Disclaimer: Not mine, never will be, no money changed hands.

Notes: I give many, many, thanks to Lynda for her advice on all things medical and Native. She’s really special to help me so much, and I didn’t know she was a Feb. baby until later. Thanks also to KET for her “Pony-isms”. She was kind enough to tell me about Chris’ horse.

Thank to LaraMee too for helping me make this better and to Kathi for agreeing to beta for me, never an easy job.

And another special thanks to LaraMee, I asked her to make a picture for this one and sent her the falcon. I saw one in a program at the library and after look at that bird and I knew that was Vin’s bird.

Oh yeah, I live in what use to be the Territory and February can behave just like the one in the story.

This takes place after Manhunt but still early in their friendship.

February in the Territory, it could be winter or an early spring but it could fool you. It had been warm for almost two weeks. The bright sun had melted all the snow and fooling all the plant life except the native ones, even fooling some of the people.

Chris Larabee sat in the morning sun in front of the saloon. His long legs stretched out to soak up as much warmth as possible. The last two weeks had been warm with sunny days and cold nights. Warm enough that there were green sprouts everywhere and trees were budding. Chris looked at the pale pink Apricot blossoms. “The apricot trees have got to be the dumbest trees God ever made,” he thought as he closed his eyes again. It was a perfect day for a snooze.

Then he cracked one eye open to the sound of a horse approaching. Vin Tanner stood before him, smiling. “Vin. Going somewhere?”

“Hey Cowboy. Thought I’d ride out and check on the outlaying homesteads. Should take me about a week to make the circle. I’ll start with the Harwell place and circle around finishing at the Armijo’s. Then back here. ”

Chris snorted, “Couldn’t stand it another minute could you? This warm spring weather has got you itching to get out of town. Where’s Peso?” he asked, noticing the young bay mare standing beside Vin.

“He’s still lamed up from that stone bruise. Yosemite let me use the mare. Said she needs some trail time, being young and green broke.”

Chris eyed the mare. “Seems a mite skittish.”

“A mite, but she should settle as we go.”

Chris nodded. “Alright, just watch about the weather.”

It was Vin’s turn to snort. “I’ve lived in the Territory longer than you have Cowboy.”

Chris nodded, “ Yeah “ol’ man” just watch your back,” he said as Vin mounted and headed out.

+ + + + + + +

Vin breathed deeply, he was beginning to relax being out in the open by himself. The little mare had calmed some and her gate was smooth and easy to ride.

Vin tried to clear his head of the ‘buzz’ of town. He wanted only to hear the sounds of nature and perhaps if he were lucky his Spirit Guide would appear to him. “It’s been a long time Hawk, since you’ve spoken to me. But then it’s been a long time since I’ve been where I could hear you.”

The Tracker watched everything around him. Birds, small animals, signs of larger animals all left stories with their trails. He concentrated on freeing his mind and soul so he could be one with his surroundings.

It took a day before he was on the Harwell homestead. Ol’ J.W. Harwell had raised four strong sons and he and his wife were enjoying their grandchildren now. Vin sat on the hill looking down as the children ran and played while the adults went about their work. Everything looked fine and he didn’t want to intrude. Truth be told he didn’t want to break his solitude. He was enjoying it too much. Turning the mare Tanner headed toward the next homestead.

The Freeman place had been bought just the last spring and the new family seemed to be doing well. Vin could see the young wife hanging wash on every bush and fence she could. He spotted the young children playing on a blanket by the baby. Everyone seemed fine he rode on. Taking his time, camping out at night and checking the other homesteads on his route.

On the fifth day out he rode up to the Armijo house. “Hello the house.” This was the first one he’d approached. He did so because he knew that Senor Armijo had left right after Christmas to go south and he wanted to make sure the Senora and the children were all right.

“Senor Vin, what brings you out here?” came a voice from inside the adobe house.

“Was just checking on folks. Making sure everyone is doing okay,” Vin called back. He saw the end of the rifle barrel sticking out the window.

“Jose, that you holding the rifle? You gonna let me get down?”

“Si, Senor Vin. Get down.” The teenaged boy came outside his mother joining him on the porch.

“Come in and have comida with us Senor Vin. I have just now it ready,” the friendly woman said.

Vin dismounted.“Thanks, I am a mite hungry. Been thinkin’ on yer chili beans all morning.”

Senora Armijo laughed. “You are always hungry when you come. How is it you stay so skinny?”

“Ain’t skinny ma’m, just slender.”

“Que es, this ‘slender’?” the Senora asked.

Vin laughed, “Ezra uses it, it means…. Skinny. Only it’s a nicer way to say it.”

“Come in then and I will try to fatten you up.”

Vin ate his fill and made sure that the chores were taken care of. Jose was a good kid but still just a kid and the youngest. As he mounted the mare to leave Vin said, “You be sure and watch that mare, she looks to be ‘bout ready to foal any day. Next storm or full moon and she’ll be looking for a place to hole up in if she can. “

Jose nodded. “I will Senor Vin. You be careful. Mama says there’s a storm coming soon.”

“I’ll watch.” Vin started to turn the mare.

“Wait Senor Vin, you take these with you to eat tonight and tomorrow, si?” the woman said as she handed Tanner a bandana wrapped bundle.

“Thanks ma’am,” Vin said putting the bundle in his saddle bags and riding away.

It was nice to visit with the Armijos but he was glad to once again be on the trail alone. Having friendly people around was nice. “Getting to like having some one around too much. Been on my own a long time. Living the way I want, where I want. Now I have to be careful all the time, not to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing.”

“Why?" he heard the voice. Tanner looked around but saw no one.

Looking ahead he saw a Peregrine Falcon perched on a mesquite branch. It sat looking at him. The Tracker rode closer until he was within a few feet of the bird. He pulled the mare to a stop and crossing his arms over the horn of the saddle and waited. The Falcon was his Spirit Guide, perhaps he had chosen this afternoon to speak to him.

The Hawk spread his wings stretching each feather and then folding them back smoothly along his back. “Greeting Little Brother,” he said in the language of the People.

“Greetings Falcon.”

“It has been a long time since you have sought me.”

“It’s not so easy to hear your voice in the white man’s towns. It’s only when I’m out away from it for a while do I feel your presence. When I feel at one with the world.”

The Falcon seemed to shrug. “Are you then abandoning the ways of the People? That you stay so much with the white man?”

“Never,” Vin denied. “I keep the teachings of the People close to my heart.”

The hawk turned his head as if looking at Vin first with one eye and then the other. “Perhaps, we shall see Little Brother, we shall see. Think on where your true heart lies.” With a screech he jumped into the air and flew away.

Vin blinked, and reaching down petted the mare. She had stood perfectly still while the Hawk had been there but now she began stamping her feet and tossing her head. The Tracker heeled her forward but he felt the mare jerk and snort. “Easy girl.” Vin reached down and patted her neck again, looking around for what had spooked the horse.

The Tracker barely registered the coming storm before it was on him. Winds blowing 60 miles an hour, suddenly hit, sand mixed in snow almost blinded him. He held a tight rein on the mare trying to find a sheltered place for them to go to. Then the skittish mare screamed her fright and bolted. It was all Vin could do to hold on, and the last thing he knew was she stumbled and they were going down. Vin was blinded by the fierce winds and he ducked his head as he felt the mare fall.

The storm raged hard, cold and fast moving. Leaving in its wake little snow but icy winds that chilled every living thing to the bone. The sun began to set making the temperature drop even more.

Cold! I’m so cold. Vin became aware of one thing at a time. First it was the cold. Then the cold became wet and cold. Everything was cold except one leg. What happened? He blinked at the drops of wetness falling on his upturned face. The mare? She spooked, tripped? we fell… Vin opened his eyes and looked around. He was lying on his back, he could see the snow coming down and all he could hear was the wind. The tracker tried to sit up and the pain hit him taking his breath. He hurt, every where. Trying to be careful, he again tried to see what was on his leg, that’s when he saw the mare.

She was dead; Vin knew that before he saw her neck bent at the odd angle. But most importantly she lay on his left leg. Vin tried to move away from the mare and reach down his side to see how bad he was trapped. That’s when he discovered that his arm hurt. He raised the outstretched limb to his line of sight and saw the shirt sleeve in shreds from elbow to wrist and the seeping blood running down between his fingers.

Vin frowned; it hadn’t hurt until he saw the wound. He tested his leg. The right one was still on top of the horse, the left one pinned underneath. He pulled, testing just how trapped he was. Nothing moved. Gritting his teeth he set his right boot on the center of the saddle and pushed. Pushing, lifting just a hair and he somehow pulled his pinned leg free screaming with the pain of the movement.

Panting and shaking from the effort he collapsed waiting for his breathing to calm before he moved again. When he could, he turned slightly and reaching with his good hand he untied his bedroll, coat and saddlebags. Then using his good leg he pushed himself up and over the body of the horse dragging his things with him. Before he was completely over he searched for the canteen. There it was just out of reach, balancing himself with his good hand he reached, stretching until he could grasp the strap and taking in great gulps of air he managed to get himself and the hard won prizes over to the other side of the belly.

Finally he was out of the chilling wind, the mare’s body shielded him and he could feel some warmth coming from her. Vin scooted length wise as close to her as he could get, fighting the nausea and seeking control of the pain that now seemed to envelope him. The Tracker fought to stay awake knowing to fall asleep now would mean death.

Slowly Vin untied his bedroll and spread it out. Then he opened his saddle bags looking for the inevitable bandages and carbolic. Pulling back the sleeve of the shirt and long john he examined the cut as best he could in the waning light. The jagged slash ran from elbow down his arm ending between the two middle fingers. It didn’t seem to be too deep and was only seeping blood now. Using his teeth he twisted the cap off the bottle of carbolic and holding the arm out, away from the blankets he carefully poured the stinging liquid over the gash. That done he opened the tin of sulfur ointment and rubbed it along the length of the cut. Then he wrapped the wound with the long bandage.

Vin stopped again, gasping, unaware of the small moans that came out with each breathe. Once he felt he could he tried to examine his leg. Vin shook with effort as he carefully felt down the length of the leg. It was then that he noticed his boot was missing. Musta come off under the horse. Gasping he tried to decide if the leg was broken or not. He didn’t think so but the numbing ache hadn’t eased. It ran from his back down the leg. Licking his lips he fought to stay awake. He could feel himself slipping closer and closer to the darkness. With the last of his strength Vin spread the ground tarp over the mare anchoring it with the stirrup flap and wrapping the blankets around him he snuggled close to the dead horse pulling the tarp over himself trapping what warmth there was under it. Pressing his back against the waning warmth he hugged his injured arm to his chest and felt himself falling into the whirling grays and blacks that called to him.

+ + + + + + +

Chris stood at the widow of the saloon watching the wind and snow storm. Normally the sight of the moisture would be welcomed, but today, Vin was due back today. Larabee could feel the windows rattle from the wind and the chill that frosted them quickly. The gunslinger watched the tumbleweeds and trash blow by causing the few horses tied up outside to whinny and side step. The wind was more like March or April not February. He could hear the banging of something that had been blown loose. He was worried, no more than worried, he had this feeling that something wasn’t right.

Where are you Vin? Are you safe? Did you get out of this storm? Ah hell, I’m getting as skittish as an old woman.” Chris’ thoughts were interrupted by a slap on the back.

“Come on Stud, Ol’ Ez has a game starting and he’s bored enough to let us play,” Buck said as he tried to steer Chris away from the window.

“Sure.” Chris smiled and joined the others. But he called it an early night because he just couldn’t get into the game. Most of the regulars had gone home and Inez spent the evening adding more wood to the big pot bellied stove trying to keep the cold at bay.

Climbing the stairs to his room he stretched out on the bed without taking off his clothes. Chris hugged the blankets close. It was really cold, but the cold he was feeling was different. Where are you Cowboy? Come morning I’m gonna go looking for you.

+ + + + + + +

Vin lay curled up next to the cooling body of the mare. Her body heat was keeping him if not warm at lest protected from the wind. His whole body throbbed as he drifted in and out of sleep. Never really relaxing enough to actually go to sleep he dozed. The slightest move causing his back to spasm and his leg to cramp. The tracker drew his leg up so he could reach down and rub it. But it didn’t do any good. He drifted toward sleep again.

Vin was walking in mud. Each step and he sank into the mire up to his knees. Struggling he pulled his leg up and out only to have to let it sink into the cold mud again. With each step the cold penetrated deeper and deeper into his body until if felt as if his bones were brittle and would snap with a sharp pull. He looked ahead to what he hoped was dry ground.

“Vin? Vin where are you?" he heard the voice call. That was Chris calling.

“Chris? I’m over here, Chris?”

He could see the gunfighter now walking back and forth like a caged lion, calling for him.

“I’m here Chris! Why can’t ya hear me?” Vin tried to wave his arms but discovered they were mired in the ice cold mud also. “CHRIS!!!” He shouted as loudly as he could. But still the gunfighter didn’t see him.

Vin jerked trying to free himself from the clinging mud.

Tanner jerked with another cramp. He was breathing in hard gasps as he tried to work the cramp out and stop the shivering. “Damn, I hate dreams,” he rasped out his throat sore and dry. I been hollering in my sleep? “Shit, I’ll never get to sleep again.”

+ + + + + + +

Morning dawned calm and sunny, warming quickly so that the snow that had fallen the day before would be gone before noon. Chris was up at first daylight and at the stable graining Pony and saddling him. He was going to find Vin. Buck stretched as he walked outside the boarding house door. Glancing down the street he saw Chris leading Pony out of the stable.

“Going somewhere Stud?” he called walking toward Chris.

“Just going for a ride. See if the wind storm did any damage. Gonna check my place and drop by Nettie’s. Might take a couple of days,” Chris answered.

“Uh-huh,” Buck answered silently. “And you’re not gonna be looking for a certain Tracker either are you?” Then aloud, “Okay, just watch your back.”

Chris nodded to Buck and spurred Pony. He figured he’d be to Nettie’s place by afternoon.

+ + + + + + +

Vin woke with a start and the movements made him groan. “Did go to sleep after all.”

He threw back the tarp gasping for fresh air and from the pain. The bright light reflecting off the crust of snow made his head pound and his eyes squint. He hugged the wounded arm to his chest.

“Damn Tanner, ya got yer self in quite a fix. Talking to m’self, this ain’t so good. Come on move that leg.” Vin tried to move his leg gritting his teeth at the pain. “Ain’t broke, but it sure as hell is bruised some. Hope t’ hell I can walk on it.” From his knee down his leg was a swollen mass of purple and black flesh. Sitting up Vin leaned back against the now cold corpse of the mare.

“Well girl, you kept me warm and alive one more night anyway. But I gotta be goin’.”

The sharpshooter looked down at his right hand. The fingers were stiff and swollen and throbbed with every heart beat. He looked around. The canteen reminded him he was thirsty and he reached for it. Opening it with his teeth he took a slow swallow and then put the cap back on. His stomach rolling when the cold water hit bottom he gasped for air, trying to ignore the nausea, he looked in his saddlebags for his camp moccasins. Reaching out he managed to get one on his swollen foot.

Vin scooted himself up the side of the horse until he was almost standing. He pulled the rifle from its scabbard setting its stock down beside him. The Tracker then leaned down and folding the blanket and tarp over he tired to roll them up. It wasn’t easy with one hand. He used his injured arm as a weight to hold the roll while he held the leather string with his teeth and wound it around the roll and tied it. He slung it behind his back after he’d shrugged into his coat. Reaching down for the canteen he almost lost his balance but caught himself with his bad leg. Hissing he sat up slowly taking deep breaths until the dizziness went away. He hung the canteen around his neck. Then he rested.

By the time he was ready to go the better part of the morning was gone. Holding the rifle by the end of the barrel and using it as a cane he limped away from the dead horse. Putting as little weight on his injured leg as possible he took a hesitant step leaning heavily on the rifle. Each step sent lightening bolts of pain up his injured leg and back. Vin’s jaw tightened and he kept his eyes on his goal. The tracker could feel sweat running down his back as he struggled along. He concentrated on each step knowing a misstep could mean a fall and he might not get up.

There ahead was a small stand of trees He knew he wasn’t going to be going too far, but he had to travel as far as he could while the weather held. It could mean his survival, how far he got. He stumbled and limped until he reached the grove. Sitting down on a fallen log he tried to catch his breath and allowed him self a sip of water from the canteen. His hands were shaking so hard he could barely lift the canteen.

The tracker looked around the grove and then up at the sky trying to gage how long until it got dark. There just wasn’t enough time to make it to water. It was another five miles at least. Only an hour by horse back but on foot and barely moving, it could take most of a day. Tanner looked around the grove again. There was enough firewood lying on the ground. Just. He still had water in the canteen; he could wait until daylight to go on.

“Yep, that’s a plan. I’ll hold over here and head out again tomorrow. Dig a fire pit, bed up, rest m’ leg some. Maybe find something I can use for a crutch.” Vin reached down and rubbed the sore knee as he talked. Nodding to himself his mind made up he limped around the area gathering firewood. Not an easy task with one arm near useless. He grabbed a large fallen branch and drug it back to the spot he’d marked out to be his campsite.

Over and over he did this. Until he was shaking so hard he almost fell. Coming back to the log he sat down and waited for the dizziness to go away. When it did he spread the tarp over the log and the ground as a wind break. Easing himself down with a groan he dug a small fire pit and laid tinder, then graduating larger pieces of wood. Pulling the saddle bags over he dug in them looking for the tin of Lucifer’s.

“Woowee, I done forgot these. We eat tonight.” He found wrapped in the bandana at lest half a dozen flour tortillas. Smiling at the woman’s kindness he found the Lucifer’s and started the fire. Sitting where he was he pulled each branch closer and broke it into smaller pieces until he had a large pile lying beside him.

Tanner then laid out the things he needed. As much as he didn’t want to, he knew he needed to tend his arm. Shrugging off his jacket he started unwrapping the bandage. He was down to the last layer and he could see the wound was still weeping.

“Damn. This is gonna hurt. Gotta be done though.” Taking a deep breath he carefully pulled the cloth away from the wound. The fabric came away easily leaving a raw valley down his arm. It wasn’t bleeding and didn’t seem too deep.

Taking the carbolic Vin carefully poured some into the open wound, letting it run down his arm dripping onto the ground. Hissing at the pain he held as still as he could, letting the strong medicine do its work. Then, gritting his teeth he put the stinging salve on the raw flesh. Making him self rub it into the grove, even though the movements brought tears to his eyes. Once the cut was covered with salve he took a clean roll of bandages and wrapped his arm again. He tried moving his fingers sucking air at the pain but was pleased that the fingers did move.

“Well, that’s somethin’. Ain’t bleeding, and don’t seem infected. When I get home Nate’ll take care of the stitching if it needs it.”

Stretching out his leg toward the fire, Vin took some of the jerky and tortillas and began to slowly eat. Hoping his stomach would settle and keep the food down. Between bites he took sips of water. The day had been warm but it would be very cold during the night because it was clear. Colder than the night before had been. Tanner added more wood to the fire and wrapped himself as warmly as he could.


The next morning Vin woke slowly. He struggled to open his eyes, but they were all matted. Finally rubbing them with his good hand he managed to open them enough to look around. The fire was out. Some how that didn’t seem to bother him, he felt warm enough. Hot almost, but in the back of his mind he realized that that was fever he was feeling. He tried moving but his stomach rolled and the landscape did too.

“Gotta get up Tanner, gotta get home. Get up, y’ damn fool or yer gonna die here.”

Struggling up until he was sitting on the log and then he grabbed up the stick he’d found the night before when he was gathering firewood. He leaned on it pushing himself up until he was standing. It was the right height and strong enough to hold him. Tanner took a step to test it. But with a yelp he fell when he tried to put weight on his damaged leg.

“SHIT!!!! Oh that was bright, Tanner. Now you gotta start all over again. Only this time don’t put any weight on that leg. Right!”

Vin inched his backside up the log and tried to stand again. This time he used the bad leg for balance only. He knew he was standing, more or less, but the world was spinning and his head was trying to keep up. Swallowing several times, his hand holding the staff so tight his knuckles were white, he tried to take a step.

One step, then he dragged his left leg behind, the staff taking most of his weight as he moved. “Gotta find water,” he muttered to himself with each step. “ There’s water up ahead. Just gotta put one foot in front of the other and find that water,” the tracker giggled. “Yer’ losing it Tanner. Yer talking to yer self an’ not making much sense…. Gotta keep walking…. Find… someone….find…..Chris…. walk fool….keep walking….find…..”

By late afternoon he reached the small spring. Hearing the water before he saw it Tanner stumbled on until he fell beside the water and drank. Then he dipped his burning head in the cool moisture. Weariness and the sun warmed sand lulled him into the comforting darkness. Vin slept unaware of time passing.

Vin stood in a cage. He could see that the bars were made of wood. It was hot and dusty and he was thirsty and he wanted a drink. But more than that he wanted out, to be free. He felt smothered, crowded. There was no room to move, and no air to breath.

The Tracker knew without looking that there were many people behind him, pressing against him. Yet he couldn’t turn around to look. He kept watching out side the cage.

Then he saw him, Chris, coming toward him. “Chris would let him out. Chris would help him.”

Larabee walked closer to the cage looking, searching all the faces inside. His eyes passed over Vin with no sign of recognition

“Chris? Chris! Look at me Lar’bee.”

But the gunslinger looked right past him. Chris sighed his shoulders slumping. “He’s not here,” he said to the soldier standing beside him.

“We tried to tell you, ain’t no one but Comanch here.”

“No! Chris it’s me.” Vin tried to shout out and trying to move forward to reach through the bars. But he couldn’t move.

“What are you doing? He’s just a white man. He isn’t important,” came a voice from behind him.

Vin spun around. There surrounding him were friends, young men he’d grown up with.

“No!” He said shaking his head. “No, your wrong he is important. He’s my friend.”

“If he was your friend he would have known you no matter what. But he looked right past you.”

“No, your wrong….” Vin looked back the way Chris had gone.

“Chris!!” He called. “Chris it’s me, Vin, please don’t go. Don’t walk away from me…Larabee?”

“Chris!” Vin croaked out. His head hurt, as did his throat. He watched as the last rays of the day played on the water. Swallowing hard he tried to sit up, to move at all. But it took too much, too much effort and too much energy that he didn’t have.

“Tanner, you’re gonna die here if you don’t move.” It didn’t seem to matter, despair from the dream filled him and he couldn’t fight it anymore.

+ + + + + + +

Larabee rode carefully watching for any sign of another rider. He saw a wagon coming toward him and waited. When it drew up along side him he recognized the homesteaders. As he tipped his hat to Mrs. Morgan, he said, “Sam, Miz. Morgan.”

“Mr. Larabee,” the man driving the wagon said.

“You seen Tanner since the storm Sam? He’d be coming from the North east. Been checking on folks.”

The man shook his head and looked at his wife. “ Ida, you seen Tanner the last couple of days.”

“No, but Mr. Larabee with that terrible wind storm, he could have stopped by one of the other homesteads.”

Chris tipped his hat again. “Thanks I’ll keep looking.” He spurred Pony down the road.

“We’ll watch for him, Mr. Larabee,” Morgan called after the gunslinger.

“Thanks Sam,” the blond replied over his shoulder.

+ + + + + + +

Chris rode hard. He knew the route Tanner had planned so he was going backwards, hoping to meet Vin on his way. Larabee tried to ignore the sense of urgency that came over him. He had to find Vin before dark. He didn’t know why, just that he had too.

It was getting late. Chris went back and forth between anger and worry that he hadn’t spotted Vin yet. It was time to look for a camping spot. But he didn’t want to; he wanted to keep on looking even though it’d only been one day. Just off the road there was a small stream and some wood. He’d stay there and start again tomorrow.

A short time later Chris sipped at the hot coffee while stretched out by the fire. It felt good in the mounting chill. “Tanner, I’d better find you tomorrow. Hope you’re lazing about at some pretty little watering spot.” But his gut told him different. He felt certain that something was wrong with Vin. He just couldn’t tell what. Absently he rubbed his arm; there was a shadow of an ache there. Shaking off the morose feelings he lit a cheroot. It would be a long night. “Damn, I’m getting too old to be sleeping out in the cold.”

Throwing the stub of the cheroot into the fire Chris added more wood so it would last a while and then rolling into his blankets he tried to sleep. He lay staring at the stars fighting the growing desperation to find Vin.

Throughout the rest of the night he dozed and started awake with the slightest sound. Larabee lay there until the sky started to lighten.

Dawn found Larabee already awake. He drank a cup of coffee soaking a hard biscuit for breakfast. He saddled Pony, kicked out the fire and was ready to resume the search. He still felt an urgency he didn’t understand but didn’t question it either. Pulling his collar up and squinting into the bright rising sun Chris rode out, his eyes sweeping the horizon for some sign that Tanner had been there.

+ + + + + + +

His eyes watered from the hours of constant strain of sweeping the landscape in the bright winter sunlight. He refused to stop even when Pony tossed his head in protest at the constant traveling.

Then about midday he saw them. Vultures and crows were circling something on the ground. Spurring his horse into a run he raced toward the dark brown lump in the tan dirt. Pulling the black gelding to a sliding stop and jumping off before the horse’s four feet were on the ground Chris ran to the downed horse. The mare was the one Vin had left town on, her neck broken, a pool of blood under her. But there was no sign of Vin. Larabee’s eyes swept the scene noting the mesquite branches peeking out from under the carcass. Then he saw the tattered pieces of flannel shirt. Blood covered the pieces that were sticking to one sharp branch that lay half under the horse.

”God Vin, what have you done now?” Chris moaned. He began walking around the dead horse looking for some sign of where Tanner could have gone. Then he saw it the deep imprint of a rifle butt and a scraping footstep beside it. Grabbing Pony’s reins he began following the clear trail.

+ + + + + + +

Chris found the camp Vin had made. The blankets, tarp, saddlebags and canteen were still there; even his guns lay like discarded toys. He quickly gathered Vin’s things stopping only briefly when he saw the blood covered bandage on the edge of the fire. He found the staggering foot steps leading away from the camp. Tying the bedding behind the saddle he mounted Pony and began to follow the tracks. “Where are you going Vin? Why’d you leave everything here?”

It was an easy trail to follow even for the untrained eye. Chris frowned and cursed at the signs of Vin falling and getting back up walking and falling again. Although it took hours for Tanner to reach his destination, it took little time for Chris to catch up. He saw Tanner’s motionless body lying beside the stream.

“Vin!” Chris called out.

Chris spurred Pony ahead and slid him to a stop beside the body. Dropping the reins in a ground tie the gunfighter squatted down beside Vin. He reached out and touched Tanner’s shoulder. “Vin?” He carefully rolled his friend over. Relieved that the Texan was breathing he tapped his face in an effort to rouse him.

Slowly Tanner’s eyes open and he looked around in confusion. “Chris? I make it to town?”

“Aw Hell, Vin.” He felt Vin’s face but knew already he was going to find a fever. His eyes swept over the swollen leg, and the bloody arm. The harsh breathing also told him his friend was in trouble. “Damn Cowboy, I can’t let you out of my sight for a minute.”

The gunfighter looked around. There was nothing but rock and sand around the water. He needed to get Vin somewhere he could take care of him. It was too late in the day to move far. Larabee stood looking for somewhere to set up camp for the night. Down stream maybe a mile away was what looked like some brush and hopefully wood to burn.

Chris stood, picking up the slighter man and heaved him into the saddle. “Whoa son,” he said to Pony as he climbed on behind the semiconscious Tracker. He urged the horse forward ignoring Pony’s aggravated head toss and groans. Chris tightened the reins and said, “Settle down, Pony.”

+ + + + + + +

It was dark by the time they reached the brush, which turned out to be a stand of short trees. Chris dismounted and pulled Tanner down. “Vin? You with me?”

“What?” came the irritated reply.

“I’m gonna set you down and then set up camp. You okay for a while?”

“ ‘M fine Larabee,” came the grumpy reply.

The blond quickly untied the bed roll and unrolling it before he half sat, half laid the tracker on the blankets. It was starting to get cool and he needed to get a fire going. With an economy of movement Chris took care of Pony and gathered enough wood to start a fire.

He started water boiling in the coffee pot and broke up some jerky in the skillet. Then he added water to boil and soften the dried meat to make a broth. Once everything was started he turned to Vin.

“You want to tell me where it hurts?”

Vin opened one eye and looked at his friend. “Cut m' arm some.”

“Un-huh.” Chris grabbed the saddle bags and sat down beside the tracker. “Gotta take off that coat first,” he said reaching to help.

“I can do it. I ain’t helpless,” Vin said crossly. He shrugged out of the coat and with a resigned sigh held his arm out.

Chris pulled back the ruminates of the shirt and long john. “You did your own doctoring on this?” he asked.

“Yeah, last night, I think. I camped….built a fire…” Sucking in his breath, as the other man’s actions caused the pain to flair he said, “Damn it Larabee that hurts.”

“Quit complaining, it could hurt a whole lot worse,” Chris said as he unwound the bandage and exposed the long gash in Vin’s arm. “Doesn’t look too bad. I don’t see any pus and it looks to be healing,” he added as he reached for the carbolic.

“If it’s healing why’r y’ reachin’ for that stuff.”

Chris glanced up and grinned. “Just want to make sure.”

“Hell, y’ just want to see if I’ll holler,” Vin groused as he tried to pull his arm away.

“Be still damn it. I said it looked good I didn’t say it was healed. You already got a fever, you want it to get worse?” Larabee growled.

Vin didn’t answer so Larabee continued. He washed the wound then doused it with carbolic followed by the salve before he wrapped it again. Then the blond looked up at Vin. “That all?”

“Yeah, ‘m leg’s a mite sore, but the mare fell on it, just bruised I reckon.”

Chris nodded. “Alright. I’ll get some supper ready.” The blond stirred the now soft jerky and stirred in some flour to make gravy around it. He broke up some old biscuits and let the dry bread soak up the flavored liquid. When it was ready he handed a plate to Vin. “Can you handle this?”

“I ain’t crippled Lar’bee. I can eat just fine,” Vin grumbled.

Chris filled another plate. When they finished they shared a cup of coffee. The gunman was adding more wood to the fire when he glanced over at the other man. The Tracker had turned pale and was shaking. “Vin?”

“Just a chill. Come on right sudden like.”

”Hold on,” Chris took the rest of the blankets and wrapped them around his friend. “Better?" he asked.

Vin managed to nod as he swallowed hard. He was fighting to keep his supper down and he gritted his teeth to keep them from chattering. Chris sat down beside him and wrapped his arms around the bundled body. “Easy Pard. You’ll warm in a minute.”

After a few minutes Larabee laid Tanner down, got up and went over to the fire. Using sticks and gloves he rolled a couple of hot rocks away from the low flames, then he gingerly picked them up he carried them to the tracker. “Vin, I’m going to put some hot rocks under your feet. The heat should help.”

Vin nodded that he’d heard Chris. He felt the radiated heat and it was the most wonderful feeling in the world. He was so cold.

Chris knelt down near Vin’s head. “You rest and I’ll keep the fire going.”

The tracker closed his eyes and tried to rest. The chills left but soon returned. He was vaguely aware of Larabee replacing the cooled stones with hot ones. When he got hot and pushed off the blankets, Chris was there to pull them back up.

Why, why did this man whom he didn’t even know a year ago take such care of him. Vin watched through half closed eyes as Chris walked about the camp adding wood to the fire, turning the large stones near the heat and checking on him.

No one had taken such care of him, not since his Mother. Not the one who bore him, but the mother that wore buckskin and had long dark braids. That mother had taken care of him, loved him as if he’d been her natural borne son and he’d loved her too. The people who’d raised him to young manhood had been kind loving people. Yet he’d never been able to tell even Chris about them. He couldn’t, so he’d lied, said he’d been a buffalo hunter, because he was afraid. Afraid he’d lose the man who was becoming a brother to him. Because ‘white people’ didn’t understand or accept someone who chose to live with ‘savages’. He’d seen it in Buck and Ezra’s eyes when he’d hunted Chanu. He couldn’t bear to see that look in Chris’ eyes. If he told them, he’d risk losing that closeness that he’d come to enjoy. He wasn’t sure he could do without it now.

Finally, shortly before dawn the injured man slept. Chris dozed too, yet kept watch on the fire and Vin.

The Tracker hadn’t slept much. He’d lain still, kept his eyes closed but Larabee wasn’t fooled. He kept quiet and simply watched for the next bout of chills to come.

The gunman watched the sky lighten and debated on how to get back to Four Corners. It was a long day’s ride to town, a little less to his cabin. He worried that it would be too hard on Vin to ride all day. The other concern was Pony. The strong willed horse wouldn’t be happy about carry two of them but Chris could handle that. The worry was that it would be hard on the gelding to carry double over rough terrain. Shaking his head the blond tossed a mental coin. His place. Maybe they’d run into someone to go for Nathan. If not, he shrugged, “I’ll cross that bridge when I have to.”

Having made up his mind on what to do Larabee started fixing breakfast. It was a repeat of last night but Vin had eaten well and he hoped the younger man would do so again. He let the Tracker sleep until it was ready and he’d eaten some breakfast himself.

“Vin? Pard, you need to wake up. I got you something to eat and we need to get going. It’s going to take longer to travel riding double.” Chris reached out and gently touched the sleeping man’s shoulder as he spoke. “Vin?”

The tracker moved sluggishly trying to brush away Chris’ hand. “Wha….. What you want Lar’bee?”

“Open those eyes and wake up we’ve got traveling to do and the suns been up for a while.” The blond smiled at the grumpy tone in Vin’s voice.

Vin squinted at he sky and then at his friend. He didn’t want to move, wasn’t sure he could move. He hurt worse than yesterday if that were possible. “Get ‘way.”

Chris backed up two inches. “You ready to eat something?”

Vin started to roll to his side so he could sit up. He turned his head glaring at the blond. “Eat? Hell, I can’t even seem to sit up. Get ‘way from me. I can do it.” With a groan he managed to sit up forgetting his damaged hand and arm he leaned on it. “Shit!” Shaking his head he curled around the offended arm.

Chris held out the cup. “Coffee?” He pretended not to see the trackers discomfort, knowing it would only increase the man’s frustration.

“Yeah.” Vin reached out, taking the offered cup and sipped the hot brew. Then he smiled. “Damn Lar’bee you sure make interesting coffee.”

Chris raised an eyebrow, “Interesting?”

“That’s what Ez would say. Thanks Pard,”Vin said referring to the added ingredient of whiskey to flavor the drink.

“Gonna be a long day Vin, I thought you could use the extra help. Think you could eat some?”

Sipping again first Vin said, “Yeah, maybe.”

Chris handed him the plate. “You still got a fever?”

“ ‘M fine Lar’bee quit fussin’.”

“I’ll get Pony ready while you eat.” Chris rose and went to where the horse was picketed. Gathering up the lead and taking him over to where the saddle was he quickly hand brushed over the animal’s back and began to saddle him. Pony’s ears flicked back listening to his man.

“Listen, you ain’t gonna to like today at all and I’m sorry about that. You behave and I’ll make sure you get extra grain for a week.” It wasn’t that he thought this would work, but it couldn’t hurt. Patting the big black on the shoulder he led him over to where Vin sat.

Chris glanced down at the set aside plate. Tanner had hardly touched food and he was leaning over rubbing his damaged knee. “You need some help getting up?”

Vin squinted up at his friend. Sighing he said. “Yeah.”

The injured man reached up with his good arm and let Larabee pull him up. The Texan balanced on his good leg on the off side of Pony and Chris boosted him into the saddle.

Once Vin was settled the older man quickly gathered the blankets and other tack. Tying them on, he mounted behind Vin. “It’s going to be a long ride Pard. You let me know when you have to stop.”

“ ‘M fine.”

“Sure you are.”

+ + + + + + +

They had traveled for an hour or so with Vin dozing off and on. He groaned and, when he tried to pull away the other man’s arm tightened around him.



“ ’S dark already?”

“Nope, sun’s right over us.” Larabee leaned around so he could see Vin’s face.

“Can’t see,” came the confused reply.

Chris smiled. “That’s because your eyes are still closed. If you open them you’d probably be able to see a lot better.”

“Oh,” Vin took a half hearted swipe at his eyes. Squinting them barely open he looked around. “What ‘m I doin’ on yer horse with y’ huggin’ me?”

“Don’t you remember what happen?” Chris asked concerned, wondering if Tanner had hit his head.

Vin was silent for a long time.


“Wind storm, somethin’ spooked the mare…. she fell… woke under her… then you found me,” the Tracker said trying to recall the hazy last few days.

“That about sums it up,” the man in black replied with a relieved smile.

“We goin’ to town?” Vin asked leaning back against the gunslinger.

“Nope, my place it’s closer.”

“Okay,” came the whispered reply.

Larabee rode in silence holding his sleeping friend. He worried that the fever didn’t seem to be going away. Then the other man began twisting trying to move away from him. “Vin, be still. Pony don’t like carrying double.”

“Chris? M’ leg… there’s knives sticking in m’ leg,” came the weak reply.

He looked down at Tanner’s leg. On the back side, which was rubbing against the saddle leather was a damp streak down the pant leg. Chris pulled his horse to a halt. He dismounted and helped Vin down. Stretching the man out on his stomach as much as he could Chris attempted to look at the leg.

“You gotta be still,” he said as the smaller man twisted and turned.

“C…can’t…,” tanner hissed between clinched teeth.

Chris laid a hand on Vin’s shoulder. “Try Cowboy, I need to look and see what’s hurting you.”

“..k..” came the muffled reply.

Chris took his knife and slit the back of the pant leg from ankle to the pocket. He peeled the material back and bit his lip to keep from saying anything. Running the length of Vin’s leg were red irritated punctures and deep scratches. After hours of irritation from rubbing the saddle leather each of the wounds seeped liquid and blood. Chris looked closer and he saw jagged ends of something sticking out of the wounds.

Wiping his knife, he used it and his fingers to pry what ever it was out. Getting a good hold on the object he pulled gently. Once out he looked carefully. It was a thorn about an inch and a half, raggedly broken off on the big end. Tossing it aside he looked back down at the open wound that opened now oozed pus and blood.

“Vin?” Chris placed his hand again on the trackers shoulder. “Can you hear me?”

“Yeah, I hear ya.”

“It looks like that mesquite the mare fell in got you too. The back of your leg is covered in thorn punctures. Some of them are still there I can see them. There may even be some buried under the skin. I need to get the ones I can out and drain them.”

Vin squeezed his eyes shut. “Just do it.”

Chris found four more thorns that he could get out easily and pinched the wounds until they ran clear. Tanner didn’t make a sound but Larabee felt the muscles tremble as he worked on the leg. The worst was on the back of the knee. Chris pulled it out and then began digging for the one beside it.

“C….Chis, don’t. Stop,” Vin called weakly.

“Gotta get it out Pard.”

“ Let it be.”

“Alright, I’ll stop for now.”

Once the blond and cleaned the leg and wrapped it he sat back and let Tanner rest before they left. Finally he said. “Come on Pard we gotta get moving. I want to make it to the cabin before dark.” When he got no response he leaned over and looked closely at the fevered man. Fever bright eyes stared, back at him. “Vin?”

Dry tongue flicked out between Vin’s lips. “I heard ya. M’ just tryin’ to work up to movin’ is all.”

Feeling relieved Chris reached out, and lifted the man’s head slightly. “Here take a drink before we move.” He held the canteen and helped Vin drink. Then he helped the sick man to stand. Larabee supported most of Tanner’s weight as he helped the Tracker mount. Once he had the other man in the saddle he mounted behind him and again headed Pony toward home.