"I don't know Chris," Buck said as he scanned the hard packed ground for hoof prints, "I ain't so sure they came this way." He stood up and looked south. "Mighty hard country layin' that direction. They'd almost be crazy to head that way, especially in this heat."
"We need a couple more hours of daylight to check this out that's for sure," Chris said.
"What we need is Tanner, he could track on this damn hard stuff. When's he suppose to be back?"
"Maybe sooner than we think," the gunslinger said absently as he looked off to the horizon and spotted a rider silhouetted against the setting sun. It was Vin alright, Chris would know that profile anywhere. Trouble was, Vin wasn't suppose to be back for another couple of days at least.
"Well hallelujah and pass the beer!" "Come on pard, lets go meet that Texan, the sooner we can get him on this trail the sooner we can head back to town for drinks and women and not necessarily in that order either," the rogue grinned, took his reins from Chris and mounted his horse. Together they rode over to meet Vin.
"Trouble?" Chris asked as he and Buck rode up to the tracker.
"Little bit," answered his friend.
"What happened?" Chris asked again.
"Ambushed over near Peterson's Pass, Thompson is dead. Buried him there, figured to send a wire to the marshal in Quentin to let him know."
"You alright?" the black clad gunslinger asked as his eyes scanned over his friend for bullet holes or bleeding.
"Jest fine, a might parched though. Lookin' forward to a nice cold beer." Vin grinned as he slid his glance over to Buck knowing the big man probably was thinking the same thing. "What're you boys doin' out here?"
"Joe Johnson said he caught a couple of men trying to rustle his cattle but they got away from him. Wanted us to see if we could track 'em down, find 'em fore they came back and tried again," Buck explained. "But as far as I can see, they look to be gone, tracks head out over yonder and why anybody in their right mind would head out into that country I don't know. Probably the last we've seen of them fellas."
"Reckon it's getting too late to track tonight anyway, maybe pick up the trail in the mornin'," Vin said looking at Chris to see what he thought.
Chris nodded, agreeing with his friend, "Reckon you're right, might as well head back to that stream and make camp. We can ride out first thing then."
The three friends headed to the mountain fed stream a few miles back to the east. It would be a good place to camp. The night was sultry hot and the cold water felt good on their hot and dusty skin and also quenched their dry throats. They made a fire for coffee and Vin supplied plenty of biscuits and jerked meat since he'd been carrying enough for a few days travel. There wasn't much conversation as even that took energy that none seemed to want to part with. It was just too warm to warrant any excess moving or talking.
"Think I'll lay down fer abit if'n you boys don't mind. Kinda tuckered after today's activities," Vin said as he straightened out his bed roll and put his saddle into place for his pillow. "Wake me later and I'll take second watch."
"How many men in the ambush Vin?" Chris asked.
"Two. No need to worry," he said knowing where Chris's thoughts were headed. "They're buzzard bait by now." Vin answered without a trace of remorse as he laid down on his bed roll and tried to get comfortable.
Chris and Buck just nodded knowing the ambushers probably never had a chance. Vin didn't take risks and he knew this country like the back of his hand, knew where the good places were for ambushes and knew how to skirt around those places. They were both sure their tracker friend was in control all the way and more than likely knew the ambushers were there before they even knew Vin was comin'. He could be damn sneaky when he wanted to be.
Chris got up and went over to his friend squatting down on his heels in front of him. "You sure you're alright Vin?" he asked softly.
"M'fine Chris, jest tired. Shootin' the bad guys or chasin' rustlers can really tire a man quick in this heat," Vin grinned at him, "sure keeps things lively though, that's fer sure."
Chris grinned back at his friend and gave his head a shake. Leave it to Vin to find the good in a day like this where it was so hot you could fry an egg on a rock. He watched as Vin settled in and again tried to get comfortable.
"Where's your blanket?"
"Used it to wrap Thompson's body in 'fore I buried him."
Chris stood up, went over to his bed roll got his own blanket, gave it a good shake and went back to Vin handing it to him. "Use mine for tonight, I won't need it. I'll be takin' first watch."
"Thanks cowboy, 'preciate it." Chris moved away as Vin settled the blanket over himself, got comfortable once again and drifted off to sleep.
"He hurt?" Buck asked as Chris came and sat by the fire where they were making their coffee.
"Not that I can tell." Chris answered.
Buck looked over at Vin underneath a blanket and then looked back at Chris. "You're kiddin' me right?" he asked incredulously. "Who in the hell sleeps with a blanket on in a hundred degree weather?" "There's something wrong here and I'm going to find out. Hell, he's makin' me sweat just lookin' at him," Buck said as he got up to go over to the sleeping man.
"Buck." The name came out in a hiss. "Leave him be."
"Alright Chris, alright," Buck said putting his hands up in defeat as he sat back down. "I wasn't gonna do anything, just worried about him, don't seem healthy at all if'n ya ask me. I swear sometimes I just don't know what makes that man tick. I mean, if it was a pretty young thing that he was all cozied up to makin' him sweat, that would be a different story," he chuckled and rubbed his hands together. "Did I ever tell you about Birdie, Chris? I met her "
"Buck." This time his name came out in an exasperated sigh.
"Just lookin' for some conversation Chris. I know you and Vin can sit for hours not sayin' a word but me I gotta have some stimulation, ya know? So tell me somethin' I don't know, tell me why Vin needs a blanket on him if'n he ain't sick or hurt."
Buck waited a few seconds for his friend to answer and when none was forthcoming he decided to push his luck. He knew Chris would never divulge something personal about Vin even if you were sticking knives in him and setting him on fire so he changed tactics. If Chris thought Vin was in danger because of this little "secret", then maybe he could get him to see reason and find out what the hell was going on. Chris didn't seem like he was in a killing mood so he just dove right in and said the one thing he figured would get Chris to open up. " I suppose I could always ask him in "
"Buck, I said leave it!" Larabee was on the verge of getting mighty testy with him.
"Well, it seems to me pard that maybe you should tell me if you know somethin', I mean this could be a serious thing," he had to swallow hard as Chris's look was turning into an all out death-glare. "Okay, just think about it, what if Vin were out with Ezra or or JD? Ezra would probably just laugh at him and JD would question him about it until Vin just up and left. Now you wouldn't want that now would you pard? He'd be made fun of and questioned to death. Now, if I was there I could put a stop to all that. I'm just lookin' to protect him Chris, same as you would." Buck made his plea thinking if his friend thought he was putting Vin's best interest at heart then
" he What?" he said as his thoughts were interrupted. "What did you say Chris? I was thinkin'."
"Security. I said he does it for security." The words came out curt and angry.
"Security?" Buck started to chuckle but cut that short as Larabee glared at him. "Well, okay Chris, if you say so." He stole a glance over at the sleeping Texan and looked back to Chris. "I don't know pard, Vin seems to be one of the most secure people I've ever met, I don't know that a thing such as a little ol' blanket can keep him secure. Where would you ever get an idea like that? Did Vin "
"Ah." Buck cleared his throat and nodded his head. He was really having trouble following this conversation now. "So Sarah said " he shook his head this time and said softly. "I ain't followin' pard. Sarah never knew Vin, how would she know about his "
"She used to do the same thing." Chris said in a quiet voice, looking over at Vin, his anger leaving him. "No matter where she was or how hot it was, she always had to be covered. I asked her about it one time, thinkin' like you did, that it was a big joke, but it weren't no joke to her."
There was a pregnant silence as Buck waited for his friend to continue. He finally had to prod him a little.
"Go on Chris, I'm listenin'." Buck said as his friend took a deep breath and played with his coffee cup.
"She told me that she always felt so vulnerable when she slept, like anyone and everyone could see her then, could look at her and her not know it, could see into her soul almost and she told me that frightened her. She didn't want anyone to see her that close, that deep and so she'd put a blanket over her. It wasn't for warmth, Buck, it was a barrier of sorts, one between her heart and soul and people, one that kept her covered so people couldn't see into her, couldn't get too close to her." Chris stopped talking and closed his eyes as the memories came flooding back. His voice was so quiet when he spoke again that Buck had to lean closer to hear. "It was always a hope of mine, a dream I guess, that I could make her feel like she didn't need that protection anymore, that she could sleep knowing her heart and soul were safe with me, that I wouldn't let anyone hurt her. I don't know Buck, I think I failed in that too." Chris's voice trailed off as he looked down into his empty cup and the tears flooded his eyes.
Buck found that his eyes were stinging too and he had to blink them rapidly to keep the tears from falling. Way to go big mouth, look what a can of worms you opened now, shit! How could he ever fix this mess he'd gotten into? Well, he'd just have to try. He took a deep breath and let out a sigh and plunged ahead.
"I'm I'm sorry Chris. I just never knew I mean I just hell, I'm sorry pard, sometimes I just don't know well enough to leave things be. And here I'm suppose to be teaching JD when to keep his mouth shut. Looks like you ain't the only one that feels like they failed someone." He shook his head, looked over again at the sleeping Texan and then back to his good friend. "You amaze me stud, you know that?" he said softly trying to look into Chris's downcast eyes. " Here you are, the baddest bad-ass of them all and you're worried about keeping your friend's heart and soul protected. "Sarah was so lucky to have you Chris," he held up his hands as Chris's head came up fast and the glare was once again back. "Just let me finish," he said. "You and Sarah were meant to be together and you were good together, there was never any doubt about that Chris and I have no doubt in my mind that there was no one, no one that could ever have loved her like you did and she you. Look how she changed you Chris! You were willing to do anything for her, be anyone for her and she knew that about you, but she never really wanted you to change, well 'cept maybe for that hell raisin' we used to do, but she loved you just the way you were." He chuckled then, "she loved that wild side you had just as you loved that independence she had. You were so so right for each other and I know if if you'd a had more time Chris," his eyes began to water again, "if you'd a had more time, there is no doubt in my mind that you'd have gotten her to give up that blanket, you'd have gotten her to give you her innermost self. It was just something that was bound to happen, I know this in my heart Chris cuz I know how much you loved her and she would have given that to you, I know she would have, she loved you that much. You never failed her Chris, you gave her everything you had, everything-and you'd a kept on giving, that's just the kind of man you are, the kind of man I'm proud to call my friend and the kind of man that Vin is lucky to have too." He ended his speech with a sniff and wiped his sleeve over his eyes.
Now he understood it all. Understood how Vin felt and why and how Chris could pick up on those feelings, feelings he'd seen in his beloved Sarah. The man never ceased to amaze him. Chris was dark and angry and brooding most of the time, oh, he was getting better, but how he could see through all that dark haze and pick up the signs that the Texan gave out about his need for security when he slept was just amazing to him. He was positive Vin would never have said anything to Chris about this, just knew that his friend somehow understood the tracker's need. All he could do was shake his head, the two men hardly carried on what you could call a decent conversation, they'd just look at each other and pass thoughts and ideas through a look. It was puzzling but also remarkable, so he really shouldn't be so surprised that the man in black would pick up on Vin's deepest feelings. And neither would ever question it, they'd just accept it and go on.
He saw Chris studying Vin and asked, "Do you think he'll ever give up his blanket?"
Buck nodded, "Too many ghosts and hurts in that boy's life I reckon. But ya know Chris, if anyone could make him lose the blanket I think it would be you."
Chris looked back at his friend, squinting his eyes in disbelief.
"Yeah, yeah, I know. You don't see how and you don't see why but then, you don't see any of this this connection you have," he said as he waved his hands in the air. " It's only the rest of us that see it and believe me Chris, if anyone could make him feel safer, it's you. Look how he sleeps even now, hell, I don't think that ever happened before he met you. He's a wanted man and yet he trusts you and us to keep him safe. It's one hell of a step in the right direction, don't you think?"
Chris looked thoughtfully into the fire. "Maybe," he sighed. "I'll take my watch now." He got up to leave, looked back at Buck's downcast head and said, " Thanks Buck."
His friend brought his head up, looked at him and gave a grin.
"Oh and Buck? This is just between you and me, alright?"
Chris nodded to him and walked over to his bed roll to pick up his rifle and to give his friend a quick glance to be sure he was covered and sleeping alright.
See Chris, you do it without even realizing you do it, Buck thought. You just check on him or look to him or move near him and you don't even give it a second thought. And as the thoughts kept swirling in the rogue's head, he knew there was something he was going to do come morning. He'd have to set right all the damn fumbling he done tonight. He'd have to think tonight on how to do it just right, without sticking his foot in his mouth again or having his face punched in by Larabee. Chris was awful protective of the tracker but he'd deny it if you said it to his face.
As dawn crept closer the next morning, the three friends were readying their horses for another day in the saddle. It was decided that Chris and Vin would continue tracking the rustlers to see if indeed they had left the territory and Buck would head back to Four Corners to send a wire to the marshal in Quentin, telling him what had happened to the prisoner he was expecting. As Chris headed over to the campfire to put it out and gather their things, Buck walked over to Vin with his blanket in his hand.
"Hey pard, wonder if you could do something for me?" Buck asked his friend as he slid a glance over to where Larabee was and saw that he had the gunslinger's undivided attention. Shit. Looking back to Vin he stammered out, "I... ah...well...seeing as how you already used your blanket and more than likely won't be getting it back," he gave Vin a sly grin, "I thought maybe you wouldn't mind taking mine. See..."
"What are ya doin' Buck?" Chris said as he came up to his friends, shooting a warning look to the big man, his body loose but ready, the hands close to being fisted at his sides.
Buck saw the look and the defensive stance and began to ramble on. "I was just tellin' Vin here that since his blanket was gone maybe he'd take mine." " See...," he gave them both a big grin, "Blossom got me a new blanket and I haven't gotten to use it yet, because well, I still have this one and she's been givin' me a hard time thinkin' maybe I don't want it or like it because well, I ain't used it and a man can't hardly carry two blankets on his horse at one time now can he? And so I was thinkin' if Vin were to take this blanket off my hands, being's he don't have one anymore, then I could use her blanket from now on and that would really make her happy. Fact is...," Buck took a breath, furrowed his brow, pursed his lips and looked heavenward as if in deep thought, "if you do this for me now Vin, she just might want to show me her appreciation as soon as I get back Hell maybe ol' Charlie would let us have the keys to the bath house and we..."
"Take the damn blanket Vin so he'll shut up will ya? He's makin' my head hurt and the sun ain't even up yet."
Vin chuckled and held out his hand for the blanket. "Thanks Buck, I sure wouldn't want you to get in trouble with Miss Blossom and I definitely wouldn't want you to miss out on anything. You need it back, you know where it's at." He took the blanket from Buck and proceeded to tie it in back of his saddle.
"Thanks Vin, you've just made me a very happy man." He winked at Chris as he gathered up his reins and mounted his horse. "I'll see you two in a day or so. Try not to get into trouble, will ya?"
"Yeah, drink a coupla beers for us, will ya Buck?" Vin said as he got on his horse.
"And remember he said for us not on us," Chris remarked as he mounted up and then pinned Buck with a look and gave his old friend a finger tip to his hat and a knowing nod.
You're welcome Chris, your welcome. Damn, but I am good, Buck thought as he watched his two friends ride south and he turned his mount to the east and headed back to town and to Blossom.