Ezra walked to the saloon. Reaching the entrance, he peered over the doors and frowned. He sighed and slowly went through the doors. Buck was sitting at a table alone. Ezra had a splitting headache and had hoped to not see any of the others. Walking to the bar, he retrieved a bottle and a glass and headed towards Buck's table. Pulling out a chair, he casually sat down and removed his hat. With the toe of one boot, he pulled another chair closer, and putting his legs up, he slumped down in his seat. As he took a deep breath, he closed his eyes while pinching the bridge of his nose. When he opened his eyes, he peered to his side and saw Buck, leaning forward, staring intently at him. Resting his chin on his hand, he raised his eyebrows.
"Damn it Ezra! Don't play games with me! You know 'what'! How's Vin?"
Ezra sighed as he reached for the whiskey bottle and poured himself a drink.
"I'm sorry, there really isn't much change. Mr. Jackson admits that the fever is down some, but he won't be any more specific than that."
Buck sat back in his chair and threw his head back. "Damn."
Ezra began rubbing his forehead, the headache still threatened to split his head in two. He closed his eyes and sighed loudly.
"Mr. Wilmington, enough. I have a splitting headache and I am in no mood to sit and listen to your continued self-pity concerning Mr. Tanner's injuries. While it is true that Mr. Tanner is the victim of a gunshot wound and suffered the loss of a great deal of blood, Mr. Jackson is convinced that it is infection that has him so gravely ill. Infection from the animal bite, not the bullet wound. You should not have left when you did, you should have stayed, we needed you."
Buck started to open his mouth to protest, but Ezra stopped him, and pointed his finger at him.
"NO! The boy is plainly delirious, and yet you persist in demanding his forgiveness. He is struggling to live and your only concern is your guilty conscience. Did you ever once consider that maybe when he says 'no' he's not even responding to your request?"
Buck sat silently, staring straight ahead.
"And your friend, Mr. Larabee, he's taking this as a personal insult. He somehow made Mr. Tanner promise not to die, as if Vin would choose to, just to bother him..."
Buck's eyes flashed in anger as he sat up straighter in his chair. "Now you hold on right there, Ezra. You don't know nothin' about Chris. Too many people he's cared about have died on him."
"And you think Mr. Tanner would purposely chose to die to upset him?"
"No, but..." Buck leaned forward in his chair.
"My point is, Mr. Wilmington, everyone is upset. I don't think any of us realized, before now, how important Mr. Tanner is to us. He is grievously ill and despite all of Mr. Jackson's best interventions, he very well may die. I will admit I don't know him very well, but I do know he has had a very hard life. His entire young life has been a struggle for survival. If he's not strong enough to overcome this, he shouldn't have to die thinking he let us down in some way. He should know that he's with people who care about him."
Buck sat silently, in astonishment at what the gambler had just said. Damn Ezra! You got a heart in there after all! Putting his elbows on the table, Buck rested his head on his hands.
"I guess you're right, never thought about it that way...."
"You know, he was asking for you, you and Mr. Dunne both. When he hasn't called out for Mr. Larabee, he's pleading for you to help him. That, to me, does not seem the actions of a person who holds another responsible for his injuries."
Buck sat up straighter in his chair. "So, is J.D. still there?"
Ezra frowned. "You haven't seen him?"
Buck looked up and saw the look of concern on Ezra's face.
"What is it?"
Ezra cleared his throat, and shifted uneasily in his chair.
"Mr. Wilmington, the boy ran out some time ago, he seemed quite upset. Only Mr. Larabee is there now, I just assumed he had gone to you..."
Buck sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Aw hell, I shoulda been keeping a better eye on him, this whole mess has him pretty shook up." He started to rise from his chair, but stopped when he saw Chris.
Chris Larabee slammed through the doors and headed directly for the bar. Without acknowledging the others, he quickly downed a shot of whiskey.
Chris did not turn around, he seemed to not hear Buck.
"Chris, come on, come over here," Buck coaxed.
Reluctantly, Chris walked over and sat down. His face showed no emotion.
"Surprised to see ya here, figured you'd be spending the night at Nathan's."
Chris poured himself another drink. "Yeah, well, he threw me out..."
Buck and Ezra looked at each other with raised eyebrows.
"Threw you out?" they said in unison.
Chris smiled grimly as he nodded his head. "Vin started talking to his mother again...just got to me. I blew off a little steam, overreacted a bit, and upset Vin, so Nathan told me to go...."
Ezra started to pinch the bridge of his nose again. He placed both hands at his temples and tried to massage the headache away.
"I admit, it is quite disconcerting to see our young friend in such a dire condition. He seems to do everything with ease. He has proven to be a most valuable member of our little group. One would not think it possible he could be so seriously injured."
Buck snorted in agreement. "Boy, that boy can sure track. I never seen nobody can read a trail like he can."
Chris nodded, "Yeah, and he's damn good with a gun too, kid can hit anything from any distance." Chris leaned forward and refilled their glasses. "Way he shoots, I'm glad he's on our side."
Ezra lightly touched his bruised cheek. "I must agree with you Mr. Larabee, the way he fights as well, I'm glad he's 'on our side' as you say."
Buck chuckled as he shook his head, and refilled the glasses. Ezra raised his glass in a toast.
"To our comrade, may he continue to astound us with his talents!"
Buck smiled and emptied his glass. "Hell, is there anything that boy ain't good at?"
Buck nearly choked when he heard the one word reply from Chris.
Ezra grinned and nodded his head in agreement.
"I swear.....if I didn't know better, I'd swear he blows into that damn thing just to irritate me...."
Buck leaned back in the chair, laughing. Ezra sat and stared at Chris, the smile frozen on his face as he laughed silently to himself.
Oh, you have no idea, Mr. Larabee, no idea at all.......
Nathan was slumped in the chair, lightly dozing. As soon as he heard Vin moving in the bed, his eyes flew open and he sat bolt upright. He heard Vin's hoarse mumbling but could not understand any of the words. He knew it wasn't Spanish and assumed it was some Indian dialect. Lighting the lamp, he saw that Vin was tangled in the sheets. Vin was damp with sweat, the nightshirt clung to his body and his hair was curling on his forehead. Nathan caught him as he tried to turn on his side and off the edge of the bed. He placed one hand on Vin's chest and with the other, pushed the damp hair back.
"It's okay, Vin....it's okay....you're safe here," he whispered.
"No....no.....no....no.....no...," Vin softly pleaded.
"Vin? Shh....it's okay....you're alright....," Nathan soothed.
Vin's body tensed as his back arched slightly. His head pushed back into the pillows as he turned it to the side. He let out a low moan. As the pain eased, Nathan felt Vin's body relax into the bed again, his breathing still labored. Placing a cool cloth on Vin's forehead, he began unbuttoning the nightshirt again and smiled. Damn nightshirt! Wonder what the others would think about your modesty if they realized their tans stop at their collars and cuffs and you haven't got one spot on your body that ain't tanned? Wringing out a wet cloth, he began sponging Vin's chest.
"There ya go...just gonna try and cool ya off some....it's okay.....," he softly murmured.
Vin's eyelids fluttered and then opened, the pain and confusion evident in their deep blue depths.
"N..N...Nathan?" he gasped as he looked about the room.
"Right here Vin...right here....shhh....."
"Where....where's Chris?" Vin tried to sit up and collapsed with a low groan.
"Now..now....you stay put."
"Sorry....I'm sorry...." Vin was becoming restless and Nathan placed a hand on his chest to calm him.
"There....there now....just take it easy....," he soothed.
"Nathan? I don't feel good....."
"I know... I know... here have a little water...just take it slow... a sip at a time....." Vin moaned softly and closed his eyes as Nathan gently placed him back on the pillows. Nathan softly stroked his hair. "Vin?" he whispered. "Can ya hear me?" Vin turned his head slightly and directed his glazed eyes at Nathan.
"Vin? Do ya know where you are?"
Vin nodded his head slightly. "Cl...clinic?" he gasped. "I...I...don't feel good..." he groaned.
"Vin, are you in pain?"
Vin's eyes closed as he turned his head away. Nathan put his fingers to Vin's chin and gently turned his head back.
"Come on Vin....tell me....are you hurtin' ?"
Nathan barely felt the slight nod as Vin looked up at him with pain-filled eyes. Looking at the clock on the mantle, Nathan noted that it had been some time since the last dose of morphine. Standing up, he crossed the room to prepare another injection. Turning, he returned to the bedside.
"Vin? I'm gonna give you some more morphine." He bent down and started to prepare the injection site.
"No...please....no...," Vin softly begged. He made a feeble attempt to move away.
"Come on now, just relax and let it help you," Nathan coaxed as he swiftly injected the medication. Vin squeezed his eyes shut. "Ow..." he gasped as his body tensed again. Please leave me alone... Nathan withdrew the needle and placed it on the bedside table. "Okay...okay...just give it a few minutes to work...." Nathan sat quietly for a few minutes, watching Vin's breathing as it slowed. Vin opened his eyes and groaned, the room was spinning wildly and his stomach was churning.
"Oh.. no...sick...," he gasped. Nathan grabbed him and quickly turned him on his side and placed a basin by his head. He held him as the painful spasms wracked his body. He felt Vin's body relax as the retching subsided. He turned Vin back and began to wash his face.
"I'm sorry Vin, I'm sorry.. just trying to help the pain some...."
"S'okay," Vin slurred. Nathan realized that Vin was slowly losing consciousness.
"Nathan?" Vin weakly lifted his right hand and touched Nathan's chest. "Thank you...I'm sorry....tired...."
Taking Vin's hand, Nathan squeezed it. "It's okay, just rest..."
+ + + + + + +
Sitting, holding Vin's hand, Nathan did not hear the soft knock. He was surprised when Josiah quietly entered.
"Josiah? Thought I told you to get some rest?"
Josiah chuckled, "Well, Brother, one could say you need to take your own advice."
"He woke up, in pain, just gave him some more morphine."
Josiah sighed and walked over to the rocking chair and sat down. "I came to see if you needed anything...J.D.'s asleep in my bed...."
"He's sweating something fierce, need to get him into something dry 'fore he gets a chill..." Nathan started talking aloud to himself. As Nathan started to fumble with the nightshirt, he was stopped by Josiah's hands on his.
"You're exhausted, let me help you."
Nathan looked up at Josiah and nodded. Together, they removed the damp shirt and replaced it with a clean one Ezra had left.
"Nathan, do you have any dry sheets?" Nathan nodded his head as he reached for them. "Okay then, no need to be moving him all about, I'll just pick him up."
Leaning down, he easily scooped Vin up and walked over to the rocking chair and sat down. Vin moaned softly and Josiah started to hum as he slowly rocked. Nathan quickly stripped and remade the bed. He stretched his back as he stood up. "Okay, you can bring him on back now..."
"You know, Nathan, he's pretty comfortable here....breathing much easier...why don't I hold him here a bit?"
Nathan looked at Josiah, uncertain how to answer.
"Really, it's okay...you lie on down get some sleep yourself. Brother Vin and I will be just fine here..."
Feeling Vin's forehead before answering, Nathan placed a quilt over him.
"Well, alright, if you're sure you'll be okay." He pulled the quilt up higher. "Don't want him getting chilled none..."
As he sat on the edge of his bed, he looked over at Josiah.
"You said J.D. was in your bed?"
Josiah sat, rocking slowly, Vin's head was resting on his chest and he gently stroked his hair.
Josiah smiled, "He's asleep."
"J.D. came to talk to you?"
"Yep." Josiah's eyes met Nathan's. Nathan knew that Josiah wouldn't tell him what they spoke about, but as he looked in his eyes, he understood. As he stretched out wearily, he sighed.
Lord, help us all...
"Well, gentlemen, the conversation, as always, has been stimulating, but it's been a long day."
Ezra glanced around and noticed they were the only ones remaining in the saloon. Pulling out his pocket watch, he sighed, "Good Lord, the sun will be up again in a few hours. I told Mr. Jackson I would return early." Standing up, he lurched slightly and grabbed the table for support. Buck grabbed his elbow. "Ezra, you alright?"
"I assure you, I'm fine, just fatigue compounded by a headache....if you will excuse me, I'll see you in a few hours." He nodded his head at the two men and slowly made his way across the floor and up the stairs to his room.
"Well, I guess I better be going too." Buck picked up his hat and started to leave.
Buck stopped and looked at Chris. Chris sat staring into his glass. Sighing, Buck sat down slowly.
He'd known it was only a matter of time before he had to face Chris's wrath.
"We need to talk."
"Don't worry Chris, if you want, soon as I know Vin's gonna be okay, I'll be moving on. I know how he feels about me, I won't stick around." Buck nervously turned his hat in his hand, never looking up.
"You mad at Vin?"
Buck was stunned as he stared at Chris. "Mad at Vin? What the hell kind of question is that? I'd never hurt him.... Chris you know me better than that!"
As Chris sat back in his chair, Buck noticed that he was holding the bullet they'd removed from Vin in his hand.
"I didn't think so....was just something J.D. said...."
The air was thick with tension as Buck sat staring at Chris. Chris sat playing with the bullet as he stared at it. His mind was replaying the day's events, Vin's, Buck's, and J.D.'s voices echoing in his mind.
"Buck help me please."..."J.D. okay?"..."No, he's lyin'.."...."I looked in his eyes."..."...keep seeing Vin get shot"...."he's lyin'.."..."Buck help me please."..."where's J.D.?"..."I'm not like Vin..not like him at all!"..."looked in his eyes"..."no he's lyin'.."...is he trying to say Buck didn't shoot him?..."No, he's lyin'.." "I looked in his eyes"..."seeing Vin get shot.." J.D. saved Vin's life, why is he so shook up?
Chris sighed and cleared his throat as he lifted his head and looked at Buck.
"Buck, you didn't shoot him."
Buck raised his hands and shook his head. "Chris, I done told ya I did. If it takes me the rest of my life, I'll make it up to him."
Without blinking his eyes, Chris glared at Buck as he placed the bullet on the table. He leaned forward and kept his voice low. "You didn't shoot him. You couldn't have. He was shot in the back, you said you looked in his eyes. J.D. said you were on the left...J.D. was behind him and saw the bullet hit him....you didn't shoot him."
Buck slumped back in the chair and put his hands over his face. "Oh dear God... " He swallowed the lump in his throat as he realized the truth his mind had forgotten. Leaning forward again, he looked at Chris. "The kid..."
Chris stared at him and nodded solemnly.
"Chris, it was an accident....no one needs to know..."
Still staring at Buck, Chris slowly shook his head. Buck felt his heart drop. He could tell that Chris was angry and felt he had to protect J.D.
"No, I think J.D. believed you at first...but he's figured out it was him. Vin's fine until you keep telling him you did it....I think he's trying to tell you that you didn't....Vin's at least owed the truth....not gonna help any one to keep covering it up."
"So, you gonna tell him?"
"No, I didn't shoot him....not mine to tell."
"Chris, the kid looks up to Vin. You know it's gonna kill him when Vin don't accept his apology?" Chris picked the bullet up and started toying with it again.
"Well, that's Vin's choice to make. He's always seemed reasonable to me... When he's feeling better, I think he'll understand it was an accident....I think we can trust whatever choice he makes."
"And what about you? Do you understand it was an accident?"
Chris looked around and sighed. "Buck, I won't lie to you. If J.D. came in right now, I'd have a hard time not putting him through that wall...might be a while before I can look at him without wanting to hurt him....seeing Vin hurt that bad....but I tell you, if I thought it was anything besides an accident, J.D. would be dead by now..." Chris slowly stood and put on his hat. "Think I'll go see if Nathan will let me in again. I want to be there if there's any change..."
Buck nodded in understanding. "Mind if I come along?"
Chris smiled. The two old friends shook hands across the table.
"Buck, I told ya, we'd be okay..."
As the two men departed the saloon, Buck put his arm across Chris's shoulders.
"Hey, you know, Vin and J.D. kinda remind me of us when we was their age." Chris glanced sideways at Buck and smirked. "Before life got ahold of us that is..." Chris smiled and nodded his head in agreement.
"Of course, Vin ain't quite got that glare of yours down yet......"
Josiah sat rocking slowly, humming softly as he listened to Vin's slow breathing. Nathan was softly snoring on his cot. He jolted when he heard the door start to open and quickly felt guilty when he heard the startled moan from Vin.
"Shh...shh...it's okay...shh...," he soothed as he stroked Vin's hair.
Chris walked slowly to the chair and squatted beside Josiah. Reaching up, he felt Vin's forehead, and rested his hand on his cheek. "How's he doin'?" he whispered.
"Nathan had to give him some more morphine. He fell asleep here while Nathan was fixin' the bed....seemed so peaceful, didn't wanna move him." Josiah attempted to shift his weight and winced as his stiff limbs protested the move. Buck stepped forward. "Here, let us move him back to the bed for you," he whispered. "No," Josiah shook his head. "No, his breathing's easier sitting up....."
"Uh, okay then...." Buck ran his hand through his hair as he looked at Josiah and then the bed.
"Okay then, Chris....you get on the bed so you can hold him up and I'll bring him over to ya."
Pulling his boots off, Chris sat at the head of the bed and leaned against the wall. He nodded to Buck that he was ready. Buck leaned down and carefully lifted Vin off Josiah's lap and carried him to Chris's waiting arms. Vin moaned softly as Buck set him down. "S'okay Vin, I've gotcha," Chris whispered.
"Chris?" the hoarse whisper was barely audible. "Right here cowboy, right here," Chris soothed. As Buck sat on the edge of the bed, Vin opened his eyes and smiled. "Hey, Buck....."
Buck took his hand and returned the smile, his vision suddenly blurred by unshed tears. "Hey, yourself...." he whispered. Vin's eyes started to slowly close. "'m tired," he softly drawled.
"I know...you just rest....don't mind if I sit with ya like this for a while do ya?" Chris gently stroked Vin's damp hair, pushing the hair curling on his forehead back. "Shhh...go on back to sleep....don't wanna wake Nathan.
"It's too late," came from the shadows.
Chris and Buck looked over to the corner, full of remorse that they had disturbed the healer's rest.
Nathan sighed, "It's okay." He turned in the bed, unable to find a comfortable position.
"You rip that boy's shoulder open again and I'm gonna sew your sorry ass closed."
Buck put a hand to his mouth to muffle a laugh. He was glad he was there to witness Chris Larabee being put in his place.
"Uh, don't worry Nathan, we'll be fine."
Nathan grunted as he turned his back to the men.
Vin's breathing had slowed again. Chris assumed he had fallen asleep as he felt his body relax. Vin shivered slightly, and Chris motioned for Buck to place the quilt over him. It was a hot night, and holding Vin's fevered body made Chris feel even hotter,but he would not put the younger man down. "Hey, cowboy, never told ya how much you mean to us....we need ya....please try to get well." He rested his chin on the top of Vin's head and closing his eyes, sighed.
Buck smiled as he squeezed his hand. "That's right kid, we need ya....now don't ya go tryin' ta leave us...." The two old friends sat silently, holding the younger man. Vin had fallen asleep again. Buck was studying Vin's face. "Chris, when he's asleep like this, he don't look hardly older than J.D."
Chris sighed,"Reckon he isn't."
Buck squinted and looked closer at Vin. "Did you ever notice he's got a bunch of freckles up across his nose?"
Chris smiled, "Can't say I have....."
After a while, Buck looked up at Chris. "You cramping up there?"
Chris closed his eyes and nodded. Gently leaning Vin forward, Buck ordered, "Chris, slide out from behind him."
Chris stiffly did as he was told and tiredly sat in the chair. Buck carefully placed Vin down on the pillows and covered him up. Frowning when he put his hand to Vin's forehead, he placed a wet cloth there once again.
"I'm scared, Buck."
"I know, me too....just gotta let him know he's home and we believe in him...." Buck sat back down in the chair opposite Chris. Chris closed his eyes and sighed.
Soon the room was quiet. The only sounds to disturb the silence was the soft snoring of the exhausted men.
The sun was shining brightly as the town started to wake up again. A soft breeze fluttered the curtains.
"Aww, hell....who put me in a dress?"
Chris jumped and opened his eyes when he heard the raspy drawl. Vin was feebly moving in the bed, his eyes finally clear, a glint of the familiar spark returning.
"Hey, welcome back." Chris leaned forward and placed his hand on Vin's forehead and smiled.
"What's the matter, don't like the nightshirt Ezra loaned ya?"
"Chris....it's a dress.....," Vin whispered. He didn't want anyone else to see him like this. Chris chuckled and shook his head.
"Well, it was either that or you could lie there, 'spread' in your 'illustrious glory' as Ezra put it..."
A slow blush started to rise from the collar of Vin's nightshirt.
"Hey, you've been pretty sick, we're all more than a little familiar with ya now...," Chris smiled.
"Sick?" Vin sighed and closed his eyes.
Nathan lay awake, listening to the quiet exchange, and smiled. There would be time enough to check Vin's condition, he gave the two friends this time alone.
"Vin?" Chris whispered.
Vin turned his head and looked up at Chris.
"Do you remember what happened?"
Vin swallowed and shook his head no.
"You were attacked...by a cougar..." Chris slowly began. He could see the look of confusion on Vin's face as his breathing increased. Gently lifting Vin's splinted left arm, he lightly touched the dressings as Vin quietly looked at it.
Vin's brow creased and Chris knew he had begun to remember. Frowning, he slowly touched his left cheek with his right hand. Breathing rapidly, he looked at Chris and swallowed as a single tear slid from the corner of his eye.
Chris took Vin's hand away from his cheek and squeezed it. "You're okay... you're safe here... nothin's gonna hurt ya again...."
"My fault... I'm sorry....didn't have my knife.....my fault...."
Josiah had been awake and now sat forward in the rocking chair. Chris slid off the chair and knelt on the floor by Vin's head. "Shh...no....nothin' for you to be sorry for..."
Vin looked at Chris, his eyes full of pain. He saw the sad look on Buck's face and knew that J.D. was absent. He shook his head, "No, my fault.....J.D. was afraid....all my fault..."
Buck leaned forward and touched Vin's shoulder, Vin turned and looked up at him. "I'm sorry Buck..." Buck suddenly realized that Vin thought something had happened to J.D.
"No, Vin....no...no....J.D.'s okay....no, you're the only one got hurt....."
Vin turned his head and looked at Chris. Chris slowly nodded his head. Vin closed his eyes and sighed. Thank you God...
Chris began softly stroking Vin's hair.
"Vin? There's something else you need to know..."
Vin slowly opened his eyes and looked at Chris.
"Vin," Chris began and then stopped and looked at Buck. Buck placed his hand on Vin's right shoulder. He cleared his throat and took over from Chris.
"Vin, you were shot too....right here in the back...."
Vin was confused. Shot? He turned his head and looked at Buck.
"Wha...where?" How'd I get shot? Why don't I remember?
He closed his eyes and let out a long sigh.
"Oh...God...J.D........I'm sorry.... it's all my fault...."
Buck and Chris looked at each other, sadly. Vin had figured the truth out on his own. They had expected him to be angry, they were prepared to deal with that. They didn't count on Vin feeling responsible.
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