Four men looked up from their seats on the rocks surrounding the spring as Nathan approached, their faces all deeply lined with worry. Beyond him, they could see Chris sitting at Vins side, still holding his hand, and their hearts clenched with fear.
"How is he?" Buck asked softly, startled to hear his own voice sounding so strained.
Nathan sighed and shook his head slowly. "Cant really say yet," he breathed tiredly. "Bullet missed his lung, didnt damage any a them broke ribs I got it out all right."
Buck shuddered, remembering Vins scream as Nathan had probed for the bullet. All right, hell
"But hes lost a lot of blood," the healer went on, knowing they deserved to understand exactly how things stood. "An he was already weak from not eatin, not drinkin, not sleepin." He gazed about their surroundings. "An bein up here insteada back home, in the clinic, sure don help none."
"But but hes gonna be all right, right?" JD asked nervously, staring from Buck to Nathan and back to Buck for reassurance. "I mean, hell, Vins strong, we all know that! And"
"JD, son," Buck said quietly, reaching out to place a brotherly hand on the boys shoulder, his blue eyes dark and subdued, "Vins been a lotta things these last few days, but strong aint been one of em. You saw him just before Ford shot him. He was all but droppin then. This whole mess wrung him out real good. I dont know that theres any strength left in him."
JD stared at the big man in horror, shocked to hear such words from him. Immediately, refusal to believe them rose sharply within him and he shook his head, setting his jaw stubbornly and blinking back the tears that stung his eyes. "Vins not gonna die!" he insisted, his voice shaking. "Not after all hes been through! It wouldnt be right! Youll see," he said fiercely, unable to stop a tear from sliding free, "hes gonna be just fine! Hes not gonna die. Cause that would mean Ford won!" He shoved Bucks hand off his shoulder and stood up, stalking angrily away from them.
"Speakin of Ford," Nathan said tightly as anger flared within him, "I don see him." He stared at Josiah. "Tell me yall didnt give him a decent burial."
The preacher snorted. "And waste fine words on such an unrepentant soul? Not hardly."
"Never fear, Mr. Jackson," Ezra said with a cold, thin smile, looking up from the cards he so easily manipulated with long, almost boneless fingers. "The late but certainly not lamented Sergeant Ford has been interred as suits his less than distinguished character, and with precious little exertion spent on the final disposition of his remains."
"What Ezras tryin ta say," Buck put in with a contemptuous sneer, "is that Josiah and I took the bastard and shoved his fat, dirty carcass off the edge of a cliff. And last I saw, even the buzzards were havin second thoughts about dinin on him."
Nathan smirked. "Soldiers couldnta been none too happy with that."
"No, Brother Nate, they werent," Josiah sighed, shaking his head in mock sorrow. "But we told em any grievance they had with the final arrangements could be taken up with Mr. Larabee." He grinned wickedly. "That seemed ta settle em right down."
Nathan glanced over his shoulder and sighed at the sight of the dark figure seated immovably at Vins side. "Yeah, I reckon it would," he murmured, recalling the ragged hell that had been Chris Larabees gaze as he had drawn Fords bullet from Vins chest. "Damn good thing a man cn only die once," he breathed, "or Chrisd still be shootin."
+ + + + + + +
Chris sat with Vin, his head bowed, his hand still closed about his friends. He had relinquished that hold only when Nathan had needed him to do something else and had taken it up again as soon as he could, wanting hell, needing Vin to know he was here.
He had hated every minute of helping Nathan, had hated holding Vin down while Nathan probed for and then removed that bullet, had hated hearing his friends cries, subduing his struggles, inflicting more pain and fear on a man who had already suffered far too much of both. But he had insisted on doing those things himself, would not let anyone else shoulder the burden. Vin had taken that bullet for him, was suffering in his stead. The very least he could do was swallow his own pain and give his friend what comfort he could.
He should never have turned his back on Ford
"Hell, Tanner, what were you thinkin?" he whispered harshly, staring down into the unconscious trackers bruised face. "Hadnt the bastard done enough to ya already? Whyd you have ta let him do this, as well?"
Goddamn it, Larabee, I aint here ta protect yer ass from no fuckin Comanches! Im here ta save yer blind, stupid ass from that fuckin Army asshole who wont be happy til were swimmin in our own goddamned blood!
A harsh, bitter laugh escaped him as he remembered Vins words, his warning. The only reason Vin was up here at all was because he was here, they all were. He had thrown himself back into his own blackest hell just to protect friends who had no idea what evil they had gotten themselves into. He had agreed to lead Ford on another blood-hunt knowing full well thats what he was doing, simply because he considered his friends safety more important than his own sanity.
Reckon I made me a bargain with the Devil.
"I aint so sure were worth it, pard," he murmured, bowing his head again and closing his eyes. He thought of the boy wounded in body, spirit and mind who had exiled himself from both his worlds, because he felt hed betrayed one and been betrayed by the other. "You fought long and hard to get your soul back after what happened eight years ago. I wish I could be sure were all worth the risk of losin it again."
"Yare," came the soft answer, the raspy voice little more than a breathless sigh. "Trust me yare."
Chris turned his head and opened his eyes, smiling slightly into that pained, unfocused gaze. "Sneak up on a man even when youre layin down," he scolded gently. "Aint you got no manners at all?"
Vin licked his dry lips and stared up, trying to see his friend, trying to breathe, trying not to scream. He hurt terribly, felt he could die from the pain alone. "Chris"
"Ssh, dont talk," Chris urged, leaning over him and gently brushing the sweat-damp hair back from his face. "You just rest now. Youre gonna be all right"
"Nathan aint s sure."
Chris forced himself to hold his smile, not certain Vin could see it, but not wanting to take any chances. "You know Nathan," he said. "Worries too much. But he aint lost one of us yet. Dont figure you wanta piss him off by bein the first."
Vin closed his eyes and clung to Chris with what little strength he possessed, his every muscle straining against the pain, the screams. Despite his efforts, though, a thick, wrenching cry escaped him, and he clutched with his other hand at his tortured chest, trying desperately not to breathe.
Chris clenched his jaws and suffered with Vin, holding the trackers hand tightly and leaning over him, clasping his other hand about Vins neck. "Cmon, Tanner, you gotta breathe!" he said firmly. "Bad things happen when you dont!"
"Hurts!" Vin hissed, drawing a breath unwillingly and arching his back as the pain of it sliced through him.
"Ill get Nathan"
"No!" he gasped, opening his eyes and staring up at Chris. "Only only you. Please?"
Chris swallowed and nodded. "All right. But promise me youll tell me when you need Nathan, all right? Promise me, Vin, or Ill call him now."
"I p I promise," he whispered, relaxing as the pain receded to a more bearable level. But breathing was as hard as ever, seemed to require all his concentration. "Chris?"
"Im here," Larabee assured him. "Im right here."
His eyes closed, but he forced them open again and fixed them upon the indistinct shadow that was his friend. "JD knows th way home," he rasped. "S why I picked this way." He closed his eyes and tensed, tightening his fingers about Chris, fighting against the pain that rose through him in crushing waves. "Wanted t be sure yall cd git down without me."
Pain stabbed into Chris at that and he shook his head sharply. "Youre comin down with us, Vin," he said with a quiet ferocity. "I promised you, remember? Seven of us came up, seven of us go down, and every one of us alive. I gave you my word, Vin, and I aint about ta let you make a liar outta me."
"Aint yer call"
"Goddamn it, Tanner, dont you quit on me!" Chris snarled, tightening his hold on Vins hand. "Dont you let that bastard win!" He tried not to hear his friends labored, painful breathing, tried not to see the lines of agony carved so deeply into that ashen face. "You saved Red Sticks people, you saved me, now its time you saved yourself! Youre comin home with us, Tanner, you hear me? Goddamn it, youre comin home!"
Vin stared up at Chris, gasping for breath that never fully came, consumed in that hellish pain, his strength gone. He knew Nathan wasnt sure hed make it, wasnt sure himself. Hell, he felt more than half gone already. But Chris believed. And if a man who believed in so little else believed this
But he was so tired and it hurt so
"Oh, shit Chris? I need Nathan!" he gasped, curling onto his side in agony.
"Nathan!" Chris yelled harshly, desperately. "Nathan!" As his shout echoed over the camp, he leaned close over Vin, still holding his hand and stroking his back, tortured by his soft, breathless cries as he fought just to breathe.
Within moments, the healer appeared and dropped to his knees at Vins side, across from Chris. "What happened?" he demanded more sharply than he intended.
Chris shook his head helplessly, his green eyes glittering with fear. "I dont know. Hes in a lotta pain, and hes havin trouble breathin. He was talkin"
"Well, hes gon hafta stop that!" Nathan snapped. "Its hard enough fo him ta breathe as it is without tryin ta carry on a conversation! Look in my bag there, git me the laudanum an some water." He watched Chris struggle to twist his body around and reach the bag while still holding onto Vin, and sighed sharply in vexation. "You gon hafta let go of him, Chris!" Then, at the gunfighters startled and stricken look, Nathan swallowed his anger and softened his tone. "Its all right, Chris, he aint goin nowhere. But right now he needs that laudanum moren he needs you holdin his hand. Hes wearin hissef out fightin the pain an he aint got the strength ta spare."
Chris would have argued, but another anguished cry from Vin settled the matter as nothing else could have. Releasing the trackers hand, he turned and hurriedly dug out the familiar bottle of laudanum, gave it to Nathan, then opened a canteen and poured a cup of water with shaking hands.
Jesus, he wished Ford were here right now so he could shoot him again!
Together, they got Vin up, got the laudanum and water down him, then eased him back onto his bedding. Nathan kept him on his uninjured side in the hope that taking pressure off his injured lung would help his breathing.
"Nathan?" Chris asked at last, when Vin was sleeping again.
The healer sighed heavily and wiped a hand across his forehead. "Like I said befo, looks like one a them ribs nicked his lung." He raised tired, uncertain eyes to Chris and shrugged. "An there aint nothin I cn do fo that. Itll either heal, or it wont. All we cn do is wait."
Chris slumped and bowed his head, his fear for Vin like a knife in his gut. "How did this happen, Nathan?" he asked softly, tiredly. "Why wasnt I able ta stop it?"
Nathan regarded the man with sad and gentle eyes. "I reckon cause you aint God."
Chris laughed without humor. "Buck told me the same thing."
Nathan smiled wryly. "Yeah, well, I guess ever now an then even Bucks bound ta make sense." He reached out and touched Larabees shoulder. "This aint yo fault, Chris," he said firmly. "This aint nobodys fault but Fords. Only thing you coulda done differnt was take that bullet yosef, an that woulda killed Vin sure as anything. State hes in right now, watchin you died be worse than dyin hissef."
"He aint gonna die!" Chris growled, fixing a determined stare upon the healer. "I dont care how big a hole hes got in his lung, Nathan, I told him Id get him home alive and I aim ta do just that!"
"You tol him that?"
Nathan snorted softly and shook his head. "Then I guess there aint nothin else lef ta say. Cause if you say it, Vinll blieve it. An I reckon a faith like thats bettern any medicine I got."
+ + + + + + +
That faith, though, was to be sorely tested.
Vin survived the night, much to Nathans unspoken surprise, and, with the aid of laudanum, even seemed to rest. When morning came and he seemed no worse than he had been the night before, the decision was made to start for home. It was not a decision that was made easily or that sat well with any of them, for it was only too clear how frightfully weak the tracker was. And taking a man in his condition down this mountain even along the relatively easy way he had already chosen for them and across that dry, harsh expanse back to town was not a proposition any of them relished.
But Nathan, who hated the thought as bitterly as anyone else, knew they had no choice. He simply did not have the supplies with him to care for Vin as he was and would be able to do almost nothing at all for him should his condition worsen. He needed to get the man to his clinic. Vin might well die on the way, but he would certainly die if they stayed.
In the end, as always, the decision was Chriss to make and he wasted no time making it. He had already spent more than half the night wrestling with the question, had raised and refuted all the arguments for and against, had laid it out as clear and as objectively as his tired, worried mind would allow, had forced himself to face the very real possibility that Vin might die no matter what course he chose.
But he had promised to take him home
And that promise settled the matter. With a firm voice, and showing not the slightest hesitation, he ordered them to break camp, to get ready to travel. Breakfast was made and eaten, the horses were fed and watered thoroughly, and everything was packed.
While the horses were being saddled, Nathan took a few minutes to see to Vin once more. He had already cleaned the wound, and now made sure all the bandages were secure. He wanted to make sure the injured mans ribs were wrapped tightly enough to endure the coming jostling without punching another, even larger hole into his lung, and prayed he could keep any bleeding from the bullet wound under control. He also gave Vin water and another dose of laudanum, though he knew it would not be enough to kill completely the pain the tracker would feel on the way down.
Hell, nothin was strong enough for that.
Chris brought his horse over, accompanied by Josiah, and swung up into the saddle. Vin would be riding with him, and they would alternate between Pony and Peso to keep from over-tiring either mount. The trail down would not allow a travois, and they all knew there was no way the tracker could even begin to sit a horse by himself. Chris could also make sure he drank water and could keep an eye on his injuries.
Though God alone knew what could be done if any of them broke loose
Josiah knelt down and gathered Vin into his arms, lifting him gently. With Nathans help he handed him up to Chris and the three of them got him on Pony, trying not to hear the soft cries of pain that tore from him. Only when he was satisfied that Vin was securely seated and propped against Chris did Nathan turn away and see to packing Vins bedroll and his own medical bag.
As they waited for the healer, Buck rode up to JD, who was looking all around, hazel eyes huge, and fidgeting nervously with his reins. "You all right, son?" he asked softly.
JD swallowed hard and swung his gaze around to meet Bucks. "Its just I mean Hell, Buck!" he breathed in a rush, his eyes frantic. "Vins usually the one leadin us outta places like this! But now he cant, and Ive gotta do it Vin picked this way because he knew I knew it or thought I knew it What if hes wrong?" he asked sharply, fearfully. "What if I get us all lost"
"Easy, son, just settle down," the big man soothed, moving his horse closer to the boys and reaching out, laying a comforting hand on JDs tense shoulder. "Now, I know Vin, and I know he aint in the habit of judgin a mans abilities lightly. And if he trusts you enough ta get us down, then, hell, thats good enough fer me." He held the boys gaze with his own. "Vins got faith in ya, son," he said quietly, earnestly. "And we all know Vin dont place his faith just anywhere."
JD swallowed again, struck now by another fear. "Buck, what if he doesnt Hes hurt awful bad, and its a long way home "
Buck sighed and dropped his gaze to his hands, shaking his head slowly. "I dont know, son," he murmured, unable to silence that fear in himself. "Reckon well just hafta hope fer the best, maybe do a little prayin on the way down. Might not help, but it sure as hell never hurts."
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