Just a few miles away from where Vin and Chris were trapped on the floor of the ravine, the young sheriff woke with sunlight in his eyes. After forcing his eyes open, he saw that he had slept late judging by the position of the sun. It would be so easy for him to just roll over and go back to sleep, but his friends were in trouble. With a groan, he forced himself upright and began to prepare to break camp. Who am I trying to kid? What good can I possibly be if I can hardly stay on my horse. He knew that he could go on to Eagle Bend and stay there until he felt better, but JD decided that it would be best to just head back to Four Corners. Especially since they had left the town unguarded, and Buck was gonna kill him for running around while he was sick. JD did not want to face his friend if the ladies man got back home before he did. Feeling like a failure and as much as he hated the idea, he knew that returning home was for the best. With a sigh of resignation, he cinched up the saddle and clumsily mounted his loyal horse.Before heading out of camp, JD took a couple of minutes to debate which way was the best to get home. I could go back the way I came, or I could take the shortcut over the ridge trail. It would take almost a day off my time. That makes more sense. Nodding to himself, the decision was handily made. Vin had taken him on the ridge trail once and even though he knew it was dangerous, he felt confident that he could make it, especially since his horse was a sure-footed ride. He knew that the most important thing about tackling the ridge trail was to have a horse he could count on. JD set out for the ridge knowing that everything was going to be fine.
+++++++It was just past noon when JD spotted the buzzards circling over the ravine. No...no... no! A chill shot up his spine as a fleeting picture of his two missing friends' bodies ran through his mind. Biting back his fear, he urged his horse closer to see what was going on. When he got to the spot, he pulled his horse to a halt and dismounted. He moved carefully to the edge of the ledge and looked down. "Oh no!" he moaned, as he saw the form of a dead horse. Panicked, his brown eyes swept the immediate area searching for any sign of its owner."Hello!" he yelled.
The only answer he got was the squawk of the buzzards and the echo of his own voice. He couldn't see anyone, just the carcass of the unfortunate beast. He quickly remounted his horse and hurried it along the trail, going as fast as he felt was safe.
+++++++JD could feel the weariness catching up with him and he clutched at the saddle horn with a tighter grip. He never liked to give in, no matter what, but feeling as sick as he did he knew that it was better to stop and take a rest. He wouldn't be of any help to anyone if he fell off his horse into the ravine. A movement just ahead caught his eye as he took a small sip of warm water from his canteen. As his focus sharpened, he realized that there was a horse just ahead. Another little shiver of fear raced through his body again as he nudged his heels against his horse's flanks and they moved closer to the horse.
His fear was threatening to overpower him when he got closer and recognized that it was Vin's horse, Peso that was standing in front of him. His illness forgotten momentarily, he jumped off his horse and approached the unhobbled horse cautiously. He checked area for any signs of trouble but couldn't find anything. There were no bloodstains or evidence of any sort of foul play, but Peso had obviously not been cared for in a couple days. He knew that Vin would never leave him that way, especially if he was capable of doing something about it.
Sucking in his breath in an effort to steel himself against whatever he might find, JD slowly moved to the ledge and peered down. The sight that met his eyes terrified him. The only thing his mind registered was the two unmoving forms that were lying at the bottom of the ravine.
"Chris!" he shouted. "Vin!"
Several long and tense moments passed before one of them moved.
"Chris! Vin!" he called again.
JD exhaled softly as he watched one of the forms finally move and slowly sit up. He called down once more and a smile broke across his unshaven face as he watched the man rub the side of his head as he looked up into JD's face.
"Vin! Are you okay?"
"Yeah, it's me. Are you okay?"
"What're you doin' here?"
"Vin, are you okay?"
"I thought you were sick."
Holding back the scream of frustration that threatened to erupt, JD tried again. "Are...you...okay?" he bit out one word at a time. It was obvious that the tracker was disoriented.
JD shook his head. Sure you are!
"Chris...Chris is hurt."
Great. How am I going to get them out of there?
"Is Peso still up there?"
"Okay, I'll get it."
"Use the horses... Pull us up."
"Got it. Just hang on."
As JD moved to rig the ropes, Vin leaned over Chris and lightly slapped the gunslinger on the side of his face. Larabee groaned once but didn't open his eyes.
"C'mon, Cowboy. I need ya awake. Need yer help."
"C'mon Chris, wake up." Vin slapped him a little bit harder.
"What? What is it?"
"JD's up top. He's gittin' ropes. He's gonna pull us up, but I need ya awake to do it."
"JD? JD's sick."
Vin shrugged, immediately regretting the movement as pain seared through his injured shoulder.
"C'mon Cowboy, gotta getcha closer to the wall."
Chris sat up with some help from Vin. The fiery pain blinded him and he nearly blacked out from it.
"Whoa, there. Slow Chris. Move slow."
"Vin, got it!" yelled JD. "Hey Chris, you okay?"
The gunslinger couldn't answer as he was clenching his teeth tight, trying to fight back the scream of pain that wanted out.
"JD, can you handle both horses and both ropes at the same time?"
"Let's do it."
Vin finally got Chris up and, with great pain, the twosome hobbled over to the wall.
"Comin' down!" hollered JD as he dropped the ropes down.
"Pard, this is gonna hurt like hell," said Vin apologetically as he tied the rope around Chris's chest just under his arms, "but we gotta git ya outta here."
Chris just closed his eyes for a second before nodding in response.
Vin then tied the second rope around himself as he tried to will away the pain in his shoulder. It wasn't going to be a picnic for him either.
Since there were no trees to use, JD had run the ropes around a boulder. At Vin's shouted command, he began to lead the two horses down the trail, pulling his friends up the mountainside. It was a rough ride up for the two of them, bumping and scraping injured limbs against the harsh rock surface. After what seemed like an eternity, Vin clawed his way over the top, but he just didn't have the strength to pull Chris up.
"JD! Help!" he called desperately as he clung to the gunslinger by his belt.
"Hang on!" JD ground tied the horses and scrambled back to Vin. He grabbed onto the unconscious gunslinger and together the two exhausted men hoisted him up over the edge before flopping down next to him.
JD recouped some of precious energy first and looked his two companions over carefully. He couldn't see any bullet wounds but they still looked horrible. "What happened Vin?"
Rubbing a shaky hand over his dirty face, Vin looked over at their rescuer and answered, "Long story JD." The tracker blew out a couple of quick breaths and struggled to his feet. "We gotta git Chris back to town. His leg's busted, some ribs too and maybe his shoulder."
"We can't get a wagon up here," JD replied quietly, wondering how they would get Chris home.
"Nope. He's gonna have ta ride. It's a big risk, but we ain't got no choice."
"You okay, Vin? You look like hell."
"I reckon I've been there," the tracker grinned. The smile faded as another shot of pain burned through his useless arm. "Yer gonna hafta ride with 'im, JD. I can't keep him on the horse."
"Right." JD stood up too quickly, and swayed slightly from the exertion.
"JD?" asked Vin with concern.
Yeah right, It was obvious to anyone with eyes that the kid was still sick.
The two men had to work together to get Larabee's unconscious form up on JD's horse. JD pulled him up from his position on the horse while Vin pushed from the ground. After seeing his friend safely in JD's arms, Vin stiffly moved to his horse and tried to mount up. After three tries, he finally gave up and led the horse over to a nearby boulder. He shimmied up onto the rock and then slid gratefully over onto Peso. Finally, the weary travelers set out towards home at a very slow pace.
+++++++As the three were making their slow progress towards town, four other dejected riders arrived back in Four Corners one by one. As they had gotten closer to town earlier that day, they had decided that they should split up and canvas the area. Buck had gone to check Chris's ranch while Ezra had ridden by Nettie Wells' place. Josiah stayed on the main road and Nathan had split off to go back to the Seminole Village to get JD and to see on the off chance if Vin and Chris had shown up there. Not surprisingly, none of the men had found any sign of their missing compatriots in their searches.
Buck met him at the livery when the healer rode in finally.
"Where's JD?" he demanded.
"He's not here?" Nathan was clearly surprised by the question. Rain had told him that JD left shortly after them, but she had thought he had returned to town.
Buck stalked away, using practically every curse word he knew. He walked right into Josiah without seeing the large man. After a quick review of the situation, the former preacher simply stepped back and took the words in stride.
"Dammit Josiah, It ain't bad enough that Chris and Vin are missing, but now JD? Hell, I knew I should've locked him in the jail." Buck proceeded to dismantle the old watering trough, kicking and stomping it to pieces.
"Feel better, Brother?"
"There's nothing we can do tonight," Josiah calmly said. "We'll start again at first light."
Worn out, the ladies man felt the adrenaline from his anger rush out of his body, forcing him to agree with the wise advice.
Josiah put his hand on Buck's shoulder and turned them both towards the healer. "Let's get something to eat. Come on Brother Nate."
+++++++The three men walked out of the livery and headed towards the saloon. Abruptly, Josiah stopped as something in the alley caught his eye. "Hold up." He left the other two in the street to get a closer look in the alley. He sighed as his eyes landed on the familiar red jacket. Ezra. Obviously getting a head start on them, the gambler was propped up against the wall of the saloon with a half-empty bottle clutched in one hand.
Buck followed Josiah's gaze and let out a low whistle. Aw hell. He knew that he owed the con man more than one apology for this trip, but he was surprised that the gambler was taking his worries out in a bottle. They all knew that Ezra imbibed regularly but he usually kept his wits about him. Buck stepped away from Nathan and around Josiah to quietly approach his friend.
"Ezra?" tentatively addressing the still form at his feet.
"Mr. Wilmington," Ezra drawled, "What, no sign of the young Mr. Dunne?"
Buck shook his head. Ezra threw his head back, clunking it against the wall causing Buck to wince at the hollow sound.
Ezra took another long swig from the bottle before looking up at the tall man. "I am sorry Mr. Wilmington. It appears I am a pathetic tracker and I have failed you all. Particularly Mr. Tanner and Mr. Larabee."
Buck's heart twisted at the self-condemnation he heard in the gambler's voice. "C'mon Ez. We're gonna get something to eat. We'll start lookin' again in the mornin'." He thrust out a hand for Ezra to pull himself up with. When he saw that the gambler hadn't moved an inch, he stooped down to see him eye to eye. Looking in the sad green eyes, he saw that Ezra really believed he had failed them. "Hell Ezra, nobody expected you to be able to track 'em. You did a sight better than me and I have a lot more experience on the trail 'n you."
The con man could not keep his poker face in place. The grief was clearly written on his face.
Trying again, Buck tried to reassure the suffering man that it wasn't his fault. In a soft voice he normally used to gentle green horses with, he began again, "Ez, listen to me. I'm sorry. I didn't mean none of that stuff on the trail. I was worried. Hell, I am worried and I took my fears out on you. I knew you were worried too, but you know me. Ezra, you did your best. That's all a man can ask. Now c'mon. If ya drink the rest of that you'll be worthless in the morning, and we need yer help."
Without any further hesitation, Ezra held out the nearly empty bottle to Wilmington. The ladies man handed the bottle off to Josiah as Ezra rose. The gambler stumbled and would have lost his balance if it hadn't been for Buck grabbing onto his upper left arm to steady him.
"Uhhh!" Ezra gasped as his knees buckled with the pain that had been inadvertently caused to his arm. Buck quickly released his grip on the arm, managing to keep the slightly inebriated man from falling back to the ground.
"Ezra, what's wrong?" worriedly asked Nathan as he stepped closer for a look.
"I'm fine," the Southerner slurred.
Nathan wanted to scream in frustration. That's all any of these guys ever said when they were hurt or sick. 'I'm fine'. Two words that the healer had come to hate spoken. He swallowed his anger knowing from past experience that it would just push the con man away.
"What's wrong with your arm?" he asked again.
Ezra sighed in defeat. It was too late to hide it and he was too damn tired and maybe too drunk to fight with the man. "I think " he paused, rubbing his eyes with his right hand as he fought to remember what he was talking about. "That's right I think the wound is infected."
Nathan tried to keep from grinning at the rapidly deteriorating gambler. "Let's go up to the clinic, Ezra. I'll take a look."
Nathan swiftly guided Ezra over to the clinic where he cleaned and rebandaged the wound. He put the con man to bed on the clinic's cot and left to joined Buck and Josiah for dinner at the saloon. After their meal, the tired men headed directly for bed. It would be another night of restless sleep for the three, worry for their now three missing friends playing on their minds. Dawn would again come too soon.
FIVEJD could feel Larabee burning up in his arms. The gunslinger had been unconscious for a couple hours and his dead weight was threatening to pull JD right off the horse. They had stopped long enough for JD to tie Chris's hands to the saddle horn to help keep him from falling off. The three men had cleared the end of the ravine and were finally on flatter terrain. After several miles, JD had considered asking Vin to stop for a few minutes. His head was pounding mercilessly and every bit of water he drank threatened to come right back up but he decided to keep pushing through. He figured that if they stopped to rest that neither he nor Vin could get the gunslinger back on the horse.
Glancing ahead at the buckskin coat, JD saw that Vin wasn't looking too good either. The tracker was swaying slightly in his saddle and JD knew that he couldn't reach him in time. Even if he did, he couldn't have prevented Vin from sliding off of Peso and landing on the hard packed soil with a bone jarring thud.
JD's heart sank. It would have been hard enough to handle these two when he was healthy, but here he was as sick as a dog. He doubted he had the strength to get Vin back up on Peso, much less make sure that he stayed there. The sheriff pulled up next to Vin's unconscious body, making sure that Chris was lying forward on the horse's neck and not in danger of falling off before he dismounted and knelt next to Tanner.
"Vin?" JD called, shaking his good shoulder. When the tracker didn't respond to his soft plea, he looked closer at his friend. "Aw hell!" said JD, as he caught sight of the fresh blood. Vin must of hit his head on a rock when he fell. The kid snatched his bandana out of his back pocket and used it to apply pressure to the wound. When Vin didn't even flinch at the increased pressure to his head, JD looked up at the stars, as if seeking divine guidance.
"What more do you want from me?" he yelled in frustration at the dark sky.
What am I going to do? How the hell am I going to get him back on the horse? The sheriff frantically searched the area and caught sight of a boulder outcrop back down the trail a ways. He sighed as he took a hold of Vin under his arms and began to drag him back to the boulder. With a lot of grunting and groaning he got them both to his destination. JD slid down beside his friend to rest for a minute and collect his thoughts. Vin wasn't as big of a man as Chris or Buck, but with as weak as JD was, it felt like he was dragging a horse. Horse, JD. Go get the horse.
JD plodded back and led Peso back to where Vin was. After getting the animal to stand by the outcrop, he fought and struggled until he got Vin up on the rock. I'm glad he's still out. He'd be plenty mad at all this banging and prodding. He hoped Peso would stand for the next part of this operation. JD slid off the rock onto the waiting horse and then pulled Tanner down onto the animal. Vin nearly slid off the other side but Peso side-stepped underneath the added weight as if he understood that Vin would fall. "Good boy!" JD praised. Carefully he tied Vin's hands to the saddle horn and his feet in the stirrups. After wiping the sweat off his forehead, he took up Peso's reins and ponied Vin back to where Chris was.
JD looped the ends of Peso's reins through the small rope that held his bedroll on his saddle. Then, he rechecked the ropes that bound Chris' hands to his saddle horn. As he started to climb back up on his horse, he lost his balance and fell ungracefully on his back, knocking the wind out of himself. He found himself staring up at the brilliant stars in the sky as other stars danced around inside his aching head. C'mon JD. If ya don't git up now, you won't get up at all. The kid forced himself to his feet, and he tried again, this time with success. With a brief smile at his small success, he settled on his horse and called out to her, "Let's go, girl."
+++++++Buck and the other three had their horses saddled and were ready to ride out as the sun began to crest the horizon the next morning. Each man had already been given his own assignment. Looking up through bleary eyes, Ezra saw two horses coming into town at an odd pace, almost meandering as if unguided. "Buck..." he gasped as he reached out blindly to get the other's attention.
The tall ladies man looked over his shoulder at the gambler and saw the look of shock on his face. When he turned completely around to see what he was staring at, his mouth opened to speak but nothing would come out. All his mind could focus on was the sight of JD's and Vin's horses caring two, no, make that three riders. Buck quickly snapped out of his shock and his feet found themselves as he began to run towards the riders.
"Lord, help 'em," whispered Josiah, as he and the others hurried after Buck.
"JD!" yelled Buck as he reached them.
JD jerked and raised his head from the pillow it had made on Chris's back. He looked around but couldn't seem to focus on anything. Buck ripped the ties from JD's legs that were holding him in the stirrups. From the looks of things, the kid had somehow tied himself on the horse.
"It's all right, Kid. You're home now. Ole Buck has gotcha." He pulled JD into his arms, frightened by the heat that was radiating off of his sweat drenched body. When Buck shifted him slightly in his arms, the kid opened his eyes briefly and turned his head to rest against Buck's shoulder. Seeing that Josiah, Nathan and Ezra were working to get Chris and Vin off of the horses, Buck headed towards the clinic holding his precious cargo tightly against his hammering heart.
Josiah grabbed a hold of the trailing reins as Nathan reached up to check for a pulse on Chris's neck. Meanwhile, Ezra moved quickly to assist with the tracker. Together, Josiah and Ezra led the lathering horses over next to the stairs of the clinic and tied them to a post. Nathan carefully untied Chris' hands and ran his hands gently down his sides. He had seen the splinted leg, but he didn't know what else was injured.
"I got him, Brother Nate," offered Josiah. Nathan helped ease the gunslinger into the open arms of the preacher.
Satisfied that Chris was safe for the moment, he moved to help Ezra with Vin. The ex-buffalo hunter had a piece of cloth tied around his head and he was covered with various scrapes, cuts and bruises. "Ezra, ease him down. We'll carry him up together."
The two men carried Vin up the rickety stairs and eased him down on the empty cot. Ezra glanced up and saw that Chris' unconscious form already occupied the bed. Buck was still holding JD in his arms as Nathan began to work on his friends.
+++++++It was almost noon before Nathan and Josiah came out on the porch to join Buck and Ezra. The dark-skinned healer sat down wearily on the wooden bench and leaned his head in the cup of his hands.
"Well?" asked Buck
"JD's pretty sick, Buck. We gotta get him drinkin' some and he needs to rest. Lots of it. He's plumb worn out. If we can get that fever ta break, he'll be ok."
"I gotta tell you, I never seen two people so banged up. Chris has got a broken leg. Looks like someone did a good job settin' it for him though. He's got five busted ribs. He's real lucky he didn't puncture a lung with all that ridin'. His collarbone's broke an' he's got some infection in the cuts. An' he's got a fever."
Nathan paused, stretching his arms above his head before reaching back to gently massage the back of his neck with both hands. He sighed and then continued with his report.
"Vin's got a concussion and he dislocated his shoulder. The boy's all scrapes and bruises." Nathan motioned to his left hip, "He's got a huge bruise covering most of his hip. Cleaned him up the best I could, but some of them scrapes just gotta heal on their own."
"Will they be ok?" Buck persisted.
"I hope so Buck. It's just gonna take some time. I'm gonna need every one a yas help. I can't take care of all of 'em by m'self."
+++++++Buck was torn. He didn't know whether to stay with JD or Chris. They had moved JD next door into Nathan's private quarters since both the cot and the bed that were in the clinic were occupied. Nathan wanted to keep JD off on his own in the hopes that Chris and Vin wouldn't pick up whatever he had. He feared that it might be influenza. The kid was having a hard enough time battling it, but if Vin or Chris got sick from it, as weak as they were, they might not survive.
The responsibility of watching over the town rotated between Josiah, Ezra and Buck. Nathan needed to be with his patients full time. Mrs. Potter, Inez, and Mary Travis were recruited to help out with the threesome so that Nathan could take some small breaks. Nettie Wells and her niece, Casey, had come in to town after Ezra's visit to their ranch, and quickly volunteered to help as well.
The first two days were especially grueling for them all. Chris and JD's fevers were dangerously high and someone had to be with them constantly, wiping them down with cool water. Mrs. Potter offered to sit with JD as she had taken a liking to the young man and enjoyed dotting on him. Casey had been disappointed with the arrangement as she would have liked to have been the one to sit with JD. She really cared for the young sheriff a lot, but her Aunt Nettie had convinced her that she would be of more help watching over Billy Travis and Mrs. Potter's young children. This way their mothers could help out without worrying about their little ones. Casey wasn't fooled. She knew Aunt Nettie didn't want her in such an intimate situation with JD. Aunt Nettie always thought she still had some more growing up to do first.
Mary Travis sat with Chris for many long hours while Nettie sat across the small room at Vin's bedside. Nettie loved the tracker like he was one of her own. She knew he thought of her like a mother because he had told her once that she reminded him of his ma. She smiled when she saw his eyelids begin to flutter back to life. She reached for the empty bowl that was sitting on the nightstand next to her.
"I think he's waking up Mr. Jackson. Thought I should be prepared, just in case he has a concussion and his stomach ain't settin' right." Nathan nodded to her and approached the cot.
"Vin? Can you hear me?" He waited for several moments and his patience was rewarded finally when a pair of blue eyes flickered open. "Hey there Vin. How are ya feeling?"
Vin blinked a few times, trying to clear his head. Where am I? What happened? Chris! Where's Chris? Nettie and Nathan were both intently watching the younger man and saw the fear cross his face. Nathan held him down on the cot before he could try to sit up.
"Chris?" he hissed.
"He's on the bed over there. Pretty banged up, but I think he'll be okay."
"In my bed. He's pretty sick, Vin. Might have influenza."
Vin's eyes widened at the silent implication. "He ain't gonna..." He couldn't make himself say the word. JD couldn't die, he just couldn't.
Nathan shrugged. "I don't know Vin, we just have to wait and see," he answered honestly. "Now, how do you feel, and don't you dare tell me, 'fine'."
"My head hurts some."
"Did I break my arm?" asked the tracker as he looked at the sling that held his arm.
"No. Dislocated yer shoulder. It's gonna be pretty sore for a while. Don't want ya usin' it, ya hear me?" Nathan scolded.
Vin nodded briefly. He then closed his eyes tightly as the pain in his head announced itself to him again.
The healer's voice was much softer, "I'll get you some tea. You feelin' sick to yer stomach?"
"Jest a mite."
"I'll get ya something for that too." Nathan moved over to the kettle of hot water and began to mix the necessary herbs.
Vin looked up at Nettie. She was a tough old woman, but right now there was a bit of fear in her wise eyes. Vin smiled up at her and she leaned in close and whispered, "Ya scared me, son."
He took her hand and squeezed it. "Thanks for watchin' out fer me, Miss Nettie. I'm real sorry I gave ya a fright."
"Here ya go, Vin. Ma'am, would you mind holdin' this?" Nathan asked as he held out the cup to Nettie. She took it while Nathan helped Vin to sit up, propping pillows behind him. When he was comfortably settled, Nettie held the hot mug while Vin slowly drank the tea.
Buck blew in the door, "How are they...hey, you're awake!"
Vin grinned at the boisterous ladies man. And he wonders where JD gets it?
"What the hell happened to you out there? Did the Noble gang catch up to you?"
"Long story, Bucklin."
"I got time."
Vin could see Buck that wouldn't settle for anything less than the whole story, so he settled back against the pillows and began to tell the tale. "Well Bucklin, we decided to take a shortcut home..."
As the injured threesome was recovering in Four Corners, Denny Noble stood at the side of the road headed toward Yuma surrounded by the bodies of several dead lawmen. He flipped over the body of the dead marshal who was lying at his feet with the toe of his boot so the lifeless eyes were no longer staring at him.
"Took ya long enough. Where the hell have you boys been?"
"We had to regroup. Them lawmen in that town shot us up purty good," answered Cleatus Johnson, Noble's second in command.
Denny glared at him. "We got some ridin' to do boys."
"Where're we headed boss?"
"We got some payback to do. You don't like it, you can join these here fellas in their graves."
Cleatus shook his head. Noble was crazy to head back there, but he was willing to take the chance. Besides, he didn't want to die at Noble's hand so he'd play along. 'sides, it might be fun to get even.
The room was draped in the dark shadows of early evening. Nathan had kept a lamp burning low, casting a warm glow over the unconscious man in the clinic's only bed. Nathan had finally given in to his tired body's demands and fell asleep in a chair at the head of Chris's bed. The ladies had left earlier to get some well-deserved rest leaving the three men alone for the first time in days. Vin kept a quiet vigil over the two from his cot, unaware of the trouble that was headed their way in the form of Denny Noble and his gang.
Nathan had said it was only a matter of time until Chris's fever broke, so Vin waited for his friend to wake up. Now that they were safely back home, he threw away his initial irritation he had been feeling toward the gunslinger for his costly decision on that fateful day. After giving the situation more thought, he came to the conclusion that while it may have been Chris's choice to take the trail, the tracker hadn't been forced to go along if he hadn't wanted to. It wasn't Chris's fault they had been injured. It had just been a stupid accident that could have happened to anyone. Knowing Larabee as well as he did, Vin knew that it would be what Ezra would term a 'safe bet' that Larabee would try to claim total responsibility. His friend would feel guilty about the whole fiasco and blame himself. Staring at his friend's still body, a slow smile spread across Vin's face. He'd make sure that Chris would know he didn't blame him, but that didn't mean he couldn't have some fun at their leader's expense first. As he sat there plotting how he would get even with Larabee, he finally heard the sound he had been longing for. A dry, scratchy whisper floated across the room from the man in question.
Nathan jerked awake at the sound of Vin's voice. Blinking his eyes quickly, the healer looked over at Chris and saw that he was finally awake. Feeling the gunslinger's forehead, he announced with relief, "Fever's broke. How ya feeling?"
When he saw Chris trying to swallow in a futile effort to produce enough saliva to talk, Nathan raised his head enough to take a sip of tea. Chris grimaced at the taste, but gratefully swallowed the soothing liquid.
"Vin?" he croaked.
"Hold on there now, Vin," said Nathan as he caught the tracker trying to get out of bed from the corner of his eye. "I reckon I'd rethink that idea iffen I was you." He watched as the Texan paused, unsure of what Nathan was getting at. "Miss Nettie will be here any minute. If ya bothered to check, ya'd find she'll come in and see ya in nuthin' but that there sling."
His words had the desired effect. The tracker froze for a minute before he checked under the blanket. "Aw hell, Nathan, whatya do with my clothes?"
Nathan's attention was drawn away from the tracker as he heard a strange sound. He looked back at Larabee who had a huge grin plastered on his face. The sound, kind of a "huh-huh" whisper of air, was coming from Chris. The man was laughing at his friend's predicament.
Nathan winked at Chris as he replied to Vin, "You'll get 'em back when I think yer ready to be up." Nathan joined in Chris's fun as they both laughed at the shy Texan. He didn't understand how the tracker could be so modest. He knew that from the many times he had taken care of the various injuries that Tanner had garnered over the past couple of years, that boy was tanned on every inch of his body. It made a person wonder what he did when he was alone out there in the wilderness. Nathan knew Vin had grown up without family, living much of his youth with the Kiowa and Comanche tribes. He was curious just how much of the wild and free boy still existed in the young man.
Nathan's silent musings were interrupted when Larabee coughed. He mentally shook the cobwebs away and turned his attention back to Chris, checking his handiwork.
The next time Chris woke he heard voices talking quietly in the small room. He looked over to Vin and saw the tracker sitting up in bed, propped up by pillows talking quietly with Buck, Ezra, Nathan and Josiah. Something was obviously going on.
"Chris, hey, you're awake!" called Buck with a big grin. It was the first time Chris had been awake when Buck was in the room. Wilmington had been spending most of his time with JD who was on the road to recovery finally.
"Yeah, I'm awake. What's wrong?"
Josiah took it upon himself to deliver the news. "Chris, we got a wire from Judge Travis. It seems that Denny Noble has escaped. His gang ambushed the prison wagon and killed four good men. One of them lived long enough to tell a rancher who was passing by that Noble is headed to Four Corners."
"We better get ready," said Chris, struggling to sit up.
"Hold it! You ain't goin' nowhere," stormed Nathan.
"I'm not going to lie here in bed while Noble tears up this town," Chris growled.
"That's exactly what you're gonna do," said Buck.
"No way, Buck. Noble's got at least eight men against the four of you, and that's only if he didn't pick up reinforcements."
"Yep. That's why we're gonna put word out you all are up here unprotected."
A feral smile came across Chris' face as he recognized the plan and he nodded in agreement. He would be the bait for the trap that would catch Denny Noble.
The men busied themselves preparing for Noble's arrival. JD was moved in with Chris and Vin. The young sheriff was feeling better, but was still pretty weak. The others went out to prepare the town, leaving Chris, Vin and JD alone in the clinic. Between JD and Vin, Chris was wrangled out of bed and into a chair that was hidden in the shadows behind the door. Then, the two stuffed the pillows under the blankets on the bed and the cot. JD lowered the wick in the oil lamp and smiled in satisfaction. In the dim light it looked like there was someone in the bed.
Vin moved over to the window and looked up. "JD, you wanna give me a hand here?"
"What are you doing?" growled Larabee.
Vin grinned insolently at his friend as he said, "Gimme a boost."
"Vin Tanner, don't you dare!" Chris threatened. The damn tracker had a love for high places, but with his injured shoulder it was a fool's move to climb onto the roof.
JD used what little energy he had left to push the tracker's behind a little higher as Vin grabbed the roof, pulling himself up with his good arm.
"Pass me up my rifle, JD."
JD did as requested, and turned to see Larabee glaring at him. He shrugged sheepishly and moved over into the shadows with Chris.
As the peacekeepers prepared for the coming trouble, Noble's spy returned to their camp outside of town with his report.
"They only got four men, boss. The other three are injured," reported Cleatus.
"Larabee and Tanner are alone in the clinic. That kid sheriff is in the room next door."
Denny Noble smiled. "We take them first. I owe 'em. Move out!"
The door to the clinic burst open as three men rushed in and began shooting the bodies on the beds.
"Wrong," said Chris. The outlaws turned towards the voice as Chris and JD shot the intruders dead.
They heard the bark of Vin's rifle from the roof as gunfire erupted on the street. Chris dropped himself awkwardly to the floor from the chair and crawled towards to the door. JD followed close behind him, guarding his back. They made their way to the balcony and joined the battle. With their entire focus on the street below them, they didn't see the man coming out of Nathan's room behind them.
"Chris, look out!" yelled Buck from the street below, exposing himself as he took out the threat. Chris and JD returned the favor by shooting the man advancing on Buck.
Ezra found himself pinned down in a crossfire between two of Noble's men. Seeing the gambler's predicament, Josiah and Nathan eliminated both of the gunmen while Ezra took down Noble who had been approaching from behind Josiah. As Ezra's last shot rang out, the dusty street fell silent.
"Everyone okay?" called Nathan.
Chris released the breath he had been holding once he heard the all clear from the three peacekeepers on the street.
"We'll take care of things down here," Josiah said. "Ezra, why don't you give Brother Nathan a hand with the others upstairs?"
Ezra and Nathan made their way up the stairs to find Chris and JD still lying on the balcony.
"You two all right?" asked Nathan.
"I'm okay," said JD.
Ezra moved cautiously inside and checked the bodies. "Remind me not to anger you when either of you are injured, Mr. Larabee. Mr. Dunne."
Nathan looked at him curiously.
"They are quite dead, Mr. Jackson."
Nathan nodded, "Help me get these two inside, would ya?"
"Certainly, Mr. Jackson."
They carefully carried Chris back to his bed and JD shuffled slowly behind. Some of Chris's cuts were bleeding again, and Nathan set to work cleaning him up. JD sat quietly on the cot and watched.
Buck and Josiah came back in the clinic and removed the dead bodies from the small room. The former preacher absently noted the condition of the broken door. He figured that he would fix it for the healer the next day.
"Everybody okay?" asked Buck.
"Yeah. Chris just broke open a few cuts with all that moving around," replied Nathan as he continued to work.
As the room quieted again, a frown crossed the gambler's face. He anxiously looked around the room searching for something.
"Ezra?" asked Buck, noticing the con man's agitation.
"Good Lord! Where is Mr. Tanner?"
"Roof," said Chris and JD at the same time.
Before anyone could say anything, Ezra was out the window and up on the roof.
"Mr. Tanner? ...Vin?" Ezra could see his friend lying flat on his back on the roof. As he crawled closer to where the tracker was, he called out softly, "Vin?"
"Nathan's gonna kill me," the tracker responded in a whisper.
"What is wrong, Mr. Tan...Vin?" Ezra asked, noting the tears of pain that were running down Vin's face.
"Slipped. Caught myself with my bad arm. I think I dislocated it again."
Ezra winced, "I know from personal experience how painful that can be."
"Shall we extricate ourselves from this place?"
"If that means should we git down then yeah."
Ezra carefully guided Vin over to the edge of the roof and called down through the open window, "Hello?"
Buck poked his head out and looked up, smiling as his eyes came to rest on the gambler and the tracker.
"We could use a hand, Mr. Wilmington." Ezra handed Vin's rifle to Buck who then passed it off to Josiah and returned to the window.
"Watch Mr. Tanner's shoulder," Ezra warned as he helped lower Vin into Buck's outstretched arms.
Vin slid off the edge of the roof with Ezra holding his good arm and Buck grabbed onto his legs. Once Vin was clear of the window, Ezra adeptly grabbed the edge of the roof and swung himself into the room.
It was just past noon the next day when the all too familiar words began to fill the clinic.
"Dammit Nathan, ya gotta let me outta here."
"Watch your language young man!" scolded Nettie.
"Sorry, ma'am," said Vin sheepishly. "C'mon Nathan, let me out."
Vin sighed as he glanced over at Larabee. The tracker's plans of having fun while giving Larabee a hard time had literally gone 'out the window' when the Texan pulled his own foolish maneuver climbing up on the roof during the shootout.
"Are you gonna keep on glaring at me all day?" the tracker snarled. Vin was edgy. He hated being caged up inside a building for too long, and on top of that he knew Chris was angry with him.
"That was a damn fool stunt you pulled. You could've got yourself killed," growled Chris.
"Yeah, like you couldn't, lying out there on the balcony?"
"I didn't climb on a roof with a bad arm!"
"Nah. Ya jest laid out there in the wide open...Ya couldn't even crawl out of the way!"
The other five men and Nettie Wells sat back to watch the two men's verbal sparring match. JD sat in a chair with a grin on his face. He was free from the clinic and was enjoying the show. Buck stood next to the young sheriff. The ladies man kept one hand over his mouth trying to hide his smile. Ezra shook his head as he came to the conclusion that these two were almost as entertaining as Buck and JD when they bantered. Nathan took it as a good sign, that they were both on the mend. Unfortunately their bickering meant a lot more headaches for him. Josiah stood next to the healer and squeezed Nathan's shoulder in support for what he would be facing for the next few days.
"I told you not to go up there."
"Ya ain't got no call ta tell me what ta do! Ya ain't my pa and ya ain't my boss. I don't know why I even listen ta ya. Look where it got me..."
The smiles faded from the faces of the others. The two were past bickering. They were getting personal.
"I...I..." Chris stammered and then fell silent. His anger at the tracker's foolish stunt faded quickly as the guilt of the consequences of his own blunder overwhelmed him.
"Ya made a fool choice, Larabee, and it almost got us killed."
Vin closed his eyes. He didn't mean to go there. He didn't blame Chris for his injuries, but darn it, the man was getting on his nerves. He slowly opened his eyes and looked at the guilt-ridden face of his friend. Aw, hell! So much for trying to get even.
"I'm sorry, Chris."
Chris found the words, but they were extra hard to say with a roomful of people. "No, Vin. I'm sorry. I should have never made you take the shortcut."
"Ya didn't make me do nuthin'."
"No. I didn't listen to you. You were right. It was too dangerous. It's my fault. I'm sorry I made you take the trail."
There were the words again. The tracker fumed at Chris's thinking that he controlled Vin's choices.
"I'm really sorry you got hurt because of my stupidity. I wish I hadn't made you..."
"Dammit Larabee!" Vin jerked himself up and put his feet on the floor. "Don't you git it?" he yelled. "You don't make me do nuthin' I don't wanna do. Iffen I didn't want ta go with ya, I wouldn't. And iffen I hadn't then I wouldn'ta been there to save yer sorry butt."
Vin glared at each of his friends as he heard the snickers that they were all trying desperately to keep inside. When he turned back to Chris, he saw that the guilt that had been on Larabee's face had been replaced with a devilish grin.
"What the hell is so funny?" he stormed.
"Mr. Tanner, umm..." Ezra fought to be serious, "umm, speaking of posteriors, I believe yours is..."
Vin looked down and suddenly realized that the blanket that had been covering him had slipped to the floor when he sat up. The mortified tracker blushed, as he grabbed the blanket and quickly covered himself as the guys burst into loud laughter. Vin closed his eyes wishing he could disappear. Nettie was standing right there...
He cracked opened his eyes when he felt the blanket being tucked tighter around him and Nettie kissed him on the cheek. "I think I'll take my leave now, son..." The blushing was renewed at Nettie's words. She had seen everything.
Nettie muttered something as she walked past Nathan on her way out the door. The healer stared after the woman for a moment before a grin slowly came to his face.
Curious, JD asked, "What'd she say, Nathan?"
The dark-skinned healer took a breath and opened his mouth to speak. He shook his head and began to laugh. It started out as just a chuckle, but evolved into a full belly laugh. He just couldn't control himself any longer. Everyone except for Vin joined in, unable to resist Nathan's infectious mirth. Vin sat quietly on the cot, totally humiliated.
"C'mon, Nathan, what'd she say?" begged JD in between chuckles.
Nathan wiped his teary eyes, and finally gasped out... "She said that his butt's browner than me."
The laughter rolled around the room again as Vin groaned and pulled the blanket up over his head.
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