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Ohh... ow... god, please... just kill me now... oww...
He couldn't take it anymore. He didn't think his horse could take him another step without causing him to pass out.
Thankfully, he was at the livery.
Vin Tanner had a bad back. He'd had it his whole life. A quack doctor he'd been to about 5 years ago had told him his spine was crooked, but that just didn't make no sense. Everything else seemed straight enough, and he didn't think he'd be able to do all the things he could do - like sit a horse - if it were crooked. It hadn't really bothered him until he was in his teens, and then sometimes when he lain down after a day's work, he'd feel his back stiff and sore, and have to take a few minutes of deep breathing and arching and relaxing his back before he could lay down straight. It got worse the older he got, when he strained too much during the day - too long a ride, too heavy a lift. But the worst it ever got was when he had to flee Texas. He'd stayed in the saddle for four straight days, over rocky terrain as he struggled to disappear into the desert and away from the lynch mob intent on stringing him up from the nearest tree. By the end of it, he'd fallen unceremoniously off Peso in exhaustion and pain near the edge of a small pond, curling up and panting heavily, waiting for the pain to pass. Sleeping in the saddle was what did it, and even though it was a handy trick, he paid for it dearly in the end.
He was into his twenties now - exactly how far, he didn't even know himself - and his back was worse than ever. He didn't think it was possible, but the metal vise that currently pinched and scraped along his spinal cord causing lights to dance in front of his eyes told him that indeed, it was.
Peso drew up to the weathered wooden doors, his rider clutching the saddle horn in a white-knuckled grip. The perceptive horse had known for the last day that Vin wasn't doing well, and had done all he could to step with care. Even so, every few steps would elicit a squeezing of the legs, or a soft hiss, or hard grunt. The animal stopped gently, and stood completely still, waiting for Tanner to dismount.
The tracker sat stiffly, breathing for a few moments, waiting in vain for some short reprieve he could take advantage of, some calm before the horrendous pain that would be his dismount.
It was no use.
The throbbing continued, and after a minute or two, he took a deep breath, and decided to get it over with.
Swinging his right leg, the ex-bounty hunter barely got his ankle to clear the horse's haunch before his vision started to snow. He gripped the saddle for all he was worth, praying to get both feet under him, praying to make it down without passing out. Somehow, he managed to do it, and stood there leaning heavily against Peso's side. Breathing in short pants, he waiting for his vision to clear, not imagining how in the hell he was going to get the saddle and tack taken care of, let alone water and rub down for his mount. He never had much money, preferring to give it to those less fortunate and less able to take care of themselves than he. His most recent paycheck had gone to the Indian orphans out on the reservation four days ago; he couldn't spare the few coins he had left to ask the livery hand to do it for him. And he'd rather try to climb back on Peso's back and ride out for another three days in the saddle than admit to anyone he couldn't take care of his own horse.
As is always the way on days like this, a voice piped up behind him.
Taking a breath to pull himself together, Vin turned his head to find young Billy Travis smiling up at him, hoop and stick toys in his hands.
"Hey, Billy," he rasped, thankful that his voice didn't give away how much pain he was in.
"Back already? Mister Chris said you wasn't due in until Thursday."
"Yep," was all he could manage.
"Can I help you unsaddle your horse?"
Maybe there was a God.
"Sure, Billy," he answered, turning his head slightly to gaze at the eleven-year-old. "You know what'cher doin'?"
"Oh yeah," the lad replied, striding forward to take the reins. "Ma lets me do it when we come back from visitin' grandpa. But our horses aren't half as nice as yours! Where'd you get 'im?"
"Er..." Looking around for some excuse to make his way to the boardinghouse, Vin spotted Chris sitting on the porch of the jail. "Billy, I'd love to tell ya some other time, but I gotta make a report to Mister Larabee. He's been expectin' me."
"Sure, Vin," the boy answered, not missing a beat and tugging on the reins. "Don't you worry. I'll take good care o' yer horse for ya."
Vin took three steps gingerly back to allow the horse to pass. As he moved away, the big animal turned his head to snuffle gently at his master. "Thanks, pard," Vin whispered, letting his fingers trail lovingly along the hind quarters while Peso disappeared into the cool stable. Vin knew the horse wouldn't play games with his young charge, not after the last two days.
Vin had been sent out on a long patrol circuit, one which normally would have taken three or four days to complete. However, Nettie was having a picnic tomorrow, and had invited the seven to join her and Casey and Mary and Billy for the occasion. He wanted to make sure he was back for it. He'd pressed both himself and the horse to the limit, and though he knew Peso would be fine after a day or two of rest, he wasn't as confident about himself...
As had happened often in his life, he was questioning the wisdom of his decision to ignore physical limitations. After all, what good was a picnic when he could hardly walk?
He held himself stiffly, taking small, slow steps. Half of him wanted to fire off a shot, have Chris come running to help him. Half of him was trying desperately to seem normal, like nothing was wrong, relying on instincts ingrained in him since childhood to never show weakness, never give in. The two halves of himself warring inside him, he made his slow way across the street towards the boardinghouse, and his room. He hardly ever used it, but it would be dark and quiet, with a relatively soft mattress and some relief from the throbbing pain.
+ + + + + + +
Unbeknownst to the buckskin-clad man, a pair of green eyes had been watching him since the moment he entered town, eyes that rarely missed the finest detail.
Coming out of the saloon doors, Ezra Standish stopped next to Buck and J.D. where they sat nursing half-full mugs next to an abandoned checkers game.
"Gentlemen," the southerner intoned.
"What's up, Ez," J.D. replied.
"I believe our illustrious voyager has returned from his excursion a little worse for the wear."
Buck gulped the rest of his warm beer and stood up. "One more time, Ezra. And, remember, this was my fifth beer."
Standish rolled his eyes. "Mr. Wilmington, it is not my responsibility to compensate for your lack of sobriety by debasing my vocabulary."
J.D. - who had only had two beers - snorted. "You catch that?" Buck asked, incredulous. J.D. just shrugged. "Most days," the youth replied, enjoying the confusion on the mustached man's face.
"Well," Buck continued, blinking. "Translate."
"He said Vin's come back, and he don't look so good."
"Oh," Buck replied, peering down the street at the shuffling tracker.
"Perhaps one of you fine gentlemen will hasten to his aide?" Ezra asked, not wanting to make the first move. He was still getting used to being a part of this team of misfits, and hesitated to give in to overt displays of concern for his teammates. Besides, mothering was more Mr. Wilmington's department.
Buck continued to gaze, watching as Vin's deliberate and cautious steps reached the boardinghouse next to the saloon, and then pause briefly before stepping up onto the wooden porch. The long-haired man swayed slightly, grabbing the post for balance, and then continued stubbornly into the dim interior of the building.
Despite the five beers, Buck had been around long enough to know the difference between gunshot injuries and something else. Vin didn't seem to be nursing any of his extremities, and Buck knew he wouldn't be walking at all if he'd been shot anywhere in his middle. So, as far as Buck was concerned, if he wasn't bleeding, and he was walking - albeit slowly and painstakingly - he couldn't be too bad off. Besides, Buck knew Vin had just taken two days to complete a four day circuit, and that had to be hard on any man, even one of Vin's stubbornness and stamina. He probably just needed a hot meal, a bath, and a few hours sleep.
"He don't seem to be too bad. And if he needs help, he knows where to find us."
"You sure, Buck?" J.D. asked. He, too, had watched Vin's entrance into the boardinghouse, and wasn't convinced that the tracker didn't need help of some kind. His body had been held too stiff, his head down and focused on his feet. And the youth hadn't known of a day where Vin would have passed right by Chris sitting in front of the jail without going over to say hello. "We could always just go and ask 'im if he..."
"Nah," Buck said, slapping his hat on his legs before throwing an arm around J.D. "Let 'im rest for a while. He just came offa that circuit, and'll prolly snap our heads off if we go and pester 'im before he's had some shuteye." When J.D. looked doubtful, the ladies' man added, "If we don't see 'im at supper, we'll go check on 'im. How's that?" The sheriff shrugged in agreement, and the two men then began a leisurely stroll down the boardwalk.
Ezra let out a small frustrated sigh. He knew all too well that the tracker would hide any ailment, any infirmity, to the point of stupidity. Misters Dunne and Wilmington may have confidence in the Texan's common sense, but he had no such illusions when it came to the man's health. Well, if one method failed, the con man was more than capable of finding an alternative. He straightened his jacket, and strode purposefully over to the church.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan finished scrubbing down his operating table and stood up, stretching kinked muscles with a sigh. Glancing out his window, he saw Chris dozing in a chair in front of the saloon, and Ezra crossing the street towards the church.
This caught his attention; Ezra willingly approaching a church?
Well, there was that whole "mysterious ways" thing. It wouldn't be the first time a miracle happened on God's green earth.
He rubbed the back of his neck and went to tackle the windows.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah was convinced his arms were going to fall off, and he wasn't exactly sure what to do about it. He stood in the doorway to the church office, holding a support beam up with both hands, and trying to figure out how he was going to attach it. The good Lord had only given him two hands... and both of them were currently in use. Maybe he should put it down and try to get Nathan or Buck to come help. But looking around at the various building supplies that were strewn around the room, he didn't know how he would put the beam down without knocking everything to kingdom come...
Suddenly, a questioning cough came from behind him.
The con man stepped into the dim interior. "Mister Sanchez, I am always amazed at your psychic abilities."
The large man grunted. "Don't need to be psychic, Ezra. You're the only man I know who asks permission to enter a room."
"Well," Ezra brushed some sawdust off a stack of planks and sat down gracefully. "As mother always says, breeding is all."
"What can I do for you?" Sanchez panted, struggling to lower the beam as carefully as possible.
"Ah..." Standish realized this was going to be harder than he thought. "Here... allow me." Jumping up, he took one end of the beam, allowing the other man to shift down and together the men lowered the large piece of lumber to the ground.
"Whew! Thanks." Both men crouched facing each other, each waiting for the other to speak. Finally, the ex-preacher broke the silence. "Don't tell me you came over to help me rebuild."
"Ah," Ezra stood. "No. Menial labor and I have not been on speaking terms for a number of years. I am afraid you are correct. My visit did have another purpose. But, I see that you are otherwise engaged, and so I will call on you at a more convenient time."
"You sure? I'm at a good stopping point..."
Ezra was tempted. Here was a man who would have no problem walking over to the boardinghouse and knocking on Tanner's door to ask him if he needed help... which was far more that the southerner thought he was capable of doing. At the same time, explaining to the older man that this needed to be done would reveal more than Ezra was comfortable doing. He cared about these men, his... friends... but he wasn't ready to let them know this quite yet. Revealing that he had noticed Vin's discomfort and was concerned about him would reveal his weakness, his vulnerability...
Perhaps this wasn't such a good idea after all.
"I am quite sure, Mr. Sanchez. It is a small matter that can easily be postponed to a more opportune moment." He crossed to the door, tipping his hat. "Good day."
+ + + + + + +
Vin stood just inside the door to his room at the boardinghouse, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. He'd managed to scrape together enough courage to ask Joe downstairs to send up a hot bath. He'd have to figure out how to eat tomorrow, but his back hurt so much that he figured the two bits was worth it. When dim shapes began to emerge from the darkness, he hobbled painfully over to the dresser where the lamp sat. He put his hands out to lean on the worn wood, breathing shallowly. Breathing too deep set off the searing fire in his back. He was tired enough that he didn't really think he needed the light, and he probably couldn't afford the oil anyway. As he was turning back to the bed, there was a knock on the door.
"Come on in, Tom."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra passed by Chris and Nathan on their horses heading out of town. Damn, he thought. I forgot they were headed out to the reservation today... He nodded to them in greeting, wondering what he was going to do next. Since other options had failed, he took a deep breath, and decided he was just going to have to take matters into his own hands.
"When you want something done right..." he muttered.
Striding purposefully into the boardinghouse, he heard noises coming from the back kitchen. "Tom?" he called out. As much as he hated familiarity, in this instance he had no choice; he didn't know the man's last name. As far as he knew, the boardinghouse manager didn't have one.
A grizzled head poked out. "Mr. Standish."
"Have you seen Mr. Tanner?" The con man crossed to the doorway to find the older man stoking a fire where a large cauldron of water was heating.
"Yup," the deep voice growled. "Upstairs. Ordered hisself a hot bath. Takin' it up in just a bit."
Standish, as usual, effectively hid his surprise. The tracker had to be hurting badly to have spent money to order a bath. He couldn't remember the last time the Texan had a bath...
"Is Mr. Tanner wounded?" Hopefully the other man would provide information that could get Ezra out of going upstairs himself...
"Didn't say." The crooked old man reached up to pull a battered tin tub off of a tall rickety shelf. "Ain't my business," he added, glancing pointedly at the smaller man.
Well, this was entirely too much.
"Sir," he reached into his jacket pocket for several coins. "I would appreciate if you would go get a bowl of stew and some bread from the saloon and bring that up to Mr. Tanner's room. I will take this," he reached for the tub "on up."
The southerner crossed quickly out of the kitchen to avoid the astonished look on the old timer's face. His boots made deliberate strides as he made his way upstairs.
Facing the closed door, he almost lost his nerve. However, since he'd come this far - the soup was on its way, the water heating, and he had already soiled his hands on the battered tub - there was no turning back now.
"Come in, Tom," he heard muffled from within.
Taking another sobering breath, he lifted the latch and pushed open the door.
+ + + + + + +
As taciturn as Vin was, he couldn't help the gasp of surprise when he saw Ezra standing in his doorway holding the worn-out washtub. The gambler most definitely had his "game face" on, looking determined and ready to face a battle.
A battle which the tracker was definitely not up to giving him.
After a few moments of stunned silence, Vin managed to rasp, "May as well come in, I reckon," as he made his way towards the bowed bed.
The southerner stepped inside, leaving the door open to let in light while he set the tub down in the center of the room and walked over to light the lamp. "Mr. Tanner, is there a reason you are hiding here in the dark?" he asked quietly. This was new territory for him, and he was not sure at all how to proceed.
Vin took a deep breath, trying to figure out how to lower himself to the bed without passing out from the agony in his back. He was past all caring now, exhausted, depleted, and he just wanted the agony to stop. "Cain't afford the oil, Ezra," he breathed softly, his pronounced drawl serving as yet more evidence to his exhaustion and pain. "Y'may as well leave it out."
Standish struck a match, lifting the glass and lighting the wick. "Not to worry, Mr. Tanner. I am more than capable of donating to such a worthy cause." He adjusted the knob to bring more light to the room and turned to peer at the Texan. Vin stood next to the bed, looking down on it as though there was nothing he wanted more in the world that to lay down, but for some reason he remained standing, holding himself stiffly, most definitely in considerable pain. "If you don't mind my saying so," he continued. "You, sir, look like hell."
Vin let out a short bark of a laugh, then grimaced as it caused the pain to knife into him. "Fer all yer five dollar words, you don't pull punches when you've got a mind to, do ya?"
"No, sir, I do not." Ezra took the two steps across the small room and put his hand on his friend's arm. "Mr. T... Vin," he said quietly. "It's your back, isn't it?"
Again, Vin couldn't help that surprise flashed across his face, but the look was immediately replaced by one of relief. He always knew the cardsharp was perceptive, and if he'd thought about it he should have figured that Standish would be the first of the other six men to put the clues together and figure it out. He closed his eyes. "Yeah," he breathed, his shoulders dropping a little.
Ezra squeezed the buckskin-clad arm. "Let me help... my friend." The last was spoken so quietly that anyone more than a foot away would not have heard.
But Vin did hear, and - knowing what it cost Standish to say it - nodded slightly.
Without a word, Ezra reached out with both hands to take a hold of the tracker's fringed jacket - an article of clothing that the southerner had to admit he'd rarely seen not attached to its owner - and gently eased it over the tense shoulders and down the sweaty arms. Despite his delicate movements, the action elicited a sharp hiss from the taller man, causing the gambler to wince in sympathy. Using his deft hands, he turned Vin to face him, then took a hold of one hand while using his other to grip the Texan's elbow, and gently helped him sit down on the low bed. By the time he got the other man seated, Ezra could see the sheen of sweat that stood out in the lamplight. He pulled his own handkerchief out from his pocket and gently wiped the moisture from Vin's pale face.
"Stay here," he said, standing. "I'll be back with your bath water. A long hot soak should help." Crossing to the door, he exited, closing it behind him with a quiet click.
When Ezra was gone, Vin let out a ragged sigh. He had to admit, he didn't think he could have done this on his own. He had thought he could, but as he had begun to discover over the course of the last year with this group of men, there were times when a man didn't have to struggle on alone.
There were times to lean back and let your friends do for you what you couldn't do for yourself.
He didn't know how long he sat there, but it couldn't have been more than ten minutes before the door opened again and the gambler stepped into the room carrying two steaming pitchers of water. Tom was behind him, carrying two more. But Standish didn't allow Tom to see into the room. He set his pitchers down next to the tub, and spun around to take Tom's with a swift, "Thank you, sir. Please knock when you return," and closed the door on the man's surprised face.
"Ez," Vin whispered as the other man removed his jacket, rolled his sleeves up, and began pouring water into the tin tub.
"Yes, Mr. Tanner?" He finished with two pitchers before coming over to crouch in front of the tracker. "Do you need something?" The concerned look in those green eyes was nearly Vin's undoing. He was so tired, so spent, and had been in pain for so long that the sheer relief of having someone else take care of him was almost more than he could bear.
All he replied, however, was, "Thanks."
Ezra put a manicured hand on the dusty knee and simply nodded before going back to his task of filling the tub with hot water. When all four pitchers were emptied, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled envelope. Tearing it open, he poured it into the tub. Immediately, the room was filled with a light, sweet scent.
"Aw, hell, Ez," Vin gave a tired smile. "I didn't aim to come outa this smellin' like a girl."
The green eyes flashed amusement. "My dear wounded associate, I assure you this is no plot to invalidate your distinctive reputation, merely an herb that will help your muscles relax." He reached a hand into the water to test its temperature. "I have it on very reliable sources that it will work wonders." He crossed back to the tracker, looking down at the bowed figure still holding himself stiff against the throbbing of his spine. He knelt in front of his friend. "It may be more efficient to remove some clothing. I am sure you are hot and dusty after your trek, and would feel more comfortable in something clean."
Vin nodded once, but made no other movement.
There was a moment of waiting before, "Do you need some assistance?" Ezra asked softly.
Again, a nod.
Reaching out, the gambler's deft fingers made quick work of the buttons on Vin's shirt. He tried to move his friend as little as possible when removing it, but when he was done Vin's face had gone a shade paler, and he was holding his breath. Standish quickly undid the buttons on Vin's pants, and then stopped, waiting for the tracker to signal he was ready. The held breath was exhaled slowly, then a hitching breath signaled the next phase could begin. Putting his hands under Vin's arms, he helped lift the ex-bounty hunter to a standing position, taking most of the weight when Vin swayed and let out a half-stifled high-pitched noise of pain.
"M'legs," Vin whispered tightly. "Got it s-so bad it's... burnin' d-... down m'legs..."
Ezra closed his eyes, knowing all too well how Vin must feel in such severe pain. Whenever his migraines struck him, he felt similar agony.
He waited a few moments for it to pass before murmuring, "Come on. Water's nice and hot..." The pants fell to the floor, and Standish didn't think twice before draping the now-naked Texan's arm across his shoulder and bearing the brunt of his weight as they took the three torturous steps to the bath.
He managed to get Vin to the tub, and waited for the younger man to take another breath before helping to lower him into the water. The whole time, Vin's eyes were closed tight, his face pinched and drawn, fighting the burning, throbbing pain and praying he wouldn't be sick.
Once he got Vin settled into the water, his head leaning back on the high end of the bathtub, Ezra saw the agonized expression soften, and a long slow sigh flowed out of the exhausted tracker. He knelt down behind the tub and began to gently run his fingers through Vin's tangled hair, pulling it off the freckled shoulders and getting it to hang over the side of the tub. Another deep sigh escaped, and Ezra felt much better about his decision to come here.
A knock on the door startled both men, but Ezra put a hand on Vin's shoulder, keeping him in the tub. "It's Tom," he said, standing up and crossing to the door. Once again, he strategically positioned his body so that the curious caretaker couldn't peek as he took the bowl and hunk of bread, pulling the door closed with a "Much obliged to you, sir."
He brought the stew to Vin and held it out. Weary blue eyes regarded him suspiciously. "Inez's stew" was the gambler's reply, and wordlessly the ex-bounty hunter took it and began to eat. Within a matter of moments, the empty bowl was handed back, and another satisfied sigh seeped out.
Ezra placed the bowl next to the lamp and pulled the lone chair up beside the tub. One azure eye cracked open for a few seconds before sliding shut again.
"Don't worry," Tanner toned softly. "I ain't gonna drown. Y'done enough, Ez. More'n I expected anyone t'do fer me. I ain't goin' nowhere anytime soon, and I 'spect y'got other things pressin' that need yer attention..."
"Mr. Tanner," Standish replied, crossing his arms across his chest. "I severely doubt you will be capable of getting yourself out and dressed and laying down without assistance. In time the water will get cold, and so will you. I aim to have you out of there well before that time in order to avoid you having to endure any more discomfort. So, excusing my vulgarity, but shut up and enjoy the damn bath."
The statement had the desired effect; Vin chuckled in spite of himself, and concentrated on enjoying the feeling of the heat seeping into his back and loosening up the knotted muscles. He was already beginning to feel the pain receding into the background. The bath felt wonderful, and even though he knew it would not get rid of the pain completely, he was content that he no longer had to withstand the knife that had been plunging repeatedly into his spine for nearly 24 hours.
Both men sat in the waning light without speaking. After a long period of time, Ezra stood and checked the temperature of the water. It had cooled considerably, and so the con man gently shook the tracker's shoulder.
Vin had been floating in a warm, dark haze, dozing lightly in the heat of the water. The gentle touch on his shoulder brought him to awareness, but he knew who it was, and felt safe enough to hover just on the edge of waking. He barely registered when the southerner gently lifted him from the water, wrapping him in a large soft towel, and helped him stumble blindly to the bed. Before he knew it, a clean pair of pants were put on him, and he found himself lying face down on the soft pillow.
It was the hands on his back that startled him.
"Just relax, Vin," Ezra replied, rubbing salve on the tracker's lower back. "Our illustrious healer gave this to me after that unfortunate altercation which dislocated my shoulder," he continued, working the medicine deep into Vin's muscles. "This is called a massage. A dancer in Baton Rouge taught me this technique, and I must admit it is remarkably effective. Relax and let it do its work. I promise you will feel like a new man in the morning."
Tanner had only caught up to the word "unfortunate" before the salve began to heat up under Ezra's skillful hands, and effectively turned his entire body to a pile of mush. He was only dimly aware that he was making soft satisfied groans as the remedy reached deep down into his body and eliminated every twinge of pain. The con man probably only spent twenty minutes or so applying the ointment, but it had taken under ten to push the ex-bounty hunter over the edge into sleep.
Ezra wiped his hands on his handkerchief and stood up, stretching and releasing a satisfied breath. He had taken note of the curvature of Vin's spine, and made a mental note to ask Nathan discreetly about it sometime in the next day or so. Maybe there was something the healer could do to keep Tanner from having to suffer like this after every long patrol. He pulled a thick blanket out of the chest at the foot of the bed and gently draped it over the softly-snoring body of his friend. He checked one more time to make sure Vin was deeply asleep, then picked up the bowl and the key on the dresser before tip-toeing out the door, locking it securely behind him. He left the bowl on the front counter of the boardinghouse, and tucked the key into his pocket. Knowing that no one would disturb Vin's much needed rest, and knowing also that the intensely private man would never tell anyone what the gambler had done for him, Standish set out along the boardwalk whistling contentedly. He saw JD and Buck headed towards him, and picked up the pace to intercept them before they could pound on the Texan's door intent on dragging him from his bed off to a loud and uproarious dinner. It would be fairly easy to distract them - simply mention whiskey or a woman or a card game, and they would follow him like eager pups. Perhaps he could win what was left of their wages off of them before the night was out...
Yes, the southerner decided, it was good to know that everything was back to normal.