Silent Night, Deadly Night

by Deirdre


Christmas, five a.m.

"You smell smoke?" Nathan called back to Buck.

"Yeah...way the wind's blowin'...just east..."

Finally, the brilliant moon pointed a bony finger at the cabin. Nate and Buck saw the strange horse out front. They eased off their mounts and drew their weapons. Creeping up onto the porch, Buck motioned for Nathan to flank him. With a tentative hand, he turned the latch on the door.

Vin's head shot up and he blinked into inky darkness. The fire was out, he'd fallen asleep on the job. The air was frigid in the small cabin and Vin knelt, leaning on the bed to rise. The pins and needles fell fast, and he grunted as circulation was restored. He squinted and tried to see Chris. His hand sought consolation and his heart dropped when he felt the hot skin, wet with fever. His hand rested over Chris's nose and mouth and he barely felt a breath. "Shit..." He rose and wheeled, frozen in place. Which way was the door? He recalled bringing the wood in and going to the bed. Taking hesitant steps, he headed for the door. He was about to open it, when the latch turned. One word formed in his brutal face...Beaumont. He had no weapon, other than himself. So he prepared to defend his fallen friend. He bent in half and when the door opened, he charged.

"Ow..." Buck cried out as his arm connected with something hard...a head. Before he could utter a word, someone straddled him, and two hands began to choke him.

"Ya sick fuckin' bastard...I'll show ya what pain is...Once yer out cold...I git yer knife."

"VIN!" Nathan eased up behind the rambling tracker. "That's Buck. Get off of him."

"Nate?" Vin turned towards the voice.

Buck used the distraction to break the smaller man's hold. "Vin? Jesus, it's good to see you." He boomed, wrapping the smaller man in a hug. His mind still reeled at the sight of what he'd perceived to be his friend, headless in his bed.

"Buck, I can't breathe..." a voice muffled against his chest.

"Sorry, Pard..." Buck released him and they stood.

"Buck...get in here. Chris's is burning up."

"Chris..." Buck's legs moved swiftly, past the forlorn figure who was rooted in place on the porch. The only thing Chris needed was to be kept warm and safe until help came. The blond had put all his faith in him and he'd failed. It wasn't bad enough he'd shot him, but the cold air and...

"Vin...Has he been drinking any water for you?" Nate called. "Vin?" Chris's thrashing on the bed, fighting demons in his sleep interrupted the healer's train of thought. It took both men to hold him down until he slumped.

Water. He inhaled sharply, his own parched throat forgotten. Water, Beaumont must have had a canteen, another failure. He rubbed the swollen, stinging eyes and ignored the pounding in his head. He took a few steps and tripped, slapping his hands hard against the wooden porch.

"Vin, it's freezing in here. Why'd you let the fire go out? Chris can't afford to catch a chill." Nathan's patience was wearing thin. "I need some light. Where's Vin with that wood?"

"Vin, you getting that wood?" Buck called, "What happened to Chris? Where's Beaumont?"

"Over a cliff, a ways back." The small voice answered from the doorway, unable to enter, "He hurt Chris...busted ribs...head's...uh...banged up...knife in the shoulder. I tried to patch..."

Buck brushed past the younger man and grabbed some wood from the porch. He paused, wondering why Vin wasn't entering the room. Usually, you couldn't pry him from Chris's side when he was hurt. "You okay, Vin?" He asked softly, peering at the figure hunched over in the dark.

"...fine...Chris is in a bad way, ain't he?"

"Dunno." Buck replied, tossing logs into the crude hearth and starting the fire. It took some stoking but the embers reactivated and a small glow formed. Buck continued to poke at it until the kindling ignited. The darkness began to ease up and shadows formed.

"Damn...his shoulder's hotter than Hades." Nathan swore, taking off the dirty bandage and feeling the hot skin. "This bandage is filthy..." He turned towards the doorway, but Vin was turned away, head down. "Anything else you forgot to tell me?" He didn't mean for his voice to be so sharp, but the body in the bed was in a bad way. His breathing was shallow, and the fever was eating what little strength he had.

"...s'got a wound on his right side...went through...s'cauterized." Vin mumbled, unable to fight the wall of guilt-ridden pressure forcing the air out of him and Nathan's stinging words.

"Bastard shot him too? Fuckin' animal..." Buck hissed, rummaging around the small cabinet near the hearth for something to boil water in, knowing Nathan would require it.

"Buck, get my bag and some water. There's a well out front. We gotta get this fever down, before it beats him. Vin, where's the canteen?"

"Canteen?" Vin rasped, swaying on unsteady legs. His eyes were burning and his head was pounding. He felt dizzy and nauseous, he needed air. He stumbled outside and turned, just as Buck passed behind him.

"Didn't you give him any water?" Nate turned, to find no one there.

"Here you go, Nate." Buck said tossing the bag on the floor. He busied himself at the hearth, before returning to the bed "I found a couple old pots. They're not much, but I cleaned them up and got some water boiling. How's he doing?"

"He's still breathin'." Nate grunted.

The fire had given the room a warm glow. Buck found a lamp and lit it, placing it above Chris's head on a small table. "Bastard did a good job on him." Buck seethed, seeing the brutal bruises. He lifted Chris's head and turned it, so Nathan could take the bandage off. The wound wasn't serious, but covered in dirt. The water Buck was heating was only warm, but he soaked a cloth in it and handed it to the healer, who cleaned the wound up and dabbed it with Carbolic. He rewrapped it, and gently laid the head back down. Nathan needed the instruments sterile to lance the infected shoulder, so he used his scalpel and opened it, the pus causing a stench, oozed out slowly. He examined the wound on the side, but found nothing serious. He could put some ointment on it and keep an eye out.

"At least you got that done." Nathan said sharply, causing Buck to glare at him.

"Take it easy, Nate." He eyed the room, for Vin, but only saw the back of his legs. The younger man was still outside, sucking air in noisily. Nathan grunted and eyed the steam rising. "Bring them hot towels over. I'm gonna need you to hold him down. I'm going dig that pus out and then pour Carbolic in there. He ain't gonna sit still for it." Nate used tongs to pick up a small silver object, resembling a spoon, from the steaming water. He dug out the pus and nodded. "Get Vin in here to help."

"Leave Vin be." Buck hissed, "Quit ridin' him. We don't know what kind of hell he's been through." Buck saw a guilty flush creep on the healer's face. "I'm all set." He said, straddling Chris and forcing his arms to the bed.

Chris's earsplitting scream sent Vin flying across the porch. He felt the painful spearing as his insides rebelled. He felt the walls and followed them around the side of the house. He took a step down and followed his legs, until he stumbled and fell. The pain in his abdomen exploded and he dry-retched. He blinked painfully at the horse they'd ridden in, recognizing the image of a rifle on the side. He felt the velvet pouch and recalled the promise he'd made Chris. He wouldn't fail him again. Somehow, he managed to pull himself painfully into the saddle and let the horse lead him away.

Buck's energy was spent. He collapsed against the bandaged chest and took a deep breath. "For somebody who lost a lot of blood and is supposed to be at death's door, he's pretty damn strong." He shook his dark head and slipped to a bedside seat.

"Try to get some water in him," Nathan said. "I gotta little bit of herbs for a medicinal tea." He paused, eyeing the porch through the door. The first colors of dawn lit the sky. "Then I'll get that stubborn fool off the porch and have a look at him. Fine my he's totin' hurt."

"I'll start cooling him down." Buck said, wiping Chris's face, neck and chest with the damp cloth and running a shaking hand through the spiky blond hair. "You just ain't happy unless you scaring years off me."

Chris felt the blinding pain in his shoulder subside and felt hands tending to him. Stroking and gently easing his pain away. He heard voices...more than one. He licked his dry lips and turned his head on the soggy, crude pillow. He managed to peel his eyes open and saw a mustache.

"Hey, Pard." Buck boomed, seeing the green slits. He saw the dry lips and nodded. "I got some water for you." He soothed, lifting the fevered head and coaching some water into the thirsty victim. He saw the anxious eyes darting around the room. He knew there was only one face the fevered man was looking for.

"Buck..." Chris croaked, blinking at the blurry face. "...Buck?"

"Yeah...Nate's here too. Dug some crud out of your shoulder and cleaned up your head. You got a nasty fever, lost a bit of blood. You gotta keep fighting." He soothed, wiping the neck and exposed chest.

"How..." Chris grunted.

"Saw the smoke..." Buck interrupted, "...damndest thing, that moon was shinin' like the noon day sun. Never seen anything like it."

"No..." Chris corrected, frustrated at the intervention, "How''s...his eyes..." Chris fretted, his own bright eyes darting past Buck and searching.

"Fine...Nothing's wrong with Nate's eyes." Buck glanced at the healer who was approaching with a cup of herbal tea.

"He's delirious." Nate said, nodding for Buck to move. "How you feeling?" He asked, raising the sopping head and guiding the cup to the sick man's lips. "Take some small'll help with your fever."

"His eyes...Nate...his eyes..." Chris coughed, after drinking half the cup.

"Whose eyes?" Nate peered at the worried face, turning angry.

"Vin's..." He hissed, glaring with a menace. "Where is he?" He clawed at the brown shirt the healer wore.

"He's around..." Buck stood behind Nate, peering over the healer's shoulder. "He's pretty shook up, he went outside to get some air."

"...the hell's wrong...with you...two..." Chris raged weakly, glaring incredulously at them. "HE CAN'T SEE!" He bellowed, wincing as the sound struck his ears.

"WHAT!" Both voices said in shock. "Whaddya mean?" Buck leaned in, face creased.

"He's nearly blind...Bastard threw something in his eyes. "He couldn't see at all at first...they burn...hurt to keep open...Vin..." He called, trying to get up.

"You stay put." the healer ordered, pushing the weak man backwards. "Buck..." Nate called over his shoulder.

"Stubborn fool." Buck muttered, "Anything else he's hiding?"

"Beaumont beat on him...his face is a mess." Chris took a deep breath, his half-mast eyes glazed in pain and worry "...his head was kicked him...totin' me around didn't help his back..." Chris gasped and coughed. "That sick fuckin' bastard died too quick...set me up...let us escape...knew Vin couldn't see...tricked him into shooting me..."

"Aw, hell." Buck sighed, feeling like a mule kicked him. Nobody wore guilt like Vin Tanner. Feeling responsible for shooting your best friend was bad enough...he glanced at Nathan and saw the guilty eyes. Nate's words, caustic due to worry, had taken the little fight the tracker had left.

"...he's hurtin'...inside...blaming himself..." Chris pounded a weak fist against the bed. He glared at the two men hovering over him. "...fuck's wrong with you two...Shit..." He slumped, shoving Nate's hand away.

Buck went outside and his heart fell. The porch was empty. "VIN! VIN!" He screamed, running around the outside of the cabin and then spotted the missing horse. "Shit..." He raked a hand through his hair and entered the cabin, waiting for the green bullets to appear and burn a hole through him. "He's gone."

"What!" Chris's eyes peeled open. "...could you...let...happen..." He demanded weakly, glaring at both of them. "He can't see...he's let him go..." Chris paused, then recalled his plea, fearing he was dying. "Buck...the graves...he's headed...there."

"Sarah and Adam?" Buck queried, confused, "Why?

"...asked him to do favor...thought I was dying..." Chris drilled the dark blue eyes above him.

"I'll find him, Chris." Buck assured.

" that..." Chris teethed with such a glare Buck flinched.


Dawn, Christmas Day

"Buck, hold up a minute." Nate called, following the larger man out of the cabin. He watched Buck checking his saddlebags, ammunition and canteen. He found his own saddlebag and took a small tally book out. He made a list up and ripped the sheet out. He took a deep breath and waited until Buck was in the saddle. "You head to Four Corners and get Josiah to fill this list," He ordered, handing him the sheet. "He'll know what else to bring, and come back with a wagon."

"Four Corners?" Buck repeated, shaking his head. "I gotta find Vin. You heard Chris. He's wanderin' around out there someplace, blind and hurt...I can't leave him like that."

"Chris needs that medicine, Buck." Nate drilled the eyes, which flinched as a dreaded weight cloaked him. "...I got nothing left to give him but water. He needs nourishment and medicine to fight that fever. I don't think he'll make it without them."

"Aw, hell, Nathan, Why don't you ask me to do something hard?" He said sarcastically. "Shit..." He fisted the pommel and eyed the pink sky. Without another word, he rode away. Nathan watched him for a moment and shook his head sadly, feeling every bit of Buck's heart breaking into pieces. His own wasn't far behind.

"Vin...lookout...I'll fuckin' rip your heart out Beaumont...Vin..."

The frantic call sent the healer back to his charge, who was too weak to thrash, but the pain in his face reflected the awful dream he was lost in.

"Bastard's still hurtin' 'im." Nate grunted, picking up a cold cloth and beginning to bathe the fevered man again.

+ + + + + + +

"The blessed dawn of Christmas Day..." Josiah Sanchez announced, lifting his coffee mug and toasting the small manger in his church. The small wooden crib, complete with hay was a gift from Vin Tanner. He lovingly traced the fine work the young man had done. He'd carved the manger, along with Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus, some shepherds and angels. The soulful Texan left it with Mary, with instructions to place it by the altar on Christmas Morning.

The trip to the mine was a wasted one and he and an exhausted J.D. Dunne had just arrived back. J.D. wolfed down a hearty meal in record time, as only he could. He was now sleeping, under Josiah's watchful eye, on a cot nearby. They were waiting for the arrival of Judge Orrin Travis at eight a.m.

He drained his coffee and eased back into the pew. He picked up the small note, and smiled, his large finger tenderly tracing Vin's child-like scrawl. He remembered seeing the pride on the young man's face the first time he saw his name printed by his own hand. Now he was reading at a record rate, and Mary was proud of her star pupil. The beautiful manger and note were the first thing his weary eyes beheld when he arrived. He picked up the smallest figure, a slim shepherd boy with a lamb on his shoulders. He used his other hand to grasp the large cross on his neck. He closed his eyes and saw Vin's awed face, wide-eyed and wondered as the preacher rehearsed for the Christmas Eve Service.

"Keep them safe, Lord. The world is too short on courage and heroes."

He began. He replaced the slim shepherd and fell to his knees, bowed his head and began to pray.

+ + + + + + +

The light of day gave Vin hope. The blurred vision was far easier to overcome with the sun helping. He could make out the road and trees...some cactus...He wasn't far from Eagle's Bend, which meant the old Larabee homestead was just east of him. He saw the burned out chimney first, a blurry black symbol that send a pain crashing through him. The canteen was empty. He drained it an hour ago, using most of it to wash his eyes. He managed to guide the horse around the ruins and eyed the grounds carefully. He spotted the two crosses and slipped off the horse. His legs buckled immediately and he fell to his knees; his back screaming in pain. He managed to crawl for a few feet and inched his way closer and closer. Finally his numbing fingers found the base of a grave marker. He pulled himself painfully up on his knees. He squinted and tried to read the letters but they were too blurry and his eyes hurt. He found a soft spot on the earth, between the two graves and dug a small hole. He dropped the pouch in and covered it up.

"I'm sorry Sarah..." His scratchy voice carried on the sharp wind. "...I failed 'im. Fergot the fire...the water...he's all fevered...and hurt." He paused, seeing a vision of Chris and a child...his son...and felt the pride his friend must have had. "Yer a lucky little boy, far as fathers go...they're weren't none better. He wanted ya to have 'em...he misses ya...he ain't never fergot ya." Vin was so tired he couldn't remain on his knees and curled up in a tight ball. "...sorry...Chris..." He whispered as the world fell away.

+ + + + + + +

Buck reined his horse in at the crossroads. The sun was set in a brilliant blue sky, the air was cold and crisp. He eyed the sky and both roads carefully. One led back to Four Corners, the other towards Eagle's Bend and Chris's homestead.

"I ain't got the right to ask." He offered up a prayer. "but seein' as it's your birthday and all...I figured you might be in a generous mood. I can't lose him," His voice pained as Chris's battered body came into view. "I'll never have another friend like him...and Vin...ain't you put that boy through hell already?" He shifted in his saddle eyeing both roads. "Please...I'm not just asking for me. They need each two halves of a whole. Chris's is living again, thanks to that boy." Buck smiled, as Vin's raspy voiced, dry humor floated in his head. "...and Vin...most folks can't see him...don't try. But those of us who do...feel honored. I know I do...What do I do? How can you make me choose? I need your help."

"Mr. Wilmington?"

"I guess you think that's pretty funny." Buck eyed the solo, brilliant ray of sun beaming down, then winked and nodded, tapped his heart. He turned to spot Ezra approaching quickly with Dan Larabee in tow. For a moment he froze, the figure in black looked all too familiar. Then he realized where they'd come from. " pass Vin?"

"Mr. Tanner? No...why?"

Buck took a deep sigh and slumped. "Damn...but I fucked up good."

"That goes without saying." Ezra drolled, uneasy with the unfamiliar sight of a dejected Buck Wilmington before him. "...but what has that to do with our missing comrade?"

"It's like this..." Buck began and several minutes later, he concluded his horrid tale.

"How far is it?" Dan asked anxiously of the cabin.

"A couple miles back...You best hurry Dan...he's doin' poorly."

Dan was off before Buck's final word came out. Ezra didn't like this man masquerading as Buck Wilmington. He enjoyed Buck, chose to sit next to him most times, drinking in the boisterous nature, baudy jokes, outlandish antics and smooth talking of the rogue. Most of all he admired the large heart that the broad chest housed. "You're wasting time that Mr. Larabee cannot afford." He snapped. "You go to town and get that list to Josiah. I'll seek out Mr. Tanner and return him post haste."

Buck nodded and turned, but the shoulders remained down. "Buck, your expending wasted energy berating yourself. It won't help Vin or Chris." He issued sharply. "Square your shoulders and get that horse moving."

"How could I not know?" Buck whispered, "Chris said he can barely see. He rode off in the dark. What if he got thrown and he's laying out there hurt. We might never find him...or..."

"Stop that irritating babbling." Ezra jerked the tan-coated sleeve and gripped the arm beneath hard. He wanted a smile or a joke or that wonderful laugh, not this sorrowful figure cloaked in guilt. "That won't bring Mr. Tanner back or save Mr. Larabee. Now stop wallowing in pity and get help." He jerked away, as Buck nodded and rode off.

+ + + + + + +

Dan slid off the horse and tied him to the post out front of the small cabin. He raced through the door and paused, his heart constricting. His big brother, in his memory, came back. Strong, confident, self-assured, tough, with a kick-ass glint in his eye, now was a pale weak imitation of the hero he knew. "Nathan?"

"Dan, it's good to see you," The weary healer sighed, "I need some more water. Fill up those two canteens and both of those pots." He asked, using the life-saving fluid to bathe the fevered man's brown. Chris moaned and stirred, his cracked lips parting.

"" He sighed, tossing his head back and forth.

"Easy Chris." Nate soothed, tipping the wet head up. "Open up and drink this...come on now..." He commanded and saw the lips part. "That's rest now."

"...kay..." The weak reply came.

"Dan? Did you hear me?" Nate turned to find the younger man still frozen in the doorway. The lean body in black with Chris's face stood shaken. "Dan...Snap out of it, he needs you. Get that water."

"Yeah...sorry, Nate..." He said, moving his legs forward to pick up the containers.

"Buck find ya?" The former slave guessed.

"Yeah...he was all shook up. He's heading to Four Corners. Ezra is going back to the...uh...graves."

"I sure hope he catches up to Vin...Feel like a damn fool." Nate cursed, rubbing his tired neck.

Dan returned and motioned for Nathan to leave the small bedside chair. "Here, " he said, tossing a bedroll at the tired face. "Get some sleep. You'll need it, especially if Vin is hurt too. I'll take care of Chris."

"Okay, thanks." The dark-skinned man agreed. "Get plenty of water in him and keep wipin' him down."

Dan sat down and picked up the limp hand. A lump formed in his throat. He was taken back in time, to another bedside vigil. He'd been about six or so and caught a bad fever. Every time he woke up, his was wrapped in his big brother's embrace. Chris's voice, calm and reassuring, still lingered.

"Come on Scout..." He urged, using his brother's childhood nickname. He smiled, recalling trailing along after Chris and his friend's when they'd go off camping. The mock-angered green eyes and scowl would be followed by a growl. "Damn it...I come all this way to see you and here you are flat on your back. Talk to me big brother, please..." He begged, holding the clasped hand against his face.

Chris scowled as the voice penetrated the hazy, pain-filled world he was lost in. Maybe he imagined it. He felt pressure against his hand and then felt the gentle touch, stroking his face and neck. The cold water caused him to hiss as it made contact with his fevered flesh. He heard the voice again...and licked his dry lips. His head was lifted and he heard a voice...his voice? Couldn't be...

"Open up, need to drink."

His greed overruled his heart and he took great gulps, gasping in relief. 'Scout'? The word bounced off the corners of his mind, dulled by pain. 'Scout....Scout..." An image formed. A small blond boy, relentless and pesty...eyes like cornflowers, full of admiration, following him around like a damn hound dog. The name appeared and he forced his eyes open. The narrowed suspiciously then darted around the cabin. Nathan was huddled on the floor, sleeping. He wasn't dreaming, his brother was here and very real. He was leaning back in the chair, eyes closed, clutching his hand. It gave him a shudder, seeing the features he normally only saw in the mirror, right in front on him.

"...still stealin' my stuff, R...r...runt." He gasped, tugging on the hand. His reward came as the eyes shot open, still amazingly sky blue.

"Hey Big Brother." Dan smiled, using his free hand to pull Chris forward and into a soggy embrace. "...I sure have missed you, Scout..." His voice broke and he couldn't continue.

Chris's heart clenched so hard it caused him pain. He rested against the strong chest and swallowed hard. In his mind, he heard the harsh words three years before that chased his beloved younger brother away. "I'm sorry, Dan...I was out ...of...line...forgive..."

"Shhh!" Dan pulled back, wiping his moist eyes. He covered the parched lips with his fingers. "Water under the bridge...I want a promise."

Chris nodded once as Dan lowered him back down onto the pillow, which he turned to get a dry side against the damp blond head.

"I want my brother back." Dan choked, holding out his hand.

Chris stared at the extended hand and didn't move right away to take it. He didn't deserve it.

"Please Chris..."

Chris flinched, as the blue eyes cut right through him. Only one other pair of blue eyes could do that. Vin...His head shot up and his frantic gaze tore around the room.

"Vin..." He grabbed the black shirt in front of his blurry eyes. "Dan...Vin?" He paused, then frowned, "...damn, interfering sorry-assed Texan."

"Ezra's going after him." Dan reassured, caught off guard by the unusual tone of desperation in his stoic brother's voice. "I'm waiting..."

"If you'll have me," Chris said simply, sending his thanks through his emotive stare.

"Nobody else will." Dan grinned, shaking the hand firmly. "Guess I'm stuck with you, Scout."

" here?" Chris sighed, fighting off the Sandman's hands.

"Got a wire from Vin Tanner. Came for Christmas. Don't you go dyin'on me...I didn't bring mourning clothes."

Chris laughed weakly and gripped the hand tighter. He eyed the black garb his brother wore and frowned. "Not a problem...I'm partial to black...think I'll rest my eyes."

"Go on and sleep, Scout." Dan reassured, wiping the sweaty face with a cool rag. "I'm on duty."

"Dan?" Chris peeled a single eye open and caught his brother's full gaze. "I missed you too...guess we both owe that sorry-assed Texan a drink."

"Yeah..." Dan nodded, and watched the eyes drift shut.


8 a.m. Four Corners


"Buck?" The preacher jumped up and caught the staggering gunslinger and sat him in a pew. "You looked like you rode through the gates of hell."

"...sure feels like it." Buck wheezed, out of breath. He handed Josiah the list and took the cup of coffee from the eldest. He took a sip and felt the warmth invade him.

"You find 'em?" He asked, making up a mental list of what needed to be done.

"Yeah...Chris is in a bad way. Beaumont..."

"BUCK!" J.D. boomed, having seen the large gray bay outside the church. "You find Chris and Vin? Are they alive? Where's Nate and Ezra?"

"J.D. you're making me dizzy." Buck complained, of the rapid-fire questions. "We found Chris and Vin in a deserted trapper's cabin, couple hour's south of here. That bastard worked 'em over good. Chris's got a knife wound in the shoulder, got infected, and gave him a bad fever. He's got a shitload of bruises, some busted ribs, a gash on his head and bullet through his side."

"He gonna live?" J.D. asked, noticing how dark Buck's eyes were.

"I dunno J.D." Buck sighed, sipping the coffee. "He's weak from fever and blood loss...and he's worried about Vin."

"How bad?" Josiah asked of the tracker and then furrowed his brows in concern as Buck slumped, his trembling hand placing the empty coffee mug on the cold, wooden pew.

"Buck?" J.D. sat next to his best friend and waited for the head to come up. "Oh God..." He hissed, fearing the worst.

"No...he ain't dead, Kid." Buck relieved the youth, "not yet thanks to me and Nate." He paused and eyed the confused faces looking at him. "It was dark when we got there. The fire was out and it was freezing inside. Chris bad shape. We cleaned him up and Nathan had to lance his shoulder and drain the pus out..." He swallowed hard, recalling the lost voice in the shadows. "Vin...hung back, wouldn't come back inside. You know how Nate gets when he's worryin'...he snapped at Vin...for not giving Chris any water and for letting the fire go out. I should have known...Vin would cut his arm off before he'd let anything happen to Chris."

"He took off?" Josiah guessed.

"More like we chased him." Buck slumped. "That ain't the worst of it. He's the one who shot Chris and he can't see..."

"What?" J.D.'s voice rose. "How?"

"Beaumont tossed something in his eyes...burned him somehow. Chris said he couldn't see at all at first, now things are blurry. He's beat up some and totin' a head wound. I promised Chris I'd find him...but...Nathan needed the medicine..."

"Like Solomon..." Josiah sighed, gripping both of Buck's shoulders. "...hard call Buck. It's not your fault. Vin's grown...he had no right running off like that." He eyed the boy sheriff, "J.D. get Buck over to the saloon and get some food in him. I'm gonna get a wagon and start filling this order. Where's Ezra and Dan?"

"Dan's with Chris. Ezra's on his way back to Chris's old place. Chris thinks that's where Vin is headed. Did the judge get here?" Buck asked

"No...stage broke down. He won't be in before dark." Josiah answered. "Come on Buck." He pulled the other man up.

10 a.m. Larabee homestead

Ezra slid off Deuce and eyed the frozen muddy terrain. The charred ruins sent a chill through him, the unnerving thought of a woman and child burning alive. He shook it off and made his way around the rubble. There on the ground between the two simple graves bearing the names of the lost Larabee family, curled in a ball, was Vin Tanner. Ezra dropped to his side and shook the animal hide shoulder. There was no response. He gently eased the fallen man onto his back and saw the swollen, discolored brutality on the Texan's face. The red, swollen eyes remained closed. He cupped a hand behind Vin's head and encountered a sticky lump, the action resulted in a short moan.

"Vin...Vin..." He tried, but the eyes remained closed. Ezra's hand felt Vin's throat. His pulse was strong. He noticed Vin's mouth was open slightly and leaned lower, hearing the labored breathing. He was warm to the touch and his face held a tinge of color. Ezra immediately got his canteen and pulled Vin upright, laying him against his drawn up knee.

"Vin...wake up." He issued, tapping the slack face. The eyes furrowed and a hand slapped at him.

"...go...'way...m'tired..." a croak replied, then fell into a series of wet coughs. The results of which splattered onto the Conman's chest.

"Thank you, Mr. Tanner." He said disdainfully, using a handkerchief to wipe his jacket. Replacing the linen cloth, his persistence paid off and Vin drank for him. The eyes finally peeled open, squinting and blinking. A hand came up and Ezra grabbed it.

" ice..." He noted and then saw a flash of pink peeking under the coat. He raised the jacket, alarmed to find only skin underneath. "Where is your shirt?"

"Bandages...fer Chris." the answer came.

The bobbing and weaving of the head told the card shark that Vin wasn't still having difficulty seeing. "I suggest we depart. Mr. Jackson is rather anxious to see you."

"...he's mad...I fucked up...let fire go water...shot Chris...I shot...I shot..." He slurred, not fighting Ezra's arms pulling him upright.

"Yes, Buck told us of your accident and of what the villain made you do. You were the victim of a ruse and have no reason for guilt." He persisted, soaking a cloth in water and washing some of the blood and dirt from the back of Vin's head. The younger man never moved or uttered a sound. "Tilt your head back...I want to wash your eyes."

"Wash 'em..." Vin backed away and thought. "Couldn't hurt."

The cool water took the some of the sting out. He felt Ezra place a cold, wet cloth over his eyes. "Hold that there and 'I'll bring the horse over."

"Thanks, Ez."

"Not at all." the Swindler responded. "It was for my preservation as well. Facing Mr. Larabee without you, is a worse fate than facing a firing squad." He eased Vin down onto a small stone wall and went to retrieve Deuce.

His eyes felt good, the water took some of the burning away. He pressed the cold rag upward onto his forehead. He felt like shit. Head hurt...back hurt...throat hurt...chest all full of crud...face even hurt. Nate...he could see the angry brown eyes, assessing his injuries and lack of notification.

"Nathan's gonna kill me." He muttered, then jerked in fear as the unpleasant odor greeted his nose.

"Not if I do first."

"Yer dead..." Vin gasped, letting the rag drop and eyeing the slightly blurry figure of Charles Beaumont.

"Premature at best." he replied, grabbing the long brown hair and tugging hard, placing a large knife at Vin's exposed throat. "It took me hours to climb up that cliff. It was plenty of time for me to think of how best I could make you pay. How fortunate for me that while tracking you and Larabee, I saw you headed up here. I was able to prepare a surprise for you nearby. Get up."

"Go to hell." Vin coughed, the sudden motion causing the tip of the knife to nick his collarbone. His blurry gaze searched the grounds for Erza. He saw Deuce tossing his head, but didn't see anybody with him.

"Not to worry, he's waiting for us. I've a plan for him." The ex-commander said of the missing gambler.

Before Vin could continue his search, he was pulled to his feet and shoved foreword. He was tired, sick and wasn't about to be tortured again. He felt the beefy man place a meaty paw on the back of his neck and push him forward. He felt the knife jostling against his throat and shot himself sideways. The unexpected momentum took them both to the ground. Vin was pinned against the ground, the two hundred plus pounds of the beefy bandit crushing the air from him. He saw the glint of silver and grabbed for the knife, which was headed for his chest. He hissed in pain as it sliced the top of his hand. He managed to grab the wrist and press with all his might.

Beaumont shifted, sensing the small man's fight fading fast. He heard the soft grunts and realized that Vin Tanner was weakening quickly. He rolled over pressing Vin to the ground. He grabbed the mangled hair and lifted it, then sent it hard onto the frozen muddy ground, littered with rocks.

Vin cried out and lay stunned, seeing stars flying in his field of vision. He didn't see the grin on the evil man's face as he moved the knife.

The ear-splitting scream caused the dazed gambler to rouse. He'd been cuffed in the head, and thrown hard to the ground. His hands were tied in front of him and he was gagged. His head jerked and he managed to work his hand free. Whoever tied him up had been in a hurry and very careless. He yanked the gag off and staggered around the side of the building. He quickly flipped the derringer out. His green eyes widened, as a bloody knife was in mid-air, glistening in the morning sun. He fired without hesitation, his aim true. A cry of pain ensued as the huge body fell onto his fallen friend.

"Vin..." Ezra ran over and dropped down pulling the monster off his friend. "m'leg..." Vin gasped, blue-eyes wide in pain.

Ezra saw the bloody thigh and winced. He tore the cloth away and saw the jagged wound, gushing blood. He took off his string tie and quickly made a tourniquet. He took his coat off and covered the shivering body, seeing the signs of shock setting in. He ripped his shirtsleeves off and pressed the cloth against the gaping wound. It quickly became soaked with blood. He used the second sleeve and then ripped his shirt tail off. Finally the blood slowed and he was able to create a crude bandage. He felt a bloody hand reach up and hit his chin.

"Ezra?" the weak voice asked. "Ya alright?"

"I'm fine, old friend." he replied, not surprised at he concern in the blue eyes peering up at him. He nodded, tying off the bandage. "It occurs to me that you have not yet replaced the last shirt I was forced to shred for you."

"Aw, hell...ya got a shitload of 'em"

"Still, I'll be forced to add this to your debt list."

"Don't hold yer breath..." Vin gasped as Ezra sat him up. He saw a new trail of blood down the side of Vin's face, where a jagged cut merged with his hairline.

"Please do not injure yourself further, as I will arrive back naked." He complained, ripping another part of this shirt off. "Hold this." He ordered, but the blinking eyes and swaying body didn't comply. "VIN!" That did work, the body jerked and a hand shot up. Ezra pressed the frozen fingers against the wound at the top of his head. He crawled over and got the canteen and discarded wet cloth. After washing the cut, he wrapped it up. He eased Vin back down and went to get the horse. With great difficulty, he managed to get Vin on the horse's back. Vin suddenly jerked, pulling at his arm.

"Can't leave him here." He protested.

"What?" Ezra's head shot up, his green eyes drilling the swollen blue ones.

"Git him away from them..." Vin ordered in a low, feral voice. "Now..."

Ezra saw Vin's eyes drift to the grave and understood the urgency. "Very well...where would you have him...deposited."

"I know a place." Vin whispered, "It ain't far."


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