Vin jerked awake, then lay still What had woke him? Then he heard it again.
"Vin?" Chris voice was dry and weak. Vin crawled over on his hands and knees to where Chris lay. The blond tossed his head back and forth as if searching for something. "Vin?" He called again.
Vin reached out and laid his hand on a shoulder. Instantly, Chris stilled. "Still here?"
Vin got the cup and held Chris head while he drank. He started to set the cup down. Chris felt him shift. "No, your turn. You drink." He raised his hand searching and finding Vins throat. "Gotta drink, Cowboy. Cant have you drying up and bl...blowing way on me."
Vin raised the cup to his lips. He took a small sip. It felt so wonderful in his mouth but when he swallowed, it hurt so much.
Chris felt the tremor. "I know it hurts but you gotta do it. Cant take care of me if you die from thirst. I need your help, Vin." Chris bit his cheek. What hed said was the truth he needed Vin. Vin had the best chance of surviving this but only if he took care of himself.
Vin looked down at his battered friend. Chris needed him, wouldnt survive without his help. Closing his eyes, he drank, giving his water starved body what it needed. When he finished he checked Chris over as much as he could in the moonlight.
"Im okay Vin," Chris grumbled. Vin snorted and squeezed twice. He could feel the beginnings of a fever. Not unexpected but he dreaded it. He had nothing to fight a fever with, only water.
He went over the plants growing just outside their haven. Had there been a Canutillo bush? It made an infection fighting tea and a mild cleansing wash. Not remembering clearly, Vin shook his head. Hed been too tired. He had to be more careful. The Comancheros could come back. They had nothing to fight with.
Chris seemed to have relaxed back to sleep. Vin started to move.
"Do..dont go. Stay by me."
Vin placed his hand back on Chris shoulder and he lay down beside his brother, not leaving him alone in his darkness.
Josiah was restless. He had that odd familiar feeling, the one hed get just before the crows would appear. He walked around the chapel, changing candles where needed. Finally, with nothing else to do Josiah sat down. He began praying, as was his habit, to open his mind for what was to come.Josiah was standing on a boulder over looking great white sand dunes. He could feel the heat of the sun beating down on him. Behind him were mountains, rocky and almost bare of any greenery. Sandstone towers dominated the landscape.
Then from behind one of the boulders limped two wolves. One appeared to be leading the other. They came to Josiah the lead wolf whining and laying down at his feet. The wolf began to lick and chew on his paws.
"Whats the matter, boy?" Josiah knelt down by the wolf. The tan wolf stopped and looked up at Josiah, then turned to the black wolf and began licking his feet too.
Josiah reached out, stopping mid action. The wolf had blue eyes. "Easy now, let ol Josiah look." He examined the wolfs paws. They were raw and bleeding. He looked at the other wolf, who stared back unblinking. The black wolf had green eyes.
"Vin?" The wolf panted and gave him a wolf grin. He seemed to be hurt but not too badly. It was the other wolf that worried Josiah. The green eyed wolf whined and licked half-heartedly its right paw. Then he laid his head down.
The first wolf turned his head and licked the second, whined again then looked back at Josiah.
"Ill find you Brothers." Saying that, Josiah looked around again, marking land marks in his mind.
Josiah took a deep breath. He was back in his church. He looked down at his hand. There was blood on it.
"Lord, You sure send powerful messages sometimes." Josiah sat still going over the details hed been given. He knew about the white sands. He assumed by the suns position that the mountains were west of the dunes. Hed never been there but he was sure he could find the place shown him. That cleared in his mind, he let himself think about the wolves. They were hurt. It had to have been Chris and Vin. They were in trouble somehow and hurt. Josiah thought on the second wolf, he seemed the worse.
The wolves were thin, like they hadnt eaten and foot sore. Sighing deeply, Josiah waited for the sun to rise. No sense in trying to do anything before then, getting Ezra up would be difficult at best. The hardest part was explaining his vision to the others.
Little did he know that each of the remaining four were having their own version of the dream.
Ezra dreamed. He sat at his table in the saloon, playing with his cards. Feeling a presence, he looked up. Before him stood a large wolf of several shades of tan, one that looked a little worse for wear. The wolf looked at him with blue eyes.
"Mr. Tanner, it seems you have gotten yourself in some what of a predicament." The wolf stretched down and with a yep turned and trotted away leaving bloody paw prints on Inezs clean floor.
JD dreamed. He was curled up sleeping in the middle of the litter. Only two were missing and even though he was warm and safe, he missed his brothers.
Buck dreamed. He was in bed with Blossom, curled around her ample warmth. He almost jumped out of the bed when he felt something cold and wet touch his bare back. Rolling over, he was confronted with the largest black wolf hed ever seen. But it was the cloudy green eyes that held his attention. "Chris?" The wolf opened his mouth showing all his teeth and gave Buck a wolf grin.
"Damn, Stud, you ok?"
The wolf shook his head and turning limped away holding its right front paw up.
Nathan dreamed. He was surrounded with all his herbs and medical equipment yet he felt utterly lost and afraid. He looked down on the table before him and on it laid a badly wounded wolf that stared up at him with trusting green eyes. Beside the table stood another wolf watching his every move.
Josiah stumbled into the saloon looking for fresh hot coffee. It was still very early and he wondered how he was going to explain to the others the need to ride. Without looking around he went to the pot bellied stove and poured a cup of coffee. Turning he nearly dropped it at the sight of the other four sitting and waiting for him.
"Brothers, what bring you out at such an early hour?"
"It seems, Mr. Sanchez, that all of us have had rather disturbing dreams during the night," Ezra said, nodding to an empty chair.
"You didnt have any weird dreams, didja Josiah?" JD asked.
Josiah looked around the table. Thank you, Lord, for paving the way for me. "Yes, I too, had a dream, or vision. It would seem our two missing brothers are in some trouble."
Nathan shook his head, "Theys hurt real bad from what I could tell."
"Yes, so it would seem. I think it was revealed to me where they are. Are you familiar with the white sands area?"
Buck nodded, "Yeah, been by it. Nasty place, no water, nothing grows there hardly. But it sure is pretty."
"I saw where they are. Its on the edge of the dunes by the mountains. There was a distinctive rock formation that should be easy to find. We must ride though; I feel the time is short. How long will it take us to get to the dunes, Buck?"
Buck shook his head, "Two, three days hard riding just to get to the edge of the dunes. Then maybe another day of riding to find the right place." He looked from Nathan to Josiah, and asked, "We got that much time?"
Josiah shook his head. "I dont know. I pray so. Wed best not dawdle, we need the horses fed and ready to ride JD and Ezra please inform Mary where were going. Tell her as much or as little as you think necessary. Nathan, pack all you need or think you will need. Well get an extra pack horse from Yosemite if we have to. Buck, you and I will gently roust Mrs. Potter and invade her store for supplies. If anyone has a sudden inspiration on what to take, do so. If you have doubts, come ask. Brothers, times awasting."
The four men sat with mouths open at Josiahs confident orders and then burst into activity to get them done. Within the hour they rode out.
Vin woke to the morning sun and the soft moans coming from Chris. He cracked an eye and looked at the still sleeping gunfighter. Vin rolled over and knew without a doubt that he could not get to his feet. Even the movements of rolling over sent arrows of pain up his legs. Still Vin crawled on hands and knees to the opening between the rocks. From there he could see the snares hed set the night before. Divided in his feelings, he saw they were still empty. He was relieved that he didnt have to go out to the snares, yet he knew they needed food.
Sighing, he crawled back to the spring and first forced himself to drink then he took the cup to Chris. The gunslinger tossed his head in his fever, trying to find some comfort.
He was lost in the darkness yet he could feel the heat of the sun. Where am I? Wheres Vin?
The darkness in his mind was like pudding. He felt he was forced into almost swimming in it. He was hot; it felt as if the air was almost boiling. How could he be alive? Vin? Where are you? Then he felt the reassuring hand on his shoulder.
A squeeze and then he felt the cup on his cracked lips. Sipping carefully, he felt the cool water slide down his dry throat and plunk into his empty belly. "Nuf." He waited to see if the water would come back. When it didnt, "More Vin." The cup was back. It took awhile but he emptied the cup with a sigh. Chris tried to get past his own pain and feel what Vin was going through. He knew Vin was hurt, but he hadnt been able to tell how hurt. At first he felt new pain, then a great sadness.
"Vin? You ok?"
Chris frowned, his mind racing. "Hey Cowboy its okay, I dont think I could hold anything down right now, anyway."
Vin looked in surprise at Chris. How did he know? He smiled and squeezed Chris shoulder again. Vin then took the wet rag and wiped it over Chris face. He paid special attention to the swollen area around his eyes, cleaning each eye and softening the crusty matter that had built up overnight. It seemed the swelling was down just a bit, and the bruises had gone from black and blue to purple, green and touches of yellow. When Vin finished wiping Chris face, he continued down his chest and arms.
He lifted the bandage hed made for the slash across Chris belly. It was puckered and a little red but seemed to be healing. He wiped it and then taking a small piece of the Agave, he smeared it with the gel. Then he went to the feet. They also seemed better, not near as red and raw as before. Vin washed them and slathered the healing gel on each foot.
Crawling back to Chris side, he took Chris right arm and carefully began to untie the bandages hed wrapped around the injured hand. Pulling away the dried and shriveled piece of Agave, he looked at the burn. It was red and the blisters had broken, leaving flaps of dead skin lying over enflamed tissue. Vin took the last large piece of the aloe like plant and carefully scored the inner flesh releasing the liquid inside. He gently laid it on top of the burn and began to wrap it again.
Throughout all of Vins ministrations, Chris lay passively. When Vin finished, he reached up, and touching Chris forehead, felt for fever. There was heat but Vin couldnt tell if it was from Chris or him. He could feel the heat building inside himself.
Vin looked up at the towering walls of rock that surrounded them. The sun was in the southern sky and he doubted that little if any direct sunlight would reach them. This was a good thing; they had no protection against the suns rays and no protection against the wind. The rocks would serve as a double guardian, hiding them and sheltering them. Vin filled the cup again, and lifting Chris head, offered him more water.
Chris sipped some and then turned his head away. "No more, Im tired." With some effort he turned away from Vin and cradling his wounded hand, he curled up trying to get comfortable on the hard ground.
Vin forced himself to drink and pushed himself against one of the rocks. Where he sat, he could watch the entrance as well as Chris. In the silence of the place, they each slipped into semi conscious doze, waking occasionally to drink and reassure each other that the other was still there. Sunset came and with it cooler air, so the two friends lay close together sharing warmth and the comfort that they werent alone.
The five determined men rode hard, pacing their horses so they would last the day. Little was said between them, each trapped in his own head thinking his own desperate thoughts. Lope a while, walk a while, trot a while, then lope again, stopping only briefly to eat a quick bite and attend personal needs. The feelings of urgency were so strong that the usual grumbling from Ezra was absent and JD was quite and subdued.
At dusk they found a camping place with good grazing and water. Taking extra care of their horses, the men set up camp. Too tired to have their usual banter they ate, curled up in their bedrolls and slept, plagued by dreams that were forgotten when they woke.
Vin sat watching Chris sleep. He dug the heel of his hand into his forehead fighting the nagging headache that had started during the night. It seemed to grow worse as the day progressed. He looked at the small piece of Agave that he had left. It wasnt enough to treat all of Chris wounds again. Somehow he had to go back and harvest more of the healing plant.
His toes almost curled at the very thought of walking to the plant. It was only 50 paces or so but even the idea of standing on his swollen, abused feet, much less walking on them, brought tears to his eyes.
Vin looked again at his sleeping friend. It had been a battle getting him to drink, to cool him down, to "doctor" his wounds. Chris had fought him, begging him to leave him alone, to not touch the injuries. Vin needed that plant; he needed it for Chris wounds and for his own. Raising himself up on his knees he dropped on all fours and crawled to the entrance of the grotto. Reaching up, he pulled himself up along the rock face. Clinching his teeth at the screaming pain that his feet were sending up his legs. Leaning heavily against the wall, his forehead pressed against the cool rock, he took a deep breath and pushing himself away from his support, he took his first staggering steps toward the Agave.
With each step Vin felt the blisters break again and drain. Every step was torment and he kept his eyes on the Agave, stumbling along like a drunk. Finally reaching the aloe, he bent down to harvest the leaves, knowing that if he sat hed never get back up.
When he had enough for several days, he turned back toward the grotto. It looked miles away instead of yards but he started back, unaware of the bloody footprints he left in the sifting sand.
Reaching the entrance he heard Chris scream. "NOOOOO! Get off, stop, no!" Inside, he saw Chris tossing and turning, fighting some unseen assailant. Then he began to beat his bandaged hand against the rock. "Get it off, get it off " Vin staggered across the grotto and knelt beside Chris. He reached out, dropping the Agave leaves, and tried to calm Chris.
Leaning across his torso, he reached for Chris right hand to prevent him from injuring it even more. At the extra weight, Chris bucked and screamed again. "Get away, get off! No, ..no dont " Between each word that Vin could understand were mumbled ones that he couldnt make out. He put all his strength into holding down the wounded arm, and with his other hand he tried to get Chris attention, to wake him from the fever nightmare he was trapped in.
Taking a breath, Vin opened his mouth. " uuuussssss" The whispery sound tore past his ravaged throat bringing tears to Vins eyes. Chris, stop it, please, you gotta stop.
Chris struggles lessened, he panted, flailing with his left hand until Vins head stopped it, and Chris felt the long hair and the strong jaw line.
"Vin?" he whispered as he stopped fighting.
Gasping for air, Chris tightened his hold on Vin. "Where were you? I was alone."
Vin shook his head and raised himself off Chris. Carefully, he took the right hand and began to unwrap it. Lifting the chunk of Agave, he frowned. The burn was bleeding, not much but some. He turned the hand over and saw that dark bruises were appearing where Chris had repeatedly slammed it against the hard ground.
Chris tried to pull away. "Dont Vin, Leave it be." Vin could hear the defeat in his voice.
He opened his mouth then closed it again and squeezed Chris shoulder. Gotta do this, Pard, the Agave will help.
"Vin, you have to go. You can make it to help and then come back for me."
"I c..can be by myself here. Vin, you gotta go while you still can."
Vin smiled at that, he was long past being able to go anywhere. He reached up with the damp rag and wiped Chris face, once again cleaning the eye area carefully. This time when he finished, he was rewarded by two bloodshot slits appearing. Chris eyes looked like beets with green centers but they were at least partly open. Vin wagged a finger in front of the eyes, and to his delight, they tracked the movement.
"Stop doing that. Yeah, I can see, kinda. Everything is dark and fuzzy like but its better than before." Vin squeezed Chris shoulder.
"You still need to go."
Vin shook his head. Hed more or less hidden the extent of his injuries from Chris so far but he needed to quiet him and make him understand that they were together on this. Taking Chris left hand, he carefully laid it on one of his swollen feet.
Chris frowned; he could feel the puffy tissue and the moisture on the bottom. His feet hurt but he didnt think they were this bad. "Damn Cowboy, why didnt you tell me? You cant leave? You cant walk?" Vin took the hand and wiped it clean. "Damn, were a pair. Cant see, cant walk, cant talk."
The whole time Chris was talking Vin worked on his hand, cleaning it. Then taking the large end of an Agave leaf, he slit it open, and scoring it, laid it gently on the burned area. Chris hissed at the sting of the cleaning and tried to jerk his hand away. Vin gently slapped his arm and continued to bandage it. Then he wearily got the cup and offered Chris some water.
After a couple of sips, Chris drew back. "No more, dont think I can hold it down." Vin sighed and patting Chris on the shoulder, he set the cup down and scooted away. Chris rolled over on his side, and curling up, tried to sleep.
Vin leaned against a rock, closing his eyes and resting before he tried to clean his own feet. He didnt want to, he wanted nothing more than to go to sleep and escape this place.Vin was floating; he could feel the air currents holding him up. He looked down at the earth and was startled to see himself lying beside Chris. Am I dead? No, he could see the slight movement of breath. His sharp eyes began looking at the numerous injuries on both of the bodies below him. Well if I aint dead, I should be, so should Chris.
Something from far away caught his eye and he went toward it. It was the rest of the seven riding hard, grim looks on their faces. But they were too far away, to far to make it in time .
Vin opened his eyes. He was so hot; he knew it was fever hot just as Chris was fever hot. Forcing himself over to the water he soaked the rag in it and wiped his face, then soaking it again, he wiped down Chris. Chris didnt even move. Vin balled his fists in frustration, there was nothing he could do, and what he had done, wasnt helping. Tired beyond anything he remembered Vin stretched out beside Chris and slept, too.
Two days they had ridden, two long days until each of the desperate men were bone weary and to the point of exhaustion. The horses walked with their heads hung low, breathing hard. It was close to noon, and looking for a likely place to stop and rest Buck spotted something shining in the sunlight. Frowning, he puzzled over it, and then on impulse, turned his big gray and headed toward it.
Buck jerked on the reins, pulling the gray to a stop. The sun was glittering off a gold tooth in a skull. He looked around, seeing more bones.
Josiah, who was behind Buck, let out a breath, "Dear Lord."
The rest of the men looked around the clearing. There were scattered bones everywhere.
"What is it, Buck?" JD asked.
"Theyre bones, Kid."
"I know that, what else?"
Buck looked at Nathan, "Theyre fresh bones."
Chaucer tossed his head at the smell of so many predators and began prancing about. "Let us see to them," Ezra said, trying to keep the unhappy horse still.
Sighing, the men dismounted to go about the unpleasant business of gathering what they could find. When they had finished, there was quite a pile of human bones.
Nathan shook his head. "Its a bunch of different people, some was kids. They aint been dead that long, maybe a week, but the scavengers picked them clean. Theres some with bullets stuck in them. Something bad happened here. We can bury them all together and tell the next town about what we found."
Nodding acceptance they dug a shallow grave and placed the bones in it. Once it was covered they all looked to Josiah.
Josiah wiped his face. "Lord, we bury these people here today. Only You, Lord, know who they were or how many there were. We ask that You bless this final resting place and let those who lie here find peace. Amen."
Buck was tightening the grays cinch when JD came to him. "Buck, I think there was a wagon here. Maybe it belonged to those people. Theres lots of horse prints, torn up sod and the wagon left a trail at least for a little ways."
"So the wagon is heading in the same direction were going. I just thought we needed to follow it, for a while anyway."
Buck leaned against the saddle, he was tired and he didnt want to make any more decisions. He wanted Josiah to take over, but mostly he wanted to find Chris and Vin and let them take over. "Okay Kid. But only as far as it goes the same way."
Chaucer began tossing his head again. His ears pricked and he was looking over toward some trees. The other horses were looking, too, and then the big gray whinnied. With this, the men looked also. To their surprise, there came an answering whinny from the trees and Pony trotted, out followed slowly by a reluctant Peso. Pony came to his long time stable mate and stood quietly as Buck reached for the broken reins.
Peso flattened his ears and snapped his teeth when Buck tried to reach for him. JD walked calmly toward the angry gelding, talking softly and reaching out with a piece of apple in his hand. Pesos ears flicked back and forth but his sweet tooth won and he reached for the apple slice.
JD carefully reached with his other hand and took Pesos remaining reins. "Easy boy," he said as he scratched behind the ears, a place Peso loved scratching. His practiced eye roamed over the bedraggled horse. "Buck, we gotta get these saddles off, theyve been like this for days."
Nodding, Buck uncinched Chris saddle and pulled it off. Ponys back was sweat soaked and there were saddle sores. "Nathan?"
"Give me a minute," he said as he dug in his pack, looking for some salve to put on the horses. Both horses were skittish and rolled their eyes at any sudden movement or noise. Nathan looked Peso in the eye, and said, "You bite me and Ill bite ya back."
Peso snorted but refrained from showing his displeasure toward men in general. He groaned deeply when Nathan rubbed the healing ointment into the raw, itchy places on his back and around his belly where the cinch had rubbed. It felt so good. He just might have to forgive this human anyway.
While Nathan attended Pony and Peso, Josiah tied the saddles on the packhorses and JD fashioned rope halters and leads for the horses. Once finished, they mounted up and rode.
Chris lay still, too tired and weak to protest as Vin began cleaning the slash on his belly. It hurt so much and he was so hot. He could feel the burning heat in his mouth with each exhaled breath. The breaths of air going out felt like a fire without the flame, that flame was inside him burning him up from the inside out. He struggled to open his eyes, this time rewarded for his effort with some success. It was like looking through slats but he could dimly see Vin leaning over him.
Chris was startled at how bad the tracker looked. His hair was matted and his face gaunt, with dark circles under his eyes. The circle of torn flesh on his neck was visible even under the growth of beard. He winced at the large scab that dominated Vins throat. He noted the now yellowish bruises across Vins chest and down his ribs.
"Vin?" Chris whispered, startling the tracker. Chris blinked slowly and licking his lips, began again. "Vin, dont. It aint doing any good. Its alright, just leave it be." Chris tried to roll over on his side away, from Vin.
Vin reached out and placed a hand on Chris shoulder. He could feel Chris giving up, the fever and the pain winning. He gently shook Chris and squeezed twice.
Chris turned his head and looked into the worried blue eyes. " Its alright, Vin, let it go, leave me in peace." He turned back, and closing his eyes, he curled up, trying to find some solace in sleep. The heat was eating him up and soon there would be nothing left.
Vin hung his head; he wanted more then anything to lie down beside Chris and go to sleep. But he couldnt, from far off he hear the voice again Youre a Tanner, boy, dont you give up Taking a deep breath, he again got the cool wet rag and began wiping down Chris back and chest and face. In his head, he answered the voice, Im trying, Im trying to hang on.
Vin sat on his heels in the pre-dawn light, his hands resting on his knees. The night before hed taken off his dirty pants and along with Chris washed them and spread them on rocks to dry. Hed tended the almost comatose Chris, again trying to cool him with water, trying to get him to drink. But hed refused. Then Vin had washed himself as best he could and now he waited for the sun to rise.
Josiah had once explained to him that a man didnt need the cleansing smoke or the other things all people used before they tried to talk to God. That all a man needed was a true heart. That God always listened to a true heart.
Vin hoped Josiah was right because he had nothing, not even a voice to say his prayers with. But he had no where else to turn. Chris was so sick, he was dying and Vin could do nothing more for him. Vin couldnt even help himself. So as the first rays of dawn streaked across the sky, Vin began singing in his mind begging the Spirits to lend an ear.Heavenly Father, Josiah says You listen even if I cant call upon you proper like. Dont ask for much, figured wouldnt do much good. Sides I got what I need mostly.
But I aint calling You for myself this time. Its Chris. Lord, I know hes dying. I cant fix whats wrong. I dont know how to make it better. I tried, Lord, but its no good. I dont have any strength left.
Chris aint had a lot of luck in his life. He lost Sarah and Adam and then didnt care about himself after that. Hes a hard man. Life has made him hard. He closed himself off from others. Tried every way he could to get his self kilt. Then we all joined up in Four Corners. I told him everything about me and he smiled. Never said a thing, just smiled at me. Hed go with me to Tascosa even if it meant trouble for him. I aint had no one in a long time care that much about me. But when I met Chris it was like wed always known each other. Like we was brothers from the get go.
Please God, Father, Spirits, Josiah says it dont matter what name we call You. Please dont take Chris from me. Hes .theres not a word I know for what all he is to me. Not in any language. Read my heart, Father, and know the truth of what I say. There will be no life for me if Chris dies. If You take him, take me too. Itd be easy, m body aint doin too good either, just not as bad as Chris. Not yet anyways. We could walk the last journey together. Let us come home together.
Vin sat in silence, absorbing the suns rays and the peace of this place. He relished the warmth and realized hed miss it. He knew hed been heard. Now he must wait for what the answer would be.
Vin crawled back to where Chris lay. The blond hadnt moved at all the whole time hed been gone. The tracker dipped the rag in the cool water and wiped it over Chris face again. He was so hot and nothing Vin had done had helped to cool him.
Vin turned and cooled the rag again and when he turned back, he noticed Chris eyes were half open. Vin smiled at him.
"Vin?" The weak voice cracked as Chris whispered. "You okay?"
Vin nodded, squeezing once.
Chris reached out with his left hand and Vin clasped it. "Well be fine."
Sure we will, as long as were together.
Chris heavy lids closed as he whispered, "Together."
Vin sat cross legged beside Chris never letting go of his arm. His mind drifted and he felt feather light as if he were floating. He felt no, he knew, he and Chris would not live through another day. But somehow that was okay, as long as they were together. The day passed unnoticed by the two men.
A sound made Vin open his eyes. There before him stood Josiah. Vin tilted his head to one side. Didja come to say goodbye Jsiah? Before me and Chris go home. Vin smiled at his vision, there was Buck, Nathan, Ezra and JD too. Theyd all come to say goodbye. That was nice, family should be together at a parting. He was glad to see them again and wished Chris knew they were here.
Vin reached out his hand and the spirit Josiah moved and Vin touched solid flesh. He frowned and looked up into worried blue eyes. Spirits werent solid. His hand curled around the beaded necklace Josiah wore and then he fell into Josiahs arms.
The movement broke the spell and Nathan stepped forward. "Get Vin over there, bring me my bag." Nathan knelt down and broke the hold Chris and Vin had.
The others shook themselves out of stunned immobility. They knew what was needed; theyd done this too many times before. Buck returned first, loaded with Nathans packs, and laid them down beside the healer. His eyes ran over his old friend, the very number of injuries shaking him to the core. He watched as Nathan carefully went over Chris from head to toe, muttering to himself. Nathan went back to the bandaged hand. Wondering at the way it was wrapped. He took one of his knifes and slit the wrappings, pealing them away. He turned the hand over and gently pulled the gooey piece of aloe away.
"Shit!!" He hissed quietly.
"What is it Nathan?" At Bucks voice, Josiah looked up from Vin.
Nathan stared at the raw circle in Chris palm. "A burn, someone burned him real good."
Buck opened his mouth but could say nothing.
Josiah held Tanner in his arms. He watched Nathan as he examined Chris. He tried to read his old friend to get some hint of how Chris was but Nathan had shut down all his feelings and only the impartial healer was there.
Ezra brought blankets over and spread them out. He helped Josiah lay Vin down noticing all the bruises and cuts. He puzzled at why Vin was naked. Then he saw the bloody discharge oozing from the bottoms of Vins swollen feet.
Josiah was looking too but he was seeing something different. He saw a man prepared to meet his Maker in the only way he knew. Then he heard again the voice in his head, clearer this time " Didja come to say goodbye, Jsiah? Before me and Chris go home."
But Vin hadnt said a word, not out loud. But he knew thats what Vin had said. Go home? OH NO you dont, Vin Tanner. Josiah leaned down and spoke into Vins ear. "Vin Tanner I forbid you to give up. You hear me, Vin. You fight; I refuse to let you go home yet. You and Chris are needed too much here. Hear me Vin Tanner, I forbid you to go."
Josiah closed his eyes; he realized that was why Vin was stripped. Hed gone somehow on those feet and prayed and sung his death song and then had come back to wait for death with Chris. To be together even in death. Dear Lord, dont take them yet. You hear me Lord we still need them. We, all of us, still have so much to do. Let them live, Lord. Seven is a sacred number, let us remain seven.
Nathan ignored the others focusing only on his patient. One injury at a time, he cleaned, wrapped and stitched. He slathered thick ointment on Chris feet and covered them with clean socks; he rubbed soothing salve on Chris shoulders, back and chest. Not only for the sunburn but also for the cuts and bruises. Then he gently laid him down on an old cotton sheet hed brought. He pulled the dead skin off the burn and replaced the aloe wrapping it. When he was done, he looked at Buck. "Keep cooling him down as best you can and try to make him drink water, well have some fever tea soon, then you can start pouring it down him."
Buck gave Nathan a curt nod and scooting around he began following orders, glancing up only when JD came over.
"Buck, I need to scout around, theres no grazing here and next to no wood."
"Okay Kid, just be careful. Whoever did this may still be around."
"I know Buck, I aint that green."
Buck snorted. "Thats what you think." He said softly to the retreating back. His attention was already back on his old friend. "Damn, Stud, you got yourself in some fix this time. You hang in there; Ol Nathanll fix you up. You keep fighting, you hear?"
Nathan, carrying his pots and rags, went over to where Josiah sat with Vin. Looking down at his battered friend, Nathan sighed. He kneeled down by Vins head and started his examination. He started with the ring around Vins neck and paused over the bruised and scabbed spot under his Adams apple. Then, looking down his arms, more cuts and scrapes around the wrists, bruises and cuts across the sunburned back and chest, but thankfully no broken bones. The legs seemed remarkably free of injury until he got to the feet.
They were swollen to almost twice their usual size and the crisscross cuts on the bottom leaked a reddish fluid and they were hot to the touch. Vin had a fever, not as bad as Chris, but bad enough. Nathan suspected he was dehydrated as well. Judging from the wound on Vins throat, it wouldnt have been easy to even swallow water, much less anything else.
As Nathan began washing and spreading his magic ointments, he asked "Josiah could you get me the two pack saddles and saddle blankets? Well set one of them under the knees then the other one under Vins ankles and then cover them with a clean sheet."
Once Nathan finished doctoring Vins feet, he held them up. "Josiah put the saddles where I tol ya." Once the saddles were in place Nathan gently laid the legs so that the ankles rested on the seat of the saddle propping Vins feet up, placing them higher than his head. He hoped this would reduce the swelling. He also hoped by placing one under Vins knees that it would keep his back from aching too much. Then he carefully covered Vin with a sheet, and checking him again went to join Josiah at the fire.
Nathan sat down by the small fire with a sigh. Both of his patients seemed to be resting. He tried to relax while sipping the hot coffee, but his mind kept going over what he needed to do.
Josiah watched his old friend, no one ever thought about how Nathan pushed himself. How he was constantly studying, learning to make himself better. He took each loss of life personally. Josiah smiled to himself Nathan was like a knight of old, battling against the enemy with everything he had. Only Nathans enemy was infection, blood loss, inadequate supplies and lack of knowledge. People forget healing is a by guess and by gosh profession.
"Nathan how are they?" There I go demanding answers, too.
Nathan looked at Josiah and shook his head. "Doing alright now. Theys still breathing. Vins fever seems down, Chris Chris is still too hot. All we can do there is keep cooling him down." Nathan paused musing. "I aint never seen anything like it before." He said almost to himself.
"Like what Nathan?"
"Vins feet. Dont know why theys so much worse then, Chris."
Josiah ducked his head, and said, "I do."
Nathan frowned at his friend.
"You do what?"
"I know what happened to Vins feet. At least I think I do." He glanced up at the healer and then continued. "It was a long time ago when I was a boy. There was this man; he hung around the mission we were working at. He was a beggar. He couldnt hardly walk, no more than a few steps at a time.
The others told me what had happened to him. Hed been arrested by the local government and tortured. Theyd tied his feet up and beat the bottoms with bamboo canes. Beat him so bad that even years later he couldnt walk without pain."
"You think thats what happened to Vin? Theres no bamboo around here."
"Dont matter, any little stick or even a quirt would do. This man had the same marks as Vin does." Changing the subject, "What about Chris?"
"Its bad but that stuff Vins put on it has helped it a lot. I think all I have to do is keep it clean and keep the dead skin off. As long as it keeps healing Ill stay with that."
"Will he be able to use that hand again? Its his gun hand. Nathan."
"I know that," Nathan snapped. Rubbing his face, "Sorry, umm, maybe with working it keeping it limber but not for awhile. Burns heal slow."
Awareness slowly returned to Vin. He tried to move to roll over. Restraining hands stopped him. He froze, his breath coming faster. Who was here?
"Mr. Tanner, please relax. You are safe."
Ez? Vin cracked his eyes open. Yep, Ez. God that coat is bright. Vin opened his eyes wider, looking around.
"Mr. Larabee is resting over there," he pointed.
Vin turned his head and watched for a few minutes. Buck was there running a wet rag over Chris still form trying to cool him down.
"Mr. Tanner, Mr. Jackson requires that you drink this. He assures me that it will soothe your sore throat and make it easier to swallow."
Ezra reached down and lifting Vins head pressed a cup to his lips.
Vin frowned, locking his lips closed. The last thing he wanted to do was awaken the sleeping dragon in his throat.
"Mr. Tanner, I insist you drink. I would hate to have to wake Nathan. Hes had little rest and only just lay down. But he was most insistent that you drink."
Dirty pool, Ez. Sighing Vin opened his mouth taking a small sip. Surprisingly enough, the tea slid down easily coating his throat with its warm moisture. He reached for more, drinking the whole cup.
"Very good, Mr. Tanner. Can you handle some broth?"
Vin thought about it and then nodded. Perhaps it wouldnt be so bad after all. Vin tried to drink all the broth but sleep called and in the security of having the others around, he drifted off once again.
Nathan sat, sipping his morning coffee and making a list. He would occasionally glance at his patients and the others and then write something new on his list. Finally finishing he called to the others. "Some one or two of you need to go to Orogrande to get supplies."
"Why cant we all go?" JD asked
"Cause Chris still has a fever and Vin aint up to riding either. This is a pretty good place to stay, except for no feed for the horses an you took care of that. Ezra, perhaps you should go, youll be able to make sure they give us the right medicine. Who else wants to go?"
Buck shook his head, it wasnt that he wanted to go, but Orogrande was a wild town and Ezra could get into trouble there. "Ill go, been there a time or two and I know the way. Nathan itll take four maybe five days to get there and back. That is, if the pass is open."
Nathan nodded. "Ezra, one thing I want you to get is some moccasins for Chris and Vin. Try to get the soft ones with fur inside. Once they can walk, I dont want anything rubbing their tender feet. I need some salves too, Ive written down the names. And well need food and some clothes for them, too."
Ezra nodded at each of Nathans instructions and when he finished he held his hand out.
Nathan looked down puzzled. "What?"
"Money, Mr. Jackson, for the supplies."
"Now you know I aint got no money Ezra."
Ezra sighed, "I shall put it on your bill, then."
"You do that, Ezra. You do that."
It was cool, almost cold and Chris felt himself floating toward the top of the water he was in. Wheres Vin? Whys it so cold? Chris tested his body to see if he could move without hurting. He discovered he was lying on blankets with one on top. Whered Vin get blankets? While he still ached, it wasnt as bad as it had been. Deciding it was time to try opening his eyes he centered all his energy on prying an eyelid open. At first it didnt seem like it was going to happen, then there was a crack of light, then two and he opened his eyes wider. Nathan? What was Nathan doing here?
Nathan saw Chris struggle to open his eyes and waited to greet Chris with a grin and a cup of tea.
"Hey, Chris. Take it easy now. You need to drink this."
Chris ignored Nathan and began looking around. Then managed to croak out, "Vin?"
Nathan pointed the direction, "Vins over there asleep. Now drink." He lifted Chris head and held a cup to his lips.
Chris had no choice, he drank. When finished he asked, "How is Vin?"
"Hes sick, but hes doing better. Just like you."
"No, I mean can he .can he talk?"
Nathan shook his head saying, "No, not yet. But Chris he will, it just takes time."
Chris looked back at his sleeping friend. "He wouldnt leave me. I kept telling him to, but he wouldnt. He took care of me; I had no idea how hurt he was. He hid it from me, wouldnt let on how bad he was hurtin. Whys he laying like that?"
Nathan glanced over at Vin. "I got his feet propped up. Im hoping itll help the swelling. Chris? Do you know what happened to Vins feet?"
Chris shook his head and replied, "No. They,.. there was four of them, Comanchero I think. They killed a family. Vin and I tried to stop them, only they stopped us. Then that first night, they beat on me some. I couldnt see after that." Chris paused; swallowing at the memory of the sounds hed only half heard through his own pain. "They beat on him, too. After that Vin couldnt talk." Chris unconsciously drew his injured hand to his chest and covered it with his left hand. "They hurt me, burned me. I dont remember anything after that, not until we were running. Vin kept pulling me and wouldnt let me rest."
Chris closed his eyes against the painful memory. "I dont even know how we got here, where ever here is."
Nathan patted Chris shoulder. "Near as we can figure, you all got away somehow and Vin brought you here. JD found an abandoned overturned wagon about five miles up the trail. It got stuck in the sand and maybe the wind blew it over. The axle was broke. As far as getting the two of you here, chalk it up to Tanner stubbornness. "
Nathan looked back over at the sleeping tracker. "He kept you alive, Chris, Im not sure how in the shape he was in, but he did. He took care of you and managed to keep himself alive, too."
Chris was silent for a while as he absently rubbed the top of his injured hand with the other. Then, wrapping his courage about him like a cloak, he asked, "Nathan? What about my hand?"
Nathan shook his head. "I cant give you an answer yet, Chris. Its burnt, but I think it just might heal okay. Itll take some work but you should be able to use it again. Vin did good taking care of it. That plant worked. Theres no infection, and it seems to be healing. Well just have to wait and see."
Chris looked back at Vin. Nathan raised his head placing a cup at his mouth. "Drink, Chris, both of you are all dried up and you need all the liquids you can handle."
Chris opened his mouth and drank, and was drifting off before he even finished the healing tea.
The next day, with Chris fever almost gone, Josiah and Nathan made him a fresh bed by Vin. Once it was ready, Josiah carefully picked up the embarrassed gunfighter and carried him the few paces and laid him down. Chris immediately sat up, and leaning against the rocks, threw a glare at Nathan.
"I can sit for awhile, Nathan. Im tired of laying down."
Nathan threw up his hands in defeat. "Fine, I got things to do, but if you get tired lay down. Dont want that fever to come back."
With the others distracted, Chris laid a hand on Vins shoulder and smiled down at his friend. "We made it, Pard."
Vin smiled back. He felt so weak; his back was aching him again. It didnt matter cause Chris was doing so much better. He reached over and gently touched Chris hand.
Chris glanced down at the bandaged hand lifting it slightly. "Its better. Nathan says that plant you used is a wonder. Hes never seen a burn do so well."
Vin smiled again and closed his eyes.
"Vin, come on, Cowboy. We got to get better and go get those SOBs . Make them pay for killing that family." Chris paused and Vin looked at him "Make them pay for what they did to us."
Vin opened his mouth and along with the escaping air, came a faint "ssssss." There was no sound really, just air whistling between his tongue and teeth. Then, relaxing under the hand of his friend he closed his eyes and slept.
Chris sat very still, watching. There was still something wrong with Vin but what? He had been the sicker of the two when they were found but he was better, why wasnt Vin? He asked Nathan but all hed gotten from Nathan was a shake of his head.
"Dont know, Chris. I cant find anything wrong, nothing I can put my finger on."
But Chris had heard Vin Im tired, Cowboy. Dont have nothing to fight with no more. Just want to rest. Vin had stopped fighting especially now that he knew Chris was alright. If Chris didnt find something to make the tracker fight, hed just slip away.
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