Disclaimer: This story is the product of different minds coming together to have some fun. We have ownership over any new characters but the rest belongs to others (such a shame!).

Authors' Note: Another challenge issued by a friend, it had to contain a storm, someone getting shot and an original character. I had to hurry this one along in time for posting so any errors are because my friend didn't beta correctly (only joking!). A little angst but mainly a flowing kind of story. Now on with the story!

Heading Home

By Ladysmiths


"There's a storm coming," Mary exclaimed as she rushed into the Saloon, having come from the Telegraph Office.

"What's that Mrs Travis?" JD asked as he moved closer to the group.

"Rock Creek just sent us a warning," Mary answered. "The storm's headed this way, apparently it's pretty severe."

"At least we have a head start," Chris said. "We should board up these buildings.

Josiah nodded in agreement, "I'll get the Church ready in case we need someplace for people to go."

"Isn't Ezra on his way back, he might get caught in the storm," JD was glancing through the door, either looking for Ezra or the storm.

"I'm sure he'll be able to find somewhere warm to hole up," Vin stated.

"Hell, he probably never left the Saloon when he looked out and saw dark clouds," Buck added.

"I'll go out and warn Casey and Ms Nettie," JD was heading out of the Saloon.

"They're probably already coming into town," Buck said. "Nettie always seems to know when something's going on."

"Well then, I'll meet them halfway," JD threw over his shoulder.

"It might be a good idea for someone to check the trails, there might be some folks out there that don't know," Nathan mused.

Vin shrugged on his warm coat and headed towards the livery. The others stared after him, there was never any doubt who would go.

"I'll go with him," Chris stated as he followed Vin.

"Someone should," Josiah smiled. "Or else we won't see Vin again."

"Yeah," Buck agreed. "He hates bein' cooped up."

* * * * * * *

Chris held onto his hat as he dismounted, taking Vin's lead. He looked around, the wind had picked up, and it had started to drizzle with bits of ice mixed in with the rain. It was going to take them twice as long to get back to town, especially since they'd have to lead their horses most of the way. Chris' face burned from the cold and the wind whipped his coat around his legs as he turned to Vin, "We should head back," he shouted over the howl of the storm.

Vin nodded, "I guess."

"We should have turned back way before this," Chris continued, he was feeling uncomfortable and Vin didn't seem bothered at all. Chris had wanted to return to town about half an hour ago, but Vin hadn't been ready. "We haven't seen anyone since we came out here."

Vin just gave Chris a sheepish look, he still didn't like the idea of being forced indoors, but Chris was right and the storm had well a truly started. Suddenly Vin spun around, laying a hand on his gun, "Who's that?"

Chris also became alert, he hadn't heard anything, but Vin's reaction was enough for him.

Vin relaxed and grinned, he saw Chris was squinting and looking a little confused. "Ezra," Vin stated.

Finally, through the haze, Chris was able to make out Ezra's form as he walked towards them, the gambler had also decided that leading his horse might be safer. At least Chris would have someone on his side, this weather was obviously irritating Ezra as much as it was him.

"Lovely afternoon you chose to go riding," Ezra also had to shout as he approached.

"Could say the same about you," Chris said.

"I was informed about the weather," Ezra answered. "I thought I might be able to arrive at Four Corners before the storm."

"Looks like you'll get their at about the same time," Vin drawled.

Ezra grimaced, "Yes well, at least I was heading in the right direction, seeing as I met up with both of you."

"Actually, we came farther than I'd wanted to," Chris was looking pointedly at Vin who just shrugged. Chris started circling slowly, "And this wind's turned me around."

"Are you saying you have no idea where we are?" Ezra asked, hoping that wasn't true, he didn't know either.

"I'm sayin' Vin should lead," Chris answered.

Both Chris and Ezra watched as Vin chose a direction and slowly began walking. As they were ready to fall into step, a shot rang out. Chris slumped to the ground with a groan, Ezra followed him down onto one knee with his sidearm already drawn. Vin also had his weapon drawn and was circling, trying to get a fix on where the shot came from.

When it didn't seem like there was anymore fire, Vin also crouched down beside Chris, noticing the wet stain forming on the dark clothes at Chris' side.

Ezra glanced at Vin, "We need to get to Four Corners."

Vin nodded and helped Ezra slump Chris over his horse.

* * * * * * *

"What's that?" Vin asked pointing off towards the distance.

Ezra turned to see what Vin was talking about, but through the driving rain and sleet he couldn't make anything out, "What?"

Vin didn't answer, he just turned off the trail, leaving Ezra no choice but to follow. Until then neither man had spoken since Chris' injury, both strained to hear Chris' laboured breathing over the wind and rain.

Finally, the cabin Vin had spotted came into view. It looked as though smoke was coming from the chimney and seemed to be holding its own in the storm.

Ezra felt a surge of relief flood through him as he stopped beside Vin. Both men helped Chris off his horse. Chris started and groaned at the pain the jolt caused, but let Ezra support him as they stumbled into the cabin. Vin took care of the horses, picked up some firewood that had been left outside and joined the other two inside.

Ezra had already laid Chris down on the narrow bed and was at the stove ready to boil some water.

"It seems somebody will be returning soon," Ezra observed as he took in the fire that was already lit, although it had gotten fairly low, and a pot of stew simmering over it.

"Yeah," Vin mumbled as he knelt down beside Chris and ripped at the shirt where the bullet had entered to check the wound.

"I'll be fine," Chris muttered. "It's better now."

Vin ignored Chris and addressed Ezra who was standing behind him with the water and some clean strips of material, "Looks like the bullet's gone straight through, but we need to stop the bleeding."

Vin and Ezra worked quickly, removing Chris' wet clothes as he'd begun shaking, bandaging the wound which slowed the flow of blood but was unable to stop it completely, and covering the gunslinger with blankets. The only sound was Chris' assurances that he was going to be fine, which seemed to fall on deaf ears.

When Chris was as comfortable as they were able to get him, Ezra removed his own wet coat and placed it behind a chair, relieved that the cabin and the fire were beginning to warm him up. Ezra saw that Vin still had his heavy coat on and wondered why the tracker didn't seem inclined to settle in and wait out the storm.

"I'm goin' to fetch Nathan," Vin answered Ezra's unspoken question.

"I'm not sure that's wise," Ezra should have known Vin wouldn't sit still and wait. "This storm's picking up, and there was someone out there shooting at us."

"The bleeding hasn't stopped, we need Nathan," Vin stated. "We don't know how long this storm's going to last."

"No," Chris sighed trying to hide the tremor in his voice. "Ezra's right, we should stay here together."

Ezra turned and noticed the pain etched in the gunslinger's features. Vin was right, Chris needed a doctor there was nothing more they could do for him. Besides Vin looked so determined Ezra wouldn't have been able to stop him anyway.

Chris saw that Ezra was about to give in and side with Vin, damn they'd been ignoring him since they got here. Chris glanced from one to the other, it didn't make much difference what either he or Ezra said, Vin wasn't planning on arguing about this. Chris just hated being the reason the tracker had to go back out there.

"What happens when the owner of this quaint haven returns?" Ezra made one last feeble attempt to keep Vin there a little longer.

"I'm sure you'll be able to think of some fancy words to say," Vin was already halfway out the door.

Ezra went to the window and watched as Vin carefully mounted his horse and began to pick his way back towards the path. The snow and rain quickly engulfed the younger man, so Ezra turned to Chris taking in the drawn and worried expression on his face, "Well Mr Larabee, it seems you're going to have to help me come up with an excuse for trespassing."

"My pain's not a good enough excuse?"

* * * * * * *

Vin was going slowly, letting his horse cautiously pick along the wet, slippery path, Vin had only been riding a little while when he felt as though someone was following him. It better not be Ezra, he thought as he turned his horse around.

Vin dismounted, his hand hovering over his gun, as he watched a figure shuffle towards him. The stranger held his hands up as he got closer and Vin saw that he was leading a mule behind him, a deer draped over its back.

"You look like you should be inside," Vin said when the older man had gotten close enough to hear.

"Went out hunting before the storm, thought I might be needin' some extra food," the stranger explained. "My name's Owen."

"Vin."

"My cabin's not far, but when I spotted you through the trees, I thought I'd check it out. Can't be too careful," Owen stated.

"I think I just came from your cabin," Vin suppressed a smile at the confused look on Owen's face. Owen seemed harmless enough, with his stooped figure, grey hair and whiskers, and slow shuffle. "I'll explain on the way back, you're right about having to be careful," Vin added thinking about Chris being shot.

As they began walking Vin noticed the limp, "What happened?" he asked indicating Owen's leg.

"Slipped on the ice," Owen answered sheepishly.

Vin helped Owen onto his horse and led the way back to the cabin.

* * * * * * *

"That was expeditious," Ezra drawled when Vin entered the homey cabin. "Although that is definitely not Dr Jackson," the gambler added as he watched Owen shuffle in behind Vin.

"He owns this place," Vin made it sound like that should have been obvious. "How's Chris?"

"Fine, now that you're back," Chris could still speak for himself.

Ezra shook his head slightly, "He's still bleeding, I can't get it to stop."

"I'm afraid I won't be any help," Owen said.

"Allowing us to use your home is enough assistance," Ezra smiled. "I'm assuming you informed Mr ...."

"Owen," he filled in.

"I'm assuming you informed Owen about what happened," Ezra said again turning to Vin.

Vin nodded as he bent over Chris to check for himself that he was okay. Chris was shaking with the cold and sweating from the fever at the same time.

"I left some stew on the stove," Owen offered everyone.

Ezra smile widened ingratiatingly, "I have already tried your fine culinary skills." And before Vin could ask he added, "I attempted feeding Chris but all he could manage was some water."

"I wasn't hungry," Chris grumbled, although why he spoke at all was beyond him, no-one paid any attention, they just hovered over him looking worried.

Owen chuckled under his breath, he hadn't had this many visitors since, well actually he'd probably never had this many visitors.

* * * * * * *

Vin finished his meal and stood to leave again.

"Vin," Ezra said quietly. "The storm's in full swing. I really think you should wait until it lets up."

"Chris still needs a doctor, I know the way, I'll be fine Ezra," Vin whispered back not wanting to alert Chris.

"I don't think you should go anywhere," Owen stated.

Ezra turned surprised at the ally, thank God someone had some sense around here. Until he noticed Owen holding a rifle, aiming it at Vin, "What the hell?"

Vin was also staring at the weapon as Owen said, "Your last name's Tanner right? You're worth a bit."

Vin couldn't believe this, "You've gotta be kiddin'."

"You shot at us," Ezra stated drily.

"I honestly didn't mean to hit your friend," Owen sounded genuinely apologetic. "I just wanted to scare you so I could get to Tanner."

Vin knew instinctively that this man was no killer, "Let me go get a doctor for my friend, if you didn't want to shoot him you shouldn't want to let him die here." Vin noticed Owen's thoughtful expression and hoped he was getting through to him, "I'll come back with Nathan, he'll fix Chris right up and they can be on their way back to town. I promise I'll stay here, go to Tuscosa with you, and you can turn me in if that's what you want. Just let me go now."

For some reason Owen trusted that Vin would do exactly that, "What if somethin' happens to you on the way?"

Vin sighed, "Then you'll find my body when the storm clears and you can still get your money."

"And I suppose you'll let me take your friend in?" Owen asked Ezra.

Ezra stared at Vin, usually the tracker had an uncanny ability to know what he was thinking, Ezra hoped this was the case this time. He looked right into Vin's eyes thinking, don't come back, just ride back into town where you're safe, Chris and I can wait until the others come get us and Owen won't hurt either of us in the meantime.

Just like Vin, Ezra knew the man was no killer. Knowing Owen was waiting for a response he sighed, "I won't stop you from taking Vin."

Owen seemed satisfied, although he did trust Tanner more than he did this Ezra fellow, the man was obviously a gambler or something, and would probably say anything to get his way.

"Vin," Chris croaked. Vin stepped closer to the bed and leaned over to hear what Chris was saying, "Promise me you won't come back here, send Nathan back, or better still Ezra and I will get out of here ourselves."

"It'll be fine," Vin responded.

That wasn't the answer Chris wanted, the fool was going to come back and keep his word, and neither he nor Ezra were able to do anything at this moment.

Owen had finally decided he had enough leverage with their injured friend needing help, he was quite certain Tanner would be back.

Feeling the change in Owen's mood, Vin quickly slipped out the door.

* * * * * * *

Ezra watched helplessly as Chris slid into unconsciousness. He placed a second blanket over the gunslinger, then turned and glared at Owen. Great, the only other person in the room was the person who'd made him choose between Chris or Vin's life.

"I really never wanted to hurt that fella," Owen said by way of apology.

"It's a little late for remorse now," Ezra observed.

"When Vin gets back with that doctor, I'm sure he'll be fine," Owen tried again.

Ezra sighed, "Except for the fact that his best friend's being taken to be hanged."

Owen looked over Ezra's fine, if somewhat crumpled, clothes. He figured his first assessment of the man was correct, probably a gambler, "You seem to be the kind of person that would understand about gettin' money where you can."

"There are limitations," Ezra drawled.

Owen left it there, and shuffled over to put some more wood on the fire.

After a while, and most probably out of boredom, Ezra pulled his deck of cards out of his waistcoat, at least they were dry. "Would you care for a game of chance?" Ezra asked innocently.

"What are the stakes?" Owen cocked an eyebrow.

"If I win, Mr Tanner goes free," Ezra answered.

"I would ask what I'd get if I won, but against you I don't think that'll happen," Owen observed.

Ezra suppressed a smile, what Owen had just said was true enough, "I assure you I have plenty of funds to make it worthwhile."

"How much?" Owen's interest was peaked.

"Not $200.00," Ezra stated, although now he wished he did have that much on him. "I would have enough back in Four Corners though. Perhaps you'll allow me to collect the money and pay Vin's bounty."

Owen thought about it, but shook his head, "Once ya'll get back to town, I won't see you or the money."

Ezra threw the cards down dejectedly. He couldn't really blame Owen for that comment, he probably would only pay as a last resort.

"Besides," Owen continued. "I'd prefer to earn my money honestly."

Great, the man had morals, Ezra thought as he wandered back over to Chris and checked the wound. "May I ask why this money is so important to you?" the gambler asked without turning back around.

"Well now, that ain't none of your business," Owen stated ending the conversation.

* * * * * * *

Vin had given up trying to keep his hat in place, he let it fall back with the wind and rain rushing through his hair. The tracker looked up at the sky, it didn't appear to be letting up any time soon. And although it had been gloomy since the storm started, now that night was falling it was getting darker. Vin considered holing up somewhere until dawn, but rejected the notion, he didn't know how much time Chris had left. Although it was slow going, Vin preferred to continue, hopefully he'd get to Four Corners by dawn and Nathan would be coming back to the cabin with him by early morning.

* * * * * * *

Ezra jerked awake when he heard a movement from the bed. Ezra flew out of the chair when he saw Chris trying to stumble out of bed, he held onto Chris and glanced over relieved to see Owen still asleep by the fire. "What do you think you're doing?" Ezra whispered.

"Help me get out of here," Chris hissed. "I can ride, and we'll meet Vin on his way back."

Chris was breathing heavily from the exertion, and it didn't go unnoticed by Ezra, "I don't think you're up to this."

Owen stirred, and without opening his eyes continued to listen to the conversation.

"Ezra, please..." Chris collapsed against Ezra with a groan.

Ezra almost fell back, trying to hold all of Chris' weight. Regaining his balance, he carefully lay Chris back on the bed covering the now unconscious man with the blankets. If it had been possible, Ezra would have gladly tried getting himself and Chris back into town before Vin came back.

* * * * * * *

The storm was finally easing off as Vin rode into Four Corners early that morning. He looked around glad to see only a few buildings had been damaged by the strong winds, nothing that didn't seem fixable. Hopefully there were just as few injuries.

Vin headed straight for the Church, figuring that's where almost everyone would be.

Buck, JD, Nathan and Josiah clambered out of the Church when they saw the rider approach. Buck had wanted to head out in the evening when neither Chris or Vin had returned, but Josiah had convinced him it would be safer to stay. As Vin wearily dismounted, all four men wanted to bombard the tracker with questions. However, they held back. What alarmed them more than Vin's general tattered appearance, was the worried look in his eyes.

Seeing his friends' expressions Vin explained, "Chris is shot. I need you to come with me Nathan."

Nathan didn't wait for more of an explanation, Vin could tell him on the way, he just went to get his things together.

"You look tired," Josiah observed as he handed the young man a steaming cup of coffee. "Maybe you should just tell Nathan where Chris is."

Vin shook his head, "It'd be best if I led the way."

"Well then, at least take my horse, your’s looks worn out," Josiah said.

Vin nodded in gratitude as JD scampered off to get the horses ready from them.

Josiah then looked over to Buck who was looking antsy, "You know there are only a few cuts and bruises, nothing JD and I can't handle ourselves. Why don't you go with them?"

"I think I might just do that," Buck stated as he followed JD to the livery.

Vin looked at the sky as he waited, at least it was clearing. The wind had died down considerably and the rain was turning into a drizzle, although it was still incredibly cold. At least they'd get back to the cabin within a few hours.

* * * * * * *

Nathan headed straight for Chris when the four men entered the cabin. Buck hovered behind Nathan trying to help the healer as best he could. Neither man was surprised to see Ezra there, Vin had explained what had happened to Chris on the way.

Vin stayed back, and Ezra approached him, "You shouldn't have come back. I'm sure Dr Jackson and Mr Wilmington could have found their way, especially since the storm has eased off."

"I gave my word," Vin sighed. "Besides I couldn't be sure that they wouldn't have gotten lost."

"I'm glad we got here when we did," Nathan muttered not realising he was helping Vin's case.

Owen came in from the back, "You brought more people with you," he observed.

Vin just nodded.

Nathan turned around, "I've stopped the bleeding, I had to tie the artery off and stitched the wound. We should give him a couple of hours, but I'd still like to get him into town as soon as possible."

* * * * * * *

Chris woke about an hour later, surprised to see both Nathan and Buck sitting beside his bed. At least Nathan being here explained why the searing pain in his side had ebbed a little.

Buck leaned forward, "You want somethin' to eat?"

Chris nodded gratefully, he couldn't believe how hungry he was.

To Vin and Ezra's relief, Chris seemed to be getting stronger right before their eyes. He definitely looked much better.

Nathan smiled as he checked the stitches, "Do you think you can ride out of here? I'd prefer it if you were recuperating at the clinic." The rain had stopped and the sun was trying to shine through the clouds, getting home was going to be easier for them than it had been for Vin.

"No problem," Chris agreed readily, until he saw that Vin was sitting at the table with Ezra and Owen. "But not without Vin."

"Without Vin?" Buck asked puzzled.

"Apparently Owen needs Mr Tanner's bounty," Ezra explained.

Nathan stared at Vin, "You told us everything but that piece of information?"

"You're friend here promised he wouldn't kick up a fuss about leaving Tanner here," Owen said waving his hand in Ezra's direction.

"Well I ain't Ezra," Buck stated. "And I haven't promised anything."

"Buck," Vin sighed. "It was never Ezra's choice, or anybody else's. I gave my word."

Owen had again reached for his rifle, "Don't make me use this. Your friend looks fine to leave, so just go."

Reluctantly and more than a little upset at the fact that Vin wasn't even trying to go with them, Ezra, Nathan and Buck helped Chris out the door and onto his horse. Leading Vin's horse behind them.

Both Vin and Owen watched from the window as the four men rode into the distance.

"How's your ankle?" Vin asked absently.

Owen looked up startled, he'd thought everyone had forgotten about his injury, "Uh, not givin' me much trouble."

Vin nodded.

"You're no murderer, are you?" Owen asked.

"No," Vin answered. "But you probably figured I'd say that."

"I guess so," Owen said but he knew Vin was telling the truth. "I ain't never seen a murderer with friends like those guys."

"Know a lot of killers do you?" Vin grinned.

Owen ignored the comment, "I'm guessin' that doctor and the injured man are headin' home. But Ezra and that other fella are probably hidin' somewhere close by waitin' to jump me."

Vin's grin widened as he nodded his head, "I reckon' you're right."

"You'd better get goin' then. My safety's more important than the money," Owen indicated the door. "Go, before I change my mind."

Vin tilted his head in thanks, he'd known all along that Owen wouldn't turn him in, Owen was not an evil man.

* * * * * * *

Vin strolled towards the trail, "You can come out now, Owen let me go."

Ezra and Buck rode out from behind a line of trees, bringing Vin's horse with them.

"That was easy," Buck laughed as they waited for Vin to mount.

* * * * * * *

Nathan turned in the saddle and saw three men catching up to himself and Chris. "That was quick, we're not even halfway back to town yet."

"You doubted out ability?" Ezra feigned surprise.

"Yeah," Buck agreed. "When Ez and I put our minds to it, there ain't nothin' can get in our way."

Vin rode up alongside Chris, noticing that the gunslinger still clutched at his aching side, "Hey cowboy, it's been a long time. How are you doin'?"

Chris grinned, "Better now that we're all heading home together."

THE END



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