One Bullet

by mcat

January 17, 2000

Disclaimer - Nope, I don't own them, I just use and abuse them for kicks. CBS and their production companies do. Or maybe TNN does now…

Author's Note - Inspired by Tiffiny's "Two Guns" fic. Just had to do something with it… Thanks Tiff!

"Come on, Cowboy, don't do this," Chris whispered.

"Ain't got a choice," Vin replied. "You know what he did. You saw what he did."

"I know that, Vin," Chris replied. "But you ain't the judge or the jury. You of all people should know…"

"Dammit, Chris!" the sharpshooter swore, tightening the grip on his gun handle. "Don't you be throwin' that in my face! I'm innocent! This piece of shit is guilty as sin!"

"And right now, he's unarmed," Chris argued. "You shoot him and then you'll be just as guilty."

He looked closely at the ragged form of Vin Tanner. Bleeding from a knife wound, bruises covering his tired, worn face, it was easy to understand the man's reasoning. The man he held at gunpoint was none other than Jim Slaney, murderer and rapist. The seven had been after the man for almost a week - ever since he made his way past Four Corners and killed Virginia and Carolina Dobson. Vin had been the first to discover the two teenagers, their bodies broken and bloody, together in a field behind the Dobson's barn. Two days ago, he and Chris had split from the others to chase down Slaney and one of his cohorts. They had come across Slaney this morning, in River Fork.

"Bring them in, that's our job, Vin," Chris continued. "Don't make me do something we'll both regret," he added, taking out his gun.

"Just go away, Chris," he said. "Let me take care of him. Just one bullet. It'll be self-defense," he added, locking gazes with the man in black.

"I can't do that, Cowboy," the gunslinger responded, gesturing to the townspeople around him. "I don't want you to hang - for something you didn't do or for something you did."

"This man deserves to die," Vin growled through clenched teeth.

"But you don't," Chris returned and a shot rang out.

+ + + + + + +

Four days earlier…

"Hey Chris!" JD shouted. "Got a wire from Deputy Weller up in Yuma," he continued when the gunslinger began walking toward him.

Chris took the piece of paper the younger man offered him and read it silently.

"You ever heard of this Slaney fella?" JD asked.

"Nope," Chris replied, shaking his head. "But knowing Jim Weller, he's sent this out to all the towns. Hell, Bob Dane's probably already got his posse set up in Eagle Bend."

"You ain't worried?" the younger man asked, confused by Chris's easy manner.

"We'll keep our eyes open, JD," the older man responded. "But Yuma's a long way off from here. We got a little time, yet."

+ + + + + + +

"I'm tellin' ya, Chris, you don't wanna mess with this bastard," Vin argued.

"Vin, just because he got away from ya, don't make-," Buck began before Vin cut him off.

"That ain't the point, Buck!" the sharpshooter yelled. "I'm tellin' y'all that we better start tellin' some people, especially the ones that live outside town, to watch out for 'im. He's a crazy son of a bitch and don't have no problem with killin' nobody."

"We don't want to get the whole town in a panic, Vin," Chris replied. "It'll only make things worse."

"Fine, you don't want to go lookin' for 'im, then I will," Vin muttered, grabbing his hat as he headed toward the saloon doors.

"Vin, wait!" Chris called, causing the young tracker to stop. "I never said we wouldn't look for him. Just said we need to keep in control. We don't want people in a panic," he continued, repeating his earlier statement. "Now, how about you start off by taking the north end of town and the outskirts. We'll each take a different direction and switch off every twelve hours."

Vin nodded and continued on his way out of the saloon.

"I don't think I've ever seen Vin so riled up," JD remarked.

"Well, you heard what he said about Mr. Slaney - about what had happened the last time they'd met," Ezra put in.

"Yeah," the younger man replied, looking toward the still swinging batwing doors.

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner rode onward, eyes constantly scanning his surroundings. He'd stopped by two ranches already and had about three more to go on his patrol. He'd told the farmers and ranchers about Jim Slaney, the murderer that had rampaged through Yuma three days ago. He told the people to bar their doors at night, to keep their children with them and to make sure their guns were loaded. He was tempted to tell them to just shoot first and ask questions later. He didn't, though. Maybe because Chris would disapprove. Maybe because he didn't want these folks getting into a situation where they'd kill someone innocent by mistake. But that didn't mean he couldn't. He was already wanted for murder. Hell, maybe killing Slaney would get him a pardon or something.

He remembered the last time he encountered the man. It was during his bounty hunting days. He'd just gotten the wanted poster for Jim Slaney only a week prior when he came across the first dead body. It was that of a small boy, with a single bullet hole in his forehead. Kid couldn't have been more than six or seven, he'd thought. Senses alert, he'd made his way toward the old farmhouse, somehow knowing that he'd find the rest of the boy's family in similar states. He remembered looking around the property, not seeing any horses or people about. He hadn't heard anything, either. On the front porch, he found the boy's father, shotgun in hand, still loaded, a single bullet hole in his head to match the boy's.

He was about to enter the house when he'd heard the scream. He began running toward the rear of the house, gun at the ready, when he was slammed to the ground with a bullet to his shoulder. Before he knew what was happening, someone grabbed the gun from his hand. He'd looked up and seen the steely gray eyes of Jim Slaney.

"You're interrupting my party, boy," the man had said, gesturing to the half naked woman on the ground behind him. "That's mighty rude."

"Let her go," the young bounty hunter growled, wincing as he tried to sit up.

"Eventually," Slaney said with a smile. "But for now, I'm just gonna enjoy her while I can."

As Vin had tried to get up, to try to stop the man, he was met with a boot to his chin. He vaguely remembered hearing the outlaw saying something about bullets before he blacked out. When he had come to, the woman was dead. Slaney had left her abused body on the ground and Vin saw the single bullet hole in her forehead, the same as her husband and son.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra and Josiah watched the former bounty hunter as he gulped down his lunch. Sitting in the saloon between their own patrol shifts, they'd seen Vin ride in about twenty minutes ago. They were sure that as soon as he was done eating, he'd probably head right back out, too.

"He's fighting some old demons, Ezra," Josiah said, answering the gambler's unspoken question.

"Indeed," Ezra replied. "It seems Mr. Tanner is dedicating his entire being toward catching the man. To the point where he will soon self-destruct, if he doesn't fall asleep in the saddle, first," he added, nodding toward the yawning tracker.

"We've all tried talking to him," the preacher went on. "But he is determined."

Their conversation ended quickly as a fight erupted to their right. Once again, the Beck boys seemed to have gotten in over their heads gambling with some out-of-towners, with none of the participants sober. When they started breaking chairs, Ezra, Josiah and Vin decided that it was time to intervene.

"Okay, boys, break it up!" Josiah's voice bellowed.

"Jimmy, Joe, Vic," Vin called. "Time to head home."

"Oh, come on, Vin," Jimmy Beck slurred, shoving another man away as he walked toward the sharpshooter. "We're just having some fun. These boys don't mean any harm. Right boys?" he asked.

He was answered by a guttural cry as one of the out-of-towners lunged at him, knife in hand. Vin saw it coming and shoved the youngest Beck boy aside and deflected the thrusting knife. Unfortunately, he deflected the knife in the wrong direction and cried out feeling the burn in his thigh as the blade plunged through.

"Ah, shit!" he swore, dropping to the floor, at the same time grabbing the man's legs and bringing him down as well.

Then he heard the gunshot. He looked up to see Buck pointing his gun their way, menacing eyes telling the men in the saloon not to continue with their actions.

"Vin, you okay?" Buck asked, making his way over to the injured tracker.

"Yeah," he replied with a hiss as he pulled the knife from his leg. "Just a scratch," he added as he took the bandana from his neck and tied it around the bloody wound.

"Joe, Jimmy, Vic," Josiah called. "You know the drill. Empty your pockets and head on home."

The three young men took the meager amount of money they'd won out of their pockets and dropped it on one of the tables before heading out of the saloon. Ezra was there to quickly collect the small pile of change and bills.

The two out-of-towners started for the door as well.

"Not so fast, gentlemen," Ezra intoned. "Mr. Tanner? Would you like to press charges against this miscreant?" he asked, motioning to the man that had stabbed him.

"Nah, just get 'im the hell outta here, Ez," Vin replied, waving off Buck's offered hand and pulling himself up off the floor with a wince.

"Restitution money, gentlemen," the southerner said, holding out his hand. "You need to pay for the damage to this fine establishment as well as the medical expense Mr. Tanner will incur for his injury."

The men headed for the door, muttering something along the lines of 'like hell we will,' when they were stopped short.

"I believe you owe some money, boys," Chris said evenly, his green eyes conveying the seriousness of his words.

The two hesitated for a split second, long enough for Chris to pull back his long duster, and quickly emptied their pockets, handing their money over to Ezra.

"Now that's better," he added, watching the two finally leave. "You okay, Vin?" he called, heading over to the bar, which the tracker was leaning heavily on.

"Like I told everyone already, Chris," he began. "I'm fine. Just a scratch."

Then he pushed off the edge of the bar, ready to head back out on patrol, only to fall to the floor as his left leg buckled beneath him.

+ + + + + + +

Vin muttered curses at his friends, still denying that he had more than a scratch on his leg, even as they had to carry him up the stairs to Nathan's clinic.

"Just put him over there on the bed," the healer ordered, getting his supplies ready. "Help him get outta those pants," he added.

When Buck started reaching for Vin's boots, the tracker batted them away angrily.

"Will y'all quit treatin' me like an invalid!" he shouted. "Ain't the first time I been hurt. I can get my own damn pants off! And I'd 'preciate it if I can do it without y'all gawkin' at me!"

"Alright, everybody outta here," Nathan said, shooing the others out. "Chris, why don't you stay and help out," he added.

The gunslinger nodded as he closed the door behind the others. Then he headed over to the bed, where Vin was struggling to get his boot off. He just stood there and waited. Finally, the tracker let out a painful sigh and looked up at him and gave in.

"Fine, ya wanna get my boots off me, g'head," he resigned.

"Here, Vin," Nathan said as he handed the younger man a bottle of whiskey. "Drink as much as ya want, looks pretty deep," he continued as he removed the bloodied bandana from Vin's leg.

He was about to argue with the dark man, tell them again that it was only a scratch, when Nathan probed the wound with his fingers. The tracker took a large gulp from the bottle, preferring to feel the burning pain in his throat.

"Shit, Nathan!" he hissed between gulps.

Nathan motioned for Chris to hold down Vin's leg as he prepared to clean and stitch up the wound.

+ + + + + + +

"So? How is he?" Buck asked as Chris finally left the small clinic.

"Ornery," was the reply the mustached man got.

"Good to hear," Josiah put in with a laugh. "Sounds like he'll be just fine, then."

"Yeah, Nate told him to stay off it for a week or so," Chris began.

"Which means, Vin'll be tryin' to walk tomorrow mornin'," Buck finished.

The three men nodded, all knowing that Vin usually pushed things beyond his limits.

"Nathan gonna be able to handle him tonight?" Josiah asked.

"I think so," Chris replied. "Got him to drink half a bottle of whiskey for the pain. I don't think he'll be going anywhere soon."

+ + + + + + +

Vin lay quietly in the bed, listening to Nathan putter around, still cleaning up some of the supplies he'd used to tend him. He hated it when the others fussed over him. Why couldn't they believe that he was fine? That despite the knife wound, despite the stitches keeping it closed, he didn't need to stay in Nathan's clinic. That he needed to get back out on patrol to look for Slaney.

He'd bide his time, lull the healer into a sense of well being. Let him think the whiskey actually had affected him. Then he'd sneak out.

He'd already managed to retrieve his pants, hiding them under the blankets. When Nathan left to get rid of the bloody bandages, he'd slip them on. Later, the next chance he got alone, he'd be out of there.

+ + + + + + +

It was a little harder than he thought. Despite the whiskey in him, which wasn't enough to muddle his thoughts, but enough to take the edge off the pain he was feeling, he found himself holding tightly to the rail as he hopped down the back stairwell. Still holding tightly to it as he reached the bottom, he needed to stop and catch his breath. After a few moments, he checked his surroundings and started for the livery.

He saddled his horse as quickly as he could, grabbed the saddlehorn and pulled himself up, hissing and groaning quietly as the stitched wound stretched underneath the bandaging. He ignored Chris's call to him from in front of the saloon as he and his horse galloped out of town.

+ + + + + + +

"Shit!" Chris swore, turning back toward the saloon doors. "Buck! Nathan! Vin just rode out," he growled, turning again, heading to the livery without bothering to find out if the two men were following.

"He's gonna kill himself," Nathan muttered, following Chris and Buck. "He's gonna tear out them stitches and bleed to death if he don't get an infection first."

"We'll get to him before he does too much more damage," Buck responded.

+ + + + + + +

"Oh, no. Oh, God. Oh, God, why?"

Vin slid off his horse and collapsed to the ground, oblivious to the pain in his leg as the ache in his heart took over. There in front of him, hands clasped together, were the bodies of the Dobson girls - Carolina and Virginia. Each one naked and bloody from the waist down. Each one with a single bullet wound through her forehead.

He'd been too late.

'Never shoulda gone back to town. Shoulda stayed out, warned more people,' he thought, blaming himself for the teens' murders. 'Wouldn'ta gotten in that saloon fight. Wouldn'ta gotten stabbed.'

He heard the rumble of horses approaching and grabbed his mare's leg from its holster. Holding onto the stirrup behind him, he used the horse's tack to pull himself upright. While part of him hoped it was Slaney, returning to the scene of his crime - returning so he could shoot the bastard - Vin recognized the approaching riders and put his weapon away. He made his way to the other side of the horse and waited for Chris, Buck and Nathan.

"Vin, are you tryin' to kill yourself?" Nathan admonished. "'Cause that's what's gonna happen if you don't take it easy and get off that leg!"

He was going to continue when he felt a hand on his arm. He looked over at Chris, saw the almost imperceptible shake of the gunslinger's head and held his tongue. Then he took a closer look at the tracker and realized that there was more than just physical pain in his eyes.

"He's been here," Vin began, his voice just above a whisper.

"Who's been here, Vin?" Buck asked, confused.

The three men didn't see the Dobson girls' bodies, as the tracker's horse blocked the sight.

"Slaney," Vin replied, his voice now gaining in volume and anger.

He pulled on the reins of his horse and moved the beast away, so that the other three men could see what he'd found.

"This was my patrol area. I was supposed to come warn the Dobsons," he continued. "But no, I decided to take a break and the bastard killed them."

"Vin, it's not your fault," Chris began, dismounting to take a look at the girls.

"Tell that to their parents!" the younger man shouted. "Oh, forget that, they're probably dead, too! One shot to the head each!"

He grabbed the saddlehorn and swung up onto his horse, immediately heading toward the house, hoping he was wrong, yet knowing what he'd find. But that wasn't what he'd be looking for. He was going to look for tracks. Knife wound or not, Chris, Nathan and Buck or not, he was going to go after Slaney.

+ + + + + + +

"Vin, you shouldn't be out here," Nathan said when the three had caught up.

"I've got to go after him, Nate," the tracker responded, painfully crouching down next to the front porch of the farmhouse, his eyes now averting the sight of Clyde and Hannah Dobson's bodies.

"There are plenty of people who can look for him, Vin," Chris put in, dismounting and walking up to his friend. "One less ain't gonna make a difference."

"Don't you understand?" Vin growled, bracing his hands on his right knee to help him stand up. "If I had gotten him -,"

"NO, VIN! YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND!" Chris shouted, grabbing the younger man by his jacket, bringing them face to face. "You ain't the only one he's gotten past. So don't start taking the blame for every dead body he leaves. All you're gonna do by going after him like this is get somebody else hurt, if you don't kill yourself, first! You aren't gonna help anybody or save anybody by going off half-cocked and hurt."

"You finished?" Vin asked, glaring at the gunslinger.

"Yeah," he replied, releasing the hold on Vin's jacket.

"Then I'm outta here," the tracker replied. "Tracks show 'im headed southwest. You can come with me or not," he added as he limped to his horse.

Chris looked around at the others, who just shrugged. He took off his hat and raked his hand through his hair, sighing heavily.

"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, eh, pard'?" Buck remarked as he started moving his horse towards Vin's.

The man in black just nodded as he mounted his own horse. He looked quickly at Nathan and was about to speak when the dark man cut him off.

"I'll check things out here and then head back to town. I'll let the others know what's goin' on and we'll meet you on the trail," he said, heading for the house.

"Thanks, Nate," Chris said quietly, moving to follow Vin and Buck.

+ + + + + + +

"Vin, your leg's bleeding," Chris said, nudging his horse up along side Vin's.

"It's fine," the tracker responded quietly, keeping his eyes on the trail.

Chris's eyes closed and his jaw clenched as he tried to hold in the anger he was feeling. He wanted nothing more than to take his best friend and shake some sense into him at that moment. Vin was being more stubborn than usual. Sure, he understood the former bounty hunter's need to catch Slaney. He understood Vin's feelings of failure because he hadn't caught Slaney the first time. He understood that Vin felt guilty for the Dobsons' murders, especially the girls'. Despite how wrong all those feelings were. But dammit! Doesn't he realize that he can't catch anybody if he's dead, himself? He opened his eyes and reached out, grabbing the reins of Vin's horse, pulling it to a stop.

"What the hell are ya doin', Larabee?" Vin growled, trying to pull the reins out of Chris's grasp.

"We're gonna stop so Nate can rebandage that leg of yours," he replied, green eyes daring the younger man to argue. And as Vin opened his mouth to reply, he continued, "Unless you want to be tied face down to a saddle on your way back to Four Corners, you better just agree with me, Vin."

Vin glared at Chris, his anger at the older man's threat tempting him to just break free and ride away on his own. But he knew Chris wouldn't put out an empty threat. Looking at the other five men, gauging their expressions, he believed that they were more than willing to help the gunslinger tie him down to a saddle. Outnumbered, he blew out a sigh.

"Fine," he said. "Just make it quick, Nathan," he said, turning toward the healer who was now at his side.

"It would help if you actually got off the horse, Vin," Nathan responded, hands on his hips.

The tracker quickly looked at the five again and dismounted with a grunt.

+ + + + + + +

"Looks like he met up with a couple of others," Buck said, examining the tracks they'd been following.

"I see four sets, total," Vin added. "Still headed southwest."

"Let's keep going, then," Chris ordered.

The man in black watched carefully as Vin mounted his horse, trying to discern just how much pain the tracker was trying to hide. They'd been following Slaney's trail for a day and a half now, and Vin didn't seem to be showing any sign of slowing down. He'd reluctantly let Nathan change the bandage on his leg a couple of times, but only because the old one had soaked through with blood. He'd flat out refused to let Nathan restitch the wound.

Once Buck and Vin were back on their mounts, they continued to ride, following the tracks they'd found.

+ + + + + + +

Vin winced as he sat in the saddle again. He'd been trying his best to ignore the pain in his leg. He'd usually succeeded, too. All he had to do was think of Slaney and what he'd done to the Dobson girls and those thoughts overrode any feelings of physical pain he'd had. When he'd first found Virginia and Carolina Dobson he swore to himself that he'd find that bastard Slaney and kill him. And a little knife wound wasn't going to stop him.

He took a deep breath and moved the horse forward. He felt Chris's gaze on him. Knew the older man was watching him. Waiting for him to fall. Waiting for him to give into the pain. He avoided looking back. He didn't want to look into those green eyes, give in to them. He wouldn't give up until he caught and killed Jim Slaney. He couldn't understand Chris's inability to see the urgency in this situation. But then, Chris never faced Jim Slaney face to face.

+ + + + + + +

Chris stopped the group on the morning of their second day searching. Vin had dismounted again to double check his findings.

"Looks like they split up here," he said. "I'm bettin' that a couple of 'em are headin' back to Eagle Bend and these other two might be headin' toward River Fork."

"Okay, considering how far out of town we've gotten," Chris began. "JD, I want you and Nathan to head back to Four Corners. Buck, Josiah and Ezra, you three head to Eagle Bend. Vin and I will keep heading toward River Fork."

"But these other three weren't in Four Corners with Mr. Slaney," Ezra spoke. "If he is indeed headed toward River Fork, why bother sending Messrs. Wilmington, Sanchez and I to Eagle Bend?" he asked.

"We don't know for sure where Slaney's headed," Vin responded with an impatient sigh. "He coulda switched horses or somethin', tryin' to throw us off."

Chris just nodded his agreement with Vin's assessment. Even though, as he looked closely at the tracker, it was obvious that Vin knew exactly which horse Slaney was riding.

"We'll split up, just as I said," he said.

+ + + + + + +

"We need to stop, Vin," Chris said, dismounting in front of the tracker's horse. "It's too dark."

"No. We're getting closer," Vin replied, moving his mount around the gunslinger. "We were already a half day behind him to start with. If we stop again, I'll never catch him."

"Dammit, Vin! When are you gonna get it through that thick skull of yours that you'll never catch Slaney if you keep up like this?!" the older man asked, moving back in front of Vin's horse. "Hell, you practically fell off your horse back there, falling asleep in the saddle."

"Get outta my way, Chris!" the tracker shouted, rearing his horse around again.

"Shit," Chris swore to himself, realizing that he was going to have to take some drastic measures.

He reached up and punched Vin's injured leg, just below the wound. A surprised gasp of pain escaped the tracker's lips as his hand went immediately to the wound. Chris then grabbed the hand and yanked, pulling Vin from the saddle to land on the ground.

"What the fuck do you think you're doin’?!" he exclaimed, on hands and knees.

"What we shoulda done to ya back in Four Corners," Chris replied.

And with that said, Chris grabbed Vin by the collar with one hand and threw a hard punch across the sharpshooter's cheek with the other. Vin went limp in his arms and he eased his now unconscious friend down to the ground. After throwing a blanket over the tracker, he began setting up camp.

+ + + + + + +

Vin awoke with a groan, hand instinctively coming up to rub his bruised face. Then he went to sit up and the pain flared in his leg.

"Shit!" he swore through gritted teeth, lying back down.

"Here," Chris said as he stood above him, a flask of whiskey held in his outstretched hand.

Vin looked up warily, but took the offered flask from him. After he took a couple of swigs, he looked around the camp, then to the sky.

"You haven't been out too long, only half an hour or so," Chris said, answering the sharpshooter's unspoken question.

"Well that's a half hour too long," Vin retorted, throwing back the blanket Chris had put over him. Then he felt the cool breeze on his body and demanded, "Where the hell are my pants?!"

"You'll get 'em back," Chris responded casually.

"What the hell is your problem, Chris? First you don't wanna go after Slaney, then you keep tryin' to keep me from goin' after him. And now, not only do you knock me out, but you take my damn pants!" the tracker argued.

"You are the problem, Vin," Chris replied, easing down to sit on his heels so that he was face to face with the tracker. "You're right, I don't want you to go after Slaney. You're not thinking things through. You're not being objective about this," he continued. "And because of that you're gonna get yourself killed. So, if I gotta knock you out and take your damn pants to keep you from doing that, I will."

"Well then why the hell are we out here in the first place, Chris?" Vin asked. "Like you said before, you coulda just done this to me back in Four Corners?"

"Because, to answer your other question, not once did I ever say I wouldn't go after Slaney," he replied. "Everything you've told me - everything I've seen - tells me that we have to get this bastard, that we will get this bastard. But only if you don't go off half-cocked."

Vin looked carefully at Chris, his best friend, he reminded himself.

"Shit," he sighed. "Have I been that much of an ass?"

He looked again at Chris and got his answer.

"Okay, so how do I get my pants back?" he asked.

"You let me stitch up that leg and then you sleep for a couple of hours," Chris replied.

The younger man looked down at the bloody bandage on his thigh and nodded.

"You may want to take a few more swigs of that," the gunslinger instructed, motioning to the flask at Vin's side.

"You ever done this before?" Vin asked gritting his teeth as Chris pulled off the bandage.

"Nope," Chris replied. "But I've watched Nate enough times," he added with a grin.

Vin took several gulps from the flask in response to Chris's answer, getting out, "Just make it quick," between them.

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat back against his saddle and poked a stick into the small campfire, watching as Vin finally dropped off to sleep. After having to stitch up the tracker's wound, dealing with Vin's curses, having to look into his pain-filled eyes, he had a new appreciation for Nathan. He might just have to buy the man a bottle of whiskey when they got back to Four Corners.

He tried to work as fast and efficient as possible, but he was no healer. 'Hell,' he chuckled to himself, 'can barely fix my own clothes when they tear.' And Vin did try to be easy on him. He knew he was holding back. 'Probably wore down a couple of teeth, he was grinding them so much,' he thought.

The gunslinger looked up at the night sky. He figured they'd been stopped for about an hour, now. He'd let Vin sleep for another two or three before getting back on the trail to River Fork. Vin was right when he said they were losing time. Sure, Slaney needed to rest, too, but they needed to gain some ground, try to get to River Fork before Slaney had a chance to do any damage.

He heard a quiet moan and looked over at Vin. The sharpshooter had turned over in his sleep, probably tugged at the stitches. He was still worried about him. Not just because of the wound, though even Chris knew it was starting to get infected. And not just because of the tracker's hell-bent on vengeance attitude about going after Slaney. It was the combination of the two that had him worried. Sure, Vin seemed to have calmed down, come to his senses, now. But what was going to happen when they did find Slaney? Was the sharpshooter going to be in good enough shape to even have a chance with the outlaw? Another half-day's ride and Chris would probably have an answer for that question.

+ + + + + + +

Chris decided that it was time to get back on the trail. He poured out a cup of coffee for Vin before tossing the rest of the pot over the fire. He looked over to the tracker and found him sitting up, staring back. He studied his friend for a moment. Vin didn't seem to be in pain, but there was a slight sheen of sweat visible on his face and neck.

"Got some coffee for ya, Vin," the gunslinger said finally, offering the cup.

"He ain't gonna shoot me, ya know," Vin spoke, ignoring the coffee.

"What? Who ain't gonna shoot you?" Chris asked, confused.

"He already used one bullet on me," the tracker continued, matter-of-factly. "He can't shoot me again."

"What the hell are you talking about, Vin?" the gunslinger asked, becoming worried now.

He kneeled down next to the tracker and started to put a tentative hand to the man's brow, wondering if Vin was delirious with fever. But Vin just batted the hand away.

"Slaney - I remembered what he said to me back then," Vin began. "He said if he couldn't kill somebody with just one bullet, then it wasn't meant to be. That's why I'm alive, Chris. That's why he didn't kill me back then - he'd used up his one bullet. That's why he takes people out with headshots - to make sure they die. It was dumb luck that he missed mine," he finished.

"Vin, that don't make any sense!" Chris argued. "And besides, who says he's gonna remember you anyway?"

"Just got a feelin' is all," Vin replied, getting up and starting to pack his gear.

+ + + + + + +

"There it is, River Fork," Vin stated, nodding toward the small town ahead of them.

It was almost noon, the hot sun directly over them. They hadn't seen Slaney yet, and they hadn't come across any outlying ranches or houses that the man could have pillaged. They figured he'd need some supplies and would stop in at what the town had for a general store. The question would be how he planned on procuring those supplies.

"How you holding up there, Cowboy?" Chris asked, warily eyeing Vin as they rode toward the town.

"Leg's fine," he replied, giving the gunslinger a quick glance.

"Ain't what I'm talking about," Chris said, his green eyes locking with Vin's blues.

"I know," Vin said and spurred his horse onward, to avoid Chris's question.

The man in black just sighed as he set his horse galloping after Vin. They slowed their horses down once they got into town, walking them leisurely, eyeing the people in the town, looking for Slaney or any signs that the man had been there.

"You take the saloon, I'll take the general store," the tracker said, bring his horse over to a hitching rail.

"No. We stick together," the gunslinger countered.

"I can take care of myself," Vin replied defensively.

"Never said you couldn't," Chris spoke as he dismounted next to Vin. "Just said I think we should stick together, is all."

Vin saw the look in Chris's eyes and knew it was a losing battle.

Inside the River Fork General Store, Chris approached the proprietor.

"Morning," he said, greeting the man, getting a nod in return. "Was hoping to talk to the sheriff, here, but didn't see anybody in the jail…," he continued.

"Ain't got a sheriff. Last one died two weeks ago in a shootout," the man responded. "No doctor, neither," he added motioning to Vin's bandaged leg. "Though we never had one of them to begin with."

"We're lookin' for somebody," Vin spoke up. "Mighta come into town within the last day. About forty, ridin' with another man."

"We got people coming through here all the time, mister," the storeowner replied quickly. "We're the only town around for miles. Your friend could have been any one of two dozen that came through here."

"He ain't no friend," Vin responded defensively, his frustration evident.

"Thanks for the information," Chris put in, tipping his hat to the storeowner. "Come on, Vin," he said to his friend, putting a hand to his shoulder to nudge him out of the store.

The two men walked down the dusty street, stopping in at several places, including the saloon. No one had any information about Jim Slaney for them. They warned the townspeople about the man they were after while they went, hoping to at least get some others looking or at least mindful of the potential threat. With the entire town checked and no sign of Slaney, Chris finally convinced Vin to sit down to rest and eat at the town's café. Vin had begun limping badly and the knife wound was beginning to bleed again. Looking closely at the tracker's eyes and face, it was obvious that the fever and infection were starting to affect him, too. They were just beginning to eat the meal before them when he saw Vin put down his fork and reach for his pistol.

"Where?" Chris asked, searching the area where Vin seemed to be looking.

"Just walked into the general store," Vin replied, standing slowly.

Chris put some coins on the table before following Vin down the street.

"Keep your head, Cowboy," he whispered as he walked next to him. "Remember the other people around you. And me, too," he added.

Vin just nodded absently as he increased his pace. He was unaware of the heavy limp he had, or at the very least, he was ignoring it. He slipped quietly into the mercantile, giving the storeowner a quick glance. The man saw the seriousness in Vin's expression and moved to the back of the store.

Chris followed the tracker and once they were in the store, they split up. He quickly took note of the other people there, including some children. He silently prayed that Vin would handle this without any bloodshed. He saw that the tracker planned on surprising Slaney from behind, so he moved into the man's line of vision and created a diversion, knocking over a stack of canned peaches.

Vin made his move and put the barrel of his gun against Slaney's back.

"Don't even think about going for those guns of yours, Mister," Chris threatened in a harsh whisper, coming to stand toe to toe with him.

"Like I said, Chris," Vin began. "He already used his one bullet on me."

Slaney twisted his head around at the remark to look Vin directly in the eye.

"I remember you," he said. "And rules were made to be broken, on occasion," he added with a smile.

But before Slaney could follow through on his threat, Chris reached over and took the man's weapons, two pistols.

"Not today," the gunslinger said as he tucked the guns into his belt.

"Not ever," Vin growled, moving the barrel of his gun upward so that it rested against Slaney's temple.

"You've got me, boys," Slaney stated loudly, noticing the stares of the people that had begun to watch the three men. "I am unarmed and will come peaceable like."

Chris had also noticed the crowd starting to accumulate in the small store. All eyes were on Vin, Slaney and himself. He also saw the look in Vin's eyes.

"We got him, Vin," he said evenly. "He's willing to come peaceably."

Vin looked at Chris, saw that they weren't agreeing on Jim Slaney's fate. 'Chris doesn't understand,' he thought. 'He still doesn't understand.' He grabbed hold of Slaney's collar and began backing out of the store, away from Chris and the other people inside. 'Chris doesn't understand.'

The gunslinger kept a safe distance from Slaney and Vin once they were out on the street, not wanting to startle the tracker into making a mistake.

"Come on, Cowboy, don't do this," Chris whispered.

"Ain't got a choice," Vin replied. "You know what he did. You saw what he did."

"I know that, Vin," Chris replied. "But you ain't the judge or the jury. You of all people should know…"

"Dammit, Chris!" the sharpshooter swore, tightening the grip on his gun handle. "Don't you be throwin' that in my face! I'm innocent! This piece of shit is guilty as sin!"

"And right now, he's unarmed," Chris argued. "You shoot him and then you'll be just as guilty."

He looked closely at the ragged form of Vin Tanner. Bleeding from a knife wound, bruises covering his tired, worn face, it was easy to understand the man's reasoning.

"Bring them in, that's our job, Vin," Chris continued. "Don't make me do something we'll both regret," he added, taking out his gun.

"Just go away, Chris," he said. "Let me take care of him. Just one bullet. It'll be self-defense," he added, locking gazes with the man in black.

"I can't do that, Cowboy," the gunslinger responded, gesturing to the townspeople around him. "I don't want you to hang - for something you didn't do or for something you did."

"This man deserves to die," Vin growled through clenched teeth.

"But you don't," Chris returned and a shot rang out.

+ + + + + + +

Chris kept his gun aimed as he walked to the two men lying in the dirt. The townspeople he had gestured to earlier stayed stock still, shocked that the man in black had shot his own friend, defending the life of a murderer and rapist. They turned their heads as he glared at them, daring them to say anything, do anything.

He looked at Jim Slaney, daring him to try anything before shoving him aside, toward a couple of large men, silently telling them with his hard gaze not to let Slaney out of their sight. Then he turned over the other man. His best friend. He saw the blue eyes, looking up at him, glazing over.

"You shot me," Vin croaked.

"For your own good," Chris replied, taking the bandana from around Vin's neck.

He pressed it down hard on the bullet wound in Vin's right arm, tying the ends with a tight knot. He looked down at the tracker's leg. It was bleeding again. He took off his own bandana and pressed it under the bloody bandage wrapped around the knife wound.

"And if you ever do anything like this again, I swear I'll shoot ya where the sun don't shine," he continued, making sure it held tightly. "You're lucky I'm such a good shot," he muttered.

He helped Vin to stand, looping his good arm around his shoulder. As they headed for their horses, the proprietor from the general store finally got up the courage to speak.

"What should we do with him?" the man asked, pointing to Slaney, held tight in the arms of the two men.

"Whatever the hell you want. Lock him up, shoot him…," Chris replied bitterly. "I don't ever want to hear his name again."

The man had almost cost him a friendship. A life. If Vin had fired that one bullet...

Chris stopped and turned back to the storeowner.

"Lock him up," he said more calmly to him, apologetic. "Have the marshals come get him. He's wanted for murder." Turning back to his friend, he whispered, "Let's go home, Vin."

Vin wouldn’t move though, and Chris gave him a questioning look.

"Not until he’s behind bars and the marshals get ‘im," he said.

The gunslinger closed his eyes and nodded, understanding Vin’s need.

"Fine," he responded with a sigh. "Once he’s behind bars, though, we’re getting a room and you’re lying down."

They followed the men holding Slaney to the jail and watched with satisfaction as the cell door was locked.

"So who’s gonna watch him?" the storeowner asked, looking at Chris and Vin. "Like I said, we ain’t got no sheriff."

"We’ll watch ‘im," Vin replied wearily as he let go of Chris and eased down into one of the office chairs.

Chris turned back to the storeowner and handed the man some money.

"I’d appreciate it if you could bring me some supplies – bandages, whiskey, food," he said. "My friend, here, needs some fixin’ up," he added.

"Sure, Mister," he replied, leaving the sheriff’s office.

"So, boy?" Slaney called from his cell. "You been after me all these years? Not too many of ya out there, ya know. Only maybe four or five men I didn’t get with the first shot."

"You just shut your mouth, Slaney!" Chris shouted, walking back to the cells. "Or I’ll have to shut it for you," he threatened.

"Hey, Mister?"

Chris turned around and looked at one of the two men that helped bring Slaney in.

"Your friend don’t look too good," he continued. "There’s a side room over there…Sheriff Parks used to sleep in there, before…"

"Thanks…" he trailed hoping for the men’s names.

"Frank. Frank Larken," he replied. "This here’s Pete Cooper," he added, gesturing to the other man.

Chris shook both their hands and introduced himself and Vin before helping the tracker into the side room and its small cot.

"If you want, we’ll stay here and watch that feller, while you take care of your friend," Pete offered.

"Much obliged, boys," the gunslinger replied, returning his attention back to Vin.

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat, lightly dozing in the sheriff’s office, the chair set between the cells and the side room. He ignored the muffled remarks from Slaney. He’d gotten so mouthy, trying to taunt the men, especially Vin, that Chris, Frank and Pete went in and bound and gagged him.

Hearing a painful moan from Vin, he woke and went to the tracker’s side.

"Chris?" Vin called, eyes fluttering open. "Where are we?" he asked, looking around.

"We’re still in River Fork, Vin," he replied, putting a cup of water to the tracker’s lips.

After a few sips, Vin asked, "Slaney?"

"Still here, though not very comfortable," Chris replied. "Had to gag him," he added with a wry smile.

"What about the other one?" the ex-bounty hunter asked, worry in his eyes.

"Haven’t seen him, not that we’d know who to look for," the gunslinger replied. "Nobody but Frank, Pete and Mr. Clark, the storeowner, been by."

Vin tried to sit up, but was stopped by Chris’s hand on his shoulder.

"Nope, you’re gonna stay put. Frank and Pete said they’d keep an eye out," the gunslinger stated. "You’ve got a fever and I just got done stitching your leg up again. In fact, I think it’s time to start on those compresses again," he continued, pulling back the blanket that covered Vin’s leg.

"You took my damn pants off again?" the tracker complained as he looked down at the inflamed wound. "If I didn’t know ya better, Larabee, I’d think I might have to worry about shootin’ ya," he went on, muttering as he put his head back on the pillow.

Chris shook his head and smiled as he brought the wet compress out of the hot water. He placed it on the infected leg wound, eliciting a painful hiss from the tracker.

"Sorry, Vin," he said, quickly handing over a bottle of whiskey.

He changed the bandage on Vin’s arm, as well, as the tracker took several long sips of the whiskey. The bullet had gone straight through and he didn’t think there was any permanent damage. Vin had told him earlier that he could still move and feel his fingers and hand. He closed his eyes a moment, replaying the scene in his head again, for what seemed like the hundredth time.

"I’m sorry about this, too, Vin," he said, looking into the tracker’s blue eyes. "Didn’t want to do it, but…," he trailed.

"But I didn’t give you no choice, Cowboy," Vin finished. "I’m the one who should be sorry. Thought I’d be able to handle it – seein’ him again. But… all I kept seein’ was that woman… and…them Dobson girls…."

The gunslinger watched as Vin brought his good hand up and rubbed his eyes, covered them, tried to hide the pain. When he didn’t say anymore, Chris continued what he was doing and changed the hot compress again.

"Sent wires to Four Corners and Eagle Bend," he finally spoke, putting a cool cloth on Vin’s forehead. "Let them know we got Slaney. Buck’s gonna be coming down with a couple of marshals he met up with there."

"Sounds good," Vin mumbled before falling back asleep.

Chris stayed with him a little longer before heading back out to the office. He checked on Slaney and ignored the sneer the man gave him from behind his gag.

+ + + + + + +

Two days later, Buck and the marshals arrived. Once they’d rested and eaten, they officially took possession of the prisoner.

"I’ll head over to the general store and get us some supplies for the trip home," Buck offered. "You sure Vin’s okay to ride?" he asked Chris quietly.

"Nope," the gunslinger replied. "Even though the fever broke last night, I’m sure Nathan would say he should still be in bed. But considering that he ain’t here and Vin’s already tried to get at Slaney twice, I figure it’s best we leave."

Buck nodded in agreement before heading to Mr. Clark’s store.

"We’ll meet you out in front of the store after we get the horses," Chris called after him, receiving a backhanded wave from the ladies’ man.

+ + + + + + +

As Chris and Vin neared the livery, they heard a voice yell out, "Jim!"

The gunslinger spun around and watched as Slaney's forgotten cohort galloped past them, heading straight for the front of the jail, where the marshals were preparing to mount up. His gun was out and ready to use on the marshals.

"Stay here!" Chris ordered, leaving Vin to sit on the crude boardwalk before following Slaney's man.

Already hearing the gunfire, he pulled out his gun and continued running down the street. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Buck on the opposite boardwalk, heading toward the jail as well.

After the second marshal went down, Slaney managed to get on a horse and turned it around, heading straight for the gunslinger. Chris was about to shoot when some children, oblivious to what was happening, ran out into the street. He quickly ran and pulled them away from the approaching outlaws, losing his shot. He saw that Buck had been able to take out Slaney’s man, but was not in a position to go after Slaney. When Chris got back up, all he saw was the man’s back. Some of his first words to JD came back to him then, about not shooting a man in the back. He was sorely tempted, though, as thoughts of what would happen to Vin if Slaney escaped again came to mind.

His thoughts became moot, then, as a single gunshot rang out and Slaney was thrown from his horse. Chris looked ahead and saw Vin standing in the middle of the street. He shakily held his gun in his left hand, still pointing it at Slaney.

Chris moved up slowly next to Vin and looked at the single bullet hole in Slaney's forehead.

"It's over Vin, you got him," he said, reaching for the gun.

Vin released the hold on his weapon and let Chris take it from him. He looked up into the gunslinger's green eyes and nodded. Chris barely caught him as he collapsed, finally giving in to his body's demands, now that Slaney was dead.

+ + + + + + +

A day and a half later, Buck, Chris and Vin were on the trail back to Four Corners. After Vin’s collapse in the street of River Fork, Chris and Buck brought him back to the sheriff’s office. There he slept for about twelve hours straight. Chris figured it was probably the best sleep he’d had since hearing about Slaney almost a week ago.

The gunslinger looked over at the tracker riding beside him.

"How are you holding up, Cowboy?" Chris asked.

Vin, leg bandaged up, right arm in a sling, looked over at the gunslinger with a grin and said, "A whole lot better than I was a week ago."

"Figured as much, but I was asking about your arm and leg," the gunslinger said, trying to get a look at the tracker's wounds. "Maybe we should take a rest and change them bandages. Nathan'll kill me if you come back with them all infected again."

"You gonna try and get my pants off again?" Vin asked, winking at Buck. "Hey, Buck? Is Chris one of them funny boys? I swear, every time I fell asleep I woke up naked 'cause Chris took my damn pants off."

"You watch yourself, Tanner," Chris responded, pointing his finger at the tracker. "I shot you once already…" he threatened.