Whatever It Takes
Vin had scrambled down from the roof of the barn where he had been mending up the last bits of storm damage. The sight of JD's horse approaching at a breakneck pace had his own heart racing as he descended. Yelling for Nettie and Casey, his worry grew when he spotted the dark stain on the slumped rider's pant leg. JD had a white-knuckle grip on the reins but otherwise seemed nearly unconscious until the sound of Vin's worried voice seemed to awaken him. Rousing from his stupor JD's sudden spurt of words had everyone flurrying into action. Nettie and Casey helped the injured peacekeeper inside as Vin followed, already gathering his guns and clothes.
Only minutes later Nettie met Vin as he made to mount his horse, the worry evident on her face.
"How's JD?" Vin was quick to ask his own question before Nettie could, knowing exactly what she was going to ask.
"He'll be fine. I gave him some of the good stuff so he should be resting soon." Nettie hadn't liked that idea, but Vin had insisted. They both knew full well that unless JD was practically knocked out he would be just as headstrong about riding back to town to help even, if he was in no condition to do so.
"Casey's tending him while he blushes even more than you." The lighthearted comment did nothing to ease the lines of worry on her face. "You can't just walk in there. That's exactly what they want. They'll cut you down and then what good will that do the others?"
"I can't not go." The tight anger in his voice was not meant for her, but the situation and he turned to apologize, only to find her hands reaching out to him, understanding evident on her face.
"I know, son," Nettie said softly as her wrinkled hands took one of his in a firm, but tender grasp.
Her quiet admission nearly broke his heart. She understood, but it didn't help. Nettie Wells had taken quite a liking to the solitary man and the feeling was mutual. Vin squeezed her hands gently then pulled away.
"Just you be careful, you hear?"
The small quiver in her voice was nearly Vin's undoing, but he had a job to do. He wouldn't make false promises that he would return. He had learned too early in life that sometimes bad things just happened.
"I'll do my best. Just look after JD and I'll send word when it's safe." Vin reached up to haul himself into the saddle, not even sure what he was going to do, just knowing he had to do something.
"What are you going to do?"
Her question mirrored his own tumultuous thoughts, but even if he didn't have a solid answer he did know one thing. And without even looking back to her he answered.
"Whatever it takes."
Vin had decided on a little side trip before heading into town. Nettie's words that he couldn't just "walk in there' had continued to ring in his head, their truth a stark reminder of how dire the situation was. He could, in all likelihood, sneak into town, but with the number of men he didn't want to risk one of his friends getting hurt should his presence be discovered prematurely. And he wouldn't put it past Cox to have some sort of backup plan that even his partners didn't know about. He would have to outsmart his former partner.
Nettie had been right about what was likely to happen the moment he showed his face in town. That thought, along with the constant ribbing he took from the others about his rough appearance, had spurred the idea. What if he didn't show his face in town, but someone else's? The young man he had left behind so many years ago that he wasn't even sure what he looked like. At first, he had wondered if he could even pull it off. Most of the folks in town knew him pretty well and so did Cox.
The McTavish farm was only a few minutes out of the way and Vin had met the family while doing his rounds in the area. They were a kind family and Mrs. McTavish, like so many of the other ladies in town, had taken it upon herself to try and "put some meat on his bones'. Just about every time he stopped by to check on them she plied him with food. And Mr. McTavish had assured him that to decline the offers would put his dear wife in a very sour mood. So to keep the peace, Vin accepted bashfully. He had even helped with a few simple repairs and given them some advice about what to expect from the land and the area. It seemed the least he could do in repayment for the fine sweets and treats the misses offered.
The family consisted of Mr. and Mrs. McTavish and their three children. And Vin had learned that they were originally from somewhere called Scotland. The two youngest loved to tell him tales of their travel across the big sea on a big boat. He caught about half of what they said, but just enjoyed spending time with them when he could. The family's strange accent was a curiosity to him. Though he was certain it was a form of English, there were still times he couldn't quite understand them.
Their oldest boy, Ian, who was nearly sixteen, had been like a little puppy, following him around the farm and asking him all kinds of questions, which he patiently tried to answer. And it was the memory of Ian and his boyish enthusiasm that had sparked the idea to begin with.
Ian was about the same height as Vin, though a little broader, so borrowing some of the farm boy's clothes and his hat, Vin had cleaned up some and then allowed Mrs. McTavish to shave him. Still it hadn't been enough and when she told him what would do the trick, Vin had nearly bolted. But his friends were a hell of a lot more important than his desire to retain a piece of the heritage handed down by the Native people who had practically raised him. It had taken every ounce of willpower he could muster to keep from flinching as his trademark locks hit the floor. And even he had been hard pressed to recognize himself when all had been said and done. The young boy reflected in the mirror bore little resemblance to the hardened warrior he had been when he arrived.
"God damn it all to hell." Larkins was getting even more impatient than Cox and the tension in the jail was coming to a head. "How long does it take for one man to find another?"
"Just shut up, Rex." Cox was ready to shoot somebody and if Larkins didn't keep his mouth shut he might just be the one.
"Maybe you don't know this Tanner like you think. Maybe he just up and hightailed it in the other direction and didn't look back."
Cox didn't even grace that one with an answer. Tanner would show. He just knew it. The damn Texan had too much pride and way too much honor to let these other men die in his place. Didn't he? Well, the man was wanted for murder. Maybe he had changed? Hell, why would he be helping to keep the peace in this dusty town if he had changed?
"I'm not waiting here all night. I'm getting hungry and thirsty and I want something besides coffee."
"Then why don't you go over to the saloon and get us both something. I could stand the peace and quiet." Cox wasn't hungry, but he was a little worried about Slater. He had seen his hired gun follow that farm boy into the saloon over an hour ago. He didn't think it meant trouble, but Slater did have an abnormal love of whiskey and the last thing he needed was a drunk cowboy to deal with on top of taking down Tanner.
"Fine, I'd like to take a closer look at that sweet senorita they've got tending bar anyway."
"Don't you dare lay a hand on her, you mangy no account..."
Buck's menacing voice was cut off as Larkins threw the coffee pot at the cell.
"Ahhh." Buck cried out as the last remnants of the hot liquid sprayed over his hand and pulled back to wipe it on his pants. "Son of a..."
"I told you all to just shut the hell up or I'll start shooting you now." Larkins' threat was met with cool stares from the three peacekeepers that could see him.
"Just go get the food, check on Slater, and get back here." The strain in Cox's voice was too evident and he hated the fact that his idiot partner was on the verge of making him lose control. Shooting the entire lot of them was going to be no problem at all. In fact, it would make him feel a whole lot better.
Inez had nearly scrubbed the bar clean. Her worry had only grown since Vin's departure up the stairs earlier. Stuck within the saloon she was left to wonder what was happening. The only saving grace had been the distinct lack of gunfire. That and the fact that she hadn't seen anyone enter or exit the jail in that time. But her own nerves were wearing thin and she could only imagine how the outlaws were faring.
A sound from the back had her looking toward the back exit in time to see the outlaw Vin had taken out first appear and her heart nearly stopped. Crossing herself instinctively with one hand, her other moved to the hidden gun reflexively. The glass of whiskey she had poured for Vin earlier still sat on the end of the counter and she stood frozen as the man moved to it. Watching with morbid fascination as he put it to his lips and his head tilted back, she got another shock.
Rushing quickly toward the figure she grabbed his wrist and said quietly, "I am not a cat, Senor. One more scare like that and I fear my heart will stop." The anger in her voice gave way to concern. "Are you all right?"
"Sorry." Vin had the good grace to at least look properly chastised. "I'm fine. Just decided to borrow some more clothes for a little game."
"Game? What game?" Inez didn't like the little glint she saw in the tracker's eyes, nor the lines of fatigue she could see on his face.
"Well, I'm just gonna take me a little stroll down the street and see who comes to check on me."
"Like that? What good will that do? These filthy banditos have been walking around town most of the day."
"Yeah, but I plan to make a bit of a ruckus." Vin's eyebrow rose as he winked at the barmaid. "Nothing like a few good shots a whiskey to loosen a man's tongue."
He could see Inez's protest being born and quickly went on to outline his plan. "There's only the two left in the jail, as best I can figure, and it's gettin' late. I don't know how bad the others are hurt, but if Chris was losing blood bad, he needs help and fast. Iffen I can draw out one of them fellers from the jail, then that'll only leave me with one to deal with, and in all reckonin' that'll be Cox, the whole reason for this mess to begin with."
"But if you don't draw the other one out?"
"Then I'll just have to take my chances with the two of "em."
"No, you..." Inez's protest was cut off as Larkins barreled through the door.
"We need some grub and a bottle of your best whiskey. Pronto." Larkins stopped and stared at the figure at the end of the bar. "Where the hell have you been, Slater? You best not have been sampling the goods before me." Giving Inez a lascivious look he then headed straight for the bar. "You been in here over an hour, what you been doing?"
Vin had ducked his head instinctively as the outlaw burst into the room wondering just how tired he must be not to have heard the man coming. Well, this hadn't been the plan, but it would certainly do in a pinch. Without moving his head he grabbed at the bottle of whiskey that sat nearby and poured himself another drink, his hand swirling the liquid rhythmically.
"Damn fool! Cox told you to lay off of that stuff until after we got the job done." Not getting an answer and not liking the fact he was being ignored Larkins moved toward the other man. "Are you even listening to me or are you already too drunk?"
Vin made to repeat the same scenario that had taken down the first man and turned to go out the back door, but either this other man was really fast, or he was slowing down a bit. Well, on consideration, he might actually be slowing down a bit. Standing still for too long hadn't helped matters. But as the other outlaw quickly grabbed his arm and spun him around, a surge of energy spurred him into action.
Larkins wasn't expecting the fist that flew toward his face, but what had totally taken him by surprise was the face. That was definitely not Slater. And if it hadn't been for the murderous look in the young man's eyes, he would have sworn it was that farm boy they had seen ride in to town earlier. The blow threw him backwards into a table and the other man was on him like a wild cat, but he was well accustomed to fighting for his life and quickly got in a couple of good shots of his own.
Vin reacted without thought as his worry for his friends took form and he attacked. The initial surge of strength though was suddenly sucked from his body as the man fought back and landed a couple of lucky punches to his thigh and to his side. Stars danced in his vision and he fought back the encroaching darkness and tried to get his head back into the fight. Working to get the man into a chokehold he saw the glint of the knife one second too late as it cut into his shoulder, leaving a bloody trail behind. The best he could do was kick up hard with his knee, clipping the man's arm and sending the knife flying before more damage could be inflicted.
This man was a tough opponent, but one that Vin would normally have little trouble with. Unfortunately, the seasoned fighter had used up a great deal of his energy, and a touch of blood as well, on the other outlaws. Without understanding how it happened he felt the pressure on his neck as the outlaw did exactly what he had been trying to do. Fighting desperately for breath he felt his vision tunneling and his strength give out completely.
"You little piece a shit." Larkins had finally gotten the upper hand and now knew that this was the farm boy he had seen earlier. Somehow that didn't make any sense. What was he doing wearing Slater's clothes and where the hell was the other man? He would like to have asked those questions himself, but this man, boy, or whoever the hell he was, was dangerous. A dead man couldn't tell any tales, but if he could just cut off his air long enough to...
"Let him go or I'll blow your head off."
Larkins froze as the feel of a steel barrel touched the back of his head.
"Don't move, just let him go." Inez's voice held no quiver, only lethal anger. "Nice and easy."
Watching as the whole scene played out she had grabbed the gun immediately and moved out from behind the bar. But as the two men had fought she had not been able to help. A shot would alert the other man still in the jail and more than that, she didn't want to accidentally hit Vin. She had watched helplessly as the knife had cut into Vin's shoulder and seen the look of pain on his face, but when the other man had grabbed the tracker into a chokehold, she had moved in quickly to help.
Within moments, she had directed a couple of the remaining patrons to tie up Larkins and had moved in to see to Vin, who still lay panting on the floor.
"Senor Vin? How badly are you hurt?" Giving orders for someone to boil some water and another to bring a clean sheet from upstairs for bandages, she then reached out slowly to the injured man. She knew not to startle Vin, especially when he was vulnerable. "It's okay. Just let me take a look. Can you hear me? Senor? It is Inez. I'm just going to take a look at your wound." Keeping up the quiet litany she gently pulled back on the sliced shirt, pulling it away from the wound. A hand grabbing her wrist startled her, but when she looked up, Vin's eyes were clear.
His voice was quiet and a touch rougher, leading her to worry if his throat might have been damaged in the struggle. But any questions she had, any worries, were stilled by the pleading look in his eyes. And with a tight, nearly imperceptible tilt of his head toward the back, she understood. Those eyes, those beautiful blue eyes could say so much without ever a word being spoken, but only when Vin allowed it.
"Just let me... catch ma breath. Then we need to get this cleaned up and covered. I've still got work to do."
The argument on her lips was stilled by another glare in his eyes.
"Let's do this in the back room," she suggested, knowing full well that it was exactly what he had asked of her before.
Ducking his head, gritting his teeth, and praying for strength he let Inez and someone else he didn't dare look up at help him to stand. He wasn't straight by a long shot. And as the saying went, he might not be broke, but he was certainly badly bent. Shuffling slowly toward the back room with Inez's hand under his elbow, he made it to the chair by the door before he collapsed into it.
"Shut the door," he issued through gritted teeth. It was one thing to look like a kid, but by God no one was about to see him act like one and right now he was definitely on the verge of tears. Even if people saw him looking so young, he still needed to keep their respect and trust. Seeing him weak was definitely not something he could allow, no matter what.
Inez knelt in front of him, seeing the pain on his face and the tightly clenched eyes. "You are hurt badly. Let me help you."
A few moments passed before Vin could get himself under control and beat back the pain and nausea. Finally(,) opening his eyes, he tried to explain, "There's just no more time. Jist help me git the bleeding stopped. It ain't deep and I need another shirt, the same color." At least he hoped that would work.
"Please, Inez. I have to help them and I have to do it now. Cox is gonna get suspicious soon iffen he isn't already." Vin's mind was whirling with the possibilities and a new idea struck. "Better yet, why don't ya get me a whole new set a clothes?"
"What are you going to do?" Inez looked skeptical. Vin was already hurt and she suspected maybe even worse than either of them realized.
"Jist trust me." The mischievous twinkle in his eyes returned and Inez gave an exasperated sigh.
Staring out the window as he had for over six hours, Cox watched as Larkins came out of the saloon with a sack and a bottle. Something seemed a bit off, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. He hadn't had enough time to get drunk though he was seriously beginning to suspect that Slater probably was. Looking back to make sure his prisoners were behaving, he again turned his attention to the end of town. What was taking Tanner so long? Having covered all of the contingencies by putting two men up high and two more down low, he was certain that the ex-bounty hunter would have no choice but to turn himself over. There were too many peoples' lives at stake for the self-righteous tracker not to.
As the door to the jail opened, he prepared to ream out Larkins once again, just for practice. What kind of decent meal could the man have brought in a sack? And why had that taken so long?
"What the hell took you so long?" Cox fired off before the man could even get all the way into the door. "You better have brought something decent to eat since the whole thing was your idea to start with. And what's Slater up to? He better not be drunk."
Coming into the door, the new arrival had turned to set the sack and bottle on the chair just inside the door, purposefully turning away from Cox and his questions. He tensed as his sore muscles began to protest even the slightest movement and knew full well that it was now or never. One wrong move could prove deadly for too many people.
Gunshots rang out across the street and Pete Cox rushed back to the window to see what was happening, only to find nothing. No movement, no more gunshots, nothing. Tanner. It had to be him. And if he was taking bets, then Slater was dead. Oh well, one less man for him to have to take care of. In fact, knowing Tanner as he did, the kid might have already saved him a bunch of trouble. That just meant he'd have to take care of Larkins, which was beginning to look more and more appealing.
This was the moment he had been waiting for. Knowing full well that even if Tanner made it in to town and took out his other men, there was no way in hell the tracker was getting past him and into the jail.
The click of the hammer and the feel of a gun in his back sent a ripple of uneasiness up his spine. Larkins wasn't smart enough to turn on him and not stupid enough to think he could handle taking Tanner down on his own.
"Long time no see, Pete." Vin's low gravely voice carried the full force of his anger. "But I guess you've been expecting me."
For a few tense moments Vin had begun to worry that Inez wouldn't fire off the gun to create the distraction before Cox began to suspect something was wrong. And for certain he had never in his life been so happy to hear that sound.
"Tanner. I expected you a long time before now, but I see you've learned a few new tricks since we last parted ways." Cox didn't dare move as his mind raced to find a way out of the situation. Of all of the things he had anticipated, not recognizing the man or him being in disguise were not even on the list. "And gained a bit of weight, too."
"Well, the fine ladies of this town here figured to fatten me up a bit."
The silence stretched out for a few seconds as both men decided on their next move. Vin knew that Cox was still dangerous and with the others still locked up and in range of a stray or not so stray bullet, he couldn't take any chances.
Relieving the man of his gun, he decided to get the knife after he had a better position. "Walk over to the table and stretch yer arms out onto it. And don't try anything stupid, cause I'd just as soon shoot you and be done with it." Keeping his gun trained on Cox's back and watching his every move he didn't dare look up to check on his friends just yet, who were thankfully remaining quiet. They knew him and the situation well enough not to do anything to break his concentration. At least he hoped that was the reason he hadn't heard so much as a peep out of them yet.
Cox leaned out over the desk and waited for his chance. He was as good as dead anyway, so he had little to lose. He might not be able to kill one of Tanner's friends or take the man's body in for the $500, but he was definitely not going out alone. A sharp intake of breath as Vin reached down for the knife he knew would be hidden in Pete's boot gave the man all of the information he needed. Tanner was hurt. And then there was the little something he had up his sleeve. Now wouldn't that just be the kicker, Tanner's own friend providing the weapon for his downfall.
Vin reached out onto the table for the keys to the jail cell and without looking up threw them to where he knew they could be reached by his friends. Cox saw the opportunity and struck, grabbing Vin's wrist and twisting it hard even as he swung himself around.
Vin felt Cox's leg shift before he saw the man move, but his reactions were much slower than normal. The outlaw had a hold of his wrist and was twisting before he could pull back. The fire in his chest ignited and his left shoulder went completely numb. Quickly leveling his own pistol he managed to get off a shot that only hit the outlaw in the right arm even as his left was coming up toward him. As Cox pulled him in close the all too familiar derringer had popped out and fired. Then with a last fit of rage Cox slammed them both backwards toward the window.
Vin felt the air rush from his lungs even as a slight stinging pierced his side. As he was forced backwards he felt the window behind him give. And somewhere amongst the chaos he thought he heard his name being yelled by a chorus of familiar voices. There was excruciating pain, bright stars dancing about, and the tinkling of glass. Then everything went dark.
"Just look at him. Ain't he just the cutest little thing?"
"I doubt that is a term that anyone has used in relation to Mr. Tanner in a very long time, and yet I must say that it is remarkably accurate at this time."
"Even with that peach fuzz on his face our young brother doesn't look much older than JD."
"What do you mean? I thought you said yesterday that he looked younger than me."
"I guess that's why he keeps that grizzle on his face. Takes him so long to grow the stuff he can't afford to shave it off. Guess when he does he has to stay kind of dirty to hide it until it grows back."
That was definitely Buck's voice and the others, too, expect for Nathan and Chris. Though he was certain Chris was nearby by the lingering smell of his cheroot. The feel of someone checking his bandages had been what had initially awakened him, assuring him of the dark healer's presence as well.
Vin had been awake for a while now, but it had taken him a few minutes to get his wits about him. Then checking out his surroundings without even opening his eyes or moving he sensed the others, the dark closeness of the space around him, and the distinct smell of herbs and carbolic. Those last two things alone left him with no doubt as to where he was. Nathan's clinic. Again. Damn but this was getting old.
Memories of what had happened came back to him slowly and the remembrance of his appearance and not wanting to face the others had him playing possum. He was alive and likely to stay that way if the way the others were talking was any indication. Chris must be okay if he was smoking. JD and Ezra sounded okay. Now, if he could just stay unconscious until everyone left. Yeah, right.
"Why don't you fellas go get some dinner at the boarding house and bring something back when you're done?" Chris' voice was smooth and firm, issuing a proposal that was more of an order, but didn't sound like it. Vin could almost imagine the protest being born on Nathan's lips and Chris must have seen it, too. "Go on, Nathan. You've barely left since we brought him in here. You said yourself that the fever's down and he should be fine."
"But I don't like the fact that he ain't woke up good yet." The sound of Nathan's worry almost had Vin opening his eyes. Almost.
"Ah, come on Nate. He's sleeping like a baby. And looks like one, too." Buck's chuckle caused a few other sniggers. "You know we always said he would clean up to be a whole new man. We just didn't expect him to lose about ten years in the process."
Josiah's voice sobered up the room and brought a lump to Vin's own throat. "I suppose it's been a long time since anyone's seen Vin looking this young, including himself. Probably just wasn't safe for him. Or even comfortable. Before we all go teasing him, we might want to consider exactly what kind of sacrifice he made to save our lives."
"What do you mean?" JD's innocence still crept in at the strangest times.
"He's been on his own for a long time. It just isn't safe for anyone to look that young and innocent without someone trying to take advantage. The long hair, the dusty clothes, and the hard worn look we are all so familiar with are more than just something he's used to. It's kept him alive in the West. And it's also a reason most people not only respect him, but it's how he shows his competence."
"I still don't understand." JD was still trying to work his way through Josiah's words.
"He looks like he does to survive. Looking like he does now can get him killed." Chris spoke it plain and simple.
But Ezra felt compelled to add. "And there are those in this town who might see him in a different light now that they have seen how young he really could be. Some for the better, but others might not trust his judgment as readily."
"But that's just plain stupid," JD huffed. Vin was still Vin, even if he did look different.
"Yes, but it's human nature," Nathan added. It was a truth he was all too familiar with. "People often judge others by what they see on the outside. Just like when you came here it took a while for you to gain the respect you have now."
"But they already respect him." Even with the explanations JD could not completely understand why the way Vin looked right now could change things.
"JD, son." Buck, ever the mentor, tried to explain. "Not everyone in this town respects us. They tolerate us, mostly because they're afraid of us and know good and well that we saved their lives more than once or twice. And they also know that just by being here we scare most of the riffraff. Now look over there and tell me how scary he looks right now."
JD looked over at Vin and realization dawned. Vin had given up a part of himself, a part of who he was, to save their lives. It was one thing to risk your life, but Vin had risked even more than that. He had risked his reputation and continued safety.
The West was a wild and dangerous place and someone with a face like Vin currently wore was more often than not prey. Sure, Vin was capable and dangerous in his own right, but JD was only now beginning to learn that half the battle was not having to fight at all by outsmarting your opponent and making them not even want to fight. Josiah, Nathan, Buck, and even Chris had a hardened older look. And Ezra had a style and flash that if nothing else left any opponent confused enough to be afraid. But Vin, he too, had relied on the hardened look of experience to frighten an adversary into submission. That advantage might now be gone where some of the townsfolk were concerned.
"Geez, I never thought about it that way."
"Truthfully, neither did we." Buck admitted softly. "Come on, fellas, let's go get some dinner and then I might even let old Ezra win some money from me."
"Let me?! I'll have you know that there have been numerous occasions when I have let you win, my fine sir, though only as a case of pity and to cease your incessant moaning when some unsuspecting female has spurned your advances. There is no way that you could ever..." The southerner's outraged grumbling continued as they all filed out of the room.
"You just holler if he needs anything." Nathan's last words could be heard just before the door closed, leaving Chris and Vin alone.
Peaceful silence reigned as Vin contemplated what the others had said. Yes, he had considered the repercussions of doing what he had done and not just the fact that his friends would likely tease him about this for some time to come. Still the decision hadn't been that hard. Although losing the hair had been the hardest part, that and walking into Gloria Potter's store. Hell he hadn't been that nervous since he tried to kiss his first squaw. It was his hair and his reputation or his friends' lives. No contest.
"You about ready to wake up now? They're all gone, you know."
"Well, of course... they are. A herd... a buffs make... less noise." His voice was a mere whisper and rough with disuse. Vin still hadn't opened his eyes, but it didn't matter. He heard Chris get up and move toward the bed. Heard him pour the water and felt the approach as hands gently helped to lift him into a sitting position to drink it.
Even without looking at each other, Chris knew what he needed. And he should have known that of all of them, Chris would know he wasn't asleep anymore.
"How long you known?" Vin croaked out after a few sips of water. His throat still hurt a little. Probably from the near choking.
"Probably since you woke up and tried to pretend like you were still asleep." Chris watched the blue eyes crack open and was overwhelmed with a sense of relief to finally see those familiar blue eyes. "Had us all a bit worried. Damn foolish thing you did, taking them all on like that, with no help, and hurt. Damn brave, too." An evil smile touched his lips as he added, "Kid."
Chris saw the fire ignite in Vin's eyes and couldn't help but chuckle. It really didn't have quite the same effect coming from a peach fuzz, baby face like the one he was now looking in to.
"Don't worry, we'll make sure you've got your clothes back and are nice and dusty before we turn you back loose on the population." The serious tone belied his next statement. "Otherwise we'll have every woman in town trying to adopt you."
"Real funny, Larabee. You oughta take that show on the road." Vin's disgusted tone and scowl only made Chris laugh out loud.
"You might want to keep a neutral expression until you get to looking more like yourself, Cowboy. It just looks too dang cute right now."
Chris swung back out of the way as Vin swung at his stomach, but quickly moved back in when his friend gasped in pain. Both had forgotten just how badly Vin had been injured.
"Better take it easy there." Chris helped Vin lay back down. "You've got some busted ribs, a nice slash to your shoulder, a sprained left wrist, slight concussion. That pea shooter of Ezra's grazed your side and you're black and blue something awful. Lucky for you you had so much padding stuffed in your clothes to pull off that Larkins impression of yours or that window might have cut you to pieces." The blond's face darkened a little. "Oh, and someone witnessed that little tumble you took off of the mercantile roof. Found a squashed outlaw over there and figured it was your handy work."
"He was nice enough to break my fall."
"You're damn lucky he did or that would have been you lying there in the dirt with a broken neck."
Chris felt the anger creep up on him unexpectedly as he recalled the sight of Vin lying on the boardwalk outside of the jail. Cox lay unmoving on top of him, his own knife having stabbed him in the chest during the fall. With Vin covered in blood and looking totally lifeless, it had taken all of his strength not to just run away, not wanting to face the possibility that he had just lost his best friend. But he had stayed and let Nathan fix up his own shoulder, only after tending to all of Vin's various injuries. And for three days he had sat in the clinic and watched as Vin fought to survive the fever that had set in that same night.
Vin's quiet words broke through Chris' reverie and he looked down at the man. It didn't matter how young Vin looked or what others thought. All that mattered was that he was alive, they all were. Thanks to a young man with more guts than good sense. And a sense of responsibility and honor as big as the state he was from.
"I'm just glad you're okay." He truly was grateful and so were the others. "I guess you heard what they said just now." When Vin looked away, seemingly embarrassed, he continued. "We are grateful. I'm grateful. Even if you don't think it needs to be said."
Vin watched as Chris walked over to stare out the window. He had already decided that the others were fine, but he needed to hear it. "Everybody else okay?"
Glancing back to see the worried stare and feeling uncomfortable, Chris looked back out the window. "Everybody's fine. Ezra'll be complaining about his headache for another two weeks at least. Thinks it's going to get him out of taking patrol. And JD's still limping a bit, but Nathan says it's not permanent."
Studying Chris closer he noticed the bulkiness around the man's shoulder and remembered the less than fluid movements when he had helped him to drink and sit back. JD's frantic tale of bullets and blood haunted him still. His friends had nearly died all because of that bounty on his head. The entire ride back to town Vin's mind had conjured up images of his friends suffering and dying. The vision of Chris lying covered in blood on the jail floor would likely haunt him for some time to come.
"It's just a scratch."
Chris glanced back and caught the pain in Vin's eyes not from his own wounds, but those of his friends. Vin looked away but his body remained rigid and it hit Chris for the first time. So caught up in his worry for Vin and his anger for what had happened and nearly happened, he hadn't taken the time to really understand how this whole incident had affected Vin. Knowing his friends were in danger, hurt, not knowing how bad... Cox and two of his henchmen were dead. The other three would be shipped back to the places they were wanted and would likely hang. But even that didn't seem like justice enough for the pain they had caused or what he was certain Tanner was feeling right now.
"This wasn't your fault so don't go blaming yourself for the actions of some lowlife like Cox."
Vin's eyes snapped back to Chris' as the gunfighter's words ripped the thoughts right from his head. "Don't guess it'd do any good anyway."
Taking a seat beside the bed Chris sat back, still studying his friend.
"If you don't want them to mention it again, they won't." Chris didn't have to say what. Vin knew and that assurance alone meant the world to him. They wouldn't either. Chris would say the word and that would be it.
"Nah. It'd make me nervous iffen they didn't get the chance to rib me. I'd think somethin' was wrong with "em."
"I know it wasn't easy." Chris was treading onto ground he had promised himself to avoid, but curiosity or maybe worry urged him forward before he realized it. Late during the previous night as Nathan and himself had watched over the injured man, Vin had spoken some in his fevered deliriums, mostly in some Native tongue neither man had understood. But some of the broken English that filtered in had seared his heart.
"Twernt nothin' really. Ain't like I don't have clean clothes or like I've never shaved before, just not quite this much. I tried to sound sorta different, kind of like those folks from Scotland I introduced you to the other week, the McTavishes? Think I sounded more like some lunatic that didn't know how to talk at all. Worked though."
Vin grew quiet and his eyes drifted toward the window. Chris waited, feeling that there was more. If Vin wanted to share it he would and if not he wouldn't push.
This was something he had never told a soul, but then again, Chris knew more about him already than anyone else ever had. The words just came without forewarning.
"Having my hair cut was a bit hard. But Miz McTavish said I might be recognized otherwise and hidin' it under the hat might not work either. Seems kind of foolish, I know. I mean it's just ma hair and it's not like it won't grow back."
More silence followed before Vin began again.
"You know I lived with the People for a while. They took care a me, taught me all sorts of things. Treated me like I belonged. Guess I's 'bout sixteen or so when it all got took away. When I got took away."
The bitterness in Vin's voice and the hard set of his jaw had Chris wanting to stop him. But he wouldn't. Maybe this was something his friend needed to share and what kind of man would he be or friend, if he didn't just sit there and listen.
"Soldiers said I belonged with my own kind. My own kind. Huh! Assholes." Vin swallowed hard, working his jaw as the moisture seemed to have fled from his mouth. The cruel memories were as fresh as ever. "They scrubbed my skin nearly raw, put white man's clothes on me, smacked me until I started answering them in English..."
Chris watched as Vin's whole body went rigid with the last admission. "Then they cut all my long hair off. It was so damn short it stuck up all over the place. Looked like a porcupine."
Vin's last words would have brought a smile to Chris' face if the fevered words of his best friend from just the night before hadn't been rolling through his head.
"No. Don't touch me. Please don't. Don't cut it, please.'
Then just like that Vin turned and looked at him. All the pain and emotion pushed aside. If only it were that easy for him.
"Swore I'd never have it short again. Course I shoulda known better than to swear anything." Vin grinned slightly. "But I'd do it again."
It was times like this that Vin Tanner truly amazed him. The others would never understand what Vin had truly sacrificed or the bitter memories it had brought up, but he did.
Chris stuck out his hand and Vin took it in a weaker version of their familiar handshake. "Thanks, Cowboy."
"Reckon I got you fellas into that mess. Least I could do was getcha out." Winking up at Chris, Vin let his own relief shine through. He was glad everyone was okay. But he did have one little thing to take care of.
"Chris?" The voice had grown unnaturally weak and Chris leaned down as Vin mumbled something quietly.
Leaning down he questioned, "What is it? Do you want me to get Nathan?"
Chris could feel his concern rising as he leaned down to see if he could understand Vin's words. "Vin?"
A fist clipped his chin, not hard but enough to stun him a bit.
"I said don't call me cute or kid. I might look like some wet behind the ears farm boy, but I can still kick your ass."
Chris sat back up, chuckling.
"In your dreams, Tanner. Right now Billy Travis could whip you."
"You jist wait til I get my strength back."
The gentle barbs continued and so did life in Four Corners, each man comfortable in the fact that they were alive, semi-well, and together. And no matter what might happen in the future, they would both do whatever it took to make it out alive.