by Tonny

Pony whinnied and got up in a hurry. A challenge could be heard in the black's neighing, but also a greeting. An answer came back. A second horse came in a trot through the trees and bushes, stopping close to where Pony was ready and waiting.

“Oh God, Chris!”

The buckskin clad rider on the newly arrived horse threw himself off the back of his steed and practically flew to the still body lying between blankets, saddle and stuff that was thrown around at random. The body never stirred.

“Chris! Don't ya dare! Don't ya dare 've died on me! I swear I'll go straight ta hell and yank yer ass right back here!”

Despite his words, he knelt carefully next to the black clad man. With great tenderness he stroked the blond hair out of the fever flushed face and felt for a pulse in the long, slender neck. For a moment there was panic in his blue eyes, followed by immense relief. The hand moved to the long forehead.

“God, yer burning up Cowboy. What 'appened? Chris? Chris?”

Taking his canteen he carefully dropped some water into Chris' mouth.

“Come on Cowboy, show yer green glare, jist fer me! Come on Chris, come back!”

More water followed, slowly and carefully poured into the gunslinger's throat. Chris swallowed some, a moan followed and he started to drink slowly from the water Vin offered him.

Finally dull green eyes opened to look in radiant blue ones.


“V… Vin? Why look s… so hap… py?”

Vin couldn't help it, he wore a grin as big as Texas. “God, Chris! Fer a moment I thought, I was afraid…But here y'are and already complainin'. 's Good ta hear ya gripe 'bout something again, you ornery, contrary scrawny Cowboy!”

Chris scowled. “Ain't… ain't a… cowboy.”

“Perhaps, but ya sure are a mess! What 'appened?”

Chris didn't know where he found the strength, but he managed to look incredulous at the infuriating Texan at his side.

“Wh… what 'appened? A tree's what 'appened! And a d… damn cou… gar! Got him though… SHIT!”

“Chris? Chris, what's wrong?”

“J… just hurt like hell! Leg… bones shift. Arm, ch… chest, head ache.”

Vin looked Chris over while the blond named his hurts. The legs, the chest, the arm. Carefully he lifted the left arm and Chris immediately screamed. Two horses at once bolted away.

“Ah Hell,” Vin sighed. “Guess Peso wasn't that happy 'bout bein' here in the first place, with that damn dead cougar lying around. Beast got ya good, pard.”

Chris couldn't answer. He was too busy trying to keep from screaming again.

Vin carefully took off the bandage and looked at the wounds. “Looks like someone took good care a this, though. Prob'ly saved it, I mean, it's cleaned good isn't it. Who did that, you got someone come along?”

“I… d… did that!”

“You…” Vin looked at the arm. “But how? Looks like a tough job, pard. And ya had somethin' ta clean it with then?”

“Y… yeah, tough, don't I kn… know it! Pony came back, with a… alcohol, saved m… arm I think… You watch or do… something? Infected again, isn't it?”

“A bit, not much. Guess I better make a fire and get ta tending ya.”

Vin carefully wrapped the bandage loosely around the arm again before laying it back down. His blue eyes met the pain filled green ones.

“Don't worry, pard. I'll take care of ever'thing from now on. Y' ain't alone anymore.”

Chris looked after the strong, lithe body in buckskin striding away to get wood for a fire and everything else that was needed to help the blond.

//Y' ain't alone anymore//

No, he wasn't. He wasn't alone anymore. He closed his eyes, breathing easier because he knew someone he trusted had his back. Someone who had ridden like the devil to get to him on time, who had invaded his nightmares to tell him not to quit.

He hadn't been alone for months now and the realization was… strange. Because he still missed his family as much as ever. That hadn't changed one bit.

The hole in his soul wasn't that raw and empty anymore though. That gaping loneliness had been filled up again with friendship and trust. It felt good. It didn't diminish the pain, the aching loss inside, but it did feel better than it had in a long time.

He looked up at Vin walking towards him with an arm full of wood and smiled. Vin smiled back, a smile that lit up his entire face and made the bright blue eyes sparkle.

Yep, here they were in this shitty situation, and Vin looked goddamn happy!

+ + + + + + +

It was rough. Vin first took care of Peso and Pony, fast, and than he descended on Chris. He cleaned the wounds from the cougar all over with the last of the whiskey; put a new bandage around his arm and managed to bandage his chest, holding him up against his leg and wrapping the bandages around him. He helped Chris clean up a little and gave him his spare shirt to wear. It gave Vin a good time, ribbing him about not wearing black for a change.

“Or that awful grey y' got on sometimes. Strange idea of color ya got, pard! Look at ya, red really suits ya!”

“Just get me m… my duster, gotta c… cover this up!”

Vin laughed, but helped him put it on again. He had tried to get the worst of the blood off and luckily the shirts had been between the wound and the duster. He helped get Chris' bedroll straightened out, now with his saddle behind him to lean against, and that left him two blankets to cover him again.

It was all highly embarrassing to Chris, getting undressed, bathed and dressed by another, and that a man as well. To say nothing about the fact that he couldn't even get cleaned where he needed it the most, because a damn tree was laying over it. When Vin noticed something, while he was checking if he could maybe dig the earth from under Chris' legs and get him free that way, Chris just turned his head and wouldn't look at him again until Vin literally pushed some broth under his nose. He had started the broth from the trail food in his saddlebags before cleaning the wounds, so he would have something to eat for the blond. Chris had been without food for some days now and needed something.

There would be no digging the blond free, he soon discovered. Only a very thin layer of soil covered what was mostly hard rock. It explained nicely why there was such a lovely clearing in this spot between the beautiful, giant trees. Vin was still cursing about it when he was ladling the broth in a mug.

He sighted sadly when he saw that Chris still wouldn't meet his eyes.

“Chris,” he said softly, “it's alright ya know.”

“No, it's not.”

“Gittin' that damn tree on yer legs, no, that ain't alright. But what ya can't help, ya can't help. You'd held it aginst me if I'd been laying here?”

Chris looked at him. “Course I wouldn't! Damn, Tanner! How 'd ya 've f… felt if it HAD been y… you?”

Vin had become beet red and mumbled something.

“Got nothing more ta say 'b… bout… it!”

The broth didn't exactly go down well, in fact, it all came up again pretty soon, but this time there was someone to catch it for him and get it out of the way. A fire was burning merrily close by. Pony came to happily stand close by him. The early morning sun conjured up bright colors in the middle of the forest shadows and his best friend, the man who now occupied the place where his soul once had consisted only of a deep emptiness, was sitting close by breathing tunelessly through his harmonica. All in all, things were looking up again. If he just didn't feel so lousy…

“Chris? Need anything?”

“W… water?”

“Coming up. Here ya go. Man, yer burning up!”

“Feels that way…”

“Better try and cool ya down.”

“'s Okay. Better 'n it was.”

“Ya was worse?”

No answer, Chris had lost the fight against oblivion again. Truth be told, with Vin there to guard him, and totally sick of being in pain all the time, he hadn't fought it hard. Vin shook his head. Chris was such a mess as it was, he couldn't believe it had been worse and his friend had been all alone to deal with it.

No more, pard, he thought. Ya don't have ta worry no more. I got yer back!


That's how Buck and Nathan found them at the end of the day, Chris out and Vin guarding him and trying to cool him down with wet cloths.

Buck and Nathan were tired. Their horses were tired as well, and on top of it all, the two were very irritated with each other and hardly spoke a word.

Vin decided he didn't want to know. He let Nathan get to Chris and went with Buck to check the thick branch that held Chris prisoner. They agreed the best course would be to chop the damn thing off the main trunk. It seemed like the only way.

“Just have ta make sure we don't chop into his legs,” Buck said somberly. The sight of Chris, unconscious, helplessly trapped and wounded badly by a cougar to boot, had made his mood spiral down even more. He already knew that JD would deal very badly with the fact that Chris had been attacked by a cougar while lying helpless and abandoned under that damn tree. JD had had no choice. Hadn't really abandoned Chris, but he saw some very hard moments coming up trying to convince the young man of that.

“Let's see if Nate's done, and then I guess we start hacking,” Vin suggested. Buck nodded and they both went back to Nathan and Chris.

“How's he doin'?” Vin wanted to know.

“Fever's high, but not so high it's dangerous,” Nathan told him. “I'm tellin' ya Vin, could've been a lot worse, what with them damn wounds!”

“Was worse,” Vin told him. “He was hotter than now when I found 'm. Told me he was feelin' better though then he had.”

“Probably 'cause ya did a real good job on cleaning them wounds,” Nathan smiled up at him. “Ya had ta ride like the devil ta be here on time fer saving that arm. If ya had't come and cleaned them good, I don't know if the arm still could a been saved. Saw from the wounds ya had ta use a knife ta cut them open ta drain them?”

Vin blanched. “He had ta cut them open? You sure?”

“Yeah, well, that's what the wounds tell me. Ya didn't cut them? Really? How could I've been so wrong, almost never am.”

“What? Oh, oh yer prob'ly right, gotta ask Chris though. He done it himself. Wound jist started ta git infected a little bit again when I got here. Wasn't no problem ta clean that out. Was hardly nothin'. He'd done it all 'fore I got here.”

The three men looked at the blond, who lay in ignorant bliss while his friends were discussing him. They weren't really prepared for the image Vin's words conjured up, Chris, all alone, having just survived a cougar attack, only to have to cut himself with a knife some time later.

“At least the cougar's dead,” Buck said, eyeing the hide, cleaned, scraped and hanging out over some branches to dry in the sun. “Don't tell me Chris skinned the damn beast hisself as well!”

Vin laughed. “Nope, he jist shot it. With Chris mostly out of it and them wounds taken care of real good, there wasn't much ta do 'sides keep 'm cooled down and watch 'm. Thought he really deserved that skin.”

“Ya think he'd want a reminder of the past day 'n nights. They must a been tough.”

“Don't know, but he did win his fight with the damn cougar, so he's entitled. Could always sell it.”

At that moment Chris moaned. He seemed to try and move himself. Suddenly he screamed and his eyes flew open. He tried to sit up, but Nathan and very soon also Vin kept him down.

“Burns, burns… No, don't let them burn! Don't…”

Vin gripped Chris' right hand. “Chris, Chris, yer dreamin' Cowboy. Nobody's burnin'. Jist look at me, nobody's burnin'.”

For a moment it looked like Chris would slip back into his nightmares again. Instead the green eyes lost their glassy look and Chris looked into his friends face.

“Vin? Y' alright?”

“Hey Cowboy, why y' ask? I ain't the one who got stuck under a tree and attacked by some damn cougar.”

“Remember… remember you looking sad… And a bit angry? Ya got me out, outta the burning. I tr… tried ta get to Sarah… and A… Adam… And ya got… mad, told me not… to leave you…”

The eyes closed again. Chris missed how white Vin suddenly became.

“Vin?” Nathan asked, worried. “Vin, what is it?”

Vin's stricken eyes looked at him. “I never said that to him, Nate, never! Jist, jist thought it! Thought about 'im, here, all alone, when I was coming here, and I jist, jist thought it. Felt at some point like he was slipping away out there and I thought he'd better not leave me. He'd better not…”

Vin was staring at the gunslinger again. Nate put his hand on the young man's shoulder and gripped it.

“Ain't got nothing I c'n say to that, Vin. I just know there's somethin' there, between ya two. Might be somehow ya got here, in yer mind, and helped him fight.”

Vin said nothing, just held Chris' hand. Chris seemed at peace at the moment, but suddenly a grimace of pain shadowed his handsome face. He opened his eyes again.

“Shit, that hurts…”

“What hurts, Chris?” Nathan immediately wanted to know. Chris shifted his gaze from Vin to Nathan. “Is it yer arm, yer chest?”

“Yeah, but mostly my… my legs. Think I tried ta move. WOW! SHIT! God, they got worse Nate!”

Vin and Buck looked at each other. Then Vin jumped up and they both headed for the axes. That tree wasn't going to have Chris as his prisoner much longer. Both armed with one of the big axes, they as one headed towards the base of the branch that held Chris pinned, weapons ready and in hand. Vin cool and totally set to finally get Chris free and comfortable. This had been going on way too long as it was. Buck full of fire and with a burning need to DO something. Something that would help him vent his rage. He desperately needed that, needed to somehow lose the horrible images of Chris lying here all alone, hurt, bleeding, and forced to cut open and drain his own wounds. It was an image that deeply upset the big hearted man and the tree was going to pay!

Soon the sound of two axes thumping away at the wood could be heard for miles around. Vin and Buck fought with the thick branch with a vengeance, pausing only now and then to get some water. Soon the branch started to crack and to sag… and Chris screamed!

“Shit! What are ya doin', ya idiots?” Nathan suddenly was there, trying to keep the branch from sagging over and resting with even more weight on Chris' legs. “I thought ya had thought this through. Ya can't jist drop it all on his legs, the pressure's more 'n enough as it is now! Help me!”

“Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck!” Buck was already there, putting his body under the branch to keep it in its former position as well. “Now what?”

“We gotta keep this up, keep it from crashing down on him. Ya idiots! I thought ya were chopping off them side branches. How do ya wanna get this branch off with all them side branches still attached. Jist let them scrape all over him when we pull this one away?”

“Aw, Nate, we just wanted him freed!”

“Ya gotta think first, Buck, ya gotta think! Ya don't git somewhere if ya hurt yer horses so much ya can't ride them anymore! Or yer too tired ta be of any good! Vin was here already, ya knew that! And this, this was plain stupid!”

“Don't start, Nate! I just felt we could' a been here a lot sooner!”

“You two, can it!” Vin suddenly hollered. “I don't care what ya were all fighting about on yer way here. We gotta deal with that damn branch first!”

Silence followed his outburst. Then the men heard a soft chuckle. It was Chris. He was looking at his three friends, all wild eyed and disheveled, two hardly visible from between all the wood, one with a head red from anger… He chuckled again.

“Glad yer havin' so much fun Chris,” Nathan told him a bit stiff. “But in case ya hadn't noticed, it's yer legs we're tryin' ta save. Vin, find somethin' ta keep this up.”

Vin looked around, then mumbled something.

“What? Preferably this day, would ya?” Buck called out at him sarcastically. “What ya goin' on about?”

“I don't see anything. Not somethin' I kin lift alone! Ya maybe got an idea over there? Ya could think along, 'stead of only huggin' that damn tree!”

“Hugging? Hugging? While you…” Buck could only sputter the rest.

“Shut up, both a you,” Nate ordered. “We gotta think. What? What did ya say Chris?”

“Maybe… saddles? They're higher than m… my… legs?”

“Now yer talking,” Vin said in obvious relief. “Glad one here 's still thinking. I'm gonna git 'm.”

Soon he had put down his, Buck's and Nathan's saddles in such a way that the tree branch would come to rest on them when getting loose from the main trunk. Buck and Vin now targeted all the side branches attached to it, and Nathan went to see how the blond was doing.

“Ya look like yer in a lot of pain, Chris. Listen, I got some tea for ya, and I want ta give ya some laudanum 'gainst the pain.”

“Hate l… laudanum, makes me groggy…, sl… sleepy.”

“Yeah, well, yer already groggy as it is and sleeps good for ya. Now, drink up. It'll be good ta be without pain fer a while.”

“Horrible…, m… makes me feel sick.”

“Yer also already sick, Chris, so it all makes no difference. Now, come on. Truth be told, I want ya out before we git that tree of ya. Gonna be a rough enough ride gittin' it totally off ya and then I'll have ta take care of yer legs. Ya think one is broken, don't ya?”

“F… felt bones move…”

“Aw, Hell. Means I gotta reset it.”

In the end Chris drank the laudanum, cursed but also drank the tea, and finally slipped into unconsciousness again. It gave Nathan the opportunity to take the third axe and help clear as much wood away from the thick branch pinning Chris down as possible. It was beginning to get dark and they didn't want Chris trapped another night. Removing the branch would be safer with light to see, though.

“Man 's too stubborn fer his own good,” he lamented against Vin and Buck about Chris' initial refusal to take the laudanum.

Vin smirked. “He might 've thought we might need his brains again, ta git us out of a fix if we do something stupid agin.”

“Wonder why he would think that?” Nathan asked innocently and the two men shared a heartfelt laugh, a laugh that had more to do with their relief that Chris seemed about to be saved than with the funniness of the joke. Buck scowled at them, which set the two off again.

Finally the branch was gone and Chris was free. Nathan immediately started examining Chris' legs. “Seems the right one got the brunt. It's broken alright and I'm gonna need yer help setting it. The left one seems black an blue, and full of scratches, but it's okay. Nothing broken there.”

Vin and Buck looked at each other, reading the relief in one another's eyes. “Thank God!” the ladies man said with force.

“Yeah,” Tanner breathed.

“Does have a nasty wound on his hips here though, has bled a lot, luckily it stopped. Gotta clean that real good. He got spare clothing? He really needs cleaning.”

“Think he's got pants left.”

“Yeah, well, git one a mine. Those tight jeans a his are hell ta git over bandaged wounds! And it's an old one, don't mind we have ta cut a leg off for the splinting.”

They were happy men when they held Chris down, while Nathan set the bones in his right leg and splinted it securely between two pieces of wood. Chris came around, screaming and fighting during the setting, but he wasn't fully awake and soon after he went under again. The light in the sky had long gone and everything was done by firelight. Afterwards the three men hung around the fire, all of them keeping a close eye on the blond. Chris looked alright, they had to admit. Way too white, but his fever didn't rise and the laudanum induced sleep made him look at peace.

“Had ta be rough,” Buck said. “Stuck here all alone, with a cougar trying ta get him. How was he Vin, when ya got here?”

“Like I said, past the worst,” Vin told him. “Fever was still pretty bad but goin' down. Don't know how that would a gone without me cooling him the rest a the day though.”

They looked again at their comrade and leader.

“Hope that wagon gets here soon,” Buck stated. “Time ta git him home!”


The night was peaceful. Chris sometimes started to mutter and mumble, the words Sarah and Adam definitely there, but Vin had spread his bedroll right beside his friend and instantly awoke as soon as he heard Chris. He would touch the blond and murmur reassuring words to him until his friend was back to a peaceful sleep.

After a particularly bad dream, Vin fell asleep with his arm still over Chris' chest, unable for a moment to let go of this man he could have so easily lost. He needed the reassurance that he still had his friend, still wasn't alone anymore as badly as Chris needed an anchor to reality.

+ + + + + + +

Chris held Sarah close to him. “I miss you so much, you and Adam,” he whispered in her ear. She hugged him back and kissed him, softly, slowly.

“We are right here, Chris, right here.”

“No, you're not. Not anymore.” He stroked some escaped strands of her beautiful hair out of her face. “Oh Sarah, I've been so lonely without you two, so alone.”

“Are you Chris? Alone?”

Vin opened his eyes when he heard Chris mutter again and gently shook him.

“Easy Chris, it's jist a dream pard, jist a dream. Yer safe. I'll keep ya safe, I swear!”

“Vin?” Before Vin could reply, Chris' eyes closed again.

“Are you alone Chris?” Sarah asked again.

“Not anymore…”

She clasped her arms around him. “Not anymore, my husband, my love. Not anymore.”


“Hi son.” Chris scooped Adam up into his arms.

“Daddy, ya gonna leave us?”

“Yeah… I've got no choice Adam, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry! Hey, buddy. Big smile, huh? Come here, you.” He hugged the little boy close. “Take care of your mommy, okay? You promise?”

“Uh-huh. Good bye daddy.”

He saw them standing there, Adam trying to look tall, but still a bit sad. Sarah with one hand on Adam's shoulder, radiating that glow she had had when she was pregnant with Adam. Her other hand was protectively over her belly. His heart constricted when he saw her standing like that.

Tears started to fall. He couldn't stop them. He would never know, never know.

And then it happened again. Fire was consuming them, both of them. Hot, it was so hot. He couldn't get to them. Had to get them out!

Chris was screaming and thrashing again. “NOOOOOOO! No, no fire, no fire! NOOO!”

“Chris, Chris, I'm here, I'm right here. Yer safe, there's no fire! Chris, wake up, wake up! It's me, Vin! I'll keep ya safe Cowboy, let go of it, I'll keep ya safe.”

Chris opened confused eyes and looked into Vin's. “V… Vin?”

“I'm here pard, right here. Yer safe, I ain't gonna leave ya. Yer safe.”

Chris smiled at his best friend.

“You're here,” he whispered.

“Yep, and I ain't gonna go anywhere, I'm where I gotta be.”


“Yeah, it is… So you jist relax, I got yer back.”

When the dawn started to bring light to the small open glade where the four peacekeepers had made their camp, Chris' fever broke.

+ + + + + + +

The sun was shining again and dappling the forest floor around him. Chris tried to get up a bit more. He gasped when the pain of his arm and leg hit him. Instantly hands were there to help him sit a bit straighter.

“That better?” Vin asked.

Not trusting his voice just then Chris only nodded. He felt better anyway, no longer dizzy or so nauseated. He looked at his legs and saw that only one was splinted.

“B… bad?” he rasped.

“Nope, you were lucky.” Nathan. He looked up and saw his friend standing a bit further by the fire. He was putting something in a mug and Chris had the feeling he wouldn't like what was going in there.

“That branch didn't fall with all its weight on yer legs. Some side branches held it off a bit. Only one leg broken and it's only broken in two places. Clean breaks. Was shifted some, but no trouble ta set it again.”

“Good. Thought ya might've to… re… rebreak it.”

“Nope, but it shouldn't 've been much longer.”

He came over and handed the mug to Chris. Chris eyed it suspiciously.

“Yeah, well, ya know it helps with the fever. And infections too.”


Both his friends laughed at the sound of long suffering in his voice. He just sighed and started sipping the hot tea. At least it was hot.

“How long…?”

“Let's see....” Nathan answered. “We came in here yesterday late afternoon. Vin was here already.”

“Yep, came in early mornin'. Real early, was barely light.”

“Really? Must 've ridden like the devil. Ya didn't take off that long before us, did ya?”

“Took of b'fore dawn. And y'all probably that afternoon?”

“Yep, afternoon. JD 'd been riding like the devil. Left you the day before that, so that makes it … three days 'n three nights now.”

“Can't remember much 'bout yesterday.”

“Can imagine. Ya had a high fever. Vin said it'd been even worse. He'd been trying to cool ya down all day.”

Chris looked at Vin, saw the tired eyes. “Remember that… Fire, and you pulling me out, again and again… Sarah and Adam…”

He looked away, not wanting to let them see the tears he suddenly felt in his eyes.

“'s alright, Cowboy. Ya been calling out fer them a lot. But there were times ya were smilin' too, so I guess ya had some good dreams too.”

“Yeah, about our time together.” He looked at Vin again. “I just miss them Vin, a lot.”

Vin grasped his right arm and Chris grasped it back in that arm shake that was theirs alone.

Nathan looked away for a moment, feeling like he intruded on a private moment that wasn't his. At that moment Buck ambled over. The rogue's face lit up when he saw that Chris awake and sitting up more straight.

“Chris! You old dog, how are ya?”

“Buck! You here too? God, I didn't empty out the town, did I?”

“Ya sure have! Josiah and JD are following with a wagon, so that only leaves good ol' Ez ta guard the town. They'll survive. How ya feeling?”

“Fine. I'm fine Buck.”

Buck grinned. “Don't look fine, pard. Look like death warmed over. Still, good ta see ya lucid fer a change. Makes a nice change of personality!”

Chris had to smile. He and Vin let go of each other and Vin started to help him get the blankets back up. Chris stopped him, frowning. “That's your blanket, Vin. Where's?”

His eyes trailed to some bushes where he saw his blanket and trousers hanging, obviously wet and put up there to dry. He turned bright red when it hit him what had been done.


“Chris, had ta be done, let it go. Ain't none here that minded.”

“I do.” Vin hardly caught the softly whispered words. He gripped the blond's shoulder 'til Chris finally looked him in the eye again.

“I don't,” he whispered back. “Jist mighty glad yer still here, Cowboy, mighty glad.”

“Yeah”, Buck said, his voice sounding a bit rough, and Nathan just nodded.

Chris looked at his friends and saw the truth in their eyes. Just something they didn't mind doing for him, like riding themselves and their horses into exhaustion, to get him freed from under that tree. All of them had been prepared to do that, for him. It was a hard concept to grasp for the solitary man. A hesitant smile grew and he nodded his thanks to his three friends. Three broad smiles answered him back.

Nathan came closer to check the wounds and his legs. Chris hissed when the black healer started to prod and poke everything and renewed bandages. He was sweating and feeling a lot worse when his friend was finally done.

“Things are going well, Chris,” the healer assured him.

“Yeah? Could'a fooled me.”

“I did offer ya some laudanum.”

“H… hate that stuff! Makes me groggy…and slow. Can't afford slow…”

“You can now, pard. We're here ta guard yer back,” Buck assured him.

“I know, Buck. Just don't wanna…”

“…give over all control,” Vin smiled.

Chris smiled back at him. Buck and Nathan looked at each other and gave a deep sigh.

“Chris, I wanted t' ask ya something.” The healer had picked up a sachet with tea herbs, the one he knew he'd given Chris for the journey, just in case. “Found this open beside ya. Was wondering 'bout that.”

“Oh, yeah, that. Couldn't make tea. Knew I needed something for the fever. So I chewed some willow bark from that.”

“What all did happen here, stud?” Buck asked, seriously now.

“Happened? Not much. Saw the tree topple over, right where JD stood. Pushed him out of the way but wasn't fast enough, so I got caught myself. Finally got JD to get help and got really bored after that.” He looked at Buck. “Got to dreamin' bout Sarah and Adam, Buck, like I was with them again.”

Buck wordlessly pressed his shoulder, giving silent comfort.

“Would've been alright if it hadn't been fer that damn cougar. Couldn't see him well enough, until it was too late. Was a bitch to clean those wounds.” He looked at Nathan worriedly. “My arm really alright, Nate? Was badly infected when I got to taking care of it. Had to…” He swallowed, “had to cut real deep to get it clean enough. Did I get it all?”

“Ya did, Chris. Good thing ya did too or I don't know if y'd been able ta keep that arm. Teeth marks, deep ones and 'specially from a predator, they're bad, real bad. Get infected fast and ghastly. It's good ya got in deep, and Vin's been keeping an eye on it since he got here. I got it cleaned good with carbolic since yesterday. Chest too, so it should be alright.”

“Good. Kept seeing a bl… bloody stump!”

“Don't look like that's gonna happen. Now, I got some broth too, so why don't I give ya that. Don't seem like ya had nothing ta eat all them days up here.”

“No, wasn't hungry though. Still ain't.”

“Yeah, well, ya gotta eat. And afterwards, more tea.”

Chris groaned. It took some coaxing and more threats to get him to drink both. After that he was eased down. He refused to go down totally flat on his back though. Vin understood, resting against something made Chris less vulnerable than flat on his back, so he just ignored Nathan in this and made sure Chris was comfortably lying against his saddle again.

Nathan at last just threw his hands up and walked away, muttering. Chris, Vin and Buck grinned at each other.

+ + + + + + +

At the end of that day a wagon was heard rumbling and creaking on the trail. Vin and Buck immediately went to investigate and came back with Josiah and JD. They all walked in on a little war.

“Nate, just help me up!”

“No! That's still a double break and yer still weak from all that fever. Listen Chris, I got a bottle right here, what's the big deal? How ya think we did this when ya were still half under with fever?”

“NATE! Fine, I'll get up alone.”



Vin hurried over, helping Chris sit up. “Why can't he get on his feet fer jist a short ways?” He asked Nathan accusingly. “Thought ya had splinted his leg up good?”

“Yeah, well, better ta wait til the bones start growing together, 'fore ya put pressure on it.”

“Right, so we won't put pressure on it. Come on, Chris, Buck 'll help as well.”

It was JD who was suddenly under his other arm though.

“JD!” Chris smiled one of his very rare full bloom smiles. “Yer okay, kid?”

“Yeah, I am. Sorry Chris, wanted to be here sooner, but they made me ride in the wagon. We only stopped ta rest the horses though. Been riding most of the night ta git here today.”

“Good. Wouldn't mind leaving this place.”

Chris looked aside at the hide of the cougar, still hanging over some branches of the fallen tree. JD looked at it as well. “Buck told us you'd been attacked by a cougar. That you're in a bad shape… I'm really sorry Chris. If it hadn't been for me…”

“Can it, JD! Ain't your fault that damn tree toppled over. Ain't your fault either that I wasn't fast enough.”

JD stopped, looking up incredulously at Chris. “Not fast enough? You saved my life! You were moving faster to me than I'd ever seen anyone move! How can ya say that?”

“Still got caught by the thing, didn't I?”

“Shit, I don't believe your saying this!”

Vin grinned. “Don't let it bother ya, JD. He's jist a hardhead. Come on, let's leave him fer a while and then git 'm back to his bedroll.”

JD and Vin turned to leave Chris some privacy. It gave him the feeling that finally he was getting a grip on things again.

That night the six leaned around the fire and their leader. Buck and Josiah tried to outdo each other in bawdy stories. Nathan and Vin teased them in every way they could think of and Chris and JD let it all come over them. Chris was laying back against his saddle, like usual not really contributing much to the conversations, but not missing anything that was going on either.

Finally he stared hard at JD. The young man hadn't said much, hadn't tried to tell jokes and had been studying him all evening now. He tried to hide it, looking away fast when Chris looked at him, but Chris hadn't missed the scrutiny.

When JD surreptitiously looked back again, Chris was staring hard at him. JD sighed. He knew Chris missed nothing, so what had he expected? Chris kept staring and the message was clear, he wanted to know what was on JD's mind. JD squirmed.

Unexpectedly Buck leaned over. “Stop studying him. Jist go over and tell him what's on yer mind. He ain't in a condition ta eat ya.”

“Could still shoot me, Buck.” Both looked at the cougar hide.

“Guess he could. But something 's eating ya, so jist go over and git it of yer chest.”

“But, but, it's Chris!” JD hissed.

“Yep, ornery son of a bitch, not really nice, but still a friend, ain't he?”

JD turned red. How did he tell Buck he didn't think of Chris as a friend? Saw him more as a… a… He suddenly couldn't find a word for what Chris meant to him. He just knew he admired him, a lot. He also didn't understand him at all!

The decision was taken from him by Chris himself. “JD?” the soft voice suddenly said. “Come here. We need ta talk.”

JD looked at his feet for a moment, than at Chris. He shook himself mentally and scuffled over to the blond. When he plopped down next to Chris, he stared at his feet again, not wanting to look the gunslinger in the eye.

Chris waited til the others had resumed their conversation, then for a fleeting moment touched JD's arm. “JD, what 's eating ya?”

JD hesitated before he looked into Chris' eyes. For a moment those green, mesmerizing eyes held his and he couldn't look away again. With a gasp he freed himself and went back to staring at his feet.

“JD? If you're still feeling guilty, you know that's plain stupid. Ya had ta get help. There was no other way.”

“You were under that tree 'cause a me, Chris.”

Looking up again, he asked the question that had been burning inside of him. “Why Chris? Why did ya do it? Why did ya risk getting' killed ta save me? Why? I don't even know if ya like me.”

“Like you? JD, I like you. What's that gotta do… You didn't really expect me to let ya get squashed by a tree and do nothing?”

“If you'd been killed Chris… You've no right to swap yerself fer me! No right! The town needs you more!”

Chris sighed and pushed his hand through his hair. “I've never heard such bull. Town don't need me at all. You're a good man, JD. You got a full life ahead of ya. A girl that really likes ya. Chance to make a difference. And you will. You got courage, a great heart. Yeah, you'll make a difference! Me, I'm just washed out. So if it's about who should live, that was no hard choice at all.”

JD gasped and suddenly Chris realized everyone had gone deathly quiet. They all looked at him.

“What?” he asked irritated, seeing the scowls and angry looks.

“Yer every bit right 'bout JD, but that don't mean ya have ta sell yerself short,” Buck said angry.

“Weren't fer you and Vin, I'd be dead now, so don't talk 'bout yerself like ya don't make no difference. Ya do,” Nathan stated.

“Ya brought us together, son, and yer keeping us together. Even Ezra is still with our group. That's achievement in itself. But it's even more of an achievement because of the difference we make.” Josiah smiled. “Taking on those six or ten to one odds,” he said in fond remembrance.

Chris scowled at them.

“Yep, you got good plans and the devil's luck when it comes ta taking on the bad element!” Buck whooped. “Ten to one odds, huh, Josiah? Which one was that?”

“Hell, son, it was when we got Lucas James from the James' Ranch.”

“Ah, the one I had ta git yer asses out of the fire later on, when they all came after ya. Shame I missed the party at the ranch though.”

“Yep, was a real party…”

Buck and Josiah started telling tales again, this time from the adventures they had had since they had became the seven peacekeepers for Four Corners. Nathan put in his two cents as well, not to be outdone and the stories got taller and taller.

This time Vin was as silent as Chris. They looked at each other, Vin's blue eyes hard and angry. Chris flinched for a moment, but didn't look away. Finally Vin stood up, came over and kneeled beside Chris.

“You ever make a remark like that, like ya make no difference, I shoot ya myself,” he hissed and stalked off, not looking back.

Chris followed him with his eyes. Then he saw JD again, still sitting next to him. The boy looked uncomfortable.

“Vin's really angry with you, Chris.”


Later on he was wakened briefly out of a restless sleep when Vin came back. Like last night, he laid himself right beside Chris. Chris smiled briefly at the tracker and saw Vin scowl back. He fell asleep again, but this time it was a deep, restful sleep.


The journey back to Four Corners in the wagon was rough on Chris. The jolting made him hurt all over and made him nauseas again. The fever came back that first evening on the trail, as the deep wound in his thigh turned out to be infected. After they were back, they managed to keep Chris all of a week in Nathan's clinic, partly because the first three days he was far too much out of it to know where he was. Now it was two weeks since his release and Chris was hobbling through town as much as he wanted. Right now he was sitting outside the jail, his mending leg on a stool in front of him, book in hand.

All by himself again, JD noticed. It never had bothered him before, but ever since that lonely ride back to Four Corners, knowing that he had had to leave Chris all on his own in the wilderness trapped under that horrible tree, it had stuck with him, the way Chris held himself away from others so much. These weeks back in Four Corners, he had started to watch Chris, keeping track of how much time the grim gunslinger stayed on his own.

It was a lot of time and he didn't think it had anything to do with a broken leg and hurting arm.

He thought he did it unobtrusively, but lately Buck had asked if he was afraid Chris would drop dead after all. Nathan had asked if something was wrong with him. Ezra wanted to know if he was trying to pry a secret from the gunslinger and if it was worth a bet. Vin had started to glare at him. Only Josiah had known why he was looking.

“Just ask him, JD,” he had told the youth, giving him a pat on the back JD still felt hours later. He had the distinct feeling Josiah didn't approve of what he did either.

If they all knew, you could bet Chris knew too.

At that moment Chris looked up from his book, straight at him. That had happened more often than not the last two weeks as well. JD felt his color rise. It was all so damn embarrassing. But he just had to understand.

Watching Chris didn't help him understand one bit though. He sighed and turned to go. The moment he did, the green eyes dropped back to the book and Chris eased further down into his chair. A moment later, Vin was there as well, taking the chair next to Chris. Both men looked at each other, then Vin looked towards him and just shook his head. The two men looked at each other again, not saying one word. Still, Vin stood up and very purposefully walked towards him.

Aw shit! JD decided it was way past bolting time and took a dive into the alley at his left. It didn't help. Vin was there within the minute.

“Eh, hi Vin.”

“Cut it out JD. It's been long enough! Chris may think he should a let ya git to it in yer own sweet time, but it's startin' ta eat at 'im, not knowing what ya want. Not ta mention it's gettin' damn embarrassing. So ya go over there right NOW and talk ta him! Got that?”

“I don't think it's any of yer business Vin.”

“I make it my business!” A very firm hand gripped his arm and a few moments later he was dragged like a little kid through the main street of Four Corners.

“Aw, Vin, don't do that! Let go! Cut it out Vin. Vin!”

Vin propelled him towards the jail. The town's inhabitants looked on with amusement. JD saw the quiet laughter in Chris' green eyes and suddenly he was really mad at Vin.

“Damn it Vin! Ya had no right!”

Vin just shoved him in the chair he had occupied himself a few moments earlier and leaned against the nearest post. It didn't seem like he was going anywhere. JD made himself small and wished he was everywhere but here.

“Eh... hi Chris.”

Chris only looked at him.

Silence reigned.

Finally Vin threw up his hands in the air and snarled to JD: “Kid, fer the love of God, what is it ya want with Chris? Why are ya watchin' him every damn minute of the day?”

“I'm not! Well, not every minute. I just... I just....”

“JD, what?” asked Chris' soft voice.

JD looked at him carefully. There was no anger in Chris' eyes, only curiosity and also some weariness. That hurt, the last thing JD wanted was to make his hero weary of him.

“Ever since we've been back from Bear Pass, ya been watching me. Why?”

“Well, eh... Oh Chris, this will sound so stupid. It's just...”

He looked down at the ground. How to say this? But Josiah was right, just watching Chris wasn't going to give him the answer. If he wanted to understand, he had to ask. So he squared his shoulders, looked back up at Chris and just told him.

“At Bear Pass you said... you said you'd been alone ever since yer family died and it was nothing new to ya. I knew I had ta leave, but I hated it. Not just leaving you, also… also…” JD turned a bright red. It seemed so selfish now!

“I eh… I really hated to be out all alone on the trail, no one to talk to, or to tell me things would be okay. Chris, I felt awful so alone. I got to thinking 'bout you, 'bout what ya said, ya know, 'bout ya always bein' alone since… since yer fam'ly... It made me wonder and I jist remembered how you're constantly, I mean… Chris! Why do you stay by yerself all the time? Why are y' always out here alone, or in the saloon alone, or you go off to yer shack? How can ya stand it?”

Chris looked stunned for a moment at the outburst. He didn't say anything, just looked at JD. JD started to squirm under that penetrating gaze.

Finally Chris looked up at Vin. “That what I do, Vin?”

“Yep. Comes as naturally to ya as breathin'. That what ya feel, ya been alone ever since ya lost yer family?” There was a quiet anger in the young man's eyes.

“Yep, until I looked into some damn stubborn, pig-headed Texan eyes. Wasn't gonna tell JD that. Had ta get him ta move. Ta go git help. Said a lot more ta make 'm move.”

“Alright then.”

Chris looked back at JD, who didn't really understand why that conversation had taken place, but he did pick up one thing. “Ya lied ta me, Chris? Ta git me movin'?”

“Not lied JD, exaggerated. Don't mind being on my own, you know that's true. It's why you've been stalking me. It was the same with feeling myself bleed. I was bleeding, just didn't expect ta bleed ta death from it. JD, you got a big heart and I knew ya didn't wanna leave me, but it had ta be done.”

“Still don't understand why you're always out here on yer own. Even in the saloon, somehow yer alone. Ya don't come over and hang out with us. Well you hang out with us sometimes when we drag you in, but lots of times ya don't! Why not?”

Chris slumped back in his chair and pushed a hand through his hair. He all of a sudden looked very tired.

“Cause I don't want to, JD.”

“But why?”

“Don't like the talk.”

“Vin don't talk much but he hangs out with us. When he ain't hanging with you that is. Vin's 'bout the only one ya seek fer company unless it's business, it's about the job. I don't understand! I'd hate it. Hate ta be on my own all the time! You've got friends Chris. We're yer friends!”

“I know. That's enough, just to know it.”

Chris looked at Vin for a moment. Vin understood, he knew. The man's eyes were quietly laughing about his discomfort. He heaved a sigh and looked at JD once more.

“Can't stand all the talking, all the jokes, all that pushing in. Never did like talking 'bout nothing. Now, I hate it. It crowds out my family, Sarah and Adam.”

He saw the incomprehension on the young man's face. “I've got my family inside me, JD. It's the only way I can still have them with me. Damn fire took it all, everything, and left me with nothing. Pony is the only memory I have left from the most important time in my life. That and what I carry inside. Ain't letting all the nonsense of other people drown them out, JD, not even if those people are my friends.”

Chris looked away now. “Sometimes the pain's too much and I need ta do something 'bout that. Buck thinks I try ta forget at those times. I never do that. I never want ta forget! I need ta remember…Just sometimes I want ta deaden the pain inside.”

Chris took his book again. “That answer yer question JD?”

“Y… yes…” The young man was visibly shaken. He didn't know what he'd expected, some world changing truth maybe, something wise on the outlook of life. Not this revelation of deep, undying grief. He shuddered. He wished he'd never asked.

“Quit the damn stalking JD. I've had enough of it. Leave it alone.”

“Alright Chris.” Dejectedly the young man walked away. Chris looked after him, then at Vin who took the chair back.

“Don't reckon he understands.”

“Well, most people don't. Why ya tell 'im? Ain't like you ta talk 'bout this.”

“Don't know. Somehow I think he needed ta know. He's got this strange image of me in his head. And he's grown. Grown a lot since he shot Annie as well. He's learning to deal with stuff. He's a good man Vin. Someone I don't mind knowing this.”

“Yep.” Vin leaned his chair back against the wall of the jail and pulled his hat over his eyes. “He sure is. And yer family must've been real special too, wish I'd known 'em Cowboy. Hey, ya finally gonna read ta me from that damn book?”

Chris grinned. “You done somethin' ta deserve it?”

“Uppity, no good, scrawny Cowboy. I put up with ya. Should be 'nough ta reward me. Sides, I don't get ya ta read to me from time ta time, I'll prob'ly forgit how your voice sounds. Now, don't keep me waitin'!”

Chris laughed, the sombre mood JD's question had put him in forgotten. He looked at the book in his hand, then back at this quiet young man who'd made life more bearable again. Vin said he wished he'd known his family. He suddenly wished that too. And that Sarah and Adam had known Vin as well. They would have liked him a lot.

“How 'bout I tell ya some stories instead about Sarah and Adam? Introduce ya to them?”

Vin's sudden widening of his eyes was answer enough.