Chapter 26

It was well after midnight when Vin finally woke up again. Was he going to spend the rest of his life sleeping? He felt better though, so maybe he would be careful like Nathan warned him. No sense in making his recovery longer by overdoing it. He looked over at the chair by the light and saw Chris reading a book. As Vin turned toward Chris, his friend looked up and closed his book. He got up and pulled his chair closer to the bed.

"How you feelin'? Need something?"

"I feel like I need my clothes an' I gotta get out a here."

"How 'bout something I can do for you?"

Vin sighed. Why bother? Chris was just as stubborn as he was. He automatically drank the water Chris handed him. They were always pouring something down him every time he woke up.

"Nathan said you could eat something if you felt like it?" Chris didn't think Vin wanted to eat, but he offered like Nathan had told him to. Vin shook his head no as Chris asked his next question. "Feel like talkin'?"

Vin snorted, "Talkin', you mean more than two words in a day?"

"You're a real lousy patient. Don't mess with me, cowboy, or I'll make sure you don't get your clothes until I get back." That got Vin's attention.

"You goin' somewheres?"

"They found Mark Terrell's body, or what they think is him. Me an' Ezra are going with John and Judge Travis to bury him, an' then me an' Ezra got to be at the trial in Brecken."

"Why not here?"

"Brecken's bigger and Terrell was killed there. Plus, the kidnappers shot up Brecken, and the judge says we won't have to have you or Jamie appear in court or testify. Judge says he can get a conviction without you. People in town saw Terrell leave with some of the gang before he was killed, an' some of 'em have already promised to give up the others if the judge don't hang 'em."

Vin liked that idea. As much as he wanted out of bed, he knew he wasn't up to any trips anywhere for a while. Let Chris and Ezra handle it. "You said you and Ezra are gonna testify?"

"Probably, but only to confirm that the men the army escorted to jail in Brecken were the same ones who followed us. With our testimony, Jamie's statement, and the evidence Mark Terrell left, Judge says it's an open and shut case."

"What about that witch that shot me an' Ezra?"

"She's already been placed in an asylum back east. Terrell got word from them today that she arrived under Army escort. They didn't waste any time puttin' her away. Her family didn't put up a fight when Terrell told 'em he had enough evidence to hang her for murder."

"Jamie stayin' with the Terrells?"

"He's already started the adoption."

Vin smiled. That was one orphan who was going to be well loved and cared for. Not like some. "Miz Terrell goin'?"

"No, she's stayin' here with everyone else. Doc Connors doesn't want her or the baby traveling anywhere for another four or five weeks. Just think, all that time with the twins."

"I'm comin' with you an' Ezra." That made both of them laugh. It was good to be able to do something so simple as talk and laugh with his friend. Vin finally broke down and asked the question that he'd waited for someone to tell him about since he woke up. "You ever gonna tell me what happened when the gang rode into town?"

Chris relaxed. "You're one of the orneriest men I know." He explained in great detail, keeping his voice soft and low. Vin thought it was because Ezra was asleep in the other room, but Chris had another purpose in mind. He told the tale and watched as Vin fell back asleep. It wouldn't be long before morning when they were leaving.

"Take care friend," was all Chris said as he put out the light and settled down on the big chair. He decided to rest before they left at dawn. Hopefully the children, and Buck and Vin, would still be asleep when the four men left under another Army escort.

Having money had its uses, but Chris didn't think he'd like the absence of the small things he took for granted like just leaving whenever he wanted by himself or a few friends. All he had to worry about was getting out of Four Corners without having to hog tie the boys who wanted to come with them. As long as Vin was here, the twins and even Buck could be counted on to stay with little argument, but Jamie and Billy wanted to go with him. How'd he get so many people he cared about? He had promised himself he would never do this again, but here he was worrying about everyone just because he wouldn't be here to protect them while he was gone. Chris shook his head and closed his eyes. Actually, it was the best he'd felt since he'd lost his family.

Somehow Mary Travis worked her way into his dreams. He woke at dawn and slipped out the door when Nathan showed up to relieve him. Josiah promised to take care of everyone while he was gone. Chris never doubted him for a moment. Everything should be just fine in Four Corners while they were gone.

Chapter 27

It turned out to be a week and a half of hell. Vin's steady improvement had led to his growing desire to leave the room he'd stayed in since he'd been shot. The only way they could keep him confined to the room was to keep his clothes from him and set the twins and the two boys as watchdogs. Vin wouldn't parade naked around the twins, and he watched his language, too. The twins would parrot everything he said and did. It wasn't that he minded their company, he was just tired of being confined to bed when he felt so much better than he had. After two days he was getting surlier, though, and the third day had taken to snapping at the twins. It didn't phase them in the slightest. Their adored Ours could rant and rave all he wanted, they just ranted back at him. Alexandra was beginning to worry about her daughters' manners and mentioned his influence on the twins.

Vin stopped ranting. He practically stopped talking at all. In fact, he was almost too quiet and agreeable. Alexandra had seen just the same type of silent disobedience; a silence that usually meant somebody was plotting something. However, she usually saw this behavior from the twins. Surely a grown man, he must be ten years younger than she was, wouldn't be plotting a way to disobey his doctors' orders, would he? She was planning on having a talk with Nathan when she walked into the parlor of the hotel and found him discussing the situation with Josiah, Mary, Buck, and Nettie Wells.

"You're gonna have to give him his clothes at least. He's stopped talking, and now he's just sittin' there biding his time." Josiah had said exactly what Alexandra had been thinking. Everyone who knew him as well as this group did knew Vin was plotting to get his way. Personally, Josiah and Buck felt Nathan was being a little too overprotective.

"Nathan, you can at least let him get up and sit in a chair. He's getting antsy, and you know what happened the last time you tried coddlin' him." Nathan looked at Buck, but before he could speak, Nettie broke in.

"He'll get those girls to get him his clothes. You watch and see. That boy's sneaky sometimes. He's got those twins wrapped round his little finger. Sorry Alexandra, but you know it's true." Alexandra nodded her head in agreement, a rueful smile on her face. "He tells 'em to jump, and they'll do it."

"Well, I was afraid of that. The twins asked me where Vin sleeps normally. When I asked why, they said he told them he wasn't comfortable in the room he is in now. He wanted his room." Alexandra was curious. "What happened before?"

"He had an abscess form under the skin when a bullet went through his side."

"He's been shot like this before?" Alexandra was beginning to wonder just what type of men she was allowing around her daughters, but Nathan hastened to explain.

"Well, we were stoppin' a bank robbery ma'am, an' he took a couple a bullets savin' Chris and Ezra. He rode out to Nettie's when we took our eyes off him once and he collapsed. Had to go in an' drain the abscess." He turned and looked at the others before he continued. "It wasn't half as bad as this time, though. He's lost a lot a blood, and he's weak. If he falls or moves around too much, he could hurt himself more and make it worse. Even Doc Connors agrees with me."

"But Nathan, if he doesn't get some freedom of movement now, he may try something foolhardy and make it worse." Mary made a lot of sense. "If we give him his clothes and let him come downstairs, here maybe, for a few hours, he may get tired, but at least he won't try and sneak out of that room on his own."

"She's right." Josiah had remained silent listening to everyone since his first statement. "He's got Jamie and Billy dancing to his tune along with the twins. If we let him tire himself out just coming down the stairs, he's gonna pay more attention to us and be easier to handle. As it is, no tellin' what he's gonna do. Like Mary says, this way we can stop him from doin' somethin' stupid. Chris ain't here, and he's the only one Vin will really listen to when he gets in that stubborn mood."

"Yeah, and we ain't got Ezra here to con him into believing he's better off lettin' everyone else do for him. Vin ain't used to people makin' over him. Makes him uncomfortable havin' people underfoot all the time." Buck aimed the final argument at Nathan and watched the healer make up his mind.

"All right. Buck, you go get his clothes. Josiah an' I'll go tell him. But he can't leave this hotel, y'all understand? I ain't gonna stand for him doin' anythin' that's gonna undo all the good we done this last coupla days." No one argued with him. Buck went for the clothes, and Josiah and Nathan went upstairs leaving the women alone.

Nettie said it all, "Men!" Then she headed for the door, telling the other two just where she was going. "I'm goin' upstairs. Make sure that boy knows we know what he's up to." She continued mumbling up the stairs. "Fool boy don't know when he's got it good. Oughta get me a switch after him."

Mary looked at Alexandra and winked. "Oh, this will be fun. Maybe we should go and get the children." Since it was as good a reason as any to see what Nettie was going to tell Vin, Alexandra went with her.

JD had just stopped spinning from Nettie's exit. Now, out came Mary and Alexandra just as quick as Nettie. "What's wrong?"

"Nathan's going to allow Vin to get up and join us down here." JD still looked puzzled. Mary explained, "We think he's been planning to get up any way, so Nathan's going to let him come downstairs and sit. Nettie's gone upstairs to tell him we all know what he's been planning, and that he'd better behave himself."

"Oh. Buck up there?"

"No, JD, he went to get Vin his clothing." Alexandra still wasn't moving as fast as she had been, so she paused long enough to speak to JD, who was staring at her again. He always looked at her like he'd seen her somewhere before, he just didn't know where. She smiled and watched as he got all tongue-tied. "Are you coming up?"

"Um, no ma'am. I'm, uh, I'm goin' over to the sheriff's office." He started backing away from her.

"Is there some trouble?"

"Oh no ma'am." JD grinned at her all of a sudden. No wonder the twins liked him so much. "I ain't goin' no where near Vin when they tell him he can only come downstairs, 'specially if Miz Nettie's givin' him what for. He'll be madder than a grizzly, ma'am." With that, JD beat a hasty retreat. She knew what he meant as Mrs. Davis ushered the four children out of Vin's room. She could hear Vin's protests down the hall. The twins were trying to get around Nanny Beth, in order to go back and see what all the yelling was about, but Alexandra caught the twins' attention. It only took a cocked eyebrow, and the twins fell in line behind the boys. They looked dejectedly over their shoulders back at the room. "You may come and see Vin when he is downstairs. Now go with Nanny Beth and take your naps." She looked at Mrs. Davis with a question on her face.

"The doctor is watching the baby, ma'am. She's asleep, and soon I'll have them all napping, that is if they can hold all the noise down in there." She said it with her usual good nature. Nanny had decided these men were wonderful, and Nathan was her favorite. The tracker's shy grin had gotten to her, too, but she would never admit it. And, Mr. Sanchez, my but she thought he was a fine figure of a man. Alexandra just shook her head and continued to the room. The fireworks had started early this evening afternoon, and the twins weren't involved at all.

"What do you mean, I got to stay inside? What's the difference in stayin' in here an' stayin' downstairs? I still got to stay inside. I want to go to the saloon." This was not the same easy-going young man that everyone had told her about. This was one very angry, petulant young man.

Alexandra bent her head to hide her grin. Mary was looking at the ceiling. Josiah was looking out of the window, but Nathan and Nettie were standing side by side, hands on their hips.

"You keep this up, an' you can just stay here. You wouldn't make it out the door 'fore you fell flat on your face."

"Quit poutin'," was Nettie's advice. "Nathan's right. You'll need help just goin' down the stairs. You'd never make it to the saloon, and why there? You best not be drinkin' in your condition. Nathan?"

"I don't want a drink!" That got everyone's attention. "Well, I do, but I know I can't have nothin' like that until Nathan lets me. I just want to go out, that's all. I'll just sit on the bench outside." It wasn't working, and Vin knew it. He saw it on their faces.

If he had thought that Nathan and Nettie could be bossy when he'd had that abscess, he obviously hadn't known how bossy they really could be. Plus, they had all his clothes, and he'd tried wrapping the sheet around him, but he'd nearly tripped and hurt himself. Vin never really understood that they were just as stubborn as he was until now. So, he tried the same tactic he tired on Chris the other day. He lied to them and hoped he'd learned more from Ezra than they thought he had.

"All right, I won't go anywhere but downstairs." 'Just wait until they turned their backs on him.' Josiah grinned at him, so did Mary and Alexandra. Nathan raised an eyebrow and Nettie snorted.

"Son, you need to take bluffin' lessons from Ezra. Subtle you ain't."

"Nettie's right, Vin. It's as plain on your face as can be." Nathan paused for effect. "Now, if you want your clothes and out of that bed, do we have your word that you won't go outside until I let you? You still need some laudanum for the pain, and if you don't behave, I'll give you a big dose of it and put you to sleep." It wasn't an idle threat. Nathan meant what he said.

Vin didn't want to give Nathan his word. It meant he was bound to it. Then it hit him. 'Until I let you.' Nathan couldn't tell him no if he didn't know. So Vin made a show of promising. "You have my word I won't go outside until you let me." 'Just wait until your backs are turned.'

The first trip down left him drained, but he sat up in a chair for nearly two hours. He even ate while he was there, but he tired rapidly. Buck and Josiah practically had to carry him and put him to bed. Vin had no idea he was that weak, but it didn't stop him from planning his escape. With Ezra and Chris gone, Vin figured it'd be a matter of time before an opportunity presented itself. He would wait until he was strong enough, and then Nathan would let him because he wouldn't know Vin was gone until they missed him. He'd get outside one way or the other. He just had to do it before Chris and Ezra got back. They'd figure out what he was plotting and stop him. He fell asleep dreaming of the outdoors, the wind blowing through his hair and in his face.

Chapter 28

He did it. He made it down the stairs without any help, and he was still upright. He could do this; he just needed to build up his strength. A few more days and he could make it to the door. Vin was triumphant. It was around four o'clock in the morning. The hotel was silent. As long as he was quiet, no one would know what he was up to. At this time of the morning, the desk clerk was sound asleep, leaning back in his chair behind the desk. Everyone else was asleep, especially the children. Vin wanted to shout for joy, but he couldn't. If Nathan or Nettie caught him, well, he just wouldn't think about that now. He might not be subtle, but he could move like a cat in the dark. Course it helped when you really wanted something as badly as Vin did, and Vin wanted his independence back.

Vin wasn't used to having people around him all the time. A part of him liked all the attention. Then, there was the part that was used to depending solely upon himself. Depending on others dulled his senses, made him lax, and for a man with a bounty on his head, that could get him dead real fast. This town and the people in it had become important to him. He had found a family in his six friends, Nettie and Casey Wells, and Mary and Billy Travis. Now there were more people he cared about. The twins and their family had taken a firm place in his heart with the others, and it scared the hell out if him. Vin had never thought of settling down in one place, much less having kids of his own. He never had that luxury, and with the bounty, he had begun to live his life a day at a time. One more day of freedom was how he viewed each day, but staying in one place for too long was dangerous.

Vin wasn't afraid of the danger as much as he had this nagging fear in the back of his mind that one or more of his friends might pay the ultimate price for helping him. And, what if something happened to Nettie, Mary, or Billy because of him? No, it was better if he could fend for himself, depend upon himself. That way no one he cared about would get caught in any crossfire. Not if Vin could help it, and he couldn't help it if he didn't have the strength to do for himself. That was why it was so important to him to be able to move around, go outside. He loved the outdoors. To a man whose freedom was precious to him, nature, its wilderness, was the ultimate freedom.

Vin sat down on the bottom step. He had to rest before he went back up. Every fiber of his being wanted to go out the door. It was so close, but he knew he didn't have the strength to make it there now. It was bad enough they only gave him his socks, not his boots. He had his clothes, though. They would strip him and tie him down if they found him in a heap at the door, so he gathered his strength and stood up. He barely made it up the stairs without a mishap, but he made it. Tomorrow he would be stronger. Vin promised himself he would eat as much as he could, rest when Nathan wanted him to, and gather his strength. He would make it out that door before Chris and Ezra returned.

Vin walked quietly past the room that adjoined his in which Buck slept. He listened for a moment and smiled. Nathan had insisted that someone be near in case he needed them, so someone stayed in the next room at night. It was also Nathan's way of having someone keep watch on him. Vin smiled; he could hear Buck's steady breathing as he started for the door to his room. The doorknob turned in his hand as he opened the door, stepped in, and shut it just as quietly behind him. He took great care to fold and place his shirt and pants right where Josiah had placed them earlier that evening when they helped him back to his room from his first trip downstairs. No one would ever know what he was up to. Crawling back into bed, Vin happily closed his eyes and went back to sleep. Tomorrow he would be even stronger. Nathan would never have to fret because Nathan would never know what Vin did in the early morning hours when everyone else thought him asleep.

This was the procedure for the next several days. Vin was the model patient, and everyone was fooled except Nettie and Nathan. They hadn't shared their suspicions, but it was a nagging little voice in the back of their minds that Vin was up to something. They just knew it wasn't as simple as allowing the tracker his clothes and to sit downstairs with them for hours at a time. There was a twinkle in his eyes that hinted he was laughing at them in some way, but they hadn't caught him doing anything he shouldn't. Nettie didn't know it, but Nathan had been wishing just as much as she had that Chris and Ezra would return from Brecken soon. For one thing, Chris would know what Vin was up to. It was spooky sometimes the way they read each other's minds. Ezra would spot the con, if Vin was conning them.

So far, they had no proof he was up to anything. They hadn't given him his boots, and his socks would be dirty if he'd sneaked outside while everyone was asleep. They were positive he hadn't been outside, but he just looked too pleased with himself the last few days. He'd also stopped asking if he could go outside. He really appeared to be content to spend his time between the room upstairs and the parlor with the children as his company. He even seemed to enjoy the varied company of Dr. Connors and Alexandra Terrell. The twins even allowed him to hold Annabelle, although he tried to squirm out of that claiming he didn't know anything about babies. The twins hadn't mentioned anything about keeping Vin when they finally left for San Francisco. Everyone appeared relaxed.

Things were just going too smoothly. The twins were the models of perfect children, saving their boisterousness for when Buck and JD took them outside to play. Nettie was still spending a good portion of her days in town trying to decide if Vin was pulling a fast one on them or not. Casey and JD were having a ball with the children, and even Mrs. Davis (who was a very handsome older woman) was having a wonderful time, especially if Josiah was around. Nathan was learning all sorts of things from Dr. Connors who, although retired, had kept up with all the latest medical breakthroughs. He shared those with Nathan, and came more and more to the conclusion that Nathan only needed a medical license to be a legal doctor. He was a "real" doctor in every sense of the word already.

John Terrell would definitely have to do something about that, and about that preposterous bounty on the Tanner boy's head. Dr. Connors was an astute judge of character, and he knew these were all good men. He and Alexandra would just have a chat with John when he returned. If the men wouldn't accept the monetary reward for saving Jamie and the twins, then they would reward them in a non-monetary way. A way that would be to their benefit, but one they couldn't refuse. Neil Connors was really growing fond of Four Corners, its peacekeepers, and its citizens. It would be a lovely little town in which to retire. Even Mary Travis and his niece had become fast friends. He really could like living in this town. No hustle or bustle of a big city, plus the railroad coming soon would bring the better parts of civilization without all its baser elements. Somehow, Dr. Connors didn't think the criminal aspect would be a problem with these young men on the job. Yes, things were really quite pleasant. Little did Dr. Connors know that the nice young man his great-nieces adored had been sneaking around at night, taking his socks off so as not to get them dirty and alert his "caretakers" as to his nocturnal activities. These activities consisted of dressing in the early hours of the morning and then going up and down the stairs in an effort to regain his strength. Vin continued to do this for the next four days. Then came the fifth day, when he knew Chris and Ezra would be returning soon.

Finally, the day had come. Nathan had allowed Vin to have his boots. Tonight was the night. He was going to get across the street if it killed him tonight. Vin didn't really know why he had to cross the road and sit on the other side. He just knew he had to do it before Chris and Ezra returned the next day and stopped him. Their return would up the numbers and the odds against the accomplishment of his goal. It had been almost four weeks since he had been shot, and he had only been as far as the bench on the boardwalk in front of the hotel, and that was early in the morning with no one watching. He was going to cross the road as soon as everyone was asleep. Then he would get back to his room, get the dirt off his boots, slip back into bed, and no one would be the wiser. Soon, he would be able to get around and no one could stop him.

Nathan had even admitted today that Vin was regaining his strength and would be fully recovered soon. He just didn't want to take any chances that Vin might re-injure his liver by doing anything too soon. The tracker almost felt guilty about sneaking around behind Nathan's back, but the healer was just too overprotective sometimes. That fancy doctor didn't know everything, and he didn't know Tanners. A Tanner just didn't laze around in bed and let others do for them. That was what his ma had taught him, and he had lived his whole life that way. They couldn't expect him to change now. Hell, he was twenty-five, and he was his own man. Not even Chris Larabee could keep him tied to one room if he didn't want to be there.

So, Vin waited until the wee hours of the morning. JD was sleeping next door. He could hear the kid snoring softly. It was time. He threw off the bed covers and reached for his pants. It took little time to dress, although his muscles pulled when he pulled his suspenders up and adjusted them. It was only three, but Vin couldn't wait any longer. It was now or never. He picked up his socks and his boots; he wouldn't put them on until he was near the front door. He walked quietly to the door, gently opened it, and walked softly down the hallway in his bare feet. He was actually giddy with anticipation. Making it down the stairs with no problem, Vin sat on the last step and started to put on his socks and boots. He paused when he thought he heard something. When the sound didn't repeat itself, he continued putting on his socks and boots. Then he checked the clerk; he was sleeping soundly. Vin went out the door of the hotel and waited until his eyes adjusted to the night. Then, he gingerly walked down the steps of the boardwalk. He was concentrating so hard on getting one foot in front of the other without falling flat on his face that he didn't notice that someone was watching him from the front window of the hotel.

It took him forever to make the trek across the street to the bench outside the saloon. No one had stopped him; no one was around. Even the fires on the street corners had died out. He was alone in the darkness. Vin was breathing heavily, like he had just run a foot race. He sank gratefully onto the bench. The elation coursing through him countered any discomfort he had felt, even at the midway point when he had wondered if this was a good idea. He had no hat, and the wind gently blew on his face and through his hair. It felt like heaven. He leaned back on the bench and sighed. He was tired, but Vin just thought he would rest a little before he went back to his room. Why spoil it all by falling flat on his face in the dirt? He would never be able to explain that. Closing his eyes Vin savored his moment of triumph a while longer. It was just so nice to sit here in the dark night air.

Chapter 29

Vin's eyes popped open; he'd fallen asleep. Nathan was going to kill him, and then he'd let Nettie have what was left to kill that, too. Thank God Chris wasn't back yet. It was nearly dawn. Vin figured he'd been asleep for a good hour and a half. He was lying on the bench now with a blanket over him. How'd he get there, and how'd that blanket get put over him? Cautiously, Vin raised his head and looked. Nathan was sitting in a chair next to the bench looking up at something, a very self-satisfied grin on his face. He followed the direction of Nathan's stare. Chris and Ezra were still astride their horses grinning evilly down upon him.

'Aw hell.' Vin greeted his audience, "Nathan, Chris, Ezra." He sat up and pushed the blanket onto the bench beside him. There was no way he could get out of this one. He'd been caught red-handed, and they all knew it.

"Nathan," Ezra tipped his hat to Nathan and made a point of ignoring Vin. "You know, Mr. Larabee, I can forgive you for forcing me to make this journey at such ungodly hours when I behold a sight such as this!"

Vin really hated that southern drawl sometimes, especially when Ezra acted like he'd just won the proverbial brass ring. Both men dismounted and Chris took his turn in what would be the second of many comments Vin would have to endure before the day was over. He braced himself.

"Nathan, you're up early." He barely glanced at Vin. "What happened? Someone whine so much they throw him out on the street?"

"I don't whine." Vin looked over to gage Nathan's mood. They stopped ignoring him for a moment. The usually compassionate Nathan returned Vin's look with a blank stare, his satisfied look banished with nothing to replace it. "Would you believe I musta been walkin' in my sleep to get here?" That got their attention.

Chris snorted, Ezra burst out laughing, and Nathan just looked at him. Vin was getting a bit nervous. He'd rather have Nathan fussing at him, anything but that blank stare. Vin stood up, and made sure he had an arm rail to hold on to. It wouldn't do to let that rubbery feeling in his legs get the best of him. Keeping an eye on the silent man, Vin stated his intentions.

"I guess I'll go back to my room now. Y'all can tell me 'bout the trial, later." Damn, if he wasn't actually scared of Nathan right now. He'd best get while the getting was good. Vin walked away, keeping on eye on the three men behind him. They moved to follow him. He was down the last step off the boardwalk to the ground and had turned to walk as fast as he could to his room when he ran into a solid wall. Josiah. Vin took one step back into Buck. He started to go left, and there was JD. He was in effect, surrounded. He turned slowly around in a circle to see six men surrounding him. Vin laughed nervously, and tried one more time to get himself out of this mess.

"I think I should go to bed now. I don't feel so good." No one was moving. They had adopted Nathan's blank stare, and that made the hair on the back of Vin's neck stand on end. Every time he took a step, the circle just closed in more as the others cut off any escape route. This wasn't working, and Vin was really beginning to feel lousy. He didn't know if it was stress or if he had done too much, but he had a sick feeling growing in his stomach.

Hanging his head in defeat, Vin waited for them to do whatever they wanted. Nothing happened. He took a look at Chris from under his bowed head. Chris had that same look on his face when he'd faced Top Hat Bob. They were waiting for something, and it was driving him nuts. Finally, it dawned on Vin what they wanted. He could give it to them, or they would wait until he fell flat on his face when he really would be at their mercy.

"All right! I'm sorry. I shouldn't have come out here by myself. It was stupid. OK? Can I go in now before I fall down?"

"Oh, I bet that hurt." Buck had started laughing.

"You think we should let Brother Vin off the hook that easy?" Josiah was grinning ear to ear. He just loved getting Old Testament on people.

"I bet he's been doin' this every night while we trusted him!" JD was indignant. "You gave Nathan your word you wouldn't do anything until he said you could."

"You broke your word to Nathan?" Chris made it sound like Vin had just murdered somebody's mother or something.

"Tsk, tsk, tsk. I wonder what Mrs. Wells would say at such a blatant and calculated deception?" Ezra grinned at the prospect of who would win the encounter.

"I didn't break my word. Nathan made me promise I wouldn't do anything until he let me. He wasn't around to ask, so he let me." It didn't sound as good a plan out loud as it had the day Vin figured out the loophole.

"Oh, so that makes it all right? What if some drunk was ridin' down the street an' you couldn't move fast enough to get out of his way?"

Ezra added to Chris's tirade. "What if Nathan had been a bounty hunter? The only blanket covering you then would have been your shroud!"

"His what?" JD's righteous indignation took pause while Buck whispered to him what a shroud was. "Yeah, a shroud." He added that once he knew what it was. He was indignant once more.

Still Nathan said nothing.

Vin stood as tall as his weakening state would allow and looked the silent man right in the eye, "I am sorry I disobeyed you. I feel lousy for doin' it an' I feel even worse now cause you're right. Can I go back to bed now 'fore I do fall?"

For a minute, Vin thought Nathan wouldn't answer him, but the healer saw the tightening around Vin's lips and the look of misery combined with guilt in the tracker's eyes. "I want your word that you will not so much as lift a finger unless you ask my permission, or I will have them strip you, throw you in a cell, lock the door, and throw away the key."

"You wouldn't, they wouldn't," Vin sputtered in outrage. All he'd done was walk across the lousy street. He looked around and saw Nathan would and they would most definitely do everything Nathan promised him. Vin mumbled his acceptance of their terms.

"I didn't hear that. You hear somethin', Chris?" Buck asked.

"I heard nothin'. JD you got the keys to the jail?"

"I promise!" If the people in the hotel and the adjoining buildings weren't awake now, it certainly wasn't Vin's fault. He'd yelled his answer loud enough.

Chris wasn't through with him yet. "Can you make it back with some help, or do we need to get Josiah to carry you?"

"I can still walk!" Vin lowered his voice when he saw their faces. "I need some help, please."

As Ezra took one arm and Chris the other, Ezra paused long enough to rub salt in the wound. "Why, Mr. Tanner, you are developing manners."

"Shut the hell up, Ezra." The fight had gone out of Vin. He just wanted to make it upstairs without having to be carried. His humiliation was complete as Chris had the last laugh.

"Quit being so bull-headed, and people won't have to treat you like a kid." He laughed at the dirty look thrown his direction. "Be nice, or I'll tell Nettie all about this, and then you can let her chew on you a while." Chris smiled like he was the cat and Vin the mouse.

Even Nathan laughed at the disgruntled tracker's reply.

"Wherever did you learn such foul language, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra pretended to be shocked.

"JD, don't you listen to that." Buck pretended to put his hands over JD's ears, but the kid was laughing too much. Vin shook his head in disgust. At least no one else had witnessed his humiliation.

Vin remained silent until they reached the bedroom. Nathan motioned them to the adjoining room. "What?" Vin wanted to know what was going on. He was exhausted now, and the bed looked inviting.

"No, you don't. You're sleepin' in that room. Chris can take the other bed in there, and Ezra can stay in here. If you can get passed them, then you'll run into me or Josiah here at the doors." Buck had already pulled one of the chairs outside the door, while JD pulled the other one. "You ain't sleepin' by yourself no more until I can trust you."

They all stood watching as Vin surrendered his boots and his clothes. He crawled into the bed wearing only his underwear and pulled the covers up. Before he gave in to the fatigue, he muttered, "This bed ain't as comfortable as the other one." If he had to do what they said, he'd be damned if he'd make it easy for them. He didn't care if Nettie fussed at him or not, he was going to complain about everything until they all got so tired of hearing him they would give up and let him go. That was his new plan.

Chapter 30

So much for plans. Every time Vin complained, the others simply ignored him. If he was surly, they became polite. They wouldn't let him go any further than the parlor, and he was rarely left alone. On the third night, he was so frustrated, he took a pillow and hit Chris across the face with it. It was only eleven thirty in the evening, and the gunslinger came up swinging. Fortunately, Vin had tossed the pillow from his bed. He was angry, not insane. Larabee's swing connected with air.

"What the hell was that for?"

The unrepentant tracker was sitting propped up on top of the covers fully dressed. He had that stubborn look on his face, and Chris knew immediately Vin had decided he'd had enough.

"I want my boots, an' I want outta here now."

"And if I say no?"

"I go out the winda. I don't need my boots, an' I don't need no door. It's just that the boots will leave a better trail for old eyes, an' the door's easier for an old man like you to get through.' Vin waited for the insult to sink in. "Wouldn't want ya to fall out the winda chasin' me."

Chris looked at the tracker and carefully considered his next words. "So what you're saying is that you're leaving?"

Vin sighed in exasperation. "I just want outta here. I can't stand being cooped up. It's like I'm in jail!" The door opened and Ezra stood there half-dressed.

"Might I inquire what in the hell you two are yelling about? Some of us in this hotel are actually trying to sleep."

"I ain't yellin'. He is." Chris pointed to the tracker who had swung his legs to the floor and was facing in the direction of the window. "Say's he is goin' out the window if we don't let him through the door." He ignored the look Vin tried to burn him with.

"Indeed? Then, why did he bother to wake us if he is going out of the window?"

"Says it would be easier on us old folks to follow him if he had his boots, an' we let him out the door."

"How considerate of him. Since he is being so accommodating, what do you suggest we do, Mr. Larabee?"

Chris sighed as he reached for his pants. "I for one could use a drink."

"Well, now that you mention it, so could I. And a game of chance?"

Chris nodded yes, and Ezra disappeared into his room only to return with the rest of his clothes and Vin's boots. Chris was practically dressed before Vin got his boots on. He watched the other two warily as Chris walked to the door.

"Well, you wanted to go out. Let's go."

Vin wasn't about to let them change their minds. He hurried to the door and stood behind Chris as he opened it.

Josiah stood and looked over Chris's shoulder and raised an eyebrow in question.

"We're going to the saloon for a drink. Want to come?"

Josiah grinned and walked over to Buck who was napping outside the other door. He shook him by the shoulder and repeated Chris's invitation. Buck looked at Vin standing there looking surprised at how easy this was.

"A drink? Why don't I go ahead and tell Inez we're comin' and to give me the key so's we can close up?"

"Not necessary. I have keys." Ezra held up the keys to the saloon that he had never surrendered to his mother when she'd bought it out from under him.

"Well then, I'll get JD. What about Nathan?" Vin frowned at Buck, but Josiah winked at him.

"I think I can explain the situation to our doctor. I'll meet you boys at the saloon."

Buck and Josiah disappeared around the corner, each off to get the other members of their group. Vin looked at Chris and Ezra and sighed.

"I guess that means I don't get a drink?"

"Unless you want milk or tea?" Chris motioned the way down the hall to the stairs.

Vin got the message and followed Ezra to the stairs. "I'll drink water." He'd learned the hard way not push his luck, but his suspicions grew when Nathan arrived at the saloon. The healer was actually smiling. The card game had only just begun when it hit him.

Everyone was just too congenial. "You already told 'em to let me out today, didn't you?" He was the only one at the table not laughing.

"Well, actually, I'd a let you out yesterday if ya'd asked." Nathan grinned at him.

Vin threw his cards down and looked at all the faces looking back at him. "You mean I could've got out a that hotel yesterday if I just asked?" Nathan nodded yes. "So I can go ridin' tomorrow?"

"No!" Nathan wasn't in that good of a mood. Neither were the rest of the seven.

"I was just askin'?" He rolled his eyes when Nathan started up again. He really needed to go back to being silent. He stayed out of trouble that way.

"Don't push your luck. You can go anywhere in town where you can walk, but ridin' is out for another coupla weeks. You understand?" Nathan waited until Vin uttered a meek yes, then he sat back and looked at his cards.

Vin didn't know whether to yell, hit someone, or stalk off. Then the absolute absurdity of the situation hit him. Nathan was paying him back for sneaking behind his back. Vin started laughing and the others followed suit. 'God it was good things were back to normal, even if he was the butt of the joke this time.' They continued the card game until Vin decided he was too tired to continue. It was around two in the morning when they finally got back to the room. He was ready to fall asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow until Chris made a comment to Ezra before Chris shut the door.

"Now all we got to do is find a way to keep the twins from taking him home with 'em."

"Are they still determined to keep him?" Ezra asked.

Vin was getting very tired of the others using the twins and their obsession with keeping him as their constant source of amusement, "They ain't keepin' me!"

"Now, now, Mr. Tanner, we have no intention of allowing the twins to introduce you to San Francisco society as their pet tracker."

Vin's eyes narrowed and he looked at the vase on the table next to him and then back at Ezra. If Chris would just move a little to the right, he could nail Ezra dead on with the vase. Ezra saw immediately what he intended to do. So did Chris as he moved out of the line of fire.

Ezra smiled at Vin showing his gold tooth. "Don't throw that vase at me. You really must learn to control this temper you've developed since your unfortunate mishap." Then he swiftly put the door in Vin's way of a clear shot.

Chris laughed at the disgruntled look on Vin's face. "Don't worry, cowboy, Ezra's already workin' on a con to keep you." He kept laughing even after another pillow was launched from across the room.

"Be glad I'm too tired to take you on right now, Larabee." Vin put the remaining pillow on his bed over his head to drown out his friend's laughter. After tonight, he'd be back in his old place anyway, and he wouldn't have to put up with this nonsense any more. He dreamt of being in a large fancy room following around two little girls while everyone pointed and stared. He had to find a way to tell the twins he had no intention of being kept. Ezra had better have a really good plan.