If Memory Serves

by Heather Hillsden

Part Three

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 Vin’s 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 Buck’s 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 gambler’s shoulders warmly.

"Ezra – thank God!"

Ezra was startled by Buck’s enthusiastic welcome, and he lowered his head so the other couldn’t 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 wasn’t 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 healer’s shoulder and steered him towards the cabin. "I don’t 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 Nathan’s 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.

"I’ll live, but Vin…" Larabee’s voice trailed off as Nathan brushed past him and settled on the edge of the bed, placing his medical bag on the chair.

"I’ll 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 Vin’s 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 Texan’s 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 tracker’s side. Carefully pulling back the dressing, his sensitive fingers felt all around the area, watching the Texan’s 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.

"It’s a sleeping draught so’s Vin won’t wake while I take that bullet out. Now, can you lift his head a little?"

Chris slipped his right arm under the Texan’s 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 tracker’s 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 they’ll 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 healer’s satisfaction, then he cleared the table and dragged it across the room, until it was in the centre of the pool of light.

"How’s 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 tracker’s shoulders.

"Let me," he told his friend softly. "You can’t manage with just one good arm."

Chris nodded and stepped back as Buck slid his hands under the Texan’s arms and Ezra took his feet. Nathan slipped his hand beneath Vin’s 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 Vin’s 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 Vin’s 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. "There’s no infection as far as I can see."

"That was Buck’s 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. I’m just glad you didn’t start digging around for the bullet."

With his head bowed in concentration over the Texan’s still form, Nathan didn’t 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 bullet’s in deep," he said. "It’s 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?"

"No. Why?"

"Good. That means the bullet hasn’t actually touched his lung." Nathan was obviously relieved, and his next words made Chris shiver. "If you’d 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 he’s gonna feel this!"

Buck dropped his hands onto Vin’s shoulders, his fingers resting firmly against the curve of his neck, as Ezra grasped his ankles.

"Okay, Nathan. We’re 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 gunslinger’s face. "I’ll need your help afterwards, though."

Larabee’s eyes glittered dangerously for a moment. He hated being patronised, and that’s 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 didn’t want that, not when Vin needed Nathan’s 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.

"How’s he doing?"

Nathan Jackson’s question almost startled the gunslinger out of the routine he had fallen into – bathing Vin’s forehead and sponging his neck and chest - and he looked up from his seat at the tracker’s 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 Texan’s 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 doesn’t he wake up, Nathan?"

The healer pursed his lips.

"I’ve 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 ain’t gonna happen," Chris told him, vehemently.

"Maybe not. This boy’s got sand to burn. If anyone can come out of it, Vin can."

The healer didn’t 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 Vin’s 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.

"Thanks, partner."

Now the ladies man looked hard at Chris, hearing the weariness in his voice and seeing the exhaustion etched on his face.

"Why don’t you get some rest," he said gently. "One of us’ll sit with Vin."

Chris started to shake his head, then suddenly thrust the cup at his friend. Buck had barely taken it from Larabee’s 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 healer’s concerned eyes.

"Since this morning," he admitted reluctantly. "But not so bad."

"What’s wrong?" Buck asked.

"D’you 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 I’ve forgotten?"

Chris lowered his gaze and shook his head slowly, his lack of protest a real indication of how rough he felt.

"Chris, you’re 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 I’d help him, partner."

Chris glared at Buck for a moment, and then he nodded in resignation.

"Okay. I know when I’m beat." He rose stiffly from the chair, shaking off the hand Buck rested on his shoulder. "It’s alright, I’m 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 he’s 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 didn’t he wouldn’t 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 you’ll 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 Buck’s mouth water, and he was the first into a chair. "Gee, Ezra, that smells great! You’ll make someone a real fine wife someday."

The gambler sniffed disdainfully at Buck’s comment, but chose to ignore it.

"Thanks, Ezra," Nathan said, glancing at him curiously; he wasn’t 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 don’t," 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."

"What’s 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 Vin’s 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 Texan’s brow, and a flurry of emotions crossed his face.

"What? Is he okay?"

"He’s more than okay," Nathan replied, relief in his voice. "His fever’s broke."

"Thank the Lord!" Ezra breathed, as Vin stirred again, his eyelids fluttering. Nathan laid his fingers against the tracker’s cheek; the Texan’s 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 tracker’s trembling shoulders as he was violently sick into the basin Nathan held for him.

"That’s it, boy, just let it go," the healer murmured soothingly, wiping the tracker’s mouth and sweaty face with a damp cloth. As the retching stopped, Ezra glanced at Nathan enquiringly, and the other nodded. "It’s 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, it’s a pleasure to see you back amongst the living."

The gambler’s 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 Texan’s 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, it’s alright. You’re 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 Nathan’s fingers closed about his wrist, forcing his arm down, and Vin’s eyes widened in sudden panic.

"It’s alright. No-one’s 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 wasn’t quite sure where he was. Then he heard Nathan’s 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 – how’re 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 couldn’t ignore Vin’s distress. "What’s going on?"

The healer stepped away from the bed, pulling Chris with him.

"It’s Vin," he stated.

"What about him?" Chris looked over Nathan’s shoulder, watching as Ezra tried to quiet the restless tracker.

"Well, his fever’s broke and he’s awake now."


Nathan scrubbed at his chin, unsure how the gunslinger would take his next comment.

"And… I don’t 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. "It’s something that can happen after a blow to the head."

"How long does it last?"

"I don’t know." The healer caught Larabee’s arm in a vice-like grip. "Chris, remember what I told you - we’re 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. Vin’s 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 Texan’s eyes flew open, and he glanced about wildly.

"Don’t fight me on this, boy. It’s 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.

"It’s 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 tracker’s face, forcing him to look at him.

"Vin, listen to me. It’s 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 you’re 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 McKenna’s 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 tracker’s 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.

"Yeah, Vin?"

"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. You’re 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 Texan’s 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 I’m 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. "You’d better pray you don’t get sick any time soon." He frowned at Chris as the gunslinger wrinkled his nose at the cup and held it away from him. "What’s wrong?"

"It smells awful!"

"Yeah, and probably tastes worse, but it’ll 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 wasn’t too bad, was it?" Nathan didn’t wait for an answer as he reached out and began to unfasten the bandages around the gunslinger’s 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 Nathan’s sensitive fingers found a particularly sensitive spot.

"Sorry, Chris," Nathan told him, laying his palm against the gunslinger’s 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. "I’d say you’ve 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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