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O'Malley and Jackson nodded to the others that they were ready to move Larabee into his home. Sanchez and Thompson each caught a corner of the blanket while the two healers grabbed the other end. Dunne and Tucker moved in to help take some of the burden off the others and they soon had the injured man inside and on his bed.
"Josiah, would you see if Chris has anything in his cupboards? Maybe get a fire started and boil some water?" Jackson asked. He didn't hold out much hope because Larabee and Tanner had been away from Four Corners for three weeks prior to the unexpected trip to Farmington.
"I'll see what's around, Nathan," Sanchez said.
"Nathan, want me to ride into town and pick up some supplies?" Dunne offered.
"JD, we've all been riding for pretty close to twenty four hours straight. We need supplies, but I think it can wait until after we're all rested," Jackson answered.
" Why don't you give me a hand?" Sanchez asked, knowing the younger man wanted to do something to help. "Sheriff Dunne"
"Sure, Josiah," Dunne said, looking from Tanner to Larabee before following the older man out of the bedroom.
"All right, Nathan, let's see what we're dealing with," O'Malley said and moved to check the quiet Texan. He took a deep breath and peeled back the bandages revealing the ravaged wound beneath. There was no new bleeding, but there were signs of infection and he knew they would need to re-open the wound in order to drain whatever lay beneath. "Nathan, tell Josiah we'll need lots of hot water."
"Damn it!" Jackson said when he caught sight of the swelling beneath the burnt flesh. He made sure Sanchez understood what was needed and hurried back to help O'Malley.
"Nathan, you did the right thing."
"Don't appear like it. We're gonna have to cut him again...should never..."
"Would he have bled to death?"
"Then you saved his life. Now we're just going to have to make a small incision here and here and drain it. We keep im still and make sure it's kept clean he should be all right!" O'Malley explained and knew how hard it was for Jackson to see his friends hurting.
"I'll see if Chris has any whiskey or carbolic," Jackson said.
"All right," O'Malley agreed. He wished there'd been better news for the soulful healer, but right now things were glum and until Larabee and Tanner showed some sign of improvement it would remain that way. He glanced at Larabee before joining Jackson in the outer room and helping him get the supplies they'd need together. He was amazed at the things they found in Larabee's cupboards and knew Nathan Jackson cared about these men, enough so that he made sure they did not want for anything if one of them was injured. It took half an hour to get everything ready and he stood in the bedroom once more.
"Let's move the bed away from the wall," Jackson suggested and between them they managed to move it and give him enough room to work from the other side. 'Josiah, Hank, think you two better give us a hand here."
"What do you need, Nathan?" Sanchez asked.
"Hold him down...can't have him move when Jack cuts him..."
'When Jack cuts him...' A frown marred the pale features of the man in the next bed, but no one saw it or heard the softly whispered name. "V...V...in..."
"Josiah, get his shoulders," Jackson ordered. "Carl, take his legs."
"What do you want me to do, Nathan?" Dunne asked.
"JD, right now I just need you to stay back a little. Don't got much room in here," the healer explained.
"All right," O'Malley said. "Let's get this done and maybe let this boy heal some."
Josiah watched as O'Malley placed the sharp instrument against the puckered, reddened area at one end of the burn. He felt Vin's body tense and the eyes shot open as a weak cry escaped the injured man. He spoke softly to the Texan in an effort to soothe the tortured soul as blood welled up around the wound. The smell from the rancid wound caused his stomach to churn and he looked toward Jackson as he heard the two healers talk about the infection and fever.
Vin could not move, could not breathe, and could not cry out as something sharp cut into him. He fought to open his eyes, to scream at whoever was causing the pain, but the darkness surrounded him, seeping into his soul as the words were chanted and a flicker of light glanced off the sharp instrument held above him. 'Chris...no...C...Chris...'
The eyes set in the pale face flashed from crimson to green fire as the ominous chanting escaped from Chris' slack lips. Vin tried to reach out to the blond, but there was nothing of the gunslinger left in the man's features. Instead there was only anger and determination as the knife descended once more.
All eyes were on the scene at Vin Tanner's bed and no one noticed the sorrow filled green eyes that opened briefly. A single tear slipped from each eye as the knife cut into his soul as easily as it cut into the Texan's flesh. Chris' hands fisted at his sides as he fought to breathe, but there seemed to be little air in the small room. His head turned slightly until he caught sight of the men working on Tanner and he swallowed the hot, bitter bile that rose on a tide of horror in his throat. His eyes closed as an image imprinted on his mind and threatened to send him into Columber's waiting arms. There was pain in his own body, but it didn't compare to the pain he'd inflicted on his friend when he brought the knife slashing down into the unprotected chest.
"I'm sorry...I'm sorry...I'm sorry..." the words were whispered, but went unheard as Vin's scream echoed through his mind. Chris turned his head slightly as the air in his lungs seemed to catch fire and made it hard to breathe. His heart skipped several beats as he watched the Texan struggle against the people hovering over him. He could see the blood and gore on Jackson's hands and the rancid smell of infection and knew Tanner's spilled blood was on his hands. He swallowed against the bitter bile that rose on a burning tide in his throat and again looked at the face he knew so well. For a second Tanner's head turned in his direction and the blue eyes locked onto green. Chris' breath caught in his throat, but there was something about the emotive blue orbs that quenched the fire burning through his soul. 'I'm sorry...God help me, Vin, I'm sorry,' he thought.
Nathan reached across to help O'Malley purge the last of the gore from Tanner's chest. He cleaned the area and looked at Texan's face as he cried out weakly against this newest invasion. "Easy, Vin, we're almost finished."
Chris felt as if his soul shattered when Vin's weak cries turned into even weaker moans and he closed his eyes. He felt a hand on his forehead, but took no solace from the touch as blackness surrounded him and drew him back into the pits of hell.
JD removed his hand from the blond's forehead and turned to watch Jackson and O'Malley working on the Texan, glad that Chris had not been awake during the purging of the wound. He knew Vin and Chris were close and understood just how hard it would have been for Chris to watch what was being done to help Vin. Knowing there wasn't much he could do to help the healers with the wounds, JD sought out other ways to help when Nathan stood and moved to check the second patient.
"Nathan?" JD whispered and waited for the healer to look at him. "Want me to help cool him down?"
"Yeah, JD, but I need ta take a look at him first," Jackson said, knowing in his heart the youngest member of the team needed something to keep him busy. He turned toward the other bed and rubbed at tired eyes.
"How is he, Nathan?" O'Malley asked as he placed a bandage over Tanner's wound.
"Still burnin' up," Jackson answered. "Need to check his wounds as soon's yer ready."
"I'm finished here," the physician assured him and sighed heavily. While Sanchez and Tucker moved Tanner's bed back against the wall, O'Malley washed the blood from his hands and turned his attention to the second patient.
JD moved out of the way and turned to see Buck and Ezra watching through the open door. Somehow the two men had managed to get their chairs in position to see what was taking place and the Easterner could easily read the worry in their eyes. He nodded to both and turned back to watch the two healer's work on Larabee. They'd already moved the bed away from the wall and were in the process of removing the bandage from the wound in his side. Dunne winced when he saw the jagged edges and closed his eyes as he remembered the living splinter that had moved below the surface. His body shook with weariness, yet he would not rest until he knew Chris would make it through the healer's ministrations.
"Nathan, you said a splinter of wood caused this?" O'Malley asked.
"Yeah, it wasn't very big but it...well it..."
"What?" the physician asked.
"It moved around...a lot," the former slave amended.
"Something is causing this swelling and infection. It could be internal damage, or possibly tiny pieces of wood broke off from that splinter. Either way we're going to need to make a poultice and hope that'll take care of it. You never did explain where he got those marks on his chest," O'Malley said of the markings on Larabee's upper body.
"I don't know all of it, Jack and what I do know would probably sound more like something out of..."
"Edgar Allen Poe," Sanchez finished. He'd read some of Poe's writings during his early years of travel and was amazed at how his horrific tales reminded him of their recent experiences.
"Poe...I believe I read one or two of his stories when I was back east. Never thought much of 'em," O'Malley said.
"I think he may have visited the Inn at some point," the ex-preacher told him.
"Well, if he did or not doesn't mean much because right now we need to deal with Chris' injuries. Nathan, if we don't get his fever down and get him drinking soon it may not matter one way or the other. The way this fever's raging it don't take much for him to become dehydrated."
"JD, Josiah, we're gonna need lots of water," Jackson said.
"All right," Sanchez said. "Looks like we're on a bucket brigade, Son. Maybe we can entice Hank to lend a hand as well."
The three men left as Jackson and O'Malley continued to work on Chris Larabee. It seemed to take forever to clean the wounds and make the man as comfortable as possible.
Nathan eased the light blanket up over the unconscious gunslinger and sighed tiredly. He looked from one bed to the other and watched the slow rise and fall of both chests and prayed the two men would heal and grow strong once more. He left O'Malley with the patients and walked into the main room and knew it was time to check Standish's ankle.
"All right, Ezra, let's take a look," he said and knelt down beside the gambler. The boot and sock had already been removed and the healer gently probed the swollen limb. "Don't appear ta be broken, but you've done some damage. I want ya to stay off it as much as you can...let the others help with Chris and Vin."
"I assure you I can..."
"Do as Nathan says," O'Malley ordered from inside the room.
"Might as well give it up, Ez, you're stuck same as me," Wilmington said, hoping to ease some of the tension in the room.
+ + + + + + +
JD was beyond tired now, but he refused to give in to the bone weary ache that invaded his mind and body. Carl Tucker had long since given in to the sandman's call, leaving JD, Hank, and Josiah with the burden of carrying water to the small house where two healers fought to save the lives of his friends. JD knew they needed supplies from town and he would leave at sunup to go into Four Corners, until then he'd carry his load and then some. Picking up the two buckets, Dunne made his way toward the house unaware that Sanchez had detected something in the air.
Josiah looked up as the sound of approaching horses reached his ears. They'd been carrying water from the creek and his arms ached as he tried to balance the heavy load. The sun had gone down, but there were millions of stars overhead and a bright moon that seemed to light their way. He placed the bucket on the ground and reached for his gun. With three badly injured men, one of whom had a bounty on his head, Sanchez was not about to take any chances on who the riders were. He stood stock still until three horses came into view and he recognized the large man on the lead horse. How the man could have known they had returned, Josiah didn't know, but he was not about to question the man's appearance as he stopped next to the corral and dismounted.
"Yosemite, you're a sight for tired eyes. How did you know to come?" Sanchez said.
"Don't rightly know," the liveryman answered. "Was ready ta do a patrol when Mrs. Travis told me she had some supplies she wanted me to bring out here. After that strange storm we had I wasn't 'bout ta question her."
"Storm?" Sanchez asked and removed several items from one of the pack animals.
"Came up real sudden like and kept us pinned inside for a couple of days. Not sure I've ever seen one so bad...came damn close to tearin' the town apart."
"When did it stop?"
"Hey, Yosemite!" Dunne called from the open doorway.
"Hello, JD, the liveryman said and turned back to the ex-preacher. "Stopped as suddenly as it started a few days ago. We been cleanin' up the mess of sand it left behind. The dust and sand covered everything and even smothered a couple of animals. Figured it was the end of the world for a while there."
"You don't know how close to the truth that is," Sanchez said and looked into the distance. "JD, lend a hand here!"
"Sure, Josiah," Dunne said and began taking several items into the house.
Josiah was no longer shocked by the items he unloaded and silently sent a prayer of thanks for granting them another miracle, one that could very well mean the life or death of three men. There were bandages, herbs, smoked meats, fresh bread, and countless other items the healers would use. He carried a load into the house and saw the look of awe in Jackson's eyes.
"How?" the healer asked simply.
"Ours is not to question why, Brother," Sanchez stated and turned to leave once more. It took several trips to get everything inside and the ex-preacher again said a silent prayer before helping sort the supplies and get some real food ready for those who needed it.
Buck managed to sit up and looked at the plate of food. Since O'Malley and Jackson had treated his leg, he'd grown tired and feverish and wondered if his stomach could handle the savory stew he'd been handed. He leaned back against the pillow propped against the wall and looked at the men seated at the table. Jackson and O'Malley looked ready to drop, but so did the others and he hoped Yosemite would be able to stay and keep an eye on things while the others grabbed some much needed shut eye.
"Buck, you need to eat," Dunne said and sat next to the worried rogue. He nodded at his own bowl and spoke softly before dipping a thick slice of bread into the thick gravy. "It's good."
"I know," Wilmington said and tried to balance the bowl as he lifted his spoon. He ate the meal, acutely aware that JD was watching him and tried to ease the younger man's mind. "You gonna eat, Kid?"
"I'm not a dang kid!" Dunne said, his voice laced with a tired irritation.
"Son, you'll always be the kid...and it's not meant as an insult, JD. You're the youngest...doesn't mean you know any more or any less than the rest of us."
"Yeah well what would Josiah think if we called him old man?" Dunne asked.
"He'd probably kick your ass if he heard ya...hell, even I ain't dumb enough to try that," Wilmington said, wincing as he stretched his injured leg out once more. "Damn..."
JD studied the lines of pain etched in the gentle rogue's face and wished there was something he could do to help. He thought back to the helplessness he'd felt when they'd fought Anderson's Ghosts and how easily Buck had laid his own life on the line to save a greenhorn from Boston. An image of himself, guns blazing flashed before is eyes and he wondered if he'd been wrong in coming west. Maybe he really was just a kid...a kid playing at being a man.
"JD, you're not a kid..."
"Sometimes I think that's exactly what I am," Dunne said, closing his eyes and leaning his head back against the wall.
"No kid could have done what you did out there...you saved our lives...you saved my life, JD. I would have died if you hadn't held on and refused to let that thing drag me into the ground."
"I couldn't let it take you, Buck," Dunne said, a slight smile on his face. "If I had who'd been around to make fun of my sissy hat?"
Buck couldn't help but chuckle as he saw the look on the younger man's face. JD had done a lot of growing up since coming west and he saw the man more often than he saw the boy. He fought the urge to ruffle the dark hair and closed his eyes. "Thanks...kid..."
"Ain't a dang kid, Buck," the kid argued, then saw the other man wink and found himself wearing a grin. There was something about Buck that left him feeling just a little taller every day.
+ + + + + + +
The black soil around him shimmered and undulated as if it was a living breathing thing waiting its prey. The burning sands lifted and sprayed his face, obscuring his vision and filling his lungs as it sapped the life from his body. The sky grew dark with angry clouds as he forced leaden legs to move through the thickening sludge. He was weak, but nothing could stop him from completing his task and finding his friend. No matter what hell threw his way he'd always managed to find his way home and this time would be no different. His mother's words had often given him strength and he took solace in them now as he battled the weariness and pain. 'Boy, you're a Tanner. Don't you ever forget that.'
+ + + + + + +
"How is he, Doc?" Yosemite asked as O'Malley checked Tanner once more before he too would grab some sleep. The others were already lying down and asleep, leaving only O'Malley and Yosemite to check on the patients. The liveryman was glad he'd shown up in time to give the others a break, but he wasn't sure he could handle the injured men.
"He's burning up...they both are...maybe I should..."
"You won't do 'em any good if ya don't get some rest, Doc. I'll keep wipin' 'em down and I'll wake ya if they need ya," Yosemite explained and took the seat the other man vacated.
"Guess you're right...but if they wake up make sure you get some water into them," O'Malley explained, taking a final look at both patients before moving into the outer room. He checked on Wilmington before nodding to a half asleep Jackson and headed outside. There wasn't much room in the house and he knew the others had made a bed for him in the back of the wagon. Nathan would sleep inside in case either patient needed something. Thompson, Standish, Sanchez, Dunne, and Tucker had bedded down near the small house and reminded O'Malley of silent sentries who were hovered nearby in case they were needed.
+ + + + + + +
Yosemite watched over the two men who, with the help of five others, had made such a difference in the town he lived in. He remembered hiding in the livery the day the trail hands had tried to hang Nathan Jackson and regretted that he'd been unable or unwilling to help out. Since that day he'd found a new strength that often surprised him because he'd never thought he'd be brave enough to face down a mob like Mary Travis had done. These men had brought with them more than strength, they'd brought a quiet courage that seemed to have affected most of the townsfolk. His thoughts drifted over what he knew of each man.
Chris Larabee was a notorious gunfighter...Yosemite smiled as he thought of the man dressed all in black. The blond peacekeeper had quickly found his place in the community especially after he'd helped save Mary Travis' son and Nettie Wells' ranch. Chris' reputation had preceded him, but he'd quickly shown them the true man behind the bleak exterior.
Vin Tanner was quiet and soft spoken, but when he had an opinion he wasn't averse to giving it. Yosemite had been witness to the first meeting of the gunfighter and the bounty hunter on the dusty main street and had seen something spark between them. Something rare in the way of friendship and something that was unique to the two men.
Buck Wilmington, now there was a man who could easily be deemed a rogue and yet many times he'd stood his ground to protect the fairer sex. Buck had stood up to Don Paulo and saved Inez from being hauled out of town. He'd also saved the lives of several women in Wickes town...and there were also rumors that he'd grown up in a brothel and his mother had worked there. All of this gave credence to a wolfish rogue, and yet those who truly knew Buck knew he held women in the highest esteem.
Josiah Sanchez, another man that had a background very few knew about. The town people knew he'd been a preacher and that he'd killed his share of men, but no one knew the true story behind his fall from grace. Now he was fixing up the small church and had even started giving sermons on Sunday for any who wanted to attend. Yosemite had taken to being there and was in awe of the man's ability to keep the people enthralled with his voice, whether it was soft or hard enough to shake the rafters. Josiah brought a lot to the community and most people had given up on finding out exactly what he hid in his past.
Ezra Standish...conman...gambler and all round southern boy whose mother was an extraordinary woman who spoke of keeping up appearances. Ezra had fallen prey to one of his mother's cons and ended up losing in a war of minds, yet, Yosemite knew Standish was as sharp as they come and very few men or women would ever get the drop on him. Ezra and his mother had been there to help weed out Steven Travis' murderer and had also been man enough to put on a dress and walk into Wickes town in order to help rescue Mary Travis. The man had more guts than he gave himself credit for.
Nathan Jackson had been a part of Four corners for a long time and he'd proven more often than not that he was a healer...a doctor and had earned the respect of his patients and their families. Yosemite remembered when the former slave had first come into town and how quiet he was. He seemed to know Sanchez, but they were rarely seen together until a small child had taken a stray bullet during an attempted bank robbery. Josiah had spoken to Nathan and the girl's parents and they'd waited while the darkie doctor had removed the bullet and saved the child's life. It wasn't long before the people of Four Corners came to Jackson for injuries from a slight scratch to broken bones. Nathan Jackson had earned the title of doctor in spite of the fact that he didn't have the paper declaring him as such.
Yosemite smiled when he thought of JD Dunne. The young man had jumped from a moving stagecoach as it raced through town on the same day the trail hands had tried to lynch Jackson. He could still see the abject hero worship on the kid's face when he found out the man who told him 'You don't shoot nobody in the back!' was none other than the man he'd put on a pedestal, Chris Larabee. The Bostonian had come a fair distance since that day and he'd grown in the eyes of those around him. He'd earned his place amongst the peacekeepers and Yosemite reached into his pocket and pulled out Jock Steels novel. He opened it to the last page and read aloud the words he'd so reverently memorized.
"And so it ended in that as the cruel ironic hand of death encircled the killer in flames as it had done to Chris Larabee's wife and child so many years before. Yet, was it the end or would Chris Larabee ride again with the hard, complex men he'd come to know? Gunmen like Buck Wilmington and Vin Tanner, the bounty hunter with the price on his own head. The gambler Ezra or the greenhorn JD, Nathan, both healer and destroyer and Josiah, placing his faith only in God and his gun."
Yosemite looked from one man to the other and preyed that he'd see these men rise once more from the ashes of hell to fight the evil that often showed up in the image of a man.
+ + + + + + +
He'd been walking for what seemed like days, stopping only to stare up at the bright red orb shining down with an intensity that could drive a man insane. There seemed to be a demonic presence nearby, but he could not let that stop him. The soil rolled in on itself, reminding him of a crimson tide waiting to drown him in a sea of blood and gore. The air burned, leaving his lungs engulfed in liquid fire as he forced one foot in front of the other. The black robe was heavy on his shoulders and the sun glinted off something unidentifiable clutched tightly in his hand.
In spite of the heat and the extreme thirst, he continued to walk, praying that the blood belonged to an animal, but his nightmares were only just beginning as he topped a rise and saw below the emaciated remains of a man he called brother. The tracker's body was covered in a red blanket, but the closer he got to the altar, the harder it was to breathe, for what he thought was a blanket was a mantle of blood that spread from the wound in the Texan's chest.
"GOD...NO...VIN..." he screamed and sank to his knees, alone in a cold realm that held him captive.
+ + + + + + +
"God...no...VIN!" the weak cry erupted as Chris tried to sit up. He fell back against the pillows as a pair of strong arms held him in place and a familiar voice spoke to him.
In the early morning hours, JD had relieved Yosemite and now sat between the beds and watched over the injured peacekeepers. The cry from Larabee had sent the fingers of dread down his spine and he tried to find the words that would relieve some of the horror so easily read on the feverish face. "It's okay, Chris. You're okay..."
"No, You didn't, Chris. Vin ain't dead...he's right over there in the next bed!"
"Saw him...s...saw the b...blood...Col...Columber..."
"Columber's gone, Chris. We sent him back to hell with his tail between his legs!" Dunne spat as the horrid image of the demonic crow flashed before his eyes.
"Not gone...never be gone...killed Vin..."
"No, you didn't," Dunne tried again to get through to the feverish blond, but his words seemed to fall on deaf ears. "Vin is right there in the bed. Just turn your head and you'll see him, Chris. Just turn your head!"
Chris could hear JD's voice, but he did not have the strength to acknowledge the words he heard. He could not face the horror of what he'd done to the Texan and he let the pain wash over him as he closed his eyes and turned away from the younger man. As the darkness invaded his soul, Chris gave in to the nightmarish world that lived within his dreams.
JD looked at the gunslinger for a long time before realizing the man was still with them. For a while he'd thought the blond was no longer breathing, but there was the slightest movement of the chest that told him Chris was still with them. He closed his eyes and whispered a silent prayer that the seven would ride again.
+ + + + + + +
Jack O'Malley knew there was nothing more he could do for these men. He'd stayed around because there were not enough hands to care for Chris, Vin, Buck, and now Ezra had joined the group of injured men. The ankle was swollen so much he could not put his boot on even when he took out his cache of money. They'd been at Larabee's home now for two days and it was time for him to go home to the people who'd needed him since he'd rode into Farmington.
"Jack, Josiah said you wanted to talk to me," Jackson said as he walked up beside the physician.
"Let's take a walk, Nathan," O'Malley suggested and the two men walked side by side away from the house. "Nathan, I'm not sure if anyone's ever told you this before, but you're what my father would have called a natural. I know you don't have the papers on the wall, but you have the knowledge and the heart that makes you one hell of a doctor...I've never seen anyone who not only tended their patients' physical wounds but the mental ones as well. I wish the hell there wasn't so much prejudice in this world and I could sponsor you into one of the best medical facilities, but..."
"There'll be a time where pride and prejudice won't stop a man from doing what he wants no matter his color," Jackson said and stopped near the creek.
"I hope you're right, Nathan, because it's a damn shame men with your abilities have to fight to get any training. I'm proud to have worked beside you," O'Malley said and held his right hand in front of him, smiling when Jackson had no qualms about shaking his hand.
"Thanks, Jack, for everything you're doing for them," Jackson said.
"Nothing to thank me for, Nathan. All I did was bring the supplies. I could have left at any time and those boys would have had the finest doctor looking after them..."
"Ain't no darkie doctors," Jackson said, a slight bitterness in his tone.
"Maybe not on paper, Nathan, but here," O'Malley pointed to Jackson's heart. "Where it counts there are and I'm looking at one now."
"Thanks, Jack, it's just sometimes I feel like I'm gonna do something wrong..."
"And you think just because I have a paper that I don't have feelings like that? Jesus, Nathan, that's what makes us human," O'Malley said. "Don't ever doubt your abilities, because I've seen your friends watching you and believe me they don't doubt you at all and that's something few of us ever really see. Take heart, Nathan, you're a doctor in every sense that counts."
"I hope so," Jackson said and waited for the older man to continue. He knew there had to be a reason O'Malley brought him out here, but he wasn't sure he wanted to hear the reason.
"Nathan, I need to be getting back home...there's nothing else I can do for your friends that you can't do."
"No buts, My Friend. You're exactly what these men need right now. A healer...doctor who knows them and knows what they're capable of and isn't afraid to use any means within his grasp to make sure they don't do anything stupid. Don't go second guessing yourself and you'll be fine...and so will they!"
"Ain't an easy job with any of 'em," Jackson said with a slight grin.
"No, I bet it's not."
"When are you leaving?" the healer asked.
"If there are no new problems I guess I'll be heading home first thing tomorrow morning. I already talked to Hank and he'll be coming with me. Carl seems to think he might be needed around here and says he'll stick around for a few days," O'Malley explained.
"Tucker's a strange man."
"Yes, he is, but he's harmless. He's seen some strange things while he's been roaming around the badlands. He might just be able to answer some of the questions you all have regarding what happened to you. Now why don't we go see what they're cooking up for supper?"
"I think Josiah mentioned cooking up a roast and potatoes...might even be lucky enough that he cooked up a batch of his biscuits."
"Josiah's pretty good in the kitchen," O'Malley observed.
"Yeah, said he came by it honestly while traveling with his father."
"I bet, well, come on then," O'Malley said and the duo returned to the small house.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan stood between the two beds and wished the two occupants would show some sign of regaining consciousness. During the night they'd managed to get Larabee to accept a small amount of water, but with the approach of dawn he'd slipped back into unconsciousness. Both men were still feverish, although Chris' temperature seemed to be coming down slightly. He wondered if there was something more he could be doing, but O'Malley's words came back to him.
'Don't go second guessing yourself and you'll be fine...and so will they!'
With help from the other healthy men, O'Malley and Thompson were getting things ready for the ride back to Farmington. Nathan knew he had to let them both know how much he appreciated the help they'd given him. Turning away from the beds he missed the movement by one of the men as he exited the room. Glancing at Wilmington, who slept on a pallet near the door, Nathan knew they needed to do something about the sleeping arrangements before it took it's toll on this man as well.
+ + + + + + +
A dark shadow loomed over the man lying so still in the bed beneath the window, one that seemed to be possessed of the hell of a man's injured soul. The Texan moaned softly as if in pain, yet did not come fully awake.
+ + + + + + +
Chris awoke to the strangled sound coming from somewhere within the room and he opened his eyes in fear. He towered over the injured Texan, his empty hands held high above the other man's heart, yet in his mind he could see the sharp dagger that would plunge into Vin's chest. He closed his eyes as his body began to tremble and his knees began to buckle as he fought to control the horror of what he was seeing.
His breathing ragged, his mind unable to distinguish what was real and what wasn't, Chris backed up until his legs came up against his bed. His strength gave out and he collapsed onto his own bed as he tried to make sense of what was happening. He turned slightly on his side and looked across the small distance to the second bed.
Vin Tanner lay bathed in the soft light of the early morning sun, his skin so pale it mimicked death, his breathing so shallow it was barely discernable, his face turned slightly, and his eyes closed. Chris knew if he could see the Texan's eyes he would see pain...pain that he'd caused and would have to live with for the rest of his life. Unable to face the reality of what he was seeing, Chris Larabee returned to the hell of his dreams.
+ + + + + + +
Jack O'Malley shook the hand of the man he'd come to respect more than most of the doctors he'd met during his time in the big hospital in the east. Nathan Jackson really was a man with a natural instinct and ability to help those who needed it and he did not feel guilty about leaving the man to tend his injured friends.
"Just trust in yourself, Nathan, and you'll do what's right for them," O'Malley said.
"Thanks, Jack," Nathan said and shook hands with Thompson as well.
"Josiah, don't let Nathan overdo things," the physician said as he shook the bigger man's hands.
"I'll do my best, Jack," Sanchez said and moved back as JD and Yosemite joined the group. Buck and Ezra were both sleeping and would probably feel guilty about not saying goodbye, but right now sleep was what they needed.
"Do me a favor and let me know how they're doing when you get the chance," O'Malley stated.
"I will, Jack," the healer said as Tucker silently came to stand near the sheriff's horse.
"Carl, don't go getting' underfoot," Thompson warned the older man, but smiled as they shook hands.
"I'll see ya in 'bout a week or so!" Tucker grinned as the two men mounted up and turned to ride away. He knew the trip back would be a long hot one, but that at the end of the trip there'd be a group of anxious townspeople who'd be glad to see them home again. They watched until the duo rode out of site and then turned their attention to the chores that had to be done.
"Carl, would you help me with the horses?" Yosemite asked when the others had gone into Larabee's home.
"Sure thing, Yosemite...that your real name?"
"It's what most call me...that or Tiny."
"Tiny?" Tucker said and looked the man up and down. "Guess there's got ta be a funny story ta that one cause ya sure ain't tiny ta me," Tucker said when they reached the corral.
"My Pa called me Tiny because I was small for my age...least I was back then. Grew up real quick one year and Ma used to laugh whenever Pa called me Tiny 'cause I towered over him."
"How'd ya get the name Yosemite?"
"Don't rightly know, but it's stuck to me for so long I don't even remember if I had another name when I was born," the liveryman explained as they began working with the horses and making sure they had everything they needed.
"What's with this bunch?"
"Larabee and the others. How'd they come ta settle on yer town?"
"Ain't rightly sure on that, but I know there's a town full of folks in Four Corners that are grateful they showed up. Nathan and Josiah were already living in town. I think Vin was there a week or so before things went ta hell real fast...but a bunch of trail hands came into town and blamed Nathan when their boss died. They were ready ta string Nathan up...even when Mrs. Travis tried ta stop them..."
"Mrs. Travis? Newspaper lady right? Husband was murdered?"
"That's right...how'd ya know so much 'bout Mrs. Travis?"
"Sometimes papers from other towns get to us...strangers passin' through and leaves 'em at the hotel. Read all 'bout Steven Travis' murder and even 'bout the bad element in yer town. Seems ta me yer town owes a lot ta the so called bad element."
"Yes, we do...but I don't think we've ever let them know how much we 'preciate what they've done."
"P'raps it's time ya did," Tucker said and watched as Yosemite seemed to dwell on his words and wondered why it sometimes took strangers to show a man the gift he'd been given. The fact was the town of Four Corners had been given a rare gift of seven men, who may not openly embrace God, but they were embraced by God's holy light, and without realizing it they were doing the Lord's work.
"Ya know, Carl, ya jest might be right 'bout that," the liveryman stated and went back to work, his mind already thinking about what could be done to show the peacekeepers how the town felt.
+ + + + + + +
Buck lay as still as possible on the pallet they'd placed him on, but a noise from Larabee's bedroom had him moving and he held his breath before sitting forward and looking into the sick room. Chris and Vin were as still as they'd been since they'd come to the house, but what caught his attention was the clouds of doubt in the eyes of the exhausted healer seated between the two beds.
Buck remembered the many times he'd been under the healer's care and knew he could never repay the debt, but at least he could tell Jackson how he felt. Nathan hadn't noticed him and Buck could read the raw pain on the man's face. Jackson was a man who'd earned their respect ten times over, but there were times when he didn't seem to think he deserved their praise. Jackson's face was lined with worry and Buck understood just how heavily this weighed on the former stretcher-bearer's heart. Buck shifted on the bed and wanted to go to the healer, but could not gather the strength for such a move. He lay still watching over the man who watched over his friends and wished he could help. He closed his eyes, opening them when he heard footsteps coming his way and looked into the brown eyes that were the windows to a troubled soul.
"Plannin' on goin' somewhere, Buck?" Jackson asked, tucking the blanket around the trembling form.
"No..." the feverish rogue replied, fighting to pull his arm from under the blanket. He never let his gaze stray from the concerned dark eyes above him. "I need...to..." He sighed wearily as his voice ran out and with a final burst of energy, shoved his hand out and grabbed Jackson's. He gripped it as tight as possible, his eyes burning with hope, gratitude and brotherly pride.
Jackson swallowed hard as the gesture from the large-hearted Wilmington hit his hard. He choked down the emotion the heartfelt words caused in him and forced a smile to his troubled face. The dark blue eyes had closed then and the healer placed his hand back under the blanket and covered him to the chin before standing and walking outside. Buck's moving gesture, so filled with passion was like a soothing balm on his troubled soul and the healer looked out over the peaceful yard and vowed to do what he needed to in order to keep the trio alive.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan stretched the kinks from his back and looked at the restless man. Throughout the long hot day, Buck never complained, at least not when he was awake. What worried Jackson was the fever and chills that wracked the man's body during the few times he was lucid. The gentle rogue was showing signs of waking up and Nathan moved to check on him. He placed a hand on the sweaty brow and smiled when blue eyes opened and looked up at him.
"Sorry, Buck, didn't mean ta wake you."
"W...wasn't really sleepin'...don't think so anyway...dreamin' Nate," Wilmington whispered as if to say it aloud would make it all too real. He frowned and looked around, trying to make some sense of his jumbled thoughts, but the fever raging through his body affected his mind and he reached up to grab onto Jackson's arm. "...where..."
"We're at Chris' place," Jackson explained, wishing he could wipe away the fear and pain mirrored in the man's eyes.
"Chris? W...why so hot?" the ladies man asked.
"It's the fever, Buck," the former stretcher-bearer explained. "It's got ya feelin' hot and you've caught a chill too. Wish I could get ya off the damn floor."
"I'm ok...okay, Na....Nathan. N...nnnneed the beds...Chris...Vin okay?" The words were slurred and disjointed, but Jackson understood what he was asking.
"You let the rest of us worry 'bout them two, Buck..."
"N...no...need ta h...help 'em. I'm o...okay..."
"No, you're not! Damn it!" Jackson cursed, regretting it immediately when the ill man unconsciously shied away from his touch.
"No, Buck, I'm not mad. Not at you anyway."
"Don't be m...mad a...at y...you, Nate," Wilmington easily read the look of despair on Jackson's face and again reached for his arm. "D....doing e...everything...can."
"Yes...yes I am, but is it enough?"
"T...think so. Trust in you...do w...what ya d...do best. T....tired. Gonna sleep."
"That's good, Buck. You go ahead and sleep," Jackson said and looked up to see the Bostonian watching him.
"Is he okay?" Dunne asked, but didn't quite enter the sick room.
"I don't know, JD, I just don't know," the healer said.
"Why don't you go on down to the creek and wash up. I'll stay with him," the younger man offered.
"All right, just keep wiping him down for now," Jackson said and walked dejectedly out of the small home.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan looked at his empty plate and tiredly pushed it away. O'Malley and Thompson had left early that morning and with the sun just dipping below the horizon, Jackson knew he had a decision to make. Josiah and Ezra were outside, sitting on the small porch while JD and Carl took care of bringing fresh water from the creek. Taking a deep breath he turned to look at the man sleeping on the floor. Buck's fever had steadily risen during the day, but as the evening sun waned he'd begun to shiver as if chilled to the bone.
His gaze swept around the homey room and then stopped at the door to the only bedroom. Chris and Vin slept soundly, fevered and ill, but at least they had the comfort of a real bed. Buck's problems stemmed not only from his wound, but from the fact that he slept on the cold floor and no amount of blankets could remedy that. It was time to get Buck off the floor and into a bed, preferably the one in Jackson's clinic. He wished he could bring them all into town and watch over them, but Larabee and Tanner were just too weak to move and until they regained some strength and built up the blood they'd lost he couldn't chance their wounds re-opening.
"Nathan, is something wrong?" Sanchez asked from the open doorway.
"No...yeah, Josiah, there is. Buck's not getting' any better and he won't until I get him off that damn floor and drain that leg again. With Chris and Vin needin' the beds I thought he'd be okay here, but he's not. Even Ezra grumbled about waking up last night because he was cold."
"What are you planning on doing?"
"I want to take him into town...want to take them all in, but I can't chance Chris and Vin bleedin' again. They've already lost too much blood and where they ain't drinkin' much it's harder fer them to build up what's been shed. I wish there was some other way, but there's not."
"You can't do it all, Brother. Time now to let the rest of us help you. What needs to be done for Chris and Vin?"
"They need someone to change their bandages...make sure they're drinking...cool them down."
"I can do all of those things."
"We're not far from town, Nathan. I'm sure Carl would rather stay here than in town and if we run into any problems he can ride in and get you."
"I just wish..."
"You could be two places at once. Well, I think the only one who ever had a solution to that problem is Solomon, but I don't think cutting you in half is an answer to our dilemma," Sanchez said and watched the emotions flit across the healer's face. "They'll be okay, Nathan."
"I wish I had your confidence, Josiah."
"You don't need it, Brother, because the rest of us believe in you...never doubt that!"
"Thanks, Josiah," Jackson said and reached down to touch Wilmington's forehead. "There's no choice, Josiah. I need to get him in town and fix up his leg or he could lose it."
"We'll fix up the wagon, Nathan. You, JD, and Ezra can head into town in the morning," Sanchez explained.
"All right, but you send Carl for me if anything...anything happens, Josiah!"
"I will," the ex-preacher promised. He knelt beside the dark haired ladies' man and watched as Jackson removed the blankets and peeled back the bandages. The wounds looked raw and the jagged edges showed signs of a thick putrid infection and Sanchez knew the former slave was right about getting Wilmington off the floor and into a bed.
"Damn," Jackson softly cursed and reached for the instruments he'd laid out earlier. "Josiah, if he shows signs of coming to I'll need ya to hold him still!"
Sanchez nodded and watched as the steady hand picked up the scalpel and prepared to make a small incision and release the infection. He watched Wilmington's face for any sign that the unconscious man felt what was being done to him, but the features remained slack even as tiny beads of sweat formed on his forehead. By the time Jackson completed cleansing the wound and wrapping it in new bandages, Josiah's own stomach churned with the nauseating stench.
"That's all I can do," Jackson said. "Just hope it's enough."
"It will be, My Friend," Sanchez said and stood up. He looked into the small bedroom and prayed there would come a time when the magical number of seven was whole again.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah and JD were up at first light and had been making preparations for the trip into Four Corners. JD's eyes were filled with something akin to fear and he kept looking toward the open door of the house, before turning his attention to the job at hand.
"Something bothering you, son?" Sanchez asked.
"No...not really, Josiah."
"This is me, Kid, I've been around a lot of years and I've seen some strange things. It's always gonna be with you, but you'll learn to put it in the past where it belongs."
"Wish I could believe that, but after everything we saw...everything we did..." Dunne said, but turned and walked toward the corral. He stood looking at Pony and Peso and the other animals for several long minutes before turning to see the ex-preacher standing beside him. "They're strong."
"The horses or Chris, Vin, and Buck?" Sanchez asked,
"I don't know," Dunne answered. "Just seems like the horses are stronger because they ain't affected by what happened out there."
"Oh I wouldn't say that, JD. All living things are affected by the events around them, but animals don't have the same freedom we do. They can't ask questions or tell you what they've seen, but they listen...might not understand what you're saying, but there's nothing like talking to someone who doesn't argue with you," Sanchez said.
"Right now I'd rather hear...Buck arguin' with me...damn sissy hat!" Dunne spat and took off his hat, slamming it down against the fence. During the night Wilmington's fever had increased and he cried out whenever someone touched him. Whether from pain or fear, JD didn't know, but his voice seemed to get through to the ladies' man on several occasions. During the early hour, just before dawn reared her head, Buck had gone quite, so quiet it was hard to hear his breathing and this had terrified the young easterner more than the cries made during the night.
"JD, Buck's gonna be fine..."
"How can you know that, Josiah? You saw him...he's pale...he's hardly breathing and that dang fever is burning him inside out."
"Well," the graying man theorized, "The Lord saw fit to get him out of the bowels of hell."
"Don't go preaching to me about the Lord, Josiah...you're not exactly on speaking terms with him are you?"
"One thing I've learned over the years, Son, is that I may not be on speaking terms with God, but he's always on speaking terms with me. You talk to him and I can guarantee he'll listen...might not always answer right away, but he's there and you just need to keep that faith in here," Sanchez explained and pointed to Dunne's chest. "If you can keep that faith, JD, it'll go a long way toward making everything else seem possible."
"Do you still have faith?"
"In God...yes...in myself...not always, but that doesn't mean God doesn't have faith in me. If you look in your heart and listen to your own conscience you'll find the strength you need to face everything that's happened."
"I'll keep that in mind, Josiah...guess we'd best finish getting the wagon ready," Dunne said.
+ + + + + + +
"Ezra, how's the ankle this morning?" Jackson asked when Standish limped to the table.
"Don't want assurances...just want the truth."
"Tender, but manageable," the gambler answered.
"Just stay off it as much as you can. We're taking the wagon into town and I want you to ride in it with, Buck. I know you'd rather ride, but do me a favor and help me out, okay?"
"Certainly," Standish said and reached for a biscuit and several strips of bacon. He ate disinterestedly, watching the healer move around the kitchen before the man stepped outside. Jackson had slept very little over the last few days and it was easy to see just how much this decision was weighing on him. Ezra looked at the ill man, so still and pale and knew the former slave had come to the only decision that made sense. He just hoped the three injured peacekeepers did nothing that would make him regret the decision. If either man died, there would be a hole in their midst that could not be filled.
Ezra had never been a man who truly believed in the bible and yet the events of the last few weeks had shown him there were such things as demons and hell. For a man who abhorred gambling and left little to chance, it was a hard learned lesson that if there was a hell, there had to be a heaven and therefore a single Deity for good was also a reality in his world now.
He closed his eyes and thought about the hellish trek they'd made out of the Inn and across the badlands. Would God be so cruel as to let Chris, Vin, and Buck survive only to die when they'd reached home? No, he could not believe that, but he shuffled the deck of cards and flicked his jade eyes skyward and cocked an arrogant eyebrow.
"Care to wager?" he asked softly.
Ezra looked around once more and listened to the others working outside and sighed heavily before pushing the plate of barely touched food away. Running his hands through his hair he spoke once more with unshed moisture shining in his eyes. 'Just give them the strength they need to come back to us,' he thought.
+ + + + + + +
"Josiah, I changed the bandages son Chris and Vin. Ain't no change, but I've done all I can for 'em." Jackson said when Sanchez entered the house.
"I'll take care of 'em, Nathan," Sanchez assured his friend. "Ezra's settled in the wagon. It's time to get buck out there."
"He said he'd be right in," Sanchez explained, looking up when the younger man entered, a solemn look on his face when he looked at the older men.
"Are you okay, JD?" Jackson asked. None of them had been sleeping very well, but Dunne seemed drawn and pale.
"I'm okay, Nathan, just wish we could all stay in one place," Dunne answered softly.
"So do I, Son, but leaving Buck on the floor is just makin' him worse. We need to get him back to town and into a proper bed," Jackson answered and looked toward the door as Yosemite entered. He'd be going with them into Four Corners and would help JD patrol the town and make sure there were no surprises waiting for them.
"Can't we just make him a bed here?"
"We don't have the things we need here, JD, and if we did it would take time to build it and then there'd be the problem of where to put it," Sanchez answered. "Buck needs to be in a real bed, Son, and Nathan's going to need your help to make sure he stays there."
Dunne nodded and moved toward the injured ladies' man, before looking up at the other men. "Might be best if we get Miss Blossom to help keep him in bed...she's got ways..."
"That she does, son, but her ways would probably wear him out right now," Sanchez said and clapped the younger man on the shoulder. "Although I'm sure Buck wouldn't argue the company."
"Never does," Jackson said...glad to see a small smile form on Dunne's face. "All right, here's what we do. Josiah, Yosemite, you take his upper body. JD, you get his right leg and I'll get the left. Try not to jar 'im too much!"
The four men gently lifted their injured friend and began edging their way toward the door. Buck cried out, but didn't fully regain consciousness when Jackson's hands gripped his left leg. It took some maneuvering, but they finally made it through the door and out into the bright sunshine. The wagon had been backed up as close as they could to the house and Nathan nodded to Josiah as the ex-preacher relinquished his burden to the liveryman and climbed onto the wagon bed. With Ezra's help they guided the unconscious man onto the pile of blankets and Nathan checked the injured leg before nodding to the others and covering Wilmington with a single blanket.
"Josiah, if you need anything just send Carl and I'll..."
"I will, Nathan," Sanchez said and waited for Yosemite and JD to mount up. "Take care of our brothers."
"We will...you do the same, Josiah," Jackson said and moved to the front of the wagon.
"Josiah, I'll ride out this way in a couple of days," Dunne said. "Just to see if you need anything."
"Sounds like a plan to me, son," Sanchez said and stood back to watch the others leave. He stood where he was until the wagon disappeared and let his shoulders sag before sinking tiredly to the front step. He knew he was taking on a heavy burden by staying with the injured men, but he would do everything to see that they won the battles they fought, both separately and together.
"Josiah, if ya don't need me right now I was thinkin' 'bout goin' down ta the creek and catchin' some supper," Tucker said from the side of the house.
"I can handle things here, Carl," Sanchez said and finally stood and entered the house. It was silent now, except for the raspy breathing from the other room. Josiah strode across the outer room and stood watching over the two men. How many times during the time he'd met these two had they unconsciously shown a deep connection that bewildered those around them? It was a wondrous gift that was seldom seen or heard of and yet, right now Josiah suspected it could very well be a terrible gift because it could very well mean the death of both men.
The ex-preacher moved to the chair that had been placed between the two beds and stretched the kinks from his back. Somehow he had to get through to these men, but for now he was at a loss as to how to do that. He rubbed at the back of his neck and closed his eyes in silent prayer and felt the bone weary tiredness that he'd denied since finding hell had indeed come to earth in the stately Inn. His eyes remained closed and he drifted toward a troubled sleep where black birds covered the sky and demonic screeches threatened to drown out every other sound.
+ + + + + + +
There were many things that scarred a man, not the simple scarring that left an open wound on his body, but the kind of scarring that tore at a man's soul. The heat of the day burned the landscape even as the horror of his actions burned through Chris' heart. It threatened to bury the man who'd only just begun to live again. The gunslinger fought against this threat, but each time his dreams were invaded by nightmarish images that put his sanity in peril and fought to pull his soul into the black fires of hell.
Chris knew he was physically hurt, but that pain paled in comparison to the agony that twisted his gut when his dreams brought him back to the painful reality that he'd tried to kill his best friend. His dreams were a reminder that hell had visited him again and he'd failed to protect someone he cared about. He mumbled something unintelligible and found himself lost in the blistering heat of the nightmarish realm.
He walked, unsteadily through the barren terrain that sapped the moisture from his flesh and glanced up at the red orb that bore down on him. A black crow, bigger than anything he'd ever seen in his life swooped down and he realized it was guiding him as he changed direction whenever the wind from its beating wings touched him. In the distance he could see a structure and wondered why it seemed so familiar to him, why its very existence should send fear through his heart. Something shiny caught the glowing rays of the sun and he looked at the ceremonial knife clutched so tightly in his right hand. He had no memory of it being there when he started his journey into hell, and it terrified him, but he could not release his hold on it as he staggered under the forceful strength of the crow's wings. The soil rolled in on itself, reminding him of a crimson tide waiting to drown him in a sea of blood and gore. The air burned, leaving his lungs engulfed in liquid fire as he forced one foot in front of the other. The black robe was heavy on his shoulders, weighing him down, but dark forces kept driving him and his heart trip-hammered in his chest, as he got closer to the living structure looming high above him.
Chris tried to swallow, but there was no moisture in his mouth, no moisture in the singing air around him, and he stood still when he spotted the emaciated remains of a man he called brother. The tracker's body was covered in a red blanket, but the closer he got to the altar at the base of the living structure, the harder it was to breathe, for what he thought was a blanket was a mantle of blood that spread from the wound in the Texan's chest. He gasped and looked down at his hands, covered in a crimson tide and the knife grew hot in his hands. He knew now why his soul was damned to walk this hell...he'd killed his brother...killed him with the knife he held and it drew a ravaged, tortured cry from deep in his throat as his eyes opened.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah heard the strangled sound from his right and cursed his own weakness for having fallen asleep so easily. The sound came again and he looked down at the gunslinger, surprised to see twin green fever bright beacons that burned an image of pain into his own soul.
"J...Jo...Josiah," the blond stammered and tried to lift his head, but there didn't seem to be enough strength to blink his eyes let alone complete such a monumental task. He wasn't all that sure he wanted to see the figure in the other bed, fear clawed at his heart because of what he might see.
"I'm right here, Brother," Sanchez said, his voice breaking with pent up emotion.
"V...Vin?" Larabee choked out the word a coughed dryly until Sanchez lifted him forward and placed a cup of water to his lips.
He drank greedily until the cup was removed and groaned as the water made a return trip, soaking the blankets and Sanchez shirt. "S...sorry..."
"Nothing to be sorry for, Chris, try a little more, but slowly this time," Sanchez tried, but the blond had turned his head and he knew what had put the sorrow in the green orbs.
"I...I kill...killed him..."
"No, Chris, Vin's not dead." Sanchez pressed the feverish body back to the mattress and moved so that Larabee could peer across the room.
"Not dead...I didn't...I h...hurt him," Larabee whispered hoarsely.
"No you didn't, my friend. You're not responsible for what happened out there..."
"You may have held the knife, Son, but you weren't the one who stabbed him. You weren't yourself..."
"I k...knew what I...I was d...doing, Josiah...couldn't s...stop...my hand...my hand did that..."
"Chris, you could not stop what happened any more than the rest of us could. The Inn was a place of evil...it was evil and everything inside it..."
"I'm t...tired..." Larabee said, turning away from the man who tried to sooth his ravaged soul. His eyes closed, but he stayed awake for a long time, listening to the one sound that anchored him to his own body...the sound of Vin's shallow breathing.
+ + + + + + +
Mary Travis heard the sound of riders and lifted her skirts before hurrying out of the Clarion newspaper doors. She spotted the wagon, and four horses, only two of which had riders, as they made their way toward Jackson's clinic. She spotted Inez Recillos at the saloon doors and nodded before hurrying after the wagon. She reached it just as Jackson pulled to a stop in front of the livery. There were two men in the back as Jackson jumped down and joined her.
"Nathan, thank God. How are they? Where are the others?" Travis asked at the same time Inez and Gloria Potter joined them.
"Hold up a minute, Mrs. Travis. Let me get Buck and Ezra upstairs and into bed..."
"Nathan, if it all the same with you I'd prefer to sleep in my own feather bed tonight...today," the gambler said.
"That's fine, Ezra, but keep off that leg and if I find ya in the saloon before tomorrow I might just be tempted to fix you something real nasty."
"I assure you I have no plans to step out of my room for the next twenty-four hours," Standish said.
"Nate, I'll help Ezra to his room and come back to help you with Buck, okay?"
"That's fine, JD. It'll take me that long to get the bed ready for him. Mrs. Travis would you mind waiting here with Buck?" Jackson asked.
"Of course," Mary said and looked into the healer's eyes. "Where are the others?"
"Chris and Vin were hurt real bad...Josiah's staying with 'em out at Chris' place. I'll tell ya more after I take care of Buck," Jackson said as more and more of the worried townsfolk gathered around the wagon.
"What can we do to help?" Gloria Potter asked.
"I'm gonna need ice and bandages and water..."
"All right...you people heard the man. Let him get to his work while we get the stuff he needs..."
Nathan smiled when Mrs. Potter began giving orders to men and women alike before he hurried up the steps and opened the door to his clinic. It seemed like forever since he'd left, but the room remained as it had been the day Josiah had told them something was wrong and they were all needed. Even the cup of coffee he'd been drinking sat on the table and he sighed wearily, relief filling him with the sense of familiarity about this place. Everything he needed was here...he just hoped it was enough.
Moving to the bed Jackson pulled back the blankets before opening the small window and letting the soft breeze blow the stale odors from the room. Satisfied that everything was ready for his patient, Nathan moved back outside and down over the stairs. There was no way to have more than two or three people on the steps leading up to the clinic and Nathan knew he'd need two strong men to help him with Wilmington. JD had returned and was already in the wagon, waiting orders on what came next.
"All right...Yosemite, I'm gonna need you and Tom to carry Buck upstairs. We'll keep him on the blanket and try to keep him as steady as possible. JD, grab my stuff and bring it up to the clinic," Jackson ordered. It was a testament to the Bostonian's character that he didn't argue the point that he was strong enough to carry the ladies' man and Jackson nodded his gratitude as Dunne picked up the items from the seat and climbed out of the wagon.
"Tom, you get his legs, Yosemite, you've got his upper body. Now I know it's gonna be hard but we need to be careful of his leg."
"We will, Nathan," Tom Wilson answered and took up his part of the blankets.
Jackson and the rest of the town watched as the two men eased their burden out of the wagon and carried him up the stairs. They kept him as steady as possible and placed him on the bed, before turning his care over to the healer once more.
"JD, I'm gonna need your help to check his leg...then I want you to get something to eat. No arguments."
"Wasn't planning on arguing, Nathan. What do you want me to do?"
"Get the stove goin' and heat some water. I might need to..."
"Buck!" Dunne said and moved to the gentle rogue's side.
"Hey, kid," the injured man managed a weak grin. "Lose that damn sissy hat!"
"Ain't a kid, Buck," Dunne said, but there was no hint of the anger that nickname often garnered as he looked into the blue eyes.
"N...no you're not," Wilmington said and tried to focus on the world around him, but his eyes refused to work properly. Several figures seemed to solidify, only to dissolve before he recognized them. He heard someone ask about water and licked his lips as he tried to find the words needed to ask for some. He knew he didn't get the words out, but someone lifted his head and a cup was placed against his lips and he drank several small sips before opening his eyes and forcing a tired smile to his lips. "Thanks, k...JD."
"You're welcome, Buck...lots more where that came from," Dunne said and watched Jackson move to the opposite side of the bed.
"Buck, I'm gonna take a look at your leg in a couple of minutes," Jackson said.
"Why? What...what happened to my leg?" Wilmington asked, confusion in the soft blue eyes.
"You hurt it, Buck, but Nate's gonna make sure it's okay," the Bostonian explained. He watched the lids drift slowly closed and took a deep breath before easing the unconscious man back to the bed. He looked into the healer's eyes, searching for some certainty that this man who'd come to mean so much to him was going to be all right, but what he saw was a promise that Nathan would do his best to keep the man alive and whole. The townspeople came and went, bringing supplies and offering their help, and JD began to understand that these people were not strangers and that they really did care about the men who watched over them.
Hours later, with the sun going down, Nathan sat on the landing overlooking the town they called home. JD was sleeping on a small cot set up inside the clinic, a place where he could watch over Buck and be there if he needed anything. Yosemite and several others had taken over patrolling the area, giving them the freedom they needed to care for the injured men. Ezra slept soundly in his own bed, a combination of exhaustion and the small amount of laudanum Nathan had slipped into his coffee with his evening meal.
The sky along the horizon was a vast array of colors that seeped into each other, creating a miracle made with God's hands. It spoke volumes to the weary man, hoping that when the sun rose the next morning it would bring a day filled with hope and healing.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah's thoughts weighed heavily on his mind when the sun's crowning glory peeked above the horizon. He looked at the sleeping men and silently prayed that today would bring with it a new beginning, one that would see the two friends begin to heal. He headed outside to breathe in the fresh morning air and stretch out the kinks from sleeping on the hard floor. The remnants of the fish stew Tucker had made the night before still sat in the center of the table. He looked for the elderly curmudgeon who'd kept vigil with him during the late night hours before they both fell into an exhausted sleep.
"Morning, Carl, you're up early."
"Always was an early riser...ain't never been one ta need more'n a couple of hours a night. 'Sides these ol' bones can't take ta bein' in one place too long. How's them two doin'?"
"About the same...neither one of them woke during the night...although Chris seems a bit restless earlier."
"Them two close?"
"As close as any two men can be and not be blood," Sanchez explained, dropping heavily into the empty chair. "Think maybe they were meant to be brothers...found each other on the road to destiny one fateful day."
"Have they known each other long?" Tucker asked, curious about the two men.
"Sometime it seems like they've known each other since the beginning of time...it just took fate to bring them together when they were needed...to stop an angry lynch mob."
"Bunch of trail herders came into town. Their boss had been hurt and Nathan tried to save him...just wasn't meant to be. Chris and Vin didn't like what they saw and stopped them before they hung Nathan. Fate brought them two together and rippled outwards drawing the rest of us in. Seems we've got a reputation now...The Magnificent Seven," Josiah grew quiet, thinking about the events that led up to this point in their lives. The people they'd helped save and the people whose lives they'd touched. The land around him was awakening with the slightest touch of an early morning breeze and with it came the soft call of birds in the trees surrounding them. The thick grass at the far end of the small clearing seemed to dance as if touched by unseen hands, lending an air of reawakening hope with the onset of a new day.
"What about the rest of you...you boys all as close as them two?"
"That's a hard one to answer, Carl. I think we, as a group would consider ourselves a band of brothers, but Chris and Vin, there's just something special that brought them together. It's like two wondering souls joined by the grace of God and even Buck's admitted to seeing the ties that bind them two."
"Buck...he's the one with the hurt leg?"
"Yep, that's him. He's known Chris a lot of years, but they lost track of each other for a while. Chris lost his family to a jealous woman's actions and he and Buck drifted apart. They both found their way to Four Corners and just seemed natural they'd renew their friendship...though it was a bit rocky for a spell there. Chris doesn't cotton to anyone talking about his past. Now him and Buck have come to terms with what happened in the past and they've fought side by side ever since."
"Yer a preacher ain'tcha?"
"Not for a long time...kind lost my path a long time ago," Sanchez told him.
"Looks ta me like ya found it again," Tucker said, gesturing to the small house where two men were fighting for their lives, before placing an aged hand on Josiah's shoulder. "Ain't many men would stick 'round and care fer those can't take care of the simplest things. Ya found yer path ain't no other way ta say it."
"Thanks, Carl, guess I'd best start breakfast."
"Now that sounds like a plan, Josiah, cause 'side from that stew last night I can't cook beans. Anything I can do ta help with them two?"
"Not really...'cept maybe cooling them down again. The fever's bound to be worse this morning."
"They been 'wake much?"
"Chris was awake for a few minutes...blames himself for what happened to Vin. Expect it's going to be some time before he can find the forgiveness he needs."
"Pro'bly be a whole lot easier if that young feller in there woke up fer a spell," Tucker explained.
"That it would, Carl," Sanchez said softly.