Comments: This story was headed for A Small Circle of Friends and is a recycle of one thread from my all-time favorite fan story. It was diverted by the editors into Let's Ride #6. My thanks to Michelle, my sister, who, as always, inspired as well as aided and abetted.

Just after sunset, Wednesday
"Reckon they're four, maybe five miles ahead," Vin announced after he finished checking the tracks he'd found on the ground. "Best not build a fire t'night." And with that advice, the tracker scrambled up onto a rocky ridge and pulled out his spyglass to sweep the landscape like a sharp-eyed hawk.

The sun was setting, ushering in a dark, chilly night in the desert. A white half-moon waned above the rocky rise they had stopped near, doing nothing to warm the trail-weary men.

With a soft sigh, Chris Larabee bade farewell to his hopes for a hot meal and some coffee. "You sure?"

"Hell, Chris, who else would be fool enough t' camp out on a night like this?"

"Us," Larabee replied dryly.

Tanner closed up his spyglass and slid down from his rocky perch, wincing as he landed. He walked back to the waiting horses and Larabee.

"Something wrong?" Chris asked him, frowning slightly when he saw Tanner wasn't moving with his usual cat-like grace.

"Jist a stitch in m' side. Ain't nothin'," was the reply.

The two men took care of their horses and then set about making a camp for themselves.

Vin broke the silence, saying, "After we catch this bunch, think 'm goin' t' head up t' the hills fer a few days… Y' want t' come along?"

Chris allowed himself a rare smile. "Think I could do that," he said softly, knowing the tracker didn't extend an invitation like that lightly. Tanner enjoyed his time alone, and being invited to share it was a rare gift indeed.

Vin nodded in reply, a small, pleased smile lifting the corners of his mouth. It still amazed the tracker that he'd found a friend like Chris Larabee. The man might as well be blood family, or something more that he had no white man's word to explain. "Yer turn t' fix us up somethin' t' eat."

Larabee snorted softly. "Stale biscuits and old jerky is the best I can do without a fire." He set about digging the food out of his saddlebags.

The two men had been on the trail for three days now, riding hard after a bunch of renegade Apaches who had slipped over the Mexican border to prey on the farmers, who offered little threat to the well-seasoned warriors. But the five fugitives hadn't counted on the seven regulators who had been hired to protect Four Corners and the surrounding territory. When the Indians had realized they were being hunted, a day into the chase, they had split up. Chris and Vin had followed one trail, Buck, JD and Ezra the second. Larabee also sent Josiah and Nathan out to some of the more distant farms to warn the families of the threat. With luck they would all meet up in Rudy Wells in a day or two, the renegades either captured or dead.

The two men ate in companionable silence, both as comfortable with the lack of words as they were with breathing in one another's company. But Larabee quickly noted Vin was just nibbling on his jerky, and he only finished off one biscuit, using water to soften it up.

When they finished, Vin looked out at the darkness and said, "I'll take first watch."

"All right," Chris agreed, tired enough not to argue with him. He pulled off his boots and snuggled under the blanket from his bedroll, dead to the world until Vin woke him a few hours later. He took over the watch, letting the tracker sleep for three hours before they traded off again so he could get another short nap.

And so the night passed.

Thursday morning

Both men were up and headed out again before sunrise, leading their horses in the murky gloom. They followed a trail of sorts, but it was too rough to risk their mounts by riding in the darkness.

"Watch yer face," Vin called quietly.

A moment later Larabee caught the wiry branches that whipped back at him after Tanner had passed. The gunman knew underbrush this thick would have been worn away if the trail got any regular use, but he also knew the renegades wouldn't want to use any well-worn paths. Tanner was following the signs of bent or trampled plants, although how the tracker was able to see them in the darkness, Chris didn't know. At least the sky was getting lighter in the east; a little longer and they would be able to ride again. And no doubt the renegades would as well.

"This trail's too obvious," Larabee commented when he began to see the signs for himself.

"Hell, Lar'bee, tell me somethin' I don't already know," Tanner snapped.

Chris frowned. "Something wrong, pard?"

"No," was the immediate reply, full of apology. It was followed a moment later by, "Yeah."

In the growing light Larabee saw the tracker shrug.

"Hell, 'm sorry, Chris," Tanner apologized. "Got me a bellyache; makes me a mite prickly." He grinned at the gunslinger over his shoulder. "Must be yer damn cookin'."

Larabee shook his head. "Hell, my belly's starting to think my throat's been cut. You're probably just hungry. You want some jerky? There's a little left."

Vin shook his head. "Let's ride."

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

As the mountains rose higher in front of them, the underbrush along the trail thinned out, finally fading to almost nothing. Tanner never lost the trail he was tracking, though, even if he did grow even quieter than usual, which had Larabee worried. But he knew any questions he asked would be met by stony silence, so he didn't bother, choosing to keep a closer eye on the man he was with instead. What he saw did nothing to ease his concern.

Vin was moving slower than usual, stiffly at times, too. And Chris heard the tracker's breath catch a few times when Tanner squatted down, or leaned over too far as he peered at a track. They were small things, but all together they added up to something Larabee didn't like.

Around noon Vin found a clear spring and stopped to fill their canteens and water their horses. He moved slowly around the pool, checking the ground once, twice, and then a third time.

"You find something?" Larabee ventured, watching the tracker work with a confused frown.

Vin straightened slowly, a slightly puzzled expression on his face. "Ain't sure." He wiped away the sweat gathering on his upper lip, then scrubbed his eyes with the balls of his hand.

Now that was truly worrisome – more so than Tanner's odd movements, or lack of interest in food and conversation of any kind. Larabee had never seen the young tracker stumped before. "So, what do we do?"

"Keep goin'," Vin replied with a weary sigh.

They mounted and headed out again.

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

Later that same afternoon Vin recognized the landmarks and wondered out loud if the three renegades they were following might not have tried to use the unique formation to double back on them. And damn if he wasn't right.

The trail they were currently following passed by a narrow rock ledge that angled away parallel to the ridge of the mountain instead of cutting across it like most. The spur created curved sharply away from the main trail, passing out of sight for several hundred feet. And, best of all – or so the renegades must have thought – the spot where the spur left the trail was easily concealed with a couple of uprooted shrubs and a few handfuls of desert sand. But Vin had lived among the Kiowa and the Comanche, and he'd hunted buffalo while living with the northern cousins of the men they were now tracking. He recognized all the tricks the renegades had used to conceal their passage, and for that Larabee was eternally grateful, because, if Tanner hadn't, they probably would have both ended up dead.

Vin veered around the spur and came in behind the renegades, getting the drop on them, but they still fought like the warriors they were. At the end of the short but pitched battle, Larabee and Tanner prevailed, killing all three of the Apaches and escaping with only minor injuries.

They tied the bodies of the dead men to the backs of their ponies and rode on, heading for Rudy Wells.

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

As the sun dipped low in the west, Larabee guided his horse over to a copse of small trees growing where the rock-ledge path they had been following broadened out. He swung down saying, "I'm going to fix us some hot supper tonight."

Tanner grimaced as he tethered his horse and started to unbuckle the cinch. "Ain't hungry," he said, his voice dulled by pain.

Chris let the subject drop for the moment, but he fixed enough hot beans for two, and plenty of coffee, hoping the smells might rekindle Tanner's appetite.

Vin finished caring for his horse, then walked over and sat down across from Larabee at the campfire. He sat absolutely still for a long moment, staring at the food, and then apparently decided he might be hungry after all. But he didn't eat much.

"I'll take first watch," Tanner announced as soon as he had finished.

"Vin, if you're not feeling good, maybe you should get some rest."

"Yer gonna make a real good mama some day, Lar'bee." And over Chris's resulting splutter, he added, "Hell, 'til m' innerds settle some I ain't goin' t' be able t' sleep, so y' might as well get what y' c'n."

"That bad?" Chris asked, his worry climbing again.

"Felt better," the tracker replied, adding immediately, "felt worse, too." Then, with a wordless shrug, he stood and left the fire.

Larabee watched him go, trying to string together the clues he had been gathering over the past couple of days. Tanner was in pain, that much was clear. His appetite was gone, he didn't seem to be sleeping well, and his belly was giving him trouble. And, as he continued to watch the tracker at his horse, Vin's movements were still wrong somehow. He stood too slowly, walked too carefully, almost as if he'd had too much to drink. And it wasn't sore muscles either. They had both been saddle sore and beaten up enough times for Larabee to recognize what that would have looked like. Whatever this was, it was something unusual. And that was where his worry came from. Unusual in this harsh land most often meant dead.

As Tanner returned to the fire with his bedroll, Chris braced himself for an argument and said, "Vin, I think we ought to get you into town, have Nathan take a look at you."

"'M fine, Chris."

"Ya ain't much of a liar, Tanner."

Vin flashed him a warning glower, clearly not happy about the direction the conversation was taking, but Larabee would not be deterred.

"How much longer do you think you'll be able to ride?"

The tracker's eyes narrowed and he pulled his knees a little closer to his chest, resting his arms on them. "Reckon as long as I need to," he stated flatly, then leaned forward and tossed a handful of dirt onto the tiny campfire, nearly putting it out. "Get some sleep, Cowboy."

Larabee sighed softly, knowing he had lost the round with the tracker. Well, it wouldn't be the last one. He could be just as stubborn as Tanner. "All right… Damn stubborn Texan… Wake me up when you're ready to turn in."

Tanner didn't look up, he just nodded.

Larabee lay down and closed his eyes, but he didn't fall asleep right away. He went over the path he thought Josiah and Nathan might have taken when they had split up on Monday and decided there was a good chance they might have reached Rudy Wells today. He guessed they'd stay the night, and probably one more as well, to see if any of the rest of them arrived, before heading back to Four Corners. With a little luck, he and Vin might be able to catch up to the two men there tomorrow and the healer could get a look at Tanner.

He'd see to it that they took the quickest trail to the small community in the morning.

He heard Tanner shift with a soft grunt, then heard the resulting half-swallowed gasp as well. He frowned, but knew he wouldn't be able to wring any more cooperation out of the man than he'd already gotten – which was none. Damn stubborn fool…

Turning over, he found a comfortable spot and fell soundly asleep.

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

Vin gazed out at the darkness and shivered. For most of his life he had embraced the darkness as a friend and an ally, especially after he'd taken up bounty hunting. When he wanted to sneak up on someone, nothing could beat the darkness of the night. But when he had to keep quiet and listen, and was plagued by a cold, unrelenting nausea, the darkness suddenly became lonely and threatening.

The tracker rested his cheek against the cool face of a boulder as he unscrewed his canteen cap and took a sip of the tepid water inside. It didn't help, though. Nothing seemed to be helping any more. He knew the pressure in his guts would continue to build until he threw up, then ease for a little while before starting to build again.

He couldn't understand why his belly wouldn't behave itself. There was nothing left to cause it any upset, that much, at least, he was sure of. A case of grippe would come with a fever, but he didn't have a fever. In fact, he was cool and clammy. It just made no sense to him, and that scared him. He'd seen too many of his Indian family killed by disease over the years. He'd rather go by a bullet.

Vin pulled his blanket up over his shoulders and wrapped his arms around his stomach. It wouldn't be quite so bad if the pain would just let up a little, but it persisted, sharp and burning, hour after hour, wearing him down until it felt like he had no strength left to draw upon.

He thought briefly about waking Larabee, but there was no point to that. He might as well let Chris sleep. Besides, no matter what the stubborn gunslinger said, he still hadn't completely healed from the wound he himself had suffered when one of Ella Gains' men had shot him in the final battle before the bitch had escaped. He was doing better than the tracker, that was true, but Vin still knew the gunman could use the additional sleep.

There would be no sleeping for him, not with the pain so strong and constant, but it was so damn cold and quiet. If he didn't hear Larabee occasionally shift in his sleep, he might have believed the world had disappeared, leaving him to suffer all alone in the darkness. He'd rather have his friend sitting next to him, but he'd always suffered alone and, when it came right down to it, he was afraid to ask for Larabee's help. Afraid if he asked for too much, he'd find himself alone again. He knew that wouldn't happen, but still the fear still remained.

Something inside cramped again and Vin bit back a low moan and took a deep breath, forcing himself to relax as much as he could. It wasn't easy, but he managed it after a time. Maybe he should wake Chris, he thought again.

No. There was nothing Chris could do, and it would only set the man to worrying again; he seemed to be doing plenty of that already. It would be better in the morning, when it was warmer.

He tugged the blanket tighter around his shoulders. Maybe that was it, he decided. It was just the chill making him feel so bad. Once the sun came up he'd feel better. He doubted he could feel much worse.

But oh the time passed slowly, so slowly.

Friday morning

Vin jerked awake when something unidentified skittered over his boot. What little he could see through the trees was starting to show traces of grey. Mornin' already? he wondered as he scanned the clearing, his heart racing. Larabee was still rolled up in his blanket and sound asleep, and the horses were yanking up sparse grass and underbrush where they were tied. Whatever had awakened him was nowhere in sight.

Breathing a soft sigh of relief, he relaxed. He was a damn fool, falling asleep like that. Mistakes like that could get him killed, especially being a wanted man like he was. But it seemed that no harm had been done – this time. And for that he thanked whatever spirits or gods might be looking out for him, if any.

He pushed himself up onto one knee and immediately doubled over when his stomach coiled tightly in protest. Then there was an explosion of pain in his gut, stripping away his breath and his awareness.

The next thing he knew, Larabee was holding him in a seated position with one hand, the tracker's shoulder leaning heavily against Chris' chest. In the gunman's other hand he held a cool, damp cloth that he was pressing to Vin's forehead.

As his insides began to still, Tanner sagged against the man, more grateful for the support than he ever imagined he could be. "Thanks, pard," he rasped out, reaching up to take the cloth and wipe his face, his hand shaking slightly as he did.

Chris continued to hold Tanner until he was finished, then sat back on his heels, studying him. "Why didn't you wake me?" he asked, fear quaking through his own guts.

"Weren't sleepy," Tanner rasped, pushing his hair out of his eyes.

"Vin, how long have you been getting sick like this?" Larabee asked softly, but there was an iron core to the tone that made it clear he'd have an answer this time, or else.

"Jist a little bit. Told y' I should 'a skipped them beans fer supper last night."

Larabee's look was skeptical. "I'll go get the horses ready. You rest. We're getting you to Nathan today."

Vin felt too miserable to argue, so he just watched as the gunslinger fed the horses the last of the oats from their saddlebags, then saddled them.

When Larabee finished, Tanner tossed the cloth aside and carefully climbed to his feet, using the large rock he'd been leaning against for part of the night to help support and steady him. He took a few tentative steps toward the horses, then stopped and carefully stretched. It felt good to move around after sitting still for so long, but he quickly discovered he couldn't straighten up all the way; it simply hurt too much.

Chris broke the camp and walked over to join him, asking, "Ready?"

Vin nodded, allowing the man to walk him over to the waiting black geldings. Just looking at his saddle, Tanner knew lifting his foot to step into the stirrup was going to be a challenge, and he was right.

As Vin hauled himself up and started to swing his right leg over the saddle, molten agony shot through him. It felt like someone had driven a white-hot poker deep into his guts. He gasped sharply and pitched forward, falling to the ground. The hard landing jarred thought and awareness out of him and, for an endless moment, nothing existed but the pain, unlike anything he'd ever felt before, and he had hurt, badly, many times in the past. It just didn't seem possible for it to be this bad without being dead. Then he heard a low, tormented moan. It took him a few moments to realize it was him making the sound. He tried to stop himself, but he had no control over his body, none at all.

Then the agony eased into a burning throb in his right side, still bad, but tolerable at last. He frowned, realizing for the first time somebody was shaking him, speaking to him.

"Vin? Vin, what the hell's wrong? Damn it, Tanner, talk to me."

The tracker took as deep a breath as he dared, shivering as he let it out in a rush. Mornings were sure getting cold these days. "'M fine," he managed.

"Could've fooled me," Chris replied, tone half-annoyed, half-worried. "What happened?"

"Ain't sure," Vin said. "Couldn't get m' leg over m' saddle." He tensed against the chills that began to wrack his body and tried to keep his tone light. "Hell, Chris, ain't sure I c'n get on m' horse."

"Yes, you can." Larabee's positive tone didn't match the worried look on his face. "We'll find a way."

Vin nodded, leaning into Chris' support as the gunman helped him to his feet. He stumbled forward a couple of steps, catching himself and managing a grin. "Got any ideas?"

Larabee did. And, thank goodness, Tanner's usually cantankerous horse was willing to go along with them.

Chris helped Vin step up onto a rock, steadied him, and then guided the tracker's leg as Tanner carefully slid into his saddle.

Once he was settled, and his stomach stopped trying to twist itself into knots, Vin forced himself to sit up as straight as he could, ground his teeth together tightly and concentrated on staying right where he was while Chris led both horses out onto the trail, the renegades' ponies, still carrying their burdens, tied in a line secured to Pony's saddle horn.

It was more than a little embarrassing for the tracker to have the ride down an easy trail become a trial by ordeal but, as the miles passed, Vin began to suspect every muscle in his body must be connected directly to the throbbing ache that had settled into his right side. Any pull or twitch set off an eruption of agony that had him hunching over his saddle horn, his fingers wrapping tightly around it to hold himself in the saddle while he rode it out. And, worse still, the occasional jarring by his horse's usually smooth gait aggravated his queasiness, and he was forced to stop to get sick. Vin knew that bothered Chris, not to mention the horses, but he couldn't get his stomach under control no matter how resolute he was about it.

By the time a few hours had passed, Vin was more than ready to ask Larabee to shoot him right where he sat in order to put him out of his misery. But that would have required speech and he was too weak to attempt it. All he could do was to hang on and hope that whatever Spirits had been looking after him thus far would see him through this as well.

To pass the time, and to occupy his thoughts, Vin kept his gaze fixed on Larabee's back, grateful as he never had been before that he wasn't alone, that he had a friend so close at hand. It was far more comforting than he'd ever expected, and his silent gratitude caused tears to fill his eyes, blurring his vision.

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

Larabee watched and listened as his friend suffered in silence, trying to come up with something – anything – that might help him. Of all the emotions, helplessness was the one that galled the gunman most, and he was determined to find a way to ease Tanner's pain.

He finally hit on something a few hours into the ride. He pulled his gelding to a stop, Peso and the other horses coming to a halt as well.

Stepping down from his saddle, Chris walked over and looked up at Tanner. "I've got an idea, you want to hear it?"

Vin nodded, looking at least as miserable as he felt. Chris told him what he had in mind and the tracker nodded again, willing to try almost anything.

Larabee carefully eased one of Tanner's feet out of his stirrup and then shortened the length. With that done, he gently fitted Tanner's boot back into the stirrup and walked around to do the same with the second. He took a step back and asked, "That help at all?"

Vin waited for a moment as his body adjusted to the change, then he nodded. "Reckon it does. Thanks, Cowboy."

Chris nodded, lightly patting Tanner's leg before swinging back into his saddle. He clucked to his horse and they set off again, heading straight for Rudy Wells.

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

Larabee kept a close eye on Vin as the day wore on, the tracker's condition worsening with each passing hour. He stopped whenever he saw Tanner's stomach was about to rebel, waiting until the dry heaves let up and they could continue on.

After each bout, Tanner grew weaker, and Chris knew it wouldn't be too much longer before Vin wasn't able to hold himself in the saddle. He dreaded that time, knowing Vin would fight him when he either had to tie him into the saddle or shift to riding double. It was hard for the younger man to ask for help, although Larabee suspected it had far less to do with pride than it did with the simple fact he'd been forced to do for himself almost all of his life.

As the sun drifted past its midpoint in the sky, Chris worried they might not be moving fast enough to reach Rudy Wells before Nathan and Josiah left, even if they left tomorrow morning after sunrise. They needed to pick up the pace, but he wasn't sure Tanner could tolerate it.

"Think you can take another hour or two?" he asked Vin.

"Reckon so," Tanner rasped.

Chris nodded and urged the horses to move a little faster, praying silently Vin could just hang on a little longer.

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

The light from the setting sun gave the tracker more color than he'd had all day, but it also showed Tanner's mouth was nothing more than a tight line of stubborn determination. The tracker sat, hunched miserably over his saddle horn, his strength all but gone.

The ride had clearly cost Tanner dearly, but there was nothing Larabee could do about it. Still, he still found himself asking, "You want to rest for a bit?"

"No." Tanner looked up, sky-blue eyes unusually dull and unfocused. "I get off… won't be gettin' back on."


"As a bear after a long winter, but if y' think 'm eatin' anythin'… yer a lot crazier 'n I thought y' are."

"Drink some water then," Chris said with a slight smile, handing Tanner an open canteen.

They shared a drink, then started off down the wide wagon road that would take them around the easy slope of a low mountain pass.

"Think we'll catch up to 'em?" Tanner asked softly, and Chris knew the tracker meant Nathan and Josiah.

"I'm hoping so."

"Me, too," Tanner said, sending a bolt of fear straight through Larabee's heart. Tanner never asked for or wanted help unless he was in a very bad way. That he was basically asking for it now was enough to leave the gunslinger shaking with dread.

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

Four grim hours later a small cluster of lights appeared in distance as they rounded another bend. Rudy Wells, Chris knew, and a sigh of relief escaped his lips. How Tanner had made it this far he wasn't sure, but he knew it must be a testament to the man's grit – and Josiah's claim that there really was a God in Heaven.

Almost another hour passed before they finally rode into the small community of Rudy Wells. The saloons were the only businesses still open, although a light shone in the sheriff's office as well. Chris started for the first of the two saloons, hoping to find Nathan and Josiah there, but as they passed the door to the sheriff's office it opened and three men stepped out onto the boardwalk.

"Chris," Vin hissed softly, his head dipping lower.

Larabee looked over at the hunched man. "You all right?"

"Those three," Tanner said, jerking his chin in the direction of the sheriff's office, "they's bounty hunters… know 'bout me. Keep goin' t' the livery."

Larabee clucked to his gelding, hurrying the string of horses on to the livery. He would be very glad to drop the dead off with the undertaker. Dismounting at the large barn, he waited for a moment and, when no one appeared, he opened the door and led his and Tanner's horses inside, leaving the other three tied to the corral outside. Vin remained mounted.

"You be all right here if I go see whether Nathan and Josiah are still in town?"

"They's here," Vin rasped, jerking his chin to the right as he slowly pulled the Mare's Leg from its holster on his leg.

Chris looked, spotting Apostle and Whiskey in two of the stalls. "All right, stay here, I'll be back soon as I find 'em."

"Prob'ly at the saloon."

"Probably," Larabee agreed, watching from the door of the livery as the three bounty hunters mounted and headed out of town in the direction they had just come from. "Those hunters are leavin'."

Tanner nodded, too tired to do anything more. Still, he'd keep the Mare's Leg in his hands, just in case, although he knew if he tried to fire it, the recoil would probably knock him right off his horse.

"I'll be back before you know it."

Another nod.

Larabee waited until the bounty hunters were out of sight before hurrying down the street to the largest of the two saloons. He paused outside, allowing his eyes to adjust to the light before he stepped inside, his gaze sweeping over the patrons. Josiah and Nathan were seated at a table in a corner, eating. Sanchez looked up as Larabee's gaze rested on him, then grinned in greeting and waved him over.

Chris crossed the room swiftly, saying, "Nathan, Vin needs you," as soon as he reached the pair.

Both men stood, their meals instantly forgotten. "What's wrong?" the healer asked, frowning with concern.

"Don't know. Come on," Larabee said, leading the way out of the saloon.

"I'll go see if there's a local doctor," Josiah said, veering off and heading for the sheriff's office once they were outside on the boardwalk.

Larabee looked at Nathan and said, "Hurry."

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

At the livery, Nathan's practiced gaze swept over the hunched tracker, his frown deepening. "Vin?" he called softly. Apparently Tanner hadn't noticed they'd arrived, which sent a cold chill down the healer's back.

"Nate?" Tanner rasped, his head jerking up, as did the Mare's Leg in his hands.

Jackson approached the tracker slowly, his hands held out so the tracker could see he was unarmed. He wasn't sure he wanted to reach out and touch Tanner until the man was more awake. "Vin, you all right?"

Tanner radiated the agony he was so clearly in. "'M powerful all-overish," he said softly, holstering the Mare's Leg.

Nathan nodded, moving closer. "Tell me where you're hurtin'."

"M' side," the tracker said, his voice as weak as he looked.

"Which one?"


Larabee listened as the questions continued for a while longer. Then Josiah arrived and told them, "Medical man normally lives here in town, but he's up in Sheltonville. Sheriff says his wife might be able to help, though."

Chris nodded. "Let's get him over there."

Josiah roused the livery man, paying him for his care of his and Nathan's horses. At the same time, Nathan and Chris saddled the two geldings so they were ready to go.

The four regulators headed through town, stopping at the hotel long enough for Nathan and Josiah to fetch their saddlebags from the room they had shared, and at the undertakers to drop off the three dead Indians. The man wasn't happy about the late night business, but a dollar from Larabee sent him on his way to deal with them.

Vin swayed dangerously with each step Peso took, and Chris and Nathan moved in as close as they dared on either side of the ill-tempered gelding, trying to make sure the tracker didn't fall.

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

The doctor's house was at the far end of town, a two-story structure with a large porch running along the front. Larabee tied his and Vin's horse to the hitching rail at the front, suddenly reluctant. "I don't like it," he said quietly to Nathan. "He needs a doctor, not a doctor's wife."

Tanner's voice was barely a whisper. "Cain't ride no farther, Chris."

That comment sent a cold chill snaking down Larabee's back and the gunslinger knew this was as far as the tracker was going.

"Let's just get him inside, get a good look at him," Nathan said. "Then we can decide what to do. But he needs some rest off Peso's back." He glanced up at Vin and asked, "Can ya get down?"

Tanner nodded and started to move, but as soon as he did, he sagged with a strangled groan and toppled out of his saddle. Josiah was barely quick enough to catch the tracker before he hit the ground.

Carefully shifting his semi-conscious burden in his arms, the preacher headed straight for the house. "Not your finest moment, brother," he said softly.

"Sorry, J'isah," Vin mumbled, "powerful dizzy in m' head."

Josiah chuckled and grinned. He hadn't realized Tanner was awake enough to hear him, but the tracker was obviously clinging tenaciously to consciousness. "No need to worry, brother."

"Put me down, J'siah," the tracker managed when they reached the porch, and Sanchez did just that as Larabee clapped the brass knocker on the door and gave it three sharp raps, each a little louder than the last.

A dog barked from somewhere inside the house and, a few moments later, they heard footsteps approaching. An older woman in a plain blue gingham dress opened the door. She held a lamp in one hand, the other resting on the head of the dog, a large collie-like animal that wagged his tail in greeting.

Josiah and Nathan both removed their hats and Vin lifted his hand so he could touch his finger to the brim of his. Larabee, however, just said, "Ma'am, we're sorry to disturb you so late, but our friend is sick."

"The sheriff thought you might be able to help," Josiah added, hoping to allay any fears she might have, finding four strange men on her porch in the middle of the night.

"Well, yes, please, come in," she said, opening the door wider. "I'll go wake Fredrick and we'll see what we can do to help your friend." She set the lamp she carried on a small table beside a bench in the hallway. "You can wait here for a moment." she said, seeing the way Vin shuffled into the house. The dog trotted away at her side.

Vin let out a sigh of relief as he settled himself on the bench.

"Feel better to sit down?" Nathan asked, hoping to distract Tanner from the pain that seemed to hold him in its grip. He sat next to the tracker and eased the man's hide coat off as carefully as he could.

Vin nodded, unable to respond as the agony flared, tightening the black ring encroaching upon his vision, narrowing it to a pinpoint.

"Tell me how you're feeling?" the healer queried worriedly, seeing the tracker sway, his face going a sickly grey.

"Bad," was the softly rasped reply, then Vin gasped and pressed both of his hands to his right side, holding himself as still as he could and trying not to breathe any more deeply than he absolutely had to. Finally, after several long moments, he relaxed slightly and slumped back against the wall, a light sheen of sweat coating his face. His body shook with exhaustion and he panted shallowly.

Jackson gingerly touched the tracker's sleeve. "Vin?"

"Jist don't let up," Vin moaned faintly, looking and sounding like he was at the end of his endurance.

Jackson's lips pressed into a thin line. This wasn't good. Vin never protested, even when he ought to. To actually hear the tracker complain frightened the healer more than he wanted to admit.

Seeing the resulting look on Nathan's face, Chris sat down on Vin's other side, his hand coming up to rest lightly on the tracker's shoulder. "Hang on, pard," he said quietly, hearing footsteps coming back down the hall. "Even if the doctor isn't here, maybe his wife can do something to help the pain."

"We'll most certainly try, you can rest assured of that," the old woman said as she reached them. Beside her was a black man, several years younger than Nathan.

"Now, what seems to be the problem here?" she asked, hazel eyes focused on Vin.

Tanner saw her gaze and started to stand, but the old woman reached out and lightly touched his shoulder, keeping him seated. "No reason to pile on the agony for courtesy's sake, son. I'm Anabell Griffin, Dr. Benjamin Griffin's wife, and this is Fredrick LaCroix, Benjamin's assistant. My husband is out of town this night, but I can send Timothy to the telegraph office to summon him back, if necessary."

"We'd appreciate it, ma'am," Nathan said and quickly made the introductions, although he was careful to omit Vin's last name before he added, "We're peacekeepers, been out chasing some Apache renegades who came up from Mexico."

Fredrick stepped up to Vin, saying, "If yuh can walk, sir, I'll take yuh to the exam room. Yuh can lie down, and Mrs. Griffin will get a better look at yuh."

"'M real sorry t' disturb yer sleep, ma'am," Vin rasped as Chris and Nathan helped him to his feet. Too weak to walk unaided, Tanner leaned heavily on the gunslinger, who wrapped his arm around the tracker's shoulders to keep him on his feet.

Seeing Vin hesitate to take a step, Josiah moved to the younger man's other side. Then, after a look at Larabee, he reached down and scooped the tracker up into his arms.

"Aw hell, J'siah, I c'n walk," Tanner complained weakly, but the words had no conviction in them. The tracker was no longer sure he actually could. The hallway looked longer than a rough mile in a blizzard.

"I know you can, brother," Sanchez replied kindly, "but there's no need. It's just a short way, and you're not too heavy a burden."

Vin nodded, allowing himself to relax as much as he dared while the big preacher followed Fredrick and Nathan to another room near the end of the hallway.

Chris trailed behind them with Mrs. Griffin. "My friend's been sick for two days, and he's gettin' worse," he told her.

Josiah entered the room and laid Vin on the examining table while Fredrick lit the lamps near the table.

"I used to be my husband's nurse," Mrs. Griffin said, getting her first good look at the tracker, "until my hands became so knotted I couldn't be of any aid." She glanced down at Vin and said, "Now, why don't you tell me what's wrong so I'll know if we need to wire the doctor."

"He's had a bellyache for two days," Chris supplied.

"Three," Vin corrected him and fidgeted for a long moment, then asked, "Chris, think you an' J'siah c'n wait outside?"

Larabee hesitated, wondering what it was Vin didn't want him to hear.

Seeing the man's hesitation, the old woman added, "If it'll put your mind at ease, I've worked at my husband's side for well over thirty years."

"Yes, ma'am," Larabee said, his gaze locked with Tanner's. Then he glanced at Nathan, who nodded. He would be staying, no matter what Vin said. "We'll go talk to the sheriff; tell him about the renegades," he said, then turned and left, Josiah following him, the preacher's hand resting on the gunslinger's shoulder for support.

Once the two men were gone Mrs. Griffiss asked, "Now, do you want to tell me whatever is it you didn't want your friend to hear and worry on?"

"This is worse 'n any bellyache I ever had," Vin said, glancing Nathan's way. "Been bringin' up all m' food fer two, maybe three days. M' guts been runnin' real bad, too… 'til I run outta food."

"And you hid all this from your friend?"

"Tried to," he replied. "Didn't want t' put a worry on him. He'll jist blame hisself fer not seein' how bad it was if'n he hears."

"Well, I suppose that was awfully thoughtful of you, but I'd be willing to wager your friend would've rather known and helped you." Tanner's cheeks turned rosy and she patted his shoulder. "What's done is done. You just lie there and rest a little." She looked at Fredrick. "If you can get his clothes off I'll see what I can see."

Nathan helped Fredrick undress Vin, both men going slowly so they didn't jar the tracker too much. "You trained as a doctor?" Jackson asked the younger man as they worked.

Fredrick shook his head. "Oh, no, suh," he replied, his voice more thickly accented than Ezra's. "But Dr. Griffin, he shows me lots o' things. I help him day and night now. Hope to attend medical school in Paris in a few more years. You?"

"Was a stretcher-bearer in the Union Army, picked up what I could, worked as an Army medic for a time, too, but now I'm just a healer."

"From Four Corners?" Mrs. Griffin asked as she carefully palpitated Tanner's abdomen.

Nathan nodded, looking slightly surprised.

"I thought your name sounded familiar. Benjamin and I have heard good things about you, Mr. Jackson," she explained when she saw Nathan's reaction. "We meant to look you up once we got good and settled here, but I haven't been strong enough to make the trip." She met Nathan's eyes and asked, "You know what this is?"

"Ain't sure, ma'am," Nathan admitted. "But I got an idea. You?"

"Sadly, I believe I do."

The healer hesitated a moment, his heart beginning to beat faster, then he asked softly, "Inflamed appendix?"

She nodded, her expression sad and worried. Then she turned to Vin and said, "Now, tell me exactly when you first noticed something was wrong."

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

Minutes passed slowly on the clock hanging on the wall in the hallway of the doctor's home, each minute watched carefully by the two men who had already returned from town. It was nearing 11 p.m.

A muffled yelp coming from the examining room brought Chris to his feet, but Josiah kept the gunslinger from heading straight in to see what was going on.

A red-haired boy no older than fourteen appeared, carrying a tray with coffee.

"Thank you, son," Josiah said, taking the cups from him.

"Don't you worry none," he told them, his voice lightly accented. "Mrs. Griffin is as good a doctor as the Doc is. She'll take good care of your friend, you'll see."

"You have family here, son?" the preacher asked the boy, needing conversation to take his mind off the worry radiating from Larabee.

"No, sir," the boy replied. "Was an orphan, back in Boston. Dr. Griffin picked me out when I was but seven years of age. Been helping him and Mrs. Griffin ever since. When they come west, I come with 'em gladly."

"Benjamin saw a notice in a medical journal and answered it," Mrs. Griffin added, walking up to join them. "There are four towns hereabouts who decided they needed regular access to a physician. The people here aren't wealthy, but the mines are doing well enough to pay us for essentials and they built this house for us and gave Ben an office in each of the towns he visits. We grow our own food, and I do a little scribbling for the papers back in Boston; we have a good life here."

"So your husband's rather like a circuit preacher," Josiah said, nodding over the inventive solution.

"Yes… Yes, I suppose he is," she agreed with a smile. "Benjamin makes his way to the three communities once every month, and whenever there's an emergency, of course. Usually Fredrick goes with him, but I was feeling poorly when he left this time, so Fredrick stayed here with me."

Chris let the conversation wash over him, his concentration on the closed door of the examination room down the hall. He'd seen the tracker shot, stabbed, beaten and tortured, and Vin had never asked him to leave him; if anything he'd been grateful for Larabee's company. So why had he sent him away this time? Did he have a feeling he might be dying? Was he trying to spare Chris another loss?

"Timothy, dear, I need a bucket of cold water from the barrel on the back porch," Mrs. Griffin said, then looked at Chris and Josiah and added, "I think your friend has an inflamed appendix."

"Appendix? The Doc'll want to know, ma'am," the teen said, turning back, his eyes rounded with excitement. "You want me to telegraph him, Missus?"

"Yes, dear, but after you bring me that water," she said, then added to the peacekeepers, "Why don't you go down and see him? I need to fetch a few things and I know he'd appreciate the company."

Larabee led the way back to the examining room. Inside, he and Josiah saw Tanner was still lying on the examining table, but he was only wearing his long johns now. The blue eyes were closed.

"How's he doing?" Chris asked Nathan.

"Got a 'pende-icitis," Vin replied for the healer, his eyes opening. He frowned, not understanding what the devil the word meant, but he didn't think it sounded good.

Timothy came in carrying a bucket of cold water which he set on a small table next to the wall and not far from the table where Vin lay. Mrs. Griffin was right behind him, carrying a white enamel pan in one hand, a stack of towels filling her free arm. "I'm very sorry, Vin, but I'm going to make you very uncomfortable in just a moment. And, since I am, I think I should explain why…" She gave him a wink, a twinkle in her eyes. "Just so your friends here don't decide to shoot me."

"Won't happen, ma'am," Vin rasped, glancing at his three friends, the warning clear in his pain-filled eyes.

"Still, I want you to understand what's happening inside you," she said, smiling at the serious tone he'd used. "Might make it less frightening." She walked over to a shelf of books, pulled one down, and carried it back to the examining table.

"Can you help him?" Chris asked her as she passed.

"Not much right now, but I think Benjamin will be able to, once he's back." She leafed through the book and then opened it so all of the peacekeepers could see, but she spoke directly to Vin. "This is what your intestines look like. Food goes down to your stomach, then though the small intestines…" Her finger traced the path. "…and into the large intestine. That's where you find the appendix. Sometimes an appendix becomes infected, although we don't understand why, and when it does, it swells. I believe swelling and infection are what's causing your present discomfort."

Vin rubbed gingerly at his side, which still ached furiously, although not as badly as when he'd been on horseback. "What's it do?" he asked her a little tentatively. "When it ain't infected."

She smiled indulgently. "We don't know that, either, but we do know it's not essential for life. People who have lost their appendix have lived perfectly normal, full lives without it."

"Lost it?" Tanner asked her, his brow furrowing worriedly. "Ya mean they got gut-shot?"

"No, not necessarily," she replied enigmatically. "In any event, the best thing for you right now is to slow the infection's progress. A snow or ice pack would be best but, lacking those as we are, we'll just have to make do with what we do have." She slid a dry towel under Vin's right side, then took another and dipped it into the pan, filled with the water Timothy had brought in, soaking it thoroughly. "I'm afraid this is going to be rather cold," she warned the tracker. "Just grit your teeth and bear with it, I promise it will help the pain."

Despite her warning, Tanner's eyes still flew open wide when she laid the cloth on his stomach, just above his right hip. "Damn!" he hissed, glaring daggers at the other three peacekeepers who seemed more than ready to allow the old woman to torture him, but he still apologized for his cursing.

"That's quite all right. I know this probably doesn't feel like much of an improvement right now but, believe me, it has saved people's lives."

Fredrick stepped up beside her and unfolded a light blanket he draped over the tracker. "This'll help a little, suh."

"Try to get some rest, dear," she told Tanner. "I have to write out a note for Timothy to send to Dr. Griffin." She shifted her attention from Tanner to Nathan, asking the healer, "Can you stay and help Fredrick? We need to keep changing that towel so it stays as cold as we can make it."

Jackson nodded, hoping he could talk Tanner into cooperating. If he couldn't, Chris probably could. But then, given the way the tracker was feeling, Nathan doubted he'd put up too much of a fuss.

Mrs. Griffin met Chris' eyes, holding the gunman's gaze for a moment, then nodded at the door before she started to leave.

Larabee immediately followed her and as soon as they reached the end of the hallway, well out of earshot of the men still in the examining room, he stopped her. "You said that's saved people's lives before. Is this dangerous?"

The old woman nodded. "Yes, I'm afraid so. The cold packs will buy him some time, enough for Benjamin to return and perform surgery, I hope."

That wasn't good enough for the gunslinger. "No offense, ma'am, but Vin's sick and hurting. Can't you just do what needs to be done, or talk Nathan through it?"

"I need my husband to confirm my diagnosis. Benjamin has seen more appendicitis than most doctors. And he's seen most of his patients through it, too."

Larabee frowned. "Seen them through? It's that bad?"

The old woman glanced down for a moment, then raised her chin and met Larabee's stormy green eyes. "Most people sick as that young man in there do not survive, Mr. Larabee."

All the color drained from Chris' face and it was suddenly hard for him to breathe. She instantly grabbed his arm and guided him to the seat Vin had used earlier and had him sit. He looked up at her, pain so obvious in his green eyes she winced slightly.

"Ma'am, are you tellin' me Vin's going to die?"

"No. Oh, no, dear," she said, reaching out to rest her hand on the gunslinger's arm, giving it a supportive squeeze. "There's a very good chance my husband can save him. Benjamin was very good friends with Dr. Fitz, who learned the technique for the surgical removal of an inflamed appendix while he was in Europe. Benjamin's proved very adept at the procedure.

"Now, I won't lie to you, Mr. Larabee, the surgery has its risks, but it's nowhere near as risky as doing nothing. Do nothing and he will most certainly die." She sighed heavily. "I've only assisted my husband in the surgery, and can no longer even do that with my hands the way they are. If things take a turn for the worse, I will attempt to talk Mr. Jackson through the procedure, but I pray that won't be necessary. It will take Benjamin two days, perhaps three, to return, but I'm confident Vin should be able to hold out that long if we keep the cold packs in place and make sure he keeps taking small amounts of water."

"I hope you're right, ma'am," Chris said, looking back at the closed door, his body shaking slightly with a chill that squeezed his heart like a tight fist. "I better tell the others."

She nodded and they parted ways, Chris returning to the examining room, the old woman to write the note to her husband.

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

Vin closed his eyes and groaned, the continuing pain and the new cold making him almost as uncomfortable as he'd felt while on horseback. But then, lulled by the slow relief of the hot throb, he found himself drifting in and out of a light sleep until he heard Mrs. Griffin step back into the room.

He forced his eyes open, finding Larabee had returned as well, but he hadn't heard him. Chris had been talking to Nathan and Josiah. He frowned, knowing whatever had passed between the three men had left them rattled. Larabee didn't say anything to him, but then the gunslinger didn't need to – the fear in his green eyes said it all.

Tanner swallowed thickly, his own anxiety rising. He was sicker than he understood. He tried to put on a good face, but the pain in his side flared again and he knew a brave front wasn't worth the effort it would cost him. He was in a bad way, and nothing was going to change that – not unless Dr. Griffin could help him.

He watched as Mrs. Griffin set a tray down on the desk. "I had Timothy put your horses in the barn," she told them. "Have some coffee, gentlemen. It looks to be a long night."

When she left them again, Nathan asked Chris, "She thinkin' her husband can get back in time to perform the operation?"

Chris nodded, unable to meet Tanner's eyes.

"Damn," Vin sighed. "They got t' cut on me t' fix this?"

"He'll take Vin's appendix out," Josiah asked, "like they would a bullet?"

Nathan nodded. "Guessed that'd be what the doctor would do. I read they're doing it back East now; workin' pretty good, too."

"What if I jist wait it out?" Vin asked hopefully. He was willing to endure a lot to avoid going under the knife.

The healer shook his head. "Ain't gonna get no better, Vin. It'll kill ya if they don't take it out in time."

"In time?" Vin asked him, his heart beginning to beat a little faster.

Nathan pursed his lips, not really wanting to explain, but he'd backed himself into a corner and knew Tanner wasn't going to let up until he did. "This is just what I've read, ya understand," he said, gaze shifting from the tracker to the other two men. "What kills folks is the infection, bustin' out of the appendix and spreadin' through a man's guts."

"Ah hell," Tanner moaned. "Ya mean it'll be like I got gut-shot?" He had seen men die horrible deaths after being gut-shot, or stabbed in the belly, and he'd seen some of the Indians' more gruesome tortures. The thought he might die like that scared the tracker – badly. "Don't want 'em cuttin' up m' guts, don't want t' die like a gut-shot man neither."

"You'll be fine," Nathan tried to assure the tracker.

Tanner looked up at Jackson, asking, "Cain't you do it, Nate?"

He shook his head. "I've only read about the procedure, Vin. Dr. Griffin, he's done it before, probably lots of times. He knows what he's doing; he'll take care of you."

Vin nodded, knowing he had to find a way to escape the pain, one way or another. And it was clear Nathan was spooked about doing it himself, so he'd just have to wait for Dr. Griffin to get back and do it.

"You just lay there and do whatever Mrs. Griffin tells you," Chris told the tracker, stepping up to the edge of the exam table and reaching out to rest his hand on the top of Vin's head. "We'll make sure the doc gets back in time, I give you my word."

Tanner nodded. "That's good enough fer me."

Chris gave him a small smile, silently praying he could keep that promise.

Very early Saturday morning

Timothy returned from the telegraph office out of breath and carrying two wires. One was from Buck, who had wanted to let Chris and the others know the two renegades he, JD, and Ezra had been hunting had managed to slip back into Mexico. The three men were headed back to Four Corners.

The second wire was from the doctor. Nathan saw Mrs. Griffin frown as she read her husband's reply and asked her, "What is it, ma'am?"

"Oh, dear… Mrs. Webber's baby was breech. She has puerperal fever."

"Childbed fever?" Nathan asked her.

She nodded. "Poor thing. Benjamin wants us to bring Vin to him."

Jackson frowned. "Vin ain't in any condition t' ride for two days, ma'am," he said before Chris or Josiah could.

"No," Mrs. Griffin said. "I realize that. I suppose the only thing to do is for you to take the wagon and get him to Benjamin."

"Wagon?" Chris asked, not liking the sound of it.

"We could fill the bed with straw, pad it with plenty of blankets," Josiah suggested. "That should be a lot more comfortable than riding Peso would be."

Mrs. Griffin nodded. "We have a small feather mattress that should help as well."

"Hell," Vin said, his hand pressed lightly against the cold towel on his abdomen, "'M feelin' some better; I c'n ride." He was tired and weak, and he still ached all over but, for the moment, the insistent, burning throb had died away to a dull ache, a great improvement as far as the tracker was concerned.

"No," Chris and Mrs. Griffin replied together.

Tanner's gaze caught Larabee's and the blond stepped up to the side of the table. "Y' got t' be careful, Cowboy," the tracker said quietly. "Perdue brothers 're out there on the roads," he added. "They get a look at me, 'm good as dead."

"You let me worry about them," Larabee said softly, making it clear he would deal with the bounty hunters – permanently, if they gave the group any trouble.

"Yuh should get started soon as the sun's up," Fredrick said. "I'll get some things together yuh might need. Timothy can show yuh which horses to hitch up."

"Timothy, come find me soon as you're done. I'll make sure you boys have some food to take along with you," Mrs. Griffin offered. She looked at Fredrick, saying, "Maybe you should go with them–"

"No, ma'am," the young black man said, shaking his head. "Dr. Griffin never forgive me if I leave yuh here alone, yuh feeling poorly 'n' all." He looked around at the men, adding, "I'm real sorry 'bout that."

"We'll be fine," Nathan assured him.

"Aw hell," Tanner breathed, staring up at the ceiling, but not really seeing it. He took a deep breath, realizing he didn't have a choice. He'd have to go to the doctor, and if that meant slipping past a pair of bounty hunters, he'd just have to trust his friends to protect him. It wasn't something he was used to doing, but he knew these men would do everything they could to see him safely to the surgeon. He just hoped they didn't have to pay for it with their lives. He'd never be able to forgive himself if one of them died trying to protect him.

Dawn, Saturday morning

Josiah closed the tailgate of the wagon, peering over at the tracker. "You comfortable, brother?"

"Like a babe in his mama's arms," Tanner replied, grinning up from his nest – a small feather mattress resting on a bed full of straw.

Josiah grinned back. Tanner was covered with blankets, his head resting on a pair of pillows. He did look a like a little boy lost in a too-large bed. "Don't you worry now, Chris and Nathan will see you get to the doctor safe and sound."

Vin nodded, knowing the big man wouldn't be going with them.

"It'll be fine," Josiah promised him. "So don't you worry."

Another nod, but Tanner couldn't help but worry. The Perdue brothers were out there, his side was hurting again, and he was heading for a man who was going to cut up his guts. Still, two men – especially two as dim as the Perdues – wouldn't give Chris much trouble.

At least he hoped they wouldn't.

Chris climbed up onto the wagon seat. It had been a long time since he'd handled more than a pair, but a four-horse hitch and a light rig like this one made sense for the mountain roads they would be traversing. This particular rig – a sturdy buckboard with steel hoops that could support a canvas cover if the weather turned bad – was the best thing he'd seen for carrying someone who was sick or hurt.

"Sure is some rig," Josiah commented, seeing Larabee get a look at it over his shoulder. The de-frocked priest was mounted now, waiting to head back to Four Corners – just in case the escaped renegades returned with reinforcements.

"It's a modified ambulance," Nathan said as he climbed into the back with Vin. He had recognized it as soon as he'd seen it. He'd been inside plenty of them during the war.

Fredrick nodded. "That's right. Dr. Griffin brought it with him, all the way from Boston."

"How're ya feeling?" Jackson asked the tracker. "That towel still cold?"

"'M fine," Tanner replied sleepily. "Towel's gettin' tolerable."

"Then it's time to change it," Mrs. Griffin said from where she stood at the side of the wagon, looking down at Tanner.

Nathan made short work of exchanging one towel for another, colder one.

"I's afrid y' was gonna say that," Vin said, closing his eyes and gritting his teeth as the icy material touched him. "Y' sure this is gonna help, ma'am?" he squeaked as he forced his eyes open.

"I'm sure," the old woman replied. She met Nathan's eyes and added, "Be sure to give him water or broth throughout the day."

"Just a little right now," Nathan cautioned Tanner, holding a water canteen to the tracker's lips. "If ya keep it down, you can have some more in a little while."

Vin nodded and took a couple of sips from the canteen Jackson held for him. "Thanks, Nate."

"Try to get some sleep," Nathan told him, pulling up the blankets up higher to cover the tracker's shoulders.

Mrs. Griffin nodded her agreement. "I'm afraid the road won't be very smooth once you reach the mountains." She handed Nathan a small bottle of laudanum.

Jackson nodded, understanding too well what she wasn't saying.

Vin's eyes fell shut, the cold towel doing its job and dulling the pain in his side. And he was tired, about as tired as he could ever remember feeling. In a few moments, he was sleeping.

Chris looked back, checking on the tracker, grateful when he saw Tanner resting, his face free of pain for the first time in days. "Time to go," he said, clucking and slapping the reins against the horses' backs.

The team started off.

"God's speed," Mrs. Griffin said. She was standing with her hand on Timothy's shoulder, Fredrick right behind her, as they all watched the men leave.

Once on the main road, Josiah turned in one direction, the wagon taking the opposite.

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

Larabee set a pace that would push the horses without exhausting them too quickly. Nathan rode in the bed of the wagon behind him, the two men talking quietly while Tanner slept.

"Sure wish I knew more," Nathan said at one point. "Seems no matter how much I learn, there's still too much I just don't know."

"You told me once that the Indians said a healer don't really cure anything, that all they do is help people heal themselves. Think this doctor can help Vin do that?"

Jackson glanced down at Vin. "He's lived with Indians… He's a fighter. He won't give up. And I believe Mrs. Griffin when she says her husband's done this lots o' times. He'll take out Vin's appendix and he'll be good as new."

"Hope you're right," Chris said softly.

Me, too, Nathan replied silently, his gaze shifting to Larabee's back. He had a bad feeling if they lost the tracker, Chris wouldn't be too far behind. In any event, losing Vin would strip something vital out of the family they had all become. He wasn't sure how, or why, but Tanner was the heart of their little group of seven. Chris was their head, their leader, but Vin was their heart. And nothing could lose its heart and still survive.

Midday on Saturday

The tracker moaned softly, his eyes slowly blinking open. He looked up at the cloud-dotted sky and swallowed down the nausea that threatened to overwhelm him.

"Vin?" he heard Nathan call, but his voice sounded far away. "Vin, can ya take some water?"

Tanner shook his head, knowing if he did, he'd lose the liquid as soon as it hit his stomach. "Don't feel s' good, Nate," he rasped.

Chris looked back over his shoulder. "Should I stop?" he asked the healer.

Jackson shook his head, moving closer and replacing the towel on Tanner's abdomen with a fresh, colder one.

Vin groaned as icy fingers seeped under his skin, spreading through his limbs like swift-growing vines. He shook with a chill and the healer immediately replaced the blankets over the tracker.

"Easy" Jackson soothed, giving Tanner's shoulder a gentle squeeze. "I know it ain't comfortable, but it's the best medicine fo' ya right now."

Dulled blue eyes opened again. "'S gettin' worse," he breathed quietly, sluggish gaze shifting to Larabee's back.

"I know," Nathan replied just as softly. "Probably gonna get worse, little by little. Try to sleep."

The tracker closed his eyes, hoping he could sleep. And, a few moments later he slipped off.

"Nathan?" Chris called softly.

The healer worked his way over from the rear of the wagon bed to just behind the driver's seat.

"How's he doing?" Larabee asked softly.

Jackson shook his head, saying, "Ain't sure. Still ain't got a fever, but the cold packs don't seem to be helpin' as much as they was."

"Is he going to make it?"

"Can't rightly say," was the honest reply from the healer, and not at all what Larabee had been hoping to hear.

"Is there anything I can do?" Chris asked him.

"Push the horses hard as ya can… and pray."

Sunday morning, just before dawn

The two peacekeepers pushed on through the night, only stopping when they had to let the horses rest, Chris and Nathan switching places a few times to give Larabee a chance to ride in the back with Vin and get some sleep.

Near dawn, when it began to grow colder, Chris unrolled another blanket and laid it over the tracker, who was sleeping, albeit restlessly. He sat for a long moment, just watching the dozing man, noting the way he grimaced and frowned when the pain grew more intense. Reaching out, Larabee gently rubbed Vin's arm, saying, "Easy, pard. We're a day closer to getting rid of this now."

At sunup Nathan drew the horses in at a small spring. Chris climbed out and unhitched the team, allowing them to drink their fill.

While Larabee took care of the horses, Nathan unpacked some of the food Mrs. Griffin had sent so they could have breakfast. By unspoken agreement, they didn't wake Vin until after they had finished eating. Water seemed to be the only thing the tracker's stomach could tolerate, and they didn't want to make it harder on the man than it needed to be.

When they did finally wake him, Tanner finished off a cup full of the liquid.

"How're you feeling?" Chris asked as he tightened the canteen top and set it aside.

Vin sighed softly. "'Bout the same as when we started yesterday."

Nathan frowned and pressed the back of his hand to Tanner's forehead. "Think the fever's come down some. That's a good sign."

"Should let them horses cool off," Vin said airily. "Been pushin' 'em purty hard."

"And you should get some more sleep," Nathan told him, adding softly to Larabee, "I'll keep a watch on him while you tend to the team."

Chris nodded, climbing out of the wagon bed. He paused for a moment, staring worriedly at the tracker and hoping Vin could hang on for another day.

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

Sunday passed slowly for Vin as he was jostled in the back of the buckboard. Without the bedding he rested on, he would have been black and blue, but even stagecoach springs couldn't help level the ruts and gouges the miners' carts and the settlers' wagons had carved into the road. He knew Chris was caught between caution and speed, and was keeping the bumps to a minimum as he hurried them along to the surgeon as quickly as he could, but Tanner still felt every one of the bumps and jars.

And things weren't going well with his rebelling appendix. By midday he knew the cold towels weren't working as well as they had been the day before. He didn't say anything since his side still felt better than it had when he'd been riding. Besides, Nathan was already doing all he could for him. It wouldn't help to set the healer fretting about something he couldn't do anything about.

And Vin really didn't want to get Chris in a worry. The man was worse than a mama bear with a new cub.

He pulled the blankets up higher, wishing he wasn't so lightheaded. At least his stomach was staying quiet, if he didn't put anything in it. The chicken broth at lunchtime had been a disaster. But he could feel the effects of fasting for several days. His muscles had gotten weak, quaking now with the smallest movement. And there were a few times he'd thought maybe he was delirious. He'd had fevers before so he knew this was something different, something that drained his strength away without giving him a chance to fight back.

The wagon wheel caught a rock and bounced, jarring the tracker. In an effort to ignore the flare of pain it triggered, he stared up at the clouds passing by overhead. After a short while he knew they would be seeing some rain before the night was over. As his mind drifted, images emerged in the white wisps – horses, a wagon, JD's hat, Buck with a full beard… then other images that were more troubling: smoke rising from burned teepees, a man's body lying sprawled on the ground…

Another sharp stab of pain jerked him nearly upright on the feather mattress. He grabbed onto the side of the wagon, the world tilting crazily in front of his eyes, which he immediately squeezed shut.

"Vin?" Nathan called, jerking from sleep and crawling over to the tracker's side. "Vin, what's wrong?"

The tracker panted, trying to catch his breath as Larabee drew the wagon to a stop upon hearing the healer's worried question. When he could, Tanner allowed Nathan to lower him back onto the mattress.

"Tell me what happened," the healer said.

"Pain stabbed me real good," Vin replied. He shook his head when Jackson offered him some water.

The healer changed the cold pack and then tried to make Vin as comfortable as possible while Chris kept glancing back over his shoulder to watch the progress. Then Larabee turned back to the horses and pushed them to pick up the pace, determined to get Tanner to the doctor as quickly as possible.

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

The weather stayed clear the rest of the afternoon, but then turned unpleasant, a west wind whipping up dust and splattering them with rain twice just before and after sunset. Once the sun was down it began to rain steadily, slowing them down.

They had stopped after the first drops began to fall, pulling the canvass up and over the metal hoops so Vin would be protected from the weather.

Tanner tried to move out of the way so the two men could work around him easier, but he was too weak. He collapsed, his muscles trembling from the lack of food. Nathan decided then and there that he would have the tracker try some broth again when they stopped for supper, hoping to build up the man's strength a little.

And, eventually, when the mud got so bad the horses started to balk, Larabee stopped for the night. He built a small fire in a sheltered rock crevasse, warming some of the chicken broth Mrs. Griffin had sent along.

Vin had to admit it smelled wonderful, and he forced himself to work his way though it slowly, hoping that would convince his stomach to accept it.

"Aw hell–" he gasped a few minutes after he'd finished.

Nathan grabbed an empty bucket and helped Vin sit up while the tracker was sick.

"Nathan?" Chris called at the sound of the retching, hurrying over from where he had been checking on the horses.

"It's all right," the healer told him. "Guess his belly just ain't gonna let him hold down any kind of food."

When the nausea finally passed, Jackson set the bucket out of the way and wiped the tracker's face and neck with a cold towel.

"C'n I have some water?" Tanner rasped painfully.

"Just enough to rinse your mouth," Jackson instructed, letting the tracker spit it into the bucket. Then he checked Vin's pulse and temperature. "Best we let your belly settle before ya try drinkin' anymore."

The healer's expression was neutral, but Chris was beginning to catch the subtle differences and knew this wasn't good. Vin had thrown his arm across his face and was answering the healer's questions too softly for him to hear them, but he could tell by the man's tone the tracker was both frustrated and hurting.

When the healer was done, Vin turned onto his side and pulled the blankets up around his ears, quickly dropping off into an exhausted sleep.

"How's he doing?" Chris asked when Nathan settled back against the side of the wagon with a long sigh.

"Not as good as I'd hoped," the healer admitted, scrubbing his hands over his face. "We've slowed the infection with the cold packs, but his appendix is still infected and it's gettin' worse, slower than before, but still gettin' worse."

"If we keep up the same pace, do you think we'll get to the doctor in time?" Larabee asked him. Knowing Vin might be listening to them, he met Jackson's eyes and added silently, "The truth."

Nathan shrugged.

And then it started to rain again.

Monday morning, dawn

Chris drove the horses straight through the night again, stopping only when he absolutely had to. Shortly before dawn they reached a spot Mrs. Griffin had told them to watch for. The trail dipped down, running along a stream, the land spreading out into a sloping glade that was partially sheltered by the mountain. They were all travel-weary, the horses steaming from their efforts on the muddy road.

Larabee reined in and unhitched the animals, giving them a hasty rubdown before leaving them tethered near the stream. The drizzle had finally stopped a few hours earlier, and his breath made a frosty cloud as he climbed back up to the road with a bucket of fresh, cold water. He set that next to the wagon for Nathan, then collected a few pieces of deadwood, knowing that they would be stopped long enough for him to build a fire and brew them some much-needed coffee.

Vin might not be able to enjoy it, but he and Nathan would need it before the day was over.

They had made good time once the rain had ended and he guessed they should reach Sheltonville sometime Tuesday morning, even if they rested the horses for an hour or so now, which the animals needed. The team of four had done a great job so far, and he didn't want to take any chances with them. They needed water and time to graze on the grass growing along the banks of the creek.

When he got back to the wagon with the wood, no one was in sight, but then Nathan called, "Chris, get in, it's cold out there."

The wagon bed was about six foot square, Vin lying catty-corner across the center. Nathan had burrowed down into the straw on one side of the tracker, and Chris did the same on the other side.

"Hell," Tanner said breathily, "a peace pipe an' a few feathers 'n' we'd look like a bunch 'a Indians."

The other two men chuckled softly. "Long as we don't have to get naked," Nathan said, remembering what JD had told him about the sweat lodge he'd seen in Ko-Je's village.

Vin chuckled softly, pressing a hand to his side. "Hell, Nate, 'm damn near nekked now."

Chris warmed himself for a time, then said, "I'm going to go fix some coffee and give the horses some grain."

Nathan nodded. "Vin's been keepin' water down for a few hours now. Think he can try some tea." He looked to Tanner. "Ya willin' to try?"

Tanner made a face, but he didn't say no. He knew all too well the value of Jackson's medicinal brews, even if they did taste like horse piss most of the time.

Monday, nearing noon

Vin spent the morning half-dozing, rocking with the motion of the wagon. Sometimes the pitching became a little more than his stomach could handle and then either Nathan or Chris would be there, helping him to sit up, holding the bucket for him, wiping his face afterward, and giving him water to rinse his mouth.

The tracker hated losing control like that, but he hurt too much to fight them.

Then, when the bout had passed, he would lie back on the feather mattress, his mind foggier than it had been. The only thing he was clearly aware of was the pain in his side, which throbbed in time with his heartbeat, occasionally knotting up for minutes at a time. He couldn't block the pain out any more, so sleep was his only escape, but that was getting harder and harder to come by, and when he did manage it, his dreams started turning on him.

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

He was running through open prairie land, being chased by a pack of… monsters. At first he'd thought they were wolves, but they didn't look like wolves, except for their long, sharp teeth. It was as if God had taken men, wolves, mountain cats, and desert lizards, and mixed up all their parts somehow.

The creatures were fast, snapping at his heels as he raced across the flat landscape, the sun beating down on him, the stifling heat making it hard for him to breathe. Sweat ran into his eyes, making them sting and almost blinding him.

Then the creatures broke out of the pack, spreading out around him and ringing him. He staggered to a stop, gasping for breath. He drew his knife and swung around again and again, trying to keep an eye on all of the beasts at the same time. But the creatures' bodies warped and twisted in front of his eyes as they darted in and out, trying to get past his defenses.

He tried rubbing one eye, and then the other, to clear them, but that didn't help. The beasts still writhed and contorted like they were made from melting wax.

He looked up at the sun. The fiery orange-yellow ball had somehow moved closer to the earth, so big now it almost filled the sky, raining heat and fire from the sky in terrible waves.

Looking back at the monsters he realized they were melting, writhing and screaming as they died horrible deaths.

Tanner looked down at his hands, watching with horror as his skin began to melt off his bones. "No!" he cried. "No!"

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

"Open your eyes, Vin," someone was saying. "Come on, Vin. Open your eyes."

That sounded easy, but it proved to be much harder than Tanner had expected. However, he finally managed it and found himself looking up at a very worried Chris Larabee.

"Easy, Vin… Easy, pard… How do you feel?" Chris asked him, using a damp cloth to gently wipe his face and neck.

Vin wasn't sure how to answer that. He wasn't sure about anything any more.

"You were making a lot of noise," Chris said and the tracker noticed the healer was driving the wagon.

Tanner concentrated, trying to clear his head. "What was I sayin'?"

"Nothing that made any sense," Chris replied. "Think you were talking Indian of some kind. You were thrashing around, too," he added. "You knocked off the cold pack. I need to put it back on."

"D' ya have to?" Vin asked, his tone almost pleading. "I's cold already. Ain't that enough?"

"Ain't the same thing, Vin," the healer called from the wagon seat. "I know this ain't easy on ya, but it's the only way we can keep the infection from gettin' too bad."

Vin nodded. He didn't feel hot any more. He was cold now, really cold. And that was making his side scream with pain. He shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position, but the movement only forced him to grab for the bucket again.

A few minutes later he sagged back onto the mattress, completely worn out. "Gettin' damn tired 'a this."

"Don't blame you," Chris said, holding a cup of water to his lips. "Just take enough to rinse out your mouth."

"Sorry t' be such a bother," Vin said after he spit the water back into the bucket. He squeezed his eyes shut as another cramp grabbed him, squeezing his belly in a fist of pure torment. It tore through his side, stabbing along his nerves and making his whole body shriek. He heard someone making an awful whimpering noise that reflected well what he was feeling, then realized with horror he was making the sound himself. When the pain finally ebbed, he went limp.

It didn't feel like there was much left of him; like the pain was slowly eating him alive from the inside out, leaving a hollow, empty shell behind that would collapse in on itself at any moment.

He looked up at Larabee through a glaze of tears. "There any point t' all this?" he asked the gunman. "Y' think 'm goin' t' live through this, Chris?"

"Yes, I do," Larabee said as he wiped Tanner's face again. His fingers curled over the tracker's shoulder and he squeezed gently. "We're making good time, Vin. We'll be there tomorrow morning. I know it's bad, but if you can hold on a little while longer…"

Another wave of pain drowned out the rest of the gunslinger's words. Vin curled up, knowing it wouldn't really help, but he had to do something, try to fight back somehow. The fearful prospect of death loomed over him, and he knew with perfect certainty that he might die. It was an oddly comforting thought when he stopped to consider it. Dying would make the pain go away, and he wasn't sure that might not be a price worth paying, just to get some relief. At least he knew he wouldn't die alone…

Hands touched him, trying to pull him over onto his back, but Vin shoved them away. It was taking every bit of his concentration just to stay on top of the pain – more strength than he actually had left. He couldn't let anything else distract him or he'd slip into the agony, and if he did, he might not find his way out again.

He knew Chris was saying something to him, but just now it didn't matter what it was.