There it is again.
I can't tell what it is at first. It's somethin' I haven't heard in awhile, but after a minute I figure it out.
Quietly chokin', tryin' t' hold it back, but cryin' all the same.
When I open m' eyes I'm lyin' on m' side, facin' Jeremy on m' left, and I can hardly miss that face that's turned up t'ward the ceilin' and all runny with tears.
"Hey there little Pard. What's the matter?"
He turns his head in m' direction and scrubs a sleeve across his nose.
"I'm... it's just... I'm scared."
I nod and shift m'self t' get a better look at his face.
"Want t' tell me about it? Sometimes sharin' it around can make it easier t' handle."
Jeremy's quiet for a minute, and I can see the boy's turnin' m' words over in his head.
"My Mommy was here while you were sleeping," he whispers. "She said we're going back home and Daddy is mad."
"But it ain't yer fault we're goin' back home. He wants t' be mad at someone, it should be me."
"But he said I might's well go home too, since I'm sick and he don't know why they brung me in the first place."
I can feel m' heart tighten at the softly spoken words, but before I can say anything, Jeremy's talkin' again.
"Do your Mommy and Daddy yell at each other?"
"No... I ain't never had a Dad, and my Mama died when I was little."
"Littler than me?"
"Yeah, I reckon I was."
I can hear what he says next, but I don't think it was intended for my ears.
"You're lucky you didn't never have a Daddy."
I'm not real sure what t' say to that.
"Yer Pa loves ya, I'm sure."
The sad face turns toward me once more.
"No, he don't."
"Sure he does. Sometimes it might jist seem like he doesn't. Sometimes grown-ups git all wound up in stuff... and they fergit there's other folks... Hell."
It's my turn t' be mutterin' under m' breath - innocent ears and all that. But I'm not doin' a real good job of playin' family counselor here.
"What about school? I bet ya'll got lots 'a friends in school."
"I don't go to school any more. I used to, but I missed a lot. Mommy got me a tutor and he comes to the house. I didn't like school anyways. Everybody called me 'Germy', n' I tried t' tell them asthma isn't germs, but they din't believe me."
I've got no clue what t' say t' this. Right at this very moment I wish I was Josiah, or Ezra, or Buck - none of them would have any trouble makin' this poor kid feel better.
"You got any friends, Vin?"
"When I was little, I didn't have no friends neither. But now I got lots 'a friends, and so will you. All ya gotta do is hang in there. I'm pretty sure you and me is friends, ain't we? See how easy it is? I liked ya right off. Ya jist gotta be yerself and it won't be long til folks start seein' what a great kid ya are. Then you'll have so many pals ya won't know what t' do with 'em."
Jeremy pushes the mask off his face and gives me the biggest, most brilliant grin I've ever seen.
"Yer darn right."
I reach out and motion t' Jeremy t' do the same, and we knock our fists together.
Jeremy's still smilin' when he leans back against his pillow.
"Can you tell me some more stuff about being a cowboy? What's your horse's name? What colour is he? Is he big? Did you go out and lasso him? Does he like sugar?"
"I got stories t' tell you 'bout that critter 'a mine that'll scare the pants right off ya. Ya sure ya'll want t' hear 'em?"
I got m' answer when Jeremy says nothin', just pulls himself higher in his bed and looks over at me with shining eyes.
I'm lying here, awake.
It's much too early to even think about getting up, so I'm making good use of my time trying to figure out when we're likely to arrive... wherever it is we're going. Say it takes us three hours to reach Santo Domingo, add on another one at least while we book a flight to Miami, then the trip itself... another two... we're probably looking at five or six hours total until we get Vin to where he should be.
No matter if it was only going to be five minutes, it still wouldn't be fast enough to suit me.
I wish I could have stayed with Vin, but even if I had been able to get out of work, there is definitely no room in that tiny sick bay for any unnecessary bodies. JD and I stopped in after our shift and I was glad to find Vin sleeping. The bad thing is I guess he actually asked Nathan to up his pain meds, and that's got me worried. Vin has an amazingly high tolerance for pain, and that along with the fact that he's very good at hiding any discomfort he might be experiencing... well - it all adds up to the undeniable conclusion that Vin is not at all well.
I should have known he was under the weather. He was at the ranch with me this past weekend, so one would think I'd have noticed something. Well, looking back... we were planning to take a ride out to Little Butte on Sunday, and it's the first time I remember Vin ever passing on the chance to saddle Peso and head off into the mountains. Vin tried to persuade me to go without him, and that sure didn't work, because much as I like being out on the trail, I enjoy it a hell of a lot more when he's with me. Vin said he was tired and that could have been true. He'd put in a long week on loan to Team Six - they had some sort of a deal going down and needed an extra gun in the rafters, so Vin was a busy lad.
I try to tell myself that I can't be blamed for failing to notice when something's going wrong with Vin.
Hell - on a good day Tanner is without a doubt the most accident-prone, germ-attracting, stubborn, aggravating individual I've ever met.
But it isn't working.
Vin is seriously ill and has been becoming ever more so over the last week and a half. I should have paid more attention - it's not as if he's capable of noticing these things for himself, or for asking anyone else for help even if he does twig to the fact that he's not one hundred per cent.
'Hey, Chris, sorry t' be a bother, but that noise you heard a minute ago? That was m' arm fallin' off and I was wonderin', if it weren't too much trouble, if ya'll mightn't have a band aid ya could spare? Oh and sorry about the blood - once I get m' arm duct taped back on I'll get that cleaned right up.'
Sure Vin. Whatever you say.
I'm getting tired of looking at the ceiling and try staring at the clock for a change of scene. It's five thirty-nine and all I can hear is the rhythmic sound of JD's breathing and the quiet hum of the ship's engines.
But there's something else too, another noise, another engine, smaller and buzzing at a pitch slightly higher than the Merryweather's.
I sit up, listening carefully as the sound grows closer.
I reach out and shake JD's arm.
"Wake up! There's something going on. Get dressed - quick!"
I waste no time pulling on my pants and shirt, and move to the trunk that contains our weapons.
I just finish handing JD his gun when there's a loud explosion and I feel the ship shudder beneath my feet. I open the door carefully, and with JD at my shoulder, look up and down the hall. I can hear the staccato of feet running on the deck above our heads, and I pull back quickly into the room when I hear a noise at the end of the corridor.
"Shhh... we're on our way to work."
JD nods his understanding as I throw him his waiter's jacket before grabbing my own from the closet. He's following my lead and hiding his gun at the small of his back. He's just doing up his buttons when there's an impatient rap at the door, and I scarcely have it unlocked when a burly body forces its way inside.
"You two! Upstairs! Now!"
The voice is rough and heavily accented, and its owner is holding an AK47 tight against his chest. JD and I are herded into the corridor where we see another similarly equipped individual busy shepherding the rest of the sleep-addled flock toward the narrow stairway. It takes a few minutes to direct everyone upstairs, and when we reach the second floor dining lounge, I see that Ezra and Buck are already there. There's no sign of the rest of the team, and while we wait for the arrival of the rest of the ship's occupants, I try to size up the situation I've read recently of a growing rash of attacks at sea - the latest ones being off the coast of Africa - but as far as I knew, piracy had not as yet become a problem in the Caribbean. I study our captors carefully and realize the men are well-armed and look dangerously professional. There are four guarding us at the moment, and I figure there are still some out rounding up the remaining passengers.
I'm relieved to see that although the guests are frightened, they remain calm. I notice that the Willistons are not yet among us, but my attention is diverted when I hear a jumble of voices and see the double doors at the end of the room swing open.
My breath catches as the rest of the guys are ushered roughly inside. Josiah has a very unsteady Vin by the arm and Nathan is carrying the boy. At this very same moment the Willistons are being brought into the room through another entrance, and I hear Jeremy's mother gasp when she catches sight of him on the far side of the lounge. Jeremy has been set on the floor and is now standing beside Vin, who is being lowered into a chair next to the head table. He looks terrible, and standing back and observing from a distance, it's plain to see the toll the last few weeks have taken on him. I know Vin's slim and small-boned, but he looks frail now, thin and grey and shrunken somehow. I can tell by the way he's holding himself that it hurts to move, but I catch his eye and am reassured to see that he's alert, scanning the room and sizing up the situation. Jeremy moves closer to Vin and slides a small hand into his, and Vin leans over and whispers something in the boy's ear that seems to relax him. I hazard a look at his parents then - his mother, her face white with fear and panic, is being restrained by one of the invaders, while his father shows all the animation of a chunk of marble. There's something odd going on here, no question, but I put my speculations to the side when one of the hostage takers enters the room with his gun trained on the skipper. He motions for Williston to be brought forward too, and the room falls silent.
"You shall cooperate and all will be well."
The man is tall and dark, and he seems to be in charge. He speaks a few words to his men, then turns away to enter into hushed conversation with Williston and the captain. I am close enough to catch only the odd word, but I can tell from the body language on all sides that the situation is tense.
The captain seems adamant about something. Williston is placating - trying to plead his case it seems, and the bigger man is having none of it. I hear Williston call the man 'Santos', and I repeat the name in my head, wondering whether it is one I should know. Santos' voice rises as he turns and gestures at the group from sick bay who are sitting slightly apart from the rest of the throng.
It's clear the disagreement involves Williston's son, and I am not the only one to see it. Mrs. Williston knows the three men are talking about Jeremy and she's on the verge of hysteria. Buck is closest to her, and from the tension that coils through both him and Ezra, they are aware of what's about to happen. JD's next to me and I can see from the tightened muscles along his jaw line that he's ready for action too. That leaves only the last three of our team isolated on the other side of the room, gathered protectively around the obvious focal point of the animated discussion.
I know that I can count on them to do whatever is necessary when the time comes, but I highly doubt they are armed.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Santos shove Williston away and start toward Vin. He reaches Vin's side and grabs Jeremy roughly by the arm. The last thing I see before all hell breaks loose is Vin coming to his feet, pulling the boy away from the kidnapper, and Nathan and Josiah leaping to his defense. My ears register the sound of a woman screaming, the staccato of gunfire and the incongruous tinkle of breaking glass. I draw my weapon, shout for the passengers to take cover, and dive to the floor.
He's got good reason t' be. I can feel the little guy shiverin' in m' arms as the feller with the dark hair - I think his name's Santos - heads on over t' where we're sittin'. Two of his men are hard on his heels, and I know the conversation he just had with Williston didn't go the way he wanted.
I tighten m' arms around Jeremy and whisper in his ear.
"Try not t' be scared, Bud. I'll do m' best t' keep ya safe."
He turns his big brown eyes on me and nods.
I give him a quick hug just as Santos comes up, and I stand and try t' put m'self between them. It doesn't do much good - I'm a mite unsteady on m' feet, and it doesn't take much for the creep t' shove me outta the way and grab the boy by the arm. He's pullin' Jeremy t'ward the door and Nathan and Josiah tackle the two gun-toting no-goods who are coverin' their boss's exit. I hoist m'self upright and stay low as I make m' way t' the door and out t' the deck. I can hear the roar of chaos behind me and the whine of bullets pingin' off metal, but all I care about right now is gettin' to Jeremy.
Once I get outside I see there's a Zodiac bobbin' on the waves just beyond the Merryweather's prow. I thank m' lucky stars that, other than Santos, there's only one other man on the deck. I got to admit I don't think I'm in any shape t' be takin' on an army. I figure Jeremy's ended up bein' some kinda pawn in a battle of wills between this guy and his dad, and I know I've got t' stop Santos from takin' him off the ship. I gotta give the kid credit. The scumbag's got his hands full with that kickin', bitin' whirlwind under his arm, and it's good that he ain't goin' peacefully. Especially since I've got no weapon t' work with - but in a pinch ya can't ever underestimate the element of surprise - leastways that's what Ezra always says. I tell m'self I've got the easy job here. All I've got t' do is get Jeremy out of harm's way and wait for Chris and the others t' take control of the situation.
And they will.
If I've learned anything else in the last six months, I've learned t' trust m' teammates.
I hold back until I see Santos has got his hands full tryin' t' get himself and Jeremy off the yacht and onto that smaller boat out there. I see the kid's lookin' for me, and gettin' more upset with each minute that goes by. He probably thinks I've abandoned him, and I'm sorry I can't show m'self yet, but I've got t' wait til exactly the right moment t' make m' move.
I find m'self thinkin' I'm glad I followed Nathan's advice and took the dose of morphine he was offerin' when I woke up around midnight. I can still feel that heavy pressure in m' guts, but I have a feelin' if it weren't for the drugs I'd be feelin' a good deal more than just uncomfortable right now. And much as I hate t' admit it, if it weren't for the drugs, I don't think I'd be in any condition t' help anyone.
Maybe I should start listenin' t' Nate more often.
Santos is bendin' t' grab the rope and the guy with the gun is helpin' him pull the dinghy along side.
That's when I make m' move. As quick as I can I slip t' the edge of the deck and push the guard over the railing. I pull Jeremy out of Santos' hands and send him flyin' as well.
That's when I see the man in the punt stand. He's sightin' along this cross bow thing and the next thing I know I'm feelin' a punch to m' gut that knocks me clear off m' feet.
I spend a few seconds wonderin' what hit me, then all of a sudden I'm fallin', and Jeremy's fallin' too, over the side, and all I can think is I've got to hold on t' Jeremy. We hit the water and it's so cold it takes m' breath away and it's all I can do t' fight m' way back up to the surface. M' heart stops when I realize I've lost sight of Jeremy, but then I see a small head bobbin' off to m' right. I've got t' get to him, but I can't believe how tired I am. It's just as if m' arms and legs are made of lead, and m' body's made of stone, and I'm sinking, sinking, under the waves and there' s nothin' I can do. Then I feel two small arms go around m' neck, and a voice telling me t' move, t' just keep movin' and suddenly it strikes me that I'm not savin' Jeremy.
Jeremy's savin' me.
My heart stops when I lose sight of Vin. I know Nathan and Josiah will do their best to protect him, but it always makes me nervous when anyone else has Vin's back. That's my job - and it goes both ways. I've got an A-class team, but when it comes to my own safety, there's no one I'd rather have at my side than that maddening Texan.
I duck as a bullet whizzes by my ear and I motion to JD to break away to my right. Ezra has his gun out too, and I'm surprised and pleased to find that the 'pirates' aren't as well-organized as I had first thought. They've got the gear - that much is true - but they're not as familiar with their weapons as they should be, and I can see that we'll likely be able to subdue them without much difficulty. I check again for Vin, just in time to see him crouching along the back wall and heading for the door.
The stupid fool!
If only he were close enough to hear me swearing at him, but he isn't, and I'm in no position to follow. There's nothing I can do but watch as Vin sneaks out the door behind Santos and his small, struggling hostage.
Vin's in no condition to take on anyone, let alone an armed and desperate man, and I've got to get out there and help that stubborn mule before he gets himself killed. I have a man in my sights who's holed up behind the bar, and I take him out when his gun jams. All the passengers dropped to the floor or took cover behind the tables as soon as the shooting started, and I'm fairly certain there haven't been any civilian casualties yet. Three of the invaders have surrendered already, and Nathan and Josiah have two more trapped in the hallway between the kitchen and this room.
I have no idea how much time has gone by. It seems like an eternity, but in reality I'm guessing the whole episode hasn't lasted for much more than five minutes. As soon as I'm sure things are well under control in the dining area, I stand up and head for the door, calling over my shoulder to Ezra as I go.
"I'm going after Vin. You're in charge in here, Ez. Send one of the others out after me as soon as they're free."
I quicken my pace and soon I'm through the doors and proceeding cautiously across the deck. The sun is just peering above the horizon. Somewhere in the back of my mind I find myself thinking it's going to be a beautiful day, but that pleasant thought flies from my head when I see the scene playing out before me. I realize I'm still too far away to intervene physically, and I'm reluctant to use my weapon with the boy so close at hand. No one seems to have noticed me yet, and I press myself against the bulkhead and move quickly and silently toward the group.
Santos and another man are standing by the rail and I can tell from the buzz of noise that fills the air there's a Zodiac idling in the water below. As I edge closer, I see a man standing in the punt reaching up to take the boy from his boss and my mind no sooner processes this information when a slight form launches itself from the shadows. It barrels first into the guard and knocks him overboard, then catches Santos off balance to send him, arms flailing, into the water too. It's Vin of course, and he pulls Jeremy to safety behind him, but he's in no position to see what's unfolding in the dinghy below.
The man in the skiff has a crossbow, and I'm shouting at Vin to get down as he brings it to his shoulder. My gun roars and the man drops like a stone, but it's too late to save Vin. I hear Tanner grunt in pain as the arrow finds its mark and watch helplessly as he and the boy go tumbling over the side.
I sprint to the rail and peer into the swirling water but I can't see Vin anywhere. The two criminals are swimming away from the yacht in long even strokes and I hear the roar as an engine is gunned, but there's no sign of Vin.
Suddenly I hear a faint high-pitched voice calling to me, and I see a small white hand beckoning from among the waves. There's a life ring hanging on the wall next to me, and I shout to Buck and Ezra to help as I climb onto the railing and dive into the roiling foam.
I reached the boy in seconds and push the ring over his head.
"I c-c-couldn't hold him up. H-h-he's d-down there."
Jeremy's teeth are chattering and he's trying to gulp down the sobs that bubble in his throat.
Buck's joined us in the water and I leave the boy clinging to him. I take in a deep breath and dive, searching frantically for some sign of Vin. I force myself deeper and deeper, and just as my burning lungs threaten to explode, I catch a glimpse of a dark form in the water below me. A whisper of thanks runs though my head. If not for the fact that the water is clear as crystal, and the day is just beginning to dawn, I wouldn't have seen Vin at all. My oxygen is almost gone, but I manage to reach down and grab a handful of Vin's shirt, then I turn and kick madly toward the surface. My head breaks through and I'm coughing and sputtering, but glad all the same to see Josiah's in the water now as well. We turn Vin face up and head for the yacht where Nathan and JD are waiting to haul him onto the deck. We're pushing and pulling his still form up and out, and all of a sudden I see a river of pink washing down over the white hull. I grab at the hands that reach for me too, and sprawl on the deck, gasping for air as I crawl to Vin's side.
Nathan has his head on Vin's chest, his fingers fumbling for the pulse at his wrist.
"He's not breathing. Help me turn him over."
It's then I see the arrow embedded in Vin's stomach, and the watery trail of blood now pooling beneath him. I push down the panic I feel welling inside me and help Nathan position Vin so we can begin CPR. His hands are on Vin's chest and my mouth is on Vin's blue lips, and we compress and breathe, compress and breathe, on and on for what seems like forever, until finally Vin spasms and gasps and coughs.
A crewman comes out then and tells Nathan a helicopter is on its way with an ETA of thirty minutes. I stay where I am, kneeling on the hard floor, holding Vin's hand in mine, trying to get my shaking body under control.
"Are you going to take that thing out?"
JD's voice brings me out of my stupor, and I see he's looking decidedly green as he gazes down at the skewer piercing Vin's stomach and protruding from his back.
"No, I'm going to leave that right where it is. Something like that - I could do more harm than good if I so much as touch it." Nathan brushes Vin's hair away from his face. "I'm going to run down to sick bay to get some pads and bandages, and I'm going to dose him with morphine. If we're lucky he'll stay out til we get him airlifted to the hospital."
"I'll stay with him, Nate. You go and get whatever you need."
Nathan shifts so I can slide into his place at Vin's side, and he puts my hand over the rolled towel doing duty as a makeshift bandage.
"Just keep the pressure on this - I'll be right back."
I shake my head as I look down on my friend's pale face. I still can't believe I've let this man so far into my life that I can't imagine what it would be like without him.
"I'm amazed I have a hair left that hasn't turned grey. I'm still not sure you're worth the trouble you put me through."
Then I hear Josiah's quiet voice behind me.
"Truer words were never spoken, brother, but he is. He most certainly is."
I don't think I've ever been so tired. A headache is pulsing behind my eyes, and my stomach is protesting twelve hours of vending machine coffee and soggy sandwiches. I can't get comfortable on this plastic couch and I feel a jealous twinge when I look across to where Nathan slumps, asleep on the room's second sofa.
It has been the absolute worst day I can ever remember.
Well, perhaps that's a bit of an overstatement. Once I take Vin out of the equation, it wasn't really so bad. There were only four casualties, all 'bad guys', and none of the passengers had been hurt.
But once I put Vin back in the picture, it has definitely been the worst day I can ever remember.
I'm starting to think that I should be given a bed in the ICU. I could have sworn my own heart stopped beating when I saw that arrow fly, and I don't think I'll ever forget the sight of Vin being maneuvered into the Stokes with that projectile embedded in his stomach.
Hell, we've only known each other for ten months, and I've spent more time and energy fretting over that scrawny Texan than I've devoted to anything since Sarah and Adam died. I know it drives Vin crazy, I know he has a hard time believing anyone should or would waste their time worrying about him, but I figure that's because in all of his twenty-six years, no one has bothered to do it.
It isn't easy for Vin to get a handle on the whole concept of 'team'. I don't mean that in the sense that he's derelict in his commitment, responsibilities or obligations. Truth be told, he's always too quick to put the rest of us, or anyone for that matter, before himself. He just can't accept the fact that anyone else should do the same for him.
Well, all of that is going to change.
I'm going to make sure Tanner comes to understand exactly what it is to be a friend - that it's a two way street, and there's taking involved along with the giving.
And so help me, I'll beat it into that scrawny Texas hide if that's what it takes for me to get the message across... provided Vin has any hide left by the time the doctors finish with him.
I stand and stretch my spine until it cracks, then cross the narrow room to look out the window. The sun has slunk away below the rim of the Miami sky line, and the clouds are crisscrossed with trails of orange and pink. It would have been a beautiful sunset if I'd been anywhere other than standing here, feeling helpless, waiting on Vin. He's been in surgery for close to five hours, and Nate and I have only had one update in all that time. We know his small bowel ruptured while we were in transit from the ship to the hospital, and as if Vin hasn't suffered enough, it seems the arrow managed to pierce his large intestine as well.
I stare out the window for several minutes longer, then go back to the couch and sit, turning the pages of a magazine without seeing a thing.
It's going to be a long night
Somewhere in the haze, someone's calling my name. I feel myself frowning, and when I open my eyes, even that does nothing to help me figure out where I am.
That's a voice I recognize, and I pull myself up in my chair as I run a hand over my face.
"Dr. Wallace will be out in a moment to speak to you about your friend."
The nurse gives me a sympathetic smile and disappears between the swinging doors.
Nathan is sitting opposite me and looks as if he's just spent the night sleeping on a couch in the ...oh yeah.
"You got any idea what time it is?"
I pull up my sleeve and peer at my watch.
"Vin's been in there a long time."
Just then the doors part once more, and a young man in blue scrubs enters the room and walks over to join us.
"I've just finished operating on your friend, Mr. Tanner."
He sits in the chair next to Nathan and leans forward with his elbows on his knees.
"He's stable at the moment, but he's in serious condition. He's suffered two separate breaches of his intestines - one in the small intestine - the result of his bowel obstruction, and the other in the large - and I'm afraid he now has peritonitis to contend with. We've done a lavage of the abdominal cavity, and repaired the tears. We had to perform a colostomy - it's only temporary and will give his intestines the time they need to heal."
No one says anything for a minute. I'm trying to make some sense of that information and Nathan's quicker with the questions than I am.
"How long will that take?"
"We're talking anywhere from four to six weeks. That's assuming everything goes according to plan - if the antibiotics do their job and the infection doesn't run out of control."
"When can we see him?"
"He's in recovery right now. He gave us a couple of bad scares on the table. His blood pressure was low to begin with and it dropped even further during surgery. It was fortunate that he was brought in when he was. The mortality rate jumps substantially among patients who fail to receive medical attention within the first forty-eight hours following a trauma such as this. It'll be a couple of hours til he starts to come around, and he's not likely going to be very good company for awhile. He's going to be sick and in a lot of pain. But you're welcome to sit with him if you'd like."
The doctor was right.
It's close to nine o'clock before Vin shows any signs of life. He's lying, still and pale, in the glassed-in cubicle in the ICU and the first hint I have of Vin's return to awareness is the faint flutter of his eyelashes against his cheek. In the short time I've known him, I've been witness, more times than I care to count, to the negative effect that anesthetics have on him, so I have the emesis basin in my hand and under Vin's mouth before he even begins to gag. Nathan has rolled him onto his side and holds back his hair when the serious heaving begins. I'm amazed he has anything left in his stomach to expel, especially since I really can't remember the last time I saw him eat anything.
And considering what he's just been through, the contraction of his stomach muscles has to be absolute agony for him. I know just how badly he's hurting when I see his jaw clench and the tears of pain streaking down his face.
"Just take it easy, Vin, it'll be OK - just easy now."
Vin's unable to control the spasms and I feel my own stomach begin to tighten when I realize there's nothing I can do to help take the pain away.
"Should I call the nurse?"
Nathan's nod has me out the door and waving at the ICU nurse. She rounds the corner of the desk and is in the room within seconds, adjusting something at the IV pole.
"If this doesn't help him, I'll get the doctor to approve something stronger."
The nurse checks all the monitors and goes to stand at the head of the bed.
"Mr. Tanner? Can you hear me?"
Vin's eyes are closed once more but I see his head move slightly.
"We're going to fix you up with a pump later so you can medicate yourself when you need it."
Vin's nods his understanding, but I can see he's sweating and his knuckles are white where both hands grip the fold of the sheet. Nathan grabs a clean kidney dish just in time and thrusts it in front of Vin's face as his stomach contracts again.
The nurse wipes Vin's face with a wet cloth, takes another and lays the folded material on his forehead. Vin's face is flushed now. His hair is plastered to his head in sweaty clumps, his eyelids translucent and tinged with blue, his lips a colourless line, thin and tight with pain.
'He's made it through the surgery, and the doctor seems to feel that it went all right,' I tell myself, 'The hard part's over. Now all he has to do is get better.'
Somewhere deep inside a voice is telling me that this might just the beginning - that the worst is yet to come. But I clamp down hard on that voice and tighten my hold on the bed rail.
Vin just doesn't look like he has a whole lot left in him that's capable of dealing with 'the worst'.
And if I'm to be honest, I'm not sure I do either.
I think I'm lost.
Somewhere in this muddled world I'm floatin' in a sea of rollin' waves that pitch me just to the peak of consciousness, then just as quick, snatch me away again. And it's makin' me seasick, this teeterin' back and forth and I'm thinkin' that if I could only stay in one spot or the other, and stop m' brain from sloshin' around inside m' skull and m' stomach from floppin' all over the place, then everythin' would be fine.
First I'm hot.
Then I'm cold.
And I hurt.
And it has teeth, this hurt, and it's eatin' away inside me, carvin' out my belly with razored edges. M' stomach's this hard, round rock of never-endin' agony and when I touch it, I feel like screamin'.
And I feel like I'm drownin' here alone inside my head.
But I know there's someone out there, reachin' for me, and pullin' me in toward the shore. I can't quite decide whether I should go or not - but I guess if there's someone who cares enough t' come after me, I best not let them down.
I try t' open m' eyes, but m' head's hurtin' and m' stomach's achin' and I just know I'm gonna be sick. The pain's searin' right through me, and somebody's turnin' me t' the side and holdin' m' head and in between all the retchin' and moanin' I can feel someone's hand rubbin' my back and it feels good. It doesn't completely take away from the fact that m' insides are bein' torn right apart, but then I feel somethin' workin' it's way through m' veins and it makes everything soft around the edges. Soon I'm driftin' away from the pain and everything's goin' grey and it's all good.
M' next attempt at consciousness goes a little better. I finally manage t' crack m' eyes open enough t' figure out that I'm lyin' in a bed in a hospital. I got this naggin' ache in m' stomach, but when I try t' move m' hand there, someone grabs m' arm and holds it tight.
Then a hand's pushin' m' hair away from m' forehead and I see these hazel eyes smilin' down at me.
"God, Vin, you have no idea how good it is to see you awake. I thought we'd lost you."
I should have known it would be Chris who'd save me from drownin', and I try t' smile at him before I drift away again...
I shouldn't oughta done that - push m'self up like that, because it really hurts, but Chris is there pushin' me down so it kind of evens out in the end.
"He's all right - he's fine."
Next time I wake up it's t' the sound of Buck and JD arguin' what's real quiet-like for them over the sports section of the newspaper. When I hear the sounds of paper tearin' I decide it might be a good time t' let them know I'm awake - just t' be sure the hostilities don't escalate or nothin' like that.
"Buck! Vin's awake!"
They're both crowdin' around the bed in no time.
" 'Bout time you decided to join the land of the living!" Buck looks as if he's ready t' pick me up and hug me. "You've been lyin' in that bed so long, I swear you must be about ready t' grow roots!"
"Good t' see ya too."
M' voice sounds rusty and m' mouth is so dry I can barely speak.
"Here Vin, the nurse said you could have some ice chips - nothing else until you've been awake awhile and the doctor says it's all right."
JD tips a spoon to m' mouth and I gotta say, I never knew ice tasted so good.
"You've had us really worried. It's been three days since you were brought in here. The doctor says you have a temperature - says it's your body trying to fight off the infection."
Just at that moment the door swings open and Chris comes in. He's carryin' three cups of coffee and a newspaper is stuffed under one arm, and he stops short when he sees me.
I gotta clear m' throat before I can continue.
"I see yer puttin' yer new job skills t' good use."
I point at the cups balancin' in Chris's hands.
"One 'a those fer me?"
"Yeah, dream on."
Chris doles out the drinks before perching on the end of m' bed.
"Chris? Is Jeremy..?"
"He's OK Vin. You've asked me that every time you've been awake. He's still here in Miami - he's at the Children's Hospital. He's got to have some extensive testing for his asthma and likely a new treatment program. But he came out of the whole fiasco on the ship just fine. Thanks to you."
"What about Williston?"
I can't believe I'm runnin' outta steam already, and it takes all the energy I've got to even whisper now.
"Turns out Bradley was right - he's been selling guns for some time. He'd take the ship's Zodiac and rendezvous with his customers out on the briny deep somewhere - told the crew he was going fishing. Some of these angling fanatics do fish at night, so it was a good cover. The unscheduled stop? It was just that. There was a problem with one of the engines and the captain wanted to have it taken care of. He had no idea what Williston was up to and things started to go bad when the boat headed to the D.R. The buyers had made a hefty down payment on their purchases and were sure Williston had made another deal behind their backs. When the boat changed its course, they got suspicious and thought they were being double-crossed. Williston contacted them, but apparently couldn't convince them they weren't being left in the lurch. No honour among thieves, I guess. And it seems patience isn't a virtue among the law-breaking set either - they got antsy and moved in on us."
M' eyes are closin', but there's still so much more I want t' know. I try blinkin', hopin' my vision'll refocus, but m' body's refusin' t' cooperate. The pain is stalkin' me again, and I turn m' face into the pillow, hopin' it won't find me.
"Do you need something Vin? You have a pump now - here, take this. Do you want me to do it for you?"
"S'OK - kin do it - m' good."
I don't know whether I'm the one who ended up pressin' the button. All I know is the pump must've worked, because I can't feel anything anymore and I think I might be fallin' asleep...
I'm sick of bein' tired, and tired of bein' sick. That damn fever's still got me in its teeth, and I swear it's burnin' in every bone and muscle in m' body.
Thinkin' I was good? That might've been a bit of an exaggeration, since I'm findin' m'self pukin' for the third time this morning into the stupid kidney basin. The doctors are havin' trouble findin' an antibiotic that doesn't make me throw up, and I gotta say, I sure hope they come up with somethin' soon.
I really, really hate this - watchin' Buck take the bowl away t' empty it in the bathroom and havin' Chris wipin' m' face like I'm a little kid.
Buck comes back and puts his hand on m' forehead.
I hate when he does that.
"Chris? I'm thinkin' maybe I should go and get the nurse. Junior seems to be gettin' to the top of the forest fire index here."
"I'm OK C-Chris, I'm jist k-kinda hot. Maybe ya'll could..."
All of a sudden I feel really dizzy, m' tongue feels thick and heavy in m' mouth, and m' body's shakin' and I can't make it stop. Chris and Buck are fadin' in and out, like bad reception on the television and I try t' reach out t' hold them still, but m' arms are made of stone. I'm bein' pulled away, inta the flames and the fire's eatin' me up, lickin' through m' body and into m' brain, until I'm nothin' but smoke and ash swirlin' away on the whim of the wind.
Chris says I spent the next week like this - either sweatin' and boilin' in the desert or shiverin' and rattlin' through an Arctic winter.
I guess I was mostly out of m' head and I really don't remember much.
But I do remember that Chris was with me through it all.
And I've gotta say, I don't know what I did t' deserve it.
How did someone like me ever come t' have someone like Chris care about him?
Every good thing I've got in my life right now is because of Chris. My job, my friends, my home. I still can't believe Chris wanted me on his team in the first place. I don't have the proper qualifications t' be a government agent. I barely finished high school, I've got a learnin' disability and I grew up a ward of the state. I lived in more foster homes than I could count, and I was in m' share of wrangles with the law when I was a teenager.
Chris knows all this and still gave me a place on his team.
Josiah says me and Chris have got 'a bond that transcends friendship'. I think that means we're soul mates. Brothers. But if I'm gonna be completely honest, you know, sometimes that scares me. A lot. I admire and respect Chris more than anyone I've ever known, but I can't believe he could ever feel the same way about me. Chris is smart and confident and capable and strong and lives in a world where everyone else is just like him. Or, at least, that's the way things seem t' me from where I stand, on the outside lookin' in.
I think I'm kinda like JD when it comes t' Chris - awestruck and bowled over by hero worship.
I just hide it better.
It's been two weeks.
Two weeks of watching and waiting for Vin to finally turn the corner and set off on the road to recovery.
Travis has been good about all of this - let us arrange our schedules so one of us can be with Vin at all times. Nathan and Josiah and I have been taking turns in three day shifts. We were all there the first few days, when Vin was so sick the doctors weren't sure he was going to make it. Things got off to a bad start when it turned out the antibiotics were almost as deadly as the infection, but once they found one that weighed in more on the 'cure' than 'kill' side of the equation, Vin started to finally come around. It was slow going though - a 'one step forward, three steps back' kind of progression that left Vin pale and weak and wrung out.
I really think if hundred years go by before I see anyone puke again, it will be too soon.
I can't help but worry about Vin. I figure that too many years of working hard just to stay alive have done a job on his immune system. It makes me wonder, and not for the first time, just exactly where and how Vin grew up. What circumstances made him into the man he is today? Who did he have to turn to when things got rough? One of these days I swear I'm going to find the answers to my questions, but for now I just add them to the list of unknowns that make up the puzzle that is Vin.
I'm looking at him now, sleeping, the chess board forgotten on his lap. Most of the pieces have slid into a heap on the sheets, and I can hear the rattle of something between the mattress and the rail when Vin shifts. He still tires easily - sometimes nods off in the middle of a sentence, but we all know he needs the rest. I'm especially not complaining now, since he'd been poised to move his knight on my king, and I'm thinking his temporary narcolepsy might do good things for my chess game.
I hear a noise in the hall and when I look at my watch I see it's time for lunch. I can't figure out why mealtime in the hospital is so out of step with the rest of the world. It's barely eleven o'clock, and sure enough, right on time, the kitchen aid comes bustling through the door with Vin's tray. It seems to make no difference that he's not awake - she sets his meal on the overbed table and rolls it in front of him, then presses the button to raise the head of his bed. I'm poised to dive to his rescue before he takes a header into his jello, but she stops the movement just in time as Vin opens his eyes.
"There you are, sweetie. You try to get this down you. You're too thin. The doctor won't let you go home til you start eating."
Vin gives her a weak smile as she fluffs his pillow and pats his hand.
She glowers at me on her way out the door.
"And I don't want to catch you sneaking anything off his plate."
Like that's going to happen.
"Yeah, cowboy, ya'll stay away from my dinner. Go git yer own - " Vin lifts the cover and wrinkles his nose, "yer own... hell, Chris. What is this stuff?"
I can't help but laugh as Vin's face turns green and he quickly replaces the lid.
"I don't know if I could eat that even if I wasn't feelin' like crap."
"I'll see if I can smuggle something in later."
Vin drops a teabag into the mug of hot water and picks up his spoon. He stops long enough to give me a pleading look.
"Are ya sure there ain't somethin' ya can do t' git me outta here?"
"Vin, you still can't keep anything down. Much as I wish I could help you, I can't have you coming to the ranch and starving to death under my care. You think it's a police state in here - just wait until Mrs. Potter gets her hands on you."
"But at least she kin cook."
Vin peers warily at his meal again, like he's expecting it to leap off the plate and attack him, then shoves it away with a resigned sigh.
I reach over, grab his wrist, and circle my fingers loosely around it.
"I know you're not a big guy, Vin, but c'mon..."
"What time is Jeremy gittin' here?"
"You're changing the subject."
"Yeah, I know... is it two? Or three?"
"It's two. His Mom called while you were napping and said he's doing so well his tutoring is going to start up again on Monday."
"That's good... Chris, I bin meanin' t' ask ya.... Would it be OK if I invited him t' the ranch fer a visit once I git out? Maybe at Thanksgiving? The doc says I'm going to be laid up fer awhile yet, but once I'm stronger, I'd really like t' take the kid out on Peso. I was thinkin' too that next spring he could come again and we'd do some campin' up in the mountains."
"You know you don't even need to ask, Vin. I think it would be great to have him come."
He nods his thanks, but a frown creases his face and uncertainty wavers in the blue eyes.
"Spit it out, Pard. What's gnawing at you now?"
"I dunno, Chris... how long we known each other? Goin' on fer a year now?"
"Yeah, that sounds about right."
Vin lowers his gaze and picks at a thread in the blanket.
"Ya don't need t' be here holdin' m' hand all the time. I'm used t' lookin' out for m'self, and, well, it ain't been that long since I was last in the hospital..."
"Vin, you had the flu - it's hardly your fault you got sick...except now that I think of it - you might have been able to avoid the whole 'dehydration and IV' experience if you'd taken better care of yourself. You don't spend all your time in the hospital - well except for this, and the flu, and that couple of days when you broke your ankle, and the time that perp's mother drove those scissors through your arm... are you sure we've only known each other a year? I think you've spent at least twice that amount of time as a guest of one health care facility or another."
"Are ya... sorry ya took me on?"
"What kind of a stupid question is that?"
"I'm really tryin' t' stay outta trouble, ya know? I jist don't know why these things keep happenin' t' me..."
I feel a pang of sympathy when I look at my friend's worried face. I shouldn't be joking about any of this - Vin's deadly serious and I'm going to have to handle the question carefully to avoid hurting his feelings. Vin chooses that moment to run a tired hand over his face, and when he does I catch a glimpse of the grimace he's trying to hide. When he drops his hand and presses it tight against his stomach, I'm reminded of the scene from a month earlier when I found Vin bent double and in obvious pain after his run in with the Parsons brothers.
"Vin, when you, Josiah and Ez had that set to a month or so back - you were hurt worse than you let on. Why didn't you say something? You should have been checked out more thoroughly then. If you had been, perhaps all of this could have been avoided."
"I don't know, Chris... I jist don't want t' let anyone down. M' job's real important t' me and..."
I'm trying to be patient, but I can't help letting out an exasperated breath.
"Vin, you're the best damn sharpshooter that's ever come through the system. I haven't got room for anything but the best on my team. And you're more than that, Cowboy. You're a good fit with the guys and...."
I wait for Vin's eyes to come up to meet my own.
"I really didn't think I'd have to spell it out for you. In case you haven't noticed, you're the best friend I've got. You're the brother I always wanted. Why else do you think I feel I'm entitled to boss you around the way I do, even when you're not at work?"
A slow smile starts on Vin's lips.
"Yeah, now that I think on it, ya are kinda bossy - above and beyond the whole 'call of duty' thing."
I hold out my hand and Vin grasps my forearm.
"Now hurry and get yourself better and out of that bed before I start having second thoughts."
Vin's eyes light up and a smile twitches at his lips.
"Yes sir. Mom."
I grin back and tighten my grip. Vin still has a long way to go before he's back on his feet, but I have no doubt he'll get there. He's stubborn if nothing else, and he has six equally stubborn friends ready and willing to do whatever's necessary to push him in the right direction.
"You really mean it?"
Jeremy's perched on the end of Vin's bed, trying hard not to bounce.
"Yep, when you come next May we'll do the cowboy thing."
"We can go overnight? Sleep in a tent? Catch fish for breakfast?"
"Vin? Don't go making promises you can't keep."
"What d' ya mean by that Larabee? You're the one who never catches anything."
Vin leans toward the boy and whispers so all can hear.
"See that look on his face there? Good thing he won't be with us - fish'd never come around."
Jeremy turns and regards me thoughtfully.
"He doesn't look that scary to me."
"That's because he likes you, and you ain't done nothin' yet to make him mad."
"Tanner! That's not fair."
I've got to smile in spite of myself.
"You make me mad without even trying, and not everyone's as aggravating as you are."
Vin rolls his eyes and Jeremy giggles.
"I'm going to learn how to ride a horse before I come. I never been on a real horse before - ponies don't count. Mommy says I can take lessons. Can you teach me how to lasso? And show me how to put them shoes on the horses? Can you show me how to ride real fast? Can I have a hat?"
"Whoa there! When you come at Thanksgiving, we'll get out for a ride fer sure."
"How many more sleeps is that?"
Vin looks at me.
"C'mon Larabee. Make yourself useful. Help us out here."
Forty-three days. Somewhere around six weeks. I look carefully at Vin's thin face and hope the boy won't be disappointed. Vin's still got a lot of healing to do in the next month and a half, not to mention that other surgery that's out there waiting. But perhaps it's a good thing there's a date set for Jeremy's visit. It will give the boy something to look forward to, and if Vin has a deadline to work toward too - well he might actually do as he's told and take care of himself. He's starting to look tired now, and I figure I'll have to come up with a reason for his guests to leave. It takes me a minute to realize that Jeremy's gone quiet and is looking at Vin thoughtfully.
"Are you going to get better soon Vin? My Mommy says you're still real sick, and you don't got no Mommy to look after you."
I'd be willing to swear I see Vin's eyes go damp, if only for a few seconds.
"Well, kiddo, it's right nice of you t' worry on me, but I'll be jist fine. Remember I told you I had a bunch of real good friends t' look out for me? They'll make sure I get better soon."
"Is they the friends you was telling me about?"
"Yep. The very same. You've met some of them already."
Jeremy turns and looks at me seriously.
"Is you going to make sure Vin gets better?"
"Well, Jeremy, I'll do my best. Some of this depends on Vin, too. He has to do what the doctors tell him and take his medicine and eat right and get lots of rest. Maybe just to be sure, he should give you his word that he'll do all those things. There's nothing more important to a cowboy than his word. A cowboy never breaks a promise."
Vin's glaring at me now, but I pretend not to notice.
Earnest brown eyes turn to Vin and he squirms under their scrutiny.
"Do you promise Vin? That you'll get better for when I come to visit?"
Vin gives me one final death-stare before turning his attention back to the boy.
"Yeah, Pard, you got my word. I really want to be all fixed up for when you come. We're goin' t' have a great time."
Jeremy crawls carefully up the bed and lays his head beside Vin's on the pillow, throws thin arms around his neck and holds on tight. Vin reaches up with his free hand and ruffles the dark hair.
"Bye Vin. I'll see you soon. Remember to call me on the weekend. OK?"
"Yep, will do. You be good and do what yer Mamma tells you."
"I will. And you 'member to eat your veg'tables and stuff."
"Yeah, Vin," I say as sternly as I can manage. "You remember to eat your vegetables and go to bed early and do what you're told, too."
Vin grins at me over the top of the boy's head, and holds out his hand.
"You got my word."