Summary: When Vin is seriously injured, a terrible choice must be made, one that could mean the difference between life and death.
Acknowlegements: Many thanks to Angela for her superb beta reading services.
1. This story was written for the Vinfeedback List's second Anniversary Week and is for all my friends on the List.
2. This story has the same basic premise as White Raven's excellent, 'The Trap', which you can find archived at Blackraptor. However, the two stories do move in very different directions. White Raven is aware of my story and happy for me to post it.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction. I don't own the rights to the Magnificent Seven and I don't make any money from this work.
"I said no!"
Chris tightened his grip around the injured man's warm, limp hand, eyes fixed on the flushed, pain-lined face framed by tangled, sweat-drenched curls. Without taking his eyes from his suffering friend, he added tersely, "There must be something else you can try."
"I've done everything I can," Nathan replied, his voice pitched low, for Chris's ears only. "The wound was left untended for too long, the infection has too strong a hold. Chris, if I don't do it now, he's gonna die.
Chris reluctantly tore his eyes away from the wounded man and looked up at the healer, reading the truth in Nathan's anguished expression. He squeezed Vin's hand reassuringly and stood up, drawing Nathan away from the bed.
"If you take his leg, what are his chances?"
"The truth, Nathan."
Nathan sighed. "If I take the leg, I should be able to stop the infection spreading any further. I won't lie to you - I can't be sure he'd make it even then. But if I do nothing, he has no chance at all."
Chris Larabee was a man who knew how to stay in control during a crisis, but now he felt on the verge of panic as he saw the conversation leading inexorably to the one choice he did not want to make.
"Why now? Can't we wait a bit longer? Maybe your treatment hasn't had time to start working." He knew he sounded desperate and could hardly bear the pity he saw in Nathan's eyes as the healer slowly shook his head.
"Chris, we've already waited twenty-four hours and that was longer than I'd have liked. A doctor would tell you the same. I've done the best I can, Chris, and I'm sorry, but..."
Chris shook his head at the guilt he saw in Nathan's expression. "It's not your fault, Nathan." He could see that his words were no comfort to the healer.
For a moment, he felt physically paralyzed with fear, unwilling to make the agonizing choice. Yet from the moment they had found Vin, just over a day ago, he had feared that it would come to this. He closed his eyes for a moment and the memories flooded back...
They had been looking for Vin for almost two days, ever since they had discovered that he'd gone after a bounty hunter alone. JD had done his best but had lost Vin's trail on the first day, and they'd been searching blindly ever since, Chris's fear growing with every mile they covered with no sign of Tanner. The possible scenarios had chased each other through his mind, each more unthinkable than the next.
Chris would never forget the moment they found him. It was late afternoon on the second day, and JD had picked up some tracks that might have been Vin's on the trail to Eagle Bend. Looking ahead, Chris spotted a dark speck that, at this distance, could be anything. He wished he had Vin's eyeglass to make it out more clearly.
"Something ahead on the trail," he called to Buck, who was riding nearby. "I'll ride on and check it out."
Buck acknowledged him with a wave and Chris spurred his horse into a trot.
As he got closer, he could make out the form of a man. His heart began beating a little faster. The man was hatless, moving slowly and unsteadily, eyes fixed on the ground before him. A little closer and Chris identified the telltale buckskin jacket and long hair. He spurred his horse into a gallop. As he neared, Vin stopped walking and looked up, hand shading his eyes from the sun. Then he swayed, dropped to the ground in a boneless heap and lay still.
Chris pulled his horse to a halt beside the fallen man, dismounting and moving to his friend's side in one fluid movement. Vin was lying half on his side, face in the dirt. Chris turned him gently onto his back, cushioning his head, and ran concerned eyes over his body, searching for injuries. Vin's face was dirty and bruised, his hair a tangled mass, but he didn't seem to have a head injury. Chris' eyes moved down to a makeshift bandage tied around his friend's thigh, just above the knee. The cloth of the pants around the dressing was stiff and discolored, the bandage itself bright with fresh and slowly flowing blood.
"Vin?" Chris said softly. His voice seemed to get through and Vin's eyes opened a slit - just enough for Chris to register the pain and fatigue in their depths. "Take it easy, pard, you're safe now."
"Chrisss." The softly spoken word ended in a groan and Vin's eyes closed again.
Chris pulled his gun from the holster and fired twice into the air. Within seconds, he heard the sound of flying hooves as the remainder of the seven joined him. Nathan was first down from his horse, bag in hand, as he skidded to a halt beside the fallen man. Chris turned desperate eyes on him. "It's his leg, Nathan."
"Let me take a look at him." Nathan carefully cut away the makeshift bandage, revealing a bullet hole caked with dried blood. The leg was swollen, and red slivers of infections radiated out from the wound.
"Damn," Nathan breathed, and Chris understood his concern. The wound must have been sustained a couple of days ago for the infection to have gained such a strong hold.
Vin groaned again and Chris moved in closer, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Vin, try not to move."
Nathan looked up. "Hold him for me, Chris, I need to see if the bullet's still in there."
Buck, who had been hovering anxiously to one side, moved forward to help, and together they gently turned Vin on his front, his chest and head resting in Chris' lap. He cried out when they moved him, and Chris wrapped his left hand around one tightly clenched fist and placed the other on Vin's neck, squeezing gently. "Hang in there, pard."
"Bullet's still in there," Nathan said a moment later. "It has to come out real soon."
"You want to do it now?" Chris asked.
Nathan slowly shook his head. "Reckon it'll be best to get him back to town. The wound's already infected. I can't risk poking around in him out here."
"I could ride back to town and bring out a wagon," Josiah suggested, voice somber.
Nathan shook his head. "No time. We have to get him back fast as we can. Bleeding's mostly stopped - if we're real careful getting him on the horse, we can get him back without starting it up again."
"I'll take him," Josiah offered.
It would make sense; Josiah was the strongest of the seven. But Chris looked up and said, "He'll ride with me."
"You sure, Chris?" Nathan asked. "He'll be heavy. I don't want to risk him falling."
"I won't let him fall," Chris stated firmly, and knew that no one was going to question him on this one.
Nathan's anxious tone brought Chris back to the present with a jump, and he opened his eyes.
"Chris, Vin can't think straight right now; he needs you to make the decision for him."
Chris looked over at the sick man lying so still in the bed and tried to imagine what it would be like for him if they took away his leg. The thought of Vin living the rest of his life as a cripple was almost beyond comprehension. He felt Nathan's hand on his arm, and heard the healer's gentle words.
"I know you can't imagine it now, but I saw a lot of men lose a leg in the War. A lot of them learned to adapt, went on to lead long lives. Vin could, too."
Chris swallowed and walked back to the bed, perching on the edge of the chair he had barely vacated for the past twenty-four hours. Nathan was right. This had to be better than the alternative.
Fever-brightened eyes opened a slit. "Hey, Cowboy." Vin's voice was faint, little more than a whisper. "You bin talkin' 'bout me over there?"
"Nathan..." Chris found he could barely force the words out. "Vin, Nathan says he's done all he can, but the infection's still spreading. He thinks... he says there's no choice but to-"
Without warning, Vin shot upright. The movement jolted his injured leg and he screamed in agony. Chris pushed him back against the pillows, where he lay panting, eyes squeezed shut and face contorted in pain, clutching the sheets with a white-knuckled grip.
Chris leaned in close, both hand gripping Vin's shoulders. "Vin, look at me."
Blue eyes opened again and Chris could see fear mixed with the pain.
"Trust me," he urged, holding Vin's eyes and seeing myriad emotions swirling around in them. He watched helplessly as Vin's fevered mind grappled with the truth, clearly saw the tracker's battle with his fear until, after long moments the emotion settled into something Chris couldn't quite identify. Slender fingers weakly squeezed his own. Almost faint with relief, he squeezed back. Swallowing past the lump in his throat, he turned resolute eyes to Nathan.
Buck pushed open the clinic door as quietly as possible, anxious not to disturb Vin if he was sleeping.
Nathan had thrown everyone except Chris out of the clinic that morning. Ezra and JD had chosen to spend the day playing cards while Josiah had ridden out early, probably heading for the wilderness in pursuit of solitude to pray. Buck had found himself restless, cards and the usually attractive lure of the saloon failing to provide the diversion he needed. He had finally gone to Mrs. Potter's store to fix the roof that Vin had promised to take care of on his return.
Now, he stepped into the room with some trepidation. Nathan's expression had been grave ever since they had found Vin, and Buck was no fool - he had seen the extent of the infection and knew exactly how dangerous that could be.
The room was in semi-darkness, but there was enough light to illuminate the disturbing sight of Chris sliding a slab of wood under Vin's leg while Nathan sharpened a large knife.
Buck felt his throat tighten. "What's going on, Nathan?"
Nathan looked up and although his face was in shadow, Buck could see that his expression was sober. "The infection's out of control. I have to take the leg."
"No! You can't do that!"
"Buck!" Chris hissed, turning furious eyes on him. "Keep it down!"
Buck ignored Chris and urgently grabbed Nathan's arm. "You can't do that," he repeated in a quieter tone.
"If I don't, he'll die."
This was what all of them had feared since the moment they had found Vin, although no one, not even Nathan, had dared to voice the truth. When an infection took hold like this, there was only one option. But Buck was quite sure what Vin would want.
"Take his leg and he won't want to live," Buck stated bluntly.
Chris flinched visibly at the words.
"Buck, I've seen a lot of men lose a leg and go on to live long, happy lives," Nathan said firmly. "Vin will, too."
Buck shook his head. He answered Nathan, but his eyes were on Chris. "Not Vin. You know him, both of you. He can barely stand a week in town without the need to ride out."
"He'll learn to adapt in time," Nathan argued.
"No, he won't. It'll break his spirit and he'll die inside, a little more each day. Is that what you want for him?"
Silence reigned for a moment and Buck glanced at Vin, lying so still and pale, seemingly oblivious to the life-changing discussion going on around him.
Then Nathan stood and went over to the bed. After a few moments he looked across at Buck and Chris. "I wish I had some ether, to put him under totally, but I don't and I can't wait. The laudanum's starting to work, but still, I'll need you both to hold him down."
Chris nodded, glancing back at Vin. The anguish in his expression broke Buck's heart and the big man knew how hard this decision must have been. But still, it was the wrong one.
"Stop this, Chris," he urged desperately.
Chris turned tormented eyes on his old friend. "I can't let him die!"
Buck could almost feel the pain radiating from the blond. Chris and Vin had become closer than brothers in the few years they had known each other, and Buck knew how hard it would be on Chris to lose his friend. But this was Vin's life, and he deserved the choice.
Vin Tanner valued his freedom and his independence above everything else. He tolerated living in town but they all knew he was happiest out in the wild, making his bed beneath the stars. To lose that freedom would crush his spirit.
Buck steeled himself to say the words that needed to be said. "All right. It's your decision, Chris, but just ask yourself one question. Is this Vin's choice - or yours?"
Time stood still. Buck steadily held Chris's steely gaze, seeing the conflicting emotions cross his friend's face one by one until he saw what he wanted - acceptance of the truth.
The gunfighter's face darkened. "Get out!"
"Get out, Buck. I'm not telling you again."
Buck recognized the fury emanating from his friend. The truth had backed Chris into an impossible corner and that angered him. He needed something or someone to take his anger out on and Buck was the obvious candidate. Well, Buck could handle that. He'd fulfilled the same role often enough in the past, after Chris's family had been killed. He had lost track of the number of times Chris had lashed out at him, needing a release for his frustration and anger. Buck had understood, but understanding it and living through it were two different things. He'd stuck it out as long as he could and then gone his own way. He had never been sure he'd made the right decision, always wondering if he'd hear the news that Chris had been killed in a gunfight he'd provoked himself to end his agony, and whether he could have prevented it had he been there.
Nathan opened his mouth to speak and Buck shook his head. Then he turned and slipped quietly out of the door.
Chris ran his hands through his hair, noting absently that they were shaking. His heart was thumping so hard that his chest hurt and there was a band around his throat, constricting his breathing. Buck's words had hit home hard, and as he had witnessed the desperation in the big man's eyes and studied his earnest expression, he had reluctantly accepted the truth of those words. He had not made the decision based on what Vin wanted. He had made it because he could not contemplate a future that didn't include Vin Tanner.
How could he have let himself come to this? Two years ago, when he had first set foot in Four Corners, he was still living out a vow to never again allow anyone to get close. The death of his family had almost killed him, and he'd decided there was no way he was opening himself up to that kind of pain again. Somehow, though, Vin, and to some extent the other Peacekeepers, had broken down his barriers. The prospect of losing Vin was unthinkable.
But Buck had been right. This wasn't his decision to make.
"I can't let you do it, Nathan," he said quietly. "Buck was right. It isn't what Vin wants."
Nathan's brown eyes bored into Chris's. "He trusted you with the choice, Chris."
Chris shook his head. "I know. But it isn't my choice to make."
"He's in no condition to be making that kind of decision himself."
Chris sat down beside the bed, took a cool cloth and gently wiped it across Vin's burning brow.
Vin turned his head, laudanum-dulled eyes questioning.
"Vin, Nathan's ready. But you need to be sure this is what you want. It's your decision."
Blue eyes locked with green. With a shock of understanding, Chris finally identified the emotion that had run through Vin's eyes before. Yes, Vin trusted him with his life - and with his death. But he had agreed to this only because he knew it was what Chris wanted.
"This isn't about me, pard," Chris said gently. "You know how I feel, but it's your life. It's what you want that matters."
Vin looked away and Chris waited tensely, knowing that the injured man needed time to get his fevered thoughts in order. After what seemed like an eternity, Vin turned back to face Chris and at that moment Chris knew the choice his friend had made. Vin's words only confirmed the terrible truth. "I couldn't live like that. I'd rather take my chances. I'm sorry, Chris."
Chris nodded, heart sinking.
"It's all right. I won't let Nathan take your leg. I give you my word."
Vin's features softened in relief as his eyes closed and he drifted into a drug-induced sleep.
Chris blinked back tears.
"He's so doped up with laudanum, he doesn't know what he's saying," Nathan said.
Chris shook his head. "He doesn't have to, Nate. I know what he wants. Hell, I know him better than I know myself. Give me your word you won't take his leg."
After a long pause, Nathan nodded. "I can't tell you I agree with the decision, but I promise I won't operate unless you give me word."
Chris nodded. "I need some air."
He had to get out of there. He had just heard the man who was closer to him than a brother choosing death over life and he couldn't handle it. He needed to get away. He wrenched the door open and stepped out into the sunlight.
JD burst through the batwing doors of the Standish Tavern, anxiously scanning the room. He breathed a sigh of relief as he spotted Buck seated at a corner table with Ezra, and hurried over.
"Buck, you have to talk to Chris!"
Buck gave him a strange look. "I ain't really the person Chris wants to be talking to right now, JD."
"You have to!" JD replied heatedly. "Nathan says Chris won't let him operate, and if he doesn't take ... if he doesn't ..." He could barely bring himself to say the words. "Well if he doesn't operate, Vin's going to die for sure!"
Buck's words were quiet and JD looked at him properly for the first time. Buck's usually cheerful, open countenance was drawn and white. JD frowned. "Well, if you know, why aren't you doing anything about it?"
Buck glanced at Ezra before answering. "Because I'm the one who told Chris it was the right call."
"You..." JD's words trailed off as he realized what his friend had just said. "I don't understand. Why, Buck? You don't want Vin to die!"
"Of course I don't want Vin to die." There was more than a hint of irritation mixed with weariness in Buck's tone. "But it's Vin's life we're talking about, and I sure as hell know what he'd choose."
"You think he'd choose to die?" JD refused to believe it. Vin Tanner was one of the most level-headed, sensible men he knew. He loved life - why would he choose to die?
Buck was silent and surprisingly, it was Ezra who answered.
"Try to put yourself in Mr. Tanner's position, Mr. Dunne. Imagine spending the rest of your life a cripple, dependant on your compatriots and constantly reliant on the ministrations of others."
Ezra's words pulled JD up short. Ever since Nathan had told him what was happening, he had not really stopped to think any further than the fact that Vin would die if Nathan was not permitted to operate.
Now, he found himself wondering what it be like to live with only one leg. He had known an old man once, back home, who had lost his left leg below the knee. He'd seemed to get around all right, with the aid of a wooden leg and a pair of crutches. Of course, life would never be the same if you'd lost a leg, but JD thought he might manage it - if it meant that or dying.
"I know it'd be hard," he answered finally, "but I guess I'd get used to it, adapt..."
"I did not ask you what you would do, Mr. Dunne. I believe you would, as you say, adapt to such a situation. For that matter, I believe that I myself would, in time, be able to accommodate myself to the change in circumstances. After all, I can deal a hand of cards with one leg as well as with two. But I was suggesting that you imagine you were Mr. Tanner. How would you feel?"
Well, surely Vin would feel the same? But as he began to think about it, he realized that there was a world of difference between himself and Vin - and between Ezra and Vin. Of all the Seven, Vin was the one who was least comfortable in crowds, the one who needed his own space. He was happiest out on the range, making his bed under the stars. That was probably why he insisted on sleeping in that rickety, draughty wagon of his. Vin was a free spirit and a fiercely independent one. JD could hardly imagine him confined to a chair, unable to tend to himself, unable to defend himself if a bounty hunter showed up. He'd be reliant on other people for so many things.
The expression on his face must have told Ezra what he needed to know, because the gambler nodded. "Exactly."
Chris sat in a darkened corner of Digger Dan's saloon, nursing a half-full glass of whiskey, the bottle beside him on the table nearly empty. The few other patrons were studiously avoiding him. Wisely, he thought grimly. He was drunk. Hell, he was more than drunk. Idly he wondered how long it had been since he had last sought oblivion in a bottle. A long time, and that was mostly due to a soft-spoken Texan whose quiet yet solid friendship had helped him find a reason to go on living.
A few hours ago he had condemned Vin to certain death. It didn't matter that Vin himself had made that choice. Chris had had it in his power to ignore Vin's wishes, to have given him a chance at life, and yet he hadn't. Minute by minute, each moment more agonizing than the last, Vin was moving closer to death, and there wasn't a damned thing Chris could do about it.
Chris had always been a man of action, too often solving his problems with violence. Maybe that was one of the reasons he'd never gotten over the death of his family. Even in the dark years when he had left a trail of violence in his wake, he'd been unable to exact the vengeance he sought and was always left feeling guilty and impotent. Now, he was losing someone else, and he was powerless to do anything about it. The bounty hunter who had shot Vin might be dead, but somehow that knowledge did nothing to ease the pain.
He could feel the tension thrumming through his body, demanding action. He stood unsteadily, taking the bottle by the neck and hurling it against the wall to shatter in a hundred pieces. One piece flew back at him, carving a niche out of his cheek, and blood spurted. He put a hand to his face, brought it away red. Blood. The same color as the blood that would soon stop pumping through Vin's body. Savagely he grabbed a chair, hurling that at the wall, too. He vaguely heard someone shout his name as he lost his balance and dropped to his knees. Strong arms closed around his waist, trapping his arms and pulling him to his feet. He roared in protest, his voice echoing in his head. The room was spinning.
The voice was familiar, but he continued to struggle against the arms holding him, finally managing to wriggle free. He spun round to confront his attacker, and there was a brief moment of recognition before a fist connected with his jaw and his world went black.
Night had fallen several hours before and nothing was moving in the town of Four Corners when Josiah rode into the main street, slowing his horse to a walk. Still, the sound of the animal's hooves sounded inordinately loud in the stillness and he half expected lights to go on and windows to open. But there was silence. By some miracle Yosemite was still up when he approached the livery and only too happy to take care of his mount while Josiah hurried towards the clinic.
He had ridden out to the reservation in the hopes that the tribe might have some miracle cure that Nathan was unaware of. Ko-je had listened to his request and then given him a small package of what looked like ordinary herbs he could have bought in Potter's store.
Seeing his skeptical expression, the chief had solemnly looked him in the eye. "Do not be deceived by appearance, my friend. These herbs are very rare and very potent. They are to be used only when death itself beckons. Follow my instructions carefully and there may yet be hope for our brother."
There was a light burning in the window of the clinic. Wearily, Josiah climbed the steps to the balcony. He had ridden hard, knowing that for Vin, every passing moment brought death a little closer. He knocked softly on the door, and after a moment it opened and Nathan peered out.
"Hey, Josiah. Come on in."
Josiah stepped inside, closing the door softly behind him and walking immediately to the bed along the far wall. Vin looked much the same; face flushed, tossing restlessly in his sleep.
"How is he?"
"He's dying, Josiah."
"Is there nothing more you can do for him?"
"It seems not."
Josiah raised an eyebrow. Nathan's tone told the ex-preacher that there was something going on here. "What happened, Nathan?"
The healer shrugged. "The only hope I had of saving him was to take the leg, to stop the infection from spreading. Chris agreed at first, then Buck persuaded him that Vin wouldn't want that and now he's refusing to let me operate."
"And you think he's made the wrong decision?"
"Of course he has! If I operate, Vin has a chance."
Josiah was silent for a moment, understanding Nathan's dilemma. For a healer, any chance at preserving life was to be taken without question. But he understood Chris's decision. There were some things that were worse than death, and for Vin, living with only one leg might be one of them.
"Maybe," he said carefully, "this is the right choice for Vin."
"Choosing to die?"
"We all have to go sometime, Nathan. Maybe this is Vin's time."
Nathan shook his head. "It doesn't have to be."
"But that's his choice."
"Now you sound like Chris."
"Where is Chris?" Josiah had been surprised not to find the gunfighter at the clinic.
Nathan shrugged. "I don't know. He left hours ago. He was upset, angry. Where have you been, anyhow?"
"I rode out to the reservation. Thought they might have something to help Vin."
"Ko-je gave me this." Josiah pulled the small pouch out of his pocket, holding it out to Nathan.
Nathan took the pouch, opening it carefully. He sniffed cautiously at the dried herbs inside, drawing back quickly and wrinkling his nose in disgust.
"What the hell is that?"
"I don't know. Ko-je said that past generations of his people used this herb as a powerful treatment for infection. It's very rare, very potent, and should only be used as a desperate measure."
"Well, I think this situation qualifies," Nathan said grimly. "Did he say what I should do with it?"
"He said to boil a spoonful of the herbs with elm bark to make a salve. Rub the salve into the open wound and cover it with a hot bandage. You should reapply the salve every few hours. There's enough here for three days. He said that would be enough. Either it would reduce the infection, or..." His words trailed off. They both knew the alternative.
Nathan nodded. "Let's get to work, then."
Josiah sat beside Vin while Nathan prepared the salve, wiping his face with cool cloths, alarmed at the heat rising from his skin in waves. Once or twice Vin opened his eyes and seemed to recognize him, but mostly he was out of it, for which Josiah was grateful. After what seemed a short time, Nathan came and joined him.
"Think we should get Chris?" Josiah asked.
Nathan shook his head. "My guess is that Chris ain't in no condition to be of any help to Vin right now. Vin's not in his right mind anyhow, won't know who's here with him, and we don't have time to wait. Josiah, get ready to hold him down. This is gonna hurt."
Josiah nodded, leaning forward and placing his hands firmly on the sharpshooter's shoulders.
When Nathan applied the salve, Vin went rigid, face contorted in agony. Josiah pushed him back firmly as he weakly struggled to pull his leg away. It seemed like forever, but in reality couldn't have been more than a few moments, before Nathan finished tying the bandage around the wound.
Vin was tossing his head, trying to throw off Josiah's hands, muttering, "Leg - on fire! Burning! Stop it..."
Josiah cast an anxious glance at Nathan. "Burning?"
"The bandage is hot, like Ko-je said, but I think one of those herbs is causing the burning. It ain't one I've come across before. But there's also something in the mixture that causes a numbing effect - I got some in a cut on my hand and the feeling's nearly gone. That should help with the pain."
"So, what now?"
Nathan shot him a worried glance. "Now, we wait."
Chris groaned as something hot and bright hit him in the face. Rolling over, he tried to get away from the intrusion. Somewhere in the back of his mind he could hear a voice calling his name, but it was hard to distinguish past the thumping in his head.
"Chris, time to wake up."
Chris groaned again and tentatively opened one eye. The thumping continued, but miraculously, his head didn't explode. Encouraged, he opened the other eye and rolled over onto his back. For a moment, he couldn't work out where he was. A small room, with just a narrow bunk as furniture. Light streaming in through a small window high up on the wall. Bars... it came to him suddenly. He was in a cell in the jail. What the hell was he doing there? He sat up and pain stabbed through his skull like a knife. He groaned.
"Just kill me now."
A chuckle. He turned towards the sound and saw Buck leaning against the bars in the open doorway, a steaming cup in his hand. "You gonna throw up? I can get a bucket..."
"Go to hell, Buck."
Buck grinned. "Better drink this. The state you're in, you're going to need it."
Chris ran his hands through his hair, slowly registering his dishevelled appearance, the stink of sweat and whiskey. It had been a long while since he'd been so drunk. Must have had a good reason. Was it his wedding anniversary? Then his memory returned in a flash, a moment of blinding and cruel clarity, and with it fear - fear that while he was on his selfish, self-destructive path Vin might have died.
He leapt to his feet, running into Buck's restraining hand as he headed for the door.
"Not so fast. Vin's still with us, Chris. You should go and see him soon, but I think we should get you cleaned up first. One look at you and Nathan's going to ban you from the sick room."
"I need to see him."
"I know you do. But just sit back down, drink this coffee first."
Chris reluctantly acknowledged that Buck was right. "What happened last night?"
"You drank yourself into oblivion. Well, almost. You were getting kinda violent, so Digger Dan sent for us. I kind of helped you with the oblivion bit."
Chris looked up at his old friend, then rubbed his jaw where he could feel the result of Buck's intervention. Buck looked back at him steadily, but although his expression was amiable enough, there was something wary in his eyes and Chris remembered his harsh words in the clinic.
He looked away, suddenly ashamed of taking out his anger on Buck. He had done that enough times in the past and it had been as unwarranted then as it was now.
"Buck, last night, at the clinic..." He was unsure how to go on.
"It's okay, Chris. You were angry."
"At myself, not at you. I shouldn't have..."
"Got a broad back, Chris," Buck said quietly. "Just leave it, we're good. Listen, late last night, Josiah rode in - seems he took it on himself to ride out to the reservation, see if they had any medicine that could help Vin. Anyway, he came back with some herbs and such. Smell damned awful, so they must be good. Supposed to be powerful medicine against infection."
"Nathan's trying it. Don't seem to have made any difference yet, but Nathan says we have to give it time. But it means there's hope, Chris."
Hope. Last night, Chris had seen hope disappear in Vin's desperate plea of "no." Vin had known what that would mean as well as Chris. Had known he was probably signing his own death warrant, and what had Chris done? He'd let his own feelings control him and walked out when his friend probably needed him most.
His thoughts must have shown on his face, for Buck said, "Don't be so hard on yourself. You needed to get rid of some of that anger. Shit, the whole room was rocking with it, you think Vin wouldn't have been able to sense that? Josiah stayed with him last night, but he was out of it most of the time. Probably didn't even know you weren't there."
"I just... I don't know if I can sit there and watch him die."
"You'll do what has to be done, Chris. Your brother needs you. How about you finish that coffee, then we'll get you cleaned up and you can get back up to that clinic."
"Vin's not my brother, Buck."
Buck looked at him silently for a long moment. "Yeah he is ,Chris. Has been for a long time now. And your place is at his side. I know you're confused. I know you're angry with yourself and with him. But if he's dying , none of that matters. You need to be there with him."
Buck was right. Vin might not be his brother by blood, but he qualified in every other way. He was family.
Chris drained the cup and stood up. "Let's go."
It had now been approximately forty hours, Ezra reflected. Forty long hours since Nathan had first applied Ko-je's miracle cure and Vin had not improved at all. Admittedly, the infection hadn't spread any further, but neither had the fever abated, and everyone knew that Nathan believed it was just a matter of time, although he never voiced that thought aloud.
"Remember that time Vin shot Stutz with that new-fangled rifle?" Buck shook his head, lost in admiration. "That was the finest shooting I ever did see."
"That was indeed an extremely fine shot," Ezra agreed, taking a long sip of his whiskey. It was his fifth shot of the evening. Normally, he was careful how much he drank. It was never wise for a man such as himself to have his attention and reflexes dulled by drink, but tonight - tonight it didn't seem to matter.
"Do you gentlemen recall the occasion Mr. Tanner rescued Elsie Watson's daughter from the river?" he went on.
Josiah grinned broadly. "Young Betsy fell in love with him on the spot - followed him around for days, hanging on his every word!"
"And the look on his face when she cornered him in the stable was priceless," Ezra finished, chuckling at the memory. The three of them were laughing hard and Ezra was wiping a tear from his eyes with his handkerchief when JD stood up abruptly.
"I don't get it. You're all talking about Vin like he's already dead!"
Ezra had been so caught up in their reminiscing that he had failed to notice that the usually talkative JD had not been taking part in the conversation. The kid was looking confused, upset and angry all at once.
"Now, JD..." Buck began, but his words trailed off and he looked helplessly at his companions.
For once, the usually eloquent Josiah seemed to be lost for words. Ezra could see that it was up to him to attempt an explanation.
"Mr. Dunne, you mistake our intention. We have not forgotten for one moment that our compatriot is gravely ill, nor do we wish to give the impression that we now believe his... passing is inevitable. However, and I can speak only for myself, I find that making Mr. Tanner central to our conversation is helping to keep my hope alive. Were we to avoid speaking of him - now that, my friend, is what to my mind would be 'talking about Vin like he's already dead.'"
Buck was looking at him in admiration. "Ezra, that's just it. Couldn't have put it better myself."
JD contemplated the three of them seriously for a few moments, an almost comical frown on his face. Ezra could almost see his brain working as he tried to understand. Then he looked up and smiled. "In that case, Ezra, why don't you get in another round while I tell Buck and Josiah here about that time Vin took me out to teach me to track bear..."
It was dusk when Josiah headed back to the church after checking on Vin. Nathan greeted him with the now standard answer of "no change," and Josiah had at least been grateful that the news wasn't any worse.
As he neared the church he saw a figure sitting on the step outside, hunched forward, elbows braced on knees. A figure in black. He sighed. Chris Larabee was clearly a man in torment, racked with fear and self-doubt about the choice he had made.
Josiah walked up and paused beside Chris. "Want to come in, brother?"
Chris looked up. "Sorry, Josiah. Not really in the mood."
Josiah sat down on the step beside him. "Some would say that now would be the right time to come into God's house and pray for our brother."
"Couldn't stomach praying to a God who'd let an innocent man suffer the way Vin's suffering right now."
Josiah nodded. "I understand how you feel, Chris. Was a time when I railed against God. I couldn't understand why he allows so much evil in this world, why so often the innocent suffer and the guilty go free."
Chris glanced at him. "And now?"
Josiah shrugged. "I don't have any more answers now than I did then. Life is unfair. But I've come to accept that it isn't for man to understand the ways of God. But one thing I'm sure of - the guilty will be punished in the next world if not in this."
"That's not much help to Vin right now," Chris said bitterly.
"Maybe not. But I also came to see that He never promised to take away our pain and suffering - but He did promise to give us the strength to endure, if we let him."
"You reckon that's what he's doing now? Giving Vin the strength to endure? I'm sorry, but it's just not enough, 'siah."
"There're no answers, Chris. In the end it all comes down to faith."
"Well, I'm not ready to have faith in a God who'd let an innocent man die."
"I know that, so for now, how about I have the faith for both of us? I'm just asking you to think on it, that's all. Anyhow, I'm not sure it's really God you're angry at."
Chris glared at him.
Josiah continued, unperturbed. "Who are you angry at, Chris?"
Chris frowned. "I'm angry with that damned bounty hunter. And I'm angry with myself for not finding Vin sooner than I did."
"What do you mean?"
"Anyone else you're angry at?"
Chris was silent.
Josiah waited a time, then said quietly, "Seems to me like you're angry with Vin."
Chris snorted. "Why would I be angry with Vin? He's the one who's dying."
"And he was the one who made the decision not to let Nathan take his leg."
"It might not have made any difference," Chris said in a low voice.
"Maybe not, but right now you don't really believe that. I think you're angry with Vin for making that choice."
"He chose to die!" The words burst out of Chris as a shout and he stood and began pacing.
"Maybe so. But Vin isn't afraid to die, Chris."
"I never said he was. It's just - he doesn't have to!"
"Ain't a man alive who isn't afraid of something," Josiah went on. "Have you thought that maybe Vin looked his future in the eye and decided that he'd rather endure death than a living hell? Can't you accept that there's something he's afraid of? You going to condemn him for that?"
"I'm not condemning him for anything."
"Maybe. But there's one thing I do know. That boy shouldn't go to the grave thinking you hate him for the choice he made."
Chris looked stricken. "I don't hate him, Josiah."
"I know that. Just make sure he does."
Chris sat in the chair beside the bed, trying to concentrate on the book in his hands, but the words kept swimming across the page. It was hard to read when your best friend was lying next to you, every minute that passed taking him closer to death.
He put the book down and rubbed a hand across his eyes, then stood up and stretched, grimacing at the stiffness in his limbs. He sat down again heavily and put his head in his hands. He wasn't sure he could handle much more of this. He had taken Josiah's words to heart, fearful that Vin would die believing that he was angry with him. But although he'd sat beside Vin for endless hours, his friend had not been lucid enough to understand anything he had said.
His head snapped up at the sound of the weak voice and his gaze met tired but lucid, fever-free eyes.
"Nathan!" Chris called, hope surging within him.
Nathan came alert instantly. "Chris? What's wrong?"
"Vin, he's -"
"It's all right, pard," Chris said, laying a reassuring hand on Vin's shoulder. "You've been real sick, but Nathan's been taking good care of you."
Nathan almost fell out of bed in his haste to check on his patient. Chris shot a questioning glance at him as he put a hand on Vin's forehead, and was rewarded with a nod.
"Fever's broken. Let me check the wound."
Chris smiled reassuringly at Vin, who looked confused. "You took a bullet in the leg, Vin. Nathan's just checking the wound."
A few moments later Nathan looked up, and the grin plastered across his face gave Chris his answer.
"Infection's stopped spreading?"
"Better than that. It's reduced."
Nathan smiled. "He's gonna make it!"
"He's right here, ya know, and he ain't deaf."
Chris felt his face split into a grin for the first time in almost a week. Vin's voice held a note of petulance he'd been afraid he'd never hear again."Sorry, pard. It's just that Nathan's been a mite worried about you."
"Like you haven't," Nathan muttered under his breath. "How are you feeling, Vin?"
Vin considered the question for a moment, face creased in a frown. "Leg's throbbin' a bit and I could eat a grizzly."
Nathan smiled. "Not sure you're up to grizzly yet, but I reckon we could rustle up some soup. Chris, why don't you go and spread the good news while I get Vin here some breakfast?"
"Sure thing." Chris stood, resting a hand on Vin's shoulder for a moment. "Good to have you back, pard."
Vin lay back against the pillows and closed his eyes. It was now evening and all attempts to persuade Nathan to let him out of bed had failed. He would never admit it, but he had to acknowledge if only to himself that he wasn't ready. He was dog-tired all the time and now his leg was throbbing again. Buck and JD's recent visit had been welcome, but Lord, they could be exhausting company. Not that he had been expected to contribute much to the conversation - those two could talk enough for all three of them. Now that they were gone, though, he wasn't so sure the peace and quiet was so welcome after all. It allowed him time to think, and he wasn't sure he wanted to do that just yet.
His last clear memory was of a sense of satisfaction as his shot hit its mark just before Martin's bullet plowed into his leg.
A telegram sent by an old friend passing through Eagle Bend had informed him that Jesse Martin was in town looking for him. The name had sent a cold tingle down his spine, for he'd come up against Martin before and almost hadn't lived to tell the tale.
After getting the telegram, he'd snuck out of town and ridden out after the man he knew wanted to kill him. A cat and mouse game had ensued. Martin was as good as Vin remembered - too damned good. For a while, the line between cat and mouse had been blurred. He clearly recalled the final moment of standoff when in desperation both men had exposed themselves in order to get a clear shot. He'd hit his adversary in the chest a fraction of a second before he felt a searing pain as Martin's bullet found its own mark.
After that he remembered only bits and pieces. Chris had told him that he must have cauterized and bound the wound himself, but he had no memory of it, nor of walking two miles towards Four Corners before the search party found him. He had no clear recollection of that walk, either, just sensations of pain and a grim determination to get home, not to let the bastard win.
He did vaguely recall the moment he'd seen a group of riders coming towards him along the trail. At first he'd been convinced they were a mirage, but they kept coming and he identified the man in black at their head. Chris. Chris had found him and he'd know what to do. Vin had let go of the dogged determination that had kept him going, step after tortuous step, despite the pain that had grown steadily worse hour by hour until he wanted to scream at the sheer agony.
"You asleep, pard?"
The words were quietly spoken, a stark contrast to Buck and JD's boisterous banter. Vin smiled and opened his eyes. "Just restin'."
Chris lowered himself into the chair beside the bed with a grunt.
"Spend any more time in that chair, ya may get stuck there." Vin knew from Nathan that Chris had spent most of the past few days sitting in the damned thing.
"Kinda got attached to it." Chris grinned, teeth flashing white in the lamplight. "How are you feeling?"
Vin grunted. He was getting a little tired of the question - it must have been asked fifty times that day already. "I'm fine. Like Buck says, I'm too ornery ta let a little thing like a bullet hole keep me down."
Chris scowled. "You wouldn't have a bullet hole if you hadn't taken off after that bounty hunter alone."
Vin sighed. He'd been waiting for the inevitable lecture. "It weren't no bounty hunter."
"What do you mean, it wasn't a bounty hunter?"
"Like I said, it weren't no bounty hunter." Chris's expression darkened and Vin went on hurriedly, "His name was Jesse Martin. Came across him when I was bounty huntin'. He and his son were wanted fer murder in three States. I collected the bounty on his son and the kid hanged. Seems Martin's been huntin' me down ever since."
"So he wasn't a bounty hunter. Makes no difference. You shouldn't have gone after him alone."
"It was my problem, Chris."
"Mine too. If I'd been there -"
"Ya could've been killed," Vin interrupted.
Chris stood up and began pacing. "So you can risk your life for me, but I can't risk mine for you? Friendship works both ways, Vin."
"Keep yer voice down - Nathan'll skin ya if he thinks yer upsettin' his patient," Vin said mildly, attempting to diffuse Chris' rising anger.
"Don't try to change the subject. It was a stupid thing to do!"
Vin was getting irritated himself. He really didn't need this right now. "Don't matter what ya think. It was my choice."
Chris stopped dead in his tracks. He caught Vin's eye and there was a strange expression on his face. "You're right. It was."
The words were spoken with a venom that shocked Vin. He could sense that they were talking about more than the supposed bounty hunter. "What's that supposed ta mean?"
Chris spun around abruptly. "I have to go. There's a town to patrol."
Chris kept on walking, elbowing his way past Nathan, who had just opened the door.
Nathan walked across to the bed. "What's up with him?"
Vin shrugged. "Ya tell me. He started goin' off at me fer takin' off after that bounty hunter alone."
"Thought that might be it."
Vin shook his head. "That's the thing. I told him it was my choice ta take Martin on alone, and he got this strange look - but I got the feelin' we were talkin' about somethin' else."
"Don't pay him no mind, Vin. He's been real worried about you, is all, and he hasn't had much sleep the past few days."
"No. There's somethin' - what happened you ain't told me about?"
Nathan sighed. "What do you remember about the past few days?"
"Since y'all found me? Not much. Bits'n'pieces, but nothin' I kin really put together."
"You were in bad shape, Vin. I did all I could, but the infection was spreading and nothing I could do was stopping it. Came a point where I decided that the only thing left was to take your leg - otherwise you were going to die."
Nathan paused and Vin cocked his head, wondering what the healer was leading up to. "But you didn't," he said finally.
"Chris - Chris was going to let me do it. He knew you trusted him with the decision. Then he changed his mind and asked you what you wanted. You said you'd rather take your chances than lose your leg. After that, Chris wouldn't let me operate, even though-"
"Even though you thought I was gonna die?"
Nathan nodded silently, and suddenly Vin found himself battered by memories. Chris leaning over him, expression grave. He had known what his friend was going to say. The sudden paralyzing burst of fear, and then Chris looking into his eyes and saying, "trust me". That had been his undoing. He did trust Chris, trusted him with his life, but this... He was so tired and Chris so desperately wanted him to say "yes," so he had, all the while knowing that it was wrong. It was the wrong choice.
He closed his eyes. "Chris, he... I knew what he wanted, and I wanted ta trust him, but when he asked me - when he really asked me - I just couldn't do it ... I just couldn't face livin'... like that...."
His words faded out as he felt his throat thickening and moisture forming behind his eyelids. He angrily cleared his throat, blinking back the tears.
Nathan put a hand on his arm. "It's all right, Vin. Don't go getting upset. It's all over now. It doesn't matter anymore."
"It does matter. It matters ta me and it matters ta Chris. I know what's eatin' him." And he did. He remembered - how could he have forgotten? - Chris's expression of reluctant acceptance mixed with disappointment when he'd given his final answer. He'd promised to trust Chris, but he hadn't. He'd allowed his fear to take control. He was still sure he'd made the right choice, but how was he going to explain that to Chris?
Chris sat in a chair outside the jail, morning cup of coffee in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
It was just over a week since Nathan had declared that Vin was out of danger, but since their "discussion" about the bounty hunter Chris had kept away from the clinic, visiting only at night, when he could be sure Vin was asleep.
He was angry with himself. It was clear that Vin remembered very little of what had happened over the past few days and Chris had decided not to bring up the subject of Vin's choice. Then Vin's stubborn refusal to see that he had been wrong over the bounty hunter had riled him into revealing too much. He had left the clinic before he said words that he didn't mean and could never take back, but he knew that Vin had seen that there was more to the conversation than he'd revealed. He had stayed away knowing that Vin would call him on it. He wasn't ready to talk about it. Not yet.
He'd begun reading Mary's editorial on the latest activities of the local cattle barons, lip curling in a smile at her indignant flow of language, when a shadow fell over him.
"Want some company?"
Vin was standing a few feet away, leaning heavily against a post. Even with an injured leg, he could still sneak up on a man, silent as a cat.
Chris regarded him closely, noting that there was more color in his cheeks, although he still looked tired and drawn. He grunted. "Best sit down before you fall down."
Vin nodded and carefully lowered himself into the chair next to Chris, stretching his injured leg out in front of him.
Chris looked back down at his paper.
Usually, the two of them could sit for hours in companionable silence, but this morning the silence was laced with tension. Eventually, Vin spoke. "Ain't seen ya around much the last couple'a days."
Chris kept his eyes on his newspaper. "Been busy."
"Uh huh. Wanna talk about what's eatin' at ya?"
"Nothing's eating at me."
The words were spoken with a sardonic edge and Chris looked up, wanting to end this conversation right now. Before he had chance to open his mouth, Vin spoke again.
"Chris, I know I disappointed ya, and I'm sorry fer that."
"I don't... how do you think you've disappointed me?"
"I remember, Chris, about Nathan wantin' ta take my leg. I didn't trust ya. I know ya think I made the wrong choice. S'pose ya think I'm a coward because'a that."
"What? You think I think... hell, Vin, I don't think you're a coward. You're the bravest man I know."
Vin was silent.
"I just don't understand why. Hell, Vin, you chose to die!"
Vin looked at him for a long moment. "Yeah, I did. And I'd do it again. We're both gonna have ta live with that."
"Why? I ain't afraid a' dyin', ya know that. But mebbe I'm afraid of livin', if livin' means not being able ta even take a piss without help."
"It wouldn't be as bad as you think. You'd be able to get around..."
"Would I be able ta ride my horse?"
"Climb up onto that roof over there?"
"Well, maybe not, but..."
"That ain't livin', Chris. Not fer me."
"You don't know that for sure," Chris retorted sharply. "You wouldn't be on your own. You've got friends - you have me."
"Fer how long?"
"What... for as long as you needed me, you know that."
Vin sighed. "Aw, shit, Chris, it ain't that I don't appreciate what yer sayin'. I do. But think about it. What happens in five years, ten? Yer gonna want ta git married again and when that happens, you ain't gonna want no cripple tyin' ya down."
"I'm not going to get married again."
"Sure ya are. But that's not the point. Ya have your own life to live."
Chris bit back an exasperated comment. Vin was wearing his most stubborn expression. He tried another approach.
"Did I ever tell you about my brother?"
"You have a brother?"
The sharpshooter sounded surprised and rightly so, as Chris knew he'd never mentioned a brother before.
"Yeah. His name's Daniel. He's two years younger than me, a sergeant in the army. Danny and me - we were never that close. Never did see eye to eye about most things. Just didn't understand each other, I guess. We keep in touch - letters once a year - but that's about it." He paused, checking to make sure he had Vin's attention. "Thing is, if something happened to Danny, I'd take him in, no question. He's kin, right?"
Chris nodded. Out here in the West, blood meant everything and you stuck by your kin, no matter what. Vin, who had no kin he knew of, understood and appreciated this more than most. Chris looked at his friend directly, holding his eyes, willing him to understand.
"Vin, in every way that matters, you're more kin to me than Danny's ever been."
He saw the expression in Vin's eyes fade from confusion to comprehension to shock in the space of a few short seconds. The Texan swallowed and color flooded his cheeks.
"Maybe you're right," Chris went on. "Maybe you made the right choice. Hell, I'd probably have made the same choice if it'd been me. I just need you to promise me that next time... before you make a decision, you remember what I said. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Vin nodded dumbly.
"Not, of course, that there's going to be a next time," Chris continued, suddenly feeling the tension seeping out of his bones. "Because you're not going to be going after any more bounty hunters alone."
Vin cocked his head, seeming to consider the statement. Then he said, "Weren't no bounty hunter."
Chris snorted. "Why do I bother?"
Vin smiled sweetly. "You know, I'm feeling a mite wore out, all this talkin'. Cup of coffee'd go down right smooth 'bout now."
Chris rolled his eyes. "I'll see if I can rustle one up for you, shall I?"
"That'd be right kind of ya, Chris."
As Chris stood up and turned to walk away, a soft voice stopped him.