Part One | Part Two
| Part Three | Part Four
Part Four: In His Shoes
It wasn't anything new. JD normally was the last to catch on. But this time he was truly, completely, hopelessly confused.
What the hell was going on?
Things should have been better. Sure, Chris was sick and Vin hurt, but they were back in town and they'd found the boy and killed the killer . . . and everything should have been better.
But if anything, things seemed to go from bad to worse. No one was acting right, including Buck, who was acting odd even by his usual unusual standards. His friend had come to relieve him on patrol and hardly spoken a single word to him. JD asked him how Chris and Vin were, and Buck mumbled something strange like "How the hell do y' think they are? Life ain't easy y' know. Sometimes a man just has t' do things he don't want to."
JD let that go because he was tired and hungry and not in the mood to sort out Buck's bad temper. He came back to town in search of a hot breakfast and soft bed and a few precious hours of peace.
But it wasn't meant to be. He'd just closed his eyes when he heard Josiah and Nathan in the hall. He couldn't believe it when he slipped out the door and saw Josiah's hands wrapped around Nathan's throat. The preacher's voice was low, but JD heard every word. And why on earth would Josiah want to kill Nathan over Vin?
Unless it was happening again . . .
JD groaned as he laid his pillow and blanket on the floor next to Chris's bed. They'd practically killed each other months ago over the morphine thing, Chris and Josiah and Nathan. That was the only thing JD could think of that would incite such bitter anger between the men.
He'd stayed out of it then, mostly because he had no idea where he stood. He couldn't stand seeing Vin suffer, but he couldn't stand to see how the drug changed him, either. There didn't seem to be an answer, as far as JD could see; he guessed that sometimes a man just had to make hard choices . . . and Buck's odd behavior suddenly came back to him. Could he be involved, too?
No, not likely. Buck was the one who encouraged him to stay out of it the last time.
With a yawn, JD leaned back and pulled the blankets up over his head. All this thinking was giving him a splitting headache. He'd ponder it later, after a few hours of sleep. But as tired as he was, he couldn't stop the questions from swirling about in his head. What was going on between his friends and would they ever get past it? Would Vin survive? And if he didn't, what would happen to Chris? What the hell was up with Buck?
He'd spent a good many hours over the past few months pondering an even bigger question - what if he was Vin? What if what had happened to Vin, happened to him?
It was possible. In this untamed land that JD had grown to love so much, it was maybe even likely that someday he'd suffer a debilitating injury. And how would he deal with it?
It hurt sometimes, it physically hurt him to watch Vin, and he wished he wasn't like that. He wished it wasn't so easy to put himself in Vin's place, to feel his pain. Sometimes he caught himself staring at Vin; the way he walked and the way he hesitated before doing something simple like stooping to the ground or climbing on his horse. JD would shift his eyes a bit - look down at the ground so no one could tell that he was watching Vin - but he still saw, and somehow he knew that Vin knew he saw.
And that was the thing that JD was sure he couldn't take: people staring and thinking things about him, doubting him just because he wasn't quite the same. It was hard enough being the youngest and most inexperienced man among them - he'd never be able to live down all the doubts and speculations that Vin had faced.
It wasn't fair. Vin was still Vin . . . mostly. Or was he? JD had pondered that, too, even though he felt guilty about it and never, ever said it out loud. He couldn't help wondering if Michael had been taken before the "accident", that Vin might have found him in time.
He moved slower, Vin did, and it seemed to take him a little longer to pull his thoughts together . . . and maybe it was the morphine behind that. Josiah had told him about men in the war and the sickness they got from taking too much of the drug. Vin had gone that way, too, until Chris and Josiah stepped in. But maybe they didn't stop it in time.
And really, was it right for Vin to suffer? JD didn't think he could stand it if he was broken up like Vin. He hurt so badly when he was shot that he would have begged for something, if Nathan hadn't willingly given it to him. If he was Vin, what would he do? Would he be able to take it? Day after day, night after night, with no end in sight?
There was no way to know for certain, unless it actually happened to him. And as JD's body finally gave in to its demand for rest, his final thought was that he prayed he'd never have to find out.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah understood giving in to pain. After all, he'd have let Poplar get him hung if Vin hadn't stepped in so insistently and so forcefully. He reminded himself of that every single time Vin moaned, groaned, or twitched. Vin hadn't let him go; he'd kept the faith for Josiah and now Josiah was returning the favor.
But good God, it was so hard.
He'd sent Ezra away, though he gave the man credit for trying. The gambler wanted to help him out, help Vin out, but he just wasn't good at it. When Vin puked, Ezra turned green. When Vin needed cleaned up, Ezra turned white. When Vin gasped in pain from a muscle spasm or a deep cough that shook his chest, Ezra looked longingly at the cabinet where Nathan kept the herbs, the laudanum . . . the morphine. So yes, he tried, but sitting at the side of a sick friend was not Ezra's strong suit.
The town needed him anyway. They were stretched far too thin, that point making itself known in the bone tiredness of Josiah's own body. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had a full night of sleep. With Buck and JD keeping patrol, and Nathan with Chris (he assumed so anyway), only Ezra was left to keep things quiet in town. And only he was left to care for Vin.
Not that he was complaining, because he wasn't. He'd walk through fire for the man - barrel through the gaits of hell. Actually, he was pretty certain he'd done just that; that he and Vin were both trapped in a living hell that neither one could see their way clear of. Vin was miserable, and every moan or whimper was like a knife twisting in Josiah's gut.
He consoled himself with the thought that Vin was so sick, so out of his head, that he really didn't realize what was happening. And that made it easier for Josiah to stick with his conviction about the morphine. In spite of the fact that Tanner occasionally pleaded for help, he didn't really know what he was saying. So it was alright that Josiah made the choice for Vin - he had to make the choice for Vin. But as hard as he tried to ignore it, Nathan's voice resounded in his head, "If Vin wants it . . . if he asks for the morphine to get through this . . ."
Certainly every man had a right to choose his own course, his own destiny, but he couldn't give Vin that option. Tanner was strong, but he'd been through too much and he needed someone to do right by him. Josiah was able to do it, glad to do it.
But he couldn't help wondering, was it fair to ask something from a friend that he wouldn't ask of himself? He'd thought about it often; what he would do, how he would feel, if he was Vin. He was certain he'd have given up the first time around. He'd never have walked again and surely drowned himself in alcohol or morphine by now. Injuries like those Tanner had suffered would have afforded him the perfect excuse to just stop trying . . . he'd serve his penance yet.
But even as he thought that, he knew it wouldn't have happened quite that way because Vin wouldn't have let it. If he were walking that difficult path, Tanner would be right beside him, encouraging him every step of the way, fighting the devil himself to keep Josiah among them. And that was precisely why Josiah couldn't give in.
But he wanted to. He acknowledged that his own eyes repeatedly drifted to the relief that lay wide open and visible in the cabinet by the window. It would be so much easier to ease Vin's restlessness and pain; to allow him to sleep deeply and peacefully for just a few hours.
After he'd expelled Nathan from the room, he'd spent the next six hours watching Vin's every breath, certain it would be his last. He'd thought that it would be better, easier somehow, once Vin came around a bit. But it wasn't. Vin woke up vomiting, and Josiah couldn't help but wonder if he wasn't experiencing the symptoms of withdrawal already.
To add insult to injury, Vin's fever was steadily climbing, and the dry coughs that shook his body obviously caused him more pain, but did little to expel the congestion from his lungs. Pneumonia . . . the word wanted to take root in Josiah's head, but he wouldn't let it. It would be a death sentence for a man in Vin's weakened state.
It was morning again, a full day having passed since he and Nathan nearly came to blows at Vin's bedside. He was ashamed of that, though still not sorry he'd ousted Nathan from the clinic. It had to be done; it was a matter of survival. Still, Vin would be upset and disappointed that he'd caused such a ruckus among his friends.
And now, with Vin obviously suffering from more than just another broken limb, Josiah had to admit that he may be out of his league. He knew a little about healing, but he didn't have Nathan's knowledge, Nathan's touch. If Vin died because he and Nathan were too stubborn to reach a compromise . . .
With a heavy sigh, he stood and moved to the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the boys. It felt like it had been him and Vin alone in this room forever. They needed to get out of the clinic, before Vin really caught on where he was and what had happened to him again. Maybe once Chris was on his feet, they could move Vin to his room. Chris would agree to that, and just the change in scenery - away from the awful memories of those long weeks spent here only months ago - could be enough to swing Vin the right direction. It sounded good, like a plan, and it gave Josiah the hope he'd been searching for.
A soft whimper brought an abrupt halt to his musings, and he quickly moved back to the bedside. Vin opened his eyes and cast them directly at Josiah, like he'd heard the man's thoughts. Focused and clear, in spite of the fever, and the initial wave of relief that washed over the preacher was quickly replaced with foreboding. What if Vin asked something of him that he couldn't give?
"Josiah?" Vin rasped softly, hesitantly, as if he were confirming what his mind told him to be true.
"I'm here, Vin."
The dull, blue eyes cast about the room, obviously seeking something - or someone. "Chris?"
Of course Tanner would look for Larabee, and Josiah had better think fast and find the right words to set his mind at ease. "He's fine, Vin. He's been sick, but he's resting and he'll be up to see you soon."
Josiah thought that was true anyway; hoped it was. In any case, the important thing was that Vin believed him.
And apparently he did, because Vin nodded slightly and closed his eyes. He opened them again within seconds though, and grimaced as he attempted to shift a little in the bed. But there was nowhere to go with a multitude of pillows propped under his legs and behind his back, and he growled in frustration.
"Easy Vin, I'll help you. Just tell me what you need," Josiah offered, recognizing too late that he might have just opened a can of worms.
Groaning again, Vin pulled his head up and stammered, "Can you . . . can you . . .?" But already breathless and in obvious distress, he couldn't finish it. He fell back to the bed and met Josiah's eyes again, pleading for help, relief, escape.
He wasn't going to get it. No matter how Vin looked at him, no matter what he said, Josiah couldn't give in. He just couldn't. So he stood and went for the tea instead. It was useless and wouldn't stay down, but it had to be better than nothing.
But before he could so much as pour a cup, he heard Vin state very clearly, "No."
Past experience being what it was, he could hardly blame Vin for refusing, so he let it go. Even though he was, perhaps, forcing his will on his friend, forcing fluids down Vin's throat crossed an entirely different line. It wasn't the same as withholding drugs. Was it?
"Let me help you turn on your side, Vin. I'll rub your back a bit," Josiah suggested. Nathan had often said that Vin's back caused him as much or more grief as his bad leg. After days of hard riding, followed by laying flat in bed, it was bound to be an overriding source of misery for his friend.
Vin nodded slightly and tried to roll over on his own, but he was too weak to even raise his arm. Josiah stifled a discouraged sigh at that; it wouldn't do to let Vin know how bad off he was with his motivation to get well already in question.
Even with Josiah's help, it was difficult and awkward. Vin was stiff and sore, every muscle tight, and even the slightest movement seemed to trigger a round of wracking coughs and dry heaves that left him shaking and gasping for air. Josiah tried to massage the tense shoulders, averting his eyes when Vin turned his face to the pillow and muffled what sounded suspiciously like a cry.
Josiah wanted to roar with rage; that black anger consuming him so intensely and unexpectedly that his hands shook with the effort of holding it in. It was the injustice of it all; the fact that he was so helpless and ignorant . . . that he'd had to go up against one friend to protect another . . . that Chris was sick and not able to be there for Vin when he needed him most.
And maybe, just maybe he was most angry with himself - because it could be that he was handling this all wrong.
Several minutes passed before he eased Vin onto his back once again. The preacher could only pray that he'd helped his friend in some small way, but the lines of pain on Vin's face said otherwise. Tanner swallowed, but he kept silent.
In fact, Vin didn't speak again throughout the long day, though he remained mostly awake and stubbornly, inexplicably lucid. Josiah did what he could to make him comfortable, but it was a lost cause. As the day wore on, Vin grew more weary, more restless, more desperate. And what he couldn't - or wouldn't - say in words, was written clearly in his eyes and in the rigid set of his jaw.
It wasn't right or even remotely reasonable. At the very least, the fever should have taken Vin away to some place dark and free of pain or fear. And wasn't it pitiful that Josiah would rather Vin be unconscious than deal with the hurt he saw in his friend's eyes?
The sun gradually dipped lower in the western sky, rapidly dropping the temperature in the small room by several degrees. Josiah, noting that Vin was shivering, added wood to the stove. Chills had wracked the tracker's body off and on, adding to his misery, and it looked like they were in for another round. Josiah pulled an extra blanket out of the closet and gently draped it over Vin until the extra heat could penetrate. And that was when Tanner finally spoke to him again.
"You gonna . . . you gonna make me beg, Josiah?"
Josiah knew it was coming, but even with all the hours he'd had to prepare, he still couldn't come up with a suitable answer. "Vin . . ."
"Why's it . . . matter?"
Because it did . . . if Vin wanted any quality of life at all.
But maybe Nathan was right - maybe Vin wasn't looking to the future because he had no plans to have a future. Maybe he really didn't care anymore.
Well, to hell with that.
"You're not dying, if that's what you're thinking."
Vin's voice grew stronger, as if he'd been saving himself up all day to have this conversation. "Ain't up t' you . . . or me."
"And if it was?"
"If dying was up to you, would you want that, Vin?"
Suddenly the heat in the room was stifling and Josiah wiped sweat from his brow as he leaned forward to hear Vin's answer; to see the truth in his eyes.
But Vin looked away. "Just wanna . . . sleep. That's all." He turned back to Josiah then and added, "Can't you give me that? Just that?"
Tanner was the most honest man he'd ever crossed paths with, but with a sinking heart, Josiah knew that Vin was lying. It didn't change anything, though. He still couldn't give in. "I'm sorry . . ."
"I won't let it happen again . . . I won't. I swear it."
He believed it, too. Vin honestly believed that he could control it . . . that it wouldn't control him.
"No, Vin. I can't. You can't."
"God, Josiah . . . just once . . . just this one time . . . I promise I won't ask you again."
Begging . . . like he had during those long days and nights in Chris's cabin, and how the hell had they gotten to this point again?
"I shouldn't have t' ask . . . t' beg . . . should be my decision."
Vin was angry now . . . and that knife twisted a little deeper in Josiah's stomach. It was so hard, and what if he was wrong? It was Vin's life, after all.
"I know but . . . you're not thinking clearly, Vin. You're sick and in pain, and . . ."
"I'd do it for you," Vin interrupted softly, under his breath.
He wouldn't, but he couldn't be held accountable for his words, Josiah rationalized. Vin might appear to be in his right mind, but it wasn't so . . . it wasn't so.
Josiah moved closer and gently grasped Vin's forearm as he responded, "It may not seem like it now, but I'm trying to help you, my friend."
With strength Josiah didn't believe he possessed, Vin pulled his arm away and turned his head. Shut him out, and although that hurt, it was far easier to deal with stony silence than desperate pleading.
And so they entered the long night with the tension thick between them, and as time went on, Josiah's doubts intensified. If Vin suffered for nothing . . . if he died anyway . . . how could he live with that? If only Chris would come strolling through the door and remind him that he was doing the right thing.
But he didn't. No one came, and while Josiah's eyes grew heavy with fatigue, his heart grew heavier with each agonized gasp that escaped Vin's lips. Tanner didn't ask again, though. If anything, he tried harder to hide his discomfort; closed his eyes and bit his lip, and maybe if he could have breathed a little easier, it might have worked.
But just as the sun dawned once again - just as both men hovered at the brink of exhaustion and despair - another terrible cramp gripped Vin's bad leg and traveled up into the small muscles of his aching lower back. He couldn't fight it and he couldn't hide it, and the resultant sob set off a chain reaction of wracking coughs and violent heaves, and there was nothing either man could do. Tears streamed from both of their faces until finally, finally the spell ended and Vin collapsed exhausted on the bed.
And with trembling knees and shaking hands, Josiah went to the cupboard and opened the door . . . and pulled out the morphine.
+ + + + + + +
Vin was drowning; water filling his nose and his mouth and his lungs as he drifted just out of reach. Chris could see him, could feel his panic and his pain, but he couldn't get to him. Out of reach . . . like he'd been for weeks now . . . for months; there in front of him, but not.
Lost. Vin was more lost than Michael or Jacob had ever been, and how had he not seen that before? How had he not known? How had he let him get to this point?
How could he get him back?
Sunlight; a hot beam of white sliced through his brain and startled him out of the hazy, half-awareness he'd been floating in for what seemed like days. He sat up with a cough that rattled his lungs, but it wasn't nearly as bad as he remembered. It took him a minute to take in his surroundings, to recognize his room and the man that sat slumbering in the chair near his bed . . . Buck.
How long had it been? Hours? No, it had to have been days. Days for Vin to recover . . . or not. The dream came back with stunning clarity; Vin was fighting for his life even now, and it was urgent that Chris get to him, find him, bring back him before it was too late.
There would be a lot of shit to get through. He'd screwed this up from the beginning by refusing to have an honest conversation with Vin; by refusing to be honest with himself. He'd doubted Vin all along . . . lost the faith. He saw his friend as not just physically crippled, but mentally, too, and that was far, far worse.
Vin had always been the sanest man he knew; logical, smart, intuitive, strong. Why would he believe for even one minute that a few broken limbs would change that? He could blame it on the morphine, but even that was a sorry excuse. Chris knew he was impaired - in more ways than one - when he got rip-roaring drunk. But he was still the same man when it wore off. Why didn't he give Vin that same benefit? That same forgiveness?
They'd all been guilty of it, every single one of them. Even JD had his doubts, though he'd never said as much. They'd all believed that Tanner wasn't the same man, even though he'd done everything within his power to prove them wrong.
It was no wonder Vin had slipped away from them. How could he do otherwise? What choice did he have? The men he'd come to rely on to watch his back, to support him and believe in him, had done everything but. They'd coddled him when he didn't need or want it, ignored him when he did. They'd questioned his decisions, his judgment, and often - too often - just flat out made the choices for him.
Well that was going to change.
Chris shifted to the edge of the bed with a groan, the heaviness in his chest still present but bearable. The sound interrupted Buck's slumber, and he woke up mumbling about doing something he didn't want to do, before rubbing his eyes and turning towards the bed.
"Chris? What the hell are you doin'?" Buck roared as he jumped to his feet and rushed to assist his friend.
"Getting dressed. Going to see Vin," Chris replied, stating the obvious as he pulled his night shirt over his head.
"Chris, that's not a good idea. You can hardly stand up, let alone . . ."
"Shut up, Buck."
Buck wisely did as he was told and handed Chris his pants and shirt.
"How is he?" Chris asked, not bothering to specify which 'he' he was referring to. He was weak as a newborn calf, and he bit his lip as he concentrated on tackling his clothing without sparing a glance in Buck's direction.
"I don't know . . . exactly," Buck hedged.
"Buck . . ." Chris growled.
"Look, Chris. Between tendin' you and tradin' patrol with JD, I ain't had the chance to check. But the others have been with him the whole time, and they'd tell us if he wasn't alright."
He did look at Buck's face then, and it surprised him what he found there. Buck wore guilt badly - Chris could spot it from across the street. But what exactly did he have to feel guilty about?
Before he could ponder that thought further, a wave of dizziness washed over him, and he stumbled for a minute. And with that moment of disorientation came one clear memory: Vin didn't know about Jacob.
"Did you tell him?" Chris blurted out suddenly.
Buck had latched onto his elbow and was peering at him intently between furrowed brows. "Huh? Tell who what?"
"Vin! Did you tell Vin that Jacob is alive? Did anyone tell Vin?"
"Chris, I . . ." Buck hesitated before clarifying, "He doesn't know that?"
"No! Or at least, I don't think so."
"But he was with you when you found him . . . and the ride home," Buck argued.
"Vin wasn't with us when we discovered that Jacob was alive . . . and he was out of his head most of the way home." Chris met Buck's eyes, "He doesn't know, Buck, and it could make all the difference."
Buck looked at him thoughtfully and nodded. "Yeah. It sure could. Let's get you over there."
Buck guided him through town with his hand on his elbow like it was an every day occurence, both men ignoring the peculiar looks thrown their way. But oddly enough, Buck didn't go into the clinic with him. He said he'd be back later, but it didn't sit right with Chris; Buck was off. Something far more urgent called to him though, so he set that thought aside when he entered the clinic.
He wouldn't have believed it if he hadn't seen it with his own eyes. Josiah was there, standing over Vin with a syringe in his hands, and for a moment Chris thought he was still dreaming. Sanchez was the one who had stopped it the last time, who had spoken out vehemently against giving Vin the drug.
Josiah startled when he heard Chris come in. He clutched the syringe to his chest as his wide blue eyes turned to the blond. It was as if Chris had struck him with a bullet, the way the man paled and wavered. But he quickly gathered his wits and answered defensively, "I didn't do it. I didn't give it to him."
But he wanted to, and he would have, had Chris not entered the room at just that moment.
It had to be bad then, Vin had to be bad, or Josiah would never have been tempted.
It didn't matter. Whether Vin took the morphine or he didn't just didn't matter. They'd deal with it later. All that counted was that Vin understood that he hadn't failed . . . and that his best friend's weeks of stupidity had finally passed. He'd never doubt Vin again.
Ignoring Josiah, he moved to the bedside. Vin was awake, though weary; hanging on by sheer stubbornness alone. Chris met his eyes, and was staggered by the relief he saw there - the trust. Vin still believed in him. After all that had happened, Vin never doubted him, never lost his faith, even when he could have and probably should have. Maybe there wasn't so much shit to get through after all. Maybe Vin understood without a single word being shared because Vin knew him better than Chris knew himself.
Chris flashed back in time to when Josiah was accused of murder. He and Vin were leaning against a post, and he'd asked Vin, "How well do you really know anyone?" He wasn't sure of Josiah's innocence but Vin was, because Vin knew. He knew Josiah was a good and honest man from the minute he'd shook his hand . . . just as he'd known Chris from the inside out with only a shared glance across a dusty street.
Just as Chris knew Vin, though he'd lost sight of him for awhile. And in losing Vin, he'd lost himself as well. It was frightening to be so connected, so grounded by another man, that he couldn't remember who he was without him. It was no wonder he'd been twisting in the wind; shifting between denial and anger and regret as Vin slipped further away.
It was hard to accept, for a man who chose to deny his emotions; to look the other way when it got too hard to dig down and feel. It wasn't about Vin's addiction or his injuries, or about anger or disappointment or fairness . . . or the lack thereof. It was about one thing and one thing only: he needed Vin. He needed his strength and his courage and his common sense; his presence in his life . . . his faith. He couldn't bear the thought of that changing in any way.
Vin could very well be his addiction . . .
"Chris?" The soft voice rasped, reminding Chris where he was and the battle still to be fought.
He read the question in Vin's dull blue eyes and answered, "I'm fine. I'm sorry I haven't been here."
Vin shook his head. "Don't . . . you were sick. Y'okay . . . now?"
"Yeah. And so is Jacob," Chris spoke slowly and deliberately.
Vin frowned, but he didn't speak.
"Jacob is alive, Vin," Chris repeated, enunciating every syllable.
Vin searched his eyes. Finding the truth but afraid to believe it, he turned to Josiah for confirmation, "Josiah? That true?"
Josiah appeared puzzled by Vin's uncertainty, but he nodded and answered, "Yes, it's true. I took him back home a few days ago."
With a gasp, Vin closed his eyes and mumbled, "Thank God . . . thank God."
"You found him in time, Vin . . . you did your job," Chris said.
Tears filled Vin's eyes and he looked away. "Michael . . ." he whispered softly.
"Is dead," Chris stated firmly. He gently took Vin's chin in his hands and turned his face back towards him as he added, "And so is his killer. It's over, Vin. Put it to rest. It's time to fight for yourself now."
Vin swallowed. "I ain't sure I can. I might need . . . help."
"Alright. That's fine. Whatever you want, whatever you need to get through this." Chris grasped Vin's forearm and added, "Just don't give up on me, Tanner. That's all I ask."
Vin looked longingly at the syringe Josiah still held in his hands. "I don't know if I can do it, Chris. Don't know if I can make it if I don't take it . . . don't know if I can make it back if I do."
"You can. You will. Either way."
"You . . . you would come for me?"
Come for him? "Vin . . . I'm not sure what . . ."
"If I get lost . . . will you . . . try?"
He'd do a hell of a lot more than try. "I will. I'll find you," Chris promised.
Vin sighed and closed his eyes. "They never even tried t' find me . . ."
They? What the hell? Chris wasn't exactly sure where the conversation was going in Vin's mind, but the reassurance stood. "I'd never stop searching until I found you, Pard."
With another weary sigh, Vin nodded and in moments, his breathing evened out and Chris knew he was asleep.
Josiah cleared his throat and muttered awkwardly, "Chris, I . . . I'm sorry . . . I just couldn't take it . . ."
"Doesn't matter, Josiah. He'll get through it, one way or another. We'll see to it."
Smiling hesitantly, Josiah said softly, "Now that you're here, I actually believe that. I've been trying for two days to do what you did in two minutes."
When Chris raised an eyebrow in question, Josiah clarified, "Trying to get him to sleep."
With a nod, Chris replied, "Yeah, sleep is what he needs most, but maybe Nathan has something to loosen up his chest. Where is he anyway?"
Once again, Josiah appeared as if he'd been physically struck. "He . . . he wasn't with you?"
Chris was beginning to think he'd woken up in some sort of twisted reality, the way everyone was acting so off kilter. "No. I was pretty out of it, but I'm sure Nathan wasn't with me."
"I thought sure he'd gone to sit with you," Josiah mumbled, his confused gaze glued to the floor.
Why would he do that? Chris knew Nathan well enough to be certain that he'd want to be at Vin's side. Yes, he was angry that Vin had put himself in this bed again through his own actions, but he'd never abandon him.
Unless he had no choice . . .
"You threw him out, didn't you?"
"He gave Vin morphine . . . twice. Damn near put him in a coma," Josiah explained, finally lifting his eyes to Chris.
Chris held his gaze and asked, "Just like you were about to do?"
With a groan, Josiah admitted, "Yeah . . . just like I was about to do."
"I reckon Vin could use his help," Chris hinted. It was hard enough motivating Vin to fight for his life, the last thing he needed was his friends fighting over his care.
"I reckon he could," Josiah agreed with a sad shake of his head.
Sanchez disappeared out the door without another word, leaving Chris alone with his thoughts. Vin's words down by the river came back to him . . . "I tried." Tanner could hardly catch his breath, yet it was imperative that he got that message across. As if Chris hadn't been with him throughout the long search; as if he hadn't known that Vin lived and breathed for one thing and one thing only and that was to find that boy.
Something had to have happened in Vin's past . . . "They never even tried to find me . . ."
Chris thought back to that night after they'd found Michael. He had said the killer wouldn't go back to Four Corners, wouldn't take a kid they knew, and what was Vin's response? "Well hell, that makes it alright then, don't it? Maybe he'll get real lucky and grab a kid that no one knows . . . a kid without a father who cares about him . . . a kid nobody cares about. That'd be just fine then, right Larabee?"
And it came to Chris as clearly as if Vin had finally told him himself: Vin had been lost; had been taken by a bastard just like the one who killed Michael.
And no one had even tried to find him.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan had spent the first few hours after his fight with Josiah wallowing in regret and recrimination. After he'd checked on Chris and found him still asleep, he'd saddled his horse and left town, with no conscious thought to where he was going.
So it came as a surprise to him when he suddenly found himself within a few miles of the reservation. It shouldn't have, though. Of course he would seek out Rain, the one person who seemed to believe in him, no matter what.
But once he was there, once he shared the circumstances of Vin's latest crisis, he realized that it wasn't the beautiful woman's presence he was seeking . . . it was an answer.
Two days later, he headed back into town armed with herbs, potions, medicine pouches, and a whole slew of mumbo jumbo stuff that his Indian friends had freely shared. He wasn't sure he believed in it all, but that didn't matter as long as Vin believed.
Josiah might give him trouble, but he'd made his peace with that, too. There was a time when he'd have let a white man beat him down, but now. He'd come too far. He believed he could help Vin, and that was exactly what he was going to do.
He ran into Josiah, in fact, on the steps of the clinic. The preacher's face wore deep lines of exhaustion, marking the years, showing his age like never before.
"Nathan?" he asked, obviously startled by the healer's presence, but the anger was gone.
"I need to see Vin, Josiah. Kojay's people gave me some new things to try. I ain't sure they'll work, but it's worth a try. And you know Vin grew up among at least one tribe, and if he believes, well that's half the battle right there. So I think we should at least try," Nathan finished, the words spilling over each other in a rush.
It annoyed him, how desperate he sounded. It wasn't right that he should have to stand on the steps to his own place and beg to be allowed to go inside.
But Josiah apparently had an epiphany while he was gone, or at least a change of heart, because he only nodded and replied, "You're right. Come inside. They're waiting for you."
Nathan wasn't sure who "they" consisted of, but he hoped it included Chris. And he could see when he entered the doorway that it did. Larabee was still pale with dark circles under his eyes, but he was upright and clear-eyed, and thank God for that.
"Chris? How you feelin'?" He asked, already anticipating the answer.
"Good enough," Chris replied. "But Vin needs you, Nathan."
He had to choke back tears at that, and how ridiculous was that? He'd shed more tears in the last four months than in his entire life. What was it about these men that moved him so? He didn't know and probably never would. He only knew that his heart ached when he took a long look at Vin--still broken and sick. He was too good a man to have live like that; there had to be an answer.
"He been awake at all?" Nathan asked quietly as he approached the bedside.
"Yeah. He seemed pretty clear, too," Chris answered.
Josiah cleared his throat. "He's been that way for a couple of days now; since he woke up from . . . well, after he was so bad from that second shot."
Nathan turned to look at the older man. "What are you talking about, Josiah?"
Josiah collapsed on the extra chair near the door and rubbed a hand over his eyes. "He was hardly breathing after the second morphine injection . . . scared me and Ezra to death. That's why . . . that's why. . ." he stammered and raised his eyes to Nathan.
What the hell was Josiah talking about? There was no second injection, as far as Nathan knew.
"He came out of it several hours later, and even with the fever, he knew what was going on." Josiah continued on, "He was hurting, though, and he wanted . . ."
"I didn't give him any morphine, Josiah. Not after that first time," Nathan interrupted.
With furrowed brows, Josiah asked, "Then who . . .?"
"Buck," Chris answered, and both men looked at him with wide eyes.
"Buck? He wasn't here, was he?" Nathan was sure it had been just him and Josiah watching over Vin that night.
"He was," Josiah recalled. "He stayed with Vin while I helped Ezra with you, Chris. But how do you know it was Buck?"
"He's acting odd . . . even for Buck," Chris answered flatly. He went on, "It doesn't matter now. All that matters is that we get our heads out of our butts and find Vin."
"I mean, help Vin," Chris quickly back-pedaled.
But Nathan had the idea that finding Vin was what he really meant.
And he was right. In the midst of their fussing and fighting, they'd let Vin slip away. Hell, what was Vin supposed to do? They ignored him one minute, hovered over him the next; and pretended he was fine while not allowing him to think for himself. Chris was absolutely right - they had their heads in the wrong place all along.
No longer. Vin may have distanced himself from them, but he really wasn't some lost child. Vin was strong; Chris was right about that, too, although Nathan had argued against him. Tanner had more fight in him than ten men, he just needed the right ammunition, and Nathan intended to provide him with just that.
Reaching for the tracker's wrist, Nathan gave a satisfied nod at the weak but even pulse he felt. Vin's skin was warm, but not burning up, so he'd let him rest for now. Turning his gaze to the other men in the room, he noted that Josiah was practically asleep sitting up.
"Go on to bed, Josiah. Chris is here now. You can trust me." It sounded bitter, though he hadn't meant it that way, and Josiah cringed.
"I know. I do trust you, Nathan. I just thought at the time . . ."
"We've all been trying to do what was best for Vin," Chris said softly. "Unfortunately, we were all wrong. But we're moving forward from here; letting the past lie." That last bit was firm, brooking no arguments, and both Nathan and Josiah nodded in agreement.
"I reckon I will rest then," Josiah said as he slipped out the door, and it was only then that Chris looked Nathan full in the eye.
"Can you help him?" Larabee asked, his newfound faith wavering just enough to give him away.
"I can. I will."
"And just what exactly brought about this change of heart? You were ready to put Vin in his grave a few days ago."
"Well, I reckon Josiah's fist on my jaw was a start," Nathan replied with a genuine grin.
Chris grinned back, "Yeah, that's a mighty big fist to overlook." He grew serious then as he added, "But Vin has a rough road ahead of him, doesn't he? I mean, even if - when - he gets over the chest cold, there's still the leg to consider."
Nathan noticed that Chris carefully avoided the word pneumonia. It didn't matter anyway. Vin would get better or he wouldn't, regardless the name given his ailments. The leg was another story . . .
"Look Chris, I don't see any reason why Vin shouldn't heal up like he did before." And it surprised him for a minute that he actually believed that was true.
"Really? You think it could be that . . . easy?"
It was almost painful, the hope in Chris's eyes and voice.
Yeah. Easy. Like licking butter off a knife, to quote Vin. And hell, now he was going overboard the other way. Nathan was so anxious to prove that he could think positively, that he was practically, damn near, flat out lying to his friend.
He lowered his eyes and replied, "No, Chris. I don't think it will be easy at all."
Returning his gaze to the blond, he added, "But I think if anyone can do it, Vin can."
Their discussion was interrupted when Buck suddenly burst through the door. Both Nathan and Chris rose to their feet, thinking there must be something serious taking place by the way Buck twisted his hat in his hands and flicked his gaze from man to man.
"Look . . . I did what I had to, alright?" Wilmington said defensively, as if he'd been accused of some unspoken crime.
Before Chris or Nathan could even think to respond, he continued, "Vin was . . . well, he was hurtin', and I know how you feel about it all, Chris, but if you were there . . ." he swallowed and took a breath. "And Nathan was exhausted. I tried to wake you up, Nathan, I did. But you were . . . I couldn't get you awake so I did it myself. I gave Vin the shot and I'm sorry, but . . . well hell, I'm not too sorry because he needed it."
He finally settled his gaze on Chris and added, "Vin is strong, Chris. He can do this, but he's gonna need our help, and fussin' and fightin' ain't what he needs right now. So if you wanna take me out and put your fist in my face, that's fine. But then we put it past us and we move on and help Vin."
Nathan watched as Chris carefully masked a smile. "You through, Buck? Because even though there have been many, many times I've wanted to put my fist in your face, this isn't one of them. You tried to help Vin. You . . . tried. That's all he'd ask of you, and me, too."
Buck pulled his brows together, dumbstruck for the moment, but finally he stood tall and replied, "Well alright then. Just so we got it straight."
Slipping his hat back on his head, Buck started out the door, but he turned and fixed his gaze on Vin for another moment. "Ain't right," he said. "Vin's a good man and it just ain't right."
Finally something they all agreed on, Nathan thought. He wondered what other confessions might come to light before this was all over, but like Chris, he'd come to the conclusion that it really didn't matter. They were finally joining together to achieve a common goal, and history had proven that they were unstoppable when they worked as one.
Now all they had to do was convince Vin.
+ + + + + + +
They were working so hard. Vin had to acknowledge their efforts, even if they were slightly misguided and at times, almost humorous. Nathan had apparently gone to the reservation and picked up some ideas from Kojay. That was fine, he supposed, except by the time Nathan shared his knowledge with Josiah, and Josiah tried out the Indian rituals on Vin . . . well, there was definitely something lost in the translation.
Vin didn't say anything, though. He let Josiah try the medicine pouches and the odd chanting (in a dialect Vin was sure he'd never heard before), while Nathan plastered smelly stuff all over his body and spoke reassuringly about how much better Vin would soon feel. It seemed important to Nathan that he believe in what they were trying to do, so he acted like he did.
And it wasn't that he didn't believe, exactly. He was just tired.
Of course, they still depended on their standard, comfortable methods, as well. Nathan still plied him with tea that made him sick, while Josiah sat hunched over the Bible, his lips moving in silent prayer. Sometimes, when Vin was just waking up or just dozing off, he'd hear the two men talking quietly, and he took more comfort in their solid friendship than any tricks they might dream up to help him. Nathan and Josiah had come apart at the seams that first time he'd been hurt, and Vin still had trouble accepting that he'd been the cause. He didn't think he could stand it if that happened again. Thank goodness they seemed to be united in taking care of him this time around.
Although he really wanted to tell them not to bother; he really wanted to tell them to just put him in his wagon and let him be. He'd get better or he wouldn't, and he couldn't find the energy to care too much either way. But they cared, and he didn't want to hurt their feelings, so he told himself that he could stand being hovered over - shut up in that room surrounded by those four walls - for just a few more days.
Besides, he'd promised Chris he'd try . . . if only he could remember what he was trying for. He'd completely lost sight of who he was, not to mention who he used to be and who he wanted to be. The past was painful, the present unbearable, and the future bleak . . . losing himself was easily the most appealing option at the moment.
But Chris had promised him something as well - to come for him if he was lost. A lot of his memories were hazy, but he remembered too well asking Chris if he would search for him if the need arose. It made him cringe just thinking about how pathetic he likely sounded. Chris probably thought he was crazy. Good thing he was sick enough that he could make that believable . . . Sorry, Larabee, reckon I was out of my head.
The thing was, Chris would do it. Hell, he'd already done it once. Nathan had reminded Vin how Chris jumped in the icy river to drag him out. He could barely recall the fight on the cliff or the fall after, but he could clearly picture Chris's eyes when he held out his hand to him and begged him to grab on. So Larabee wasn't likely to give up on him, which meant he could hardly give up on himself. That would be a slap in the face to the best friend he'd ever known.
But he was tired.
"Vin? You need something?" Nathan asked gently, and Vin's heart ached at the sincerity in his voice.
They were trying so hard . . .
He shook his head and tried to meet Nathan's eyes, but found he couldn't. Nathan would see the despair, the uncertainty, and he'd feel obligated to do something about it.
Fortunately, Nathan didn't push this time. "Alright. Let me know if you change your mind."
Vin nodded slightly and bit his tongue. He wanted it so bad . . . the morphine. He knew it would make him feel better; take away the pain in his chest and his leg, and dispel his morbid thoughts for awhile.
It was easier when they decided for him. Either they gave him the drug without telling him, or flat out refused him. Now that it was his choice, he found every waking minute a battle between giving in to escape and going on in agony. And he was lost either way.
But Chris said he'd come for him . . .
"You sure I can't get you something? Maybe rearrange the pillows to make you more comfortable?" Nathan asked, reading the weariness in Vin's expression.
After months of feeling invisible as his friends talked around him, about him, Vin was almost wishing he could disappear again. Their good intentions would smother the life right out of him.
"No," he answered; if only simply rearranging the pillows would do the trick. Even propped up like he was, it was hard to breathe, and the ache in his back and legs never went away.
"You want me to cover up your feet, Vin? That okay? You can leave 'em out, if you're feeling too hemmed in, you know."
Nathan didn't so much as check his pulse without asking Vin's permission first. It was getting damn annoying.
"Sure, Nathan," he answered wearily.
"Sure as in you want your feet out . . . or sure as in you want them in?"
Vin sighed. "Uh . . . in."
"I could read to you, Vin. Think that would take your mind off things?" Josiah offered, as he moved from the window to stand at Nathan's shoulder.
"Well . . . thanks . . . but . . ."
"He's tired, Josiah," Nathan cut in sharply.
"I realize that, Nathan, but he needs a distraction, so I'm just going to sit here and read a spell so he can relax."
"He needs to sleep," Nathan argued.
Vin was thinking he might have been premature about the unity thing, but luckily Chris came in and stopped the argument from erupting further. Josiah started reading anyway, but Vin found himself drawn to Chris and Nathan instead.
"Any change?" he heard Chris ask in a low voice.
Nathan shook his head. "He's not coughing as much, but he can't shake the fever and he's still real weak. I know he's hurtin', too, though he hasn't said as much. I can't think what else to do."
It made him feel bad, hearing Nathan talk like that; made him feel like he should be trying harder.
"You think it would help if we got him out of here? Take him to my room or maybe to my cabin?" Chris asked.
"It's too cold outside, Chris. He don't need t' be breathing in that icy air right now."
Chris sighed; the sound audible even over Josiah's smooth rendition of Gulliver's Travels, and it hurt Vin's heart to hear it. So much so, in fact, that he gasped at the sharpness of it. That got everyone's attention; the quiet conversation stopped while Josiah looked up from his book with a frown of concern.
"Vin?" Chris only said his name in question, but Vin heard the underlying queries, as well . . . 'Are you okay?' 'Are you in pain?' 'What do you need . . . want?' 'Where are you?'
He was so incredibly tired of it all. Even if he could shake the congestion in his chest and get back his strength, he still had to learn to walk again. And he still had to accept that he was no longer the man he used to be. Everything, everything would always be just a little harder and take a little longer. And like most of the people in the small town he'd been hired to protect, he would always carry a nagging doubt that he could no longer do the job.
It was so much easier to just slip away, so he closed his eyes and shut out the world without responding to Chris at all.
+ + + + + + +
It wasn't going the way he'd hoped. Vin was trying, but he wasn't really getting better and he still wasn't with them in all the ways that counted. It was like Tanner was standing outside, looking in through a grimy pane of glass. They could see him and he could see them, but no one could figure out a way to break through.
It had been a week since Chris had shaken the fever and gone to Vin's side. He still couldn't get rid of the annoying cough, but in spite of a lack of sleep, he felt better, stronger. If only he could somehow will that strength to his best friend . . .
Nathan said it was a combination of things that held Vin down, and that made sense, considering all he'd been through. Except Vin was--well, he was Vin--and now that his friends had finally gotten their heads on straight, Chris figured Vin would just naturally follow suit . . . fight back and get better.
But they were missing something. Tanner remained out of reach; slipping below the surface of the icy water and just too damn tired to hang on much longer. He needed a reason, a reminder of who he was and how much he was needed, but Chris couldn't seem to find the words.
It came as a shock to Chris when it first dawned on him that he wasn't reason enough. His friendship with Vin had become his anchor and his guide, but apparently the same wasn't true for Tanner . . . maybe Vin just didn't feel the same about him.
Or maybe Vin was just tired . . .
He turned from where he stood at the window to peer at the bed where Vin had lain for going on two weeks now. Vin didn't even ask to leave the clinic, but then, he didn't ask for anything anymore . . . including the morphine. Chris would have liked to see that as a positive sign, but he was certain it had more to do with Vin slipping away and closing himself off than the fact that he needed or wanted the drug less.
And Chris had promised to find him, to try . . .
"I'm sorry, Chris," Vin rasped, abruptly pulling Chris from his thoughts.
Moving to the bedside, Chris looked at his friend thoughtfully and asked, "For what?"
Vin didn't answer, but he didn't have to. It figured that Tanner would make this his failure.
"You giving up on me, Vin? You think I won't come for you? I won't find you?"
Vin shook his head. "It's not that, Chris. God . . . it's not you. I'd do anything for . . ."
Vin swallowed and let the words trail off, but he held Chris's gaze. So maybe Vin did feel the same . . .
Before Chris could latch onto that thought, Vin continued, "But I'm just not sure what's left of me to look for."
Chris had a good answer for that - several good answers, but a forceful knock on the door stopped him before he could begin. Throwing Vin a glance that clearly said, "this conversation isn't over", he quickly stood and went to open the door.
Matt Sims greeted him on the landing; his face grim and his mannerisms uncharacteristically fidgety. Matt swallowed as he tipped his hat and said, "Mr. Larabee."
Chris didn't reply as he shifted his gaze to where Jacob stood behind his father. The boy looked fine--no worse for the wear--and though Chris was grateful for that, he couldn't help remembering the cost to his best friend for the child's return.
"The boy . . . he wants to see Tanner," Sims said with a nervous glance inside the room.
Chris narrowed his eyes. "And what about you?"
"I admit that I might have been wrong about the man. He risked his life to save my son and I figure I owe him for that."
"I figure you do," Chris responded coldly. "The man damn near died for your son."
Could die still . . .
"Can I bring my boy in or not? He has something he wants to tell Tanner."
Jacob peeked over his father's shoulder; his gaze riveted to the bed where Vin lay.
Chris exchanged a glance with his sick friend. "It's Vin's decision."
"I'd like t' see him," Vin spoke up softly.
He was a different child, Jacob was. Gone was that cocky arrogance he'd inherited from his father. The boy approached the bedside cautiously, almost reverently, as if Vin Tanner was the most important man he'd ever met and this was the pivotal moment of his life.
"I wanted t' thank you, Vin, for findin' me. For not givin' up."
Vin offered a wan smile to the boy. "You're welcome, kid. Just wish I'd gotten there quicker."
Jacob smiled shyly, "I know you did the best you could. I don't remember much but . . . but I do remember thinkin' that . . . that you would keep on looking. I remembered that you found Michael, and I knew even if it you weren't there in time, you'd get me back t' my pa."
Vin's eyes grew moist, but he didn't speak. Chris was pretty certain he couldn't speak, so he rescued him by cutting in, "We're all glad you're home safe, Jacob."
The boy glanced at his father, but then he leaned in close to Vin and he said very seriously, "I wanna be like you, Vin. I want you t' teach me how t' track . . . how t' find people who are lost like I was. I been thinkin' about it a lot. Who's gonna do it when you're gone? I mean, you get hurt a lot and you hang around with Chris Larabee, and you're gettin' kind of old anyway, so I was thinkin' someone else in town should know how t' do what you do."
Chris bit his lip to keep from grinning at the boy's earnest declaration, and he didn't miss the sparkle in Vin's eyes when Tanner replied, "I reckon that would be a good idea, Jacob."
"There has t' be a reason this happened t' me, and I'm thinking it's so I could help some other lost kid someday. I knew when he took me, that you'd try your hardest t' find me. I knew it. If that happens to some other kid, I want him t' know I'll try, too."
Chris saw it; saw the change sweep across Vin's face as that glass wall shattered right in front of him. The boy had unknowingly provided Vin with a reason for his past and, more importantly, a reason for his future.
Once again, Vin couldn't find words, so Chris stepped in, "Alright, Jacob. Vin will teach you everything he knows, once he's on his feet again."
"Okay. I'll see you soon, Vin," Jacob called as he slipped out the door with his father.
"Smart kid," Chris said as he turned back towards Vin.
Vin took a few moments to compose himself before adding, "Strong kid."
"Yeah, that too," Chris agreed. "Sounds like someone else I know."
Vin met his eyes and one corner of his mouth turned up when he replied, "Yeah, it does."
"So . . . do I need to keep looking?"
Holding his gaze, Vin answered softly, "I reckon not."
"And do I need to remind you exactly what you're made of and why you're worth the effort and . . ."
Vin groaned. "Please don't. I've had 'bout all the sweet talk I can handle for one day."
With a wide grin, Chris replied, "Alright. But keep this in mind - Jacob nagged me to death until I finally taught him to carve."
"What's your point, Larabee?"
"He's likely to drive us all crazy, now that he's got a purpose."
"So . . . you need to get back on your feet . . . quick."
Vin chuckled at that; an honest, heartfelt laugh that made the whole world right again in Chris's mind. He'd forgotten how good it felt; how badly he needed moments just like this to make it through all the bad times that life threw at him. More than liquor or money or even women, he needed this.
So maybe he was addicted to Vin . . . there were worse things. And maybe Vin still had a long ways to go . . . they'd make the journey together. Because although Vin risked his life and nearly lost himself searching for Jacob, the boy had returned the favor in full: he'd found Vin.