Chris looked up at Nathan and Josiah. "Move fast, boys." It was an order, not a request. The faster they moved, the sooner the pain would cease.
Josiah nodded and placed his hands on the release mechanisms. "On three," Josiah instructed. "One." Josiah wondered if he could actually do this. He knew he would, there was no choice, but to force pain on one of his closest friends...'God,' he thought. 'What do you want from me?' He continued the countdown. "Two."
Nathan gripped Vin's leg, one hand on top of his knee, the other just above the area where the trap's teeth had entered behind the leg. He shut his eyes for a moment, bracing himself for the agonized scream that would soon follow.
Chris and Josiah exchanged glances. The gunslinger glared at the preacher and for the first time the larger man received a silent communication from his friend. 'You have to!'
Josiah gripped the release mechanism. "THREE!" He released the trap.
Vin's scream filled the air as he writhed in Chris' hold. Chris tightened his embrace, clenching his eyes shut. He put his forehead to Vin's temple. "Easy, Vin, easy, easy, easy. Just hold on."
Nathan pulled his leg out and Josiah let the trap go. He threw it aside in disgust. "Damn bastard that laid these things!" he swore. "He's just damn lucky he's not within arms reach of me!"
Vin's screams died down to sobbing as he gripped Chris' arm. "Sorry, Chris, I'm sorry."
Chris continued to hold him tightly. "No, Vin. Don't be sorry. You just stay with me, now, all right?" He pulled Vin closer to him, whispering in his ear. "Just stay with us, now. We've got you."
"It's not over, yet," Nathan said as he pulled a knife from its sheath on his back. "We've got to cut his boot away and start cleaning these wounds. We're also going to have to elevate his foot as much as possible on the way back."
"He can ride in front of me with his leg wrapped around the saddle horn," Chris said. From the tone of his voice, neither of the other two men were going to argue with him. A man and his best friend are not easily parted.
Nathan nodded. "That'll have to do. Josiah, I'm going to need you to lift his leg for me so I can get the punctures underneath."
"Just tell me what to do, Nathan."
"While I cut away his boot, get into my kit and pull out the carbolic and some bandages. It's the best we can do for him until we can get him back to the clinic."
Josiah got to his feet and went to the kit. Nathan started cutting away Vin 's boot.
"What can I do, Nathan?" Chris asked.
Nathan looked at him holding Vin and smiled. "You're all ready doing it. Just keep him calm."
Chris looked down at Vin's eyes and noticed the droopy eyelids. "Laudanum's taking effect."
"Good. It's not much but it's all we've got for him now."
"Here, Vin. I'm here."
"He...left me here."
"Who did? Who left you?"
"Trap...per. Left me...here...to die." Vin's head lolled against Chris' shoulder as he passed out.
Chris clenched his fists, trying to suppress the rage that was threatening to take hold of him. He looked up at Josiah who gazed down at Vin in shock. "By all that's holy," the preacher said with disbelief. "What kind of man would leave Vin out here to die like this?"
Chris glared at him and replied through gritted teeth. "A dead man."
+ + + + + + +
As Chris continued to hold Vin, Josiah lifted Vin's right leg as Nathan poured carbolic over the punctures. He took bandages and doused them with the liquid then applied them to the wounds under the leg. He then began to wrap the leg as tightly but as gently as he could.
"Can you save his leg, Nathan?" Chris asked, his voice was taught, but there was an edge of fear to the tone. He had seen the foot and the wounds. He knew what could happen.
Nathan looked at him somberly. "I ain't gonna lie to you, Chris. It looks bad. I just ain't gonna be completely sure until we get him back to the clinic."
Nathan's tone and eyes expressed the truth of it all and Chris nodded once in acceptance of this news.
Josiah looked around. "Chris?"
"That coyote that led us here...where is he?"
Chris also took a good look around. The coyote was gone. "Damned if I know, Josiah."
"That should do it," Nathan said as he finished tying off the bandages and packed away his supplies.
Josiah went to Vin's other side. Chris looked up at him, unwilling to let go his hold. "We have to take him now, Chris," the preacher explained, gently. Chris reluctantly nodded as he helped lift Vin to where the large man could carry him in his arms. "I'll hold his leg up as we walk," Chris said. He went to Vin's leg and lifted it with one hand just above the top of the bandages. "Let's head out."
Following the trail Josiah had laid with the branch, the three started their trek back to the horses.
As they walked, Chris kept his eyes on Vin's sleeping face. The tracker was sweating profusely. "Nathan, dowse a cloth with water and give it to me."
Nathan took his canteen and removed a cloth from his medical bag. He poured water over it and handed it to Chris. Chris took the cloth and let Vin's leg go, walking around to his head he began to wipe the sweat off of the pale face. All this was done as they walked. "Getting tired, Josiah?" Nathan asked.
"No, Brother. The burden is light."
Chris continued to wash Vin's face and forehead. He kept his focus on the task at hand, forcing his worry down. 'Hang on, Vin,' he silently pleaded. 'Don't you give up.' He had seen blood poisoning take hold of limbs before. Those limbs had been cut off to save the lives of those afflicted. Vin would not survive the amputation of his leg. Maybe physically, yes, but his spirit would die. 'No,' Chris chastised himself. 'Don't think about that possibility. There's still a chance, damn it. Still a chance!'
Vin moaned as if hearing the thoughts in Chris' mind. "Chris?"
"Here, Vin," Chris whispered. "We're on our way back. Just rest."
Vin slipped back into unconsciousness, resting his head against Josiah's chest.
The preacher looked at Chris and saw in his friend's eyes the darkness that haunted his soul. "You know Nathan will do everything he can, Chris."
Chris lifted his gaze to Josiah's and nodded once. He said nothing. He rested the cloth over Vin's forehead and returned to his leg, lifting it up. He kept his eyes on the path before them, only diverting his gaze every once in awhile to examine Vin's face. He did not want to look at the leg. He did not want to see the threat that was lying in wait. For if he *did* see it, then he would be faced with a decision, a decision he wasn't sure he had the strength to make.
+ + + + + + +
The three men kept to the cleared path the branch had made as they returned to their horses. By the time they reached the horses the sun was about ready to set. "We ride in the dark. Vin needs attention now. I'm not going to wait." Chris mounted his horse and Josiah lifted Vin up to him. They positioned Vin to where he sat with his back to Chris and Josiah draped the wounded leg around the saddle horn.
Two hours into their journey, Vin awoke with a moan. Chris had kept his arm around Vin's torso all the way. He tightened his hold. "Easy, Vin, easy."
Vin slowly opened his eyes. The effects of the laudanum were still apparent in his speech as he rested his head back against Chris' shoulder. "Chris?"
"Yeah, Cowboy. Welcome back."
"Where...where am I?"
"On my horse with me. Josiah and Nathan are with us and we're heading back to town."
Vin's head lowered. "Ya' came fer me?"
"Course we did. Ya' didn't think we'd leave ya' out there did ya'?" Nathan asked.
"Didn't want ya' to come."
"And why the hell not?" Chris asked. "You were worried about the traps weren't you?"
"Bastard," Vin spoke out softly, but there was a force behind the word. "Set those traps all over. He said...y'all would get caught...if ya' tried to search."
Chris shut his eyes. The trapper had taunted Vin while he lay there suffering. He forced his anger back, knowing Vin would sense it, even in his weakened state. He would think about the trapper scum later, and how he would rip the man limb from limb. Right now, his only concern was getting Vin the help he needed. He opened his eyes and looked down at his friend. "Well, we didn't, Vin," he assured. "That bastard didn't know who he was messin' with."
"That's right, Vin," Nathan said. "Josiah found a big stick and we just cleared a path. Would never have found you if it hadn't been for your friend fetchin' us."
"Friend?" Vin lifted his head wearily to look at Nathan, or at least to look in his direction. It was hard to see anything in this dark.
"That coyote of yours."
"Coyote," Vin sounded weak, disoriented. "Thought...he was a dream."
Josiah remembered they had not seen hide nor hair of that coyote after he had led them to Vin. "If he was a dream, Vin, it sure as hell was a real one."
Vin rested his head back against Chris' shoulder. "Thirsty," he said.
"Hold up, Josiah," Chris said as he pulled his horse to a stop.
The larger man stopped his horse and looked back at Chris. "He all right?"
Chris nodded. "Just thirsty." He looked over at Nathan. "Give me your canteen."
Nathan handed it over to him and Chris removed the cork. He held the canteen to Vin's lips and helped ease his head back further to drink. "Just a little bit, Vin. Don't need you puking all over me and my horse."
When Vin didn't come back at that, Chris grew even more worried. Normally the tracker would have given a wise-ass come back, but not this time. Which meant the younger man was too sick to care. Vin took a few swallows and then Chris removed the canteen. "Better?"
Vin only nodded, keeping his head back against Chris' shoulder. "Leg hurts, Chris."
Chris handed the canteen back to Nathan, who hung it from his saddle horn. "I know, Pard," Chris whispered to him, tightening his hold around Vin's chest. "Just hold on, we're almost home."
"The traps...they was what was killin' those animals...found one, still alive. Had to kill it, set it free."
"Don't try to talk, Vin. Save your strength. I know what happened."
"Trapper...left me...to die."
Chris tightened his hold on his reins as anger threatened to overflow inside him again. 'A mistake he's going to live to regret, Vin. If I ever lay eyes on him,' he silently vowed.
As if that vow had been heard, and the words taken as comfort, Vin sagged back against Chris and slipped into a shock-induced sleep. Chris put his right hand to Vin's forehead, holding his head in place against his shoulder. He looked at Nathan with worry. "He's burning up worse than before."
Nathan nodded. "That's to be expected in his condition, Chris. I'll do all I can for him once we get him back to the clinic."
Chris couldn't ignore the nasty way Vin's leg looked once they had pulled the boot and sock off of it. 'All Nathan can do,' he thought. 'But will it be enough, or are we all ready too late?'
Later that night...
Nathan and Chris were both inside the clinic working on Vin's leg while the others waited outside.
Ezra was leaning against the wall with Josiah to his right. Buck and JD were leaning against the catwalk railing, their arms crossed in front of their chests. "I can't believe that man just left Vin to die," JD said with total bewilderment. He had heard tales of such things, but had never actually experienced it. It was too harsh a reality for him to take in.
"Unfortunately," Josiah said, "a man who can kill animals in such an inhumane way is not a man with a conscience."
"You don't think..." JD started to ask then stopped himself.
"What, Kid?" Buck prodded gently.
JD shrugged. "You don't think...Vin will lose his leg...do ya'?"
Buck and Ezra exchanged worried glances. "Not if Mister Larabee has anything to say about it," the gambler replied. Although, he himself had been wondering the same thing, as he was sure the others were, too. Something like this...it was hard to ignore the repercussions that could invariably come to pass.
"It's too soon to think along those lines, JD," Josiah said. "We just have to keep up hope."
"And what if he does lose his leg, JD?" Buck asked. "Will you think any less of Vin?"
JD looked appalled. "No, of course not! Vin's our friend. We'll help him if that happens."
Buck reached out and rested a hand on JD's shoulder giving it a squeeze. "That we will, Kid. That we will."
"Indeed," Ezra commented. "He would do no less for us, I'm certain of that. But as our illustrious preacher has so wisely dictated...it is best we do not think of such a possibility." 'Like hell,' the gambler thought. 'How can we *not* think of it?' He sighed, audibly, but kept his thoughts to himself. 'But Mister Dunne is right. We will help Mister Tanner, should that horrific alternative transpire. He will not be abandoned by us, for he would not abandon us if the situation were reversed. The question is...how does one help an amputee get over the tragedy and learn to live again?' Ezra lost himself in the thoughts of how to incorporate ideas should Vin lose his leg. 'Between the six of us, Mister Tanner will undoubtedly be unable to slip into self-pity. That is the key goal, to keep his spirit from dying.' So lost in thought was he, that Ezra didn't notice the silence that fell upon them as the hours ticked by.
+ + + + + + +
After two hours of work, Nathan washed his hands in the bowl of water that rested on the nightstand next to him. Chris looked up from where he sat at Vin's left side. "Well?"
Nathan shook his head. "Come outside with me, Chris. I want to tell all of you at once."
Chris looked down at Vin's sleeping face. He didn't want to leave his friend's side. "He'll sleep the rest of the night, Chris, and we won't be but a few feet away should he call out. Come on now. Y'all need to know what to expect."
Chris slowly stood then he leaned down to whisper in Vin's ear. "I'll be near, Vin." He patted Vin's shoulder and turned to follow Nathan out of the clinic door.
The rest of the Seven looked up as Chris and Nathan walked out. "How is he?" JD was the first to ask. "He gonna be all right?"
Nathan ran a hand over his head. "Fellas, I have good news and bad news."
"Uh-oh, I don't like the sound of that," Buck said.
"The good news is Vin's bones are intact. His boot was thick enough to take the brunt of the trap's grip. But what saved his bones may be responsible for a severe infection. And that's the bad news. From what I can see, pieces of his boot and sock were wedged into the wounds. I've cleaned out as much as I could see, but there still may be a chance I didn't get all of it. Right now, Vin is just too weak for me to dig any further without putting him under with ether. I'm hoping I got all the debris out, but...it 's too soon to tell. We're simply gonna have to wait."
"For how long?" Josiah asked.
Nathan shook his head. "Twenty-four hours at the least. I'm hoping Vin will get stronger if I need to put him under. The shock his body has suffered...it's just not a good idea to do any more digging right now."
"Does anyone know when the trap caught him?" Ezra asked, his tone low and somber.
"He mentioned something about it happening yesterday afternoon," Chris said, dully. He was tired and the strain of it all was starting to take its toll on him.
Nathan nodded. "The fact that the trap was wrapped around his leg for almost twenty-four hours is my main concern at this point. The wounds were not allowed to bleed freely and some infection has all ready begun. I've drained as much as I could at this point. Shock is a funny thing. It can deaden pain, but it also puts the body at great risk, especially the heart. Vin may be young and strong, under normal circumstances, but the shock that consumed him...I simply can't put his body through any more if it's unnecessary."
"So...then we watch over him, keep an eye out for infection?" JD asked.
"That's right," Nathan nodded.
"I'll take first watch then. Chris needs to get some sleep."
Chris lowered his head. "I appreciate it, JD, but I'm taking first watch."
JD only nodded, not willing to argue with the man on the matter. "Nathan, is there anything we can do other than wait?" Buck asked.
"Well, I could use some more bandages and also some whiskey from the saloon."
"JD?" Josiah said, "Why don't you head over to the hotel, see if they have any clean sheets they'd be willing to donate for bandages. Ezra, let's you and I go see about getting some bottles of whiskey."
Ezra nodded and put on his hat. "Certainly."
JD looked at Chris solemnly. "Chris...I..." he stopped not really knowing what to say.
Chris put a hand on the youth's shoulder and squeezed it. Through that action understanding was communicated.
The three men left the catwalk and headed down the stairs leading to the street.
Nathan sighed. "I best get some sleep. If worse comes to worst I'll need to be awake to see what I'm doing. Chris, you know where to find me if Vin..."
"I know," Chris said. Nathan nodded then turned and went over to his room, leaving Buck and Chris outside.
Buck looked at his friend. "He'll make it, Chris. We have to believe that."
Chris leaned back against the wall and put his foot against it to rest. He crossed his arms in front of him. "I want to kill the bastard that left him out there, Buck," he said softly but with a hard edge. Buck knew it was all Chris could do to keep from throwing his fist through a wall.
"I know you do, Pard. We all do. We've got to keep our heads though...for Vin's sake. We don't even know what he looks like. Vin's the only one who can identify him."
"He's got Vin's jacket. Took it right off of him. His gun, too. Left him out there defenseless," Chris said with a low snarl.
Buck shut his eyes. The coldness of this trapper was driving a spear of hatred into the scoundrel's heart. "Did Vin say why the man left him out there?"
Chris shook his head. "But I think I know."
"Because Vin found a coyote half dead in one of those traps. He gave it a quick death and buried it. Peso got spooked and Vin took off after him. Wasn't paying attention. More worried about that damn horse of his than the danger," Chris smirked. "Damn fool."
Buck lowered his head, smiling a little. Chris wasn't really angry with Vin. He was worried and the only way Chris could deal with the worry was to try and channel it into another emotion. Chris sighed. "I think the trapper figured out what Vin did and left him there to die, thinking Vin stole from his traps."
Buck shook his head. "It's a sad sorry world, when a man with a heart as big as Vin's suffers because of his compassion."
Chris only nodded. He let out a shaky breath and pushed himself away from the wall. "You all are welcome to come in and watch with me, but I ain't leavin' his side," he said as he entered the clinic and closed the door behind him.
Buck knew better than to argue with the man. Even if he were falling down drunk, there would be no way Chris would leave Vin tonight.
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