Notes: Formerly printed by Neon Rainbow Press. This is an old story, first written several years ago. Its pretty straightforward H/C with a side of story. The focus is on Chris and Vin, but all seven are featured in the story.
"Damn, I wish Nathan was here," Vin Tanner said with quiet frustration.
"Reckon I should be gl-glad you didn't say you wished Jo wished Josiah was here," Chris Larabee quipped raggedly from where he lay, propped up against a boulder. "At least I know ... I've got a ... chance."
Vin sat back on his heels, tipping his hat back as he surveyed his friend's wounds. "Chris, that ain't funny," he admonished.
They had been ambushed just a few hours earlier. Judge Travis had requested they deliver four men, members of a gang of cutthroats and murderers, to him for trial in Four Corners. They had expected the rest of the outlaws' gang to try something, and they had been right.
After sending the other five peacekeepers ahead with the men their attackers were trying to rescue, Chris and Vin had set out to slow down or stop the half-dozen men who attacked them. The two men knew their chances of getting through the stand-off alive were slim, and none.
The others had known it as well, and they had argued with their leader. But Chris was adamant, and the others had finally ridden off with their prisoners in tow.
Buck Wilmington, Larabee's long-time friend, had been the last to leave. Turning in the saddle, he called out, "Chris, you get yourself killed, I swear I ain't never gonna speak to y' again!"
"Don't give me an incentive, pard!" Larabee had replied with an almost smile.
Then, taking cover on either side of a bottleneck pass, Vin and Chris had waited for their pursuers to appear. And as soon as they did, the two men began firing quickly, giving their compadres as much of a head start as possible.
Accounting for nearly half the number that faced them, Vin had looked across the pass only to see the other man looking back at him. The blond's gray shirtfront was covered with blood. He raised a hand to Tanner then slid silently to the ground.
"Chris!" Tanner had cried out. Crouching low, he slid, stumbled and sprinted down the hillside and across the open ground to the other side of the pass. Several shots rang out, kicking up dirt around him as he ran. One shot grazed his head, and the long-haired man dropped hard to the ground.
The Texan had no idea what had happened next. He woke to find himself and Chris alone in the pass. Their guns were gone, as were the horses. Tanner's sight was blurred, and his head throbbed. He had pulled Chris behind the cover of rocks and brush just to be safe.
Now he was trying to stop the man from bleeding to death.
Larabee was as pale as Vin had ever seen a living person. His breathing was labored, his pulse faint and rapid, but he was awake.
"Pard, ya've been hit three times," Vin told him, "two of 'em don't look too bad, but the third ... well, I ain't gonna lie to ya, Chris. It ain't good."
"Appreciate that," Chris said softly.
"The bullet's still in there. Ain't nothin' I can do about it not here leastways. Hell, they didn't leave us a damned thing but the clothes we stood up in this mornin'."
"Well, that's something ... D-Don't relish meeting ... m-my may maker in
my ... b-birthday suit."
Shaking his head, Vin said, "Y oughta get shot more often, pard, I swear it helps your personality. Look, we gotta figure a way of gettin' outta here. Them fellas could decide t' come back through here, and there ain't much we can do 'bout it if they do."
"Vin, I'm not going anywhere. You get on outta here ... go find a way ... to catch up... w-with the others," he said, his words beginning to slur as his eyes rolled back in his head.
Tanner caught him and eased him to the ground as he lost consciousness. Tearing yet another swatch of his shirt loose, he pressed it against the ugly wound that still pulsed blood from Chris' upper chest. He fought back the feelings of helplessness, concentrating on keeping his friend from dying.
He was so intent on his predicament he didn't hear the hoofbeats behind him.
"Buck, you can't go back there!" Josiah Sanchez argued. "Those men are probably on their way here right now. We'll need every man to keep them from shooting up the town."
"There's a town full of men who can damn well protect themselves here. Chris and Vin are out there alone, and I ain't gonna sit on my thumbs when they could be in trouble!" His dark blue eyes flashing, Buck Wilmington wasn't in the mood for an argument.
"I'm just as worried about them as you are, but what're you gonna do if you ride into Porter's gang out there on your own?"
"Well, I guess I'll just cross that bridge when I get to it," Buck replied, a note of sarcasm in his voice. Giving the ex-preacher a look that let him know the discussion was over as far as he was concerned the cowboy stepped up onto his horse. "You boys stay here if y' want, but I got friends out there that mean too much to me to just sit and do nothin'."
"Buck, wait! I'm going with you!" JD called to him.
Wilmington reined in his horse. "JD, you best stay here"
"I said I'm going with you," young Dunne said adamantly.
"Me too," Nathan agreed quietly. "With the odds they were facing, I figure one or both of 'em is likely gonna need some doctorin'."
Leaving Josiah and Ezra to help defend the town, the three riders sped down the street that would lead them back the way they had come less than an hour earlier.
A soft wicker brought Vin's attention from his dark thoughts. Blinking to try and clear his vision, the young man found that he was nearly face to face with a horse. It was Chris' mount, Pony, and he was still wearing his saddle and trailing his reins.
"Hey, boy, where'd you come from?" Tanner asked quietly. Reaching up slowly, he gently stroked the horse's thick mane, afraid of scaring off the already terrified animal.
Pony snorted, but didn't bolt.
Grasping the reins, the Texan pulled himself to his feet. Not trusting his vision, he ran his hands across the horse, chest to rump, looking for any signs of injury. The big animal shied suddenly, nearly breaking loose from the man's grasp. A long streak of blood ran across the animal's right hindquarter he had been grazed by a bullet. The bleeding had stopped, and Vin was relieved to see that it didn't seem to be a serious injury.
Tying the reins off on some stout brush, he pulled Chris' canteen from the saddle. Taking it to where Larabee lay, he knelt next to the other man and lifted his head. "Chris, can you hear me?" Vin asked quietly. "Take a drink."
Doing as he was told, the gunslinger managed a few sips of water before he was overtaken by a fit of coughing. Capping the canteen one-handed, the Texan kept Chris' head and shoulders propped up until the coughing subsided. And when the older man finally quieted, Tanner lowered him back to the ground.
Eyes fluttering open, Chris looked up at him. "Vin... thought... told you... get on out of here," he mumbled.
"Never did take orders well, Cowboy, y know that. 'Sides, we got us a piece a luck. Got us a ride outta here." Leaving Chris where he was, Vin went back to his friend's saddlebags. Rummaging through them, he found more bandage material in the form of Chris' extra shirt. Ripping it up, he set about re-bandaging Larabee's worst injury.
The three riders pushed their already tired horses to the limit, bound and determined to get back to the pass, and their friends. Finally, Nathan had to slow the mercurial Wilmington down, the big man bent on riding hell-bent-for-leather, even if it cost him his horse.
"Damn it, Nathan, if y' keep stoppin' us"
"Ain't tryin' to stop us, Buck, I'm tryin' to get us there. We keep pushin' the horses; we'll all be on foot. That ain't gonna help Chris and Vin none, now is it?"
Blue eyes flashing, the big ladies' man grumbled under his breath for a moment before finally admitting, "No."
They slowed the animals to a walk, each man praying that they would be in time to help the gunslinger and the tracker.
Vin helped Chris to his feet, guiding the semi-conscious man the few steps to where Pony stood. The gelding watched them patiently, standing quietly while Tanner managed to get the wounded man into the saddle. The blond slumped forward, but he managed to stay seated. Sweat glistened on his ashen features, and his square jaw was clenched tight against the pain.
Looking up at his friend, the young sharpshooter said, "Y okay?" When the man managed a nod, he took up the reins and started forward. His eyesight was clearing, but the pain in his head continued to plague him. Tanner ignored it, not caring about his own injury. His only concern was the man riding behind him.
Time and again his gaze returned to where the blond clung to the back of the horse. They could make better time if he rode behind the other man, but he wasn't certain how long the injured, exhausted gelding would be able to carry them double. In the long run they could end up in worse shape if Pony dropped dead before they reached town.
They had walked perhaps an hour when Chris called in a pain-filled whisper, "Vin?"
Looking up, Tanner saw that the rough bandage was soaked through with blood. Larabee's face was even paler than before, dark circles ringing his hazel eyes, which shone bright with fever and pain.
Vin coaxed the black gelding to a stop and reached up to steady his friend as Chris slid from the saddle. As he reached the ground, his knees buckled, and only his friend's strength kept him from falling.
Larabee stumbled along, clinging to the other man for the few feet it took for them to get to a small stand of trees. He dropped tiredly to the ground, supported by Tanner's comforting grip. The blond sighed as soon as his body came to rest on the blessedly cool ground.
Chris barely noticed when Vin used the last of their meager supply of makeshift bandage material to replace the bloody strips of cloth around his chest. By the time Tanner spread the blanket from the gunman's bedroll over him, he was nearly unconscious.
"Don't go t' sleep yet, pard," the sharpshooter instructed. He lifted the sweat-soaked blond head and fed his friend more of their dwindling water supply. He watched as Chris managed a few sips, then his head lolled limply against the other man's shoulder.
Sparing himself a single swallow of the tepid liquid, Tanner forced the stopper back into the canteen's mouth and set it aside. Settling Larabee back on the ground, he absently brushed a strand of damp hair back from the injured man's forehead.
"Damned if this ain't a helluva mess," he drawled softly as he watched his friend sleep. "Don't reckon it's th' only one we've had t face though . . . reckon it won't be th' last, neither."
Vin's thoughts drifted back through the previous weeks and months, images of some of the things that had happened since the morning he'd looked across the dusty main street of Four Corners and locked eyes with the black-clad gunslinger. He shook his head, amazed that they were still seven after all that had gone before. So many dangers had been faced, and any one of them could have meant losing one of the peacekeepers who had been drawn together after that first day. Hell, it had been a miracle any of them had seen it through that first week, fighting Colonel Anderson and his Ghosts of the Confederacy. Both Josiah and Buck still carried scars from the final battle with the deranged Reb. And since then all of them had collected their own reminders of one battle or another. But they had all survived so far, and he would make damned sure Chris survived now.
Vin sat for over an hour, watching the exhausted, pain-wracked man drift between unconsciousness and wakefulness. As Larabee neared consciousness his expression would announce it clearly. Blond brows furrowed and he would groan softly through clenched teeth.
That was the only sign Tanner needed. He took the Chris' hand in his, letting the gunslinger squeeze it as tightly as the pain made necessary. "Take it easy, pard, yer gonna be fine. I'm here for y, Chris, just hang on t' me." He had nothing else to offer, except an allotment of tepid water in the canteen.
He knew they needed to get back on the trail.
Waking Larabee, he guided him to Pony and got him seated, making sure he was awake enough to hold on to the saddlehorn. Then Tanner wearily took up the reins and began walking toward home once more.
Nathan frowned when he saw movement in the distance. It was late evening, and they were getting close to the pass. He tensed as he studied the movement, then let out a held breath. "Ain't certain, but I think they're comin' this way."
"Where?" JD looked at the dark healer then followed his line of sight. "Yeah, it's them!"
"You sure? Don't wanna be ridin' into an ambush," Buck said, staring toward the movement as well, every muscle in his big frame straining to bolt toward the distant figures.
"I'm sure," JD said. "But they've only got one horse and it looks like Vin's leading and Chris is riding."
"Damn," Jackson remarked, "that don't sound good."
"Let's ride," Wilmington remarked as he spurred his gray forward at a dead run.
"Vin . . . I need . . . need to rest." The blond's voice was a ragged whisper.
Tanner knew their best chance was to continue, but his friend was exhausted. Hell, he might even be dying for all Vin knew. And one thing was for certain, if Chris was asking to stop, the pain had to be incredible.
Halting Pony near a tumble of boulders and brush, he helped his friend down from the black's broad back.
Larabee didn't have the strength to keep his feet under him and he slumped against the lean tracker, weakly clutching at his coat. He felt himself dragged carefully across the ground and laid gently in the shadow of one of the boulders. With an agonized groan, he melted limply against the thick carpet of grass.
Vin draped the blanket over his friend, then dug through the saddlebags for something anythinghe could use to make a bandage. Just as he resigned himself to cutting up his jacket in order to staunch the blood flow, he heard horses. Tensing, he moved to stand over his friend, tilting his head up defiantly to face whoever was coming after them.
He broke into a broad grin when he recognized three of his friends.
Nathan leaped from his horse before the animal came to a halt. Yanking the saddlebags from behind his saddle, the healer hurried over and dropped to the ground beside the gunslinger. He immediately started giving orders to the others as he carefully examined the injured man.
By the time Jackson finished with his examination, night had fallen. They bundled Larabee in a thick cocoon with their bedrolls, each man watching their friend for assurance that he continued to breathe. Nathan carefully fed the blond a few drops of laudanum, then mixed up a brew of herbs and fed that to him as well. He kept a close eye on the wound in the man's broad chest, but he didn't ignore the others. Chris had been grazed along his left bicep, as well as his left side. Both those wounds had stopped bleeding long ago, but he cleaned them out and bandaged them to keep them from becoming infected.
The others sat around a low fire, each man trapped in his own thoughts. They made Vin sit down and rest, too, all of them worried by the man's pale features.
When Chris was settled in and resting under the influence of the pain medicine, the former slave insisted that the rangy hunter let him tend the gash in his head.
"Nathan, it's fine."
You're gonna sit down and shut up, Vin Tanner. That might be a minor wound, but it could still get infected."
"Ah, hell," Tanner said as he slouched against a boulder. He frowned as his friend tended to the head wound he'd all but forgotten. Other than a sharp intake of breath, he didn't respond to the man's attentions.
While Nathan worked on the sharpshooter's injury, Buck and JD managed to put together a pot of trail stew. By the time it was done, Nathan had finished cleaning and bandaging Vin's head injury. He washed his hands and had just turned to accept a plate of stew when Buck called out sharply.
"Nathan! Catch him!"
Turning, the former slave saw a very tired, dazed Vin Tanner sliding sideways. He grabbed the slender man, easing him to the ground. "Whoa there!"
"N-Naaa... Nathan?" Huge blue eyes blinked in confusion as the young man stared up at him.
"Take it easy," the healer man said gently. "I think you're a little more hurt than you want to admit. Lay still, we'll take care of things."
"I'm okay," The Texan muttered, trying to push himself to his elbows.
"You will be, if you rest," Nathan insisted, easily holding the smaller man against the ground. With Buck's help, he wrapped the groggy man in a blanket then helped him sit up so he could eat.
Holding Vin's plate, Nathan watched as the tracker's eyes blinked more and more frequently, then slid closed. Handing over the plate, he eased the injured man to the ground, watching until he was satisfied that he would be all right.
Buck, JD and Nathan each took turns keeping watch throughout the night. As the sun rose on another day, they readied the horses, as well as the two injured men. They needed to get them back to town as soon as possible, and not just because of their injuries. There were still three outlaws unaccounted for. If they were attacked out on the trail, they would be hard-pressed to defend themselves and watch over Vin and Chris.
Wilmington leaned over the sleeping sharpshooter, gently shaking the man. "Hey, pard, time to wake up."
Eyes blinking against the morning light, Vin said hoarsely, "Damn if you ain't a sorry sight t' wake up to."
"Well, if that ain't gratitude for y. Here I've been watchin' over y all night and this is the thanks I get?"
Snorting, the Texan pushed himself up, knocking the blanket back. Swatting away the bigger man's hand, he sat up and rubbed a callused hand over his face, asking, "How's Chris?"
"He slept good all night," Nathan supplied. "He's still feverish and weak, but if we can get him back to town, and keep him quiet for about a week, I think he'll be all right."
"Y gonna git volunteers t' sit on 'im that long?" Vin asked.
"Go to hell, Tanner." The voice was weak, and it trembled slightly, but it was still Chris' voice. The gunslinger stared up at the other man from the blankets.
"Reckon I'm right b'hind y on the path," Vin retorted, smiling at his friend.
Nathan changed their bandages, and Buck and JD helped them eat a quick trail breakfast. With only a muttered grumble, Chris allowed himself to be lifted up into the saddle in front of Wilmington. Tanner climbed onto Pony's back. Neither of the two strong-willed men was particularly happy about being cared for by the others, but they bowed to the necessity. So while Larabee leaned heavily against his oldest friend, Vin put up with Nathan riding as close beside him as the healer could manage.
They rode slowly, too, accommodating the wounded men. From time to time Nathan reached out to steady the semi-conscious Texan in the saddle when he drifted off. Chris slept almost the entire time, cradled in Wilmington's strong arms and wrapped in a blanket. From time to time he roused with a barely-stifled groan, looking around in confusion. Then his gaze would settle on his old friend, or one of the others, and he would sigh tiredly.
"We still ri ridin'?"
"Yep," Buck answered with a nod.
"How much... longer?"
Studying the landscape, Buck answered, "A couple hours, I reckon."
"You s-said that before."
Grinning, the big man replied, "Yep, I did. You just asked me ten minutes ago."
"Just relax, ol' son. You let us take care of things, all right?"
"Have I got... a choice?"
Laughing hard enough to jostle the injured man, Wilmington shifted his hold slightly and replied, "No. Relax, stud, you're in good hands."
Never doubted it... for a minute," Chris said with a yawn then he settled back against the bigger man's broad chest, his eyes drifting closed once more.
Behind him, Buck smiled fondly, one hand gently rubbing Chris' blanket-covered arm. He managed to push back the fears that had held him in their grasp since they had left Chris and Vin the day before. Fears that included digging another grave at the old Larabee homestead; of laying his old friend beneath the earth beside his wife and son. But Chris had surprised him once again surviving what should have killed him.
It was late afternoon when they saw the familiar outline of the little town they had been protecting for the past several months. They had stopped frequently, and ridden slowly, not wanting to exhaust Chris. He grumbled about the pace several times, but usually slipped back into unconsciousness before he finished his protest.
"At least it's still standing," Buck commented as they drew nearer to the town of Four Corners.
"Gunshots," Vin said, his head coming up as he caught the sounds coming to him on the breeze.
"You sure?" JD's hand moved toward his sidearm.
Nodding, Tanner said, "Reckon them last three fellas are after their friends."
We need to get... after 'em," Chris said quietly. He sat up a little straighter and groaned. Despite the pain, every muscle strained against Buck's hold.
"Now hold on there, stud," Wilmington said. "You dont have the strength to go against a schoolgirl with a jump rope."
"He's right, Chris," Nathan agreed. "Me and JD will ride ahead and help Ezra and Josiah. Buck will bring you and Vin in"
"Don't think so," Larabee interrupted.
At first Nathan thought Chris was going to argue with him, but then he saw where the gunslinger was looking. Vin had spurred the black gelding forward and was already heading toward town, Pony at a dead run.
"The damn fool! He ain't even got a gun!" Still cursing under his breath, the healer spurred his own horse forward, the young sheriff right beside him.
Staring after the retreating men, Chris tried again. "Buck"
"But if I"
"Nope. I'm gonna make sure you're okay, and that don't mean shakin' your insides around if we hurry up the ride."
"Buck, come on, it's"
Nathan and JD caught up with Vin, convincing him to slow down. The trio rode cautiously forward, coming up to the main street from between two buildings. They dropped to the ground, the tracker hanging onto the saddle for a minute while his head cleared.
Then, borrowing one of JD's Colts and taking his rope, the sharpshooter led the way along the wooden buildings, finally peering around a corner. He shook his head then rubbed at his eyes.
"Still cain't see clear. JD, what's goin' on?"
Studying the scene in the street, the youngest peacekeeper said quietly, "Ezra and Josiah are at the jail... looks like two of the outlaws are still alive and kickin'. They're trying to catch Ezra in crossfire. He's outside, behind the trough."
"All right then, we need t' git t' either side of them bastards. JD, c'n ya get on the other side of 'em?"
"Yeah, no problem."
"Git on down th' backside a th' building then." As the younger man hurried away, Vin turned to their third member. "Nathan, you stay here, cover 'im from this side."
Nodding, the healer asked, "What about you?"
Hooking a thumb upwards, Tanner said, "Goin' up yonder."
"Vin, with your head injury and the way your vision's vexin' you"
"I'll be careful." The young man grinned cockily as he moved to the corner of the building and started shimmying up the drainpipe.
Nathan watched the lanky Texan with a concerned expression, until he saw Vin disappear over the top of the roof. Then he drew his gun and crept to the corner of the building, peering around to find the outlaws who continued to keep Ezra pinned down behind the water trough. Scanning beyond the outlaws, he watched until he saw a familiar bowler peeking up over a stack of crates just beyond the men. Taking a deep breath, he crept onto the boardwalk, staying close to the shadowed wall.
The three peacekeepers made their way into position, knowing instinctively what the other two would be doing. Then, as the report of a revolver from the rooftops signaled their presence, Nathan and JD sprang into action.
Less than a minute later, the would-be liberators lay dead, their blood mixing with the dust in the street. Nathan and JD stepped out from behind their cover, the healer immediately going to check on the outlaws, the sheriff hurrying across to where the gambler was slowly getting to his feet.
"Hey, Ezra, you and Josiah okay?"
"We're fine, Mr. Dunne. And may I say, your assistance was very much appreciated," the Southerner said as he brushed the dust off his deep green coat.
"Good timing, son," the big preacher's voice boomed as he stepped out onto the boardwalk. Then, hesitantly he added, "Did you find Chris and Vin?"
His gaze scanning the rooftops, the young Easterner said, "Vin's up there somewhere. Buck's bringing Chris in. He's pretty bad off, but Nathan's pretty certain he'll pull through."
"Hallelujah! That is good news." Josiah smiled broadly, slapping the gambler on the back.
Ezra glared at the older man as he stumbled forward, nearly falling into the trough.
Frowning, JD said, "Vin oughta be down here by now. He got clipped in the head by a bullet yesterday; maybe I'd better go check on him."
The three men grew serious, and they followed JD when he sprinted across the street.
Reaching the roof of the general store a few minutes later, the trio spread out and began looking for the missing sharpshooter.
Ezra's voice rang out a moment later. "He's over here!"
Josiah and JD converged on the man's position, stopping when they saw Ezra kneeling next to the Texan. Vin was slumped against the low wall at the edge of the roof, staring up groggily at them.
"I believe our Mr. Tanner has exhausted himself."
"Ah, hell, Ezra, I'm fine," The Texan groused, trying unsuccessfully to push Standish away.
"Of course you are," Josiah said softly, reaching out and helping the unsteady man to his feet. Keeping his arm around Vin's narrow shoulders, he led the young man downstairs.
Chris Larabee stared out at the busy street, enjoying the hustle and bustle. Normally the gunslinger shied away from crowds, but after a week and a half confined to either Nathan's clinic or his rented room, he could endure anything if it meant freedom.
As the sound of familiar footsteps reached him, he turned to see Vin striding toward him from the direction of the livery. The rangy hunter had been likewise confined for several days, until Nathan was satisfied that he was no longer going to pass out unexpectedly. Tanner had evidently been checking on both of their horses. Peso had come limping into town three days after their return, half lame and saddle sore. Yosemite had been nursing both the Texans beloved mule and his own black gelding back to health.
Vin dropped down on the chair next to Chris', nodding to the blond in greeting.
Larabee returned the nod then went back to watching the townsfolk coming and going. He smiled to himself, recalling his friend's presence over the past several days. Even while Vin was still suffering from headaches and blackouts, he still insisted on staying near Chris' bed as much as possible. And even after he was well enough for Nathan to let him escape, the other man remained nearby most of the time. His presence had been comforting, unobtrusive, and constant throughout the gunslinger's convalescence.
Chris watched his friend out of the corner of his eye, considering the rare and wonderful thing he had found in Tanner's friendship. The man never asked for anything, but was quick to offer everything he had. Vin watched his back, even when Larabee was too stupid to know he needed it. And the tracker had risked his life time and again for Chris, and the others and the gunslinger had no doubt he would do so again.
After studying his friend a few more moments, Chris finally spoke in the only language the two men needed. "Buy you a beer?"