Universe: Old West
Characters: Vin, Chris, Buck
Disclaimer: The Characters of "The Magnificent Seven" are the property of MGM, Trilogy, etc and are used here without permission. No copyright infringement is intended.
Notes: 1) Happy birthday, Jo! This fic is for you. I hope you have a wonderful day. 2) Many Thanks to Marnie for all her help with this fic and making it readable.
He couldn't hear them.
That was good, right?
Scanning the flat, black landscape, desperation filled him as he could find no sure shelter.
Finally, he spotted a group of rocks. They weren't very high, but they should be enough.
Scrambling and stumbling, he sheltered behind the rocks, flat on his stomach, aching head resting on his arms.
He struggled to quickly get his breathing under control, hoping that would silence the pounding in his head that currently drown out all sounds but his harsh breathing.
As his short pants slowed, he tried to take a deeper breath and nearly groaned aloud, his arm instinctively going to his bruised ribs. He knew he should be thankful it was just bruising, or he would never have been able to run as far as he had.
Lifting his head, he peered through the dim night, trying to make out shapes. He knew he wouldn't be able to see his pursuers properly, but he was hoping he would, at least, detect movement.
With a glance at the sky, he tried to decide if he should be happy it was the new moon or disappointed. While the lack of moonlight helped hide him from his pursuers, it also hid his pursuers from him.
Eventually, his breathing became slow, even and silent. The pounding in his head was still there, but confined to the point on his skull where it had encountered the butt of one of their guns.
Closing his eyes, he listened carefully, but heard nothing that sounded unusual, anything that would sound like a predator on the prowl. That's what they were - predators and he was no longer going to be their prey.
Eyes opening, he scanned the landscape once more and settled more comfortably behind his blind. He had spent too many years hunting both animals and man to move too soon. His former captors might just be staying still listening for sounds of him. Vin, however, understood his captors better than they understood him. He knew that, even if they were being quiet for the moment, they would move soon - too soon. So, he would just have to wait a little longer and then he should be free to move.
Time passed slowly and his mind wandered back over the events leading to his current situation.
He, Buck and Chris had set out from town a week ago with two prisoners.
The trip itself had gone smoothly enough, but when they reached the outskirts of the town, Vin accepted his friends' recommendation that he stay just out of town waiting for Chris and Buck to return. It seemed a logical course of action since they didn't know the sheriff and didn't want to chance him arresting the tracker.
They had only been gone a few hours when the sound of four or five horses reached Vin's ears. He had settled in a small clearing out of sight of the road and assumed he would be safe.
As the sound of horses drew nearer his location, Tanner gathered up the few things he had unpacked and prepared to leave. Unfortunately, Peso didn't like the idea of moving away from the cool, fresh grass and clear water. He displayed is disquiet by shifting away every time Vin tried to get his foot in a stirrup.
Eventually, Peso came to heel and Vin mounted swiftly, turning to head further away from the road and the new arrivals. The horse's antics, however, had created a long enough delay that the first of the new arrivals caught sight of him.
Though, upon reflection he found it unsurprising, at the time, Vin couldn't help but curse his luck. Things had been going so well for so long. Now he found himself faced with someone who knew him from Tascosa.
The new arrival had cried out to his friends and immediately given chase.
Tanner cursed his ill luck as he tore across the plain, pounding hooves echoing behind him.
He had no time to react as a rope landed around him and pulled him offhis horse.
The ground was hard and unforgiving as he came into contact with it.
He landed hard and had the wind knocked out of him.
The rope was tight and, though he struggled, the lack of air in his lungs made escape nearly impossible.
Before he could regain his breath, he found himself looking up at four very dirty, very unfriendly faces.
"This here's Vin Tanner," the man Vin had recognized said. "Worth $500 in Tascosa."
One of the larger men, one who Tanner would learn was the leader laughed out loud. "By God," he exclaimed. "$500 and all of it honest money! What's the world coming to when the likes of us get honest money?" he asked, laughing out loud. The other three soon joined him. "Still, I think it might be easier to handle him if he weren't so lively," the man said, pulling his pistol, reversing it and knocking Vin out with the butt of it.
When Vin next awoke, he found himself tied hand and foot in a shack. Three of the four men were in the room with him and the sound of rain pelting against the tin roof muffled all other sounds. There was no telling where the forth man, the one he had determined to be the leader, was.
There were three doors in the room and only one shuttered window. Vin knew one of the doors had to lead outside. He figured at least one of the other ones led to a bedroom. He would need to find a way to get free of his bonds and escape. He knew Buck and Chris would come looking for him, but the rain would have washed away any tracks
Doing his best to remain still and quiet, he waited for the men to begin talking. He had waited quite a bit longer than he would have thought.\cf3 At some point he must have dozed off since he was startled back to awareness by the opening of a door.
Before he could hide his reaction, he turned his head toward the sound. It was the forth man. He was stepping into the building from the outside. The rain and clouds obscured any view of the outside world Vin might have hoped to have, but the faint gray light did allow him to determine it was still daytime.
He must have faded out temporarily, because before he knew it, one of the four men was hauling him upright.
The fall and the blow to the head had ruined his sense of balance though and before he could give a warning, everything in his stomach decided to make an appearance.
After being hastily dropped to the floor, he had been kicked several times before a kick to the head near where the lump from his pistol-whipping knocked him unconscious.
As near as he could figure that had been two days ago.
At some point, the men had convinced him that some more, as yet unseen, members of their gang were holding Chris and Buck captive. The leader had informed him repeatedly what he would do to Vin's friends if Tanner didn't behave as a model prisoner.
The threat had worked well to keep him calm, but there was no way Vin would let his friends suffer for his mistakes.
Finally, he formed a plan to free himself and his friends.
Waiting until three of his four guards were asleep, he only had to tarry a few minutes longer before the forth man's attention wavered. In seconds, he had his bonds off and was racing away from the camp.
He had a pretty good head start when the sentry called the alarm, triggering Vin's mad dash into the wilderness.
At one point, he had fallen and had needed several minutes to recover.
During that time, he had overheard his pursuers and couldn't help the sigh of relief he felt when they admitted that Chris and Buck were free.
With that worry lifted from his conscience, he continued his escape.
In the darkness of the night, however, he made more sounds than he would have liked. That, combined with blind luck on their part, had led the four men to his trail more than once.
Now, crouched behind his small rock pile, it seemed his captors were finally off his trail.
Unfortunately, that would only last until dawn when they would easily be able to pick it up in the still moist soil.
Satisfied he was safe for the moment, Vin pushed himself up to his feet, biting back a painful groan and resting his hand on the stones until the world stopped spinning.
Once he was fully upright he looked up at the stars, hoping to be able to find the ones that would tell him his directions.
Looking up, he almost cried out when he realized that, not only would his eyes not completely focus, but also, he was seeing two of everything. He tried closing one eye and then the other in the hopes of being able to only see one of everything, but the world around him was still blurry and having one eye closed made his already tenuous balance worse.
"No wonder I can't walk straight," he grumbled, his voice softer than a prairie wind's.
After a final sigh, he gave up trying to find his direction by the stars and realized he would need to rely on dead reckoning, hoping it would be enough to get him to civilization.
With a heavy, staggering tread, he gritted his teeth against the pain that coursed through his body with each step and headed in the direction he thought would lead him home.
He had no concept of time or distance, no idea where he was going. All he knew is that he was moving away from the men who had held him.
As he stumbled along, the sky grew darker.
"Darkest before the dawn," he muttered, knowing that the first gray light would be appearing soon.
Little did he realize he wouldn't be awake to see it.
His steps becoming heavier and more shuffling, his eyes closed as much as they were open, dizziness, nausea and pain assaulting him with everystep and every breath, he missed the darker shadow on the ground before him until he took a step and his foot encountered air.
Vin was unconscious before he hit the bottom of the riverbed.
These were his first thoughts upon regaining consciousness.
A low, rough growl sounded nearby. His first thought was that there was a predator nearby and he would have to defend himself.
"Been called a lot of things before, Vin," Chris said, amusement clear in his voice. "Predator's not the worst of it. Besides, it wasn't a growl, that was a groan and it came from you."
"Chris?" he tried to say, only no sound came out.
Brows furrowing in consternation at the reply, Vin struggled to open his eyes. He found himself looking at Larabee's smiling face, grateful that he wasn't seeing double. Two Chrises would be too much to take right now.
"Might want some water, Pard," Chris advised.
"Where?" Vin whispered.
The blond head tilted to the right.
Looking in that direction, Vin saw a stream flowing less than an arm length away. A glance in Chris' direction communicated the question.
"I'm not really here," the blond informed. "Ezra would call me a hallucination. You might call me a vision. Mostly I'm here because you need help and your mind conjured me up."
After a few moments of remaining perfectly still, Vin took in his friend's appearance and realized that, though the sun was up, Chris was casting no shadow. Receiving comfort from his friend's presence, even if he wasn't here, Tanner decided not to think on it too closely.
"Water," the image encouraged.
A grunt of acknowledgment was given and Vin dragged himself the scant few feet to the water.
That small exertion was enough to make him nauseous and dizzy.
"Best take small sips and drink slow," Larabee advised, reaching into his coat and extracting a cheroot.
Vin just shot him a look, but followed the instructions. It wasn't long before he'd taken all the water he could.
"Rest a minute, then we'll talk," Chris advised.
"Talk more when you're not real than when you are," Vin observed, his voice betraying his pain as he settled back to the ground. His observation was met with a familiar chuckle.
"You're not normally conscious when I'm watching your back. How would you know?"
Vin grunted in agreement and thought of the times he'd been laid up in Nathan's clinic. Sometimes he would be near consciousness and hear a soothing murmur. He'd always passed it off as fever dreams, but now he realized the murmur did follow the cadence of Chris' voice. It was something to think about when he didn't hurt so much. For now, maybe he'd let the darkness take him.
"Wouldn't do that if I were you," Chris advised.
Had his ribs hurt less, Vin would have sighed. Instead, he cracked open an eyes. His imaginary Chris was still there.
The blond head turned and looked out at the landscape around them. "You fall asleep again here and you'll make some mighty fine buzzard bait. Roasted to a crisp most likely," he finished, glancing up at the clear blue sky.
"Then what do you recommend?" Vin demanded.
"Moving along and finding some shelter before it gets too hot out," Chris chided. "You've lived out here your whole life, you know that, Vin."
Tanner was silent for a few minutes. He did know that. He was the one who had to remind the others from time to time to get out of the hot part of the day. "Which way?" he sighed reaching up and rubbing his aching eyes.
"Civilization's usually downstream, isn't it?" the blond prompted.
Vin glanced at the image of his friend and found Larabee studying the end of his cheroot. "Yeah," Tanner agreed before working to a standing position. As he gained his feet, he couldn't help the gasp of pain as his muscles protested the movement.
"Slow shallow breaths will help," Larabee advised, concern in his voice.
A nod of acknowledgement was all that the hurting tracker could offer.
"I'd offer you a hand or a shoulder to lean on, but I'm a might lacking in substance at the moment," the blond teased.
This elicited a chuff of laughter from the injured man. "I must be going loco," he muttered. "Talking to imaginary people. Reckon if anyone finds out I'll be shipped away."
"No shame in needing a friend," Larabee countered softly, his voice serious.
Vin looked at the hazel eyes of his friend. "Reckon not," he agreed. Then glancing at the water, he determined which way was downstream and took a step in that direction. "'Course, it'd be a mite more useful if you'd been real and maybe brought Peso with you."
Chris laughed out loud. "Reckon it would at that. But then, it was your imagination and need that created me, so you only have yourself to blame."
A sudden bolt of loneliness shot through the tracker. He really was alone right now. Chris wasn't really here, no matter how much he wanted to believe the vision before him. For years he'd been on his own and had eventually grown used to the empty ache that lived within him as he saw other people laughing and joking together. When the seven men had joined together no, even before that. When he walked out of the store with the gun and old Virgil had tried to stop, the loneliness had begun to leave. At least someone would care if he didn't come back. When his eyes met Larabee's across the street, any and all thoughts of loneliness had flown. He wasn't alone anymore and for however long it would last, he would hold onto that feeling with both hands.
Now, out here - wherever here was - he was alone once more.
"We're coming to get you," Chris assured, his voice soft and firm.
Vin was about to nod before thinking better of it. "I know," he admitted. Somehow, even when the outlaws had tried to convince him that they were holding Chris and Buck captive, he had known that someone would come after him.
"You focus on staying alive right now, Vin," Chris continued. "We'll worry about finding you."
The corners of Vin's mouth tipped upward and he set his eyes on a bend in the river. That was his first goal. All he needed to do was get to that point. Placing one foot in front of the other, he slowly made his way along the streambed.
"That's it, Vin," Larabee encouraged. "You take those steps. I got your back."
+ + + + + + +
Hours later, as the sun was rapidly descending to the horizon, Vin leaned against a rock, trying to catch his breath.
"Good thing you found those berries earlier," Chris observed.
Vin glanced at his imaginary friend. "Weren't the best tasting," he admitted.
"Sure you've had worse."
"That I have," Tanner agreed.
"Good thing it rained so hard a few days ago, too," Chris stated.
Vin tilted his head to the side in question.
"This time of year, this riverbed would be almost completely dry," the blond clarified.
"Have to get out of it eventually," the exhausted tracker stated.
"True," Larabee agreed, lighting another cheroot. "But it's good protection for now, keeps you hidden and offers some shade. Not to mention the water."
Vin could only grunt in agreement. Glancing over at the apparition, he couldn't help but be thankful that Chris - even if he was imaginary - had stayed with him all day. There were times he was sure he would have stopped if Larabee hadn't been there to encourage him on. "Need to stop for the night sometime."
"True," Chris agreed. "But if you can go on for a while yet, I would. Closer you get to civilization, sooner we can find you."
Vin nodded in agreement and immediately regretted it. The pounding in his head that had died back to a level he could ignore, was suddenly back full force. He felt the blood drain from his face and his stomach begin to rise up in protest.
"Slow breaths, Vin," Chris counseled.
Once he had his pain and nausea under control again, Vin pushed off the rock and started forward once more. He was trying to think of a conversation starter when he remembered something Chris had said earlier in the day. "What do you talk to me about while I'm out?" he asked.
"Was wondering when you'd come back to that," Larabee replied with a grin. "I just talk about this and that."
After a few seconds of silence, Vin prompted, "So, pretend I'm unconscious and talk about that."
Chris chuckled. "Suppose it won't hurt," he agreed. Taking a moment to think about a story to tell, he began, "Did I ever tell you about the first horse I broke?"
"I was probably fifteen at the time," Larabee began. "We didn't do a whole lot of horse breaking where I was, but every now and then someone would bring a horse and everyone would gather around to watch. It was a real event."
Vin smiled as he pictured a younger Larabee in a crowd of kin. Most likely his friend would push his way right up to the fence to get as close to the action as possible.
"Well, one day a new family moved in, the Coburns. They had decided to head back East after living in the West for a while. They brought with them a small herd of horses. Never could figure out why they went to all that trouble, but they did. Their place was only a few miles from my parent's. Not far enough to discourage me from visiting, but far enough that I had to plan for it."
"It wasn't long until they learned what a big deal it was for the neighborhood to watch a horse being broken. Wanting to thank the folks in the area for their help in getting them settled, the Coburns decided to throw a picnic and break three horses. The kids would get to choose which three.
"Everything went according to plan until the third horse was picked. He was a beautiful gray - strong, proud, and spirited. Well, the first two horses were broken. It was something else, seeing them jump around, spinning, tossing their heads\cf3 and watching those men sitting up there like they were glued to the animal.
"At least that's the way it seemed until the gray came along," Chris explained, grinning.
"He was a bit skittish about getting the blanket on him, but allowed it. He grunted and sidestepped when the saddle was put on, but, again, he allowed it. As soon as Mr. Coburn put his foot in the stirrup, though, the gray was having none of it. Mr. Coburn met the ground mighty quick."
Both Chris and Vin chuckled at the thought, knowing from experience how embarrassing that could be.
Chris continued with the story. "Well, Mr. Coburn wasn't one to give up, but, then, neither was the gray. After three attempts, Coburn did successfully get into the saddle, but he sure didn't stay there long. I'd never seen a man fly before then, but as that gray spun around and kicked up a storm; Mr. Coburn lost his grip and went flying across the corral. Fortunately, he landed in the dirt and not against the rails or the barn. \par
"He came up limping from that and was done for the day.
"By the time he had left the corral, the gray was calm again and one of his hands decided to take a try. The man was more than competent to break a horse, but that gray wanted nothing to do with humans riding around on his back. It only took one try to throw the hand off and into the railings. He dislocated his shoulder and was done for the day. At that point, they just took the blanket and saddle off the gray and announced the show was over.
"Of course, being fifteen, I couldn't let that stand. I knew I could do what those men couldn't. I left with my family, but planned on coming back that night. I'd break that horse and then tell everyone about it in the morning. I'd be a hero," Chris related. "Of course, at fifteen you have more drive than sense, but I didn't know that at the time.
"That night I waited for my folks to go to bed before sneaking out of the house. I was lucky that I didn't wake anyone up, but I did get out and made my way to the Coburn's. It was a warm night and the gray had been left out in the corral along with a few others. I knew where the tack room was and quickly got what I needed. Just like before, he didn't fuss too much about getting ready, but the minute I put my foot in the stirrup, he danced away.
"Not deterred, I tried again. It took me four tries before I got on his back and I'd have been better off if I hadn't.
"The second my weight lit in the saddle, all four hooves left the ground and he was off. I had no idea what I was doing other than holding on for dear life. The men had made it look so easy, but it was the single most terrifying moment of my life, and one of the most exhilarating.
"Unsurprisingly, the noise woke the entire house. I saw lanterns light before the gray spun away from the house and heard the door open. Someone shouted something and then to this day I don't know what that horse did, but I lost my seat, lost my grip and I was flying better than JD ever did," Chris laughed.
Vin joined him in the laughter. "You land hard?" he asked his friend.
Chris' grin grew wider. "Oh, yeah," he assured. "Had nice, soft landing, all things considered. Right in the manure pile."
Tears of laughter sparkled in Tanner's eyes and he had to sit down on the ground as his laughter shook him. His ribs were hurting from the activity, but it was worth it to have the image of a young Chris Larabee landing in the manure pile in his head.
Finally the laughter died down, and Vin caught his breath again. "I can see why you'd make sure a body was asleep before sharing that," he teased. "Can't say you're near as frightening after hearing that as you were before."
"As if you were ever afraid of me," Chris chided.
Tanner just smiled. It was true. He never had been afraid of Chris and Chris had never been afraid of him. It was good to have friends.
Chris' blond head swiveled around, taking in the landscape before glancing up at the sky. "Reckon it's time you found shelter for the night. A fire might do you some good, too," he advised.
Looking upward, Vin nodded his head in agreement. "Reckon you're right." Looking over to where he imagined Chris to be standing, he saw only the banks of the creek. With a quick scan of the area, he realized that his imagined Larabee was gone. "Can't believe I'm losing my mind like this," he grumbled to himself, as he once again tried to push away the knowledge that imagining seeing things and people, and more specifically, talking to them, was a sure sign of danger. It may have just been his mind playing tricks, a hallucination as Ezra called it, but whatever it was, the imagined Chris had gotten him through the pain of the day.
"No time to worry about it now," Tanner muttered to himself, struggling to his feet so he could gather wood for a fire before daylight died.
+ + + + + + +
Something was tugging at Vin's consciousness, trying to wake him up.
With a groan of protest he opened his eyes. It was still night out and his fire was burning low. There was enough heat in it to keep away the chill.
"Shouldn't be sleeping after a knock to the head like that," Buck advised.
Sitting up far too quickly, Vin had to brace both hands on the ground as pain nearly overwhelmed him
"Slow and easy there, Pard," Buck coached. "Just breathe slow and easy.
As his head stopped spinning in too many directions and settled on going along with the rest of the world, the pain in his ribs eased back from agony to manageable. When he was satisfied he would be able to talk, he looked up and found the concerned eyes of his friend.
"You found me," Vin said when he felt he could finally talk again.
A wry grin appeared on the ladies' man's lips. "Not exactly," he cautioned.
"Aw hell," Tanner cursed. "I'm losing my mind again aren't I?" This image of his friend was fainter than the one of Chris had been during the day. As he looked at the vision more closely, Vin discovered he could actually see through Buck.
"Can't really say one way or another," Buck admitted, still grinning. "I'm just here because you needed me."
"Needed you," Vin groused, trying to get comfortable on the ground as he fed another stick into the small fire.
"Well, needed someone to keep you up a while," the mustached man admitted with a shrug. "Nathan doesn't like it when we fall asleep on our own with a head injury. He figures we might not wake up. Can't say I'm ready to lose you from our little charmed circle yet."
The warmth of belonging flowed through the hurting, lonely man. Vin offered a lopsided grin in return. "So, why are you here, Buck? Other than to keep me awake?"
"That's something you could answer better than me, seeing as how it was your mind that imagined me. I reckon, though, it's because of my stimulating conversation and sparkling personality," Wilmington offered, preening slightly at his words.
A bark of laughter escaped Vin. He watched Buck's face fall and almost felt bad until he saw the twinkle in the rogue's eye. "More like Larabee's all talked out," Vin countered, shifting uncomfortably and holding his breath until the pain subsided again.
It was Buck's turn to laugh. "Believe it or not, there was a time when ol' Chris could spin a yarn and talk away a day with the best of them."
"Must have been real different back then," the tracker observed. "For the both of you."
Buck's eyes got a far away look in them and his smile softened. "That it was." Shaking his head slightly, he continued, "Doesn't mean now isn't better, though."
Vin only nodded in agreement.
"Now, you, I could never picture as a chatterbox," Buck observed.
A smile crept across Vin's lips. "Used to drive my Ma crazy with all the questions I'd ask. I always wanted to know about everything," he admitted, before the smile left his face and his eyes. "Learned not to ask too many questions after mama died," he admitted.
Buck was silent for several seconds. "Kids learn a lot of things growing up, don't they? A lot of them aren't things you'd want them to know," he observed. "Fortunately, there aren't any little ankle biters out here," he concluded with a more upbeat tone. "A little feminine companionship might not be amiss, though he threw out, wiggling his eyebrows and earning himself a smile from Vin.
The injured tracker had been scanning the landscape as his friend talked. A distant light caught his eye.
Noticing the direction of his friend's gaze, Buck asked, "You going to try and head over there? Reckon the light means folks are about."
"Could be the wrong type of folks," Vin replied absently.
"Could be," Wilmington agreed. "Could be friends, or at least friendly."
"Best to look on the bright side," Vin smirked. That sounded like Buck.
Loud laughter boomed out of the mustached man. "Well, there's usually two ways to look at things - expect the worst or expect the best. Life's a bit more tolerable when you expect the best."
"Can't argue with you there," Vin agreed. He did try to look at the brighter side of things, but sometimes it just eluded him. The mess in Tascosa was one of those things that just didn't seem to have a bright side no matter which way he looked at it.
"You should douse your fire and head on over toward that one," Buck encouraged.
"I'm unarmed, injured and there's not enough moon to see anything. Last night I fell in a creek bed," Vin stated.
"True," Buck agreed. "There's also nothing to use for a torch, but you're not going to last more than another day or so on your own."
Vin stared at the apparition. He knew that his friend had a quick mind and could size up a situation as quickly as any of them, but it was rare to hear him so seriously and plainly state things like that.
Chuckling, Buck said, "You don't like things sugarcoated and in this case, you know it's true. You wouldn't have imagined me saying that if it wasn't."
A sigh escaped the tracker at the reminder it was his own mind that had conjured this image. "I should probably worry about that. Never thought I'd lose my mind," he said softly.
"Doesn't mean you're going crazy, Vin," Wilmington answered, his voice understanding. "Just means you need your friends."
"Friends are there when you need them," Tanner replied.
"Sometimes even the kid comes up with a bit of truth," Buck agreed, referring to JD.
"That he does." A moment of silence fell between the two before Vin sighed in resignation. "Reckon I best be on my way if I'm going to stand a chance of finding out who's over there before dawn."
"Reckon so," Buck agreed.
Though he was strenuously denying the fact that Buck was imaginary, Vin still wanted to ask if the ladies' man would stay with him on the journey. Shaking his head at what he still couldn't help but see as a weakness, the tracker moved to extinguish his fire.
"Of course I'll be going with you," Buck stated, sounding offended that Vin might think anything else.
Startled, Tanner looked up from his task. "How..."
"You created me from your mind an imagination," Wilmington advised. "Makes me privy to a few of your thought processes."
"That's a terrifying thought," Vin muttered, only to receive an offended 'hrmph' in reply.
Extinguishing the fire took a few minutes longer than normal, but Vin was just happy to have it done. Between his injuries, exertions and the lack of food, he was hurting badly.
Two tries later he had achieved his feet. It took him a few minutes to gain his balance. Once he had, he scanned the area for the flicker of firelight he'd seen earlier. With that in his sights, he set of in a shuffling, stumbling gate toward the light.
"If you're still there, Buck, talk," Vin commanded, his voice gruff from pain. When the silence stretched another minute, he continued, "You ever met an ugly woman?"
Buck laughed. "Well now, that's a near impossible thing, an ugly woman," he replied. "Although"
"Back when I first met Chris we were a pretty wild pair," he began, his voice settling into the gentle rising and falling tones of a storyteller. "We traveled quite a bit, making enough to get by. Chris would take a job here and there to learn things, meet people. He thought it was important to know people if he ever settled down and went into business. I thought it was important to know people, too, only I found it important to know the ladies and my business well, you can imagine, I'm sure."
Vin smiled at the innuendo. He'd known Buck long enough to know what the rogue considered important business.
"Well, after a few months on the road, we took jobs as ranch hands. Chris wanted to break the horses and it was work I could do for a while. Plus there was this lovely little senorita" Buck cleared his throat, realizing he was getting off-track. "Anyway, me and Chris headed down to Mexico with the owner of the ranch to sell some of his horses. We'd earned enough to carry us through a few weeks and parted ways in a little border town down there I never could remember the name of.
"We did what most young men did, went straight to the saloon. Now, this was before Chris met Sarah and when he'd grin and laugh the ladies would come to him like flies to honey. Made my nights easier."
"Thought they'd be after your animal magnetism," Vin ground out, his voice rough and soft. He was feeling dizzy again and the firelight would split between one and two fires fairly regularly.
"There is that, but along the border, it was the blond hair that drew them. It was something unusual," Buck explained. "Anyway, that night all the ladies were taken, the last two having latched onto Chris and neither one was about to let go, so I did the only thing I could," he admitted, pausing.
"Got drunk didn't you," Vin observed, his smile in place.\cf3
"As a skunk," Buck confirmed. "Anyway, I wasn't thinking too clearly and whatever they started feeding me packed a punch like nothing I've had before or since. By the end of the night I was barely able to stand and I wasn't seeing exactly clearly. That's when she appeared.
"In the light of the few lanterns left burning, I could swear she had light yellow hair. She moved slowly across the room, but seemed to be coming straight toward me. She wasn't a big woman, but, when she came to my side and lifted my arm around her shoulder, I could feel the strength in her. She said her name was Sadie-Ann.
"Well, she led me up to her room, told me her rate and I fumbled through my pockets until I found the right coins. I don't remember much after that. Most likely I passed out. At least that's what I hope and pray happened," Buck admitted, a shudder coursing through him.
"The next morning I woke up to her poking me in the side, when I finally opened my eyes to look at her I must have shouted loud enough to wake the dead and was out of that bed so fast I was surprised the sheets didn't catch fire."
Vin couldn't help the laughter that escaped at the description. Unfortunately, it strained at the abused muscles around his ribcage and left him bent over, panting for breath. "Go on," he encouraged, when he was finally able to force himself upright once more. Shuffling along, he waved his hand for Buck to continue.
"Sadie-Ann had to be somewhere between sixty and dead. Her blondehair was white and so nasty I was expecting snakes to jump out of it. Her face," another shudder ranthrough Buck. "If you've ever seen someone who's been kicked in the face by a mule, this as ten times worse. She had that old person skin you could near see through. She didn't have a single tooth in her mouth.
"I scrambled for my pants, but somehow she got there first. I was about to grab them from her when she demanded I pay. I knew I'd paid the night before, but I wasn't about to argue if it would get me out of there faster.
"Needless to say, I paid twice for the uh pleasure of Sadie-Ann's company.
"It took me almost no time to get my clothes and boots on. I was out of her door faster than Chris can shoot.
"Turns out she lived above the saloon, so when I came charging down the stairs, I found myself the center of attention. Everyone was laughing and cheering. Turns out I wasn't the first man old Sadie-Ann had managed to get blind drunk and lure to her room. The bartender gave me a free breakfast and a shot of whisky. Can't say I refused either."
Vin was grinning at the tale. The firelight was closer now, but he was losing track of things, his mind wandering, his body aching more with every step. He could just make out the shadowy shape of a wagon. Relief washed through Vin at the thought it wasn't the outlaws he'd just escaped.
"Almost there, Pard," Buck encouraged. "Just need to keep heading toward that campfire. They'll lead you to a town and Chris and I will find you there. You know we're looking high and low for your scrawny hide."
"Ain't scrawny," Vin rasped, his breath coming in harsh pants as exhaustion and pain began to overwhelm him.
"Well, if that's the case, why's everyone always feeding you?"
"Like me?" Vin offered, though it was more a question than explanation.
"Reckon they do at that," Buck agreed.
Vin didn't reply. He didn't have the energy and the fire was so much closer now. He could make out the shape of people by the fire now. Just a little longer.
"Get your scrawny, stubborn self over there, Tanner," Buck commanded. "Sooner you get there, the sooner we can get you home."
"Home," Vin whispered as he stumbled along.
He saw the people near the fire stand and point at him. They were shouting at him, but he couldn't make the words out anymore. He got as far as the edge of the firelight before collapsing to his knees, unable to rise again. "Home." He whispered again as the firelight faded to blackness.
+ + + + + + +
Five days later, Vin was slowly making his way down the stairs. Buck was walking in front of him and Chris following behind.
The couple that Vin had found out in the wilderness had realized he was unarmed and in pretty bad shape. They had nursed him along until they reached the next town. That had been three days ago. There wasn't much they could do for his injuries, but they had plied him with water and food enough to improve his condition.
Buck and Chris had stopped in town to gather information and get Pony refitted with a shoe when the couple arrived.
Relief was evident in all three men, their voices and expressions as they were reunited. Though he insisted he was fine and could leave immediately, Vin was still having occasional bouts of dizziness. He was infinitely grateful, however, that the double vision had disappeared along with his imaginary friends. He really didn't need his friends trying to lock him away. Chris and Buck had insisted that he have the doctor look him over and that he listen to what the man said.
The doctor had recommended bed rest in a cool, dark room and that's exactly what Chris and Buck made happen.
Three days of enforced stillness in a small room proved to be almost more than Vin could take and the two healthy men eventually gave in to his demands to be on their way. Tanner had been happy to find out Peso had broken free from the outlaws and had been found several days before.
As they headed down the stairs, Vin was well aware that his ribs still hurt, he was still a might unsteady and dizzy, but the relief coursing through him at the thought of heading 'home' was more than enough to make up for any and all discomfort the journey would bring.
"What is that?" Vin demanded as they stepped out of the hotel. He was staring at a small wagon hitched behind a gray horse. Peso and Pony were tied to the back of it.
"That's your ride home," Buck informed, trying not to grin.
"That's a wagon," he observed, trying to figure out why it was there. "We have Peso and my saddle, there's no reason for a wagon."
"You're riding in the wagon," Chris commanded.
Vin could feel all of his stubbornness coming to the surface. There was no way he was going to ride in a wagon like an invalid. If he could walk, he could ride. Most times, even if he couldn't walk he could still ride. He noted the stubborn set of Chris' jaw and knew an all-out argument wouldn't get him what he wanted. Past interactions had shown him he might be able to compromise, though. "Fine," he replied. "I'll start off in the wagon, but if I haven't had a dizzy spell by the time we stop, I'm riding Peso."
Chris' jaw set more firmly, and Vin could see he was struggling to control his temper. A quick glance at Buck only revealed amusement. While Larabee worked to control his temper, Vin couldn't help the thought that, sometimes, the imaginary Chris was easier to deal with. "Shouldn't trust you around gray horses anyway," Vin grumbled quietly to himself. "No piles around for soft landings on the trail."
The shift in expression was subtle, but not lost on Vin. He silently cursed himself for speaking aloud, but found himself fascinated by Larabee's reaction to the words. The blond's eyes had grown slightly wider as surprise and then embarrassment flashed through them. If he weren't imagining things, Tanner would swear that Chris' ears weren't normally that shade of pink.
"Get in the wagon," Chris demanded, turning away from his friend and climbing in the driver's seat.
Wondering if there was any truth to the story, Vin carefully climbed into the wagon and settled in the back. He'd stay here for a little bit, but he was not going to arrive home like an invalid. Nathan and the others would never leave him alone if he did.
Once they were underway, the trip home went by quickly. Much as he wanted to deny it, he really wasn't up to riding on Peso for most of the way, but he did prevail in the end and was allowed to ride into town. The gray and the wagon had been left with the Timmons family who had recently lost their barn and all its contents - including their wagon - in a fire.
Though Nathan insisted on checking Vin over, he couldn't argue with Vin. The bruises were fading as they healed and he hadn't had a dizzy spell in over a day. He would still need to watch out for that in the next few months, but was declared fit for duty.
One day after a long patrol, Vin made his way to the saloon. As expected, his six friends were settled at their usual table, drinking and laughing.
As he settled down with his beer, it was easy for the tracker to see that JD was just about at the end of his patience.
"Buck, leave it," he commanded.
The ladies' man had a look of determination on his face that alerted everyone that he wasn't actually going to stop, just retreat for a minute and regroup.
Wanting nothing more than a little peace and harmony at the end of the day, Vin quickly searched his mind for something to use to deflect attention away from JD for a while. As his eyes met Chris' he recalled that the story his imaginary Chris had told him seemed to have some basis in fact. It made him wonder if maybe the imaginary Buck's story did,too.
Figuring he had nothing to lose with the attempt, the tracker settled in to wait until the timing was perfect. Buck had just taken a mouthful of beer when Vin asked, "Heard from Sadie-Ann recently, Bucklin?"
A smile broke out on Vin's face at the reaction he received.
The beer in Buck's mouth came flying out in a fine spray, coating Ezra and Josiah with the amber liquid. The rogue's eyes grew wide in shock and his mouth flapped open and shut several times before a very red-faced Wilmington was able to gather himself and respond, "I don't know what you're talking about."
"I tend to doubt that, Brother Buck," Josiah said as he mopped at the beer droplets on him.
The look of utter distaste on Ezra's face expressed his displeasure at his current beer-covered circumstance. "I do believe Mr. Sanchez and I, at least, are owed an explanation seeing that we are now wearing your libation of choice."
Buck, uncharacteristically, dropped his face into his hands.
"Sadie-Ann," Chris said, his voice thoughtful and distant. "Wasn't she?"
"Stop!" Buck commanded, with a pleading look directed at his friend.
"This sounds like the type of story I've got to hear," Nathan chimed in with a smile.
A heavy sigh escaped the ladies' man. "Fine," he agreed. "But I'm going to need something a lot stronger than beer to get through this one." Sending a glare at Vin he grumbled, "Don't know how he found out about it anyway."
JD eagerly rose from his seat to get Buck a bottle of whisky and a glass.
Vin settled back in his seat, content in the presence of his friends.