SUMMARY: Accepting their friendship is easy. Accepting their help just may be the hardest thing he's ever done.
DEDICATION: This fic is dedicated to Wendy Mills, one of the folks who helped make my first M7 story happen. Happy Birthday, pard. Hope it's a good one!
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thank you to my wonderfully hardworking betas, Annie and LaraMee, for their grace under pressure.
DISCLAIMER: The following is a work of fan fiction using characters from the CBS television series, The Magnificent Seven. The story is for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended.
Lean on me when you're not strong
And I'll be your friend
I'll help you to carry on...
--Lean on Me by Bill Withers
After the fourth person thumped him on the back and pumped his hand, Chris decided it was time to seek refuge in the saloon.
"Whiskey," he said to Inez, making his way to the shadowy corner table.
Back to the wall, he sank into the chair with a weary sigh. Across the room Ezra touched two fingers to his brow and continued fleecing a pair of cowboys who appeared flush with cash and a few too many beers. Other than a couple men standing at the bar, the place was blessedly empty.
Her brown eyes exceptionally warm, Inez set a bottle and glass in front of him. She waved off his attempt to place money in her hand. "On the house."
"That's not necessary."
"It is my pleasure. Thanks to you the Weber's niña is alive--safe at home where she belongs."
"Can't take much credit for that. Vin's the one who tracked her down--I just went along for the ride."
"And I plan to express my gratitude to Señor Vin when I see him."
"Well, now, you could express it to me in Vin's place. I'd be sure to pass the message along." Coming from behind on cat feet, Buck slipped an arm around Inez's waist and squeezed.
She smiled, batting her lashes, but Chris saw fire in her eyes. "Ah, but, Señor Buck, I have my own message for you."
"I am all ears, darlin', so just--ow!" He hopped on one leg, cradling his injured foot. "Think I'd rather have Vin's message," he muttered, dropping into the chair across from Chris as Inez swept back to her post at the bar.
"Problems, Brother Buck?" Josiah rested his hand on Buck's shoulder before claiming his own seat, his concerned expression betrayed by twinkling eyes.
"No problems." Buck leaned back, his arms crossed over his chest. "I've almost got that lovely lady eating out of my hand--just need a little more time."
"Looks to me like what you need is a pair of crutches," Nathan said, sitting beside Josiah and stretching out his long legs.
So much for peace and quiet, Chris thought, a little surprised that he really didn't mind. In just a few short months, he'd developed an easy camaraderie with these men that had broken through three years of self-imposed isolation.
"How's the girl?" he asked, pouring himself a shot and then nudging the bottle toward the others.
Nathan smiled. "Mostly just cold and scared. A few cuts and bruises, but nothin' that needed to be stitched up." He shook his head. "It's a good thing you and Vin found her when you did. Another night out there and she'd've died of exposure, for sure."
"How'd a little thing like her get that far?" Josiah asked as Buck returned from the bar with a handful of glasses. "Can't be more than four years old."
"Three and a half," Nathan said. "What's more surprisin' than her coverin' all that ground is that she did it without fallin' off a cliff, or drowning, or windin' up supper for one of them bobcats been plaguing the ranchers."
"God works in mysterious ways," Josiah agreed.
J.D. wandered in, collecting a mug of milk from the bar before joining them. "The Webers are on their way home," he said to Chris as he pulled up a chair. "They asked me to thank you again for all your help finding Jessie."
Buck must have picked up on Chris's discomfort. He slapped him on the back with a shit-eating grin. "You're a real hero now, big dog. Town's gonna be buzzin' about you and Vin for weeks." He propped his elbows on the table and sharpened his gaze. "What exactly happened out there anyway? To hear Ben Weber tell it, Vin conjured sign from thin air."
"Let's just say he lived up to his reputation," Chris said, "and leave it at that."
"Where is our talented friend? Seems to me he should be sharing in these festivities," Josiah said.
"He better be in bed--where he belongs," Nathan replied. "Stubborn fool had a cold comin' on even before he spent two days and nights in the rain. He'll be lucky he doesn't wind up with pneumonia."
J.D. frowned. "He can't be in bed, Nathan. He's on patrol tonight."
"Which reminds me--I'm covering for him." Chris made a move to stand, but J.D. caught his arm.
"Ah...Chris? You can't take Vin's patrol."
He was just tired enough to feel a spark of irritation. "I already told him I would, J.D. He was dead on his feet; I'd say he deserves the rest."
"No--I mean, yeah, I'm sure he does. I wasn't trying to say you aren't allowed or that Vin doesn't--"
"If there's a point, get to it."
Flustered now, J.D. blurted, "He's already gone."
"Gone? What do you mean, gone?"
"I mean he already rode out."
"Are you sure?"
"Sure, I'm sure. I passed him on my way here. He had Peso all saddled up and was ready to leave. I told him he didn't look so good, but he just said he'd be fine."
"Damn ornery, pigheaded, shit-for-brains Texan." Chris shoved back his chair so hard it toppled and jammed his hat on his head.
"Where you goin'?" Buck asked, looking far too amused for Chris's taste.
"To drag his sorry ass back here so I can kick it just as soon as he's feeling better." He knocked back the rest of his shot and strode out the door.
Powered by the rising wind, the drizzle felt like small needles against Chris's face as he walked to the livery. He cursed under his breath as he saddled Pony. The temperature had been hovering above freezing for days, but he felt the promise of sleet, or even snow, before morning--the worst kind of weather for someone in Vin's condition.
Fifteen minutes after leaving town, he was thoroughly damp and chilled to the bone. Ice crystals stuck to his eyelashes and collected in Pony's mane, and his fingers were rapidly turning numb. Between the darkness, the sleet, and the howling wind, he was soon forced to admit that he could pass by Vin and never know it. Reluctantly, he turned back.
Once he had Pony rubbed down and settled in his stall, Chris headed for the saloon and a cup of coffee--preferably laced with whiskey. As he crossed the street, he saw the blurred shape of a rider approaching. Squinting through the curtain of sleet, he was just able to make out Peso's white blaze and Vin's familiar slouch.
He leaned against a post, his jaw clenched, taking in the horse's slow gait and Vin's hunched shoulders. And then his friend drew up beside him, and Chris felt his anger driven away by concern. Vin looked terrible--his eyes hollow and bruised in a face pale as milk. He tried unsuccessfully to smother a cough in the crook of his arm, and Chris frowned at the harsh, wet sound.
"Why the hell didn't you let me take that patrol?" It was much easier to feel anger than worry or pain--a hard lesson he'd learned from Sarah and Adam.
"Don't need no one coverin' for me. Can pull my own weight," Vin growled in a raspy, barely there voice, tipping himself into another coughing fit.
"Yeah, you sound like it." Chris grabbed Peso's halter. "Go on and get dried off, let Nathan take a look at you. I'll see to Peso."
"Don't need Nathan, and I can take care of my own damn horse."
"Are you trying to piss me off or just getting lucky?"
Vin glared at him for a moment before one corner of his mouth turned up. "Hell, Larabee, there's no trick to pissin' you off. I've seen folks do it just by breathin'."
"And I've shot them for less, too. Come on--I'll help you get this jughead bedded down. Way you look, it'll take you all night."
"Told you I'm fine." But there was no strength behind the protest.
Vin kicked free of the stirrup and leaned over to dismount. As Chris watched, he swayed, his eyes going vague and bleary a moment before his body went limp. Chris darted forward, catching him before he could slide to the muddy ground.
"Damn it, Vin." He tightened his grip around Vin's waist as his friend started to slither out of his grasp.
Vin clutched at Chris's duster and his head thudded onto his shoulder. "'M okay. Jus' need to lay down."
Chris winced at the heat coming off his friend's body. "Yeah. And I know just the place."
Pulling Vin's arm across his shoulders, Chris half-dragged, half-carried him toward the clinic. Though his friend tried to get his feet working, they kept getting tangled up, and it took all of Chris's strength to keep them both from plunging headfirst into the mud. The clumsiness--so unlike Vin's normal fluid grace--only ratcheted his worry higher.
Climbing the steps to Nathan's clinic felt a bit like climbing a mountain--with a 200-pound weight around his neck. Halfway up, Chris had to prop Vin against the railing while he panted for air and wiped a mixture of sleet and sweat from his eyes.
Vin looked around, blinking, then narrowed his eyes. "This ain't the way to my room."
"Figured that out, did you?"
"Aw, hell, Chris."
"You're shaking like a leaf--you can't even stand up on your own."
"Fine. How about I let go and we see what happens?"
"That's what I thought. Now stop acting like a jackass and start climbing."
Whether he accepted the rebuke or was just worn out from arguing, Vin allowed Chris to manhandle him up the remaining steps. By the time they stumbled into the clinic, Chris's arms ached and Vin was coughing again, his eyes unfocused and heavy lidded.
Nathan was at Chris's side in an instant, helping him lower their semi-conscious friend to the bed. "Help me get his jacket off. He's soaked to the bone."
Together they worked the sodden coat off Vin's shoulders and tossed it onto the floor, followed by his gun belt and shirt. Chris pressed his lips together, unnerved by Nathan's terse silence and Vin's passive compliance as the healer pulled off his boots and pants and covered him with a blanket.
"Get me some more pillows." Nathan indicated a cupboard with a tilt of his head, his focus never wavering from Vin.
Chris did as he'd been instructed, watching from the corner of his eye as Nathan grasped Vin's wrist, touched his forehead, and pressed an ear to his chest.
"Help me," Nathan said, taking the pillows from Chris. "We got to prop him up so he doesn't have to work so hard to breathe."
Chris took his place on the edge of the bed and tugged Vin upright so the healer could stack the pillows behind him. "How's he doing?"
"Not good. He's got a rattle in his chest, and he's hot enough to fry an egg. We got to bring the fever down and clear out that congestion."
As if on cue, Vin's breathing hitched and he started coughing. He curled over, burying his fingers in Chris's coat as if to anchor himself against the violent spasms.
Nathan grabbed a cloth and pressed it into Chris's hand. "Put this under his chin," he said, and proceeded to thump vigorously Vin's back with the heel of his hand.
Chris grimaced at the mess his friend expelled with each cough, but some of the tension left Nathan's shoulders.
"That's it, Vin. You're doin' real good. The more of that shit you bring up, the better you're gonna feel." The gentleness in his voice was a marked contrast to the force of his hand.
Gradually, the coughs tapered off, leaving Vin limp and glassy-eyed, lines of pain around his mouth. Chris eased him onto the pillows, carefully prying Vin's hands from their death grip on his duster. When Nathan traded a cool, damp cloth for the soiled one, Chris wiped his sweaty face.
"Reckon I don't...feel so good," Vin croaked, evading Chris's gaze.
Chris had a pretty good idea how much that admission must have cost his friend. "Reckon you don't look so good either."
Vin snorted, which provoked another, less intense, bout of coughing.
Nathan poured a glass of water and thrust it into Chris's hand, scowling at them both. "Damn fools--neither one of ya's got a lick of sense. Bad enough you rode out in this weather, sick as you were," he said to Vin. "Now you're gonna keep quiet and drink all that water and every drop of the tea I'm makin' you. And you," he jabbed a finger at Chris, who'd been smirking at Vin's pained expression, "stop making him laugh or you'll be drinkin' right along with him."
"Horse piss," Vin grumbled, but he accepted the glass and sipped slowly.
He managed half the water, his eyelids growing heavier and heavier before finally fluttering shut. Chris slipped the glass from his limp fingers and tucked the blanket around his shoulders.
Nathan looked over from where he was preparing the tea. "He out?"
"Yeah." Chris stood, stretching the tight muscles in his back and rolling his shoulders. He stared down at Vin, disturbed to see a pale shadow of the man he knew. "I've seen him shot. Beaten. Never this sick, though."
With a final stir, Nathan removed the pot from the flame and put on the lid. "I ain't gonna lie to you, Chris--lung fever's nothin' to fool around with. But Vin's young, strong..." He huffed. "And damn stubborn. We'll get him through it."
"What can I do?"
"You already doin' it. See that he rests, keeps warm, drinks lots of liquids like water and this tea. Next twenty-four hours are most important." Nathan squeezed his shoulder. "Try not to worry."
Running a hand through his hair, Chris sighed. "If he'd just let me take that damn patrol..."
"Probably wouldn't've made much difference. If you want to lay blame, I'd say it was trackin' the little Weber girl that done him in. Ridin' out tonight like he did just put on the finishing touches."
"I tried to get him to turn back, to let someone else take over. He said that would just get Jessie killed." Chris shook his head. "Thing is, he was right. I've never seen anyone pick up sign the way he did, Nathan. No one else could've done it."
"Sam Weber agrees with you. I think Vin's gonna find he's become quite the hero around here." Nathan grinned. "He oughta love that." He gestured to Vin. "You alright here for a few minutes? I need to collect a few things for a poultice."
"No problem. I'm not going anywhere." Chris pulled a chair up to the bed and sank down with soft grunt.
"I'll be right back. He starts coughing again, see if you can get him to bring up more of that gunk."
Listening to the soft rasp of Vin's breathing, Chris thought over the last several months. From the moment Vin had confessed he was a wanted man, he'd believed his innocence without question. Something about Tanner's quiet confidence had inspired his trust.
If he'd had any doubts--and he hadn't--the two days spent searching for Jessie Weber would have put them to rest. As much as Chris had been impressed by Vin's tracking skills, his friend's single-minded devotion to finding that lost little girl--even at the expense of his own health--had left Chris humbled, and very proud to call the man his friend.
And so here they were. Chris hoped they hadn't saved a little girl only to lose Vin.
The steady rhythm of Vin's breathing faltered, resumed, then faltered again. His eyes flew open and he bolted upright, coughing so hard his face flushed. Chris grabbed a clean cloth, moving to sit beside him.
"Easy, Vin. It's okay." He smacked his friend on the back as he'd seen Nathan do earlier.
Vin coughed harder, harsh, wracking spasms that made his whole body tremble. "Can't...breathe."
"Yeah, you can. Just try to relax and..."
Chris trailed off as his stomach did a slow roll.
Mixed with the mucus on the cloth were bright spatters of crimson.
For a moment, Chris couldn't move, his arms and legs leaden, his heart thudding wildly against his ribs. Then Vin dug his fingers into his arm as he sucked in a shaky breath, snapping him out of his fugue. The last thing Vin needed from Chris was fear--he was already a little wild-eyed from the struggle to breathe.
After tucking the soiled cloth under the edge of the bed, he helped Vin settle back on the pillows. As he wet a fresh cloth and wiped his friend's face, he couldn't help stealing glances at the door, desperately hoping Nathan would return.
"'Fraid I'm gonna die on you?"
"What?" Chris stared at Vin, unnerved by how close the words cut.
"Look ready ... make a run for it."
"I'm not going anywhere--and neither are you."
Vin coughed, squeezing his eyes shut, and Chris quickly blotted the trickle of pink saliva at the corner of his mouth.
The clinic door opened and Nathan blew in with a gust of icy air. "Sleet's turnin' to snow," he said, laying a brown paper-wrapped bundle on the table and hanging up his coat. "How you doin', Vin?"
"Cold," Vin muttered without opening his eyes.
Chris tucked the blanket around his shivering friend. When Vin seemed to slip into a light doze, he retrieved the soiled cloth. Nathan was pouring some of the hot tea into a mug when he joined him at the stove.
"Need to show you something," Chris said, darting a quick glance over his shoulder. Vin's eyes were closed, his breathing steady.
Nathan followed his gaze, frowning as he lowered his voice. "Somethin' wrong?"
"He had another coughing spell while you were gone." Chris gingerly unfolded the cloth.
Nathan tensed, tugging on Chris's wrist until the cloth was held directly under the light from a nearby oil lamp. He scrutinized it carefully, then crumbled and tossed it into the container he used for disposing old bandages.
"I don't know, Chris." He picked up the mug of tea, his mouth compressed to a thin line.
"What do you mean, you don't know? He's . . ." Chris broke off, lowering his voice to a whisper. "He's coughing up blood. What do we do?"
"Just what we been doin'. I'm not a doctor," he said when Chris glared in disbelief. "I do the best I can with what I got. I ain't sayin' it's not a bad sign, Chris. I just don't know what else I can do."
While Chris was still struggling for a response, Nathan took his place in the chair beside the bed. When he laid a hand on Vin's shoulder, he startled awake, instinctively grasping for a gun that wasn't there.
"Easy, Vin," he soothed. "Need you to drink this down. Should help break that fever."
Vin screwed up his face like a toddler being offered green beans. "Don't suppose it tastes better 'n last time."
"This from a man who eats rattlesnake?"
"Tastes like steak compared to this sh-stuff." But Vin took the mug, scowling over the rim when Nathan steadied it in his shaky hands.
"You're whinin' as bad as Buck does. Just drink it."
Vin took a swallow. He winced, choked, then coughed as tea sprayed from his lips and dribbled down his chin. "Sorry," he gasped, his eyes watering.
Chris saw Nathan lean over Vin, his gaze sharp. When he saw that the tea staining Vin's lips and undershirt was tinged red, he turned away, swallowing hard.
"Vin, is your throat hurtin' you?" There was an edge of something that sounded like hope in Nathan's voice.
"Like someone took steel wool to it," Vin rasped.
"Chris, bring me that lamp."
Startled by the sharpness of the command, Chris quickly obeyed. Vin's wide, fever-bright eyes locked onto his as he approached.
"Open up, Vin." Nathan tapped Vin's chin, waving a hand behind him. "Chris, hold that lamp close."
As he positioned the lamp, Chris peered over Nathan's shoulder. Though he was no healer, he easily could see Vin's throat was fiery red and badly inflamed. "Is that...?"
"Blood." Nathan sat back, a slow smile spreading across his face when he looked at Chris. "Between the cold and all that coughin', his throat's rubbed raw."
Suddenly the lamp was jittering in his hand, shadows dancing wildly on the wall and Vin's pale face. Chris set it quickly on the bedside table. Shoving his hands under his arms, he returned Nathan's grin.
"What the hell are you smilin' about? Feel like I'm dyin'." Vin punctuated his grumble with a cough and a moan.
"But you ain't gonna," Nathan said, looking at Chris a moment longer before placing the mug of tea back into Vin's hands. "Not if I've got anything to say about it. Now drink."
Chris followed Nathan back to the stove. "That's really all it is?" he murmured. "His throat?"
"Just 'cause he ain't coughin' up blood don't mean he's not in a bad way." Pulling a bowl from the cupboard, Nathan began adding ingredients for his poultice.
Nathan paused and looked over at Vin. "This I know how to treat." He resumed mixing. "Now you better do something before he winds up wearing what's left of the tea."
Glancing toward the bed, Chris saw that Vin's eyes were closed, the cup dangling precariously from his slack fingers. With a soft snort, he rescued it, then took up his position near the bed. Arms crossed, legs stretched out, he let the soft wheeze of Vin's breathing lull him into a doze.
What seemed like minutes later, Nathan shook him awake. "Chris. Need your help."
"What's wrong?" he demanded, scrubbing the grit from his eyes.
A quick glimpse out the window told him it was still night, but the crick in his neck said he'd been sleeping for at least an hour. Though his eyes were closed, Vin twitched and mumbled, long fingers clutching the blanket. His cheeks were flushed; his lips dry and cracked.
"Fever's up." Nathan thrust a basin and cloth into Chris's hands. "Start trying to cool him down. I'm gonna see if I can get my hands on some ice." He pulled on his coat and was out the door before Chris could question him.
When he tugged back the blanket, Chris winced. Vin radiated heat; his skin felt hot and dry to the touch. He peeled off the undershirt, working it free from Vin's rubbery arms and easing it carefully over his head so that he could run the cool cloth over his friend's neck, arms, and chest. Vin batted away Chris's hand, shivering and muttering words Chris couldn't understand.
"Easy, cowboy. I know this must feel real cold, but you're burning up."
At the sound of Chris's voice, Vin's eyes popped open and he struggled harder. Shoving away Chris's hands, he attempted to sit up. "Don't ... please ... 'm fine. Can pull my weight."
At least, that's what the badly slurred words sounded like to Chris. He frowned--that was the second time Vin had mentioned pulling his own weight. What the hell? Grasping his friend firmly by the shoulders, he pushed him back onto the pillows.
"Vin. Vin! Stop it--you're in no shape to be going anywhere."
No match for Chris's strength, Vin collapsed, panting. "Just ... just give me a chance. Please. I'll do it."
Chris reached for the cloth, intending to bathe his friend's face. "You're not talking sense, pard. Now lay back and let me--" He broke off, bewildered, when Vin flinched violently from his hand. "Vin?"
"Don't! Won't be no trouble ... I swear."
Suddenly he realized Vin wasn't just a little confused. The fever had taken him to a place far from the clinic, trapping him in a memory that had nothing to do with Four Corners or Chris Larabee. He slowly lowered his hand while pitching his voice low and soothing.
"No one thinks you're trouble, Vin. You're my friend; I'm just trying to help you."
Vin stilled; a line formed between his brows as he blinked. "Chris?"
"Yeah." Chris felt the muscles in his neck unknot. "You back with me now?"
"Can't hardly go nowhere." Vin wrinkled his nose and ran a shaky hand over his chest. "Who the hell took my undershirt?"
It felt good to grin. "Me. I'll get you a clean one--it stank to high heaven from Nathan's poultice anyway." He held up the cloth. "But right now we need to get you cooled off, okay?"
"Cooled off? 'M freezin'." But he nodded, trembling harder when the cool water touched his hot skin.
Steeling himself, Chris bathed Vin's face, neck, chest, and arms. Not that Vin complained; he endured the discomfort with chattering teeth and a stoic silence that somehow left Chris feeling even worse.
The doorknob jiggled, and a moment later Nathan entered the clinic, followed closely by Buck. Snowflakes dotted their hair and their cheeks were red.
Buck set an armful of sheets and towels onto a chair and rubbed his hands together. Chris saw his mouth tighten as he took in Vin's fragile appearance before he quickly plastered on a grin. "Damn, Vin. You look like something the cat dragged in."
"F-fuck you ... B-bucklin," Vin replied, one corner of his mouth turning up.
"Now is that any way to talk to the guy who brought you clean sheets and a pot of Inez's chicken soup?"
"Probably was s-sweet t-talkin' her . . . while y-you were at it." Despite the snappy comeback, Vin was fading fast, his eyelids drooping.
"Well, you know what the French say--carp dim, my friend," Buck said, puffing out his chest.
"That's carpe diem," Chris said, dryly. "And it's Latin."
"Latin, French--what's the difference? Point is, when opportunity knocks, you better answer the door." Buck's eyes went soft and Chris saw Vin had fallen asleep, his lips slightly parted as if he were still trying to argue.
"He doin' any better?" Nathan asked, moving around Chris to examine Vin more closely. He lightly touched his fingers to Vin's neck, counting heartbeats. "Still pretty warm."
"He was rambling on about things that made no sense," Chris replied.
"I'm not surprised. Fever's got him out of his head." Nathan picked up the basin and emptied the water outside. From a bucket he scooped some chips of ice, then opened a bottle of alcohol and poured the clear liquid over it. "This should help. And it's been long enough I can heat some more of that willow bark tea."
"He didn't look so good when you two rode in this afternoon, but damn, he got awful sick awful fast," Buck said.
"He don't have nothin' left to fight with, between the cold and the rain--and I bet he didn't do much eatin' or sleepin' the past few days, did he?" Nathan asked.
Chris just accepted the basin, choosing to remain silent.
"Man's got no sense," Nathan grumbled. "He pushes himself too damn hard."
"There's a little girl safe at home with her folks right now because he did."
The cool warning in Chris's voice pulled Nathan up short. "I know," he admitted quietly. "I just get tired of pickin' up the pieces."
"Anything I can do?" Buck asked.
Nathan quirked an eyebrow. "Not unless Chris'll agree to let you spell him so he can get some sleep."
His weary body cheered at the thought, but Chris simply picked up the cloth and ran it over Vin's arm. "I'm not going anywhere."
Nathan shook his head. "Yeah. That's what I thought."
"Then I guess I'll go and get my beauty rest--not that I need it." Buck hesitated, looking down at Vin, who was somehow managing to sleep through the alcohol bath. "Call me if you need something. Anything."
The man could drive him up a wall, but when the chips were down, there was no one more dependable. "Thanks, pard."
The next several hours passed in a haze: alcohol baths and poultices, coaxing tea down Vin's throat and helping him expel the crud from his lungs. Sometimes he was lucid and cooperative, but at others he fought their attempts to help, babbled in Spanish and Kiowa, pleaded that he wouldn't cause trouble.
After one such episode, Nathan stood at the window, his hands braced on the frame, his shoulders hunched.
"What is it?" Chris asked. He'd discovered that stroking the damp tendrils of hair back from Vin's face calmed his friend, so he kept up the soothing motion.
"You heard what he said." Nathan's voice was low and he kept his gaze on the street.
"Yeah. Just not sure what it means."
After a long silence, Nathan sighed. "When you're a slave ... don't matter what time of the day or night it is. And it sure as hell don't matter if you're tired, or hurt ... or sick. You got a job to do, and you best get it done. Or Master will make you damn sorry you didn't."
Chris frowned at the implication. "But Vin was never a slave."
"No. But I'm here to tell you, Chris ... " Nathan looked over his shoulder at their mumbling friend. "He sure sounds like one."
Chris found himself thinking about what Nathan had said long after the healer had fallen into an exhausted doze on his bed.
From the moment he'd locked eyes with Vin across that street, he'd formed a connection stronger than he'd felt with anyone, except Sarah. There was a knowing between them, an understanding that went beyond words. A trust deeper than actions.
Yet with all he knew about Vin, much of his friend's childhood remained a mystery. His ma died of putrid fever when he was small, Vin confessed one night as they shared a bottle of whiskey and a fire, and he'd never known his pa. Chris had assumed he'd been raised by another family member--an aunt, maybe, or grandparents. But Vin never said, and Chris never asked.
Maybe it was time he did.
Just before dawn, as the remnants of the storm gave way to the first threads of pale sunlight, Vin's fever broke and he slipped into a deep, dreamless sleep. No longer willing to endure Nathan's nagging, Chris gave up his chair, kicked off his boots, and stretched out on the bed.
He awakened to warm sunshine on his face and the sound of smothered coughs. After stretching until his back gave a satisfying pop, he went to check on Vin.
His friend was awake and sipping chicken soup from a blue mug. Though still pale and hollow-eyed, he seemed to be breathing easier and coughing less.
"Went to grab coffee and sandwiches for the two of you." Vin's smile took on a mischievous edge. "'Bout time you dragged them sorry old bones outta bed."
"These sorry old bones can still kick your ass--and I plan to, once you're back on your feet."
"You can try."
"You saying I can't do it?"
"Let's just say I ain't Bucklin--yer not gonna catch me with my pants down."
They both chuckled until Vin's laughter was cut short by a coughing spell.
"I'm serious about one thing," Chris said once his friend had recovered. "You pull another boneheaded move like you did last night and I will kick your ass."
Humor turned to irritation that crackled in Vin's eyes and the stubborn tilt of his chin. "Ain't nothing boneheaded about carryin' your fair share of the load."
"There is when you nearly kill yourself in the process," Chris snapped. Taking a deep breath, he held onto his temper. "And when you've got friends willing to carry it for you. Just for a while."
Vin looked away, his jaw clenched tight. "It's not that easy."
"Sure it is."
"You got no idea, Chris." Vin closed his eyes, swallowing hard. "None."
"Then explain it to me. I'm listening."
Vin was silent for so long, Chris thought the conversation was over. When he finally did speak, his hoarse voice was heavy with emotion.
"When my ma died ...well ...guess I was about as alone as anyone could be. We didn't have no other kin--least not as far as I know. From as early as I could remember, it'd been just me and her."
"My ma had a real good friend named Maggie whose family lived down the road. She would've taken me in. But they already had eight kids and times were hard. Her husband put his foot down; told her the last thing they needed was another mouth to feed. She's the one packed my things, put me on the stage to the orphanage. Cried the whole time, tellin' me how sorry she was. How she wished things could be different."
Vin stared at the mug in his hands, swirling the contents one way, then the other. Chris waited him out, knowing his friend would get to what he wanted to say in his own good time.
"Somethin' you probably don't know about orphanages," Vin finally continued, his voice soft. "Folks don't go to 'em 'cause they want a kid. They go to 'em 'cause they need someone to work the farm. You'd have to pay good money for a hired hand to pull weeds, fetch water, feed stock, clean the barn ... But an orphan ...you just have to see he's got clothes on his back and food in his belly. And hell--no one really gives a damn whether you even do that."
Chris winced at the razor-sharp bitterness so uncharacteristic of his friend. "I take it you're speaking from experience."
"First family to give me a home was the Blessitts. They had two girls of their own plus two boys that came from the same home where they got me. Their farm was a 10-acre spread on the most piss-poor piece of land I've ever seen. The soil was half clay and had just about every rock in the state of Texas--I know 'cause one of my jobs was to pick 'em out.
"Mr. Blessitt made sure he laid down the law the minute we got home that day. I wasn't there outta charity; I was expected to pull my weight. If I did my chores, I could eat with the rest of them. But if I made a mistake, or broke something, or, God forbid, didn't finish my work, I'd go hungry."
"You were just a little boy," Chris said through clenched teeth. "If he was looking for hard labor, why didn't he pick someone older?"
Vin's smile didn't touch his eyes. "Said he was gonna train me up right. That way I wouldn't give him no trouble when I got bigger."
"Son of a bitch."
"He was a real big man--bigger than Josiah or Nathan. I hated his hands. I swear his fist was the size of my head, and when he'd get real mad he'd pick you up by your collar and shake you. Scared the shit outta me.
"But the worst was the root cellar. See, it wasn't enough for him just to take away your supper. He said you needed to think long and hard about how you was lettin' the family down, and the root cellar was just the place to do it. No distractions."
Vin shivered, but this time it had nothing to do with fever. "It was so dark down there you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. Felt like the walls were all pressin' in on you, and you could hear rats skitterin' around. Sometimes they'd run over your leg."
"You get shut down there often?" Chris asked. So much made sense now, from Vin's obvious discomfort in tight places to the way he'd flinched from Chris's hand.
"Couldn't help it! I was just a little feller, but that didn't matter to Blessitt. No excuses, he'd say. I remember one time I was sick with a real high fever. I was burnin' up one minute and freezin' the next, and my head hurt so bad I could hardly move. Bastard threw me in the cellar with no food or water 'cause I didn't finish weeding his damn vegetable garden."
"You didn't pull your weight," Chris murmured.
"Last night, when the fever was high, you did a lot of talking. You kept telling Nathan and me you could pull your own weight. That you wouldn't be any trouble."
His face a blank mask, Vin shrugged. "Guess Blessitt trained me, just like he said he would."
"Fuck that." Chris curled his hands into fists, wishing he could have five minutes alone with the sonuvabitch who'd so mistreated his friend. "Blessitt was one man, Vin. Not everyone--"
"You think he was the only one?" Vin laughed harshly, shaking his head. "I passed through a string of folks just like Blessitt before I finally had enough and lit out on my own. They all taught me the same thing: if you can't carry your own load, you're shit outta luck."
Chris didn't respond right away. It pained him to hear Vin accept hurt and betrayal as if they were an inevitable fact of life.
"That might've been how it was, but those days are done. You've got some new teachers now, cowboy. And I can guarantee you that anytime the load gets too heavy, you've got a friend standing by, ready to carry it. You've just got to ask."
Vin looked away, his throat working. "Think this soup's cold now."
Not what Chris had hoped for, but he'd given his friend something to think about. He stood and took the cup from Vin's hands. "You want more?"
"Nah. Rather have some of the coffee Nate's bringing."
"Just make sure I'm here when you try talking him into that." Chris set the bowl by the stove. "How about a glass of water?" When his friend didn't answer, he turned. "Vin?"
"It's not so easy."
Setting down the pitcher, Chris walked back to the bed. Vin met his gaze, but his hands plucked nervously at the blanket.
"No." Chris said quietly. "I'm no expert, pard. I've got my own lessons to learn."
Before Vin could reply they heard the rumble of feet on the wooden steps and Buck's boisterous laughter. A moment later Nathan entered the clinic, carrying a covered basket. Buck, Josiah, Ezra, and J.D. were right behind him. The accompanying gust of cold air started Vin coughing.
Nathan handed the basket to Buck. "We brought coffee and sandwiches for lunch," he told Chris as he reached for Vin's wrist. "How's he feeling?"
"Good enough to be able to speak fer himself," Vin rasped, furrowing his brow as he yanked his arm from Nathan's grip.
"Sounds like the Vin I know," Buck said. "Though he still ain't lookin' as pretty as usual."
"Shut up, Buck." Vin and Chris snapped at the same time, then grinned at each other.
"It's good to see you feeling better, brother," Josiah said. "You've been in my prayers."
Vin ducked his head. "Thanks, Josiah."
"From what I hear, half the town has been petitioning the higher power on your behalf," Ezra drawled. "Your self-sacrifice and heroism has made you somewhat of a legend, Mr. Tanner."
"Don't want to be no legend," Vin replied, flushing. "Just did what needed doing, that's all."
"Nevertheless, many of the humble folk in this town are most anxious to shake your hand, offer their thanks." When Vin looked horrified, Ezra hastened to add, "Of course, it would be my pleasure to represent you during your convalescence, accepting any and all tokens of appreciation on your behalf..."
"That's real generous of you," Chris said dryly, but Vin's tense shoulders relaxed.
"Thanks, Ez. Last thing I need is a bunch of folks hoverin'. Hell, that's half the reason why I cut out of town last..." He broke off, his eyes wide. "Shit! Peso! Chris did you--"
"All taken care of Vin," J.D. spoke up. "When we heard what happened, I took him over to the livery. Got him unsaddled, rubbed down, and fed. I put your saddlebags in my room for safe-keeping."
"I ..." The word caught in Vin's throat and he blinked hard. "Thanks, J.D. That ... that was real nice of you."
"Yep, he can be real handy to have around," Buck said, knocking the bowler off J.D.'s head.
"Buck! Cut that out."
As the others watched them wrestle, Chris nudged Vin. "You all right?"
Vin brushed the back of his hand across his eyes. "Yeah. I'm good."
They watched Buck steal the bowler and J.D. chase him around the room while Ezra rolled his eyes, Josiah laughed, and Nathan scolded that there was a sick man here and when were they gonna act their age?
Slanting a look at Chris, Vin gestured to the others. "Strangest bunch of teachers I've ever seen."
Chris chuckled. "Hell, yeah. But they grow on you." He pulled the basket off the chair. "How about some lunch?"
Vin glanced over his shoulder at Nathan, who was now in a spirited argument with Buck and J.D. He looked at Chris with a sly grin. "How 'bout some coffee?"
It startled a chuckle out of him. "You've got yourself a deal, pard." He pulled the towel off the top of the basket.
The hesitation in Vin's voice drew his gaze. His friend's relaxed slump against the pillows had stiffened. "Yeah?"
"Maybe later ... if you have a chance ... you could bring me my saddlebags."
Only Chris knew how much the simple request cost his friend. "I'll go after lunch."
Vin bit his lip and looked away. "Don't want to put you out."
"I've got to swing by my room anyway. I'll be in the neighborhood."
Those tense shoulders relaxed again. "Okay." Vin's mouth turned up in a lopsided grin. "Best pour that coffee 'fore Nathan catches on."
School was still in session, Chris thought with a secret smile as he returned to unpacking the basket. But Vin was learning.