Jessie brought another bowl of warm water with the added salt and somehow managed to get Vin to sit up. Stacking pillows behind him, she noted in passing that after dealing with his foot, and the cuts which needed stitching, she would have to take a closer look at his back, which was cris-crossed with whiplashes.

 

Using a knife, she carefully cut the leg of his pants open, and then used a pair of scissors to cut the fabric around the wound off. The pain caused by that alone was enough to keep him awake, his fingers weakly digging into the bedspread beneath him while he tried to breathe normally, which he completely failed to do at several instances.

There was no sign of discomfort on her face when she examined the pus-filled cuts on either side of his ankle. "Well, this don't look good," she said after a moment and glanced at Vin, who in turn looked about ready to pass out. She gently prodded the skin above and below the cuts, causing him to hiss with pain and try to jerk his foot away. It was swollen enough to make her fear that the skin would burst. She realized that no matter how careful she was, this would hurt badly. But she needed to clean out the wounds and the only way she could do that was the way she had described. It would be the least painful way of doing it. "Alright. Let's try this. It will hurt, though," she said, wishing there was something she could do to alleviate his pain.

Chris was still sitting up, ready to come to her aid if she needed it. He knew from experience how painful even a normal cut could be when it was infected, and Vin had more than his share to deal with.

With one hand under Vin's knee to help him raise his leg, Jessie lowered his foot into the water, submerging it. Chris' gaze shifted from the procedure to Vin's face, and realized that even though the younger man said nothing, he was in horrible pain. Although he himself felt as worn out as he thought he could get without actually dying of it, he figured that Vin needed his help right now.

Under normal circumstances, he would have groaned when he rose. All his muscles felt like they were frozen, and they wouldn't readily move. But he did rise and walked around the other bed without a sound. With a glance at what Jessie was doing, namely sloshing water carefully over the wounds, he settled on the edge of the bed, and was greeted instantly by Vin's hand closing harshly around his lower arm.

Vin had never been fond of pain. He could stomach a lot without twitching, but this was hell. He just couldn't imagine anything worse than the pain, which seemed to saturate every fibre of his being. It was a feeling he couldn't readily find words for, not that it was foremost on his mind. All he wanted was for Mrs. Landon to just stop what she was doing and leave him alone, but he also knew that what she did was necessary. He was grateful for Chris' help, for his attention; but he also wished Chris would leave because he was very close to tears, and didn't want to break down in front of the other man. This whole thing was embarrassing enough as it was. The last thing he needed was to start crying like a little kid who had scraped his knee; but damn, he felt like it right then. He desperately needed to be held by someone. He wanted to cry his eyes out. And, not for the first time since this nightmare had begun, he wanted his mother. The logical part of his mind told him that he was getting delirious, that the fever raging through him was rising, but he was slowly but surely reaching the point where he didn't care.

Chris grabbed his shoulders when it looked like he might rear up again, and pressed him back against the pillows. "Take it easy, pard," he said quietly. "Let ‘er work." Just looking at Vin hurt. He was so battered that it made Chris shudder inside. If Vin's face ever became reasonably normal to look at again it would be a damned miracle, the gunslinger thought.

Jessie finally managed to pry the now softened fabric out of the wounds, but not without feeling the violent jerk that went through Vin's leg. With the removal of the fabric, the pus started oozing out of the wounds more freely.

With a glance back at him, she figured it was time to let him rest a little before his already tortured body gave up on him. She had seen injured men die from less than this.

Carefully, she raised his foot out of the water and gently wrapped cool, fresh bandages around it. For her own reasons, she always kept a supply of specially treated bandages around. They had been boiled clean and dipped in a special solution she had learned to make from her grandfather, who used to be the medicine man of an Indian tribe she couldn't recall the name of any more. Her tribal heritage hadn't interested her very much when she had been a child, because it had caused her many hours of grief when she was being picked on by the other girls. A harsh childhood as a half-breed had made her a hard woman with a mind of her own. She had found, though, that her adult form was rather appealing to most men, and she had used that to her advantage repeatedly.

Pulling a thick pillow underneath Vin's leg, she lowered his foot onto it, and turned around to face him. "I will need to repeat the procedure again," she warned him. "We'll leave it for now, though. Let me take a look at the rest o' you," she added and glanced at Chris. "You. Get back to bed," she added in a rather commanding tone of voice.

Chris stared at her, and she stared back. He could tell by the look in her eyes that he'd have to be pretty damned lucky if he could out-stare her. "Right," he muttered under his breath, and rose only to be overcome by a sudden dizzy spell that would have landed him flat on the floor if she hadn't reached out to grab him and steady him.

"This is why you should stay in bed," she admonished. "Ain't nobody ever had a swellin' like that without a concussion," she added, indicating his battered face with a wave of her free hand. Holding onto his left arm, she steadied him until he was on the other side of Vin's bed again, and could drop down on his own. When she pressed a cool hand against his brow, she found the beginnings of a fever and shook her head. "You stay in bed, you hear? You ain't fit to do nothing more than just lie here. You may not have any open wounds, friend, but you've takin' one heck of a beatin'. Ain't no man strong enough to withstand that without side-effects," she told him in that no-nonsense tone of voice of hers. "Now, you just lie here an' rest."

Chris nodded in response, and allowed himself to relax a little. His head hurt ferociously, and he felt tired beyond reason; but he remained awake, afraid to let his guard down in case Vin's condition should worsen.

Jessie returned to Vin's side and briefly examined the cuts he had on his side and chest before feeling his brow again. "Them cuts need stitches," she told him. "But not while they're still infected." Vin didn't respond, and she realized he had either finally given up the battle and fallen asleep, or had just plain passed out. Whichever it was made no difference to her as long as he got some rest.

Slightly apprehensive about leaving the work unfinished, Jessie sighed. He needed to rest, needed it dearly. She had seen what injuries like these could do to a man, and she knew the worst was still to come. Gently, she removed some of the pillows behind him so he could lie down flat again, and the only response she got to that was a low-key moan.

Instead of worrying more about Vin, she turned her attention to Chris. "Now, let's have a look at you," she said and thoughtfully eyed the black and purple swelling that was his forehead. Her eyes shifted to his cheekbone, which was also swollen and discolored. "You got any cuts?" she wanted to know.

"Don't think so," Chris replied and glanced down his black shirt, which the Stanford brothers, for some reason or other, hadn't managed to destroy completely despite the savage beating they had administered. "I'm just sore is all," he added.

"Let's see," she said and started to unbutton his shirt without giving him a chance to consider the notion.

Chris stared at her, allowing her to undo the buttons without interference, mainly because this woman intrigued him. She was headstrong and tough. Anyone who could scare off the oldest Stanford brother without even blinking was tougher than the rest in his book. He figured he might have been able to do that, too, if it hadn't been for the fact that they'd decked him before he'd even had a chance to realize who they were. And tied up like he had been hadn't made him appear threatening enough. Besides, it was hard to stare hatefully when your head was coming apart from the inside out.

Jessie stared at his battered chest for a moment, then shook her head with concern. "Someone's gotta stop them Stanford brothers. They're deadly. They ain't killed anyone yet, but I reckon it's just a matter o' time before they do," she mussed and carefully prodded his chest for broken ribs.

Chris hardly noticed the pain. The more he looked at her, the more she resembled Sarah. It was uncanny. Although Sarah had been an all-white woman, her eyes had held the same depth, and she had set her jaw the same way Jessie Landon did. There were differences, of course. This woman was a heck of a lot more stubborn than his Sarah had been, but the resemblance raised strange feelings in him.

Jessie met his eyes when she realized he wasn't responding to her comments or her prodding. The way he stared at her made her frown. "What?" she asked.

For a moment longer, he soaked up the way she looked, then he closed his eyes. "Nothin'," he mumbled. She had given him something back that he had thought he had lost -- the memory of his wife. Her resemblance to Sarah rekindled his memories of how she looked at any given time, how she laughed, and smiled, and sometimes cried. How angry she could be with him, and how gleeful. All those things he loved her for, and would always love her for. Things he had feared were slipping away from him. But Jessie Landon had revived the memories, not of Sarah and Adam's death, but of their lives, of his life with them; and somehow, the pain he had felt ever since their untimely demise started to dwindle a little. Maybe that was what was meant by the term that time heals all wounds. That you eventually started to remember the life and not the death of someone you had lost.

***

North of Four Corners

Ezra Standish pulled the reins on his horse, stopping it dead in its tracks so he could take a moment to orient himself. Although he had been in Four Corners for quite some time, he still had a little trouble finding his way in the rough lands surrounding the frontier town. Trees and creeks just were not his idea of landmarks, and he found it difficult to tell one from the other. With a handkerchief of pure silk, he wiped the sweat off his brow, and briefly removed his hat to fan himself with it.

"Damned if I will know where to look," he mumbled to himself. "It is not like I was engendered for this kind of permanence." There were trees in every direction, and he had passed two creeks already that looked exactly identical to him. What was the point, he thought. It wasn't like he would find them. He wasn't a tracker, and he abhorred sitting in the saddle all day. Deciding that he wasn't the man for the job, he put his hat back on, and guided Chester in the general direction he thought Four Corners had to be in. "I do so prefer to ride with the others," he told himself with a sigh, fully aware that he would have a problem finding his way back. It was late afternoon and he was thirsty and tired and desperately needed a bath and a change of clothes, but in order to get that, he would have to find his way back home. He knew that the only way he could achieve that would be by asking for guidance. "Rather that than having to canter around out here for much longer," he mumbled and eased Chester into a light trot.

When he reached another creek, not really sure it wasn't one of the previous ones, he decided that enough was enough. He needed to ask for directions from someone. Looking around, he searched for any indication of settlement, and finally spotted a column of smoke rising in the air. That could mean a lot of things, of course, but he preferred to believe that this was a homestead, and that the owner would be willing to help him find his way back to the marginal civilization he considered Four Corners to be. "Saved at last," he muttered under his breath when he saw a homestead come into view.

When he finally reached the yard in front of the house with the attached stable, he raised an eyebrow in surprised appreciation of how neat it was. It was rare indeed that anybody cared enough about their homes to make them look this orderly. "One could almost assume this to be the beginning of a civilized city," he told himself and dismounted. Arching his back, he took a second to compose himself before ascending the two steps up to the porch to knock on the door.

The door swung open and his breath caught in his throat when he faced the ominous double barrels of a rifle, held by the delicate hands of a woman. Raising his hands immediately, he attempted to show her that he meant no harm while desperately trying to hide the tendrils of fear rising in him. "I assure you, Miss, there is no reason for you to be pointin' that weapon at me. I mean you no harm," he said, his voice calm and thereby belying the way he really felt about having a rifle shoved in his face when he knocked on a door. "I was wonderin' if you could assist me in findin' my way back to the quaint little town of Four Corners?"

She stared at him for a moment, then lowered the rifle with a frown. "Four Corners?" she asked back, looking a little surprised by that question.

"Yes, indeed, dear lady," he said, taking his hat off. "I seem to have gotten myself lost, you see, and..." he went on, but she interrupted him rather rudely.

"Lost? What are you doin' out here anyway if you can't find your way back?" she wanted to know.

Ezra was a little stumped for a moment, as usual not happy when people displayed what he considered poor manners. And he found it extra stressful when that lack of manners came from a woman such as herself. "Well, ma'am, I and some friends of mine are out scourin' the countryside for some missin' friends, and I realized too late that ridin' alone is not in my best interest."

Her frown deepened at his words. "What is this, the season for gettin' lost?" she asked. "You ain't the first to come askin' that," she added and eyed him thoughtfully. "Four Corners, eh?"

"Why, yes, dear lady. I believe I have already said that," he replied, wondering if the woman was daft for a moment. She was unbelievably beautiful, though. A sight for sore eyes. He found it rather unfortunate that such beauty didn't have the manners to match.

"You one o' the Magnificent Seven?" she wanted to know.

That caught Ezra totally off guard. "I beg your pardon?" he asked.

"I read that in one of them dimestore novels," she explained. "So, you one of 'em or not?"

Quick thinking had always been one of Ezra's traits, and he didn't fail to implement it at once to gain a little goodwill from this diamond in the rough. "Why, yes, I most certainly am," he said, still a little surprised by the whole thing. It had never occurred to him that he might actually become famous by riding with Chris and his gang.

"Well, then you're in luck," she told him and stepped aside. "Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner are stayin' here."

It took a moment to sink in what she had just said. "Here?" he asked, pointing a finger to the floor.

She raised a perfectly arched eyebrow. "Ain't that what I just said?" she asked back. "Yeah, right here. Come on in," she added and waved him inside. "Standin' around in doorways in this here part o' the country ain't the best thing you can do," she told him and closed the door behind him.

With his hat in his hands, he stepped inside and glanced around, seeing no sign of his friends anywhere in the impeccable common room of the house. Turning back to face her, he gave her an expectant look. "Might I inquire as to where they are?" he wanted to know, making a sweeping gesture with one hand to encompass the empty room.

"Back here. They're hurt," she replied and led the way.

That came as a bit of a shock to him, although he figured he should have expected it, since that would probably be one of the only reasons that neither of them had returned home, but he still hesitated a moment before following her. He had been about to gloat, to pat himself on the back for being the one to find the two missing, but the thought that they had been injured made him think twice. "Hurt?" he asked and hurried after her. "In what manner, if I may inquire?"

Whether it was his way with words or something else was hard to say, but Jessie Landon glanced back at him with a frown and refrained from answering his question. She figured he could see for himself when she opened the door to the rear room.

The sight that met him made Ezra come to a total stop on the doorstep, his eyes seeing something his brain wouldn't register. They were hurt alright, no doubt about that, and from what he could see, Vin was the worst off. Chris didn't look too good, either, though. With a glance at Vin, who was quite obviously unconscious, Ezra stepped into the room and stopped next to Chris' bed. "Chris?" he asked softly, hoping he wasn't disturbing the man.

The banged-up gunslinger cleared his throat and opened his eyes slowly, the pain evident in his expression. At seeing the gambler, he laboriously propped himself up on his elbows, his movements slow and careful. "Ezra," he replied in a hoarse voice. "Where'd you come from?"

With a another somewhat nervous glance at Vin, and feeling uncomfortable in the face of such obvious misery, Ezra then grabbed a chair and sat down. "Well, as it were, I and the others were out searchin' for you two, and I seem to have gotten myself lost. I stopped by this house to ask for directions and only by chance happened to learn that this good woman had taken you in."

Chris eyed him for a moment, and then dropped back down on the bed, utterly exhausted. "What'll it take for you to say things so a man can understand you?" he asked and draped an arm over his face. "Vin ran into a bit o' trouble with the Stanford brothers. I met the same trouble by goin' after ‘im," he added.

The gambler didn't take it to heart that Chris commented on his way of speaking, but he did want to get out of this room. He had never been fond of other people's suffering, and he sure didn't feel like sticking around any longer than he had to. "It might be an idea if I rode back to Four Corners and alerted the others to your whereabouts," he said. "It's gettin' dark out and they might think they have to search for me, too, now."

That made Chris smile a little. "Yeah, might be a good idea," he agreed. In general, he just wanted to be left alone. His head was killing him, and he just wanted to go back to sleep so his stomach would stop cramping up every time he took a breath.

Since the idea was a sound one, Ezra didn't hesitate to implement it. "We shall be back as soon as possible," he promised and turned to leave.

"Tell Nathan to bring his remedies," Chris said, briefly pulling his arm away from his face to give Ezra a sinister look. "Vin needs all the help he can get."

Ezra nodded. "Will do," he said and took off, hurrying back out to Chester. He was already in the saddle before he remembered that he had no idea which way Four Corners was. Noting that Jessie had followed him outside, he glanced at her with a sheepish smile. "Oh my, this is a might embarrassin'," he said. "Could you kindly point me in the direction of Four Corners?"

Jessie stared at him for a moment, then pointed in the general direction. "Go straight that way. You can't miss it," she said and went back inside after Ezra had turned Chester around and had started off in that particular direction.

***

Vin was aware of his poor condition in more ways than one. He could hardly move, and the pain from his battered chest made it hard for him to breathe properly. Feverish and generally afraid, he fought a losing battle against his whirling emotions, wishing he could somehow subdue the constant need to cry his eyes out. This was neither manly nor tough, but he just couldn't find the strength to stop it completely.

A sudden coolness touching his brow caused him to jerk, and he opened his one good eye. "Easy there, darlin'," Jessie whispered softly, pressing her cool hand against his brow. "Is it bad?" she wanted to know, seeing all of the pain and suffering in his expression.

He merely nodded once, afraid to speak. It would betray how close he was to tears. She wrung out a cloth in a fresh bowl of water and placed it over his face, covering his brow and eyes. The coolness was soothing and took some of the sting out of the black eye he'd been given.

"I wish I could give you somethin' for the pain," she said quietly. Glancing down at his battered torso, she shook her head sadly. Why would anybody do this to others? She just didn't understand where all this evil came from. The edges of the cuts she could see were angry red, and swollen, and desperately needed cleaning, but she could see how close he was to breaking down, and she didn't want to put him through more than he could handle. It could wait until morning. "I do have a remedy that will bring your fever down and help clear out the infection. It's a tea. It don't taste too good but it works. And it'll make you sleep." Unable to refrain from doing so, she reached out and caressed his cheek, wanting him to know that she was there for him, that she would help him.

Vin didn't respond, didn't know how, but merely allowed himself to be soothed by her touch and her soft voice. She rose from the edge of the bed, and left the room to prepare the tea, and he wished she hadn't. He wished she would understand that he just needed to be held.

Moments later, Jessie returned with the tea. Setting the cup down on the floor, she helped him sit up so she could fluff the pillow behind him and add a few more. Again his flayed back made her wish she could do more for him.

Instinctively knowing that she was being watched, she glanced over at Chris and found him staring at his friend with dark eyes. He hadn't seen the whiplashes before, and it was just another added insult that he would make right once he could.

Jessie didn't bother to comment on it, but returned her attention to Vin. "Now, you drink this real careful, alright? It's still hot," she told him and gave him the cup. It took her a split second to realize that even though he took a hold of the cup, he wouldn't be able to hold it, so she never let it go. The last thing he needed was a scalding too. With great care, she managed to make him empty the cup, and could already tell that the herbal tea was doing its job. He had trouble keeping his good eye open, and his body relaxed visibly until he simply passed out on her.

Only then did she glance back at Chris and found him sitting up once again, watching her closely. "What'd you give ‘im?" he wanted to know, wondering if maybe she would give it to him too. He really needed to sleep and his headache wouldn't let him.

"It's valerian tea. In the right dosage, it has a very calmin' effect. It's good if you can't sleep. Makes you drowsy," she explained and gave him another glance. "You want some too?"

Glancing back over at Vin, Chris considered her offer for a moment. "Is he gonna be alright?" he wanted to know.

Jessie looked back at Vin for a second, then nodded. "I think so. He's strong. Just needs some time to heal," she said.

Chris watched his friend for a moment, then settled back down on the bed. "In that case, yeah, I would like some o' that tea," he said.

***

Buck, J.D., Ezra, Nathan and Josiah rode back to Jessie Landon's homestead as soon as Ezra had explained to them what he had witnessed. Neither of the others had been very happy that he hadn't even bothered to ask who had done this to their friends, and Buck had nearly ripped his head off for it, still aggravated by the whole wretched state of affairs. Ezra was slightly more subdued than normal afterward, but had earned some goodwill from the others for being the one who had found them.

It was with no small amount of surprise that Buck realized who Jessie Landon was. It thrilled him to no extent that he would have a chance to get to know her better without having to come up with some lame excuse for visiting her.

The five peacekeepers dismounted their horses, finding Jessie standing in the doorway already. Buck took his hat off, and raked the fingers of his right hand through his hair with a big smile on his lips. "So, we meet again, ma'am," he said.

Jessie stared at him for a moment, then looked from one to the other. Finally, her eyes settled on Nathan, and she took a step forward. "You the doctor?" she asked.

"No, ma'am. I ain't no doctor. I know about healin', though," he replied.

She nodded and motioned for him to follow her. "That's good enough for me," she said. "Mr. Tanner needs your help."

Nathan didn't have to hear that twice. He grabbed his bag and followed her into the house, leaving the rest of them standing out front.

Buck frowned a little at her obvious disregard for the rest of them, but figured she was worried about their friends, and should therefore be excused. "Let's head on in and see what's up," he suggested and took the lead.

Nathan was already examining Vin when the rest of them turned up in the doorway. Ezra kept back, not needing another look at the wounded. J.D. was shocked by how poorly Vin seemed to be faring and pulled back too, uncertain about how to respond. Buck and Josiah entered the room, though.

"Damn," Buck muttered under his breath. Seeing that there was nothing he could do for Vin, he decided to turn his attention to Chris instead, who seemed to be either unconscious or asleep. "What happened to 'em?" he wanted to know, turning to Jessie.

"The Stanford brothers happened," she said darkly. "Damn fool thing to do, enterin' their land. Those brothers are mad."

"Madder 'en hell, I'd say," Buck agreed, an angry tone to his voice. He would go after them himself if that was what it took.

"What'd you do to make 'em sleep?" Nathan asked without taking his eyes off Vin.

Jessie leaned closer to see what he was doing. "Valerian tea. In the right dosage it's almost as effective as chloroform, an' a lot easier on the stomach," she explained, then turned her attention back to Buck and Josiah. "Let the man work," she said and ushered them both out the door. "I'll make you somethin' to eat."

***