Buck was almost frantic with worry.
After the horror of seeing Vin knocked from his saddle hit by at least two bullets and Chris desperate dive to try and rescue him, he and Ezra had followed the course of the river as best they could.
They had remained in the shelter of the trees by the crossing until they were sure that whoever had ambushed them had departed. Ignoring Vins frightened dun gelding a remount from the Livery Stables in Four Corners as it headed back to town, the two men rode down to the rivers edge and began the difficult task of searching for their missing comrades.
It was heavy going; the banks began to rise steeply and the woods closed in around them, until they were forced to cut inland, following the river by sound in most places. Occasionally one of them would dismount, backtracking through the undergrowth on foot to peer down at the river, searching for any sign of Chris or Vin, but so far they had found nothing.
"How can we be certain theyll be on this side?" Ezra asked suddenly, as Buck returned from one such foray. The man paused before swinging into the saddle of his grey, and a scowl darkened his face.
"What the Hellre you talking about, Ezra?"
The gambler kneed his horse over to stand besides Bucks, and he rubbed at his chin thoughtfully. "Well, the odds are fifty-fifty. They could just as easily be on the other side and we could have missed them already!"
For one brief moment Ezra thought Buck was going to knock him out of the saddle, but he held his ground as the other visibly shook himself, and pushed his anger away.
"I guess youre right." It was as close to an apology as the ladies man was willing to make; he knew Ezra was as worried as he was. It was just that the gambler didnt show it as much. "Its a chance were gonna have to take though. Come on."
They started their horses moving again, riding in silence as each man wrestled with his thoughts, until Ezra suddenly brought his chestnut to a stop.
"What?" Buck reined in, and turned to look at him.
"Listen can you hear that?"
For a moment all Wilmington could hear was the normal sounds of the birds and insects then, faintly in the distance, he heard the unmistakable sound of rushing water!
"A waterfall?" He saw the Southerner nod grimly, and knew what was in his mind. Even if Chris had found Vin, neither man would stand much chance against such a force of nature. Without another word, he raked his spurs against his mounts flanks, urging it into a reckless gallop. He could hear Ezra close behind him as he pushed his horse along the narrow trail, heading down towards the river, and the base of the waterfall.
He tried not to think about what they might find.
+ + + + + + +
Only one person was entirely pleased with the way the day had turned out.
Doug McKenna was not a stupid man, and he knew that somebody would attempt to follow the trail left by Curly as he rode back towards the camp, and in his heart he knew that that somebody would be Vin Tanner.
It was this certainty that had led him to take off on his own and wait for nearly a day, with almost Indian patience, by the river crossing, until his brothers killer rode into the trap he had so cunningly laid.
McKenna studied the four men as they paused at the rivers edge, and he could hardly believe his luck when the buckskin-clad tracker pushed his mount ahead of the others and into the water. Bringing his rifle up, he took careful aim.
He could scarcely conceal his joy when he saw the tracker pitch from his horse into the fast flowing current. With a riflemans instinct, he knew both shots had hit their mark, and he wasnt unduly worried when the black-dressed man in the posse had dived in after the Texan. Only time would tell whether his bullets or the river had taken the life of the man who had killed his brothers.
He emptied his rifle in the general direction of the men on the far shore, and he almost laughed aloud as they retreated hastily to the shelter of the trees. Slipping his rifle into the saddle boot, he swung up onto his horse, not even waiting around to see what else they did.
Satisfied that he had succeeded in disposing of Vin Tanner, Doug McKenna rode back to camp to make further plans.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee stirred, groaned, and slowly opened his eyes, blinking in some confusion as he lifted his head from the sharp gravel that was digging into his cheek.
For a long moment he felt a strong temptation to simply lay where he was, and contemplate the large black beetle that scurried industriously back and forth within his field of vision, but the cold and the tearing pain in his shoulder and chest forced his hand, and he struggled to his knees, wincing as he cradled his left arm against his side. The fire in his shoulder burned across the back of his neck as he tried to flex fingers that were cramped and stiffened by cold, and he was convinced that his collarbone was broken. He took a deep breath, gasping as the pain of one or more cracked ribs caught him by surprise, and shivered; the breeze blowing across the small clearing cut right through his wet clothes, and chilled him to the bone.
Suddenly, he heard a noise behind him, a painful, retching sound that was like a swift kick to the rear. Memory came flooding back, and with it the realisation of what had happened.
Scrambling around, he saw the tracker lying a few feet away from him, choking and gasping as he tried to clear the water from his lungs. Relief flooded through the man in black, relief that his friend was still alive, and that his efforts hadnt been in vain. Crawling forward, ignoring his own aches for the moment, Chris rolled Vin onto his side, pushing his knees against the younger mans back to keep him in that position as he coughed up what seemed like half the river.
The gunslinger didnt know how long they had been lying unconscious but, judging by the dampness of their clothes, it couldnt have been very long. He shuddered as he remembered their wild ride downriver, and his own sense of despair as they were swept over the waterfall. It was then that hed felt the tearing wrench in his shoulder, as he had held on to the injured Texan with grim determination. He recalled the panic as he was dragged beneath the surface of the pool at the foot of the waterfall, almost losing his grip on Vin as they were both scraped along the rocks, but he had no recollection of dragging himself and his friend onto dry land.
"Easy, pard," he murmured, brushing the wet hair back from the messy wound above the trackers left eye. Vins retching spasms suddenly subsided, and he lay ominously still, water trickling slowly from his slack lips. Alarmed, Chris slipped his hand down inside the sodden buckskin jacket, feeling the faint, irregular heartbeat against his palm. Taking a long, shallow breath in deference to his injured ribs - he let it out slowly, wincing as his shoulder protested painfully. "Stay with me, Vin," he said softly, feeling an unusual helplessness wash over him. Larabee was used to being in charge, but with his damaged shoulder and ribs he couldnt give Vin the help he so desperately needed.
Tanners skin was icy under his fingers, and Chris knew his friend could die just as easily from the cold as he could from either of the wounds he had gotten in the ambush. Using his good hand, he pushed Vin further over so that he was almost lying face down; at least that way he knew the other wouldnt choke as he went in search of tinder to make a fire. Heat was the priority now and, as Chris climbed wearily to his feet, he could only hope that Buck and Ezra found them before night fell.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra was beginning to think that Buck had gone mad.
First of all the ladies man had sent his horse plunging down the trail at a break-neck speed, then he had pulled up so suddenly that it was all the gambler could do to avoid running into the back of Chris mount, that trailed along beside Buck. As he struggled to calm his nervous horse, Ezra saw Buck peering though a gap in the trees, but before he could question him, Wilmington had flicked the reins, sending the grey forward again.
"Buck wait up!" Ezra yelled, but to no avail. With a sigh, the gambler laid his heels against his chestnut, cantering forward until he was level with the head of the grey. Reaching out, he made a grab at the animals bridle, dragging its head around until it came to a halt.
Buck turned a furious face to the gambler, lashing out to knock his hand away.
"What do you think youre doing?" he hissed.
"Attempting to bring some sanity to this situation," Ezra stated calmly, trying to defuse Bucks anger. "Racing off like a moon-struck calf isnt going to help Chris or Vin."
For a moment Buck just glared at him, then the anger slowly drained from his face and he allowed a wry grin to touch his lips. "Sorry," he said simply. "But I know where we are."
"You do?" Ezra was startled.
"Yeah! Me and Vin came hunting along here once." He twisted in the saddle and pointed behind and to their left. "Theres a line cabin back there, and the waterfalls just a little way ahead."
"Youre certain of your bearings?"
"Yeah, Ez, Im dead sure. Now you coming or not?"
Without waiting for a reply, the ladies man urged his horse forward once more, knowing the gambler was right behind him. Keeping to a more sedate pace, he led them unerringly to a place where the trail opened out to lead down to a large pool. The waterfall thundered noisily to their right, the river dropping down no more than ten feet at its highest point.
There was no sign of Chris or Vin.
"Look!" Ezras excited yell startled Buck, and he followed the gamblers pointing finger. Across on the far side, about thirty feet from where they were, a dark form was sprawled on the bank.
"Come on." Buck urged his grey forward into the water, splashing through the shallows until they reached the other side.
Ezra was the first to slide from his horse, and he dropped to his knees beside the tracker.
"Dear Lord!" he breathed, as Buck joined him. Blood still trickled sluggishly from the wound above Vins eye, mingling with the water and turning his face into a crimson mask.
"Is he ?" Buck couldnt bring himself to finish the sentence, as the Southerner placed his hand against Vins chest.
"Hes alive," he stated with relief. "But only just."
Buck let out a pent up breath, then glanced around. "But wheres Chris?" he asked.
"I dont " Ezra stopped, as a twig snapped with a sharp crack! away to their right, and his and Bucks guns were drawn instinctively.
Suddenly Chris Larabee stumbled from the bushes, a bundle of wood clutched in his right arm, and he stopped when he saw them, the relief evident on his face.
"Yeah, pard. Its me."
Wilmington scrambled to his feet and thrust his gun back into the holster as he hurried to his friends side. Chris was battered and shirtless; bruises were beginning to darken the skin across his ribs and his left arm hung limply at his side as he dropped the kindling and staggered forward.
"Vins hurt real bad," he said, as Buck put a hand under his elbow to steady him.
"You dont look so hot yourself," Buck told him as the gunslinger dropped in an exhausted heap beside the tracker.
"Im okay," came the stoic response, as the other two knew it would. "Just help Vin."
Ezra was still crouched beside Tanner, examining him as best he could, and when he looked up his face was grim.
"We need Nathan," he said simply. The young Texan was barely hanging on; Chris had done his best to staunch the flow of blood from the wound by his ribs with his own shirt, but the bullet was still in there, and the gambler could only guess at the damage caused by the head injury. He could feel Vin trembling with the cold, and he slipped off his jacket and tucked it around the injured mans shoulders.
"Not right now we dont." Buck glanced up; night was rapidly drawing in, and it would be madness to travel after dark. "Well take them back to the line cabin now, then make a start in the morning." He rested a hand on Chris shoulder. "You okay to ride?"
"You sure? What about that shoulder?" Buck ran his hand across the back of Chris neck and down his shoulder blade, feeling for any broken bones as he grasped his arm just above the elbow.
"Dont fuss!" the gunslinger snapped. "I told you, I yow!" His words were cut off with a yelp as Buck gave his left arm a sharp yank. He heard and felt the snap as the dislocated bone clicked back into place, and he blinked away tears of pain as he stared up into Bucks smiling face.
"There, thatll feel a whole heap better now," the ladies man said, as he pushed himself to his feet and went across to Chris horse. He pulled a spare shirt from the bedroll and helped the gunslinger into it, tucking his left hand inside to take the weight off of his strained shoulder muscles.
"Damn you, Buck!" Chris muttered through gritted teeth, but he had to admit it did feel better. At least now he had some mobility, and the tearing pain had gone. Only the ache in his chest remained.
"Time to ride." Buck hauled Chris to his feet, and boosted him into the saddle of his horse. Larabee straightened up slowly and picked up the reins as Ezra brought his own mount forward and climbed into the saddle. Buck gathered up the unconscious tracker and carefully placed him up in front of the gambler, who slipped his arms around the others chest to stop him sliding off.
It was a sombre little group that rode back through the water, and down towards the line cabin.
+ + + + + + +
Chris was finally dry and a little warmer than he had been two hours ago, and with his left arm held comfortable and secure in a sling he dozed in the chair at the foot of Vins bed. Suddenly, a hand brushed his arm lightly and he jumped at the unexpected touch, yelping as his ribs protested against the sudden movement. The blanket that somebody had draped around his shoulders slid to the floor, and he looked up to find himself gazing into the apologetic face of Ezra.
"Im sorry, Chris, I didnt mean to startle you," the gambler said.
Larabee glanced anxiously at the bed; he could see the blankets pulled right up to the tracker's chin, and Buck sat on the edge, gently bathing the blood from his face.
"Vin?" he asked anxiously.
"No change, Im afraid."
Chris studied the gambler in surprise; there was a note of concern in his voice that the gunslinger had not heard before, and the worry that clouded his features made a lie of his normally cool, nonchalant attitude. Just as quickly the shutters were back down, when Ezra became aware of the others frank regard.
"Can I interest you in some coffee?"
"Hows the shoulder?" Ezra asked, seeing the barely concealed grimace as Chris took the steaming cup from him.
"A little sore, but it feels a whole heap better than it did."
The gambler eyed him suspiciously, convinced he was hiding something. His gaze travelled down the front of Larabees chest, taking in the mottled bruises that marked his skin.
"And those ribs? Are they a little sore, too?"
The gunslinger opened his mouth to protest, then thought better of it; there really was no point in denying the truth.
"Yeah," he admitted. "I think I may have broken one or two."
"I see. I thought that might be so. If youll allow me ?" Ezra opened one of the saddlebags and pulled out a roll of bandages. For a while now Nathan had been bullying them into carrying clean linen and bandages on their travels just in case, as he put it, you or one of the horses needs fixing. Never had his advice been more useful as the gambler proceeded to wrap Chris ribs as tightly as comfort would allow.
Larabee was grateful for the concern. When they had arrived at the cabin, Buck had taken charge of Vin, carrying him inside and settling him on the bed before lighting the stove and all the lamps he could find. Ezra steadied Chris as he slid awkwardly from his mount, then he took all three animals into the small corral, removing their saddles and bridles and pouring a measure of oats into the feed trough, before carrying the remaining supplies and bedrolls into the building.
The cabin had soon warmed up with the heat from the range and the lamps, and Chris had taken his damp clothes off and hung them to dry by the stove. He had allowed Ezra to cradle his left arm in a sling, and then watched as Buck stripped Vins wet things from him and started to clean and dress his wounds. The gambler moved round to the other side of the bed and used a blanket to vigorously dry the tracker off, trying to chafe some warmth back into his icy limbs.
The strain and weariness had caught up with Chris a short time later, and he found himself yawning as he slipped his almost dry pants back on. Pulling a chair over by the stove, he settled down into it, yawning again as the warmth finally began to creep into his bones. It seemed as though only a minute had passed before Ezra startled him awake, with the offer of coffee.
"Um?" The gunslinger became aware that Buck had turned in his direction and was talking to him. "Hows he doing?"
Buck didnt reply straight away. Instead he glanced over Chris head at the gambler who stood behind him. Larabee turned his head to look up at Ezra, wincing as the movement tugged at still aching neck and shoulder muscles.
"What?" he demanded, looking from one to the other.
"Vins too sick to travel," Buck finally told him. "Hell, the ride would probably kill im!"
"As soon as it gets light, Im riding back to fetch Nathan." Ezra continued the conversation, and Buck nodded in agreement; obviously this was something they had already discussed whilst he slept. "Its the only thing we can do. If I leave at first light I should be able to get there before dark."
Chris heard the worry in both their voices, and his gaze drifted over to the bed, to the still form of the man who, along with the other five, had helped to fill the void in his soul.
"Is it that bad?" he asked at length.
"Pretty much," Buck replied softly, resting his hand on Vins brow. "He hasnt stirred, or made a sound since we found you."
Chris shoulders slumped, and he lowered his gaze. "Damn! I should've stopped him when we got to the river."
"Dont go beating yourself up about this, Chris," Buck told him. "It wasnt your fault."
"No it was entirely mine." The admission came from Ezra, and he dropped a hand on Chris shoulder, squeezing with unexpected feeling. "I fear I goaded him on. I think Vin knew it was a good place for an ambush, but I - "
Chris sighed. "Its okay, Ezra." He closed his eyes and took a quick breath, then glanced enquiringly at Buck. "Is there anything else we can do now?"
The ladies man shook his head. "No. You and Ezra get some rest. Ill watch Vin."
Ezra reached down and took the empty cup from Chris hand.
"Your bed, Mr. Larabee," he said, pointing to the far corner of the room.
Chris looked, and saw his bedroll spread out on the floor, with Ezras beside it.
"Thanks." He pushed himself to his feet, swaying a little with exhaustion. The gambler put a hand under his elbow, only letting go when he was sure the other wouldnt fall. As he stepped past the bed, Chris dropped a hand on Bucks shoulder. "Youll wake me if theres any change?"
It wasnt a request, and Buck nodded, giving his friend a little push.
"Sure. Now, go sleep."
For one of the few times in his life Chris listened to somebody else, and he was asleep almost before Ezra dropped the blanket over him.
+ + + + + + +
Water it was everywhere, tumbling, crashing and pouring over him! No matter how hard he tried, the clutching fingers would not let him go. He felt the hardness of the rocks as he was flung about by the white flecked current, then he was soaring through the air. Down he went, the churning river closing over his head, and he gasped as a pale face floated into his vision.
Why did you let me die? the mouth hissed.
No! he gasped. No!
The cry was torn from his lips, and he awoke in a cold sweat, sitting bolt upright and breathing hard as strong hands grasped his shoulders.
"Chris? Are you alright?"
Ezras concerned eyes were boring into him, and he took a deep gulp of air.
"Yeah, I'm fine." He swallowed and scrubbed at his forehead, feeling the beginning of a headache behind his eyes.
"Are you sure?" The Southerner cocked his head on one side, studying him with concern. The gunslinger's face was a little flushed, and he couldn't hide the grimace of pain as he rubbed his fingers across his brow.
"Yeah, Ezra. It was a dream," he breathed, feeling the sweat already drying on his face. "Just a dream."
"That was no dream, my friend! That was a nightmare!" Ezra stated with feeling, but he made no further comment as he climbed to his feet.
"Wherere you going?" Larabee asked, as the gambler yawned and stretched.
"Its time to ride. If I leave now I can be in Four Corners before nightfall."
As Ezra went out of the door Chris stood up slowly, pressing his right hand against the wall as a wave of dizziness slapped him smartly in the face. He sniffed loudly, feeling the pressure across the bridge of his nose, and sighed. Considering how cold the river had been, he would have been very surprised if he hadnt taken a chill of some kind. All he needed to do now was to hide that fact from the others; they had enough to worry about with Vin. He glanced out through the window, seeing the faint greyness creeping across the sky; dawn was just around the corner, and with it the opportunity to get help for the Texan.
The thought of his wounded friend turned him in the direction of the bed, and a smile softened his mouth when he saw Buck slumped on the floor, his chin resting on his knees as he snored gently. Stepping quietly past him, he went around the head of the bed, and perched on the other side, studying the tracker with some concern.
Apart from the bruising by his eye, and the thin trickle of blood that seeped from underneath the dressing, Tanners face was as white as the bandage around his head. His eyes were still tightly closed, and his breathing was so shallow that Chris had to look hard to see the rise and fall of his chest.
"Hang in there, Vin," he murmured softly, as he pulled back the blankets covering the still form. Buck had cleaned and bandaged the wound in his side, but blood had already soiled the material and soaked into the blanket beneath Vins body. The Texans skin was also covered with numerous grazes and bruises, matching those on his own body, a reminder of their wild water escapade.
"That boys got as many scrapes as youve got."
Chris looked up as Buck spoke, and a sheepish expression flashed across his face.
"Sorry, partner. Didnt mean to wake you."
"You didnt," Buck lied, squatting on his heels and knuckling sleep from his eyes. He glanced at the unconscious tracker and frowned. "He aint awake yet then?"
Chris heard the worry in the others voice, and he glanced at him sharply. "Its not good, is it?"
Buck shook his head. "I wish Nathan was here. I dont know what else to do." He reached out and placed his palm against the pale cheek. "Damn!" he swore.
"Hes still so cold. I cant seem to keep him warm."
Chris hurriedly pulled the blankets back up and tucked them around Vin, resting his hand briefly on the younger mans brow and feeling the clammy coldness for himself.
"Ezras saddling up now," he said. "Its almost daylight."
"Thank the Lord!" Buck breathed, pushing himself to his feet and stretching. "Id best get some things together for him."
Gathering up a few supplies, the ladies man placed them in a burlap sack and headed out the front door. Chris stood up and went to fetch his blanket, adding it to the three already covering Vin. From there he went over to the stove, stoked it up, and put a fresh pot of coffee on, before dragging the chair towards the bed.
As he slumped down in the seat, he heard the sound of a rapidly departing horse. Resting his elbow on his knee, he dropped his chin onto his right hand, and sighed. His face was expressionless, but his hazel eyes betrayed his emotions as he watched the injured Texan.
He prayed that Nathan would get here in time.
+ + + + + + +
"Rider coming in fast!"
Josiahs voice floated through the open door of the sheriffs office from the sidewalk where he sat, seemingly at ease, carving a small piece of wood. Suddenly there was the sound of a chair being pushed back, and the big man poked his head through the doorway.
"Its Ezra!" he exclaimed.
JDs yelp of pain came as he jumped to his feet, just as Nathan removed the last of the stitches from his wound.
"Hey, dont you go messing up all my handiwork, yhear?" Nathan admonished, but he was right on JDs heels as the young peacekeeper joined Josiah outside.
All three of them had been as nervous as a bunch of long-tailed cats in a room full of rocking chairs, ever since Vins borrowed mount had turned up at the Livery Stable late last night. JD had been ready then to ride out after the quartet, but Josiah had pointed out the futility of that. Apart from the fact that it was already dark, the main problem was that they didnt know where the others had gone. It was this voice of reason, plus Josiahs reassurance that if anything had happened to Vin at least the other three were with him, that had finally persuaded the young man to wait. Now it appeared that the decision had been the correct one.
Josiah stepped off the sidewalk as Ezra brought his lathered chestnut to a snorting halt by the hitching rail, and he reached up to grasp the animals bridle as the gambler slipped wearily from the saddle.
"Nathan Vin ! " Ezra gasped as he stumbled up the step.
"Steady, Ezra." Nathan grabbed the gamblers arm and led him inside. "JD, fetch some water." Josiah fastened the gamblers mount to the hitching rail, and loosened the girth before following them into the office. Nathan forced Ezra into a chair and made him drink before he spoke again.
"Now what about Vin?"
They got the whole story from him. Josiah saw the expression on the healers face when he heard about the head injury, and the fact that Vin still hadnt woken up by the time Ezra had left, but he kept his silence. There was no need to worry JD any more than he already was.
"See? I told you something was wrong." The young peacekeeper glared accusingly at them.
"So you did, son," Josiah said softly, dropping a large hand on his shoulder in reassurance. "But if wed ridden out when you wanted to, wed have missed Ezra."
JD conceded the truth of that, but it didnt curb his impatience. "Wed best get ready to ride. Theres still a few hours of daylight left," he stated, but Nathan grabbed his arm.
"We? Youre staying here, boy."
"Staying? Uh-uh! Im coming with you."
Nathan glanced at Josiah, seeing the almost imperceptible shake of his head, and he sighed.
"I dont have time for a debate right now. Im going to collect what I need."
"Alright, Brother Nathan. Ill go fetch the horses." Josiah turned to JD and Ezra. "You wait here until I get back."
+ + + + + + +
Some hours after Ezra had ridden out, Vin took a turn for the worse.
Buck had gone to see what he could find for breakfast, leaving Chris to stay with Vin, accepting the gunslinger's assurances that he would be okay.
Chris paced the cabin for a while, trying to work the stiffness from his limbs without aggravating his ribs further. Every bruise and graze seemed to ache now, and he carefully eased his left arm from the sling and flexed cramped muscles, only slipping it back when his shoulder started to protest. There was no point in undoing all of Ezra's efforts; it would only take longer to heal in the end.
A faint sound stopped him in his tracks, and he turned towards the bed, not entirely convinced that he hadnt imagined it. As he watched Vin stirred, and moaned softly again. Chris was instantly there, one hand resting gently on the trackers shoulder.
"Vin? Can you hear me?"
He leaned closer as Tanners lips moved, trying to form words, but nothing came out and his eyes remained closed. His face was flushed now; sweat beaded his brow and glistened in the hollow of his throat, and his breath came in wheezing gasps. Chris reached out and laid his hand on Vin's forehead, frowning when he felt the unnatural heat there. From being icy cold, the tracker was now burning up with a fever, and that wasnt a good sign.
"Boy, you sure got yourself into a mess this time," Chris said softly. He looked for some sign to indicate that the tracker had heard him, but Vin was quiet again, only his restless movements indicating that he had stirred at all. "Alright have it your way," he told the unconscious man. "But you gotta talk to me eventually."
Chris didnt know whether talking to Vin would make any difference or not, but it certainly made him feel better. He filled a basin with water from the bucket by the door, and brought it over to the bed. As he settled himself in the chair, he continued with his monologue.
"Youve got Ezra chasing half-way across the territory like a mad man," he said in an amused tone, moistening a cloth and dabbing it around the trackers fevered face before laying it across his forehead. He kept his hand on it, holding it in place as Vin turned his head away, his mouth twitching in pain. "As for Buck waal, ol Bucks likely to chew his moustache off with worry! Now thatd be a sight to see." Chris paused as an incongruous thought jumped into his mind even he couldnt remember seeing Buck without his moustache! The corners of Chris mouth started to curve into a grin, then all the humour drained away as Vin gasped, and gave a painful cough. "Damn you, Vin Tanner! If you die before Nathan gets here, dont expect me to forgive you any time soon!"
The gunslingers tone was sharp as he wrung out the cloth again and continued to bathe the Texans neck and throat. He felt Vin flinch as his hand moved a little more roughly than he had intended, and he sighed, trying to keep a tight hold on the anger, worry, and helplessness he felt over the whole situation.
For a brief moment Larabee stared at the tracker, thinking that he had spoken, then he realised it was Bucks voice behind him, and he threw a quick glance over his shoulder. The ladies man stood in the doorway, a brace of rabbits in his hand and a puzzled frown on his face.
"I heard you talking. Who ?" He paused, his gaze drifting across to the bed. "Is he awake?"
"No," Chris admitted, feeling a little fool
sh. "I just thought " He stopped and shrugged, before replacing the cloth across his friends brow. "I thought it mightve helped."
Seeing what the gunslinger was doing, Buck dropped the rabbits on the floor, and came to stand by Chris shoulder. He looked down at the trackers flushed and feverish face, and then pulled the blankets back, studying the younger man in concern. The area around the gunshot wound was red and inflamed, and when Buck pressed his fingers lightly against the skin, Vin jumped and groaned. Chris looked up at him, his expression unreadable.
"I dont think we can wait for Nathan. That bullet has to come out."
Bucks softly spoken comment sent icy fingers down Chris spine; he had guessed that the wound had become infected, but he hadnt realised just how bad it was until now, and he knew Buck was probably right. He looked up at his friend, seeing the indecision on the others face.
"Have you ever done it?" he asked. There was no need to state what it was; one of them would have to perform the necessary surgery if they agreed.
Buck shook his head. "Nope. You?"
"Yeah. Just once." Chris tone made the ladies man glance at him sharply, and he saw the haunted look on his face.
"It was a while ago." Chris shrugged, but there was pain in his eyes. "The kid died."
Two short sentences, but there was a long story in there somewhere that Buck would prise out of his friend someday. For now he knew what it meant.
"You dont wanna do it."
It was a statement rather than a question, and Chris swallowed hard, chewing his bottom lip. "Im not sure that I can, Buck," he admitted truthfully. "I know I should, but " He stopped, and Buck nodded in understanding.
"Its okay. Lets leave it for now."
For his part Buck was a little relieved. Whilst he could understand Chris reluctance under the circumstances, he was equally glad the task hadnt fallen to him. If the situation became more desperate later, and Vins life depended on it, then he wouldnt hesitate, but for now he was just thankful that he didnt have to take a knife to one of his closest friends. He stared at the tracker for a moment, seeing how the fever had taken hold, and then he turned on his heel and walked over to the range.
"Whatre you gonna do?" Chris asked, watching as Buck put a pan of water on to heat.
"Lets see if we cant draw some of the poison out of that wound," he replied. "Maybe thatll help." He turned around, eyeing the rabbits on the floor. "Dyou feel up to skinning them cotton tails and putting em in a pot? No sense in letting em go to waste."
It had been a long two days, and they werent over yet.
Buck felt emotionally drained, and almost at the end of his tether as he left Chris dozing in the cabin, and stepped outside for a breath of fresh air. The two horses in the corral trotted across as he went over and rested his arms on the top rail, and the grey whickered softly at him and snuffled at his bowed head.
As he had thought, cleaning the poison from the wound had helped considerably, but it had not been a pleasant experience. He had held Vins shoulders, murmuring meaningless soothing words in his ear to quiet him as if he were some fractious colt, as Chris applied hot poultices to the injury, continuing until all the pus had been cleaned away and only ordinary blood stained the cloth.
With a fresh dressing in place, he and Chris had spent the best part of a day and a half trying to keep the tracker comfortable. Vins temperature was still way up, and they took turns sponging him down, almost despairing as the fever tightened its grip. His skin was hot and dry as match wood as the moisture was burned from his weakened body, and they tried to trickle some water through his parched lips, succeeding only in soaking his hair and the pillow beneath his head.
Several times during their necessary ministrations, Vin had stirred and muttered incoherently sometimes in English, sometimes in Comanche but he still hadnt fully woken. It was during one of his quiet periods that Chris had dropped exhausted onto his own bed, and Buck had escaped outside.
Deep in his own thoughts, he didnt hear the hoof-beats until the two horses were almost on top of him. It was only when Chris black gelding caught familiar scents on the breeze and flung its head up, whinnying a greeting, that he straightened and glanced over his shoulder.
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