Magnificent Seven Old West
Shining with Undying Light

by Deirdre

Disclaimer: The following is a work of fanfiction based on the CBS television series, The Magnificent Seven. It is in no way intended to infringe on the copyrights of CBS, MGM, The Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp., or anyone else who may have legal rights to the characters, settings or song references. I don't own the characters. This story is strictly for entertainment. No monetary gain will be made from anything contained in this story.

Part One

It was dawn again. The night had departed all too swiftly; a silent thief stealing away his time, energy and strength. He sighed wearily and stretched, wincing as the aches in his bones shrieked as one. He rose and tiptoed outside, pausing to watch the new color blush the skyline. Stepping off the modest home's porch, he paused at the rain barrel, cupping water in his hands several times to wash his face. The droplets lingered, running off his dark skin and onto his blood-stained shirt.

He sighed again, worn-out from the lack of sleep over the past several nights, exhausted from the physical and emotional trauma. He closed his eyes, willing himself to go on. Fatigue seemed all the worse when you only had limited skills.

His brooding gaze sought out the door. Beyond the humble entrance was Michael Moore, yet another obstacle in his dark week.

The tall, friendly young man, a tad on the quiet side, was new to the area. He'd come on the stage a few weeks before, all of twenty-one years old. He had been blessed with a head full of wavy, sandy blond hair, and blue eyes that shone with promise. An easy smile and a friendly manner had made him welcome almost anywhere he went.

JD had become his closest friend, their similar ages and shared New England birthplace giving them common bonds. Dunne had spent a lot of his free time helping Mike find the just right homestead. An old abandoned farm just outside town proved to be the young man's ideal.

Mike had spent long hours repairing the rotting timber floors, whitewashing the repaired walls, putting in a new well, and shoring up the corral and barn. He hoped to bring his new bride there by the spring.

Easing back through the doorway, he crossed and poured himself a cup of coffee. He eyed the pale body on the bed, watching as the bandaged chest rose and fell. His young patient had been lucky. As he sat down in a chair and sipped on his coffee, thinking back over the past several days. Was it just a bad run of luck, or had his limited abilities finally caught up to him?

The coffee suddenly tasted bitter as he recalled the events of the past week and he pushed the mug away. Dipping his head, he stared at his open palms, letting his thought roam, remembering the new graves, soft earth shrugged into mournful mounds. His hands trembled as he heard the words again: "If only we had time to get a real doctor" ... "I should've stayed in St. Louis; they have a hospital there."

The images tumbled though his mind, as vivid and real as they had been the first time. And just as harrowing and hurtful as they had been in every nightmare thereafter.

Several days earlier

"Nathan! Nathan!"

If not for Ezra Standish's cat-like reflexes, he would have been run down. He stopped the hurried figure in the middle of the boardwalk. Gripping both shoulders, he pushed back against the determined force, staring with annoyance at the disheveled boy.

"As I don't see our fine city in flames, what is the cause of your alarm?"

"Something's wrong with Jim Flanders." The young man coughed, resting his hands on his knees gulping in a great lungful of air. "I— He— Nate— Hurry."

"Jim Flanders?" The gambler frowned, recalling the elderly man who helped out around town. He delivered letters and wires from the post and telegraph offices, or sat outside the Clarion, selling papers for Mary. Sometimes he helped Virgil at the hardware store, or wherever else a hand was needed. "Where is he?"

"He's on the floor at Virgil's," Paul Ward answered as the thirteen-year-old dropped his school books. "I was late, running hard to get to school. I saw him through the window. I couldn't find Virgil. Mr. Flanders was sitting on the floor. He can't catch his breath."

"All right," Ezra said and eyed the store across the street. "You'll find Mr. Jackson at the hotel, having breakfast. I'll go stay with Mr. Flanders." He picked up the books and handed it to the winded boy. "Go."

+ + + + + + +

By the time Nathan arrived, Ezra had moved the wheezing man from the spot where he'd found him, as the morning sun pouring in on the man's pale, sweating face had caused him more discomfort. Now Flanders was resting on a cot in the back of Virgil's store, although the gambler had him sitting up, leaning back against the wall. A cold compress rested on his forehead.

"Jim, yuh been chasin' after them young gals again?" Nathan teased, his gaze not missing Ezra's grave look.

"Do you need you bag, or any equipment?" Standish asked him. "He shouldn't be moved."

"Sent Buck for it, but yuh can get me some more water." He unbuttoned the man's tight flannel shirt and pressed his fingers against the old man's neck. Flanders' pulse was racing and his skin felt clammy.

"Jim, can yuh hear me?" Nathan asked, noting that the man also appeared disoriented.

"Yeah ... sorry ... hard ... to— to..."

"Don't talk then," Nathan advised.


"Back here, Buck," he hollered, watching Flanders' grimace of pain. "Where's it hurt, Jim?" He watched the man's hand rise and move across his chest feebly, then drop. "How long?"

"Don't ... know ... can't breathe."

"Thanks, Ezra," he nodded, using the basin of water to wipe the gasping man's face, neck and chest. He took the bag from the worried ladies' man and opened it, removing his stethoscope. He listened to several spots on the heaving chest and then stood. "Buck, ease 'im forward."

Nathan moved the instrument over the man's back, frowning at the uneven rhythm he heard. He saw Buck mouth the words "His heart?" and nodded grimly.

"I'm gonna ease yuh down on the cot, Jim, okay?"

"Pain ... can ... give ... me ... something?"

"Yeah," the frustrated healer nodded, gently easing the man down onto a pair of thin pillows. "Where's Virgil?"

"Picking ... up ... delivery ... depot."

The train depot was a half-day's ride from town.

"You rest easy, Jim," Buck told the old man. "Nate here will take good care of you." He waited until the old man's eyes closed, then stepped over to where Nathan and Ezra stood. "Can you give him something? I mean, make him comfortable?"

"I'll give him some laudanum," Jackson replied, letting several drops dissolve into the water in the mug he held.

"He has no one. He lives alone in a room at the boarding house," Ezra said. "I'll update Mrs. Carson," he said, knowing the proprietress was going to be upset by the news.

+ + + + + + +

It was twenty minutes or more before the old man relaxed, his breathing evening out a little as he seemed to get more comfortable. His eyes slid shut and Nathan stayed close by, checking on his breathing.

Meanwhile, Ezra was having a conversation with Mrs. Carson, the plump woman trying to ply the elegant Southerner with a blueberry muffin. He managed to decline and told her about Flanders.

"Oh dear, I'm sorry to hear that."

"Has he been ill?"

"He's old, Mr. Standish, his body isn't what it used to be. He has his good days and his bad days." She paused, placing a large tray of muffins on the table. "But now that you mention it, he has been spending a lot of time in his room. And his appetite has fallen off a little."

"Maybe we should investigate? Perhaps there is something in his room that might aid Nathan."

"All right, it's this way." She led him up two flights of stairs to a room in the back. Unlocking the door, she stepped inside, eyeing the tidy room. "Everything seems fine." She moved as the gambler squeezed past her bulky figure. "Maybe his heart is giving out."

"That is what Nathan suspects," Ezra admitted, studying the old man's room. Then his eyes narrowed as he caught sight of a pile of cloths in the corner. He walked over and squatted down to examine the cotton rags.

"Good Lord!"

+ + + + + + +

"Buck, keep an eye on him," Nathan asked, patting the ladies' man's shoulder when he saw a pregnant woman halfway up the stairs to his clinic. "Mrs. Remer is headin' up m'stairs."

"Go ahead," Wilmington replied, easing into the chair next to the cot.

+ + + + + + +

Rose Remer peered into the open door of the clinic. "Nathan?"

"Miz Remer? Yuh okay, ma'am?" he said, coming up behind her. He led her inside, having her sit down in the large chair by his desk.

"I'm probably just making a lot out of nothing." She patted her extended belly. "But I've got three more months and it's our first..."

"That's alright, ma'am." He smiled at the young woman. "What's got yuh worried?"

"Well, I've been having some little pains." She flushed, embarrassed. "I've never had a baby before, and I don't know if it's gas pains from the ham and cabbage we ate for dinner, or if it's ... well, I didn't want to worry John."

"Where's the pain?" he asked, watching her hands fly across her abdomen. "How often?"

"It started during the night ... just small fleeting pains that come and go." She shifted. "It's been getting worse since daybreak."

"Yuh bleedin'?" he asked quietly, watching her blush again.

"No ... Oh God!" Her dark eyes widened. "You think it's the baby?"

"I didn't say that, ma'am," he soothed. "Yuh got no blood showin', it might just be what yuh ate, but I need to make sure." He paused, thinking about the couple's house nearby. "Is John home?"

"Yes, he's going over some legal briefs," she said of her lawyer husband.

How 'bout I walk yuh back? I want yuh to stay in bed today, take it easy, okay?" His eyes softened, taking away her uneasinessness. "I'll stop over and check on yuh later."

"Alright." She sighed, squeezing his hand. "I'm so glad I talked to you."

While Nathan walked the young woman down the street to her home, Ezra was running the other way, toward the store.

+ + + + + + +

"Where's Nathan?" Ezra asked breathlessly, finding Buck sitting beside the slumbering man.

"At his place. Mrs. Remer was there. What's wrong?"

"This!" He tossed the rags onto the table and saw Buck's face screw up. "I'll get him."

"Jesus!" Buck exclaimed as the gambler hurried out of the store.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan waited until the young mother-to-be changed into a nightgown and slid under the comforter on her bed. He did a quick examination and assured the anxious father that his wife was all right, but to keep an eye on her. He was walking back to the hardware store when he heard Josiah's deep voice as he passed the church.

"Looks like you're having a busy day, brother!"

"Yeah, yuh hear about Jim?" Nathan squinted up at the roof of the church where the preacher was hammering.

"Ezra flew by twice. He's looking for you. He was all worked up over something."

"Damn!" The healer hurried his step, hearing Josiah lumbering down the ladder behind him.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra and Buck were both by the cot when Flanders gasped loudly and begin to cough. Both scrambled to help, Ezra grabbing the old man from behind, Buck supporting his head.

"God, he's choking on it," Buck said. "Nathan!"

The healer sprinted through the door just as Buck's bellow reached his ears. He froze, stunned by the amount of blood pouring from the old man's mouth. It covered his chin and both his own shirt and Wilmington's.

"Nathan, he's spitting up blood. He's choking on it," Wilmington said. "Nate!"

The stunned healer blinked and moved in, grabbing Jim's shoulders. "I was so sure it was his heart..."

"What the hell's wrong with him?" the ladies' man asked, washing the blood off his hands in the water basin.

"I don't know," the shaken healer replied, spotting the rags strewn on the table. "I didn't ask. I figured it was his heart."

"He's bleeding inside." Sanchez rested his hand on Nathan's shoulder. "Could be consumption."

"Could be a lot of things!" Nathan snapped, annoyed with himself. "His stomach. His windpipe."

"Can you fix it?" Buck asked him.

"I set bones, Buck, and I can find a bullet, stitch-up a knife wound ... I ain't a surgeon. I wouldn't know where to start."

"You've gotta do something!" Wilmington said, eyeing the gasping man. "You can't just leave him like that."

"I got eyes, Buck!" Jackson stormed, wiping the blood from the old man's mouth.

"Buck," Sanchez warned the ladies' man, his hand still firmly clamped onto the healer's shoulder. "He's old, Nathan, he wouldn't survive surgery. He's too weak."

"Stop makin' excuses, I'm ain't no child!" Nathan hissed. "This ain't a train station."

"Do you need anything?" Ezra asked quietly, sending his support in a strong stare.

"Thanks, Ezra," Nathan managed. "I'll stay with him. Josiah, Miz Remer's havin' pains. It's too soon. Keep an eye out?"

"Will do," the older man replied. "But if it's his time, you can't change that, Nathan."

"No sermons, okay?" Nathan sighed, taking the soggy shirt off his now-unconscious patient.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah spent the rest of his morning and the early afternoon going between the Remer's and the hardware store.

He entered Watson's store with some lunch and saw the dejected healer approach, his shirt covered with blood. He set the platter down, following Nathan as he walked with shoulders sagging to the large basin of water.

They were both silent while the healer washed his bloody hands. Finally the emotional chocolate eyes met Josiah's own.

"He's gone. He never woke up."

"I'm sorry, Nathan," Josiah offered. "I'll take him over to the undertaker's. You need to eat. I think Mrs. Remer's getting worse."


Josiah winced as a tin mug flew across the room and the mournful eyes turned stormy. Muscles rippled under the man's broadcloth shirt and both fists clenched, pounding the table hard. Wisely, the ex-preacher didn't say a word.

Sanchez packed up the medical bag and then gave the angry healer's shoulder a tap, holding out the bag to him. "You take a few deep breaths on the way over; she don't need to see that face."

"Yeah," Jackson muttered, taking two deep breaths and then the bag. "Thanks." He moved back to the bed, resting his hand on the still-warm shoulder of the dead man. "I'm sorry, Jim."


"Don't, Josiah." He shook his head and glanced once more at the body, then left.

+ + + + + + +

It was dark when JD arrived back in town. He headed straight for the saloon and grabbed himself a beer and a bowl of chili. He carried them over and sat down beside Buck. He grabbed a biscuit from the plate in the middle of the table.

"Damn, I'm starved!" He ate a spoonful of the spicy concoction, then took a long swig of beer. "We worked straight through lunch. The place looks great! Maggie's gonna love it," he said of his friend's bride back east. "She should be here in a couple weeks. Mike says she's sending half of the furniture in Boston. She loves to shop." He continued to eat, finally noticing Buck's pensive expression. "Jeez, Buck, who died?"

"Jim Flanders," the ladies' man replied softly, then gulped down what was left of his whiskey. "And it wasn't pretty."

"Oh God." The youth swallowed the meat and beans and wiped his mouth. "How? When?"

"This afternoon. He had a spell at Virgil's. Nate thought- Hell, we all thought it was his heart. But he started coughin' up blood ... He choked on it ... Passed out and never woke up."

"That's awful! How's Nathan?" Dunne asked, knowing how hard his friend took anyone's death.

"Blamin' himself," Wilmington replied sadly. "He's over at the Remer's. She's in labor."

"She can't be," JD said and shook his head. "It ain't been long enough. I mean, she's just really showing..." He caught the painful expression in Buck's eyes and swallowed hard. "Oh no ... She gonna lose the baby? ... They were so excited. That's not fair!"

"Life ain't always roses, JD." Buck sighed, pouring himself another shot.

+ + + + + + +

The long, brutal night ended in a rush of blood. It saturated the sheets and the exhausted woman screamed once and fainted. Mary Travis gripped her hand, wiping her face with her free one. She saw the tiny thing in Nathan's crimson covered hands and flinched.

"Is it alive?" she asked, seeing that the usually emotional brown eyes were totally void of feeling.

Dawn was kissing his face, shedding too much light on the tiny body in his hands. He felt his chest constrict with pain and had to stifle a cry. He wiped the blood and muck from the tiny child, which barely fit into his hands. He'd never seen something so small or so fragile; it didn't seem real.

He gently used a cloth, wincing at the miniature fingers and toes. It was blue, despite his best efforts. To his eye, it had been dead at birth.

He wrapped the tiny being in a clean cloth and stood, his back aching. He heard Mary's question and his eyes rose first. He shook his head once and saw her bite her lip.

"Do you want me to get John?" she asked of the father-to-be, who was waiting downstairs with Josiah.

"No, I'll tell him." He set the baby in the cradle, which had been waiting by the bed. "She's so small," he choked, one dark finger brushing the tiny blue cheek.

"She'll have more, Nathan. It happens. I lost two before Billy."

"Don't make it hurt any less," he whispered, moving back to the bed. "She needs a fresh gown and-"

"I'll clean her up and change her," Mary offered, pulling the sheet down.

They knew before Nathan said a word. John sat down hard on the chair, his head dropping into his hands.

Josiah massaged the back of the disheartened man's neck. "I'm sorry, John."

The man's dark head bobbed and he lifted his head, teary-eyed. "How's Rose?"

"She's fine, John. This one just came too soon. It might not happen again. I'm sorry."

"I know, Nathan." The grieving man stood and shook the healer's hand. "Thanks for saving her." He took the glass of brandy Josiah offered and downed it in a single gulp, wiping the excess from his lips as Mary Travis appeared. She hugged him and squeezed both hands.

"She'll be waking up soon. You should be with her, John. The baby ... your daughter, is in the cradle by the bed."

"Thanks, Mary," he said. "For everything." He sighed hard and picked up a tiny bonnet. It was white and trimmed in lace. "I bought it on an impulse in Mrs. Potter's store yesterday. I was going to surprise Rose. She wanted a little girl." He placed it in the bottom drawer of his desk and went upstairs.

"Nathan, you look awful. Go home and get some sleep. I'll stay," Josiah offered. "Where's your bag?"

"It's upstairs," he replied flatly, staring down at his hands. He could still see the tiny corpse lying there in Jim Flander's blood. "I never asked about Jim."

"We'll bury him tomorrow afternoon. I guess we'll bury her too." He saw such sadness in the healer's dark eyes that it cut him to the bone. "Don't bear that wounded spirit alone, brother, your shoulders aren't that broad."

Nathan brushed past him, climbing up the stairs.

He was about to knock on the door when he heard Rose weeping. Her cries tore right through him, hitting every nerve like bullets. His knees buckled and he grabbed the railing, holding on to stay on his feet. The pain lingered and he forced himself to look past the half-open door.

It was a mistake.

The grieving father was sitting on the bed, holding his wife in his arms. She was cradling their dead child.

"I should've stayed in St. Louis," John said, voice breaking. "They have a hospital there."

"Don't." Rose placed her fingertips to his lips and curled against his chest.

Somehow Nathan got down the stairs, never pausing, even when he nearly ran down Mary Travis in the doorway.

"Nathan, did you get your-? Nathan?" she asked as he ran by, disappearing up the street. "Josiah?"

"The Lord sure talks in riddles sometimes," he answered gravely.

+ + + + + + +

The rain began at midday and continued in a steady drizzle. There was a small gathering around the new grave. Buck and Ezra lowered the coffin into the ground. JD stood by solemnly as Josiah read a verse.

"He's here," the young sheriff said and nudged his best friend.

Buck's head turned as Nathan staggered to the grave.

"He's looks awful."

"I reckon he's got good reason, kid," Buck muttered, moving to support his wounded friend. The ladies' man remained silent until Josiah was done. Then he waited patiently as the others left. It wasn't Nathan's ashen complexion that worried him, it was the void where his eyes should be. And he smelled the liquor and saw the red clay on the man's cloths. Jackson must have ridden out right from Remer's, and found a nice spot outside town where he could grieve in private.

Nathan never moved, his gaze fixed on the muddy grave. A simple cross bearing Jim Flanders' name and age were all that was left. But Nathan bore other scars - the questions that had nagged at his brain all day.

He'd ridden out of town, pausing only long enough to take a bottle with him. With every swig of the strong liquor, he had felt the liquid fueling the fire that burned inside of him. His lack of skills screamed at him. They shrieked from Jim Flanders' bloody mouth and cascaded over the tiny child's corpse, fell past the grieving father's lips.

"They have a hospital there."

He heard a cough and turned long enough to see Buck's muddy boots and tan pants. He'd left most of the liquor he'd consumed in vomit by the river. But he'd left more than old whiskey and bile there; a part of his soul had drifted away as well. He knew he should feel anger, or remorse, or cold, but he felt nothing inside. He was totally numb. He didn't feel the soaking rain that drenched him. He didn't feel Buck's strong hand on his back.

"Leave me be," he croaked. "I'd like to say goodbye ... alone!"

"Alright," Buck agreed, the rain soaking him. "I just wanted to say I'm sorry, Nathan. I was wrong. This, the baby, all of it. It's not your fault. Don't punish-"

"Go away, Buck," Jackson said in a cold, flat voice, moving away from the ladies' man.

Buck sighed and started down the street toward the church. He stepped inside, making his way to where the large man was pulling on a dry shirt. He caught the towel Sanchez threw at him and wiped his face and hands.

"We've gotta do something, Josiah. I've never seen him like this."

"If we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son cleanses us all from sin," he quoted from John 1:7.

"Yeah, well can you tell 'Him' to hurry?" Buck tossed the towel away. "Because we can't afford to lose that man," he added, his heart aching for his friend.

+ + + + + + +

"It's gettin' worse!" Chris shouted over the wind. The storm had come up so suddenly that they hadn't had any time to prepare.

The best friends were two days from home when the dark, angry clouds exploded. The driving rain was accented by harsh winds so severe the riders were unable to remain upright. "We need to find shelter. Vin? ... Vin?" He reined his horse in and turned his head, squinting through the darkness. "What's wrong?" He yelled over the thunder, watching the tracker rubbing his throat.

Helluva time t' get sick, was Vin's only thought. Two days from home and he had a cold coming on. His head hurt, his throat was sore and now a damn storm was sucking his breath away. He swallowed hard, immediately regretting it. It felt like there were razors slashing his throat.

Tanner hunched lower, wincing and trying to turtle-up against the storm. The trip to a neighboring town to eyeball some horses had been a nice diversion. He had enjoyed Chris's company - they rarely got the chance to spend time alone. But then he had woken up this morning with a heavy head and a tender throat. He'd ignored it, heading back to Four Corners with Larabee.

He didn't see or hear Chris until the gunslinger's hand snaked out and grabbed his swaying body.

"Vin, what is it?" Larabee hollered over the gale.

"Nothin' ... jest' tired," Vin shouted back, eyeing the horizon. "Line shack?"

"Yeah," Chris said and nodded after squinting at the tiny building. "Let's ride!"

+ + + + + + +

The line shack was small but dry, and that was all that mattered. Chris got their horses settled, shoving Vin ahead. "Get a fire started," he urged the tracker.

There was a single bed, a table and two chairs, a pot, a few plates and utensils, and large cobwebs. Vin eyed a small stool near the door and broke it, tossing the pieces into the fireplace. He shucked his coat off, hung his soggy hat on a peg by the door and shivered.

Tanner was nearly knocked over when Chris stumbled in on a gust of wind, bringing the cold, pelting rain with him. "Get over by the fire!" he heard Chris order loudly, just before he shoved him again.

"I look like a cow t' ya?" he rebuffed the gunslinger. "Quit ridin' herd on me, Larabee. What's fer supper?" He rubbed both hands together and squatted by the fire, letting the flames warm his face.

"Jerky and peaches," the sodden leader replied, tossing his saddlebags onto the table. He pulled out the items, along with coffee and two mugs. He took his poncho off and hung it near the fire, his nose wrinkling. "Jesus, Vin, that thing stinks when it gets wet," he complained as he moved the tracker's beloved hide coat farther away.

"It's a dead buffalo, ain't a bunch o' flowers," Tanner tossed back. "Snob."

"I heard that!" Chris filled the coffee pot with water, added coffee and put in on a rack in the fireplace. He saw the flinch as Vin swallowed and saw the flash of pain in the man's blue eyes. "Keep an eye on the coffee, I'll open the peaches."

"Nah, I'll do it." The ex-bounty hunter rose and moved to the table. "Last time ya got near a can, ya ended up shootin' it all t' hell."

"It wouldn't open," Chris defended himself. "It was defective."

"Ha," Vin scoffed. "Them beans wasn't as defective as yer impatient ass. They'd go down real good 'bout now." He sat down and opened the can defty, arching an eyebrow with a smug expression when his best friend appeared.

"Shut up, Tanner!" Chris growled, dividing the jerky.

"None fer me," the Texan said and shoved it back. "Sugar?"

"Yes, dear?" Chris smirked, grinning when the blue eyes rolled. He shook his head and pulled a bottle of liquor from his saddlebags.

"Better," Vin decided, pouring shots into both mugs of coffee. He took half of the peaches and then moved the can, only to be intercepted.

"I don't want 'em now; your fingers were all over them."

"So?" Vin replied, his voice rising with indignation.

"So, I don't know where else they were roamin' and scratchin'."

"Go t' hell!" the sharpshooter sassed, but he didn't take the can back. He gingerly ate the peaches, glad that they slid down his sore throat easily. Chewing the tough jerky would be out of the question. He swallowed the coffee too fast and swore. He pressed his hands against the tabletop, waiting for the pain to subside.

"You're gettin' to be a sloppy drinker, pard," Chris commented, dumping the rest of the peaches onto the younger man's plate. He knew why Vin had turned down the jerky. Now Tanner was rubbing his temples.

"Not so bad as I can't open a can without puttin' a half-dozen bits o' lead in it," he tossed back, nibbling the fruit gratefully. His gaze roamed to the cot for a second. He sipped the coffee and winced again.

"Looks like somebody needs some ditchwater," the blond said about Nathan's herbal teas.

"Looks t' me like somebody needs a gag," Vin grumbled, shivering again.

"Get some shuteye, Vin," Chris said seriously. "Once this storm blows over we're gonna have to make up some time."

"Okay." Vin yawned, rubbing his throat. "Wake me up in a couple hours. I'll trade ya." He nodded at the chair his friend was sitting on.

By the time Larabee finished his jerky and coffee, and stoked the fire, the younger man was snoring softly. He paused at the bed long enough to cover Vin with a damp bedroll. He saw Tanner shivering and frowned. Two days was a long way to ride with a fever. His poncho was dry, so he laid it over the ailing tracker, hoping the wool would provide some warmth.

He settled at the table, lit a cheroot and pondered on the ride home.

+ + + + + + +

They next day passed slowly, each man weighing the situation carefully. JD felt awkward, not quite sure what to say around Nathan. Buck tried, but was rebuffed. Ezra tried too, and actually got the healer to eat a meal with him. But Jackson's eyes remained cold and lost, even Josiah, his closest friend, couldn't help.

+ + + + + + +

It was near suppertime, and Buck was crossing the street when gunfire erupted from the freight office.

"We've got trouble!" he shouted behind him, watching Ezra and Josiah run from the saloon. "Get in the alley, kid!" he warned, knowing they needed to spread out.

Three men ran from the building, firing freely. One was felled by Josiah's gun and the others rode away. Buck ran to the office, watching JD, Ezra and Mike Moore jump on horses and give chase.

"Buck, gimme a hand," Josiah shouted, kneeling over the clerk. "He's got two bullets in him. Let's get him to Nate's. He dead?" he asked and nodded to the body lying in the street.

"Yeah, head shot," the rogue replied, gingerly picking up the slight man.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan heard the shots and roused himself from slumber. He shook off the mental cobwebs and staggered to the door just as it flew open.

"What happened?" he growled, eyeing the huffing body of the preacher.

"Frank took two during a robbery." Josiah made his way to the bed. "One went through his shoulder, the other's in his gut." He nodded to Buck, "Get the trash off the street."

"Yeah," Wilmington nodded and left.

"I'll boil some water," Sanchez said and saw a spark of something in Nathan's eyes. He wasn't sure what it was, but it was better than the dead orbs he'd been staring at for two days. Still, he watched the puppet-like motions as the healer cut away the injured man's shirt. The man's dark hands shook as they pressed a clean cloth to Frank's abdomen.

As Josiah filled the pot with water to boil Jackson's instruments, he thought about the funeral that morning. The tiny body of the Remer baby had been buried. The grieving parent's didn't linger long. As soon as they thanked everyone, they retreated to their house. Nathan hung back on the outskirts of the group, feeling the eyes of the townsfolk on him. He'd been in his office all day, unable to pull himself free of the guilt that clung to him.

By the time the steaming instruments arrived on a hot plate at the bedside, Nathan's arms were scrubbed to the elbow. He never said a word, just went to work. Upon seeing the damage, his heart sank. The bullet had sliced through intestines and struck the liver. He heard Buck's voice outside, trying to dissuade the man's wife from entering.

"Keep going," Sanchez said, then turned at the screaming woman's entrance. "I'll talk to her."

"Keep goin'?" Nathan snapped back. "Where? I can't do this, Josiah, I'm not a surgeon!"

"You're also not a coward," Sanchez replied sharply. "God don't give gifts to fools. Now pick up that scalpel and get to work." It was tougher than he'd intended, but it was necessary. He saw Jackson's hands moving, methodically doing what instinct and study had taught him.

But it wasn't enough. Twenty minutes later, as Nathan tried to sew up the torn bowels, Frank died; he had felt nothing.

Nathan closed the wound and washed the body off, then cleaned his hands. He moved numbly outside to the landing. "He's gone. I'm sorry."

"No!" Frank's wife screamed, pummeling the healer's chest with her clenched fists. "He can't be dead! If only we had a real doctor..."

"Shit!" Buck hissed, kicking the railing and gripping it hard enough to split. He knew she was grieving, but it was just one more nail in Nathan's coffin. Curiously, the other man never flinched. It was as if he hadn't even heard her. He sighed once and moved away, taking each step slowly.

"Nathan, wait up." He jogged after the stiff figure, leaving Josiah to support the new widow.

"I'm tired, Buck," Nathan said, dropping down to sit on the edge pf the boardwalk. "I ain't been so tired since the war."

Buck wasn't sure how to reply. Fighting in the war was one thing, holding someone's life in your hands and watching them die, over and over, was another. He'd seen the gore up close. Mountains of arms and legs piled high outside field hospitals, men screaming and writhing on blood-soaked tables while a surgeon sawed off a gory appendage. He'd flinched and turned away, unable to bear the horror. But Nathan hadn't been so lucky. He'd fought the hardest battle and was still carrying the scars.

"I never realized what kind of courage it took to do your job. Then, it was strangers ... doctors working next to meat wagons. Now the stranger is a friend, and I've never been prouder," he offered with a pat to Nathan's knee.

For the first time in the past harrowing days, Jackson felt a flicker of warmth. Deep down in the cold tomb he was walking around in, something stirred. He sighed and eyed the lingering crowd watching the empty freight office and whispering amongst themselves. "Thanks, Buck," he managed. "I think I'll take a walk..."

Buck watched Nathan go and shook his head, not sure how to help the suffering man. He drew himself up and headed for the telegraph office. He would send a message to the Judge and the surrounding towns, then head out to find the others.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan walked for a while, letting his emotions rise and fall. For the first time in years he thought back to his days before the war. He had lived in Texas, on a plantation. Life had been simpler ... before he chose to carry the burden of life and death. Everything changed when he had become a stretcher bearer.

He had worn the Union blue proudly and absorbed as much as he could from the tired doctors he had worked with. As each passing month had given him more and more knowledge, he had seen his road. And it wasn't long before he was assisting the physicians and learned that his judgment was good. His instincts were sharp, and he was a fast learner, too. He had never looked back or questioned that, until now.

Maybe it was time to find a new road, one without such a terrible toll. He was on his way back to town, when he saw a figure slumped over a horse.

"JD!" he cried out, running forward as the dark-head rose.

"Nate, thank God! Mike's hurt bad. We caught 'em. Ezra shot one. Mike and me were pinned down. We got the other guy, but he got us first. I'm okay, it went through," he slurred, the blood loss from his arm wound catching up to him. "Mike got it in the side ... Ezra's with him ... at his house ... it was closer."

"Okay," Nathan advised, climbing up behind the pale, drooping sheriff. "Let's get yuh to town and I'll ride back."

+ + + + + + +

By the time Nathan got to Moore's house, Ezra had wrapped the bodies up and tied them to their horses. He also had the wounded man stripped and in bed.

"The bleeding's stopped and he's breathing good. It doesn't appear serious." The healer stood and moved away from the bed.

"Boil?" Standish asked.

"Some days I hate that word." Nathan sighed and nodded. "JD's okay. I cleaned the wound. It broke his arm. He's sleeping at my clinic. Buck's keeping an eye on him."

"The clerk?" Ezra asked, putting a pot on the fire. He saw Nathan's head shake and winced, wondering how much one man was meant to bear. He did his job silently, watching the healer skillfully remove the bullet and sew up the wound. The bullet had only tore muscle and there was minimal damage. "He'll be fine," he said.

"Yeah, with some rest ... he might get a fever." Jackson frowned, pulling the blanket up. "I'll need some supplies..."

"If you give me a list, I would be glad to retrieve whatever you require," Ezra offered. He took the note from the healer and pulled his coat on. "Nathan, I know this week has been insufferable for you. I wish I could find the words to take the pain away, but there is no such verse. However, I would like you to know that despite these past dark days, you've never stood taller." He saw the other man's eyes widened for a moment, a hint of shine in them, and then they dropped again. "I'll be back as soon as I can," Ezra said.

+ + + + + + +

A moan from the bed drew Nathan out of his thoughts. He moved over and sat next to his patient, who stirred and blinked at him.

Two confused blue eyes studied his face. "Nate?"

"Yeah, Mike, just rest easy. Yuh got shot in the side. Yuh'r gonna be fine. I got some tea for yuh. It'll help with the pain." He saw the man's chin dip once and fetched the mug from the stove. He got Mike to drink half of the warm liquid before his eyes closed again.


"Yeah?" He waited as one eye opened. A hand came up, shaking badly, and Jackson grabbed it.

"Thank you ... for saving ... for..." He yawned and blinked. "Tell Josiah ... thank God, too..."

+ + + + + + +

It was late in the day and Vin Tanner was beat. He felt the horse moving under him, his shivering body swaying with every motion. Every so often he would glance up, catching sight of Chris's back and then let his head drop back down again. When Four Corners finally appeared, he never felt the words, "Home Sweet Home," more. He shut his eyes, swearing softly as the pain in his throat intensified. He didn't look up again until someone tapped his knee.

"I'll see to him," Chris offered, steadying Vin until he was down. "See if Nathan's in."

"Ya ain't gotta tell me twice," Vin said. "Thanks, Chris."

+ + + + + + +

JD winced and saw the same expression mirrored on his best friend's face as Buck came over to share dinner with him. Had it not been for a slight fever and some dizziness due to blood loss, he would be in the saloon.

The cause of their pain was the arrival of the demonic twins. David and Daniel Livingstone were as spoiled, nasty and obnoxious as they came. The ten-year-old boys were whining and fussing as they came through the door. Their loud, nasal voices pierced the air painfully. "I ain't lettin' that darkie stick me with a needle," David protested.

"Hush up!" Lottie Livingstone pulled her other son through the door behind her. "If you need a needle-"

"He ain't even a doctor," Daniel whined, pulling free and trying to escape. "I heard Pa say there ain't no darkie doctors."

"You'll do as you're told!" she warned them, shoving them down onto the bench and watching Nathan Jackson approach.

"What's the problem, Miz Livingstone?" he asked, spotting the boys.

"They've been throwing up and having diarrhea," she told him. "It started about an hour ago."

"Yuh been eatin' Mrs. Fletcher's crab apples again?" he asked the pair, recalling a previous incident when their teacher had brought them over.

"I ain't gotta tell you nothing, you stinkin' slave!" David hissed, kicking Nathan hard in the knee.

"You ain't gonna touch me," Dan agreed. "I ain't gonna end up dead like them other folks you been killing all week."

Before Nathan could reply, a brown blur appeared. Jackson retreated to find something to ease their pain, letting the tall ladies' man address the pair.

"You're gonna sit there and eat mud if that's what'll fix you," Buck ordered harshly as he glared at the dreaded pair. He knelt down and leaned in close, whispering to them, loathing in his eye, "You keep those filthy, whinin' mouths of yours shut, you hear? Or I'll get rid of your bellyache."

For a moment, silence reigned. Buck remained in place while Nathan gave the haughty mother instructions and a bottle of medicine. Then the demons stood up defiantly.

"You're nothing but a whore-monger, I heard my pa say so!" David snarled at Buck.

"You're an animal, just like him!" Daniel agreed, nodding at Nathan before his mother cuffed the back of his head. "What?" He jerked free of her grasp. "It's true. They all are." He snorted and followed his brother to the door. "They'll end up dead, too ... like all the other folks he killed."

"Daniel!" She shoved him outside, but a long arm shot out in front of her, preventing her exit.

"Ain't you forgetting something?" Buck growled, letting his dark blue eyes reflect how disgusted he was with her and her children.

"Thank you," she mumbled, not even looking at the healer.

"I don't think he heard you!" Buck forced her to turn around. She repeated her words but he still gripped her arm. "I think you forget something else." He nodded to her purse.

"How much do I owe you?" she snapped, shooting Buck a hard look.

"Lady, they're ain't enough money in the bank for that!" the ladies' man replied. "Nate?" He drilled the other man and waited.

"Two dollars, Miz Livingstone," Jackson replied, still stung by the children's words. They were repeating what he knew was already circulating around town. He took the coins from her and retreated to his desk. He saw a flask appear and fought the temptation. "No, thanks, Buck," he sighed, his head pounding.

"I hope to hell that pack of rats leave town," he said about the Livingston family. "Because I don't want to be responsible when them two hit manhood. You okay?"

"No, Buck," Jackson replied honestly, "but thanks." He didn't move away from the hand that came down on his shoulder, and missed the touch when it was gone.

+ + + + + + +

Vin flattened himself against the wall as the Livingstone lizards ran by. David turned and stuck out his tongue at the tracker.

"Stinkin' Injun-lover!" the brat hollered.

Vin's eyes narrowed and he pulled his Mare's Leg well out of Mrs. Livingstone's sight. He aimed and pulled the hammer back, grinning when the pair paled and screamed. They scampered ahead of their startled mother.

Tanner turned and jogged up the remaining stairs slowly.

Nathan sat, studying the patterns of wood in his desk. He heard the words of the hellions, mixing with the other whispered snatches of conversation that had been circulating around town. Jim Flander's voice joined in, along with Frank's and the hollow cries of the dead child. Frustration built, bringing all the anger and wrath he'd been holding in to the fore. Maybe they were right. Maybe they did "need a real doctor," and he should "stick to his own kind." He never heard Vin knock, his own head pounding too hard.

"Nate?" Vin leaned around the door. "Ya busy?"

"No, Vin!" he exploded, shooting to his feet and towering over the shorter man. "I was just countin' my money. After that I'm gonna eat some bon-bons and ride over to my estate." He was so consumed with the pent up rage, finally airborne, that he didn't see startled blue eyes. "Yuh better be careful. Us darkies is a scary lot. Yuh best hide your youngun's and women folk," he ranted, not even aware of what he was saying.

"Nathan?" The shocked tracker recovered slightly, his gaze locked on Jackson's rage.

"Get out, Vin! I ain't got time for no speeches. I'm done used up." Vin and Chris were back and they had no doubt heard about what had happened. He didn't want sympathy, or any kind words. He didn't know what he wanted. He was too consumed by a dark coldness, he didn't even care. All he saw were corpses, graves and wagging tongues. He didn't see Vin turn away and retrace his path down the stairs.

"Buck?" JD sat up, shocked by the loud words that shook the room. He'd never seen Nathan so livid.

"Yeah." The rogue shook his head and rose. With a pat to the stunned youth's back, he made his way to the healer's desk. Nathan was gripping the chair in front of him so hard Wilmington felt sure it would break under the pressure.

"What the hell was that?" Wilmington demanded. "I'm talking to you!"

"I ain't listenin' no more," Jackson returned. "I'm done listenin'."

"Fine, you go ahead and choke on self-pity," Buck issued coldly. "That man damn near got himself shot to death savin' your hide. He didn't even know you that day. He doesn't see the color of someone's skin, only their heart. He's never done a thing to deserve that, except treat you with respect."

Nathan exhaled deeply, as the image of a young man with long hair and compelling blue eyes cleaved the voices that damned him. His soulful stare and courageous stance chased the demons away. Nathan could remember the slim man in the cemetery, standing in front of a lynch mob without flinching.

Jackson sighed, rubbed his neck and shook his head. "You done?" he asked Buck, feeling more tired than he'd felt in years. His spirit was floundering, beaten down by the air of uncertainty.

"No," Buck said. "One more thing. When was the last time Vin Tanner came up here and asked for your help?"

The ladies' man saw the healer's sad brown eyes and his trembling hands. They both knew Vin wasn't one to complain. Tanner had ridden with bullets in him, broken bones, and worse. And he usually waited patiently for Nathan to finish tending to one of the others before letting himself be treated. For him to come in voluntarily meant something was hurting him - bad.

Buck waited for Nathan to reach him, watching as the dark head came up again.

"I need some air," Jackson said simply. "I'll find him..."

+ + + + + + +

Chris was halfway through a ham sandwich, his hand on his beer, when Vin dropped to the seat next to him.

Ezra stopped shuffling long enough to confirm something deeper than physical pain in the young man's eyes.

"You see Nathan?" Larabee asked, wondering why his friend was back so soon.

"Yeah," Vin managed, refusing a plate Inez carried over for him. "No thanks," he told her, rubbing his throat.

"You haven't eaten all day," the blond warned. "Soup?" he asked Vin, then turned to the pretty young woman when the Texan's head bobbed.

She nodded and disappeared into the kitchen.

"Well?" Larabee asked, chomping on a pickle.

"Well what?" Vin shivered, pulling his coat closer.

"How's Paris in the spring?" Ezra offered, knowing exactly what the leader meant.

+ + + + + + +

"Huh?" Vin wrinkled his nose at the gambler, who rolled his eyes.

"Nathan!" Chris growled, then drained his beer. "What'd he say about your throat?"

"Dunno," the Texan replied, nodding his thanks to Inez when she returned with a bowl of beef vegetable soup. He was so hungry he didn't even bother to pick out the mushrooms.

"You must be ill," Standish quipped, watching the liquid meal disappear, vegetables and all.

"What do you mean, you don't know?" Chris demanded from Tanner as he pushed his empty plate away and stared at the tracker.

Ezra stood and got Larabee another beer and a platter for himself.

"He was ... wasn't..." Vin paused, lifting the bowl and sipping the rest of the broth. "... had somethin' buggin' him ... I jest said hello an' he took m' head off."

"It's not his fault," the Southerner said in the healer's defense. "He's had a trial since you left town."

"What happened?" Larabee asked, eyeing the shadows on the gambler's face.

"It began when our resident octogenarian passed away," Standish began.

"Who?" Vin interrupted, screwing up his face at the strange word.

"Jim Flanders," Ezra said, opening his mouth to continue.

"He weren't no such thing," the sly Texan interrupted again. "He worked fer the railroad after he got out of the Army."

Chris hid his smile behind his beer mug and Ezra swallowed his chuckle, almost.

"What?" Vin asked, watching his two friends grinning.

"I was referring to his age, not his profession," the gambler replied.

"Oh." Vin scowled. "He was in his eighties, wasn't he?"

"I've already established that fact," Ezra rebuffed.

"Why the hell couldn't ya just say that?" the tracker huffed, finishing his soup and standing. "All yer tangled-up words is givin' me a headache." He left his friends, the smoke-filled saloon only making his throat worse. He wanted a soft bed and a long nap.

Part Two

Nathan was passing the telegraph office on his way to the saloon. Inside were a group of townspeople who didn't see him. Their words froze him in his tracks.

"... he'll be here in two days. He's a friend of George's from the Army. He's been wanting a change a pace."

"What's his name?"

"Miller, Doctor Richard Miller. He's been a surgeon in the Army for years."

"Thank God! This town needs a real doctor, before anyone else dies."

Nathan backpedaled. The cluster of concerned citizens made up his mind for him. They had a real doctor coming. They didn't want or need him any more. All the months he'd spent building up their trust, all the good he had done evaporated. He was angry, a dangerous, simmering resentment filling him. To hell with their ungrateful hides, he'd leave.

The cries of the newly dead, along with the taunting twins' harsh words, propelled him back to his office. He'd pack and stop to see Josiah, then head out.

He turned the corner and ran into something. He blinked and saw a man lying on the ground.

"Jesus, Nate!" Vin barked, rising from the dirt.

"I didn't see yuh." He tried to move past the tracker, but Buck's words came back to him. "Yuh need somethin', Vin?"

Tanner opened his mouth to reply, but he saw such a mask of rage looking back at him that he was left speechless. In all the time he'd known Jackson, he'd never seen such venom in the man's eyes. "I think I should be askin' ya that question. What's wrong?"

"I'm drownin', Vin, and I'm headin' for shore," he said. "I can't breathe here."

"Huh?" Vin puzzled, following the man's long strides toward the clinic. "I heard about Jim. I'm awful sorry, Nate."

"I don't want yuhr pity!" Jackson snapped only to have his arm gripped and his body spun around. The blue eyes weren't sympathetic, they were angry.

"I don't know what bug crawled up yer ass, but I didn't put it there. Don't ya ever talk t' me like that again."

Nathan stared hard at the other man for a moment, then pulled free and continued up the stairs. He crossed the office to his room in the back. He didn't take much, just enough to hold him over for a while. He needed time to think. The walls were closing in here, and he couldn't get the voices out of his head. He turned to find not only Vin blocking his path, but Buck and JD as well.

"I'm leavin'!" he stated, trying to worm past the trio.

"Fer how long?" Vin demanded. "Ya got folks dependin' on ya. Ya just can't go an'-"

"I can do what I damn well please," Jackson replied hotly. "There's a doctor on his way; be here in a couple days. All you pretty white folks won't have to be polite no more."

"I'm gonna let that slide, because I know you've had a bad week," Buck said, his eyes hot. "But don't you ever trash talk like that again! Not here, not to us. Not ever!"

"Nathan, are you coming back?" Dunne asked, not liking the uncomfortable silence.

"I'm quittin', JD. I'm done. I'll be back for my things." He saw Vin's confused look and paused. "Yuh got a problem?"

"No." Vin leveled a cold stare on the other man. "Take care o'yerself. While yer out there, keep yer eyes open. I'm missin' a friend. If ya come across 'im, ya give 'im this." Vin offered his hand, then gripped the healer's shoulder. "Ya tell him t' come home. His name's Nathan Jackson. I used t' know him."

Nathan locked onto the blue eyes for a moment and then departed.

Josiah wasn't at the church so Jackson left a note. Then he rode long and hard until his horse was spent. He camped by the river, cooking a fat rabbit he caught over a fire.

A song came back to him, one he'd heard many times during the war. He lifted his eyes to the bright moon and sang in a low, soulful voice. "When this dreadful war is ended I will come again to you. Till me dearest 'ere we sever, tell me, tell me you'll be true. Though to other scenes I wander twill you memory pure and bright. In my heart will ever linger, shining with undying light. Do not weep love, sit beside me, whisper gentle words of cheer. Be not mournful now my darling, let me kiss away each tear."

He felt the tears forming, built upon the last days of agony. He left them fall, bitter drops of penance burning on his cheeks. He felt his chest tighten and continued the song, recalling the battlefields and bodies.

"On the gory field of battle your sweet voice will nerve my hand. And when weary sad or wounded your fair image near me stand. In my visions, like some angel you will turn my grief to bliss. On my pale and fevered forehead I will often feel your kiss. Our dear native land's in danger and we'll calmly bide the time till this dreadful war is over and the bells of peace shall chime."

"Hangin' up the scalpel for a stage?"

Nathan turned as Josiah sat down wearily, warming his hands on the fire. He lifted the coffee pot and poured himself a cup. He'd been briefed by the others and after Vin and Chris were filled in, he had left to find his friend.

"I don't know, Josiah," Nathan admitted, staring at the dancing flames. "I feel all used up ... got nothing but holes inside. Ain't never felt so empty, not since my ma died."

"For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" he quoted Matthew 16:26.

"Right now, I'd give just about anything." Nathan's shoulders slumped. "Them holes ain't the kind food can fill."

"I know," Sanchez said from experience. "I've been down that road a time or two, my friend. I'm still searching for the answer. But giving up the quest is something I cannot do, nor should you."

"They've got a doctor coming."

"They?" Josiah queried, dividing the rabbit between them. "Who exactly are 'they'?"

"Don't do this, Josiah, I'm in no mood for yuhr philosophy," he said, eating the succulent meat. "I heard them talkin' ... spoutin' their gratefulness about 'a real doctor' coming and 'nobody else dyin.'"

"Is that all you're worth?" Josiah probed. "You cannot measure a man by his profession. His code, what he truly is, is more important. It's what's inside, brother - your heart, your soul and your spirit. That's what youÕve lost. You find that, you'll find your answer."

"Great!" Nathan spat back, eyeing the dark horizon. He shoved the empty plate away, reaching for the bottle of whiskey he's brought with him. "I suppose yuhr gonna be glued to my side while I look?"

"Unless I get a marriage proposal." The preacher grinned, seeing Nathan's small smile.

"Guess I'm stuck with yuh then." Jackson took a swallow of the liquid and held his hand out, passing the bottle and his thanks. Something about the ex-preacher's wide grin warmed him. They shared the fire, letting the flames bask them in their warmth.

"I ever tell you about Miss Rosa Maria DeBella?" Josiah stretched out, laying down on the bedroll. "Now that was a fine cut of a woman. I was eighteen, she was about thirty. Lord, what a body..."

"It's gonna be a long night," Nate moaned, dropping his hat over his face and shaking his head.

+ + + + + + +

"Anybody seen Vin?" JD called as he entered the saloon. Chris and Buck both looked up and Ezra stood. "That new doctor's here. He's over at the clinic. He checked my arm and I mentioned Vin's throat. He should see him."

"Yeah," Chris agreed. "He's still in bed. I'll get him."

"I was going to my room, anyway, I'll rouse him," Ezra offered, nodding and departing. He tapped on Vin's door when he reached it, then opened it. "Vin, are you awake?" He eyed the curled up sleeper and frowned. There was no sign of flesh, bone or hair, just a slim lump in the bed, buried under a thick quilt.

Ezra strode over and pulled the blanket down, pressing his hand against the tracker's too-red cheek. A moan escaped Tanner and his body shivered, his teeth chattering. "Mr. Tanner, you're burning up with fever. The new physician has arrived. You should let him examine you."

"Ez?" Vin croaked, peeling an eye open. His head was pounding, his throat so painful he didn't want to speak. He had no appetite and he had been throwing up the water he'd been drinking. The bone-shaking chills and total lack of energy only added to his misery. "I ain't feelin' s' good ... can ya get Nate fer me?"

The gambler sighed and studied the confused expression. He gently eased the man up, feeling the violent shivering. Vin was not only fully dressed in two shirts and a vest, but he wore his hide coat as well. "How convenient you have your best jacket on," he teased, helping the ill man to stand. "Shall we go see the doctor?"

Standish led Vin to the clinic, guided him to a cot and sat him down, wrapping a blanket around his quivering shoulders. He gave Vin a pat on the back and went to the front of the room where he found a tall man with graying hair and spectacles. He was well dressed and sported an expensive watch.

"Good day, I'm Ezra Standish, you must be Dr. Miller."

"At your service," he said and came forward, extending his hand. "What can I do for you?"

"It's not myself, but Mr. Tanner who needs your skilled hands. He has a fever, chills and pain when swallowing."

"Hmm..." The doctor approached the bent over tracker, eyeing the rough clothes, unshaven face and unkempt appearance. He shook his head over the buffalo hide coat. "If you'll disrobe, I will examine you, Mr. Tanner."

"Who the hell are ya?" Vin rasped, jumping up and letting the blanket fall away. But he moved too fast, the lack of food and fever leaving him dizzy. He felt two hands force him back down onto the cot.

"It's Dr. Miller," Ezra explained, tugging off the offensive coat. "How many layers of clothing are you wearing?" He fingered the outside vest, only to have his hand slapped.

"None of yer fuckin' business. Get the hell away from me, Ezra!" Vin squirmed, eyeing the stranger and trying to escape. "Who the hell are ya? I want t' see Nate!"

"I've already told you," Standish said, his patience wearing thin, "this is the new doctor. He's taking over for Nathan. He can't help you if you don't cooperate."

"I won't bite, son," the older man advised, eyeing the ruffian. "Why don't you take off your shirt. Uh, shirts, and I'll get my bag?" He moved forward, eyeing the clear signs of fever. "Can I have a quick look? Open up?"

Vin stared hard at the middle-aged man's face, then he eyed Ezra, scowling and rubbing at the razor blades that had taken up residence in his throat. He couldn't go on much longer; he needed relief. Reluctantly, he tipped his head back and opened his mouth.

"It's what I suspected." The physician eyed the swollen, inflamed tonsils and the sacs of puss behind them. "You need to have your tonsils out. They're infected and the inflammation is causing your fever and pain."

"Out?" Vin pulled back, his gaze narrowing.

"Surgically removed," the doctor said, patting the tracker's stiff shoulder and turning. "I'll get my bag. If you'll get undressed..."

"Ya ain't cuttin' m' throat open. I'm gettin' the hell outta here." He bolted, falling right on the unsympathetic gambler, who shoved him back onto the bunk.

"You will stop carrying on like a spoiled child. Of course he won't cut your throat. He uses a special tool and removes them from the back of your throat - through your mouth. It's done all the time. I had mine removed as a child." He spoke sharply, seeing the rebellion lingering in Tanner's fever-bright eyes. "Fine, have it your way. I'll get Mr. Larabee."

"Aw hell!" Vin sighed, watching the doctor move away. He nodded reluctantly and began to unbutton his top shirt.

Ezra left and to update the others.

Vin removed his vest and shirts, then took off his undershirt. He wrapped the blanket around his freezing body and eyed the empty room. "... the hell is he?" he muttered, rising and tiptoeing to the outer area. Not seeing the doctor, he moved back farther to the pantry where the medicine cabinet was. His eyes widened in shock. The doctor was drawing something from a green bottle into a syringe. Before Vin could protest, thinking it was for him, the needle disappeared into a vein in the doctor's arm.

Tanner's eyes narrowed and he saw the physician sit back in the chair, his eyes glazed. Something cold crept inside the fevered man and he got scared. He always trusted his instincts and they were shouting at him that this man was not to be trusted. He wasn't letting him come anywhere near his throat with a blade. He backed up and hit the cabinet, causing all the bottles to rattle.

"You shouldn't be up." The doctor's voice was sultry and languid as he floated in a sea of bliss.

"I'm leavin'," Vin declared unsteadily. "I changed m' mind." His gaze slide to the bottle.

"It's just a tonic. It's good for energy and gives me strength," Miller lied. He saw the blue eyes study him and felt his own fear rising. Without exchanging a word, they both knew the score. He rose and moved quickly, taking advantage of the younger man's unsteady, fevered state. He grabbed a bottle of ether and tossed some onto a rag.

"Get the hell away from me. Yer crazy. Ya ain't cuttin' me." Vin fell hard, landing on his knees as the room spun around. The lack of food and high fever had taken his strength away. He felt a pressure on his tender throat as hands closed around it from behind. He fought weakly against the foul smell, biting the hand, which dropped the rag. But the damage was already done and he couldn't move. Vin was hauled up, the lack of air sudden and intense. He felt himself slipping away as his body was laid on the cot. He was dazed and felt sick.

The doctor eyed the stuporous patient and grinned. "Of course, they are so badly infected, death is always a risk," he said, tapping the tracker's slack cheek. He bent over Tanner, watching the fear in the helpless man's blue eyes. "Not to worry, my good man, my dirty secret will die with you."

Miller pulled the half-conscious man's neck back, letting Vin's head drape over the edge of the cot. He got his tools and sat on a stool behind the tracker's head, gripping it between his knees. He opened Tanner's jaw wide and clamped it, securing his tongue. He saw the fear again in the bobbing Adam's apple. He smiled at the fevered man, thinking about the tonsillatome. He didn't have it with him; it was in his room at the hotel with his other tools.

Vin's heart hammered, his tongue was being bitten by a metal bar of some kind that caused him to gag. He shifted and saw blurry facial features above him.

"Shhh!" The doctor pulled the damp hair from the young man's flushed face and sighed. Seeing the fear in the half-closed eyes and felt a surge of power. His helpless victim was before him. He bent low and chuckled, stroking the damp cheek. "It will be over soon. Don't make it harder on yourself."

He picked up a probe and deftly moved his fingers, barely touching the back of Tanner's throat. The tracker jumped and moaned.

Grinning as the adrenaline rushed through his veins, Miller reached for a scalpel. He ignored the weak, frantic moans of denial coming from the young man, his smile growing as took in the glint of silver. Caressing the tool, he turned his attention to his victim's exposed throat.

+ + + + + + +

"What the fuck are you doing?" Chris Larabee yelled, seeing Vin's body jump. His gaze quickly took in the tracker's fist, balled into the fabric, the veins bulging on Vin's neck. His eyes burned, taking in a horrific thing clamped to Tanner's jaw. But it was the damp, half-open eyes, full of pain and fear that nearly caused Larabee to explode. "Christ, he's still awake!" His voice was incredulous. Then he spotted something silver in Vin's mouth. "Get the hell away from him," he ordered.

The doctor didn't move his hand, but he clearly saw that his man was very dangerous. He would have to proceed very carefully. He removed the scalpel, spotting the gun. "That won't be necessary. I was only examining the inflamed area." He deftly slid the scalpel into his pocket. "The tool I need is still packed in my room. This is required to keep his tongue in place," he said in response to the hot glare at the clamp.

"Get it out of his mouth," Chris ordered. "Now!"

"Very well." Miller knew the ether would prevent the young man from talking. He took off the device and stood. "You must be Mr. Larabee," he said, recalling the fancy dressed man's warning.

"I'll be your worst nightmare if you let anything happen to him," Chris warned venomously, staring the man down as he moved to let him pass. Ezra had told them about Vin's problem and Chris was glad he had acted so quickly. Something about this man made him wary. He pulled Vin back onto the cot as the door slammed. He eyed the tracker's half-opened eyes with worry. Vin had been on his feet and sassing Ezra just a few minutes ago. "You okay, Cowboy?" He sat Vin up and slapped him forcefully, then sniffed. "What the hell's that smell?"

The fog lifted, the monster had left and through fevered eyed Tanner saw his redemption. He had heard every word Miller had uttered and panicked. He snaked out his hand, grabbing Chris's arm and trying to speak. His tongue felt thick and wouldn't work, leaving him making only grunts.

"What?" Larabee asked, staring at the naked fear looking back at him. It was a look so rare for Tanner that it frightened him. "Did he hurt you?" He watched the man's head dip once and felt the fingers digging into his arm. "Son-of-a-bitch!" he swore, shoving Vin's arms into his coat and grabbing the shirts.

The pupils of Vin's eyes told Chris that the tracker had been drugged. "He give you something? To knock you out?"

Again the head nodded.

"What's he hiding?"

He saw Vin panic again and draped an arm across his neck and snagged the loose, tan pants with his free hand. "Okay, Vin, we'll go to my room and get it squared away."

Larabee used the back door to the boarding house, easily settling Vin into his bed. He gave him cold coffee and continued to tap his face. Finally, he sat the dazed man upright. The sky-blue eyes were frantic, darting past Chris to the door.

"Don't let 'im ... cut me," Vin pleaded, his voice hoarse and barely audible. "He ... shot ... somethin' in ... in..."

"In you?" the blond asked, gripping both of Tanner's shoulders.

"No ... no," Vin replied, shaking his head, sighing and sagging.

"Easy, Vin, lay down."

"No," Vin protested, gripping Larabee's shoulder. "His arm ... green bottle ... syringe ... said it was ... . a t-t-t-tonic ... his eyes ... funny." Vin coughed and shuddered until his teeth began to rattle and felt himself lowered onto the bed.

"Ezra said those bad tonsils have gotta come out, Vin. The infection could kill you."

"Nate," the tracker pleaded in a wispy rasp, all his energy spent.

"You sure?" Chris inquired. "Miller's an Army surgeon. Maybe he just has strange methods, or-"

"I ... don't ... trust ... 'im," Vin declared, drilling the other man's eyes intensely and gripping his arm.

"Okay, Vin, that's good enough for me." Larabee sighed, feeling as uneasy as Vin. The sight of the silver tool in Tanner's mouth had left him wary as well. He gave the tracker's shoulder a tug and stood. "I'll find Nathan. I know where he went."


"What?" He saw the naked fear again.

"What if ... he gets me?"

"I won't let that happen," Larabee promised. "I'll tell the others."

"Bucklin ... here?" Vin asked, eyeing the empty room.

"He will be. You rest easy, we've got your back." He covered Vin and walked to the window. He saw JD and waved him over. When the young sheriff appeared under his window, Chris eyed the surrounding area carefully. "Get the others."

Once they were all in his room, Larabee updated them. They agreed to take shifts, watching over Vin until Chris returned with Nathan and Josiah. Ezra volunteered to parley with the city council members who hired Miller. Plying them for information would be the easiest way to get more background information.

Satisfied that Vin's back was safe, Chris gave a final glance at the tracker and then departed.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra was on his way to the telegraph office, having gathered enough ammunition for a search. The more he had heard about the "good doctor" the less he trusted him. Vin's instincts would prove true, he was sure of that.

He saw the immaculately groomed man step out onto the boardwalk a few feet away.

"Good afternoon," he greeted and nodded to Mary Travis, who was speaking to the physician.

"There you are," Dr. Miller said, obviously flustered about the missing man. "That young man you brought to see me is missing. I left him with your Mr. Larabee and he took him."

"Mr. Tanner does not belong to anyone, not to Mr. Larabee and most certainly not to me!" The Southerner glared at Miller. "Furthermore, Mr. Larabee did not abscond with anyone. Vin has decided to wait a while before undergoing treatment."

"He's very ill. You're in no position to make a decision like that."

"I didn't," Standish said. "Mr. Tanner had reached the age of majority and it is his choice. Good day to you. Mary." He shifted so his back was to the doctor and gave her an intense stare, hoping she caught on. He went to the General Store, stalling until the frazzled doctor left. Undoubtedly, Miller would find out by asking the right people that Chris had a shack outside of town. That might buy them some time. If he thought Vin wasn't in town, he might be safe for the time being.

Finally, Ezra went to the telegraph office and sent his wires. He knew the clerk Jimmy well and tipped him generously.

"You bring me the replies directly, understand?"

"Yessir!" the eager youth said and grinned.

+ + + + + + +

The small cabin was tucked away just off the river. Abandoned long ago, it was clean and sturdy. It was the right place for Nathan to think. And Josiah was good company, perhaps the only person who really understood him. He didn't know why, but he trusted the large man. Josiah knew when to back off and had made himself scarce over the last couple days, disappearing into the woods with a Bible tucked under his arm.

Nathan sighed and went outside, watching the approaching sunset. He had thought long and hard about his life, but weighing the factors was difficult. How did you assay your soul?

He thought about Rain and her family. He cared deeply for the young woman and knew he would be welcome in the Seminole Village. But that was too close to the others. Vin visited frequently, as did Josiah. It would be too awkward.

He stared at his hands, turning them over again and again. How many lives had passed through them? Healing was in his blood now; it would be too hard to deny it.

Could he start over again? He shook his head; the answer wasn't clear.

"I don't smell my dinner."

Nathan smiled, welcoming the preacher's return. He glanced sideways as Josiah stepped up by his side.

"Then I guess yuh better get in there and start cookin'!"

"I was thinkin' about fried fish," Sanchez said seriously.

"I was thinking about a thick steak," Nathan mused, spotting the fish dangling from the other man's hand. ÒWe all got our crosses to bear."

"You been peekin' into the good book?" Josiah teased and then frowned, cocking his head. "We've got company, brother."

Nathan retreated inside, returning with a shotgun, but Josiah pushed it down.

"No need for that; it's Chris." He strode into the clearing as the large black horse appeared. "What's wrong?" he asked.

"Vin's sick." Chris slid down and took his empty canteen to the river to fill it. He took a long drink, then corked it tight. "Get saddled, we don't have time to waste. He needs surgery and-"

"Didn't that doctor get there?" Nathan asked, frowning and wondering about the tracker. "Sick how?"

"Real sick." Larabee sighed, rubbing his neck. "It started when we were out of town. His throat was bothering him then."

"He should've said somethin'," Jackson said without thinking. A moment later Larabee's irate face was inches away from his and the healer felt a finger jabbing against his chest.

"He tried, you sent him away!" Chris growled. "Now's he's got a fever and something wrong with his tonsils."

"Tonsils?" The dark-skinned healer clenched his eyes shut. "Infected ... aw hell, that ain't good. He could die if-"

"Then get your ass on a horse and get moving."

"He needs a doctor," the healer said, moving away and seeing the blue eyes again in his mind's eye.

"He needs you. He's asking for you, Nathan. He doesn't trust this new doctor ... and I don't either."

"Why, Chris?" Josiah saw the intense stare.

"Ezra got Vin over there and then came to tell us what was going on. He told us this doctor needed to take out Vin's tonsils. Something about inflammation and puss." He paused, recalling the strange sight he had found in the clinic. "When I got there and he was torturing Vin."

"Torturing?" Sanchez and Jackson asked at the same time.

"Vin's head was hanging over the side of the bed with some fuckin' clamp holding his tongue down. Miller had a tool or something way down in the back of his throat."

"From what I remember, that's about right," Nathan said, recalling the surgeries he'd witnessed.

"Oh really?" Chris snapped. "With the patient awake?"

"What?" Nathan recoiled.

"Vin was awake, and that bastard was up to something. I could smell it," he spat out. "I hustled Vin outta there to my room. The son-of-a-bitch drugged him. Vin caught him injecting himself with a syringe, said it made his eyes look funny." He turned to Nathan. "Look, Vin doesn't trust him, and neither do I. I don't want him anywhere near Vin, especially with a knife. Now, let's go!"

"I can't."

"That's funny," Larabee said and spun around. "'Can't' isn't a word Vin knows. He didn't think 'can't' that day a lynch mob nearly strung you up. He didn't say 'I can't' then. You're standing here 'cause he gave a damn. He wants you; he trusts you." He paused and sighed, dropping the acidic tone in his voice. "He needs you, Nathan."

Jackson walked slowly, taking in the words and seeing the scales again. He thought about Josiah's words and that Bible. Was this God's answer to his prayers? He nodded slowly, then packed and took the reins of his horse from Larabee. They exchanged a long glance and the blond nodded before retreating to his own horse.

+ + + + + + +

The metal teeth of the clamp bit deeply into his mouth, lacerating his tongue. Blood filled his mouth, choking him and running down his extended jaw. His eyes bulged as the face of the evil doctor appeared. A long knife was in Miller's hand and it came lower and lower and...


"Jesus!" Buck jumped up and grabbed the glistening body lying in the bed. Long dark curls were plastered to Tanner's face and neck. Blue eyes were wide, lost in a fever-induced nightmare. He could feel Vin's heart beating rapidly against his hand which was on the tracker's soggy flannel shirt.

"He's gonna kill me ... fuckin' cut m' throat," he rasped, trying to escape.

Wilmington grimaced and cupped Tanner's jaw in his hand, shaking the man's head gently. "Vin! Vin, wake up. It was a dream, just a dream. You with me?" He saw the man's eyes blink and narrow, then roam around the room. Then they focused on his face and a wave of relief blossomed.

"Bucklin," Vin whispered painfully, every word like he was swallowing hot, jagged shards of glass.

"Yeah, Slick, it's me." Wilmington waited until the man's breathing slowed down and his damp head rose. "Look at me, Vin. He won't get you. I won't let him. Ezra and JD are on guard outside, okay?"

"Sorry," Vin mumbled, embarrassed.

"For what?" Buck asked him, ruffling the wet locks as he hid his concern. The tracker's fever was rising quickly and he wondered how much longer the man could remain conscious. The medical book Ezra had gotten from Nathan's had explained about how dangerous the infection was. "How 'bout we cool you down some?" He tossed an apple at the door and Ezra stepped in.

"You rang?"

"His fever's up," Buck said, peeling off the wet flannel shirt. "Mix some more alcohol into that basin of water."

Vin heard the voices and tried to cooperate, but he couldn't sit up, couldn't lie down, couldn't seem to do anything, his legs and arms too heavy to lift or coordinate. His throbbing head and sick stomach just added to the misery he felt. He sagged against Buck's shoulder, glad for the support. He saw a fancy silk vest and jerked back, the blurry face unrecognizable.

"Get 'way," he murmured, then heard Buck's laugh.

"Now that ain't nice, Vin. Ezra's trying to help. It ain't every day he offers to give you a bath."

"You might do well to have a word with your barber," Standish added, trying to find a spot where Vin could focus on him. Buck's eyes didn't lie, their tracker was dangerously ill.

"Ezra?" Vin coughed, hissed and cried out. "Nate?" he whispered. "Hurts ... hell ... are ya?" He tried to peek past the two men.

"Shit!" Buck swore, waiting for Ezra to finish swabbing Vin's back. Then he let the gambler support Tanner from behind and washed Vin's chest, neck and face. The sluggish blue eyes tried to followed his hands but lagged behind. "All done, Vin." He eased the man down and covered him up. The blue eyes were just slits now, his breathing irregular.

Both men were worried.

Vin's hand reached out, grabbing onto the ladies' man's wrist.

Buck recognized the silent thank you and gently tapped the man's scarlet-streaked cheek. "YouÕre welcome, Vin." He rose and took the flask from Ezra. "I hope to hell they hurry - he's slipping."

+ + + + + + +

It was nearly midnight when the door opened. Chris heard two guns click and put his hands up defensively.

"It's me, Buck," he warned. "Turn the lamp up. Vin?" He moved to the bed and sat on the edge. "Vin, can you hear me? I got Nate ... Vin?" He tapped the wet cheek to no avail. "He's on fire..." he noted of the man's hot flesh.

"Let me see!" Nathan took the spot Chris left, feeling the tense gunslinger's leg at his hip. He felt Vin's glands and neck, took his pulse and then opened his mouth. "Sweet Jesus..."

"What do you need?" Josiah asked, his hands on his hips.

"I don't got one ... it's called a- It's a special tool that cuts the tonsil and catches it. Then you cautertize the incision and fight the fever."

"Can't you just cut it out?" Chris asked, frustrated, annoyed, tired and very worried. Vin looked awful and he wanted that fixed.

"No, he'd bleed to death." Nathan sighed, wiping Vin down with a wet cloth. "I need a ... a..."


"Yeah." He nodded and turned. "JD, how'd yuh know that?"

"It's right here." The youth walked over and deposited a book on the table.

Nathan rose and walked over, eyeing the drawing and the large description of the surgery and its aftermath.

"Yeah, that's it." He eyed the silver tool with loops on either end, and finger holes.

"We'll get it," Larabee snapped. "He can't afford to wait."

"I told yuh, I ain't got one."

"That doctor does. He told me he did." Larabee's head snapped up. "JD, what room is-?"

"Fourteen. Right down the hall." The young sheriff nodded to Buck. "Come on..."

Five minutes later, the pair reappeared, each carrying a bag.

"He wasn't in," Buck said, opening a large, square black leather bag. "Jesus, look at all these tools..."

"It's a first rate set-up," Jackson agreed, eyeing the instruments.

"Here it is." JD unrolled a smaller leather valise and held it out.

"Good!" Nathan took it and turned as Josiah appeared with a bowl of steaming water. "Yuh scare me sometimes, Preacher!" he said, amazed by how Josiah could get one step ahead of him. He dropped the tool into the water and went to prepare his patient. He moved the bed, easing Vin's head over the edge. He motioned for Chris to come closer and draped a large piece of cotton over Vin's chest and neck. He held out the retractor and saw the gunslinger blanch. "Is this what yuh saw in his mouth before?"

"Yeah," Chris said, shivering.

"It holds his tongue and mouth in place, like this." He gently tilted the tracker's head back, opened his slack jaw and applied the clamp. "That way I can see clear down to the back of his throat."

"I wish I couldn't."

Nathan smiled at the soft concern in the blond's voice. He saw Chris swallow hard and gently tapped Vin's arm. "I'm gonna snip out that mess and then cauterize the wound. Then comes the hard part - fightin' that fever. Okay?"

"Yeah," Chris said and nodded, uneasy about how vulnerable Vin was in this position. "But I don't like it..."

"I don't either, Chris," Nathan admitted. "Josiah, stay, the rest of yuh, get on outside."

"Where is the good doctor?" Ezra asked, holding the door for Buck.

"Haven't seen him, but he'll turn up. I bet he rode out to Chris's. He thinks Chris kidnapped Vin," the ladies' man answered.

They waited down the hall in Ezra's room, three of them sitting and Larabee pacing. Finally the door opened and Josiah stepped inside. But before he could update them, Chris shot past him.

+ + + + + + +

"Nathan?" Chris asked, striding over to the bed. The healer was washing his hands and picked up a towel.

"If we can get that fever to break, he's got a good chance."

"Get some of that ditchwater!" Chris barked, dropping down onto the chair next to the bed.

"I can't. He can't swallow anything until tomorrow afternoon, at the earliest. And then it's only cold liquids until his throat is less tender. He'll be in a lot of pain, and I mean real pain. I'm gonna get some morphine from my office. He'll need it."

"The fever?"

"We'll keep bathin' him and prayin'," the healer said, turning as his shoulder was tapped. He saw the glint of the gold tooth first, followed by a flashy silver flask.

"Welcome back, Mr. Jackson," Ezra saluted.

"Thanks." Nathan took a long swig, not bothering to hide his trembling hands. "I never did that before ... seen it a few times, but..."

"You did fine," Chris said, his gaze leaving Vin's face long enough to catch the healer's dark brown eyes. He held his hand out and gripping Jackson's strongly. "Thank you, Nathan."

"This room's got too many bodies in it," the ex-slave complained. "Yuh all leave ... I got a patient that needs me." He saw a single sandy eyebrow rise in a challenge. "Well, almost all of yuh ... go on now."

"Get some sleep, Nate, you've earned it," Chris advised, nodding to the other bed. He watched the weary man sit down on the cot and drop his head into his hands. He saw the man's shoulders moving and swallowed hard, recalling the painful testimony Buck and the others had given him about the horrid week the man had endured. Now, in this small room, having just saved a friend's life, maybe the scales were balanced again.

He left Vin long enough to cross the room and rest a single hand on a shaking shoulder. He didn't say a word, but he remained there until the sobbing ended. With a final pat, he watched the healer fold up in the bed.

He resumed his seat, watching as his best friend's chest rose and fell.

+ + + + + + +

Buck leaned into the room about eight a.m. He smiled at the craggy face blinking at him. "Nice, you could haunt a house."

"Shut up, Buck," Chris hissed, wincing and rubbing his back.

"You stayed all night?" The rogue shook his head. "How's he doing?"

"Better, I think." Chris sighed. "I damn near rubbed the skin off of him, but I think his fever's coming down. He's been moaning for about an hour now. Where's Nate?"

"He left to get some breakfast, a hot bath and some medicine. Go on, me and Vin will be fine."

"Yeah," Chris sighed, hungry and very weary himself. "If he gets worse..."

"If he farts I'll get you, okay?" Buck shook his head and sat down. JD appeared a while later, having spent the morning visiting Mike.

"How's he doing?" Buck asked him.

"Good. Josiah's out there with him. He was sorry to hear about Vin. He looks a little better."

"Yeah, he's cooler." Buck paused as Vin moaned and his eyes opened a crack. "Hey there..." He sat on the edge of the bed. "Nathan took your tonsils out. You've got a fever to fight, but you're gonna be okay. Vin, you hear me?"

Tanner saw the blurry forms and tried hard to focus, but the only thing he could identify was the mustache. Buck was here. Then the pain exploded in his throat. He'd never felt such pain. He moved from side to side, silently screaming, tears streaming down his cheeks.

"Get Nathan!" Buck barked. "And get Chris!" he hollered after the fleeing sheriff. "Easy, Vin, I know it hurts. God..." He winced, watching the slim man writhe. The tears running down Vin's face nearly undid the rogue. He tried to keep the tracker still until he was shoved aside.

"What's wrong?" Chris demanded, looking human again. The bath, shave, meal and nap had done wonders. His expression froze when he saw the Texan, wracked with agony. "Vin, Nate's gonna give you something for the pain. Where the hell is he?" he spat at Buck.

"On his way!" the ladies' man replied. "I've never seen him in such a bad way..."

"Vin?" Nathan pushed his way past Wilmington only to hit a wall of muscle. "Chris, move, I can't get at him ... Chris!"

Larabee moved reluctantly.

The healer sat on the edge of the bed and pushed the tracker's shoulder's down. "Vin, I know it hurts like hell. I'm gonna fix that."

"Well, what the hell are you waiting for?" Larabee hissed, the sight of the agony his best friend was enduring unbearable. "Give him some morphine!"

"I can't find it," Nathan lamented. "I had a half a bottle locked in the cabinet, but it's gone. I ain't got no more."

"A green bottle?" Chris growled and Nathan nodded. "That fuckin' bastard! That's what Vin saw. He said the syringe came from a green bottle. That son-of-a-bitch is addicted to morphine."

"Old soldier's disease." Jackson shook his head. "A lot of guys got hooked on morphine after the war."

"Vin saw him and he tried to silence him." Buck shook his head. "I'm gonna find the good doctor and have a little chat."

"Wait a minute!" Nathan looked up, keeping his hands on his patient's shoulders. "He'll have some. He has to; he's an addict."

"I'll go look," Chris said, nodding at Buck. "Come on..."

+ + + + + + +

"Feast your eyes," Ezra drolled in disgust, standing in the doorway of the doctor's room. "He must have crawled in during the night."

"Is he dead?" Chris asked, kicking one of the man's legs. Miller was on the floor, his shirt off and his legs splayed wide. One arm was tied with a piece of cord, a syringe imbedded in the fold at the middle of his arm. He was clammy and pasty-faced, his eyes shut.

"No," the gambler said. "More's the pity."

"I found it!" Chris said, pulling a full bottle from a small wooden cabinet. "Get rid of him. Put him in jail before I finish what he started."

"Now, Chris," Buck oozed, cocking his head, "that wouldn't be very neighborly. What about those fine, upstanding folks who decided to ride Nate out of town on a rail and invited the good doctor here? I'll bet they haven't all met him yet. Ezra, why don't we round them up and do a formal introduction."

"A splendid idea, Mr. Wilmington." The gambler grinned. "I'm sure they'll be as charmed as we are."

"I'm sure." Buck smiled, following the con man. "Don't let anybody in here!" he warned JD, who stood guard.

+ + + + + + +

"Hold him down, Chris," Nathan ordered, his heart breaking over the writhing body on the bed. The small, squeaking grunts of pain and hot tears were almost too much to endure.

Larabee never flinched, just walked behind the bed and pushed Vin down hard, kneeling on his upper arm.

"I'm gonna give yuh a shot, Vin, all the pain will go away."

Chris stayed in place until every tense muscle went slack. He waited only long enough to wipe the damp face and pull the blanket up before he left just as the crowd gathered in the doorway of the doctor's room. He needed some air. He needed to get the picture of Vin's face, locked in a silent scream, out of his head. He managed a half-grin at the show Ezra and Buck were putting on.

"I'm sure you'll recognize Dr. Richard Miller. As you can see, he was a fine choice," Ezra said, his voice oozing repressed rage.

"But that's impossible. He had credentials!" one voice managed.

"Ah, yes, the ever popular 'credentials.'" Standish moved aside. "Come in, all of you, and see the fruits of your labor. This is who you would entrust your life to?"

"You folks sure got in a hurry," Buck spat in contempt. "Where the hell are those waggin' tongues that drove Nathan Jackson out of town? Take a good look. That animal damn near killed Vin Tanner yesterday - had a knife to his throat."

"And it wouldn't have been the first time." Ezra unfolded the telegrams he had in his pocket. "Did you bother to check on Dr. Miller's rather shady past? He's been run out of towns all over the West - after leaving a trail of bodies and suspicious deaths in his wake."

"Vin?" a voice in the back asked.

"He's fine," Buck said. "Thanks to Nathan. He saved his life last night. Did some tricky surgery, too. Not that any of you would care. You can't even see Nathan. You're too busy trying not to look at him. You make me sick." He shoved his way past the door. "Oh, by the way, you'll need to find yourselves another doctor. This one's going to jail."

A woman tugged on Buck's sleeve. "Do you suppose Nathan would stay?"

"Why should he?" Wilmington responded. "You don't deserve the likes of him."

"Maybe we can change his mind," a voice called out.

"I'd start with an apology," Ezra said, ushering them out. "And hope that he's more forgiving than I am."

+ + + + + + +

"Hey..." Nathan smiled down as his patient. It was almost five o'clock and Vin's fever was dropping. The tracker looked pale and drawn, his features stamped in pain, but he had turned the corner. The healer waited until the confused eyes cleared up, then saw a weak smile. A wavering hand rose from the side of the bed.

The first face Vin saw when his troubled mind finally quieted was the soulful brown-eyes of the healer. He looked hard and saw peace there and smiled. He didn't know all the details, but he knew Nathan had saved him. "Thank ... ya ... save ... life," he whispered, wincing and grabbing his throat.

"No, Vin," Nathan said thickly, gripping the shaking hand hard, "It's me that's thankful. Yuh saved my hide again. I got lost for awhile and yuhr faith saved me, brother."

"... piss ... cat..."

"Yeah," Nathan chuckled, easing the infirmed man upright. "Yuh must be sick if yuhr asking for it." He got a full mug of cold tea into his patient, then saw the man's gaze traveling around the room. Tanner scowled. "He's having supper. He's been by yuhr side all night and day."

"Cranky..." Vin relaxed, knowing Chris would return soon.

"And then some," Jackson said and laughed. "I took them tonsils out, but yuh got some of that infection inside. Yuhr gonna be sick for awhile. That throat's gonna be hurtin' yuh for awhile, don't talk. Cold broths, teas and juices for a couple days, then soft foods until that incision in yuhr throat heals. Yuhr ears might hurt, too, and yuhr belly might be upset, but that's normal. How's the pain? Yuh want more morphine?"

Vin shook his head. "No ... piss cat ... okay."

"Good!" He pulled the blanket up and patted the tracker's shoulder. "Go back to sleep."

"Not ... tired."

"Nathan says you go to sleep, then you go to sleep."

The healer rose, wearing a smile. As soon as Larabee's voice had sounded, the tracker had grinned, his eyes crinkling in warmth. "Tea, broth and juice." He motioned to the mugs nearby.

"Don't give me any shit, Vin," Chris warned, dropping into the chair. "Yuh ain't wearin' any drawers, and I know lots of ladies in town who'd volunteer to give yuh a bath." His lips curled up as a finger peeped over the blanket. "Don't be swearin' at me, Tanner." He grinned, watching the blue eyes fading. They fought hard, trying to remain trained on his face. "I'll be here," he promised, hearing the sigh as the patient finally rested.

"I will too," Nathan said from the doorway, taking in the smile and nod from their leader.

Ten days later,
Chris Larabee's cabin

"Something sure smells good!" JD bounced into the room, eyeing the roasting pan.

"Chicken, potatoes and carrots." Josiah smacked the youth's hand. "You're not wearing gloves at my table."

"Gloves?" The youth looked at his only good hand, the other in a sling. His hand was dirty. "Oh, I get it. Very funny."

"I'm starved!" Vin announced from the table. He had arrived at Chris's two days before via a wagon. He had fought a fever for several days after his surgery, then slept from exhaustion. Finally he had coaxed Nathan into the arrangement. He liked the cabin and the quiet solitude around it, especially the peace he found with Chris Larabee.

"You're always starving," Chris grumbled. "You just ate a little while ago."

"Aw hell, Larabee, that was applesauce," Vin rasped, wincing as his tender throat protested. "Don't count."

"Here." Nathan set a bowl down in front of him.

"What the hell is that?" The Texan's face screwed up in disgust. Orange, white and yellow mushy piles were in three nice piles.

"Chicken, carrots and potatoes," Josiah boomed. "Somethin' wrong with my cookin'?"

"I want real food." Vin glared at the healer. "Nathan, ya said—"

"Soft foods!" The healer shoved a spoon at his cranky patient. "Yuh don't like this? I can mix yuh some oatmeal."

"Aw hell," Vin mumbled, picking up his spoon. He noticed Buck and JD both moving away from him. "What's wrong?" He eyed the pair suspiciously as they waved their hands near their faces. "I don't smell ... ya got some balls, flappin' yer hands like that!" He saw Buck point to his mouth and wrinkle his face. "What? M' breath?" He huffed into his hand and smelled, nearly keeling over. "Jesus! Where'd that come from? Smells like somethin' died in there!"

"Well, you see, Vin, Nathan didn't tell you all the side effects of the surgery," Buck said with great sympathy.

"Yer shittin' me!" The blue-eyes rounded and he shoved his chair back. "I can't live like this - scarin' folks off. Put 'em back in!" he ordered, scowling at the riotous laughter at the table. "It ain't funny!"

"Yuh leave Vin alone." Nathan thwacked Buck's head with a spoon. "It's only temporary, Vin. Until the incision heals."

"How long?" Vin mumbled, already self-conscious.

"Four months," the healer replied with a straight face. He had to bite his lip as Tanner's expression fell.

Vin paled and dropped into his chair. The others all contained their laughter, watching as the sorry, soulful blue eyes widened with worry.

"Thought you were starving?" Chris managed.

"I ain't hungry n'more," Vin decided, rising and heading for the door. "Reckon I'll go outside, so's ya don't throw up at the table. 'Siah don't like a messy table."

"You ought to be ashamed, Nathan Jackson," the preacher said straight-faced over the laughter at the table.

The others ate and joked, the camaraderie the best medicine the healer could have.

"You gonna tell him?" Josiah asked Jackson.

"Yeah," Nathan said and chuckled, wiping his mouth before ambling outside. He sat down on the bench next to Vin, watching the sun setting. "Sure is pretty."

Getting no reply, he turned to study the somber profile. "Yuh plannin' on not talkin' forever?" He saw four fingers come up. "Oh, four months, huh?" He dropped his head and chuckled. "It's 'cause of the surgery, Vin. It'll go away in a few more days - a week at the most."

"Yer an unfeelin' jackass!" Vin slapped the other man's leg. "Pickin' on an invalid."

"Hey, Vin, you gonna eat your carrots? They sure look good."

"Shut the hell up, Buck!" Vin growled and grabbed his throat.

"I told yuh not to talk. Yuh gonna listen to me?"

"I never stopped," Vin said seriously. "I believe in this." He tapped the broad man's chest.

"Yeah." Nathan sighed, gripping the hand and shaking it. "And I won't deny this again," he said of the open hand. "Come on, supper's gettin' cold."

"Like it makes a difference," Vin moaned, thinking about his mushy meal. He saw the others smirking as he walked closer and his eyes narrowed. "Bucklin, if ya spit in my food..." He froze, spotting the rearranged plate. He blushed and sat down, trying hard not to laugh. "I can't eat them ... that..." He shook his head at the art on his plate which resembled a well endowed woman.

"Want some help?" Buck winked. "You're never too old to learn, Slick. I could teach you a thing or two."

Nathan waited in the doorway, letting the laughter float around the cozy room and into his heart. He was home. He'd found the right path and made the right choice. The road wasn't always smooth, but with brothers like these he'd accept a hand up when he fell. He shut the door, letting the warmth remain inside, with his family

He thought about that song again, the words drifting through his mind. He mentally sang the verses as he watched his friends.

When this dreadful war is ended, soon I hope the day will come,
Love's own star will lead my footsteps safely back to you and home.
Oh what joy again to meet you when the threatening storm is past,
and the flag our foes have planted flies in shreds upon the blast.
Farewell, farewell, best and dearest,
do not let your heart repine,
though the sky may now look gloomy soon the sun will brightly shine.


1The song, "When This Dreadful War is Ended," was written by Stephen Foster during the Civil War.