by JIN

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

Part 5

Josiah placed another pan where a fourth puddle had seemingly pooled from nowhere. Glancing up, he noted that, sure enough, another hole had given way in the shabby roof, allowing a small but steady drip to develop. The rain had been relentless for two long days now, and though Buck and JD had tried to patch all the holes, it was no wonder that some of the repairs had not held.

As aggravating as it had been, Josiah had welcomed the rain. The image of nature's gentle shower washing away all the dirt and grime of the outside world just seemed appropriate as they fought this battle within the little cabin. They were reclaiming Vin's soul, as well as his body, rinsing clean the drugs that held him prisoner, as surely as had the broken bones that kept him rooted to the small bed or chair.

The wind picked up then and the rain beat down a little harder, and Sanchez admitted he was grateful for it in another, more cowardly, way. The comforting sounds lessened the harsh noise that came from the small room not ten feet away from where the preacher sat. They were doing the right thing, he was sure of it, but hearing the terrible, choking groans as his friend retched was almost unbearable.

He didn't know how Chris managed it. The gunman hadn't left Vin's side since they'd brought him here days ago. Josiah had offered, pleaded, threatened, but there was no reasoning with the stubborn man. Larabee had thrown a mat on the floor next to the bed where Tanner lay, and had not left the room except to take care of personal business.

In fact, all of the men had offered, with the notable exception of Nathan, to be here and help. It had taken a few days, after the decision was made, to get the cabin ready and gather the supplies they would need. Josiah had gone to the reservation and come back with an assortment of herbs and roots and some rather strong words from Kojay about allowing Vin to choose his own destiny. While Buck and JD readied the cabin, Ezra made arrangements to transport the injured man, going well out of his way to find the most suitable wagon and the most comfortable bedding. He'd even checked into which horses could handle the journey with the surest feet and most even temperaments. Meanwhile, Chris had perused Nathan's medical journals in an effort to find out just exactly what they would be faced with in the days ahead.

It had gone fairly smoothly. They'd carried Vin to the wagon late at night and made a quick exit from town without being seen by the prying eyes that disturbed the tracker so. Chris gave him an injection before they left, knowing it was not the time to change the injured man's regime, and Vin had slept most of the way, with only a sparse moan here and there at particularly rough points in the trail. They had Tanner settled in before daylight, and the others had returned to town, leaving Josiah and Chris to care for their friend.

At least one of the men came out to check on them daily. Again, the exception being Nathan. Josiah sighed when he recalled how distant the healer had been those last few days in town. He'd continued to care for Vin, but conversation was limited to only the words needed to convey necessary information. The preacher understood there was much more going on there than a simple disagreement over how to handle Vin's condition. Nathan was angry, to be sure, but more than that, he was hurt. Never before had any of them questioned his judgement or his practice. Never before had they deliberately gone against his advice. Josiah knew that it bothered Chris to no end that he'd alienated the compassionate healer, but he'd stuck to his guns, and he was right to do so. Sanchez was sure of it - in spite of the misery that the last few days had wrought.

The wind died down and the rain slowed, and in the ensuing stillness, Josiah heard again the gut-wrenching moans that came from the other room. But most heart-breaking of all was when he heard Vin - the man who never asked why - beg of his best friend, "Why are you doing this to me, Chris? Why won't you help me?"

Josiah bit his lip as he waited for Larabee's response, but the gunslinger spoke in low, soft tones, and the preacher couldn't make out the words. Sanchez was unaware that a tear slid slowly down his cheek and dropped off his chin, to mix in the puddle of rainwater at his feet.

He didn't know how Chris could stand it.

+ + + + + + +

He couldn't stand it.

The constant patter of the rain on the roof and the wind whistling through loose floor boards would drive him crazy.

He could manage Vin. He could manage the vomiting and the diarrhea and the pain and the pleading in those wide, blue eyes - if only the damn rain would stop.

It was happening again. Chris had sat by Vin for the last two days and knew exactly when another bout of misery was about to begin. Soft moans became more insistent as panic filled eyes turned to the gunman in desperation. The spasms would soon follow, and Vin would try to curl up on himself, though his splinted legs and injured back would not allow him to. Next would come the painful retching where it seemed that Vin's entire body was turning itself inside out, even though there was nothing left to expel. Chris knew that was where the danger lay. Stopping the morphine wouldn't kill his friend, but dehydration could.

He would ply Vin with water, which he would promptly throw up. He'd tried to get some of the teas and herbs and other remedies he'd been given in the man, but soon gave up. They would just have to ride it out. Chris had done the research, and knew this wouldn't last forever, though it seemed that way.

When Vin finally stopped vomiting, Chris held the sick man in his arms. He felt the familiar tremors shudder through the tracker's weakened body as Tanner started mumbling, asking the same questions over and over again - pleading with Chris to help him. Larabee knew this routine by now, knew his friend would sometimes get angry, sometimes desperate, but always tearful. He thought back to when this had all started. How stunned he'd been when he'd first seen Vin cry. Now it was an every day occurrence.

He hardened his heart to it. He would go crazy otherwise. Damn rain was bad enough.

Chris shifted the man in his arms just a bit, and moved to sit on the bed next to him. He pulled a hand through Vin's hair, now tangled and damp with sweat, as he murmured softly, "I'm sorry, Vin. It'll be okay. It'll be okay."

The gunman held his friend like that, stroking and soothing and comforting, until he felt him go limp in his arms. Vin would sleep now - maybe fifteen minutes or thirty, or if they were lucky, an hour. Then they would start again. It was a good thing Larabee had learned to shut himself off - a good thing he knew how to build a strong wall when he needed one.

Vin moaned once more in his sleep, "Please . . . Chris."

Chris took a deep breath as he felt a crack form in his carefully crafted façade. He couldn't let that happen. He couldn't give in to his emotions. He'd go crazy if he did.

He peered out into the darkness as the rain and wind picked up once more. He could manage this - he could be strong for Vin. If only the rain would stop.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan took another drink, and another after that. With a little luck, he'd be drunk by nightfall. Of course, under the dark, stormy skies, it was hard to tell just when night fell. Not that it mattered anyway.

He never got drunk. People depended on him. But then he'd been so busy with Vin that the people here had learned to go on without him. Mary and Nettie had helped Emily Moore deliver her baby. Was it a boy? He couldn't quite recall. Must be doing all right, though, since no one asked him to take a look at the child.

It had rained ever since they'd left town with Vin. Nathan couldn't help but wonder if there wasn't something Biblical about that. Rained for forty days and forty nights. Hadn't it been about that long since they'd gone?

One more drink ought to do it. One more drink and he wouldn't wonder anymore. Wouldn't wonder how was Vin doing. How sick he was. How miserable. But then, he already knew. He was just lucky that this time, he didn't have to see it or deal with it or fix it. This time, they were on their own.

They were so wrong. They really believed stopping the morphine would make it all better. That Vin would suddenly become himself again. It was so incredibly unfair to the tracker - he still had so far to go. And even if that weren't the case, no one should have to live every day of his life in pain. Nathan knew men who took morphine on a regular basis, and still they managed to lead relatively normal lives. Or as normal as anyone could live with a debilitating illness or injury - like Vin's.

They just didn't understand. And he just didn't understand them. No amount of alcohol would change that. He'd just feel sick in the morning - just like he felt sick now. The difference being a palpable sickness that he could hold onto and understand, versus this terrible, intangible sickness in his heart.

They were so wrong. And Vin would pay the price.

+ + + + + + +

He didn't know exactly when it hit him, but when the realization came, he accepted it without question. He wouldn't have to kill himself, because Chris was doing it for him. He just didn't understand why the gunman made it so difficult. A well placed bullet from Larabee's side arm and they both could get on with it.

Vin didn't know where he was anymore, or who he was, or why he was. Nightmares plagued him of Betsy and her kittens, crushed lifelessly on the muddy road. Or sometimes, it was Chris or JD or Ezra. Always he tried to reach them, to save them from the terrible fate, but he couldn't move his legs, couldn't get to them even if he crawled.

Relentless pain gripped his stomach and his back and his legs - every muscle in his body was stretched tight, every nerve ending raw and exposed. His head pounded and he fought for every breath as his heart raced uncontrollably in his aching chest.

As confused as his muddled brain had become, he knew enough to catch on that this was a new and different agony than before. This time, it never ended - there was no respite. And he couldn't remember why. Chris wouldn't give him the medicine anymore, no matter how he begged. And the fact that he did beg no longer seemed strange or out of character to him.

He felt it coming on again. The cramping and the bile and the twisting in his gut, and he groaned out loud. There was no way he could move to relieve it even a little, no way he could breathe or relax, and apparently nothing he could say to change Chris's mind.

His best friend was slowly killing him.

In moments, he would be retching again, and he heard himself gasp, "God, please make it stop."

Just that quick, Chris was there. Holding onto him and talking to him and generally doing everything he could possibly do for him except the one thing Vin wanted him to.

The sickness soon consumed him, and as he gasped and groaned and whimpered, he felt hot tears sting his eyes. Was he crying? Is this what he'd become? A crying, begging, dying man?

A man dying because his best friend was killing him.

And he couldn't remember why.

+ + + + + + +

With Inez's help, Ezra prepared the concoction of various and sundry items, thankful that he never knew before what the potent solution actually contained. As he carried the sure-cure for a hangover up to Jackson's room, he wondered just how many times the healer had done the same for him. Five? Ten? Twenty?

It was always the same. Nathan would pound on the door, Ezra would grumble for him to go away, and Nathan would come in anyway. The gambler would fuss, drink the beverage Jackson offered, and feel astonishingly better in a relatively short time. Nathan would be sputtering all the while about mule-headed men and alcohol. Ezra liked that part of the scenario best of all. Nathan in a tizzy was always entertaining.

He wished he could see some of that fire in the healer now. The role reversal they had assumed for the last few days was becoming distinctly uncomfortable.

He didn't bother to knock he as barged into the darkened room and announced, "Time to rise and shine, Nathan. Another day has dawned."

Nathan turned his splitting head towards the gambler's voice and offered a low groan in response.

"Your cocktail awaits you, Mr. Jackson. I suggest you ingest it promptly."

Nathan opened one eye and muttered, "Go away, Ezra."

But Ezra replied, "I'm afraid that would not be in your best interest, my friend. Now kindly sit up and partake of this solution, which I have so graciously prepared."

Nathan groaned once more, "Don't you ever give up?"

Standish smiled. "Actually - no. I learned from the best."

Even though his brain was addled, Nathan caught the gambler's implication. "Ain't the best," he argued. "Ain't never been the best. Ain't even a doctor. Ain't no wonder my friends don't listen t' me."

Ezra felt a small measure of relief that they were finally getting to the heart of the matter. "Rest assured, my good man, you are the best at what you do, and much more appreciated than you will ever know."

Nathan sat up with another long groan and downed the drink in a few quick swallows. "Just go away, Ezra," he said. "Don't feel like talkin'."

Ezra turned to leave, and the old Ezra would have. But the new, improved, gonna-be-a-good-friend-if-it-kills-me Ezra, could not walk away.

Standish sat on the bed next to the dark-skinned man. "Nathan, I have come to realize of late that I have not always shown the proper appreciation and consideration for my fellow compatriots."

Nathan put a hand to his throbbing head. "Damn, Ezra. I ain't in the mood to wade through your bull today."

"I am trying to tell you that I am grateful for all you've done for me in the past."

"You're welcome. Now will you please get the hell out of here and leave me alone?"

Ezra shook his head. "Not until we get to the bottom of what has disturbed you so greatly."

Nathan sighed, and completely against his better judgement, he replied, "They didn't trust me. They don't . . . trust me." He'd never know what possessed him to confide in Ezra, of all people.

"Fear is a powerful emotion, my friend. It colors our decisions and actions in ways we cannot begin to fathom."

"Fear ain't got nothin' to do with it. Ain't no one afraid here - except maybe me. Josiah and Chris got it all figured out."

"On the contrary, fear is running rampant among our splintered group."

At Nathan's questioning glance, Ezra continued. "Take young Dunne, for example. He is so afraid of what has happened to Vin, that he finds it nearly impossible to visit the man. Buck fears his oldest friend will disappear in the depths of despair - and a bottle - should Mr. Tanner not recover. Josiah believes it is his personal obligation to help Vin regain his "balance", or some such thinking that is beyond my understanding, but is of utmost importance to him. Should he fail, he likely fears losing his own precarious equilibrium."

Ezra paused then and looked Nathan directly in the eye. "And then there is Mr. Larabee, whose fear is so immense and so desperate that he will go to any lengths - risk anything - to preserve his other self."

At Nathan's puzzled expression, Ezra explained, "Vin - I'm speaking of Vin."

Of course. If his head weren't filled with cotton, he wouldn't have needed to ask. 'His other self' was an apt description of Chris's relationship with Vin. But in Nathan's mind, that made Larabee's decision all the more unthinkable. Still, Ezra made a lot of sense.

"Thank you, Ezra. I reckon I'll think on it all."

Standish patted Jackson on the back and stood to leave.

Nathan called out as the con man reached the door, "Ezra? What are you afraid of?"

The gambler thought for a minute before responding in a low voice, "That I will unwittingly - and irrevocably - fail a friend."

Nathan nodded in understanding. Who would have believed that he and Ezra Standish could have the same fear?

+ + + + + + +

The rain stopped on the fourth day. It was the same day that Vin slept for eight straight hours. The same day that he kept an entire glass of water and a bowl of broth down. The same day that he recognized Chris's cabin and noticed that Josiah was there with them.

The same day that Chris realized that Vin would live - and that he didn't want to.

Chris felt like he'd been punched in the gut. He knew thoughts of ending it all had crossed the tracker's mind. It was natural, under the circumstances. Any able-bodied man would feel the same. But somehow he'd believed that once the worst was over with the morphine, once Vin had a clear head, once he found his way back to them - he'd charge ahead with the grit and determination he was known for. Now one look in his friend's eyes told him otherwise - they held nothing but sadness, desolation, and hopelessness.

Vin saw the disappointment in Chris's eyes. The blond expected more from him, he could see that, and he wished he could give it to him. He wished he remembered how to play the game and act the act, but he couldn't. He had no strength left to go on, no willingness to pretend, no reason to care.

And later that day, when Vin pushed away the food and drink that Chris offered, then coaxed, then pleaded with the tracker to take, the gunslinger's own resolve failed. He rose and turned away from his sick friend. Exhaustion and anger and bitterness finally overcame him, and he muttered thickly, "Dammit, Vin," as he left the small cabin.

Vin knew he'd finally driven the man away. Knew he should feel relieved at that. Now he could die in peace. Now Chris could move on and feel no obligation towards him. But instead of relief, he felt an emptiness that swallowed him whole. He didn't understand how it was possible to feel worse than he had before. Apparently misery was a bottomless pit.

Josiah watched the brief exchange, and wondered which man he should go to first. He peered out the small window and saw Chris mount his horse. His decision was made for him - Vin wasn't going anywhere. Stepping quickly out the cabin door, he grabbed a hold of the reins to Larabee's black just as the man was about to take off.

The blond glared at him menacingly, but did pull back and allow the preacher to speak.

"You know he doesn't know what he's doing. Give him more time."

Chris scoffed. "He knows, all right. He wants to die so bad - let him. I ain't watching it."

Josiah chose is words carefully, praying he could finally live up to his silver-tongued reputation. "It's a hard thing for a man like Vin, needing us all the way he does. I figure he doesn't see much purpose to his life right now. Can't blame a man for wanting to die if he isn't useful to anyone." Sanchez looked at Larabee meaningfully and added, "If he feels like he's not needed."

"Not needed? Where the hell would he get that idea?"

"He can't help us out much right now. Can't take the high ground, can't track, can't lead us where we need to go. What exactly do we need him for?" Josiah asked, knowing full well that Chris was a wise enough man to figure it out.

Is that what Vin thought? That all he was good for was to track and shoot? Surely he realized he meant so much more than that. Surely their connection was strong enough that he didn't need to actually say the words. Larabee dropped his head and took a deep breath before climbing down off his horse. "Damn tracker," he mumbled as he stormed back into his humble dwelling.

Vin looked up at the gunslinger in surprise, but before he could reason out his friend's abrupt re-appearance, the man spoke.

"Now look, Vin. I know you think you aren't necessary around here anymore. Probably think you're more trouble than you're worth. But we had plans to watch each other's backs, and you ain't quitting in the middle of a job. I put my trust in you the first day we met, and I'm trusting you now to do the right thing. You're gonna eat and drink and get stronger and you're gonna be there to watch my back for a long time. You got that?"

Vin's eyes shone with unshed tears. He couldn't do it, why didn't Chris see that? Something had happened to him. He wasn't the same man anymore. He needed help.

Speaking in a small, desperate voice, he offered, "I'll try, Chris, but I need the medicine. Just a little - just one more time. Then I won't take it anymore, and I'll do whatever you say. I need it - you even said so."

Chris winced as he recalled when he had first told Vin that. And even though he'd read about the psychological dependence that could develop with the drug, he was so sure that could not happen to a man as strong as Tanner. Looking down at the broken man in the bed before him, he wondered if he had lost that fiery, independent spirit forever.

No - not without a fight, and so the gunman answered very softly, "But I need you more."

Larabee saw the change sweep across Tanner's face as the impact of those words registered in the tracker's weary mind. Vin believed him. Knew what the blond had said was true with every fiber in his being, because he felt the same way. He could not imagine going on without Chris in his life, and it would be incredibly unfair of him to expect that of Chris.

Vin sighed. "Aw hell, least y' could do is add some whiskey to that damn tea."

Chris smiled as he held Vin's even gaze. The pretenses were gone and there was no need to act any longer. Both men knew what they were in for, and why. And even though Chris knew the road ahead still held unseen twists and curves, they had most definitely turned a corner - and with a little luck, it would all be downhill from here.

+ + + + + + +

Like every long journey and every winding road, there were easy stretches and major bumps along the way. Just when Chris thought they were entering the homestretch, Vin would have a setback, and he'd feel like they were starting over.

Vin had noticed that his right leg rarely pained him at all anymore, and so Josiah had begun the exercises that Nathan had begrudgingly taught him before they'd left town. The slight progress gave all three men renewed hope and determination, in spite of the deep muscle spasms that would develop at the most inconvenient moments in the middle of the night. Vin would cling then with a white-knuckled grip to whatever hand was closest at that moment, but never complain. Somehow this new pain felt like a rebirth of sorts, a signal that his lower limb was beginning to work again.

The men found that not to be the case with Tanner's other leg, but still held out hope. Nathan had told them it would take longer for the left leg, and so they waited. But inside, Josiah wondered how long was long enough. How would they know when it was time? He wished for the hundredth time that Nathan would come.

Every morning, Buck or JD or Ezra rode out, and every time Josiah hoped it would be Nathan. Strangely enough, Vin had never asked where the healer was. The tracker had hazy memories of what had went on in the weeks before they came to the cabin, but surely he couldn't know that the men had had a disagreement over his care.

Vin never again asked for the morphine, although it was clear some days that he wanted to. The young man's moods shifted constantly, and it was all Chris and Josiah could do sometimes to remain patient and calmly bite their tongues.

It was during one particularly trying day that Chris finally lost tolerance with his friend. They'd been trying to stand Vin on his better leg and pivot him into the chair, but after the weak extremity gave out for the fifth time, they had simply lifted him into it - as they had done dozens of times in the past. Vin was furious, and cursed in a dialect that even Josiah was unfamiliar with.

"Now listen, Vin - you ain't a child, so quit acting like one." Chris snapped, more harshly than he'd intended.

Instead of being hurt though, Vin lowered his eyes in shame. "Yer right. Wouldn't blame y' both if y' got tired of me like Nathan did."

Chris and Josiah exchanged a look. They had both missed the call on that one.

Sanchez took the lead, and stooped down to meet Vin's eyes. "Nathan didn't stay in town because of anything you did, Vin. He's not here because he's upset with me and Chris."

Tanner looked at him in bewilderment. "I don't understand."

"I know you don't," Josiah answered. "He didn't think we should bring you here. He didn't think we should take care of you the way we did."

He was being diplomatic. Vin could see that. But he couldn't for the life of him imagine Nathan being that upset over them bringing him out here. It had to have been him - his behavior, his attitude. Lord knows, he felt sorry for himself for too long - anyone would get sick of it. Of course, Chris and Josiah would never admit that to him. With a sigh, he asked, "Can I sit outside fer a spell?"

Josiah straightened up and glanced at Chris. The gunslinger shrugged, unable to read his best friend's mind in this instance.

"Sure," Josiah answered as he pushed Vin out onto the porch.

The sun shone in dappled patches through the slatted roof, and Vin turned his face towards a beam of brightness. He tried to revel in the feel of the warmth on his skin and the fresh smell of the flowering shrubs nearby, but sharp pains shot down his back at just the slight movement of stretching his neck, so he closed his eyes and remained still. And then it hit him. If Nathan were here, he'd give him the morphine. Nathan was always forcing stuff down them when they were hurt. The dark-skinned man couldn't stand to see anyone suffer.

That was why Nathan stayed away. That was why they kept him away.

+ + + + + + +

JD ran straight from the telegraph office to the saloon. He figured he'd find Buck and Ezra there, and it was just an added bonus that Nathan was there, as well. The less time they spent rounding up their friends, the better.

Buck could see that JD had some burning news by the way the kid burst through the doors and nervously darted his eyes about the room. Wilmington chuckled softly and asked, "What's got y' all fired up this time, JD?"

JD gulped and spoke excitedly. "We got trouble coming. The bank in Eagle Bend was robbed, and the sheriff says they're heading our way." The youth handed a telegram to Ezra for confirmation.

"Well, well," Standish muttered as he perused the note. "It appears our days of relative peace and solitude are about to end. According to this, we can expect a gang of eight miscreants to arrive shortly."

Buck stood and picked his hat off the table. Placing it firmly on his head, he turned to leave, "I'll get Chris."

But Nathan stopped him. "No. I'll go. I'll stay with Vin, and send the others back."

The other three men looked at the healer in surprise, but didn't take time to argue. Buck simply nodded and stated, "All right then, but you'll need to ride like the wind, Nathan. We'll keep an eye out in the meantime."

In spite of the wind that whipped around him, and the strong hooves that pounded the earth below him, Nathan felt as though he hardly moved. He'd left the saloon with a promise to reach Chris's land as quickly as humanly possible, but it seemed that his heavy heart slowed him down. As if the animal he rode somehow sensed his rider's trepidation and deliberately delayed taking him to his destination.

Nathan couldn't imagine what he would say to Vin. How would he explain why he'd abandoned him the way he had? For the healer had decided that is exactly what he'd done. He'd left Vin to fend for himself, when he couldn't possibly do that. Even if he hadn't been able to stop Chris and Josiah, he should have been there to help his friend through the ordeal. As each day passed, it became more difficult for Jackson to climb on his horse and make that trip to speak with Tanner. Now an opportunity had presented itself. He could spend time alone with Vin - find out how he really was, and if Vin was the forgiving man Nathan thought he was - he could make amends.

He called out as he reached the cabin at last, but didn't wait for a response. Springing from his horse, he entered through the door, and glimpsed Josiah lifting Vin back into the bed. Chris jumped up from where he'd stooped to place another log on the fire, and looked at the intruder in vague surprise.

"Nathan?" he questioned, sure that the healer's abrupt visit was not merely a social call.

Josiah stepped out of the small bedroom and also threw Jackson a puzzled glance. The preacher resisted the urge to throw his arms around the dark-skinned man when he noted his friend's obvious distress.

Nathan caught his breath and said, "There's trouble in town. We got a gang coming in from Eagle Bend. You two get goin' - I'll stay with Vin."

Chris hated himself for the distrust that flared within him. Vin was having a bad day, and he wasn't all that sure what Nathan would do. He hated himself even more when he realized that Nathan had read his thoughts.

"I ain't gonna give him nothin' - least not what you're worryin' about. I just want to take care of him, while you two take care of the town."

Chris glanced at Josiah, who responded with a nod. Larabee went to the bed to speak with Vin, but Tanner's eyes were closed. Something in his gut burned him for a moment, and he had the most unreasonable thought that he shouldn't go. But he regretfully picked up his gun belt and hurried to meet Josiah outside.

Nathan followed the men out and watched as they prepared to leave.

"They should hit town by late afternoon. That's brings me back here by late tonight," Chris said confidently to Nathan. "Tell Vin I went to town, and that I'll be back tonight." He didn't have to add what not to tell him.

Nathan nodded and went back inside. He moved quietly to the little room in the back, and peeked at his friend where he lay still. But Jackson had been caring for people for years, and he wasn't fooled. Lines of pain edged the tight corners of Vin's eyes and mouth. Sitting gently on the side of the bed, he placed a hand on the tracker's shoulder.

"I know you ain't sleepin', Vin."

Vin opened his eyes with a deep sigh, knowing he couldn't hide his discomfort from Nathan's discerning eye. "Damn good t' see you, Nathan," the Texan said affectionately.

Nathan felt like weeping at that. After all he'd done, Vin was glad to see him. He smiled and responded, "Feel the same way, Vin. I've missed you somethin' terrible. Worried about you, too. How are you doing?"

Vin sighed again. "Getting there. Goin' on. You know."

Tanner always was a man of few words. Nathan continued, "I'm sorry I wasn't here t' help you. I'm sorry about a lot of things."

"Hell, Nathan. You save my life - again. You ain't got nothin' t' be sorry about ever, as far as I'm concerned." Vin tried to sit up then, but groaned as a spasm caught him across his lower back.

"You're still hurtin'," Nathan said softly and sorrowfully, like somehow he was responsible.

Tanner looked at him then, and Jackson could have sworn he saw fear there. He spoke again, "I ain't gonna give you nothin', Vin. I know you ain't takin' the morphine no more. But it's okay, you can tell me the truth."

What a relief that would be. Vin knew how much trouble he'd caused when Chris took away the morphine, and so he tried hard to hide his misery from the man. He figured there was enough needless guilt going around to choke a horse, and he wasn't about to add to it.

Vin dropped his eyes and spoke so quietly now that Nathan had to bend close to hear him. "I still want it, Nathan. Think about it all the time." He looked up at the healer then and said, "It scares me somethin' awful. Makes me think I don't know who I am anymore. I ain't had a lot in my life, but I always knew I could depend on myself. I always knew I had that one thing. But now . . . it scares me."

Nathan swallowed. He hadn't meant for this to happen - Lord knows, he hadn't. Chris and Josiah were right to stop it when they did. And right now, he sorely wished those two men were here. They would surely know better how to ease Vin's fears. But it was up to him, and so he searched his heart for the right words to say to his friend.

"Vin, you're still the same man. You're just havin' some hard times is all. And I ain't gonna lie to you, you still have some hard times ahead. But even if you ain't had much in your life before, you got a whole lot now. You got six bull-headed men fightin' for you. You can take your time getting back to your self, cause you got us to depend on for as long as you need us."

Vin met Nathan's deep brown eyes, and nodded gratefully.

Blinking away a tear, the healer asked, "Now, where you hurtin'?"

The younger man swallowed as he answered, "My back. It's always my back, Nathan. Can't hardly stand it sometimes."

Jackson shook his head. He remembered when he'd been flat in bed for a week with the flu. His back ached so badly, he thought he'd die. Vin already had a curved spine. Add to that his recent injuries, and Nathan knew these long weeks, spent mostly in bed, had to be pure torture for the man. He set about preparing a hot poultice, throwing a glance at Vin every few minutes as he did so. He hated seeing his friend in pain, but it did his heart good to know that Tanner had confided in him, that he trusted him, and that the healer could offer him some relief after all.

As he gently shifted Vin onto his side and applied the warm soak, he heard the sharpshooter ask, "You think they'll be all right?"

Nathan chuckled. "I figured you heard all that. Yeah, they'll be fine. Don't lay here and worry now. You gotta relax if this is gonna work."

"Yer getting bossy already," Vin said with a smile.

"Have to be - with all these damn stubborn, hard-headed men I've hooked myself up with."

Vin smiled again as he drifted off to sleep with the sound of Nathan's voice filling his ears.