Chapter 11

"Our surprise managed to take out the two scouts they sent ahead. We checked that from a safe distance using Mr. Tanner's spy glass," he paused. "The blast also threw several riders and scattered the horses. We have bought us some time and hopefully dampened their ardor for this enterprise somewhat."


"They bought us some time, JD. Now Sheriff Johnson and his men should be able to catch up, and we can squeeze 'em in between us." Buck was ecstatic. He was tired of running. "None of them will escape!"

"We'd better get ready then." Chris started issuing orders. JD, you and Buck take positions on the roof of the hotel in the front. Josiah, Nathan, I want you two in the back covering that entrance. Captain, can we put some men in different positions to protect the hotel?"

The captain offered, "I've already posted men on the perimeter around the town and especially the hotel. We have no intention of allowing these men to get to Mr. Terrell's family or harm the town in any way. We can cut these outlaws off in any direction. If Sheriff Johnson and his posse follow through, they won't escape."

"Good, I'll take the front with Ezra. Judge, Mr. Terrell, can you take position right outside this door?" When both men nodded yes, Chris turned to Vin. The men started moving, and Vin got up with them.

"I'll take that top room upstairs that has the windows facing the front."

"No, you'll stay in this room in here with Mrs. Terrell, Mary, and the children."

Vin swung around to face Chris. The usually even-tempered tracker was livid.

"I ain't stayin' inside while everybody else is fightin'! It ain't fair! I can shoot better'n any of you! I don't need no protectin'!" The twins had never really seen him lose his temper, and it was rare for the others who also witnessed the outburst.

"I'm not tryin' to protect you! You are the best shot, and I want the best shot with the women and the children!"

Larabee and Tanner stood glaring at each other not caring who witnessed their difference of opinion. Ezra held his hand out to Buck again and received another gold piece.

"Best go make sure the soldiers are set up and in position. You boys go and get where Chris told ya." Josiah started ushering everyone out of the room. Vin's outburst of temper had taken everyone by surprise, and Josiah used that surprise to his advantage to get everyone to follow orders. He swung both twins off JD's lap and in a circle before he left the room with them. Buck and Ezra grabbed Billy and Jamie. They didn't need to see or hear what transpired inside the room. John and Alexandra Terrell stepped outside, and the two men were finally alone.

"You can't make me stay! I gotta right to get those bastards as much as anyone else!"

"I can make you stay, and you will stay!" Chris punctuated his assertion by grabbing Vin by the arm and gently pushing him back toward the chair. He barely had to touch Vin before the tracker fell backwards into it. "You can barely stand. You've had less sleep than any of us. You've lost a lot of blood, and you plain ain't goin' anywhere cause you can barely stand. I don't need no one takin' their eyes off what they're doin' worryin' about you cause you're throwing some temper tantrum like a little kid!"

Vin didn't feel like arguing with Chris and figured he'd just wait until Larabee and the others were in position, and then he would just make his way to the top floor while they were busy. With John Terrell and Judge Travis right outside the door, Ezra and Chris guarding the front, and Nathan and Josiah guarding the back, Vin would have plenty of time to leave the room and make it upstairs. So, he looked Chris in the eye and blatantly lied to him.

"You're right. I'll stay here with the women and the children so I don't get in nobody's way."

Chris wasn't buying it for a second. He knew that look in Vin's eyes. "Tanner, one day you're really gonna piss me off!"

Vin knew he'd been caught and started laughing. It was infectious. Both men grinned, and Chris tried a new tactic. "Melanie Terrell is here in the hotel."

That got the tracker's undivided attention. "She say anything?"

"No, but Terrell got the letter and read it. I think I'd like to hear what it says, wouldn't you?" Chris knew if he could put Vin in the room with Melanie Terrell, he'd probably scare her into talking. At least the tracker wouldn't let the woman out of his sight and would still be able to protect Alexandra Terrell, Mary, and the children. If he couldn't do it himself, Chris knew he could trust Vin to do it for him. "You stay there." With that, Chris walked over to the door and asked John and Alexandra Terrell back into the room. The children were no where in sight.

"Mary thought it might be best to take the children to use the facilities. We wouldn't want them to have to go while we're in the middle of a gun battle." Alexandra flinched at her husband's use of the word. She put her hand over her stomach and then straightened her shoulders.

Turning to her husband, she issued a few of her own orders, "You will not do anything foolish, John. I am too young to be a widow, and I will spend every dime of your money finding myself some handsome young man if you get yourself killed. I have every confidence that this young man can protect us. You watch out for you!"

"Yes, love, but I don't think that is why these gentlemen asked us back into the room. We don't have much time before Mary brings the children and Melanie back. I take it you want to know what was in the letter, Chris? I think we have gone beyond formalities, don't you?"

Chris nodded in agreement, and Terrell took over the conversation. "Vin, did my brother say anything to you at all before he was killed besides give you this letter and Jamie?"

"He said not to trust Melanie. He also said she didn't know about the twins, just the other stuff. He said to tell you he loved you all and to take care of his son. Then he talked to Jamie and handed him and the letter to me. That mean anything to you?"

"Yes, it means that trying to kidnap the twins is the only crime Melanie is not guilty of. According to Mark's letter, he has the evidence in a safe place that will prove that Melanie not only knew about the kidnapping of her son, but that she helped arrange it. She also planned to have Mark killed."

Alexandra Terrell couldn't believe that the same woman who had given birth to that adorable young boy could be so evil. "John, are you certain? She planned to have Jamie kidnapped and Mark killed?" How could they all have been so blind to that woman's true nature?

"She didn't succeed thanks to your brother, John. Way Vin tells it, he did everything he could to protect the children. He planned to do that at all costs."

"It's all right, ma'am. She's not going to get away with this." Vin's gentle voice reassured Alexandra.

No wonder the twins had taken to these two men. If you went by appearances and reputations these two alone had garnered throughout their lives, you wouldn't think that they would be so compassionate, yet they were. Even having read the information her husband had compiled on the seven when Orrin Travis had first told them about the men he had hired to protect this growing town hadn't prepared Alexandra for the reality. She was used to strong men like her husband and father, but she had never really been around men who had faced the adversity these two had. Having lost his wife and son in a fire meant for him should have made Chris Larabee turn completely away from emotions like compassion. And Vin Tanner, Alexandra in no way believed the wanted poster from Texas. The short time she had been in his company had been enough to convince her that this young man was no murderer. That he had killed before was something she could believe, but she would never believe that he had murdered an innocent man, especially not for money. It had nothing to do with their treatment of the twins, though that was another mark in their favor. But they had more important things to think about right now.

"What do you want us to do, John?"

"I think that we allow Vin's appearance to work to our advantage," Terrell nodded toward the tracker's bloodied shirt and pants. "She's already running scared, let's see if we can't frightened her into a corner. Vin, do you think you could be menacing?"

A feral smile that didn't quite reach his eyes answered Terrell's question. "Oh yeah, I can be menacing." A chill went up Alexandra's spine at the transformation in both men. "Been takin' lessons from Chris here."

Alexandra looked at the three men and almost felt sorry for Melanie, almost.

"I'll see about getting' Ezra to set her up for a fall." With that Chris exited the room as Mary brought the children back in. The nanny was with her, and even with her injury, she had the twins firmly in hand. Instead of jumping Vin, they politely walked up to him. Nanny Beth had told them that it hurt Ours if they jumped on him too much. Chris smiled at Mary as he picked up his hat and went to find Ezra. "I'll talk to you later." His voice was almost a caress.

"I'll look forward to it. Will I have to get the twins to sit on him, or is he going to behave?" Chris knew she was talking about their mutual friend.

"Oh, he's got a special job to do. Should keep him busy but still for a while. Course, you keep that idea about the twins getting' him as a back up plan." Mary laughed as Chris went in search of Ezra.

Chapter 12

While John Terrell helped Vin turn the divan over on its side and slide it over in front of the safest corner in the room, he instructed the women to take the children and sit on the floor behind it when they heard the shooting start. Then he left the room after kissing his wife and children and thanking Vin one more time for protecting his daughters and nephew.

Vin still hated the idea of staying in the room out of the action because of a little scratch, but he was actually looking forward to the confrontation with Melanie Terrell. Any woman who would plan to use a child for money deserved everything she got. Maybe he could get her confession fast and relieve the judge outside the door of the room. He doubted Chris or any of the others would stay safely hidden while any fighting was going on. They would be in the big middle of it, and he planned to be there with them. Serve them all right if the posse from Brecken and the soldiers squeezed the remaining gang members between them before any of his friends could get in on the action. That thought really appealed to Vin.

Mary was keeping a good eye on him as they made a safe barricade of the biggest stuffed chairs and divan for the women and children to take shelter behind from stray bullets or if anything went wrong and somebody got into the room. He had that same feral grin he'd given Terrell earlier when asked if he could be menacing when the door opened, and Ezra and the soldier guarding Melanie Terrell entered the room. Vin took an instant dislike to the woman. She looked like one of those women who was all sugary on the outside but all snake on the inside. Ezra caught his eye, and Vin knew he felt the same way. Still talking to the woman, whatever Ezra had been saying appeared to be working. Ezra could con a porcupine into sticking itself with its own quills.

"As I was saying, Judge Travis is a fair man. Why he granted me a pardon for my small crime simply because I offered to help protect this lovely berg from the many criminals who would disturb its pastoral beauty. Isn't that correct, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra's voice had taken on a condescending tone when he addressed Vin, and Vin played right along.

"You best watch out for that she-devil, Ezra. She's in on it." He directed a look that would have frozen most men in place with fear at Melanie. It worked perfectly as she shrank against Ezra.

"Why Mr. Tanner, please abstain from brutalizing this poor woman. It is positively obvious that a refined lady like Mrs. Terrell could not have perpetrated such a heinous conspiracy as this."

Melanie fell for Ezra's ploy hook, line, and sinker. She not only thought that Mark had not been able to find any evidence against her, she also believed that Ezra found her helplessness appealing. The rest of the men should be easy to convince if she could just rid herself of Terrell and the man in black. This frightening brute in front of her should be easily manipulated if she pretended to be frightened of him. Pretending to be frightened of him would be no problem, she already was. But, she had come too far now to back down. Too much would be lost if she couldn't do what she had to in the coming distraction.

The southern gentleman beside her treated this man as if his brains matched his manners, of which he obviously had none. She had her small gun tucked inside her pocket where no one had thought to search. If she could just get out of the room when the confusion started, she might have a chance at helping herself. Surely in the gun battle to come, no one would be able to see from where the bullets came that would cut Terrell and Larabee down. All Melanie had to do was distract the soldier and this, this thing in front of her. His hostility towards her could be used to her advantage.

"Oh please don't leave me here with him. I'm so afraid. I haven't done anything."

"Now, now, my dear. Calm yourself," Ezra patted her hand as he led her to one of the few chairs remaining upright. "You just sit here. I am certain this obviously bright, young military man will make certain no harm befalls you.' He turned a stern eye on Tanner. "You will refrain from bothering Mrs. Terrell. She has been through an ordeal. You are only staying in here because you are of no use to us in your present condition." Ezra's eyes twinkled in mischief as he turned his back to Melanie and looked at Vin.

"I'll be happy to show you what condition my gun is in if you don't get out now!"

"You just remember what I said. There are ladies present and you will behave yourself accordingly. And do try not to let any of your deplorable habits rub off on these impressionable children." Ezra winked at Vin who was now standing between Melanie and the children. Then he left the room, closing the door behind him.

Melanie rose from the chair and held out her arms.

"Jamie, dear, come to Mother." Jamie just hid more behind Vin. He looked over at his aunt. "I said to come here, James Terrell." Melanie's soft pleading voice had turned into a sharp, hard voice when addressing her son. He very obviously wanted nothing to do with her, and Vin wanted him no where near the woman. He suspected her of carrying some sort of weapon, a knife maybe. She would be stupid not to, so he pushed Jamie in the direction of his aunt.

"He ain't goin' no where near you," he growled. The menace in his voice was no longer acting. This witch wasn't getting her hands on any of the children.

The young soldier had been warned by Terrell and his captain not to let this woman out of his sight or leave her alone with the children. He would follow orders, but the man in black had also pulled him aside and told him exactly what he would do to him if didn't obey this Tanner fellow. Duty and fear had not prepared him, however, when Melanie Terrell turned to him and started issuing orders.

"Make this man leave this room, now! How dare he speak to me like that! I want him out of here now! Do you understand me?"

Vin took the decision out of the young soldier's hands when he quickly crossed the room and stood right in front of Melanie Terrell. He spoke no more than a whisper, but what he said had the desired effect. "Your husband got killed right in front of your son, and you ain't even asked about him once. He told me you were part of all this, and I aim to make sure you don't hurt that boy ever again. That boy don't need a witch like you for a mother. Either sit down and shut up now, or I'll make you sit down and shut up. Learned about cuttin' out tongues from the Indians."

Melanie sat down with a thud. She looked around for help but saw none from either the soldier or the other women in the room. Vin Tanner had just moved to the top of Melanie's list. If all else failed, this man had to die! She would make certain of that. He knew too much, and he had just threatened her. She had witnesses, and in her mind, a mind that had unraveled as quickly as all her schemes had, he deserved death more than her husband had. Mark had deserted her, but this man had pierced right through her careful façade and let her know he knew exactly what Melanie Terrell was really like.

No longer was Melanie intent on saving her own skin. From the look on Alexandra's face, Melanie knew that she had been found out. All that gambler had told her must have been a lie, a set up. If that were true, then he must actually be working with this horrible man. John Terrell and Chris Larabee were no longer Melanie's targets. As of this moment, Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish were the two men she would kill or die trying. They had humiliated her and played her for a fool, just like Lawrence had. She might as well indulge herself. If it was the last thing she did, she would see this man dead at her feet. And then she would go after his friend.

But wait, if she waited a little longer, she might be able to catch the two of them together. That is what she would do! She would wait until the two had gotten together to share their enjoyment of her humiliation, and then she would use her gun on both. No one thought she had a gun, and that young soldier hadn't seen her slip it into her pocket when he'd bent over to retrieve her handkerchief off of the floor. Melanie would bide her time, and then she would have her revenge against the two men she now hated more than she had hated anyone in her life. She heard the gunshots and actually smiled. It wouldn't be long now.

Chapter 13

Ezra had no sooner shut the door behind him when he was confronted by Chris and John. He motioned them away from the door and grinned.

"Well?" Larabee was not a patient man. Then again, neither was Terrell.

"Did she fall for it?"

"Oh, that woman has no idea what is in store for her. She is so frightened of our Mr. Tanner that she almost fainted. Don't let that fool you, however. She is almost as good a con woman as my mother. All she lacks is the sincerity my mother is able to project. She definitely has something planned."

"You have any idea what?" was Chris's next question. Before he could answer, they heard shots being fired near the outskirts of town. "It's started! Let's go!" Picking up the rifle from near the door where it was leaning, he looked at John Terrell. "Good luck!" Chris and Ezra ran to the front of the lobby and took positions on either side of the front doors. John Terrell moved with his rifle next to Judge Travis who was kneeling behind an overturned table in front of the only entrance to the room where the women and children were.

They need not have rushed. The actual skirmish was over before it had begun. The gang, already disheartened by the earlier catastrophes in Brecken and on the trail with the dynamite, was not ready to die in what seemed impossible odds. They knew there was a posse following behind them, and they knew that there were seven men whose reputations had been earned at the expense of some of their former allies. The money they had been promised though was worth the fight. They figured they would have what they could get from the town and Terrell's kids before the posse could catch up to them. So, they had ridden with Haswell into Four Corners guns blazing. It wasn't until they saw the blue coats that they realized that John Terrell had not come alone. Mark Terrell had told them nothing of the army battalion that was supplying safe escort for John Terrell and his wife.

Eleven men were good odds against seven, but with four more dead from army rifles, they decided life was a better idea. Turning to run, they found their escape route halted by the other soldiers who had followed orders and quickly closed the trap. They surrendered. The only man who would not surrender was Laurence Haswell. He spotted John Terrell in the street between a man in black and another in a brightly colored vest, no coat. He turned his horse in their direction and road forward firing. He was cut down by four guns before John Terrell could lift his rifle. JD Dunne and Buck Wilmington saluted Terrell before they made their way down from the roof. Chris holstered his weapon as did Ezra.

"Never could stand uninvited guests," was Ezra's comment as he flicked an imagined piece of dirt from the sleeve of his silk shirt.

"Don't much like men who pick on children," was Larabee's only comment. They walked forward and looked at the body lying in the middle of the street. "That Haswell?"

Terrell answered, "Yes, it is. Thank you gentlemen. Now we have one more left to deal with."

Ezra smiled at the man. "Gentlemen, I anticipate my partner has Mrs. Melanie Terrell quivering in fear by now. Shall we proceed?" Ezra looked at Chris as they walked back to the hotel entrance, "I swear, I shall succeed in teaching Mr. Tanner the finer points of subtlety, yet." Chris shook his head at Terrell and left Captain Thompson to clean up the mess. The man had proven more than capable of dealing with what was left of the gang.

Ezra led the way into the hotel and walked through the dining room and up to the door of the room where Vin waited inside with the women and children. Nathan, Josiah, Buck, and JD were standing outside the door with Judge Travis. With a flourish only Ezra Standish could accomplish, he opened the door. Two shots rang out in rapid succession. Ezra slid to the floor clutching his right shoulder, a look of complete bewilderment on his face. Chris caught him, and looked into the room. A look of horror passed over his face. Vin Tanner lay in a pool of blood on the floor of the room. Mary had already pressed a heavy cloth over his midsection, and Alexandra Terrell was helping the nanny shield the crying children from the sight. The young soldier had dropped his rifle and was holding Melanie Terrell from behind, both of his arms wrapped tightly around her as he pinned her arms to her side. She was laughing and staring at the gun on the floor.

"They're dead, aren't they?" Her insane laughter caused chills up the spines of those present. Josiah took Ezra from Chris as Ezra motioned both Chris and Nathan toward Vin with his uninjured left hand.

"I'm all right. Check Vin," was all he could manage as Buck helped Josiah staunch the blood with another of the hotel's fine linen cloths.

Chapter 14

"She pulled that gun and pointed it at Mrs. Terrell, sir." Nanny Beth was near tears. "That young man stepped right in front of the gun just as the other one opened the door. They saved Mrs. Terrell's life."

"It's all right Mrs. Davis. Can you take Mrs. Terrell and the children to our rooms?" John wanted Alexandra and the children as far away from the scene as possible. The physical danger was over, but the mental anguish had just begun. It was obvious that Standish would recover, but the blood around Tanner. He was unconscious, and John had never seen that much blood except during the war. Terrell stopped Nanny Beth as she neared the door, "Mrs. Davis, ask Dr. Connors to come downstairs immediately, please."

Nathan looked relieved when he heard that. They could use a real doctor right now, but his hopes were dashed at Terrell's next statement, "He is rather old, but he is my wife's uncle and is still quite capable." Nathan just nodded and continued checking Vin's wound. The bullet had entered on the right just under the rib cage. He was unconscious and bleeding freely. The location of the wound and the amount of blood indicated the liver was involved. He looked up only when he heard Josiah bring a protesting Ezra into the room. They pushed him toward the divan that John and Buck had set back on its legs.

"I'm all right, Josiah."

"The bullet passed right through, but you ain't all right. Now stop arguin' and let Josiah check you out." Buck had seen all the blood and was pulling Nathan's supplies out of his bag once more. Josiah placed Ezra on the divan and looked to where Nathan was working on Vin. The tracker wasn't moving at all.

Captain Thompson had entered the room by then and ordered two other soldiers to help the private escort Melanie from the room. He was just about to ask where they wanted her when Judge Travis spoke up.

"Take that woman to the jail and put her in a cell by herself. She doesn't deserve any special treatment." It was obvious that Melanie had finally lost her mind, but Judge Travis felt no sympathy for the woman. "Besides, she'll do less harm to herself and anyone else locked up." Since the others shared his sentiments, the captain sent the soldiers to take Melanie to the jail. Her insane laughter floated on the air as they removed her from the room.

Chris Larabee had said nothing since he'd seen Vin lying in a pool of his own blood. He'd insisted Vin stay in here and had sent Ezra to pull the con on Melanie. He hadn't thought to check her for weapons. The fact that no one else had mattered little to him. His best friend might be dying, and another close friend had also been shot. It was his fault and his fault alone.

Buck looked from Chris to Mary, who silently moved closer to Chris, and then over at JD. The kid's eyes had been glued to the scene on the floor. None of the seven had ever been wounded this badly, and JD had certainly never seen that much blood come out of one man before. A member of his family might be dying right in front of him, and there was nothing anyone could do. Now he looked from Vin's blood on Mary's hands to the hopeless look on Chris's face.

"JD," he didn't look over at first. "JD!" This time he looked up at Buck. "Can you help with the kids? The darlins are gonna be real upset, Billy and Jamie too. They're gonna need someone they know with 'em, too. Vin means a lot to 'em all."

JD didn't want to leave, and he thought Buck just might be trying to protect him, but he also knew that those kids were as attached to Vin as he was. He didn't want to leave until he knew for sure Vin was going to live, so as he nodded that he would go upstairs, he looked at Nathan. He just had to know. They all did, and he wasn't going anywhere near the twins until he could tell them Vin was going to be all right.


"I don't know yet, JD. The bullet's still in there, an' I'm gonna have to get it out. We need to move him onto that big table in the dining room. Josiah, Miz Travis, can y'all clean and bandage Ezra's wound? I'll come check on it as soon as I can."

"Take care of Vin, Nathan. Don't worry about me. I am in capable hands."

"I'm gonna check that wound myself, Ezra. You just sit still an' let Josiah and Miz Travis help ya, awright?"

Ezra nodded weakly. His shoulder hurt like hell, but he was more concerned for Vin than he was for himself. When had Ezra Standish started caring for others more than himself? He supposed Mother would be very disappointed in him, but somehow Ezra didn't care. These six men were more like his family than his mother had ever truly been. Oh, he loved her, and knew she loved him in her way, but she had never let Ezra get truly close to her. He would never understand her, but these men he understood. As complex and volatile as their relationships were none of them ever truly lost sight of one basic fact. They were all each other had.

Ezra also felt guilty. He should have known the woman was close to the edge. He should have checked her for weapons. Ezra Standish had underestimated someone, and now Vin was paying the price. He saw Chris's face and knew exactly how the gunslinger felt. If he'd known Chris was also berating himself for letting Ezra get shot, Ezra would have set him straight immediately. Hindsight was a wonderful thing.

Mr. Parker, the new hotel owner, entered the room on the heels of Dr.

Connors. "Can I help?" He hadn't known these men long, but the people in the town were very vocal about these seven men. They had risked their lives time and again to protect the town, and the residents had become fiercely loyal to the seven. Surely it could only help his business and standing in the town if he did all he could to help.

Dr. Connors was an older man, almost seventy, but he was still in command of a razor sharp mind. He took one look at the situation and spoke to Mr. Parker as he walked over to help Nathan. "We will need to use that large table you have as an operating table. We will need it cleaned off immediately in order to get this young man attended to. The floor is no place to perform surgery. We also need clean towels and linen for bandages. Have the cook start boiling water." As Mr. Parker scurried off to implement the orders, the old doctor turned his attention to Nathan. "Doctor, what can I do to help?"

Automatically, Nathan gave his standard disclaimer. "I ain't no doctor. I was. . . ." He got no further.

"From what I understand, you're a damned fine doctor. I am too old to be kneeling on floors. Tell me what you know." He took the bottle of carbolic acid from Josiah's offered hand and returned the big man's relieved grin with an efficient nod. "I'll take care of this young man while you give me the details on that one." He began cleaning Ezra's shoulder wound while Nathan told him what he'd deduced from his examination of the wound.

"I think the bullet must have knicked the liver on it's way in. I have to go in and get it out."

"Why do you think it hit the liver?" Chris bristled at the doctor's question. If Nathan said it hit the liver, then by God it hit the liver. Could a man survive with a bullet to the liver?

"The bullet entered here on the right side just below the rib cage. I think it knicked the liver cause he's bleedin' so much."

Dr. Conners nodded as he started to bandage Ezra's shoulder. "Excellent. The liver regenerates. If we can get the bullet out without further damage and the bleeding stopped, that young man has a fighting chance." Nathan and Chris decided they liked Dr. Connors. A little hope was better than no hope at all.

Ezra involuntarily sucked in his breath as Dr. Connors tightened the bandage. He'd been able to keep quiet as the doctor had poked at his shoulder and poured carbolic acid all over the wound to disinfect it, but when the doctor had tightened the bandage, the sound had escaped. Now he knew why Vin had complained; the carbolic acid burned. He looked up to see Chris staring at him. There was no condemnation, only a sad regret that it was Ezra sitting there and not Chris. Ezra wasn't ready for sympathy, yet.

"Doctor, are you saying that Mr. Tanner will recover fully?" He had just asked what everyone else wanted to know.

Parker interrupted them from the doorway. "We brought the table to you. I thought it would be better for him if you didn't have to move him too far."

He received a grateful smile from Nathan as he looked up. "Thanks, can you bring it over here?"

Parker and Captain Thompson tilted the long table and maneuvered it through the door. Buck joined Chris, Josiah, and JD moving the furniture out of the way. Even John Terrell helped. Once they had it positioned in the room, right under the chandelier for the best light, they prepared to move Vin onto it.

Chapter 15

Josiah and Buck gently placed Vin on the table while Nathan kept applying pressure to the wound. Vin needed to keep as much blood as possible in order to survive having the bullet removed. Chris reached out to replace Nathan's hands as Josiah shooed everyone except Dr. Connors and Chris from the room. Josiah stayed and washed his hands along with Nathan and Connors.

Ezra remained reclining on the divan. Both Nathan and the doctor wanted him to stay still and rest instead of moving about. They both knew he was in pain, but Ezra had refused Nathan's offer of morphine. He not only knew how expensive it was, he also knew that Nathan had a very small supply of it. Vin might need it, and Ezra could stand the pain as long as he didn't move around much. He had gratefully accepted the pillow Mary had propped his arm upon before she left the room. She had paused long enough to place her hand on Chris's shoulder. He had acknowledged her support with a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes.

"I'll be with Billy and the children. You'll come and tell us?"

"I'll let you know when Nathan has him fixed up." Chris refused to believe anything else. He'd had enough anguish in his life without mourning Vin before he died. Maybe if he believed that his friend would recover, then he would. Hell, Chris didn't care if Vin woke up still mad at him for making him stay inside while all the fighting had been going on, just as long as Vin did wake up. There was just so much blood everywhere. No matter how hard he pressed, the blood kept coming.

"I'll take it now, Chris. Why don't ya go into the other room an' check on the others?"

"No." Nathan shook his head and looked at Neil Connors and then Josiah. Damn, he didn't know who was more mule-headed, Chris or Vin.

"Then go over and keep Ezra from movin' 'round."

"I am doing no such thing," came the weak protest from the divan. They had turned it so Ezra was facing away from the makeshift operating table, and he wanted to see everything. Nathan had seen him fidgeting, trying to move into a better position.

"Chris go fix it so's he can watch, too." Nathan had too much on his mind to stop and argue. Chris and Ezra had been around those twins too long. Or was it the other way around? Someone was teaching somebody else how to slip through the loopholes. Unless you spelled it out for them specifically, the culprits still managed to find a way around the instructions that had been issued. "He'll get that shoulder bleedin' again tryin' to find a way to watch what we're doin'."

Chris walked over, helped Ezra stand for just a moment, and then turned the divan to face the table. He helped Ezra sit back down and started to walk back over to the table. Ezra tapped him on the arm with his left hand. "Sit down. If they need something, they'll tell us."

Chris didn't like it, but Ezra was right. He reached out and hooked one of the chairs with his foot and pulled it near the divan. As he sank into it, Nathan began the operation to remove the bullet. Josiah was handing the instruments that had been placed in the boiling water that the cook had started for the vegetables she was preparing for lunch. Instead of the baby carrots that had been delivered to her that morning, she had placed into the boiling water the instruments that Buck had brought into her. He had left them in until JD came in and told them they were ready for them. Then he had just picked up the pot and carried it all into the makeshift operating theater. Dr. Connors had taken over and sent Buck out with everyone else.

Dr. Connors nodded in encouragement as Nathan took the sterile probe the older man handed him and inserted it into the flesh at the bullet's point of entry. Nathan eased the probe into the wound and followed the bullet's path. As he manipulated the probe, he silently prayed he could locate the bullet without having to make an incision. Vin already had two holes too many, and he wouldn't appreciate Nathan carving him up like a turkey. It only took a few minutes, but those minutes felt like hours. Nathan looked up to see Dr. Connors watching him intently. The older man spoke in a voice full of respect and confidence.

"You handle those instruments quite well, Dr. Jackson. We'll have to discuss your medical training later over a glass of your favorite spirit."

"I was a stretcher bearer during the War. I ain't never really had any formal training." Nathan was surprised he could talk to Dr. Connors and still give his full concentration to his patient.

"Have you found the bullet, yet? Feel any obstructions in its path?"

"No, sir. Wait! There it is!" Nathan grinned at Josiah and Dr Connors. The bullet had indeed knicked the corner of the liver. Nothing else vital seemed involved. All he had to do now was remove it. He did so with very little trouble. Dr. Connors watched Nathan skillfully remove the bullet and make what few repairs he could to stop the bleeding. There was very little for him to do after that except cleanse the wound with carbolic acid to disinfect it, pack it with gauze soaked in carbolic, and bandage it tightly. The liver would regenerate and heal itself. The main fear was if Vin would survive the amount of blood he had already lost from this and his previous wound. If he didn't succumb to infection or the resulting complications, he would recover completely. Nathan and Dr. Connors knew it would be several hours at the least until they knew if Vin would even regain consciousness much less recover. They had to watch out for fever, nausea, and possible convulsions that any wound to the liver could cause.

Josiah hadn't spoken at all during the operation. He had just watched the concentration on the faces of both healers and prayed like he had never prayed before. If they lost Vin, they would lose Chris, and their family would be no more. Josiah didn't think any of them would be able to deal with the grief Vin's death would cause, not because Chris couldn't handle it, but because Chris would blame himself. The guilt would drive the gunslinger back into that cold oblivion that had already threatened to claim Chris when he had lost his wife and son. Not even Mary would be able to fight the condemnation Chris would heap upon himself. He looked up and saw Ezra watching him. They were thinking the same thing, and they knew it. Both turned to look at Chris. He was oblivious to their scrutiny. Every sense he had was focused on the man on the table. Finally, Chris Larabee could take no more. He stood up and walked over as Nathan was bandaging the wound with the help of Dr. Connors.

"Nathan? Vin gonna be all right?"

Nathan wished he could give Chris better news than he had, but he wasn't going to lie to him, to him or any of their friends.

"He got through the operation alive, that's the first step. Now we wait. It's up to him and God now."

"What can we expect, Nathan?" Josiah asked the question. "Did it hit his liver?"

"Yeah, that's what caused all the bleedin'. Let's go outside, so's I can tell the others, too." Nathan didn't want to leave Vin right now and it must have shown on his face for Dr. Connors stepped forward. He had just finished pulling a sheet over the unconscious man on the table.

"I'll go and tell them. You stay here and tell Mr. Larabee and Mr. Standish. Mr. Sanchez, will you join me? They'll be more apt to believe me if you are with me." Josiah smiled and went to open the door for the doctor.