Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven and its characters are the property of MGM, Trilogy Entertainment, the Mirisch Corporation, and the Hallmark Channel.
The faint whisper, light and airy as the breeze, carried across the dark one-room shack, serving as a quiet wake-up call to the dark-clad man restlessly dozing in the rocking chair near the crackling fireplace.
Stirring, Chris Larabee opened his eyes, his gaze immediately swinging to the blanket-covered man curled up on the small bed against the far wall. "Vin?"
Vin Tanner turned his head slowly, drawn by the sound of his friend's voice. "Chris?" he repeated, rubbing at his eyes with the back of one trembling hand.
Chris quickly rose to his feet, leaving the rocking chair swaying in his wake, and made his way to the tracker's bedside. "Hey, cowboy. How are you feeling?"
"Hey," Vin barely got out before a series of deep coughs racked his lean frame.
"Easy, easy," Chris murmured, watching in concern as Vin fought to catch his breath. Reaching forward, he slowly rubbed the other man's arm. "Take it easy."
It took a few minutes, but the coughing fit finally eased. His face pale and drawn, Vin sank into the soft mattress that cushioned his weary body.
Vin looked up to meet Chris' worried gaze. As blue eyes met pale green, he mustered up a faint smile. "Stop yer worryin' 'bout me. 'm fine."
"Yeah, you sound fine," Chris retorted in fond exasperation. Aided by the light from the fireplace, he surveyed the supine man as flickering flames both illuminated and cast shadows on the fine features.
Lines of exhaustion painted Vin's face, leaving him fragile in appearance. His eyes, although clear, were red-rimmed and underscored by dark circles. Sweat glistened on his brow, small droplets winding their way across his skin, leaving limp strands of long hair clinging to his unshaven face.
"Think your fever's finally broke." Using a damp cloth, Chris wiped Vin's face and neck, smiling when his soothing ministrations brought a sigh of pleasure to Tanner's lips.
"I'm feelin' a mite cooler," Vin acknowledged in a rough, raspy voice. His eyes opened a little wider, and he glanced around the dimly lit room. "Nate here, too?"
"Nathan went to Eagle Bend with Buck and Ezra a couple days ago, remember? They should be back in the morning."
Vin shook his head. "Don't 'member," he admitted.
Chris rested his hand on the ailing man's shoulder. "I'm not surprised. You've been pretty out of it."
"Nothing to be sorry about, pard," Chris reassured. "It's not your fault you got sick."
"Spoiled ev'thing." A frown settled on Vin's face. "Was s'pposed to be helpin' ya, not layin' 'round."
Chris sighed. "The work will keep, Vin. We'll have lots of time to fix the roof before winter sets in."
"Thought it was jis' a cold."
"I know." Chris leaned closer to his friend. "If you're still feeling poorly tomorrow, we'll head for town, let Nathan take a look at you."
"Ain't goin' t' the clinic."
"Only if necessary," Chris promised, knowing how much the other man hated to be confined in town, never mind subjected to the healer's closed-in quarters and his various medicinal potions.
"Holdin' ya t' that. I's-" Vin broke off, swallowing with a grimace.
"Throat bothering you again?"
"Yeah," Vin croaked back.
Quickly retrieving a cup of water, Chris held it up. "How about taking a few sips. It might help."
"Rather have whiskey," Vin said, eyeing the mug doubtfully.
"Water's better for you."
Vin snorted softly. "Yer not the one that's got t' drink it."
"Tanner." Setting his jaw, Chris resolutely stared down at Vin.
"Save that glare o' yers for somebody else, Larabee."
"Tanner," Chris repeated, holding the cup closer.
Vin sighed, giving a short nod of acquiescence. Lifting his head up slightly, and supported by the older man, he wrapped his shaking hands around the cup. He managed to swallow a few mouthfuls before lowering it back down.
"Better?" Chris asked, taking the still-half-filled cup.
Vin gave Chris a reassuring nod. "Yeah."
"Good." Setting the water aside, Chris moved back to the bed. "Hungry? I could make some broth, be easy on your throat."
"Nah, 'm not hungry." The ex-bounty hunter looked around the room. "What day's it?"
Chris leaned his hip on the edge of the bed. "Thursday."
Vin frowned. "Lost track o' m' days." He shifted on the narrow bed. "Don'tcha need t' git t' town?"
"Nope. J.D. and Josiah are handling things until the rest of the boys get back."
"Jis' the two o' them?"
"Town's been quiet for the past couple weeks. They'll be fine."
"Reckon so," Vin yawned.
"How about you get some more sleep?"
"Ain't tired," Vin immediately protested, despite the fact he was losing the battle to keep his eyes open.
"Yeah, I can tell," Chris chuckled softly.
"Yer tired, too."
"Yeah, I am," Chris admitted, his face weary and worn from the long hours spent tending the tracker. He pulled the blanket up higher, tucking it around Vin's shoulders. "I'll close my eyes for a bit."
"Need t' sleep." His eyes now closed, Vin reached up to where Chris' hand rested on his shoulder, and squeezed Larabee's fingers in his own before letting go. "Sleep," he repeated. "Don't wantcha gettin' sick on m' 'count."
"I will," Chris promised. He waited until Vin's breathing became slow and even before adding sotto voce, "When you're feeling better." He stood at his friend's bedside for a few minutes longer, then headed back toward the rocking chair.
In a heartbeat, Larabee was back at Vin's side. "Yeah?"
Despite his fatigue, Vin managed to lock his gaze with Chris, gratitude shining in his eyes. "Thanks fer takin' care o' me."
Struggling to speak over the sudden lump in his throat, Chris gave a brief nod. "That's what friends do," he finally got out, thinking back to the day a glance across a dusty dirt street had forged a friendship, a friendship now strengthened by time and trial, a friendship that had taught him how to care again.
"Yeah," Vin murmured sleepily, his eyes slowly closing again. "An' brothers."
A slow smile spread over Chris' tired face. "Yeah." He patted Vin's arm gently. "Get some sleep, pard. I'll watch your back."
"Know ya will. G'night, cowboy." Snuggling down into his pillow, Vin was asleep in seconds.
"'night," Chris whispered. After a final glance at the sleeping man, Chris headed back to the rocking chair, prepared to keep watch over his friend, his brother, through the remainder of the night.
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