Chapter 16

Chris walked over to where Vin was lying unconscious. This man was as close to a brother as Chris had. They all were, but Vin had that uncanny ability to know exactly what Chris was thinking. They didn't have to talk; their silences could drag on for hours without either one becoming uncomfortable. Now he might be dying. He reached out a tentative hand and put it on Vin's shoulder. Whether he felt it or not, Chris wanted him to know he was there. Vin was pale, and he had a fine sheen of sweat across his feverish body.

"When will he wake up?" Chris asked.

"He should be stirrin' soon. We need to start getting' water down him as soon as possible. He lost a lot of blood, and we gotta get some liquids into him."

"Why? What good will water do him?"

"You can't hear from over there? You fall flat on your face and I ain't gonna fix you up!" Ezra just smiled at Nathan. He was leaning against the table next to Chris. He had made his way over to check out his friend, drawn as Chris had been to let the tracker know that his family was there for him.

"I assure you that I shall not fall flat on my face as you so inelegantly phrased it. What good will the water do him, Nathan?"

"Losin' that much blood can dehydrate him. Vin needs water to prevent that. So soon as we get him settled, we try and wake him. Then we get him to drink some water. He might not know what's happenin' much, be a little confused, but we got to start him drinkin' water immediately. Might not feel like it, but we gotta get it down him."

"Why?" It was Chris's turn. Nathan's honesty was one thing Chris had always admired about him. He was never too busy to explain things, and he never tried to impress people with his medical knowledge. He just patiently explained whatever you needed to know, and both Chris and Ezra wanted to know what they had to look for if they were to ensure Vin's complete recovery.

"Well, he's gonna be in a lot of pain for one thing. I got morphine that'll help him, but he's also gonna feel real sick. That's what happens when the liver's been hurt. It can fix itself, but it causes a whole lotta misery before it's done. He's gonna have fever, nausea, and real bad pain. There's also the threat of convulsions. We're gonna have to be real careful with him for the next week or so. He's gotta have someone with him all the time."

"That won't be a problem."

"You ain't gonna be sittin' with anyone for a couple a days. You go and lie down now, or I'll hog tie you myself. Go on, get now."

Ezra looked at Chris for support, but he didn't get any.

"I wouldn't argue with the him if I were you Ezra. I been shot in the shoulder before an' it hurt like hell. You go on up. I'll stay with Vin till he wakes up."

"No you ain't. You been ridin' all night same as Buck an' Ezra. You gotta get some sleep, else you ain't gonna be no use to Vin at all."

Chris looked at Nathan and saw this was one he wasn't going to back down on. He didn't like it, but he had to make certain Vin at least had come through the operation before he could rest. Nathan didn't say how long he had to sleep, so he offered a compromise.

"After we get Vin settled and get him to drink somethin', then I'll go rest." He looked at the skeptical healer and added, "He's more apt to take it from me than anyone else. You know how stubborn he is. If he doesn't want to drink anything, I'll get him to."

"You mean you'll make him drink it." Chris bared his teeth when he grinned at Ezra in acknowledgment.

"I prefer to think of it as encouragement."

"I don't care how he does it, long as he gets him to drink." Nathan was already making plans. Let's go see if Mr. Parker'll give us a room. I don't want to take him all the way to my place. He shouldn't be moved much at all.

The door had opened by then and Josiah came back in with Buck and JD. They joined the other three men already gathered around Vin. Even Buck's voice was subdued as he looked at Vin and then at Nathan.

"Dr. Connors said if he gets through the next couple a days without any infection settin' in, that he's got a good chance." The older man might be a real doctor, but Nathan was their healer, and Buck would believe the pale man lying on the table would make it if Nathan said he would. JD felt the same as Buck. Nathan looked at each of the men and wondered when on earth they had developed such confidence in him. He wasn't even a real doctor. Josiah saw the look on his face and answered before Nathan.

"Sometimes it's the healer who believes who works better medicine than all the learning in the world." Nathan believed all right. He believed that Vin had better get well because he didn't want to see the look in their eyes if the tracker didn't make it. For that reason alone, he would make sure Vin Tanner knew he had to get well. Vin wasn't going anywhere and leaving Nathan to heal those he left behind.

He acknowledged Josiah's comments by answering Buck's question. "Like I told Chris and Ezra, if we can get plenty of liquids down him and he don't get no infection, he should make it. Now I got to go and get him a room, so we can move him while he's still out."

He started for the door, but was stopped by John Terrell's presence. "With your permission, I have instructed Mr. Parker to ready two adjoining rooms and instructed him to put an extra bed in one. I thought you could keep a closer eye on both your patients that way."

Nathan smiled in relief and then turned to Josiah and Buck. "You two think you can get Vin upstairs without droppin' him?"

"Well, brother, I can guarantee we won't drop Vin, but I can't be as optimistic for our man of chance here."

Ezra had reached the end of his endurance. His shoulder hurt like hell, and he was exhausted. He was no longer on the adrenaline high the chase and the gun battle had induced. Pain and worry were making in roads on his stamina, but he still could make it up the stairs on his own. Couldn't he?

Chris took Ezra's right wrist and pulled the right arm over his own shoulder to support the sagging gambler. JD looked over and added his thoughts on the subject.

"You're leanin' more than Vin does right now, Ezra. Need some more help? Me and Chris can get you up the stairs."

Ezra glared at JD who seemed to waver in front of Ezra's eyes. "I think I can manage a few stairs, JD." Under his breath, where only Chris could hear, he added, "He'd better watch his manners or I'll sick the twins on him."

"What was that?'

"I said thank you but no thank you."

"Oh." JD ran ahead and opened the door for Buck and Josiah as they carried Vin from the room using the sheets as a makeshift stretcher. He bounded up the stairs two at a time to open the door to the room they had prepared for Vin. It was a lot larger and certainly more comfortable than the room JD had at the boarding house. John Terrell took good care of people. JD heard Nathan fussing over Vin and Ezra alternately up the stairs.

"Be careful now, room's right around this corner. Ezra, how you holdin' up? Chris take him right to that room there and make him lie down now. Josiah, you and Buck let me pull those covers down fore you lay him down."

JD beat him to it, so Nathan supervised as Josiah and Buck placed Vin very gently on the bed. He sent JD after a pitcher of water and a cup, but Mr. Parker had heard Dr. Connors' earlier explanation to the others. He arrived with the water just as Nathan heard Chris tell Ezra to stay down.

"I'm comin' to check on you in a minute! If you ain't lyin' down, I'm gonna have Buck and Josiah hold you down and get JD to hog tie you! Understand?"

The voice that answered was less than polite. "I heard you! How's Vin?"

Chris turned back at the door. "He's still breathin', Ezra. Now stay down or I'll shoot you." Ezra's reply this time was not exactly gentlemanly, but it was to the point and graphic. The others laughed.

"Can't you boys let a man die in peace?" The voice was very raspy and almost inaudible, but it got everyone's instant attention.

Chapter 17

Nathan and Chris both moved swiftly to the bed. Nathan was pouring a cup of water as Chris leaned over the tracker, "You better not be dyin'. How you feel?"

"Like I been sssssss," Vin gasped as the first wave of pain and nausea hit him. He didn't know which was worse, the pain or feeling like he wanted to empty the contents of his stomach right there. He didn't even notice that he had grabbed Chris's hand and was gripping it as hard as he could. He tried to concentrate on anything but the way he felt. He'd only been kidding earlier with the comment about dying, but now he felt so bad the idea was actually attractive. Nathan motioned to Chris to lift Vin's head in order for him to drink. Chris couldn't or wouldn't make Vin let go of his hand, so Nathan lifted the tracker slightly in order to get him to drink the water.

Vin didn't want it, didn't feel like he could swallow much less breath through the pain and nausea. Ezra had somehow made his way into the room and was standing supported between Buck and Josiah. JD was standing behind Chris looking from the tracker to Nathan. He'd never seen anyone that pale looking still breathing, much less trying to shove the cup away from his face. Vin wouldn't have looked so pasty to JD except the fever had caused two bright red spots on Vin's cheeks. The contrast of fever spots against the pale skin was pronounced.

Chris had shifted until he could grab Vin's other hand. He was now sitting on the bed both supporting Vin and holding his hands away from Nathan and the cup of water. If he had to, he'd get Nathan to hold Vin's nose and pour the water down him when he opened his mouth to breath. He didn't have to, for Nathan's calm voice was slowly getting through to Vin.

"I know you hurt, and I know you feel like you wanna puke, but you got to drink this here water. Understand? If you don't, you're gonna die. Now drink it so's I can get you a shot of morphine for the pain." Nathan kept repeating the same speech over and over until Vin stopped struggling and looked at him. He eyes reflected the misery he was in, but Nathan couldn't worry about that right now. If he could just get the water in him and keep him still, Vin would make it. So, he kept his voice calm and repeated what he'd been saying one more time for the wounded man. Vin finally sagged against Chris and let Nathan put the cup to his lips. He hoped he got the two of them when the water came right back up. He clung to that thought as he let Nathan put the cup to his lips, and he drank the cool water. Surprisingly and to Vin's disappointment, the water stayed down. The pain, however, had increased with his struggles. As Chris laid him gently against the pillows, Nathan readied the morphine.

"I need to put this in his hip. Chris, Josiah, I need y'all to roll him a little on his side. Not too much, there." Nathan quickly inserted the needle into Vin's hip and injected the morphine into him. They weren't through torturing him, yet. "I need you to drink just a little more, Vin." Vin drank it just to shut them up and make them leave him alone.

The morphine was beginning to take hold just as Vin wanted to point out something very important to the six faces all peering at him anxiously. It had dawned on Vin as he drifted into a morphine-induced sleep that here he was naked in some strange bed again, and he was alone and not having a good time as Buck would call it. In all his life, he had never been shot and injured as badly as he had been since he got to Four Corners. It was all their fault he decided. He hardly ever got shot when he was by himself. His friends were just magnets for bullets. Vin promised himself that he would quit taking bullets meant for other people. He'd let them get shot next time. Vin had no idea that he was mumbling out loud as he drifted off. He still felt like puking, but he'd wait until he could get Nathan and Chris at one time.

Nathan looked over at Chris and shook his head. "You think he was this stubborn when he was a little kid?"

"Don't rightly know, but I sure as hell ain't helpin' you pour water down him next time. Not with what he's plannin' for us."

Nathan turned around just as Ezra disappeared back into the adjoining room. "You best be thankful I'm too tired to hog tie you right now."

He felt much better. Vin had a lot of strength and fight left in him. If he was planning to get back at Nathan and Chris for forcing him to drink the water despite his pain and nausea, then that was all right. Every man needed a goal, a dream to hold on to. He doubted the tracker would die on him now he had a purpose in life. Nathan was just going to make certain Vin didn't get anything to drink that Nathan didn't want to end up wearing. He looked over at his other two patients.

"Chris, you and Buck go on and get some sleep. I ain't got time to nursemaid you two with Vin and Ezra down."

"I am quite capable. . . ."

Nathan cut the voice off that came from the other room. "I'm comin' in there, an' if you ain't lyin' down, I'm gonna give you a shot of morphine, too."

JD, who was standing at the door, was laughing as he answered for Ezra. "He's lyin' down now, Nathan."

"Good!" Two down and two to go. Just as Nathan turned to get after Chris and Buck, there was a hurried tap and Mary Travis entered the room.

"Nathan, it's Mrs. Terrell. She's going into labor a month early. Dr. Porter says he needs you." She had entered the room now and was quickly moving over to Nathan. "I can stay with Vin while you're gone."

"No, I'll stay." Chris wasn't about to leave until Nathan offered a compromise from the door.

"You lie down on that cot they brought in and get some sleep. Mary will wake you if she needs you. Buck?"

"I'm goin' now, Nathan. Ezra's got an extra bed in his room. I'll go lie down now. Me and JD'll relieve Chris and Mary later on. You go help Mrs. Terrell. Them little girls need their momma to be ok, an' you can help her." Buck's faith in Nathan's skills was humbling sometimes.

"Josiah, you make sure they all . . . ."

Josiah pushed Nathan from the room. "I'll make sure they all do what you tell them to. JD, why don't you and I go help put those children to bed. They must be plumb exhausted, and Mr. Terrell might could use our help."

"I dunno, Josiah. That nanny looked like she could handle them kids pretty good."

"Everyone can use a hand now and again. C'mon." With that Josiah sent Nathan to help with Mrs. Terrell and took JD to help out with the kids. He looked at Mary and winked before he left.

"Any one of them give you trouble, an' I'll take care of 'em for you."

Mary's laugh was a soft, lilting sound that eased Chris's worry just listening to it. He didn't realize how tired he actually was until his head hit the pillow on the cot. He was asleep before he knew it. It was a sleep born of exhaustion and need; he couldn't help Vin or Ezra if he were too exhausted. They needed him and so did those children. First Billy, then the twins, and now Jamie, how on earth had Chris grown to love them so quickly? He dreamed about Adam playing with the four children he had grown to love, and the dream made him smile.

Mary saw it and thanked God for helping Chris find a little peace and some rest. She knew he blamed himself for Melanie Terrell's actions, but Chris couldn't do everything by himself. He needed to learn that there were others beside himself he could trust. She knew that neither Vin nor Ezra blamed Chris, but she also knew that even if they told him that, he would still blame himself. Chris just took it all in on himself. He never worried about himself, just the others. He had to learn that these men trusted him, and that they would follow him to hell and back because they knew only Chris Larabee could get them back alive.

Well, Mary could let him know that, and she would. She would get Vin to help her. If Chris listened to anyone it would be to Vin. So, Vin would get well, and Chris would learn that he was not responsible for everything that occurred. Vin would help her make him see all that later. If that failed, she'd get Ezra to con the belief into him.

Mary smiled when she thought of the gambler. Never in a million years would she have ever thought Ezra cared for anyone but himself. But, time and again Ezra had proven to be just as honorable a man as the other six. He still kept his conning skills as sharp as ever, was always looking out to make his fortune, but Ezra more and more was practicing his skills to help others. If she pointed it out to him, he would act insulted. She suspected that of all the men, Vin and Ezra would be the most surprised to know how much the others admired and respected them. Vin because he was so shy when it came to compliments about something that was to him as natural as breathing. Mary didn't know what had turned Vin Tanner into, as Ezra liked to tease him, a Robin Hood, she was just thankful he and Chris had met saving Nathan. It was the best thing that had ever happened to this town.

Ezra, well Ezra would be astonished to know that although the others teased him about his nefarious habits, they trusted him with their lives. They knew that Ezra was with them. They knew he could be counted on. Chris had grown to trust and depend on Ezra as much as he did the others even though they were as different as night and day. Where Vin complimented Chris perfectly with temperament and ideals, Ezra challenged every one of Chris's beliefs with an outward attitude that made Ezra appear selfish. It wasn't until Chris had grown to know Ezra just like Mary and the others, that they all realized that Ezra was a Robin Hood, too. He would be astounded that the others had finally come to understand him, and he would appear outwardly insulted but secretly pleased. She would check on him in just a moment. Right now she just wanted to watch Chris Larabee sleep. She didn't think Vin or Ezra would mind. She sat in the chair by the bed after placing a cool, wet compress on Vin's forehead. This way she could keep an eye on Vin and enjoy the scene across from her. Chris seemed so peaceful right now. Ezra and Buck must have fallen asleep as quickly as Chris had.

Ezra, however, was not fairing as well as Chris in the sleep department. The bullet had ripped a hole in his shoulder that hurt from entry to exit point. It was throbbing every time he took a breath. The guilt was also gnawing at him. Vin wouldn't be lying in the other room and he wouldn't be lying in this one, if Ezra had thought to check Melanie for weapons. He'd just assumed the soldiers had done that. He knew better than to assume anything. He also should have recognized that Melanie Terrell was ready to snap. Talk about losing your edge. God help him if Maude ever found out. She'd never let him live it down. He could live with it, however, if Vin recovered. Had his instincts softened so much that he was a liability, or was he just too confident? If that were the case, then this humbling experience should teach him a lesson. Ezra didn't want to feel this close to these men, but he had grown to love them like brothers. Lord help him again because this was against everything that Maude had taught him. You couldn't watch out for number one if you were busy worrying about someone else.

Buck looked over at Ezra. His thoughts were so transparent sometimes. Buck knew that just like Chris, Ezra was finding a way to blame himself for Vin's condition. Hell, Vin should know better than to take a bullet for someone else, but that was Vin. He did what he thought was right regardless of the consequences. Buck suspected that Vin did it because Vin couldn't live with himself if he just stood by and watched someone get hurt when he could have prevented it. That was the one thought that bound these diverse men together. They all felt this way. None of them were able to walk away from anyone who needed help.

Buck thought Vin was a lot like Chris in that respect, but it was Ezra who was like Chris when it came to blaming himself. Chris was the champ at accepting the guilt for every injury that occurred whether it was his fault or not. To Chris Larabee, loyalty was everything. That is why he and Buck had remained friends throughout all their experiences. He knew Buck would always be there for him and he for Buck. That was loyalty. Chris had known in an instant that he could trust Vin. But Ezra and JD had taken the longest to penetrate Chris Larabee's shield. JD cause he was just a kid who Chris believed would end in an early grave. The kid was maturing into a man Chris wanted to know. Then, there was Ezra.

Ezra loved the finer things in life and gave everyone the idea that life was one big game of chance. That Ezra half believed that was what made him such a fun companion. Buck could always count on Ezra to know some way to find the easy way, the fun way to do something. However, Buck was beginning to see something in Ezra that not even Ezra would recognize. Ezra was just like Chris when it came to loyalty. Once you had proven to Ezra that you were worth his loyalty, it was returned in full measure no questions asked. It was rare for Ezra to dole it out, but it was rare for Chris to open himself to caring for others as well.

Both men would rather have whatever misfortune took place happen to them and not someone they cared about simply because they both felt that there should have been something they could have done to prevent it. Since neither one would and maybe even couldn't admit out loud how much the others mattered to them, they showed it silently by protecting them. How could two men be so smart and so dumb at the same time? Buck knew Vin and Josiah had similar thoughts just by the few statements they had occasionally made. Buck shook his head for he knew Ezra was finding a way to blame himself instead of blaming Melanie Terrell.

They would have to wait until Vin could talk sense into both Chris and Ezra, though. The tracker's wry sense of humor was the only thing that made Ezra and Chris take notice. Vin didn't dwell much on useless bouts of guilt. If he felt he was responsible for some transgression, he did what he could to rectify it. If he couldn't fix it he would find a way to make certain he never made that mistake again, and then he moved on. Buck was like that, but Chris and Ezra couldn't seem to do that. They felt every little thing, but would rarely let anyone else know what they were thinking.

"You want me to see if Nathan or Doc Parker can give you some of that morphine?"

"I am all right."

"No you're not, Ezra. You been shot if you'll notice the aching in your shoulder."

"More like a burning poker shoved in it if you want to be specific."

"Oh, I do love specific." Buck laughed as he went to see if he could find someone to give Ezra some morphine. Being brave was one thing. Being stupid and hurting yourself needlessly was another. Buck sighed. Sometimes his friends were a real trial to him.

Chapter 18

As Buck left the room, he heard JD trying his best to corral the Terrell Twins. They were trying to get round him on the stairs. Buck was surprised he didn't hear them sooner with the racket they were making. They had just decided to split in opposite directions when they saw Buck. Throwing back their heads and holding up their arms, they turned their attention on Buck.

"Our Buck, we want Ours!" Alicia sounded to Buck like she was being drug by her hair the way she was carrying on.

"We want Our Ezra and Our Chris!" Alison sounded like she had been crying, but there were no tears to be found anywhere. They had tried this on Buck before, but he knew how to handle them now. It was time to teach JD that he was the "Master" when it came to dealing with the opposite sex, no matter how old they were.

Buck dropped to his knees, opened his arms wide, and wailed (as well as he could and not wake the sleeping men) back at the twins. "Darlins where have you been?"

As they threw themselves into his arms, JD gave him a dirty look. Buck just laughed and told the girls they had to be quiet.

"Why?" Alison was indignant.

"Ev'reebodeee'sbentellin'usthat!" Alicia wanted to get it all out before another adult told her she had to be quiet again.

Buck understood that. JD didn't, but Buck did. "Now, just set still. You got poor JD all frazzled."

"I ain't frazzled, Buck."

"Well you sure look it, kid."

"What's frazzled?" Alicia wanted to know why this word made JD turn red. She liked him that color.

"Why can't we see Ours?" Alison was not to be denied, and it wasn't the first time the twins used rapid fire questioning to confuse their victims into surrendering.

"Mean Melanie shot him. Did she shoot Our Ezra and Our Chris, too?"

"Mommy's havin' a baby. You ever had a baby?"

"We been chasin' JD. You see him run?"

"Ours would want to see us. Can we see him?"

"Our Ezra would too. Please?"

"Our Chris loves us. Don't you love us any more?"

"Whoa there. First of all, quit frazzlin' Uncle JD. Ok?' Buck waited until the twins nodded yes. "Now you know we love you, don't you?"

"Yes." It wasn't an enthusiastic answer, but it showed they were listening to Buck.

"Now, Ours is real sick. Fact is he's asleep. Uncle Nathan had to give him something to put him to sleep, so he can feel better when he wakes up. Our Chris is sleepin' cause y'all just plumb wore him out, and Our Ezra ain't feeling so good right now. That's why you're gonna stay with me while JD checks on gettin' him some morphine. Aren't you, Uncle JD?" His grin was infectious, and the twins were leaning against him and watching his mustache move up and down when he talked. They liked it. JD nodded and went down the hallway to the room where Nathan was.

"Can we see him and Our Ezra?" Alicia was very quiet now.

"We promise not to wake up Our Chris," Alison promised.

"Then we can see Our Ezra. We'll be so very quiet." Alicia promised, too.

"Well, you promise not to talk at all?" Two heads nodded yes. "You promise to go back and play with JD once you've seen 'em?" He got another set of bobbing heads. "Ok, but remember, be real quiet."

Buck gently opened the door and stuck his head in. "Our Ezra, feel up to some visitors?"

Ezra had heard the noise outside the door and knew who was waiting to see him. He reached his good arm back and propped his pillows up higher behind his head. Then he stole Buck's pillows to prop his arm up on, and he was ready.

"Why Mr. Wilmington, I would be delighted to see two lovely young ladies."

The twins giggled and ran up to the bed. Then very carefully, they crawled up on Ezra's good side. They both leaned over and kissed him gently on the cheek like they had Buck when he said he would take them into the room.

"Does it hurt?'

"Did you cry?"

"Yes it does and no I didn't." One should never lie to children.

"Told ya."

"Nah ah, you said he'd cry, Lisha."

"Did not."

"Did, too."

"Ladies, ladies, you do not fight like that when you are entertaining a gentleman." The twins stopped and giggled at Ezra. Then they leaned forward and told Ezra what they were going to do next.

"Our Buck said we could see Ours. Our Chris won't be mad will he?" Lisha wasn't afraid of Chris, but she wasn't stupid. He was too much like their daddy. They knew when he said no, he meant no just like their daddy.

"Jaime said he would," was Alison's response.

"I think if you are very quiet, that maybe Our Chris won't even know you're there. Do you want us to hold your hands?"

"Yes, please."

Ezra swung his bootless feet onto the floor and ignored the throbbing pain in his shoulder. He took Alison's hand in his right one and led the way into the other room. Buck followed holding Alicia's hand and put his finger up to his mouth in a silencing gesture to remind the girls of their promise. Mary smiled at both little girls as they let go of Ezra and Buck and tiptoed past Chris's bed. They walked right up to Vin, but they couldn't see him for the bed was too high. They turned and held their arms up in a gesture for Buck and Ezra to pick them up. Buck swooped up both girls and leaned over, so the girls could lean down and kiss Vin on the cheek.

"Why's Ours hot?" Alison whispered. Mary blinked at the name the twins had given Vin. Then she grinned when the little girls tiptoed up to Chris and just as quietly pecked him on the cheek.

"Our Chris isn't hot like Ours." Alicia noticed the difference, too.

Mary walked up to the little girls and drew them close. Just as quietly, she whispered back to them, "Ours has to get better before he cools off. You think you can go and take a nap now that you have seen everyone?"

"We want our mommy."

"Well, you can't see her right now. Why don't you and, are you Alicia, honey?" Mary was rewarded with a huge grin from Alicia for calling her by the correct name. "Why don't you two girls take Ezra and make sure he gets back into bed. Ok?" The twins liked that idea. "I bet if you ask Buck nicely, he just might let you sleep on the bed next to him. How does that sound?"

Buck had already gotten Ezra back into the room just as Dr. Connors came in carrying a syringe.

"I left my niece with Dr. Jackson and Mrs. Parker. Now young man, you aren't going to carry on in front of these children are you?"

Ezra knew better than to start the twins off again, so he allowed the doctor to inject some morphine into him as Buck distracted the twins. He then lay back on the bed and started to relax as the drug began to take effect. One of the twins climbed up on the bed on his right side as the other crawled up next to Buck. All four were asleep before Dr. Connors left the room. The older man winked at Mary who had witnessed the scene from the adjoining door. She shook her head and went back to sit by the bed.

"They are something else, aren't they?"

Mary looked at Chris and grinned. "Yes they are, now you go back to sleep before I get Dr. Connors to knock you out, too."

"Yes, ma'am," was the only answer she got as Chris drifted back to sleep. There was something so familiar about those little girls. Chris didn't know what it was, but he had seen it from the start. Maybe it was just that they were so special, but they had snared his heart the second he laid eyes on them. Course he'd never let the others know that, especially Buck. Buck would never let him live it down. Chris Larabee felled by two pairs of blue eyes and button noses.

Chapter 19

It was very late, around midnight, when Vin stirred again. He'd missed all that had occurred since he had been shot and didn't realize that Alexandra Terrell had given birth to another daughter earlier that afternoon. Mother and her image were both just fine, and the twins were back to torturing anyone they could. Since Billy and Jamie were immune to their wiles and their chosen ones were all sleeping, JD was fair game. He grumbled a bit, but no one really believed him. He seemed smitten by the little girls, and Casey had even come by and offered to help him with the twins.

Ezra was still asleep around midnight. The combination of the morphine, exhaustion, and blood loss were enough to keep him dead to the world. Nathan said he'd wake up when he was ready and to leave him alone, so the others kept a silent vigil. Josiah and Buck had relieved Mary in the early evening, so she could rest. She had decided to stay at the hotel that night in order to help with the children and the injured. She also decided to keep Jamie with Billy. The two boys had become fast friends, and Mary felt that Jamie needed his friend close by with all he had been through. Besides, she wanted to hold that adorable baby girl.

Mary noticed that the proud father didn't care if his baby was another girl. He just laughed and told his wife there was no way this one would ever pass for a John Jr. Mary admired the way Alexandra insisted on knowing how the two men who had helped her family were instead of being concerned with her own health. What really impressed Mary was the way Alexandra had insisted on introducing the new baby to her twin sisters and her big brother. Jamie had looked so relieved and happy, and John just beamed proudly at his wife for making it clear to their nephew that he was home now with his family. With everyone settled and safe for a while, the remaining of the seven concentrated their efforts on supporting Vin.

Dr. Connors had warned them again that Vin would be in terrific pain, experience fever, and battle almost constant nausea. He and Nathan discussed what relief they could afford the wounded man until the liver healed and complications were no longer a threat to his recovery. They discussed the need for fluids, so they decided to rouse the patient every four to five hours and give him at least one cup of water, more if he could hold it down. They would give him morphine for the pain, but monitor it closely. They didn't want him to become addicted to morphine like so many had during the war. Carefully monitored doses would provide pain relief without the devastating side effects.

Then, they discussed what they could use to help control the nausea, but they really hadn't decided on one exact method until the nanny offered her advice. Ginger tea. Ginger was one thing that would help nausea. The Terrells had begun to carry it with them when they discovered that ginger tea was the only thing that helped Alexandra when she had severe morning sickness. So, besides water for the next few days, they would also give Vin ginger tea to drink. They explained their instructions carefully in order to make certain that every possible means of alleviating Vin's misery were understood by everyone. The others, including a rested Larabee, were determined to aid in Vin's complete recovery. None of them, however, were prepared for the actual misery the wounded man was suffering.

When he awoke on his own around midnight, Vin was already in terrific pain, and the nausea made him fear he couldn't keep the water down they kept insisting he drink. It took several minutes to convince him to drink the water. By the time Nathan had changed the packing, checked for drainage and any bleeding, helped Vin relieve himself, and then coaxed some more water down him, they were both exhausted. Vin didn't fuss as Dr. Connors injected the morphine into his hip again. He hadn't spoken at all for that matter. He just looked at Nathan, then at Chris, and listlessly did whatever he was told. He didn't feel like fighting them, and that bothered Nathan and Chris more than if he had struggled.

Vin had never spoken much at all, but he had always responded in some way to the person he was with. If he had complained, fought them, even cursed them, Nathan and Chris might have felt better. They could deal with an uncooperative, disgruntled man. His silent acquiescence scared the hell out of both them and made almost everyone else nervous. They didn't know if he was in too much pain and felt too bad to talk, or if he had given up and was just going through the motions. They hoped it was the pain and nausea and not the other, but the fact they couldn't help him feel any better proved very depressing to all concerned. Since he responded better to his six friends, Mary Travis, and Nettie Wells (who had arrived in town as soon as Casey had reported Vin's condition to her), they limited Vin's "nurses" to pairs working three-hour shifts during the day. That way no one would get tired, and they could still take care of other things. Ezra and Chris volunteered for the night shift. One could easily sleep in the adjoining room in shifts while the other kept watch. With this plan in hand, they worked it successfully for the next few days. Most were getting worried because the tracker showed no signs of improvement except the actual wounds were healing, but he was still silently listless.

No one actually expected Chris to be cheerful, but they didn't expect him to grow more and more morose as the days followed one by one. Even Buck and JD were beginning to show signs of ill temper, while Ezra had stopped playing with his cards. The worry was eating at all of them, Chris and Ezra the most. The pending blow-up happened about three days later after a particularly foul day. Twice Vin had succumbed to the nausea. He threw up once on Nathan and JD and then again on Nettie and Josiah. The pain was still constantly gnawing at him, but he had actually complained twice about the morphine. He was growing more sullen as there seemed no relief in sight.

Chapter 20

By that evening, Chris was ready to strangle someone. The only people he didn't direct his foul temper at were the children and Vin. Ezra was getting just as bad, and even Nathan was beginning to worry that Vin was never going to feel better. He kept wondering if he had missed something. Dr. Connors, who once headed a known medical school, had assured everyone that Vin would eventually feel better. It would just take time, but the others felt time was running out as the tracker showed little interest in anything. Chris knew Vin didn't feel like talking, and he was growing as frustrated as the others. The combination of guilt and worry were making Chris snap at everyone.

It was around 10:00, and Ezra still hadn't shown up. Vin was stirring. Chris knew he would be in pain, but he didn't want to leave Vin alone while he went for Nathan. The ginger tea had gone from hot to tepid, and now the evening air was cooling it even more. 'Where the hell was Ezra?' Vin was going to need morphine for the pain and the tea to settle his stomach. Chris needed help. As it was, he was between a rock and a hard place. He could go to the door and yell for someone to get Nathan, but he risked waking all the children and Vin, too. The other alternative was to leave Vin alone, and there was no way in hell Chris was doing that. He'd left Vin alone twice already, and each time something had happened to him. His guilt, the current situation, and Ezra's absence all combined to frustrate the hell out of Larabee.

Chris was just about to go to the door and yell after all when he heard movement from the bed. He looked over, and Vin had rolled over until he was on his left side. Thinking he was going to throw up again, Chris moved swiftly to help him. Vin wasn't doing anything at all. He was just lying there looking at Chris.

"I'll go get Nathan."

"No!" It was as close to a yell as Vin could manage, but it was almost inaudible.

"You feelin' better?"

"No." This time it was louder, but rushed, like Vin had to say it fast. Fighting the pain and nausea made talking almost impossible. Just breathing was a major effort, so Vin only answered when he had to. He wasn't saying what was wrong, although Chris knew what was wrong, but he wasn't asking for anything either. So Chris finally just sat on the floor by the bed where he was eye level with his friend. They both knew there was nothing Chris could do to make him feel better, but if sitting and staring at him gave Vin something to concentrate on besides the way he felt, then Chris would sit there all night.

That was another thing that Chris could blame Ezra for. He'd heard the last two nights when Ezra had held a one sided conversation with the tracker. He had finally figured out that Vin used whatever yarn Ezra was spinning to focus on instead of the pain and nausea until Nathan gave him another dose of morphine. If Ezra were here right now, Vin could be concentrating on what Ezra was saying instead of staring at him.

Chris wasn't any good with words, so he had made it a point to make certain the gambler was there whenever Vin was awake. Until tonight, Ezra had shown little desire to wander around the town. His shoulder was healing nicely, and when Nathan had told him he could get up and around whenever he felt like it, Ezra had still stayed around somewhere close. Now he was gone Chris didn't know where, and he needed him here now. Vin needed him. Chris gritted his teeth.

"Say somethin'." It came out in a rush indicating Vin was feeling worse.

"You want some tea?"

"No, damnit," Vin turned his face into the pillow to stifle a groan of frustration and pain, "just talk to me," he mumbled.

Chris had reached out and grabbed the damp cloth by the basin. He wiped the sweat that was forming on Vin's neck because he couldn't get to his face right now. He was at a loss for words. Vin knew he didn't have much to say when things were normal, and now Vin wanted him to entertain him?

"Aw, Chris," Vin batted the cloth away with one feeble swipe. "Anything anytime now'd be fine." That wry sense of humor that had been missing for the last four days was trying to surface.

Chris thought desperately. If this were a gunfight, he'd be dead by now. "The twins stole JD's horse today."

It was the first thing that came to mind. Vin almost looked amused, or was he grimacing? Chris couldn't tell which. "You need to drink some water."

"I need you to talk to me."

"Bout what?"

"Life and death." Vin actually sounded angry.

"You givin' up on me?"

Vin sighed loudly and took a long moment to fight the pain. "I ain't givin' up, but I can't take this much longer."

"I'll get Nathan." Before he could get up, Vin used what little strength to grab Chris's arm.

"I. Don't. Want. Nathan! Just talk, damnit!" Getting Chris Larabee to carry on a conversation; well, he couldn't do it any more. Vin gave in and started heaving. Since he had little in his stomach except water and ginger tea, it was over relatively quickly. He'd actually gotten it all in the bucket that Chris had automatically grabbed when he'd seen the look on Vin's face.

Chris felt like he could join Vin. This was his fault. If he hadn't insisted Vin stay in that room, then Vin wouldn't be lying here throwing his guts up. Vin looked at Chris's face while the man helped him clean up and sip some water. If it didn't make the pain worse, Vin wouldn't mind throwing up. The nausea actually subsided once he'd emptied his stomach. The brief respite from the nausea combined with effects of the morphine wearing off allowed Vin to look closely at his friend. 'Damn, he's doin' it again!'

"This ain't your fault, you know."

Chris hated it when Vin could see right through him, but he was wrong. This was his fault.

"You listenin' to me? You ain't the cause of everything bad that happens to one of us." He really didn't feel like trying to convince Chris right now. The pain wasn't getting any better, but he was enjoying the absence of the nausea. It always returned no matter what they tried, so Vin finished drinking the water. It wouldn't be long before the nausea returned, and he had to ask for Nathan to give him the morphine. He hated the stuff and was convinced it was causing half his suffering.

They kept telling him that it was his injured liver, but Vin only knew that the nausea got worse right after they gave him the morphine. It made him break out in a cold sweat, but Nathan and Dr. Parker had both told him it was his liver's reaction to the injury and not the morphine. Vin tried to drink whatever they kept pouring down him, but he tried to drink it before they gave him the drug. Today, twice already, they had given him something to drink within an hour after an injection of morphine. And, twice, he had thrown up. That was all the proof he needed. From now on, he wasn't drinking anything for at least an hour after he'd been given the morphine.

Vin watched as Chris alternated between wearing a hole in the carpet and watching him. The man looked like he was ready to come apart at the seams. Vin decided that maybe Chris was suffering more than he was. He just didn't feel well enough to fight Chris's demons right now, but he knew that he would have to convince Chris he didn't hold anyone responsible for his condition except Melanie Terrell. The battle to do that would have to wait until Vin was ready to take Chris on.

You didn't bait a bear unless you were armed to the teeth, and you didn't tangle with Chris Larabee unless you were in complete command, or stupid. Vin decided he wasn't that stupid, yet. Stepping in front of a bullet wasn't exactly the smartest thing he'd ever done, but he couldn't let Melanie Terrell kill a pregnant woman, especially in front of the twins. 'What had Chris said the twins had done to JD?' He was just about to summon the strength to ask Chris when he heard someone at the door. The nausea was coming back, and he hoped it was Ezra or Nathan or anyone. Just as long as they helped distract him from the pain and the nausea if only for a little while.