Vin shot up from the water, his head breaking the surface, an immediate, desperate gasp for air filling the space.
Chris's hand jerked at the last possible moment, the bullet slamming into the wall of the tunnel.
"Chris!" Buck hollered, his voice full of panic.
"Stop! He's free!"
Tanner continued to choke for breath between violent bouts of barking coughs, then the tracker leaned forward and retched into the water.
"Chris!" Buck called again. "Is he all right?"
"He's alive!" Larabee called back up, not sure beyond that how the man was doing.
"Move away!" Buck yelled at them. "I'm cuttin' the horses loose!"
Chris wrapped his arms around Tanner's shoulders and guided him back. There was a pair of twanging sounds as the ropes were cut and the beam sank to the ground, landing with a dull, water-muffled thud.
A few moments later, two more ropes were dropped down through the fissure.
"Can you walk?" Chris asked the tracker, who sagged against him, shaking all over.
Vin nodded, still wheezing and hacking as he tried to clear his lungs. Together, the two men struggled through the water to stand beneath the fracture in the earth.
Chris took one of the ropes and tied it around Vin, his hands shaking as he worked, although he didn't know why. "He's ready!" he called up to Buck and the others.
A few moments later the rope was pulled taut, then began to creak as Vin was lifted slowly upward. The tracker groaned loudly as he cleared the water.
"Vin?" Chris called to him.
"'M all right," the tracker gasped, agony shooting through his ribs as the rope tightened around him more, robbing him of his vision first, and then his consciousness.
"Vin!" Larabee bellowed when he saw the man's body go limp. When there was no reply, he yelled to Buck, "Hurry! He's passed out!"
When the tracker reached the opening, Buck leaned into the fissure Nathan and Ezra holding tight to his legs to keep him from falling into the shaft and helped maneuver Vin through the narrow space so he didn't hit the sides on the way up.
Next to the fissure, Josiah waited to pull Vin out when he reached the top of the crevice.
"Here he comes!" Buck called up.
The preacher bent over and took hold of the tracker, lifting him up out of the fissure and then laying him gently on the ground.
Once Buck was pulled back up, Nathan went to work, checking Tanner over carefully.
"Now you!" Buck called down to Chris.
Larabee tied the rope around himself, then called up to his friend, "All right!" And a moment later he was on his way up, free of the cold water at last.
When he reached the fissure, he used his hands to keep himself in the center of the space so he didn't strike the sides. He felt hands grabbing him and pulling him out. He collapsed back onto the ground, moaning as the pain in his head flared again. He felt more hands touching him and forced his eyes open. Buck and Josiah were checking him, making sure he wasn't hurt. He wanted to tell them to stop, to leave him alone, that he was all right, but he couldn't find the strength to do it. He rolled his head to the side and watched as Nathan and Ezra worked over Vin. JD was not far away, holding the horses and keeping the villagers back.
Chris sighed with frustration. How was Vin? Why weren't they telling him anything? He tried to sit up, to find the answers to his questions, but a wave of agony crashed against the inside of his skull. His green eyes rolled back and he slipped back into the darkness.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Vin, where you hurt?" Nathan asked as soon as he was at the tracker's side, his hands going first to the bloody cut on the side of the man's head. His left cheek was bruised, his eye swollen as well.
"M' leg," Tanner replied, his normally raspy voice now more raw and gravelly than usual. "An' m' ribs."
The healer went to the tracker's leg next, cutting the bloody bandanna off Vin's leg and examining the gash he found underneath. It was wide, but not too deep.
Nathan fished into his saddle bags and pulled out the carbolic, needle and thread, and fresh bandages, immediately going to work on the wound.
Vin sucked in a sharp breath, his body going instantly rigid when Nathan pulled the cut open and poured in the carbolic. A moment later he relaxed again, his eyes sliding shut.
"A godsend," Ezra breathed softly, the expression of pure anguish on the tracker's face a moment before having nearly caused the gambler to retch.
Nathan nodded, glad for any pain his friends might be spared.
The healer had just finished stitching the wound closed a few minutes later when Rain appeared at his shoulder and handed him a jar half-full of a brown powder.
"Sprinkle it over the wound," she instructed him. "It will help keep the infection away for a time."
Nathan did as she'd said, then wrapped the closed gash tight enough to protect it, but still loose enough to allow it to drain if infection set in.
That done, he pulled open Vin's hide coat, unbuttoned the tracker's shirt and pulled that open as well. Two large, purpling bruises were spreading across the man's body, one along his left side, the other just above his right hip and lower abdomen.
Nathan carefully checked the tracker's ribs under the bruising, which jolted Vin back to consciousness with a hiss. "Damn it, Nathan, y' tryin' t' finish me off?" he moaned, beginning to shiver despite the warm sunlight that shone down upon him.
The healer shook his head. "Just found a couple 'a cracked ribs is all," he told the man. Then he turned his attention to the bruise above the tracker's hip. He pressed and prodded, but didn't find anything to tell him Vin might be bleeding inside. A small, grateful sigh escaped his lips as he settled back on his heels.
"Done all I can here. We need to get the two of ya back to town," the healer said.
"You are welcome to treat them in the village," the chief offered.
Nathan shook his head. "Be better if I can get them back to town. I've got more medicines there."
The old man nodded his understanding. "Rain tells me you are a gifted healer, and I have seen it for myself. We will help you in any way we can, you need only ask."
"Appreciate it, sir, but right now I just need to get these two on their horses so we can start back." Nathan looked down at Vin, who was still shivering. "I'm goin' to take a look at Chris, then we'll get you back t' town. You just lay still 'til then."
Tanner nodded, glancing over at the gunslinger, who hadn't moved in a long while. Vin's expression was guarded, but the healer could see the worry in the tracker's expressive blue eyes.
Nathan picked up his saddlebags, saying, "I'll tell you if there's anything wrong," and then moved over to Chris. He found a lump the size of a silver dollar on the man's head, a small cut in the center, and he cleaned it, which woke the unconscious man. Larabee sat up with a start.
"Easy, Chris," Jackson said, reaching out to grab the man's shoulders.
"Vin?" Larabee called, starting to turn and look for the man.
"Right here, Cowboy," Vin rasped, and the blond immediately relaxed, slumping against the hands supporting him.
"How is he?" Chris asked Nathan as the healer laid him back down on the ground.
"I cleaned and closed that gash in his leg. He has a couple 'a cracked ribs not too bad, though." He hesitated for just a moment, but it was long enough for Larabee to guess there was more.
"What?" he demanded softy.
"Sounds like he got some water in his lungs "
Chris shook his head slightly, unsure what the healer was trying to tell him.
"Goin' to have to watch him for lung fever," Nathan said softly. "But right now, I want t' know how yo'r doin'."
"I'm fine," Larabee replied, starting to get up again, but as soon as he tried to move, the pain flared in his head and his stomach started to turn. He froze, waiting to see if he was going to be sick. Thankfully, he wasn't.
"Don't look fine to me," the healer commented dryly, shaking his head.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Less than a half hour later, both men were ready to travel. Chris climbed painfully into his saddle, his movements slow and unusually awkward for the gunslinger. He sat on the black gelding, his shoulders hunched and his head down and held as still as he could manage.
Nearby, Tanner's face contorted with pain as he was hoisted astride Josiah's horse, but he didn't cry out. The preacher climbed up behind him, bracing the tracker against his chest.
Vin sat, panting from the pain but still looking annoyed and put out. Peso was tied to the preacher's saddle horn and appeared no more happy about the situation than his owner did.
"'M tellin' y', I c'n ride jus' fine," he argued weakly, but the immediate chill that shook his body cast strong doubts on the validity of his comment.
"You just stay right there," Nathan half-growled at the tracker. "Ya give Josiah any trouble, I'll force a dose of laudanum down yo'r throat and take ya back slung over the back of yo'r horse, y'hear?"
Tanner lapsed into annoyed silence, reduced to glowering at the healer. He could feel Josiah's chest shake as the man chuckled softly. "Ain't a damned bit funny," he rasped.
"Just sit back and enjoy the ride," Josiah told the tracker.
"I c'n ride m'self jus' fine," Vin insisted quietly.
"Maybe so, but we're not going to find out for sure this time, brother."
With Chris and Vin mounted, the peacekeepers headed back to town, Nathan, JD and Ezra riding ahead to get the clinic ready while Josiah and Buck stayed back to escort the two wounded men at a slower pace.
The two uninjured regulators exchanged amused glances as both Chris and Vin muttered softly to themselves about overly cautious healers. But less than an hour later, those expressions had turned to ones of profound worry. Vin was starting to build a fever, and Chris was swaying dangerously in his saddle.
Buck pulled up alongside his old friend and reached out to steady Chris with a hand on his shoulder, saying, "Easy there, pard."
"What?" Larabee asked, jerking upright, his hand reaching for his Colt.
"Easy, stud, easy," Wilmington replied. "It looked like you were ready t' slide right out of your saddle, that's all."
"I'm fine," Larabee replied, his shoulders hunching again as his head dipped.
"That's what ya keep tellin' me," Buck replied, "but I'm not ready ta draw to it just yet I think you're bluffin'."
Chris shot the man a glare, then glanced over at Vin, asking softly so only Buck could hear, "How's he doing?"
"His fever's building," Wilmington answered honestly. "And his leg's bleeding some, but not too much."
Larabee's gaze swept over the landscape, really seeing it for the first time since they had started out from the village. They were getting close to Four Corners, and for that he was glad. There Vin could get the treatment he needed, and he could curl up in his bed and sleep this damned headache away.
"Whoa, pard," Buck said, his hand on Chris's shoulder again.
Larabee jerked for a second time.
"Damn it, Chris, if you're goin' t' keep falling asleep on me, you're gonna have t' ride with me. I let you fall out 'a that saddle, Nathan'll skin me for sure."
"Sleep?" Chris asked him, his expression completely confused. "Buck, what the hell are you talkin' about?"
The big ladies' man shook his head. "That bump on your head must've rattled ya pretty good, pard."
Chris scowled at the man, but said nothing. Instead, he gigged his horse and pulled up alongside Josiah. Vin was leaning back against the preacher's chest, his head lolled to one side, his eyes closed. The tracker's face was flushed and Chris could see the blood soaking the bandage wrapped around his leg.
The gunslinger looked up, meeting Josiah's eyes as he asked, "How's his fever?"
"Still climbing," the preacher replied truthfully, but his voice low so he wouldn't wake the tracker.
"Damn," Chris replied, his lips pressing into a thin line of worry. He noted how the big man kept one arm wrapped around Tanner, cradling him gently against his chest. Vin was in good hands.
Buck pulled up next to Larabee, refusing to ride next to Tanner's cantankerous horse, which walked on the other side of Josiah's mount.
The men rode in silence for several minutes, and then the ladies' man asked softly, "Chris, I heard a shot down in that shaft what was that all about?"
Larabee paled slightly as he remembered just how close he'd come to shooting his friend. "Just trying to keep a promise I didn't want to keep," he said, his expression telling Wilmington that he wouldn't get anything more from him on the subject.
But the ladies' man had a pretty good idea what Chris was talking about, and knowing he'd been right about the reason behind the shot sent a shiver racing down his spine.
Wilmington met Josiah's eyes and the preacher said softly, "Blessed be the Lord, who hath given rest unto his people Israel, according to all that he promised: there hath not failed one word of all his good promise "
Chris kept his gaze fixed stubbornly on the trail and silently wished his friends weren't so damned quick on the uptake.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
A short time later
Vin remained asleep or unconscious until Josiah pulled his gelding up at the clinic, then the tracker jerked back to awareness with a strangled gasp.
"Easy, brother," came Josiah's low, rumbling voice.
Tanner stilled, realizing he was safe, even if he wasn't sure where he was, or what was happening. He felt Josiah slide off the horse, and the next thing he knew, he was being carried up a flight of stairs. He frowned and forced his eyes open.
More stairs They were going to the clinic. He mumbled a weak protest, but the preacher ignored him.
Vin was vaguely aware that Buck and Chris were ahead of them, Larabee a little unsteady on his feet. The tracker tried to remember why that would be the case, but he couldn't. And then they reached the door.
"Put me down," Vin grumbled. "I c'n walk."
"Not on that leg," Josiah told him, tapping the door with the toe of his boot.
Ezra pulled it open and immediately stepped out of the preacher's way.
Josiah stepped inside and Vin caught the flash of a reassuring smile from the gambler as he shut the door behind them.
"Get his clothes off an' put him in the bed," Nathan called from where he stood, already checking Chris's head wound again. Buck stood next to Larabee, peering over the healer's shoulder.
"Why don't you help Josiah?" Jackson suggested to the ladies' man.
Josiah carried Vin over and gently sat him down on the bed. With Buck's help, he carefully removed the tracker's coat and then his shirt, but when the preacher went to take off Tanner's boots, Vin waved him off and took them off himself, then his pants as well when Nathan told him if he didn't do it himself, Josiah and Buck would do it for him.
Naked, Vin lay back in the bed and Josiah covered the wound and then pulled the blankets up to make sure Tanner stayed warm until Nathan could get to him.
Buck looked over at the preacher, saying, "I'll go see how things are doing and help JD with the horses. We'll be back."
"Get yourselves something to eat," Josiah told the man as he turned to leave.
Chris watched the whole thing, growing more and more worried. It wasn't like Vin to go along with Nathan's orders like that. He met Josiah's worried gaze and felt his heart begin to beat faster. Vin must be feeling awfully bad to be that reasonable.
"All right, Chris, I'm done," Nathan told the gunslinger. "I want to take another look at this tomorrow, make sure this don't get infected. You need to get some rest now, but I want ya to stay here so I can keep an eye on ya; head wound ain't nothin' to be taken lightly."
Chris frowned, wishing he could put up an argument, but he didn't want to leave. He wanted to be close by, in case Vin needed him. He nodded.
"Ya can sleep in my bed," the healer said, nodding toward the small space hidden behind an Indian blanket that was draped over a length of rope.
Larabee stood and shuffled to the blanket, pulling it back. He glanced over his shoulder once to see that Nathan had started to work on Vin, then ducked behind the blanket, crawled into the narrow bed, and immediately fell asleep.
Ezra, who had remained in the corner, out of the way, shook his head, saying with honest admiration, "Mr. Jackson, you are a dangerous man."
Nathan, who was sitting on the edge of the bed, already looking at the wound in Vin's leg, glanced over his shoulder, grinning at the gambler. "Just you remember that," he replied.
"Took 'im long 'nough t' figger that out, didn't it?" Vin said airily.
Josiah and Nathan chuckled, Ezra joining in.
The healer turned his attention back to the tracker, frowning down at the gash, which had turned red and puffy since he'd seen it last. At least the infection would explain Vin's building fever. And he decided it would be easier to deal with an infected leg than lung fever.
Glancing up at Josiah, he said, "Heat some water fo' me?"
The big man nodded and moved off to do as he'd been asked.
While he waited, Jackson poured a small dose of laudanum into a cup and added water. He handed the mixture to Vin, who hesitated, but then took it and drank it down without comment, although his expression said all he needed to about what the concoction tasted like.
When the water was warm, Nathan carefully cleaned the wound, then used the carbolic on it again before he applied an ointment and wrapped it up again.
Vin endured the entire process in stoic silence. But as soon as Nathan covered him up, his eyes dropped closed and he slipped back to the welcome escape of sleep.
"How does our intrepid tracker fare?" Ezra asked the healer after Nathan had pulled the blanket up and tucked it under Vin's shoulders.
"Ain't sure. That infection in his leg's gettin' worse, but his fever seems too high fo' that."
"You thinking lung fever? Pneumonia?" Josiah asked him.
Nathan shrugged. "Hope not, but all that water in his lungs would be a good bet."
"Not one I would desire to win with," Ezra said quietly.
"Me either," Nathan agreed.
The door to the clinic opened and Buck and JD came in. "How are they?" the ladies' man asked.
Jackson filled the two men in, adding, "Might be a long night, depending on how Vin's fever goes. It's building, but it ain't too bad just yet."
"That's why we're here," JD said. "We want to help."
"Where's Chris?" Buck asked, glancing around and frowning.
Nathan nodded to his private quarters, saying, "Gettin' some sleep."
Buck's eyes rounded.
"Brother Nathan does work the occasional miracle," Josiah offered by way of an explanation.
Buck grinned. "Hell, Josiah, I knew that."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Late the following evening
Vin's fever built slowly over the next twenty-four hours, and with it, a wet cough developed that rattled his ribcage and sent searing fingers of pain clawing through his chest. Chills assailed him, making him shake. His head pounded, and every time he tried to eat anything, he immediately threw it back up. The wound in his leg throbbed mercilessly, making sleep difficult.
All in all, he was purely miserable, and it was only getting worse.
But at least Nathan had found a way to make clearing his lungs a little more bearable. The healer and whoever was helping him at the time the others taking turns in shifts pressed pillows against the tracker's chest and back as soon as he started coughing up the greenish mucus that seemed to be coating the inside of his lungs, making it hard for him to breathe. They held the pillows there until the cough became a painful, wheezing gasp for breath. It didn't stop the fire from racing along his ribs each time his muscles contracted, but it did make it more bearable.
But each bout of coughing left Tanner a little weaker than the last.
The growing concern in his friends' eyes scared Vin, and he knew he couldn't give up. No matter what, no matter how bad it got, he had to keep fighting for them. And especially for Larabee.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The next morning
After Vin's latest attack of wet, racking coughs that were closer to choking than anything, the tracker crumpled into Chris's arms, his sagging body a mass of sweat and quivering muscles.
Larabee gently eased Tanner back down onto the pile of pillows and blankets that had been stacked up to keep him sitting up in the bed. The gunslinger exchanged a worried glance with Nathan, who sighed softly and shook his head.
The healer stepped away, going over to make some more tea, hoping the tracker might keep it down long enough that the medicines he stirred into it could do him some good. Vin couldn't seem to keep any food down, but the liquids sometimes stayed put.
Vin lay slumped against the pile of pillows, his face pale and filmy with perspiration, his leg wound oozing infection. Chris went to work, cleaning it as he had seen Nathan do earlier. He grimaced at the sight of the inflamed flesh.
"That bad, huh?" Tanner commented airily, watching his friend.
"Nathan says it's getting better, but I can't see how he can tell," Chris told him, not wanting the tracker to worry, but refusing to lie to him.
"Wish m' chest was," Vin panted.
Nathan returned and held out a cup to Larabee. Vin, knowing what it was, and what he had to do, tried to sit up so he could drink, but he was too weak and started to sag back.
The blond quickly slid an arm around his friend and lifted him up, but he had to cradle Vin's head against his own chest to keep him there.
After a quick but careful shift so he could hold the cup for the weak man, Larabee set the rim of the cup to Vin's lips, urging him to drink. The tracker took a little, but refused more, even when Chris persisted.
"Belly's already tryin' t' turn a flip," he told the gunslinger.
And, a few short moments later, he was vomiting the sips of medicinal tea into an empty basin. "Damn it," he breathed when his stomach finally emptied and settled again.
"Y' just have to keep tryin'," Nathan told him as Chris helped Vin lay back against the pillows. "The more you can keep down, the better."
"It ain't gettin' no better, Nate," Vin complained.
"It will," Nathan promised him.
Vin nodded and gave up to the exhaustion that dragged at him like insistent hands, trying to pull him into a still, dark pool. He closed his eyes, letting the blackness sweep him away.
Once the tracker was sleeping again, the healer walked over to prepare another powder he had gotten from Ming, the Chinese apothecary who also ran the laundry in Four Corners. He shook his head, muttering to himself as he worked.
Larabee walked over to stand across the table from Jackson and ask, "How's he doing? The truth, Nathan."
The healer looked up, meeting the gunslinger's worried green eyes and said, "His leg's healing, slowly, but I ain't too worried 'bout it. It's the fever that's gettin' worse, his lungs, too. If he could keep the medicine down, it might help him, but he can't He's gettin' weaker from the lack of food and water." The healer sighed. "That's worryin' me some. A couple more days like this "
"Isn't there something else we can try?"
"I sent Ezra t' fetch some of Inez's pudding. I know Vin's got a sweet tooth. Maybe he'll be able to keep that down. I'm goin' t' mix some medicine in it and have him give it a try."
Chris nodded, then yawned, unable to stop himself.
"Why don't ya get some more sleep," Nathan said, more order than question. "I'll wake ya if I need ya. The more rest ya get, the sooner that headache is goin' to go away."
Chris hesitated for a moment, but then he nodded, knowing Jackson was right. He might feel better, but his head still ached and sleep seemed like the only way to chase the pain away when it got close to unbearable, and it was close to that now. Besides, he wouldn't be much help to Nathan, or Vin, if he couldn't concentrate on what the healer was telling him to do because he was too tired, or hurting too much.
The door opened and Ezra stepped inside the clinic carrying a bowl of Inez's pudding. "It is as wonderful as always," he assured the two men.
Larabee looked back to Nathan, saying, "Wake me up if he needs me."
"I will," the healer promised, nodding.
Chris ducked behind the blanket and lay down on the bed without bothering to undress. He closed his eyes, listening to Nathan's and Ezra's quiet voices for a few moments before he drifted off to sleep, worrying about Vin.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
He was back in the mine shaft, and Vin was still trapped beneath the support beam and sitting under water, he realized with a panicked start.
He was trying to lift the bulky piece of wood off the tracker's legs, but it was too heavy, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't budge it.
He looked over at the tracker and saw Vin's blue eyes were open, his expression begging him to hurry, but Chris knew with an icy certainty that he wouldn't be able to help the tracker, not in time, anyway.
"Y' know what y' got t' do," Vin said levelly.
Chris held the tracker's gaze, the blue orbs demanding, then accusatory. "I can't," he replied.
"Chris, please," Vin begged him.
The gunslinger finally reached down, drawing his gun and lifting it so it was pointed directly at the tracker. Larabee's hand shook violently, the gun seemingly jumping in his hand like it was a living thing. He could see Tanner's eyes, still pleading. He could see the man's mouth open, and then the water, rushing into his lungs.
Vin began to fight, but still Larabee couldn't pull the trigger. His hand shook so hard he thought he would drop the Colt, but he didn't.
"Y' promised!" Vin screamed at him, coughing up blood and what looked like pus. Both flowed over his chin and floated into the water in stringy strands, staining it a mix of pale red and green.
Chris tried to close his eyes, but he couldn't. His friend was dying. And worse, he was suffering. He knew he could end that suffering. All he had to do was pull the trigger. But he couldn't.
"God forgive me," Chris whispered, his finger finally beginning to tighten against the trigger.
A moment later the Colt's report thundered in the mine shaft, as loud as a cannon shot. Vin's eyes opened even wider, his gaze locked on Larabee's as his body jerked violently. Then the tracker smiled thinly and his eyes rolled back in his head.
Tanner drifted slowly up to the surface of the water, where he floated on his back, his arms flung out from his sides.
"Vin?" Chris said, confused. How had Tanner gotten free? What had he done?
Larabee moved through the thick water, which was turning a deeper shade of red now.
When he reached the tracker, Chris found the man's blue eyes open and staring up at him. And there was a hole, in the center of Tanner's forehead, where blood bubbled out of the wound, running down the sides of the man's head and into the water.
"Vin?" he called again. "Vin!"
But there was no answer. Vin was dead. He had killed his best friend. He had killed the man who knew him better than he knew himself. And for what? Tanner wasn't really trapped after all.
Then Vin's head turned slightly and the blue eyes met his, the tracker's gaze boring into his. "Why?" he asked Larabee. "Why'd ya kill me, Cowboy? I was almost free "
"No!" Chris screamed. "No!"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"No!" Chris screamed, bolting upright in the bed. He gasped for breath, sweat pouring down his face.
The blanket was swept back and Nathan rushed in, asking, "Chris, ya all right? What's wrong?"
Larabee nodded, waving the healer away and then wiping a shaking hand over his face. "Bad dream," was all he said.
The healer nodded and held his tongue. "Vin's fever's gettin' worse," he said softly. "Ya need me?"
Chris shook his head and Jackson quickly backed out of the space, the blanket dropping back into place.
Sitting up in the bed, waiting for his heart to stop pounding, Chris could hear Vin out in the clinic, struggling to breathe, but each inhalation was wet and rattling. And then the coughing started again and, when it was over, all he could hear was the tracker's weak gasps and soft moans.
"Easy," he heard Nathan say. "I want y' to try and drink this."
"No," Vin panted in reply. "Can't."
There was a pause, then the healer said, "All right, but I need you to help me here. Me and Buck are going to set up a steam tent for ya. I want you to sit under it and breathe the steam in as deep as you can. Ya do that?"
Larabee knew Vin must have nodded his willingness to try, because he could hear the sounds of someone moving around. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood.
Pushing past the blanket, he found the tracker sitting on the edge of the bed, his head and shoulders hidden under a piece of tarp. Steam curled out from under the bottom of the canvas, the wisps of grey mist carrying an odd aroma to the gunslinger.
Chris walked over to where the healer stood beside Vin, and asked, "What're you doing?"
"Got some oil from Ming. He said if I could get Vin to breathe the vapors, it would help loosen the phlegm. Figured it was worth a try since he can't seem to keep anything down. I'm runnin' out of ideas."
Larabee nodded. "Anything I can do?"
Buck walked over carrying a kettle. "Water's ready," he told Nathan, then shot Larabee a reassuring glance.
The healer took the kettle and lifted the tarp a little, pouring more boiling water into the basin in the tracker's lap. "Just stay under there and keep breathing," he told Tanner, then turned to Chris and said, "If this works, he's goin' to start coughin' soon. If you can sit behind him and hold the pillow against his back, that'll make it a little easier fo' him when it starts."
Chris nodded and climbed onto the bed. "Easy, pard, just me," he said, sliding in behind Vin and leaning back against the wall of the clinic. He sat there, waiting.
A few minutes later, the first cough erupted under the tarp.
Buck and Nathan quickly removed the cover over Vin's head and took the basin away. Chris pressed a pillow against Vin's back and the tracker grabbed another one, pulling it tight against his chest and holding it there as a second, third and fourth cough tore though him. It felt like he was trying to rid himself of his lungs, one chunk at a time.
Nathan passed Tanner a cloth for him to spit into, then helped hold the pillow more tightly against the man's chest and ribs.
When the bout finally ended, Vin slumped back, ending up pressed against Chris's chest, too weak to move. Awareness slipped though his thoughts, elusive and fleeting. Was it the same day as the festival, or another? He thought he had spent a day or two with this same fiery agony ripping though his chest, but maybe he had only been dreaming it.
Maybe he had actually drowned in that old mine shaft, and this was Hell.
No. No, that couldn't be right. There had been a ride in there somewhere. There weren't horses in Hell, were there?
But he hadn't been able to climb down from the horse not Peso Josiah's horse.
Why had he been riding Josiah's horse?
No, wait, he wasn't riding Deuteronomy, not alone anyway. He had been riding with Josiah.
Then he remembered. He couldn't dismount on his own; his muscles had been screaming with pain wherever they weren't numb or shaking.
Was that right? He was shaking now. Maybe that was it.
Why had he been riding with Josiah? Had he been riding with Josiah?
He closed his eyes and tried hard to stop thinking. His head hurt so much he couldn't see anything but a few blurry shapes that wavered in front of him, and thinking only seemed to make it worse. He was hot and cold at the same time, and the incessant shivers that coursed through his body kept him from catching his breath. And his chest hurt, badly, like someone was trying to cut his lungs out, a strip at a time, with a broken bottle.
Why? Why did he hurt so much? Was he still trapped? Was he drowning?
He didn't want to drown. He had seen a man drown once. He had seen the raw terror in the man's eyes as it happened and knew then that he didn't want to die that way. Hadn't Larabee promised him he'd shoot him before that happened?
But Chris had hesitated. He remembered that, too. Had Larabee waited too long?
He must be drowning. That would explain the burning agony in his chest, wouldn't it?
If he was drowning, he had to try to what? He couldn't remember any more.
Vin struggled feebly, a weak mewing sound escaping his lips.
"Easy, Vin, easy," Chris soothed. "I've got you. Lay still."
Chris? Was that Chris? Where was he? What was happening?
Fear forced the tracker's eyes open. He blinked, trying to clear his vision, and the shapes finally came into focus. The clinic. He was in the clinic. Nathan's clinic.
Nathan had been talking to him earlier, hadn't he? He was sure he'd heard Nathan. And then there had been that foul-tasting brew the healer had been forcing on him. Hadn't he?
If he was in the clinic, he wasn't drowning, but it still felt like his lungs were full of water.
Vin roused himself just enough to rasp out, "What's goin' on?" as he attempted to pull away from Chris.
"You're sick," Larabee's voice told him. "It's just the fever. Easy, just relax."
And then Vin realized the gunslinger was sitting behind him, holding him tight against his chest. He was safe. Chris had his back. Chris would make sure he didn't drown.
He could hear Nathan and Buck speaking to him as well, soothing him with soft whispers of assurance, but he couldn't make out the exact words. And he couldn't see them. But he knew they were there. And if they were there, the others must be near by as well. He was safe. His friends were there.
Vin let go, giving himself over to his friends' care.
Chris felt Vin relax and then eased him over and down against the pile of pillows.
Nathan pressed the back of his hand against Tanner's sweaty, dirt-smeared brow, worry making his heart fret. The tracker was so hot
At the cool touch Vin turned his head, and Jackson found himself staring into the startling, familiar blue eyes. "Easy, Vin," he said. "I think ya got the lung fever. I want ya to just lie still, y' hear?"
"I'm goin' to get ya some water."
Fear coursed though Tanner. He didn't want the water; didn't want anything in his stomach at all. He would just throw it up, and that would hurt. He had been throwing up a lot lately, and it had hurt every time and he was so tired of hurting.
How many times had he retched?
How long had he been like this?
He didn't know the answer to either question, and he couldn't think well enough to figure either out. He rolled his head from side to side, moaning, "No."
"Easy," Larabee soothed. "You have to take some water, Vin."
He had to.
Chris wouldn't lie to him. If Chris said he had to drink it, Vin knew he had to drink it, but he still didn't want to. It was going to hurt.
And then the cup was pressing against his lips and he was gulping the sweet, cool liquid. It felt so good on his ravaged throat. It tasted so good. He wanted more, but they were taking it away from him too soon. He moaned again.
"Not too much," Nathan told him. "We have to see if y' can keep it down first. If ya do, you can have some more."
Tanner closed his eyes, hoping it might ease the pain in his head, but it didn't. His stomach clenched, but he didn't retch. He almost laughed with relief.
The cup returned to his lips and he drank down some more of the wonderful water. Then it was gone again, too soon. He tried to draw a deeper breath and coughed once, then twice and a third time. And once he started, he couldn't seem to stop.
The pillows returned, and someone was pounding his back. He wanted to tell them to stop, but he couldn't breathe. Panic flared, and he tried to escape the torture being inflicted upon him, his arms flailing. But his wrists were caught and held.
He couldn't break free, he was too weak, and he couldn't stop coughing. It felt like he was dying.
He wished he was dying.
And then he felt the convulsive coughs cease, and the pounding turned to rubbing on his back. The touch felt good so good. He relaxed a little, and as soon as he did, he slipped into the blackness that swept up unexpectedly and carried him away without a fight.
"Nathan?" Chris questioned.
"It's all right," the healer said. "He's just sleeping." He looked up, meeting Larabee's eyes and smiling. "And he kept the water down."
Chris offered Jackson a small smile of his own in return. "What does that mean?"
"Mean's I got some medicine into him."
Larabee nodded, hoping it would be enough.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The following morning
Vin was sluggishly trying to swing his legs over the side of the bed when Chris walked into the clinic. Nathan was sitting in a chair near the bed, his head down, sleeping.
"Hey, what're you doing?" the gunslinger demanded, crossing the room in a hurry and reaching for Tanner.
"Chris," Vin said, straining against him. He lifted a shaky hand and pointed. "Tosi's trapped in the mine we have to find 'im "
Chris put one knee on the bed, trying to keep Vin on it and not jostle him so much he set off a coughing fit. "I know, Vin, I know. But we got Tosi out. He's fine," he told the man as soothingly as he could manage.
"We can't stay water's risin' too fast," the tracker argued. "I don't want t' drown "
"You won't drown, Vin, I promise you," Chris told him. "You can't drown. You're free. You're not trapped. You hear me? You can't drown. We'll be fine. Buck and Nathan and the others are here. They're going to get us out. You just need to lay back and rest. This'll be over soon."
Tanner blinked away the salty sweat smarting his eyes. He felt so damned weak, so confused. His mind was so mixed up he could barely think at all.
"Don't want t' drown, Chris," he weakly protested again, his elbow slipping to the mattress.
Larabee's hands caught him and pushed him back against the pillows. Looking over, the blond saw Nathan was awake and watching. The healer nodded that he should keep talking, then rose and headed across the room to pour water into a cup before he added some medicine to it.
Chris looked back at Vin, who was muttering to himself. He sat down on the edge of the bed and started talking to the tracker, telling him about the mine, the cave-in, and how they had gotten out.
Vin was dimly aware of the fact that Larabee was talking and that activity was taking place around him. There were murmured voices and rustling noises, but his brain couldn't sort out the myriad sounds, or tell him what they meant. His hearing, like his vision, was fuzzy. But it felt so good not to be moving, and there was the water, sweet and cool. He savored it, although there was a slightly bitter aftertaste he didn't much care for.
He wasn't in the mine shaft, he realized. This was a bed. A soft, clean bed; the sheets even smelled freshly laundered. He wanted to sleep so badly, but he couldn't remember how to close his eyes. Darkness crept toward him, stalking him. And, finally, it pounced, closing over him and damping his pain and confusion. There was quiet nothingness hovering just beyond his awareness and Vin reached eagerly for it, dropping into it with a grateful sigh.
"Vin?" Chris called, but Tanner was out again. Looking up at Nathan he asked, "What's wrong with him?"
"The fever," was the only answer the healer could give.