No Man Is Useless While He Has A Friend   (cont)

By:  Heidi

Part Three

Vin was worried.  He didn't want to show it, but Chris was late.  A full day late.  Last time Chris was late, they found him in that hellhole prison.  Since then, he and Chris had an understanding.  They'd go wherever they wanted, but if they were a day late without sending word as to their delay, the other would go looking.  Chris instituted that for all seven of them because he felt each man was valuable, but Vin knew Larabee meant it especially for him, with that infernal bounty.

Walking to his wagon, Vin shook his head.  This couldn't happen at a worse time.  Nathan and JD were on a transport, Josiah left for a spiritual retreat, and Buck was camping out at a newly arrived widow's homestead.  Apparently, one of the cattlemen didn't understand that the fences she put up to keep the cattle out applied to them, and had been knocking them down.  If needed, Buck could be called back, but Vin didn't want to do that yet.  Ezra held court and peace in the saloon. 

Larabee'd probably have his head for heading out after him on his own, but he didn't have much of a choice.  Tanner gathered the supplies he needed from his wagon, and then raided Nathan's clinic for a remedy kit.  That done, he saddled his horse and rode for the edge of town.  He stopped long enough to tell Ezra what he'd done and where he was going, receiving a warning others would look for him if he failed to return. . . and to watch his back. 

He left the town behind, hoping to catch Larabee on the road heading back.  As each mile passed, his worry grew, not knowing for sure what could have happened, but a passel of scenarios – all bad – played through his mind.

Tanner rode the trail, checking for signs of a rider or horse in distress, and not finding anything.  His progress was slow, halted because of the frequent checks for anything amiss.  Vin took off his hat and wiped his forehead, more out of something to do than because it needed it. 

The pass loomed ahead, and he hadn't seen another person come through it the entire time he'd been riding.  Granted, not many people came out of Purgatory this way, but there weren't any tracks, and that bothered him.  Vin felt like he was missing something important, something obvious, and that niggled at him, eating away at his conscience.  If his friend needed him, he didn't want to let him down.

Finally, he saw what he'd been missing.  The pass was closed because of a rockslide, and now he had to double back.  It had been a long day, and the sun had already passed its zenith.  He could camp here for the night, play it safe and secure, or he could turn around and try to make up some time.  There really wasn't that much of a choice; finding Chris was imperative.  He hoped his friend was in Purgatory sleeping off a good drunk, but the unsettling feeling in his gut said Chris wouldn't do that for this long, and something had happened to his friend.

Circling around, Vin rode back to the beginning of the pass, and then tried to guess which way Chris would have gone if faced with the choice on the other end.  Putting himself into Larabee's mind wasn't easy, because Larabee didn't have the easiest mind to deal with, though the two seemed to read each others thoughts easily enough right from the beginning.  It was something that had never happened to Tanner before, to bond with one person so quick.  Right now, trying to think like that person was making his own head ache.  Turning away from his thoughts, he took the time to study the terrain.  Visualizing the blocked pass from Larabee's perspective, Vin reckoned that Chris would have a choice of going to the left – where Vin could tell there was cover and water, or to the right, which also offered water and cover.  But the right side was rockier and steeper, requiring the horse to work harder.  Knowing how Chris prized horseflesh, his own horse in particular, the gunslinger would have gone to his left, which meant Vin chose that path. 

Judging he had enough daylight left to check for an hour or so, Vin rode.  His eyes did not miss the signs of a recent storm that swept through, nor did they miss the stark beauty of the landscape.  He liked being out in the wild like this, and he felt more at ease here than in town.  Vin figured he could dandy himself up and polish his manners for polite company, but out here was where his heart considered home. 

Home.  The definition of home varied for him, but it was starting to mean a lot more when he dealt with Chris and the others.  They gave him a sense of belonging – especially Chris – no matter what he did, or what he said.  Hell, they didn't care about the fact he was wanted, other than the desire to help him clear his name. 

Reflecting on Chris, he guessed not many men would plan on going to a place called Tascosa, Texas to help a man wanted to murder to clear his name without too many second thoughts, especially after just meeting the man in question.  Granted, the fight when they first met determined the course of their trust in each other, but still, Chris gave him complete trust, something Vin was not used to receiving.  It surprised Vin that someone would do that, and he surprised himself even more by returning that trust ten fold.  It wasn't in his habit to introduce himself by telling someone he had a price on his head, but he'd told Chris…and he never regretted it.

That trust made the tracker more determined to live up to his profession and find his best friend.  Something happened to Chris Larabee, and Vin wanted to find him.  He'd ride all the way down to Purgatory and risk his own neck in a noose, or his body filled with bullets to find his best friend.

Wake up.  Eat.  Drink.  Nature's call.  Sleep.  These factors comprised Larabee's world, with one significant addition – pain.  Having forgotten what a pain-free existence was, Chris judged his time as 'good' or 'bad', depending on what hurt worse.  Awake equaled pain, so sleep was preferable.

He dreamed about his life, and he relived some favorite memories.  Images of times spent with friends, along with those moments that time captured forever carried him through the hazy fog of pain.  One dream reminded him of the conversation on the rocks with Vin, where the tracker told him of the bounty, and the part about a friend collecting.

Friend.  This wilderness man called Chris Larabee a friend, and the gunslinger found himself surprised.  He'd been piss-poor at dealing with people, preferring to keep them away, and most got the message.  In his rage to drive all those close to him away, he'd even managed to send his oldest friend away for a time.  If the one person who knew him best for several years couldn't stand to be around him, it was no wonder all others cleared a wide path.  But the man in buckskin called him friend, and that meant something to Chris. 

He laughed at the way Vin rousted Buck from Blossom's bed, and the quiet sense of humor that sustained them all.  Hell, it was sustaining him now, because he knew the tracker would kick his ass if he quit.  Haunting Vin didn't sound appealing, either.

So Chris made himself eat and drink when he was prodded by his unseen benefactors.  He allowed brief periods of intense, painful alertness to see if his friend had found him yet.  For once he felt fear.  He felt incased in a silent dark tomb, and he didn't like it.  This was worse than any nightmare he put himself through.  The dreams came swifter and swifter, and he started to feel hot all over.  Yet another thing to tell Vin about when he arrived.  Chris knew he would come, but the tracker was taking too long.


After a sleepless night, Vin downed his morning ration of coffee, using the dregs to kill the last of his cook fire.  He made sure the fire remains were out, and minimal trace of his passing was left behind.  The closer he got to Purgatory, the worse his gut clenched.  He didn't want to find a body, but the kid who grew up fast and hard knew too much about death and the demise of hope. 

Mounting, he headed back into the flatlands between the canyons, knowing Chris wasn't dumb enough to ride the slippery slopes.  A flash of movement caught Vin's attention in the distance, so he raised his spyglass.  What he saw caused him to knee his horse forward, riding hard for the distant speck. 

When he reached his goal, he slipped off his horse, ground tying the ornery beast so he could approach his target.  Pitching his voice low and soothing, he spoke quietly to the spooked horse, finally grabbing a hold of the reins and freeing them from the cactus they twisted around. 

Blue orbs noted the injured coat on Chris's horse, along with the myriad of small cuts, and the saddle still on the beast's back, scuffed and mud coated.  Looking around, his experienced eyes spotted a small creek nearby, and he led both horses to water.  Larabee's horse drank greedily, notching up Vin's worry about his friend.  Chris wouldn't leave the saddle on his horse, or deprive him of water if he had a choice. 

Once the horses drank their fill, and Vin too, the tracker refilled his canteens.  Slinging them over his shoulder, he walked the two horses back along Chris's horse's trail, seeing it coming from the entrance to a canyon.  Climbing on his horse, he double-checked the leads for Chris's, so neither the ornery beast or Larabee's temperamental animal could pull away or break the leads.  He rode for the mouth of the canyon, and watched Larabee's horse shy away.  Experience told him about the recent slides, but the bloody rocks gave him pause.  Dismounting and tying the horses off, he went to the pile, seeing dried blood and pieces of flesh on them.  Digging under the pile, he felt relieved not to find a body.

His spine tingled, and that sense of being watched kicked in.  His hands drew his mare's leg, while sharp eyes studied the canyon walls. 

There…he saw movement high above him.  Squinting, he couldn't make out details, so the spyglass came out again.  He swept it along the entire wall intentionally, making it appear he didn't know where to find his watcher.  He caught another bit of movement behind some larger boulders.  He couldn't be sure if the person or persons hiding would be friendly, but he figured if they meant to kill him, they could have done so by now.

Putting his glass away, he began to move cautiously forward again, keeping an eye on where he thought his watcher was.  His mare's leg stayed in his hand to be ready, but he didn't threaten with it.  As he drew closer to the wall the watch made himself known.


The command to stop rang clear.  Vin was not relieved, unsure how many warriors he faced, and the still unknown fact if they would be friendly.

"Wowahwa," Vin called back hoping they understood he came in peace.  To show his good faith, or his own stupidity, he holstered his weapon and held his hands up.  Still speaking in the native language he appealed to those in hiding.  "I mean no harm.  I seek my friend."

Vin's appeal was met with more silence.  "Please.  I think my friend is hurt." Vin tried again moving forward.

This time, instead of words, an arrow flew in the tracker's direction, grazing the sleeve of his arm.

Tanner stepped back and held his hands up again, glancing at the slice in the sleeve of his coat.  This wasn't going well, he thought, and now he would have to try something else.

"If there are others hurt, I have supplies.  I can help."  As he made that declaration, he certainly hoped that was true.  Seeing the area, he knew this was a bad slide by the damage; he could only imagine what it could do to a body caught in the melee.

There was still no response from whomever he was trying to reason with, but Vin had to keep trying.  All his instincts told him Larabee was here, and this person knew something.

"I have food, water."

He heard a rustling then and perhaps a low murmur of voices, so he knew there was more than one person up there.  And he was getting a reaction, so he had to keep going.  "My name is Vin, I don't mean any harm."

This time he made out another distinct sound from another person.  There was some more shuffling, and then finally he got what he'd been hoping for.


As the command to come forward sounded, Vin gave a deep sigh of relief.  Still keeping his hands in plain sight, he moved forward slowly toward where the voice came from.  As he neared the group of boulders, a form emerged.  It took everything Vin had to keep his expression calm and neutral, and the deadly bow and arrow pointed at him helped a lot.  The surprise came in the pint sized figure behind it.

It was an Indian, but a young one.  It was tough for him to guess but he'd say around ten to twelve.  Old enough to use the bow with accuracy probably close enough to his manhood test.  The angry visage on the young boy's face gave him pause too.  He had no doubt the boy would fire the arrow in his heart if Vin gave him cause.

Vin held up his empty hands. "I'm a friend."

There was a slight movement behind the boy.  A small child peeked around the young warrior, a girl.  She too watched Vin warily, but not with as much menace as the boy.

Vin gave a small smile at both of them, hoping to ease their fear of him.  "Have you seen my friend?"

The little girl took another step away from the boy and eyed the tracker. "V…," she struggled to say his name.

Vin nodded, astounded that she picked that up from his one utterance. 

Bravely she stepped forward, ignoring the young boy's instance she stay back.  She walked up in front of the tracker and looked up into his face.  Finally she reached up and took one of his hands, tugging urgently she started leading him back into the rocks.  The young warrior frowned as they went past and kept his weapon trained on Vin the whole way.

They moved along the narrow ledge along the wall until they came to the entrance to what proved to be a large-sized cave.  Moving inside, Vin hesitated a moment to allow his eyes to adjust.  The odor of wood smoke assailed his sense of smell.  As he peered further into the gloom, he noticed the small fire further back from the entrance.  An impatient tug on his hand had him moving forward again, and he complied.  Rounding the fire, he came to a dead stop again and stared at the dark form lying before him.

"Aw, hell."


Chris woke again, and the skin around his eyes didn't feel as painful.  Maybe the swelling was going down enough that he could start seeing soon.  Still couldn't hear anything, but the fact he was alive after however so much time boosted his flagging morale.  His leg was in agony, but less than it was earlier, however long ago. 

While he was considering what to move and what needed his attention first, something felt off.  His instincts whispered that someone was there, but this wasn't his guardian.  Focusing, he tried to get any of his senses to work.  Once again he was frustrated by the dark silence that left him helpless.   Trying to work some moisture into his dry mouth, he couldn't even trust his taste or smell.  He decided to keep himself still and he waited for his chance.

Larabee couldn't see, couldn't hear, but his body was telling him that someone leaned over him.  Moving fast, he swung up with his right fist.  He felt the connection, but he couldn't hear the response.  Fearing the person was armed, he struggled to turn his aching body to fend off any attack and reach for a gun if there was one at the person's waist.  His flailing fist made contact with the body again, but he found his strength waning and the pain reaching up to take control from him.  His will to survive pushed him to continue his feeble fight. 

Hands tighten around his upper arms and tried to hold him down.  His leg twisted, and he screamed out at the agony of fire that raced through him, but he heard nothing, not even his name on worried lips.  He panted heavily and collapsed back onto the blanket beneath him.  His body betrayed him, and now he was at the mercy of whoever was above him.  He swallowed roughly as the pain caused the nausea to awaken in his stomach.  

He felt a cool cloth pass over his heated forehead.  The grip lessened on his arms as the fight left him, but one hand remained.  His right arm was in a familiar hold.  The hand gripped his arm at his forearm and held tight.  He felt the soft buckskin beneath his hand, and realized he didn't need his senses to know who held him now.


The coolness drew across his brow again and he finally allowed the darkness to claim him.  He kept his grip on his friend's arm as drifted off to sleep.  He knew he was still facing an unknown future with his injuries, but his friend found him.  Whatever happened, he had someone to watch his back.  Now he could rest.


Vin stared down at his friend in what neared shock.  He didn't pull away from his friend's blow, because if it were he, he would have probably swung first too.  The tracker let Chris hold onto him, seeing the body relax when it recognized who held him.  With the way the man looked, he probably needed the reassurance that a friend was there.  "Aw, hell, Chris, what happened ta ya?"  The tracker had been exposed to some pretty banged up, injured people, and most times, he could handle it, but Chris in this condition made him hurt just to look at him. 

"Hell, Larabee," he mumbled as he observed the damage.  "You're the only onerous cuss I know that can get damn dirt mad at ya."

His face was a mass of bruises in several shades of purple, red, and yellow; his eyes appeared swollen shut; his nose was broken; his entire body was covered in dried mud, flaking off in places, giving him a grotesque appearance.  Tanner could see the left leg was broken pretty bad.  It looked like the children had tried to set it, but it would need to be done properly right away.  Tanner refused to think it would be too late, and he did not look forward to doing that.  Vin did see the bandages in several places, and those wounds would have to be washed, examined, and checked over.  For kids, the two Comanche children did an incredible job of keeping Chris alive, but Tanner was sure he'd find lots of infection set in all over the place.  That meant lancing and drawing the poison out. 

All in all, Vin looked at hopefully keeping Chris alive over the next couple days, make him well enough to travel, and take the badly injured man back to Nathan for healing.  From the looks of it, he probably had a lot of the supplies he needed here with the children, but much of it would be makeshift and make do with what he had on him.  It still amazed him that the man was alive with the extent of injuries. 

Vin watched the young girl as she brushed the cloth against Chris' face again.  Vin could feel the heat from Larabee's body through the grip on his arm and knew it was another problem he would have to deal with.  He caught the little girl's attention.

"You cared for my friend?"  He asked softly in her language, and added the signs to be sure he was understood.

She smiled shyly and nodded, then pointed at the boy still standing with his weapon ready behind Vin.

"Thank you," Vin told her and nodded to the boy also.  He pointed to himself again and repeated his name, "Vin."

" Kimana," the young girl pointed to herself.  She then pointed to the boy behind Tanner, "Nocona, ciyewaye ki."  She introduced her older brother, probably knowing he was not going to relax his guard duty enough to do so.

Vin nodded and thanked them again for the care they gave his friend.  For the next several minutes he asked the young girl about the injured gunfighter's care, and what they had done.  She explained and showed Vin some of the medicines she'd used on his various wounds.  Tanner was impressed with her care, but still concerned for his friend.

"Has he eaten or drank anything?"

"Yes.  Sick man drink water and sip herbal broth many times a day."

"He keep it down?"

She shook her head and made a face, wrinkling up her nose.

Vin smiled at her and acknowledged the ripe odor emanating from the sick man.

"How'd ya know how ta care for him?"

The girl's face turned sad. "Mother taught me.  I watch her care for father and brother, others in tribe.  She said I needed to learn, in case she get sick."  The little girl's voice dropped to a soft whisper and Vin knew she would have cried if it would have been in her nature, but that was not their way.  "I couldn't help her.  Bad storm took her and father last moon."

Vin nodded in understanding.  "I'm sorry about yer folks.  Sounds like yer mother was very wise."

"I miss them," the girl replied. 

"I lost my ma young.  I miss her too."

The two were startled from their talk by the restless movements by the man on the pallet.


Tanner's heart practically skipped a beat from the sudden shouting that came from the bed.  He'd been so involved in the injury inventory and talking with the young girl that he figured Larabee was still passed out from the pain he incurred earlier. 

He watched the young girl pat Larabee's hand.  Looking up at Vin, she pointed to her ears and shook her head.  Tanner didn't think he wanted to understand what she was trying to tell him.

"Chris," he leaned over the gunfighter and spoke softly.  There was no response.

The blond shifted again, sensing Tanner close by. "VIN, I CAN'T HEAR YOU."

'Great', Vin thought, and sighed in resignation.  Taking a cue from his friend's young nurse, he gripped Larabee's forearm again and reached up and gave a gentle squeeze.  He felt his friend relax beneath his grip a bit, but it didn't tone his voice down.

"I CAN'T SEE," the gunfighter's voice cracked a bit as he revealed this to his friend.  Vin patted his shoulder again.

Kimana moved forward and picked up a bowl.  When she tapped Chris's hand and placed the bowl in his grip, she helped Larabee to quietly drink.  Still feeling his friend's grip Chris's body release a little more muscle tension, but remained restless and warm from his rising fever.

Tanner turned to the young girl again knowing he needed to get his friend cleaned and the broken bones treated.  "Kimana, do you have a large bowl I could fill with water to bathe him?"

She smiled shyly again, "You bathe, too.  Both stink."

He looked down at himself, and saw the trail dust coated everything.  Figuring dirty hands wouldn't help his friend, he nodded.

"Wait."  She went to the fire warming the room, removing a kettle and pouring some broth into a bowl.  Her hands added a thin layer of crushed herbs.  As she moved back to the two men she said simply, "Help pain, sleep."  Figuring she knew what she was doing, he let her feed Chris, who fell asleep within minutes.

"Come."  She led Vin to a large pool, and showed him where to find the supplies he needed.  Kimana left him alone.

Vin made quick work of stripping, scrubbing himself clean, and dressing in his spare clothes.  He noticed the pool was fed by an underground spring, and the dirty water drifted out of sight with the current.  This cave would have made a perfect home for the family.  Filling the large cooking kettle that probably belonged to the mother; he placed it over the fire in Chris's niche, and then went back to his horse for supplies. 

The young warrior followed him as his shadow, never relaxing his guard.  As Vin started to return to the cave, he looked at the two horses.  Larabee's especially needed care, but his friend had to be seen to first.  He turned to the young boy.

"I'm not going to hurt you or your sister."

The boy's stare did not waver.

"These horses need care."  Vin was hoping the boy would allow his own sense of care for a horse to overcome his distrust of Vin.  "I just want to help my friend, help me."

Finally, the boy relaxed his stance and lowered his bow.  He looked at the two horses, seeing the large black's head hung in weariness and several large scratches along his flank.  His hard glance met Tanner's again and he gave a quick nod and nodded back over his shoulder for Vin to return to the cave.

Vin sighed and nodded, moving past the boy to return to his friend.  He spared a glance over his shoulder as he went and saw the boy approaching the horses and murmuring softly to each.  Vin knew he would have no troubles with the mounts.

Back inside the cave, arms full, he set up things the way he wanted them, knowing getting Chris clean would be a chore in itself.  Hopefully, Kimana's broth would keep him down until the worst was over.  Using his knife, he cut the shredded remains of Larabee's clothes off, revealing the filthy body. 

It was worse than he thought; some injuries looked untreated and infected, while others made Vin wince to think about how they got there.  "Ya got chewed on, cowboy, and that ain't good."

Steeling himself, Vin started cleaning, using a cloth and the warm water to wipe away the layers of dried mud and blood.  Once he got an area clean, he removed any bandages in that spot, examining and washing the wounds with some of the supplies he retrieved from Nathan's clinic.  While he worked, he felt the skin beneath him getting warmer, and realized the fever increased.  He knew he still had to get the bindings off the broken limb and get it set proper too.  Larabee moaned as the treatment awakened his pain, but thankfully remained in darkness.  "Hell," he muttered.  "It's gonna be a long couple of days."


Chris dreamed.  Now that Vin was here, he knew his friend would take care of him.  In the land between sleep and reality, Chris felt secure.  Vin would protect him.  He figured it was okay to relax for a bit, and let himself drift.  For the first time in he didn't know how long, he felt completely free from pain, either awake or asleep. 

Part Four

He screamed.  Chris Larabee felt incredible pain in his leg, and that made him automatically reach for his gun.  He couldn't find it, and his hand was seized in a tight grip, stopping his motions.  Chris knew those calluses, and his mind finally subdued the pain enough to figure out that Vin held his hand. 

"VIN!"  It sounded a little tinny, maybe a bit far away, but Chris heard his own voice.   "I CAN HEAR!"

"So can the rest of the world if ya don't quit hollerin'," Vin replied.  "I can hear ya just fine."

Taking a deep breath, Chris regretted it almost immediately and he groaned.  "Hell.. . hurts."

"Reckon so."

"What …?"  Chris noticed that Vin had moved away from his ear, but the voice kept reaching him, sounding far away.  Still, to hear that raspy Texan again was the sweetest sound. 

"Had ta set yer leg."

"Hell," Larabee grimaced and his head fell back against the bedroll beneath him, while he tried to manage the ebbing waves of pain still generating through his body.  He felt a brief brush of a hand over his forehead.  A brief tap on his shoulder and he felt his friend help rise him back up, and a bowl pressed into his hands.  With his friend's help, Chris drank, Vin making sure the gunslinger took slow sips to keep from getting sick.

Slowly, Chris managed to finish it all, welcoming the liquid into his parched body.  Vin allowed him to rest a minute then asked,  "More?"

Taking a deep breath, Chris thought about it for a moment, waiting to see if his stomach would agree.  The nausea wasn't too bad, and he felt his need for liquid more.  Finally believing his stomach would cooperate, he nodded.

Vin refilled the cup, placing the container in Larabee's shaking outstretched hand helping him guide it.

"How. . . bad?" Larabee finally rasped out the question he needed to know.

Vin helped his friend back against the bedroll and snorted, thinking to make light of the injuries to keep his mind from dwelling on them too much, he answered lightheartedly without thinking.  "Took a good knockin' about, yer so ugly ya might scare the coyotes away.  'Course, that's about normal fer ya."

All of a sudden, Chris remembered and tensed.  "Coyotes." 

"Aw, hell!"

Chris felt a hand squeeze his.  The memory, although spotted, was painful to recall.  "Bit?"

There was a moment of silence, and then Vin let go. 

Larabee reached for the hand, not finding it.  "Vin?"

"Easy," came the soft drawl near his head.  " Gonna wash yer ears again."

He felt a cloth on the side of his head, and a few seconds later, he could hear better on that side.  The process repeated on the other, and he heard ragged breathing.  Wait; that was him, and he sounded bad.


The distinctive voice was louder and a little clearer.  It still sounded underwater, but not as bad.  Larabee merely nodded, taking another deep breath to keep the nausea that lingered at bay.

"Ya got a bunch of mud between yer ears."

"In…not between," Chris corrected. 

Vin snorted loudly, "Yer story."


"Stuffing his fool head.  Kids are tendin' him."


"Comanche. Parents got killed during a storm two weeks ago."

Larabee took a moment to let that information process through his tired brain.  Kids?  He remembered the gentle taps as someone tried to communicate with him, and the brief feel of hands as he was helped to drink or see to his needs.  Kids?  Something seemed wrong there.  Lost their parents, and it seemed like he should have been the one to help them.  He felt another tap at his shoulder.

"Think ya can manage some broth?"  Vin put the bowl in his friend's hand.  "There's herbs ta kill the pain, and help the fever."

"Not. . .hungry."

"Ya need ta keep yer strength up.  I've got more tendin' ta do." Vin encouraged.

To placate his friend, Chris took a deep breath to still his rumbling stomach, and then tried a sip of broth the tracker helped him drink.  "How. . .kids?"  Larabee was still trying to get around the fact his unseen benefactors were children.  Apparently capable, but children just the same.

"Ya nearly ran in their front door.  They saw ya go under, and waited fer the storm ta break.  The boy killed some critters lookin' fer a free meal, and they dragged ya in.  The girl's been carin' fer ya."

Time stretched out between them.  Vin continued to try to get the injured man to take more of the medicated broth.  Reluctantly, the weak man allowed his friend to help him more and more as his energy faded.  Finally, with an exasperated sigh, the gunman fell back on the pallet.  The silence was ended by a broken-voiced admission.  "I'm useless."

"Fer now," the tracker reluctantly admitted.  He tried to imagine how his friend felt being in the dark and silence for days, barely aware of his surroundings.  Unable to communicate.  Vin allowed a smile at that, knowing even aware the communication barrier would be great between the gunman and the kids, since neither spoke the other's language.  Vin smiled, thinking if Chris' eyes were at full function at least him and the boy could have had a hell of a glaring contest    Sighing sadly, Tanner took a cool cloth and laid it across the gunman's damaged eyes, hoping his friend would get the chance to see his rescuers soon.

"Vin."  Chris lowered his voice.

"Don't, Chris.  Ya will pull through.  Ya will be back ta yer fearsome self soon." 

A smile broke over the damaged features as relief filled Chris at Vin's words.  As usual, his friend understood his unspoken fears.

"'Sides, if ya were messed up, I'd still be yer friend.  Reckon ya know that, but thought ya might need ta hear the words."

Chris held out his hand, feeling the Texan grasp it in a forearm clasp.  "Feel. . .  useless."

"That's a piss-poor attitude."

Larabee tried to laugh.  "Thanks. . . friend."

"Don't get soft on me, Chris.  It ain't our style."

"Silent. . .deadly."

"Hell, I'll take the silence.  Yer talkin' too much.  My ears are ringin' from listenin' ta ya yell, and my throat's achin' from talkin' so much m'self.  Finish yer soup."  Vin released their clasp and wrapped Larabee's hand around the bowl.  "All of it.  Don't want ya movin' while I'm fixin'." 


"Don't think Nathan would like that."

"Ain't. . .here."  Chris rasped out.

Vin was glad his friend couldn't see his face at that moment as he glanced over the injured body and deeply wished for once that their healer were by his side.  He kept his silence, not wanting his friend to hear any unsurity in his voice…or his fear. 

Chris sighed as he finally finished the broth.  A wave of tiredness washed over him, and he didn't fight it, riding it into oblivion.

The responsibility of his friend's care weighed heavily on Vin, and he tried, from that point on, to keep a positive perspective, at least around Chris.  The injuries were so severe, so extensive, that Vin knew he couldn't keep treating him here.  There weren't enough supplies, and Vin didn't have the expertise. 

He'd field treated before, but this was beyond field treating.  It was beyond his skills, and required someone with medical learning.  The tracker worried about the broken leg being set right, and all the wounds, especially those that were showing signs of infection.  The fever that continued to plague his friend kept him restless and weak.  What he didn't want to think about was what he might be missing.  He needed to get Chris to Nathan as soon as he could.  At the rate things were going, he had to do it soon. 

Chris wasn't ready to travel; Vin snorted at that thought, hell in his condition he'd never be ready.  He needed time though to get things ready and force water and broth in the man to give him some strength for the ordeal ahead.  It probably wouldn't be until the end of the next day, which meant they'd leave at first light two days from now.  The main questions were how they were going to travel, and what he was going to do with the children.  As capable as they seemed, they couldn't stay here.  They'd die, and Vin couldn't live with himself if he allowed that to happen.  He'd have to convince the kids to come with them, and maybe having the girl along would help with Chris's care.

Taking a deep breath, he set himself back to the hard job of cleaning the wounds.  There were so many, and the stench of infection nearly bowled Vin over a couple times.  Continuing with the grim task, Vin was thankful he listened to his instincts and came after Chris.  As good as the children were, this was more than they could handle.  They were too young.  He shuddered to think what would have happened if he'd stayed in town and not looked.  

It took several hours, but he finally finished this round of cleaning.  Now, to work on the fever, and that required keeping cold cloths on his friend.  Resigning himself to no sleep, Vin started over. 

After considerable argument, plenty of ingenuity, and all of Vin's persuasive skills, the tracker finally convinced the children to go with him.  He'd already rigged a travois for Chris, knowing it would be the easiest way for the injured man to travel.  It would still be painful, jarring the broken bones, but they needed to get back to town. Everything was packed quickly and quietly.

He watched the kids solemnly walk toward the memorial they placed, keeping back to allow them privacy.  Where they were going to go after reaching town, he wasn't sure yet, but Vin hoped Chanu might have some ideas.  Much as he'd like for them to stay here, where they were comfortable, he couldn't leave them to eventually die before adulthood.  But their heritage would make things difficult in town, and Vin knew he wasn't prime father material.

Moving away, he returned to Chris.  It was getting easier to look at him, but Vin knew that was because of constant exposure, not because Chris was getting miraculously better.  He wasn't.  The fever lingered, and all the infection hadn't left, but the wounds looked healthier.  His friend's strength wasn't returning, but it wasn't fading, either.  That core of spirit inside Chris Larabee refused to give up. 

The voice belonging to that strong spirit interrupted his musings.  "Vin?"

"Yeah?"  Vin tapped his friend's hand in reassurance.  "Time to go."

Chris nodded, and then winced. 

"Drink."  Tanner put a bowl in his friend's hands and helped him to drink.

Larabee could taste the medicinal herbs lacing the cool liquid. "Putting me to sleep?"

"Don't want ta year yer fussin' when I move ya."

"Don't. . . fuss."

"Sure, cowboy."  Vin patted his friend's arm. 

Chris drank the potion, quickly succumbing to sleep. 

Taking a deep breath, Vin moved his friend onto the travois, securing him to the litter. 

Quietly, Kimana entered and packed up the last of their belonging, putting some more padding around Chris.  "We go?"

Dreading the journey he knew would be painful for his friend Vin replied simply, "Yes."

"What in the hell?"  Buck immediately started his gray down the ridge toward the approaching riders.  Having been out on patrol, he'd made a point of checking the rise overlooking the roads to town, and he recognized two horses.  Before he got too close, an arrow cut through his jacket, slicing a section open and grazing his skin.  Buck reined back, his hand drawing and pointing his gun at the person who fired right next to Vin.  At a … kid?

"Easy, Buck," called a familiar voice.  "Nicoma, hold.  Friend."

Staring at the bigger man mistrustfully, the young warrior lowered his bow, speaking in his own language.

"What did he say?" Buck asked.

Vin sighed.  "He said friends call out greetings, not charge."

Buck lowered his gun, trusting Vin who held out a hand to stay more protective gestures from the child warrior by his side, or by the friend he now faced.  "Fair enough.  Should have called out, but can you tell him friends don't try to skewer each other with arrows."

The tracker nodded, quickly translating, and adding something on the end about friends who forget safety when someone they care about is injured.

Nicoma bobbed his head once in understanding.

Wryly, Vin said in English, "Now that y'all reached an understandin', I'll need ya ta ride ahead and prepare Nathan's clinic."

"How bad?" Buck asked, moving his horse to see Chris on the litter.  He made a face.  "How many did he tangle with?" 

"Got the damn dirt so mad it tried ta kill him."

A quick smile flashed across Buck's face.  "That's Chris for ya.  And your kid owes me a coat."

Vin smirked.  "Just consider it part of your wholesome personality.  Git."

"I'm gitting, and we'll be ready."  Wilmington had a lot more questions for the tracker, but seeing his injured friend he knew they could wait.  Wheeling the gray, Buck galloped for town.

"What do ya think, Nate?"  Vin asked for what seemed like the hundredth time since they arrived back in town, and the caring healer's hands, two days ago.

"He's made it this far, and that's good." Nathan put down the last dressing. Eyeing the worried tracker he added to reassure his  friend, "The kids . . .and you did a good job of caring for him. It's just going to take some time. Go get some rest, Vin."

"Reckon I'm comfortable."  He lowered his hat over his eyes, leaning back in the chair.   "Ya need ta rest, Nathan.  Ya haven't rested in the two days since he got here.  I've got it tonight."

Nathan appeared to consider, and then nodded.  "All right.  You call me if you need me."

"I will. 'Night."

"Good night.  And if you need anything…"

"I'll let ya know."

Nathan left. 

Vin propped his boots on the end of the bed. 

"He gone?"



"Yer soundin' better."

"I'm hunting my gun the next time he tries to pour that damn tea down my throat."

"Ya didn't mind when I did it.  Or Kimana."

"You fed me Kimana's broth, and it tasted good."

"Reckon so."




"Fer what?"

Chris remained silent. 

Vin sighed.  "If ya ain't got it through yer thick head yet, no man is useless while he has a friend.  Now shut up and sleep, or I'll call Nate in here ta give ya somethin' ta make ya sleep.  Hell, ya get hurt and start chatterin'."

"Arguin' I expect, them long sentences you're using.  Ezra must be rubbing off on you."

"No reason to insult a friend."

A weak smile passed Chris's lips. 

Vin saw it beneath the brim of his hat, hiding his own smile.  Both settled into comfortable silence as the injured man finally slipped into healing sleep.

 Larabee heard the shuffling footfalls coming up the stairs to Nathan's clinic.  He'd been relishing the brief respite of being alone in the small room for the first time since coming back into town.  The gunslinger could always count on Nathan's worried presence, or Vin's, but one of the others made their own appearance as often as they could during the day to check on his recovery.  While he'd finally come to accept the caring concern of his friends, for a man who'd been a loner for several years, the constant company could wear on the nerves.  Especially when those nerves were already on edge from being injured and helpless…a feeling the gunman hated.

He turned his head to the door as it opened.  His eyesight was better, returning as the swelling from his injuries receded.  Still a bit blurrier than he liked, fearing he wouldn't see danger coming, he sighed in relief as he recognized the form of his friend.  As the tracker waved and smiled in greeting, the gunman tensed as he noticed two unfamiliar figures behind the lean form.   The lumbering form behind the trio he recognized as Josiah.

"Figured it was 'bout time ya met some friends of yers," Vin stated as he moved aside and urged the two children out from behind him closer to the bed.

Vin chuckled as he saw his earlier instincts play out.  The now welcomed green gaze of his friend stared hard at the lanky youth, whose dark brown eyes were staring just as fiercely back at the recovering gunman.

The green eyes were the first to break the contest as they drifted over to the other slim figure standing closer to the bed and smiling shyly down at the blond.

"Hi" Chris finally greeted, amazed that these children were his saviors.

The girl smiled and patted his shoulder in what he recognized now as a familiar gesture from when they cared for him.

Vin stepped up, knowing the lack of communication skills between them would be difficult. 

"They took real good care of you," he told Chris.  Vin placed a hand on the shoulder of the young warrior, "This is Nicoma.  He watched yer back."  Vin smiled and shared a look with Chris, knowing he'd already been regaled by the exaggerated tale created by Buck about how he met the fierce warrior protecting the group as they traveled back to town.

Chris stared at the young boy.  Standing at Vin's shoulder he saw a boy, yet knew by looking into those dark brown eyes he knew there was a man just waiting for the body to catch up.  Sadly, he looked at the man standing beside the boy and knew that in this territory it often happened way too fast.

"This is Kimana," Vin drew his gaze back to the young girl.

Larabee's gaze softened and he smiled at the girl, who was so brave, yet still so young and trying to hide the shyness that youth brought.  The smile faltered as once again he thought of the waste of another child forced to grow up too quickly.  Before he let his sour thoughts overtake him, he slowly reached for her hand.  Taking it softly in his calloused, weak grip, he brought to his lips and kissed the back of her hand, as any gentleman might do, and gave her a brilliant smile.  "Thank you."

Kimana smiled and giggled at the unusual gesture by the white man.  She looked over at her brother.  The boy looked uncertainly to Vin who nodded and cocked his head toward the bed.

The boy stepped forward.  Larabee could now see he held something in his hand.  The boy stepped forward, still approaching the gunslinger slowly, he allowed the man to see what he held.  Then getting a nod from the gunman, he reached forward and helped Chris raise his head as he draped the rawhide loop over the blond's head.  Finally placing his hand over the small leather pouch he'd placed over Chris' chest, Nicoma said, "Awayaye."  He followed it up with, "Zaniya."

Vin smiled at Chris as he turned his questioning gaze up to the tracker for an explanation.  "Kids figure you need somethin' powerful ta watch over ya, and keep you well." 

Chris smiled and nodded his thanks to the boy, but looked up at the tracker and the preacher standing beside his bed.  "Thanks.  Got friends who do a good job, though."


"Vin," Nicoma said, falling in step with the tracker.

"Nicoma," Vin acknowledged.

In his own tongue, Nicoma asked, "Your preacher's taking us to an Indian village.  Do you trust him?"

Vin replied in kind.  "Yup.  Want ta wait and I'll go with y'all?"

"No.  You are needed here, with him.  His strength is yours, and yours in his."

Vin smiled.  "Ya spent too much time with the preacher."

Nicoma shrugged.  "It is what it is.  No more, no less.   Kimana, come."

The girl came over to the pair. 

"We are leaving now," said the boy.  "Thank you."

Vin tipped his hat.  "Yer welcome." 

"Thank you," Kimana said. 

Josiah walked over at the trail end of the conversation.  "Vin."

"Josiah."  Vin nodded back. 

"Nicoma told me about his mother's sister who lives not too far from here.  I'm hoping Kojay will help get them to relatives."

"If anyone can, Kojay will," Tanner replied. 

After a few moments of final goodbyes, Josiah and the children left for Kojay's village, and JD tagged along with him.  Tanner watched the party as they rode away, hoping for the best for the children, and wish he could do more for them.  They saved his best friend's life, and for that he felt very obliged to them; they all did. He had no doubt they would be cared for, if their relatives could not be found, they would find a new home in Kojay's tribe.  It would not be the same as having their own parents, though.    It was a feeling the tracker was familiar with, one he wished he could correct for them.  Sadly he knew that was something the Great Spirit took out of their hands.

"How are ya feelin'?"  Vin asked, taking a seat next to his friend, who'd been freed from the healer's clinic for some fresh air for awhile.  Nathan only relented with the excuse he could use the time to give his rooms a throughout cleaning.

"Like hell."

"Ya don't look much better."

Chris shot him a look.

"'Course, with all them blankets and pillows, I'm sure yer pretty comfortable."  Vin referred to the collection of cushioning wrapped around the injured gunslinger, all the way to the pillows coating the barrels propping Chris's leg up. 

"Hot as hell."

Vin chuckled.  "Mrs. Potter's comin' over later with some soup fer ya."

Chris rolled his eyes.  "I'm ready to float away on all the soup I've had the past week."

"Reckon so."

A few minutes passed in comfortable silence, broken only by the sounds of a fight that announced itself from the saloon across the street. 

"Aw, hell."  Vin jumped up, charging toward the building. 

Larabee could only scowl in agitation as he listened to the destruction that was occurring and he was sitting helpless, not knowing how his friends were fairing.  He sat up with interest as the brawlers decided to expand their fight out into the street.

The gunfighter watched as a confusing tangle of arms and legs attached to various bodies rolled out into the street.  In the haphazard mess, it was hard to tell who was who.  The melee was accompanied by grunts and yells, filling the street in front of the saloon.  Fists flew, men ducked, and a good free-for-all, better known as the definitive bar brawl, announced itself in view of the whole town, and one pissed off gunfighter.  A chair shattered over Vin's head from one of the three drunk men the tracker found himself trying to control, and one of the trio pulled out a knife.

Unable to sit and do nothing any longer, Chris did something.  He fired a round in the air from the double barrel shotgun tucked under the blankets for an event such as this, and then prepped it to fire again.

Shocked faces stared at the apparent invalid sitting on the boardwalk, with a large smoking barrel aimed in their direction.

"Next one hits someone," he said clearly, significant menace in his voice.

More guns came out, but these belonged to the other protectors of the town. 

"Fight's over," Vin declared. 

The peacekeepers rounded up the miscreants and carted them off to jail to sleep through their drunk. 

Minutes later, Vin rejoined the smirking gunman, rubbing his sore head.  "Guess yer not useless."

"Guess I'm not.  Could use a drink."  Larabee nodded to the leg he was still not allowed to walk on.

"Water or broth?"  Vin quirked an eyebrow.

"Beer or whiskey."  Chris glanced around.  "And do it fast before Nathan finds out." 

"Ezra!"  Tanner called across the street, miming lifting a bottle.

One flew across the street at the tracker, who caught it and passed it to the gunslinger.

After a healthy pull, Chris handed it to Vin, who took one shot, and gave it back.  

"Better hide it, Nathan's comin' to check on the ruckus."  Chuckling, Vin stood to block the view, letting Chris stuff the bottle under the blankets, but where he could reach it easily.  "What else ya hidin' under there?"

"A gag for a tracker if he keeps yapping.  He's talking so much he's giving me a headache."  Chris grinned up at his friend. 

Vin laughed.  "At least I ain't yellin'."

Both friends chuckled as they heard Nathan's approach, as they were sure the whole town could.  "Can't leave y'all alone fer a second!"


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