by JIN

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

Part 7

He may have made a mistake.

Chris had checked over Vin's legs as best as he could, and there didn't seem to be anything obviously different. He'd debated about stitching up the wound on the tracker's side. It wasn't bleeding all that much any more, and if he hadn't gotten it cleaned out well enough, he'd just cause Tanner more problems by closing it up. He wasn't all that great at stitching anyway, and he really didn't want to cause his friend any more pain. Then there was the fact that Vin was getting warmer. Considering how cold he was, that could be a good thing. Or then again, it could signal the beginnings of a fever. Chris wasn't sure.

He may have made a mistake in sending Nathan away.

Chris lowered his head into his hands and massaged his throbbing temples. He hadn't slept at all the previous night, and real rest looked to be a long ways off. He couldn't expect help from the others now, with Buck and Ezra out of commission. Which was another reason the healer needed to head back to town - so he could tend to the other wounded men.

The truth of it all was that Chris didn't think he could stand to be in the same room with Nathan right now. Leaving Vin alone was so unthinkable that he truly couldn't . . . think of it. There was nothing that would make it excusable. Of course, he hadn't exactly given Nathan the opportunity to come up with an excuse. He hadn't given the man the chance to explain at all. It didn't matter. Whatever the reason, Jackson made a poor decision, and Vin suffered the consequences.

Just like he'd suffer the consequences of Chris's poor decision to send the healer away when Vin clearly needed him.

With a sigh, Larabee looked over at his friend and was startled to see blue eyes staring back at him intently. To his surprise, the man in the bed spoke in a soft, even voice.

"You a prayin' man, Chris?"

Now the blond was really worried. He reached over and felt Vin's forehead - sure that he must be delirious from the grips of a fever. But his friend felt no warmer than before.

"You know I'm not, Vin," he answered.

Tanner seemed to look right through him as he went on. "Been prayin' for the baby. Think it might help some if you pray, too," he said, as though it made perfect sense.

Larabee shook his head and replied gently, "There isn't a baby, Vin."

Vin blinked his eyes a few times and sighed, "Nathan's . . . baby."

The gunslinger was now convinced that his friend was in the throes of some kind of delusion, so he simply soothed the younger man with a soft touch on his shoulder. "Don't worry about it now, just go on back to sleep."

But Vin wasn't finished. "I couldn't save her, Chris," he said, his voice rough with emotion. "I tried . . . but I couldn't get t' her . . . in time."

It was the first time Tanner had openly brought up the dead child, and Chris searched for the right words. But before he could offer reassurance, Vin continued.

"That's why Nathan's got t' save the baby. Just wouldn't be right t' lose 'em both." He sighed again and closed his eyes. "Just wouldn't be right."

The gunman shook his head and peered at his friend with furrowed brows. "What are you talking about, Vin? What baby?"

But once again, his best friend had drifted off, leaving the blond to contemplate the meaning behind his words. Had Nathan left to care for a child? If that were the case, maybe his actions weren't so unthinkable after all. Jackson may have been placed in an impossible situation. And Chris had promised to be back by nightfall. And who would have guessed that the outlaws would show up at his cabin, of all places? And if Buck and Ezra hadn't been hurt, if they'd been able to catch the two criminals, if he hadn't taken Vin out of town to begin with . . .

Damn. Events seemed to be conspiring against them at every turn. Or rather, against Vin at every turn. And Chris was damned tired of it. He lowered his head into his hands once more and, almost without thinking, did offer up a prayer for the unknown baby. But not for Vin. Maybe God or the Spirits or whoever the hell was in control would lay off the man if they thought Chris Larabee didn't really care about him all that much.

He didn't know how long he'd sat that way when he heard a horse approaching outside. The normally cautious gunslinger didn't even bother to get up - sure that it was Josiah. The preacher had been solid at his side for weeks now, and Chris felt a warmth rush through him. So blessed he'd been to find these men, every one of them, but so difficult for him to let them know it.

Josiah entered the cabin, calling out for Chris as he made his way to the small bedroom. He'd been surprised that the gunslinger hadn't met him at the door, gun drawn - until he got a look at the man. Larabee raised his head and his bone-tired eyes spoke of frustration and exhaustion.

"May have made a mistake sending Nathan away, Josiah," Chris said dully.

Josiah placed a firm hand on the blond's shoulder. "That's a mistake that can be rectified, Chris. I can go get him right now."

"Buck? Ezra?"

Sanchez smiled - Larabee never did waste words. "They're doin' all right." He grew serious then and asked, "How is Vin?"

Chris stood to move away from the bedside. "I'm not real sure. Maybe you could look at him? He woke up a bit. Keeps talkin' about a baby." The gunman looked questioningly at the preacher.

Josiah nodded and spoke gently. "Nathan had to leave him to care for the Moore baby. Seems the child had trouble breathing. He didn't have a choice, Chris. Vin knew that."

Chris nodded this time, and held his breath as he asked, "Is the child gonna be okay?"

"Yes, Nathan thinks so."

Well, that was one good thing. Larabee didn't think he could stand to tell Tanner another child had died. That he'd gone and gotten himself hurt again needlessly.

Josiah had begun to gingerly pull aside the dressing that covered Vin's wounded side. "Think we'll need to stitch this, Chris. Reckon it'd be a whole lot easier on Vin if Nathan did it."

Chris swallowed and turned to leave without a word. He'd be the one to bring Nathan back. But he hesitated as he hit the door. "Josiah, I'm not always good about saying . . . I don't know how to . . . thank you."

Sanchez gave the gunman a small grin. "You don't have to thank me for caring for my brothers, Chris. But you're welcome."

Josiah turned back to his injured friend then as Chris left for town. Things kept getting more complicated. He knew Nathan was having a hard time dealing with all that had happened and the decisions he had made along the way. He and Chris had some definite talking to do, too, if either of them could see their way clear enough to do it.

And then there was Vin. How would this latest setback affect him? Did he have the strength - and the will - to climb back up again?

Josiah affectionately ran his hand through the tracker's unkempt hair. It had taken Ezra hours to comb through the tangled mess a week or so ago. Vin had cursed the entire time with Ezra snarling back in his own ostentatious language. Josiah wondered if either one of them had a clue what the other had said, but it didn't really matter. It was apparent to anyone with half a brain that it was all for show. Neither one had any idea how to express his affection for the other, except through the verbal sparring that came so easily to them.

It still surprised him - the feelings that ran so deep and so true between the seven of them. Had to be part of some divine plan - had to be. Which was why Nathan and Chris would work things out, and why Vin would come out of this yet.

But the preacher had to admit, this particular divine plan had been particularly hard on Vin, and it was all getting a mite tiresome. If the Lord was trying to make a point here, Josiah wished He'd get on with it and move on to something - someone else. Vin needed a break. They all did.

+ + + + + + +

The ride back was no less urgent than the ride out had been. This time, however, his mind remained strangely quiet - almost numb, and Chris found he could not think past getting to town.

Upon his arrival, he moved mechanically up the clinic stairs. It was only when he opened the door and saw Buck sleeping peacefully on the bed that his brain clicked into gear once more.

Buck. He'd had so little time for his oldest friend lately. He couldn't even remember the last time he'd had a conversation, a beer, a moment with the man. He could very well have lost him last night. When would he learn to appreciate what was right in front of him?

His eyes swept the room then and finally rested on the dark-skinned man who stood quietly at the window. With a deep pang of regret, Chris realized just how much this man had sacrificed for all of them. How much he gave of his time, his energy, his heart - not just to the six of them, but to anyone and everyone who asked or needed.

Nathan looked the blond in the eye - ready to face what he had coming, ready to admit that he had failed in so many ways. That he had failed Vin, especially - the one man that he and Chris shared a unique bond with - the bond that was formed on that very first day when the two men had come to his defense.

"I'm sorry." Spoken softly and simultaneously.

Two small smiles graced their faces as both looked down in embarrassed relief. Neither sure of what to say now, or how to say it, but both feeling there was more to be said.

Nathan went first. "I shouldn't have left him." The healer paused and added solemnly, "Don't think I can stand it if he don't make it now."

"You didn't have a choice, Nathan. I know that now. And Vin will make it. Hell, any man who can take down two gunman while he's flat on his back can take a graze to his side."

"That all it is? You sure?" Nathan asked, afraid to believe it could be that simple.

"Yeah. But he was real cold when I got there. He's complaining some about his leg, too," Chris added worriedly.

"Which one?" Jackson didn't have to explain the significance of that question.

"Ain't sure. I was thinking maybe you could ride out and take a look? I'll stay here with Buck. Been needing to spend some time with him, anyway."

As close to an admission of affection as Larabee was ever likely to get, and Nathan took it for what it was. He gratefully accepted the peace offering and the renewed vote of confidence that had been handed him. How was it just a few words from this man could set his world right again? Just knowing that Chris Larabee understood him, accepted him, and respected him was enough to put him back on track. Being needed wasn't a burden - it was a blessing. And being needed by these men, in particular, made life worth living.

Chris understood a little how Nathan must have felt the previous day. He desperately wanted to accompany Jackson back to the cabin and help with Vin. At the same time, he felt a deep-seated need to be with Buck. The kind-hearted rogue never could ground him like Vin did - yet he offered something just a vital to the gunman. He was a part of his past, a part of him, another solid man at his back, another man he was grateful for. And if he couldn't say it in words, he'd say it by being with him now.

Nathan sensed Chris's predicament and assured him, "I'll send Josiah back with word as soon as I can." He added as he hurriedly packed a bag with supplies, "I won't give him no morphine, either. You got my word."

Chris shook his head and answered, "I don't need your word, Nathan. I know you'll do what's best for Vin."

The two men shook hands as Jackson made his exit. Chris turned back towards Buck in time to see the wicked smile that graced the rogue's sleepy features as he mumbled, "Love you, too, Larabee."

And in spite of his weariness and his worries, for the first time in weeks, Chris laughed out loud. He realized then that he wasn't staying because Buck needed him - it was the other way around. Right now, there was nothing Larabee needed more than just to sit a spell with Buck Wilmington.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was hot. That didn't seem right. The last thing he remembered, he was getting up close and personal with Larabee's floor. And freezing to death while he did it.

Josiah's rich, even voice was weaving its way through his consciousness - something about keeping still. Seemed like a silly thing to ask of him. Last he could recall - he wasn't exactly running races. Last he could recall - he couldn't even get himself over to the bed and off the damn floor.

But when he felt the sharp sting of a needle entering the skin on his side, he nearly arched himself off the bed, and suddenly keeping still sounded a whole lot more difficult than he'd imagined.

He opened his eyes then and managed to rasp, "What the . . . hell?"

Nathan looked at him in that disturbed sort of way he'd come to recognize as frustration - although Vin had no idea what he'd done to cause it this time.

"Josiah, can you keep him still? Ain't got nothin' I can give him to put him out."

Vin didn't hear Josiah's response, but he did hear Nathan mutter in return. "Got too many damn scars already. Too damn thin, too - ain't got no reserves left. Layin' on the damn floor all night won't help him none, either. Startin' to run a fever. Be lucky if he don't catch pneumonia on top of it all. Playin' the hero too many damn times."

Well shit. Nathan said "damn" four times. Vin counted. The healer hardly ever cursed, so it was generally a pretty good indication of how much trouble you were in by his use of the foul language. Vin reckoned he must be in deep right about now.

He didn't have time to think on it though, because Nathan continued his slow torture - the sharp, piercing action shooting flames through his side. Aw hell, he knew this pain. Stitches. And then he remembered it all.

"The . . . baby?" Vin asked through clenched jaws and gritted teeth.

Nathan and Josiah exchanged a look. Leave it to Vin to ask after the child while they were in middle of sewing him up.

Jackson paused from his task long enough to answer, "He's all right. Don't worry about him now."

"Buck? Ezra?"

Nathan shook his head. "Yeah, they're all right, too. It's you I'm worryin' about now, so just keep quiet and let me finish, y' hear?"

Spoken gently, but firmly, and Vin knew to listen. He didn't have any more questions, anyway. He sighed as he took in the information he'd been given. Everyone was fine. That was good. As Nathan tied off the last stitch and replaced the dressing, he thought about mentioning that he was really getting hot now, but he didn't want to get the healer to cursing again. So he kept very still and very quiet, and before he knew it, he'd drifted off to somewhere else.

He hadn't seen her for a long time. And somewhere along the way, he'd decided it was the morphine that brought her to him. But she was here now, her blond braids flowing in the breeze and her bright blue eyes sparkling in the sun. He'd forgotten how pretty she was, and he told her so. She grinned, and for the first time, Betsy spoke to him.

"I'm all right, Vin. You will be, too." She giggled then, and floated away as swiftly as she'd come.

And as he fell into the darkness that beckoned him once more, he knew she was right.

+ + + + + + +

Chris shook his head in amusement as he watched the exchange at the nearby table. JD was hoping Ezra would take his patrol so the youth could go fishing with Casey. Of course, Standish had used a dozen words when one would do - but the meaning was the same. No. That knock on the head had returned the Ezra they all knew and . . . loved?

JD turned away in disappointment, but in reality, he was kind of glad to have the gambler back. Ezra being nice all the time was starting to get on his nerves.

Chris took another bite of stew and tried to keep his mind off what was happening at the cabin. It had been twenty-four hours since he'd left there, and he'd yet to hear from Nathan or Josiah. He didn't feel right leaving town with Buck still down and Ezra not up to par. He tried to console himself with the thought that Vin couldn't be too bad off, or surely Josiah would come for him.

It turned out to be the next day before he received word. Larabee was in the clinic helping Buck get his shirt on. Wilmington had decided to take advantage of Nathan's absence and escape the confines of the sick room before the healer's return. Chris didn't blame him, and figured Buck would get more attention from the local ladies, anyway. Besides, two days of togetherness was about all either of them could take. The gunman had just happened to glance out the window when he saw Josiah ride into town.

Buck followed the blond's gaze, and spouted, "Well, go on! Find out how Vin is."

Sanchez had hardly gotten his horse tied off before Larabee was in his face. "Well?"

"He's doin' all right, Chris."

The gunslinger didn't like the shadows he saw in the preacher's eyes and so he asked, "But?"

Josiah swallowed. "But he's running a fever. Broke one of the bones in his right leg again, too. Nathan had to put the splint back on."

Chris averted his eyes - afraid Josiah would see the despair that took up residence there once more.

Sanchez took a hold of Larabee's arm and stated calmly, "But Nathan thinks he'll recover, Chris. It's a setback - that's all. Just gonna take a little more time."

Chris scoffed. Time. He hated that word almost as much as he hated the word "fair". He used both words now. "You know as well as I do that Vin's been running on empty for awhile now - he ain't got that much time. It ain't right - ain't fair. He's had enough."

"Seems to me, we already had this discussion. Seems to me, it was you who said fair shouldn't even be a word. The situation is what it is, Chris. Make your peace with it before you head on out there. Vin needs you with your head on straight."

Chris had that long ride out to his place to turn his head around and point it in the right direction. It didn't work, though. He was still fuming when he reached his land. In fact, he hadn't come to terms with it at all when he found himself at his friend's bedside again.

Vin looked pale and his hair was damp with sweat, the distinct signs of fever still present. He opened his eyes and smiled, though, when Chris eased himself into the chair nearby.

"Hey, Cowboy," he greeted the blond weakly.

"Hey, Pard. How y' feeling?"

"Doin' good." He looked his best friend squarely in the eye and noted the anxiety written plainly there. "Don't go on the worry. I'm gonna be okay."

Chris looked down as he nodded. He wasn't so sure.

Vin continued, "Been thinkin' - don't want t' use that damn chair anymore. Reckon you could make me some crutches?"

Chris sighed. "Sure I could, Vin - but I don't know if . . . when you'll be ready for that."

Vin closed his eyes and answered breathlessly, "Few weeks . . . I'll be ready. Gotta get on my feet . . . again. Y'all need me."

The corners of the gunman's lips turned up in a half smile as he reached over to take hold of his friend's hand. Maybe Vin would be all right after all. "No argument there, Pard," Chris spoke softly. "No argument there."

+ + + + + + +

The following weeks passed less easily than Vin had hoped - but far better than Chris had anticipated. It was Josiah who pointed out that the events that had interrupted the tracker's recovery might have actually helped him in the long run. Tanner had a renewed sense of his worth - a rebirth of confidence that gave him the extra determination he would need to "go on".

He never did get back in the chair on wheels. When Nathan deemed the right leg strong enough, he practiced bearing weight on it, hopping a few feet to the chair by the bedside with a friend on each side. He longed to go outside, and almost gave in a few times and asked to be carried there. But he learned to use that destination - that goal - as motivation on the days when he wanted to crawl under the covers and give up. He wouldn't feel the sunshine again, until he took a step on his own.

The healer soon began exercising the left leg, although he wasn't sure Vin would ever be able to stand on it. Tanner would gasp and bite his lip, but never complain, and had even begun refusing the teas. So while Vin was biting his lips - Nathan was biting his tongue. The tracker seemed to think taking anything for pain would tempt him into wanting more, and he couldn't succumb to that need again.

The day Chris brought the crutches generated a myriad of emotions for the men. Vin nearly leapt out of the bed in anticipation, sure he could manage it by sheer will alone. Chris could think only of the day they'd first put Vin in the chair, and he agonized that it was too soon. He couldn't bear the thought of another "setback" for his best friend. Nathan shared Chris's hesitation, but if he'd learned nothing else throughout the past few months, he knew this for certain - his friend had a right to make his own choices. If Vin believed he was ready, and clearly he did, he needed to take the risk.

Vin didn't pass out or get sick this time, but he didn't get real far either. Months of lying in bed had weakened him so that his arms trembled with the effort of just holding his slight body upright. He'd had no appetite either, and Nathan was quick to remind him that he could only get stronger if he ate. After that, Vin forced himself to swallow anything put in front of him.

Time and again, Chris and Nathan propped the younger man up on the crutches and moved away a few inches. With hands out-stretched, they stood ready to catch him as he wavered, until finally one day, he stood on his own - his broad grin lighting the dingy little room like a shaft of sunlight in a gray sky.

It was Vin who suggested he return to town several days later, after he'd managed those first difficult steps with the crutches. He knew how hard it had been on the men, traveling back and forth from the cabin. More importantly, he could have his own room in town and maybe a few moments of privacy. He hadn't been alone since that fateful night, and he thought he just might suffocate from all the attention. He was still a long way from managing on his own, but even Chris agreed that he no longer needed a constant companion

This time, they made the trip in the daylight, Vin sitting in the back of the wagon with his legs outstretched. Both Chris and Nathan knew it was a long, uncomfortable ride for their friend, and both were relieved when they entered the small town - until they noted the crowd that gathered around them. Had it been only their fellow peacekeepers, it may have been bearable, but Vin was soon surrounded by many of the townsfolk, all eager to welcome back the missing tracker. Tanner threw Larabee a glance of thinly veiled panic, and the gunman realized their mistake too late.

Chris tried using his infamous glare to break up the group, but went largely ignored until he caught the gaze of the one person who everyone listened to. Mary Travis read the blond's look in an instant, and quickly went to work dispersing the crowd. Chris had no idea what she said or how she said it, and he didn't care, but he did find time to offer the woman a grateful smile as she moved on with the others.

Vin struggled to pull himself out of the wagon - determined to get out of the limelight as quickly and independently as humanly possible. He was nearly oblivious to the men who surrounded him, eager to shield him from prying eyes. With Chris and Nathan on each side, he managed to hobble his way on the crutches to the entrance of the boarding house. It was the furthest distance he'd managed yet, and he nearly shook with fatigue by the time he'd made it inside. Glancing ahead of him, his heart sank. The stairs were as formidable as a mountain at this point. What had he been thinking?

"It's all right, Vin. We got you a room in the back, on the ground floor," Chris whispered softly in his ear.

Vin turned to face his friend then with such a look of sadness that Chris could hardly hold back his own emotions. The blond offered, "You'll get there, Pard. Look how far you've come."

Vin nodded and swallowed, before resuming his trek. He knew he had come a long way - but he also knew he had miles more to go. He'd make it, though. If there was one thing he'd figured out in this life, it was how to go on.

+ + + + + + +

The cool, damp breeze whipped about Vin and he unconsciously slid down lower into his buckskin coat to avoid it. Weather like this played havoc on his healing body, but he refused to let it keep him in. The walk to his favorite rocking chair would just take a bit longer, was all. By the time he reached it, even his good leg was throbbing, but he ignored it as he gingerly lowered himself onto the hard seat of the old rocker. Felt like an old man, and he hated it - but it was better than he could have hoped for.

Flicking his gaze across the street, he noted Peter making his way over to him. He hadn't talked with the boy since that day, months before, when both of their lives had changed forever. The lad carried a young, gold cat that squirmed in his arms, and with a terrible surge of remembrance, Vin turned quickly towards the entrance of town - half expecting a carriage to come racing through.

All was quiet, though, as Peter strode safely across the street and onto the boardwalk where Vin sat. The boy flashed the tracker a tentative grin, then sat on the wooden planks at the man's feet.

"Named her Betsy, on account of her color," the boy spoke as he brushed his hand over the feline's fine coat. "Think she'd mind?" He looked up at Vin then, waiting patiently for the man's thoughts on the subject.

Vin offered him a wide smile. "Reckon she'd be real happy about it."

Peter looked back down at the cat and asked more quietly, "She come to you anymore?"

Tanner looked at the child intently. He'd never talked with anyone about the "visits". He answered softly, "No. Not fer a long time."

The boy sighed and said, "She don't come to me anymore, either. I reckon she don't need to anymore. Reckon she knows we're okay now."

Vin responded gently, "I reckon she knows its time fer us to go on."

Peter nodded and the two fell into a companionable silence as they reflected on the precious life that had left them too soon.

+ + + + + + +

Chris peered out the window of the jail once again while JD rambled on behind him. He'd watched Vin's slow, painful progress with jaws clenched so tightly, he was sure to have a migraine by the time his friend reached that beloved chair. Chris wanted to move the damn thing closer to the boarding house so Vin wouldn't have to walk so far, but the tracker had stubbornly resisted. Just like he'd resisted a crutch or a cane or, God forbid, a hand now and then.

The limp was even more pronounced today, the chill in the air no doubt plaguing the young man's damaged limbs more than usual. Nathan figured Vin might always have a limp, always have pain, always have a reminder of what had happened in the muddy streets that day. But he was so much better than any of them had dared to hope for, that it seemed wrong somehow to complain.

Chris bit his lip as Vin stiffly lowered himself into the chair. Even from the distance, he could make out the grimace on Tanner's face. Forget what he'd thought earlier - he damn well could complain. Vin didn't deserve this, and every single day he wished he could make it better for him.

He watched as Peter came and sat at the tracker's feet, and he felt more than a little curious about their conversation. Both man and child smiled, easing up the tightness in the gunman's chest. No doubt, Vin could gain some comfort from the boy - no doubt they could comfort each other. It was good Tanner was back in town for a lot of reasons. It even felt like life was getting back to normal. But as the boy stood to leave, Chris saw Vin clench his eyes shut in a moment of misery, and he realized that for his best friend, life might never be normal again.

Before Chris even had the conscious thought, his anger at the injustice of it all had fueled him from the jailhouse to the streets. When he reached the boardwalk, he squatted down in the spot just vacated by the boy. Without looking at his friend, he stated quietly, "Sorry you're hurting, Vin."

"I'm fine," Tanner answered shortly.

Larabee tipped his head and cocked a brow at the tracker. "I ever tell you you're a damn poor actor?"

Vin huffed. "Yeah well, yer one t' talk. Don't be takin' yer act on the road, Cowboy."

Both men smiled as their eyes met, but Vin saw the resentment written all over the blond's face. He said, "Made my peace with it, Chris. Wish you'd do the same."

Larabee moved into a more comfortable position - lowering his backside to the wooden planks and extending his lean legs out into the street. He kept his gaze fixed on a point across the dusty street, as he answered, "Can't."

"Won't is more like it," Vin responded.

Chris shrugged. "Either way. Got a whole lot of things I'll never make peace with. Reckon this is just one more to add to the list."

The two sat in silence for a moment before Tanner seemed to move on to a new subject. The Texan looked down and shifted uncomfortably, but when at last he spoke, the words came out clear and strong.

"What you said made all the difference t' me, Chris. Reckon y' saved my life. Ain't never been needed before - 'cept fer trackin' or shootin'. Ain't never been needed jist fer . . . me."

Chris turned his face towards him then, but Vin continued to look down, a flush of color skirting his cheeks. Neither one a man to get choked up easily, but damn if Larabee wasn't having trouble finding a breath. He managed to assure his friend, "Meant it, Vin."

Meant it more every day . . . scared him to death how much he meant it.

Vin looked at him finally and nodded. Chris thought maybe he was through, but the tracker ran a hand through his unruly hair and continued in a soft voice. "When I was takin' the morphine, I got so I didn't think I could live without it. Couldn't see past the need fer it. Couldn't see what I really needed was right in front of me the whole time. Not till I was lyin' on that floor, thinkin' I could lose y'all."

Chris narrowed his eyes, sure Vin was leading up to something but not quite catching on. "What are you trying to tell me here, Vin?"

Tanner sighed and took a breath. "That list you been totin' around? Might be time to let it go. Same as that wall y' got built up inside y'. It ain't holding you up, Chris . . . it's holdin' y' back. One of these days, yer gonna figure out that you don't need it anymore. One of these days yer gonna see that you got all y' need right here."

Chris wanted to open his mouth and tell Vin it wasn't that easy. That sometimes - most times - what you wanted and what you needed and what you got were entirely different things. But the look of complete acceptance in Vin's eyes drew him down another path to a sudden realization - Vin wasn't the cornerstone after all. He was more like the floodgate, there to keep the gunman from floating away when it all broke loose. Or maybe, to let it loose for him. To stand by his side and watch his back while all the things on his list just washed away.

He realized something else, too. His lists and his walls kept him more crippled than Vin had ever been.

Some definite pondering was in order.

"All right, Pard - all this heavy thinkin' of yours is making me thirsty. I'm gonna need a drink before I can think on what I need - and what I don't," Chris said with a meaningful grin as he stood and offered a hand to his friend.

For once, Vin took the help offered as he rose with a slight groan and grumbled, "Reckon needin' a friend ain't such a bad thing." He clung to Chris's outstretched arm when he stumbled and added, "Just wish it weren't so . . . obvious."

Chris smiled as he thought on Vin's words. He and the tracker's need for each other was probably apparent to others long before they'd admitted it to themselves.

And Vin was right. Needing a friend wasn't so bad - not so bad at all.

The End