Characters: Vin, Chris
Disclaimer: Without Prejudice, the characters of "The Magnificent Seven belong to MGM, Trilogy,etc and are used here without permission. No copyright infringement is intended. Notes: 1) Happy birthday to Jan. 2) Many thanks to Marnie for her awesome beta skills.
Shifting uncomfortably in the saddle once more, Vin looked out at the land around him. Another hour should bring him to Brickman Spring and provide a chance to rest his aching back.
Though anxious to return to town to see his friends, he was enjoying his time in the open far too much to cut it short. It was only when he was out here, away from the noise and press of other people that he really felt at peace.
He knew there were many dangers in the open, knew that facing them alone only increased the risk, but there always seemed to come a point in time where the risk was worth it.
In some ways, he admitted to himself, it was actually safer for him to be in the wilds than in town. In the wilds there were fewer people to recognize him from his wanted poster.
So far he had been lucky that he had maintained his freedom with all the traveling from town to town that the seven of them did. In fact, he had seen more towns in the past few years being with Chris and the others than he had in the previous three combined. Still, when he was in town, he had six people watching his back. And when he was protecting the town, even those who hadn't originally supported the Seven kept his secret.
He once again shifted in his saddle and tried to empty his mind. He was all too familiar with where thoughts of his current life would bring him and he just wanted to enjoy the day.
Encouraging Peso to move a little faster, he took a deep breath of the fresh air and enjoyed the slight breeze now blowing in his face.
Reaching Brickman Spring just before the hottest part of the day, Vin slid off his horse and quickly removed the saddle. He could keep pressing on toward town, but there was really no need to hurry back. It made more sense to enjoy the shade and water for a few hours and then continue on when it was cooler. A little siesta probably wouldn't hurt him either.
As he settled into a light doze, the noise of the land buzzed around him, a soothing balm.
A smile curved his lips as he took in the peace of the land. He wouldn't make it back to town today, but he knew where he would stay. He'd be back by dinner the next night most likely, and that was soon enough.
The easy pace Vin had set that morning had done its job. He and Peso had ridden easy and, though a little weary, were within a comfortable distance of the town. Dinner with the boys sounded mighty tempting just then.
It seemed strange to him that he would be looking forward to returning to town, but, growing up and in his time hunting, he knew that even the most solitary person needed contact with others at some point. He knew himself well enough to know that he enjoyed being with people, at least with some people. He was a far more social person than his quiet demeanor generally revealed, why else would he have stayed so long in one place?
As he and Peso meandered along, his mind drifting, an odd noise caught his attention. Stopping, he quieted Peso and listened intently, his eyes closed.
When he once more heard the sound, he turned his head, opened his eyes and looked in that direction. Nothing came immediately to his eye, but he couldn't just let it go, he curiosity insisted he investigate.
In seconds his feet were on the ground and his gun in-hand. Creeping forward, he soon reached a small thicket from whence came the sound.
The foliage was too thick to see through, so, with careful movements, he pushed a few branches aside. A soft gasp escaped him at the sight that greeted him.
In the years he had spent wandering in the West among the People and among the Whites, he had heard tales of such things, but never had he thought he would see it. Nestled in amongst the branches of the bush was a young wolf. Its fur was completely white and its eyes blue. It was young, but looked old enough to be weaned. It was highly unusual to find such an animal on its own and so far from where it should be.
Vin was torn as to his course of action. Voices of the men and women of the towns he had lived in echoed in his mind with fear at the mere sound of the word "wolf". The voices of the People were tinged with respect and caution. As he studied the small creature before him, he caught sight of blood on the snow-white fur. A sad whimper decided his action. Returning his gun to its holder, he cooed, "It's OK little one. Just here to help you. You just stay there a bit longer and I'll be back."
Allowing the branches to close gently, he stepped away from the thicket and began examining the ground for tracks.
When he picked up the young wolf's tracks, he began circling outward, searching for a sign of the pack. After an hour of searching, he had found nothing. The only tracks he had seen were those of the young wolf. The infrequent signs of blood had continued to feed his concern for the creature.
Satisfied that he was in no immediate danger, Vin made his way back to the thicket.
When he once again moved the branches to the side, he found the young one exactly where it had been. "Need to get you out of there and check your leg," Tanner informed the wounded animal, his voice soft. "I know you don't like man and being hurt as you are you won't want anyone near you, but you're just going to have to get used to me being here." While he had been talking, he had been moving closer to the pup. "I know most people like me hunt you down for no reason other than they're scared of tales they've heard in the past, but the People respect you and the role you play in the cycle of life. Me? I have nothing against you so long as you leave people and their stock alone. Place for your kind is as far from man's world as you can get. Not too many places away from here anymore, but I'll see what I can do for you."
By the time he said this final sentence, he was close to being able to touch the wolf, but he waited, letting the animal get used to him. After a few minutes, a tongue darted out and licked his wrist. Despite the chill that ran down his spine at the contact, Vin felt himself relax just a bit. He would still have to be on his guard, but for now he had been accepted.
Reaching down, he removed the wolf from the thicket and brought him out to the bedroll he had laid out earlier. His handling of the pup earned him a nip when he touched the wound. Fortunately, his buffalo-hide coat kept the small, sharp teeth from penetrating to his skin.
"Sorry about that," he apologized, settling the wolf onto the soft blanket. "Going to have a quick look to find out if you're a he or a she and then we'll go ahead and see what we can do about your injury." When he didn't receive any protest from the wolf, Vin took a quick peek and smiled. "Well, little lady," looks like we just need to fix you up a bit and get you on your way. I know an old trapper who lives in the mountains, should be down to town soon and he knows of a few packs you might be able to join," he informed, turning the wolf to get a better look. He was about to continue when he caught sight of the wounds and swore.
He now had his answer as to how the wolf got so far from her normal habitat. Someone had taken her.
Carefully running his hands over the pup, Vin could now feel the scars hidden by the thick, white fur. Someone had beaten the poor thing badly enough to scar, but not to destroy the remarkable fur. The blood on the back leg was from scraped skin and muscle where she had escaped a shackle. Along with the bloody leg, there was a narrow crease across her opposite flank - a bullet wound.
With great effort, he was able to suppress his anger and rage at the treatment of this small animal and continued to soothe the pup. "I'll fix you up as best I can, but we're going to have to get a little closer to town. Know of a few salves that can help, at least I think they can, but it's too far from here to travel back and forth. Of course," he mused to himself, "Can't bring you into town either. Not only would the folks there panic at the sight of you, but whoever had you all chained up might come looking as well."
Vin worked a few minutes in silence, being careful not to cause the wolf pain as he cleaned her wounds. As he began wrapping a clean cloth around her leg, his eyebrows rose as he realized he knew exactly where to hide his young patient. "I know just where I can hide you," he said, a smile on his face. "Nobody would think to look there and I can get there without too much bother. Expecting my friend in a few weeks, and by then you should be good to go." When the wolf responded with a yip of approval, he admonished in a serious tone, "You just remember not to eat any men or their livestock."
The pup laid her head on her front paws and looked up at him with sky-blue eyes.
"Yeah, I've seen that look before," Vin accused, a smile on his face. "We'll just see."
He waited a few minutes to make sure the pup was comfortable and then wrapped he up in his bedroll and mounted Peso, not an easy task given the horse's unease at their new traveling companion. Still, Peso was well trained and Vin was able to calm him enough that they were able to set off without much fuss.
The detour Vin would take to hide the pup would add a few hours to his journey, but it was safest for both of them that he stay there.
Chris sat outside the jail with Buck. The two old friends were laughing softly as they reminisced about their younger days and JD's latest adventures. They were both careful to omit any mention of the years in between.
"I swear the boy turned about twenty shades of red," Buck chuckled. "His mouth was just gaping open and his eyes were as big as saucers."
Chris smiled, letting out a low chuckle of his own. "Not even sure I can remember being young enough that I'd be shocked by it," he admitted, his smile widening as Buck nodded his agreement.
"We going to wait a while longer to see if Vin comes back or do you want to go get some grub now?"
"Not sure when Vin's due back," Chris offered with a shrug.
Buck just smiled. He was well aware that Chris expected Vin back today, they all did. None of the men really had family around, so they looked out for each other, watched out for each other. They had their share of disagreements and shouting matches, but when it came right down to it, they stood together. "Right," Buck agreed, rising from his seat. "So I should just get that table for three, then?" he teased with a smile.
Larabee returned the smile, something he did much more easily now than he had in a long time. Rising from his seat, he replied, "Might as well. If he's going to turn up today it'd be for dinner."
The two friends were almost to the restaurant when they spotted a rider coming toward town. Stopping to wait, they watched and chuckled when they realized the rider was Vin.
"Perfect timing," Buck said, fondly.
"Yep," Chris agreed.
The two friends watched as Vin continued into town, offering a nod in their direction before turning into the livery.
"Guess we wait," Buck observed with a smile.
It was only a few minutes later when Vin stepped out of the livery and made his way to the waiting men. He nodded his greeting and the three set off for the restaurant.
Selecting a table in the corner, the three men settled in.
"Quiet in town?" Vin asked as they waited for the waitress to come over for their order.
"Close enough," Chris said.
Before he could elaborate, the waitress stopped by to get their order, a process that was lengthened by Buck's flirting with and flattering the obviously pregnant and married woman.
When the now blushing waitress managed to get away from the table, Buck turned to find both of his friends grinning at him. "What?" Buck asked innocently. "Can't a man compliment a beautiful woman?"
"It's a good thing Tom likes you, or you might be finding you way to Nathan's," Vin observed, grinning.
Buck returned the grin and shrugged, "She works hard and deserves a little bit of light and fun in her day. Besides, gotta keep that old Wilmington charm flowing."
"Old line of..." Chris began before cutting himself off as the waitress returned with their drinks. The other two men were laughing softly and Larabee looked slightly abashed at nearly being overheard.
A round of "Thank you, ma'ams" followed the delivery.
"So, why was it close enough?" Vin asked after taking a long pull on his drink.
"Just the usual," Chris informed.
"Yeah, old man Pritchard got into a dispute with his son again, claiming the boy was plotting to murder him by poisoning the milk they got everyday," Buck offered, amused.
"Never mind the fact his son, daughter-in-law and their children all drank the same milk," Chris observed.
"A few people got out of hand at the saloon and Mrs. Hattigan thought she'd been robbed of her peach pie until we discovered her son hiding behind the church polishing off the last of it," Buck related.
Vin chuckled softly. "Can't blame him for that," he observed. "She makes one mighty fine peach pie."
"That she does," Buck agreed. His blue eyes began to sparkle. "Of course today JD got called in to break up a rather loud fight between Mattie and Lester Carmine."
Vin raised his eyebrows in interest. The couple was notorious for their loud fights and their loud making up afterward. "What was it this time?" he asked, curious. Whatever it was, he could tell both Chris and Buck were struggling not to laugh.
"Not sure it's appropriate dinner conversation," Buck teased, leaning back in his chair.
Vin played along, narrowing his eyes. "Recommend you talk, Bucklin," he advised, "before I make you."
Buck allowed a laugh to escape. "You make me talk?" he asked, eying the smaller man. "I don't think so."
With a shrug, Vin settled back in his chair in a deceptively casual pose. "Believe what you want," he said, a glint in his eye. "But I know a thing or two about making a man talk." He allowed the menacing sentence to hang in the air for a second before adding, "Besides, I can tell you and Chris are about to bust a gut trying not to tell me what it is. Reckon it would be easier if you just spilled."
Buck let out a loud laugh at the truth of the statement. He really did want to tell Vin because he knew the younger man would appreciate it. Just as he was about to begin, their food was delivered. They thanked the waitress and dug in.
It was only a few bites later that Buck continued with his story. "Well, it seems that the Carmines got into it a little early this morning. JD was the only one available at the time when Billy was sent to get someone."
"So what were they fighting about this time?" Tanner asked.
Buck's grin grew wider and Chris took a sip of his drink to hide his smile.
"Well, now, there's the thing," Buck related. "Apparently Lester got up as usual and went to get ready for the day. Mattie usually sleeps in a bit, but today decided to surprise her husband," he continued, his eyebrows wiggling. "Except, it seems she's the one who got surprised."
Vin raised his eyebrow in question, knowing it would be enough to encourage Buck.
The mustached man leaned toward Vin, his voice dropping to a near whisper as he confided, "Apparently Mr. Carmine enjoys wearing Mrs. Carmine's underthings under his pants."
A snort escaped Vin in response to the revelation.
Buck laughed out loud. Chris grinned broadly, shoulders shaking with mirth.
"So JD walks in, ready to settle the fight and finds Mattie in less than acceptable attire and Lester half-dressed in Mattie's clothes. He stood there in the doorway with his mouth gaping long enough that Mrs. Travis wandered by," Buck continued. "She took one look at the situation and her eyes grew big as saucers and she says, 'Oh, my!' That was enough to shake JD out of his stupor. He turned to her and turned a few more shades of red before stuttering that she shouldn't be there and trying to usher her away. Of course, you know Mary, once she gets stuck on something, she's hard to shake." At this comment, his eyes slid toward Chris, who narrowed his own hazel eyes at the ladies' man. "Anyway, the fuss JD was making at the door was enough to snap the Carmines out of their argument and they shoved the boy out the door before slamming it shut."
"Take it that settled things?" Vin asked as his laughter began to die down.
"More or less," Chris replied.
Dinner continued with Chris and Buck informing Vin of what else had happened in town and sharing good stories and laughter.
The dinner had carried over into the saloon where they were joined by Nathan and Josiah. Apparently, JD hadn't been the only peacekeeper that had been kept busy over the past few days.
Eventually, though, Vin stood. "I'll take early patrol," he informed the group as he nodded and left.
Buck stepped out of the building and looked both ways along the street. It was a precaution that had been drilled into him during the war. Always be aware of your surroundings because you never knew when someone was out to get you.
He didn't see anyone and made his way toward the boarding house.
As he neared the alley where Vin kept his wagon, he heard a noise and pressed himself back into the shadows. Listening carefully, he identified the creak of the axle on the wagon. Fingering his gun, he slowly moved forward in the shadows, ready to step in and protect his friend.
Peering around the corner, he was startled to see that Vin who was just stepping away from the wagon was making the noise.
Buck was about to call out when he noticed Tanner's distracted state. He watched the younger man lift a pile of supplies from the rear of the wagon.
The moonlight that night was just bright enough that he could see a tin, some bandages and a blanket. His mind began running through different reasons why Vin would need such a combination of things, but none of them seemed to make sense.
He didn't have long to contemplate before Vin headed in the opposite direction toward the livery.
A few minutes later, Vin emerged from the building, mounted his horse and rode out of town.
Buck puzzled over his friend's actions for a few minutes before shaking them off and continuing on to his room. He'd need to get some sleep for tomorrow if Miss Emma had been serious in her promise.
Chris stepped into the saloon, shaking the rain off his coat and hat before scanning the room to see who was there. He already knew his friends were gathered around their usual table, they weren't exactly the quietest of people.
Satisfied that there were no threats at the moment, he nodded at Inez and then walked over to sit with his friends. "Boys," he greeted, nodding at their returned greetings.
"I bet Chris knows," JD enthused looking from Buck to Chris.
Larabee raised an eyebrow.
"The topic choice tonight is 'What is Vin up to'?" Josiah offered.
Chris raised his eyebrow in question, again.
"It seems that ever since he got back, he's been taking off every night and most afternoons and staying away from town," Nathan informed.
"And it would also appear that Mr. Wilmington spotted Mr. Tanner heading off with a blanket, bandages and a tin of food his first night back," Ezra inserted.
"Buck?" Chris questioned.
Buck nodded. "I was just on my way back to my room when I spotted him. Seemed a little strange, but then, it's Vin," he offered with a smile.
"I think he's helping a renegade Indian," JD said conspiratorially.
"And I'm telling you he's keeping company of a ... softer nature," Buck countered suggestively.
"I'm just worried about the bandages he's taking," Nathan injected, worry clear in his voice. "Could be someone's really hurt. He hasn't been by for anything, but he has to know I'd help if someone's hurt."
"Brother Vin is a man of many secrets," Josiah observed. "Could be any number of reasons he feels he needs to keep this quiet."
"Yes, well. Since none of you appears interested in a friendly wager on the reason, I find that my interest in the affair is distinctly lacking," Ezra opined, the spark of interest in his eyes revealing the falseness of his answer.
"He'll tell us when he's ready," Chris stated, putting an end to the speculation. He knew Vin had been spending time out of town each afternoon and taking all the morning patrols, but he had been unaware of the nightly journeys.
"He left early today," JD informed. "He came back this afternoon and was helping me load Miss Nettie's wagon when he glanced up and saw some rain clouds in the distance. Miss Nettie and him agreed we were in for a bad storm. He finished up pretty quick and set of f just as the rain started."
"Creeks are most likely running high coming down from the mountains," Josiah observed.
"He was headed out toward Jones Creek when I was returning from my patrol two days ago," Ezra added.
Chris just nodded and glanced out the window. It was too dark and raining too hard for him to ride out. He would have to trust Vin to stay safe.
The men settled into a comfortable conversation after that and began a game of poker.
They had been playing for, perhaps, an hour when the saloon doors opened and Brian Mitchell, a local farmer stepped into the saloon. The quiet man looked around uneasily. He wasn't a frequent customer of the saloon.
"Can we help you Mr. Mitchell?" Chris asked. He knew the family, knew them to be good people.
Looking somewhat relieved when he identified Chris, Brian walked over to the table. "Mr. Larabee," he said, nodding a greeting to the others. "I thought you should know. I was heading home from town and tried to cross Jones Creek. It's been flooded out. Looks like a flash flood came through."
The six men exchanged looks. That was important information, but the sense of unease that had descended upon them didn't lift with the revelation. "Anyone hurt?" Nathan asked, encouraging the man to continue talking.
Brian took a deep breath. "Don't know for sure," he admitted. "But when I was looking for a way to cross, I found Mr. Tanner's horse tied off. I tried calling for him, but couldn't find him anywhere. I called for him and looked down by the creek, but it was running fast and I didn't spot him for a few hundred feet either way. I thought it best that I come back here and let you know."
Chris rose to his feet, worry clenching his gut. "Can you tell me exactly where you found his horse?" he demanded. When Mitchell had recounted the exact location of Peso, the blond replied, "Thank you, Mr. Mitchell. I sure appreciate your coming. You go get yourself dried off over at the hotel."
"You're welcome," the farmer replied. He turned to leave but hesitated at the door. Turning back, he met Larabee's eyes. "Let us know if there's anything we can do to help," he offered. "Mr. Tanner's been real kind to me and my family."
"We will," Buck replied for the group.
As soon as the saloon doors closed, the men all stood and headed outside.
The minute they emerged onto the boardwalk, a lightening bolt illuminated the landscape, followed seconds later by a crash of thunder.
As the last echo of thunder died away, the rain increased in intensity until the water, combined with the blackness of night made it impossible to see across the street, let alone set out to search.
Silence descended on the six men. They weren't used to being helpless, but they had little choice at the moment. Something more powerful than they were had decided that their missing friend would remain missing through the night. Mother Nature was highly respected in the West and all of them were well aware she could kill even the strongest man in an instant.
"We can't just let him stay out there in this," JD pleaded, knowing they couldn't ride out. His simple words expressed all of their feelings.
"Don't have a choice," Josiah replied solemnly. Seeing the glum faces all around him, he offered, "Haven't seen any crows recently."
Ezra, Buck and Nathan all smiled at the older man. JD shook his head. Chris didn't respond, his eyes focused on the end of town.
"We'll set out as soon as the rain lets up and we can travel without killing ourselves," Buck advised. "Can't rain like this all night, right?" he offered, knowing full well that this sort of rain could continue for a day or more.
"Right," Nathan agreed. "Reckon I better get prepared." He moved down the boardwalk toward his rooms.
"We should probably get some sleep until the rain lets up," Josiah suggested, looking at the others before setting off for the church.
Buck tugged JD after him as they headed toward the boarding house. JD was protesting, but the others could tell his heart wasn't in it. The youngest had spent long enough in the West now to know that they shouldn't be out.
Ezra continued to look at the storm in uncharacteristic silence.
Chris lit a cheroot and leaned against the wall of the saloon.
"How long before you head out, Mr. Larabee?" Standish asked, not turning to face the blond.
"Reckon I'll wait a few minutes until Nathan gets settled in." He watched Ezra nod before continuing, "You should stay here."
"As should you," Standish observed.
Silence descended for several minutes before Chris crushed the end of the cheroot under his foot. "Be ready to leave in ten minutes," he commanded, pushing away from the wall. "We'll meet in the livery."
Ezra offered a two fingered salute and headed back into the saloon.
Chris pulled the oilcloth coat more tightly around him. It afforded some protection against the driving rain, but not as much as he would like.
It had taken him and Ezra three times longer to reach Jones Creek than it should have. But given the rain and the normal darkness of night, they couldn't move very fast. They would have been completely unable to proceed had it not been for the gambler finding two hurricane lanterns somewhere. Chris didn't ask; he didn't really care; he just needed to get to Vin.
As they approached the clearing where Brian Mitchell had said he saw Peso, they could hear the normally quiet creek raging. It was a sound that caused both men to tense.
It was a few minutes later when they found a very unsettled Peso in the clearing.
Within moments it became obvious to both men that they would need to bring Peso back to town. He was too disturbed to stay outside much longer.
After a brief exchange, Ezra took hold of the black's reins and mounted his own horse before setting off for town.
In their exchange, Larabee had ensured that Ezra would let Nathan know the situation. Then assured the gambler that he would either bring Vin to town or find shelter at his cabin, though town was his first choice. He didn't want to risk any more of his friends than he already was by having someone else ride out to meet them. It was never easy when one of the seven was hurt; it was harder for him when two were.
Though reluctant to agree, Ezra was finally persuaded to alert Nathan, promising that if Chris didn't return with their wayward tracker in a reasonable amount of time, he and Nathan would set off in search of both of them.
Left on his own in the dark, Chris left Pony in as sheltered an area as he could and began walking toward the creek.
Jones Creek was not a large waterway, but it did twist and meander quite a bit. Normally the water was only a few inches to a few feet deep. As he caught his first sight of the waterway, a gasp was torn from his lips.
The normally pleasant little creek has become a raging river.
Debris was scattered across the banks on both sides. In several places the banks had collapsed, causing partial blockages, which seemed to increase the speed of the swollen stream.
With each turn, the creek threatened to jump its banks and attack the land around it. If Vin had been caught in the initial wave of the flood when it came through...
Chris let that thought fade. Vin was all right. He had to be.
The path Larabee took along the creek bed was the safest available, but even that was treacherous at best. Still, he forged ahead, keeping his free arm extended and firmly grasping anything that seemed stable - a rock, a tree, a bush.
Three times he had nearly fallen into Jones Creek, but had managed to recover each time.
He had traveled nearly a mile downstream when he saw another clearing. He hated to waste the time to retrieve and move Pony, but being on his own, he knew he would be unable to carry Vin any great distance.
Turning back, he moved further away from the stream and headed back.
About halfway back to Pony, something white reflected in the darkness. On a normal night, he would never have had to leave his current path to determine what the white thing was, but under current circumstances, he was too far away to make out what it was. The temptation to dismiss it as nothing but a rabbit tail proved to be a strong force, but something made him look again.
It wasn't too far out of his path, so it shouldn't take long to investigate.
Setting out, he carefully moved closer to the tuft of white. The rain began easing for a few minutes as he approached and he could see the white fur moving just a bit, though, he could not yet make out what sort of creature it was.
Another step illuminated the area a little better and he realized the white creature was nestled in some sort of mound. It wasn't until he was a mere three feet away that he was able to tell that the mound was a man.
One last step revealed that the man was none other than Vin.
A gasp escaped the gunslinger as he recognized the inert form.
Instinctively moving forward, he reached out for his friend before the white-furred creature poked its head out of Vin's jacket. Recognition instantly filled Chris. Horror and fear caused him to reel back and reach for his gun.
He had the weapon drawn and cocked before his rational mind caught up with what he was seeing and he realized he couldn't shoot the wolf without injuring Vin as well.
Keeping his gun drawn, he cautiously moved forward once more. As he approached Vin, the wolf met his eyes, bared his teeth and let out a low growl. Knowing he was too close to shoot the creature, Larabee, un-cocked his gun and switched his grip, prepared to club the animal.
Just as Chris was about to move on the wolf, Vin stirred and in a weak voice commanded, "Tashah, no!"
Larabee could only stare in awe as the wolf lowered its head and lay down.
"Vin?" Chris asked, moving forward again, this time more cautiously.
"Chris," Vin replied, his eyes just barely cracking open.
"Need to get you out of here."
"Yep," Tanner agreed. Seeing the residual fear and mistrust of the wolf in Larabee's eyes, he stated, "She comes with us. She's young, hurt and doesn't know how to live in the wild." Vin closed his eyes for a few seconds, gathering strength before he continued, "They took her from her pack and chained her up, beat her."
Larabee sank back on his heels. He had been raised to mistrust and even hate wolves, but he knew many of the native people felt differently about the creatures. Knowing that Vin had spent time with the tribes, it wasn't outside the realm of possibilities that he would hold that same belief about the creatures. The fact that a wild animal had been captured, caged, chained and abused, would strike a chord deep within his friend. Vin had never actually told him anything about his past to make him think that Tanner knew first hand about such abuses, but Chris had watched the younger man's reactions to things and had drawn a few conclusions of his own.
Taking a deep breath, he let it out slowly and tried his best to overcome a lifetime of prejudice against the creatures and accept Vin's comment on the situation. "We need to get you up. Pony's about a half-mile back," he informed.
Vin struggled to push himself up into a sitting position. He hadn't gotten far when Chris' need to help his friend overcame his loathing of the wolf and he leaned over to help Tanner sit.
Breathing hard after the small exertion, Vin closed his eyes against the pain. He had determined earlier that nothing was broken, but he could feel the chills begin to shake his frame and his body protest after being battered by debris in the wall of water that had caught him off guard. Though he didn't want to admit it, he knew he would have to tell Chris. "Not sure I can stand," he said, speaking so softly his words were almost lost in the rain.
Chris hadn't needed to hear the words to understand what Vin was saying. Worry shot through him as he feared the worst. Vin could be battered, bruised, have broken bones or something else could be broken inside, something that could kill him.
Easily reading the fear and concern in his friends hazel eyes, even in the meager light of the lantern, Vin assured, "Just a bit battered. Nothing's broke."
Chris nodded, accepting Tanner's assessment. "Then we best get going," he said, moving so he could help haul Vin to his feet.
With some effort, the two men stood, the young wolf still secured in Vin's jacket.
The going was slow given the lantern light and poor footing. Vin's breathing was labored and he grunted with almost every step. Chris had tried to stop a few times, but the younger man had denied the idea, fearing if he stopped again, he wouldn't have the strength to start once more.
As they forged their way through the steady rain, the slick ground and the darkness, Larabee could feel how quickly his friend's strength was fading, could feel the tremors shuddering through his body, could feel the heat that was beginning to radiate off the younger man even as the night grew colder. They needed to get Vin to shelter quickly.
"Almost there," Larabee encouraged. He received no response.
After what seemed an eternity, they finally reached the clearing where Pony patiently waited. Two challenges lay before them. The first was getting the wolf near Pony; the second would be getting both Vin and the wolf onto the horse.
The first problem didn't seem to be much of one. Between the drenching in the creek, the rain and being hidden mostly in Vin's buffalo coat, the wolf's scent didn't disturb the horse in the least.
Getting Vin and the animal on the horse, however, proved to be an almost daunting task.
By the time they reached the clearing, Vin was moving on sheer determination and stubbornness. Unfortunately, that potent combination wasn't quite enough to see him into the saddle.
Eventually, the two men were forced to wait for several minutes while Chris gathered enough strength to lift the younger man onto the horse. It was hardly an easy task, but, by some miracle, they succeeded.
Chris watched as Vin swayed in the saddle. He could see that his friend's face had gone nearly as pale as the wolf's fur. His jaw clenched at the thought of the pain Vin would have to endure on the trip to town, but there was no choice.
"Cabin's a mite easier to get to," Vin drawled, exhaustion evident in his voice.
"It's further away," Chris countered.
Tanner stated the truth, "Easier in this weather."
Larabee stared out into the night. It would be an easier trip to get to his cabin, but there was no fire built for warmth, no medicine and no Nathan to check Vin over. Ezra was expecting him in town, not to seek shelter in the cabin, but he was fairly certain that the boys would figure out where he was when he didn't return to town. At least he hoped they would.
Releasing a huff of breath, Chris agreed, "Fine. The cabin." He turned to grab Pony's reins. He would walk carrying the lantern to show the way.
They had only gone a few steps, however, when he stopped and commanded, "If you feel like you're going to fall off, let me know. I'll ride and hold you on."
His only response was a grunt of agreement.
Chris looked at the still forms on his bed and thought back over the last ten hours.
It had been slow going out to his cabin and about halfway there, Vin had begun to slip out of the saddle. That Chris had heard his faint cry over the wind and rain was a near miracle.
Larabee had only to look at Vin to know that his friend wouldn't be able to stay in the saddle much longer. Though the light wouldn't penetrate as far in the darkness, he knew he would have to ride double.
A portion of his mind rebelled at the thought, however, not because of Vin but because of the beast Vin insisted on protecting. Eventually, his concern for his friend overcame his distrust and disgust for the creature and Chris mounted behind the younger man, ensuring he stayed on the horse.
By the time they reached the cabin, Chris' concern had grown to the point that he didn't even spare a thought for the young wolf. Heat was pouring off the younger man. Normally he would think it unusual for such a high fever to happen so quickly, but then he reminded himself that he had no idea how long Vin had been laying out in the open, possibly unconscious, and definitely battered and bruised.
It had been a struggle to rouse Vin enough to get him off of Pony, but they had managed - barely.
After depositing Vin and the beast on the bed, Chris had quickly moved to light a fire. Heat would help drive off the chill and fever that burned in his friend.
Fortunately, the last time he had been at the cabin, he had laid a fire, so all he had to do was light a lucifer and set it to the tinder. The dry fuel immediately caught fire. He checked the stack of wood he had left inside and made a mental note to bring more in and let it dry.
His next concern, though, was for Vin and getting him out of the wet clothes.
Moving to stand in front of the younger man, he had noticed that Vin was barely awake. A white-furred head poked up out of the neck of the jacket and Larabee instinctively curled his lip into a snarl. He didn't want the animal in his cabin; didn't trust it.
Weary, watery blue eyes blinked open and locked on his. "She won't bite you," Vin informed. "They beat that out of her. You'll need to feed her raw meat. Take a tin or pan and smash it a bit so it's soft and in small pieces. Let her lay near me. She thinks I'm in her pack right now." The instructions had been given between chattering teeth and a few coughs.
Chris had only been able to nod at the instructions. "Need to get out of those wet things," he advised.
Vin nodded. "Just getting my wind back," he replied. "Best look after Pony."
Smiling slightly at the not-quite-subtle hint to leave Vin alone to get out of his clothes, Chris had only nodded and left.
By the time the drenched blond returned to the interior of the cabin, Tanner was asleep under the covers of the bed, the wolf curled up beside him.
Somehow, seeing the creature in her wet, bedraggled state lessened his disapproval of the young wolf. There could be, and would never be, any mistaking her for something other than what she was, but curled next to Vin like that, looking smaller than he would have expected, white fur sticking out in some places and matted in others... It actually reminded him of his cousin's hunting dog.
Approaching the bed, he looked down at Vin. The younger man was still shivering regardless of the fact there were two blankets already on the bed. Making his way to a chest, he opened it and pulled out one last blanket, keeping it folded in half lengthwise, he placed it over Vin.
When finished, he stared at his friend for a few minutes and a shiver ran through him at the thought he might have ended the day with one less friend than he had begun it. "Too close, Vin," he said.
Turning away, his motion was arrested by two blue eyes staring up at him. "You best be as good as he says, wolf, or you'll be seeing my bullets." Man and wolf held each other's gaze for several more seconds before the young wolf lay her head back down on her paws, let out a sigh and closed her eyes.
Chris had filled a kettle with water and taken a seat at the table.
Now, ten hours later, Larabee crossed his arms on the table and rested his head on the pillow they made.
Vin's fever had broken a few minutes ago and he was now resting peacefully. The rain from the day before had continued making travel difficult, but somehow JD had appeared outside his cabin earlier that day with a bundle of herbs from Nathan and instructions on how to make the tea. He also left his bedroll and a change of clothes for Vin. Buck had arrived a few minutes later with some food for the men.
They had stayed a few minutes, but we're needed back in town, once more leaving Vin in Chris' care.
Tired from applying cold cloths to Vin's forehead all night and trying to force the vile smelling tea into his friend, the gunslinger allowed his eyes to close.
He had no idea how long he had been asleep when a gentle prodding at his knee woke him. Looking down, he found himself looking into a pair of blue eyes. It took his brain only a few seconds to process what he was seeing. "Food or out?" he asked the wolf. When the white fur-ball, as he had come to think of her, looked toward the door, Larabee pushed himself up out of the chair, suppressing a groan as his stiff muscles protested, and let her out.
As he headed toward the stove, he told himself he didn't care if the creature came back or not, choosing to ignore the fact he had left the door partially open for her return. A low groan from the direction of his bed drew him away from the stove.
Picking up a mug of tea he had been warming, he made his way to the prone form. "Got something for you to drink," he announced as Vin turned his head and opened his eyes.
"No skunk juice," he protested, his voice betraying the soreness of his throat.
"Nathan said to pour this into you each time you woke until tomorrow," Chris said. "I'll do a lot of things for you, Vin. Taking on an angry Nathan isn't one of them," he finished with a small smile.
Vin chuckled softly, the laughter turning into a cough. "Reckon not," he agreed when the coughing stopped. With some effort, he managed to lift himself into a sitting position and reached for the tea. He took a sip and grimaced. "Where's..." he began to question.
"Out," Chris replied, watching to make sure Vin drank more of the tea before returning to the stove where he began heating a pan in preparation for breakfast.
He was moving toward the cupboard on the wall when a small, white bundle of fur darted into the cabin and leaped effortlessly onto the bed, nudging Vin's side, looking for either attention or food.
"Watch it," Vin scolded as one particularly enthusiastic nudge nearly sent the cup of tea toppling. The pup didn't seem to pay much attention to the command, but continued nudging Vin. Finally, the Texan let out a huff of frustration. "You got anything you can feed her?" he asked.
Chris grinned at his frustrated friend. "Might," he answered noncommittally.
"Would you, please, give her something before she spills this all over your bed?"
Larabee continued to grin, but took pity on his friend. Fishing out a chunk of raw rabbit, he picked up a cast-iron skillet and smashed it down on the meat a few times. When he was satisfied it was tender, he scraped the meat into the skillet and set it on the floor.
Though Chris gave no other signal, the wolf was aware her meal had been served and quickly abandoned Vin in order to fill her stomach.
The two men chuckled at the action.
Turning to face his friend, the smile on Chris' face faded as the question that had been plaguing him since he first heard of Vin's excursions out of town came to mind.
His eyes drifting away from his small charge, Tanner noted the serious look on the blond's face.
"Why didn't you tell someone what you were doing?" he asked.
Vin heard the unspoken question, why didn't you tell me. Letting out a long sigh, the younger man ran a hand through his hair. "How'd you react when you saw her and realized what she was?" he asked in return.
Chris knew Tanner was going somewhere with this and answered, "I pulled my gun, ready to kill her, afraid she'd hurt you."
Blue eyes stayed locked on hazel ones, letting Larabee mull over his answer to that question, nodding the moment he saw the realization dawn. "Couldn't chance someone shooting first and asking later."
Larabee nodded. Though he hated to admit it, he knew that was exactly what he would have done if presented with the wolf. "You could have told me first, prepared me," he offered.
Vin's head tilted to the side. The move, though natural, was not a good one; it triggered a series of coughs. Once he had his breathing under control again, he took the few remaining sips of the tea and closed his eyes, trying to make sure he was ready to talk and wouldn't trigger another coughing fit. "Didn't think of it," he finally admitted, being perfectly honest. "But even if I'd convinced you it was a good thing, not everyone in town would be so understanding."
"Perhaps not," Chris agreed. "But you still should have said something. It was sheer luck that Brian Mitchell came across Peso in that rain. Couldn't hardly see anything."
Guilt flashed across Vin's face. He knew how bad it was last night, had suffered the consequences of his own foolishness in riding out in it and had been lucky that the flash flood that came through tossed him to the side onto some muddy soil, leaving him bruised, but not broken. "Was just a harmless secret," he mused aloud, almost more to himself than Larabee.
Before he could respond, Chris heard the sound of a rider approaching. Stopping to pick up his gun, he moved to the door and peered outside. He easily identified the rider as Nathan. Reaching back, he set the weapon on the table and stepped outside. "Nathan," he greeted as the healer dismounted.
"Chris," Nathan returned, grabbing a bundle from the back of the saddle. "He awake yet?"
"Awake and just finished another cup of tea," Larabee informed.
"Good," Jackson replied, climbing the stairs to the porch. "I need to have a look at the damage he suffered last night so I have an idea what to do for him." The only response he received was a nod.
Stepping inside, Nathan froze in his tracks at the sight of the white wolf sitting next to Vin on the bed. Growing up, he hadn't been subjected to the same fears and stories about the terror of wolves that many others had, but he instinctively knew to be cautious. Rightly or wrongly, the small creature was a predator and therefore a threat.
"She won't bite you, Nate," Vin offered, an amused smile on his face. "Least, not unless she thinks you're hurting me."
Nathan's eyes darted to the ill man and it took him only a moment to realize Tanner was teasing him. "Best watch it," he replied, "or you might have to feed your friend there some of that tea."
Vin blanched at the idea. It was hard enough for him to drink it, trying to get the wolf to drink it would be a nightmare. "Fine," he agreed, petulantly.
Nathan and Chris quickly hid grins at the tone and the slight pout they saw on Vin's face. Jackson tried to move as quickly as he could through the examination. The curious wolf poking her nose everywhere he seemed to move didn't help, but he had experience with children being underhand as well. It wasn't that different.
"Well?" Chris asked from the table where he had settled after moving the breakfast he had been cooking off the stove.
"Lungs are sounding clear, but keep up the tea. Nothing is broken, but some of those bruises are deep and will hurt for quite a while." Standing, he began to put things away into the bundle he had brought. "There's one bad one on his lower back that'll make moving painful for a while. I'll leave you a poultice to put on it, but it needs to be hot when applied. There's one on his right hip that's about the same. Other than that, he's healing up really well," Nathan informed, addressing Chris.
"He's sitting right here," Vin grumbled, glaring at his friends.
His complaint resulted in two more smothered smiles.
"Thanks, Nate," Chris said.
"No problem. Need to get back to town, though. A few people were caught in the storm and need my attention. Mrs. Stanski is due soon too," Nathan informed, heading toward the door.
Before the healer could walk out of the cabin, he was stopped by a quiet voice.
"Nathan," Vin called. He waited for his friend to turn around before continuing. "Thank you."
Nathan offered a broad smile and nodded his head before ducking out. He returned a few minutes later with the ingredients for the hot poultice and told Chris how to make it.
When the healer left once more, Chris dished the breakfast he had been making onto two plates and brought one over to Vin. Making sure the younger man was settled, he returned to the table and his own plate of food.
As he ate, he thought on his fear and worry. It wasn't a new experience for him, but it was one that he hadn't felt in a while. Hadn't felt since he last had family. Looking up, startled by the realization that Vin and the others had become his new family, Chris found Vin looking at him.
A small smile appeared on Vin's face even as a twinkle appeared in the blue eyes. "Scary, huh?" he asked.
"Yep," Chris agreed, smiling back at his friend, knowing they were talking about the same thing.
"Took a while to know it, though," Tanner observed, forking some more food into his mouth.
Chris contemplated the words. In a way they had all known they were more than co-workers and friends, but he understood exactly what Vin meant. Chris had known in his head that the boys were his family for quite a while, but after last night, after the ride in the rain and being with Vin during the fever he knew in his heart and soul that the seven were family.
A comfortable silence fell on the cabin after that as both men ate their meals, content in their knowledge.
Taking Vin's plate, Chris' eyes fell on the poultice. "You ready to try the poultice Nathan left?" he asked.
A sigh escaped the younger man. "Rather sleep a while, but I suppose we should get on with it."
Larabee nodded and set about cleaning up the meal and preparing the necessary components of the poultice.
As the ingredients of the medicine heated, a pleasant scent filled the cabin. Chris let out a sigh of relief. He had smelled some of the concoctions Nathan used when helping people and very few of them actually smelled good.
"Doesn't smell nearly as bad as I thought it would," Vin observed, opening his eyes from the light doze he'd fallen into.
"Nope," Chris agreed, removing the substance and bringing it over to the bed. "You need to lay on your stomach," he advised.
Turning over, Vin settled as comfortably as he could, shivering slightly as Chris pulled the blankets down to expose the bruise on Tanner's back.
A low whistle escaped the blond as he looked at the damage. "That's got to hurt," he observed as he took some of the hot poultice out of the pot and began spreading it on the bruise.
"Don't feel like Christmas," Vin agreed, hissing as the hot medicine touched his skin.
"Not too hot is it?" Chris asked, concerned that he could be hurting Vin worse.
"Nope," Vin replied. It was hot enough to be uncomfortable, but not hot enough to burn.
A few minutes later, Chris was done applying the poultice and realized he's left the damp cloths he was to use on the table in a bowl. Walking across the room, he was startled by a soft chuckle and a demand to "Stop it!"
Turning around, Chris was in time to see the wolf licking the poultice off of Vin's back. He stored away the information that Vin was ticklish and stepped back toward the bed, causing the wolf to stop her attentions. Man and wolf locked eyes again before a sigh escaped the pup and she lay down.
With a shake of his head, Chris turned back to the table and got the bandages he needed.
As he laid the damp bandages over the poultice, his curiosity got the better of him. "So, what do you plan on doing with her? Can't keep a wolf around these parts."
Vin sighed, partially from the loosening of the muscles and reduced pain in his back and partially because he knew he had to send the wolf away, no matter how attached he was becoming. "Have a friend, a trapper, he'll be in town in a week or two and I'll have him take her back with him," he explained.
"She's not sleeping in my bed until then," Chris blurted out.
Vin chuckled at the declaration. "Nah," he agreed. "She needs to be outside. Now that she's feeling better I figure I can start training her to catch he own food," he commented.
Chris stared at his friend's back for a few seconds before shaking his head. "Pard," he began. "You haven't seen your back. There's no way you're going to be up to teaching anyone anything for a few days to a week at least."
"Then I'll tell you what to do and you can get her set," Vin advised.
"Nope," Chris replied, bringing the unused bandages back to the table.
Before Vin could protest or argue, Larabee slipped out the door of the cabin.
Turning to look at the pup beside him, Tanner assured, "He'll come around. Family does for each other."
The wolf let out a little sigh, turned around three times and settled in for a nap.
Two weeks later
The two men stood side by side watching Vin's friend ride off, mule tethered and a furry white head poking over his shoulder looking back.
"She's finally going back where she belongs," Vin said, his voice a mixture of relief and melancholy.
"Best thing for her," Chris observed, his own voice reflecting some sadness.
As the figures they were watching disappeared, Larabee clapped his friend on the shoulder. "You still owe me new boots," he advised, turning to head into the cabin and close it up.
Vin snorted in disbelief. "I told you to use a dead rabbit to train her," he pointed out. "It's not my fault you didn't listen."
"She was your wolf."
"And you didn't enjoy spending time with her?"
"Vin," Chris said, his voice dropping into exasperated menace.
"Chris," Vin returned, his voice filled with teasing humor.
The two men's eyes met and laughter escaped.
By the time they had settled down, Chris pulled the door to his cabin closed and mounted Pony. Vin easily settled on Peso.
"Still not sure how you talked me into doing that training," Larabee complained.
Vin met the hazel eyes and replied, "It was like I told the pup, family does for each other."
Chris grinned back, slapped Vin's shoulder and replied, "That they do." As he urged Pony into a walk, he added, "Of course, you still owe me new boots."