Nathan washed and dried his hands and let out an audible sigh. He'd just finished stitching up Vin's hip. He was glad that the tracker's unconsciousness prevented him from feeling the stitching. He looked back at the bed. JD's face still held a worried look as he hunkered down beneath the covers with Vin. Nathan started when he heard Buck's voice.
"He gonna be okay?" Buck asked.
"As long as we can get him warmed up and keep out any infection," he replied.
Buck nodded and called to JD, "How about you, JD? You holdin' up okay?"
"I'm okay," he answered quietly, not wanting to disturb Vin.
"You two do look cute together," Buck teased, hoping to ease the tension in the room.
JD rolled his eyes at the remark and Nathan shook his head.
"What do you think they'll find out there?" JD asked.
"Hopefully, the bitch or the son of a bitch that shot Vin," Buck replied evenly, finally taking a chair and sitting down next to the bed.
+ + + + + + +
A few hours later, JD woke up, disoriented. He'd forgotten why he was in bed with another man and almost jumped out of it. But Vin's soft moans quickly reminded him why he was there, and he relaxed, not wanting to startle his injured friend.
"You can get out of bed, now, JD," Nathan whispered.
JD looked at Nathan, then back to Vin, before doing so.
"How is he?" JD asked, nodding at the injured man.
"Well, he's warmed up. That's a start," Nathan replied.
As JD got dressed, Buck entered the room, trying to carry a tray of food. JD quickly helped him put it on the table. Nathan went to Vin's side and checked his bandages. Vin let out a few more moans, his head lolling back and forth on the pillow.
"It's alright, Vin. You're safe, now," the healer soothed. "JD, if you'd get a cool washcloth for his forehead, I'd appreciate it," he asked the younger man.
JD complied and started to wipe the cool cloth across Vin's forehead. As he did so, Vin opened his eyes.
"Hey, Vin," JD greeted him, his voice soft. "How ya feelin'?" he asked.
Vin opened and closed his eyes a few times, trying to gain some focus. He opened his mouth to try to respond to JD's question, but nothing came out.
"Just a minute. I'll get you some water," Nathan said.
Moments later, he was supporting Vin's head and shoulders and holding a cup to his lips. Vin was able to take a few short sips before Nathan eased him back down onto the pillow. Vin looked up at Nathan, gratefully.
"Vin, do you remember what happened?" JD asked.
Vin looked at JD, Buck and Nathan and then around the room.
"Where's Chris?" he asked urgently, though his voice was just above a whisper.
"He went to find out who did this to you," JD answered.
Vin's eyes widened and he tried to get up. "NO!" he tried to yell, but was stopped by the pain in his hip.
Nathan and JD pushed him, struggling, back into the pillow.
"Vin, lie down!" Nathan scolded. "I only just got done puttin' you back together."
"It's a set up!" Vin managed through gritted teeth. "Cobb's gonna kill Chris!"
"Cobb??!!" Buck exclaimed, almost dropping the glass he held.
Nathan and JD looked at Buck expectantly.
"Who's Cobb?" JD asked.
"He's gonna kill Chris," Buck responded, repeating Vin's earlier statement.
"Come on, JD, we're heading out," he added, still not answering JD's question.
Nathan watched the two men leave the room, hoping they'd find Chris before this Cobb fellow did. He turned back to Vin, hoping to get some answers out of him, but Vin was unconscious again, maybe satisfied that Buck and JD would be heading out after Chris.
+ + + + + + +
Chris, Josiah and Ezra stopped their horses.
"Looks like someone stopped and made camp here," Chris said, dismounting and walking toward a recent campfire pit.
"Think it was Vin?" Josiah asked, dismounting as well.
"This does seem to be a location that Mr. Tanner would choose," Ezra remarked, looking around. "Close to his desired and inevitable destination, yet far enough away that he may rest in relative safety."
"I agree," Chris said, checking the tracks.
"Shall we rest here as well, then?" Josiah asked.
"May as well," Chris replied. "Can't do too much more in the dark anyway."
+ + + + + + +
Buck and JD rode as fast and hard as they dared, not wanting to over tire their horses before finding Chris.
"So are you gonna tell me who Cobb is?" JD asked.
"A few years back, just after Chris lost Sarah and Adam," Buck began. "Chris saved a woman from a beatin' from her husband. Wound up shootin' him later on in a gunfight. While the bastard was recoverin' the woman left town, headed back east. Man was John Cobb. Swore he'd kill Chris for takin' his wife away from him. Damn near did it once, too, before the law finally put him in prison. We'd thought for good," Buck finished.
"So now, Cobb's out of prison, legitimately or not, aiming for Chris and Vin," JD summed.
"I don't know how Vin got in the picture. And I still haven't got the foggiest notion who Janie is, but, yeah, I guess that pretty much sums it up," Buck agreed.
"I sure hope we get to Chris before he does," JD said to himself.
Buck, hearing JD's words, nodded to himself, agreeing.
+ + + + + + +
Just after sunrise the three broke camp and continued west.
"Looks like it'll be a clear day," Josiah remarked.
"Thank God," Ezra sighed. "I don't know how much more rain I could have tolerated. The mud just sends my laundry bill through the roof," he added.
"Always do like riding in the early morning sun," the former preacher said, stretching as he sat in his saddle. "Always so peaceful. Like nobody's had time to mess up the world, yet."
"Well sunshine or not," Chris began, "I still feel like I'm riding in a storm."
Ezra and Josiah nodded, returning their thoughts to the reason that they were out riding in the sunshine.
"Small camp up ahead," Josiah announced, nodding toward it.
"Spread out," Chris said, unnecessarily, as the other two had already begun to do so.
They circled the area around the camp cautiously, checking the surrounding area as well, before meeting inside it.
"Well whoever was here, left their horse," Josiah noted, nodding to the horse still tied to one of the nearby trees.
"No sign of Mr. Tanner's lady friend," Ezra added, opening up the flap to the lean-to.
"Check the area again. Look for any other tracks besides Vin's," Chris ordered.
+ + + + + + +
In the distance, John Cobb watched as three men rode into the little camp. He smiled to himself as he recognized one of them.
"I knew you'd come, Larabee," he said to himself. "Just can't resist a little justice can ya? Well guess what? Neither can I."
Cobb raised his rifle and checked his sights.
"Now, do I take out you, Larabee? Or should I shoot some more of your friends, first?" he asked himself.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra had found women's clothing and effects in the lean-to. He was about to go through them, to find out a little more about their owner, maybe find out what she was to Vin. Then he heard horses approaching and looked to the east.
"Riders coming!" he shouted, though needlessly, as he saw Chris and Josiah also looking to the east.
"Looks like Buck and JD," Josiah remarked.
"Chris!" Buck shouted.
But before Chris could respond, Buck watched in horror as Chris fell to the ground after a single gunshot rang out.
The four remaining men scrambled for cover as more shots filled the small camp.
"Cover me!" Buck yelled out as he rode to Chris.
Buck jumped off his horse, grabbed Chris by the collar and dragged him over to the trees. The others did indeed lay down some cover fire for the two. They knew Buck couldn't shoot and help Chris with only one good arm. When they got to safety, Buck quickly checked Chris for injuries. He found a bullet wound in his old friend's shoulder. Entering through the back and blasting its way out the front, Buck thought the bullet had done quite a bit of damage, as Chris was covered in blood. He took the sling off his broken arm and wadded it up, pressing it against the exit wound. He had laid Chris across his leg, so there was pressure against the entrance wound, as well. Buck noticed that the shooting had slowed down and took a look around for the others, hoping they had fared alright. He glanced back at Chris and saw the man glaring at him.
"Buck, what the hell are you doing here?" Chris asked, his voice pain filled.
"I came to warn you," Buck replied. "Vin told us who shot him. It was-"
"Wilmington!!" Cobb's voice boomed, interrupting Buck's explanation.
"Cobb," Chris said, looking at Buck, finishing his sentence. He had instantly recognized the voice.
"Wilmington! I know its you there with Larabee!" he shouted. "Give him up!"
"Yeah, well if you know it's me, then you know there ain't no way in hell I'm gonna let you have 'im!" Buck shouted back.
"But he's got another man's wife to defend!" Cobb shouted, rising from his own cover, Ellie held at gunpoint in front of him.
Buck and Chris looked toward the hillside. They saw the battered woman, barely able to stand, Cobb using her as a shield.
"How much you wanna bet that's Janie?" Buck asked, not really expecting an answer.
The others also saw the man and woman. They broke their cover slightly, to get a better look at them, and to assess their own standings.
"That's right Larabee. Here's your chance to be a hero again!" Cobb shouted. "Only this time, let's make a trade. You for Tanner's wife, here," he said, clutching Ellie tighter.
"Wife??!!" Buck whispered.
+ + + + + + +
"Chris? Chris?" Vin called weakly, before succumbing to a coughing fit.
"Easy, Vin, easy," Nathan soothed, coming to his bedside.
Nathan had been dozing on the other bed up to that point. He put his hand to Vin's forehead.
"Damn, Vin. You go from one extreme to the other," he swore, shaking his head.
He got a washcloth and soaked it in the cool water before placing it on the tracker's fevered brow. He worried about Vin's continued coughing.
"Sounds like all that rain and cold went and settled in your chest," he said, speaking to himself as much as to Vin.
He got his stethoscope off the shelf and pulled the blanket down off Vin's chest. He listened carefully and frowned at what he heard.
"Shit," he muttered.
"Chris?" Vin called again.
"Too soon, Vin," Nathan responded. "But don't worry, he'll be fine. Buck and JD will warn 'im."
Nathan got some more pillows and bedding and brought it next to Vin's bedside.
"Let's get you propped up a bit. It'll help with the cough," he said.
Nathan put his arms around Vin and began gently pulling him upright. The tracker grabbed onto him tightly, holding his breath and stiffening as the pain in his hip erupted. Nathan tried not to cry out himself as Vin's fingers dug into his skin. Vin began coughing violently as his lungs protested the lack of air. Still, Nathan let him hang on, future bruises be damned. After a few minutes, Vin was finally able to relax. Nathan let go with one hand and put the pillows and bedding behind Vin's back. He eased him back slowly and watched as Vin, eyes shut tight, adjusted to the new position. Nathan soaked the washcloth again and wiped Vin's face and neck.
"I never shoulda gone," Vin whispered before falling asleep again.
+ + + + + + +
"Wife??!!" Buck whispered.
Looking around at the others, seeing their expressions, he knew that they had probably asked the exact same question.
"He's lyin," Chris whispered. "If she was Vin's wife, he never would have left her here."
Buck looked at Cobb again.
"Damn, I wish Vin was here," he said. "He'd be able to take Cobb out without touchin' a hair on the lady."
Chris thought of Vin again. He couldn't picture him leaving anybody at the mercy of someone like Cobb, especially a woman. And especially if she was his wife. 'Vin's wife.' Two words Chris never thought he'd say in the same sentence.
"What's it gonna be, Larabee?" Cobb demanded.
Chris again thought about Vin. Whoever she was, wife or not, Vin thought Chris was more important. He'd nearly killed himself getting back to Four Corners to warn him about Cobb.
He struggled up out of Buck's grip.
"No deal, Cobb!" he shouted.
"But she's a woman! Maybe even Vin's wife!" Buck protested, whispering loudly, so Chris could hear.
"A woman who set Vin up," Chris replied tersely.
"I'll shoot her! Right here and now!" Cobb threatened. "I'm sure Tanner would love finding out his best friend let his wife die!"
Before Chris or the others could do anything else, though, Ellie reached up and grabbed Cobb's gun. After a brief struggle, the gun fired. The five lawmen watched as Ellie, her abdomen red with blood, dropped from Cobb's grasp and fell to the ground.
Cobb looked up, and realizing that he was exposed, raised his rifle. But as he aimed toward Chris's location, he saw that Chris, along with the four others, had already aimed at him.
"I'll see you in hell, Larabee!" he shouted as the bullets hit him, unable to get his own shot off.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah had carried Ellie down the hill. Remarkably, she was still alive, though they all knew that she wouldn't be for long. When he laid her next to Chris, who was now propped up against a tree, she opened her eyes. She looked around at the men, these friends of Vin's, knowing what questions were in their eyes. She also knew that if they had those questions, it was because Vin had not told them about her. It would be up to him to decide to answer them or not.
"There's a box of stuff in the lean-to. Give it to Vin," she managed, looking at Chris. "Just tell him he was right... and.... and that I'm sorry," she added, before closing her eyes again.
Josiah felt her neck for a pulse. He looked up at the others and shook his head.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan stepped outside for the first time in hours. He took a deep breath. Mary was staying with Vin for a bit, giving the healer a much needed break. Vin was still feverish, pneumonia trying to move in. Nathan looked up and said a prayer. Vin was going through a hellstorm alright. When he was awake, he was coughing, suffering pain in his chest and his hip. When he was asleep, he was having fever-dreams. Still trying to warn Chris about Cobb or cursing some woman named Ellie for setting him up. Nathan was even more confused about what happened now, with another woman involved. And Vin refused to talk about it. Nathan was brought back to the present when he saw the men entering town and riding his way. He counted five men on horseback, breathing a sigh of relief as he recognized each one. He became worried, though, when they stopped in front of him. Chris, pale, arm in a sling, swung painfully down from his saddle. Nathan rushed to his side.
"Chris," he started.
"I'm fine, just a scratch," the gunslinger interrupted, brushing Nathan off. "How's Vin?"
"Bullet wound's okay, but he's feverish. I think he's getting pneumonia," Nathan responded.
Chris had already started to go up the stairs before Nathan finished. But as he got to the third step, he collapsed, Nathan and JD barely managing to catch him.
"It's about time," Buck swore, sighing heavily.
+ + + + + + +
Mary stood up, alarmed, as they carried Chris into Nathan's room and put him on the empty bed.
"What happened?" she asked.
"He's fine, Mary," Buck said. "Just tired."
Nathan began to remove Chris's shirt to assess his injury. Vin, awakened by the commotion, opened his eyes and looked over. Seeing Chris's still, bloody form, he panicked.
"Chris?!" he cried, trying to get out of his bed.
Ezra and Buck went to Vin and pushed him back into bed.
"Easy, Vin. It's alright," Buck tried to assure him. "It's just a scratch."
"But the blood! And he's not movin'," Vin started to say before a coughing fit caught him.
He still struggled to get out of bed. Coughing fit and pain aside, he wanted to see Chris, make sure he was okay.
"Vin! Vin, listen!" Josiah yelled, grabbing the tracker's shoulders, getting his attention. "Chris is fine. The bullet went clean through. He's just exhausted," he told him.
Vin looked at Buck and Nathan for confirmation. When they both nodded, agreeing with Josiah, he finally settled down.
+ + + + + + +
The next time Vin woke up was a day and a half later. He coughed weakly and moaned as he tried to get comfortable. Chris and Buck came to his bedside.
"'Bout time you woke up," the ladies' man said. "Nathan said your fever broke last night," he added.
"How ya doin' Vin?" Chris asked.
Vin, his voice tired, just said, "Well ain't you two the pair."
Chris, looking at his and Buck's matching slings, laughed.
"Yeah, I guess we are," he said.
"Cobb?" Vin asked.
"Dead," Chris replied. He looked down and then around the room before adding. "So's Janie. He killed her. I'm sorry, Vin."
Vin closed his eyes and nodded, before correcting Chris. "Ellie. Her name was Ellie."
Chris nodded and looked at Vin, trying to gauge his reaction to the news.
"Cobb said she was your wife," Buck put in, hoping to get confirmation from Vin.
"Was," he replied, looking at the ceiling, now. "Long time ago," he added, absently.
"Before Tuscosa?" Chris asked.
"Oh, she stopped bein' my wife long before Tuscosa," Vin answered with a sigh, hoping to alleviate Chris's sorrow over Ellie's death.
The tracker shifted in the bed, becoming uncomfortable with the conversation. He winced at the pain still shooting down his leg and coughed.
Buck, sensing Vin's feelings, excused himself. "I'll check up on ya later, Vin," he said. "Gotta see what trouble JD's getting into today," he added, heading out the door.
Chris watched Buck go and turned back to Vin.
"Before she died, she told me to tell you that you were right about her," he said. "She also said to tell you that she was sorry," he added.
Vin looked away from Chris. He felt the tears welling up. He pressed his palms to his eyes, not wanting Chris to see him cry. When he finally looked back at Chris he took a deep breath and sighed.
"Just when I thought I could hate her again, she had to go and say she was sorry," he said quietly, half laughing, before succumbing to another bout of coughing.
Chris put his hand on Vin's arm when he was through, lending him his strength.
"We also found a box of stuff she wanted you to have," he said, putting the small box on the table next to the bed. "I'll come back later on to see ya. Let you look at that stuff in private," he added, grabbing his hat.
After Chris had gone, Vin looked over at the box. He was tempted to just throw it away without looking, but he didn't. He took the box off the table and opened it up. There wasn't much inside. A few pieces of inexpensive jewelry, a small framed picture of himself and Ellie, taken on their wedding day, a pocket knife and two pair of knitted baby booties, one pink and one blue. Vin closed his eyes and thought about the names Ellie had picked out for the baby. Wil and Janie. She lost it soon after. The doctor said it was because of some virus she picked up. Picked up while she was cheatin' on him, he remembered. Vin opened his eyes again and sighed. He took the picture out of the frame and put it aside. He closed the box up and put it on the table. He'd give it to Josiah. Tell him to sell the stuff inside and use the money for the church. He looked at the picture again before putting it under the pillow and let the gentle rain outside lull him to sleep.