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The comforting sounds of the new morning lulled Vin into an almost surreal sense of security. Leaning his head back against the rocker on which he sat, he closed his eyes for just a moment and listened. The swish-swish of Mrs. Potter's broom nearly matched the rhythm of Yosemite's anvil as he hammered out an iron shoe. The soft breeze carried the light ring of Buck's laugh from an open window, and Vin smiled affectionately. The steady clip-clop of horses' hooves reminded him that time was passing swiftly and the town was once again coming alive.
He loved this place. He felt safe and accepted here. That realization almost always stunned him still. The old rocker groaned as Vin sat up and allowed his eyes to roam over the dusty streets and wooden structures. He'd never imagined a place like this could hold such meaning for him. A tumbling brook, an endless mountain range, and a star-lit night were all he'd ever needed or wanted. But as the sound of children giggling led his gaze across the muddy road, he knew those things would never be enough again.
The children, Betsy and Peter, were crowing over their new passel of kittens, and he knew it was just a matter of time before they made their way over to him. That was another thing that surprised him. He knew the five-year-old girl had taken a shine to him, and he couldn't quite figure it. He liked kids well enough, but he didn't have a way with them like Chris and Ezra did. He never could see himself as a father, at least not before Betsy with her long, blond braids came along. The more she cuddled up to him and wormed her way into his heart, the more he was thinking he might not mind having a family of his own. Hell, this town was making him rethink all kinds of things.
The little girl was arguing with her older brother now. Mama cat had come looking for her babies, and the boy knew it was time to put them back into her gentle care. But Betsy was adamant that Vin see them first. The lean tracker smiled as he stood and stretched the kinks out of his back. He'd go on over and settle this. As he headed towards the street, he noted how the morning sun reflected off the child's light head, almost like a halo. In fact, the light seemed to envelop her, and Vin shuddered with a strange sense of foreboding and urgency.
He stepped off the boardwalk just as Betsy yanked the box of kittens from her brother and skipped into the road towards him, with mama cat nipping at her heels.
It was the sound that alerted him to the danger. The thundering hooves of the stagecoach as it careened into town caused Vin's heart to jump into his throat. If Tony were driving, he'd never slow down in time. Chris had talked to him over and over again, but still the young man drove through town like a whole gang of outlaws was on his tail.
Vin's legs felt like lead as he hurried to move the girl from the street. Betsey had stopped and stooped low to pet the mama cat, whispering words of reassurance, totally oblivious to the impending collision. The tracker knew that it was doubtful the driver could even see the child, let alone stop in time. He called out Betsy's name at the same moment Peter did, and noted her stunned surprise as he made a desperate lunge to push her out of the way. Unfortunately, heavy rain from the previous night made the road slick with mud, causing Vin to slide and seriously hampering his efforts to move child and kittens from certain disaster. Pulling the child tightly against his chest, he covered her body with his own, and attempted to roll out of the way.
The sounds assaulted his senses and drove away all other thought, emotion, and feeling from his body. The roar of the wind filled his ears along with the high-pitched whine of the horses and the thunder of their strong iron hooves striking all in their path. The carriage wheels creaked and grunted as the driver struggled to bring the coach to a halt. A cat's long, low howl vibrated in the momentary silence, before a multitude of voices rose from seemingly nowhere.
A young boy screamed and a woman cried. Nathan's name was hollered over and over again, and another young voice murmured repeatedly, "I'm sorry, I didn't see her!" More and more voices whispered, "What happened?" and "Dear God!" - until all the voices swirled around him in a devious pattern that he no longer had the energy to try and figure out. Soon another voice, stronger than the rest, called to him. Again and again he heard his name, "Vin!" - each time more desperate than the time before. He tried to move, tried to see, tried to speak, but there was nothing there - nothing left of him except the sounds that tumbled around him in a maddening rush. Finally, even those sounds deserted him, until there was only the soft whoosh of the air pushing in and out of his lungs and the blood rushing through his veins. And then those sounds left him, too, and he was nothing at all.
+ + + + + + +
Chris only half listened as JD prattled on about the newest crop of wanted posters. He'd wandered over to the window of the jailhouse and rested his gaze on the figure of his best friend as he reclined in a rocker outside the general store. The look of contentment that blanketed Vin's face brought a barely perceptible smile to the gunman's lips. He didn't know why it did his heart such good to see the tracker like that. Maybe it was because he wanted so badly for Vin to stay. He knew it was the young man's nature to travel, and he'd often worried that Tanner would take off one day. But lately he'd sensed a change in his friend. He knew the pull of putting down roots - of finding a place where you belonged. He hadn't realized until recently that he'd found that place again himself.
He'd swiveled around to give his attention to JD, when he heard the stagecoach entering the area. He didn't have to look to know that Tony was at the reins again and that he was moving too fast. A flash of remembrance surged through him of a time when Billy had gotten in the way of the carriage, and Chris had just barely managed to sweep him from its path. On impulse, he turned back to the window.
Gasping as he saw the events unfolding before him, he found himself riveted to the spot and unable to tear his gaze away. Vin sprinted across the rain-soaked earth towards a tiny girl who seemed stunned by the approaching horses. He was fast, Chris reminded himself, faster than him, and he'd make it in time. Just then, Tanner slipped in the mud, and the passing coach obstructed the blond's view.
A strangled, "Oh God," left his lips, and JD turned sharply.
Chris remained frozen at the window for a long moment, waiting for a miracle that he somehow knew was not to be. He heard JD ask, "What's wrong?" But instead of answering, he raced through the door on legs of rubber.
It seemed to take forever to reach the other side of the road. Chris was surprised to find the passengers were just beginning to exit the coach as he drew closer to the increasingly chaotic scene. He heard a little boy screaming, while Tony paced nervously and apologized profusely. Mrs. Potter came out and pressed a hand to her mouth to stifle a sob. Someone yelled for Nathan, and before long, a crowd had gathered.
Larabee braced himself for what he would find, but still felt sick at the sight before him. Vin lay on his side, partly under the buggy with his legs pinned beneath the right, front wheel. In his arms, he still clutched the golden haired child. Blood streamed from both victims' faces, running in a soft, slow trickle to mix with the sodden earth on which they lay. He could see that Tanner's eyes were open but unfocused, as he crouched to the wet ground and gingerly pried the limp child from his friend's arms.
Rising on unsteady legs, he turned and nearly bumped into Ezra, who stood with arms outstretched to take his burden. It was apparent by the gambler's partially buttoned shirt that he'd just gotten out of bed, and Chris wondered vaguely how he'd managed to get there so quickly. Standish avoided Larabee's eyes as he gathered the child to his chest and moved away.
Chris fell back to his knees, his heart hammering in his chest, and called to his friend, "Vin?"
Getting no response, he gently brushed the hair from the injured man's neck and felt for a pulse. Finding an erratic one, he tried again, "Vin?"
Tanner's eyes remained open but glassy, and Larabee leaned into his line of sight, calling more forcefully this time, "Vin! Vin!" But still the tracker remained quiet, unmoving and seemingly unfeeling.
Fear gripped the gunman, and he looked around him in desperation. With shaking hands, JD and Tony worked to release the four horses. Chris noted Buck soothing the distraught young boy, while Mary wrapped an arm around Mrs. Potter. Down the road, both Nathan and Josiah came running - the healer meeting up with Ezra and his small bundle in front of the clinic. As he approached, Josiah caught the blond's eye, and moved quickly to kneel beside him.
"How is he?" the older man asked with bated breath.
"I don't know," Chris responded softly. "He . . . I don't know."
His gentle tone belied his true emotions. How the hell could Vin be after being run over by several horses and a carriage? He wanted to scream for Nathan, even though he knew the child had to be the healer's first concern. He wanted to scream at the busybodies who crowded around them, feigning concern for a man who many of them never gave the time of day to. He wanted most of all to scream at the idiot kid who'd roared into town without a thought for the safety of its' citizens. He'd wrap his hands around Tony's skinny neck when he got the chance.
Josiah saw the anger simmering in the gunman, and reminded him to channel that energy where it needed to be. "Let's get this wheel off of him, and get him out of the street."
Chris observed that the horses had been led well away from the stagecoach. He called to Buck for help, and watched as his tall friend laid a comforting hand on the young boy's shoulder before joining Josiah and JD. As the three men lifted the carriage body, Chris turned Vin onto his back and grabbed a hold of him under his shoulders. For a brief moment, the mud held onto the tracker like glue, and the gunman grunted as he pulled his friend out from under the wheel. Larabee listened for any sign of life from Tanner, knowing the movement had to be painful for him. But Vin's only response was to finally, slowly close his eyes. Chris resisted the gut-wrenching conclusion that his friend had irretrievably slipped away from him, determined that Vin would survive his latest heroic act. Josiah had moved to help him with the injured man when Buck spoke up.
"Well, looky what we have here!" Wilmington couldn't believe his eyes. Lying deep in the mud, well protected by Vin's body, was a small box of kittens. All three mewed for their mother, their small world interrupted but miraculously unbroken by the morning's events. Buck carried the tiny creatures to Peter's side as the mother cat came from hiding to claim her brood.
Chris looked away from his friend long enough to catch the look of gratitude that framed the lad's tear-streaked face. Finding the kittens alive was a miracle. But miracles were in short supply, and he feared that was the only one they'd be given today.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan bounded up the stairs of the clinic with Ezra close behind. The gambler carried the little girl inside and laid her lovingly on the bed. Tears filled Ezra's eyes, and Nathan knew in his gut what Standish was already sure of - the healer wouldn't be needed after all. With gentle hands, he looked over the child. Except for the wound on her head, there was not a mark on her. Vin had protected her little body as best he could. But one unlucky strike from a horse's hoof was all it took to snuff out the tiny life.
Ezra choked back a sob, "My God! She's just a child!"
Nathan stood for a moment, unsure what to say to the man. He understood Ezra's affinity for children - found it to be his most redeeming quality in fact. And he understood that he could never, ever find the words to comfort the gambler, because he'd never, ever understand how it could be right for a child to be taken. Maybe Josiah and his God had a clue, but Nathan had neither the heart nor the inclination to offer false assurances. So he softly squeezed Ezra's shoulder and ignored the tears that burned in his own eyes.
"I need t' see t' Vin," he spoke softly, as he made his way out of the door.
Vin. Ezra turned his gaze to the still child once more. How would they tell Vin? Was Vin even alive to tell? As he bent to pick up the little body once more, he noticed the clock on the wall. Thirty minutes - he'd only been out of bed for thirty minutes. And in that time, the whole world had turned upside down.
+ + + + + + +
"Do you know where your grandpa is, Son?" Buck asked as he sat back down on the boardwalk next to Peter.
The boy shook his head numbly; his eyes riveted on the preacher and the gunslinger as they carried his sister's friend towards the clinic. "Do y' think he's dead?" he asked Buck solemnly.
Buck watched as Josiah kept Vin's head cradled carefully in the crook of his arm. The big man had taken the top half of Tanner's body while Chris took equal care holding Vin's injured legs. No, not dead - at least not yet. He said as much to the boy.
"No, he's alive. Nathan will see to him, same as your sister."
The boy continued to watch the slow progress of the men before speaking again. "You reckon she's dead?"
Buck took a deep breath. He didn't know - didn't want to know. "I don't know, but I think she's hurt bad. That's why we need to find your grandpa," the rogue explained softly. He knew the grandfather was the only relative these kids had. It had been hard on the older man, taking in his daughter's children when she died, but he'd managed to make a decent home for them. It'd be real hard on him if that little girl didn't make it.
Nathan had come out of the clinic and met the others at the bottom of the stairs. Buck felt his heart skip a beat. Jackson wouldn't have left the girl unless there was nothing more he could do. Wilmington had the sudden thought that he needed to take Peter some place else, but before he could act on it, the door to the clinic opened again. Ezra came out this time, carrying the child almost reverently, and Buck knew. He watched the young boy's eyes follow the gambler now - down the stairs, across the boardwalk, to the undertaker's.
"She's dead then," was all Peter said.
Buck swallowed and wiped away a tear with the back of his hand. Putting an arm around the young boy, he said, "Let's go find your grandpa."
Peter nodded and stood up, hugging the box with mama and babies tightly to his side.
+ + + + + + +
JD wandered aimlessly in the streets of Four Corners. He'd kept himself busy tending to the horses and the stagecoach passengers, his mind numb to the tragic events of the day. But now he was unsure just what to do next. He knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to take Tony and lock his sorry hide in jail. The problem was that he wasn't sure if the young man had committed a crime. He'd like to ask Buck or Ezra or any one of his friends, but they were all busy with more important things right then.
He and the driver had a friendship of sorts. When Tony came in to town, they'd sit for a spell, sharing a drink and recounting their latest adventures. He knew that Tony was as proud of his position with the stage as JD was with his inclusion as one of the town's peacekeepers. What would happen to the young man now, he wondered? Would he lose his job? He damn well should, Dunne thought. He should damn well get the shit beaten out of him, in fact. Killing a little girl, even if it was an accident, was just inexcusable. Of course, he'd accidentally killed Annie, but that was different. It was, wasn't it?
Then there was Vin to think of. JD had no idea how badly his friend was hurt, but he'd seen the look on Chris's face, and that was enough. He'd seen the gunslinger determined, disappointed, angry, and even sad - but never afraid. It was unsettling, seeing the solid gunman that way, and he didn't like it. He didn't like how afraid it made him feel. He wished he could talk to Buck right now, his tall friend would know exactly what to say to make him feel better. He'd know what to do with Tony, too.
JD rounded the corner of the jail and found, to his surprise, the object of his consideration hunched over in the alley. The young man was apparently ridding himself of his breakfast, coughing and choking between the heaving of his stomach and the sobs that wracked his body. Dunne stood still for a moment - torn between his gut reaction that Tony was getting exactly what he deserved, and sympathy for the misery he was witnessing.
In the end, empathy won out. He knew better than anyone that the guilt of killing an innocent person, no matter the circumstances, was the heaviest weight any soul could carry - or at least, any decent, caring soul. Tony may be reckless and immature, but he wasn't a bad person.
JD laid a gentle hand on the man's shoulder, knowing his comfort and support may not be worth much, but it was better than nothing. And knowing that forgiveness for the stagecoach driver would be well out of reach from the rest of the town - and from Chris Larabee in particular. If the young man had any sense, he'd be gone before Chris had time to come looking for him.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee was an expert at camouflaging his feelings. He was even better at stuffing and burying them so deep and so far inside of him that he fooled himself into believing they no longer existed. As he undressed his best friend, he detached and separated himself so completely that he ceased to be anything more than a body, going through the motions of accomplishing a task. And when his brain started to kick in, he just told it to stop.
Don't think about Vin lying under that wagon. Don't think about how he's gonna feel when he finds out the child died. Don't think about how much pain he'll be in when he wakes up. Don't think about him not waking up. Don't think what your life would be like without him. Don't think.
When the task was finally finished and Vin lay naked on the bed, Chris suddenly reached down to pull the covers over the form of his best friend. He told himself it was to preserve Tanner's dignity - to respect the man's innate shyness and modesty, and it was partly that. But one of those incessant voices in his head that refused to be ignored said there was more to it. If he didn't see, he wouldn't have to admit how badly Vin was injured.
Nathan moved the covers back off the tracker, already taking in the bruises forming in the shape of hoof prints on the misshapen legs. He turned his gaze to the gunslinger, his eyes full of compassion.
"Go on out of here, Chris. Josiah can help me with him," he offered.
When had he become so transparent? When had the others been able to see what he had kept so well hidden from himself? And when had he become a coward? Chris returned the healer's gentle look with one of rock hard determination. Vin would not face whatever lie ahead without him.
"I'm staying," he answered shortly, brooking no argument from the other two men in the room.
Nathan nodded and wasted no more time. Leaving the obvious broken limbs for last, he began his assessment with the same attempt at detachment as Larabee had made - and equally unsuccessfully. Turning Vin's head gently between his hands, he noted the shallow gash and large knot that graced the left side of his forehead. It appeared to be a glancing blow, one that would no doubt cause an almighty headache for his friend, but no long-term effects.
Breathing an audible sigh of relief, he informed the anxious men at his side, "I think his hard head's gonna be okay."
Josiah laughed lightly, in spite of the gravity of the situation. Tanner's hard head may be synonymous with his stubborn nature, but that very tenacity had gotten them all out of more than one scrape in the past, and he was grateful for it.
Chris said nothing, taking in every nuance in Nathan's face and every touch as the healer ran his practiced hands over Vin's chest. The blond noted with some relief that Tanner's lean torso appeared to be relatively unscathed. Maybe this wasn't as bad as he'd thought. A broken leg, or even two, would be painful and troublesome to be sure - especially for a restless spirit like Tanner - but it was survivable.
"Help me turn him over," Nathan instructed.
Chris wondered what the hell he'd been thinking only moments before when he saw the dark mottling that already colored his best friend's lower back and left side. Vin had rolled himself around that little girl, protecting her and his chest, but leaving his backside exposed to the pounding hooves of the horses.
Taking a deep breath, Nathan prodded the discolored areas carefully. As bad it looked, he knew it could have been worse, and he said so.
"Probably bruised his kidneys and back good, but I don't feel nothin' broken." He looked at the disbelief on Chris's face, and continued, "I know it looks bad, and he's gonna be hurtin', but if he'd gotten hit like this on his head or chest, we'd be buryin' him right now."
Larabee would have liked to accept the positive spin Nathan was obviously trying hard to put on the situation, but he didn't see it like that. Vin was a mess and a little girl was dead. Just when he'd get comfortable with his life, things . . . happened, and he realized once again that he had absolutely no control over anything at all.
Josiah spoke up, "His back bothers him already, Nathan."
Jackson looked at the preacher, unsure what he wanted him to say. They all knew Vin had back problems, even though he kept silent about it. But the healer couldn't fix that, anymore than he could fix this. Tanner would deal with it, like he always had.
Choosing to ignore Josiah's statement for the moment, Nathan said, "Let's get him back over, so I can look at his legs."
After Vin was settled once again on his back, Chris wordlessly reached down and pulled up the sheet, covering the tracker's upper body. Josiah smiled; knowing the small gesture spoke volumes about the relationship between the two men.
The optimism Nathan embraced quickly left him when he got a good look at Tanner's legs, which had obviously suffered the brunt of the collision. He felt the color drain from his face as he gingerly palpated his way down the injured limbs. He closed his eyes for a moment, then looked up first at Josiah, then Chris.
"I don't think I can . . ." he hesitated, swallowing and taking a breath before continuing, "I don't know if . . . if I can fix this."
Josiah saw the distress that gripped his friend, and he laid an arm across the healer's shoulders. "Just do the best you can, Nathan. We'll help you."
"No. You don't understand!" Nathan was suddenly angry. Of all the stupid, ridiculous, unfair things to happen on a perfectly beautiful day. First a little girl died, and now his friend lay before him with legs broken up so bad, he wasn't sure he could put them back together again.
"What don't we understand, Nathan?" Chris asked quietly, more sure than ever that he didn't want to know.
Nathan's gaze moved to the still features of Vin's face. Maybe it would be better if he never woke up, he thought guiltily. He answered the gunslinger's question solemnly, the anger rapidly replaced with despair, "I ain't sure I can put him right, I ain't sure he'll heal right . . . I ain't sure he'll be able t' . . ." Nathan left the remainder unsaid, although his intent was clear by the catch in his voice and the regret in his eyes.
The wonderful thing about denial is that it jumps right in when it's needed most. Chris was having none of this. Of course Vin would walk again - he'd be sprinting along the rooftops in no time - giving his best friend a heart attack while he did so.
He spoke up, "Hell, Nathan, you don't really think a few broken bones are gonna keep Vin Tanner down, do you? A week from now, he'll be making bargains with you to get out of here, telling us all how fine he is." He looked at Josiah and added matter-of-factly, "We'll be needing that wheel chair that JD used when he was shot. Now let's get on with this before he wakes up."
When Josiah turned his gaze to Nathan, he saw his own sorrow reflected in the deep brown eyes of his friend. From the corner of his eye, he noted the tremble in Chris's hands as he reached for the splints that Jackson kept stocked in his small clinic. The gunman was fooling no one but himself, but they'd deal with that later. Right now, Chris had the right idea in getting Vin's legs set before he awoke. With grim determination, the three men exchanged a nod and went to work.
+ + + + + + +
A sharp crack startled Vin from the deep place he had slipped into. Stunned, he could not place the sound from inside his foggy haze. But it soon became unimportant as fire lanced up his leg like a lit fuse. The flame seared every nerve as it traveled up through his groin and belly and chest, finally exploding in a kaleidoscope of colors and images in his skull. He heard himself gasp, heard his breathing come up hard and fast, and totally out of his control. Oh God, what was happening to him?
There was a pounding in his head now - clomping and roaring in a rapid rhythm that matched his anguished heart. From somewhere, he heard Josiah's voice, and he knew the preacher was pounding, pounding, pounding on his roof and deep inside his head, and he wanted to tell him to stop. But he couldn't even do that simple thing. Couldn't even open his mouth and catch his breath and tell Josiah to please make the pounding and the fire and the confusing sounds stop.
In a surge of panic, he tried to sit up. His brain exploded and the fire consumed his lower back and dear God, what was wrong with his legs? And without any warning at all, his stomach joined in on the revolt, and he felt himself retching, his insides turning out. Hands were all over him then - his back and his head and please, please don't touch his legs.
Chris would kill these bastards for making him suffer like this. He pleaded for the gunman to help him - to get him out of this hell. Suddenly, a sharp pinch bit into his arm and he felt new warmth spread through him. And then, in that moment, Chris was there, stroking his hair and telling him something he couldn't quite make out, but it didn't matter. All that mattered was that the pounding was softer and the fire was cooler and Chris was there. Now his breathing became so slow, he thought it might stop all together, but he was pretty sure that didn't matter, either.
+ + + + + + +
Once Nathan began the odious process of setting Vin's legs, Chris found himself praying that the tracker would remain unconscious. Not that his prayers counted for much - it helped if you believed in what you were praying to. For a fleeting moment, he recalled Judge Travis telling him that the gunslinger believed in "more than most". Maybe that was true, but a merciful God was not on his list.
As if to remind him just how worthless his prayers were, he heard a sharp gasp escape from his best friend. Vin's eyes were wild and his chest heaved with rapid, shallow breaths. Larabee's first instinct was to drop the lower part of the leg he held, and rush to his friend's side, but Nathan quickly redirected him.
"Stay here, Chris. We ain't stoppin' now. I almost got this one finished."
Josiah held onto Vin's thigh, while the healer began to wrap cloth strips around the splints. He took in Tanner's plight, and attempted to soothe the younger man with his soft voice.
"It's all right now, Vin, we're almost done here."
Nathan looked up at him sharply - they hadn't even begun to work on the other leg. Hopefully, he'd be able to get some laudanum down the tracker, though, now that he was awake.
But Vin was in a clear state of panic now - unaware of anything except the horrendous pain he felt. They all watched helplessly as the injured man attempted to sit up, only to suffer more for his efforts. The tracker's back arched against the bed and he groaned pitifully, and it was all Chris could do not to tell Nathan to go to hell and leave the man alone.
Nathan had just tied off the last strip when Vin's gasping took on a strangled sound. Chris did go to his side then, just as the tracker's stomach heaved its contents all over Josiah. The preacher reached for a bucket, while Nathan kept a hold of Vin's legs, afraid the hurt man's involuntary movements would undo all of their hard work.
Chris kept his arm around Vin's shoulders, supporting him until the vomiting stopped. As he lowered his friend's head back down, he was dismayed to hear Vin moaning his name, seeking his help, as tears ran in a slow stream down the young man's face. He looked up at Nathan and pleaded, "Nathan, for God's sake give him something."
Jackson had already taken the steps towards the medicine cabinet. Looking at the array of herbs and drugs he had on hand, he made a decision - he reached for the morphine and the syringe. His time in the field hospital had taught him more than he ever wanted to know about what this drug could do to a man. They even had a name for it, "soldier's disease." But Vin was as unlikely to become addicted to a drug as any man he knew, and besides, his friend needed the most relief he could get right now.
As Nathan carried the syringe to the bedside, he looked both men in the eye. If they had any concerns, now was the time to speak. But neither one did, their only thoughts to ease their friend's misery.
Vin began to quiet almost immediately after the healer injected the medication into his bloodstream, and though he couldn't be sure, Chris thought for the first time that Vin was aware of his presence. He continued to stroke the man's hair and offer gentle words of comfort minutes after the sharpshooter had obviously drifted off.
Taking a cotton cloth in his hands, the tough gunman wiped the tracks left by his friend's tears. He'd never seen Vin cry, and he determined that Tanner would never know he'd seen his tears today. Yet inside he knew, the road ahead held more suffering for Vin - and he silently promised him that he would not walk that path alone.