Disclaimer: This story is the product of different minds coming together to have some fun. We have ownership over any new characters but the rest belongs to others (such a shame!).

Authors' Note: We were discussing what would happen if Nathan couldn't operate. That night I dreamt this story, which was good because I just had to write what I saw.

Substitution by Default

By Ladysmiths


Vin jumped on his horse and tore off after the bank robbers. Chris and Buck came out from behind the water trough still firing at the retreating forms. JD helped Ezra haul a would-be thief to his feet and led him to the jail. Josiah ran over to Nathan who was clutching his right arm. "Are you alright?" Josiah noted the pain in Nathan's face.

"I crushed my hand in the fight," Nathan was looking down at his hand, trying to make a fist. "I might have busted it."

Chris and Buck jogged over to the two men, "What's happened?" Buck asked.

"Nathan's broken his hand," Josiah answered. "Help me get him bandaged up."

Buck nodded and followed Josiah and Nathan to the clinic, while Chris headed towards the jail to check on JD and Ezra.

* * * * * * *

"Ty, he's turned back. He ain't behind us anymore."

Ty Hollins slowed his horse allowing his men to catch up, "Steve, look for somewhere to set up camp."

"We're not goin' back, are we?" Jack asked. "I'm sure we can rob someplace better that Four Corners. Besides it's too well protected."

Ty hated having his plans thwarted, hell they hadn't even gotten away with any money, and Rhett had been taken. "We're goin' back to get Rhett and the money. I won't leave that place without them paying."

Steve came trotting back towards them, "We can set camp a little ways ahead. But won't they come after us?"

"I want to hit the town again tonight, no point giving them to much time to recover," Ty said, becoming more determined to get some money out of Four Corners.

Steve looked thoughtful, "You know that guy following us, I'm sure I've seen him on a wanted poster."

Ty liked this information, "Are you sure?"

"Yeah, his name's Tanner," Steve answered. "I think there's about 200 dollars on his head, dead or alive."

Ty nodded his head, he was glad he let Steve join them, the man never forgot anything. "If we can't hit the bank, we'll grab Tanner instead. It's a fair trade."

*******

Chris, Ezra and Buck watched Vin ride back into town from the porch in front of the jail. "Is everyone okay?" Vin asked as he dismounted.

"Nathan hurt his hand," Buck answered.

"Which way are they headed?" Chris wanted to know.

"East. They were beginning to slow down, I think they'll set up camp somewhere soon. I'll be able to track them from where I turned back."

Chris shook his head, "According to the guy we got, this Hollins fella will come back for him."

Ezra agreed, "And if not for him, for the money. Apparently Mr Hollins has an aversion to departing any town empty handed."

"We'll be ready for them when they come back," Chris said.

"I'll set up just outside of town," Vin stated as he led his horse back the way they'd come.

The other three men got up to find the others and organise their own positions.

* * * * * * *

Ty Hollins didn't like the feeling he was getting as they drew closer to Four Corners. The town looked way too quiet. Steve rode up next to him, "The bank looks closed up from here."

"Damn," Ty muttered as he watched a tall man dressed all in black stride up towards them, his gun already drawn.

"It's a trap," another one of Hollins' men shouted.

Ty knew it was true and mentally kicked himself for being so stupid. He'd known that they'd be outnumbered, seven against one. It would have been smarter to sneak in and grab Tanner, rather than have everyone ride in and announce themselves. Well, he still wasn't planning on leaving without causing some damage. "Spread out, try to find Tanner," he yelled over the gunfire that had erupted.

Ty's men tried to spread out, but Chris and the others had them pinned down, and all they could do was slowly back up. Ty watched as one of his men went down after Ezra fired. Then he heard Jack yelling, "He's over there."

Ty spun his horse around and fired at the figure riding towards him.

"VIN!" Chris yelled as he saw Vin topple off his horse. Chris bolted towards the inert form, still firing at Hollins. Chris reached Vin first, and Ty had no choice but to back up with his three remaining friends and ride away from Four Corners. Ezra ran to Chris, helping him carry Vin to the clinic, while Buck, JD and Josiah rode off after Hollins and his men.

* * * * * * *

"We have to get the bullet out," Nathan said as Chris and Ezra lay Vin on the bed and removed his shirt. Vin had been shot in the chest and although there was a lot of blood, Nathan didn't think it had hit anything vital. "I can't do it with this hand."

Ezra looked over at Chris, who was staring at Vin shaking slightly. Vin was already burning up and his colour seemed to be draining out of him with every passing second. Nathan had already placed a wet cloth over Vin's forehead and was draping a towel around the wound. Nathan assessed the two men in front of him, "Ezra, you'll have to do it. You've got steady hands." He would have said that Chris didn't look capable of handling anything at the moment, but left it at that.

Ezra backed away, there was no way, what if he screwed it up, "I can't."

"Yes, you can. I'll help you," Nathan assured him. "Ezra, we have to start now."

The urgency in Nathan's voice forced Ezra forward, he took the equipment Nathan held out to him. Leaning over, Ezra hesitantly pushed at the seeping wound. Vin instinctively jumped, but didn't wake up. Ezra quickly removed his hands looking at Nathan.

"It's okay Ezra, I'll hold Vin. You'll have to dig deeper to get at the bullet, it might take some fishing around."

Ezra nodded and repeated what he'd been doing, pushing a little deeper. He was being as gentle as he could, not wanting to rip any more skin than he had to. Ezra was ready to start moving around inside Vin's chest, to reach the bullet, when Chris came up behind him muttering, "This can't be happening." Ezra stilled his hands and closed his eyes, this was hard enough without Vin's best friend watching, Chris would probably shoot him if anything went wrong.

Nathan knew how Ezra felt, Chris could be one of the most distracting people to have around, "Chris, get out."

Chris stared at Nathan, "No way, I ain't leaving."

Nathan wanted to shove Chris out the door, "If you don't get outta here, we can't do this and Vin will die for sure."

Chris couldn't believe someone would say those words out loud, he backed towards the door, "Please just help him."

Ezra opened his eyes, sighed and started searching for the bullet, letting Nathan's soothing tone wash over him as the healer directed and assured the gambler.

* * * * * * *

Chris was sitting on the steps outside the clinic when Buck, JD and Josiah rushed up to see Vin.

"How is he?" Buck asked.

"Ezra's trying to get the bullet out," Chris sighed and when he saw the questioning looks he added, "Nathan wasn't able to because of his hand."

"Can we go in?" JD wanted to help.

Chris shook his head, "Better not Kid. Did you catch up with the bastards?"

"No," Josiah said. "They got away."

Buck was frustrated, he'd wanted to keep riding, but they'd lost them and JD had wanted to get back and find out about Vin, "They probably won't stop for days. They better not anyway."

Chris nodded, "If I every lay eyes on them again..."

The four men ceased conversation when Nathan stepped out of the clinic, "Ezra got the bullet out and we've bandaged Vin up as best we could. We'll have to wait and see if he wakes up."

Chris, Buck, JD and Josiah silently entered the small room. Ezra was trying to scrub all the blood off his hands, they'd never seen such an uncertain expression over Ezra's usually emotionless face. Josiah walked around, picking up a clean towel to hand to Ezra, "You did good son."

Ezra blinked at Josiah trying to take in who it was, "We'll see."

Chris settled himself in one of the chairs, glaring at anyone who looked like they might ask him to leave. Ezra slumped down into another chair.

"You should get some rest Ezra," Josiah said. "You've done plenty for today." Everyone else nodded in agreement.

"No, I want stay here."

"It's okay guys, I'll stay and watch them both." Nathan had never felt so useless. Poor Ezra had to do all the work and no-one was able to stop Chris worrying. Hell, he hadn't even been able to help with the gunfight, Nathan really hated being injured. Nobody was going to tell him he couldn't watch over his friends, and nobody attempted to.

* * * * * * *

Buck, JD and Josiah had been individually going up to the clinic all day, to check on their friends. However, all three were determined to kick Ezra, Chris and Nathan out this time, so that they could get some rest. Buck and Josiah were dealing with the prisoner, so JD decided to get to the clinic first. He slipped inside and noticed Ezra, Chris and Nathan all sleeping in their chairs.

"Hey Kid."

JD practically jumped at the husky whisper. He rushed over to Vin, "You're awake," JD was so excited he wanted to shout it out.

"Yeah, don't wake the others though."

"Okay, they've been here for over a day," JD whispered.

"I figured that," Vin tried to smile. He hurt all over and it was damn hot in here. "Can you get me some water."

Buck and Josiah walked in as JD was returning to Vin with the water, "What's going on?" Buck asked.

"Shhh," JD admonished Buck. "We don't want to wake the others." As he reached over to help Vin drink the water he could feel the heat emanating from the tracker. "Geez, you're really hot Vin."

"Yeah," Vin agreed. "Must be damn hot outside."

"Actually it's freezing," JD said.

Both Buck and Josiah came to hover over Vin, "Welcome back pard," Buck whispered.

"Some scare you gave us," Josiah added.

"Yeah," JD stated. "Especially since Ezra had to operate."

Vin groaned, he hadn't thought about the fact that Nathan was hurt, "He hasn't left me with a huge scar, has he?"

Buck chuckled softly.

Josiah smiled, "You'll be just fine."

"That's right," Nathan added. He'd woken to the sound of whispering, "Why didn't one of you wake me."

"Vin told us not to," JD stated not wanting to get blamed.

Vin was trying to push the covers off himself, "I'm glad you're still wearing you underwear," Buck laughed quietly. "What are you tryin' to do?"

"I know you're hot," Nathan said as he replaced the sheet.

"It's the weather," Vin grumbled.

Nathan shook his head, "It's cold out."

Vin grimaced unconsciously at the pain in his chest and sighed.

"You need to rest," Nathan whispered.

Vin just nodded slightly as his eyes fluttered shut.

"C'mon Nathan, we'll buy you a drink to celebrate," Buck smiled.

"What about Chris and Ezra?" JD asked.

Josiah watched the sleeping forms, they hadn't woken throughout the whole thing, they must be completely exhausted. "Let them sleep."

* * * * * * *

Chris woke late that night, just in time to see Ezra open his bloodshot eyes also. They both looked at the bed to find Vin still unconscious.

Ezra stood and walked over to Vin, gently checking the bandage. Chris had noticed Ezra was becoming quite good at this, maybe they'd have two doctors in town. Vin instinctively moved away from the touch that was causing pain. He opened his eyes and tried to glare at whoever it was.

"You're awake," Ezra blurted, he hadn't expected to see Vin's eyes open and alert.

Chris rushed over to the bed next to Ezra, "Thank God."

"Actually, I think it's Ezra we should be thanking," Vin tried to grin at the gambler, although it probably came out more as a grimace.

"How'd you know?" Ezra asked astonished, he'd thought Vin had been unconscious throughout the whole operation.

"It hurts like a son of a bitch. I just figured it must have been you," Vin actually pulled off the grin this time.

"The others told you," Chris stated. "I'm gonna kill them for not waking me."

"I asked them not to," Vin said, you guys looked so peaceful.

"You're still really hot," Ezra replaced the damp cloth on Vin's forehead with a fresh one.

Vin tried to throw the sheet off him again, "If I didn't have all these blankets," he mumbled as his eyes began closing again.

Ezra replaced the sheet, "We don't want you to catch pneumonia."

Chris chuckled and patted Ezra on the shoulder, "You did great. You're gonna make a wonderful doctor."

"I don't think so Mr Larabee. The last thing I want is people lining up to see me, unless it's to relieve them of the money in a game of chance."

"Are you guys gonna be talkin' all night?" Vin asked sleepily. "Just leave me in peace will ya."

"One of us should stay with you," Chris said.

"I'm fine," Vin sighed. "You both look worse than me."

"I wouldn't mind sleeping in my own bed for a while," Ezra stated.

"Okay," Chris agreed. "But first let me buy you a drink."

Both Chris and Ezra laughed as they heard Vin say weakly, "Bring me back a whiskey."

* * * * * * *

Vin woke again to find someone hovering over him. Damn, couldn't these people just leave him alone. What time was it anyway, it must be nearly dawn.

Suddenly he felt cold steel press against his neck, "What the..."

Ty Hollins grabbed a pillow from behind Vin, placing it over his face to stop Vin from making too much noise. He'd been right, it was much easier sneaking into town alone. Ty had watched the clinic all day, and finally everyone that had entered the clinic had left. Ty had climbed the back stairs, he'd been about to lift Vin and carry the bounty down to his horse, however Vin had woken. "You're worth quite a bit of money, I hear," Ty hissed.

Vin wasn't able to respond, and his struggling became weaker. Ty cut the bandages around Vin's chest and placed the knife over the wound. He pressed the metal into the flesh, causing Vin to yell out at the sharp searing pain, the sound muffled by the pillow. Vin's body jerked and then slumped onto the bed.

Again, Ty was ready to lift Vin, when he heard footsteps outside. What was it with these people, couldn't they leave this guy alone? This was ridiculous, Ty slipped out the way he'd come in. He gave up, the 200 dollars wasn't worth it. He'd find another town and bank to rob, this place was bad luck.

Josiah opened the door a crack, just being able to make out the motionless form on the bed in the darkness. Josiah closed the door without entering, not wanting to wake the tracker.

* * * * * * *

The next morning Ezra, JD, Josiah and Nathan were heading towards the clinic to see if the patient wanted some breakfast. Everyone froze when they saw all the blood.

"JD, find Chris. Now!" Nathan yelled as he and Josiah rushed towards Vin. "Ezra we need to clean the wound," Nathan looked up to find Ezra backing away from Vin and out the door.

The room felt too confining, Ezra had to get out to breathe. He must have screwed something up, they shouldn't have trusted him, "I'm so sorry," he mumbled as he sat on the top step breathing deeply.

Nathan turned to Josiah, "Can you help me?" Josiah just nodded and began gathering all the bandages and towels he could find.

Chris dashed up the stairs, ignoring the dejected form sitting near the top, Buck and JD hot on his heels. He burst into the room in time to witness Josiah removing the bloodied bandages, "What happened?"

"I checked in on him last night," Josiah said. "I should have looked closer, I thought he was just sleeping."

Chris stepped closer to Vin and laid a hand on the younger man's forehead, "Jesus Christ!" Chris exclaimed at the heat he felt.

Nathan nodded, "His wound's infected, we cleaned it out the best we could. Now we have to try and get the fever down."

Everyone’s attention was diverted when Vin began to stir. Vin clawed at the blanket trying to push it away, "Hot," he began to mumble over and over again.

Josiah wet two pieces of cloth and placed one on Vin's forehead, while using the others to wet Vin's arms and chest, around the bandage. Buck gently pulled the blanket up after Josiah was finished and leant down trying to sooth Vin's ranting.

While the others were comforting Vin, Nathan went outside to sit next to Ezra, "It wasn't anything you did Ezra." When Nathan saw that Ezra wasn't convinced he continued, "Someone cut those bandages, and Vin's wound. It was deliberate." Ezra stared at Nathan in disbelief.

"What!" Chris shouted just before Ezra could.

"Hollins," Buck said, "Vin told me."

"I don't care how long it takes, I'm gonna find that bastard." Chris stated.

"Ezra and I will look after Vin," Nathan assured the rest of the men.

Chris didn't need any more encouragement, he stalked down the stairs towards the livery with Josiah, Buck and JD right behind him.

* * * * * * *

"How do you do it Nathan. How do you know your doing the right thing." Ezra asked.

"I don't, but you have try anything to help people," Nathan answered. "Besides, it wasn't anything you did. Hollins hurt Vin."

"Maybe. But when I'd thought I'd done something wrong, I couldn't bring myself to touch Vin again, I would have just left him to die."

"No you wouldn't. If you'd been the only one here, you would have done everything you could."

"How do you know?" Ezra's eyes were filled with doubt.

Nathan smiled, "I know you Ezra."

Ezra tilted his head, "Thank you."

Both men stood and entered the clinic, Nathan shook his head as Ezra stooped to pick up the blanket Vin had thrown to the floor.

* * * * * * *

Chris, Buck, JD and Josiah returned with one other prisoner. Buck hauled him into the jail to keep his friend company. They'd wired the Judge and someone was coming to pick them up in a day or so.

"What about Hollins?" Nathan had been watching their return from the clinic.

JD pointed at Chris and said, "The rest of the gang is dead."

"How's Vin?" Chris asked.

Ezra answered instead of Nathan, "The fever hasn't broken yet, but the wound finally stopped bleeding after the we changed the bandages three times. He keeps tossing and turning, trying to remove the blankets, we haven't been able to calm him down for very long periods of time."

"We have two doctors in town," Josiah chuckled, reiterating what Chris thought earlier.

"No way. I don't want the rest of the town thinking they can come to me seeking medical attention. Unless, of course, I can charge them more for my services than Mr Jackson does."

Everyone chuckled and this time JD replaced the blanket Vin had tossed aside.

* * * * * * *

It had been a couple of days and all anyone seemed to be doing was trying to keep Vin from removing his blankets. No-one wanted him to catch pneumonia due to the cold weather, but the material seemed to irritate Vin no end.

As Ezra and Chris entered the small room they were surprised to see Vin curled up with the blanket clutched tightly to him, "It's about time someone showed up, it's goddamn cold in here."

Chris and Ezra stared at each other before Chris grabbed the blanket that was draped across one of the chairs and placed it over Vin.

"I would've gotten it myself," Vin said. "But I was frozen in place."

"The fever's broken," Ezra stated.

"It's about time," Chris grinned.

"Hollins was here, he..."

Vin was interrupted by Ezra who was leaning over Vin checking the bandages, "We know, Chris shot him already."

"Did you tend to him too?" Vin asked Ezra.

"No, I left him in Mr Larabee's care."

Vin gave Chris a questioning look, and Chris nodded, "He's dead."

"Damn, Ez. Haven't you learnt to be more gentle," Vin grimaced and tried to move away from Ezra.

Ezra grinned, "I'm beginning to see the appeal in this particular occupation." He reached over and grabbed a cup filling it with the concoction Nathan had made up earlier, and that they'd been feeding Vin over the last few days. "Here drink this."

Vin took a sip and screwed up his face, "Ugh, that's awful. I ain't drinkin' all that."

Ezra stood firm, "You will drink the whole cup, or I'll force two cups down your throat and check your bandages again."

"You better do what he says Vin," Chris laughed. "Doctor's orders."

* * * * * * *

A few days later, Vin hobbled into the Saloon and spotted Ezra sitting alone at a table, shuffling his cards.

Ezra looked up as Vin approached, "Nice to see you're finally up and about."

"Thanks to you, Ez," Vin said as he sat in the seat opposite Ezra.

"I hope you don't have any other ailments you wish to convey to me, because as I understand it Mr Jackson is back in commission," Ezra said as he automatically started dealing the cards.

Vin began picking up his cards and grimaced, "These cards don't look to healthy."

Ezra chuckled, "That's one condition I'm not about to alleviate."

"I came here to tell you that if you're ever hurt, and Nathan's not around, I'd gladly return the favour." Vin noticed the reservation written all over Ezra's face, and grinned, "Hey, I'm good with a knife, you've seen me gut a rabbit."

Ezra's eye's widened at that image, "Mr Tanner, I'll be informing our associates that if I'm hurt and you're anywhere near me with a knife, they have my permission to gun you down."

THE END



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