Chapter 21

It was obviously Ezra, and it was obvious that Ezra had been in the saloon. You could smell it all the way from the door to the bed where Vin lay. It didn't do anything for his nausea or Chris's temper. The foul mood he had been in had switched to a blazing anger as Chris got a whiff of the whiskey. With Ezra showing up late and reeking of liquor, Chris finally had the perfect target on whom to vent his frustrations.

"What the hell have you been doing?" Chris confronted Ezra at the door. He launched into a tirade before the gambler could offer an explanation. "We got a man sick as dog in here and the only thing you can think of is getting drunk?"

Ezra looked like he might try to reason with Chris, but then something in him just snapped. "Well it's better than moping around all day making everyone including Vin miserable with your presence! The children are beginning to stay away from you for fear you will bite their heads off!"

"Me make everyone miserable? Well you haven't actually been a ray of sunshine yourself, Ezra, and now you start drinking?" Chris was too angry to shut up even when he noticed the smell was coming from Ezra's clothes and not his breath.

"Are you angry because you think I'm drunk, or are you angry because you didn't get to drown your demons with a bottle of your own?" He paused as the gunslinger's eyes narrowed until they were slits. 'Not a smart thing to have said,' Ezra thought to himself. "Maybe I should have brought a bottle to share?" 'That was smart. Why not tell him I was delayed by a brawl and had a bottle of whiskey shatter and spill all over me?' He doubted if Chris was in any mood to listen to reason. He'd been building to this for the last few days, and Ezra was ready to oblige him. He crossed the room until he faced the gunslinger.

Ezra couldn't understand what had come over him and seriously wondered if he had finally crossed the line when the pitcher of water near Vin went crashing to the floor. Both men jumped like they had been shot. They hurried over to the bed to find Vin curled up in ball, one hand squeezing the pillow until his knuckles were white and the other clenching and unclenching into a fist. The look on his face was a mixture of pain and misery, but they also noticed something that had been missing for the last four days. He was mad, not crazy mad, but so angry at the two men in front of him that there was fire in his eyes where only emptiness had been for the last few days.

The words were rasped out like it took all the strength and concentration he had, but Vin got his point across. "If you two want to bellyache, go somewheres else. It ain't your fault I got shot. Now shut up and live with it." He had to stop as the pain and nausea redoubled their efforts to make him wish he were dead.

Chris and Ezra didn't know whether to laugh at Vin barking orders, rather whispering orders, and issuing threats he couldn't possibly back up, or if they should each drop to their knees and beg his forgiveness. They did neither, though each was a temptation for all of five seconds.

"You want me to get Nathan?" Ezra asked bending closer to hear Vin's answer.

"Damn Ezra, you bathe in whiskey?"

That got a genuine laugh out of the gambler. Even Chris smiled. "No, I helped break up a brawl and got soaked with this foul stench for my trouble."

Chris looked at Ezra and knew he owed the man an apology. "That's real smart for a man recovering from a gunshot wound. Nathan know about it?"

"Yeah, Nathan know?" Vin didn't finish as he turned his face into his pillow. They heard the hissing noise and didn't know if it was the pain, the nausea, or both.

Ezra was half way to the door as he said, "I'll go get Nathan."

However, before he took another step to summon Nathan, Vin stopped him in his tracks. "No!" It was a half yell half growl. "Not yet."

Chris practically knelt on the floor, and grabbed the fist Vin had been clinching. A surprisingly strong grip wound around his wrist. There was sweat on Vin's forehead not from the fever that still gripped his body, but from the sheer effort of trying to do something as simple as talk.

"You're in pain. The morphine will help ease it." Chris's mood had lightened considerably as the tracker continued to give them trouble.

"I don't want no more of that damned stuff. Makes me sick."

Hell Vin, it's your liver makin' you sick. The morphine's what's been helpin' you."

"Shit Chris, ain't you it's makin' sick. I get sicker every time they give me that stuff." He had to pause, and Ezra used that opportunity to hand Chris a cup of the ginger tea. He motioned to the door, a question in his eyes. Chris indicated he should wait. "Quit givin' orders to Ezra and listen to me."

"You know for a man in your condition, you're talkin' real big. Can you drink some of this?"

"No!" Vin was being belligerent and uncooperative. Ezra grinned in relief, and Chris finally laughed out loud. He might look like hell and feel like hell, but Vin arguing was better than the lifeless shell that'd been posing as Vin.

"Well, if you don't want me to send Ezra for Nathan so he can use you for a pin cushion, then you'd better drink this concoction."

"Go! To! Hell!" Vin had to stop between each word. 'He'd shoot both of them if they laughed at him one more time. Forget throwin' up on 'em. Better yet, he'd find some of those Indian herbs he knew about that made a man throw up. Make them sick for a change.' Vin liked that idea and glared at Chris and Ezra. He wasn't drinking any more of that foul stuff, and he wasn't going to let them stick any more morphine in him. Vin Tanner was through being their personal pin cushion.

"You hold him up and his hands down, an' I'll pinch his nose, an' pour it in him." Chris knew how to be subtle and encourage cooperation.

"Like hell!" When Ezra started to move by the bed, Vin stopped fighting. "All right, I'll, ssssss. Damn, I hate this!" When the pain had eased a little, he drank some of the cool ginger tea. "Next time, you can take the bullet." He wasn't going to let them know the stuff actually worked to ease the nausea. He drank some more and, for that reason, didn't notice the look that quickly passed over the faces of the two men.

"You should not have been shot in the first place. I should have known the woman had lost her mind. This is my fault."

"Like hell, I should have checked her for a weapon of some kind. I'm the one who made him stay in there with that lunatic."

There was a snort from the bed. "Go get, Nathan. At least the morphine'll put me to sleep so I don't got to listen to you two crybabies." Vin bit his lip to keep from crying out in pain. "I knew she had some kind of weapon." Maybe reasoning with two idiots would distract the pain somewhat, so he continued. "I also knew she was gonna try somethin'. Anyways, neither one of you pulled the trigger or pushed me in front of the bullet. All right?" Since they couldn't find a counter argument, they left it alone for a moment. The pain won the next round as Vin clutched at Chris's hand. "Get Nathan."

An hour later, Vin was sound asleep and Ezra and Chris were the epitome of grace and goodwill. Nathan knew something had happened, but neither man was talking. The healer just figured that he'd get Vin to tell him what had happened later. It had to be quite a story to cause such a drastic change in both men. They were almost happy. Nathan wasn't going to question it; for now he was going to enjoy it. Even Vin seemed to have improved from the hopeless man he'd seen just that afternoon. He'd actually told Nathan through gritted teeth that he was glad he'd spewed water all over him. Yep, something had happened, and Nathan was glad. Whatever it was, things were definitely looking up.

Chapter 22

The morphine was wearing off. He floated in a cloud; the drug induced stupor receding moment by moment. He waited for the pain and nausea that had been his constant companions for the last seven days. It was routine. He'd wake up to find a wet cloth on his forehead. A voice would pierce the morphine induced haze asking how he felt, and it would take every ounce of willpower he had not to spew what little he had in his stomach all over the curious voice that was torturing him. Then someone would prop him up and make him drink water or ginger tea. Lately they had taken to adding fruit juice, some broth when he could handle it, and even dry toast. Even though the tea and toast actually settled his stomach, it did very little for the excruciating pain.

The only relief had been the morphine, and Vin was beginning to hate it with a passion. He'd seen men in the War survive worse wounds than his only to become slaves to the narcotic. Dr. Connors and Nathan had both told him over and over again that they were being very careful to only give him enough to dull his pain without addicting him to the drug. They also told him it was the only thing that would give him relief, but Vin was still wary of it. The pain, however, had been constant, piercing, relentless. So, he had let them give him the morphine for there was no other relief. The pain had gotten a little better, but it still felt like a constant jabbing in his gut every time he took a breath. Whoever was doing the jabbing just wasn't using that red-hot poker as much any more.

Vin had no idea why anyone would take the stuff for any other reason. To him, relieving the pain should mean the absence of pain. He should be able to stay awake and not hurt anywhere. That's not what the morphine did. This so called wonder drug put you to sleep hurting, and you woke up hurting. If it was supposed to stop the pain, why didn't Vin remember one conscious moment where he hadn't felt that excruciating, gut twisting pain? And that wasn't all the morphine did. It made his nausea worse. He didn't buy that it was his liver healing for a second. He had tried to tell them over and over again that he would break out into a cold sweat, his face would flush, and the nausea would get worse. It took every ounce of will power he had not to just give in and lose whatever the contents of his stomach on the closest person. He would eventually fall asleep hurting and wanting to puke. Then, the cycle would begin all over again. It really didn't matter that he was getting smaller doses of the morphine each time. This was all just getting very old very fast. At least Chris and Ezra had stopped sniping at one another. They had also stopped treating him like he was at death's door because of their mistakes. At least they didn't act like it in front of him any more.

Vin heard voices. Here we go again, that damned ginger tea and toast. If he ever ate, drank, even tasted anything with ginger in it for the rest of his life, it would be too soon for him. They always sent Nettie or Mary in with one of the men, usually Josiah or Nathan. They knew he would behave in front of the two women and not refuse it. Then they would force that stuff down him, cheerfully chattering all the time about the new baby this, the twins did that, and how John and Chris had taken Billy and Jamie fishing or riding. No one had actually told him what had happened before he had been shot. Of course he hadn't asked, but he thought indignantly to himself they could have at least told him. It wasn't like he had been so totally out if it that he couldn't have heard what went down with the kidnappers. He wasn't going to give them the satisfaction of letting them know his interest by asking them what had happened.

Vin certainly had had plenty of time to think about what had happened to him. He decided that he should really think twice about standing in front of bullets, but he just couldn't let Melanie Terrell shoot the twins' mother in front of them. Vin had done the only thing he could have. The alternative would have been to live with the guilt that two innocent people had died because he was afraid and had saved himself. The guilt would gnaw at him until there was nothing left inside of him. Vin didn't think, no he knew he wasn't as brave as Chris was. He wouldn't be able to live with himself if he'd had to carry a burden like the one Chris had carried for years. Maybe that was why Vin respected Chris so much. Larabee was the kind of man Vin always wanted to be. Chris didn't wear his honor and courage around like a badge for others to see. Chris Larabee lived it, walked it, talked it.

Those voices were getting closer. 'Aw hell.' He didn't feel like fighting the fever, the nausea, or the pain today. He really didn't. He should be feeling awful by now. 'Where was the nausea and the fever?' Vin concentrated on how he actually felt. The bed he lay in no longer felt hot and uncomfortable. Then it dawned on him. 'No fever, no nausea! Thank God! This wasn't a dream, was it?'

Vin cautiously opened one eye. 'Nope, he wasn't dreaming.' It was daylight, and a soft breeze was blowing in from of the windows. "No fever, no nausea, no dreamin'. What about the gut wrenching pain?' Vin concentrated more as the morphine induced fog continued to release his brain, so he could think clearly. 'Damn, it was better!' He was almost giddy now. The pain was still there, but it had lessened now to a tolerable level. 'Would it get worse if he moved?'

Vin cautiously moved his arms out from under the covers. He felt the movement pull across his lower chest, causing the muscles to protest, but the excruciating pain was gone. He breathed a silent prayer of thanks. Then he felt the bed shake a bit. The voices were right next to him now. He opened his other eye, and both of his eyes almost crossed as he recognized the bookends sitting on either side of his head that were staring at him. The twins had finally found their way into his room. He wondered what they had done to JD now? He smiled at his girls.

"Took you long 'nuf. Who'd you con this time?"

He was rewarded with giggles. "JD's looking for us.' Alicia put her finger over her lips to warn Vin to be quiet.

"We're playin' hide'n'seek." Alison was whispering like her partner in crime.

"Kinda out in the open, aren't you?" It was no problem for Vin to whisper.

"Won't look for us here." Alison had been around the others way too long. She was beginning to sound like a cross between Ezra and Chris, cunning in as few words as possible.

"Yeah, we lost him." Vin wasn't guilty if Alicia was learning the intricacies of tracking. He hadn't seen the twins since he'd been shot. At least that was what he assured himself. But, if she was going to learn about hunting and being hunted, she needed to learn to do it right.

"You leave a trail?"

"What's that?" Alison needed to learn as well.

"Well, when you're hidin', some people can follow you. A trail is what helps 'em find you."

"How?" Alicia didn't understand what he meant. Neither did Alison.

Vin thought about it and then, "You ever play in the dirt?" The girls nodded. "You ever see how you can see your feet in the dirt?" He had them now. "That's leavin' a trail."

"Ohhhh. We leave a trail, Lison?"

"We didn't walk in no dirt, Ours." Lison assured him.

"What's that?" He pointed at the remains of what had been two large sugar cookies. Most of the crumbs were on their faces and their dresses. Vin figured the rest were on the floor and trailed up and across the bed to end up on him. He grinned at them. They giggled and offered the rest of their cookies to him. "Ah, no thanks. You eat your cookies."

Lisha and Lison knew why they had missed Ours so much. It was that lopsided grin and the twinkly blue eyes. Besides, he taught fun games like what bugs to play with, and how to get a smudge here and there on Ezra's coats, not a lot but enough to make him yell. He also taught them how to trick Buck into thinking one was the other, and how to get the spot right in the center of Chris's forehead to throb every once in a while. They just didn't have as much fun and learn so much with anyone else. They had already decided to keep him.

Now they just had to get Mommy and Daddy to keep him. They were keeping Jamie and the new baby, so why not Ours? In fact, Alicia and Alison had already offered a trade for Ours. They had cornered Our Ezra and Our Chris and offered them the new baby and Jamie for Ours. Our Ezra had choked on his coffee, and Our Chris had practically bellowed no. Our Buck had said it sounded like a good idea if only the twins would keep JD, too. The twins didn't know why everyone had started laughing at them. They were perfectly serious. They were taking Ours home with them and that was that. If they had to put up with everyone else cooing and playing with the new baby instead of paying attention to them, then they could surely keep Ours. He was the only one who hadn't insisted on holding and cuddling the new baby. He still loved them even if no one else did any more.

The door opened and both girls dove behind the pillows Vin was propped up on. Vin had to laugh. They weren't real good at hiding, yet. He was still half-reclining, his upper body propped up by pillows, and on either side of him were the twins' bottoms. In their rush to hide behind the pile of pillows, they had managed to pull their dresses over their heads and only their lace-covered bottoms were showing. Josiah looked once, and then looked again before he, too, burst into laughter. He shifted the tray he was carrying and caught the closing door with his foot. He leaned back out and quietly said to whoever was right behind him, "Call off the search. They're in here, with Ours." He made the nickname sound comical and rolled his eyes at Vin. "You get some visitors while I've been gone, or are you growing pillas outta your shoulders?"

"Decided to get me some of them purty pillas with lace and all." It was good to laugh again, even if it hurt.

Chapter 23

It dawned on the two little girls that they were being discussed, and that meant they had been found. They slowly looked up from behind Ours and looked at the big man with the deep voice. It was Josiah. They liked him because his voice made their toes curl when he talked. No matter what he said, it always sounded good. Plus he had a nice smile, and he had let them in to see Ours when Vin had been sleeping just so the twins knew their friend was still getting better. They graced him with one of their best, calculating smiles. Ours was awake, and they wanted to stay with him. If they could convince Josiah, he was big enough to make even Daddy and Our Chris say yes.

Josiah had seen the look that had passed between the twins. He figured they were planning something, so when they smiled at him simultaneously, he knew exactly what they wanted. He threw his head back and laughed. He hadn't felt this good in over a week. Vin was over the worst of it; he knew it by the way the tracker was lying back on the bed thoroughly enjoying the scene unfolding before him. The twins joined in because they knew they were going to get their way.

"You girls think you can sit over on this chair and talk to Ours while he's eating?" The twins kissed Vin and jumped off the bed. They were in the chair in a flash. It wasn't wise to ignore requests. It could get you sent to your room for misbehaving.

"You got anything sides that toast?" The idea of eating actually appealed to Vin. The nausea was no longer biding its time making even the smell of toasted bread uninviting. He was actually hungry, and it was time to take advantage of it. If they wouldn't feed him, he'd get his girls to go and get him some of those sugar cookies, anything but that dry toast.

Josiah looked at him and then looked at the toast. He couldn't blame Vin at all. The man must be sick of ginger tea and dry toast, so he winked and spoke to the twins.

"You two think you can take care of Vin, I mean Ours?"

"You can call him Vin. He's not yours, he's ours." They really needed to make that point very clear to everyone else. Vin was their Ours, not Ours to everybody else. Sometimes grown-ups could really be very stupid. They sighed in frustration. It was so hard being five sometimes.

"Well then, can you two take care of Vin while I go ask if he can have something to eat besides this?"

That meant they had to stay, so no one could make them leave Ours yet. "Yes, sir!" They practically shouted at Josiah. Josiah winked at Vin, picked up the tray in one hand, and moved to the door.

"You gonna be able to handle them?"

"Two of 'ems easier."

"JD wouldn't agree with that. You sure you can handle real food?"

"I'd really like to try, Josiah. I'd really like to try."

"Amen to that, brother. I'll use all my charm, and if that doesn't work, I'll send for the twins."

"Now Josiah, I want real food, not the judge to arrest me for blackmail."

"But Vin, I'll represent you as your lawyer."

"Great. I'll really hang for sure then." Josiah closed the door behind him, his laughter echoing down the hallway.

The twins were taking their assigned job seriously. That meant they had to get back on the bed to make certain Ours was all right, so they proceeded to crawl back up by the tracker.

"I hear you have a new baby sister?"

The twins looked at him, each other, and then thought before they answered. Ours didn't want to see the new baby, too, did he? They answered collectively and cautiously. "Yes," they sighed.

"You don't sound real excited."

"We ain't."

Vin laughed at their honesty. "I guess everyone's makin' over her a lot?" The twins nodded. They were looking at him like he was growing horns out of his head.

"Do you want to see her?" Lisha wanted to know if even Ours was deserting them for her baby sister.

"You'll probably want to hold her, too." Lison sighed. Our Ezra and Our Chris had actually picked the baby up yesterday. Now Vin wanted to know about her. She leaned her head to the side and watched Vin blink a couple of times then lick his lips. This was serious if he did that. She looked at Lisha to see if she knew trouble was coming. Lisha did. They waited for the shoe to drop and Vin to ask to see the new baby.

"She got a name, or you just gonna call her 'her' or 'she' or 'it'?" They looked startled. Did the new baby even have a name? Mommy and Daddy were calling her Junior.

"Mommy and Daddy call her Junior." Lisha had to grin when Vin started laughing. He looked over at Lison and winked at her.

"What kinda name is Junior for a girl?" Ours was always right. They joined him in giggling. Junior was a silly name for a girl.

"You don't like her much, do you? Why?" The twins stopped giggling and had to think about it.

"Everyone's always picking her up."

"An' everyone's always tellin' us we got to be quiet cause we'll wake her up."

"An' no one loves us any more cause even Nanny Beth says the baby needs her more than us."

"An' she doesn't do nuthin' but cry an' eat an' sleep."

"She don't even talk to us. Jamie and Billy talk to us."

Vin listened to the little girls. He doubted anyone had taken the time to tell the twins that babies don't talk. He tried to think he would have liked a baby sister or baby brother, but it dawned on him that he'd had his ma's undivided attention for all the time she'd been alive. How would he have liked having to share all that love with someone he hadn't even asked for? The twins were jealous, plain and simple. It wasn't his business, but they just looked so miserable.

"You two ever seen or heard a new baby do anythin' but cry? Ever heard one talk?" The twins looked at him and shook their heads no. "So y'all really think she's doin' this cryin' and stuff on purpose to get everyone to pay attention to her and not y'all?" He paused to let them think about that one. It was difficult.

"You mean she can't help it?" Lisha was actually surprised. She had to share this with her sister. "She can't help it, Lison."

"That mean we got to like her now?" Lison wanted the bottom line.

"Yeah, 'fraid it does." Vin gave it to her straight.

"But everybody loves her more!" Lison had to put up just a little fight before she gave in.

"Oh, y'all don't look like they've thrown y'all out on the streets. Anyone beat y'all yet?" The twins looked horrified at the possibility. Mommy and Daddy didn't ever hit them. Lison thought that Daddy threatened to put them in some kind of vent, but he never spanked them.

"Daddy says he'll put us in a vent sometimes, but Mommy wouldn't let him spank us. She wouldn't even let Nanny Beth spank us when we broke that big thing in the 'zeum." Lisha had to explain what she and her twin were thinking.

Vin blinked several more times and looked like he wanted to laugh but only his eyes twinkled. "He wanted to put you in a vent?"

"Yeah, we don't know what a vent is." Lisha leaned closer to Vin in order to emphasize the need not to let Daddy know they didn't know what he was threatening them with. Maybe Ours would tell them what a vent was.

It dawned on Vin what they were talking about. This time he did laugh. "You mean a convent with nuns?"

"That's what he said, Lison. A convent." Ours was so smart.

"Was that before or after you broke the big thing in the museum?" Vin could only imagine what expensive item the twins had broken in the museum. He'd heard both Ezra and JD mention those museums back east where really old and expensive things were kept for people to look at.

The twins giggled. Maybe having a baby sister wasn't so bad after all. They were still keeping Ours, though. He'd asked about the baby, but he wasn't really interested in her. He loved them. Lisha yawned in his face. Lison followed her sister's lead.

Vin pointed to the foot of the bed. He was hurting a little more now, and he was getting tired himself. He sure wished Josiah would bring him some real food, though. He was still hungry. The twins took his cue and both lay down on top of the covers at the foot of the bed. They were asleep by the time the door opened, and Nathan and Dr. Connors both entered with Josiah carrying a tray behind them.

Chapter 24

"Josiah here said you were hungry and wanted something else besides toast?" Nathan was smiling as Dr. Connors walked past the sleeping twins. "You hurtin' bad or feelin' sick any?"

"Nah, I'm still hungry." Vin stifled a yawn. "It hurts, but not like it did, an' I don't feel like pukin' no more."

Dr. Connors nodded approvingly as he checked Vin's pulse. Josiah had set the tray of food on a table close to the bed. Vin watched as Nathan took the cover off to reveal a piece of baked chicken, some white fluffy stuff that he figured was mashed potatoes without the gravy (how could they not put gravy on the potatoes?), and what suspiciously looked like spinach. Vin hated vegetables, especially green ones. There were also two sugar cookies and a glass of milk. The chicken had been cut up into small bite sized pieces, and Vin thought it smelled wonderful. His stomach growled in anticipation.

Nathan brought the tray over, and Dr. Connors unfolded the legs that Vin hadn't noticed on the bottom. Nathan placed the tray over Vin's lap. The twins had woken up and were watching from the foot of the bed. Those sugar cookies sure were good. Vin moved his feet, and the little girls grabbed at them. They were still giggling when Nathan spoke again.

"You eat what you can. The more you get down and keep down, the better you'll feel. Then we'll stop forcin' that ginger tea and toast down ya. Don't have to eat it all. Just eat what tastes good and don't make ya sick, ya hear."

"I got shot in the liver, not the ears, Nathan." Vin put the first bite to his lips and looked to see everyone in the room staring at him. "You mind?"

Dr. Connors laughed and asked if Vin minded the twins staying for a while? When he shook his head no, the elderly man wished him a good meal and left the room. That left an audience of four. Nathan just stared back at Vin. Josiah walked over to the girls.

"Why don't you two come and tell me how you got in here this mornin' without gettin' caught? I may need to sneak in here and see Vin when no one's lookin', too." He took the twins over to the chair by the window and kept them busy while Nathan hovered over Vin and every bite he took.

"Eat some of that spinach. It's real good for ya." Vin picked as small a piece of the green stuff as he could and stuck it with another bite of chicken. He'd nearly eaten half of the piece of chicken and a little of the potatoes and spinach when he called a halt. He'd had enough. He wasn't full or feeling sick, but he wasn't going to try and eat too much. Nathan seemed to be of the same mind when Vin put the fork down.

"Why don't you try a bite of one of those cookies? You can feed the rest to those two over there."

Nathan had just mentioned cookies and them in the same sentence. Josiah saw their interest and picked them up from his lap and walked them over to the bed where he let them gently drop to the bed. They just as carefully walked up to sit on Vin's left side. He took one of the cookies, broke it in half and handed a half to each girl. They waited until he took a bite of his before they ate theirs. Nathan was completely satisfied when Vin had eaten a couple of bites of the cookie. He indicated he was full then, and Nathan beamed.

"If you were gonna lose it, it would've come up by now. You want some morphine?"

Vin practically shouted, "No!"

Josiah spoke up then, "He really hates that stuff, doesn't he?"

"You need it!" An argument was brewing by the stubborn look on Vin's face and the equally stubborn one on Nathan's. The twins were all eyes and ears, when Josiah took matters into his hands.

"If he starts actin' like he's hurtin' real bad, I'll come and get you." That mollified the both the tracker and the healer.

"Well, all right. You try and get some rest now, an' I'll check on you later." Nathan was going to worry until Vin was up and completely healed. Vin knew it and so did Josiah. Vin smiled at Nathan and closed his eyes. He'd been awake more than two hours, eaten more at one time than in the last two days total, and had convinced the twins that their baby sister was someone they wanted to keep. He was, in a word exhausted. He was asleep before Nathan got to the door. The twins just fell back on the foot of the bed and joined him.

Josiah took in the scene and smiled. He started to walk back to the chair when the door opened.

"He still awake?" It was a very quiet Buck.

"No, just drifted back off. He ate and everything." Josiah whispered back.

Buck spotted the twins and grinned. "They finally made it in while Ours was awake."

"Best stop calling him that in front of 'em. They got real put out with me when I called him that. Told me he was theirs, not mine and to call him Vin."

Buck's face lit up in unholy glee. "You hear they want to keep him?"

Josiah motioned Buck to the door. The two of them were about to start some serious laughing here, and Josiah didn't want to face Nathan's wrath if Buck and Josiah woke up the three on the bed. Outside the door, Josiah looked at Buck. They burst into laughter as Chris walked around the corner. He looked at them until Buck stopped laughing long enough to explain who was sleeping on Vin's bed, and how they had told Josiah that Vin was theirs. Larabee actually grinned, which for him was as good as a belly-laugh.

"Nathan said he ate, kept it down, and didn't need morphine."

Buck hadn't waited until Nathan had said all that. He'd just bounded up the stairs when he'd heard Vin was actually awake and feeling almost decent. Buck had missed the tracker's sense of humor. He was also full of stories. That was all right. He'd just wait until Vin was awake and then tell him all about JD and the twins. He had plenty of time now that they knew Vin was so much better. The nagging anxiety that Buck had had hanging over him like a dark cloud for the last week had lifted. Everyone was learning to relax now that they weren't worrying about bad news every hour. Yep, life was bound to be a lot more fun now. Chris might almost start acting human again.

Chapter 25

Now he couldn't move his legs. He'd felt so good before, how could this have happened? Then he remembered. The twins had fallen asleep near his feet. He raised his head cautiously; he still wasn't sure the nausea wouldn't return with any sudden movement, so he was cautious. Thank God, no nausea and the pain wasn't too bad.

The twins were stretched out across his feet. They were using his ankles as pillows and had their arms wrapped around his feet. How could they do that and be comfortable? They looked quite content, but it was the inability to move, a trapped feeling he'd felt even in his sleep that had caused him to wake. He looked around for help and saw Josiah.

The big man was reading in the chair by the window, but Vin didn't have to do anything except move. Josiah was up in an instant. When he saw what had happened, he moved swiftly to free Vin from the twins. The movement caused the twins to wake up. All three on the bed had slept for three hours, and the twins were ready for an adventure. Since Ours still didn't look like himself, they decided they needed someone they could really play with right now.

Someone walked in the door right at that moment. It was JD. He almost told as good a story as Ezra, was easier to confuse than Buck, and, once coaxed into it, as much fun on adventures as Ours. Plus, the twins didn't feel the need to obey JD like they did Chris. There was just one problem. The twins had intentionally lost JD right after lunch in order to sneak in to see Vin. He wasn't going to be real thrilled to go on an adventure with them now. They would just have to convince him.

JD wasn't going to make it easy for them. He purposely ignored the twins as he walked right up to Vin. "You sure look better. How you feel?"

"Ours is better, JD. See." JD would be able to see Vin better if a face hadn't inserted itself into his view. Like Buck before, JD couldn't tell the twins apart. He didn't know if it was Alicia or Alison who had appeared right in his face. He didn't care. Since Vin had been shot, the twins had made his life a living hell. They'd smeared him with jam when they first met. They stole his horse, well not exactly. As Chris had pointed out, they hadn't been able to climb onto his horse before Chris had caught them. They had caused a lot of commotion in an attempt to climb on the back of the horse while using the hitching rail as a stepladder. Chris and Buck had both grabbed the twins as the little girls had tried to balance on the railing. No one had told JD that the twins had tried the same stunt on them when they had first met until they had spent the day harassing him over it. The twins were going to have a hard time convincing JD to play with them, but they had a more immediate concern right now.

"JD, I got to potty." Alicia was looking a little desperate.

"Me, too!" Alison nearly yelled as the urgency took her. They weren't the only ones.

"JD, you take 'em now, please?" Vin was looking a little uncomfortable, so JD relented.

"I'm comin' back," JD warned, and he took the twins to Mrs. Davis.

He managed to escape immediately as Mrs. Davis took charge of the rumpled twins. She was asking how Vin was feeling and mildly fussing at the twins for sneaking into Vin's room as JD shut the door. He was heading back when Chris caught up to him.

"He awake yet?"

"Yeah, I had to take the twins to Mrs. Davis cause he needed, . . ." JD didn't finish as Mrs. Terrell was walking down the hall, her hand on her husband's arm.

"Oh, JD. Do you know if Vin is awake, yet? Nathan said we might see him for a little while." Alexandra punctuated her statement with a breathtaking smile.

JD always felt that there was something familiar about her smile but was so in awe of Alexandra Terrell that he had to think about what she had said before he answered. Since Chris and John noticed Alexandra's effect on men, they both waited patiently. "Yea, I mean yes ma'am. I was just going back now. He um, he had, well, I'll go check and see if he's still awake." JD practically ran past them to the room. He even knocked before he stuck his head around the door and spoke to Josiah, "Mr. and Miz Terrell want to see Vin. Nathan said they could if he feels like it. Does he?"

Josiah looked over at Vin, winked, and then answered JD with his most serious expression. "Well, he looks a little put out right now, but I think he could be nice for a few minutes."

"What's he put out for?"

"I got shot in the liver, JD, not the brain. I can answer for myself." Vin rolled his eyes. He hated it when they treated him like he was an invalid. Even through the worst of the pain and nausea, he could still understand everything. They treated him like he had lost his mind along with all that blood.

JD looked at Vin for a moment and then it dawned on him. He grinned when he spoke to the tracker. "Do you feel like speaking to the Terrells right now?"

Vin heard the couple outside the door. The pain, although not as bad as it had been, was beginning to bother him a bit. He decided that he needed a distraction more than he needed any morphine, so he motioned for JD to let the Terrells in. Josiah exited through the other door with a promise to find out what Nathan was going to let Vin eat for dinner. He also went to find out if Vin could try laudanum for the pain instead of the morphine he hated so much.

Vin hadn't said anything, but Josiah knew he was beginning to hurt more than he was letting on. Maybe the laudanum would bother Vin less than the morphine while still relieving the pain enough for the tracker to rest and get his strength back. Now that the nausea had loosened its relentless hold on his friend, he should recover more swiftly. Josiah hoped so. He was beginning to miss Vin's company in the evenings when everyone would gather together in the saloon for poker and drinks. Even when Vin didn't talk much, he was a good listener, and Josiah and Vin shared many common beliefs. He also enjoyed the tracker's sharp wit when he decided to share it. He heard the others talking as he went out the other door.

"We wanted to thank you." Vin cut John Terrell off with a wave of his hand. It didn't matter that their daddy made more money in a day than most people made in a lifetime. Vin and the others would never have let anything happen to those children.

"Didn't do it by myself. I seem to recall a group effort." Vin smiled at Alexandra Terrell. She was easy on the eyes. "You feelin' better, ma'am?"

"I think that was my question. I don't know how to thank you for saving my babies and me."

Vin was getting embarrassed and tried to change the subject. "The twins said you had a baby girl. They also said you named her Junior?"

The Terrells acknowledged their lack of name for their new baby. John stopped grinning long enough to explain. He'd get back to thanking Vin in just a moment, but he couldn't pass up talking about his new daughter. "My wife was so convinced this one would be a boy, she absolutely refused to consider a girl's name."

"We wanted a son."

"No, you wanted a son, but we have both now. One son and three daughters, but we need a name. That's why we are here."

Vin saw Chris grinning behind the Terrells. He didn't like that look on Larabee's face at all. Vin looked back at both Terrells. Why were they here?

"My wife wanted to name the baby after you to show her appreciation since your friends informed us you wouldn't accept any money for your trouble."

"Vin's as dumb a name for a baby girl as Junior!" Vin actually blushed this time. It was bad enough everyone kept walking right in his room any time they felt like it and no one would give him any clothes, but now someone was going to name their baby after him? As soon as he was able, he was heading for the mountains, the desert, hell; anywhere where there weren't any people. If Chris didn't stop laughing, he'd have to shoot him when he got a chance, or set the twins on him. Then Vin got an idea, no a plan. "Christina would be a better name." Larabee blanched. Vin grinned. That'd teach him. JD was really beginning to enjoy himself. He hadn't said anything yet, but he had seen Chris smirking at Vin. Chris had known what the Terrells were up to, but now the wily tracker had turned the tables on the gunslinger.

"Well, we certainly can't name a baby girl Vin, but we thought we might name her after someone in your family, your mother maybe?"

Vin hadn't thought of that. His ma might have liked that, but he decided that he would enjoy himself while he could. They shouldn't be the only ones laughing here. "So you want to name her Ma?" He grinned at the Terrells and was rewarded by Alexandra with rich, velvety laughter. Even Chris laughed at that one.

John Terrell added, "That or Tanner?"

"No sir. Not for a girl. Christina still sounds good to me."

"Oh dear, you don't want us to use your mother's name?" That thought had never crossed Alexandra's mind.

"No ma'am." Chris looked immensely pleased at Vin's discomfort, and JD grinned ear to ear at Vin. "I still think Christina's a better name ma'am. Ma never liked her name much. Said it was way too long."

Alexandra sighed. Sometimes men acted like five-year olds. She didn't know if Vin's mother's name was truly appalling, or if he just didn't want any one to know something that personal about him. She turned a stern eye on the tracker. She was good.

"Annabelle." Chris turned and pounded the choking JD on the back.

"I like that name. Annabelle Maude Terrell has a nice sound to it. John?"

John Terrell wasn't a man of wealth and power for nothing. He knew when to close a deal, so he agreed with his wife. "Annabelle Maude Terrell it is." He waited for JD to stop choking. "Now we have to discuss something very unpleasant." He turned and looked at Chris, then JD, and then Vin. They had no idea what he was about to say, so he plunged ahead. He hadn't had this much fun in years. "I understand my daughters are keeping you."

"Like Hell!" Vin reacted without thinking.

Chris Larabee burst into laughter. He'd been doing a wonderful job maintaining his calm expression, but John Terrell had certainly gotten him with this one. The look on Vin's face was priceless. He would have paid every cent he had if only the others had been here to see it. As it was, the disgruntled tracker was blushing from the tip of his head and probably to his toes, Chris just couldn't see through the bedclothes.

JD had succumbed and had flopped on the end of Vin's bed, overcome by laughter. Alexandra and John were also enjoying the look on Vin's face. It was a gamut of horror, embarrassment, surprise; all were on his face. Vin tried looking angry, but it just wouldn't work.

He couldn't storm out of the room, and he couldn't throw everyone out. So, he did the only thing he could do. Vin used what little strength he had to push JD off the bed with his feet. Then everyone started laughing again. The door opened, and Nathan stood there with a thunderous expression on his face.

"I didn't go without sleep for the past week to have y'all kill my patient the first day he shows he's gonna recover. Y'all all got to leave."

"Aw, Nathan!"

"I said out, JD. All of y'all out." Nathan stood with his hands on his hips staring at everyone like they had all gone insane as Chris herded everyone to the door. "Don't look at me like that. You wanta puke your guts up again?" He was still fussing at Vin when Chris shut the door.

"I don't know about you, but I'm stayin' as far away from Nathan as I can tonight. I like my head." Chris was still grinning.

JD couldn't wait to tell the others. "Did you see his face? Buck's gonna love it, and Ezra." JD couldn't finish; he was laughing so hard.

The door opened, and four guilty people started to scatter. JD hadn't moved as fast and was caught. Nathan wasn't in any mood to argue. "I'm stayin' with Vin for a while. You tell the cook downstairs that we'll want that food soon as it's ready. Then I'm givin' Vin some laudanum, and he can't see no one else tonight." JD heard a comment from the bed. Nathan closed the door, but not before JD heard the reply from Nathan. "You keep that up, an' I'll give you a shot of morphine."