Josiah Sanchez slowly scraped the flaking paint from the doorjamb, one of the seemingly endless improvements the old church required before it could return to fulfill its role in the growing town. The task would have been completed hours ago if his attention hadn't been diverted by the two men sitting outside the saloon. They had barely moved a muscle or spoken a word in two hours. Josiah was known for his tolerance, but these two could try the patience of a saint, and Josiah was no saint. He wanted to talk to one of those men alone, but as minutes stretched into hours his chance of attaining his goal looked up obtainable.
The older of the two men, Chris Larabee, finally rose and walked to the livery. With a snort of self disgust, Josiah remembered the gunslinger had the evening patrol. His vigil had been for nothing, all he'd had to do was wait until it was time for Chris to leave. Putting down the scraper, he was disappointed to see Vin Tanner leave his seat and enter the saloon. Hoping he might find the tracker at a table by himself, Josiah brushed the paint chips from his clothes and walked quickly to the noisy bar. Peering over the batwing doors, he saw Vin sitting at their usual table - and he was alone. A relieved smile curving his lips, Josiah pushed the rest of the way inside. He had barely taken two steps when he saw Buck Wilmington cross to the table and take the seat next to Vin. Stopping in his tracks, Josiah listened to the one-sided conversation, expecting the ladies' man to be enticed away by one of the saloon girls. His hopes were dashed when he saw Buck slump down in his chair, obviously not intending to leave any time soon.
"Damn, Vin, how about buyin' me a drink?" the rogue pleaded. "I ain't got two pennies ta rub tagether."
Josiah had to strain to hear the tracker's softly spoken reply.
"What makes ya think I do?"
"If'n ya ain't got any money, whaddya doin' in here?"
"Same as you. Waitin' fer someone ta buy me a drink."
Buck sat up straighter and looked around. "Where's Ezra?"
"Hidin' over there." With a nod of his head, Vin indicated the table in the opposite corner.
"Wait here." Buck rose. "I'll be back."
Tempted to try to talk to Vin before the ladies' man returned, Josiah fought the urge. He wanted an honest answer, not one given in haste.
Disappointed, he left the drinking establishment and retraced his steps to the church. The interior was bathed in shadows the setting sun couldn't penetrate, a reflection of his mood. Dropping onto the closest pew, he leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees. He truly believed in fate. Was his inability to get Vin alone a sign? Should he rethink the request he had wanted to make of the tracker?
"Did ya wanna talk ta me, Preacher?"
Surprised, Josiah jumped to his feet, banging his knee on the bench in front of him. "Vin!"
"Reckon ya been tryin' ta talk ta me all afternoon." Vin rested a hip against the doorframe.
"I wanted to ask . . ." Josiah rubbed his bruised knee, dismayed to find himself tongue tied. "Would you--"
"When do ya wanna leave?"
Wondering if Vin could read his mind as he did Chris Larabee's, Josiah gasped, "Tomorrow morning?"
"I'll meet ya in the livery at dawn."
As abruptly as he appeared, the tracker disappeared, making Josiah wonder if the brief exchange had actually taken place or was a figment of his imagination.
He would find out at sunrise.
Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Buck stumbled into the stable silently cursing Chris Larabee. No self-respecting crook was up at this time of the morning, so why did the peacekeepers have to be? A yawn opened his mouth so wide he was afraid his jaw would crack.
"Did ya miss breakfast, Bucklin? Tryin' ta catch a few flies?" an amused voice drawled.
Shocked to find the barn wasn't as deserted as it should be at this hour, Buck was suddenly wide awake. Watching Vin and Josiah lead their tacked mounts from their stalls, he grumbled, "I thought I had mornin' patrol."
"Ya do." Vin stopped at the ladies' man side, allowing Josiah to go on ahead of him. "Tell Chris we'll be back in a couple days."
"Wait a minute." Buck grabbed Vin's arm in a horrified grip. "Where do I tell 'im ya went?"
Gently freeing himself, Vin shrugged and followed Josiah outside. "Don't rightly know."
"Ya don't know where yer goin'?"
Mounting Peso, Vin tightened the reins on the spirited animal. "Josiah knows."
"Josiah?" Buck quickly turned his attention to the preacher, tempted to fall to his knees and beg. "Where ya goin'?"
"To seek salvation, brother." Josiah smiled broadly, before touching his heels to his horse's sides.
"Couldn't ya look fer it here in Four Corners?" Buck shouted after the departing preacher.
"See ya, Bucklin."
A wink from Vin as he let his impatient mount grab the bit told Buck the tracker knew exactly what he was in for when he told Larabee two of his men had ridden out without a word of explanation. Buck had a feeling his head was about to be separated from his shoulders.
Chris' neck didn't move, but his eyes continually scanned the town as he walked slowly towards the saloon. His actions didn't arouse the curiosity of anyone he passed. To them, what he was doing was not unusual. The gunslinger was merely protecting the small community - as Judge Travis had hired him to do.
However, if any of those pedestrians could have read his mind, they would have discovered Chris Larabee was only worried about one man at the moment - Vin Tanner. The tracker was generally the first to rise and could normally be found sitting in front of the saloon with a cup of coffee. This morning, the chair was empty, initiating Chris' unease.
Though he realized there could be a simple explanation, the five-hundred dollar bounty on Vin's head made Chris fret whenever he didn't know exactly where his friend was every minute. Chris realized Vin would hate his smothering concern if he knew it existed, so Chris was careful to keep it well hidden. His life had changed the day he looked across a dusty street into angry blue eyes. Vin and five other men had given him a reason to live - a purpose he hadn't had since the death of his wife and son.
Noticing the sheriff in front of the General Store, Chris called, "JD, have ya seen Vin?"
"Sorry, Chris." JD shook his head. "I'll tell 'im yer lookin' fer 'im if'n I see 'im."
Chris nodded a silent acknowledgment of the boy's intentions as he ruefully realized he would have to come up with some excuse to explain why he was looking for Vin before the tracker found him.
It was a quiet ride until they were well clear of the town. With a sigh of resignation, Josiah reined his horse down to a walk and waited for the tracker to pull up beside him. "I'm sorry, Vin. I should've told you where we were going before I let you agree to come along."
"I reckon I know where we're goin'." Vin leaned forward, dropping his arm over his saddle horn. "Weren't fer me ta tell."
Tension drained from Josiah's body. For the first time in two days, he felt himself relaxing. "I got a letter from Father Manuel in Vista City. He feels my sister has had a breakthrough."
"That's right good news, Josiah."
"Hannah has always loved to paint. But since her breakdown, the pictures have been abstract with no apparent purpose or meaning. Apparently, she just finished a new drawing." Josiah studied Vin's face. "It's of you."
"Me?" Vin sat up. Shocked blue eyes rested on his companion's face. "She was scared ta death of me."
Having seen his sister's reaction to strangers, Josiah could imagine the greeting Vin received when he suddenly appeared in her sanctuary. Now that he knew Vin had corrected guessed their destination, he was surprised the younger man had agreed to accompany him. Most people avoided someone with a mental illness. "Before she took sick," Josiah hesitated, "Hannah was a good judge of character. Apparently, she isn't immune to your charms."
"Charm? Me?" Vin snorted derisively. "I went in where I wasn't suppose ta be and scared her ta death."
"You obviously left an impression. It's why I asked you along," Josiah confessed. "I'm hoping that seeing you again will help her recover more of who she was."
Vin nodded as he promised, "I'll do what I can. But I didn't do nuthin' b'fore, so don't expect much."
"I've already gotten more than I ever believed possible."
Buck exited the livery, brushing the trail dust from his clothes. Though it wasn't yet noon, he needed a drink, something stronger than the lukewarm water from his canteen. Salivating in anticipation of a cool beer, he headed for the saloon glad it was pay day. For once, he could buy his own - if Ezra didn't happen to be around.
Even this early in the day the bar was doing a booming business. Entering, Buck paused to allow his sun-blinded eyes to adjust to the gloom. When he saw Chris sitting at the table the seven generally frequented, he almost retraced his steps. But, he knew he couldn't avoid the gunslinger for two days. Envisioning the inevitable encounter would make his life ugly. And he hated ugly.
Grabbing his beer from the bartender, he downed half its contents before taking a seat next to his old friend. "Howdy, Chris."
"Buck." Larabee acknowledged the rogue's arrival. "Have ya seen Vin?"
Deciding if he had to die it would be with a sated palate, Buck swallowed the rest of his beer. "He rode out early this mornin' with Josiah."
"Where'd they go?"
Experience telling him the mild puzzlement would turn to a fiery rage with his next words, Buck braced himself. "Vin didn't know where they were goin'."
"He… didn't… know?" The sentence was spoken slowly, demanding confirmation.
Buck hastily tried to appease the irate man. "Josiah knew."
"Did Josiah say where they were going?"
Knowing he was just adding fuel to a blazing fire, Buck stuttered, "H-he said to seek salvation."
"To… seek… salvation," Chris repeated. "They better pray God grants their desire. They're gonna need it the next time I see them."
The closer they rode to Vista City, the harder it was for Josiah to contain his enthusiasm. In all the years since his sister had taken ill, this was the first sign of hope. What was there about Vin Tanner that would make Hannah want to rejoin the world? What was there in a stranger's face that had made such a difference? It wasn't the first time Vin had been instrumental in liberating a person's soul. He had done it for Chris Larabee. It was hard for Josiah not to hope the tracker could do it again for his sister.
With a happiness he had not felt in too many years, Josiah nudged his horse into a slow jog, anxious to arrive at their destination. They were within sight of the old mission when he felt a hand closing over his, reinforcing a hissed order.
"Josiah, pull up."
"If it had been any other man, Josiah would have demanded an explanation before complying. With Vin, he didn't think twice. "What's wrong?"
"It looks like the Mission's got company." Vin dug into his saddlebag and pulled out his spyglass.
Barely able to see the old Spanish compound from this distance, Josiah tried to figure out what had caught Vin's eye, alerting him to the possible dangers ahead. He studied the scene for several minutes before finally seeing a cloud of dust rising outside the old adobe building. It could only be coming from the churning of horses' feet - lots of horses. Wondering if Vin could distinguish anything through the haze, Josiah asked, "Can you make out who it is?"
"It looks like Mexican banditos."
"Isn't this a bit far north for them?"
"Too far if'n they're seekin' redemption. Not too far for gold or jewels." Vin carefully replaced his glass in his saddlebag. "I reckon them sisters are gonna need help. Can they expect the sheriff from Vista City?"
"They don't have a sheriff or any other kind of law in Vista City."
"Then, I guess we're it." Vin turned Peso to the right. "Come on, I know a back way in. A little boy showed it to me the last time I was here. Keep the horses at a walk. We don't want them bandits finding us the same way we found them."
Though they were only a couple hours ride on a fast horse from Four Corners, Josiah knew the inhabitants in the church couldn't wait a couple hours for help. Even he could now tell there were forty or more desperados. Despite the odds against them, Josiah couldn't run away, even if his sister hadn't been in danger. That type of man had no respect for religion. The nuns would merely be obstacles that needed to eliminated - or used.
Fighting the urge to rush into the fray, Josiah trustingly followed Vin. His muscles tensed at every yell and gunshot from the threatening mob.
At the north-east corner of the mission, Vin slipped off his horse. A section of the wall butted out, leaving an opening big enough for a horse to pass through.
Dismounting, Josiah followed the tracker into a small garden. He looked around in surprise, regretting that they and their mounts were trampling the plants underfoot. This was a section of the Mission he had never seen before. He absently wondered which of the four nuns was responsible. The priest had only recently been assigned here. The garden was too established to be the work of a few months.
Josiah copied Vin's actions and secured his reins through his mount's headstall. This would leave the animal free to roam, yet keep the reins from slipping off their necks where they could be stepped on and broken, and at the same time leaving the horses prepared if a fast escape became necessary. As he retrieved his rifle and saddlebags, Josiah knew the pretty little garden would be eaten. He regretted the destruction; if they could save the person who had created it new flowers could be sown.
Though he knew it was a wasted effort, he tried not to step on any of the blossoms as he followed Vin to a door set in a recessed part of the wall. The opening was so low and narrow, Josiah was forced to duck and walk sideways. He envied Vin, who's lithe build allowed him to sidle through with ease.
Once inside, Vin dropped his saddlebags. Digging through them, he pulled out extra ammunition he'd packed and put it in the pockets of his buckskin coat.
Watching his friend, Josiah softly swore. His rifle and pistol were loaded, but he had not thought to bring extra shells except for what was already on his gun belt. They were visiting a church. The prospect of a gun battle had been the furthest thing from his thoughts. Feeling a tap on his shoulder, Josiah gratefully accepted the box Vin handed him. Trust the sharpshooter to be prepared for everything - even a companion who had been caught napping.
Totally confident with Vin's instincts, Josiah tread on his heels as they made their way through the mission to the main entrance. They didn't encounter anyone, giving him hope the priest, the nuns and his sister had found a safe place to hide. When they reached their goal, his heart dropped when he looked out the small window set in the door. Father Manuel and Sister Mary were facing down the bandits from behind the presumed safety of the locked gates.
"There is no treasure," Father Manuel vehemently denied.
Josiah could tell by the exasperation and fear in the old man's voice this wasn't the first time he had relayed this piece of information.
"You say that now." One of the bandits spit into the dirt and calmly lowered his rifle so it was aimed at the priest. "That's not what you say in town."
"The treasure is not what you think," Manuel argued.
Closing his eyes, Josiah rested his head against the cool adobe wall, wishing it could tell him what to do.
"What's wrong, Josiah?" Vin quietly demanded.
"The so-called treasure they're after is my sister," Josiah explained. "I've heard the father refer to her as 'my treasure'."
"They ain't gonna accept that and go away."
A gunshot drew their attention back to the group in the courtyard. Blood staining his robe, Father Manuel's hands clawed at the gaping hole in his chest as he slowly sank to the ground.
Her hands covering her mouth, Sister Mary dropped to her knees beside him, as a bullet cut down the bandit responsible for the priest's death.
"Josiah, cover me."
The order bringing him out of the momentary shock the pointless murder had wrapped around his mind, Josiah grabbed the still smoking rifle Vin thrust into his hand. Leaning it against the wall within easy reach, he brought his own up to his shoulder. Without taking the time to aim, he fired at the confused outlaws drawing down on the weeping nun. Surprise was on their side. By the grace of God, Vin would be able to rescue Sister Mary and bring her back into the relative safety of the mission before the bandits knew what hit them.
Guided by the sound of the Mare's Leg, Josiah pinpointed Vin's position long after the courtyard had become obscured in a cloud of dust and gunpowder. When two figures suddenly appeared in front of him, he knew by the distinctive discharge of the weapon in the taller apparition's hand that they were Vin and the Sister.
Once the two were inside, Josiah stopped shooting. Unable to see a target, he was wasting ammunition, something he had a feeling he would regret later on. Keeping a close eye out of the small window in the door, he reloaded the rifles, his fingers expertly finding the empty chambers and refilling them.
Sister Mary looked at the two men expectantly. "Father Manuel is hurt. You have to save him."
"There ain't nothin' we kin do fer the dead, Ma'am," Vin gently confided, drawing her further away from the door and back into the shadows.
Realizing the locked gate wouldn't be much of a barrier to the determined thieves, Josiah never took his eyes from the approach to the entrance. "Are you two all right?"
"I'm fine," Sister Mary snapped. "But Father Manuel isn't."
"We're aware of that, Sister." An alarm sounded in Josiah's head when his friend failed to answer his question. Josiah allowed his gaze to shift to the man guarding the other side of the door. "Vin?"
"I took one in the side."
His stomach twisting painfully at the quietly spoken revelation, Josiah's voice was steady as he probed, "How bad?"
"I ain't Nathan."
"How bad?" Josiah growled. Between the seven of them, they had sustained enough injuries to be able to tell if one was serious or not.
"The bullet's still in there."
Bad, Josiah silently acknowledged, knowing Vin had already made that assessment himself.
"Buck, where ya goin'?"
The simple question made Buck's heart race, until his mind identified the speaker as JD Dunne. Resting his head against his horse's neck, Buck grumbled, "Ain't I taught ya it's dangerous ta sneak up on a man?"
"I wasn't sneakin'. Ya jus' weren't payin' attention."
Recovered from his scare, Buck returned to tightening his cinch. He wanted to get out of town before Chris found him. His head was still attached to his shoulders, but he was convinced it wouldn't be there much longer if Chris Larabee had his way. To say the gunslinger was angry would be a gross understatement.
"So, where 're ya headed?" JD repeated.
"None of yer business."
"Yer gonna try ta find Vin and Josiah."
Unhooking the halter, Buck dropped it and slipped the bridle over his horse's head. "I know which way they went. About the only town in that direction is Vista City. Josiah seems ta go there a lot. It shouldn't be too hard ta find 'em. Tell Chris I'll be back in a couple days."
"No way," JD snorted. Crossing to the stall where his own mount was munching contentedly on a flake of hay, he entered. "I'm too young ta die."
"Whaddya think yer doin'?" Buck suspiciously demanded as JD led the gelding out.
"Goin' with you."
"That's where I'll end up if'n I stay here."
Peeking outside, Buck growled, "Well, hurry up."
The dust had settled, revealing an empty courtyard - barren except for the body of Father Manuel and those bandits Josiah's bullets had cut down. Even as he silently prayed for the fallen priest, Josiah was crossing to Vin's side. His prayer changed to one of salvation for the younger man. "Let me look at it, Vin."
"We ain't got time."
"They'll be back."
"I'll be ready after I've taken care of you."
"Ain't much ya kin do. It would be better if ya kept watch."
Josiah ignored the complaint and knelt at Vin's side. He was dismayed to find Vin was right. There was no exit wound. In the last few months, Josiah had learned a lot from Nathan Jackson about how to treat injuries. The one thing he didn't trust himself to do was remove a bullet.
Her eyes filled with tears as they rested on the body outside, Sister Mary asserted, "All we have to do is make them understand there is no treasure."
"From what we overheard," Josiah pointed out, "Father Manuel tried to do that very thing with no luck."
"We have to try again."
Pain causing his voice to become more raspy than usual, Vin insisted, "They won't believe you, now more than ever. They'll think we're here ta protect the treasure."
"And they'd be right," Josiah ironically realized.
"There has to be a way to stop more needless deaths," the Sister cried in frustration.
Hissing as Josiah's probing fingers discovered a particularly sore spot, Vin growled, "The only way ta stop 'em is ta give 'em what they want."
"But there is no treasure."
"We know that, but they don't. There ain't nothin' ya kin say ta make 'em understand."
"This is insane." Sister Mary pounded the door in frustration.
Turning a deaf ear to the irate woman, Josiah ordered, "Get me some hot water and bandages." When the older woman ignored him, Josiah barked, "Father Manuel is beyond your earthly help. My friend isn't."
"There ain't nothin' ya kin do, Josiah."
Josiah knew Vin's words were meant to inform as well as absolve him. As much as he wanted to deny it, he knew Vin was right. He could tell by the shallow breathing and the care taken with each inhalation that the bullet was resting near a nerve or muscle, causing the tracker pain with every breath and making it far too dangerous for Josiah to use his limited medical knowledge to try to extract it. The most he could do was clean the entry wound to try to prevent infection, and bandage it to stop the bleeding.
While his hands continued their ministrations, Josiah's mind broadcast a silent plea for help, addressing it to the highest authority he knew. Here, of all places, he should be heard.
No sooner had Sister Mary appeared with the requested items than the sound of the returning bandits breached the adobe walls.
"Josiah, git me over to that window." Vin pointed to a small opening in the furthest corner from the door.
"You're in no shape--" the preacher started to protest.
"We best all hope yer wrong. Or we're dead."
First Vin and Josiah had disappeared, now Buck and JD. Chris glared at the full glass of whiskey sitting on the table in front of him. When he got his hands on them, they would know better than to leave without telling him. Now all he had to do was think of a suitable punishment. Something that would insure they would be more considerate in the future.
The saloon was remarkably quiet for this time of day. Glancing up, Chris could see everyone was huddled on the far side of the room. Puzzled, he watched as several men quickly downed the remainder of their drinks and practically ran from the bar.
Had everyone in town gone crazy?
As his horse crested the small rise, Buck pulled him down from a slow canter into a walk. Raising up in his stirrups, he pulled his hat low, shading his eyes from the bright sun, and wishing he had Vin's spyglass.
"What's wrong, Buck?" JD reined his mount in beside his friend.
"That dust up ahead." Buck pointed to the haze hovering over what looked like a mission. "Means there's a whole lotta horses."
"So why would there be that many riders at a church?"
"Maybe there's a wedding."
The sound of gunshots reached their ears, making an answer to JD's suggestion unnecessary. Pulling his gun, Buck ordered, "JD, go back ta Four Corners and git Chris, Nathan and Ezra."
"What're you gonna do?" JD eyed the drawn weapon.
"Go help Vin and Josiah."
"What makes ya think they're in that mission?"
"Vin's tendency ta be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Face flushed with concern, JD demanded, "Why can't I stay'n help Vin and Josiah and you go after Chris?"
"'Cause yer lighter and yer horse is faster," Buck growled, Leaning over, he slapped JD's mount on the rump. "Now go."
Knowing he couldn't afford to waste ammunition, Josiah waited until he had a target before firing. It was difficult to see through the dense cloud of dust. Afraid a bandit would sneak over the gate and get the drop on him, he barely blinked. He didn't fear death. He'd faced it too often to dread it. But he knew what would happen to the nuns and his sister if he wasn't there to protect them. And, with his looks, Vin's fate was too unspeakable to contemplate.
Unable to use sight to keep tabs on his wounded friend, Josiah used sound. Each explosion from the Winchester in Vin's hands was audible evidence he had not succumbed to his injury.
Yet, even as he fired his own weapon with deadly precision, guilt preyed on Josiah's mind like a hawk stalking a mouse. Vin wouldn't be in this situation with a bullet in his side if he hadn't asked the tracker to accompany him. He knew if Vin died, his own future looked bleak. If the bandits or Chris Larabee didn't get him, his conscience would.
The prospect of his own death had never unduly worried him. While he no longer saw crows, he knew death was the inevitable end of life. It just couldn't be Vin's time so soon. He had suffered much in too few years, having only recently found a measure of peace and happiness. Thanks to six men as different as the proverbial night and day, except where it counted - watching each others backs. They were seven separate souls who had somehow forged an unbreakable bond, or so it had seemed.
When Chris had announced his intention to leave Four Corners to stay with Ella Gaines, Josiah had evaluated the these men who had become so important to him, so he would be prepared for what had seemed the group's inevitable disbandment, just as they had done when Judge Travis hired a "real" marshal. To his surprise, he realized they had changed since those early days. They wouldn't go their separate ways again. Whenever Chris was out at his shack or away on business, Vin had reluctantly but firmly taken the reins of leadership. While each of them had an important position in the group, only Vin filled dual roles. He was important to each man for different reasons.
For Chris, he was the young, sassy brother who could read the gunslinger like a book and had made him want to live again not just exist.
To Buck, Vin had been his redemption. When Vin brought Chris back from the brink of hell, he had given Buck back his old friend. Which in turn, had given the gregarious man the confidence and courage to make friends again. The relationship Buck had forged with JD would not have been possible if Chris Larabee hadn't reconnected with life - and Buck Wilmington.
For JD, Vin was a teacher. He didn't force lessons down the boy's throat like Buck did. He quietly showed JD how to track, shoot and live off the land, skills the Easterner had never needed in Boston. They were tricks that would keep him alive in the West.
With Vin, Nathan had found an equal. Many people judged both men by their appearance, never looking beyond the black skin or buckskin coat to see the compassionate souls underneath. Those who were blind to the two men's differences were gifted with a friendship beyond compare.
Ezra had been one of the first to make this discovery. The gambler's relationship with Vin was the most difficult for Josiah to analyze. Ezra was a loner, by design, probably, by profession, definitely. His southern background explained why he had initially accepted Nathan at face value. But there was no obvious reason why the same hadn't been true of Vin. Ezra actually seemed to consider Vin a friend, more so than he did any of the others. It was probably the first time he had viewed a person in that light. The first time he could call a person friend and know it was true.
The sound of the Winchester firing two shots in quick succession broke through Josiah's contemplation. He had to keep Vin alive as much for the men they rode with as for himself. Vin was the only one who seemed to understand the demons inside him. Josiah knew he needed that insight. It helped quiet the raging voices.
Grateful for Peso's soft neigh which had led him to the hidden alcove, Buck entered the mission, shutting the heavy wooden door behind him. He looked around for a plank that would ensure it stayed locked if anyone else happened to stumble across the entrance.
In a niche near the entry, he found the long slat, covered with dust. As quickly and quietly as possible, he slid it over the metal hooks drilled into the stones on each side of the door. At least now, he wouldn't have to worry about someone sneaking up behind him - as he was about to do to Vin and Josiah. He hoped it was his friends' guns he was hearing.
Drawing his own pistol, he kept close to the adobe walls of the dark corridor as he ambled towards the sound of the firing weapons. When he reached the end, he cautiously peeked into what appeared to be a foyer. Josiah stood at the door, his rifle poking out of the small window into the courtyard. Vin was crouched behind a broken glass pane in the opposite corner.
Now that he had established their location, Buck was at a loss on how to announce his presence. A sudden appearance could be welcomed with a bullet. Staying where he was wasn't an option. The two men were badly outnumbered and needed his help.
"Hold yer fire, Josiah," Vin's raspy voice ordered. "They're goin' away."
Taking advantage of the relative quiet and that both men were reloading their guns, Buck stepped out. "Howdy, boys, need a hand?"
"I reckon we wouldn't say no to an extra gun," Vin agreed with a shaky smile, showing no surprise at Buck's unexpected arrival.
"Buck." Josiah leaned his rifle against the wall, unconcerned with the ladies' man's sudden appearance, merely grateful for the extra guns. "Keep an eye out while I take care of Vin."
"I told ya, Josiah. There ain't anythin'' more ya kin do," Vin growled.
"Let me be the judge of that."
As Buck complied with the older man's request, he took a quick glance at the tracker. The sight of the blood soaked shirt made him pause. Every other breath that escaped the thin lips was accompanied by a soft groan. "How's it look, Josiah?"
"I wish Nathan was here."
Those words told Buck everything he needed to know: Vin was dying.
Chris' anger had inexplicably turned to fear. He put a hand on his side. It had suddenly started hurting but there was no logical reason why it should. His chest burned with each breath he took. What was wrong with him? Frightened, he staggered from his chair. He had to find Nathan. The healer would know what was wrong and fix it.
Josiah glanced around, hoping Sister Mary could provide the medical knowledge he lacked. But the nun had disappeared. He didn't begrudge her for her lack of courage or loyalty. She was scared. Watching Father Manuel murdered had been a terrible shock to the devout woman.
In the closest room, Josiah found some bedding. Returning to Vin's side, he spread one of the blankets on the floor, forcing the protesting tracker to lay down. Shaking his head at the stubbornness of the injured man, he covered the shivering body. With a methodical precision that kept him from dwelling on how meaningless his ministrations were, Josiah tore the sheets into strips. Amazed his voice could sound so calm, he asked, "Buck, what are you doing here?"
"I decided it would be safer ta come lookin' fer you two than ta stay in town."
Despite knowing he would be a victim of Larabee's wrath himself - if he survived Josiah enjoyed the ladies' man's dilemma. "Chris on the warpath?"
"Paint an' all."
"No yer not. Neither is that skinny-assed Texan." Buck nodded at Vin. "Ya both knew what you were doin' when ya rode out."
"True." Josiah looked down at his hands. "But I'm not sorry to see you. Except it appears you left the frying pan for the fire."
"Our goose ain't cooked yet, Preacher. JD was with me. I sent 'im back ta git the others. All we gotta do is hang on a little longer."
Whoops of anger from the bandits forced Josiah to drop the strips of cotton and take up Vin's rifle. At least, he had hope now. Even if their friends didn't arrive in time to save them, there was a chance they would rescue the nuns and Hannah. Josiah was more than willing to trade his life for theirs. And he knew without asking that Vin and Buck felt the same.
Chris exited the infirmary, his anger having returned in the wake of Nathan's diagnosis. How could pain be a figment of his imagination? How could he feel something that wasn't there? He was seriously considering going to bed. Nothing in this entire day was making sense.
Noticing a trail of dust which could only be made by a fast moving horse, Chris realized something was wrong. "Nathan," he called through the open door.
Without waiting for the healer, Chris quickly descended the stairs. Whatever trouble was coming, he hoped it could be handled by three men. Softly cursing the four missing peacekeepers, he pushed his coat behind his back and rested his hand on his pistol. When the rider pulled up in front of him, he was surprised to see it was JD. "What's wrong?"
Each word punctuated with a gasp, JD explained, "The mission near Vista City is under attack."
"What were ya doin' there?"
"Buck thinks that's where Vin and Josiah were goin'. He went ta help 'em and sent me back ta git you."
Striding towards the livery, Chris ordered, "Nathan, git some medical supplies; we may need 'em. JD git Ezra and as much ammunition as ya kin carry."
As the two men hurried off to do his bidding, Chris led JD's exhausted horse into the stable. Now he knew the pain he had been feeling wasn't his. It was Vin's.
Buck heard the change in the explosion of the weapon, indicating Josiah had switched from the rifle to his handgun. Something he would only do if there were no bullets left for the long-range firearm. Inserting the remainder of his own cartridges into the empty chambers, Buck sighed. They weren't quite defenseless, but it was getting a little too close for comfort - just as the bandits would have to be for the handguns to be effective. Although, the attacks had taken a toll on the outlaw band too.
Less than half of their number remained. Buck knew that once his own ammunition ran out it would only take one outlaw with three bullets to end the siege. His eyes resting on the motionless body underneath the heavy blankets, Buck amended his thoughts. Two bullets could be all that would be necessary.
Sliding his rifle through the small opening in the door, Buck searched for a target. When nothing presented itself, he realized the banditos had withdrawn again. With a muttered whisper of relief, he rested his forehead against the cool wood and took a deep breath, the first since the battle began.
His hands shaking slightly as he reloaded his pistol and Vin's Winchester, Josiah noted, "We won't make it if they attack again."
"It depends," Buck disagreed. "The longer they take, the closer Chris and the others will git."
"Let's hope the bandits decide to take a siesta."
"Stranger things have happened."
Buck kept one eye focused outside as he watched Josiah slide over to Vin's side from the corner of the other. Throwing back the blankets, the preacher grabbed the bandages he'd fashioned from the sheets. Folding several into a thick pad, he gently pulled away the soiled dressings and replaced them with the new ones. Even in the dim light, Buck could see they were saturated with Vin's life giving fluid.
When Josiah pressed down on the wound to staunch the flow of blood, Vin groaned loudly. Normally, it was a sound Buck hated to hear. This time, he was grateful. It meant his friend was still alive.
Wiping the sweat from his brow, Buck asked, "Josiah, what are we doin' here?"
"No, I mean," Buck clarified, "why were you and Vin coming here? Ya couldn't have known the bandits were attacking when ya left Four Corners."
Taking one of the cotton strips, Josiah soaked it in water and wiped Vin's flushed face. A soft groan made him wince. With his free hand, he gently squeezed a thin shoulder, hoping the gesture would ease his friend's mental anguish since there was so little he could do for the physical pain. "We were coming to visit my sister."
"Yer sister's a nun?"
"No, the nuns take care of her."
"Is she sick?"
There was a long silence before Josiah finally confessed, "Her mind's sick."
"I'm sorry." Buck turned away, shifting his attention to the courtyard. The pain on his friend's face made him wish he'd never started the conversation.
"Vin found out about Hannah when he tried to save me from Poplar's murder charge. After Vin's visit, Hannah showed the first sign of sanity since I brought her here. I was hoping if she saw him again . . ."
When Josiah's voice trailed off, Buck didn't need to ask what the older man had been praying for. And, he wasn't surprised it was Vin who had been the answer to his plea. There was something intangible about the scruffy young tracker that spoke to the heart, especially those hearts broken by life's hardships. Hannah hadn't been the first. And, if Nathan arrived in time, she wouldn't be the last.
Obviously not having learned anything from their previous encounters, the bandits announced their return with loud cries. "Here they come again," Buck warned, sliding his rifle through the small window.
Down to their last bullets, they would not survive another attack. Josiah looked down at the handful of cartridges in his hand. Should he save one for himself and one for Vin? The sharpshooter was unconscious, making it impossible to ask what he would want. The bandits were angry and would no doubt take their rage out on the men causing it. Was a painless death more merciful than a few more hours of life lived in agony - and hope?
These were the kinds of questions Josiah had asked all his life. They had irritated his father and frustrated his teachers. No one had any answers for him.
Hearing the audible screams preceding the banditos physical appearance, Josiah hastily filled the empty chambers of his gun. Returning to his place at the window, he looked out to see several men had scaled the adobe wall. Taking careful aim, he shot them in turn.
With each death issued by his own hand, Josiah felt a deep sadness. This house, the Lord's house had offered them refuge. They were repaying the kindness by breaking one of His commandments: Thou Shalt Not Kill. But the situation they were in was kill or be killed. Long ago, Josiah had stopped worrying about his life and concentrated on saving his soul. He would gladly die if that was what his Father wanted, but he could not allow harm to come to the nuns, his sister or his friends. His priorities had been a big reason why the church had kicked him out.
"Yeee hawww! They're here!"
Hearing Buck's excited cry, Josiah allowed his gaze to wander to the small hill where he and Vin had first seen the bandits milling around the mission. Four men on horseback were lined up along the rim, one in distinctive black, another wearing a scarlet coat that could be seen even from this distance. Though they were too far away for him to see the particulars, Josiah knew the third man would have dark skin and the fourth a bowler hat.
Despite his sins, God had answered his prayers.
When Chris heard the characteristic discharge of Vin's Mare's Leg, relief replaced the dread that had been his constant companion all day. Vin was alive. Hoping to keep him that way, Chris touched his spurs to his horse's flanks. "Let's git 'em, boys."
Pulling his rifle from its scabbard, Chris started firing as soon as he was in range. From behind him, three weapons echoed his, but, to his surprise, no more shots were fired from the mission.
When a bullet nipped his left sleeve, he forced himself to concentrate on the panicking outlaws. Speculation would do him no good and could lead to his getting hurt. Or worse, one of the others getting hurt.
His mount swerved to avoid a body on the ground. Chris squeezed his knees tighter against the animal's sides to keep his seat. The number of corpses increased until he finally holstered his rifle, freeing one hand to grip his reins and the saddle horn. With the other, he pulled his pistol.
Shots came further and further apart. As the dust started to settle, Chris realized there was no one left to oppose them. The silence was deafening in its abruptness.
"Nathan! We need ya in here."
Buck's call shattered the calm like a hammer through glass. When the ladies' man raced to the gate with a key in his hand, Chris was relieved to see his friend was all right. The reassurance quickly disappeared when he saw the fear on the normally cheerful face. It told him Josiah or Vin was hurt. The uncertainty Chris had felt all day returned, telling him it was Vin who needed Nathan's skills.
Dismounting, Chris threw his reins at JD and ran to the gate, the black healer at his heels. Buck had it open when they arrived. Neither man stopped but continued on into the mission.
Cool air brushed against Chris' hot skin as he paused to allow his sun-blinded eyes to adjust to the dim light. Nathan stumbled on past to a blanket-covered form.
"How bad is it, Josiah?" Nathan demanded, peeling back the thick covers.
Hands stained with Vin's blood, Josiah slid aside to make room for his friend. "He took one in the side. It's still in there. It must be pressing against a muscle or a nerve. Vin said it hurt to breathe."
"I need more light, hot water and my bag," Nathan ordered.
Chris heard the others scrambling around him to obtain the requested articles. He knew he should help, but all he could do was stare at the pale face of the man who had become more than just a friend. Vin had paved the way for Chris' salvation, letting him see that he could live without his wife and son.
Josiah tried to help Nathan, but his hands were shaking so violently he was more a hindrance. After another exasperated request from the healer was met with less than lightning speed, Ezra gently pushed Josiah aside and took his place.
It wasn't just fear for Vin that was making the preacher distraught. There was also Chris Larabee. The look on the gunslinger's face tore at Josiah's very soul. If Vin died, he would be responsible for two deaths, one physical, the other spiritual.
Yet, if Vin hadn't come here, the nuns and Hannah would be the ones who would be dead - or worse. Was Vin's life a fair trade for theirs? Josiah lifted his eyes to the heavens, desperately seeking a solution.
Metal clanged against metal, indicating the bullet had been extracted and tossed into a pan. Josiah searched Nathan's face, looking for different answers to different questions. Ones he didn't have the courage to ask.
"I got the bullet out," Nathan confirmed. "But infection's set in."
"Which means what, Dr. Jackson?" Ezra softly bid.
"It means, I ain't sure if'n he's gonna make it. He done lost a lot of blood."
A loud squeal brought three guns to bear on a door opening slowly at the end of the long corridor. Sister Mary stopped in her tracks when she saw the weapons trained on her. Exchanging sheepish smiles, Buck, Ezra, and JD quickly reholstered their pistols.
"Is it safe to come out?" Sister Mary inquired, staying half hidden behind the wooden barrier.
Taking a few steps towards her, Josiah held out his hand. "It's safe."
The nun emerged, accepting the offered assistance. A second sister, a few years younger, followed, clutching the older woman's black habit. In their wake, the last two nuns appeared assisting Hannah.
As soon as she saw her brother, Hannah tore away from the women and rushed into his waiting arms. Her hysterical cries echoed in the alcove, making Josiah's ears ache.
"Somebody shut her up," Larabee growled.
Josiah wasn't offended by the order. He knew it was born of concern for Vin, rather than disrespect for the frightened woman. However, neither muttered words of reassurance, nor the comfort of his strong embrace could soothe his distraught sister. In desperation, Josiah shifted her to his side to lead her out into the courtyard. The new angle brought Vin into her line of sight. She instantly fell quiet and pulled away from Josiah to drop at Vin's head. A tentative hand reached out to caress the injured man's pale brow.
Quickly kneeling at her side, Josiah cautioned, "Vin's hurt, Hannah. You have to be gentle."
"What the hell!" Chris snapped, gripping the preacher's shoulder. "She's obviously crazy. Git her away from Vin."
Torn between what was best for his sister and what was best for his friend, Josiah hesitated.
"You do it, or I will," Larabee threatened.
Knowing if Chris touched her Hannah would react badly, possibly even inadvertently hurting Vin, Josiah reluctantly tried to pull her to her feet. "Hannah, you can come back and see Vin when he's awake. Why don't you go rest now?"
Hannah pulled her arms free, one hand returning to Vin's brow.
Never had Josiah heard his name spoken with such fury. Again, his mind tried to make allowances for the scared gunslinger, but his own fear for Vin, and his love for Hannah awakened the beast he fought so hard to keep dormant. "She's staying," he hissed, the anger on his face making Larabee back away. "She won't hurt Vin."
Ever the mediator, Buck asked, "Is this yer sister, Josiah?"
His features softening as he pulled a lock of long grayish/brown hair off her flushed cheek, Josiah nodded. "Yes."
"She's why you've been makin' all them trips ta Vista City," Nathan contended.
Ezra stared accusingly at the preacher. "Mr. Tanner discovered her existence while he was searching for an alibi when Mr. Poplar accused you of murdering those women."
"He never told us what he found here," an awed JD revealed.
Josiah glanced down at his wounded friend. "I told him he could."
"Why didn't you?" The hurt on Nathan's face was clearly apparent.
"What was I supposed to say?" Josiah defended, tears in his eyes at the unintentional offense he had committed towards his best friend. "Oh, by the way, I have an insane sister being looked after by some nuns in Vista City."
"That would've done it," Chris calmly agreed.
Surprised by the compassion not only in the gunslinger's voice but in his eyes, Josiah dropped his head in shame.
"What if somethin' had happened to ya?" Chris asked.
"You were almost killed at the Seminole Village," Nathan reminded him.
"We wouldn't have known she existed," Buck accused, looking disappointed.
Ezra gently admonished, "So we wouldn't have known to look after her."
"Then what would've happened to her?" JD demanded, glaring at the older man.
His eyes resting for a brief moment on his five companions, Josiah saw the sincerity in each gaze. He knew these men were special. He just hadn't realized how special. Or how lucky he was to be able to call them friends.
Chris glanced over at Hannah as he wiped the sweat from Vin's flushed face. When they had carried the wounded man into the nearest bedroom, she had stayed at his side. Josiah had tried several times to put her to bed, but she had firmly, yet carefully, rejected his attempts. A little over an hour ago, she had finally fallen asleep in her chair with her head lying next to Vin's uninjured side. Her devotion was that of a mother for her child. Chris had seen Sarah act the same way with Adam and Mary with Billy. There may be certain areas of Hannah's mind that weren't working properly, but there were other regions operating on the same frequency as any other woman's.
Chris was still trying to decide if he was more angry at Josiah or more hurt. It was disquieting to discover he had once again misjudged Josiah. He still felt guilty for doubting him when Poplar had arrested him for murder. Only Vin had stood by Josiah then, never questioning his innocence.
A soft moan drew Chris' attention back to his wounded friend. Rinsing the cloth in the bowl of cool water, he gently wiped the sweating face. He knew something had to happen soon. Vin was growing too weak. It wouldn't be long before he had nothing left to fight with.
Desperate eyes rose to rest on a crucifix hanging on the wall. Gripping Vin's hand in both of his, Chris stared at the symbol of God's sacrifice. He had stopped praying when Sarah and Adam were killed. Not because he was angry with God, he simply hadn't had anyone in his life he cared enough about to ask God to help. After all this time and all his sins, Chris wasn't sure he had the right to appeal for Vin's life. Why should God listen to him, much less answer his prayer?
"It can't hurt to try."
The quiet advice was spoken in a human voice. Chris continued to stare at the crucifixion. "Ya startin' ta read my mind now too, Preacher?"
"You might scare me a lot less if I could," Josiah ruefully admitted. "However, when you start asking the same questions I'm asking myself, I don't need anything more than eyes to see and a mind that can rationalize."
Chris shifted his gaze to let it rest on the older man. "I wish you came with an interpreter."
A brief smile curved Josiah's lips.
Turning his attention back to the crucifix, Chris probed, "What makes ya think He would listen ta me?"
"What makes you think He won't?"
"Maybe the fact that I've broken more than a few of His commandments."
"So, you don't think you're worthy to receive God's love?" Josiah paused. "What about Vin?"
"What do you mean?"
"Vin has broken many of those same commandments. Do you think he's undeserving?"
Slowly shaking his head, Chris whispered, "Hell no, there's no one more deserving."
"If you pray to God to save Vin's life, are you making the request for yourself or Vin?"
Chris looked down at the man who was more important to him than life itself. "Both."
"Then pray to him to save you both."
"Josiah, wake up."
The urgent appeal drove the sleep from Josiah's exhausted mind. Sitting up, he felt every muscle screaming in protest. A straight-back chair didn't make for a very comfortable bed. Wiping drool from his chin, he demanded, "What's wrong, Chris?"
"Git Nathan," Larabee requested.
Fear filled eyes strayed to the still form on the bed. Ignoring the aches shooting along numbed nerve passages, Josiah hurried to retrieve the healer.
When he was young, Josiah had learned to bury his feelings in order to survive his father's emotional abuse. While he was sure this ability saved his sanity, he was equally certain it had contributed to his sister losing hers. He had been so detached he had been unable to see Hannah's deterioration until it was too late. The day he had placed her in the caring hands of the nuns, he had sworn he would never allow himself to become so divorced from his true feelings again. On the short journey to the room where Nathan slept, he desperately sought the isolation he had fought to suppress. It was the only way he could retain his sanity.
Despite his dread, Josiah stayed close on Nathan's heels as they entered Vin's room. Hannah had awakened, her serene eyes lingered on Vin's pale face.
"What's wrong, Chris?" Nathan unknowingly echoed Josiah.
Hearing his own apprehension in the inquiry, Sanchez stopped in the open door where he could make a quick escape if the demons inside him took control.
"I think Vin's fever broke," Chris related.
His senses so overwhelmed by the revelation, Josiah's hearing became indistinct. It was as if he was listening to the conversation from under water. Through eyes that could barely focus, he watched the healer take Chris' place at Vin's side and put one hand on a dry forehead and the other on a slowly rising chest.
"It has," Nathan confirmed, his smile radiant in the dim room. "It looks like Vin'll be all right."
Somehow, Josiah managed to get words past the lump in his throat. "I'll let the others know."
Closing the door behind him, he slumped against it, letting the thick wood support the weight his trembling legs could longer bear. Leaning his forehead against the cool adobe frame, he quickly thanked the one responsible for his salvation.
"It tastes like horse piss."
"I don't care. Hannah make sure he drinks it all."
Josiah smiled as he listened to the familiar exchange. Whenever Vin was hurt, he complained loud and long about Nathan's concoctions. Nathan would ignore every gripe and continue to administer his remedies as he saw fit. The one difference this time was Hannah's involvement in the wounded man's recovery. While he might argue with Nathan and even Chris, Vin would do nothing to hurt Hannah.
The change in his sister was nothing short of the miracle Josiah had hoped for when he asked Vin to come to the mission. While she still didn't speak, at least she was interacting with others, even though the list was small, consisting of Josiah, Vin, and now Nathan. It was a start. For the first time in years when Josiah looked into her eyes, he saw a spark of the old Hannah looking back.
Entering the room, Josiah cheerfully inquired, "Having problems, boys?"
"Nothing I can't handle," Nathan grumbled, glaring at Vin.
Meeting the scowl with one of his own, Vin pointed out, "Thanks to Hannah."
A smirk twisting his lips, Nathan agreed, "She is an exceptional nurse."
"Sister Mary wanted me to tell you dinner's ready." Josiah crossed to his sister and helped her out of her chair. He knew she would ignore the summons unless she was escorted to the table.
Bending his arm, Nathan offered it to the older woman. "May I accompany ya, Miss Sanchez?"
After a slight hesitation, Hannah wrapped a hand around Nathan's upper arm. Flashing Josiah a look the preacher interpreted as triumphant, Nathan slowly led her from the room. For the first time since Vin had been injured, Josiah found himself alone with his young friend, a circumstance he had yearned for and yet avoided at the same time.
"Vin." Josiah took the chair Hannah had vacated. Resting his forearms on his knees, he studied his hands. "I'm sorry."
Josiah lifted his gaze, expecting to see teasing on the still pale face. Instead, he saw genuine puzzlement. "For almost getting you killed."
"Ya didn't shoot me. Them banditos did."
"You wouldn't have been here to be shot if I hadn't asked you to come."
His left hand fingering the frayed edges of his blanket, Vin asked, "Do ya believe in fate, Josiah?"
"To a certain degree, yes."
"If I hadn't come, you, them nuns and yer sister would be dead. Ya wouldn't have had the ammunition ta defend them."
"Instead," Josiah softly indicated, "you almost died."
"I wouldn't have minded if I had."
Shocked, Josiah stared at his young friend. He had never thought Vin had suicidal tendencies. Larabee, he wasn't so sure about, but he couldn't believe he'd misread Vin so inaccurately.
"I ain't sayin' I wanna die," Vin hastily denied, correctly interpreting his companion's horror-stricken face.
"Then what are you saying?"
"I done some bad things in my life. Come close ta dyin' doin' a few of 'em. I wouldn't 've minded dyin' ta save them nuns and yer sister. At least I woulda done somethin' good with my life."
"You've done plenty of good, Vin." Josiah gently patted his friend's leg. "You saved Nathan from hanging and helped that Seminole village. You don't have to die for your actions to have counted."
A sheepish smile on his face, Vin admitted, "I'm kinda glad ta hear that, Preacher. I'd like ta stick around fer a while longer."
"If we have anything to say about it," Josiah pledged, a catch in his voice, "it'll be for more than a while."
Buck leaned his chair back against the jailhouse wall. Anyone who glanced his way might have thought he was keeping a close eye on the town. With only three of the seven to watch over them, the populace of Four Corners was not as well protected as they had come to expect. However, anyone who knew the ladies' man realized there was more to his apparent diligence than the shortage of peacekeepers.
Scanning the street, Buck saw Ezra looking out over the batwing doors of the saloon, while JD stood outside Potter's General Store. Satisfied there was no trouble brewing, Buck returned his gaze to the road leading into town as if in expectation of travelers coming from that direction. He, Ezra and JD had left the mission as soon as Nathan had assured them Vin would recover. Every day since, Buck had watched for his friends. As did Ezra and JD.
With each day that passed, disturbing scenarios continually played with Buck's nerves. Had Vin taken a turn for the worst? Had more bandits attacked the mission? Each idea was worse than the one before. Several times, Buck had found himself striding to the livery - only to have the vision of Larabee's angry face turn him back.
The clip clop of horses hooves on the hard ground made Buck sit up. The chair tipped forward, landing on its front legs with a force that rattled his teeth. As soon as he saw there were four riders, he was on his feet and crossing to the infirmary.
Nodding a welcome to his three healthy friends, Buck moved to help Vin dismount. They all looked tired, but Vin's exhaustion was apparent in the way he was leaning over his saddle horn and the alabaster skin visible beneath the dust and dirt. Dark circles framed the half-masted blue eyes.
"I kin git off my own damn horse, Buck."
Smiling at the protest, delivered with far less vehemence than expected, Buck soothed, "I know, I'm just glad ta see ya up and around is all."
"Well he won't be fer long," Nathan growled. "Damn fool insisted on ridin' instead of lettin' us build a travois. So now he's payin fer it."
"I'm fine," Vin insisted.
Nathan shook his head as he grabbed his bag from the back of his saddle and started up the steep stairs to his infirmary. "Git 'im up here."
"Ya heard the man." Buck grinned, putting one hand on Vin's left arm. The other, he wrapped around the belt at Vin's back.
"Let go of me, Buck." Vin tried to shake off the support.
"I'll let go," Buck agreed, "as soon as you show me ya kin stand on yer own two feet."
"Go ta hell."
"I probably will, but it won't be right now." Buck wasn't offended. He knew it was exhaustion and embarrassment talking, not Vin. "Now, are ya gonna let me help ya? Or are ya gonna stay up there? I'm sure the folks are enjoyin' the show."
Vin wearily looked around. The resigned look on his face indicated he was seeing what Buck had already seen. Half the town had stopped to observe the men's arrival. Buck knew it was partly from curiosity, however, it was also out of concern for a man they liked and admired who'd been hurt.
The softly spoken oath was the only warning Buck received that Vin was about to dismount. He tightened his grip just in time. Vin slid to the side, but when his legs touched the ground they wouldn't support him. The only thing keeping him from collapsing to the street was Buck's strong arm.
Before Buck's muscles felt the full strain of the extra weight of a full grown man, Chris had crossed to Vin's other side and offered his assistance. With Josiah following protectively behind, they slowly climbed the stairs.
"What's takin' so long?" Nathan demanded from the doorway of his clinic.
"Ya have ta ask?" Chris grumbled.
Shaking his head, Nathan sighed. "I reckon I don't."
Buck's muscles were screaming in protest by the time they reached their destination. With a gentleness he would use with a child, he carefully eased Vin down on the bed.
"Git his clothes off," Nathan ordered.
Vin's good hand wrapped around the waist of his pants. "Why?"
"'Cause I need ta check yer wound and git ya cleaned up so it don't git infected again."
"Don't need ya ta check. I'm fine."
Exasperated, Nathan pointed out, "Ya jus' spent the last week naked. Ya ain't got nothin' we ain't seen b'fore."
"Then ya don't need ta see anythin' now."
His hand curled into a fist, Chris held it up to Vin's face. "Either we take them clothes off with ya conscious, or we take 'em off with ya unconscious."
"See if I help ya the next time yer hurt, Larabee," Vin grumbled, releasing the hold he had on his pants.
"Can't remember when you've helped in the past. Why should the future be any different?"
Vin's mouth opened to deny the charge, only to slam shut without a word being spoken.
Unable to help himself, Buck started laughing. It felt good to be able to feel happy again without feeling guilty. He felt even better when Chris, Nathan and Josiah joined him. They all needed the outlet after the strain of Vin's injury.
Entering the infirmary, Ezra glanced at each of the men in turn. "What's so amusing?"
"Damned if I know," Vin fumed.
Josiah ran the scraper up the side of the wood one last time. Lifting a weary arm, he wiped the sweat from his brow on a dirty sleeve. As had happened every other time he had taken a rest, his gaze was drawn to the two men sitting outside the saloon - just as they had been two weeks before.
With restrictions and misgivings, Nathan had finally released Vin from the infirmary. Even from this distance and with his cavalry hat pulled low, Josiah could see the normally tanned face was pale. Every move was slow and deliberate. But it wouldn't be long before the pain was a distant memory.
At least, that's what Josiah hoped. Despite Vin's attempts to absolve him, Josiah still felt guilty, a penitence that was tempered by hope. Just this morning, he had received a letter from Sister Mary. Hannah had said her first word since her confinement. Pointing to the new painting she had just finished, she said, " Vin". Just as he hadn't been surprised Vin was the person to breach the walls of her isolation, Josiah wasn't surprised his name was the first word she would speak. Josiah had never allowed himself to believe she would live a normal life again - until now.
Just as seven men had brought salvation to this town. One man had brought salvation to his sister. Josiah had always known God worked in mysterious ways. For some reason, finding out why was no longer so important to him.