Main Characters: Chris and Vin, the Seven
Ratings/Warnings: PG-17, some bad language
Synopsis: When Vin is trapped, Chris must fight to save his friend's life.
Website Link if Any: Neon RainBow Press Fan Fic site coming soon!



The next afternoon

Vin's eyes sprang open at the touch on his ribs and a groan escaped his lips. He shuddered as the pain peaked and a new agony took its place. His hand came up, clawing at his chest.

"Easy," Larabee said and Vin clutched his friend's arm.

"I'm sorry if this is hurtin' ya, Vin," Nathan told him softly. "Can ya hold still fo' me? I'll get it done as quick as I can."

The healer slowly finished checking the tracker's ribs, then went to work cleaning the reddened, running wound on Tanner's leg. Sitting next to him, Chris used one hand, curved around Vin's sweaty head, to keep it from tossing while he spoke softly to the man, trying to keep him quiet so Nathan could work.

The healer was afraid for the first time in a long time, unsure of himself and his doctoring skills. He had seen a few others through the lung fever before. But they hadn't had an infected wound, or cracked ribs, along with it, and he just wasn't sure he could save the tracker.

The door to the clinic opened and Nettie Wells stepped inside, closing it behind her. She walked straight over to the bed where Vin lay and looked down at the young man, her knowing gaze taking in the leg wound and the bruises. She glanced over at Nathan, saying, "Casey told me Vin has the lung fever."

The healer nodded. "Yes, ma'am, I think so. He caught it after he nearly drowned in an old mine shaft. I haven't been able to do much t' help him. I sent fo' some stronger medicine, but it won't be here for a couple more days."

"Well, I don't know if it'll help him or not – sometimes it does, sometimes it don't – but I brought a poultice fer him. It saved m' husband's life some years back."

"Appreciate y' comin' into town with it," Nathan told her, the two walking over to the table to begin preparations, both discussing what else she would need.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Later that day

"Damn it!" Vin sobbed as the latest coughing fit finally came to an end. His grip was knuckle-white on the sheet and tears of pain escaped from the outer corners of his eyes as he shuddered hard.

"I'm sorry, Vin. I'm so sorry," Larabee choked, wanting to cry right along with him. He swiftly removed the soiled pieces of cloth in Tanner's lap, all of them filled with bloody green mucus, then helped the man lean back against the pillows, but even those slight, careful movements were pure agony for the tracker. For a brief moment, Chris thought that maybe it would've been better if he hadn't pulled that shot in the mine, but he pushed that notion away. At least Vin was still alive, still fighting.

Nathan handed the gunslinger a cup in which some medicine had been poured.

"Drink this for me," Larabee urged his friend. "It'll help the pain."

Tanner nodded and took the cup, but his hands were shaking so badly he could barely hold it without spilling it.

Chris quickly took it back. "Here, let me help," he said, holding the tracker's head up and pressing the cup firmly against his lips.

Vin took a sip and Chris forced the medicine into him, barely giving him time to swallow. Then it was done and he settled Tanner back against the damp pillows once again.

Before Larabee could move, Nettie was standing beside him and he was helping her arrange a new, hot poultice on the tracker's chest. The smell rising off the steaming mess made Larabee's eyes water and he choked back a cough of his own.

Once that was done, Vin slipped back into the oblivion he seemed to prefer recently.

Chris slowly straightened to face the worried eyes of the old woman standing beside her. "That's all we can do for now," he quietly told her.

"The Lord will do the rest," Josiah added from the doorway.

Chris shot the preacher a look laced with unhappiness. "Let's hope so," he replied before exiting the clinic.

The preacher looked up saying softly, "With the merciful thou will show thyself merciful, oh Lord, and Brother Vin is about as merciful as they come, so he could use some of yours right now."

"Amen, preacher," Nettie whispered.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The next day

Vin's fever was up. Nettie laid the back of her hand across the tracker's brow and he quieted some under her tender touch.

Lord, but he was a sight, she thought. There hadn't been time to wash him, so intent was Nathan and the others on attending to his injuries first. And then the fever had kept them all too busy. As a result, Tanner's face was dirt-streaked and sweaty. Bruises made his left cheek and eye puffy, marring his otherwise youthful good looks – the result of the rocks striking him in the mine shaft. His lower lip bore scabs where it had been split, or bitten, and his hair was a tousle of dirty curls. Heavy stubble whiskered his cheeks and chin. He looked so unlike the man she had met some months earlier it made her heart ache.

She shook her head. Having sent Nathan off to get some much-needed rest, she shooed the rest of the peacekeepers out on the healer's heels as well. All except Chris Larabee, who had steadfastly refused to leave, but even he had agreed to lie down and get some rest when she had insisted.

So, alone with the injured tracker, she checked her latest poultice, finding it still warm. At least the recipe seemed to make breathing a little easier for the tracker.

She stood and walked over to the table, preparing another for when this one cooled completely. By the time she'd finished, the gunslinger had wandered back into the clinic.

"If you're goin' t' be underfoot, best make yourself useful," she told him sternly. "Warm me some water and bring me a basin. I want to get this boy cleaned up before I put that next poultice on."

Larabee nodded and walked over to the potbelly stove to set some water on in the kettle. "What's in that poultice anyway?" he asked her.

"Ground mustard seed, chopped onions and minced wild garlic," she told him matter-of-factly.

"If it works as good as it smells bad, he ought to be up and around in no time."

Nettie laughed softly. "Smells worse 'n the Devil's own feet, I know, but it's done the job it's meant to do before. It'll work again this time… Seems t' work better on menfolk."

Vin shifted restlessly in the bed and Nettie walked over, sitting down on the edge and speaking to the fevered man in hushed tones, her soft, reassuring voice seeming to quiet him. When Chris brought her the warm water in a basin, she went to work, wiping and scrubbing, but careful to stay clear of the leg wound and his cracked ribs lest it cause him any unnecessary discomfort.

The water in the basin slowly became discolored as she wiped the sweat, grime, and blood from his body.

Chris sat down in the chair that had been pulled up next to the tracker's bed and watched her as she worked. Her hands were sure but gentle – a mother's hands.

Silently, Nettie moved the cloth below Vin's chin to remove the rings of dirt circling his neck and throat. They disappeared easily and she moved to his collarbone and chest, unable to go any farther because of the spreading bruises and the poultice.

Vin shifted then, his lips moving as he mumbled something they couldn't understand.

Nettie wiped away the sweat that had reformed across his forehead. "Hush," she said softly, her face close to his so he could hear her. "You're all right now, son. You're safe. All y' have t' do now is rest."

Tanner's eyes opened, glazed and unfocused. "Ma?" he asked timidly.

She pressed the cool, damp cloth to his brow, hoping it would soothe him back to sleep. "Lie still, son."

"Ma?" he asked again in a clear but low voice.

"No, Vin," she whispered sadly. "It's Nettie. Nettie Wells. But it's going t' be all right. You can rest now, you're with friends."

"Ma…" he breathed.

She knew he couldn't really see or hear her. Or at least he was unable to truly comprehend what she told him. His fever was weaving a vision of his lost mother before his eyes, and she was supplying the dead woman's voice.

One of Vin's hands came up, reaching for her. His fingertips touched her cheek. She caught it and tried to tuck it back under the blanket, but he resisted. Even in his weakened condition he still had some strength left, but she didn't want him to spend it on a dream, so she wrapped her hands around his and held him tightly. "Shh, son. You're goin' ta be just fine."

Vin rolled his head to the side, catching sight of the gunslinger. His blue eyes rounded with surprise, and a little fear. "Chris?" he breathed. "Are y' dead, Cowboy?"

Larabee shook his head, saying, "No, I'm not dead, and neither are you. You're just sick. We want you to rest. It's going to be all right."

Tanner shook with a chill, but he closed his eyes, his fingers tightening around Nettie's. She squeezed back.

Feeling safe, he let himself slip back into the darkness.

Chris sighed with relief, then looked at the older woman and asked, "Do you want me to put some more water on for that poultice?"

Nettie nodded as she finished bathing Vin.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Late that same night

The tracker's fever peaked in the midst of a delirium. Tanner cried out, speaking rapidly in a language none of them recognized.

"Kiowa, or Comanche," Chris said softly as he held Vin's head, trying to keep him still so he didn't do any damage to himself. Nathan was afraid the tracker might end up breaking one of his cracked ribs, driving the bone into an already stressed lung.

All of the peacekeepers were there, doing whatever they could to help the injured man. JD and Buck fetched up buckets of fresh water. Josiah and Nathan dipped towels in the liquid, wrung them out and draped them over Vin's body, trying to bring his fever down. Ezra held the tracker's feet, Chris his head, and Nettie kept his free hand occupied, holding it in her lap. The other was secured by a towel that had been wrapped around his wrist and tied to the bedpost.

As the fever built to a peak, Vin began to mutter softly, a few coherent words or phrases escaping his lips, and all of them spoke to the suffering and loss the tracker had experienced over the course of his short life.

They each comforted the man as best they could, but nothing seemed to reach past the haze the fever created – nothing except Nettie's voice, and Larabee's touch. So the older woman continued to speak softly to him, and Chris tried to soothe him, but Vin still slipped into the dark dreams that haunted him in the netherworld he found himself lost in.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin moved through a shadowy world of pain and fear. He wasn't sure where he was, but he knew he didn't want to stay there any longer than he had to.

His chest burned with an unending ache that drained him, and he could hear himself coughing, gagging on the thick phlegm, but he could no longer feel the tearing shards of pure agony that the action usually provoked. It was still hard for him to breathe, but not as hard as it had been before, although he wasn't sure when "before" was.

He could hear voices drifting out beyond the shadows, could feel hands touching his body, taking care of him, and he felt shame that he was too weak to tend to his needs himself, especially the more personal ones. He should be able to take care of himself, but he had no control over his body at the moment, and no idea how to take control back from whatever had drawn him to this place.

Strong odors assailed his senses, making his nose and throat burn. He wanted to gag, but was afraid it might only leave him retching again. So he pulled back farther into the shadows and hunkered down, waiting.

But the waiting wore on him and, eventually, he ventured out again, determined to do something, even if he had no idea what. He didn't like this place. He wanted to go home.

Home, he thought. I have t' find a way home.

He hadn't had a real home since he had been taken from his Kiowa family. Not until he had met Larabee and the other regulators. He wanted to return to Four Corners. He wanted to be with his friends, his chosen family there. But how?

He struggled, trying to find a way out of the nightmare he seemed to be trapped in, but nothing he did seemed to help.

Then he heard her.

"Easy, son, yer goin' t' be jus' fine… Y' just have t' fight this fever off is all… I know y' can beat this. Yer strong, Vin, always have been. Yer a Tanner. Y' remember that. And a Tanner never quits. Never."

Ma? he called, looking around at the grey-black landscape for her. Then he saw something… a light moving closer. And, before he really understood, she was standing in the distance, looking just like he remembered her – young, strong, vibrant. Long dark-blonde hair fell around her shoulders, and her blue eyes regarded him with motherly pride and affection.

"I love y', Vin," she said, although her lips never moved. "I love y' so much."

I love y' too, Mama.

"Y' have t' fight this, Vin. Y' can't give up. Not now, not ever. Promise me."

I give y' m' word, Mama.

"Yer friends are doin' all they c'n t' help ya. Miss Nettie, too. Y' just got t' keep fightin', Vin. Fight hard."

I'll fight, Mama. I give y' m' word…. I miss y', Mam. I miss y' so much m' heart wants to burst some days.

She smiled at him. "I know, Vin. I know. I c'n hear ya."

I love y', Mama.

"I love you, too," she told him, then slowly faded from sight.

And, suddenly, Vin was no longer in the shadow lands, but was back in the mine shaft, trapped under the beam, the cold water rushing into his lungs, drowning him.

"No!" he cried, fighting for all he was worth. "No!"

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin came awake with an anguished cry. He curled in on himself, coughing and gagging uncontrollably until he was retching as well. He couldn't breathe, he couldn't stop coughing, or vomiting. He hurt, everywhere.

And, in that moment, he just wanted it to end. And, eventually, it did.

He was finally able to lie back while the others cleaned him and the bed up.

It was a little easier to breathe, he realized, but he left his eyes closed and continued panting. A cool cloth wiped his face.

The touch shocked Tanner awake and a small moan escaped him before he had enough sense to suppress it.

"Where 're we?" he mumbled, his blurry gaze catching Larabee's eyes.

Chris gently wiped the tracker's brow again. "We're in Four Corners, in the clinic. You're safe," he responded. "Tosi's safe too. The others got us out of the shaft."

Vin flinched and tried to move away when Nathan began checking his leg.

"Easy, easy," the gunslinger told him. "Let Nathan take a look at that. You have a good-sized gash in your leg and it's infected."

Vin lifted his head as best he could to look down at the healer, watching for a moment as the man worked. Then he let his head drop back against his pillows.

"You want some water, son?"

Vin rolled his head and met Nettie's concerned gaze. He smiled weakly and nodded.

Chris met Nathan's eyes, asking silently if the tracker was over the worst. The healer only offered a shrug, unsure if it was over, or if this was just a temporary respite.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The next day

Vin pulled himself awake, but his head was spinning, making him squint against the meager light that was sneaking into the room from behind the closed curtains. He had been sick on and off for the last hour, losing whatever he had been able to eat or drink before that. He was weak and shaky, and in pain. The throb in his ribs flared painfully with any movement. He thought sleep would allow him to heal, but he only seemed to be getting worse, even though he was able to breathe easier now.

Other than crawling out of bed to relieve himself, he had no strength whatsoever.

"Here," said a soft voice, interrupting his dazed thoughts. A woman's voice. Nettie. "I've brought you a fresh pillow, son."

Vin struggled forward. His ribs and stomach complaining mightily, but he gritted his teeth and pushed himself up. A small hand slid in under his head to steady it. He felt the cool, smooth pillow slide in behind him and settled back against it. Its freshness was soothing, as were the older woman's ministrations.

"Thank ya, Nettie," he murmured.

His voice was so scratchy it could barely be heard and she felt a jolt of fear shake her. He was rapidly weakening under the fever which would only break for an hour or two, then return with ferocity, sapping his strength. Nettie and the others had thought he would be better by now, but the stubborn fever refused to let him go.

She patted his shoulder. He was young enough to be her son, and she sometimes wished he was. But he was so sick, so weak, she was deathly afraid she might lose him before she had the chance to tell him how she felt about him. And she refused to do it now, certain he would think she knew he was dying if she did. She turned away to leave, to let him rest, but his fingers closed over hers, drawing her back.

"Please," he said on a light breath, "stay fer a little while… please." His hand was warm and sweaty and she squeezed it.

"Y' need t' rest, son," she replied. "You're goin' t' beat this, I know y' are."

His eyes were dark and pleading. "'M scared, Nettie."

"Well, don't y' be. You're woolly t' the bone, Vin Tanner. Ain't no fever goin' t' beat ya unless y' let it. So, don't y' let it."

He smiled weakly at her, his eyes dropping closed again. Was it that easy? Did he just have to decide to win?

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The next day

Chris didn't turn around; he didn't need to. The scene remained unchanged from the day before. He ran a trembling hand over his hair. "He hasn't kept anything down for two days, Nathan. He's out of his head…" It was the closest he had come to admitting his real fear, and the healer knew it.

Jackson nodded. "I'm using Nettie's poultice, herbs from the Seminole village, a tea Josiah rode out to get from Ko-Je's people, and half a dozen things that Ming gave me. It's all we can do, Chris. It's up to Vin now. Maybe when that medicine gets here…"

Buck placed a hand on his friend's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "He's tough, Chris. He'll make it."

"I hope you're right," Larabee replied.

"Me, too," the ladies' man agreed. He offered Chris a small smile. "Hell, pard, I've gotten used ta havin' him around."

Larabee nodded. "Me, too."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Later that day

Vin's shiver shook him awake. Someone was sitting near him, a figure, a dark, unrecognizable shape. He winced at the cool hand on his cheek. His skin hurt, but it also felt like it was on fire.

"Chris…" he managed on a heavy tongue. He tried to rise up, but his neck couldn't support his head or his arms his body weight. His joints ached painfully, and it felt like someone had set fire to his head and chest.

"Easy, Vin," returned a soft voice. "Don't try to move."

"Y' kept yer word, Cowboy," he said, his words slurring together.

Larabee shushed him, and his hands held him down. "I almost killed you, if that's what you mean," he replied. "No, lay still and rest, I'll go get Nathan."

Trembling, Chris turned away. He feared the infection of the fever had gotten too far, that Tanner's time was up. Had Vin sensed it, too? His agitation made him think maybe Vin had.

Tanner hadn't eaten for several days, and the fever refused to break for good. God, he sighed silently, did it have it end like this? Too many people in his life had already died. He didn't think he could bear losing another one.

"Chris," Tanner called.

The gunslinger turned back. "Yeah?"

"I ain't gave up yet."

"Good," Larabee replied, wondering how long the man could last.

"Ain't sure I c'n beat this, Cowboy."

"You damned well better."

"If I don't… I want y' t' collect that bounty."

"I'm going to get Nathan," Chris said quickly. "You just lay still and rest."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

That night

Chris held Vin as the tracker retched, tormented by the shudders coursing through the man's body. Tanner had kept nothing down all day, and yet he was still sick. The gunslinger held him carefully over his arm, mindful of the man's bruised ribs. He was afraid to put his arms around the tracker, knowing every movement caused him pain, but Vin seemed to need his strength right now.

But how long could Vin endure this torture? He was gasping for breaths, his face grey and lined, his body contorted with the spasms that shook him.

"Easy, now," Chris told him softly as Tanner finally quieted. "Let's get you a little more comfortable. Easy, I'm going to lay you down." Slowly he pressed his friend into the pillows, his strong hand supporting Tanner's lolling head.

Vin whimpered as he was jostled, and the small sound pierced Larabee's heart. Other than crying out when he'd first thrown up, he hadn't made any sounds at all. How long could it take – hours, another day? And why? All they'd done was try to help save a child, and this was the thanks they got?

"Chris…" Somehow, Tanner was still lucid, despite his pain and fever. He reached out for his friend and Larabee caught his hand, giving the burning fingers a small squeeze.

"I'm here, pard. I won't let go."

Chris had thought his presence would calm Vin, but the tracker was determined to fight. At least he still had some fight left in him, the gunslinger thought. But he should have been using it to defeat the fever, not ramble on over promises that Larabee didn't want to keep.

"Chris," he breathed hoarsely, struggling to get into a better position to see his friend, "listen t' me."

"No, damn it, you listen to me, Tanner," Chris declared, coming at him again with the cloth. The fever was raging and it dried the wet rag almost as soon as Chris laid it across Vin's forehead. The curly ends of his hair were dark and damp. "Lie still and rest."

"If I don't… If I don't make it–"

"Stop that!" Larabee declared quickly, wringing out the cloth again. The action was useless, but he was too full of fear to sit still. "You're going to get through this, Vin."

"If I don't," Tanner insisted, his eyes dark and turbulent with pain. He clutched his friend's arm, the grip surprisingly tight. "Promise me somethin'."

"What's that?" Chris asked, wishing he didn't sound so timid.

The tracker swallowed back a bite of pain. "Promise me you'll get m' bounty… an' use some of that money t' try 'n' clear m' name? Use the rest t' help Ko-Je's people… 'n' the folks out… at the Seminole village… Maybe fix up yer place some, too."

"Aw, Vin…" Larabee tried to pull away, but the tracker hung on to his arm.

"Give me yer word, Chris," Vin commanded in a voice that dried to a whisper. "Don't let m' life go fer nothin'."

"Your life's not a waste, Vin," Chris said. "Don't you ever think it is either." He reached over to loosen the fingers curled around his wrist. "You've done a helluva lot of good here."

"Give me yer word, Cowboy." The tracker tugged on Larabee's shirtfront and lifted himself up a little.

"Lay down, damn it," the gunslinger snapped back.

"Do it…"


"Promise me…" Tanner insisted.

Chris dropped back in close, his forehead almost pressed to his friend's. "You're going to get through this, you hear me?" he responded emphatically. "You've fought this far, you just have to keep going a little while longer. Just like back in that mine shaft. You kept fighting, so did I, and we got you out of there. Now you have to get yourself out of this one." Chris wanted to believe everything he was saying. He needed to believe it. He couldn't let Tanner give up.

"Don't… argue with me… damn it," Vin got out with visible irritation.

"And don't you argue with me," Larabee returned.

"Damn it, Chris," Vin insisted. "I'm likely dyin'–"

"You're not dying!" Larabee shouted. He caught Nathan's eye from where he paced in the room, his worry obvious by his stance. The gunslinger immediately dropped his voice. "You're going to be all right."

"Damn y', Larabee, say it!" Vin growled with unexpected energy. He sat up and curled his hand into a fist.

Chris saw the clumsy blow coming and easily dodged it, but the swing pitched Vin forward, and he collapsed across the bed with a sob and a groan. Larabee swore, his eyes blurry with tears. The tracker hurt so much, and it was impossibly painful to see him like this.

Chris crowded onto the bed. Gently, he got his arms around his friend again, lifted him up and moved him back against the pillows. Tanner's back was taut and quaking, his face white, his eyes quickly losing focus.

"Chris, please," he pleaded weakly, swallowing his nausea as Larabee cradled his head and adjusted the pillows beneath him. "I'm not up t' beggin' no more."

"All right, damn it, all right!" Chris snapped. He sat back, the lump in his throat nearly closing his words. "If it'll shut you up, I'll do it."

"Y' promise?"

Chris sighed shakily. "I promise, just like I did in that damn mine," he answered, his voice cracking. He laid a hand on the tracker's burning cheek and Vin flashed him a brief, weak smile. "No more talking now," he whispered to the tracker, stroking the heated skin. "You need to rest." Damn it, you got me on that one, he thought sadly. Please, God, don't make me see it through.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The following morning

Buck's heart went out to the blond man in the clinic. Larabee sat by Tanner's bed, his elbows on his knees, his face buried in his hands. He looked like he had begun a deathwatch. When Chris heaved a huge sigh the ladies' man could have sworn he sobbed.

In the bed, Vin looked like he was already gone. He breathed raggedly. His face was as white as the sheets, his lips were slightly blue, cracked and dry, and the leg wound was red and wet with something. Silently, Nathan brushed past him and headed for his patient.

Chris jerked at the hand on his shoulder and raised his aching head. He came to his feet when he saw Nathan standing over him. "Ya need to rest, Chris. I'll wake ya in a couple 'a hours."

Larabee looked from the healer to Tanner and shook his head.

"Y' heard 'im," Vin rasped softly. "Go get… some sleep, Cowboy… I ain't… goin' nowhere."

Chris hesitated a moment, then asked desperately, "Promise?"

"Give y'… m' word," the tracker said.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

A few hours later

Chris jerked awake, looking up into Josiah's smoky grey-blue eyes. "Vin?" he asked, his voice tight with fear.

The preacher nodded, but he was smiling. "The medicine Nathan sent for arrived. Brother Vin's awake and asking for you."

Larabee swung out of the healer's bed and brushed past the blanket.

Nathan nodded with satisfaction and pulled the cup away from Vin's cracked lips. The tracker had struggled to swallow the tiny amount of medicine the healer had trickled down his throat, but the potent morphine compound had slid down with no further trouble after the first. Already Tanner's breathing was quieter.

"He's dehydrated," Jackson told the others as they gathered around, looking haggard and worried. "We've got to get some liquids into him, even if it's only a teaspoon or two every hour. This medicine should quiet him 'til that damned fever finally breaks fo' good."

"He's had a fever for nine days," Ezra put in softly. "When will it end?"

Nathan was acutely aware that the others were all scrutinizing his actions. Having an audience didn't usually disturb him – there weren't many who would let a Negro doctor someone without keeping a sharp eye on him and what he was doing, but their collective concern made him work with slow and deliberate care. They all so obviously cared for Vin, just like he did, and they were hanging on his every word and action, looking for something to give them a little hope. And now, finally, Jackson felt like he could give them something.

Nathan turned his attention and gentle hands to the tracker's leg wound. Although drugged, Tanner still involuntarily stiffened and shifted, his free hand clutching at the sheet that covered the rest of him. His eyes fluttered open, glassy and unseeing. The healer murmured some soothing words of comfort, and continued his examination.

As he dried the reddened wound with a clean towel, he said, "This infection's drawn out good. It's all but gone now. He just needs some food to break the fever, then these stitches can come out." He pulled the sheet down and his hands slid along the tracker's ribs to examine the injured bones there. The swelling was down. The younger man would be stiff and sore for a few more days, but he was healing. And his lungs sounded much clearer, the regular application of Nettie's poultice keeping the congestion at a manageable level.

Now they just had to build up his strength in order to nurse him back to health. Vin wasn't out of danger, but he was getting closer. And he still had some strength left. He just had to get some food and water into him to regain more of the strength he had lost. The fever had taken a heavy toll on the tracker, but Jackson thought if it broke in the next day or two, Tanner had a good chance for a full recovery, and he told the others exactly that. They erupted with hoots and hugs.

Chris didn't hear the instructions Nathan gave each of the others. He felt emotion creeping back over him, a mixture of exhaustion and gratitude, and it left him with a bad case of the shakes. He walked over and sat down next to Vin, his hand on the tracker's tightening. This was the beginning of renewed hope for the gunslinger. His faith in the stubborn tracker's strength and will had failed him, but its return felt like the loosening of a tremendous weight from around his neck.

"You can do this, Vin," he said softly. "You can beat this, and we're going to be here for you every step of the way. You hear me? We aren't going to let you walk this alone."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Later that day

It was like waking from an endless dream.

As Vin labored to rise to full consciousness, his senses began to assault him. Vainly he tried to put them into some kind of order and settle them back where they belonged, but they were slippery, uncooperative.

He struggled to move, but his body didn't respond any better than his thoughts had.

Next, he made an agonizing attempt to open his eyes. This time, his lids finally cracked apart. Streaks of white light poured through the narrow slits and he grunted in pain, but he forced them to stay open.

Slowly, his eyes adjusted to the brightness and his vision cleared. He was in a room, but where? There was a bed under him, a bed with fresh-smelling blankets covering him. And then the pain began to interrupt his wandering thoughts, a dull ache spreading through his leg and chest as his head pounded in time to his heartbeat.

He heard rustling sounds and turned his head slowly, afraid of souring his stomach and touching off another bout of retching, something he did remember – too clearly, he decided.

A cool, wet cloth greeted his cheek and he stopped moving. He looked and Nettie's face slowly appeared above him.

Her hand was soft, her touch feather-light on his skin. Tanner found the concern and affection in the old woman's eyes too much to bear and glanced away, blushing. His thoughts grew drunk on the knowledge that he had friends now, family – people who cared about him.

And then he remembered – the mine shaft, the ride back to town in Josiah's arms, the endless days in the clinic, each of them helping him, caring for him. They had taken care of his every need, and done it willingly, with concern for his welfare. They had kept him alive.

He flinched slightly when Nettie came too close to his injured ribs and she paused. "Y' awake, son?"

"If I ain't, this dream's a damn sight better 'n the rest I've been havin'," he replied weakly.

Nettie smiled. "We think the fever's finally broken for good," she told him quietly, smoothing back the dark, damp ringlets of hair that had crept over his temple.

Her stare made Vin uncomfortable and he fumbled with the sheet. She did the same with the cloth in the basin, catching it not once but twice as it slipped from her wet fingers.

She gave him a reassuring smile. "We've been worried about ya, y'know," she said. "How do ya feel?"

"How long?" he asked in a rough whisper, his tongue sluggish against his coated teeth.

"You've been sick over a week," she told him. "Nine days in fact."

That long? Vin shifted, then shivered with the chill that followed. Nettie responded by pulling the covers up over him.

"Chris…" he began.

"He'll be back soon, don't you worry. He'll be glad to see you're awake, too," she said and smiled.

He touched her arm, not quite believing she was real. The old woman's gaze followed his action.

"I don't r'member… too much," Vin admitted, fatigue wearing him down again. He closed his eyes briefly. "My chest… hurts." He let go of her and reached up to touch the source of his pain, and she pulled his hand back.

"Don't," she cautioned, "you have some cracked ribs."

He nodded, an itch on his leg drawing his attention away. He reached for that instead.

"No," she cautioned a second time, "the stitches are still there. Nathan might be able t' take those out tomorrow, if you're up to it."

Tanner slowly became aware of his unkempt appearance. Days spent lying sick and delirious in bed would certainly have affected his looks. Stitches in his leg? Beyond a doubt he needed a bath and a shave. In fact, he could probably use a week of soaking to get the sweat off his skin. He didn't know why he should care at this point, but he did. Self-conscious, he sank back against the mattress and plucked at the blankets, pulling them up to his chin. He averted his eyes, and felt a flush spread across his cheeks. How much had she seen of him? And where the hell was Nathan? He ought to be doing this, not her.

She chuckled. "Hell, son, ain't nothin' I haven't seen before."

He groaned.

Nettie leaned over and took his face in her hands, rolling his head back so he was looking at her. "I didn't think I was goin' ta get the chance ta tell ya this, Vin Tanner, so ya listen and ya listen well. You're a damned fine man, and I'd've been proud to call ya my son, if I'd been blessed to bring ya into this world."

His face went red and tears welled in his eyes. He nodded. "Would've been proud t' call y' my ma, too, Nettie."

She smiled and sniffed. "Well, then ya listen ta this old biddy and do like I tell ya. I'm goin' to make ya some tea and heat up some broth, and you're goin' to take both."

"Ah hell, Nettie, I'll just end up with my head over the basin if I do."

"Maybe, but ya need to build your strength, and that's the only way ya can do it. So you're goin' ta try, y'hear?"

"Yes, ma'am," he replied.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

A short while later

That evening Larabee stood over his friend for moment, grateful to just be able to see the man free of the ravaging fever, then he leaned over and gently placed his hand on the tracker's forehead.

He was cool, the fever gone, just like Nettie and Nathan had said. That was a relief, although Vin was still horribly pale and thin. Damn, it had been a tough few days, but Vin was alive and on the mend. The crisis was past.

The tracker stirred under the tender touch and opened his eyes. "Hey," he greeted weakly, managing a grin for his friend.

"Hey, yourself," Chris said, returning the grin. "You look like hell, Cowboy, but it's a sight that never looked better. I'm damned glad to have you back with us."

"I don't remember…" Vin frowned.

"You will. Give it time. Beside, some things that happen are best forgotten anyway."

"No, I mean, I don't remember ever leavin'."

Chris sat down on the end of the bed. "You didn't leave, not exactly. That fever just took you a little farther away from us than I wanted."

Vin nodded. "The dreams… they's so damn real…"

Larabee nodded. "Fever dreams."

"I saw m' ma."

"I'm not surprised."

Vin blinked owlishly and looked up, meeting Chris's eyes. "She said she could hear me when I thought 'bout her." He smiled weakly. "'M glad t' know it. I'll think 'bout her more." He paused, then added, "Guess that means Sarah c'n hear you, too."

Larabee jerked slightly, but the idea was strangely comforting. If she knew how much he'd loved her, how much he still loved her, that was just fine by him. "Guess maybe she can," he said.

The two men fell into a comfortable silence for a moment, then both started talking at the same time.

They both stopped and Chris said, "Go ahead, do you need something?"

"Jus' wanted t' thank y' fer what y' did back in that shaft."

Larabee shook with the chill that snaked down his back. "I didn't do anything… I almost couldn't do anything."

"But y' did," Vin said. "I saw ya. You wouldn't 'a let me drown."

"You almost did."

"Y' waited long 'nough fer me to get free, not so long I drowned. Seems t' me that's perfect timin'."

Chris snorted and shook his head. Tanner logic. "I'm just glad things worked out for the best… and I didn't have to collect that damned bounty. I swear, Tanner, we're going to have to do something about that. I don't want you holding that over me like you did this time."

The tracker smiled. "What d'y' have in mind?"

"I say we ride to Tascosa and set the record straight. There's got to be someone who'll listen, someone who knows what kind of man Eli Joe was."

Vin thought for a moment. "Maybe, but fer right now, think I'll just stay right here and heal up, if y' don't mind. Ain't ready to put m' neck in the noose again jus' yet."

Larabee nodded his understanding. There would be time to clear the tracker's name.

Time… damn, that was a good word.

"Yer a helluva friend, Chris," Vin added softly. "Jus' want y' t' know I appreciate it; means a helluva lot t' me."

"Likewise," Chris replied. And they fell back into the same comfortable silence that they usually shared.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Three weeks later, the Seminole village

The Seven sat on blankets under the hillside ledge, just in case it rained. Vin leaned back against the hillside, looking content as he watched the villagers and his friends. He was still a little pale and gaunt, and he tired much easier than usual, but he was slowly rebuilding his strength.

The chief had asked them to return once Vin was able to travel and the tracker had seemed happy to make the trip, so Nathan had given the visit his blessing, which was all Chris wanted.

They had ridden out slowly, their usual banter more subdued until JD had said, "Hey, Ezra, I've been meaning to ask you, how do you know so much about mines? Were you a miner?"

The gambler snorted and nearly choked. "Me, a miner? My good sheriff, a gentleman would never stoop so low as to engage in the tedious, back-breaking labor of mining."

"Well, how'd ya know then?" JD pressed, honestly curious.

Standish looked like he might ignore the question, but Vin said softly, "Buck told me how y' figured y' might reach us from the top of that hill. Guess y' saved m' life. Just wanted y' to know that means something t' me."

As your life means something precious to me, my friend, Ezra wanted to say, but he opted for, "A fortuitous happenstance, Mr. Tanner, nothing more, I assure you."

The tracker shrugged, but his blue eyes met the gambler's green and Ezra knew Tanner hadn't bought a word of it.

The gambler cleared his throat and said as lightly as he could, "I once had the dubious honor of winning a gold mine from a man… Let us just say that he presented the property's value in such a way my expectations far exceeded the facts."

"Y' want to try that again – in the common man's tongue?" Tanner drawled.

"He told me the mine was bringing in twenty thousand a year, but it was a lie," the gambler stated simply.

Nathan chuckled. "Ya mean he conned you? You?"

Ezra's chest puffed out and his expression was indignant. "He did not con me, Mr. Jackson. He simply perpetrated an ingenious fraud."

"What happened to the mine?" JD asked him.

Ezra sighed and said, "After I had a look at my newly acquired property, I knew I had to… sell it, to someone who understood the subtleties of gold mining better than I."

"You men you found someone who knew less than you did," Josiah translated.

"But while I was the registered owner, I learned more about mines than I ever would otherwise have chosen," Ezra concluded.

"Well, however y' learned it, 'm just glad y' did," Vin said.

"Me, too," Chris added, shooting the gambler a grateful smile that warmed Ezra's heart.

"My pleasure, gentlemen," he replied , tipping his hat to them.

And the banter had returned to its usual level for the rest of the trip.

In the village, the women immediately took Vin under their care, escorting him to one of the blankets and making him comfortable. They fed him and handed him cups of water and fermented juices. He took everything they gave him, taking a bite, a sip, enjoying the tastes, but being careful not to overload his stomach.

Seeing that Vin was in good hands, the others took seats and joined in the feast, this time uninterrupted by storms.

Tosi came over and sat next to Chris, looking up at the gunslinger, his big brown eyes full of awe and adulation. Larabee blushed and tousled the boy's hair, asking how he was doing.

"I'm fine," Tosi stated confidently. "But I am not allowed to play near the old mine any more," he added, sounding disappointed.

Buck looked across to the old chief and said, "I brought a couple 'a sticks of dynamite; thought we'd seal that shaft."

The silver-haired man nodded. "That would be for the best, I think."

Tosi and his friends sighed heavily, knowing they would have to find a new place to play and find adventures.

Opa Locka slipped in next to Buck, saying, "I never told you how much I appreciate you saving my brother."

"Oh, well…" Buck started, and then he remembered what Nathan had told him about the young woman. "… It was Chris here, and Vin, who saved him."

The young woman frowned slightly, but she looked from Larabee to Tanner, nodding her thanks to each man. Her gaze settled on the tracker and she studied the man for a long moment.

Vin noticed the scrutiny and dipped his head, blushing slightly.

One of the older women noticed and scolded Opa Locka in her native tongue. The chief watched the exchange and decided any of the men would make good husbands, but he doubted any of them were willing to give up their lives for the joys he could offer them. Well, maybe next year.

The End


Author's Note: This story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #4, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Patricia Grace is the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang ? Sierra Chaves, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story last edited 6-21-2005. The art is by Shiloh