Disclaimer: I don't own them. If I did, we'd all have the show on DVD! I make no money off writing this stuff.
Warnings: Some swearin', that's 'bout all. It's pretty straight H/C with healthy doses of angst.
Thanks to Jeanne for the owwie, the support and the information.
Thanks to Sue for wrangling those commas and typos for me. Anything still there is all my fault.
"Proud Cut" means that when a stallion was made into a gelding, either the job was 'botched' and not everything was removed, or he had already had a taste of the "good life" shall we say. Therefore, he continues to react to things as a stallion would. However, sort 'a like the dog who actually catches the car, he can't do a whole lot about it when he does.
This is an OW story; a Vinjury.
Webmaster Note: This story was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in June 2007.
Chris Larabee heard the ruckus as he entered the livery. Hearing a very human sounding cry, he dropped his saddlebags and sprinted toward the corral. He arrived to witness a scene that sent a chill through his soul.
Yosemite and Tiny, the two liverymen, had managed to throw ropes over a young stallion's neck, doing their best to keep the snorting, pawing and struggling beast on one side of the big corral.
On the other side was Peso. Vin Tanner's horse stood near the opposite side, splay-legged, head down. His ears lay back flat against his head, big, yellow teeth barred. But most frightening of all was what lay at the big black's feet.
Larabee could see the slender body, lying in a crumpled heap beneath the horse. As soon as he saw that the way was clear, Chris moved toward his friend. Wary of the normally fractious animal Tanner insisted on riding, he walked closer slowly. As he neared, the gelding snorted his displeasure. Larabee was being warned off as surely as if the creature had spoken.
"Take it easy, mule, " the blond said softly, "I'm just interested in helping Vin."
Peso eyed the approaching figure suspiciously, lowering his head until his chin was nearly resting on one of the fallen man's shoulders.
"Well, at least we know where your loyalties lie," Larabee said, a smile lifting one corner of his broad mouth.
Not taking his eyes off his friend, the gunman said, "What is it, Kid?"
"I'm coming up along side you. I'll try and get Peso back so you can get to Vin."
"All right." They all knew how good the younger man was with horses. If anyone other than Tanner could get the big gelding to mind, it was JD.
Dunne slowly moved up beside Larabee, speaking softly to the horse. "It's just me, Peso, come on now. You did a good job protecting Vin, now move away. Chris needs to help him now. Come on."
The big animal blew and snorted. He shook his head, tack jingling and mane flying. He shifted uncertainly but didn't move.
"Come on now, it's okay. We'll take good care of him... promise... but you need to move. Come on..." He kept talking as he walked forward slowly. Finally he stood right next to the gelding. Reaching out, he grabbed hold of the bridle. Peso whickered, but didn't fight the hold. Carefully the younger man coaxed the big animal away from the downed man.
As soon as the way was clear, Larabee knelt and pulled the unconscious man up out of the dirt. Gently as possible, he lifted his friend into his arms and quickly carried the Texan out of the corral. Just as he entered the livery, the gunman saw Nathan coming from the street. The big healer took some of Vin's weight, and they carried the limp body up the stairs to the clinic.
Chris blinked into the midday sun as he emerged from the dimmer light of the clinic. He had spent the last couple of hours helping Jackson with the injured Tanner. They had peeled the bloodied and dirt-covered clothes from the limp body. They had cleaned him up and searched the lean body for injuries. Vin was covered in bruises and there were a few cuts, but no broken bones.
The one thing that Nathan seemed worried about was a deep wound at the back of the man's head. It looked as if one of the horse's hooves had clipped him there. They wouldn't know the extent of the injury until Tanner woke up. So far the young man wasn't being cooperative in that area. He remained deeply unconscious.
Larabee heard a sound and belatedly realized that he wasn't alone on the landing. He looked around, acknowledging the other four men.
"How is he, Chris?" JD asked worriedly.
Scrubbing a hand over his face, the gunslinger said, "Better than he looked in the corral. We'll know more when he wakes up. Did Yosemite or Tiny say what happened?"
Nodding, the younger man replied, "Tiny said one of the mares came in season and Peso and stallion went after her."
"Damn, proud-cut mule," Larabee growled.
With a broad grin, Buck said, "So there might be some little Pesos out there?"
"If there are, it's surely a sign of the apocalypse," Josiah Sanchez said, entering the conversation.
Stretching and rubbing his back, the gunman said, "Well, I'm going to go get a beer and something to eat."
"Reckon I'll join y', if you're in the mood for company," Wilmington said.
Nodding in reply, Larabee headed for the stairs. One by one the others followed.
Chris yawned and stretched his arms over his head. He decided that he was going to take up a collection and buy Nathan a more comfortable chair. He had only been sitting with Vin for a couple of hours, but already his back was complaining.
He had come up to check on Vin before turning in the night before. Tanner hadn't regained consciousness then, and he still hadn't. It was mid-morning now; the tracker had been out for at least twenty-four hours. Jackson was worried about the Texan's lack of responsiveness and that meant they were all worried.
The healer had been sent for just after dawn by Arthur Nelson. His wife, Louisa, was in labor. The young woman had only had a few pains when Art came for Nathan. But this was their first child and Louisa had been ill recently, so Jackson wanted to be there for her throughout her labor. Torn by his duties to both the expectant mother and his friend, the former slave had reluctantly ridden out with Nelson. Chris promised that he would keep watch over Vin and send word if there were any problems.
Larabee was drawn from his thoughts by a soft sound. Watching his friend, he saw the colorless features scrunch up in a frown. A soft moan of pain escaped slightly parted lips.
Leaning forward, Chris put a reassuring hand on the man's arm. "Take it slow, pard. You've been sleeping for a while."
The tip of his tongue appeared and ran slowly across his lips. In a raspy whisper, Tanner said, "Dr...drink."
"Hang on, I'll get you one." Pouring a glass from the nearby pitcher, Chris brought the water back to his friend. Afraid to touch the back of Vin's head, where the deep injury was, Larabee slipped his hand beneath the pillow to lift his friend. Tanner still groaned; a grimace on his face. The blond slowly fed the water to the injured man. Emptying the glass, he lowered the other man back to the bed and set the glass aside.
"Better?" Chris asked.
"A mite," Vin answered. "Wh-what... hap'ned?"
"Best we can figure, you got between that mule of yours and a stallion. Peso was standing over you when I got there."
"He... done this?"
"Hell no," Larabee chuckled. "He was protecting your sorry ass like a mama grizzly with a hurt cub. Took me and JD both to convince him to let us get you out of there while Tiny and Yosemite took care of the stallion."
Vin smiled wanly at the thought of his horse going so far for him. "Haf t' give... 'im a sweet... I git outta... here." He was starting to drift, his words slurring.
"Vin? Still with me?" Nathan had asked him to keep Tanner awake for a while if he woke up. He needed to see if the injury had left him impaired in any way. "Vin? Need you to look at me, pard."
With an irritated huff, Tanner slowly blinked his eyes open. "Be a mite... eas'er if y'd... light a lamp."
Larabee's heart skipped a beat as he looked from his friend to the window. The sun was streaming into the clinic, lighting up the room. Turning back to the other man, he said, "Can you see me at all?"
Letting his eyes drift shut, Vin mumbled, "Jist barely." Then he frowned as his friend's words registered. "Why?"
Chris took a deep breath, wondering how to proceed. With uncharacteristic tentativeness, he said, "What can you see, pard?"
The blue eyes flashed open. "Chris... tell me. What's got'cha... worried?"
"I just needed to... Nathan told me to make sure that... that you knew - " He stammered.
Interrupting the other man, Tanner growled, "Damn it, Lar'bee... tell me!"
"It's midday, Vin," the stunned blond said softly.
The response was a hissed breath as the slender body on the bed tensed. In a tight voice, the Texan said, "Yer lyin'."
"I wouldn't lie about something like this, you know that," Chris responded in a deceptively calm voice. "Why would I lie to you, Vin?"
"Don't know... but y' are... ain't noth... nothin' wrong with m' eyes!"
"Tanner, listen to me." He reached out, placing a hand on the other man's shoulder.
Twisting away from the touch, the younger man barked, "Git'cher hands off a me!"
"Vin! Listen to me!"
"Git th' hell... 'way from... me! Git... git outta he-here!" Tanner's arm shot out as he lashed out at his friend.
"Vin!" Chris tried again, but everything he said or did only seemed to agitate the injured man more. Uncertain of what else to do, the man in black rose and backed away. Reaching the door, he opened it and stepped out onto the landing. He left the door open so he could keep an eye on the shaken man.
Leaning over the rail, the gunman searched the street below. After a few minutes, as if answering a summons, Josiah Sanchez appeared. Giving a sharp whistle, he beckoned the man to the landing. A minute later the older man joined him and Larabee filled him in on the situation. The vibrant blue eyes filled with sadness at the news.
"Right now, me being here is making things worse," Chris said sadly.
Clapping a big hand on the black clad shoulder, Sanchez said, "You know it's not you, my friend. He's scared and you were a convenient target."
Shrugging vaguely, the blond said, "I'm going to ride out to the Nelsons' and talk to Nathan. Can you stay with Vin?"
"Nothing less than the Four Horsemen will drag me away," Josiah assured him.
With the ghost of a smile, the smaller man said, "Thanks. I'll be back as soon as I can."
The former preacher nodded then watched as the gunfighter strode away and disappeared down the staircase. Offering up a prayer for his anguished friend, he turned toward the clinic. As he moved toward the door, he offered up a second prayer for the anguished friend inside.
"Vin, it's me," Sanchez announced as he entered the room.
"J'siah," Tanner rasped. He had managed to calm down somewhat but, although he was lying down, it was clear that he was still upset. Long fingers picked at the blanket covering him and he lay rigid on the mattress.
Sanchez settled onto the chair at the injured man's bedside. He watched as the younger man squeezed his eyes tightly closed then opened them. A mixture of fear and sorrow crossed his handsome features before he closed his eyes again. The process was repeated three more times before the older man spoke. "We don't know that it's permanent, Vin."
"Don't know it ain't, neither," Tanner countered. "Keep thinkin' if I jist... close 'em tight 'nuff... when I open 'em it'll all be... clear."
Josiah noted the dejected tone in the soft voice. Reaching out, he laid a big hand over the smaller one that continued to fidget. "Nathan's out at the Nelsons' seeing Louisa through the birth. Chris went out to tell him... let him know what's goin' on."
With a barely perceptible nod, Tanner said, "Wondered where he was."
"Yeah... figgered Chris' done with me."
Squeezing the hand that continued to move beneath his, the older man said, "You know better than that."
"I was purty mean to 'im," Tanner said sorrowfully.
Smiling compassionately, Josiah said, "Well he did look like a whipped pup when I saw him." When the other man's face fell, he added, "But it was more from the fact that he couldn't help you than your words."
"Shouldn't 'a said what I... did."
"Why did you?"
With a sigh, Vin said, "Dunno fer certain."
Watching tears well up in the unfocused blue eyes, Sanchez said, "Perhaps you thought that if you could make Chris a liar, it would all be a lie?"
Tears, held back for so long, began to flow. In a small, frightened voice, Tanner said, "What 'm I gonna do? J'siah, I cain't go through life... stumblin' along in th' dark. I cain't live like this... I cain't!" He began to tremble, his breath coming in hitching sobs.
Carefully the big man gathered the smaller one in his arms. He felt Vin grab his shirtfront with both hands, clinging to him like a lifeline. Gently rubbing the sweat-soaked back, the preacher began to rock slightly. He offered soft words of comfort to his young friend, letting him vent his grief in salty tears against his shoulder.
Chris rode hard all the way to the Nelson homestead, arriving atop a blowing and snorting Pony. The hard ride hadn't come from a sense of urgency. He needed to clear his mind; to force the image of Vin staring blindly from his thoughts.
As he reined in at the neat little ranch house, he saw Arthur Nelson coming out to stand on the porch. The man nodded when he recognized Larabee, motioning for him to step down from the saddle.
"Arthur, don't mean to disturb you folks, but if he can spare a few minutes I really need to talk to Nathan," Larabee said as he dismounted.
"Vin okay?" Nelson asked. The soft spoken Texan had come out to help him rebuild his corral just a week ago, shyly accepting an offer to stay for dinner as his only payment.
Unwilling to share his friend's situation, Chris said only, "Nathan asked me to let him know if Vin woke up."
Accepting the explanation, the other man smiled and hurried into the house. A couple of minutes later, Nathan Jackson appeared. Coming to meet the other man in the yard, he said, "Arthur said Vin woke up." Then, seeing the expression on the gunman's face he said, "What's wrong?"
"He's blind," Larabee said without preamble. He caught his breath as the words repeated themselves relentlessly in his mind. 'He's blind...he's blind... he's blind... blind... blind...' Then the gunman realized that he was being spoken to. Looking up at the healer he said, "What?"
"I said it could just be the after-effects of gettin' hit hard in the head. Even his hard head ain't a match for a horse's hoof."
"This isn't a joking matter, Nathan!" Hazel eyes shot sparks.
"I'm not joking, Chris," Jackson said patiently. "Man takes a hard blow like he did... well; there can be all sorts of after-effects. Sometimes it's permanent, but just as often it's temporary."
"Temporary?" Larabee latched onto that word, allowing it to give him some hope.
With a nod, the healer said, "We won't know for certain for a while, but there's always a chance that he'll recover. Might not regain it completely, might just regain enough to get around on his own... might not regain any of it." He saw worried man's hopes fade and said, "I don't want to give you false hope, Chris. Like I said, we won't know for a while."
"As in days... weeks..."
"Maybe months," Nathan said softly.
Scrubbing a hand over his face, Larabee repeated, "Months."
"We should see some signs of change sooner, though," Jackson said in an effort to ease the troubled look on the gunman's face.
"So, what do I tell him?" Chris asked.
"The truth," the former slave said simply. "He doesn't deserve less."
The truth. Larabee mulled the other man's words around as he rode into town. How could he face his friend and tell him that his future hinged on mights and maybes? How did he walk into the clinic and say "Hi Vin, guess what? There's a chance you'll never get your vision back. Maybe you will, but you might spend the rest of your life in darkness. Maybe you'll be able to see the hand in front of your face, but you might not see the bounty hunter that's aiming at you. Maybe you'll see well enough to get across the street, but you might never be a sharpshooter again."
"Jesus!" Chris growled as he reined his gelding in at the livery. He dismounted and handed the reins over to Tiny with a nod. Turning toward the clinic, he moved forward automatically. He climbed the stairs with leaden steps, wishing he was heading... well, anywhere else in the world.
The gunman drew a deep breath as he reached the landing, trying to calm his nerves before he faced Vin. As he reached the door, he heard a strangled cry. Hurrying in the door, he found his friend curled up on the bed, arms wrapped over his head. He was rocking back and forth, low moans punctuating his movements.
Going to the pain-wracked man's side, he gently touched one trembling shoulder. As Tanner tensed, he said, "It's just me, pard."
"Chr... Chris?" Pain was raw in the weak voice.
"Right here." He perched carefully on the edge of the bed, keeping his hand on the younger man. He watched as the young man's movements slowed. Vin came to a stop finally, leaning heavily against one black clad leg. He was panting, hands still clutching his head. He stroked the clammy shoulder, letting his friend know that he wasn't alone.
The gunman frowned, wondering where Josiah was. Sanchez had promised to stay with the injured man. The sound of someone approaching the clinic caught his attention. Turning, his frown deepened when he saw the former preacher entering the room, carrying a tray.
"Chris, what's wrong?" Sanchez asked, his eyes going from Larabee to the huddled form on the bed.
"Where were you?"
"He seemed fine; said he was hungry. I went to get some soup for him. Chris, I swear, he was fine. I've only been gone a few minutes."
Taking a deep breath, Larabee nodded as he asked, "Can you fix him something for the pain?"
Nodding, the older man set the tray aside and moved to prepare one of Nathan's medicinal teas.
The gunman turned back to his friend. Absently brushing back sweat-soaked locks, he picked up a cloth and began wiping the pain-filled features. He worked around the man's arms as he bathed his face. As Tanner moaned again, he said softly, "Try and relax, Vin. Josiah's fixing something to help you with the pain."
The slender man nodded shortly, but couldn't spare the energy to do more. He drew some comfort from Chris' ministrations, but could barely keep a coherent thought. The world had dwindled down to little more than pain. He kept waiting for his head to simply explode off his shoulders, and half hoped it would. At least maybe the pain would go away.
"Tea's ready," the silver-haired peacekeeper announced.
"Vin?" Larabee's voice was little more than a whisper. "Josiah's got some tea for you to drink. Can you roll over for us?"
He struggled to comprehend the other man's words, and to do what was asked of him. The pain made it nearly impossible though; made his movements sluggish and uncoordinated.
Seeing the toll just moving was taking on the tracker, the other two men worked together to help him. They shifted him onto his back, where he huddled in the cradle between Chris' arm and chest. He moaned as they tilted his head so that they could help him drink the medicinal brew. Tanner swallowed, his face twisting in disgust. He turned away, only to butt his head against the black clad chest, crying out as pain shot through his already tortured skull.
"Take it easy," The older man coaxed. He looked across the bed where Josiah was waiting patiently with the mug. As he felt the younger man relax, he nodded and held him carefully while Josiah fed him more of the brew.
By the time they finished giving Tanner the medication, he lay limply against his friend. They watched as the medication slowly took effect and he began to relax. Larabee retrieved the cloth from the bowl on the bedside table and ran it over the ashen features.
"Pain better?" Chris asked quietly.
"Yeah... 'm okay," Vin murmured. He felt embarrassed at the thought of being held and tended to by the other men. At the same time he lacked the strength... or the will if he was honest... to move.
Just then the clinic door opened, letting in the late afternoon light. As it poured over Tanner's face, he cried out, burying his face in his friend's shirt.
Looking up to see JD standing stock still in the open door, the gunman hissed, "Shut the door!"
Shocked into movement by the other man's orders, Dunne jumped, slamming the door behind him. The sound bounced off the walls, sending another lightening bolt of pain through Vin's head. The injured man reached out blindly, seeking some source of comfort. He found it as Chris caught the searching hand and closed his own around it.
As his friend lay moaning painfully in his arms, Larabee shot a glare at the youngest member of their group. JD stood unmoving, mouth agape as he stared back at him. His voice still pitched low, Chris said, "God damn it, Kid!"
"I... I'm sorry, Chris... I didn't... I wouldn't..."
"JD, what did you want?" Josiah interceded.
"I... I just wanted to see how Vin was, and to see if you needed anything," Dunne explained.
Larabee took yet another deep breath. He was beginning to worry about busting out a lung at this point. But, swallowing the anger he felt coursing through his body, the man said, "Can you... quietly... go get some more water, JD? Vin's feverish."
Nodding, afraid of making any noise at all, the younger man backed out of the door. He opened it only as far as he absolutely needed to before slipping out onto the landing.
Despite the young sheriff's care, Chris still held the cloth over Tanner's eyes. He felt the injured man shudder, as if he could still detect the light.
Larabee wasn't certain of what to make of his friend's reaction to light. He hoped it was a good sign, but only Nathan would know the answer to that. He looked down as he felt Vin shift in his hold and realized that the sharpshooter was trying to pull out of his arms. As carefully as possible, he lowered the younger man onto the bed, careful of the injury at the back of his head. The Texan moaned and immediately tried to roll over. Chris helped as much as he could; shifting the slender man onto his side.
Tanner was panting slightly and moaning softly, but slowly began to relax. He knew that Larabee was by his side, bathing the perspiration from his battered upper body. He allowed himself to be lulled toward oblivion, the crippling pain ebbing as the tea buffered him against it.
Soft footsteps on the landing let the men inside the clinic know that Dunne was returning. Even so, the younger man tapped as softly as possible and announced in a subdued voice, "I'm back."
Larabee leaned over and draped the cloth over Vin's eyes as Josiah padded across the room and eased the door open. The smaller man slipped inside, a heavy bucket in each hand. He carried them to the work table on one side and hefted them to the surface. Turning, he took in the huddled form on the bed. He turned to the gunman, unvoiced questions filling his eyes.
The gunman, in turn, looked at Sanchez. With a nod, the older man motioned to Dunne and ushered him outside to fill him in on Tanner's condition.
Turning his attention back to his friend, Larabee said, "Right here, pard."
"Y' see... Nathan?"
"Yeah." He heaved another breath, wishing he could avoid this conversation until the sharpshooter was a little stronger.
"Wha'd 'e say?" the younger man asked, his voice slurring.
Opting for the shortest version he could think of, the black clad man said, "He said a lot of times it's temporary, so we just need to wait and see."
"Lot 'a times?"
Chris knew where his friend's thoughts were leading him. "Vin, you need to focus on the positive."
"Y' sound like... J'siah," Tanner huffed.
With a chuckle, the blond said, "I'll take that as a compliment."
"Y' wo... would." He sighed, wanting to hold onto consciousness to find out more about his condition. The lure of a drug induced sleep was far stronger than his resolve, however. His body relaxed, nearly melting into the mattress as he drifted off to sleep.
Nathan entered his clinic shortly after sunrise the next morning, looking as exhausted as he felt. He frowned as he saw that a quilt had been rigged up at the foot of the bed. Peering around it he found Buck Wilmington sitting next to the bed, reading the newspaper. The big brunet looked up and nodded, setting the paper aside. He eased out of the chair and all but tip-toed toward the healer. Canting his head toward the door, Buck led the way out onto the landing.
Jackson yawned and scrubbed a hand over his face. "What's goin' on with Vin?"
Shaking his head, the rogue said, "He's been havin' terrible headaches. Can't hardly take light or sound either one. We've been dosin' 'im with teas every two-three hours since he came around yesterday. We put the quilt up to block the light and help muffle the noise. Seems to help a bit."
Taking a deep breath, the former slave said, "Happens like that sometimes with a bad head injury. Least he's able to see light."
"Yeah. When the pain ain't too bad he says he can make out shapes movin' around. Says it's sort 'a like bein' in the middle of a moonless night."
"Well, that's something anyway," the healer said, barely stifling another yawn.
"Chris said he hoped it was a good sign," Buck's tone was expectant.
Dropping wearily onto the bench that sat against the landing rail, Nathan said, "Like I told Chris, we won't know the whole story for a while yet." Then he frowned. "Where is he, anyway?"
"Who, Chris?" When the other man nodded, Wilmington explained, "I finally got 'im to get out of here about two hours ago. He was dead tired. Speakin' of which, you ain't lookin' real spry yourself, Doc. How'd things go out at the Nelsons?"
"Took a while, but she finally delivered around four. I stayed long enough to make sure her and the baby were doin' okay."
"Things went all right, then?"
"Yeah, got 'em a healthy baby boy."
"Well all right, then!" Wilmington grinned. Then he said in a more serious tone, "You ought to get some rest, though. I can stay with Vin."
Knowing that he'd be no farther away than his room in the back of the clinic, the former slave said, "I wanna take a look at him first, then I think I'll take you up on that offer."
He heard someone enter the room, trying hard not to flinch as the sound of footsteps pounded through his head. Vin pressed a hand to his eyes to keep the light from burning a hole in his brain. He was curled up on one side, huddled beneath the blankets. It was the only position he could find that was even close to comfortable.
He knew that the voice calling his name was little more than a whisper. It sounded as if it had been delivered in a clap of thunder nonetheless. He was too exhausted to stifle the moan that escaped him. Then a gentle hand was lying on his shoulder.
"Sorry, didn't mean to make your headache worse."
"S'okay, Doc," he mumbled.
"I know you're hurtin', but I'd like to look you over," Jackson explained.
Tanner groaned, but nodded his agreement. He did his best to comply with the healer's instructions; to move his limbs, shift his body and open his eyes. Pain burst through his skull as he did, as light washed over him. By the time Jackson blew out the match he held in front of his eyes, he was blinking away tears of pain.
A second pair of arms lifted him up, supporting him as Nathan poked and prodded at him. The faint scent of lavender told him it was Buck holding him still while Jackson examined the gash on the back of his head. Wrinkling his nose, he muttered, "Who's bed... y' in... last night?"
With a soft chuckle, Wilmington said, "A gentleman never tells."
Tanner snorted then groaned. "Damn it... don't make me... laugh."
"Sorry, pard," the big man apologized, gently patting the injured man's arm.
As Nathan finished his examination, he had Wilmington settle the smaller man back on the bed. He once again laid a reassuring hand on his friend's shoulder. The slender man was trembling despite the fact that he was covered in several blankets. At the same time, a thin sheen of sweat glistened over the fine, pale features.
Tanner blinked rapidly, once more trying to clear his vision. The tip of his tongue appeared, running over slightly parted lips. Forcing himself to speak, he said, "M' eyes... Nathan?"
As gently as possible Jackson said, "It's gonna take a while to know anything, Vin. I wish I could tell you for sure that everything's gonna be fine, but I can't. I'm sorry."
"Ain'cher... fault," the sharpshooter managed to grit out.
"It's clear you're in a lot of pain. I can give you a little laudanum. It'll help you rest easier and help with the headache."
He considered the offer. He hated to rely on a drug, even temporarily. On the other hand, the pain was incredible, even chasing him into his dreams. Finally he nodded. A few seconds later he tasted the opiate on his tongue.
Jackson and Wilmington watched as the medication lulled Tanner to sleep. His body relaxed slowly, the pain finally leaving his face. Nathan took up the rag lying in the nearby water bowl, wringing it out before he began to bathe the perspiration from the now sleeping man.
"Doc?" Buck whispered, not wanting to disturb Vin.
Heaving a sigh, the former slave whispered back, "He's gonna be stove up for a while yet. Those bruises are deep in the muscle and are gonna take a while to heal. Man don't go up against a horse without comin' away busted up."
"What about his eyes?"
Shaking his head, the healer said, "I don't know any more than I told him. We've just gotta wait and see."
The next several days were trying for them all. Tanner's headaches continued, keeping him on edge and irritable. He refused any more laudanum until he became too exhausted to fight the pain any longer. The drug would give him a few hours respite; enough to give him the strength to begin the fight anew.
They never left him alone, one of the other six staying with him around the clock. Whoever was at his bedside suffered his anger and frustration at being nearly helpless. Each man was treated to a litany of curse words in a variety of languages. Even though they were usually delivered in a whisper, the anger was evident. Each of the other six took the words in stride, knowing that their friend was angry at the situation and not them.
Finally the headaches began to ease, allowing him to rest without the opiate. He began to look more himself, color returning to his finely chiseled features. They could take the blanket down during all but the brightest part of the day, Tanner able to tolerate the softer light of morning and evening. He could lift his head and even sit up in bed on his own. Drinking and eating were still a challenge, although he could cope with just a little help, spilling only a little from time to time.
And with his returning health came the frustration of long days and nights in bed.
"Don't know why I cain't go sleep in m' own bed," Vin grumbled.
"Because you're not well enough yet," Nathan replied with the same words he had used a thousand times before it seemed.
Tanner stared into the gloom, once more trying to force his vision to clear. As the grayish muddle of the world around him once more failed to form itself into anything more than vague shapes and colors, he growled. His hands fisted; arms rigid against his sides. His entire body twitched with unspent anger.
Jackson sighed as he watched the quiet display of rage, wishing once more that he knew more; could do more. Wished once more that he was an honest-to-God doctor. He had poured over his books and had even sent telegrams to some of the doctors he knew of that might help. There was nothing he could do, though, that he hadn't already done.
All they could do was wait and hope that the Texan would once again see.
Glancing out the window into the late afternoon, the healer said, "It's a cloudy day, Vin. Would you like to go sit on the landing for a little while?"
The offer giving him a margin of happiness, the slender man smiled as he nodded. The big man fixed up a chair with pillows and a blanket outside before helping him into his pants and a shirt. Nathan did most of the work; he was just too stiff and sore to do much. He let the healer pull him to his feet then together they moved out onto the landing.
With a tired moan, Tanner settled onto the chair, letting the pillows and blankets take his weight. He frowned slightly as the dim light of the cloudy afternoon threatened to ignite another headache. But, after a minute or two, he was able to relax.
"Doin' okay?" Jackson asked.
"Yep, 'pears so," Vin replied with a smile.
Chuckling, the former slave said, "Good. I'm gonna go change the bed and air the room out some."
"Sayin' I stink?"
"Well it's either you or somethin' crawled into the wall and died," the bigger man teased. "Now you listen to me. You holler if you get to feelin' bad, you hear? Don't wear yourself out or let a headache come on."
"Yes, sir," Tanner said with a grin.
"Behave yourself and I'll let you sit out here for a while. Then we'll get you cleaned up before you go back to bed."
"Yes, sir," the smaller man repeated.
With another chuckle the healer patted his patient's arm before retreating into the clinic.
Chris entered the clinic just after sunup. He watched his friend for a minute before speaking, although he knew Tanner was aware of his presence. Vin was eating breakfast off a bed tray, oatmeal that he knew was probably more than half molasses and honey. The younger man was managing to get most of the food in his mouth at least. When the subject of his scrutiny lowered the spoon into the bowl and tilted his head up, he said, "How're you feeling?"
"Been better," Tanner responded. "Been worse."
"How's the head?"
"Yeah, I can see that. How about the eyes?"
Sighing, Vin said, "Seein' a little more. I c'n make out things real close up." With a chuckle he said, "C'n even see th' hand in front 'a my face now."
Larabee smiled at the returning humor then said, "Sounds promising."
Taking a deep breath, the ex-bounty hunter said softly, "Reckon."
"Vin," the gunman said. Then he stopped, uncertain of what to say next.
Sensing his friends uncertainty, the Texan said, "Y' ain't gotta say nothin', Chris. Heard 't often enough t' know... jist gotta wait 'n see."
"Reckon so," the blond said softly.
Their conversation was interrupted when Ezra entered the clinic. "We have a bit of a situation," the gambler said without preamble.
"What's going on?"
"Mr. Wilson just rode in. He said that his daughters, Miss Charity and Miss Faith, failed to return home last night. He fears that they may have been abducted."
Tanner snorted. "Like 's not they found some poor cowboys thinkin' below th' belt, and sweet talked 'em into runnin' off with 'em."
It was no secret that Davis Wilson's two younger daughters were constantly looking for some way to leave home. The young women had long wished for the excitement of someplace like San Francisco. However, Wilson himself was blind to that, despite the fact that his wife had done the same thing herself a few years earlier.
Still, they couldn't ignore their duty.
"Does he have any idea which way they went?" Larabee asked.
"He believes that they were headed toward Whitley Pass." Standish reported.
"Makes sense," Vin said with a nod.
Chris sighed. The person with the best knowledge of the area was lying in bed, unable to see more than a few inches from his face. Running his fingers through his short cropped blond hair, he said, "All right. Tell the others; we'll ride out in an hour."
With a nod, the Southerner said, "I'll get them."
Turning back to Tanner, Larabee couldn't help but see the look of sadness that crossed his friend's face. In a soft voice he said, "Reckon I'd better go have Yosemite start getting the horses ready."
Nodding, Vin said, "Watch yer back, Cowboy."
Something caught his attention as he passed by the clinic stairs and Chris looked upward. He huffed an angry curse under his breath as he watched the figure moving haltingly down the long flight. Tanner.
The injured man was gripping the rail with both hands as he moved slowly from one step to the next. His unfocused gaze was set on some distant point. He had managed to pull on his boots and shirt. The deep red garment hung loose and unbuttoned and his wide suspenders dangled near his knees. Both clear evidence that he was too stiff and sore to bother with them.
Chris leaned against the end of the rail, arms crossed over his broad chest. On the surface he appeared calm. Inwardly he was counting each step; watching each movement. He might look at ease, but he was ready to spring up the stairs at the first sign of a misstep.
Vin was only five steps from the bottom before his faulty vision finally detected the man in black. With a scowl, he said, "Well, y' jist... gonna stand there all... day?"
"What the hell do you think you're doing out of bed?"
"Reckon I aim... t' go with... y'all."
"You're not well enough to go with us anywhere."
"Been abed... fer days now. 'At's long e'nuff."
"You can barely move."
"Jist gotta sit m' horse... he'll do th' rest."
"You're wrung out from walking down a few stairs."
"I c'n rest in th' saddle."
"You can't see!" Larabee growled as his patience came to an end.
Tanner flinched at that, his adam's apple bobbing furiously as he fought to stay in control. Taking a deep breath, he rasped out, "I know th' place like th' back 'a my hand. I don't need t' see it t' know where all th' hidey holes are."
Scrubbing a hand over his face, the blond said softly, "I don't doubt that, pard, but face facts. You're too banged up to stay in the saddle all day. And we don't know what bouncing along on horseback can do to your head injury."
"Might not do nothin'," Vin said, his voice wavering.
Reaching out, Chris laid a hand on the other man's arm. "Might do everything."
"I cain't jist lay about... doin' nothin'."
Smiling, the gunfighter said, "It's not forever, Vin, just a little while longer."
The shaggy head bowed; broad shoulders slumped. Heaving a heavy sigh, the slender man said, "don't wanna be helpless."
"You're not helpless, you're hurt. Give yourself time to heal."
"What... what if I... don't?" Tanner's head came up and he peered at his friend through the gloom that had been his visual world for too long. His handsome face was filled with pain.
"If you don't," he stressed the first word, "you've got six friends to help you."
"Take care 'a me, y' mean," Vin growled.
Larabee growled back, "I said what I meant. Now, if you're planning to wallow in self-pity, you're on your own."
Tanner blew out a breath and shook his head. "Helluva bedside manner y' got there, Lar'bee."
With a chuckle, Chris said, "Never claimed to have any manners and you ain't in bed."
The younger man smiled wanly, even as he began to slump toward the stairs. Then strong arms grabbed him and kept him upright. As cold sweat drenched him, he managed to mutter, "Shit."
"Come on," Larabee said gently, "Let's get you back upstairs and settled in bed."
Nodding, Vin allowed his friend to help him up the stairs. They moved slowly, pausing from time to time so he could catch his breath. By the time they reached the landing, he was trembling and breathless. He leaned heavily against the other man and let himself be guided along.
By the time they reached the clinic door, Chris was all but carrying the smaller man. "Come on, just a few more steps, pard."
"Guess... guess you was... r-right. Ain't quite... ready t'... ride." The sharpshooter grated out.
"Yeah, well one of these days you'll accept the truth, "the gunman said in a tone of long suffering as he lowered Tanner to the bed. "I'm usually right."
Vin snorted as his friend eased his bruised body out of the shirt and pulled his boots off. "Damn... upp'ty... gun... fight... fighter."
Maneuvering the injured man around and laying him back on the bed, Chris shook his head. "Anyone ever tell you, you talk too much?"
"Jist you," Vin quipped as the blanket was pulled up over him.
Retrieving the rag from the water bowl at the bedside, Larabee wrung it out. Running it across his friend's sweat-soaked face, the black clad man sat beside him, watching. Slowly a bare hint of color came back into the finely chiseled features and Tanner's breathing slowed. "You need anything before I head out?"
"Water?" The Texan asked.
Chris poured the other man a glass of water and helped him drink it. Settling his friend back on the mattress, he said, "All right, we're heading out. You behave now and stay put."
"Yes... pa," was the gravelly reply.
Chris looked up at the sound of hoofbeats coming up the street. He smiled at the sight of Vin Tanner approaching on his black gelding. The horse was practically dancing along the dirt road and his rider was grinning broadly beneath his wide-brimmed hat. Behind this happy pair came JD Dunne. Both the young sheriff and his horse looked worn out.
Larabee laughed aloud at the sight. He had been in JD's place a few times himself over the course of the past few weeks.
It had been more than four months since Tanner's accident. The ex-bounty hunter had made a slow but steady recovery, his vision now clear enough that he was returning to his duties as a peacekeeper. It was still weak enough that he begrudgingly allowed one of the others to ride with him when he left town. Nathan was more and more confident that the sharpshooter's vision would be at least near "Tanner" normal by year's end.
Buck joked that flies would be picking buckshot out of their butts before long, if that was the case.
There had been times that had seen the injured man despair of ever regaining his vision. As soon as Vin had grown strong enough, Chris had taken him out to his cabin. The younger man had been more at peace there, but still his frustration had come through time and again. The gunslinger had surprised even himself with the extent of his patience. He had stayed calm and done his best to reassure the Texan that things wouldn't always be so dark. Even when he hadn't quite believed it himself, he had worked at convincing his friend that it was so.
The changes had often been so small and slow in coming that Tanner didn't always register them himself for a while.
Chris remembered the two of them sitting on the front porch early one morning, drinking coffee. Coffee that Vin had made. He had grimaced as the thick, dark sludge touched his tongue.
Glancing up from where he sat on the other side of the porch, Tanner had said, "Git that look off yer face. Ain't that bad."
Chris had growled a comment under his breath then stopped. The two of them had stared at one another in open mouthed amazement. Twin grins had been born as they realized how clear Vin's vision had become.
So Larabee had stood by his friend when frustration claimed the typically patient tracker. But he was also at his side for each milestone he passed.
Finally the time came when the shades of gray had become brilliant colors. Formless shapes and shadows had become the faces of his friends.
And they had all rejoiced.
As more time passed, the joy was tempered as Tanner tested his friends' patience and stamina. He never seemed to sit still, on the move from first light to last... and beyond.
Chris looked up at the click of bootheels and jingle of spurs heading in his direction along the boardwalk. Nodding as the Texan slouched against an upright, he said, "Any luck?"
Shaking his head as he hooked his thumbs behind his belt, the tracker said, "Nope. Think them girls might 'a made it this time."
The gunman studied the other man for a minute, trying to decide how truthful the man was being. In general he was as honest as the day was long. There were times, however, when Vin Tanner conveniently stretched or otherwise distorted the truth.
They had gone after the Wilson girls three times since Vin had tried to sneak out of the clinic to join the search. Each time they seemed a little more difficult to find and more reluctant to return home.
And Tanner had never been one to willingly cage a wild thing.
"Well, we'll ride out tomorrow and make sure they're not dead somewhere out there, then I'll go talk to Wilson."
The younger man smiled cryptically and his friend was left to wonder just what that smile meant. All he said was, "Might want t' send Josiah, he's a bit more... dipl'matic 'bout things like that."
Frowning, the blond climbed to his feet as he said, "Just what are you saying, pard?"
His grin growing wider under the other man's glare, Vin replied, "Not a thing in th' world, Larabee. Not a thing in th' world." He pushed away from the post and followed the grumbling man into the saloon.
"Next time," Chris growled as he disappeared inside the building, "I'll just let the horse stomp your scrawny ass into the mud."