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- M7 -
"JD Dunne! Get your worthless hide down off that wagon seat and get over here right this minute!"
Buck was back. JD flinched at the stream of profanity he heard from his surrogate big brother. Shit! Wouldn't you know that they'd come back early? He had stayed at Chris' 'til late afternoon, making certain that Vin would be able to take care of things alone. Finally he realized that if he didn't return to town and something happened, he would in all likelihood lose his job. Reluctantly he had left the two injured men in the cabin alone. Now he wished that he had risked his job.
Doing as he was ordered, the young Easterner left his hat behind. He knew that Buck was going to need to take out his anger on something; his bowler was just too easy a target. Straightening to his full 5' 8" height, he tried to make himself appear even taller. It didn't help, especially considering that he was going to be taking on a 6' 3" mountain of fury.
"Hey, Buck, you're back! Things must have gone pretty well, huh?"
"Yeah, we're back," the big man growled. Grabbing JD roughly by one arm, he dragged him along behind him, until they were out of earshot of the townsfolk. Buck was seething, but still had enough control to know that whoever had hurt Chris could very well be nearby. "Not soon enough to keep you from playin' right into that crazy buff hunter's schemes. Dammit, boy! What were you thinkin', taking Chris out of town? We come back and there ain't a sign of ya anywhere, no sign a Chris. You have any idea what it was like to walk into Nathan's and find an empty bed?" JD had not thought about that. He knew that Buck must have been nearly out of his mind. But the big man wasn't finished. "Then we see Mrs. Travis and she tells us she seen you hitchin' up Vin's wagon, had some cock-n-bull story 'bout Vin wantin' it moved, and then she sees you drivin' it outta town, lookin' over your shoulder. Damn it boy, Chris ain't able to take care a himself, and Vin ain't in much better shape."
"I stayed out there with them, Buck. Vin's doing okay. There's not much cabin ta get around in, and I helped him lay everything out so he could find it. We took plenty of Nathan's herbs and stuff out there, he can keep Chris comfortable."
"And what about them headaches, boy? How's he gonna take care a Chris when he gets one a them blindin' headaches a his?"
"Well, he... uh, well, look... you're back now. I could go back out there, help out. It'll be okay."
"Ooooh no! Hell no, boy, you ain't goin' out there. You know why? Cause I'm goin' out there. I'm gonna kick that damn Tanner's skinny, raggedy ass for startin' all this. Then I'm gonna bring my friend back to town so he can get the proper care he needs. When I get back, I'm gonna kick your ass for fallin' for Vin's hair-brained ideas. THEN I'm gonna go get a drink, just so I don't kill you both for this!" His tirade continued under his breath as Wilmington stomped out of the alley and onto the street, heading toward the livery.
"Oh yeah, that went well," JD said as he rubbed the place where Buck had grabbed him. He tried to decide what to do. If he hurried, he could beat the gunman to the shack. He was a better horseman; faster and lighter. But, if he was caught, he'd get more than an ass kicking. It would be the last straw, and he could very well be branded unreliable by the others. As he stood there, trying to make a decision, Nathan Jackson entered the alley and his decision was made for him.
"JD, get in the wagon. We're going to the cabin, and you're going to help bring Chris back here." The ex-slave seemed as calm as ever, but Dunne could read the anger and disappointment in the big man's eyes. Dropping his head, he walked dejectedly toward the wagon he had just left.
- M7 -
"Chris?" Vin said the name softly, not wanting to wake his friend if he was still sleeping.
"Thought I heard you movin' around. How ya feelin'?"
"Don't know yet. Where are we?" He was groggy, his words slightly slurred.
"Out at your cabin."
"My cabin?" Surprise began to wake him up.
"How'd I get here?"
"Me 'n JD brought ya out in m' wagon."
"Where are the others?"
"Uh, they had ta go outta town." Vin was beginning to worry. Was Chris getting upset? Had he misread the man? Maybe they should have stayed in town?
"Snuck me out?"
"Naw, we drove right down th' street."
"In the daylight?"
"Well, no, but -"
"You snuck me out."
"Chris, look, I thought that -"
Larabee chuckled softly then said in a relieved tone "Thanks, pard."
He sighed. "Anytime, cowboy."
- M7 -
Buck and Nathan were on horseback, riding ahead of the wagon. JD watched them as they talked nearly the entire way to the cabin. He was certain that they were talking about him. Stupid kid, letting himself be roped into such an idiotic plan. How gullible was he? They were probably discussing what they were going to do to him when this was all over and they were back in town.
JD felt his heart quicken as they neared the cabin. At least from here, everything looked all right. Then Buck turned in his saddle and leveled one of the darkest, angriest looks on him that JD had ever been the recipient of. No, things were not all right. They would probably never be again. His heart sank. Looking down at his feet, he slumped in defeat.
Pulling up in front of the little cabin, they saw that the front door was open a crack, the barrel of Vin's mare's leg visible just inside.
"Vin, it's us... Nathan, Buck and JD" the healer announced. They saw the blunted barrel disappear and the door closed firmly.
Buck leapt from General's back and hurried onto the porch. Nathan caught up with him there, grabbing his arm. "Buck, calm down now."
"Nathan, the last thing I want to do is calm down," the gunman said in a voice dangerous in its quiet tones.
"Listen to me!" He stood between Wilmington and the door. "You remember one thing; Vin's my patient, too. I'm not gonna take kindly to having to patch him up again before he's even healed the first time."
"Patch him up now, patch him up later, I don't give a damn, Nathan. It's gonna happen...I'll see to it. That crazy fool could have killed Chris bringin' him out here. Hell, how do we know he ain't? I'm gonna knock some sense into that raggedy, long-haired head."
"All I'm saying is that he ain't in any condition to get whomped on right now. What you do to him when he's better, well, that's between you an' him. But he's my patient now, and I want him to heal right."
Taking a deep breath, thrusting his balled fists against his hips as he glared first at Nathan and then at the closed door, Buck finally said, "Fine. But as soon as you tell me he's okay, I'm gonna clean his clock."
"As long as we're agreed," the healer responded shortly. Turning, he led them into the cabin. The two big men brushed past Vin, as if he didn't exist. They moved to the narrow bed in a few easy strides. Kneeling next to it, Nathan began to examine Chris.
For several minutes the only sound in the room was the breathing of the five men and an occasional groan from Chris as Nathan probed his injuries. The gunfighter didn't awaken completely, but mumbled several times to Nathan that he wanted to be left alone. Finally the healer sat back on his heels.
"How bad off is he now?" Buck asked, shooting a look behind him toward Vin and JD. The kid was envious of Tanner. At least the tracker couldn't really see the anger flare again in the dark blue eyes.
"Actually, he's in pretty good shape, considering. Didn't do much damage. Pulled open a couple a cuts, but they've already stopped bleedin'. Think he's okay."
"I told you -" Dunne started. He closed his mouth and took a step backward as Buck rounded on him once more.
Turning back to the former slave, Wilmington said, "He be okay to take back to town tonight?"
"I think we ought to let him rest tonight. He's sleepin' good, I'd just as soon as he stayed that way."
"Hell, Nathan, he ain't hardly done anything but sleep for over a week."
"I know, but this is a deeper sleep than I've seen him in. Probably just worn out, but whatever the reason, he can use the rest. Why don't you go back into town for tonight? Come on out tomorrow morning and we'll take everybody back to town."
"I'll just stay out here."
The healer looked meaningfully from Buck to Vin to J.D and back to Buck. "I think it would probably be a good thing if you went on back into town, Buck. For everyone."
With a grumble of protest, Wilmington had to admit that the former slave was right. If he stayed in close quarters with JD and Vin overnight, he could almost guarantee that his temper would get the better of him. "Fine, I'll see you boys in the morning."
As they watched the big man leave, JD breathed a sigh of relief. But when he turned away from the door he saw almost as much anger registered on Nathan's face. His stomach tightened, he was torn between going back into town where he had more places to hide from Buck's anger, or staying at the cabin, where he could only rely on Nathan's calm nature to prevail. Listening to the sounds of General's retreating hoof beats, he said, "I'll... I'll go take care of the horses."
"You do that," Nathan said quietly. "Then you get back in here. You're gonna help me take care a these two men tonight."
"Nathan, I don't -" Tanner started to protest.
"Shut up, Vin," Jackson ordered. "You're gonna do what I tell you, and you're gonna keep your mouth shut. Got it?"
His eyes flaring with blue fire, the tracker decided to remain quiet. He needed to get Nathan on his side for now, but later, when he was better...well, that would be a different story all together.
- M7 -
When JD returned from the corral, he found the lamp burning brightly and Nathan busy at the little cook stove. Vin was curled up on the mattress, his back turned to the light. Even then he had the blanket situated so that it hid his face from the lamp's glow as well. Chris was still sleeping, but the young man was convinced that the gunslinger's face held no hint of the pain it had shown earlier.
"You scrounge around and find us some plates and such," Nathan ordered from the stove, not turning to face the boy. "We're gonna help Chris and Vin eat. Then me and you are gonna eat, and we're gonna figure out where we go from here."
"Alright," JD said softly. He felt uncomfortable searching through Larabee's personal belongings while the man was lying right there, but he wouldn't have disturbed him for anything. Finally locating enough things to serve all four of them he stood, waiting for his next instructions. Like Vin, he knew he needed to keep the healer from getting angrier right now. They needed an ally if they were going to keep Chris at the cabin. Nathan was the logical choice.
Without a word, Jackson picked up a mug and filled it with a dark broth. Holding it out, he said, "You go take this to Chris, make sure he drinks it all."
Remembering the response the gunslinger had given him earlier, he almost asked Nathan to allow him to help Vin. Instead, he nodded and took the mug. Going to the bed, he nudged Larabee gently, trying to remember how Vin had gotten him to respond positively earlier. "Chris? I need you to wake up. You need to eat."
Opening his eyes a slit, the blond regarded him coolly, but didn't seem angry. "I'm not hungry right now, Kid."
"You really need to eat. Let me help you sit up."
"I can do that myself, too, JD. Don't need you fussing over me."
Glancing over his shoulder, he found Nathan watching him, a look that showed both humor and anger. He was getting back at Dunne alright, in the best way possible. Chris could be difficult on his best days; now he would be nearly impossible.
"Chris, please? Just let me help you tonight. Okay?" The pleading in his voice made JD sound even younger than he was.
Staring at him for a full minute, Chris finally said, "Tonight."
Nathan saw the surprise he felt reflected in Vin's face. They had both overheard the conversation, and neither could believe that Chris Larabee would give up that easily.
With a small smile of gratitude and relief, JD set about propping Chris up in the bed. Retrieving the mug, he held it while the older man took a few sips at a time, resting his head back against the wall in between. It took nearly a full hour, but JD Dunne managed to feed Chris the entire mug of broth. Handing the gunman a cloth, he allowed him to wipe his own face. JD knew he had pressed his limit already. Afterward he helped Larabee slide back down in the bed, and straightened the covers over his mangled and bandaged body. Hazel eyes drooping shut, Chris yawned and said sleepily, "Thanks, pard." He was asleep then, and didn't see the look of pride that crossed the sheriff's face.
Moving back to the table, JD found a plate of food waiting for him. Nathan was already eating, having been successful in getting Vin to eat almost an entire plate of food. Wordlessly the young man began eating, afraid to look at the man across from him.
"You think you can get him ta eat like that in the morning?" Jackson asked without preamble.
"I don't know," JD turned and regarded the man half-hidden in the shadows. "He told me he'd only do as I asked tonight. But, I'm willing to give it a try."
"Good," Nathan said. "Cause if we can get him to eat like that a few more times, he might really start improving."
Dunne couldn't help it. He smiled broadly at the thought of helping his hero recover.
- M7 -
"Nathan?" Chris spoke softly and uncertainly, trying to make out the figure sitting in the chair next to his bed in the semi-darkness of the lamplight.
"Yeah, it's me, Chris."
"What time is it?"
"Where are we?"
"My - oh, yeah, I remember. Vin told me earlier that he and JD brought me out here."
"Yeah, that's right."
"They didn't talk to you?" He heard the barely restrained anger in the man's voice.
"Before they did it? Not really. Vin got the idea that you needed to come out here to rest, but I told him you needed to be where folks could take care of you."
"He was right, Nathan... I remember... I asked him to bring me out here. JD, too. I asked them to bring me out here." He could see their faces in his mind's eye. Vin resolute, willing to do whatever it took. JD, willing but afraid. He couldn't blame the kid; he knew he had been asking a lot.
"Don't make no difference, Chris," Nathan interrupted his thoughts. "You ain't well enough to be traipsin' the countryside. I told them that, and they should have listened. If I'm gonna be healin' you men, I need people to listen to me. I know I don't know a lot about medicine, but I'm the best you got."
Chris could hear the frustration in the other man's voice now. Jackson was only trying to do his best to keep them healthy. But he was wrong. This was what Chris needed; to be away from the claustrophobic feeling of the town. "Nathan, don't sell yourself short, you're a better doctor than a lot I've seen. But I needed to get away from town."
He heard a sound, part sigh, and part huff of frustration. Their healer was still not convinced, and certainly not happy. He wanted to tell him more, but the darkness welled up once again and dragged him back inside its embrace.
Nearby, Nathan Jackson watched his friend, his leader and, for the moment, his patient. Chris' face was, for once, unguarded; a book to be easily read. In the lamplight the ex-slave could see the pain and torment etched across the handsome face, but there was something else. A hint of peace... serenity... contentment. He was sleeping easier, too. Since they had brought him back from the cave, he had slept most of the time, but it was a light and restless sleep. His eyes would flash open at almost every sound, and they had all seen the fear that had taken up residence there. But here, in this tiny cabin that was as marshaled and Spartan as the man himself, Chris was at ease.
He began to realize that perhaps he had been wrong. Vin had known Chris, really known him, since the moment they had first looked across that dusty street at one another. They all knew that there was something in this particular relationship that the other five members of the group were not privy to; could not know. He would have to think about this more. Perhaps Chris did belong here at the cabin.
- M7 -
The dawn brought with it Buck Wilmington, smelling of liquor and still in a mood. He barely restrained himself from barreling into the little cabin, but stopped to knock and announce his presence before stepping in the door.
"Morning, Buck, " Nathan said from the table where he and JD were just sitting down to breakfast.
"You look like hell, cowboy," came a quiet voice from the bed. Wilmington looked over to find Chris sitting, propped up with pillows against the wall, watching him with a hint of amusement in the - finally - clear eyes.
"Yeah, well, after what these two yahoos put me through yesterday, it ain't no wonder, " he growled. Then he strode over and sat carefully on the edge of the bed. "You're lookin' a little less like someone three days dead though, gotta say that."
"Feel better, too," the blond admitted. "Think the cobwebs are starting to clear a little."
"Good, good. We get you back in town and the ladies can -"
"No." The word was spoken softly, but with an air of finality.
"No, Buck. I'm not going back there for now. I'm staying here."
"Chris, c'mon now, son..."
"No." That was it. He had made his decision.
Buck looked toward the table, searching for someone to back him up. While JD concentrated on his plate, Nathan looked back at him steadily. "I know what you're thinking Buck, and I don't disagree. Fact of the matter though, is he's doin' a hell of a lot better out here. I think that Vin and JD had the right idea."
Across the table from him, Dunne did not look up, but a smile of relief played across his young face.
"DAMMIT! Nathan, I thought you had more sense about ya than this. This ain't gonna work out."
"We'll find a way to make it work," Jackson replied simply. "JD can stay out here for a few days if need be; the rest of us can come out and check on them a couple of times a day. It'll be rough, but since when do we have it easy?"
"Yeah, and what happens when them bastards that done this to Chris come sniffin' around? They hear one word about him bein' out here and they'll be on him like flies on a dog turd. You know it and I know it. And," he turned to look at his long-time friend, "you know it, too, Chris Larabee."
"Let 'm come," a quiet voice came from the doorway. Realizing that he hadn't seen the young hunter, Buck whirled around to find Vin standing in the doorway. He was squinting from the dawn's light, his hat pulled down over his face. "Me an' JD can do what we need ta do if they show up."
"Buck, I'm not helpless, I can protect myself."
"Bullshit! You need lookin' after right now, old son. That stubborn ass pride a yours ain't gonna play this time. Now, if I've gotta hog-tie the lot of you ta do the right thing, then that's just the way it's gonna be." He stood up, pulling himself to his full height.
"Buck, why'nt you stay out here then, if you're so all-fired worried. Let JD get back ta his duties in town," Vin said matter-of-factly.
"If I'm out here with you right now, Tanner, I'm likely ta do somethin' I'll regret."
The younger man smiled. "If it makes ya feel better, Buck, take a swing at me."
His fists balling and flexing, Wilmington looked as if he might do just that. Then he took a deep breath. "Ain't gonna take on no invalid, son."
"Why, don't think ya can take me?"
"All right! You two knock it off. Buck, I'm staying out here. You go back to town and take over. JD, you want to stay out here for a couple of days?"
"I'll stay as long as it takes, Chris," his voice was filled with commitment.
"Fine. Buck, you're in charge back in town. See if you can find out if any of those... men..." he stumbled over the word as jumbled visions came to him of his days in the arms of the cult. "See if you can find out anything on them. Nathan, can you make sure that Vin and JD have whatever supplies they need?"
"Yep," came the answer.
Buck glowered at every other man in the room in turn. He wanted to argue with everything and everybody, but he knew that tone. Chris was in charge of his life again, and no one was going to change that. Without another word he turned on his heel and left the room. A few seconds later, they could hear General gallop away.
Slumping back against the wall, it was obvious that the confrontation had exhausted Chris. Nathan hurriedly mixed up some herbs. Leaving them to steep, he went to Larabee's side. Bathing the man's flushed face; he checked his vitals as well. Satisfied that the exertion had not been too much for him, he helped the man slide back down into the bed. Bringing the herbal drink to him a few minutes later, Jackson managed to get the once more semi-conscious man to drink the entire contents. Gently laying him back down on the bed, he tucked the covers around him. Chris was already sleeping.
- M7 -
Nathan left to return to town a few hours later, leaving JD and Vin to care for their leader. JD watched the big ex-slave ride away, suddenly feeling very young and very alone. He wasn't certain that he was up to the task of caring for Chris and, to an extent, Vin, but he couldn't admit that to the others. Chris was counting on him and so was Vin. Somehow they were going to get through this; he would do everything in his power to see to it.
Going back inside the cabin, he found Tanner slumped in one of the chairs, his face carefully hidden from the light. "You got another headache, Vin?"
"Yeah, ain't bad though. It'll go 'way in a bit."
"You get it when you went outside this morning?"
"Started then. Reckon I should'a left well enough alone and stayed inside another day 'r two. Just couldn't stand bein' in here cooped up any longer."
"Well, I'll fix you some of your medicine."
"Naw, that's okay, kid. It'll pass."
"Ain't so far," JD pointed out firmly.
"Vin, take the damn medicine," Chris said from the bed. "If I've got to stomach the stuff, you do, too."
"I'm fine, Chris."
"Ain't arguing, Vin."
Convinced that they would be grunting at one another next, JD threw up his hands and went to the table to mix the medicine. He would put it in front of Vin and let the headache and Chris convince him.
It was going to be a long few days.
- M7 -
"Mister Wilmington, you look a little the worse for wear. May I take it that your little sojourn to Mr. Larabee's cabin was unsuccessful?" The gambler looked up from where he and Josiah were playing cards. Buck had stormed into the saloon and immediately went to the bar to order a whiskey.
Turning to the two men, and seeing that they were the only other people in the bar at this early hour, the ex-lawman said, "That stupid sonofabitch! He is the most stubborn, hard-headed... pig-headed, fool I have ever known in my life!"
"I take it you're right, Ezra," Josiah said with his usual calm.
With a grin, the southerner shuffled the cards, still favoring his right arm. "It sounds as if you may have had an altercation with the laconic gentleman."
"What we had, Ezra, was an argument. Plain and simple. The stubborn sonofabitch... it's like tryin' ta talk a brick wall into movin'." He came to their table, yanked out a chair, and sat down stiffly.
"Chris was conscious though?" Josiah asked with interest.
"Oh yeah, awake, and thinkin' he can take on the world already. Can't get outta bed yet, but he's got everything handled." He had lowered his voice, but it was still filled with anger.
"You act as if that surprises you, Mr. Wilmington. Would any of us expect any less from our fearless leader?"
"What I expect is for Chris Larabee to have a little sense for once. He can't even get to his feet without help. He needs to be where we can protect him in case that bunch comes back around. But no... he's gotta be out in that little shack made from kindlin' with a blind tracker and a green kid. Gonna sit out there come hell 'r high water and prob'ly get himself killed."
"Perhaps, brother, but it may be that he knows what he needs better than we do."
"Oh, damn it, Josiah, don't you start. Chris strings more than three words together an' all of a sudden everybody's ready ta let him go on his merry way. We don't take care of 'im, he's gonna die." The last words were delivered in a pain-filled whisper. Josiah saw the pain and fear in Buck's face, the man was fighting because he was truly terrified that he could still lose his best friend.
"Buck," Josiah said quietly. "You know that no one is going to stand by willingly and allow Chris to die. We'll take care of him, just as he would take care of us."
"I concur," Ezra said, just as moved by what he saw in the other man's face. "We will find a suitable solution to this situation. Mr. Larabee will not be simply cut loose; he shall not be sacrificed to either his pride or this cult's practices."
"I believe, friends, that we need a plan." Josiah said with a nod.
- M7 -
Whether it was the pain, or Chris' goading, Vin finally drank the medicine JD left on the table for him. As he began to nod in the chair, the kid managed to talk him into going to bed.
"You wake me... in a bit... ya hear?" he said between yawns.
"Sure, Vin, I'll wake you in a little while." Dunne had no intention of doing anything of the kind, but if it got the tracker to stop pushing himself farther than he needed to he would let him think otherwise.
"You've been hanging around Buck and Ezra too long," Chris said quietly once his friend had settled. "You're getting too damn good at lying."
"I wasn't lying, it was a bluff," Dunne said with a smile. "Figure it comes in handy dealing with a bunch of mule-headed friends."
With a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, Larabee slowly eased himself down in the bed and closed his eyes.
"Well, they don't talk much more than this when they're awake," JD mumbled to himself as he left to care for the livestock.
- M7 -
In the darkness he began to hear them. Voices... whispering. He couldn't make out the words, but the voices gave him no sense of peace. The sound grew louder until there was no reality but the voices. Still he could not make out the words. The sound brought back the pain; the memory of pain. With that pain came fear and the knowledge that he could do nothing to stop either. And then the fear gave way to anger. The anger brought on by helplessness. By hopelessness. He cried out, raging against the pain and the fear.
- M7 -
"Chris?!" JD came running full speed from where he had been sitting on the porch. He had heard Larabee cry out, a sound that sent near-panic shooting through him. As he entered, Dunne found Vin struggling to wake from his own drug-induced sleep.
"Vin, I've got him. You lay still." Kneeling next to the bed, Dunne took hold of Chris' shoulders. The other man cried out again, and struggled to get away from the restraining hands. "Chris! It's me... it's JD. It's okay. Chris?" He tried to get through the nightmares that the gunman continued to fight.
"Chris? Chris! " It was Vin. The tracker knelt next to the young sheriff and spoke firmly. "Chris, you listen here, pard. You're okay... you're safe. It's just me, you an' JD out here. Nobody else. Listen ta me, Chris. Yer safe. Ain't nobody here ta hurt ya."
Slowly Larabee began to relax, slumping onto the bed. His breathing went from rasping gulps to a quivering sigh. Tears continued to trail along his face; and his hands trembled.
"JD, get a cold cloth, okay?"
"Y-yeah." Returning with it quickly, he handed it over to Tanner.
Washing the pale face gently, Vin continued talking. "Chris, yer safe. You're here with me an' JD and we're gonna make sure you're okay. You ain't gotta worry 'bout nothin'."
"V-Vin?" Slowly the tortured man opened his eyes, finding and focusing on the face of his friend. "Vin? Where... where are... we?"
"Still at th' cabin. You remember? We brought ya out ta th' cabin so you could rest. Remember?"
"Y... yeah... I remember... yeah," he drifted back to sleep.
Rubbing his eyes, Tanner leaned against the bed for a few minutes. He felt a hand on his shoulder.
"You okay?" JD asked quietly.
"Will be in a minute. How 'bout you, Kid?"
With a short laugh, Dunne said, "Sure, I'm fine."
Grinning, Tanner said, "Keeps gittin' better, don' it?"
"Oh yeah...let's get you back into bed."
"Naw, I..." a wave of vertigo suddenly overtook him. "Maybe for a little... little while longer." He slumped against the other man.
Catching him, JD pulled Vin to his feet and to the mattress. Tucking him into bed, he sat next to the hunter and allowed himself a few minutes respite.
- M7 -
Outside, there was movement near one of the cabin's side windows. Two figures moved away, deeper into the shadows.
- M7 -
"Look, JD, I don't think it's too much to ask."
"But, Chris --"
"JD, Josiah's pants still here?"
"Yeah, never did give them back ta him."
"We can use them for now."
"Look, long 's he's got his mind set, ya know we ain't gonna change it."
"JD, I just want to go sit on the porch for a little while... nothing more. I just don't want to be sitting out there in these ripped up drawers."
A mental picture came to the young man of someone riding up on the cabin and finding Chris Larabee sitting on the porch; arms and legs wrapped in bandages, chest and back covered in stitches and scabbing burns, dressed only in long-johns that had been ripped off just above his thighs. With a smile of understanding, he found the pants.
Between the three of them, they managed to get Chris into the borrowed pants. Easing Larabee to his feet, the two younger men helped him hobble from the narrow bed to the porch. There the afternoon sun greeted them brightly. As he helped JD rest Chris in the straight back chair, Vin groaned.
"I'll take it from here," JD said quietly. With a hesitant nod, the tracker moved back into the shadows, leaving the young man to settle their friend under a blanket. "Okay, Chris, there you go." He squatted next to the other man, making certain that Larabee was steady enough to sit in the chair alone. He looked paler than JD had ever seen before, and he was panting with exertion. But, finally satisfied that Chris was able to sit in the chair, he moved to sit across the little porch.
- M7 -
"Looks like he's feelin' a mite better."
"Yep, looks like. Got another week and a half til th' full moon."
The two men watching the cabin settled back in the tall grass, shaded by trees, unseen by those in the cabin.
- M7 -
"Are you going to sit here with me the entire time, JD?"
"I'm not going anywhere."
"Damn it, now you sound like Vin."
JD simply smiled.
Chris sighed, settled back as well as he could, and pretended to be alone. They sat there, each one simply watching. Larabee watched the clouds pass and the sun move across the sky. Dunne watched his friend from the corner of his eye, as he pretended to watch nothing other than the horses in the corral.
Inside, comforted by the dim coolness of the cabin, Vin listened. One hand curled loosely over the stock of his mare's leg, he used the hunter's senses that had been honed over the years of living off the land; he used the hunted man's senses, honed by years of living under a bounty. Whatever it took, he would make certain that Chris was safe from the men who had tried to kill him. He wished that he could keep him as safe from the demons of his mind. But only Chris had the key to fight them.
- M7 -
Buck and Ezra rode toward the cabin. The big ex-lawman was balancing a large picnic hamper on one hip; the smell of fried chicken causing his stomach to growl louder by the minute.
"Well, I'll be," drawled the man beside him. "Evidently our Mr. Larabee has regained some measure of strength."
Looking toward the cabin, Buck could see Chris propped up on one of his straight back chairs. JD was slumped in another, his feet propped up on the corner of the table, fiddling with his pistol. Buck smiled, "Well, would ya look at that. Didn't figure he'd stay down for long." He was still upset about the situation, but they had hashed out a plan that would keep Chris safe until he could convince that mule-headed friend of his to return to town where he belonged. And later, when Nathan said he was well, Buck Wilmington had every intention of making certain that Vin Tanner never forgot that he had overstepped the bounds of friendship. Coaxing his gray forward to a gallop, the big man raced ahead, the hamper bouncing precariously at his side.
With an amused shake of his head, the gambler followed. "After being taunted with the heavenly aromas wafting from that hamper, Mr. Wilmington, you best not spill the contents because of your childish exuberance."
"Well, howdy boys, " Buck sang out as he reined General in next to the porch. He didn't miss the fact that the sun glinted softly off Tanner's sawed-off as it was eased back into the shadows. "Howdy, Vin," he added evenly.
"Buck," came the tracker's reply.
"What are you doing out here, Buck?" Chris asked evenly. He questioned the good spirits of this oldest friend, even though he knew the man wasn't one to hold onto anger. Something told him that there was more going on in that dark head than a simple visit.
"Well sir, Mrs. Travis wasn't real certain that she could trust either Vin or JD to feed you right, so she asked us ta bring ya some dinner."
"She did, huh?"
"Reckon she could hear my stomach growling all the way in town?" he smiled, winking at JD.
"Can't say that we had much to work with out here, seeing as about all you had was some beans, jerky and flour," the young man replied, smiling in return.
By then Standish had joined them. Handing the hamper to JD, Buck eased Chris to his feet. With his friend's help, the gunslinger made his way into the little cabin.
- M7 -
"Lordy, I eat another bite, we're gonna have to make the' doorway bigger for me ta leave." Buck grinned, leaned back in his chair, and rubbed his stomach.
"Then you're finished, Cowboy, 'cause I ain't putting' up with you, too," Chris said lightly from the bed.
"Snores too loud, anyway," Vin chimed in. He sat slouched against the wall on his mattress, a plate of food balanced on his knees.
"Well, ain't none a you boys exactly a prize to be around, neither, " Buck adopted a hurt tone, but they could see the twinkle in his eyes.
"Well, gentlemen, while I am loath to end this heartwarming reunion, I fear that Mr. Wilmington and I must take our leave."
"Yeah," Buck agreed, "with you yahoos out here lolly-gaggin' 'round, there's a lot more for us workin' men ta do."
"Uh-huh," JD said. "Not to mention a lot less competition for the ladies."
Laughter filled the little cabin, as Buck tried to think of a retort, but finally just shrugged his shoulders and gave them a look that asked 'Is there any doubt?' More laughter rang through the tiny room.
A few minutes later found the two visitors mounted and calling good-bye to the cabin's residents. Closing the door behind him, Dunne sighed. It had almost seemed like old times for a little while; laughter pushing away the memories of Chris' face as he woke
from another nightmare.
Shrugging off those thoughts, he turned to the reality of the situation. Chris, worn out from the simple act of sitting in a chair, and sated with his first solid meal in weeks, had fallen asleep sitting up. Rescuing the plate that threatened to fall from his lap, JD helped the drowsy man settle into bed. Turning, he pulled Vin's plate from his grasp as well.
The young hunter winked open an eye and whispered, "Thanks, Kid." With that, he simply rolled over onto his side and began snoring softly. Busying himself clearing up after their meal, the young sheriff once more thought about how nice it had been to simply sit with the others, talking of nothing in particular.
- M7 -
"Here we go again," JD mumbled to himself as he rolled out of his bedroll. Chris was huddled in the corner of his bed, his arms wrapped protectively around his head. Hoarse cries echoed through the room as he recoiled from the demons that haunted his sleep.
Vin was sitting in front of him, talking softly and trying to make his friend understand.
"Chris, listen ta me, pard. You're okay. You're just havin' a nightmare, that's all. Ain't no one but me, you an' JD here. We've got your back, pard, ain't no one gonna hurt ya."
It seemed at first that not even Vin's calm reassurances were going to be heard. But, slowly, the blond began to relax. Finally he calmed to the point that allowed Tanner to touch him, and then slowly guide him back down under the blankets. Wordlessly, JD handed the tracker a cool cloth, and Vin bathed the tear-stained face.
Chris' eyes fluttered open. "Vin?"
"I have... another... another dream?"
"Yep. You're okay now though. No more nightmares, ya hear? Go on ta sleep, pard."
"I'm... sorry... I keep waking you boys up..."
"Don't worry 'bout it. Just go on back ta sleep."
"Sorry," he said once more.
Patting the still trembling shoulder reassuringly, Vin settled in on the floor next to the little bed. He looked up at JD "Why'n't you go back ta sleep kid? I'll sit with him for a little while."
With a smile at the hopeful tone in the young man's face, he said, "I'm fine. If I need ya I'll holler. Go get some sleep."
With a mumble and a nod, the sheriff scuffed back to his tangled bedroll, rolled into it, and was quickly asleep.
Vin smiled again. Poor kid, he'd hardly slept for days, so worried about making certain that both he and Chris were alright. J.D was having to grow up a lot, in a pretty rough way. Nurse-maiding your hero couldn't be easy.
Tanner laid his head back against the wall and started to close his eyes. Suddenly he sat very still. Something... there was something wrong. He had heard something or someone move out on the porch. Damn it! Where was his shotgun? Moving slowly, cautiously, he found his way to his mattress. Nothing. The gun wasn't there. Think! Wait... the table. He had it at the table... but they had used it since; Buck, Ezra and JD had eaten there. Nearby then? Was his mare's leg nearby? For the first time since it had happened, he felt the true limitations of his vision. He had been fooling himself, thinking that he was of any use like this. Dejectedly he went to JDs bedroll. Dropping to his knees he whispered in the young man's ear, "Kid, I need ya ta be real quiet." He heard a quick intake of breath and felt the tousled head nod beneath his face. "I heard somethin' outside, and I can't find m' gun. You know where it is?" Another affirmative nod.
Scooting back, Vin let JD crawl out of his bedroll for the second time that night. The boy crept to where they had set the sawed-off shotgun earlier and brought it back to the hunter. Motioning toward the dim outline of the front window, Vin led the way across the room. Crouching beneath the window, they both listened, but heard nothing. Finally JD inched his way up, peering over the sill, searching the shadows for any sign of unwanted visitors. He saw nothing. "Ain't nothin' out there, Vin," he whispered.
"You stay here with Chris, then, I'll go out there - "
"And what? Vin, you can't see that well yet, and I don't figure it's gonna clear up in the next two minutes. I'll go." Dunne hated saying the words, he knew how much they hurt. But better the truth than to allow Vin to go out there and be gunned down by someone he couldn't even see.
Tanner slumped against the wall. The kid's words had burned through him like lightening; hurting all the more because they were true. The feelings of helplessness he had been fighting swarmed over him once more. He wanted to crawl away and hide; to rail against his infirmities; to die. He had been a fool to believe that he could do anything to keep Chris safe from the men who wanted him dead.
All of those feelings and more rushed through him. Then he pushed them away, set them aside with his pride and his stubbornness. Nodding shortly to the other man he whispered, "I'll back you up from here. Go out and follow the wall to yer left, okay? I'll track ya from th' windows."
"Okay," JD agreed, and edged over to and out the door.
Vin listened as the kid crept along the wall slowly. He strained to hear sounds of anyone or anything else beyond the walls, but there was nothing.
Outside, JD tried to keep his heart from pounding a hole in his chest. Fear threatened to consume him, but the overpowering need to keep his friends safe helped him to put that fear in its place. Edging his way along the wall, he stopped every few inches as he sought to find movement in the shadows beyond the porch. He stopped when one of the horses began to stomp and blow in the corral. Then the others followed suit, something spooking them. Dunne tightened and then loosened his grip on his twin colts, holding them at the ready. He slid as silently as possible around the table and chairs that Chris kept on the porch, then to the corner of the little cabin.
Inside, Tanner listened intently. He had heard the horses begin to sound off as something strange disturbed them. His instincts told him to slip outside and go after whatever had approached the cabin, but he knew he could very well make things worse. Still able to see little more than a general blur of shapes and colors, light and dark, he would be just as likely to throw down on JD as he would a prowler. Taking a deep breath, he sat still and listened.
JD felt as if he had been rooted to that spot, frozen in time, for an eternity. Finally, his guns leading the way, he turned the corner.
And felt the guns pulled from his grasp.
And a hand clamped over his mouth.
And darkness suddenly claimed him as something soft and pungent was pressed over his mouth and nose.
In the cabin, Vin heard a small gasp and instantly knew that something had happened to JD "Damn!" He swore under his breath. Heedless of the fact that he was in nothing but his pants; that he could see very little; that he could be easily overpowered by whoever was out there; that his gun was the only thing standing between Chris and those who wished him harm now; he scrambled through the door.
"Where you goin', boy?" a voice growled in his ear. Tanner felt arms like bands of iron wrap around his body, clamping his arms to his side. He struggled, but it would not have been harder to battle a grizzly. The man-mountain simply stood there, squeezing the life from the young tracker until the gun fell from his numbed grasp. Vin felt himself blacking out, but fought it. If he fell, then there was no one to stand up against these men and keep Chris from being returned to the cult and certain death. If he gave in, Chris died; it was as simple as that. And he would not let that happen.
Gathering his last ounce of strength, the hunter tensed his lean body and thrust backward against the big man who held him. The behemoth grunted, but did not relax his grip. A second and a third time, Vin ploughed into the human wall, but to no avail. And then, suddenly, he heard the man yelp and jerk. And Vin was loose.
Slumping to his knees, Tanner drew in a few quivering breaths, trying to fill his aching lungs with air. Then he felt someone beside him; someone taking hold of him. He struck out, but his fist was easily deflected. The person grabbed him firmly and a voice said, "Easy there, brother, it's only me."
"Yep. Let's get you inside, okay?"
He nodded, then said, "m' gun?"
"I've got it, and I have you. Come on now, before you catch cold." Josiah lifted him easily to his feet and led the still-shaken hunter back into the cabin. Heavy footsteps came around the porch and entered close behind them. Vin tensed, but Josiah laid a calming hand on his shoulder. "How is he, Nathan?"
"Just sleepin'. Probably sleep through 'til mornin'."
"JD?" Tanner asked.
"Yep. One a them fellas knocked him out. Smells like ether."
"Ether? That stuff ya put folks' ta sleep with 'fore ya operate on 'em?"
"Why not just kill him?"
"Perhaps they saw another likely sacrifice in brother Dunne, " Josiah said softly.
Vin felt a chill wash over him at the thought of JD going through what Chris had. The kid was tough; no doubt about it, but Tanner doubted that he could survive the torture Chris had.
"Vin, close your eyes. I've got ta light the lamp so I can check ya all over," Nathan said.
Closing his eyes and shading them with one hand, the hunter slumped tiredly in the chair Josiah had guided him to. "Hey," Vin said suddenly. "Where'd you fellas come from, anyway?"
"Well," Josiah said with a long pause, "we just thought we'd come out an' see if you were doin' okay."
"In th' middle a th' night?"
"Any reason we can't?"
"Josiah, you don't lie near 's well as Ezra 'r Buck. Want me ta give ya a little more time ta think a somethin' better?"
"Yeah, how 'bout we discuss it tomorrow?"
"If I weren't so tired, I'd argue," the young man said with a yawn.
"Then, how about we get you ta bed?"
"I'm okay for now."
"All right, " the ex-preacher said hesitantly. "Nathan, I'm gonna go check on our 'friends' out there. You need me, give a holler."
"Alright," the healer said distractedly as he examined the youngest member of their group.
"Vin?" Chris' voice broke the stillness.
The tracker, keeping his eyes shielded, padded across the small cabin to the bed. "Hey, pard, go on back ta sleep. Ever'things fine."
"You're babying me, cowboy."
He laughed softly. "Yep, reckon I am. Sorry. We had a little dust up. Don't know th' particulars yet, but Josiah an' Nathan's here, so you can rest easy."
"Don't see that happening," Chris said sadly, "until we clean out the nest of vipers that seem set on causing trouble." Slowly and painfully the gunfighter hitched himself up in the bed. He looked over to where their resident doctor was just finishing his examination of their youngest.
Nathan sat back and answered the questions he saw in the other man's eyes. "He's fine, just unconscious. They used ether on him from the smell on his face and clothes. Soon as it wears off, he'll be 'bout as good as new." Tucking the blanket around the young man's shoulders, he came to where Tanner sat next to Chris. "Vin, how you doin'?"
"I'm fine, doc," he said quietly.
"Man gets hugged by a grizzly bear, " Josiah's voice rang out from the doorway, "he might come away with a few bruises."
"Let me take a look," Jackson moved the other man's arm from where he held it protectively around his abdomen. There were indeed bruises. A quick examination told the healer that this seemed the extent of it. "You're gonna be sore for a few days, but I don't think there's any serious damage. I'd tell you to take it easy, but you're as hard headed as he is," he nodded toward Chris, "so I ain't gonna waste my breath."
As if to prove the healer's point, Chris said, "Josiah, what about those men?"
"I've got them all snug in Vin's wagon for now. Figure we'll take them into town at first light."
"I want to go see them."
"Chris," Nathan started.
Shaking his head, the gunfighter said, "I've been on my back long enough. Time I started taking control."
None of the other men were ready for Chris to start risking the life they had been fighting so hard to protect. At the same time, they were relieved to see the fire returning to his eyes and voice. Chris Larabee was waking from the dead.
"All right," Josiah said finally, "let's go take a look at these men."
Nathan and Vin moved, allowing the ex-preacher to scoop the gunman from his bed and start toward the door.
"Josiah," Chris growled.
Cutting him off with an even stare, the big man said, "You wanna go back to bed?"
Even Chris Larabee knew his limits. Bucking the big man who was carrying him like a sack of flour went beyond those limits. He closed his mouth and suffered in silence.
Reaching the wagon, Sanchez let Chris down, steadying the man as he swayed on his feet. Keeping one arm protectively around Larabee's waist, he flipped back the canvas tarp and scratched a match to life on one of the roughhewn boards. Holding it out, he let Chris see first one trussed up man and then the other. As the gunman searched their faces, he found himself flooded with a jumble of disconnected memories. Pain, humiliation, fear, helplessness, anger; all washed over him, bathing the traumatized man in emotion.
Suddenly he found himself unable to breathe. His knees buckled, only Josiah's strong arm around his waist keeping him from falling to the ground. The light disappeared as Josiah killed the match.
"Chris... Chris! Listen to me. Focus on my voice, Chris. You're safe, son. They can't hurt you. They're tied up and unconscious. They can't hurt you. It's alright. Do you hear me? Chris?"
"Yeah... yeah," he took a deep, shuttering breath, and then another. Slowly he managed to regain some measure of control. Straightening, he said, "I'm okay... thanks."
"Yep. Let's get you back inside." This time Chris said nothing as the former preacher lifted him into his arms and carried him back into the little cabin. Returning the gunman to bed, Josiah sat next to him. Regarding Chris with great concern evident in his blue eyes, he said, "Chris, if you talk about it; bring it out in the open -"
"Not yet Josiah... not yet." The eyes that met the holy man's were bright with unshed tears.
Nodding, he said, "Just remember that you have six friends who'll gladly help you. When you're ready, we'll take some of your burden for you... you aren't alone."
The blond nodded, a quivering smile expressing his thanks.
"Chris, I want you to drink this," Nathan appeared next to the bed, holding a mug.
"Nathan... I don't want to sleep," Chris responded quietly. "I don't... don't want to dream."
"Drink this and you won't dream."
"Chris, drink it and sleep. Know that we'll be here, and no one will harm you," Josiah said evenly.
Shakily propping himself up, the blond accepted the mug and, with Josiah's help, drank the herbal brew. Finishing it, he slumped back to the bed, his eyes already drooping. "Not much... of a bad guy... am I?" He mumbled the words, slurring them slightly.
Sanchez chuckled. "Even bad guys need a friend from time to time. Don't worry; we won't do anything to ruin your reputation." He sat beside the injured man until he was certain that Chris was sleeping soundly. Carefully easing from the bed, he walked outside. Nathan had taken up a position on one of the chairs, keeping an eye on the wagon where the men had been secured. Josiah took another chair, sitting where he could watch inside the cabin.
"For the moment."
"Gotta say, he looked in pretty bad shape when you brought him back in while ago. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea for him ta see those men right now."
"He faced the truth, brother. His mind won't be able to heal until he's faced it squarely. And his mind's -"
"Keepin' his body from healin'. I figured that, too. But, his body needs to be strong enough to handle takin' on the pain that's gonna come with all that truth."
"Well, that's where we rely on your abilities my friend."
"You're setting a lot of store on a stretcher bearer."
"You're doubting yourself. Why?"
"Josiah... I can patch a wound, or set a broken bone, but I ain't no doctor. You all seem to forget that sometimes."
"How can we, as long as you don't? You'll never let us forget for very long. But perhaps you need to consider that if we do forget from time to time, it's because our trust in you; our faith in your abilities; allow us to forget.
"Nathan, you're no more alone in this than Chris is. We're all in this together and together we'll see Chris through his problems. Just as we've faced outlaws and murderers in the past... and will in the future. Together."