Disclaimer: The characters of "The Magnificent Seven" belong to MGM, Trilogy, etc. and are used here without permission. No copyright infringement is intended.
Notes: This was written for Elizabeth Read for her birthday. Many thanks go to Heidi for her amazing collage, to Marnie for her beta skills and Laramee.
As they sat in the still evening, Chris relaxed to the sound of the distant stream. It was Spring so there was water running in this dry land. Small brooks like the one a short ways from their campsite wouldn't last long in the coming Summer, but, for now, it supplied a gentle, soothing music to the night.
Closer at hand was the sound of three horses, two familiar and one not. A snort from one of the more familiar mounts brought a smile to Larabee's lips. The yearling colt they were bringing back was full of life and almost as annoying as Vin's gelding. Chris' own horse had been tolerant of the youthful exuberance, while Tanner's had quickly put the colt in his place and was now studiously ignoring the young horse.
"Puts me in the mind of JD when he first showed up," the Texan observed of the curious colt who was currently poking his nose into some bushes.
Larabee just smiled and puffed on his cheroot, knowing Vin wasn't expecting an answer.
The two men were returning from a short trip. There were a hard day's ride from town, but with the young horse, had decided not to push things.
Almost a month before, the stage had brought Mark Alton to town. To five of the seven peacekeepers this was an unremarkable event. To Buck Wilmington and Chris Larabee, it was a pleasant surprise. The three men had spent some time together working odd jobs before Larabee had met Sarah. When Chris had started breeding horses, Mark had been the first person to buy one from him, a beautiful palomino mare. Mark and his wife had moved on and started their own successful breeding program with the Larabee mare as the founding of their own line.
Buck had been out on patrol when Alton had to leave, but the man extended an invitation to both Chris and Buck to come visit. Chris said he would pass the invitation along.
When Wilmington returned, Larabee told him of the invitation to visit Mark. The two had planned on going together, but Judge Travis had shown up a week before the planned departure date with a two week assignment. Buck and Ezra were selected as the best two for the job.
Chris had been about to wire Mark to let them know neither of them would be coming when Buck found out. The mustached man took very little time to convince Chris to carry through with the planned visit. Larabee agreed.
Knowing it would be a long journey and foolish to undertake on his own, Chris had invited Vin along, partially because he knew Tanner would enjoy seeing the mare and learning more of Larabee's past, and partially because Vin knew the land, the watering holes and always seemed able to catch fresh meat for dinner which meant he wouldn't have to bring a pack mule for the journey.
Larabee had been impressed with the ranch and more than pleased to see the mare he'd sold all those years ago doing remarkably well and looking happy. The boisterous yearling had quickly caught his eye. The confirmation in his carriage was impressive. When Mark had said he wanted to give the young horse to Larabee as a gift, the blond had at first declined, knowing that the animal would bring a good price when it was grown. Eventually, he was worn down, though Vin teased that it hadn't taken much to do so.
The two peacekeepers had left the next day to begin the journey home.
"He's going to be a handful," Chris observed quietly as the two older horses finally seemed to get the younger one settled. He didn't have to look to see the wide, amused grin on his friend's face.
"Yep," was Vin's reply as he settled against his saddle, facing away from the fire with a cup of coffee. He was taking first watch.
"Sarah fell in love with that palomino mare," Larabee reminisced quietly. "She just wouldn't walk away. Every time we went to town, we'd go past her and Sarah would make me stop and take a look. For our first wedding anniversary I bought it for her."
Tanner smiled. It was good to hear his friend remember the good times in his life. "Why'd you sell her?"
A wide grin split Chris' face, "Turns out Sarah's affection for the mare wasn't returned." A soft chuckle escaped him. "Never seen a horse object so strongly to someone. Near bit off Sarah's fingers, would have, too, if she'd been any slower."
"Sounds like a good memory," Vin observed softly, his voice filled with his thanks for the sharing of it.
"It is," Larabee agreed, a small smile still on his face. "Hadn't even thought of that in years," his voice trailed off as he puffed on his cheroot, his mind wandering back through those happy early days of marriage.
The two men sat in silence for a while longer before Vin reached over and refilled his coffee cup.
Tossing the stub of his cheroot into the fire, Chris settled down on his bedroll and tipped his hat over his face. "Two days?" he inquired, knowing Vin would understand he was talking about how long they would take to return to town.
"Day and a half to your cabin to drop the little one off," Tanner countered.
Chris tipped his hat upward and eyed his friend, thinking of the change in plans. He had room at his ranch and could always bring the yearling in for Yosemite to look at later, after he got used to his new home and the other horse Chris kept out there. "Day and a half," he agreed letting his hat settle once more over his eyes and releasing a contented sigh. It would be good to get home.
The next morning dawned clear and bright. Larabee watched the changing colors of the sky as the sun surged over the horizon.
"Sure is something," Tanner said softly from where he was lying on his bedroll.
Stilling himself so he wouldn't betray his surprise, Chris smiled. "Sure is," he agreed, taking a sip of coffee as his eyes scanned the landscape. He heard Tanner get up and begin moving around.
"Any coffee left?" the tracker asked.
"Been in there all night," Chris warned as he watched his friend lift the pot. He couldn't help but shake his head as Tanner just grinned and poured the dark liquid into his cup.
Tentatively taking a sip, Vin's eyes opened wide at the dark, almost burnt taste. "Now that's an eye opener," he observed with a grin. He was rewarded with a matching grin from Chris. Settling into a sitting position, he announced, "I think we can make better time if we go through Cutter's Pass."
Larabee thought the suggestion over. "You may be right, but do you want to chance it with the yearling?"
Turning to look at the young horse who was already exploring his surroundings, Vin contemplated the question for several moments. When Larabee's mount brought the young colt into line, he knew the answer. "He'll be alright. Just need to keep him between the other two."
Chris nodded, having seen what Vin had. For whatever reason their two blacks had accepted the young horse into their herd and would make sure he stayed in line. "Then Cutter's Pass it is," he agreed, tossing the last of his coffee at the fire and beginning the process of breaking camp.
Rising from where he'd just finished filling his last canteen, Chris replaced the cork and was about to head back to camp, when the unmistakable sound of a gun being fired sounded, almost immediately followed by a spray of stone chips at his feet. Running to the nearest shelter he could find, Chris found himself about fifty feet away from where Vin had sought shelter. The fact he could watch Tanner's back offered some comfort. It also meant that Vin would be able to watch his.
Letting out a familiar two-tone whistle, Larabee saw Vin's head turn his way. Meeting the blue eyes, he nodded and saw Vin nod in return. Both men had been in too many tight spots not to understand what needed to be done. Their first goal was to try and locate the source of the bullet.
It wasn't long until they had another chance to track the bullet's path. That second shot was soon followed by several more.
With the ease that comes with a well-used skill, Larabee identified three separate shooters. Since none was truly visible from his current position and he was loathe to waste ammunition, Chris waited for Vin to turn his way and recognize the need for cover fire.
Tanner kept his eyes trained on one particular spot. If he was right, it was where one of the shooters was hidden. His patience was rewarded a few moments later when he caught a flash of a gun barrel. Taking careful aim, he slowly released half a breath and fired. He was rewarded with a grunt of pain and the sound of a body falling.
Glancing over his shoulder, he wanted to check that Chris was alright. What he saw froze his blood. "Chris!" he screamed. "Behind you!"
The cry startled Larabee, but he trusted his friend too much to disobey. Spinning on his toes, he found his arm automatically flying upward to block the blow that had been aimed at the back of his head. His defensive action had been pure instinct, but years of brawling had prepared him well and, in no time, his mind caught up with his body's instincts and a true battle was engaged.
As he dove to the side and rolled to his feet, he caught sight of a large man creeping up behind Tanner, a large knife glinting in the sunlight. Before he could call a warning, something alerted Vin to his attacker's presence. Larabee had just enough time to see his friend begin to turn before his own opponent drew his full attention.
Spinning around, and ending on the balls of his feet, ready for attack, Vin froze for just a second as the size of his opponent registered. A portion of his mind noted the blade in the other's hand, but Tanner was in no mood for a knife fight with someone as tall as Nathan and as strong as Josiah. Unfortunately, his opponent had other ideas.
Vin hadn't lifted his mare's leg more than a few inches when the silver-steel blade lashed out toward him, leaving a trail of searing pain across his forearm, causing the peacekeeper to drop his gun and jump away.
Losing no time, Vin drew his own wicked looking blade and danced slightly away from the other man, taking into account the other's stance and grip as well as noting his opponent was left handed. Swearing quietly, Tanner swallowed and tried to remember what he knew about fighting lefties. One thing he knew without a doubt was that this fight couldn't go on long, the other man's size would wear the Texan down quickly.
The only questions Vin had left to answer were, how far was he willing to go to end it, and how far would his opponent go? The second question was answered quickly as the tracker identified the feral look of bloodlust in his opponent's eyes. He knew, then, that death would be the outcome of this fight. He just wondered whose.
Tanner didn't have long to ponder such things as the blade slashed toward him again, tearing his coat, but finding no purchase in his skin as he moved toward the man in question.
As the peacekeeper lashed out with his own knife, just catching the man's shirt, he felt the bite of steel on his own shoulder blade as the man danced backward.
The attacker then feinted with his blade several times, before lunging toward Tanner's gut.
Vin arched his back as he watched the blade head toward his midsection.
Back stepping, he knew he would have to score a few hits of his own if he was going to stand a chance.
Having failed in his thrust, the other man stepped to the side and charged Tanner, shoulders low as if trying to tackle the tracker.
Vin saw the move and realized what was happening. The action gave him an opening he'd been lacking.
It was time to take a chance.
Vin dove at his foe.
Lashing out as he passed the man, Vin tried to hamstring him.
He misjudged the man's height, hitting calf muscle instead of hamstring.
Tucking into a forward roll, he controlled his impact with the ground.
Rolling to his feet, he sprang at his opponent's exposed back, his first hit having left the other man off balance.
Unfortunately for Tanner, the man he was fighting regained his equilibrium quickly.
His opponent twisted slightly and the peacekeeper knew he would miss his target.
Vin prepared himself for another blow as he caught sight of the knifeblade turning upward.
The tracker went flying past the man, catching the other's arm and feeling the bite of steel along his stomach.
Hitting the ground, Vin rolled away and onto his feet.
Tanner's knife arm came up, barely blocking the deadly thrust aimed at his neck.
Still off balance, Vin fell to his knees as his opponent pressed on relentlessly.
Sweat trickled down the tracker's neck as the honed, steel edged ever closer to his vulnerable neck.
If only his blade weren't in his occupied hand.
That thought galvanized Tanner into action.
Reaching across his body, Vin switched his knife to his left hand.
With a roar of rage, he buried his blade in the other man's side, clear to the hilt.
An agonized cry escaped the attacker who staggered backward, taking Vin's knife with him.
Unarmed, Vin scrambled backward and watched as his opponent looked down at the instrument of his death in shock.
Those same shocked eyes then turned toward the man who had taken his life and a final murderous rage filled him.
Eyes widening in fear, Vin stepped backward and tripped over something.
As he landed on the ground, he caught sight of his mare's leg.
Looking up, he could see the other man was only a few steps away.
His survival instinct screaming, Vin scrambled for the gun and lifted it.
There was no time to aim as his attacker was only a step away.
The loud bark of Tanner's gun was followed by a second, muffled shot.
The knife-wielding attacker seemed to stop for a moment as a large hole opened in his chest, only to be out-done by the larger hole in his back.
The next moment, however, the large man fell forward, dead. As he fell, he caught the stunned tracker on the side of the head with the crimson-stained, silver edge of his blade.
Eyes wide and fixed on the sight before him, Vin pushed himself away from the large corpse .
When free, he felt his body shudder once as he tried to get his mind to work and tell him what to do next.
Several feet away, Chris rested his hands on his knees as he tried to regain his breath. His opponent had been a vicious fighter who didn't seem to mind fighting dirty. Straightening with a wince and a groan as his battered midsection protested the movement, Larabee looked down at the fallen form.
At some point during their fight, the other man's gun had come into play. As the two men struggled over control of the weapon, the muzzle of the gun had been alternately pressed against each of them. Even when the trigger was pulled, Chris was uncertain as to whom had been hit. It was only when his opponent dropped that he realized he had won that battle.
Another thought nagged at his mind. It took only a moment before he realized what it was. There had been another shot just prior to the end of his own struggle. Turning to scan the area around him, he caught sight of Vin sitting on the ground, bright crimson stains coloring his coat. Cursing softly, Chris headed quickly to his friend's side.
"Vin!" he called out, kneeling beside the injured man. Getting no response to his call, he reached out and rested a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Vin!"
Vaguely, the tracker heard his name being called. It was only when he felt pressure on his injured shoulder and inhaled sharply that his thoughts began again. Though the wound itself hadn't been touched, the added pressure drew his attention sharply to that area. "Don't," he gasped out, closing his eyes as another shudder passed through him.
Moving his hand from his friend's shoulder, Chris moved so he could see Vin's face. "How bad?" he asked as he folded his bandana and pressed it against Vin's head wound.
Cracking an eye open, Vin looked at the concern in his friend's face. The corner of his mouth turned up slightly before it turned into a grimace. "Sarah ever teach you quilting?" Tanner asked through gritted teeth. The angry curse that escaped Chris was reply enough. Allowing his eyes to slip shut again, he took as deep a breath as he dared and answered his own question, "Guess not."
Looking around the area, Chris saw that, while things had been gathered together, the horses hadn't been loaded yet and, therefore, he would be able to quickly reestablish their camp. He would have to remove the dead bodies before they began to attract scavengers, but it could be done. Turning back toward his friend, Larabee noted the expression of pain and the pale color of Tanner's face. "Let me lay out a bedroll and get a fire going."
"Extra shirts ... in saddlebag," Vin gritted out, fighting the feeling of light-headedness and nausea that was beginning to overwhelm him. "Thread for Nettie."
"Right," Chris said, already fighting his way to his feet, ignoring the pain of his own bruises and injuries. He would need those shirts for rags and to staunch the flow of blood from the wounds. "I've got a needle and some thread in mine, too."
"Thought you didn't know quilting?" Tanner teased, doing his best to overcome the pain and weakness that was sweeping through him.
Recognizing the words as an attempt to distract himself, Chris forced a smile to his face and replied, "No, but I can sew a button."
Sarah teach you?
Chris smiled, paused in his preparations and looked his friend in the eye. No, actually, Larabee replied, my Pa did. He said a man should be able to sew a button, make a meal and bake a biscuit.
A wince of pain crossing his face, Vin said, Sure hope you sew better than you cook biscuits.
Rising from where hed just retrieved the shirts, needle, thread and a half-bottle of whiskey from the saddle bags, the blond dusted off the knees of his pants and said softly to himself, So do I, Pard.
Though a portion of his mind knew he was moving as quickly as possible, another portion insisted he was taking too long to get things set up. Glancing over at Vin, Chris felt the first tendrils of fear lance through him. Tanner had slumped onto the ground. The red stains on his jacket were now larger than they had been.
The sight of his friend's bloodstained form increased the guilt that had taken residence within the blond gunslinger. While he had been checking on the third man, the one Vin shot just before the other two attacked, he noticed a piece of paper sticking out of the man's pocket. Tugging on it, he soon had it in hand an opened. What he found was an image of Vin staring back at him. It was Tanner's wanted poster. Looking more closely at the man who had been carrying it, Chris recognized him from the saloon the night before.
Running through the previous night's conversation in his mind, he realized how careless he'd been about using Vin's name in such a public place. Chances were, these men might not have ever recognized Chris' friend had Larabee not been so careless.
Shaking off the guilt, the older man took a deep breath and prepared himself for what he had to do.
A few more minutes and he was ready. Crouching down next to his friend, Chris touched Vin's shoulder, causing the blue eyes to open and look at him. "Can you help me get you over there?" he asked, tilting his head toward the re-established camp.
"Yeah," Vin said, his voice soft. Draping his left arm over Chris' shoulder, the tracker took a deep breath and gritted his teeth against the expected pain.
Grunting slightly as he helped Vin to his feet, Larabee took a moment to adjust his grip and then headed over toward the nearest bedroll. Settling the younger man on the blankets, Chris knelt beside him and began helping Tanner remove his coat. Once that was gone, the damaged shirt soon followed.
A curse escaped the blond as he finally saw the full extent of the injuries to his friend. There were four wounds total, a fairly deep cut on his right forearm, a shallow cut on the shoulder blade, a tapering cut on the side of his abdomen and the shallow cut on the side of his head. The wounds on the shoulder and head had stopped bleeding. The ones on the arm and stomach were seeping slowly
"Reckon the arm's the one needs it first," Vin observed softly, pain tightening his voice.
A sigh escaped the older man as he realized his friend was right. Taking a piece of cloth and dipping it in the hot water nearby, Larabee began to wipe away the blood. When he had the majority of it removed, he tied a clean cloth firmly around the forearm, wanting to staunch the final flow before he put a few stitches in the wound.
"I need to ease you back," Chris said.
"Let me lean on a saddle," Vin gritted out against the pain.
"Alright," Larabee agreed, rising and moving Vin's saddle behind him. With Chris' assistance, the tracker was soon reclined enough to allow Chris to work on his stomach injury without putting pressure on his shoulder wound. Concerned by Tanner's pallor, he set quickly to work.
Chris sipped the hot liquid in his cup as he kept an eye on his friend. A shudder ran through his lean frame as he thought of what he'd done. It was true, he'd put stitches in people before, but it still wasn't an easy thing to do. And now, seeing how pale Vin was, he couldn't help but worry over his friend's health.
He had done what he could to clean the wounds, washing them with water and dousing them with whiskey, but he would feel better if Nathan were there, or, better, if they were in town.
Seeing a shiver course through his friend, the blond set his cup down and tried to stand. His abused muscles had seized slightly as he sat watching over Tanner and now he was paying the price.
With a series of short and long breaths, he was able to ease the pain to a more manageable level and made a mental note to move around more frequently.
Lifting his spare blanket from where it lay on the ground, Chris draped it carefully over the injured man. A frown marred his handsome face as he took in Vin's pallor. He knew it wasnt unusual for someone to look pale when they had lost blood, and Tanner had lost a fair amount. When his friend's face twisted into a grimace of pain, he decided it was time to wake the younger man.
Want to wake up for me, Vin? Chris asked, needing to check the younger mans wounds to make sure they really had stopped bleeding. Vin? he called again.
Blue eyes flew open, fear evident in them. "No!" he cried, reaching over and covering his wounded stomach.
"It's me, Vin," Larabee soothed. "You're here with me. You're safe."
Wha ? he managed to ask as a yawn stole the end of the word. Shaking his head, he focused on the other man.
Need to check to make sure the bleedings stopped.
Oh, the drowsy Texan said, reaching his good hand up to rub at his eyes. Awfully wooly-headed right now, he observed, more disturbed than hed like to admit by how deeply hed been sleeping.
Its rest you need, Larabee replied, replacing the bandage on his right arm. You lost a lot of blood.
Hearing the concern in his friends voice, Vin tried to straighten and assure him, Im fine. He was met with a disbelieving stare. With a sigh, the tracker amended, Ill be fine.
Better be, Larabee mumbled as he replaced the bandage that he had wound around Vins head. Seeing the impish grin on the younger mans face, he added, Dont think that yearlings up to a trip to Tascosa just yet.
Funny, Larabee, Tanner groused as he settled back against the saddle, inhaling sharply as the bandage around his middle pulled a little. That one still bleeding?
Chris closely examined the wound, hoping he hadnt restarted it bleeding when he pulled the cloth away. No," came Chris response. Not by the stitches. About an inch above them in the shallow part. His only response was a grunt.
When he was satisfied that the wounds were still healing, he pulled the blanket up higher, covering his friend and reached for a cup of water. "Drink," he commanded, handing the cup to Vin. A frown marred his features as he noticed the slight tremor in Tanner's hand.
"I'm fine," the tracker growled as he began sipping the water. Glancing up, he shifted uncomfortably at the disbelieving look, but said nothing more and focused on drinking his water.
"You want to tell me what you were dreaming about just now?" the blond asked casually.
Tanner closed his eyes and sighed. "A glint of steal," he informed.
Opening his eyes, he met his friend's. "That's how I knew he was there," Vin admitted. "Sun caught the edge of his blade and made it flash. Saw it reflected on the ground. That's probably what saved my life."
With an evaluating look at the sky, Chris nodded. "Reckon it's a good thing the sun was shining on us today."
"Some of us, namely an ornery gunslinger who's partial to black, seem to think the sun shines on him all the time and he can do no wrong," Tanner teased, wanting to distance himself from the memories, both real and dreamed.
Shaking his head and smiling, Larabee turned away from his friend and picked up his rifle. "I'm going to see if I can find something to eat," he announced.
With a quick glance at the sun's position, Vin was startled to discover it almost midday. He had slept longer then he thought. "About a hundred yards over that rise, behind one of the rocks is a rabbit burrow. You might be able to catch one of them coming out or going in," he advised, snuggling down under his blanket. He wasn't at all sure that the creature would be stirring at this time of day, but at least it would give Chris something to focus on other than him.
Chris grunted in acknowledgment as he tried to ignore the protest his muscles were making as he straightened up. Bending over probably hadn't been the best move, but he had his rifle and shells. Now upright, he took several breaths. "Should be back before too long," he advised, loading the rifle.
"I'll be here," Tanner assured as Chris headed off in the direction indicated.
Drawing the rifle tight to his shoulder, Chris waited for his shot. He was getting anxious about how long he'd been gone. They had trail rations back at the campsite, but he knew Vin would be better off with fresh meat or broth. The thought that maybe he could make a stew passed through Chris' mind. He'd have to take a look for some herbs or plants he could add to it.
Finally, the plump rabbit was right where Chris wanted him. With a gentle squeeze, the rifle barked and the rabbit fell, shot through the head.
With a deep breath, Larabee rose from his blind, wincing at the ache in his bruised and abused muscles. "I'm getting too old for this," he muttered, thinking of the fight he'd been in earlier that day.
Retrieving the rabbit, he headed back toward the campsite, ready to check on his friend and reassure himself that Tanner was alright.
As he came over the rise, he felt relief as he caught sight of the small campsite. Vin was still huddled under his blanket, leaning against his saddle. The fire was burning low, but it was still burning. All in all things were looking good.
"Get him?" Vin asked as Chris came within earshot.
Lifting his prize, Larabee just grinned.
"Mite scrawny, but I reckon he'll do," Tanner offered, eyeing the catch critically.
Shaking his head at his friend's response, Chris set his rifle down and picked up his knife. "Keep that up, you won't be getting any," he advised, a slight smile on his face.
"A fine, fat catch you have there, Chris," Vin amended, smiling at the verbal game as a shiver coursed through him. He pulled the blankets a little tighter around him, hoping his friend hadn't noticed. Glancing upward and seeing the frown on Larabee's face, the injured man knew his wish had not been granted.
With care, Chris set the rabbit on the ground and walked over to his friend. Kneeling beside the tracker, he reached out to feel Vin's forehead. "Would you sit still and let me check your temperature," he commanded as Tanner moved his head aside.
With a huff of annoyance, Vin allowed Chris to check his temperature. "Don't have a fever," he muttered, not at ease with the care being offered.
"No you don't," Larabee agreed, his voice reflecting his concern. Standing, he reached down for Vin's hand and informed, "You definitely don't have a fever, but you feel a little cool. Now take my hand and stand up. You're moving closer to the fire."
Hearing the increased worry and concern in his friend's voice, Vin felt his own anxiety increase. "Something you need to tell me, Pard?" he asked.
When it was evident Vin wasn't about to budge until he got an answer, Chris let out a sigh and rubbed the back of his neck, not wanting to share his thoughts, but knowing he had no other choice at the moment. "I've seen people who have lost a lot of blood before," Larabee explained softly, his eyes seeking out the distant horizon as his sight became lost somewhere in the past. "Some of them don't really have that many problems. But when they've lost a lot of blood, sometimes... " Taking a deep breath, he blew it out slowly. Meeting Tanner's watchful eyes, he said, "When they lost a lot of blood, they would get cool, kind of clammy, like you are now. They would get really pale and... and sometimes they'd slip into what the doctors called shock. When that happened..." Chris stopped as his voice broke. "When that happened, more often than not, they died."
Vin felt what little color he might have had drain from his face. He understood Chris' concern, for he, too, had seen people die from losing too much blood. He knew it was a valid concern, but he knew that he wasn't that far gone. His condition wasn't good and he wouldn't deny he was in pain, but he wasn't going to go into shock. Needing to assure his friend, Vin began speaking, "I've seen that, too, Chris, when people lose too much blood. One of the things I remember is that they stop making sense when they talk and they can't think clearly. They get really tired. I'm not those things and I didn't lose that much blood. You stopped my bleeding, got me warmed up and gave me water to drink. I'm fine."
The need to believe his friend warred with Chris' worry and concern as he locked eyes with Tanner. The fear of having been too late in stopping his friend's bleeding, that he could lose Vin slowly faded as he read the truth in his friend's eyes. He let the rational part of his mind evaluate what he'd seen of the tracker's injuries and what they'd done and compared it to what he'd seen in the past. It was true that Vin had lost a lot of blood, that he was pale and cool, but it wasn't more than that and neither of those symptoms were unusual when he also took into account the pain Tanner must be dealing with at the moment. "Alright," he agreed, the irrational worry gone. "But we're still moving you a little closer to the fire," he instructed. "I'm not about to eat my dinner while watching you try not to shiver," he concluded, a small smile appearing on his face.
"Fair enough," Vin agreed, reaching up for Chris' hand.
Reaching out, Larabee got a firm grip on Tanner's hand and hauled him up, letting out a soft groan as his muscles protested the movement. Seeing his friend sway slightly, Chris steadied Vin. A moment later, Vin nodded that he was alright. "Can you make it closer on your own or do you want to wait for me to help you?"
Vin's eyes narrowed in displeasure. "I'm injured," he informed. "I'm not an invalid. I can walk there on my own."
A smile fought to appear on Chris' face at the show of defiance and independence. "Should have figured it would take more than a few knife cuts and some blood loss to do in your ornery hide," he muttered as he gathered the bedrolls and saddle, making sure his words were just loud enough for the injured man to hear.
"I heard that!" Vin accused as he shuffled toward a spot closer to the fire.
"You were supposed to," Chris replied, moving past the younger man and setting out the blankets and saddle. By the time he was done, Vin was beside him. "Need some help getting down?" he asked.
"Wouldn't say no to a helping hand," Tanner admitted. With Chris' help, Vin settled onto the makeshift bed, pulling the blankets up around him and closing his eyes as he tried to control his shivering. "Hate this," he complained.
"I know," Chris replied, squeezing Vin's shoulder in a show of support. Rising from his spot beside his friend, Larabee picked up the rabbit and headed away from camp to clean it.
Before long Larabee was back with the rabbit skinned. Placing some of the pieces in the small pot, he spitted the other pieces and set them to cook over the flames. Adding water to the pot, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a few green herbs he had recognized as ones that only enhanced the taste of stew. "Reckon these should help it along," he said, tearing the herbs and sprinkling them into the stew.
"Roast rabbit with a side of rabbit stew," Vin teased. "I think we need to expand your cooking skills."
A soft chuckle escaped from the blond. "Roast rabbit's for me. Stew's for you," he explained.
"Didn't get stabbed in the stomach," Tanner groused. Seeing Larabee's eyes fill with disbelief and drop to look at the tracker's abdomen, Vin shifted his arm over the area of the wound and frowned. "I can eat."
Shaking his head, Chris turned back to his cooking. "You need to build your strength. You'll eat the stew," he commanded, the smile on his face softening the words.
"Bossy," Vin grumbled, shifting as he tried to distract himself from the pain that was wearing on him.
Larabee just shook his head and stirred the stew, wishing he had something to give his friend to ease the pain.
Before long, the meal was ready. Pouring the stew onto Vin's plate, Chris placed a spoon in it and then passed it to his friend, waiting until the younger man nodded his head that he had it before turning his attention to preparing his own meal.
The two men had been eating for several minutes before the Texan broke the silence. "Reckon we still have a few good hours of daylight left. Might as well put some miles between here than there."
Chris chewed slowly as he thoughtfully contemplated his friend's words. In truth, he was tired and sore. Vin was probably in no shape to be riding, but neither of them would be much better the next day.
"Can't stay here forever," Vin observed.
Glancing over at the other man, the blond understood what his friend was not saying. "Suppose you're right," Larabee agreed reluctantly, taking another bite of the rabbit. He didn't normally think too highly of his own cooking, but this tasted pretty good.
"You going to tell me what's got you so spooked about those men?" Tanner asked, spooning more of the stew into his mouth. Though he knew Larabee's worry about his health had been real, he'd also seen Chris' face when he had returned from checking on the third man. The expression had disappeared quickly enough, but Vin had wondered what caused it and promised to find out. Now seemed as good a time as any to ask.
The bite of rabbit Chris was chewing suddenly tasted like ash and he struggled not to choke as he swallowed it. Setting his plate aside, the blond took a drink of water and stood, wanting to walk away from the question and pretend it never happened, but knowing he couldn't.
Silent minutes ticked away while Larabee vainly hoped the question would just disappear. He knew better than that, though, knew Vin would wait until the hills were worn to dust if he had to. Releasing a resigned sigh, his eyes slipped closed as guilt settled on his shoulders. "They were after you," he admitted.
Nodding his head slowly, Tanner tried to figure out why that would bother Chris. In all the time they'd ridden together these were hardly the first bounty hunters they had met and weren't likely to be the last. He wanted to ask why this group was so special, but knew if he waited, Larabee would explain it in his own time.
As for the blond, he didn't have to look at the younger man to know he was simply nodding in acceptance. Normally, Chris wouldn't have thought twice about it either, not now that the immediate threat was well and truly passed. But this time, he knew they were only there because of him. Now he just had to admit his culpability to his friend. "They were in the saloon last night," he explained, his eyes seeking the ground before him. Clenching his jaw more tightly, he turned to face his friend, determined to look Vin in the eye when he confessed. "They didn't recognize you," he admitted. "Not until I said your name loud enough for them to overhear."
Vin could see the guilt weighing heavily on the older man's shoulders, but honestly couldn't think of why it was there. Larabee might have said his name out loud, but, in truth, the tracker hadn't even noticed that Chris had said it at the time. "Reckon I'm just as much to blame," he said. Seeing the puzzled look on the other man's face, he shifted slightly, hoping to get more comfortable and continued, "I didn't even think about it at the time. At least you noticed them. I suppose I've just gotten so comfortable around you and the boys and the town I've forgotten to watch out for things like that." Meeting Larabee's eyes, he could see the guilt had eased. He wasn't done, though. It wasn't often he would think to say something like this and even rarer that he would have an opportunity, but he knew it was the right time, "Reckon around you I just feel safe, like you should around family.."
The guilt he'd been feeling eased as Vin spoke to him and explained his own responsibility in the situation. Tanner's final words, though, wiped away any lingering doubts and guilt. A smile curved the side of Larabee's mouth as he drew in the words and let them comfort him. "Reckon I do, too," he admitted softly, pleased to see an answering smile on the other man's face.
They were interrupted by a whinny as the yearling made his presence known. Looking from the three horses to his injured friend, Chris sighed. "I suppose we can get in a few hours today," he agreed, knowing travel wouldn't be any easier in the morning. "You rest here and I'll get things cleaned up." Seeing the protest forming, he held up his hand. "Don't say a word," he commanded. "It's not going to be a fun or easy ride for you and you're going to need your strength."
Vin grumbled a bit, but knew Larabee was right. With his injuries, it would not be easy to sit a horse for any length of time. The pain of his wounds hadn't lessened by much and the loss of blood would catch up with him. The blond's careful moves hadn't escaped his notice either. "Fine," he agreed, settling back to eat some more of the stew, knowing he would need it.
A satisfied nod was the only response Larabee offered as he settled in to finish his own meal before packing up and leaving their campsite.
Larabee kept a close eye on the ailing man with whom he was riding. With the injuries they both sustained, there was no way they would be using Cutter's Pass on their return. It would have been nice to cut a few hours time off their journey, but neither of them were in any shape for tough riding. As it was, he had nearly called a stop to their progress several times. Each time, though, Vin seemed to sense what he was about to do and would inexplicably straighten in the saddle and turn a blue glare his way.
"You got a particular place in mind?" Chris asked, breaking the silence in which they had been traveling.
"Yep," was Tanner's only reply.
"It much further?"
Letting out a sigh, Chris prodded, "You plan on sharing any information about this place of yours?"
Vin was silent for several minutes, trying to gather himself to respond. In truth, he was in a lot of pain. As much as he knew it was necessary for them to begin making their way back, all he wanted to do right now was curl up and wait until he felt better. "Hidden spring about a mile ahead," came the short reply.
The reply left no doubt in Chris' mind that Vin was hurting and hurting badly. He still had some whiskey in the bottle and wished he could offer it to Vin to deaden the pain, but they both knew they would need it to clean Tanner's wounds to keep infection at bay. "Sounds nice," was the only response he gave, hoping the younger man could stay in the saddle that long.
Not long after the exchange, Vin turned his horse to the side of the main trail. Slipping between two large boulders, a narrow path emerged, winding its way among the fallen mountainside. They had been riding about five minutes when the path opened up into a well sheltered area with a spring in the middle and green grass all around.
"Nice campsite," Chris observed as he drew up alongside his friend.
"Water's here year 'round," Tanner informed, struggling to control his breathing. If he could control his breathing, he could control the pain. "Grass comes and goes," he added.
Nodding his understanding, Chris dismounted, grunting slightly as his feet hit the ground. Leading his horse and the yearling to the water, he found a low branch and looped their reins around it. Then, turning back toward Vin, he took a breath, stealing himself physically, for the effort of helping the other man down off his horse. Need a hand? he asked.
A sigh escaped the tracker as he nodded. The truth was, he was feeling a bit dizzy just sitting and wasnt entirely sure what effect attempting to dismount would have. Slipping his foot out of the stirrup and forcing himself to move his injured arm away from his side where it had been safely tucked, he started swinging his leg over when the world started spinning in directions he knew it shouldnt be.
Closing his eyes, he felt things settle as two strong hangs steadied him.
Lets do this together, Chris said softly, having seen his friends distress.
With care and some effort, soon Tanner had both feet on the ground, holding onto his saddle to anchor himself while Chris held him upright. When the immediate pain had receded into the background and the world stilled, he allowed himself a shaky breath and opened his eyes. Easily reading the concern and worry in the hazel eyes, he evened his breathing and nodded that he was alright.
Seeing that Vin was on his feet and able to stand, Chris stepped away and moved toward the horses head, preparing the lead the animal to the watering hole. Think you can make it on your own?
Vin just nodded, hoping the nausea he felt would pass soon. He really hated being injured. After a few minutes of remaining perfectly still, he was able to gather his strength and move forward. As he headed toward the water, he noticed Larabee had the saddles off the horses and Vin's bedroll laid out and waiting.
The warmth of friendship and family rose within the injured tracker as he arrived at his destination. Before he could worry about how he was going to be able to sit on the ground in a controlled fashion, Chris was at his side, ready to help. Offering a smile of thanks, the two men got Vin settled.
"Horses need a bit of attention," Larabee announced as he straightened.
"That they do," Tanner agreed, breathing hard from exhaustion and pain. "Peso rode real smooth today."
"I'll give him something a little extra," the blond promised as he headed toward their mounts.
Letting out a relieved sigh, Vin closed his eyes and relaxed. He didn't even try to fight the siren's song of sleep. There was nothing to worry about here. The spring was hidden and unknown and Chris was nearby watching over him. He was safe.
"I'll be back in a while," Chris assured as he swung up into the saddle. Meeting the blue eyes of the man sitting in the chair that was now on the front porch of his cabin, he added, "With Nathan."
A discontented look crossed Tanner's face before he let out a resigned sigh. "Alright," he acknowledged. It was true that it had taken them a day longer than planned to get to Chris' cabin, but he was healing fine now. All Nathan would do would be to tell him to rest, sleep, eat and not do anything too strenuous. He knew all that already. His cuts and stitches were clean and there was no infection. Larabee had done an excellent job taking care of the wounds. Allowing his eyes to drift toward the horizon, he must have let some of his longing to avoid the extra attention show.
"You will be here when I get back," Chris commanded, his voice brooking no argument.
Releasing another sigh, Vin met his friend's eyes and nodded his agreement. He watched as Chris turned his horse and headed for town.
A sound from the corral distracted Tanner and he noticed the yearly kicking up his heels and exploring his new surroundings in the safety of his new herd, his new family. "I'll be here, safe," he called to the retreating form. He was rewarded with a brilliant smile as Larabee turned and touched the brim of his hat in acknowledgment, understanding the tracker's true meaning - Vin would stay because he was safe here, with his family.
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