I Ain't Missin' You

by JIN

Main Characters: Vin, Chris, Josiah

Comments: Every time I hear this song, I think it should be a fic . . .

Chris turned the small piece of wood in his hands, eyeing each nick and shaving carefully. It was pretty damn good, if he said so himself, and a small grin of satisfaction graced his lips. Throw on a bit of black paint with a spot of white, and Vin would have a miniature of the stubborn creature he loved so well.

It was a bittersweet thought. He hadn't seen Vin for going on two weeks now, and they hadn't parted on the best of terms. In fact, the distance between them had been growing for weeks, ever since he'd hooked back up with Ella Gaines.

He couldn't blame Vin for being sore at him after the way he'd treated his friend during that nightmare. He would have told Vin that, too; would have made amends, had he gotten the chance. But he was barely hanging on from the gunshot wound when they had first returned to town, and Vin had taken off before he'd had a chance to wrap his mind around what had happened and why. Even when Tanner returned days later after searching fruitlessly for Ella, he still wasn't exactly clear in the head. Vin's news that the woman had escaped didn't improve the situation.

Chris turned the carving over one more time. Yeah, Vin would like it. It would be a peace offering, of sorts. Vin would probably blush a little and he'd stammer, "Didn't need to go and do somethin' like this, Cowboy." And Chris would grin and say nothing at all, and then things would go on back to normal.

That was the way Chris saw it anyway - the way he wanted it to be and hoped it would be - until he remembered that another obstacle stood in their way: Vin had left town and refused to tell him why. He and Josiah had taken off without so much as an explanation as to where or why or when they'd return. "We're goin' where we're goin' and we'll be back when we're back," Vin had said. And he'd looked at Chris like that should be good enough – had to be good enough because that was all he was going to get.

And before Ella, it would have been good enough. Before she re-entered his life, he had learned to trust again. But not now, and maybe not ever again. He couldn't abide secrets, even from a man he considered a friend - especially from a man he considered a friend.

Well, nothing good in his life lasted long, why would his friendship with Vin be any different? He sighed and shook his head; he had way too much time on his hands if he was getting this maudlin without even the benefit of good whiskey.

So Josiah and Vin had been gone somewhere for almost two weeks - make that twelve days and six hours - and not a word from either of them. Just what was he supposed to think, anyway? Maybe they weren't coming back. Ever. No, that was ridiculous, he told himself. Even if Vin was just plain through with him, he wouldn't run out on the others, and neither would Josiah.

Maybe they'd gone after Ella again. Chris' gut clenched at just the thought of what that bitch could do to his friends, so he pushed that notion aside.

Maybe they'd gone to Tascosa. It would be reasonable for Vin to take Josiah along. After all, the preacher might not be a conventional sort of legal man, but he did a fine job taking care of Nathan's father. Josiah knew just enough about the law to be dangerous, but he could talk in riddles and the judge just might fall for it. But then again, maybe the judge wouldn't fall for it at all - Vin could be walking to the gallows at this very minute. That thought made him just as sick as wondering what the hell Ella could dream up.

It would be a nice thing, though, if Josiah had taken Vin to Tascosa and figured a way out for him. That would be the best gift anyone could give Vin – his freedom. Made his offering of a miniature Peso seem kind of pathetic. Chris hastily shoved the wooden figure in his coat pocket and pulled his aching body out of the rocker. He'd been sitting on the boardwalk for hours now, and his stiff muscles reminded him of every minute.

It was mid-afternoon, and a bright, golden glow seemed to settle over the town, lending a false impression of peace and well-being. But peace was fleeting and well-being was a state of mind he couldn't imagine ever finding again. "Hell," he muttered under his breath; he'd become paranoid and bitter and a damn worry-wart. He could hardly stand himself, yet he wondered why Vin had taken off. He shook his head as he made his way over to the saloon. At least if he was drunk, he wouldn't have to think so hard.

Buck was there, and he waved him over to a table with a sweeping hand and his customary broad smile. Chris supposed it would take a dozen Ellas to scare Buck off, and he shook his head again at his oldest friend's endless loyalty to one such as himself.

"Hey, Stud. Have a seat," Buck said, still grinning, and Chris made a mental note to partake of whatever Wilmington was drinking.

Never one to waste words or time, Chris sat without comment and took a swig out of Buck's bottle.

"Help yourself. It looks like you could use it," Buck offered.

Chris grunted in reply and Buck flat out laughed as he motioned for Inez to bring over another glass along with another bottle. He grew serious, though, when he took in Chris' drawn features.

"You still hurtin'?" Buck asked, genuinely concerned, and for some reason that made Chris feel guilty, undeserving.

"Not bad."

Buck nodded and replied, "Good. So what's the problem?"

Cut to the chase, and Chris liked it that way – except when he didn't. He certainly had no intention of talking with Buck or anyone else about the fact that he and Vin had gotten . . . off track. Yeah, that was a good way to put it - he and Vin were off track at the moment.

Chris didn't answer, but Buck was accustomed to that, so he just continued, "Vin and Josiah should be back soon."

Chris looked up sharply. "Why would you think that?"

Buck nodded smugly, knowing he'd hit the nail on the head with his comment. "I figured that was what had you all tied up in knots - Vin bein' gone so long. Well, Vista City's no more than a good day's ride, so I can't think they'd be gone much longer."

Vista City? What the hell was the big secret in Vista City? And how did Buck know that's where they'd gone?

"What makes you think they're in Vista City?"

Now it was Buck's turn to look confused. "Uh, because they told us. You sayin' you didn't know that?"

"Told you when?"

"When we were all sittin' here playin' cards the other night and Josiah says to Vin, 'Hey, Vin, I'm headin' out to Vista City and I wouldn't mind some company.' And Vin, he says, 'Well, if yer sure, Josiah,' and then Josiah-"

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"Uh - cause you didn't ask." Buck took another long swallow and went on, "Kinda miss the sorry cuss myself. And I ain't won a hand of cards since Josiah left town."

"I don't miss him. Who said I miss him? I don't miss him."

Buck laughed and Chris scowled. He didn't see anything the least bit humorous about the situation.

"Of course you don't, Chris. Don't know what I was thinkin'," Buck replied, still chuckling.

"Last I heard, I was still in charge around here," Chris growled. "Might help t' know where my men have taken off to and when they might get around t' comin' back is all. Or did something change while I was laid up? Cause if it did - that's fine with me. Don't need this job or this town."

"Vin's sure got yer dander up, don't he?" Buck laughed again. "Well, let me set y' straight, Pard. Nothin's changed. Town still needs us and we still need you. But last I checked, none of us are chained here. Vin goes off when he needs to, same as me, same as you." Buck suddenly grew serious then as he leaned forward and spoke in a low voice, "Your problem is that - as much as you hate to admit it - you do need this job. You need this town. You need us. And you need Vin. So quit your mopin' around and tell him so."

"Well I can't do that when he ain't here, can I?" Chris bellowed, realizing too late that he'd given himself away. Quickly changing the subject, he asked, "What the hell is in Vista City anyway?"

Buck shrugged. "Hell if I know. Think Josiah said something about havin' some kin there. Hey - wasn't that where Vin went when that bastard murdered Miss Irene and tried t' pin it on Josiah?"

"Yeah," Chris answered, his mind turning.

"Vin ever say what he found there?"

"No, he never did." And damn it, that was just one more thing between them.

"Well now, Chris -" Buck went on.

But Chris wasn't interested in whatever his old friend had to say. Slamming his half-full glass on the table, he stood up and stalked out of the saloon. "Miss Vin? Like hell," he muttered to himself. Tanner could stay away another two weeks for all he cared.

+ + + + + + +

Vin tried not to sigh as he brushed another long swath of white along the narrow stone wall. He just wasn't sure what the point was. The dark, dingy stone room remained just that - dark and dingy. It would take a whole lot more than a coat of white paint to brighten up the dismal surroundings of the convent. "Like livin' in a damn cave," he muttered crossly.

"What? Did you say something, Vin?"

Vin shook his head. If Josiah was trying to do something nice for the nuns who cared for his sister, who was he to argue? Just because it was a ridiculous waste of time. The sigh escaped at last, and Josiah turned towards him once more.

"You know you don't have to stay, Vin. I reckon Chris could use you back in town, and I know you miss -"

"I don't miss him!" Vin snapped.

Josiah's answering grin only increased Vin's irritation. "No, of course not," the older man clarified. "I was actually thinking you might miss being out in the open. A place like this - cut off from the sunlight, no chance to see the moon or stars at night - well, any man might feel a bit closed in."

"Oh," Vin responded sheepishly, "yeah." The truth was, he did miss fresh air and moonlight. But even more, he missed actually doing something that felt useful. Necessary. Exciting.

But he did not miss Chris. It would be a cold day in hell before he missed Larabee.

"Why don't you take a break?" Josiah offered. "Take a nice long ride, since you seem to be of a mind to stick around for a few more days."

"Well," Vin frowned, "I reckon I could. But I ain't goin' back. We're not done here and I don't leave a job half done. Besides, I got no reason t' go back right now. Buck would let us know if there was a reason, and we ain't heard a word for goin' on two weeks now so I reckon all is quiet. No reason t' go back. None at all."

"None at all," Sanchez agreed with a grin so annoying that Vin had to clench his fist to keep from wiping the smug smile clean off his friend's face.

Josiah was right, though - he was going a little stir-crazy. Maybe he had been acting cross, tense, and out of sorts. And maybe he owed Josiah an apology.

"Josiah, I -"

But Sanchez cut him off, "Go on now. Get your balance back. This will all be here when you get back."

Vin wanted to argue that his balance was just fine - and what the hell did that mean anyway? But he bit his tongue and gave the older man a quick nod instead.

Fifteen minutes later, he was well out of town, but the open space did little to raise his spirits. He couldn't get a handle on why he felt so off-track. He supposed it might have a little something to do with Chris. After all, he and Larabee had hardly been on speaking terms lately. And he had to admit that he might have been a little short with the man when he asked where they were going. Chis had a right to know, after all, but hell, it wasn't like Larabee ever had to ask permission to go where he wanted, when he wanted, for however long he wanted.

And their unofficial leader was about to give them all up not so many weeks ago without a moment's hesitation. That hurt worst of all, Vin reluctantly admitted. Buck thought he was still smarting over Chris spurning him at the party that night, but he was wrong. Larabee had paid for that terrible mistake a thousand times over and Vin felt nothing but sorrow for his friend. Besides, he understood how a man could get twisted up over a pretty woman - Charlotte still sat heavy in his heart for a wagon-load of reasons he'd yet to completely unload.

And yes, Vin again reluctantly admitted to himself, he had thought of going off to Brazil with Charlotte. But that was only because he had a price on his head and he couldn't think of any other way to keep her safe. Chris had no such concern. He could have had both; could've had Ella and still stayed on as their leader. No reason at all the woman couldn't move her fancy ranch to Four Corners.

But Chris chose not to. Chose to move on from all of them with little more than a sentence in passing.

Chose to move on . . . the words poked and stuck in Vin's brain like a prick from the garden of cacti his horse currently wandered in. If Chris could so easily walk away, why should any of them stay?

Why should he stay?

"Should just move on myself. Get myself t' Tascosa, clear my name, and move on," he mumbled under his breath. "Yep. That's exactly what I'll do - soon as I can light a fire under Josiah and git him t' -"

Vin paused mid-sentence at the sound of horses heading in the direction of Vista City. Kneeing Peso to the top of the hill, he noted six riders approaching the convent. "What d' you want with a bunch of nuns?" he muttered.

He had no idea, but the the way his gut was churning, he figured he'd best find out.

+ + + + + + +

His plan was working, Josiah thought with a smile. He figured that a little time and distance was all it would take to get his two good friends back on track, so he'd invited Vin to come to Vista City with him.

It had been amusing watching Vin try to convince himself that he didn't miss Chris, that he wasn't fretting about the man pretty much every hour of the day. As they painted the walls that afternoon, Josiah determined that Vin had just about reached the end of his endurance, so he'd sent him out for some "fresh air". With a little luck, Vin would come back with some excuse to head back to town, where he would hopefully, finally work things out with Chris.

An hour later, Josiah was still patting himself on the back when he heard a commotion outside the courtyard. He instinctively reached for his gun, cursing under his breath when he remembered that it was locked away. Sister Marguerite, the Mother Superior of the convent - in practice if not in title - had insisted he and Vin remove their weapons within the convent walls. It seemed reasonable at the time. Vista City barely existed; violence seemed at least as far off as the next town - even further with the good Shepherd watching over His flock.

And so he was taken off-guard, totally unprepared for a group of bandits looking for refuge from a determined posse. Sister Marguerite, who was normally wary and taciturn to a fault, let down her guard this one time and opened the gate to a seemingly wounded stranger, and before Josiah could even put down his brush, the man and his five compadres stormed inside.

The elder nun tried her best to convince the outlaws to seek shelter elsewhere, but when it became apparent that the men weren't taking "no" for an answer, she calmly instructed the other sisters to go about their business. Having no obvious recourse until Vin returned, Josiah picked up his brush and continued his activity. For the moment, he would allow the desperadoes to believe that he posed no threat to them.

The entire affair might have been nothing more than inconvenient intrusion if one the criminals hadn't gotten stupid. The bandit dragged Hannah from her sanctuary into the common area where the other sisters and remaining outlaws were gathered. Pulling the terrified woman in front of him, he chortled, "Look at this one! Look at her eyes! She's loco, alright. We can have some fun with her. Bet she'd like it!"

Josiah's stomach rolled at the sight of his sister in those filthy hands; blind fury overtook him and he was certain at that moment that he would break every one of those men in half. Might get killed in the process, but he didn't care. He was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for Hannah at last, the final penance.

But it didn't happen that way.

From the corner of his eye, Josiah saw Vin quietly making his way up the hall from a back tunnel. Apparently, Vin had suspected something was wrong, so he'd come in the hidden entrance. And before Josiah could channel his rage into action, Vin came up behind the bastard, pulled his mare's leg, and growled, "Let her go or I'll fill you with lead."

It all went to hell then. In her panic, Hannah twisted in the outlaw's arms - and reached for Vin.

Blinking in surprise, Vin lowered his gun as she lunged for him. And when the bandit turned his weapon towards the pair, Vin pushed Hannah to the floor. They both fired, but Vin was off-balance and a second behind; his shot went high, but the outlaw's did not.

Vin went down just as Josiah reached the outlaw and wrapped his hands around the man's throat. Someone hit him from behind then, and the last thing he saw was Hannah covering Vin's body with her own. Weeping.

When Josiah came to, a small form was bent over him, holding a cold cloth to the knot on his head. With a groan, he quickly sat up, nearly knocking the young woman he now recognized as Sister Naomi, over in the process.

"I'm sorry, Sister," he said. "But Hannah -"

"She's alright," the petite nun replied, keeping her small hand on Josiah's shoulder as if to hold him place.

Josiah's head was pounding, but at least he was alive to feel the pain. He wondered if he could say the same for Vin. "And my friend?"

Sister Naomi lowered her voice and replied, "Sister Marguerite said the bullet went through, but he lost a lot of blood. I think she's worried, but she'd never say as much. You know how she is."

The young woman blushed then, as if she'd said too much.

Josiah gently removed the nun's hand and stumbled to his feet. To his surprise, his hands and feet were not bound.

His puzzlement must have shown on his face because Sister Naomi smiled and answered the question he didn't ask. "Sister Marguerite told the bandits we would not feed them if they harmed you. I think they are more afraid of her than you," she added with a smile.

"That's not a risk worth taking," Josiah argued. He didn't want anyone else hurt on his account.

Sister Naomi shrugged. "Those men are cowards. They won't shoot a nun in God's house. And if they do, there is something better waiting for us."

Josiah wished he could believe that. But he didn't think the outlaws had any qualms about taking a life - in God's house or any other. He wasn't too sure about an afterlife, either - he had more than enough trouble with the here and now. "Where is my sister?"

"With Mr. Tanner. She won't leave his side."

Josiah knew that he should be used to Hannah's indifference; she had never shown him any measure of affection. Even when she was whole, she rarely paid him any mind.

And looking back on it now, his mind as clear as it could possibly be under the weight of regret, he realized his mistake. He should never have allowed Vin to stay. Never have allowed Vin to work at his side while Hannah sat close by and watched. She'd grown attached to Vin, found something in him that called to her - or maybe she was just attracted to his smile, his voice, his calm manner.

Josiah had known this, had watched it play out in a guarded, curious manner. What could it hurt? She couldn't speak to Vin, couldn't touch him - couldn't even look him in the eye. If she sat a little closer to him as the days went on, it didn't really mean anything. Vin didn't even appear to notice. Surely there was no harm in his sister connecting with another human being?

But never had he imagined that she would choose Vin over her own brother; that when her life was threatened, she would seek salvation from a man she barely knew.

Anger flared up inside him, though he could never direct it at his sister, sick as she was. No, Hannah didn't know better.

But Vin did - and it wasn't his place, damn it. The moment had finally come when he could truly pay his penance - sacrifice it all for his sister - and Vin stole that from him. That moment would never come again, his opportunity to shed his guilt forever was lost. Instead, he had new guilt to deal with because Vin could lose his life paying a debt that did not belong to him.

"Damn him," Josiah muttered under his breath.

Beside him, Sister Naomi blushed again as she glanced at the guard standing at the door. Of course, she would think Josiah cursed the man who caused this situation, never the man who had put himself in harm's way to spare his sister.

Josiah pushed his way past the guard, ignoring the man's idle threat to shoot him in the back if he didn't stop. He heard Sister Naomi's soft footsteps padding along behind him, and he had to shake his head that someone had seen fit to assign him a personal angel. Apparently she was right, though, because no bullet pierced his spine and he made it safely to his sister's room - the angel and the outlaw trailing along behind him.

Vin lay as still as death on a thin mat on the floor of Hannah's room, blood-stained bandages swathing his left side. And Hannah lay beside him, fast asleep with her head on his shoulder. She seemed serene, at peace in her dreams, and Josiah sucked in a breath.

What had happened here? What did it mean?

+ + + + + + +

Chris couldn't figure out what was wrong with him. One minute he was sitting there minding his own business and the next he was saddling his horse. And he honestly couldn't remember how he'd gotten from one place to the other.

"Chris? What's wrong?"

He hadn't even realized Buck had followed him into the livery, and he shook his head at his distraction.

"Nothing. Just takin' a ride."

It was a lie. He hadn't decided yet why it was a lie, but clearly there had to be a reason for him to leave the comfort of the saloon to saddle his horse.

"Okay. Want some company?"

"Goin' alone," he replied. But he offered Buck a bone. "If something comes up and I need a hand, you'll be the first to know."

He turned then and found Buck grinning at him when he spoke. "You tell Josiah I'm gettin' tired of losin' t' Ezra. He needs t' come on back. And tell Vin," he paused and look Chris straight in the eye, "tell him whatever you need to t' set things right between you."

Denial was on the tip of his tongue, but Buck knew him too well. He was going to Vista City - even if he had just that moment made up his mind. He heard Buck chuckling behind him as he mounted up and rode off without another word.

But an uncomfortable thought nagged at him as he traveled along the rocky trail: he may be alone in this dilemma. Vin may have no interest in settling this thing; could even be that Vin had no idea there was anything to settle. In fact, by all indications, Vin was going along like nothing at all had changed. Like he didn't care if it had.

With that disturbing notion rubbing his brain raw, Chris spent the rest of his journey trying to decide how to play his upcoming confrontation with Vin. But even the word confrontation just sounded wrong when connected with Vin. How had they come to this? And more importantly, what was he going to do about it? What could he possibly say to Vin that would make any difference at all?

"Aw hell," Chris muttered to himself. He was talking himself in circles, and he was no closer to a resolution the next day when he approached Vista City.

It became apparent very quickly that the tiny town consisted of a little more than a few dilapidated buildings and what appeared to be a small convent. Chris scratched his head. How could Josiah and Vin spend ten days here? Or ten hours, for that matter? What were they doing? And where, exactly, were they doing it?

As if he'd heard his thoughts, a small spanish boy approached him, cocking his head thoughtfully as he measured Chris through narrowed eyes.

"Do you speak English?" Chris asked.

The boy shook his head, and Chris frowned. In spite of the negative response, the kid obviously understood his question. Deciding his limited spanish was too rusty to be useful, he continued on, "Have you seen two men? Names of Sanchez and Tanner?"

The boy's gaze inadvertently slid to the convent before quickly moving back to Chris' face as he held out his hand.

"Little thief," Chris complained, but he dropped a coin in the boy's palm anyway. He was pretty certain that Josiah and Vin were at the convent, but he couldn't quite bring himself to send the kid away empty-handed. He wondered how many others the big brown eyes had suckered into parting with their change.

The kid nodded toward the convent and turned like he was about to run away. But something made him change his mind, because he turned back towards Chris and pointed at his gun.

Confused, Chris let his hand rest on his weapon and said softly, "It's alright. I don't plan to use this."

But the boy looked at him solemnly and held up six fingers before once again pointing at the gun, then at the convent. Only then did he turn and run away.

That was odd, Chris thought, but he was more focused at the moment on finding his missing friends. As he approached the convent gate, the first person he saw was a nun who was busily sweeping a covered porch-like area. She was an older woman - possibly hard of hearing, considering she didn't even look up as he approached.

Chris cleared his throat. "Huh - excuse me, Sister - but -"

"Go away," she replied crossly, never looking away from her broom. But she apparently felt enough remorse over her bad attitude to mutter a cross, "Please."

Chris leaned in closer to the gate. He didn't see anything remiss, but something felt wrong. "I'm looking for some friends," he stated. "Josiah Sanchez and Vin Tanner. Do you know them?"

She stopped sweeping briefly, but still refused to meet his eyes. "No. Please leave now."

"I thought nuns were supposed to be kind and hospitable," Chris muttered under his breath. But he wasn't giving up. Vin and Josiah were there - somewhere - he knew it. "Look Ma'am, I'm not leaving here until I talk to my friends. Now you can get them for me, or I can come and get them myself."

"No! Stay there!" she demanded. Panic in her eyes now, and Chris' aggravation quickly shifted to anxiety.

"I'll get him," she finally offered. "Just please - stay where you are."

Like he had a choice, Chris thought. The gate was obviously bolted from the inside, and in spite of his threat, he had no real means to enter. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Josiah enter the small courtyard.

"Chris?" Josiah looked stunned. "What are you - why are you here?"

Why was he there? What could he say? That he missed Vin? No. That was completely stupid - not to mention embarrassing.

He was about to stammer out some sort of silly excuse, but Josiah lowered his voice and spoke before he had a chance. "You have to get out of here. Go now," he pleaded.

Chris had heard a lot of things in Josiah's voice before, ranging from calm acceptance to violent rage - but never the tone of desperation he heard now. "What? Why? What the hell is going on, Josiah?"

Josiah flicked an uneasy gaze to his left, but he didn't answer the question.

Chris tried to see what his friend was looking at, but his view was blocked by a pillar and a thick vine of ivy. He pressed the older man again. "Josiah? Where's Vin?"

Josiah closed his eyes and said again, "You need to leave, Chris."

What was that look on Josiah's face? Fear? Guilt? Chris was certain of only one thing. "I'm not leaving until I see Vin," he said.

"He - he's not feeling well."

"What's wrong?" Chris could hardly get the words out, with his heart now banging in his throat.

"We've been painting," Josiah explained, still not meeting Chris' eyes, "and he wrenched his back. Sister Marguerite gave him something for it and he - he fell asleep."

"Asleep? Vin? In the middle of the day?" Chris scoffed. "Well, you'd best wake him or let me in, because I'm not leaving until I see him," he repeated.

"I can't let you in."

"Can't? Or won't?"

"You're not seeing Vin today, Chris. Go home and we'll join you in a few days." He swallowed and finally held Chris' gaze when he added, "Tell Nathan, Vin will see him soon."

Chris paused as the facts lined up in his head: Josiah's uncharacteristically edgy behavior, fear in the nun's eyes, six fingers, six guns . . .

And the last, "Tell Nathan, Vin will see him soon."

The convent was under siege. And Vin was hurt.

Lowering his voice, he told Josiah, "All right. We'll see you soon."

Josiah nodded and walked away, as beaten down as Chris had ever seen him. Whatever secret Vista City held for their friend might destroy him yet, Chris thought.

But he couldn't worry on that now. In addition to his friends, the sisters of the convent were at risk.

He needed a plan. He needed reinforcements. And Buck was right, damn it - he needed Vin. This was exactly the kind of situation he and Vin were so good at working out together.

But as he mounted up and headed for the nearest telegraph office, he reluctantly conceded that there was more to it than that. He needed Vin for more than just his clear head, uncanny intuition, and sure gun. He needed the man in his life for a host of reasons - and Vin had damn well better stay alive for him to tell him so.

+ + + + + + +

Vin woke to a furious ache in his side and a gentle touch in his hair. The sensations were conflicting, disorienting. But gradually, the pain ebbed as the soft caress continued. Tears welled up in his eyes, it felt so good. Surely no one had ever touched him like that before, with such tenderness, such reverence. What had he done to deserve it?

He laid like that for the longest time, afraid that if he opened his eyes, the comforting touch would go away and the pain return. But even when the need to re-orient himself asserted itself and he finally, truly awoke, he could see very little. Dark shadows, flickering candlelight . . . a silent presence beside him. He twisted his head in the dark to seek his savior.


She said nothing, and her vacant eyes never met his. Yet she continued to weave her fingers through his hair, grounding him or, perhaps, herself. It didn't matter.


The soft voice startled him, and he groaned when the instinctive movement rekindled the fire in his side.

"I'm sorry," Josiah said as he knelt next to him, "I didn't mean to wake you."

Vin could barely make out the man's features in the dim light, but he didn't have to. He figured Josiah was carrying a load of guilt for more than just waking him. "Ain't nothin' t' be sorry for. How long I been out?"

"All night. How do you feel?"

"Like some bastard put a hole in my side. Everybody else alright? The sisters?"

Josiah nodded and leaned forward to speak in a low whisper. "Had a visitor earlier. An angel in black."

"I ain't up to decipherin' no riddles, Josiah. Best you spell it out for me."

"Chris was here."

The words hit him like a punch to his gut, and for a second time, Vin blinked back tears. Damn Larabee anyway for dredging up all kinds of feelings he didn't know what to do with.

How did Chris know to come? Why did he come?

Vin knew what he wanted the reason to be, but he couldn't believe Chris had given much thought to the change in their friendship. The man had enough to vex himself over, after all, what with finding out about Ella and all she'd done.

He swallowed and tried to think up the right question to ask so as not to give himself away, but apparently it was too late. Josiah put a hand on his shoulder and said, "I think he came to set things right with you. He was adamant he wasn't leaving until he saw you."

"Really? He said that?" Vin hated how child-like his voice sounded - like a kid waiting for his big brother to rescue him.

"He did. He's going for help now. But by the time he gets to Greeley to send a telegram and the others make the ride here, it'll be another day at least. Can you hold on that long?"

"Hell, yes. I ain't that bad off." He wasn't sure it was true - couldn't find the energy to even lift his head to make his point, in fact. But between Josiah's guilt, Hannah's devotion, and the promise of Chris' return, he was determined to fight for every last breath.

"Good," Josiah replied as he turned away.

Vin had hoped the man would stay awhile, keep him company, but it almost seemed like Josiah was anxious to get away from him. Of course, he probably needed to get back to the sisters - make sure they were safe. Which brought to mind the fact that Vin had no idea why a band of outlaws had chosen to hide out in a convent.

"What are they doin' here, Josiah?" he asked while Sanchez was still in earshot.

Josiah paused and looked back at him. "Hiding out from a posse."

Vin cringed, not liking the idea of the good sisters being caught in the cross-fire of a shoot-out.

"Bought themselves some time, anyway," Josiah continued. "This is probably the last place a posse would think to look. And even if they figure it out, the sisters aren't likely to turn these men over to a lynching party - even if they deserve it."

Vin nodded. "Yeah. Guess you're right about that." He sighed and added, "Reckon it's up t' us then t' keep 'em safe til Chris gets back."

Josiah's back stiffened, but he moved on without responding, and if Vin didn't know better, he'd think the man was angry with him.

That was ridiculous - Josiah had no reason to be mad at him. But it was no more ridiculous, Vin realized, than his statement that he and Josiah had to keep the women safe. What good was he to anyone in his current condition?

Except maybe to the woman at his side, who seemed to have found some kind of purpose in comforting him. Hannah had stopped her soothing motions the minute Josiah entered the room, but she resumed stroking Vin's hair as soon as her brother left. Vin thought about telling her she could stop now, that he was fine, but before he could form the words, he had another visitor.

"It's time for you to eat, Hannah. Move away from him now," Sister Marguerite ordered sternly.

Hannah's fingers stilled in his hair, but she made no move to rise.

"Come with me, Hannah," said another voice, this one far sweeter than the first. Sister Naomi stooped at Vin's side and gently pulled Hannah to her feet. But she offered Vin a smile as she did so. "How are you feeling, Mr. Tanner?"

"Fine, Ma'am," Vin replied, though his weak voice probably made a liar out of him.

It was clear that Hannah didn't want to leave him, but Sister Marguerite's firm voice brooked no argument. "Hannah, go with Sister Naomi. You can return when you've eaten."

After spending ten days at the convent, Vin had learned not to cross the older woman. In fact, he'd rather face a dozen armed outlaws than one angry Sister Marguerite. And apparently Hannah agreed, because she did what she was told.

Vin figured the nun had come to see to his wound, so he braced himself for her administrations. No doubt, the woman was a caring soul, but one wouldn't know it by her abrupt manner. So he was surprised when she knelt next to him and put a gentle hand on his forehead. "You are warm," she said softly, "but not alarmingly so."

She settled on the floor then and began to unwrap the bandage on his side. Vin hissed, but remained still and silent, determined not to show weakness.

Sister Marguerite raised her brow as she studied his wound. "This would not have happened if you had heeded my order not to bring weapons into this place."

All of the sudden Josiah's anger made sense to him. He'd almost gotten Hannah killed, after all. Vin cringed and waited for the remainder of his reprimand.

"However," the sister continued, "Hannah would not have survived any kind of - assault."

That almost sounded like a back-handed "thank you", so he mumbled the only thing that came to mind, "Yes Ma'am. I mean, Sister."

"It's not good for you to be on the floor, but Hannah - she needs to be here, in her room, where she feels safe. And she needs to be near you."

The nun raised her eyes to him then, as if he might offer some kind of explanation for this strange turn of events.

When he didn't reply, she went on. "Are you a praying man, Mr. Tanner?"

"Reckon we all are when the situation calls for it," he answered.

"I don't know if you will live," she said bluntly, her gaze never wavering.

"Near as I can tell, none of us have that guarantee," Vin responded.

For a second time, she surprised him by smiling warmly. "That is so. But some of us have a guarantee that something far better waits for us."

She stood to leave then, but Vin impulsively reached for her hand. "Sister? Just want you to know that we got friends comin', and they won't let nothin' happen t' any of you."

All trace of warmth vanished from her face. "No more blood will be shed within these walls."

"That sounds real good, but life don't always work out that way, Sister. Those men - they don't care about your rules. Don't care about nobody but themselves. My friends will do what they have to t' get us all out of here alive."

Sister Marguerite smiled again. "I'm sure your friends are very good at what they do, Mr. Tanner. But my friend is better."

As she walked away, Vin pondered her words. "My friend is better." He knew she meant God, and he wanted to believe that was true. Made life a whole lot easier to believe a higher power had it all figured out, and if things didn't go your way, well, heaven was on the other side.

But at that moment, he had to admit that he had far more faith in his friends. In Chris. He and Larabee may have had their differences lately, but he knew that Chris would move heaven and earth to get back to him.

+ + + + + + +

Chris had decided that he'd move a mountain, if necessary, to get into that convent. And if Buck and the boys hadn't arrived by noon, he'd go in alone.

The first thing he'd do when he got inside would be to seek out Vin. Not that he was particularly worried, not that he missed him so bad he couldn't wait another second to see him. No, that wasn't it. He just needed to know right off if he could count on Vin's help. Tanner wasn't one to lie down and lick his wounds while others fought his battles. If Vin could stand - and probably even if he couldn't - he'd be there to back up him and Josiah.

He refused to believe that Vin was so bad off that he couldn't help at all. Josiah had said Tanner had wrenched his back, and maybe that's all it was. Wasn't like Vin hadn't dealt with that problem his entire life. It was a pain for Vin - literally and figuratively - but it wouldn't kill him.

Wouldn't require Nathan's services, though, either.

Alright, so maybe Vin was hurt - probably shot, considering. It was just like Tanner to get himself into the middle of someone else's mess. Josiah was a different story, though. Something in that convent meant something to Sanchez - or rather someone.

Chris shook his head and rose to stamp out the remains of his early morning campfire. All this supposing and imagining did nothing to resolve the situation. He packed up his things and moved a little higher up on the ridge where he could not only get a view of the convent, but also of Buck and the boys when they approached. His telegram clearly instructed the boys to wait on the ridge outside of town to avoid tipping off the outlaws.

"Still need a way in, though," Chris muttered to himself as he made himself comfortable on a boulder.

Once again, as if reading his thoughts, the Spanish boy appeared seemingly out of nowhere, stepping out from behind another large rock.

Shaking his head, Chris couldn't help but grin. "Your timing is almost as good as Vin's."

The boy cocked his head but said nothing. He sat down next to Chris then, apparently deciding to wait for whatever the gunman had in mind to do next.

Chris pulled a slice of jerky from his saddlebag. "You hungry?"

The boy snatched it from his hand and smiled shyly.

"I'll take that as a 'yes'," Chris replied with a wide grin.

After they'd both chewed on their breakfast for a time, Chris looked at the boy and said, "I'm Chris. And you are ...?"

The boy bit his lip before replying, "Peso."

"Uh-huh," Chris said with a shake of his head. "I ain't gonna pay you t' tell me your name. Kid works just fine."

With a frown, the boy pointed at himself and said again, "Peso."

"Peso? That's your name? Your nombre?"

The boy nodded.

Chris couldn't help but chuckle, much to the child's consternation. "I'm sorry," he said. "It's just that - well, Vin's horse -" He stopped there, deciding to quit while he was ahead. No use insulting the boy when he needed his help.

"Alright, Peso," he continued, "I've got four friends - cuatro amigos - coming from that direction." Chris pointed towards the east. "And then we have to get into that convent, comprende?"

Peso nodded.

"We're going to help the sisters - las hermanas." He thought that was the right word, but he wasn't all together certain. He was almost as useful as Josiah had been when he'd tried to speak Chinese.

If only Vin was there . . . Tanner might say he didn't speak the language, but Chris didn't believe a word of it. Vin rattled off all kinds of dialects when he thought no one was paying attention. Even if he didn't miss Vin, he sure could use him right now.

"You know Vin? Vin Tanner?" Chris asked Peso then, though he had no idea why it mattered to him. It wasn't like this kid could explain what had been going on with Vin for the past 10 days.

This time the child's grin lit up his face when he nodded.

"You like him, huh?"

The boy didn't reply, but he didn't have to. Chris could see in his eyes that Tanner had won the kid over somehow - and he doubted it had anything to do with how many coins Vin put in the boy's palm.

No, Vin was just like that - easy to like. Easy to trust. Easy to - miss.

Chris frowned and looked down the slope towards the convent. From outward appearances, all was quiet and calm. No one would know that the stone walls housed six dangerous gunmen.

And one wounded friend.

"Damn it, I have to get in there," he muttered.

Beside him, Peso pulled on his duster and pointed to the eastern horizon. Four horses approached, and Chris sighed in relief. The boys must have pushed on through most of the night to get there so soon.

Ten minutes later, Chris was greeting his friends as they dismounted and gathered around him.

"What's goin' on, Chris?" Nathan cut to the quick.

Before Chris could reply, JD tipped his head towards Peso. "Hey, who's the kid?"

"Boys, this is Peso. He doesn't speak English," Chris quickly explained, in case the boy's colorful poncho and sombrero didn't tip them off.

"Peso!" Buck exclaimed with a deep chuckle. "You gotta be kiddin' me. Who would -" But when Chris cut him off with a glare, he stuck out his hand. "Nice t' meet you, Peso. I'm Buck."

Peso looked to Chris for approval before tentatively shaking Buck's hand.

"I take it this young man has good reason to be in your company, Chris?" Ezra asked.

"I'm hoping he knows a back way in to the convent," Chris explained.

"Which brings us back to my question - what's goin' on?" Nathan asked again.

"All I can tell you is that six gunmen have apparently taken the nuns of Vista City hostage - along with Josiah and Vin."

"Hell, Josiah and Vin can take care of six men easy," JD said with a smirk.

"Vin's hurt." It was odd how easily the words rolled off Chris' tongue, considering how they had sat like rocks in his gut all night long.

"Hurt how?" Nathan, of course.

"Don't know. Josiah just said - oh hell, let me just start at the beginning."

It took Chris all of three minutes to share what he knew, which was considerably longer than he thought it would take him, considering his entire conversation with Josiah lasted barely half that.

"How many nuns are in there?" Buck asked.

"No idea," Chris replied.

Buck turned to Peso. "Hey kid, how many - uh -" he stopped then and used his hands to indicate the shapely figure of a woman.

"Buck, they're nuns!" JD cried, obviously horrified at Buck's insinuation that nuns had curves like other women.

"Hell, they got the same thing under those robes that all women got," Buck defended himself.

"Yes, but what they've got belongs to someone else. And personally, that is one 'other lover' I wouldn't care to cross," Ezra explained.

Peso seemed to be watching the conversation intently, his small head swiveling form man to man. But now he tugged on Chris' duster again and held up ten fingers.

"See? He knew exactly what I was talking about," Buck replied smugly.

Unlike Buck, Nathan was positively grim. "How we gonna do this?"

"We take 'em out one at a time. No gunfire," Chris responded.

JD scoffed. "You serious, Chris?"

"I don't want any of those women caught in the crossfire."

"Yes, that would be a grievous mistake. Spilling blood in the Lord's house would surely lead to recriminations that I don't care to contemplate," Ezra said with a shudder.

"If I didn't know better, I'd think you been sneakin' off to church when I ain't been lookin', Ezra."

"You know I leave nothing to chance, Buck. The way I see it, the good sisters have a better than even probability of being on the right side, and I intend to stack my deck on the side of the Almighty."

"So we go in and take 'em out one at a time - and then what?" Nathan was all business as he looked to Chris for the rest of the plan.

"And then we haul their damn hides back to Greely and we take Vin home."

"Uh, Chris - don't you mean Vin and Josiah?" Buck corrected him.

Chris shrugged. "Maybe. But somethin' in that convent has got a powerful hold on Josiah. He might be of a mind t' stay."

Vin was coming home, though. Whether he liked it or not.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah slapped more paint on his brush and followed through with a careful, even stroke. The mindless activity helped him clear his head, and he really had nothing better to do. The outlaws had left him alone, now that they knew his weakness. Any hint of trouble and they quickly reminded him who would pay the price for his actions.

The most he could do was to keep track of where the bandits had taken root throughout the convent. One outlaw guarded the gate, another kept watch in the bell tower. Still another guarded the tunnel in the back; the secret entrance quickly discovered after Vin's surprise arrival that first evening. These men rotated with the other three bandits, who mostly drank, ate and slept, in that order. They were living such an easy life that they might just stick around forever - or for as long as the whiskey held out, anyway.

At least the men were smart enough to keep their distance from the nuns. A man might kill for an ounce of gold - or less - but these were sainted women on hallowed ground. Only a fool would tempt the hand of God here.

And he was the biggest fool of all, Josiah reminded himself, because even here, he couldn't let his anger go. Couldn't see past his growing jealousy over Hannah's surprising devotion to Vin. Couldn't let go of the sure knowledge that that bullet wound belonged to him and him alone.

Sister Naomi interrupted his musings as she came to his side, carrying a plate of food in her hands. "Mr. Sanchez, please stop a moment to eat," she pleaded.

Josiah refused to meet her eyes as he shook his head and stooped for more paint.

The woman sighed and turned away. But a moment later she turned back and said in a low voice, "We need you to stay strong. Your sister and your friend need you, as well."

It wasn't true. The sisters had gone about their business as if no strange men occupied their home. The prayers, the meals, the chores all followed the same ritual without regard to their unwelcome visitors.

And Hannah was completely oblivious to his presence.

He ignored the uncomfortable flutter of guilt that Vin might need him. He'd helped his friend use the chamber pot twice, but Tanner had the more-than-adequate Sister Marguerite tending his wound. There was nothing more anyone could do for the man at the moment.

"I'm fine, Sister," he said.

He thought she'd leave, but the young woman stood her ground and spoke again. "She only let him into her heart because you did so first."

Stunned, he turned away from her. Was he so transparent? Were his sins painted on his forehead?

Dropping his brush where he stood, he quickly hurried away in shame. If it was possible, he'd have mounted his horse and never looked back.

But instead, his feet unwittingly brought him to Hannah's room. Sister Marguerite was there, kneeling at Vin's side. He wasn't sure if she was tending the wounded man or praying, but she rose to her feet when she saw Josiah standing in the doorway.

"How is he?" Josiah asked.

"Fading," was her simple response.

Josiah swallowed. "He might be more comfortable in the bed . . ." But he didn't finish it, realizing even as he spoke that a man in a woman's bed could not happen here. And with Hannah so unwilling to leave him, there were few options.

The older woman appeared to ponder his words; perhaps compassion would trump propriety, after all. But her next action was to take Hannah by the hand and say, "You need to bathe, Hannah. Come with me."

Hannah did so, albeit reluctantly. As they passed by Josiah, Sister Marguerite turned to him. "Mr. Tanner needs to be bathed, as well."

The implication was clear: Josiah was to complete that task.

It was probably the last thing he wanted to do, and he didn't believe Vin would be any more comfortable with the idea than he was. As far as Josiah knew, Vin had never been hurt badly enough to require that kind of personal attention even from Nathan.

He sighed. The only thing worse than the intimate, awkward act of bathing Vin would be facing Sister Marguerite. He'd rather square off with a wounded bobcat.

Moments later, he sat on the floor near Vin with a basin of cool water at his side. "Vin?"

The blues eyes fluttered open and after several seconds, Josiah felt reasonably certain that Vin was aware enough to give his consent - or not - for the procedure. "I - uh - I need to give you a bath."

Vin's eyes opened wide. "You need to give me a what?"

Josiah frowned and said, "Sister Marguerite says you have to have a - a bath."

"Aw hell," Vin groaned.

"My sentiments exactly," Josiah mumbled.

To his dismay, Vin spoke again. "Well, get on with it then."

"You - you want it?"

"You gonna tell Sister Marguerite we didn't do what she said?"

Josiah shook his head. "Rather not."

"Me neither," Vin replied. "Reckon it might feel good anyway. I'm so hot, Josiah. Can't hardly stand it."

Had to be bad for Vin to complain, Josiah thought. None of the men he rode with carried on much when they were hurt, and Vin was no exception.

Josiah dipped the cloth in the cool water and gingerly ran it over Vin's face and arms. The heat of fever quickly warmed the cool cloth, but Josiah put the implications of that out of his mind as he fumbled to unbutton Vin's shirt. He found himself unable to meet Vin's eyes, more out of shame than embarrassment. If Vin had any idea how truly angry he was . . .

Vin closed his eyes and moaned softly when the wet cloth met his chest and belly, though Josiah wasn't certain if the sound was borne from pleasure or pain. "You hurtin'?" he asked.

"No," Vin replied. "'Well - except for the hot poker stickin' through my side."

That dry humor forced a reluctant smile from Josiah, and he was reminded how much he'd always liked Vin.

They were silent then as Josiah fell into a rhythm of dipping and cleansing, and Vin lay so quiet that he might have fallen asleep. Only when Josiah reached for the button on his trousers did Vin open his eyes and speak, "Reckon that's good enough, Josiah."

With utter relief, Josiah agreed. "I reckon the good sister will be satisfied."

He dropped the cloth in the water and prepared to stand, but Vin spoke again. "She thinks I'm dyin'."

It was hardly the kind of sentence a man could walk away from, especially a man who claimed to be an expert at prayers for the dying. And he'd been around enough death to know that the best judge of his fate was likely to be Vin himself. "What do you think, Vin?"

Vin swallowed. "Might. Can't hardly feel my feet. Head's all wooly. I'd like t' see Chris, though."

Josiah shook his head as he thought about how bitterly ironic life could be. All he could think about was Hannah, all she could think about was Vin - and Vin lay there, thinking only of Chris.

"You believe in heaven, Josiah?"

He knew the proper response was to offer his friend some hope - but he just couldn't dig down deep enough to find any. "If heaven is the absence of hell, then yes, I believe. Whatever comes after this must be better - even if it's nothing at all."

Vin sighed and closed his eyes again, and when he spoke, his voice was slurred. "I know yer mad at me, 'Siah. - reckon you got a right - almost got your sister killed, comin' in like that."

His stomach turned. Of course Vin would sense his anger - but he had it all wrong. He wanted to scream at the man, "The burden was mine and you took it from me!" but he realized even before a single word left his lips how ludicrous it sounded.

How ludicrous it truly was.

Penance. He'd searched for atonement to the point of obsession his entire adult life. He'd thought he'd made progress after the Poplar incident, but now it seemed he was destined to start over. If only he could get away, climb a mountain top and pour out his soul to whatever higher spirit might deign to hear him.

But no, if he was to find any kind of resolution or absolution, he would do it here, with Vin's ashen face before him.

Sister Marguerite came back moments later, with Hannah following docilely behind her.

"Are you planning to stay?" she asked him, her expression guarded.

Josiah was certain the nun had been biting her tongue at his supposed indifference to his friend's suffering. As he had no argument for that, he only nodded in response to her question.

Sister Marguerite nodded approvingly in return, then excused herself and left the room.

Hannah, in the meantime, had taken the wet rag from the basin and begun to gently sponge Vin's face and neck. Vin sighed, but didn't open his eyes.

Josiah watched her actions, mesmerized by her soothing caress.

And then it started, a soft lilting tune from a long-forgotten memory; a song his mother had often sung when he was a boy. His breath caught, as if someone had reached down his throat and pulled his lungs from his chest.

His sister's voice was as clear and true as an angel's; Hannah was singing.

+ + + + + + +

In Vin's dream, he was there that night when Ella took a torch to Chris' home. He watched her flit across the night sky, a black wraith with a glowing ember. He heard the screams of anguish from his friend - a man who never made a sound that didn't count - and it made his stomach roll. The heat from the flames burned his face, and thick black smoke clogged his throat. He coughed and gagged, and the smoke coalesced into dim shadows, flickering candlelight, and dark stone walls that were familiar, but not.

There was a voice there, gently pulling at him in the amber dusk, and the dream became nothing more than a fleeting awareness of heat and grief. The melody wrapped around him, and he sighed as he turned his face to seek the source.

Hannah. Of course.

She stopped singing and met his eyes for the first time, and Vin saw that for that singular moment, she was there, she was really there. Her eyes were warm and beautiful - and achingly sad.

He reached up to touch her face, but someone restrained his wrist in a painful grip.

"What?" he mumbled, confused.

"She doesn't like to be touched."

Was that Josiah? It seemed to take tremendous effort to turn his head, but sure enough, Josiah was there, in the shadows.

There was something in his eyes that Vin couldn't read; it flickered and was gone as Josiah quickly let go of his wrist and said more softly this time, "Don't touch her."

Well, that was stupid, Vin thought. He was a man who shied away from touch himself, but here he lay, craving it in a way he never had before.

He was pretty sure Hannah craved it, too. It might upset Josiah, but hell, the man was already mad at him anyway, so he lifted his hand again and brushed a single finger along Hannah's cheek.

She smiled even as she looked away, and for the first time, Vin thought about how awful it must be for her to be locked up inside her mind. Had to be terrible for Josiah, too, feeling about his sister the way he did. Vin wasn't altogether sure where he fit in the picture, but he got the feeling he was caught between them at the moment - kind of like a bridge that neither could cross.

Maybe, if he did nothing else while he laid there, useless from fever and blood loss, he could help Josiah and Hannah find their way back to each other. It was a fanciful thought, and he might have laughed at himself if he had the energy. But instead, he went with his gut, and this time, he reached for Josiah's hand.

Josiah frowned at him, but he didn't stop Vin from taking his hand and clumsily placing it on Hannah's face. He held it there for an instant, but he was just too weak - Josiah would have to take it from there.

He did. Vin saw it happen, even though his vision was beginning to tunnel in again. Josiah cupped his sister's face in his big hand, and she closed her eyes and sighed.

Alright then, Vin thought as the tunnel swallowed him up.

Minutes or maybe hours later, he woke again. Josiah was sitting cross-legged on the floor next to him, reading. Hannah was asleep on her bed. Vin wanted to ask what had happened, but it wasn't his business. And besides, there was something more important he needed to tell Josiah.

"Chris is comin'."

Josiah nodded. "I know. Soon."

"No, no. Now. He's here. Help me get up. Where's my gun?"

Josiah sighed as he put his hand on Vin's shoulder. "He's not here yet. You're not gettin' up. And the outlaw that shot you has your gun."

"He what? You mean he ain't dead?"

"No, Vin."

"You mean I missed? How far away was he?"

Josiah winced. "Five feet. Maybe less."

"Five feet? I missed him at five feet?"

"Yeah, I'm afraid so."

"Well, hell," Vin groaned. He knew he'd been a little off lately - he was still kicking himself over missing Ella that day - but missing a shot at less than two yards was ridiculous. Explained why he was pretty certain he could put his fist through the hole in his side, though. Bastard shot him at close range. Damn. He just might die at that.

Not until he saw Chris, though. Seemed completely stupid now that he and Larabee had been bickering over silly things. And hell yes, he'd admit it to Chris' face: he missed him. Missed having coffee together in the mornings. Missed sharing a whiskey at night. Missed riding at his side and at his back and leading his way. Missed his cocky grin and his steely glare. Missed every damn one of his three words a day.

He would tell Chris all those things - and soon - because Josiah was wrong. He gathered his strength and pulled himself up on one elbow. "I'm tellling y', Josiah - he's here. Makin' his way in right now. And we got 't be ready. Help me get up, damn it!"

Now Josiah had the strangest look in his eye that Vin had ever seen, but he finally took him seriously. "Alright, Vin. I believe you. I'll help you sit up, and I'll arm you with the only weapon I've got. But I need you to stay put and keep an eye on Hannah. Will you do that for me?"

Vin frowned. Felt like Josiah might be trying to make him feel useful just to keep him quiet. But he had to admit, sitting up might be the most he was capable of.

Maybe not even that, he conceded when everything turned gray again as Josiah pulled him up and leaned his back against the wall. He took a deep breath, determined to stay with it. Josiah held a cup of water to his lips, and he took a long swallow, and for the moment anyway, the world righted itself.

"Here. This is all I have," Josiah said then as he pressed something into Vin's hand.

It was a dinner knife. Hell, Vin, thought as he ran his finger along the dull edge, he wasn't even sure it could slice butter. He cocked a brow at Josiah. "I'm supposed to defend your sister with this?"

For the first time in days, Josiah smiled at him. "You got a higher power working through you, brother. Took me awhile, but I got it now."

And here Vin thought he was the one with the wooly head. "I ain't no angel, Josiah. You best get that straight right now." Now that he thought on it, Josiah had called Chris an "angel in a black duster", too. So he added for good measure, "And Chris sure as hell ain't no angel, either."

Josiah laughed out loud, and it made Vin feel better than any medicine Sister Marguerite had slid down his throat or placed on his wound.

Placing his hand on Vin's shoulder, Josiah said, "I'm gonna check out where Chris and the boys are. I'll be back as quick as I can."

Vin swallowed. "That's fine, Josiah, but - but I got t' see Chris."

"I know that, Vin. I know."

He was gone then, so Vin leaned his head back against the wall and clutched the worthless knife in his hands. He wasn't no angel, but there were a few sisters around who might be. And right then, all he could do was pray that their Savior took a notion to spare his friends in the battle ahead.

+ + + + + + +

Chris figured he owed Peso a whole lot more than the change in his pocket. The kid had not only drawn a map of the convent in the loose soil with a stick, he'd led them through a maze of rock and trees that practically guaranteed they couldn't be spotted by any outlaws on the lookout.

When they were in sight of the back entrance to the convent, he gripped the small boy's shoulder. "You go on now, Peso. Stay away from the convent, you hear me?"

Peso frowned, but remained still, so Chris stooped in front of him. "You done good, kid. Muy bueno. Gracias. Now go home, alright? Casa?"

The boy bit his lip and appeared to blink back a tear, but he turned to go.

Chris rose to his feet, but was surprised when Peso turned back around and stuck his hand out. He shrugged. "Sorry, kid, I'm out of change."

But Peso took his hand and shook it, just as Buck had done when they first met.

In spite of the gravity of the situation, Chris chuckled out loud when the boy moved from man to man, shaking each of their hands before taking off through the brush.

"I like that kid," Buck said. "He catches on quick and he's got spunk."

"That's not all he has," Ezra drawled. "I'd venture to guess the child is carrying his weight in coins right now. Such a talent could come in handy."

"Not now, Ezra!" JD scolded. "We're about t' go to church. Sort of."

With the boy safely on his way, Chris was ready to get down to business. "Buck, you and JD take out the outlaw guarding this back entrance. Then head down the hallway to the right. Nathan and I will turn left. Ezra? You sure you can get to that bell tower?"

"As our wayward partner once said, 'like lickin' butter off a knife'," Ezra replied.

Chris sucked in a breath, he could hear Vin saying those words so clearly in his mind. And he missed him, damn it. He missed Vin's dry wit and easy nature. Missed having Vin at his side and at his back. Missed how for every three words he did say, Vin understood the three hundred more he didn't.

He needed to tell Vin that - and soon.

"Well, that was easy," Buck huffed.

Startled, Chris turned to see Buck and JD dragging an unconscious outlaw out of the entrance to the tunnel. Cursing himself for his distraction, he nodded tersely when Buck added, "One down. If the other five come this easy, we'll have those little ladies overflowin' with gratitude in no time."

"That's just sick, Buck - they're nuns!" JD exclaimed.

"Hey - I'm just lookin' for a good meal, that's all. We rode all night and . . ."

Whatever else Buck had so say was lost then as Chris entered the tunnel-like halls. He couldn't help thinking how much Vin must have hated being cooped up in the dark, dreary confines of the convent. Why did he come there? Why did Josiah? And why did they stay so long? It suddenly occurred to him that his men may have been held captive for days - or weeks, even. Vin may have been hanging on, waiting for help, for far too long.

Once again, he was so deep in thought that he nearly jumped out of his skin when Nathan touched his arm and whispered, "Do you hear that? Someone's singin'. She sounds like an angel, don't she?"

Chris didn't believe in angels any more than he believed in miracles, but he had to admit that the voice was eerily beautiful as it echoed in the stone halls. It called to him, and he followed it's trail through the winding tunnels as if in a trance. The haunting tune led him to a large wooden door. Ignoring Nathan's reminder to use caution, he pushed his way through and entered a room cloaked in shadows.

The tune suddenly ceased, replaced by a small cry of alarm. The woman threw herself protectively over a form that was slumped against the corner of the wall. Before Chris could line up what he was seeing, Nathan pushed past him. "Vin? Is that you?" he asked.

Now the cry became a wail of panic, and only then did the figure in the corner move at all. "Stay where you are, Nathan," a voice Chris knew well rasped. "She's afraid. Can't stand bein' around folks she don't know."

Nathan stopped mid-room, but proceeded to argue, "Vin? Vin, let me take a look at you."

"Ain't nothin' you can do that ain't already been done," Vin replied.

A sudden gunshot sounded from somewhere nearby, and the woman cried out again, as if she herself had been struck. Still, she remained hovered over Vin.

"You need t' go on now and get this finished," Vin said. Chris wasn't even sure Vin knew he was in the room until he added, "You, too, Larabee."

It was true, damn it. More shots echoed even as they stood there. But Chris couldn't seem to move his feet any better than he could his mouth. Even in the dark, he could make out the bloody bandages on Vin's side.

Nathan moved in front of him. "Chris? What do you want me t' do?"

But before he could answer, Chris was pushed aside by an angry whirlwind dressed in black and white.

"What have you done?" an old nun growled as she rushed to the stricken figures in the corner.

Chris immediately recognized the woman as the same nun who had spurned him at the gate.

"We're just here t' help, Ma'am - uh, Sister," Nathan replied.

"Help? You have brought violence upon this house! Go! Take your men and leave here!"

Chris finally found his voice. "We didn't do this to you. And we're not leaving without our friends."

"Chris, please," Vin said softly. "I'll be alright. Got me an angel. Get it done, then we can work it all out." He turned to the old woman then. "They don't mean no harm, Sister, and these men don't hurt nobody less they have to."

"Go," the nun repeated, though in a considerably softer tone.

The battle was raging now, Chris could hear a continuous volley of gunfire seemingly coming from all directions. With no choice in the matter, he glanced at Vin one last time. "I'll be back," he promised.

"Never doubted it," Vin replied.

Chris shook his head as he walked into the hallway. He was leaving Vin behind with an angry old bat and a crazy woman.

There was no choice, he reminded himself again, just as Nathan gripped his arm and asked, "Does it sound t' you like those shots are comin' from outside the convent?"

Chris cocked his head. Nathan was right. Someone was firing from outside the convent walls. But his men and the outlaws were all inside. What the hell was going on?

"It's the posse," a small voice spoke out from an alcove nearby.

Chris and Nathan looked at each other before turning to the small woman who sat huddled in the shadows, a rosary clutched in her hands.

"Posse?" Chris asked, but the wheels were already turning.

The nun replied, "Yes. They're after the men who have taken refuge here." Before Chris could respond to that, she continued, "Are you Chris? Mr. Tanner's friend?"

Chris cocked his head, surprised that she knew him, and answered, "I am."

"He said you were coming. He's been waiting."

Chris swallowed the lump in his throat while Nathan spoke lowly in his ear. "That posse don't know who they're firin' at, Chris. They don't know we're on their side."

The petite nun's face brightened as she jumped to her feet. "I can tell them! They won't harm me."

Nathan reacted immediately. "We can't let you do that, Sister. It's too dangerous."

But Chris wasn't so sure. "You think they'd be stupid enough to shoot at a nun?"

"They're stupid enough to fire into a convent full of 'em, ain't they?" Nathan argued.

Nathan was right, of course, but Chris couldn't seem to get there. Shots rang out in the hallow halls, but it was the crazy woman's sad song that wouldn't leave his head. Vin's pale face was cemented in the corner of his eye, a constant reminder of all he had to lose, and he realized with a lurch that he'd do it - he'd risk the life of this young woman to save a friend.

He'd live with another tragic outcome, too, if something happened to her, but fortunately the decision was taken from his hands. The nun took off running down the hall towards the back entrance just as a bandit rounded the corner and opened fire on the two men.

Chris and Nathan ducked into the nearby alcove, Nathan muttering in wonder, "How did he miss us?"

By all rights, they should have been dead or wounded, but either the outlaw was firing blanks or he was an incredibly bad shot. It didn't matter either way when Josiah suddenly appeared and conked the man over the head with his big fist. The outlaw crumpled at his feet, and Josiah's white teeth shown bright in the dim light.

"Good to see you boys," he said. His grin broadened as he reached down and relieved the gunman of his weapon.

Sanchez was a lighter man, Chris quickly noted, than the man he'd seen only days ago. And that didn't sit well, now that he'd seen with his own eyes how bad off Vin was. Josiah had a hand in this - though Chris had yet to determine the how or why of it - and the preacher should be sharing this gut-wrenching worry, not grinning like a loon.

"Feels good to have this in my hands again," Josiah said as he reloaded the pistol with obvious relish.

"He the one who put a hole in Vin?" Chris asked with a nod at the unconscious outlaw.

Instantly, Josiah's features hardened. "No. And when we come across him - he's all mine."

Chris wanted to believe that Josiah's thirst for revenge came from loyalty to Vin, but he suspected there was more to that story. Shooting in the dark, it seemed, in more ways than one. He knew nothing about the outlaws, nothing about the posse, and nothing about the women of the convent. Josiah's and Vin's actions and reasoning over the last two weeks were even more of a mystery to him.

And maybe that wouldn't have mattered so much in the past. But now - now he felt off-kilter and unsure. Too many mistakes in the past had led to too much loss, and he couldn't afford another.

Vin couldn't afford another.

This was not the time for doubt and self-recrimination, Chris reminded himself as shots continued to echo in the stone walls. Still, his gaze turned down the hall to the room they'd just left. He couldn't get past the fact that Vin was defenseless and wounded, and they were leaving him behind with two crazy old women.

"Come on, Chris," Nathan said, dragging him by the arm. "The quicker we get this done with, the quicker we can see t' Vin."

At a different time, Chris might have bristled at having been made so easily. But Ella had changed him, and he couldn't find the energy or the inclination to care that he now wore his emotions on his sleeve.

Josiah was already swiftly moving down the hall, but a shrill scream brought him up short. Before Chris could discern the direction of the frantic cry, Josiah shot back the way they had come - to the room where Vin lay.

"I reckon we best follow," Nathan clipped as he dashed after his friend.

When Chris reached the scene, he saw Josiah holding one of the bandits up against the wall, his big hands encircling the smaller man's throat. "You'll never touch my sister again!" he promised through gritted teeth.

The two nuns were huddled together on the floor, the older one attempting to comfort her distraught counterpart. Vin lay crumpled in the corner, ominously silent and unmoving.

"Stop it!" Nathan cried as he reached his friend. "Ain't no call t' kill him, Josiah!"

Nathan immediately leapt behind Josiah and tried to break his hold on the man, but Chris stood fast. If this was the man who shot Vin, he didn't care if Josiah snapped his head clean off his shoulders.

It wasn't until the man's eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped unconscious against the wall that Josiah broke his hold. Nathan rushed to verify that the bandit still had a glimmer of life left in him, while Chris finally caught hold of Josiah's words.

Sister? Chris turned to peer at the two women. It was beginning to make sense - Josiah's apparent devotion to this convent and his odd need to keep it secret.

But the Sanchez family wasn't his concern at the moment. "Nathan, check Vin," Chris ordered, hoping he didn't sound as desperate as he felt.

Time stood still, though Chris was aware of frantic motion occurring around him. Josiah had moved to his sister, while Nathan and the old nun ran to Vin.

As he placed his fingers on Vin's neck, Nathan threw a grim look at the old woman. "What happened here?" he asked her.

"That man," she replied, pointing a crooked finger at the unconscious outlaw, "tried to have his way with Hannah. Mr. Tanner defended her as best he could."

Josiah growled, but Chris could only stand rooted, waiting for Nathan's verdict. When it didn't come, he choked, "Nathan?"

Nathan shook his head. "He's alive. Don't know how, but he is. Damn miracle," he muttered.

The nun smiled knowingly. "Precisely."

Now that Josiah knew his sister was alright, he recovered his manners. "Sister Marguerite, these are my friends, Chris Larabee and Nathan Jackson. And this, my friends," he said, pulling the woman in his arms close, "this is my sister, Hannah."

It was as if Sanchez was making a confession, rather than an introduction, Chris thought. Maybe Josiah was ashamed of his sister's mental illness, but that reasoning didn't line up with what Chris knew of the man.

"Hey? You hear that?" Nathan asked to no one in particular.

Josiah frowned. "I don't hear anything."

With a wide grin, Nathan replied, "Yeah. Me, neither. Sounds like it's over."

Chris knew it was his place to go check, but in this first battle since Ella, he'd felt like little more than a spectator. Maybe that was to be expected. Maybe there was nothing left of him to care anymore, and he'd go through what remained of his life as a disinterested observer.

But one look at Vin and he knew that wasn't true. The problem wasn't that he didn't care - it was that he cared too much.

+ + + + + + +

It seemed normal at first - Chris sitting at his side. But then it came back to Vin with stinging clarity that things hadn't been normal between him and Larabee for a long time. So maybe Chris wasn't there at all; maybe he was delirious and Chris was nothing more than an apparition.

He looked again. No, that was definitely Chris sitting slump-shouldered, head down, long bangs covering his eyes. He'd know that profile anywhere. The sun was reflecting off that yellow mane like a halo . . . an angel in a black duster.

Not hardly, Vin snorted in his mind. But when it came down to it, he'd rather have Chris watching his back than any heavenly guardian, anyway. The only problem was, he couldn't remember how it all came about - Larabee sitting beside him, basking in the soft glow of sunlight. His world had been nothing but shadows and darkness for so long.

Last Vin recalled, Nathan had come, huddled and worried in the muted candlelight. He thought Chris was there, too, but he wasn't sure. There was too much gunfire and smoke and Hannah was screaming in his ear. He had a vague recollection of a stranger coming upon them then, and Hannah being wrenched from his grasp. The useless butter knife was in his hand, and he fought like the devil to help her. Or tried to.

Panic brought him up off the mattress. "Hannah!"

"It's alright," Chris said soothingly as he put his hand to Vin's shoulder and pressed him back to the bed. "She's fine. She's with Josiah."

One look in Chris' eyes told him it was true, so he settled back with a deep sigh.

It felt good having Larabee's hand on him - like something snatched from his life had suddenly been restored. He reached for him without thinking, seeking to grip Chris' arm in the familiar way. But he was clumsy and awkward and weak, and he realized too late that it probably appeared to Chris that he was desperately clawing for him.

Chris understood, though, and returned the grip, and Vin's heart flipped right-side up for the first time in weeks.

He caught his breath and asked, "What happened? Where are we?"

Chris answered the second question first. "Still at the convent. We moved you to the Priest's room."

At Vin's puzzled frown, he added, "Apparently this is Father Pedro's room when he visits. Only damn room in the whole place with a real window. Sister Marguerite decided you earned the right to use his bed - seeing how you saved Hannah. Twice."

Vin's frown deepened. "By who's account? That ain't how I recall it at all."

The corner of Chris' mouth turned up. "That don't surprise me. Let me give it to you short and sweet -"

Now Vin did snort - as if Chris could tell it any other way.

" - the posse came lookin' for the gang that was hiding out here about the same time me and the boys showed up. Had a little dust-up, with the posse not knowin' whose side we were on. Sister Naomi set 'em straight. No one got killed - hell, no one even got shot, except you. Whole lot of talk going around about divine intervention."

Chris looked like he wanted to roll his eyes at that last part, but he resisted.

"You ain't buyin' that, huh?" Vin asked, already knowing the answer.

"Depends." Chris looked at him levelly. "You walk out of here, and I'll consider it."

Vin looked away, not having the heart to tell Chris that even Sister Marguerite - whose faith alone surely could move a mountain - believed he'd leave there in a pine box.

He was spared from responding when Nathan and Sister Marguerite entered the room. It was apparent the pair was on a mission, undoubtedly involving him and his damn wound. Biting back a groan, Vin closed his eyes and resigned himself to whatever fresh torture lay ahead. Time was, he could go off on his own and heal in peace - or die in peace, as the case may be - but those days were long gone.

He cracked open one eye and caught Chris' worried frown. The startling realization that Chris would grieve for him took his breath.

Nathan, misinterpreting the gasp, leaned over him and gently touched his arm. "It's alright. I just wanna see how you're healing up."

Sister Marguerite stood over Nathan's shoulder, her eyes shining with unaccustomed warmth.

It all came to Vin's mind in a dizzying rush: Hannah's unending devotion, Josiah's fierce protectiveness, Sister Naomi's determined smile, Nathan's tender touch, Sister Marguerite's stubborn faith - and Chris. They had all come to mean so much to him. Even more unsettling, he knew those feelings were reciprocated, and that each, in their own way, would mourn his loss.

"Aw, hell," he mumbled. It was easier when he had no one to worry about - and no one to worry about him. It was such hard work, this business of caring.

Exhausting, too, so he closed his eyes again and reveled in the heat of the elusive sun that warmed his face. He must have slept, for long shadows muted the sunlight when he next opened his eyes. Hannah was there, sitting in a chair near the bed, humming as she sketched something on a tablet. That first moment when he'd entered Hannah's room so many months ago came back to him: she'd been drawing on the walls when he'd disturbed her. She seemed so different to him now; no longer a lost soul in the broken shell of a woman. He would be dead already if not for her, he was certain of it.

"Hannah?" he called to her softly, "Can I see what you're drawin'?"

She glanced away shyly, but held up the tablet for him to see. The lines were still crude and rough, but there was substance now that had been lacking before. Wide shoulders, long back, powerful arms and legs . . . the image of a man.

"It's Josiah, ain't it?" Vin asked with a smile.

She met his eyes and nodded before quickly turning away.

"Josiah's a fine man," Vin said. "He loves you very much."

"That I do." Josiah's rich baritone filled the room. Moving behind his sister, he gently laid his broad palm on the top of her head. "And now, for the first time in many years, I can show her my feelings - thanks to you, Vin."

"Pfft," Vin snorted with a shake of his head. "I keep bein' credited for things I didn't do."

"It's true that you didn't do it alone, I'll give you that." Josiah moved closer to the bed and held Vin with a penetrating gaze. "Did Chris tell you what happened? All of it?"

Vin shrugged. "You know Chris. He said what he thought needed sayin' and nothin' more."

Josiah lowered his voice to a bare whisper as he leaned in closer. "Not a single bullet hit home, Vin. Not one. How do you explain that? How can anyone explain that?"

That was a puzzle, sure enough, Vin thought. And it didn't hit him until several seconds had passed that he could think about it - that the wooly feeling in his head seemed to have passed. He wiggled his toes, and sure enough, those were working like they were supposed to, too.

"I think I ain't gonna die, Josiah," he said thoughtfully, peering up at his friend with a mixture of confusion and wonder.

Josiah nodded. "You're right about that." He lowered his voice again and added, "God spoke to me, Vin. I had my hands around that bastard's throat and I wasn't gonna let go until I'd squeezed every last breath out of him. But then I heard him - the Almighty - clear as day in my ear."

Normally, Vin took Josiah's musings with a grain of salt and a pinch of amusement, but this time, he was drawn to the man's words like a moth to a flame. "What did he say?" he asked, his own voice a hoarse whisper.

"He told me this was a house of life - not death. "

As comforting as that was, considering his condition, Vin was a might disappointed. Josiah had spent an awful lot of time, after all, trying to communicate with God; seemed like the Good Father should be willing to share some bigger secret. He frowned. "That all?"

Josiah's lips twitched. "Well, I think he also said a little something about listening to Sister Marguerite."

Vin rolled his eyes. "Aw hell, you made that part up."

"Mr. Tanner - I believe I've made it clear that that language is unacceptable!" Sister Marguerite suddenly blasted as she came through the door. "I understand that you are still feeble but I will not have it. Do you understand me?"

"Yes Ma'am - Sister," Vin quickly apologized, his face flushing with embarrassment.

"I'm sure it was just the fever, Sister," Sister Naomi said as she trailed in after her older counterpart.

Sister Marguerite did not bend, however. "His fever broke early this morning, Sister."

To Vin's astonishment, the petite nun challenged Sister Marguerite with a defiant tilt of her chin. "He meant no harm. It was a carelessly spoken word, nothing more."

The last place Vin wanted to be was caught between the two sisters, so he slunk down in the bed and pulled the blanket up to his chin, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.

Tension filled the air as the women squared off - until someone softly giggled. Vin peered from under his covers, seeking the source of the brave soul who dared find amusement in the two sisters' altercation. His eyes met Hannah's - and she giggled louder.

He couldn't help it; he had to join in. And soon Josiah was laughing, too. Sister Naomi opened her mouth and gasped "Oh!", as if she'd suddenly realized what she'd done. But before she could say anything more, Sister Marguerite joined in with a deep, throaty chuckle.

The room was filled with laughter then, and Vin could have sworn the old stone walls heaved a sigh of relief.

"A house of life", Josiah had said - or rather, God had. And at that moment, with light and laughter and love filling the room, Vin believed every word.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was having a hard time.

And who could blame him? Chris had only been at the convent for two weeks and already he'd grown fond of the good sisters; he sure couldn't fault Vin for getting choked up when the time came to say good-bye.

It was hard to watch when Sister Naomi stood on tip toes to wrap her arms around Vin's neck and wish him God-speed. Harder still to see the normally unflappable Sister Marguerite wipe a tear from her eye as she placed a gentle hand on Vin's cheek and pronounced him fit to travel at last. But when Vin went to Hannah and took her in his arms - well, Chris quickly batted away a tear of his own.

He knew the story now - or enough of it. He and Josiah had escaped the confines of the convent one night, not long after the other men had headed back to Four Corners. Josiah's tongue loosened considerably after they'd split a bottle of whiskey while perched on a rock. Reminded Chris of another time, another place, when Vin had made a confession of his own.

Josiah's demons ran considerably deeper than Vin's, however. And no one, Josiah included, believed that his search for penance had reached its inevitable conclusion. Hannah wasn't well and never would be again. Guilt would continue to rear its ugly head - something Chris knew only too well.

But there was time for healing, and as Chris and Vin packed up for trip home, Josiah informed them that he planned to take that time. "I need some time alone with my family," he'd said.

And Chris couldn't begrudge the man that. "We'll see you whenever you're ready then," he'd told Josiah.

Vin nodded and was about to speak, when he was nearly swallowed whole by Josiah's strong arms. "Can't thank you enough, Brother," Josiah had said in a halting voice.

So all in all, Vin was having a hard time. But he managed to extract himself from Josiah's gratitude, Hannah's devotion, and the sisters' good intentions and shuffle his way to the livery with Chris at his side.

Chris looked over at his friend now. Vin's head was down as he half-heartedly saddled his horse. "You sure you're ready for this?" he asked. "We can wait a few more days . . ."

Vin shook his head. "No need. My side's healin' up fine."

"It's not your side I'm worried about."

Sad blue eyes finally met his. "I feel bad about goin', it's true. Never had so many folks care for me. But I can come back and visit."

The last was said more like a question than a statement. "You know that you're free to come and go as you please, Vin."

Vin looked at him oddly. "What if I don't wanna be?"

"Don't wanna be what?"

"Free t' come and go."

"Something happen to you in that convent that I don't know about? Because the Vin Tanner I know never looked kindly on bein' chained."

After rearranging the dirt at his feet, Vin looked up at him once more. "Those sisters spend every waking minute together. They eat together, pray together, work together - they're all there for one thing, y' know? They believe in what they're doin'. And they really care about each other, too."

"Alright. What's that got to do with you coming back? Or not coming back?"

"Ain't got nothin' t' do with me. It's got to do with us. Me and you and the boys. Thought we were - you know - like them. Well, except for the prayin' part. And the not sinnin' part."

"And the being women who have taken vows to remain celibate part," Chris said with a smirk.

Vin sighed.

Okay, so Tanner was serious about whatever point he was trying to make.Too bad Chris had no idea what exactly that point was. "Look Vin, I'm sorry but I just don't understand what you're getting at."

"You were gonna leave us, Chris," Vin said softly. "Real easy-like, too."

He had it all wrong, Chris knew at just that moment. Vin wasn't sore about how he'd treated him at Ella's party - he was sore that he'd planned to stay behind on Ella's ranch with her. Well, two could play that game . . .

"And you weren't gonna run off to Brazil with Charlotte?"

"Hell, Chris," Vin spat, his blues eyes blazing, "that was different. I have a price on my head and she's a married woman. What the hell did you expect us t' do? Get us a little spread right there in Four Corners? Go t' Sunday meetin' at the church with all you other respectable folks?" Shaking his head, he added, "Couldn't go through with it, anyway."

Chris had never thought of it that way, but it didn't change the fact that Vin was real close to giving them all up for a woman, too.

He thought about making that point, but when he looked at Vin again, he realized that this wasn't really about Vin and Charlotte. It wasn't even about him and Ella. And it wasn't about leaving.

It was about staying.

"You're wrong, Vin," he said. "Yes,I was gonna stay with Ella - leave you and the boys behind. But there was nothing easy about it - even if it might have seemed that way at the time."

Vin appeared to be pondering that, but the sound of shuffling feet at the entrance to the livery distracted him.

Chris turned towards the sound, as well, and was not surprised to see a small boy standing quietly in the open doorway. "Peso!" he greeted.

The boy looked at him but remained still and silent.

"Hey, amigo. You come to say good-bye?" Vin asked.

The child shook his head. "I'm comin' with you," he said.

Chris narrowed his eyes. "You speak English?"

Peso shrugged.

Vin cleared up the misunderstanding. "I been teachin' him some ever since I got here."

"You've been teaching him English?" Chris asked with a small grin. Ezra would be appalled.

Vin frowned. "Somethin' wrong with that?"

"No, no. Of course not," Chris replied, stuffing the grin back inside.

"Well, truth is, I can't take much credit. Sister Naomi done took over after I got shot."

"I come, too." Peso got back to the point at hand.

Vin left his horse to stoop in front of the boy. "We talked about this, remember? Your ma and your sister need you. They're your family. And you don't never run out on family."

That was the crux of the matter for Vin, Chris realized - always was and always would be. What he just now realized was that family had come to mean more than just blood kin to his friend. Family was what Vin saw in the nuns - and what he wanted so badly to see in the seven. "Vin's right, Peso," Chris said. "Stay with your family. Vin will be back to visit."

Peso glared at him for a moment - clearly angry at him for taking Vin's side - before asking, "Chris come back?"

Vin stood and peered at him, waiting for his answer, and Chris knew his friend was looking for a whole lot more than the guarantee of a return trip to the dusty little town. Vin wanted reassurance, a promise even, that he was there to stay.

But was he? Ella still waited. And in the meantime, could he pick up where he'd left off with the town? With his men?

Did he want to?

"Yes, I'll come back," he replied, knowing it was the truth even before his head and heart caught up with his words.

The boy nodded solemnly and shook his hand before turning and wrapping his arms around Vin's legs.

Vin bit his lip as he knelt to return the hug, and Chris turned away. Leaving this town was turning out to be harder than he'd ever imagined possible. It was at that moment that he felt a bulge in his pocket. With a puzzled frown, he reached in and pulled out the object.

The carving he'd made for Vin . . . he'd forgotten.

By now, Peso had let go of Vin and was walking with sagging shoulders from the barn.

"Peso!" Chris called out. "I got something for you."

The boy turned back, and his eyes lit up when Chris handed him the miniature wooden horse. "Gracias!" he exclaimed.

The gift earned Chris a hug, too, before the boy set off again, grinning this time.

As Vin mounted up, he asked, "When did you carve that horse? You been with me most of every day and I never seen you get out your knife once."

Chris shrugged. "Made it before I got here."

Vin was obviously puzzled. "And you brought it with you thinkin' there might be a kid around t' give it to?"

Climbing on his horse, Chris said casually, "Could be I was thinking of a friend when I carved that."

Dipping his head, Vin said softly, "Missed him, huh?"

"Nah," Chris replied with a shake of his head. "He's the ornery sort. I ain't sayin' I missed him." When Vin looked at him and cocked his brow, Chris met his gaze and added, "And I ain't planning on missing him for a good long time. That sound about right t' you?"

"Yeah. Sounds real good." Vin pulled on the reins and led his horse from the stable. But he had to have the last word. Peering over his shoulder at Chris, he added, "And just so y' know, he didn't miss you all that much, either."

The End

Feedback to: sisterlou32@yahoo.com