Disclaimer: Dont own them. They belong to a bunch of selfish business man who decided that sitcoms were bigger sellers than westerns. They suck.
Warnings: Pain, bloodshed, bloodletting, bad words thats about it. Not a lot of plot to interfere with the H/C.
Notes: This especially for the Chris fans, written because Ive been neglecting him far too much lately, and because Vin asked for a couple of days off before I start poundin him again.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Ninheve and Jill for checkin this over for me!
Vin Tanner rode into the little border town of Soltero Arbol under the cover of darkness, Buck Wilmington and Ezra Standish at his side. They had received a one line message, delivered by a wizened old man on a burro, that morning. He had hobbled into the saloon, looking around him with rheumy eyes before going up to the bar. A few words were exchanged between the stranger and the young woman behind the bar then he nodded his thanks and shuffled to where the three peacekeepers sat. Nodding to them and offering a few words in Spanish, he held out a crumpled piece of paper.
Taking the paper from the old man, Wilmington smoothed it open, read it, and frowned. Turning to the sharpshooter he said, Vin, ask him to describe the man who gave this to him.
Whats it say, Bucklin?
Just says, need your help. Chris, the ladies man replied.
Color draining from his face, the younger man asked the question, listening with growing concern as the old man replied. Turning toward the others, he said, Its Chris.
He know whats wrong?
Shaking his head, Tanner said, He jist knows it was a blond gringo, and hes holed up. Says he acted a bit loco.
Vin asked the old man, then turned back to the others. Says he smelled like whiskey.
Standish frowned. Not to cast aspersions on Mr. Larabees character, but is it possible that he is simply too drunk to be rational?
Shaking his head, Wilmington said, dont think so.
His instincts telling him that something was wrong, Vin turned to their visitor and spoke quickly. Looking back at the others, he repeated what the man had said, then added, I know a th town take most of a day t git there. Im headin out soons I cn git Peso saddled.
Not alone, Buck responded.
They were riding less than an hour later. They left JD, Josiah and Nathan behind, the three men watching their friends ride away. Jackson had argued that he should go, but the healers talents were needed in town due to a limited but still worrisome breakout of fever amongst the townspeople. With no clear indication that Larabee needed medical attention, they all finally agreed that Nathan needed to stay. He made certain that their saddlebags were equipped with as many supplies as he could shove into the leather pouches.
They left their aged messenger in Inezs care. Ezra instructed the saloon manager to provide the man with food and a room until they returned. That taken care of the trio rode out, heading across the sun-dried prairie grass toward the border town.
And now they made their way along the sun-baked road, passing darkened buildings and street-fires as they headed toward the long, low adobe building where the old man promised Chris Larabee awaited their arrival.
Dropping from their horses wearily, the men strode toward the last in a series of doors, each opening into a tiny, cell-like room. Vin stepped toward the door, preparing to knock.
Be careful, stud, Buck said softly. You know how he can be.
With a grim smile, Tanner called out, Chris? Stand down pard, sjist us. That said he pushed on the door, finding it unyielding. Chris? Let us in, cowboy.
They found themselves waiting for long minutes, finally rewarded by the sound of someone scuffing across the room. They heard a bolt drawn, and the door was pulled open.
The three men entered cautiously, uncertain of what might await them in the darkness. The faint light from a single lantern showed them only that Chris Larabee was indeed there, but little more. Ezra moved to raise the light, sending the shadows scurrying into the corners of the room and eliciting a soft groan from the blond. They all saw at once why the blond had sent for their help.
Ah, hell, Vin growled, instantly at Larabees side. Carefully he guided the other man to the narrow, rumpled bed that sat in one corner of the room. Cmon, pard, sit yerself down.
The gunman allowed himself to be lowered to the bed, leaning against the wall as he regarded his friends. In a pain roughened whisper, he said, good to see you boys.
Kneeling in front of his old friend, Buck reached out, not quite touching the dirty, bloodied bandage around the mans bare abdomen. Softly he asked, What happened, stud?
Knife knife fight, the blond muttered, hazel eyes drifting shut.
How long ago, cowboy? Tanner asked.
Frowning, but not opening his eyes, the injured man pondered that question. Not sure how long long how long I been gone?
Four days, Ezra supplied, bringing over a basin of water and setting it on the wobbly chair beside the bed.
Four? The frown deepened. Think maybe two two days. Not cer tain.
Vin, can you help get that bandage off? Buck, well need more water preferably clean and hot. Some whiskey might help, although it smells as if hes had quite a bit already. Standish delivered the orders calmly, although he was as worried as the other two men. They nodded and moved to comply.
As Wilmington left the little room, the other two men began working on the bandage, wetting it in an effort to remove it from where it was sealed to the wound by the dried blood. Vin sat beside his friend, holding him upright while Ezra slowly worked on the stiff material. As they worked, both men watched their injured friend. Larabee barely seemed to register what was going on around him, moaning softly from time to time as the pain became particularly bad.
The gambler was just peeling the last bit of cloth from the well honed body as Buck re-entered the room. He was carrying two buckets of water, a set of saddlebags draped over his shoulder. He winced as he saw the deep slash that ran along Larabees flesh from just above his navel to the bottom of his ribs, revealing the hard layer of muscle beneath. Setting the buckets near Ezra, he said, damn, stud.
Chris, did you clean out the wound? Ezra pressed the swollen flesh gently, eliciting a moan from the man and causing a trickle of putrid fluid to ooze from the wound.
Dont re I yeah, poured some whis whiskey on it.
That would explain the smell your messenger spoke of, Standish replied.
Messen oh José. He he make it there all right?
Hes fine, we left im in Inezs hands, Vin said softly. Then, turning to the ladies man, he said, Buck, can y take over here, and Ill mix up a poultice while yall purge the wound.
Nodding, his eyes still on the ugly slash that continued to ooze, Buck quickly changed places with Tanner. He loosely embraced the blond, holding him so Standish could continue working.
Ah shit damn it Ezra SHIT! Chris cried out as the Southerner pressed on the ruined flesh, forcing the poison from the wound. He struggled to sit still, forcing himself not to fight against his old friends hold.
They forced themselves to ignore the cries of pain, continuing their work. The gambler purged the wound relentlessly, wiping the gore away with a cloth. Above him, Wilmington tightened his grip on the injured man, speaking softly to Larabee as he tried to keep him focused away from the pain. Vin stood at the table, patiently mixing some of the herbs Nathan had sent into a paste.
Finally, Ezra announced, its running clear.
Tanner moved in then, pressing the poultice into the wound. That finished, they bound the injury with fresh cloth from their supplies. By the time they tied the bandage off, Chris lay limply against Wilmington, breathing in a harsh pant. The big ladies man gently lowered his friend to the narrow, rickety bed.
Wrinkling his nose, Standish said, lord, that thing reeks. I do believe were only decreasing his chances of a full recovery, placing him back on that abomination.
Yeah, well its that or the floor, and that dont look any healthier, Buck remarked.
How soon do you think we can get him out of here? Vin entered the conversation.
Lets wait and see how hes doin in the mornin, the bigger man replied. Look, why dont you boys settle in and get some sleep. Ill wake you when its daylight.
Neither man looked happy, but they nodded and found relatively clean places to bed down for the night.
Chris managed to peel his eyes open, blinking as he registered that it was dark. Only a faint light shed any illumination in the room. He turned his head toward it, and found his old friend sitting beside him. The familiar silhouette of the big man was slumped on a rickety chair that looked as if it would collapse at any time. Sensing that Wilmington was only dozing, he said in a rough whisper, that doesnt look real comfortable.
Smiling even as he opened his eyes, Buck said, probably looks more comfortable than it is, too. How you feelin?
The tip of his tongue ran over dry lips before he admitted, terrible. Think I could have a drink?
Sure thing. Buck poured some tepid water into a cup Ezra had rustled up somewhere. Lifting the sweat soaked head from the thin mattress; he carefully dribbled the liquid into the waiting mouth. Emptying the cup he sat it aside and lowered Chris back to the bed. Hows that?
Nodding wanly, the blonds eyes slid closed once more. How long til dawn?
Three four hours. Why?
Wanna go home, Chris replied. What his voice lacked in volume it made up in conviction.
Sighing, the bigger man said, Lets wait an see how youre feelin, okay?
Wanna get out of here.
I know you do, stud, but lets just wait, okay?
Shaking his head even as he seemed to drift back to sleep, Chris said, going home.
Rubbing a hand over his weary face, the ladies man muttered under his breath, damn, stubborn, hard headed
Turning, he found a pair of sleep laden blue eyes staring at him up from where Tanner had curled up in his bedroll. Yeah?
Everything all right?
Other than the fact that this fool wants to get on a horse at sun up, everythings fine.
Softly Vin said, might not be a bad idea.
Frowning, Wilmington said, Youre as crazy as he is.
I believe I have to agree with Vin, Standish joined the conversation in a sleepy voice. I think it might be better if we were to be on our way as soon as theres enough light to do so.
You two tryin to kill him? The mans been laying here with a chunk outta his side for days, hes sportin a fever, and you wanna put him on a horse for hours?
If you havent noticed, my friend, Ezra said, this is not exactly a healthy environment.
Buck, Tanner said, We dont know who cut im or why, and even Purgatorios safer than this place. Reckon that, even if weve gotta go slow, or tote im on a litter, itd be better than stayin in this hole.
I can r-ride, Chris surprised them all, grating out the words in a rough voice.
Wilmington grumbled under his breath, realizing he was outgunned but not ready to surrender. Look, we can hole up here for another day or two, give im a chance to heal up turning to Larabee, he said, give you time to heal up a little. Get your strength up.
Frowning, the blond said, all Ive got to do is sit my horse. Im not pl-planning to walk back to town.
Look, if youre worried about whoever sliced you coming back for more
Larabee shook his head. Killed him.
Then his compadres
He was a alone. Doubt anyone noticed other than whoever cl-cleaned up the mess afterwards.
Then theres no hurry.
Another shake of the head, followed by, it aint safe here already had to ch-chase off a couple of hombres l-looking for trouble.
You handled em alone, now theres four of us.
More chance of drawing attention.
Were goin home.
Damn it Chris! You need to rest.
Hazel eyes glassy and unfocused, Larabee stared at his friend. I need to go home.
Two figures walked through the pre-dawn haze, each leading a pair of horses. They moved quickly and quietly from the battered livery to the shabby adobe building, stopping at the last room. One of the men stepped forward, quickly rapping on the door.
Inside, Buck drew a long breath, letting it out as slowly as possible as he struggled to calm his anger. He bent down, gently shaking his old friends shoulder. Cmon pard, lets go if youre still of a mind to.
Larabees eyes blinked open, confusion plain on his handsome face for a full minute before it cleared. With a short nod he let Wilmington help him up, leaning heavily on the bigger man. They had gotten him dressed while Vin and Ezra went after the horses, Buck doing most of the work and ending with him leaning limply against his friend. Now they moved slowly across the room, Chris waiting while the door was pulled open. As it was, he shifted away from his old friend, silently telling him that he wasnt going to be seen near helpless by strangers. On his part, the big ladies man steadied him then moved away.
Walking with short, uneven steps, Larabee moved from the little room. He seemed to be trying to walk without ever putting his weight on either foot; the force of boot heel against hard packed ground sending lightening bolts of pain through his body. By the time he reached Ponys side, he was pale and shaking, a thin sheen of perspiration catching the first of the morning rays. Stopping long enough to run a trembling hand over his face, he grasped his saddle with both hands. With a soft grunt of pain, he raised his foot, shoved it into the stirrup and pulled himself upward. The injured blond nearly lost his balance, but managed to swing his other leg over the geldings broad back and slip it into its stirrup as well.
The sound of three men letting out held breaths followed as their friend drew himself upright in the saddle. Chris looked down at them with a frown. Y-you coming?
The sound of muttered words accompanied the creak of leather as the other three men mounted. Making certain to keep the man in black and his horse couched between them the quartet made their way out of the dirty little town. They were little more than a memory by the time the inhabitants began to stir.
He could do this. It wasnt that difficult. Just sit in the saddle and hold on to the reins. Not difficult at all. The fact that Pony hadnt been farther than a corral if that for however many days didnt cause a problem. The big gelding was feeling his oats, but he could handle him. The horse might think he was going to act up, but if he kept a tight rein Damn it you s-sorry ass lunkhead!
Vin moved closer to Larabee. Whats the matter?
Nuh nothing. Im f-fine.
Tanner exchanged a look with Wilmington, who rode on the other side of their friend. They had both seen the animal, usually as docile as a plow horse, fighting the bit.
Chris, Buck said, why dont you take General and let me run Pony for a while?
Said Im f-fine, Larabee snapped. He was fine. He could do this. Just had to keep control of the situation. Horse might think hed get the last word in, but it wasnt going to happen. Only had to sit the saddle for a few more hours right?
How long had they been riding, anyway?
Less n an hour, cowboy, Vin said softly as he looked behind them. He could still see the smudges of smoke on the horizon from the cook fires back in Soltero Arbol.
Chris frowned. Had he asked the question aloud? An hour? Couldnt be Tanner had to be wrong. Damn Texan had little use for telling time probably didnt have a real good sense of it.
It has been less than an hour, stud, Buck chimed in.
Larabees frown deepened. Since when was it so easy to read his thoughts?
Chris, Wilmington continued, laying a hand on his old friends arm. I told you this wasnt a good idea. Youre not strong enough for this youre running a fever
Im fine, the blond growled. Aint gonna keep having th-this conversation.
Fine, Buck growled, pulling away from the stubborn fool. Hed just wait until the damn gunslinger fell off the back of his horse and busted his damn head.
Tanner, having shrugged Larabees muttered comments about his intelligence and heritage off, stayed close to the blond. He knew as well as anyone that Chris wasnt going to be able to sit his horse alone much longer. Well, anyone but the man himself, Vin mused. Someone had to be close enough to grab him when he fell out of the saddle.
The tracker watched as Buck rode a little farther away then spurred his horse to a run. Just as quickly as the big ladies man moved away, Ezra moved closer. Nodding to the southerner, Tanner turned his attention to the man between them. Chris had grown quiet, head down, deep lines of pain on what was visible of his face. One hand was tight on the reins while the other was white-knuckled around the horn. He hated what was happening to the other man, but he knew he was right. Soltero Arbol was filled with some of the most violent men and women that humanity had produced. People who lived in Purgatorio wouldnt even venture there. While putting the wounded and feverish Larabee on a horse might seem foolhardy, staying in town could have proven deadly. And not only for the gunman all of them could have easily met their end there.
But that still left them with one major concern. Getting Larabee home.
Thought had become a commodity he was short on. The world moved around him at times so slowly he thought hed lose his mind and at others so quickly he became dizzy. He could do little more than sit there, slumped in the saddle, holding on for dear life. Each step the horse beneath him took sent another shock of agony though him. Each breath he took burned through him like a flame.
He had given up on keeping the world around him in focus, depending on the men around him to watch his back. He had given up on following the sparse conversation around him, simply responding with non-committal grunts when it seemed that the words were aimed in his direction. He wanted a drink water, whiskey, beer it didnt matter. As long as it took away the awful thirst that threatened to consume him. It never occurred to his befuddled mind to ask one of the men beside him.
Need to st- need to stop.
Hands were on him then, coming from every direction. Someone steadied him in the saddle. Someone took the reins from his grasp. Someone climbed into the saddle behind him. Hands coaxed him to lean back. Arms wrapped around him. A voice, soft and low, comforted him. He sighed, relaxed, and let the darkness claim him.
Whoa there pard. Vin tightened his hold on the body that suddenly became dead weight in his arms. Carefully he settled Chris more comfortably against his chest.
You got him? Buck asked. His tone held none of the earlier anger. For now the big man was simply focused on getting his friend home in one piece.
Yep. Lets head on over t them trees, Tanner suggested. Looks likely t have water close by.
The other two nodded, having seen the mottled green foliage that still clung stubbornly to the handful of trees that stood beneath the late summer sun as well. The men moved as quickly as they could toward the little stand, Ezra riding ahead to lay out a bedroll for their injured friend.
Reaching the sparse shelter Vin reined in, waiting until Buck dismounted and came to pull Chris into his arms. He climbed out of the saddle behind them and helped Wilmington carry the unconscious Larabee to where Standish had laid out the blankets. Carefully they lowered him to the ground, stretching him out on his back.
Gently touching the back of his hand to the mans pale forehead, Buck said, Hes hotter.
Yeah, Tanner said simply.
If you two can remove his clothing well have a look at the wound, Ezra said as he moved toward his horse. Returning with his saddlebags, he found Buck holding the insensate blond upright, while he and Vin stripped him to the waist and removed the bandage.
The three men registered with dismay the ugly gash on his side, now red and swollen. While Vin and Buck held onto Chris, the Southerner gently pressed on the wound. Larabee groaned, flinched, and tried to pull away from the ministrations. They found themselves dodging fists and foul language as the semi-conscious man began to fight.
Hurts damn it, stop! Larabee growled.
If youll hold still, Ill be able to finish with greater speed, Standish countered. Then with more force he said, Chris, hold still!
Chris! Calm down, stud! Weve gotta get this cleaned out, Buck said, his voice firm and loud enough to register with the blond.
Buck Stop the blond groaned.
Real soon, pard, just hang on.
He did so literally, hands reaching out blindly for something to hold onto. Long fingers clamped down tight as each was grabbed and held tight by one of his friends. He leaned heavily against Wilmington, groaning as the torment continued. His body was tense, nearly rigid as he fought to keep himself quiet. When the pain reached its crescendo he buried his face in the broad chest, unable to bite back the pain-racked scream that rang through the air. Then, finally, he let go. Falling limp once more, his body was completely supported by his friends as he drifted away into oblivion.
He had drifted for some time, letting the siren call of unconsciousness keep him in the comforting darkness. Finally, though, the heat and pain that populated his reality pulled him back. Peeling open aching eyes, he tried to blink moisture back to them, but only managed to stir the pain to a higher level. Dragging his tongue over dry lips, he turned his head, groaning as the world began to spin violently.
Might not wanna do that agin, came a soft drawl from nearby.
Frowning, he managed to focus on the shadowy figure beside him. Smartass.
With a chuckle, Tanner produced a cup of water and held it up. Lifting the sweat soaked blond head he slowly dribbled the water into the open mouth. Neither man said anything until the cup was empty and Larabee was settled back on the ground. The Texan wet a cloth and gently began to bath the ashen features, studying the pain-lined face. Quietly he asked, Want some whiskey?
Wouldnt mind it, the blond grated out. He felt himself lifted again and something pressed against his lips. Opening his mouth he tasted the harsh bite of whiskey, swallowing gratefully. After he was settled back on the ground he said, Thanks.
No problem. Why dont y go on back t sleep now. Well head on out in th mornin ought ta git home sometime in th afternoon if things go right.
You mean if I dont f-fall off my horse. The blond offered a weak smile.
With a chuckle, Tanner said, There is that. Then, sobering he said, Maybe we ought a rig up a travois
Managing a glare through fever bright eyes, the gunman said, Only if I fall off a s-second time.
His smile widening the younger man said, all right pard, its a deal.
He wasnt certain quite when he had fallen asleep, but when he opened his eyes again the sky was just beginning to turn gray with the morning light. Looking beside him once more he saw that Buck was now sitting where Vin had been earlier. He could see emotions playing across the handsome features and, with a barely suppressed sigh he said, Morning.
More or less, Wilmington said softly.
Youre still angry with me.
Angry at the situation, stud.
Which I put m-myself in.
We gotta talk about this now?
You got something better to do?
Anger flashed bright in the deep blue eyes, quickly replaced by an even expression. You mean besides sittin here watchin my best friend di hurtin cause hes too stubborn to stay put long enough to heal?
Im not dying, Larabee said, not missing the word the man was trying to avoid saying. Ive been hurt worse and you know it. Wasnt safe back th-there and you you know that, too.
What I know is we risked your life the second we shoved you on that horse.
Dont remember anyone shoving me. Thought getting out of there was my my idea. No sense in risking ev everyones life because I was stupid.
Buck huffed out a breath then stared off into the distance. In a quiet voice he said, So that makes it all right? Were supposed to be happy about risking your life?
Youre not risking
Bullshit Chris! The big man barked the words harshly. Pointedly he continued, We are risking your life, you hard headed son of a bitch.
Larabee blinked up at Wilmington. In an innocent tone he said, Damn. You are mad arent you pa?
The dark eyes snapped. Dont you pa me. Im not the one being unreasonable here.
Blond brows furrowed and the hazel eyes darkened. In a deadly even voice, Chris said, I dont think its unreasonable not to want th three of my friends to risk their lives for me.
Yeah? Well maybe your friends would like to make that decision for themselves.
Larabee saw the pain in the bigger mans face; saw how great a toll everything was taking on his old friend. What he couldnt see was how to make it right. He did the only thing he could do. Im sorry.
It didnt help matters. With a glare that would give Larabee a run for his money on his best day, Buck said, dont, okay? Just dont. If you were truly sorry, we wouldnt be out here now.
The blond watched as the big man turned, staring pointedly into the distance. He moved slightly, grunting as pain shot through his side. Speaking to the broad back he said, If I admit Im a hard hard headed son of a b-bitch can we still be fr be friends?
With a snort, Wilmington said, Think thats funny, dont you?
No Im trying to be honest here. Answer the question are we still friends?
With a shake of his head, the mustached man ran a hand over his face. Still not looking at the injured man he said softly, just cause Im mad at you doesnt mean were not still friends.
Good, cause I could use a friend right now.
Hearing something in the other mans voice, Buck turned. Seeing the strained expression on the pale face, he asked, oh yeah?
Nodding slightly, Larabee said, Yeah, I could. Then a hint of something suspiciously close to humor lit his features. Ive gotta take a piss dont think I can manage on my own.
Wilmingtons mouth dropped open then closed with a snap. His eyes blazed bright sapphire and then cooled as his lips curved upward beneath his mustache. Shaking his head, he said, You will pay for that, you know.
Reaching out for a hand up, the blond said, You dont hurry Im gonna pay for it right now.
Smirking now, the bigger man carefully helped Larabee to his feet. Once they got Larabee that far he held the injured man carefully, one hand rubbing across trembling shoulders. As the blond head dropped against his shoulder he said, Just breathe, stud. Itll pass just breathe.
As the lean body steadied, Wilmington led him slowly across the camp to the far side. Getting him to a tree, he stood him against the trunk then backed away far enough to give the other man his privacy. A few moments later he heard a strangled groan and turned to see the blond slumped against the tree, ready to fall. Hurrying to Chris side, he lifted the smaller man up, an arm protectively around his shoulders. Glancing down, he noted that the black pants were still unfastened. In a light tone he asked, You done?
Shut up, Chris grated out.
Look, Im just askin. I dont wanna have to button you up twice. Receiving a weak version of a glare, he continued blithely, if youre gonna get uppity with me, Ill leave you swayin in the breeze.
Buck, Larabees tone lacked strength but was still threatening.
I mean, maybe you like the feel a the breeze down yonder but
Buck! Chris hissed the name as his knees buckled.
Shit, anything to spoil my fun, the big brunet feigned a hurt expression, all the while carefully taking care of his friend. Adjusting the gunmans clothing, he asked in a more serious tone, Think you can make it back to your bedroll?
Larabees eyes were closed and his breathing was harsh and shallow, but he managed to nod. Bad enough youve gotta dress me youre not gonna c-carry me too.
All right, well take it nice and slow, okay? When the smaller man managed another nod, he gently guided him back the way they had come. By the time they got to the rumpled bedroll, Chris was leaning heavily against him, trembling from the exertion of the short trip. Wilmington got him back to the ground, carefully settling the trembling form on the blankets. Glancing down, he spat out angrily, youre bleeding again.
Too busy trying to breathe, Larabee didnt respond. Buck watched him for a few seconds then called out, Ezra? You awake?
I appear to be. Came the grumbled answer.
Then drag your sorry ass over here Chris is bleeding again.
An uncharacteristic shit was the response, and Standish was quickly at the injured mans side. With careful movements he removed the stained cloth, checking the wound in the early morning light. The Southerners shoulders slumped as he saw that the wound oozed infection once more. Looking into the dark blue eyes of the ladies man, he asked, How quickly can we get on our way?
Seeing the worry etched in the gamblers face, Wilmington said, Soon as we get saddled up.
Help me clean this up first, Ezra said.
More pain. His side burned with it it shot through him with every breath. He couldnt see or hear as the pain robbed him of every other awareness. He was offered some small comfort as he clung to his friends, but it did little against the agony that spread over his body.
The three men watched Larabee react to the pain, none of them able to ignore the fact that his struggles were weaker than they had been before. As quickly as possible they finished up, Buck and Vin supporting the semiconscious man while Ezra re-bandaged the injury in his side. That finished, they left the gambler to watch over the listless blond while they readied the horses to ride.
We ought to just set up a travois right now, Buck said as he tacked his gray.
Shaking his head, Vin replied, quickest way homes too rough. Wed shake his insides loose fore we got there.
God damn it! The big man swore, smacking a palm against the leather saddle. Anger flared once again as he said, stubborn jackass never stops to think
When his friend didnt continue, Vin prompted, what, Buck?
Turning toward the smaller man Wilmington ignored the tears glistening in his eyes. Never stops to think what risking his life does to people around him. Acts like his life aint important like everyone elses life is more important than his. He never stops to think how that makes folks feel.
How that makes you feel, Bucklin, Tanner thought to himself. Aloud he said, reckon thats why he needs you around t remind im of that once in a while.
Shaking his head, the bigger man said, sure as hell aint doin a very good job of it here.
Slapping Wilmington on the shoulder, Vin said, well, I reckon the odds were aginst y from the first this time, pard. But y know we couldnt stay
The bigger mans voice became cooler as he said, Vin, I aint ready to have this conversation with you right now.
Tanner simply nodded, knowing that Buck was still angry with both he and Ezra for siding with Larabee. Later, after everything was over, he knew theyd have to deal with their disagreement. How they did it would depend on how Chris came through the next few hours. If they were very lucky, a couple of bottles and the big man winning a few hands of poker would help to smooth it all out.
He didnt want to think about what would happen if things went badly.
They returned to where the injured Larabee laid, Standish sitting beside him, brushing a damp cloth over the mans face. At the sound of their approach, watery hazel eyes peered in their direction, unfocused and filled with pain. In a weak voice, the blond asked, ready?
Yeah, were ready, Buck said evenly. They lifted the gunman into their arms and carried him to where the horses waited. Leaving him between Vin and Ezra, Wilmington climbed into his saddle, ready to take Chris from them. As they maneuvered him onto the horse Larabee cried out and then grew still as he passed out once more.
They rode through the morning, stopping once so that Buck could change horses, again settling Chris before him. Vin hadnt been wrong in saying that the ground they would cover was too difficult to drag the blond behind them on a travois. Even on horseback it was rough going.
The foursome stopped just before the sun reached its zenith, making noon camp beneath sparse shade of an overhang. Larabee hadnt made a sound for hours, simply lying in Bucks arms like a six foot tall rag doll. Vin and Ezra took him from the big mans hold and stretched him out on a blanket. Wilmington climbed down wearily, rolling tension stiffened shoulders as he came to join him.
They found that the wound was putrid again, the swelling and redness having grown past the slash. They worked with an air of growing urgency to clean it, their conversation non-existent as their worry overshadowed everything else. Afterwards Vin fed Chris a mug of willow bark tea, but it made a quick reappearance as soon as they lifted him up. In defeat they simply wiped his face and carried him back to the horses.
You gonna be okay carryin him th rest a th way? Tanner asked as he saw Wilmington rolling his shoulders once more.
Im fine, Buck said wearily. His back and shoulders were aching steadily from holding the other man in the saddle, but it had to be done. He pulled himself up onto the horse and reached down, carefully lifting the unconscious blond into his arms once more.
The afternoon passed in near silence, the three men too wrapped up in their concern for their friend to make conversation. On his part, Chris remained unconscious, his body a dead weight in the bigger mans arms. However the silence was broken by three, almost simultaneous sighs as they spotted the cluster of buildings that they had come to think of as home. Watching the town grow larger on the horizon, the men became more anxious to end the trip.
Ill ride ahead, Ezra said finally. Ill alert Nathan and we will be awaiting your arrival with our esteemed leader.
Tanner nodded, watching as Standish spurred Diamonds to a gallop, speeding off toward town and help. Turning toward the others, he spoke to Buck. Well git im home, Buck. Hes gonna be okay.
Wilmington offered only the briefest of nods in return.
Making good on his word, the Southerner stood waiting at the bottom of the stairs leading to Jacksons clinic. Both Nathan and Josiah Sanchez were waiting beside him. As the riders drew near, the two bigger men gently took the insensate man into their arms, carrying him up the long flight of stairs as quickly as possible. Once there, they laid Larabee on the mattress, carefully removing the bandages.
Jackson growled a curse as soon as he saw the state the mans side was in then quickly moved into action. All right, I need all of you except Josiah outta here.
Nathan, Buck started.
Turning to the big man, compassion in his dark brown eyes, the healer said, I know yall did your best keepin him alive, but I need you outta here to give me room. Besides, you three look like hell. Go on and get something to eat, get a drink or two. Ill let you know when you can come back in.
Josiah moved to where the men stood, come on boys, the quicker we can take care of him the quicker you can come back and get under his skin. They couldnt help but smile at the preachers words, but still left reluctantly. Sanchez closed the door behind them, turning back to wait for Jacksons instructions.
Nathan had mixed a few drops of laudanum in a cup of water and was patiently feeding it to the blond. Larabees eyes slanted open once or twice, but he didnt seem to really see them. Still, the healer spoke quietly to him. Chris, were gonna have to be rough with you and Im sorry, but that wounds infected bad. We dont get it cleaned out quick The healer trailed off, not wanting to finish his thought.
Squeezing one of the dark mans broad shoulders, Josiah said softly, Hes strong, brother.
Heaving a deep sigh, the former slave said, hes gonna have to be.
To their credit, it was nearly an hour before the peacekeepers returned to the clinic. One by one they filed up the long staircase and to the door, JD Dunne included in their number now. The youngest member of their group had sprinted into the saloon earlier, having heard the men had returned with their missing leader.
They knew they didnt have to announce their presence, the two men working on Larabee would have heard their approach. Even if they didnt, they would expect them to be there. They settled in at the end of the landing, even JD silent in the growing darkness. From time to time they heard a few muffled words pass between Jackson and Sanchez as they tended to the injured blond. Harder to sit still for were the occasional cries as Chris responded to the pain.
Josiah stepped to the door long enough to send the young sheriff to the bathhouse for hot water, then disappeared back inside. The three weary men continued their vigil, watching as Dunne disappeared down the stairway. He reappeared a short time later, a steaming bucket in each hand. Vin roused from his stupor long enough to open the clinic door for their youngest member, then he slouched back down on the bench hed populated for what seemed a life time.
Even in the growing darkness they could see that the young sheriff was paler than normal when he reappeared.
JD? Wilmington called as his friend dropped heavily to the landing floor.
Turning anguished eyes to the three men he simply shook his head, unable to voice the pain of seeing his hero as he just had.
Without a word, Ezra slipped his silver flask out of his pocket and held it out to the younger man. Dunne nodded his thanks and drained a healthy portion of the smooth liquor. Handing it back to the Southerner, he slumped back against the railing.
Silence hung heavy in the air, weighing down four pairs of shoulders as they waited for some word on their fallen comrade.
Nathan stroked the damp cloth over the fever-flushed face, watching the blonds eyes dance wildly beneath closed lids. Lifting the mans head, he carefully fed his friend more willow bark tea, watching the pale brows furrow as the bitter taste registered. With a faint smile he said softly, yeah, I know. You dont like my boiled skunk.
What else can I do to help? Josiah asked from the far side of the bed.
Jackson studied the question for a minute. They had done everything they could for the putrid wound, boiling it out with carbolic and packing it with the little white infection fighters he kept on hand for more advanced infections. That finished they had bathed the limp body, shaved him and washed his hair. Although the infection born fever would make short work of their actions, Nathan insisted that a clean body rested better. Finally they had changed the bedding, settling the unconscious man beneath fresh blankets.
Shaking his head, the dark healer said, Reckon weve done everything we can for now. Why dont you go let the others know how hes doin.
Exactly what should I say? Sanchez asked.
Shoulders slumping, the former slave said, tell them hes holdin his own and thats well thats about the best we can hope for, for now. Turning to the older man, he added, you might wanna say a prayer, preacher.
Dawn peered over the rooftops, shining down on five men sitting in pensive silence on the wooden landing. They had dispersed during the night, one or another going to catch a few hours of restless slumber while the others continued their vigil. None of them could stay away long, not until they knew something for certain until Chris turned a corner and Nathan could tell them that he would be well
They were each one lost in thought, the sound of the softly creaking door opening startling them. Five expectant faces turned toward the sixth. Waiting.
Leaning tiredly against the door frame, the big man took in each face one by one. He scrubbed a trembling hand over a tired face then took a deep breath. He saw the others beginning to move restlessly, waiting for his report. Finally, nodding, he said, fever broke bout an hour ago. Hes still got a ways to go, but looks like hes slipped the reaper again.
Five smiles, tired and relieved, silently answered the big man. Five sets of eyes danced with happiness. Five bodies slumped in tired relief as the news settled in.
Jackson continued. Hes gonna be flat of his back for a week at least, and hes gonna have to take it easy for a couple more. Were gonna have to watch for any signs that the fevers comin back cause you know he aint gonna say anything. Now, if a couple of you sorry lookin bunch wanna stay here and keep an eye on im, Im gonna go catch a nap.
Ill watch him, both Wilmington and Tanner said at the same time.
Shaking his head, Nathan said, fine. Ill be in my room if he shows signs of the fever comin back again. Get as much tea down im as you can, water too. Nothin stronger than broth
Reckon we know the drill, Buck said with a faint smile.
Reckon you do, the former slave agreed with another shake of his head. Leaving the others where they sat, he shuffled tiredly off to his room.
Hazel eyes blinked opened as his foggy mind tried to decide just what it was that had pulled him from sleep. Looking around he saw that he was still in the clinic, just as he had been every time he had awakened over the past two days. The difference was that, for the first time, he was alone. Hed been here four days, according to his friends; it had been a week since his short temper had earned him yet another scar.
But at least he was still alive.
The sound came again, the one that had coaxed him awake. His eyes widened as he realized that it was gunfire. With a curse he threw back the covers and pulled himself to a sitting position, legs over the side of the bed. Groaning, he managed to gain his feet, swaying briefly as the world spun around him with a sickening speed. Reaching for the gun-belt that hung on the bedpost he lifted it free, grunting at its heaviness. Managing to pull it over his shoulder, he stumbled with an uneven gait to the clinic entrance. Grasping the knob with a trembling hand, he managed to get the door opened and stepped out onto the landing.
Holding onto the wall, he staggered toward the staircase, the sound of gunshots continuing to echo off the buildings around him. Reaching the top of the stairs he looked down, groaning as a case of vertigo nearly sent him lurching forward. Gripping the banisters with both hands he started downward, lips pressed tight as each step jarred his injured side. As he reached the halfway point he felt his fragile strength desert him and he slumped to a wooden stair.
He blinked open watery eyes, cursing his lack of strength. He still heard gunfire, meaning he hadnt been sitting there for long. It was growing sparse, however, telling him that the battle was waning. Sucking in a lungful of air, he prepared to pull himself up when he saw a familiar figure sprinting across the street toward him.
Buck, he breathed as the lanky man jogged up the staircase toward him.
Grinning, the big rogue said, Ezra owes me a dollar. Told him youd be tryin to get down the stairs.
Wh-whats going on? He asked breathlessly.
Just some fool cowboys, thought theyd come in and cause a ruckus in the saloon. 'Course they didn't count on th' fact that Vin 'n Ezra was in there plyin' me with liquor and cards to get back on my good side. Still roundin up a couple of them down by the Exchange, but the rest are either heading for the jail or the undertakers. Smiling as he registered the fact that Larabee had been on his way into battle clothed in nothing more than his long johns he added, If theyd seen you, theyd have already surrendered.
Boys okay? He frowned as the world suddenly tilted sideways, leaving him suddenly clinging to his old friend for support.
Whoa there, stud, Wilmington said as he gently took hold of the smaller man. Lets get you back to bed before you break something, falling the rest of the way down the stairs.
It sounded like a very good idea to the blond, but he couldnt find the strength to say that. Instead he nodded, grasping the mans arm as he was carefully lifted to his feet. Slowly the two men made their way back up the stairs and across the landing. By the time they reached the open clinic door, he was leaning heavily against the ladies man, relying on his old friend to get him the rest of the way.
Buck did just that, carefully lowering the trembling man to the mattress. Taking the gun-belt from the blond, he set it aside while he gently lifted the long legs onto the bed and settled his friend beneath the blankets. Retrieving water and a fresh cloth, he bathed the sweat from the pale face and broad chest. The bandage around his chest remained clean, for which he was grateful. Sensing that the gunman was conscious behind closed lids, he said, Dont seem to have done any more damage, although Nathan aint gonna be happy that you were up.
G-gotta tell him? Larabee asked.
With a chuckle, Wilmington said, yeah, weve gotta tell him. Hes gonna need to look you over to make certain youre okay.
Chris sighed, but couldnt yet find the energy to respond. Instead he simply lay there, letting the ladies man tend to him. After several moments he drew a breath and said, Sorry.
Save it for Nathan, hes the one thats put a lot of hours into tending your stubborn hide the past few days.
Not just for this for all of it.
Pain filled the dark blue eyes but was quickly banished. Softly he said, Youre all right, thats what counts.
No its not. Youre still angry.
Heaving a frustrated sigh, the bigger man said, Ill get past it I always do.
Anger flashed in sapphire depths. Always.
Pushing himself off the edge of the bed where he had perched, Wilmington paced across the room and back, working to rid himself from some of the tension he felt building. He failed miserably. Pulling a chair up beside the bed, he dropped to the seat, staring at his old friend with barely restrained rage. Meaning me and you are getting a little long in the tooth to be walkin the edge of that knife. One of these days its gonna cut too deep.
You got our rocking chairs picked out? Despite the fact that he felt as weak as a newborn calf, the blond managed a glare in response to the frown he got from his friend.
Im not in a joking mood, Chris.
Neither am I, Larabee said softly. You know as well as I do that just living out here is a risk. None of us knows what could happen tomorrow hell, in an hour.
Yeah, but not everyone goes lookin for trouble, Wilmington said pointedly.
I didnt go looking for trouble
You didnt back down from it, either.
Whens the last time you walked away from a fight? What were you doing less than half an hour ago?
Buck huffed angrily. Its what were paid to do.
Yeah but nothing is keeping you here is it? Is there anything that says youve got to put your life on the line for a dollar a day?
You fight dirty.
Larabee smiled. Sometimes youve got to sneak up on a point.
Buck ducked his head, shaking it as he smiled. Dont know why I put up with your sorry ass, Larabee.
His face growing serious, the blond reached out a hand. Because youre my friend, he said firmly.
Taking the offered hand, the big man said, couldnt stand you otherwise, you cocky, smart ass, glare happy gunslinger.
Feeling the anger easing in his old friend, the blond settled back on the bed. Then he frowned as something crossed his mind. Buck?
About the fact that well what I was wearing out there he stumbled over his words.
Yeah? What about it?
Youre not I mean, youre not gonna mention the fact that I was
That you were sittin out there in your drawers which by the way the front dont close real well
What!? Ah hell He clamped his eyes shut.
You sayin you dont want me to say anything to the boys?
One eye squinted open. Yeah, thats what Im saying.
Blue eyes twinkling, Wilmington simply smiled as he stood and headed for the door.
Buck? You wont will you? Larabee watched as the big man stopped in the doorway, turning toward him. Buck?
Grinning broadly now, the brunet simply turned back and sauntered from the clinic. He couldnt help but chuckle as he heard the blond calling out to him from the bed.
BUCK! BUCK WILMINGTON GET YOUR ASS BACK HERE! BUCK! I WILL SHOOT YOU!
Laughing loudly now, the mustached man bounded down the long staircase. Behind him the yelling continued.