Setting Things Right

By : Susie Burton

Buck Wilmington juggled three glasses in one hand and held a bottle in the other, whilst trying to open the door to Nathan’s clinic as quietly as possible. It had been almost an hour – and a busy one as well - since he’d made the shot to save the life of Kate Stokes. After helping Ezra organise their prisoners, and assisting in the removal of corpses, the ladies’ man had picked up the ‘essential’ supplies from the saloon before heading for the clinic.

As the moustached man fumbled with the awkward handle, the door was suddenly opened from inside by Chris, who held a forefinger to his lips to shush the new arrival. Holding up the full bottle of whiskey, Buck nodded knowingly and winked conspiratorially at his oldest friend.

"I need a drink, so I’m thinkin’, ‘Chris must be gagging for a shot… or mebbe even two!’" he explained in a low voice.

"I’m thinkin’, ‘you brought my bottle… but where the hell’s yours?’"

Chris’ whispered rejoinder made the other man grin, although he said nothing as he entered the hushed clinic. Delicately setting his burden down onto the healer’s medical bureau, Buck’s eyes panned around the small, sparsely furnished room. Several lamps were lit, the curtains were pulled shut and a well- stoked fire was burning in the pot-bellied stove, giving the place a warm, cosy glow. Nathan had set up two single-sized beds next to one another with their headboards against the far wall, and a mid-height table and a high-backed chair sat between them. The door leading to the former slave’s sleeping quarters was wide open, but as Buck craned his neck to look into the separate room, he saw no sign of the healer.

"Where’s Nathan?"

"He had t’go see to Mrs Osborne. It sounds like her baby’s on its way," Chris replied as he poured whiskey into two of the glasses.

Buck tiptoed across to the occupied beds, and peered down at JD’s peaceful, pain-free features. Reaching out, the ladies’ man tenderly moved a stray lock of hair away from the other’s closed eyes, a contented smile playing on his lips as he then gently caressed the youth’s whiskery cheek with his thumb. Dark stubble also covered the young man’s chin and neck. Despite this outward claim to manhood, he looked to be no more than eighteen years of age, relaxed as he was in a drug-induced sleep. The deathly grey colour of his skin had changed to a more healthy hue, and perspiration no longer beaded JD’s face and neck. It broke Buck’s heart to see his normally exuberant friend so quiet and still, but it appeared that the wounded sheriff was finally out of danger. With Nathan’s skilful and diligent care being continuously lavished on the Bostonian, he’d rapidly turned the corner and the ladies’ man was suddenly optimistic for the youngster’s full recovery.

"He’s looking much better and I think his fever’s down too," Buck breathed, gratefully accepting a whiskey filled glass from Chris.

"It is. Nathan seemed pleased with his progress."

"That’s good enough for me then. Shit… where that bullet landed… a gut-shot…! Chris, I honestly thought I’d be planting that kid today. He must have the Devil’s luck!"

Chris stared at the youngster’s blanket-wrapped form for several long seconds before bringing his glass up and tapping it gently against Buck’s.

"Here’s to the Devil!" he murmured, smiling faintly at his blasphemous toast.

"Yeah… and to continuing luck! Damn young ‘uns’ll be the death of us!" the ladies’ man muttered. "So, how’s Vin? Has he woken up yet?"

"Briefly. He swore" - Chris grinned wryly - "in several different languages, growled an’ tried to take a swing at both Nathan and me. But we got some of his favourite skunks piss medicine into him and then he passed out again."

"What about the knife wound? Was it as bad as it looked?"

"No, it was a fairly clean cut and should heal fine. Nathan’s more concerned about those broken ribs, so he’s gonna keep him up here for a few days. Providing the mule-headed cuss rests properly an’ does as he’s told, he’ll be back to full fitness in a couple of weeks."

As he spoke, Chris topped up his glass up before returning to his seat beside the other sleeping man. Vin was propped up in the second bed, almost in a sitting position, with two plump pillows lined up behind his back and a third one – flatter than the others – tucked behind his head. Fresh bandages covered his torso from waist to armpits, whilst Vin’s knife-slashed arm was wrapped and firmly immobilised against his chest in a secure sling.

Nathan’s treatment of the injury had seemed excessive to the gunslinger’s way of thinking, until the former slave had explained why he was being overly cautious. Restricting the tracker’s body movement and confining him to bed for several days would reduce the risk of a punctured lung. However, apart from ensuring Vin rested and stayed off his feet, there was little more the healer could do for the man’s chest injury.

The healer had mixed a heavy dose of laudanum into the willow bark tea he’d given his newest patient before leaving but, despite this, the tracker’s slumber didn’t look to be as deep or restful as the young sheriff’s. Vin’s breathing was slow and shallow, but every now and then a slight frown or grimace marred the handsome features and showed just how much pain his broken ribs were causing him. A faint sheen of sweat clung to the injured man’s face and as Chris settled in the seat between the two beds, he fished a washcloth from a basin on the bedside table.

Buck perched on the end of JD’s bed, watching the unguarded look of tenderness on his oldest friend’s visage as Chris gently bathed the tracker’s forehead, neck and throat. He’d recently trodden the same anguished route with JD and, having known Chris for more than a dozen years, the moustached peacekeeper had a reasonable idea of what was going through the gunslinger’s mind.

"It don’t get any easier, does it?"

"What doesn’t?" Chris asked in a soft voice, not looking up from his chore.

"Seeing ‘em hurt, an’ knowing there ain’t much you can do to take away their pain."

"It shouldn’t have happened in the first place."

"Y’know, I thought the self same thing with JD. When I found him out on the trail, covered in blood, shaking and almost speechless with pain, I felt…" Buck’s whisper petered out, and he quickly gulped down the remainder of his whiskey as he wrestled with his emotions.

"Shit, I felt like I’d been hit full in the belly by a cannon ball!" the ladies’ man exclaimed. "It was me that sent him back to ‘protect’ those women… me that pushed him straight into a dangerous situation. The fact that they were pretty young ladies made me trust ’em and treat ’em different from any other suspect. But I could see that gal warn’t… exactly right in the head, an’ I should’ve known better. When I saw what she’d done… hell, I wished that bullet had had my name on it instead. But it didn’t… and… dammit, Chris, Fate’s a fickle mistress, an’ none of us can predict how the cards will fall - not even you!"

"Careful, you’re beginning to sound like Josiah or Nathan," the gunman grunted.

"Rather that than spouting five dollar words like Ezra!"

Chris tossed the cloth back into the hot water, although his eyes never left Vin’s face.

"I can’t argue with that."

"I didn’t think ya would! Look, Chris, neither of us had any control over all this crap, and I know for certain that JD and Vin wouldn’t want us to take the blame for…"

Buck’s quiet comment ended abruptly as both men heard the sound of light footsteps outside on the wooden balcony. Hastily dousing the lamp on the side table, Chris swiftly drew his Colt, taking up a position at the foot of the two beds as Buck darted over to the clinic door. Ezra and Josiah had done a thorough sweep of the town after seeing to the clean-up at the jail, but the two peacekeepers in the clinic were not about to take any chances – especially with both Vin and JD unconscious and in no fit state to protect themselves.

The ladies’ man cocked his revolver as the door slowly opened, but he immediately lowered and re-holstered his weapon when he saw the identity of their unexpected visitor.

Kate Stokes slowly entered the clinic, her hands held aloft to signify her innocent intent.

"I was looking…. for that preacher," she murmured.

"If he ain’t at the church, then Josiah’s most likely at the jail. Can I give him a message?" Buck asked.

The young woman swallowed hard, her fragile courage almost deserting her when she saw the malevolent stare that Chris Larabee fixed on her.

"I wanted t’ask him about Maddie’s" – she paused, angrily brushing at her eyes as the familiar prickle of tears arose unbidden – "Maddie’s funeral… tomorrow, I guess it’ll be."

"That ain’t none of your concern, Ma’am. The town will arrange for her burying, along with the other outlaws that were killed this week," Chris replied bluntly.

"The… the other outlaws? No! You can’t put here in with Del or any of his gang! Please, she doesn’t deserve that!" Kate begged.

There was abject terror in the woman’s voice and, seeing a glimmer of pity in Buck’s eyes, she made her next appeal to him.

"Buck, I… I can pay for Maddie’s casket. I don’t want anything fancy, but I won’t let her go to earth alongside that evil sonofabitch! The preacher offered her redemption - said the Lord’s prayer for her - an’ all I’m asking fer is a Christian burial."

Chris glanced at Buck, shaking his head as the other man began to speak. This was an awkward situation, but he couldn’t afford to let emotions get in the way. Just as Judge Travis had decreed in his courtroom, the gunslinger could make no allowance for a criminal’s gender. Law, order and protocol had to be maintained for the system to work, particularly in the tough, western frontier towns. His features impassive, Chris gestured to the bed where JD lay sleeping.

"She shot JD in cold blood, an’ she’d killed before that too, so I hope you ain’t thinking of laying her t’rest next to the church. Like it or not, Ma’am, your sister was a convicted murderer, and folks won’t feel comfortable with her sharing sacred ground with their loved ones."

Kate bit her lower lip, her head craning around Buck to peer at the sleeping tracker.

"Yeah, that fits with what I’ve seen in this two-bit town," she replied with an angry sniff. "These here honest an’ upright citizens don’t want a lady bounty hunter buried with their dead kin, but they ain’t too worried ‘bout havin’ a man who’s wanted fer murder as one of their lawmen."

Chris stiffened at Kate’s disparaging words, his hand once again hovering close to his gun butt as he sidestepped closer to Vin’s bed.

"I’d be real careful about what you say next, lady," the gunslinger warned frostily.

Chris spoke barely above a whisper, but his voice was like an arctic, winter blast and the temperature in the room suddenly seemed to plummet.

"It warn’t me that recognised Tanner. Maddie’s much better’n me at findin’ a bounty. She allus remembers…. remembered a face or name. I got proof of what I’m sayin’ if you’ll let me show ya."

Taking the peacekeepers stony silence as an affirmative, the woman’s left hand dipped into her coat pocket. Offering a folded sheet of paper to Buck, she then edged towards the tracker’s bed.

"You come any closer to him, an’ you’ll regret it."

There was no false bluster in Chris’ quiet comment; his revolver was once more in his hand, and it was clear he would use whatever means necessary to safeguard his injured friend. Realising just how precarious her situation was with the dangerous gunman, Kate shrugged her shoulders and went back to stand by the clinic door.

The ladies’ man balled the poster in his fist and quickly crossing to the stove, threw the wad onto the glowing logs. Flames flared up, licking hungrily around the compacted ball until the paper collapsed and melted into the ashy embers.

"Kate, we know about the price on Vin’s head, but the charge ain’t true. He was set-up for a murder he didn’t commit, and he’s trying to clear his name," Buck stated defensively.

"That don’t make any difference t’me. The five hundred dollars will be paid no matter what – an’ burning that wanted bill won’t make this problem go away neither, ‘cos I got another one in m’room. Mebbe… mebbe I should give it to that stiff-necked judge, an’ ask him fer some legal advice. Course, I might jes’ ferget I saw Tanner, if you’re willing t’let Maddie have a proper Christian burial tomorrow instead of a godforsaken mound in Boot Hill."

Buck’s indigo eyes narrowed slightly, the look of understanding fading from his features as he contemplated the bounty hunter’s damaging proclamation. It was rare for him to feel anything other than gentlemanly respect for a woman… well, apart from lustful pleasure and desire of course. But hearing the almost gloating tone in Kate’s voice, Buck experienced a pang of hostility and his normally generous heart hardened with anger.

"Are you trying to blackmail us?" he grated out.

Whilst Buck fully appreciated what had driven Kate to make such a denouncement against the outlawed Texan, he wouldn’t allow the other to think she had an advantage over them. The ladies’ man could see guilt and grief tormented the young woman over the death of her sister, but he promptly swept away any remaining sympathy. Compassion only went so far, and notwithstanding this new threat against the tracker, Buck wanted to see justice served for Maddie’s murderous deeds. It was a sheer fluke that JD had survived the younger girl’s unprovoked attack.

"I’m jes’ tryin’ to set things right fer m’kin!" Kate retorted hotly. "She didn’t have much of a life, so I gotta do m’damnedest fer her now she’s dead. Mebbe she’ll get t’see our mama ag’in, an’ that awful memory of her passin’ will be cleaned from Maddie’s soul. It ain’t much I’m askin’, but I owe m’sister the chance to straighten things out wit’ God."

The woman’s eyes lifted Heavenward as she said the last word.

"That’s asking for a lot, even from Him," Buck muttered.

"I know…. but the preacher gave his word to her as she lay… dying in m’arms, an’ at the… end, I know she was real sorry fer what she’d done. Ain’t she got a right t’try an’ square things wit’ our Lord?"

"I reckon she lost that right when she shot JD," Chris countered.

"Who are you to pass judgement?" Kate bristled, turning angrily towards the blond gunslinger. "You have no idea how much we…. she suffered as a kid. Men are no more than animals… no, that ain’t being fair to animals! Most critters give a damn about their young ‘uns, an’ nurture their offspring, teach ‘em all they need t’know to survive. Maddie only ever got harsh words or a beatin’ from pa an’… an’… Dammit!"

Kate’s loud tirade ended as she realised how close she was to losing the tenuous grip she’d maintained on her grief-tattered emotions. Jerking the clinic door open, she stalked out, slamming the rickety wood panel so hard behind her that it sprung back wide on its hinges.



Chris slid his gun back into leather, exchanging a worried look with Buck as he went to close the clinic door. Shaking his head in mute resignation, the black-clad gunman went and helped himself to another shot of whiskey, wondering how he and his friends could resolve this unexpected complication. The rustle of crisp linens and the squeaking rattle of a wooden bedstead suddenly interrupted the stunned silence left by the woman’s outburst.

Vin had roused from his restless slumber as soon as Kate Stokes entered the clinic, but had feigned sleep while quietly listening to the heated conversation between his two friends and the lady bounty hunter. A knot of apprehension had settled in his gut when he heard the woman’s declaration about his fugitive status, and it was all he could do to stop himself leaping out of bed there and then to flee for his life.

Staying in one place for such a long time had made him complacent and sloppy, and Vin knew he’d got too used to having the security of his six friends constantly watching his back. Why had he let himself believe he could lead a normal existence? How could he have been so stupid? It disturbed and frightened the tracker to acknowledge how readily he’d dropped his normal wariness. But this was a trap of his own making, and now he would pay the ultimate penalty for this period of soft living.

Vin was sure that Orin Travis knew about the outstanding warrant on him, but evidently the lawyer chose to disregard that fact in favour of keeping the Texan as a valued member of the town’s peacekeeping protectorate. However, the tracker was certain of the outcome if the Judge was given irrefutable proof of a charge, even if that indictment was only enforceable in another State. The conscientious territorial judge would be duty-bound to act if presented with a current wanted poster, and would expect his appointed lawmen to follow proper judicial procedures. Vin couldn’t bear to put any of his friends in such an impossible position, so it was with a heavy heart that he’d come to a decision.

If Kate made good on her threat, Vin knew he would be left with very few alternatives, so there was only one thing he could do under the circumstances – and he couldn’t afford to delay. He had no intention of languishing any longer in Nathan’s clinic. Besides, he’d ridden with worse injuries than this in the past.

Adamantly pushing away his discomfort, the tracker threw the sheet and blankets off him and carefully swung his legs to the floor, surprised but thankful that his friends had left his underwear on him before putting him to bed. Spotting his folded pants lying atop his boots under the bedside table, Vin stretched down to grab them. The sudden pressure on his flexed torso caused the previously banked pain to rekindle and the injured man swallowed convulsively as his stomach gave a sickly gurgle. Realising the simple activity of bending down was more problematical than anticipated, the tracker carefully straightened up, quickly gulping back the throat-scorching bile that had risen.

Dizziness assaulted him, so he took a few moments to regain his equilibrium before attempting to stand. Despite the tremors that wracked his bruised and aching body, the persistent nausea and the blurry greyness that nibbled at the edge of his vision, Vin somehow managed to get to his feet.

"Where the hell d’you think you’re off to?" the blond questioned as he saw his friend’s foolhardy move.

"I… gotta go."

"There’s a chamber pot under…"

"I… don’t mean a… piss! I have t’pack… m’wagon," Vin gasped. He’d only taken a few steps, and he was already swaying dangerously on legs that felt like molten lead.

"Sit down before you fucking fall down!" Chris demanded angrily.

Coming over to Vin’s side, the older man noticed the pinched and pained look spread over the other’s ashen features. As his young friend moaned and began to pant, Chris hastily grabbed an empty bowl from the bedside table. Previous experience of dealing with a sick or incapacitated Vin Tanner had taught the gunslinger well and he knew exactly what was coming. Thrusting the basin under the younger man’s chin, the blond peacekeeper looped his other arm around his friend’s shoulder for both support and restraint and guided Vin backwards to sit on the bed. Chris was just in time.

The tracker’s entire body shook, his eyes scrunching shut in agony as he threw up the contents of his stomach. Vin coughed and spluttered a few times as the involuntary action jarred his damaged ribs, and for a moment he thought he would be sick again, or maybe pass out. Spitting out a globule of vile-tasting mucus, he tried to catch his breath and ignore the heavy, burning block that seemed to be lodged in the middle of his chest. The tracker was vaguely aware of Chris holding him and talking to him, and with a tired sigh, he gratefully sagged against his friend’s strong form. The sour smelling basin disappeared and a warm, damp cloth travelled across his face, mouth and neck, bringing welcome respite from the icy sweat that invaded his skin.

Vin had no strength to object as he felt an arm slide behind his knees and he made no protest as the gunslinger gently eased him back into the bed. A cup insistently nudged his lips, and resting his weary body against the pillows, the Texan obediently sipped the cold water. He knew he should make the effort to leave, but Vin’s energy had been sucked away by the incessant pain and nausea, and he had to admit that it felt good to have someone else take control and see to his personal needs.

Buck re-lit the lamp and then straightened the rumpled bedding over the younger man. Pulling a heavier quilt up from the footboard, he fussily adjusted and tucked it under the mattress whilst the gunslinger sat on the other side of the bed and tended to Vin. The tall peacekeeper glanced across at his oldest friend as Chris quietly encouraged the tracker to drink more water.

"I’ll go an’ talk to her. Maybe I can make her see sense," the ladies’ man told the other.

Chris nodded wordlessly, but his main concentration was centred on his injured friend, and he didn’t look up as Buck crept out of the clinic.

"What was it about the phrase - ‘rest and stay off your feet’ - that you didn’t understand? Do you want to tear a lung?" Chris asked Vin, his hushed voice dripping with sarcasm.

The tracker opened his eyes and pushed away the cup. He glanced at the soundly sleeping JD before replying to his concerned-looking friend.

"It don’t… matter none," Vin sighed dejectedly. "I’s a… dead man anyways, iffen she… talks t’the… judge."

Putting the cup back on the table, Chris slid off the bed and dragged the chair closer. He sat down, leaning his elbow on the edge of the mattress as he gazed at his despondent friend.

"That won’t happen - not while I still draw breath," the gunslinger vowed. "But I think she needs a more… subtle touch. Leave it to Buck – he’ll deal with her. Trust me, pard; that man could convince the sun not to shine if he really set his mind to it!"

Vin snorted caustically, nodding in agreement at Chris’ cynical appraisal of Buck’s persuasive powers. He immediately regretted the unchecked movement, bowing his head and clutching his midriff with his good hand to try and counteract the searing spasm pulsating within his chest.

"Ah… shhh…it! It even… hurts when… I talk!"

"Then don’t talk! Just rest and keep still. Quit being a pain in the butt and, for once, do as Nathan tells ya!"

"Damned… orn’ry, tight-assed… Yankee gunfighter!"

"It takes one to know one."

"Now yer bein’… downright… nasty… ‘cos I ain’t no… Yankee," Vin grumbled petulantly. The teasing exchange with his closest friend allowed the tracker to momentarily forget not only his injuries, but also his increasing worry caused by the Kate’s damning threat.

"Nope, you’re a stubborn, sonofabitch who jus’ doesn’t know when to yell calf-rope."

"Ya sayin’ I should’a… let that hombre get… past me?"

"It was hardly the Alamo, and you weren’t the only one of us holding a gun," Chris reminded his friend. "But it’s a bit late for recriminations. We caught the gang, even if it came at a high price."

The hard bleakness to Chris’ final sentence confirmed what Vin had already surmised, and his free hand reached out to fleetingly touch the gunslinger’s forearm.

"Warn’t… yer… fault she was…. killed, cow… boy."

The tracker’s quiet, breathy drawl was laden with pain, but there was a sharp edge to Vin’s tone that speared Chris’ conscience like a hot knife going through butter.

"Wasn’t it?" The gunslinger’s retort came out harsher than he’d intended, and he looked away, suddenly unable to maintain eye contact with the other man.

"Nope. Think on…it, Chris. She… had no future… no… hope left. So… ain’t a well placed… bullet… cleaner? Or… kinder mebbe?"

The laboured words came out haltingly, and seeing sweat trickle down to gather in the hollow below Vin’s Adam’s apple, Chris knew how much it was costing the other to speak. Pursing his lips, the blond wrung out the washcloth again, and wiped the perspiration from the tracker’s pallid face.

"Perhaps, but…"

"Ain’t no… b…b… buts," the tracker stuttered emphatically. "She ain’t hurtin’ no… more, ‘cos she’s bin… taken past… her pain an’ fear. That gal… was goin’ to a stinkin’ prison fer the… res’ o’ her life, so she’d… nuthin’ ahead… ‘cept… ‘cept… suff’rin’, hardship an’…. lonli…" The long statement defeated Vin, and he slumped back on the pillows, closing his eyes in exhaustion.

Studying the younger man for a few seconds, Chris puffed out a heavy sigh as he fingered the damp cloth. It was difficult to hear such a thing voiced, especially by a man who one day could be in a position similar to the one Maddie Stokes had been in. However, the blond knew Vin was being a pragmatist. A swift, fatal shot had to be better than a slow death in a squalid prison – or a painful, protracted and humiliating hanging in public.

The image of the tracker, his red face bulging and contorted from lack of air as he struggled to get free from a choking noose, suddenly flitted through the gunslinger’s mind. Chris shivered at the sickening and terrifying thought. Faced with such a horrific death, the older man knew which manner of punishment his friend would prefer if he were unable to clear his name and ever got hauled back to Texas; not that a convicted prisoner would have any choice on his method of execution. It gave the blond cold comfort to consider such a barbaric concept, but perhaps the Mexican Government did have the edge on their supposedly more civilised neighbours. An instantaneous death at the hands of a firing squad was probably more humane.

"I guess when you look at it like that, it makes some kind of sense," the older man murmured.

The tracker peeled his eyes open again and tipped his head around to look at his companion.

"So…. why’re ya still… chokin’ on that guilt?"

Chris squirmed uneasily on his chair, but from the determined expression on Vin’s face as he asked the question, the older man knew he wasn’t going to fool his shrewd friend with any explanation aside from the truth. Only one other person had been able to read him as accurately as the tracker did. Sarah had always been able to sense his moods and had had a habit of telling Chris what he was thinking and what he would say before he’d even known himself. Letting out a rueful snort, the gunslinger decided that honesty was the best policy. Vin probably wouldn’t rest until he’d helped his friend achieve an element of closure on the whole sordid incident.

"I could have handled this better," Chris began. "Events overtook me, and I allowed them to ‘cos Travis was hell bent on getting revenge for his friend’s murder. I ain’t proud of it, but my judgement was clouded from the moment those women arrived. I should never have let ‘em ride out with us after the gang, and I was wrong to trust Kate tonight. Spivak guessed he was being set-up. He knew her too well, and instead of exploiting that fact, I sat back while they both used it against us."

"Mebbe, but I’d’ve done… th’ same as Kate. If my… brother was jailed…. I’d risk anythin’ t’spring ‘im."

"Yeah, so would I."

The pair fell silent, aware that they’d openly spoken something that had been held inside each other since that momentous day their eyes first met. Nothing more needed to be said; both men would willingly lay their lives on the line for the other, sacrifice all, regardless of the personal consequences.

"Chris, ya cain’t allus… know what’ll happen. The kid getting shot… an’ that gal bein’ kilt… were… were…" Vin searched for the correct word.

"Unforeseen?" Chris supplied.

"Yeah… unforeseen."

The gunman made a rude noise with his mouth.

"Maybe for an inexperienced tinhorn, or a green kid like JD, it was. But I must be slippin’, ‘cos I should have seen the ramifications of our scheme. I thought we were being so damned clever getting Kate to feed that line to Spivak, but she had her own agenda. Any other lawman would’ve taken her outta the frame and locked her up with her sister."

"We’d’ve bin buryin’… two gals then, Chris."

"You make it sound so cut and dried."

"That’s ‘cos it is."

Vin’s logic was impeccably flawless – as always. It was simply impossible to cover every scenario or pre-empt an outcome, and the finality in the tracker’s comment smoothed a fortifying balm over Chris’ fractured ego. Realising and accepting that he needed to move on and stop shouldering the blame, the blond nodded in resigned agreement.

"Perhaps you’re right. But Vin, about the other day when you got…" The older man stopped, unsure how to broach the subject that had plagued him for several days.

"Lar’bee, if yer gonna… start a’weepin’ an’ wailin’, ‘cos ya didn’t rush over… when that hoss trampled me… then…" Vin’s frank gaze met the other man’s. "Shit, it wuz bad…. ‘nough havin’ Nate an’ Ez… flap like a pair o’ mammy chooks!"

"Ezra as a hen? I’d liken him to a flashy rooster!" Chris chuckled.

"Yeah, ‘specially… struttin’ ‘round in that…. red coat!"

Chris grinned again, but the humour quickly disappeared when he heard Vin expel a ragged breath, and caught the other’s ill-concealed wince of pain as the younger man huddled further into the pillows. Quickly getting to his feet, the black-clad peacekeeper strode over to Nathan’s medical bureau and found the palliative draught that the healer had left for his patients.

"You should be sleeping," Chris muttered testily. Perching on the mattress, but facing the tracker, the gunslinger raised a china cup to the younger man’s mouth.

"Drink. All of it," he commanded in a steely voice.

Vin knew he wasn’t going to win this argument with his friend – not when the other used that ‘don’t fuck with me’ tone – so he grudgingly surrendered to the inevitable. The tracker swallowed the herbal concoction, glowering at the blond with blue eyes that pledged a swift reprisal to Chris for forcing him to take the drug. The gunslinger knew he had the upper hand, and was looking far too smug.

Wait until the tables are turned, Larabee. I won’t be fergittin’ this! Vin comforted himself with the idea of retribution as the familiar bitterness of laudanum registered on his taste buds.

"Urgh!" the tracker groused, giving a shudder as he drained the last of the foul medicine.

"That tasty, huh?"

"Damn, if a knife or bullet… don’t get ya… Nate’s evil brew will!"

"And there was I thinkin’ you end up in here so often, you must surely enjoy what Nate dishes out!"

"Anyone ever tol’ ya… that yer a hard bastard?"

"I’ve been told."

"Mus’ be… true then."

The older man shook his head in mock despair.

"You’ll find out soon enough if you don’t get some sleep," Chris warned as he deftly adjusted the pillows and helped his friend recline lower in the bed.

The blond pulled the heavy quilt up to Vin’s chin and the younger man yawned widely, feeling the blessed numbness spread throughout his body as the drug began its work. The powerful opiate was rapidly stripping away his physical resistance and cognisant thought, but the tracker still retained sufficient clarity to continue to fret about the bounty.

"Chris, what if she….?"

"She won’t. But if she does…. Well, we’ll try an’ cut a deal with Travis, and if that fails, then we’ll ride. Together. Now, unless you really want to rile Nathan, I suggest you get some shut-eye."

As Vin’s lashes fluttered downwards and he finally relaxed in drugged slumber, Chris breathed a quiet sigh of relief. There were still a few issues to be resolved and the ongoing danger for Vin was very real, but the gunslinger had total confidence in Buck’s abilities. He knew that if anyone could talk Kate Stokes around, it was his oldest friend.

Dousing the lamp on the bedside table, Chris got to his feet and indulged in a long, luxuriant stretch, grimacing when his vertebra cracked a couple of times. Gazing fondly at the two sleeping men, the blond peacekeeper gave a rueful smile. There would be little rest for him until either Nathan or Buck returned, but he didn’t regret for one second his decision to stay and watch over his injured friends. Both men deserved, and would receive his potent guardianship. It would help to assuage the guilt Chris still stubbornly clung to and, from a purely selfish standpoint, such an altruistic deed went a long way towards setting things right for him


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