They rode back into town almost four days later; five tired men on four equally leg-weary horses.
Nathan had waited a full day around before he was satisfied that Vin would be able to cope with the journey back, but even so he knew it wouldnt be easy. It was the head injury that was giving him most cause for concern; whenever Vin tried to open his eyes the pain was so intense that he was physically sick, and the healer began to think that his skull might be cracked. The only thing that seemed to help was darkness, so Nathan kept the Texans eyes bandaged in an attempt to ease his discomfort. He kept his fears to himself for now, assuring the others that the headaches would subside with proper care and rest, and that could only be had back in Four Corners.
Mary Travis was the first to see them as they rode past the window of the newspaper office, and down towards Nathans small clinic. Pushing blonde hair from her eyes, and oblivious to the ink on her fingers, she rushed out of the door and hurried across the street towards the Sheriffs office.
"JD! Josiah!" she called. "Theyre back."
The two men rushed from the building, staring along the street as she pointed to the horses just coming to a stop outside the healers rooms.
"Buck!" the young peacekeeper called, breaking into a run, Josiah at his shoulder.
"Hiya, kid," Buck greeted as he slid from his grey. "Miss me, did ya?"
"Of course I Oh!" JD stopped short and his heart plummeted down to his boots when he saw Vin slumped forward over the neck of Nathans horse, a blanket wrapped around him as the healer kept a tight hold of the limp body. Then he was gently moved aside by Josiah as he stepped forward and reached up for the tracker.
"Let me give you a hand, Brother Nathan," he said, as the healer eased the Texan into Josiahs outstretched arms, and then dropped to the ground, unhooking his medical bag from the saddle and starting up the stairs. The ex-preacher followed, his precious burden cradled carefully against his chest.
As Chris slipped from the back of his black gelding and paused for a moment to catch his breath, Mary was there, concern on her face and a dozen questions on her lips.
"Im glad to see youre back safely," she said. "I people were getting worried."
The gunslinger smiled, pretending not to notice her slip. "Well, thanks. Im fine," he replied.
"And Vin?" She glanced up anxiously at the closed door; she had seen the bandages around his eyes, and the telltale spots of blood on his shirt.
"Not good," the gunslinger stated, after a moments hesitation.
"What happened?" She saw the way he looked up the stairs and frowned, and she knew he was more worried than he cared to admit.
"Later okay?" He gave her a weary smile, and she nodded, seeing how tired he was.
"Okay." She rested her hand briefly on his arm, breaking the contact when the gunslinger stared at her enquiringly. "Im going to get cleaned up. Tell Nathan Ill be back in a little while, in case he needs any help."
"I will. Thanks."
Chris watched as she walked away, and sighed. Mary Travis was a fine woman, and he knew she had strong feelings for him, but he was wary when it came to matters of the heart. The memory of Sarah and Adam was still too fresh. Suddenly he became aware that Ezra was talking to him, and he gave the Southerner his full attention.
"Would you like me to take your horse for you?" the gambler repeated. He already held the reins of Vins black and Nathans mount as he made the offer, and Chris nodded.
"Thanks," he said simply.
"My pleasure. Here you go, son." Ezra handed the gunslingers horse over to JD, who had been talking quietly to Buck.
"But I want to see " JD began, but Buck draped an arm across his shoulder, pulling him along towards the Livery Stable.
"Not right now, kid," the ladies man said quietly. "I need to talk to you first."
JD threw a quick glance over his shoulder at Chris before he reluctantly followed Buck, but Ezra waited a moment longer.
"Where will you be when we have finished with our trusty steeds?"
"Right here. Why dont you and Buck get yourselves some food as well?"
"An excellent suggestion. Can we tempt you with any delicacies?"
The gunslinger shook his head. "Not just yet."
"As you wish." Ezra started to walk away, and then stopped, turning to face his friend. "Chris, he will be alright."
For once Chris saw Ezras true feelings laid bare on his face, the worry and concern he felt for the Texan was mirrored in the gamblers green eyes as he walked away, and Chris wondered if Vin realised just how much he had gotten under everybodys skin.
As he climbed the stairs that led up to Nathans clinic, Chris reflected on the friendship that tied the seven of them together. They would need the strength of that bond now until Vin had fully recovered. If he fully recovered, a tiny voice in his mind whispered, but he ignored it as he stepped into the room. Josiah looked up as he entered, giving him a quick smile before turning back to the still form on the bed.
Despite Nathans precautions and the numerous stops he insisted they made, the ride back to Four Corners had taken its toll on Vin. He had kept the tracker dosed with laudanum most of the time, but it hadnt stopped the headaches, and he had torn some of his stitches, picking up a slight infection in the process that had pushed his temperature back up.
"Not now, Chris," the healer replied, without looking up. He had the Texan stripped to the waist and was busy cleaning the wound before putting in a few more stitches. Josiah kept his hands on Vins shoulders, holding him still as Nathan worked.
Chris sank down on the spare cot and leaned back against the pillows. He seemed to have spent too much time lately watching Nathan tend to Vins injuries. Suddenly there was a knock on the door, and Mary entered. Chris sat up as she gave him an enquiring look.
"Is there anything I can do?" she asked, walking over and stopping by the healers shoulder. Tying off the last of the stitches, Nathan gave her a quick grin.
"Yeah see if you can get Chris to wash off some of that trail dust, and then put a clean strapping on his ribs."
"His ribs?" Mary glanced at the gunslinger, who glared at her defiantly.
Nathan nodded and chuckled. "Yeah - Im sure hell tell you the whole story. Use my room."
"Alright, Mr. Larabee," Mary said brusquely, but there was a hint of laughter in her eyes. "You heard the doctors orders."
Chris looked daggers at Nathan, but the healer was busy again, and he pushed himself up carefully, aware that his ribs were indeed still tender. He followed the blonde woman into the small side room that Nathan used for himself, and watched as she poured water into a basin. With a sigh of resignation, he unbuttoned his shirt and dropped it onto the bed, before splashing water over his face and neck, washing the grime of three days riding from his skin. Reaching out blindly for a towel, he felt one pressed into his hand, and he dried himself off as Mary eyed him critically.
"Sit down," she said, putting her hand on his shoulder and forcing him onto the edge of the bed. "Now, are you going to tell me what happened?" she asked, picking up a pair of scissors and cutting through the filthy bandages.
Chris began to talk as she studied his injuries. The bruises were beginning to fade slightly now, but some of the abrasions still looked a little raw, and she dabbed at them lightly with a damp cloth, her touch warm and gentle as she cleaned the dirt from them before putting on a clean bandage. However, her fingers paused, and she looked up at him in dismay when he told her of Vins loss of memory; now she knew why he had been so worried.
"What does Nathan say? How long will it last?"
Chris shrugged, slipping his shirt back on. "Maybe forever."
"Well, well just have to make certain that Vin knows who we are," she stated emphatically. "Well have to tell him everything thats happened since you all arrived in Four Corners."
Larabee looked at the woman before him, and marvelled at her resolve. If Vin ever remembered anything, it would be due in no small way to Mary Travis and her determination.
+ + + + + + +
Two days passed by, two days in which Vins condition slowly started to improve.
His wound was healing cleanly, and his temperature was almost back to normal, and Nathan decided it was time to remove the bandages from his eyes. The healer had taken them off for a few minutes the day after they had returned, but the light had still affected the tracker badly, so he left them for a further day. Now, with Vin a little stronger and able to sit up for short periods, the dark skinned man took the decision to remove them permanently.
As she had been for the last two mornings, Mary Travis was on hand and, at Nathans instructions, she closed the curtains and lit the lamp on the bedside table, turning the wick down low.
"Alright, Vin, lets sit you up."
Nathan hooked his arm through the Texans, easing him up as Mary re-arranged the pillows behind him. The tracker drew a sharp breath as the exertion tugged at the stitches and made his healing ribs burn, and he leaned into the softness at his back with a heartfelt sigh. He felt a brief feather-light touch on his brow, and then Nathans fingers as he began to unwind the bandage.
"Okay, Vin. Take your time - open your eyes when youre ready."
The Texan swallowed and nodded, chewing his bottom lip as the last of the bandages fell away.
"Hold still a minute," a soft voice said, and he flinched at the warm water that trickled unexpectedly down his cheeks as Mary bathed the sleep and grit from his lashes. "There," she said. "That should be better."
Slowly, cautiously, he forced his eyes open, steeling himself for the nausea that had been such a large part of his waking hours over the last few days. He blinked several times, and then smiled shyly at the woman watching him anxiously.
"Hello, Vin," Mary said, returning his smile as she squeezed his hand.
"Maam," he croaked, and coughed, grimacing as pain flared behind his eyes. Nathan saw his expression, and picked up a cup from the table.
"Here you go," he said, holding the cup out to Vin, and wrapping his own fingers around the Texans as his trembling hand threatened to spill the contents over the bedclothes.
Vin sipped at the cool fruit juice, finding it a little too sweet for his liking, but it eased the scratchiness of his throat and quenched his thirst. After a few mouthfuls he pushed the cup away, and leaned back against the pillows.
"Thanks," he said, turning his gaze once more to Mary, and she could see the questions in his eyes, but before she could satisfy his curiosity Nathan spoke again.
"Hows your head feel?" he asked, tilting Vins chin up and studying his eyes critically.
"Like its about to explode," the Texan told him truthfully. "But at least I dont feel sick."
"Yeah, Im sure!" Vin was emphatic, and he flushed with embarrassment when he thought about the last couple of times hed been violently ill. He remembered the strong hands that had held his heaving shoulders at different times, and his own abject misery at something he had no control over. He only hoped that the attractive woman sitting by his bed hadnt seen him at such a vulnerable moment. However, his hopes were dashed by her next words.
"Well, thats a relief," Mary said to the trackers utter dismay, and now he also remembered the cool fingers against his forehead and the soft voice in his ear telling him it would be alright.
Suddenly the door opened, and Josiah entered, a covered tray in his hands.
"So, hows our patient this morning?" He put the tray down on the side and stepped across to stand behind Nathan. "Well, youre looking better, I must say."
"Josiah?" It was more a question than a statement from Vin, and the ex-preacher flashed him a bright grin.
"Dyou remember?" he asked, but Vin lowered his gaze, his shoulders slumping in frustration as he shook his head.
"Whats on the tray, Josiah?" Nathan asked.
"Breakfast. I thought you and Miz Travis could use it."
"Thank you, Josiah," Mary said. "That was very thoughtful of you." She pushed her chair back, and then stopped, looking at the tracker in concern. "Vin, are you alright?"
Nathan turned as the Texan rubbed a hand across his eyes, his ashen face screwed up in pain.
"Yes. No." He sighed and closed his eyes, sagging back against the pillows.
"I think you need to rest," Nathan stated, pulling Vin forward and dropping the pillows flat. "Thats it," he coaxed, easing him down and placing a hand on his forehead. The tracker was warm and sweaty, but there was no sign of the fever returning. It was simply the weakness of his body that had let him down. Vin took a couple of deep breaths, letting them out slowly, and he was asleep almost before Nathan pulled the blanket back over him.
The healer put his finger to his lips, and led the other two out onto the balcony, Josiah picking up the tray as he went. Mary settled herself on the bench, and Nathan and Josiah sat on the top step.
"Is he really going to be alright?" Josiah asked, handing Mary a plate loaded with scrambled eggs and thick slices of ham. "I know Chris and the others are worried."
"He will be," Nathan replied, picking up the second plate and scooping up a forkful of egg. He was silent for a moment as he ate, and then sipped at the hot coffee Josiah handed to him. "Actually, hes doing better than I thought."
"What about his memory?" Mary had seen the confusion and frustration in the trackers eyes when even the simplest thing, like knowing a name, had eluded him. She couldnt imagine what it was like to suddenly have a large chunk of your life disappear.
"I dont know," Nathan admitted. He leaned back and shook his head. "The mind works in strange ways. Maybe hell never get it back."
All three were silent for a long moment, and then Mary put into words the thought that had been in all of their heads.
"Does it really matter? Hell still be the same Vin Tanner weve all come to know, wont he?"
Nathan glanced at Josiah, and the ex-preacher nodded.
"I think he will," he said. "I believe a man is shaped by what hes done and Vin has done a lot of good in his life."
Mary bowed her head over her plate. She was relieved for Vins sake, but she was happier that Chris Larabee wasnt going to lose a friend that he depended on so much.
+ + + + + + +
Vin was beginning to go stir crazy.
Four days after Nathan had removed the bandages from his eyes, he was still confined to the clinic, and it felt as though the walls were closing in on him.
His ribs still protested if he made any sudden moves, and Nathan had taken a few of the stitches from his wound, but at least he was allowed out of bed for short periods of time. He was still plagued by headaches the ferocity of them caught him by surprise every time, and all he wanted to do was curl up and die until they subsided but at least the intervals between were getting longer. However, he was dismayed at how weak he was, and how quickly he tired; the constant stream of visitors helped to alleviate the boredom, but he quite often found himself falling asleep while they were there.
Mary Travis was at the clinic every day, sometimes accompanied by her young son Billy, whose fresh outlook on life made Vin laugh, and the two of them had struck up a firm friendship. But it was the six men who came to sit with him at various times who held the key to his recent past, a past he was desperately trying to remember. Each of them was different, sometimes so different that he wondered what common goal or bond tied them together with such strength.
Nathan and Ezra were good examples. The War Between the States had been over for quite some time, but age-old prejudices were hard to cast aside even now, and there was still a certain amount of frisson between the dark-skinned healer and the Southerner. The gambler was reticent about spending too much time in Nathans company, and the healer often found it hard to look beyond the façade and see the man that Ezra really was. However, there was also a grudging respect and an uneasy friendship between them, and it made for a very interesting relationship.
But the hardest one for Vin to try and fathom was Chris. Even as he was rediscovering the most recent events in his life and the ties that bound him to the others, he felt the strongest bond between himself and the black-dressed gunslinger, and he didnt know why. Chris had only sat with him twice, and each time the Texan had been so tired that he could barely keep his eyes open, but he still felt the same instinctive trust that he had given the older man back at the line cabin. Larabee hadnt said much, leaving the chatter and gossip to the others, and at times he almost seemed cold and unfeeling, but Vin knew that Chris hadnt left his bedside until he had fallen asleep. For the Texan trust was something that had to be earned, not just freely given, but with the man in black it was oddly instinctive, and he was content with that.
"Vin?" Nathan touched his shoulder, snapping him out of his reverie. "Dyou feel up to a stroll around town?"
"Do I ? Sure!" The tracker couldnt keep the delight from his voice, and Nathan grinned.
"Give me a couple of minutes?"
The morning sun was streaming through the window happily for Vin, the light no longer bothered him and the Texan sat watching as the townsfolk went about their daily business. He stared wistfully at the people hurrying about their chores, and he sighed heavily, chafing impatiently as Nathan left the clinic. Finding his jacket, he pulled it on slowly, keenly aware of his still healing ribs, but much as he searched, he couldnt locate his gun-belt. He was still looking when the healer returned and picked up his medical bag.
Vin followed Nathan down the stairs, and then stopped suddenly when he reached the bottom.
"Hello, Vin," Chris Larabee greeted him, with a wry grin.
"Ive got an errand to run," Nathan admitted. "But Chris is free." The healer turned on him, his expression stern. "Not too long, yhear? He still tires quickly."
Chris nodded in acknowledgement, but Vin could see the amusement in the hazel eyes.
"He fusses too much," the gunslinger said quietly, as Nathan walked away, then regarded the tracker enquiringly. "Okay, where first?"
The Texan was taken aback. "I I dont know." He had spent most of his life at least the part he could remember - travelling across the country, stopping at different places, usually for no more than a few days, but this was different. Here the people knew him, knew who he was, but he was going to be groping in the dark.
"How about your wagon?"
"My wagon?" The tracker was confused, and Chris smiled, leading him along the main street.
"Yeah. Its where you live usually."
He guided Vin down a side street, and they stopped in front of a covered wagon, the back laced tightly shut against the elements and any would-be thieves. The tracker frowned, then at the others urging began to open the back.
"Weve been keeping an eye on it," Chris continued, as Vin pulled the tarpaulin back and dropped the tailboard. He peered in, and then put one hand on the side and made an ill-advised attempt to climb up, forgetting for the moment just how weak he was. He gave a hiss of pain as the effort defeated him and he dropped back, catching his ribs on the edge of the tailboard.
"You okay?" Chris hand rested on his shoulder as Vin leaned heavily against the wagon.
"Yeah," he gasped, trying to catch his breath as he clutched at the wound in his side. "Nathanll kill me if Ive bust the stitches." He took his hand away carefully and studied his fingers for any trace of blood, but there wasnt any. Hed been lucky that time.
"Maybe we should go back."
"No." Vin was adamant, and he didnt want to cut short this brief moment of freedom. "Im fine." He struggled to close the tailboard, but the gunslinger moved him aside and fastened it for him, re-lacing the flap as well. He turned to his friend, seeing the Texans flushed but determined face.
"The saloon," Chris decided.
"Fine." Vin gave him a quick grin. "Ive almost forgotten what a beer tastes like."
As they went back onto the main street and walked slowly along the boardwalk, various people greeted them. The tracker politely smiled and nodded, and Chris supplied the names when the person had passed. Obviously the word had gone around, for nobody seemed upset by his lack of recognition, and many asked how he was.
"Its a small town," Chris explained at one point, when Vin looked at him enquiringly. "Id say a lot of this is Marys work."
At this time of the day there was only one horse at the hitching rail outside the saloon, a big rangy dun that showed signs of having been ridden hard and far. Vin scowled, wondering at the type of man who would ignore the needs of his horse for the sake of a quick drink.
As they entered Chris glanced around. There was only one man propping up the bar, a half empty schooner of beer on the counter before him, while Buck and Ezra sat at a table against the far wall, and the gunslinger pushed Vin in their direction.
"Sit down," he ordered. "Ill get the beers."
"Hey, Vin!" Buck greeted him warmly and thrust out a chair. "Howre you doing?"
"Well, Mr. Tanner, I see you have managed to extricate yourself from the clutches of our learned physician." Ezra cocked his head on one side and regarded the tracker keenly, seeing the careful way he lowered himself onto the chair.
"Nathan let you out," Buck translated.
"Yeah, but not for long." Vin sounded a little breathless, and he could feel his legs starting to ache at the enforced exercise. Buck and Ezra glanced at each other but said nothing. They both knew it was going to be a while before Vin regained his full strength.
At the bar Chris was waiting as the bartender drew two beers but, with a gunfighters instincts, he kept a surreptitious watch on the man at the far end of the counter. His eyes narrowed when he saw the man jerk his head up and glance round when Buck and Ezra called Vin by his name, and the hairs on the back of his neck prickled. He wasnt sure if Vin remembered or not, but he was still wanted for murder in Tascosa, and there was a substantial price on his head in Texas. If the man was a bounty hunter then he would need watching, and Chris would make sure the others were aware of him. In his current weakened state the Texan would be easy pickings. The man turned back to his drink as the bartender placed the beers in front of Chris, but the gunslinger knew he was still watching Vin through the highly polished mirror on the wall behind the bar.
Larabee brought the beers across and placed them on the table, dragging out a chair for himself and placing it so he could still see the man at the bar. Picking up his glass, he held it to his lips, but instead of drinking he spoke softly to Vin.
"The man at the bar dyou know him?"
Vin heard the warning tone in the gunslingers voice so, equally cautious, he took a swallow of his drink, studying the man through the sides of the glass.
"Nope," he replied quietly, putting the beer down. "But that doesnt mean a whole heap at the moment."
Chris could hear the weariness in the trackers voice, and he made a mental note to take him back to the clinic when theyd finished their drink.
"What dyou think? Bounty hunter?" Buck asked, watching as the man emptied his glass and left, without a backward glance. Chris pulled a face and shrugged.
"Certainly a most disagreeable looking fellow," Ezra put in.
"I remember Tascosa," Vin said slowly, leaning back and putting his hand across his eyes, chewing his bottom lip as he tried to bring those memories forward. "So Im still wanted?"
"Dont you worry about that just now," Buck told him. "You just let yourself heal up first."
Chris finished his beer and touched Vin lightly on the shoulder.
"Lets get you back before Nathan sends out a posse."
The Texan nodded; this weakness frustrated him, but he knew it would only be a matter of time before he regained his strength. If only he could be so sure about his memory. As he climbed to his feet he staggered, leaning on the table until the room had settled down again.
"Okay?" Chris placed a firm hand under the trackers elbow, feeling the other quivering.
"Yeah. Lets go"
Vin was almost out on his feet by the time Chris got him back to the clinic and as the tracker collapsed onto the bed, Nathan told the gunslinger exactly what he thought of him. Chris took it without a murmur; he knew the healer was still worried, and it had frightened him to see Vin so fragile, although he would never let anyone know that.
As Nathan went to prepare one of his herbal remedies, Chris eased the Texan out of his jacket, no easy task as Vin was barely awake, and he pulled the blankets up around him when he started shivering. The healer returned with a cup and he slipped his arm under Vins shoulders.
"Drink," he ordered, holding the cup to the trackers lips until hed swallowed it all. He laid him back down, and dropped his hand briefly on his forehead, feeling the warmth there.
"Is he alright?" the gunslinger asked, and Nathan looked at him sharply, seeing the concern.
"Hell be fine," he replied, his tone a little kinder this time, and he grinned. "That boy just dont know when to quit. Now, get outta here and let him rest."
+ + + + + + +
The next morning Vin wasnt just confined to the clinic; he had a slight temperature and was as weak as a newborn baby, and Nathan wouldnt even let him out of bed!
Strangely enough the tracker didnt mind. For once he was quite happy to sleep for most of the day, but he sat up and showed interest when JD dropped by. The young peacekeeper had been fairly busy of late, and the Texan had missed his company, so when he finally called in Vin made the effort to stay awake.
"Howve you been doing?" the tracker asked. "Them mustangers been giving you much trouble?"
Vin knew why JD had been so busy; the grassland around Four Corners was a haven for wild horses, and a group of mustangers had set up camp a few miles from town. The twenty or so men were trying to fulfil an Army contract for remounts, and each evening some of them would head into town for a few drinks and to generally let off steam. The minor problems had kept JD occupied a few windows shot out, a couple of half-hearted brawls but they had needed his official presence to bring things back under control.
"No, not really. Theyre not a bad bunch, on the whole."
Vin looked at the young peacekeeper knowingly. He could see JD was worried about something.
"Come on spit it out. Whats the problem?"
JD grinned. He knew hed never make a good poker player; Ezra had told him enough times that his face gave him away.
"Its the size of the herd theyre holding so close to town. I rode out there the other day. Theyve got nigh on three hundred head held in a box canyon. Thats a tolerable amount of horseflesh if they get spooked."
If there was one thing Vin Tanner knew it was horses, and he could at least alleviate some of JDs fears about the situation.
"What was the canyon like? How big was it?"
"It was huge! Plenty of good grazing and a stream running through the middle of it."
The tracker smiled. "Waal, youve got no worries then. With plenty of food and water, itd take a whole posse of mountain lions to spook em!"
"Youre sure?" JD sounded relieved, trusting Vins knowledge of matters equine.
"Yeah. If I was you, Id be more worried about the buyer. Whens he getting here?"
"On the stage, day after tomorrow." JD frowned. "Why worry about him?"
"Money." Vin yawned, and leaned back against the pillows. "The Armyll pay upwards of thirty dollars a head for good horses, and theyve got what, three hundred?" A frown creased his forehead as he struggled to work it out. "Thats a fair amount of money hell be toting. Theres always someone ready to try and take that kind of cash."
"Thats about nine thousand dollars!" JD whistled. "I see what you mean. Thanks, Vin."
"Dont mention it." The Texan stifled another yawn as the young peacekeeper scooted out of the door, and he burrowed down in the blankets, already asleep when Nathan came to check on him ten minutes later.
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