"Hey, Chris," Buck squinted at the light ahead, "You see what I see?"
Chris urged his mount into a gallop. He eased off the horse several yards away and loaded both guns. He help Buck down and loaded his gun as well. They crept closer, spotting Cutter and Snake by the fire. Chris's head remained still, but his eyes frantically darted around the campsite.
"I can't see him..." He whispered.
"I can barely see you and you're right next to me," Buck hissed, pointing to the four horses, "They're empty."
Chris let out a sigh of relief, no body in a blanket. He was about to tell Buck he'd edge around to the other side, when an agonizing cry split the night. Both heads jumped up and spotting Vin writhing on the ground, the bottom of his left leg in flames.
The shots came simultaneously, and didn't miss their mark. Deke was dead before he hit the ground. Cutter was propelled backwards, sliding down the muddy hill into the river. Vin had rolled over several times, extinguishing the flames that licked up his leg. He bit his lip bloody, squelching the painful cry that fought to free itself from his mouth. He flinched at the shot and saw the Deke drop. Before his muddled mind could put the pieces together, he felt himself hauled up by the hair. The unmistakable barrel of a colt was pressed to his temple.
"I know you're out there, Larabee," McCall said, "I can smell you. You show yourself or I'll put this bastard out of his misery."
"He's dead..." Vin gritted, biting back the intense pain in his leg, "I ought to know...Yer gonna be too in a minute." Vin launched, eyeing the darkness for the phantom rescuer. He was hoping to unnerve McCall long enough for whoever it was to get a shot off.
Chris swore silently, seething outwardly at the situation. He knew Snake wouldn't hesitate to kill Vin. He started to stand and Buck grabbed him. "I got an idea...."
"Times up, Larabee,"
Vin started wiggling and struggling as best he could. McCall got angry and distracted. Vin's exertion left him weak and his legs gave out. He sagged and McCall had to react, nearly dropping him. He saw a gun land about four feet away and tan pants and boots. Looking up, he spotted Buck Wilmington.
"Where is he?" McCall growled, still holding the gun on Vin. The tracker was unconscious and on his knees. McCall's grip on his hair was the only thing keeping him upright.
Buck felt a stabbing pain at the sight of Vin's mangled body. Blood soaked one side of his head and face. The blackened calf of his leg screamed at the rogue. The rope coiled tightly around Vin's throat caused his stomach to turn.
"He's dead. Back in Rosalie," Buck choked, "Leave Vin and go."
"No way," Snake said, "I'm gonna slice him up good with my Indian knife, all the way to Tascosa. Dead, half-dead it don't make no difference to me. He's got it coming; he cost me my whole gang. I thought this necktie I gave him, would do him in. He's a stubborn bastard. Say hello to Larabee when you see him in Hell, Wilmington." McCall dropped Vin and raised his gun.
"You first," Buck hissed as a crack shot sent the pistol soaring. Buck kicked it out of the way and grabbed his gun. "Get the hell away from him, before I give you a new button hole," Buck snarled, waving his gun.
McCall didn't understand what Wilmington was doing. He eyed his pistol, lying in the dirt. He dove for it as the second shot slammed into his back. He heard the voice, low and lethal, cutting through the night air.
"Get that fuckin' rope off his neck."
McCall's Adam's apple bobbed furiously as the identity of the phantom took hold. His insides turned icy as the flames colored the black-clothed specter's face in a supernatural glow. There was no mistaking the intent in Chris Larabee's eyes as he approached. He swallowed great gulps of air, fighting the claws of death. The last image he saw was Chris Larabee's grim face and deadly voice. "Rot in hell you sick son-of-a-bitch."
Buck dropped to Vin's side, as soon as Chris's proclamation went airborne. McCall was as good as dead. Buck eased Vin into a sitting position. He propped the battered body against his knee. The wet rope had constricted and Buck knew Vin wasn't getting much air. He felt lightheaded and took a deep breath, trying to ward off a blackout. His fingers fumbled on the slick rope. He heard Vin's pitiful wheezing as in his subconscious, he was fighting for every breath.
The urgency and fear in Buck's voice moved the man in black from the dead gunman's side. He dropped on the other side of Vin, blind rage coursing through his veins. He recognized the strained breathing pattern. His patience snapped and Buck was the unlucky recipient.
"Dammit Buck, he's choking to death. What the hell are you doing?" He shouted, pulling Vin from Buck's grasp.
"The rope's wet, you need to cut it. I don't have a knife..." Buck defended, placing a hand on Vin's chest, "I'll hold him, you cut the rope."
Buck sat Vin upright and supported him against his left forearm. He rubbed the trackers back with his right hand and spoke to him in reassuring tones. Chris reappeared, carrying a hunting knife. He used few moves, slicing through the coarse rope like butter. He tossed the bloody rope in to the fire. Buck reclined Vin a bit and Chris winced when he saw the damage close-up.
"He's still wheezing pretty good. His throat's probably swollen," Chris stated, eyeing Vin's mangled body, ending with the burned leg, "Jesus, Buck..." He voice died.
"We need water, Chris," Buck stated, seeing Chris's hesitation from shock, "Lots of it and bandages. By the way, where's Cutter?"
"Shit!" Chris jumped up grabbing his gun, "He was hit high in the chest, I saw him..." Chris disappeared into the darkness, searching the riverbank.
Buck eased Vin down onto the ground and rummaged around the campsite. He retrieved several blankets, five nearly full canteens, and a burlap bag with bandages and liniment that Chris brought. He eyed the white shirt on Deke's dead body. He took the shirt off and used Chris's knife to cut some bandages.
He bent over Vin who's breathing got worse when he was flat. Buck remembered the rifle blow to the ribs. He spotted a log nearby and pulled Vin over to it. He folded a blanket and placed in behind Vin, sitting him up against the log. His breathing became less labored. Buck soaked a large hunk of the shirt with water. He held Vin's head with one hand and gently wiped the blood away from his face. Dousing the cloth again, he wiped the area around the scalp wound.
He soaked the largest part of the shirt in water and wrapped it around Vin's burned leg. He heard an audible sigh of relief. He felt a slight pull on his shirt and turned, grasping the seeking hand. He clutched it tightly and leaned over the younger man, stroking his face.
"Hey there, Pard. You're gonna be fine. Can you take a drink for me?" Buck soothing tone reached out.
Vin felt the gentle ministrations and relaxed. The hands and cooling water were soothing to the agony he was feeling. The burning in his leg quelled temporarily as the cold water soaked into the charred skin. He reached out, seeking comfort. He heard the rich voice and felt the reassuring grip. He obeyed, opening his mouth and taking a long drink. He managed to peel his eyes open halfway and blinked in astonishment.
Buck heard the frail squeak and smiled. Putting his face in front of the blinking blue eyes, he realized Vin's fear. "Hell no, I ain't dead, Son. Ain't planning on that until my one hundredth birthday with my eighteen-year old bride."
Buck soaked a bunch of bandages for Vin's throat. Vin stared at Buck hard, seeing his fevered state and the bandages on his chest. His face colored with mortification when he realized how close he came to killing this man whose tender hands were bringing him enormous relief.
Buck leaned in to wrap the bandages around Vin's neck. He felt the weak hand brush his bandaged chest. Sitting down facing Vin, he saw the chagrined look. Vin was fighting to stay awake; his grip pulled at Buck. The eyes were begging him.
"What's wrong?" Buck leaned in, spotting Vin's lips moving.
Buck's face crossed in confusion, "Sorry? What the hell for?" He knew Vin was trying to tell him, but was fading fast. He felt the hand brush his ribs again. He realized Vin was pointing to the bandages. His face softened and he leaned over.
"Listen up, Pard," Buck gripped the back of Vin's head and applied pressure, willing the blue eyes to open, "It's a wonder you ain't scrawnier. Hell, you must worry off a pound a day." Buck grinned, "Vin, it wasn't you that hurt me." He saw a fiesty look in the tracker's eyes.
"...shot you...did..." The weak voice insisted.
"No, that was somebody else." Buck reassured, "It's okay, it wasn't your fault. I'm the one who's sorry Vin. If it wasn't for me blowing up in town and beating you..." Buck winced his face shamed at his actions. "We wouldn't be in this fix."
"No...my fault...Buck...stupid...stupid..." Vin's fought, pounding a weak fist against Buck's leg.
Buck grabbed the fist and scolded him, "Cut that out...you ain't stupid. Any fool can string a bunch of letters together, Vin. It don't take much to read. But to be the Vin Tanner I know, that's take something special. Hell, you practically had to raise yourself from the time you were five. A lesser man would have died long ago. You're a survivor; you took all the tools you had and honed them to perfection. Honesty, Integrity, Courage, Compassion...hell I could go on all night," Buck's voice was thick with pride, "That comes from here," He tapped Vin's chest, "And you can't get that from any book. I'm damn proud to call you friend, Vin."
Vin struggled uncomfortably as Buck's words hit him. He heard the pride in Buck's voice and saw it in his eyes. He reached a hand up and clasped Buck's forearm. He threw a sly smile, "Handsome...on...list?"
Buck ruffled the curly brown hair and smiled, "Hell, Son, Now you know when it came to good looks and charm, the Good Lord saw fit to give Old Buck an extra helping. Must have been yours."
Chris stood several feet behind Buck, not wishing to disturb them. He heard Buck's testimony and watched as Vin drifted to sleep, keeping that warm smile on his face. He watched Buck shake the last canteen and curse.
"I'll fill them," He said, making his presence known, "How's he doing?"
"He's a Tanner, he'll pull through this fine," Buck replied, his eyes heavy from fighting the fever, "Did you find Cutter?"
"No," Chris answered, picking up all five canteens; "I followed the river down to where it bends. Maybe the current carried him."
Buck was dozing when something wet and ice cold hit his forehead. His eyes flew open and he jumped slightly.
"Sorry," Chris handed him a canteen and urged him to drink.
Buck took a long draw and wiped his mouth. He watched Chris gently unwrap the bandage on Vin's leg. The blond hissed and winced at the sight of the burn on the tracker's calf, which extended from his knee to his ankle. Vin started to twist, moaning in his sleep. Chris turned back, brushing his hand over Vin's forehead and shushing him.
"You gotta keep that leg wet, it takes some of the pain away," Buck whispered, the long overdue exhaustion finally was hitting him hard, "and we need to wrap his ribs, I think some of them are busted." Buck used what little strength he had to sit up, which Chris didn't appreciate.
"Get to sleep, I can handle this."
Buck ignored him and scooted next to Vin, patting the restless man's shoulder. Chris carefully wrapped the wet bandages around the burned leg and Vin sighed deeply. Chris got the medical supplies from the bag by Vin's hip. He eased him upright and Buck grabbed him.
"Got him?" Chris asked the feverish man whose eyes were slits. Buck didn't have the strength to answer, but nodded.
Chris wrapped Vin's chest and rebuttoned his shirt. He took the burden from Buck, and eased him back down against the blanketed log. He turned to get more wet bandages for the raw abrasions on Vin's throat, when he noticed Buck still sitting up, hands extended. Chris smiled and crawled around Vin. He eased Buck down and covered him with an extra blanket. Chris laid another wet cloth on Buck's head.
The disgusting marks on the young's man neck turned Chris's stomach. He wrapped the raw burns in wet cloth and looked at the head wound. The fire's light gave him good illumination. He poured water slowly over the wound and dabbed it gently. Vin howled, throwing his arms in protest. Chris grabbed the whiskey bottle, and held Vin's head tightly. "Sorry Pard, But I gotta do this...." Chris grimaced and grabbed Vin who sat up straight, eyes wide. He screamed and ranted in an Indian dialect. Chris held fast and the andrenalin rush wore off. Vin slumped in his arms and Chris finished bandaging his head and eased him back down.
"What the hell was that?" a voice croaked.
"Dammit Buck, Go to sleep!" Chris snapped. He was tired and his nerves were shot. He saw Buck staring at him. "It was Vin. I think he was cursing at me or putting a curse on me..." Chris shrugged, wiping Buck's face. The back of his hand to the flushed cheek made him hiss.
"You're burning up Buck," He assessed, lifting the sweat-logged head, "Here, drink some more water."
Buck drank greedily, unable to sate his thirst. His head slouched and Chris laid him back down. Buck's body was trembling, and his teeth chattering, from the chills. Chris managed to find another blanket and covered him. He spotted the coffeepot still on the fire. Pouring a cup, he poured a shot in it and sat between his two best friends.
"It's gonna be a long night," He thought outloud of his silent vigil.
Chris blinked and jumped, cursing as he saw the pre-dawn deep blue of the sky. He must have fallen asleep. He checked Vin, who was sleeping, shivering slightly in the cool morning air. He felt a little warm, as a fever threatened to be born. He changed Vin's bandages on his leg and throat. He paused a moment, watching the younger man sleep. He brushed the hair off the battered face and wished somehow that he could rid himself of the nagging tug in his gut.
He shifted his attention to his other patient. Buck looked about the same, which was awful. He was still burning up. Chris pulled him up and grabbed the canteen.
"Open up, Buck, you need to drink this," Chris commanded, nodding in satisfaction when the patient complied. Vin and Buck both needed nourishment. Chris squatted over Buck and tapped his shoulder, watching the eyes blink and mouth frown. "Buck, listen up," Chris shouted, staring and the blinking eyes, "I'm gonna try to catch a few rabbits for breakfast. I'll be right back. You understand?"
"Rabbits?" Buck croaked, turning his head the other way, "Inez, darlin', we got any rabbits?"
"Never mind Buck," Chris rolled his eyes, "Go back to sleep."
Pain was everywhere, his head throbbed, his chest seared, his throat ached and his leg burned. He shivered, as the cold ground seem to have him in a lover's embrace. Forcing himself upright, he swayed drunkenly as the world flew by. "Oh God..." He gripped his stomach, he managed to crawl a few feet away and throw up. He heard the rushing water and staggered down towards the river. He tottered at the top of the small hill and slid down. The icy water sent immediate relief to the scorched flesh of his leg. He leaned over and rinsed his mouth, then drank until he was out of breath. He lay back on the embankment and watched the sun rising over the trees. His heavy eyes slid shut.
Chris dropped the three fat rabbits by the dying fire. He turned to check on his patients and saw Vin was missing. He ran over to the scattered blankets and looked around. He spotted the vomit and saw the footprints.
"Shit..." He swore, hearing the river rushing by. He spotted the body at the top of the hill.
"Vin! Wake up!" He screamed, spotting Vin's face dangerously close to the water.
Vin jerked awake, frowning he sat up and looked around. He blinked and shook his head, seeing the black boots and pants. He shut his eyes and opened them again, hoping it was a dream. The pants were still there. He carried his wide-eyes upward, seeing the blue-clothed chest heaving and the angry face of Chris Larabee.
"Damn," he swore softly, heart heavy. He didn't think he was hurt that bad. His hands went to his throat. He shut his eyes, recalling the tight noose. That must have done him in, that must be it.
"Get up from there," Chris finally found his voice. The shock of seeing the real Vin, the first time since his own 'death', left the gunslinger a little rattled, "Come on, we gotta go..." He reached an arm down, expecting Vin to grab it. Vin still sat, hands around his aching ribs, shivering.
"I didn't hear Gabriel's horn," Vin said, eyeing the river, "I was expecting my Ma..." His voice died off, then glancing up at his best friend, "I don't mean to sound ungrateful."
Chris's arm froze and his brow furrowed. What the hell was Vin babbling about? His face was flushed slightly, but not enough of a fever to be delirious. Must be the head injury. He grabbed the younger man under both arms and pulled upright. He heard Vin suck a mouthful of air in and tense severely. "What's the matter?" Chris demanded, as Vin embraced him. It took a few seconds, but the labored breathing turned out a scratchy, choked voice.
"I thought...I thought ya was comin' fer me, Chris." Vin released, pulling away, embarrassed.
"Coming for you?" Chris studied the emotional blue eyes and realized what Vin feared, "Is that what that nonsense about Gabriel's horn and your Ma was? You thought I was dead?"
"Could'a swore..." Vin eyed the blond, "I checked ya in the cabin, couldn't find a pulse or a breath. It was so real."
Chris suddenly felt an anger rising, remembering Vin's flight. Giving up on everything; the town, the rest of the men, and most of all himself. How could Vin betray him like that? Who the hell did he think he was?
"I never figured you for a quitter," Chris's anger erupted, his fists clenched, "Why did you run?"
"Run?" Vin puzzled, "What are you talking about?"
"From Four Corners, after I was shot." Chris seethed, "You're a Goddamn coward!"
"Why? Because I chose a rope instead of a bottle?" Vin shouted back, glaring at the raging green eyes.
"That's different and none of your damn business," Chris shoved Vin away, climbing up the hill.
Vin struggled after him, biting back the pain, "Ya got balls calling me a coward. That's why ya don't got a fuckin' mirror at yer house. Can't face the truth. Sarah be damned ashamed..."
"SHUT UP!" Chris screamed, using all his strength not to lash back physically. "SHUT THE FUCK UP, VIN OR SO HELP ME GOT I'LL..."
"Shoot me? Go on," Vin dared, jutting his face close to the irate older man's, "The truth hurts, don't it. Ya ain't got no right callin' me out. It weren't yer fault; Sarah and Adam know that. Why can't ya forgive yerself? It's my damn life and it was my choice to go."
"You got no right to put that kind of pressure on me!" Chris screamed, veins jutting out of his temple and throat, "I'm responsible for MY MORTALITY, not YOURS. My shoulders aren't that broad, Vin."
"I pull my own weight," Vin screamed back, sending a blue bolt of lightning, "Been doin' so since I was five. Y'all ain't responsible fer me.
"Do you think the six of us are on vacation out here?" Chris raged, inching into Vin's face, "Jesus, Vin, open your eyes. You ain't riding solo anymore. You got people who care about you and worry on you. How the hell do you expect me to react to what you did? Of course I'm angry. How would you feel, if I told you I was gonna kill myself if you died?"
Vin staggered back a few paces dumbfounded. Chris's reasoning finally sunk in; he hadn't looked at it from their side. No wonder Chris was pissed off. That was an unthinkable burden to put on any man's conscience. How could he have hurt Chris that way? Why didn't he see that before?
Chris couldn't see Vin's face and didn't realize he was lost in thought. He turned away, too tired to argue. "Fine, Vin. If you don't care about your sorry ass, why the hell should I?" Chris turned and walked away, leaving a stunned sharpshooter in his wake. Vin heart ached, and he finally drew his head up. That's when he saw it.
Ezra, Nathan, Josiah and J.D. saw the clearing and the dying campfire. Two dead bodies were tied up, out by the road. J.D.'s face lost all color and he dropped off his horse.
"Wait a minute, J.D.," Nathan called after him, "Don't jump to conclusions."
"Thank God!" J.D. took a deep breath, realizing the dead weren't his friends. "Buck!" J.D. shouted, spotting the slumbering, wounded man.
The four entered the campsite, eyeing the bandages and medicine. Nathan and J.D. flanked Buck, who was soaked with perspiration.
"He's burning up," Nathan said, checking Buck's wound, "J.D., hand me that canteen. We gotta get some water in him and cool him down."
J.D.'s arm was on the canteen when the fireworks started. The four men stared in shock as Chris and Vin's loud argument penetrated the morning air. Their bodies appeared over a hill and the fight continued. J.D. handed the canteen to Nathan and scowled.
"What's the matter with Chris," His face screwed up, and he stood, "Vin's hurt bad. Why is he picking on him? I'm gonna..."
"Leave it be, Son," Josiah ordered, clamping a powerful hand on the boy's shoulder.
"But...look at him, he's barely able to stand...." J.D. argued, fearing for Vin's safety at Chris's wrath.
"Leave it be, Kid," a weak voice countered. "It ain't your fight."
"Buck? You all right? You scared the shit outta me back at that cabin." J.D. choked.
"I'm fine, J.D.," Buck offered weakly, rising so Nathan could help him get a drink, "Thanks Nate."
Vin saw the flash of silver, and launched himself at Chris's unprotected back. "CHRIS!"
Chris didn't have time react. He heard a shot, as he was bodyslammed hard into the ground. Four more shots rang out almost simultaneously.
"Get off of me," Chris growled, as a burning pain erupted in his left upper back.
He shoved off the weight and got to his feet, drawing his gun. He spotted the others, sans Buck, who were bent over a body.
"What the hell happened?" The leader demanding, grimacing as he walked over to where Ezra, Josiah and Nathan were standing.
"Cutter Carson attempted unsuccessfully to terminate you. Mr. Tanner's timing was impeccable, as always." Ezra summed up.
"NATHAN! Vin's bleeding bad..."
J.D.'s wail caused the others to spin around. The youngest was bent over Vin's lower body. He was trying to stem the blood flow. Vin's right thigh was soaked in blood. Nathan rolled Vin carefully toward J.D. and found an exit wound. Ezra handed him his tie and Nathan made a tourniquet.
"Damn," Josiah eyed Vin's mangled body, "The boy ain't having his best week."
"Amen to that," Ezra added, wincing as the charred skin peeked though the other leg, "Nathan, I think you should see this."
"Chris, what the hell happened to him?" Nathan demanded, unpeeling the bandages.
"Oh God," J.D. recoiled, spotting Vin's raw neck wounds, over the unraveled bandages. "Rope burns."
Nathan's studied Vin from head to toe, "Chris, I need an answer. What happened to Vin? Chris?"
Chris hadn't moved from Cutter's body. He stared at Vin's crimson leg and replayed the event in his head. He brushed a hand through his hair, walking slowly over to his fallen comrade.
"Chris, you're bleeding..." J.D. pointed to Chris's sticky hand.
"So that's where the bullet went," Ezra astounded.
"You can't get much closer than that," Josiah nodded to Chris, "Bullet went right through Vin, flying through the air yet, and caught you," Josiah eyed Chris's upper back, "right ontop of the shoulder. That's what I call a 'blood tie'"
"How's he doing, Nate?" Chris asked, eyeing Nate's busy hands.
"Despite the fact that there ain't a whole lot of him that ain't busted, battered, bleeding or burned," Nate replied, "He's holding up good. He's got a fever coming on and that burn needs tending. If that gets infected, it could be dangerous."
"Well do something then!" Chris demanded, "What the hell are you just sitting there for?"
Ezra, Josiah and J.D. immediately began clamoring at once, jumping to Nathan's defense. Nate stood up and whistled, silencing the quartet.
"Enough! I've had me a week and I ain't putting up with your shit, Chris. You get that ungrateful behind of yours over next to Buck. Ezra, clean off Chris's shoulder and put a bandage on it. Once I tend to Vin, I'm taking that bullet out. Get some water in Buck, and bath him down again, he's fevers too high. J.D., you get them rabbits skinned and on the fire. Two on spits, dice one up and fill that empty coffee pot with water. Buck and Vin are gonna need broth. Josiah and me will see to Vin."
They stood stunned into silence at Nathan's outburst. Slowly, they moved out. Ezra bathed Buck and managed to get him to drink a good amount of water. While he was doing that. Chris took off his shirt. His eyes never left Vin, who Josiah laid down a few feet away. Buck's eyes peered over Ezra's arm at Vin.
"Water..." He croaked, trying to sit up.
"Mr. Wilmington, You will not get up," Ezra pushed him back, "You do not want to incur Mr. Jackson's wrath. His sunny disposition has yet to arrive today."
"WATER!" Buck strained, glaring at Ezra.
"Here," Ezra lifted his head to give him a drink, but Buck shook his head.
"Nathan! Nathan...water...Vin...Nathan." Buck was a strong man and Ezra and Chris both tried to hold him down.
"Dammit, Buck, Stop being a pain in the ass." Chris used his good arm to restrain Buck.
"Go on Nate," Josiah nodded at Buck thrashing, "I'll cut Vin's pants leg and start cleaning his wounds."
"What is it, Buck?" Nathan asked, dropping a hand on the fevered head.
"Water, Nate...Vin's leg. Cold water. Gives him relief...no blisters...water Nate...stick his leg in the river..." Buck gripped Nate's arm and watched the dark face slowly nod.
"Buck, that's a great idea. I'll do that," Nate nodded, "Thanks...Now you will rest?" Nate asked, watching Buck's eye's slide shut as he nodded.
Josiah and Nathan carried Vin down to the river. The leg with the burn was exposed from the knee down. The angled him, so that the burned limb was covered in cold water. Nathan probed the entry and exit wounds, cleaning out debris. Vin cried out and buckled slightly, as Nathan felt around the upper leg.
"Busted?" Josiah asked, and watched Nathan nod.
After cleaning the wounds good with soap and water, Nathan picked up the bottle of Carbolic Acid.
"Hold him down good, Josiah," Nate warned, "He's gonna jump outta his skin. I gotta pour a whole lot of this inside the wounds."
Vin had been stirring since his leg went into the water. He peeled one eye open, gazing up at a blurry face. He shivered and eyed the river racing by. His fragmented mind tried to put together the pieces of the puzzle. He was arguing with Chris and then there was a gun. Where was Chris?
"Chris..." He squinted up, "Chris..."
"Easy Brother," Josiah soothed, pulling Vin against his chest, "Chris is fine. You got shot Vin. Bullet went right through your leg. Nathan's cleaning it out." Josiah saw the young man's face screw up.
"Yer lying to me, he's dead ain't he?" Vin pushed weakly against the larger man, "let me up..."
"Take it easy, Vin," Nathan ordered, nodding to Josiah as he used a metal clamp to keep the exit wound open. Josiah returned the nod and pulled Vin against his chest, holding him tight.
"CHRIS!" Vin screamed as the fire-filled pain coursed through his leg.
Ezra threw his body at Chris on instinct, as soon as Vin's agonizing wail erupted. Chris's face drained and he tried to bolt. He shoved the Southerner hard, cursing and scowling.
"Ezra, get the hell off of me. Where's my gun." He raged, groping at Ezra's holster.
"Good Lord," Ezra cried, realizing what he was doing, "J.D., a little help over here..."
J.D. was in the middle of cleaning the animals, when Vin cried out. The youth froze; suddenly the sight of his hands, slick with rabbit blood, sickened him. He turned as Ezra called out and bolted. Between the two of them, they were barely able to contain the raging bull. Finally, as a last resort, Ezra slammed Chris against the ground, right on the wound. Chris gasped, seeing stars; all three men slumped.
"Okay?" J.D. asked, afraid to move.
"It would appear so," Erza guessed.
"I'm gonna shoot both of you," Chris hissed painfully, "Let me up."
"For what reason?" Ezra glared, "A short time ago you were ready to shoot Mr. Tanner yourself. Our fine healer and his accomplished assistant are handling it. I dare say, in the mood Mr. Jackson is in, that he wouldn't empty a chamber on you. Mr. Dunne will check on our injured comrade and report back." Ezra's voice was still laced with anger, "Now sit up and shut up"
Chris glared at the Gambler, but held his tongue. Ezra cleaned the wound and doused it liberally with whiskey, causing the blond to hiss and swing at him.
"You did that on purpose, you cheatin' card shark," Chris growled, as Ezra wrapped his shoulder in a bandage, "and lose that shit-eating grin, that damn gold tooth of yours is giving me a headache."
Ezra grin faded when he spotted a familiar gold fob sticking out of the leader's pocket. Snatching the chain and the watch attached, Chris answered his puzzled face.
"Found that on Pete Carson. They must have lifted it when they jumped you."
"It's your call, Nathan," Josiah offered, watching the dark-skinned healer eyeing his three patients.
Buck slept fitfully; his fever was finally starting to diminish. The bullet was out of Chris's left shoulder, and his arm was in a sling. He hovered next to Vin, finally dozing, and his right arm on the younger man's shoulder. Vin was in a bad way and needed a doctor. The blood loss left him weak and the fever, from the burn and the wound, was rising steadily.
Nathan sighed and rubbed his face. The mid-morning sun was already hot, in a couple more hours; it would be unbearable for the three injured men. Correyville was a four-hour ride, but traveling slowly with wounded, would nearly double that time. The four had been discussing their options. A new voice made the decision easier.
"We're going to Correyville. J.D, you and Ezra find some long branches. We'll make two travois for Vin and Buck." Chris offered, taking the plate of food Nathan handed him. "Get moving, it's getting hotter by the minute.
An hour later, they pulled out, five on horseback, and two on litters. Nathan made them stop at regular intervals, to keep bathing Buck and Vin's fevers, and keep Vin's burn wet. By sundown, the five weary men were nearing Correyville. Nathan put his hand up to signal a break. J.D. and Josiah trotted a nearby stream and filled the canteens. Chris remained in his saddle, face drawn and weary. Nathan glanced at him and frowned. Chris was no fool, the healer surmised, if he slid off that horse, his legs wouldn't support him. Shaking his head, he knelt down beside the two injured men. Josiah and J.D. joined him and the three men began tending to their friends.
Ezra was perched on a rock in the shade. He observed Chris, slumped over, eyes nearly closed. He reached inside his jacket to retrieve his flask, and pulled out a folded paper. He opened it and discovered the map he'd drawn. He eyed his injured friends and got an idea. He walked over to the team leader.
"Mr. Larabee, May I have a word?"
"It's a free country...."
"By this map, it occurs to me that we are close to the farm house where Mr. Tanner resided last week."
"Kate's place?" Chris eyed the two fallen man and took the paper, "Vin and Buck have had it, and town is a good hour or more away. It's worth a shot. Let's..." Chris's voice caught when he flipped the paper over and saw 'CRIS' scrawled in the crooked, painful lettering of a child. Ezra saw his puzzlement.
"The doctor discovered Mr. Tanner's illiteracy. Kate took it upon herself to teach him the basic tools. She said he was a fast learner. That, " His finger traced the uneven letters, "was the moment when our tracker-turned-student proclaimed proudly that 'I ain't an 'X' no more' with wonderment in his eyes."
"You update Nate, and take J.D. with you. You ride to town and get the doctor to come to the farm," Chris advised, "Have the Kid high-tail it to Kate's. We'll meet you there."
Ezra strode away and glanced back, with a slight chuckle. He watched as Chris's face lit up with a broad smile, not unlike a proud father wears. The leader folded the paper carefully and tucked it inside his saddlebags.
When the five reached the farmhouse, Kate was on the porch. She was at Vin's side before Nathan got one leg down. She used the edge of her apron to wipe the fevered face. She leaned over close to his ear.
"Son, you listen me," She stroked his face as she spoke, "Old Kate's gonna fix you up, good as new."
Buck heard a woman's voice and peeled his eyes half open. He squinted at a very blurry, but very definite female form. All he could make out was red hair and a blue dress.
"Hello, Darlin," He croaked at the cloudy image, "I'm Buck Wilmington. Are you one of the new girls?"
"There's no fever that can keep our rogue down," Josiah chuckled, as the others laughed outright at Buck's mistake.
"Buck!" J.D. hissed leaning over the delirious man, "Kate's married."
"So?" Buck scowled, "I got a room..." He offered to the fuzzy form.
Kate's laughter was louder than the rest. She leaned over and took Buck's face in her hands.
"Buck honey, you made Old Kate's day...hell, you made my year! If I had run into a fine stud like you when I was young...Lord what a time we could have had!"
"I wouldn't doubt it," Nathan grinned at Vin's legs, as J.D. lifted Vin's upper body. "Ma'am?" He caught her eye and nodded to the house.
"It's Kate, Nathan, I ain't hardly Noah's bride. We got the large bedroom fixed with two beds, so it would be easier to tend to both of 'em." She eyed the real Chris Larabee sliding sideways. "Somebody best grab that boy, 'fore he breaks the handsome face of his."
Chris tumbled from the saddle, right onto Josiah.
"I'm alright," Chris growled, shaking himself off, "See to Vin and Buck."
"They're in good hands, Brother," Josiah offered, noting the flush on Chris's cheeks.
Nathan returned and with Josiah's help, they carried Buck inside. Chris staggered slightly, but managed to follow them on his own. With three sets of helping hands stripped the patients. Kate handed J.D. a basin with rubbing alcohol and a cloth, ordering the youth to bath the feverish man.
"You can get him some soup, water and juice. He needs to get fluids in his system." She prescribed, giving Buck a smile and a wink. "Help me turn him a bit," She asked J.D., snipping off the dirty bandages, "There's a little inflammation back here," She gently prodded the hot skin on Buck's back "Draw it out and swab?" She asked Nathan who was busy with Vin, "You got your hands full, Nathan I'll do it," She offered after he nodded his consent.
Buck hissed and threw off J.D.'s hold, when the Carbolic hit him. He sat up and swayed, only to have Kate shove him back down. He glanced at the fuzzy curves and realized he was naked and in pain.
"J.D.," He slurred, "arrest her. I think she forced herself on me."
"In your dreams, Sugar," Kate replied, shoving Buck down and pulling the sheet up, "Although them jewels of yours real pretty."
Buck blinked in confusion at his friend's riotous laughter. He was still frowning when J.D. put the tray in front on him. The aroma of the rich beef broth made him forget his embarrassment. He finished everything and drifted to sleep.
Ezra and the doctor arrived. He went to Vin's side immediately. Nathan and Josiah were already in the process of swabbing Vin down. His fever was raging and he was very restless. It took Nathan a few minutes to go over Vin's injuries. The wound to the thigh was slightly inflamed Like Nathan; the doctor was most concerned with the burn. He unwrapped the wet bandages and inspected the damage.
"Considering how old it is and without any ointment on it," The doctor noted of the inflamed area, "It's amazing it's not infected worse." He applied a generous amount of salve to the leg and cleaned and rewrapped the bullet wound as well. "Nice work, Mr. Jackson," The doctor noted of the stitched head wound. Unwrapping his throat, he applied some salve to that area and left it open, so the air could get at it.
"Now young man," Dr. Adams turned around, eyeing the exhausted leader, "Let's have a look at your shoulder."
"It's fine," Chris issued in a low voice, moving in beside Vin.
"Maybe you didn't understand me," The doctor's voice was firm, "I will examine that shoulder now. Your friend isn't leaving anytime soon."
Chris glared at him, but relented. Dr. Adams inspected the wound, eyeing in appreciation at Nathan's work, "You have good hands, young man," He praised Nathan, "Keep that sling on for at least two weeks, to keep pressure off that shoulder until it heals. I want you to take this," He poured a small amount of amber liquid into a cup and mixed water with it, "for the pain. I'll give you more if you need it. It also helps against infection."
"No thanks," Chris winced, sliding his arm back into his sling and resuming his bedside vigil.
"You need to take this and get some rest," The doctor's voice was harsh.
"I'm damn well aware of what I need," was the blond's taciturn response.
Josiah took the cup and gave the physician a sly wink. Doctor Adams glared for a moment then left to check on the other patient. Kate stuck her head in the door and caught Nathan's eye.
"I just wanted to let you know that I have a large kettle of soup on and a large pot of medicinal tea ready. It should help with the fever and infection."
"Thank you, Kate," Nathan nodded, "I'll go get some of that tea now, and try to get some in Vin."
"Come on, boys," She waved at the others, standing around. "Supper's on the table and I don't call twice. Let's leave these two to their rest."
Everyone filtered out except Chris. Kate went back into the room. She was about to scold him, when she saw something that stopped her. Vin was tossing his head, rambling in a worried voice. His unfocused blue gaze was wide with fear. Chris eased himself forward, resting his good hand on the side of Vin's neck. He caught the frantic gaze and spoke slowly, "I'm right here, Vin." To Kate's amazement, the younger man's breathing regulated, his fright ceased and his eyes slid shut. Satisfied, Chris slid back into his chair.
Chris glanced around the empty room and sighed. He walked over and got the basin with a cloth, that Josiah left. He placed it on the edge of the bed, and moved the chair closer. He leaned over on his good arm to glare at Vin Tanner. The flushed face was soaked and Vin's unruly hair was a mass of wet curls. His head moved restlessly on the pillow. His face screwed up and he mumbled incoherently, throwing his arm haphazardly and clipping Chris's chin.
"If I didn't know better, I'd swear you did that on purpose." Chris scolded, grabbing the wayward arm, "Settle down!" He hollered, which Vin did. Chris rung the wet cloth out and gently wiped Vin's fevered face and chest. He soaked the cloth again and laid it on Vin's forehead. Settling back in the chair, he looked up briefly as Nathan approached. He put a steaming mug down on the bedside table. In his other hand was a half-empty bowl of soup.
"How's Buck?" Chris asked, realizing he'd forgotten about the body across the large room.
"His fever's down some," Nathan nodded, "He finished a mug of tea and a little more soup. Speaking of which, you need to eat. You want me to fix you a platter? Josiah, J.D. and Ezra are in the kitchen. Kate put a little spread out."
"Maybe later," Chris eyed the beef soup, which smelled wonderful. "You gonna eat that?"
"No," Nathan said headed for the door, "You want it? It ain't much, I can fill it..."
"It'll do," Chris said, taking the hot soup, and sipping it slowly.
Nathan slid into a chair in the kitchen and tossed a silver coin to Josiah.
"He took the bait?" Ezra's green eyes lifted in surprise.
"Hook, line and sinker," Nathan chuckled, grabbing a chicken leg.
"The Lord does work in mysterious ways," Josiah added of his inspiration to put Chris's medicine in the soup.
Nathan waited fifteen minutes and after finishing his supper, slipping back into the infirmed's room. Dr. Adam's followed him in. Nathan exchanged a grin with Josiah, who stood by Buck's bed. Chris was sound asleep, his head resting on his good arm, next to Vin's chest.
"We should move him to a bed," Kate suggested, "There's a small room in the back of the house."
"That'd be like waking a sleeping bear," Nathan replied, "He won't leave Vin's side until he's past the worst of it. I'm talking from experience. You got a cot of some kind?"
"As a matter of face I do. I have a couple old cots in the shed out back."
"Josiah," Nathan called.
"I'm on it, Nate," the ex-minister replied, smacking J.D.'s arm, "Come on Son, give me a hand."
Chris never stirred while they transferred him to the cot in the corner near Vin's bed. The other cot was set up near Buck's bed, for Nathan to use. Kate took the small room. That left Ezra, Josiah and J.D. in her son's old room. It was a mite crowded, but they managed. Good thing Earl was visiting his sick brother in Denver.
Nate kept a vigil over Vin, whose fever was still climbing. The young man tossed fitfully, muttering incoherently in Indian dialect and English. Nathan continued to bath him in water, and also rub him down with alcohol. Josiah tapped the weary healer on the back near midnight and pointed to the cot. Nathan didn't argue.
Josiah's tour of duty was short lived. He was applying some salve to the burn, when Vin's began to thrash. He sat up, trying to escape the bed.
"Take it easy, Vin," Josiah pushed him back onto the pillows.
Vin's eyes shot wide open and darted frantically around the room. "Chris, Look out!" He shouted, fighting the strong arms that held him back, "Behind ya, in the alley...CHRIS!"
"Calm down Vin," Josiah tried, but the ex-bounty hunter got wilder. A body appeared almost at the first call, and Josiah stepped back.
"Vin we ain't in no alley," Chris shouted, gripping the delirious man's right shoulder, "Lay down and go to sleep!" He could feel Vin's heart beating wildly against his arm and the bright blue eyes were somewhere far away. But the voice penetrated the fog and Vin's breathing eased up. His eyes blinked slowly and slid shut. Chris eased him back onto the bed. He wiped Vin's face and
chest, eyeing Josiah suspiciously.
"I got a real long memory," he warned. "You pass that on to your partner in crime."
"Me?" Josiah's eyes opened innocently, "a part of a conspiracy? Shame on you, Brother."
Dawn was cresting on the horizon, sending violet, pink and blue brush strokes across the sky. Chris stretched and walked to the window, gazing at the spectrum on display. Vin had been restless all night, and lost in a world of nightmares. Chris managed to get water and the herbal tea in him in small doses. Chris was exhausted and his shoulder throbbed.
"Sarge! Stop 'em...Sarge, where are ya?"
Chris turned and moved back to the bed, in time to grab Vin, who was trying to get out of bed.
"Vin, I'm right here," Chris grabbed the tracker's chin and stared close into the bright eyes, "What's wrong?"
"They're tryin to take my leg..." Vin pleaded, grabbing at the burned leg, "Ya gotta promise me, ya won't let them cut it off."
"Nobody's gonna cut your leg off, Vin," Chris reassured in a strong voice, "I'll shoot the first fool who tries."
Vin stared at him, gasping, his chest heaving painfully. He finally nodded, the green eyes and steady voice reassured him.
"He's dead, Sarge...Spence is dead. That bastard Hinkson beat him to death. He died in my arms. Coughed blood the hell all over." Vin panted, gripping Chris's forearm. "He was my best friend, Sarge. I busted my promise. I give 'im my word, I'd write to his Ma...he died thinkin' that and I..."
Vin's wavering voice and fevered glazed eyes were laced with a pain Chris couldn't conquer. Vin was a man who stood by his word; it was a part of his code. He knew how painful it must be for the younger man to have left a dying friend's wish unfulfilled.
"How about I write Spence's Ma?" Chris said softly, "Would that be okay?"
"Ye'd do that?" Vin's eyes grew wide and Chris shuddered, seeing a boy playing in a man's war, dressed in Rebel gray.
"Say the word," Chris patted his shoulder, "Why don't you get some rest now, and we'll do it later?"
"Reckon that'd be okay," Vin furrowed his brow, seeing the mug appear before his face. "Ahhhh," He backed away, gagging, "What the hell are ya doin? That's loaded with mealy worms. Damn blue-belly prison guards...feedin' us swill that ain't fit fer a dog. Then they beat ya fer complainin'." Vin slumped back, blinking hard, "Sarge, I swear if I get outta this stinkin' hole alive, I'm comin' back and killin' every one of them Yankee animals..." He slipped back to sleep, his raspy breathing was the only sound in the room.
Chris was too stunned to speak. Vin never mentioned he was a POW in the war. Then again, until a few weeks ago, he never knew Vin was even in the war. He'd seen some of the pathetic souls that were liberated from Union prisons. Walking corpses, emancipated and sick, some with wounds that no one could heal. Lost forever, trapped in a prison in their mind. Vin was only a kid. How the hell did he survive something so unthinkably horrible? The mental image of a scrawny teenager came into view. A boy with long shaggy hair and brilliant blue eyes, in gray rags locked in a prison cell enraged the lean leader. He cursed and threw the mug against the wall, clenching and unclenching his fist.
"Mr. Larabee..." A voice crept into the room. "You look exhausted. Why don't you get some sleep? I'll stand by our valiant hero."
Chris turned and saw Ezra at the foot of the bed. One look at the Southerner's grievous expression told him Ezra heard every word of Vin's painful trip down memory lane.
"I had no idea..." Ezra whispered, "What an ironic twist of fate that one so young would survive the horrors of war, only to be forced to live on an island with the enemy."
"It stays here," Chris warned, pausing at the Gambler's shoulder and waiting for the slight nod.
Chris slipped onto the cot and was asleep almost instantly. Ezra slid into the chair by Vin's bed and wiped the scalding skin. Vin moaned bit and tossed his head. Ezra brushed the wet tangled mop of hair back off his face.
"Rest Easy, My friend," Ezra offered, "You're safe."
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