Comes a Horseman

by Cmurph

Disclaimers: This is written in an alternate universe where Sarah and Adam are alive. If that doesn't interest you, read no further. I wanted a universe to explore the relationship between Vin and Sarah (NOT romantically) and Vin and Adam. Vin is a little younger here, although I have listed no ages. The meeting of the seven is completely different from the show, there are some plot lines carried over and others dismissed. Plain and simple - I just had fun with it. All are welcome to play along. Anyway, it's the K-girl's favorite, so this is for her.

She watched him approach with a careful eye. Unconsciously she took quick note of where her son sat outside the barn, working on the bridle he was learning to braid. Mentally she pictured the rifle just inside the door as she backed up casually to the porch.

He had been riding long - it was evident in the dust on his clothes, the sheen of sweat on the horse he rode, the way he slouched in the saddle. He stopped a respectable distance from her and dropped the reins of his horse, placing his hands carefully on his thighs and she found herself relaxing, appreciating his desire to put her at ease in the presence of a stranger.

"Can I help you?" she asked, shielding her eyes with her hand against the setting sun.

He looked about the place, cleared his throat. His voice was soft, apologetic.

"I was wonderin', Ma'am," he said slowly. "Could ya tell me where the nearest town is from here?"

She smiled at the "ma'am," thinking he couldn't be that much younger than she to be addressing her so formally.

"Four Corners. About 15 miles north," she answered.

He paused, then pushed his hat back slightly and pulled the kerchief from his neck to wipe it across his face.

"You look like you've been riding hard," she offered tentatively. "There's a pump over by the barn."

Slowly the rider returned the kerchief around his neck. He cocked his head, considering the offer. He glanced at the pump and the trough that stood near it.

"Maybe I could water my horse?" he asked cautiously.

"I'll do it for ya mister," a young voice piped up as her son came running towards them.

She watched as the stranger backed his horse up carefully away from the approaching boy.

"He's a mite skittish," the man told them. "I best take care of it m'self."

The man dismounted slowly and led his horse to the trough. She watched his uneven gait and wondered again at his age. He walked like an older man, yet addressed her as if she were his senior, and the glimpse of his face she caught as he had pushed back his hat revealed a youth that surprised her.

The horse drank greedily and she nodded as the rider silently requested her permission to fill his canteen from the pump. His actions were slow and deliberate, almost delicate, as she watched him. He was afraid of her - no, not hardly - he was afraid of frightening her.

"Can I see your gun mister?" her son asked suddenly, pointing at the mare's leg that protruded from his saddle.

The man capped his canteen and secured it to the saddle horn as he swung up into the saddle, turning the horse, and the gun, away from the boy's view.

"A gun ain't for showin'," the young man said gruffly.

The woman noted with surprise the look of regret that shadowed his face almost as soon as the words had been spoken. She followed his gaze and saw the look of disappointment on her son's face.

"He's right, Adam," she said, smiling gratefully at the stranger. "Your pa'd say the same."

"But Uncle Buck..." the boy began, protesting.

"Uncle Buck does not make the rules of this house," she interrupted him.

The stranger smiled as he heard her whisper thank God to herself. She caught the flicker of a smile from him and blushed, finding herself wondering again at his age, his circumstance. He tipped his hat lightly.

"Thanks for your kindness, Ma'am," he said quietly. He turned to go, stopped and looked back at her once more.

"They got a doctor in this town?" he asked.

"A healer. Nathan Jackson. Good as any doctor you're bound to find for miles," she said. "Are you injured?" she asked suddenly, taking a step towards him. It would explain the way he slouched in the saddle, the way he walked.

"No Ma'am," he answered. He seemed to back away from her approach, wary of her concern. She watched him eye the house and barn carefully, then the land surrounding them. She wondered if she should be afraid of his attention to their home, but could not find it within herself to worry. His manner was not threatening, as much as concerned.

He took a breath to speak, seemed to think better of it and bit his lip lightly. He squinted above and behind her and then took a tentative breath again.

"It's lookin' to storm a fit," he said finally.

Sarah followed his gaze and noticed a few dark clouds gathering in the distance. They didn't seem particularly fearful to her, but she would readily admit her ignorance in the matters of Mother Nature since coming from her home in the East just a few short years ago. She wondered at the comment, then a new thought entered her mind.

"Did you need a place to stay - out of the weather?" she asked carefully.

He reacted almost as if he'd been struck, then swallowed hard, backing the horse up carefully.

"I didn't mean to...I'as only sayin' so's you'd be weren't my meanin' to..." he stammered, obviously discomfited by her offer, at the idea that she may have thought he was looking for her hospitality.

"Of course not, I only thought...Four Corners is over an hour away. I thought perhaps..." she found herself stammering now also and shook her head at her silliness. Why should she be nervous? But it was his unease that made her desperate to explain herself.

"Sorry to bother ya," he said suddenly. He tipped the brim of his hat to her shyly, painfully anxious to leave. He rode on north towards Four Corners.

"No bother," she called after him, unsure whether he heard or not. Adam ran to her and she placed an idle hand on his shoulder as she watched the rider depart.

"He was nice," said Adam simply. He looked up at his mother. "When's Pa comin' home?"

Sarah smiled down at him. "Yes he was," she agreed. "Your father's coming back tomorrow morning." She looked over at the bridle that lay across the trough. "I wonder if that new bridle will be ready by then?"

"Aww, Ma," Adam said. He hugged her quickly and went back to the trough to take up his work.

A cool breeze blew through suddenly, catching her breath, and she noticed that the dark clouds were gathering quickly now in the distance. The stranger was right - it showed the beginnings of a great storm. Good thing Chris planned to stay in town. She shuddered suddenly and drew the shawl that hung loosely about her waist up around her shoulders. Sarah glanced again at the foreboding skies and wondered at the feeling of disquiet that had stolen across her.

"Just the storm," she said, wishing there had been more conviction in her voice.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee watched the skies growing darker outside the sheriff's office. He rubbed his neck and leaned back in the creaking desk chair in which he sat.

"Sarah won't melt, Chris," his friend said with a smile. "She can handle a thunder storm."

Larabee glanced at Buck.

"Waverly's place caught fire the last time..."

"Waverly's an idiot," Buck interrupted. "Sarah isn't." He sighed, shaking his head as he watched his friend. "If it really bothers you that much go on home. I'll handle things here with the kid."

Chris shook his head lightly.

"No, you're right. Probably bite my head off for thinkin' she can't take care of the place herself." Chris answered.

The door to the jailhouse blew open, a gust of wind sending it to crack against its hinges as it propelled J.D. inside.

"Whew! She's blowin' hard now," J.D. said as he shut the door behind him.

"You help Josiah batten down the church?" Buck asked.

"Yeah. He's all worried though. The old place is creakin' and groanin' somethin' fierce." J.D. answered.

Buck shot a glance over at Chris.

"Chris is thinkin' of headin' home," Buck said, reading the worried expression on his friend's face.

"Thought you was stayin' the night, Chris?" J.D. said.

"I am," Chris answered, glaring at Buck.

"He's worried about Sarah and Adam," Buck explained to J.D.'s confusion.

"We'll be okay, Chris. Go on if ya want," J.D. said.

Chris looked at both of his friends - his oldest and his newest - and chided himself. They must think he was crazy, worrying about a grown woman in a thunderstorm.

"Gettin' like an old mother hen," he said with a laugh. "I can see me now showin' up on our doorstep soaked to the skin and her and Adam inside by a warm fire laughin' at my foolishness. You're right, Buck. She'll be fine."

+ + + + + + +

The winds howled fiercely now as Sarah added another log to the fire. She wondered absently about the stranger who had come that afternoon. Had he made it to Four Corners before the storm had come upon them? The poor man looked dead tired. To have to ride through this, too. She shook her head.


She turned at the sound of unrest in her son's voice. He was at the window, looking out at the storm, but the face he wore was not bothered by the weather. She felt the shudder run through her again.

"Ma - riders' comin'," he said.

Her eyes flickered to the rifle by the door as she joined her son at the window.

"They're stoppin," Adam said, swallowing hard.

Her breath came quicker as she watched one of three men dismount. Her mind flashed to the stranger who had visited before - she felt none of the calm she had with him. These men were dangerous.

Mother and son watched the man approach the door, yet jumped when the door sounded with a thump of his fist.

"Lookin' for shelter," came a gruff voice just beyond the door.

Sarah took the rifle up in her hands and placed her face to the side of the door.

"You can put up inside the barn," she called out, cursing the unsteadiness she detected within her own voice.

"Sure ya can't do better than that lady?" the voice returned.

"You'll wake my husband," she shouted back. "I'm offering the barn and nothing more."

Adam gasped as a face appeared suddenly in the window, a hand splattered flat and hard against the thin glass.

"Ain't no man folk in there, lady," the man snarled. The face disappeared and Sarah reached instinctively to pull Adam behind her.

Glass shattered from the window and she cried out, backing away as she worked to steady her emotions enough to load the rifle in her hands.

An arm snaked through the shattered window towards the doorframe as Sarah raised the rifle.

"Back away or I'll shoot," she shouted, her fear overcome by rage and the need to protect her son.

More boots scuffed against the floor of her porch and she knew the others had joined him. She jumped as another fist thudded against the door. There was laughing now, sick and low, and her heart thudded wildly in her chest. The arm withdrew after its blind search for the door bolt and the room filled with only the sound of the storm raging outside.

Sarah's eyes darted wildly about her home. Adam stood frozen behind her, his arms clasped like iron around her waist, his face buried in her skirts. Her hands trembled as she held the rifle trained at the door before her. She held her breath.

Glass shattered around her as two more windows were broken and arms reached in through three windows, clearing the panes away with gloved hands. She screamed and fired but her shot was wide and the men continued to make their way into the house.

Sarah loaded again, cursing her trembling hands, then fell to the ground with Adam beside her as one of the windows blasted out completely, the man behind it tumbling into the house face first.

Adam was shouting and she heard her voice screaming madly as she held the gun on the man, aiming carefully this time - until she noticed his eyes were glazed, unseeing, the back of his head a bloody mess. Another blast rang out, another window frame splintered, and she saw a lifeless arm slip back out of the window.

Her mind reasoned amid the insanity she fought to keep at bay. Someone was firing from outside. Chris! Chris was here! She swung the rifle back to the window where one man remained. She heard shots fired once - twice - and then saw the man running away from her house.

"Stay here!" she screamed at Adam as she ran towards the door. She threw the bolt, sure Chris was there, sure the stranger had fired at least one of the shots she heard, praying he had not shot her husband.

She saw the stranger running to mount his horse and ride desperately out into the night, then saw a shadowed figure rising from the mud. A shotgun was raised and leveled at the fleeing figure in the distance and she watched with shock as the gun discharged and the figure dropped from his horse, dead.

"Chris!" she screamed, running to him through the rain, exhausted by her fear and relief. The man turned and a flash of lightening illumined a dark, muddied face. A stranger's face. She shrieked with terror, her hands covering her mouth in a scream - and fainted.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee rode through the night, the storm raging about him, cursing himself for his stupidity with every inch of ground the great black covered. She'd kill him. Kill him for riding in this storm because of a bad feeling he had. Thinking she couldn't take care of herself. Of Adam. He had kidded himself as long as he could into believing he'd spend the night in Four Corners. Until Buck and J.D. had finally convinced him to go home. By then the rain had begun and his friends shook their heads at the timing. And yet something kept urging him on towards home. Maybe it was one of Josiah's dreams. One of Ezra's hunches. One of Nathan's signs. Whatever it was, something was sending him home in the middle of the night, in the middle of a thunderstorm. Something was wrong.

+ + + + + + +

The boy launched himself at the intruder, his small fists flailing at his back and face.

"Let her go! Let her go!" Adam screamed.

"Hold on, boy! Hold on! She passed out is all. Let me get her to bed," the man said, carrying her through the house toward the bedroom.

"What did you do her?" the boy shouted, his fists still fighting, feet kicking.

"I ain't one of them who broke in," the man said, finally depositing Sarah on the bed and catching hold of the small fists that pummeled him furiously.

Adam struggled against his hold until their wrestling knocked askew the stranger's hat, revealing the face of the man he had seen before. The man with the mare's leg.

"You - you're from before," Adam said, stuttering.

"I ain't hurt your ma," the man repeated. "She just passed out from the shock. She'll be okay."

The stranger pulled his hat off and looked about the room.

"You got somethin' to dry your ma with? Some blankets? We got to warm her up," the man said.

Adam nodded dumbly. He reached a hand out to his mother, resting it lightly on her face to reassure himself that she was well. He felt the cold and saw her shudder. It sent him into action, pulling quilts and comforters off of beds and chairs and covering her with them.

"Where's your pa?" the stranger asked.

"He's in town. He's a peacekeeper. He's comin' home in the mornin'," Adam answered as they worked. He stopped, then, looking at the man. "I don't think I was supposed to say all that."

The man gave him a tired smile.

"Prob'ly not," he answered him. "But it's alright. I got no aim to hurt you or yer ma." He looked about the room at the shattered windows, the wind gusting through them. "Maybe get some more wood for the fire?"

"Yeah," Adam answered. "Wood box is on the side of the house. I'll be right back."

The stranger poured water into the kettle on the fire and wrapped the blankets carefully around the woman.

+ + + + + + +

Chris' heart thudded violently against his chest as he approached the homestead. The rain had stopped, and along with it the thunder and lighting that had been spooking his horse on the ride. Still, Larabee found himself gripping the black as it reared unexpectedly, encountering the body of a man in the mud thirty yards from his front porch. Chris raced blindly on, jumping from his horse as he neared his home looking with anger and fear at shattered windows, battered door, and the body that lay on his porch. He burst through the door, seeing a third body on the floor inside the window, a dark figure in his bedroom, bent over his bed - his wife! He raised the rifle in his hands and sent it crashing into the man's head as he heard his son scream behind him.

"No, Pa!"

Chris turned as the man before him slumped to the floor. Adam dropped the wood he was carrying and threw himself at his father, burying his face in the man's sodden clothes.

"Oh, Pa!" Adam cried, clinging to him.

"What happened? Are you hurt? Your mother..." he said, his hands searching the boy's body for blood or broken bones.

"I'm alright Pa. Ma's okay, too. Just fainted. He..." Adam said, pointing tremulously toward the still figure on the floor. "He saved us, Pa."

Chris swallowed the bile that had risen in his throat as his reason returned to him, his vision clearing from the red haze of rage that had engulfed him.

"Saved you?" Chris asked, confused. He looked at the wreckage of his home, at the figure prone and bleeding before him, then back to his wife.

Sarah stirred and her eyes opened slowly.

"Chris? Chris!" she gasped. He sat beside her quickly, drawing her into his arms. She wept shuddering sobs, then glanced wildly about her. "Adam?" she cried.

Adam ran to her side as she cried and laughed, holding them both in her arms.

"Pa..." Adam said, the fear finally leaving him, being replaced by the excitement of having been a part of the evening's adventure. "Pa...he..." Adam said, pointing again to the stranger who lay among them.

"Shit," Chris swore, kneeling beside the man.

"Oh, Chris," Sarah said, sitting up and taking in the scene before her. "He...he came earlier...he wasn't..."

"Adam said he saved you," Chris said as he tore a sheet to stop the blood that poured from the head wound Larabee had given him.

"I... I thought it was you. I went out front - the...the others were dead. I thought you had come...and then I saw him...and it wasn't you...and I thought... I thought..." "You fainted Ma," Adam said. "He carried you in and was tryin' to warm you up. He told me to go get wood for the fire. That's when Pa came home..."

"And whacked him good," Chris finished. He looked up at his wife. "I thought he was..."

"He's bleedin' Pa," Adam said.

"I know, Adam, I'm sorry...I..."

"No, Pa. There," Adam said, pointing to the man's side where a pool of blood was collecting against the wood floor.

"Sarah - he's been hit," Chris said as he pulled aside the buckskin jacket and worn shirt.

She was up in a flash, pulling back the covers so Chris could lift the man into their bed. Water hissed and she looked to see the kettle boiling over in the fire.

"He must have..." she began, then stopped to get a towel and take the water off the fire. "Adam - more sheets," she ordered, and once again the boy was sent off, this time to strip linens from his bed. They tore them into strips of bandages as Chris tried to stop the bleeding in the man's side and scalp.

"We're gonna need Nathan," he said as he worked clumsily to tie bandages in place. "Bullet's still in there and Lord knows what I did to his head."

"You didn't know," Sarah said, her hand on his arm. "You couldn't have known."

"Won't make his death rest any easier on my conscience," Chris muttered. "And there ain't gonna be any way to go for Nathan until morning."

"I'll go!" Adam offered, seeing his chance to be the hero the stranger had been to him.

"You'll do no such thing," Sarah admonished him. She looked at the pale young man who lay bleeding in her bed, then back at Chris.

"He saved us, Chris. He..." she said, her voice catching in her throat.

Chris looked about the house.

"What the hell happened Sarah?" he asked.

"There was five of 'em," Adam said excitedly. "And they busted down the door, and then..."

"Adam!" Sarah shouted, making the boy jump. "Adam," she said again, her eyes closed in an effort to calm herself. "Don't tell wild stories." She looked at Chris. "There were three of them. They tried to get in - broke the windows." She shuddered. "I had the rifle but I - I missed my aim," she said guiltily.

"Ain't like target practice Sarah," he said, resting his hand on her shoulder. "Ain't many folk who can shoot what they're aimin' at in such a case as that."

"One of them was coming through the window," she said, nodding towards the dead man on the floor. "Then suddenly there was a blast and he fell in, dead." She nodded towards the side window. "Then another one was killed and I thought it was you. When I raced outside I saw him," she looked at the young man lying still before them. "He killed the last man as he fled. But when he turned, I, it was dark, I thought maybe it was another of them and..." she lowered her eyes, feeling guilty for her weakness.

"It was the shock," Chris said gently. "Don't blame yourself for that."

"He was here earlier today," Sarah said as she pulled a quilt over the spare frame of the man. "Asked where town was, watered his horse. He was polite Chris, and so careful not to frighten me. Oh Chris," she said, the strain of the evening and her fear for the life of the young man overwhelming her as tears filled her eyes.

Larabee rose and looked out the pane-less window in his front room.

"Stopped rainin'," he said. "Be dawn in a couple hours." He looked back at the stranger, then at his wife.

Sarah swallowed hard. Her eyes swept over the body of the intruder that lay just outside her bedroom door.

"Get that trash out of my house and then go get Nathan," she said firmly.

Chris smiled, proud of the strength in her voice. He nodded once, then grabbed the dead man by the boots and dragged him from the house. He pulled the two men back behind his barn, then rode out to where the third lay and dragged him back as well.

When he returned to the house, Sarah had changed into dry clothes. She had removed the young man's wet clothing and covered him in quilts, and was now folding clean bandages for his head and side. Adam worked to clear away the broken glass and mud that littered their floors.

"I'll be back soon as I can," he told her. He kissed her, holding her tight, and breathed a prayer of thanks.

"I'll take care of things, Pa," Adam said behind him.

Chris and Sarah smiled at each other and she nodded at him to go.

"You do that, pard," Chris told his son, cuffing him lightly on the shoulder. He turned back to Sarah. "Keep the door bolted and the rifle handy," he warned, and left for Four Corners.

+ + + + + + +

His head pounded. His side was on fire. His throat was dry. Slowly he pried open one eye and looked about him. His vision was blurred, but he could make out the shape of a woman at the fire, pouring boiling water into a basin.

"Hey," a voice said, startling him. He opened the other eye and shifted his gaze to the foot of the bed. A young boy knelt, his head resting in his hands, his elbows propped on the bed.

"Hey," he croaked in return.

The woman turned at the sound of his voice and crossed quietly to his side. She pulled a chair beside the bed and looked down at him, her face creased with worry.

"I'm sorry," she said gently.

"'m I dyin'?" he rasped.

She was startled.

"No, no of course not. There's a doctor coming," she reassured him.

He looked at her, relieved, then confused.

"Why ya sorry then?" he asked.

"You were hurt protecting us," she told him.

He shrugged lightly, then closed his eyes as his tongue drew across dry lips.

"Adam, some water please," she said.

A cup of cool water suddenly appeared and he drank thirstily.

"Easy, not too fast," she said, gently pulling the cup away from his eager lips. "You'll make yourself sick."

He opened his eyes again, taking stock of his surroundings. He drew a hand across his chest and grimaced at the pain, then stopped and looked up at the woman. He pulled the blanket closer to his chin and blushed.

"I'm sorry, they were wet and...and bloody. You needed to get warm and dry. I needed to try and stop the bleeding," she told him.

He swallowed hard against the pain.

"I remember the bullet," he said, registering the fire that burned in his side. "But when'd my head fall off?"

Adam laughed.

"Hush, Adam," his mother said sternly. "I'm sorry about that, too. My husband came home when you were..." this time she blushed. "He thought..."

The man smiled lightly in understanding.

"Guess I'm lucky to be alive," he said.

"He's gone to get a doctor," she told him.

"That healer? Jackson?" he asked.

"Yes. You'll be in good hands. Nathan has a wonderful gift for healing," she assured him.

He looked at her, waiting, thinking. Then looked at the foot of the bed.

"Adam?" he said.

"Yes Sir?" The boy answered, standing.

"Seems you and me is the only ones been acquainted."

"Oh," Sarah said, smiling shyly. "I'm sorry. My name is Sarah. Sarah Larabee. My husband Chris will be back soon."

The young man took a breath, wincing at the pain, and let it out in a sigh.

"Vin," he said, his eyes falling slowly shut. "I'm Vin."

+ + + + + + +

Chris burst into the jailhouse, rocking the door from its hinges. J.D. and Buck looked up startled from a game of checkers. Chris looked at J.D.

"Get to Nathan's. Tell him to meet me at the livery. Gun shot and head wound."

J.D. blanched as Buck rose.

"Sarah?" he asked.

"She's okay. Adam too. Go J.D.!" he shouted as the young sheriff took off out the door.

"Buck, three men came to the house. Some stranger saved Sarah and Adam but got himself shot in the process. I didn't help matters. I need you and Josiah to come with me - clean the place up - get the bodies back to town," Chris told him.

"Damn, Chris, you were right," Buck said, grabbing his coat and heading out after Chris towards the livery.

"Didn't help much," Chris told him with disgust as he mounted the black. "Just may've cost a man his life."

Chris rode to the livery while Buck ran to get Josiah from the church. Nathan was checking over his bag as Chris arrived. J.D. was saddling a horse for Nathan. The healer looked up as Chris approached.

"J.D. says we got a gun shot and head wound - but Sarah and Adam are alright?" Nathan asked.

"They're fine. Pretty shook up, but they're doin' okay," Chris told him.

"So who am I doctorin'?"

"The man who saved their lives," Chris answered as J.D. and Nathan stared up at him. "So I'd be much obliged if you'd work your best miracles for him, Nate."

Buck and Josiah arrived and starting saddling their own horses as Nathan secured his bag to his saddle and swung atop his horse.

"We'll meet you there," Chris called to Buck and Josiah as he raced out of the livery with Nathan close behind.

"He tell you what this is all about?" J.D. asked as he helped Josiah and Buck ready their horses.

"Said three men came to their house. He wants me and Josiah to get the bodies back here," Buck answered.

"Who shot 'em? Chris?" Josiah asked.

"Not so far as I could make out. Sounds like some stranger saved Sarah and Adam. That's who Nathan's doctorin'," Buck told them.

"One against three? And a stranger to boot?" J.D. wondered.

"Guess we'll know in a bit. Hold the fort, J.D. Get Ezra outta bed and tell him the two of you got the reins until we get back," Buck said, mounting his horse.

"Watch your back!" J.D. shouted after them as Josiah and Buck raced off into the dawn.

+ + + + + + +

Sarah's face was creased with worry as she changed another bloodied bandage from the young man's side.

Vin. He had said his name was Vin, she thought to herself. His face was white, a mask of pain, and he had not woken but the one time when he told them who he was. She offered another silent prayer for his life, desperate to save the man she owed so much.

Adam had fallen asleep, curled up on a quilt at the foot of the bed. She had tried to get him to go to his own bed, but she could tell he was uneasy about leaving her, leaving them. And she couldn't blame him. She had to admit, she felt better having them all within sight of each other herself.

Sarah took a cloth and wiped away the sweat that beaded on his forehead. With his hair wet and brushed back, his face so still, he looked even younger. She wondered if he was even older than J.D. Yet she couldn't deny he had effectively shot and killed three men in a matter of minutes - one of them after having taken a bullet in his side.

"You may be young," she said softly, "but you're no kid."

"Ma?" Adam asked sleepily, hearing her voice.

"I'm sorry, Adam," she said, "I didn't mean to wake you."

"S'okay," Adam said, rubbing his eyes. He rose and stood next to his mother, looking down at their patient. "He's...he's gonna be alright? Pa...Pa didn't..." Adam stammered.

"It's the bullet we have to worry about," Sarah told him. "But your father will bring Nathan. Try not to worry."

"You are," Adam said, eyeing her closely.

+ + + + + + +

Buck and Josiah had caught up to Chris and Nathan as they neared the homestead. Chris pulled up a ways from the house and Buck stopped next to him.

"What is it?" Buck asked.

Chris eyed the ground and the distance to his porch, shaking his head.

"This is where I found one of 'em," he said, looking back at his house.

Buck waited as he watched Chris figuring something in his head. Larabee finally turned to him.

"He made that shot from in front of my house with a bullet in his side," Chris said as the accuracy of the stranger's aim slowly dawned on him.

"You sure?" Buck asked, incredulous. "Maybe he hit that one before he got to your house."

"No," Chris shook his head. "Sarah saw him do it. She thought it was me." He looked at his friends. "I couldn't have made that shot in a coon's age. Even without a bullet in me."

"There's Adam," Josiah said, seeing the boy run out onto the porch.

Chris spurred his horse and raced the last few yards to the house with the others close behind.

"Pa! He woke up!" Adam said as Chris dismounted and helped Nathan bring in his supplies.

"Uncle Buck - you should'a seen it! There were six of 'em and Vin took 'em down - bam - bam..."

"That's enough," Sarah said, eyes flashing, admonishing him as she met the men at the door. "If I hear you talking like that again you'll be cleaning the stables for a month. There's a man lying shot in there because of us. Don't you dare make his sacrifice out to be some kind of dime store novel, do you hear me?"

"Yes Ma'am," Adam said morosely, his head hanging low.

"Nate, this way," Chris said. He shot his son a warning glance and led the healer into the house. Josiah was already tying up the horses and heading towards the barn where the bodies of the intruders lay.

Buck chucked Adam's chin.

"Come on. We'll wipe down the horses and you can tell me what happened," he told the boy. He raised a finger, "The truth, though, right?"

Adam gave him a grateful smile and ran inside to get his coat before joining his surrogate uncle.

+ + + + + + +

"Adam said he woke up?" Chris asked as Nathan took off his coat and opened his bag, setting his instruments out alongside the bed.

"Just once. His name is Vin," Sarah said as she brought boiling water and clean linen for Nathan.

Jackson pulled away the bandage on Vin's side and shook his head. Then he leaned over the man's body to check the scalp wound on the back of his head. He shot a glance at Chris.

"I know, Nate," Chris said, reading the man's look of reprisal. "But, shit, I thought..."

"It's alright, Chris. Probably a concussion, but it doesn't look like you cracked his head open at all. Sarah? That looks to've stopped bleeding. We'll take the bullet out first. I'll probably need your help on this too, Chris."

Larabee took off his coat and rolled up his sleeves, readying himself to help with the grisly task of removing the bullet. He saw the concern in Sarah's eyes and knew she was worried for the man. Man? Hell, he looked like a kid. She was looking at him like a mother hen - as if it were Adam lying there. He shook his head. And why not? She owed him her life - hers and Adam's. Hell, he owed him. And so far, all he'd done was..."

"Chris? You ready?" Nate asked, tools at the ready.

"Yeah," Chris said, a shiver running down his spine. "Yeah, okay. Let's get this done."

+ + + + + + +

Buck looked up as he heard a cry of pain slicing through the morning air.

"Nate's gettin' the bullet," he explained to Adam as the young boy's eyes grew wide at the sound.

" think he's gonna die?" Adam asked fearfully.

Buck ruffled his hair.

"Not if Nate has anything to say about it." He went back to brushing down the horses in Larabee's barn.

"He was real nice, Uncle Buck. Even Ma said so," Adam told him, his mother's approval obviously the last word in any argument.

"Took a lot of risk, not even knowin' ya. I'd say that's a right nice fella, too," Buck agreed.

"He had a neat gun - I never saw anything like it," Adam said excitedly, then blushed at the memory. "I asked to see it closer but he said guns weren't for showing."

Buck looked at Adam, then thoughtfully back at the house.

"No wonder your ma approves," he said with a smile.

"Buck?" Josiah called from outside the barn. Wilmington walked out to see Josiah struggling to lead a horse he'd never seen before.

"That his?" Buck asked. "Or one of theirs?"

"That's Vin's," Adam said, joining him. "Vin said he was a mite skittish. Wouldn't let me water him."

"A mite skittish?" Josiah asked, straining to control the horse until it saw the water trough and allowed itself to be led near. "That's an understatement."

"You see these guys?" Buck asked Josiah who had been around the side of the barn already. "How should we do this?"

"We'll get Chris' buckboard. Load 'em in there," Josiah said. He glanced down at Adam.

"Why don't you go on back to the house now, Adam," Buck told the boy. "Nathan's probably just sewin' up."

"I saw 'em before, Uncle Buck," Adam said seriously. "I know what they look like dead."

Buck knelt down in front of the boy.

"I know ya do. And I know ya had quite a night here, son. I reckon we all owe that boy a debt of thanks for what he done last night." He drew the boy close, brushing the hair from his eyes. "Let Josiah and me clean this up out here now, though. You go in and see if you can help..."


Chris Larabee called as he stepped off his front porch.

"Go on in and help Nate and your mother now," he told the boy.

"Is Vin gonna live, Pa?" Adam asked, running to him.

"Nate says so," Chris told him. "Go on now. See for yourself."

Buck watched his friend as Chris' eyes followed his son inside the house. Chris stepped back and looked at the damage his house had sustained. Now that things had settled down, the full knowledge of what could've happened was sinking in.

Larabee jumped slightly as Buck put a hand on his shoulder.

"Sorry," Wilmington said, then, "They're okay, Chris."

Chris took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

"Yeah, yeah," he said, nodding at Buck. He looked back at the house.

"He really gonna be okay?" Buck asked.

"Nate says he's gonna have to put in a bit of healin' time, but he thinks he'll pull through fine," Chris said with relief. "Damn, Buck, I owe him..." he paused, his eyes carrying over to Josiah who was pulling one of the bodies around to the front of the barn. He looked back at Buck. "I owe him everythin', don't I?"

Buck nodded.

"I'm gonna duck in and see Sarah and this kid," Buck told him. "Josiah's got his horse tied up in your barn. He's gettin' ready to play undertaker for ya."

+ + + + + + +

"He say anything more?" Josiah asked as Chris helped him begin to load the buckboard.

"No," Chris answered, shaking his head. "Hasn't woke up since we got here with Nate."

"Vin, Adam said?"

"Yeah," Chris answered. He looked again out past his homestead. "Helluva shot for a kid."

"What about these three?" Josiah asked. "Look familiar to you?"

Chris shook his head.

"Don't recall 'em from any posters, either. Just passin' through I reckon. Thought the place looked like an easy mark," Chris said. He glanced guiltily at the itinerant preacher. "Reckon it was."

"Don't start blaming yourself," Josiah said.

"Why not?" Chris asked him. "Bound to happen - somethin' like this, anyway. Sarah gets hurt, or Adam, no one here to go for help. I been courtin' trouble for a long time."

"Now before you start thinking on any major career changes, let's just take care of the matters at hand," Josiah said, reading his mind. "Buck and I'll get these three into town. Send a few telegrams, check the Wanted posters, catch up J.D. and Ezra. You stay here with Nate and look after our young friend there for a bit."

"Thanks, Josiah," Chris said with some relief. "I'll get into town when I can. Tell Orrin to come on out if he needs to talk to me."

"You got it, Chris," Josiah said as he began to hitch a team for the buckboard.

"Tell Brother Buck I'm almost ready to take out the trash."

+ + + + + + +

Chris entered the house as Nate was washing his hands in a basin of soap water, talking quietly to Buck. Sarah was pulling a clean sheet over the young man while Adam helped to carry soiled clothes and linen to the soak tub.

"Nate?" Chris asked, closing the door behind him.

"Looks good, Chris," Jackson said with a contented sigh. He eyed Chris carefully. "Ain't the first time the boy's been shot," he told him. "Got a couple old wounds," he shook his head. "Seen some hard days, that one."

Chris rubbed his jaw thoughtfully.

"You think he's dangerous?" he asked finally. "It's obvious he knows how to shoot - how to kill."

Nate shrugged.

"All we got to go on is what Sarah says. She seemed to think he was no threat this afternoon. Says he seemed to go out of his way to put her at ease. And last night..." Nate paused, surveying the damage. "Not too many dangerous men willing to put their lives on the line for folks just cause they gave 'em a drink of water."

"He's not dangerous, Chris," Sarah said, coming up behind him. She looked at Nathan and her husband. "This afternoon, it was almost as if he didn't know how to accept kindness. Was almost afraid of it." She looked back at the still, sleeping form. "I don't think he's had too much shown him."

"Uh oh," Nate said quietly, his eyes sparkling a bit as he glanced from Sarah to Chris.

Chris smiled back. She saw the two of them looking at her.

"What?" she asked defensively.

"Nothing," Nate said innocently before breaking into a grin.

"What?" she asked again, her anger beginning to rise at their obvious amusement.

"She's done gone and adopted him," Nate whispered to Chris.

"Nathan Jackson!" she said angrily, blushing in spite of herself. "I'm used to such foolishness from Buck, but I expect more from you."

"What'd I do?" Buck asked, joining them.

"Now don't lay into Nathan, Sarah. He's just noticin' that you've taken up pretty quick for the boy..." Chris began.

"Ma?" Adam called.

"Saving my life isn't a good enough reason to..." Sarah shot back.

"MA!" Adam shouted.

"Adam, please!" she said, hushing him. "Not so loud. You'll wake..."

"He's awake already," Adam said, as the four looked to where the patient lay, watching them all sleepily.

"Don't mean to cause a fuss," the young man said. He tried to sit up. "I'll be goin'..."

"Whoa, whoa!" Nathan said crossing quickly to ease the man back into bed. "You want to start bleedin' again inside?"

"Don't want to be a bother," he said with a sigh, settling back into the pillows.

"You're no bother," Sarah said, fussing with the covers. "You need to rest. You'll stay here until Nathan says you're healed."

"Which ain't gonna be for a good while, yet, Son," Nathan assured him.

The young man looked at Chris and Buck. Larabee shrugged.

"I wouldn't try to argue," Chris told him. "Believe me, it's a waste of breath."

"Nathan? Some good broth?" Sarah asked the healer as she used a wet cloth to carefully wipe the young man's face.

"Broth and some herb tea. I'll make the tea while you're cookin' the broth," Nathan told her as he looked through his bag for ingredients.

"What about fever?" she asked him, looking at the patient closely.

Nathan joined her.

"Could be later today. We'll watch him carefully," Nathan told her.

Chris watched the young man as the two fussed over him, peering at bandages, straightening blankets, fluffing pillows. Larabee could see the tension building, the discomfort of a young man unused to so much attention - the eyes of a wild colt harnessed for the first time. He put a hand on each of their shoulders.

"Sarah - get him some broth. Nathan - brew some of that tea. Let the boy breathe," he told them.

They both looked down then, almost as if seeing Vin for the first time, and realized Chris was right. He needed a little room. With one last pat on his shoulder, Sarah turned from her patient and led Nathan into the kitchen.

Chris chuckled lightly as the young man took a shaky breath. He sat on the side of the bed.

"They tend to hover," Chris explained. "I've threatened to shoot Nathan once or twice myself but then there'd be no one to stitch him up. Put him together with Sarah and it's best just to try to keep 'em busy."

The young man looked uneasy.

"Don't like to be a bother," he said again quietly.

"Yeah, well, I don't like bein' in a man's debt. Looks like neither one of us is gonna be happy for a while," Chris told him. "I'm Chris, Chris Larabee. This here's Buck Wilmington."

"Vin," the man answered with a shy smile.

"I owe ya too, Vin," Buck said. "He wouldn't be fit to live with if anything ever happened to Sarah and Adam."

"Buck's right," Chris told him. "I owe you a pretty big debt Vin."

"It wasn't nothin'," Vin said with a light shrug.

"I put a little higher value on the life of my wife and son than that," Chris argued.

"I...I didn't mean..." Vin said quickly, color rising in his cheeks.

Chris laid a hand on his shoulder.

"I know you didn't," Chris assured him. "It ain't every day a stranger risks his life to save your family."

"They was real nice this afternoon," Vin explained. "I rode by those fellas earlier," he said, his face darkening. "Saw the storm comin' up. Didn't look like there was any man around. I was a little uneasy for 'em."

Chris winced at his words. No man around.

"Buck and I are peacekeepers in Four Corners," Chris told him, looking away. "I usually get home at nights, but yesterday..."

"They after you?" Vin asked, interrupting.

Chris looked back at him.

"No, I..." he bit his lip lightly. "I don't think so."

Vin shrugged.

"Things in the past can come up and bite ya sometimes," he said.

Chris searched the man's eyes to see if there was an accusation there, a judgement, but he saw none. It seemed more that Vin spoke from personal experience. That he was referring to his own past, not Chris'. Hell, what past? How old could the kid be?

"Buck? Ready?" Josiah asked, ducking a head inside the house.

"Right there, Josiah. You want to meet the kid here?" he asked as the preacher entered. "This is Josiah Sanchez," Buck told Vin. "He's a preacher. 'Cept he carries a gun for us, too."

"Most preachers I known just carry a Bible," Vin said. "They ain't been too keen on guns, neither."

"I prefer the tenets of the Good Book as means of persuasion," Josiah answered. "However, I've found there are those who need a more compelling argument at times."

Buck laughed as he crossed to the door.

"Let's go Josiah. You're starting to sound like Ezra. And the boy here don't need any more headaches than he's already got listenin' to them big words."

Chris watched his friends leave and turned his attention back to the man in his bed. Larabee's eyes drifted to the bandage that circled Vin's head.

"I'm real sorry about that," he said.

"Like as not I'da done the same," Vin told him.

"You got family, too?" Chris asked suddenly. "Someone we can get word to that you're laid up here? Hell, I didn't even think..."

"That ain't no concern," Vin said softly.

Sarah was watching from the door of the room as they talked. No family. And he seemed so uncomfortable with their attention. As if he didn't know how to act around people who cared for him. That was something she was determined to change.

"Well then," she said crossing to her husband's side. "There's nothing keeping you from taking a good long time to heal and rest with us."

"I don't mean to be..." Vin began.

"A bother," Chris and Sarah finished together. They looked at Vin and laughed.

"I'll leave you to hover," Chris said to Sarah. He called to his son. "Adam - let's get these windows fixed."

+ + + + + + +

"Finally!" J.D. said ducking his head back inside the jailhouse. "They're comin' Ezra."

J.D. ran towards the livery as Josiah and Buck pulled up with their cargo.

"Hey Buck, Josiah" he called to his friends. "Sarah and Adam alright?"

"Fine as frog's hair," Buck said jumping to the ground.

"And the unfortunate hero?" Ezra asked, joining them. He cast an eye over Josiah's cargo, studying the faces of the dead men.

"Nate says he'll pull through," Buck told them. "Young fella. But one helluva shot. Sarah and Nate got him cornered. He's in for the long haul," Buck said with a laugh.

"What about these three?" J.D. asked.

"See if Clem's got room for 'em in back of the mortuary. Josiah'll run 'em back around there if it's all right. I'm gonna go through the Wanted posters while their ugly mugs are fresh in my mind."

Ezra Standish fell in beside Buck as he made his way to the jailhouse.

"I take it Mr. Larabee was not acquainted with the miscreants?" Ezra asked as they walked.

"Said not," Buck answered. "But I thought I'd check the posters just the same."

They entered the jailhouse and Buck pulled up a chair behind the desk, beginning to sort through the posters.

"Here," Buck said, handing him several posters. "You got an eye for faces. See if you recognize 'em at all."

Standish took a stack from Buck and began to idly sort through them. He looked up as the stagecoach sounded.

"Ah, fresh blood," Ezra said smiling.

"You do get paid for this ya know," Buck glared at him as the gambler rose and headed towards the door.

"Fortunately the level of competition that meanders through our fair hamlet is relatively uninspired," Ezra explained, opening the door. "I'm quite sure I shall be able to adequately peruse these visages while engaging any number of them in a game of chance."

"Ain't no chance about it with you, Ez," Buck said drily as the door closed.

+ + + + + + +

"Vin? Something to eat?" Sarah asked as she brought a bowl of broth to the side of the bed.

He roused himself from the nap he had been taking and looked around. They were alone in the room. He could hear Chris and Nathan working out back, their low voices punctuated occasionally by Adam's high tenor.

"Thank you, Ma'am, I am a bit hungry," Vin said, carefully easing himself up on his elbows.

"Now just take it easy," she said, putting a cloth over his chest. She dipped a spoon into the bowl. "I'm here to help."

Vin blanched as white as the sheet.

"Vin!" she said suddenly, seeing the color drain from his face. "What is it? Your side?"

"No, no," Vin said. "It's don't mean feed me, do ya Ma'am?"

Sarah swallowed a smile. She was continually amazed at how shy he was. And equally amazed at how easily she had come to think of him as one of her own.

"I'm sorry," she said, propping some pillows behind him so he was slightly inclined. "I'm used to helping Adam when he..."

"Ain't no kid," Vin said gruffly.

Sarah looked up at him and noticed again the instant regret that filled his face after the reproach.

"I'm sorry, Ma'am. Don't mean to be ungrateful," Vin apologized.

"No, you're right. I was wrong to be so familiar," Sarah said, handing him the bowl and spoon.

He took them from her and looked at the broth. He glanced up at her and cleared his throat.

"Something wrong, Vin?" She asked, concerned.

"Ah, Ma'am," Vin said quietly. "Ma'am, there ain't nothin' in here."

Sarah looked puzzled and glanced down at the bowl.

"It's good beef broth, Vin," she said taking the spoon and stirring it once. "See?"

Vin looked down at it again.

"Ain't it supposed to have meat in it?" he asked.

Sarah smiled.

"It did have meat in it, Vin. That's what makes the broth," Sarah explained patiently.

Vin looked at the bowl again, his brow furrowed in the same way Adam's would when he worked on the ciphers she set for him on his slate.

"Why'd ya take it out?" he asked.

"You shouldn't try to digest solid foods yet, Vin. Not with the wound in your side." She disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a cup of noxious smelling tea. "Nathan fixed this for you, too. You should try to drink it all."

Vin eyed the brew suspiciously and took a tentative sniff. His eyes watered.

"Well, Ma'am," he said slowly, leaning away from her. "That just ain't gonna happen."

"I know it's strong," Sarah explained patiently, "But the healing properties are quite..."

"Ma'am," Vin interrupted equally patient. "If ya ain't got the meat to spare, that's no shame. I've done without myself many a time. This here broth'll be fine. But there ain't no way I'm gonna drink what's in that cup."

Sarah took a deep breath and tried to calm the irritation she was beginning to feel. She had never suffered stubbornness well. And she had been tried plenty between her husband and his friends.

"Now Vin," she began with determination. "We have plenty of food to spare. But you must only start with broth for now. Solid foods will come in a day or two..."

"A day or two!" Vin blurted, wincing after his outburst.

"A day or two," she repeated, steeling herself against showing concern at his discomfort. "And you'll drink the teas Nathan prepares for you to protect against infection and dehydration."

"Dehy...what?" Vin said, beginning to get angry himself. He knew he was indebted to these people for taking care of him, but things were getting out of hand.

"Dehydration," she explained. "A lack of liquids in the system."

"Well, hell, seems to me all's I got here is liquids. I don't see's how I could be lackin' in 'em," Vin argued.

Chris and Nathan paused outside, listening to the escalating exchange between nurse and patient.

"Reckon we should go in there and help?" Nathan asked.

"I was thinkin' on it," Chris answered. "But then, you probably mean Sarah and I'm thinkin' of breakin' out the kid."

"Sarah's right, Chris. He needs the broth and tea," Nathan explained.

"I knew it," Chris said shaking his head. "You mother hens are all alike. I'm on Vin's side."

"Then we should probably just stay out of it and leave 'em alone," Nathan decided.

Chris considered the situation thoughtfully, then looked over at his son.

"Adam - go in there and help Vin out," he told the boy.

Adam nodded swiftly and ran inside the house.

"Now, Chris, that ain't fair," Nathan complained.

"That's Sarah in there, Nate," Chris said pointedly. "I'm just tryin' to even the odds a little. After all, I do owe the man."

+ + + + + + +

Evening fell and the house was quiet. Nathan had given his final instructions and left for the night. The windows were boarded up - Chris would need to order more glass in the morning. They had carefully moved Vin to the sofa so Chris and Sarah could take back their bed.

Sarah and Vin had come to an agreement - she added a few small mashed potatoes to the broth and settled for half the tea. The meal was repeated at supper, although the look of longing on Vin's face as Chris chewed a piece of his buffalo steak cut him to the quick.

Adam and Sarah had both gone to bed early, the excitement of the night before and the long day following taking its toll. Chris lay awake in the dark, his own senses preventing him from falling into a deep sleep - his ears strained for each movement outside his home. When the floor creaked within his home, he was up in a shot, careful not to wake his wife.

He entered the front room to see Vin standing, one hand clutching the sofa arm, another against his side.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Chris hissed as he crossed quickly to Vin's side.

"Where is she?" Vin hissed back through pain-clenched teeth.

"Who? Sarah?" Chris asked. "In bed. Why?"

"Don't want her tryin' to help me pee, too," Vin growled.

Chris stifled a laugh.

"You should use the pan," Chris said, nodding towards the bedpan on the floor beside the sofa.

Vin shook his head, wincing again at the pain.

"Ain't never used one'a them," Vin explained. "You say you owe me? Get me to the damn outhouse and we'll call it quits."

Chris took the arm opposite Vin's injured side and draped it over his shoulders.

"She finds out about this all bets are off," Chris said inching Vin carefully towards the door.

"Her own fault," Vin said huffily. "Got me drinkin' all that broth and tea. What she expect?"

"She expects you to use the bedpan," Chris said.

Larabee slowly opened the door and guided Vin towards the porch. The two eased down the porch step towards the outhouse. Vin let out a sharp hiss of pain as he stepped down.

"This is stupid," Chris said, stopping abruptly, shooting a furtive glance towards the house. "Not to mention suicide."

"I been hurt worse'n this," Vin argued. "Ain't gonna die just goin' to the privy."

"I don't mean you - I mean me. If Sarah finds out about this I'm dead meat," Chris muttered as they shuffled forward again.

Vin slowed even more and eyed Chris carefully.

"Never seen no gunfighter afraid of his own wife," he said.

Chris stopped again. He looked at the young man's face, bathed in moonlight. So. The kid had recognized him. And Vin's talk of the past wasn't referring only to himself.

"I'm not in that line of business anymore," Chris told him firmly.

Vin nodded.

"Sure ya are," he answered. "You're just doin' it legal, now."

The two men stared at each other in silence. There was no accusation in Vin. Chris could see the man was simply stating what he saw as the truth. The fact that the words stung - well, he was right wasn't he? Chris' gun was still for sale. Only this time, it was the law that was buying. Another thought occurred to him.

"You in the business yourself?" Chris asked him.

"I ain't no gunfighter," Vin answered as they reached the outhouse. Chris opened the door and eased Vin inside. The young man pulled the door closed behind him.

Chris waited alone in the night and thought, Then just who the hell are you?

+ + + + + + +

"He's a trapper, Pa," Adam said quietly as he sat with his father over an early breakfast. "You saw his coat, and those furs he had packed on his horse."

"Not enough there to trade for a living," Chris said. "Unless he's a lousy tracker. And he doesn't strike me as a lousy tracker."

"Maybe he's sold some already," Adam reasoned.

Chris shook his head.

"Most trackers I've seen got the manners of a rabid pole cat. Vin doesn't fit the bill."

"He sure can shoot," Adam said, shaking his head with obvious admiration. "Maybe he's a gunfighter like..."

"That's enough," Sarah said from the kitchen, her disapproval evident in the tone of her voice. Adam knew what Chris had done for a living before they met, but she was doing all she could to dispel her son's romantic notions of the profession.

Adam looked down quickly at his plate, chastised for the moment. A new thought occurred to him.

"He was asking about a doctor when he rode up," he said.

"That so?" Chris asked, taking a sip of coffee.

"Yeah. I remember. He said he needed a doctor and asked was there one in town," Adam answered in a rush.

Sarah came into the room.

"He asked where the nearest town was," Sarah corrected him as she pulled up a chair to join them at the table. "The question about a doctor was almost an afterthought. And now I think we'll end this discussion of our guest behind his back."

"Aw, Ma, we ain't saying anything mean," Adam complained.

"Don't say ain't," she corrected him. "And it doesn't matter. Change the subject or go on about your chores."

+ + + + + + +

Vin listened to the hushed conversation taking place at the breakfast table as he lay still with his eyes closed. He had awoken early, listening to the sounds of the house coming to life about him. Sarah making breakfast, Chris chopping wood, the young boy, Adam, going to the outhouse. The house warmed up with heat from the stove, the aroma of bacon and coffee filled the rooms and made his mouth water. He knew he should let them know he was awake - it was wrong for him to be listening in on their conversation. And yet it felt so good to lie here, warm and safe, with the sounds of home and family surrounding him. It was finally the pain from the wound in his side that caused him to shift uncomfortably and catch the attention of Sarah as she began to clear the dishes from the table.

"Vin? You're awake?" she asked gently as she set the dishes back on the table and crossed the room to his side.

"Yes Ma'am," he said, his throat thick with sleep and pain.

She rested a cool hand on his forehead.

"You're warm," she said, concern furrowing her brow.

"Too many blankets," he said, pushing them aside. "Ain't used to so many covers."

"It's not the blankets," she argued, pulling them back around him. "You're flushed with fever. Not too bad, though," she said with a slight smile. "I imagine a little tea will fix you up."

Vin grimaced.

Sarah raised an eyebrow.

"Fever's to be expected when you go traipsing about to the outhouse in the middle of the night."

Vin's eyes widened in surprise. He glanced at Chris.

"I'll deal with him later," she told Vin. "Tea for you first."

Vin watched as she returned to the table, picking up the plates there as she left the room.

"Shit," Vin swore as Sarah disappeared into the kitchen.

Chris cleared his throat as Adam giggled behind his hands.

"You're diggin' your grave deeper, Vin," Chris warned him as he nodded towards Adam.

"Damn it to Hell," Vin cursed, "I'm beginnin' to think death'd be easier."

A plate clattered in the kitchen and Chris winced, shaking his head. Sarah returned in the doorway, hands on hips, her face blushing angrily.

"Mr.... Vin," she said, searching her memory briefly for his last name and failing to find it. "You've saved our lives and we owe you a debt we cannot repay. At best, we can tend to the wounds you've suffered on our behalf. But debt or no, you will watch your tongue in this house. I do not allow profanity under this roof. Not from my husband, his friends, or even our guests."

"I don't remember askin' ya to..." Vin argued.

"It is my Christian duty to care for you and to see that..."

"Ain't your Christian duty to keep me from sayin' my piece. I been..."

"...your wounds are tended to for as long as necessary in order..."

"...talkin' as I like since I was younger than your boy and ain't no woman gonna..."

"I will not argue the point," Sarah shouted finally, stamping her foot on the floor. Her eyes began to fill with tears in her frustration. "In this house..." she began again, wiping quickly at the tears that threatened to spill.

"Aw, now, don't..." Vin said, embarrassed. "I didn't mean..."

"All I ask is that my son be free from exposure to the basest of..." she continued, her voice beginning to break.

"Now, come on, don't...I ain't gonna do it no more," Vin promised desperately.

Sarah stopped, putting her apron to her eyes. She looked at Vin with a hopeful smile, her eyes shining with shy gratitude.

"I'm sorry, it's just...with Adam, I..." she began quietly.

"You're right. I won't do it no more, Ma'am," Vin assured her again.

She beamed at him.

"Vin, please, it's Sarah," she said. "I'll get you some of that tea to help with the fever."

"That'd be real nice, Ma'am...Sarah...thank you," Vin said with a sigh of relief.

Chris watched his wife exit once more into the kitchen, then looked back at Vin. The poor kid was exhausted - looking even more like an animal - trapped and confused. Chris shook his head and smiled.

"What?" Vin asked, wiping beads of sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.

"You don't have a chance around here," Chris told him. "'Course, the crying thing, that's a tough one. She really hit you with both barrels - her son, bein' a Christian, the tears..."

Vin peered skeptically at Chris.

"You mean that...that was an act?" he said in astonishment.

"Well, no, not so much an act as an embellishment," Chris answered.

"What's an embleshment?" Vin asked.

"Embellishment. It means, no, she doesn't want you swearing, but she saw she couldn't sway you in an all-out debate so she added a little extra emotion to plead her case," Chris explained.

"She ambushed ya, Vin," Adam said with a smile.

Vin looked from father to son and back again.

"Well I'll be da..."


+ + + + + + +

By noon Sarah, who had been congratulating herself on winning a battle or two with her reluctant patient, was back to feeling anxious and worried. She stood at the door waiting for Nathan. Chris had gone in to Four Corners to ride a patrol and promised to send Buck and Nathan back. Buck, to keep an eye on the house and ease Chris' nerves, and Nathan to keep an eye on Vin and ease Sarah's.

But the hour that had passed since Chris' departure found Vin's temperature rising, and the tea and laudanum Nathan had left behind were almost gone. Sarah turned as she heard Adam walk slowly toward her, a bowl of freshly pumped water in his hands.

"Thank you, Adam," she said, taking it from him. She took the warm cloth from Vin's forehead and soaked it in the cool water. Adam watched her wring it out and carefully return it to its place.

"He's getting worse," Adam said quietly. He perched lightly on the edge of the sofa as he watched his mother take another cloth and use it to wipe down Vin's arms and neck.

"Nathan'll be here soon," she told him, trying for a confidence she didn't feel.

Vin's eyes fluttered open as the cold water was drawn across his body. His eyes were glassy as he tried to focus on her.

"Sorry...trouble," he whispered through the pain.

"No trouble," she smiled, smoothing the wet hair from his forehead. "Nathan and I both suspected this. I should've asked him to leave behind more supplies. I'm the one who's sorry."

"sssChris here?" he sighed.

"He went into town. He'll be sending Buck to us along with Nate," Sarah told him. "Try to rest. They'll be here soon."

"He and that preacher watchin' the town alone?" Vin asked.

"No. There's Ezra and J.D., too," Sarah answered. "Now please, no more questions."

Vin winced.

"Head's splittin'," he said, closing his eyes.

Sarah watched as he drifted into an uneasy sleep. She drew the covers back to cool his body down more. What was it about this young man that touched her so deeply? Obviously, his selfless actions defending them were part of it, but there was more. He was a lost soul, an ageless child that called to her mother-heart. Her hand brushed across the scars that stood white against his skin. So alone.

"Stay with him Adam, please," Sarah said. "I'm going to wash out some of these cloths and hang out some sheets and blankets to dry. Call me if he needs anything."

"Sure, Ma," Adam said, watching her carry an armful of bedclothes out the door.

Carefully Adam drew away the cloth on Vin's head and dampened it again in the cold water basin. He replaced it gently.

"You're as good at doctorin' as your Ma," Vin whispered quietly, smiling slightly at the boy.

"Thanks. Ma's real good at making you feel better when you're sick. Sometimes she makes me honey milk and butter crackers when I've got a fever," Adam told him.

"Sounds a hell of a lot better than broth," Vin muttered. He glanced up quickly at Adam. "Sorry. I shouldn'ta said that."

Adam shrugged.

"It's alright. She makes a big deal about it but Uncle Buck swears all the time," he smiled at Vin. "I think he does it on purpose sometimes just to make her mad."

"I don't want your ma mad at me," Vin said with a smile.

"Aw, she's not gonna get mad at you. Not really," Adam said. "Uncle Nate says she's just about adopted you."

Vin looked at him with surprise.

"Adopted me?"

"Well, that's what he says whenever she takes a special care for someone. I don't reckon anybody needs two Mas," Adam figured. He saw Vin flinch a bit, and thought again about what he had said. "Don't you got a Ma?"

"She died," Vin said quietly.

"Oh. Sorry. Just lately?" Adam asked.

Vin shifted uncomfortably.

"No, when I was a boy."

"Like me?"

"Younger," Vin said. He closed his eyes and passed a trembling hand across his forehead, brushing the cloth askew.

Adam pushed the cloth gently back into place.

"Did you live with your pa then?" he asked, intrigued.

"No. He weren't around," Vin said, his eyes still closed. Adam saw his lips drawing tight together. His father did that whenever Adam started asking about his gun fighting days. He sensed the conversation was over, but he had so many more questions.

"Horses," Vin said suddenly.

"What?" Adam asked, confused.

"Riders coming," Vin told him, opening his eyes slowly.

"I don't..." Adam said, straining to hear. He stood silently for a moment. Then...there...he heard it now, too.

"Your hearin's as good as your shootin'!" Adam exclaimed. He ran to the door to see Nathan and Buck riding towards his mother who stood waiting for them in front of the barn.

"Adam!" Sarah called. "Come see to Nathan's horse, please."

"Comin' Ma," Adam said as he ran out the door.

Sarah ushered Nathan quickly into the house as Adam helped Buck take care of the horses.

"His fever is getting worse. I'm out of everything," Sarah said quickly as Nathan entered and took off his hat and gloves. "I should've had you leave more with us."

Nathan took a seat next to the sofa and washed his hands in a basin of water Sarah held for him.

"Now why you givin' this good woman so much trouble, Vin?" he asked kindly, drying his hands on a towel. He folded back the blanket and carefully took away the bandage on Vin's side.

"Just ornery I guess," Vin said, wincing at Nathan's touch.

"No infection," Nathan nodded. "I expect it's just your body reactin' to the shock of the bullet and the bash on the head Chris gave ya."

"Weren't his fault," Vin answered quickly. "I'da prob'ly put a bullet in some stranger standin' over my wife in my house with dead bodies lyin' all around it."

"Grateful for small favors, eh?" Nathan asked as he changed the bandage. His hand traced over the scar from another old wound. "You run into avengin' husbands often?"

Vin's jaw tightened.

"I'as shot in the war," Vin answered shortly.

Nathan looked appraisingly at him.

"Don't imagine you was whistlin' Rally 'Round the Flag, neither," Nathan said, making note of the Southern accent.

Vin's eyes blazed through the fever and Nathan caught an uncomfortable glimpse of the killer that lurked within.

"I'as thirteen. Some army sergeant volunteered me to hunt up supper for his troops. When he saw I could shoot he gave me a coat and a pouch of shot and told me I was shootin' for the Confederacy from now on," Vin told him evenly. "Ain't nobody ever even told me what we was fightin' about. But a year of gettin' shot at by Yankees helped me figure out why shootin' some of 'em was a good idea."

Nathan saw the truth of it in Vin's eyes. A boy, for whatever reason, alone in a man's world of war. It explained a lot.

"I'm sorry," Nathan said, pulling the blankets back up over his patient. "I had no call to judge you." He turned back to Sarah who stood behind him, unashamed of the tears that filled her eyes. "Got some water heating?" he asked her.

"Ready for you, Nathan," she told him, wiping her eyes.

"I'll get some tea made," Nathan said, rising. He looked back at Vin.

"I am sorry, Vin," he said again, then patted Sarah's arm as he walked past her to the kitchen.

"You have to understand, it hasn't always been easy for him in town," Sarah explained.

"I don't have to understand nothin'," Vin said bitterly.

Sarah looked at him patiently. She drew her hand softly against the side of his face and looked at him with such tenderness it cut him to the core when she spoke.

"It isn't fair to have people judge you before they know you, is it?"

Vin swallowed hard. He followed her gaze to Nathan and caught the double meaning of her words. Damn the woman! What was it about her that left him feeling always at a disadvantage. Always...well...wrong. Life had always been pretty simple for him. Hard, but simple. He'd done what he had to do to stay alive. Wasn't always pretty, wasn't always what he wanted, but he'd never had trouble living with himself, either.

Now here he was trapped in their world - her world. People everywhere he turned. Words - words he didn't understand - words with double meanings. Words that made his head spin even without the blow from Larabee.

+ + + + + + +

"Uncle Buck?" Adam asked as they brushed down the horses.

Buck waited for the boy to continue. After telling him that Vin was worse and how happy his mother would be that Nathan was here, Adam had become thoughtfully quiet.

"Yeah?" Buck prompted him.

"What would happen to me if Ma and Pa died?"

"Whoa," said Buck in surprise. "Where'd that come from?"

Adam looked up at him seriously.

"If you're thinkin' on what happened the other day..." Buck began.

"No, that's not it. But what would happen, Buck?" Adam asked again.

Buck thought quickly. What had Chris told him about fielding these kinds of questions from a kid? Answer them truthfully and without going into detail unless he asks more - that was it.

"Well, I guess we'd look up your ma or pa's kin," Buck said honestly.

"But what if they didn't want me? Or what if I didn't want to go back East where Ma came from? What then?" Adam insisted.

Shit, thought Buck. So much for detail. He was supposed to end with the first question. That's what Chris said. Buck saw the earnest look on Adam's face and searched his heart for an answer.

"Well, I imagine in that case, I'd look after ya," he concluded.

"By yourself?" Adam asked.

"Well, I guess maybe I'd have help from Nathan and Josiah. You and J.D. are practically brothers now as it is. And there's Ezra..." Buck added somewhat wryly. He thought further. "And then there'd be Mrs. Potter and Mrs. Travis from the newspaper, I suppose they'd want a hand in raisin' ya, too."

Adam stood thoughtfully for a moment.

"You don't have to worry none, Son. There's a whole passel full of people lookin' out after ya." He winked at Adam. "Somethin' to remember if you ever get a mind to cause a ruckus, too."

Adam smiled slightly and nodded.

"You gonna tell me what brought this all on?" Buck asked finally.

"Vin said his ma died when he was a boy - younger than me, even. And he said his pa wasn't around," Adam told him. A new thought occurred to him. "He didn't say his pa was dead. If he wasn't dead, why wouldn't he be around?"

Buck took a deep breath. Where the hell was Chris for all these questions? How did he even begin to explore the myriad of reasons why Vin's pa might not have been around? He thought to his own childhood - his own lack of a father to put a name to - and gave Adam the most honest answer he could.

"Adam, I can't rightly think of any good reason for a pa not to be around if he's alive and able. Which means it's likely that Vin's pa not bein' around is a hurtful thing to him. Somethin' best not brought up to him again. Do you understand?" Buck asked hopefully.

Adam thought the answer over carefully and nodded.

"I like Vin," he told Buck.

"Well, I haven't had so much as a word or two with him myself, but I'm pretty partial to what he done for my best friend and his family. So I'd have to say I like him, too," Buck said.

"I sure wouldn't want to hurt him," Adam concluded. He looked up at Buck. "I won't say nothin' more to him about it, Uncle Buck." Adam's face softened and Buck saw Sarah's compassion reflected in his countenance. "Somehow I don't think there's much about Vin's family that isn't hurtful to him."

+ + + + + + +

"How fares our gallant invalid?" Ezra asked as Chris checked into the jail office. The gambler sat facing a game of solitaire on the table before him. Chris scanned the cells - all empty - and was grateful for the respite. He'd had enough action in his own backyard the past few days.

"Mending," Chris answered. "If Sarah and Nathan don't kill him with kindness he should pull through alright."

"Mr. Sanchez reports that your dear lady has become quite attached to the boy," Ezra said with a smile.

Chris pulled up a chair and shook his head ruefully.

"She has at that, Ez," Chris agreed. "And Adam. And Nathan. And probably by tonight Buck'll be his blood brother."

"Sounds as though he's quite gregarious," Ezra noted.

"On the contrary," Chris said. "He's stubborn, independent, evasive and desperate not to draw attention to himself."

Ezra laughed. "Any relation?"

"Very funny Ezra," Chris said.

"How long will you be hosting this wayfaring stranger?"

"If Vin had his way he'da been on his horse last night after Sarah tried to spoon-feed him some broth," Chris said.

Ezra winced in sympathy.

"But I hope he'll be around a while," he finished. He sat back in his chair.

"Why?" Ezra asked, leaning forward.

"Huh?" asked Chris. "Oh, I don't know. Selfish, I guess. I'd love to see what he can do with a gun when he's 100%."

"Come now, Mr. Larabee, you're not going to suggest he be cut into the lucrative arrangement the six of us have entered into on behalf of this burgeoning hamlet, are you?" Ezra asked sarcastically. "I thought you owed the man a favor, not a burden."

Chris smiled, then looked thoughtfully back at the gambler.

"I don't know, Ez. Crazy as it seems? I think it might just be the favor he needs."

Chris looked to the door as J.D. and Josiah strode in.

"So when do we get to meet Vin?" J.D. asked, straddling a chair across from Chris.

"He's not goin' anywhere J.D. Give him a chance to get back on his feet," Chris told him.

"Buck says he's a crack shot," J.D. continued.

"Looks like," Chris agreed.

"Nathan says he's seen some difficult times," Josiah added.

Chris nodded slowly.

Ezra raised his eyes lazily from his game and searched the faces of the others. He looked back to the cards in his hand as he drew three from the pile.

"Has anyone ventured to unearth the particulars concerning our hero's advent?"

J.D. looked quizzically at Ezra, then all eyes turned to Chris. The leader bit his lip lightly as he focused on the gambler.

"You got something to say Standish?" Chris asked evenly. He was mildly irritated by the gambler's implication, yet he couldn't say why.

Ezra met his gaze.

"I merely observe that the gentleman's timely, albeit heroic, gesture appears to have garnered him our support, regardless of several character traits prevalent in those whose livelihoods exist outside the law."

"He saved Adam and Sarah's lives," J.D. argued. "Almost got himself killed. I'd call that more than a gesture."

"Sarah's a pretty good judge of character," Josiah reasoned. "She seems to feel he's in need of our comfort rather than a threat to it."

"Understandable," Ezra shrugged, his eyes remaining fixed on Larabee's.

The muscle in Chris' jaw twitched. Ezra was challenging him - challenging his judgement, his sympathies towards the stranger. Questioning his alliance with someone whose every feature spelled trouble, save for his personal sacrifice for Larabee's family. Wouldn't Chris be asking the same questions if he weren't involved? Was his personal debt clouding his better judgement? The gambler was right, and for a reason Larabee couldn't fathom, it galled him.

"You want to come back with me tonight, Standish? Or should I haul him in here first thing tomorrow morning for questioning?" Chris asked hotly.

Ezra raised his hands before him, shaking his head.

"Merely an observation, Mr. Larabee," he said, his smile not quite hiding the challenge that lay beneath it. "Merely an observation."

Josiah watched the showdown between the two and rubbed his jaw.

"He' a point, Chris," Sanchez said carefully.

"So what's yours, Josiah?" Chris shot back.

Josiah looked at him calmly, questioningly.

"You don't even know him, Chris," he said, puzzled. "He saved Sarah and Adam. That's a powerful debt. But you of all people know a man has many sides. It's dangerous not to be aware of them all." Sanchez searched Chris' eyes and found the truth. "You know it is, but in this case, you don't want to. You don't want to because..."

Chris looked away from the preacher, but Sanchez had one more thought he voiced as understanding dawned.

"...because he reminds you of someone else."

Ezra raised an eyebrow, glancing from Sanchez to Larabee as the truth became clear to him as well.

"I search his eyes, and there I see, the stranger I would know, is me."