The Last Three Bullets
This is based on one of my all time favorite Bonanza episodes.
Reining in his horse, the black clad gunslinger pushed his hat back off his head. Chris wiped the sweat off his forehead with his arm. Damn it's hot, he thought and called to his companion, "Hold up a minute."
Vin Tanner pulled his horse alongside the blond, constantly scanning the horizon. They'd been on the trail for ten days now, and still had a day and a half until they got back to Four Corners. They'd been trying to help the army find some renegades for a solid week, before they'd finally admitted that the renegades had either sobered up and gone back to the reservation, or they'd holed up to wait for the soldiers to be needed elsewhere, before they caused more trouble. Either way Vin didn't like it. Trouble was close, he could feel it. He knew without looking at him, that Chris didn't like it either.
Vin handed his canteen to Chris his eyes in constant motion, watching for something he wasn't sure of. He just knew there was something. The blond drank sparingly. They were still three miles away from the nearest water and they were both careful men. Chris handed him back the canteen and mimicked Vin's actions of earlier, checking the horizon, as the tracker allowed himself a small drink.
Vin recapped the canteen and secured it to his saddle. He clucked and pushed a foot against his horse's side and the black moved out at a canter. Chris's horse followed and they rode silently. Both men were alert, watching ahead and keeping a constant eye on their back trail. They were comfortable with the silence, neither man feeling the need to offer false reassurances to the other.
Suddenly, Chris heard a soft whump and Vin slumped over in his saddle. Yelps and war cries filled the air and Chris could see the renegades bearing down on them. He caught a glimpse of the shaft of an arrow protruding from Vin's leg, as he urged his horse into a gallop and made a grab for Vin's reins, hollering over his shoulder, "Hang on Vin!"
They rode desperately, away from the painted men, Chris urging his horse even faster and clutching Vin's reins to him, knowing that to lose them, was to lose his best friend to the howling pack.
Vin lurched wildly, barely managing to hold onto the saddle horn. His leg was on fire and he was on a horse that was galloping and he didn't know why. All he knew, was that he had to hang on. Chris had said to hang on and Chris was with him - hang on hang on - and Chris was running and - hang on hang on - and it was all he knew - hang on hang on hang on hang on . . .
Chris focused on two things, urging his horse on and keeping hold of Vin's reins. He was so focused, that he didn't notice the silence at first. He didn't notice the quiet, until he realized that he could hear Vin moaning and the pounding of the horse's hooves. He could hear them, because he %couldn't hear the renegades.
Cautiously, Chris spared a look behind him. Realizing that they'd lost their pursuer's, Chris pulled up the horses and with a fearful heart, turned towards Vin. The tracker was unsteady in the saddle, slumped over and reeling. Blood ran freely down his leg and Chris could see that somewhere in that wild ride, the shaft had broken off of the arrow. "Shit!" he cursed angrily. The damned shaft was gone, that meant the head was still inside and Vin's chances of making it out of this alive had just gotten a lot worse.
Chris wasn't sure where they were. The need to escape, hadn't allowed time to fix direction or landmarks. Vin would probably know where they were, he just wasn't in any shape to be tellin' Chris. Vin. He was barely coherent and it was plain he wouldn't be able to stay on the horse by himself. Chris dismounted quickly and reached up to help Vin down from his horse. The tracker's eyes were closed and he was mumbling "hang on" over and over, and his hands clutched the saddle horn tightly. "Let go, Vin," he told his injured friend in a voice that was much calmer than he felt. Vin either didn't understand what he said, or he didn't have the strength to comply. Chris had to pry his fingers loose.
Without the saddle horn to steady him, Vin fell sideways, and would have fallen, if Chris hadn't caught him and eased him down to the ground. Vin was wearing down quick and Chris knew he had to find some kind of shelter from the blazing desert sun and soon, if the Texan was going to survive. Desperately, the gunslinger searched the surrounding landscape, trying to find something, anything big enough to offer some shade. All he saw was the familiar desert terrain, rocks, scrub, cactus, and sand.
Vin moaned, and Chris put a hand on his shoulder. "Easy, pard."
Off of the horse, Vin was coming around a little and Chris unleashed his canteen from his saddle. Sloshing it, he judged it to be about a quarter of the way full. Vin's canteen had been about half full, when they'd stopped back there. "Here Vin, drink some o' this." He eased Vin's head up a little and put the canteen to his lips. "Easy, go slow," he cautioned. They couldn't afford to spill a single drop.
Vin managed to swallow a few sips and Chris laid his head back on his hat. Untying his bandana, he wrapped it around the bleeding wound and tied it tightly. Vin's cries of pain were unnerving, but he ignored them resolutely. He had to stop the bleeding and find shelter and then he could worry about trying to ease Vin's hurt.
Scanning the desert again, Chris frowned, nothing. Suddenly, he spotted something drifting across the top of a small rise in the distance. Smoke? He wondered incredulously. It couldn't be the renegades, they'd never be so stupid as to build a fire with the army combing the territory trying to find them. That left white men, maybe outlaws on the run from a posse, maybe some harmless old prospector. It didn't much matter, right now whoever was on the other side of that ridge was their only chance.
Vin was moving his head from one side to the other and mumbling deliriously, already caught in the grip of fever. Chris left him long enough to pour a little of the precious water into his hat and let each of the horses have a small drink. It was true they needed the water themselves, but if they lost the horses, it wouldn't matter if they had an ocean full of water.
Chris touched his friend gently, "C'mon pard," he forced himself to keep his tone easy. "There's smoke over that way, somebody's cookin' dinner." Steeling himself, he ignored the agonized cry that Vin let out at being hefted up to his feet. "Gotta get ya up on that horse," he grunted, as he heaved Vin's near dead weight up into the saddle of his horse. Chris quickly mounted up behind him. He twisted the reins of Vin's horse around his saddle horn and knotted them off. Getting a grip on his reins with one hand, he wrapped the other one around Vin's waist and chucked to the horse.
Moving out at a slow walk, Chris hoped like hell the Indians didn't show up again. If they did, he and Vin were dead period. No way he could get to his gun holding onto Vin and they'd never outrun them riding double. Throwing caution to the wind, he urged the horse into a trot. If they ran into the renegades, they were dead no matter how careful he was. Might as well try to get Vin to that smoke, before he bled to death.
Half an hour later, Chris reined to a halt atop the rise. Vin was completely out now, pain and blood loss taking a heavy toll on him. Chris was glad of it. His friend had been too weak to cry out, or even moan. Instead he'd just made soft whimpering sounds in his throat that tore at Chris's insides. It wasn't right, a man having to suffer like that.
Looking over the rise, Chris could hardly believe what he saw. A lone wagon was camped below. Chris counted four men and two women bustling around the camp. They looked to be settling in for the night. Well, they were gonna have to get unsettled.
"Yo, the camp," he called, easing his horse slowly down the hill.
The camp was instantly alert, with the men grabbing up rifles and the women moving behind them. Chris didn't blame them. Two men in this country, one of them obviously hurt, no telling who they were. If folks weren't cautious, they could wind up dead mighty quick.
"That's far enough Mister," a big man about fifty, with a pockmarked face and a pot belly called out, when they were about ten yards away. He pointed his rifle at them, to emphasize his point.
"I ain't aimin' to cause you folks any trouble," Chris replied calmly. "But, my friend's hurt bad. He needs help and I aim to see that he gets it."
"Who are you, Mister?" the big man demanded.
"My name's Chris Larabee, my friend's hurt, needs help. We were scouting some renegades for the army, but we lost 'em. We were headed home, when they found us."
"That's a real sad story, Mister, but we can't help you. You'd best be movin' along, your friend don't look too good," a thin balding man about 25 years old spoke up quickly.
Chris fixed a hard gaze on the man. "I ain't movin' along," he replied coldly.
The man who'd spoken first, studied Chris for a few seconds. He'd lived in this country long enough to recognize a dangerous man when he spied one. And this man looked to be the most dangerous man he'd seen in a long time. "Bring him over here by the wagon," he said abruptly. He turned to the others, his eyes daring any to object. He was a dangerous man himself and they knew it.
"How far away you reckon them renegades are?" he asked Chris, as he reached up for Vin.
"I ain't sure," Chris admitted, "but I reckon they're close enough you'd wanna put that fire out.
Nodding, the older man eased Vin to the ground beside the wagon, as Chris dismounted.
"Parker, put up their horses," he told the pockmarked young man, who grumbled, but Chris noticed he hurried to take up the reins. The older man motioned towards the fire and spoke to a young woman Chris judged to be about 20, who began kicking dirt over it.
"Hold up a minute," Chris said, retrieving their bedrolls and canteens and his saddlebags, before turning to kneel beside Vin. Dumping the things, Chris unrolled his bedroll and struggled to maneuver his friend onto it.
"Name's Sam Cole," he told Chris, as he lifted Vin's legs and helped Chris get the unconscious Texan onto the bedroll.
"Grateful for your help," Chris offered.
"What kinda wound he got there?" Sam asked, nodding towards Vin.
"Arrow. Heads still in it," Chris replied.
"You ever dug one o' them out before?" Sam questioned him.
"No," Chris answered succinctly.
"I have," Sam told him, moving to untie the bandana around the wound. He studied the wound for a minute, before turning to meet Chris's gaze. "It's in there pretty deep, but I think I can get it out."
"I'd be in your debt," Chris told him sincerely.
"Yeah, well I'd be wantin' somethin' in return," Cole's gaze was steady and he spoke calmly.
"What?" Chris asked coldly, his face suddenly hard.
"We've got a hundred miles to go and no tellin' where we might run into trouble. I'd be wantin' an extra gun, and you look to be as good with one, as any man I've seen," Cole said frankly, his eyes not leaving Chris's.
Chris studied him for a long minute, before nodding his agreement. "You help my friend and I'll ride with you."
Cole nodded. "You carryin' any whiskey?" he asked.
For the first time since the renegades had hit, Chris smiled. "Yeah," he replied, pulling a half full bottle out of his saddle bag.
Cole smiled back knowingly, "Thought you might be." He unsheathed Vin's knife and poured a generous amount over both sides of it. "Miz Rawlings, I'm gonna need some bandages," he called to the older woman with the train.
"You mind tellin' me, what you're doin' out here?" Chris questioned. He had Cole pegged as too smart to have missed the trouble brewing.
"I got someplace I need to be, and they needed a wagon boss," Cole answered, clearly not willing to tell Larabee anymore than that. He laid Vin's knife carefully on top of Chris's saddle bag and started to tear open the tan material around the wound. Motioning at Vin's head, he waited for Chris to take hold of the injured man's shoulders. "You reckon you can hold 'im? Or you think you need help?" Cole asked Chris.
"I got 'im. Had some practice at it. This ain't the first time he's had something dug out." Chris replied, tightening his grip on his friend. Vin moaned softly, and Chris cursed under his breath. "Damn." He'd hoped Vin would stay out, until Cole had the arrowhead dug out, but it looked like getting off that horse and being able to rest was bringing the younger man around.
Cole looked at Chris questioningly and Chris gave him a curt shake of his head, indicating he should go ahead. Conscious or not, Vin needed that arrow head out of his leg and he needed it out now. There was nothing but some whiskey to ease Vin's pain and he was too out of it to drink any of that.
Mrs. Rawlings knelt beside them, with a pile of clean white rags on her lap. Chris saw the compassion on her face. "Could I have your canteen please, Mr. - I'm afraid I didn't catch your name?"
Her voice was soft and cultured. She'd obviously been raised in the east and Chris wondered what she was doing out here, at the same time as he handed over his canteen and answered her,
"Chris Larabee, ma'am. My friend's name is Vin Tanner."
Cole's head came up at the mention of Vin's name. "From Tascosa way?" the older man spoke sharply.
"Yes." Chris's hand strayed to his gun, daring Cole to make an issue of it. It was obvious, that Cole knew about the bounty. Chris aimed to make it clear right now, that he better not try to collect it and he spoke again. "But, that ain't no one's business."
Cole stared hard at him for a second, before bending his head back to the wound. "Reckon it ain't gonna matter none who he is, if we don't get that leg taken care of soon."
Chris nodded, satisfied that Cole would do or say nothing for the time being. Mrs. Rawlings looked from one to the other of them and then at Vin, before she uncapped the canteen and poured a little of the water onto one of the rags in her lap. Carefully recapping the canteen, she laid it on the ground beside Vin's bedroll. Using the damp rag, she wiped at the sweat rolling down the Texan's face.
"He's very hot," she offered. "The leg must be infected."
Cole acknowledged with a grunt, what all three knew. Taking Vin's knife up, he moved it close to the bloody wound, now laid bare. Chris took hold of Vin's shoulders, and Mrs. Rawlings took one of the tracker's hands in hers, stroking it softly. Chris felt a rush of admiration for the woman. She might have been raised in the east, but she had as much grit as any woman he'd ever met.
Vin moved restlessly and moaned softly when the knife bit into the wound. Cole probed deeper and Vin began thrashing around in earnest. His moans grew louder and Chris was having a hard time keeping him still. Suddenly, Tanner's eyes opened wide and Chris saw the pain and fever radiating out of the blue depths.
"Ch - ris!" the tracker called brokenly, his eyes unseeing. "H - hurts. Chris, make - stop."
Chris held him tightly, helpless to ease his pain. He bent close, so Vin could hear him. "I'm here, cowboy," he said gently. "Take it easy, it's almost over."
Larabee looked up at Cole for confirmation at that last statement, but the older man was bent over the wound, his face scowling as he probed for the arrow head. "Almost got it, almost," he muttered. "Got it!" he exclaimed triumphantly, as he held up the bloody head and threw it into the dirt. "Gimme that whiskey," he demanded urgently.
"I'll get it," Mrs. Rawlings spoke quickly, before Chris could ease his hold on Vin.
Handing over the whiskey, she smiled reassuringly at Chris, before she took Vin's hand back in hers. The tracker immediately clamped down hard enough to elicit a gasp from her.
"Might not be a good idea, you holdin' his hand right now," Chris spoke up.
"Nonsense, a hand to hold is the least I can offer," she brushed aside the gunslinger's words. "I'm stronger than I look Mr. Larabee and I assure you, I won't break. And if I do," she continued with a smile, "then I can beg off of cooking."
"If ya'll are finished jawin'," Cole interrupted, "then let's get his leg took care of."
Chris's eyes narrowed, but he moved to get a better grip on the tracker. Nodding, Chris was ready when Cole poured the whiskey into the wound. Vin screamed and jerked off of the bedroll, but Chris held tight. He noticed Mrs. Rawlings face tighten up, but she kept hold of the tracker's hand. Chris made a mental note to thank her later. Lots of women took one look at Vin's scruffy appearance and turned their noses up at him. She hadn't though. She'd seen through the wild appearance to a man hurting and sick and in need of comforting and she'd offered it; without knowing the kind of man he was, and without asking. She'd offered her hand to the young Texan, even when caught in the grip of pain and fever, he'd squeezed hard enough to hurt.
Sam eyed the unconscious tracker, and wiped his hands on a rag Mrs. Rawlings had handed him. Chris had helped him bind the leg tightly, and while a little blood showed through the bandage, it wasn't much. Truth be told, he was just glad the man hadn't bled to death when he took the arrow head out. He'd seen more than one man bleed his life away when whatever was inside him was pulled out.
"Try an' get a little water in 'im, soon as he's awake enough to drink it," Cole ordered. "He ain't clear o' dyin' from losing too much blood just yet."
"I'll do that," Chris agreed without looking up from where he was helping Mrs. Rawlings get Vin comfortable.
Chris had held his leg up carefully, while Mrs. Rawlings placed folded blankets under it. When she was satisfied, that the leg was as comfortable as they could make it, they pulled a blanket up over the sleeping man.
Satisfied, Cole picked up Chris's bottle and headed off towards the rear of the train.
Smiling at Chris, Mrs. Rawlings spoke in a gentle voice. "Why don't you get something to eat, Mr. Larabee, you look quite done in. I'll sit with your friend and call you if he stirs."
Chris gave her a grateful smile and with one last touch to Vin's shoulder, he moved towards the horses, where Vin's saddlebags were stuffed with cold biscuits and jerky. Cole was standing behind the horses, eyes searching the desert for any signs of trouble. Chris joined him, and the wagon boss took a long pull from the bottle and handed it back to Chris. "Them three fellas with us ain't the kinda men you want knowing secrets," he informed the gunslinger.
Chris looked at him appraisingly, before speaking in a low voice, "Appreciate the warning." He took a couple of deep swallows and closed the bottle. "Biscuit?" he offered, pulling a couple out of Vin's bag.
Cole took one and ate a few bites, before speaking again. "The Rawlings are goin' east, come hell or high water - or renegade injuns."
"How'd you come to hook up with her? Chris asked curiously, taking a bite of his biscuit.
"Girl's my daughter," Cole offered. "She's takin' her back too."
Chris just stared off into the desert and waited for him to continue. "Her ma died o' fever when she was a baby. The Rawlings adopted her. She don't know about me," Cole said gruffly.
"Any reason you're tellin' me, this?" Larabee asked pointedly. No reason he could think of for Cole to be sharing his life story with him. Men like Cole usually had reasons for what they did.
Cole looked at him shrewdly. "Yeah, I figure you got a secret and I got a secret and we both got somebody we wanna keep alive on this train.
Chris finished off his biscuit and nodded, he couldn't fault the man's reasoning.
"Wouldn't no one else take this job, but them three. I'm thinkin' it wouldn't hurt to have someone watchin' my back."
Chris nodded. He didn't like the looks of those three men anymore than Cole did. "Sounds reasonable." He uncorked the bottle and took another drink and handed it to Cole again.
Leaving the bottle with Cole, the gunslinger returned to find Mrs. Rawlings putting a cool cloth on an increasingly restless Vin. Kneeling by his side, Chris put a hand on his forehead. It was alarmingly hot and Mrs Rawlings spoke softly, "His fever's higher and still climbing. We've got to cool him down.
Chris sighed wearily and picked up his canteen and wet another cloth. He opened Vin's shirt and began sponging down his neck and chest, while Mrs. Rawlings continued to wipe his face. A shadow came over them and Chris looked up to see one of the two men he hadn't met yet, standing over them, with the other one hovering just behind. Mrs. Rawlings looked dismayed and Chris kept wiping Vin down. Finally, he deigned to look up at them coolly.
"You boys want somethin'?" he demanded, with a bored note in his voice.
"You're Chris Larabee?" the younger, stockier of the two asked. He was about 30, with a red nose and a belly that spoke of too much alcohol.
"Yeah," Chris replied not bothering to ask his name or what it was that he wanted.
"You don't seem like no gunfighter to me," the man behind him spoke derisively.
Chris ignored him and continued working to get Vin's fever down. The tracker was mumbling incoherently and tossing weakly. Chris put a hand on his chest to try to calm him and felt his heart racing. He didn't have time for their games anymore and he stood up abruptly.
Larabee was no longer a man nursing a sick friend, when he faced them. In his black clothes, with his green eyes blazing, and wearing an icy glare, he was death personified. He saw them blanch visibly and stumble over themselves, in their haste to get away from him.
He would have laughed at the ridiculous spectacle they made of themselves, but he was too worried about Vin. His fever was too high and their water supply was limited. Vin's body was going to have to fight off the infection on it's own. He only hoped his friend was strong enough for the battle. Dropping back to his knees, he picked up the rag and poured a tiny amount of the precious liquid on it and went back to his task.
"That was rather impressive, Mr. Larabee," Mrs. Rawlings said, without looking up from her task.
"Men like that usually back down, when you stand up to 'em," Chris replied, also without looking up.
They worked silently for the next hour, using as little of the water as they could, to cool the rags enough to be of use to Vin. The tracker's fever was still too high, but Chris was grateful that he'd quieted and was no longer tossing or calling for someone or something that Larabee couldn't understand. They could see the pulse beating in his neck, much too fast.
Vin's fever was down some and Chris had actually managed to get a few sips of water into him. He watched as Cole sat down in the spot Chris had talked Mrs. Rawlings into vacating a short time before.
Sam peeked under the bandage and grunted in satisfaction. "Ain't no pus forming and the bleedin's stopped. "Let 'im rest up tonight and he'll be up to travelin' tomorra."
Chris agreed with his judgment. "Be a good idea to head out at first light. Put some miles on these wagons before the sun gets too high."
"Yep." the wagon boss grunted. "Get some sleep, I've got Parker and Bent on the first watch and I want you to pair off with Burke later."
Chris made to speak, but the older man waved him off. "I'll sit with your friend till it's your watch. Don't reckon as how I want them two, ta be the onliest ones awake just now anymore'n you.
Larabee was impressed. Cole was sharp, damned sharp. He'd known right off, that Chris wouldn't leave Vin alone and helpless with Parker and Bent. The gunslinger didn't have any way of knowing if they knew about the bounty, but he wasn't going to take any chances. Vin could take care of those two and that other one, Burke too, when he was fit, if need be. Chris didn't doubt it for a second. Trying for that reward would kill the three for sure, if Vin was right. But that was just the trouble, he wasn't right. And he wasn't gonna be right anytime soon. Funny, the only man on the train, he knew for sure knew about the bounty and he was trusting Vin to him.
Nodding, Chris met Cole's eyes. Saw in them, that Cole knew. Knew what Vin meant to him, and knew also, that Larabee would hunt him down to the ends of the earth, if leaving Vin to his care was a bad choice. Cole knew he'd die slow, without mercy, if Chris's rest left Vin helpless with the wrong man. And so, he was satisfied that for tonight Vin was safe.
+ + + + + + +
Four hours later Cole woke him from a dreamless sleep. He rubbed his face and neck with his hands and then scrubbed them through his hair, to shake off the last remnants of sleep. Damn, he missed his coffee right about now. He sighed, there wouldn't be any coffee, until they were clear of the need to do without a fire. Settling instead, for a long pull of the tepid water from the half empty barrel on back of the lead wagon, he moved to check on Vin , before taking his watch.
Vin was more or less in the same position he'd been in when Chris went to his bedroll he could see the thin chest rising and falling softly. Vin's breathing looked OK too. He was still too warm to the touch of Larabee's hand on his brow, but the fever wasn't dangerous like it had been earlier. Relieved, he left his sleeping friend and took his turn at guard.
+ + + + + + +
The hours till dawn passed uneventfully. Burke kept his distance from Chris and he kept even further from Vin. Chris divided his attention between guard duty and keeping an eye on Vin. Twice he'd managed to get a few small sips of water into his injured friend. Vin didn't fully wake either time. He just mumbled something Chris couldn't make out and tried to push Chris's hand away. The gunslinger lifted Vin's head onto his leg and tucked Vin's hands under his left arm awkwardly and held them there, while he used his right hand to dribble the water into Vin's mouth. Larabee was pleased to see, that Vin was aware enough to swallow.
Cole was up before the sun and woke the rest of the camp. Chris nodded at him, as he knelt to check the bandage on Vin's leg. Satisfied, that it would do for a while, Cole told him to get some breakfast, they pulled out in an hour. Chris made his way over to where Mrs. Rawlings and her daughter were handing out dried meat and day old biscuits.
The girl smiled at Chris and Mrs Rawlings spoke genially, "Mr. Larabee, this is my daughter, Patricia."
"How d'ya do ma'am?" Chris tipped his hat to the girl, who giggled and blushed sweetly.
"How's your friend this morning?" the older woman inquired softly. "Patricia, go make a place for Mr. Tanner in our wagon." Patricia kissed her mother and handed her the sack of food, and hurried to the wagon. Chris took note of the tender look that crossed the mother's face as she watched her child disappear into the wagon.
"Fever's no higher," Larabee answered. He watched the girl disappear into the wagon. "Fine girl, you oughta be real proud," he observed.
"I am indeed, Mr. Larabee," she replied, affection and pride evident in the voice.
"She your only child?" the gunslinger asked casually.
"Yes, we adopted Patricia when she was a year old," the refined woman told him. "Her mother worked in our kitchen. She would bring the baby to work with her. When she died, there was no one to care for the child. I'd always wanted children, but unfortunately, we weren't blessed with any. So . . ." her voice trailed away.
"So, you took in the one who needed you," Chris's soft voice was sincere. "Tell me, what about her pa?"
"Evidently, he was in some trouble with the law," she replied. "We were afraid that he would come back for Patricia, but he never did."
At that moment, Patricia stepped back out of the wagon. "Mr. Tanner's place is ready, Ma," the girl said. She put her hand on her mother's arm and smiled shyly at Chris.
"Thank you Miss," he said and tipped his hat to her.
"Alright dear," Mrs. Rawlings said, with an indulgent smile. She recognized the signs of a teenage girl's crush. She also recognized that Chris, unlike the men Cole had hired to escort them, would not take advantage of that.
Cole strode up to them. "Ya'll about ready to head out?" he asked, the tone of his voice indicating that it wasn't really a question.
"We can go as soon as Mr. Tanner is moved into our wagon," Mrs. Rawlings answered him.
Cole nodded his head in acknowledgment and turned to Chris. "I'll take 'is feet," the older man volunteered.
"Give me a minute," Chris said and knelt beside Vin. "Hey pard," he called softly.
Vin's eyelids fluttered but they didn't open. "Chris?" he asked weakly.
"Yeah pard, it's me," Chris said and put a hand on his shoulder. "We can't stay here," he informed his semiconscious friend. "We gotta move you into the wagon. It's gonna hurt like a son-of-a-" Chris remembered the ladies and amended his words. "It's gonna hurt something fierce."
Vin opened eyes that were clouded with pain and fever. "Already hurts," he said with a grimace and closed his eyes again. "I'd be obliged for some water first," he requested.
"Sure pard," Chris agreed and picked up the canteen he'd been using to bathe Vin's face earlier. Gently he lifted the injured man's head and held the canteen so Vin could swallow a few precious sips. When Vin turned his head slightly, Chris gently lowered him back down. He carefully recapped the canteen.
"Larabee," Cole spoke up.
"He's ready," Chris answered. "Time to go," he said quietly to Vin.
Vin's eyes were closed, but he nodded a little. His leg felt like it was on fire and he knew that the simple act of being moved into the wagon would be agony. He felt Chris's hands slip under his shoulders and he could feel his legs being lifted just below the knees. At the first pressure on his injured leg, he couldn't bite back a groan of pain.
Vin's throat worked convulsively and his face was white as a sheet under the fever-flush. His jaw was clenched tightly, but when Cole and Chris lifted him into the wagon bed, another strangled cry tore from his throat. Chris's mouth tightened and he was almost as relieved as Vin when the tracker was settled onto the soft bedding. Vin's hand clutched feebly at the thick comforter and Chris lifted it and gave it a quick squeeze, before he laid the hand gently on Vin's chest and then pulled the comforter up over Vin's shoulders.
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