Magnificent Seven Old West
The Bad Element

by Deirdre

Summary: Chris and Vin rip into each other and both come out the worse for it.

This story was formerly hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in May 2016.

Sweat kept you honest. Chris Larabee snorted and swung the ax again, sending an unfortunate log to a better life. Sweat ran down his face and clung to his lean torso, glistening in the morning sun. He swiped it as it ran into his eyes and picked up another log. The loud thwack preceded the scowl and the dark mood that painted it on the handsome gunslinger's face. The reverberation of the impact jolted his arms into an intoxicating numbness. He dropped the wood-splitter and headed for the pump outside his cabin. He doused his head and upper body liberally, before sucking the water greedily, all the while internally cursing Vin Tanner.

"Goddammit!" he kicked the porch post and eyed the road to town. Who the hell did Tanner think he was anyway? He stormed into the cabin, intending on finding a clean shirt. While he dressed, he thought on the last ten days that led up to the storm that shattered this sunny morn.

It smoldered in the ashes of the barn where Cletus Fowler took his life. The scream that split the night air left him cold and empty. He'd ridden out alone the next morning, long before sunup. He paused briefly at the charred ruins, the acrid scent of charred flesh still clinging to the twilight. There was no pain, rather a strange numbness, an internal coldness that left him void of feeling. He eyed the night sky, where wisps of smoke curled heavenward, taking the his last hopes with it. Sara and Adam's killer was still breathing free air, thanks to him. He jerked his knees into his horse's flanks and spotted the twin blue beacons. They sent a shiver through him, as the tracker emerged from the darkness, barely a shadow. They didn't exchange a word, just a lingering glance and a nod from the Texan. Vin understood him, perhaps too well. Sometimes it scared him, that those sky eyes could see right through him, way down deep. But that night, he was grateful. When Chris looked back, he'd disappeared again.

The first few days back in town, he'd been surly and distant, snapping at people for no good reason. Buck 'gently' suggested he needed to talk about what was bothering him. Chris's non-verbal reply sent the rogue through a table in the saloon. He was halfway to his horse, when Josiah appeared, offering words scripted almost two thousand years ago in a faraway mountain.

"The bricks have fallen down, be we will build again with hewn stones; the sycamores are cut down but we will change them into cedars."

The bible quote from Isaiah reeked of hope and perseverance. He glowered at the preacher and headed to the cabin. Upon his arrival, he eyed the pile of lumber that sat on the side of the property, waiting to be converted into additional room. He threw himself into the work, pounding nails into watery images of Fowler's sneering face. Hope. Who was Josiah to crow to him about hope?

Over the next week, they'd all appeared, offering faltering words. J.D. looked scared to death and that bothered him. He flinched at those hazel eyes that usually shown with admiration, being replaced with fear. Nathan and Josiah brought supplies and hooded scripture; Buck and Ezra appeared on their way to investigate a water rights dispute among two neighboring ranches. He declined their invite, pausing long enough to shake Buck's hand. They offered more empty words and the visits hammered into his brain. Why didn't they see him like Vin did? The tracker kept his distance until this dawn.

He'd been struggling with a stubborn floor plank, the walls were done and a tarp was thrown over the roof. Every time he went to secure it, it moved. He was on his hands and knees, trying to hold it in place. Then as his errant string of curses went airborne, he saw the tawny clothing and time-worn boots. He completed his task and brought his body up, eyeing the tense face of his friend.
He took a long swig of whiskey and offered the bottle, but the shaggy head declined it. He squinted in the sun, trying to see past the shadowed features hiding under the slouch hat. Shrugging, he went back to work, pausing a half-hour later. Vin was still in the shadows, his lean body easily blending into the woodwork. The eerie quiet rode him hard and the smoldering blue eyes unnerved him.

"You got something to say?" He spat out along with three nails. He drew up onto his feet and tossed the hammer down. Still, not a word emerged from the staid lips. He eyed the calm, cool body before him, his own torso soaked and sullied. "Well?"

"Ya plan on losin' that sackcloth and ashes anytime soon?"

"Shut up!" Chris raged, fighting the inner turmoil the soft-spoken works and mesmerizing blue gaze had caused. "...and get your ass off of my property!" He turned back to his work and saw the tawny body step closer. He tensed, his fingers curling in anticipation and his blood searing.

"Ya fixin' on wearin' that fuckin' hair shirt permanent like, that's fine by me." Vin's voice was cold and cut him to the bone, "But ya gave yer word t' the Judge and the rest of us. Yer supposed t'be helpin' keep peace around here, not hidin' from yerself. Ya been stealin' yer wages fer goin' on two weeks. Ya want out, fine, ya tell the Judge, but shit 'r git off the pot."

"Fuck you, Tanner," Chris seethed, his green eyes glowing. "Who the hell do you think you are?"

"Now ain't that a coincidence," Vin's laconic voice addressed as he shoved his body from the wall, "I was jist havin' the same thought..."

"Get out!" Chris warned, his voice low and feral, "or I'll forget we're friends..."

Vin snorted and gave him such a look of contempt, it caused him to pale slightly. He felt those blue daggers rip his gut and fought to control his emotions. Both fists were clenched and his chest heaved in frightful abandon. He watched the tracker vault onto his horse without effort. They turned and trotted closer by, the Texan's face was hidden by the glare of the sun in the gunslinger's eyes.

"Ya know, Chris," Vin's lips curled up in distain, "I liked ya better in black, yella ain't yer color."

He turned and headed back to town, grimacing and biting his lip when something heavy hit him square in the back.

It took Chris several minutes to slow down his frantic breathing and control his rage. When the red haze cleared, he trotted over and retrieved the large, heavy hammer that lay in the midst of the new hoof prints. He took his anxiety and anger to the woodpile, a favorite penitence pillar. Finally, the pressure boiled over, leading to his decision. He finished buttoning his shirt and ran a raked his hands through he sweat-spiked short blond hair. He grabbed his gun belt and hat and took to the road, seeking to quell the rage that fueled his insides. The tanned face of the sharpshooter, spurned him onward at a reckless pace.

+ + + + + + +

J.D. left the sheriff's office and headed for the mercantile. He was halfway across the street when he saw the large contingent of horses in front of the bank. The song he was whistling died in his throat and he scurried to the boardwalk, flagging down Josiah who was up the street. He motioned to the horses and bank and saw the graying head nod once. J.D. poked his head the saloon, whistling once and gaining Buck's and Ezra's attention. The two were playing cards when the youth slid inside the batwing doors.

"We got trouble at the bank," he offered, checking his weapon.

"What kind of trouble?"

"The Mexican kind," J.D. answered Ezra's question. His two friends now joined him and crept outside. "See that brand..." the youth whispered to Buck, who was standing next to him.

"Diaz?" Buck whispered back and whistled low, "Shit...where's Vin?" He eyed the dusty street, feeling the loss of the rooftop sharpshooter more than ever. He also feared for the tracker; Vin took down several of the gang a few months before and they'd made it known he was on their wish list.

"He headed out to Chris's early this morning. I don't think he's back yet." The sheriff replied, "I'm gonna back up Josiah across the street."

"Okay, Kid, we'll keep it honest on this end." His tone was clipped, annoyed at the two best weapons being out of town. He gave J.D. a thumbs up as the youth stole across the street.

The rogue's blue eyes watched the young man until he was safety behind cover. He then caught Josiah's eye and motioned to the bank. The senior member nodded, crept closer and then held up six fingers.

"Great!" Buck spat in disgust. "Deadliest fuckin' gang in Mexico..."

"This must be our lucky day," Ezra commiserated, eyeing the empty rooftop. "I feel naked without our fleet-footed sharpshooter."

"I hear that," Buck agreed, as the first shots rang out. "Keep your head down, Ace," he warned, giving the southerner a shove.

"Likewise," the other returned.

Vin was just exiting the stable when the shooting began. He backtracked to his horse, got out a rifle and loaded it and his mare's leg as well. He grabbed a fistful of cartridges and shoved them in his pocket. He was just slipping out the side, when he ran nearly ran into Larabee's horse.

"It's the bank," Vin warned, without looking back, "I'm goin' topside." He disappeared behind the buildings, easily scaling the ladder that he left behind the hotel for such occasions.

Chris gave a nod as he got off his horse and drew out his weapon. He crouched over, darting to the stack of crates in front of the store. He kept his eyes glued to the roof, finally spotting the top of Vin's hat briefly.

Vin was on the same side as the bank and needed to cross over. He watched the gunplay below and noticed Ezra and Buck were in the direct path of the departing gang. With lightning fast precision, he ran the remaining two buildings and across the scaffolding that was set up to repair the roof of a neighboring structure. It was just the right angle to cut down the competition. He caught Josiah's eye and waved, signaling his intent.

"Tell me I need glasses," Nathan panted, dropping to Josiah's side and ducking as several bullets made a pattern in the wall behind him. His dark eyes saw the precarious tracker, easing his lean body onto the wooden planks, several feet from the roof's edge. His frown and sigh gave his partner a slight grin.

"That boy's half cat," Josiah grunted at the natural grace Tanner possessed. "He loves livin' on the edge."

"Ya ain't gotta show so many teeth when ya say that," Nate protested, watching the Sanchez grin born.

J.D. and Chris took down the first wave of desperados that left the bank. Their four partners quickly found cover and the battle intensified. Buck and Ezra were pinned down and out of ammo. Chris was going to make a move to get to the alley, so he could run through it and get in the bank's back door. Then he could sneak up behind them. He was about to signal J.D., when movement above caught his eye.

"Goddammit Vin!" he hissed, watching Tanner dangling halfway across the street, high above them. "What the hell are you doing?" he snarled, then his stomach lurched when Vin began to fire, before he leapt like a gazelle, through the air and onto the overhang above the blacksmith. His movement didn't go unnoticed by the other's involved.

"He's lost his mind..." Ezra hissed, dodging a bullet and watching the Texan's move. Two of the bandits were caught off guard and killed instantly. The others returned fire, amazed at the birdman above them. Josiah and Chris stood and began firing, taking down the last of the two threats.

Chris watched horrified, his stomach lurching as Vin's hat sauntered gracefully down to earth. He didn't hear the boyish whoops from the nimble tracker, now hanging over the sign above the blacksmith shop. He didn't feel J.D.'s pat on the back as the sheriff ran to check on Buck and Ezra.

Buck and Ezra joined J.D. in the middle of the street. All three men wore identical grins, drinking in the sound of the Texan's triumphant war cries. Buck squinted up at the smiling sharpshooter and nodded his thanks.

"Get your scrawny ass down here, you lunatic," Buck ordered, shaking his head as the lithe body gracefully landed a few feet away. He clapped a hand on the dusty buckskin jacket and propelled the lean body forward. "Come on, Slick, let's give the Kid a hand with the bodies. I'm thirsty and there's a beer down the street with your name on it."

"Damn," Vin chuckled, "Bucklin's buyin'? It's gonna snow fer sure."

"Damn fine shootin' Vin!" J.D. enthused, still in awe of the Texan's agility and humility. Vin just gave a small shrug and J.D. persisted. They had three of the bodies stacked up, Josiah and Nathan were getting the others. . "No really...How did you do that? You were flying! I'd you do that, Vin?" The youth inquired in a rush of words.

"Damn Kid, come up for air," Buck laughed, ruffling the wide-eyed youth's dark hair. He kicked the last of the corpses and added up reward money. "We're gonna us a real party!"

Ezra stood next to Vin, a curious look on his handsome face. "Although your timing was impeccable as always, Mr. Tanner, the next time a warning would be appreciated. My heart has not yet resumed it's normal rhythm."

"Aw, hell, Ez," Vin grinned at the southerner, "I didn't know ya cared..."

"It ain't that he cares Vin," J.D. added, winking at Ezra, "He just doesn't want to cover your patrols while you're laid up." The youth moved next to the Texan, his eyes still wide as they revisited the dramatic flight. "Hey Vin, can you show me how to do that?""

"NO!" Buck and Ezra stated loudly at the same time, giving J.D. a scowl and Vin a wide smile.

The ex-bounty hunter accepted the silver flask the conman offered and took a long draw.

"Damn, Ezra, that's smoother than Buck's ass on silk sheets."

"You do have a way with words," Ezra cooed, leading the others up the street. Nate and Josiah followed the trail to the drinkery.

Chris watched them leave, vaguely aware of the others moving about. He leaned against the hitching post and poked his finger through the hole in Vin's hat. The ice in his blood boiled over and caused his face to tense in a mask of wrath. His mind replayed Tanner's movements, but this time the bullet found his forehead, not the hat. The lithe body was left lifeless in the street. He clenched the hat in rage and felt the intense feelings inside churning without abandon. He made it to the saloon and sat at a table away from the others. Inez appeared and wordlessly left a bottle. He uncorked it with his teeth, and took several long swigs, fueling his anger more.

Vin only saw the back of the blond head and ambled over. He wanted to make sure Chris was okay. His back still ached from whatever it was that was hurled at him. He'd seen Chris following him to town and hoped that his visit worked. He knew how much pain Chris was in, but he also recognized the danger signs. He didn't want Chris to disappear again, lost in a netherworld of the unliving. Maybe his words weren't the right ones, maybe Josiah could have said it better or Buck could have made it easier. His was still mulling over his thoughts, when he found himself at Chris's elbow.

"'ey Cowboy..." he rasped, not yet seeing the livid Larabee mask.

The past ten days of weighted disappointment and the nightmare of losing the only lead to his family's killers, spilled over. Adding fuel to the already out-of-control fire, were Vin's words at the shack and his foolish flight through gunfire a few moments before. The hole in the hat seemed to burn right through his heart. He jumped up, nearly knocking the startled Texan over.

"My name's not 'Cowboy'," he hissed, eyes icy hot, "...even a dumb bastard like you should be able to remember that."

The beer mug in Vin's hand froze halfway to his lips. For a moment, he left his guard down and felt the bitter sting of Chris's arrows. The moment passed and he swallowed his pain, noticing the deathly quiet room and eyes of his friends upon them.

"Who pissed in yer bottle?" Vin spat back, slamming his mug down.

"Who me?" Chris's voice rose in a mock-sing-song pitch.

"Shit!" Buck swore, tossing his cards down. He wiped a hand across his face, recognizing the all to familiar signs. He closed his eyes and shook his head, bittersweet feelings filled him. He'd been where Vin was all too many times and recalled the painful aftermath.

"Oh, I don't know," Chris snarled, drilling the sky-blue eyes, "Maybe I'm tired of getting my ass shot at by every two-bit bounty that has an itch for your hide."

The others tensed up and stood, the card game and warm beer long forgotten. Ezra exchanged a worried glance with Josiah and Nate, having seen the ghosts of the past lurking in Buck's dark eyes. He flinched visibly, as did the rest, when Vin's shield dropped. The last remark left the sky eyes wide and hurt. Open pain on the handsome, flushed face was followed by a slight slump to the shoulders and a flinch about the pale eyes. Just as quickly it was gone, the eyes were steely and cold and the glare menacing. The caustic words hurt him deeply and he wanted to hurt back.
He snorted and laughed derisively, inching his face closer to the tense blond's.

"Yer a fine one t'talk, totin' a line o'corpses with ya. Hell, ya stalk around town, hidin' yer yella ass inside them damn black clothes."

With that he turned and headed for the doors, leaving an irate, hostile gunslinger in his wake. Buck's mouth dropped open and he froze in muted astonishment, his limbs paralyzed. He saw the green eyes lose all their reasoning and closed his own, knowing what inevitably would follow.

"Get back here," Chris growled, color scoring his face as the tracker's words went airborne.

Vin kept walking, taking time only to flip his finger in a non-verbal response, before disappearing through the batwing doors. He'd had it with Chris Larabee's black mood and wanted a few hours to himself to regain his composure. He didn't like losing control and especially didn't like the dull ache in his chest Chris's words caused.

Chris charged after him, easily tossing off J.D. and Ezra who'd been foolish enough to get in his way. He stormed onto the boardwalk, hot eyes and burning fists seeking to ease the pain.

"Come on Ez...Kid..." Buck hauled them both up.

"Just another quiet afternoon in town..." Ezra moaned, dusting himself off and following the others outside.

Chris was angry, the depths of which he'd never encountered before. He didn't understand the rage inside, the black pools of malevolence that churned and hurt him. His heart was slamming full force against his chest cavity. He eyed the retreating buckskin coat in front of him and felt his rage spill over. That Vin had so easily and effortlessly been able to get inside of him and tame the savage beast, bothered him. He didn't like this uncontrollable fire and the raw emotions it caused.

"Goddammit, don't you walk away from me!" He screamed at the retreating back.

Vin spun around and saw the hands hovering over the pearl-handed colts. He tossed his head back and laughed, making the brooding gunslinger even angrier.

"Ya got the rest of this town fooled, struttin' yer arrogant ass around, glarin' at folks...draped in black like some Goddamn ghoul..." Vin paused and raised his arms, waving them in mock-fear.

"Ooohhh Mr. Baaad Element...Hah!" he concluded, enjoying the flush of color on Chris's face. He turned away again, continuing his journey.

"Aw, shit..." Buck hissed, smacking his hand against the hitching post.

"Well said," Ezra agreed, "Let's move out..." He headed up the street, closer to Vin, while Buck drew the short straw and approached Chris from the rear.

Chris felt the eyes of the town upon him. Walkers-by stopped in their tracks, shopkeepers lingered in the doorway, hanging on every word. Dozens of people now stood frozen, their eyes glued on his tense body. He saw the gawking faces and heard the lingering whispers, hidden in hushed tones. His anger turned molten and a red liquid curtain fell in front of his gaze. He was well beyond the danger zone and growled, baring his teeth. His fists tingled in anticipation and his eyes were glittering in wait.

"Big talk coming from a back-shooter," he hollered, glowing in satisfaction when the hide coat froze and the buck hunched up. He felt Tanner's hatred rising and read the rippled frame well. He smiled, letting his fingers dance, while waiting for the gauntlet to be picked up.

Buck grimaced as soon as Chris spoke. He saw Vin freeze and moved in, hoping to calm the storm cloud named Larabee. J.D. went to follow and Josiah clamped a hand on his shoulder and pulled him back.

"Let me go, Josiah," he protested, "They'll kill each other."

"All brothers get steam built up, they gotta let it out. This has been comin' on since Fowler died...Let it go, J.D."

Ezra was on the other side of the abrasive words saw the change. As soon as the word 'backshooter' went airborne, Vin Tanner changed. If he hadn't seen it, he wouldn't have believed it. The metamorphosis occurred right before his eyes. The blue eyes turned to steel, laced with an element of danger that frightened the conman. The face was taut and livid with anger. He'd fought beside Vin and seen his temper flare before. But this, he'd never seen the likes of it, this was a truly dangerous man.

Buck was just inches from Chris and saw the hands trembling as they rode over the colts. His gaze narrowed and he saw something else in those green eyes.

"What are you afraid of?" he whispered and saw Chris flinch, blink rapidly and then dispel him.

"Don't do this, Chris. You lose him and you'll find out what pain is..."

"Get out of my way," Chris said quietly, flicking an eye to Buck.

"You know Chris," Buck squared his shoulders and stared hard at the face he knew so well. He thought on Chris's cruel taunt, the word 'back-shooter' hovered overhead. "That was probably the stupidest fuckin' thing you've ever done." He saw a tic flicker in the tense blond's lip and that fear appear again. "He scares you? Is that it?"

Chris's reply was short and to the point, delivered with a upward thrust that caught the rogue on the chin and sent him to the ground. He glanced down at the smoldering dark blue eyes.

"Fine, it's your funeral," Buck spat back, along with a wad of blood from his split lip.

The words replayed again, and Vin felt every hostile glare from every wagging mouth in town on him. He stopped in his tracks and took several deep breaths. A smile was born of hurt and want.
So Chris wanted to fight dirty, well he picked the wrong day and the wrong prey. With a feral cry of war, he turned, leapt and connected a well placed boot to Chris's stunned stomach. He followed up with a right to the jaw, sending the startled gunslinger to his knees.

Chris laughed and swiped the saliva that drained from his mouth. He felt the power coursing through him and spun forward. His propelled his head into Vin's gut and sent the smaller man hard into the hitching post. He heard the grunt of pain and felt a sick satisfaction. He didn't have time to catch his breath, before a boot to his groin and a blow to his head sent him sprawling. He kicked out, taking the Texan's legs from under him and jumped on his back. He slammed Vin's head into the dirt, before an elbow to his jaw moved him.

For several seconds they panted, each sucking air greedily. They circled each other like rutting rams, eager to quell the boiling blood that ran through their veins. Both wore identical smiles, feral and dangerous, matching the glint in their twin glares. Blood ran from Vin's nose and mouth and Chris's lip. Each took several swipes at the crimson flow before resuming their match.

Blows were traded, equal in strength and velocity. Vin's smaller body and natural agility gave him the slight edge of Chris's power. Also, Vin's training from his Indian days didn't hurt. He used his legs well, and twice grabbing Chris with them, sending him through the crates on the boardwalk. He pounced like an unsatiated animal, seeking bloodlust. Again, two sets of fists connected, and bruises and cuts appeared. The action continued, bodies flew and broke railings, boxes and barrels. The movements slowed as the tigers began to wear down. Their faces were scarlet with blood and each had an eye swollen shut. Chris had a bad cut over his eye and felt the pain from a few cracked ribs rising quickly.

Vin sent his nimble legs flying one last time, using the last bit of his strength. He quickly straddled Chris from behind, grabbing the blond head up and gaining a choke hold.

"Call it," he panted, his blood dripping onto Chris's marred face, mixing with the blond's and running into the street.

"Fuck you!" Chris grunted, every inch of him screaming in pain.

"Call it," Vin persisted, putting more pressure on Chris's throat until the body went limp in his arms. He let Chris drop and stood on wobbling legs, blinking in amazement as the street moved sideways and up and down. He swiped the blood from his eye and staggered a few feet, every bone throbbing. He didn't see Phoenix rising from the ashes behind him.

Chris took a deep breath and rose, lunging at Vin's departing body. He sent the unsuspecting tracker hard into the hitching post.

Vin felt a bone snap in his right arm when he landed and bit back his cry of pain. He moved quickly, sending a hard elbow into the blond, whose head snapped back, connecting with the hitching post. He curled up a moment as the silence in the street ended and a bevy of voices made his flinch. He felt himself hauled to his feet and shoved away Ezra's green coat sleeve

"'m'fine..." he rasped, dragging his beaten body into the alley.

Buck and Josiah dropped by Chris's side, gently turning him over. Nathan appeared, clucking his tongue in distaste at the whole matter. He raised his eyes to Ezra and J.D. who both were eyeing the alley.

"Get after the other jackass and make sure he's not hurt. We'll take care of this one."

Ezra nodded and peeled off with J.D. in tow. They went up the alley and turned right, watching from a distance as Vin headed for the back door of the boarding house. His room was on the second floor, but he paused at the door and backpedaled.

Vin saw them in the reflection of the glass on the kitchen windows of the boarding house. He walked back to the pump, amazed that the pain from his arm didn't cause him to pass out. The water pump and it's blurry twin loomed in front of him. He let his left hand snake out, hoping it found the right handle. He stuck his face under the cold water and watched through the flow as J.D. and Ezra began to move back. He heard Mrs. Brown in the doorway and raised his swollen face. She sighed in disgust and wiped her flour-coated hands on her apron.

"No sense...either of you..." she scolded. "I'll send towels and liniment up. You have a fresh pitcher of water. You need anything else?"

"No Ma'am..." Vin managed, wondering how he was going to get up two flights of stairs.

Ezra watched Vin approach Mrs. Brown and disappear in the back door. Satisfied that his friend was in good hands, he and J.D. departed for the clinic.

+ + + + + + +

"Easy now," Nathan backed up to allow Buck and Josiah through the door to the clinic. The two larger men gently sat the unconscious blond onto a cot. Buck stayed in front of him, supporting the limp body by the shoulders. Nathan moved in and deftly unbuttoned the shirt and eased it off. Josiah tossed Chris's gun belt, which had been draped over his shoulder, onto the vacant cot across the small aisle. The dark-skinned healer's hands probed the gunslinger's chest; a large bruise was already forming on his back. "Cracked a couple...gonna be sore for awhile. Head's got a nice lump," he eyed the pair behind him. "Ya think he was in a sour mood before this king-sized headache. Ease him back, Buck, I want to see his face."

Buck moved sideways, supporting Chris by the back of the head, while Nathan inspected the damage. "Damn..." the rogue grimaced at the swollen left eye, cheek and lips. A cut over the right eye left a trail of blood on the handsome face.

"Don't look too bad..." Nate moved away and returned with a tray of supplies. "Josiah, get me some warm water and soap. The kettle should be about done..."

"Okay, Boss..." The eldest moved across the room as Ezra and J.D. appeared.

"How fares our leader?" the gambler inquired, eyeing Buck's protective stance. Chris's head rested securely against Buck's chest and one hand resting on the bruised back.

"Nothin' Nate's golden hands can't fix," Buck bragged, winking at the brooding healer.

"Huh!" Nate frowned, wrapping Chris's ribs. He waited until Buck switched positions again, easing behind Chris to support him. "Get his shoulders good..." he raised his eyes in warning, knowing that if the cleansing action didn't rouse the sleeping tiger, the carbolic would. Sure enough, after the face was washed and the first dab of Carbolic doused the cut, a loud hiss, an errant fist and a blond head all jerked at once.

"Cut that out!" Nate warned, "It ain't good to hit the hand that's healin' ya..."

Chris growled and tried to push Nathan aside. He waited until the room stopped spinning and even endured another dose of carbolic, before his eyes adjusted. He rested on hand on his queasy stomach and moved again, his face locked in a scowl. His head was pounding, his face wasn't far behind and his ribs were on fire. He moved again and felt Buck pulling him back against him.

"Sit still, Nate's gotta stitch your eye," Buck ordered, gaining a sly grin when he realized what Chris was looking at. He winked at Josiah and Ezra, who also noticed the head bobbing and darting, trying to see past Nate's broad chest to the other cot.

"He's at the hotel, Mrs. Brown was leading him inside when we last saw him," the gambler imparted.

"Hmmphh!" Chris frowned, shoving at Nate's arm. The burning wound had frazzled his last nerve. "Goddammit Nathan..."

"THAT'S IT!" Nate hollered, slamming his hand on the tray and setting the tools to doing a wicked dance. "Now I have had me a day. It ain't bad enough that I damn near got my head blown off by a bunch of outlaws. No, I gotta stand here on my bad leg and patch up one half of the jackass twins. Now sit down and shut up, I ain't got the patience to put up with that ornery hide."

"Bad leg?" Josiah and Buck said at the same time.

"Twisted my knee diving for cover," Nate growled, "Does this look like a damn train station to y'all?"

"Yeah, okay," Buck put his hands up defensively. "I'm glad he's on our side..." he mumbled to J.D.

"I heard that Buck!" Nate hollered as the others departed. He picked up the needle and waited, finally the blond head rose and looked woefully at him. "That's a face only a mother could love," he teased. "You got a couple bruised ribs, you need to take it easy for awhile. That headache should go away in a day or two. Okay?" he motioned and the head nodded once.

Chris didn't speak while Nathan sewed him up. He was mulled over Vin's words. The tracker was right, he had been yellow. Leaving Fowler's body behind and losing the last lead had taken all his strength. Anger he was used to, coping with the internal inferno became second nature. But this cold emptiness that took hold in the wee hours after the fire was unsettling. The loss of the lead stripped him of his last defense. The numbing after effect lasted well beyond what he'd originally thought. His moodiness was a result and he'd taken to the hills, trying to solve the emotional turmoil on his own, it was his way. But that damn, sorry-assed tracker saw right through him. His delivery was harsh, but Vin was a man who didn't mince his words. How ironic that the tracker called him out and dared him to make a choice. The anger that action spurred, caused his flight to town, where his arrival was critical. His assistance saved Buck and Ezra's lives. What if Vin hadn't dug his spurs into the thick Larabee hide? What if that defiant chin hadn't jutted out at him? Buck and Ezra might have paid the ultimate price. What would that have felt like? To ride into town and find out they'd been killed due partially to his lack of duty. He sighed heavily as Nathan finished and cast his eyes upward.

"Thanks...sorry for the mess." He paused, eyeing the tall man limping, "You sure that's just twisted?"

"Yup," Nate nodded, handing Chris a warm mug. "It'll help with the headache...ya need to rest awhile."

"I'm not going anywhere," Chris grimaced, every inch of him hurt like the devil, especially his head.

Nathan cleaned up the bloody water and put more herbal tea on a low boil. He glanced back when the tin mug hit the floor. He limped back to the body slumped against the wall and lifted the legs onto the cot. He eased Chris onto several pillows, glad that the dozing blond would give him a chance to rest his aching knee. He knew Josiah would check on Vin, he could sense the older man's concern.

+ + + + + + +

The bustling kitchen was too hot and too crowded for the injured Texan. He eyed the stairs and winced, already feeling the toll the trip would take on his aching body. He ducked back outside, cradling his injured arm to his chest. He hobbled up the alley, his blue eyes carefully taking in the blurry walkway. He watched Josiah and Buck carry his unconscious best friend up the stairs to Nate's. Sighing, he cradled his arm a little closer, it would have to wait. Chris needed the healer's touch now. He decided to clean up in his room and then head over to Nate's. That would give the medic time to take care of Larabee.

By the time he got up one flight of stairs, he was ready to collapse. He eyed the next flight and denied them, seeking instead the first open door he could find. He went to his knees, he was drenched in sweat and dizzy. The hallway seemed so much narrower and he staggered in uneven steps. He fumbled with the nearest doorknob, sighing in relief when it opened. He collapsed on the bed, crying out loud as his tender flesh rebelled. For several minutes, all he could do was suck in air, his lungs were desperate for relief. He pressed the injured arm closer to his chest and swore, when the pain flared again. He managed to shuck the left sleeve off, after shaking it hard several times. Then he eased his injured right arm from the timeworn buckskin.

"Shit!" he hissed, clenching his eyes shut at the white-hot explosion in his arm. He stood on unsure legs and staggered to the washbasin. The small mirror hanging over the chest didn't lie. His face was mess. His right eye was swollen shut, and his left cheek was swollen and already starting to color. Blood ran from a cut over his left eye and his back hurt. Then he saw the chambray sleeve in the mirror. His brows furrowed at the large amount of blood on his sleeve.

"What the hell?" He felt gently along the sides of the injured arm and felt no bone protruding. He recalled the broken crate he'd landed on after smashing into the post and realized he'd gashed his arm. The jagged rip in the fabric supported his thought. He used his left hand to splash water on his face. He took two long drinks and gripped the chest of drawers hard. The room began to move and the fire in his arm prompted his stomach to react. He spotted the clean chamber pot in the bottom of the open closet and headed that way. He eased himself down, using his left hand to guide him, knocking over a bottle in the process. Once his stomach was emptied he collapsed weakly, resting his aching body against the back wall of the closet. The waves of agony that ripped through his limbs, were complimented by the ache in his heart. The harsh words his rash actions caused now came back to haunt him.

"Weren't none o' m'business..." he murmured, cradling his arm and protecting his aching heart. "Yer a damn fool, Vin Tanner," he rasped as Chris's livid face loomed briefly, before a higher force gratefully lowered a black veil.

+ + + + + + +

"Where the hell did that boy get to?" Buck asked, dropping into a chair. "Get me one, Kid?" he asked of the lunch platters Inez set on the end of the bar. The youth brought two plates over, returning to get them each a beer.

"He's not in his room," Josiah sighed, running a hand through his graying hair, "He's not in the church..."

"Me and Ezra covered all his usual hiding spots," J.D.'s voice was muffled as he took a large bite of the spicy chicken quesadilla.

"That's just the trouble," Buck lamented, "He's got too many damn hiding spots. He could hide for a month and we wouldn't find him. Damn stubborn fool..."

"Which fool would that be?" Ezra said, taking his bowl of soup and sitting next to Josiah.

"They both got way to much stubborn in 'em..." Josiah sipped his coffee and reflected. "...wondered what set Chris off?"

Buck got up to get some bread and passed the table that Larabee was occupying before the fight started. He paused and picked up Vin's hat, which was on the empty chair next to Chris's. His finger peeked through the hole and he closed eyes. Shaking his head and sighing, he made his way back to the table.

"So that's it..." Josiah eyed the hole and watched Buck drain his beer.

"Might as well eat that, Josiah," the rogue indicated of his plate. "I got a date with the fair-haired jackass."

"Take it over for Nate...he's gotta be hungry." J.D. offered, putting his large hunk of bread on the plate.

"Thanks, Kid," Buck nodded and left.

Nathan was resting outside in the sun on the porch behind his clinic. His right leg was elevated on a barrel, with a hot pack of herbs resting there. Buck handed him the plate and a mug of beer, before moving a smaller barrel over to serve as a table.

"Thanks Buck," Nate nodded, he was hungry and saw the hat in Buck's hand. He eyed the hole and shook his head. "He should be up soon, heard him moving around. I was just gonna check on him."

"Stay off that leg," Buck pressed the strong shoulders back down. "I'll call you if I need you. You stay put," he paused and grinned, "...unless you see my head come rollin' out that door."

Buck ducked inside and was glad for the cool interior on this hot day. He saw Chris was sitting up and drinking a large mug of water. He watched the strong fingers feeling the stitches and moved closer.

"Nate put a few extra in there to keep your brains from sliding out altogether?"

"Buck, not now..." Chris answered, his voice barely audible. As soon as his stomach settled down and the dizziness left him, he was heading out. He was trying to get his shirt on, with great difficulty, careful not to disturb Nathan. He got one arm in and gave up, his chest glistened above the white bandages.

"Not this time," Buck picked up the other half of the shirt and helped Chris into it.

Chris stood, leaving the shirt unbuttoned and reached for his holster. He saw Buck toss the hat on the bed in front on him and flinched, backing up as if it was a rattlesnake.

"You were wrong."

"I'm not in the mood, Buck," Chris winced and gasped as the holster finally was in place. He grabbed the window frame, as another dizzy spell overtook him.

"Too damn bad," Buck bristled, grabbing the swaying body before it keeled over. "'cause you're gonna listen. That's a heart in there," he thumped Chris's chest, "not a rock. This here is flesh, not steel," he gripped the muscled arm. "Why is it so hard for you to admit you're human like the rest of us? It ain't nothin' to be ashamed of..." he saw Chris flinch and cast his eyes towards the hat.

"That scared the shit outta you, didn't it?" Buck picked it up and waved it before Chris's face, causing the blond to back up and grimace.

Chris sighed and took the hat from Buck. He examined the hole again and felt the one inside him open even more. He licked his lips and thought on his life before he met Vin. He weighed that against the balance that the Texan brought to him. Vin was the quiet of his storm.

"He was right, Buck, I am a coward."

"No your not, Chris," Buck rested a hand on the downcast shoulder. "You're got faults and when it comes to a scruffy tracker from Texas, you got a hole, the best kind. The boy gave you something Chris, something too valuable to lose."

"I keep seein' that hole in his head, not this damn hat..."

"I know..." Buck nodded, seeing how hard Larabee was struggling. These new feelings were hard to adjust and it would take time. "He's adjustin' too, Chris...he didn't mean that shit he said. You cornered him, he came out clawin'..."

"He's got brass balls," Chris grumbled, "...standin' in my yard...callin' me yellow...spoutin' nonsense about sackcloth and a hair shirt..." He saw Buck chuckle and shook his head. "Then he rode the hell out and I was so pissed off...I followed him." He turned toward the window, his eyes automatically gazing at the rooftops. "What if I hadn't Buck? What if he didn't have the guts to get in my face? You and Ezra would be dead...Jesus..." Chris ran a hand through his hair and winced as his ribs protested.

"That's all water under the bridge, Chris." Buck saw the pain in Chris's eyes as his fingers ran over the tiny wedding ring he kept hidden in his breast pocket.

"I wanted that bastard alive too, Chris. The hunt ain't over yet, Pard. You got Buck Wilmington's word on that."

Chris found the first smile he'd had in over a week. It started slow, fighting hard to be born. It ended up as a slight upward curve on the swollen lips.

"Wilmington's word is as good as done..." he managed, cocking his head and seeing the wide smile on his oldest friend.

"Put it in the bank," Buck laughed. "He's okay, Chris, he's out lickin' his wounds somewhere. His horse is still here. His sorry ass will be in here soon enough, Nathan just itchin' for another lecture." He paused and eyed the swaying body. "Speakin' of which, how you plannin' on gettin' past Nathan?"

"I can't breathe, Buck," Chris complained, sure that the room decreased in size. "I need to get out of here. It's too damn hot...I'll find him..."

Buck was about to argue that point and got an idea. "Okay, I'll go with you. We'll tell Nathan you're going to your room. Here..." Buck managed to get the buttons done and cover up the bandaged chest.

"Yeah, okay," Chris pressed his fingers to his eyes trying to stem the pulsating pain.

"Where do you think you're going?" Nathan asked, hobbling into the room. "You could have a concussion..."

"Uh, Nate, Chris want to go to his room for awhile..." Buck winked, "Get cleaned up..."

"Alright," the healer reluctantly agreed, not sure what Buck had in mind.

They did a rudimentary search of the alleys and a couple vacant stores. Buck made sure Chris walked in the sun and felt every bit of it's heat. By the time they got to the hotel, Chris was barely moving.

"Hey, Chris, how about we go up to my room. I got a bottle up there and you could use a five minute break."

"Huh?" Chris squinted, his head was pounding relentlessly and Buck's face swam in front on him, a blurry tan spot with a mustache. "Yeah..." He followed Buck into the room and sat on the bed, while Buck slowly rummaged around in his drawers.

"It's here somewhere..." he stalled, turning halfway around and smiling. "Like takin' candy from a baby..." Chris was sound asleep, sitting up with his body resting against the wall behind Buck's bed.

He moved across the room and eased Chris's boots off. He lifted the legs and shifted the lean body, covering him with a light sheet. He drew the curtains, darkening the room and with a final tip of his hat, he left to continue the search.

+ + + + + + +

Two hours later, the quartet took up the Tanner search again. Josiah and Buck combed the east side of town, Ezra took the west. J.D. was sending wires to the territorial office and waiting for their reply about the dead gang.

"Mrs. Brown, where was Vin again?" Buck asked of the irritated, elderly woman.

She huffed and tore herself away from the large chicken pot pie she was preparing for supper. "I led him here in the kitchen and sent Millie upstairs with liniment, linens and extra water. When I turned back, he wasn't there."

"Let's look again," Buck nodded, taking the stairs two at a time. At the top of the second flight, he paused, counting the doors until he reached Vin's room.

"His room's empty," Josiah appeared, bowing his large frame through the doorway. "That tray hasn't been disturbed. Let's ask around town again, somebody had to see him."

"Yeah, okay," Buck agreed, following Josiah back downstairs. Just as he turned past the first floor landing, approaching the final flight, his eyes caught something. He stepped into the hall and squatted down. "JOSIAH!"

"Takin' to wakin' the dead, Buck?" the preacher flinched at the bellow.

"Look!" Buck held out the bloody buckskin fringes and pointed to the maroon stain on the wall. He moved forward, trying several doorknobs, until a raspy voice was heard from behind one

"...damn tight black pants give me a headache...don't know how he stands 'em...who needs his damn long face anyhows...glarin' eyes shoutin' fire at me all the time...cranky, Goddamn son-of-a-bitch..."

"Vin?" He stuck his head inside and frowned. His face wrinkled in distaste at the hot room reeking of vomit and liquor. "Vin?" he tried again and saw two booted legs sticking out of the closet.


Buck winced at the painful rasp and moved forward.

"What are doing in there, Son?" Josiah asked, eyeing the bottle perched between Vin's knees.

"Waitin' on Nate..." Vin slurred, curling up again.

"Where'd he get that bottle?" Buck asked.

"From the owner of the suit he threw up on," Josiah nodded at the garment, now resting under the pile of stench.

"It don't hurt no more...'siah..." Vin's large blue eyes stared painfully at the preacher.

"No, I guess not, Vin," Josiah moved the bottle away and his wary eyes saw the way the younger man was turtled up, protecting his right arm.

"He's feelin' no pain..." Buck chuckled at the sorry figure who dissolved into a fit of hiccups.

"That's a good thing, 'cause I think his arm is broken."

"What?" Buck knelt down and Vin began to crawl away. "Easy now, Slick, we just want to look at your arm. Why didn't you get help?"


"Nate?" Josiah caught the watery blue eyes, "Vin, this ain't the clinic. You're in the boarding house."

"...he's busy...takin' care o'Chris...I'm waitin...can't leave...he'll be pissed off iffen I go...Nate can get real ornery..." Vin wrinkled his nose and swayed, hitting his right arm on the wall. His face turned into a silent mask of anguish and his mouth opened, but he didn't utter a sound. His eyes rolled back and he fell sideways, right into Josiah's arms.

"Jesus...look at the blood..." Buck hissed, raking his hand in his hair. "Here, get him outta there, Josiah." He moved to give the larger man more room. Once Vin was brought into the light, the damage was all too evident. "Dammit, Vin..."

"It's bad..." Josiah eyed the sodden shirt, then Buck's worried face. "You get ahead and warn Nathan..."

Nate was on the porch, wearing an old pair of pants. He'd cut the lower leg out, to accommodate his swelling knee. It was now perched under a hot bag of herbs and he was reading an anatomy book, when Buck's voice startled him.

"Heads up," the rogue tore up the steps. "Vin comin' in..."

Nate struggled to get up, taking the hand Buck offered. He winced and hobbled inside, just making it to the cot, when Josiah entered.

"Here," Buck handed Nate his knife. "I'll get some warm water, that shirt is stuck to his arm."

"Okay," Nate nodded and Josiah gently placed the groggy patient on the cot. He supported Vin while Nathan eased half of the shirt off. He winced at the purple bruise on Vin's back and did a quick check of his other extremities. "He's got some nasty bruises, that cut could use a couple stitches..."

"His arm?" Josiah asked.

"I don't feel a bone stickin' through..." he paused as Buck appeared with a bowl of warm water. "Thanks..." he poured the water over the stubborn cloth and managed to pry it free, cutting away the persistent edges. "Shit, that's a nasty bugger..." he said of the long gash on Vin's inner arm. Before he could ask, Buck appeared with soap and carbolic. "Looks like a clean break, should heal okay. But he's lost a lot of blood, he's gonna be keepin' me company for a spell." At the first touch of the soapy cloth to his tender arm, Vin's eyes popped open. The loud gasp was followed by a wet burp.

"Nate, yer back," Vin's eyes widened and narrowed, trying to find Nathan's face. "I been waitin' on ya...m'arms sassin' me a bit..."

"Back?" Nate frowned, taking his eyes from the jagged wound long enough to see Vin's bleary blues.

"Brother Tanner is a little confused," Josiah imparted with a small smile, "We found him sitting in some stranger's closet in the hotel. He thought he was were busy with Chris..."

"Oh," Nate nodded and the shaggy head that dropped onto the wiry chest, popped up again. The weary eyes went around the room, before pausing on a pile of bandages in the corner.

"Chris?" he swallowed hard and made a sour face. "Aw, hell..." he choked, doubling over. Josiah kept his grip on Vin's shoulders supporting him, while Buck moved fast, grabbing a large towel. It was quick enough and Vin's colorful stomach spasm was already decorating Nathan's shirt.

"...m'sorry Nate..." Vin gasped, resting his dizzy, aching head against Nathan's chest.

"That's okay, Vin," Nate chuckled softly, raising up the battered face. "It ain't the first time and it won't be the last...comes with the territory." He drew up the end of the towel Buck handed him and held it over the tracker's nose. "Blow for me...that's it..." he coached.

After Vin was cleaned up, he saw the eyes wandering around again. The colorful bruises and swollen eyes stood out against the pale skin. "The other jackass?" Nate grunted, carefully sewing the nasty cut. "He's okay...bruised and bloodied a put a nice dent in that hard head of his."

"Would 'a made better time spittin' in the wind..." Vin grumbled, eyes drooping again.

Twenty minutes later, Vin was dozing again, lying flat on the cot. Josiah stood behind him, pushing down on the young man's shoulders.

"Go on Nate," he said as the healer snapped the bone back in place.

Vin cried out once and his body buckled. He clenched his teeth and his eyes snapped open. The searing pain in his arm, caused his stomach to jerk again. "Git me up..." he stammered, twisting sideways. Buck appeared with a small basin and held it under Vin's mouth, catching the water he tossed back. Nathan then set the arm to splints, finally easing it into a sling. Buck hovered nearby, he noticed Vin shivering and helped him sit up, draping a blanket around him. Josiah disappeared to update J.D. and Ezra, and Nathan appeared with a mug of herbal tea.

"It's okay," Nate addressed Buck's worried face, "He's got chills 'cause of the blood he lost."

"Go on and hunker down, Vin." Buck coached, watching the tea disappear as quickly as the blue eyes. He waited until the body was reclined again, covered by a light blanket. Just as he went to stand up, the lips parted. Vin's eyes remained closed but his mind was working.

"...fucked up good this time, Tanner," Vin murmured, lost in his dream, "...damn ornery cuss...who needs him..."

"You do," Buck answered softly, patting the shoulder once and departing.

+ + + + + + +

The rapid rapport of gunfire in the distance and urged his horse onward. He heard glass shattering and smelled the thick odor of burned powder. He rode harder, urging the beast into town and froze in horror as Vin vaulted through the air and a swarthy bandit put a bullet between his eyes.

"Noooooo!" He screamed, watching the body hit the street, not far from where Buck and Ezra lie mortally wounded. He sat up too fast, his heart hammering and sweat pouring down his lean torso. The shirt clung to him and he moved in the dark room, lighting a lamp. He filled the basin with water twice, washing his face and draining two large mugs. His hand trembled so badly, he dropped the mug and kicked it in disgust. He paced the room, gradually regaining control of his raging emotions. He raked a hand through his spiky hair and eyed the black and blue, battered face that looked back at him. He stared hard at the image and closed his good eye. He thought back a few months, to a lazy day at his shack. Vin brought a letter for him from his folks in Indiana and Chris shared the news with him. They shared supper and a bottle of spiked cider, watching the sun go down. He saw the golden light reflected on Vin's face and saw something else. The Texan was totally at ease. There were lines of tension riding the handsome face, no slouch hat covering his features. The marked man trusted only Chris that much, allowing himself the luxury of simply being free. It was that feeling that jerked the eye open and spurned the body forward.

Buck just finished his supper and was in the lobby heading towards the stairs, when Chris met him. He saw the change, the rest had done him good. The empty look still haunted the pale face and ghosts hovered close by, but he was better.

"Vin?" Chris asked, hand gripping the railing.

"He's over at Nate's. We found him in Merriweather Harriman's room."

"Who the hell is that?" Chris frowned.

"The salesman whose room it was Vin crawled into. He made himself right to home, drinking the poor bastard's imported scotch and throwin' up all over his best suit."

Chris laughed and wiped a hand over his tense face. His head was still pounding, but at least the room wasn't moving. "He okay?"

"His face looks just like yours," Buck paused, licking his lips, "His right arm is busted, it got cut up pretty good, he lost a bit of blood."

"Fuck..." Chris's whole body deflated.

"His fault too, he's just as much to blame." Buck emphasized. "Nate says he'll be fine, just needs a few days to rest. With any luck, his arm will be good as new in about a month." He saw Chris nod and move past him. "Chris, tread lightly, okay? Nate's knee is killing him. Stubborn cuss won't admit it, he was dozing when I left. Vin's out cold."

"Okay," Chris relayed as he made his way to the clinic. He paused in the doorway and turned back."Oh and Buck...fair warning...payback's a bitch..."

"Hah!" Buck chortled as Chris disappeared in the black night.

Chris ducked into the clinic, quietly slipping past the weary healer. Nate was dozing in a chair by his desk, his swollen leg on a small barrel. He paused a moment and thought on just how hard this man worked for them. How many times had Nathan's fine hand taken a bullet, sewn up a wound, bathed a fever, saved a life. He stepped past the former slave and made his way to Vin's cot. The low lamp reflected a face way too pale. Every bruise stuck out, and he seemed to be in a fitful sleep. The brows were furrowed and the mouth twitching. He shifted and moaned as his arm hit the side of the bed. He was lost in a dream and trying to escape from something or someone. He moved again, the arm barely missed the edge of the bed.

"Cut that out!" Chris whispered harshly and the body stopped moving. "Settle down, now..." He frowned at the tangled blankets and sighed. He pulled them up over the shivering body and moved the tangled mass of hair from the tracker's face. He felt that emotion again and a turmoil inside. He needed to find that last piece of himself that was missing. He gave a small pat to Vin's shoulder and the slumbering man's head turned.

"I'll be back, Cowboy, you got my word..." he vowed, casting a painful glance to the broken arm and the fragile heart that the splint protected in his sleep.

+ + + + + + +

A few days later.

It was a glorious day and Vin was sunning himself on the boardwalk. Nate finally let him loose this morning, satisfied that the weakness and dizzy spells were done. He'd finished breakfast and the smoke filled dusty saloon soured his stomach. He sought out the fresh air about an hour or so ago. Restless now, he headed for his wagon, smart enough to know he wasn't able to climb in and out with one arm. He rummaged until he found his mare's leg. He couldn't put the holster on, but he felt naked on the street without his weapon. He clumsily loaded cartridges in the chamber, wedging the gun between his knees. Completed, he stuck it in his waistline and headed for the back of the buildings.

Nathan should be tied up for a good hour or more, giving him that which he'd thought of during his confinement in the tiny clinic. Climbing onto the roof with one hand was tricky and took a lot longer. He was careful and paced himself, but finally he was topside. He walked slowly over to his favorite spot and settled himself on the small crate. He let the wind take his hair back and closed his eyes inhaling deeply. As if to thwart him, his restless spirit returned. His thoughts had been on nothing but his missing friend, since the leader left. Buck said only that Chris had a problem to work out and he'd return. Vin eyed the horizon, skirting it in hopes of a figure in black on a horse. He was anxious to put their troubles on the table and work through the problem.

He felt the warm sun on his face and just a kiss of a breeze to lull him to sleep.

+ + + + + + +

"I do not like this plan..." Manual Diaz denied to his oldest brother's face. "These gringo lawmen...these magnificos...are dangerous. We are but two against seven..."

"Then stay behind with the rest of the putas." Juan Miguel Diaz spat in contempt. "I will find this Chris Larabee who killed Esteban...I will avenge our youngest brother's death." He spurred the horse onward, leaving his brother in a cloud of dust at the crossroads, just a short distance from their destination. With a sigh of regret and a brief sign of the cross, Manual Diaz followed his brother to what he knew would be a one way trip.

Chris paused a few miles from town and took a long draw on his canteen. He took out a linen napkin from the hotel he'd stayed in the night before and sat down on a cluster of rocks. The short trip had been a successful one; he'd gone back to that charred out barn to find what he'd lost. He stood amongst the ashes and ruins, expecting the ghost of Fowler to remain laughing at him. But instead, a pair of sky blue eyes, deep and true, were his guide. They provided him with what he needed most to combat this hole inside. He had his balance...he had a future and he'd find his family's killer. It might take time, but he wouldn't lose sight of what was important again. He thought about his role in town, his new home, his friends and his place in the community for a long time the night before. He eyed the charred piece of wood, before rewrapping it.

"They'll pay, Sara, whoever took you day..." He vowed, eyeing the remembrance and putting it back in his bag. As he swung on his fine horse, he thought on Ezra's suggestion to hire a Pinkerton agent. That might not be a bad of many he'd think over.

Buck looked up from the card game as a familiar figure walked by. He noted the clean hair and immaculate green shirt, resting comfortably in dark pants. The eyes were clear and despite the fading bruises, he knew right away Chris was healing.

"Hey, Pard," the rogue greeted warmly, "You look better. You find what you where looking for?"

"Yup." Chris nodded, downing a shot of whiskey. "Gonna see him now...he still a prisoner at Nate's?"

"Nah," J.D. shook his head, "He got sprung this morning. He's sleeping in the rocker down the street. Jeez, all he did was have breakfast...wore him right out."

"It's his first day up, J.D. and he lost a lot of blood. Nate says he'll be tired out for a spell." Buck relayed, tossing two cards down. "Gimme two, Kid."

Chris left Josiah, J.D. and Buck to their card came and headed outside. Funny, he'd walked up the street from the livery. He hadn't seen Vin in a rocker; where could he be? The wagon...he turned back and entered the alley, only to have his body thrown hard against the wall. The still healing ribs growled in anger, taking his breath away. The familiar cold metal pressed against his neck, as a repulsive male body pressed close.

"You have a good breakfast, Gringo?" Diaz pressed his mouth close to the blond's ear. He drank in the painful intakes of air. Already in his head, he was planning on a slow, leisurely death for the murdering magnifico. "I didn't hear you..." he hissed, pressing his body harder and taking away the little breath the prisoner had.

"" Chris managed, tossing an elbow into the gut of the attacker and getting cold cocked for his trouble. Dazed, he offered no resistance as his hands were tied behind him. A rope was tied around his neck, the other end wrapped tightly in the large bandit's hand. With one flex of his wrist, the raw ropes cut into Chris's tender flesh and cut his air off.

"He was only sixteen..." Juan Miguel angered, "Did you know that when you killed him? Esteban was just a boy..."

"Boys don't rape women, rob banks and kill innocent people. He was an animal like the rest of you Diaz dogs..."

"You will pay for those words, Senor Magnifico..." Diaz hissed, slamming the body hard again in to the wall and hearing a cry of pain.

Chris felt the previous 'bruised ribs' crack with distinction and a new bruise rising on his only unmarred cheek. He couldn't breathe and doubled over, coughing and trying not to pass out.

"Manual, bring the horses..." the leader cried of his brother lurking in the back end of the alley.

"Well, well, and here I thought our quaint community had rid itself of rabid, flea-carrying rodents."

"Ezra..." Chris gasped, never so glad to see the gambler.

"Kindly unhand him, or I shall be forced to separate your brother from the land of the living." Ezra warned, keeping his own weapon trained on the stammering, weakling's head.

"A Mexican standoff, no?" Juan Miguel sneered, "Pity, Manual, but you've always been the weakest link. You turned yellow and that caused two of my brothers and our cousins to die in this stinkin' town." With that he turned his weapon and fired, taking away the fancy gambler's trump card. Ezra pulled his weapon up, but the gun to Chris's head ended that thought. "Drop it...or I'll put one in his kneecap..."

Ezra saw Buck and Josiah appear across the street. He moved forward, not relinquishing his weapon. His movement caused the other man to walk backwards, dragging the semi-conscious Larabee with him.

Vin sat up in a hurry, the gunshot disturbing his morning nap. He shook the sleep from his head and listened intently. The voices were coming from right below him. He heard Ezra talking to someone with a heavy Mexican accent. He lifted his head long enough to see the leader of the Diaz gang talking to Ezra and then his heart stopped. There with a gun pressed to his temple, was the dazed blond head of his best friend. He stood, hidden by the tall sign on the building and made the only choice he could.

"Damn," Buck swore, his gun trained on the dangerous bandit. His eyes unconsciously went to the roof.

"Yeah, well that would have been an option if the only man who could make that shot didn't have his wings clipped." Josiah answered the frustrated Wilmington's silent plea.

Juan Miguel eyed the closest horse and pulled the stumbling gunslinger with him. He kept the gun on Chris's temple and made his threat known.

"Back off or I will shoot his at a time..."

Before anyone could get a chance to respond, a shot rang out and the back half of the former gang leader's head was taken off.

"Jesus!" J.D. jumped, startled by the horrid sight. "Where did that come from?"

"Care to make a wager?" Ezra asked slyly, dropping to Chris's side. "Are you alright?"

"Yeah, thanks Ezra..." Chris winced as the ropes were cut and his neck and hands were freed. He knew the burning pain in his chest spelled trouble. He eyed the dead body and followed the line of fire skyward. His lips curved into a brief smile, as Ezra helped him up.

"I'm gonna kill 'im!" Nathan cried, hobbling from across the street. "He ain't been loose for four damn hours..."

"Give me five minutes, Nate?" Chris asked in a voice so quiet, it stopped the healer in his tracks.

"Okay, but then I want both of you in the clinic," he warned.

"No way!" J.D. denied, putting the clues together. "He couldn't have made shot like that...even with a good arm it would have been tricky..."

"Damn, that had to hurt," Buck winced, picking up the legs of the corpse. "You know, Josiah, this haulin' dead Diaz's to the undertaker is gettin' to be a bad habit."

He fought off the waves of pain as he made a slow ascent up to the roof. He paced his moves and carefully stepped over the edge. He spotted the mare's leg first, lying haphazardly on the ground like a forgotten child's toy. The discarded pieces of the splint were next to the weapon and he turned away briefly, almost afraid to look. Then movement caught his eye; the slim body was curled up and pressed into the wall, rocking steadily. His own injuries suddenly disappeared when his eyes took in the burning vision of the silent wall of agony that was Vin Tanner. The sky eyes were clenched shut, salty moisture drops lingered on the long lashes, threatening to join the damp face below. The sling hung like a garish dinner napkin, swaying as Vin's body rhythmically moved back and forth. The vivid 0 of mouth was frozen in a silent scream; it's muted shriek proved deafening to the horror-stricken figure that stood on trembling legs a few feet away.

Vin was racked with agony; it enveloped him and stole his breath. It happened so fast, his brain didn't register the fearless deed. Then it was done and Chris was safe...Chris was safe. The mantra formed in his head and he swayed as the roof seemed to move. At first, there was no pain, then the explosion rocked him, sending him to the floor. It started in his boots and rocketed upwards, past his spine and shot out in a molten fury from his arm.

He stopped rocking, but kept his screaming right arm pressed tight to his chest. He sensed the body before he heard the boots crunching gravel. He took a shuddering breath and lifted his damp eyes. Through a hazy blur, he saw the dark pants and green shirt. A hand hovered near his face and he turned away, the movement sending more pain through his body. He turned away from the open palm and into the cold wall. He pressed his left hand protectively over his broken arm and his battered soul.

The wounded cerulean eyes screamed silently at him, seeking shelter from cold stone. He jerked his hand back as if he'd touched a red hot ember. He felt like a saber was thrust through his insides and then ripped back again. That he could do that...lacerate the very thing he'd come to cherish...those mirrors...those brilliant beacons that guided him safely to shore.

"It was his shoulder..."

It was barely a whisper, but to Chris it sounded like a lion's roar. He moved closer, kneeling down and reaching out to his shivering friend. But the body jerked again, sending his hand spinning back to rest on the black clothed hip.

"I marked 'im so's ya could track 'im...I done it fer Sara and Adam...t'help ya git their killer... ya ungrateful bastard."

"Vin..." Chris started and bit his words off like bitter roots. He groped desperately, trying to find the right combination of verbs and nouns to take that fear from the sky eyes. But they all died in his throat. How could he expect Vin to meet his eyes? He had no idea what to say. One wrong word...a misplaced phrase could push the already wounded tracker too far. His face flushed with shame as his caustic words came back to haunt him. He rose and moved to the wall, eyeing the growing throng of citizens meandering below.

"You were right, Vin, they don't see me."

Like the electrical charge that cracks the air during a storm, Vin felt the atmosphere change. He lifted his head and stared hard at the somber profile a few feet away. He saw the promise of hope; maybe his words weren't wrong. Maybe...maybe he hadn't lost his best friend's trust.

"Some of them don't even try...some of them want to believe the lies...some of them cling to the dark legend, rather than the real man. It hurts Vin..." He sighed and gazed up the street, settling on the storefront where destiny kissed fate. "But you saw me, Vin, way down deep, from the first minute you laid eyes on me. I felt like I was gut scare the shit outta me."

"That why ya dug yer spurs so deep in m'hide?" Vin whispered, desperately fighting the bouts of dizziness.

"The truth hurts, Vin, and you were right, I was running scared. Something happened that night Fowler died. All this time I was hell bent on fury, full of anger and fire, fueling the hunt. But when the smoke cleared that night, I was...numb...there wasn't anything left. I never had a feeling like that and it scared me. I pushed all of you away...well almost." he turned and gave the huddled figure a half-grin. The smile faded when he saw Vin's body again, dancing in the air. "When you flew through the air, I damn near shot you myself..." he paused, sighed and turned back. He sat down cautiously next to the pain-shrouded figure and was glad when he didn't pull away. "I keep dreamin' it...only this time, the hole ain't in your hat."

"If I'm too hard fer ya t'look on...I'll pull out." Vin whispered, trying to quell the throbbing pain in his shattered arm.

"No," Chris denied, catching the disquieting eyes. "that would be worse."

"Well, hell, Chris, I ain't wrapped in cotton. Ya can't git t'bustin' m'balls every time lead gits t'flyin'" Vin said testily.

"I know, Vin." Chris eased his back against the wall and flinched as his throbbing ribs rebelled. "I tend to push things away when they get too close. Since I lost my family, I haven't had this feeling. You stormed right in...without even trying and it scares me. You're right...I am a coward."

"Aw, hell, Chris," Vin coughed, pausing and shivering, "I didn't mean that..."

"No, Vin, you were right. I was hiding from myself, afraid to face what lies ahead. I was clinging to a dark part of the past without seeing the daylight of the here and now. If you hadn't busted my balls at the shack that morning...Buck and Ezra would be dead..." He took a deep breath and held his hand out, not hiding the tremble. "I'm sorry,Vin, Jesus God I'm sorry..."

"Me too, Chris," Vin managed a weak smile and was rewarded by a rare Larabee wide grin as they shook hands. "Damn, Cowboy, watch yer grip, I only got one workin' wing, ya know..."

"We're a helluva pair..." Chris lamented, feeling such a wave of relief and peace, it nearly drowned him.

"I'll drink to that," Vin decided. "Speakin' of which, I'm a mite parched."

"First we get your arm fixed." Chris said rising painfully and reaching out. "Give you a hand?"

Vin smiled and nodded, not using a verbal reply but his actions told the man offering that the reply went far beyond the roof. He let Chris pull him up and the roof flew around. ", shit...Nathan's gonna kill me, Chris..." He managed as his knees buckled. He pressed his throbbing right arm to his chest and saw a black curtain lurking.

"I got your back, Cowboy," Chris vowed, grabbing Vin's waist and watching all the color leave his face. "Hold on...I'm gonna slip your arm back in the sling. Okay?" He saw the shaggy head nod once and gently eased the injured arm into the cloth carrier. Vin was on his knees and breathing heavily. He made no attempt at rising and Chris didn't budge. He remained behind Vin, letting the smaller man put all his weight against him. "You gonna make it?" Chris worried, wondering if Vin passed out, how'd he get him down.

"Ya best move yer ass, Larabee or ye'll be carryin' me down," Vin pledged breathlessly and struggled to stay awake.

Chris supported him all the way over to the ladder and turned backwards. "Okay Vin, we go down together. You stay right in front of me, facing the wall."

"I'll fall..." Vin worried, feeling claustrophobic as his face pressed against the bricks. He felt Chris's body behind him, but still he worried about the terrible lightheadedness that plagued him.

"I'd never let that happen," Chris vowed and saw Vin turn his face. The blue eyes found his and were full of trust. Without another word, Vin relaxed and put his faith in his best friend. They made pretty good progress and were almost finished, when Vin slipped and Chris moved quickly. pressing his body inward. He felt Vin panic and the lighter body tense up and tremble.

"Dammit Chris," Vin wavered, blinking back the black curtain again, "Ya git any closer and we'll need a preacher..." He felt the warm breath of Larabee's chuckle on his cheek and a reassuring tug on his shoulder. He nodded and then continued, finally reaching terra firma.

Chris saw Nathan lurking and waved him off, sensing Vin wasn't ready yet. He nodded to Nate and the other man left, understanding they weren't done yet. It took Vin several minutes to straighten up and lose the urge to pass out.

"Let's get that arm fixed and then head for the saloon. All that jawin' builds up a thirst."

"Sounds good, then ya can buy us some grub. It's Thursday and that means fried chicken and all the fixin's. Nathan's been plyin' me with custard and oatmeal. Hell, I ain't seen real food in nearly a week."

"I look like a bankroll to you?" Chris quizzed, walking slowly and keeping close to the wavering body.

"Hell, I reckon ya got yer first nickel, Larabee. Bucklin's told me a few things..."

"Buck's full of shit..." Chris shot back pausing and letting the younger man get a few feet ahead of him.

Vin stopped when he realized Chris wasn't next to him. Turning, he cast a puzzled face to the lingering body several feet behind.

"What the hell are ya doin' back there?" he demanded. His arm was throbbing and the sooner it got fixed, the sooner he could eat his lunch.

"I figured you want to keep your distance," Chris said straight-faced. "Just in case the lead gets flying around, me being 'The Bad Element' and all..."

"That's 'Mister Bad Element' ya glare-happy jackass," Vin returned, laughing as the body moved forward. He stopped to catch his breath and got dizzy. He groped blindly, feeling his legs giving out and struck Chris's tender ribs.

"Shit!" both voices growled in unison. They eyed each other painfully and laughed again, before gazing at the saloon.

"Reckon Nate's in a good mood?" Vin inquired, blinking rapidly and grateful for Chris's hand on his elbow.

"Hell no," Chris replied, steadying the swaying tracker, "How 'bout we hit the saloon first for a quick one?"

"A few drinks'll kill the pain...let's git at that long as yer buyin'..." Vin decided, stepping into the street.

"As long as I'm buying?" Chris retorted, eyebrows furrowing.

"Thanks, Cowboy," Vin nodded, concentrating on keeping one foot moving in front on the other. "'preciate the offer." He shuffled forward, just ahead of his best friend's devilish grin.


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