Telegram

By SasseyJ

DISCLAIMER: I do not own nor do I profit in any way from the characters of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. They belong to Trilogy, MGM, Mirisch, CBS and now TNN.  However I would like to state that I do not wish my original characters borrowed without my knowledge or consent.  If you are not certain a character is canon or mine, I will be happy to let you know.  Just ask or look at my list of original characters.

References are made to the episode "Sins of the Past".

I would like to thank Judy for her encouragement and beta reading, Janice for her terrific ideas and support, and Nancy for all of her technical help and support. Thanks ladies, I never would have done this without you. All three of you deserve a full 24-hour day with Vin.

This does have some questionable language, but I wouldn't rate it more than PG13.


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Part One

Chapter 1

He'd made his escape a half-hour earlier, and someone had finally found him. The horse had been as eager as he had for a swift gallop in the cool mist that threatened to turn into a hard rain later in the day. It had been raining off and on for the last several days. They'd needed the rain, but it just made his captivity that much harder to bear and the swift gallop out of the question. Instead, he and his horse trudged along the muddy road. No sun had shone on him for two weeks, two miserable, pain-filled weeks. Now, he was finally free, and someone had found him. He wasn't going back without a fight! It just wasn't fair, but when had life ever been fair? Not one to complain about something he couldn't change, he'd learn to adjust. This time, however, he was going to be stubborn. He felt like being stubborn. He was determined to end his incarceration. If he could just get to her before they all found him and made him turn back. They knew where he was headed, so he hadn't bothered to try and hide from them. He had just hoped to get away before they caught up to him. He just wanted a little bit of freedom. Was that too much to ask for? Sometimes too much of a good thing was just too much. He had to get away every once in a while in order to appreciate what he had left behind. Today was no different.

"I told you I would be happy to deliver that telegram," the soft southern voice said as it drew along side him. "After all, being a messenger is preferable to menial labor any day."

"Ezra, I know the only reason you came out here wasnt to get outta doin' any menial labor. You're playin' watch dog!"

"Mr. Tanner, I am shocked that you would think that I would volunteer to ride to Mrs. Wells' home in this horrendous weather merely because I did not wish to ruin my clothes repairing Josiah's dilapidated church. Why this misty rain alone will render my fine white, linen shirt a less than favorable shade of pink. AndÍ"

"Ezra!" Vin growled. "If all you're gonna do is complain about the rain causin' your red jacket to fade, you can just go on back to town. I don't need no nursemaid. It's been 2 weeks since I got shot, an' I don't need no one to shadow me. I ain't goin' nowhere but to deliver this telegram to Miss Nettie. It might be important."

"Mr. Tan. . . ., Vin, I understand your need to feel independent, but there are times when you need the aid and company of your friends."

"In other words, Chris an' Nathan both threatened you if you didn't watch me?" Vin didn't know whether to be amused, angry, disgusted, or pleased that his friends were acting like a bunch of nursemaids to a little kid. He truly had no idea when this group of men had become a family to him, and when Nettie Wells had basically adopted him. He only knew that since he had been shot two weeks ago during the bank robbery, that he had been under constant watch. If it wasn't one of the other six men, it was Miss Nettie, Mrs. Travis, and even Mrs. Potter. It was getting to where he felt like going to the privy was the only place he could find some peace and quiet, and then that was out of the question until the first part of last week. When the telegram had come this morning, Vin had practically vaulted over Josiah to grab it from Bill, the telegraph operator. He had "been allowed" to sit on one of the pews in the church the past few mornings while Josiah, and anyone or several of the men he could draft, worked to turn the old building into a habitable church. Chris and Nathan hadn't been there at the time to tell him no, and he just ignored the rest of them as he moved as quickly as he could to the livery. The long ride might not have been a great idea, but Vin was getting very uncomfortable with his babysitters. He hadn't even bothered to put on his rain slicker he was in such a hurry to escape the "house arrest" that he blamed for his suffering since his return to consciousness. Now, he wished he had put it on. The discomfort he felt, all right the pain he felt, and the fussing Miss Nettie was going to give him would be well worth the exhilarated feeling of freedom he was experiencing now. Yeah, the pain would be worth it. It was enough to make him feel giddy. Just feeling the chilly rain on his face would counter balance the tongue-lashing he knew was waiting for him from Nathan and the glare he would get from Chris. He almost laughed aloud, except Ezra would question him.

Ezra, he was in for it, too. Not only was his favorite red jacket getting wet and fading an unfashionable pink on his white linen shirt, Ezra just plain didn't like getting out in the elements, as he called them, especially the chilly, rainy elements. Vin almost felt sorry for him, except he was getting mighty tired of his friends smothering him. Yes, he had been shot while picking off the bank robber who had Chris dead in his sights. And yes, he had stayed on the roof shooting after the bullet had lodged high in the fleshy part of the left arm, taking out the man who'd had a bead on Ezra. He hadn't noticed the other man who had climbed up behind him. He took the bullet right below his left lung as JD managed to kill the man on the second shot. He didn't remember much after that except the shouting that had quickly followed as he began to slide down the roof. Somehow he managed to hook his good arm on the ledge, but he couldn't remember who had actually pulled him to safety. Nor could he actually remember how he had gotten down. Fortunately, he remembered only bits and pieces and had vague memories of different people talking to him. Chris had been one of those voices. He had sounded angry that Vin had been shot defending him. He also had memories of Ezra yelling that if Buck hadn't gotten there, but he didn't remember what Buck had had to do with anything, except Buck would put his life on the line as any of them would for the others. He was alive, and that was all that mattered.

The bullet in his arm had been taken out before he regained consciousness, but the other bullet had passed through. Everyone had taken great pains to tell him how lucky he was the bullet had missed his left lung and his ribs. Nathan had repeatedly told him over and over how lucky he was nothing vital had been hit, and that he hadn't had to dig out the bullet. Vin just thought it was lucky he didn't regain consciousness until after the bandaging had been completed. He'd been hurt worse and had taken care of himself just fine. He didn't need any nursemaids hovering over his every move. Vin shook his head again to clear it. Old Ezra was harpin' on something again.

"Vin, Mr. Tanner? Are you listening? This mist as you so erroneously called it is turning into a downpour. Don't you think we should proceed to Mrs. Wells' ranch with all due haste?"

Damn! For once, Vin just wished Ezra would speak plain English. Ezra wasn't usually that hard to follow. Actually, Ezra was pretty easy for him to understand. Maybe that's why they got along like they did. It was a mutual game of little insults thrown into casual conversation. Neither one meant any harm in it; they just liked to verbally spar with one another. Quite often, Vin would shock purely infectious laughter out of Ezra, and then he in turn would make Vin smile that half-ironic, half-amused grin that passed for Vin's laughter. Just cause he couldn't read didn't mean he was stupid. In fact, he had a remarkable memory. Once he heard a word, Vin seldom forgot its meaning, but today, today it was just too hard to concentrate, or Ezra was just trying to annoy him by talking his good mood right out of him.

"What in the HELL do you think you are doing?" Where had Chris come from? Vin knew he had let his guard down when Eli Joe nearly got him the month before, but he had hardened himself and put that hunter's/hunted guard back on duty. Few things got past him, but here Chris was in the rain breathing fire. Aw Geez! This was all he needed. It was getting hard enough to concentrate on what Ezra was spouting, and now he had to listen to Chris spit fire. His head was pounding! When had that started? It had started when Chris yelled at him. He was supposed to be his best friend, but here he was butting in again. First he went and killed Eli Joe, and now he was yelling and making his head hurt. If he weren't feeling so crappy right now, he'd light into Chris for killing Eli and giving him this awful, pounding ache in his head. He'd just wanted to howl when Chris shot Eli! No, he had wanted to shoot Chris! Only the fact that even as good a shot as he was, Vin knew that Chris had had no choice but to kill Eli. Eli was too quick with that knife, Vin too vulnerable, and the angle too steep for Chris to do anything but aim for the biggest spot on Eli and pull the trigger. Hell, the fall alone probably would have killed Eli, and Vin knew how badly Chris had felt afterward. Chris had been prepared to take on a US Marshall to free him, so he had never doubted his sincerity. Vin had just been so sure that he would finally get that bounty off of his head that he had been crushed when it didn't happen. If he had been more like Chris, he would have gotten drunk or at least shot somebody, so he felt better. But, he wasn't Chris, and Chris wouldn't shoot no one for no good reason. Folks thought he would, but that was what Chris wanted them to think. Hell, they were all good at scaring people. It was part of what kept them alive. Damn! He felt bad, really damn bad!

That wasn't Chris's fault, so he'd guess he'd stop blaming Chris for Eli Joe, but not his pounding head. Vin was sure that he could set the blame for his pounding head squarely on Chris's shoulders. Couldn't he? His left side was beginning to hurt enough to make him want to dig up the man who'd put the bullet in him just so Vin could shoot the bastard over and over again! That thought really appealed to Vin. Maybe too much. It dawned on Vin that he wasn't thinking too clearly. In fact his thoughts weren't making much sense at all. God, he wished Chris and Ezra would quit yelling at him! He really felt bad! This really hadn't been one of his better ideas. In fact, when he turned around to tell Chris and Ezra to hurry up to Nettie's, he saw four of them. Two of Ezra and two of Chris. Damn! One of each he could handle, but two of each? He really did feel lousy! The cold rain that had felt so good when he started out now felt downright cold. No, it was freezing, else he wouldn't be shivering. When had he started shivering? And why did he feel so cold all of a sudden? And weak, he really felt like someone had just drained him of any energy he'd had. And why on earth was he leaning to the right of his saddle? It was almost as if he was trying to fall off. He hadn't fallen off a horse since he was a little kid. Hell, he could ride half the night and all day too with a bullet in him! He'd done it before; he just couldn't remember when. Funny, he couldn't think much any more. It was just so easy to leanÍ

"Catch him, Chris!" were the last words he heard.


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Chapter 2

Vin had scared the hell out of Ezra when he started listing to the right side of his horse. He'd known Vin was making a serious error in judgment when Vin had rushed to the livery to saddle his horse. It hadn't been fear of Chris Larabee and Nathan Jackson that had made Ezra offer to take the telegram out to Mrs. Wells. Ezra didn't have many friends, and he had no intention losing any one of them. His mother Maude would have a conniption fit that all her sacrifices, when she paused long enough to remember that she had a son, had been for naught. Maude had stressed by action and deed that a person should always take care of number one. Number one meaning her, of course. In Ezra's case it meant Ezra, unless Maude were present; then she became number one. Fear of Chris Larabee's threat to kill him if he ran out on him again had long ago been replaced by a mutual respect. Like Vin, Ezra naturally looked to Chris for leadership. That vibrant personality seemed to envelop all six men and make them want to be a part of the group. Ezra had wondered if Chris was a better con artist than he was, but there was no subterfuge in Chris Larabee. He said what he thought, no matter how you felt about the truth he directed at you. And Vin Tanner just naturally complimented Chris's volatile nature. Ezra had envied that spontaneous bonding that seemed to occur between Chris and Vin and even Buck and JD, but as the months had gone on, Ezra found himself being drawn into that bonding. He thought he knew when it had happened, when Chris had disappeared months ago. Vin had naturally assumed leadership, and they all went to find their lost friend. Ezra had known their weapon of intimidation would not render success in that nasty little berg. The whole town was a group of con artists; he could feel it. So he had offered his advice, and they had listened to him. It was the most exhilarating feeling he had had in years. He had felt from that moment on, not just someone on the fringe, but a viable member of the group. In the time it had taken Larabee to recover from the effects of his ordeal, most of the seven, who were not on duty in the evenings, had become accustomed to sitting in the saloon playing poker. It was like a family gathering almost; whatever type of gathering it was, Ezra had come to relish it. Mother would definitely not approve, but since the war of the saloons, Ezra hadn't really cared what Maude Standish had thought. Truth be told, that experience had only intensified the friendship between Ezra and Vin. They had something more in common than just the group now. Both had seen their one major goal in life shot down in an instant. Vin had wanted desperately to clear his name, and Ezra had wanted to own his own saloon. For Vin, it meant the end of living his life constantly on guard, looking for the bullet some less scrupulous than himself bounty hunter would use to claim Tanner as his prize. For Ezra, it would mean a home that was his, not to be snatched away by his mother because she needed him in one of her schemes. Well, Eli Joe was dead, and Maude had won the war of the saloons. Somehow they sensed each other's disappointment, and that only strengthened their determination to accomplish their goals. It might prove more difficult now, but Ezra knew both could be done.

Ezra smiled despite the gravity of the situation. He had wondered about the annoyingly quiet tracker when they had first met. Uneducated and uncouth were the first opinions Ezra had had of Tanner. Uneducated yes, Vin was probably illiterate, but Ezra had a few secrets he didn't want made public either. However, Ezra had noticed the intense blue eyes that could nail you with the truth, twinkle at the ironies of life, and spot the weakness in the enemy at any distance. When Vin had unexpectedly teased Ezra about one of his more nefarious vices in that low drawl of his, Ezra had burst into laughter. If anyone else had asked him if he had stacked the deck to his satisfaction yet, Ezra probably would have shot him. Somehow he knew that Vin had just offered him his trust and friendship, and Ezra had realized how badly he wanted that trust and friendship. Vin's calm self-confidence, his quiet acceptance of leadership when Larabee had disappeared, his contentment within the group or in his own company, Ezra admired the fact that Vin Tanner adapted to any situation he encountered with a wry sense of humor. He wasn't as loquacious as Ezra, or as flamboyant as Buck, but in his quiet way Vin Tanner kept Ezra sharp.

Ezra knew that if Vin made the effort to talk to you, trade barbs with you, he liked you. You belonged to that exclusive list Vin labeled as friend, and Ezra discovered he liked having friends. Now that he had helped Chris secure Vin to his horse on their way to Nettie's, he was moving as fast as the rain and mud would allow back to town and the one person who could possibly help Vin. Something was terribly wrong with one friend, and Ezra found it almost comforting to know that he had another to turn to for help. They needed Nathan Jackson's medical expertise, and they needed it now.

As Ezra encouraged his horse to move faster, he thought how Vin would appreciate the irony that at least he would be able to deliver Nettie's telegram successfully. That didn't help Ezra much, though. The message would arrive in tact, but it was for the messenger that Ezra worried. Ezra had just thought he had been scared when Vin, shot twice, had nearly toppled off the roof of the building on which he had placed himself offering the best cover he could to his friends. If JD hadn't spotted the man climbing up behind Vin and Buck hadn't worked his way over to Vin when he had, the tracker would probably be dead now and their number six. The fact that Vin had been wounded saving both Chris and himself had only made the two men closer in their need to see Vin fully recovered. However, although Vin had given every outward appearance of recovering swiftly under everyone's watchful eyes, Ezra had begun to realize that all was not right with the quiet tracker. Somehow everyone had sensed that something was wrong, and each, Nathan especially, had been keeping a more than watchful eye on Vin. It was almost as if they had a foreboding that something bad was still going to happen. It was that apprehension that had driven Vin to escape the smothering atmosphere and take the dangerous ride in the rain. Ezra sometimes hated that his intuition could be so glaringly correct. Something was terribly wrong, and Ezra sensed it would only get worse before, or even if, it got better.


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Chapter 3

If he hadn't already taken one bullet for him, Chris would shoot Vin himself! Hell, he'd let Ezra have a shot, too! Things just hadn't felt right since Vin crawled up on that roof to get better aim at the gang of outlaws trying to rob the bank. Chris had been thinking they needed the sharpshooter on the roof to give them the advantage when he happened to catch his friend's eye. 'Damnit Vin, you're not supposed to read my mind like that!' Chris didn't know what it was about his friend, but for some reason Tanner could read him like a book. Hell, he'd known Buck for nigh on 12 years, and when he wanted, he could still put on that stone face. Even Buck could be stumped, most of the time. Not Vin Tanner. It was spooky.

Since the first moment they made eye contact, Chris Larabee had known he could trust Vin Tanner with his life. He often found himself listening to this man's advice even though he was a good ten years younger than he was. The quiet, unassuming man had a way of looking at life that always managed to find something amusing in it. Chris still didn't know if Vin was really so detached from others that their demons didn't affect him, or that Vin had learned the hard way that the only way to survive life sane was with a sense of humor. Chris admired that in Vin; he was content with himself or in a group. He never doubted Vin's ability to lead, and therefore was surprised when Vin had so easily acquiesced to his leadership. Vin always seemed to be at the right place at the right time. He showed up just when you needed him, and then he would quietly blend back into the group. Vin never seemed to get ruffled, well with the exception of Eli Joe.

Chris had seen the look of utter disbelief change to anger, and then utter despair when Chris had killed Eli Joe. He had expected his anger, was ready to accept it, but Vin had just said he understood. Vin always seemed to understand when Chris needed silence and when he needed to talk. He never seemed to judge others, just accepted them for who and what they were. And Chris had killed the only man who could tell the law in Tascosa that Vin was an innocent man. Chris hadn't needed any more guilt to bear, but Vin just looked at him and in that instant forgave him. His pragmatic approach to life wouldn't accept anything else. Vin refused to make Chris feel any guiltier over what had happened. Like he said, he couldn't prove himself innocent if he were dead, but that didn't stop Chris from wishing it had been anyone else who had pulled the trigger. If Vin had taken his anger out on Chris, Chris probably would have felt better. But no, Vin just accepted and moved on.

Why couldn't Chris do that? Maybe that was why Vin fascinated Chris. He accepted things he couldn't change and moved on. He didn't dwell in the past or on painful memories. He took action to change things, but he accepted without anger (most of the time) the things he couldn't. Chris wished he had that ability. He looked over at the man. He'd seemed almost embarrassed that he couldn't stay on his horse. Then he'd passed out. If Ezra hadn't been there to help, he would have landed flat on his face in the mud. Chris would laugh if he didn't feel so damned helpless right now. It would have served the quietly confident Tanner to know he was just a man like the rest of them. He had no idea how many times he had caused Chris to actually worry about the risks he took. He was always tracking or backtracking. He never asked for anyone else's help. For some reason, even though he would help anyone who needed it without even being asked, Vin never seemed to fully understand that he could rely on any of the other six to help him out.

Chris had nearly lost it when everyone had lined up outside the jailhouse ready to help him capture Eli Joe. None of them, even Ezra who was about to lose his shirt over that damned saloon had any intention of letting Vin go after Eli Joe on his own. It was worth the pain of holding in the laughter to see that shyly pleased, almost surprised look that crossed his face when Vin realized his friends were all there to back him up. Even Mary Travis had been there to offer her support. Chris knew that Vin no longer thought himself stupid for hanging around Four Corners and getting involved with these people. That was partly why Chris liked Vin so much; Vin seemed rarely surprised by the bad things people could do, but he always seemed a little surprised when people went out of their way to show him a kindness.

Vin rarely spoke about his past; hell he rarely spoke at all. So, when he did speak, most listened. The night Vin had teased Ezra; Chris had been ready for any reaction from the gambler except laughter. Vin had read Ezra right from the beginning. He liked him, and he was letting him know it. The two had developed a rapport after that that constantly kept the others waiting for the next little jab the other would take. Swift and unyielding the two always were more than willing to see who could make the other laugh first. What had happened two weeks ago had made Chris admit that even though he hadn't wanted it, he had gotten himself six brothers. He cared about what happened to them and God help anyone who hurt any of them. That was why he'd been so angry when Vin had climbed on that roof.

Chris knew it was dangerous, and he had lost too many people he cared about to willingly send any one of his six friends into danger. It was all right for him to stand in front. It was all right for him to take the risks, but it wasn't for any of the others. He'd been thinking that having Vin on the roof would be their best bet, but he wasn't going to ask the tracker to take up that exposed position. Vin had taken matters into his own hands just like he always did to keep Chris from feeling any more guilt. That was what had pissed Chris off so much, besides the fact that Vin took a bullet for both him and Ezra, that Vin had taken his position on the roof without being asked in order to save Chris from making the obvious decision.

Ever since he'd seen Buck grab Vin by his good arm and pull him to safety, Chris had had an uneasy feeling. Not that he didn't trust Nathan to fix Vin up, he trusted Nathan more than he did some "real" doctors that he'd known. It was just something in the back of his mind, some little voice that kept telling him that something was not right. He had sensed the others, especially Nathan and Ezra, had felt the same way. His instincts fed on theirs as the others kept an almost maternal watch on Vin regardless of his apparently swift recovery. It had sure grated on Vin's nerves, as his usual even temper got testy as the others watched his every move.

Chris might have understood Vin's need to escape the six pairs, no nine pairs if you added the three ladies into the picture, if a deep sense of foreboding hadn't seized him when he noticed the tracker's absence from the church. The others had been doing various things and were still in the process when Nathan came in and asked Chris where Vin was. Josiah had calmly told them that Vin had gone to the livery to get his horse. Before Chris could even get a word out, Nathan had erupted. They were caught off guard as Nathan wanted to know why on earth they had allowed Vin to even leave the church, much less plan to deliver the telegram when Buck interrupted to say that Ezra had gone to send Vin back while he took the telegram.

That seemed to mollify Nathan a bit, but Chris wanted him calm. So he offered to make sure Vin didn't go off on his own. Nathan agreed to wait for Chris to return with his difficult patient, but Chris hadn't returned. Neither had Vin or Ezra. Chris wasn't surprised that Vin had gone off before Ezra got his horse saddled. He sent Ezra on after Vin and the livery boy to the church to tell Nathan that he would bring Vin back before he got too far. When he hadn't caught up on the muddy road until half an hour later, Chris was surprised. He had fully expected to find an exhausted Tanner at Nettie's, not an obviously sick man barely able to stay on his own horse stubbornly refusing any attempts Ezra was making to help him. It was that argument that had kept them from riding the last few minutes to Nettie's.


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Chapter 4

Now, Chris had to finish the ride with his soaked and delirious friend strapped to the back of his own horse. He'd barely gotten off his horse when Nettie had thrown open the door. Chris ordered her to stay on the porch out of the rain as he untied the tracker from his horse and gently eased him into a position in which he could carry him. Nettie didn't say a word until Chris brought Vin into the dry and comfortable house. She led him to her own bed all the while giving both Chris and Casey orders.

"Bring him in here! Don't worry about drippin' on the floor! It's been wet before, and it'll get wet again. There, put him on my bed. Casey, go get some extra towels and blankets. No, girl, you go on and get that stuff, stop gawkin'. Larabee, let's get these soaked clothes off him. What on earth were you thinkin' letting this boy come out here is this condition?"

Chris wasn't surprised or angered by Nettie's barking at all. He knew she treated them all like they were her boys, but Vin was special to her. She reminded him of his ma, and she returned his affection unabashedly. He waited until she'd run out of breath before he jumped in.

"I didn't let him. I turned my back on him once and came back to find him gone. You know how he is. Gets something stuck in that head of his and there's no stopping him."

"What'd he need to ride out here in this gosh awful weather to see me for?" Nettie asked as she helped pull Vin's wet jacket off.

"You got a telegram, and he wanted to get outside." Chris grunted as he pulled first one then the other boot off of Vin's unconscious body. The socks followed quickly. "Didn't matter to him the sky was going to open up and drench him or not. He wanted to go an' me and Ezra followed him. Ezra tried to stop him, but he was already actin' like he didn't know what was goin' on. I got there right before he passed out." He and Nettie turned to work on Vin's shirt and pants next.

"He ain't got nuthin I ain't seen before, son. Let's take it all off him. He'll catch his death if he hasn't already. We need to get him dried off and under the covers. He's shivering. I'll wait to take that bandage off until Mr. Jackson gets here. You did send that fancy man after Mr. Jackson, didn't you?" Nettie and Ezra had decided to have a friendly but caustic relationship. She usually called him fancy man or Mr. Standish, but she rarely did it without a smile. It was almost as if she knew the gambler would be embarrassed by anyone knowing he was just as much a Robin Hood at heart where she was concerned as Vin was. "Casey," she yelled into the other room, "put that bed warmer on the stove to heat!"

Working together, it took about 10 minutes for Chris and Nettie to get Vin dried and settled in the bed. Both were struck by just how young and vulnerable he looked against the stark white sheets. "Don't look much older than JD like that, does he?" Nettie's worry was obvious in her voice. "It's times like these I wish I was as big as that Sanchez fella. Then I could give that boy the whuppin he deserves for scarin' me like this!"

Chris hid his smile. He wasn't about to tell Nettie that she would have to get in line after him, Nathan, and Ezra. Hell, Buck and Josiah would probably want to get in on it too. JD was the only one Vin didn't have to worry about standing in line to shoot him. Well, they wouldn't shoot or hit a sick man, but they'd probably all felt like it after the scare Vin had given them and now this. Nettie had witnessed it all from the safety of Mary's newspaper office, but once it was safe, she'd come out to watch Vin nearly take that header off the roof. Chris knew what she felt like.

Come to think about it, JD just might take a whack at Vin because of all the trouble he'd gone to to get the man who'd shot Vin. Vin and Buck both had taken turns fussing at JD for rushing out into the street to get that shot off. For once, Vin was actually angry that JD almost got shot doing exactly what Vin had done, put himself in the line of fire to save one of the others. Then, every time Vin had seen JD since he'd regained consciousness, he'd fussed at JD some more. Yeah, JD would definitely want to give Vin a piece of his mind, too. Nettie was still fussing as she put another blanket on the shivering tracker.

"Damn fool boy! Scaring the life out of me. I don't have that many years left an' here he's tryin' to shave more off. Casey, where's that bed warmer? First he tries to get himself killed fallin' off that roof and now he's tryin' to get pneumonia and die! Can't trust a man to stay down till he's well. None of ya got a lick a sense!"

Chris finally reached out and put his hand on her shoulder. Despite the fear he felt, he smiled at her. "We ain't lettin' him go, Nettie. If nothin' else, we'll get him well just so the 2 of us can beat the crap outta him for bein' so stupid!"

That got a strangled, "Watch your mouth, Chris Larabee. You ain't too old for me to take a whack at your backside with my broom!" She'd be all right. She'd have to be. Vin and Chris both needed that strength in her. Vin needed her because she gave him the mothering he'd missed out on as a kid, and Chris needed her because he couldn't lose someone else this close to him again. If Vin had to sweat this out anywhere, Nettie's place was better than anywhere else. At least he wouldn't get out that door until he was well without fighting Nettie, and Chris didn't think even Vin could flash those blue eyes enough to get her to back down. Now that would be a sight to see, Vin Tanner trying to sweet talk Nettie Wells into doing his will. Chris didn't know who was more stubborn, Nettie or Vin. Yeah, it would be a sight to behold. Ezra'd probably sell tickets or takes bets on the winner.

"You get those wet boots off. I got some of my late husband's socks you can put on till yours dry out. I ain't nursemaidin' a pack of men who don't have sense enough for one man let alone seven between 'em. Go on, at least you had the sense to put your rain slicker on! Where this boy's brain was at I have no idea!" She took the bed warmer from Casey and put it near Vin's icy feet. "There, that should help get the cold off him."

Chris gave up and did as he was told. There wasn't anything he could do until Nathan got there, and Nettie was right. She's already given up her bed to Vin. She didn't need to nurse anyone else. He took the hot cup of coffee Casey handed him and smiled at the girl. Her eyes were filled with worry. Vin had always treated her like she was special, and she was. They had all seen it. She would grow into a woman not unlike her feisty aunt, but now she was a gangly teenager trying to turn into a woman. He wanted to tell her everything would be fine, but somehow, Chris couldn't get that little voice in his head to shut up.

Vin was sick, real sick, and Chris didn't know if even Nathan could help him this time. The hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end, just like they did when there was danger present. Call it intuition, call it a sixth sense, call it anything you like, but Chris, although he didn't know it, felt the same way Ezra had earlier. Things were going to get worse before they got better, and the possibility that they might not get better was something Chris didn't want to ponder. So he drank the coffee, asked Casey to tell him when Nathan got there, and went in to check on Vin.

"Girl as soon as Mr. Standish and Mr. Jackson get here, I want you to go into town to Mrs. Travis. Tell her what's happened and ask if you can stay with her and Billy for a while. I don't doubt that JD won't come with the others to check on Vin, and you can ride back with him. Go on, pack your bag. This old house ain't big enough for us and them too. I know this one won't leave and neither will Nathan."

"Nettie why don't you go with her?"

"Son, you tryin' to throw me outta my home?"

Chris knew when a woman was too angry to talk sense to, so he just nodded. "Yes ma'am. Casey, I'll get JD and Buck to make sure you get to Mrs. Travis safe and sound. We don't want your aunt here to shoot us if you don't get there in one piece." That got the desired smile from Casey as she went into her room to get her bag packed. She sensed the fear in both her aunt and in Chris Larabee. It took a lot to put fear into those two, and Casey didn't want to dwell on what caused it. She wanted to leave because she'd already lost one family. She couldn't bear to watch while another might slip away from her. Maybe she was a coward, but she couldn't watch Vin Tanner die. He was too still, and Chris and Aunt Nettie were too worried. Even JD had been antsy about Vin.

Casey thought he had been doing fine until she saw him today. She had thought JD was just reacting to killing a man, but now she knew that he had been worried about Vin. Even Buck and Josiah had seemed to keep an eye on Tanner wherever he was. She wanted to get out of this house where that heavy sense of foreboding began to seep through the silence of her home. Just when she thought she couldn't stand the silence another second, she heard the others arrive. She was astonished to see Mary Travis with the other men. Nathan, JD, and Ezra carried a bag each, and Josiah was carrying a wooden box very carefully as if it were made of glass. The rain had stopped while they were putting Vin to bed, but the mud made it difficult to walk up the porch. JD relinquished his bag to Ezra as he went to help Buck put the horses in the barn.


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Chapter 5

"Where's he at?" Nathan didn't mince any words. He wanted to know what had caused Vin Tanner to pass out. The ride out to Nettie's should have exhausted him, made him a little uncomfortable at the most. But not even the rain and the ride could explain why Vin had passed out as he did. He'd noticed the tracker had gotten quieter over the last few days, but he just marked that up to Vin's version of pouting. Never one to sit still, recuperation had been hard on Vin. He had a need to be outside, to be in the sun, the elements. He hadn't relished his convalescence at all.

Ezra would have had people waiting on him; Buck would have had all the women in town vying for the right to have him get well at her hands. Chris might stay put for a while if Mrs. Travis and Billy stayed around long enough. He might have been able to talk sense into Josiah and bullied JD into following his orders, but Vin, Vin just smiled at him and told him he was fine. When Nathan asked him if he felt any pain or discomfort, Vin just said in that soft voice of his that he was fine. Well if he were fine, why had he gotten delirious and passed out?

Nathan finally made his way past Nettie and Chris and got to his patient. He wasn't pleased with what he saw. Nathan didn't know what he had done wrong. He'd gotten the bullet out of Vin's arm and had cleaned it with carbolic acid like he'd read about in that new medical journal he'd gotten. He had checked the entry and exit wounds right below Vin's left lung and cleaned them as best he could. Both areas appeared to be healing fine. The wounds had closed over without showing signs of infection or going putrid. Vin hadn't complained of any pain or discomfort. He hadn't run that much of a temperature if any at all.

Nathan just couldn't think of what could cause the tracker to become delirious and pass out, but he was going to find out. Vin had saved his life, and Nathan never felt like he'd had a chance to pay Vin back for that. Now he could because Vin Tanner was not going to die on Nathan without a fight. Then, when he got well, Nathan was going to beat the hell out of Vin for causing this helpless feeling in the pit of his stomach. As he felt for Vin's pulse, he felt the heat. Vin had developed a fever, a high fever. Damn, he couldn't beat the hell out of a man this sick. He had to find what was causing this. As he noticed Vin's rapid pulse and developing fever, he saw Vin's eyelids flutter.

"What are you holding my hand for?"

Chris leaned closer on the other side to hear what Vin was saying to Nathan.

"What are you holding my hand for, Chris?" The confused blue eyes tried to focus on Chris.

"I'm not holding your hand. Nathan is checking your pulse."

"Why? I'm hot. Where am I? Why's it so hot?" The blue eyes fluttered closed and then just as rapidly fluttered open. "Where's Nathan? I don't see him."

"That's cause you're looking at Chris. I'm over here on this side holdin' your hand." Nathan had put Vin's wrist down and put his hand on his forehead trying to get a better read on his temperature. Vin was even hotter than before. "Chris, get these people out of here, and get someone to get a bowl of water and a cloth. We need to cool him off and find out what's causing this fever. Hurry, man, I need your help to get these bandages off. " With that, Nathan began the first step in finding out what has caused his patient's deterioration.

Fortunately for Chris, Josiah had been standing by Nettie in the doorway of the room and had heard everything. He'd already washed his hands and was wiping them on a cloth when he stepped in to help as Nettie went to fetch the bowl of water and cloth. "What's wrong with him Nathan? I thought he was doing ok."

"So did I, Josiah. I don't know what's wrong. I need to check him out. Your hands clean?" Josiah indicated with a nod they were. "Then take that bandage off his arm. Let me see if the problem's there." Josiah quickly removed the wet bandage from Vin's arm. While he did that, Nathan and Chris both washed their hands with soap and water. Nathan set Nettie, who had followed Josiah's lead and had just finished wiping her hands, to unpacking one of the bags Ezra had brought into the room. "I brought some carbolic acid and some clean bandages. Ezra, you get your hands real clean and help Nettie unpack those supplies. I don't want Vin to get sicker from anything else cause we didn't wash our hands. Miz Travis, can you and Casey start some kind of broth? Vin's going to need somethin' he can drink that'll keep his strength up." Nathan continued issuing orders to everyone as he bent to check out Vin's exposed arm.

Nettie felt better now that Nathan was here taking charge. No one was left out, but they were all kept moving in and out of the sickroom doing little tasks that would help Nathan, keep them busy, and, most of all, keep them out of Nathan's way crowding him with questions he had no answers for. Buck and JD didn't have a chance to speak as Chris looked up long enough to ask them to take Casey and Mary back to town later that evening. Buck nodded and sent JD and Casey out for firewood. Then, he started unpacking several of Nathan's medical books from one of the voluminous bags Nathan had thought to pack with supplies when Ezra had explained the situation.

Nathan examined Vin's arm but could find no reason for his condition there. The wound was clean and healing well. The rain had done little to harm it, so he cleaned it with a solution of carbolic acid and water and rewrapped it with fresh, clean bandages. He nodded to Chris he was ready to proceed with the more serious wound. Chris eased Vin into a sitting position as Nathan removed the bandage that was wrapped around the tracker's thin frame.

Vin was like Chris, thin but solidly packed with muscle. His had been no easy life, but the one thing noticeable was that most of the scars Vin carried were all in the front. Vin was obviously not a man who ran from trouble, but faced it head on. He'd come to once while Nathan rewrapped his arm, but he had lost consciousness since then. Nathan looked at both the entry and exit wounds in the light he had. From what he could see, both appeared to be healing nicely. He would have sworn that Vin had developed an infection, but the tracker hadn't complained of any pain or discomfort that would indicate an infection, or, worse, an abscess had formed.

It didn't make sense. Vin hadn't been out in the rain long enough to have developed this fever. The wounds looked clean. There'd been no sickness with this type of fever going around. Nathan was frustrated as he cleaned the area with the same carbolic acid/water solution and wrapped the bandage back around Vin's midsection. He nodded to Chris as he helped lay Vin back down on the bed. Covering him with a sheet and light blanket to keep out the early spring chill, he asked Nettie and Josiah to stay and try to lower Vin's fever with the wet cloths placed behind his neck and on his forehead. He then walked to the other room with Chris. He didn't want anyone else to know how helpless he felt, so he motioned Chris outside to the porch. He was so preoccupied he didn't even notice Ezra and the others gather near the open window. Chris did, but he was too worried to mention it. Nathan hadn't looked this serious even when he had taken his first look at Vin's injuries two weeks earlier.

"I don't know what's wrong Chris. The arm is healing fine, no infection at all. The other one, I cleaned it best as I could, but with that bullet traveling straight through, there was no way to really clean it thoroughly. I poured carbolic acid and even whiskey on it to help kill any infection, but that don't mean I got everything. I expected some sort of infection, but I haven't seen any signs of one. The area doesn't look red; it's not got that hardening around the area like it would if it were infected. Vin would have been feeling poorly, he'd have developed a temperature sooner, and the pain would be bad. Vin hasn't even shown any signs of it hurtin' him. Every time I asked him how he felt, all he'd say was he felt fine. I can't understand it. He's got some signs of an infection, none of any illness I recognize, but he don't have all the things that point to one thing that I can fix. I musta done somethin' wrong!"

Before Chris could reassure Nathan, JD butted in. "Yeah, he did. He's been favoring his left back for a couple of days now."

Continued in Part Two


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