This is a Vin hurt for Cheyenne's birthday. She wanted Vin hurt by weather with Chris, Buck and Josiah around for the comfort. Hope this fills the bill. A big thank you to LaraMee for the wonderful college for this story. Also a huge thanks goes to Chris for being my beta on this story.
Chris Larabee was just finishing his meager breakfast when he heard horses coming. Grabbing his gun belt and slinging it over one shoulder, he took his cup and went outside. He leaned against a post waiting to see who was coming. It was just after daybreak and he was only wearing his long johns and jeans. It didn't take long to recognize the big gray and the blazed face of Peso. He guessed by the size that the other rider was Josiah.
Vin pulled Peso to a stop right in front of Larabee. The tracker leaned forward and crossed his wrists on the saddle horn, "Hey, Cowboy."
Stopping a smile Larabee asked, "What are ya'll doing out here?"
"Well now, we figured you missed us after being out here for so long. It being so quiet in town, we decided to come help ya put up that fence you're so hot about stringing." Buck grinned at his old friend.
Chris nodded. "I could use the help with the fence, but I got nothing to feed you."
"That's alright. Darlin' Inez packed up a basket full of chuck for us."
"Darlin' Inez?" Vin snorted.
"Better not let her hear you say that. And wasn't it Vin that got her to fix something? Him looking all wistful, when he saw her making tamales," Sanchez said stopping Buck's tale before it began.
"Wistful?" Vin asked startled at the word.
Shaking his head Buck said, "That's not the point. We not only got a basket of Inez's fine cooking, but Tiny loaned us the use of this fine mule and harness to haul those fence posts you've been chopping."
"Suit yourself. I could use the help. Who's watching the town?"
"JD and Ezra are watching the town. Nathan is watching Lupe Gonzales, she's about to pop any moment."
Vin gave Chris a grin as he reined Peso over by the barn. Buck and Josiah followed him and they unsaddled and turned their horses out. Vin put the basket in the shade and leading the mule asked, "Where's all them posts?"
Larabee pointed to a stand of timber about a half mile away. "There mostly. Be careful, shot a rattler yesterday. The heat's got them coming out."
"I'll watch," Vin said as he headed to the timber.
The four men worked through the morning and into the afternoon. They stopped briefly to eat and rest in the shade. Then they started back up again. Chris and Buck were working at one end of the fence line and Josiah at the other, with Vin keeping them all in posts.
+ + + + + + +
Chris stopped and wiped the sweat off his face with his sleeve. The long johns he wore were becoming ripe in the October heat. It was so hot even Vin had shed his coat and shirt. Josiah kept on his torn long johns and Buck, being Buck, wore only his hat, pants, and boots.
"Damn, Stud, you could'a waited until it cooled down before we started this fencing project," the rogue teased as he thrust the post hole digger again and again into the dry hard ground.
"Hell, Buck, around here that could be January. Besides I need that fence. You, Josiah and Vin didn't have to volunteer to help."
Buck reached for the canteen and took a long drink, "Where is Vin?"
Larabee looked down the way, "Josiah is there, I reckon Vin's making another trip to get more posts."
Wilmington looked where Larabee was pointing. "Hell, he just wanted to be by the trees where it's cooler."
"Dig Buck, as soon as we have the posts in, we can call it a day. We can string the wire tomorrow."
The rogue looked up at the clear sky. "Don't remember it ever being this hot in October." Sighing he grabbed the post hole digger and began pounding the earth.
+ + + + + + +
Vin looked at the sky again. A breeze had come up not long ago and it kept blowing a little harder as time passed. It made it cooler but it didn't feel right somehow. The tracker saw clouds building over the mountains to the west and as he walked kept glancing at them.
Leaving a load of posts near Josiah, Vin began heading back. Josiah had barely nodded when he passed. The big man seemed to be making it a personal challenge to dig through the hard rocky soil.
The wind changed and the clouds became angry, boiling and tumbling, obliterating the mountains. As it grew in intensity the wind became cold and damp. Thunder roared followed by lightning slashing through the sky. Vin dropped the mule's leads and turned back toward Josiah. "Run, Josiah, run." He shouted as he began to run toward the cabin. He shouted again, "Chris, Buck, run!"
Larabee felt more than heard Tanner's shout. He looked up to see Josiah running toward him and further back Vin, his arms waving. Looking back behind Vin, his eyes widened at the wall of white that was chasing after the two men.
"Run, Buck! Hail!" the gunman shouted as he turned and ran for the shelter of his shack.
Driving, stinging freezing rain poured from the sky soaking the men in seconds. Larabee reached the safety of the overhang first and leaned against the wall gasping. He could hear Buck panting beside him.
Then it started. The pounding so loud he could hardly think. It started with pea sized hail mixed with cold rain. But the hail stones quickly grew to egg sized. The roof of the overhang shuddered with the force of the storm. Larabee stood mesmerized by the savagery of it.
+ + + + + + +
Sanchez looked up at the sound of Vin's shout and saw the wall of white coming toward him. Dropping the digger he turned and started running. He could hear the bellow of the mule behind him and then the pellets of ice pummeled him so hard he couldn't hear anything else.
At first it was just little stings but it quickly grew stronger and stronger. Slipping, the big man fell and it took everything he had to climb to his feet and continue running. The force of the storm blinded him with its fierceness until he ran on instinct alone.
Now the hail was egg sized and truly hurt when it hit his skin. Over and over the thought ran through his head, "Lord? Is this what it feels like to be stoned? I have new respect for Stephen, and what he endured now."
Finally he stumbled under the shelter of the porch and leaned against the wall trying to catch his breath. He shivered from the pain and cold.
"JOSIAH? WHERE'S VIN?" Chris shouted to be heard above the roar of the hail.
Still leaning, his forehead against the wall of the cabin, Josiah turned his head just enough to see the man beside him. Swallowing the pain he rasped out, "He was just behind me..." Eyes widened and the big man spun around, the deafening sound of the hail drowning out everything else Chris was saying. The preacher's eyes searched the white wall for signs of the tracker. He couldn't see more than ten feet away and the ground was beginning to look like a winter snow storm. "He was right behind me," he said again.
From the corner of his eye he saw a streak of black start to pass him. Buck grabbed the determined gunslinger.
"Let go Buck! Vin's out there," Larabee shouted above the roar of the storm.
Buck leaned into his long time friend while Josiah grabbed the other arm. "Ya can't help him right now, Chris. The hail would bash in your head."
"Buck's right, Chris," Sanchez said as he leaned into the gunslinger.
Hazel eyes searched and saw the truth in the cobalt blue ones. He wanted desperately to deny it, to punch out Buck and Josiah and go anyway. "Buck..."
"Ya gotta wait, Pard. Vin'll be okay. He's probably holed up under one of those big pines waiting out the storm."
The hail was slowing down. It seemed like an eternity to the three men before the hail stopped. Almost immediately the sun came out and began melting the small mountains of ice stones, fusing them together. The sodden ground was covered in a white blanket. The silence that now prevailed was worse than the sound of the hail.
Carefully Larabee, Sanchez, and Wilmington ventured out. Without a word they started toward the area where Vin had been working. Slipping on the ice or being sucked down by the mud made their progress slow.
Josiah's eyes searched for some sign of the tracker. He wiped his arm across his forehead to clear the moisture that threatened to fall into his eyes. He didn't even notice that his arm became streaked with red.
One step behind Larabee the big man began retracing his steps. "Lord, please, let us find him. Let him be alright."
+ + + + + + +
Vin turned and whacked the mule on the rump as he began to run and shout, waving his arms. "Josiah, Run! Chris, Buck, run!" He'd always been a fast runner but the storm was faster. It overtook him quickly making the tracker feel he was standing still instead of running for his life. He felt the icy rain hit his hot skin and chilled him even though he was heated from running.
Tanner ducked his head between his shoulders when the rain turned to hail. Pea sized pellets struck him and stung. The ground became slick and slippery and it became harder to keep his footing. He watched and saw Josiah stumble and fall but the big man got up and ran on. Only a little further, but the hail was increasing in size. He could no longer see Josiah and it was as if he were running in molasses, each hail strike pounding him.
The hail grew in intensity and one stuck him on the left temple causing him to lose his balance, turn his ankle and fall. The egg sized ice stones were coming so fast he couldn't get his breathe, couldn't get up. All he could do was try to cover his head with his arms and hands. Curling up into a tight ball Vin tried to protect his soft middle. At first he jerked with each stone, but quickly his body became colder and numb as a thousand, thousand blows from the stones pounded him into blackness.
+ + + + + + +
The long fall grasses were laid low and still green leaves covered the layers of hail. The sight was surreal in its contrasts of bright greens and blinding whites. Little ice mountains were scattered anywhere the hail could pile up.
"Vin, where are you?" Called the three men as they searched looking for some sign of the tracker.
Josiah stopped where he thought he'd fallen, "Vin was coming from there, and I thought he was right behind me." The big man pointed the direction.
They reached the post Josiah had been setting. It tilted at a crazy angle with hail piled around it.
Chris growled in frustration. "We missed him somehow." He turned and began backtracking. This time they moved slower looking more carefully at each mound of ice.
It was the off color of the mound of ice rocks that made Buck stop and stare. It took a minute for his mind to accept what he was seeing. Pink stained hail piled in a larger than usual heap. "Chris," Wilmington breathed out as he started toward the pile.
"Oh Lord!" Josiah whispered behind him. The big man was the first to reach the mound. He fell to his knees and with the rogue beside him began scraping away the pink stained hail stones. Chris quickly joined them.
Finally they saw bare skin, working as quickly as they could they managed to uncover the unconscious tracker. Blood dripped from his stiff hair and his bare skin was a rosy red color. His lips were blue and once he was uncovered they could see him tremble from the cold.
Josiah picked up the limp body and began carrying it back to the cabin. He ignored the other two as he carried the person he felt he'd failed to safety. He was aware the others followed him but wouldn't answer their questions and wouldn't stop. That is until he was standing inside the shack, Chris in front of him.
"Josiah, give him to me." Larabee demanded as he watched Sanchez sway.
For the first time Sanchez saw Chris. He blinked slowly as he became aware of the shaking body in his arms. He gently placed the limp man in Larabee's waiting arms and walked away.
"Buck, help me get his boots and pants off before I lay him down."
The tall man tugged the boots off and the thin pants. "Damn, as loose as he wears his pants you'd think they'd fall off," Buck said as he struggled to peel the pants down. "Where we gonna put him?"
"On my bed," Once the tracker was naked they carefully laid him down on his right side.
Vin's back and arms were a bright rosy color that would have normally meant heat, but the skin was cold to the touch and his body trembled involuntarily trying to warm itself. The skin on his back, arms and hands were beginning to swell.
Chris grabbed a cloth, what ever was closest and began rubbing the shivering man dry. As he dried Vin he looked at the damage, trying to see what all they needed to do to help his injured friend. It seemed all the blood stains came from Vin's hair.
Buck began gathering blankets and wrapping the drier parts of the tracker. He glanced once over at Josiah who knelt at the potbellied stove building a fire. The older man seemed all right so Wilmington didn't pay him anymore attention.
Rubbing the longish hair in the cloth Chris started looking for the source of the blood stain. The first gash was in the hair line on the left temple, the skin already turning from pink to black and purple. The bruises were spreading across the left eye and down the jaw. It had stopped bleeding but Chris feared that Nathan might need to stitch it. He found another gash of similar size on the crown. There were several more growing goose eggs on Vin's head but no more cuts.
Buck handed Chris a small carbolic soaked rag. Chris gently pressed it into the open wounds.
Vin groaned at the sting and Josiah stood suddenly spinning around. The world tilted and then went black for the preacher.
The sound of Sanchez's body hitting the floor caused Buck to turn, "Josiah?" The rogue rushed to him.
Chris hardly sparing a glace at the two men called, "Buck?"
"I think maybe Josiah is hurt worse than he let on, Chris. There's blood on his head and he's out."
"Can you get him undressed and on the other bed?"
"Think so. I might need some help undressing him; his clothes are as wet as Vin's were. When you get another bed?"
"Build it the other day. Someone's always coming out to stay with me. Here let me help." Chris hated leaving the tracker but there was little he could do for him at the moment, other than watch. Making sure the blankets were tucked tight he went to help Buck.
It was hard to undress the big man and they struggled to get the wet pants off. "Damn and I thought Vin's were hard to peel off."
Chris just grunted.
They were almost finished when Josiah came to. "What... What are you doing? What happened?"
"You passed out. Why didn't you tell us you were hurt?"
"Didn't know," Josiah said. "I just got dizzy when I turned too fast. I'm fine, don't worry about me."
"Lay down, your not fine." Chris ordered. He started to examine the preacher's head. "Looks like you got a goose egg here. It's stopped bleeding but it's gonna be sore for a while. You just lay there and rest."
Josiah started to nod but then thought better of it when the approaching headache arrived with a vengeance. Besides it felt so good to just be warm.
Making sure both Vin and Josiah were asleep the other two stepped outside.
Buck looked at the sun and then into the cabin. "I need to ride for town. Vin needs Nathan, Josiah too maybe."
"It's only an hour until dark. You can't make it before then."
"I know, but the moon's still almost full. I'll get there, and head back at dawn. I'm just sorry I'm leaving you to take care of them alone."
"It's the only way. We'll be fine, just bring Nathan back."
Buck sighed, "I still don't like leaving you. I'll catch Darlin' and head out. It'll be late morning at the earliest before we can get back." He added glancing at the position of the sun.
Chris nodded. "Just be careful. The road will be muddy and who knows what kind of damage the storm did."
+ + + + + + +
Buck rode Darlin' as fast as he dared. The ice that covered the trail and road was quickly becoming sucking muck. The big gray was surefooted but any horse could slip and fall in this. Once the sun set the moon gave enough light to travel at an even slower pace. The ice reflecting the moonlight made it a little easier to see.
The tall man wasn't prepared for the devastation he saw as he rode into town. The dark did nothing to soften the damage. Buck guided his tired horse to the livery. He saw Tiny still out trying to take care of the animals.
"Tiny, have you seen Nathan?"
"I think he's over taking care of Miz Betsy."
"Thanks," Buck said turning to go.
"Give me Darlin'. I'll take care of her for you."
"Thanks Tiny, give her some extra grain will you. I'll be heading out at first light."
Buck walked toward the saloon and spotted Blossom standing outside the doors.
"Blossom, honey, have you seen Nathan?"
The buxomly blond looked up at Wilmington, tears in her eyes. "He's upstairs trying to take care of Betsy. Hail stone came right through the roof and hit her."
Buck started up the stairs. He could hear someone outside demanding that Nathan take care of decent folk first, not some two bit whore. Normally that would have gotten Buck in a fighting mood but today he was just too tired and too worried. He found the bedroom door open and saw Nathan sitting on the bed with his back to Buck.
"Now Miz Betsy. You just keep this on that knot and it should get to feeling better real soon."
"Oh hell, Mr. Nathan, my pa hit me harder than this. You go on and take care of folks that are really hurt."
"Miz Betsy, you done passed out once. Now promise you'll stay in bed, alone, 'til I say so."
The small brunet made a show of pouting, "I will, Mr. Nathan. I promise I'll stay right here in bed."
Making a face, she nodded. "Alone, 'til I feel better."
"Until I say so and not before. Okay now. If you get to feeling worse you just send for me."
Nathan stood to leave and hesitated for a second when he saw Buck. Closing the door he asked, "What's Vin gone and done now?"
"Why do you think it's Vin?"
"I ain't got time for this Buck. There's lots of folks hurt from that hail storm..."
"Vin and Josiah got caught in the hail. Josiah's a little banged up but Vin's bad. He fell and he's one big bruise, there ain't a spot on his body that ain't turning black and blue. When I left his arms and hands were swelling something fierce. Head took a couple of big ones, he hadn't woke either."
Nathan frowned, thinking. He was tired and hungry but there were still many hurt. "I got something at the clinic you can take back. It'll help but there ain't much to be done for the bruising. I can't go with you, too many here need me. You go on up there and wait, I'll be along and mix something up for them."
Buck nodded and dragged himself up the stairs to the clinic. He was too tired to eat and all he wanted to do was stretch out while he was waiting for Nathan.
+ + + + + + +
Wilmington woke with something tickling his nose and the sound of Nathan talking to himself. Scrubbing his face with his hands he sat up. "Nathan, what's going on?"
"Nothing, I 'bout got this ready for you. It's a tincture of Yerba Del Lobo with vinegar and alcohol. I know it smells awful but ol' Maria, the Curandero swears by it. Just rub it in gently until it evaporates. Don't wash it off unless it gives Vin a rash. Do it two, three times a day. It'll help with the soreness and the bruising."
Buck took the bottle and nodded. "Thanks Nathan."
"I wish I could come with you, but there's still too many folk hurt. They're still coming in from the outlaying farms and ranches. I'll be out as soon as I can."
"It's okay, Nathan. We'll do with this stuff. Where's JD and Ezra? I didn't see either of them when I came in."
"They both went out to check on folks after the storm. I know JD went over to the Wells place first to check on Miz Nettie and Casey. They are both fine Buck, go on now and get that to Vin."
Buck nodded and went downstairs and after a little personal business he headed toward the livery.
Inez stopped him as he walked past. "Señor Buck."
"Señor Nathan said Señor Vin and Señor Josiah were hurt and you are taking some medicina out to them."
"Yeah, I really gotta go Inez."
"Si, I know, I have brought you some burritos to eat as you go. You must keep up your strength," she said as she handed the rogue a small bundle.
"Thank you Inez. I appreciate this so much." Buck leaned down and kissed the pretty woman on the cheek and then walked on.
Inez smiled and shook her head as she watched him walk away.
It was barely daylight but Tiny was there with a saddled Darlin' waiting.
"It's nothing Buck, take care."
"Will do." Buck turned Darlin' and headed out of town. He wanted to kick the mare into a gallop but knew the roads were still slick and muddy. He curbed his impatience and traveled as fast as he could.
+ + + + + + +
RUNNING. He was running. It seemed like he'd been running forever. His breath came in great gasps. He felt like he'd never get enough air in his lungs. The sweat ran off his body yet he was cold, so cold. The shivering came from deep inside him. Why was he cold? Fog! The fog was so thick he couldn't see where he was, but then that meant 'they' couldn't see him either. If 'they' found him, he'd get another beating and he'd hurt worse than he did now.
So he ran, quietly on bare feet. He gasped for air and shivered as he ran. Again Vin stopped hands on knees, gasping. It was so cold. This time he looked around but he didn't know where he was or why he was running. His head hurt. If only his head wouldn't hurt so.
He could hear voices and his heart began to pound. Voices in the dark, but he couldn't understand them. "Get away!" He had to run.
Hands! Holding him. Touching him.
Let go! Let me go!
Running, it seemed as if he had always been running.
Larabee watched helplessly as the swollen fingers scraped and clawed against the blanket. He winched as legs, restless in their movement seemed to knot and cramp then go limp, only to start moving again.
One moment the tracker was throwing off the blankets and the next he was shaking with chills.
The hardest part for Chris is that Vin would jerk and fight him if the gunslinger tired to soothe him by talking or touch him as he pulled the blankets up.
"Damn it Tanner, what the hell's wrong with you?" The gunman said as he covered the restless sharpshooter yet again. He ground his teeth wishing again that Buck were back with Nathan.
Inadvertently his arm brushed the tender swollen skin along the tracker's shoulder. The groan rolled across the cabin. "Oh God, Vin, I'm sorry," Larabee whispered as he tried to prevent Vin from rolling onto his back.There was a voice. He should know that voice but he couldn't put a name to it. Something touched his back and he screamed. He thought he screamed and moved away from the pain, but he realized he hadn't moved, hadn't made any sound at all
He was so cold, dark colors and shapes swam in front of his eyes making his stomach do flip-flops.
Larabee was trying to warm the too cold skin. The original rosy red was turning dark blue and purple until there was hardly an inch of skin that wasn't discolored.
Chris got a fresh heated rock, and wrapping it he placed it below Tanner's feet.Warm, something was warm by his feet. Now he could relax and finally get warm.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah watched Chris putter around the cabin. The preacher frowned through the pain in his head, of course Larabee didn't putter...Where did such a word come from? But there he was, pulling the blankets up, checking the fire, checking the heat left in the stones at Vin's feet. Then back to the blankets. The man seemed unable to sit or ever stand still.
Clearing his throat, he called out. "Chris?"
The man in black startled at the sound, "Josiah? You need something?"
"No. Has Vin woken yet?"
"No. Go back to sleep."
"Can't - my hard head isn't as hard as I thought. "
"Got some Willow bark tea over there. I'll get you a cup."
Sitting up and grimacing at the pain Josiah nodded. "Might be a good idea. I seem to ache all over but especially my shoulders and head."
Larabee poured some of the warm tea into a tin cup and took it to Josiah. "I shouldn't wonder. You're turning black and blue." He handed the tea to the sitting man and watched as he made a face at the taste.
"Don't think I'll ever get use to the taste of Nathan's teas. Even if they do work."
"No, me either, but you're right they do seem to work."
Taking another sip and nodding Josiah said, "Yeah, that they do."
A groan from the other bed caught both men's attention. Chris was at Tanner's side in a flash. "Vin? You waking up?"
A louder groan, "Wha' hi' me?"
"Mother Nature, you got caught in a hail storm."
Vin tried to clear his throat. "Hur's."
"I got some tea for you, it'll help."
"Don wan it. Throat hur's."
"Tea'll make it feel better. Let me help you." Larabee leaned over and lifted Tanner's head enough he could sip the tea.
"No more, hur's to swallow."
"Alright, try to go back to sleep."
" 'm cold."
Larabee reached out and gently laid the back of his hand on Tanner's undamaged forehead. "You got a little fever. Do you want another blanket?"
"I'll get one and change the hot rock at your feet too."
Vin tried to lie down only to gasp in pain as his bruised back touched the blanket. Shifting he awkwardly rolled over so he was lying on his less bruised side.
Chris draped another blanket over Vin and then took the cooling rag-wrapped rock at his feet and replaced it with another. By the time he'd done all that Tanner seemed to be sleeping again.
Turning slightly at the creaking as Josiah moved he called softly, "You better not be getting up Josiah. 'Cause if you are you'll lay where you fall."
Josiah chuckled. "Now, Chris you're beginning to sound like Nathan. What makes you think I'll collapse?"
Turning Larabee stared at the bigger man, "'Cause that's what you've done the last three times you've tried to get up."
"Fair enough, how about you help me to the rocker, I'll watch over Vin and you get some rest. I can call you if I need to."
Larabee rubbed his face, " I'd be obliged if you could Josiah. But only if you agree to wake me if Vin needs me, or you."
"I do promise."
Walking over Chris helped the preacher walk over to the rocker and as an afterthought handed him another cup of the tea. "It'll help the headache."
"Thanks, now you lay down and rest."
Sanchez watched the gunman stumble over to the cot and more fall than lay down. It wasn't long until soft snores arose.
Josiah rocked in the early morning. Sometime later a blue eye opened and stared at Josiah. "Vin? You with me?"
The one open eye looked around and suddenly Vin tried to roll over.
Josiah tried to hide his shock when the rough whisper voice asked, "Where's my Ma?"
"Umhuh. I... I want my Ma, I don't feel so good."
"She's uh, not here right now. Are you thirsty?"
Tanner frowned as much as the swollen bruises would let him. He searched frantically, "No, I...I want my Ma. She's been sick but..." Vin stared hard at Josiah. "She done died didn't she? She was powerful sick. You come to take me to that orphan place?"
"No, Vin. I'm here to take care of you. You got hurt in a hail storm."
"I don't 'member...I 'member runnin' and fallin' ... that why I hurt so?"
"Yeah it is. Do you think you could drink some warm tea? It will help you fell better?"
Vin nodded slightly but when Josiah gently rolled him over to lift him, the tracker groaned, "No, don't touch, it hurts."
"I have to Vin, to help you sit up. Your hands are very sore."
Tanner took a deep breath and waited as the big man helped him sit up and held a cup to his lips. It tasted awful but he drank every drop.
Josiah carefully lay the tracker down and pulled up the blankets."
The whisper voice asked, "What's yer name mister?"
"Josiah. You try to go back to sleep alright?" Sanchez softly answered keeping his voice even. Oh Lord, have you scrambled Vin's brains so much he don't even know us anymore?
The preacher man watched his two companions sleep, neither one moving until Larabee jerked awake.
"He's sleeping, Chris. Woke up once while you were asleep but went right back to sleep."
Larabee sat up and stretched. "You need to lay down?"
Josiah rolled his head trying to loosen the tightness of his neck. "Yeah, if you don't mind."
"No, just wait a few. I'll see to the stock and then come right back."
Josiah nodded and watched as Chris pulled on his boots and went outside.
+ + + + + + +
Buck pushed Darlin' as much as he dared before the sun came up. He tried not to worry about Josiah and Vin; he tried not to worry about Miz Betsy and everyone else in town. Urging the mare to go a little faster he tried not to worry. Didn't help, but he tried.
It was midmorning before Chris' shack came into view. There was smoke coming from the stove pipe despite the warm morning. That could only mean one thing-Vin was still cold. Riding up to the shack the door opened before he could dismount.
Chris walked outside and demanded, "Where's Nathan?"
"Couldn't come. The town was hit too. Nathan has his hands full. Now, before you start glaring, Nathan sent some stuff. You're supposed to rub it into the bruises. He didn't have anything for Vin's head. He said ya can't use laudanum not with his head so banged up. It's just the teas. He sent more of them, too."
Buck dismounted and handed Larabee the bottle. Taking it, Chris uncorked it and took a cautious sniff. Jerking back he said, "God, that's awful."
Buck grinned, "Yeah, I know, ya should have smelt it while Nate was cooking it."
Larabee wrinkled his nose, "No thanks."
"How's Vin and Josiah?"
"Josiah's moving slow but he's doing better."
"And Vin?" Buck prodded.
"I don't know Buck. He woke up once, but he didn't seem to know where he was or..."
"Or what Chris?"
"He's woke, umm, confused a couple of times."
"He doesn't seem to know where he is. I've had to tell him over and over about the hail storm."
Buck studied his old friend. He saw how tired the man was. "You get any sleep last night?"
"What? Some. Josiah sat up with Vin once. What does that have to do with what's happening with Tanner?"
"Nothing, except you're tired and things look worse than they are."
"What could be worse?
"He could be dead."
Chris stared at the ladies man. He had no idea how to answer such a thing.
From inside, "Chris, you better come in here. It looks like Vin's waking up again."
Larabee turned and taking the bottle of liniment he went inside.
+ + + + + + +
Larabee sat down beside the restless tracker. "Vin? You waking up?" Chris watched for some sign that the tracker heard him. All he got was another groan. "Vin, Buck's back and he brought some liniment to use on your back and shoulders. I'm gonna rub some in now, alright."
One eye came open at Chris' touch. The gunman bent down and looked into that eye. "Vin?" But even though the blue eye was open it was blank and staring. The tracker gave no indication that he heard or understood the man beside him.
Sighing Chris began messaging the liniment gently into the damaged skin. The tracker didn't react even though Chris knew that it hurt him. Finally Larabee leaned back and watched as Vin's eyes drifted closed.
Buck had been setting out something to eat as he watched Chris work on Vin. "If you're done, I got some of Inez's burritos here to eat and I made a fresh pot of coffee. Josiah? How are you doing?"
The big man sat up, "Better, and I'm hungry. Maybe after we eat you could rub some of that god awful smelling stuff on my shoulders?"
"Be happy to. Need help coming over here?"
Sanchez looked up at the rogue, "I ain't that old yet." But his movements belied his claim as he slowly got up and walked over to the little table.
"Chris, come on now. You gotta eat and Vin there seems to have gone back to sleep."
+ + + + + + +
Through out the day Chris massaged the smelly liniment into the younger man's back and arms, paying attention to the hands, which seemed to have taken the brunt of the damage aimed at the head. Through out it all Tanner never moved or woke. None of the men voiced their worry about that, yet it hung over them like a cloud. All of Nathan's warnings seemed to come home to roost.
+ + + + + + +
Larabee stood in the door way looking outside. The sun was about to set but it still shone brightly. He had to admit even as bad as the damage was the ice shone beautifully in the late evening light. Buck and Josiah had gone outside to tend the stock. No matter what the horses needed care. He turned back toward the bed when he heard Vin becoming restless again. Walking over he sat down and waited. Tanner always groaned before he woke. It was as if once he was aware he held all signs of weakness inside. Perhaps this time he would really wake up.
The sleeping man tried to roll over onto his back but groaned when the pressure was on his abused shoulders.
"Vin you need to be still."
"Chris?" Tanner didn't sound like himself.
"Wha' 'appen to me?"
"There was a hail storm. You didn't make it back to the cabin. The hail got you on your hard head. You been in and out since then." Chris waited for Vin to say something. "Vin?"
"M' head hur's real bad Chris. Can't hardly understand what yer sayin'. Nothing makes sense." Vin finally whispered.
Chris reached for the pot and poured some tea. "Here, drink some of this. It'll help." Larabee reached over and helped Vin drink.
Vin scrunched his face whether from the pain or the taste of the tea, Chris couldn't tell which.
"You try to go back to sleep."
Tanner didn't say anything, his eyes slowly drifting closed.
Chris reached out and pulled the blankets up tighter around the sleeping man's shoulders and then sat back and watched and waited.
+ + + + + + +
Larabee paced, checked the fire, poured another cup of too strong coffee and then tried to sit down again. He hoped that Josiah and Buck were able to sleep he knew he couldn't. The soft groan coming from the bed where Vin lay caught Chris' attention immediately. He leaned over as Vin groaned again and tried to move.
"Vin? You need to be still, Pard. You're hurt."
One blue eye flew open staring wildly around. Panic caused the tracker to scrabble for the blanket edge and try to sit up.
"Easy Vin. You need to be still."
Still the tracker tried to move away. The rough whispered vice said, "I's sorry Mister. I didn't mean to... just let me go..."
"You didn't do anything." Chris reassuringly confused by Tanner's reaction.
"I said, lay still. You got hit in the head and you need to be still."
Vin moved again and then with eyes wide he clumsily lifted the edge of the blanket. "You took my clothes? Why did you take my clothes?" The unnamed fear clearly echoing in the rough pain filled voice.
"You were soaking wet. I didn't want you to get sick."
The one open eye stared at the gunslinger, "been beat a'fore. Just give me my clothes and I'll leave."
Chris held his hands out palms up. "I won't hurt you. Just rest an' I promise when you're better I'll let you go." Remembering what Josiah had told him he asked, "Vin, how old are you?"
"I'll be ten next spring. But 'm old enough to take care of myself. I won't go back to that place, I'd rather die."
"You don't have to go back I swear."
Tanner raised one hand and tried to press the heel of the palm to his head but discovered how tender it was.
"Head hurt?" Chris asked.
"I've got some willow bark tea that'll help that. Would you drink some?"
Again Vin nodded.
Chris got a tin cup of warm tea. "It don't taste like much but it will help the ache."
Vin reached out for the cup. "I can do it." He took the cup and pressed it between his palms. His fingers were still too swollen to close around the cup.
Larabee watched as the younger man drank and then took the cup. "Now lay down and sleep some more. I'm sure you'll feel better when you wake again."
Nodding Vin lay back down and Larabee covered him again with the blankets. He sat very still waiting until he was sure Tanner was asleep. Then he quietly got up and headed toward the door. He was stopped by Josiah's soft question.
"Is Vin alright?"
"How the hell should I know? He thinks he's nine years old for God's sake. What if...what if he stays that way?"
"He didn't the last time. He'll be fine."
Chris glared at the preacher, "What if he's not? What if he stays nine?"
"Then, Brother, we take care of him and keep him safe."
Shaking his head, Chris jerked the cabin door open and went outside.
With a heavy sigh, Buck followed his old friend outside. He stood waiting for the man to speak.
"God! Buck that was weird and scary?"
"Yeah, I have to admit it was. He done that before?"
"Once, the first night, he woke and thought he was five. Wanted to know where his ma was."
Buck shook his head. "Well, Nathan is always saying head injuries can do strange things to a man."
Larabee glared at the taller man.
+ + + + + + +
Vin was running again. Why? Why did he seem to be always running? He was cold and each step was agony. Where was his coat? For that matter where were any of his clothe? He wanted more than anything to quit running. He was so tired and his head hurt so much.
Slowing down he took a deep breath. Maybe if he could just slow to a walk it would be better. He tried to slow down. But his heart beat faster and he was afraid. Vin Tanner, tracker, bounty hunter was afraid and he didn't know why.
Unable to run any longer the tracker fell and curled into him self. Then the voices came.
"It's a shame really. But I got my own to care for an' my man is gone too much. Don't need another mouth to feed"
"What the hell I need with a skinny little runt like that? I need someone who can work in the fields."
"I'll beat the devil out of you if I have to..."
"Listen Tanner, lessen you want my gang to get ya ye'll give us yer food night an' mornin'. If ya don', let's just say ya don't know what hurtin' is."
"You thieving little shit, I'll teach you to steal..."
"We don't put up with none of that injun jabber. Ya'll learn to talk like a white man or else."
"Yer back will give out before my arm ya bastard."
"Now I figure if you're dead, amigo, then I can sleep better at night."
Vin knew he needed to get away from the voices. He needed to run but he couldn't move. He didn't have the strength to get up and run. If he just gave up, stopped breathing then the voices wouldn't bring hurting with them anymore. It would be so nice not to hurt anymore.
He felt so light like he was floating. He liked the feeling. All the voices went away. All of them except one. That voice came through with such heartache, such longing.
"Come on Cowboy. You gotta wake up now. I got some liniment from Nathan. It'll help. Vin? Don't you give up. You're a Tanner, don't you give up. You come back to us, to me. Please Vin I can't lose anyone else..."
Chris! He knew that voice. It was Chris. Oh God, it was gonna hurt to wake up. But he couldn't deny that voice. He had to try to do what Chris asked.
Vin groaned. He could feel someone rubbing his hand. It hurt but it felt good at the same time. Struggling to see Tanner opened at least one eye. "You taken' to holdin' hands with me?"
Chris started at the raspy voice. Looking up he saw Tanner looking at him. "Vin? You're awake." He desperately wanted to ask if the younger man were himself again but didn't know how to say it. He couldn't believe that after all the time that had passed Vin was away and talking.
"Reckon. Damn, Cowboy that stinks, it'd wake the dead."
"I know it stinks but Nathan said the Curandero gave it to him. He swears it'll work."
Tanner raised his hand. It was black and blue but the swelling seemed to be going down. He tried to make a fist. He got half way there before he stopped his skin still tight and tender.
"Roll over onto your stomach so I can rub this into your back."
Nodding Vin started to turn over. That was when he noticed, "Damn it Chris, where are 'm clothes?"
"Just noticing? They're over there. We had to strip you. You were soaking wet and shivering so hard I thought your teeth would fall out."
"Shivering?" The remembered feeling of wet and cold rushed back to him. "There was a hail storm...I was running to yer shack...How long?"
"Two days? I don't 'member...Josiah? He was ahead of me."
"Josiah's fine, he's helping Buck take care of the horses. Then they are going back to town."
"Oh," Vin felt uneasy. Vague dreams kept flitting across his memory. Dreams about things he hadn't thought of in years.
"What is it Vin?"
"I don't know. I been out all that time?"
"Well, no. You woke up a few times but you didn't make much sense."
Tanner frowned. He hated being out of control. He needed to know exactly what he'd done or said. "What'd I do?"
"Nothing Vin, you were very sick. The hail pounded you good and you had a few bad ones on your head."
Tanner reached up and felt the knots on his head winching when he touched them. He watched Larabee as he did it. "What else Chris?" Please Cowboy, I need to know.
Chris stopped rubbing the liniment into Vin's shoulder and looked down at his hands. "You woke up a couple of times and ...well...once you thought you were five and your ma had just died. Then once you told me you were nine and you'd run away from the orphanage. You almost begged me not to send you back." Larabee looked up at Vin's searching gaze. "Didn't know if you'd stay that way or not. Other times you were okay, but you kept sleeping longer and longer."
" 'm sorry Chris. I..." Tanner couldn't think of anything to say. So he rolled over on to his stomach and closed his eyes. What if he'd stayed like that?
Larabee poured some liniment into his hand to warm it then he began massaging it into Vin's back. He worked to rub it in trying to be gentle on the deepest bruises. After a long silence he said. "I know what you're thinking. But if you'd woke and stayed five or nine or whatever we'd take care of you. I'd take care of you. Just like you'd take care of me if I were hurt."
What if it had been Chris? What if Chris were trapped in the past as a kid? No I would never desert Chris. It was the same.
"Yeah Chris, I'd take care of you or any of us. That's what makes us Pards." Vin squinted pain filled eyes willing the man in black to understand. He wasn't ready to use the word he truly felt, 'family'. It was too close, too personal; 'pard' would have to do, for now.