When the swelling finally went down enough that Vin could see out of one eye at least, he pulled himself from his hiding place in a cut-out at the creek and led his horse to level ground.
With his wrenched shoulder and battered knee, getting on the horse didn't seem worth the pain that the effort would cost him, so Vin led him on foot in the general direction of town.
He limped as he made his way through the sparse woods, gun in his good hand, alert for any sound around him. Those two bounty hunters were long gone, but he wouldn't let his guard down.
Dusk was coming on slow and though he'd been resting up most of the day, his body ached so much if he didn't get to town soon, he'd have to find another place to hole up for the night.
Finally, in the gathering twilight, he could see the lights of town winking in the distance and he knew he was safe.
A full day of searching for Vin had turned up absolutely nothing. The gut-shot fool up in Nathan's room, who'd turned up in town early this afternoon with Vin's harmonica and spyglass in his saddlebags, could only say where he'd last seen Tanner. Claiming 'we didn't do nothin' and he went n'shot me', he insisted Vin Tanner was alive when he last saw him.
Night was drawing on now and continuing the hunt for him in the dark could only lead to more problems, so Chris stabled his horse and headed to the saloon to find the others and discuss strategy.
He was in sight of the saloon when little Peter Hackensaw ran up to him. "Mr. Larabee!! Mr. Tanner's comin' into town! He's all busted up!"
"Where is he?" Chris demanded.
"He's comin' in down by the livery!"
Chris took off at a run and reached the livery just as Vin did. Leading his horse on foot, Tanner looked like he'd been put through a cabbage shredder. His clothes were torn and bloody, and so was his face. Both eyes were black and one was swollen shut. He walked slowly, limping, and held his left arm pressed against his ribs. Only his hat looked unmolested.
"M'fine," was all he muttered as he limped past Chris.
"Yeah, you look it," Chris said. He was concerned about the beating Vin had obviously taken, but at least Tanner was still alive. He followed Vin's slow steps to the livery. "Who were they?"
"Coupl'a bounty hunters, thought they'd have a go at takin' me in. I convinced 'em otherwise."
"Yeah, we got one of 'em here in town. Nathan thinks he might live if he's lucky."
Vin only shrugged as if it made no difference to him and kept making his slow way toward the stable.
"We gonna find any trace of the other one?" Chris asked. Vin made a movement of his head that could've been a nod, or just letting dust settle off his hat.
Deciding he didn't need to know what Vin meant by that, Chris moved ahead to take hold of the reins.
"I'll bring your horse in. You need to get to a bed before you collapse."
"I can take care of my horse."
"You're about to fall on your face," Chris said. He had to tug, though not too hard, to get the reins out of Vin's hands. When he did though, Vin wavered on his feet and put his hand on the horse to steady himself. Chris stayed the horse until Vin could stand on his own, then called to Yosemite to come take charge of the animal.
"You could probably use some food," he said to Vin, who lifted his head to gaze at Chris out of his better eye.
"I've had better invites than that in my day."
"Lookin' the way you do, take what you can get."
Vin didn't answer. He took a deep breath and winced in pain and stood there until Chris stood beside him.
"C'mon, let's get you to the boarding house. We'll have Nathan check you out there," Chris said. With one of Vin's attackers up in the clinic, he didn't want to take Vin there. Not until Vin looked in a shape to finish what he started anyway.
"M'fine," Vin said, but didn't question the destination. He started walking, still limping, still holding his arm pressed against his ribs. "I can get there on my own," he insisted as Chris shadowed him onto the boardwalk and down the street.
"I reckon I can walk wherever I want," Chris answered.
Vin grumbled but didn't argue and they made their way to the boarding house slowly.
If Vin let his mind go one direction, the spur-jingling footsteps just behind him could be a true annoyance. His body ached so much even his teeth hurt and all he wanted was a quiet room, a warm bed, and a long shot of whiskey. He could take care of himself, he would take care of himself. He'd been doing it long before he met Larabee, and he figured he'd be doing it a damn sight longer too. He didn't need a shadow.
Letting his mind go in the other direction though, those footsteps were as sure a signal as the lights of town had been that he was safe, that all he had to do was keep walking and everything would be fine. The jingling spurs were as much a notice to anyone who could hear them as they were to Vin that nothing and nobody would touch him as long as they were close by.
As they went in the front door of the boardinghouse, Vin was barely aware that Mrs. Gillard was in the hallway. She ran the house. Normally he'd greet her and try to make some polite small talk if required, she was a pleasant lady, but now he just wanted to get to his room.
The spur-jingling slowed and Vin heard Chris ask Mrs. Gillard to send a tub and some food to his room, to Vin's room. Then the footsteps caught up with him again and followed him to his door.
Chris was glad Vin's room was on the first floor, otherwise he thought he might have to carry him up the stairs, and for pretty sure Vin wouldn't take kindly to that. Vin opened the door and Chris followed him in. Once inside, Vin sat himself down on the bed and let out a great sigh of relief. Chris closed the door and lit the candle that stood on a shelf over his bed.
"We been out looking for you all day. Soon as we found your gear in his saddlebag, we lit out."
"I found a place to hunker down, wait 'til I put myself together enough to move on again." Vin set his hat on the bed next to himself. "You got my stuff? My stuff you said he had?"
"It's at Josiah's. I'll get it for you later."
There was a knock on the door and Mrs. Gillard appeared with a tray.
"Some soup," she explained. "You poor dear. And a sandwich. And something to drink. The tub is on its way. Let me know if you need anything else. You poor dear."
Chris took the tray and Vin said 'thank you' and she fluttered out the door again, shutting it behind herself. Chris set the tray on the bed. Vin looked at it and shook his head.
"Just the sandwich. That's all I can handle right now."
So Chris set the sandwich in his hand and set the tray on the little table in the middle of the room, then opened the door to let in the two young men carrying in the shallow tin tub and buckets of hot water. By the time Vin was finished eating, the tub was filled.
"You got clean clothes in here?" Chris asked. He hung one of Vin's blankets over the curtain rod to give him more privacy.
"I'll check back in a little while."
"Uh hunh." Vin stood up and started unbuttoning his shirt. "I might could doze off in the tub, so give me a minute to answer 'fore you go busting in my door."
The water in the tub was hot enough but not near deep enough to do justice to all Vin's complaints. He'd have to scare up some whiskey for that before he turned in for the night. He scrubbed off a couple weeks' worth of grime and hard work then just rested a bit in the water before getting out and getting redressed.
He could hear Chris out in the hallway, walking away somewhere, damn annoying footsteps. A fella like Larabee didn't have enough to do if his evenings were free enough to play nursemaid. Vin heard him then coming back a little while later, just as predictable as the lights of town winking alive every nightfall. Walking the hallway outside Vin's room was just what Larabee did when there'd been trouble.
When Chris figured enough time had passed, he tapped on Vin's door and went in when he heard the low, "Yeah, c'mon in." He found Vin sitting at the table wearing unbuttoned trousers over his long johns and stocking feet. He had finished the soup and was drinking the glass of water Mrs. Gillard had sent. He only looked a little better with all the blood washed off.
"Nathan's gone off to the Francey's place. Marcus fell and got a ladder rung through his side. You be all right until he can take care of you?"
"M'fine," Vin insisted. "He's only gonna tell me t'get rest anyway. And that's all I plan on doing."
"I'll have the boys come back and take out the tub. You want some more to eat?"
"This'll hold me."
"Here's your things." Chris took the harmonica and spyglass out of the pocket of his jacket and set them on the table. "Thought you could use this too." He set a bottle of whiskey on the table.
"Thanks." Vin poured himself a couple fingers full and drank it down. Then he gathered his possessions and stood to put them back in his coat pockets. Chris took a step to the door and called to Mrs. Gillard and pretty soon the two young men came and hauled the tub back out of Vin's room. When the door was shut again, Vin went to the bed and pulled the thick comforter back, getting ready to get in.
Chris suddenly realized what a long, worrisome day it had been for him and how wore out he was, and he sat himself in Vin's rocking chair. Vin cast him a puzzled gaze.
"Go home Granny. I'm fine."
"I will. I'm just tired."
"Suit yourself." Vin eased himself into the bed and pulled the comforter up. The candle flame flickered overhead.
"Sure was good to see the lights a'town," Vin admitted softly.
"We left 'em burning just for you."
After a pause Vin answered, "I know."