by Angela Gabriel

Synopsis: When trouble comes to Four Corners, Chris and Vin's friendship is strengthened. (Note: This story is set three weeks after the guys met, and was written in large part to explore when and how Vin learned about Sarah and Adam.)

Disclaimer: Don't own them. Not making money off of them.

Author's Notes: This is my first "Magnificent Seven" fanfic. While I've been reading M7 fanfics since late last summer, I never expected to write one. I blame this story on two things. First, an Iron and Wine song, "He Lays in the Reins," that's been stuck in my head for two months, conjuring up images of the show. Second, the season-one DVDs that I got in December, allowing me to view all of the eps for the first time and gain a fuller appreciation of the guys.

I have to thank two ladies who were a huge help in writing this story: Renegade and Nancy. Renegade provided a great beta read, and I especially appreciate her assistance in working with me on Chris and Vin's accents. Nancy quickly answered several key questions regarding canon vs. fanon.

"Somethin' ain't right."

Vin Tanner's soft drawl drew curious glances from the two men at his table. It had been an unusually quiet day, and as the afternoon sun began lazily sinking in the sky, Vin, Ezra Standish and Chris Larabee had happened into the saloon at about the same time. After a few minutes of casual conversation and long pulls on their drinks, Ezra had lured his companions into a game of poker. The mood had been calm and companionable.

Now, however, Chris sensed a change, a shift in the atmosphere, at least where Vin was concerned. The sharpshooter's relaxed posture was at odds with his narrowed blue eyes, fixed on the bar like a predator sizing up its prey. The dark blond gunslinger followed his friend's intent gaze across the smoky room to where two tall, grimy, dark-haired men leaned up against the bar. Chris hadn't seen them in Four Corners before.

"Know 'em?" Larabee asked quietly, attention back on Tanner.

Without taking his eyes off the bar, the younger man shook his head and took a sip of beer.

"See something out of place?"

Vin shook his head again, continuing to observe the newcomers.

Ezra laughed softly as he smoothed a hand over his expensive, red silk jacket. "Then what, pray tell, 'ain't right,' Mr. Tanner?"

"Jest a feelin' is all."

"A feeling?" The gambler arched an eyebrow. "Perhaps your days as a bounty hunter have made you more suspicious than necessary." He studied the two men. "Those ruffians look no different than any of the other dusty denizens of our fair town."

"Somethin' ain't right," Vin quietly insisted.

Chris frowned and laid his cards face down on the table. He hadn't known Tanner for very long. They'd met only three weeks ago while saving the town healer, Nathan Jackson, from a lynch mob. But from their brief time together, he knew the long-haired, buckskin-clad man was smart, someone who'd seen the worst of what men could do to each other. If the sharpshooter thought there might be a problem looming, then there might be a problem looming.

"Maybe Ezra can find out what they're here for," Chris suggested, his tone making the idea an order, rather than a request.

The gambler eyed the gunslinger, brow furrowed. "I beg your pardon?"

"Ask them to join you for a game of cards. Talk to them and see if they're staying in town awhile."

"And why must I be the one to procure such information?" For the first time since the newcomers had walked into the saloon, Vin looked away from them and at his friends. He cocked his head toward Ezra. "Cuz yer the least likely t'make 'em suspicious." A mischievous smile played on his lips. "With them fancy clothes 'n' that shiny gold tooth, ya look like a harmless fella."

The gambler frowned. "Is that supposed to be a compliment?" When he got no response, he sighed heavily. "And if I do obtain the information that will put your minds at ease, what shall be my reward? I assume it will be most handsome."

Chris ground his teeth together, trying to rein in his temper as frustration rushed over him like a heat wave. He didn't care much for Standish, in large part because the man had run out on them during the battle at the Seminole village. Still, the gambler had his uses.

"Ezra," Larabee growled. "Just do it."

The well-dressed man pushed back from the table, clearly not pleased, but nodded curtly, gathered up his deck of cards, and approached the bar. Nearly five minutes passed before he returned to the table and began shuffling the cards, eyes focused on the deft movements of his hands.

"I'm afraid I have little of substance to report," he murmured. "They gave their names as Emilio and Raphael Cortez. Do those monikers perhaps engender some recognition from either of you?"

Vin's eyebrows furrowed. "Huh?"

The gambler rolled his eyes. "Do you know them by name?" "Never heard of 'em."

"Me, either," Chris agreed.

"Well," Ezra sighed. "I'm afraid they did not provide me with any truly enlightening discourse. After somewhat rudely refusing my offer for a game of chance, they merely said they're passing through on their way to a new employment opportunity, something involving ranching. They said they're spending one night in our illustrious town before sallying forth in the early morning."

Nodding thoughtfully, Chris lit a cheroot. "You think they're telling the truth?"

The gambler smiled widely, gold tooth gleaming faintly in the glow of a nearby kerosene lamp. "Why, Mr. Larabee, are you seeking my professional opinion? Admitting that my years of observing human nature make me indispensable when it comes to -- "

"Just answer me," the gunslinger ordered, green eyes glittering.

Ezra's smile faded quickly. "Are they passing through? I believe so. Are they merely staying overnight, on their way to new employment? I believe that, too." His expression grew harder. "Do they carry an air of danger about their persons? Yes. To what lengths they will go, and for what reasons, I do not know."

Blowing out a plume of smoke, Chris frowned. Standish's line of work, if you could call it that, required him to quickly size up a man. For the gambler and Vin both to believe the newcomers could be trouble didn't bode well.

Vin took a last swallow of his beer and eyed the Cortez brothers, who were heading out of the saloon. "Like I said, Chris," he murmured. "Somethin' ain't right."

+ + + + + + +

Four hours later, as many of Four Corners' residents took to their beds, Vin stood a quiet watch outside of Virginia's Hotel, the only illumination a small bonfire burning near the steps leading up to the front door. He'd hidden himself around the side of the structure, deep enough in the darkness to be hidden from casual passersby, but close enough to the entrance to hear if anyone came or went.

When the Cortez brothers had left the saloon, he'd told Chris he'd keep an eye on them and followed them to the hotel. The two men had crossed the short distance quickly, boots kicking up little puffs of dust underneath their feet. They'd talked animatedly, sometimes gesturing angrily, voices rising and falling and then rising again. Vin had figured they were arguing, but he'd been too far away to make out what they were discussing.

So here he was now, prepared to stand guard all night to make sure they didn't try to harm anyone.

A familiar jingle of spurs alerted him to Chris' arrival. He turned and nodded once at the gunslinger, barely able to make out the man's features in the weak firelight.

Larabee jerked his head toward the hotel. "They still in there?"


"You still got a bad feeling?"

"Yeah." Vin leaned his left side against the wall, his body in its customary slouch.

"Gonna sit out here all night?"


"Want some company?"

The sharpshooter shrugged. "If ya like."

Chris settled against the side of the hotel next to the other man, back resting against the wall. "Told the boys what's going on. J.D.'s been looking through wanted posters at the jail, but he hasn't found anything. Ezra's going to stay at the saloon and see if anyone might have heard the Cortez brothers talking about anything out of the ordinary. Said he doesn't mind staying all night if we need him to."

Vin snickered softly. "Hell, Chris, Ezra's always at the saloon."

Chuckling, the other man nodded. "Sometimes I wonder if that man was born in one."

"Or at a card table." The sharpshooter looked up at the rising moon and sighed. "Beautiful, ain't it? Floatin' up 'n' shinin' down like a piece o'heaven."

The blond tilted his head up to follow the other man's gaze. "Don't think I've ever met a man who loves the outdoors as much as you."

"Always have. Ain't nothin' finer than bein' close t'nature." At the gunslinger's quiet snort, the younger man looked at his friend and grinned. "Well, maybe there is somethin' finer."

Lapsing into a comfortable silence, Vin watched the increasingly empty street activity and considered what, exactly, bothered him about the Cortez brothers. Like Ezra, he sensed something dangerous in them. They reminded him of rattlesnakes on the verge of striking at someone. With any luck, though, they'd ride out the next morning, and he'd be proved wrong.

Damned shame he didn't believe much in luck.

"You hungry?" Chris asked, bringing his attention back to the man in black. "You never did eat supper. I can handle things here so you can get something before the restaurant closes."

Vin hadn't realized he'd missed supper until the blond mentioned it, and his stomach rumbled in response. He'd skipped meals before, though, and figured he'd be fine until the Cortez brothers left Four Corners.

"'M all right, Chris. Thanks."

"Don't trust me to keep watch, Tanner?" the gunslinger asked, a teasing note in his voice.

Vin shook his head. "Jest figure if anythin' happens, I wanna be here for it."

"I can bring you something to eat, then."

The sharpshooter chuckled. "Hell, Larabee, ya tryin' to be my pa?"

The other man's jaw clenched, eyes briefly reflecting a deep pain. "Not tryin' to be your pa," the blond murmured. "Just your friend."

Vin could see he'd struck a nerve, but was unsure exactly why his words had bothered his friend. Did Chris have a bad relationship with his pa? Or maybe he'd never even known his father ...

Whatever the case, he wouldn't pry. A man like Larabee didn't open up easily, and wouldn't appreciate a lot of personal questions. "Didn't mean to offend ya," he apologized.

"You didn't."

The brief response sounded genuine, so Vin let the subject drop, and the two men began discussing safer topics as they continued their vigil.


A shrill, piercing scream ripped through the early dawn hours, jerking Chris awake from where he'd fallen asleep sitting against the side of the hotel. Vin, who'd been on watch, had already raced to the entrance, mare's leg in hand. The gunslinger got stiffly to his feet, withdrew his Colt, and quickly followed.

Bursting through the front door into the tiny, empty lobby, the two men headed for the stairs. Taking them two at a time, they let another terrified scream guide them to the third room on the second floor. The door was shut, but Chris raised one leg and kicked it open, the wood near the handle splintering in protest. Inside, by the low light of a single kerosene lamp, he saw the back of a man leaning over a weakly struggling woman on the bed. When the dark figure whipped his head around, Larabee recognized him as one of the Cortez brothers. The bastard had his hands wrapped around his victim's throat.

"Let her go," Chris growled.

The man reached for his gun, and the gunslinger fired immediately, aiming high. Any other shot would have endangered the woman's life. The bullet drilled a neat hole between Cortez's eyes, spraying bloody tissue out the back of his head and on the wall. The dead man collapsed hard, glancing off the edge of the mattress before hitting the floor with a thud.

Vin hurried to the young woman's aid. Still lying on the bed, she clutched her pale yellow robe, which had ripped along one sleeve and at the bodice. The sharpshooter slipped an arm under her shoulders and gently lifted her to a sitting position. Shrugging out of his buckskin coat, he wrapped it around her thin, shivering frame. She burrowed into his chest, tucking her head neatly under his chin and clinging to him as he asked if she was all right. Her long, honey-blonde hair spilled down her back as she nodded, then shook her head.

"He tried to ... to ... oh, God!" she gasped, anguished blue eyes filling with tears.

"Yer all right now, ma'am," Vin soothed. "Shh. Yer all right."

Chris walked around the corner of the bed and stared at the dead man. The bastard was lucky he'd killed him quick.

At the scuff of boots outside the room, the gunslinger spun around to see the other Cortez brother standing in the doorway, dark eyes blazing at the sight of his dead kin. The dark-haired man swiftly pointed his gun at Larabee's chest and squeezed the trigger, but not before Chris fired his Colt.

Only one bullet found its intended target, stilling a beating heart and causing the man's arm to jerk so that his shot went wide.

For the second time in less than a minute, Chris watched a Cortez brother's body drop to the floor. "You were right about them, Vin," he said, turning to where his friend sat on the bed, comforting the woman.

Except Vin wasn't on the bed.

He was slowly sliding down the wall behind it, grimacing, slouch hat a bit askew, mare's leg held loosely in his right hand, left hand pressed hard against his bloody right shoulder. Sliding, sliding ...

For a moment, time froze as Chris stared in shock at his wounded friend. Cortez's shot had struck the younger man, who had apparently gotten to his feet at some point, Winchester in hand, prepared to fire.

A slight groan from Vin, and time resumed.

Holstering his Colt, the gunslinger grasped his friend by the elbows and eased the man down to sit on the floor.

"It's hell bein' right," the sharpshooter hissed between clenched teeth, lifting a trembling hand away from the bleeding bullet hole just below his collarbone. He released his grip on the mare's leg, setting it on the floor beside him. "Couldn't even get a shot off," he complained.

"Damn, Tanner," Chris muttered, frowning deeply and eyeing the wall behind them, where a trail of red smeared its way down the wood paneling. He placed a hand behind the other man's good shoulder and guided him forward enough to examine his back, then sighed and settled Vin against the wall. "Went straight through."

"Least no one ... has t'dig the bullet out," the sharpshooter panted, smiling wryly.

Chris found little humor in the situation, not liking how this had played out. Not liking it one damned bit.

"Vin? Chris?"

Looking over his shoulder, the gunslinger saw a slightly disheveled J.D. Dunne just outside the doorway, eyes flitting from his friends to the woman on the bed to the corpses on the floor. The younger man's mouth opened and shut, but no sound emerged.

"Get Nathan!" the blond ordered, perhaps more sharply than necessary, but he needed to spur the other man to action. While he doubted Vin's wounds were fatal, the sooner the bleeding sharpshooter got help, the better.

J.D. nodded and nearly tripped as he left.

Turning back to his friend, Chris shook his head at the large patch of blood discoloring the man's shirt. "Let me take a look," he said softly, waiting until his wounded friend lifted the hand clamped over the entry wound. He then quickly undid a few of the top buttons and eased the shirt down around the other man's shoulder. He winced at the soft gasp that followed. "Sorry."

Vin nodded, lips pressed tightly together, and moved his hand back over where the bullet had entered him. Chris untied the bandana from around the younger man's neck, folded it up, and firmly placed it over the exit wound. The sharpshooter hissed and briefly squeezed his eyes shut.

Low murmuring drew Chris' attention to the doorway, and his green eyes glittered with irritation at the cluster of hotel guests and employees who gawked at the scene before them. They'd apparently felt safe enough, now that the gunfire had stopped, to come see what had happened, to indulge their morbid curiosity.

"I believe your presence is not required," came a familiar voice, and then Ezra Standish shouldered his way through the onlookers and gingerly stepped over the body blocking the doorway. Turning his lips down in disgust, the impeccably dressed man grabbed hold of the dead man's ankles and hauled him further into the room. He then turned to face the onlookers. "Please return to your rooms. You are most safe for the rest of your stay in this fine establishment."

Firmly shutting the door, the gambler pivoted toward the room's occupants. "Well, gentleman, I see we had justified cause for alarm where these cretins were concerned." His eyes narrowed as he studied Vin. "Mr. Tanner, you look decidedly unwell."

The sharpshooter laughed, a shaky sound that dissolved into a groan.

It didn't sit well with Chris. "Ezra, you got a handkerchief?"

"But of course, Mr. Larabee," the gambler replied smoothly, producing a white silk handkerchief and handing it over. "A gentleman always carries such an article of clothing. It is essential to ... "

Chris tuned out the rest of Ezra's chatter, focusing instead on Vin. Tiny beads of sweat had formed on the man's face, adding a strange sheen to the rapidly paling skin. The gunslinger folded the handkerchief into a neat square, peeled his friend's bloody hand away from the entry wound, and pressed the cloth against it. The sharpshooter resumed keeping pressure on the area as Chris returned his attention to the exit wound.

"Dear lady," Ezra addressed the weeping woman on the bed. "Are you quite all right? What assistance do you require?"

"She needs t'see Nathan," Vin rasped. "Gotta make sure she's okay."

"She looks bruised, but not broken," the gambler observed, eyeing the light-red hand marks around the woman's neck as he produced yet another handkerchief and gave it to her. She took the item but didn't do anything with it, instead clasping her hands tightly in her lap. "It is fortunate that you came to her aid in time."

The door swung open hard, and Nathan and J.D. entered the room, shutting the door behind them to keep the still-assembled crowd's prying eyes away from the carnage. The healer looked at the distressed woman and bloody sharpshooter, seeming to size up which patient needed him most.

"See t'her first," Vin suggested softly, eyes drifting shut for a moment, breath coming in short pants.

Chris frowned disapprovingly at his friend, not the least bit surprised by the chivalrous statement, but certain that Tanner required Nathan's help more urgently than the woman. "Bullet went straight through," he informed the dark-skinned healer. "He's losing a fair amount of blood."

"It'll keep," Vin insisted quietly, pained eyes meeting Nathan's concerned ones. "Need t'know ... she's all right."

"First things first," the healer admonished. "I need to make sure the bullet didn't hit anythin' vital."

Nathan kneeled in front of the sharpshooter and checked underneath each makeshift bandage, then ran his hands over Vin's ribcage, pressing gently but firmly as he went. His patient grunted a few times, but otherwise made no protest. When he finished, he nodded in satisfaction.

"Bullet went high enough it didn't hit the lung," the healer assessed. "Don't feel no broken or cracked ribs." He glanced at the woman and then back at the injured man. "Let's get ya'll to the clinic. I can't care for you properly here." He turned to Ezra. "Can you take her over there?"

"Most assuredly," Standish replied, and gently lifted the woman up, cradling her in his arms. J.D. opened the door to let him pass through.

Nathan watched them go and then smiled reassuringly at Vin. "C'mon now. Let's get you up and outta here."

+ + + + + + +

Ten minutes later, Vin and Chris sat outside of Nathan's clinic. The blond had placed his chair at an angle to the injured man, maintaining pressure on both the entry and exit wounds, working to stop the bleeding. Vin had wanted to help, but blood loss had weakened him, and he'd been unable to press hard enough for Nathan's liking. Instead, he focused on trying to breathe without gasping or moaning, occasionally swiping at the sweat that kept building up across his brow.

Inside the clinic, Nathan was seeing to the woman. When they'd arrived at the top of the stairs, Vin had insisted that the healer care for her first. He'd figured Nathan would need more time to treat his wounds than the woman's, and he didn't want the traumatized young lady to have to wait overly long for medical attention. She'd been through enough as it was.

After taking one last, critical look at Vin's still-bleeding shoulder, Nathan had agreed. He'd instructed Chris to keep steady pressure on the wounds, and to fetch him if the sharpshooter lost consciousness. He'd then sent Ezra to locate Mary Travis and bring her back.

"Could be she won't want me examinin' her without another woman there," the healer had explained.

A tired but alert Mary had arrived soon after, favoring Vin with a sympathetic smile before going inside, dress swishing against the doorframe as she went to assist Nathan. Ezra had then excused himself and headed back to the hotel to see if J.D. needed any help.

As they waited for the healer to finish caring for his patient, Vin closed his eyes, trying to ignore the pulsating agony that had dug deep into his shoulder. He was tired, more tired than he'd been in a long while. He knew blood loss was to blame. Knew it based on previous experience. He'd been shot twice before. The first time, he'd been just a teenager, not much younger than J.D. He'd been tracking buffalo and had been hit by a stray bullet from another hunter's gun. The shot had only grazed his side, proving to be a minor inconvenience. The second time, three years ago, he'd been shot in the thigh while chasing a bounty. That wound had been much like this one, straight through, with a fair amount of blood spilled. The recovery period had been painful and far too slow. It hadn't helped that he'd been holed up in a strange town the entire time, using what little money he had to buy medical supplies and nurse his own hurts. At least this time he had friends nearby.

Friends. A luxury for a man like him, a man who worried he'd always be on the run, always looking over his shoulder, wondering how long he could avoid that noose tightening around his neck.

"How you holding up?" Chris asked, worry weaving through his words.

Opening his eyes, Vin wiped the back of his good arm over his sweaty forehead, and smiled weakly. "'M fine," he insisted, somewhat breathlessly. "Ain't nothin' ... t'worry 'bout."

The blond frowned and grunted. "Think I'll let Nathan be the judge of that."

"Hell ... been shot b'fore." Vin winced at the burning spikes that twisted through his shoulder, trying to meet in the middle. "Think I know ... what m'body can stand ... better'n you, cowboy."

Chris' eyebrows quirked up. "You just call me a cowboy?"

The gunslinger had taken the word as an insult when Lucas James used it a few weeks ago.

"Reckon I did," Vin agreed, lips curving up. "Ya gonna do ... somethin' 'bout it?"

Chris shook his head. "Hardly seems fair, beatin' on an injured man, so I reckon it'll keep."

The sharpshooter chuckled, and then bit his lip as a fresh wave of hurt gripped him. Those damned spikes had met in the middle and were pushing against each other, trying to see who could drive whom out the other side.

"Sure you're all right?" Chris asked, brow furrowed.


They sat quietly, something they'd done often these past few weeks. Vin had always been comfortable going long stretches without speaking, or using few words when he did. He'd never met another man with the same habit until Larabee, who seemed to relish silence even more than he did. Most people wanted to talk. And talk. And talk. Women liked to discuss anything and everything. Men wanted to boast about their latest conquests, be they in the bedroom or in the middle of a gunfight. Not Chris, though. The man relied more on action, and sometimes inaction, to speak for him.

And that was fine with Vin.

A few minutes later, the clinic door opened and Mary stepped through, gently leading the other woman outside. The young lady seemed wary, big blue eyes darting nervously around the landing and then down the stairs to the dusty streets.

"It's all right," Mary soothed. "My house isn't far. We'll get you settled and then you can rest awhile." She handed Vin the buckskin coat he'd lent the woman back at the hotel. He took it with a nod, and Mrs. Travis led her charge away.

Nathan poked his head outside and jerked his chin toward the injured man. "Your turn, now."

The trip inside the clinic and onto the bed proved more challenging than Vin had expected. Dizziness assaulted him as soon as stood up, robbing his balance and sending him reeling against Nathan and Chris as they guided him toward the bed. The spikes inside his shoulder were no longer fighting each other, but had merged into one enormous source of pain that left him shaking and sweating heavily as he finally, mercifully, sat down.

"She gonna be ... all right?" he asked, trying to focus on the woman and not the agony clawing at him. He swiped his good arm across his forehead, feeling the shirtsleeve grow damp.

Nathan nodded and looked at Chris. "Help me get him outta his shirt and boots." He looked at his patient, taking the buckskin coat and hat and setting them aside. "She has a few bruises on her arms, and 'round her neck, too. Throat's gonna hurt for a while. A little bit of rest, though, and she'll be just fine."

"Did he ... " Vin let the thought trail off, not wanting to finish the question. It wasn't right for any man, for any reason, to lay hands on a woman and try to take her by force.

"No." the healer replied as he and Chris removed the sharpshooter's shirt, each man apologizing as their movements elicited soft grunts. "She said he was only in her room for a minute and then ya'll showed up."

The gunslinger removed Vin's boots and swung his legs up on the bed, and Nathan helped him lay down. He groaned as the spike continued grinding through his shoulder.

"Gonna clean you up now," the healer said, moving away to rummage through the cabinet where he kept his supplies. "I'll do the entry wound first, then the exit wound. It's gonna hurt." He turned back to his patient, holding a small bottle and spoon. "I'm thinkin' you might want some of this."

Vin squinted at the bottle. He couldn't read the words on it, but he was pretty sure what it contained. "Laudanum?"

Nathan nodded.

The sharpshooter shook his head, fatigue and hurt pushing and pulling on him, making it harder and harder to think. To form words. "Don't need it."

"Vin -- "

"Nathan." He shifted slightly on the bed, seeking a more comfortable position, and bit back a groan as the spike splintered into a thousand tiny pieces inside of him. His breathing hitched, and he slammed his eyes shut and willed himself not to pass out. He felt a strong hand on his forearm. Larabee. He knew without looking. After a few seconds, the blinding agony receded enough for him to speak, and he took a deep, shaky breath, peeling his eyes open to stare at the frowning healer. "Never used it b'fore ... don't need it now."

More importantly, he didn't want it. Not with a $500 bounty on his head. Injured and drugged into a stupor wasn't a good combination for a man wanted for murder. There was no telling when someone might come for him, and he couldn't defend himself if he was so far under he couldn't function.

"C'mon now, Vin," Nathan urged. "You're hurtin', and this'll help. Ain't no need to be a martyr."

The sharpshooter shook his head, groaning softly and wanting nothing more than to just stay very still for a very long time. "No," he insisted, voice too weak to carry much authority, but determined nonetheless.

Jackson rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "A little whiskey would take the edge off."

Vin chuckled and gasped softly. "Take more ... than 'a little' ... don't need no ... hangover."

Nathan opened his mouth to speak again, but Chris shook his head.

"Let him be," the gunslinger quietly ordered. "Man's got a right to decide how he wants to get through somethin' like this."

The healer scowled and blew out an impatient breath. "All right," he agreed, and looked at his patient. "But let me know if you change your mind, ya hear?"

Vin nodded and grimaced as the spike shards began regrouping, preparing for a second assault. And then Nathan was looming over him, carbolic acid in one hand and bandages in another, and he sucked in a shaky breath and let it out. He smiled thinly, hoping to encourage the healer, reassure Chris and bolster his own confidence. Seconds later, he felt the sharp bite of carbolic and jerked up. The gunslinger's strong hands pushed him back down as the spike lanced through him, impaling him to the bed, the clinic, the town. Driving relentlessly through him until he could stand no more, and welcomed the darkness.


An hour later, Chris and Nathan stood next to each other, washing Vin's blood off their hands. The healer had thoroughly cleaned his patient's wounds, using sterilized tweezers to remove tiny pieces of clothing that had embedded themselves inside the bullet holes. Having been shot a few times himself, Chris knew how important it was to get that kind of debris out, or risk a potentially life-threatening infection.

After Nathan had determined he'd done all he could to prevent the wounds from going bad, he'd stitched them closed, bandaged them, and slipped a sling over Vin's arm. His deft movements had impressed the gunslinger. One day, Jackson would make a damned fine doctor.

The sharpshooter had lain unconscious during most of their ministrations. When he'd stirred, it was for only a few seconds at a time, eyes slitting open and a faint groan issuing from his lips. Now, he lay quietly, pale but peaceful.

As Chris finished scrubbing his hands, he sighed softly. He hadn't expected this to be so damned hard. He'd seen plenty of men bleed before, watched good men suffer. But witnessing Vin's hurt had bothered him deeply, despite the tough façade he'd so carefully honed since Sarah and Adam's deaths. He'd spent the past few years keeping apart from people, even putting distance between himself and Buck, the best friend he'd ever had.

And yet ... here he was now, concern for Tanner's welfare pricking at him. He hadn't known the sharpshooter long, but they'd formed an easy friendship, one that suddenly felt far more important, more vital, than it had a few hours ago.

"He'll be all right," Nathan pronounced quietly. "He needs to rest the next few days, and no ridin' for a week after that. But he should be fine."

Taking the towel the healer offered, Chris dried his hands, sparing Vin a glance and frowning at the pale, still man. And then frowning that he was frowning.

Hell. Was he going soft?

Looking at Nathan, he thanked the man for taking care of the sharpshooter. "Four Corners is lucky to have you."

"And you, too. You've only been here a few weeks, but you've already made a difference."

"Reckon we all have." Chris handed the towel back. "I'm gonna go to the hotel and make sure everything's all right there. When Vin wakes, tell him I'll come by later to see how he's feeling."

Hell, he was going soft.

+ + + + + + +

Warmth. Light.

Vin slowly opened his eyes and blinked sluggishly a few times, clearing away the haziness and looking toward the window. The late-morning sun shone through, and the sounds of Four Corners seeped into his awareness. Horses whinnied and trotted nearby, boisterous cowboys held lively conversations as they walked along the dusty streets, and metal struck metal as the blacksmith went about his business.

The sharpshooter took a deep breath and expelled it, turning his attention indoors and surveying the small, empty clinic. He lay on the bed, a thin blanket covering him from his feet to halfway up his bare torso. A sling imprisoned his right arm, and he gently moved the top of it aside enough to spy a white bandage stained with a small spot of dried blood.

The wounds didn't pain him nearly as much as they had a few short hours ago. The spikes had thankfully been exchanged for dull knives. Figuring he was well enough to be on his way, he rolled onto his left side, grunting as the knives sharpened and gouged into tender flesh. He kept moving, though, using his good arm to lever himself up into a sitting position. The room wavered, up and down and side to side, and he squeezed his eyes shut. Damn, but he was weak. Taking a few deep breaths, he let the pain settle and the vertigo pass. When he ventured another look around the clinic, it had stopped moving. He scanned the room, searching for his shirt, coat, hat and gun.

Just where the hell were they? A man couldn't wander around town half naked. Wouldn't be proper.

He was about to get to his feet when the door opened and Nathan entered. The healer frowned and strode over.

"What you doin', Vin?" he demanded, concern in his eyes. "You ain't ready to be on your feet yet."

"'M all right, Nathan," the sharpshooter softly protested. "Ya fixed me up real good. Jest figured I oughtta head back to m'wagon. I can rest up there."

"Uh uh. You're stayin' right here."

"Ain't no need. I'll be fine."

The healer's eyes flashed. "Yeah, you will, because you're gonna stay here until I say you're fit to leave!"

Vin's lips parted in surprise at the fierce tone. The other man clearly felt he was in charge here. And hell, he was, wasn't he? It was his clinic, after all.

"You're gonna stay here, Vin. And you're gonna do what I say." Nathan placed a hand on his patient's forehead, nodded in satisfaction, and then carefully eased him back down on the mattress.

The sharpshooter didn't resist the help, feeling drained from simply sitting up. He watched the healer gather a few supplies, scoot a chair over and sit next to the bed.

"How 'bout I go t'the boardin' house instead of m'wagon?" Vin suggested. Tired as he was, the thought of staying in the clinic made him a touch nervous. He trusted Jackson, knew the man had considerable skill and a good heart. Still, he didn't fancy the idea of being watched closely, or lying around like an invalid.

"It's better if you stay here." Nathan leaned forward and untied the sling. "Need to make sure you're gettin' proper rest, make sure no infection sets in."

Vin blew out an impatient breath, rubbing increasingly gritty eyes. "Can't ya jest come by 'n' check on me? I swear I'll rest up real good."

"You ain't strong enough to do for yourself right now," the healer insisted, peeling the bandage back and replacing it with a fresh one. He frowned sympathetically as his prodding hands elicited a groan, and then helped his patient turn on his left side. As he exchanged the second bandage for a new one, the sharpshooter sucked in a breath. "Sorry, Vin."

"Jest doin' ... yer job," the injured man grated out, grimacing.

After changing the bandages, Nathan settled Vin on his back, fixing the sling into place and resting a hand on the sharpshooter's arm. "I ain't tryin' to keep you prisoner here, Vin. I'm just tryin' to do what's best for you,"

The wounded man nodded, closing his eyes. He didn't have the energy to argue. The knives were too sharp, the weariness too all-encompassing.

A bit more rest wouldn't hurt.

Rising to his feet, Nathan looked thoughtfully at his patient. "I'm gonna fix you up some tea. Got some herbs that should help with the pain. Unless you want some laudanum?"

Vin shook his head, shifting to lay on his left side. He grimaced as the movement jarred his shoulder. "Don't need no laudanum," he replied tiredly. "Pain ain't near as bad as last night."

"All right."

As the healer moved to prepare the tea, Vin reached out and touched his wrist, waiting until Nathan turned back around to speak. "'Preciate what ya done for me."

The other man smiled. "You're welcome. "

Before he could stifle it, a jaw-popping yawn escaped the sharpshooter. "Damn, I'm tired."

"Don't fall asleep just yet, now. Tea first."

"Hell," Vin grumbled good-naturedly. "Thought ya wanted me t'rest."

"Tea first. Then rest. And don't be arguin' with me." Nathan grinned. "I don't need no stubborn patients in my clinic."

The weary sharpshooter arched an eyebrow, the corners of his mouth quirking up. "Ya sayin' I'm stubborn?"

"You sayin' you ain't?"

Vin snorted softly, winced at the resulting pain, and waited quietly on the tea.

+ + + + + + +

It was lunchtime when Chris arrived at the clinic, carrying a tray of sandwiches that he carefully balanced in one hand as he knocked on the door. Nathan let him in, indicating he should be quiet. The gunslinger set the tray down on a table and went to his sleeping friend's side. A washcloth lay across Vin's forehead, and a slight flush tainted his skin.

"He's got himself a fever," Nathan quietly confirmed. Chris studied the healer, worry shading his green eyes. "Bad?"

The other man shook his head. "It ain't that high, and there ain't no sign of infection. Lotsa men get fevered with wounds like this. I don't think it's anythin' to be worried 'bout."

Chris nodded, grateful Nathan didn't seem overly concerned. "How's he doing other than the fever?"

"Why dontcha ask him yerself?" came a weary voice from the bed.

The gunslinger smiled down at the wounded man. "All right then. How you feeling?"

Vin shrugged, rubbing slightly puffy eyes and shifting to his left side, the washcloth slipping off of him. "Ain't too bad. Been worse."

Nathan took the cloth and briefly rested a hand on his patient's face. "Still warmer than I'd like. I've got some tea that should help. And Chris brought some sandwiches, if you're hungry."

Vin paused and then nodded his head. "Reckon I could eat, but first I need t'take care of some personal business, if ya know what I mean." Eyeing the door, he grabbed the blanket and began moving it aside.

The healer shook his head. "Don't think you're up for that just now. 'Tween the blood loss and fever, you'd fall flat on your face."

Despite the injured man's obvious exhaustion, his blue eyes sparked. "I'll be fine." Pushing the blanket down, he levered himself up on his good elbow, glaring at the other men as they started forward. Before they could so much as lay hands on him, he hissed in pain and collapsed back on the bed, pale and breathing hard. "Dammit."

"Maybe you should listen to Nathan," Chris suggested softly, concerned at his friend's weakness.

"Jest need a minute ... t'catch m'breath," the sharpshooter insisted, pinching the bridge of his nose as he took a few deep breaths. When a full minute passed and the lines of tension on his face barely faded, he looked at the skeptical men in front of him and sighed. "Maybe someone could help me get downstairs. Wait outside while I take care of the rest?"

Nathan fixed a stern stare on his patient. "The minute you try standin' on your own long enough to ... well, you know ... you'll collapse."

"I can't hold it, Nathan," Vin said through gritted teeth.

"I ain't askin' you to." Setting the washcloth on a table, the healer reached underneath the bed, pulled out a white ceramic chamber pot and offered it to his patient. "You can use this."

Vin's eyes widened, and then his face screwed up in disgust. "I ain't usin' that! Ain't no invalid!"

Chris covered his mouth, trying to hide a grin. He'd never seen the sharpshooter so mortified.

Throwing the blond a dirty look, the injured man huffed, "And what in hell's so funny?"

Schooling his features into a blank expression, Chris held his hands up, palms out. "Nothing, Vin. Nothing at all." He turned to Nathan and motioned toward the door. "Why don't we step outside for a minute, give him some privacy?"

The healer nodded and they let themselves out, the sharpshooter's indignant voice following them.

"I ain't usin' it, ya hear me? Ain't usin' no chamber pot -- "

Closing the door behind them, they stepped to the railing and leaned over it, watching the townspeople go by, Chris lit a cheroot and glanced at Nathan. "He been cranky all morning?"

The other man shook his head. "Nope. He ain't been too bad, all things considered. But he'll probably be outta sorts while this fever's on him."

As the smoke from Chris' cheroot curled up around them, Buck Wilmington came bounding up the stairs to stand next to the gunslinger.

"Howdy, boys!" the ladies' man cheerfully greeted them. "How's Vin doin'? Thought I'd pay him a visit."

"Now ain't the best time, Buck," Nathan warned, his words supported by the sound of muffled curses from inside the clinic. "He's takin' care of a little business."

Buck's forehead creased as he cocked his head to the side. "Business?"

"Personal business."

An impressively long string of curses brought all of their attention to the door, and at the silence that followed, Nathan called out and asked if Vin was all right. Chris waited tensely, wondering if his friend had hurt himself trying to get up.

"Thought ya'll was gonna give me some privacy!" the sharpshooter yelled, sounding tired and extremely put out.

"Sorry," the healer called back. "Just let us know when you're done."

Chris glanced at the other man. "You think he could get to his feet in his condition?"

"Probably not, but I'd better not hear any loud thuds comin' from in there, or I'll sneak enough laudanum in him to put him out for a day."

The three men returned to leaning on the railing, and at Buck's puzzled expression, Chris explained the source of Vin's frustration. "He didn't take to the idea of using a chamber pot."

The ladies' man winced. "Oooh, I can understand that. Poor fella. He needs some female companionship to take his mind off things."

Chris snorted at his friend's preoccupation with the fairer sex, and Nathan chuckled before addressing the boisterous man before them.

"Give him at least a few days before you bring some overheated creature up here," the healer suggested. "He's got some healin' to do."

Nodding, the ladies' man grinned. "More for me, then."

Vin yelled that he was finished, and Chris stamped out his cheroot and went inside, the other men following close behind.

The weary, lightly perspiring sharpshooter lay on the mattress, arms loosely folded, a slight scowl on his face.

"Everythin' come out all right?" Buck asked playfully.

Without sparing anyone a glance, Vin snorted, continuing to glare at the ceiling.

Stepping forward, Nathan fetched the chamber pot and headed toward the door. "I'll empty this and be right back."

Chris watched the healer exit and then turned back to his friend, lips twitching. "You tried to get out of bed and get to the privy, didn't you?" When the sharpshooter again remained silent, he continued. "Sure hope we don't have to start coming in here and guard you every time you need that chamber pot."

Vin's scowl deepened even as he yawned. "I bet ya'll won't laugh when it's you laid up here, pissin' in one of those." He sighed and closed his eyes, features pinched in pain.

Buck leaned down, smiling jovially, and patted the sharpshooter's good arm. "Hang in there, pard. You'll be up and around in no time."

Nodding, the injured man yawned again.

Leaning even closer, Buck whispered conspiratorially, but loud enough for Chris to hear. "If ya need any incentive to get back on your feet, I met a real pretty girl last night that has a thing for fellas with good aim. I'm sure she'd love to take up with a sharpshooter like you."

Vin chuckled softly and caught the gunslinger's eyes, smiling sleepily. "Ya can always count on Buck, right Chris?"

The blond grinned. "Sure can."

Vin's eyes drifted closed and his breathing evened out, the lines of pain on his face softening as sleep claimed him.

Reaching down, Chris drew the blanket over his friend before motioning Buck outside.

Sitting down, they looked out over the town, catching up on the day's events. The gunslinger filled the other man in on exactly what had happened with the Cortez brothers, from the time they showed up at the saloon to when he'd shot them down. Buck told him what had taken place afterward, that he'd arrived on the scene as J.D. and Ezra were carting the corpses to the undertaker. He'd stayed behind to reassure the guests that everything was under control, watching the harried hotel manager fret over the bloodstains on the walls and floor. A few of the guests had actually packed up and checked out, causing the manager to become even more agitated.

"Guess gunfights ain't too good for business," Buck quipped, nodding to Nathan as the healer came up the stairs with the now-empty chamber pot and went inside the clinic.

When Nathan returned a few minutes later, he asked Chris if he'd mind sitting with Vin for a while. "I need to check on Mrs. Carver, the woman you rescued earlier. I'd appreciate it if you'd keep an eye on Vin, make sure that fever don't go no higher. If he wakes up, get him to drink some of the tea that's in the kettle."

Chris nodded. "Think I can handle that."

"Thanks. I shouldn't be too long."

Grinning widely, Buck stepped up to the healer and clapped the man on the back. "I'll walk with ya a ways. I need to stop at the hotel and look up a pretty little lady I met earlier. Told her I'd show her around town."

Chris shook his head, a bemused smile on his lips. "Mighty generous of you, Buck."

"It is, ain't it?" The ladies' man sighed dramatically, though his eyes twinkled. "Sometimes, it's hard bein' me. Feels like I got no time for myself, I'm so busy givin' to others." He bounded down the stairs, Nathan chuckling and following behind him.

Smiling, Chris watched them a moment before turning around to quietly let himself inside the clinic to watch over his wounded friend.


It was so damned hard to breathe.

He tried to suck in air -- please God, just a little? -- but couldn't. Could only manage a strangled, pitiful squeak.

He was dying. And nobody was here to care. Nobody was here to save him. It was just him and the rope. That damned rope that kept constricting his throat, tough fibers gouging into flesh and drawing blood, life's most precious fluid trickling down his neck. He twisted and thrashed, but to no avail. He couldn't free himself.

His heart slammed against his chest, a caged, fearful thing desperately craving oxygen.

But he had none to give.

A vise tightened around his torso, shattering ribs into splinters, crushing lungs into useless tissue. His vision dimmed, eyes bulging, entirely too big for their sockets.

And then ... it was no longer hard to breathe. It was impossible. There was no air. No life. Only a broken body hanging from its noose.

And nobody was here to care. Nobody was here to bury him.

With a strangled gasp, Vin jerked into a sitting position, eyes wide and startled, hands flying to his neck. Well, one hand, anyway. The right one only got halfway there, held fast by something. But even that slight movement ignited a blaze of pain in his shoulder, wrenching a deep groan from him.

"Take it easy, Vin," a voice soothed, and someone took hold of the hand he'd wrapped around his throat and gently lowered it to his lap.

Breathing hard, desperate for air in a way he'd never been before, the sharpshooter turned his head to the left and saw Chris leaning forward in a chair. Chris. The Cortez brothers. The shooting. The clinic.

He was at the clinic.

Not at the end of a rope.

He sighed in relief as the gunslinger watched him, green eyes soft with concern.

"Just lie back," Larabee urged, guiding him down on the mattress.

Vin squeezed his eyes shut, still having difficulty dragging in a good breath, shoulder on fire. A minute passed, no noise in the clinic save his harsh but slowly improving breathing. As the blaze in his shoulder died down to smoldering embers, he opened his eyes and glanced at Chris.

"Sorry 'bout that," he apologized hoarsely, face flushing crimson.

The gunslinger smiled grimly. "Nothing to be sorry for. We all have our demons."

Nodding, Vin scrubbed a hand over his face and looked out the window at the early-afternoon sunshine. Scanning the clinic, he noted that he and Chris were the only occupants. "Where's Nathan?"

"He went to check on Mrs. Carver. The woman we helped earlier."

The gunslinger laid a hand on his forehead, and he jerked a bit at the contact, in part because he hadn't expected it, and also because the other man's hand felt startlingly cool.

"You feel warmer," Chris said, eyebrows drawing together. "Could just be from the nightmare." He got up, wet a washcloth and draped it over the sharpshooter's forehead, pressing down slightly so it would stay in place.

The cool cloth felt wonderfully soothing, and Vin relaxed a bit, murmuring his thanks.

"Nathan wants you to have some tea for the pain and fever."

"All right," the sharpshooter agreed, allowing the other man to wedge a second pillow behind him so he could sit up enough to drink the healer's concoction. The tea had helped with the pain earlier, and he was more than ready for some relief right now, not only from the sharp heat in his shoulder, but the fever, too. It made him uncomfortable, his skin a bit too tight, his muscles achy.

Chris went to the stove, poured a cup of tea and handed it to him. He took a few tentative sips, grimacing at the bitter brew.

"Want a sandwich?" the gunslinger asked. "You should probably eat something."

Vin eyed the tray of food on the table and his stomach growled, causing the other man to chuckle.

"I'll take that as a yes."

It had been a full day since he'd eaten, and he downed nearly two sandwiches before handing the plate to Chris and sagging back against the pillows. Between the fever and the hurt, he felt on the verge of sleep.

After setting the plate on the table, the gunslinger removed the extra pillow from behind his back and helped him ease further down on the mattress. He turned on his side while the other man felt his brow.

"You don't feel as warm," Larabee assessed as he dipped the washcloth in a small bowl of water and draped it over the injured man's forehead. Sitting back down, he rested his elbows on his knees and loosely clasped his hands together. "Feeling any better?"

"Yeah. More tired than anythin' else."

The blond nodded, and paused a moment before speaking. "You want to talk about it?"

Vin knew what "it" was, and had any other man asked that question, he'd have said, "No." But this was Chris, someone he'd trusted from the moment their eyes had met across a dusty street. Trusted enough to walk into danger together, and to reveal the $500 bounty on his head for a murder he hadn't committed, even though they'd known each other for only a day.

"Hell, Chris. I've had nightmares 'bout hangin' b'fore. This one was jest worse than usual." He sighed. "Jest the fever, I s'pose."

The other man looked down for a few seconds before meeting the sharpshooter's eyes. "You wishing you'd gone to Tascosa instead of staying here?"

Vin shook his head and stifled a yawn. "We only signed on here for thirty days. Figure I can wait that long b'fore I see 'bout clearin' m'name." He fidgeted on the bed, wincing at the sharp heat in his shoulder and recalling how vulnerable and alone he'd felt in his nightmare. "Jest wish I wasn't laid up like this. Feel like I can't protect m'self."

Standing up, Chris walked over to a small oak trunk by the door, opened it, and retrieved the mare's leg. He handed it to the sharpshooter, who accepted it with a grateful smile.

The weight felt good in Vin's hands, the wood and metal curves nearly sensual. The gun had become as much a part of him as his long hair and soft drawl. He felt nearly naked without it.

His friend's amused voice interrupted the quiet, reverent reunion.

"Don't think Nathan would want you sleeping with it, so what say we stow it under the bed where you can get to it if need be?"

Bobbing his head in agreement, the weary, pain-ridden sharpshooter allowed the blond to place the sawed-off within easy reach.

"Vin." Chris looked away briefly before speaking with quiet, but lethal, determination, eyes hard. "If anyone tries coming for you ... "

Vin nodded, moved by what the other man was offering. "'Preciate it."

With sleep pulling hard at him, Vin yawned and closed his eyes. Within moments, he relaxed into a peaceful, nightmare-free slumber because of the Winchester lying nearby.

And the man sitting at his side.

+ + + + + + +

Vin spent most of the next day sleeping, the fever not serious, but coupling with the pain to wear him down. He roused for brief periods, long enough to drink Nathan's tea or eat a bit of food or relieve himself. The boys all visited, but he didn't hold long conversations with any of them, not even Chris. He simply didn't have the stamina for much more than a few sentences at a time.

During one of his wakeful moments, Nathan filled him in on the woman he and Larabee had rescued. Bethany Carver's husband had died of pneumonia a month ago, leaving her a widow at twenty-one. With little money and few possessions, she'd been unable to live on her own, and had been on her way to Eagle Bend, where she would live with her brother for the foreseeable future.

She'd stopped in Four Corners two nights ago, planning to stay only one day before completing her journey. But the attack had made her too nervous to continue traveling alone, and so Mary had wired her brother, who would arrive in town tomorrow to chaperone her back to his farm. Until then, she was a guest in the newspaperwoman's home.

"Think she'll be all right?" Vin asked when Nathan finished his account.

The other man nodded. "She's still shook up, but I think she'll come 'round."

The sharpshooter was glad to hear it. It would have pained him to believe that while he and Chris had kept Bethany from serious physical injury, her soul had been irreparably damaged.

He gently fussed at his burning, throbbing shoulder, stopping when Nathan frowned in warning. The healer had chided him numerous times to leave the wounds alone, lest he disturb the stitches. Vin rolled his eyes, fairly sick of being fussed over, and sighed, eyelids drooping as the seemingly never-ending exhaustion took hold of him.

"Why don't you get some rest?" Nathan suggested.

"Hell, that's all I'm doin' is restin'." He yawned.

The other man smiled as he quickly checked his patient's bandages. "Another day or so and you'll be feelin' a lot better. Wounds ain't infected, and that fever should go down soon. You just need to -- "

"Be patient," Vin finished. He'd heard the words several times already, from both the healer and Chris. Shaking his head, he closed his eyes. "Damned tired of bein' tired," he muttered, and promptly fell asleep.

+ + + + + + +

A few hours later, as the sun drifted ever lower in the evening sky and a kerosene lamp emitted gently flickering light, Vin woke to find Nathan and Chris standing over him, looking immensely pleased.

"What?" he asked suspiciously.

"Fever broke," the gunslinger replied.

And it had. The uncomfortable warmth had seeped out of his body, and more importantly, his shoulder felt better. The wounds no longer felt as though they'd ignite into flames at a moment's notice. A contented smile graced his lips, but disappeared as Nathan poured a cup of tea and moved to hand it to him.

Vin bit back a growl. "Aw, hell. Ain't I drunk enough of that tea?"

"C'mon, now, Vin. It's helped, ain't it?"

Nodding reluctantly, the sharpshooter accepted the cup, peering into its murky depths and grimacing. "Just wish it didn't taste so bad." He looked up at Nathan. "No offense."

"None taken," the healer replied, smiling. "Now, if it's all right with you boys, I'm gonna get some supper." He looked at Chris. "You want to come along? Or should I bring somethin' back for the two of you?"

Hooking a chair with his boot and dragging it underneath him, the gunslinger sat down. "Reckon I'll keep Vin company. I'd be obliged if you brought some food back."

Nathan nodded. "Won't be gone long." He looked pointedly at his patient. "You drink all of that tea while I'm gone, ya hear?"

The sharpshooter frowned but took a few sips, just to please the other man. The moment the clinic door closed, he leaned carefully over to set the cup on the floor, ignoring the sharp twinge in his shoulder. A hand firmly grasped his wrist, and he looked up, startled blue eyes meeting determined green ones. He sighed in exasperation.

"C'mon, Chris. I drank it."

The other man glanced at the cup, still nearly two-thirds full, and back at his friend. "You didn't drink enough. Nathan wants you to finish it."

Vin rolled his eyes and cocked his head to the side. "Tastes like -- "

"The longer you complain, the cooler it'll get, and the worse it'll taste."

Five minutes later, the injured man handed the empty cup back to Chris. "Proud of yerself, ain't ya?"

The gunslinger said nothing, but the corners of his mouth curved up ever so slightly as he set the cup on the table.

Blowing out a harsh breath, Vin stared at the ceiling. "Can't stay here much longer, Chris. Gonna go crazy. Ma

's not meant t'be holed up indoors for days on end." "Won't be much longer. Nathan told me you can get out of here tomorrow, as long as that fever doesn't come back." The sharpshooter looked at the blond and smiled. "Now that's right good news."

A light knocking got both men's attention, and Chris stood up and went to the door. He opened it slightly and smiled politely. "Ma'am," he greeted, touching his fingers to his hat before moving aside.

Vin was surprised to see Bethany Carver walk in, looking better than he would have expected, given recent events. Her blue eyes were clearer than they'd been the last time he'd seen her. She'd pinned her long blonde hair up into a tight bun atop her head, and wore a simple brown dress with a high neck, no doubt to hide the bruising on her throat.

Looking at her clothing made the injured man acutely aware that he had no shirt on, and he blushed and quickly pulled the thin blanket up over his shoulders. "Sorry, ma'am," he apologized. "If I'd known ya were comin', I'd have made sure I was more presentable."

Bethany shook her head as she drew closer to the bed, hands twisting nervously together. "Please, don't apologize ... I'm sorry to come unannounced, but I wanted ... I mean, I needed ... to thank you." She turned slightly toward Chris, who moved to stand beside her. "Both of you." She looked back at Vin. "If you hadn't come when you did ... he would have killed me."

The sharpshooter shook his head. "Ain't no need t'thank us, ma'am. We were jest doin' our job. Besides, even if we hadn't been there, there were plenty of folks at the hotel who would've helped."

Bethany smiled wryly. "I'm not so sure they would have risked their lives like you did." She met Chris' eyes. "I'm leaving in the morning, but I had to make sure you both know that I'll never forget what you did for me ... I'll always be grateful."

"You're welcome, ma'am," the gunslinger replied. The young widow let herself out, giving a last smile as Vin wished her a safe journey.

After the door shut, the sharpshooter looked thoughtfully at Chris. "Feels kinda nice, don't it?"

"What's that?"

"Knowin' we made a difference."

The gunslinger nodded and sat down.

Vin snickered softly and raised his eyebrows. "Wonder if Four Corners is always gonna' be this lively, though. We ain't been on the job but a few weeks, Larabee, and I've already been shot."

Chris chuckled. "You sayin' you're not up for the job, Tanner?"

"Hell no!" The injured man grinned. "Just thinkin' maybe I need a raise."


Late the next morning, two days after Vin had been shot, Chris climbed the stairs to Nathan's clinic and stopped just outside the door, listening to the agitated voices that rose and fell inside.

"Ain't nothin' wrong with m'wagon!"

"I didn't say there was, Vin. I'd just rather you sleep in your room at the boardin' house for the next day or so. You need rest."

"I can rest in m'wagon."

Nathan scoffed. "That wagon ain't gonna be as comfortable as a real bed in a real room."

"Ha! I knew ya were sayin' there's somethin' wrong with m'wagon!"

Wanting to spare both men from each other's steadily escalating frustration, Chris knocked on the door and let himself in.

Vin sat on the bed, grimacing as he awkwardly buttoned up the faded red shirt the gunslinger had brought by earlier. Nathan stood at the head of the bed, arms folded and a slight scowl on his face.

"Howdy, boys," Chris greeted.

The healer awarded him a brief, somewhat testy, glance before leaning over his patient, assisting with the last button and then settling the white sling into place.

Vin winced as Nathan maneuvered his right arm into the soft material, but stayed silent until the other man finished up. After a last grimace, he turned an irritated expression on the gunslinger. "Can ya please tell'm that 'm fine to sleep in m'wagon?"

Crossing his arms, Chris shook his head, an amused smile turning up the corners of his mouth. "Ask me to back you up in a gunfight, I'll do it. Ask me to go against Nathan's medical advice, and you're on your own."

The healer nodded his thanks before addressing his patient. "I ain't askin' for much, Vin. Just want you to sleep in a real bed today."

"'N' stay off m'horse for a week," the sharpshooter grumbled sullenly.

Nathan took a deep breath and blew it out, jaw muscles working tensely. "I'm just tryin' to make sure you don't overdo it and rip open them stitches."

"Vin," Chris quietly interjected. "Nathan's done a real fine job taking care of you. You could show some appreciation."

The sharpshooter's irritated expression turned guilty, and he ducked his head down, running a hand through his hair. When he looked up, remorse shone clear on his face. "Sorry, Nathan," he drawled softly. "I ain't got no call t'treat ya so poorly. I do 'preciate ya tendin' me these last couple of days ... Guess 'm just feelin' restless 'n' closed in."

Smiling sympathetically, the healer nodded. "It's all right," he replied, helping the injured man into his buckskin coat by easing his left arm through its sleeve, and draping the right side over the sling. "Don't know many people who like bein' laid up."

Vin slowly leaned over and reached under the bed to retrieve his mare's leg. Carefully standing up, he slipped it into its holster.

Chris felt relief at seeing the other man looking fairly steady on his feet. The sharpshooter had winced when he got up, but only briefly.

"Now," Nathan instructed, handing his patient his slouch hat. "You go straight to your room and rest. No wanderin' around town, no goin' to the saloon. Ya hear?"

The gunslinger waited for Tanner to protest, but instead he nodded slowly, settling the hat atop his head.

"I'll come by later with some tea."

"Hell, Nathan," Vin griped good-naturedly. "Ain't it enough that 'm goin' to m'room? I gotta keep drinkin' yer tea, too? Had enough t'last me a week! I'm startin' to think yer tryin' to make me float right outta Four Corners."

Chuckling, Nathan went to his cabinet and searched through it, then turned around and handed the sharpshooter a small cloth pouch held closed by a drawstring. "You need any tea before I come by, you can mix some up from this. Two pinches for every cup."

Vin took the pouch, slipped it into a coat pocket, and held out his left hand. "Thanks," he said, shaking hands with the healer. "Reckon I'd have been in a world of hurt if ya weren't here."

"Glad I could help."

Chris tipped his hat at Nathan before following the sharpshooter outside and shutting the door.

Once in the fresh air, Vin shaded his eyes and tilted his head toward the sun, smiling broadly. A gentle breeze flicked through his brown locks as he turned to his friend. "Damned good to be outside again."

The gunslinger smiled at the contented expression on the other man's face, and they descended the stairs, heading across the street toward the boarding house. Along the way, several townspeople tipped their hats or called out "hello," and a few ladies stopped the sharpshooter to ask if he was feeling better. Vin responded politely despite his exhaustion and hurt, evident in the tight set of his mouth and eyes.

All told, it took ten minutes longer than it should have to get inside the boarding house. Once there, they climbed a short flight of stairs and entered the first room on the right. While Vin had never slept in the boarding house, preferring without explanation to stay in his wagon, he'd insisted on this room. The gunslinger figured it was because it was closest to the stairs, providing a quick exit if trouble came looking for the wanted man.

Vin opened the door and they stepped inside, boots scraping against the wooden floorboards, spurs jingling softly. Chris had never been in the room before, and took it in with a quick glance. A bed with a threadbare blanket and lumpy pillow jutted out from the middle of one wall, and a small, weatherworn dresser had been placed in the adjacent corner. A rickety chair sat between the two pieces of furniture.

Sighing heavily, the sharpshooter removed his hat and tossed it onto the dresser, then took the mare's leg out of its holster and laid it on the bed. He sank down next to it, shoving the pillow behind his back and wincing a bit.

Chris had originally planned to leave once he saw his friend to his room, in order to give the injured man time to rest. Instead, he found himself wanting to stay, to reassure himself that Vin hadn't overdone it.

Hell, he'd not only gone soft, he'd become a damned nursemaid.

Curiously, he didn't mind it one bit.

Moving to sit in the lone chair, he glanced out the tiny window and spied a wagon passing by on its way out of town. A man had charge of the reins, and Bethany Carver sat alongside him. "Mrs. Carver's headin' out."

Vin gently probed his wounded shoulder before letting his hand drop into his lap. "Nathan told me last night that she'd only been married a year. They were childhood sweethearts. Were tryin' to have a family." He shook his head. "It's gonna be hard for her."

Chris nodded, all too aware of the difficult times she'd endure.

"I was thinkin' 'bout it, and wonderin' ... " The sharpshooter trailed off, expression contemplative.

"Wonderin' what?"

"You ever heard that Tennyson fella's poem, where he says ''Tis better t'have loved and lost than never t'have loved at all'?"

Chris' eyes widened slightly. He didn't know what surprised him more. That Vin liked poetry or that he'd cited one of Sarah's favorite poets. "Heard a bit of Tennyson," he allowed. "But not that particular poem."

Vin nodded. "I was wonderin' if it's true. If you're better off lovin' 'n' losin' someone than never lovin' that person at all."

Grief rose up within the gunslinger, making his throat tight and his eyes ache, and he looked away. It had been three years, but it still hurt to think of what he'd lost. Sarah and Adam's deaths were as vivid as if they'd happened only yesterday. Their passing had been like a sharp knife lancing through him, carving away his humanity piece by piece.

"Chris, ya all right? I say somethin' wrong?"

Meeting Vin's confused, yet concerned, eyes, the blond felt something shift within him. When Buck had told Mary about Sarah and Adam, it had sent him into a seething rage. Now, he felt compelled to share his anguish, knew that the man before him could be trusted with such a deep hurt.

"I had a wife and child," he began softly, leaning forward, hands clasped between his knees. "Sarah was the most beautiful woman I ever knew, and the day I made her my wife, I felt like the richest man on earth. Didn't think life could get any finer. And then Adam was born."

The sharpshooter's face registered surprise at the revelation of the other man's family, but he stayed silent.

"Three years ago, Buck and I went to Mexico, and when we came back ... " Chris swallowed hard against the lump in his throat and continued in a rough voice. "They'd died in a fire. Adam was only five."

Vin's eyes softened with compassion. For a moment, neither man spoke.

"'M sorry, Chris," the weary sharpshooter murmured. "Sorry you lost 'em. Can't imagine the pain ya must've felt ... the pain yer still feelin'. Ya miss 'em an awful lot, don't ya?"

"Yeah." His heart clenched at the memory of Sarah's blinding smile and Adam's infectious laughter. "Some days are harder than others. Hell, some days are damned impossible ... But I don't wish away the time we had together. Can't imagine never having loved them. And I feel damned selfish for it."

Vin cocked his head to the side, eyebrows furrowed. "Why do ya say that?"

Eyes flashing, Chris' voice turned bitter. "They gave me more than any man could ask for, but what I did I do for them? Besides not be there when they needed me most?"

The sharpshooter sat up a bit straighter, wincing, blue-eyed gaze penetrating. He lifted his chin, as if daring the gunslinger to argue with his next words. "You loved 'em."

Chris knew his friend meant well by the simple statement, but found no comfort in it. He'd spent the past three years cursing himself for being gone when the fire started, for not saving his family from the inferno that had ruthlessly consumed them. He saw no absolution for that, and shook his head, grief and anger warring within him. "In the end, it doesn't matter how much I loved them. They still died."

Briefly rubbing his tired eyes, Vin shook his head. "It matters, Chris. This life ... it's hard. Kills a lotta good folks long b'fore their time, and those folks deserve every bit of love they can get while they're here. 'N' while Sarah 'n' Adam were here, they lived with a man who loved 'em with all his heart." He nodded. "It matters. One day, you'll see that."

The younger man seemed so sure of his words that Chris wondered if they just might be true. If one day, he'd believe that he'd been more of a blessing than a curse to his wife and child.

That day wasn't today.

"I appreciate what you're saying, Vin. I do. But I reckon it'll be awhile before I make peace with what happened."

Nodding, Vin closed his eyes and placed a hand over his wounded shoulder, forehead creased and lips forming a tight line.

The gunslinger didn't know when his friend had last drank any of Nathan's tea, and offered to go make some.

Tanner politely declined. "Reckon I'll just lay here a spell and rest," he murmured.

"See that you do," Chris ordered. "I don't want Nathan sayin' I let you wear yourself out."

Vin chuckled. "Hell, I don't wanna hear him goin' on 'bout it, neither." He opened his eyes, face sobering, and his next words were softly spoken. "Yer a good man, Chris. 'M proud t'call ya m'friend."

The words warmed Chris' heart, the sentiment more than welcome, in light of the guilt and grief he'd just shared with the other man. He smiled slightly. "Feelin's mutual," he replied, and let himself out of the room.

After closing the door, he stood still a moment, reflecting on Vin and the undeniably strong connection they'd forged. If anyone asked him to explain how they'd so quickly struck up such a deep friendship, he couldn't. Nor did he need to.

It was there, and it was right. And that was all that mattered.

February 2006