Ezra had made good time.
Breaking camp almost before first light, the Southerner led them with a pace and accuracy that had surprised Nathan. With Ezra riding Vins black quarter horse, they had pushed their mounts hard, reaching the waterfall by late afternoon. From there the gambler had turned south, following a narrow trail until they reached the line cabin.
As they burst through the trees, Ezra saw Buck leaning against the corral fence, his shoulders slumped and his head down, and his own heart missed a beat.
"Dear Lord no!" he breathed, and he urged the black on faster, Nathan right on his heels. He saw the man at the corral look up and turn as they approached, and he winced when he saw the strain on Bucks face. That strain was lifted when the ladies man saw the two riders, lifted and replaced by sheer relief, and Ezra felt new hope surge through his body.
"Vin " he began tentatively as he slid from the saddle, but Buck silenced him with a weary, but heartfelt smile as he gripped the gamblers shoulders warmly.
"Ezra thank God!"
Ezra was startled by Bucks enthusiastic welcome, and he lowered his head so the other couldnt see the flush of embarrassment on his face. He was still getting used to the bond of friendship that tied the seven of them together, and he secretly envied the easy relationship that Buck seemed to have with Chris and Vin in particular. Now it appeared that he was being included in that elite little circle, and it pleased him more than he could say.
"Vin?" he asked again.
"Hanging on, my friend, hanging on," Buck informed him.
Nathan frowned as he dismounted and unhooked his medical bag from the saddle. He wasnt used to seeing the gambler speechless and so completely embarrassed, and he filed the moment away for future use. Before he could take another step Buck had released a bemused Ezra, and turned a worried face to him.
"Nathan, you have no idea how glad I am to see you." There was a wealth of emotion in his voice as he dropped a hand on the healers shoulder and steered him towards the cabin. "I dont know how much longer Vin can last."
Chris was on his feet when they entered. He had heard the approaching horses and guessed that help was finally at hand. Stepping forward he gripped Nathans hand warmly, the strength of his grasp telling the healer more than words ever could how relieved he was.
"Chris, how you doing?" He ran his gaze over the gunslinger, making a mental note of all the bruises and abrasions and the strapping around his ribs.
"Ill live, but Vin " Larabees voice trailed off as Nathan brushed past him and settled on the edge of the bed, placing his medical bag on the chair.
"Ill go help Ezra with the horses," Buck said, tapping Chris lightly on the shoulder. The gunslinger nodded absently, then looked on in silence as the healer set to work.
Nathan opened his bag and pulled out his stethoscope. Placing it on Vins chest he listened to his heartbeat for a moment, then he moved it further down, frowning a little at what he heard. Chris saw his worried expression and watched anxiously as the healer returned the stethoscope to the bag and continued his examination. Unwrapping the bandage around the Texans head, he sucked in a sharp breath when he saw the raw, angry furrow just above his eye.
"Has he woken up at all?" the healer asked without looking up. He knew Chris was hovering, desperate to hear any news.
"No, not really. Just stirred a bit."
Nathan nodded in acknowledgement, then turned his attention to the bullet wound in the trackers side. Carefully pulling back the dressing, his sensitive fingers felt all around the area, watching the Texans reaction as he probed and prodded. After a minute he sat back and pulled a small pouch from his bag.
"I need some water about half an inch in the bottom of a cup," Nathan told Chris, measuring it out with his fingers.
"What's that for?" Larabee asked as he collected a cup from the table, rinsed it out and brought the water back to Nathan. The healer dropped a small pinch of powder from the pouch into the water and swirled it around.
"Its a sleeping draught sos Vin wont wake while I take that bullet out. Now, can you lift his head a little?"
Chris slipped his right arm under the Texans shoulders, raising him up as Nathan held the mug to his lips. Vin shifted and groaned, trying to turn his head away, but the healer was having none of that as he grasped his chin firmly, finding the pressure point and forcing his jaws open. Trickling some of the liquid between his lips, he massaged the trackers throat, causing him to swallow involuntarily. Nathan repeated the process until Vin had drunk every drop of the potion he had prepared.
The Texan now lay completely limp against Chris arm, and the gunslinger eased him back down, watching as Nathan lifted each slack eyelid in turn to satisfy himself that the draught had had the desired effect.
"What now?" Chris asked, but before Nathan could answer the door opened, and Buck and Ezra entered, each carrying an armful of kindling, which they deposited by the stove.
"Just in time," Nathan told them. "Ezra, can you hang a couple of lamps on that rafter there? Turn them up as bright as theyll go. Buck, I want you to move the table underneath them."
"Whatever you say, Nathan."
Buck waited until Ezra had three lamps set up to the healers satisfaction, then he cleared the table and dragged it across the room, until it was in the centre of the pool of light.
"Hows that?" he asked, and Nathan nodded in approval.
"Fine. Now if one of you would give me a hand to move Vin, I can get to work."
All three men moved at once, but Buck gently nudged Chris out of the way as they both went to lift the trackers shoulders.
"Let me," he told his friend softly. "You cant manage with just one good arm."
Chris nodded and stepped back as Buck slid his hands under the Texans arms and Ezra took his feet. Nathan slipped his hand beneath Vins head as they carefully lowered him onto the table.
"Chris my bag."
The gunslinger handed it to him as the dark-skinned man stepped around to the side, and spread his bundle of medical instruments out by Vins thigh. Picking up a pair of scissors, he cut through the bandage holding the dressing in place, and carefully removed the soiled material. The tracker flinched as the cloth pulled at the already forming scab, and Nathan dipped a piece of clean linen into the basin of cooling water that Chris had placed beside Vins head. He bathed the wound until the blood started to ooze from it, then he dabbed it dry with another piece of cloth.
"You did a real fine job keeping this clean," he stated approvingly. "Theres no infection as far as I can see."
"That was Bucks doing," Chris admitted, but the ladies man just shrugged.
"Hell, it was just common sense."
"Common sense or not, it may have saved his life. Im just glad you didnt start digging around for the bullet."
With his head bowed in concentration over the Texans still form, Nathan didnt see the guilty look that passed between Chris and Buck, but Ezra did.
"Why is that, Mr. Jackson?" he asked, when neither of the other two made a comment.
Looking up, Nathan glanced at each man in turn. "The bullets in deep," he said. "Its bust a couple of ribs and settled close to his lung." He glanced sharply at Chris. "He hasn't been coughing up any blood, has he?"
"Good. That means the bullet hasnt actually touched his lung." Nathan was obviously relieved, and his next words made Chris shiver. "If youd gone poking around you could have done more harm than good." He looked at Buck and Ezra. "Alright, gentlemen. I need you to hold him now. He may be asleep, but hes gonna feel this!"
Buck dropped his hands onto Vins shoulders, his fingers resting firmly against the curve of his neck, as Ezra grasped his ankles.
"Okay, Nathan. Were ready," he said as the gambler nodded at him.
"What do you want me to do?" Chris asked, feeling a little superfluous.
"Nothing," Nathan said, then relented when he saw the expression on the gunslingers face. "Ill need your help afterwards, though."
Larabees eyes glittered dangerously for a moment. He hated being patronised, and thats what he believed Nathan was doing, but then he stopped and thought about it. The healer was right; right now he would just be in the way and he didnt want that, not when Vin needed Nathans undivided attention.
Nathan picked up a scalpel, aware of the intense scrutiny behind him, but he ignored it and cut carefully into the wound, pausing briefly as Vin jerked. He took a deep breath and eyed Ezra angrily.
"I said hold him. If he moves and I nick a main artery, he could bleed to death in minutes." His tone was icy as the two men shifted their grip and took a firmer hold. "Thank you. Now, let's do it right this time."
+ + + + + + +
It was well past midnight as Chris Larabee sniffed, and stifled a yawn.
"Hows he doing?"
Nathan Jacksons question almost startled the gunslinger out of the routine he had fallen into bathing Vins forehead and sponging his neck and chest - and he looked up from his seat at the trackers side, where he had been for the last hour or so.
The healer had eventually dug the bullet out, although he had had to go deeper than he'd first thought, but it didn't appear to have hit anything vital. He had cleaned and stitched the wound, and strapped a clean dressing in place, but the bloody furrow on the Texans forehead was too close to his eye to stitch, so Nathan had decided to leave it to heal naturally.
"Still feverish. Still asleep." Chris Larabee removed the cloth from the tracker's forehead, and leaned back with a sigh. His own head was aching, he felt miserable, and he was desperately worried about Vin. "Why doesnt he wake up, Nathan?"
The healer pursed his lips.
"Ive seen this before, Chris," he said slowly. "During the war. I saw soldiers hit in the head, and they were unconscious for days. Sometimes they just woke up by themselves. Other times " He stopped, and Chris felt an icy fist close around his heart.
"What?" he demanded.
Nathan regarded him solemnly.
"Sometimes it was like a living death. They never woke up properly."
"That aint gonna happen," Chris told him, vehemently.
"Maybe not. This boys got sand to burn. If anyone can come out of it, Vin can."
The healer didnt sound entirely convinced, but Larabee was certain. The young Texan was suddenly going to open his eyes, demand to know what was going on, and everything would be okay. There could be no other outcome.
Chris continued with his ministrations, repositioning the damp cloth across Vins brow and gently brushing the matted hair back from the gouge above his eye. He looked across the room; Buck was pouring coffee into cups while Ezra stirred a pot of something on the stove. Little snippets of their conversation drifted across to him.
"So how come JD didn't want to ride with you?" the ladies man wanted to know.
"Oh, he did," Nathan interjected. "Despite everything I said."
"So what happened?"
Ezra cleared his throat. "Ah our prestigious peacekeeper found himself incarcerated in his own establishment."
"Eh?" Buck looked puzzled.
Nathan laughed out loud. "Josiah locked him in one of the cells," he explained.
"Whee dogie!" Buck chuckled at the image it conjured up, handing a cup of coffee to Nathan. "I bet that boy was fit to be tied."
"He was not best pleased," the gambler agreed.
Buck was still grinning as he brought coffee over to Chris, but his grin faded as he stared down at Vin. Chris took the cup from him, sipping gratefully at the scalding brew.
Now the ladies man looked hard at Chris, hearing the weariness in his voice and seeing the exhaustion etched on his face.
"Why dont you get some rest," he said gently. "One of usll sit with Vin."
Chris started to shake his head, then suddenly thrust the cup at his friend. Buck had barely taken it from Larabees trembling hand when the gunslinger sneezed violently. As he dabbed at his streaming eyes he felt strong fingers tilt his chin up, and a firm hand was pressed against his forehead.
"How long you been like this?" Nathan demanded.
Chris sniffed again, and gazed into the healers concerned eyes.
"Since this morning," he admitted reluctantly. "But not so bad."
"Whats wrong?" Buck asked.
"Dyou want a list?" Nathan held up his fingers and ticked them off, one by one. "Dislocated shoulder, busted ribs, possible pneumonia, worry, not enough sleep anything Ive forgotten?"
Chris lowered his gaze and shook his head slowly, his lack of protest a real indication of how rough he felt.
"Chris, youre plum wore out! Now are you going to rest, or do I have to force a sleeping draught down your throat, too?" Nathan threatened. "You know I can do it."
"Yeah and Id help him, partner."
Chris glared at Buck for a moment, and then he nodded in resignation.
"Okay. I know when Im beat." He rose stiffly from the chair, shaking off the hand Buck rested on his shoulder. "Its alright, Im not about to fall over yet." There was no malice in his comment, and he gave his friend a wan smile as he dropped onto his bedroll. Curling up on his side he pulled the blanket almost over his head, snuggling down gratefully into the warmth.
Nathan draped another one over the top, and shook his head in amazement.
"Lord help me if I ever meet a man more stubborn than him!" he said with feeling. "Does he think hes the only one who cares about Vin?"
"Probably." Buck glanced across at the already sleeping gunslinger. "He takes everything personal," he told the healer "Always has. If he didnt he wouldnt be Chris Larabee."
"Gentlemen, a moment of your time, if you please."
They turned around just as Ezra deposited two plates of steaming rabbit stew on the table and invited them to eat.
"If youll allow me to sit with our sick friend, then perhaps my culinary skills will not have been in vain."
The appetising aroma that drifted from the plates made Bucks mouth water, and he was the first into a chair. "Gee, Ezra, that smells great! Youll make someone a real fine wife someday."
The gambler sniffed disdainfully at Bucks comment, but chose to ignore it.
"Thanks, Ezra," Nathan said, glancing at him curiously; he wasnt used to the Southerner being so agreeable, but he would be the first to admit that the stew did smell good. "Pay no mind to anything that heathen says."
"Oh, I dont," the gambler informed him, as he settled himself in the chair recently vacated by Chris, and Nathan joined Buck in a very late supper. "If I did, I fear I would have shot myself some time ago."
"Whats a heathen?" the ladies man asked.
"Ask Josiah," Nathan replied, between mouthfuls of stew.
The gambler just smiled to himself.
+ + + + + + +
In the early hours of the morning Vins fever finally broke.
Buck was wrapped in a blanket, snoring on the floor beside Chris, while Nathan slept at the table, his head resting on folded forearms. Ezra was dozing lightly, but he was startled awake as some slight sound broke through his slumber, and his attention was immediately focused on the bed.
"Huh? Vin? Vin can you hear me?"
The tracker was stirring, his hand clutching spasmodically at the blanket beneath him, and his breathing became more ragged as he struggled back to consciousness.
"Ezra?" Nathan was suddenly at his shoulder, reaching down to feel the Texans brow, and a flurry of emotions crossed his face.
"What? Is he okay?"
"Hes more than okay," Nathan replied, relief in his voice. "His fevers broke."
"Thank the Lord!" Ezra breathed, as Vin stirred again, his eyelids fluttering. Nathan laid his fingers against the trackers cheek; the Texans skin was still warm, but the unhealthy heat was gone.
"Ungh!" Vin groaned, slowly forcing his eyes open, then he screwed them shut again as pain hammered through his head. He moaned, swallowing hard and licking at suddenly dry lips as nausea threatened to overwhelm him.
"Quick turn him on his side!" Nathan ordered. The gambler obeyed without hesitation, holding the trackers trembling shoulders as he was violently sick into the basin Nathan held for him.
"Thats it, boy, just let it go," the healer murmured soothingly, wiping the trackers mouth and sweaty face with a damp cloth. As the retching stopped, Ezra glanced at Nathan enquiringly, and the other nodded. "Its okay. Let him rest now."
Ezra eased him back down, allowing a smile to cross his features as Vin carefully cracked one eye open, panting as he tried to focus on the anxious face above him.
"Well, Mr. Tanner, its a pleasure to see you back amongst the living."
The gamblers flippant remark fell flat as Vin continued to stare at him in confusion, and Ezra was shocked to see fear nestling amongst the pain in the blue eyes.
"Who who are you?"
The Texans plaintive question made Ezra sit back in surprise, and for the second time in as many days, Nathan saw him at a loss for words. The gambler turned to him, his mouth open in a silent question, and the dark-skinned man shook his head quickly, his meaning plain.
Leave it to me.
"Vin, its alright. Youre safe."
The tracker screwed up his face in a grimace of pain, breathing heavily as he raised his head to stare down at the bandages covering his body.
"No " he gasped, his hand reaching up to touch the wound above his eye, but Nathans fingers closed about his wrist, forcing his arm down, and Vins eyes widened in sudden panic.
"Its alright. No-ones gonna hurt you," the healer said softly, keeping a firm hold. He risked a quick glance at the gambler. "Ezra, get my bag."
+ + + + + + +
Chris awoke to the sound of muted voices, and for a moment he wasnt quite sure where he was. Then he heard Nathans voice, firm and commanding, trying to sooth a querulous Vin, and he sat up, wincing as his head started to pound.
Throwing back the blankets, he staggered to his feet and stepped carefully over Buck, his attention focussed on the bed and an obviously conscious Vin Tanner.
"Nathan?" He spoke quietly, sensing something was wrong, and the healer turned in his direction.
"Chris howre you feeling?"
"Lousy," the gunslinger replied truthfully. Every part of him ached, and his head felt as though it was stuffed with straw, but he couldnt ignore Vins distress. "Whats going on?"
The healer stepped away from the bed, pulling Chris with him.
"Its Vin," he stated.
"What about him?" Chris looked over Nathans shoulder, watching as Ezra tried to quiet the restless tracker.
"Well, his fevers broke and hes awake now."
Nathan scrubbed at his chin, unsure how the gunslinger would take his next comment.
"And I dont think he knows who we are."
"What?" Chris felt the blood drain from his face, and he stared at the healer in stunned silence. How could Vin not know who they were?
"Amnesia. Loss of memory," Nathan explained. "Its something that can happen after a blow to the head."
"How long does it last?"
"I dont know." The healer caught Larabees arm in a vice-like grip. "Chris, remember what I told you - were lucky we got him back at all."
"I know, Nathan," the gunslinger murmured softly. "I know."
"Mr. Jackson, I would appreciate some help."
Ezra sounded desperate, and Nathan hurried back to the bed, Chris close on his heels. Vins eyes were closed again, but his breath came in shallow gasps as he fought against the pain.
"Take it easy, Vin," Nathan said, reaching into his medical bag and pulling out a small bottle. "I can give you something to ease the pain."
"No!" The Texans eyes flew open, and he glanced about wildly.
"Dont fight me on this, boy. Its for your own good."
Despite his words, Vin became more agitated, and it was all Ezra could do to hold him. Chris tapped Nathan on the shoulder.
"Its laudanum," the healer explained, pouring a few drops into a cup of water. Chris nodded, pushing Nathan aside as he slipped his arm from the sling. Perching on the edge of the bed he placed a hand on either side of the trackers face, forcing him to look at him.
"Vin, listen to me. Its Chris." Hazel eyes caught and held those of azure blue, and Chris saw the fear and suspicion, and the confusion as the Texan tried to remember. "I know youre afraid, but you trusted me once. Trust me now."
Vin held the contact for a little longer, and then he nodded, closing his eyes in resignation. Whatever other memories had been erased by Doug McKennas rifle, the trust that the tracker had instinctively given Chris once before still held, and Larabee breathed a sigh of relief.
"Thanks, Chris." Nathan slipped his arm under the trackers shoulders, lifting his head up and putting the cup to his lips. "Come on, Vin, drink," he coaxed.
Only when the Texan had drunk most of it was Nathan satisfied, settling him back and pulling the blanket up as his eyes started to droop shut. However, before the gunslinger could move away, a hand reached out and gripped his arm.
"C Chris?" The voice was hesitant, unsure, stumbling over a once familiar name.
"Where ? Tascosa?"
Chris glanced at Nathan, realising just how much the tracker had lost. If his query about Tascosa was to be believed, then everything that had happened to him since, including the meeting of the seven, was gone. "No, Vin. Not Tascosa. Youre safe now."
The hand dropped away as Vin gave a small sigh and allowed himself to slip into a deep, healing sleep. Chris smoothed the hair over the Texans forehead, and turned away, stifling a sudden sharp cough.
"I got something for that, too," Nathan told the gunslinger, stepping over to the table and pouring a cup of water from a pitcher, and mixing a honey coloured potion with it. "And Im not taking no for an answer!"
Chris raised one eyebrow at him, and then glanced at Ezra as the gambler laughed softly.
"I do believe Mr. Jackson is enjoying this," the Southerner stated. "Having so many people at his tender mercies."
"I heard that, Ezra," the healer said, a slight edge to his voice as he came back and handed the cup to Chris. "Youd better pray you dont get sick any time soon." He frowned at Chris as the gunslinger wrinkled his nose at the cup and held it away from him. "Whats wrong?"
"It smells awful!"
"Yeah, and probably tastes worse, but itll do you good!"
Chris eyed him suspiciously, and took a cautious sip, finding it surprisingly sweet. He finished it in two gulps and handed the empty cup back to Nathan.
"Well, that wasnt too bad, was it?" Nathan didnt wait for an answer as he reached out and began to unfasten the bandages around the gunslingers chest. "Now, let me take a look at these ribs."
Chris remained where he sat on the edge of the bed, while the healer prodded and pressed. It was most painful where the bruises were darkest, and Chris gasped as Nathans sensitive fingers found a particularly sensitive spot.
"Sorry, Chris," Nathan told him, laying his palm against the gunslingers side and applying firm pressure. "Now, take a deep breath."
Chris obeyed, and then stopped with a hiss of pain as broken bones grated.
"Easy," Nathan said, picking up the bandages and wrapping them back in place. "Id say youve got at least three cracked ribs, but they should mend okay with rest." He emphasised the last two words, knowing full well that he was asking the impossible. The only person who was going to get any real rest over the next few days was Vin, and he suspected some of that would have to be forced upon him.
He shook his head, and a wry grin touched his lips; when it came to recovering from the numerous scrapes they had gotten themselves into, not even the most stubborn mule could hold a candle to his friends.
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