Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four


JD winced before he remembered to pull his hat lower and cover his eyes. He didn't want Vin to know he was watching. God, it had to hurt, they way Vin was leaning heavily against Chris as he took the three steps from the bed to the chair. He couldn't help thinking that there was no way in hell that he would be strong enough to do what was Vin doing ... he just couldn't take it.

But Chris was grinning like Vin had just run a mile, and the funny thing was, Vin was grinning back. What the hell were they so happy about?

"Thank God!" Chris exclaimed good naturedly. "Today the chair, tomorrow the door, the next day the stairs, and . . ."

"Forget it, Larabee. You're just gonna have t' put up with him a while longer," Vin replied, grinning and groaning all at once.

"That's right, Chris. I know Jacob's been tailing you and beggin' t' be here with Vin, but the fact is it's gonna be weeks . . . months . . . until Vin is well enough . . ."

Josiah cut in, "Now Nathan, don't sell Vin short. He might be up to working with Jacob sooner than you think."

"Don't be givin' him ideas, Josiah! You're all a bunch of stubborn . . ."

JD put his hands over his ears and stepped back out on the landing. He couldn't remember why he'd come in the first place. He could hear the bickering continue on from inside the small room, and he shook his head. They'd never learn. But even as he thought that, Vin's soft laughter filtered from behind the door, followed by Josiah's deep chuckle, and before long, Chris and Nathan were joining in. JD couldn't help but smile himself.

He bounded down the steps, two at a time, his heart lighter than it had been in weeks. But he groaned a moment later when Jacob came bounding after him.

"So how is he? Is he up? Can he walk yet? He's gonna make it, right? Because he looked kind of bad when I saw him a few days ago and I sure hope he don't die . . ."

"He's not dyin', Jacob," JD answered crossly.

When Jacob continued to stare at him, apparently waiting for more information, he added, "And he's up, but he ain't gonna be walkin' for a long time yet so you might just as well find something else t' do in the meantime."

The teen's face brightened as he offered, "I was thinking the same thing! You know, JD, as the sheriff, you're gonna need back-up. I mean, if anything ever happens to you . . ."

JD groaned again as Jacob babbled on, following along behind him. And oh yeah, this was why he'd tried escaping to the clinic. Well, he could only pray that Nathan was wrong and Josiah was right . . . and Vin was on his feet quick.

+ + + + + + +

Buck knew it would all work out. Hell, it always did. No matter how stupid they got, how much they argued and fought, how hurt or sick or just plain done in they were . . . it always worked out. Forget that glass is half full stuff - in Buck's world, the glass was overflowing pretty much every day.

Of course, he still felt kind of bad about the morphine thing. He overheard Josiah and Ezra talking one day, and it sounded like he'd damn near killed Vin. So maybe he'd best leave the doctoring to Nathan.

And Nathan had done more than his fair share of that lately. Chris got better, in spite of spending most of the past two weeks glued to Vin's side without getting nearly enough rest. Of course, Buck was convinced that it was getting Vin back that did Chris the most good, Nathan's fussing not withstanding.

Vin never did ask for the morphine again, though it was obvious he wanted to. Ezra was right about that part . . . the wanting something so badly, the need for it so strong that it drove a man crazy. Tanner tried hard to be agreeable, but his emotions swung back and forth worse than a woman's . . . cross one minute, damn near weepy and apologetic the next. Buck felt doubly guilty when he thought he might have made it harder for Vin, even though he hadn't meant to.

He'd gotten better over the last few days, though. In fact, in some ways Vin was better than Buck had seen him in a long time. He was clearer in his thinking, and somewhere, somehow, he'd regained that calm, steady, assuredness that was unique to Vin. It was almost like he'd laid a demon to rest, and maybe he had.

The only thing left was to get him back on his feet. He'd still carry the limp, but that didn't seem so important anymore, especially with young Jacob chomping at the bit to follow in his footsteps. Buck had to chuckle at that; the kid was driving everyone crazy except him. The boy had informed Buck that he didn't know anything that Jacob had any interest in learning. Buck didn't feel bad about it though - he figured in about five years or so, the kid would be begging him for tips in his particular area of expertise.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra was not a man of violence, unless of course, it was a matter of self-defense. But he was certain that someone somewhere had masterminded a conspiracy to drive him to commit great bloody acts of obscene violence. First, Nathan and Josiah lost their collective heads in an utterly ridiculous altercation, and then he overheard that Neanderthal Conklin maligning Vin's name once again.

Not only had the man continued to denounce Vin for not getting to young Michael in time, but he'd had the unmitigated gal to imply that Vin had not killed the murderer after all . . . that the entire drowning incident was concocted by his three friends in an effort to "save face" with the town.

"I don't see a body. Anybody here seen a body?" Conklin had asked loudly, the implication obvious. And if there was a seed of a doubt in anyone's mind, it certainly sprouted with that added fertilizer.

Ezra thought that questioning his integrity might be understandable, but not that of Nathan and Chris and Vin. That just wasn't going to happen. So before he was fully aware of his own actions, he'd pulled his weapon and threatened to leave the man stranded on a freezing hillside . . . and taken wagers on how long it would take his friends to find him.

Amazingly enough, what he considered a minor incident apparently was enough to shift the attitudes of the remaining doubters in the town. Vin went from being the fallen hero to . . . well, to the real hero that he was all along.

And Ezra was quite proud of his role in the entire affair - he never realized he held so much power. In fact, surely there was something to be gained from this newfound revelation . . .

But with a sigh, he reluctantly pulled himself back from that kind of thinking. His words to Buck resounded in his head as he reminded himself that there was nothing more addictive than power.

Besides, he couldn't afford to be distracted. Obviously his friends--and a rather distinct portion of the town--needed him to keep them straight.

+ + + + + + +

"I think it's up to you to tell him, Jim," Josiah said gently as he faced the man sitting in his pew.

"I'm not sure I can, Josiah. I feel . . . I mean I know what he did and how hard he tried . . . but I'm not sure I can look at him and not think about Michael."

"Vin would never ask you not to think about Michael. He thinks about him every day, I assure you."

Tears rolled steadily down the grieving father's face as he admitted in a whisper, "I should have gone with them, but my wife . . . she was so distraught and I couldn't leave her. And the worst is . . . I wish Jacob had been first . . . if he'd taken Jacob first . . . I know it's a terrible thing to say, but I can't help it."

Josiah laid a gentle hand on the man's shoulders. "It's natural to feel that way. Don't let guilt add to your burden right now. Give yourself time."

Jim nodded and turned red-rimmed eyes to Josiah. "I do need time. I can't . . . I can't tell him yet, but I want him to know. Please, Josiah, will you do it for me?"

What could he say? Josiah knew giving Vin the message second-hand wasn't near good enough, but it would have to do. Jim Spencer would never be able to face Vin, let alone get the words out.

Josiah thought back on the last three weeks as he made his way to the clinic. There were many times when he thought Vin's condition was near hopeless, but Tanner was gaining a little more every day. The congestion in his chest finally shook loose, and even though he was still far too thin and weak, he was keeping solid food down . . . Nettie's biscuits in particular. His attitude had done a complete turnaround, as well, thanks in large part to Jacob's newly discovered commission.

But sometimes a deep shadow would settle over Vin's features, and Josiah knew his friend was thinking of the lost boy that he didn't get to in time.

He walked slowly to the clinic, trying to find the right words, or maybe just drawing it out for as long as possible. But eventually he stood before the door, so he took a deep breath and stepped inside. Nathan was in the process of trying--and apparently failing--to coerce Vin into drinking more of the dreaded tea.

"You like arguing with me, don't y'? Ezra ain't around for you to rile up so you're settlin' on me."

"Nathan?" Josiah interrupted.

Jackson must have seen something in his eyes, because he dropped the tea discussion like a hot potato and said, "Reckon I'll head downstairs and get me something to eat, if you don't mind takin' over for awhile."

"Ain't no need for anyone t' take over," Vin muttered crossly from his bed.

But Josiah ignored him and pulled up a chair.

"What?" Vin asked, his eyes narrowing as he peered at Josiah suspiciously.

"I had a visitor to the church this afternoon, Vin." He paused, but he could see that Vin had no idea who or what he was talking about.

"Jim Spencer," Josiah stated.

Vin winced at just the sound of the man's name, but he kept quiet.

"He wanted to talk to you, to tell you . . . but he just couldn't. So he asked me to do it instead."

Good Lord, it was like Vin was stealing himself to receive a bullet to his brain as he took a deep breath and nodded.

"He said that he's sorry he blamed you. He said he knows you did your best, and that at least you brought Michael home, and he's grateful for that."

Vin swallowed and blinked back tears, but he remained silent.

"Vin?" Josiah prodded.

"That it?" Vin finally spoke after what seemed like hours, his eyes now focused on some far away point outside the window.

No, damn it, that wasn't it at all. Josiah moved into his line of sight and took a hold of Vin's arm; tightening his grip when Vin instinctively tried to pull away.

"Listen to me, Vin. It wouldn't have mattered. If you were ten years younger and thirty pounds heavier and the smartest, fastest man who walked on the earth . . . you wouldn't have got there in time. It was Michael's time. We'll never understand why, but nothing, nothing you could have done would have changed it."

In a small, achingly sad voice, Vin asked, "How do you know?"

"I know because people die every single day for no good reason, their loved ones questioning the why's and the what if's and the if only's. But some things just aren't up to us; aren't under our control. Even at your physical best, you couldn't have changed it, Vin. Jim's accepted it and you have to accept it, too."

"I reckon I'd like to think on it some . . . alone," Vin added pointedly.

Josiah nodded as he moved towards the door. Nathan wouldn't like it, but Vin wasn't a child and he certainly had the right to spend some time alone. He added on his way out, "Jim apologized for messing up your face, too."

Vin frowned. "Oh. I forgot about that."

Josiah shook his head and smiled as he left the room. Only Vin could forget that a man had painted his face every shade of purple with his fists. If only Vin could be as forgiving--and forgetful--of his own perceived transgressions.

And if that wasn't the pot calling the kettle black, Josiah thought with a snort. How many times had he refused to forgive himself? How many times had he thought of Hannah and said, "If only . . ."?

It looked like he and Vin both had a ways to go on their journey to forgiveness, but at least they were walking that trail together.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan held his breath as he watched Josiah and Chris help Vin down the stairs. It was too soon, but if the past weeks had taught him anything, it was to listen to his patient and to be willing to compromise. Besides, he was grateful that he'd managed to keep Vin in the clinic for four long weeks as it was.

Cringing with every difficult, faltering step, Nathan bit his lip and tried not to think about how badly it had to hurt Vin, and how one ill-fated missed step could put Vin right back in the dreaded bed.

"That's it! You're doin' good, Vin! He'd doin' good, ain't he? I mean, he looks kinda skinny and done in, but he's up and movin' and that's a start, right?" Jacob kept up a steady litany of comments from where he stood watching at the base of the stairs.

The boy would drive them all out of their minds. Chris was glaring ineffectually until Josiah finally spoke up, "Jacob? Be quiet for a few minutes while we get this done, alright, Son?"

Oddly enough, the only one not bothered by the kid was Vin. Jacob used a hundred words to Vin's one, but they got on better than Nathan would have imagined. He didn't even try to figure that one out . . . let Chris and Josiah deal with whatever went on in Vin's head, he'd take care of the rest of him.

It was all different now. For months he'd fretted about Vin and the broken legs and the morphine, but somehow it all melted away over the last few weeks. It was like they all had a fresh start and a great weight had been lifted. Sure, they still argued and knocked heads once in awhile, but they'd figured out the important part.

Every man had his own journey to make; his own path to walk. Having friends along should make it easier, not harder. A man sure didn't need friends who stood on each side, pulling his arms in opposite directions. No; friends held you up when you stumbled, watched your back, cleared the trail of broken branches. But even with all of that, a man still had to take his own steps.

So in the end, it was Vin's decision to get well or not. Vin spent a lot of time thanking him for helping him, but all Nathan had done was clear the path a bit.

What he hadn't expected was that in paving the way for Vin, he'd found his way back to his own road. He did know about healing; he was good at his job and he was needed by the people in this town. It felt good to know he was where he was supposed to be, doing what he was supposed to be doing.

Finally, finally they were on the last step. "I got the chair here, Josiah, t' take him the rest of the way," Nathan volunteered.

"Hell, no," Vin said breathlessly.

"What? You think you're walking all the way to that hotel room?"

Vin cast his eyes to the boardwalk, settling his gaze on a chair sitting not twenty feet from where he stood. "No. I think I'm walkin' t' that chair. And after I rest up a spell, I'm walkin' t' that chair," he said, pointing to another rocker several yards away from the first.

"Take y' the whole damn day t' get there," Nathan muttered.

"Ain't got nothin' else t' do," Vin reminded him.

"I think it's a great plan! You're really smart, Vin," Jacob threw in his two cents.

It wasn't a great plan . . . it was a damn stupid plan. But it was also Vin's plan, so Nathan bit his lip and kept quiet. Lord, twenty more years of this, and he wouldn't have a bottom lip left to chew on.

+ + + + + + +

He'd forgotten about the leg. Well, not exactly. But he thought once he'd made the decision to get well and keep on living, the rest of it would fall into place. How hard could it be? After all, he'd done it before, and this time he had the benefit of experience.

It wasn't depressing so much as annoying. Vin knew he could do it; he just wanted to do it quicker. Although then he wouldn't have the entertainment of watching Jacob annoy the hell out of his friends.

He smiled just thinking about the kid. If Vin took his time, Jacob would be preaching on Sunday, whipping Ezra in poker, managing the jail, and carving up every splinter of wood in town. The only two men Jacob didn't want to emulate were Buck and Nathan. That last one was Vin's fault . . . he'd thrown up one day when Jacob was visiting, and that convinced the teen that he was never being Nathan's 'back-up'. It was the first time Vin could recall Nathan thanking him for getting sick.

But Jacob made it clear to Vin that he was just biding his time until he could learn his true calling. The kid made it sound like it was a noble thing to do, tracking people. Vin had never thought of it that way before. It was always hunting down criminals or missing women and children; situations filled with anger, hurt, or fear. The good side, the positive side, never occurred to him.

Just as it never occurred to him how it must have felt for Jacob to know someone was coming for him. He should have known, because he'd been on the opposite side of that equation. He'd been tied to a tree; cold and scared and hopelessly alone . . . and he knew that no one was looking, that no one cared . . . that was he was on his own. How different would it have been for him to know that three men were braving ice and snow and treacherous ground - giving up food and shelter and rest - to search for him?

He'd never know. But maybe Jacob was right . . . maybe it happened that way for a reason. Maybe he was the man he was, the tracker he was, because of that experience. Maybe he would have given up the first time around, after Michael . . .

He could almost, almost think about Michael now without that shooting pain in his chest. He'd pondered Josiah's words and, much to his surprise, decided he was right. But knowing it and feeling it were two different things. It'd take time, he supposed, and fortunately that seemed to be something he had plenty of.

That was thanks to Chris, of course. Larabee had saved his life . . . again. It was more than pulling him out of the river - a lot more. Chris was his anchor, and it dawned on Vin that he needed him more than he needed anyone - or anything - else in his life. Turning down the morphine wasn't so hard with Chris at his side. Hell, everything was doable with Chris at his side.

Maybe he was addicted to Chris. Wouldn't Larabee get a laugh out of that?

Speaking of the devil, Chris was at the door to his room, peeking in as he asked, "Vin? You ready?"

"Yeah. Come on."

Every single morning Chris came to get him up and dressed. Five weeks had passed and he still couldn't manage it on his own. Made him feel like a damn kid, but Chris didn't seem to mind.

"You sleep alright?" the blond asked as he helped Vin slip on his shirt.

"Yeah. You?"


It was the same conversation every morning. Next, Chris would help him with his pants - one leg split up the side to make room for the splint - and then he'd help him to the chair. Chris would bring the coffee with him, and they'd sit in companionable silence for the next half hour.

Vin figured he did his best healing during that thirty minutes or so. He still slept a lot, but even after ten or twelve hours of sleep, he didn't feel quite so good as when he shared a cup of strong, black coffee with Chris.

Yep, there was no doubt about it. Larabee might be an acquired taste, but he was also addicting as hell. Well, there were worse things than needing a friend . . . and Vin had discovered most of them the hard way.

"More coffee?"

"Hell, yes," Vin answered, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically, considering the way Chris raised his brows in amusement.

"Damn Vin, it's amazing you don't have coffee running through your veins the way you guzzle it down."

Vin smiled. "Aw hell, Larabee, there are worse things I could have running through my veins."

That didn't get the reaction he'd hoped for. Chris took it far more seriously than Vin had intended, judging by the way he cringed. In an effort to salvage the moment, Vin quickly amended, "It's not the coffee, Chris - it's the company."

That was as close as he was ever going to get to admitting how much Chris meant to him. Larabee picked up on it, too; the warmth of his smile spreading to his eyes in record time.

Vin could get used to that - seeing Chris content and happy for a change. In fact, it could get downright addicting.

+ + + + + + +

Vin shifted uncomfortably in the saloon chair, his eyes glued to the table in front of him. It had been six weeks since they'd returned home, and every move Vin made was still a calculated effort. He was getting a little better each day though, and that was all Chris could ask for.

But at the moment, Vin's unease seemed to have more to do with what was on his mind, than any physical distress. The younger man obviously had something stuck in his throat, though Chris had no idea what it was.

"Thanks, Chris," Vin rasped at last.

That was it? Vin had been struggling for the past few hours to say thank you? What the hell for?

"For what?"

"You know."

Actually, Chris had no idea. After all, Vin had said 'thank you' to him every day for weeks . . . "Thanks for helping me get dressed, Chris," . . . "Thanks for the coffee, Chris," . . . "Thanks for taking care of my horse, Chris."

But he sensed that this particular 'thank you' was coming from somewhere else entirely. Too bad he still had no clue . . . "No, Vin, I can't say that I do."

Vin sighed. "You know I hate these emotional conversations."

That was a vast understatement. "Okay, but you'll have to give me a hint . . . just what are we having an emotional conversation about?"

"You . . . you kept your word. You came for me. You found me."

That was what Tanner had been chewing on? Not only was that old news, it wasn't even accurate. "Well, that's real nice of you to say Vin, but I'm pretty sure it was Jacob who did that."

Vin nodded, "Yeah, he gave me somethin' t' think about alright. But you gave me the reason t' keep tryin'; I'd have been gone long before he came along if it weren't for you, Chris. You pulled me out of that river, too," Vin reminded him. "So . . . uh . . . thanks," he repeated, finally lifting his head and meeting Chris's eyes.

Oh . . . so that's what this was about. Vin may not have realized it, but he'd already thanked him in a hundred ways, not the least of which was that he'd made the decision to fight back and get better. When it came down to it, having Tanner sitting next to him, sharing a beer or a coffee or simply just being there, was about the best thanks Chris could think of.

But Vin wasn't the only one who was uncomfortable with 'emotional conversations', so Chris simply replied, "You're welcome, Pard."

He probably should have let it drop right there, but since the door was opened, he asked, "You ever gonna tell me what happened when you were a kid?"

Vin shrugged. "Ain't nothin' t' tell."

"Vin . . ."

"You already figured it out."

Chris nodded. "All except who didn't come looking . . ."

Vin hesitated a moment before replying, "Uncle, cousins, some kind of kin t' my ma. Reckon they were relieved when I didn't turn up one day . . . too many mouths t' feed an' all."

Kin? His own kin didn't search for him? Chris had to practically swallow his tongue not to shout out in anger. It took tremendous effort for him to steady his voice and ask casually, "You have family out there, Vin?"

"No," Vin said firmly. "I have family here."

And wasn't that the truth? Chris thought about his six friends and the real family they'd become. He figured they were all a little lost when they first met up, but in finding each other, they'd found themselves. He was getting sentimental with age, he supposed, but he couldn't help smiling at the image of seven lost 'boys' . . .

"Chris! Vin! I been lookin' all over for you!" Jacob shouted as he rushed over to their table. "I been thinkin' . . . there's some changes we need t' make around here . . ."

Chris sighed. Make that eight lost boys . . .

Epilogue to the Epilogue: (just for fun)

Martin Fitzgerald never did understand what drove him to find missing people, though it might be an inherited trait. The legends about one of his ancestors, Vin Tanner, involving his considerable tracking skills, were probably mostly made up. But ever since he'd been a boy, he'd been intrigued by the stories he'd heard.

It didn't really become an obsession until college, though. He had a roommate for a brief time, a guy named Joe Sims, who went on and on about how his great, great, great, whatever made a name for himself searching for lost people a century before anyone got paid to do it. Martin wanted to boast that Vin probably taught Joe's ancestor everything he knew, but he figured that would sound pretty immature.

After he'd dedicated his life's work to finding missing persons, Martin thought about Vin Tanner a lot. From what he'd been told, the man could find tracks on solid rock in a blinding blizzard. Yeah, right. Not even those smart alecks from CSI could manage that. He'd also heard that even when Tanner was hurt - sometimes badly - he didn't let it stop him from doing what needed to be done.

That kind of courage inspired Martin more than ever since he'd been shot. He couldn't give in to pain, and he certainly couldn't let it keep him from doing his job . . . it was in his genes.

The End ....