Chris groaned and rubbed a tired hand over his eyes. It had been one hell of a night. Vin had been restless, tossing and turning in fevered dreams. His incoherent moans mingling with delirious cries. Chris had only caught a few of the fragmented utterings; "don't take", "hungry", and "they're all dead". The tracker's cries and and unseeing struggles, had awakened the rest of the seven, until only the drugged Ezra still slept. Nathan had been the first to wake, his healer's senses sharpened by countless other vigils.
He had come back into the shed and helped Chris pour a little water into Vin. When he'd put a fresh bandage on the wound, both men had been relieved to see how much better it looked than it had the first time they'd seen it. There was no more yellow discharge, just a little bright red blood. The angry red streaks emanating from the wound into the surrounding skin were fading. If they could just get the fever down, and keep Vin quiet and warm, he should be alright, Nathan quietly told the others.
Together they had worked to bring the fever down, alternately bathing the injured man's face and neck with cool water and lifting him up to take a few precious sips. Buck had been the next to appear, standing in the doorway, hat in hand, wanting to help, powerless to do anything. He'd boiled so much water the night before, that Nathan had finally told him to stop, noting that he now had enough clean water for three injured men. Buck had just looked at him sheepishly, before he went to relieve JD currently on guard duty.
JD and Josiah had arrived, peering over the healer's shoulder, wanting the reassurance that Chris and Nathan hadn't been able to give. Josiah had whispered a prayer, before heading over to check on the prisoners. He might not have been able to help there, but he could and did make sure that the outlaws didn't escape. He tried to quash the silent voices in his head that clamored for one of the outlaw's to try something foolish. At least, it would give him someone to take out his helplessness on.
Nathan came back into the shed, carrying two coffee cups. He handed one to Chris and sipped from the other, before kneeling beside the gambler. Ezra was still sleeping and Nathan laid one dark hand on his forehead, just to be sure. Relieved at finding no fever, he rose and moved back to Vin's side. He took another drink of his coffee, before he sat the cup on the floor near his bag. A huge grin split his face, when he felt Vin's forehead. Moving his hand to the bounty hunter's arm, Nathan looked up at Chris.
"Fever's broke," he declared happily.
Chris grinned back at him the only sign of the elation that welled up within him. "Thought so."
Nathan took the rag out of Chris's hand. "Now, you're gonna go get some sleep yourself."
"Nate, I ain't - "
"Chris, you ain't gonna be no good to Vin, or anybody else if you're wore out," the healer cut him off. "Now, go on and get," he finished firmly.
Chris started to open his mouth to protest, but one look at the stubborn set to Nathan's jaw and he closed his mouth and nodded curtly. Getting up, he took one last look at the two sleeping men, before he headed for the fire and a bedroll.
Ezra's head was pounding and his ribs ached fiercely, and he was starving. He was in short, in complete misery. He felt like he was on the wrong end of a three day drunk. But for the life of him, he knew he hadn't been drinking. He could hear the outlaws shouting Wait. Not the outlaws, the seven. Had he only dreamed that the others had arrived? Opening one green eye cautiously, he saw Vin lying on the pallet in the rear of the shed. Nathan was bent over the man tending his various injuries.
Opening the one eye that wasn't swollen shut, Ezra realized that he was lying on a pallet similar to the one he'd fashioned for Vin. A blanket covered him, and someone had folded his red jacket and laid it neatly by his feet. Sitting up cautiously, Ezra felt his ribs tug and winced. Nathan was on his feet immediately. Ezra tried to ward off the overzealous healer with a raised hand but was unsuccessful.
"I assure you Mr. Jackson, I'm fine. Mr. Tanner has more need of you."
"Save it Ezra. Vin'll be OK for a couple o' minutes, while I check them ribs o' yours," Nathan grinned at him rather cheekily the gambler thought grumpily. "Now get that shirt off and let me look at you."
Ezra sighed and took his shirt off. Nathan would not be put off, and the southerner knew he'd enlist the aid of Buck or Josiah to take his shirt off, if necessary. The healer really didn't play fair. After a few minutes of painful poking and prodding the gambler had enough.
"Mr. Jackson, I do believe you're enjoying this," he accused peevishly.
Nathan turned warm brown eyes on him. "I reckon you'd be right about that. There's been more than once in the past couple o' days, I wasn't all that sure we'd be seein' you again. I'm glad I was wrong," his voice died and his eyes dropped.
Ezra got the feeling, that there was something Nathan wasn't saying, but decided against pressing the matter. Instead, he inquired about Vin. "Is he going to be alright?" The simple words belying the extent of Ezra's concern.
Nathan smiled broadly and met his eyes again. "Yeah, I think he will. You did real good for him. He wouldn'ta made it, you hadn't done for him."
Ezra colored, uncomfortable with Nathan's praise. He'd only done what anyone would have done. There was no need to raise a fuss over it. "Yes well if you're done torturing me, I'm going to get something to eat and I believe I'll shoot Mr. Wilmington if he drank the last of the coffee."
Nathan laughed, "Go on and get." He returned to Vin's side chuckling at the memory of Ezra's embarrassment. There were times when Ezra was a right sorry con artist.
Chris woke with a start glancing around to get his bearings. The sun was high in the sky. He musta slept half the day. The ranchyard was bustling with activity. He could see Josiah sharpening knife as he watched the prisoners a rifle balanced across his knees. JD was passing out some biscuits to the subdued men. He was going to have to do something about that, he thought ruefully. They didn't have enough supplies to feed the extra men for long. Most of the gang's supplies had been lost in the barn fire. The building was only smoking embers now. Blackened timbers jutting out through the piles of ashes and debris. It might be best to send Josiah, JD, and Buck back to town with their prisoners today. The rest of them would wait until Ezra and Vin were ready to move.
Buck was kneeling by the fire, pouring coffee for Ezra. Lord, the man looked terrible in the bright light of day. His face was a swollen mottled with black and purple bruises. His bright red jacket was filthy and more wrinkled than Chris had ever seen it. Guilt washed over him, as he remembered the harsh words he'd spoken and the unfair accusations he'd made. Ezra had been through hell and he'd kept Vin alive, and all the while, his so-called friends had believed the worst of him. Not all of us, Chris remembered ruefully. JD had tried to tell them, but they wouldn't listen to him. After all, he was just a kid. What did he know? A lot more than us, Chris admitted to himself.
The kid had known that Ezra wouldn't run out again. He'd been sure of it. And he'd been right. There wasn't a doubt in Chris's mind, that Ezra could have escaped his captors if he'd tried. The man was cunning and he could be as slippery as a greased pig. But he hadn't escaped. And Chris knew there was only one reason. Vin. He wouldn't leave the injured tracker, plain and simple. He owed Ezra an apology, even if the man didn't know it. "Aw hell." Chris cursed finally and stretched and pushed back the blanket. Getting up, he made his way over to the coffee. Hopefully, they'd left some biscuits for him.
"How's Vin doin'?" he asked Ezra, even as he picked up an empty cup and held it out to Buck.
Ezra glanced up as Chris took a seat next to him at the fire. Buck had been regaling him with tales of his latest conquest. Truth be told, he was rather grateful for Chris's interruption. He found that he lacked the stamina for one of Buck's recitations of his legendary prowess.
"Mr. Tanner is still with us. He was sleeping at the time that I managed to escape Nathan's clutches." Ezra pretended not to notice the relieved look, which flickered across Chris's face. It was quickly replaced by the man's normal impenetrable mask. Ezra took another sip of coffee trying not to grimace at its bitterness. "Dear Lord Buck, when was the last time you washed that coffeepot?"
Buck snickered at the Southerner. "Hate to be the one to break the news to you, Ezra, but I don't think there was ever a first time."
Ezra stifled a shudder and the urge to throw the coffee into the fire, scrub the pot clean, and brew another. It would take far too much effort on his part. Besides which, he had a reputation to uphold. It wouldn't do for him to be seen performing menial tasks. Even if it was for a decent pot of coffee. Standish gradually became aware that he was being watched. He turned his attention back to the black-clad gunslinger sitting beside him. Something was on Chris's mind but the man made no attempt to open up. "Mr. Larabee," Ezra began. "Is there a problem?"
Chris started a little when he realized Ezra was talking to him. He'd been trying to frame his apology to Ezra and was coming up short. Ezra was watching him with a cocked eyebrow and a half-amused expression on his face. Almost, as if he knew what Chris was about to say. Hell with it, Chris thought to himself. No sense puttin' it off. Reaching into his shirt pocket, he withdrew the playing cards he'd guarded so carefully for the past few days. "These belong to you?" he asked brusquely.
The shock that crossed the southerner's face almost drew a laugh from the normally taciturn man. He watched as the southern closed his mouth with an almost audible snap. Finally, Ezra forced his fingers to uncurl from the coffee cup and reached out to accept the cards. "Why yes, I believe they are mine. Apparently, I dropped them during our unforeseen journey to this rustic retreat." Ezra's face wrinkled in distaste and he waved a hand airily at the charred ruins of the outlaw's hideout.
Chris listened to Ezra's obvious fabrication and found himself grinning. "Sure ya did. Kinda convenient, don't you think?"
The gunslinger chuckled aloud as he listened to Ezra's stumbling attempt to convince him the cards had simply fallen from his pocket. The gambler still wouldn't admit to caring for or wanting help from the other seven. Chris put up his hand stopping Ezra's desperate excuses. "Look, Ezra. I said some pretty mean things about you when you didn't return from Bristol City. Wouldn't let the others go looking for you. Figured you'd just run out on us again. I was wrong. And if I hadn't been so damn stubborn, we might have started out after you and Vin a lot earlier than we did. And saved you both a whole pack of grief."
A look of pure disbelief was pasted on the gambler's face. He stared at Chris intently for a minute and the silence began to stretch out between them. Buck, sitting on the other side of the fire watching the entire exchange, fidgeted restlessly. Chris rarely apologized to anyone for his behavior. He sure hoped Ezra didn't screw this up.
"I'll bet that must have hurt."
Chris grinned ruefully before turning his attention back to his coffee cup. "You'll never know."
Ezra sat at the fire for awhile longer listening to Chris discuss with Buck the possibility of Josiah, Buck, and JD starting back for town with the other prisoners first thing the next morning. They would have started that afternoon, but they had to round up the horses JD had scattered first. Ezra found himself stifling a huge yawn. Looked like one night's sleep wasn't going to make up for the events of the past few days. Ezra stood up stiffly, trying not to notice when the conversation broke off and the other two men watched him with concern.
"I believe, gentleman, that it is time for my midmorning nap."
The other two men grinned at him and went back to their discussion. Ezra retired back to his blankets in the shed, pausing only to inquire about Vin's health. Nathan assured him the man would be all right, the fever was staying down, and it was just a matter of time and rest. Easing himself back on the horse blankets, and wishing for the comforts of his feather bed, Ezra let himself drift into an easy sleep.
Nathan was watching Ezra when he heard a soft moan from the man beside him. Looking down, he was in time to watch as Vin's eyes fluttered closed. His head rolled to the side and another soft moan escaped him.
Nathan placed a hand against his cheek and called softly, "Vin? You in there?"
He patted the man's cheek lightly hoping to elicit some response. Finally, he was rewarded when he found himself staring into two rather cloudy but definitely coherent blue eyes.
"Hey Vin," the healer said with a wide grin. "Good ta see ya."
Vin opened his mouth like he wanted to say something, but ended up swallowing hard and licking at his lips. Nathan knew what his problem was and dipped a battered tin cup into the half full bucket of water near his bag. Kneeling beside the injured man, he slipped a hand under his head and carefully lifted him up enough so that the water wouldn't spill down his neck or choke him. Vin moaned against the movement of his injured side and ribs, but he drank the offered water gratefully. Nathan let him take in a few before, before he eased him back to the pallet.
"You can have a little more in a minute, don't want you makin' yourself sick," he told his patient. "Lemme check them bandages first." The healer started to turn away, to get a clean rag out of his bag, when he felt a weak hand on his arm. Turning back, he saw the tracker looking at him, with eyes so tired he was fighting to keep them open. "It's ok," he said gently, "why don'tcha go on back ta sleep?"
"Es ?" Vin's whisper was barely audible.
"What is it?" Nathan asked him, concerned.
Vin swallowed again and put all his remaining strength into getting out that one word. "Es ra?" he managed, fighting hard to keep his eyes open long enough to hear Nathan's answer.
Nathan smiled in relief. He should have known Vin's first thought would be for the gambler. Man had a bad habit of worryin' about other people more'n himself. Of course that bad habit had saved them all more'n once, he admitted ruefully. Untangling Vin's hand from his sleeve, he laid it on the pallet beside his body and reassured the injured man. "Ezra's fine. He's a little banged up, but nothin's broken. He's just gettin' some sleep. Now, you close them eyes and do the same," he instructed unnecessarily. Vin's eyes had closed the minute he heard the words, "Ezra's fine."
After reassuring himself that Vin was sleeping and quickly rechecking the knife wound, Nathan left Vin's side and moved outside to tell the others the good news. He arrived just in time to hear that JD had managed to round up a half a dozen of the outlaw's horses and he, Josiah, and Buck were leaving first thing in the morning with their prisoners. The healer motioned to Josiah to join them, so he could tell them all at once. Well, almost all, he amended his thoughts. Ezra was sleeping and from the look of him he wasn't gonna be wakin' up anytime soon.
Josiah joined the anxious men around the fire, careful never to let the prisoners out of his sight. Nathan's big grin told them the news was good, but they wouldn't breathe easy until they actually heard the words.
The healer finally spoke, "Vin woke up for a minute. Asked about Ezra and went right back to sleep. We keep him quiet and don't let no infection set in and he'll be good as new in a few weeks."
The tension went out of them visibly and the men reacted in keeping with their personalities. Josiah smiled at Nathan and touched his hat and headed back closer to the men he was guarding. Chris nodded at him and handed him a cup of coffee. Buck picked JD up and swung him around.
"Woo hoo!" the big man shouted and clapped the kid on the back as he set him down.
JD had a hand on his hat to keep from losing it and he was chattering animatedly, asking Nathan how soon Vin would be up for a visit, would they be able to see him before they left and what could he do to help. The healer laughed and put a hand up.
"Whoa, slow down boy," Nathan grinned at the kid. "Vin might wake up sometime b'fore ya'll head out and if he does ya'll can see him for a minute. He's real tired and needs rest, so he might not wake up 'til tomorrow." Turning towards Josiah, he called out. "I'll be wantin' a wagon ta bring im back to town, preacher."
"Always did like wagon rides in the desert," Josiah said with a grin.
"Gentlemen, as relieved as I am to hear the news of Mr. Tanner's imminent recovery, you are making enough noise to raise the sanctified dead." Ezra's peevish tone cut through the noisy chatter. Laughing, the men turned to see the disheveled southerner approach the fire. Ezra was rubbing one hand through his hair causing it to stand up in an unruly manner. He was also unsuccessfully trying to stifle a yawn. In his enthusiasm, Buck made a move to pick the Southerner up in much the same manner he'd just done to JD. Sensing his impending doom, Ezra lifted a hand to fend the man off, another hand wrapping protectively around his rather sore ribcage.
"Please, Mr. Wilmington, such public displays of affection are unbecoming."
"Ah hell, Ez, ain't no one around here gonna care," Buck teased the man.
Nathan finally took pity when a look of helplessness crossed the southerner's features. "Leave 'im alone, Buck. He really ain't up to none of your horseplay."
Grinning Buck transferred his attentions back to the kid. "Come on, JD, we got a long ride to pack for."
As he moved past the kid, he gently knocked the bowler hat into the dirt at JD's feet. With a yelp of protest, the young man scooped up his hat and took off running after Buck in the general direction of the horses.
"Ah, to be young again . . ." Josiah said, his tone somewhat wistful as they watched the kid run Buck around in circles. He turned back towards the fire and saw Ezra absently scratching at the stubble on his face.
"Here, Ezra, why don't you let me heat you some water. I brought along a razor. You could use a shave." Josiah began rummaging through a set of saddlebags tossed near his saddle.
"That, Mr. Sanchez, would be delightful."
"I'm gonna sit with Vin for a while. Why don't you get some sleep?" Chris clapped Nathan on the back genially and headed for the tiny shed, without waiting to see the tired healer's grateful nod.
Chris leaned back against the rough wood of the shed walls. The gun oil glistened dully against the barrel of the Colt. Soft sounds from the man lying on the makeshift pallet brought his attention back to the wounded man. Vin muttered softly in Spanish, the words incomprehensible given Chriss limited knowledge of the language. However, before he could reach over to soothe the man, he quieted, relaxing back against the rough blanket behind his head.
Chris finished cleaning the Peacemaker turning his attention to the rifle wishing the entire time Vin would wake up. Nathan had assured him the tracker would be fine, but Chris needed to talk to his best friend, just to reassure himself that Vin was indeed safe. Hed almost finished oiling and cleaning the rifle when he was startled from his task by a soft pain-roughened voice.
Hey -- cow -- boy
"You just call me a cowboy?" Chris grinned and hurried to get the Texan some water.
Vin closed his eyes and a weak imitation of his lopsided grin crossed his face. He opened his eyes again when he felt Chris's hand slip under his neck and raise his head up. He drank thirstily for a few seconds, before Chris took away the cup and eased him back down to the pallet. The tracker grimaced and shifted restlessly, trying to find a way to lay, that didn't hurt.
"Quit movin' around so much or I'm gonna get Nate to give you some o' that medicine you like so much," Chris told him with a feral grin.
"Damn. I ain't hurtin' enough without ya'll poisonin' me too?" Vin complaining drawl was tired and not half as steady as Chris would feel comfortable with.
"I'll make a deal with ya. Go on back to sleep and I won't let Nate wake ya up to pour none of that stuff down your gullet," Larabee offered, pulling the blankets up over the injured man's shoulders.
"Reckon -- I could do -- with some more -- sleep." A huge yawn accompanied the soft words and Vin's eyelids drooped heavily.
Chris was glad to see him settling so easily, when suddenly Vin's hand snaked out from under the blanket and gripped his sleeve weakly. With a great effort, Tanner forced his eyes open. "Chri- is," he called, or rather whispered, urgently.
"Easy Vin, whatever it is, it can wait," Larabee soothed as he tried to gently lift the Texan's hand off his sleeve.
"No -- just gotta --" the younger man was rapidly losing the battle to stay awake. "Gotta -- thank --" Vin got no further, as sleep claimed him again.
"You're welcome, pard," Chris whispered huskily and lifted the blanket and gently laid Vin's hand beside him and recovered the sleeping man.
The night had passed uneventfully, with everyone bedding down early, for some much needed rest. Josiah, Buck, and JD had split guard duty and Chris and Nathan had alternated sitting with Vin. Ezra alone was allowed no share of the watch. "You watched Vin, when it mattered most," Nathan had replied gruffly to the gambler's offer to take a turn. Ezra could have sworn that he turned away a hair too slowly to hide teary eyes. He didn't comment, but instead accepted the healer's demand that he "get some rest, you're plumb tuckered out."
Daybreak found Josiah tying the last of the prisoner's hands to their saddlehorns and JD and Buck mounted and holding rifles on the others. Wouldn't do for the outlaws to think they would ever be less than vigilant, Chris thought with approval. He didn't have any real concern that the men would be able to escape, but a show of caution and arms might keep the journey back to Four Corners a peaceful one.
"Take care," Chris said , absently stroking the neck of Buck's mount. "Josiah, Nathan figures Vin'll be ready for travelin' when you get back with the wagon."
"You boys have fun campin' out here in the wilderness and me and JD'll be thinkin' about'cha, while we're sittin' in the saloon havin' a couple o' beers," Buck responded jovially.
Josiah mounted and adjusted his hat and waved casually. "Back in four or five days," the big man said genially. "C'mon, boys," he nudged his horses side and clucked to the horses tied to the lead rope he held.
Buck waved his hat flamboyantly and Jd touched the brim of his and the party headed out.
Chris watched until he couldn't see them anymore and headed back into the shed to relieve Nathan.
Nathan willingly let Chris take over sitting with Vin. His fever hadn't returned and Nathan was confident that it wouldn't. He left the shed and ate some of the dried beef and biscuits the others had left out for him. He couldn't wait to get back to Four Corners and a real meal. Washing the food down with some coffee, he took his bedroll to a spot shaded by the the remnants of the burned out ranch house. He was exhausted from sitting up with Vin the better part of the last 48 hours. Not to mention, he thought wearily, the days that preceded them. Stretching his long legs out, Nathan was asleep almost before his eyes closed.
Ezra opened his eyes and saw the black clad form of Chris Larabee sitting with Vin. The blond gunslinger was leaning against the wall behind the tracker's head, with his legs stretched out alongside of his sleeping friend. Not wishing to wake either man, Ezra tried extricated himself from his bedding as quietly as possible and went to see about some breakfast.
Chris lifted one eyelid far enough to see Ezra moving with exaggerated care. He was obviously trying to be as quiet as possible and Chris grinned to himself and closed his eye. The gambler was being downright considerate these days and he wasn't about to interfere. Hell, Chris thought happily, Ezra could do any damn thing he wanted for at least a month and Chris wouldn't interfere. He almost laughed out loud, when he opened that one eye again and saw the debonair southerner practically tiptoe out of the shed.
Chris had nearly dozed off, when movement from the pallet caught his ear. He was instantly awake and pouring water into a cup for Vin. The tracker wasn't awake yet, but from the way he was moving restlessly, Larabee knew it wouldn't be long before he was. As if on cue, the blue eyes opened and fixed on him. For the first time since they'd found him, Chris was gratified to see that they were clear and sharp. True, they were full of pain and clearly worn out, but Vin was all the way with them again.
"Here," the gunslinger lifted the injured man and held the cup to his lips. Vin drank the entire contents and Chris eased him back down. Setting down the cup, he moved to the gambler's makeshift bed and folded his blanket into a pillow he could prop Vin up a bit with. Gently lifting the tracker's head, Chris put the folded blanket under it and leaned his friend back. Vin could see the shed now without having to use up his strength trying to lift his head.
"Don't look much like hell," the bounty hunter observed, "and you sure as hell don't look like no angel I ever seen, so I reckon I ain't dead."
"No, you ain't dead," Chris chuckled. "Although, you might wanta be when Nathan comes back. I heard him mention somethin' about cleanin' that wound with some more whiskey later.
"Aw hell," Vin drawled disgustedly and shifted, trying to find a relatively comfortable way to lay. He grimaced when the wound pulled and Chris quickly removed the blanket he'd propped the injured man up against and laid him back down.
"Get some more rest and I'll go see about gettin' you somethin' to eat," he ordered.
Vin would have argued, but the small amount of moving he'd done and the few words he'd spoken, had exhausted him and sleep claimed him, before he could utter a word.
"Mr. Larabee, may I presume our incapacitated friend is better?" Ezra inquired. He handed Chris an empty cup and poured coffee into it.
"He's sleepin' like a day old baby right now and lookin' forward to Nathan torturin' him some more later," Chris grinned, taking a drink of his coffee.
"Whadda ya mean, torturin' him'?" Nathan demanded, clapping Chris on the back as he strode up. He bent over and picked up another cup and held it out to Ezra, who obligingly filled it with the steaming liquid. All three men sat down against the saddles strategically placed near the fire.
"I sorta let it slip, that you were gonna clean out the wound later," Chris admitted, smiling. "I told him, I'd see about gettin' him something to eat first, though."
"He sleepin' now?" the healer asked.
"Like a baby," Chris replied, sipping his coffee.
"I'll boil off some o' that jerky Buck gave me and make im some broth," Jackson mused aloud. "Reckon he'll be hungry next time he wakes up."
"That, Mr. Jackson, sounds as thoroughly inedible, as the nourishment provided to us by the late Mr. Polk," Ezra observed dryly. "I recommend that you be certain, that Mr. Tanner cannot reach his firearms when you feed him that exquisite fare." The lively sparkle in the gambler's eye, took the sting out of his sarcastic words.
"Naw, Vin wouldn't shoot Nathan," Chris replied seriously.
"Glad ta see one o' ya appreciates what I do for ya'll," Nathan grumbled indignantly.
"He wouldn't shoot Nathan, that'd be too quick," Chris continued, with a wicked gleam in his eye. "He'd use some o' them tricks he learned from the Comanches and the Kiowas."
All three laughed uproariously, grateful to be able to make jokes at one another's expense again. They continued joking good naturedly, while Nathan busied himself making the much maligned broth.
Ezra watched in silent amusement as Nathan spooned another mouthful of broth into one very annoyed Vin Tanner. True to Nathan's prediction, the tracker had awakened hungry. He was clearly better and strong enough to eye the beef broth disdainfully. His grumbling and complaining about the lack of real food didn't faze the healer in the least.
"You just keep this soup inside o' ya and we'll see about tryin' somethin' solid," he informed the tracker in a tone that left no room for argument. It didn't keep Vin from trying, though.
The gambler lounged back against the wall, legs outstretched. Personally, Ezra sympathized with Vin. The broth Nathan had concocted from jerked beef looked viler than all the jokes they'd made about it. Surely, he hoped, it must taste better than it looked. Although, come to think of it, the tracker had certainly eaten far worse than unseasoned beef broth in his life. Ezra shuddered slightly at the thought of that boy left to die in the desert. He reminded himself to send Maude a letter thanking her. Maybe she hadn't been the most attentive of mothers, but at least starvation hadn't been a factor in his childhood.
"God, Nathan, what's in that stuff?" Vin's voice broke the Southerner's contemplation.
"Now, now, Mr. Tanner, surely you've had worse."
"Yeah maybe Ezra, but I can't seem to think o' when," Tanner replied skeptically.
A snort from Nathan interrupted them. "That'd be the thanks I get. Chase over half the damn desert lookin' for you two. Nearly get my fool head shot off trying to save your sorry hides. Lose sleep worryin' and slave over a cook fire to fix somethin' you can keep down your gullet and what do I get? Bellyachin' about my cookin'!" Nathan's voice had begun to rise as he ended his monologue.
Vin opened his mouth in protest, but before he could utter a sound Nathan gleefully shoved another spoonful of broth into it.
"No more talkin'. Just shut up and eat and save your strength." Nathan demanded sternly. "You're gonna need it, when I clean out that wound," he added humorlessly.
Ezra chuckled, listening to the lecture, when he was nailed by Nathan's glare. "I wouldn't laugh too hard if I was you, cause just as soon as I'm done tendin' ta Vin here, I'm gonna check out them ribs of yours."
Ezra snapped his mouth shut, a trapped look entering his eyes. He contemplated leaving the immediate vicinity but realized in his condition that he wouldn't get far before the healer caught him. He had no doubt that Mr. Larabee would cheerfully lasso and hogtie him, if Nathan requested it.
"Mr. Jackson, you really are enjoyin' this, aren't you?" Standish accused. He turned his head and met Vin's amused smile and said graciously, "My dear Mr. Tanner, by all means, take your time with your meal. Take your time."
"Damn, Nathan! Ya tryin' ta finish what them fellers started?" Vin demanded weakly, when the healer gently wiped the wound in his side with a whiskey soaked rag.
Nathan put a reassuring hand on his shoulder and spoke softly, "I know it hurts, but it'll hurt a sight more, if that infection comes back.
Vin's eyes were closed and his hands were balled into tight fists against the pain, but he managed a short nod to acknowledge Nathan's words.
Ezra was leaning against the far wall of the shack and Chris was standing in the doorway of the shed. They watched as the healer put a fresh bandage on the wound and then Chris knelt down and lifted Vin so that Nathan could rewrap his ribs. The tracker bit his lip to keep from crying out, when Nathan pulled the cloth tight and knotted it off. Sweat was beaded on the Texan's forehead and he was as white as the bandages around his middle, when Chris eased his limp body down to the pallet.
"Nate?" Chris asked with concern in his voice, when he saw that Vin's eyes were closed.
"He's ok," Nathan assured Chris. "He's just worn out, is all. See?" His dark hand pointed to the strong pulse beating in Vin's throat.
Larabee swallowed the lump in his throat and pulled the blankets up over Vin's shoulders. Picking up a clean rag, he soaked it in cool water and wiped his friend's face and neck down.
Nathan watched Chris ministering to Vin for a few minutes, before he turned to Ezra with a feral gleam in his eyes. "I ain't forgot about you," he informed the gambler.
Thirty minutes later, Ezra thoroughly agreed with Vin. Nathan really was trying to finish what Polk and the others had started. The healer had poked and prodded and wrapped his sore ribs, until he had been sure that Jackson was trying to squeeze one of those ribs up out of his throat. When Nathan finally declared that he was finished, Ezra was almost as exhausted as Vin.
"Really, Mr. Jackson, if you want to kill me, why don't you just shoot me? It would be much faster and considerably less painful," the disgruntled con man complained.
"You keep bellyachin' and he might just do that," Chris chuckled from his perch beside Vin.
"Ya'll ain't got no sense o' gratitude," Nathan retorted and got to his feet. "I'm gonna stretch my legs and get somethin' ta eat."
An hour later Vin and Ezra were both sleeping soundly. Chris and Nathan were eating beans and biscuits. Both men were thoroughly sick of trail food and anxious to get back to town and a good meal.
"Might be a good idea to move Vin out here when he wakes up," Nathan suggested, around a mouthful of beans.
"Might at that," Chris answered looking speculatively at the shack. "Fresh air, sunshine, it's warm enough, probably do him more good than any o' that horse piss you keep pourin' down him." The grin took any sting out of his words.
"Yeah, he might drink it without a fuss if I tell 'im, I'll let 'im sit in the sun for a while," Nathan was pleased with himself. Getting Vin to drink the various herbal teas and medicines he needed, was almost as hard as keeping the man in bed while his body healed. Telling the obstinate tracker that lying in the sun was his reward for drinking his medicine, was an ingeniously simple way to accomplish both.
Chris laughed at the self satisfied smirk on Nathan's face. He wondered how much of that 'horse piss' Nathan would manage to get Vin to drink, before the Texan was on to him. Maybe, he'd let Ezra talk him into a bet on how long it would take Vin to figure it out.
Ezra awakened to movement in the shed. Chris and Nathan each had an arm around Vin's waist and the sharpshooter's arms were across their shoulders for support. The southerner could see sweat on his forehead and the way his hands clenched and unclenched with each step, but Vin's lazy grin told Standish more about how the injured man felt about this trip, than anything else.
When the three men made their way out into the yard, Ezra stood up and followed them out of the shed. He watched, while Nathan and Chris helped Vin cross the yards to a fresh pallet they'd prepared for him, in the sunniest part of the ranchyard. Nathan admonishing him to, "be careful" and to "take it real slow" and to "tell me if ya get ta be hurtin' too much," the whole way.
Vin was obviously still in pain when he was eased down onto the pallet, but he turned his face up towards the sun and the others saw the intense pleasure he took from the warmth of it's rays on his face.
"Thanks," Vin rasped simply.
Chris gave his shoulder a squeeze and got up to check the snares he'd set earlier. He'd set six of them and he hoped they'd have something besides beans or boiled beef broth for nourishment.
Nathan went back into the shed to gather up his things and Vin closed his eyes, relishing the sun on his face. He stayed that way for a few minutes, before he opened his eyes and spied Ezra near the entrance to the shed that had been their prison, beating on his red jacket.
Dust roiled off the sleeve of the wool jacket hanging in the open doorway of the ramshackle shed. Ezra brushed at the sleeve of the scarlet coat trying to create at least one clean spot. He was beginning to think his efforts were in vain. Well, maybe one of the laundry women who worked the line might be able to clean it. He was sorrowfully contemplating the ruin of his elegant coat when a soft pain-roughened voice behind him caused him to jerk around.
"If that was a horse, you'd have to shoot it and put it out of its misery."
Vin was attempting to pull himself up to lean on his elbows when Ezra put out a hand in warning. "It would be best for all concerned if you would lay still, Mr. Tanner."
When the tracker simply threw a puzzled look in his direction and continued to try to lever himself upwards, Ezra was forced to abandon his fruitless cleaning and turn his full attention to Vin. A firm hand on Vin's shoulder was all it took to keep the weakened man lying flat on his back. His efforts were rewarded when Vin threw him a look of pure disgust. Ezra just shook his head as he reached for the canteen of water Nathan had placed nearby. Helping the tracker to drink he continued.
"Mr. Larabee would flay me alive if you harmed yourself on my watch."
Vin chuckled as he eased his position on the blankets. He closed his eyes when his movements pulled against the wound in his side. When he opened them, he discovered Ezra watching him intently.
"I ain't gonna break, Ezra, if that's what you're worried about."
Ezra snorted at Vin's comment. "It would appear, Mr. Tanner, from your current position, that you already have." Licking his lips, his eyes darted to the door of the shed before they slid back to Vin's face. He opened his mouth as if to speak but closed it without a word. Vin watched Ezra with tired amusement. There was obviously something on the gambler's mind. For someone with all them fancy words, Vin had noticed that Ezra sometimes became tongue tied, when he felt pressured.
"OK, out with it, Ezra," the tracker demanded. Well, as much, as a man lying flat on his back and weak as a day old kitten could demand.
Ezra blinked at Vin uncertainly. The tracker watched as whatever war he was waging with himself finally sorted itself out. His curiosity growing the tracker scrutinized Ezra. Finally, muttering to himself the entire time, Ezra dug into the watch pocket of his brocade vest. Vin winced inwardly when he realized that Ezra's gold watch fob was missing. Polk or one of the others must have taken it, he mused regretfully. Looked like he had a lot to make up to Ezra once he was back on his feet. The southerner's soft twang brought him out of his reverie.
"I believe this belongs to you?"
Startled Vin jerked his eyes up to met Ezra's. The man had a very self-satisfied smirk on his face. Ezra gestured again with his outstretched hand. Vin raised his head slightly giving him a clearer view of the object the gambler held in his hand. Vin's eyes widened in disbelief. There, nestled in Ezra's palm, was his Mother's locket. Lost forever, he'd thought, when Polk had stolen it. He didn't know how it happened but that empty feeling in his stomach that had dogged him for days finally eased.
"Well?" Ezra's eyebrow quirked up when Vin didn't immediately retrieve the locket from him, "I presume you still want the locket?" "Or perhaps, my rather heroic dash into a burning building was in vain," Ezra gently teased the injured man.
Vin continued to stare at the pendant as it gleamed dully in the sunlight. Emotions that threatened to overwhelm him chased across his normally taciturn face. Shock, sadness, disbelief, gratitude. Vin blinked rapidly. Turning his face from Ezra, he fought to keep the tears brimming behind his eyes from spilling over. The pain and shock of the last few days demanding release.
He was surprised, then, when his hand was gently lifted from the blanket where it lay. The locket and small chain pressed into his palm. He curled his fingers around it, the metal edges digging into his skin as he gripped it fiercely. A warm hand briefly squeezed his curled fist before it released him.
Vin heard the rustle of cloth as the gambler climbed stiffly to his feet. Finally, Vin spoke, his voice choked with emotion.
Thanks, Ez. The gambler stopped his body silhouetted by the sun. He turned back to the bounty hunter a small grin on his face.
Youre welcome, Vin. With a small two-fingered salute to the brim of his hat, Ezra ducked through the doorway and was gone.
Vin stared at the empty space before he turned his attention back to his precious gift. Opening the clasp with slightly trembling fingers, a small smile touched his face as he studied the familiar picture. He lovingly caressed the precious picture and couldn't help thinking that his ma would probably have liked Ezra.
Comments to: Kim & Shawna