the possibilities that went along with a head wound.

With a trembling hand, he tried to wrap a strip of cloth around the tracker’s wound, but he couldn’t seem to manage it without two hands. Biting his lip, he slowly and deliberately moved his left hand into a position to provide some leverage for Vin’s head, but even that small movement caused him to groan in agony.

The small sound must have triggered something in the tracker, because when Larabee found he could breathe again, he saw that Vin’s eyes were open.

"Vin? Can you hear me?"

Hear him maybe, but Chris doubted that Vin could see him. Tanner’s eyes were unfocused, and black where blue should have been. But if he could get the tracker aware enough to get up on the horse, that was all he’d ask for at this moment.

Vin groaned, and Chris could see that he felt as bad as he looked. Reaching for the canteen, he considered the best way to get some water down his friend without drowning the man. He couldn’t hold up Vin’s head and the canteen at the same time, and once more he cursed his useless arm.

It proved to be an unnecessary dilemma anyway, for the tracker suddenly rolled up onto his hands and knees and began to retch violently. Chris winced as he laid a hand on the man’s back, but he soon realized that Vin had no idea what was happening, or that he was even there. Choking and gasping, the injured man weakly leaned forward to rest his forehead on the ground. With uncoordinated, choppy movements, he brought his hands up and wrapped them tightly around his aching skull. Chris tried to stop the action, concerned that Vin would get the wound to bleeding again, and was rewarded with a swift blow to his injured shoulder.

Larabee cried out in pain, and rolled onto his side, cradling the hurt limb tightly against his body. He watched helplessly as Vin struggled to get up on his feet. Tanner stumbled and wavered for brief moments, his eyes darting about in panic and confusion, before he hit the ground again hard.

Vin lay still then, his glassy eyes open, as he mumbled incoherently, before the lids slid closed once more.

Chris groaned, "No, Vin. Don’t . . . don’t leave me . . . to do this alone." Whether he was speaking for the short term, or the long haul, even he wasn’t sure. He only knew that he couldn’t help Vin anymore than he could help himself.

They weren’t due back until late that evening – no one would even think to look for them until the next day. And no one knew where they were.

+ + + + + + +

Buck awoke with a start, the remnants of some unclear nightmare shrouding his normally effervescent nature. He’d slept alone last night – hadn’t been in the mood for company, though he couldn’t pinpoint why. He felt wrong somehow, and it wasn’t a feeling he was used to. Choosing to ignore it for the moment, he dressed quickly and headed over to the saloon for some breakfast.

He wasn’t surprised to find that JD, Josiah and Nathan had beaten him to the punch and were already nearly finished with their meal. Pulling up a chair, he sat down next to JD with an audible sigh.

"What’s the matter, Buck?" Dunne asked.

Buck raised an eyebrow, "Who said anything’s wrong?"

"No one. It’s just - you kinda look like something is."

"How so?" Buck wondered. How on earth could the kid have noticed he wasn’t feeling quite right when all he did was walk in the room and pull up a chair? Did he even look different?

"Might’ve been that long sigh you let out when you sat down, Buck," Josiah explained.

Oh, that definitely could have done it. Buck sighed again. "Ain’t exactly sure what’s wrong. Just got a . . . feelin’." Well damn, now he was sounding like Vin.

Before he could expound on that, Mrs. Potter came bustling through the bat wing doors, obviously upset.

"Gentlemen, have you seen Mr. Larabee this morning?"

The men exchanged glances, before Josiah answered, "No Ma’am, we haven’t. Is there a problem?"

The woman looked worriedly from man to man before finally settling on the preacher. "I’m afraid there could be. He never brought Luke home last night."

"Well now, I wouldn’t be too concerned, Ms. Potter. They were probably having such a good time, they decided to stay a bit longer," Sanchez said.

Shaking her head, the woman answered, "No. Luke has school today, and you know how Chris is about him missing his lessons."

Nathan added, "Besides that, Chris wouldn’t let Mrs. Potter worry over the boy – ain’t like him to do something like that."

"We’ll find him for you, Ma’am," JD offered with calm assurance. "Don’t worry."

Mrs. Potter leveled her gaze at the young man. So sure he was that they could not be broken – that wherever their leader was and whatever had happened would come out all right in the end. They had yet to be beaten, and the naivety of youth insisted this time would be no different.

But she knew differently – had lost her husband to this untamed land and she knew what could happen. She looked around the table at the other men then, seeing concern, but no actual worry in the eyes of the healer and the preacher. She turned last to Wilmington, expecting to find the usual optimism in his bright blue eyes, but seeing unease instead – and her heart skipped a beat.

She loved Luke, had seemed to bond with him from the moment she saw his face between the bars of the cell where he’d been dumped after shooting Vin. She’d grown fiercely protective of the boy, defending him from the insensitive or downright nasty comments of narrow-minded villagers. Everything had gone against him in his young life, and yet he had retained a goodness in his soul that touched her deeply. It was the same inherent goodness she’d seen in Vin, under similar circumstances, she was sure.

With a meaningful look at each of the men, the woman nodded and turned to leave. Nothing more needed to be said; for she knew these men would do all they could to bring back her boy.

Josiah leaned forward and peered through narrowed eyes at Wilmington. "You suppose this has anything to do with that feeling you’ve got?"

Buck nodded slowly, "I reckon it could have. How we gonna go about finding them? We got no idea where they went."

"Vin knows," JD spoke up.

"Only problem with that is, where’s Vin?" Nathan asked.

"Last I heard, he was heading out to Miss Nettie’s," JD supplied.

"All right, let’s get ready to ride then. JD, you wake up Ezra," Josiah instructed.

Dunne looked suddenly flustered as he jumped up and headed for the door. "Can’t," he called to the preacher. "Got some things I need to take care of before we go."

Buck chuckled, "Kid’s gettin’ smarter every day."

"You go get him then, Buck."

Wilmington stood and grinned as he answered, "Can’t. Got some things I need to take care of, too."

Josiah looked at the last man at the table.

"Don’t you even be looking at me, Josiah. I say we let him sleep. Man’s meaner than a grizzly in a hornets’ nest when you wake him up. Not to mention he’ll be grumbling and griping all the way there and back. No sir, I ain’t messing with him." Nathan pulled his hat on his head and left without looking back.

Josiah performed the dirty deed, but to his surprise, Ezra merely murmured a quick "All right," as he left his bed. In fact, the gambler was up and dressed and ready to ride before JD had returned from taking care of the "things" he’d referred to. Sanchez wasn’t really surprised, knowing as he did that Standish had a soft spot for the boy.

Saying the gambler had a soft spot for Luke was probably underestimating his feelings immensely. He enjoyed the lad’s company and, in many ways, he felt like he and the youth were kindred spirits. Both felt acutely a lack of acceptance and trust from various townsfolk, and even more disturbingly, from their friends at times. Whether real or imagined, that sense of not quite fitting in loomed large to them both.

In any case, he liked the boy, and he had felt oddly unsettled about this whole fishing trip. He’d even hinted to Vin that perhaps the tracker should reconsider accompanying the pair. He’d expected Tanner to roll his eyes and make a sarcastic comment or two, but the man had merely shaken his head and walked away. Ezra wondered how Vin was going to feel when he received the news that Larabee and Luke were overdue.

The five men were only an hour or so from town when they spotted a wagon heading towards them. JD was the first to recognize the slender form driving the team as Nettie Wells.

Nettie noted the approach of the men, and felt her heart lurch. For the five of them to leave town together, something must have happened. Never one to beat around the bush, she greeted them, "Morning, Boys. Somethin’ goin’ on I should know about?"

Buck spoke up. "We’re lookin’ for Vin, Miss Nettie. You seen him?"

The old woman cocked a brow at the men as she answered, "Day before yesterday. He was out fixing my coop. Why?" She knew it concerned her boy, knew it by the tight knot in her stomach and the racing of her heart.

"Chris and Luke aren’t back from their trip. We were hoping Vin could tell us exactly where they went," Josiah said.

Nettie put her head down a minute and sighed, before returning her gaze to the preacher. "Vin said he had a feelin’. Went to join ‘em that afternoon." At the crestfallen faces around her, she added, "He told me about where he was going, though. Guess he had a feelin’ about that, too."

The hope in that revelation was tempered with a sharp rise in apprehension. Two of their men were now late or missing, and bad "feelings" seemed to be making the rounds.

+ + + + + + +

They could never have found the place without Nettie’s directions. Although a long green pasture ran along one side of the small stream, the campsite itself was tucked back in a wooded area surrounded on three sides by stony hills and the nearly hidden waterfall.

When they first approached the area, the men immediately understood Vin’s attachment to the serene spot, and for a moment, they hoped they had been wrong. The temptation to stay an extra day here would be understandable, and how silly they would all appear when they rode up to "save" the trio.

But Buck still felt unnerved, and Ezra couldn’t seem to catch a breath, and so the men sped through the meadow, across the creek, and into the protected shelter of the trees and the hills.

And for long, agonizing moments, they remained mounted and unmoving as they viewed the scene before them.

The sounds of the scenic setting filled JD’s ears in an almost deafening crescendo. Birds chirped and fluttered, while squirrels or some other small creatures crackled the leaves below their tiny paws. The roar of the waterfall and the rushing water of the stream drowned out the thoughts that sought voice in his head. It was all so ridiculously incongruent, for in the midst of this boisterous jungle, Chris and Vin made no sound at all.

Josiah heard none of that, but saw everything. Saw the uneaten rabbit, still strung up on the spick over the long-dead fire. Saw Chris’s black, gently nibbling on nearby grass as if nothing were wrong. Saw the breath-taking beauty of the shade trees and the meandering stream and the rocky slopes. Saw how terribly it all contrasted with the bodies of his two friends lying unmoving on the hard earth.

Ezra saw what was not there. Two injured friends – not three. Nathan would save Chris and Vin, that was a given – but Luke was gone, and his two protectors were in no condition to find the missing boy. The gambler scanned the area, already looking for clues in the lad’s disappearance – already making the commitment to find him himself, by himself, if need be. When Larabee and Tanner regained their health, this would be one problem they need not be concerned with.

Buck’s entire body was numb, his senses dulled almost to the point of non-existence. Rooted to the saddle, he could not think or speak or move. Always his sense of humor and his eternal optimism had held him in good stead – had gotten him through the worst of times. But he had known something was wrong, no matter how hard he tried to deny it. The proof lay before him now, though strangely surreal, and he didn’t want to face it.

Nathan took in the wounded mens’ condition in a glance, oblivious to the beautiful surroundings, as well as to the others’ thoughts or feelings. He noted that blood saturated Chris’s left side, and a fine sheen of sweat covered his face. The blond was alive, but fevered. Vin lay still, a bandage half-wrapped around his head, his face almost gray in the early afternoon light. Too pale and too still, and Nathan held his breath and looked harder to see the shallow rise and fall of the tracker’s chest.

Something like pandemonium broke loose then as the spell lifted and every man sprang to action. Nathan, Josiah, and Buck went immediately to the sides of the fallen men, while Ezra went for water and JD began to build a fire. They’d been through this before, more times than seemed reasonable – even in their line of work, and they knew the drill.

"Looks like Chris tried to take care of Vin," Nathan observed from the bloody rags and attempted bandaging.

Buck nodded. "He’d have to be half-dead not to try." Which was pretty close to how his old friend appeared at that moment, Buck thought with a heavy heart.

Josiah had removed the sodden cloth from Vin’s head and winced. He glanced over to where Nathan was gingerly prodding Chris’s shoulder. "Looks pretty nasty, Nathan. And I’m guessing it’s been a day or more."

Nathan agreed, "Yeah, Chris has been toting this bullet for too long, judging by the fever and the looks of it. Just clean him up the best you can, Josiah. I’ve got to get this bullet out before we do anything else."

Although he tried to be gentle, Nathan’s administrations elicited a low groan from the injured leader. Chris found himself being pulled back from the dark place he’d slipped into by the stabbing pain in his shoulder. But weakness from blood loss and dehydration made it impossible to so much as open his eyes. Sensing he was no longer alone, he managed to wade through the confusion that clouded his mind just long enough to get the one message across that had kept him breathing for the last twenty-four hours. "Vin," he muttered in a soft hiss of air that said everything to the men who surrounded him.

"It’s all right, Chris – we got him. We’ll take care of him and you, too," Buck comforted as he put a hand on his friend’s uninjured shoulder.

JD peered uncertainly over Wilmington’s back as he stated, "Got the fire goin’, Nathan. Chris say anything about what happened to Luke?"

Three men turned to face the youth then, guilt crossing their features as they realized not a one of them had even thought of the boy.

"No sign of him?" Josiah questioned.

JD shook his head as Ezra came up behind him and added, "The lad is nowhere in sight."

"You two look around, see what you can find," Sanchez instructed. He added as the two men turned to leave, "Makes no sense. Who would shoot Chris and Vin and take off with a boy?"

"Maybe that’s not what happened at all," Buck said softly.

"What are you saying, Buck?"

Wilmington shrugged. "Maybe the kid’s not what we think he is."

Sanchez sighed as he continued to clean the dried blood off Vin’s face and hair. "You’re not saying Luke had something to do with this, are you?"

"Just saying maybe he ain’t so innocent after all. No one knew they were here. And hell, he shot Vin once before. How well do we really know him?"

Josiah was about to argue when Nathan spoke up. "Now’s not the time to talk about this. We’ve got work to do if we’re gonna save these men’s lives."

Perspective back in its proper place, all three men concentrated on the tasks at hand. Chris moaned softly, but to Nathan’s deep concern, did not move at all when Jackson retrieved the deeply imbedded bullet. Cleansing the festering wound with carbolic before wrapping it in a clean bandage; the healer winced at the tough gunman’s muted cries of pain. Sighing deeply, Nathan instructed Buck. "Get as much water in him as you can. And wet some cloths - try to get his fever down."

Without waiting for a response, Jackson moved to where Josiah now cradled Vin’s head on his lap.

"Anything?" he questioned the preacher.

"Not so much as a twitch."

Jackson nodded. Might not mean anything, he thought, head wounds being unpredictable at best. But he peeled open a lid and searched for a sign in the sky-blue eyes. Lifeless. The first thought that entered his head, and he shook it away visibly.

"You think we should stitch it?" Josiah asked.

Nathan shook his head again. "Not sure. It ain’t bleeding anymore – just seeping some. Let’s clean it up good and see what happens."

See what happens? Josiah didn’t like the sound of that at all. He’d have preferred a little more confidence on Nathan’s part. Something along the lines of, "We’ll take care of this and do that, and then they’ll both be just fine." He took a long look at Vin’s slack features. It hadn’t been so long that they’d almost lost him. It had taken months for the tracker to regain his health, and now this.

"Think maybe they were shot up there?" Josiah questioned with a tilt of his head towards the slope.

Nathan glanced up and nodded. "Been thinking that myself. Both Vin and Chris are scratched up some. Nothing broken, though." At least they had that going for them, Jackson thought.

"Guess it doesn’t matter where it happened," Josiah concluded.

"Could matter a whole lot," Buck put in, still trying to sort through what they’d found – and who they hadn’t. There was a mystery here, and it was apparent neither Chris nor Vin would be able to sort it out for them anytime soon.

Sanchez changed the subject. "Let’s get busy and make a travois – or two. I’m assuming you’ll want to get them back to town, Nathan?"

"Sooner the better," the dark-skinned man answered.

Buck and Josiah had nearly finished the project, when JD and Ezra rode up, with Peso in tow.

"Found Vin’s horse," JD said, pointing out the obvious.

"Unfortunately, that is all we found," Ezra added as he climbed down off his horse.

Josiah and Buck stood and joined the two men.

"No sign of the boy at all?" Josiah asked.

"Not a trace. We were unable to find a trail of any kind," Ezra stated disgustedly. "I am doubtful that even Vin’s considerable skill could discern a path on these rocky slopes."

"That kid knows how to hide – he’s been doing it his whole life," Buck spoke up.

"Excuse me? What are you implying, Buck?" the gambler was clearly upset by the rogue’s remark.

Josiah said evenly, "Buck thinks Luke may be involved in this mess."

"Of course he is ‘involved’! Someone has obviously absconded with him!"

Buck looked away. He didn’t want to believe what he was thinking – but ever since they’d come upon their injured friends, one image kept flashing in his mind: Luke shooting Vin in the saloon.

"I keep seeing . . . I keep thinking about what happened before," the rogue tried to explain.

"Things were different then, Buck. A lot has changed," Josiah reasoned.

Wilmington looked at Sanchez through narrowed eyes. "You weren’t there. You didn’t see that boy put a bullet right through Vin without batting an eyelash. Vin didn’t even draw. I’m sorry, but I can’t forget that."

"Luke would sooner put a bullet through his own head than Vin’s," Ezra said. "And I was there." Spoken sharply and succinctly and totally unlike Ezra, so that all the men knew he was angry without needing to see it in his eyes.

"You all can argue about this all you want – but I’m goin’ after whoever shot Chris and Vin, and hopefully I’ll find Luke while I’m at it." JD finally weighed in with a defiant look at his fellow regulators.

"I shall accompany you," Ezra declared as he climbed back into the saddle. He avoided the others’ eyes, resting his gaze on his fallen partners instead. "I trust you will see that our friends survive the trip home, Nathan?"

Jackson looked up at the gambler and nodded, "I’ll do my best, Ezra. Just bring us back some good news – and watch your back."

Buck leaned up and grabbed the reins to Ezra’s horse. Holding the con man’s gaze, he said in a quiet voice, "I want to be wrong here, Ezra. I know how much store Chris and Vin set in that boy – and you, too. I want to be wrong."

"Yes well, the unfortunate side of that equation is that if you are wrong – which I have no doubt that you are – then young Luke is in a great deal of trouble."

Buck nodded before turning to look affectionately at JD. "Stay out of trouble, Kid."

JD swallowed, "I will, Buck. Just don’t let . . . just make sure Chris and Vin are all right."

Nathan stayed quiet throughout the conversation, his hands full with the injured men. But he had to admit, one way or another, the boy was involved – and the end result left the healer patching up Vin again. And this time, it was Chris, too. Both men looked bad, and Jackson wondered sadly if the boy would be the death of one of his friends yet.

+ + + + + + +

Buck put his head in hands and groaned when he heard the light rapping on the door. He knew who it was, knew what she wanted, and knew he’d have to turn her away empty handed once again.

With a desperate look at the man in the bed, he whispered, "Come on, Chris, we need some answers here."

Larabee had been in and out of a fever-induced haze for three days now. Rambling incoherently, with the exception of a few recognizable words and names, the gunman had been unable to shed any light at all on the events that took place at the stream.

Vin had been even less help. Though he’d awakened several times, he had been violently sick, in severe pain, and hopelessly confused. It was heartbreaking to see, and Buck was almost glad that Chris was too sick to realize how his best friend was suffering.

The tapping continued, and Buck moved more quickly to open the door and step out onto the landing. Since the slightest sound or light caused Vin to moan and thrash about restlessly, they had been careful to keep the sick room dark and quiet.

He could hardly meet her eyes as he mumbled, "I’m sorry, Mrs. Potter. They haven’t been able to tell us anything yet."

Her hope died a little more each day, Buck could see it in her sad eyes, and it left him feeling even more frustrated and helpless. "Nothing?" she questioned. "It’s been three days; surely they are able to say something by now?"

Buck shook his head, "I’m sorry . . . I’m sorry."

Nathan approached the stairs to the clinic about then. When he saw who Buck was talking with, he nearly turned the other way. He didn’t particularly want to face the woman, either. It was hard enough dealing with Buck’s constant questions about the fate of their two friends.

Chris just wasn’t turning around the way he’d hoped, and the healer knew the longer the fever went on, the weaker the gunman became. And Vin was just pitiful. They’d had to stop on the way back and stitch his head after all, the jostling re-opening the wound and spilling blood he couldn’t afford to lose. Josiah cut back the younger man’s long hair to make it easier for Nathan, and now the black stitches etched an ugly dark line across the side of his head.

To make a bad a situation worse, both men were out of their heads; Chris in the grips of delirium from the infection that ravaged his body, and Vin so confused that nothing the men said or did comforted him. To be so lost had to be disconcerting, and left the younger man in a state of near panic. Jackson believed that part of the problem was that each man needed the other. There was no doubt the two shared a close bond – and it surely would be helpful if one came out of this long enough to grab a hold of the other.

Slowly making his way up the wooden stairs, he cringed when he heard Mrs. Potter ask, "Can I speak to them? Let me try." She turned as Nathan finally hit the landing and turned her pleading eyes his way.

Buck looked to him with equal longing, hoping for a quick escape, no doubt. It was hard on the rogue; he couldn’t stand to see a woman hurt in any way. Add to that the lanky man’s worry for his friends, and Wilmington was fit to be tied about now.

To everyone’s surprise – including his own, Nathan responded, "Don’t see that it would hurt." He didn’t see that it would help, either, but maybe the woman would finally understand what they were up against.

The three entered the dark room, their eyes quickly adjusting to the dim light. Mrs. Potter gasped softly, but quickly composed herself, when she saw the state of the two men.

Vin moaned weakly when the ray of light from the open door briefly hit his face. The pain that had pounded his head constantly exploded into something hot and horrible and hopeless. It never went away, just like the shadowy figures that hovered around him in a swirl of whispers and colors that made no sense at all. Squeezing his eyes shut tight, he made a disjointed effort to raise his hands up to his aching head. Someone stopped him, hands gently pinning his arms to his side, and he fought it for a minute, before giving in to the blackness once more.

Mrs. Potter moved to Vin’s side when she heard the slight sound, and smiled when she saw his eyes were open. Her smile vanished, however, when she saw the emptiness and pain there. So much like Luke’s, those impossibly blue windows to the soul - but she could see he was lost. Though he lay within plain sight, he was as lost as the boy she desperately sought.

Nathan watched as Buck tried to quiet Vin, and moved on to check the gunslinger. Laying a hand on the sick man’s forehead, he was relieved to find his skin a bit cooler than the last time he’d checked. With a soft voice, he implored, "Open them eyes, Chris. We need to talk with you."

Larabee heard the plea, and tried his best to comply. To his dismay, someone met his need before he even realized he had one, as cool water approached his dry lips. Swallowing the liquid with a satisfied sigh, he did open his eyes and manage to nod his thanks to Nathan, before sliding back into darkness.

"Now hold on here, Chris. Stay with me."

With a groan, the blond pulled himself back, wondering what could be so important that he couldn’t rest for a spell. And then, with the clarity of a bright summer day, he remembered.

"Vin!" he gasped as he tried to pull himself up.

Both Buck and Nathan rushed to push him back on the mattress with firm hands.

"He’s right here. Nathan’s takin’ good care of him."

Chris fully opened his eyes then and took a good, hard look at Buck. Deciding his old friend was telling the truth, he relaxed with a sigh. But Nathan wasn’t ready to let him rest just yet.

"Chris, we need to know what happened to you and Vin. Do you know where Luke is?"

Confused now, the gunman let his eyes drift slowly around the room, his gaze finally resting on the distraught woman standing at the foot of the bed. Dear God, they hadn’t found Luke! How long had it been? He and Vin had laid there for at least a day. He remembered trying to take care of the tracker – waking up for brief periods and forcing water down the man’s throat, only to watch him throw it back up. But he knew nothing after that; couldn’t remember being found or brought back to town.

He turned to Buck, "How long?"

"A few days."

Closing his eyes again, he struggled to make sense of what had happened. "Found Vin up on the hill – don’t know what he was doing there. Talked him . . . into having supper with us." The blond paused a moment and swallowed, "We were comin’ down the hill, when someone shot us."

He turned to look at Mrs. Potter and continued, "I’m sorry, Ma’am. Luke was gone when I woke up." With obvious regret, he repeated, "I’m sorry." Small consolation, he thought. She’d trusted him with the teen, and he’d lost him.

With a tearful nod, Mrs. Potter moved close and took Chris’s hand in her own. "You have nothing to be sorry for, Mr. Larabee. This is not your fault. And I know your men will do all they can to find him."

Hearing the door close softly, Chris spoke to Buck and Nathan. "Who’s out looking for him?"

"Ezra and JD," Nathan answered.

Larabee nodded. "How’s Vin?"

Buck and Nathan exchanged a furtive glance that set Chris’s heart to racing. "What?" he asked with bated breath.

"He’s havin’ a rough time of it. But he’ll be all right – just like you will be," Buck added.

Chris turned his head to get a look. The bed where Vin lay was pushed back in the corner, far away from the window. In the shadows, it was impossible to see his friend’s face, but he could have sworn he heard a soft whimper come from the man.

This was a fine mess. Him and Vin both laid up, and Luke missing. And something still kicking its away around in his head that he needed to remember. He couldn’t hang onto it, though, as he felt the heat rise once more in his injured body. This time, Nathan let him rest, and as he slipped away, two sets of blue eyes bore into his soul.


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