As Nathan and Josiah were eating their meal, Ezra came down the stairs from his room.
"How long you reckon he was up there looking at his face in the mirror?" Josiah gestured towards Ezra with his fork. Nathan looked up from his plate briefly and let out a short snort.
"That bruise will be healed long before we hear the end of it."
Josiah couldn't restrain himself. The memory of Ezra landing unceremoniously backward, courtesy of Vin's fist, still elicited a wry grin. Picking up his cup, he took a swallow of coffee.
"If our young brother has a swing like that when he's injured, remind me to stay on his good side when he's well!"
Josiah noticed that Nathan had not responded. In fact, Nathan was intently pushing his food from one side of his plate to the other.
Placing his cup down, Josiah paused, waiting patiently for the healer to answer.
"Nathan? What are you not saying?"
When Josiah looked at Nathan's face, he saw the pain of inadequacy in the soulful brown eyes.
"I'm no doctor Josiah.....boy needs a real doctor," he stated quietly.
Josiah placed a hand on his friend's forearm as he leaned forward.
"You're only one man Nathan. Do the best you can for him and place the rest in God's Hands.That boy has a strong spirit, he's a survivor. Do what you can to help him and he'll do the rest."
"Josiah, he's getting worse. I can see him slowly dying. He's so weak from all the blood he lost, he can't fight off that damn infection in his arm. Fever keeps climbin' and I can't get it down. Don't know how much more he can take..."
The two had not noticed Ezra approach their table. They did not realize he was there until he interrupted them.
"Would it help if we persuaded him to imbibe more of that delightful concoction of 'horse piss' he drank earlier?"
Josiah smiled as the gambler pulled out a chair and joined them. Ezra was holding a cool cloth to his bruised left eye and cheek.
"Brother Standish, you look like you ran into a wall." Damn, that boy packs one hell of a punch.
"And I can assure you Mr. Sanchez, at this moment, it feels as if I did. As soon as I see only one of you, I shall tell the one remaining all about it."
Nathan rolled his eyes as Josiah shook his head and laughed.
+ + + + + + +
Buck entered the saloon and eyed the occupants. He had not been able to find J.D. Seeing the others, he walked to their table and joined them.
"Buck, what are you doing here? I thought I asked you to sit with Vin a bit while I got a bite to eat?"
Nathan started to rise, the annoyance evident in his voice.
"Easy Nathan. No need to rush back. Chris is with him."
Ezra sat slowly shuffling his cards.
"Mr. Wilmington, I find it interesting that you left Mr. Larabee alone. I would think you would want to be at his side once again should the unthinkable happen."
Nathan and Josiah put their forks down and pushed away from the table. Their eyes were darting from Ezra to Buck.
"What are you saying Ezra?" Buck hissed.
"I'm not saying anything Mr. Wilmington. I'm merely pointing that prior to Mr.Tanner, we all know the close relationship you had with Mr. Larabee. Perhaps if Mr. Tanner were no longer in the way, you could once again rekindle that relationship."
Leaning forward, Buck grabbed the collar of Ezra's shirt.
"You son of a bitch...."
Even though Buck had his fist drawn back, Ezra was not about to stop.
"Mr. Wilmington, after Mr. Tanner, I've always seen you as the most accurate shot amongst us. I do not understand. How did you miss? Why did you hit him?"
Nathan and Josiah remained silent. This was a question in their minds also. Buck let out a defeated sigh and released Ezra. As he slumped back in his chair, he rubbed his forehead.
"I don't know. I tried to tell him how sorry I was, asked his forgiveness."
"He said, 'no', Buck whispered. "Can't say I blame him. He looked right at me, begging me to help him with his eyes. And what did I do? I shot him in the back! I can't forgive myself, how can I expect him to?"
Ezra frowned as he listened. You are more tired than you realize, friend. What you say makes no sense. How could you see Tanner's eyes while shooting him in the back unless the bullet ricocheted?
"He just said, 'no', he felt that strongly about it, didn't even have to consider it.
Josiah sat back in his chair. Deep in concentration, he brought his hand to his mouth and began to smooth his mustache. No. Although he had only known Vin a short time that quick response struck him as odd. He was aware that in his young life, Vin had suffered many wrongs. He also knew that Vin did not carry any old hates, he was probably one of the most forgiving people he'd ever met. He thought of Vin as a very reasonable and forgiving man. It was obvious that this unfortunate accident had occurred while attempting to save his life. Why would he say 'no' so quickly?
All that Nathan heard was that Vin was awake. He wanted to get back to the clinic. Rising, he looked at the others.
"You say he was awake and talking?"
Nathan picked up his hat as Buck nodded.
"Come on Josiah, let's go."
Left alone, Ezra sat staring at Buck.
"Mr. Wilmington, I apologize. I know you did not intentionally hurt Mr.Tanner. I have wondered how you felt about being replaced by him, but I know you would not purposely harm him."
Buck looked up at Ezra and nodded his head slightly.
"Vin didn't replace me Ezra. He brought life back into Chris's eyes. After he lost Sarah and Adam, he was hell bent on doing everything he could to join them. Since he met up with Vin, he's changed. Nice to see a spark of the old Chris back. I couldn't harm that boy, he brought my friend back."
"I know that Mr. Wilmington. I know you couldn't. I wanted you to know that also."
Ezra stood and reached a hand out to Buck. As they shook hands silently, they looked in each other's eyes.
"Should we join the others?"
As they started to leave the saloon, Buck turned Ezra's face to his and chuckled.
"Kid packs a hell of a punch, huh?"
Ezra winced as Buck touched the bruised flesh.
"Indeed he does Mr. Wilmington. I shall remind him of that at the earliest opportunity."
"Looking forward to that," Buck laughed.
So am I friend, so am I....
J.D. sat in the alley behind the saloon. His knees were drawn up as he hugged them tightly. With tears in his eyes, he sat with his head against the building. His breathing was rapid, his stomach was churning. I did it. It was me. He knew Buck was looking for him, but he stayed hidden. He couldn't face him, not now. They would all hate him. Of the two youngest, J.D. felt that Vin was the favorite. Everyone liked and respected Vin. No one ever treated him like he was a nuisance. Vin always did the right thing. Vin would never shoot anyone in the back. Oh, God, I'm sorry....please don't make him die.... J.D. began to rock slowly. I'm sorry....I'm sorry.....I'm sorry.....I'm sorry......I'm sorry......I'm sorry..... Chris barely tolerated him now, he'd definitely hate him once he found out he'd shot Vin. Why couldn't it have been me? Vin would've killed the cougar, he wouldn't have shot me....he always does everything right A sob escaped from him, and he sniffled. Chris said you never shoot a man in the back...Vin's pa died that way....now I've killed Vin that way J.D. started to consider where he would go to once the others ordered him to leave. He was convinced he would not be allowed to stay. He closed his eyes and tried to slow his breathing. With his lids closed, he kept seeing the bullet as it entered Vin. "Oh god, no, I shot him in the back," he moaned. Buck didn't shoot Vin. He couldn't have. I was behind him. Buck was over to the side. Buck killed the cougar....I killed Vin... Unable to control his heaving stomach any longer, J.D. turned to the side and retched. Please God, make me die, not Vin...
+ + + + + + +
"Hey Ez...hold on a minute....there's one more place I haven't checked."
Buck walked to the rear alley of the saloon and was shocked when he found J.D.
"J.D.! Are you okay, kid? What's wrong? Are you hurt?"
Buck pulled J.D. to his feet and held him by the arms.
"Buck! Vin's gonna die!" J.D. gasped, his face wet with tears.
"Now J.D., we don't know that. Vin's a strong boy.... you'll see, he's gonna be fine....prob'ly sitting up and cussing right now....you'll see, he's gonna be fine...."
Buck began brushing the dust off J.D.
"Now come on, me an' Ezra were just going over to the clinic to see him. Come with us. Let's see if there's anything we can do."
"I can't Buck. He won't want to see me..."
"J.D., no.....he's been askin' for ya....he's worried you got hurt too.... it's me he's mad at, not you...."
"Buck, I keep seeing that bullet go in him, over and over...."
Buck put his arm over the boy's shoulder as they started to walk to the clinic.
"I know kid, I know. Every time I think about it, I see how scared he looked when I shot him. He needed help, I could see it in his eyes, and I damn near killed him."
Ezra followed slowly behind the others, thinking. None of this was making any sense. How could Vin be looking at Buck while he shot him if he was hit in the back?
Nathan felt the icy clutch of terror grip his heart when he heard Chris' anguished howl. Oh, dear Lord....no..... He ran remainder of the distance to the clinic. Flinging the door open, he stood panting, trying to catch his breath. Before him sat Chris Larabee clutching the body of Vin Tanner, his face a mixture of pure rage and disbelief.
Chris was shaking Vin roughly. Vin's eyes were closed, his arms hung limply, his head fallen back. With dread, Nathan approached the bed.
"Chris," he gasped, "is....he?"
Chris' eyes flashed in anger and his nostrils flared as he clutched Vin even tighter.
"WHERE WERE YOU?"
Josiah entered behind Nathan, when he saw the scene before him, he let out a low moan.
"Oh merciful God....."
He was stunned to see the lifeless body of Vin Tanner in Chris Larabee's arms.
"WHERE THE HELL WERE YOU, NATHAN?" Chris demanded. "J.D. went to get you....VIN NEEDED YOU!"
Removing his hat, Josiah approached the bed with a heavy heart. He was just a boy...he was too young...WHY?
"Chris...." Nathan continued stepping forward cautiously.
"GET AWAY!" Chris bellowed.
Never taking his eyes off Vin, Nathan stopped. Josiah continued, he was drawn to the young man on the bed. He needed to touch him one last time, he wanted to say a prayer for this young warrior. A warrior whose spirit to survive had finally failed him.
"Chris, I never saw J.D."
Josiah picked up Vin's limp hand. He's still so hot. His fingers lightly touched the bruised knuckles that had fought to the end. Swallowing deeply, he lightly kissed Vin's hand as tears began to flow from his eyes.
"Good bye my friend..."
"I never saw J.D. Chris....I didn't know Vin was worse..."
Chris pulled Vin to his chest even tighter, breathing rapidly. His face was contorted in anger and confusion. I told him to get you.
Vin Tanner would do anything Chris Larabee asked. Chris asked him to trust him. Chris asked him to hang on and wait for Nathan, but he was just so tired.
Oh..no...please stop it....you're hurtin' me.... Nathan tentatively stepped forward, staring at Vin in Chris' arms. Kneeling beside the bed, Josiah bent his head while still holding Vin's hand.
"Our Father,who art..." Josiah choked.
"who art in heaven...." Josiah opened his eyes and looked at Vin's hand in alarm.
"Nathan?" he whispered.
Nathan took his eyes briefly off Vin and looked at Josiah.
"He's holding my hand...." It was barely a squeeze, but damn it, I felt it! The three stunned men were momentarily motionless. Nathan rushed forward and grabbed Vin's wrist. His pulse was weak and rapid, his breaths shallow.
Chris hadn't moved. He held his breath, afraid to hope.
Ow...please put me down.....hurtin' me....
As the three men watched, they saw Vin swallow and then grimace. He let out a soft moan.
"Chris, put him down, you might be hurtin' him."
Chris looked down at Vin in shock and disbelief. He couldn't let go. Nathan gently pried Chris' hands off the injured tracker and carefully eased him down on to the bed.
Thank you....thank you...put me down....hurts.....tired Vin shuddered. Chris stood and backed away from the bed.
"Told him to hang on...wait..." he softly muttered.
Josiah put a comforting arm on Chris' shoulders.
"It looks like he finally decided to follow your orders, brother." Josiah was smiling through tears of joy. As Chris started back to Vin's side, Josiah gently held him back.
"No, hold on, give Nathan room to look him over..."
Nathan was sitting on the bed, quickly assessing his condition. Damn! He's even hotter! Vin was shivering again. Putting his hand behind Vin's back, Nathan withdrew it and sadly noted that his wound had opened and he was bleeding again.
Nathan turned and looked at Chris, his hand still on Vin's arm.
"He's a sick boy Chris. He's not out of danger yet, not by a long shot. I don't know how he keeps hanging on."
"Son of a bitch is too stubborn to die!" Chris was smiling.
"Or perhaps you scared him out of trying, brother," Josiah smiled back.
Nathan turned back to Vin and gently squeezed his arm. Keep fighting... As he stood up, he pulled the sheets and blankets off Vin and turned to Chris while rolling up his sleeves.
"He's hot, too damn hot... that infection and fever are gonna kill him unless we get him cooled down, and now."
Chris sat in the chair by Vin's side. He leaned his head back, and while running his hands through his hair, he looked up and thanked a God he had stopped believing in. Leaning forward again, he gently started stroking Vin's hair.
"Vin....come on son...open them eyes...." he softly soothed.
Vin moaned softly, he turned his head to the sound of Chris' voice. His eyes fluttered open and he looked up with pain glazed eyes.
"Hey, cowboy," Chris whispered gently. Smiling, his vision was blurred by tears.
"Hurts...'m sorry, tired."
"I know it does, but you keep hanging on there. Give me your word, you'll keep fighting."
Vin's eyes had started to close. Chris lightly tapped Vin's cheek.
"Vin? Your word?"
"Mmm. yeah, m' word...." Vin slurred as his eyes closed.
As they climbed the stairs, J.D. hung back, allowing Buck and Ezra to enter before him. Ezra took note of the three men surrounding Vin.
"Gentlemen, by the looks of your faces, may I assume that Mr. Tanner has taken a turn for the better?"
"No, Brother, he's no better, no better at all."
Ezra, looked at the three men, puzzled. J.D. barely entered the room, and stood against the wall by the door. He's so sick and it's my fault... Buck quietly walked around the others and stood beside the bed, opposite Chris. Looking down at Vin, he saw how gravely ill he still was. I'm sorry, Vin, I'll make this up to you, if it's the last thing I do...
Nathan walked over to the water basin and began washing his hands.
"All right, don't got time for standing around. I want to get that shoulder stitched back up and get him cooled down."
Chris placed a wet cloth on Vin's forehead and looked up at Buck. Chris and Buck looked in each others' eyes, Chris grinned and nodded,"Buck."
Sitting down, Buck smiled, "Chris."
Chris was so focused on Vin that he had not noticed J.D. standing by the door, nervously watching the other men. Removing his jacket, Ezra also rolled up his sleeves.
"Mr. Jackson, how may we be of assistance?"
Smiling, Josiah pointed to Ezra's bruised cheek.
"Uh, Ezra, should we trust you with Vin's care?"
"Mr. Sanchez, I can assure you that when I exact my revenge upon Mr. Tanner, it is my intention that he will be coherent enough for me to enjoy it."
Buck looked up as Nathan approached the bed.
"Nathan..Nathan, what are you doing with that needle again?"
"Buck, he's already in pain, I need to stitch that shoulder back up, and that's gonna hurt, I'm not gonna do that to him without something for the pain."
"Can't you just give him some laudanum for that without sticking a needle in him?"
Nathan sighed, trying to remain patient. Lifting the night shirt, he exposed Vin's upper leg.
"Buck, you didn't see how sick the laudanum made him last night. I don't know why he knew, he didn't want it, said it would make him sick and it did. He must have had it some time before, but I don't want to chance giving it to him now."
Taking Vin's leg, he again injected the morphine.
"Oh..." Vin held his breath.
"Come on Vin.....Come on, don't you stiffen that leg up....."
Vin slowly exhaled. "Ow...stop it," he cursed through gritted teeth as he tried to move away.
Nathan withdrew the needle and rose.
"Vin? You want some water?" Nathan held a cup in his hands. As Vin glared at him, Nathan burst out laughing.
"I swear Vin, it's just water!"
Chris smiled and reached up to take the cup. He slid his hand under Vin's head and gently lifted him.
"Here ya go....that's it...that's it....just a little more..."
When he finished the water, Vin sank back into the pillows. As the room began to spin, he blinked his eyes rapidly several times before closing them, too exhausted to stay awake. Chris noticed J.D. and walked over to him.
"J.D., you and I have to talk later, son."
J.D. swallowed slowly and nodded his head in agreement, he couldn't take his eyes off Vin.
+ + + + + + +
Vin heard a noise. His eyes flew open. He sensed he was being watched. He didn't dare move a muscle. He looked frantically about the room. He took a deep breath and held it.
"Josiah, why don't you go over and turn him over nice and gentle, so I can get that stitched up quick," Nathan murmured.
"Brother Tanner! So I see you've decided to join us again!"
Josiah walked to Vin, and smiling, started to lean over him. He didn't notice that Vin's right hand was clenched in a fist.
Vin swung his fist up, into the side of Josiah's head. The big man stumbled backward, stunned.
"Ezra! Grab his right arm 'fore he tears that shoulder wide open!" Nathan yelled as he held Vin's left arm down.
Vin was struggling for his breath, he was tiring. As weak as he was, Nathan and Ezra were having a hard time holding him down.
"Josiah, you okay?" Nathan called.
"Yeah, yeah, just caught me by surprise," Josiah responded while shaking his head.
Chris turned away from J.D. and strode back to the bed. With both arms firmly held, and pinned to the bed, all Vin had left to fight with were his legs. As Chris got closer to him, Vin raised his right leg. Chris never saw it coming.
"OOMPH..." Chris doubled over gasping. His hands were reflexively protecting himself from further assault.
"Josiah, if you're okay, get his legs!" Nathan yelled.
Chris stood at the end of the bed, eyes tearing, gasping for air. Vin turned his head and saw Buck.
"Buck! Help me.....please help me.... Buck..." Vin cried.
Buck's heart was breaking as he went to Vin, and pushed the others aside. Buck pulled him into his arms and hugged him.
"Buck...I'm hurt....please help me..."
"Shh..it's okay Vin, I'm here now, I've got ya..... nothin's gonna hurt ya again...."
Suddenly, Vin cried out in pain. His back arched and he slumped into Buck's arms, unconscious.
"I've got ya...." Buck continued to soothe.
J.D., still standing against the wall, slid down, shaking. Oh. God....I shot Vin....
Chris finally had his breathing back under control. He stood up and frowned, looking at J.D. and at Buck with Vin. Also watching with a frown was Ezra. Why does Mr. Tanner find comfort in the one who hurt him?
Chris carefully eased himself down on a chair beside the bed. Buck, still holding Vin, could barely curb a smile.
"You okay there, Chris?"
As Chris glared at him, Buck turned his head away, smiling. His smile turned to a scowl when he saw that J.D. still sat against the wall, shaking.
"J.D., it's okay kid, ....Vin's all right.....just a bad dream is all...."
He gently placed Vin back on the bed before walking over to J.D. and sitting on the floor beside him. Ezra, still by Vin's right side, took out his handkerchief and began to wipe the perspiration from his face as he sat down.
"My word, I've never so much as seen Mr. Tanner flinch before...he looked absolutely terrified."
Buck, annoyed, turned towards Ezra from where he was sitting with J.D.
"Well, if you'd been there Ezra....you'd understand."
As Ezra gently stroked Vin's head, he looked down at him. He bit his lower lip as he was lost in thought. Looking at Buck and J.D., he frowned. I'm sure I would sir, I'm sure I would.
Nathan approached the bed while drying his hands.
"He's delirious....he don't mean to be hurtin' no one....combine that fever and the morphine I gave him....he's not in his right mind....he's not thinking clear... Here, Chris...help me turn him so I can take care of that shoulder...."
Chris sat on the floor beside the bed so that his face was level with Vin's. He placed his left arm over Vin's side to hold him steady while he held Vin's hand with his right. Nathan sat on the bed behind Vin and began removing the bloodied dressing. Taking a needle, he looked at Chris and asked,"Ready?"
Chris licked his lips and braced himself as he nodded and Nathan began. Vin inhaled sharply and held his breath as the needle pierced his flesh. Chris felt a weak squeeze in his right hand.
"Vin?" he whispered gently.
Vin looked at Chris, the deep pain evident in his blue eyes. Gasping, he paused and held his breath and squeezed his eyes shut each time the needle was inserted.
"Vin, it's gonna be okay....Nathan's just sewing your shoulder back up.....I know we're hurtin' ya......you want...you just yell as loud as ya want....." please don't hold it in for our sakes.
Vin shook his head and gasped.
"There you go....it's all over Vin," Nathan soothed as he reapplied the dressing. "I'm sorry I hurt ya."
"'s'okay," Vin said quietly.
Nathan patted Vin's shoulder as he stood up, stretching his back.
"Chris, sit him on up, I wanna try and get some fluids in him. Easy.....easy now, don't jostle him around."
Chris slid behind Vin and pulled him up in front of him. Vin slumped back against Chris and sighed.
"'m tired," he slurred.
Nathan brought over a cup and handed it to Chris.
"Vin, I have some tea you have to drink, it'll help that fever some. You need to drink all of it and I don't care what you think it tastes like."
Closing his eyes, Vin sighed and leaned his head back against Chris's shoulder.
"Come on Vin...open your mouth," Chris soothed. "That's it, just take it slow." Vin coughed and began to choke. "I know, it tastes awful....just a little bit at a time....there ya go... that's it....just a little more."
Chris patiently got Vin to drain the contents of the cup.
"Buck, Vin's so sick......is he gonna?" J.D. whispered fearfully.
Buck ruffled J.D.'s hair and smiled. He placed his arm over J.D.'s shoulder and pulled him close.
"Now don't you worry 'bout Vin. He's tough. From what I've seen, those Tanner boys are fighters, they don't know how to give up."
J.D. swallowed the lump rising in his throat. I shot Vin
"Buck...Buck," J.D. swallowed, "I think I.." J.D. continued to stare at Vin.
"Shhh..." Buck interrupted, "now don't you worry no more....Vin's safe, and I know he's gonna get well."
As Buck stood and walked over to Vin, J.D.'s eyes filled with tears.
"How's he doing, Nate?" Buck asked as he sat on the bed and reached for Vin's hand.
"It's not the bullet that's making him so sick, Buck. That wound is nice and clean, should heal nicely once we get it to stay closed. It's the arm that's making him sick. It's infected."
Watching Nathan as he spoke, Buck did not notice that Vin had pulled his arm back and turned his head away.
"Vin, I want to tell you again how sorry I am." Buck grasped Vin's hand.
"No." Vin still would not look at Buck.
"Vin, I'm sorry I shot you...if I could just take it back.... please forgive me," Buck pleaded. "You gotta believe how sorry I am."
Chris's heart sank. Buck, he's not himself...he don't know what he's saying.
J.D. watched from the floor, his heart was pounding, his chest heaving. Vin's gonna hate me ...I shot him.... he's mad at Buck...he'll hate me even more...
Buck dropped his head and let out a deep sigh. He slowly stood and walked out the door without looking back.
"Buck! Come on, he don't mean what he says," Chris pleaded.
Josiah and Ezra looked at each other, puzzled. Ezra arched his eyebrows and Josiah shrugged his shoulders back at him. Josiah looked at Vin sorrowfully. This isn't like you Vin. Ezra turned and looked at J.D. What do you know J.D.?
Chris rested his chin on Vin's head and sighed as he closed his eyes. Aw, Vin...
"Why Vin?Why won't you let him be sorry? Why?" he whispered.
Vin shook his head and swallowed. "No...No..he's lyin'," he slurred.
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