by JIN

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

Part 4

JD stood outside the clinic door for the longest time, nervously running his fingers along the edges of the hat he held loosely in his hands. He'd tried to see Vin several times over the last two weeks, but he'd always been turned away. Vin was hurting too badly, or he was too sick, or he was asleep, or worst of all, Nathan was working on him. Just the thought of what Nathan "working on him" could mean was enough to keep him away for the rest of that day.

He didn't know what to say to Vin anyway. Buck had told him to just act normally - had told him that Vin was still the same man - that he hadn't changed. Of course, it was a lie. He had changed - had to have changed. Hell, they all had. Ezra suddenly acted like JD Dunne was the most interesting person on earth. Chris thanked him every day for doing the same things he'd done for months. Josiah asked him twice a day if he wanted to "talk", while Buck hovered over him like a mother hen. So maybe Buck hadn't changed all that much. JD rarely saw Nathan, but he was sure he'd act strangely, too, if given the opportunity.

Even the townsfolk had been different - telling him what a fine job he was doing, bringing him little gifts and food, asking after Vin with a look of pity that at once heartened him because they cared, and made him sick to his stomach because Vin would hate it.

Which brought him right back to the reason he was standing outside this door - Vin. His thoughts about always brought him around to Vin these days. He couldn't climb on his horse or walk across a room without thinking of the tracker. Funny how a person could take something like two good legs for granted. Funny how a person could take a whole lot of things for granted. He hadn't realized until this very moment how much he missed Vin.

All right then, he'd just go tell him that. That he missed him and he hoped he was feeling better and that his horse was doing fine. His horse was doing fine? Maybe that was a dumb thing to say. Vin probably wasn't thinking about his horse. Maybe he should just turn around and do this another day.

Just then, the door opened and Chris stuck his head out. "You going to stand out here all day, JD - or are you coming in?"

JD blushed and shuffled a bit while Larabee held the door open. Feeling like he couldn't turn back now, the youth finally entered the room, looking everywhere but at the man he'd come to see. When it could be avoided no longer, he did turn his eyes to the bed, and just managed to swallow the gasp that welled up.

He hadn't expected Vin to look like that. He knew he was sick and hurting and - what the did he expect?

Chris must have sensed his unease, because he felt the gunman's arm reach across his shoulder and give him a gentle squeeze as he whispered in his ear, "He's still Vin."

JD nodded and swallowed before making his way slowly over to where his friend lay. Vin's eyes were open, and clear blue - bluer than JD ever remembered them being before. And before Dunne could think about how to start and what to say, Vin spoke.

"Hey, Kid. You keepin' everyone in line?"

JD smiled sheepishly and answered, "Tryin' to. Ain't easy - you know how they are. 'Specially Buck and Ezra."

Vin's grin was genuine, and the youth was gratified to see it. The tracker asked then, "My horse okay?"

Now it was JD's turn to smile flat out. Of course Vin would want to know about his horse - he was still Vin, after all.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra came by later that day, too. Vin knew right off that he was in one of those reflective moods that he slid into every once in awhile when he thought no one was paying attention. Neither man said much. Vin sensed that the gambler had something he wanted to talk with him about, but Ezra had known it wasn't the time - and it wasn't. Vin was beyond exhausted. Keeping up the game drained him of every ounce of energy he possessed.

After that day when Chris had talked with him and the cards had been laid on the table, Vin had not shown his feelings again. He did everything that was asked of him - moved when he was told to move, swallowed when he was told to swallow, responded when he was asked a question. Thankfully, the men had the good sense to ask the right things - "You want a drink, Vin?" "You warm enough, Vin?" "Can you eat another bite, Vin?" He didn't know what he'd do if anyone asked the wrong things - "What are you going to do if you can't walk, Vin?" "Where will you go?" "How will you go on?"

He stifled a groan. These thoughts would get him nowhere. He suddenly recalled the group of actors who had come to town awhile back. They were amusing, he supposed, though he never could understand why anyone would want to be someone he wasn't. But now he could stand right up there with the best of them - well, maybe not stand, but he could sit with them anyway. Yes, he'd gotten real good at acting. Acting like the pain was better. Acting like Josiah's talk about death and heaven made losing Betsy all right. Acting like he wasn't scared out of his mind that he couldn't make it through four hours without the help of a drug. Acting like he could deal with a bum leg - or two - for the rest of his life.

Oh God, Chris was watching him - trying to see right through his act. The man never could leave well enough alone. Didn't he know this was for his benefit most of all? He couldn't bear the thought of Chris feeling sorry for him. Couldn't bear the thought of Chris giving up his life to care for him. He'd do it, too. The man was the most stubborn, ornery cuss that ever walked the face of the earth. He'd have to kill himself in order for Chris to let go.

Kill himself? He glanced at Larabee quickly. Did Chris see that? Did he know that thought had crossed his mind? That damn connection between the two of them could be a real nuisance, sometimes. He'd have to be more careful with his thoughts. He'd be the finest actor that ever lived by the time this was over. But oh, that's right - it would never be over. Not until he was dead.

+ + + + + + +

Who did he think he was fooling? Buck? Maybe. JD? Probably. Nathan was too preoccupied with Vin's physical problems to notice. Josiah seemed to be on a spiritual mission to save Tanner's soul, so maybe he didn't see it either. Maybe he had fooled them all - except him.

Chris watched Vin from the corner of his eye. Watched as he carried on with the charade that he was "fine" . . . he was holding up, dealing with it all, going on.

He was a damn poor actor, and Larabee couldn't believe he was the only one who noticed. Although, he had the distinct impression that Ezra was catching on.

Well, he'd let Tanner believe that it was working - maybe that's what he needed right now. But sooner or later, it would all far apart - Vin would fall apart. And he'd be there to pick up the pieces. Larabee had already made up his mind. He'd made it up the first day he met the sharpshooter. He'd stand by Vin no matter what the future held. If he had to put his friend in a chair every morning, and back to bed every night, for the rest of his life, that's what he'd do. He wouldn't let the tracker take the easy way out, either. He was sure Vin had thought of it, in spite of how hard he'd tried to keep it from him. Wasn't gonna happen, though. Chris Larabee was determined that Vin Tanner would be by his side - sitting or standing, it didn't matter either way.

+ + + + + + +

The next morning, Chris decided sitting up might be just what Vin needed. Get him up out of that bed - maybe push him out onto the landing so he could get some air. The more he thought on it, the more sure he was.

He charged through the clinic doors, carrying the chair with wheels awkwardly in his arms, without stopping to knock. Nathan stood quickly, startled by the abrupt entrance, and furrowed his brows when he saw what the gunslinger had brought with him.

Chris sat the chair on the floor, and turned a hopeful smile towards the healer. Jackson checked to see that Vin had managed to sleep through the commotion, then latched on to Larabee's arm and propelled him out the door he'd just come in.

Chris had expected Nathan to kick up a fuss - to tell him it was too soon or too difficult or too much for Vin right now. And he wasn't disappointed. Jackson huffed and puffed and spit a few nails while Larabee nodded his head, then went back inside to figure out the easiest way to get Tanner up. He was pretty sure he heard Nathan muttering under his breath about stubborn gunman without a lick of sense, but he ignored him.

Glancing at the clock on the wall, Chris tried to gauge when the best time to approach this undertaking might be. Vin normally slept the first few hours after an injection. After that he'd have a fairly decent hour where he was alert and lucid, followed by an hour of gradually increasing agony, until the whole thing started again. Vin's life seemed to be broken up into four-hour increments now.

"We'll get him up in an hour," Chris stated as he slipped his watch back in his pocket. The third hour when Vin was most aware seemed to be the best time to do this thing.

"No, we won't," Nathan argued. Before Chris could reply, he continued, "You're so set on doin' this, then we're doin' it when it's easiest on him," he nodded towards Vin.

"That's what I'm trying to do," Chris countered.

Nathan shook his head. "Thirty minutes after we give the morphine. And you get Josiah and Buck up here to help. We do it my way - or no way, Chris."

Larabee turned his head away and smiled. He was the unequivocal leader of their group, and Nathan never questioned his authority or his decisions when they were in the midst of battle. But in this room, the dark-skinned man reigned, and in spite of Chris's stubborn determination, he really had no intention of going against Nathan's advice. He just figured the compassionate healer might need a little nudge in the right direction - or a less-than-gentle push if necessary.

Fortunately, the push wasn't necessary, although Nathan continued to sputter and fuss while he plunked a pillow down in the chair, then two - before removing both and looking at the chair again from every angle.

"How we gonna keep his legs up? He can't bend 'em at all, and we got to keep 'em propped up."

Chris looked the chair over and decided he and Buck could rig up something later. For today, they'd have to make do with another chair or footstool.

Vin woke while the two men continued to discuss options, and once again, he had the feeling that he should be paying attention. They were up to something. Chris looked like he was ready to tackle a grizzly bare handed, while Nathan's face was all pinched up with his 'I can't believe I let him talk me into this' look. Vin wondered what he'd done now to get them all worked up.

Chris finally felt the pull of Vin 's eyes on him and turned to his friend, the corners of his lips pulling up in a half smile. "Feel like getting out of that bed?"

Vin looked at the chair his friend pointed to, and remembered JD using it when he'd been hurt. For a reason well beyond his understanding, fear gripped his heart. He had the terrible sinking feeling that once he got into that chair - he'd never get out of it. That it would be a part of his life - a part of him forever.

"Vin? Did you hear me?" Chris asked.

He was being unreasonable and ridiculous. Getting up in that chair was just a start to getting better - to getting out of this room, at the very least. Vin nodded at his best friend to let him know that he heard and understood what he was being asked.

Chris had hoped for a little more enthusiasm on Vin's part, but he couldn't blame him for being uneasy. Now that the ball was rolling, he was a little nervous himself. There was a fine line between helping his friend, and pushing him to do things he wasn't ready for. He never was a good nursemaid.

It seemed Vin had just felt the familiar warmth of the pain medication hitting his system when someone nudged him awake. He opened his eyes and saw his four friends standing around him in anticipation. They made an imposing group - Buck and Josiah and Nathan and Chris. Not a scrawny one in the bunch, and Vin was glad they were on his side. But damn - how big did they think he was? Josiah could put him in that stupid chair by himself.

They continued to watch him, waiting for some sign that he was ready, and all of the sudden, it was just too much. He forgot for a moment that he was playing the cooperative, well-mannered, well-adjusted patient. Somewhere deep down he still had some pride, and he wouldn't do this - couldn't do this. Nathan and Chris hovering over him all the time was bad enough, but four of his best friends hauling his sorry butt into a chair was just too damn much.

"I'll do it myself," Vin spoke unexpectedly.

The four men looked from one to the other, before three sets of eyes landed on Larabee, silently urging the gunman to talk to his best friend.

Chris hadn't anticipated that particular reaction from Tanner, but he should have known. The man had just been too cooperative since this whole thing began. And he was secretly pleased by the spunk Vin was finally showing. He'd need to handle this just right, though, or it would blow up in his face.

"All right, Vin," he said as he pulled the chair over to the bedside. "We'll just stand by in case you need a hand."

Josiah thought Nathan just might jump out of his skin, so he held onto him firmly and willed for him to follow Chris's lead. He could hear Jackson's sharp intake of breath, and he was reminded how much the healer truly cared - and how fortunate they all were to have him among them.

Buck watched Chris watch Vin, and thought how much his oldest friend had changed since they'd all come together. There was a time when nothing or no one could have coerced him into spending time in a sick room. He always said he wasn't good at it, that he didn't have the patience or the stomach for it. But he'd been there with Vin every day and nearly every night, and Buck knew he'd be there every day for the rest of Vin's life, if need be. But, God, he hoped it didn't need to be. He hoped Vin really could just lift himself up and crawl into that chair and be on his way to being himself again.

Vin was determined to just that, although that chair looked awful far away. Taking a deep breath, he began by placing his hands flat on the mattress and pushing himself up into a sitting position. He prepared himself for an onslaught of pain, but the drug was in full effect, and he was surprised to find that it wasn't as bad as he'd anticipated. It was the dizziness that was his undoing. He felt his body swaying and his head spinning and his stomach churning as his head hit the pillow once more. He took several deep breaths then, as he tried to still the racing of his heart. What the hell had he been trying to do? Damn morphine made it impossible to think.

Buck had to look away when Vin's shaking arms gave out in moments. Their tracker couldn't even sit up by himself, and Buck was suddenly so very sad. He wanted to run away and selfishly find comfort in the arms of whatever little miss was available and willing. He wanted to be anywhere else other than here. But Chris met his eyes and he saw the despair that lurked there - and Buck vowed right then that neither man would deal with this alone. No matter how difficult or uncomfortable the days ahead became, he would be ready to do whatever was needed.

Chris took the cool cloth that Nathan handed him, and rubbed it gently along Vin's face. When the younger man turned his cloudy blue eyes upon him, he spoke softly, "We're gonna do this thing now."

Vin didn't have the energy to tell Chris that he had no idea what "thing" he was referring to. If Chris was hell-bent on doing something or other, so be it. He'd just lay there and pull his scattered brain together, or maybe he'd just sleep for awhile. Except that all of the sudden there were hands all over him, lifting him and pulling him and breaking him clean in half. My God, what were they doing to him? He felt himself being lowered into a chair, felt his head bob loosely on his neck though he tried to hold it up, felt someone grab hold of his legs - and that was when he heard someone scream. It might have been him - probably was him, and it took all he had not to do it again. They were hurting him so badly - didn't they know that? Didn't Chris know? Where the hell was that damn 'connection' when he needed it?

Then, just when he thought things couldn't get any worse, his stomach rolled up and he barely had time to gasp, "I'm gonna be sick," before he was sick. There were more hands then, changing his shirt and wiping his face, and even though his brain was muddled - he felt the humility wash over him. His head hung low, until he felt gentle hands lift his chin. He had no choice but to look into the eyes that met his.

"I'm sorry, Vin," Chris whispered sincerely, almost brokenly.

Josiah witnessed the exchange with a heavy heart. The last thing either man needed right then was an audience, and so he pulled Buck by the arm to sit out on the landing until they were needed again.

Chris moved unsteadily to sit in the nearby chair. He wasn't good at this - he'd always known that. He had no business being involved in Vin's care; no business putting drugs in his friend's body; no business making decisions in this room. He lowered his head into his hands, and a lock of hair fell into his eyes. He pushed it away distractedly, unaware that his hand shook as he did so.

But Vin noticed - and reality slammed into him once more. They'd gotten him up and it hadn't gone well and Larabee was blaming himself. And he'd forgotten to play his part. He wanted to reach out to the man, but he knew he'd fall over if he upset the delicate balance he was currently maintaining. He used his voice instead.

"" He sounded weak and sick and horrible. That wouldn't help Larabee feel any better.

The blond looked up and met Vin's eyes. Tanner was trying to tell him he was okay, not to feel bad, that he'd done the right thing. Too bad Larabee wasn't buying it. Chris heard Nathan's voice near him, prattling on about how he had been right - how Vin needed to start getting up for his lungs and his skin and his circulation; how the next time it would be easier and every time after that. But he didn't pay attention. His eyes never left Tanner's. He sent a silent message back to his friend to quit worrying about him and start thinking of himself - that he was doing just fine. But Vin didn't buy his line any more than he'd bought Vin's.

They were both damn poor actors.

+ + + + + + +

"Good Lord," Ezra muttered under his breath, "being a better friend will surely lead me to a premature grave." Groaning, the handsome gambler stood to stretch out the aching muscles in his back and legs. He glanced over to where Josiah continued to replace the arm-rest on a broken pew. The big man caught his eye and gave him a wide grin. Standish had caught the preacher staring and grinning at him like that all morning - ever since the con man had strode in and asked Sanchez if he could be of some assistance.

Josiah had handed him a hammer, and set him to work repairing the loose floor boards of the old church. That had been three, interminably long hours ago. He'd driven enough nails to last him a life time - surely more than enough to prove his good intentions. Although, as long a morning as it had been, it did not equal what he'd gone through to get Inez to have just one dinner with Buck. The gambler's nimble hands would be shriveled for weeks, after all the dishwater they'd been submerged in.

Josiah continued to watch him with that infernal grin and all-knowing eyes, and Ezra shifted uncomfortably. Mumbling a hasty farewell, he made a less-than-graceful exit, ignoring the low chuckle from the preacher as he left.

As he walked briskly back towards town, his mind moved to his friends in the clinic. Turning his eyes in the same direction, he noted Chris standing on the balcony, leaning heavily against the railing as he took a long drag on a cheroot. Nathan stepped out then, and the two men moved closer together, obviously discussing something imperative to Vin's well being.

Ezra sighed. If only there were some way he could be a better friend for those men - to lighten their burden. Yet even as that thought entered his head, he chastised himself for it. Vin could never be a burden. As inexperienced as the gambler was in this area, he was quite sure that was how friendship worked.

Standish had tried to spend some time with the injured man, but he found himself at an uncharacteristic loss for words. One off-hand comment from a child had planted the seeds of doubt in his mind. How well did he really know Vin? Considering Ezra's lack of consideration for the tracker on more than one occasion, did Vin even think of him as a friend?

And there was something else he couldn't quite grasp. Buck and JD had told him that Tanner was holding up amazingly well, under the circumstances. That Vin had accepted his lot with his customary good grace. But as Ezra sat by his side and attempted to make small talk, he sensed the total opposite to be true. The tracker was putting up a good front, to be sure, but surely the others had noticed the deception? Surely he wasn't the only one to realize that Vin was not fairing so well as he seemed?

Then again, perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps he'd missed something important and had no idea of how Tanner felt. Perhaps he didn't know Vin at all.

+ + + + + + +

The men soon learned that the less hands that touched the injured tracker, the better. Josiah quickly became adept at scooping Tanner up into his strong arms and practically floating him into the waiting chair. The preacher would come every morning and reach out for the younger man as if it were perfectly natural to carry a friend from one place to another. It was incredibly easy for him - Vin was so light he could practically have lifted him with one arm - and yet so terribly difficult. He'd feel Vin's haunted eyes upon him hours later, deep into the night. He would stare into the blackness and see only those sad, lost windows to the soul, filled with a quiet desperation that Josiah could not reach - no matter what he said or how he said it.

Quiet desperation was, in reality, too mild a term for what Vin actually felt - he hated the chair, hated the whole ordeal. Even if they managed to prop his legs just right, the pressure on his back was unbearable. But he'd grit his teeth and nod his head, and let his friends believe they were helping him.

Chris wanted him to sit out on the landing, and the promise of fresh air convinced him to give it a try. But he could glimpse the townsfolk as they passed by, and even though they tried to be discreet, he felt every glance that turned his way, and he never went out again.

He tried to be good. Tried not to complain or cause a commotion. He tried so hard that soon he couldn't remember what was real and what was an act - where he started and stopped, or if he even existed at all anymore. His entire world condensed into small intervals of time lived in one small room. And the only moments that mattered were those when the precious drug would enter his system and take him away from the pain and the prying eyes and the suffocating, good intentions of his friends.

+ + + + + + +

He was slipping away from them. Chris sat in silence, the heavy stillness of the late night providing fertile ground for his rampant thoughts. Thoughts he'd kept at arms' length for days now. Vin was slipping away.

Tanner had started asking for the morphine - seemed to care about nothing else. When Chris first realized this, it had frightened him. What bothered Larabee even more was how quickly he had learned to use Vin's dependence as a weapon.

Larabee winced as he recalled how it first happened. Vin had refused to eat breakfast one morning, as he'd refused to eat most of the day before. He'd then turned his pain-filled eyes to the blond and asked if it was time for the medicine. Chris took in the shadows and sharp angles of his friend's pale face, and suddenly frustration and desperation overcame him. And he'd told Vin he would only give him the morphine if he ate.

Chris would never forget the emotions that flitted across his best friend's features - confusion and hurt and anger - and resignation. Vin was totally dependent on him, and Chris used his helplessness, his pain, his need to blackmail him. Larabee knew how hard Tanner tried. Knew the tracker endured the agony and the humility that was forced on him with as much dignity as he could muster.

But that day, Vin relinquished control of every part of him. Chris had watched the last semblance of self-respect drain from the injured man as he'd given in to the gunslinger's demands and picked up the spoon. Forcing him to eat may have saved his life, but it also broke what little spirit Vin still held.

And now he was slipping away from them.

+ + + + + + +

Vin could hear their voices, as he often had. Their soft, low tones would flutter around him, weaving in and out of his consciousness like a butterfly flitting from one flower to another. This time was different, though, and he willed himself to keep still and follow along - sure this was something he needed to know and hang onto.

The voices were becoming more heated, the men trying to keep emotions in check and the volume down so as not to disturb him. Chris was telling someone that they had to do something, and Vin could hear a desperate quality in the gunman's tone that seemed oddly out of place for his normally unflappable friend.

"We should take him to the reservation," Josiah's rich voice said, "they have different ways of doing things, and Vin would be comfortable there."

"No!" Chris's strong objection startled him, and Vin nearly gave himself away by flinching. The blond continued, "They have different ways of doing things all right. If Vin decides he doesn't want . . . to do this, you think they're going to stop him?"

So Chris did know that he'd thought of ending it all. Larabee was right, too - the Indians would respect a man's right to make his own decisions about his own life - unlike a few men Vin knew.

"He ain't goin' nowhere," Nathan said. Of course Nathan would be here and have a say.

"I'm taking him out to my place. He needs to be away from all of this - needs to get some air and some space." Chris sounded like he was getting worked up now.

"Now Chris, you know you don't have what he needs out there. You don't even have room for him, and last time I was there, that shack you call home leaked like a sieve." Josiah was the voice of reason.

"He ain't goin' nowhere," Nathan said again, more emphatic this time.

"Perhaps we should ask Mr. Tanner, since he's been listening to this entire conversation."

A new voice - Ezra's. And damn, he'd been caught.

"That so, Vin? You awake?" Chris was leaning right over him, he could feel those steely green eyes bearing right through him. He may as well give it up.

Vin opened his eyes just a slit - not sure he really wanted to participate in this apparent battle of wills. Although he appreciated Ezra's gesture to include him.

"Vin? We're trying to help you here," Chris stated sternly, then added softly, "You know that, don't you?"

In spite of all that had happened, that was the one thing Vin did know. He opened his eyes wide then and replied equally softly, "I know, Chris."

Larabee gave a slight nod and continued as he sat down in the chair at Vin's side. "I want to get you out of here. I think you'll do better - get better if we take you someplace more . . . comfortable."

Vin offered a small smile as he teased, "That what you call that . . . palace of yers - comfortable?"

Chris never thought he'd be so happy to have his small homestead ridiculed once again. Vin was still in there. He'd caught a glimpse of him from just that one sentence. It wasn't too late - they could get him back. If they did something now. It had been four long weeks since this all began, and Nathan said it would be four more before they could begin working with Tanner's legs. Too long and too late - Chris was sure of it.

"Don't matter what he calls it, you ain't goin'." Nathan could hold his own with any one of his stubborn friends.

"Gentlemen," Ezra interjected, "I do believe it is in Vin's best interest to allow him to express his opinion in this matter."

Nathan chuffed, and stormed out the clinic door, clearly exasperated with the entire conversation.

Josiah turned a meaningful gaze to all three men, before following the dark-skinned healer out the door.

"Well, Vin - what do you want?" Larabee asked solemnly, his face inches from his friend's.

What did he want? He looked in Chris's eyes and saw his greatest fear. The gunman, his friend, his brother in every way except blood, would spend his life caring for him - with no regrets. Vin couldn't do that to the man - he cared for him too much. He looked away, unable to accept such a sacrifice - such a gift.

Chris took his arm then, in the way that was uniquely theirs, and whispered, "Vin - we'll do it together."

Vin returned his gaze to the blond's, and this time he felt something different stirring within him. It had been so long that he almost didn't recognize it for what it was - hope. He said nothing, knowing words were unnecessary.

Ezra did not have the advantage of the bond that existed between Chris and Vin, but he understood the decision that had been reached without being told. "I shall begin to make the necessary arrangements," he offered with a tip of his hat.

"Thank you, Ezra," Chris stated sincerely.

And more quietly, Vin added, "Yeah, thanks, Ezra - yer a good friend."

The gambler's eyes opened wide in shock. Vin thought of him as a friend - a good friend. His heart suddenly felt lighter as he made his way out onto the landing. He stepped smoothly around the two men who waited there, mindless of the thick tension that had sprouted between them.

Jackson spoke, frustration evident in his tone. "I don't understand any of you. I'm just tryin' t' do what's best for Vin."

"We know that, Nathan. But it's not working," Josiah replied gently.

"What do you mean by that?" Jackson asked defensively. "He's alive, ain't he? You got any idea how hard its been keeping 'im that way?"

Sanchez dipped his head, seeking the right words. "I think I have a slight understanding. But somewhere along the way, we lost Vin. And as gifted a healer as you are, its going to take something else to get him back. You're a good man, Nathan, too good to do what's got to be done here."

The healer looked puzzled as he tried to fathom the cryptic message his old friend had given him. Suddenly his eyes widened, "My God! You're gonna take away the morphine! You can't do it like that Josiah, you'll kill him."

"No, Nathan, continuing to give it to him will kill him. He'll survive this, and we'll do our best to keep him comfortable. There are other ways - you know that better than anyone." Josiah kept his voice low and calm, praying his old friend would understand.

"He needs it. You saw what happened when we tried to cut him back - what happens every time I try to wait a little longer or give him a little less. He needs it - for a few more weeks, at least. Just give it a few more weeks - give Vin a few more weeks," Nathan pleaded.

Josiah shook his head. "I'm sorry, Nathan, but I'm with Chris on this. It can't wait - Vin can't wait."

Nathan turned cold eyes to the preacher. "Fine. But I won't be a part of it." Taking the clinic stairs two at a time, he headed for the saloon.

Josiah watched him leave with a heavy heart. It seemed he hadn't found the right words to offer throughout any of this, to anyone. Maybe that was why he wanted Vin at the reservation with Kojay. Surely the wise old Indian would have greater insight and influence than Josiah had come up with so far.

Leaning a bit over the rail, he looked to the street below and noted Ezra speaking with Buck and JD, no doubt setting the wheels in motion to move Vin to Chris's place. No, he could not desert his friends, or pass them off to someone else. Now was not the time to give in or give up. And as much as he hated upsetting Nathan, they were doing the right thing. It would be hard. Josiah was convinced that, as difficult as the past month had been, the worst was yet to come. But Vin was worth the effort - it was time to get down and dirty and fight for their friend.