DISCLAIMER: I do not own any of these characters, nor is any profit made off of this fan fiction. The characters all belong to CBS, The Mirisch Group, MGM, and Trilogy Entertainment. I just borrowed them to give you more Vin angst.

I would like to thank Judy for her encouragement and beta reading, Janice for her terrific ideas and support, and Nancy for all of her technical help and support. Thanks ladies, I never would have done this without you. All three of you deserve a full 24-hour day with Vin.

This does have some questionable language, but I wouldn't rate it more than PG13.


He'd made his escape a half-hour earlier, and someone had finally found him. The horse had been as eager as he had for a swift gallop in the cool mist that threatened to turn into a hard rain later in the day. It had been raining off and on for the last several days. They'd needed the rain, but it just made his captivity that much harder to bear and the swift gallop out of the question. Instead, he and his horse trudged along the muddy road. No sun had shone on him for two weeks, two miserable, pain-filled weeks. Now, he was finally free, and someone had found him. He wasn't going back without a fight! It just wasn't fair, but when had life ever been fair? Not one to complain about something he couldn't change, he'd learn to adjust. This time, however, he was going to be stubborn. He felt like being stubborn. He was determined to end his incarceration. If he could just get to her before they all found him and made him turn back. They knew where he was headed, so he hadn't bothered to try and hide from them. He had just hoped to get away before they caught up to him. He just wanted a little bit of freedom. Was that too much to ask for? Sometimes too much of a good thing was just too much. He had to get away every once in a while in order to appreciate what he had left behind. Today was no different.

"I told you I would be happy to deliver that telegram," the soft southern voice said as it drew along side him. "After all, being a messenger is preferable to menial labor any day."

"Ezra, I know the only reason you came out here wasn't to get outta doin' any menial labor. You're playin' watch dog!"

"Mr. Tanner, I am shocked that you would think that I would volunteer to ride to Mrs. Wells' home in this horrendous weather merely because I did not wish to ruin my clothes repairing Josiah's dilapidated church. Why this misty rain alone will render my fine white, linen shirt a less than favorable shade of pink. And."

"Ezra!" Vin growled. "If all you're gonna do is complain about the rain causin' your red jacket to fade, you can just go on back to town. I don't need no nursemaid. It's been 2 weeks since I got shot, an' I don't need no one to shadow me. I ain't goin' nowhere but to deliver this telegram to Miss Nettie. It might be important."

"Mr. Tan., Vin, I understand your need to feel independent, but there are times when you need the aid and company of your friends."

"In other words, Chris an' Nathan both threatened you if you didn't watch me?" Vin didn't know whether to be amused, angry, disgusted, or pleased that his friends were acting like a bunch of nursemaids to a little kid. He truly had no idea when this group of men had become a family to him, and when Nettie Wells had basically adopted him. He only knew that since he had been shot two weeks ago during the bank robbery, that he had been under constant watch. If it wasn't one of the other six men, it was Miss Nettie, Mrs. Travis, and even Mrs. Potter. It was getting to where he felt like going to the privy was the only place he could find some peace and quiet, and then that was out of the question until the first part of last week. When the telegram had come this morning, Vin had practically vaulted over Josiah to grab it from Bill, the telegraph operator. He had "been allowed" to sit on one of the pews in the church the past few mornings while Josiah, and anyone or several of the men he could draft, worked to turn the old building into a habitable church. Chris and Nathan hadn't been there at the time to tell him no, and he just ignored the rest of them as he moved as quickly as he could to the livery. The long ride might not have been a great idea, but Vin was getting very uncomfortable with his babysitters. He hadn't even bothered to put on his rain slicker he was in such a hurry to escape the "house arrest" that he blamed for his suffering since his return to consciousness. Now, he wished he had put it on. The discomfort he felt, all right the pain he felt, and the fussing Miss Nettie was going to give him would be well worth the exhilarated feeling of freedom he was experiencing now. Yeah, the pain would be worth it. It was enough to make him feel giddy. Just feeling the chilly rain on his face would counter balance the tongue-lashing he knew was waiting for him from Nathan and the glare he would get from Chris. He almost laughed aloud, except Ezra would question him.

Ezra, he was in for it, too. Not only was his favorite red jacket getting wet and fading an unfashionable pink on his white linen shirt, Ezra just plain didn't like getting out in the elements, as he called them, especially the chilly, rainy elements. Vin almost felt sorry for him, except he was getting mighty tired of his friends smothering him. Yes, he had been shot while picking off the bank robber who had Chris dead in his sights. And yes, he had stayed on the roof shooting after the bullet had lodged high in the fleshy part of the left arm, taking out the man who'd had a bead on Ezra. He hadn't noticed the other man who had climbed up behind him. He took the bullet right below his left lung as JD managed to kill the man on the second shot. He didn't remember much after that except the shouting that had quickly followed as he began to slide down the roof. Somehow he managed to hook his good arm on the ledge, but he couldn't remember who had actually pulled him to safety. Nor could he actually remember how he had gotten down. Fortunately, he remembered only bits and pieces and had vague memories of different people talking to him. Chris had been one of those voices. He had sounded angry that Vin had been shot defending him. He also had memories of Ezra yelling that if Buck hadn't gotten there, but he didn't remember what Buck had had to do with anything, except Buck would put his life on the line as any of them would for the others. He was alive, and that was all that mattered.

The bullet in his arm had been taken out before he regained consciousness, but the other bullet had passed through. Everyone had taken great pains to tell him how lucky he was the bullet had missed his left lung and his ribs. Nathan had repeatedly told him over and over how lucky he was nothing vital had been hit, and that he hadn't had to dig out the bullet. Vin just thought it was lucky he didn't regain consciousness until after the bandaging had been completed. He'd been hurt worse and had taken care of himself just fine. He didn't need any nursemaids hovering over his every move. Vin shook his head again to clear it. Old Ezra was harpin' on something again.

"Vin, Mr. Tanner? Are you listening? This mist as you so erroneously called it is turning into a downpour. Don't you think we should proceed to Mrs. Wells' ranch with all due haste?"

Damn! For once, Vin just wished Ezra would speak plain English. Ezra wasn't usually that hard to follow. Actually, Ezra was pretty easy for him to understand. Maybe that's why they got along like they did. It was a mutual game of little insults thrown into casual conversation. Neither one meant any harm in it; they just liked to verbally spar with one another. Quite often, Vin would shock purely infectious laughter out of Ezra, and then he in turn would make Vin smile that half-ironic, half-amused grin that passed for Vin's laughter. Just cause he couldn't read didn't mean he was stupid. In fact, he had a remarkable memory. Once he heard a word, Vin seldom forgot its meaning, but today, today it was just too hard to concentrate, or Ezra was just trying to annoy him by talking his good mood right out of him.

"What in the HELL do you think you are doing?" Where had Chris come from? Vin knew he had let his guard down when Eli Joe nearly got him the month before, but he had hardened himself and put that hunter's/hunted guard back on duty. Few things got past him, but here Chris was in the rain breathing fire. Aw Geez! This was all he needed. It was getting hard enough to concentrate on what Ezra was spouting, and now he had to listen to Chris spit fire. His head was pounding! When had that started? It had started when Chris yelled at him. He was supposed to be his best friend, but here he was butting in again. First he went and killed Eli Joe, and now he was yelling and making his head hurt. If he weren't feeling so crappy right now, he'd light into Chris for killing Eli and giving him this awful, pounding ache in his head. He'd just wanted to howl when Chris shot Eli! No, he had wanted to shoot Chris! Only the fact that even as good a shot as he was, Vin knew that Chris had had no choice but to kill Eli. Eli was too quick with that knife, Vin too vulnerable, and the angle too steep for Chris to do anything but aim for the biggest spot on Eli and pull the trigger. Hell, the fall alone probably would have killed Eli, and Vin knew how badly Chris had felt afterward. Chris had been prepared to take on a US Marshall to free him, so he had never doubted his sincerity. Vin had just been so sure that he would finally get that bounty off of his head that he had been crushed when it didn't happen. If he had been more like Chris, he would have gotten drunk or at least shot somebody, so he felt better. But, he wasn't Chris, and Chris wouldn't shoot no one for no good reason. Folks thought he would, but that was what Chris wanted them to think. Hell, they were all good at scaring people. It was part of what kept them alive. Damn! He felt bad, really damn bad!

That wasn't Chris's fault, so he'd guess he'd stop blaming Chris for Eli Joe, but not his pounding head. Vin was sure that he could set the blame for his pounding head squarely on Chris's shoulders. Couldn't he? His left side was beginning to hurt enough to make him want to dig up the man who'd put the bullet in him just so Vin could shoot the bastard over and over again! That thought really appealed to Vin. Maybe too much. It dawned on Vin that he wasn't thinking too clearly. In fact his thoughts weren't making much sense at all. God, he wished Chris and Ezra would quit yelling at him! He really felt bad! This really hadn't been one of his better ideas. In fact, when he turned around to tell Chris and Ezra to hurry up to Nettie's, he saw four of them. Two of Ezra and two of Chris. Damn! One of each he could handle, but two of each? He really did feel lousy! The cold rain that had felt so good when he started out now felt downright cold. No, it was freezing, else he wouldn't be shivering. When had he started shivering? And why did he feel so cold all of a sudden? And weak, he really felt like someone had just drained him of any energy he'd had. And why on earth was he leaning to the right of his saddle? It was almost as if he was trying to fall off. He hadn't fallen off a horse since he was a little kid. Hell, he could ride half the night and all day too with a bullet in him! He'd done it before; he just couldn't remember when. Funny, he couldn't think much any more. It was just so easy to lean.

"Catch him, Chris!" were the last words he heard.


Vin had scared the hell out of Ezra when he started listing to the right side of his horse. He'd known Vin was making a serious error in judgment when Vin had rushed to the livery to saddle his horse. It hadn't been fear of Chris Larabee and Nathan Jackson that had made Ezra offer to take the telegram out to Mrs. Wells. Ezra didn't have many friends, and he had no intention losing any one of them. His mother Maude would have a conniption fit that all her sacrifices, when she paused long enough to remember that she had a son, had been for naught. Maude had stressed by action and deed that a person should always take care of number one. Number one meaning her, of course. In Ezra's case it meant Ezra, unless Maude were present; then she became number one. Fear of Chris Larabee's threat to kill him if he ran out on him again had long ago been replaced by a mutual respect. Like Vin, Ezra naturally looked to Chris for leadership. That vibrant personality seemed to envelop all six men and make them want to be a part of the group. Ezra had wondered if Chris was a better con artist than he was, but there was no subterfuge in Chris Larabee. He said what he thought, no matter how you felt about the truth he directed at you. And Vin Tanner just naturally complimented Chris's volatile nature. Ezra had envied that spontaneous bonding that seemed to occur between Chris and Vin and even Buck and JD, but as the months had gone on, Ezra found himself being drawn into that bonding. He thought he knew when it had happened, when Chris had disappeared months ago. Vin had naturally assumed leadership, and they all went to find their lost friend. Ezra had known their weapon of intimidation would not render success in that nasty little berg. The whole town was a group of con artists; he could feel it. So he had offered his advice, and they had listened to him. It was the most exhilarating feeling he had had in years. He had felt from that moment on, not just someone on the fringe, but a viable member of the group. In the time it had taken Larabee to recover from the effects of his ordeal, most of the seven, who were not on duty in the evenings, had become accustomed to sitting in the saloon playing poker. It was like a family gathering almost; whatever type of gathering it was, Ezra had come to relish it. Mother would definitely not approve, but since the war of the saloons, Ezra hadn't really cared what Maude Standish had thought. Truth be told, that experience had only intensified the friendship between Ezra and Vin. They had something more in common than just the group now. Both had seen their one major goal in life shot down in an instant. Vin had wanted desperately to clear his name, and Ezra had wanted to own his own saloon. For Vin, it meant the end of living his life constantly on guard, looking for the bullet some less scrupulous than himself bounty hunter would use to claim Tanner as his prize. For Ezra, it would mean a home that was his, not to be snatched away by his mother because she needed him in one of her schemes. Well, Eli Joe was dead, and Maude had won the war of the saloons. Somehow they sensed each other's disappointment, and that only strengthened their determination to accomplish their goals. It might prove more difficult now, but Ezra knew both could be done.

Ezra smiled despite the gravity of the situation. He had wondered about the annoyingly quiet tracker when they had first met. Uneducated and uncouth were the first opinions Ezra had had of Tanner. Uneducated yes, Vin was probably illiterate, but Ezra had a few secrets he didn't want made public either. However, Ezra had noticed the intense blue eyes that could nail you with the truth, twinkle at the ironies of life, and spot the weakness in the enemy at any distance. When Vin had unexpectedly teased Ezra about one of his more nefarious vices in that low drawl of his, Ezra had burst into laughter. If anyone else had asked him if he had stacked the deck to his satisfaction yet, Ezra probably would have shot him. Somehow he knew that Vin had just offered him his trust and friendship, and Ezra had realized how badly he wanted that trust and friendship. Vin's calm self-confidence, his quiet acceptance of leadership when Larabee had disappeared, his contentment within the group or in his own company, Ezra admired the fact that Vin Tanner adapted to any situation he encountered with a wry sense of humor. He wasn't as loquacious as Ezra, or as flamboyant as Buck, but in his quiet way Vin Tanner kept Ezra sharp. Ezra knew that if Vin made the effort to talk to you, trade barbs with you, he liked you. You belonged to that exclusive list Vin labeled as friend, and Ezra discovered he liked having friends. Now that he had helped Chris secure Vin to his horse on their way to Nettie's, he was moving as fast as the rain and mud would allow back to town and the one person who could possibly help Vin. Something was terribly wrong with one friend, and Ezra found it almost comforting to know that he had another to turn to for help. They needed Nathan Jackson's medical expertise, and they needed it now. As Ezra encouraged his horse to move faster, he thought how Vin would appreciate the irony that at least he would be able to deliver Nettie's telegram successfully. That didn't help Ezra much, though. The message would arrive in tact, but it was for the messenger that Ezra worried. Ezra had just thought he had been scared when Vin, shot twice, had nearly toppled off the roof of the building on which he had placed himself offering the best cover he could to his friends. If JD hadn't spotted the man climbing up behind Vin and Buck hadn't worked his way over to Vin when he had, the tracker would probably be dead now and their number six. The fact that Vin had been wounded saving both Chris and himself had only made the two men closer in their need to see Vin fully recovered. However, although Vin had given every outward appearance of recovering swiftly under everyone's watchful eyes, Ezra had begun to realize that all was not right with the quiet tracker. Somehow everyone had sensed that something was wrong, and each, Nathan especially, had been keeping a more than watchful eye on Vin. It was almost as if they had a foreboding that something bad was still going to happen. It was that apprehension that had driven Vin to escape the smothering atmosphere and take the dangerous ride in the rain. Ezra sometimes hated that his intuition could be so glaringly correct. Something was terribly wrong, and Ezra sensed it would only get worse before, or even if, it got better.


If he hadn't already taken one bullet for him, Chris would shoot Vin himself! Hell, he'd let Ezra have a shot, too! Things just hadn't felt right since Vin crawled up on that roof to get better aim at the gang of outlaws trying to rob the bank. Chris had been thinking they needed the sharpshooter on the roof to give them the advantage when he happened to catch his friend's eye. 'Damnit Vin, you're not supposed to read my mind like that!' Chris didn't know what it was about his friend, but for some reason Tanner could read him like a book. Hell, he'd known Buck for nigh on 12 years, and when he wanted, he could still put on that stone face. Even Buck could be stumped, most of the time. Not Vin Tanner. It was spooky. Since the first moment they made eye contact, Chris Larabee had known he could trust Vin Tanner with his life. He often found himself listening to this man's advice even though he was a good ten years younger than he was. The quiet, unassuming man had a way of looking at life that always managed to find something amusing in it. Chris still didn't know if Vin was really so detached from others that their demons didn't affect him, or that Vin had learned the hard way that the only way to survive life sane was with a sense of humor. Chris admired that in Vin; he was content with himself or in a group. He never doubted Vin's ability to lead, and therefore was surprised when Vin had so easily acquiesced to his leadership. Vin always seemed to be at the right place at the right time. He showed up just when you needed him, and then he would quietly blend back into the group. Vin never seemed to get ruffled, well with the exception of Eli Joe.

Chris had seen the look of utter disbelief change to anger, and then utter despair when Chris had killed Eli Joe. He had expected his anger, was ready to accept it, but Vin had just said he understood. Vin always seemed to understand when Chris needed silence and when he needed to talk. He never seemed to judge others, just accepted them for who and what they were. And Chris had killed the only man who could tell the law in Tascosa that Vin was an innocent man. Chris hadn't needed any more guilt to bear, but Vin just looked at him and in that instant forgave him. His pragmatic approach to life wouldn't accept anything else. Vin refused to make Chris feel any guiltier over what had happened. Like he said, he couldn't prove himself innocent if he were dead, but that didn't stop Chris from wishing it had been anyone else who had pulled the trigger. If Vin had taken his anger out on Chris, Chris probably would have felt better. But no, Vin just accepted and moved on. Why couldn't Chris do that? Maybe that was why Vin fascinated Chris. He accepted things he couldn't change and moved on. He didn't dwell in the past or on painful memories. He took action to change things, but he accepted without anger (most of the time) the things he couldn't. Chris wished he had that ability. He looked over at the man. He'd seemed almost embarrassed that he couldn't stay on his horse. Then he'd passed out. If Ezra hadn't been there to help, he would have landed flat on his face in the mud. Chris would laugh if he didn't feel so damned helpless right now. It would have served the quietly confident Tanner to know he was just a man like the rest of them. He had no idea how many times he had caused Chris to actually worry about the risks he took. He was always tracking or backtracking. He never asked for anyone else's help. For some reason, even though he would help anyone who needed it without even being asked, Vin never seemed to fully understand that he could rely on any of the other six to help him out. Chris had nearly lost it when everyone had lined up outside the jailhouse ready to help him capture Eli Joe. None of them, even Ezra who was about to lose his shirt over that damned saloon had any intention of letting Vin go after Eli Joe on his own. It was worth the pain of holding in the laughter to see that shyly pleased, almost surprised look that crossed his face when Vin realized his friends were all there to back him up. Even Mary Travis had been there to offer her support. Chris knew that Vin no longer thought himself stupid for hanging around Four Corners and getting involved with these people. That was partly why Chris liked Vin so much; Vin seemed rarely surprised by the bad things people could do, but he always seemed a little surprised when people went out of their way to show him a kindness. Vin rarely spoke about his past; hell he rarely spoke at all. So, when he did speak, most listened. The night Vin had teased Ezra; Chris had been ready for any reaction from the gambler except laughter. Vin had read Ezra right from the beginning. He liked him, and he was letting him know it. The two had developed a rapport after that that constantly kept the others waiting for the next little jab the other would take. Swift and unyielding the two always were more than willing to see who could make the other laugh first. What had happened two weeks ago had made Chris admit that even though he hadn't wanted it, he had gotten himself six brothers. He cared about what happened to them and God help anyone who hurt any of them. That was why he'd been so angry when Vin had climbed on that roof.

Chris knew it was dangerous, and he had lost too many people he cared about to willingly send any one of his six friends into danger. It was all right for him to stand in front. It was all right for him to take the risks, but it wasn't for any of the others. He'd been thinking that having Vin on the roof would be their best bet, but he wasn't going to ask the tracker to take up that exposed position. Vin had taken matters into his own hands just like he always did to keep Chris from feeling any more guilt. That was what had pissed Chris off so much, besides the fact that Vin took a bullet for both him and Ezra, that Vin had taken his position on the roof without being asked in order to save Chris from making the obvious decision. Ever since he'd seen Buck grab Vin by his good arm and pull him to safety, Chris had had an uneasy feeling. Not that he didn't trust Nathan to fix Vin up, he trusted Nathan more than he did some "real" doctors that he'd known. It was just something in the back of his mind, some little voice that kept telling him that something was not right. He had sensed the others, especially Nathan and Ezra, had felt the same way. His instincts fed on theirs as the others kept an almost maternal watch on Vin regardless of his apparently swift recovery. It had sure grated on Vin's nerves, as his usual even temper got testy as the others watched his every move. Chris might have understood Vin's need to escape the six pairs, no nine pairs if you added the three ladies into the picture, if a deep sense of foreboding hadn't seized him when he noticed the tracker's absence from the church. The others had been doing various things and were still in the process when Nathan came in and asked Chris where Vin was. Josiah had calmly told them that Vin had gone to the livery to get his horse. Before Chris could even get a word out, Nathan had erupted. They were caught off guard as Nathan wanted to know why on earth they had allowed Vin to even leave the church, much less plan to deliver the telegram when Buck interrupted to say that Ezra had gone to send Vin back while he took the telegram. That seemed to mollify Nathan a bit, but Chris wanted him calm. So he offered to make sure Vin didn't go off on his own. Nathan agreed to wait for Chris to return with his difficult patient, but Chris hadn't returned. Neither had Vin or Ezra. Chris wasn't surprised that Vin had gone off before Ezra got his horse saddled. He sent Ezra on after Vin and the livery boy to the church to tell Nathan that he would bring Vin back before he got too far. When he hadn't caught up on the muddy road until half an hour later, Chris was surprised. He had fully expected to find an exhausted Tanner at Nettie's, not an obviously sick man barely able to stay on his own horse stubbornly refusing any attempts Ezra was making to help him. It was that argument that had kept them from riding the last few minutes to Nettie's.


Now, Chris had to finish the ride with his soaked and delirious friend strapped to the back of his own horse. He'd barely gotten off his horse when Nettie had thrown open the door. Chris ordered her to stay on the porch out of the rain as he untied the tracker from his horse and gently eased him into a position in which he could carry him. Nettie didn't say a word until Chris brought Vin into the dry and comfortable house. She led him to her own bed all the while giving both Chris and Casey orders.

"Bring him in here! Don't worry about drippin' on the floor! It's been wet before, and it'll get wet again. There, put him on my bed. Casey, go get some extra towels and blankets. No, girl, you go on and get that stuff, stop gawkin'. Larabee, let's get these soaked clothes off him. What on earth were you thinkin' letting this boy come out here is this condition?"

Chris wasn't surprised or angered by Nettie's barking at all. He knew she treated them all like they were her boys, but Vin was special to her. She reminded him of his ma, and she returned his affection unabashedly. He waited until she'd run out of breath before he jumped in.

"I didn't let him. I turned my back on him once and came back to find him gone. You know how he is. Gets something stuck in that head of his and there's no stopping him."

"What'd he need to ride out here in this gosh awful weather to see me for?" Nettie asked as she helped pull Vin's wet jacket off.

"You got a telegram, and he wanted to get outside." Chris grunted as he pulled first one then the other boot off of Vin's unconscious body. The socks followed quickly. "Didn't matter to him the sky was going to open up and drench him or not. He wanted to go an' me and Ezra followed him. Ezra tried to stop him, but he was already actin' like he didn't know what was goin' on. I got there right before he passed out." He and Nettie turned to work on Vin's shirt and pants next.

"He ain't got nuthin I ain't seen before, son. Let's take it all off him. He'll catch his death if he hasn't already. We need to get him dried off and under the covers. He's shivering. I'll wait to take that bandage off until Mr. Jackson gets here. You did send that fancy man after Mr. Jackson, didn't you?" Nettie and Ezra had decided to have a friendly but caustic relationship. She usually called him fancy man or Mr. Standish, but she rarely did it without a smile. It was almost as if she knew the gambler would be embarrassed by anyone knowing he was just as much a Robin Hood at heart where she was concerned as Vin was. "Casey," she yelled into the other room, "put that bed warmer on the stove to heat!"

Working together, it took about 10 minutes for Chris and Nettie to get Vin dried and settled in the bed. Both were struck by just how young and vulnerable he looked against the stark white sheets. "Don't look much older than JD like that, does he?" Nettie's worry was obvious in her voice. "It's times like these I wish I was as big as that Sanchez fella. Then I could give that boy the whuppin he deserves for scarin' me like this!"

Chris hid his smile. He wasn't about to tell Nettie that she would have to get in line after him, Nathan, and Ezra. Hell, Buck and Josiah would probably want to get in on it too. JD was the only one Vin didn't have to worry about standing in line to shoot him. Well, they wouldn't shoot or hit a sick man, but they'd probably all felt like it after the scare Vin had given them and now this. Nettie had witnessed it all from the safety of Mary's newspaper office, but once it was safe, she'd come out to watch Vin nearly take that header off the roof. Chris knew what she felt like. Come to think about it, JD just might take a whack at Vin because of all the trouble he'd gone to to get the man who'd shot Vin. Vin and Buck both had taken turns fussing at JD for rushing out into the street to get that shot off. For once, Vin was actually angry that JD almost got shot doing exactly what Vin had done, put himself in the line of fire to save one of the others. Then, every time Vin had seen JD since he'd regained consciousness, he'd fussed at JD some more. Yeah, JD would definitely want to give Vin a piece of his mind, too. Nettie was still fussing as she put another blanket on the shivering tracker.

"Damn fool boy! Scaring the life out of me. I don't have that many years left an' here he's tryin' to shave more off. Casey, where's that bed warmer? First he tries to get himself killed fallin' off that roof and now he's tryin' to get pneumonia and die! Can't trust a man to stay down till he's well. None of ya got a lick a sense!"

Chris finally reached out and put his hand on her shoulder. Despite the fear he felt, he smiled at her. "We ain't lettin' him go, Nettie. If nothin' else, we'll get him well just so the 2 of us can beat the crap outta him for bein' so stupid!"

That got a strangled, "Watch your mouth, Chris Larabee. You ain't too old for me to take a whack at your backside with my broom!" She'd be all right. She'd have to be. Vin and Chris both needed that strength in her. Vin needed her because she gave him the mothering he'd missed out on as a kid, and Chris needed her because he couldn't lose someone else this close to him again. If Vin had to sweat this out anywhere, Nettie's place was better than anywhere else. At least he wouldn't get out that door until he was well without fighting Nettie, and Chris didn't think even Vin could flash those blue eyes enough to get her to back down. Now that would be a sight to see, Vin Tanner trying to sweet talk Nettie Wells into doing his will. Chris didn't know who was more stubborn, Nettie or Vin. Yeah, it would be a sight to behold. Ezra'd probably sell tickets or takes bets on the winner.

"You get those wet boots off. I got some of my late husband's socks you can put on till yours dry out. I ain't nursemaidin' a pack of men who don't have sense enough for one man let alone seven between `em. Go on, at least you had the sense to put your rain slicker on! Where this boy's brain was at I have no idea!" She took the bed warmer from Casey and put it near Vin's icy feet. "There, that should help get the cold off him."

Chris gave up and did as he was told. There wasn't anything he could do until Nathan got there, and Nettie was right. She's already given up her bed to Vin. She didn't need to nurse anyone else. He took the hot cup of coffee Casey handed him and smiled at the girl. Her eyes were filled with worry. Vin had always treated her like she was special, and she was. They had all seen it. She would grow into a woman not unlike her feisty aunt, but now she was a gangly teenager trying to turn into a woman. He wanted to tell her everything would be fine, but somehow, Chris couldn't get that little voice in his head to shut up. Vin was sick, real sick, and Chris didn't know if even Nathan could help him this time. The hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end, just like they did when there was danger present. Call it intuition, call it a sixth sense, call it anything you like, but Chris, although he didn't know it, felt the same way Ezra had earlier. Things were going to get worse before they got better, and the possibility that they might not get better was something Chris didn't want to ponder. So he drank the coffee, asked Casey to tell him when Nathan got there, and went in to check on Vin.

"Girl as soon as Mr. Standish and Mr. Jackson get here, I want you to go into town to Mrs. Travis. Tell her what's happened and ask if you can stay with her and Billy for a while. I don't doubt that JD won't come with the others to check on Vin, and you can ride back with him. Go on, pack your bag. This old house ain't big enough for us and them too. I know this one won't leave and neither will Nathan."

"Nettie why don't you go with her?"

"Son, you tryin' to throw me outta my home?"

Chris knew when a woman was too angry to talk sense to, so he just nodded. "Yes ma'am. Casey, I'll get JD and Buck to make sure you get to Mrs. Travis safe and sound. We don't want your aunt here to shoot us if you don't get there in one piece." That got the desired smile from Casey as she went into her room to get her bag packed. She sensed the fear in both her aunt and in Chris Larabee. It took a lot to put fear into those two, and Casey didn't want to dwell on what caused it. She wanted to leave because she'd already lost one family. She couldn't bear to watch while another might slip away from her. Maybe she was a coward, but she couldn't watch Vin Tanner die. He was too still, and Chris and Aunt Nettie were too worried. Even JD had been antsy about Vin. Casey thought he had been doing fine until she saw him today. She had thought JD was just reacting to killing a man, but now she knew that he had been worried about Vin. Even Buck and Josiah had seemed to keep an eye on Tanner wherever he was. She wanted to get out of this house where that heavy sense of foreboding began to seep through the silence of her home. Just when she thought she couldn't stand the silence another second, she heard the others arrive. She was astonished to see Mary Travis with the other men. Nathan, JD, and Ezra carried a bag each, and Josiah was carrying a wooden box very carefully as if it were made of glass. The rain had stopped while they were putting Vin to bed, but the mud made it difficult to walk up the porch. JD relinquished his bag to Ezra as he went to help Buck put the horses in the barn.


"Where's he at?" Nathan didn't mince any words. He wanted to know what had caused Vin Tanner to pass out. The ride out to Nettie's should have exhausted him, made him a little uncomfortable at the most. But not even the rain and the ride could explain why Vin had passed out as he did. He'd noticed the tracker had gotten quieter over the last few days, but he just marked that up to Vin's version of pouting. Never one to sit still, recuperation had been hard on Vin. He had a need to be outside, to be in the sun, the elements. He hadn't relished his convalescence at all. Ezra would have had people waiting on him; Buck would have had all the women in town vying for the right to have him get well at her hands. Chris might stay put for a while if Mrs. Travis and Billy stayed around long enough. He might have been able to talk sense into Josiah and bullied JD into following his orders, but Vin, Vin just smiled at him and told him he was fine. When Nathan asked him if he felt any pain or discomfort, Vin just said in that soft voice of his that he was fine. Well if he were fine, why had he gotten delirious and passed out?

Nathan finally made his way past Nettie and Chris and got to his patient. He wasn't pleased with what he saw. Nathan didn't know what he had done wrong. He'd gotten the bullet out of Vin's arm and had cleaned it with carbolic acid like he'd read about in that new medical journal he'd gotten. He had checked the entry and exit wounds right below Vin's left lung and cleaned them as best he could. Both areas appeared to be healing fine. The wounds had closed over without showing signs of infection or going putrid. Vin hadn't complained of any pain or discomfort. He hadn't run that much of a temperature if any at all. Nathan just couldn't think of what could cause the tracker to become delirious and pass out, but he was going to find out. Vin had saved his life, and Nathan never felt like he'd had a chance to pay Vin back for that. Now he could because Vin Tanner was not going to die on Nathan without a fight. Then, when he got well, Nathan was going to beat the hell out of Vin for causing this helpless feeling in the pit of his stomach. As he felt for Vin's pulse, he felt the heat. Vin had developed a fever, a high fever. Damn, he couldn't beat the hell out of a man this sick. He had to find what was causing this. As he noticed Vin's rapid pulse and developing fever, he saw Vin's eyelids flutter.

"What are you holding my hand for?"

Chris leaned closer on the other side to hear what Vin was saying to Nathan.

"What are you holding my hand for, Chris?" The confused blue eyes tried to focus on Chris.

"I'm not holding your hand. Nathan is checking your pulse."

"Why? I'm hot. Where am I? Why's it so hot?" The blue eyes fluttered closed and then just as rapidly fluttered open. "Where's Nathan? I don't see him."

"That's cause you're looking at Chris. I'm over here on this side holdin' your hand." Nathan had put Vin's wrist down and put his hand on his forehead trying to get a better read on his temperature. Vin was even hotter than before. "Chris, get these people out of here, and get someone to get a bowl of water and a cloth. We need to cool him off and find out what's causing this fever. Hurry, man, I need your help to get these bandages off. " With that, Nathan began the first step in finding out what has caused his patient's deterioration.

Fortunately for Chris, Josiah had been standing by Nettie in the doorway of the room and had heard everything. He'd already washed his hands and was wiping them on a cloth when he stepped in to help as Nettie went to fetch the bowl of water and cloth. "What's wrong with him Nathan? I thought he was doing ok."

"So did I, Josiah. I don't know what's wrong. I need to check him out. Your hands clean?" Josiah indicated with a nod they were. "Then take that bandage off his arm. Let me see if the problem's there." Josiah quickly removed the wet bandage from Vin's arm. While he did that, Nathan and Chris both washed their hands with soap and water. Nathan set Nettie, who had followed Josiah's lead and had just finished wiping her hands, to unpacking one of the bags Ezra had brought into the room. "I brought some carbolic acid and some clean bandages. Ezra, you get your hands real clean and help Nettie unpack those supplies. I don't want Vin to get sicker from anything else cause we didn't wash our hands. Miz Travis, can you and Casey start some kind of broth? Vin's going to need somethin' he can drink that'll keep his strength up." Nathan continued issuing orders to everyone as he bent to check out Vin's exposed arm.

Nettie felt better now that Nathan was here taking charge. No one was left out, but they were all kept moving in and out of the sickroom doing little tasks that would help Nathan, keep them busy, and, most of all, keep them out of Nathan's way crowding him with questions he had no answers for. Buck and JD didn't have a chance to speak as Chris looked up long enough to ask them to take Casey and Mary back to town later that evening. Buck nodded and sent JD and Casey out for firewood. Then, he started unpacking several of Nathan's medical books from one of the voluminous bags Nathan had thought to pack with supplies when Ezra had explained the situation.

Nathan examined Vin's arm but could find no reason for his condition there. The wound was clean and healing well. The rain had done little to harm it, so he cleaned it with a solution of carbolic acid and water and rewrapped it with fresh, clean bandages. He nodded to Chris he was ready to proceed with the more serious wound. Chris eased Vin into a sitting position as Nathan removed the bandage that was wrapped around the tracker's thin frame. Vin was like Chris, thin but solidly packed with muscle. His had been no easy life, but the one thing noticeable was that most of the scars Vin carried were all in the front. Vin was obviously not a man who ran from trouble, but faced it head on. He'd come to once while Nathan rewrapped his arm, but he had lost conscious since then. Nathan looked at both the entry and exit wounds in the light he had. From what he could see, both appeared to be healing nicely. He would have sworn that Vin had developed an infection, but the tracker hadn't complained of any pain or discomfort that would indicate an infection, or, worse, an abscess had formed. It didn't make sense. Vin hadn't been out in the rain long enough to have developed this fever. The wounds looked clean. There'd been no sickness with this type of fever going around. Nathan was frustrated as he cleaned the area with the same carbolic acid/water solution and wrapped the bandage back around Vin's midsection. He nodded to Chris as he helped lay Vin back down on the bed. Covering him with a sheet and light blanket to keep out the early spring chill, he asked Nettie and Josiah to stay and try to lower Vin's fever with the wet cloths placed behind his neck and on his forehead. He then walked to the other room with Chris. He didn't want anyone else to know how helpless he felt, so he motioned Chris outside to the porch. He was so preoccupied he didn't even notice Ezra and the others gather near the open window. Chris did, but he was too worried to mention it. Nathan hadn't looked this serious even when he had taken his first look at Vin's injuries two weeks earlier.

"I don't know what's wrong Chris. The arm is healing fine, no infection at all. The other one, I cleaned it best as I could, but with that bullet traveling straight through, there was no way to really clean it thoroughly. I poured carbolic acid and even whiskey on it to help kill any infection, but that don't mean I got everything. I expected some sort of infection, but I haven't seen any signs of one. The area doesn't look red; it's not got that hardening around the area like it would if it were infected. Vin would have been feeling poorly, he'd have developed a temperature sooner, and the pain would be bad. Vin hasn't even shown any signs of it hurtin' him. Every time I asked him how he felt, all he'd say was he felt fine. I can't understand it. He's got some signs of an infection, none of any illness I recognize, but he don't have all the things that point to one thing that I can fix. I musta done somethin' wrong!"

Before Chris could reassure Nathan, JD butted in. "Yeah, he did. He's been favoring his left back for a couple of days now."


Nathan turned a sharp eye on JD as Buck and Ezra tried to pull JD back from the window. Nathan wasn't happy with the audience, but JD had seen something that the others had obviously missed even with their careful watch. "C'mon, Chris. Might as well go back inside so's everyone can hear," Nathan shook his head ruefully. He might have known that the others were not going to be left out. They wanted to know just as badly as he and Chris what was wrong with Vin. But before he could question JD further, they heard Vin. He was yelling at the top of his lungs while Mary Travis ran in to help Josiah and Nettie hold Vin down.

"Stop! You're killin' all of them. You said you were just gonna talk! Stop it! They're just old men and women! They ain't no harm to nobody!" Vin kept yelling over and over, trying to get away from the hands that held him down. Eyes wide open, he managed to clip Mary Travis on the chin. That didn't make her let go. Nathan had to admire her spunk; that had to hurt. Chris moved in to take Mary's place and Buck took over for an exhausted Nettie. Vin's eyes didn't see anyone he knew. They could all tell that. The hatred in his eyes was almost too much as he fought the 3 men.

"I'll kill you; I'll kill all you murderin' bastards! Ah God, please stop!" Then just as quickly as he had started, Vin stopped. The struggle had gone completely out of him. Nathan had been opening the box that Josiah had been so careful of earlier. In it were a syringe and a bottle. Nathan didn't bother to pick them up. Vin was still mumbling, but he was no longer in the throes of a violent delusion. He was whimpering now as Nathan strode quickly to the bed. "Sss'hot. It hurts, make it stop, Ma. Please?"

Chris had pulled Mary to the side to get them both out of Nathan's way, but close enough to hear. Nettie was leaning on Ezra's arm.

"You all right?" Chris asked Mary looking at her chin. She shook her head and nodded to Vin.

"You have any idea what he was talking about?'

"Not really, but it sounds like he has some of his own demons to deal with. You sure you're all right?"

"I'll be fine, bruised but fine. It looks worse than it feels. I expect Vin will feel worse if he finds out he hit me."

"Nettie?" Chris asked glancing at the older woman who was hanging on to Ezra's arm as hard as she could. If it hurt the gambler, he made nothing of it. Nettie needed him, and he wasn't going anywhere.

She looked like she was about to burst into tears. "I'm fine, son." She paused and seemed to gather strength from Ezra. Straightening her shoulders, she looked Chris in the eye. "And you?"

Chris tried to smile and reassure her, but he was beginning to get that feeling, the same feeling of foreboding that he'd had the closer he and Buck had come to the ranch where he'd left Sarah and Adam. He didn't want to feel that again ever, but Vin wasn't making it any easier. He was getting worse, and no one, especially Nathan knew why. His hold on Mary tightened, and she reached over and put her hand on his. Just her touch made him feel a little better, but then he'd looked at Vin again, and the comfort disappeared.

"He in pain, Nathan?" Buck asked that question as he smoothed the covers that Vin had shoved everywhere during his fit.

"Don't know if he's in pain or if it's the fever talkin. I need to talk to JD, but I don't want to leave Vin in case he does this again. We got to cool him off. If we don't, and this fever gets any higher, it'll kill him. He can't stand another outburst like that. Too much stress on the heart."

"What do you want us to do, Nathan?" Buck couldn't sit still and let Vin suffer like that. What he'd heard had disturbed Buck to no end. Vin had sounded just like Chris had when he had seen the burned house and rushed into the smoldering debris only to find the bodies of the 2 people he'd loved the most in the world. He knew what this was doing to Chris. Vin wasn't Sarah or Adam, but for some reason, Chris had responded to Vin's friendship in a way that had diverted Larabee from the collision course he'd had with death. Vin was good at reading people and accepting them for what they were. He didn't pry. If he decided you were worth the effort, he'd give you his friendship and his loyalty. Buck had never even been jealous that Vin had done for Chris what Buck, who'd been Chris's closest friend for years, hadn't been able to. Vin's friendship was restoring Chris to his old self. It was as simple as that, and Buck was grateful to see Chris responding to people again. He was letting them in, while he was letting go of the past and the pain. Buck didn't know why Vin could read Chris so easily when he couldn't; he was just damned glad Chris was emerging from the cold, heartless shell that he'd been since the death of his wife and child.

If Vin died, Buck didn't even want to contemplate Chris's reaction. It was going to get ugly, and Buck hated ugly. So, he was willing to do anything to help Vin. Besides, he liked Vin. He and JD were like his little brothers. It was to Buck that Vin asked any question about Chris, and Buck told Vin whatever he wanted to know, safe in the knowledge that that information would never be spoken aloud to anyone, especially to Chris. It made Buck feel good that he knew things that could help both of his friends. It was also a comfort to know that when Buck couldn't watch Chris's back, Vin was there to do it. So the few times Buck and Vin actually disagreed on something, they always managed to see it through to the end with a better understanding of the other.

Buck had especially been tickled when Vin had fussed at JD for nearly getting himself killed to help Vin, not once, but twice. Hell, he didn't know Vin could talk that much, or be that angry. Vin seldom got impatient with JD, but this time, so close after JD had stood in front of that fake marshal to save him, Vin had had enough. Buck had no sooner told Vin that it was JD who had shot the bastard that nearly killed him than Vin lit into JD. If he hadn't agreed with every word, Buck would have laughed at the two of them. Instead of quietly thanking JD like he had the last time, Vin tore into the astonished kid. He'd reamed him up one wall and down the other, but instead of fussing back, JD had listened to Vin and then quite seriously told the tracker he hadn't done anything Vin wouldn't have. It was a mature JD who agreed that Vin had a point, but that he should also pay attention to his own advice. That's when Buck had lost it; even Chris had ducked his head to smile at that. Vin had shot a glare in his direction that told Buck he'd get him for laughing at him. Buck guessed Vin had gotten even for right now Buck Wilmington wasn't laughing. The home and family he had in Four Corners had become too precious to Buck to lose. Vin wasn't going to die if he had anything to say about it! He wouldn't allow Chris to grieve like that again, and Vin Tanner had better get well! He had to, or Buck was going to kill him!

"Buck, Buck, you listening?'

`Uh, yeah Nathan. What?"

"I need you and Josiah to sit here with Vin and sponge him down. I mean sponge him down good. We need to get that fever down some while I talk to JD. I don't want him left alone for one second. Call on Ezra if you need him. Vin can't move around like that again. He needs what little strength he has to fight this. You know where JD's at?"

"He took Casey outside when all the yellin' started. She was mighty upset, and JD took her out to calm her down. Said she didn't need to watch Vin suffer and the 2 of them couldn't help anyway. These bedcovers are gonna get real wet if me and Josiah have to keep spongin' Vin down. Wouldn't it be easier to set Vin in a tub of water?"

"Naw, I don't want to chance any infection developing in that there wound in his mid-section. Til I know what's goin' on, I want to play it careful. Miss Nettie,..?"

"I got extra beddin'. We can change it when he's cooled down. Mary, why don't you come help me fix some dinner. These boys ain't eaten since morning, and they look like they could use somethin'," Mary nodded in agreement and went with Nettie. Chris followed Nathan as he went in search of JD and Casey. Somehow, JD held the key to what was wrong with Vin. Nathan just knew it, and for the first time that day, Chris felt a small ray of hope. He'd take any amount because it was more than he'd felt since Vin had fallen off his horse that morning.


JD had taken Casey into the grove of trees nestled in front of Nettie's to the right of the road. She'd been crying, but was making a brave attempt to stop. JD looked worried, and Casey knew he didn't need her crying all over him like she was. She knew how much JD admired, no idolized the other six men. He was always going on about Chris was the fastest with a gun, Vin could shoot anything from any distance, Buck this, Ezra that, Josiah and Nathan, and on and on. If Casey hadn't idolized all six just as much, she'd be jealous as hell of them. Instead, they all treated her like their baby sister and JD like a younger brother. She really liked JD, and she knew what it was like to lose your ma. But Casey had Aunt Nettie, and she'd known her pa. JD hadn't known his, and these six men were JD's family now. They were the pa he'd never had and the big brothers he'd always wanted.

JD thought he knew what Casey was trying to do. She was trying to make him stop worrying about Vin by carrying on just like a scared girl would do. He knew she was strong like her Aunt Nettie. He also knew she cared about the others as much as he did. He'd found himself a home here. Sure, he was younger than any of them, but once they had let him join them, he was one of them. That made JD feel prouder than a peacock. JD would like to be like any of them, like all of them. He wanted to be as fast with a gun as Chris, as good a tracker as Vin, as good a friend as Buck, as good at cards as Ezra, as compassionate as Nathan, and even as spiritual as Josiah. There was something about each one he admired, and he was proud of what they stood for. People in trouble knew that the seven would help them. These were men of honor and he would follow anyone of them to Hell and back, because he knew if anyone could get them to Hell and back alive and safe, it was his six friends, his family. His ma would be proud to know he had chosen such men for his friends, but that didn't make JD feel any better right now.

Nathan sure looked mad when JD had said he was wrong, that Vin had too been favoring his back where the bullet had entered. JD hadn't meant to run out into the street, but from where he and Ezra had been shooting, he had seen Vin shoot the man who had Ezra in his sights. He'd also seen the man climb up behind Vin. JD had never felt so scared, but bullets flying or not, he'd had to get that man before he'd shot Vin. He'd missed the first time, so he'd had to run out into the street. He had stopped and taken his time aiming like Vin had taught him. 'Aim for the biggest part,' that is what Vin had said. 'Don't try for a head shot. You want your man down, not your shot wide.' Vin should have been proud of him, but he nearly bit JD's head off when Buck had told him. Well, come to think about it, Vin was proud of him, else he wouldn't have lit into him like Buck always did. JD realized that for Vin to ream JD out like he had, Vin had to have been scared for JD. That meant Vin didn't want anything to happen to JD because he liked him. Sometimes JD envied that tight friendship Vin and Chris had. It was a quiet, steady friendship based on mutual trust and respect, not that volatile and crazy friendship JD and Buck had. Buck treated him like a little kid most days, so did the others most of the time. But when JD had let Vin go on and on, JD hadn't got mad and protested. He just looked Vin in the eye and agreed with him that what he had done might have been considered stupid. Then he had just as quietly, to Vin's consternation, pointed out that he had put himself in the line of fire to save his friends, just like Vin had. Even Chris Larabee had smiled. He even winked at JD from beside Vin. It was the first time that JD felt that Chris thought of him with respect and not as some dumb ass kid trying to play at being a hero. He was proud of his new-found maturity, and he was going to use it to help them all. He just didn't know how, yet.


"JD! Casey!" Both jumped at the sound so engrossed in their mutual worry that they hadn't heard Nathan and Chris approach. So much for mutual respect JD thought. It appeared that Chris was just as pissed at him as Nathan was. He really needed to practice keeping his mouth shut more often. Now he knew why Vin didn't talk all that much; it kept him out of a lot of trouble. JD braced himself as he felt Casey puff up beside him. He sure did love her spunk, but Nathan and Chris could eat spunk when they wanted to!

"Yes sir?" He wasn't going to let on that he was just a little scared of them right now. They looked like two wolves who had just found dinner, and their dinner had a name, JD Dunne.

"JD, what was that you were tellin' Nathan about Vin favorin' his back?" Trust Chris to jump right to the heart of the matter. JD didn't know why they were so mad at him. They were all so much smarter than him; why hadn't they noticed the way Vin was extra careful of the left side of his back?

"I didn't mean no disrespect to Nathan," JD answered Chris, but turned to the worried healer as Nathan put his hand on Chris's shoulder.

"No one said anything about disrespect, JD. We just need to know what you meant when you said that Vin had too been favoring his back. Have you seen somethin' or has Vin said somethin' we missed?" JD finally realized that Nathan wasn't mad, he was desperate. Chris was too, and that scared JD. If they were feeling that desperate, it didn't mean anything good for Vin.

"Well, the other day."

"Nathan, Chris, come quick!" It was Nettie. They all took off for the house at a dead run. Vin must be having another fit. JD had seen Nathan move fast, but the big man was through the door with Chris on his heels before JD could draw a breath. Ezra stopped his headlong plunge into the room. He stood in the doorway with the others while Chris and Nathan made their way next to the man on the bed, who just seemed so small next to the four towering men. Vin wasn't thrashing around, and JD almost died of fright right there. Vin wasn't dead was he?

"He's awake, and he seems lucid." Thank God! JD might not understand everything Ezra said, but he could tell by the tone of voice that the news was good. Just then, he heard a soft growl come from the bed.

"Where the hell am I? What're ya'll standin' around starin' at?"

"You," was the answer Chris gave Vin. "You wanna tell us why you needed to scare the life outta all of us?"

"What? I jus wanted," he was interrupted by a fit of coughing. Nathan helped Vin sip water from the glass. He was looking at the tracker's eyes and trying to help cool the fever by having Vin drink the water. He motioned everyone out but Chris and Josiah, just in case the fever induced delirium returned, which it could at any moment.

"I need to know if you hurt anywhere, Vin. You got a bad fever, but I don't know what's causin' it. You ain't said anything hurt, but." Nathan stopped at the look in Vin's eyes. He knew he wouldn't get anything out of the tracker right now. The coughing fit had only sapped what little strength Vin had. His eyes were getting that glazed look that he had seen in others with really high fevers. Vin's respite from the fever had only been a brief one. It was climbing again. Chris could feel the heat emanating off of Vin's damp body. He put his hand out to help Nathan ease Vin back onto the bed and inadvertently touched Vin's wound.

"Hurts, make it stop, please make it stop?" was the response that spilled out of Vin's mouth as unconsciousness claimed him once again. Buck and Josiah moved up to take their places sponging Vin down, but Chris waved them off.

"I'll do it. You two go take a rest. Ezra, can you spell Josiah for a while?"

"Most assuredly, Mr. Larabee. Most assuredly." Chris wondered if Ezra would be this formal when he met St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. 'Course Ezra would probably con the poor saint into a card game and beat him out of his job.' Chris just winked at JD and Casey. "Nathan, why don't you take JD into the other room and talk to him about Vin. Josiah, you and Buck look like you could use a drink. Why don't you two go with them and see if JD can help us?"

Josiah understood Chris. Nathan needed to focus on finding out what was wrong with Vin, and JD seemed the only one with a clue right now. It was obvious that Vin was not going to shed any light on the subject. It was up to Nathan now, and Chris wanted someone with him to keep him focused on the problem instead of beating himself up over what he might have missed. Josiah could do that as well as Chris. He was often amazed at the uncanny way that Chris Larabee could size up a man in an instant. He had the uncanny habit of being able to see right into you and figure out what made you tick. That was why he was so close to Vin. They were just alike in that regard. They could both nail you with a look that seemed to blast right past your biggest defenses and see right into your soul. If they both weren't such honorable men, they could wreak a lot of havoc on the world. As it was, they directed those uncanny abilities into protecting people from the truly wicked and evil men. That's one of the reasons Josiah had joined this motley group. Chris Larabee was a natural born leader, and Vin his perfect second-in-command. They were so alike, yet so different. Chris had a volatile temper, and Vin had an easy-going way that seldom let anger get the best of him. But both had a phenomenal amount of self-control. Larabee knew he had a temper, and he kept tight control over it. Vin had a temper, but it was one that seldom surfaced unless in extreme circumstances. Both men, however, knew their own strengths and weaknesses. They knew how effective their unleashed tempers could be when facing great odds, or how anger could make them lose control and lead to someone getting killed. It gave them the advantage over their enemies because they gave no quarter. If you threatened those they were loyal to, those they cared about, neither Vin nor Chris would grant any mercy. You hurt the weak and defenseless at your own peril, and Josiah was drawn to that. They both reminded him of himself when he was their ages, different stages of growth forged from hard-learned lessons. Although Chris had shut himself off from others right after the death of his wife and child, he had learned to care and to trust again. Vin, well Josiah suspected Vin had his share of demons, and it was those same demons that kept him on the fringe. That both men had recognized the need in the other to trust someone and had acted upon it had been the start of a great partnership. Josiah didn't want to see that partnership die. He wanted to see this group survive and grow into the next stage, the family they were becoming. Josiah didn't know how much he appreciated the family he had found here until he nearly lost it when the government had sent that heavy handed marshal to take over their jobs. He had missed his friends even before they had broken up, and when Chris and Vin had come looking for him with Nathan, he had been ready to ride down any road those two had chosen. Chris had expected everyone to follow him, and Vin just understood Josiah's Old Testament justice. At least there was never a dull moment with these two leading them, not even now. Vin had to get better. Josiah hadn't seen any crows, and Vin was the heart of this group like Larabee was the brains. Josiah trusted in God and the spirits of all faiths to help his friend. He wouldn't consider any other possibility.


Josiah followed Nathan into the other room to talk to JD. Poor kid, eyes wide open, JD straightened his shoulders. Somehow the information he knew about Vin was the key to Vin's possible recovery. JD would do anything to help Vin, even if it was a tad suicidal sometimes. Josiah smiled and acknowledged JD's determination, and JD puffed up in return. Odd sometimes how just a look or a word could change JD's mood in a heartbeat. It used to be JD would jump at a word from any of them, a little irritation showing he expected a scolding or something similar. But JD was growing up. Sure he got a little too enthusiastic sometimes, but they all knew they were going to like the man JD was maturing into.

JD just wished he knew what Nathan wanted from him. He knew nothing about healing. He had been on the healing end from Nathan and trusted the man implicitly, but what JD knew about the art of healing could fit into a box, a very small box. Knowing Nathan wasn't mad at him didn't help matters any. He knew that Nathan thought he had valuable information on Vin, he just didn't know what it was except it had to do with the way JD had noticed Vin favoring his back. What that had to do with how sick Vin was made absolutely no sense to JD.

"You want to tell me what you meant about Vin?" Nathan didn't raise his voice but kept it low and soft. He wanted JD to talk, to tell him everything he had seen.

"I don't know nothing, Nathan, except Vin's been kinda favorin his left back. I just thought it hurt more there cause it was where the bullet went it."

"Anyone else notice what he's talkin' about?"

"Now Nathan," Buck was ready to defend JD instantly. "If JD says he saw Vin favor his back."

"I ain't callin' him a liar, Buck. I just need to know as much as I can. Vin can't tell me anything right now, and he don't look like he can handle that fever too much longer. I gotta find out what's causin' it before he's too weak to fight it. You understand JD? I got to know everything before I can find out what's wrong. Fever that high for too long can stop Vin's heart, can even affect his mind. Tell me everything you saw and heard."

JD thought for a moment; then spoke carefully, as if he were picturing every scene in his mind as he spoke, "Well, the other morning I was in the church helpin' Josiah cause of the rain. Vin was sittin' on the pew and leaned over to hand me the hammer. When he got back up, he brushed the arm of the pew with his back, right where he'd been shot. He jerked away and I saw this look on his face, like the look on Buck's face when he got that saber slice at the Seminole village. I asked him if he was all right and he said it was ok, but he was kinda breathless and he was tryin' to put his hand back there," JD had to pause to breathe. "I asked him again and you know him, he said he was fine. I told him you were in the back room, but he said he didn't need me botherin' you every time he did somethin' stupid like hittin his back. He's been kinda grouchy the last few days, so I left him alone like he said to."

Nathan was frowning. He hadn't even noticed Vin favoring his wound, and he mentally tried to juggle this information in with all he knew and remembered about infections. "Did he do it again anytime?"

"You mean bang into somethin'?"

"No, I mean favor his back."

"Well, yeah, last night he wouldn't lean on his left side at the poker table. You know how he leans more on the left side sometimes when he's sittin' and standin'? He was leaning more on his right side and he was fidgetin' some."

"Come to think about it, kid, you're right," Buck interrupted. "Vin was kinda movin' around a lot. He usually sits so still sometimes you forget he's there, but last night he was movin' around as much as a kid on the front pew Sunday mornin' instead of fishin' like he wanted to! No disrespect, meant, Josiah."

"None taken, Brother Buck."

"This all mean somethin', Nathan?"

"Maybe, maybe not. I got to take another look at where that bullet went in. Vin hasn't complained to me of any pain, and there's no reason why the entry wound would hurt more than the exit wound even if Vin hit it. He's got a lot of bandages on it, and that should have kept it from any damage from hittin' it on the pew. Sides, if there was an infection, even an abscess Vin would be hurtin' real bad in that spot. It would be real tender an' real red. You could see the infection formin'. It just doesn't add up."

"I knew a man once who'd been shot and the abscess formed inside where you couldn't see it," Nettie Wells broke into the conversation. "The doctor finally opened him up, but the abscess had already broke open and got all that poison into the blood stream. Man didn't last long after that." Nettie was looking into the room where Chris and Ezra were working at a constant pace, trying to lower Vin's fever by sponging him down. "What'd you think Nathan?"

"I've been checkin' him for it Nettie, but the area where the abscess is formin' would also be hard, kinda like a rock under the skin. I got to check it out. I just don't know at this point cause I ain't seen all the right signs, but this makes more sense than if Vin had picked up some disease I ain't never heard of."

"How can you find out for certain, Nathan?" Mary Travis was looking him in the eye. She didn't want to lose Chris Larabee to grief again. Not only did she consider Vin a friend; she knew just how close he was to Chris and to her son Billy. She no more wanted to face losing the tracker than anyone else did.

"I have to go in there and poke around on him, see if I can find anything that might indicate an abscess formed under the skin. I want to be sure cause if I cut him open in the wrong spot, just cut him open period, I could do more harm than good." With that, Nathan turned to go back into room. "Josiah, Buck, I may need you two. Let's go. Miss Nettie, Miz Travis, I need some pots with boilin' water. I need several instruments and some of those bandages I have placed right in the boilin' water. Can you do that for me?" The women turned to do as Nathan had asked without wasting time on words. For the first time since Vin had arrived on her doorstep looking like death warmed over, Nettie was feeling hopeful. She was not going to lose this man she loved like a son.


Chris looked up from pressing a cool wet cloth right under the back of Vin's neck. "Well?" How could anyone but Chris make a question sound more like a command?

"JD tell you anything useful?" Ezra was getting as bad as Chris.

"Not sure, yet, but maybe. I need to look at his back before I can tell for sure. Ezra let me over there on his left. Chris, can you help me hold him so's I can look at it?"

"Sure thing, but what are we lookin' for? You said the wound closed up clean."

"That's what it looked like, and when Vin said he didn't hurt, I figured he was alright. Now, JD says Vin's been favoring that spot for a few days, and Buck remembered him favorin' it too. There may be an abscess in there that we can't see Chris."

"But if you can't see it, can you fix it, Nathan?"

"Maybe Ezra, but at least we will know what we are dealin' with. You ready, Chris? Ya'll need to stand by just in case Vin acts up again."

With that, Nathan and Chris sat Vin up to where he was leaning his forehead on Chris's shoulder, and the gunfighter was holding Vin with his arms wrapped around Vin's upper torso. The heat poured off of Vin, making Chris sweat. Nathan didn't waste time unwrapping this bandage; he just cut it quickly off the tracker. He exposed the entry wound to the light of the lamp that Ezra was holding close to Vin in order to give Nathan the best possible view. Ezra caught Chris's eye, and both men acknowledged their hope that Nathan had finally discovered what ailed their friend. Chris felt Buck's hand on his own shoulder, and looked to see JD standing right beside Buck while Josiah stood to the left of Ezra.

No one was leaving, and Nathan didn't even bother to ask. He just bent over and started gently feeling the area around the wound. Vin began to stir, moaning a little.

"Sstop, hhurtss," came the muffled voice, so slight that Nathan barely heard it. Chris had, and he felt Vin's reaction to the pain. It must have hurt a lot if it brought the tracker to semi-consciousness. Chris began praying that it was something Nathan knew how to deal with. Hadn't he just told Ezra he could fix an abscess? Maybe, to Chris Larabee at this moment, meant a definite yes.

Nathan looked at Chris as he gently moved his hand over the wound again, then before Vin could respond quickly moved his hand to the same spot on the right side. "I'll be damned!"

Chris thought those were the most encouraging words he had heard in a while as he caught Nathan's eye. "Put your hand here," Nathan commanded. "Gently now, don't hurt him. Just press very gently where I place your hand." Buck moved his hand from Chris's shoulder to help balance Vin as Chris let Nathan guide his hand to the spot on the right. It felt smooth and muscled, but nothing unusual, just very hot from the fever. Chris started to ask Nathan what he was looking for when Nathan moved his hand to the wound on the left.

It felt like a rock just under the wounded area, maybe 3 inches long, something no one had noticed under the thick bandages. It was also hotter than the rest of Vin if that were possible. Nathan was grinning now as Chris began to realize that once again, JD had more than likely saved Vin Tanner's life.

"It's an abscess all right. Been formin' there just a little under the spot where the bullet entered. Feel it? Not close enough to show real red until it got this bad. If Vin had complained about pain he'd been feelin' over the last couple of days, I might have found it sooner. Damn fool! Too stubborn to admit he hurts!" Nathan knew what was wrong now, and most importantly, he knew what to do about it.

The helplessness he'd been feeling since Ezra came riding in for him with the news was replaced by determination. Instead of beating himself up over something he thought he'd done wrong, Nathan was dealing with something he knew quite a bit about. He'd seen abscesses during the war that had been opened and drained. Once drained of the infection before it could enter the blood stream and if kept clean, an abscess could be survived.

It was even more treatable now with the discovery that carbolic acid poured into the wound would kill all the germs causing the infection. Nathan had just read about its use by that English doctor, Lister, for that very purpose in his new medical book. He'd promised Maude Standish that he would never tell who had given him the book and his precious syringe and supply of morphine. That had been her condition for giving them to him. He had never been more surprised when she stopped by his clinic before she left Four Corners a month ago. He suspected that not even Maude was willing to admit she was actually proud of her son. He knew she would be absolutely astonished that she would be instrumental in saving Vin Tanner's life, but her gesture to Nathan had been just that, a life saver.

"Josiah, we need to clean off Nettie's table with some soap and water and cover it with some of those clean sheets I brought with me. Can you and Buck do that while Chris and Ezra help me get Vin ready for this?"

"What can I do?" The elation coursing through the room made JD determined not to be left out.

"You, Doctor Dunne, can help set up the sterile instruments. That water ought to be boilin' good by now, and by the time we get the table set up and Vin ready, they'll 'ave been boilin' long enough." Nathan watched as JD practically flew out to check on Nettie and Mary and tell them the news.


Half an hour later, Nathan was scrubbing his hands in hot soapy water. Josiah was doing the same, since he was the one chosen to help Nathan with the surgery. Nathan had decided to make the incision to drain the abscess the length of it, three inches. He also decided to place Vin propped at an angle in order to have the abscess drain outward away from the body instead of chancing further infection by contaminating the surrounding blood and tissue. Because of this, Vin was lying mostly on his left front side, his right front propped up by several pillows from Nettie's bed. Vin had stirred once during the preparations, but he hadn't regained consciousness. That high fever still worried Nathan. If he didn't get that abscess drained, keep the poison out of Vin's blood, and get the fever down soon, Vin might develop complications Nathan didn't want to think about much less voice out loud. Josiah and the women would not worry the others about the possible complications Nathan had mentioned earlier. Nathan felt lucky that Chris and Ezra hadn't heard, and he saw no reason to dwell on the fact that Vin's heart and even his mind might not be the same if the fever was not brought down soon. First things first.

First, eliminate the abscess and get the fever down. Then, when Vin woke up, they would deal with any complications. No use causing negative thoughts. There was hope in the air, and Nathan wanted Vin to feel it. Like Josiah, Nathan had a powerful spiritual faith. That faith had given him comfort and strength whenever he'd needed it in the past. Now was no different.


Everything was ready. Nathan drew on all his spiritual and physical strength. It was up to him now. Vin would live or die based on what Nathan did next. Instead of fear, there was a fierce confidence. Nathan had witnessed and felt too much suffering in his life. Healing others, ending even a stranger's suffering, was just one of the ways Nathan used to help create a better world for himself and others. Vin wasn't a stranger though. He was Nathan's friend, his brother, and Nathan was damn well going to fix Vin. There was no alternative.

He nodded to Josiah and Chris as he wiped his hands on the clean cloth Nettie handed him. "I need this room cleared except for Josiah, Buck, and Chris. Josiah's helpin' me, an' I need Buck and Chris in case Vin wakes up or has another fit. I ain't got no chloroform to keep him comfortable through this."

"What about the morphine? Couldn't that keep him from reactin' to the pain?" Chris had asked, but everyone else was thinking the same thing. Surely, Nathan would give Vin the painkiller?

"Too dangerous. Any kind of surgery is dangerous, but you use a strong drug like morphine, Vin might not ever wake up. This won't take too long, an' he shouldn't wake up during it. I just want to make sure everythin' is covered just in case."

You're the doctor, Mr. Jackson. Shall we adjourn to the porch ladies, Mr. Dunne?" Sometimes Nathan was thankful for Ezra's southern charm and breeding. His polite formality and intelligent vocabulary made it hard for others to argue with him when he chose to adopt his `aristocratic do as I command attitude'. Ezra took Nettie's arm through his and led Mary, JD, and Casey out to the porch. There was plenty of room, and Ezra had already received his instructions from Nathan earlier. There was a bowl of fruit, some bread and cheese, and a pot of coffee, but Ezra doubted if anyone would be eating and passing the time with small talk. Too much depended on what happened in the next hour for anyone to relax.

As JD closed the door to the makeshift operating room, Nathan picked up his scalpel. It, along with his other surgical equipment, had been a gift from a broad-minded Civil War physician who had seen the potential in Nathan. When his own son had died, the surgeon had given his son's surgical instruments to Nathan. Leaning over, and just to be certain, he gently traced the abscess under the skin with his fingers as he followed with his eyes. Then he quickly made the incision over the abscess. The smell was horrible as he inserted his fingers into incision to spread it apart. He inserted one finger into the abscess to break up any small pockets and drained the pus from the infected area. Josiah gathered most of the greenish liquid onto the cloth he held under the now re-opened wound. Chris handed Nathan the bottle of carbolic acid, and the healer poured it straight into the abscess. The carbolic acid cleansed the area as it chased the infected liquid, pus, and debris from the abscess into the pan and onto the fresh cloths Buck had handed to Josiah. Nathan and Josiah kept repeating the same process until Nathan felt he had completely flushed the abscess of all its impurities. It must have been four times and used two bottles of the carbolic until Nathan declared he was satisfied that he had removed all of the infection from Vin's body. Except for once, when Nathan had inserted his finger into the incision and Vin moaned, the tracker had made no other sound or movement.

Quickly handing Buck the pan filled with the filthy liquid and cloths, Josiah reached for the other pan containing the carbolic acid Chris had just poured from the third bottle. He joined Nathan in cleansing their hands once more. Nathan then took the gauze he'd had soaking in carbolic acid, and packed it into the space left by the abscess. This would provide the drain that would allow the cavity to heal from the bottom outwards. Nathan would replace that periodically over the next 48 hours just to be sure that all the infection had been drained. He left the skin open to hasten the healing and indicated to Chris and Josiah that he was ready to bandage the wound. As they lifted Vin up, Nathan applied another gauze soaked in carbolic acid over the wound and bandaged it. If he had gotten all of it, and none of the infection had gotten into the blood stream, Nathan doubted the abscess would return. He felt confident the surgery had been successful.

"That's it. We get him back to bed and keep packin' the wound with carbolic, an' I think we have this thing whipped. All we got to do is wait for the fever to break and Vin to wake up." For the first time that day, Nathan graced the men in the room with his smile. It literally lit up the room.

Buck let out a loud whoop that had Ezra and the others at the door in a heartbeat. As Nathan supervised Josiah and Chris move Vin back to Netties's bed, Buck told the others the good news, "Nathan says Vin's gonna be ok!" The rest began to chatter happily as they once again gathered at the door.

"When will he wake up?"

"How long before he's up?"

"Was it an abscess?"

"Thank you Nathan!"

They were all speaking at one time and no one knew who was saying what. Nathan held up his hand signaling the others to be quiet. "Let him be. The fever should break quickly now the abscess has been drained. If we can keep it clean in the next 48 hours an' the abscess don't come back, Vin should be ok. I don't think he's had the fever long enough to cause any damage to his heart or his mind, but we'll know more when he comes to. Ya'll go on now, an' I'll stay with him til the fever shows it's breakin'. Shouldn't be long now."

"Me and Casey'll sit with Vin. You go rest and eat somethin' Nathan." Nathan started to protest, but JD was right. JD and Casey'd had it somewhat easy this day, and Nathan was tired. So were the others.

"All right, but if he so much as twitches. . ."

"One of us'll come and get you, ok?"

"Just keep the wet cloths on his forehead and the back of his neck to cool him off."

"We will Nathan. We can do this," JD promised as he pushed the older group out of the room. Casey actually winked at Chris as she took the wet cloth from his hand. The gunslinger looked at the girl and then burst into the biggest grin she'd ever seen from Chris Larabee.

"I guess we been told Nathan. I don't know about you boys, but I am hungry enough to eat a bear."

"That's good son, cause I think Mary an' me have cooked a bear."

The lighthearted feeling carried into the next room as everyone started the cleanup in order to prepare for dinner. Before he left the room, Chris patted JD on the back, "Thanks, JD. You done good, real good, son. If it weren't for you, Vin might not have made it. You're a good man in a crisis." He left, but not before he saw the look of pride on JD's face. Yeah, the kid wasn't much of a kid any more. He was going to be one hell of man; a man Chris trusted with his life and the life of his family. Family, Chris had always liked what that word meant.


It had been one of the longest days Chris could remember. By the time the abscess had been drained, it was four in the afternoon. Everyone had helped clean up and then sat down for the best stew Chris had tasted in years. They were all sitting around on the porch and in the doorway of the house talking quietly. JD and Casey had just been run out of Vin's room by Nettie as Nathan had come in to check on his patient. They joined the others outside, a bowl of stew steaming in their hands.

"He awake yet?"

"Nah, Nathan is just checking on him, but he don't feel as hot as he was." JD answered Buck and shoveled the spoonful of stew he'd been cooling off into his mouth. "He said the fever was breakin' cause Vin was sweatin' and all."

Chris smiled at Mary. "You two feel like a ride into town? I'm stayin' with Nathan here tonight to help with Vin. The rest of you," he didn't get far when the others protested. It seemed no one wanted to leave until they were sure Vin was really going to be all right, but Chris knew that they all couldn't stay at Nettie's.

"Might I offer a compromise?" Ezra was back to his formal self. Why don't I remain here with Mr. Jackson, Mrs. Wells, and you? Then the others can go back into town this evening. They can come back tomorrow rested and relieve us. Surely Mr. Tanner should be awake by then? I will, of course, ride into town posthaste if anything unexpected happens to our friend."

No one could find any fault with that, and Mary did have to get Billy from Mrs. Potter. She and Billy would be worried about Vin and would want to know what had happened. Mary rose to help Casey finish packing. She could leave Billy in Casey's care and ride out in the morning with one of the men. She planned to have Buck and Josiah pack some clothes for the ones staying at the house. She had no doubt that Nathan and Chris would stay with Vin until they were convinced of his successful recovery. She breathed a small prayer of thanks as she helped Casey pack.

"You think he will wake up soon?"

"Nathan said he might sleep for a while, and it would help to get his strength back if he did. He isn't in a lot of pain now, and the fever is breaking. I think we'd know if something were wrong, don't you?" Mary smiled at the girl. She felt comfortable leaving now because Nathan had relaxed. That indicated to her that although Vin had a while before he was completely well, Nathan still felt he would recover fully. His confident air had passed to Chris, then Ezra, then the rest of them.

They left an hour later just as the sun was fading in the sky. Josiah and Buck were tired, but they kept up a humorous banter that included everyone until they reached town. They saw the ladies and Billy safely home and explained everything to the worried Mrs. Potter's satisfaction. Then Buck, Josiah, and JD walked into the saloon for a much-needed drink. Their presence seemed to calm the nervous townspeople who had been wary since the robbery. It was as if they felt the sense of foreboding had dissipated as the group returned from Nettie Wells' place with the news of what had happened to Vin Tanner. The people had been fiercely loyal to these men since they had returned to save them from losing their town. They belonged here with them.


It was well past midnight when Vin finally started to show signs of regaining consciousness. Nathan was changing the carbolic-soaked gauze in the abscessed area. Vin's fever had finally broken completely two hours before, and he had been sleeping comfortably. Chris was holding Vin, leaning Vin against him as he had earlier when Nathan examined his friend for the abscess. Ezra was helping steady Vin by draping the tracker's arms over Chris's shoulders while Nathan wrapped the last of the bandages around Vin's midsection.

"You're holdin' my hands again, Chris," came the muffled voice from Chris's shoulder where his head rested. Vin felt the rumbling laughter in Chris before he heard it.

"No I'm not," came the cheerful reply. "Ezra's holdin' your hands this time. I'm huggin' ya."

"Aw hell. Can't you people leave me be for just a little while?" Vin coughed as his dried throat protested this much use.

Nathan and Ezra joined Chris in laughing at Vin. The fever had done nothing to harm their friend's mental faculties. It hadn't done much for his disposition either, but they were so relieved he was back to his petulant, 'I can take care of myself attitude,' that they couldn't help but laugh. Once he found out what had happened to him, he was probably going to die of embarrassment, so they might as well enjoy what little time he had left by laughing as much as they could at his expense. Nettie was standing at the door, holding a bowl of warm broth.

"You boys don't sound like you're worried about waking your patient much."

"Where am I?" The voice was stronger as Vin realized he was naked in Nettie's bed. He had no idea what had happened, but he knew he felt like hell. Well, he actually felt better than hell cause the terrible pain in his back was now just a dull throbbing.

Nathan and Chris settled Vin against the pillows and let Nettie sit in the chair next to the bed. Ezra helped him drink a glass of water while Nettie prepared to give Vin the nourishing broth. He eyed her warily as she brought a spoonful to his mouth.

"Don't give me that look, boy. You couldn't fight a chicken for its feathers right now. Now open your mouth and eat this."

The others left Vin to Nettie. They didn't want to get in the line of fire. They all looked at each other on the safe side of the door as the old woman proceeded to tell Vin Tanner what his stubbornness had nearly caused. They barely contained their laughter as they heard Vin's contrite, "Yes, ma'am." He was in for it now, and they were going to listen and enjoy every word of it. Nettie was letting him have it with both barrels.

"I would hazard a guess that our Mr. Tanner is going to wish he'd never left the safety of Josiah's church."

"You got that right, Ezra," Nathan was wiping the tears of laughter from his face. "It'll be a long time 'fore Vin will take a bullet for any of us again, or at least he'll howl with pain until we shut him up."

"Serves him right. He scared the hell outta all of us," Chris voice sounded harsh but that was because he was trying to laugh and talk at the same time. It felt good to laugh like this. "I don't know about you two, but I'm gonna go lie down until Nettie's ready for one of us to relieve her." Ezra and Nathan nodded their agreement, and both returned to the pallets they had been resting on earlier. It was Chris's turn to relieve Ezra when Nettie'd heard them helping Nathan change the bandages on the wound. She had kept the broth hot on the stove for when she heard Vin wake up, so she'd been ready. The worry just poured out of her as she scolded Vin for the scare he'd given everyone. She was determined that he would start depending on his family and quit that relying solely upon himself. And she wasn't going to let up until he saw the sense she was making. When she'd come from Vin's room having forced him to eat all of the broth and listen to every scolding word, she was satisfied that at least she'd made her point. Nettie went so far as to wink at Chris when he got up to sit with Vin for the rest of the night. Nathan didn't want Vin moving around any until he was certain the abscess was gone, so they were taking shifts to stay with him and help him move if he became uncomfortable.

Vin pretended to be asleep when the door opened. He didn't know if Nettie had come back to scold him again, and he didn't feel up to another round right this minute. He'd lost the first one and figured he'd better get strong soon if he was going to get out of Nettie's with his backside in tact. Truth be told, he kind of liked Nettie fussing over him, he'd just rather be fully clothed when she did it. A man just couldn't get up and walk away from a woman like Nettie when she was breathing fire, and he certainly couldn't do it if he were naked. He had to talk someone into giving him his clothes.

"She sure tore a piece outta you," was the comment from Chris.

Vin's eyes opened, and he stared into Larabee's. He hadn't understood how close he'd been to dying until he saw Chris's eyes. He looked exhausted, but here he was to sit with Vin. Vin sometimes wondered what he had done to deserve friends like these. He nodded to Chris, and in that one look conveyed his thanks to his friend. No words were really necessary, but Vin felt like talking.

"What she said, is it true? Did I really almost die from some kind of infection? I didn't feel bad, well except my back hurt. I thought it was supposed to."

"Did it ever dawn on you that if it was natural, it woulda hurt in the front too? You coulda asked Nathan, but no you were too worried about bein' a bother. We really need to work on your conversation skills, Vin. You know, you open your mouth an' sound comes out?"

"Real funny, Chris," Vin smiled in spite of himself. He guessed if this was all Chris was going to fuss, he'd take it and be thankful. "The others, Nettie said they were all here?"

"Nathan and Ezra still are, but you know that. We sent the others back to rest."

"They all gonna come in an' take turns at me like you an' Nettie?"

"If you're lucky they are. I heard JD say somethin' about shootin' you," Chris smiled at his friend's dismayed look and relented a bit. "If you give him that look, he might not. Depends on how much of your ears you have left after Nettie." He knew he'd hit a nerve at the dismayed look Vin gave him. "She got you good. What she threaten you with?"

"Said she make sure no one gave me any of my clothes til Nathan said I was fit," Vin muttered looking at the blanket. Then he hit Chris with those pleading blue eyes, "Gimme my underclothes at least, Chris. It's embarassin' her comin' in here sittin' down an' me with nothing on under these here sheets."

"I guess you don't wanna know who helped me take your wet clothes off you then," He was laughing at the look of horror that passed over Vin's face.

"Ah hell, ain't never gonna be able to look anyone in the eye agin, 'specially Nettie! Why'd you let her help? Quit laughin'; I wouldn't laugh at you."

"Yes, you would, and you're laughing now. So behave, or I'll tell Nettie and let her come sit with you some more."

Vin grinned and closed his eyes. "Thanks, cowboy," Vin yawned. Before he drifted back to sleep, he looked Chris right in the eye. "Did I say anythin' stupid while I was feverish?"

"You talked some, but nothin' anyone understood," Chris wasn't about to have Vin worried over some of the secrets he had revealed. He understood that when Vin wanted to talk to someone about the demons he was carrying around inside his head, he would do it. Until then, he'd wait. They had time now, and Vin didn't need any guilt he felt to keep him from concentrating on his recovery. Satisfied with Chris's answer, Vin drifted back to sleep. Chris made himself comfortable in the chair, propped his feet up on the end of Vin's bed, and relaxed. Damn, but he was tired. It was the last thought he had until Nathan came in early in the morning to check on his conscious patient.


Nathan walked in to find a weak but fever free Vin. "You look like somethin' the cat drug in." He was smiling widely at the tracker. "You ready for me to check that wound agin'?"

"Like I have a choice?" Vin actually smiled at Nathan. He figured the only way out of this place was to cooperate fully. He was stubborn, not stupid. "You think I can put some pants on?"

Chris laughed, "Good try, Vin, but Nathan here is as scared of Nettie as I am. She said no clothes till Nathan said you were healed. I can go get her for you if you want to ask her again?"

"That's right Mr. Tanner. She's sitting on the porch imbibing her morning coffee. Why it will only take me," Ezra didn't finish because he started laughing again at the look of panic that crossed Vin's face.

"Tell him I ain't well enough to face her again, Nathan."

"Why Mr. Jackson, Mr. Larabee, I do believe our Mr. Tanner is admitting cowardice in the face of the enemy."

"Shut up, Ezra. Please?" Vin sighed. He thought the recovery from the gunshot was difficult the first time round, and he didn't see this letting up any time soon. "Ya'll go ahead and laugh. Just remember this could be you lyin' here."

"But it ain't, an' you need to let me change that dressing again. We got to get you cleaned up for your visitors later," Nathan started laying out the bandages and carbolic acid. "You in pain any more?"

"It hurts some, kinda like a dull throbbin', but nothin' like it was. It itches it more than anything. Is that good or bad?"

"It's good, an if you do as you're told for the next couple a days, I might let you sit out on the porch come Sunday mornin'."

"But that's a whole week Nathan!" Vin was tired of cooperating until he saw Chris nod in Nettie's direction.

"It's not a whole week, it's six days. You forgot today's Tuesday," Chris thought he'd point out the fact that Vin had lost a day due to his condition.

Nathan confirmed what Chris had said, "Yeah, you passed out yesterday mornin' and didn't come to makin' any sense till midnight last night."

Vin looked at all three men and shut up. He didn't feel like taking them on all at once, nor did he feel like stirring them up enough for them to sick Nettie on him. He was just too tired, so he let Nathan poke and prod him until he was exhausted. Once he got his strength back, he'd get someone to give him his clothes and then he was out of there. He drifted off to sleep before Nathan was finished. This pattern continued throughout the rest of the day and into the night as Vin woke long enough to talk for a few minutes to his friends and eat the chicken soup that Nettie kept forcing down him. Nathan finally declared the abscess gone when he removed the final packing of carbolic gauze from the cavity 48 hours after he had opened and drained it.

By Thursday morning it was healing nicely from the inside out, and Nathan finally stitched the wound shut with needle and thread both boiled then soaked in carbolic acid. He wasn't taking any chances, but he finally relented and allowed Vin to at least have his underwear. He'd gotten tired of Vin asking for it every time he woke up. Sometimes he wondered if the tracker was just too modest, but if wearing something decent made Vin cooperate more, then Nathan was all for it. He just made certain that someone was with Vin at all times and that the rest of his clothes were hidden well out of sight. Nathan wasn't stupid either, and he knew the way Vin's mind worked. It was something he had discussed with Chris, Ezra, and Nettie that first night. Nettie was right, so they had kept their friend as confined and helpless as possible until Nathan was satisfied that he was on the road to a full recovery. Vin was still to weak to run around, so he wasn't that antsy about moving around too much, but it was felt that someone should still be there with him until he regained enough strength to walk from the bed to the front porch.

Sunday afternoon saw a weak but healthier looking man sitting on the front porch of Nettie's nursing a cup of hot coffee. It had been so long since they'd let him have more than soup and bread and milk or water. A simple cup of coffee was heaven, like what drinking a fine bottle of brandy would be to Ezra. The others had all shown up for an early lunch at Nettie's. Mary had even brought Billy with them. It had been decided that Vin could return to town later that week with his promise that he would follow all of Nathan's orders. Since his strength was returning slowly, Vin had agreed to the conditions. Now, he was just happy to be out once more in the sunshine, the wind blowing softly on his face. To think that he'd nearly died trying to deliver a stupid telegram. Hell, he must have already been part delirious when he had grabbed it from Bill. The telegram, what had happened to Nettie's telegram?

Chris watched with growing concern as the look of contentment on Vin's face changed to worry. No one else had noticed until Chris spoke up. He didn't want Vin overdoing it, and he was apprehensive that the tracker had done too much too soon. He wasn't going through that again. "What's wrong, Vin?"

Everyone turned to stare at the tracker making him uncomfortable. He felt like a rabbit in a trap. "I just remembered Nettie's telegram. Did I ever give it to her?"

Chris visibly relaxed, "As a matter of fact, I don't know." He was relieved it was only the missing telegram that had caused Vin's discomfort. They could always find out from Bill what it was about; the man never forgot what a telegram said. "I don't even know if you gave it to Ezra or not when he asked you for it."

Ezra joined in then, "You wouldn't relinquish it to me, and I had no idea where you had hidden it away. You will forgive me, Mrs. Wells, but I completely forgot about your telegram. Do you remember where you had placed it, Mr. Tanner?"

"It was in the inside pocket of my jacket, probably lost for sure now," Vin was beginning to fret over his failure to get Nettie's telegram delivered. If it had been important, he'd let her down, and that made him angry. He had no one to blame but himself.

Before he could apologize, Nettie broke in from the doorway. She'd overheard the last part of the conversation from the window as she had been showing Billy where the forks and knives were in her kitchen. Billy had been helping JD and Casey set the table for lunch. "Don't fret none over that silly telegram. I found it when I was hangin' your coat up Monday night. Wasn't anything important, so I didn't mention it."

"So's everything ok?" Vin wasn't easily diverted, and he wanted to be certain Nettie wasn't just telling him this to make him feel better.

"Right as rain, boy," she laughed as she walked out onto the porch. "Just a note from an old school friend. Seems her married daughter and her husband are comin' through this way on a wagon train. They're gonna try to stop an' see me. She just wanted to let me know."

The hair on the back of Chris's neck stood on end for a second, but the uneasy feeling ended as quickly as it had begun. For some reason, the mention of this wagon train put him on edge. It quickly disappeared as Vin and the others relaxed and Nettie ushered everyone into the house for lunch. Vin offered Nettie his arm as Ezra gallantly held the door for them. Josiah and Nathan waited until Chris had escorted Mary inside. They both paused and exchanged satisfied smiles.

"Just like a family havin' Sunday dinner, ain't it, Josiah?"

"Amen to that Brother Nathan, amen to that! We got a lot to be thankful for, don't we?" With that, they walked in to join their family.