CARELESS by The Tanner Triplets

JD walked out of the jail and surveyed the street. Everything was quiet this early in the morning. He looked up at the clear blue sky and smiled. Today was going to be great. He had been at the jail going through the wanted posters, but decided it was too nice a day to stay inside. The young sheriff went back inside, to emerge a few minutes later with cleaning tools for his guns. He placed everything on one of the barrels and then took off his gunbelt. JD took out his guns and hung the holster over the back of a chair he had pulled over. He carefully emptied the bullets out of the guns and placed them in his pocket before he sat down. He grabbed a cloth and ripped off a small strip and threaded it through a hole in one of the metal rods. Once that was done he slipped the rod down the barrel of his gun and got to work.

Chris Larabee walked out of the restaurant and over to the saloon. He saw JD cleaning his guns in front of the jail across the street. JD waved to him and he nodded to the enthusiastic sheriff. It still surprised Chris how young JD had proven himself to be an important part of the team. The kid had more grit than most men twice his age. The black clad gunslinger stepped onto the boardwalk and took his customary seat in front of the saloon where he had a view of the entire town. Satisfied that everything was quiet, he leaned back and pulled out a cheroot and lit it. His green eyes scanned the street through the smoke.

JD enjoyed sitting in front of the jail and watching the town. Occasionally a pounding could be heard down by the church. Must be Josiah fixing the roof, again, JD figured. He already knew he wouldn't see Buck until much later. The lady's man had had a date last night with Violet and JD doubted that he was even awake yet. Another member of the seven who wouldn't be seen before noon was Ezra. The wily gambler was always up late fleecing someone of their hard-earned cash. JD scanned the street again but everything was still quiet. Mrs. Potter was in front of her store sweeping the walkway. There was no sign of Nathan, but JD wasn't worried. If anything happened he was only up in his clinic reading the new medical book that had come on the stage yesterday.

Leaning back in his chair, he ran the rod down the barrel of his gun. JD watched Chris look up and down the street. He knew Chris would sit there until Vin returned from his night patrol. Sometimes Chris could be a little over-protective of him and the tracker. JD didn't mind that too much. Vin pretended to hate it, but JD kind of suspected he liked the idea that someone cared about him now. He knew Vin had been alone most of his life.Mary Travis was heading up the boardwalk towards her office and stopped to talk to Chris, as she often did. JD wondered if there was something between the two of them, but he wasn't nosy enough to ask.

Quickly losing interest in the pair, he looked down at the cleaning tools on the barrel. One of them was missing, so he placed the gun he was cleaning on the barrel and went inside to look for it.

Billy Travis had been watching JD clean his guns from the alley. He liked JD's guns because they were shiny and new and had fancy white grips. They probably didn't shoot as good as Chris's gun but they sure were pretty. Billy had kept himself hidden, though, because he knew if he approached, JD would put the guns away. Chris had let him shoot once, but then his ma had gotten really mad about it, and now the men wouldn't even show him their guns.

He looked along the street to see if anyone was around. Chris and his mother were busy talking, and the rest of the street was deserted. Billy picked up the gun JD had been cleaning. It was heavier than he thought and he took a tighter grip so he wouldn't drop it. He looked at JD's gunbelt and saw the bullets in the loops around it. Billy decided to give JD a hand and load his gun for him. He pried a bullet out of the loop and pushed it into the chamber. He had watched Chris do it and he remembered how. He was only able to load three bullets when he heard JD coming back out. He quickly put the gun back and disappeared down the alley. Won't JD be surprised, Billy thought.

Vin Tanner let his horse guide itself through the main street of Four Corners. He appeared to be relaxed, but his eyes were always watching, and it always caught his attention when something wasn't right. Down at the other end of the street, little Billy Travis was in front of the jail, and Vin would have sworn the little feller had a gun in his hand. He was riding over to investigate when he saw him put the weapon down and disappear between the jail and the bathhouse. He'd still find out what was going on, maybe talk to the boy about messin' with a gun, but since he wasn't doing it anymore, he decided it could wait. He spotted Chris talking to Mary Travis and decided to go say "hi" to them, first.

JD hadn't been able to find the missing tool, so he began wiping the guns down with a soft cloth at about the same time he saw Vin riding up past the church. Chris nodded to the tracker as he pulled his horse up in front of the saloon. JD gave the gun in his hand a quick glance and spun the chamber, satisfied that it moved smoothly after being cleaned. He practiced twirling the the gun on his finger, stopping it by catching the butt.

"How many times I gotta tell ya not to play with them guns?" Buck asked as he walked up to JD.

"It ain't even loaded," JD complained as he continued to twirl the twin weapons. "Besides I learned my lesson with Miss Annie."

Chris watched JD twirling his guns and frowned. It was a stupid thing to be doing and he figured Buck would say something when he noticed his long time friend walking towards the kid. Turning his attention back to the man in front of him, he asked dryly, "Plan on stayin' in the saddle all day?"

"Hadn't planned on it," Vin smiled and began to dismount.

Chris noticed JD was still twirling his gun and was about to say something to Vin about it when their was a sudden flash from the gun in JD's left hand, followed immediately by the sound of gunfire. In the next horrifying moment, Chris saw Vin stiffen and fall from the saddle. Everything happened so fast that he didn't even have a chance to catch his best friend. The tracker fell sideways off his horse and landed in the dirt next to the water trough. Chris pushed the horse out of the way and knelt next to Vin. He could see a crimson stain spreading on the back of his hide coat. Chris was about to turn him over when Nathan, having heard the shot, appeared on the balcony of his clinic

"Careful Chris," Nathan shouted urgently as he took the stairs two at a time, "Let me check 'im fore you move 'im."

Nathan quickly, but cautiously checked Vin over, to be sure he hadn't damaged anything. He found nothing broken, but he did find a nasty bump on the back of Vin's head. The bullet had entered his left shoulder, below the collarbone, but above the lung area. He gently lifted the Texan's shoulder and cursed softly, "Damn. Ain't no exit wound. Don't look too bad though," he added. Jackson couldn't be sure, but he didn't think the wound was serious. However, he knew that the more time Vin spent bleeding in the street, the more serious the wound would get.

"Let's get him upstairs," Nathan instructed.

Taking hold of Vin's shoulder's, the healer nodded to Chris. The blond gunslinger took hold of Vin's legs and together they lifted the tracker and started to carry him to the clinic.

A pale, panicked JD, followed by a stunned Buck, had reached them by this time. Both men stared numbly at the sight before them. "Chris, I'm sorry," JD said in despair. "I ... I don't know what happened. I unloaded my guns I swear!"

"Just get away from me JD!" Chris snarled angrily, elbowing the boy aside as he helped Nathan carry Vin up to the clinic.

Buck looked at JD, anger and disappointment evident in his frown. "You just had to play, didn't you?" he accused.

"They weren't loaded Buck," JD cried. "I swear it!"

"Tell that to Vin," Buck said quietly, as he followed Chris and Nathan.

JD ran to the side of the building and threw up. This was all his fault. Just like with Annie. If Vin died JD knew the others would hate him forever. The look on Chris's face when he told JD to stay away from him would have told him that much, even if Buck's shove hadn't. JD tried to remember everything that had just happened, trying to make some sense out of it, but all he kept seeing was the bullet from his gun enter Vin's back.

Maybe he hadn't unloaded his weapons...

JD stumbled out of the alley and down to the livery stable. He hid in one of the stalls and cried.

+ + + + + + +

Billy watched everything. He knew he could never tell about the gun. Vin was Chris's favorite and now he was shot because of him. He just wanted everyone to know he was grown up, that he could be responsible, but what he had down was wrong. If Chris found out he would hate him forever. Billy ran to his room at the Clarion and locked the door. He fell onto his bed and cried into the pillow.


Buck ran up the steps ahead of the two men carrying the injured tracker and held the door open for them. By that time, Josiah and Ezra had heard of the shooting and they arrived soon after. All five of them were crowded into the tiny clinic. Nathan hastily ordered the others out, while he boiled some water and rags and Chris undressed his best friend.

In minutes, Vin was stripped and washed and Chris and Nathan had both scrubbed their hands. The healer was passionate about cleanliness. He'd seen a lot of men whose wounds had looked minor go into the field hospital and die out of their heads with fever. He was convinced the filthy conditions that prevailed in those tents was responsible.

+ + + + + + +

What had happened? He was coming back from somewhere, wasn't he? Why did he hurt so much? His shoulder was on fire and he wanted to tell whoever was hitting his head with the sledgehammer to stop. He could hear voices, but he couldn't tell what they were saying. He tried to open his eyes, to see who was there, but he couldn't. His mouth wouldn't work either. Nothing worked! What the hell was going on?! He couldn't move. Anything. His shoulder and his head hurt and he could hear - Chris, it was Chris and Nathan talking, but he couldn't move to let them know. Oh God! What had happened?

+ + + + + + +

Nathan prepared his instruments, grateful that Vin was still unconscious. The tracker had lost some blood and he was gonna lose some more before it was over with but if they could just get the bullet out and not let an infection set in, then Vin would be as good as new in a few weeks. "You ready?" he asked Chris.

"Yes," Chris responded. It was his job to hold Vin still, if it looked like he was going to wake up. Luckily, the sharpshooter was still out of it and looked to stay that way while the cutting was going on.

+ + + + + + +

Vin felt the burning in his shoulder turn to white hot agony and tried to scream. What the hell were Chris and Nathan doing to him? Shit! Oh God! It hurt so bad. He tried to move away from that fire in his shoulder and couldn't. Something was inside him... moving around... tearing at his flesh and scraping against the bone. Oh God please. Somebody make it stop! Vin was nearly hysterical with fear and pain. He couldn't move or speak or open his eyes or do anything to stop the fierce agony in his shoulder. Something was poured onto his shoulder and the fire blazed stronger and finally, mercifully, the blacknesss took him.

+ + + + + + +

"Why don'tcha go on and get somethin' ta eat? I'll sit with Vin 'til you get back," Nathan urged the gunslinger now sitting in his God-awful uncomfortable chair beside the pale figure on the bed. Vin hadn't awakened once and the bullet had come out easily, but he was becoming concerned at his prolonged unconsiousness. He'd been sure Vin would wake up from having the slug removed, but he hadn't even flinched.


Buck was almost too mad to go looking for the kid. Young and reckless were one thing, but downright stupid was harder to forgive. Shooting Annie had been an accident, but showing off with loaded guns even after that terrible tragedy was almost beyond comprehension.

Still, Buck knew the kid hadn't meant to hurt Vin, and he now had to be hurting himself. Having been assured by Nathan that the bullet wound didn't look to be serious, he thought he should at least let the boy know.

He looked at the church - that was where JD had gone after the incident with Annie - but Josiah hadn't seen him. He wasn't at the jail or the saloon, either. It would not have surprised him if the kid had ridden out of town to escape the glares and I-told-you-so's from anyone who knew what had happened - which by now was most of the town.

He headed for the livery, but was stopped at the door by Yosemite, the big hostler. "You lookin' for JD?"

Buck nodded.

The hostler nodded over his shoulder. "He's in there. Can't get him to say nothin' to me, but he's pretty upset."

"He should be," Buck said, more bitterly than he meant to. It was just that he hated seeing Vin hurt like he was, and it made him mad that JD was responsible, after all the times he'd gotten after him about being careful.

"How's Vin?" Yosemite asked.

"Nathan thinks he'll be okay, but that ain't the point, really, is it?"

Yosemite stroked his beard. "Nope. Reckon not. But somebody better talk sense to that boy. He can't hide in the hay forever cryin' his eyes out."

Buck felt his attitude change of its own accord. "He's cryin'?"

"Like a baby. Sayin' he ain't no good an' might as well turn one o' them guns on hisself..."

Buck didn't listen to the rest. He ran into the livery. "JD?" he said as loud as he could without yelling. JD didn't answer him, but he heard him sniffle and followed the sound.

The kid looked miserable, pale and puffy-eyed. He couldn't look Buck in the eye.

"I swear on my mama's grave, Buck, them guns weren't loaded."

Buck sat down beside him, his voice gentle when he spoke. "Then where did that bullet come from JD?" Both of them had seen the puff of gunsmoke as it had left the chamber. There was no denying it had come from JD's gun.

JD looked at him, his big eyes full of pain and confusion. "Buck, I was cleaning them. I took the bullets out. He reached into his pocket and pulled out ten unspent rounds.

"There's only ten here, JD."

JD nodded. "I keep the first chamber empty ever since..." He didn't finish. Maybe because he realized how futile that precaution was. No one knew which of his bullets had hit Annie and killed her. Or maybe he didn't finish because he was afraid Buck would see a lie for what it was. "They weren't loaded," he whispered, turning his head away. "Is Vin dead?"

"No. Nathan thinks he'll be okay."

JD leaned his head back against the wall and squeezed his eyes shut. "Thank you, God," he whispered. Then he turned to Buck again. "Can I see him?"

It suddenly struck Buck as ironic that the one person who would most easily forgive JD would likely be Vin. The tracker didn't seem to carry a lot of the past around with him.

"Chris is with him. I think it's best you stay out of his way for now." He stood up and pulled the younger man up with him. "Go get cleaned up, then lay low for a few hours."

JD nodded. Buck escorted him back to the boarding house, mindful of the suspicious glances cast their way. JD didn't have his guns, and while he was washing up, Buck made sure he didn't have any other weapons in his room. JD was a strong kid, but he also thrived on the approval of the six other men, and now he'd lost that. It wouldn't be too hard for him to get to thinking he had nothing left to live for. Buck was mad as hell at the kid right then, but he knew he couldn't bear it if anything were to happen to him.


Nathan knew Chris Larabee well enough, that he didn't attempt to hide his concern. Chris would see right through him, and besides that, Chris could see for himself that something wasn't right.

At first, Nathan had thought Vin's injury wasn't serious, but his patient had been unconscious for too long now. The bullet hole was clean and the bleeding had stopped on its own. The tracker was breathing easily, so it had missed his lungs and heart and any vessels that would have flooded his chest cavity with blood. By all rights, he should have been sitting up in bed and fighting with them by now, arguing that he was fine - or worse, gotten up of his own accord and left for the saloon.

But it had been five hours since Nathan had dug the slug from his shoulder, and the tracker had not roused. Not once. The injury to his head didn't appear to be anything more than a goose-egg, but Nathan knew head injuries could be deceiving. You could lay a man's head open and have him walk away after you sewed him up, or you could just scarcely more than tap a man in the right spot and he'd drop like a rock and be dead an instant later.

Chris watched, frowning, as Nathan tried again to awaken Vin.

Vin thought he heard voices but couldn't be sure. They sounded like people trying to talk with a gag in their mouth. The words were there, but they were muffled. He couldn't concentrate on them... couldn't think right. Nathan is that you?

"Vin!" he shook him - hard enough that it should have hurt his injured shoulder.

Aw hell Nathan that hurt! Vin tried to scream and panicked when all he could do was moan in pain. What's wrong? Why can't I move?

Nathan's voice was commanding. "Open your eyes, Vin. Time to wake up now..." He gently tapped the sides of the tracker's face. When that didn't work, he pried Vin's eyelids open and turned his face towards the window to see if his pupils would close at the invading brightness of the noonday sun.

No... hurts... Too bright!

The pupils did constrict, but the response was sluggish, and when Nathan released his hold, the blue eyes closed again."VIN!" he said sharply. "Open your eyes! Look at me!"

Vin opened his eyes, but didn't seem able to focus them. "Look at me, Vin," Nathan repeated.

I'm tryin' Nathan! Vin wanted to cry. Why can't I get nothin' to work? Gradually, Vin's gaze turned in the direction of the sound of the healer's voice.

"That's good, Vin... good..." Nathan said, gently patting Vin's uninjured shoulder.

Looking at Chris, Jackson shook his head in consternation. He didn't know how bad this was, and he wasn't sure what to say to their leader.

Chris joined him and sat on the bed beside the tracker, whose eyes were drooping closed again.

"Open your eyes, Vin," Chris said softly. He didn't even need to raise his voice.

Vin couldn't make out the words, but he knew the voice. Chris help me! I don't know what's going on... Vin's eyelids fluttered open again, although he didn't look at Chris.

The gunman looked at Nathan, not attempting to mask his concern. "What's wrong with him, Nathan?" he frowned.

Nathan shook his head and then ran his hand over his short-cropped hair. "He musta hit his head pretty hard when he fell. Ain't nothin' to worry about on the outside, but that don't mean he ain't hurt inside," the dark hands pointed to the large goose egg at the base of Vin's skull.

Chris felt his heart sink to his stomach. He and Nathan had both seen men hurt that way in the war. The lucky ones died. "How bad?" he asked softly, dreading the answer he wasn't sure he wanted to hear.

"Ain't no way to tell," Nathan shook his head, and then turned his attention back to his patient."Vin? Can you hear me?" He took the tracker's hands in his own. "If you can, I want you to do somethin' for me. Squeeze my hands, Vin."

Vin's eyes started closing again. "No, Vin!" Chris barked. "Don't close your eyes. Do what Nathan says. Squeeze his hand!"

Vin could barely hear Chris, but he tried do what he thought he said. He couldn't tell if it was working I'm squeezing it. Nathan, can't you feel it? Why is this so hard?

There was no immediate response to Chris's demand, but then Nathan smiled broadly, as he felt Vin's grip tighten slightly around his fingers. "Well alright Vin," he said gently, nodding at Chris. It wasn't much, but it was a start. The healer set Vin's hands down and then searched his instruments for a needle. He held the business end of it against Vin's left forearm and then poked him, hard.

OW! What the hell was that for!? Vin made a feeble effort to yank his arm away, but he didn't have the strength to even curse or cry out.

Nathan gently rubbed the spot, as if that would erase the pain. "Sorry Vin, I won't do that again."

You better not or I'll shoot you. Vin didn't understand. His shoulder was killing him and he couldn't believe Nathan hadn't given him anything for it. Now he was torturing him by poking him with a sharp object. He just wanted to curl up until the pain went away but he couldn't get his body to obey. What's going on!? What's happening to me?

The healer was calm on the outside, but his heart was racing. This was not good. Not good at all. And he didn't know what to do. Chris had to be feeling even more helpless than he did, though, so for his sake, he gathered his wits about him and decided to do what he could; hope for the best and pray that it worked.

"We need to get some water into him," he told Chris. "See if you can sit him up. Go easy... Mind his shoulder..." Vin wasn't reacting normally to pain, but that didn't mean he couldn't feel it, even like he was. With a sharp stab of guilt, Nathan wondered how long Vin had been hurting. He'd just assumed the tracker was completely unconscious and he hadn't given him anything to ease his pain.

He poured some laudanum, as Chris gently lifted Vin's shoulders off the mattress.

No-no-no Chris! That hurts! Vin tried to struggle in Chris grasp, but nothing happened.

Again, Vin moaned softly, but he was as limp as a doll in Chris's arms.

Nathan put the spoonful of laudanum near Vin's lips. "I got some medicine here for you Vin. It will make the pain better. Open your mouth for me."

Vin tried, but he couldn't think right. Couldn't make anything work like it was supposed to. I can't Nathan! Why can't I open my mouth?!

When Vin didn't respond, Nathan took hold of his chin and pulled his jaw open far enough to get the spoon in. However, Vin made no attempt to swallow the laudanum and it ran out of the corner of his mouth. His eyes were still open, so he hadn't drifted off. He just didn't seem to understand what Nathan wanted him to do.

"We'll try that again," Nathan said patiently, as he cleaned the tracker's face with a washcloth. When he spooned the laudanum in the second time, he moved quickly to hold Vin's mouth closed, hoping he'd swallow it and not inhale it. It took a few seconds, but Vin's reflexes finally took over and the medicine went down.

He repeated the process with a cupful of water, giving him a tiny sip at a time, determined to give him as much as he'd take.

No more, Nathan... too tired... He couldn't even swallow right. Why was that?

Chris sensed that Vin didn't want any more. "I think he's had enough for now, Nathan."

The healer nodded, and directed Chris to lay him back down, and this time, when his eyes closed, they let him rest.

His hands on his hips, Chris began to pace by the side of the bed. "What the hell is going on?" he demanded of Nathan.

Nathan wasn't afraid of Chris Larabee or his anger, but he did fear his own limitations, especially at times like this when he was acutely aware of them. "I don't know," he admitted. "Whack on the head like that might have injured his brain, Chris."

Chris looked horrified, but his voice stayed disarmingly even. "He gonna be okay?"

Again, Nathan felt the pain of his own inadequacy. "I don't know that, either," he responded quietly.

"WELL WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU KNOW!??" Chris snapped.

Vin's eyes fluttered open at the sound and he made a small movement with his good arm. Don't be mad, Chris.

Nathan ignored Chris's outburst. He knew the gunfighter wasn't angry at him. "Not enough," he said sadly, pulling the blanket up around his patient.

Chris stormed out of the room, and that did scare Nathan. Chris Larabee could be a very dangerous man when he was angry, and if anyone got in his way now, there would be hell to pay.


After Chris walked out Nathan turned back to Vin. He was surprised to see Vin had his eyes opened. He walked to the side of the bed and sat down. Picking up the tracker's hand he held it tight and leaned closer to the unresponsive man.

"I ain't sure if you can understand me Vin," Nathan said, "but there ain't no need for you to worry. We'll take care of you no matter what. I'll help you any way I can and we'll get through this together, ya hear? Now close your eyes and get some rest. I ain't gonna leave you alone. I promise."

Nathan watched Vin's vacant blue eyes begin to close. He wasn't sure what he could do for Vin. None of the medical journals he'd read had prepared him for this. At times like this, his lack of training weighed heavily on him and he thought that the town would be better off with a real doctor, although he'd seen enough head injuries that he wasn't sure he'd know the answers even if he was a real doctor. Nathan chastised himself for the thought and stood up. It was time he stopped feeling sorry for himself and got to work. The healer walked over to the shelf containing his medical books and pulled one down. He flipped through the pages until he found what he was looking for. He opened book and sat down in the chair next to Vin. Grasping Vin's hand, he began to read.

+ + + + + + +

Chris stormed out of the clinic and down the stairs. He stopped at the bottom and surveyed the street. A gentle rain had begun to fall and all was quiet. The dark afternoon fit the mood he was in. He was furious with JD for playing with his guns and hoped the kid stayed away from him for a few days.

Chris started walking along the boardwalk. He had no idea where he was heading but he knew he couldn't stay inside. As he walked down the street the new owner of the hotel, Mr. Flannigan, walking out of the general store. When he saw Chris he started walking towards him. "Mr. Larabee," he called. "I'd like a word with you."

Chris really didn't want to talk with anybody right now and continued walking. He heard Flannigan quicken his stride to catch up. Chris knew he couldn't get rid of him and turned to glare at the portly hotel owner. Either Flannigan hadn't been in town long enough to be afraid of Chris, or he didn't recognize the icy rage behind Larabee's glare.

"I want to know what you plan on doing with that reckless young man," Flannigan began pompously. "I understand this is the second time he has accidentally shot someone. I demand something be done."

"You demand?" Chris smiled. "What gives you the right to demand anything?"

"Well I..." Flannigan stammered. He now realized Chris was a dangerous man.

"I suggest you get out of my sight before I do something you will regret," Chris growled.

He watched as Flannigan made a quick retreat towards his hotel. Chris continued his walk down the block. Flanigan was only the first, he knew others would want to know what they were going to do about JD. Chris wasn't sure what should be done, but he knew he couldn't make a decision right now. The only person he was worried about right now was Vin and there was nothing he could do for him. Chrs realized that this was the reason he was so mad. His best friend was lying up there helpless in Nathan's clinic and there was nothing he could do for him. The gunslinger continued walking and trying to come to grips with the fact that Vin could die - or worse, that he might live and never recover.


Mary finished fixing dinner and called Billy. He came out of his room, and sat in his seat, uncharacteristically quiet. Must be worried about Vin, his mother mused.

Sitting in her chair, Mary reached out and took the boy's hand. She noticed he clutched hers tightly, but didn't comment about it. Instead, she squeezed his hand back.

Quickly saying Grace, Mary let go of Billy's hand and tried to reassure him. "Vin's going to be fine. Josiah told me Nathan said he'd be waking up anytime now," she said in a gentle tone.

Billy looked at her with huge liquid eyes and to her surprise ran to his room.

+ + + + + + +

Chris slipped quietly back into the clinic. Nathan had dozed off, his medical book open on his chest. Vin looked like he was still sleeping. Touching Nathan lightly on the shoulder, Chris waited while the healer came all the way awake. Jackson rubbed his tired eyes with the tips of his fingers.

"He's been sleepin' ever since you left," Nathan informed the blond gunslinger.

Chris clapped him on the back and moved to check on his friend. He trusted Nathan implicitly, but he never felt easy when Vin or any of the others were injured, until he heard them grumbling that they were fine and why didn't Nathan quit pokin' on them, for himself. Looking at Vin's too pale face, he couldn't help but think that it would be a long time before Vin grumbled about anything.

+ + + + + + +

JD lay on his bed, eyes staring unseeing at the ceiling. God, the day had started out so great. And now Vin - What would he do if Vin died? Buck had said Vin was gonna be OK, but you could never tell about these things. "Please God, don't let Vin die," JD begged over and over.

+ + + + + + +

Thirsty. Oh God, he was so thirsty. He couldn't open his eyes. He tried to move his head, or his hand. He tried to speak, anything to get Nathan's attention, but no sound came out. Where was Nathan? His eyes finally opened and even though his vision was a blur, he could make out the black clad form of his best friend sitting in that back breaker Nathan called a chair.

Vin tried to speak again, but only a tiny sound, soft as the mew of a newborn kitten came out. It was enough. Chris was up and at his side instantly.

"Hey cowboy," Larabee said gently. "Good to see you." He poured Vin a glass of water from the pitcher on the night stand and eased him up enough to drink it. The older man was heartened to see that Vin was able to swallow the water without Chris having to force his mouth closed. Maybe things were better than they'd appeared earlier that day.

But in the next instant his hopes were dashed. Vin was trying to speak, but nothing but garbled sounds came out.


Billy Travis had waited a long time for his chance.

It was hard because someone stayed with Mr. Vin almost all the time. His ma told him he was okay, but Billy knew she was lying. Chris never smiled when she asked about him, and it had been two days since Vin was shot and he hadn't come out of Nathan's room yet. Not once. Not even to go to the outhouse.

He knew Vin didn't like being inside. He didn't even sleep in a real house. So if he didn't come out, it was because he was sick really bad.

Billy felt the tears coming down his face and tried to blink them back, but there was too many of them. Mr. Nathan had stepped out and quietly closed the door behind him and walked down the stairs. He had been watching everyone come and go all morning, so he knew Mr. Vin was alone now.

He made sure no one was looking and then hurried up the steps to Nathan's room. The door wasn't locked, but he winced when it squeaked as he pushed it open.

Mr. Vin was asleep, and he didn't wake up as he tiptoed to the bed. Maybe he was dead.

No, if he was dead, they would have put him in the ground.

"Mr. Vin?" he whispered.

Vin's eyes opened a little.

What the hell? Who let that kid in here?

"Mr. Vin... I'm sorry!" Billy sobbed. "I was only tryin' to help JD. I shouldn't'a put the bullets in his gun. I shouldn't'a." His shoulders heaved. "My ma told me not to touch guns. I shoulda left ‘em alone. I'm sorry Mr. Vin. I didn't mean for you to get hurt."

Aw hell! A memory flooded back. Little brat was loadin' JD's guns! Shoulda told the kid... Why didn't I stop him?

Billy was crying now.

Get outa here kid. Don't want you seein' me this way.

Vin tried to reach out. He wanted to push Billy back towards the door. He knew he shouldn't be mad at such a little feller, but godammit a man could only take so much. He'd been shot, he knew that. And he'd figured out it was JD who shot him - the kid was the only one who hadn't come by to sit with him. Here he was lyin' there with nothin' workin' and everyone feelin' bad for him all because some stupid brat didn't have the sense God gave a weed.

Billy jumped back when Vin moved. It was scary the way his eyes were open but he wasn't looking at anything, and it was scary that his hand didn't seem to know where to go.

"I'm sorry!" he wailed again, and then ran from the room.

He almost slammed right into Chris, who was carrying a small tray of food. He grabbed his shirt collar. "What the hell you doin' here, Billy?" the gunslinger demanded. The child turned his tear- streaked face up at him and Chris softened. He smoothed the boy's hair gently. "It's okay Billy, we're gonna take good care of Vin."

Billy's lower lip quivered, but he shrugged off Chris's hands and bolted. Chris hadn't realized that youngster was that close to Vin. He made a mental note to talk to him later.

Chris's already somber mood darkened even more when he entered the room and saw Vin was alone. What the hell was Nathan doing leaving him by himself like that? He set the food down on the table beside the bed and sat on the mattress next to his friend.

Vin's blue eyes stared dully from beneath his long lashes. Chris wasn't sure the tracker could even see. God, not his eyes. He only seemed to respond when they raised their voices, so Chris suspected he couldn't hear very well, either. He could only imagine how terrifying that would be. It had to feel like drowning, or being buried alive. He almost wished Vin wasn't aware of his condition, but the tracker knew something was terribly wrong. Sometimes, he'd try to do what they asked him to and a tear or two would roll down his face, letting them know that even simple things were asking too much.

He pulled the young man to a sitting position and propped him against the headboard of the bed. He noticed that the fine, soft linen nightshirt he was wearing had Ezra's initials monogrammed on it. It had been the fastidious gambler who that morning had helped Nathan bathe and shave the injured man and had patiently washed the dirt out of his hair. Chris would have thought him too squeamish for something like that, but Nathan said he hadn't even had to ask him to help. He'd seen a job to do and had done it. The southerner was always full of surprises.

"I brought you somethin' to eat, Vin," he said, picking up one of the bowls on the tray.

He put a spoonful of mashed potatoes to his lips, but Vin refused to open his mouth. Nathan had managed to get him to open up and take some water, or laudanum, but not food. Chris had a feeling that it had nothing to do with whether he was hungry or not, he just didn't want to be fed like a baby.

"C'mon, Vin, you gotta eat..."

Or what? I'll die? Why is that worse than this?

Chris sighed. This wasn't going to be easy, but he had to consider how much harder it had to be for Vin. He picked Vin's right hand up off the bed. And folded his fingers around the spoon. "Okay, I ain't gonna feed ya. I'm jus' gonna give you a little help."

He guided Vin's hand to his mouth, careful to hold his fingers closed so he didn't drop the spoon. He wasn't sure Vin even knew he was there, at first, until he opened his mouth and took the first mouthful

Chris wanted to cheer his effort, but realized that to do so would be to recognize Vin's difficulty. Instead, he guided him through the motions, his heart aching. Vin could no more feed himself than he could jump over the moon, but as long as he was holding the spoon himself, he'd allow the food to be put into his mouth.

He didn't eat much. Chris didn't blame him. The food was bland, but Nathan was afraid to give him anything too substantial for fear he'd choke on it. Maybe he could get Nettie to make him one of her peach pies. Vin loved those, and if they mashed it up for him, maybe he'd be able to eat it.

Chris folded both of Vin's hands around the tin cup full of milk he'd brought him. He knew Vin would probably rather have some good, strong coffee, but he needed the nourishment. He had the cup to the tracker's lips when he sensed someone outside the door. He took the cup from Vin slowly, so as not to scare him, and then drew his gun. Vin had enemies who would take advantage of his situation.

"Who is it? Who's out there?"

There was no verbal response, but slowly, the door opened.


Buck had done his damnedest to keep the boy out of his sight since the shooting, and probably with good reason. Just seeing him standing there with that whipped puppy look on his face was enough to make Chris's blood boil.

"What do you want JD?" His voice was ice.

The kid held that silly bowler of his in his hands and nervously worked his fingers around the brim. "I came to see Vin," he said in a voice so soft it was almost a whisper.

"Well, c'mon in then," Chris grinned, his voice mockingly cordial. "Come and inspect your handiwork."

"Chris I...."

In a fluid motion, Chris got up and clamped a hand on the back of JD's neck and shoved him towards Vin's bed. "Like what you see?"

Aw Chris.... don't... Vin wanted to shout.

JD's shoulders heaved and a sob escaped his throat. "I didn't mean to do it, Vin," he said at the silent form on the bed. "I thought the gun wasn't loaded! I swear to God, Vin. After what I did to Annie..." his voice cracked. "I swear to God, I thought it wasn't loaded!"

Chris just let him cry. He felt no compulsion to comfort him. The boy's carelessness had demanded too high a price this time. "Shut up, JD," he said harshly.

JD looked at him, tears streaming from his blood-shot eyes. There was no fight in him. "Is there anything I can do for him?" he said.

Chris's anger boiled over, but he kept his voice in deadly control. "Yeah, JD." He picked up the tray of food and shoved it hard at the kid's gut. "There's lots you can do. You can feed him. You can keep him clean. You can try to keep him from wanting to die because all he can do is lie there. From now on, that's your job. Think you can handle it?"

JD looked at him with that slack-jawed expression of his that would have been amusing under any other circumstance but this one. Chris stomped out and left him there.


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