A soft breeze fluttered the curtains as the early morning sun filtered through the thin material. With a long sigh, Nathan's shoulders sagged as he looked down at the man in the bed. It had been two days, two long days since the men had returned to town with their two youngest. Nathan felt weary to the bone. He was aware that J.D. had woken up, but did not turn around as he placed a cool cloth on Vin's forehead.
"Nathan?" J.D. whispered.
"Mmm hmm?" Nathan continued to drag a cool cloth across Vin's chest.
Placing his hands on his knees, he stood up slowly. Without answering, he walked to the stove and checked the cup of tea that was cooling beside it.
"Damn it, J.D.," Nathan turned abruptly and stalked back to Vin's bedside. "I don't know," he spat out bitterly as he sat down. "He's lost alot of blood, too weak to put up much of a fight. If the pneumonia don't kill him, the damn infection in his leg prob'ly will...if I don't have to cut it off first."
As soon as he heard the sharp intake of breath, Nathan instantly regretted his outburst. Closing his eyes, he hung his head. There had been no need to take his frustrations out on J.D., the only one who had refused to believe that Vin could have committed suicide. Perhaps if they had listened to the kid a little sooner, had not dismissed his view just because of his youthfulness...maybe J.D. would have never been hurt....maybe Vin would have a better chance.
"I'm sorry, J.D.," he said quietly. "Got no call to take it out on you."
Nathan's brows furrowed as J.D. limped around to the other side of the bed and sat down.
"J.D., you should be in bed," Nathan admonished.
"Buck told me," J.D. began to gently sponge Vin's chest with the cool cloth Nathan handed him, "told me he saved my life."
Nathan slowly nodded in acknowledgment. "And you saved his," he stated gently.
"He shouldn'ta been able to...he's so sick..." J.D. continued.
Nathan looked up from Vin and frowned at J.D.
Clearing his throat, J.D. continued, "But he did, Nathan. Vin don't give up...ever. He'll fight this...I know he will."
Nathan looked at J.D. sadly, he wished he could have the same youthful faith, but right now, with his age and experience, he didn't. In the last two days, between what J.D. and Ezra had told them, what Nathan had seen for himself, and Vin's delirious ramblings, they had been able to piece together what had happened to Vin while he had been missing. The most upsetting part, as far as Nathan was concerned, was that not only had it all been in vain, but that Vin didn't know. He thought he found the girl, but too late. He thought he'd failed and let everyone down. Last night, they realized he thought Chris had been the one to tie him down. Pinching the bridge of his nose, Nathan sighed at the memory of Vin's heartbreaking pleas to Chris to let him go. Closing his eyes, he shook his head and tried to clear it of the memory of Chris standing up and silently leaving the clinic, his shoulders slumped in defeat as he left, feeling responsible for some of the turmoil the younger man was suffering. He still hadn't returned. He refused to, even though Josiah, Buck, Nathan, and even Ezra had each tried to reason with him.
"Nooooo.....please....let me go...'m sorry..." Vin's eyes fluttered open as he hoarsely pleaded.
As Nathan looked down at the blue eyes, dulled by fever, he sadly noted that Vin was still delirious.
"Shhh...Vin...it's okay," Nathan soothed.
"No...." Vin weakly pushed Nathan's hand away. "Owww..." he softly moaned as he turned on his side and reached for his injured leg. Wheezing audibly, a painful cough soon erupted and Vin curled up as it wracked his lean frame. As the painful bout subsided, his body slowly relaxed and Nathan gently eased him on to his back. Putting his hand under Vin's head, he carefully lifted it.
"Here ya go...there...easy Vin...take a sip of this..." Nathan held the cup to Vin's parched lips and attempted to get him to swallow the contents.
"No..." Vin shook his head. "No more...please." Lifting his right arm, he reached to push the cup away.
"Vin." J.D. grabbed his hand and clasped it tightly. "Vin," he said insistently.
"J..." Vin gasped and swallowed as his eyes wildly roamed the room. "J.D...."
"Right here, Vin." J.D. squeezed his hand again and smiled when Vin's clasp tightened in return. With his free hand, he gently touched Vin's chin and turned his head towards him.
"J.D.," Vin breathed out in relief. "Help me...please...don't feel good."
"I know, Vin...I know." J.D. swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat. With his free hand, he reached for the cup that Nathan was silently passing him.
"Here ya go, Vin...drink some of this." He pulled the cup away when Vin gagged and began coughing. "I'm sorry Vin." His brow creased as he looked at Nathan and realized the healer wanted him to give the rest of the tea to Vin. He put the cup to Vin's lips again.
"Come on Vin, ya gotta drink it."
Draining the contents of the cup, Vin fell back on the pillow, his breathing ragged, his chest heaving. He slowly looked up at the healer when he felt the weight of Nathan's hand on his forehead.
"Nathan," he mumbled. Weakly, he tried again to sit up, but fell back, exhausted. "Ohhhh."
"Just rest Vin...you're sick...stay put."
Vin frowned as he slowly looked around the room. "Chris...wh...where's...Chris?" he hoarsely whispered. "Can't find 'im."
"Now Vin, don't you worry yourself 'bout Chris," Nathan stated calmly as he placed a cool cloth on Vin's forehead.
"Don't feel good," Vin softly drawled, " M' leg hurts..."
"I know, Vin...I know," Nathan soothed as he gently pushed the hair from Vin's forehead.
"Chris...please...help me...please...I'm sorry...sorry," Vin panted as his eyes searched the room, vainly trying to find his friend.
"It's okay Vin, Chris'll be back," J.D. whispered, his faith and trust never wavering.
Sighing loudly, Nathan stood and slowly walked to the window. Frowning, he squinted as he noticed Chris sitting in front of the saloon. He began to feel hot as his anger rose.
"J.D., stay with Vin," he ordered. "I'll be back in a bit."
Before J.D. could respond, he opened the door and slammed it shut behind him.
"Just what the hell do you think you're doing?"
Chris squinted up at the other man as he stood, silhouetted by the sun.
"You should be up at the clinic."
"Is he any worse?" Chris returned to the piece of wood he was whittling.
"He's been asking for you."
"Nathan, you heard 'im...he don't want me there."
Hands on his hips, Nathan shook his head in frustration.
"Well, I don't recall him saying that, straight out," Buck interrupted as he joined them. "But I can tell you one thing I heard, plain as day, was you telling him, on more than one occasion, he could always trust and count on you."
"Buck..." Chris's eyes flashed in anger.
"Shoot...you're all talk pard." Buck waved his hand in disgust and turned away.
"If I'd only known," Chris bowed his head and placed it in his hands. He let out a loud sigh. "I never woulda told him I was gonna tie him down."
"So that's what this is about?" Buck knelt beside Chris and placed his hand on his shoulder. "You feel some kinda guilt, so you're stayin' away from Vin? You didn't make him sick, he did a right good job of that himself. You didn't hurt him either, that sick woman did. Vin ain't got no one to blame but himself for getting this sick or hurt...and I don't know what you think you've heard, but I ain't heard him blamin' ya. What you're doing right now is lettin' him down...he's begging you to help him, sick as he is, he knows ya ain't there, he can't find ya."
"Buck, I threatened to tie him down."
Buck snorted as he shook his head in disgust. "And just when do you think he ever worried about anything you had to say? Maybe ya shouldn'ta said it...mixed him up more...but it's too late ta change that..." Standing, Buck stepped away as he dragged his hand through his hair. He kept his back to Chris. "Shit, Chris...your whole life is a bunch of regrets. If you'd only known, you would've gone right home ta Sarah...if you'd only known, you woulda told her ya loved her more often...if you'd only known.." Turning around slowly, he folded his arms across his chest as he looked down at Chris. "So tell me, Chris. What are ya gonna do? What are ya gonna do if Vin can't pull through this? You gonna say if you'd only known...you'da been there? If you'd only known, you'da let him know you care about him...that he makes a difference?"
"Buck," Chris dragged his hand wearily through his hair. "Buck, you don't know what you're talking about."
"Mr. Larabee," Gloria Potter's youngest son interrupted breathlessly, "Judge Travis said ta get ya... Mr. Jackson too. He wants ya all at the jail, right away."
Frowning, the three men exchanged questioning glances and headed towards the jail.
Entering the jail, Chris walked forward and stopped before the judge, the others on either side and behind him. A tense silence enveloped the room as Judge Travis awkwardly cleared his throat. A momentary look of discomfort crossed his face as he placed a pile of telegrams on the desk between them. Chris's jaw clenched and his eyes slightly narrowed as he looked down at the stack.
"What are these?" His eyebrows raised inquiringly.
With a deep sigh, the judge placed his glasses on and picked up the first telegram and read it silently to himself. When he finished, he lifted his glasses slightly and pinched the bridge of his nose. The four men standing around Chris exchanged looks of confusion as Chris stood silently, his expression tight with strain. Without looking up, Judge Travis again cleared his throat.
"This telegram is from Hadley, Kentucky. Twenty-three year old Michael Levins committed suicide one year ago. This describes him as having brown hair and blue eyes."
The air in the room grew thick with tension. Moving the first telegram aside, Judge Travis grimly lifted the next one from the stack.
"Two years ago, in Coopersville, Missouri, twenty-two year old Thomas Delaney committed suicide. He also had brown hair and blue eyes."
Something clicked in Chris's brain as a terrifying realization washed over him.
"How many telegrams you got there?" His voice, though quiet was ominous.
Chris's eyebrows drew downward in a frown.
Judge Travis lifted the second to last one, and closing his eyes for a moment, let out a long sigh.
"This one is from DeWitt, Pennsylvania. Seven years ago, Robert Spencer, Jr. was reported to have committed suicide on the anniversary of his sister's death. He was seventeen years old and had blue eyes and brown hair. You already knew that."
Chris nodded wordlessly as he started to feel lightheaded.
"What you don't know is this."
Judge Travis picked up the last telegram and held it up.
"Amanda Spencer disappeared and was presumed dead fifteen years ago. Her distraught mother refused to believe she had died. She blamed her son for the disappearance, and had nearly beat him to death when he was unable to find his missing sister. She was institutionalized for eight years. Seven years ago, against the advice of her physicians, Robert Spencer took Lillian home. At that time, she was carrying a doll she believed to be her daughter. Each year, shortly after the anniversary of the deaths of their children, they moved."
Chris closed his eyes and bit his lower lip. He felt a rage growing inside him.
"Seven years...that's when the suicides started," Buck softly exclaimed.
Sudden anger lit Chris's eyes as his expression clouded and curses flew from his mouth.
"Son-of-a-bitch...he knew it..."
Visibly trembling with fury, Chris spun on his heel and started to leave the jail. He was abruptly caught by the arm and spun around. After years of friendship, Buck knew where he was headed.
"Hey, easy there, pard," Buck began, "you're in no shape to go out to the Spencer place. You're liable to kill him before you open your mouth. Josiah, Ezra , and I'll go out and have a talk with him."
"You tell that son-of-a-bitch I want some answers," Chris spat out.
Nodding slowly in agreement, Buck left, accompanied by Ezra and Josiah.
As the sun started to slowly slip below the horizon, Chris maintained a lonely, solitary vigil in front of the jail.
Chris stood up and walking to the edge of the boardwalk, looked up at the clinic.
"Chris...Vin's awake and J.D.'s sleeping. Why don't you come on up and sit with him for a bit so I can grab a bite."
"Uh...I...I can't right now, Nathan. I'm waitin' on Buck."
The healer lifted his hand and waved it in disgust before turning and going back inside.
+ + + + + + +
Sitting at Vin's bedside and lifting his head, Nathan held a cup of water to his lips. Gently placing Vin's head down, Nathan rested his hand lightly on his forehead. A tentative smile slowly spread across his face. Vin definitely felt cooler, the fever was finally starting to break. Nathan sighed when his eyes met the tired blue eyes looking up at him. He slowly shook his head as he looked down at the younger man.
"Vin, Chris has a lot of things on his mind right now," he attempted to reason. He found himself standing and walking to his stove to get away from the penetrating gaze.
"Chris is mad at me. I didn't find the little girl...and...now she's dead," Vin hoarsely whispered.
"No, Vin..." Nathan turned, shocked as he realized that Vin did not know. Mrs. Spencer had never told him anything. He didn't know that his futile search had been in vain. He didn't know that he was nearly a statistic on the deranged woman's list of misery. He thought Chris was angry with him, he didn't understand that it was fear that kept Chris away. Chris refused to admit it to himself or the others, but nearly losing Vin had terrified him. As Vin awkwardly turned away, Nathan stepped beside him.
"Vin..." Nathan gently rested his hand on Vin's shoulder.
"S'alright," Vin softly drawled.
+ + + + + + +
Hearing the horses, Nathan opened the clinic door. Taking the stairs down quickly, he approached Chris before the other men stopped their horses.
"Vin doesn't know," he angrily hissed. His face was a mask of cold fury.
"You heard me. You're down here wallowing in guilt over something you couldn'ta prevented and he's up there blaming himself." Nathan angrily gestured towards the clinic. "He still doesn't know...he thinks he let ya down...he doesn't know he had no chance to start with. He doesn't know why she hurt him...all he knows is he let YOU down." Nathan angrily poked Chris in the chest.
Before Chris could respond, Buck and Josiah came to his side. Chris turned and started to open his mouth, but stopped when he looked at Buck.
Nathan turned and frowned.
"We found him, hanging in the barn. He left a letter. Said he knew all along, was sorry and it had to stop now."
Chris looked at Buck in disbelief.
"It's over Chris...it's all over."
Nathan barely heard the soft knock. As he started to rise, the door slowly opened. Nathan stared, complete surprise on his face as he watched Chris hesitantly enter. It had been a week since they had buried Robert Spencer beside his wife. In all that time, Chris had refused to visit Vin, had distanced himself from all of them. Buck felt, and Nathan agreed, that once Vin was fully recovered, Chris would be leaving the town. Nathan sadly feared that this was it, that Chris was here to say good-bye to Vin before leaving.
"Chris, he's asleep," Nathan began.
"I...I know...I'll just sit with him for a bit, why don't ya get a bite to eat?" Chris frowned as he grabbed a chair and glanced around the room.
"J.D. limped off with Buck earlier," Nathan explained when he realized why Chris was looking around.
+ + + + + + +
After Nathan left, Chris sat listening to Vin's slow, rhythmic breathing. Taking a deep breath he intently watched the easy rise and fall of Vin's chest. A small grin came to his face when he realized the painful wheezing was gone. Swallowing slowly, he ran his hand through his hair and looked down at Vin sadly. The dark bruises were a stark contrast on Vin's unnaturally pale face. Chris winced when he lifted the blanket and noticed the deep bruising surrounding the dressing on the younger man's thigh.
"Oh God, Vin...I'm sorry," he whispered. I can't even imagine what happened to you.
Lifting Vin's hand off the bed, Chris squeezed, hoping for some response. Leaning forward, Chris rested his elbows on his knees, and still holding Vin's hand, rested his forehead on his fists. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he sadly realized that Vin's hand hung limply in his.
"Vin...I know ya probably can't hear me."
Chris reached out, and brushing the hair from Vin's forehead, hoped the contact would arouse the sleeping man. Sighing, Chris leaned back in the chair as he continued to hold Vin's hand.
"When you're feelin' better, there's a lot ya need to know...I'm so sorry...none of this needed ta happen...Vin...I...I just don't know anymore...after I lost Sarah and Adam, I didn't want ta care about anything anymore..."
Chris shuddered as he felt his eyes suddenly fill with hot tears.
"I...I thought you were dead," he choked. "I felt like another piece of me died." He took a deep breath and swallowed. "I...I don't know ...what...what I woulda done...if...if" Chris stopped and looked down at the sleeping man he had come to love like a brother. "I never got a chance to say goodbye to Adam and Sarah...I almost made that same mistake with you."
Taking a deep breath, Chris composed himself. As he stood up, he pulled the quilt higher on Vin's chest.
"You sleep and get well, Vin. When you're up to it, we have to have a long talk." Turning his head, Chris looked around to be sure they were alone. Leaning down, he rested a hand on Vin's head as he quickly brushed a gentle kiss across his forehead. An action he had often performed when Adam was asleep, it seemed to come naturally.
"You do make a difference," he gently whispered.
Standing upright, he started to leave the room quickly without looking back. As the door opened, Chris almost didn't hear the soft sigh. He almost didn't see the tired blue eyes flutter open as Vin frowned at him.
Chris froze as he heard the soft, barely audible whisper. Turning around slowly, he swallowed and started to walk back to Vin. He didn't know what, if anything, Vin had heard or felt.
"Hey, welcome home, cowboy," he smiled.
Letting out a loud sigh, Vin waved his hand as he looked around the clinic.
"Place is beginnin' ta sure feel like it," he slowly drawled.
Unable to hold it back, Chris broke out laughing. He couldn't tell if Vin was referring to the town or the clinic, but it didn't matter. The return of Vin's dry sense of humor was wonderful to hear. As he wiped the tears from laughing from the corners of his eyes, he looked down at Vin and smiled.
"I meant it. You do make a difference ...to me...to this town. Welcome home cowboy."
The early morning sun filtered through the clouds. After several days of rain, the sun was finally shining again. With the rising sun, the town started to stir. Mrs. Potter stepped in front of her general store and began sweeping the boardwalk. Looking across the street, she smiled. Seated on chairs in front of the saloon were Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner. Finally. Again. Vin's arm was still in a sling, and fading bruises were still present on his tanned face, but it was good to see him up and about again. She gave silent thanks that the seven men had stayed. Misunderstandings and unrealistic expectations had nearly destroyed them. Until seeing the two men sitting together, enjoying the early morning sun, she had been unable to believe that all was well with them. In her opinion, those two were the heart of the seven, for without their bond, the seven would have never been one. Vin Tanner was still considered one of the best trackers in the territory. Chris Larabee would always be feared as a deadly gunfighter by those who didn't know him. Vin had been so sick, and hurt, that many, including Chris had feared he would die. Hearing a low chuckle and a soft drawl, she looked up and over at the two men again. Sighing, she continued to sweep. And oh...those blue eyes...
Startled from her reverie, her breath quickened and a slow blush started to redden her cheeks.
"I'm sorry if I startled you. I was just asking how you were," Mary Travis smiled.
"Oh, I'm fine...I'm fine, thank you." Mrs. Potter began sweeping hurriedly, hoping that Mary would not notice that she had been daydreaming. She took Mary's arm. "Come, come inside." With one last look over her shoulder, she smiled and sighed. That smile...and those eyes...
Following Mrs. Potter's line of vision, Mary smiled. It's nice to see things back to normal...this will be the cleanest boardwalk in town again...
The subject of Mrs. Potter's daydreams was not aware that so many in the town were silently rejoicing at seeing him up and around again. His chair was tipped back precariously, and his legs were up on the hitching rail. He was asleep when Chris joined him, but with his hat pulled down over his eyes, Chris did not know that. Lifting his head and pushing his hat off, Vin smiled.
"Hey, pard, Nathan know you're up and out?"
Sliding down in the chair, Chris stretched and yawned before standing. Looking down at Vin, he smiled.
"Well, make sure you take it easy...don't push yourself."
Seeing J.D. and Buck approach, he smiled. J.D. had been laid up with a concussion and leg wound. Although not as ill as Vin had been, he had been injured enough to have his activities restricted. It was good to see the kid up and around again.
"J.D., good to see ya...feelin' any better?"
Walking with a small limp, J.D. stumbled slightly. Nodding, he glared at Buck. He knew the daily lecture was coming.
"Now look, you just take it nice and easy. Don't want you relapsing or anything. Prob'ly wouldn't have gotten hurt at all if you had the sense not to check out a noise without your weapon drawn. If it weren't for Vin, you'da prob'ly got yer fool head blown off too," Buck gestured towards Vin.
"Buck...I know...I shoulda had my gun out...I wasn't thinking..." J.D.'s voice trailed off as he entered the saloon.
Chris started to follow the others and turned to look down at Vin.
Putting the chair down on all four legs, Vin slowly stood up. Frowning, Chris watched as the younger man started to slowly limp toward him. He resisted the urge to grab Vin under the arm and help him. The stubborn tracker was independent. He'd walk in to that saloon upright and on his own two feet, even if it took all day. As he patiently waited for Vin, Chris felt a slight tickle in his nose. Without warning, he let out a loud sneeze, followed by several more. Clearing his throat, Chris dragged his hand under his nose. Sniffing, his eyes met Vin's. A small smile was lifting the corners of Vin's mouth, his blue eyes looked at Chris, full of amusement.
"Not one word, Tanner," Chris glared at Vin as he started to stalk inside.
"Not one word."
Comments to: CamaroTBar@aol.com