A Good Reason
He knew it, he just knew it. There had to be a reason, a good reason. And if Vin was holed up at Nettie's, then he knew that there was something wrong.
As Chris Larabee galloped his black out to the old widow's homestead, he thought back on Casey's words. She had come into town hell bent for leather looking to bring Nathan out to her aunt's place. Vin was there and he wasn't looking very well, she'd said. He'd questioned Casey a little closer. Was Vin shot? Anything broken? Any bleeding? All answered no. She just said he was wet and shaking and he never said anything like maybe he was in shock or something.
But Nathan couldn't leave; he was taking bullets out of Chris's men. Two from JD and one from Ezra and Chris himself had suffered a flesh wound to his left arm. Nathan was busy and if she hadn't seen any blood on Vin, well then, Vin would just have to wait. Nettie would have to take care of him for the time being until Nathan could get out there. But Chris had left, left almost as soon as the words were out of Casey's mouth.
Chris also remembered the angry wall of flesh he'd run into while trying to leave the clinic, that wall being Buck Wilmington. No, angry wasn't the right word - livid was more like it. JD was fighting for his life and Ezra was beginning to get fevered. And now he was going to leave, against Nathan's wishes, to go out and check on the very man that had caused all this! At the very least, Vin didn't do his job in protecting the other six. As Chris rode he remembered his and Buck's exchange:
"Where you goin'?" Buck had asked him.
Chris glared at him and as he reached for the door Buck had grabbed his arm.
"I said, where are you goin'? Out to Nettie's? Out to see Tanner? You're needed here Chris. You heard Casey, Tanner's not broken or bleedin', you're needed here, with those that fought beside you, not the one who didn't care enough to show up."
He'd wrenched his arm away from Buck and growled at him, "Don't Buck." It was a warning.
"Why Chris? What is it between you and him? Why are you standin' up for him even now, even now when you see what he's done, or better yet, what he didn't do? How can you reason that? Tell me Chris, cuz I wanna know!"
"Leave it Buck." Chris was angry now, angry that Buck challenged him, angry that he didn't have the answers, but he knew, he just knew there was a reason, a good reason for what had happened.
Josiah had stepped up to them then, told Buck to help Nathan with JD, told them the arguing wasn't doing anyone any good, told Buck that the best way to find out what happened was for Chris to go and talk to Vin to which Buck angrily retorted, "I'll tell you what happened. That hammerhead horse of his probably dumped him in the river, you heard Casey say he was wet. Someone ought to put that mangy animal out of it's misery. Maybe it'll be me."
Chris had moved then, took a menacing step toward Buck. "Don't you ever and then Josiah was there blocking Buck and telling Chris that he should get moving, to go out and check on Vin.
He'd left then, needed to get away, get away from the groans and cries and the blood. What happened Vin? Why weren't you there?
As Chris neared Nettie's place he wondered if maybe Buck was right. The river was swollen now to about twice it's size from the spring runoffs. They all had to cross the river to get to where they were going this morning, Vin taking the high road and the rest taking the road lower down. It could have happened, Chris and the boys had enough trouble taking the "easier crossin'" as Vin had called it. Maybe Tanner had gotten dumped, got swept downstream. That thought in itself chilled Chris to the bone. What if Vin was fighting for his life in the swollen river just as they were fighting for their lives against the Lennox gang? There had to be a reason, a good reason why Vin wasn't where he was supposed to be this morning.
As Chris brought his horse to a stop, and prepared to dismount in front of Nettie's porch, he was suddenly reminded of his sore arm. He grimaced in pain as Nettie appeared at the door with her Spencer by her side.
"Mr. Larabee! Just a minute, let me help you there." Chris stood while Nettie put her hand out to help steady him.
"Land sakes, Mr. Larabee, you're whiter than a sheet. Come on in here and sit down fore ya fall down."
Chris gave a grunt and made his way into the sparse but neatly kept home. His eyes roamed the room, looking for the one person he needed to see.
"He's in Casey's room, sleeping," Nettie answered his questioning eyes.
Chris went to the door of Casey's room and quietly opened it. Vin was curled up on his left side almost hidden in the blankets and quilts. The man in black crossed the room wanting a better look, a closer inspection of his friend. Vin's handsome features were peaceful and his breathing was even, as though he was in a deep sleep.
"You give him something?" Chris asked, not taking his eyes off Vin.
"Yeah, I did," said Nettie sheepishly, "Onliest way I could get his clothes off'n him. He ain't goin' be happy with me when he wakes up."
Chris gave a half grin at that. He knew how private Vin was and Nettie was right, he wouldn't be happy when he woke up.
"How bad's he hurt? Did he say anything?"
Nettie crossed over to Chris and put a hand on his shoulder. "He's hurting, Mr. Larabee. Along with skinned up hands, his lower back and hips are a mess of colors. He got himself bruised up pretty good somehow. Could hardly get off'n his horse and it took all Casey and I had to get him in here. His legs ain't workin' the best, on account of the bruising' I spect. I tried to get somethin' out of him but he was shiverin' and shakin' so much I just wanted to get him warm and dry first. I gave him some tea with some herbs in it to make him sleepy and pretty quick he dropped off. He was plum wore out. How he stayed on that horse I'll never know. After he went to sleep I got him undressed and dried off. That's when I saw all the bruising' and sent Casey in to get Nathan. Where is Nathan by the way?"
"Nathan is tending to other folk, " Chris replied, still keeping his eyes on Vin.
"Other folk? Meaning some of your men? JD? Is JD one of them?"
"Yes ma'am. JD and Ezra both took some bullets. Nathan is seeing to them."
"Well, are they going to be alright?"
"Don't know ma'am, I reckon Ezra will be, he took a bullet to the leg, but JD took a couple of bullets. Nathan was working on him when I left."
"Oh Lord," gasped Nettie. "and I sent Casey right into that. The poor girl must be so frightened. I should be with her but Vin " Nettie's voice trailed off as she looked at Vin.
"Casey's at Mrs. Potter's, Inez took her over there as soon as she found out what had happened," Chris informed her.
Nettie had a dozen questions on her tongue but knew she'd hold them for now. Chris Larabee needed something in his system, heavens, he looked like he could topple over at any minute. She could see he was clearly worried. Worried for his men she was sure, but something else must have happened. She was sure there was a reason for them being apart. A good reason she assured herself. She lightly tapped Chris's shoulder and said, "You might as well come and set at the table Mr. Larabee, likely he won't be waken' up for awhile yet... Mr. Larabee?"
Chris was taken out of his spell by Nettie's voice. He just didn't want to leave Vin, wanted to be there when he woke, but sitting down and maybe having some coffee would help him feel somewhat better. He needed to think, but he felt so tired. His arm hurt and his head hurt too.
He decided to leave Vin then, glancing once more at his best friend before softly closing the door. Nettie was already at the stove and she had put some pie on the table. Peach pie. Vin's favorite. She spoiled Vin. Really took to him, treated him like her own son, and Vin had taken Mrs. Wells to his heart. Chris was glad for that. He knew Vin needed someone like Nettie in his life. She reminded him of his Ma, Vin had told Chris one night. And the tracker spent a lot of his free time out here at the homestead, fixing up anything that needed it. Course he knew he'd get fed well too and Nettie was always tryin' to fatten him up.
Chris knew Nettie probably figured out something was wrong, wondering why Vin was here while the rest of the boys were in town. She was a smart ol gal. He also knew that she would defend Vin with all she had, but she'd also call a spade a spade and let any of them know if she thought they were in the wrong. He just resigned himself to the fact that he was going to have to come up with some answers and hoped to hell there was a good reason for all this.
Chris lowered himself onto a chair, took his hat off and rubbed his right hand over his face and through his hair. He took a sip of coffee and decided to try the pie. He figured he'd better get a piece now before Vin woke up. Chris had to give a little grin. Yeah, Tanner had her number all right, he just didn't realize it. Even though his friend had seen a lot and been through hell in his life, Chris knew some innocence still lingered there, like not knowing how he affected some people. Ladies especially. They just seemed to want to take care of him, especially if he was sick or hurtin'. And that just griped Buck to no end. Buck, who thought he had every woman's number, just couldn't understand why the ladies would fuss over some long-haired scruffy Texan when they could have him. It was just one of those ongoing jokes that the seven of them had going. Ezra actually made some good money off of some of the bets he'd taken when it came to who would get who between Buck and Vin. Chris really did enjoy the company of all his men and he was hoping that it wasn't all going to come to a halt because of what happened.
Finally, Nettie came to sit and the table and their eyes met.
"Thank you," said Chris, meaning more than just thanks for the coffee and pie.
"You're welcome, Mr. Larabee."
"Chris, just call me Chris."
"Alright. As long as you call me Nettie."
"Do you have any idea what happened Chris?:"
Chris gave a sigh and sat back in his chair, playing with the fork on his pie plate.
"No Nettie, I don't rightly know. What I do know is that this morning the boys and I were going to Mesa Pass. We had word that the Lennox gang was comin' through and we were going to stop them at the pass. Six of us headed downstream to cross over to get to the pass and Vin was crossin' somewhere upstream in order to be at the top of the pass just in case there was any shooting. He would be able to cover us from up there. Anyway, he never showed and one of the outlaws got the high ground and they didn't go down without a fight. So even though we won the battle, it didn't come without some costs.
"You thinking' Vin got caught in the stream? Thrown maybe? It is running pretty high. Maybe that's why he was soaking wet when he came here."
"Maybe. I don't know. All I know is that Vin wasn't there. Didn't cover our backs and because of that JD and Ezra have bullets in them and Buck's looking' to hurt someone.
"You boys could have gotten hurt even if Vin was there, but I understand what you're sayin'. I'm sure there's a darn good reason why he wasn't there. You know he'd never do anything to hurt any of you... and no matter what did happen, he's gonna feel real guilty about all this when he finds out what happened to JD and Ezra." she said sadly, "He's a good boy Chris, one I'd be proud to have as my own son. I just don't believe that he would purposely do anything to harm any of you.
"Yeah, I know Nettie. Just have to wait for Vin to tell what happened. You think he'll be alright?"
"I believe so Chris, just know he's going to be a mite sore for awhile. Course, I ain't sure as to how he's going to take all this, but I don't aim to throw him to the wolves no matter what I find out. And I hope you understand that Mr. Larabee!"
"Mr. Larabee? I thought we were on a first name basis here."
"Sorry bout that Chris, seems I just get my dander up a mite when it comes to thinking about somebody harmin' that boy.
"I know Nettie, I feel the same way. Nobody's getting to Vin without going through me first."
"You and me and my trusty ol Spencer here." Nettie grinned, patting her rifle. She liked Chris Larabee, even though she knew he was a dangerous man. Vin had told her that Chris was a good man, one of the best he'd ever had the pleasure to know and if Vin put that much trust in him, then Nettie would always give him the benefit of the doubt. Sides, she'd seen his face when he saw Vin and how still and quiet he'd been lying in that bed. And she knew how much Vin meant to this man. The Texan'd told her that he and Chris were like a part of each other, readin' each other and knowin' what the other was thinkin' or gonna do before voicin' it. She knew they needed one another, not only to watch each other backs, but as friends. And until they found out just what had happened, Vin would be safe here with them, they would both watch out for him.
Chris started to rise from his chair. "Think I'll go sit with Vin for a bit," he said. "Don't want him wakin' up alone in there in case he don't know where he's at."
"Alright Chris, I'll be out here if you need anything," Nettie told him.
Chris nodded to her and then went to Casey's door, opened it and went inside, closing the door behind him. He sat down wearily in the chair next to the bed and looked at his sleeping friend.
"You're gonna be okay Vin, me and Nettie will make sure of that. We won't let anything happen to you. You just rest and we'll take care of everything." Chris pulled the covers up a little more on Vin and then sat back to wait until for his friend to wake. He meant what he said. He'd take care of things, even if that meant he and Vin packed up and rode out together. Whatever happened, they'd get through it together, he was sure of that.
The sound of approaching horses startled him awake. He must have drifted off. With a quick look to Vin, and a check to his Colt, Chris was out the bedroom door standing next to Nettie with her Spencer as they looked out the window to see who was coming. It was Buck and Josiah.
Damn, he thought. What if something happened to Ezra or JD? Chris felt his guts tighten up at that thought. If anything had happened to JD, Buck was goin' to want a piece of Vin. He wasn't sure if having Josiah along was a good or bad thing. Could be along to keep Buck from killin' anyone, or could be along for some sort of support if Buck had to tell Chris and Nettie that they'd lost JD or Ezra, or maybe he was here just to be a peacemaker. Guess he'd just have to go and find out. With a nod to Nettie, he went out onto the porch, gun holstered but his hand not far from his hip.
Chris nodded to his men. "Boys." he said. "Ezra and JD...?" the question left unsaid.
"They are gonna be okay Chris." Buck answered. Larabee noticed both men kept their hands away from their sides, both well aware of the fact that they wouldn't get any where near Vin without going through him.
"Glad to hear it," said Chris, his voice softened, but his piercing glaze raked over the two men as he watched to see what they would do next.
"Mind if we get down Chris? We got a little story we'd like to share with ya, if it's okay with you and Nettie?" Buck couldn't see Nettie but he'd bet his next date with Blossom that she was inside that door with her Spencer rifle trained on them.
"Suit yourself," said Chris, never taking his eyes off the two men as they dismounted and headed towards the front door.
Sure enough, as Buck opened the door, there sat Nettie with her Spencer in hand. Buck raised his hands and gave her his best smile. "We come in peace Nettie, no need for that rifle there."
"Cain't be too sure these days, ya know," Nettie said. "Sometimes it's hard to tell who yer friends are and aren't and those who pretend to be."
Buck felt the sting of those words and ducked his head. He knew she was aiming them at him. Figured she and Chris must have done some talking.
"Is that peach pie I see on the table?" Josiah asked, trying to lighten the mood just a little. He knew that Nettie made that special for Vin, but if he could get them talking about something else, maybe they could get past this awkward moment.
"Yes it is, come on and have yourselves a piece. I'll make some fresh coffee too." Nettie was going to try her darndest to get past the tension in the room.
Chris Larabee was still standing just inside the door, his body posture stiff and defensive. He was staring holes in Buck's and Josiah's backs, daring them to say something offensive. He looked like a cougar ready to pounce.
Buck and Josiah sat down at Nettie's table, each helping themselves to a piece of peach pie. Buck looked over at Chris and said, "Might as well join us stud, listen to the story we got to tell. I was wrong to go off on Vin like that and I want to set it right. It's alright Chris, I promise I'm not here to do anything to Vin."
Chris felt some of the tension leave his body. He looked right into Buck's eyes and could tell he was telling the truth. He saw nothing but concern and sincerity. Guess he knew why Josiah was here, Buck must have thought he might need a bodyguard. He made his way over to the table and took a seat.
"Alright Buck, spill it, I'm listenin'."
Typical Larabee., thought Buck just get straight to the point.
"Well Chris, a little bit after you left, Mary came into town. Seems her and Billy had been out to Sam Hamilton's place, stayed the night as a matter of fact, seeing as how Mrs. Hamilton is feeling poorly as of late. But she was bringing Billy up to see Nathan."
"Somethin' wrong with Billy?" Chris asked, concern clouding his voice.
"Nope," answered Buck, "not so much as you could tell, she just wanted Nathan to check him over. Anyway, to make a long story short, when she found out what happened and well what Vin didn't do "
"Buck " Chris growled low at him.
"Just hold on Chris, just listen. Mary set me straight right away. Seems Billy and young Samuel Jr. snuck out of the house early this mornin' and went down by the stream to play. Climbed out on a limb over the water, and they ended up in trouble, couldn't get back and Samuel Jr. was hangin' on by a thread out over that churnin' water. Anyway, Vin must have heard the boys yellin' for help and he went and saved 'em Chris. Mary and Mr. Hamilton showed up and saw the whole thing."
Buck's voice was slowly getting huskier with emotion as the story unfolded. "Vin went out on the limb and brought Billy back a safe distance and then went back out to get Samuel Jr. He grabbed hold of Samuel and was going to pull him up when a big 'ol tree came rollin' down the river. It hit Vin in the back and almost tore Samuel away from him. He didn't let go Chris, even though that tree slammed right into him. Knocked them both into the river but Vin kept hold and eventually brought Samuel up to shore a little farther down." Buck was shaking his head and folding his napkin into tiny bits as he finished the story. There were tears in Josiah's eyes as well as Nettie's. "We almost lost Vin and that little boy," Buck choked out. "And all I could do was condemn Vin for not being with us. I'm sorry Chris, you were right in stickin' by Vin. I don't know why I do the things I do sometimes."
Chris hadn't realized how tight his hands were clenched around to his coffee cup, but after Buck's story and his heartfelt apology, Chris found his knuckles stiff to move after setting the cup on the table. He blew out a sigh and said to Buck, "You do what you do because you care Buck. But when it comes to JD, you're an ass," he added.
"Yeah, Chris I am, you're right as rain. What do you think I should do about it?"
"Don't know, reckon apologizing to Vin would be a good start, takin' his patrols ALL his patrols and "
"Now wait a minute stud! You know Vin takes them late night or early morning patrols, well, how am I suppose to keep up my my... ah well you know?" Buck nodded to Chris wanting him to understand without having to say anything more, not with Nettie around.
"Your problem Buck. Do what you have to do. I'm going back in to sit with Vin." And with that the man in black got up and headed back to where Vin was.
Buck turned a pleading look to Josiah who ignored him and instead asked Nettie for another piece of pie, giving her that face splitting grin of his.
When Chris entered Casey's bedroom, Vin was just waking up. He tried to move but about all he could do was get his arm out from under the quilts and that movement was almost too much for him.
"Easy Vin," Chris said coming over to him and moving the chair up next to the bed. "Just take it easy ," he soothed. "You're gonna be okay, just need to move slow."
"Chris?" Vin's voice was raspy and sounded lost.
Dammit Vin, you scared the hell outta me. "It's me Vin, just take it easy. You're safe, just need to rest."
Vin blinked his eyes open and looked around.
He watched as Vin became more awake. Watched as the blue eyes got wider and a look of panic came into them.
"Just settle, Vin, everything's fine."
"M'sorry Chris, m'sorry,. I weren't there to cover yer backs. Everybody okay?" Vin's eyes were pleading with Chris's to tell him everyone was fine, that no one had gotten hurt because of him, that he was forgiven.
Chris gave a sigh, there was no way he'd lie to Vin. The best was just to tell it straight. "JD and Ezra got shot Vin, but Nathan says both are going to be fine. Hell, they'll probably be up before you are. You're a mess Tanner." He gave Vin a half smile trying to get the Texan to relax a little.
"What about Buck?"
"What about Buck?" Chris wasn't following Vin's line of questioning. "He's fine, Vin, nothing happened to Buck."
"How mad is he at me for JD getting hurt?"
Well, here was another question he couldn't duck. They all knew what a mother hen Buck was to JD. Buck took a lot of teasing on it, but it just seemed to bounce off of him.
"None of this is your fault Vin and besides, you know Buck, he'll be fine, he's even here. Came to tell you that he'd take over your patrols until you were able to do it on your own again." That ought to seal Buck's fate. Chris thought with a smirk. No backin' out now. "Seems to me that you were a little busy yourself Vin. You shouldn't be second guessin' yourself, you saved two little boys' lives and for that, for saving Billy, you know how deep that goes for me."
Vin looked into Chris's eyes. Yeah, he knew how deep that went for Chris, maybe better than Larabee knew himself. The gunman had developed a fondness for little Billy Travis and he figured that was a good thing. It was something Larabee needed; filling a hole that he knew the gunman had in him, at least filled it a little. Yeah, Vin was glad he had been there to save Billy and the Hamilton boy, but he was relieved too that the boys were gonna be okay. He looked back at Chris, and he also knew something else; he knew without a doubt that Chris had backed him, even though he didn't know what had happened earlier, Chris had trusted him, knew there was a reason why he wasn't there this morning backing them up. Lord, that made him feel good. To know someone believed in him that much. Larabee. What a great day it was when they met. Vin closed his eyes and let a smile come.
"What are you thinkin' about pard?" Chris was curious. He'd seen the emotions flicker across Vin's features, and now the smile.
"Just thinkin' about all the time Buck is going to be missin' with his women. Are you sure he said he'd do this?"
"Sure as ever Vin."
Vin looked up just in time to see that devilish grin of Chris's. "Hey cowboy, yer gonna get us both inta trouble," he said as his grin met Chris's.
"We'll just ride this as long as we can, okay Vin?"
Vin just grinned at him as Chris got up to head back out into the kitchen.
"Did you put me here in this bed?"
"Nope, fraid Nettie did that."
Chris couldnt resist a chuckle then. "Rest Vin, we'll talk later when you're more up to it."
As Chris headed out the door he took another look at Vin. He'd known it. Known there was a reason his friend wasn't there this morning, and known it was a good reason. And that made him feel good.
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