Nathan paused long enough to grab a lantern that had fallen or been thrown from the porch of the house. Shaking it, he heard oil sloshing around and was glad of it. He'd need plenty of light for what he had to do.
"JD, run back up that hill and get my bag offa my horse quick." The healer didn't slow down, as he shouted orders to the others. "Buck, I'm gonna need lots of clean hot water."
"Got it, Nate." Buck told the healer. The others didn't reply; JD was already halfway across the yard. Buck was searching the yard for something to heat the water in. Plenty of fire to heat it on, the lady's man thought grimly. Spying a galvanized tin pail near the smoking barn Buck hurried towards it.
"Outta my way," he roughly shoved one of the men Josiah had herded into a small group out of his way. Snatching up the bucket, he quickly made his way to the well.
Watching Buck warming the water on a small fire he'd made from burning barn timbers, Josiah methodically began cutting the picket line used to fence in the gang's horses. He'd need something to secure the surviving outlaws. He didn't relish another long chase through the desert. As he began his task, a prayer, darted through his mind. He figured Vin would need all the help he could get. Our Father . . .
Finishing the job of tying up the outlaws, Josiah stood and turned in time to see Chris drag the Southerner from the burning house. He quirked an eyebrow as Chris roughly gripped the man and demand something of Ezra. Whatever the response was, it didn't appear to satisfy the black-clad gunslinger. Glaring at Ezra a second longer, Chris broke the contact before heading towards the small shed where Vin must be. The preacher shook his head wondering about the bizarre exchange he'd just witnessed.
Ezra sagged forward when Chris let loose his steadying grip. Clutching the precious locket in his fist he fought the nausea and bile that rose in his throat. His empty hand reached out against the dusty ground to steady his swaying form. He tentatively tried to take a deep breath; relieved when the coughing didn't immediately seize him again and his dinner decided to stay where it belonged. In his stomach. His abused ribcage was thankful for the respite, too. He could smell the stench from the burning house and the smoke hung thickly over the yard. The smoke tickled the back of his throat but he resolutely refused to give into the cough that lurked in his throat.
Josiah Sanchez watched the slumped figure in the yard with a keen gaze. He had just finished tying the last of the would be badmen hand to feet. At last, he knotted the rope that tied all of the men together.
"That should keep you where you belong," he told the small knot of men.
They ignored him. Thoroughly demoralized, and lacking bravado without their guns, most kept their gazes fixed firmly on the ground in front of them. Dusting his hands on his pants he moved to collect Ezra.
Nathan ducked his head to enter the rickety shack. Peering into the gloom, he spied Vin at the rear of the shack. Lying flat, Nathan couldn't tell if he was awake or unconscious or dead. Swallowing hard, he approached the wounded man. Relief flowed through him when Vin moaned softly. Kneeling next to Vin, Nathan sat the lantern down and gently cupped the man's cheek with one dark hand. Two bright fever spots stained the sharpshooter's otherwise chalky skin.
"Vin," Nathan's voice was low and soothing, "C'mon, Vin, can ya hear me?"
Another soft moan and Tanner's eyelids fluttered briefly open before sliding shut.
"That's it, Vin. Lemme see them eyes." Nathan coaxed the injured man.
A barely audible, "Nath -- an?" and tired blue eyes opened partially.
Nathan smiled and patted Vin's cheek lightly. "That's right, Vin. Stay with me, now."
The bounty hunter didn't reply. Just gave Nathan a slight nod. Vin's breathing hitched and he moaned instinctively trying to curl into himself.
"Easy now, just lie still," Nathan gently eased Vin's shoulders back to the pallet.
He noted with a slight start that Ezra's red jacket was serving as a blanket. He moved it aside and began resolutely peeling back the makeshift bandages, Nathan closed his eyes briefly when he exposed the angry raw wound. "Damn, Vin, ya really know how to make 'em mad, don'tcha?" he muttered to himself.
There was no response from the still form beside him. However, the rise and fall of Vin's chest told him the man had simply passed out again. Nathan was about to get up and start yelling for JD when the kid burst into the shack carrying his leather bag. JD was fairly gasping for breath. Nathan snatched the satchel out of the kid's hands and jerked the clasp open.
"Tell Buck to hurry up with that water," he ordered JD tersely.
JD nodded but hesitated before he left the room. "Is he gonna be okay?"
Nathan looked up and met the boy's worried eyes and found that he was unable to lie. "I don't know, JD. Right now, I just gotta get him cleaned up and patched up and then we'll see."
Fishing in his bag, Nathan found the bottle of laudanum. "Help me get him up, JD. I wanta give him some of this. It'll ease some of the hurt he's gonna be feelin'."
"I'll do it." Chris entered the shack and nodding JD to the side, dropped to his knees beside his injured friend.
"I'll go see about the water." JD informed them and sprinted through the door.
Nathan and Chris watched him go. "How's he doing, Nate?" the gunslinger demanded.
"Not good Chris. He's real weak and he's burnin' with fever. Lost a lot o' blood and looks like he's got some busted ribs too. I'll do the best I can, but it ain't up ta me." Nathan told Chris straightforwardly.
"I know you will. Let's get that laudanum in 'im." Chris said wearily, as he eased Vin's head up enough so the Nathan could spoon a small amount of the medicine into his mouth. It wasn't much, but as weak as Vin was, Nathan didn't dare give him anymore.
JD and Buck came through the door. Buck was was carrying a large pail of steaming hot water, with a cloth wrapped around the handle. JD sat an empty wooden bucket down near Nathan, and Buck poured the hot water into it carefully.
"Figured you might need some more," Buck shrugged.
"Reckon I might at that," Nathan said with a quick nod, before he turned his attention back to his patient.
Buck met Chris's eyes for a moment, before he clapped JD on the back, "C'mon kid, let's go get that water.
"You ready?" Nathan asked Chris.
"Let's get it done," Chris replied grimly, not relishing the task ahead of them.
Ezra started again when another pair of hands settled on his shoulders. The voice of the preacher in his ear and he forced himself to calmness.
"Easy, brother. We've been lookin' for you."
Josiah laughed slightly at the indifferent air Ezra tried to project. His face soot covered, eyes red-rimmed with exhaustion, and the con man just wasn't able to pull off the act. The black eye, bruised cheekbone and jawline added to the failure. "Don't think I've ever seen you lookin' quite so wrinkled." Josiah teased Ezra gently.
"Yes, well, the accommodations provided Mr. Tanner and I have been less than ideal." Ezra tried to smile his tone light. The effect was completely ruined when the cough that had been lurking finally broke free. The con man moaned and clutched at his ribs, nausea once again assailing him. By gritting his teeth and concentrating fiercely Ezra was able to suppress the desire to vomit.
"C'mon, Ezra," Josiah intoned as he pulled the exhausted man to his feet. "Let's get you cleaned up and then I think a visit to Nathan is in order." Josiah was not reassured when Ezra did not protest the announcement.
Usually, just the suggestion that Ezra was in need of medical attention bought howling protests from the gambler.
"Mr. Sanchez," Ezra began somewhat breathlessly, "I'm afraid you might be correct."
The gambler leaned heavily against Josiah as they limped towards the well.
Nathan pulled off the filthy bandage and Chris got his first look at the damage Polk's knife had done. A deep wound four inches across, festered angrily. The infection was plain, in the oozing yellow liquid and the reddened skin around it. He sucked in his breath fearfully at the sight. Vin was a strong man, but he'd seen lots of men die from wounds that didn't look near as bad as this one appeared.
"First thing, I gotta do is clean that out," Nathan spoke calmly, while he worked. Pulling a clean rag out of his bag, he dipped it in the hot water. "Be ready, he's likely to feel this."
Nathan was right. When the hot cloth hit the wound, Vin moaned and tried to move away. Chris held him firmly and Nathan worked quickly and efficiently, trying to get the dried blood off so he could drain the infection.
Weak moans and piteous cries accompanied the healer's work. All the while, Chris held onto the injured man, his lips tight and his eyes hard as stone. We're gonna have to keep them men outta Chris's way Nathan thought more than once while he worked. If Vin died, he knew there'd be no saving the surviving outlaws.
Finally leaning back tiredly, the healer announced, "It's done." Wiping his hands, on a clean rag Nathan took out a carefully wrapped whiskey bottle. Vin had settled back into unconsciousness and Chris had loosened his grip on his friend. Taking a long drink from the bottle, Nathan passed it to Chris who also drank deeply.
Handing the bottle back silently, Chris nodded and tightened his hold on Vin. Nathan took the bottle and poured a generous amount into the wound
A hoarse scream echoed through the night, unnerving everyone, from JD who jumped off of the hitching post he was leaning against, to the outlaws he was guarding.
"Perhaps Mr. Sanchez, I don't require Mr. Jackson's ministrations, after all," Ezra stated dryly.
Josiah laughed, a short quick laugh without a trace of humor in it. "Sorry Ezra, but you're next," the big preacher replied, tightening his grip on the con man's arm.
With a tired sigh, Nathan rocked back on his heels and studied the pale man lying on the makeshift pallet. The knife wound was clean and he was finally satisfied that he'd removed the last traces of dirt. In a day or two, if the wound stayed clear of infection, he'd sew it shut. At least Vin would be strong enough for a good dose of laudanum, he thought remorsefully. This time around, he'd just been too weak to give much of the medicine too. He'd drifted in and out of consciousness and Chris had had to hold him down. When that whiskey had hit the wound Nathan didn't like to think of the sound that had come out of the bounty hunter.
Nathan reached down and tested for fever running his hands across Vin's forehead and cheek. His skin was warm. Too warm. Sighing again, Nathan looked up to face the man kneeling on the opposite side of the bounty hunter. The healer frowned as he tried to answer the question that Chris refused to give voice to.
"He's lost a lot of blood. Been drug over halfa the country when he belonged in a bed. It's up to him now, Chris. I just don't know."
As he talked Nathan had been unconsciously wiping his hands free of blood with the corner of a bloody rag. Chris nodded and reached over Vin to squeeze the healer's shoulder. "You did good, Nate."
Nathan allowed a quick smile to cross his face. "Like to take credit for it, but it was Ezra who kept him alive this long."
Chris laughed. "Betcha didn't think he had it in him."
Nathan just shook his head ruefully in agreement. Stiffly, he stood up and straightened the kinks that had formed in his back. "Best thing we can do for him now is keep him warm and quiet. Try to get him to drink plenty o' water. I'm gonna get Buck to scrounge me up somethin' I can make a broth out of. Don't know how long it's been since he's eaten."
Nathan had barely made it to the door of the shed when two figures loomed in the door their faces lit by the soft light cast by the two lanterns inside the room. Josiah and Ezra. The former supporting the latter.
"Gotta another one for ya, Brother Nate."
The big preacher maneuvered the gambler into the shed and helped him ease himself down his back against the wall. Nathan sighed remembering the beating Chris and Josiah had described to him. He just hoped the gambler didn't have any knife holes in his body, too. One seriously injured man was all he could deal with at a time. Nathan knelt to the side of Ezra's stretched legs.
"Hold that lantern up here, Josiah. Let me get a closer look at him." More kindly to Ezra, "Hey Ez, how are ya doin'?"
"I dare say, I'm doing better than our reticent tracker. How is Mr. Tanner?" Ezra spoke casually, and Nathan stared hard at him for moment.
Few people would have seen the tightness in the gambler's mouth and the fear that flitted through his eyes. But Nathan saw. He saw and understood in that compassionate way he had. His voice was kind, and he laid one gentle hand on Ezra's shoulder when he answered. "Too soon to tell. I got the wound cleaned out and he's alive. Now, let me take a look at you."
"That, Mr Jackson, is the best idea I've heard in days," Ezra agreed.
Chris watched with interest, as Nathan took Ezra's arm and eased him to the dusty shed floor.
"Josiah, can you round me up some blankets Ezra can lay on?" Nathan requested, even as he clucked and tsked over the gambler's ribs and face. "Damn Ezra, you got almost as good a way with people as Vin."
"That Mr. Jackson, would be impossible," Ezra declared. "I'm afraid Mr. Tanner has a natural talent for annoying people of the Colter's persuasion."
Nathan chuckled and nodded his head in agreement. "Yeah, you might be right about that. Sorry, about that," the healer apologized, when Ezra winced after he touched a particularly painful area of Standish's ribs. "I'm almost done here. Your ribs don't feel like they're broke, just gonna hurt for a while."
"Uhhhhmmmm," Ezra murmured, suddenly exhausted. The adrenalin that had sustained him deserted him without warning.
Chris eased up from his position beside Vin and stretched his tired muscles. He watched as Nathan settled the weary gambler on the horse blankets Josiah had arranged into a careful pile. After much poking and prodding and a few choice words on Ezra's part, Chris made a mental note to ask Ezra exactly what language that was, Nathan's diagnosis of bruised ribs, dehydration and exhaustion were an immense relief to the blond gunslinger. A few sips of laudanum from a stoppered bottle went a long way towards soothing the exhausted Southerner to sleep.
Nathan turned to face Chris with a rueful grin, "That man could try the patience of a saint."
"You should get some sleep yourself," Chris quietly told the younger man, as he moved to the other side of Vin, where he could also see Ezra. "I'll watch them."
"I could use some shut eye," Nathan admitted reluctantly. "Give me a few hours, then wake me. I mean it, Chris," the healer said sternly, with a a knowing look for the gunslinger. He knew damned well, the man was gonna let him sleep the night through and not get any rest himself. Chris gave him a half smile and nodded before he picked up a fresh cloth and eased back down beside Vin.
Nathan moved out of the shed to find his bedroll and claim a place by the small fire Buck had used to heat the water. JD had been set not only to watch the prisoners but to see that sparks from the barn fire did not ignite a fire on the roof of the little shed that sheltered the injured men.
"Vin's tough. He'll pull through this." Those confident words were uttered by Buck. Gathering up a rag he had pulled the blackened coffeepot from the flames and was filling a second battered tin cup.
"I'm sure Chris could use this." Buck unfolded his long frame and moved toward the shed.
Josiah smiled at Nathan. "Guess he'll pull through."
Nathan just shook his head and snorted before stretching out on the bedroll with a sigh and letting sleep claim him.
Buck moved into the softly lit interior of the little shed. He paused in the doorway as his eyes tried to adjust to the dim light. Ezra slept on a pile of blankets close to the doorway. He was curled up on his side huddled under a pile of blankets. Buck's eyes finally came to rest on the object of his search. Chris was leaning back against the wall of the shed. His arm resting on one crooked knee. He didn't even look up at the sound of Buck's feet scuffling the dirt. The light from the small lantern was enough to show the lines of weariness that lined his face.
"Hey, pard," he called softly when Chris failed to look up.
Chris started slightly at the sound of Buck's voice. He hadn't realized anyone had entered the shed. I must be even more tired than I thought, Chris admitted to himself ruefully.
"Buck," he greeted the gunslinger softly.
"Thought you could use some of this." Buck offered him the mug before he moved to slide down the wall and sit next to Chris. Chris cupped his hands around the warm mug and carefully sipped the hot coffee.
"How's he doin'?"
"Quiet, for now. He's in pretty bad shape."
"He's a tough cuss, Chris. He'll pull through it." Buck declared confidently. "He's been through worse. Hell, Chris, we've been through worse."
Buck felt slightly relieved when Chris's face lit up with a small smile as the gunslinger remembered some of the pranks the two of them had gotten up to.
Chris snorted behind the coffee cup. "This is a little more serious than Jason Monroe finding out you were sparking his fiancee."
"Not if Monroe'd gotten his hands on a knife." Buck laughed. The two of them settled down the silence of a year's old friendship engulfing them. After a time, Buck rose to leave.
Before he stood up, he placed a hand on Chris' forearm. "Try to get some rest, Chris. Won't do him no good if you get sick yourself." Without waiting for Chris's answer he moved out the door.
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