by JIN

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

Part 3

Vin didn't stop breathing - entirely. But there were long, difficult moments over the following days when Nathan held his own breath as he watched the shallow rise and fall of the tracker's chest.

And Nathan didn't stop sleeping - entirely. But the little rest he allowed himself served only to exhaust him further.

There were no choices. Nathan had tried to switch Vin over to laudanum, thinking the oral opiate would at least spare the sick man's arms any more abuse. But Vin had been unable to keep it down - his rebellious stomach holding onto just enough water and broth to keep his injured body from shutting down altogether. Jackson had the horrible thought that the tracker would die of starvation before this was over - as he stood by and watched.

But Vin would not die in misery. Nathan made sure of that. He would not let Vin down again. His weary body acted on its own, however, and one day the healer found himself curled up on the wooden floor. He had no memory of how he'd gotten there, and looked up in stunned surprise as Chris shook his shoulder.

"Nathan!" the gunman called out. "Are you all right?"

"Think so," Jackson answered uncertainly. Oh God! Had he done it again? Fallen asleep and left Vin hanging? He sat up quickly, and was relieved to find the tracker still dozing fitfully.

Chris laid his hand on the dark-skinned man's shoulder and said gently, "This has gotta stop, Nathan. You've got to get some real sleep. Vin wouldn't want you doing this to yourself. And what are we gonna do when you finally drop over from exhaustion? Vin needs you - we all need you."

Nathan couldn't remember the last time he'd heard Larabee say so much in one setting. And though he appreciated the wisdom and compassion in the gunslinger's words, he truly felt he had no choice. He shook his head and spoke softly, "He can't take the laudanum, and he sure can't go without the morphine now. I'll be fine - if y'all just let me be. Let me do my job."

Chris furrowed his brows as he spoke, "That what you think this is? Your job?"

Jackson was puzzled. "Well, ain't it?"

Chris took a deep breath as he chose his words, "We look to you to help us when we're sick or hurting because you have the gift for it. I guess I never thought of it so much as a job as a . . . calling. But there isn't a one of us that expects you to perform miracles or give up your own health for us. I'll do anything to help Vin - you know that - but I'll not have you sacrifice yourself."

"Just what would you have me do then? Cause I ain't seein' an easy end to any of this."

"Teach me to give the morphine," the blond offered solemnly.

Nathan couldn't hide his skepticism. Not that Larabee was incapable of learning - Jackson was quite sure that the fearless gunslinger was one of the most intelligent men he'd ever known. But the man had one soft spot, and he was lying in the bed at this moment.

"You sure you can handle it?" he asked.

Chris nodded. How hard could it be? He'd watched Nathan do it dozens of times over the past week.

Jackson decided to take this opportunity to turn the tables on the blond. "Tell you what, Chris - I'll teach you - IF you agree that we take turns at night. I stay with him one night - you stay with him the next. I ain't the only one 'sacrificing' myself."

Larabee rolled his eyes. Nathan had obviously been spending too much time with Ezra. "Agreed," he stated reluctantly.

He found out just how hard it could be a short time later when Nathan began the lesson. Drawing up the drug proved to be more of a challenge than his clumsy fingers could manage at first. But that was nothing compared to actually sticking the foreign object under his friend's skin. The stern gunfighter's hands shook as he administered the drug into Tanner's vein.

Nathan stood close by, just barely resisting the urge to grab the needle from Chris's hands and do it himself. He wasn't at all sure this was a good idea, but since he didn't have a better one, he'd have to go along with it.

Vin moaned slightly, but mostly looked on in detached interest. He'd grown increasingly listless, and though his cries and moans had lessened, Chris felt little relief. He was convinced Vin merely had no energy left to complain. During the brief periods when the tracker had been awake and fairly lucid, Larabee had tried to engage him in some kind of conversation, but his responses had been minimal or non-existent. Conversation had never been an essential component in their relationship anyway, but the blond yearned for some sign that his friend still survived within the cocoon he'd slipped into.

Chris sighed as he lowered his head into his trembling hands. He kept waiting for all of this to get easier, but it seemed that every day grew longer. After several minutes, he raised his head again to look at his injured friend. Vin's lashes fluttered softly and his soft breath carried in the quiet stillness of the room. What was he thinking, Chris wondered? How much did he know? How long would it be until he figured out that his entire life had changed? And that his best friend didn't have a clue how to help him?

+ + + + + + +

She was there again, glowing in the sun's rays - just out of reach. He'd learned his lesson, though, and he made no effort to touch her. Her sad smile wrapped around his heart, but still he felt cold and lifeless. Gone was that place of wonder and contentment. He felt only a vague nothingness now, and as she pulled away once more, he barely noticed.

The deep ache that accompanied his every movement and every thought brought him back to the dingy little room once more. He couldn't breathe in the tiny space, and he felt the nausea creep up on him again as the stale air stole into his weakened lungs. He heard Chris and Nathan talking, and he wanted to tell them he would be fine if they just let him out of this damn room.

Somewhere, there was cool air and sunshine, and he'd find himself again. He'd figure out why he couldn't seem to move without hurting; why he never knew if it was day or night or summer of winter; why he kept seeing the face of a sad, little angel. Maybe he'd even get the notion of what all of his friends were keeping from him - if he could summon the energy to care.

He was having trouble focusing his eyes, but he could see enough to know that Chris and Nathan were deep in discussion. It seemed like Nathan was teaching the lean gunman something or other - something he would normally have found amusing, he was sure. Maybe when he found himself again, he'd figure out what they were up to. He tried to raise himself up, thinking the pain in his back couldn't possibly be any worse, no matter what he did.

He was wrong, of course, and his soft whimper brought both men to his side in seconds. Their earnest expressions only caused him to sigh deeper. He didn't want to be such a bother - to cause these men such distress. They seemed to think he warranted their attention, though, and he knew them both well enough to realize that there was no arguing with either one once they got an idea in their heads.

Larabee seemed to be sweating bullets, and Vin tried to understand why. He looked on as the gunman took a hold of his arm, and soon he felt the familiar pinch of the needle being pushed under his skin. There was something odd about Chris being the one to do it, and he guessed he'd think on that, too, once he found himself - once he decided to care again.

His eyelids grew heavy, but he caught the anguished look on his best friend's face as the man lowered his head into his hands. He couldn't let this go on. He couldn't let Chris keep feeling like this. He had to find his way back soon. Maybe it was time to ask questions. Maybe it was time to care. But his cloudy mind couldn't hold on to those good intentions as he drifted back to that place of nothingness.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah was pleased to see that Larabee actually looked fairly well rested as he ambled down the boardwalk towards the saloon for some breakfast. The plan Chris and Nathan had agreed on appeared to be beneficial for both men, although both remained tired and obviously pounds lighter.

Sanchez decided now might be the time to approach the subject he'd put off for the past few days. He followed quickly behind the gunman, knowing the man would eat hurriedly and be off to the clinic. Dropping down into the seat opposite the blond, he asked, "Mind if I join you, Chris?"

Larabee shrugged and said, "Course not, Josiah. You don't have t' ask."

Josiah was thinking the welcome might not be so forthcoming if the gunslinger knew his true motives. Not one to beat around the bush, the preacher spoke up as Inez poured him a cup of coffee.

"We need to talk to Vin. We need to be telling him the truth."

Chris nodded his thanks to Inez as she sat a plate full of ham and eggs in front of him. He took a bite and swallowed before turning his gaze to Sanchez.

"He don't even know where the hell he is. What kind of truth you plannin' on telling him?"

"He needs to know about the girl. He needs to know about his . . . injuries." Josiah added gently, "He needs to know where the hell he is, Chris."

Larabee narrowed his eyes. "Just what are you trying to say, Josiah?"

The big man sighed. This was the hard part. "I'm saying you and Nathan are giving him too much of that damn drug. I'm saying we need to be doing some things differently here."

Josiah winced as Larabee's fork hit the table with a loud clang. But the gunman kept his eyes down and his voice low as he stated, "You've been there. You've seen him."

Sanchez sighed deeply, but continued on. "I have. I understand why you've done it the way you have - you feel like you don't have a choice. But I'm thinking Vin wouldn't want it this way. You know he don't even like taking the laudanum when he's hurt - don't like having his mind clouded like that. None of us have asked him how he wants to get through this, none of us have had an honest conversation with him - and it ain't fair to Vin."

Chris exploded now, pushing his body up off the chair as the rage within him boiled up and spilled over at last. "Fair to Vin? How in hell could any of this be fair to Vin? It's never been a question of fairness - which, by the way, is a stupid word that shouldn't even exist! And just what kind of honest conversation you wanting to have Josiah? You want to tell him he has a choice between living in agony or living in a fog? You want to tell him he ain't gonna be walking anytime soon - if ever? And don't forget to add that the little girl he tried to save is dead. Yeah, that should perk him right up and make everything better. You think that's the way we should be 'doing things'?"

Josiah answered softly, "Yes, Chris, I do."

Larabee's face paled as he slid slowly back to his seat, like a balloon suddenly released of its air.

Sanchez leaned forward and placed a hand on the gunman's arm. "It's what you would want, isn't it?"

Chris closed his eyes, then suddenly stood and walked briskly from the saloon. Josiah followed a few steps behind, knowing he had made his point.

When the two men entered the clinic, they were greeted with a brief nod from Nathan. The healer sat near the bed, holding Vin's shaky hands as the injured man tried to hold on to a cup of broth.

Pillows propped Tanner's head and shoulders, and it was apparent that without them, he would not have had even the strength to hold his head up. Still, he had tried to hold the cup himself, and Nathan was grateful for that small spark of life - the first that the tracker had shown since the ordeal had begun.

Lines of pain etched the younger man's face, and Chris felt the doubt well up within him once more. Josiah sensed his uncertainty, and rested his hand on the gunman's shoulder.

Nathan looked questioningly at both men. Something was going on here, something important, and he didn't like the feeling that he'd been left out.

Vin knew it, too, and he struggled to wade through the muddy sludge that had clogged his brain for far too long now. He found he could only hold onto brief moments - like the look in Chris's eyes when he'd mentioned Betsy's name.

Nathan stood and moved away from the bed, his eyes seeking Josiah's for some sign of what was going on. The preacher gave him a look that clearly said, "trust me," and so he sighed, but kept quiet.

Chris sat on the edge of the bed, his gaze never leaving Vin's wide blue eyes. He still wasn't sure how much of Vin was truly there, but he knew Josiah had been right. Tanner deserved to know the facts.

He caught his breath and looked away then - unsure of how or where to start. To his amazement, he felt Vin's hand gently rest on top of his own. Chris looked up and spoke softly, "Got some things to tell you. Reckon you're up to hearing them?"

Vin had to pour every once of strength and determination he possessed into focusing on Chris's words. He just couldn't make sense of what was happening to him. Somehow he knew, though, that this was important. That finding himself again was going to begin right here and right now. His barely perceptible nod was unnecessary - he knew that Chris saw what he needed to know in his eyes.

The lean gunman licked his lips, and with a quick glance at Josiah, he began, "Vin, I didn't tell you . . . the truth a few days ago. The little girl you asked about - the girl you tried to keep from being hit by the stagecoach - she isn't all right . . . she died."

He paused then, looking into Vin's face for some sign of anger or sorrow or disbelief, but he saw only resignation.

Vin had known that. As clearly as if it were happening right that moment, he saw her as she ran towards him, the golden light shining around and through her. He'd known then. He known when she came to him in his dreams or visions or whatever the hell they were. He'd known when Chris had lied to him, but he'd only been able to register a sort of dull surprise at the deception as his mind had drifted away again. The way it was beginning to drift now. He tried to sit up a little more, to keep himself in place. Too late, he swallowed the cry of pain that erupted.

"Vin! Don't move," Chris admonished gently, "you're hurt." He paused before adding, "We need to talk about that, too."

Chris felt his own breath quicken as he watched the obvious struggle taking place within his best friend. Vin was battling to stay with him, to hold on to what Chris was trying to tell him, to keep his pain at bay. The blond never felt so unsure and so damn helpless. He looked to his two friends for confirmation that he should continue. Nathan returned his gaze with one of concern - he wasn't sure, either. But Josiah stood solid as a rock, willing to take over if need be.

He turned back to the sharpshooter, and noted by the younger man's closed eyes and set jaw that he was still hurting from his earlier attempt to reposition himself. "Vin? You with me?" he asked.

Vin nodded and turned his head back to face his friend. He figured he'd make it easier on Chris by asking the obvious. "Am I dyin'?"

He was mildly bewildered by the surprise that registered in the blond's eyes. Chris stammered, "No . . . least we don't think so. Not unless there's something going on that Nathan doesn't know about."

Drawing his brows together, the tracker shook his head - clearly puzzled. He had no idea what Chris was trying to tell him, but if he didn't hurry up, he wouldn't be able to hold on to it, once the gunman spit it out.

Finally, with another deep breath, Larabee continued. "Vin, your legs are broken. We don't know . . . we don't know how well they're going to heal up. We don't know how well . . . you're going to come out of this."

So that was it. Betsy was dead and his legs were broke. Well, this was one hell of a mess. He knew they were waiting for him to react. Waiting for him to cry and wail and holler.

Or something.

Surely he should say something. Surely he should feel something - other than an odd numbness. Words and voice had finally been put to the thoughts that had floated out and around him for days now. Yet he could find nothing to say in return, and the pressure to come up with an adequate response turned a mildly annoying headache into a pounding force that produced yet another low groan.

Nathan sprang into action then. "All right. That's enough. It's time for his injection, and time for him to get some rest."

"No." Chris stopped the healer short. "Not yet."

Oh God, surely there couldn't be more? Vin really had to concentrate just to pull his eyes back to Larabee's face. He hurt all over, and his stomach was just barely hanging on to that broth he'd drunk earlier. "What . . . else?" he rasped.

Chris swallowed and licked his lips again. "You've been in a lot of pain, Vin." Tanner looked at him like he'd lost his mind - nothing like stating the obvious. He continued, "We've been giving you morphine. I know you don't like taking strong drugs like that, but Nathan had no choice. You needed it. You need it still."

"No!" Vin's eyes were wide and Chris couldn't be sure, but he could have sworn he saw panic there. Of all the things he'd had to tell him, he never dreamed this would get the most reaction from the tracker. He and the Texan had always had a strong connection, but they were strangely out of sync now.

When Vin had lived with the Indians, they had warned him to stay away from opium. He knew how it could ruin a man's body and rob his soul. He'd often fought Nathan about taking the drug, and the few times he'd been given it, he hated the way it made him feel. Like everything was good and fine, when he knew it wasn't at all. Like he was living outside himself. Like he was lost. Like he'd felt the last however many days - or weeks. Weeks? Could his friends have been pumping this stuff into him for weeks?

His heart raced and he attempted to raise himself up once more. The muscles in his lower back quivered and pulled tight, and he arched himself again the mattress. Hands clutched at him, and he cried out in agony, "Don't touch me!"

Chris visibly flinched as he backed away. Nathan made a move to go to Vin's side, but Josiah held him back.

After what seemed like hours, Vin sank back onto the mattress, his breath coming in hard, rapid gasps. Chris could stand by no longer when he saw the tears streaming down Tanner's face. He gathered his friend in his arms and held him close. Stroking the distraught man's long hair, he whispered, "You'll get through this. I promise you, Vin. We'll do it together."

He felt Vin turn his face deep into his shoulder; felt him shudder as he struggled to stifle the sounds of his distress; felt the wetness soak into his shirt like a gentle rain. The subtle connection between the two men snapped firmly back into place, and Chris understood, without a word, that Vin grieved for more than just the morphine. He grieved for all he'd been told, for all he'd suffered, and for all that lay ahead.

He was afraid. They were both afraid. Together they could face down a dozen armed men without breaking a sweat. But this was a new challenge, a new threat, a new demon to slay - and neither one knew how to begin. Chris held onto is best friend even more tightly and said again, "We'll do it together."

Vin managed a slight nod as he finally pulled away from Chris to rest his weary head on the pillow. The involuntary moan that accompanied the movement brought Nathan to his side.

The healer had stayed back and watched the entire play of events without comment, but now that all was said and done, he wondered if he was being blamed for the current state of affairs. Was Vin angry with him? Had he been wrong in how he'd handled this entire situation? Suddenly, he needed to see the injured man's eyes, needed to know where he stood and where he was supposed to go from here on out.

In spite of his present condition, Vin's natural intuition remained intact. He sensed the turmoil in the healer, and felt a need to ease his mind. "Ain't yer fault, Nathan," Vin whispered. "Ain't none of this yer fault."

Nathan's relief was palpable, and as his eyes swept to the other two men in the room, he saw no blame there, either. He'd done the best he could - done the right thing, the only thing that could have been done.

Jackson sat in the chair by the bed and leaned in close to talk with his patient. "You know you gotta keep taking it for now? You know we can't just quit. You're too weak to handle it. But we'll cut you down slow, all right? It'll be okay - you'll be okay."

Vin managed another slight nod, but both Chris and Nathan saw the fear that loomed large in his blood-shot eyes as the healer injected the morphine once more.

Vin knew they'd misinterpreted his fear, but he couldn't bear to set them straight. For in spite of his objection, he wanted nothing more than to feel 'nothing' again. Deep down, he'd known they were giving him something potent, but the pain had been so overwhelming that he would have done anything - taken anything to escape it. He did need it. But what frightened him most of all was that, God help him, he wanted it.

+ + + + + + +

The pile of eggs slid from one side of his plate to the other, but never seemed to leave the fork and enter his mouth. Ezra leaned back with a heavy sigh and finally pushed the entire plate away from him. JD took note and asked, "Can I have 'em?"

Ezra shook his head at the youth's appetite, and pushed the uneaten breakfast in Dunne's direction. How the kid could manage to eat his fill when their small world had tipped off its axis was beyond him. But then, most things about JD were beyond his understanding.

JD mumbled his thanks, emptied the plate, and stood to make his way out.

"Where are you off to?" Ezra asked, although he wasn't quite sure why he cared.

"Making rounds," JD answered. Somebody had to do it, and the number of somebodies available had dwindled considerably in the past week.

"Would you like company?" the gambler asked, surprising himself almost as much as his proposed partner.

JD wondered if this was a trick question. Ezra never offered to go out on rounds, and he never offered to go anywhere with him, in particular. Dunne didn't take offense at that, he knew Standish liked him well enough, but they didn't exactly share the same interests.

He took a chance and answered, "Okay."

The minutes stretched into hours as the men rode throughout the neighboring homesteads. Ezra still couldn't decide what had possessed him to make the offer to accompany his young friend. Something had been bothering the gambler for days now, and he couldn't quite get a handle on it.

He'd spent way too much time pondering the question of Vin and his mother - that he didn't know or didn't remember or didn't care. He'd never had many friends in his life - maybe he didn't know how to be one. Maybe he was doing an incredibly poor job at it. Maybe it was time to change.

When the men stopped to rest a moment by a small stream, Ezra sat down next to JD. The youth had been uncommonly quiet for much of the day, and the gambler wondered if it had been for his benefit. Now might be a good time to start working on this being a better friend business. Now might be a good time to start to understand the phenomenon that was JD Dunne.

"So JD, tell me about your mother?"

+ + + + + + +

In the soft glow of the oil lamp, Josiah had to squint to make out the words before him. He admitted that it probably wasn't just the low light causing him trouble - he was getting older and may need to seek out a pair of glasses before long. For now, he rubbed a hand across his tired eyes, and closed the well-worn Bible. He couldn't find the answers he sought there, anyway.

He turned his gaze to the frail man in the bed. He'd never before thought of Vin as frail. That would have been the last word he'd use to describe his friend. There was no doubt it fit him now, though - and never more than tonight.

It had been a terrible day - awful in every sense of the word, and he wondered if he'd done the right thing that morning. Maybe Chris and Nathan had been right all along. Maybe Vin didn't need to know everything just yet.

Josiah winced as he recalled again the sorrow and anguish on both of his friends' faces as Chris held Vin in his arms. And it had been far easier to see the vacant stare in Tanner's eyes, than the look of fear that replaced it. True to his word, Nathan had lowered the dose of morphine he gave the tracker, with disastrous consequences. Not only was Vin sicker and more uncomfortable, he was more aware of what was going on around him. Josiah thought he'd never forget the shy man's shame when he realized he needed to be cleaned up. Nathan had promised he'd devise a way for Vin to use the chamber pot, but all the men knew that would be too difficult for the tracker right now. It seemed to hurt just to touch the younger man, and any movement at all of his lower body bordered on excruciating.

Since it was a day for honest discussion, Nathan finally revealed that he was worried about Vin's left leg, in particular. Josiah remembered how Nathan pointed out to Chris where the numerous breaks were, and how concerned he was that the blood vessels may have been damaged, too, since the circulation to Vin's foot wasn't good. When the healer commented that Tanner could lose that limb altogether, Chris nearly lost his lunch.

Yes, it had been a purely miserable day. And the preacher could see no rhyme or reason for it. He picked up the book once more, and as he turned it over in his hands, he was reminded that the Good Book was full of suffering. He'd seen enough today to last him a lifetime - maybe he ought to borrow one of those dime store novels from JD instead. A soft voice startled him from his thoughts.

"Find what yer lookin' fer?"

Josiah looked into Vin's eyes - those sky-blue orbs that were wise beyond their years, and knew that his friend was lucid.

"No," he answered, "not tonight. The answers are hidden from me."

"Maybe y' ain't supposed t' know," Vin commented casually.

"Maybe not," Sanchez responded, "but that don't stop me from asking." He leaned forward - his face inches from the Tanner's, and asked him seriously, "Don't you want to know, Vin? Don't you wonder why?"

To his utter dismay, Vin smirked. "Hell, Josiah, I quit askin' why when I was five. Ain't no answers. A man could spend his whole life askin' why - waste of his time, if y' ask me. Smarter t' figure out just how yer gonna survive - how t' go on."

Josiah sat back. How to go on. Within moments, Vin closed his eyes and fell back asleep. Glancing over at where Chris dozed on the extra cot, Sanchez noted the gunman had not moved a muscle. Normally he stirred the moment Vin made a sound. Had he dreamed the conversation with Tanner?

The preacher shook his head and smiled. No, the tracker was just a step ahead of him, as usual. He should know that Vin wouldn't waste time on pointless questions or rationalization. But whether he knew it or not, Vin was going to need a lot of help to "go on". Josiah could only hope he'd be up to the challenge - he may be in need of some help himself. He opened the book once more - maybe he'd look again.