Reap a Bitter Harvest

by Deirdre

Part 27

Josiah eyed the unusually large congregation gathered in the House of God. The new pews were needed for the patronage, which was growing weekly. He cast a stern look at he giggling children in the front pew and they immediately grew silent.

+ + + + + + +

"Buck?" a sleepy voice whispered, groping the empty bed.

"Go on back to sleep, Darlin'" Buck kissed the sleep-flushed cheek and pulled the blanket up. "I'm late...promised Josiah I'd be on time this week. Sweet dreams..." He concluded, as she rolled over. He walked to the nightstand and poured water in the basin. He heard the church bells and frowned, "'s later than I thought." He finished washing and eyed the pile of clothes neatly folded on the chair.

"VIN!" He shouted, picking up the familiar buffalo hide coat that was hanging on a chair. He saw the mare's leg winking at him from the tabletop, secure inside the gunbelt. He gripped it and stood in the room, suddenly too silent. He stiffened as a chill passed over him and he felt the hairs on his neck stand up. He knew before he turned around, he felt the evil invade him.

"Hello Lover..." Ella oozed, slinking up behind the lean figure in black. "I've missed you so...I ache for you...I've been dreaming about the wild nights we have..." She slid a hand up the side of his leg from behind. "SHUT UP!" He raged, dropping Vin's coat and grabbing her by the throat. He shoved her hard against the nearest support beam and didn't hide the green fire that shot openly from his enraged eyes. "Where is he?"

"Honestly Chris, is that any way to greet your wife...after all the time we've been apart?"

"You're insane..." He spat, eyeing the delusional delight in her eyes.

"Insanely in love with you..." She whispered, snaking a hand up his leg and gripping his backside.

"Get your filthy hands off of me..." He growled and hit her head hard against the beam.

"OW!" She hissed, feeling the intensity in the pressure on her neck increase. "You're hurting me..."

"I'll fuckin' blow your head off, if you don't produce him."

"Him?" She choked, grinning madly, " wild mountain man. He was a rather delicious specimen...all muscle..hard and lean..." She teased.

"Was?" Chris narrowed his eyes and gripped the pale neck even harder. "If you hurt him...there won't be enough pieces left of you to fit in a tea cup. WHERE IS HE?"

"Such's a shame he died thinking you all deserted him...chased him away in a shower of rocks and bottles I heard..." She relayed, and felt the hand drop. The absolute look of shock and horror overtook the handsome features.

Chris was stunned, Vin was gone. It was more than the look in her eyes, or the conviction in her voice. The thought that Vin died alone and abandoned, thinking they..he deserted him, was too painful to bear. He closed his eyes and saw the last image he'd seen of Vin Tanner, the lost blue eyes in the midst of a mob, begging for help. He swallowed hard and sent up a silent plea of forgiveness, hoping Vin could hear him.

She saw the it was closer to agony, painted on the Larabee features. She pouted, angry as the swell of emotion for the ratty tracker. What was so damn special about him? What could cause that unbearable grief she was staring at? She leaned into him and tried to wrap her arms around him.

"I'll kill you with my bare hands." He said in such a low, feral tone, it made her pale.

"I did it for us..." She stammered, "You know you love me, Chris..."

"I'd never be that desperate..."

"He had to was all his fault." She screamed, baring her teeth, "My father told me the trouble he stirred up in Red Fork...asking questions about the mine and reading the deed...He slipped away that night..." Her livid eyes darted, "...but you stayed with chose me...that's when I knew you loved me...Don't you see, he had to pay for his sin..."

"Where is he?" Chris's voice was so tense it nearly broke the air.

"The last I saw him," She twisted the knife into the already shattered heart, "he was foaming at the mouth in the middle of a seizure, making guttural noises...I'm told they're quite mad at the end...if they last through the hallucinations."

Chris growled and launched all his pent up fury at her, sending them to the ground. He gripped her neck and squeezed, eyes not seeing anything but the vision she'd painted. Vin's tortured eyes were joined by two more pairs of blues. Sarah and Adam...screaming for him as the inferno engulfed them...Ella laughing.

"Nooooo!" He screamed, seeing Adam's arms reaching for him and Sarah's charred body.

The explosion jerked him back to the present. He jumped up and ran to the door, eyeing the remnants of a warehouse at the end of town.

"What have you done?" He wheeled and felt his stomach clench at the lewd smile that met his inquiring gaze.

"That was just to get your attention." She oozed, siding up to him and reaching up to grasp his face. He jerked away and she scolded him. " play nice or someone might get hurt." She motioned outside. He gazed across the street and saw Ezra on his knees, his face bleeding and two gunmen holding pistols to his head. "Now, where were we? Oh..." She slithered, pulling his face down and kissing him hard.

"What do you want?" He croaked, wiping his mouth and spitting her taste from it.

"You, Silly." She chastised, pressing her body against him suggestively, "I know you need're an animal...rough and hard...I want you Chris. You make me hurt so good..." She whispered, biting the flesh near his collarbone. "...and I intend to have you..."

"The night after Hell freezes over." He hurled, pulling away from her.

"I don't think so..." She smiled, "Let's take a walk." She offered, and saw him glance to Ezra. "Oh, he'll be long as you cooperate. I came prepared, my men are well armed and stationed around this dreadful town. Shall we?" She snaked her arm in his and led him away.

Chris's mind was replaying the night before. How had she and these hired men slipping into town. He followed behind her, still seeing the heinous picture she'd painted of his best friend's last moments. He stopped when they got to the edge of town. He frowned at he guards posted around the church. His guts turned to ice when he saw the 'donations' she'd left under the church.

"There's enough dynamite under the front and back stairs, the basement and bell tower, to blow those good citizens clear to Mexico. So you'll come with me and agree to stay, or I'll push the plunger myself." She noted of the detonator, connected by a long fuse to the explosives.

Chris eyed the fuse and charges and sighed, hanging his head. Having Vin's death on his conscience was bad enough, but a whole town. He stiffened and his stomach turned when she walked around him, then hugged him from behind. He was ready to give consent, when he saw the top of J.D.'s bowler hat in the bell tower. The Kid raised his head enough to nod at Chris. Did they have a plan?

"Alright..." he said slowly. "I'll need to pack some things." He tried, stalling for time.

"There isn't anything from this dust bowl I'd allow in our home. I've outfitted your wardrobe quite nicely. Of course, you won't be needing many won't be in them very long."

He swallowed the bile that rose in his throat and let his leaden limbs carry him toward the wagon. Two pairs of gunmen stood at either side of the vehicle. He eyed the Hotel in the background and frowned. Where the hell was Buck? He flinched as his hands were tied behind his back and he was encouraged to get in the front seat of the wagon. As he turned, she groped him and winked. "It won't be long...I see that glint in your eye...I know you're hungry."

Chris remained stoic, trying to slide his eyes to the Bell Tower. He was shoved onto the seat and watched her pass the driver's side and continue walking. "What...You can't...there are children in there!" He shouted, seeing her heading toward the plunger.

"So what?" She turned, stopping just short of a sharp dropoff near a hill. "They killed my father...and now they'll die. An eye for an eye..."

"No!" Chris's shout was answered by a rifle blow to his gut.

+ + + + + + +

"Well?" Josiah whispered, hoping the stanzas of Amazing Grace covered up their ruse. He glanced up towards the Bell Tower, where J.D. was stationed.

"Eight...maybe more." J.D. whispered back, "They got Chris...Ezra too." "Shit!" Nathan slammed his hand against the wall. "Get on down here, before you get your fool head shot off." He ordered the wayward youth. "It gets worse." J.D. announced as he landed.

"How worse?" Josiah prodded the hazel eyes.

"There's a fuse connected to a detonator." The youth transmitted, "...fuse runs run under the church..."

"Dynamite..." Josiah sighed, slapping the wall.

"Great...we're trapped." Nathan's voice dropped in defeat.

"Where you going?" Josiah asked as J.D. loaded his gun. "And why did you bring a gun in here?"

"I'm the sheriff, I'm on duty." J.D. defended, "...and I'm going out through the cellar. I can take out the two in the back..." He paused, waiting for an argument. "Aren't you gonna try and stop me?"

"Nope." Josiah said. "Nate's gonna go with you. I'll stay and keep the voices aimed heavenward. Good Luck..."

"Tell your boss that, okay?" Nate joked and followed the youthful lawmen down the stairs.

+ + + + + + +

"Are you alright, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra was led to the wagon and stood, eyeing the face set in stone. Not one muscle on the leader moved, not even a twitch. Except for the eyes, which were full of unspeakable pain. There was only one thing Ezra knew of that would cause a grief like he was witnessing. "Mr. Tanner?" He guessed and saw Chris close his eyes briefly and nod. "I'm sorry..."

"Not as sorry as that she-devil's gonna be when I get done with her." He predicted. "She tortured him, then poisoned him somehow...I can't believe he's gone..."

"I'd say the news of our roving tracker's death are a bit premature..." Ezra gasped and tugged on Chris's arm. Unfortunately, the guards also witnessed the newcomer's arrival.

Ella was only a few feet from her goal. Her eyes were shining with the glow of vengeance and lust. Her fingers itched to push the plunger. The gunshot startled her and she turned quickly.


"VIN!" Chris screamed, seeing the battered body appear from the underside of the steep hill, only about ten feet from the feline mercenary. He saw the hired guns scramble and heard the gut-clinching sounds of the hammers clicking. "" He screamed, throwing his body off the wagon and against the two guards to his left. Ezra did the same with the ones on the right. J.D. and Nathan took out the two behind the church and Nate shot two getting away. But there was no sharpshooter to take out the sniper on the roof. Chris was in the dirt in the street when the shots rained down. "VIN!" He screamed and saw his best friend's body jerk as bullet met flesh. "NO!!!!" He screamed, watching Vin fly through the air, sending his body into Ella's before she could detonate the explosives. The cascade of bullets flying echoed in his mind as both bodies disappeared down the steep hill.

"J.D. get that one on the roof. That should be all of them..." Nate pronounced.

"Nate...did you see that? Did you see what he did?" J.D. stammered, shocked at the sight of Vin Tanner sailing through the air.

"Yeah...I'm afraid I did..." Nate said huskily, ears reeling at the array of bullets that danced in the air around the airborne hero. He made his way up the street, where the bound leader was being overpowered.

Chris grunted in pain as a well placed boot found his side. From his position in street, where two of the gunmen where holding him down, he saw Ezra disappear down the alley. He knew the Gambler was headed for the roof. Just as the pressure increased from the knee in his back, the stranglehold disappeared. He heard the guard grunt in pain and all the weight leave his back. The steely end of a knife slid along his wrists and cut the taut ropes.

"Mornin' Chris."

"Where the hell have you been, Buck?" Chris barked, jerking his hands free of their bonds. Before Buck could reply, the men Ezra escaped from reappeared. Several fists found flesh and Buck saw a familiar sight approaching. His brief distraction gave his beefy opponent the upper hand and he slammed Buck hard into the side of the wagon. He picked up a discarded pistol, wondering why the cocky grin on the mustached man was so wide. His own eyes widened in shock as a well-thrown knife hit the center of his back.

"Thanks Doc..." Buck boomed, crawling over to where Chris was trying to rid himself of a body.

"Let go of me..." The blond threw off the hand of assistance and rose on unsteady legs. Without hesitation, he took off up the street. His heart was hammering as he approached the hill. He didn't stop to think of what he might find below.

+ + + + + + +

J.D. shimmied up onto the roof and saw that Ezra had already disposed of the sniper. He watched the Conman gingerly leaning over the edge. "What are you doing?"

"Looking for Vin..." Ezra shot back, annoyed. His jade eyes skimmed the terrain below and he saw Chris Larabee fly past and pause at the steep incline. "Come on..." He called back, heading for the street below. He paused in his tracks so suddenly, J.D. ran into him.

"Jeez, Ezra, I almost dumped you over the edge...What'd you stop for?"

Ezra pointed at the faces in the open windows of the church. Josiah was in the doorway, shielding Billy against him. Mary was crying, as were several other's who witnessed the valiant deposed man's efforts.

"False tears..." He seethed, "I hope they choke on them."

"Why'd he do it, Ez?" J.D. said as they reached the street. "After all they did to him...the names they called him and how they hurt him..."

"He's a Tanner..." Ezra replied, then paused and recalled the painful face in the saloon the night when he'd spurned the gifted artist's request. "...and because within that valiant chest, beats a hero's heart."

Part 28

Blood and dirt. He raised his head painfully and spit out a mouthful of blood and dirt. His foggy brain tried to locate the source of the unyielding pain, but it seemed to be emanating from all over his battered body. His chest was on fire, his side was burning and his head was about to burst. He was lying on his stomach and tried to roll over, wondering what was pinning him down. He hissed painfully as his head was yanked upwards, unceremoniously by the hair.


"Aw, hell..." he muttered, hearing the insane woman's screeching voice.

"How did you get here?" She raged, and eyed the level ground far above. She was kneeling on his back, and jerked his head again, getting the grunt of pain she wanted. Her eyes skirted the area and saw the trickle of a creek about ten yards away. "If you don't have the good sense to die from your wounds..." She hissed, grinding her hand painfully into his bloodied head. He cried out once and sagged, his head slumping and she dropped her hand from his sticky hair. Leaning over his wheezing face, she slapped it hard, and watched a wary blue slit appear. "...I'll see you in hell for what you've turned him against me...and you'll pay..." She heard voices above and stood, eyeing the terrain for an escape route. A horse was tied up along the water; undoubtedly the one Tanner used. She took off, knowing the three men she left at the campsite were up ahead and waiting for her.

"VIN!" Chris screamed, skidding to a halt at the top of the steep hill.

"Chris...Chris...hold on a minute..." Nate cried, far behind, trying to wade his way through the crown who'd left the church and now were milling about. "...breaking your neck won't help him. Chris..." he called in vain, knowing his plea fell on deaf ears.

Chris eyed the body sprawled in the dirt below. He gauged the rocky incline and eyed the disappearing figure of Ella Gaines on a brown horse. "Get after her..." He cried and saw Ezra and J.D. nod and head for livery. Without further thought, he started down the hill, half sliding, and dropped down beside the fallen hero. He saw the crimson mark where a bullet creased the side of Vin's head, and carefully moved the sticky mess aside, while gently turning the body over.

His eyes scorched at the battered face of his best friend. The pale skin was covered with streaks of blood. One eye was swollen shut and his left cheek was discolored from bruises. The jagged tear in his lip left a bloody mess on his chin. Chris's hand was trembling slightly as they hesitated over the pulse point. He sighed audibly and caressed the pulse, sending his silent thanks. He hung his head as he detected the life force still within the injured man.

Vin felt the hands on his neck and the gentle pressure being applied. He heard his name being called, so soft and broken it made him ache. Chris...he peeled his eye open and saw the grief painted on what he could see of the leader's face. He moved his hand painfully and managed to raise it high enough to tap at the body.

"...risss..." He rasped, and felt his hand gripped and saw the damp blond head rise. He opened his lips to say more, but couldn't find the words. He gasped softly at the intense burst of heat in his chest and the surge of the familiar force course through him. The grip intensified and he felt Chris's anguish. "...missed ya Cowboy..." He hissed, as a burst of pain shot through him causing him to grip the hand harder.

"Easy..." Chris managed, fighting the lump in his chest as the soft call of Cowboy settled back into its rightful place deep inside. The shallow burst of labored breathing died down and the eyes opened again. He watched them darting trying to see past the body that blocked it. "...everybody's fine..." He answered the frantic gaze and felt the release of relief. "What the hell were you thinking?" He growled shakily, eyeing the wet dark stain on the black shirt. Black shirt..."Is this my shirt?" he inquired, pressing gently against the wound near Vin's side. The head dipped slightly, but the eyes remained closed. "You stole my shirt?" He ran a hand down the dirty pants and was amazed to find nothing broken, but wondered at the swollen foot in the tattered boot. A wet burst of coughing, a weak smile and a definite nod answered him. "Damn...that was my favorite shirt..." He kept one of Vin's hands clasped firmly in his own and kept pressure on the wound with the other.

"...fa...fa...fav...fave...rit?" Vin gasped, eyes shooting wide open and free hand fisting against the pain. "...every ...of...'em ...looks...alike..." He forced the last word out and coughed again.

"Nah, this one was my favorite..." The shaken leader replied, masking the fear in his heart. Vin's breathing was so irregular he was afraid every painful intake might be his last. He saw the blue eyes blinking hard and trying to focus on him. "...had it broke in just right...real soft...did some of my best pondering at the wood pile in it..." He concluded huskily, as he moved his hand, slick with Tanner blood, down to the hem and gripped it.

"No..." Vin forced, eyes pleading. "...buttons..."

"Dammit Vin, I ain't got time for's shot anyway...between bullet holes and blood..."

"" He whispered, sending his feelings though his eyes, a vivid blue, and right through Chris Larabee.

It wasn't the soft delivery, barely a whisper, sent airborne and slicing through him like a knife. It wasn't the slight choke in the younger man's voice...a cracking break on the word 'rock' that lanced through him. It wasn't the eyes, so clear and bright, that rocketed into his chest. It was all of that and something much more powerful. It was a gathering of black cotton threads, now scored with tears and holes, colored crimson by the spilled blood of the hero's tangled wreath. That's what pierced his heart and took all the air from his lungs. That Vin kept a part of him on his healing journey, something to cling to when the pain became unbearable and the dark dreams slashed his tender insides in the black of night. So moved was he by the quiet testimonial, he didn't hear Nathan screaming at him.

"Chris...Where's he hit? How bad is it?" The healer called, halfway down the hill. Buck was already at Chris's side. Standing behind the forlorn figure in black.

Nathan was too far away to hear Vin Tanner's heartfelt words, but Buck wasn't and they hit him hard. He saw Chris's back stiffen and heard the sharp intake of air that hissed through the leader's teeth. He laid a hand on Chris's shoulder and shook it, but Chris didn't move. Buck stepped around him and knelt by Vin's side. He carefully unbuttoned the few gathers left and opened the shirt, seeking the site of the bullet's entry. He didn't expect the horrific sight that met his tortured eyes.

"Sweet Jesus..." Buck cried, his hand frozen in midair.

It was then that Chris Larabee found his voice. "Fuckin' bitch..." He screamed, jumping up and moving to find and kill Ella Gaines. There wasn't a place on Vin's chest that wasn't discolored, cut or bruised. Multiple shades of blues and violets were slashed with crinsom gashes, like bloody points of exclamation.

"Josiah..." Nate jerked his head and dropped to Vin's side. The preacher nodded and went after Chris Larabee. "Hold 'im Buck, I want to check his side." Nate requested, using his handkerchief to wipe the blood from Vin's face and chin.

Buck eased the unconscious Texan up and over. He placed Vin's arm around his hip and cradled the bloody head against his chest. He heard the soft swear and saw Nate's dark head shake as his fingers probed the bruised back. "Nate?"

"...still in there. Damn...he's so weak already..." He issued and checked the victim's pulse.

"Nathan...his foot looks funny." Buck squinted, not releasing his precious cargo.

The healer moved south and gently tugged at the torn, leather boot. It didn't budge. He gripped Vin's ankle and tugged harder. Vin screamed and buckled, trying to pull away.

"I know it hurts, Vin, but Nate's gotta look at it." Buck hushed, pulling Vin harder against him. He glanced down, wincing at the rapid pattering of the heart against his chest. The shallow breathing and wide lost eyes gave him a deep pain of his own.

Vin saw the brilliant splashes of color dance before him. He heard a voice, but couldn't find it. He relaxed in the protective force that held him. What was that smell? He wrinkled his nose and sniffed again. The colors waltzed away and he blinked, trying to clear up his blurry vision.

It was perfume...and sweat...and the 'morning after' smell. He turned his mangled lips up slightly when he recognized the bearer. He tried to move his head to see the face, but the grip was too tight.

" girl in town..." He whispered painfully, the pain in his foot exploding.

Buck heard the frail voice and smiled, letting a deep laugh escape. He eased Vin upwards and heard the breathing become less strained. Vin was resting against his chest. Buck wrapped one arm around him and kept the other pressed against the wound. "Hey Slick..." He greeted warmly, and saw the head rise backwards, trying to see his face.


"Yeah, well I didn't have time to take a bath."

" respect...on Sunday..."

"It wasn't Sunday when I got started..." He teased and tightened his grip when Vin cried out in pain. He grabbed the wayward Tanner fist and glared at cause of the cry.

"Dammit Nate..." He growled, watching the fumbling efforts. "Get that fuckin' boot off him..."

"What do think I'm doing, Buck?" The angry retort came.

"Use one of them fancy knives..."

"...quit hollerin'" Vin's craggy voice was heard.

"Sorry..." Buck moved the hand from Vin's side to pull the matted hair from his face. "Real pretty face you got there, Slick." He joked and saw the face wrinkle in pain as the fabric from the boot was painfully extracted from the swollen, discolored flesh.

"Oh God..." Vin hissed, bucking hard and grateful for Buck's strength. ""

"Hold on, Vin...Nate's almost through." Buck said through clenched teeth as Mary arrived with a canteen and some wet towels. Buck nodded and took both, while Mary knelt by Nathan's side and gasped, her face screwed up in revulsion.

Nathan pushed the heartfelt plea away and continued to work. He heard Buck talking to Vin, trying to calm him. With one final tug, the boot came off and Vin's scream nearly did him in. But then he saw the reddened, misshapen foot encased in a rusted steel manacle. "Jesus..."

"Here you go..." Buck uncapped the canteen and helped Vin get some water. He then used a damp towel to wipe the blood off Vin's face, chin and neck. He was about to splash some water on the head wound, when a wayward hand caught his wrist. Two eyes, one nearly swollen but both a striking blue, gazed up at him.


"Anytime, Son." Buck returned, feeling a tug at the familiar nickname that only Vin used. He didn't realize how much he missed the quiet Texan until now. His eyes burned at the horrid state of Vin's foot, but his heart wrenched at the soft cries that were muffled by his chest. With every small touch from the concerned healer, Vin's ragged cry sounded. It was then he saw something in Nathan's face that scared him. The dark eyes locked on to his and Buck's stomach fell.

+ + + + + + +

"Chris, hold up...Chris!" Josiah shouted, trying to catch the menacing panther as he entered the livery. By the time he got to the stable, Chris had the blanket on his horse and was lifting his saddle. The preacher stood in front of the stall, blocking his path.

"Move." Chris snarled, baring his teeth. "Don't give me any pulpit bullshit...just move."


"Fine...guess we'll do this the hard way." Chris dropped the saddle and flexed his fists.

Josiah ducked the first blow and grabbed the leader's arm, wrestling it behind his back and forcing him hard against the wall. "NO! I know the path of vengeance is burning in you, Chris. But now is not the time. You're needed here. That boy's in a bad way...and there is only one face he's gonna be looking for. You're gonna be there when he's reaching out, if I have to tie you to a chair. After what he's done, you owe him that much." Josiah heard the panting breath slow and felt the struggle cease. He waited until the head nodded once and released the taut form. He walked a few feet away and leaned against a post, eyeing Chris Larabee. The hands were riding on top of the waist of the black jeans and he saw the furies dancing around the iris's of the green eyes. "She's not likely to give up...You'll get your chance to bring her to justice..."

"Justice!" Chris scoffed, snorting and kicking the stall wall. "I don't want justice...I want her fuckin' head on a plate..."

"....and here I didn't think you were a student of the Bible." Josiah said solemnly, referring to the passage about John the Baptist's untimely demise.

"Alright, I'll stay," he agreed, "But only until Vin's past the worst of it. Then I'm gone..." He turned as he exited the livery and the harsh sunlight stabbed his eyes. He left the warning hovering around the eldest, and didn't hide his threat. "...and Preacher, stay out of my way."

Part 29

"Nathan?" Buck voice was small and hesitant. The dark eyes that met his were full of dismay and defeat.

"It's bad,'s discolored...circulation's been cut off..."

He didn't finish, he didn't have to. Buck's face paled as the unsaid words, spoken clearly from Nathan's eyes, hit him hard. He'd seen it during the war, taking of limbs to save a life from gangrene. But even then it was often too late. The two men shared a long, painful stare and Buck felt Vin stir in his arms.

"Get it off..." Vin begged, hand tapping at Buck. "Bucklin...please."

"Uh..." Buck started, the quiet plea tearing through him, severing his vocal chords. One look at the horrid, discolored foot under the manacle told the tall cowboy how much agony his young friend must be in. He wondered again at the strength this young man possessed, still so young, but old beyond his years. He'd harbored more pain in his time on this earth, than some do in a lifetime. He never complained about his lost childhood. Buck recalled the subject coming up once, while he, Vin and J.D. were camped outside of town. Vin merely shrugged as his painful childhood and lost youth. 'Ya play the hand yer dealt in life, Kid." was his simple answer to J.D.'s question during the discussion the trio had about their favorite Christmas. Vin had remained silent, until J.D. prodded him. Both had been impressed with Vin's disarming answer and the ease at which he wore his mantle.

"'s killin' me..."

Vin's head was turned and Buck felt the warm, shallow breaths linger on his collarbone. He didn't want to look at those damn blue eyes...but he did anyway.

"Shit..." He swore, lanced by the unbridled pain that housed there. "Nate?"

"Can't break the lock..." Nate eyed the rusted hinge and swallowed at the dried puss and blood clinging to it.

"Shoot it..." Vin hissed, clenching his eyes against the pain. He heard footsteps and didn't have to open his heavy lids to know who had returned.

"Jesus..." Chris released his pent up frustration at the sight of Vin's mangled foot. He lingered behind Nate for a moment and let his pale eyes drift to Vin's drawn face, contorted in pain. Buck didn't look much better. He moved beside the fallen hero, ready to take Vin from Buck, when the hand shot out and tapped his gunbelt.

"Do it...Chris..." Vin rasped, finally opening his eyes.

"Vin, I can't...." Chris denied, eyeing the swollen flesh bulging around the iron bracelet. "'s too swollen...It could cripple you..."

"...better than bein' a corpse..." Vin protested, fighting the blurry vision and fumbling fingers at the holster.

"...I can't Vin..." Chris's voice was barely audible, and he turned from the twisted foot, back to the face of his best friend. The eyes were clear and through the pain, the force of the two words and all the ramifications that came with them gave him the strength he needed.

"I believe..." Vin gasped, reaching out with this mind, hand and soul.

There it was, a force so strong he rocked backwards as it hit him hard in the chest. Along with the sweat-soaked fist that gripped his hand, and the blue eyes so true, was the unwavering and unyielding force of faith. It was back, and he welcomed the surge of trust that coursed through him like a tidal wave. It was at that moment, with the rush that raced through them, that the world fell away. He didn't hear Buck speaking to him or Nathan's worried voice. He locked on the cerulean eyes and inhaled the flow of trust that poured forth freely from them. His spirit restored and faith renewed, his lips turned up and parted.

"...thanks Cowboy..." he said softly. Without looking back, he drew his pistol and dropped to Vin's foot. "Hold him..." He warned and heard Vin's sharp intake of breath. Josiah secured Vin's upper legs and Nate the lower ones. Chris waited until the dark eyes of the healer met his and nodded once. He studied the iron fist that gripped Vin's ankle and turned it slightly, shutting out the muffled cries of pain. Laying the barrel against the lock, he took a short breath and fired.

Vin gave one brief, strangulated cry and slumped against Buck, whose white shirt was soaked through with perspiration. All four men spent a brief moment in silence, before Nate's relieved voice broke the plane.

"Thank God..." He sighed, moving to examine the foot.

Chris glanced back and saw Buck frozen, refusing Josiah's gentle suggestion and releasing Vin and laying him back down. He turned back at paled at the look of fear on Nathan's dark face.

"How bad?"

"Bad enough." Nate sniffed, gingerly lifting the foot and wincing at the open raw wounds oozing with pus and blood. The discoloration had him worried, and he bent lower, examining Vin's toes. "They're still pink...that's good, but he's loaded with infection. I gotta clean that out."

"What about the bullet?" Chris asked.

"I can clean out that mess, Nate." Josiah offered, "The church is closer..." He offered, knowing Vin's weakened condition cried out for treatment. "He's burning up..." the senior peacekeeper advised, with one large hand on Vin's flushed face.

"I ain't surprised..." Nate shook his head. "Okay, Mary, you and Josiah go to the clinic. I'll need my bag, instruments, bandages, the journals..." "I got it, Brother." Josiah nodded, rising and shaking Buck's shoulder. "You and Chris get him settled in the back, my room's plenty big enough and loaded with light. Mrs. Travis..." He took her arm and helped her up the steep hill.

Nathan went ahead of the two old friends, entering Josiah's place. He moved Josiah's bed from the wall, to the center of the room, giving them clear access to both sides. He placed a white sheet on the large worktable, eyeing it favorably for surgery.

"Mr. Jackson?"

Nate turned at the soft, almost musical voice. "Ming?" He greeted of the bathhouse owner and apothecary.

"I bring hot water...all you need."

"Thanks Ming," The healer gripped the small, ageless oriental man's shoulders in gratitude. "I'll need plenty. How about you bring over a couple of them empty small washtubs. If we keep two full, that should work."

The old man nodded and moved aside as Buck and Chris entered.

"Where do you want him?" Chris grunted, gripping Vin's upper body.

"Sit him on the bed and get them clothes offa him, they're filthy. We'll clean him up and when Josiah gets back, we'll get to work. Somebody tell Mrs. Adams to get a pot of soup going and keep the pot boiling." he noted, knowing Vin would require the herbal, medicinal tea.

"I'll go..." Buck said, carefully removing Vin's shirt and lifting him, so Chris could get his pants off. Nate dropped in his place, and the two lifted Vin onto the makeshift-operating table and covered him to the waist with a sheet. Mary entered with a bowl of hot soapy water and Nate immediately began to wash the injured foot. Mary took a second cloth and wiped Vin's face. It wasn't often she had the chance to see him like this. His features were relaxed and not hidden by that floppy hat or the shadows he felt so comfortable in.

"He's so young...looks so vulnerable." She said, and saw the deep anguish laced with guilt in the green Larabee eyes. "He'll pull through Chris..." She moved and rubbed the tense black-clothed arm before leaving. "I'll go update the others."

"Others?" Chris muttered, turning to face her.

"Most of the town are back in church...praying for Vin."

"He'll need it." Nate gritted, slicing the ragged skin and digging the greenish mess from Vin's wound. "Josiah..."

"I got it..." The large man stepped in and took over. Nate moved to Vin's side and swabbed the wound with alcohol. He washed his hands, dried them and picked up a scalpel. The wound wasn't deep; the bullet was lodged in a rib. He gritted his teeth and picked up the small pliers and pulled the lead ball free. "Busted it good...but a inch higher..." He bit off the thought. "Chris, can you get me the Carbolic?"

Chris uncorked the dark glass bottle and handed it Nate. After dousing the wound and sewing Vin up, he had Chris hold the unconscious man in a sitting position. After wrapping the chest in bandages, he set about cleaning the head wound and bound it with cloth. Twice he glanced at Josiah who was locked in a battle with injured foot.

The first tub of steaming water arrived and it quickly was used up. Nate took over for Josiah, who worked in silence with Chris, bathing the filth, grime and blood from the injured man. Most of the crud was cleaned out of the raw open ankle wound. One spot remained, and Nate knew he would have to dig deeper into the muscle to get at it. Vin's breathing was shallow but even and he hadn't stirred.

"Chris...get a hold of him. He's gonna feel this...I gotta a well of that mess to dig out."

With a nod and a long sigh, Chris Larabee stood at the end of the table, behind Vin's head. Josiah gently moved the injured man up and back, so he rested against Chris's chest. The freshly washed head was just under his chin and he wrapped his best friend in a deathlock. He nodded once and Josiah moved in to put a vise-like grip on Vin's lower leg, immobilizing it for Nathan.

Vin was dreaming. He was ten and living with his adopted Kiowa family. He'd run away from the last foster home, tired of the harsh treatment and cruel beatings. He stumbled in the wicked winter night, unaware of his chills. A hunting party found him, dazed, fevered and battered. The marks on his back and down his legs, turned the warrior's stomach. He took the boy back to the tribe and Vin Tanner had a family for the first time since his mother died. It was a warm spring day and he and Matowa were fishing. His older brother was thirteen and Vin followed him everywhere and soaked up all that the wise, older boy provided. They were tracking a bear and Vin ran to catch up, when his foot became lodged. He tried to work it free and screamed as an animal trap snapped shut.

"Vin...don't move..." Chris ordered, gripping the thrashing body. Vin's unholy scream was followed by a wide-eyed stare and rambling phrases in Indian tongue.

"Almost done, Vin..." Nate called back, increasing his motions. Finally, the last of the mess was freed and Josiah handed him the Carbolic. He saw Buck in the door and motioned with his head. "Throw yourself over him, Buck, he's gonna fight this..." He ordered and his poised hand waited until all three man took their places.

Chris had a Vin in a deathgrip. The incoherent mumbling and cries of anger only fueled the fevered body more. Buck used his body to hold down Vin's upper legs, while Josiah braced the foot. They waited and watched and Nathan poured the medicine.

The jaws of the steel trap bit through deep. Vin screamed and bucked, trying to break away. The pain was unbearable and he lashed out. The sky grew dark and lightning and thunder boomed, as rain cascaded down. He was lost and alone. He felt all his strength ebbing and slid into the grass, embracing the cloak of blackness.

"Shit..." Chris hissed, licking the blood from his split lip where Vin's head smashed into it.

"You okay?" Buck said, rising up and eyeing the bloody-faced Larabee.

"Yeah...damn, he has a hard head..." Chris muttered, easing the slumbering man down flat. "Nate?" He asked, swiping his bloody lip as he made his way around to the end of the bed.

"I don't know, Chris." The healer answered honestly. "I got most of that shit out, but some of it got through. That's why he's fever is so high. If he can fight it off, he's got a chance. Gotta get this swelling down..." He noted of the foot Josiah was bandaging.

"What about Bitter Creek?" Buck said of the nearby spring.

"What about it?" Chris turned, dabbing his lip with a cold cloth.

"It's ice cold and plenty of it...his foot could soak proper and that cold water would come in handy to bathe that fever."

"That ain't a bad idea, Buck." Nate looked up at the worried Wilmington face. "We still got them tents and cots the Army left last winter?"

"Yeah, they're in the basement of the Freight Office." Josiah nodded, "I'll get a wagon. Come on, Buck, we got work to do."

"Chris, you get Mrs. Potter to get you the supplies we'll need. Take some tins, all you can get, to Mrs. Adams," He noted of the boarding house matron. "Have her fill 'em up with broth and soup. Get all the canned broth Mrs. Potter has and have Ming give you some rice and herbal tea."

An hour later, two wagons were packed. Josiah was in the driver's seat of one, which held the tents, cots, blankets, linens, basins, and utensils, dishes, bandages and Nate's supplies. The other, with Buck holding the reins, held the food, and other necessities. Vin was on a mattress in the middle of the wagon, covered in a blanket. The blue bruises were the only color on the pale face. Chris was on his horse, ready to lead them out. He turned and saw the citizens of Four Corners lining the boardwalk and street as the wagons got started. A small figure broke through and nodded to the back.

"Ming?" Nate turned from his spot beside Vin. He helped the small man in the wagon and watched as he bent over Vin. The gnarled hand anointed oil on Vin's forehead, hands and heart. He said a prayer in his native tongue and rested his hand over Vin's heart.

"I have asked my ancestors to travel with you and give Mr. Tanner shelter. They will protect him from the evil that threatens to take him from us."

"Thanks, Ming." Nate said sincerely, and saw the wizened man hand him a burlap bag.

"Tea for fever and ointment and herbs to fight infection. Strong medicine...give vivid dreams...but powerful."

"Vin appreciates it, Ming, I'll make sure he knows what you've done." Nate replied to his brother in healing.

"It is I who is grateful, Mr. Jackson." The old man said, stroking Vin's face, "My whole family was in the church. It is my honor and duty to protect Mr. Tanner's body and soul. I will pray for all of you."

Chris slid off Caesar and made his way to the rear wagon. He held his hand out and engulfed the smaller one of the elderly Oriental man. "Thank you." The man nodded and smiled, as his tiny granddaughter tugged at his knee.

"No, Mr. Larabee...Thank your brother..." he said quietly, lifting the child up. His rapid Chinese dialect had the child wide eyed. He held her over the wagon and she kissed the sleeping man's forehead. "I have told her of our I will tell all of my children and grandchildren." He turned to the whispering crowd on the boardwalk. "No more talking in whispers...I am ashamed I did nothing to help this young man before. All of you should be ashamed. We are not worthy...hold your heads up and keep him in your hearts."

"Man has a way with words." Josiah called back and saw Buck dip his dark head in agreement.

Chris nodded to the elderly man and climbed back onto Caesar. "Let's ride." He barked and took off, the wagons rolling behind him.


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