by JIN

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

Part 2

Every single solitary soul in Four Corners attended the funeral for the small child, with the exception of the man who had risked his life to save her and the friend who could not leave his side. The sad procession wove through the muddy streets, slicing through the center of town like a knife tearing through its very heart. Indeed, there were no dry eyes for the young life that was taken, save the hardened gunman's who stood at the perimeter.

Chris Larabee never attended funerals. He showed up in body, of course, out of respect for the departed and their family. But the stone walls were firmly in place - his mind locked far away in that secret place where no one was allowed. Buck had tried hard to get in there, had spent years trying break down that wall, but damn if Vin hadn't come closer than his oldest friend in accomplishing that very task - and without even trying. Tanner's current precarious condition just reminded the gunslinger why it was a mistake to let anyone get too close. The tragic ceremony he was presently witnessing brought that point home with a vengeance - life was short and death was permanent and it just hurt too damn much.

The blond watched as the grandfather threw himself over the small casket. His heart-wrenching sobs carried in the wind and echoed in the hearts of all present. A sudden pang of guilt gripped the gunman as he realized he was actually envious of the old man's ability to grieve so openly. How he had wanted to drape himself over the graves of his family and howl in his despair! But even then, he had been unable to allow himself that perceived weakness. Even now, he could not let those tears begin, for fear they would never stop. With a shudder, he turned away. A crack had formed in his wall the day he let Vin Tanner into his life, and it threatened to break clean apart as he observed the anguished grandfather. He'd go back to the clinic. He'd rather face Vin's physical, tangible pain than this.

As he quietly entered the room where his best friend lay, he saw Nathan once again pouring over his books. He wondered what magical answers the healer thought he'd find there. Chris knew the dark-skinned man had to have read his precious few manuals dozens of times - had to know the information there by heart. Yet, here he was again, frowning in consternation as if he'd never before managed to decipher the words in print before him.

Nathan looked up as Chris entered and caught, for just a moment, the unguarded look of emotional turmoil on their leader's face. The funeral had to have been pure torture for the gunman - it was bad enough for those who hadn't lost a child. But true to his nature, Larabee quickly composed himself as he made his way over to the bed.

Vin lay on his back, his legs wrapped in bulky dressings and propped on several pillows. The young man moaned weakly as he moved his head restlessly from side to side. Larabee threw a look and a raised eyebrow at Jackson.

"Just gave him somethin' a few hours ago. It ain't holding him like I wish it would, but I'm afraid t' give him too much too soon," the healer stated.

Now he had an idea what Nathan was looking for in those books. He and Nathan were both leery of giving Vin so much morphine, but watching the tracker suffer was intolerable. Any problems Tanner had with the drug could be dealt with later.

The blond sat down at his best friend's side and rubbed a gentle hand over his arm. "Easy now, Vin," he soothed. He felt strangely gratified to see that the younger man seemed to respond to his voice. Helplessness was a rare emotion for him, and one he avoided at all costs. There was far too little he could do to ease Vin's pain, so if the Texan took some comfort in his presence, he would be there for as long as he was needed.

Vin opened his eyes then, and slowly turned his head towards the sound of Chris's voice. In spite of the injured man's obvious discomfort, the blond could see that Vin was still under the effects of the drug by his glassy, constricted pupils. It had been just over forty-eight hours since the accident, but it felt like months since he'd seen his friend's blue eyes twinkling back at him. He was so wrong about Tanner being up and about in a week - this was going to be a whole lot harder than he dared to imagine.

"Try givin' him some water," Nathan suggested.

Chris did just that, cursing his clumsy movements as most of it ended up dribbling down Vin's chin and puddling in the crook of his neck. He'd never made a good nursemaid, and told himself that was his reason for avoiding the clinic whenever one of the men was injured. The tracker didn't seem to notice his inadequacy, however, as he merely swallowed the water, and laid his head back with a deep sigh. Chris couldn't be sure if it was a sigh of relief, or resignation, as he impulsively reached over to smooth away the stray hair that had fallen across the younger man's forehead. His callused fingers rubbed across the fine stitches that extended a few inches from Vin's temple and he wondered idly if there would be a scar. He mentally kicked himself for his wayward thoughts - the lower half of Tanner's body was a busted up mess, and he was worrying about a scar. What was he thinking? Or more accurately, what was he refusing to think about?

Vin reached for him, or least moved his arm in a haphazard kind of way that suggested he intended to reach for him, and the gunman took a hold of his friend's hand. Once again he offered half-truths in a calm voice, "I'm here, Vin. You're all right."

He could see the injured man struggled to speak, but his sounds came out more like whimpers. The grip on the blond's hand tightened, and Vin's entire body became rigid as he attempted to ride out a wave of agony. Water filled his pale blue eyes, threatening to spill over, and Chris didn't think he could stand to see that again. He'd witnessed this same terrible sequence of events a dozen times in the last two days - Vin gradually coming around, the realization of overwhelming pain setting in, Chris begging Nathan for help, and Nathan shaking his head in frustration.

Then Chris would sit and talk Vin through every agonizing minute until Nathan would at last say it was time for the injection. Tanner had already gone through more of the pain- relieving drug than the healer normally used in a month. But Chris couldn't think about that right now, not when his best friend was in the throes of such misery.

Nathan turned his weary head away. He just couldn't keep doing this - he couldn't keep watching his two friends suffer like this. And he had no doubt that both were suffering - Chris's pain less obvious but even more difficult to treat. He wondered if the gunslinger even knew how much he needed their tracker? Chris had been living under the illusion that he didn't need anyone for a long time now.

The only person who was better at thinking he didn't need anyone was - Vin. Now it would be hard to imagine either man going on without the other. Nathan knew it was his job to see that the two men never had to find out how to live without each other. It was his responsibility to keep all of his friends upright and breathing, and though that duty often weighed heavy on his shoulders, it was a weight he bore with pride.

This time could be different, though. This time the consequences of his actions could have long lasting effects - life long effects. Vin could well be crippled, or become addicted to the morphine, or both. He couldn't help but wonder how Vin was going to feel when he realized the situation he was in. Would he have made these same choices for himself if he were able?

The injured man's moans were interspersed with pleas for help for now, and Nathan found he could not listen. He moved uneasily from his desk, without a word to Larabee, and stepped out the door onto the landing. The fresh air did little to infuse him with energy or to lift his spirits. He was so tired. Vin had slept only an hour or two at a time, leaving he and Chris on almost continuous watch. Josiah would have helped, but he was consumed with his task of performing the dead child's ceremony. Buck and Ezra had spent most of the previous days helping out her family, while JD kept watch over the town. He wouldn't have left Vin anyway, and neither would have Chris, but he realized that they both would need rest soon, or they'd be no help to their friend.

With a sigh that reached clear to his knees, he turned and went back inside. They needed to clean Vin up after this next shot. Turning and changing him was difficult enough when he was mostly out of it - the pain would be unbearable if they attempted it when he was awake. Besides, Tanner would hate being taken care of like a child. It was better that he didn't know. It would be a long time before he could take himself to the privy. One of these days, he'd have to know that. Just like one of these days, he'd have to know about the little girl.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah wept. Wept for the child who died, and her brother who lived. Wept for their grandfather. Wept for Vin. Wept for himself.

His words were insufficient, inadequate, inferior, incomplete.

Not enough. Not near enough.

He claimed he was an expert at words for the dying. But not today. Today the words did not come because the understanding did not come. How can you offer comfort for something you cannot accept?

He'd gone through the motions. Said all the things he was supposed to. Led the prayers and the songs and read the scripture.

But it was shallow and meaningless and not enough.

This was not the first death he'd presided over, and this death was no more incomprehensible and unreasonable than many he'd witnessed. Except that this time, a child was dead, and a good man was paying a most unreasonable price. This time, one of the best men he'd ever known would be spending the rest of his life crippled.

For no reason.

He'd asked God about it, or more accurately, berated God about it. If He had to ruin Vin's life, couldn't He have at least spared the child? The preacher supposed he ought to be grateful that Vin had been spared. He could very well have been standing over two graves today.

He wondered if Vin would be grateful for that, when all was said and done. How would he comfort the injured man? What great words could he offer to get him through this ordeal? What would he answer when Vin asked, "Why?"

For no reason.

+ + + + + + +

It was several hours later when Nathan left the clinic under the guise of getting some rest. In truth, he could have kissed Josiah when the big man came in and offered to take over for awhile. He appreciated the gesture even more when he noted the shadows under the preacher's eyes. He knew it had been a long, hard day for his old friend, but maybe being with Vin was just the distraction Josiah needed.

Nathan needed just the opposite at that moment. In spite of his dedication to his patient, every once in awhile he had to give in to his body's need for food and sleep. In this case, though, it was his mind that screamed for release - just a few hours to go away and not think. He'd left Sanchez with a lightly dozing Larabee and a promise to return when it was time for Vin's next injection.

Pushing his way through the bat wing doors of the saloon proved to require almost more effort than he could drum up. He literally dragged himself to the closest table, barely registering the presence of Buck and JD.

Buck poured the healer a drink and slid it towards him without exchanging pleasantries. Clearly, he and JD had started the party earlier, although there was nothing jovial about their demeanor or their behavior. Nathan nodded his thanks and downed the alcohol in one quick drink. Buck offered him another shot, but he declined. As tempting as it was to get rip roaring drunk, Vin needed him to keep his head on straight.

JD had slunk down low in his chair, his long, black bangs nearly hiding his bloodshot eyes. It had been a miserable day, though he knew better than to complain. A lot of others were having a much more difficult time than he was. He couldn't hide his relief when Buck had suggested they have a drink after the funeral - he didn't think he could stand making small talk with the townspeople. He didn't feel like talking at all, or at least he thought he didn't, until he watched Nathan get up to leave.

"How's Vin?" he questioned suddenly, surprising even himself.

Nathan turned to look at JD, shrugged, and mumbled, "I need some sleep."

Buck stood up then and latched onto Jackson's arm, "I know you're tired, Nathan, but I'd like to know, too."

The weary healer sat back down with a heavy sigh, "I ain't trying to be difficult, I just don't know much right now."

"Is it true he might be . . . that he won't be able to . . ." JD stammered.

"He won't be getting around for a good long time," - if ever, Nathan added silently.

"Hell, Nathan. You know Vin. He's about as strong as they come. He'll be all right." Buck looked down for a moment, picturing the look on Chris's face when he'd pulled the tracker free from the stage. "He will be, won't he?"

"I told y' I don't know. His back is bad and his legs are worse and . . . I just don't know."

"The rest of him okay?" Buck asked with a strange look on his face.

"Near as I can tell. Good thing he has a hard head."

"No, Nathan - I mean the rest of him," Buck emphasized, with narrowed eyes that looked meaningfully at the dark-skinned man.

JD sat up suddenly, a slow blush spreading over his youthful features. "Geez, Buck! Don't you ever think about nothin' else?!"

"I ain't thinkin' about me, JD. I'm thinkin' about Vin. He's gonna have enough problems without worryin' about his manhood."

Nathan could only shake his head as he answered, "I ain't been doin' much worrying about that, Buck. Like you said, he's got too many other problems. That part of his anatomy wasn't at the top of my list."

Wilmington looked nearly horrified as he stated seriously, "Nathan, next time I'm hurt - you gotta promise that will be the first place you check."

Nathan couldn't fight the low chuckle that escaped him. Somehow, Buck had a way to make any situation less dire. Clapping the tall man on the shoulder, he asked a question of his own as he turned to leave, "Where'd Ezra take off to?"

"Oh, he's fishing with Peter," JD offered.

"What?" Nathan asked, sure he hadn't heard correctly.

"He took Peter fishing - said something about the boy needing a distraction."

"Kid's taken a liking to him - can y' imagine that?" Buck added, his nose bent slightly out of joint by the boy choosing Ezra's company over his own.

Nathan had no trouble imagining the boy latching onto the gambler. It was Ezra fishing that he couldn't quite picture.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra lowered his aching back on the soft grass, his legs stretched out before him. He cushioned his head on one arm, and pulled his hat down to shade the late afternoon sun from his tired eyes. Beside him, Peter sat straight and still on a shiny rock, his wooden pole dangling weightlessly into the shallow river.

Much to his chagrin, Peter could find only one pole. Ezra had feigned the right amount of disappointment over the dilemma, and offered to keep the lad company while he proceeded with the planned activity.

The gambler couldn't help but relax a bit as the easy sound of the drifting waters soothed his turbulent thoughts. He hadn't been able to eat or sleep much since he'd held the boy's dead sister in his arms. Such a beautiful child taken so senselessly - he wondered if he'd ever be able to make his peace with it. In actuality, he barely knew her. But it didn't matter. It was the promise of a life unfulfilled that filled him with uncommon rage. It was just unfair. Like being dealt the hand of a lifetime, and being unable to play it out.

He tilted his head to peer at the boy beside him. Peter was maybe eight or nine years old. He didn't deserve this, either. But the child had not shed a tear since that first day - stoically standing at his sister's grave and comforting his grandfather. Ezra began to wonder if maybe he shouldn't try talking with the youth about it all. He'd wanted to give him the opportunity to get away from the situation for a few hours, but the quiet and privacy of this moment offered the perfect opportunity for conversation.

He decided to start gingerly and see where that led. "How are you feeling, Peter?"

The boy tossed his shaggy blond head in Ezra's direction and glanced at him questioningly. "Okay. How 'bout you?"

Ezra sat up and looked into the boy's clear blue eyes. "I'm sad, Peter," he stated simply and directly.

Peter sat his pole down and turned to face the gambler squarely. "It's all right, you know," he said. Pausing just a moment, he continued, "She's with my ma. That's what she wanted. That's what they both wanted."

Ezra found himself unusually flustered by the boy's remarks. Although heaven was a nice concept, it was not one he'd particularly embraced. Still, if the child took comfort in that thought, far be it from him to shatter his illusions.

"But what about you?" Standish tried once more to feel out the lad's emotions.

"I got my grandpa to take care of. I miss her and all, but I like knowin' she's happy with my ma. And some day I'll see her again - the preacher told me so."

Ezra nodded, reminded of a verse he'd learned long ago about the faith of a child. Before he could ponder on that thought, Peter spoke again.

"Maybe the tracker's supposed to be with his ma, too. She's been waiting a long time for him."

"I'm sorry, Peter - to what are you referring?" Ezra asked, puzzled.

The boy turned back towards the river, dropping the line back into the water with a quick flick of his wrist. "Vin's ma died when he was little - like Betsy. He told her all about it."

Vin's mother died when he was a child? Did he know that? Or was it one of those inconsequential little facts about one of the others that he'd tossed away, since it had no bearing on his personal existence? Ezra felt strangely guilty. He'd been riding with their tracker for over a year, but apparently knew less about the man than a few children who had known him only weeks.

Peter continued, "I feel bad for him. He was just tryin' to help my sister. He didn't know it was her time. I heard Nathan talkin' about how bad he's hurtin'. Seems like the Lord should just take him to his ma now - not make him lay around and hurt like that. Guess maybe it's not his time yet."

The boy looked at the gambler then, apparently ready to hear his views on the subject.

But Ezra could not, for the life of him, think how to respond. He'd heard that Vin was in bad shape, but he'd pushed that thought to the back of his mind, preferring to believe that Nathan would work his usual magic. The thought of Vin "leaving" to join his mother, or anyone else for that matter, was just unacceptable.

Damn that tracker. Always playing the hero. Ingratiating himself with that slow drawl and quick wit and acceptance of any man - no matter his color or his faults. His exaggerated sense of justice was bound to get him into trouble one of these times. But this time was not his time.

Ezra was surprised when Peter responded, "I hope yer right." Apparently he'd spoken that last part out loud.

The boy continued, "Hope he ain't crippled, either - don' t seem like that would be right."

Another possibility Ezra had managed to avoid thinking about. And another thought that was unacceptable. "No," he agreed, "that would not be right." It would be one incredibly lousy hand dealt - most unfair. But then, it had already been established that life was anything but fair.

"Reckon its up to the Lord," Peter concluded.

The boy and the gambler sat in silence then. The man had come to help the child make peace with the tragedy, but found the boy miles ahead of him in that regard. Ezra suddenly realized, with a twinge of envy, that either through heritage or circumstance, he had never had the faith of a child. That was, perhaps, the most unfair cut of all.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was floating. The bright sun warmed his back and the gentle breeze pulled him through space and time to this place he'd grown to love. The rocker called to him, and with a deep contentment, he lowered himself into it. The air felt alive and sparkled with thousands of tiny, bright dots of light. He thought of the Christmas tree that Mary had decorated with dozens of little candles. Vin had never seen such a beautiful sight, and he'd committed that wonderment to his heart. That same feeling of warmth spread through him now. Floating as he rocked, he took in the activity of the town. The guys were all there, calling to each other as they passed, their faces and voices now as familiar as his own. He tried to call out to them, but the words seemed to stick in his throat, and they moved on as if he weren't there. But it didn't seem important as he continued to drift in this peaceful, magical place he'd somehow fallen into.

A tiny blond girl came to him then - floating along the breeze just as he had. Her golden hair framed her perfect face, and the smile she bore lifted him even higher. Vin reached for her, wanting to feel her softness against him, but she drifted just out of reach. Thinking this was a game - he grinned, until he noted the change in her expression. A deep sadness crossed her features, her blue eyes became almost black, and she turned away from him.

He wanted to go to her, call out to her, but still his voice would not work. And so he reached for her again, lifting himself up off the rocker and stretching his arms wide to encircle her. Daggers of white hot pain shot through his back and down his legs, and he collapsed onto the boardwalk, crying out in pain. But no one heard, and the townsfolk passed him by as if he did not exist. Chris stood across the street, but did not turn, did not come. He tried to call out to his friend - his throat raw and his head pounding with the effort. Still Chris did not hear, did not come, and the agony grew with each passing second that he lay helpless and alone.

The child turned back towards him then, her haunting eyes leaving a slow trail of tears as she whispered, "I'm sorry, Vin."

She shimmered into a glowing light and left him, just as the entire town faded away into nothingness. He spoke her name and heard his own voice for the first time, but she was gone, leaving only misery in her place.

+ + + + + + +

Chris awoke with a start - sure he had heard Vin calling for him. He was at the bedside in seconds, ignoring Josiah's puzzled expression. He was met with a low moan, and as he watched Vin's breathing quicken, he knew the sequence was about to begin again. Sitting down hard on the rickety wooden chair near the bed, the blond rested his elbows on his knees and pulled a hand through his hair. Weariness, frustration, and fear all took hold and threatened to undo him.

Josiah saw this clearly on the gunman's face, and resolved to get the man out of the clinic for a day if he had to cold-cock him to do it. His put that thought on hold, however, when Vin spoke out suddenly.


Chris groaned as he leaned forward to place a hand on Vin's shoulder. He'd hoped to put off this conversation for days or weeks - months if he could get away with it. But of course, he couldn't, and he knew this with certainty as Vin turned confused eyes upon and him and repeated, questioningly this time, "Betsy?"

Vin couldn't quite grasp why it seemed important to bring up the child. She had something to do with all of this. He seemed to be drifting between two worlds - one of euphoria and the other of pain like he'd never known. And she was the link. He was sure of it, though the how's and why's escaped him.

"She's fine," Chris lied. He had no more idea why he lied than Vin had an idea why he'd asked. It just seemed to be the right thing to do at that moment. Why cause his friend more suffering at this point? There would be plenty of time for the truth later. Plenty of time to deal with the grief. Plenty of time to wean Vin off the morphine. Plenty of time to get him up and walking again. Right now, all Chris needed to do was get Tanner through this day - this hour - this moment.

Josiah looked up in shock and stuttered, "Uh, Chris . . ," but he stopped when the gunfighter shot him a deadly glare. He didn't agree with the way Larabee was handling this, but arguing in front of Vin wouldn't help matters. There would be discussion later, though - the blond could count on it.

Vin, meanwhile, was more confused than ever. Nothing seemed right, and Lord, he hurt. "What happened?" he asked.

It wasn't the first time the tracker had asked the question, but Chris thought it might be the first time the answer would stick. "You were hit by the stagecoach," he replied.

Hit by the coach? What the hell had he been thinking? Vin turned his head towards the window. It was pitch black outside, the deepest part of the night. Against the backdrop of the starless sky, images flashed before him . . . a child . . . kittens . . . the muddy road. He spoke hesitantly, his gaze fixed on the dark pane of glass. "She . . . was in the road."

"Yes," Chris answered, "she was in the path of the carriage."

Vin turned to his friend and looked deep into the blond's green eyes. "The kittens all right?" he asked.

Chris raised his brows in surprise, but managed a half grin as he answered, "They're fine. It's you we're worried about."

Vin held his gaze a moment longer. There was something "off" here. Chris had not told him everything, he was sure. But the burning in his lower back had begun its slow decent down his legs, and he knew he was in no more condition to hear the truth than Chris was to tell it. He sighed and willed himself to relax, but with every breath, the pain gripped him harder.

Josiah watched as Vin lost the battle to control the agony that wracked his body. He watched as Chris struggled to maintain his composure. Now Sanchez understood the circles under Nathan's eyes and the desolation in his voice. Being here in this room was gut wrenching - the feelings of helplessness and despair almost suffocating. Josiah would need every ounce of strength and tenacity he possessed to help his two friends ride this one out.

His resolve weakened somewhat as the minutes passed and the mood in the room became more desperate. Vin's groans were difficult to hear, and no matter how he and Chris tried to position the younger man, his discomfort increased. Josiah looked at his watch repeatedly. Nathan had promised to come back when Tanner could take more pain medication, but he wasn't sure exactly when that was. Jackson would be here, though, if it were time - no man was more dependable, especially when he knew he was needed.

Josiah met Chris's eyes, offering unspoken encouragement, but just then, Vin cried out softly and the gunman winced.

"Where the hell is Nathan? Surely its time," Larabee muttered, almost under his breath. He cursed himself for falling asleep and losing track of when the tracker had last been medicated.

"You know him, Chris. He'll be here."

Both men turned as the door to the clinic softly opened. They didn't manage to hide their disappointment as Buck quietly entered.

Wilmington quickly took in the somber mood in the room, and felt like he needed to offer an explanation for his presence. "I couldn't sleep. Thought I'd check on you fellas." Turning his gaze to Tanner's restless form, he added, "Damn - he looks bad."

Indeed, their friend appeared to be growing worse by the moment. As his agitation and anxiety grew, a fine sheen of sweat covered his face. Suddenly, he gagged and began to retch violently. It took long, agonizing minutes for the torture to slow, and Vin was left trembling and mumbling incoherently.

Josiah tried to maintain a calm appearance as he instructed Buck, "I think you'd better get Nathan."

Buck was already out the door by the time the Josiah had finished speaking. He raced to Nathan's room, pounding on his door and calling his name loudly - mindless of the hour and the probability of disturbing others in the boarding house. When the man didn't immediately answer, he called again. Nathan had been so exhausted - he had to be sleeping soundly.



That fact was substantiated when the weary healer finally opened his door. For a brief moment, Buck felt guilty for awakening the obviously exhausted man, until he remembered the scene he'd just witnessed at the clinic.

"I'm sorry to wake you, Nathan, but Vin needs you."

Nathan rubbed a hand across his eyes and tried to remember where he was and what was happening. With near panic, he looked at Buck and asked, "What time is it?"

But before Wilmington could answer, Jackson had started down the stairs. Nathan gathered his scattered thoughts as he sprinted to the clinic, but they were blown to the wind once again when he opened the door and took in the sight before him.

Vin thrashed in the bed, unaware that his attempts to escape the pain only caused him further harm. Nathan could tell by the smell that he'd been sick, too. Josiah and Chris looked up at him in desperation, and that familiar feeling of inadequacy nearly squeezed the breath out of him.

He was just a man, after all, and not the doctor they wanted him to be - needed him to be.

Silently, he went to prepare the injection. He glanced at the clock and another feeling gripped him - guilt. He'd overslept. Vin could have had the medication two hours ago. Now a new dread took hold. He knew nausea was a side effect of morphine - but it was also a sign of withdrawal. Was Vin sick because he had too much of the drug in his system? Or was he already showing the signs of being addicted to it? Or was it something else entirely? He'd been watching for signs of internal bleeding or other complications for days, though he never mentioned the possibilities to the others.

With trembling hands, he drew up the drug in the glass syringe. How much should he give him? He'd been so very careful up until now, but he'd blown it. It would take a higher dosage to get the pain back under control - but how much more could Vin handle?

Nathan closed his eyes and steadied his breath. He couldn't erase what had been done. He knew all eyes in the room were on him, and that now was not the time to give in to self-doubts and recrimination.

Chris held the struggling man's arm tightly in his grasp, wishing Jackson would just get on with it. He knew he was only adding to his best friend's discomfort. Vin's arms were becoming more and more bruised from the injections. Unfortunately, Nathan had few choices, with the bottom half of Vin's body being too badly bruised and broken to risk giving the drug there.

Chris was about to lose all semblance of patience when the healer finally appeared at the bedside. The blond could see that the dark-skinned man was unusually flustered, but he didn't question him. Vin had his complete attention as the potent medicine finally entered the wounded man's system.

It took a full fifteen minutes before Vin began to quiet, and the men in room breathed a collective sigh of relief when the lean sharpshooter finally closed his eyes.

But Nathan never took his eyes off Tanner's chest as he watched the man's breathing slow. Morphine depressed respiration, and he feared the dosage he'd just given Vin would cause him to stop breathing all together. He didn't share that fear, either. It was his obligation and his burden - his friends had enough to deal with. And so he sat opposite Chris, and vowed that he wouldn't sleep again for two weeks if that's what it took to get Vin through this. He would not make another mistake - Vin couldn't afford it.

Chris finally took a real breath and allowed his gaze to leave his best friend's face. He glanced up at Nathan, and saw that the healer's jaw remained set, his eyes never leaving his patient's body. Something was bothering Jackson, he was sure of it. He only hoped whatever was eating at Nathan, didn't mean more problems for Vin. The road they were walking was long enough as it was.