"Sweet Jesus!" Josiah uttered at the sight of Chris and Vin, so obviously injured, in the cell. He searched for the keys, ripping them off the peg, and covered the distance to the cell in two long strides.
"Nathan and the others'll be here soon, Chris. We split up to cover more ground in town looking for you two."
Chris nodded silently, parched throat and the flood of relief washing over him temporarily robbing him of the ability to speak.
"What happened to Vin?" Josiah asked quietly as he unlocked the cell.
"That f*cking gang is what "happened" to Vin! A few of the men around here "happened" to him, too," Chris retorted, recovering his voice in his anger. He turned his burning gaze onto Scott and Jones, sitting mutely in the adjoining cell.
Josiah looked at his two friends. Chris was a mess, Vin even worse. The darkly clad man's face was lined with exhaustion and worry, with vivid bruising showing through the many day's worth of beard stubble. He was filthy and ragged, his shirt, ripped and missing its sleeves, which he noticed, were wrapped around one of Vin's hands as a bandage. An ugly red bullet wound defaced the pale skin of one arm. But it was the eyes that scared Josiah the most. Deep, sunken, hollow. Chris looked like he had all those months ago when Josiah had first met the gunslinger. Like he wanted to kill someone and just give up on living, all at the same time. 'What the hell had happened here?' Josiah wondered silently as he stared at the two men. Staring at them both, he decided to ask the most obvious question first.
"Where's Vin hurt, Chris?"
"Busted ribs, he's shot in the arm and they broke his hand, Josiah," Chris rasped. "And then two bastards held him while their friend beat the crap outta him, while that crooked SOB, Sheriff Martin, "questioned" him. I couldn't even do a God damned thing. I was locked in the other cell. I saw everything Josiah and I couldn't help him," Chris said, clutching Josiah's forearms so tightly the big man knew there'd be bruises there tomorrow. But he didn't care. Chris needed to tell it, to recount the nightmare of their horrific captivity. It would be the only way he would be able to heal, to lose that deadly, haunted look in his eyes.
Chris was a strong man, probably the strongest Josiah had ever known. But this terrible experience had deeply wounded their leader. Not even his imprisonment in Jericho had affected him so powerfully. And Josiah knew why. It wasn't his own injuries, painful as they looked, that had traumatized him, it had been Vin. Chris had had to watch helplessly as his best friend was savagely, brutally beaten. He knew that watching that happen had driven Chris near his breaking point and he prayed Nathan would arrive soon to care for both Vin and Chris.
"Josiah?" a deep voice rumbled.
"Thank you Lord," the big man said softly as he heard Nathan's voice. "Back here Nate! Chris and Vin are with me!"
"Chris," Nathan bellowed when he saw him. "You're hurt!"
"Vin's worse than me Nathan," Chris choked out past his dry, abused throat. "Help him, please," he pleaded.
Nathan sat down net to Vin on the bunk, touching his forehead first, feeling the fever burning through the smaller man's body. He noticed the nearly empty pitcher and rag next to it, realizing quickly how desperate the situation had been for Chris and Vin, locked in the cell with untreated wounds and little water.
"Josiah! Get me some more water, cold water. We gotta cool Vin down!"
At Nathan's request, Josiah grabbed the bucket sitting outside the cell and ran outside. He hurried back in shortly with the water, bringing Buck and Ezra with him.
"What the hell happened?" Buck hollered.
Vin flinched in his sleep at Buck's loud tones.
"Keep it down Buck!" Nathan hissed. "You're upsettin' Vin. And he don't need that right now."
"Sorry Nathan," the tall gunslinger apologized, then turned to talk to Chris. Before he could even ask Chris anything about their ordeal, his oldest friend's knees began to buckle. Chris slowly started to sag to the floor.
"Easy pard!" Buck said, grabbing him under the arms and easing him to the ground.
Nathan turned from where he was examining Vin. "Buck, get him some water, looks like he ain't had any in a while."
Buck filled the tin cup and sat Chris up to drink it.
"No," Chris protested weakly, turning his head as Buck pressed it against his lips. "Give it to Vin, he needs it."
"Plenty 'a water now Chris, drink it," Nathan ordered.
"No . . . give it to Vin . . ." Chris whispered, continuing to fight Buck. Chris's strength waned and Buck finally managed to pour most of the water into Chris's mouth.
"Feelin' better now pard?" he asked gently.
Chris looked at Buck worriedly. "Vin. How's Vin?"
"Nate's lookin' at him now, Chris. Just relax. Drink some more water, okay?" Buck asked, bringing the cup back to his lips and forcing more liquid into him.
"How is he Nathan?" Josiah questioned.
"Bad off, Josiah. We gotta get that bullet hole cleaned out and he's got a whole lot 'a other hurts need tendin', too. There a doctor in this town?"
"There most certainly is!" a crisp voice announced. The men turned at the sound to see Ezra leading an older man into the cell area.
"Why weren't these men tended to?" the man asked sharply, directing the question to Scott and Jones, sitting forlornly in their cell.
"Uh, well, uh, Doc Smith, we . . . well you see . . ." Scott stammered.
"What I see is two men who didn't do as I asked!" Doctor Smith barked back. He turned to the Four Corner's contingent. "I'm Harold Smith, the doctor around these parts."
"Nathan Jackson," Nathan introduced himself, shaking the doctor's hand.
"Josiah Sanchez," the former preacher also shook the older man's hand. "And that's Buck Wilmington and Chris Larabee," he said, gesturing to the two men behind him. "And this is Vin Tanner."
"I'm sorry about your friends, Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sanchez. I've been busy with Miss Barnes, who was shot during the robbery holdup for quite a while. I instructed those two men," he looked at Scott and Jones piercingly, "to take care of their injuries until I could get here. I gave them plenty of supplies, which I see are still on the sheriff's desk."
"I'll retrieve the items in question, my good doctor," Ezra offered.
"Thank you," Doctor Smith replied. "In the meantime, I'd like to look at Mr. Tanner and Mr. Larabee." He paused to regard Nathan. "Of course, only if you don't mind, Mr. Jackson. Mr. Standish informs me that you are the healer in your town, and a fine one at that."
"Go on ahead doctor, we'd be obliged for your help," Nathan answered.
"Will you assist me, Mr. Jackson?" he asked.
"Just tell me what you want me to do," Nathan responded.
"I'd like to examine Mr. Tanner here and get him and Mr. Larabee out of this jail for starters," Doctor Smith said. "It seems they've been wrongfully incarcerated, isn't that right Scott?"
"Yessir, it is," Scott agreed quietly.
The doctor turned back to the other men. He began to examine Vin, talking as he worked. "From what I gather, Sheriff Martin, implicated your friends in the bank robbery here, when in fact, they were really prisoners themselves and forced to participate. Miss Barnes was the only living witness to the robbery, everyone else was shot and killed by Sheriff Martin and the gang he is a member of. Miss Barnes regained consciousness about an hour before I came over here and told us everything. She described her attackers and cleared Mr. Tanner and Mr. Larabee of any wrong doing."
"Thank God for that, Doctor," Josiah replied gratefully.
"I'm just sorry your friends had to go through this," the doctor said. He straightened up from the bed. "Mr. Jackson, if you will hand me the laudanum, we'll dose Mr. Tanner and then move him and Mr. Larabee to my clinic. They'll be more comfortable there and easier for us to treat."
"You sure we should move him?" Buck asked warily from the floor, where he was watching over Chris's sleeping form.
"Yes, Mr. Wilmington, he won't feel any pain with the laudanum and he's holding his own right now. Best to move them both out of this wretched place."
"What about the two reprobates?" Ezra asked, indicating Jones and Scott.
"Leave 'em locked in there," Chris answered groggily. "Give 'em a taste of their own medicine."
"Sounds like an excellent suggestion to me," Doctor Smith seconded.
Buck helped Chris to his feet and supported him on the trek to the clinic, while Josiah and Nathan carried Vin. They walked out of the jail, leaving Scott and Jones locked inside, without a second glance.
He was thirsty. And hot. He opened his blue eyes as wide as he could manage, which was only a crack.
No bars on the windows, he thought to himself dully. Ain't the jail or the prison wagon. Where the hell am I? he wondered silently as he closed his eyes.
His eyes flew open in alarm. "Chris!" he tried to yell, but it came out as a desperate croak. "Chris!" he croaked again, coughing against his dry throat.
He looked around the room frantically, his wounded body protesting the movement, but he ignored the pain. He had to find his friend.
He tried to sit up, gasping for air as the room spun and a sharp pain travelled up from his hand when he put even the slightest weight on it. He rolled weakly onto his side, then flipped off the bed onto the floor. He landed in a heap, crying out as his sore ribs and injured arm connected with the wood.
"Chris?" he called in a stricken voice and he began to drag his beaten, battered frame along the floor, searching for the other man. He painfully made his way across the room to the door, looking up at the knob with determination. Forcing himself to his hands and knees, he closed his eyes against the rising darkness. "Gotta hang on," he whispered to encourage himself. "Gotta find Chris, he needs me." With a renewed effort, he pushed upwards and clung to the knob, turning it as hard as he could. The knob turned and the door opened slightly. Vin almost fell backward, but caught himself, grabbing at the doorknob again with his broken hand. He hissed at the bright burst of pain and removed his hand, beginning to crawl out into the hallway.
"Chris?" he called out hoarsely, as the last of his strength left him. He slid to the floor unconscious.
"Mother of God" Josiah shouted as he stepped into the hallway from Chris's sick room. "Vin!" He turned back into the room. "Nathan, get out here, it's Vin." The preacher carefully picked the smaller man up off the floor. Nathan appeared at his side.
"What happened Josiah?" Nathan asked leading the way back into Vin's room and stepping aside to allow Josiah to place the still figure onto the bed.
"I'm not sure, he was just laying on the floor when I came out of Chris's room."
"Let me take a look at him," Nathan said.
"Need me to get Doc Smith?" Josiah offered.
"Nah, not yet. Let him stay with Miz Barnes until I know for sure," Nathan answered.
"Vin? Vin?" Nathan called softly to the wounded man as he checked him over.
"Nathan?" Vin said weakly.
The healer smiled with relief. "Yeah, that's right Vin. It's Nathan. Got Josiah here, too. Just rest easy, you're gonna be fine."
"No . . . no . . . Chris," Vin protested, trying to push against Nathan's strong arms. "Gotta find him . . ."
"Is that what you were doin' in the hall?" Nathan asked.
"Chris . . . Chris . . . he's hurt Nathan, help me," Vin pleaded.
"Sshh, Vin, it's okay. Chris is fine, he's asleep in the next room."
But Vin was past the point of reasonableness. He fought weakly against Nathan, the words the other man said not sinking into his muddled brain.
"I was afraid of this," Nathan said wearily. "Told Doc Smith Vin and Chris should be in the same room together. I know how those two are. Could just as easily been Chris who woke up, lookin' for Vin and passed out." He looked back at the big man. "Josiah, can you find a cot somewhere? Let's move Chris in here, Vin'll rest easier that way." His eyes were drawn back to the feverish man tossing restlessly on the bed. "But first, hand me the laudanum, will ya? Ain't good for Vin to be movin' around like this. He's gonna pull his stitches or hurt those ribs some more." He poured a small dose down the struggling man's throat and held him tightly as he dropped off to sleep.
"What the hell's goin' on?" a sharp voice demanded from the doorway.
"Chris, how ya feelin'?" Nathan asked with relief.
"Something happen to Vin, Nathan? Was that what all that noise was about?" Chris asked in hushed tones, ignored the healer's question. He walked to the bed, weaving slightly. Josiah came forward and helped him to Vin's side.
"You should be in bed," Nathan scolded the gunslinger.
"Better answer me doc, and I ain't leaving," Chris warned as he eased himself onto the bed and slowly wiped away the thin sheen of perspiration covering the younger man's pale features.
"He came lookin' for you, collapsed out in the hall," Nathan explained.
"I told that damned doctor I needed to be in the same room as Vin. Why didn't anybody listen to me?" he accused angrily. "Just poured that God damned laudanum down my throat and didn't listen to a word I said." The tracker moaned and tossed in his sleep. The anger immediately left Chris, replaced by concern for the injured man.
"Vin? Vin? I'm right here. Don't worry, I ain't leavin'," he vowed, letting his eyes come to rest on Josiah and Nathan bitterly. "Why was he by himself anyway?"
"I just came in to talk to Nathan for a minute, Chris. I'm sorry. He'd been sleepin' for so long, I never thought he'd wake up while I was gone and come lookin' for you," the preacher apologized contritely. He looked at the former bounty hunter, looking so small and fragile in the bed and was consumed by guilt. Vin could have very easily re-injured himself when he'd gone in search of Chris. And it was all his fault.
Chris looked at his morose friend. "It's all right Josiah, no harm done. Could have happened to any of us, I guess. And it ain't your fault he's hurt," he said in a tight voice. "It's those bastards Slim Jim Watkins, Sheriff Martin and that gang." He fought to maintain his composure, should Vin need him. "Anybody go after those bastards?"
"Ezra and Buck headed out right after we got you and Vin settled over here," Josiah answered. "We let Jones and Scott out of jail to go with 'em, they wanted to do somethin' to help, make up for their sins. A few other men from town went along, too. Formed a posse, was goin' after Martin and then the rest of the gang."
"Dammit," Chris muttered sharply, cursing his injury and weakness for not being able to ride along with the posse to catch the men that had hurt Vin so badly. He'd vowed to the sharpshooter that those men would pay.
"Chris, there was no way you could have ridden with them," Josiah reassured, guessing the reason for Chris guilt. "You were hurt and in pretty bad shape. It's been two and a half days and you're just now wakin' up. Wouldn't have been any good to them out on the trail. 'Sides, Vin needs ya," he finished, clapping a hand comfortingly onto his back.
"Thanks Josiah," Chris replied.
"Any time, brother," Josiah answered. "Now I have to see about getting a cot for this room here. Seems that Brother Nate wants you moved in here with Brother Vin."
"Wouldn't have it any other way Josiah. You should know that by now," Chris said with a wry smile as he checked on his sleeping friend once again.
"Right here Vin," the gunslinger replied, lifting himself to a sitting position, then easing himself off of his own cot to hurry to Vin's bedside. "Vin?" he said, clasping the warm hand and resting his hand on a feverish cheek.
"I don't wanna rob the bank Chris," Vin said in the soft, sad voice. "Somebody's gonna get hurt, I know it."
Chris looked into the fever glazed eyes. "Sshh, Vin, nobody's gonna rob the bank. And everybody's okay. Just go back to sleep."
"But, I saw you get shot, and that woman, they killed her Chris," Vin protested, lifting his pain-filled blue gaze to his best friend.
Chris exhaled softly in the still room. "Okay Vin, I ain't gonna lie to ya, that did happen, but look, I'm all right and that lady who got shot is doin' just fine. Now will ya go back to sleep?" he pleaded.
"I'm gonna get put back in the wagon, ain't I?" Vin's voice rose with alarm. "Chris? Chris? I don't wanna ride in the wagon anymore. It's too small. . ."
"Vin! Vin!" Chris said sharply, shaking the man ever so slightly to gain his attention. "You ain't ever goin' in the wagon again. I promise. You're gonna stay here with me and I ain't gonna let anything else happen to ya."
Chris watched as Vin's eyes lost focus and he slipped back into unconsciousness. He laid his head down on the mattress and prepared for a long, sleepless night.
Nathan rested a large hand on Chris's shoulder, gently shaking the older man awake.
"Chris? It's Nathan. Wake up and get back in bed, I'll sit with Vin now."
The gunslinger turned to look at Nathan with a weary gaze. "Nathan," he began, rubbing a hand across his bloodshot eyes, "what time is it?"
"'Bout five in the morning Chris. What're you doin' outta bed?"
"Vin woke up last night pretty out of it," Chris responded. "I didn't want to leave him alone," he shrugged tiredly as he pulled himself up to stand next to the healer. He swayed slightly and Nathan moved quickly to steady him.
"Thanks, guess I stood up too fast," Chris said ruefully.
"You don't get back in bed, there's gonna be two of you like this," Nathan said tartly, gesturing toward Vin. He leaned down to touch Vin's forehead lightly. "He's still pretty warm," he pronounced with a frown. He turned back to Chris. "But he's not as hot as he was last night. He's gettin' better Chris. I'll take care 'a him now, you get on back to bed."
"Nathan . . ."
The healer turned sharply and stepped forward, to stand toe to toe with the gunslinger. "Chris, I ever give you any reason not to trust me?"
"No, 'course not, Nathan," Chris said with surprise.
"Then listen to me for once, will ya?" Nathan asked in an exasperated tone, a small smile softening the words.
"Okay, I get the point Nate," Chris replied with a sardonic smile of his own. "But . . ."
"I know Chris. I'll get you when he wakes up."
"Thanks Nathan," Chris said, breaking into a large grin.
"Bed!" Nathan ordered.
"I'm goin', I'm goin'," Chris retorted, sinking into the cot gratefully, trusting Vin to Nathan's care and hoping that the sharpshooter would be better when he woke up.
A couple of hours later, Josiah ambled into the room, yawning and stretching.
"Morning, Brother Nate. How're Vin and Chris doing?"
"Chris is healin' up fine and Vin's holdin' his own, Josiah," Nathan said quietly, so as not to disturb the two sleepers. "Vin's fever broke 'about an hour ago. I'm just waitin' for him to wake up now. I want to get him to eat something."
"Want me to go get breakfast for everybody, Nathan?"
The healer's face broke into a huge grin. "Was hopin' you'd volunteer, Josiah! How 'bout gettin' some broth for Vin? Chris and me'll eat whatever else you come up with."
"Be back before you know it," Josiah assured, leaving Nathan alone with his two charges.
"How much farther?"
"Just around the bend. Hang on," Sheriff Martin said to Slim Jim Watkins. The two were the only surviving members of their gang. The posse, led by Buck and Ezra, had gunned down the rest, at a bloody shoot-out near the gang hideout at Hanging Rock. Slim Jim and Martin had escaped, bailing out in the middle of the fight, and headed back to Winslow at Martin's suggestion. He'd figured that the town would be the last place the posse would expect them to go, and many of the town's men were riding in the posse, leaving Winslow vulnerable. Slim Jim's horse had thrown a shoe and they figured to pick up fresh horses and a hostage or two and keep riding south, toward Mexico and freedom.
"Vin? Vin? That's it, open your eyes," Nathan coaxed.
He dipped a cloth in the cool water and gently bathed Vin's face to help bring him around. The injured man finally opened his eyes and Nathan sat back with a relieved smile.
"Hey Vin," he called softly.
The tracker's bright, blue eyes followed the voice, trying to focus on the face. He blinked a few times to clear the fuzzy image.
"N-Nathan?" he strained his voice to whisper.
"Yep, it's me Vin. Just lay back and keep quiet for a minute. I'll get ya something to drink."
Vin closed his eyes, waiting thirstily for the healer to bring him some water.
"Here ya go Vin," Nathan said, easing Vin up a little to drink.
Raised up as he was, Vin could now see Chris, sleeping on the cot on the other side of the room.
"Chris?" he said uncertainly, frowning worriedly. "Nathan, what's wrong with Chris?" he asked with alarm.
"Nothing Vin, he's doin' fine, just sleepin' is all. He stayed up most of the night with you."
"He did?" Vin asked in confusion.
"Yep, you had a fever," Nathan explained. "And no more 'a that business, Vin. You been sick long enough," he joked lightly.
Vin's frown deepened as he looked back at the healer.
"I'm just funnin' with ya Vin," Nathan said hastily. "Don't worry about it."
"It ain't that Nathan," Vin said slowly as he struggled to remember the events of the last week. "Where's Martin and the rest of those boys? Did anybody catch 'em?"
Nathan shook his head. "Not yet Vin. But Buck and Ezra rode out few days ago, leadin' a posse."
"Oh," Vin said, slightly confused. "I been out that long?"
"Yep, you've been pretty sick," Nathan said. "You want to try and sit up some?"
"Yeah, that'd be good Nate," Vin agreed.
Nathan pulled Vin up and pushed two extra pillows behind his back to support him. Vin looked a little better than he had earlier, and for that Nathan was thankful. The younger man still had a lot of healing to do, but Nathan felt he was well on his way to a full recovery. Now he just needed to get some food into the slim tracker.
As if on cue, Josiah entered the sick room, carrying a tray of food.
"Brother Vin," he boomed, "glad to see you're awake and looking better."
"Thanks Josiah," Vin answered with a smile, "it's good to see you, too. What's on the tray? Hope it's for me, I'm starvin'!"
"Can't remember when I've heard you so talkative, brother," Josiah teased, happy that Vin was improving.
"And yes, this is for you." He offered the tray to Nathan. "Some broth and milk for Vin, toast and eggs for Chris, Nate. I'll go back and get the rest of the food."
"Josiah, hang on," Nathan said. "Why don't you wait a minute 'til I feed Vin and then I'll go over and eat with you." He looked at the tracker. "That okay with you Vin?"
Vin weakly waved his hand. "Go on and git, now, Nathan. I can feed myself. And you been cooped up in this room long enough."
The healer hesitated as he watched Vin pick up the spoon and fill it with broth. Vin's hand shook as he brought the spoon up to his mouth. Liquid dribbled down his chin, and onto the tray.
"You ain't strong enough yet Vin," Nathan said gently and tried to pry the spoon out of Vin's tightly clenched fist.
"I can do it myself, Nathan," Vin protested stubbornly.
"Vin . . ." Nathan started to say.
"Nathan, I said I can do it!" Vin snapped back. Before he could continue, he was interrupted by a strident voice, sounding from the other side of the room.
"I'll take care of him Nate, you go along with Josiah."
"Chris!" Vin said joyfully.
The gunslinger turned a stern face to his best friend. "I'm glad to see you awake, Vin, but not if you're gonna be sour like that. Nathan's been takin' care of both of us for days and this is the thanks he gets?" he chided.
Vin sank back into the pillows, deflated. He hadn't meant to snap at the healer, he was just tired of feeling bad. His head hurt, his chest ached, and his hand throbbed. And he was mad as hell that he couldn't do a simple thing like feed himself. 'Christ, when did I lose control of my life?' he wondered to himself irritably.
He looked up at Nathan, regret showing plainly on his pale face, as he took in the kind, tired features of his friend. "I'm sorry Nathan," he apologized.
"It's all right Vin, I know this is hard for you," he replied graciously.
"But that don't make it right," Vin said. "Go on and eat, don't worry 'bout me, I'll be fine."
Chris walked over to Vin's bed and sat down. He glared at Vin and held his hand out for the spoon, silently daring the tracker to defy him. Vin meekly obeyed and relinquished the silverware with a small sigh. Chris grinned triumphantly at the younger man. "Glad you finally came around to seein' things my way Vin," he gloated and started spooning the broth into the younger man, "'cause the sooner you finish this, the sooner I can eat those eggs." Vin gave him an evil look as he swallowed the soup Chris was rapidly forcing into him.
Nathan and Josiah chuckled at the sight. "See you boys in a while," Chris called over his shoulder and the two men left, glad for their reprieve.
"That's enough!" Vin complained irritably as Chris brought the spoon to his mouth again. "No more, I'm full."
Chris ignored him, slipping the broth-filled spoon into his mouth easily when Vin opened his mouth to voice yet another protest.
"You ain't done 'til I say you are," Chris barked, much more sternly than he'd meant to. He was immediately sorry, as Vin's eyes darted to Chris's with a look of hurt spilling from their sapphire depths. Chris felt like even more of a jackass when Vin flinched inadvertantly the next time Chris raised his hand to bring the spoon up to the injured man's mouth. 'That's just great, Larabee,' Chris chided himself. 'After all that hell Vin's been through, you gotta yell at him. Real nice.'
"Sorry 'bout that Vin, you know my bark's worse than my bite," he said, smiling reassuringly at his best friend. He was relieved to see Vin relax his tensed muscles and continued feeding him. After a few more forced swallows, Chris relented. The bowl was almost empty and Vin's lids were beginning to droop.
"Okay cowboy," he said softly, moving the tray onto the table so Vin could lay down again, "you're done." He pulled the extra pillows out from behind the younger man and eased him back to a reclining position.
"Time for a nice, long nap," he ordered.
Vin fought against the drowsiness that was trying to pull him away from his best friend. He grabbed Chris's arm frantically. "No, I wanna talk to you 'bout something Chris, somethin' important."
"All right, I'm listening, Vin. What is it?" Chris asked, holding Vin's hand tightly, after seeing how agitated Vin was becoming.
In spite of his anxiousness, Vin yawned, then looked at the gunslinger in bewilderment. "I . . . I can't remember . . ." He tried to concentrate, tried to remember what he'd wanted to tell Chris. But it was so hard. And he was so tired.
"Vin, you can tell me later, when you wake up," Chris soothed, pulling his hand away from Vin's and adjusting the covers around the injured man.
"No . . . no . . . wait," Vin mumbled, then relaxed as he fell into an exhausted, deep sleep.
Chris patted his hand comfortingly and sat down in the bedside chair, so he would be able to keep his eye on Vin as he ate his own breakfast.
"Doesn't look like anybody's around," Martin observed as the two criminals rode, unnoticed, into Winslow.
"Good," Slim Jim replied. "Now, since this plan was your idea, what're we gonna do next?"
The corrupt sheriff thought quickly as he looked around the quiet town. A building stood off to itself, at the far end of the main street they rode on. "Let's head there," he said, pointing to the lone structure. "Bound to be somebody in there we can get to take a ride with us." He winked at his partner and laughed harshly at his own joke.
"What about the horses?" Slim Jim protested. "This one ain't gonna go much farther like he is."
"Livery's on that side of town, too. Across the street, see? We'll hit that after we get our hostage, and maybe some grub C'mon."
They rode up to the building, tying their horses to the rail out front.
"Doctor's office," Slim Jim read off the sign handing over the doorway. "Think this is a good idea?"
"Yep. Doc'll make a good hostage. Town'll want someone like that back. 'Sides, he can fix us up if we get hurt on the trail."
"What if he ain't alone?"
"Well, most likely if somebody's in there, they're gonna be sick or something. Ain't gonna give us much trouble." He patted his sidearm. "And if they do, we shoot 'em."
"Sounds good to me," Slim Jim agreed.
They crept into the house, guns drawn, and walked into an empty hall.
"Wonder where the doc is?" Martin whispered.
"Sshh," Slim Jim said and jerked his head toward a closed door on their right.
Martin tried the knob and pushed the door open silently. Empty space greeted the outlaw. He shook his head at his partner and the two men advanced onto the remaining door, situated across the hall.
They flung open the door and burst into the room.
"Well, will you look at that!" Slim Jim exclaimed evilly. "It's our old friends!"
Chris whirled around toward the voice. He'd fallen asleep in the bedside chair after eating and hadn't heard the two men enter. He kicked himself for letting them sneak up on him and Vin as he yanked his feet from where they rested on Vin's bed and shot to his feet. "Watkins! Martin! You sons of bitches!" he shouted.
"Easy there gunslinger," Martin warned, bringing his gun up and pointing it at Chris. "Stay back."
Chris reluctantly stepped back, and positioned himself to stand in front of Vin. He wanted to check and see if the younger man had woken up, but he didn't dare turn to look. The last thing he wanted to do was call Slim Jim and Martin's attention to his injured friend.
"What do you want?" Chris asked cautiously, his steely green eyes boring into Slim Jim and Martin's shifty ones.
"Need two fresh horses and a hostage so we can get away clean," Slim Jim said flatly. He started walking further into the room.
Chris matched him step for step, always keeping himself in between the outlaw and Vin, hoping to shield his best friend from the criminal.
"Step aside Larabee," Slim Jim ordered, waving his gun at Chris. "I wanna say hello to Tanner here."
"Leave him alone," Chris ground out threateningly. "You need a hostage, take me."
Slim Jim shook his head, eyes glinting with menace as he gave the gunslinger a cruel smile. "I'm kinda partial to Tanner here. Although he ain't lookin' quite as pretty as he was last time I saw him," he sneered. He stepped closer to Vin. Chris mirrored his movement and stepped back in front of Vin once again.
"Move aside Larabee, or I'll shoot him now!" Slim Jim barked.
Chris still stood firm, until Slim Jim cocked his gun and leveled it at the sleeping sharpshooter.
"Last chance, Larabee," he warned.
Chris backed away angrily, staring at Slim Jim with hate filled eyes, reading to jump him if he tried anything with Vin.
Martin was on Chris in the next second, grabbing his shirt collar and shoving his gun into his neck.
"Wouldn't try anything if I was you, Larabee. Just relax and enjoy the show," Martin gloated.
Slim Jim winked obscenely at the two men, then turned his attentions back to Vin's unconscious form. He grabbed the water pitcher from the bedside table and dumped the contents into Vin's face.
"Wake up boy!" Slim Jim shouted with glee.
Vin jerked awake as the water hit him. His eyes opened wide in surprise as he saw the hated features of Slim Jim Watkins looking down at him smugly. He rolled over and struggled to sit up. Slim Jim ripped the covers off the bed, grabbed Vin's arm and pulled him up to stand next to him. Vin gasped at the pain that shot through his injured side at the harsh handling, but he was able to stay standing and glared at Slim Jim with disdain.
"Posse's closin' in, ain't they, Slim Jim?" Vin taunted.
Slim Jim backhanded Vin, sending him sprawling back onto the bed. Chris lunged forward, but Martin cocked his pistol and pressed the cold barrel into Chris's back.
"Told ya to leave him be," Martin drawled. "I can shoot ya, then we'll take Tanner for sure. Your choice."
Chris's shoulders sagged, his hands clenched in helpless rage at having to watch Slim Jim abuse his best friend. He would be willing to take the bullet to save Vin, but Martin was right. If they shot him, they'd just take Vin as a hostage. And he knew Vin was in no shape to ride. So he watched and waited for an opening.
Slim Jim yanked Vin to his feet again, holding onto the stunned man as he reeled.
"Still don't know when to shut up, do ya Tanner?" Slim Jim goaded.
"And you're still a thievin', no good, rotten bastard," Vin gasped out.
This time Slim Jim drove his fist into Vin's bruised side, doubling Vin over and knocking him back onto the bed viciously.
"Guess that's all the fun we're gonna have, Tanner. We gotta be goin', 'fore anybody starts lookin' for us. Say bye-bye to your friend Larabee," he taunted.
Vin's eyes were narrow slits in his pale face as he looked up at the outlaw.
"No, no," he pleaded. "Take me instead . . . please . . . ."
"You'd just slow us down boy," Slim Jim said with a laugh. "Don't worry, we'll take real good care 'a him. Hell, look at how good we treated the two 'a you before!"
Vin pushed off the mattress with his good hand, and managed to lever himself up slightly. "Chris . . ." he called out, reaching for his best friend with his broken hand.
"Vin, don't worry, I'll be okay," Chris said, trying to reassure the distraught man. He looked at his captors. "Let me go to him, just for a minute." The two men started at him impassively. Chris looked back at Vin, his body shaking from the effort of staying upright. "Please," Chris said in a choked voice.
"Well, since ya asked so purdy like," Slim Jim crowed, "go right on ahead. Oughta be a real touchin' scene, huh Martin?"
Chris ignored the two men, walking quickly to Vin instead. He reached for his friend, taking his weakened, wounded body and settling him gently back onto the bed.
"Vin, it's gonna be all right," he whispered. "Nathan and Josiah'll be back any time. Just tell 'em what happened. They'll ride out after me," he said in a low voice that only Vin could hear. "You just gotta stay awake for me, to tell 'em, okay?"
Vin nodded. "I . . . will . . . promise," he said, fighting for his breath and struggling to remain conscious. The blow Slim Jim had struck to his wounded side had made the injury erupt once again in a raging tide of white hot agony. He saw Chris standing before him, wavering and surrounded by dark spots. But he refused to give in to the beckoning darkness. He would stay awake to help Chris. He looked back at his best friend. "I'll do it," he assured.
"I know ya will cowboy," Chris said with a smile, despite the deadly seriousness of the situation. He straightened and turned away from Vin. "Okay, let's get goin'."
"Not so fast, Larabee," Martin said. "How do we know Tanner isn't gonna come after us?"
Chris stared at the lawman with disgust. "Come after us? How you think that's gonna happen? Have you gotten a good look at him?" he asked incredulously.
Martin shook his head. "I don't like it," he said to his partner.
"Well, whatta ya wanna do about it?" Slim Jim asked.
"Guess I could shoot him," Martin suggested.
"No!" Chris yelled, reaching for Martin's gun. Slim Jim came up behind him, his pistol drawn. Chris froze.
"Not a good idea, Larabee," Slim Jim said.
The outlaw eyed Vin, who lay panting, curled up on the bed, then skewed his eyes sideways to look at the bedside table.
"Laudanum," he said to Martin.
"Yeah, what about it?" Martin questioned.
"You'll see," Slim Jim promised. He turned to the lean gunfighter. "Larabee, we're gonna give ya a chance to save your friend here." He smiled ferally and retrieved the bottle of medicine.
Slim Jim thrust the bottle at Chris. "Give it to him," he ordered, pointing at Vin.
"Whatta ya mean, 'give it to him'?" Chris asked with confusion.
"Make him drink it, the whole bottle," Slim Jim explained harshly. "He's knocked out then he can't follow us. That work okay for you Martin?" he asked the weasely sheriff.
A nasty smile crossed the rubbery lips of the lawman. "That'll work, Slim Jim. You're a genius," he praised.
Chris stood stunned, holding the bottle of laudanum and staring at the two men. "You can't do this, drinkin' too much of this stuff'll kill him," he said in horror.
"Don't know that for sure, now do we, Larabee," Slim Jim said with a malicious laugh. "But what I do know is, you don't do it, I'll put a bullet in Tanner right now."
Chris didn't doubt for a minute that the sick bastard would shoot Vin. He walked to his friend's side with a heavy heart. "Sorry Vin, you gotta drink this."
Vin looked at Chris with sympathy. "It's okay cowboy, nothin' you can do about it. Don't worry 'bout me, I'll be just fine," he tried to reassure.
Chris stroked Vin's hair, pushing the stray strands that fell across his forehead. He couldn't help himself, figuring it may be the last time he'd ever see his best friend, a man who was like his brother, alive. He unscrewed the cap and knelt down next to Vin. "Here, I'll help ya," he said, holding Vin up so he could drink more easily. He guided the bottle to Vin's mouth with a trembling hand.
Vin drank the liquid slowly, trying to prolong the inevitable. Chris was going to go with the outlaws as their hostage. And he would either be unconscious or dead from the overdose of laudanum, either way, unable to help, unable to tell Josiah and Nathan what had happened.
"After we leave, just make sure you keep hold of the bottle, Vin, okay?" Chris whispered. "That way, Nathan'll see it and figure out what's wrong with you. He'll know what to do for you Vin," Chris promised, squeezing Vin's arm comfortingly as the younger man continued to swallow the poisonous dosage.
"Chris . . . so tired . . ." Vin slurred, his eyes already losing focus, as he swallowed the last of the drug.
Chris eased his limp body back onto the bed and closed the pliant hand tightly around the bottle. "I'm sorry cowboy," he said sadly, grasping Vin's hand one last time for a brief moment, then stood and turned to his captors.
"Let's go," he said coldly.
"After you, Larabee," Martin leered.
And then the door crashed open.
Nathan and Josiah flew into the room, guns drawn. Slim Jim fired off one round, catching Josiah in the shoulder, but it didn't stop the big man. He and Nathan fired simultaneously, both bullets finding their mark, and the outlaw fell to the floor, dead. Chris savagely elbowed Martin in the stomach, then spun around, going for the surprised man's gun. The two men wrestled with the weapon and a shot rang out as Josiah and Nathan rushed to the two men.
Nathan and Josiah both cried in alarm when Chris dropped back, a patch of blood staining his shirt. The healer ripped open the black cloth to examine the wound. He yanked the shirt aside, steeling himself for the sight of the gaping, torn flesh.
His breath caught in his throat when he looked down at Chris's chest and touched the unblemished flesh, just to be sure he wasn't imagining things. "It ain't his blood, he ain't wounded," he finally managed to stutter out to Josiah.
"No, it ain't me doc," Chris gasped out, grabbing the healer's hand for leverage as he struggled to his hands and knees. "I shot that son of a bitch," he panted.
Josiah met Nathan's eyes and confirmed Chris's statement. "He's right Nate. This man's dead."
Nathan reached over and felt for the pulse himself, just to be sure. "Sure 'nough is," he agreed softly. The healer looked at Josiah with concern.
"You got hit when we first came in. I oughta take a look at it for ya."
The preacher shrugged. "Just a graze Nate, no crows today." His eyes fell on the body laying on the floor. "Well, not for any of us, at least."
Chris shakily regained his feet, resisting Nathan's efforts to make him lay down. "No, Nathan, don't worry about me . . . it's Vin! We have to help Vin!"
"What happened, they hurt him?" Nathan asked, already heading for the tracker's side.
"He drank the whole bottle of laudanum," Chris said guiltily.
"How'd that happen?" Nathan asked with a frown.
"Slim Jim and Martin were takin' me as a hostage and they didn't want Vin goin' after us. Made me give him the whole bottle. You gotta do something," Chris pleaded desperately as he pried the bottle out of Vin's hand. "See?" Chris said, showing Nathan the empty bottle.
Nathan looked at the bottle, then broke into a wide grin.
"What the hell's so funny Nathan?" Chris asked with a growl.
"You made him drink everything that was in that bottle?" Nathan replied, smiling even wider.
"That's what I said!" Chris shouted angrily. "Now you gonna help him or not? 'Cause if you ain't . . ."
"I'm sure Nathan's going to help Vin," Josiah cut in, laying a steadying hand on Chris's shoulder, while watching the healer's seemingly strange behavior . "Nathan, care to enlighten us?" he asked.
A deep chuckle burst forth from Nathan. "Sorry Chris," he apologized. The gunslinger remained unmoved, staring at Nathan as if he had just sprouted horns.
"It's just that, this bottle is Doctor Smith's. He told me he was running low on laudanum, and he wasn't going to get a shipment for a couple more weeks. He was worried and wanted to keep what he had for when people really needed it, like Miz Barnes did, after she got shot. So if a patient came in with an injury that wasn't all that serious, he'd dose 'em with this stuff." Nathan explained.
"And what exactly is 'this stuff'?" Chris asked, still not amused.
"Mostly whiskey, with a little bit 'a laudanum mixed in," Nathan laughed.
Josiah smiled at his two friends, as the meaning of Nathan's word sunk in. "So what you're saying, Brother Nathan, is that Brother Vin is drunk?"
Nathan bobbed his head up and down vigorously as he began to laugh in earnest now, joined by Josiah's rich peals of laughter.
Chris looked at the two men, then back to Vin, then back to the two men again.
"You sure about that?" he said sharply.
"Yep," Nathan said, wiping his watering eyes. "See the 'x' on the bottle? Doctor Smith told me about it. I've been usin' my own supply of the real stuff, for you and Vin, keep it in the other room. This is the room the doctor usually uses for his patients, so all the stuff in here is his. Vin's gonna be fine, may just have a little bit of a hangover when he wakes up."
Chris smiled. And then he laughed, a rare sound coming from the somberly clad man. He looked at Vin, sleeping off the whiskey and laudanum combination, then glanced back at Josiah and Nathan with a disbelieving shake of his head.
"He's gonna be pissed when he wakes up," he chuckled to the two men.
"You're right about that, Chris," Nathan agreed. "And I have to wake him up, just to make sure he's all right. There was a little bit of laudanum in there, and that's a lot of whiskey for someone as weak as Vin is." He stared down at the tracker's sleep slackened features momentarily, then lifted an eyelid.
"He doin' all right doc?" Chris said, sidling up behind him to peer over his shoulder at his sleeping friend.
"He's really out of it, Chris. May take some doin' to rouse him," Nathan warned.
The leader of the seven looked around the room quickly. "Let me and Josiah get rid of these two first, will you? Don't want Vin wakin' up to see this trash in here."
Nathan nodded his approval. "Good thinkin' Chris. I'll wait a few minutes 'fore I try to wake him up."
Josiah and Chris hauled the two dead criminals out into the street. Chris groaned as Slim Jim's dead weight pulled on his healing bullet wound, and he dropped the outlaw into the dirty street with a thud.
"Sure don't look so dangerous now, do they Brother?" Josiah asked quietly.
"Yeah, but they sure put us through some hell, preacher," Chris said, toeing Slim Jim's corpse with disgust. "Let's get back inside and see how Vin's doin'."
"You go on ahead, Chris, I'll go see the undertaker about these two," Josiah said.
Chris nodded and turned quickly to go back inside, anxious to check on Vin.
"How's he doin' Nathan?" Chris called out as he walked back into the sick room.
"Come here an' see for yourself Chris," Nathan said, turning away from the bed to give Chris a relieved grin. He swiveled to face the tracker again. "Vin, come on now, stay awake," he coaxed.
"Shure thin' Nate," Vin slurred to the healer in a tired voice. "Whersh's Chrisss?"
"Right here pard," Chris said as he reached the bed. He hovered over his friend, staring down at the glassy blue eyes and flushed cheeks. "He's loaded," he announced to Nathan.
"You got that right," Nathan agreed.
"What're we gonna do about it?"
"Not much to do Chris. Good thing is, he's not gonna be feelin' much pain for a while."
"You sure he's all right?"
"Uh-huh, and he'll fall asleep in a few minutes. We can keep wakin' him up every hour or so for a while, just to make sure. But I think he's gonna be just fine, Chris. Might have a headache when he wakes up for good, though."
Chris's reply was cut off as Josiah strode into the room.
"Everything all right brothers?" the big man asked.
"Sure is Josiah," Nathan answered. "Vin's gonna be all right."
"Praise the Lord!" Josiah whooped and rushed over to the three men. A pair of unfocused blue eyes stopped him in his tracks. "Vin! You're awake. Good to see you brother."
"Thanksss Josiah," Vin said drunkenly, then hiccuped. He groaned slightly as the movement pulled on his injured ribs, then blinked back bewilderedly at the three men standing over him.
"Vin? Vin?" Nathan said. The younger man slowly brought his gaze around to rest on the healer's face.
"Just close your eyes and rest for a while now, okay?" the healer said patiently, trying to cut through the alcohol and drug enduced haze surrounding the tracker.
"'kay Nate," Vin agreed cheerily, still staring at the three men.
Chris sighed. "Close your eyes Vin," he ordered.
Vin slowly slid his lids shut and was asleep in a few seconds, snoring softly in his stupor.
"What's the next step?" Josiah asked.
"We wait for the posse to get back, then wire the judge," Chris replied.
A few hours later, an exhausted Buck, Ezra and the rest of the posse came slogging back into the muddy town of Winslow.
Chris was sitting out on the front porch when the group arrived back in town. He stepped off the porch and headed toward the cluster of men. As he neared, a few of the men veered off, directing a wagon toward the undertaker's. Chris was able to make out several bodies, shrouded with dark cloths as they jangled in the back of the wagon.
He caught Buck's eye in the waning sunlight. "That the rest of the gang?"
Buck nodded wearily. "Didn't get 'em all Chris. That no good sheriff and Slim Jim Watkins got away. I'm sorry pard, we tried."
Chris studied his oldest friend carefully. Buck's eyes were hollowed with fatigue, his face pale, body drained of energy, slumped in the saddle.
"We got 'em Buck. They came back here," Chris said evenly. He grabbed the bridle of Buck's horse, leading it to the livery, and Ezra's mount followed placidly. The two men brought questioning eyes to Chris's face.
"It can wait," Chris said by way of explanation. Ezra and Buck just continued to stare at their leader blankly.
A few paces more and the ragtag group was abreast of the doctor's home. Chris gestured toward the house. "I'll take care of the horses for you," he offered. "Two of you go on in there," he pointed to the building. "Nathan's in there with Vin and Josiah."
Despite their overwhelming exhaustion, both Buck and Ezra perked up at Chris's words.
"Vin? He's okay?" Buck asked in a voice shaking slightly with emotion.
"Mr. Tanner?" Ezra added.
"Yep, he's gonna be fine. Now go on and let Nathan take a look at the two of you," Chris ordered.
The two men wearily dismounted and began trudging toward the house. Chris's voice called after them.
"Buck, Ezra, you boys done good. Thank you."
"Anytime pard," Buck said, looking back at Chris with the ghost of his usual smile. Ezra gave him a two fingered salute off the brim of his dirt encrusted hat. Then they turned as one and stepped onto the porch. Nathan swung the door open to the house before the two men even managed to reach for the knob.
"Ezra! Buck! It's about time you two showed up! Get in here . . ." Nathan clucked at them.
The healer's voice faded away as the door shut behind the three men and Chris continued on to the stables, leading the tired horses inside.
He unsaddled and then groomed the animals with a sense of satisfaction. They'd gotten them all, killed the group of outlaws who had terrorized towns, murdered and robbed banks. And had imprisoned and hurt his best friend. He'd promised Vin they would pay, and they had. Paid with their lives, the ultimate price. Some would say that Chris Larabee was a hard man. But he was a man who took care of his own and kept his word.
Now he wanted nothing more than to ride out of this God forsaken town with his friends and try to put this nightmare behind them. But it would be some time before Vin would be able to ride. He headed out of the stable, and walked through the town, now starting to bustle with life again, as the women buzzed around their returning menfolk, anxious to hear about their victory. He hesitated as he strode past the doctor's office, longing to stop in and check on Vin and the others, but he started walking again, going for the telegraph office. It was time the Judge found out exactly what had happened in Winslow.
"Dammit!" Chris cursed as he read the words on the small slip of paper handed to him by the telegraph clerk. He crushed the paper in his hand and stormed out of the office, leaving a very frightened telegraph operator in his wake.
Chris covered the distance to the doctor's office quickly with his angry, long-legged strides. But he was in no hurry to get back to his friends. He stopped on the porch, hand on the knob, faltering as he closed his eyes in an uncharacteristic moment of weakness. The news he had to tell Vin was not good, and he dreaded having to be the one to tell the tracker. He shook himself roughly. Vin's got a right to know, now, he said to himself sharply. "No time like the present," he muttered as he squared his shoulders and pulled the door open.
Chris's eyes were immediately drawn to Vin when he walked into the room. True, the tracker was recovering, but his best friend's face still bore the bruises inflicted by Slim Jim and Martin. The purple and bluish marks were slowly fading, hiding Vin's handsome face behind a cloak of greenish and yellow blotches. Thanks to Nathan, his injured ribs were now nestled in a tight wrapping of clean white bandages, his broken hand cushioned in many layers of soft cotton and cloth.
The healer had propped Vin up earlier and he still rested against several large pillows as he played cards with Ezra. As soon as Chris had entered the room, he captured the older man with a compassionate gaze. He knew it, the news was bad. He could tell just be how Chris had walked into the room. He wasn't surprised, the two of them had never really needed words to convey their thoughts to one another.
"Whatta ya got to tell me cowboy?" he drawled out with a small smile, trying to let Chris know that it was okay to tell him.
"It ain't good news Vin, I'm sorry," Chris said sadly as he handed over the mangled telegram.
Vin nodded sagely. "Didn't expect it would be Chris," he said softly as he slowly read from the crumpled paper. His reading lessons with Mary had paid off and he was able to make out every word of the telegram. There was no mistaking the message sent from Judge Travis on behalf of the Arizona Territorial Governor.
The gunslinger blew out his pent up breath as he scraped a hard hand through his short blonde hair.
"Don't you go worryin' about it pard," Vin continued. "Ain't that big a deal."
"You're wrong about that Vin," Chris retorted bitterly. "You were promised that pardon for helpin' the government. Ain't your fault their plan fell apart. Hell, we still brought down Slim Jim and his gang."
"Yeah, but I didn't kill any of 'em and I didn't stop any prison breaks in Yuma, either," Vin whispered hoarsely.
"Vin, what you did was more important. Look at the money recovered from the bank robberies, the . . ."
"Chris, if you don't mind, I wanna be alone for a little while," Vin suddenly broke in.
The older man looked uncertainly at the sharpshooter, then shook his head slightly. "That ain't what you really want Vin . . ."
"Yes it is!" Vin protested loudly. "Just leave me be!" He softened when he looked back at Chris's concerned face. "I'll be all right pard, I just wanna be alone for a while," he repeated.
Chris met Ezra's eye and the two men headed for the door. "We'll let Buck, Nathan and Josiah know, too Vin," Chris promised as he looked back at his friend worriedly. "We'll stay outta your hair for a while."
"Thanks Chris," Vin said, sadly sinking down into the soft pillows and closing his eyes.
Once he heard Chris and Ezra leave the building, Vin slowly levered himself out of the bed, balancing himself with the headboard briefly as he swayed dizzily. He hadn't been on his feet much since being injured in the jail cell days earlier and his body protested the sudden movement. He released his hold on the support after another minute and lurched toward the pile of saddlebags in the corner. He found a shirt, and his boots. He put the shirt on slowly and buttoned it up. It was slow going with his broken hand and damaged ribs and he found himself sweating and breathing heavily when he finished. He sat down on the bed again to pull on his boots and socks, almost passing out from the effort it took to get them on. With a deep steadying breath, he hauled himself to his feet once again and made his way to the door carefully. He creaked open the door and looked furtively into the hall. No one was around, the house was silent. He crept out the front door and headed to the livery, weaving and coming dangerously close to falling on his face as he walked, but determined to make it to the barn. Once there, he planned to mount up on one of the horses and ride to Mexico. That way, he would spare his friends the danger of being around him, a man wanted by the law. This pardon had been his last hope, his last chance of living a life free from being on the run and constantly worrying about which one of his friends was going to be taken down because of their friendship with him. He couldn't stand the guilt and pain any longer. He'd head south of the border and be free. Granted, the hurt of losing his friends, and Chris, who had become like a brother to him would be unbearable, but it had to be so. There was no other way.
He wobbled to the doors of the barn and pulled them aside weakly. Thankfully, the area was deserted and when his eyes had adjusted to the dim lighting he headed toward the horses. He led a big black out of its box, silently asking the livery owner for forgiveness for taking the animal. He knew Chris and the others would reimburse the man for his horse, but he hated the idea of stealing. "Wish I'd brought some money along," he said softly, but then sighed as he remembered that he hadn't brought any money along on this journey at all. He'd been carted away in the prison wagon without any.
He stumbled, falling to his knees in the soft hay. He pulled himself up slowly and tottered to the tack. He almost collapsed again when he lifted the saddle, but finally managed to place it on the animal's back. At last, he was ready to leave. He mounted up gingerly and left the livery.
By now, Vin had gotten used to the almost constant buzzing in his ears, but he was unprepared when the world took a sudden shift and everything around him began to spin. He stopped his horse and looked around the town in bewilderment, not even noticing as Chris, Josiah and Nathan walked toward him.
Chris caught him in his arms as he began a slow slide off the side of the animal, slipping away into unconsciousness before he even left the horse's back.
"Better let me take him Chris," Josiah suggested. "You're still not completely recovered yourself."
"I've got him Josiah," Chris intoned flatly, holding onto Vin tightly. He'd almost lost Vin during this hellish trip and he wasn't about to let go of the younger man just yet.
"Then come on and bring him back inside," Nathan ordered as he ran ahead to prepare the room.
Chris and Josiah hurried back to the house and the gunslinger gently placed his best friend back on his bed.
"What the hell was he thinkin'? Ridin' out of here?" Chris demanded.
"The good Lord only knows, Brother Chris," Josiah rumbled. "How's he doin' Nate?"
"He's runnin' a fever again," Nathan said, feeling Vin's hot forehead with his practiced hand. "Damn fool," he muttered.
Vin tossed restlessly on the bed, but didn't regain consciousness.
"Josiah, get me some fresh water, will ya?" Nathan asked. "I'm gonna try to cool him off some. Chris, help me get him undressed. We're gonna have to hide his clothes and boots, and one of us is always gonna have to stay with him. Only way to make sure he doesn't pull another fool stunt like that."
"Good idea Nate," Chris agreed and bent to help the healer undress Vin.
The two men stopped working when they felt Vin stirring awake.
"Vin? Vin?" Nathan called softly, tapping the younger man's face lightly. "Come on and wake up now."
Vin shifted slightly in the bed, then gave a soft groan. "What happened? Where . . . am I?"
"You're where you shoulda stayed all along," Chris growled in response. "What were you thinkin' Vin? Leaving town in your condition, and not even telling anybody."
Vin opened his eyes sharply as everything came rushing back to him. "Chris! Nathan!" he yelped, looking at his two friends. "No! I've gotta go!" he cried, struggling to free himself from Chris and Nathan's tight holds.
"You're not goin' anywhere Vin, so just stop it," Nathan ordered.
"NO!" Vin yelled, still fighting his friends.
"Settle down Vin! Got half a mind to tie you to the damned bed if you don't!" Chris barked as he and Nathan together finally succeeded in pinning the twisting, struggling sharpshooter to the bed.
Vin lay trapped on the bed, panting and glaring up at Chris and Nathan.
"Okay Vin, just calm down," Nathan said easily, trying to soothe and relax the injured man. He turned to the gunslinger at his side. "Chris, will ya hold onto him? Not too tight, watch those sore ribs," he cautioned. "I'm gonna go get my laudanum. He's gotta be hurtin'."
"I'll watch him, doc, don't worry," Chris assured. The healer nodded and left to find the medicine. Chris eyed his best friend appraisingly.
"You doin' all right Vin?"
The tracker only grunted in reply.
"Vin, what's wrong, why were you trying to leave?" Chris asked in confusion.
"Leave me alone Larabee," Vin said in as steely a voice as he could muster.
"Not 'til you tell me what's on your mind," Chris insisted stubbornly.
"Nothin's wrong, just tired of bein' nursemaided," Vin bit back sharply.
"Well, if you didn't need it, we wouldn't be doin' it," Chris retorted.
Nathan burst back into the room before Vin had a chance to reply. He poured some of the opiate into a glass and thrust it toward the former bounty hunter.
"Vin, drink some 'a this," he said. "It'll make you feel better."
"Only thing that'll make me feel better is to get the hell outta this town," Vin said bitterly.
"Drink!" Nathan ordered, pressing the glass to his lips.
"Okay," Vin said crossly and consumed the liquid. "Happy now?" he glared at Chris and Nathan.
"Sure am, thank you very much," Nathan said with a chuckle, as he moved away, to the other side of the room, to hide Vin's clothes and boots.
Chris continued to stare at the younger man unhappily. Something was most definitely bothering Vin and he wouldn't let it go until he found out exactly what it was. He leaned against the wall, crossed his arms and stared down at Vin. He waited until Vin's eyes started to drift closed and then pounced, kneeling down next to Vin.
"Vin, why were you leavin'?" Chris whispered.
"Huh?" Vin asked sleepily.
"Today, just before," Chris reminded the groggy man. "What were you doin', ridin' out of here?"
"Don't want . . . you or . . . anybody else hurt . . . 'cause 'a me . . ." Vin murmured thickly. "Didn't get the . . . pardon . . . too dangerous for everybody . . ."
"Jesus Vin," Chris whispered, in a voice gone hoarse with emotion. "No wonder. That damned pardon!"
"No . . . gotta go Chris . . ." Vin protested, his eyes fluttering as he struggled to stay awake.
"Sshh, Vin, just go to sleep," Chris coaxed, as he reached out to softly stroke Vin's hair off of his hot forehead. The comforting gesture seemed to relax the younger man somewhat. "Go on, close your eyes, everything's fine."
"It is?" Vin whispered back uncertainly.
"It is, Vin. I'll take care of it, don't worry," Chris answered, and watched as Vin's eyes slowly shut and he drifted into a drugged sleep.
One week later, the six men were readying themselves for the trip back to Four Corners. Nathan and Dr. Smith had pronounced Vin fit for travel and the group was anxious to return home. The town of Winslow, grateful for the six men's help in recovering their stolen money and stopping Slim Jim's gang, donated a wagon and team of horses, plus supplies, Reward money from the bounties on several of the gang members was wired to Four Corners, to JD's attention, at the direction of Chris. The money would be split seven ways, when they returned home.
Chris seemed edgy as they loaded up the wagon.
"Something wrong, Brother Chris?" Josiah asked curiously.
"Nope, just anxious to head home I guess, Josiah," Chris answered with a tight grin.
"Okay, that's the last of it!" Buck boomed out as he shoved the last blanket into place. "Got Vin's bed all ready back here," he crowed proudly.
"I ain't sleepin' back there," Vin protested from where he sat on the porch. "I'll ride up front with Chris."
"Don't think so, cowboy," Chris said. "Maybe later, but for now, you're back there."
"But Chris . . ."
"Either that or we stay here another week. Ain't that right Nate?"
The healer had been standing next to Vin on the porch, and now wore an enormous grin as he watched Vin and Chris's verbal sparring match.
"He's right Vin. Back of the wagon or we stay here longer."
"Your choice Vin," Chris gloated, knowingly full well what the answer would be.
"Okay, okay!" Vin said unhappily. "I'll ride in the back."
He rose slowly to his feet and reluctantly allowed Nathan to help him off the porch and into the back of the wagon. Nathan settled him back against the pillows and blankets Buck had placed there.
"Comfortable?" Nathan asked.
"Yeah, gotta admit I am Nate," Vin confessed. He sighed as he relaxed against the pillows. "Feels pretty good back here. May never go back to ridin' horseback," he teased Nathan with a wink.
"Very funny, Vin," Chris said dryly, overhearing the remark.
He gathered up the reins, preparing to move out, when the telegraph operator came flying down the boardwalk.
"Mr. Larabee! Mr. Larabee! Wait!"
Chris jumped down from the wagon. "What is it?"
"Telegraph for you. Marked urgent!"
Chris handed the clerk some money and ripped open the paper, scanning it quickly.
"What's goin' on Chris?" Vin asked. "Something wrong?"
"No, actually it's some good news, Vin," Chris said, walking to the back of the wagon. The others clustered around anxiously.
"I sent a telegram back to the judge about your pardon, askin' him to appeal. Judge just got word."
"What's it say?" Vin asked white-faced.
Chris smiled slightly. "They still won't give ya the pardon, Vin. I'm sorry . . ."
"It's okay, Chris, ya tried," Vin said, turning away from his friend. "Let's get goin'," he said in a choked whisper.
"No Vin, there's more," Chris protested.
"Nothin' I wanna hear," Vin said sadly.
"Don't bet on it," Chris said, a happy lift in his voice. He continued on, reading from the paper. "After careful consideration, the Territorial Government hereby declares immunity for Vin Tanner in the town of Four Corners and its environs." Chris stopped reading and glanced up at Vin with a smile.
It took Vin a minute to respond. "What's that mean?"
"It means you're protected from the bounty on your head as long as you stay in Four Corners and the area around it," Josiah interjected.
"So as along as I stay in Four Corners, nobody can come for me?" Vin asked in shock.
"That's right Vin," Chris said jubilantly. "Guess you're stuck in Four Corners with us!"
Vin smiled shyly. He couldn't believe this was happening, it was like a dream, a very, very good dream. And Vin Tanner usually didn't have good dreams, at least not until he had met up with the other six men. Before that, it had been just nightmares. Like waking up to find a $500 bounty on his head.
But now, there'd be no more laying awake at night, worrying about his friends getting gunned down or used as bait to capture him, and no need to travel to Texas to try and clear his name. All he had to do was stay in Four Corners with his friends and he'd be safe, forever.
He was too excited to say or do much of anything right now, so he just laid back down against the soft blankets and pillows, readying himself for the long trip back. There would be plenty of time for talking later, he had his whole life ahead of him now. Chris watched as Vin settled in, then turned around in the wagon seat and got the horses moving. The six men were going home.