Till the Stars Fall From the Sky

by Usako

Author's Notes: Thanks and hugs go to my two *wonderful* beta readers, Judy and Steph, for all their help and for baring with me one this story. Thanks gals! Feedback is welcome and greatly appreciate, but please no flames.

Hoping the darkened walls and a bottle of whiskey would be able to alleviate some of the sluggishness he felt, a man dressed entirely in black walked into The Standish saloon to escape the sun's bright rays. The air outside had become stifling and nearly unbearable to breathe. Letting his gaze glide across the room's occupants, the hard-edged gunslinger gave a half smile as he recognized the silhouette of a man sitting in a darkened corner.

Vin Tanner sat with his back to the wall and watched with mild interest as people shuffled in and out of the saloon, most seeking refuge against the harshness of the sun's summer glare. The ex-bounty hunter always sat so that he could see all the exits; it had become a habit since he first became a bounty hunter. So it was no surprise to see Chris Larabee make his way over to the table.

"Hey cowboy," the tracker smiled lazily as he offered Larabee a seat.

Chris looked at him with a raised eyebrow. "You just call me cowboy?" Sitting down, he smiled at their shared joke. If it had been anyone else who had just called him that, things would have been very different. The two friends sat quietly for several moments in companionable silence, each lost in his own thoughts yet enjoying the other's quiet company. "Not much happening, is there?"

"Nope, and I gotta tell ya, Chris. It makes me antsy, like something's about to happen. I think ya could cut the tension in the air with a knife."

"No. That would be this damn heat you're talkin' about."

"Maybe." Vin looked at Chris more intently. "How can you still dress in black with this weather?"

"How can you still wear that jacket?" he shot back with an uncharacteristic smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

Vin responded by nodding his head in surrender and asked, "So where are the others?"

"Well, Josiah talked Nathan into helping him with the church." Chris nodded his head over to another table at the saloon seating several disgruntled travelers and one grinning gambler. "Ezra is showing some poor newcomers the fine art of gambling, and Buck is upstairs with a woman who got off the stage a few hours ago. He works fast, don't he?" Vin only shook his head. "And JD, well, I'm really not sure where JD is."

"Well, speak of the devil," Vin raised his eyebrows as he spotted the familiar figure breeze through the doors of the saloon.

Chris looked over his shoulder to see JD sigh in relief and make his way over to their table. The tracker greeted JD with a tip of the hat. The boy smiled in return but quickly grew somber as he turned to the man dressed in black. Handing him a piece of paper, the green sheriff began to speak. "This just came in for you. It's a telegraph."

The gunslinger's face became hard as he took the message from JD. *Damn. What now?*

Vin intently watched Chris' hardened look change to an icy stare as his eyes glided over the telegraph's words. JD stepped back as Chris rose slowly and stalked out of the saloon without so much as a word to either of his two friends. The kid felt a shiver down his back as he noted the menace in their leader's step. Vin on the other hand didn't seem to be ruffled at all and calmly asked, "What's wrong, JD?"

JD looked into the ex-bounty hunter's eyes and saw the worry etched there. "Beats me. I didn't read it. Figured it was none of my business. Well, that and the fact that he'd probably kill me."

"I don't think he'd go that far," Vin spoke as he too rose, a small smile making its way across his face. It was true that the green kid often got on the older man's nerves, but that was slowly changing as he showed his trustworthiness and courage over and over again. Clapping JD on the back, Vin walked passed him and out into the street.

Tanner found his friend preparing his mount for a journey. "Where ya goin' Chris?"

Chris turned sharply to gaze at the other man. "I don't really see where it's any of your concern."

Vin only looked calmly at Chris as if the man had said something as simple as the 'the sky is blue'. But inside, he felt as though he'd been punched in the gut. Most of the time Chris found it easy to talk to Vin -- not this time, and the tracker found himself a little hurt by that, though he didn't understand why. Then he admonished himself, *What's your problem Tanner? So he doesn't want to talk. Aren't there things that you'd rather keep to yourself?* Vin understood and respected Chris' need for privacy and decided not to press the man on why he was going; however, he did offer his support in case the gunslinger needed it. "Do you need some company?"

Chris' look softened a little, yet he still shook his head. "No. Thanks for the offer, but this is something I have to deal with on my own. Don't be comin' after me." With that he mounted and took off at full speed across the land.

Vin looked after him with a strange feeling in his gut. He knew Chris wanted to be alone, but something in Chris' eyes communicated to him that this time was different. Call it a sixth sense, but Vin was sure that his best friend was heading into certain danger. "Like hell I won't follow." With that, the tracker turned quickly on his heels to find Buck. He winced slightly thinking to himself, *Sorry to interrupt your date pard, but Chris is gonna to need our help.*

Fifteen minutes after their leader's abrupt departure, six men stood saddling their mounts, preparing to follow.

"Mr. Tanner, are you sure our ireful leader will not be discontented if we should find him."

"Huh?" JD gave Ezra a puzzled look.

Rolling his eyes, Ezra clarified, "I mean, are you sure he isn't going to blow our heads off if we find him."

Buck scowled at the gambler, "You know he wouldn't go anywhere near that far, but I do know what you're saying. He's not going to be happy. Chris is used to taken' care of his problems on his own. He's not gonna take too kindly to us buttin' in." With a twinge of sadness, Buck was reminded of how his old friend had pushed him away after the death of his wife and son; they had never been as close after that.

Vin, who had been silent up until this point, responded, "Well he don't have much of a choice this time, does he?" None of the other seven wanted to see the new found friendship with the hardened gunslinger change; however, they all silently agreed not to let him go off to his death alone.

Unbeknownst to the six men deep in thought, an older man made his way over to them. "I hope you boys weren't planning on leaving."

Judge Travis looked at them intently as they gathered around. Josiah was the first to voice what was on everyone's mind. "What are you doing here Judge Travis? You weren't supposed to come in for another week."

The Judge took off his hat and returned the preacher's worried gaze. "Eagle Bend, two neighboring towns, and one stage coach have all been hit by a new band of outlaws. Witnesses say they're calling themselves the Stanton Gang. They're a mean bunch, already killed 15 people. It's reported that they're headed this way to Four Corners."

"Damn." Buck swore. "This couldn't have happened at a worse time."

"Why? What's happened?" Judge Travis turned apprehensive eyes to the scoundrel of the group but it was Nathan who answered. "Chris left suddenly this morning on personal business. We were all just about to go after him. No tellin' what he's gettin' himself into."

"I'm sorry boys, but you're needed here. If the Stanton Gang shows up and you're not here, the town will be defenseless. I'm sure Mr. Larabee can take care of himself. I'm going to see Mary and let her know what's going on." With that, Travis turned and headed towards the Clarion News office.

JD looked at the others in shock, "But what about Chris? What if it turns out he does need our help?" Buck turned worried eyes to the path leading out of Four Corners. "We'll send one out after him. It might be a better idea anyway. Chris might accept help easier if it's just the one." Looking back to Vin he continued, "Vin, why don't you go? You have the best chance of finding him, and if he'll talk to anyone, it'll be you."

Vin nodded to Buck in understanding as he noted the saddened look in his gaze. Sharing one final knowing look with the other five lawmen, the tracker mounted his ride. Buck, JD, Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan all watched as the ex-bounty hunter went off to find another man. Only this time, the man

Vin hunted was not a dangerous cut-throat, thief, or murder. He was the tracker's best friend.

Hours later, Vin followed Chris' tracks as they led towards the mountains. Despite his growing worry, Tanner let the corners of his mouth turn upwards slightly. Raising his face, the tracker allowed the wind to rush past his head, causing his long, soft, brown hair to fling about wildly. He should have been happy as his horse sped across the open land. Alone with the wilderness, he was surrounded with peace and tranquillity. Vin was comfortable keeping his own company, always had been.

But he wasn't happy. A foreboding feeling of danger crept into Vin's belly, and he knew he had to follow Chris. When had this man found a way to penetrate his solitary ways? Maybe it had been when the two realized how similar they really were. No. It had been ever since the tracker had found the gunslinger's gaze on that fateful day which changed his life, probably forever. In an odd way, the reflected look of integrity had shown Vin that this was one man he could trust, and Larabee, he knew, felt the same. It was a silent communication that hadn't left them since. And that was how the keen tracker knew the great Chris Larabee was in need of help now. Although he hadn't voiced it, Vin had seen something different in the haunted eyes of his friend.

Tanner had always been the only one he could trust with his own life. Leading the life of a bounty hunter and then the hunted, one learned to constantly look over his shoulder. Chris and the thought of being part of a group had changed that feeling of loneliness. The six men had become like a family to him, and he'd be damned if he was going to let one of them go off into danger alone.

Chris Larabee stared into the dancing flames of the campfire, watching the viscous element morph the wood into burnt, black cinders. His thoughts turned to a similar dark night only a few years before. Suddenly he was no longer sitting next to a cozy campfire but lost in the charred remains of his one time home. Once filled with the love of his wife and his son's laughter, it was now the dwelling of crying and the screams that he knew must have sounded in his family's final moments. It represented a joyful future that would forever remain beyond his grasp. It represented what he thought was his own failure.

Squeezing his eyes shut against the brimming tears that rotted away at his insides, Larabee asked of whatever powers that might be, *Why wasn't I there? Why couldn't I have at the very least died along with them, instead of being left behind to agonize over their loss? Why do the innocent die and their murders live free? Why?*

Head bent, "Why?" came the soft whisper. They were all questions that had endlessly plagued the tortured gunslinger since his life and soul were shattered like a mirror. Ever present in his dreams and waking thoughts alike, they were questions that would probably remain unanswered until the stars fell from the sky.

Looking to the vast sea of darkness above, Chris noted not one shinning sparkle illuminated the emptiness. Dark clouds kept their glow completely hidden from the earth. Larabee smiled bitterly to himself, *not even the stars want to hold my company.* The black-clad man sighed to himself as shifted against a log. Loneliness wasn't a feeling he was unaccustomed to. In fact, it and a bottle of whiskey had been his only friends for months after the deaths of his family. Family. Chris had to smile as he thought about the six men he'd left back in Four Corners who had become unlikely companions. Thinking about his friends, Chris had to marvel at how close they had all become in such a short time.

As his thoughts drifted to each of the seven, Larabee felt a twinge of guilt as he remembered how he'd pushed Buck away. With regret he thought about how things had never been exactly the same between them since. Realizing that he'd done nearly the same thing with Vin Tanner today, Chris hoped this wouldn't affect the new friendship he'd made with the quiet, unassuming tracker. It wasn't that he didn't trust Tanner; he knew he could trust the man with his life. It was just that he didn't want to loose another he cared about because of his failures.

Standing, Chris let his gaze guide his eyes out to the direction of Texas. Tuscosa. His guilt deepened as he remembered the promise he had made to Vin just days after they'd met. Bowing his head, Larabee said softly, "I hope I'll be able to follow through on that promise and not let you down."

Suddenly the hairs on his neck rose as Chris felt a presence behind him. In one motion the gunslinger whipped around and drew is gun to greet the intruder.

"Dammit Vin!" Chris cursed when he immediately recognized the other man. "Don't ever sneak up on me like that again! I could have killed you."

The tracker only responded by calmly meeting the other's gaze before silently plopping himself down next to where Chris had been sitting earlier. Larabee knew as he looked down at Vin that the man was not going to give him the heated conversation he realized he'd been hoping for. Anger is an emotion that is a lot easier to deal with than pain and guilt.

"Damn," Chris cursed softly to himself and sat next to his friend. Not for the first time, he wished he had brought a bottle of whiskey with him, but the gunslinger knew he couldn't crawl back into the bottle just yet. Chris would have to keep his whit's about him if he was to stay alive long enough to finish his task.

The two sat there in silence for several minutes: Chris not wanting to start the conversation and Vin prepared to let the other man come to talking on his own.

Finally Larabee gave a sigh in defeat. "So you gonna tell be what you're doin' out here?"

"I could ask you the same question though I'm not sure I'd get a straight answer. I can tell that you're headin' into some kinda danger and I'm not about to let you get yourself killed alone on account that you're too stubborn to ask for help."

Chris ran a hand through his blond hair. "I appreciate that you're willing to come out here, Vin, but this is really something I gotta take care of on my own."

"Why? Give me a real reason, Chris, and I'll go. I won't bother you again."

Larabee didn't say anything for several moments before getting up to scrounge around in his saddle bag. Upon returning to their place by the fire, Chris handed a crumpled letter to Vin.

Taking the letter in his hand, Vin realized that this must have been the message from earlier and was glad that Mary had helped him learn how to read. He still had trouble, but knew enough to understand the message's meaning.

Greetings Mr. Larabee,

I am responsible for the fiery deaths of your wife and son. My only regret is that you didn't die with them. It's time to finish this. Go to Mill Brook; I'll be there. -- An Old Friend

Vin brought his eyes up in understanding, but Chris couldn't hold the gaze and had to look away.

"I'm sorry, Chris. But I still don't understand why you feel you have to do this alone. You know the others wouldn't hesitate to stand by you."

"I know."

"Then why?" Vin pressed gently. The tracker watched as Larabee brought his eyes back to stare at the fire before them. It was already beginning to die down as it consumed and blackened what was left of the wood. The gunslinger stubbornly clenched his jaw and Vin was unsure as to whether he would respond, but then the black-clad figure finally broke the silence and said gruffly, "Because too many have already died because of me. It ends here."

Vin could see that Larabee's anger was beginning to rise as he was forced to face the guilt and pain, and even fear that he had been carrying around for so long, yet Vin knew it was still too early to back down. "Chris, you can't shut everyone out of your life. It's a lonely way to live. Trust me; I should know. " Chris looked as though he was about to protest but the tracker pressed on before the other man could even open his mouth. "Chris, like it or not, you're our leader. Ya might not of asked for the job, but you're stuck with it now. And being the leader, you have six other people who do give a damn about you. You're robbin' them of the chance to fight for what they believe in, and right now that's helpin' a friend."

Vin took a deep breath and looked at Chris more intently. "How about me Chris. You promised that you would stand by me in Tuscosa. Why won't you let me stand by you with the demons you have to face?"

Larabee raised his gaze to Vin's clear eyes and noted that they shown bright with both loyalty and a stubbornness that rivaled even his own. Chris had never asked nor claimed to be the leader of these seven hired guns, yet resignedly he had to accept that he was. From the look of determination in Tanner's eyes, Chris knew that the man would follow him regardless of what he said, and the realization that the others would too hit him full force. What he had ever done to deserve such loyalty in these men?

Still, the gunslinger held the other man's gaze without backing down for several moments before sighing, "Damn Vin. You picked a heck of a time to start talking so much."

Tanner smiled as the tension was broken and an easiness returned between the two friends. "Sorry. Don't go gettin' used to though. It don't happen often."

"Alright Vin. Have it your way," said Larabee as the two grasped arms in their accustomed shake. As they settled down for the night, Chris found himself smiling for the first time since that morning.

Hours after finding his friend, Vin awoke to the approaching dawn. Although he could not yet see it, several years in the open country gave him the sense that a soft, amber, glow would soon slowly begin to creep across the early morning sky. Hearing a muffled groan, Vin looked across the camp to see his best friend deep in the throws of a familiar nightmare. A thin layer of sweat glistened on the man's brow and he had drawn his legs up to his chest in an almost fetal position.

Vin walked over to where Chris thrashed his head about restlessly as his soft moans grew more and more intense. Trying to break the man from his hellish slumber, Vin reached over to gently grasp his shoulder. Chris jerked awake with a gasp and slapped the hand away as if he didn't know who Vin was. The tracker scooted back a little and let the older man regain his composure.

"Vin?" Chris whispered as he fought to control his labored breathing.

"Yeah, pard. I'm here."

"What's goin' on?" Larabee's gaze continued to flit about the camp as if he half expected someone to jump out at them; however, Vin was quick to assure his friend. "It's alright, Chris. You were having a nightmare. We're safe; everything's okay." Chris seemed to except this, yet Tanner looked away to the east when he noted the crimson begin to cover the older man's face.

Larabee thanked Vin for his understanding and berated himself for letting his senses be so impaired by a dream. *No not a dream.* Chris thought as he absently ran a hand through his hair. *A nightmare . . . . . . Stop it! You're acting like a little child.* Chris tightened his jaw and let the icy gaze return to his eyes; however, the gunslinger couldn't really blame himself. The dream had been so real, so much like that day. No! He wasn't going to let himself think about that.

Vin finally broke the silence by turning back to face Chris. "The sun won't be comin' up for at least an other half-hour. Why don't you try to grab a few minutes of sleep. I'll stay up and wake you if those demons decide to come back."

Nodding, Chris agreed and settled back on his bedding. Vin sighed softly as he watched the gunslinger fall into a light sleep. Vin raised his head and looked into the dark shadows of the cliff above as he silently asked whatever powers may be to watch over his troubled friend.

A cold shiver ran down the sniper's spine as he saw the younger man look up into the cliff's above him. *Does he see me?* The sniper remained still until the man returned his gaze to Larabee and then settled back down on the ground. Breathing a sigh of relief the sniper sunk back into the shadows still present in the ever-growing light.

Chris Larabee opened his eyes and immediately regretted it. The bright light that pierced his them through half closed lids surprised him. Hadn't he just gone back to sleep two minutes ago? The man sighed as he resigned himself to the fact and forced his eyes to open completely. The sight that greeted them again caused surprise. Vin Tanner sat across from him cooking a rabbit over a fire.

Stretching and stifling a yawn, the older man raised an eyebrow at the tracker. "Since when did you become a cook?" Vin smiled, "Remember that day an eternity ago when we met and you asked if I was a bounty hunter, and I replied that I was, among other things? Well, I bet that you never counted cook among them." Chris only shook his head as the other man continued, "Well, all those years on my own, I better have learned how to cook a decent meal for myself, or I wouldn't have lasted long." He gave Chris a lopsided grin and passed him part of their breakfast.

After eating Vin's meal, which Chris had to admit was actually pretty good, they began to pack up their belongings and were ready to go in a quick ten minutes. When the two were about ready to leave, Vin felt the hair on his arms and back of his neck stand on end. He let himself take a quick glance at the cliffs above. The gunslinger almost missed the nervous action, but seeing it made his own nervousness return. It was odd for the normally cool-headed tracker to be so edgy. Chris watched him shake his head like he felt the need to clear it. When he couldn't take it anymore, Larabee finally asked, "What's wrong, Vin?"

Vin hadn't noticed the older man's intent stare (which made Chris all the more edgy) and spoke a little too quickly. "Oh it's nothing...... " Sighing, he continued, "Alright, I just have the feeling of being watched, like I need to look over my shoulder." Chris nodded and began to feel more unsettled; he trusted Vin's instincts and replied, "We'll keep a close lookout. If someone is out there, he'll make a move sooner or later. Until then, all we can do is be careful.

Vin nodded at the other man's wisdom, and they both mounted their rides. The tracker looked once more at the cliffs before turning to follow Chris. Smelling the faint scent of rain, Vin looked to the horizon to see the beginning formations of dark thunderheads. He didn't miss the soft rumble of thunder that rippled through the air.

Hours later, the hot midday sun had yielded to the darkening sky and Tanner was thankful that the air was beginning to cool off. He looked worriedly at the clouds and couldn't help but give an involuntary shiver. They were becoming dark anvils in the sky and he could already see the lightning illuminate them as they drew closer.

The trip thus far had been uneventful and they had reached the mountains by early morning. Chris was less talkative then usual, not that the tracker blamed him though. He could see that Larabee was lost deep in his own thoughts and troubled past.

And it was in that instant that it happened. Vin noticed a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye in the cliffs above and knew instantly what it meant. In a painfully slow motion, the tracker launched himself at Larabee and the two crashed down from their horses in a heap at the same time a shot rang out.

Surprised, Chris seemed oblivious to the shot as he tried to untangle himself from the tracker, "Vin, what the hell? ......." Then he froze when he realized with a sinking feeling that Vin was a dead weight against him. "Vin? Vin!!!" The younger man's only response was a low moan that escaped when Chris finally managed to free himself. The gunslinger stared in horror at the dark blood seeping from Vin's chest near his right shoulder. Chris reached out to Vin but instinctively ducked when more bullets hit the ground near them.

"Thank God the man's not consistent." Chris snarled and turned to shoot at the source. The gunslinger was momentarily satisfied when their assailant yelped and dropped out of sight. However, another pained groan from Vin brought his attention back to his best friend's side.

Chris turned to see Vin's eyes flutter open and could see from where he was that they were clouded with pain. Trying to sit up, Tanner gasped at the intense pain that racked his body from the movement and was forced to fall back to the ground. Placing a gentle, yet firm hand on the good shoulder, Chris reprimanded softly, "Don't try to move. Just hang in their, pard. You're gonna be okay." The gunslinger hoped Vin did hear the slight crack in his voice. The fact that the tracker put up so little resistance frightened him even more than the dark red stain.

Vin reached out to the older man and clutched his arm. "Chris?" The voice was so weak that it scared Larabee. "Yeah, partner I'm here."

"Are you alright?"

"Vin," Chris gave an exasperated sigh. "I'm not the one you should be worrying about." The tracker smiled faintly, but then hissed in new pain as his body began to protest the hole in its flesh more intently. Vin took several ragged breaths before asking, "What happened?"

Quickly moving to take off the buckskin jacket and blue shirt beneath to better examine the wound, Chris cursed under his breath and wished Nathan was there. "You were shot." Looking at Vin, Chris saw the look in his eyes that clearly meant *Ya don't say* He smiled slightly at the younger man's attempt to lighten the situation just a little. "There was a sniper up in the cliffs. I know he was aiming for me. I'd be dead if it wasn't for you. Thank you." Chris looked intently into Vin's eyes, and despite the pain that had now taken up residence there, the wounded man returned the gaze as strongly as ever. Vin only nodded. No more words needed to be spoken; their eyes did the talking.

Vin winced when Larabee helped him sit up so he could better examine the gaping whole near the shoulder. When finished, Chris eased the tracker back down and proceeded to retrieve one of his shirts from his saddle bag. "At least it went all the way through," the black-clad man stated as he began to tear the garment in his hands into strips. He continued to talk in an effort to keep the tracker's mind off the pain from bandaging the wound as tightly as he dared. "I don't know how badly the other man was wounded, but we should get out of here as quickly as we can. Best not to risk it."

Nodding, Tanner agreed, "But which way do we go? Four Corners and Mill Brook are both about the same difference from here. Four Corners might be a little closer, but I think I can make it to Mill Brook.

Chris finished his task and looked back into Tanner's pained expression. "We go back to Nathan in Four Corners. I won't take that chance with your life. Besides if this guy does come after us again, maybe we can get a little back-up." Vin nodded, "Alright."

Looking skeptically at his best friend, Larabee asked, "Do you think you can ride?" Vin seemed to think about it for a moment before replying, "Yeah I think so, at least for now. Just give me a little help up." Chris grasped the outstretched hand and helped Vin stand on shaky feet. It took a few minutes, but they were finally able to get Vin on his horse. The older man mounted his horse and the two slowly started their way home.

Two hours later and still nothing else had happened. The area was becoming greener as they headed back to Four Corners. They were still next to cliffs on their right but on their left was a steep drop downward covered in foliage. Larabee didn't like it because it left them out in the open; however it was the quickest path back to Four Corners and more importantly to Nathan.

Looking over at Vin, Chris was shocked at the change that had taken place in his friend. The normally weathered features had given in to a paleness that both shocked and frightened the gunslinger. Riding close to Vin, Chris had stopped the tracker from nearly falling out of his saddle twice when waves of dizziness took over. He felt cold fear take hold of his stomach and clenched his jaw when he noticed that the makeshift bandages were nearly completely saturated with blood.

Making a decision, Chris stopped and dismounted. Vin wearily eyed the older man, "What are you doing."

Chris didn't even bother to look at Vin before saying, "We're going to change those bandages right now." Vin started to protest, "But we can keep goin'...."

"Stop being so stubborn." Chris interrupted before his friend could protest any further. "Now come down or I'll drag ya down if need be." Vin simply raised his eyebrows, but then decided it was a battle he wasn't going to win. He would have fallen had Chris not been there.

"Easy cowboy," said Chris as he helped the wounded man into a sitting position against a nearby boulder. Chris began to undress the wound so he could put on a new bandage. Worry creased the gunslingers brow as he noted that the blood had dried in part of the wound, yet blood still oozed out from the middle. He shook his head and hoped he wouldn't have to cauterize it; he wasn't sure if the younger man could take it at this point. Vin noticed the worry in his friends eyes, but only said, "Wrap it as tight was you can, Chris." Chris held his breath as he complied while Vin tried his best to remain silent for his best friend's sake but could not completely choke back a low moan.

Chris moved to help Vin stand again, and the tracker swayed on unsteady feet. *Damn,* thought Chris *He can't keep this up much longer.* Both jerked a little when a shot grazed past them. Chris drew his gun and waited for more to follow, but they didn't come. Instead a loud voice boomed from the rocks above, "You don't have a chance Larabee! Why don't you just give up now and save us all a lot of trouble."

"Like hell I will!" Chris shouted back.

"Oh, come now. You don't have a prayer. You have no cover, no where to go, and a wounded friend. You know I'd be happy to finish what I started and put him out of his misery like I would an animal!"

White-hot rage filled the gunslinger's eyes, and with a clenched jaw, he realized that they truly didn't have many options. Locking gazes with Vin, he made the only decision the situation gave him of getting out alive. The two made an escape over the steep ravine on their left.

Chris Larabee hit the ground with a sickening thud. He slowly moved into a sitting position, all the while checking for injury. Bones that he had not even realized existed hurt, but thankfully nothing seemed to be broken. Vin. God, where was Vin? At first, Larabee couldn't find his friend, but his eyes finally came to a rest on the figure that lay still a few feet away.

"Vin!" Chris called as he quickly ignored his body's protests and made his way to the younger man's side. Fear gripped his being as he saw that blood once again flowed freely from the wound near Vin's shoulder. "Vin! Vin, can you hear me?" he called while giving the younger man a soft shake.

Looking back up to where they had fallen from, the gunslinger knew they had to get some distance between them and the cliff to prevent the sniper from shooting at them again. Chris quickly leaned down and placed Vin over his shoulder. He was a little more than afraid when the tracker made no reaction. When he felt as though he'd carried the tracker a safe distance, Chris eased his friend back down to the ground and once again gave him a little shake.

Chris breathed a sigh of relief when the tracker's eyes fluttered open. When the man finally spoke, it was barely a whisper and Chris had to lean his ear down next to the other man's mouth to hear. "Uhh, let's not do that again." Chris let a small smile cover his face despite the situation. Chris looked at Vin carefully, "I'm going to have to cauterize it. I don't know any other way to stop the bleeding. Maybe if Nathan were here ......." Chris' voice trailed off as Vin brought his gaze up to meet the other man's eye. "I know, and I trust you. Do what you have to."

Chris nodded and set to work building a fire as Vin started to steal himself to the intense pain that he knew was coming. When Chris returned to the wounded man's side, he carried with him a stick and a glowing, red knife. "Here, bite down on this," he said handing the stick to Vin. The tracker hesitated only for a moment before biting down. "You ready?" Chris could read the acceptance in the other man's gaze and he quickly began the agonizing task. The brave tracker choked back strangled screams as he tensed and arched his back and neck. The pained seemed to course through his entire body like fire through his veins. Chris felt his throat constrict and ears go numb as he heard the angry hiss of hot metal on his friends flesh.

Without saying a word, Chris repeated his actions on the tracker's back to close the other side of the wound; however, this time Vin made no movement. Tears welled up in the gunslinger's eyes when he realized that he had passed out from the pain. Larabee could still smell the horrid smell of burning flesh and almost felt the need to lose the contents of his stomach in the bushes nearby. It wasn't as if he hadn't seen it before. He'd seen the procedure done several times during the war. He'd just never seen it done on a friend. Chris looked to the face of the unconscious man and absently brushed a moist strand of long hair away from the tracker's face. Even in sleep Vin's face held a pained expression.

A lone tear made a trail down Chris' face as he whispered, "I'm sorry Vin. This is all my fault." Then hot rage filled the gunslinger, and he angrily rose to his feet to stare at the place from which the made their downward plunge. "Why don't you just come after me, you coward?! Not my family, not my friends, me! Come on, I dare you! You're going to pay for what you've done!" Chris shouted to whoever was listening and then sank to a seated position next to his best friend while whispering, "That I promise you."

The sniper only smirked when he heard the angry man's rantings, but that smirk was wiped clean when a sudden jolt of pained flew up his arm. It was only a flesh wound, but it still hurt like hell. *No Larabee. You're the one who's going to pay.*

Looking to the ravine where the he saw the two go over, the man swore under his breath. *No matter; they won't get away for long. This is only a minor hassle and it'll all be over soon.*

Vin Tanner was shrouded in a darkness that threatened to crush him if he dared move. The only indication that he was alive and awake was the fact that he could feel agony permeating every part of his body. Why couldn't he see? Had God decided to bless him with blindness now on top of everything else? No. He could feel his eyelids were shut. Their heaviness threatened to crush his eyes. God, why were they so heavy? In fact now that he thought of it, his entire body felt heavy. Vin felt as though someone had placed sacks of flour across his chest, and he had to struggle for every breath.

And what was that sound? Was that Chris calling his name or just his clouded mind. No, his ears seemed to be the only part of him that functioned properly. Vin wanted to tell Chris that he would be alright. Alright? God, what was he thinking? He couldn't even move. Yet he still wanted to assure the pleading voice. Yet his mouth was completely dry, and he didn't have the ability to make it work. Vin could feel the little amount of energy that he had fleeing him, and he wanted desperately to sink back into that comforting silence that tugged at his fragile consciousness.

Then he couldn't hear the voice anymore and couldn't feel the pressure of Chris' hand on his arm anymore. The tracker unwillingly felt a wave of panic rise in his stomach. Why had Chris left? Was he okay? Fear for his friend gave Vin the needed strength to force his eyelids open and ignore the pain from the blinding light that pierced his dilated eyes. Vin didn't wait for the swirls of color to focus before he called out to his partner, "Chris!" The cry took so much energy, and he was surprised that it only produced a faint whisper. Gathering up a little more strength, the tracker continued to call out with a little more sound. Within seconds Chris' concerned face focused in front of him.

Smiling the older man spoke, "Hey, pard. I was wonderin' when you'd decide to grace me with your presence."

"Careful," the tracker smirked. "You're beginin' to sound like Ezra." Chris smiled again and shook his head, "Wouldn't want that would we?" Then he sobered, "I was beginning to get a little worried there."

"No need for that." At Chris' raised eyebrow the wounded man continued, "It takes more than a bullet to keep a Tanner down."

"Well that's a relief."

"Chris where did you go just now?" Chris hurried to assure the tracker, "I went to see if there was anything I could find to make a travois that I could pull you on since I can't easily get our horses back."

"Any luck?"

Chris nodded, "Yeah it's all done. But I don't think we should be leavin' just yet. You should rest some more. How you feelin'?"

"Oh, like I've been shot." Chris just shook his head, "The bleedin stopped." Vin looked down to the makeshift bandages that had at one time been Chris' favorite shirt. He looked at Chris with a little guilt in his eyes, "Sorry about that."

"'Bout what?" When seeing the gunslinger's puzzled look, Vin clarified, "About your favorite shirt being torn to shreds." Chris rolled his eyes, "Well I think you're just a little bit more important than that." The older man raised his hand to Vin's forehead and could feel heat radiating off his brow. "I sterilized it the best I could without whiskey. The fever must be from your body fighting off infection."

Vin thought about what Chris said for a moment before responding. "Fever? That's odd, I always associated fevers with heat, but right now I can't seem to get warm enough." The tracker said the words even as a violent shiver ran through him and he hugged the black duster that Chris had given him even closer to his body. Larabee notice the tracker's discomfort and suggested, "Why don't you get some rest? It's going to be dark soon. We can leave tomorrow at first light." Vin nodded, and it was easy to let himself fall back into oblivion.

The night did not go well for either friend as Chris had to reach out to Vin several times in order to awaken the younger man from feverish dreams. Each time became harder to do, and Chris was afraid that his best friend might be slipping away.

The last time it was decided that perhaps Vin should try to stay awake until they could reach Nathan. Vin didn't mind; it gave him an escape from the dreams that now visited with the fever.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Chris had startled Vin from his troubled thoughts, but the tracker was quick to stop that line of questioning. "No it's okay. Just thinkin' about ghosts from long ago." Chris nodded his head in understanding; he had his own ghosts to contend with.

The two remained silent for a long time, and Chris had thought that the tracker had returned to his troubled sleep. Then a faint voice came, "Chris, when you were small, did you ever wonder about how you were gonna die?"

Chris looked over to Vin with a quizzical expression, "Yeah, I guess when I was JD's age mainly. I was a lot like him if you can imagine that." The older man could see Vin smile as he thought about the similarities. "I always envisioned dying in a big gunfight with some famous outlaw." And then Chris looked down. "All that changed when I met Sarah. She made me think only about life and growing old with her." Vin listened silently until the gunslinger came back from his reverie. He then cocked his head and asked, "Why?"

Now it was Vin's turn to look at the ground. "Well, I always thought that I'd die alone somewhere out on the open range. Then later, after Tuscosa, all that changed. I figured that my life would probably end hanging from a rope, and until then I'd live my life constantly looking over my shoulder, never knowing who I could trust. I'd always be waiting for my turn to be brought in by another bounty hunter, maybe even a former colleague. I've led a pretty lonely life since then; I mean lonelier than usual."

Taking a deep breath, the man continued as if he needed to speak his mind, "But when I met you and the others, I felt as though I could rely and trust someone again. And incase I should die out here, I just wanted you to know that I appreciate how you gave me the chance to prove myself. You didn't just take me in as soon as you found out the truth about the bounty on my head. And I'm also grateful that I won't have to die alone if it's my turn to meet The Maker."

Chris nodded but remained silent. He seemed unable to look Vin in the eye, and the tracker was unsure as to whether he would respond or not. Then came the soft response, "You're not going to die Vin. We still have to go to Tuscosa...... I've lost too many family members to death already. I'm not going to loose another. I won't let it happen."

Vin looked up at Chris in surprise. He smiled and nodded but then felt an unexpected wave of dizziness wash over him and was forced to close his eyes.

"Am I boring you that much?" Chris' words were light, yet they didn't hide the underlining worry.

"I'm fine. Just havin' a little trouble keepin' my eyes open is all." But then mischief sparkled in those same eyes. "I know what'll keep me awake, though." Reaching into his pocket, Vin pulled out a silvery object and tossed it to the other man.

Holding up the harmonica, Chris raised an eyebrow at his friend. "Vin, I can't play this."

"So. Never stopped me. Just put it to your lips and blow."

"Okay, but I think this is going to do you more harm than good." Vin only smiled and listened to Chris' interesting melody as they waited for the dawn.

Early morning came, and the two friends felt it best to move on; however, they soon found out that the travois Chris had made was just not going to work. So with Vin supported by Chris, they slowly began to continue on their way back to Four Corners.

After a short while of walking that way, they were passing through a wooded area, and Vin was on the verge of collapse. Chris breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the old abandoned cabin a short distance in front of them. Perhaps some higher power was looking out for them after all.

"Easy pard," Larabee said when they had reached the door. "Just a little further." It had taken them entirely too long to reach the cabin, and Chris was more than a little afraid that Vin might not make it back to Four Corners. He also knew that the sniper would make his move soon, and that made him all the more edgy.

Upon entering the old wood cabin, Vin collapsed immediately with a painful gasp as his legs simply refused to carry him any further. Then he fell into a fit of shivers as the cold again took up residence in his body. Chris drew his friend close to him in a futile attempt to help warm the tracker. "I think it'd be best .... if we started ..... a fire." Vin gasped out.

Chris looked at his friend skeptically. The tracker was in bad shape. His skin was hot to the touch, yet he would succumb to fits of fevered shivers more and more often. "I'd need firewood for that, and I don't want to leave you alone."

"Chris, don't worry. ...... I can take care of myself." Vin replied in frustration. "Besides that sniper ...... could be out there. Someone.... should check out the perimeter."

"Normally, I would agree with you, but there's no one to stay here."

"Look, Chris. There ain't goin' to be any easy way outta this. I don't know that we have any choice. Besides," he said upholstering his mare's leg, "I'm not exactly defenseless yet." Chris shook his head but realized there really wasn't any other way.

"Alright. I'm goin', but I'll be right back." Chris hated the idea, but placed a hand on his best friends shoulder. "Don't go anywhere." Vin nodded and recognized his friend's double meaning, "I'll be here."

The tracker's eyes never left Chris as he reluctantly made his way out the door. "I'll be here," he whispered, hugging his arms to his midsection in an attempt to conserve as much warmth as possible. "I'll be here." Yet the tracker knew the darkness pulling at him was becoming harder and harder to fight, and he sincerely wondered if he'd be able to keep his word.

A half hour later found Chris ready and anxious to return to his wounded partner. There had been no sign of the sniper yet, but if Larabee had learned anything in his time on this earth, it was never to let his guard down. The gunslinger was brought back to the time when he had come home to find the charred remains of his family and tried unsuccessfully to block the memory by squeezing his eyes shut. Yet the image was still there, forever burned into his mind - in his dreams and in his waking thoughts. *God, why wasn't I there? I let my guard down. They shouldn't have been the ones to pay.*

Despite the fact that he had been lost in his memories, Larabee did not miss the snap of a twig and whirled to face the intruder but was met with the end of a gun barrel.

"Well, if it isn't the great Chris Larabee himself." the man snarled. "I had thought it'd be harder to get the drop on you, but you must be getting slow. Time and guilt can do that to a man."

Chris took time to assess his adversary. The man was most definitely the sniper from before. He could see the blood stain on the man's shirt from a wound in the shoulder. Rage coursed through Larabee as he instantly realized that this was the man who shot Vin. "Why? Who the hell are you?" he growled through clenched teeth.

"You don't know me personally, Larabee. Why should you? I wasn't there the day you killed my brother in the street all those years ago. If I'd have been there, I would have killed you where you stood."

Chris searched his memory, but couldn't place a name to the man his adversary was talking about. "I don't know who you're talking about."

"Of course you don't," the man spat. "You've killed so many haven't you? That's how you got your name. Well my brother's name was Sam Clayton. Mine's Jonathan. Ring any bells?"

Larabee looked down as he searched his memory and then snapped his gaze up to Jonathan, "Sam Clayton was a monster and deserved exactly what he got."

"And you got exactly what you deserved, Chris Larabee. Now you know what it's like to loose members of your family to death while you're not there. That's right. I was the one who sidetracked you and Wilmington into leaving. Then I sent my man in to do the rest. He was supposed to finish you off. Obviously you're still here so I decided to finish the job myself."

The black-clad man felt his blood begin to boil as the mad man continued, "You know, when I hired Fowler, he didn't tell me how he was going to do it. I never asked. But it was creative wasn't it? Took longer." Clayton grinned to reveal stained, crooked teeth, "It's also ironic that your friend's going to suffer the exact same fate."

Larabee whirled around to face the cabin without any thoughts of his own safety from the wild man with him. To the gunslinger's horror, dark smoke had begun to rise from the roof. *Dear, God. Vin!* Chris turned on the man with every intention of strangling the life out of him. "You bastard!" But he was forced to stop when he again met the gun. Then he thought to himself *What's the use? I can't save Vin, not like this, and maybe now I can see Adam and Sarah again.* The idea of death almost seemed welcome. Death seemed so peaceful, and he was so tired. But then, *Vin. No! He wouldn't let it happen! Not to anyone else.* Yet the gunslinger knew it was useless when he heard the click of a trigger being drawn back. "Rest assured Larabee. You won't have a fiery death like the others, but you'll be joining them soon enough."

Yet he didn't close his eyes; he faced death straight on. The shot never came. Chris watched as Clayton stopped suddenly with a look of shock and then fell face down to the ground with a knife in his back. Chris looked up to see the two familiar figures of Nathan and Josiah standing there.

Josiah and Nathan both looked to Chris with questioning eyes, but it was Josiah who spoke. "Chris, where's Brother Vin?"

Not even hesitating for an answer, Chris took off in a dead run towards the cabin with his bewildered partners close behind. *Oh God, please let him be alright. Please!*

Chris Larbaee had never run so fast in his entire life. As he drew closer, he could see that the fire nearly consumed the entire small cabin. Images of the corpses of his dead wife and son flashed through his mind. *No! No that was not going to happen to Vin. He wasn't going to let it happen. Not this time! He would NOT be too late.*

Yet when the gunslinger reached the house, his mind screamed at him that all hope had fled; however, his heart still pleaded, *God, no!* He made to go in but felt the strong hands of Nathan and Josiah restrain him. Struggling to get away he shouted, "What the hell are you doing? Vin's in there!"

Josiah only shook his head sadly, "No Chris. It's too late." Nathan reluctantly nodded in agreement, "Josiah's right, Chris. You'll only get yourself killed."

Chris turned wild eyes on the healer, "Maybe I don't care." The dark man looked deep into his friends eyes and in an attempt to calm him stated, "Vin wouldn't have wanted that." The words were spoken softly, but they served their purpose and the two men released their hold on the gunslinger when he stopped struggling.

As if to prove the point, at that instant the fire inside the cabin flared and every space was engulfed in flames. There was no way anyone inside could survived after that. Chris sunk to his knees and whispered over and over, "No no no no ....... Please God no." This just wasn't happening. It was just too much to take. Chris brought his hands up to clutch his head, *First I lost my family to flames and now Vin. Vin. God it was too much. It was just too much.* And for the first time in a long while, the gunslinger let the tears fall and didn't care who saw them.

Still, the healer and preacher felt the need to give the man privacy. Nathan closed his eyes. So it had happened. One of their family was dead. He looked up to see Josiah with eyes closed and locked in prayer. *God be with you Vin.*

Minutes Earlier.......

The tracker resting inside the cabin awoke to find the air heavy with dark smoke. Coughing, Vin tried to clear his befuddled mind. Swinging his gaze to the flames as they crept closer, he wondered rather nonchalantly when had the cabin started on fire. With some amazement he realized he didn't really care anymore.

What did he have waiting for him? A death hanging from a rope? Tanner didn't want to die in a fire, but he most certainly didn't want to die like that strung up for all to see. No this was better. Besides the darkness was calling, and he so desperately wanted to become a part of it. He wanted so much to give into the comfort that would come with unconsciousness' sweet embrace. All of the pain would go away. All of the tiredness would go away too. What was left to hold onto.

Then Vin was forced to answer his own question - his six friends. People called them all the Magnificent Seven. How could he just leave them? How could he just leave Chris? The black-clad man had lost so much in his life. What right did Vin have to willingly let him loose another? And hadn't he promised his friend that he'd be there when he returned?

Although he couldn't imagine it to be very different, Tanner wasn't in the fiery pits of hell just yet. Vin choked on the building smoke and knew there was very little time left. The heat was becoming unbearable, and he knew that soon the fire would flair out. If that happened, he wouldn't have a chance. He had seconds at best. Mustering every last ounce of strength in his tired, wounded body, Vin struggled to make his way to the window and with all his might managed to fling himself through it.

Not caring who saw them, Chris let the tears flow. They were tears of pent up anger, denial, guilt, feelings of failure, and anguish. All the pain from his family's deaths and now that of his best friend was just too much too bare. He had tried to bury it all under a cold demeanor. He had tried to drown it all in bottles of whiskey, but the feelings never left completely. They were always there waiting for him to let his guard down, waiting to crush him if he let them.

Through all of this, the gunslinger vaguely felt the presence of his two friends and wondered absently what had happened to the others. There hadn't been any time to hear what had happened since he and Vin had been away. Everything had happened so fast. Chris knew he'd get the whole story when they all met back in Four Corners. Chris' breath caught in his throat. No. Not all of them. One wouldn't be there.

Larabee decided that he'd leave as soon as the funeral was over. In actuality, he wanted to leave right now, but he owed it to the tracker to be there. It was the only thing left that he could do for his friend just as it had been the only thing he could do for his family. Yes, after the funeral he'd go back to his previous ways of keeping a bottle of whiskey as his best friend. Maybe then he'd learn his lesson that the people close to him got hurt. Maybe this way no one else would die because of him, except perhaps himself.

Again, Chris brought his gaze to the cabin in front of him. It was totally engulfed in flames, and he watched as they climbed higher into the sky. He could only imagine the kind of death his friend had suffered. *God! This isn't happening!* He thought for the millionth time that day. *It can't be.*

And then, *Vin Tanner isn't dead!* Chris felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. *Stop it!* The black-clad man chided himself, *Face facts. He's gone and there's nothing you can do about it, just like last time.* Still, Chris couldn't shake the sudden feeling he was getting. Chris looked to his side to see Nathan sadly shaking his head and Josiah locked deep in prayer, and suddenly the entire scene struck him as absurd. Larabee's head told him that the odds were against it, yet something else was telling him that his friend still lived. Perhaps some of Vin's honed instincts had rubbed off on him after all.

The healer looked away when he saw their leader sink to the ground with his head in his hands. Feeling that the man deserved privacy, Nathan turned away to see Josiah begin to recite Vin his last rites. It didn't seem true. It didn't seem real that any one of them could truly fall to death's cold grasp. Somewhere deep inside, Nathan saw a little of the idealistic JD Dunne in himself. Did he actually think that he and his friends would be the "Magnificent *Seven*" forever? Thinking like that is foolish, he chided himself. Life is just too fragile. What would happen to the group now? Life couldn't go back to the way it had been before.

Nathan looked back to see the gunslinger slowly rise with an unreadable expression covering his face. *Maybe he's finally gone over the edge,* thought the healer. Then before he could stop him, Chris sprang from were he stood and took off towards the house. "Chris! It's too late!" Nathan sighed and took off after their leader. Yet it was Josiah who tried to talk some sense into the man as they followed, "Brother Chris, we have to accept the fact that...."

Josiah cut himself off short when he saw Chris freeze. Looking beyond the man, the preacher caught his breath as he saw the figure lying there face down in the grass. In an instant Chris was moving again, "Nathan! You've got to help me!" Without wasting a moment, the healer ran to aid Chris followed closely by Josiah.

After gently turning the still form of Vin Tanner over, Nathan felt for a pulse. At first he couldn't find it and feared that they might be too late after all. But then he felt it. Thinking that perhaps he'd just imagined it, he waited until he felt it again, and again, and again. *Thank God.*

"Nathan." The healer looked up to see Chris looking at him with new hope in his eyes.

"He's alive, but were going to have to get him back to Four Corners as soon as we can if he's gonna live. Only so much a man can take."

Chris nodded and clung on to the thin thread of hope that he'd been blessed with. "Then let's get him home."

Several days after the fire found Chris Larabee sitting at Vin Tanner's bedside. Each of the other seven had tried to pull their leader away from their wounded partner in an attempt to get him to sleep, but the man had refused to give up the constant vigil beside his best friend. Even when their leader nodded off, no one dared try to pull him away from the tracker for he would not go.

Looking to the man in the bed, Chris noted how pale Vin's unusually ashen features looked against Nathan's clean, white bed sheets. The wound in his chest had been cleaned and wrapped properly, and the ash from the fire had long since been washed away.

Nathan said that the wound was healing well, and the burning fever had gone down a little. Still the tracker did not wake. The healer had assured Larabee that Vin could wake up at any time, but then reluctantly conceded that he also might not wake up at all.

--A day Earlier--

"What do you mean Nathan? You just said that he could wake up at any time."

The healer sighed and met Larabee's gaze. "I know that Chris. But Vin's body has suffered through a lot. It's deciding right now whether or not he wants to come back. It may decide it's just too tired to go on, or he could wake up and heal well. Only time will tell. If he wakes up, he should be fine."

And so Chris sat, waiting. The others kept coming and going, wanting to be there for their friend but still wanting to give the gunslinger some time alone. In an attempt to keep his mind off of Vin for a time, JD had informed Chris of how they never even had to deal with the Stanton Gang. They had been arrested by the law enforcement in the town just before Four Corners. When they knew they were no longer needed in town, the rest decided to split up and look for their two missing partners.

*He'll be okay if he just wakes up.* God, how long ago had Nathan spoken those words? Chris watched Vin like a hawk, searching for any miniscule sign that he would stir, but still the tracker hadn't moved an inch. The older man angrily blinked away a tear as he again saw Vin knock him out of the way in his mind. *Dammit. It's my fault. It's all my fault!*

Chris grasped Vin's hand and squeezed it gently. Then let his head drop in agony as he shut his eyes. "I'm so sorry, pard."

Then he felt it. The fingers clutched in his grasp twitched slightly. Startled, Chris looked up, and his heart warmed to see the younger man's eyes looking back at him. "Hey pard, how do you feel?" Chris had to lean in to hear the tracker's tired whisper, "I told ya .... I'd be there when you got back."

Chris let the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth cover his face as he knew in an instant that the younger man was going to be alright. Yet he quickly sobered as the reality of why Vin was in the bed came crashing back.

Reading the guilt in the other man's eyes, Vin instantly knew what he was thinking and struggled to assure the man, all the while fighting the darkness that once again began to tug at his mind. "Chris ... this wasn't your fault."

The older man shook his head and refused to listen to his friend's wisdom. "Yes it is my fault. All of it is." Vin gave Chris a puzzled look so the gunslinger continued, "It's my fault you got shot taking the bullet meant for me. It's my fault my family died, because I wasn't there. And it's my fault because none of this would have happened had I not shot that man's brother."

Vin shook his head. Whether to dissuade his despairing friend of his logic or to ward of the extreme fatigue he now felt, he was not sure. Yet, he somehow forced himself to speak clearer in order put Larabee's mind at ease and was more than a little surprised at the vehemence in his own voice. "No Chris. .... This is no one's fault but the man's who killed your wife and son. If you killed that man's brother, ... then there is no doubt in my mind ... that you had a damned good reason." The unexpected urgency in the tracker's voice compelled the gunslinger to look into his friend's eyes. "Chris, tragic things happen to good people. It was not your fault."

Looking away again Chris said, "But every time I think of them, I ask myself if there was something I could have done to stop it."

"Chris, if there was something you could have done, then you would have. There is no doubt in my mind of that. I know it ... and so does your family. They'll always be with you."

Chris thought about the logic in Vin's words for several minutes, then smiled to himself. *Leave it to Vin to make something so complicated sound so simple.* Grinning, Chris turned back to his friend, "There you go talkin' again. What am I going to do with you?" Vin didn't answer, but only shrugged with a slight smile.

That only brought another big grin to Chris' face and a new light to his eyes, "Get some rest Vin. You deserve it"

Vin studied his friend for a moment longer before to make sure Chris really understood before he finally surrendered to his body's tired protests. It didn't take long for the tracker to fall into a healing sleep.

"Thanks pard," the older man whispered when he'd seen that Vin had fallen to sleep.

Knowing now that the younger man was going to be alright, Chris allowed himself to leave the younger man's side and made his way over to the window to discover that night had fallen.

"Vin was right." he said to the heavens above. "I will always carry you with me....until the stars fall from the sky."

[The End]

I'll be with you my darling
when sunset fills the sky.
And the echoes of the mountains
are hushed, by and by.

For as darkness fills the evening
and my thoughts drift to home
I'll remember you are with me
wherever I roam.

I'll come home some day
just to have you by my side.
For my dreams pull me back there
like the moon pulls back the tide.

For I will love you dear
until the seas run dry.
I am yours now and forever,
till the stars fall from the sky.

- Words and Music by Sally K. Albrecht

Copyright © MCMXCIII by Alfred Publishing Co., Inc.

All rights reserved. Printed in the USA.

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