Chris awoke with a start and found he had fallen asleep on the chair with his head resting next to Vin's shoulder. At first he didn't know what woke him. When he saw the sweat forming on Vin's face and brow, though, he knew. He put his hand to Vin's forehead and felt the heat pouring off of him. Vin stirred under his touch and slowly opened his eyes. "Don't let him take my leg," Vin said as he lifted his eyes to Chris. "Please, Chris. Don't let Nathan take my leg."
Chris looked down at the bandaged foot and took the lantern that was on the table by his side. He held the light over Vin's foot and saw the discoloration of the toes. He set the lantern back onto the table. "Hold on, Vin. I've got to get Nathan."
Chris hurried back to his side and took Vin's hand. "I've got to get Nathan now so he can look you over."
"No! I'd rather die, Chris. Please! Don't let Nathan take my leg!"
Chris put his hand to Vin's forehead and brushed away the sweat-soaked hair. "Vin, Nathan is doing all he can to save your leg."
"I feel it, Chris. My foot is so hot. Don't let him take it!"
Chris squeezed Vin's hand. "Just hold on, Pard." He let Vin's hand go and hurried out of the clinic. He ran to Nathan's room and pounded on the door. "Nathan! Nathan, come quick!"
A few seconds later the door opened and Nathan stood there pulling his suspenders up over an un-tucked shirt. He rubbed his eyes. "Chris?"
"It's looking real bad, Nathan. Hurry." He headed back to the clinic and Nathan quickly followed.
JD had heard the commotion from where he was patrolling the streets as the sun began to rise. He hurried up the steps and stood in the clinic doorway. "Nathan?" he asked.
"I don't know yet, JD." Nathan quickly unwrapped Vin's foot as Chris took his seat by his friend's side. He held Vin's left hand in his own, while taking a wet cloth and wiping away the sweat.
Nathan examined the swollen foot and the color of it. He saw the traces of blood poisoning. "Damn it all to hell! I have no choice now."
"No!" Vin yelled. "Don't take my leg, dammit! Don't ya' dare take my leg!"
"Vin, easy," Chris soothed. "Nathan's not talking about taking your leg." He looked up at the healer and saw the look of concern in his eyes. "Nathan?"
Nathan didn't answer. He hurried to fetch a bowl from his cabinet that was located to just inside the doorway. He took one of the bottles of whiskey that Ezra had brought him and poured the contents into the bowl. He then put knives and other instruments into the whiskey to sterilize. "JD, get out of here. Tell the others I have to perform surgery on Vin's leg. They' ll want to know."
JD reached in and took Nathan's arm. "You're not...you're not going to...amputate...are you, Nathan?" The look in the youth's eyes was filled with disbelief.
"I'm going to do what I have to do to save his life."
JD's eyes filled with tears at the horror of what Nathan was saying. "No!"
Nathan pulled his arm away. "I've seen this before, JD. If I don't take care of this now, gangrene will set in." Nathan stopped. He thought back to when he had first met Vin and Chris, when he was about to be lynched. A man he had tried to save lost his life to gangrene and the employers of the man didn't take too kindly to a 'darkie' practicing medicine. They figured Nathan had caused their boss to die, so they set about lynching him. That was when Chris and Vin entered his life...saving him. Now he was faced with the same type of circumstance, only this time it was Vin's life in his hands. He shook his head. "I lost a man once because of that disease. I' ll be damned if I lose Vin because of it! Now, you've got to understand, there are just some things we can't control."
JD looked at Nathan horrified. "You can't, Nathan! Please! You've got to give it a chance!"
Chris saw the look in Vin's eyes as Nathan explained his situation. He turned to JD. "JD! Get out of here! Now!" he bellowed.
The youth stared at Chris in terror. He had never heard Chris yell at him like that before. He backed up and tore off down the stairs.
Nathan closed the door and took another bowl. He filled that one with whiskey as well and then rolled up his shirtsleeves. "Chris, you've got to calm Vin down. I'm going to need you to hold the ether over his mouth and nose."
"NO!" Vin yelled as he sat up. "Nathan, fer the love of God! Don't take my leg! I'm begging ya'! Chris, please! Don't let him do it! I'd rather die! Don't ya' understand?"
"Nathan, step outside for a minute," Chris ordered.
Nathan looked at him. "I've got to get started soon, Chris."
"I hear ya'! But I need to talk to Vin alone. Just do it! Now!"
Nathan turned and walked out of the clinic, closing the door behind him.
Chris knelt by Vin's side and grasped his hand tighter. He put his right hand to Vin's face and neck. "Vin, listen to me," he said, firmly, but he couldn't fight the tears welling in his eyes. The look of sheer terror in Vin's eyes was enough to rip out his soul.
"No! I would rather die than lose my leg, Chris! Promise me ya' won't let him take my leg!"
"Shut up and listen to me, Tanner!" Chris yelled and gripped Vin's neck harder. "You listen to me right now!"
Vin tensed under Chris' gaze, but he refused to break it. He had never seen Chris so filled with fear and it shook Vin to the deepest depths of his soul. "Chris," Vin pleaded. "Don't ask me this..."
"All I'm asking you, Vin...all I'm begging of you...is to trust me. If you' ve never trusted me before, I'm asking you to trust me now." Chris tightened his grip on both Vin's neck and hand. "Trust me, Vin. With everything you have inside you...trust me." Chris was choking on the words as he spoke them. His tone was full of pleading. "Trust me, Vin," he whispered.
Vin gazed into Chris' eyes and suddenly he knew what Chris was asking. He wasn't asking Vin to trust him to keep Nathan from taking his leg. Chris was asking Vin to trust him to see him through the amputation. To trust him to see him through his life with only one leg. To trust him that he would not abandon Vin. That he would never abandon Vin.
Vin shut his eyes and screamed. "Damn it, Chris! Damn it!"
Chris lifted Vin into his arms and held him close. "Trust me, Pard. No matter what happens...trust me."
Vin clung to Chris tightly as the fear of what was about to happen hit him. "Do ya' know what you're asking me to do?" he whispered into Chris' ear, his voice choking with fear.
"I know, Vin. And I know you have the strength to see it through. I'd rather have you a cripple and alive than have you dead, you bastard! Can't you see that?"
Vin slowly pushed himself away and Chris laid him back onto his pillow. The tracker looked at his best friend and their locked gaze was filled with words neither one of them could voice.
Vin gripped Chris' hand. He forced himself to calm down. He forced the tears back. And his eyes said it all. If Vin was going to trust Chris, then Chris better be damned worthy of that trust. That was all Chris needed to know. He smiled with understanding and gave Vin's neck another squeeze. "Nathan!" he called out.
+ + + + + + +
When Nathan stepped outside, the rest of the Seven surrounded him. They had run up the stairs in the hopes of stopping Nathan from jumping to conclusions, but Nathan quickly calmed them down. "It'll be Vin's decision," he said. "And that decision will either be his leg...or his life."
That quieted them all down, but JD was unable to accept any of it. "Why does it have to be either one? Why can't you just clean out the infection? Why do you have to make such a decision at all?"
"JD," Buck said.
"No! No! I'm not going to stand here and let this happen! Josiah, you believe God can heal, don't you?"
Josiah looked at JD calmly. "Son, the Lord will heal Vin if it's His will."
"Well why can't it be His will? Seems to me if He wanted Vin's leg taken off, then that damned trap would have done the job all ready. If He wanted Vin dead that coyote wouldn't have come to fetch Chris! Chris said you believed it was a spirit. I don't know about you, but all that tells me is that God has a plan none of us are allowed to figure out. Now...I haven't prayed in a long time...not since I accidentally killed Annie. But I know who God is. And I know what He can do. So you all can stand here and think Vin's life or his leg is the answer, but there is always another way. I may not be able to do anything for Vin right now, at least not with my hands. But I can put my hands together. And I can pray." He looked each of his friends in the eyes and then he turned and headed down the stairs. None of them stopped him, by calling out to him, or reaching out to him. They watched as JD hurried over to the church and mounted the steps. He threw the doors open and stepped inside.
Buck stood there, tears filling his eyes, both of sadness and of pride in his young friend. "I do believe our JD just told us the best damn sermon I' ve heard in a long time." He turned to Josiah. "No offense, Josiah."
"None taken, Brother Buck. I couldn't agree with you more." Josiah walked down the steps and followed after JD. "I'll be in the church with our zealot if anyone wishes to find us."
Ezra stood there in amazement as he watched the preacher head after the young sheriff. "Well, I'm not sure the good Lord would hear the words of a gambler and con artist, but for Mister Tanner's sake the least I can do is put forth the effort. Mister Jackson, I'm sure you will do what ever you feel is necessary to come through this trial."
"And if I take his leg?" Nathan asked.
Ezra held out his hand. "Then, sir, that is how this trial will end."
Nathan shook the outstretched hand and watched as Ezra walked down the steps onto the street and head toward the church. He turned to Buck. "What about you?"
"Nathan, one thing I've learned over the years. A building is just a building, where people gather to worship. But prayers can be heard by the Almighty wherever you decide to talk to Him. I think I'll stay right here."
"Nathan!" Chris called out.
Nathan took in a deep breath. "God be with us all," he whispered as he turned to walk back into the clinic. Buck put a hand to his arm. "And may He give us all wisdom," he spoke out softly.
Nathan lowered his head. "Amen," he replied and stepped into the clinic.
Buck took a seat on the top step and closed his eyes. "Lord? All I ask is that you see Vin through this ordeal. Whatever it is you have planned for him."
+ + + + + + +
Chris helped Nathan set up the instruments. Nathan handed him a small wire mask and a bottle of ether. "Just a few drops at a time, Chris. When he wakes up he'll be sicker than a dog as it is."
"I understand," Chris said. He went to stand beside Vin and looked down at his friend who gazed up at him with determination. "It's time, Vin."
As Chris started to put the mask over Vin's face, Vin reached up and took his wrist, stopping him. He looked Chris square in the eyes. "I trust ya'," he said, then let Chris' wrist go. Chris nodded to him then put the mask over his face. He put a few drops of the ether onto the mask. "Breathe in normally, Vin. Don't fight the drowsiness. Just give into it," Nathan instructed.
"Do...what...you...have to...Nathan," Vin said and he closed his eyes as the deep sleep carried him away.
Nathan wanted to scream. Vin was scared half to death, as were they all, but he was willing to place his life in the healer's hands. His life...and his leg. 'God, Vin,' he thought. 'May I never live to regret this decision.' He looked up at Chris who nodded to him. "Whatever you have to do, Nathan...just save his life."
The surgery began.
+ + + + + + +
The hours ticked by, slowly, as if poisoning the soul. JD sat on the front pew of the church, tears silently streaking down his face. Ezra was sitting behind him. The gambler reached forward and rested a hand on the youth's shoulder, squeezing it. JD was grateful for the encouragement, but he couldn't turn to acknowledge it. His heart was too busy pleading for Vin.
Josiah was walking the church, lighting candles. He was silent as he, too, prayed from his heart. 'If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off. It is better that a man go through life without it than to enter hell whole,' he thought. 'My God, do not forsake your child. Vin is one of your sheep, even though he don't know it. Maybe he does and he has chosen not to tell us. What he believes is a mystery, but you know his heart. We ask for strength to see him through this. Strength for him...and strength for us. Let us be your hand extended to him.'
He sensed eyes on him and he turned to see Buck standing in the church doorway. The mustached man nodded once to him. Josiah returned the nod. The silent vigil continued.
+ + + + + + +
Chris sat at Vin's side as Nathan worked. He kept his hand on Vin's chest, feeling the heartbeat beneath his fingers. He clutched Vin's hand tightly. 'I'm right here, Cowboy,' he thought. 'Just hold on to me.' If not for the fact that Vin's bond with Chris was so strong, the gunslinger would have thought it was his imagination, but he knew it wasn't. In spite of the fact that the tracker was in a drug-induced sleep, Chris felt Vin's fingers tighten around his hand.
Later that night...
Buck walked into the clinic, keeping his movements quiet, not sure what he would find. Nathan was resting on a cot to the far side of the clinic. Chris was sitting by Vin, as was expected, gazing down at the sleeping form. He walked over and Chris turned to him. "Hey, Buck," he said, tiredly.
"You need to get some sleep, Chris," Buck said, gently.
Chris shook his head and rubbed his eyes with his forefinger and thumb. "No. I need to be the one to tell Vin when he wakes up."
Buck took a chair and set it on the other side of the bed. He sat down. "It's been a hell of a night."
Chris said nothing; he kept staring down at Vin's sleeping face. "He'll pull through this, Chris."
Chris lifted eyes to his friend, eyes that held dark circles under them. "I want the man who left him out there, Buck. I want him." His voice was low and tired, but there was no denying the anger that laced the words.
"I know, Pard," Buck responded, quietly.
Chris lowered his head. "Just make sure I don't kill him when we find him. That's all I'm askin'."
Buck sighed. "If it gets too much, I'll pull you off of him. I promise." He stood and headed for the door. He stopped and turned back to Chris. "JD 's still at the church."
Chris lowered his head. "That kid can sure worm his way into your heart, can't he?"
Buck smiled. "That he can. I reckon he shamed us all just a touch."
"Tell him," Chris started, then paused, thinking his words. "Tell him I appreciate it."
Buck nodded. Without another word he left the clinic, quietly closing the door behind him.
Chris turned back to Vin and reached out to touch his forehead. The fever was breaking. The blond man sat back in his chair and let out a long breath. It was going to be a long night.
+ + + + + + +
God, he was so tired. He wanted to sleep some more, but the pain would not let him. He felt a hand on his stomach. Knowing it was Chris', he reached out, keeping his eyes closed, and rested his hand on top of his friend's.
Chris felt the pressure of Vin's hand grip his own and he awoke from where his head rested by Vin's side. He lifted his head and saw Vin stirring. "Vin? Vin, can you hear me?"
Vin slowly turned his head to the sound of Chris' voice. His eyes did not open. "Tell me...tell me...I still have my leg."
Chris gripped his hand tight. "You're all here, Vin. All of you. Nathan was able to drain the infection. It took a long time, there was a lot of cleaning to do, but he worked hard."
Vin slowly opened his eyes. The effect of the ether was still warring with his desire to look at Chris. He formed a weak smile. "Where is he?"
"Sleeping in the other bed. I can get him for you."
"No," Vin swallowed. "Let him sleep." He fought to keep his eyes open. "Y 'all could use some sleep, too."
"Yeah, I could. Wanted to be here to tell you the news myself."
The desire to sleep was overwhelming Vin. He licked his dry lips and swallowed again. "Thank you," he whispered and he gripped Chris' hand tighter.
"Would you like some water?"
"No. Probably throw it up."
Chris removed his hand from Vin's and dipped a cloth into a bowl of water. He squeezed it out and put the cloth to Vin's lips. "Bite down on this." Vin bit down and the cool liquid felt good in his dry mouth. Chris removed the cloth and then used it to wipe Vin's face. "You're fever broke," he said.
"How...how long have I been out?"
"You slept through yesterday and most of the night. It's almost morning."
"Right here, Pard."
"I understood what...y'all was askin' me."
"I know you did."
"I do, ya' know. More than anyone I've ever trusted in my life...next to my ma."
Chris allowed a small smile. He took Vin's hand in his own again and squeezed it. "Get some sleep, Tanner. You still got a lot of healing to do."
Vin nodded once and closed his eyes.
Chris lowered his head down on the bed and closed his eyes as well, relief filling his soul.
+ + + + + + +
When Nathan awoke the sun was streaming through the window. He got out of bed and stretched. He walked over to the other bed and found Chris asleep with his head next to Vin's arm, the tracker's hand firmly clutched in his own. He took a moment to examine the bandaged foot and saw that the swelling had gone down considerably. The color looked good. He closed his eyes and breathed with relief. "God works in mysterious ways...His wonders to perform," he softly whispered.
+ + + + + + +
Buck found JD still inside the church, sitting on a pew, just staring at the pulpit. He went over and slid in next to him. JD just looked at him and said nothing. He turned his attention back to the pulpit.
"You know," Buck started. "Vin's going to make it now. Both him and his leg."
JD took in a breath and let it out slowly. "I know. I was just sitting here...thanking Him."
Buck nodded. "Reckon there's a lot of prayers of thanks going up around town this morning."
"Reckon maybe there is."
Buck took a moment to speak the next words from his heart. "I was never more proud of you, JD, than yesterday morning on that catwalk. You stood up for what you believed in. Do you know what that did for me?"
JD turned to him, his eyes waiting for the answer. He shook his head.
Buck swallowed as he felt his throat choke with emotion. "When Chris' wife and son were killed, when I saw Chris fall into a path of self destruction, I wondered how God could have allowed such tragedy. Now I am far from a saint...you know that, but back then I was watching my best friend dying slowly every day and...I cursed God to His face." He shrugged. "Metaphorically speaking, as Ezra would say. Yesterday, your fire and faith stirred up something inside me. I always knew you had faith in God, JD. But yesterday...what you said...the belief you showed...it...pricked my heart. I know God has His plans...His reasons for the tragedies in our life and some of us have faith to endure those hard times...and some of us...just barely manage to get by. You believed. I'm not saying your belief was the turning point during this trial and I'm not saying it wasn't, but every man needs something to believe in. And you did not back down an inch from what you believed to be true."
JD gazed at Buck with surprise. "I...I couldn't...not...believe, Buck."
Buck smiled at him and nodded. "I know, Kid. And that's why I'm so proud of you. You're a man of your convictions. Just like Vin is, just like Nathan and Chris and Josiah. Even Ezra, when the chips are down, he stands true to his convictions. But I have to ask you...if Nathan had taken Vin's leg...would your faith have suffered?"
JD looked away, thoughtful as he pondered the question. "No, Buck."
"Really? Why's that?"
"Well, because I have to believe God brought all of us together."
Buck looked at him questioningly. "I don't understand."
"If Vin had lost his leg...we all would have been there for him, to help him through. All of us. It's like the question you asked...would I think less of Vin if his leg had to be removed. How could I...and still be his friend?"
Buck smiled at JD. He had gotten his answer. "Come on, Kid. Sun's coming up. I'll buy you some breakfast."
"You? Buy me breakfast?"
"Why sure. What? Can't a guy buy his best friend a meal every once in while?"
"Well, I guess God must be dishing out miracles above and beyond the call of duty today. I never thought you would buy me a meal."
"Oh, ha-ha. Get your funny lookin' hat on and let's go. I'm starvin'." The two men stood and as they left the church, Buck wrapped his arm around JD's neck and pulled him close. JD allowed this, reveling in the knowledge of having all six of his friends still around him and still alive. It was a glorious feeling.
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