Walking in Another Man's Soul by The Neon Gang

TYPE OF FANFIC: gen hurt/comfort


OC'S: Nachise

RATING OR WARNINGS: PG-13 for violence

SYNOPSIS: When Chris is lost, Vin risks his souls to bring him home.

This story was formerly hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in July 2011.

Monday, 10 o'clock in the morning

The attack at the bank broke out like one of the late summer thunderstorms that had been broiling up every afternoon for the past several days – suddenly and violently. The resulting gunfire destroyed the otherwise still, hot summer noontime, pulling some people out from the cooler shadows of their businesses and homes to watch the drama play itself out on the main street in Four Corners.

Chris Larabee, like three of the other peacekeepers, was sitting in the saloon when the ring of the first shot pierced the silence of the poker game he played with Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah. His head immediately snapped up and he tossed aside his cards as he stood, his hand reaching automatically for his revolver.

The gambler muttered hotly under his breath, but he and the others followed Larabee, each of the men drawing his own gun as they gathered at the batwing doors to get a better look at the unfolding situation.

Across the street, three men bolted from the Bank of Four Corners, their guns drawn and their bandannas pulled up to cover most of their faces.

"Not again," Larabee half-groaned. Four Corners had endured several attempted bank robberies since he and the others had taken over their peacekeeping duties, the event becoming almost commonplace over the past few months.

"One would think this insufferable heat would keep such malefactors ensconced indoors," Ezra complained, clearly unhappy with the prospect of participating in a shoot-out on the hot, dusty street.

Outside, the three outlaws mounted their waiting horses, firing shots at various residents who were brave or stupid enough to show themselves.

"Hurry up!" one of the robbers hollered at the open bank door.

Movement caught Larabee's attention and he spotted Buck crouching behind several barrels stacked in front of the dry goods store across the street. Wilmington flashed the gunslinger a jaunty grin as he touched his finger to the brim of his hat.

Chris shook his head and forced his grin into a halfhearted frown; Buck had a cocky streak. One day it would probably get the man killed. He just hoped this wasn't that day.

A moment later, four more men rushed from the bank, one of them carrying a travel case that was stuffed full with the money from the bank vault. A single, loud shot rang out and the man with the bag fell before he reached his horse.

This time Chris grinned. Vin had already found a vantage point from which he could drop the outlaw absconding with the town's money. Mr. Gibbins, the new banker, scurried out and snatched up the case, then dove back into the bank as several shots from the outlaws followed him.

"Come on," Chris said, darting from the saloon, firing on the six men as he rushed for cover. Behind him, he heard the others do the same.

Two of the men who were already mounted broke away, kicking wildly at their horses' flanks. Another shot from above, and one from JD, who stood outside the sheriff's office, unseated both fleeing men and left them lying in the dusty street.

The remaining four robbers exchanged gunfire with the peacekeepers, but neither group had a clear advantage, even with Vin on the roof of the Gem Hotel. But the tracker was able to keep the outlaws pinned down well enough that the others could carefully work their way closer and, hopefully, shift the fight to their favor.

And, after a few chaotic minutes, only two of the robbers remained a threat. Both of them sprinted for their horses, swinging up as they fired wildly, one in Vin's direction – to keep his head down and his gun silent – the other in Buck's direction as Wilmington dashed across an open space to work his way around behind them.

Chris saw the robber draw a bead on the ladies' man and quickly stepped into the open, firing at the outlaw and drawing his attention away from Buck before his long-time friend was killed. One of Larabee's bullets caught the outlaw high in the chest and he jerked back from the impact, his hand yanking his horse's reins up and back violently.

The coffee brown gelding's head snapped up and around as it squealed and reared, then lost its balance, stumbled and fell sideways into one of the posts holding up the boardwalk overhang. The wooden structure came crashing down on Larabee before the gunslinger had a chance to react.

"Chris!" Buck yelled, horrified as he saw it happened. He swore and fired at the rider, killing him.

"You ain't seen the last of the Palmer Gang!" the remaining man hollered as he raced past Buck and JD on his way to freedom.

As the hoofbeats faded, the rest of the peacekeepers emerged from cover, dusty and dripping sweat.

"Chris!" Buck called again, bolting to the pile of wood planks and tossing them aside in a desperate bid to uncover his friend. A moment later Josiah and Ezra were both helping him, and then Vin and JD joined in as well.

Nathan kept an eye on their progress as he sprinted from man to man, checking each of the six outlaws. All but one was already dead, and watching blood bubble across the last man's lips, he knew there was nothing he could do to help him either.

"Nathan!" Vin shouted anxiously.

The healer looked up, nodding when the tracker waved for him. He looked back down at the dying man, saying, "Best make yo'r peace with God, Mister. You're gonna see Him real soon now." The man moaned, closing his eyes, and Nathan hastened to join the others.

"Is he hurt?" JD asked, trying to squeeze past Josiah and Buck for a better look at Larabee.

"Careful, son," Josiah said, grabbing the younger man's coat at the shoulder and pulling him back out of the way, "looks like he's bleedin' pretty bad."

"Let me see," Nathan said, tugging Buck out of his way.

Wilmington immediately started to move back, but Vin grabbed his arm, saying, "Let Nathan do his work."

Buck shot the tracker an angry glare, but he stayed out of the way. A moment later he softly muttered, "Sorry, pard."

Vin nodded to let Buck know he accepted the apology.

"Well, what is Mr. Larabee's condition?" Ezra asked after Nathan had been kneeling over the fallen gunslinger for several long moments.

"Looks like he got hit pretty hard on the head," the healer told them as he finished his initial check for any broken bones or obvious injuries. Having found nothing except the lump on the gunslinger's head, Nathan carefully turned Larabee over onto his back.

Half of Chris's face was covered with blood.

"He looks dead!" JD yelped.

"Scalp wounds do tend to bleed a lot," Nathan said distractedly as he finished his examination. "Help me get him up to my clinic, and I'll take care o' that."

Being the closest, Buck and Vin picked Chris up at ankles and armpits and carried him to the second story rooms that doubled as Nathan's home and the town's medical clinic.

"Put him in that chair," the healer directed the two men, pointing to the one he meant.

Buck and Vin carefully sat the unconscious gunslinger in the indicated seat and held him there. Chris's head hung limply, his chin almost resting on his chest.

The other three peacekeepers stood off a little ways in order to give Nathan room to work.

"Buck, you make sure Chris stays right there. Vin, I need you to hold his head up so I can clean that wound and sew it closed."

The two men quickly repositioned themselves to carry out the tasks they'd been given.

"JD, get me some more fresh water," the healer instructed as he gathered together the various items he needed.

The youngest member of the group immediately hurried off to do as he'd been asked.

"Josiah, hand me some of them cloths," Nathan said, pointing to a folded stack sitting on a shelf above a small table in a corner.

"Whatever you need, brother," the preacher replied, walking over and grabbing several, which he handed over to Nathan.

JD hurried back in with a full bucket of water.

Nathan poured some of the water into a bowl and washed his hands. When he was done, he poured more of the water into a second bowl, then dipped one of the rags in it, wrung it out and began carefully wiping the blood off Chris's face. "Ezra," he called.

The gambler stepped up to receive his assignment.

"Grab another cloth and press it hard against this wound."

Going slightly pale, the well-dressed man did as he'd been asked, but he carefully avoided looking at the seeping wound.

Nathan went back to work, cleaning the blood off Chris's face and neck.

"This material is, uh, becoming rather sodden, I'm afraid," Ezra said a few minutes later.

"Here," Josiah said, holding out another clean cloth.

The gambler took it and quickly exchanged it for the first, which he gingerly handed back to the preacher, who grinned at his obvious discomfort.

With the continuing help of the others, Nathan was able to clean, then stitch closed Chris's scalp wound. But before he did, he carefully checked the injury, looking and feeling for any signs of a fracture. Thankfully, he found none.

Once a poultice had been added over the wound, and Chris's head was tightly wrapped with a fresh bandage, Buck and Josiah moved him to the bed, where Nathan had them strip him down to his long johns, then covered the gunslinger with a light blanket before he turned to face the five worried men.

"That's all I can do," the healer told them. "Didn't find a fracture, so he should wake up soon. But when he does, he's gonna feel like his head's been cleaved like cordwood."

"But he'll be all right?" Buck asked, his expression still worried and intense.

Nathan nodded. "Don't see why not. No fracture, just a good-sized bump on his head." Course head wounds can be tricky. . . The healer watched all five men visibly relax and offered them a small, reassuring smile, hoping he had told them the truth. "Guess y'all better get that mess down there on the street cleaned up."

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

Monday, 7 p.m.

It was late evening before Buck returned to the clinic. Glancing over to where Chris still lay, he wasn't surprised to find Vin already sitting in a chair that had been pulled up next to the bedside. He watched the tracker dip a cloth into a bowl of water, wring it out, then fold and lay it on the injured man's forehead. When he reached the foot of the bed, he asked, "Chris all right?"

Vin nodded. "Nathan thinks so. Just runnin' a little fever is all." He met the man's gaze for a moment, then added, "Nate's gettin' somethin' t' eat," as an invitation for Wilmington to sit and talk if he felt like it.

Buck nodded, then grabbed the second chair in the room and carried it over so he could sit down on the other side of the bed, across from Vin. He sighed heavily as he looked down at Chris. "Damn, stud, what were you thinkin'?" He shook his head, then met Vin's gaze and added, "The damned fool stepped right out into the open t' save my life."

"He'll be fine," Vin assured him.

Buck smiled and nodded, somewhat comforted by the assurance he heard in the sharpshooter's voice, and saw in his eyes. "I know. He's too damn stubborn to let this slow him down for very long. . ." He trailed off, trying to sort out the tangle of emotions that churned through his guts. "He was just gettin' past that whole mess with Fowler. . ."

Vin watched Buck's expression as he ventured, "Chris seemed to take that real hard."

The big man nodded, his gaze dropping to the floor. "Might've been his one chance t' find out who killed his wife and son, and why . . . mine, too. Can't blame him for takin' it hard when it slipped away like it did."

"Nope," Vin agreed. "Never seen a man willin' t' die like Fowler did."

Buck looked up, his dark blue eyes flashing angrily, "The bastard did it just to cause him more pain," he snapped, nodding at Chris. "Pure cruelty, that's all it was – the sonuvabitch. Losin' his family like that damned near killed Chris three years ago . . . I never thought those wounds would get torn open like that again. Hoped they wouldn't, anyway . . . wasn't sure he'd survive it."

"Chris Larabee's one of the strongest men I ever met," Vin offered.

Buck nodded his agreement with the statement, but his expression was still worried. "But Sarah and Adam . . . well, they were his weakness, I guess you'd say. Still are, I think. I know he still mourns for 'em – guess he always will."

Vin considered that for a moment, then said softly, "Man can lose his soul and still live, jist ain't much of a life."

Wilmington looked up, meeting the tracker's gaze again. "That's the truth, pard, the pure truth. But he's buildin' a new life here; I see it every day. I thought things were changin'." He looked down at Chris again. "This just don't seem right is all."

Vin sat, waiting in the silence that fell between them for Buck to get around to telling him what was really on his mind. A few minutes later, he did.

"Ever since his family was killed, Chris has been lookin' for an excuse to live and one to die – in equal measure," Wilmington said, staring at his long-time friend as he spoke. "I sure as hell don't appreciate bein' made one of them excuses today."

"You think he wanted t' die when he stepped out?"

"Don't rightly know," Buck admitted. "That's what scares the hell outta me."

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

Chris walked through a world that seemed both familiar and foreign. The meadows, the trees, the way the clouds broke over the jagged hills in the near distance, it all reminded him of someplace he'd seen once, but he couldn't remember where, or when.

A chill snaked down his back, accompanied by a sense of foreboding. Where was he? And why was he out here?

He glanced back over his shoulder, half expecting to find Vin or one of the other peacekeepers close by, but he was alone.

Pony shifted under him and Chris tightened his grip on the reins, then frowned. Hadn't he just been walking? But why would he be walking out in the middle of nowhere?

He shook his head and wondered if he was hurt. Looking down, he couldn't see any obvious injuries on his body, and he didn't feel any pain, just a dull ache in his head. When he looked up again, he spotted a trail turning off the road he traveled down. He knew he recognized it, but still couldn't place it. Frustrated, he reined Pony over and clucked, the black gelding picking up his pace.

A few minutes later, although he wasn't sure it was just a few moments, he rounded a distant hill and found himself looking down at his old homestead. The house was still standing, as were the barn, corral and windmill. Several horses milled behind the fence, some eating, others just enjoying the day.

But it was what he saw off to the side of the house that took his breath away: Sarah. She was standing with her back to him, hanging laundry, but he knew it was her. Long, almost-curly dark-auburn hair hung down below her shoulder blades, the sunlight making it shine whenever she moved.

He stepped shakily from Pony's back, and started toward her when an excited squeal halted him in his tracks.


He turned just in time to scoop Adam into his arms after the boy launched himself into the air with a wild leap. The child's arms immediately encircled Chris's neck and hugged him tightly. "Papa! You're home!"

Sarah turned, a smile blooming on her face like a sunrise. She picked up her skirts and hurried over to her husband.

Chris set Adam back down and paused a moment, losing himself in the deep green of the woman's eyes. She was just as beautiful as he remembered, maybe more so. Then, with a whoop of joy that sounded remarkably like his son's, he scooped her into his arms and spun her around. She titled her head back and laughed, the sound the same music to his ears it had always been.

He kissed her, closing his eyes and letting the sweetness of her lips fill his soul like it was water, and he a thirsty man. When he finally put her down it was only because Adam was tugging persistently on his pant leg.

"Can we go fishin', Papa?" the boy asked, his tone hopeful, his eyes round with excitement.

"Not today, sweetheart," Sarah told him, smoothing down his hair. "Your papa just got home. He needs to eat supper and a get good night's sleep. Maybe tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" the boy nearly wailed. "That's forever!"

Chris smiled and ruffled Adam's hair, undoing all Sarah's work. "It'll be here before you know it," he told the child. "Now, why don't you go finish your chores before supper, okay?"

Adam pouted for a moment, but then he flung his arms around Chris's thighs and gave him another hug. "I'm glad you're home," he said, then stepped back, turned, and ran off toward the barn as fast as his little legs could carry him.

Sarah looked up at him and smiled. "He's missed you so much."

"I've missed him, too," Chris just managed to say, a hard lump forming in his throat. Although he wasn't sure why, the warm homecoming shook him to his core, leaving him feeling weak and lightheaded.

She kissed his cheek and said, "Go on inside and get cleaned up. I'll finish hanging my wash, then come in and make you something to eat."

Chris nodded and pulled her into his arms again, this time for a shorter kiss that was much more desperate.

She pushed him back a little and smiled up at him. "Go on, with ya."

He reluctantly let her go and walked over to the house. He paused on the porch, just watching her for a long moment. In the distance he thought he heard Buck's voice and guessed the man was helping Adam with whatever the boy was doing. He grinned. Sometimes he wasn't sure which of them was older.

Then, as he turned to step inside the small home he had built, he thought he heard Vin's voice as well. He turned back, a smile on his face, but it immediately faded when he saw Sarah standing at the clothesline. He'd met Vin after. . .

He shook his head, a darkness swelling in his mind that he refused to think about it. He stepped into the house, closing the door behind him.

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

Tuesday, 7 a.m.

The expression on Nathan's face when he walked into the saloon to join the others for breakfast the following morning cast an immediate shadow over the gathering.

"What's wrong?" JD dared to ask first.

The healer sat down and began to fill his plate from the waiting bowls of food as he said, "Chris is still sleepin'."

"Isn't that ordinary following a head injury?" Ezra asked, but his brow furrowed with worry.

"Sometimes," the healer admitted, "but I tried to rouse him and I couldn't do it."

Buck's expression immediately turned apprehensive. "You couldn't wake him up? What does that mean, exactly?"

Nathan met Wilmington's worried gaze. "I shook him, called his name, but he just didn't wake up. Might be he's got a concussion." He glanced around the table at the men sitting there, all of whom were waiting for him to continue. He dropped back against his chair and sighed heavily. "Look, I ain't no doctor. Seems to me he should wake up now, but it ain't happened."

"What do we do?" Buck asked the healer.

Nathan considered the question for a few moments, then said, "If there was a doctor hereabouts, I'd say we ought t' fetch him."

"But there are no physicians. At least, none who aren't several days ride away," Ezra said nervously.

"You think I don't know that?" Nathan snapped at the gambler.

"Easy, brothers," Josiah soothed, his voice pitched soft and low so it was calming to the collection of short tempers. "We're all worried, and I doubt any of us got much sleep last night. Fuses are gonna be short as a result."

Nathan nodded, then glanced at Ezra, saying, "Didn't mean–"

"Your apology is accepted, Mr. Jackson," Ezra interrupted quietly.

The healer offered the man a grateful smile, then turned back to the others saying, "Like I told you, I've done all I can, the rest is up to Chris."

"He's strong," Vin said for everyone, but he met Buck's gaze as he did. "He'll come 'round in his own time."

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

Tuesday, 3 p.m.

Thirty hours after he'd been hurt, Chris still lay in a sleep so deep no one could wake him, and everyone, including Vin, was now worried, and scared.

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

Tuesday, 8 p.m.

Later that night, Josiah found the tracker still sitting at the injured man's bedside, a seat he had occupied for almost every hour Larabee had been unconscious. He took a seat in the second chair, positioned on the other side of the bed and asked, "Any change?"


Josiah leaned back, folding his arms over his chest and sighing heavily. "I saw something like this once," he said. "While I was studying with a Cherokee holy man. . . ."

Vin looked up, meeting the man's gaze and holding it. He didn't speak, but the expression in his eyes prompted the former preacher to continue.

"There was a young warrior who'd lost his family to the fever – a wife, a son, and a baby daughter. He was out on a hunt when they died, so he didn't hear about it until he got back to the village. He felt their loss strong in his heart. So strong, in fact, that he didn't take another wife, as was his people's custom. A few years after their deaths he was thrown from his horse and hit his head, rather like Chris here."

"And they couldn't wake him up?" Vin guessed.

"Nope. The shaman I knew said it was because the warrior had found his family again."

"Y' mean he died?"

"No," Josiah replied, shaking his head, "the shaman meant he'd found them inside his own head, in his dreams, or imaginings, and he didn't want to lose them again, so he simply refused to wake up."

"Y' think that's what's happened t' Chris? He found Sarah and Adam and he won't wake up 'cause he's finally happy again?"

The former preacher shrugged. "Might be. No way to know for sure."

Vin's eyes narrowed slightly. "What'd the Cherokee do 'bout it?"

Josiah sighed and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and holding Vin's gaze as he said, "That's where this story gets a mite peculiar. See, this here warrior had himself a brother, the only family he had left, as it was, and they were very close. Well, the shaman, he gave the brother something that put him into a trance. Then, all the holy men gathered together and sang their healing songs while the brother went to bring the warrior back."

Vin's brow furrowed. "How he'd do that?"

Josiah shrugged again. "Don't rightly know, but when he came out of the trance, he said he'd found the warrior, living with his family, but that he'd carried him back with him."

The tracker shook his head. "That don't make no sense, Joisah. The warrior was lyin' right there, an' his family was dead."

The big man grinned. "Didn't make much sense to me, either. I asked my teacher about it, he said the man had walked in his brother's soul and, because of that, he'd found the warrior in a dream and was able to lead him back to the land of the living. The warrior woke up, returned to his life, and even decided to take another wife a year or so later."

Vin thought about that for a moment, then asked, "Think y' could do that fer Chris?"

Josiah's eyes widened and he sat back in the chair. "Me?" He shook his head, a small smile forming on his lips. "No, not me. Needs to be someone closer to his heart."

"Buck," Vin said immediately and started to stand.

"You honestly see Buck Wilmington believin' a single word of that story?" Josiah asked him.

"No," Vin admitted, his shoulders slumping as he dropped back onto his chair.

"But you did," Josiah said softly.

"Lived with–" The tracker stopped and looked up. "Me?"

"I think you can do it – if anyone can."

"Josiah, I ain't no shaman, an' I sure as hell ain't no holy man. Maybe the Seminole–"

"Lost their holy man a few months past," the former preacher said sadly. "Nathan told me about it. Actually, I was thinkin' Ko-Je might be willing to help if he or the shaman on the reservation know a ceremony like what I saw. But that's another good reason why it can't be Buck."

Vin nodded. He remembered the ill feelings Buck had carried for Chanu and his people, even if he had gotten past most of them once the truth concerning Claire Mosely came out. "Buck ain't gonna like it none."

"Nathan's said he can't do anymore for Chris. Just seems to me like this might be something similar to what I saw years back."

"And if we do nothin' . . . he'll die," Vin added, his expression turning thoughtful.

Josiah nodded. "Just thought I'd lay on the table."

Vin sighed heavily. "Reckon it couldn't hurt him, one way or the other."

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

Wednesday, 8 a.m.

"You've gone plum loco!" Buck stormed as he paced in the saloon the following morning. "He needs a doctor, not some– some–" Seeing the angry flash in Vin's eyes, he stopped himself before he said something he'd regret. He looked to JD, Ezra, and Nathan, "Whatdaya think?" he asked them.

"There ain't nothin' more I can do," Nathan replied. "Might as well let 'em try. Indians got their own ways of healin', and it works for 'em. Might just work for Chris, too."

JD nodded. "I don't know anything about the Indians, or their medicines," he added, "but I trust Josiah and Vin. Couldn't hurt to let 'em try."

"I concur," Ezra added with a nod.

Buck sighed heavily and turned back to face Josiah and Vin. "All right," he conceded, "but I'm goin' with ya."

"I don't think that would be a good idea, borther," Josiah said. "You didn't exactly hit it off with Ko-Je and his sons. We're going to need the goodwill of those people, and you're a little . . . prickly right now. No offense."

Buck opened his mouth to argue, but he knew the older man was right. He didn't feel comfortable on the reservation, never had. "I can't just wait–"

"Someone's gotta stay and look after the town," JD said quickly. "You heard that last man, the Palmer Gang might come back to even the score."

Buck glanced from Vin and Josiah to JD, then back again. "All right. All right, I'll stay. But if you're not back in a few days–"

"We'll be back soon as Chris wakes up an' he's ready t' travel," Vin interrupted him.

The two men stood, their gazes locked, both half-angry and half-scared. Buck looked away first, saying, "You just see to it that's what happens."

Vin nodded. "Do all I can, y' got m' word on it."

Buck nodded. "That's all I need then."

Vin dipped his head, humbled by the man's trust and faith in him. He just hoped it worked.

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

Wednesday 10 a.m.

It took an hour for Vin's wagon to be rearranged to carry the injured man, but once that was done, Josiah and the tracker carried Chris down and laid him in the back, then hitched the mule team.

When the two peacekeepers were ready to leave, Nathan reined his horse up alongside the mules. "I'm goin' with you," he told them. "Least as far as the reservation; in case you need me."

Vin nodded. "Obliged."

Buck, Ezra, and JD stood on the boardwalk outside the saloon, watching the preparations. Wilmington was still upset, and not at all happy about what they were planning to do, but he was also desperate to find a way to help his friend. "You take it real careful, Josiah," he called to the man when Sanchez climbed up to drive the wagon.

"Slow and easy," the former preacher assured him.

Vin rolled onto Peso's back, then urged the gelding over next to the boardwalk. He looked down at Buck and promised, "We'll do everythin' we c'n t' help him."

"I know you will," Buck replied, proffering his hand.

Vin leaned over and gripped it, Indian style. He met the man's eyes and held his gaze for a long moment, then released him, saying quietly, "No matter what happens, this ain't yer fault."

"Feels like it is," Buck replied, his voice also pitched for them alone.

"Godspeed, gentlemen," Ezra called as they headed out.

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

Chris was driving the wagon along a dusty road, the conveyance bumping and rattling. Sarah sat beside him, her arm around his back, her head leaning against his shoulder.

"It's been too long since we all went on a picnic," she said.

Chris smiled down at her. "Well, today's the day for it."

In the back of the wagon he could hear Adam and Josiah talking, but as soon as he recognized the older man's voice, he knew something was wrong. He wanted to glance over his shoulder and look, but he was too afraid to do it.

Shifting the reins to one hand, he slipped his arm around his wife and pulled her closer as they continued along. Glancing down, he forced a smile and tried to ignore the buzz of conversation still going on behind them.

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

Wednesday 2 p.m.

Josiah and Ko-Je returned after a long walk in the desert. Vin and Nathan both sat in the shade of the wagon, waiting for their arrival. Chris still lay inside, sleeping, a sheen of sweat on his skin from the afternoon heat.

As they drew closer, Josiah left the old chief's side and walked over to rejoin the two peacekeepers.

"What'd he say?" Vin asked him.

"His people don't have a ceremony like the one I saw, but he's going to talk to the shaman; maybe they'll be able to find a way to help us."

"How long?" Nathan questioned.

Josiah shrugged. "As long as it takes."

"Best we get Chris under a lean-to where it won’t be so hot, then," the healer said. "Brought some cloths we can use to help keep him cool, too."

Vin stood, then helped Nathan up and the three men got to work.

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

Chris and Sarah sat in the shade of a large tree. Nearby, a small creek ran past them, the breeze blowing over the surface of the water providing a respite from the heat.

The gunslinger was lying on the ground, his head resting in his wife's lap. She smiled down at him, her fingers stroking through his hair.

"What are you thinking?" she asked him, the faintest trace of an Irish accent making the words sound sweet to his ears.

"Nothin'," he replied.

Her smile turned a little coy and she leaned over him, her lips brushing his forehead. "I love you, Chris Larabee," she whispered.

"Mmm," he replied, closing his eyes. "I love you, too. Always have, from the first time I saw you. . ." He paused, listening to Adam's laughter and wondering what the boy was doing. He opened his eyes and sat up. "Where's Adam?"

"Playing down by the creek," Sarah replied. "He's fine."

Chris cocked his head to one side, other voices filtering through the brush that grew along the water . . . Vin's . . . Nathan's . . . Josiah's. He shivered and quickly looked at Sarah, who smiled at him, her expression adoring. She reached out and cupped his cheek, the palm of her hand cool against his warm skin. He leaned in to kiss her, even as he tried to ignore the voices that continued to haunt his thoughts.

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

Wednesday, 8 p.m.

It was several hours later, the sun almost having set below the western horizon, when the old chief returned.

"What news, Ko-Je?" Josiah asked him.

"It is a good thing the spirits told me to trust you," he replied with a small smile. "Nachise will pray on your request tonight. If the Spirits show him how to do this ritual you described, he will be ready to begin at sunrise."

"And if the spirits don't show 'im?" Vin asked quietly, his gaze on the dancing flames of the small fire they had built to chase away the coolness of the nighttime air.

Ko-Je shook his head. "The Spirit do what the Spirits so. If they do not help us, then we cannot help you." He turned and walked away.

A moment later an old woman arrived and handed Josiah and Nathan a bowl of stew, which they accepted with nods of thanks. She turned and started back to her teepee.

"What about Vin?" Nathan called after the woman, but she didn't look back at them.

The tracker shook his head. "Ain't gonna be nothin' fer me. They want me t' fast – in case they c'n do the ceremony."

Nathan nodded his understanding, he and Josiah eating their suppers in silence. When they were done, they settled in for the night, but Vin stayed where he was, sitting next to the small fire, but still within easy reach of Chris.

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

Thursday, 3 a.m.

Vin sat, staring into the dying flames of their small fire. In a few hours the sun would rise and Chris's fate would be sealed. A part of him could understand the gunslinger's desire to return to his family. There had been many nights the tracker had wished he could have another day with his mother, whose face was now just a vague, hazy memory, or another day with his Kiowa family, which had been killed by the Army. But another part of him was confused by Larabee's lack of fight. Didn't Chris know he'd die if he didn't wake up?

Tanner had never seen Chris Larabee run away from anything, except maybe his pain, which the gunslinger occasionally tried to drown in a whiskey bottle. He had to believe Larabee would want to come back.

The tracker jumped when a hand closed over his shoulder and he looked up at the old man who had come up silently behind him. He met the shaman's probing gaze and held it.

After a long moment, the old man nodded. Then, with a grunt, he turned and started for the sweat lodge.

"Will y' do it?" Vin called after him.

The man stopped and turned to look at Vin again. He spoke in his own tongue, but the sharpshooter knew what the word meant: "Yes."

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

Thursday, 6 a.m.

Ko-Je sat next to Nachise, waiting as the sun slowly rose and broke free of the horizon. Josiah and Nathan flanked Vin, who sat across from the two old men, waiting patiently. Several other men filled the rest of the space in the sweat lodge.

Once the sun had risen, the east-facing opening was closed and the sweat began.

They were all naked, and sweat quickly began to roll off their skin. One of the men chanted softly, another adding water and herbs to the hot rocks in the center of the small, enclosed space at regular intervals, causing steam to curl up and fill the air with a pungent aroma of sage and other herbs.

Vin wasn't sure how long they sat there like that, but he was feeling decidedly lightheaded when they finally rose and stumbled from the enclosure. They walked directly to a small pond which was fed by a spring and waded into the water to rinse themselves. That done, most of the men, including Nathan and Josiah, began to dress, but Vin was immediately led off to one of the teepees, only Ko-Je and Nachise accompanying him.

They stopped just outside the open flap and Vin was handed a breechclout, which he put on. He was then led inside.

Chris was lying on a stack of blankets, still unconscious. Someone had removed his clothes, although he too wore a breechclout.

Ko-Je, sat down on Larabee's right side, then motioned for Vin to sit at Chris's head. The tracker did.

Nachise and another man Vin hadn't seen before took up their positions, the shaman at the gunslinger's left side, the stranger at his feet.

When they were settled, Nachise handed Vin a small bowl full of a milky white liquid.

"Drink," Ko-Je instructed him.

Vin raised the bowl to his lips and sniffed, but he didn't recognize the odor. He took a sip and immediately made a face as he forced himself to swallow the bitter-tasting concoction.

"This is worse 'n horse piss," he told Ko-Je.

The old chief nodded, a slight smile on his lips. "Drink," he repeated.

Vin took a deep breath, held it, and then swallowed the rest of the liquid in a single gulp. He shuddered violently as he handed the empty bowl back to the shaman.

Nachise took it and set it aside, then picked up a tied bundle of fresh sage, hawk feathers, and several fragments of deer antler and animal bones that had each been decorated with beads, fur and feathers. He began to chant, softly at first, then steadily louder as he shook the bundle.

Vin swallowed convulsively, his vision blurring slightly as he sat and listened to the man's song. He felt sweat break out on his upper lip, then along his hairline, but a slight chill shook his body, and his teeth chattered. It was getting harder to breathe, he noted absently, but the shaman's song quickly carried away his concerns.

After a few minutes, Vin's body began to feel light and the tracker briefly wondered if he might not just float up off the ground.

Ko-Je reached over and took Vin's wrists, forcing the tracker to lean over Larabee as his hands were positioned – one on Chris's forehead, the other on his chest, just over his heart.

Nachise stopped chanting and the stranger picked the song up. The shaman then began to speak quietly, Ko-Je translating the words into English for Vin. "Your friend is lost, but you know him well. You know what is in his heart, and in his thoughts. The Spirits will guide you to him, if you let them. Give your self to the Spirits."

Leaning over like he was made Vin feel slightly sick to his stomach, but he held the position Ko-Je had put him in and tried to focus his thoughts, which seemed to slide out of his control. Another chill jolted his body and he closed his eyes, swallowing several times to keep from being sick.

In the semidarkness behind his closed eyelids, the chanting grew louder and louder until it assailed his ears and caused him to flinch.

He could feel the sweat pouring off his body, too, and wished he were back in the cool water of the pond.

Vin forced his eyes open, but everything was out of focus and spinning wildly. He squeezed them closed again. Then his muscles began to twitch, his breath catching in his chest. Sounds, sights, smells, and tactile sensations swirled together in his mind, chasing away all of his thoughts.

He felt himself begin to fall, but hands caught him and carefully laid him down. Someone made sure one of his hands was resting on Larabee's shoulder.

Chris, Vin called, reaching out with his mind for the man and wishing the gunslinger was there to anchor him through the maelstrom of sensory stimulation that was overwhelming him. He focused on Larabee's sweat-damp skin under his palm and tried to take deep breaths.

Chris, I don't know what t' do . . . y' gotta meet me halfway. . .

He could hear Ko-Je talking to him, but he could no longer make out the words. And then it felt like he was falling again, but this time there were no hands to catch him. . . .

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

Vin gasped, his body jerking, but he hadn't fallen. In fact, he was standing on his own two feet, right in the middle of the yard of a small ranch. And he was dressed like he usually was. It made no sense.

He glanced over at the small house . . . the barn . . . the corral, where several handsome horses stood, undisturbed by his sudden and unusual arrival.

Hearing laughter coming from inside the house, he walked over to the porch, hesitating a moment before he stepped up on it. He crossed to the door, but didn't knock. Instead, he called, "Chris? Ya here, pard?"

A moment later the door opened and Larabee stepped out onto the porch to join the tracker. "Vin?" he asked, smiling a warm welcome. "What're you doin' here?"

"Lookin' fer ya," Tanner replied, but his voice sounded far away to his own ears.

"You want to come inside?" Larabee asked him. "Sarah's making supper."

Vin shook his head. "Chris, we need t' talk."

Larabee's smile faded, but he replied, "Sure, but–"

Sarah stepped out to join them, interrupting Chris. She smiled at Vin, then looked to her husband, saying, "Can you go find Adam? Supper's almost ready."

"Sure, I'll go get him," he told her, then watched her as she stepped back into the house and closed the door. He turned to Vin, saying, "Come on, we can talk away from the house."

The tracker followed Larabee across the yard to the barn where they found Adam playing on a swing that had been tied to the stout branch of a huge old tree growing next to the building. The boy waved to his father, then jumped from the wooden seat and ran to Chris, who scooped him up in his arms.

"He's a fine lookin' boy," Vin said, realizing just what the gunslinger had lost.

Chris beamed with pride. "Adam, this is Vin Tanner."

"Howdy, Vin!" the boy greeted him.

"Adam," the tracker replied, touching his finger to the brim of his hat.

Chris set the boy back down and said, "Time for you to go get washed up. Your mother's got supper almost ready."

Adam set out at a run, heading straight for the house.

The two men stood under the tree, watching the boy until he disappeared inside the house. Then Chris turned to his friend and asked, "Now, tell me, why're you’re here."

"Josiah thought I could bring y' back."

"Bring me back?" Chris asked, looking both confused and wary.

Vin stood for a moment, not sure how he could explain. He decided straight-forward was the best approach he could take. "Chris, y' know this ain't real, don't ya?"

The gunslinger's eyes narrowed slightly. "What are you sayin', Vin."

"All of this. It ain't real," the tracker stated bluntly. "Sarah and Adam are dead. They died in a fire more 'n three years ago."

Chris snorted softly, then tried to laugh, but he couldn't quite pull it off. The fear that exploded in his chest made it impossible. "They're–"

"Dead," Vin repeated. "Y' got hurt back in Four Corners. Guess y' reckoned bein' here with yer family was better 'n living there without 'em. Problem is, yer dyin' 'cause of it. I come t' take y' back."

Chris's gaze flickered from the house to Vin and back again. He knew the tracker was telling him the truth, but he didn't want to believe him. He couldn't believe him. "I think you better go," he said, his tone soft, but full of deadly intent.

"Told y', come t' take y' back with me," Vin said.

Chris shook his head. "I'm stayin'."

"Hell, Chris, y' loved 'em an' y' miss 'em, I understand that, but do y' really think they'd want y' t' die just t' be with 'em?"

Larabee glowered at the tracker. "That's my family!" he snapped, pointing back to the house.

"They're gone, Chris. That house burned t' the ground, an' took 'em right along with it."

"Like hell!" he bellowed, stepping forward and taking a swing at Vin, who ducked the blow and scrambled back out of the way.

"This is only real inside yer head, Cowboy."

"Then how the hell did you get here?" Chris demanded.

"Don't rightly know. We took y' t' the reservation."

Chris frowned, the faint sounds of chanting reaching them on a warm breeze. He shook his head, refusing to listen. "This is my home, and that's my family. This is where I belong."

"Used t' be," Vin agreed, "but it's gone now – three years gone."

Chris shook his head stubbornly. "No."

Remembering Josiah's story, and how the brother had said he had "carried" the warrior back, Vin decided he might give that a try. It was clear Chris wasn't going to listen to him.

He lunged forward, tackling Chris around the waist and forcing him back against the tree trunk. "You're comin' with me, Larabee."

"Like hell I am," Chris hissed, bringing his locked hands down hard between the tracker's shoulder blades and jerking his knee up into the man's mid-section at the same time.

Vin grunted painfully as he fell to his knees, an explosion of stars bursting forth in front of his eyes. The following attack was both swift and brutal.

Chris set upon the smaller man, raining blows down on him until Vin lay, curled up in a tight ball on the ground as he tried to protect himself from the onslaught of fists and feet. But Tanner never once said a single word, or struck back.

The gunslinger finally stopped, standing over the beaten man, panting for breath. "Go! Now!" he snarled angrily.

Vin climbed slowly to his feet, hugging his midsection with his arms, his face bruised and bloodied. "Listen t' me, Chris," he pleaded, his eyes locked on Larabee's. "Y' c'n stay here an' die if y' want, or y' can come back with me an' live. I just come t' give y' the choice." The tracker took a couple of steps, then stopped and added, "Just remember, y' got folks who care 'bout y' back in Four Corners – friends, like me. Folks who ain't dead."

With that, Tanner turned away from Chris and started walking, adding loudly as he did, "Guess we ain't enough fer ya. But the way I see it, men who'll watch yer back an' take a bullet fer y' are a sight better company 'n ghosts!"

Vin kept walking, his entire body one huge, aching knot of agony, but he silently prayed Chris was following him. He didn't stop until he felt a hand on his shoulder that halted him. Turning, he met Larabee's pain-filled gaze.

"I love– . . . I loved them . . . so much," Chris gulped, trying desperately to control his emotions, but it was a battle he was doomed to lose. "The pain– . . . I thought I was gonna die–"

Vin reached out, resting his hand on the man's shoulder and squeezing. He could feel Larabee's sweat-slick skin and realized with a start that he was actually feeling the Chris Larabee who lay in the teepee back on the reservation.

Chris's chin dropped and he sobbed.

Vin stepped up, pulling the man into a gentle hug. "But this ain't real," he repeated softly. "Come back with me, Chris . . . please. They'll still be waitin' fer y', when it's yer time. But this ain't it."

Larabee took a step back and looked up, panting for breath, his eyes full of unshed tears he couldn't allow to escape. If he did, the pain would consume him all over again.

Vin saw the door to the house open, Sarah and Adam stepping out onto the porch.

Chris saw Tanner's focused gaze and turned to look back at them as well.

"Y' gotta pick, Chris," Vin said softly. "Live or die." And with that he turned and started back down the trail.

Chris looked from Vin's retreating form to his family. He knew what Tanner had said was true; he'd known it all along, but he'd missed them so much. . . .

He looked back at the tracker, who was getting farther and farther away. Vin was his friend, and he had other friends now, too – men he called family. And it was true. They were his family, and they were alive . . . and real.

In a blink, the house and the rest of the ranch were gone, and the gunslinger was left standing in what looked to him like a thick, clinging fog.

"Vin!" he called, suddenly very afraid. If he got lost now, he'd die.

"This way, Chris," he heard the tracker say. "Just follow me . . . this way."

"Vin!" he cried again, feeling the first swell of true panic. "I can't see you! Where are you?"

"This way, Cowboy."

"Damn it, Vin, don't leave me here!" Chris jumped and shied away when he felt a hand touch his shoulder, but then he saw Vin standing beside him and he sagged with relief. "Take me back," he told the tracker.

Vin smiled and nodded. "This way."

"You sure?"

"Nope. Just didn't want y' t' worry none."

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

Thursday, 3 p.m.

In the teepee, Vin groaned and tried to sit up, but his muscles were too weak to accomplish the feat. But Ko-Je was there, helping him, the chief's arm strong under the tracker's shoulders.

"Chris?" Vin asked thickly, realizing for the first time just how much he hurt – all over.

"He has returned," the old chief said, giving him a smile of triumph. "Now, you must rest."

Nachise pressed another small bowl into Vin's hand, then guided it to the tracker's mouth so Tanner could drink.

Hoping it wouldn't taste as bad as the first bowl, Vin took a sip, surprised to find it was only water. He gulped down the remainder, and did the same to a second and a third bowl, before his eyes dropped closed and he was sound asleep.

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

Friday, 8 a.m.

The following morning Vin shuffled out to join Nathan and Josiah at the wagon. Chris was already lying inside, and the healer's horse was saddled, but its reins were tied to the back of the wagon.

"How's he doin'?" the tracker asked.

"Good," Nathan replied with a smile. "He was awake a little while ago, even managed to eat a few bites. I think he's gonna be fine now, if he rests."

Vin nodded, accepting Peso's reins from Josiah, who said, "You, however, look terrible, brother."

"Just achy down in m' bones," he replied, climbing into the saddle with a grunt.

"You wanna ride in the wagon?" Nathan asked him, his brow furrowing with concern.

Vin shook his head. "Hopin' the ride'll shake the knots out."

"All right then," the healer said, "but if ya change your mind, I'll trade places with you."

Vin nodded his thanks, then turned in his saddle to glance over to where Ko-Je and Nachise stood, watching them. "A'ho," he called to them.

"K'ta," the old chief responded with a smile. The tracker might as well have been one of them.

"K'ta," Vin replied. "Tell Chanu 'm sorry he weren't here. I'll stop by an' see him soon."

Ko-Je nodded. "I will tell him."

And then the peacekeepers were on their way back to Four Corners.

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

Friday 12 p.m.

Nathan and Josiah carried on a steady, quiet conversation while Vin rode a little ways off from the wagon so he could keep an eye on the terrain, just in case there was any trouble headed their way. They were almost home, and the tracker knew he would be very glad to get back to town. He still ached terribly, and his head throbbed worse than he could ever remember feeling.

Several birds took sudden flight from a small stand of mesquite trees and Vin pulled Peso up for a closer look. The wagon continued to rattle down the dirt trail.

A moment later, a single gunshot pierced the hot air and Vin felt a fire immediately burst to life in his side. He leaned over the gelding's neck and kicked the horse into a hard gallop.

Josiah already had the mules moving as fast as they could go when the tracker reached the fleeing wagon.

Vin raced up alongside the wagon, yelling to the two men, "Get Chris back t' town! I'll draw 'em away from ya!"

As Peso turned away from the wagon, Nathan saw the bloodstain on Tanner's shirt. "Vin!" he called, but it was already too late; the sharpshooter was headed back toward the hill where the first shot had come from, more gunfire ringing out in the quiet air.

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

Friday 1 p.m.

The mules pulled the wagon into Four Corners, their sides heaving and their nostrils flared wide. Buck and JD burst out of the sheriff's office and rushed over to meet it.

"What's wrong?" Wilmington demanded.

"Somebody started shootin' at us just shy of the Hawke's ranch. Vin drew 'em off," Nathan explained.

"Chris?" Buck asked him.

"He's fine," Josiah assured him.

"Can't say the same 'bout Vin," Nathan said. "He's shot. I saw the blood on his shirt."

Buck and JD turned and ran for the livery, Wilmington calling back over his shoulder, "Tell Ezra ta meet us on the road!"

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

Friday, 6 p.m.

In the clinic, Chris sat propped up in bed, finishing a second bowl of the potato soup Inez had made especially for him. It was good, and he was incredibly hungry. When he heard footsteps on the stairs he paused and looked up, hoping it was Vin. The tracker still hadn't made it back to town and the other peacekeepers were out searching for him. But it was Nathan who stepped inside.

"Any word?" he asked the healer.

Jackson shook his head. "Buck and JD just got back. They found a body on the far side of Hawke's Hill – the last of the men who tried to rob the bank. They're headin' back out to look some more before it gets too dark."

Chris leaned back, his appetite suddenly gone. Where the hell was Vin? It sounded like he'd gotten the man who had shot him, so why hadn't he come back? Could the other outlaws be tracking Tanner? Was he hurt too bad to make it back?

"Ezra and Josiah are still out lookin'," Nathan added, seeing the worried expression on Larabee's face. "They'll find him."

Chris started to toss back the light blanket that covered his legs, but Nathan reached out and stopped him. "You ain't goin' nowhere."

The gunslinger looked up at the man, anger flaring in his green eyes.

Nathan met the man's gaze and held it, saying, "Vin'll have my hide if I let you outta this bed befo' you're good an' ready."

"He might need–"

"We'll find him," Nathan assured the gunslinger.

Larabee thought about arguing, but he knew the healer was right. He was still too weak to be of any help in a search; they would just end up having to drag him back to town when he passed out.

"You can go," he told Nathan with a sigh.

The healer gave him a dubious look.

"I'll stay here." When Chris got an even more doubtful expression in reply, he growled, "I'll stay put, damn it. Go find Vin."

Nathan nodded and grinned slightly. "Do my best."

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

Saturday 4 p.m.

The following afternoon, five peacekeepers rode back into town looking trail-weary and covered with dust. Chris was sitting on a chair outside the saloon, Inez having taken over the mother hen duties in the men's absence.

He stood as they pulled up and dismounted in front of the building. "Vin?"

Buck stepped up, his gaze sweeping over the gunslinger. For a moment his lips curled up into a small smile as relief washed through him, but then the expression faded and his gaze dropped to the boardwalk. "No sign, Chris. He just don't want ta be found right now. Crossed trails with a couple of the ones doggin' him, though; buried both of 'em, too. Can't be more than one or two left."

Chris felt his jaw twitch, but he reined in his anger. If Vin Tanner didn't want to be found, none of them were going to find him, no matter how hard they looked. But why? Why was the remainder of the Palmer Gang still dogging him? Had they recognized Vin? Or was it just revenge?

"All we can do now is wait," Buck told him softly.

"Mr. Tanner is exceptionally resourceful," Ezra offered hopefully. "I'm sure he'll outwit his pursuers and return shortly."

Chris nodded, silently praying the gambler was right.

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

Sunday, 1 p.m.

A thunderstorm raged in the afternoon sky, moving steadily across the desert on a hard-driving wind until it finally arrived in Four Corners. A drenching rain fell in sheet-like torrents, forcing everyone inside. The peacekeepers, except for Chris, sat in the saloon, a depressed silence having fallen among them. Larabee, however, sat in his chair under the overhang, watching the street and waiting for Vin to return.


Chris's frantic exclamation brought all five men to their feet and they rushed out to the boardwalk. Through the rain they could see a rider approaching, but the downpour made it impossible to see who it was. What they could see, however, was a man, hunched over his horse's neck.

Chris pushed to his feet, calling, "Vin!" He started out into the rain, but Nathan held him back.

Josiah and Buck brushed past the pair, charging out into the downpour and sloshing through the muddy water running down the street like a shallow river.

When they neared the horse, both men immediately recognized Peso. Vin was drooped over the gelding's withers, his arms hanging down limply on either side of the animal's neck.

"Vin?" Josiah called softly as he carefully reached for the man. "It's Vin!" he bellowed to the others.

The tracker's head came up as soon as he was touched, his glazed eyes meeting the former preacher's for a brief moment. But as soon as Tanner recognized the man, his eyes rolled back in his head and he started to slide from the gelding's back.

Buck grabbed Peso's bridle to keep the gelding from spooking, and Josiah caught the tracker, cradling him in his arms as if he were no heavier than a child. He started straight for the clinic.

The others on the boardwalk hurried after Josiah, JD veering off to help Buck see to the tracker's horse.

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

In the clinic, Nathan and Josiah worked quickly to strip off Vin's jacket and shirt. The tracker's boots, pants, and long johns quickly followed. Once he was undressed, they toweled him dry and then laid him on the bed, the healer covering him with several blankets.

A few moments later, the tracker's teeth were chattering and his body shaking uncontrollably even under the covers and in the overly hot room. He moaned softly, but didn't actually wake up.

"Josiah, take hold of his legs," Nathan instructed, folding back the blankets so he could get to the angry red gouge in the man's side. "Ezra, you sit up here by his head. I need ya to keep him from movin' 'round too much."

His instructions were immediately carried out by Josiah and Ezra.

Nathan turned from the bed to grab what he needed, then paused on his way back to Vin in order to get Chris to sit down in one of the chairs. That done, he returned to Tanner's side.

Buck and JD stepped inside, taking up positions behind Chris so they would be out of the way. Ezra saw them and quickly tossed two towels over so they could dry their faces and pat the worst of the rainwater off their dripping clothes.

Wilmington rested his hand on Chris's shoulder, and the gunslinger leaned back into the comforting presence of his friend, grateful for the support; Larabee was scared.

"Looks like it's just a graze," Nathan said after he'd finally gotten the wound cleaned – a task he could only accomplish after the man's chills had subsided. "Cracked a rib, too, but it didn't break."

"Will he be all right?" JD asked the healer.

"Hope so. He's lost some blood, and it looks like he's been soaked to the skin for a while. If he don't catch a fever, and infection don't set in worse, I think he'll be all right."

But each man listening there knew that either possibility was a very real threat.

"I'm gonna make up a poultice, try an' pull out some of the infection that's already there," Nathan said. "Someone needs to stay with Vin while I go get what I need."

"I'll stay," Chris said.

"You need to rest," the healer replied pointedly.

"I'll stay with Vin," Josiah offered.

Nathan nodded. "The rest of you can come with me. We can find the plants I need quicker if we're all lookin'." He led the way out, Buck, JD and Ezra trailing behind him.

Outside, the rain had fallen off to a light sprinkle, although thunder and lightning still filled the sky.

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

In the silence that had fallen inside the clinic, Josiah kept busy by preparing a bowl of water and setting it on the bedside table. Then he fetched several towels, which he stacked next to the bowl.

Vin shivered under the blankets and Chris sat forward in his chair, saying, "He's still cold."

Josiah added the last of the spare blankets to the others covering the younger man, then walked over and started a small fire in the potbelly stove, which sat close to the bed.

Chris stood, his legs a little unsteady, then pulled his chair closer to the bed and sat down again. Josiah watched him, a small smile on his face.

"What is it, preacher?" Larabee Chris asked him, feeling guilty, but not sure he wanted to explain why to the older man.

"Nothing, really . . . Well, I was just remembering a few days ago. When you were lying in this same bed, Vin sitting in that very spot, helpin' Nathan tend to you, day and night. Had just about the same expression on his face, too."

Chris smiled halfheartedly and looked down at the younger man. "He's a good friend," he said.

"He's more than that," Josiah told him. "Buck is a good friend. Nathan and I are your friends. But Vin here. . ." He shook his head. "Vin is more like . . . a brother."

Chris continued to stare at the tracker, but he nodded and said, "Guess he is at that." Then the gunslinger looked up, meeting Josiah's steady gaze. "What happened back at the reservation?"

"Don't rightly know."

"Vin said you thought he could bring me back, and the old chief said he did bring me back; from where I couldn't tell ya."

The former preacher chuckled softly. "It's true I thought Vin might be able to help you," he admitted. "See, I saw a healin' once, in a Cherokee village. I thought Vin might be able to do for you what I saw a man's brother do for him."

"Which was?"

The older man shrugged. "You'd have to tell me. I wasn't there. I just saw a man who had decided to die come back to the world of the living, and I think I might've seen the same with you."

Chris looked back down at Vin, who had finally quieted and was now sleeping. "Don't know how it happened, but guess you could say Vin reminded me what the truth was."

"That your wife and boy are dead," Josiah stated.

Chris nodded. "And that I have friends here . . . family."

The former preacher nodded sagely. "None of us are alone now, that's true. Unless we decide we want to be."

Larabee looked up again, and the anguish in his eyes took the former preacher by surprise. "He was trying to save my life, and I–" He broke off and shook his head, angry and disgusted with himself.

"What is it, Chris?"

The gunslinger hesitated a moment, but then forced himself to say, "I attacked him, beat him damn-near senseless, the man who was trying to save my life. What kind of friend or brother does that make me?"

Josiah smiled sadly. "You didn't hurt him, Chris. Oh, maybe in your mind you did, but that was just your ghosts, expending their anger."

Chris shook his head. "Felt real enough."

"I'm sure it did."

"And he still came back for me, even after that," Larabee said, his voice tight and overly controlled.

"It's what a brother would do," Josiah replied softly.

Chris nodded his agreement and started to say something more, but the door opened, the others filing back inside.

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

Monday, 10 a.m.

Chris watched while Nathan and Josiah worked together to change the damp towels that were draped over Vin's body to keep him cool. Ezra and JD stood side by side at the table, preparing more of the herbs they had picked the day before for a fresh poultice. And Buck was across the street, borrowing fresh bed linen from one of his many "lady friends."

Larabee felt helpless and frustrated. He wanted to help, but he was still too weak, and tired too quickly, to be of much use.

Slumping back against his chair, Chris sighed and waited as hours passed, Vin caught in the tight grip of a fever that had left him restless and hurting. The damp towels helped, but they couldn't break the fiery grip. Nathan tried everything he knew, but eventually he acknowledged that it was now Vin's fight.

Sitting alone with the tracker, Chris reached out and squeezed the man's shoulder, saying, "You can't save my life and die. You hear me, Vin Tanner? You damn well better beat this, or so help me I'll find you in Hell and show you what a real beating feels like."

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

Monday, 8 p.m.

Vin woke slowly, floating back to consciousness on the trail of a soft voice. As he began to realize where he was, he recognized the voice as well – Chris.

He moaned softly as he tried to force his eyes open.


A hand closed over his shoulder, the touch cool on his warm skin. He tried again to open his eyes, this time managing to lift his lids just far enough to see the man who was sitting at his bedside, looking worried. Relief and affection rushed though the tracker's soul. It had worked. Chris was awake. For a brief moment he'd been sure the whole ordeal had been some crazy dream brought on by the fever that still held him, albeit more loosely in its grip now.

"Welcome back, pard," Vin managed to say before the dryness in his throat made him cough.

A moment later Chris was holding a cup to his lips, his hand supporting the tracker's head so he could drink. Vin gulped down the cool liquid, savoring the taste. But then the cup was gone.

"Nathan says you have to go slow on the water or it'll sour your stomach," Chris told him, easing Vin's head back down onto the pillow. "You had us worried," he added. "Why didn't you come back sooner?"

Vin smiled tiredly. "Had t' wait for the wash t' quit runnin'."

Chris's eyes widened. "You got out that far?"

"Didn't think so, but m' mind was none too clear." He took a breath and let it out slowly, feeling the sharp pinch in his side. "How're y' doin'?"

Larabee looked slightly chagrined as he replied, "Pretty good. Head still hurts some, and I get tired just walkin' 'cross the street, but I'll live."

"Guess we both will."

"You sure as hell better," the gunslinger warned sternly. "They've been workin' on you for over a day now."

Vin lips curled slightly. "Wouldn't want t' disappoint 'em," he slurred, his eyes dropping closed again. "Any of 'em. . . " And a moment later he was sleeping again.

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

Tuesday, 9 a.m.

When Vin woke the second time he was delighted to discover he felt much better. He could tell the fever had broken some time earlier, and his stomach rumbled like distant thunder.

"Vin, you awake?"

The tracker opened his eyes to meet Nathan's concerned gaze. "'M awake now."

The healer grinned. "And already startin' to sound more like the Vin Tanner I know," he said. "Guess I should be glad."

Vin glanced around the clinic. "Where's Chris?"

"I finally got him to go get some real sleep after your fever broke last night, but he'll probably be along shortly. Why don't you try an' get some more sleep while I go fetch something fo' you to eat."

Vin nodded, closing his eyes. He immediately felt the tug of healing slumber.

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

Vin felt another tug and, when awareness returned, he was standing back at the Larabee ranch. He glanced around, confused and more than a little scared.

Not sure what to expect, he walked the short distance to the house. Checking inside, he found it empty.

Walking out into the yard, he glanced around, finally spotting Chris, who was kneeling near the large tree growing next to the barn. Going over to join him, he saw the two graves.

"I wondered if you might turn up here," Chris said quietly without looking up.

"Didn't try or expect to," the tracker admitted. "Y' bring me here?"

Chris stood and turned to meet Vin's concerned gaze. "Don't know. Like you said, didn't try, but I did want to apologize."

"Fer what?"

"What happened here," Larabee replied, gesturing to the space beneath the tree. "I never meant to hurt you, Vin."

Tanner's head cocked to the side. "Y' didn't hurt me."

"I pounded you into the ground," Chris argued. "Right here."

"Here," the tracker repeated as he nodded. "But this is. . ." he trailed off, then shrugged. "Even if y' did, I'd say y' had yer reasons."

Larabee stood, not knowing what to say to that. Finally, he shook his head, a small smile beginning to spread across his face.

"Somethin' funny?"

Chris shook his head. "Josiah was right."

Vin's brow furrowed. "'Bout what?"

"You're not my friend, Vin Tanner."

The tracker looked hurt. "Hell, Chris, I would 'a said I was."

The gunslinger shook his head again, his grin getting bigger. "No. A friend would've kicked my tail for what I did, but family . . . well, family's another matter altogether."

Vin's cheeks went rosy and he dipped his head, hiding under the brim of his hat. "Y' think on me like family?" he asked, his voice unusually shy, which only served to broaden Larabee's smile.

"Guess I do at that."

The tracker's head came up, his blue eyes meeting Chris's green. "Reckon I think the same 'bout you."

Chris took a step closer, his hand held out. Vin looked at it for a moment, then took the proffered hand in a firm grip. Larabee tugged the man into a brief but heartfelt hug and then stepped back.

"So," Vin said, his eyes twinkling, "how do we get back this time, Cowboy?"

"Your guess is as good as mine," Chris replied, suddenly frowning. How did they get back?

Vin shrugged and started walking, the gunslinger falling into step at his side.

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

Tuesday, 1 p.m.

Chris walked into the clinic to find Vin lying in the bed, wide-awake and looking restless. He knew exactly how the tracker felt.

"How are you feelin'?" he asked the man.

"Tired," Vin admitted, "but I'll live."

"Nathan tell you that?"

"Why?" Tanner asked, looking a little annoyed.

"Wanted to be sure it came from a reputable source."

Vin glowered at him and Chris grinned. "You look better than you did a while ago."

The tracker nodded. "Fever's broke, but damned if I ain't weak as a newborn calf. Cain't even keep m' legs under me."

"Give it a day or two," Chris told him, walking over to the bedside chair and sitting down. "Brought somethin' that might help pass the time," he added, holding up a book.

Vin glanced at it, then at Chris, looking even more uncomfortable. "Just one problem."

"What?" Chris asked him.

"Cain't read," Vin admitted, glancing away with the admission.

"Didn't figger you could. Haven't heard 'bout many schools among the Indians."

Vin glanced back, realizing that there was no judgment in the man's eyes or in his tone.

"I was going to read it to you. I think you might like it. It's called Last of the Mohicans, and it's about a tracker fella."

Vin settled back against his pillows. "Sure as hell beats lyin' here, countin' the nails."

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

Wednesday, 8 a.m.

While the six peacekeepers finished the last of their breakfasts, Inez made up a seventh plate for Nathan to take back to Vin, who was still confined to his bed – a situation the healer knew wasn't going to last much longer.

As the men drifted off to their own tasks, Buck caught Chris on his way back to the clinic, and with an hand on the gunslinger's back, guided him across the street and over to the sheriff's office.

JD was nowhere to be found when they stepped inside and Buck closed the door.

"Somethin' on your mind, stud?" Chris asked, a little annoyed by the delay.

Wilmington nodded. "Yes, sir, there is."

Chris regarded his long-time friend for a moment, then walked over and sat down. "You gonna tell me what it is?"

Buck pulled his hat off and paced across the floor, turned, and paced back to the closed door again, then stopped and turned to face Larabee. "Chris, we've known each other a long time."


The big ladies' man slapped his hat against his leg. "What were you thinkin'?" he demanded loudly. "Steppin' out there like that, almost gettin' yourself killed!"

Chris leaned back and regarded the man for a moment, then said, "Some things are worth riskin' your life for, Buck, friends and family among 'em."

Wilmington stopped, staring at his friend. He blinked, then leaned back against the desk and folded his arms over his chest. "Well, what do ya know . . . guess I was wrong."

"'Bout what?" the gunslinger asked, amused that he had so easily surprised his friend.

"When you were up in the clinic, I told Vin that you'd been looking for a reason to live, and a reason to die, ever since Sarah and Adam were killed. I thought you'd used me as a reason to try and get yourself killed, but I was wrong and I'm glad. I really am."

Chris chuckled softly. "I'm not sure you weren't right," he admitted. "I couldn't honestly tell you what I was thinkin' at the time. I just knew that man was drawing a bead on you and I didn't want to see you killed. . . . I've only got a few friends; can't afford to let any of them get themselves killed for no good reason."

Buck nodded. "I know just what ya mean," he said, his voice soft but intense. A smile spread across his face. "I've gotta ask . . . what happened out at that reservation?"

Chris shook his head. "I don't know. Just know Vin found me and brought me back."


"He doesn't know either," Larabee told him. "The Indians have their own ways of doin' things."

"Ah, hell, it don't matter what they done," Buck decided. "All that does matter is you made it back. Just promise me you'll be more careful next time? Getting' too old for a scare like that."

Chris grinned. "You tellin' me you would've done it any different?"

"Didn't say that, now did I. I just want you to be more careful."

Chris considered that for a moment, then said, "I'll just pretend I'm Buck Wilmington, and do what he'd do."

"Ah hell, Chris, now I know you're gonna get yourself killed!"

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

Vin looked up to find Josiah carrying a tray with his breakfast on it. The older man set it down on the tracker's lap and said, "Eat up. Inez says there's plenty more where this came from."

Tanner regarded the man for a moment and then asked, "Why didn't Nathan bring it?"

Josiah offered him a shrug and said, "Guess he figured you might not be too happy to see him."

"Feel fine now, J'siah," Vin said. "Just don't see why I gotta stay a prisoner in this here bed."

The former preacher tried hard not to grin. "Last day. Tomorrow your sentence will be commuted."

"'Bout damned time," Vin replied with a sigh, then dug into his breakfast, making quick work of it.

While the tracker scraped the last of his meal off the plate, Josiah leaned back in his chair and enjoyed the sight of a healthy appetite. "Happy to bring you back some more," he offered.

Vin nodded, "Could eat it if'n y' did." Josiah leaned forward so he could stand, but stopped when the tracker added, "Didn't get the chance t' say thanks."

"My pleasure," the former preacher replied. "Glad it worked."

"Me, too."

The big man sat back and leaned forward, his eyes dancing with curiosity. "How did you do it?"

Vin shrugged and shook his head, "Damn if I know. I's already feelin' out 'a sorts when they took me int' that teepee. Nachise gave me somethin' t' drink – worse stuff y' c'n imagine. Next thing I know, I'm at Larabee's ranch."

"So you actually saw the ranch?"

Vin nodded. "House, barn, windmill, corral, trees, dirt."

"So it was real. It looked real, I mean."

"Yep, real as this here clinic. Saw Sarah and Adam, too."

Josiah nodded, his expression a little sad. "Imagined you might."

"Weren't sure he was gonna come back with me, but he did."

"Somewhere in his heart, he knew it wasn't real."

"He would've died if y' hadn't told me 'bout that Cherokee warrior."

"Maybe, maybe not. Only God knows for sure."

"Still, I owe ya, preacher."

Josiah shrugged again. "I'd say we're even. After all, you saved my life when I was ready to give up and hang for those murders I didn't commit."

Vin glanced away, looking embarrassed. "Just did what I thought was right."

"I know," Josiah replied. "You're a good man, Vin Tanner," he said, standing and picking up the tray. "I'll go get that second plate."

As Josiah reached the door Vin said, "You're a good man, too, a good friend. And I still owe ya."

"Have it your way," the former preacher replied. "You're the most stubborn man I know, beside Larabee, that is."

Vin grinned. At least he was in good company.

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

Wednesday, 1 p.m.

Buck carried Tanner's lunch into the clinic, finding the man sleeping. "Vin?" he called softly. "Vin, ya awake?"

The tracker jerked and opened his eyes. He blinked owlishly a couple of times, then shook his head sheepishly. "Nathan must be more scared 'a me 'n I thought," he mumbled.

"Huh?" Buck replied.

"I'm startin' t' think Nathan's scared t' come back t' the clinic."

Buck grinned. "Naw, I just told him I'd bring this over for ya. I haven't been able to say thank you, for doin' what you said you would – bring Chris back – and I wanted to do that without an audience."

"No need," Vin said, his stomach rumbling when he got a whiff of his lunch.

Seeing the man's hungry look, Wilmington set the tray down on his lap and then dropped into the bedside chair. He waved at the plate, letting Vin know he should go ahead and eat. "Yeah, there's a need," he said as the man took his first bite, his eyes closing with pleasure as he chewed. "I owe you, more 'n I can say, Vin."

Buck's voice was soft and intense, telling the tracker that the ladies' man was being honest and sincere. He didn't reply, though, enjoying the food too much, and knowing that the man would set his own pace anyway.

"Chris and me, we've been friends a long, long time. Hell, we weren't more 'n kids when we first met. . ." He paused, looking up to meet Vin's guileless blue eyes. "I just appreciate you bringin' him back from wherever it was he'd gotten to."

"Don't rightly know how much I did," Vin told him. "Whatever it might'a been, 'm glad t' have done it."

He appreciated the tracker's modesty. Buck cleared his throat and said, "There was a time Chris and me lived in each other's hip pockets, but that changed after Sarah and Adam were killed. Guess it brought back too many painful memories. Things changed."

"Y' looked after 'im," Vin guessed.

"I did," Buck agreed, "best I could, anyway. But he was stubborn, and a man can only get chased off so many times before he stays away."

Vin nodded his understanding.

"Don't get me wrong, we're still friends, damned good friends, but, well, I just want ya t' know, I'm glad he's got somebody to watch his back, that's all."

"Cain't never take yer place, Buck."

The ladies' man grinned. "Hell, Vin, ain't nobody could do that," he boasted, then turned serious again. "I hear what you're sayin', but Chris and me, well, we've taken different trails, and that's all right. I'm just glad he's got you t' ride with him. You watch his back for me, okay?"

"I'll do that," Vin agreed, respecting Wilmington's big heart, and his generous soul. He held out his hand, and Buck took it, giving it a heartfelt shake.

"Smart man knows his friends are more precious 'n gold," the ladies' man said.

Vin nodded. "That they are."

Buck blushed and released the tracker's hand. "You up for another helping?"

"Could eat it," Vin replied.

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

Thursday, 11 a.m.

Chris and Vin sat side by side on the boardwalk, their chairs tilted back, leaning against the wall of the saloon. Inside the building, the other five peacekeepers were playing a game of poker. Ezra was winning, as usual.

In the distance, another thunderstorm flashed and rumbled, the black clouds rolling closer, bringing with them a cooling wind that chased away the oppressive heat.

Both men had their hats pulled down low, but they were still able to watch what was going on around them.

"Y' ain't sorry y' came back, are ya?" Vin asked softly.



"You sorry you came and got me?" Larabee asked him.



The comfortable silence fell between the two men again, both of them grinning slightly.

"Gonna join the game?" Vin asked him a short while later.

"Maybe later. You?"

"Figger I'll wait."

Their grins both grew a little wider.

"Good t' be home," Tanner offered.

"Yeah. It is."