There are certain sounds that stay with you; that trigger an automatic response no matter where you are or what you’re doing. I’d know the sound of Vin retching anywhere.

My head is splitting; literally splitting in two. I’m sure if I even attempt to raise it, half of it will stay on the floor. I try turning my face towards the sound; try to remember why Vin might be throwing up and what I need to be doing about it.

I feel blood running down my face and into one eye, but I can still see my friend lying in a heap in the corner of my living room. His entire body is convulsing, but either he’s too out of it to notice, or he doesn’t have the strength to even lift his head off the floor. I feel oddly detached as I take note of the fact that at least he’s on his side – at least he won’t choke before I can get over there.

How I’m going to get over there is another question all together. I try again to pull my head up and it’s excruciating. I want to groan so badly, but something tells me I need to bury my misery for a bit longer and keep quiet.

And then I hear him. I can only see him from the back as he moves into my line of sight and crouches on the floor near Vin. He doesn’t look big, but he’s carrying a smaller version of a baseball bat, and now I know why my head is coming off my shoulders. He’s laughing and trying to talk at the same time, but I can still make it out.

"I could’ve put a bullet in you, Vin – like your friend did. You always said I was trigger-happy. Wasn’t that it? I figured it’d be more entertaining to make you suffer a little. You sufferin’ now? Looks kinda like it. It must hurt to puke like that after all you been through. I’ll bet breakin’ those ribs again would hurt like hell, too. Y’ think?"

Oh God, he’s so far past crazy there’s no turning back. Vin is gasping and moaning now, his arms jerking in a haphazard attempt to push himself up and away.

I pull myself up onto my knees, and even though the room is spinning and I see two of everything, I manage to move myself over to the cabinet where I’ve hidden a gun. I have one in every room. Sounds a bit . . . excessive, I suppose. I’m careful. I never have kids out here – but I do have six friends who have more than their fair share of enemies.

It’s taking too long; my hands are shaking as I open the cupboard door and reach for the weapon. I pray that I’ve loaded it, knowing I’ll never be able to do it in time with only one good arm. My heart pounds in my chest as I watch the crazy man lift Vin up by his shirt and swing that damn bat against his ribs. Vin opens his mouth in agony, but no sound at all comes out and I have the horrible thought that he’s already dead . . . his face frozen forever in a silent scream of anguish. Oh God, Vin.

I’m still seeing double, but I have to take the chance. I aim for the bastard’s back and pull the trigger. I don’t shoot people in the back. That’s sort of an unwritten rule of mine. Now I’ve done it twice in two weeks. Things go awry and lines are crossed . . .

He falls forward, barely missing Vin - who is lying on his side with his arms pulled tight across his chest. Even with my vision blurred, I can see that Vin is gasping for air, and tears fill my eyes. Not dead, then . . . not over the line. I can deal with this.

I stumble over to where he’s curled up on the floor, only inches from where his attacker’s blood seeps into my carpet. I lay my hand on his cheek and he turns his face towards me, and even though his eyes are glassy and as unfocused as mine, I know he sees me.

"Hold on, Vin," I say as I reach for the phone and dial 911 – or at least I think I dialed it. I can’t make out a single number and my hand is shaking so bad I can hardly keep my grip on the damn thing.

Everyone thinks I’m so cool all the time. It would completely ruin my reputation if they knew how uncool I really am. I shake inside about half the time because it’s always there; that possibility that I’ll lose someone I care about.

I care about Vin. I care about him so much that I’m pretty sure I can’t string two coherent words together right now. Thank God someone smarter than me invented the system to track 911 calls by location, because there is no way I could tell them how to get here.

Vin makes a sound; a sort of groaning, gasping, whimper and I drop the phone and stagger like a drunk once more to his side. He acts like he wants to say something, but instead he coughs a little and a trickle of blood leaks out the corner of his mouth. I cup my hand on the back of his head and I lean in real close and I say again, "Hold on, Pard, help’s on the way."

The words aren’t even out of my mouth when I hear a car outside. I know the ambulance couldn’t have gotten here that fast, and in a moment of panic, I search for the gun I dropped somewhere along the way.

I don’t need it, though. Buck’s loud voice booms in the entryway, "Chris? Vin? You two all right?"

No, God, no. We’re not all right. And thank God you didn’t listen to me . . . as usual.

He ambles in the room and his eyes grow wide. "Nathan! Get in here now!"

So Nathan didn’t listen to me, either. I guess I’ll never know what I did to get so lucky as to work with a bunch of stubborn know-it-alls who don’t do what they’re told. I’ve never been so happy to be so ignored in all my life.

"Aw shit, Chris," Buck says as he kneels down and checks the dead guy. At least I hope he’s dead. I didn’t even think about checking him myself.

Buck reaches for the phone and I manage to say, "I already called."

Nathan seems to have appeared out of nowhere and he looks from me to Vin, obviously – and wisely – deciding Vin needs him first. He gently pushes me to the side, but I seem to have latched onto Vin’s hand at some point, and I’m not about to let go. Funny, I don’t remember doing that, but I know I need to keep a firm grip on him.

Or maybe he’s keeping a grip on me. The room is spinning wildly now, and I can’t focus.

"Easy," Buck says in his soft, calm voice – the one he only uses when he scared out of his mind.

I feel his arms wrap around my shoulders as he guides me to the floor. My head is almost even with Vin’s now, and even though Nathan is poking and prodding all over him, I manage to catch his eye. We’ll get through this, I tell him, without even opening my mouth, and I can only pray he heard me as his eyes roll up and he passes out.

Nathan’s saying things I don’t want to hear . . . about how bad off Vin is and how they should never have left us here alone.

More guilt.

Buck’s wondering what happened to the men out front as he uses his cell to call the others. And there’s Nathan again, saying something about Vin’s lung and my hard head. Their voices start to weave together as I decide to follow Vin’s lead . . . and slip into the darkness.


Please don’t move me. You’re hurtin’ me. Please. I can’t breathe.

Sounds are all around me . . . confusin’ me . . . strange, frantic voices and loud sirens and beeping monitors. I don’t understand what’s happening . . . I can’t remember . . . I can’t breathe.

I wish they’d leave me alone. They’re moving me again. Don’t they know I’m in pieces here? Be a lot easier on all of us if they’d just move me one limb, one rib, one piece at a time. Be a whole lot easier if they’d just let me be.

Something happened . . . Griffin . . . a bat . . . and Chris . . . oh God, Chris on the floor . . . blood.

I struggle now; sifting through the voices - trying t’ find his. He would be here, if he could.

"What the hell happened to him?" I know this voice - it’s that surgeon, the one whose name I couldn’t pronounce if you put a gun t’ my head. He took care of me the last time . . . kept tellin’ me I was lucky t’ be alive and t’ find another line of work.

"He was hit . . . with a . . . bat."

Oh thank God, it’s Nathan. He’ll know about Chris . . .

"How the hell did you let that happen? You’re ATF, for God’s sake!" Pissed. The doc’s really pissed.

Nathan’s mumblin’ something, but it’s gettin’ so damn noisy, I can’t make out the words. There’s a roarin’ sound in my head that’s pushin’ all the other sounds far and away and it’s startin’ t’ make me mad because I still just want t’ know one thing – is Chris alright?

Nate? Please hear me. Please answer me.

"B/P’s dropping . . ."

I have t’ know. I have t’ make ‘im hear me. I try t’ speak, but it’s so hard t’ breathe that all I can manage is a pathetic moan.

"It’s alright, Vin. You just hang on now."

"Get out of here, Jackson. I have work to do if I’m going to save your friend’s life for the second time. Good thing I’m better at my job than you guys apparently are at yours."

No! Let him stay. Don’t leave me, Nate. Tell me what’s goin’ on. Oh God, where is Chris? Why can’t I hear him?

I feel the blackness pulling at me again, and I know I’m runnin’ out of time. I pry my eyes open and I focus on Nathan, and even though everything is blurry and twisted and wrong, I can see that he’s startin’ to walk out. Please Nathan, just tell me about Chris. I have t’ know. He has to be okay. I can’t do this again without him.

Nathan stops, and then he turns and heads back towards me. He puts his hand on my face and he has this strange look in his eyes when he says, "He’s alright, Vin."

I think the doc is lookin’ at him funny, but neither of us care. I try t’ smile or nod or anything t’ let him know how grateful I am, but nothin’s workin’ right.

I can’t breathe and I can’t keep my eyes open, but even as I drift away, I can still hear the voices.

"He’s a fighter."

"He has to be . . . his team sure isn’t watching out for him."

No. No, that’s not true. Don’t say it. Don’t even think it. Please don’t let the guys hear you.

I can’t do this again . . .


"Where’s Vin? Where’s my friend?"

"It’s alright, Mr. Larabee. Just relax."

"It is not alright. I had a friend . . . he was hurt . . . he was . . ."

He was with me, wasn’t he? Yes. He was there, on the floor. He was hurt . . . again.

My head is killing me and I admit I’m a little confused, but I know I’m in an ambulance, and I know Vin should be next to me. They wouldn’t have sent out two ambulances, would they? No. I have no idea what I told them, but no, they wouldn’t have sent two. So Vin should be next to me.

"Where is my friend? Is he alright?"

The medic looks over at me and he frowns and he says, "Just keep calm, Mr. Larabee. We’ll be at the hospital soon."

What the hell do I have to do to get an answer? Am I speaking in a foreign language here?

"Where is Vin and is . . . he . . . okay?"

Just answer me. Just tell me the truth.

Oh God. Maybe he’s dead.

"He’s being taken care of, now just relax."

"Tell me the goddamn truth!" My head is exploding and I’m going to throw up – hopefully all over this useless paramedic’s lap.

I must have passed out again, because all of the sudden, we’re at the hospital. They’re poking me with needles and shifting me from one hard surface to another, and I admit that I’m getting a bit unruly – okay, maybe more than a bit unruly - because I still just want to know one thing – where is Vin?

For the second time that night, Buck appears out of nowhere, and he grips my shoulders as he pushes me back down on the stretcher.

"Now just hold on here, Chris. Let these people do their job."

Yeah, exactly. Let them do their job and take care of Vin. He’s the one who needs them, not me. "Dammit, Buck," I say, "where have they taken Vin?"

Tell me he’s alive, Buck, because anything else is just . . . I can’t deal with it.

"They airlifted him. He’s already in surgery."

I meet his eyes, knowing he could never hide the truth from me. He flinches, but he doesn’t turn away, and then as an afterthought, he adds, "He’ll be okay."

I’m about to tell him not to patronize me, when they come to wheel me away again for another round of useless tests. I can already tell them what they want to know. Head injury – been there, done that. Yes, I have a headache and blurred vision and I’m sick . . . sick because I didn’t do my job. I didn’t watch my best friend’s back and consequently, he’s fighting for his life again.

Think they have any drugs to fix that?

It’s hours later when I’m finally taken to my room. I don’t know why they even bothered; I have no intention of staying there. It’s not like I’ve never had a concussion before – I don’t exactly need a manual on what to do and what not to. Hell, I could write the manual.

Buck tells me that Vin is already back in the critical care unit, and so I strongly encourage him to finagle me a wheelchair – although even that is more for everyone else’s comfort than my own.

By the time I get there, the boys are already gathered around his bed. I think there’s some kind of rule against that, but apparently they’ve learned that the effort to enforce said rule is probably not worth it where my team is concerned.

I can see by their long faces that Vin is not good, and that something else is going on. I have no idea what, and at this moment I don’t particularly care. I just need to get a look at Vin. I just need to know that somehow, he’s avoided crossing that line one more time.

I didn’t think it was possible for him to look worse than he did the first time. Maybe he doesn’t – maybe it’s my imagination. Maybe he’s not really lying here hooked up to chest tubes and IVs and bright, ugly bags of blood once again. Maybe this is just one never-ending nightmare.

I feel a hand on my shoulder and hear Josiah’s strong voice in my ear. "Doc said he fixed him up again . . . said it’s just gonna take some time."

I drop my head and rub my hand across my eyes. I feel like shit. I feel like maybe I can’t deal with this after all.

Buck moves in front of me, and he says, "Let’s go lay down awhile, Chris. Come back here later."

That’s a ridiculous suggestion of course, so I don’t even bother to respond to it.

I expect Nathan to throw in his two cents, but he doesn’t. Instead, he clears his throat and he says, "We’re sorry, Chris. We’re just so . . . sorry."

That puzzles me a bit. For the first time since entering the room, I look at the others. JD’s hanging back in the corner, acting like someone just shot his dog. Ezra’s not far from him – staring at his shoes. Josiah’s still next to me with his hand on my shoulder, and Nathan’s across the bed, with his hand on Vin’s shoulder, and they both look . . . well, I guess disturbed would be the best word.

"Sorry?" Maybe I’m more confused than I thought.

Now they all look at each other, with the exception of Buck, who is hanging back and shaking his head.

Josiah moves in front of me and he frowns. "About Vin . . . and you. About all of this. We should have been there."

It’s my turn to frown. They think this is their fault? Let me clarify . . . "You guys think this is your fault?"

Ezra steps forward and he says, "We left our wounded teammates alone and defenseless when we knew that a culprit was on the loose and seeking revenge. That error in judgment is unforgivable."

I like Ezra. I know I don’t act like I do . . . but that’s only because he expects it. He’d be uncomfortable if I got all warm and fuzzy with him. But I have to tell you, I can’t figure out what the hell he’s going on about half the time, and this time . . . "Ezra, what the hell are you talking about?"

He raises an eyebrow at me and looks to Buck for help, but all Buck says is, "You’re on your own here, guys. I don’t see this the way you all do."

"Can you stand there and say you don’t feel guilty, Buck?" Nathan asks him. "Can you honestly say that you don’t believe we’ve failed Vin all the way around? Regardless of who put that bullet in him?"

"No," Buck answers shortly, "I can’t say that. But Vin’s been asking for just that from the very beginning and I don’t think he’ll feel different now."

JD shifts around and faces the window. He’s staying out of it. Kid gets smarter every day.

Nathan turns to me then and he says, "You know Vin’s surgeon?"

Of course I know him. Couldn’t pronounce his name if my life depended on it, but he’s not an easy man to forget. He was half mad when he took care of Vin the first time; kept harping about how Vin should never have survived laying on the floor of the tavern that long, or the ambulance ride in that terrible storm, or even the surgery to remove the bullet. You’d think we had purposely endangered Vin just to put his skills to the test.

But he saved Vin’s life then, and apparently, hopefully, please God – again. So yeah, I know him.

Nathan goes on, "He asked me how we let this happen – how Vin’s team let this happen. I didn’t have an answer, Chris. I still don’t. We let Vin down and we let you down."

My head really hurts and I seem to be having a little trouble with this conversation.

"As far as I know, boys, I was the only one there when Griffin threw his little party. And I was the only one there because I asked you all to stay away. Fortunately, Buck and Nathan chose not to listen to me. Unfortunately, their timing was off. But you all can quit beating yourselves up over this. You’re off the hook."

It’s pretty obvious they’re not gonna buy it, but we can’t really discuss it further because we’re busted when the nurse comes in. I guess the six of us really are pushing the two-visitor rule a bit far, because she gets tough and says four have to go. Buck hangs back and I hear him offer to stay.

I don’t much care who stays or goes. I’m having difficulty caring about much of anything, in fact. I can’t tear my eyes away from Vin’s face. Griffin didn’t touch his face. And even when he fell face first on the bar floor, there wasn’t a mark on it. But still, his face shows it all. Dark shadows, sharp bones, pale skin . . . how much more can he take? How much more can we take?

"It wasn’t your fault, either, Chris," Buck says real soft. "Hell, even if we were there, this could have happened. Or maybe, he would have waited and caught Vin when he was alone."

"I shouldn’t have told you to stay home that night."

He sighs and he pulls up a chair. "Vin was damn near suffocatin’ with all of us around. You did what you thought was best for him."

Yeah, right. What was that Ezra said? Something about an error in judgment . . .

"Good thing you didn’t listen."

"I guess you and Vin ain’t the only ones with gut feelings."

This time, I sigh. An error in judgment . . . how many of those did I make this time around?

"I fed him chocolate pudding and root beer," I admit.


"You heard me."

Buck is laughing softly. I don’t see what’s so funny. Then he says, "So you think it made a difference? You think that’s why Vin is laying here like this?"

Buck can be so dense sometimes. I guess I’ll have to spell it out for him. "I didn’t take good care of him."

He’s pulling his brows together and frowning. "Seems t’ me, you took real good care of that guy that was tryin’ t’ kill him. Doesn’t that count for something?"

I’ve known Buck for a good twelve years now, but sometimes we’re just not on the same wave length. "Too late. I took care of him too late. It shouldn’t have happened in the first place." And then I add, because I just now think of it, "And what the hell happened to those guys Travis hired?"

"They got sore heads t’ match yours," Buck answers.

Damn miracle that nut didn’t kill anyone. Then again, the way Vin looks, he just might succeed yet. Although, I suppose it would be difficult to really say who did the actual killing . . . Griffin, or the man who put the bullet in Vin to begin with.

"I shot him," I say, just in case Buck missed it the first few dozen times around.

He groans.

"I know it," I say for added emphasis. "I know it as sure as you and I are sitting here. It was me."

"Okay," he says slowly. "It was you. So what?"

So what? So what!

"What the hell kind of a response is that?"

"You do it on purpose?"

"Shit, Buck. We gonna talk about this or not?"

Why am I talking about this? Why did I even bring it up?

"Answer the question, Chris. Did you deliberately shoot Vin?"

I answer without thinking. "No. You know that."

"Yeah, but do you? Because it seems like I know it and Vin knows it – but you seem t’ think that you can prevent shit from happening just because you want it that way. I hate t’ be the one t’ tell you, Larabee – but even you can’t control everything. Shit happens."

You know, that phrase is so overused. And Buck acts like this is the first time he’s given me the "you can’t control everything" speech. I’m pretty sure I get it at least once a week.

"I know that," I say to him. "But it doesn’t change the way I feel."

"Well, you damn well better figure out how to change the way you feel before Vin comes around. He’s only asked for one thing in all of this – and ain’t a one of us listenin’."

Let it go . . . that’s all Vin wants.

But I can’t do it. Not now, now after this.

The nurse comes in to check the wires and tubes and . . . stuff, and Vin moans real soft, so she pushes the button to inject more pain medication into his blood stream. I meet her eyes, looking for some hope I guess, and she smiles at me, but says nothing.

Probably because there’s nothing to say - regardless of what Buck thinks. The fact remains that I screwed up two times running . . . with one misplaced bullet and one error in judgment.

At this rate, I’ll manage to kill Vin off before Christmas.


Voices drift around me. I can’t hear all the words, but the feelings come through loud and clear.

JD’s scared. Scared for me, I reckon – but more scared for us.

Ezra, too. He’s a different man now that he’s one of us. I guess we all are. But I guess Ezra needs that more than some.

It hurts me t’ move and so I try t’ lay real still; try t’ concentrate on breathin’. If I make any sound at all, they push more drugs into me. That’s when things get really mixed up, so I try t’ keep quiet.

Either way, I can hear ‘em.

Josiah, he’s sad . . . seems kinda lost. I keep waitin’ t’ hear him say the right words t’ the others, but he doesn’t do it. Maybe he doesn’t know the right words this time. Maybe no one does.

And Nathan. He’s made an art out of sighin’. There’s his frustrated sigh, and his angry sigh, and his sad sigh. I seem t’ be hearin’ that one the most.

Buck, he’s alright. A little mad, I think. I’m not sure at who.

But then, I’m not sure of much of anything.

I do know that they’re all feelin’ guilty again. I can’t make out most of the words, but I know that’s what’s goin’ on.

Chris, especially. It took a long time for us t’ get through it the last time. I don’t know if we can do it again.

It feels like there’s a two ton boulder sittin’ on my chest. I try not t’ groan, but I can feel them hoverin’ over me, pushin’ those drugs into me.

I want t’ tell them t’ forget it; that maybe I’d come out of this fog if they just let me be. But then again, comin’ back to their long faces ain’t all that appealin’. Carryin’ this weight on my chest just might be easier than carryin’ the weight of all their guilt.

Think they have any drugs t’ fix that?


Every time he groans or moans or even sighs, it’s like a blade cutting straight into my heart. I suppose that’s a little over-dramatic, but I never claimed to be the poet of the group. That distinction belongs to Vin. Doesn’t fit, does it? At least, it doesn’t until you get to know him.

Most people have no idea who Vin Tanner is. I watch the nurses and doctors and therapists work around him, their words and actions detached and routine, and I feel this ridiculous need to clue them in. They just don’t know who they’re taking care of; what kind of man he is; how much he means.

They tell me he’s getting better. He looks like hell, and he still hasn’t managed a coherent sentence, but the doctor with the impossible name assures me that Vin will live – provided his friends don’t screw up again. And so the breaking point is still off somewhere in my imagination . . . waiting for a different day and a different time to collapse my world once again.

Unless I get lucky and die first.

I want to die first. I don’t want to die - I just want to die first. I told Buck that once. I said not to mourn if something happens to me, because it’s better for me that way. I just can’t bury another person I love.


I suppose if I was totally honest with myself – which I rarely am, I would have to say that I love the guys. Now let’s not repeat that out loud. Shit, Buck already has way too much fun with me and Vin’s friendship.

Speaking of Vin, he’s starting to come around again. He opens his eyes and seems to search for something. I move into his line of sight, and I try to offer a smile, but it’s so damn hard to see him like this . . . his blue eyes dull and confused. God, Vin – I am so sorry.

He licks his dry lips and he whispers, "Got root beer?"

I do smile then, even though I know there are so many miles ahead – so many obstacles yet to clear, that I’m not sure that light at the end of the tunnel really exists anymore.

"I’ll get you some," I promise, and he nods before dropping back to sleep.

I smooth a stray hair from his face, and I take a deep breath as it hits me once again. I do love Vin. I couldn’t stand to lose him – I absolutely could not deal with it. Take your best shot, Buck, but there it is.

Of course, I love Buck, too. And JD grows on a person. Nathan, with his fussing, and Josiah, with his endless parables, annoy the hell out of me – but I know it’s just that they care so much. How could I not care about them back? Even Ezra has his good points, and heaven knows, I don’t think I could lose him, either.

So there it is. It would be better for all concerned if I die first.


I’ve tried. I’ve tried t’ ignore their pained expressions and the awkward way they talk about anything and everything except what happened. I look the other way when flashes of guilt cross their faces every time I cough or sigh or push away my plate.

Chris is the worst, of course. He never could hide anythin’ from me, and now ain’t no different. Any progress we made the last time is long gone. He can’t get past it, even though I think he wants to. He brought me root beer and he sat at my side for a good part of the last week, and I appreciate it. Really, I do. But it just takes too much out of me t’ keep on with the game.

That’s why I’m goin’ t’ stay at Buck’s. He’s the only one who gets it. He’s the only one who treats me just the same as he always did. It’ll be hard t’ tell Chris, but he’ll understand. I hope.

He comes in the door of my room with Buck, and before I can explain, he says, "You ready to go, Vin?"

"No. I mean, yeah. But . . . I appreciate the offer, Chris, but I’ll be leavin’ with Buck."

I look down then, avoidin’ his face because I know he’s hurt. The last thing I ever thought I’d do is intentionally hurt him, but it has t’ be like this. I can’t go on lookin’ at him lookin’ at me like . . . like he can’t stand the sight of me.

Buck says it’s ‘cause he feels bad – feels like he let me down and all that shit. And I guess that must be true for the other guys, too, because they pretty much look at me the same way.

Except for Bucklin, which is why I’m goin’ with him. That doctor with the funny name says I can’t go home alone, and I ain’t arguin’. That’s scary, I know. I admit to bein’ proud to the point of bein’ stupid sometimes, but not this time. I can’t even breathe right, let alone do anything else on my own.

"Oh sure. Fine." Chris says, and he looks down, too. He’s got his arm out of the sling, and I’m wonderin’ when that happened? Was I too wrapped up in myself t’ notice? He still has a nasty bruise running along the side of his head, though, and I cringe when I see it. Griffin was such an idiot . . . ain’t right he could bring us all down like this. The truth is that he hurt every single one of us, not just me . . . and I got some guilt of my own t’ deal with.

Buck clears his throat and he waits for me and Chris t’ finally look up at him. "Actually Vin, plans have changed just a bit."

He looks sort of uncertain, and I figure my brows are pulled together about as tight as I know Chris’s are. What’s he up to?

"I . . . um, I have t’ go some place for a few days . . . for the, uh, weekend actually. Then you’ll be welcome to come and stay, Vin. I promise. It’s just a few days."

"JD won’t be there, either?" Chris asks, and I can tell he’s not buyin’ this any more than I am.

"No. He and Casey have plans." Now it’s Buck’s turn t’ look at his feet. You’d think we all had the most interestin’ shoes.

"What the hell is this about Buck? If you told Vin he could come with you, then you keep your word."

"No. It’s okay, Chris." God, I hate this. Do they have any idea how humiliating this is?

Buck turns t’ me and he finally meets my eyes as he says, "I need you to stay the weekend with Chris, Vin. If you still want to come to my place afterwards, you’ll be welcome for as long as you need."

I nod and mumble, "Thanks," before glancing sheepishly at Chris. I can’t believe how embarrassing this is. "That okay with you?"

He looks at me pointedly and says, "Of course, Vin. It wasn’t me who changed the plans."

It takes a while t’ get me loaded up in Chris’s truck. I feel like an invalid; can’t remember when I could walk a straight line all on my own. We’re not even gonna mention what it took t’ get me up in that damn cab of his. Talk about humiliating . . .

By the time we get t’ the ranch, I’m sound asleep and droolin’ all over his window. I always do that . . . drool on his window. No matter if I’ve been in the hospital for two hours or two days, he always takes me back here and I always fall asleep and I always drool on his window. And he always says, "Damn, Vin, you leak more than any man I know. Get out the Windex and get that cleaned up, will ya?" Then he laughs and I stammer something about what a damn pain in the butt he is.

This time, he nudges my shoulder, like always, and he says, "Vin, we’re here." I wait for the rest; wait for him t’ be him and us t’ be us, but I know it ain’t happenin’. We’re right back where we started . . . playin’ games.

Usually I’m pretty good about hidin’ how I feel, but I pull my back when I straighten up to get off the seatbelt, and I gasp before I can stop myself. Chris swallows and he looks away, and that hurts even more – though I’m not real clear on who’s hurtin’ most just now. Josiah appears out of nowhere and thank God he practically floats me out of that damn high seat before I’ve even had a chance t’ think about it.

Nathan shows up on the other side of me, and even though I put up a good show of insistin’ I can walk to the door myself, no one believes it. Nate and Josiah take me under each arm, careful not to put pressure on my ribs and back, and once again, it’s like I’m floatin’ to the house.

They ease me onto the couch in Chris’s livin’ room, and it’s like I never left . . . like it never happened, that whole nightmare with Griffin. But when I look over t’ the corner of the room, I see the faint stain of blood on Chris’s floor. He’ll likely have t’ replace the carpet and I feel guilty for that, too.

Chris moves in front of me, and he must’ve been watchin’ me, because he speaks up then, "I’ve wanted to replace this old stuff anyway. I was thinking hardwood." He looks down at me with a question in his eyes, and I get the hunch he’s askin’ more than it appears, but I’m not sure what it is.

"Yeah," I say. "That would be good."


"I imagine the others will want to hang around this time, Vin. Even when you go to Buck’s." He’s lookin’ at his feet again.

I shift myself up a bit, cause I hate lookin’ up at people when I’m tryin’ t’ talk to ‘em, and the pain explodes in my chest. I thought I’d gotten used to it by now, but it takes me long minutes t’ get my breathin’ under control again.

"Nathan!" I hear Chris holler – like I’m dyin’ here, rather than just tryin’ t’ sit up.

"Shit, Chris," I groan. "I’m alright . . . just give me a minute."

But Nathan’s already there and Josiah, too, and this is just what I was afraid would happen.

Josiah’s layin’ my head back down and Nathan’s got out his stethoscope and Chris is pacin’. Hardwood’s probably a good idea, now that I really think on it . . . take him a lot longer t’ wear a hole through it.

"Stop it, Nate," I snap as I bash his hands away. "Just let me be for a minute. I’m alright."

Relatively speaking, anyway. Truth is - I feel like shit. And I’m tired of it. And I’m not all that sure anymore which is the best way t’ play this. Do I let ‘em fall all over me so they feel better? Like they’re helping me? Or do I act like I’m fine – my usual way of doin’ things, so they’ll think about somethin’ else? Fat chance of that happenin’.

Damn Buck anyway for not stickin’ t’ his word. He said I could come there and not worry about who was watchin’ every move and every face I make. Not worry about all the guilt and crap because he was over it and just wanted me t’ get well. Least that’s what he said.

Instead, he left me here and oh, God – I just can’t play these stupid games anymore.

Go ahead, Chris – feel guilty. You, too, Nate – after all, you should’ve known Griffin was comin’ after me that night. And Josiah – weren’t you the one who talked Nathan out of stayin’ with me and Chris? Pile it on, boys. I’m sick and I’m hurt and it’s all your fault.



What’s with Chris now? Why’s he lookin’ at me like that?

Josiah and Nathan back off, and Chris bites his lip and his eyes are tearin’ up and I have no idea why.

And I don’t care. "Just leave me be," I whisper as I close my eyes and wish it all away.


He’s crying . . . there are tears running down his face and I can tell that he doesn’t even know.

He has no idea he’s crying.


"Just leave me be," he whispers.

"Okay," I say, though it comes out so soft, that I’m not sure if he heard me. I’m not sure of anything anymore.

Josiah and Nathan exchange an uncertain frown, but they follow my lead and back off. I head outside, largely because I don’t know where to go. I just know I have to get away . . . as far away as I can go from his face and his tears . . . from him. Hell of a friend, aren’t I? I can’t stand to see it, so I run. Never mind the fact that he asked us to leave - I’m happy to do it. I’m relieved he doesn’t want me around.

The wind hits me as I open the screened door; it lifts my hair right off my forehead and it’s the best thing I’ve felt in ages. I walk across the deck and lean against the railing and into that glorious wind. I close my eyes, and allow it to sweep me away. I imagine myself up on Pony’s back, riding fast and hard and free.

I want to be free. Free of sadness and guilt and the incessant pounding in my head that hasn’t left me since the day I shot Vin.

But it will never happen. I know it and so does Vin. I’ve broken my promise to him – we can’t get through this. That’s why he wants to stay with Buck. He can’t stand to see my face, anymore than I can stand to see his.

How stupid is that? Am I so weak a man that I can’t lay my feelings aside and move on?

Apparently I’m just not strong enough to do what’s best for the man who’s never hesitated to do what’s best for me. No matter how unpleasant or uncomfortable or downright dangerous it is, Vin is always there to help me through it. He’s always there for me - at my back, and now when he needs me most, I’m not there for him.

Dammit! This is ridiculous. I’m marching back in there and telling Vin that it’s over. That all I want is for him to be well again and everything else just doesn’t matter.

I shot him. So what? I didn’t protect him from Griffin. So what?

So his face, lined with pain and streaked with tears, burns into my brain, and no matter what I say or what I do or what I tell myself, I can’t make it go away. I’m sorry, Vin. I just don’t know how to do this.

I look back into the house and see that Vin hasn’t moved. I head for the barn and pull out the saddle. I know I’m not supposed to ride yet; know that Nathan will remind me that bouncing in a saddle does not fall under the category of "taking it easy." But maybe a good, hard ride will knock some sense into me.

Or maybe, I’ll jostle my bruised brain just enough to quit feeling altogether.


"Thanks, Ezra."

"Are you quite sure that is all you need?"

Let’s see – y’ made me some weird kind of chicken soup – sure ain’t Campbell’s – brought it t’ me on a tray, broke the crackers for me, tucked the napkin on my chest, fluffed the pillows behind me on the couch, and would’ve spoon fed me, if I’d let you. Yeah, Ezra, you’ve done enough.

He’s still waitin’ on an answer, so I go with the usual, "Yeah."

‘Course, it’s still not as bad as what Josiah did earlier. He helped me t’ the bathroom and held me up the whole time – probably would’ve taken the piss for me if he could’ve managed it. I suppose it’s better than fallin’ on my face, though. Then again, fallin’ on my face couldn’t be nearly as embarrassing as that was.

"Well . . . well, I shall uh, go and see to other matters, then."

Did y’ hear that? He can’t even talk right around me anymore. I’m probably the only person in the world that can leave Ezra flounderin’ for words.

I push the soup away. Even the stuff I like tastes funny. Nathan says it’s the pills and then he goes into this long speech about how I have t’ take ‘em anyway. I hate t’ burst his bubble, but it really never occurred t’ me not to. Hell, I’d take the whole goddamn pharmacy if it would get me on my feet and out of this house quicker.

I can hear him and Ezra talkin’ in the kitchen. I don’t know why everyone thinks I can’t hear anything. I got shot in the back and whacked in the chest, but oh, ‘maybe if we talk real quiet-like, Vin won’t hear us’.

"Where has our leader escaped to?"

"He took off on his horse a few hours ago. Ain’t seen hide nor hair of him since."

Nathan sounds a little miffed about that. I don’t blame Chris. That’s exactly where I’d be if I could manage it.

"And Josiah?"

"He’s taking a nap. He hasn’t been able to sleep much since that night."

"I assume you are referring to the night when Vin was originally injured?"

Nathan doesn’t answer, but I can picture him noddin’.

"I can’t say I have slept peacefully myself," Ezra says. "Nightmares seem to be the norm for more than one of us these days."

I can relate t’ that.

"You wanna talk about it?" Nathan asks him.

There’s a long pause before Ezra finally answers. "I felt so useless that night . . . so helpless and utterly clueless. Buck was maintaining pressure to Chris’s wound, while you and Josiah worked on Vin. Inez was busy gathering supplies and assisting you all – and I could not determine what to do."

It don’t matter, Ezra – it’s over. Let it go.

"There was so much blood, and both men were trembling . . . and I remember thinking that there was something I should be doing. When Josiah instructed me to find blankets or jackets or something with which to cover our friends, I felt like a fool. I couldn’t believe I had not even thought to perform that simple act. In fact, I was quite certain that my only contribution that evening was to shoot Vin."

Oh no, Ezra. Please don’t.

"That . . . doubt . . . continues to plague me on a nightly basis."

Aw hell, Ez.

Nathan clears his throat and he says, "Josiah says he can’t close his eyes without seein’ Vin there on the floor. Says he can still feel his blood soakin’ through the dressings he held on the wound for me."

I didn’t know . . .

"I think what really bothers him, though, is when we had to roll Vin over and start CPR on him. I never have seen Josiah so scared. And the truth is, I don’t remember ever being so scared myself."

Oh God. Nathan and Josiah had to . . . they did what? Oh God, I didn’t know.

"But it’s the second night I can’t get out of my mind," Nathan says.

I don’t want t’ hear anymore. I just didn’t think what it must have been like for them.

"Buck told me to get in here, and there was Chris with his head bashed in and Vin . . . I’m tellin’ you, Ezra, I thought for sure we’d lose him right then and there. He was gasping for every breath and bleeding from his mouth, and I just knew that bastard had popped his lung. I just knew he was gonna die and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do."

Oh God. I feel sick. Please don’t say anymore. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.

"I called for an air lift, and then I just held him till they came, y’ know? I just held onto him and I begged him to hang on. The whole time, I was tryin’ to breathe for him . . . just tryin’ . . . to keep him alive. Just like the first time, only this time . . . I knew I could have stopped it if I’d just been here."

Stop. Please.

I’m gonna be sick.

I push the tray off my lap and it crashes t’ the floor. I have t’ go . . . I’m gonna be sick. I try t’ stand, but my knees fold up and I latch onto the coffee table as I go down. I keep one hand on the edge of the table and the other against my stomach, just tryin’ t’ catch my breath and hold it in.

But it doesn’t work, and once again I’m pukin’ on Chris’s carpet. "I’m sorry," I mumble in between spasms. "I’m so sorry."

"It’s alright, Vin," Nathan says as he suddenly appears next to me. "We’ll get it all cleaned up."

No, he doesn’t understand. I’m sorry I got hurt. I’m sorry I put you all through this. I’m sorry I didn’t understand.

I’m sorry because now I know why they can’t let it go.

They’ll never look at me the same again. We’ll never be the same again.


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