It wasn't until late afternoon that Vin finally returned to the land of the living. And once he became aware of his surroundings, he wished to God he hadn't woken up. If pain could be measured on a scale from one to ten, he would be around fifteen. Everything hurt. Just lying there, not moving, barely even breathing, hurt. His back was on fire. His chest felt like it was dented inward and pressing on everything from his heart to his stomach. His right eye felt like it was ready to pop. His mid section hurt ferociously with every breath he took, no matter how shallow. But all those pains and aches were severely overshadowed by the throbbing of his left foot.

 

Groaning, he tried to move, but even the thought of movement made him queasy. His stomach cramped up, making him fight desperately to keep whatever he might have in his stomach down. He knew how dangerous it was for him to be lying on his back, unable to move, if he threw up. Quite literally, he could drown in his own vomit, but that thought only increased his need to heave.

With the utmost exertion, he rolled onto his side, every fiber of his body screaming in outrage, but he just couldn't allow himself to throw up while lying on his back. As it were, he didn't have anything to throw up from, and so only managed to dry-heave and hurt himself even more. If he'd had the strength, he would have cried out in pain, but he didn't, so he settled for a pained groan instead.

"Hush," a voice whispered near his ear, and something soothing cool pressed against his burning brow. He blinked a few times, trying to force his eye to adjust, and saw the woman from earlier. He had trouble connecting the dots right then and couldn't really remember who she was.

Jessie settled on the edge of the bed and continued to dab the cool, moist cloth against his brow. She didn't need to ask him if he was hurting badly. She just had to look at him to know that for a fact. It took too much strength on his part to stay on his side, and Jessie grabbed his shoulder gently, easing him down onto his back.

Vin just couldn't take much more of this. The pain was tearing him apart, making him wish for a swift death rather than this slow decline. He couldn't stand lying down any more, but just didn't have the strength to sit up. He didn't want to hurt any more, but he just couldn't make it stop. And through it all, he couldn't even voice his fears, his pain.

Being sensitive to others needs, Jessie realized that he might need a change of position. His back needed some air as well, she figured, but he didn't have the strength it took to lie on his side for more than a few minutes, and that just wasn't enough. As gently as she could, she eased him into a sitting position, scooted behind him on the bed, and let him sink onto her lap so he could lie on his side. At the same time she reached down and pulled his legs up a little, giving him the support he needed to stay on his side. The whole process took less than five minutes to arrange and she settled herself comfortably, one hand resting on his shoulder.

For the longest moment he had tensed up, not knowing what to expect from her when she started re-arranging things, but now that he was settled, and found that this position was far more comfortable for his aching muscles and various cuts and bruises, he slowly allowed himself to relax. The fact that nothing touched his back any more was a relief beyond what he had expected. Also, lying on his side removed the weight from his chest, and he could breathe more easily. Jessie had also rearranged the pillows under his injured foot so none of it touched the gashes and, somehow, that made a world of difference. When she at the same time started to caress his hair and hummed what he could only identify as a lullaby, he gave in completely. Unaccustomed to such kindness from strangers, he allowed himself to drift off again, lulled to sleep by her humming and the comfort of someone who cared how he felt. He hadn't had that since childhood.

Jessie continued to hum the lullaby until his breathing became deeper and more rhythmic, telling her that he had fallen asleep. His body radiated heat like a bonfire, and every inch of him she could see was black and blue. Inwardly she cringed at the sight, but that was not something that would reach her eyes or her voice. All she cared about was that this man was in pain and needed something to soothe him. Being all professional and tending to his wounds was one thing, but he also needed someone to tend to his spirit. As she had learned many years ago, there was a little boy in every man and this little boy needed some attention now. She knew how close he had come to shed tears from the pain he was suffering, and she wouldn't have held it against him if he had, but she could also sense how proud he was, and hence she wouldn't encourage him to show a weakness he might find embarrassing. Instead, she took matters into her own hands, and just accommodated him as much as she could without waiting for him to ask.

When Nathan checked in on Vin later, at the same time wondering where Jessie had gotten to, he stopped short at the sight that met him. Jessie gave him a smile, her hand resting gently on Vin's shoulder. Nathan entered the room, closing the door quietly behind him.

"How's he doin'?" he wanted to know, inspecting the seemingly peacefully sleeping tracker.

"He needed to get off that back," she replied. "Seems this is a good position for ‘im. He's breathin' much easier."

Nathan nodded. "Or maybe it's just your paste and your brew that worked," he suggested with a vague smile and briefly checked Vin's brow for fever. "Seems his fever's breakin', too," he added.

Jessie merely continued to smile. "I reckon he just can't go on bein' sick. He gotta start healin' sometime," she said.

Nathan was a little concerned for her. She couldn't keep sitting there. "Can I get you somethin'?" he wanted to know.

"Nah," she said quietly. "We'll prop 'im up with pillows. I need to make ‘im somethin' to eat anyway." But, despite her words, she didn't move, only leaned her head back against the wall.

It was with no small amount of surprise that Nathan realized that she was probably enjoying this a little. Well, he wouldn't begrudge her getting a little something out of having the house full of strangers. "I'll look in on you in a bit," he said and left the room as quietly as he had entered.

Once the door was closed, he shook his head. This woman had a grasp on these pigheaded men that he could only dream of. She had even managed to convince Chris to take the load off and sleep for a bit. The fact that the gunslinger had been out for several hours already was a sign that he wasn't really up to facing the woes of hunting down the Stanford brothers the following morning. Having learned from sometimes bitter experience, though, Nathan knew that their fearless leader would be up and about at the crack of dawn, ready to kick butt with the best of them. And he didn't envy those brothers their last day in this world. Chris was pissed enough for all of them put together, and nobody and nothing got in his way when he was this angry. Except perhaps for Buck, the healer figured.

***

The following morning

Beavis was skittish to the extreme, obviously wanting nothing more than to just get the hell out while he still could, when Buck guided the horse into the messy yard in front of the Stanford homestead. The big cowboy wasn't oblivious to the animal's nervousness, but since he couldn't see anything that might be causing it, he chose to ignore it for the time being.

"Yo, anybody here?" Buck hollered, boisterous as usual. There was no reply, no reaction. Frowning, he looked around the yard, wondering what those brothers were up to.

"What'cha be wantin'?" a voice drawled from behind him.

Buck turned in the saddle to send a look behind him, and grinned almost viciously at the oldest Stanford brother. "You Jake?" he asked and the kid, not a day older than J.D., nodded with suspicion in his eyes. Buck dismounted and turned to face the scrawny thing, having to muster all of his abilities to keep on smiling. Most of all he wanted to pull his gun and blow this kid away. "I'm lookin' for some friends o' mine. You seen anyone around?" he asked, jovial as always.

Jake's eyes narrowed. "Nah, ain't seen nobody around," he claimed, not experienced enough to see Buck as a threat.

Buck glanced around, seemingly interested in the yard, then focused on the kid again, and took one step toward him, lashed out and grabbed him by the shirtfront. "That's not what my friends said," he snarled. "You messed 'em up real good, runt, and I ain't in the mood to hear no bitchin' from you about how it was called for."

Jake was slow enough to not respond for a few seconds. Then he tried to squirm out of Buck's grip, finding that utterly impossible. "Le'me go," he squealed like a stung pig.

"And why would I do that, huh?" Buck snapped, his other hand closing around the throat of that little rat. "You ain't goin' nowhere. Ever again."

"Buck, ease up." Chris' voice was hard as steel, but the hardness wasn't directed at his friend. It was directed at the runt squirming in Bucks' grip. "He's mine," he growled and swung off his horse with frightening ease, considering the beating he had taken two days ago.

Buck swirled the kid around, holding onto him so he couldn't fight back. "Face your damnation, boy," he thundered, sounding much like some kind of doomsday preacher predicting the end of the world.

Chris didn't spare Buck a glance, but stopped in front of Jake, and gazed down at him with cold eyes. "Remember me, boy?" he asked, his voice as frigid as his stare.

Jake did have sense enough the shrink before that glare, but he didn't cower enough in Chris' opinion, which earned him a fist in the face. The blow was strong enough to knock loose what little teeth he had left.

"You damned near killed my friend, you little bastard," Chris growled. "Release him, Buck. I'm gonna shoot him when he runs away."

Buck raised one hand, acting all upset about that suggestion. "Now, hold on, pard. You never said nothin' about shootin' no kids," he droned, winking at Chris, who in turn didn't find the situation anywhere near as hilarious as Buck did. When Buck met Chris' stare, he suddenly realized that this was no longer a game. Chris wasn't out to scare this scrawny scarecrow of a boy, he was going to kill him.

Pushing Jake Stanford aside without releasing his hold on him, Buck took a step toward his friend, seeing all the signs of the cold-blooded killer that Chris had become. When Chris made a move to lunge for the boy, Buck stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "Now, just a god damn minute, Chris. We got more 'n enough on them here boys to send 'em to jail for the rest of their miserable lives. You ain't gonna kill nobody," he said, his tone of voice tense. "That'd be cold-blooded murder."

Chris was livid, ready to put a bullet in his friend if he didn't get out of his way, but Josiah chose that moment to intervene, grabbing Chris' right wrist when he pulled his weapon, and preventing him from shooting a friend. "This is not the way to do it, brother," he said calmly. "Vin wouldn't do it this way, and nor should you."

Grinding his teeth in utter frustration, Chris backed down. There was nothing he wanted more than to shoot that kid right where he stood, but he figured they ought to hand the brothers over to the authorities and be done with it.

Josiah grabbed the jittery kid by the shoulder and glanced at Buck in one go. "Go round up the others," he suggested.

Happy to be out of the line of fire, Buck retreated and soon found the three other brothers. They weren't bright enough to hide very well, and he figured they'd turned out this bad not only because of inbreeding, but because they didn't have any adults around to teach them how to behave. When he returned to the yard with the three brothers in tow, he noted that Chris hadn't moved an inch. Josiah, on the other hand, had tied the oldest kid's hands behind his back and was still holding onto him.

Buck had tied the three younger brothers together, and Josiah relinquished his hold on the oldest so Buck could add him to the line. While the big cowboy was busying himself with that inane little task, Josiah went over to Chris, keeping a respectful distance to the gunslinger. "There's nothin' wrong with bein' angry, brother, but killin' them doesn't do the trick. You're a smart man. You know that," he said matter-of-fact-like.

Chris exhaled sharply and let his shoulders slump a little, but the tenseness didn't leave his posture. "Just get 'em away from me," he growled, still not turning around. Instead, he grabbed Pony's reins, swung himself into the saddle and gave both Josiah and Buck a dead-on stare. "Get 'em to jail and send the judge a message. I want 'em outta Four Corners before I get back," he said darkly, swung the big black around and raced out of the farm yard like a dark demon.

Glancing back over his shoulder, Josiah gave Buck a puzzled look. "Isn't he a bit too angry about this?" he asked. There wasn't much in this world he didn't understand or couldn't at least claim to see the sense in, but Chris Larabee was a hard man to get to know.

Buck just stared at the spot where Chris had vanished, then shook his head. "It ain't got nothin' to do with anger. It got somethin' to do with friends and family. He got very close to losin' Vin and he don't like that at all. ‘Specially when the threat's from runts like these," he explained. "Let's get 'em outta here so we can get 'em outta town as fast as possible. I ain't happy about the rush, but I ain't takin' the blame neither if Chris comes back and finds 'em there."

Josiah got that point pretty clearly. Chris would shoot them on sight. At least that was the immediate threat. What happened once the man had calmed down a little was a completely different issue. With a shrug, he got on his horse and took the rope tying the brothers together when Buck handed it to him and mounted his own horse. Beavis was still skittish and Buck briefly wondered about that, but paid it no more mind. It wasn't like they'd come back to this place.

***

Chris had intended to keep going until Pony would run no further, but his increasing headache and growing bad conscience got the better of him, and he veered off toward Jessie Landon's farm again, wanting to make sure Vin was going to be alright before he went out and drank himself into a stupor. Damn, how he hated it when he lost it like that. He couldn't see reason, couldn't even understand what others said to him, when the bloodlust was upon him. All he had wanted to do was blow those bastards to Kingdom Come for what they had done to Vin. He didn't give a damn about his own bruises, his own headache. It was the fact that Vin had nearly died under their relentless beatings that made him furious. To lose someone he cared about was just not in the books these days. He would never be able to live with it if he let it happen again, and Vin had become more than a friend. He was like a brother to him now.

When he finally pulled into the yard in front of Jessie's house, he was pale as a ghost, a sheen of sweat covering his face and neck. He felt anything but good, and realized that maybe he shouldn't have gone with Buck and Josiah to catch those boys. But he had been the only one who could show them where they lived.

Getting off his horse proved to be more of a challenge than he had thought, and he realized that the tea Jessie had given him in the morning had worn off rather quickly this time. She had warned him about that possibility, and he felt marginally embarrassed that he had put her good advice to shame. Heaving a deep breath, he steadied himself enough to walk over to the porch, where he tied up Pony and climbed the two steps. He had barely managed that before the door swung open.

Jessie stopped at the sight of him, realizing instantly that he was in worse shape than even she had thought. It had been sheer stubbornness and pigheadedness that had kept him going this far. But that had apparently worn off somewhere along the way. "Mr. Larabee," she said, but before she could say more, he stumbled over his own feet and slammed into the doorframe, nearly falling over. She managed to grab him before it came to that, though. "Mr. Jackson," she called out, struggling to keep Chris upright.

Nathan came running out and made a face when he saw what had happened. "I told ‘im it was too early," he grumbled and helped Jessie get Chris inside, where they eased him onto a chair. Jessie got him a glass of water and managed to get him to drink a little of it before he pushed her hand away.

"Chris, I ain't one to fuss, but this ain't the best move you ever made," Nathan said, his expression stern. "We both told you not to go out this early."

With a snort, Chris took the glass from Jessie and downed the rest of it, then closed his eyes and leaned back on the chair to regain his composure. "Ain't nobody's fault but my own," he growled. "Now, gimme some peace, healer."

Jessie glanced at Nathan, who looked about ready to give up, then turned her attention to Chris, putting her hands on her hips, and giving him a glare. "Mr. Larabee," she said, her tone making him open his eyes and squint at her in surprise. "You ain't in no condition to sit around here. You need to be in bed."

Giving her his trademark glare, he leaned forward a little. "Mrs. Landon. As I said before, I appreciate your help, but this is none o' your concern."

"Bullshit," she snapped, startling him into silence by her crude choice of words. "As long as you're under my roof and in my care, you do as I say. Now, march, off to bed," she thundered, pointing toward the corridor. "I ain't gonna say it twice. Move!"

Nathan was slightly worried about the outcome of her outburst. He had seen Chris shoot men for less. But, to his great surprise, the gunslinger rose and, with a definite sneer, staggered down the corridor to the room Jessie had given him with her hot on his heels.

Chris wanted to argue, wanted to be upset and downright angry about the way she talked to him, but he just couldn't muster the strength. And, in general, he had to agree with her. He eased himself down on the bed and just sat there for a moment, eyes closed. Then he sighed deeply, kicked his boots off, undid his belt and stretched out on the bed, wishing his headache would just go away.

Jessie settled down on the edge and pressed a cool hand against his brow. "You need your rest," she told him in no uncertain terms. "Ain't ever done nobody no good to be foolish about somethin' like a bump on the head."

He almost groaned at her continued correctional tone of voice. "Just leave it be, alright?" he told her, briefly opening his eyes to convey the message that she should back off more effectively. "I ain't no kid and I don't need no nursemaid."

That made her smile, the contrary reaction he had aimed for. "If you ain't, how come you behave like one?" she wanted to know, still smiling. "I ain't tellin' you what you can do, Mr. Larabee. I ain't your ma. But you're stubborn, and stubborn can get you killed. And I don't reckon Mr. Tanner would take too kindly to that."

For a long moment, he considered her words, trying to think clearly through the thundering in his head, but eventually had to admit defeat, which he did with a heavy sigh. "How's Vin doin'?" he wanted to know.

"He's still hurtin', but he's gettin' better," she replied and rose again. "Now, you get some sleep. You ain't in no condition to go gallopin' around the countryside, let alone hunt down them Stanford brothers."

That made him smile. She might claim to not be his mother, but she sure acted like it at times. "They won't be botherin' nobody again," he said and draped an arm over his face, fatigue finally taking over.

Jessie shook her head and left him in peace so he could get some rest. She walked down the corridor to the last door and opened it quietly to take a peek inside. Vin was awake, lying on his side, but he didn't move when she opened the door and he figured she would leave again if she thought he was asleep. But she didn't. Jessie entered and stopped at the foot of the bed, arms folded over her chest, regarding him thoughtfully. All his wounds were taken care of and kept clean by both herself and Nathan, and she had even managed to get him to eat a little. Jessie was certain that he would come through this one just fine, and it pleased her to see that her treatments had helped him already. His black eye was no longer swollen and he could open it again.

"How're you feelin'?" she asked after a moment.

Vin blinked a little sluggishly. She kept him mostly pain-free with lots of her tea and various other herbal mixtures she had learned about from her grandfather, and he was deeply grateful for that. But the dosage of the herbs was so high, that it affected his ability to stay awake. Not that it really bothered him. Moving was out of the question, and he didn't really have much else to do than sleep. "Fine," he rasped weakly.

That made her smile. "Fine you ain't," she assured him. "Not yet. But you will be." Settling on the edge of the bed, she brushed her fingers through his hair, pushing it away from his face. "I ain't said this to many men, Mr. Tanner, but you're very tough. Ain't seen many men survive a beatin' like that."

Too tired to really show any response to her words, he soaked them up nonetheless. It wasn't often that he heard words like those, even though he knew that at least Chris considered him tough. But hearing it from a woman made a world of difference to him. "Been there before," he mumbled, wanting her to understand that this wasn't a big deal.

Jessie arched an eyebrow at that comment, then sighed. He probably had been there before, she mused. And that was what made this whole thing so unbearable.

***

Four Corners

Buck and Josiah had safely deposited the Stanford brothers in jail, and Buck had wired the judge to come get them, the sooner the better. All they could do then was kick back and relax until that actually happened or until Chris returned, which Buck doubted would be for a while. They had left J.D. to look after the prisoners before retreating to the saloon to get a well-earned drink.

J.D. stood in front of the cells, looking from one brother to the other, disgusted by the way they looked, and even more so by the way they behaved toward each other.

Jake Stanford stared back at J.D., murder in his eyes. "You jist wait, boy," he said in a low tone of voice. "If I git outta here, you's dead."

J.D. raised an eyebrow, recalling a lesson Josiah had taught him not too long ago about not antagonizing others any more than necessary. If he kept his mouth shut in this instant, Jake Stanford would look the fool. It very nearly made him smile as he turned around and walked over to his desk, settled down on his chair and picked up the dimestore novel he had bought a few days back, not even granting Jake a second look. Instead he put his booted feet up on the desk, leaned back on his chair and engrossed himself in the novel. But his attention never really left the prisoners.

Jake glowered at him for a moment, then turned his attention to his three brothers in the other cell when one of them started whining.

"Ah, shucks," Jed groaned. "What's them others gonna do now?"

Jake's eyes narrowed. "Shut up," he snarled, sending his brother an angry glare.

But Jed was really worried and it showed on his face quite clearly. "But, Jake, what's them others gonna do if we ain't around to tend 'em and all? They's gonna starve."

Sending a hasty glance toward J.D., who was still reading his novel, he waved Jed over. As soon as his younger brother was within reach, Jake grabbed his shirtfront and yanked him hard against the bars, nearly knocking him out. "I told you to shut up, you idiot," he snarled.

J.D. pretended not to listen, but he would have heard them even if he had been occupied with something other than just sitting around reading. After a moment, he yawned heartily, stretched his arms over his head, and then put the novel away before rising from his chair again. "You boys behave yourselves. I just gotta go take care o' some business," he said, rattling the keys he was taking with him before leaving the jail. As soon as the door had closed behind him, he sprinted over to the saloon to find Buck, Josiah and Ezra. Whatever that Stanford brother had meant, he figured there might be others caught on their farm.

***