Monday afternoon

Late in the day Larabee heard a commotion in the wagon bed and was already pulling the team to a halt before he heard Nathan call for his help. He tied the horses and climbed into the back of the wagon, his heart racing.

The sight that greeted him chilled Larabee to the bone. Vin had thrown off his blankets and was weakly trying to escape Nathan's touch.

Tanner was lying like someone had kicked him hard in the stomach, gasping for breath, tears rolling down his face.

"What's going on?" he asked worriedly.

Jackson looked up, two days of travel and worry beginning to show in his harried expression. "He's in a lot of pain and he'd not thinkin' too clear. We need to get him turned over so I can get a cold pack back on his belly."

"Vin, settle down," Larabee snapped, moving closer to the tracker.

Whether it was the gunslinger's tone of voice, or the fact that it was Larabee talking to him, it worked. Tanner stopped thrashing and lay still for a few seconds, panting like he'd run there all the way from Four Corners. Finally, the tracker glanced around dazedly. "Chris?"

Tanner looked awful, but Larabee forced an encouraging smile onto his face as he said, "Right here, pard. I need you to listen to me, Vin. Nathan's trying to help you, you understand? I want you to settle down and let him help you. He needs to keep those cold towels on your belly until we get you to the doctor, all right?"

Vin hesitated a moment, like he didn't really understand what Larabee was saying, but then he nodded and allowed Jackson to ease him back onto the bedding and cover him up, but there wasn't a speck of hope or fight left in his eyes.

"Try to get a little sleep," Chris told him, pushing the tracker's sodden hair off his forehead. "We're almost there."

"Sleep," Tanner agreed airily, nodding weakly.

It was all too clear to both men that Tanner was at the end of his rope and it was quickly fraying.

Nathan checked Vin's forehead and cheek with the back of his hand. "Better?" he asked the tracker, hoping the cold pack might help some.

"Little," Vin said, finally able to catch his breath.

"I'll change the pack soon, and you can try to get some more sleep. With luck I won't need to bother you again for a while."

A few minutes later the two men had Vin bundled up with a new cold pack in place. The tracker drifted off into an uneasy sleep.

Nathan climbed up to drive the team, leaving Chris with Vin, who seemed quietest when the gunslinger's hand was resting on his shoulder.

In the wagon bed, Larabee watched his friend, knowing that while Vin might be sleeping, the rest wasn't taking away his pain any more.

"Isn't there anything else we can do?" he asked Jackson. "Can't you give him some of that laudanum?"

"He has another cramp like that last one, I might have to," Nathan admitted, glancing back over his shoulder at the tracker. "But I'd rather not. His reactions let me know what's goin' on. If the pain jumps sharply and don't subside, or if his fever shoots up, we're in trouble."

"He does feel warmer," Chris said, pressing his hand to the tracker's cheek.

"I know, but it ain't too bad yet."

Chris touched Vin's forehead and sighed. Gunshot wounds he understood, or bellyaches from bad food, but this was beyond him. All he could knew was Tanner was hurting, and his color was off. "What's the other reason?" he asked the healer.

"As soon as we get him to Dr. Griffin, he's gonna give him chloroform to put him under for the surgery. Don't want to make it harder fo' him to wake him up when it's over. Once I start givin' him laudanum, I'll have to keep givin' it to him 'til we get there."

Chris nodded his understanding. He scrubbed his hands over his face and sighed heavily. Damn but he was tired – tired and hungry and sore. He couldn't imagine the kind of agony Vin must be enduring; he just knew he wanted it to stop – one way or another.

Monday night

An hour passed, then another, the sun setting behind the mountain peaks. Twilight didn't last long in the mountains and, before long, it was fully dark. Nathan drew the team to a halt.

Chris heard Vin start awake and mumble, "Chris…? Chris, I cain't see."

"Easy, pard," Larabee soothed him. "It's dark now, and you've got a blanket over your face." He flipped the edge of the cover back and grinned down at the man. "Better?"

Vin ignored the question, rolling carefully onto his back. "We there?" he asked, his voice sounding thin and tight, barely under control.

"Close. We'll be there in the morning if we can keep up this pace. Think you can hold on that long?"

"Reckon so." It was a whisper, and didn't sound anywhere near as confident as Larabee had been hoping it might.

Chris felt for a fever, fear spiking in his gut. There was heat in Tanner's skin that hadn't been there before. But then Vin's face had been under the blanket, too.

"I'm gonna let the horses rest a bit," Nathan called back. "He awake?"

"Yeah," Larabee replied.

"See if he can keep some water down."

Chris found the canteen, then slid his arm behind Vin and helped him to sit up. "Think you can drink some water?"

Vin nodded. He was thirsty, but then it seemed like he'd been hungry and thirsty for a long, long time now. How long? he wondered, but he didn't know for sure. He'd lost track of time, the hours blending into one long nightmare of pain.

"Nathan, he feels a little warm," Chris called.

"Here, let me check," the healer said. He climbed into the wagon, waiting for Tanner to finish his water. "Does seem a bit warmer." Over Tanner's head he met Larabee's gaze, his expression grave. "Rain's makin' the road worse, too."

"Get us moving again," Chris told him and Jackson nodded and climbed back onto the seat and got the horses moving as best they could on the muddy road.

Vin shivered.

"You want some more?"

The tracker shook his head, another shiver running through him, just like they had been for about an hour now. He hunched in on himself with a stifled cry.

Chris grabbed him and held on. "Easy, Vin, easy. Try to relax, okay? Take a deep breath."

Vin bobbed his head and managed a couple of shaky breaths, but then he doubled over, clutching desperately at Larabee's coat. He seemed to be fighting another spasm, but at least he wasn't getting sick again. Chris held on, hoping his presence made it a little easier for the tracker to ride the pain out.

Tanner began to cry, softly at first, his sobs muffled against the collar of Larabee's black duster. But then it became all too clear what was happening.

Chris patted Vin's back, wishing there was something more he could do to help the tracker. He couldn't recall a single time when he'd seen Tanner cry – and certainly never from pain. So, either he was too worn out to fight it any longer, or he'd finally been pushed beyond his endurance – maybe both.

Chris rocked Vin back and forth gently, like he would have with Adam, wondering how long it would take for the cramp to ease. He was afraid to wonder what might happen if it didn't. Either way, there didn't seem to be a damn thing he could do. He felt helpless, and he hated the feeling. He was just glad he was sitting in such a way that he blocked the sight from Nathan. It was bad enough Vin was hurting like this, the man didn't need the extra beating to his pride that would come from letting someone else see him break down like this.

After a few minutes, Vin seemed to quiet and his breathing eased a bit. Chris gave the man a little longer to pull himself together and then eased him back down onto the feather mattress. He reached over and pulled a towel out of the bucket of water, wringing it out as best he could.

"Chris," Tanner called softly, his usually raspy voice hardly more than a raw whisper.


"That happens ag'in… jist shoot me."

Larabee sat, dumbly wondering why his lungs wouldn't work well enough to say "no." It felt like whatever was hurting Tanner had given him a good kick to his own stomach. Then his breath broke loose in something that might have been a laugh if he'd had the energy left for it. He held up his hands. "Sorry, pard, that ain't gonna happen."

Vin closed his eyes again, retreating into whatever space he had found to escape to or to fight the pain from.

"Nathan," Chris called, "pull 'em up." He climbed out onto the wagon seat, saying, "You need to give him something for the pain – now."

Jackson nodded with a sigh. He'd been afraid it would come to this. Crawling over the seat to take the gunslinger's place at Tanner's side, he said a short, silent prayer. "Vin, I'm gonna give ya something to take the edge off that pain." He wiped Tanner's face with a damp cloth, then took a little laudanum and mixed it with water and helped the tracker take it. A few minutes later he asked, "Feelin' some better?'

Vin nodded. "Still hurts," he whispered, "but… don't seem so important now." He felt the wagon lurch and grunted, then closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to shut out the swarm of complaints his body kept throwing at him. The painkiller was helping, in its own way, but it was also making it harder for him to concentrate and, for some reason he couldn't fathom, he felt much colder now than he had before. He huddled down under the blankets while Nathan prepared another cold pack and then replaced the one already on his side.

He feigned sleep, hoping the healer would leave him alone. But Nathan didn't, poking and prodding until Vin realized he was sore in more places than he'd thought he'd had. Jackson didn't look too happy about that fact, either.

"Tell me… the truth, Nate," Tanner whispered, forcing his eyes open, his drug-glazed gaze meeting the healer's.

Jackson settled back on his heels and sighed. "Your chances are still good, Vin. We've just gotta get you to the doctor quick as we can."

"'M sore all over."

"With what you've been doing to your gut muscles, I ain't surprised." He lightly touched the tracker's solar plexus. "It's sore here 'cause you've been sick to your stomach so much. Same goes for yo'r ribs. You been layin' here on yo'r back fo' a couple of days, so that's hurtin'. And, worst of all, yo'r body ain't got a way to get rid of the poison from the infection inside of ya. Infection makes a man ache somethin' terrible."

Vin nodded, and Jackson began speaking again, but the tracker no longer heard the words. A grey, skeletal hand reached out through the fog of the painkiller and seized him around the middle. Pain like nothing that had come before lanced through the tracker, cutting off sight, breath, and thought. And he had nothing left to fight back with.

Something was pulling at his attention… insistent… persistent… demanding… a voice.

A voice was trying to speak to him . . . trying to reach him in the tormented place he'd fallen into. Who?

He tried to focus, to listen, but it was nearly impossible as he fell continuously through the searing hell. He reached for the voice, desperate to latch onto it, to stop his descent into pure torment.

The voice was familiar… comforting, and he knew he should recognize it.

He reached out to it, threw himself on the mercies it promised him.

"Vin, listen to me, pard. You have to breathe. Breathe, damn it, Tanner."


But then Vin noticed that he wasn't breathing. He needed to breathe. If he stopped, he'd die. But then the pain would stop.

"Breathe, damn you!"

He tried to draw a breath, but he couldn't. He panicked slightly, still uncertain if he should fight or allow the beckoning darkness to take him, remove him from the existence he associated only with pain now. But the voice was insistent.

"Goddamn you, Tanner, fight! Breathe, damn it! Breathe!"

He couldn't stay the voice. He reached out for it, fought for the air he needed to sustain his torture. And the pain blessedly eased slightly as Vin concentrated on pulling air into his lungs.

A moment later, he realized he was holding Chris' hand so tightly his own fingers were beginning to cramp. As soon as he found the energy to move, he slowly released his death grip.

"Sorry," he managed, slowly getting his breath back. "Didn't mean t'… hurt ya?"

"I'm fine, Vin. Don't you worry about me," Chris said, running his fingers through Tanner's sodden hair.

"Vin, tell me what happened," Jackson asked, frowning at the bruise-like pain circles under Tanner's eyes.

"Guess that… potion's… wearin' off, Doc," he said, the cold, sickly ache beginning to stir through his guts again.

"Vin, listen to me," Jackson said. "This is real important. How do you feel compared to a little while ago?"

"Huh?" Time had gotten fuzzy and he had no idea what Jackson meant. Right now all he wanted was for Chris to keep doing what he was doing. It felt good. It was the first thing that had felt good in longer than he could remember.

"Vin, listen to me," the healer snapped. "How do you feel now, compared to when the attack started?"

It took several moments, but then the words started to make some sense. "'S better, Nate… 's worse b'fore."

"How does this feel?" Nathan asked, applying a light pressure and then tapping Tanner's abdomen.

"Hurts," Vin moaned and flinched away.

"Easy," Chris soothed, his fingers still working their magic.

Tanner gritted his teeth and waited for the examination to end, trying to concentrate on what felt good.

Nathan finished, changed the towel, and then pulled the blankets up again. "I gave ya a light dose of laudanum before, Vin. The next few hours might be easier if ya take a bit more now. Ya want it?"

Vin thought for a moment. If he took the painkiller he knew he'd just drift off, but he wasn't sure to where. If he fell back into the hell he'd just escaped, he was afraid he'd never find his way out again. Besides, that would mean abandoning the small measure of pleasure Chris was providing, and he desperately didn't want to lose that. He shook his head.

Nathan nodded, very glad of the decision, even if it did mean Vin might suffer more. He checked Tanner's temperature again.

Vin could hear the healer talking to Chris and wondered what they were saying. Not that it really mattered. He knew he was getting worse, but there was nothing he could do now except try and hang on and, failing that, say goodbye before the darkness took him beyond his friends' reach.

It was enough that Chris' hands brought him a reminder of something that wasn't pain. He surrendered to the touch, to the man who was responsible for it, and to the friendship that was more than friendship they shared. He could no longer care for himself, so he gave himself over to the men who could and would take care of him – the two of them here with him in the wagon, and the four others riding to his side even now. And in that moment of surrender, he felt a peace like none he'd ever known.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Nathan looked up, meeting Larabee's eyes and saying, "I'll drive the rest of the way. He needs you now."


The healer shook his head. "I just don't know, Chris. His temperature's up and the pain's comin' back, but he refused the laudanum."

Fear made the gunslinger's heart beat faster. "What does that mean, Nathan?"

"Means we better get there quick as we can," was all the man said, climbing up onto the seat and taking up the reins.

Larabee asked, "He gonna make it that far?"

"I hope so," was all Jackson was willing to offer.

Chris sighed softly and worked his way back, settling next to the tracker. His fingers started stroking through the man's hair. "It won't be long now," he said softly, although he didn't know if it was death or surgery that was going to end his friend's torment.

Tanner only nodded weakly as he lay with his eyes closed, looking more tired than Chris thought a living man could. Then the tracker's expression contorted into a mask of pure agony and he curled up in the blankets with a strangled moan.

Chris moved closer to help, but the tracker pushed him away.

"Vin, calm down," Larabee pleaded, afraid the violent cramps assailing the tracker might rupture his appendix all by themselves.

But Tanner didn't calm down, fighting like a sick bobcat whenever Chris tried to touch him. "Vin, damn it, it's me. It's Chris," he told the thrashing man. "I'm not letting you go, you hear me? I'm not letting you go."

That seemed to break through the pain and when Larabee touched the tracker's shoulder again Vin didn't fight him.

Weak with relief, Chris pulled Tanner back onto the feather mattress, his next task getting a cold towel back in place. He couldn't tell if the compresses were helping any more, but at least he was doing something.

"Just take it easy, Vin. We'll be there soon. I'll be right here until we are. Ya hear me? I'll be right here. I'm not letting you go, Vin." He didn't know what else to say that might help.

Vin kept trying to curl up – maybe it hurt less that way? – so Chris scooted around behind him and helped him to sit up. That stopped the thrashing, but it didn't seem to ease the pain, and although Tanner wasn't making much noise, fierce shudders passed though his body every few seconds.

Vin reached up, clinging to Larabee's arm like it was a lifeline.

Terror trickled down Larabee's neck and spine. How much longer before they reached Sheltonville? He could feel the tracker's fever had gone up, and the cramps didn't seem to be stopping. Was it already too late? Nathan hadn't held out much hope for Vin if his appendix burst before they got him to the doctor…

"Easy, Vin, easy…" Larabee had an awful flash of memory – holding a young soldier in the war while he died a terrible death, gut-shot. Chris let his head fall back against the side of the wagon. Not again. Not Vin. Please, Lord, he prayed silently, not like that. Not Vin.

He tightened his hold on Tanner, trying to push the despair away. It would be so pointless for things to end like this, especially after all the scrapes they had been through. And before Vin had had the opportunity to clear his name. It just wasn't fair.

"Chris?" The whisper was dry and a little squeaky.

Larabee hastily pulled himself together. "Right here, pard." Tanner was still shivering, but his breathing seemed to be returning to something closer to normal. "Ya want me to get Nathan? Need some of that laudanum?"

"No… 'm okay."

Yeah, sure you are, Chris thought, scared. Tanner sounded worn out, hopeless.

Then, as if he'd read Larabee's thoughts, the tracker whispered, "Don't mean t' scare y' none."

"Just worried, is all." He eased the tracker down and spread another blanket over Vin. "You're shaking. Are you cold?"

"Not much… gettin' better… got t'… tell y… if 'm gonna' die… rather do it… here… with y' with me." He ran out of energy, but Chris could tell he wasn't finished yet. Still, he wasn't at all sure he wanted to hear the rest.

Finally, Vin caught his breath and finished. "Ain't had no family… not since I's a little feller… Means more t' me… 'n y' know, Chris… Jist wanted t' say m' thanks…"

"I understand," Chris said softly, his eyes stinging. And he did, maybe better than the tracker could ever know. He'd been nothing more than a shell when he'd met Tanner – dead on the inside, living on the outside. But then he saw those blue eyes, saw the depth of the soul behind them, and knew he couldn't let this man face death without him by his side. And they'd walked though life side-by-side every moment since. He couldn't lose Vin, not and survive. He'd return to what he was before he'd met Tanner. He'd die all over again. "You're gonna survive this, Vin. You have to."

But now that he'd said his peace, all the strength Vin had left seemed to drain out of him. His eyes slid shut and he slipped into a restless doze, cradled in the arms of the man he called his brother, and so much more.

Small wonder, Chris thought. He knew Vin had been running on pure grit since they'd killed the renegades, hell, probably before. Maybe now he could build back a little strength before the surgery. And he would live to have the surgery.

Chris leaned back against the side of the wagon and closed his own eyes, praying to whatever god chose to listen for Tanner to be spared.

Tuesday morning, dawn


Larabee's eyes blinked open. He was unsure how long he'd been asleep, and he glanced over at Vin, but the tracker was still out. He checked the man's fever, but it didn't feel any worse than it had earlier… when he'd said goodbye.


He grunted and climbed over so he could see out the front of the wagon, but there was nothing but darkness beyond the canvass. "Something wrong?" he asked Nathan, noticing the first faint trails of grey that had started to streak the sky.

"Nope. Town should be just up ahead; should get there just about sun-up. How's he doin'?"

"Been sleepin'."

"Best thing fo' him," Nathan said, his own voice stained with exhaustion. Larabee suddenly felt guilty. He'd forced the healer to drive the wagon half the night while he'd slept next to Vin.

"Want me to take over?" he asked Jackson.

"No need," Nathan said. "I can see the lights up ahead."

A half hour later they entered Sheltonville just as the sun rose. They asked the first man they passed where Dr. Griffin's office could be found and the old timer pointed to a building halfway down the street. They moved on, pulling up outside the building.

A moment after they did the door opened and two young men hurried out with a stretcher. They were followed by an older, white-haired man, who called, "Don't jostle him too much!" to the stretcher-bearers.

Chris waited as the two men pulled the tailgate down then, with Nathan's help, they moved Vin from the feather mattress to the stretcher. The healer jumped down and hurried after the pair, already talking to the doctor, who called, "The table in the room to your right!" as the boys entered the house with Vin.

Inside the room, the two young men held the stretcher steady while Nathan and Chris transferred Vin to the table. Dr. Griffin dismissed the boys and stalked across the room to get his medical equipment ready.

"Get him scrubbed," the physician told Nathan, glancing at the healer over his shoulder, adding, "Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Jackson."

"Likewise, sir," Nathan responded.

Larabee removed Vin's long johns while the healer fetched a pan of soapy water from the woodstove in the corner of the room. Once the tracker was naked, Nathan scrubbed Tanner's abdomen twice with the sudsy water. By then the doctor had joined him and Griffin rinsed the tracker's skin with alcohol and then painted him with iodine.

"Thought this was… gonna be… 'n operation…" Vin slurred as he watched the doctor rubbing the iodine over his belly. "…not a war dance."

Larabee couldn't help stop a grin, but he knew Tanner's humor was a fragile thing, as sharp and as brittle as an ice crystal. The surgery was suddenly real for all of them; something that might or might not work. The details of preparing Vin for it had thoroughly spooked Larabee, and the tracker as well, it seemed.

"You ever administered chloroform?" Dr. Griffin asked Nathan and the healer nodded. "Good, it's over there."

Jackson returned quickly with a small wire basket and a bottle. "You ready, sir?" Nathan asked him, knowing every moment they waited might be a death sentence for the tracker.

"Just about…" Griffin moved back to the stove, checking a sieve that was submerged in a pot of boiling water. "I want to give these instruments a little longer to boil. You go ahead."

Jackson nodded and held up the bottle and the basket so Tanner could see them. "Vin, I'm gonna put some of this chloroform on this cotton and hold it over your nose and mouth. I want ya to just breathe normal. You'll be asleep 'fore ya know it, and when ya wake up, it'll all be over."

One way or another, the tracker thought, watching the basket like a bird hypnotized by a snake.

"Vin?" Nathan asked again when he got no response.

Tanner met the healer's eyes and he nodded, then he pulled his gaze away and stared at Larabee. "Chris," he said softly, everything he was feeling escaping in his tone and expression.

Chris stepped up to the side of the table and took Tanner's hand in his, saying, "I'll be right here, pard."

Vin nodded. "Thanks, Cowboy… fer ever'thing."

Chris nodded, although he felt more like crying, and he wasn't at all sure why.

Vin took a deep breath, his grip on Larabee's hand tightening slightly. He'd never wanted to die alone, and he knew now he wouldn't. Chris would be here with him. He looked back at Nathan and nodded to let him know he was ready.

Jackson poured out a small amount of the liquid and placed the basket lightly over Vin's nose and mouth, the chloroform taking just seconds to do its work.

Tanner's eyes lost their focus, then slid shut. A moment later his hand went slack in Larabee's grasp. Chris held it a moment longer, then tucked it back under the sheet Nathan had used to cover the tracker.

"I'll take good care of him," Dr. Griffin said, coming over. "Uh-oh."

"What's wrong?" Nathan asked him.

"He's starting to come around already." The doctor peeled up one of Vin's eyelids. "That's the trouble with chloroform – some people go out for hours, some wake up right away, too damn unpredictable." He put a few more drops in the inhaler and placed it over Tanner's face again. He looked up at Larabee. "You have any trouble with the sight of blood, sir?"

Chris shook his head.

"Wash your hands then," Griffiss said. "And don't touch anything unless I tell you to. If something falls on the floor, you leave it there. All I want you to do is watch your friend's breathing and give him another sniff of the chloroform if I think he needs it. I'm going to need Mr. Jackson to assist me – at least until we see what's going on in there. But I don't want him waking up too soon if we run into trouble. Mind that you don't give him more than a sniff or he might not wake up at all."

Chris nodded his understanding, but he could feel his palms getting damp as his anxiety climbed. What if he accidentally killed his best friend?

"Oh, and you might not want to watch," Griffin added, speaking directly to Larabee. "I passed out cold the first time I saw an operation."

"Hell, Doc, I've dug bullets out of him before," Chris said, a little offended. "And had 'em dug out of me, too," he added.

The older man just nodded. "Just be sure not to breathe too much of that chloroform yourself. It can knock you out, too; tricky stuff." Then he looked at Nathan and asked, "Ready?"

"Yes, sir, I am," Nathan replied, swallowing hard and hoping he was up to the challenge he was facing.

"Very good, then, hand me that scalpel and let's save this boy's life, shall we?"

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The surgery went much faster than Larabee had guessed it would – twenty minutes at the most, he figured. Dr. Griffin's movements were swift and efficient, but Chris had been unable to watch the whole operation. Somewhere about the second layer of muscle it suddenly struck him that this was Vin being carved up like a side of beef, and that observation almost made his stomach turn over. Or maybe it was the heavy, sweetish reek of the chloroform.

In either case, the gunslinger had taken a half-step back, drew in a deep breath, and forced his attention onto watching for any signs Tanner might be waking up. He thought it was nothing less than miraculous the tracker just lay there while the physician cut into him like that. It was obvious the tracker couldn't feel anything that was happening to him, but how was that possible? Still, Chris knew it was true. Vin's eyes remained closed, his expression peaceful, and his breathing stayed steady.

Before he knew it, Nathan was standing beside him, peeking under Vin's eyelids and saying, "Think he's comin' out of it now."

"Fine, fine," Griffin said. "Another stitch here and I'll be finished too…" He tied off a knot in the heavy black thread and sighed softly with satisfaction. The job was done. "We got it in time," he added, looking up at the two men. "But I must say your friend had a damn stubborn appendix."

Chris blinked, then smiled. "Just like everything else about him," he replied dryly. "It's over? All of it?"

"Yes, it's over," Griffin assured him. "And he appears to be doing fine. He'll be awake in a little while now, although he most likely won't be coherent. We'll keep a close eye on him, in case there's any infection, but, barring that, he should make a full recovery."

Chris felt his shoulders sag with relief. Suddenly he felt so tired he wasn't sure he could hold himself on his feet a moment longer. All he wanted to do was curl up and sleep for a week.

Nathan saw the exhaustion on Larabee's face and asked the doctor, "There someplace we can wash up and get some sleep?"

"Yes, of course," the old man said. "I'm sure you're both exhausted after that trip. Come along and I'll show you–"

"No," Chris said. "I promised him I'd be here."

"He won't remember if you are or aren't when he comes around this first time, I promise you that," Griffin told him, but Larabee refused to leave.

Nathan found two chairs, positioning one on either side of the table. The two peacekeepers sat down, waiting for Tanner to come around. And he did, a few minutes later, blue eyes still glazed by the chloroform.

"C'ris," he called, his voice thick and slurred by the drug.

"Right here, pard," Larabee said, taking the tracker's hand and giving it a gentle squeeze. "You're gonna be fine. It's all over."

"M' 'pendix 's gone?"

"Yep. You get some sleep now. Me and Nathan are goin' to do the same."

Vin nodded, his eyes closing, but he whispered, "Y' didn't let go 'a me…"

Larabee leaned over the tracker, whispering into his ear, "Nope, I didn't let go, Vin. Need ya too damn much to do that. Y'hear me? So you rest now, get well. Promise me."

Vin nodded, the corners of his mouth tightening into a small smile. "Ain't goin'… nowheres… promise," he breathed airily, slipping into a healing sleep.

Wednesday morning

Vin drifted slowly toward the embrace of consciousness. It felt like he was floating on a cloud, rising higher and higher into the sky, and he wondered for a moment if he ought to be afraid of falling, but he couldn't hold onto the worry long enough to make it real. He tried to look around, but it was dark. Not black, but shadowed, unfocused. He frowned.

If he was floating on a cloud, shouldn't it be bright with sunlight? Shouldn't there be blue sky overhead?

Unless he was floating in the middle of the cloud, he reasoned… A grey, stormy-looking cloud, but was that possible? Wouldn't he just fall though?

And how'd he get all the way up here anyway?

But he couldn't remember exactly where "here" was, or how he'd gotten there, so he let the questions and the worry go. It was enough to just float, cradled in the soft, fuzzy reality of his cloud, so peaceful, so quiet.

He was used to quiet. Not silence. The wilderness was never silent, but it was quiet in ways men and women who lived in towns and cities could never understand. The Indians understood. They valued the quiet. They knew the quiet was where a man went to find himself. And Vin knew he hadn't found himself, not just yet, anyway

Hadn't really, since he'd bought his way out of buffalo hunting and took up bounty hunting in its place. It hadn't been a conscious choice on his part, really, just something he'd fallen into, but he'd never felt it in his blood; had known it wasn't what he was meant to do with his life.

Hell, he hadn't really felt anything in his blood until that day in Four Corners. The day he'd met Chris Larabee's gaze and knew he'd found his destiny.

The Indians had a word for it, but the whites didn't. They didn't have a word to describe knowing, down deep in your soul, that you were in the right place, at the right time, with the right people. That the man you rode with was the one the Spirits had created just for that purpose. That the two of you had been meant to find one another – and that meeting had been written, long before, in the stars overhead.

Yep, he and Chris had been meant to ride together, to complete the missing portions of each other's souls.

He wondered sometimes how white men could live without words for things so important.

But he knew words weren't really necessary. It was in the quiet that he and Chris spoke what was truly in their hearts. And now, lying in his own cloud-shrouded quiet he could hear the soft sound of Larabee's breath being drawn in, then slowly escaping. The blond gunslinger was sleeping somewhere close by.

That sure knowledge warmed his soul and Vin stretched slightly, trying to remember what it felt like to wear his body again. A stitch caught and pulled in his side, sending a tiny flare of pain coursing through his otherwise peaceful awareness.

Pain… He'd become so familiar with it he'd somehow forgotten what the absence of pain felt like. But then it wasn't completely absent now, he realized, and frowned again.

The wonderful floating feeling began to fade and he knew his back was pressing against something… something still… and soft… and supportive. He could feel his limbs, too, sore and weak, and his bones, too close to the surface of his skin. He could smell his sweat, dried to the surface of that skin and soured by the pain that had held him prisoner for far too long.

So he hadn't been flying. He had been sleeping, might yet be sleeping; trapped in the world between the worlds. It was the path shaman walked to speak to the Spirits, and Vin wondered if there were Spirits here with him now.

He glanced around him, but there didn't appear to be anything here, just the comforting awareness that Chris was somewhere close by. If he could just wake himself up, he would see the man, could speak to him. But he wasn't at all sure how one went about waking up from this Spirit place.

He tried lifting his eyelids, but they were heavy and uncooperative. The effort, however, seemed to lift the veil a little higher and he became more aware of his body… of the bed he was lying on… of the sound of embers, cracking in a stove close by. He could even feel his eyes, moving beneath his closed lids, and before he forced them open he wondered why he couldn't remember when Peso had stomped on him. He ought to remember something like that, shouldn't he? It was the only explanation he could come up with to explain how his belly felt. Or was it?

Another answer drifted just out of his reach and he shied away from it, toying with the idea of going back to sleep. But then his memory improved and curiosity got the better of him. He peeked out from under his eyelids and saw early morning sunlight filtering through a window. Beside the window was a closet door and, next to the open door, an older man was stretched out on a cot, his back to Vin, his feet sticking off the end of the cot so they were close to a small woodstove.

Vin didn't recognize the man, or the room, and he saw no signs of Chris or Nathan, although he was sure that they were both near.

He tried to sit up and look for them, but only managed to lift his head just off the pillow before sheer exhaustion pulled it right back down again. His stomach ached more, and when he reached down to rub it he found a thick, bulky bandage in the way.

Then he remembered it all: the renegades, his appendix, the wagon trip and, finally, going to sleep with only the faintest hope of ever waking up again.

But here he was, awake, a bandage on his belly, which still hurt, but nothing like it had before. So he must still be alive, and that meant the man lying on the cot must be Dr. Benjamin Griffin.

Vin smiled thinly. Chris had promised him they'd get him to the surgeon in time, and, as always, Larabee had been true to his word. For a moment, the fact he had such a friend was nearly overwhelming.

"Vin, you awake? Ya feelin' better?"

Tanner turned his head to the side and found Nathan just standing up from a chair where he had obviously been sitting for a while.

"Reckon so," he said and discovered that, while his mouth felt like it was stuffed full of bad-tasting cotton wool, his mind was remarkably clear. "How long?"

"Were ya sleepin'?" Nathan asked him.

Tanner nodded.

"Since early yesterday morning," he said. "Ya woke up right after the surgery, but you probably don't remember that, do you?"

Vin shook his head, guessing it must be around seven in the morning now. Then vague memories of waking up, sicker than a dog, filtered through the foggy veil that still held him in its grasp. "R'member… sick… thought it… hadn't worked."

"That was a reaction to the chloroform," Nathan explained softly. "You should go back to sleep, now. Ya need to rest, build your strength back."

"Ain't sleepy."

"You want some water, maybe some broth?"

Vin nodded. Both sounded wonderful. "M' legs feel hollow," he rasped. "When c'n I… get somethin' t' eat?"

"Not too soon, young man. I'm afraid it will be only liquids for a couple of days, then soft foods for another couple," Dr. Griffin said, sitting up on his cot. "After that, well, we'll see how you're doing and decide then."

The tracker heard water being pouring from a pitcher at the head of his bed, and then Nathan was helping him to sit up and drink it. It was the best tasting water he'd ever had, and he finished the whole cup without so much as a tiny grumble from his belly.

"C'n I have a little more?" he asked the healer hopefully.

"In a little bit. Want ya to try some broth first."

Tanner nodded his agreement.

While Nathan busied himself at the stove, Vin tried to figure out where Chris was. A few moments later the healer handed him a mug full of steaming liquid and the warm aroma of chicken broth was simply too distracting to be ignored. After one tentative sip he forgot all about Larabee and the soup vanished in no time, Tanner completely distracted by the wonderful taste and the fact the food stayed down.

When he finished, it was Chris who took the empty cup from him, smiling and saying, "Welcome back, pard."

Vin grinned sleepily. "'S too bad it was yer ugly face I had t' wake up to."

"Could always fix that and shoot you, ya know," Larabee growled back, but the lingering smile was enough to reassure the tracker he was perfectly safe.

"How does the incision feel?" Dr. Griffin asked him, coming over to the bedside.

Vin thought for a moment, then shrugged and said, "A little sore, but ain't like b'fore. 'Preciate all y' done fer me, Doc. Figgered I was done in."

"Well, you were far closer than you might like to know, but you're quite welcome," the older man replied. "Now, why don't you get some sleep, let your body heal."

Vin relaxed and closed his eyes. He had only been awake for a little while, , but he felt tired and drained. "Chris," he heard himself say, but his voice sounded like it was coming from the far end of a long mine shaft.

"I'm right here," was Larabee's reply and the tracker felt the man reached out and give his arm a gentle squeeze. "You need something?"

The tracker had a reply, but he couldn't keep his mind focused on what he wanted to say. The warmth of the blankets curled around him, melting his thoughts away and he sank tranquilly into a healing slumber. But, as he drifted off, he felt the reassuring touch of his friend's hand as it moved to his shoulder, where it stayed.

Wednesday, early afternoon

The doctor was there when Vin woke next, telling him it was time to change the dressing on his incision. The process wasn't too uncomfortable, but a host of other minor medical indignities followed, leaving Tanner a little skittish.

"Hungry?" Griffin asked him when he was finally finished.

Vin nodded, saying, "Reckon so." Anything to get the older man away from him for a while.

Larabee, who had been watching the whole procedure from a chair near the bed, stood and crossed the room. He ladled out a bowlful of broth and carried it over to the tracker, knowing Vin would be more comfortable with him than the doctor.

"Where's Nate?" Tanner asked as Larabee lifted him up partway and slid another pillow in behind him.

"Gettin' some sleep," Chris replied. "I'm sending him back to Four Corners tomorrow."

Vin nodded his understanding, then tried to push himself up a little farther. He stopped suddenly when his side protested the action.

"Easy, son," Dr. Griffin said from where he sat at his desk. "Those stitches need time to heal, so go easy when you try moving around."

"How long?" Tanner asked him.

"Well, you're going to need to stay in bed for three, maybe four days, then we'll see if you can't get up and sitting in a chair, start having you walk around a little."

"When c'n I ride?" the tracker asked him.

"Ride? Oh, you won't be able to ride for at least three weeks."

Vin's eyes rounded with equal measures of surprise and despair. "Three weeks?"

The older man nodded, trying hard not to smile at his patient's tone. "At least; it might be longer. You wouldn't want to ruin all that hard work, now would you?"

"Eat your soup," Chris said before Tanner could argue with the doctor. He was surprised when the tracker actually acquiesced. It appeared that, at least for the moment, Vin knew he wasn't up to anything more than resting. How long that would last, he couldn't even begin to guess, but he'd be willing to wager it would be a whole lot sooner than three weeks.

Thursday and Friday

Most of the next two days passed in a hazy fog for Vin, who could only force himself to stay awake for a couple of hours at a time, sleeping away the rest of the days. The time when he was awake was taken up by eating broth and changes of the dressing on the surgical wound, which had become infected.

Dr. Griffin assured Chris and Vin that some infection was perfectly normal, but it was still uncomfortable enough to make the tracker restless, and just serious enough to steal any energy he might have otherwise been able to build up from all that sleep and regular meals.

Vin was both grateful and humbled that Chris was there beside him each time he woke, ready to help him, whether it be to eat, or to bring him some more water, or to help him answer the call of nature. As the fever climbed, Larabee also helped ease away the aches in his arms and legs by rubbing them.

The usual comfortable silence the two men shared gave way to softly spoken conversations, Tanner opening up and talking about his life for the first time, and then listening to Larabee's story in return. Each man came away from the talks with more respect for his friend.

Other times, Chris would read to him, the story and the sound of the gunslinger's voice as he shifted from character to character entertaining the track immensely.

Friday afternoon

Vin awakened and stretched carefully. His side still felt a little tender, but he was finally starting to feel rested when he escaped the sleep that seemed determined to hold him.

"'Bout time you woke up again," he heard Larabee say.

Tanner yawned and carefully eased himself up so he was leaning back against the headboard. "'M gettin' tired 'a sleepin' all the time."

"Yeah, I would be too, but I have something here that might help."

Vin looked over at the stove where Larabee worked, wondering what it was going to be this time – chicken broth, beef broth, or barley soup. When Chris returned with a small bowl full of mashed potatoes, the tracker's mouth began to water.

Larabee chuckled at the hungry look in Tanner's eyes as he handed the bowl over. "Just go slow, all right?"

Vin nodded, diving into the meal and enjoying it more than he expected.

While the tracker ate, Chris sat down next to the bed and opened the book he had been reading out loud, picking up where he'd left off when Vin had fallen asleep after breakfast.

Tanner listened, grinning and chuckling as he listened to the misadventures of a young boy on the Mississippi River.

Saturday morning

"Tired of being stuck in that bed, Vin?" Dr. Griffin asked after Tanner finished off his breakfast of soft-boiled eggs and bread soaked in milk.

Vin's expression brightened. "Y' mean it, Doc?" The prospect of escaping the bed, even for a short while, sounded like nothing short of emancipation.

"Yep," the old man said, chuckling softly. "It's time we got you up and moving around again, let you build back some strength." He took a spare blanket and draped it across the chair sitting near the small cook stove

Chris grinned and stood up from his own chair, ready to help however he could. And, once again, Vin was impressed and humbled by his friend's patience and willingness to help.

The doctor moved back to the bed and offered Tanner his arm, saying, "A little walk will do you good. Take my arm and sit up like you normally would."

Tanner nodded and grasped the older man's forearm. The stitches pinched as he sat up, making him grimace, but he ignored it.

"That hurt?" the doctor asked him.

"Little," he admitted a little sheepishly. As much as he wanted to get out of bed, he was suddenly anxious about moving around too much.

"Don't worry, you're doing fine," Griffin assured him. "Now, go ahead and stand up."

Chris stepped up and took Vin's other arm. The tracker slid off the edge of the bed and slowly straightened. It didn't hurt too much, but he felt a bit lightheaded and was glad for the support the two men were offering.

"You all right?" Chris asked him.

"Reckon." He looked down and concentrated on making his feet work, taking one step, then another, and another, until he reached the chair. Once there, he lowered himself down, gritting his teeth in anticipation, but the maneuver was much less painful than he expected.

The doctor tucked the blanket around him as Vin settled back with a sigh. It did feel good to be sitting up for a change. He glanced around the room, enjoying the simple fact he was seeing it from a different angle.

"Ready to eat some more?" Griffin asked him.

Tanner nodded. He was always ready to eat these days, but he only got halfway through a dish of peaches before his eyelids began to droop. "Aw hell," he sighed, knowing he wouldn't be able to ignore the siren song of sleep it for long.

"That's all right," Griffin reassured him. "You did fine."

Chris and the doctor waited for Vin to finish off the last of his peaches, then helped him back to bed where he lay down and immediately fell asleep.

The doctor smiled and nodded. "He's doing much better than I expected," he said, looking down at his patient. Then he glanced up at Larabee and added, "But don't tell him I said so. I have a feeling he'd think that meant he was ready to go home."

Chris grinned slightly. "Probably would."

Saturday night, late

Tanner knew it was late when he woke next. The lamp was out and there were no shadows dancing in the windows from the street fires outside. In fact, the only light in the room came from the orange glow behind the grate of the cook stove. And in that faint illumination he could see Larabee was sitting in the same chair Vin had used earlier.

He frowned. That meant Chris and the doctor were still taking turns watching him through the nights; probably due to the lingering infection.

The tracker watched quietly for a few moments. Larabee leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees, his hands clasped above his knees. It almost looked like the man was praying, but Vin found that hard to believe. But the gunman's appearance was one of worry.

"Kinda late fer y' t' be up, ain't it?" he asked softly.

Chris glanced over and, finding him awake, stood and crossed to the bedside chair, sitting down again there. "You all right?"

Tanner nodded, wishing they would stop asking him that. He knew he wasn't going to stop worrying himself until they did.

"Want anything? There's still some soup left, and some bread and peaches."

"Reckon the bread and peaches," Vin said. "'M gettin' damn tired of soup."

"I'll be right back," Chris said, walking quietly over to break some bread into a bowl before he poured the last of the peaches over it and carried it back to Tanner. He sat down to keep the tracker company while he ate.

"Somethin' on yer mind?" Van asked after a few bites.

Chris looked up, meeting his eyes. "Perdue brothers rode into town just before dark."

Vin felt his heart begin to race. They had been heading in the opposite direction of Sheltonville when they'd left Rudy Wells. "They lookin' fer me?"

Larabee shrugged. "Don't know yet." Then he added, "Nothin' to worry about, one way or another."

The tracker finished off his bread and peaches, then accepted a cup of water from Larabee, draining that as well. Despite what Larabee had said, the man looked worried. They both knew it would be a few more days before the others arrived from Four Corners. Until then, they would just have to lie low and hope the bounty hunters weren't there looking for him.

"Let this wait too long," Tanner said softly, shaking his head.

Chris refilled the cup with more water and set it on a small table Dr. Griffin had found for them. It would be within easy reach if Vin wanted it later. "Clearing your name?" the blond guessed.

The tracker nodded.

"And with Eli Joe dead just how do you plan to do that?"

Tanner thought for a moment, then sighed. "Hell, I don't know, but I'm gettin' damn tired 'a lookin' over m' shoulder all the time."

Larabee couldn't imagine living with a price on his head. It was bad enough he had enemies and a reputation that inclined young men with more guts than brains to sometimes call him out in order to see if they could make a reputation for themselves. But to live as a wanted man, when he was innocent, well, that was something the gunman wasn't certain he could do. And, in Vin's case, it was Larabee's fault. He had shot and killed the one man who could clear Tanner of the murder charge. He looked down, suddenly unable to meet the tracker's eyes.

"Hell, Chris, weren't yer fault."

"Like hell it wasn't," Larabee muttered. "I should've winged him instead."

"Y' go 'round wingin' 'em, an' one's gonna kill ya. Y' did what had t' be done."

"Damn it, Vin, he was the only one who could clear you."

Vin sighed softly. They'd had this talk more than once, but no matter what he said, Chris refused to let it go. "Like I told y', cain't clear m' name if 'm dead. Figger I'll jist tell the sheriff the truth an' hope he believes me."

"You can't take that kind of chance," Larabee argued.

"Better 'n gettin' m'self shot by some bounty hunter lookin' t' collect that five hundred dollars. Least I have a chance."

"Look, if you're serious about this, then let's wait 'til we get back to Four Corners. We can talk to the judge, see what he has to say. Maybe he knows someone who could help you."

"Hell, Cowboy, soon as y' tell 'im the truth he's goin' t' have t' lock me up. He's a good man, but he lives the law like Josiah does his bible. I don't reckon on spendin' the rest 'a m' life in no cell neither. Ain't sure what'd be worst, that or hangin'. Both look pretty bad."

Larabee knew the tracker was right, but he couldn't come up with a better idea. He didn't want Tanner to end up dead at the end of a rope, or by a bullet, and, as long as he was alive, he knew he wouldn't allow either one to happen, no matter what it might cost him.

"Look," Chris said, "you should get some more sleep. Now ain't the time to be making' plans."

Tanner nodded, but he was already making plans.

Sunday morning

A light knock on the clinic door brought Vin awake instantly. He glanced around, finding the room empty, which sent a momentary panic coursing through his veins. Then he remembered. Dr. Griffin was at church and Larabee had headed across the street to get himself some breakfast at the restaurant in the hotel. He should be right back…

The knock sounded again.

Tanner tossed the blankets back and sat up. Then he pushed up to his feet and started for the closet where he knew his Mare's Leg was hanging on a peg behind the closed door.

It was a long way from the bed to the closet for the healing man, and he wished he had something to hang onto, his balance not what it ought to be.

He stumbled just as he reached the closed door and leaned against the wall as a wave of dizziness swept over him. The vertigo didn't let up as he reached out and weakly gripped the knob, pulling the door open. He took a deep breath and took down the Mare's Leg, hoping the darkness prickling along the edges of his vision didn't overcome him too quickly.

Then he heard voices, men's voices, outside. He couldn't make out how many, but there had to be at least three, maybe four.

He managed to pull the gun from its holster and get it ready to fire. Then he slipped into the closet, pulled the door shut, and waited. The minutes that passed while he remained hidden felt like hours, but he had no other choice. He would face the Perdue brothers on his feet, a gun in his hands.


He recognized the voice immediately. "Chris?" he called weakly, pushing the door open and stepping out of the closet. The room began to spin again and he would have fallen if Larabee had moved swiftly, grabbing him and pressing him back against the wall. Tanner knew he couldn't move, even if his life depended on it, and he wasn't sure that it didn't. "Perdue br–"

"Gone," Chris said. "The Doc chased 'em off yesterday. I told you that earlier, before I went over to get breakfast." And, just as he finished, Griffin stepped into the room, his gaze sweeping over the two men.

"What happened?" he asked, crossing quickly to Larabee's side.

"Heard a knock an' somebody tryin' t' open the door," Vin managed as the two men helped him back to the bed and got him lying down.

Tanner closed his eyes, willing the dizziness to go away. A twinge in his side made him wince and, before he could say anything, the doctor was checking under the dressing and doing God knew what. He forced his eyes open. "They know 'm here?"

Chris shrugged. "They've got some suspicions."

"Ah hell," Vin breathed. "We got t' get out 'a here."

"Vin, you got dizzy walkin' across the room, how the hell do you think you can ride?" Larabee asked him.

"He can't ride," Dr. Griffin said. "He tries and he'll tear those stitches open."

"Might not have a choice, Doc," Vin replied airily. "Ain't goin' t' lay here 'n' wait fer 'em t' kill me. Perdue brothers never take a bounty in alive if they c'n get paid the same fer 'em dead."

"Bounty?" the surgeon questioned looking from Vin to Chris.

"That's not going to happen," Larabee insisted, ignoring the older man.

"Maybe I should speak to the sheriff," Dr. Griffin said, clearly confused by the whole conversation.

"No," the two peacekeepers replied in unison.

"Vin's wanted in Texas for a murder he didn't commit," Larabee explained. He didn't like telling the man, but he didn't see as he had much choice if they were going to get Griffin's cooperation. "You tell the sheriff, he'll have to arrest him."

Benjamin looked from one man to the other. "Then how do we protect him from these men?"

"I'll do that," Larabee said, his tone hard edged with conviction.

"Chris," Vin said, starting to sound a little stronger, "y' can't take a chance with the doc's life."

Larabee looked down at the tracker, knowing he was right. Meeting the doctor's eyes he asked, "Shouldn't you be getting back to your wife?"

Griffin frowned. "In a few days, yes, but not before Vin's eating solid food and able to stay awake for several hours at a time."

Chris didn't like it, but he also knew he wouldn't be able to get the man to leave before he was sure Tanner was all right. And, to be honest, he was glad to have the man there to watch over his friend's recovery. But it meant he was going to have to keep an eye on the surgeon as well as the wanted tracker.

Sunday night

Vin was up on the rooftops, running as fast as he could. As he neared the edge of the building, he gathered himself and, at the last possible moment, he leaped across the space to the next rooftop and kept running.

He knew he had to hurry, although he wasn't sure why, or where he was going. Still, he continued to run.

His side ached and he pressed his hand to it, ignoring the pain as he continued. He leaped across another space and stumbled to a stop.

No, he thought, that can't be possible!

But it was. Chris and Eli Joe were locked in a pitched, hand to hand battle, and they were moving ever closer to the edge of the roof.

Vin sprinted forward, leaping the last space separating him from the two men and came to a graceless stop. His side was hurting more now, fiery tendrils snaking through his guts, almost making him sick.

Sunlight, glinting off something in Eli Joe's hand, drew Tanner's attention and he realized it was a knife, and that the man was getting ready to use it on Larabee.

His Mare's Leg came up in his hands, but it was already too late. Eli Joe plunged the knife into Chris' belly, the gunman crying out as the blade sank in.

"No!" Vin yelled, watching as blood bubbled up and over Larabee's lips. The man's green eyes locked on his, rounded with pain and surprise. "Chris!"

Eli Joe jerked the knife free, laughing. He looked at Tanner and raised the knife over his head, letting loose with a war cry. Larabee dropped to his knees, his hands pressed to his belly, trying to hold back the torrent of blood flowing between his fingers.

As Vin watched, the life in the man's green eyes slowly faded away… "Chris!" he cried again.

Tanner pulled the trigger on the Mare's Leg, watching from the corner of his eye as Eli Joe was lifted off his feet and thrown off the edge of the roof. He could hear the man's scream as he fell, but he didn't care. He dropped the Mare's Leg and rushed to Larabee's side just in time to catch the man as he pitched forward.

"Chris?" he called softly, cradling the man in his arms. "Chris?"

Green eyes fluttered open and Larabee stared up at him. "You shouldn't've killed him," he breathed, blood frothing over his lips. "He could've cleared your name." And then the eyes dropped closed again.

"Chris?" Vin called, but this time he knew there would be no answer coming. "Chris!" he cried.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Vin? Vin, settle down."

Hands grabbed his arms and Tanner jerked awake. Chris was leaning over him, holding him down.

"Settle down," Larabee repeated. "You're going to hurt yourself."

Tanner relaxed, forcing away the haunting images that still clung to his awareness. Chris was alive – alive and well.

"That's it," the blond said soothingly.

The pressure in his side let up and the tracker realized that Dr. Griffin was there as well, and had been pressing down on the bandage.

"Easy, son," the older man said. "I don't want you to pull out those stitches."

Vin nodded, but he couldn't seem to stop shaking, and his heart was still racing.

"I'll get him some water," the doctor said and stepped away.

Tanner heard the cup being filled and then Chris was lifting him up and holding the cup to his lips. He gulped the cool liquid down and sighed as he sagged back in Larabee's grasp.

"Bad dreams?" Chris asked him.

He nodded, more relieved than he could really explain; thankfully he didn't have to.

"Just the last of your fever breaking," Griffin said. "I know it probably doesn't feel like it right now, but it's a good thing."

Vin nodded, his eyes closing as he tried again to will his body to cease shaking, but it didn't work any better this time than it had the last. Images from the dream flashed through his mind and he forced his eyes open, not wanting to see Larabee die like that again.

"Easy," Chris said, reaching out to push the sodden hair off Tanner's forehead. "Whatever it was, it was just a dream."

Tanner nodded, but he wasn't quite sure that meant there wasn't any danger to Larabee. The Spirits used dreams to teach, and to warn. Maybe they were trying to tell him Chris was in danger here. That the Perdue brothers were going to kill him. He just couldn't allow that to happen.

Just then a loud knock sounded at the door.

Chris shot to his feet, his Colt in his hand an instant later. Griffin sucked in a sharp breath at Larabee's speed. "You expecting anyone?" the gunman asked him.

The doctor shook his head.

Then a voice called, "Benjamin! Benjamin, it's Sally! She's havin' her baby!"

"Oh no," the older man breathed. "It's too soon." He stalked over and grabbed his black bag, saying over his shoulder as he left, "Keep him in bed and resting; give him plenty of water and whatever food he can tolerate. I'll be back as soon as I can."

And then he was gone, leaving Chris and Vin alone.

"You heard the man," Chris said. "Get some sleep."

Vin didn't want to sleep, afraid the dreams might return, but his body seemed to have a mind of its own these days. His eyes dropped closed and he was soon slumbering again. But this time Larabee stayed right where he was, determined to protect his friend.

Monday morning, just before dawn

Vin woke from another bad dream, panting as he tried to catch his breath. He had seen Larabee killed again.

Being as quiet as he could, he pushed himself up and then leaned over to get the cup of water waiting for him on the small bedside table. He drained the cup and set it back down, sagging back against his pillows. That's when he heard it, the unmistakable snick of a pistol being cocked.

He looked, finding Larabee standing near the window, his Colt in his hand. "What's goin' on?" he asked softly.

"Just saw the Perdues leave the livery."

"Could be they're leavin' town."

"Could be they're going to make their move; they have a spare horse with 'em."

"Help me up," Tanner said.

"You stay put," Chris told him. "I'll take care of this." The blond moved away from the window, heading for the door.

"Chris," Tanner called, but it did nothing to stop the gunslinger. "Chris!"

Larabee was gone.

Vin only waited for a moment, then he tossed the blankets back and sat up. He was getting stronger, but the walk to the storage room to get his Mare's Leg still left him breathing hard and trembling. He stopped long enough to pull his pants on, then drew in a deep breath, wiped the sweat from his face, and forced himself on.

He crossed the room, opened the door, and stepped out into the hallway. There, using the wall for support, he made his way slowly to the front door of the clinic. Pulling it open just a crack, he checked the street. There was no one out yet, the sun still not up. There was also no sign of Larabee.

Cursing softly, he closed the door, bolted it, and made his way down the hall to the opposite end. Dr. Griffin had had him shuffling up and down the passage to build his strength, but this time it looked much longer than it had in a while. Still, he finally reached the back door to the clinic and opened it just far enough to get a look at the alley, leaning heavily against the wall as he did.

Nothing, then he saw a rifle barrel start to poke through the open door.

Tanner slammed the door closed and threw the bolt across it. He managed a step back a moment before something heavy hit the door, causing the boards to creak under the assault. Dalton Perdue was a sizeable man, Vin knew. It must be him.

Tanner hurried back to his room as quickly as he could, stepping inside just as Dalton crashed through the back door. Vin shut his door as well, grabbing a chair and wedging the back under the knob to buy himself some more time, or so he hoped. But Daniel Perdue stepped out of the storage closet, his Colt already in his hand and pointed at Vin.

"That's far enough, Tanner."

The tracker froze, his Mare's Leg in his hands and pointed at the bounty hunter.

Dalton pounded on the door, bellowing, "Daniel, open the damn door!"

"Can't," the younger man called. "Got us a standoff in here."

They both heard Dalton curse.

"Where's your friend?" Daniel asked the tracker.

Vin shrugged. "Don't matter. Y' got me. What're y' gonna do with me?"

"Gonna kill ya and take ya back t' Tascosa, collect that five hundred dollar bounty."

"I don't think so," Larabee said, stepping into the room from the storage closet, surprising both Tanner and Perdue.

Events suddenly began to seem dream-like for the tracker, unfolding slower than they really were. Vin saw the young bounty hunter's finger begin to tighten on the trigger as Daniel turned away from him and aimed at the closet – at Chris. The tracker felt his own finger begin to tighten as well, but he was also turning away from both of the other men in the room, although he didn't really understand why.

There was a deafening roar inside the room – Larabee's Colt – and Tanner caught sight of Perdue as he was spun, arms and legs flapping loose-jointed for a moment before he collapsed to the floor. In that same moment, the door burst open, the chair skittering across the floor and colliding with the stove. Dalton stepped into the room just in time to see his brother hit the floor. He yelled, pumping a shot in Larabee's direction. He missed the gunslinger, but shattered the window.

In the same instant that Perdue fired, Tanner sank slightly, getting off two quick shots with the Mare's Leg, the force of the impacts picking Perdue up and carrying him back out the door.

And then everything returned to normal speed. Vin swung back, his gaze sweeping frantically over the room, looking for Larabee. "Chris?" he called.

Chris pushed himself up off the floor, his Colt still in his hand. He approached Daniel Perdue first, checking to make sure the man was dead before he crossed the room and stepped out into the hallway to check on Dalton. The older Perdue brother was slumped against the far wall of the hallway, chest and face a mangled, bloody mess. He didn't have to check to know the man was dead.

When Chris heard a dull thud in the other room, he holstered his Colt and stepped back in to find Tanner on the floor.

"Vin!" he called, two swift strides carrying him to the tracker's side. He knelt down, quickly checking to see if the man had somehow gotten shot, but he was fine.

"How'd y' get in here?" Vin asked airily, his muscles quaking with fatigue, his legs no longer strong enough to support him.

"Root cellar," Larabee replied. "Opens up in the closet."

"Probably the same way Perdue got in."

Chris nodded. "He left the door to the cellar open. I couldn't miss it." Then he reached down, saying, "Come on, let's get you back to bed before you ruin all of the doc's hard work."

With the gunslinger's help Tanner was able to get to his feet and shuffle over to the bed. He sank down onto the edge and then stretched out, wishing he didn't feel like he'd just been trampled by a herd of buffalo. Chris poured him some water, which he drank down gratefully.

A moment later, the local sheriff and one of his deputies burst into the room, their guns drawn.

Chris and Vin both raised their hands, knowing the lawmen might be quick on their triggers.

The sheriff frowned, looking down at Daniel Perdue. "Mr. Larabee, what's going on?"

Chris pulled a blanket up over Vin, then turned to the lawman. "Hell if I know, Sheriff," he replied smoothly. "This one came out of the doc's storage closet and the other one busted the door down and started shooting." He nodded at the shattered window.

"You boys all right?" the lawmen asked them, walking over to check Daniel while his deputy stepped out into the hall to look Dalton over.

"Think so," Chris replied, "but I'll be glad when Dr. Griffin gets back and can take a look at his stitches."

Sheriff Tom Henry glanced from the dead man to the two peacekeepers again. The injured man, whose name he hadn't gotten, looked pale and shaky, Larabee calm and collected. He'd heard plenty about Chris Larabee, and the other six men who protected the small desert town of Four Corners, and all of it was good. "Doc's got himself a cellar. He probably used that to get into the clinic," he said, nodding at Daniel Perdue.

Larabee nodded. "What do you figure he was after?" he asked, hoping the Perdues hadn't stopped to tell the sheriff they were after a bounty in his town.

Henry shrugged one shoulder. "Never seen 'em before. Might be they were after some of the doc's drugs – had that happen a couple 'a times already. Or maybe they thought the doc had some money stashed in the clinic."

Larabee nodded. "Need some help hauling 'em over to the undertakers?"

The deputy nodded. "I'd appreciate it. The one out in the hall is a big feller."

The sheriff looked at the man in bed, asking, "How are you doin', son?"

"Reckon I'll live," Tanner replied.

"Never got your n–"

"If ya don't mind, I'd like to get these bodies out of here so I can clean the place up before the doc gets back," Chris interrupted. "He's off delivering a baby."

"Sally Adams," the lawman said, looking thoughtful. "Hell, she' ain't due for another couple 'a weeks." He hesitated for a moment, then nodded. He didn't need to know what was going on. Larabee and his friend were peacekeepers, just like he was. Besides, he'd heard Orin Travis had hired them all personally to protect the town his daughter-in-law and grandson lived in, and that was good enough for him. Hell, couldn't ask for a better recommendation.

Monday evening

Vin awoke to the tantalizing smell of pot roast and the buzz of achingly familiar voices. He lay still, enjoying the sounds and smells, allowing himself to come fully awake.

So, the others had finally arrived – Buck and Josiah. He hoped that meant they would all be returning home soon.


Good Lord Almighty, when had he started to think about Four Corners and the men he worked with as home… as family?

Not that it really mattered. He did, and they all seemed to feel the same. Even Ezra, who tried harder than the rest of them to deny both.

And he would be going home, he knew. The Perdues were dead. The sheriff hadn't asked any more questions, and Dr. Griffin had seen him earlier and had said he hadn't done any harm to himself.

Larabee had kept his promise, just like he always did. And Chris hadn't been hurt either. All in all, Vin decided the Spirits had been good to him, and he would have to make a point of thanking them good and proper when he got back.

He opened his eyes then, watching as Buck fussed over a tray. Josiah was seated close by, watching the ladies' man while Chris paced, clearly growing impatient with Wilmington's antics. Dr. Griffin was nowhere to be seen.

"Welcome back, brother," Josiah rumbled softly, seeing that Vin was awake.

"That m' dinner?" the tracker asked Sanchez.

The former priest nodded.

"And it's all ready for ya now," Buck said, carrying the tray over.

Tanner's mouth started watering as soon as he saw what was there – roast beef, mashed potatoes, and a pile of string beans.

Chris walked over and helped Vin to sit up, slipping a couple of extra pillows behind him so he could lean back to eat comfortably. Tanner glanced up at the man, knowing something was bothering him. "Looks like y' got somethin' chewin' on ya."

Chris hesitated a moment, then nodded. "Worried about the sheriff getting curious about why two known bounty hunters would break into Dr. Griffin's clinic."

Tanner nodded. "Reckon if he does I'll be takin' care 'a business sooner 'stead 'a later."

"There has to be some way to–"

"Y' heard the doc, Lar'bee. Can't ride fer another couple 'a weeks."

"Vin, I'm not going to–"

"Gotta be done, Cowboy… sooner or later."

Larabee's eyes flashed, but he held his tongue. "Eat," he finally said. "The sooner you get your strength back, the sooner we can go home."

Home, Vin thought. Damn, but I like the sound 'a that.

"So, ya been over to the saloon?" Buck asked the tracker, sitting down next to Josiah. "There's this little gal over there who could turn a cat's head away from cream…"

Vin smiled, damn but it did feel good…


Author's Note: This story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #6, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Patricia Grace is the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Sierra Chaves, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 12-6-2005. Art by Shiloh (shigal13@excite.com)