Disclaimer: I own them not, I profit not. However, I can do my part to keep them from disappearing into the mists of memory!
Note: This is a very long missing scene from the episode Obsession. Think of it as everything that happened between Vin calling for Nathan to come tend a wounded Chris to the point where Vin steps up onto the boardwalk to greet the convalescing gunslinger. It was a long commercial break.
My thanks to Pamela for the beautiful picture and to the Three Larabees (Pamela, Winnie and Marti) for appreciating the Chris stories I've written.
Webmaster Note: This fic was formerly hosted at another website, and was moved to blackraptor in December 2008.
"Nathan! Nathan!" Vin continued to hold onto Chris' shoulder. The blond, dressed only in his black jeans, lay writhing on the ground, a bullet high in his side. "Hang on, pard. Nathan'll be here in a minute." He looked around, trying to locate the other man. "Nathan!"
The healer looked up from where he sat next to Hilda. He looked across her lifeless body and caught Buck's eye.
"You better go; way Vin sounds, someone's hurt," Wilmington said, his eyes still on the young woman who had died trying to keep him safe.
"You all right?"
"Go on," Buck was straightening the young woman's clothing gently. As the ex-slave walked past, he squeezed the other man's shoulder.
"NATHAN! Damn it, Chris' hurt!" Vin nearly screamed the words.
"I'm comin'," the healer called as he came around the house. Dropping down next to the gunman, he gently pulled at Larabee's arm, "let me see, Chris."
"I'm...o-okay..." The man said breathlessly through gritted teeth. "Gotta go...get th-that...bitch..."
The other two men exchanged looks. Vin knew that something had happened; Chris had almost shot the woman a few minutes ago, and had seemed disappointed when the tracker had missed her with his sawed-off. He knew, too, that he had found out things about Ella Gaines that Larabee had not wanted to hear. Evidently something had made their leader change his mind. He was no longer blinded by the memories of the life he had once had with the woman.
"WHOA now!" Vin clamped his hand on Chris' shoulder when he realized that the wounded man was trying to get to his feet.
"Lemme go..." the blond slurred, intent on going after the woman that he had only yesterday seemed content to move in with. "G-gotta go...get her..."
"Chris, you ain't goin' nowhere, "Nathan said, "we gotta get that bullet out and th' bleedin' stopped. Now, you lay still."
"NO!" Larabee sounded like a wounded animal, frightened...almost panicked.
"Chris!" They looked to see Buck stomping around the corner. "Now you settle down. We gotta get you patched up, stud."
"Buck! Go...go get that...BITCH..." Chris gasped as the pain threatened to overwhelm him. "Please...go...get her..." He was pleading with them, something none of them had witnessed from their leader before.
Kneeling next to his old friend, Buck said, "we'll get her Chris, I promise y' that. Now lay still, okay? I ain't in th' mood t' dig two graves t'day..." His voice broke as he thought of Hilda.
If nothing else, his friend's words distracted the wounded man from his single minded need to go after Ella Gaines. "Two? Who... who?" He strained to look around the ranch, seeking the other men.
"None of us, pard, now let's get you fixed up, alright?"
Chris was nearly in tears now a single thought pounding in his head...Ella had caused Sarah and Adam's deaths. But, nearly unconscious now, he could only nod and allow the men to pick him up. He slumped between Vin and Buck, his head nestled against Buck's shoulder. While Nathan hurried ahead to get things ready, his two best friends carried him into the house. As they started past the threshold, Chris once more rebelled, although he could barely speak now. "No...not...in here...no...burn it...burn the house..."
"Later, pard," Vin said softly. "Later." He knew that he would have no objections to putting a torch to everything that woman owned. The tracker felt the gunman relax as unconsciousness claimed him. Looking over at Buck, he shook his head as they entered the house. Neither man could fathom the sudden change in Larabee's behavior.
"Put him on th' table," Nathan instructed. While the other men followed his directions, the healer began the task of repairing the damage Handsome Jack Averil's bullet had done to their friend. By the time he had finished, the ex-slave was exhausted. It had been touch and go, the gunman had nearly given up on them once. But Chris was tough, and rallied enough to allow Jackson to finish the job.
"Nathan?" Vin looked at him expectantly. On the other side of the table, Buck was doing the same.
"I don't know, I just don't know. The bullet grazed the lung, but I don't think it pierced it. We're gonna have t' keep him real quiet for a few days."
"We better keep him knocked out then, 'cause you know Chris," Buck said, shaking his head.
"He might talk it up, but he ain't gonna have th' strength t' do much more 'n that," the former slave said. "Best keep someone with him though, just in case. Don't want him tearin' them stitches out. Soon 's I get him bandaged we can take him upstairs and put him t' bed."
"Sure that's wise?" Vin asked. "Don't exactly think he's gonna be too fond a wakin' up in her bed." He spit the word 'her' out angrily.
"I'll go look 'round. Figger a place this size's got more 'n one bedroom," Buck nodded and moved toward the stairs.
"Ain't...s-stay'n...here..." a pain filled whisper came to them from the table.
"Pard, we ain't got a choice," Vin said evenly. "We can't afford t' move you 'round enough t' go home. Best y' stay here till y' get your strength back."
The hand that clinched his arm made the hunter wonder for a second if Larabee hadn't already gotten his strength back. Glassy hazel eyes locked their gaze on him. "Vin...I don't want...to die...here..."
"Y' ain't dying y' durn fool," Tanner was angry now. "But we gotta do what's best fer y'. Throwin' y' in a wagon and bouncin' y' back t' town's not gonna help nothin'. Now, you best settle down and let us take care a' things fer y'."
With something between a moan and a cry, Larabee closed his eyes, too tired to argue right now.
Heavy steps on the stairway turned their attention to where Buck was returning from his search. His face was pale, a look of anger, fear and grief on his handsome face. He came to stand next to Chris, one hand gently brushing the blond hair back.
"Buck?" Tanner said tentatively.
"Think I know why he don't wanna stay here," Wilmington's voice was hollow sounding. He held up the broken locket and the torn family picture that Ella had kept locked away. "Found all sorts a' pictures, trinkets, papers...all tucked away nice an' neat in a little room upstairs. Looked like some sorta shrine 'r somethin'...all dedicated t' Chris Larabee."
"My God," Jackson breathed.
Looking down at his friend, and then to the picture Buck held, Vin saw the crudely scratched 'X' over Sarah's face. "Reckon we might know who hired Fowler?"
Shrugging, Buck said, "don't know...but it sure don't look good. I did find another bedroom up there...hell, there's two 'r three. Reckon we can move outta th' bunkhouse til Chris gets on his feet." He smiled at the others, a momentary glimpse of the Buck they knew. Then he grew serious again. "We ready t' move him?"
"Yeah, but I want to get Josiah in here, too. The more of us carryin' him, the easier we can make it for him."
"I'm right here Nathan," the deep baritone voice rumbled from the doorway.
Nodding, Jackson began instructing the others and they gently lifted the semi-conscious man from the table and carried him up the stairs. A few minutes later they had him settled into a featherbed, covered to the chin in a down comforter. While Nathan fussed over his patient, Josiah went back downstairs to resume his watch for signs of trouble. He had informed them as they carried Chris upstairs that J.D. and Ezra had gone to scout around the area, looking for any signs of Averil's gang. Nodding his head toward the door, Buck led Vin down the hallway to the little room he had found earlier. The young hunter was just as appalled at what was there as Buck had been.
"Damn, it's like she was trackin' his every move," Vin said quietly. His hand brushed lightly across the pictures of Chris, the newspaper article of Sarah and Adam's death. He had never seen Larabee's family before. 'She's beautiful,' he thought as he looked at Sarah Larabee staring up from the newspaper. And Adam. You could see his papa in the boy that was for certain. He felt strange standing there, looking at all of the things Ella Gaines had preserved from Chris Larabee's life. It was almost as if he were standing in the middle of his friend's soul. He moved toward the door. "C'mon Bucklin, let's get outta here.
The big gunman must have felt the same way, as he was quick on the hunter's heels as they left. He closed the door behind him. The two men exchanged looks and wasted no time retreating to the room where Chris lay. Once there, they found Nathan arguing with the gunfighter, who had once again struggled toward full consciousness.
"Chris, you ain't gonna do yourself any good fightin' about this. Now you're gonna lay there and let us take care of things. You ain't gotta worry 'bout nothin' but gettin' better."
"Nathan...we got...we got...to go a-after...her...got to..."
"Chris?" Vin walked up next to the bed, resting his hand on his friend's shoulder. "Listen t' me pard. We ain't gonna let her get away, understand. Me an' Buck...we'll go lookin' fer her after while. We just wanna stay close til you're feelin' better."
"Vin...go...go get her...th-that...bitch...go get her..."
"We will, Chris. She's th' one, ain't she? Th' one that killed Sarah an' Adam."
Relief flooded the man's face. Finally, someone understood. He visibly relaxed and nodded. "Sh-she's th' one...get her...pard...p-promise me..."
"We'll get her, but we can't do nothin' til we're sure you're okay. So you gotta lay still and do as Nathan tells y'. Understand? If y' don't, we can't go get that murderin' bitch."
"Alright..." his eyes shut and Larabee drifted back into unconsciousness once more.
Vin looked at the other men. He saw the anger he felt reflected in their eyes. He wished that he could have made Chris see her for what she was earlier. But how? He had played the only cards he'd been dealt; that she owned the very company she claimed was trying to drive her off her land. Chris hadn't been ready to hear him, to hear anything bad about the woman. Now he knew, though; they all did. Ella Gaines was a conniving, evil thing that had no regard for anyone. Vin Tanner looked down at his friend's face, the pain and sorrow still evident even while he slept. He vowed then and there that he would find the black-hearted monster that had caused those feelings, and she would pay. He had learned a thing or two in his time with the Indians. Tanner knew ways of putting that same pained expression on the woman's face.
"Vin?" Buck spoke softly from behind him. Turning, the tracker saw all five of their companions in the hallway. He had been so intent on his thoughts that he had not even heard them approach. Stepping lightly he joined them outside the room. He pulled the door partially closed, leaving only enough space to allow him to keep an eye on the sleeping blond.
"I fear not, Mr. Tanner," Ezra Standish replied. "We surveyed the area as thoroughly as possible, but found naught but a myriad of hoof prints, and a few lingering dust clouds."
"Any sign of Ella Gaines?"
Standish simply shook his head.
"It's like she vanished, Vin," J.D. put in. There's not a sign of her to be found. Reckon maybe you'd have better luck trackin' her...ain't 'xactly our strong suit."
"Reckon..." Vin trailed off, his gaze turning back into the little bedroom where Larabee lay. He wanted nothing more than to drag the woman back by her hair; to let Chris watch her beg for forgiveness. At the same time, he couldn't bring himself to leave the man's side. In the end he decided that the woman could wait another day. "I'll go lookin' in th' mornin'."
"Well, brothers," Josiah Sanchez's deep voice called their attention. "Unfortunately, we have duties in the yard. There are several lost souls out there whose bodies deserve at least a final dignity."
"Only one out there I got any need to see gets a decent burial," Wilmington said, "rest of 'm can lay out there an' rot far 's I'm concerned." They could all hear the grief in his voice. They had all witnessed or at least heard about how the vibrant songbird, Hilda, had been gunned down during the fight. They were all at a loss to know what to say to the mourning gunman, however.
"I'll stay here with Chris," Vin said. The statement was unnecessary. They all knew he would be unwilling to leave the gunslinger.
"You call out if you need me, alright?" Nathan said as he joined the others on the stairs. Vin simply nodded and returned to the bedroom.
Pulling a chair next to the bed, the sharpshooter sat down tiredly, watching the blond as he slept restlessly. From time to time Chris began mumbling; Vin could only make out a word or two here and there. He didn't really need to know what the words were though he could guess their meaning by the expressions that crossed the handsome face.
"Bitch...why...locket...SARAH!" He cried out, his eyes flashing open then drooping closed once more. Several minutes passed in silence before, "fire...Fow...ler...no...dead...all dead...BITCH!!" He began thrashing, flailing at the woman that was now present only in his fevered dreams.
Vin sat on the edge of the bed, grasping the other man's arms. He tried to calm him down, but the blond didn't, or couldn't, hear him. "CHRIS! Settle down, pard. You're gonna hurt yourself. Settle down!"
After several long minutes Chris exhausted himself and lay limply on the bed. His breathing was harsh, shallow and he panted rapidly. Vin grew alarmed that he had damaged the already abused lung. He didn't know much about medicine, but he did know that it didn't sound good. Finally convinced that the gunman would be quiet for a few minutes, he strode hurriedly to the window, looking for the ex-slave. Not finding him, he took another look at the wounded man. Larabee was sweat-drenched and trembling. Something was definitely wrong.
Making a decision, he said, "you lay still now Chris, I'll be back in a couple'a minutes." With that he rushed from the room in search of Jackson.
The big former slave looked up as he heard his name yelled in that raspy drawl for the second time that day. He and Josiah had just finished loading the dead men into the wagon that had been parked near the house. They would take them into town and leave them with the undertaker. Ezra, as if he had a true kinship with the stuff, had found a cache of money in the house that would see to a decent burial for not only Hilda, but the would-be gunfighters as well.
"What?" Nathan called in response.
"Think Chris might'a done some damage t' himself," Vin had come to stand in front of the healer. "He started having dreams ... nightmares. Got t' fightin', and he's breathin' awful queer now."
With an exaggerated sigh, Jackson took off toward the house at a dead run, Vin matching him stride for stride. As they reached the second story a heavy thud rang through the hall. Hurrying even more, they entered the bedroom to find Chris Larabee sprawled on the floor, trying weakly to get to his feet. Kneeling on either side of him, the men took his arms and lifted him back to the bed. Nathan cursed softly as he saw the growing crimson stain on the bandage. "Keep an eye on him, I'm gonna have t' stop that bleedin' and change the bandage."
Nodding, Vin sat next to the still weakly thrashing Larabee. "Damn it Chris!" His patience was rubbed raw by the events of the past few days. "Lay still. Y' ain't doin' yourself any good like this. If y' don't lay still, I ain't gonna b' able t' go after Ella Gaines."
As if he had spoken magic words, Chris Larabee grew quiet. His breathing was still harsh and ragged, but he seemed to be listening. "El-la..." he mumbled.
"Yeah. Tol' y', I ain't gonna be able to go search for her 'til you're doin' better than y' are right now. Where th' hell were y' goin', anyway?" He was pretty certain that he already knew the answer.
"Outta...here..." came the soft reply. "Outta here...Vin...please..."
"Chris, we already went over this. Y'ain't strong enough t' take a long ride. And if y' don't do's you're told, y' ain't gonna get better. Y' understand me?"
He nodded slowly. "Yeah..."
"Then you lay still. Sooner you rest, sooner we can get outta this place and back t' town." He heard footsteps outside the room, and turned to see Nathan entering with his arms full of medical supplies. "Now, here's Nathan. He's gonna patch y' up. Hear me?"
"Alright, now do's you're told and lay still. I'll be right here." He moved away from the bed to allow Nathan to do his work. Going to the window, he watched the sun reaching upward into the sky. Seemed impossible that it wasn't even noon yet. It felt like he'd lived a lifetime since riding back to this cursed ranch.
Chris slowly managed to open his eyes, and began to work on focusing them. A soft glow left most of the room in shadow, letting him know that it was night. Vin was slouched in the chair next to his bed, asleep. Larabee mused that in unguarded moments such as this it was easy to see just how young the hunter was. They too often forgot that he wasn't much older than J.D.
Seeming to sense that he was being watched, Tanner's pale blue eyes opened. "Hey pard, how're y' feelin'?"
"Alright," he croaked softly, surprising himself at how weak he sounded.
"Wanna drink 'r somethin'?"
He nodded slowly, "water..."
The tracker disappeared into the shadows and returned with a glass. Lifting the blonde's head from the pillows, Vin helped him drink. Chris frowned up at him.
"Wasn't just water," he said accusingly.
"Nathan put some sort 'a herb in it t' help y' with the pain and let y' sleep." Smiling at the face the older man made, he continued, "don't be gettin' mad at me. I'm just followin' orders."
"Reckon I know Vin...Tanner well enough to know...he don't take orders from no...one...less it suits...his purposes..."
Chuckling, Tanner said, "Reckon 'y caught me. But why'n't'cha go on back t' sleep?"
"In...a minute..." Chris lay quiet for a time, gathering what little strength he could muster. "Vin, I'm sorry..."
"Sorry? Y'ain't got nothin' t' be sorry 'bout."
"Yeah...I do. I...should have listened to you...about her. I was...a fool."
Shaking his head, Vin said, "weren't your fault Chris. That woman had her claws in y'. Y' wasn't th' only one she fooled."
"Didn't fool you...or Buck...you both tried...tried to tell me...about her. If I'd listened --"
"Chris, don't start beatin' yourself up over this. Ain't gonna do y' no good a' tall. You gotta concentrate on gettin' better...that's all."
"Vin...if I don't...make it...I need...need you...to..." he drifted back into unconsciousness.
"Chris?" He touched a hand to the injured man's chest, letting relief flow over him as he felt the chest softly rise and fall. Sitting back on the chair, he sighed. "Pard, you know all you gotta do is ask...you got anything I have t' give."
She came to him in the darkness, slipping out of the shadows silently and approaching him quickly. Her hair was down, streaming behind her in the night air. She was silhouetted against a fire. Looking, he realized it was his home; the little ranch he had built so that he could live happily with Sarah and Adam. Carried to him on the wind, he realized that he could hear their voices, crying for him to save them as the smoke and fire lashed out at them. He couldn't move, welded to the spot, mesmerized by the horrors of what he saw before him. He fought his body's malaise, desperately trying to move toward the little house. Even as he did, he knew he was too late...the roof was falling inward, silencing the screams of his family.
Sobbing now, he turned to Ella Gaines. She was nearly upon him now, her face - a face he had once thought beautiful -- now looked like nothing so much as that of the devil himself. Her eyes were dead, icy cold as she stared at him evenly. "They had to die, Chris," her voice came to him above the roar of the fire. "They had no right to be with you. I am the only woman you can ever love...the only woman you will ever have. You have to understand that. Accept it Chris. There will never be anyone else..."
"NO!" He screamed, lashing out at her now, his anger giving him the strength to move. "Damn you! You killed them...you killed my wife...my son...damn you...you bitch!" His hands wrapped around her throat. He began to squeeze. Looking into her face, he saw no fear, only a calm acceptance. He could kill her, but she would never die. She would be a part of him forever. "NO!" He screamed again.
"-ris! Chris, wake up pard!"
He slowly opened his eyes to find Vin Tanner next to him. His hands were wrapped around the younger man's arm; quivering as he continued to squeeze.
"Chris, wake up. It's okay. Y's just havin' a bad dream." Tanner gently unwrapped the trembling hands from his forearm and placed them on the bed. "It's okay now, ain't nothin' gonna hurt y' here, understand?"
Unable to find his voice, the gunman simply nodded. His hazel eyes bore into the other man's face. Tanner nodded, knowing that the older man was communicating his apology as well as his fear. Taking up a rag, he wiped the sweat from Larabee's face and chest. He began talking softly, almost as if he were gentling a horse. "You're okay now, pard. Ain't no one gonna get t' y' now. Y' got me 'n th' others lookin' out for y', so y' ain't got nothin' to worry 'bout. Come sunup I'm gonna go lookin' for Ella Gaines, and I promise y' cowboy, I'm gonna ever'thin' in m' power t' find her. Put her outta your mind and concentrate on gettin' your strength back. Let me 'n th' others take care a th' rest."
Still caught halfway between waking and sleep, the blond lay quietly, letting his friend's words wash over him. He took comfort in them. His friends would take care of him; would do everything they could to make things right. He wasn't certain what he had done to deserve such loyalty from the other six, but for now he held onto it, wrapping it around him and letting it protect him from the nightmare Ella Gaines had bestowed upon him. With a sigh, he let his eyes drift close, and allowed the soft drawl of the tracker lull him back to sleep.
"Vin?" The tracker turned to find Ezra Standish standing in the doorway.
"I heard Chris cry out. Is he okay?"
"Can't rightly say he's okay, but it was just a nightmare."
Nodding, the gambler came softly into the room. He wore only his pant, suspenders hanging from the waistband. His hair was tousled from sleep, his eyes still half closed. "You've been in here for hours, why don't you go get some sleep. I'll sit with him for awhile."
"I'm okay," Vin answered.
"You'll be no good to him if you wear yourself out. I know you want to look for that reprehensible woman's trail in a few hours. You'll have a better chance at success if you've rested a bit."
"Done slept awhile," Tanner had no interest in sleep.
"In the chair no doubt. Believe me, even the horsehair davenport in the sitting room would allow you more comfort than that. Now, come along Mr. Tanner, I insist. I've had the chance to rest, you shall do the same."
With a sigh, Vin said, "you promise t' wake me if anythin' happens?"
"Of course, Vin," Ezra's flippant tone was replaced by a more serious one of concern for both his friends. "Now, off with you sir!" He picked up the man's hat, jacket and gun-belt, holding them out before him. "You have been dismissed from your duties."
With a slow grin, Tanner took the things and shuffled out the door. Watching him go, Standish closed the door behind him and took the seat only just vacated by the sharpshooter. Leaning back in the seat, he watched the wounded gunman as he slept. Stifling a yawn, he reached for the deck of cards he kept in a pocket, and began to idly shuffle them. As he did, he began to think back upon the past year, and all the changes his life had undergone in that time. That man, the one that he had been, would not have considered sitting at the bedside of a wounded man. At least not without the promise of monetary reward. He would not have considered any of these men - especially a former slave like Nathan Jackson - acquaintances, let alone friends. 'Hell,' he thought to himself, 'I'm uncertain that I would have even known the word friend, or it's meaning, back then.' He smiled, reveling in the simple fact that he now not only knew the word, but counted six men as his friends. It was a wonder Maude would even speak to him anymore!
A soft sound from the bed brought Ezra from his musings. Leaning forward he saw that Chris' eyes were open; he seemed to be searching for something...or someone. "Chris?" He kept his voice low and even, afraid to startle the other man.
His eyes tracking slowly across the room, Larabee finally settled his gaze on the southerner. "Ezra?" He said softly. "Where...we're still at...her house?"
"Yes, you've only been sleeping a short time. Might I get you something to drink?"
"Got your...flask?" He managed a weak smile.
"Not with me at the moment, but I can retrieve it from the other room -"
"No! No...that's okay," Larabee's eyes widened with fear at the mention of his being left alone.
"Water it is, then," the gambler tried to keep his tone light; to mask the shock he felt at seeing Chris Larabee so uncharacteristically unnerved. Fetching a glass of water from the table nearby, he lifted the other man and helped him drink. Lowering Chris to the bed, he picked up the cloth Vin had used earlier, and tried to cool the gunman down. That Larabee made no protest at this action made him even more concerned. Unsure as to where he was, Ezra Standish knew one thing for certain. The Chris Larabee he knew was not the man lying listlessly and passively in that bed.
"Mornin' Ezra," Vin said a few hours later as he came into the room carrying a mug. Handing it to the gambler, who had been watching the sun rise, the tracker sat in the chair next to the bed.
"He's been exceedingly quiet for the past three hours, " Ezra explained.
Nodding, Vin leaned forward, watching the injured man. Even totally still, the emotional turmoil was evident on the handsome face. "Chris, " He said softly, "just come t' tell y' me an' Buck's headin' out t' try an' cut her trail. 'Less we get a good lead, we'll be back t'night. Now, you rest an' get your strength back, so we can get y' home." Gently squeezing the man's arm, he rose to leave.
"Get her...Vin..." Came the quiet plea from the blond, who opened his eyes long enough to stare into his friend's face.
Vin felt that look reach into his soul and take up residence in his heart. Looking back at the pale, pain-filled face, Vin could only nod. His own azure eyes spoke to Chris in return. He made a solemn pledge that he would do anything and everything in his power to bring Ella Gaines to justice. Tipping his hat, the young sharpshooter left.
Slumping tiredly in the chair just vacated, Standish managed a smile. "How are you feeling this morning Chris?"
"Ready to...get out of...here..." came the determined reply.
"Soon, I assure you, just as soon as Mr. Jackson feels that you're strong enough to make the journey."
With a sigh, Larabee closed his eyes. Seeming to have given up on arguing with the other men, he quietly acquiesced. Just as his fear of being alone had done a few hours before, this sent a chill through the Southerner.
"Perhaps you'd like some breakfast?" Standish said, attempting to keep his voice even.
Shaking his head slowly, Chris answered, "not hungry."
"It will help to speed your recovery."
Heaving a sigh, the con man said, " as you wish. I, for one, am famished however. If you will excuse me..."
The hazel eyes flew open and stared in a near panic at the man beside him. He said nothing, though, only his eyes begging the other man to stay.
Reading the panic, which he had expected, the gambler continued smoothly. "If you would care to join me, however, I shall call downstairs from the landing, " he detailed the plan in an effort to reduce the injured man's anxiety, "and ask them to bring us both something to eat."
With a nod that turned into a guilty smile only when he turned away, Ezra went as far as the landing and called down the stairs. A minute later Nathan came bounding up the stairs.
"Nothing, Mr. Jackson, at least nothing that requires your medical expertise," Standish said loudly enough for the words to carry into the wounded man. The he lowered his voice and continued. "However, I would like to enlist your assistance in a plan." Quickly he told Nathan about Larabee's sudden and unusual aversion to being alone, and his own conviction to use that fear to get Chris to eat. "I truly do abhor deceiving Mr. Larabee in such a manner, however, given his usual tenacity, I feel that it will be the best way of getting him to partake in breakfast."
Jackson smiled. "For once, Ezra, I'm glad you're on our side, " he teased. "I'll go make up a tray and be back in awhile." Then his face clouded as he thought about Larabee's uncharacteristic actions. "Think he'll be okay once we get him outta here?"
"It is my fervent hope, Mr. Jackson, that such will be the case. However, I feel that none of us is in the position of knowing just what it is that Chris is going through. All that we can do is wait and see."
With a nod, the healer hurried back down the stairs. Ezra returned to the room to find that Chris was struggling to sit up. He hurried over, grabbing another pillow as he passed the dresser. Putting an arm around the weakened man, he lifted him, supporting him against his chest as he arranged the pillows behind him. Lowering Larabee gently, he said, "now then, is that better?"
Unable to form words, the wounded man could only nod as he fought to quiet his heaving chest and the trembling that coursed through his body. He closed his eyes and continued to gasp for air. He felt something cool trace the contours of his face and then slip to his neck and chest. Opening his eyes slowly, he found the gambler bathing him with cool water. Chris' breath caught as he read the pity in the man's face. Then, looking up, Standish saw that he was being watched, and forced his expression to reflect one of drollery.
"Mr. Larabee, had I expected to be pressed into service as a nursemaid, I believe I would have remained in that repulsive bunkhouse." He smiled and winked, hoping that Larabee knew that he was teasing.
"Yeah, well you can...always go on out...there," Chris responded, his face only showing a faint hint of humor.
"Ah, sir, I fear that I would leave this place with a wide variety of afflictions from a longer stay in that deplorable place." He wrung the rag out and began bathing Larabee's arms.
"Yeah, well, that's good Ezra, cause...I'm thinking maybe you should...start working with Nathan full-time...you do make a damn fine...nursemaid..."
"Why, thank you sir, I shall take that under advisement." Just then any further remarks were cut short as Nathan Jackson entered carrying a tray.
"Ah, our sustenance has arrived."
"Chris, I brought you up some mush...figure that's about all you need to think about handlin' right now. Doctored it with some molasses, so it ought 'a be tolerable at least," the healer said.
Taking the tray from the other man, Standish said, "I do hope you've brought me something a bit more substantial, Mr. Jackson."
"Yeah, think you'll be able to get by on some ham and eggs?"
"Depends...who cooked them?"
"As long as it wasn't Mr. Wilmington...the man would burn water," Standish said with an exaggerated look of exasperation.
With a chuckle, Nathan said, "nope, we didn't let him near the stove."
"Thank you for that," Ezra replied. He turned to place his plate on the bedside table, then put the tray on Chris' lap. Arranging the bowl of mush and the coffee mug so that the gunman could reach them both with his left hand, he retrieved his plate and sat down. "Now sir, I shall only be able to enjoy this if you join me in eating."
The blond had been smiling throughout the exchange between the other two men, and hardly realized that Standish had placed the tray on his lap. Looking down at the bow, then over at the plate the gambler was holding, he sighed. "Wouldn't want to trade would you?"
"Alas, no, I fear that I shall require this repast in order to take my turn at watch later when I am relieved."
Taking this as his cue to retreat, Nathan said, "yeah, I'll be back up in 'bout an hour Ezra, so you can take your watch."
"Very well, Mr. Jackson." The gambler said around a mouth full of eggs. After the healer had left, he turned his attention back to the gunman. "Now sir, shall we?"
With a put upon look, Chris lifted the spoon and began to slowly eat the mush. His expression was one of distaste, as the thick meal forced its way down his throat. After managing to eat little more than a third of the food, he sighed and dropped the spoon into the bowl. Picking up the mug, which Jackson had wisely only half filled, he took a few sips of coffee. Placing it back on the tray, he lay back on the pillows and closed his eyes. He vaguely felt the tray being picked up and then someone wiped his face. He was lifted carefully and the second pillow removed. He felt himself returned to the bed, and the blankets rearranged over him. "Thanks," he murmured.
"My pleasure, Chris," came the reply in rich southern tones.
Buck Wilmington sat, uncharacteristically silent, astride his grey horse watching as Vin Tanner studied the ground. The tracker straightened, stretching to ease the tension in his back. Looking up at the other man, he simply shook his head. There was no sign of the woman who had destroyed Chris Larabee's happiness...his life...in her own twisted bid for his love.
"How th' hell'd that bitch get so clean away?" Buck bit out.
"Same way she done ever'thin' else, I reckon," Vin replied. "Crazy folks, they got ways a doin' things sane folks can't fathom."
With a bitter smile, the gunman said, "crazy 'r not, that murderin' bitch's gonna pay...for all of it."
Feeling a chill at the barely restrained fury, Vin simply nodded and stepped back up onto Peso's back. Kneeing the horse, he started off once more. Riding next to the bigger man, Vin watched him out of the corner of his eye. After a couple of minutes, he spoke quietly. "Buck, somethin's eatin' y'. Wanna talk about it?"
Buck didn't answer for some time. His piece said, Vin returned his attention to searching for signs of Ella Gaines. It was nearly five miles later before the other man spoke.
"Vin, you ever make a discov'ry a somethin', only t' find out y' come to it too late?"
"Hell, reckon we all have one time 'r 'nother. What's on your mind, pard?"
"Hilda...one a the ladies stayin' -
"I know which one she...was."
"Oh," the big man looked at his companion quizzically. "Didn't think you's inside enuff t' know who anybody was."
"Wasn't. Them blackberries she brung ya?"
"Well, we spent a real nice coupla a' hours talkin' wilst she picked 'm. Couldn't very well leave th' lady waddin' 'round them bri'rs all by herself."
"Talkin' huh?" Buck said with the glimmer of a smile.
"Yep," Tanner turned in the saddle to face the other man. "Talkin' 'bout you."
His gaze snapping away, Buck let out a sound somewhere between a sigh and a moan.
But all he said was, "oh."
"Buck? Sorry...didn't mean t' make y' feel worse."
"Naw, it's okay boy, I deserve feelin' bad 'bout it all. I was so busy sniffin' round that I didn't see Hilda for who she was...leastways, not til it was too late."
"Seemed like an awful nice lady," Vin said. "I thought you'd a been first in line t' court 'r. Reckon I don't know y' as well as I thought."
Shaking his head, Wilmington said, "reckon I don't know m'self 's well as I thought. If I was half as smart as I thought I was, I would 'a been right after her, 'stead a runnin' away from her." He hear Chris' voice in his ear, 'you can run, stud, but you can't hide.' His friend had been right, but not about the right thing. Buck could never hide from the truth, could never really hide from the mistake he had made. He had been wrong about the woman, and he hadn't really seen that until she lay dying. Dying because she had cared enough about him - someone little more than a stranger - that she had put herself in danger. She had died because she cared enough about him, despite the way he treated her, that she had walked out into that gun battle and gotten herself killed.
Suddenly the gunman realized that he was breathing more and more rapidly. He could feel the pain of his guilt weighing heavier and heavier on his chest. Stretching upward in the saddle, he took a deep breath, trying desperately to lighten his load. Then he slumped back in the saddle, knowing it was impossible. He had treated her badly for too long, and he would carry that burden for a very long time. Feeling tears burning in his eyes, the big man kicked his horse and shot forward away from his companion.
"Buck? Buck!" Tanner cried as Wilmington streaked away from him astride the grey.
When Chris opened his eyes next, the midday sun was streaming in through the window. Turning, he found Nathan sitting nearby, reading. After several attempts the gunman managed to whisper, "N-Nathan?"
Looking up from his book, the healer smiled and said, "'bout time you woke up." Coming to lean over the bed, he began examining Larabee as he continued, "how're you feelin'?"
"Let'cha know...when I figure...it out m-myself..."
With a deep chuckle, the black man said, "well, y' look better leastways. Still got a bit of a fever, but it ain't gettin' any worse."
"Then...can we...leave?" Hazel eyes peered hopefully up into the other man's face.
Sighing heavily, Nathan said, "Chris, just cause y'ain't gettin' any worse don't mean you're well enough t' make th' trip back t' town. Give yourself a little more time -"
"No!" Although he was angry, the word came out as little more than a quivering moan. "Nathan...I'm tired of...begging...I want to go...home. No more...waiting..."
The healer took in the fierce determination beneath the pain on the handsome face. Dropping carefully to the edge of the bed, he said, "Chris, you're askin' me t' put your life at risk. Now, I understand how that woman hurt you -"
"Not," Larabee said quietly, "no you...don't. Sh-she murdered...my family, Nathan. Th-that bitch had Sarah...and Adam...killed..." He stopped, seeming to sink into the bed as he gasped for air.
Jackson could see the depth to which Chris Larabee's pain went. The evil visited on him by Ella Gaines and her hired killers had shredded his soul; a wound far deeper than the bullet Jack Averil had put in him. Nodding, he said, "alright. If you promise to do as I tell you...we'll head out in th' mornin'. But," he held up a hand to forestall any further argument, "you don't do's you're told, we'll stay her for three more days. You hear me?"
His face quickly ran a gamut of emotions, but finally Chris said simply, "yeah."
Smiling, Jackson nodded and gently patted the man's shoulder. Rising carefully from the bed, he said, " alright then, you think you could handle a bit of broth?"
Pulling a face, Larabee grumbled, "can't get my strength back on that stuff."
Pointing a finger at the gunslinger, the big man said, "no grumblin', Larabee."
Looking put upon and disgusted, the wounded man nonetheless kept his mouth closed. He watched as the ex-slave strode from the room. Chris felt his heart beat faster as Nathan left the room. It took everything he had to keep from calling out, asking Jackson to stay with him. "Damn," he thought, "what in the hell's wrong with me? Ella's long gone, and if she's not, Vin and Buck will find her. The others are right here, standing guard over me like I was made out of gold or something. Why am I acting like a baby, scared of the dark? The sick bitch thinks she loves me; she won't kill me." But for all of his rationale, Chris couldn't make himself believe any of it. As long as Ella Gaines was alive, he would never feel safe.
Vin looked up from where he was once again studying the terrain. His hand moved to his hogleg as the sound of hoof beats came closer. The young sharpshooter relaxed as Buck Wilmington rode up. Nodding to the other man, he turned his attention back to the faint marks he had found in the dirt.
"Find anything?" Wilmington asked quietly.
"Nothin' useful. Thought I might 'a had her track, but it's more 'n a week old." Looking up at the sky, he shook his head. "Told Chris we'd be back by nightfall if we didn't cut her trail. Reckon we'd best be on our way back." He straightened up and climbed into the saddle. As he started off, Buck fell in beside him.
"Sorry 'bout earlier, " the gunman said, unable to look at the other man.
Shrugging, Vin said, "ain't got nothin' t' be sorry for, pard. Reckon this 's been a mite harder on y' than th' rest of us thought. Think we oughta be apoligizin' to you."
Shaking his head, Wilmington said, "shouldn't 'a took it out on you, though, Vin. Weren't your fault I'm a fool."
Smiling, Tanner said, "reckon not...think that's been a long time thing with you..."
Grinning, the big man said only, "yeah, well, sometimes it's more noticeable than others." Then sobering he said, "I'm just so mad at m'self for not recognizin' what a wonderful person Hilda was earlier."
Vin looked sideways at his friend, "don't know what it would'a changed."
"Me either, but reckon I'd feel a mite better 'bout m'self."
"Buck, Nathan told me what you did for her...th' things you said t' her as she was dyin'. Seems t' me that, 'way things turned out, that was the nicest thing anyone could'a done for th' lady. Nathan said you sent her on her way with a smile on her face. Can't nobody feel bad about doin' that for a body 'fore they go t' meet their maker."
Wilmington didn't answer for a very long time. Vin stole a look over at the man, and saw tears streaming down his face. He turned away, keeping his eyes on the trail ahead. After several miles, the gunman sighed.
"Vin, I had a dream 'bout her last night. She was standin' there, all dressed in this pretty white gown. She was singin' t' me. Don't recall the song, but her voice was the most amazing thing I'd ever heard in m' life. Then all of a sudden, she couldn't sing no more. I looked, and that pretty white gown was all covered in blood. I looked up at her face, and she just looked sad...like I'd let her down 'r somethin'. I couldn't do nothin' for her, but watch her bleed t' death." He turned to the other man. "Figure someone's tryin' t' punish me for not bein' nicer t' her while she was livin'?"
After a minute's consideration, Tanner nodded. "Reckon someone is. Someone named Buck Wilmington." Looking over at his companion, he said, "why'n't y' work on forgivin' yourself, Buck? Reckon you're th' only one who's blamin' y'."
With a shake of his head and a pain-filled smile, the older man said, "why is it the youngest fella's I ride with are th' ones givin' me all the advice?"
"Reckon y' oughtn't worry 'bout th' age a the man givin' th' advice, Bucklin, but how much sense it makes," Vin gave his friend one of his broad grins, and winked. "Now, c'mon, old man, let's get back t' th' house. Figure Chris' runnin' th' rest of 'm ragged by now."
The two men dropped into a companionable silence then, kneeing their mounts to coax them forward into a gallop.
Vin stepped into the dimly lit room, allowing his eyes to adjust before he moved past the threshold. "Chris? You awake pard?"
"Yeah," came the soft response. The gunslinger's voice sounded hoarse, as if he hadn't spoken for a long time.
"How y' feelin' cowboy?" He came to sit next to the bed.
"Better than anyone...believes... I guess," Larabee grimaced as a slight movement caused a wave of pain to shoot through his side.
"Reckon you'd feel even better if y' laid still, too, " the sharpshooter's charismatic smile softened his words.
Choosing to ignore the younger man's admonishment, Chris said, "you find anything?"
Tanner lowered his gaze and shook his head, "sorry Chris, weren't a bit a sign anywhere. Can't figure it."
"Appreciate you...looking, pard. Especially after...the way...I treated you..."
"Told y', ain't no call t' apologize t' me. Just cause friends don't always see things th' same way don't mean they ain't still friends. " another smile graced his finely chiseled features.
Smiling in return Larabee said simply, "thanks."
A sound drew their attention to the doorway. Buck was standing there. "He awake?"
"Yeah, he is," Chris replied, with a wink toward the hunter. "I am too."
With a peel of laughter, the big man strode into the room. "Good t' see y'ain't so far gone y' can't make a joke stud." Turning toward the slender tracker he said, "Vin, Nathan said t' tell y' there's stew and biscuits downstairs. You go'n down an' eat."
Reading in the man's face that he wanted to have tome time with his old friend, Vin nodded. "Reckon I could do with some dinner. I'll be back later on Chris, okay?"
Nodding, Larabee said, "I ain't going no place pard."
As Tanner left the bedroom, Buck took up the seat next to the bed. "Well stud, y'ain't lookin' near's bad's y' did yesterday. Nathan said he told y' we could leave in th' mornin', long's y' take it easy - "
"And do as I'm told," Chris said tiredly. "I know. Vin...said you didn't find...any...thing out there."
"Nope. Sorry pard. Reckon we'll worry 'bout gettin' y' back t' town, then get back on th' trail."
"It'll be a mighty cold trail by then, " the wounded man said. "You...ought to go...on the hunt...again...tomorrow morning."
"Not up for discussion," the big man replied. "Gonna worry 'bout gettin' y' home safe 'fore we do anything else. 'Sides, cold 'r not, Vin'll cypher out where she is quick enough. Y' know y' can count on that." Seeing that his friend was growing tired, Buck said, "figure y' oughta sleep now."
"No...I'm okay," the blond protested, stifling a yawn. "Stay...talk to me awhile...Buck."
Something in the other man's tone made Wilmington agree. "Yeah, okay. Reckon I us'lly do most a th' talkin' anyway. Long's you rest, I can talk a spell."
With a soft chuckle Chris relaxed into the pillows, content that he would have company against the fears the solitude he once craved brought him now.
True to his word, Buck Wilmington talked. He regaled his long-time friend with vivid memories of adventures of their mutual past; stories of travels he had made alone; fanciful yarns of the future. If Chris noticed that Buck's ramblings avoided any mention of women, he said nothing. He let the man's words wrap him in the warmth of companionship.
Buck talked through the evening, only stopping with Nathan interrupted to check on his patient or Josiah brought them both dinner. Finally, after half a dozen hours, during which Chris drifted in and out of sleep, Vin insisted on relieving the ex-sheriff.
To Chris it was as if he opened his eyes to find that one friend had become another and a look of confusion glided across his pale, handsome face. The sharpshooter noticed and said softly, "reckon things can get a mite confusin' when you're feelin' poorly."
"Reckon," Larabee said with a tired sigh. "Just be glad to...put it all be...hind me."
Sitting forward, Tanner rested his elbows on his knees and looked closely at his friend. "Y' gotta know me 'n th' others 'r gonna do everything we can t' help y' settle th' score with Ella Gaines. I won't say we'll make it right, cause reckon nothin' can do that. But I promise y' this, pard. She'll pay for what she done."
Looking into the pale blue eyes of his friend, Chris understood two things. For one, Vin Tanner had spent time with the Kiowa and the Comanche, and knew ways of bringing pain that he could never fathom. For another, the six men that had become his family would stand beside him; support him and make certain that the deaths that Ella Gaines had caused were revenged. It might not bring his wife and son back to him, but it would lighten his burden. He closed his eyes then, and allowed sleep to claim him fully. He drew strength in the knowledge that his friends would watch over him now; keeping him safe until this was all over. It was at that moment that Chris Larabee felt his fears begin to dissipate. Whatever came, he would not have to face it alone.
"Mr. Larabee, the sun has only now begun to rise. The other men are still enjoying the luxury of feather beds and down comforters," Ezra spoke wistfully, the thought of the comfort he had left in order to allow Vin some rest almost too much to contemplate.
"Ezra, it's morning. Nathan said we could leave in the morning," Chris emphasized the words. Then he groaned as, trying to pull himself up in the bed, he strained his stitches. Standish leaned over the bed and easily pushed the gunman back down.
"Damn it Ezra!" Chris bit out the words angrily. Glaring at the Southerner, he fought to rise once more. Again he was gently but firmly forced back to the mattress. The scene repeated itself three more times before, panting with exhaustion, the gunman surrendered. However, the gambler was almost certain that if Chris Larabee could have gotten to his Colt, he would have been looking down it's barrel.
The frustration and anger that filled the air slowly dissipated however, when J.D. came into the room carrying a tray. "Mornin' " the young man said sleepily. "Nathan figured you'd be chomping at the bit to get out of here. Sent this up for you, said we'll leave when you eat it...all of it," he tried to look sternly at his idol, but only managed to look nervous. To his surprised relief, Chris didn't argue.
"Alright," the gunman once again struggled to sit up. This time Ezra helped rather than hindered him. The blond was soon propped up on pillows and working on devouring the porridge the healer had prepared.
"Ezra, I already ate if you want to go have breakfast yourself. I'll stay here, " the young sheriff said.
"My dear boy, that is the best proposal I have heard today," Standish replied as he hurried from the room.
"Well, go ahead...sit down..." Chris said, indicating the chair near the bed. He carefully lifted the coffee mug and took a sip. The blond noted the way their youngest member avoided looking at him. He had barely seen the kid since Avril shot him. Now he was acting oddly...almost nervous. "J.D.?"
"Yeah?" He nearly jumped out of the chair.
"Sure," he answered, too quickly.
"Something's got you...skittish as a day...old calf," Larabee said with a shake of his head.
Dunne looked at the floor, at his hands, at the wall, anywhere but at the man in black.
With a sigh, the young Easterner finally spoke. "Guess I just feel guilty or something. I...well, I saw that room...the one with all that...stuff...your stuff..."
"Why feel guilty?" Chris asked, a look of puzzlement in his hazel eyes. "You...didn't do any...thing wrong."
"I feel like it," he shrugged. "Chris it was just so...so strange. All of those things...personal things...your things..." He trailed off, shaking his head.
"Kid, it's alright," Chris said softly.
"I'm just...I'm sorry Chris...about all of it..." he said. "For what she did to you...to your family...to the others, like her husband -"
"What? J.D. what are you...talking about?"
Dunne blanched, realizing he had said too much. He stuttered incoherently as he tried to decide what to do.
"J.D., answer me," Chris was staring intently at the younger man.
"We...uh...we were cleaning out the room. Buck, well he said he couldn't stand the thought of that room being left like it was. Me, him and Josiah...we gathered everything up, and put it in a trunk we found. Buck said he'd hold on to it all til you got better, then see what you wanted to do with it all.
"We were finishing up when Buck came across a journal...her journal."
"What did it say?"
"Don't know for certain. Buck looked at it. He said she wrote about using her husband to get money so she could get you back. Said some of the things she wrote sounded like maybe she even had him killed...like...well..."
"Like Sarah and Adam," Larabee finished the thought. "That goddamn bitch." Although his voice was little more than a whisper, the anger was easy to hear.
"Well mornin', stud," Buck broke into the exchange as he entered the room.
Never one to skirt an issue, Chris said, "why didn't you...tell me...about the journal?"
"J.D.," Wilmington sighed.
"I'm sorry Buck, it just slipped out." The young man stared at the floor as he mumbled an apology.
"Kid, go help Nathan get things ready so we can go," the gunman said in a quiet tone. It was a tone that told J.D. that he would be hearing more about his mistake later. He hurried from the room.
Dropping to the chair, the gunman leaned forward, looking intently at his friend. "We were gonna tell y' when y' had your strength back, Chris. We just didn't want y' havin' t' deal with th' rest of it on top a what Ella done."
"What were you waiting...for me to deal with...the fact that I though I...loved..the bitch that...murdered...my family? You think...I'm ever...going to get over...any of that?"
Running a hand across his face, Buck shook his head. "No, we know better'n that. We just wanted t' give y' some time t' get your strength back, okay?"
His anger waned slowly as Larabee saw that Buck was telling the truth. Even more, the big man was concerned. "Yeah...alright...you got this...journal?"
Nodding, he said, "along with th' stuff that woman had a yours...and Sarah's."
"Yep. It's all packed away. We'll take it back t' town with us. Just...just give yourself some time 'fore y' dig into it, alright?"
"I want to know...Buck...I need to know."
"I ain't arguin' 'bout that. 'Course y' got th' right t' know. All I'm askin' is y' don't take on so much at once that it...that it..." He trailed off.
"Buck," Chris said firmly, "whether I give it time or...read it now...she won't win. Ella Gaines...she won't get...my life."
"Y'all 'bout ready?" Vin poked his head in the door.
"Soon's somebody quits arguin' with us," Nathan replied. He and Josiah were attempting to get the gunman ready for the journey back to town. Neither man was surprised that the blond argued every step of the way, denying his need for assistance.
With a sympathetic smile, the young tracker saw that they were no more ready than they had been when he had stopped in earlier. "Why'n't you fellers go on downstairs, let me wrestle with th' grizzly for awhile."
Josiah simply smiled, handed Tanner the boots he had been trying to get on Larabee, and quickly left the room. Jackson said, "you let him tear out them stitches and I'm gonna make you sew him back up, understand?"
"Yep," Vin said in reply. He simply stood there, boots in hand, until the dark healer left, closing the door behind him. Moving to the bed, he put out a hand. As Larabee grasped it, he pulled him slowly upward and off the bed. Dropping the boots, he held Chris up and helped him to the chair.
Slumping wearily to the cushions, the wounded man fought to catch his breath. Looking up as something came into his line of sight, he realized that the tracker was handing him his boots. Reaching out a trembling hand, Chris took them, amazed at how heavy they felt. Putting one boot on the chair next to him, he struggled for several minutes to get the other one on. The entire time, Vin simply sat on the bed, watching him. After a multitude of unsuccessful attempts, Larabee slumped back against the chair, holding the boot out toward the other man.
Without a word, Tanner took the boot, retrieved its mate, and set about getting the blond dressed. Finally satisfied that he had the older man as ready as possible, he once more held out a hand. Getting Chris to his feet, Vin pulled the blonde's left arm across his shoulders and carefully put an arm around the other man's waist. Together they slowly made their way from the room to the top of the stairs. Sliding to the other side of his friend, Vin supported his injured side and put Larabee's other hand on the banister. Slowly, stopping to rest every few steps, the duo made their way down the long stairway. As they reached the bottom of the stairs, J.D. suddenly appeared and slid in beside Chris, drawing his arm across his shoulder. With the younger man's help, they made it out to the wide porch.
Coming out of the fog of pain that had enveloped him, the gunman realized that the buggy he had ridden in with Ella was hitched up and waiting. "I'm...riding...back in...that?" He wheezed.
"I thought it'd be best," Nathan informed him. "Y' don't want t' be layin' flat with th' damage th' bullet done t' your lung. Figured keepin' y' propped up in th' carriage 'd be better for y'. "
Struggling with even this reminder of the woman he now hated more than anyone or anything, Chris took a ragged breath and nodded. The two men on either side of him carefully helped him down the stairs of the porch and into the carriage. Vin took his place on one side of the injured man, supporting him. Jackson wrapped a heavy quilt round the wounded man's shoulders and tucked another around his legs, then took a seat on the other side of him. Josiah, in the seat in front of them, coaxed the horse forward at a walk. Buck, Ezra and J.D. followed them, leading the four riderless horses.
Chris Larabee sighed and relaxed there between the other two men. Finally. He was going home.
"Mary! They're comin'!" Casey Wells burst into the Clarion office just as the other woman was getting ready to close the newspaper for the evening.
"Casey, who's coming?" Since the seven peacekeepers had left nearly a week ago, the townspeople had been somewhat edgy; concerned that something would happen while the town was unguarded.
"J.D. and th' others. I saw 'm from the bell tower...saw Buck's grey. But..."
"But what?" The widow Travis prompted when Casey stumbled to a stop.
"I think somethin' s wrong. They've got that buggy an' they're leadin' several of th' horses."
"Okay Casey, let's just go and see," Mary wasn't interested in listening to the younger woman's ever-lengthening explanation. She all but shoved Casey out the door as she bustled out onto the boardwalk. As the two women reached the street, they saw the peacekeepers come into view. Mary saw what had the younger woman so worked up; four of the horses were riderless, while the buggy looked full. Even as far away as they were, she could tell that there were no women in the group. The blonde found that Ella Gaines' absence brought a smile to her face. It was a short-lived smile, however, when she realized that Chris' black was one of the horses being led.
With Casey at her side, the newspaper woman hurried down the dusty street toward the buggy. As they got nearer, Mary felt her heart skip a beat. Chris was couched between Vin and Nathan, wrapped in blankets. He was leaning against the hunter, who was holding him while he seemed to sleep. Josiah turned the buggy toward Nathan's clinic. The women hurried after them. While Casey went to J.D., Mary Travis rushed to the buggy.
"Nathan, what happened?" Her eyes were on the unconscious man as she spoke to the healer.
"He was shot out at the Gaines ranch," Jackson replied.
"But how? What happened? How badly is he hurt?" The questions tumbled one after another.
"Ma'am," Nathan said as he helped Vin ease Larabee out of the buggy, "it's an awful long story, and I ain't real certain I even know all of it. Right now we need t' get him up t' my clinic. He's had a rough time of it."
"Yes...yes, of course," she backed up as they lifted Chris, blankets and all, and carried him toward the stairs. Mary heard a mumbled protest as he was bundled past, but nothing more. She could not believe how pale the normally robust man looked. Feeling an arm around her shoulders, she found Buck standing beside her.
"He'll be okay, Mary," the gunman said with a smile. "He's had a rough few days, but Chris'll pull outta this just fine."
Travis nodded and tried to return his smile, with little success. "But what happened, Buck?"
"Well, like Nathan said, it's a long story. Why don't we go get some dinner and I'll tell y' all about it?"
"Alright," she finally managed to take her eyes away from the little knot of men that disappeared up the stairs and turned away to walk with Buck up the street.
"There y' go, pard," Vin said quietly as he, Nathan and Josiah settled Chris onto the bed. The lumpy old mattress and roughly woven blankets were a far cry from the featherbed and silky comforters that he had rested on since being at the Gaines ranch. However, the tracker felt certain that Larabee seemed far more relaxed here. It was as if, even unconscious, the gunfighter knew that he was safely returned to the town they all called home. He turned to the healer, who was examining the blonde's wound. "How's he doin', Doc?"
"Well, th' trip didn't do 'm much good, but I 'magine he'll be alright. Wound bled a little, but the stitches held up okay. If we can keep 'm in bed, keep 'm still, he oughta mend okay."
"Anything I can do?"
"No, not much to do but watch 'm sleep for now."
"Alrighty then, I'm gonna go get some supplies ready. Be headin' out in th' mornin'."
"Looking for her?" Josiah asked.
"Promised Chris," Tanner said with a nod.
"Vin, seeking revenge will bring him little peace in the long run."
"Don't agree, Josiah. That woman's gonna pay for what she done. Don't know for certain it'll give Chris th' comfort he needs 'r not, but he deserves t' know that she's paid for what she done...t' Chris... t' Sarah 'n Adam...t' all th' other's we don't even know about." With that the young man turned on his heel and left the clinic.
Over the course of the next three days things settled into something of a routine in the little town. While Buck and Vin searched the countryside for Ella Gaines and Nathan cared for the wounded Larabee, the others divided their time between looking after the town and their leader. For his part, Chris Larabee slept unless someone rousted him from unconsciousness. Nathan kept the gunslinger propped up on pillows to alleviate pressure on the still mending lung, and so far it had helped. While his breathing was not normal, Chris didn't show any of the signs of pneumonia. Much to everyone's relief the man in black seemed to be sleeping a healing sleep. Nathan was more optimistic by the day that their leader and friend would fully recover.
The most frequent visitor to the clinic, to no one's surprise, was Mary Travis. The young blond could be counted on to peek around the door at least half a dozen times a day to check on Larabee's condition. She insisted on sitting with him so that Nathan could stretch his legs, get a drink or something to eat; the healer would allow her a few minutes alone with the man, whether he felt the need to leave or not. None of the other peacekeepers were blind to the fact that there was something between the two, below the surface and carefully guarded. But even J.D. Dunne had noticed their attraction. But Nathan would wish for a long time he had refused her offer on one occasion. Although Chris and Mary were the only two people who would ever know for certain what transpired, he wondered if he could have intervened and kept the wall that would come to separate them for some time from being built...
"Nathan?" Mary poked her head around the door.
"Afternoon Miz Travis," Jackson smiled up at her from where he sat reading a book.
"I brought Chris some lunch. Gloria even sent one of her blackberry dumplings over."
"Best make certain he don't try to eat it all at once, " the healer laughed. The gunman had taken a definite liking to the store owner's dumplings, and had once shoved a whole one in his mouth as they were hurrying outside toward the sounds of a gunfight. "Don't think he could get by with it right now."
Laughing, Mary crossed the room and settled the tray on the bedside table. "If you want to go get some lunch yourself, I'll be happy to stay here."
"Thank you, ma'am, I think I will." He had been in the clinic since the night before and the thought of getting outside for a few minutes was too appealing to pass up. "I'll be back in a bit."
"Take your time," she prompted as he left the clinic. Then, turning back to the bed, she studied the gunslinger's handsome features. Unguarded in sleep, emotions played across his face. At the moment his unconscious mind seemed to be in a peaceful place; a small smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. Unwilling to disturb him, Mary simply watched him for a few minutes. She was caught in the act, though, when a pair of hazel eyes opened suddenly.
"Mary?" His voice, roughened by both his injury and sleep, was little more than a croaking whisper.
"Hello," she said cheerfully.
"How long...you been...here?"
"Just a minute or two. I brought you some lunch, but you looked so peaceful that I hated to wake you."
Chris smiled warmly, but said only, "lunch?"
Laughing, she retrieved the tray and settled it on his lap. She arranged things so he could reach them all with his left hand. Returning to her seat on the chair, she watched as Larabee greedily began to devour the first solid food he had been offered since being shot. As soon as Nathan had sent word by J.D. that he felt the man could handle it, she and Gloria Potter had set about making the things they knew he enjoyed.
Chris had managed half the food on his plate before he stopped and looked up at the woman, chagrined. "Sorry, Mary, my manners ain't what they should be right now."
"Don't apologize! I know it's been a long spell of mush and broth. Please, enjoy it."
Settling the fork on the plate, he leaned back against the stack of pillows. Looking over at the blonde who had come to mean more than he was ready to admit, he suddenly found himself with nothing to say. Falling back on a comfortable subject, he said, "how's Billy?"
"Fine. He's going to be back from his grandparents next week."
Nodding, he said, "reckon we'll have...to plan a...fishing trip...soon as I can...get out of... here."
"He mentioned that very thing in his letter, but please don't feel any sort of obligation to him for it. I wouldn't want you to push yourself." She thought back to the first time the handsome leader of their peacekeepers had taken her son on a fishing trip. He had shown up, arm in a sling, and rode out of town toward the fishing hole, Billy tucked in front of him on the saddle. She had fretted that he needed to rest, but Chris had assured her that taking Billy off for a day of fishing was just what he needed. It had seemed to be the truth, they had returned just before sundown, soaked and smelling of fish. And both of them had seemed completely content with life. Indeed, Chris Larabee had seemed to fill a void in her son's life that not even his grandfather could fill.
"Thank you, Chris," she hadn't meant to say it, but there it was.
"You've...you've become very important in Billy's life...someone he can look up to. He needs that - "
"No! He...can't...not look up...to..." Larabee's eyes widened, a look of something very close to fear crossed his face.
Puzzled, Mary said, "Chris, there are things in your past that are perhaps best left there, but since you've been here you've -"
"No! Mary...don't make...me out to be...some...something I'm not. He's got the... Judge...and...his papa...to look up...to...not me..."
"Chris, don't be so hard on yourself. " Mary Travis had been prepared for denial, but not such a display of emotion from the gunslinger. "You have many fine qualities that-"
"NO!" he repeated even more adamantly. He was becoming agitated, his breathing growing labored, his face pale. "He can't...look up...to me...just be...friends..." he leaned back heavily on the pillows, trembling.
Alarmed, the widow Travis leapt to her feet and hurried from the room to search for the healer. To her relief he was coming up the stairs.
"Mary, what is it?" Jackson bounded up the last few steps.
"Chris...he's having trouble...trouble breathing."
Rushing past her, the ex-slave hurried into his clinic. Inside he found Chris Larabee almost blue, gasping as he fought to get air into his lungs. The man was shaking so hard that the dishware on his tray was clinking together. Hurriedly putting the tray aside Nathan sat next to the gunman and gently lifted him to a sitting position. Leaning the blond against his shoulder, he checked him out as best he could.
"Chris, just try 'n take slow, easy breaths. Nice 'n slow...that's it. Now, you hurtin' anywhere?"
Larabee shook his head. He hurt, but no worse than he had been hurting. How could he explain that it was not his body, but his heart that ached? The thought of Billy Travis looking up to him as some sort of role model quite simply terrified the man. How could he allow the boy to see him as someone deserving of respect? Chris Larabee could not even respect himself. Especially now...after the horrible mistakes he had made with Ella Gaines. A man ignorant enough to bed the bitch that had killed his family...
"Chris!" Jackson yelled the name for the third time. Whatever was going on with the blond was causing him to nearly convulse as his breathing constricted once more. "Chris, you've got to settle down...c'mon now, settle down."
Slowly Larabee fought to comply. It was nearly ten minutes before Nathan felt safe enough to lower the other man to the bed. Color was beginning to return to his face, although it was still too pale; at least the blue tinge was gone. Picking up a rag, he dampened it and began bathing the man's face. Larabee's eyes were closed, but he wasn't sleeping. Reaching out, he gripped Jackson's arm. "I'm...okay..." He rasped out.
Unwilling to go into the real reason, the blond said only, "don't know...reckon I...ate... too fast...or something." It was a transparent lie.
"Well, you better take it easy, or you're goin' back on mush." Nathan knew he'd get nothing out of the man until he was ready to share it.
"I'll...be careful..." Going back on a diet of mush was preferable to bringing the thoughts - and fears-that had brought on the spell in the first place.
Finally getting Chris calmed and back to an, albeit fitful, sleep, Jackson stepped onto the porch outside his clinic. As he suspected, Mary Travis was waiting there.
"Is he alright?"
"Yes'm, I reckon he'll be fine."
"I was...I don't..." the usually unflappable newspaper woman was on the verge of tears, something the man had only seen when her son had been endangered.
Putting a big hand gently on her shoulder, the ex-slave said, "he's calmed down an' restin' now, Miz Travis. Ain't no reason t' worry."
Nodding, the woman said, "I...uh...I had better get back to work." With that she turned and hurried down the stairs.
Mary Travis was conspicuously absent during the next two days. Inez began delivering Chris' meals and helping out with the convalescing man. Chris' mood had darkened since Mary's last visit and, coupled with his growing frustration at being on his back for so long, he was not a pleasant person to be around. Finally Nathan had dealt with the grousing man long enough.
Enlisting Josiah's help he prepared to clean the injured man up. The preacher took on the chores of shaving Chris and scrubbing his hair, things that had been ignored. Larabee complained at every step but the older man simply ignored him and continued his work. Finally satisfied that he had done his best, he sat back with a smile.
"There, at least you won't give the townspeople a fright now."
Chris glared at the big man, but then Josiah's words filtered through the anger. "What are you talking about?"
"Nathan didn't tell you?"
"Nope," the healer said from where he was mixing something in a cup. "Figured I'd let him stew for a while before I told him." The man's face split in a wicked grin.
"Funny man..." Chris glared at him.
Deflecting the blonde's attention, Josiah said, "Nathan says he figures it'd do you some good to be outside a bit...reckon it'd do everyone some good," he clasped a gentle hand on Chris' shoulder. "Just for half an hour, though, and you're going to have to stay put. Now, I'm gettin' ready to spell J.D. at the jail so he can go to lunch, so I figure I'll put y' where I can keep an eye on you."
Chris' elevating mood was tempered when he realized that this would put him near the Clarion's office...and Mary Travis. He wanted to insist on another place, but was not ready to explain himself, so he kept his mouth shut.
"Yeah..." Larabee said softly. With the big man's help, he managed to get to his feet. Leaning heavily on the ex-preacher, he made his way slowly from the room, down the stairs, and along the boardwalk. Several townspeople greeted them as they moved slowly toward their destination. Chris let Josiah handle the greetings; he had enough to do in simply keeping one foot in front of the other. By the time they reached the chair across the street from the jail Chris Larabee was exhausted. He dropped heavily to the chair, panting and shaking. Nathan appeared with blankets and a tall crate. They sat the crate up so that they could stretch Chris' legs across it, and covered it with a blanket. They draped a second blanket over his legs. A third was wrapped around his shoulders.
"Look...like...an...old...man..." he grated out.
With a chuckle, Jackson said, "yep, reckon y' do. But leastways you're outside. You wanna stay out here a spell them blankets better stay where they are, too."
The glare Chris favored the other men with did little to faze them. As Josiah crossed the street to the jail, Nathan made to return to the clinic. It did not escape Larabee's notice that the healer stopped long enough to step inside the door of the newspaper. He had no doubt that the other man was requesting Mary's assistance in watching out for him. He wondered idly what she would say in return.
To the gunslinger's surprise Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington rode by a short time later. Both men broke into wide grins at the sight of their leader and friend sitting on the walkway. Acknowledging him with a wave, they hurried toward the livery.
Settling back, the blond tried to relax and simply watch the town. In the back of his mind though, thoughts of Mary Travis made it difficult to enjoy the outing. He knew he needed to talk to her; to apologize and explain what was bothering him. He had no idea as to what to say though; how to begin. How could he make her understand that no matter how much the Travis family came to mean to him he could never allow them to get too close. It was just too dangerous. His was not the type of life for a family to share.
But then it quickly became too late to think about what he would say. Hearing his name, Chris Larabee turned to find Mary Travis standing nearby. He sat mutely as she brought him an envelope...a letter. Taking it slowly, he looked at the front. He recognized the handwriting, a cold chill coursing through him as he opened it with stiff movements. Mary was still standing there, as if she too knew who had written him. As he unfolded the paper inside, something fell onto the blankets. Reacting without thinking he picked up the object...it was a picture. He and Ella Gaines on the night of the party. The party that was meant as not only a celebration to thank the other men for helping to rid the woman of Handsome Jack Averil's unwanted attention, but to celebrate the beginning of their life together. He forgot everything else as his mind slipped back to that night. It had begun with hope and ended in pain. Not only the physical pain of being shot by Averil the next morning, but the emotional pain of knowing - finally knowing - why Sarah and Adam had died.
It was because of him.
It had been his fault.
A slight noise caught his attention and he looked up to see Mary still standing there, a look of hurt on her beautiful face. He wanted to explain, but what could he say? Please don't care about me; you'll only end up dead? Don't let your son see me as someone to look up to, or you'll find him lying in the street one day with a bullet in his gut? How did he start?
"Mary..." He called her name as she began to turn away. She turned back, the hurt still there, mixed with something else. A pleading look; begging him to tell her what had happened between them. He looked away, looked down. What could he say? Nothing. He could say nothing. Mary returned to her office, leaving Chris to read the message that Ella had sent him.