Since they had gotten back on the trail, Vin's tracks were easy to follow. They moved along close to a rock edge. Chris could see that he was dragging his left foot and that he must have been leaning on the rocks for support because every once in a while, they spotted streaks of blood or a hand print. They could also see that he had fallen a few times. It was clear to all that he couldn't have gotten far in that condition. Chris and Buck almost simultaneously spotted a more ominous sign, fresh mountain lion tracks. The cat was undoubtedly attracted to the smell of blood. They quickened their pace.
As they came around a small bend, the trail opened out into an area with a small stream. They had just fanned out to inspect the area when JD cried out, "There he is! Vin!" and he was off his horse and sprinting toward the tracker. As the others moved to catch up with him, a mountain lion launched at JD from the rocks to the left. The group watched in horror and Buck and Chris tried vainly to clear their guns from their holsters in time. "Crack!" The cat twisted in the air and fell with only a glancing blow to the kid's shoulder just as JD was ducking away from Vin's gun, held in a trembling left hand, and seemingly pointed at his ear. As JD struggled to get out away from the wounded cat, Chris and Buck simultaneously dispatched it.
Vin's shaking increased as he lowered the gun and leaned back. He had been afraid to shoot. He had seen the figures moving in his direction and had heard JD yell. He had only guessed that the blurred, tawny form leaping toward one of the figures was the mountain lion. His vision was so blurred and his arm was so unsteady that he feared he would miss the cat and hit the human figure. When he saw the cat fall, he collapsed, his strength gone.
For a moment, no one moved; all stood staring at the cat and an unharmed JD. They then remembered their mission and as one surged in Vin's direction. JD reached him first.
"Vin! Thank God, you're alive! You saved my life! Vin! Vin, can you hear me?" JD stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the tracker's ghastly condition. He was covered in blood and mud and was deathly white. "Nathan?" JD turned to let the healer in. Chris and Nathan dropped down beside Vin while the others stood back, their faces grim as they each saw the pale and gaunt tracker.
"Vin, come on now, open your eyes. Everything's gonna to be OK. Vin, can you talk to me?" said Nathan as he felt Vin's forehead. He was hot, too hot, his eyes were sunken and his cheeks hollow. "He probably hasn't eaten for days. Josiah, could you get some water?" the healer called back. "Come on Vin, you've got to take a drink," Nathan held Vin's head up and managed to get him to take a swallow.
The eyes opened slowly and Vin tried to determine who was with him; the faces were a blur, but he recognized Nathan's voice. "Hey, Nathan, that you?" he spoke in a whisper.
"Yeah, Vin, it's me. Just take it easy now. I'm going to check you out. Where do you hurt?" asked the healer in his deep gentle voice.
"Chris?" Vin's eyes swung wildly around and settled on the form in black near his shoulder.
"I'm here, Cowboy. Looks like you mighta had a bit of trouble back there on the trail. How're you feeling?" Chris tried to hide the concern from his voice.
When Vin recognized that it was Chris at his side, he opened up, "Been better. Horse fell in a mudslide. I hit my head and I can't see so good." He paused a moment. "Did the cat hurt anyone? I think he's been waiting for me. I heard him a couple of times earlier in the day. Hope I didn't hurt anyone." He was having trouble getting his breath and had to pause again. Although he couldn't distinguish any of the other figures, he was sure that they were there. "I hear Nathan. Is everyone else here? I'm real sorry to cause y'all trouble." It was a long speech for the tracker, and he was fighting for air by the time he finished.
Chris tried to calm him down, while Nathan lifted him to a more upright position to ease his breathing. "Everyone's here and they're all just fine. That was JD who was about to be that cat's dinner. You just relax and let Nathan take care of you." Chris turned to Nathan, his eyes pleading with the healer to give Vin relief. "Nathan, how is he? What's wrong with his breathing? What's wrong with his eyes?"
"I don't know until I can get a better look at him," Nathan face conveyed concern. He could see that Vin had a bluish tinge around his lips, and the healer didn't like the rattling sound he heard every time Vin breathed. "Vin, aside from your head, where else do you hurt?"
Vin was having trouble keeping his eyes open and he heard Nathan as if at a great distance. "Chest is sore; mighta cracked a rib," was all he could get out before he surrendered to the blackness completely.
Nathan continued to check Vin out. He could see that the arm and leg were broken, but the bones didn't seem to have broken the skin. That was good news. He'd seen many a limb lost due to infection after a compound fracture. He'd have to set those, but they weren't urgent. He checked the ribs and found a couple with deep bruises over them; he agreed with Vin's self-diagnosis, but they too weren't threatening the tracker's life. Vin had a deep gash across his abdomen that had clearly bled a lot and needed cleansing and stitches soon. With Josiah's help, he set to work on this injury first. They cleaned up all the other minor cuts and bandaged a pretty good gash on his head. Nathan was worried about the lump on Vin's head and the fact that his vision was apparently affected. He knew that concussions could be serious and that there wasn't anything he could do but keep Vin quiet; it would heal itself, or not.
"As long as he's unconscious maybe we'd better get the arm and leg set. JD, Buck, see what you can find in the way of straight sticks, two about this long for his arm," Nathan held up his hands, "and two about this much longer for the leg. Josiah, Ezra, Chris, I think I'm going to need all of you to help me set these. First, we're going to have to move him a bit to get a better angle. Now be real gentle, we don't want to jostle him any more. Fortunately, the tracker didn't wake up during the setting procedure. When it was done, Ezra had to sit down and take a few deep breaths; the sound of the bones grating over each other as they snapped back into place left all but Nathan feeling a little green.
Soon, Nathan had taken care of what he could and had made Vin as comfortable as possible. They'd gotten his wet clothes off, having to cut one of the boots to free it from his swollen leg, and they had him settled in a bedroll and plenty of blankets. Nathan had arranged Vin with his head and chest elevated a little to help him breath easier. After getting a good fire going as the night descended, the group settled down to an uneasy wait.
Chris sat near Vin and felt helpless. He berated himself for not having started searching for the tracker sooner. He, of course, didn't remind himself that until the horse came in, they didn't know there was trouble, nor would they have known where to look. Yet, it was Chris' nature to blame himself; he felt responsible even for circumstances that were out of his control. He sat as if wishing he could change what had happened, put himself in Vin's place, or will the tracker to wake up. As it was, there was little he could do. He had waited as patiently as he could while Nathan was working on Vin because he didn't want to distract him, and now he turned to the healer for answers. "Is he going to be all right?" he asked when he could contain himself no longer.
Nathan was concerned about the head injury, loss of blood, and the tracker's lungs. From the sounds and the fever, he feared that pneumonia might have set in. He had to be honest, but he also knew that he had to give Chris hope. The others circled close to listen. "I just don't know," Nathan started. "He's got a lot of injuries, but I'm most worried about his head injury and his breathing. I think he might be getting pneumonia. After so much injury to the body, with multiple broken bones, sometimes you see this sort of thing - fever and pneumonia. We've got to watch him closely, try to get some water and broth into him, and sit him up if his breathing gets worse. If he starts tossing and turning, you all are going to have to help me keep him still, because he can makes things much worse if he moves around."
"What do you believe is afflicting his eyes?" Ezra inquired.
"I'm not sure, but it probably has to do with the bump on the head. He's might have some bleeding inside his head and it's putting pressure on areas he needs to see right. It's likely that it will get better with time." Nathan tried to sound hopeful.
"Are you saying that it might not?" Buck jumped in. They all knew that Vin's way of life, as a tracker, hunter, sharpshooter, depended on keen eyesight. They couldn't imagine what would happen to him if he didn't have that anymore.
"Now don't go jumping to conclusions. I didn't say that," Nathan remonstrated. "It's just too soon to tell. Right now, the important thing is getting him through this night. He's in a bad way. If his fever and breathing get any worse, he could. Well, we just need to get him through the night. I think maybe a little praying wouldn't hurt." He turned to Josiah, who nodded his head.
"Have faith, my friend. The good Lord has seen fit to watch over our friend many times before. I think he'll be willing to do it again." The ex-preacher thought that he would indeed turn his attention to some fervent prayer. The only times he had heard men making the rattling and wheezing sounds that Vin was making, it had not turned out well. He simply could not, would not, accept that Vin might not survive. He had to believe that the good Lord had allowed them to find him in time; to allow them to find him alive, only to have him die right away was too cruel.
None of them slept much that night. Against the background sound of Vin's labored breathing, they alternately watched the tracker or each other, everyone absorbed in thoughts of what losing Vin might do to them as individuals and as a group. Inevitably, they each settled on contemplating Chris, because each had concluded that Chris might not survive such a loss, at least his spirit would not. The bond between the two was so strong that the others feared if Vin died, Chris would sink into a depression from which he would never recover. Buck, who had been Chris' best friend for years and had watched him after his wife and son were killed, was the most fearful. Despite their long friendship, he had been unable to pull Chris out of his depression; only Vin had been able to do that. Buck didn't really understand it, but he knew that the two had a close bond and that Vin's survival was essential for Chris' survival, and hence that of the group. He was sure that without Vin, the seven would not just go to six, their fellowship would dissipate entirely.
Chris watched Vin hour after hour. He hadn't intended to get so emotionally tied to others ever again. Now, he had done it with these six men, but none more tightly than to the one before him. He couldn't face the thought of losing him. <Damn you, Vin. Why do you do this to yourself? Why do you have to be so independent that you almost kill yourself?> Even as these thoughts circled, he knew that Vin's independence was part of what he was. Chris really didn't want to change him. He had to remind himself that accidents happened to people who stayed in towns, as well. The big difference was that help was a lot closer in town. If he'd been with Vin, he could have helped him right away, and the tracker probably wouldn't have ended up this deathly ill.
"How long ago do you think this happened to him, Nathan?" Chris turned to the healer.
Nathan responded soberly, "I can't be sure, but from the look of that gash across his abdomen and the feel of those bones as we reset them, it had to have been a few days. His horse showed up almost three days ago. How long do you think it took him to get to Four Corners from here?"
Chris didn't like the conclusion. "He must have been out here hurt for four or five days! Goddamn it, I should have started sooner. He wouldn't be like this if I had!"
Josiah had been listening, "Chris, this is not your fault! Vin had an accident. You know he needs time alone now and then; things sometimes happen. We can only imagine what he went through. But take heart from it. He's strong. He managed to get himself patched up and climb that hill with a broken arm and leg. He was able to get himself to this stream, and he even protected JD from that mountain lion when he was so sick he could hardly hold his head up. Vin is a fighter and he is not going to let go easily."
"I must concur with Mr. Sanchez. The odds of Mr. Tanner having accomplished any one of the things that he did were so overwhelmingly against him, that he completely defies all the rules for placing odds on his current circumstances," interjected Ezra. Ezra found that he was having a disturbing reaction to the situation. He, who had always watched out for only number one and who didn't takes risks if the odds were not suitably in his favor, felt fear for another's life. This kind of emotion was foreign to the con man, and he didn't know how to manage the fear of losing a friend. Friend, a new word for Ezra, yet, next to Chris, Ezra had probably developed the closest friendship with Vin. It made no sense; they were so different outwardly and came from such different backgrounds. However, that was the superficial appearance. Inside, they had much in common. Over time, they had developed a respect for each other that had evolved into abiding friendship. Ezra knew the odds did not currently favor the tracker, and he hated himself for even thinking of the odds. He wanted desperately for the Vin to live; he could not let himself pay attention to the odds. He, like Chris, wanted to believe completely illogically that he could will Vin to get better because he needed him to.
Vin had a very rough night. His fever and breathing worsened. Several times, Nathan had Chris and Ezra arrange themselves behind Vin to hold him almost sitting upright to ease his labored breathing. Their anxiety worsened to the point of despair as they listened to him. He had to work so hard to draw air that they feared each time the next breath would not come. On several occasions during the night, Vin began to thrash in delirium. At these times, they all took turns holding him down. Even Buck and Josiah who outweighed the tracker by a good bit, were amazed at the strength he displayed and how difficult it was to hold him still. JD focused on the assignment of sponging cool water on Vin to try to control the fever, and Chris, Ezra, and Nathan had to work together to get the tracker to drink some water. He fought them all as if they were representatives of the Devil himself, come to haul him off to Hell!
Chris never left Vin. Even though every ragged, wheezing breath tore at him like a claw, he stayed, intensely focused on watching the tracker for signs of improvement. In the cold, dark hours of the very early morning, Vin's breathing worsened again and he started gasping for air like a man drowning. Chris, Ezra, and Nathan did everything they could to reposition him to improve his breathing, but nothing seemed to work. Buck, JD, Josiah watched helplessly. Nathan looked up once to catch the preacher looking at him, his eyes questioning. Josiah had never seen Nathan look so discouraged as he shook his head. Neither said anything to Chris, who didn't take his eyes from Vin for a minute. Josiah began to prepare for the worst.
Yet somehow, Vin kept taking breath after breath. By dawn, they were all exhausted and emotionally drained. They were afraid to look, but at the same time could not look away, as they expected each breath to be his last. Slowly, as they watched, the realization sank in that he sounded a little better and wasn't struggling quite so much to breathe. Nathan leaned closer and found that his fever had lessened and his color was better, still pale, but without the blue hues. The rattling in his lungs continued, but the desperate gasping had eased.
They all looked at Nathan, not daring to voice the hope. "I think maybe he's over the worst of it," he offered cautiously. "He's still not out of the woods, but I think he's turned the corner," he continued. "Look, we're all beat and still have a long day ahead of us. He's still in for some bad times. Maybe, you should take turns getting some rest. I'm going to have to watch him constantly and I could use some help, but we'll all be useless if we don't start getting some sleep."
Relief settled on the group. Nathan was their healer and they trusted implicitly in his skill and judgment. If he believed Vin would get better, the others knew that he would. While most of them couldn't wind down enough to sleep quite yet, JD had only to lean back, close his eyes, and he drifted off. The others took turns resting and watching Vin throughout the day, but as Nathan had promised, he continued to look and sound better as the day wore on. The others rested some and helped Nathan when it was their turn. Ezra, his anxiety eased, turned to the task of removing the mud from his clothing, a futile effort. Buck, JD, and Josiah went to see what they could produce in the way of a rabbit to stew. The only one who remained unable to relax was Chris. He couldn't rest until he'd spoken to Vin and was sure he was all right. Although the tracker appeared to wake up a few times during the day, his eyes wandered, unfocused, and he only stayed awake long enough for Nathan to give him a little water or broth.
That night, they still took turns keeping vigil, and Vin had a few spells when his fever spiked and his breathing deteriorate again. When this happened, they sponged him to cool him and several of them would work together to shift him upright until his breathing eased. The second night was not as terrifying as the first and by morning, Vin was resting much more peacefully. Still, he didn't really regain consciousness until halfway through the day.
Chris, hadn't slept, but sat silently head in hands, waiting. "Guess I messed up, Cowboy." The comment was so soft Chris almost believed he was hearing things, but as he looked over at the still form, Vin's eyes were open and staring vaguely in his direction. He moved quickly to the tracker's side.
"Well, hell, when are you going to learn to quit wandering off where I can't watch out for you?" Chris admonished, smiling. "So, how're you feeling?"
"I'm OK. I guess I ache a little here and there." He shifted and gasped at the pain; Vin never was one to complain.
Nathan had moved over when he heard Chris talking to Vin, and he quickly helped the tracker with some water. "Vin, come on now. You're not OK. Now tell me what hurts so I can help you out."
Vin's face took on a wry grin. "That you, Nathan? I could more easily tell you what doesn't hurt. I think my left hand doesn't hurt." The others, who had all gotten interested when they realized Vin was awake, laughed with relief at this. At least, Vin's sense of humor was intact.
Nathan sobered up a bit, "What about your head, Vin? Does your head hurt much?"
"Yeah, it hurts." He reached up to rub his eyes. "I can't see right; you're all blurry," he said as he kept trying to rub away the film clouding his vision. They could hear the edge of fear in his voice.
Nathan gently pulled his hand away. "Don't worry. I think that will go away in a day or two," Nathan spoke with confidence for Vin's sake, but the others could see the look of uncertainty. "Vin, do you think you can eat something?" Nathan continued, changing the subject. "We got some rabbit stew."
"I guess I am a little hungry. Don't remember when I last ate." For the first time in days, the offer of food appealed to the tracker. He managed a couple of bites before his eyelids once again got heavy and he drifted off.
"How come he's so sleepy?" asked Buck. "It's not because of his head, is it?"
"That might be part of it," Nathan responded, "but I think it's mostly 'cause his body is plumb tuckered out and has some making up to do. He'll probably be like this for at least a couple of days more." Nathan paused and looked more sober. "When he wakes up next, I've got to get him to cough." They all looked puzzled. "He's got to start clearing out his lungs. He's so weak, it's going to exhaust him, and because of those cracked ribs, it's going to hurt like hell. But he's got to do it, or the breathing problems could start all over again. It's not going to be pleasant; he's bound to fight it."
When Vin next showed signs of waking, Nathan got Buck and Josiah to help him sit the tracker up, as Chris had finally dozed off. Then the Nathan encouraged the tracker to take a deep breath, which the healer knew was likely to induce some coughing. It worked, almost too well and Vin doubled over in a paroxysm of coughing. Chris awakened, horrified at the sound and sight. "Nathan, what the hell are you doing to him? You're killing him!" he pulled the healer away and put his hands on Vin's shoulders, as if he could stop the fit. Vin desperately clutched Chris' arm and he coughed and gagged. "It hurts. can't breathe," he gasped. Chris looked to Nathan, willing him to make it stop. When the episode finally died down, Vin gulped for air, and collapsed exhausted against Buck and Josiah, who let him down gently.
Nathan felt awful for having to make Vin go through this. "Chris, I know it sounds horrible, but believe me, we have to make him do this. He can't get better until he clears his lungs, and there is no other way. Chris, you've got to help me with this. He's going to have learned after this first episode and he's probably going to refuse, because it hurts so bad."
For the rest of that day and through the next night, they took turns watching Vin in threesomes, giving water and broth into him, sitting him up, and getting him to cough every few hours. A couple of times, the coughing attacks were so forceful that the tracker threw up the meager contents of his stomach. He fought them all, "No, I won't!" or sometimes would only make a feeble attempt at a cough before he would close his eyes and drift off again. Nathan and Chris were the most effective as they devised a few tricks, even tapping on his sore ribs, to get him to do a quick intake of air, which sometimes would set off the coughing. By morning, Nathan determined that Vin's lungs sounded clearer, but by that time the tracker was truly angry with everyone. "No more! Quit. torturing. me!" he rasped. "Leave. me. alone!"
"Vin, it's OK now. We're not going to do anymore. You can rest now," said Nathan in soothing tones, as he and Chris tried to shift the tracker to make him more comfortable.
"Get. away!" Vin was not mollified. For a few hours, they thought it best to just let him sleep.
When he awoke next, he rolled away when Nathan or Chris spoke to him, and he feebly fended off their attempts to give him water. "Leave me be! Don't want any! Don't touch me!" he gasped.
Chris looked worried and Nathan sighed. "He'll be OK. He's mad because we hurt him and he doesn't understand that we had to make him cough. Maybe he'll take some water from Josiah."
They both backed away and let the preacher come in. Josiah spoke to Vin in his deep, soothing tones. "I won't touch you Vin, if you don't want. But aren't you getting a little thirsty? You just nod if you want some water. I'll be right here." Josiah sat quietly and waited.
After a short while, "I could use some water," Vin whispered warily. He couldn't see that Chris was the one who lifted him up a little while Josiah gave him the water, talking quietly at he did so that the tracker would not become agitated again.
Later that evening, while Vin was dozing again, Nathan gave the group his appraisal. "He's getting steadily better. I don't think we need to force him to cough anymore; he'll do some on his own anyway." They gave out a collective sigh; they had all hated the feeling that they were cruelly torturing their friend and adding to his misery. "He'll probably continue to sleep a lot; I think his injuries are healed enough that we can take him back to town on a travois."
Everyone was feeling decidedly more light-hearted. As the group conversation and bantering began, Nathan and Josiah both noticed that Chris was even more quiet and withdrawn than usual. They moved over to him. "Chris, he's not going to stay mad at you. He was just lashing out because of the pain and because he feels so weak and helpless," Nathan wished he could make Chris understand that Vin's reaction to them had been perfectly normal and was very temporary.
"He's right, Chris. Vin needs your support even though he doesn't sound like it right now. He's scared and he hates being a burden. He's embarrassed for you to see him like this. Don't pull away when he needs you the most," counseled Josiah.
The next day they fashioned a travois and attached it to Josiah's horse, the strongest and calmest. Buck and Josiah, with Nathan hovering and giving orders, got him positioned as comfortably as possible. "Vin, I'm gonna ride right beside you. If you hurt or need anything, you just speak out or wave your hand," Nathan told him.
After they moved along the trail for a short while, Vin raised his hand. Nathan called to Josiah to pull up his horse and he hopped down beside Vin. "Nathan, is Chris around? I need to talk to him."
Nathan beckoned to Chris who dismounted and approached the travois. "I'm here, Vin."
"Sorry I got angry. Wasn't your fault. I wasn't thinking straight. Just wanted the pain to stop," the tracker said quietly, having trouble getting enough breath. He paused, then went on, "I hate causing you all this trouble, but I'm getting kind of disoriented down here. I still can't see well, but I think I could see you and that big black of yours." Again, a pause to catch his breath. "Maybe you could ride back here. It'll help me focus and keep from getting dizzy."
Josiah and Nathan exchanged looks as Chris visibly relaxed and said, "No problem. Glad to help."
Nathan's predictions about Vin's recovery were pretty well on target. Even after they got the tracker settled in Nathan's room at the boarding house, he slept most of the time. However, the time spent awake gradually got longer and longer, and the others enjoyed stopping by to visit and entertain him with their stories. Buck and JD seemed to have a never-ending stream of misadventures. Vin began to suspect that they were inventing them for his sake. His fever did not return and after a few days, his lungs were clear. As his health improved, his impatience grew.
"How long am I going to have to lie around here like a blind cripple?" he demanded of Nathan.
The healer sighed. This was going to get difficult. Both the arm and leg were healing well. The arm was only a minor limitation, but it would be weeks before Vin's leg would be ready to support him. As nearly as Nathan could tell, Vin's eyes were clearing slowly, but much too slow for the tracker. "It hasn't been long. Your body needs time to heal. Vin, you've got to be patient. Promise me you won't do anything foolish. If you do, we'll make you start coughing again; that'll slow you down!"
Chris walked in one day to find Vin up and trying to hop around with the aid of a crutch. He could hardly keep his balance and appeared to have knocked over most of the furniture, as he still hadn't recovered his normal sight. "Howdy, Vin. Does Nathan know that you're up?"
"He said I could try this out some," said Vin as he knocked over a small table. Chris' mouth hooked upward in a slight grin; he suspected that this was not what Nathan had had in mind.
"Maybe you should try this out in the hallway. There's no furniture to bump into," suggested Chris diplomatically. Vin eagerly moved toward the door. He hobbled up the hallway. Chris was just beginning to regret his suggestion when Vin lost his balanced and swayed wildly toward the banister. Chris jumped just quickly enough to prevent Vin from flipping himself over and onto the floor below.
"Whoa, now! I think maybe that's enough," he said as he steered the tracker back into the room, glad that Nathan hadn't witnessed this little outing.
The tracker collapsed into a chair that Chris had righted for him and was quiet for a few moments. "I'm not sure I can stand this any longer. Nathan says my eyes will get better, but it's been a couple of weeks, and I still can't see clear. Suppose this is it; suppose this is as good as it gets. What good will I be to anyone? What would I do?" Chris could hear the edge of fear in Vin's voice.
"Trust Nathan," urged Chris. "He's always been honest with us. He wouldn't tell you it was going to get better if he didn't really believe it. He probably just can't tell exactly how long it will take. You're going to have to be patient, and you're going to have to stop breaking up Nathan's room."
"I see Vin's getting up with a crutch," Chris commented to Nathan later that evening in the saloon.
The healer rolled his eyes. "He's about ready to explode," he told Chris. "He's trying to hop around, and he's bashing into things 'cause he's still not seeing clearly. I know him; he's going to do something really stupid and hurt himself!"
"Are you sure his eyes are going to be OK?" Chris asked, worried.
"Yeah, I'm sure. Every day they get a little better." Nathan calmed his fears. "He just wants to see perfectly now, and it'll take a little more time. I think in another week, he'll probably forget he ever had a problem. But how are we going to manage him until then?"
"I know he can't walk on that leg, but is there any reason he can't sit on a horse?" asked Chris.
"Well, aside from the fact that he might get knocked off by the first low-hanging branch he comes to, no," replied Nathan. Then, his eyes widened as he turned to look directly at Chris. "You're not suggesting I let him ride out of here, are you?" he asked horrified.
"Yes, I am, but not alone. I'll take him out. I need to give him a talking to about his wandering urges anyway," replied Chris.
Josiah, who had come up in time to hear the last part of the conversation, nodded. "Sounds to me like just what the doctor ordered." Nathan threw up his hands in defeat.
Next morning, Chris entered Vin's room, tossed him his pants, jacket, and one boot and said, "Get dressed. We're breaking out of here!"
Vin was stunned but did his best to obey. He needed some help to get the pants over the broken leg and to get the boot on his right foot. When he was ready, Buck appeared laughing and he and Chris helped Vin hop downstairs and outside to where JD was waiting with a horse. "Your horse is going to be fine, but he's not quite ready to go out yet. He's still a little lame," JD told him. "Me, too," muttered Vin. Chris and Buck boosted him up on the offside of the horse so that they could help him swing the injured left leg over first. Josiah position himself strategically on the horse's nearside to ensure that Vin didn't swing right over the saddle and onto the ground on other side. After they all fussed to adjust the left leg so that it was comfortable and that Vin was reasonably well balanced in the saddle, the tracker picked up the reins and headed out of town, Chris beside him. They left Ezra and Josiah to calm a very nervous Nathan, who was regretting his acquiescence to this plan.
They rode in companionable silence for a long time. Even though he couldn't see well and would have fallen off if the horse had moved faster than a walk, Vin was enjoying the feeling of freedom. Chris understood this and let Vin savor the moment. He was so glad to have him alive that he was having a difficult time bringing himself to scold his friend. He needn't have worried. After a while, Vin spoke, "I guess I've been feeling pretty sorry for myself and taking it out on all of you, especially Nathan." He paused, "Look, Chris, I'm sorry for the trouble I caused all of you. I should have been more careful and I should have let you know where I was going. I thought it was enough to let you know that I was going, not where." He waited a moment for a response, then went on, "I'm used to taking care of myself. I never imagined that I could get hurt so bad that I couldn't. I don't ever want to burden you and the others like that again. Y'all have enough to watch over without having to worry about me." He paused again. "I'm real sorry."
Chris nodded but made no comment.
"I just can't help myself; I have to get away from time to time or I'll go crazy!" Vin was really beginning to feel guilty. He knew that the six had gone through a lot for him, first worrying and searching for him for days, and then taking turns caring for him. He wished Chris would chew him out. This was torture. "I have to ride out now and then, but I'll let you know where I'm headed, and I swear I won't go for more than two or three days."
Again, Chris just nodded, promise made, promise accepted. He knew Vin would do his best. He also knew that no matter what Vin did, they would accept him. He was one of them and they took the good with the bad. Even if he stuck to his promise, they would worry and that was something they all would live with. Their friendship was worth it.
"Thanks for bringing me out here," said Vin quietly. "I guess I'm feeling kind of tired; maybe we should head back now." Chris nodded again, and they turned back to Four Corners.
"Did you give him the lecture on wandering?" asked Nathan later after Chris and Josiah had gotten Vin back upstairs and he'd promptly fallen asleep.
"Pretty much," said Chris. Then he added, "He'll be better, and he's real sorry he's been giving you such a hard time."
For the next week, they took turns riding out with Vin. Within a week, as Nathan had promised, the tracker's eyesight was just about back to normal. The leg wasn't, but he'd learned to manage with the crutch and could get on and off the horse by himself.
A little over a month later, he was hobbling on the leg without the splint and the arm was almost back to normal use, albeit a little weak. Chris could see it coming; despite the daily rides, Vin was getting tense. One morning Vin announced, "I'm going to be gone for a couple of days. I'll be in the Clear River area," he stopped and added, "for certain." He waited for the protest, but it didn't come. Chris didn't show his worry as he watched him ride out of town.
That evening, Chris had to listen to a host of complaints from the others for letting Vin go, but Chris just let them go on and didn't react. Two days later, "Vin's back," JD called. Chris just smiled as Josiah and Nathan moved forward to help a very tired Vin off his horse and upstairs to rest. Chris was pleased; the arrangement was working fine. This amount of worrying he could deal with.
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