Fork in the Road

by Beth

Chapter 22

Buck helped JD and Casey finish with the outlaw's horses. He moved slowly not wanting to agitate his shoulder anymore than he had to, he also noticed how slow JD moved about, trying not to bother his ribs. Casey stayed close never more than a few feet away from the young man.

"Are we gonna get some help over here?" one of the outlaws yelled.

"The only thing your gonna get is a trip to Eagle Bend," Buck snapped knowing full well that Nathan would be out to tend the wounded once he was done with Ezra.

"Some of these men are bleeding to death," once again the man yelled.

Buck strode over to where the men were tied and threw the rock he'd picked up and threw it at the men, "you'll get help if and when we have time." Buck turned and headed back to the barn he needed to be angry at someone, he felt useless and it bothered him. His shoulder hurt, he also knew JD was hurting but the kid wouldn't give up. He was worried about Vin, the tracker had taken off in a hurry to get Nathan's medical bag, Josiah was tending to Chris and for that the ladies man was thankful. Ezra was another story and Buck just shook his head while thinking about it.

"You okay Buck?" Casey asked noticing the man was off in thought.

"Hay darlin," he smiled big trying to ease her mind, "I'm just fine. How are you doing?" he gently took her arm.

"I'm okay," she replied but the ladies man could tell she was tired. "JD says it's all over," she tried to keep herself from crying. The past two days had done her in and Buck gave her shoulders a squeeze.

"It's over," Buck reassured her. He smiled when JD came up beside them, "how are you doing JD?"

"Sore," was the simple reply.

"Lets get back inside to check the others." Buck watched as JD took Casey by the arm and headed for the house he had to smile to himself, the boy was growing up.

They entered the house to find Josiah over a burning stove and Chris was on the floor asleep covered in blankets, "you boys look like you could use some coffee." Josiah grabbed two cups from the shelf and filled them with the black sludge.

"How's Ezra?" Buck asked sitting himself down.

"Mrs. Wells and Brother Nathan are with him now," Josiah handed Buck a cup of the hot coffee, "it doesn't look good."

Nettie closed the door behind her as she entered the back room Nathan was still trying to keep the gambler from bleeding and she could tell he was worried, "when my boys got sick," she started to say walking closer to the bed then she seated herself next to the gambler's head, "I would make them drink water, a little sugar and raw egg. It was something my mother used when I was a girl, helped keep me alive for near sixty years and it helped keep my boys alive when they were sick or hurt."

"Is that what you got there?" Nathan asked.

"It don't taste good, but it works," she smiled then moved behind Ezra's shoulders to prop him up, he groaned from the pain in his side and looked up to see Nettie, "I need you to drink this," she encouraged. Ezra was to weak to protest and he tentatively took a couple sips before having to stop and catch his breath. "You need to drink all of it son," she encouraged again knowing all the while the man leaning against her was getting weaker by the second. It took everything he had left to finish the cup but Nettie sighed in relief before gently laying him back against the pillows. "Don't give up on him Mr. Jackson," Nettie quietly said before returning to the kitchen.

Chapter 23

Vin pushed his horse as hard as he dared and by the time he got to town the animal was well lathered and exhausted. He stopped the horse in front of the livery relieved to see Samuel come out of the barn, "there trouble comin Mr. Tanner?" the older man asked taking the reins of the winded animal.

Vin jumped out of the saddle and paused a moment while his leg readjusted to the movement and position, "No Sam," he shook his head, "can you saddle me up a fresh horse?"

"Sure thing," Sam took the horse he had and headed back for the barn.

"The fastest one you got!" Vin called back before heading to the telegraph office. The tracker headed down the boardwalk as fast as he could, his leg was threatening to give out on him but he didn't have time to stop and think about it. He brushed by Mary not really thinking about anything but the telegram that needed to be sent and the medical bag from Nathan's clinic.

"Mr. Tanner!" Mary called after him, "Vin!" she called again when he didn't stop.

"I'm real sorry Mrs. Travis," Vin stopped but again started for the telegraph office.

"Is everything all right?" She had to quicken her pace to keep up with him.

"I gotta wire Eagle Bend and let them know we need some help out at the Well's place,"

"What happened?"

"Seems McKinley hired some men to hunt Chris and the rest of us down. There was a shoot out and we got several of 'em hold up but Ez is down got a bullet in him and Nathan sent me to town to get his medical bag. I'm real sorry mam but I ain't got time to talk to ya now."

"You go to the telegraph office I'll go to Nathan's and get his bag then I'll meet you at the livery," she didn't wait for him to answer she picked up her skirts and ran as fast as she could to Nathan's clinic.

By the time Vin made it back to the livery Mary was waiting as well as Sam both of them had worried looks written on their faces, "Vin your bleeding," Mary gasped seeing the blood running down the trackers leg. She lifted up her skirt and ripped a long piece from her petty coat.

"I gotta go Mrs. Travis," Vin looped the medical bag around the horn of the saddle and grabbed the reins. As soon as Vin swung up in the saddle Mary was at the side of the animal wrapping the makeshift bandage around his leg.

"We'll send some help out to the ranch," she finished tying the bandage and moved out of the way and watched as Vin rode out of town like a bat out of hell.

Josiah came out of the side bedroom he helped Casey move JD, the kid was standing by will power alone and Josiah had to talk him into getting some much needed rest. The big man sighed, he was exhausted as well but he didn't dare try and rest now, not until some help arrived.

"You look like shit Josiah," Buck said leaning back in the chair he was in.

Josiah shook his head and looked out the window at the prisoners, "some of those boys need tenden to," he rubbed the back of his neck.

"Let em' be," Chris said rolling onto his back. "How's Ezra?"

"It's not looking to good Chris," Buck replied.

"Vin's back," Josiah boomed and headed for the door.

Vin threw the medical bag to Josiah and quickly dismounted, "did I make it in time?" he asked worried.

"I believe so Brother, I believe so." Josiah headed quickly for the house and into the back room while Vin slowly followed close behind. The big preacher burst threw the door to the back room and made Nettie jump. "Vin just got back," he boomed handing a much-relieved Nathan the bag.

Nathan pulled out of his bag a scalpel and forceps then dumped them in the wash basin and poured a generous amount of whiskey over them. Josiah continued to apply pressure to the bleeding wound on Ezra while Nathan prepared his instruments. "Mrs. Wells I'm gonna need some freshly boiled water and these bandages cut into strips about so long," he handed the woman a roll of cloth that was about two inches thick. Nettie nodded her head and quickly left the room. "Josiah," Nathan approached the big man leaning over the unconscious form on the bed. "I need you to hold him down incase he starts to come around while I try and get this bullet out," the preacher nodded his head in understanding and moved to the front of the bed placing his hands on the gamblers shoulders. Nathan wiped away the blood that continued to seep from the wound. Ezra didn't stir as Nathan carefully cut the opening to the wound a bit wider and then entered into the wound with the forceps. It was only a few minutes before Nathan sighed, "it's not to deep," he patted the wound with a clean cloth for better visability.

Nettie reentered the room with a washbasin full of hot steaming water, "waters ready and so are the bandages," she placed the items on the bed stand. "Can I do something else?"

Nathan grunted as he pulled the ragged bullet from Ezra, he quickly applied pressure to the now freely bleeding wound. He wiped the sweat from his brow and was surprised to see Ezra staring back at him, "you're all right," he tried to encourage but didn't feel it in his heart. Ezra blinked back at him and coughed from the dryness in his throat.

"I'll get some water," Nettie patted Nathan's shoulder and headed back out of the room.

"We gotta get that bleeding stopped," Nathan said pushing the bandages harder into the gamblers side, which earned him a groan of protest from his patient. Ezra tried to push the prying hands of the healer away but weakly failed. Josiah grabbed one of the gamblers trembling hands.

"Hang on brother," the big man tried to comfort noticing the strength in the gambler was weakening. "He's starting to get hot brother," Josiah looked to Nathan for relief.

Nathan shook his head he felt defeated. "Damn Josiah," he didn't know what to do, "I could cauterize the wound, but it leaves him open for infection."

"If you don't brother, he's gonna bleed to death," Josiah pleaded.

"Throw that small iron into the fire," Nathan sighed pointing to the small wooden handled iron that was still in his medical bag. Josiah nodded his head and left to do so. Nettie returned with a cup with cold water and seated herself at the head of the bed. She lifted Ezra's head and slowly gave him a sip of the cool liquid.

"Drink it slow son, don't need you choken to death on top of everything else," she was grateful when the gambler took a few sips. Nettie rested his head back down on the pillows and gazed at the wound Nathan was desperately trying to slow the bleeding to. "Is there anything else I can do Mr. Jackson?" she looked up to see Josiah return into the room with a red-hot iron firmly in his grasp.

"It's ready brother," Josiah said in a low regretful voice.

"You can't," Nettie gasp fully understanding what was about to take place.

"If I don't get the bleeding stopped and soon Mrs. Nettie he ain't gonna make it," the older woman nodded her head in agreement, just by looking at the gambler she could tell he was getting weaker and paler by every passing second. She was thankful the conman was not fully aware of what was going on. She grabbed the wooden spoon that was laying on the corner of the night table. She moved in behind Ezra and carefully placed the handle of the spoon in is mouth, "your gonna need this," she encouraged.

Nathan placed himself over Ezra's thighs all the while applying pressure to the wound, "hold his arms Josiah," the big man handed the brand to Nathan and placed himself next to Nettie and grasp the gamblers protesting arms.

"Hurry Brother," Josiah clenched his teeth and got prepared for the upcoming fight. Nettie clasp her hands on each side of Ezra's face and tried to keep herself from breaking down. Ezra looked up his eyes searching for understanding, he felt restrained and fought against it. "It'll be done in a moment Brother," Josiah's voiced boomed trying to comfort himself as well as everyone in the room.

Nathan took a deep breath and quickly wiped the bloodied bandages away from the wound and applied the hot iron to the bleeding wound. The smell of burning flesh assaulted his sense of smell. He fought with his struggling patient and was surprised the man had that much strength left in him. When he pulled the brand away from the wound he was relieved to see the bleeding had seized. "I'm done," Nathan said getting to his feet wiping his sweat covered brow in the process, he continued to watch as Ezra hadn't passed out but his whole body shook with fear, pain and exhaustion. Nettie wiped the gamblers brow she needed to keep herself busy afraid she would break down at any moment.

"You all right Sister?" Josiah asked placing a large hand on her trembling shoulder.

"I will be," she smiled up at the preacher before removing the now teeth embedded spoon, "he owes me a new spoon when he gets to feeling better." She started to get to her feet but was stopped by Nathan.

"Stay there Mrs. Wells, I don't want you to collapse on me." Nathan applied salve to the wound and then wrapped it in clean bandages. Josiah grabbed a chair, he needed to sit before his legs gave out on him. "You all right Josiah?"

"I'll let you know when I do."

"Put your head between your knees, it will help until the nausea passes," he watched until the preacher did so.

"You should both get some sleep, I'll stay with Mr. Standish."

"That's real nice of you to offer mam but how long has it been since you had some sleep?" Nathan asked getting to his feet.

Nettie smiled, "I know your right Mr. Jackson," she wiped a strand of hair away from Ezra's forehead and sighed when the gambler closed his eyes and fell asleep. "He gonna be all right?"

"I don't know mam," Nathan shook his head. "You feel better Josiah?"

"I do," he leaned back into the chair he was in and sighed.

"I'll go make you boys some fresh coffee," Nettie carefully moved back out from behind Ezra before heading into the other room.

"You all right Vin?" Buck asked seeing how pale the tracker had become.

"Guess that ride took more out of me than I thought," Vin paused before trying to get comfortable in the chair he was in.

"I wonder how it's going with Ezra?" JD asked unconsciously rubbing his ribs.

"No news is good news," Buck wiped his brow and took a drink of his cold coffee.

"I think when Nate gets a chance he should take a look at that leg," Chris said from the floor. Buck had kept the fire going in the fireplace the cold chill in the air outside was a constant reminder that they needed it.

They all looked up from their various positions to see Nettie come threw the door. She looked weary, pale, and tired. Casey jumped to her feet and grabbed a chair for her Aunt to sit in, "are you okay Aunt Nettie?" Casey asked concerned.

"Heavens by the looks of all of you I must be on deaths door," she chuckled grateful for the chair Casey set aside for her. "Put on a fresh cup of coffee will you girl," Nettie squeezed her niece's hand.

"How's Ezra?" Chris came right out and asked.

Nettie shook her head, "Mr. Jackson got the bullet out but he's worried." She looked in the direction of Vin and noticed he looked pale, without thinking she got to her feet and immediately threw down another bed roll, "you best lay down Vin," she grabbed him by the arm and helped him get to his feet.

"I'm fine Nettie," Vin protested but was ignored.

"Casey come give me a hand, you done got yourself bleeding again Vin," she and Casey got Vin lying down and Nettie immediately threw a blanket over the tracker. Buck had to laugh, the woman treated Vin like a kid and their Vin was acting like one.

"Your fretten over nothing Nettie," Vin tried to move away from her prying hands.

"If I was fretten over nothing Mr. Tanner you wouldn't be looking as pale as a sheet," the older woman argued feeling Vin's forehead for a fever relieved to not find one. "You need some rest, and I won't tolerate you arguing with me."

Buck snickered, that woman had Vin by the throat and there wasn't anything the tracker could do to get out of it. However, Buck didn't think the tracker would do anything to get out of that grasp. The ladies man quietly tried to adjust his arm, he was feeling a bit restrained and didn't like it. He was relieved that the gunshot wound hadn't been worse and even more grateful that the small infection he did have only lasted a few hours thanks to Nathan's great workmanship. JD still looked miserable and the gunslinger knew he felt that way as well. The bruising on his face was now turning a nice shade of yellow. JD kept his arm firmly in place around his busted ribs trying not to cause them to move, he hated feeling like a weak kitten but Casey seemed to make the day go by faster and without as much pain. Buck knew it was only a matter of time before the two young lovebirds got hitched, and truth be told he couldn't be more happy for the kid. JD was his best friend, the kid brother he never had and he wanted to see him happy. Casey was a bright young woman who adored JD, what more could the kid ask for. Buck smiled when Casey helped JD get to his feet.

The sound of a wagon and horses gave everyone in the room a startled jump. Nettie looked out the window surprised to see Samuel from the livery and several other men from town ride up. Josiah came out of the back room with a new determination in his stride and headed outside to find out what was going on. Nettie, Nathan, JD, and Buck all looked out the window while Josiah talked to the men outside.

"We saw Vin come into town, looked pretty torn up. Thought we would come on out here and see if you boys could use some help," Samuel smiled looking down at the exhausted face of Josiah.

"God has blessed our needs today," the big preacher boomed happy to see the help. The group of newcomers were surprised to see Chris and Buck come out of the homestead, both gunslingers looked like they had seen a hundred miles of bad road.

Chris nodded his head toward the men, "Samuel."

"We got word from Eagle Bend," Samuel handed the telegram to Josiah. "They'll send someone tomorrow to pick up the prisoners. Me and the boys thought we would take them into town, save ya'll the trouble."

"You got someone willing to stay with them until tomorrow?" Buck asked.

"Johnny and Davis will," Samuel looked toward the bound group of men tied to Mrs. Wells corral, "by the looks of them they shouldn't be to much trouble."

"Don't underestimate 'em," Chris snapped. "McKinley was behind all this," his voice deep and threatening.

"McKinley?" one of the men questioned. "He came into town yesterday, I thought it was unusual because he never comes to Four Corners. Said something about needing to find you, Chris." Davis said trying to remember what exactly was said between the two.

"What did you tell him?"

"Didn't know where you were so I didn't tell him much of anything other than I would relay the message back to you when I saw you," Davis shifted uncomfortably on his horse.

"Did he say where he would be?" Josiah asked grateful for all of the men's support.

"Sorry," Davis shook his head, "he didn't."

"We'll find him soon enough," Chris stormed back inside; disgusted with the fact the man was still out there.

"I'll help you get these wayward souls put into the wagon," Josiah smiled heading toward the fence. Some of the men were bloody, bruised, and broken, but nobody cared; not after what they had done.

"Thanks boys," Buck yelled watching there form head to the captured men, thankful they now had some help and less to worry about.

Buck followed Chris back inside. He noticed Vin was having the bandage on his leg changed by Nathan. Chris grabbed a chair and looked angrily out the window. JD and Casey were gone; he figured they had gone into the back room. JD was looking as though he could use some rest. Nettie was in her faithful rocker dosing lightly, Nathan had draped a light blanket over her shoulders, Buck had to smile, the woman had done everything in her power to make them comfortable and probably helped save each one of them. "You need me to do something Nate?"

"Could you go sit with Ezra for a bit, I gotta get some sleep," the healer stood up. "Watch him for fever, and if you need something or something happens get me."

"Sure Nate," Buck gave one of his reassuring smiles and headed into the back room.

Nathan threw a thin blanket on the floor and made him self-comfortable, he needed some rest and then he could think more clearly. It only took a few moments before the healer had his eyes closed and was breathing in a slow steady rhythm.

Nettie leaned back in her rocker letting the slow mesmerizing movement distract her from all that had been going on around her. She didn't realize until she sat down how tired she was and even the strong nagging in her head telling her to get to her feet and care for the wounded men around her didn't detour her from her short reprieve. She thought about her niece, the girl had the same spunk as her mother and Nettie secretly admired the young woman for it. She was going to make something out of her life. It wasn't her strong sense of independence or her respect for the land they lived upon, it was more and Nettie was thrilled that her young protégé had met someone who felt and desired to live the same way. There was a strong sense of pride flowing threw her and she couldn't help but smile about it. These men in her home, the home she and her husband worked so hard to build, had filled a void in her life she didn't realize she'd been missing. Vin reminded her in a distant way of herself and because of it she'd adopted him. She was glad he didn't mind and in a way relieved. He showed her a measure of respect that men usually didn't pay her and for that she was thankful, she would do anything for anyone of these men they need only ask. Nettie opened her eyes and noticed the young tracker was dosing, she knew the ride he took had been harder on him than he cared to admit and she was relieved that he seemed to be resting comfortably. Nathan quietly snored, it didn't take him long to get to sleep and the older woman knew he'd worked himself as much as he dared. She admired the dark healer, his past is what helped create the man he was and she couldn't help but think that deep down inside he knew it as well. He came threw hell and back and now had six men who would give their lives for him. She hadn't known many blacks in her day so she never had time to form an opinion about them, good or bad, but she was honored to know the man asleep on her floor. She looked toward the silhouetted form of Chris sitting as still as a hunter could waiting for there pray. A dark past filled that mans soul but because of his friendships or maybe because it was time he seemed to be moving on, she hoped so anyway. "Do you need anything Mr. Larabee?" Nettie asked as quietly as she could not wanting to disturb the others around them.

"No mam, you have done enough for us Mrs. Nettie, I'm not rightly sure how to repay you," Chris looked back at the rocking form understanding why she was asking.

"My husband and I built this house," she smiled, "it ain't much but it's home. When you boys stopped that cattle baron from taking my land you not only saved my home and my ranch you saved me and Casey," she looked Chris in the eye and realized that the cold-hearted gunslinger was as vulnerable as any of them. "You or your men don't owe me anything, except maybe a new set of sheets." Nettie smiled big and leaned her head back on the rocker.

Chris chuckled he truly enjoyed Mrs. Nettie's company and she always had a fresh view on things. Things were starting to eat at the gunslinger, his argument with Ezra, McKinley, and the fact that most of his men were shot, beaten, and exhausted. He was relieved that several men from town had shown up to take care of McKinley's hired killers. Now he just wanted to find McKinley himself.

Josiah entered the small house and stepped closer to the wood stove trying to warm his chilled bones, "Samuel's taken the prisoners back to town," he said just above a whisper not wanting to disturb the two sleeping bodies on the floor. "What are we going to do about McKinley?"

"We should go after him," Chris shook his head, "but not until more of us are able to ride."

"He might be gone by then," Josiah grabbed a chair to sit down. He watched as Chris rubbed his the top of his head in frustration.

"Hell Josiah," Chris leaned back in his chair and looked around the room. Vin had pushed himself to hard to soon and was now suffering from it. Nathan was exhausted, and the gunshot wound to his leg didn't help the situation. Nettie was sleeping in the rocking chair and the hardened gunslinger smiled when Josiah grabbed a blanket to cover her.

"Thank you Casey," she said not opening her eyes, Josiah smiled back to Chris and chuckled lightly.

"I think we should hold off doing anything Chris," the big man grabbed his seat again, "those of us who aren't injured are to exhausted to stay in the saddle for to long." He saw Chris nod his head in understanding.

"I don't want to loose him."

"In a couple days we'll head back out to his ranch and pick him up, Samuel and the boys said they would keep an eye out for him. If we can't find him his face will be on wanted posters all over the place, there ain't no reason to get yourself worked up, we got the ones who caused all the damage." Josiah tried to reason.

"What about the one who hired them?"

"We'll get him in time to."

"We almost lost this time Josiah"

"But we didn't."


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