by JIN

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

Part 6

Nathan kept watch over the peacefully sleeping tracker, deeply gratified by the man's improved condition. The right blend of teas and poultices and massages had made all the difference. Jackson smiled as he thought to himself that he should have brought more clothes. There was no way he was leaving now. Chris and Josiah could sleep outside for all he cared, but he was here to stay. Vin needed him.

Unfortunately, so did someone else. A forceful banging on the cabin door brought Jackson out of his reverie, and woke his drowsy patient. Nathan opened the door, and was stunned to see Paul Moore, the local farmer whose wife had recently delivered a baby.

"Nathan! Thank God, you're here! I need you - my boy needs you, please!" the young man exclaimed anxiously.

"What's wrong, Paul? Is it your new baby?" the healer asked.

"Yes, Nathan," Moore replied desperately, wringing his hands as he spoke. "He ain't breathing right. My wife is scared out of her mind, and I don't know what to do."

"How did you know I was here?" Jackson asked, confused.

"I heard in town the other day that the tracker was here - I just figured you would be, too. And thank God, you are. Please help us." The young farmer turned desperate, tear-filled eyes to the healer.

Nathan turned quickly towards Vin. What could he do?

Tanner met his eyes, and both knew there was no choice.

"I'll be all right, Nathan. Hell, be nice to be by myself fer awhile. Getting tired of havin' y'all fuss over me. Go on and help that little boy." I couldn't save her - but maybe you can save him.

Nathan was startled by what he'd heard Vin not say, as for a brief moment, he experienced the mystical connection that Vin and Chris shared.

"I'll be back as quick as I can, and Chris will be back tonight." Nathan looked at his watch. That could be hours. "Vin . . ." he hesitated.

"Go on, Nathan. That boy needs you." And then, with a slight twinkle in his eye, he added, "Promise I won't go nowhere."

Nathan wanted to be needed . . . needed to be needed - but he had never felt so torn in all his life. Placing a tall pitcher of water at Vin's side, he made sure the tracker was as comfortable as possible, and left with one last, longing glance.

+ + + + + + +

It was amazing how slowly time could pass. Vin meant what he said about not minding being alone - hell, he'd been alone most of his life. But as he watched the shadows fall outside his window, the long hours seemed to stretch into days. It was nearly dark, and the fire had gone out long ago. He was starting to get cold. Worse yet, all that tea he'd drunk really needed to make an exit - quickly. He'd be damned if he'd lay here and wet the bed.

He'd probably done that many times at first. His face turned crimson just thinking about it. But he was better now. He could have a coherent thought - sometimes several in a row - and he could move around a bit. He'd have to move now if he was going to do anything about his present situation. The chamber pot was just out of reach. Now why hadn't he or Nathan thought of that before he left? The chair was a possibility, though. He'd been putting some weight on his right leg, so surely he could get himself into that chair.

He had to strain to sit up and reach for the hated chair, but he did manage to pull it close without too much effort. The trick would be getting in it. He'd never tried it alone, but now was as good a time as any. He promised himself he would not moan, groan, or otherwise complain as he sat on the edge of the bed and lowered his aching limbs to the floor. At least his back was better, thanks to Nathan. He could never have attempted this earlier that day.

Gingerly placing his right foot flat on the ground, he reached over to grab hold of the right arm of the chair. Piece of cake. Just swing his butt around and sit down. His mistake was in forgetting that a chair on wheels rolls, which is exactly what happened as he made his move.

Vin ended up in a tangled heap on the floor, his right leg twisted beneath him, his head hitting hard on the solid wood floor. To his credit, he did not moan, groan, or complain - but proceeded directly to cursing. If he'd messed up his good leg, he'd shoot himself - if he could find his gun. And strangely enough, that thought soon consumed him. Where was his gun? He was left here alone, practically helpless, and he had no idea where his gun was. It shouldn't matter - the odds of needing it were slim. But it became the most important problem right then. Not reaching the pot - not getting off the floor - not relieving the pain that once again shot through his back and legs and head.

Where was his gun?

+ + + + + + +

The battle wasn't over by nightfall - in fact, it had only just begun. The outlaws entered the supposedly unsuspecting little town under the cloak of darkness. It made the shoot-out not only more dangerous, but longer in duration than Chris had hoped. All of the men tried not to think how much difference Vin on the rooftops might have made, even in the dark. In the end, the peacekeepers were victorious, though two of the criminals fled town. Two more were injured, while the remaining were pronounced dead.

Unfortunately, there were other injuries as well. Buck had taken a bullet in the shoulder, and Ezra had taken a blow to the head. By the time Chris and Josiah had both men settled in the clinic, it was well into the night.

Josiah had managed to get the bullet out of Buck, and Chris was grateful that it appeared his oldest friend would be up and around in a few days. Ezra woke with a nasty headache, and even nastier disposition, but it appeared he, too, would be no worse for the experience in a short time.

But Chris just couldn't relax as he paced the confines of the small clinic. He felt an urgent pull to get back to the cabin, and he couldn't figure out why. He didn't voice his feelings to Josiah because he, quite frankly, felt ridiculous. Vin was fine with Nathan. There was nothing to worry about. He had two wounded men here. He was needed here.

Josiah watched their leader's growing agitation with a curious eye. Obviously something was bothering the man, aside from two more of his men being hurt. Chris had been distracted since they'd left his homestead. He'd done his part in the gunfight, of course, more than his part - as if it were his personal responsibility to make up for their two missing counterparts. But now the man couldn't seem to sit down for five minutes.

"Why don't you head on back to Vin," Josiah suggested. "I'll be fine here with these two."

Chris looked seriously at the preacher, "I know you will, Josiah. But I don't like leaving JD alone. We've got two men in jail, and two more out loose somewhere."

Larabee pulled his hand through his hair - a gesture Sanchez had become very familiar with, and paced again. "No, I'll wait until morning at least," the gunman added, more to himself it seemed, than to the man he was speaking with.

Morning. Merely a few hours. Except Chris knew how much could happen in a few hours. He'd lived with that regret for years - and he couldn't live with it again. Vin had better be all right when he got there in the morning.

+ + + + + + +

It was the sound of his chattering teeth that woke Vin. The harsh noise seemed to penetrate all the way through him, causing his freezing limbs to tremble in a matching rhythm. For long moments, he couldn't recall where he was or what had happened. It was cold and dark - that much he knew for sure. He felt along the surface on which he lay, and remembered then that he was on the floor of Chris's cabin.

No wonder he was cold. Couldn't hardly call the warped, wooden boards of this old shack a floor, after all. The wind whipped up through the cracks and swirled around him, chilling him to his very bones. Hell, he'd be better off on the ground.

He'd wanted to fix that for Chris. Had offered time and again to come out and lay a new floor for him, but the damn, stubborn gunman had refused. Said he didn't much care about the floor. Well, he wouldn't have a choice now. As soon as Vin was better, that was the first thing he was going to do.

It started to come back to him then. How he'd gotten into the exact position he was in. He'd fallen. And even though he'd wanted to find his gun more than anything else - the urgency for the pot did win out. He'd had to crawl to it, and all he could think as he moved inch by agonizing inch was thank God, there was no one there to see him. Crawling along some drafty, wooden floor looking for a pot to piss in. Talk about going out like a mangy dog.

After he'd taken care of that urgent need, he tried to find the elusive gun. There was only one dresser in the small room, and it wasn't all that difficult to reach it. But he couldn't get to the top drawers without pulling himself up. He'd tried that a few times, maybe more, but he couldn't seem to get his leg to hold him long enough, or find the right way to balance, to pull open the drawer without falling. Time and again. Until the last time, when he apparently didn't get up.

So here he was - on this drafty half-floor with nothing on but his long underwear. He'd spent most of the last six weeks in his long-johns, with the legs cut off to accommodate the splints. Josiah had taken the splint off his right leg a few days ago. That was a happy moment. They never talked anymore about him not being able to walk. It was always "when this leg's stronger, we'll work on the other," and "when you're up walking again . . . " He appreciated that. He appreciated all they'd done, and he hoped he got the chance to tell them once more. He hoped he didn't freeze to death by the time Chris or Nathan got back.

Chris should have been back by now. That thought sent his heart to racing. What time was it? It had to be the middle of the night. Larabee would have been back by now if everything had gone all right. Of course, the gunman had no way of knowing that Nathan had left him there alone. Chris would kill the healer when he found out, especially if the blond rode in tomorrow and found him frozen on the floor. Vin wished he could write his best friend a note and say, "See - I told you to fix this damn floor!"

Now that was a dumb thought. Freezing must addle your brain. Suddenly, it occurred to him that he didn't have to stay there on the floor. He just needed to crawl back to the bed and pull himself into it. No one would even have to know that he'd fallen.

Everything hurt - but that wasn't new - and he felt so stiff that he wasn't sure he could move his little finger, let alone his whole body. He had to try, though. If Nathan came back first and found him this way, the compassionate healer would never get over the guilt. If Chris came back first . . . he didn't want to think about what would happen.

Chris had better be all right. All the guys had better be all right.

He'd almost gotten up the gumption to make a move, when he heard a sound outside the cabin. Horses. More than one, so it probably wasn't Nathan. Shit. Chris and Josiah were going to find him on the floor. Alone.

He heard voices arguing - and it was then that he realized it wasn't his friends at all. What was going on? What had happened in town? He resisted the urge to panic. He had to believe his friends were okay. He had to keep his head.

They were in the cabin now. Vin inched himself back into a corner, biting his lip to keep silent as he pulled himself up enough to wedge his back tightly between the walls. His legs remained out straight in front of him - nothing he could do about that. Hopefully, they'd have no reason to look in the small room.

Funny how he knew he needed that gun. Even funnier was how a beam of moonlight shone through the window just enough to cast a shadow on the back of the slightly ajar bedroom door. And there it was - hanging on a hook. The very hook that Vin himself had put there for Chris to hang his gun belt on. He remembered clearly teasing the gunslinger that, even though Chris probably wore his weapon to bed, it might be a good idea to have a place to hang it in case he ever got the notion to entertain Mary Travis there. The expression his friend fired at him was worth the stony silence that greeted him for the rest of that day.

Of course, how he was going to reach it without making a sound could pose a problem. He decided to sit a minute and listen.

"What did we stop here for? Let's just keep on going, before they come after us."

"Hell, there ain't many left to come after us."

Vin swallowed and willed his mind to remain calm.

The second voice went on, "We need to get some food. We're damn lucky we found this place - gonna take advantage of it. And come morning, I'm heading back there and taking care of Larabee."

"Yer just plumb crazy. Let it be or you'll end up dead, too," the first man said.

"He pretty near killed our friends by himself - got two more locked up, if you don't recall. Half his men are down. Now is the time and I'm takin' advantage of that, too."

Half of his men? Which half? Who was hurt and how badly? The only good news to come out of the conversation was that apparently Chris wasn't one of the wounded. It was no wonder he hadn't come back to the cabin, though. He was needed in town. And this guy would go gunning for him tomorrow.

Well, that wasn't going to happen. Not while Vin had breath in his body. Suddenly he remembered how, just that morning, he'd told Nathan that he didn't know if he could depend on himself anymore. And now here he was - totally alone with no choice but to depend on himself. But it wasn't just his life at stake.

And that made all the difference.

It was funny how, for the first time in weeks, he didn't hurt anymore. Funny, how easy it was to turn his body around and inch his way towards the partially opened bedroom door. He could hear the men rummaging about the cabin, searching for food. A soft glow from recently lit lamps threw a small ray of light into the tiny room, so Vin crept along the wall, deep in the shadows. He tuned out the men's voices now - his entire concentration on reaching the mare's leg that hung maybe five feet in the air on the unobtrusive peg.

He hoped he could snag it with the long reach of his arm, but he was short by several inches. He'd have to stand up. Without a second thought, he pulled himself up the adjacent wall, balancing on his right leg, until he could feel the cool handle of security firmly in his grasp. The "good" leg had suffered enough abuse for one day, however, and Vin felt it give out. He lowered his hands to catch his fall, dropping the gun in the process. His left leg - wrapped tightly within the solid splints that rendered the limb totally unbendable, slid out from under him, knocking the heavy timber door with a resounding thud.

His right leg twisted beneath him once more, and he barely bit back the groan that itched to escape. Not that it would matter now - they'd have to be deaf not to know someone was there. In a moment of panic, he searched desperately in the darkness for the fallen weapon, before recognizing the feel of the steel barrel resting under his left hip. Before he could reach for it, the lantern was at the doorway, held at arm's length by one of the outlaws.

It all came down to this moment. All the weeks of agony and confusion and despair . . . of wondering why and how and would he be able to go on . . . and did he want to? It all came down to this one, crystal clear moment when he must finally choose his own destiny.

He was still the same man. He'd always been a fighter. His friends' voices rang through his head - "We'll do it together" . . . "You got a whole lot now . . . six bull-headed men fightin' for you" . . . "I need you more." He had even more reason to fight now.

And he was still the same man. He was not helpless. He could still shoot.

Thank goodness his legs were broke and not his arms. Thank goodness Chris had cared enough to take away the morphine so he could think straight. Thank goodness he'd fallen out of bed and seen the gun.

The outlaw peered through the doorway, questioning in a threatening voice, "Who's there?"

In one fluid motion, Vin reached over, pulled his weapon out from under him, and fired. The man had no time to register shock or fear, as he was blown from the doorway into the room beyond.

Vin felt a moment of relief that the body hadn't landed on top of him, before he heard the second man's voice hollering, "What the hell?"

This one wouldn't be as easy. This guy would know what was coming. The tracker tried to maneuver his body away from the door so he could get a better view, but the cramped room made it difficult to move more than a few inches. The door remained partially open, with Vin partly behind it. In the dim light, he could see the other gunman cautiously approaching with his gun drawn. The angle was awkward, with him lying on the floor, but he managed to pull himself up on one elbow to get a better shot.

Tanner fired at the same moment the other man did. The outlaw's bullet sliced across Vin's side and splintered into the wood plank beneath him, but the tracker felt nothing as he watched his own bullet find it's target.

Vin cocked his weapon once more and remained ready. He saw the man go down, but he wasn't sure where he'd hit him - if he'd come up for another shot. When several minutes had passed, the sharpshooter finally eased himself back down off his elbow. His mare's leg suddenly felt heavy, and he let it slip to the floor.

It was only then that he realized he'd been hit. A burning pain lanced across his side, and instinctively, he moved is hand to find the source of this new problem. He felt the blood seep through his fingers and drip between the cracks of the wooden floor.

Chris would have to replace the floor now. Between his blood, and the two outlaws, it would be a god-awful mess.

He knew he should move. He should find something to cover his side. He should pull himself back into that bed and get warm. But the adrenaline that fueled him this far was draining as sure and swift as the blood that welled up beneath his hand.

Well, if this wasn't the damnedest thing. After all that had happened, he would bleed out here on Chris's floor by morning. Vin felt no anger, however - rather a strange peace settled over him. He wouldn't die a failed hero or wanted outlaw. He would die watching his friends' backs. That was the destiny he would have chosen all along.

+ + + + + + +

Chris rode full out, as if it mattered - as if he had a reason to. With his shoulders leaning into the wind and knees pressed tight against the flanks of his black, he hurtled forward to face - nothing. Surely nothing was wrong. Surely Nathan and Vin would look at him with puzzled frowns when at last he arrived like a violent wind.

All the while, his mind replayed the events of the last six weeks - from the moment he'd seen Vin under that wagon, until he'd left his best friend yesterday. Every gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, soul-bonding moment he and the scruffy tracker shared flashed before him and urged him on.

Because something was wrong - he knew it.

He crested the hill that overlooked his property and felt his heart plummet. There was no smoke. The air had cooled considerably since yesterday - it certainly was cold enough to warrant a fire. Nathan started a fire when the others were sweating, saying one of the men could catch a chill, which could lead to pneumonia, which could lead to a purely miserable death, and Lord help him, it wouldn't be his fault when that happened. Then there was Vin. Tanner was always cold. There should be a fire.

Something was wrong.

Two horses mulled about his property and he felt the blood rush to his head. How could it be? What kind of stupid, rotten luck would lead the two outlaws to his cabin?

He had to remind himself to breathe when he suddenly felt light-headed and nauseous. His legs turned to rubber, and he quickly remembered feeling the same sensation as he ran across that muddy road to where his best friend lay under the wagon.

There was not a single sound coming from the small structure, but still he resisted the urge to rush headlong inside. He pulled his weapon and entered slowly, holding his breath now as he steeled himself for what he might find.

Two bodies lay sprawled out on his floor, and his initial relief that neither of them were his friends, quickly left him when he determined that he still had no idea what had happened to Nathan and Vin. He called out for the two men as he rapidly approached the bedroom.

The door to the small room stood partially open - just enough for him to see a third body on the floor inside. The stark white dressings on the leg left no doubt to whom the body belonged.

He couldn't do it anymore. The wall was cracking clean apart and he couldn't shore it up one more time. If Vin were dead, he would break into a thousand pieces and he would not, could not rebuild himself again. It was that simple.

Gingerly, he stepped over the bodies and entered the cramped room. Vin lay on his back, his right leg twisted beneath him. Chris almost threw up at that alone. If Tanner had broken it again - if he had to start over . . . but as the blond knelt next to friend, he didn't think it would matter after all. Vin's skin was nearly translucent, his lips blue-tinged. His hand lay over the deep gash on his left side, as if he'd tried to hold in the vital fluid that leaked out of him. Chris took his own hand then, and laid it over the tracker's long, bloody fingers, and felt how shockingly cold they were.

He could hardly bring himself to look at Vin's face, but instantly, another memory blazed its way into his mind - the glassy look in his friend's eyes as he laid on the muddy ground while Chris searched desperately for a pulse. The gunman repeated that action now, praying that this man who meant so much to him could cheat death one more time.

When he found the faint but steady pulse below his trembling fingertips, it was as if his own heart resumed beating - as if the wall that was him would not collapse, because its cornerstone still stood. But relief soon gave way to uncertainty, and he found himself in the unusual predicament of not knowing what to do first. He should get Tanner into the bed, should get him patched up, should get the bodies out of there, should start the fire, should find Nathan.

Oh God. Where was Nathan? He could very well be lying somewhere hurt. Or dead.

Larabee quickly grabbed the blanket from the nearby bed and wrapped it around his wounded friend. Once again he stepped over the bodies, less gingerly this time, and raced outside. He rounded the cabin three times, calling for Jackson. The man's horse was no where in site, prompting the gunman to believe that the healer had left for some reason. But that made no sense. There was no way Nathan would leave Vin there alone and helpless.

Although, from the looks of the dead men, Tanner wasn't as helpless as they'd assumed. Chris knew by the mare's leg that lay at Vin's side that the tracker had been the one to finish off the gang. Damn Texan was determined to die a hero, but he wasn't going to be given that option again.

Larabee hurried back inside, clear now on what needed to be done first. He just barely resisted the temptation to kick the outlaws as he stepped over them yet again. Scooping the tracker up in his arms, he gently carried him to the bed and laid him down. Pulling aside the sodden undershirt, he noted that the wound was not long, but deep, and that it had nearly stopped oozing the dark red blood. The cold may have had something to do with that, he thought - may have kept Vin from bleeding to death.

The men had come well stocked with supplies, and Chris reached for the carbolic and bandages now. Vin moaned as the stinging liquid was poured liberally on his wound, and Chris thought he'd never heard such a welcome sound. For weeks, the younger man's groans of discomfort had sliced through the gunman and tortured him so that he'd have done anything to make them stop. Now he was nearly giddy with relief that Vin had enough life in him to protest.

Chris wasn't as deft as Nathan at applying a bandage, but he managed to do a pretty fair job wrapping the dressings around Tanner's slim waist. He finished in time to see his friend open his blue eyes just a slit and peer at him questioningly.

"Chr . . .is?" he stammered.

"Right here, Pard." Larabee said quietly.

"Y'okay? The . . . boys?"

Larabee held back the emotion that threatened to choke him as he answered, "I'm fine, Vin. Buck and Ezra got banged up a bit, but they'll be fine, too. Just not too sure about you. Wish you could stay out of trouble for a change."

"Watched . . . yer back. Don't quit . . . in the middle . . . of a job," Vin rasped.

"Yeah, I know. You did good, Vin," Chris responded tenderly.

Vin groaned in earnest then and mumbled, "My leg hurts."

Chris had forgotten about that, and as he moved aside the covers to check the injured man's lower extremities, he noted that Vin was dropping off again. With sudden urgency, he inquired, "Vin - where's Nathan?"

"Nathan's . . . gone." With that, the tracker slipped back into the darkness, leaving his best friend with no more information than he'd had to begin with.

Chris had just begun to look over Vin's legs, although he wasn't sure what he was looking for, when he heard the distinct sound of a horse approaching the cabin. He was about to pull his firearm when he heard Nathan's deep voice bellow, "Vin! Chris!"

Nathan had noted Chris's black out front, along with two other unfamiliar steeds, and knew something must have happened. Gasping as he entered the small dwelling and viewed the two bodies that littered the floor, he called out for both men.

He had thought he was prepared to meet Chris's wrath, knowing the gunman would be upset that he had left Vin alone. But when the blond left the bedroom, walking across the bodies as if they weren't there, Nathan knew much more had happened than he could possibly have imagined. And that Larabee's anger had risen proportionately.

The gunman poked his finger into the healer's chest and demanded, "Where the hell did you go?"

Nathan tried to look past the angry man into the bedroom beyond. "What happened to Vin? Is he all right?" he asked, suddenly panicked.

"Now you're worrying about Vin? Where the hell were you? How could you leave him?"

Chris's steely green eyes bore holes into Nathan, and the dark-skinned man looked away as he tried to explain. "Chris . . ."

He got no further before the gunman interrupted him. "Of course, what did I expect? You haven't been here for him for weeks, why would I think you'd care enough to stick around now?" Chris knew it was a low blow, but he could not see beyond his anger - could hardly stand to even look at the man before him.

Nathan lowered his head, the truth behind those words stinging hard. He tried once more to explain, "Chris, I had to go. . . I had to . . ." but he knew his words would not be enough. That nothing he could say would be enough if Vin were hurt again.

"Please, Chris. Just tell me what happened. Just let me look at him," Jackson pleaded.

"He was shot. Found him - and them, this morning when I rode in." The gunman replied shortly. He turned to go back to the bedroom and added without looking back, "Take these bodies back to town with you."

Nathan stood very still. He wanted to barge into the bedroom and demand to see Vin, but he knew that he had lost that right. There was nothing he could do - nothing he could say. Nothing that could ever bring back the friendship and respect he'd so valued from Chris Larabee.

He would leave town and go someplace where he could never be needed again.

+ + + + + + +

JD couldn't believe his eyes. Rushing out into the street, he ran straight into Mrs. Potter. With a blush and an apology, he brushed on past her and made a beeline for the undertaker's. He watched as Nathan tied the reins from the two strange horses loosely around a post, and noted with a mixture of fear and fascination the obvious bundles on the creatures' backs.

He approached the healer at the same time as Josiah, whose puzzled expression no doubt mirrored his own.

JD spoke first, or tried to. "Nathan? Where did . . .? How did you . . .? Who are these guys?"

"Got no idea," Jackson replied abruptly.

"They're the rest of that gang from last night," Josiah supplied.

"Yeah? You sure?" JD asked.

"Recognize the horses," Sanchez answered.

"Well damn! How did you come across 'em, Nathan?" Dunne wondered.

"Didn't," the healer answered wearily as moved towards the clinic with both men on his heels.

JD was nothing if not persistent. "Well who did then?"


"Vin!" Josiah and JD exclaimed in unison.

Josiah grabbed his old friend's arm and stopped him mid-stride. "I reckon you've got something you need to share with us, Nathan."

Jackson stopped walking, but kept his eyes on the ground as he spoke. "Vin shot them out at the cabin. I don't know much more than that."

"But how? Vin's . . . well, you know. I mean, how could he?" JD stammered once more.

Nathan finally looked up at the two men, and Josiah clearly saw that his friend's already dark eyes were even darker with guilt. "What's going on, Nathan? What aren't you telling us?"

Jackson sighed. "While Vin was shootin' them, one of them shot him."

Josiah held his breath. Surely they wouldn't lose Vin now, not after all they'd been through. "How bad?" he asked, nearly choking on the question.

Nathan looked directly at the preacher now, at once reluctant and relieved to share his despair. "Don't know. Chris wouldn't let me near 'im."

Josiah's brows drew together while JD struggled to understand what had happened.

"I don't get it. Where were you?" the kid asked.

"The Moore baby was sick - couldn't breathe right. I had to go," Jackson answered softly.

"You left Vin alone?" JD questioned incredulously.

Nathan nearly lost his tenuous grip on his composure. Yes, he'd left Vin alone. Yes, Vin had run into trouble - or rather, trouble had run into him. Yes, Vin might be dying and Chris would never speak to him again. What did they want from him? What did they want him to say?

Fortunately, Josiah recognized immediately the impossible dilemma his friend had found himself in, and stepped forward. He put an arm around the dark-skinned man's shoulders and asked gently, "How is the child?"

Relieved at the change of subject, Nathan answered, "Doin' better. I couldn't leave him all night, though." He paused. "I thought Chris would be back. I thought it would only be for a few hours. I thought . . . I didn't think . . ." he ended sadly.

Josiah replied, "You couldn't have known. No one could have known. You head on up and check on Ezra and Buck." At Nathan questioning glance, he added, "They were both hurt last night. I did my best with them, but they need you."

Jackson visibly flinched at that. He'd made up his mind not to be needed anymore. But he could hardly leave town now - at least not until the two men were up and about. In spite of what Larabee believed, it wasn't his way to turn his back on a friend, and so he climbed the clinic stairs with stooped shoulders.

JD was still shaking his head. "Damn, Josiah. How do you think Vin did that?"

Sanchez gave the youth a grim smile as he moved off towards the livery. "He's still Vin," was all he said.