The Best Laid Plans
Ezra blinked open his eyes and saw darkness. This was not unexpected since he had settled his hat over his eyes to protect them from the sun. Taking a deep breath, Standish waited to see if the world would continue to spin in completely unrelated directions as it had the last time he was awake. When no undue spinning occurred, he carefully moved his hat aside and inhaled sharply as the afternoon sunlight pierced his head.
“A little bright for you, Pard?” Buck asked, softly a small grin on his face as he held out a canteen of warm water.
Not bothering to dignify the question with a response, Ezra took hold of the canteen and took a small sip, waiting to see if it would remain in his slightly unsettled stomach. "How long have we been here?" Ezra asked, thinking of JD alone in town.
Looking up at the sky, Buck estimated, "Couple of hours." He knew Ezra wanted to move on and his own instincts were screaming at him to get back to town, but he wasn't about to travel if Ezra wasn't ready and he wouldn't leave the Southerner behind. Seeing that the gambler was gathering himself to stand, Buck frowned slightly and added, "Don't matter how long we've been here if you're not ready to travel."
Green eyes shot up in surprise and met blue one. Ezra wasn't quite sure what to make of what he'd just heard. The concern in Buck's voice was for him, not for JD. Even knowing that the others were his friends, he was still taken off guard whenever any of them showed concern. A soft smile curved his lips as Standish assured, "I'm fine to travel. We need to get back."
Buck narrowed his eyes as he studied his friend closely. He could see that Ezra was in pain and knew that the trip on horseback would not be pleasant for him, but he also knew they needed to move. Nodding, he agreed, "Alright, then. Let's mount up." Once he was standing, he offered his hand to Standish and pulled him to his feet, reaching out to steady the shorter man when Ezra swayed slightly.
Closing his eyes as he found his balance, Ezra waited until he was steady. Then, opening his eyes to look at Buck, he nodded that he was ready to move.
"Think they'll be alright the way we left them?" Nathan asked Chris as he looked for traces that their friends had been this way.
An evil smile crept across Chris' face. "Reckon they'll stay put unless something comes along looking for an easy meal," he replied, cruel enjoyment in his voice as he thought of the way they had left the four men who had planned to ambush and kill he and Nathan.
Nathan nodded distractedly, he thought he spotted something on a leaf. Stopping his horse, he dismounted, hoping that this time, the dark spot he found was something other than dry rot, yet another part of him was hoping it wasn't the dried blood that would reveal Josiah and Vin's passing.
"Well?" Chris asked, his voice tense.
Nathan studied the drop on the leaf for several seconds before he looked up, his face grim. "It's blood," he informed. "Just a drop."
Dismounting, Chris suggested, "Let's see if we can find another that gives us a direction."
Moving slowly and carefully through the foliage, the two men examined everything they saw. Neither was as good a tracker as Vin, but both had learned from him and knew the first step to finding a trail was to look for one. The key to looking for a trail was "seeing" your environment and then looking for what didn't belong.
Still, it wasn't until the brilliant light of the early afternoon, deepened to the heavy gold of late afternoon that they found their next clue, a piece of blood encrusted fabric. A bent branch a few feet further along gave them their direction. Now that they knew the direction, the two men began moving more quickly, worried about what the more visible trail meant for their friends.
They were still moving through the forest when the late afternoon shadows began playing tricks with their eyes. Though it was still several hours before sunset, in the wooded area, light faded more swiftly than it did elsewhere.
"We have to stop," Nathan observed, frustration evident in his voice. He had two friends out here, hurt, bleeding and no idea where they were.
Curses flew from Chris' lips. He knew Nathan was right, but his heart was screaming at him to move. His friends - no, his family was out there, hurt and alone and he couldn't be there for them, couldn't protect them just like before. He spun around, reaching for his gun as a hand came to rest on his shoulder.
Throwing his hand up, Nathan advised, "They're not Sarah and Adam, Chris." Jackson saw fear and the pain of loss lance through Chris' eyes and felt his own fear melt into compassion for his friend. "They'll be okay. They have to know we'll come for them." Nathan continued to stare into the hazel eyes until he received the nod of agreement and understanding he wanted. "They've both survived things we can't even imagine and that on their own. They've stayed alive this long, I reckon they'll make it until we can get moving in the morning."
Chris absorbed the compassion and confidence of the healer, allowing them to smooth the rough shards of fear that tore at his soul. Taking a deep breath, Chris nodded his understanding. "Probably laugh at me for worrying over them," he observed, wryly.
"Call you a mother hen," Nathan agreed, seeing Chris had gotten past this attack of fear. There would be others. He knew because he could feel the lingering fear reaching for his own heart.
"Let's make camp," Chris ordered.
"Vin," Josiah called, hissing in pain as he leaned forward to wake his friend. He berated himself for falling asleep. He had only intended to rest for a few minutes, but, from the light slanting into their cave, he could tell he had rested for several hours. That could be bad. He knew that you were supposed to wake people with head wounds every hour or so to make sure they didn't get confused. "Vin," he called more loudly, shaking the tracker's shoulder.
"Mmm," Vin responded, his head lifting slightly. A groan of pain escaped the younger man as he struggled to lift his head and open his eyes.
"Come on, Vin," Josiah encouraged, "I need to see your eyes before it gets dark and make sure you're alright."
"'Siah?" a thin voice asked.
"Yes, Vin," Sanchez assured. "Can you open your eyes for me?" Slowly and very carefully, two blue slits emerged. "Can you open your eyes a little wider?" he asked. The eyes widened a bit and Josiah found himself biting off a curse. It was obvious Vin had a concussion, his pupils weren't the same size. Berating himself once more for falling asleep, the former preacher reached over for one of the canteens he'd left nearby. He would need to check to make sure they had both stopped bleeding. He would also need to make sure they both drank as much water as they could tonight since they had both lost a lot of blood.
Opening the canteen, he held it to Vin's lips and prompted, "Drink. You need the water."
Vin sipped slowly, his stomach feeling upset from the events of the day and the blood loss. Revived by the water, Vin leaned his head back and rested for a moment. "You drink up, check me out and then I'll take a look at you," he advised. Opening his eyes, he caught the flash of guilt in Josiah's. "Ain't no call for that," he admonished. "We were set up but good. You did everything you could and then some. We'll get through this, 'Siah. You got my word."
"Good as done," Josiah said aloud reaching out and squeezing Vin's arm, thankful for the comfort his young friend offered. "Now let's get you checked out."
"'Kay," Vin agreed as Josiah began shifting the bandage on his head.
JD sat in the shadow of the alley, waiting and watching. The sun was just kissing the horizon and the light was fading to the rosy hue that signaled the end of the day. The streets were empty and all the people hiding inside. It had taken no small amount of effort on JD's part and it was only with the help of his friends in town that he had succeeded in convincing everyone of his plan, but he'd done it. No one should get hurt, including the banker.
Truth to tell, JD had been shocked when he had stopped by the bank to discuss his plan. He knew that there was money in the bank, but he had been unaware that there was quite a bit more in there than just peoples' savings. Mrs. Ashworth had several rather expensive looking pieces of jewelry in there and the bank was holding some very important papers and land deeds pending Judge Travis' arrival. Not willing to take any chances with the irreplaceable valuables, he had quietly smuggled Mrs. Ashworth's jewelry out in his pockets earlier as well as the papers the judge would want. He had them safely stored away.
Now it was nothing more than a waiting game and during the time he had spent with the others, the young Easterner has learned how to wait.
Fortunately, he didn't have to wait long.
Slowly, several horses and riders populated the streets. The men he had seen earlier hanging about the saloon stepped off the walkway and freed horses, leading them down the road. The group of men looked around the town, alert and wary.
Stopping before the bank, four of the men took up position around the building while two others entered into it. None of the men was showing any weapons, but JD knew they had them. What was worse, he knew they weren't afraid to use them. "So far, so good," he breathed as things remained peaceful.
That's when he saw it.
In the twilight world created by the setting sun, sometimes light and shadow can trick the eye. What JD had thought was nothing more than a shadow down another ally, separated from the wall where it had been sheltered and stepped into the street. Two other people soon joined the first.
"Stop what you're doing and throw down your weapons!" Conklin ordered, waving a shotgun in the direction of the men. He moved forward, determined to show he wasn't afraid of people like these robbers.
"No one takes our money!" another of the men called out, staying a few steps behind Conklin to the left.
"No. Oh, no," JD denied, shaking his head. Everything was going according to his plan. Why did Conklin and his cronies have to ruin it now. Didn't they know they could get themselves killed? Preparing for the battle he knew was coming, JD freed his Colts from their holsters and prepared to do battle, hoping the three fools didn't get themselves killed.
"And who's going to stop us?" one of the outlaws asked. "You?" His scornful laughter echoed on the streets. "Go home old man," he dismissed.
"You can't take our money!" Conklin cried, his face red in anger over being treated in such a manner.
The outspoken thief pulled his gun and aimed it directly at the older man. "Go home!" he ordered.
He would never be able to tell what happened first, but the next thing he knew, bullets were flying. Conklin and his two friends were seeking cover as the four outlaws began firing at them. The two who were in the bank quickly made their way out.
A cry sounded from one of Conklin's men as JD watched one of the outlaws drop to the ground. He managed to wing another before being forced to move to new shelter.
Three of the four remaining outlaws managed to mount while the forth covered them. When they were settled, the mounted men continued firing so the forth could mount as well.
Seeing the men about to escape town with the money, Conklin stood from where he'd been hiding behind a horse trough. He lifted his gun and took aim. He managed to hit one of the men, but as that outlaw fell to the ground, another turned and drew a bede on the older man.
Taking aim and firing, JD's eyes widened in horror as he only heard a click. Aiming his other gun, he heard another click. He was empty. Knowing he only had seconds to act, he dropped both his guns and ran toward the exposed man, one thought in his mind - protect the town.
At the other end of the street, two men riding galloping horses appeared. The pain, nausea and dizziness Ezra had been experiencing had disappeared the moment they heard the first gunshot. Moving in perfect unison the two peacekeepers raced to their friend's aid.
Buck could feel his heart pounding nearly out of his chest at the scene he witnessed. All sounds faded as the rushing of fear through his system overwhelmed his senses. His world narrowed to one point - JD Dunne.
He watched in horror as JD dropped his guns and broke cover. He watched, helpless, as the young man raced into the open and dove at another man, knocking him down. His mind and heart pulsed one message through him as he saw JD's body jerk at the impact of a bullet and the brown eyes widen in shock and pain: not again. As the now limp body hit the ground, one, painful, primal word escaped, "Nooooooooo!"
Adding some larger sticks to their fire, Nathan made sure that the coals were hot enough to boil the water for coffee. Chris had set out a few minutes before chasing after a rabbit he'd seen. At least the two of them would have some game to eat tonight. A good meal would probably go a long way to ensuring they were fit to deal with whatever was waiting for them when they found their friends. He hadn't said anything to Chris, but Nathan was very concerned about his two missing friends. The amount of blood that Chris had relayed and what they'd seen in their trail indicated some fairly major injuries.
His concern had been lessened somewhat as he continually reminded himself that the blood loss he was contemplating was for two men, not one. Still, it was too much blood and without proper medical treatment, things could go bad quickly. Besides he didn't know how badly Josiah and Vin were wounded and whether or not he would need to dig out bullets when they were found.
All in all, he was more worried than Chris, but knew if he expressed his worry to Larabee, nothing would stop the man from seeking out his friends and then seeking retribution on those who inflicted the injury. Not that Nathan wouldn't be right there by his side doling out a little frontier justice, but even thoughts of that would need to wait until he was sure Josiah and Vin were safe and healing.
"Got a pheasant," Chris announced, entering the small clearing where they had made camp. Throwing the bird down next to the fire, he checked the area one more time before settling down. The light was dimming, but there was still enough to see at the moment.
"Reckon I"ll go clean it," Nathan said with a sigh, pulling out a knife.
Chris grinned slightly as he watched Nathan pick up the pheasant and wander away from camp to pluck and gut the bird. As the former slave disappeared, Chris settled back against his saddle and thought about his friends.
When he had stepped into the street that day a lifetime ago now, never would he have guessed his life would change so much. If he were being fully honest with himself, it was that day that started his rebirth and made him look for life again. Nathan was a big part of that; all of them were. Of those he could be riding with, he was thankful it was Nathan who was with him right now and not just because Vin and Josiah were hurt. Nathan saw things differently, frequently more rationally than the rest of them. That's not to say Jackson didn't have times when he needed to be reined in, but for the most part he had a level head and knew when conversation was welcome and when it wasn't. It was also Jackson's insatiable thirst for knowledge that had sparked Chris' own renewed interest in reading.
In some ways, Nathan's constant questioning and seeking reminded him of JD. The kid wanted to know everything. At the rate Dunne asked questions, Chris wouldn't be surprised if he eventually learned it all too. Pulling out a cheroot, Chris lit it and hoped he hadn't made a mistake in leaving JD in town by himself. He could only hope that Buck and Ezra were wrong and that the gang wasn't headed back toward town to rob the bank.
The way things had been going, though, he doubted it.
Ripped from the very core of his soul, Buck's cry of anguish and denial froze every man and beast within hearing. That momentary pause proved fatal for the would-be bank robbers.
Leaping from his horse, Buck tore across the ground toward his fallen friend, gun raised and firing at the outlaws, each bullet hitting its mark.
Dropping to his knees and sliding the last few feet to JD's side, Buck finally froze as his eyes took in the horrifying sight before him.
"Bu-uck," JD panted softly, his face white from pain.
Hearing his name fall from the lips of his injured friend, Buck was unable to stop the tears that formed in his eyes and had to swallow several times before he could respond. Forcing a weak smile upon his face, he slid one arm under Dunne's head and lifted it to rest in his lap. His other hand grasped JD's, taking some comfort in the strong grip he felt. "Hey JD," he said, hating the waver in his voice. "Looks like you're tryin' to play hero and cut the rest of us out. Now you know the ladies love a hero..."
A soft gasp that could have been a laugh escaped the injured Easterner. "Full... full of..." he gasped.
"Yeah, Kid," Buck said, a tear escaping as JD's grip lessened. "Reckon I need you to let me know it too. So you just hang on. You're going to be fine." Despair gripped the ladies' man's heart as he read the denial in JD's eyes.
So intent had Buck been on taking care of JD that he hadn't noticed what was going on around him. While Buck was offering comfort to the injured man, Ezra had dismounted and approached the outlaws. His mouth thinned into a displeased line as he discovered all of them were either dead or would soon be dead. Turning, he was pleased to see several of the citizens entering the street.
Motioning for several men to come over, he quickly passed out assignments. With men taking care of removing the dead bodies to the undertakers and two others helping the injured townsman, he turned his attention to Buck and JD. Approaching the heart-wrenching scene, he stopped several feet away. He saw the tears on Buck's face and feared the worst. Turning his attention to his young compatriot, he was relieved to see that JD was still very much with them.
"Have you checked his wound?" Ezra asked, wondering why Buck wasn't applying pressure to the still seeping wound.
Ravaged blue eyes turned up to stare at the Southerner, not comprehending the question.
With a sigh, Ezra pulled out his handkerchief and pressed it against JD's wound, eliciting a cry of pain from the injured peacekeeper. "Did the bullet go through?" he asked, fearing the worst as he noted the location of the wound. If the bullet went straight through, it would have gone through JD's shoulder blade. He wasn't entirely sure what was in that area, but knew the heart and the lungs were close to it somehow. Seeing that Buck wasn’t able to respond to the question, Standish reached underneath JD’s injured shoulder. He could feel blood, but no wound. That could only mean the bullet was still in there. A quick prayer for Nathan's return ran through his mind, even as he knew they couldn't depend on him.
"We need to get him to the clinic," a voice said.
Looking up, Ezra blinked his eyes at Mary. "You're right," he agreed. "Perhaps you would be so kind as to get the dentist to assist us. I assume he has some experience with sewing people up."
"He's out of town," Mrs. Travis informed, biting her lower lip. It was true that Mr. Brenner dealt with some gunshot wounds, normally those received by the fools who wouldn't go to Nathan because of the color of his skin.
"What about the barber?" Ezra asked getting desperate.
Mary shook her head. Mr. Wittley had the flu and wouldn't be able to help. A sigh of frustration escaped the blond publisher until she remembered one other person in town who had experience with gunshot wounds. "You take JD up to the clinic, I'll be there with help in a few minutes," she ordered, turning to hurry down the street.
With a sigh, Ezra turned his head back toward Buck and JD only to gasp as the world shifted for a few moments before righting itself.
Buck saw Ezra lose his balance for a moment before recovering and then spotted the telegraph operator behind them. Indicating the man should come over, Buck and Mr. Miller were soon headed up to Nathan's clinic, Ezra following behind as quickly as possible.
They had settled JD on the bed where Nathan performed his surgeries and had removed JD's guns, boots and shirt when the door opened and Mary walked in with Yosemite following. "We're here," she announced unnecessarily as she moved into the room and to the bedside.
Buck and Ezra blinked up at her as Mr. Miller slipped out of the room, assuming he was no longer needed. Looking from Mary to Yosemite, both men could see that he was as baffled as they were as to why he was there. "I see," Ezra eventually said. "And, why are you here?"
Sighing loudly in exasperation, Mary, tucked a stray hair behind her head. "JD's been shot and needs someone to tend him. Everyone with experience fixing gunshot wounds is unavailable except for Yosemite. So I brought you the only man who can help."
Three pairs of eyes widened. "Now, hold on, Miz Travis," Yosemite said, backing away a step or two. "I ain't never fixed a bullet wound on a human. I only tend the horses and their needs."
"And if they need sewing up, you sew them," she insisted, green eyes drilling into his.
"Mrs. Travis," Ezra began.
"It's the only way, Ezra," Mary pleaded.
Buck stared steadily at the livery owner. He knew Yosemite to be a solid, no nonsense type of man. Though it was with animals, the man did seem to have something of a healing touch. Waiting for the other man's eyes to meet his own, Buck asked, "Can you do it? Can you save him?"
Yosemite swallowed at the intensity of emotion behind the question. Buck's normally jovial voice was brittle with desperation, anguish and need. He thought about all these men had done for the town, for him and wanted to try, but he'd never tended a human before and wasn't sure he could live with the consequences if he failed.
As if reading his mind, Ezra asked, "Would you be able to live with yourself if you did nothing and he died?"
Shifting his eyes from the intense blue ones to the equally compelling green ones of the gambler, Yosemite swallowed and sought within himself for an answer. There was only one answer he could give, "No. I wouldn't be able to live with myself." Receiving a nod of support from Ezra, he turned his gaze toward Buck and received another nod of encouragement. Looking around Nathan's room and thinking back on his discussions with the healer, he walked over to a basin to wash his hands and began giving orders.
In their hideaway, Josiah had finished checking Vin's injuries and his own. He knew that the bullets would need to come out, but he had neither the energy nor the light to do anything about them tonight. Knowing that the darkness was coming and that they'd have little time before the temperature dropped, he used the last of his strength to arrange Vin so the younger man was leaning against him. The added warmth would be a benefit for both of them. He then pulled the blanket across their weakening bodies. Satisfied he'd done all he could for the night, Josiah's eyes began to drift closed.
"Cozy," a soft Texas drawl sounded.
A smile crossed the ex-preacher's lips.
"Night, 'Siah," Vin whispered.
"Good night, Vin," came the sleepy reply
Hidden in the gathering shadows under the landing outside the clinic, a shade separated temporarily from the darkness as the door above finally opened. Standing on a nearby crate to increase his chance of hearing, the man held his breath as he awaited news.
On the landing above, three people stood, oblivious to the presence eavesdropping on their conversation.
"Well," Buck demanded, barely restraining himself from pushing past Yosemite's bulk to get to his friends. Though initially he had been upset at being thrown out of the clinic, once Mary calmed him down, he agreed with the action. The sight of JD bleeding and in pain only intensified the emotions and memories he'd been battling all week. Being naturally expressive, his concern had only agitated both Yosemite and JD. But now Yosemite was out and he wanted answers.
"Ezra is resting," the liveryman informed, getting the easy information out of the way first. "I reckon he could use a stitch or two, but he's not bleeding now and seems to know what he's about."
"And JD?" Mary prodded when Yosemite didn't continue. She noticed that the normally ruddy man seemed pale.
Looking down at his boots and then out into the gathering night, with a slight tremor in his voice he admitted, "Ain't used to working on men." He looked at his hands, which also shook slightly. "I cleaned it out best I could and stitched him up, but I don't know." Silence sat heavily upon the group as he continued, "Near as I can tell the bullet entered under his arm and then raced around his rib to come out the front." His eyes finally rising to meet Buck's, he recommended, "You need to get that boy some real help, Nathan or someone. I sewed up the outside, but I couldn't say for sure nothing got wrecked inside."
Buck swallowed hard and nodded. Reaching out, he squeezed the liveryman's shoulder. "You did your best. Can't ask for anything more than that."
Reading the ladies' man's blue eyes, Yosemite nodded and moved off down the stairs.
"Oh that man," Mary spat in anger, her fists balled at her sides.
"Yosemite?" Buck asked, puzzled by the outburst.
"Conklin," the newspaperwoman hissed. "JD had a plan that would have kept everyone in town safe and gotten back the money they took. He'd already removed the important papers and jewels to a secret place. All that insufferable Mr. Conklin had to do was stay inside until it was over. Instead, he and his cronies nearly get JD killed!"
Buck felt a pang of pride in his young friend as Mary revealed JD's plan to protect the town. In truth, Buck would never have thought about anything like that. That pride was quickly replaced by a flare of anger as he thought of the man who had been a thorn in their side since the beginning. "Conklin," he said softly, his voice deadly. A sound from inside the clinic drew his attention to the door. Stepping forward, he opened the door and allowed Mary to precede him into the room.
As the door to the clinic shut once more, the man who had been listening, slumped down onto the crate he had been using as a stool, guilt weighing heavily upon his shoulders. He had never considered the consequences to the townspeople if his actions had gone awry and certainly had never thought his actions could result in the injury or possibly death of anyone other than the outlaws. After all, he'd spent most of his life on the frontier and, though he avoided fights whenever possible, was able to bring one when needed. Had the ease with which those seven peacekeepers handled such situations lulled him into the belief that anyone could protect the town?
Regardless of what had inspired his actions, Conklin knew he had an apology to make and thanks to give. The thought of apologizing to the boy galled him, but there were no two ways about it; he owed JD Dunne his life.
Suppressing a sigh, Nathan allowed his eyes to open. He was lying on his back and stared up at the brilliant array of stars. His mind wandered to other nights spent beneath the stars with his friends. Without trying or intending, the first memories he had were of Josiah's deep voice sending waves of comfort and warmth through the night as he recited various stories. Those stories revealed more about the ex-preacher than hours of questioning could.
He then thought of Vin and the quiet times they shared. The two of them would sit around the camp with the sounds of nature as their symphony then, in a voice as gentle as the wind and so soft it almost blended into nature, Vin would reveal a part of himself, be it a story, an observation or just thoughts on the next day's journey.
He had he learned much from those two men and could only wonder how much poorer would he be if he lost them.
A flickering light off to the side caught his attention and Nathan turned to find Chris sitting up, facing the darkness and smoking one of his cheroots. The tip glowed orange in the darkness for a moment before fading again.
"You should rest," Nathan offered quietly, knowing full well that neither he nor Chris would get much rest that night.
Larabee nodded at the advice before taking another puff. "Reckon that's good advice, Doc," he admitted before tamping out the remains of his smoke and turning to face his friend.
Even in the dark, Nathan could tell when Chris' eyes met his own. The man exuded a power of leadership that few men could claim.
"You reckon on following that advice yourself?" the blond challenged.
He fought the desire, but soon a broad smile graced Nathan's handsome face. It was returned by a grin on Larabee's. Chuckling softly, he admitted, "Sleep and me don't seem to be on speaking terms at the moment." Then sitting up, he rested his arms on his knees and looked out into the darkness.
"They're safe for the night," Larabee encouraged softly. "We'll find them come daybreak."
Nathan's smile faded slightly, but the doubt that quivered within him was losing its hold in the face of Chris' declaration. "You believe that?" he asked, the wistful hope in his voice revealing far more than a slew of words.
Chris waited until Nathan turned to meet his eyes. "Gotta believe in something," Larabee admitted softly. "I choose to believe in them." With that, he nodded at the healer and then settled back. "Night, Nathan."
Nathan stared at the gunslinger a moment longer before looking out into the darkness. With one final look up at the heaven, he settled back on his bedroll. "Night, Chris."
He was hot. He was thirsty. And he hurt - everywhere.
In his sluggish mind he figured he was somewhere in the desert, but he never remembered the desert being this dark. Looking around, there was only blackness and more swirling blackness. Vin felt unbalanced and dizzy. He couldn't tell which way was up, but soon that didn't matter as the waves of pain came.
A low moan escaped the Texan as his head rolled from side to side against Josiah's shoulder. It was Tanner's forehead hitting his jaw that finally woke Sanchez. Feeling the weak thrashing of his friend, Josiah rubbed his good hand in a small circle on Vin's shoulder and pulled him closer. "Shh," he comforted. "Settle down, Vin. It's only a dream. You're safe now. I've got you."
"'Siah," Vin breathed as his movements stilled somewhat.
"Yeah, Vin. I've got you," the older man soothed.
"Hot," Tanner declared. "Desert?"
His brows drawing down in puzzlement, Josiah lifted his hand to check Vin's forehead. He was surprised by the warmth he found there. This couldn't be good. Most likely it meant that infection had set in. Of course, it might also just be a reaction to blood loss. He remembered Nathan saying that happened sometime. Whichever it was, it was definitely too early for it to be lead poisoning from the bullet in his shoulder.
Feeling a shiver run down his spine, Josiah closed his eyes in frustration. The sharpshooter wasn't the only one sporting a fever at the moment. Trying to judge his own body, Josiah could only assume his fever was less than Vin's. "You have a fever, son," Sanchez informed.
"Not sick," Vin stubbornly declared.
Josiah almost laughed at the petulant tone of his friend's voice. "Sound like a little kid," he teased, thankful for the smile. His statement was met with a huff of indignation. "Hate to be the one to break it to you, but denying that you have a fever doesn't make it so."
A resigned sigh escaped the sharpshooter as a violent chill coursed down his body. Shifting slightly, he barely suppressed a moan of pain. He hurt. When he had first awoken, the pain had been general. He had just hurt everywhere. With the small shift he'd just done, specific points of agony flared. "What happened?" he asked, not quite able to recall.
"We went to pick up a prisoner," Josiah explained simply.
"Okay," Vin agreed slowly. He vaguely recalled an image of the livery just before dawn and laughing about something with Josiah. "What happened?" he asked again. "Prisoner jump us?"
Blinking several times, it took Josiah only a few minutes to recognize the importance of Vin's question. "You don't remember?" Josiah asked, struggling to keep the fear out of his voice.
In the darkness, Vin frowned and tried to focus on the images. "It's a bit hazy. I remember meeting you in the livery in town. Riding on the trail and then some town or another." His eyes narrowed as his thoughts continued. "Remember I had a bad feeling about it and not wanting to stay, but you wanted a bed," he recalled with a smile.
Josiah felt his face color slightly in embarrassment. He had wanted to sleep in a real bed. "That was yesterday," Josiah confirmed. "Do you recall anything from this morning?"
Several moments of silence passed before a frustrated sigh escaped the wounded tracker. "Nothin’," he admitted.
"We went to get the prisoner," Josiah informed, deciding his recitation might jog Vin's memory. "It was a trap and a bunch of men started firing at us. We each got hit and then a bullet grazed your head. I think you might have a concussion which is why you don't remember."
Vin squeezed his eyes shut as pain radiated through his head, arm, leg and shoulder. "Don't sound like too pleasant a memory," he observed, his voice tight with agony.
Sanchez felt his friend tense in his arms and knew the pain must be intense. In truth, he was only just tolerating his own pain at the moment. Still, there was little he could do other than try to distract the younger man for a while. "Have I ever told you the story about the three headed dog?" he asked, thinking back to the tales he had read that Vin might enjoy. When he felt Tanner shake his head, no, he continued. "Well, this all happened a long time ago..."
The room began to lighten in the gray predawn light, not quite strong enough to render the lamp useless, but enough to challenge the yellow light it offered. Buck noticed none of this. He sat in the chair between the beds where his friends lay, completely oblivious to the world around him as his heart screamed prayers for the quick healing of his younger friends.
Knowing from his own experience that people with head wounds and concussions needed to be woken periodically, he reached over to rouse Ezra yet again. “Come on, Ezra,” he encouraged, his voice etched with exhaustion. “Open those pretty green eyes for me.”
Two small green slits opened and the mouth below them puckered. “I am hardly one of your lady friends, Mr. Wilmington,” the voice, pinched with pain, informed.
Buck grinned at the response. “Don’t mean your eyes aren’t pretty,” he teased. “Why just last week I heard Miss Kitty say… But you wouldn’t be interested in that.”
The green eyes opened slightly wider, suddenly interested in the man’s words. “You overheard Miss Kitty say what?” he inquired of the beautiful daughter of one of the local merchants. Both Buck and Ezra had seen her step off the stage several weeks ago and had taken an immediate interest in the young woman from back East. The woman in question, however, didn’t seem to take an interest in them or any of the other men in town.
“Now that wouldn’t be proper for me to say,” Wilmington replied, trying to keep his tone serious and the smile from his face.
Ezra frowned at the man who was supposed to be his friend. “When has what’s proper ever stopped you before?” he asked petulantly, immediately regretting the words. “I apologize,” Standish said immediately. “That was uncalled for.”
Buck knew his friend hadn’t meant the words, but still felt the sting of them. Deciding to laugh off the barb, he admitted, “About the last time it stopped any of us.”
Ezra’s lips twitched upward in a small smile as his eyes drifted closed. “Touche,” he agreed. “Now if you are done with your interrogation, I believe I hear sweet Morpheus calling.”Reaching out to squeeze his friend’s shoulder, Buck advised. “You rest Ez. I got your back.”
Hearing the rustling of covers on his other side, Buck turned to see JD shifting restlessly on the bed. The young man’s face was flushed. Reaching out he brushed the brown bangs off his friend’s forehead, frowning as he thought it felt warm. Two pain-filled eyes opened and stared right into his own, causing his breath to catch. “JD,” he whispered hoarsely.
“B… Buck,” JD gasped out, trying to bring the other man’s face into focus.
“Right here for you, kid,” the mustached man replied, his voice choking with emotion. “I’m going to prop you up a bit and feed you a little water,” he advised, deciding not to tell his young friend that the water was laced with a capful of laudanum. Lifting JD’s head a bit, he brought the cup to Dunne’s lips, maintaining his hold on the cup even as the injured man reached up his good arm to take it. “Slow and easy,” Buck soothed. After a few sips, he pulled the cup away. “Let’s see how you do with that and then we’ll try some more,” he decided, returning the cup to the small table.
JD could only nod as he rested his head against the pillow once more. He was too tired to protest when he felt Buck adjust the covers. Still, one question had been bothering him for over a week now and he was determined to get an answer from his friend. “What…” he began before his voice broke. “What’s been wrong?” he managed to grit out as his side flared with pain.
Wilmington frowned at his young friend. “We got set up and you got hurt rescuing Conklin…”
“No,” gasped JD, panting slightly as he fought against the pain. “With you. What’s… been wrong… with you?”
With a swallow, blue eyes widened and stared at the man on the bed. How had JD known? Even though he knew to what Dunne was referring, Buck wasn’t ready to share those memories, that pain, and certainly not with his wounded friend. “Don’t you worry about me,” he cautioned softly. “You’re the one with the bullet wound,” he deflected, his voice betraying him by cracking on the last word.
JD turned and stared at his friend; his eyes burning with his need to know. “Tell me,” he commanded, his voice taking on a strength that belied his current health.
Dropping his chin to his chest, the ladies’ man ran a hand through his hair. He really didn’t want think about what had happened so long ago, before he found these men, these… brothers. He didn’t want to think about either of the young men he’d lost in the past. But he knew he owed the kid an explanation. Heaving a sigh, he licked his lips, swallowed and then lifted his head, his eyes focused in the past.
“Chris and I had been in the army for all of about six months when this green kid shows up, all ready and raring to go. We laughed at him same as the others, but the kid started tagging along after us, after me and I kind of took him under my wing, showed him the ropes, taught him what to do. Davey couldn’t have been more than fifteen, though he had the army convinced he was twenty.” A bitter chuckle escaped him. “Guess they didn’t look too close. Anyway, things went along fine for a few months, we were in and out of battle, men…” he swallowed, his face shifting as the shadow of sorrow crossed the normally jovial features. “Friends died and were wounded. We kind of lost track of what the war was all about, but Davey was always up and spoiling for a fight. Kid became like my little brother. He wasn’t more ‘n a kid, but he did some mighty heroic things,” he related, his face reflecting the pride he felt in the younger soldier’s accomplishments. His face fell again as he continued, “Did some mighty foolish things too.”
Sighing and shifting in the chair, Buck continued, “It was this week two years before war’s end. We were under attack – artillery. Explosions were everywhere. About all you can do is get down behind some cover and pray they don’t his it. Chris was about six feet to my left, Davey was three feet to the right but about eight behind me.” A haunted look entered the blue eyes. “A shell hit close by Chris, throwing him head first against the rock he was using for shelter. I called him but didn’t get a response. I went charging over to him to make sure he was alright.”
Rising from his seat, Buck paced away from the bed to stare out the window, the tale obviously causing him great distress. “There was some blood on Chris’ head and I couldn’t get him to respond, so I called for a medic. Davey heard me and said he’d run for one. I heard him call out and turned to tell him to stay put.” Buck’s voice broke as the pain of that time renewed itself. “I never got the chance. Soon as he was two steps out of his hiding place, a shell hit and …”
Dropping his head into his hands, he fought back a sob as the tears started to fall. “Chris was just opening his eyes by the time the dirt was clearing and I left him to check on Davey. When I got to the kid’s side… he was just lying there, looking so peaceful. I lifted him up in my arms. That was when…” Buck began shaking as he was overcome by the memory. Still he managed to control himself enough to choke out, “He didn’t have a back to his head anymore. Then his eyes opened, those big, brown eyes…”
JD watched, stunned as Buck broke down. His every instinct was to get up from his bed and comfort his friend. He had wanted to know what had been haunting the man, but he never expected something this horrific. "Buck," he called out, struggling to lift his head. "Buck." he called again. "I'm here, Buck." Closing his eyes, the injured man struggled to catch his breath. "I'm not Davey."
Buck heard the weak, shaky words and struggled to collect himself. Pulling out his bandana, he wiped his face and blew his nose. JD needed him. Clearing his throat, he straightened his shoulders and walked back to his young friend's side where he settled once more in the chair.
Feeling some relief as his brother settled in next to him, JD lifted his good arm and reached out to Buck. Feeling his hand being taken, the young Easterner squeezed with all his strength. "I'm not Davey," he repeated breathlessly, struggling to keep his eyes open and meet those of his friend.
Fighting back his tears of grief, Buck swallowed and nodded. "I know that, kid. I know that," he assured. "But there are times you remind me of him." He swallowed again and took a deep breath, about to reveal a heartache he'd never shared before. "And other times you remind me of Keith." There he'd said it, he'd said the name out loud.
His head was aching, his side was killing him and it was getting harder and harder to focus, but JD knew that his friend needed to purge the pain inside, the pain that was slowly killing him. "Tell me," he commanded.
A part of Buck wanted to tell JD all about Keith and what happened, but the pain was so deep and so hidden, he was struggling to find the words to begin. Catching sight of the water cup, he reached for it and brought it closer to JD. "Why don't you take some more water," he encouraged. "You held down the other pretty well."
JD recognized the delay tactic for what it was, but he was willing to wait and give Buck the time he needed to gather himself. The pain he read in the ladies' man's eyes was one he recognized as every bit as deep and painful as that Chris Larabee carried, every bit as agonizing as JD's own loss of his mother. Taking a few more sips of water, he waited patiently as Buck settled him back on the pillows and returned the cup to the table. Seeing Buck begin to close himself off again, the younger man called one of Josiah's sayings, "A burden shared is a burden halved."
A smile curved Wilmington's mouth at the sound of the preacher's words coming from his young friend's lips. "And you have to purge the poison from a wound," Buck returned, thinking of Nathan's way of saying the same thing. This reply earned him a smile from the injured man.
"Yeah," Dunne agreed.
Gathering his thoughts together, Buck breathed deeply and began relating his tale. "After Sarah and Adam... Chris wasn't doing well and I'd been following him, trying to keep him out of trouble. Then," here Buck's voice broke as he thought of the events that caused him to leave Chris behind.
Seeing Buck struggle and knowing that there was more pain ahead, he eased, "You had to leave him so you could grieve too."
"Yeah," Buck affirmed, clearing his throat. "Anyway, I'd been drifting for about four months when I found myself in this little backwater town with no money and in need of some new horseshoes. I was making my way through the local businesses when I overheard that the sheriff was looking for a couple of deputies. Since I seemed to have the qualifications, I headed on over to the jail and signed up."
Leaning forward, Buck rested his forearms on his knees and stared at his hands. "When I walked into the jail, there was this kid standing there arguing with the sheriff. He was about your age with this crazy red hair sticking out all over and freckles like you haven't seen," Wilmington recalled with a smile. "He was telling the sheriff he was man enough to take the job, knew how to use a gun and knew a enough tracking to be of use. The sheriff wasn't having any of it. I was waiting at the door and this old man came up and let me know about the kid's family. It seems his father was killed the year before and his mother and his brothers and sisters were struggling to get food on the table. Keith needed the job to buy food."
Leaning back in the chair and allowing his gaze to wander toward the window, he continued, "I couldn't let him go home and tell his mom that the family was going to starve, so..."
"You offered... to help," JD said, grimacing as pain shot through his side.
The mustached man smiled at how well JD knew him. "I offered to help," he confirmed. "I marched into the jail and told him I'd like the job and that I'd take the kid on, teach him the ropes. Well, things were going really well. He was a smart kid and we got along really well. Then... then the anniversary of Davey's death came around. That's always a rough time for me, but I thought..." His voice trailed off as he swallowed convulsively, trying to maintain his control for what was coming up.
Finally he took a deep breath and tried to continue, "I thought I had things under control, that I could deal with it. I..." Buck closed his eyes, unable to continue. He took comfort from the shaking hand that reached out for his. Holding tight to JD's hand, he worked at controlling himself long enough finish.
"Look at me," JD ordered breathlessly.
Buck looked up into the eyes of his young friend, eyes that betrayed innocence, wisdom and knowledge. He found himself captured in the comfort JD offered. The words began to come of their own accord. "I was drinking... That was about all I was doing. The ladies didn't want anything to do with me, and me? I didn't want anything to do with them. All I could think of was Davey and how..." Tears welled up in the blue eyes, but as JD squeezed his hand, Buck managed to continue. "I wasn't in any shape to be on duty, to watch out for Keith, but, I thought… we both thought… he'd learned enough."
Taking a deep breath, he saw the scenes replay in his mind yet again. "I was passed out in my room when the fight broke out in the saloon. The sheriff was out of town, checking out a report of rustling. That left Keith to watch the town alone." Taking a deep breath, Buck clenched his teeth and forced himself to finish. "He..." his voice broke. "He walked in, just like I taught him, but there was no one to watch his back. A gun got pulled..."
"It's okay," JD soothed, his heart aching for his big brother.
"No," Buck denied. "I have to finish this." Taking a deep breath, he continued, "Someone pulled a gun and fired, missed his target and the bullet went straight through Keith's heart."
The tears were streaming down Buck's face as he struggled to even his breathing. “It was the same day… the same… day that Davey…” Pulling his hand free, Buck wept for the two men, his two little brothers. Buck felt one hand rest on his knee and then felt an arm rest across his shoulders and draw him close.
It was several minutes before the suppressed grief began to ebb and he was able to gather himself, he realized that it was Ezra’s arm around his shoulder. Seeing a white square of fabric appear in front of him, Buck took the opportunity to wipe his face and blow his nose. When he felt he could continue, his tear-roughened voice explained. “I swore after Keith died I would never let anyone get close enough to hurt me that way again.” he paused and took several deep breaths. “Then you came along and I forgot all about that promise until I noticed the day coming up. I realized you’d come to be every bit the little brother they were… and more. JD,” Buck paused as he swallowed. “I couldn’t lose you too, but I didn’t know… I…”
“You couldn’t figure out how not to be hurt,” Ezra supplied. “So you pushed young Mister Dunne away while trying to draw him closer, to give him the protection you felt you hadn’t provided Davey or Keith.”
Buck nodded and lifted his tearful blue eyes to meet those of his friend. “I couldn’t lose you too, but I couldn’t let you go. Then yesterday, when we rode in and I saw you shot…”
“I’m still here, Buck” JD assured, squeezing his friend’s knee as he fought the drowsiness that had invaded his system. “I’m not going… anywhere,” he promised as he yawned and let his head fall back.
Lifting JD’s hand from his knee, Buck placed it next to his young friend, refusing to relinquish his hold of it. “I know that, kid,” he said. “But, you and the others are all the family I got. And I can’t lose any of you.” He smiled as soft snores escaped from the injured brunet.
Feeling Ezra squeeze his shoulder, he looked up at the gambler. “We shall do our best to assure we do not slip this mortal coil,” Standish assured.
“And I appreciate that, Ezra. I truly do,” Buck admitted, smiling up into the green eyes. His smile faded as he saw how pale his friend had become. “You should be back in bed,” Wilmington informed, rising from his chair and slipping an arm under Ezra’s. Guiding the shorter man to the bed, he made sure Standish was settled before pulling the blankets up.
As Buck started to stand, Ezra reached out and grabbed his arm. “What you said shall remain here if you wish,” he informed the rogue.
A small smile appeared on the mustached man’s lips as he thought about his friends and what they were willing to do for him. “Thank you,” he replied simply. “But it felt kind of good to talk about them boys again.”
Ezra returned the smile and nodded before closing his eyes and once more falling asleep.
Nathan was finishing tying his bedroll to his horse when Chris returned to their makeshift camp. "Early start," he noted of Nathan's preparedness. "Dawn's an hour off yet."
Turning toward Chris, Nathan nodded. "Reckon we should set out soon as we can see. As much blood as they were losing..." his voice trailed off.
The blond nodded his agreement and began preparing his own gear to be stowed away as tendrils of fear gripped his heart. He had been hoping his own conclusions were wrong, but with Nathan admitting he was worried… As the gunslinger lifted his canteen, he uttered a low curse. “Need to get water,” he observed.
“The stream I used last evening’s just over there a ways. We can go there and refill,” Nathan advised as he shook his own canteen and discovered it almost empty. Seeing the man in black head off in the direction indicated, Nathan called him back. “Reckon we should wait until we can see our way,” he suggested.
Chris frowned but nodded, knowing that getting himself or Nathan injured was the last thing they needed to do. It was too easy to misstep in the darkness and twist and ankle or break a leg or arm in a fall.
Josiah woke with a start as the warm weight resting against him shifted. Blinking the sleep from his eyes, he wondered idly why it felt like his head was floating. Looking around the cave, he realized there was a dim light illuminating the interior. Looking down, he saw Vin was lying on top of him. Shifting his good arm from under the younger man, Sanchez bit back a groan of pain, closing his eyes against the black wave that threatened him.
When he felt he had control once more, he called out to his friend and shook him gently. “Vin,” he called softly. He received no response. “Vin, come on son. Wake up for me.” His efforts earned him two blinking eyes. He could just barely see the movement of the eyelids in the grey light.
“’Siah?” came the uncertain whisper, little more than a breath.
“Yes, son. It’s me. I need you to wake up and move a little bit. I’ll need to get us some water.”
“’Kay,” Vin agreed without moving.
“Moving now would be good, Vin,” Sanchez encouraged. “You’re leaning on my bad leg.”
“Sorry,” the Texan rasped as he struggled against the pain and threatening darkness to move his body. Eventually he managed to shift off of Josiah’s lap only to groan as pain washed over him. It took several minutes for him to regain his breath. When he did, he became aware of Josiah's hand holding his and the deep voice speaking soothing words. "'Kay," he gritted out, finally.
His heart went out to his friend as Sanchez wished there was something, anything he could do to ease the pain he knew Vin was suffering. "You'll be alright until I get back?" he asked, dreading the pain he knew he would be feeling as soon as he moved.
Struggling against the agony that was becoming his world, Vin managed to lift his head enough to nod an affirmative.
"Okay," Josiah assured. "I'll be back."
"G... gun," Vin ground out.
It took the former preacher's pain fogged mind a few moments to understand the meaning of Vin's statement. "Right," he finally agreed as he realized the people who had been trailing them might still be around. He slowly turned his head and found his gun by his side next to the canteens. Reaching out, Josiah grunted in pain as his hand finally managed to clutch the weapon. Pulling it toward him, he let it rest on the ground as he retrieved the canteens.
After having to pause several times to wait for the throbbing to stop, he finally had everything ready to go. Now all he needed was the strength and energy to get to the small stream he’d seen the day before and back. Looking over at Vin, he could see the blue eyes were closed. Josiah frowned as he was able to see the flush of fever on Vin’s cheeks. The color stood out against the pallor of the rest of his skin. Listening closely, Sanchez was concerned about the rapid, shallow breathing. “I’ll be back,” he whispered, determined to keep his promise and help his friend.
Mustering all of his strength and determination and combining it with years of discipline, Josiah forced himself onto his feet, suppressing a cry of anguish. Resting his good arm against the wall, he struggled to control his breathing as his injured leg started to collapse. After several minutes, he felt he had sufficient control of himself and took a step toward the cave entrance.
Though the progress was slow, Josiah did eventually reach his goal. Resting against the wall near the opening, he peered through the foliage that obscured the entrance, searching for any sign of their pursuers. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, he took a deep breath and staggered ahead, trying to move silently and knowing he was failing.
Each step described a new level of agony. Each movement closer to the water increased his need for to collapse. Tears gathered at the corner of his eyes as his injured leg began to shake and blood started flowing out from the wound in it. Still, he knew he had to get the water. His life, and Vin’s, depended on it. They had lost too much blood already and without something to help replace it…
A soft whimper escaped the peacekeeper as the world began to swim before his eyes. He was almost there, almost to the stream. He had to be.
Just as he caught sight of a faint glimmer upon water, another sound caught his attention, forcing him to stop and focus. It was a voice, a man’s voice and it was cursing softly nearby. Josiah knew he would have to take shelter and wait, praying that he would have the strength to rise and continue, and that the man would leave soon.
Seeing he was near a thicket, Josiah moved to enter it. Feeling he was well hidden within the confines of his chosen hide-away, he began to lower himself to the ground. Unfortunately, the blood loss, lack of food and weariness caught up with him at that point and caused him to collapse hard on the ground. As he landed, he sat on a dry branch causing it to crack loudly.
Eyes closed and praying every prayer he could think of, Josiah waited and listened.
“You hear that?” the voice asked, little more than a whisper.
“Company,” came the equally hushed reply.
The exchange was followed by the sound of two guns cocking.
With a mental cry and an apology to Vin, Josiah could only pray Tanner would live long enough to forgive him for failing.
Nathan let a soft curse slip as a small fish swam into his canteen. He frowned as he caught sight of Chris’ shoulders shaking. Huffing out a breath, he ignored the laughing blond and emptied his canteen, watching closely to make sure his uninvited guest left.
Satisfied the fish was gone, Nathan began to refill his canteen, the final preparation before heading out to find Vin and Josiah. Corking the canteen, Jackson had just risen from his position when a loud snap sounded nearby.
“You hear that?” he hissed at Chris.
“Company,” Chris replied, equally quiet.
Taking their guns from their holsters, the two men cocked their weapons and prepared to meet whatever intruder was waiting for them.
Signaling that he would move to the left, Nathan began moving in that direction while Chris headed off to the right.
A large thicket was nearby and the two men met on the other side of it, both frowning when they didn’t find anything. They were just about to turn back to the water, when Nathan spotted the bright red droplet on a nearby leaf. Given the direction of the tip of the tear-shaped drop, it looked like whoever left the blood was headed into the thicket.
Turning his eyes up toward Chris, he found the blond looking around. Catching the other’s eye, Nathan drew the blond’s attention to the blood drop. “Fresh,” he whispered to his counterpart.
Then, rising, he lifted his gun slightly and prepared to enter the thicket, stopping only when Chris placed a hand on his chest to stop him. Turning questioning eyes to the man in black, Nathan waited to see what the problem was. He soon understood that Chris wanted to go in first. Nodding his understanding, Nathan turned to keep an eye out for anyone who might try to sneak up on them from behind as Chris carefully pushed into the brush.
It was a few tense moments later when Jackson heard his friend’s desperate cry, “Nathan!” The healer was already pushing through the brush when the rest of the call reached him, “It’s Josiah. He needs you!” Hearing the anxious tone of Larabee’s normally calm voice and fearing what it meant for his friend, Jackson pushed faster and soon found the two men.
He pulled up short as he came upon them. Chris was kneeling down next to the ex-preacher, holding a bandana to his leg. Josiah had his eyes closed and was covered in blood and grime from head to toe. It was impossible for Nathan to tell what was wrong with his friend. “We need to get him cleaned up so I can figure out what’s wrong,” Nathan instructed as he reached a shaking hand to his friend’s throat. As he checked for a pulse, blue eyes fluttered open.
“Na…Nathan?” the confused man questioned.
“Right here, Josiah. I’m going to take care of you,” the healer assured.
“No,” Josiah denied, his eyebrows drawing down in pain and determination. “Vin. Got… gotta get… wat… water for… Vin,” he insisted, struggling to get up.
“We’ll get to Vin in a few minutes,” Jackson assured as he began cutting off Josiah’s shirt. He’d buy his friend a new one when they got to town. A portion of his mind was screaming at him to get to the Tracker as soon as he could, but he knew that Josiah needed his help now as well. Looking up, he met Chris’ hazel eyes and saw his own fear reflected there.
“Where’s Vin?” Chris asked Josiah. “I’ll go to him until Nathan gets you patched up.”
“C… cave. Th… there,” Sanchez instructed before unconsciousness claimed him.
Nathan now had Josiah’s shirt off and was starting on his pants, focused on the injuries he was revealing and muttering, trying to figure out what he would need to get in order to help him.
“Can you handle him if I go to Vin?” Chris asked from where he was kneeling, still holding a bandana to Josiah’s leg.
Nathan looked up and blinked several times as he processed the question. “I’m going to need your help to move him,” Jackson informed.
“He’s still got a bullet in his leg,” Larabee informed softly, nodding toward the makeshift bandage he was using.
A curse escaped the worried healer. “I’m going to need your help holding him when I cut it out,” Jackson informed, a grim look on his face. Then, rubbing his chin with the back of his hand, he looked from Josiah to Chris and nodded, having come to a decision. “I’ll manage here for a while. You go check on Vin and see if we can use their cave as a shelter. But I need you back here.”
Chris nodded, well aware of how serious the situation was from Nathan’s reactions and responses. Standing he moved off, leaving Nathan to tend to Josiah.
Pushing through the thicket once more, Chris headed off in the direction Josiah had indicated, his worry increasing with each step. If Josiah was that bad off and he was the healthier of the two, he couldn’t help but wonder in what shape he would find Vin.
It was the soft snuffling of a horse that drew him to the hidden entry. Pushing aside the vines covering the entryway to allow light inside, he froze in place.
A beam of sunlight filtered through the dust and darkness, falling on the deathly still form of Vin Tanner. The tracker’s pallid skin glowed in the beam of light, throwing into relief the dried blood that covered half the young man’s face.
Chris felt his stomach clench as he registered the blood on his friend’s face. Tracking down the too-still form, he could only see evidence of blood loss. The haphazardly tied bandages were brown with the substance. Finally the image before him, combined with the stress of the last few days overcame the man in black. Stepping quickly away from the cave, he leaned over behind a bush and vomited the entire contents of his stomach.
With a shaking hand, he wiped his mouth and headed back to the cave, taking several deep breaths to calm himself and gather his courage.
Entering the small cavern, he moved slowly across the floor and dropped to his knees beside the man who had become his younger brother. Reaching out a trembling hand, he brushed a stray hair off the pale forehead and traced his hand down the white cheek, fighting off a sob of relief as the heat of fever registered on his fingertips. If Vin had a fever then he was alive. Quickly moving his hand to the young man’s throat, he took several more deep breaths as he tried to still his trembling hand. A small cry of victory escaped as he found a weak, rapid pulse.
Dropping his head and sending up a prayer of thanks, Larabee rested his hand on Vin’s shoulder, leaned over and then tapped his friend’s cheek. “Vin,” he called, needing to see his friend’s blue eyes. “Vin! Wake up!” he called more loudly.
“’Siah?” came the breathless query.
Chris was almost overwhelmed by the mix of emotions that flooded through him at that simple question – relief that Vin was alive, fear that he would slip away, joy that he had found him in time, anger that the Texan should suffer so, and so many more. “No,” he replied, squeezing the shoulder slightly. “Just Chris.”
A low hiss of pain escaped the barely sensate man as Chris squeezed his shoulder.
Startled by the hiss of pain, Larabee quickly sat back, releasing all contact with his friend. Thinking through his actions, he moved toward the shoulder he’d squeezed and slid his hand under the prone form. “I’m just going to roll you a little,” he explained. “I want to see if you’re hurt.
“No,” the longhaired man protested as the black-clad arm slipped under him.
His heart going out to his friend at the pitiful denial, Chris lifted Vin and looked underneath him. A curse stuck in the back of his throat as he first saw the pool of blood under his young friend and then noticed the hole just below his shoulder. Lowering the Texan down again, Larabee checked for an exit wound. When he failed to find one, his chin dropped to his chest and he closed his eyes, wondering how much pain his friends must endure and praying that the three men back in town were safe.
“’ris?” the pitiful voice asked.
Opening his eyes, the man in black, found himself staring into two tiny blue slits. “Yeah, it’s me,” he said softly, a small smile appearing on his face at this sign of life. “Nathan’s with Josiah right now. We’re going to bring him back here and take care of you both.”
“Set… up,” Vin communicated a brief flare of anger flashing in his eyes.
“We know,” the blond assured. “We’ll take care of it.”
“’Kay,” Vin agreed his eyes drifting shut and unconsciousness claiming him once more.
“We’ll take care of you too,” he promised. “Then we’ll get the men who set us up.”
Though he had hated doing it, Nathan had left Josiah alone long enough to retrieve his canteen and return to the clearing where he and Chris had camped the night before. The whole time he was cursing fate, destiny and anyone else who came to mind. They had been camped less than a quarter mile from their friends all night and didn’t know it. The two injured men could have bled to death while he and Chris were drinking coffee.
Racing back to Josiah’s side, Nathan began clearing away the dirt and grime. When he had washed off as much as he could with the cold water, he evaluated what he had found. A hole that went clean through Josiah’s bicep, a deep gouge on the man’s ankle and, of course, the bullet in his leg. The bullet would need to come out as soon as possible since that wound was still bleeding, though sluggishly. There was one thing that worried him other than the blood loss. And that was infection that had set in at the ankle and arm. The last thing he needed to fight was infection on top of everything else.
Before any of that could be done, though, he needed a fire and some hot water. He also needed to move Josiah someplace else and that meant he needed Chris – now. Looking around, he cursed whatever had caused him to allow the man in black to leave. It wasn’t that Nathan didn’t care about Vin, but reality was, he could only work on one person at a time and if he could focus on Josiah and taking care of him, then he would be better prepared to work on Vin later.
As he was about to stand and call Chris, the gunslinger returned to the thicket looking pale and shaken. Nathan’s eyes widened as he took in Larabee’s appearance. Whatever was wrong with Vin had to be bad to shake the man so badly.
Swallowing back his own fear and forcing aside his worry, Nathan informed his friend what they needed to do. “We have to move Josiah to the cave and start a fire. That bullet has to come out and we’ve got infection in two of the wounds.” When Larabee didn’t respond, Jackson reached out, gave him a small shake and called, “Chris!”
Blinking several times, Chris looked at Josiah and then up at the healer. “We…” he began, his voice breaking. “Vin… We have to get to him, fix him up first, Nathan. He… he’s worse than Josiah. I… I don’t think he has much time.”
Nathan had seen a lot of horrible things in his lifetime, first on the plantations and then later in the war. He had seen people he loved die and seen their lives stolen for no reason. But the information Chris just shared, caused his heart to plummet and grief to well up within in a way nothing else had. He managed to choke off the cry of despair at the news and tipped his head back to the sky. He was only one man. Josiah needed him and Vin needed him. He was on the trail and didn’t have everything he knew he’d need. They were miles away from anywhere and neither man would be able to ride to the road let alone the nearest town. Never before had Nathan felt so alone, so burdened and so helpless all at once.
Seeing his friend’s distress, Chris reached out and cupped the back of Nathan’s neck, causing the man to look at him. His own eyes drilling into the warm brown ones before him, he set his jaw, took control and instructed, “One thing at a time.”
Nathan looked at the pained hazel eyes, knowing they reflected his own feelings. Still he drew strength from the presence of the other man. Taking a deep breath, he nodded. When he felt the hand drop away, he instructed, “First things first. We need to get Josiah back to the cave and get a fire started.”
Continued in Parts 16 to 20
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