M7FFA Entry


Storms of the Past

by Mady Bay

Chris and Vin were sitting in the saloon, watching as Ezra played an amicable game of poker with JD and Buck. Things had been relatively quiet in Four Corners for a week or so. The most trouble they'd had was a couple of rowdy drunks. Chris looked at Buck again, saw him wince as he tried to readjust the cards he held in his hand. His other hand and arm were held in a sling, his arm broken by one of those rowdy drunks. Buck seemed to take it in stride, 'part of the job,' and all. Chris looked back at his drink. He was feeling uneasy. He couldn't quite put a name to his feelings, but dread and foreboding were in the running. He threw back the shot of whiskey Vin had poured him.

Vin, too, had similar feelings. Not born out of his own mind, though, but of the emotions he saw fighting in Chris's eyes. And he knew, without question, that if Chris felt something was amiss, then something usually was.

"What's up, Cowboy?" he asked, hoping Chris would voice his thoughts.

"I don't know," Chris answered with a sigh. "Storms brewin'," he added after a minute or so of silence, looking toward the window.

"Maybe just the rain kind," Vin offered, hoping that the dark thunderclouds were indeed the cause of Chris's unease.

"I hope you're right," Chris replied.

"Gentlemen!" Ezra called out, interrupting Chris and Vin's dark thoughts. "Seems our youngest member has called it an evening. I have an opening here, if one of you would care to partake in a friendly game of chance," he offered.

"Only if you want to 'partake' in losing," JD muttered.

Chris was about to agree to the game, despite JD's remark and Vin's warning look, when Mary Travis entered the saloon.

"Chris," she called.

"Yes, Mary," he replied. "What can I do for you?"

"The mail came in on the stage this afternoon," she started.

"And?" Chris said, urging her to continue.

"Well, there's a letter addressed to someone I don't know. I was wondering if one of you might know him," she explained.

"What's the name?" Buck asked.

"Wil Tyler," she stated.

Chris and the others gave her puzzled looks, shaking their heads. All except Vin. He slowly stood and faced Mary.

"That'd be me," he said, simply.

Ignoring the questioning looks from Mary and the others, he extended his hand toward her, to receive the letter.

When Mary hesitated, he explained, "Can't be having my real name goin' across the country to here, now, can I?" and took the letter from her hand.

Mary, still a bit confused, replied, "No, I guess not," and excused herself. "Gentlemen."

Vin again ignored the questioning looks from the others and sat back down, opening the envelope as he did. Chris watched Vin read the letter, curious. He'd never known Vin to get any mail, let alone any under an assumed name. He watched as Vin quickly placed the letter back into the envelope and put it into his coat pocket. He also saw the subtle change in Vin's demeanor. Before Mary had shown up, Vin seemed relaxed and at ease, even trying to get him to relax. Now, Chris saw tenseness in Vin's features. The others may not have noticed, but Chris did. He watched as Vin tried to casually return to his drink. But he didn't sip it as he normally would. Vin threw back the shot. 'Maybe that storm has already arrived,' Chris thought.

"Everything okay?" he asked quietly.

Vin just nodded his head quickly, dismissing Chris's concern. Chris didn't believe him for a second, but he wouldn't push him. If Vin wanted to let him in, he would. About ten minutes of silence later, Vin pushed his chair back and rose from the table.

"I'll be out of town for a day or two," he said, not looking at Chris.

"Where ya headed?" Chris asked.

"West," Vin replied, adjusting his hat.

"Need company?" Chris offered.

Vin considered Chris's offer. He knew Chris was offering not only his own company, but that of the others, as well.

"Nah, I'll be fine," he finally replied, still avoiding Chris's gaze.

"Okay, how 'bout this. Do you WANT company?" Chris asked, deliberately stepping in front of Vin, to make him look at him.

"No, thanks," he replied, looking up with a half smile. "I just gotta get somethin' taken care of, is all. Won't take much."

"When are you leaving?" Chris inquired.

"Now," Vin responded easily, stepping around Chris.

Chris's eyes narrowed. "You can't wait 'til mornin'?" he asked.

"I'll be back in a day or two," Vin repeated and left the saloon, pulling up his collar against the rising winds.

Chris looked back at the others, who he knew had been listening, despite their efforts at pretending to continue their game.

"Man's gotta right to his own business," Buck replied to Chris's wordless question.

Ezra nodded in agreement as he shuffled the cards.

JD looked about as perplexed as Chris was. "I'd sure like to know what was in that letter and who sent it," he mused.

Chris turned around and headed toward the doors. He looked down the street toward the livery. He felt the first few raindrops hit his face as he saw Vin leading his horse out. Determined to get Vin to talk to him, he headed to Vin's wagon, figuring he'd stop there for some supplies. But he stopped short as he watched Vin mount up and head out of town at a full gallop.

Once out of town, Vin slowed his horse down to a trot. He tried to convince himself that he didn't know why he'd shot out of the livery as quick as he did. He really wasn't in a hurry. But deep down, he did know. He'd seen Chris heading his way. He didn't want to confront him again. He'd barely made it out of the saloon with his emotions in check. He didn't think he could lie to Chris.

"Shit," he muttered to himself, cursing his cowardice.

He put his hand in his coat pocket and felt the letter folded inside. He didn't have to reread it to know what it said. The message was short and to the point. "Meet me. River Fork Ridge. Janie." Signed, as it had been addressed, with an assumed name. The outside of the envelope had an Eagle Bend mark on it, so he knew she was nearby when she sent it. He knew she'd be waiting for him. He just didn't know why.

The last time he'd seen her was just before he became wanted in Tuscosa. She'd wanted to talk to him. She'd had something important to tell him. He knew what it was about. But he wasn't ready to talk. So he told her that he'd had a bounty to go after. That he'd be back soon enough. But he never did come back. He managed to write her a letter, though. Told her that he was sorry. That it was just too dangerous for her to be with him. He'd given her her out. Now, he wondered how she'd found him, and why.

Vin pulled up his collar again, and pulled down on his hat. The rain had picked up along with the wind. He again cursed himself for not facing Chris. At least he could have gotten his rain poncho and another blanket from the wagon. He urged the horse onward.

Chris finally headed back to the saloon. Josiah was waiting on the porch out front.

"Trouble, Brother Larabee?" he asked.

"None that he'd admit to," Chris replied absently.

"The worst kind, then," Josiah sighed.

Chris looked up sharply, eyeing the former preacher. He slowly nodded his head and let out a sigh of his own. He knew personally how one's own demons were the hardest to admit to having. It was even harder to ask for help to fight them.

"I just hope the storm inside him isn't worse than the one we're getting," Josiah said, looking at the dark sky.

"If he's not back in two days, we ride," Chris said, entering the saloon.

Vin pulled up on the reins. He looked up into the early morning sky, a few stars poked through the rain clouds that were breaking up. The rain had finally let up, and he decided to take a short rest, maybe even sleep a bit. He was soaked to the bone, as it was, having been rained on all night. He found a small stand of trees, near the base of a plateau and dismounted. He ground tied the horse and stretched his legs. Building a small fire was difficult without too much dry wood around, but he succeeded. He took off his coat and hat, shook them out and hung them on some branches by the fire. Squeezing the water from the ends of his hair, he sat next to the fire, drinking in its warmth. His thoughts returned, as they had all night, to the woman who wrote the letter. What could she possibly want? Thoughts of her were nothing new to him. He often wondered how she fared without him. And whether or not he was better without her. And that's why he was going to meet her. He had to remind himself that he was.

After a few hours rest for him and his horse, Vin mounted up and continued his journey. He knew he wasn't far from her when he had stopped, but he figured he'd better get some rest, both physically and emotionally, before meeting her. At the top of the plateau he took out his spyglass and scanned the area. Sure enough, he made out the smoke from a small camp in the distance. He urged his horse onward down the side of the plateau. He wondered if the Spirits were sending him a sign when the rain started up again, a large clap of thunder marking the storm's onset.

A while later he came to the edge of the camp. A lone horse was tethered to a tree. A lean-to had been set up near a now, rain soaked, smoldering fire. She stood outside the lean-to, hands on her hips, a smile on her face, despite the rain soaking her.

"I knew you'd come," she said to him.

"Always did have a hard time refusin' you," Vin replied, dismounting.

She walked to him, closing distance quickly and gave him a hug.

"I've missed you so much," she said, burying her face into his chest.

Vin heard differently, though. He believed her to some extent. Hell, he missed her a little bit, too. But he was still suspicious. He pulled her back and looked into her eyes. He had the answer he'd come for.

"What do you want, Ellie?" he asked, flatly, pushing her away from him.

"No 'I missed you, too?' just 'What do you want, Ellie?'" she asked, taken aback by Vin's abruptness. But then she saw the hurt in his eyes, the hurt she had put there, all those years ago. "I... I, um...I want to get married," she stammered.

Vin shook his head in disgust. "So, what? You've come to ask for my blessings?" he asked, incredulous. "Go ahead, ruin somebody else's life," he spat and started to turn back towards his horse.

"Vin! Wait!" she cried. "There's more," she added.

Vin stopped and waited, closing his eyes as he tilted his head back. Ellie walked to him and turned him around to face her.

"My fiance is a bounty hunter -" she started.

"Yeah, and he's after me," Vin finished, dryly. "What else is new?" he added, shrugging from her grip.

"It's not just you he's after," she implored.

Vin stopped and turned again, ready to question her, when he felt a sharp pain explode in his hip. As he actually heard the gun shot, he realized he was no longer standing. Vin was rolling to his side in pain and trying to draw his mare's leg, not realizing he couldn't do both at the same time. He thought he heard Ellie yelling at someone, but the shooting pain from his right hip down to his toes was the only thing his body could comprehend.

"You said you wouldn't hurt him!" Ellie yelled at the man approaching the camp.

She was kneeling at Vin's side now, hands on his shoulder and back.

"I said I wouldn't kill him," the man corrected.

He put his boot to Vin's back and gave it a shove, forcing Vin onto his stomach. Vin let out a loud, painful cry. The man held him down with the same boot and grabbed the mare's leg, barely out of its holster, from Vin's weakened grasp. He ignored the glare Ellie gave him and shoved the gun under his belt.

"Fix him up," he ordered and went to try to rekindle the fire.

Ellie glanced down at Vin, who was glaring at her, his quick and heavy breathing holding back his pain.

"You set me up!" he managed through gritted teeth.

Ellie was taken back by the sheer hatred she heard in his voice and saw in his eyes.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, as the rain began to fall again.

JD, Nathan, Buck and Josiah sat outside the small jailhouse, watching as Chris walked down the boardwalk for the fifth time that hour.

"How much longer you think he'll wait?" JD asked.

"Now, if it was you, JD, he'd have been gone already," Buck teased.

"Only to be right on your heels, Buck," Nathan added with a laugh.

"No, Brothers," Josiah interrupted. "With Vin, Chris is ever respectful and usually, patient. He'll give him the full two days."

"Yeah, but at two days and one minute, he'll be leaving at a full gallop," Buck finished.

"With the rest of us right with him," JD added.

They all nodded in agreement. Thunder sounded in the distance.

"Sounds like another storm coming this way," Nathan noted, looking to the west.

"You talkin' rain or Chris?" Buck asked, nodding toward Chris's approaching form.

Vin let out a small gasp as Ellie pressed a cloth to his hip, hoping to stop the bleeding. She had cut up one of the dresses she'd brought along to use for bandages. Now she was readjusting Vin's empty gunbelt to hold the dressings in place. He cried out again as she cinched it tight.

"You enjoying this?" Vin asked, teeth clenched.

"No, Vin, I'm not," she began. "This wasn't supposed to happen. Cobb didn't tell me you were going to get hurt. He said he'd let you go after he was done."

"Ellie, in case you forgot, I'm worth five hundred dollars, dead or alive. What'd you think he was going to do?" he asked bitterly.

"He said he was just going to use you to get to your friend," she explained.

"Yup," the man interrupted. "Figured I'd get you and Larabee, both," he said.

Vin looked up at the man. "What do you want with Larabee?" he asked, his voice giving away as pain and now fear for Chris took over.

"Me and Larabee go way back. That's all you need to know," Cobb said. Then he looked at Ellie. "You done with him?"

"Yes," she answered, checking Vin's wound again.

"Good," Cobb snarled as he grabbed Vin's wrists and tied them together.

He dragged him over to one of the nearby trees and secured him to it.

"Rest up now, Tanner. It might be a while before Larabee comes to try to rescue you," Cobb warned.

Vin, still trying to catch his breath, watched through half closed eyes as Cobb grabbed Ellie and brought her to the lean-to. He cursed silently to himself. He should have known better than to meet her. She'd long ago lost his trust. But he had to remind himself of that fact over and over. He did love her, once. Didn't he?

'Oh, God, Vin,' he thought to himself. 'She's still doing it to you. And now Chris is in danger, too, and you can't do a thing about it.'

That last thought was confirmed as he tugged at the ropes around his wrists and the pain in his hip erupted again. He tried to curl up into a ball to try to lessen the pain, but his right leg wouldn't cooperate. It just lay there, twitching, as sharp stabs of pins and needles shot up and down its length. As he lay his head down on the wet ground, the pouring rain drowned out the sounds of Cobb having his way with Ellie.

Buck entered the saloon and looked around. He didn't know why. He knew exactly where Chris would be and what he'd be doing. He approached the table and straddled a chair, resting his good arm on the chair's back. He looked at Chris and waited for him to acknowledge his presence. Finally, Chris turned to him and met his gaze.

"Why don't you just go?" Buck asked plainly.

"He said he'd be back," Chris replied. "He's fine," he added.

"Now why do I get the feelin' you don't really believe that?" Buck asked.

Chris eyed him.

"Come on, Chris, we're all a little worried about Vin. We saw what that letter did to him, too," Buck admonished.

"So why aren't you all riding out after him?" Chris asked, taking a drink.

"Well," Buck started. "You know Vin the best. We figured you'd know when it was time to go. Maybe even know what this is all about," he finished.

Chris thought about Buck's assumption. Gave his drink a swirl before downing it.

"Alright. If he's not back by morning, we ride," he said.

Vin woke up choking on the rainwater pouring into his mouth. He lifted his head out of the mud and tried to get his hair out of his eyes. Dizziness swept over him and he was forced to put his head back down. At the moment, the pain in his hip was a dull ache. He knew that that would change the moment he tried to move, so he tried not to. His shivering muscles had other ideas, though, and the dull ache started to hone. His clothing and hair were soaked through and he felt chilled to the bone. He looked up at the sky. It looked to be late afternoon, but with the darkness of the stormy sky, he realized that it could just as easily been high noon. A movement caught his eye and he looked toward the lean-to.

Ellie emerged, a serape wrapped around her head and shoulders. Vin watched warily as she crossed the small camp and approached him. She knelt and quickly reached for his right boot. She withdrew the knife she remembered he kept hidden there.

"Gonna hurt me some more?" Vin croaked, bitterness in his voice.

She didn't reply, but wordlessly cut his bonds and replaced his knife.

"I can keep him occupied for a little while after he wakes up," she said, trying to avoid his gaze. "Your horse is still saddled."

Vin grabbed her wrist before she could get up to leave. He wondered if this was some sort of trick. Then he saw her eyes. They were sad, begging him for forgiveness. He nodded silently to her and let go of her wrist.

He tried to get up then, pushing himself upward with his hands. But the pain was too great and his right leg still would not move for him. Ellie saw his struggle. After a quick glance at the lean-to, she looped his arm around her shoulder, grabbed him around the waist and hauled him up. She guided him to his horse. Vin was breathing heavily from the effort and reached out blindly for the horse. He had been holding his breath the whole time, trying to prevent himself from crying out and waking Cobb. Ellie put Vin's right foot into the stirrup, trying to ignore the audible gasp he let out. He grabbed the saddlehorn and pulled as hard as he could as Ellie helped heave his other leg up and over the saddle. The effort exhausted Vin and he nearly slipped out of the rain-slicked saddle. Ellie saw him catch himself and realized that he'd never be able to keep himself on the horse for the ride back to Four Corners. She got the rope from the tree and tied it around Vin's waist and the saddle. She debated going with him, but knew Cobb would be onto them in no time. If she stayed back, and distracted Cobb, then Vin might have a chance. With one last look, Ellie slapped Vin's horse on its rump, sending it eastward.

Between the cold rain chilling him and the blood loss from his wound, Vin figured he should have passed out a long time ago. But he managed to stay conscious. Not quite alert, just awake enough to know he had to keep going. Every step the horse took sent bone-jarring pain through his hip. That was one thing that kept him awake. But something else was driving him. Something more enduring than his pain. Chris. He had to get back to warn Chris about Cobb. Chris took precedence over any rain or gunshot wound. Vin would not stop. That and the simple fact that if he stopped to rest, he knew he'd never be able to remount his horse. He urged the horse on in the downpour. Just a little further and he can warn Chris. Not get warm. Not get healed. Just warn Chris.

Chris sat inside the saloon, waiting for Buck to join him.

"Where's everybody else?" Buck asked, when he did arrive, shaking the rain off his coat and hat.

"JD's helping Nathan pack some supplies," Chris began. "Ezra's gone to bed - he's not used to getting up early, you know," he continued, with a glint in his eye. "Hell, by that reasonin' you should be in bed, yourself," Chris chided.

"Oh, I plan on it," Buck replied. "I just haven't found the right one yet," he finished, eyeing some of the women in the saloon.

Chris just shook his head, amused. Even with a busted arm, there was no stopping Buck.

Buck saw the look Chris gave him and knew what he was thinking.

"They feel sorry for me," he said with a shrug. "Want to make the all the hurts go away," he added, giving Chris a practiced sad puppy dog look.

Chris shook his head as he watched Buck head to the bar. Now that they had planned to go after Vin, he felt a little better. He was no longer fighting with himself, trying to decide whether to go after Vin or not. He didn't want to ruin the trust between Vin and himself. He didn't want Vin thinking he didn't have faith in his abilities. But at the same time, he remembered the look in Vin's eyes. He knew he was headed into some trouble. And, his business or not, as a friend, he didn't want to let him go alone. But that is what Vin wanted, and he had to respect that. His thoughts were interrupted by shouts from outside.

"Chris! Buck!" Josiah shouted. "Vin's back!"

But they heard the tone of Josiah's voice. It would not be a joyful homecoming.

As Chris and Buck got outside, their gazes followed Josiah as he ran down the street. They soon followed, quickly getting drenched in the downpour, and met up with him as Vin's horse came to a stop in the middle of the street.

"Vin?" Josiah called. "Vin?" he repeated. When he got no response, he looked at Chris.

Chris approached Vin's left side. "Vin? Can you hear me?" he asked, placing his hand on Vin's leg.

At the sound of Chris's voice, Vin opened his eyes. He looked around, noticing that he and his horse were no longer moving. But he didn't say anything.

"He's been hurt," Buck said. "Blood down his leg."

"Vin?" Chris repeated, starting to untie the rope holding Vin into the saddle.

Vin blinked, finally realizing that he was back in Four Corners and that he was not alone. He looked down at the hands at the saddlehorn. Then he looked at their owner.

"Chris," he whispered, before collapsing, sliding out of the saddle and into Chris's arms.

"Let's get him up to Nathan's, now!" Chris ordered.

Nathan looked up as the door to his room burst open, with Chris and Josiah carrying Vin's limp form through the door. Nathan met them quickly, putting his practiced fingers to Vin's throat.

"Looks like a gunshot wound to his hip," Buck reported, closing the door behind them.

"He's freezin', too," Nathan said. "Get him outta those wet clothes and dry him off before you put him in the bed," he ordered Chris and Josiah. "JD, get your clothes off and get into the bed first," he added as he started to gather supplies.

"What?!" JD balked, confused.

"Just do it, JD!" Chris warned, pulling Vin's boots off.

"Body heat, JD. You got it, Vin needs it," Nathan explained quickly.

JD began taking his clothes off, and looking at Vin's shivering form, realized the urgency of the situation. His awkward feelings could wait. He climbed into the bed and got under the covers, before he himself, got cold. A few minutes later, Josiah and Chris carried Vin to the bed. JD held up the blankets and moved over. Before he knew it, Vin was curling up next to him, his unconscious body instinctively searching for heat. JD put his arms around him, embarrassing thoughts completely gone, his own protective instincts taking over to care for his friend.

Nathan drew the blankets back from Vin's injured side, so he could get to the wound. He took a washcloth from a nearby basin and began to clean Vin's hip, to get a better look at the wound.

"How bad?" Chris asked.

"Bad enough," Nathan muttered, dropping the bloody washcloth back into the basin.

Chris paced the floor. "Who the hell did this?" he asked no one in particular.

"Maybe if we could read that letter of his, we'd find out," Buck responded.

Chris looked at Buck, then went to Vin's coat. He checked the pockets and found the letter. It was soaking wet and he had to be careful not to tear it as he opened it. Buck and Josiah leaned over his shoulders and read it with him.

"Who do you think Janie is?" Buck asked.

Chris shook his head and replied, "Don't know."

They looked up quickly at the sound of Vin crying out, saw him fighting JD's grip on him.

"Easy, Vin, it's alright," Nathan soothed. "Just hold him tight, JD," Nathan instructed, as he picked up the scalpel Vin had knocked out of his hand.

"Chris?!" Vin called out urgently.

Chris went to the head of the bed, being careful to stay out of Nathan's way.

"I'm right here, Vin," he answered, smoothing the hair back off Vin's brow.

Vin looked toward Chris, but his eyes were unfocused, clouded by pain and cold.

"D-don't... g-g-go.... S-ss-set up," he managed through chattering teeth.

"Who set you up, Vin?" Chris asked, leaning closer. "Janie?" he added, holding up the letter.

But Vin only squeezed his eyes shut tight and moaned loudly as he tried again to get out of JD's tight grip. Nathan had started the task of trying to find the bullet in Vin's hip.

"Josiah," Nathan called, knowing Josiah would know what he needed, and he did.

The big man added his own strength to JD's and held onto Vin's legs, keeping him still.

Chris, concerned about Vin's pain, looked at Nathan.

"Can't you give him something for the pain, first?" he asked.

"Normally, I would," Nathan said with a sigh, continuing to probe the wound, looking for the bullet, trying to ignore Vin's continued cries of pain. "But time is of the essence now. I'm usin' him bein' cold to my advantage. He won't bleed as much this way," he explained.

Chris closed his eyes, nodding in agreement to Nathan's reasoning, but still wishing there was something he could do to ease Vin's pain. He looked at the letter in his hand again.

"Almost there, Vin," he heard Nathan soothe. "Got it!" Nathan exclaimed, pulling the bloody bullet out.

As Nathan let go of him, Vin's body sagged back down against the mattress. JD readjusted his grip on him, his job back to keeping Vin warm.

"Vin? Vin, who did this?" Chris asked quietly.

But Vin only repeated his earlier statement, whispering, "Don't go. Set up," before losing consciousness.

Chris stroked Vin's forehead once again, before heading for the door.

"Where you headed, Chris?" Buck asked.

Chris held up the letter and said, "West."

"I'll go with you," Buck said, putting his hat on.

"No," Chris replied putting his hand on Buck's shoulder. "No offense, Buck, but considering what we might find, I want someone with two guns with me."

Buck nodded, inwardly cursing the rowdy drunk from last week.

"Josiah, you're with me," Chris ordered. "Go wake up Ezra, too."

After waking the gambler up, Josiah had quickly gotten Ezra up to date on Vin's condition and their current mission west of town. They rode silently out into the rain, about half an hour later.

"So, any speculations on this woman from Mr. Tanner's past?" Ezra asked.

It had been the question on everyone's mind since Chris had first opened the letter in Nathan's room, and continued to be such as the three men rode.

"Lots of speculations, Ezra," Josiah replied. "Just no answers," he added.

"Vin never mentioned her name before, least not to me," Chris responded.

"Mr. Tanner never did seem to be the kiss and tell type," Ezra remarked, a slight smile on his face.

"The question is," Chris began, "Did Janie set him up? Or did someone else, using Janie to get to Vin?"

"I guess we'll find out when we get there," Josiah responded, pulling his coat closed.

Nathan washed and dried his hands and let out an audible sigh. He'd just finished stitching up Vin's hip. He was glad that Vin's unconsciousness prevented him from feeling the stitching. He looked back at the bed. JD's face still held a worried look as he hunkered down beneath the covers with Vin. Nathan started when he heard Buck's voice.

"He gonna be okay?" Buck asked.

"As long as we can get him warmed up and keep out any infection," Nathan replied.

Buck nodded and called to JD, "How about you, JD? You holdin' up okay?"

"I'm okay," JD answered quietly, not wanting to disturb Vin.

"You two do look cute together," Buck teased, hoping to ease the tension in the room.

JD rolled his eyes at the remark and Nathan shook his head.

"What do you think they'll find out there?" JD asked.

"Hopefully, the bitch or the son of a bitch that shot Vin," Buck replied evenly, finally taking a chair and sitting down next to the bed.

A few hours later, JD woke up, disoriented. He'd forgotten why he was in bed with another man and almost jumped out of it. But Vin's soft moans quickly reminded him why he was there, and he relaxed, not wanting to startle his injured friend.

"You can get out of bed, now, JD," Nathan said.

JD looked at Nathan, then back to Vin, before doing so.

"How is he?" JD asked, nodding at Vin.

"Well, he's warmed up. That's a start," Nathan replied.

As JD got dressed, Buck entered the room, trying to carry a tray of food. JD quickly helped him put it on the table. Nathan went to Vin's side and checked his bandages. Vin let out a few more moans, his head lolling back and forth on the pillow.

"It's alright, Vin. You're safe, now," Nathan soothed. "JD, if you'd get a cool washcloth for his forehead, I'd appreciate it," he asked JD.

JD complied and started to wipe the cool cloth across Vin's forehead. As he did so, Vin opened his eyes.

"Hey, Vin," JD greeted him, his voice soft. "How ya feelin'?" he asked.

Vin opened and closed his eyes a few times, trying to gain some focus. He opened his mouth to try to respond to JD's question, but nothing came out.

"Just a minute. I'll get you some water," Nathan said.

Moments later, Nathan was supporting Vin's head and shoulders and holding a cup to his lips. Vin was able to take a few short sips before Nathan eased him back down onto the pillow. Vin looked up at Nathan, gratefully.

"Vin, do you remember what happened?" JD asked.

Vin looked at JD, Buck and Nathan and then around the room.

"Where's Chris?" he asked urgently, though his voice was just above a whisper.

"He went to find out who did this to you," JD answered.

Vin's eyes widened and he tried to get up. "NO!" he tried to yell, but was stopped by the pain in his hip.

Nathan and JD pushed him, struggling, back into the pillow.

"Vin, lie down!" Nathan scolded. "I only just got done puttin' you back together."

"It's a set up!" Vin managed through gritted teeth. "Cobb's gonna kill Chris!"

"Cobb??!!" Buck exclaimed, almost dropping the glass he held.

Nathan and JD looked at Buck expectantly.

"Who's Cobb?" JD asked.

"He's gonna kill Chris," Buck responded, repeating Vin's earlier statement. "Come on, JD, we're heading out," he added, still not answering JD's question.

Nathan watched the two men leave the room, hoping they'd find Chris before this Cobb fellow did. He turned back to Vin, hoping to get some answers out of him, but Vin was unconscious again, maybe satisfied that Buck and JD would be heading out after Chris.

Chris, Josiah and Ezra stopped their horses.

"Looks like someone stopped and made camp here," Chris said, dismounting and walking toward a recent campfire pit.

"Think it was Vin?" Josiah asked, dismounting as well.

"This does seem to be a location that Mr. Tanner would choose," Ezra remarked, looking around. "Close to his desired and inevitable destination, yet far enough away that he may rest in relative safety."

"I agree," Chris said, checking the tracks.

"Shall we rest here as well, then?" Josiah asked.

"May as well," Chris replied. "Can't do too much more in the dark anyway."

Buck and JD rode as fast and hard as they dared, not wanting to over tire their horses before finding Chris.

"So are you gonna tell me who Cobb is?" JD asked.

"A few years back, just after Chris lost Sarah and Adam," Buck began. "Chris saved a woman from a beatin' from her husband. Wound up shootin' him later on in a gunfight. While the bastard was recoverin' the woman left town, headed back east. Man was John Cobb. Swore he'd kill Chris for takin' his wife away from him. Damn near did it once, too, before the law finally put him in prison. We'd thought for good," Buck finished.

"So now, Cobb's out of prison, legitimately or not, aiming for Chris and Vin," JD summed.

"I don't know how Vin got in the picture. And I still haven't got the foggiest notion who Janie is, but, yeah, I guess that pretty much sums it up," Buck agreed.

"I sure hope we get to Chris before he does," JD said to himself.

Buck, hearing JD's words, nodded to himself, agreeing.

Just after sunrise the three broke camp and continued west.

"Looks like it'll be a clear day," Josiah remarked.

"Thank God," Ezra sighed. "I don't know how much more rain I could have tolerated. The mud just sends my laundry bill through the roof," he added.

"Always do like riding in the early morning sun," Josiah started. "Always so peaceful. Like nobody's had time to mess up the world, yet."

"Well sunshine or not," Chris began. "I still feel like I'm riding in a storm."

Ezra and Josiah nodded, returning their thoughts to the reason they were out riding in the sunshine.

"Small camp up ahead," Josiah announced, nodding toward it.

"Spread out," Chris said, unnecessarily, as Josiah and Ezra had already begun to do so.

They circled the area around the camp cautiously, checking the surrounding area as well, before meeting inside it.

"Well whoever was here, left their horse," Josiah noted, nodding to the horse still tied to one of the nearby trees.

"No sign of Mr. Tanner's lady friend," Ezra said, opening up the flap to the lean-to.

"Check the area again. Look for any other tracks besides Vin's," Chris ordered.

In the distance, John Cobb watched as three men rode into the little camp. He smiled to himself as he recognized one of them.

"I knew you'd come, Larabee," he said to himself. "Just can't resist a little justice can ya? Well guess what? Neither can I."

Cobb raised his rifle and checked his sights.

"Now, do I take out you, Larabee? Or should I shoot some more of your friends, first?" Cobb asked himself.

Ezra had found women's clothing and effects in the lean-to. He was about to go through them, to find out a little more about their owner. Maybe find out what she was to Vin. Then he heard horses approaching and looked to the east.

"Riders coming!" he shouted, though needlessly, as he saw Chris and Josiah also looking to the east.

"Looks like Buck and JD," Josiah remarked.

"Chris!" Buck shouted.

But before Chris could respond, Buck watched in horror as a single gunshot rang out and Chris fell to the ground.

The four remaining men scrambled for cover as more shots filled the small camp.

"Cover me!" Buck yelled out as he rode to Chris.

Buck jumped off his horse, grabbed Chris by the collar and dragged him over to the trees. The others did indeed lay down some cover fire for the two. They knew Buck couldn't shoot and help Chris with only one good arm. When they got to safety, Buck quickly checked Chris for injuries. He found a bullet wound in Chris's shoulder. Entering through the back and blasting its way out the front, Buck thought the bullet had done quite a bit of damage, as Chris was covered in blood. Buck took the sling off his broken arm and wadded it up, pressing it against the exit wound. He had laid Chris across his leg, so there was pressure against the entrance wound, as well. Buck noticed that the shooting had slowed down and took a look around for the others, hoping they had fared alright. He glanced back at Chris and saw Chris glaring at him.

"Buck, what the hell are you doing here?" Chris asked, his voice pain filled.

"I came to warn you," Buck replied. "Vin told us who shot him. It was-"

"Wilmington!!" Cobb's voice boomed, interrupting Buck's explanation.

"Cobb," Chris said, looking at Buck, finishing his sentence. He had instantly recognized the voice.

"Wilmington! I know its you there with Larabee!" he shouted. "Give him up!"

"Yeah, well if you know its me, then you know there ain't no way in hell I'm gonna let you have 'im!" Buck shouted back.

"But he's got another man's wife to defend!" Cobb shouted, rising from his own cover, Ellie held at gunpoint in front of him.

Buck and Chris looked toward the hillside. They saw the battered woman, barely able to stand, Cobb using her as a shield.

"How much you wanna bet that's Janie?" Buck asked, not really expecting an answer.

The others also saw the man and woman. They broke their cover slightly, to get a better look at them, and to assess their own standings.

"That's right Larabee. Here's your chance to be a hero again!" Cobb shouted. "Only this time, let's make a trade. You for Tanner's wife, here," he said, clutching Ellie tighter.

"Wife??!!" Buck whispered.

"Chris? Chris?" Vin called weakly, before succumbing to a coughing fit.

"Easy, Vin, easy," Nathan soothed, coming to his bedside.

Nathan had been dozing on the other bed up to that point. He put his hand to Vin's forehead.

"Damn, Vin. You go from one extreme to the other," he swore, shaking his head.

He got a washcloth and soaked it in the cool water before placing it on Vin's fevered brow. He worried about Vin's continued coughing.

"Sounds like all that rain and cold went and settled in your chest," he said, speaking to himself as much as to Vin.

He got his stethoscope off the shelf and pulled the blanket down off Vin's chest. He listened carefully and frowned at what he heard.

"Shit," he muttered.

"Chris?" Vin called again.

"Too soon, Vin," Nathan responded. "But don't worry, he'll be fine. Buck and JD will warn 'im."

Nathan got some more pillows and bedding and brought it next to Vin's bedside.

"Let's get you propped up a bit. It'll help with the cough," he said.

Nathan put his arms around Vin and began gently pulling him upright. Vin grabbed onto him tightly, holding his breath and stiffening as the pain in his hip erupted. Nathan tried not to cry out himself as Vin's fingers dug into his skin. Vin began coughing violently as his lungs protested the lack of air. Still, Nathan let him hang on, future bruises be damned. After a few minutes, Vin was finally able to relax. Nathan let go with one hand and put the pillows and bedding behind Vin's back. He eased Vin back slowly and watched as Vin, eyes shut tight, adjusted to the new position. Nathan soaked the washcloth again and wiped Vin's face and neck.

"I never shoulda gone," Vin whispered before falling asleep again.

"Wife??!!" Buck whispered.

Looking around at the others, seeing their expressions, he knew that they had probably asked the exact same question.

"He's lyin," Chris whispered. "If she was Vin's wife, he never would have left her here."

Buck looked at Cobb again.

"Damn, I wish Vin was here," he said. "He'd be able to take Cobb out without touchin' a hair on the lady."

Chris thought of Vin again. He couldn't picture him leaving anybody at the mercy of someone like Cobb, especially a woman. And especially if she was Vin's wife. 'Vin's wife.' Two words Chris never thought he'd say in the same sentence.

"What's it gonna be, Larabee?" Cobb demanded.

Chris again thought about Vin. Whoever she was, wife or not, Vin thought Chris was more important. He'd nearly killed himself getting back to Four Corners to warn him about Cobb. He struggled up out of Buck's grip.

"No deal, Cobb!" he shouted.

"But she's a woman! Maybe even Vin's wife!" Buck protested, whispering loudly, so Chris could hear.

"A woman who set Vin up," Chris replied tersely.

"I'll shoot her! Right here and now!" Cobb threatened. "I'm sure Tanner would love finding out his best friend let his wife die!"

Before Chris or the others could do anything else, though, Ellie reached up and grabbed Cobb's gun. After a brief struggle, the gun fired. The five lawmen watched as Ellie, her abdomen red with blood, dropped from Cobb's grasp and fell to the ground.

Cobb looked up, and realizing that he was exposed, raised his rifle. But as he aimed toward Chris's location, he saw that Chris, along with the four others, had already aimed at him.

"I'll see you in hell, Larabee!" he shouted as the bullets hit him, unable to get his own shot off.

Josiah had carried Ellie down the hill. Remarkably, she was still alive, though they all knew that she wouldn't be for long. When Josiah laid her next to Chris, who was now propped up against a tree, she opened her eyes. She looked around at the men, these friends of Vin's, knowing what questions were in their eyes. She also knew that if they had those questions, it was because Vin had not told them about her. It would be up to him to decide to answer them or not.

"There's a box of stuff in the lean-to. Give it to Vin," she managed, looking at Chris. "Just tell him he was right... and.... and that I'm sorry," she added, before closing her eyes again.

Josiah felt her neck for a pulse. He looked up at the others and shook his head.

Nathan stepped outside for the first time in hours. He took a deep breath. Mary was staying with Vin for a bit, giving Nathan a much needed break. Vin was still feverish, pneumonia trying to move in. Nathan looked up and said a prayer. Vin was going through a hellstorm alright. When he was awake, he was coughing, suffering pain in his chest and his hip. When he was asleep, he was having fever-dreams. Still trying to warn Chris about Cobb or cursing some woman named Ellie for setting him up. Nathan was even more confused about what happened now, with another woman involved. And Vin refused to talk about it. Nathan was brought back to the present when he saw the men entering town and riding his way. He counted five men on horseback, breathing a sigh of relief as he recognized each one. He became worried, though, when they stopped in front of him. Chris, pale, arm in a sling, swung painfully down from his saddle. Nathan rushed to his side.

"Chris," he started.

"I'm fine, just a scratch," Chris interrupted, brushing Nathan off. "How's Vin?"

"Bullet wound's okay, but he's feverish. I think he's getting pneumonia," Nathan responded.

Chris had already started to go up the stairs before Nathan finished. But as he got to the third step, he collapsed, Nathan and JD barely managing to catch him.

"It's about time," Buck swore, sighing heavily.

Mary stood up, alarmed, as they carried Chris into Nathan's room and put him on the empty bed.

"What happened?" she asked.

"He's fine, Mary," Buck said. "Just tired."

Nathan began to remove Chris's shirt to assess his injury. Vin, awakened by the commotion, opened his eyes and looked over. Seeing Chris's still, bloody form, he panicked.

"Chris?!" he cried, trying to get out of his bed.

Ezra and Buck went to Vin and pushed him back into bed.

"Easy, Vin. It's alright," Buck tried to assure him. "It's just a scratch."

"But the blood! And he's not movin'," Vin started to say before a coughing fit caught him.

Vin still struggled to get out of bed. Coughing fit and pain aside, he wanted to see Chris, make sure he was okay.

"Vin! Vin, listen!" Josiah yelled, grabbing Vin's shoulders, getting his attention. "Chris is fine. The bullet went clean through. He's just exhausted," he told him.

Vin looked at Buck and Nathan for confirmation. When they both nodded, agreeing with Josiah, he finally settled down.

The next time Vin woke up was a day and a half later. He coughed weakly, and moaned as he tried to get comfortable. Chris and Buck came to his bedside.

"'Bout time you woke up," Buck said. "Nathan said your fever broke last night," he added.

"How ya doin' Vin?" Chris asked.

Vin, his voice tired, just said, "Well ain't you two the pair."

Chris, looking at his and Buck's matching slings, laughed.

"Yeah, I guess we are," he said.

"Cobb?" Vin asked.

"Dead," Chris replied. He looked down and then around the room before adding, "So's Janie. He killed her. I'm sorry, Vin."

Vin closed his eyes and nodded, before correcting Chris. "Ellie. Her name was Ellie."

Chris nodded and looked at Vin, trying to gauge his reaction to the news.

"Cobb said she was your wife," Buck said, hoping to get confirmation from Vin.

"Was," Vin replied, looking at the ceiling, now. "Long time ago," he added, absently.

"Before Tuscosa?" Chris asked.

"Oh, she stopped bein' my wife long before Tuscosa," Vin answered with a sigh, hoping to alleviate Chris's sorrow over Ellie's death.

Vin shifted in the bed, becoming uncomfortable with the conversation. He winced at the pain still shooting down his leg and coughed. Buck, sensing Vin's feelings, excused himself.

"I'll check up on ya later, Vin," he said. "Gotta see what trouble JD's getting into today," he added, heading out the door.

Chris watched Buck go and turned back to Vin.

"Before she died, she told me to tell you that you were right about her," he said. "She also said to tell you that she was sorry," he added.

Vin looked away from Chris. He felt the tears welling up. He pressed his palms to his eyes, not wanting Chris to see him cry. When he finally looked back at Chris he took a deep breath and sighed.

"Just when I thought I could hate her again, she had to go and say she was sorry," Vin said quietly, half laughing, before succumbing to another bout of coughing.

Chris put his hand on Vin's arm when he was through, lending him his strength.

"We also found a box of stuff she wanted you to have," he said, putting the small box on the table next to the bed. "I'll come back later on to see ya. Let you look at that stuff in private," he added, grabbing his hat.

"Thanks, Chris," Vin said.

After Chris had gone, Vin looked over at the box. He was tempted to just throw it away without looking. But he didn't. He took the box off the table and opened it up. There wasn't much inside. A few pieces of inexpensive jewelry, a small framed picture of himself and Ellie, taken on their wedding day, a pocket knife and two pair of knitted baby booties, one pink and one blue. Vin closed his eyes and thought about the names Ellie had picked out for the baby. Wil and Janie. She lost it soon after. Doctor said it was because of some virus she picked up. Picked up while she was cheatin' on him, he remembered. Vin opened his eyes again and sighed. He took the picture out of the frame and put it aside. He closed the box up and put it on the table. He'd give it to Josiah. Tell him to sell the stuff inside and use the money for the church. He looked at the picture again before putting it under the pillow. The gentle rain outside lulled him to sleep.

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