When You Need Me

by KT

The creek still looked alarmingly fast, and debris filled; but up stream of what had been the beaver dam, it was shallow enough for a strong horse to cross. Vin encouraged Peso into the torrent. He could feel the current trying to sweep the trusting horse away, he attempted to cross straight, but knew he would end up down stream of his entry place. Chris watched anxiously as his closest friend struggled to cross the raging torrent. Good and trusting horse that he was, Peso was beginning to panic, and Vin decided to let him, the extra surge of energy it gave his horse was enough to get them safely to the other side. Once on the other side Vin quickly calmed the horse, then waved at a relieved Chris, turned and galloped off.

The strong moonlight made the night ride easy and Vin was able to push on at a full gallop. Dawn was beginning to light the sky as he entered Four Corners. Josiah was just stepping out onto the boardwalk. He was intending to ride to the creek himself that morning. He waved at Vin who pulled up.

"I take it the creek is down," he ventured.

Vin didn't have time for small talk. "Just, is Nathan up?"

Concern spread across Josiah face, "Not that I've seen, who's hurt, is it bad?"

"Get him, I'll get Ez, it’s Buck and it's bad." With that he swung down off his horse, and ran into the saloon.

Only then, inside the saloon, did he realise what telling Ezra about Buck meant. Ezra was almost as dependent on Buck as JD. It was Buck alone who had penetrated the enigmatic southerner's defences. Buck, who had seen him through the ordeal of amnesia, when he believed he was a five year old, had held him, cared for him and accepted him as a child totally and unquestioningly, bestowing unconditional love on the child Ezra believed he was. And it was subsequently Buck who had helped him confront the horror of his childhood, and had shared his uncle's retribution, both men still bore the scars and shared a new closeness and dependence.

Vin knocked and went in without waiting for a reply. He lay his hands over Ezra's as he shook him awake, not wishing to be shot by mistake.

"Ez! Come on, wake up!" Vin shouted.

"Alright, alright I'm awake." He frowned at Vin. "Mr. Tanner, what are you doing here?"

"Ezra," he said more quietly, "you gotta get dressed, Buck's hurt, hurt bad, he needs you."

Just for a second Ezra's face took on the features of little Ez, then fear took over. "Buck," he breathed his feelings all too clear in his use of Buck's first name. "How bad, what happened?"

"Get dressed an' I'll tell ya, then I'll go back with you an' Nate."

It wasn't Vin's account of the rescue and Buck's subsequent injuries that frightened Ezra, it was the look on Nathan's face that turned his stomach. The same sickening knot of fear he had felt for the eight long hours the storm had taken to pass over Four Corners. All his life Ezra had been afraid of thunder, he had no idea why, but he blamed Uncle Matthew, and all his life he had suffered alone, huddling in bed, in alleyways, trying to bluff his way through card games while dealing with sheer terror. His mother had dismissed the fear as silliness and an attempt to annoy her on purpose. Then things had changed, he had found someone he could trust, trust totally. He trusted the other five to watch his back, even hold his money, but it was only Buck he trusted with his fear. He had known the first time the thunder rolled, after they returned from Louisiana, he could go to Buck for comfort. He remembered it well. He had slipped into Buck's room, knowing he was, for once, sleeping alone, because he had seen Ginger leaving the lothario's room at two am, when he came up to bed. He had just stood there, back to the door, trying to keep his breathing quiet, then the thunder had crashed and an involuntary yelp had escaped his lips.

"Ez you alright?" Buck's sleepy voice had asked with no amusement or contempt.

Ezra had not even realised Buck was awake, let alone aware of him, he would have been content to just stand there and take some comfort from Buck's presence.

"I was worried you might not like the storm?" Ezra offered.

"Well now that you mention it, I wouldn't mind some company 'till it passes."

Ezra knew it was a lie but somehow he knew Buck understood just what he was going through. He approached the bed, tentatively lifted the covers and slipped into the bed next to Buck. Buck was on his back, as usual, Ezra curled on his side, back to Buck, covers drawn over his head, to block out the lightning, and for the first time in his life, he had felt safe as the storm rolled on. During the second storm, Buck had come to him, no words passed between them and come the morning he was gone. The third time, the last one before the recent storm, Ezra had again slipped into Buck's room.

He had awoken as he felt Buck get out of bed, playing possum he listened as Buck had padded barefoot out of the room, listening hard he could hear a voice on the other side of the wall, a slightly high pitched whimpering, full of fear. He heard the door of the room open, then the creek of a bed, then he heard the familiar sound of Buck's voice, not the loud jovial voice most people knew but the soft reassuring tone Ezra knew and took comfort in. The fear filled whimpering, slowly quietened and ceased. Ezra took the opportunity since the storm was over to return to his own bed, knowing his friend, brother and protector would soon have JD settled again, his nightmare over. In the morning all three acted as if nothing had happened.

Now that sickening fear was back - intensified ten fold, he knew he could do nothing practical to help. All he could do was get there and offer support, be there for Buck as he had been there for him. Vin had indicated that he believed Buck was in severe pain, that he would need whatever pain relief Nathan could bring. As it happened it wasn't much. The storms and flash floods had prevented supplies reaching the small community for over two weeks.

Josiah had been reluctant to stay behind, but someone had to stay in town and Nathan and Ezra needed to go. He had leant Vin his horse, Peso was spent and Josiah had promised to take care of him. He offered a silent prayer for their safe journey and for a stricken friend upon whose survival more than one life depended.

Just before Vin and Chris had left they had come to say goodbye to Buck and tell him what they were doing, and reassuring JD that help would soon be there. Buck had heard the increase in familiar voices, he struggled to reach them, his thirst returned, he searched for the fluids he craved. JD noticed the change in his 'brother' and began to deliver the fluids he needed again satisfied he was once again drinking well. JD remained with Buck for the rest of the night, but an hour after dawn, Fay persuaded him to take some rest and allow her to take over. He lay down on the bed and was asleep with in minutes. Fay picked up a blanket and covered the devoted but exhausted young man. He may not be Buck's blood brother but she hoped that as they grew her children would be as devoted and steadfast to each other. She let her eyes drifted over to JD, below the blanket only his jet-black hair and his face were visible, asleep he looked to be about twelve.

Alan Brighton had been cut of from his family for four long days, at dawn he had finally been able to re-cross the creek, and head for home. Chris knew how long it would take Vin to reach the town and how long to get back to the crossing. The water was still high and he intended to be there when Vin and the others returned, just in case. Once all three had safely negotiated the river they headed for the farm. The gunmen and the farmer approached the farm from different directions in the pale morning light. When Brighton got home he had no idea about the drama that had unfolded at his home. He arrived to find the house quiet, everyone still asleep. Removing his boots he walked quietly to his bedroom, opening the door he took in the scene before him, or rather he took in some of it and then reacted before he had seen and understood all of it. What he saw was the town Casanova, well known lover of married women in his bed, naked shoulders clearly visible, his wife sitting on the edge of the bed his head cradled in her arms, and expression of sweet tenderness on her often stern features. He failed to take in the other man's pallor, stillness and the fact that he was unconscious.

He picked up the old rifle he had been about to return to the bracket behind the bedroom door, and pointing it at Buck he shouted at the man in the bed.

"Wilmington you bastard! Get up and face me!" he bellowed.

Buck made no move, but Fay leapt top her feet. It took her a while to work out what was happening and that her husband had a gun trained on the one man he should be on bended knee thanking. Instantly she was between Buck and the gun.

"No Alan, no you don't under…" she began

"Don't say I don't understand, that’s what they all say, I can see, I know what he's like, everyone does!" he bellowed.

"But it's not what you think," his wife pleaded. "I love you I would never…"

Outside the four gunmen drew up, to see JD emerging from the outhouse. Suddenly Ezra looked up, his keen hearing, trained to hear every inflection of an opponent's voice, caught something. He had dismounted and run into the house before anyone could stop him. Alan grabbed his wife's wrist and pulled her out of the line of fire.

"Get up Wilmington, so you can take it like a man," he shouted, releasing the long barrelled gun.

Fay grabbed at his arm. "No Alan he's hurt, sick." She tried to explain to the outraged man.

"Not as sick as he'll be when I'm finished with 'im, get up man - you coward!" Alan ranted, shaking off his wife.

Just then Ezra burst into the room, he took in the whole scene in one go, unlike Mr. Brighton he missed nothing, his own gun was in his hand in a flash, faster than he thought possible himself.

"Sir, ah believe you have misinterpreted the situation and unless you lower your gun ah will, regrettably, have to kill you," he informed to startled farmer, in the politest of terms.

"Alan dear, look at him, go on look," his wife insisted.

Once he looked properly he saw the pale skin, unnatural stillness, the carefully placed blankets, even that his wife was fully clothed and the other four men standing in the door way, two with guns drawn. The barrel of the gun drooped, just then Buck moaned quietly.

"Ma?" he breathed.

The raised voices, the shouting of his name had helped drag him back to the edge of consciousness, the anger in the strange male voice transported him back to his childhood.

Everyone in the room froze for a second, JD, Fay, Vin and Chris well aware of the danger.

"Out all of you now, not a sound mind," Mrs. Brighton commanded in terms no one was going to argue with, especially when they heard the second weak cry of alarm.

"Ma, where are you?"

"I'm here dear, I'm here, I said I'd not leave while you still needed me." She tried to soothe.

But this was not like before - this was more like a nightmare, he was some other place, some other time.

"Don't let him hurt you Ma, don't, it's not worth it, I don't need nothing." His voice was so quiet she had to strain to listen, but his eyes had opened and were staring at her, yet not seeing her.

"I won't dear, I've sent him away."

"Good, plenty more customers."

Fay just looked at him, shocked, unsure how to respond. Of course she knew such women existed, there were some in town at the saloon, but she had never thought of them as women like herself, as mothers. She looked at the big man who had saved her child's life knowing he was risking his own and was now paying the price. He was a kind man Mr. Larabee had said, the best. If it was his influence on young JD that was keeping the young man safe and polite, it was true. Certainly she could not deny the affection the lad had for the man. She concluded that what ever the woman had done, she had been a good mother and raised a good son.

"Yes son, that’s right, now you gonna be good for me Bucky, an' go straight back to sleep?"

"Of course Ma, don't I always?"

"Yes dear you do, you’re a good boy." She raised a hand and stroked his forehead until his eyes closed and he was still again.

Outside in the living room Chris explained to Alan Brighton what had been going on, and mainly for Nathan's benefit, the inherent danger of Buck believing Mrs. Brighton was his mother and why no one else could be with them at the moment.

All the commotion and shouting had woken the children, they appeared at the their bedroom doors in their nightwear, when Melinda heard her Pa she was elated, but he was shouting at her beloved Buck, confused and scared she began to cry. A confused Katie picked her up as she saw Chris drag her father from what she thought of as Buck's room. Vin saw the children, tears streaming down little Melinda's cheeks. He broke away from the others and took them back into the girl's room.

"Why is Pa shouting at Buck?" Melinda sobbed.

The other two stared at him expectantly. Vin took a deep breath.

"Well your Pa was surprised to find Buck in his bed, he didn't know Buck was sick, but he do now an' as soon as he can he's gonna come see you guys. So I want you to get dressed real quick then maybe Katie can get breakfast on?"

Eventually Fay came to the door and called for Chris, her husband made to follow but Nathan's big hand on his shoulder and both Ezra and JD standing defiantly in front of him, looks of thunder darkening their young faces, stopped him dead. They watched a brief conversation at the bedroom door, then Chris went in as Mrs. Brighton went into a cupboard and collected a towel before joining him.

Vin beckoned to the shamed farmer.

"Them kids is scared, 'specially the little one, Buck is her hero, you make 'um feel safe." It was an instruction, wrapped up as information, which sounded like a threat.

Once she had done what needed to be done she explained to Chris that Buck had had a kind of waking dream about his childhood. Chris could hear in her voice his friend had unknowingly let something slip, something he told very few people. Chris himself had only found out when, as he was now, Buck had been sick and unaware of what he was saying. He had deduced the big man had volunteered the information to JD. At first he could not work out why. At that stage they had known each other only a few weeks, JD was an easterner, raised in a respectable household, Buck had taken a huge risk. But Chris concluded that was the point, to test JD before Buck became so attached to the lad that if he were later rejected he wouldn't be able to handle it, and to show JD that he could trust him, that there was nothing he couldn't tell Buck if he wanted to. Not for the first time Chris marvelled at the complexities Buck hid behind the persona of the jovial oaf, and again wondered why he did not wish people to see his intelligence, sensitivity and insight?

"You know don't you?" Chris challenged the respectable church going farmer's wife.

She nodded. Chris knew she could hurt Buck badly with that bit of information, even drive him from town. The so-called 'respectable' women of the town were none too keen on Buck, especially the one's with older daughters, and the married men of the town were even less keen.

"What are you going to do?" he asked tentatively.

"Nothing, Mr. Larabee. I am not a gossip, do you know what some people would do if they found that out? This town cannot afford to lose a man as good as him, no town can, and it's not as if there is anything he can do about it." She looked down at Buck. "From what I heard, she was a good mother and he was a good son, I guess that’s all that’s really important in the end."

"You remember I told you Buck and JD were near being brothers?" he asked.

"Of course, and I believe you."

"Well actually Buck's got two surrogate younger brothers, and if we don't let the other one in soon we could have a problem, just don't let on that you know about it," he said cryptically.

+ + + + + + +

This time Ezra entered the room quietly and slowly, fear had returned after the adrenaline rush of a few moments ago, he came around to the far side of the bed and Chris and Fay left to give him space. Nathan was just outside the door.

"Chris, I really need to see him," he reminded.

"I know, but just give Ez a moment." The healer reluctantly agreed. Ezra felt as deeply for Buck as JD but he wasn't as demonstrative, unable to let people see the depths of his affection, and the consequences when that relationship was threatened.

"Oh Buck," Ezra breathed. "Don't leave me, ah know you think everything's settled now, but it's not true. Ah can't keep going unless ah know your there to catch me if ah fall. Please don't leave your little one, remember that ah love you, that ah always will." His voice began to crack, skilled as he was in keeping every emotion hidden, when it came to Buck the mask was fragile indeed.

"Lit'l one?" Buck opened his eyes and gazed at his beloved little one.

"Yes Buck."

"Don't cry, come on Buck's here, everything's gonna be alright."

Ezra remembered Vin explaining how they had given the life saving fluid Buck needed, of his description of JD sitting on the bed delivering the fluids. Seeing the bottle on the nightstand, he kicked off his boots and practically ran with the bottle to the other side of the bed. He settled himself on the bed next to Buck and allowed his arm to rest under the big man's neck raising his head a fraction more to drink. He wanted to help, but he also needed comfort of Buck's closeness, he had no qualms about seeking what made him feel safe. But others would not be so understanding of a grown man seeking the physical closeness of another man, even if the other man had an enviable reputation with women and the comfort he sought was that of a child seeking the comfort of a parent. It remained a secret; if seen it was in a different context, such as now - ministering to the sick.

Buck gazed with glassy half seeing eyes, at his 'little one', he remembered the storm, although he had no concept of how long ago it had been he knew he had not been there, when he was needed.

"I'm sorry I couldn't be there when the storm came, were you a brave boy?" he asked.

Tears now fell uncontrollably down Ezra's cheeks.

"Ah tried to be, but it was hard," he admitted.

"I'll be there next time I promise."

Standish had little memory of his time as little Ez. Mostly just images, as though he were watching his own life. Now he was experiencing as an adult, the tenderness and devotion Buck had lavished on the 'little one'. More than anything he wished he could remember it all. Using the back of his hand he wiped away the tears.

"Are you thirsty Buck?" he asked still trying to get the tremble out of his voice.

"Mmm," Buck admitted.

Ezra held the bottle for him to drink, eventually his eyes closed but he continued to swallow, that was how Chris and Nathan found them. Ezra sitting along side Buck attentively and fastidiously dropping in the medication, Buck unconscious but drinking.

Nathan came to the other side of the bed, he watched as the stricken gunman swallowed steadily. Chris joined him.

"Ezra stop for a moment would you, I need to check something," he instructed.

Ezra frowned. "No Mr. Larabee. He needs this, ah will not deny him what he needs."

"It's only for a second or two, Nathan you need to watch."

Against every instinct Ezra lifted the bottle away, instantly Buck began to search for the moisture. Chris smiled. "Alright Ez give it him." Then he turned to Nathan, "that looking for the drink, he didn't do that at first, so that’s good, right?"

Nathan said nothing he pulled back the covers to expose Buck's lean torso, the ugly deep bruising covered half his chest, and the whole of his right side. Ezra felt physically sick at the sight of it. Nathan ran his practised gentle fingers over the ribs, feeling for and counting the healing fractures, noting the heat radiating from the injuries. Nathan gently lay his hand on the bed and slipped it under the small of Buck's back. Buck groaned, his head moved to one side spilling the drop of fluid he was about to swallow. Ezra bit back the urge to tell Nathan not to hurt Buck but he trusted the healer, he knew he would never cause pain if he could avoid it. Then he lay his hand on the side of Buck's stomach. Before he could even register the heat radiating from the injuries, Buck gasped, groaned and even attempted to move away.

Both Chris and Ezra held him down, it wasn't difficult as he was as weak as a kitten. His head rolled from side to side, pain etched across his handsome features. Nathan stopped instantly. He was still looking pensive, Chris needed to talk to Nathan in private without Ezra. He was forced to get Ezra to leave, he didn't want to go, but he didn't argue. Buck was still in too much pain to drink, so Ezra said a quiet farewell to his beloved 'brother' and slipped off the bed.

"Ezra?" Nathan asked. "Did he react to your presence?"

Ezra nodded, "Almost immediately," he confirmed.

"And did he know you, know where he was, what was going on?" Nathan enquired.

Ezra had to shake his head. "He thought ah was his little one, but he knew there had been a storm."

With that he turned and went. Once Ezra had gone, Chris explained about the blood in his urine, and about the fact he could feel his legs, he even showed the healer Vin's trick with the hatpin, relieved it still worked. He explained that even though Buck had regained consciousness several times only twice had he been fully aware.

"Well Nate, what do you think?" Chris asked anxiously.

"There are two or even three different serious injuries, firstly he has at least four broken ribs an' others probably cracked. Although they are healing it makes it harder for his lung on that side to work, and 'cause he's on his back it's even harder, if he stays on his back he's gonna get pneumonia and that will kill him."

Chris remembered Fay Brighton telling them that her father had improved until he took a chill and died.

"Now," Nathan continued. "He is, as you suspected, bleeding inside, but I reckon it has stopped, or at least slowed to almost nothing. I can't see it or know where it is so I can't stitch it or bandage it, but I reckon since them busted ribs is low on the right that one of them sliced onto his liver."

"God that sounds bad," Chris breathed.

"Not as bad as it could be, I've heard that the liver can heal itself, but it bleeds like a stuck pig. Since he's passing blood and his back's paining him I reckon one or both kidneys is bruised bad as well. All this has to heal on it's own which means he has to stay very still, just like he's been doing, and drink to replace what he's lost. You guys have been doing all the right things."

Nathan looked back at Buck, the pain had almost faded from his features, replaced with the unnatural stillness, which, given Buck's normal exuberant, energy filled personality, was even more unnatural.

"He's in pain, a lot of pain all the time, conscious or unconscious and it's sapping his strength, only someone as strong as Buck could have made it this far under these conditions. If we don't get him off his back he'll get sick and die, if I move him too soon he'll bleed again and die. If he doesn’t get some pain relief he might not have the strength to keep fighting, and if that happens he'll die."

The repetition of that terrible little word felt like knives going into Chris’ chest, stabbing at his very soul. He could tell how worried, even scared, Nathan was, not just for Buck but about making the life or death decisions that loomed.

"Can't you give him something for the pain now?" Chris asked.

Nathan sighed. "I don't have much, and I need to keep it for when we start to lift him, for now we do as you have been doing. Keep him quiet, keep giving the fluids with the willow bark tea in it. For now it's all we can do."

"Nathan we all trust you, however this turns out we all know you will do your best, whatever happens we will back you," Chris said quietly, in measured even tones. "I'll stay with him you go and tell the others what you just told me."

"All of it?" Nathan questioned. "Even JD and Ezra?"

"Yes they have a right to know the truth, where Buck is concerned the truth is always best, no matter what." He looked back to his old friend. "Truth is what Buck understands, give it him straight no matter what the odds, never try to hide something from him it just makes him mad and never ever lie to him." Nathan understood these were instructions for caring for Buck that must be followed, now or in the future.

Chris was, by making Nathan speak to the others, copping out and he knew it. He just couldn't face JD and Ezra right now, his own fear was almost more than he could handle. The fear of those who depended most on Buck would overwhelm him. He had seen, even nursed Buck when he had been sick or injured before. But somehow he had never believed his life was in danger before, he had always some how known that while, his friend might have to fight he would always make it. But not this time, this time the hurt was hidden, an unseen enemy, that was slowly draining his strength. He looked at the still, pale face. He had kidded himself that while Buck was unconscious he wasn't in pain. Nathan had shattered that illusion. He wanted to be able to do something to help, had Buck been shot he could have gone after those responsible. He couldn't track, arrest and punish a river, he couldn't blame a little girl for falling into the river, he couldn't even blame Buck for being reckless, because he hadn't been. Any of them would have done it – it was just luck that it was Buck. Neither JD or Vin could have reached the little girl, Chris might have but he probably wouldn't have survived the river. It was just luck that it was the tallest and strongest of them who had got to the little girl first.

"Old friend, I wish I could help, I wish I could take away the pain, heal the holes, I wish I could end your suffering, but I can't. I won't give up though, I know you won't, so I won't and neither will the others. I wish I could stay with you all the time, but Josiah's back in town all alone, so I'm gonna take the sorry ass tracker and go help him. Nate I'll be here to help you get well, and your boy's. I know you call them friend and you treat them like brothers, but you and me know to you they're son's, JD he's young enough to be your son and Ez will always be the 'little one' to you." Chris wanted Buck to know why he was leaving, he hoped he could, on some level, understand.

+ + + + + + +

The children were sent out to tend the stock, while Nathan explained the situation. Vin watched JD and Ezra, impressed by the gamblers self control, and feeling for JD whose fear and distress was all too obvious. He himself felt his heart gripped in a hand of ice as Nathan spelled out the risks, and how slim Buck's chances were.

Everyone assumed that Vin was dependent on Chris, that to him Buck was just a friend. It wasn't so, he knew without Buck he would never have met Chris. Without Buck, Chris would have self-destructed years before. Buck accepted everyone, he never gave up, he never surrendered and most of all he was honest. He gave all of them strength, he kept all of them sane. Vin was a man of passion who was never able to show it, he envied Buck his openness and lack of inhibitions. Most of all he needed Buck to keep his new family together. Without Buck JD would be lost, he would either drift back east or turn hard, like Chris (Buck's greatest fear was JD turning into Chris). Ezra, without Buck to make him feel safe, would retreat back behind his walls and eventually drift away. Chris, without his last link to Sarah and Adam, would lose the small measure of balance he had found, he would again become reckless and probably go out in a blaze of glory. And more than anything Vin needed this new family, he liked to think it was only a temporary stop in his wanderings, that he needed no one, never had, never would. But it was one big lie; Buck would be ashamed of him for such a lie. He needed the company, he needed to belong, he needed to be appreciated, he needed to be needed. You're only human Tanner,he berated himself, it's alright to want to belong, to want to be with other people.

Ezra was not prepared to let Buck die, he needed Buck. The ghosts of his past hovered over him, threatening to descend and devour him. If he knew Buck was around he did not fear the nightmares returning. Alone he could not face them, together they could beat them. He processed the information Nathan had given them, trying to find something he could do to help.

JD and Buck had been through too much together for him to give up on Buck, or even believe Buck wouldn't make it. Buck had never ever given up on him and he would do no less. JD would not, could not, conceive of life with out his 'big brother'. So he simply blocked from his mind any outcome other than Buck's full recovery, to him other outcomes simply did not exist. He knew it would not come easy, knew there was much to be done, that Buck couldn't make it alone, he needed help, and JD would be there to help and fight. But to JD the outcome was a forgone conclusion.

Ezra turned to Nathan. "So you need a way to raise Mr. Wilmington."

Vin noted the formal use of name, Ezra had put up the walls to prevent them seeing the depth of his feeling, he wondered if Ezra really believed he was fooling anyone or was he simply unable to let people in even if he wanted to?

Ezra continued. "Slowly, smoothly and gradually?" he asked.

Nathan nodded. Ezra asked Mrs. Brighton for paper and pencil, which she found. Quickly he sketched his idea and showed it to the healer, who was impressed, it would work if it could be made. Mr. Brighton was shown the drawing.

"I can make this," he confirmed.

"How long?" asked Nathan.

"Half a day, quicker if I get some help from someone who knows what he's doing."

"Ah am afraid ah cannot help in any practical way, ah only wish ah could." Ezra admitted.

"Chris is handy with a hammer and such," Vin pointed out.

"I'll get him!" JD almost leapt from his seat and headed to the bedroom, desperate to be with Buck.

Chris came out somewhat confused but once he was informed of the plan he and Mr. Brighton headed to the barn together with Ezra. Vin went into the bedroom, it was bright and warm, and now that the storms had passed the summer heat was rising again. The covers had been push down to the level of Buck's navel to help prevent him getting over heated. The battered torso, livid bruising standing out starkly and violently against the unnaturally pale skin, made Vin wince. JD was at Buck's side delivering the life sustaining fluids. He looked up and smiled at Vin.

"Hi Vin," he said brightly. "Buck; Vin's came to see you," he explained to Buck.

JD had decided to continue with the policy Mrs. Brighton had begun, treating Buck as though he could see, hear and understand. JD looked back at Vin and knew what he wanted.

"Buck how about Vin sits with you awhile, he'll tell you all about Ezra's plan," he looked up again. "Won't you Vin?"

Vin was unsure how to react, he swallowed suddenly finding his emotions threatening to overwhelm him. He had deliberately stayed away as much as possible just because he didn't know how to treat Buck, how to tell him how important he was to him or even if he should. The truth was what Buck understood, straight, unfettered, no matter what it was. He had come because he knew he would be heading back to town soon, and he felt guilty for staying away so long.

"Yeah, 'course." He forced his feet to move and propel him to the bedside.

In changing places the flow of fluid was interrupted, immediately Buck searched for what he needed, he even moaned softly. Before Vin knew what he was doing he had taken JD's cue and was talking to the gunslinger as if he was awake.

"All right, all right I'm a coming, Lord man, give us a chance here," he chided softly. "Didn't think ya liked this stuff that much."

With that he settled beside the thirsty patient, and resumed the flow of liquid. JD stood by the door as he watched Vin relax and begin to tell Buck all about Ezra's plan, in his normal easy tones, once he was confident Vin was happy he slipped out.

Ezra's design was simple, a board, large enough to easily support a man's torso, even a big man. This board was hinged at the two bottom corners to a frame, which had notches cut down both sides. On either edge of the board two hinged arms could be slotted into the notches and thus raise or lower the board through four positions between 15 and 45 degrees.

Young Barry watched the men working in the barn he listened as they discussed the job, Mr. Ezra stood close by offering suggestions and occasionally holding things or fetching tools. It was getting on for lunchtime, and the contraption was all but finished.

"We need to pad it some," Chris commented as he stood back to admire what they had achieved so far.

"It certainly would be more commodious for Mr. Wilmington but do you have any idea as to what to use?" Ezra asked.

The men discussed several options, when Alan turned to see his son standing behind him, he was carrying or more accurately dragging a large sack.

"You can use these." He thrust the sack at his father.

Alan knelt down in front of Barry. "These are your feathers, for your feather bed."

The boy nodded, as his father continued.

"If we use them for Mr. Wilmington you'll have to start collecting all over again," he explained.

"I know, but Buck needs them and he saved Melinda from the river, I should have been watching her, please Pa take them for Buck." His young face had a determined set to it.

Alan Brighton stood and accepted the sack. As he and Chris tacked a linen pouch over the board to hold the feathers Alan explained that the boy had been collecting the feathers for six months to be used in his own feather bed.

At lunch Nathan said they would place the board under Buck after the meal he'd have to give him some of the precious limited supply of morphine. Chris and Vin would leave after that. It was an intricate manoeuvre, in which Buck was going to be moved to the other side of the bed on to clean sheets, as well as settled on to the lifting board. After Chris and Fay prepared him for the move and Nathan had given him a limited dose of morphine all six men three down each side of the bed made ready to move the big gunslinger as quickly and gently as possible.

Buck was aware of extra voices around him, he was aware of hands around him, the fluids he craved had stopped, he felt the pain drop away to a dull throbbing ache and his head began to swim. Then the hands were under him and despite the pain medication as he felt himself moving the pain shot up his back and radiated from his gut. He tried as hard as he could to tell them to stop, it hurt he needed them to stop. But try as he did he couldn't make them understand.

JD had his hand under Buck's head, his other arm under Buck's shoulders, he was ready to hand his precious burden to Ezra. Buck moaned as the men, who on Nathan's count, lifted the patient. As they passed him across the bed his head moved, and more low moans issued. It distressed all of them to see the pain that was usually hidden behind the stillness of unconsciousness and exhaustion, so evident. Nathan gave silent thanks for morphine as he shuddered to think what the operation would have been like for his friend without it. Once he was on the other side of the bed, his shoulders already higher even though the board had yet to be raised, Fay Brighton shooed the men from the room all except Nathan. As the two of them when about making Buck comfortable again Nathan realised he was being watched from the bed. Pain was what he saw in those indigo eyes and fear.

"Hey there big guy, decided to join us for a bit?" He came to the bedside. "We moved you, sorry if it hurt, but it had to be done."

Buck gazed up at he dark face above him and listened to the softly reassuring tone that was so familiar, but which he hadn't yet identified. He was aware of someone on the other side but he had no energy to move his head and look at Fay Brighton as she stripped off the dirty sheet and pulled over the rest of the clean one. But some how Nathan worked out what he wanted.

"That’s Mrs Brighton tendin' to the bed things," he explained, as he pulled out his stethoscope and listened to Buck's chest. Frowning he placed a practised hand on Buck's fore head.

"Looks like we was just in time, got yourself a bit of congestion there, but ya ain't warm so still no fever, you keep that up ya hear."

Buck tried to comprehend what was said to him, he got the feeling it was important but the words just came to him muffled and disjointed. The voice was so familiar so he concentrated on that, as he tried to recall the owner's name a small frown spread across his brow. Nathan seeing this and thinking it was something he had done or said that was upsetting the patient tried to soothe him with more reassurance, but the more he spoke the stronger the frown became. Finally he said quietly but clearly.


"Yes?" Nathan thought he was asking a question.

Still Buck was not sure he had recognised the voice correctly, so he asked again.


Now the healer understood the morphine on top everything else was making it hard for him to workout what was going on.

"That's right, it's Nathan," he said gently.

The healer sat down on the chair beside the bed, taking Buck's hand in his to take his pulse, but knowing Buck would take comfort in another person's presence. After a short time he was satisfied that although still weak and a little fast, his pulse was steady and regular.

"Your doing real good Buck, it will get better, I promise, but I know it hurts, it hurts all the time don't it?" he asked softly trying to hold eye contact with his stricken friend.

"Not…so bad …now," Buck breathed out haltingly.

"I gave you something for the pain before we moved you," Nathan remembered Chris' instructions to always tell Buck the truth. "I'm gonna give you some more before we move you again, but this dose will wear off before that."

Buck frowned, he didn't want to be moved again.

"No move…hurts," he tried to explain.

"I'm sorry Buck but I gotta raise you up some so you can breath better, I'll do it little by little, as gentle as possible. I hate to hurt ya it but it's gotta be done, I'm sorry Buck," he explained with real regret.

"Trust you," Buck managed to say, but his strength was waning.

Nathan was humbled by such blind faith in him, he hoped he was worthy of such trust, that his limited skills and knowledge would be able to keep Buck alive long enough for his body to heal it's self.

"Are you thirsty?" he asked.

Buck nodded slightly, Fay had been watching and instantly handed a fresh bottle to Nathan. But before it came to his lips Buck spoke again.

"Josiah?" he asked.

"He's in town looking after things," Nathan explained.

"Need him." Buck was getting weaker by the second his eyes had already closed.

"I'll see if we can't get him here for you pal, you gonna drink for me now?"

Buck's only response was a compliant groaning sound, as he swallowed the first drop.

"There now Buck you are one lucky man to have so many friends who care so much about you," Mrs Brighton commented form the end of the bed. "I bet it feels good to be in a clean bed don't it, now you be good for Mr. Jackson an' I'll go get young JD for you." She beamed brightly at Nathan as she left.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Vin said goodbye to Buck and headed for town promising to send Josiah back. JD and Ezra did most of the feeding, talking to him or each other, although Fay and Nathan still did the more personal caring. That night Ezra slept beside Buck as JD kept vigil. Fay found Nathan out on the porch about to head to the barn for the night. She was joined by her husband.

"Mr. Jackson may we ask you some questions?" she asked hesitantly.

"You can ask but I may not have the answers," he warned.

"We understand," Alan said quietly.

"Will he be alright, will he live?" Fay asked.

Nathan took a deep breath. "He has made it this far, that’s good, he's regained consciousness periodically and at least three times he's know where he was an' what's going on, that’s good too, he don't have a fever and there's only a little congestion so far, all that is good but I can't say for sure. I don't know for certain where he's hurt, how bad, if it's healing or festering, if it stared to bleed again when we moved him, I'm hopeful but I can't say for sure… not by a long way." He watched the couple take this in.

"If he does make it, how long will he have to be here?" Alan asked. "It's not that we mind, he can stay here for as long as he needs, but we need to know so we can arrange things."

Nathan knew what he was trying to ask and why, but he just didn't know for sure. "More than a week less than a month, is the best I can give you," he offered.


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