Buck propped his feet up on the desk and leaned back in his chair, sipping gratefully at the cup of hot, strong coffee and resolutely ignoring the complaints coming from the crowded cells. He was fed up with the cowboys; they could all bleed to death as far as he was concerned. He was tired, he ached in every part of his body, including parts he’d never known he had, and he was still pissed as hell.

Lord, what a shitty day it’d been!

He took another sip of coffee and tried to remember how it had started so he could explain it to Chris when he returned. Jesus, Larabee. Now there was a man who was gonna be pissed!

But damn if the ol’ stud hadn’t been right. As soon as the ranches had paid them the cowboys had come swooping down on the town, screaming like banshees, drinking all the liquor they could find and generally raising hell. The five regulators who’d stayed behind had been hard-pressed to keep the trouble from getting out of hand, and to keep anyone from getting hurt or killed. But they’d done a pretty good job.

Until today.

Buck sighed and rubbed his tired eyes with a hand. This afternoon had seen the king of all barroom brawls erupt. It had started, predictably enough, between hands from the James and Royal ranches, and, so long as it had stayed between them, it had been all right. Vicious and dirty, but all right. Hell, what else was to be expected from those two bunches?

Then the crew from Jack King’s Crown Ranch had somehow gotten involved, and it had gone downhill from there. Buck had found himself fighting cowboys he didn’t recognize, surrounded on every side, struggling just to stay on his feet, and failing more often than he liked to admit. And it had been that way for all of them. At one point, he’d seen Ezra clubbing cowboys senseless with the leg of a shattered chair, then had turned to see JD wading into a crowd of drunken Royal hands. He’d gone immediately to help the kid, but had been diverted by the four men pounding the hell out of Josiah. Once he’d helped trim the odds for the preacher, he’d made his way to JD, and the two of them had fought back to back.

But, with so many men who disliked each other so intensely, it had been bound to turn ugly, and it had in a hurry. Somewhere along the line, guns and knives had made an appearance and the mess had turned into a potential bloodbath. The peacekeepers had gone for their guns then, and, aided by Inez’s shotgun, had finally brought the whole thing to a stop.

But not before serious damage had been done. By the time it was over, three men had been cut by knives or broken bottles, one had been winged by a bullet, and countless others had been battered to varying degrees. Most troubling to the regulators, though, was that, in trying to wrestle a knife from one of the cowboys, Nathan had gotten slashed across his left palm, and his right arm had been broken.

Now their healer was out of commission.

Buck sighed and closed his eyes, feeling again the knot of worry that had settled between his shoulders. The wound to Nathan’s left had was painful, but shallow; in a couple of weeks, it would be healed. But his right arm…

At least it had been a clean break, and for that Buck was grateful. He and Josiah had set it easily enough – if moving a man’s bone back into place could ever be called “easy” – and had splinted and bandaged it to Nathan’s approval. But it was the man’s right hand, damn it, the one he used to mend others’ broken bodies. And it would be six weeks at the earliest before he’d be able to use it again.

Goddamn it, who in their right mind went after a town’s only healer in a fight?

Nope, Buck Wilmington had precious little sympathy for the moaning, groaning cowboys locked in the cells behind him. Let ’em hurt. Hell, let ’em rot. It was no more than they deserved.

He did, however, worry about his friends. What if somethin’ happened to one of the boys before Nathan’s arm healed? Drew trouble like flowers drew bees, every one of ’em, with a couple of ’em especially prone. Hell, he probably oughtta just go ahead and lock JD in a closet for the next six weeks, keep the boy outta trouble…

He sighed again and drained his coffee, then reached up to rub the tired and aching muscles of his neck. Ugly. It’d been just pure ugly. And this was the reason Buck hated ugly.

He thought again of the wire Larabee had sent from Starrville, counted the days, and stroked his mustache thoughtfully. He’d expected Chris and Vin to be back with Morgan yesterday or today, but thought it likely that this infernal heat had slowed them down. Tomorrow then. They should be back tomorrow.

And, Lord, wouldn’t he be glad to see ’em!

By the time night fell, Chris had begun to wonder if the day would ever end. He’d tended Vin as best he could, wishing bitterly all the while that Nathan was here, or that the bullet had at least gone through. Once again, though, events had conspired against Chris Larabee, and he’d been forced to accept his limited ability to help his friend.

He’d been right about the laudanum, though; Nathan had packed a bottle, and some carbolic, along with the bandages. He silently thanked the healer for his pessimism. Marshaling every bit of experience he’d gathered over the years – no man lived long in these parts without learning at least the basics of doctoring – he’d cleaned the wound as thoroughly as he could, hating every moment of pain he’d had to inflict on Vin, and bandaged it carefully. He’d also gotten some water and even a bit of food down the tracker, dosed him with laudanum and prayed for the best.

Then it was time to take care of Morgan. He’d buried him far enough away from the camp that they wouldn’t be bothered by any scavengers, though he’d resented like hell having to put that much effort into the bastard’s resting place. He’d also done what he could to cover the patches of blood with dirt to keep the smell from attracting any unwanted visitors. And after scrubbing the smell of blood and death from his own body and changing clothes, he’d checked once more on the horses, then finally eaten something himself.

And now, at last, he could rest. He spread his bedroll next to Vin’s and stretched out upon it, leaning back against his saddle and feeling tired to his very soul. Part of him longed desperately for sleep, while another part rebelled furiously at the very thought. Beside him, still wrapped in blankets to ward off the chill that had gripped him, Vin seemed to be resting fairly well, and Chris told himself he should do the same.

But that damn bullet was still in there…

“Hey, c… cowboy.”

The soft, slurred summons stirred him from his thoughts and he sat up, leaning over and frowning into the tracker’s pale face. “You’re s’posed ta be asleep,” he scolded gently.

“Was,” Vin breathed. The pain in his shoulder was reviving as the laudanum wore off, but he told himself he’d known worse. Though at the moment he was hard-pressed to remember just when… “You all right?”

Chris gave a short, sharp laugh at that. “Hell, I’m fine!” he answered, wincing as he heard the unsteadiness of his own voice. “Morgan missed me and hit you, remember?”

Vin closed his eyes and swallowed as the mere act of breathing aggravated the pain burning through his shoulder. “Seems I… recall… somethin’ about that. Musta… fergot… t’ duck.”

Chris gave another strained laugh and shook his head. “Gettin’ sloppy in your old age, Tanner?”

“Ain’t near’s… old… as you, c… cowboy,” he rasped, sliding his good hand across his bandaged chest toward the wound.

“Oh, no ya don’t,” Chris scolded quietly, reaching for his friend’s hand and holding firmly to it to keep him from aggravating the wound or, worse, starting it bleeding again. “You leave it alone or I’ll tie your hand down.”

Vin tried to move his right hand, then frowned when it wouldn’t respond. “Feels like… y’ already did.”

Chris squeezed the tracker’s left hand and nodded. “Strapped it to your chest, figured it might ease some of the strain on your shoulder.” He winced and shook his head. “Bullet’s still in there, Vin,” he said softly. “It’s too deep for me to get.” He steeled himself, then uttered the words he’d been dreading all evening. “You’re gonna have ta ride back t’ town with it in there.”

“Aw, hell!” Vin whispered, turning his face away from Chris and clenching his jaws tightly against the sudden rush of nausea the gunman’s words inspired. He knew the agony of riding with a chunk of lead burning a hole in his body; familiarity did nothing to make it any easier.

“I’m sorry, partner,” Chris said softly, hating the stark lines of pain etched into the fine-boned face. “I wish I could do more. It’s gonna be a real hard ride.”

“Ain’t nothin’… I ain’t done b’fore,” Vin said, already trying to brace himself for what lay ahead. “Rode hurt… lotsa times.”

“Still don’t make it easy.” Chris exhaled sharply and shook his head, frustrated by his own helplessness. “Just wish I could do somethin’!”

“Y’are.” He closed his eyes and swallowed the sounds of pain threatening to break from him. “Yer takin’ care of me, ain’tcha? Been times… I ain’t… had that much. Makes it easier… knowin’… I ain’t gotta do this… alone.”

“You don’t,” Chris assured him roughly. “Those days are gone.”

Vin forced his leaden eyes open and tried to focus them on Chris’s face. He couldn’t quite manage it, but didn’t need to. Didn’t need eyes to see the man to know he was here. “Reckon… they are–” He stiffened and sucked in a sharp breath, only barely biting back an outcry as the fire seared ever deeper into his shoulder. But Chris’s hand tightened about his good one, the man’s other hand gripped his good shoulder, and he knew that, whatever happened, Larabee would be right here to help him through it. “Jist so y’ know,” he whispered through clenched teeth, “I ain’t… plannin’ on… goin’ nowhere jist yet.”

Chris swallowed hard and nodded, understanding at once what Tanner was promising. “Guess it would take more than one bullet to keep an ornery sonuvabitch like you down, huh?”

Vin tried to come up with one of his customary smart-ass answers, but couldn’t think past his pain. The burning agony in his shoulder was getting steadily worse, searing along every nerve in his arm and spreading into his back. He shifted slightly on his blankets, trying to escape it, but only made it worse. He groaned thickly and tensed against the onslaught, trying to ride it out. Nausea churned in his belly but, Lord, the last thing he wanted to do now was to throw up.

“Easy, pard,” Chris soothed, holding Vin’s hand tightly and stroking his good shoulder with his other hand. “Easy. Just lie still. Don’t wanta do nothin’ that’s gonna break it open again.”

“Chris–”

“I’m here,” Larabee assured him. “I’m right here.”

“Shoulder’s… on fire…”

“I know.” He continued rubbing Tanner’s good shoulder, trying to get the tight, pain-racked body to relax. “Gotta lie still, pard,” he said as Tanner tried to shift again. “Movin’ around’s just gonna make it worse.”

“Don’t… see how… that’s possible,” Vin hissed.

Chris winced at that, knowing how painful such a wound was. From what he’d been able to see, the bullet had lodged against Tanner’s collarbone, just to the left of his shoulder joint. There was nothing vital in that area, but still an awful lot that could be damaged.

Especially in a man’s shooting arm…

“Just let go,” he urged as Vin tensed and hissed again. “I’m here, and I ain’t leavin’. I’ll watch your back. You go ahead and let go.”

Vin wanted to, truly wanted to, but couldn’t. Through too many years with no one to depend on but himself, through too many years spent on the run, he’d taught himself never to let go, never to relax his guard. And though he knew he could trust Chris to watch over him, though he wanted nothing more than to escape the hellish pain burning through his shoulder, the habits of a lifetime were just too hard to break.

He didn’t know anymore how to let go, even when he wanted to.

Chris recognized this and felt a wave of mingled sorrow and anger wash through him. God, what kind of life taught a man so young such hard lessons?

“’S all right… cowboy,” Vin rasped, feeling the man’s anger through his touch.

“No, it’s not all right!” Chris spat, his helplessness finding outlet in anger. “It’s not all right that you’re layin’ here with that bastard’s bullet in ya, and it’s not all right that you got nobody but me ta help–”

“Yer enough.”

“You need Nathan–”

“You’ll do.” He squeezed Chris’s hand weakly and managed a faint smile. “Havin’ you here… ’s enough.”

Chris’s anger faded at once. With just those few words, Vin had made clear just how much their friendship meant to him, and not even the formidable Larabee anger was strong enough to stand against such a trust. “What the hell am I gonna do with you?” he sighed.

“Well, mebbe nex’ time… I ask ya t’ let… let me kill somebody… you’ll say yes,” Vin rasped tightly, trying to ignore the pain slicing through him and failing. “Aw, shit!”

Chris couldn’t stand any more. Freeing his hand from Vin’s, he turned and reached for the bottle he’d set nearby. Uncapping it hurriedly, he drizzled a stiff dose of laudanum into a cup with an unsteady hand, then filled the cup with water. Picking up the cup, he turned back to Vin.

“Got somethin’ here that’ll help,” he said softly.

Vin stared at the cup and licked his lips uncertainly. He hurt – Lord God, he hurt! – but he hated laudanum with a passion, hated the deep, dark sleep into which it pushed him and the sluggishness of his mind even after he awoke. Those things could get a man like him killed.

Chris saw the uncertainty and understood it. “You gotta sleep, Tanner,” he said quietly. “We got a long ride ahead of us tomorrow, and it’s gonna be hell on you. Might as well rest while ya can.” He reached down and gently brushed the damp hair back from Vin’s forehead. “I’ll be right here,” he assured. “I’ll watch over ya, pard, you know that. But you gotta sleep, and we both know this is the only way you’re gonna do it.”

Vin wanted to resist, to refuse, but couldn’t. He hurt like hell and wanted only for the hurting to stop. And if it took laudanum to do it…

Chris saw his slight nod and exhaled sharply in relief. Slipping a hand beneath Tanner’s head, he lifted just enough to allow him to drink and held the cup to his lips. “Drink it all,” he ordered. “I’ll be right here, I promise.”

Vin drank slowly, but drained the cup, hating how much he needed its contents. But even this slight jostling of him by Chris drove white-hot shards of pain through him, and, for one terrible moment, he feared he would be sick. Before he was, though, Chris took the empty cup away and settled him back on his blankets, and he prayed the laudanum would kick in soon.

Chris turned away again and poured water from the canteen over a clean cloth, then turned back to his injured friend and began bathing his sweat-covered face and throat. Vin’s eyes were open and fixed on him, the blue depths almost black in the firelight, and he smiled slightly. “Be a lot easier ta sleep if you close your eyes,” he said quietly, pitching his voice to its lowest, most soothing timbre and sliding the wet cloth slowly over the younger man’s face and throat in an effort to lull him into the sleep he needed. “Ain’t nothin’ to see around here anyway, and you need the rest.” He gave a short laugh. “It’s been a helluva day, hasn’t it?” He winced. “And tomorrow’s gonna be even worse. But whatever happens, I’m gonna be right here. You hear me, pard? I got your back.”

Vin just stared up at Larabee, trying to follow the man’s words and failing. Pain and blood-loss had already clouded his mind, and now the laudanum was addling it even further. But he could feel Chris’s strong hand at his good shoulder, its touch warm and comforting, could feel Larabee’s other hand bathing his face and throat, soothing him further. There was so much he wanted to say to Chris, but he couldn’t find the words. Then, against his will, his eyes began to close.

Chris smiled slightly as he saw Tanner’s eyelids fall, as he watched the wounded man lose his fight against unconsciousness. “That’s right, pard,” he murmured, still stroking Vin’s shoulder and bathing his face, “sleep now. Just sleep. Save your fight for tomorrow.” He sighed heavily and shook his head, frowning worriedly at the ordeal that lay before them. “God knows, you’re gonna need it.”

The remaining healthy peacekeepers gathered in the brawl-ravaged saloon and, over breakfast and hot coffee, again tried to sort out yesterday’s events and today’s plan. Even Ezra was present, bleary-eyed from having just come off watch at the jail.

“And how fares Mr. Jackson this mornin’?” he asked, suspiciously eyeing the plate Inez had set before him and wondering just where she’d hidden the fiery chilies this time.

Josiah sighed and shook his head, his blue eyes troubled. “He’s sleepin’ now, but he was in a lotta pain earlier. That arm’s throbbin’ somethin’ fierce and his fingers are swollen. But at least the fever he was runnin’ last night broke. He just needs ta rest.”

“We gonna hold all them cowboys for trial?” JD asked, stuffing a tortilla into his mouth and following it with a forkful of eggs.

“Good Lord,” Ezra groaned in disgust, “some decorum, if you please, son! And here I thought Mr. Tanner was the only uncouth savage in our midst.”

“Sowry,” JD mumbled around his food.

“Don’t see how we can hold ’em all,” Buck sighed. “Figure all we can do is get ’em ta pay fer damages and let ’em go. It’s the ones who started all that damn blood-lettin’ that we need ta hold. Pullin’ guns and knives in a brawl like that. They coulda killed somebody!”

“And most certainly we need to detain the culprits responsible for Mr. Jackson’s injuries,” Ezra added, delicately cutting a tortilla stuffed with eggs and sausage and raising a bite on his fork. “If I remember correctly, they were all from the James ranch and seemed to take a particular delight in manhandling our esteemed healer.”

“That’s about what I’d expect from that bunch,” Buck said coldly, contempt in his eyes and voice. “Ol’ man James ain’t never forgiven us fer bringin’ in that no-good nephew of his, and he takes ever’ opportunity ta let us know it. Man’s a goddamn snake.”

“They did an awful lotta damage,” JD mused, looking around at the broken tables and shattered chairs still littering the interior of the saloon. “I don’t think they’ve got enough money on ’em to pay for it.”

“Well, then, brothers,” Josiah put in with a grim smile, “maybe it’s time we held the ranchers themselves accountable.” He sat back in his chair and swept cold blue eyes around the table. “We all know they encourage this kind of thing because of how they feel about us, so I say it’s time they reap what they’ve sown.” As three confused gazes met his, his smile broadened. “Have Inez draw up a list of damages; Ezra, you help her. Make it a very detailed list. JD and I can take it around to James, Royal and King and let them know we’ll be holdin’ their crews until they pay the tab.”

“You’re talkin’ about extortion,” Ezra said, staring at the preacher. All at once, a grin spread across his face, and his green eyes gleamed. “Why, Josiah, I am most impressed!”

Chris gazed across at Vin and felt the sharp twist of fear in his gut. The younger man was bowed over in the saddle, his head falling forward, his long hair and clothing soaked with sweat, his good hand wrapped around the saddle horn in a death grip. Chris knew the only thing keeping him on Peso was instinct.

But not even Tanner’s instincts were strong enough to hold him there indefinitely.

Larabee swallowed hard. They’d been riding since just after sunup, and it was now getting on noon. Vin had done all right for a while. He’d been in a lot of pain, as they’d both expected, and a fever had set in early this morning. But he’d been conscious, even fairly alert, and had managed coherent responses to the uncharacteristic chatter Chris had kept up just to keep him awake.

But that hadn’t lasted more than a few hours.

Since then, despite frequent stops for rest, the tracker’s condition had steadily deteriorated. His fever was still rising, the wound had begun to bleed again, and the hellish heat wasn’t helping at all. About two hours ago he’d stopped guiding Peso, and Chris had taken the slack reins from him and curled his hand around the horn. Larabee had no doubt that, before it was over, he would either have to tie Vin into the saddle or take him onto Pony with him.

Now, though, they had to stop. Vin needed water, and Chris needed to see just how much blood he’d lost.

He looked around and spotted a small stand of desert willows about two hundred yards away, along what looked to be a dry wash. Without hesitating, he turned the horses – his, Vin’s, Morgan’s and the packhorse – toward the trees, refusing to think about how much further they still had to go. It didn’t matter; Vin needed tending now.

They reached the trees and Chris slid off Pony’s back, ground-hitched the gelding and walked around to Peso. He reached up and laid a hand on Vin’s thigh, squeezing lightly.

“Hey, Tanner,” he called, “you with me?” Vin didn’t answer, didn’t even stir, and fear twisted harder at Chris’s gut. “Don’t do this ta me, Tanner!” he pleaded in a low, tight voice. “You ain’t gonna let a measly little shoulder wound get the best of ya, are ya? Thought you Texans were tougher than that!” He waited for the predictable smart-assed reply; again, there was none. “Shit!”

He turned away and untied Vin’s bedroll with sharp, impatient movements, made angry by his worry and helplessness. Hell, it never should’ve come to this! He should’ve known Morgan would try something, should’ve just shot the bastard when he had the chance, should’ve let Vin kill him when he’d first asked to…

He jerked the bedroll free, found a fairly smooth piece of ground, and spread the tracker’s blankets with that same impatience. He should’ve… should’ve…

What? Left Vin alone last night to go for help? Thrown the tracker onto his horse and headed for town while he was still in shock? What? What could he have done one bit differently?

Not a single goddamn thing.

He thrust himself to his feet and went back to Peso, forcing down his anger, his fear. The big horse would pick up on them in a minute, and the last thing Chris – or Vin – needed right now was for to Peso to start acting like, well, like Peso. He’d been remarkably well-behaved so far, hadn’t so much as side-stepped when Vin hadn’t been able to mount on his own, had even submitted to the indignity of being led, which he hated with a passion. And for the whole two hours he’d had Pony’s inviting haunch within reach, he’d never once, not once, even attempted to bite the black.

Chris came damn near loving him for that.

“All right,” he sighed, absently stroking the blazed nose as the shapely head swung around to see what he was up to, “I need you to behave a few minutes longer. Think you can do that?”

Jesus, Larabee, you’re talkin’ to a goddamn horse!

But this was one horse he didn’t want to surprise.

“Vin’s hurt bad,” he said quietly, continuing to rub Peso’s nose as he would Pony’s, “and I gotta get him down. He just ain’t up to doin’ it on his own. So,” he gazed into the large, intelligent dark eyes as he’d seen Vin do so many times, “you think you can let me do that? I know you must be dyin’ ta stomp or bite the hell outta somethin’ or somebody by now, but I’d truly appreciate it if you’d hold off just a while longer.” He smiled as Peso lowered his head and held it against his chest, clearly wanting to be scratched behind one ear. “He’s got you spoiled good, doesn’t he?” he chuckled. “All right, you be good, let me get him down without killin’ either one of us, and I’ll see if I can find somethin’ for you. I’m sure he’s got some kinda treat stashed away somewhere. Deal?”

Peso twitched an ear, as if considering, then shook his head and swung it back to the tree, nibbling placidly at the tender leaves.

Chris eyed the gelding’s relaxed stance and knew permission had been given. Shaking his own head at the thought of just having struck a bargain with a horse, he sighed and returned his attention to Vin.

But, hell, he’d bargain with the Devil himself at this point.

“All right, pard,” he murmured stepping closer and prying Vin’s left hand from the horn, “I won’t say this ain’t gonna hurt, because we both know it will. But I gotta see how you’re doin’.”

He circled an arm about the unresponsive tracker’s waist and pulled Vin slowly toward him, bracing himself to take the injured man’s weight. As he came closer, Chris draped Tanner’s left arm around his shoulders, wanting to have as much leverage as possible. He continued to pull, praying he didn’t drop him.

“Unnh,” Vin moaned, stirring slightly as some part of what was happening registered in his befuddled brain. “No…”

“Easy, pard,” Chris soothed, tightening his hold on the tracker, “it’s me. I gotcha. You’re all right.”

“Hurtsss…”

“Yeah, I bet it does.” He paused and stared into the sweat-slick face. “Vin, can you hear me? I gotta get you off Peso. If you fight me, we’re both goin’ down. So just let me do this, all right? Don’t help, but don’t fight. Just let me do this. Hear?”

“Ch…ris?”

“Yeah, Vin, it’s me. Gonna get ya down, take a look at ya. All right?” Vin didn’t answer, but didn’t fight either, and Larabee took that as a good sign. “All right, partner, here we go.”

As smoothly and as carefully as he could, he eased Vin off Peso and held him upright, gripping his good arm and holding him firmly about the waist. He half-dragged and half-carried the unconscious tracker slowly to his blankets, then lowered him carefully down onto them.

And realized it was more than sweat soaking into Tanner’s shirt.

“Shit!” he groaned, hanging his head and closing his eyes tightly against the sight of the dark stain. Jesus, how much more blood could the man afford to lose?

With a sharp curse, he lurched to his feet and stalked to the horses, stripping them of canteens and loosening their saddles, then taking the bag of medical supplies from the packhorse. He knew the animals needed attention, but they could wait. Vin couldn’t.

He returned to the injured man and squatted at his side, digging through the bag and pulling out all he’d need. “I’m gettin’ too goddamn good at this,” he snarled, pulling out a wad of bandages and shooting a burning green glare at Tanner. “I could do without the practice!”

When he had his supplies laid out, he leaned over and unbuttoned Tanner’s shirt with trembling fingers. He pulled the sodden fabric away from Vin’s right shoulder and felt his stomach lurch sharply at the sight of the crimson bandages beneath. “Aw, shit!” he groaned, rocking back on his heels and covering his mouth with a shaking hand. He struggled for long moments against his fear, finally quelling it with an iron will. He didn’t have time for this. And it sure as hell wasn’t like he’d never seen blood before!

Getting his rioting emotions firmly in hand, he began tending Vin. He cut through the bandages with his pocket knife and carefully pulled them away, then tossed them aside. The pad he’d placed over the wound was still in place, but thoroughly soaked. Swallowing again against his fear, Larabee clenched his jaws and began pulling it slowly away.

“Oh!” The soft, breathless cry escaped Vin as even that cautious action drove fresh spikes of torment through him, and his lean frame tensed in pain.

“Ssh, easy, pard, easy,” Chris murmured, tenderly stroking Vin’s wet hair. Fresh blood oozed from the wound and, with his other hand, Chris reached into the bag for a clean cloth. “Gotta clean you up, get this hole tended. Don’t want Nathan thinkin’ I can’t be trusted ta take care of you when he ain’t here.” He folded the cloth into another pad and, steeling himself, pressed it firmly into the wound.

Vin cried out hoarsely and arched off the blankets as agony erupted through him. He muttered incoherently and writhed weakly, trying to bat away the hand shoving red-hot blades into his shoulder.

“Lie still, Vin!” Chris ordered, alternately pressing a hand to Tanner’s good shoulder to hold him down or pushing aside his hands. “I know it hurts, but I gotta do this. If I don’t, you’ll bleed ta death. Easy, Vin, easy,” he soothed. “I’m sorry, pard, but I can’t have you dyin’ on me.”

“No, d… don’t… Hurts!” Vin moaned, his ashen face contorted into a mask of agony. His eyes opened, glassy with fever and unfocused, and he stared up at Chris without a hint of recognition. “Leave… leave me… be…”

The pain and the fear in that ragged, raspy voice tore at Chris’s heart. But he knew more hurt still lay in store. “Can’t do that, pard,” he whispered harshly, wishing Tanner would just pass out and spare them both. “I gotta take care of this wound.”

Vin fell back with a wrenching groan, his eyes closing, his strength gone. His breathing was fast and shallow, and the pulse in his throat raced wildly. He tried to remember what the hellish pain searing through him was, tried to remember who was hurting him and why.

Oh, God, where was he? Where was Chris? He’d been here, hadn’t he? He thought he remembered hearing Larabee, seeing him… “Chris?” he whispered, his head moving against the blanket. “Chris, where…” He lifted his good hand weakly. “Chris?”

Larabee immediately caught the hand in his and gripped it tightly. “Here, Vin,” he said clearly. “I’m right here.”

Confusion still held him fast, but he knew that touch, knew the sound of that voice, knew the safety they offered. Instinctively, he closed his fingers about the ones holding his, taking comfort from them. “Chris,” he breathed, his fevered thrashings calming.

“Yeah, Vin, it’s me. I’m right here, just like I promised.” He lifted the pad and heaved a sigh of relief to see that the bleeding had stopped. But the ordeal wasn’t over yet. “God, I’m sorry, partner,” he whispered, reaching for the bottle of carbolic. “But I gotta do this.”

Vin cried out harshly and jerked upright as the liquid fire hit his shoulder. Strong hands gripped him, held him down, and he fought against them in a sudden panic, struggling frantically to escape.

“No… No!” he cried, opening his eyes and staring into a blurred and featureless face. Terror pounded through him as the hands tightened their hold upon him, as dark memories of other times he’d been held down broke open deep inside him. “I won’t… No!” he screamed hoarsely, fighting wildly against the dark specter looming above him. “I won’t… letcha… Bastard! I’ll kill ya ’fore I letcha hurt me again!”

“Vin!” Chris called sharply, fighting to hold the enraged tracker down, terrified he’d start bleeding again. “Vin, stop it, stop it! It’s me, it’s Chris! Ain’t nobody here but me! Now settle down before ya start bleedin’ again! Goddamn it, Tanner, settle down!

Instinctively, Vin tried to lash out with his right hand and howled as agony tore through his shoulder and into his back. The fight went out of him at that and he collapsed against the blankets, rolling onto his left side and clutching with that hand at his shoulder, almost sobbing as pain and nausea swept through him.

“Jesus, Vin!” Chris breathed hoarsely. Terrified for his wounded friend, he leaned over and gathered him carefully into his arms, lifting him gently and cradling him close against him to still his thrashings. “You gotta stop fightin’ me, Vin!” he pleaded hoarsely, his heart clenching at the sounds of pain escaping the stricken tracker. “I don’t think either one of us can take much more!”

Strong arms still held him, but something in that hold reached through his pain and fever to bring the comfort he desperately needed. Dark memories of past hurts done him receded and he relaxed, instinctively knowing these hands meant him no harm. “Chris,” he breathed faintly.

Larabee relaxed and exhaled deeply at that soft sigh. “Yeah, Vin, it’s me,” he rasped tightly. “I gotcha, pard. And I’m gonna take care of you.”

“Hurts… so,” Vin moaned. “Hot…”

“I know.” He swallowed hard. “I gotta tend your wound, Vin,” he rasped, “then I’ll see if I can cool ya down. But you can’t fight me, all right? I know it hurts like hell, but you gotta quit fightin’ me and let me take care of you.” He gazed down at the man he held. “You trust me, don’tcha?”

“Yeah,” Vin whispered without hesitation.

Chris exhaled unsteadily at the ease of that admission from a man whose trust was so rarely and never easily given. He wondered just what the hell he’d ever done to earn it, even as he swore an iron-bound oath never to betray it. “All right,” he breathed, more to himself than Vin, “let’s see what we’ve got.” He lowered the tracker back onto his blankets and, steeling himself, checked the wound again. To his great relief, and by some miracle, it was not bleeding. “Jesus, Tanner,” he whispered shakily, “you’re gonna turn me into a prayin’ man yet!”

Working carefully, he wound fresh bandages about Vin’s shoulder and chest, speaking softly, soothingly, to the injured man the whole while. When that was done, he wet a clean cloth from one of the canteens and began bathing the tracker’s too-hot flesh, knowing even as he did that it would take far more than this to lessen the fever burning in him.

But, inadequate as Chris thought it, the effort brought Vin precious moments of respite from the heat roasting him from within. He groaned softly in inarticulate pleasure and relief, grateful for the blessed coolness.

Chris saw the faint smile touching the pale, dry lips, the expression of peace settling upon the ashen, pain-lined features, and wondered just how in the hell Vin Tanner could look so content with a goddamn bullet in him and a fever burning him alive. What was it in the tracker’s soul that allowed him to accept all the shit life kept dumping on him, all the ways fate had of stomping on him, without ever losing that deep balance, that unbreakable calm, that shone from him like a beacon?

And was it something he could ever teach to him?

“Jesus, Tanner,” Chris rasped softly, gripped by fear, “don’t you die on me!”

“Ain’t goin’… nowhere,” Vin breathed weakly, roused from his stupor by Larabee’s voice and touch. He opened his eyes, the blue depths still clouded, but lit now by recognition. “We still gotta… work… on yer manners.”

Chris chuckled as his fear loosened slightly its stranglehold upon him. “Like you’d know anything about that,” he griped with a smile, reaching down to brush the wet hair back from Vin’s face. “Hell, you still use your Bowie knife to cut your steak!”

“Practice,” Vin sighed, his eyes closing of their own accord. “So’s I c’n whittle… uppity goddamn gunfighter… down t’ size.”

Chris tried to answer but couldn’t, his worry returning in full force as he saw Vin’s strength ebbing before his eyes. He suddenly realized just how much he’d come to depend on this man’s strength above all others, and he wasn’t ready to lose that yet. Wasn’t sure he could take it.

Vin seemed to sense the fear behind Larabee’s silence and forced open his eyes. “Listen t’ me,” he urged, fixing his fevered gaze on Chris’s face and reaching weakly for Larabee’s hand with his good one. “I ain’t… gonna die.” His body desperately craved escape from its agony, but he held himself here with an iron will, determined to have his say. “Ain’t doin’… real good… I know that. But I done… survived… worse. Gonna survive… this, too.” He swallowed and licked his dry lips, his eyes sliding shut. “I ain’t… runnin’ out on ya… cowboy.”

Chris squeezed his hand firmly and nodded. “See that ya don’t,” he ordered tightly past the hard knot in his throat. “I still ain’t figured out how ta spend that five hundred dollars.”

“Told ya… might not… want you… t’ git it,” Vin breathed, slipping once more into unconsciousness.

“That’s all right,” Chris whispered hoarsely, still clinging to Vin’s limp, hot hand. “I don’t want it.”

“He won’t never go for it!” sneered Curly Wilkes, Guy Royal’s foreman. “He won’t give you fellers a goddamn nickel!”

“Then he’s gonna have a real hard time workin’ his ranch,” Josiah said calmly, checking his gun. “Considerin’ we got so many of his hands locked up.” He glanced up at JD and lifted two heavy gray brows. “You ready, son?”

JD grinned and settled his bowler hat on his head. “Ready as I’ll ever be.” He dropped his hands to his Colts and gave a firm nod. “Let’s get this done.”

“You boys be sure and give them bastards our regards,” Buck said, propping his feet up on the desk. “And, JD,” he cast a knowing glance at the boy, “try not ta get hurt, son. Remember, we’re short a healer for a while.”

“Aw, hell, Buck, you know me!”

Wilmington sighed, lowered his head and shook it. “Yeah, I do,” he breathed. “And that’s what worries me!”

Nathan stood at the window of his clinic and stared down into the street below, watching as JD and Josiah rode out to confront the ranchers, a hard knot of fear taking shape in his gut. In all his life he’d never known six men who could find more ways to get into trouble, who put so much time and effort into courting it, who seemed neither to know nor to care that they were as vulnerable to bullet, blade and fist as any other mortal. On his best days, his friends’ unerring ability to call down wrath and ruin upon themselves scared him.

And right now, he was far from having one of his best days.

He turned away from the window with a groan and strode with heavy steps to his cot, sinking wearily down upon it, acutely aware of his helplessness should the worst come to pass. In its splint and sling, his right arm still throbbed painfully, his fingers swollen and tight, and his right, stitched and bandaged, wasn’t much better.

His hands, the tools of his trade, were useless. He was useless.

He groaned again and lay back on the cot, staring dejectedly up at the ceiling. Useless. Couldn’t hold up his duties as either peacekeeper or healer. Couldn’t back up his friends if they needed it, couldn’t patch them up afterward if they needed that. Couldn’t do any of the things they’d come to count on him for–

And that hurt worse than his injuries.

A heavy, unsteady sigh escaped him and he clenched his jaws hard against the sick twist of feeling within him. They counted on him. Six white men used to counting on no one except themselves counted on him, never seeming to see the color of his skin. Or just never seeming to care about it. Even Ezra, Southern boy that he was, no longer seemed to care that he kept company with a “darkie.” To a man, they accepted him as an equal, as a friend, had given him a place in their midst, at their sides–

At their sides. Not behind them, not beneath them, but beside them, as they would any other man. And he’d never had that before.

Not on the plantations, where he’d never been more than somebody’s property, considered to have neither mind nor soul of his own, allowed to have nothing of his own, his only worth coming from the price he could bring on the auction block or the amount of work he could do in the fields. An animal, bought and sold, chained and whipped, living or dying by the master’s will. At the master’s whim.

And not even in the Union Army. Most of those soldiers hadn’t been any more fond of Negroes than their Southern counterparts, weren’t any more convinced of their humanity. Time and again he’d struggled to prove himself, and time and again he’d been rewarded with contempt. Or, at best, condescension. Relegated to the lowly role of stretcher-bearer because that was all a “boy” like him could possibly be expected to understand.

Except that he’d understood a helluva lot more than anybody had ever expected. He’d watched and he’d learned, and he’d pestered the very few doctors who tolerated him with questions. Sometimes he knew they answered him just to shut him up, but he didn’t care. Just so long as they answered.

After the war he’d drifted West, determined to make a place for himself in this wide land of new beginnings. But that place had always eluded him, and he’d just kept on drifting. Some towns already had doctors and didn’t need him; some didn’t, and just plain didn’t want him. Couldn’t bring themselves to accept a darkie’s help.

He’d thought that had changed here, had thought he’d finally found his place. Had opened this clinic and gradually earned the custom of people who simply had no other alternative…

Until a Texas trail boss had died of something not even a white doctor could have cured, and he’d found himself on a horse under a tree, his hands tied and a noose around his neck. One more darkie about to pay the price of overstepping his bounds…

Only he hadn’t paid it because two men, two white men, had stepped in and taken up his fight as their own, risking their lives for that of a man, a black man, they didn’t even know. Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner had fought for him that day, had saved him, and afterward had drunk with him as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Those two had set him free that day, in more ways than one.

He blinked back the sting of tears and swallowed against the hard knot in his throat. Those two, and the four that had come after them, had given him so much! Respect, dignity… friendship. Not out of pity or some well-meaning but patronizing sense of “Christian charity,” but simply because… they wanted to. Because they felt that he’d earned them.

Because it was what they’d do for any other man.

And in return he watched over and cared for them with a ferocity that sometimes surprised even him. Outcasts and troublemakers to a one, hard men, dangerous men, infuriating men who could make the angels gnash their teeth and tear their hair… and all of them dearer to him than his own next breath. He’d fought for them so many times, battling to defend their lives out in the street or to save them up here in the clinic, or sometimes just holding out a hand to one or another of them who was so mired in trouble or sorrow that he couldn’t see his own way out.

Only now his hands were useless. He was useless. If his friends should need him, he wouldn’t be able to help them.

And that was the deepest wound of all.

The horses topped a familiar rise and Chris released a sharp gust of relief. He’d long used this particular point as a landmark; home was less than half an hour away. He was sorely tempted to spur Pony to a run, but held back. While he wanted desperately to tear into town and get Vin to Nathan’s as fast as he could, he doubted the tracker could bear the kind of pain that would cause.

God knew the trip had been hard enough on him already.

He reined Pony to a stop and instinctively tightened his arms about the man who now rode with him. Vin was limp, his head lolling against Chris’s shoulder, his good arm dangling at his side. Heat radiated from his inert body, evidence of his soaring fever, and both men’s clothing was sodden with sweat.

At least Chris hoped the wetness he felt in Vin’s shirt was sweat…

“Hey, Tanner, you hear me?” he called quietly. “C’mon, pard, wake up. We’re almost there. Don’t wanta miss your own homecomin’, do ya? Vin?”

“H… home?” Vin breathed faintly, his brows drawing down over closed eyes as he tried to make sense of the words buzzing in his ear. “Chris?”

“Yeah, I’m here. How ya doin’?”

Vin frowned weakly, trying to puzzle out the sounds, and licked his dry lips with an even drier tongue. He thought he felt sick, but couldn’t be sure. All he could be sure of was that he hurt unmercifully. “Tired,” he finally sighed. “Hot. Want… wanta… lay down.”

“Soon, pard, I promise,” Chris assured him.

Vin jerked violently in the saddle, his eyes flying open in alarm. “Morgan!” he gasped as pain tore through him in sharp waves. “Got… gotta find… Morgan! I p… I promised… find him… Harlan…”

“Ssh, easy, Vin, easy,” Chris soothed, pulling Tanner back against him and holding him close to still his movements. “It’s all right, we found him. Tracked him down, remember? He’s dead now, Vin, you don’t have ta worry about him anymore. Morgan’s dead. He can’t hurt anybody ever again.”

“Hurts,” Vin moaned, relaxing against Larabee and closing his eyes, his thoughts of Morgan fading as quickly as they had arisen. “Chris?”

“Yeah, pard, I’m here,” Chris assured him, growing more frightened for the younger man by the moment. “I’m right here.”

“Ain’t feelin’… s’ good,” Vin whispered faintly.

“I know.” He felt Tanner slipping back into unconsciousness and lightly spurred Pony forward. “C’mon, pard,” he said hoarsely, “let’s get you home ta Nathan!”