Main Characters: Vin, Chris
Vin Tanner lay quietly in the tall, lush grass as a soft breeze blew a strand of hair across his face. An insect buzzed annoyingly at his ear and somewhere in the distance he heard a name being called, his name. He knew he should reply, yet something held him back.
The sky was the deep, azure of summer, cloudless but for a few wispy strands that did little to block the brilliant, white-gold sun. Vin squinted watering eyes and grimaced at the relentless glare. Damn if it didn't cut like a knife through his aching head. And where were his sunglasses?
The pesky bug droned again, this time with a maddening tickle along his cheek. Fumbling a hand up took effort: his arm felt as if lead weights were attached and he nearly poked himself in the eye. Instead of an insect, however, he encountered warm stickiness. He worked to focus his fuzzy gaze, blinking bemusedly at the red staining his fingertips.
"Vin! Vin Tanner! Can you hear me?"
The combination of blood and that familiar, pissed-off voice shocked Vin from hazy puzzlement to sharp awareness. What was he doing lying in the grass? Why was he bleeding? And where was Chris?
"Vin! Answer me, damn it! That's an order!" Distant, barely audible--the mountains tended to magnify and echo sound. No telling how far Chris was.
I'm here. That's what he tried to call out, anyway. What emerged was a pathetic raspy croak that made his head pound harder. Up. He had to get up and find Chris. Bracing wobbly arms, he levered himself to a sitting position.
A white-hot knife sliced through his head, the grass and flowers wavered and blurred, and his stomach churned. Leaning to the side, he vomited helplessly. Each spasm ratcheted up the agony in his head and darkness crept around the edges of his vision. Breathe. He had to breathe. Moving on pure instinct, he inched away from his own sickness before the dizziness and pain overwhelmed him and everything went black.
* * * * *
He couldn't breathe.
"Vin! Answer me, damn it! That's an order!" Chris cocked his head, listening, chest tight. When no reply came, he cursed under his breath. "Temperamental, good-for-nothing piece of . . . How many times have I warned Vin that jughead is nothing but trouble?"
"Vin loves that ornery cuss," Buck said in the soothing tone that told Chris he'd crossed the line into "handle with kid gloves" territory. "And hard as it is to believe, Peso loves him. He'd never hurt Vin--not deliberately, anyway."
"Doesn't change the fact that I've got a horse and no rider," Chris snapped. "It's been nearly two hours, Buck. If it was just a matter of Vin taking a little spill, he'd've made it back to the ranch by now."
Buck squeezed his shoulder before handing over Pony's reins. "We got Ezra, Josiah, and J.D. spread out looking and Nate holding down the fort. We'll find him soon, Chris."
"I hope you're right, because we're burning daylight. Another couple hours . . ." Chris mounted Pony. "Let's go."
* * * * *
Something was trying to crawl up his nose.
Vin spluttered and flailed, getting a mouthful of dirt for his trouble. Great. Apparently he'd face-planted when he passed out. With a moan he shoved hard, rolling onto his back.
The sun was lower now, the light pale and the air beginning to cool. With cautious fingers he followed a sticky trail across his cheek, up past his temple, and ending in a one-inch cut along his hairline. A knock on the head. Loss of consciousness--twice. Dizziness. Nausea. Damn, another concussion. Nathan was gonna kill him.
As he lay in the rustling grass, trying to muster the energy to move, he took inventory of what he could remember. Friday before the long Fourth of July weekend. After a tough two weeks at work, Chris had given them the afternoon off. Chris's suggestion that he and Vin ride up to Sunset Ridge had been tabled when Travis pulled him into a last-minute meeting. But he'd urged Vin to go without him, promising to catch up.
Vin pressed the heel of his hand against his head and tried to think past the throbbing. He recalled saddling Peso. Riding out. Then . . . Everything jumbled. Popping like gunfire that drew him off course. An explosion. Peso seizing the bit, crazy with fear. And somehow he'd ended up flat on his back and with a size 12 headache all alone in the middle of . . . Where was he?
Mindful of what happened the last time he tried to get vertical, Vin gingerly eased upright. Resting his head against his knees, he closed his eyes and breathed shallowly through his mouth. When the queasiness receded, he cracked open his eyes and struggled to make sense of images that double, tripled, and undulated as if he were underwater.
Cottontail Meadow, the huge, grassy field that bordered the extreme west end of Chris's neighbor's property. To hell and gone from Sunset Ridge. Vin groaned. Chris and the boys might be searching for him. But damn, it was unlikely they'd look here. For the first time he bitterly regretted his stubborn resolve to never take a cell phone when he was out riding. Even if he couldn't get a signal, the GPS would've been awful handy.
There was no getting around it. Somehow he'd have to walk the three miles back to the house without falling down a ravine, running into a tree, or--he swallowed hard--puking. He refused to consider the fact that there was no way he'd make it before dark. Steeling himself, he tipped up his chin and through clenched teeth muttered, "Reckon you best get started."
The rough words fell flat amidst the bird songs and buzzing insects, reminding him of the harsh truth he couldn't avoid: He was on his own.
* * * * *
When they met up in the south pasture, the sun was sinking behind the mountains. "No one found anything?" Chris knew the answer--their grim faces said it all.
"Perhaps it's time for a new strategy," Ezra said, "since our attempts thus far have been fruitless."
Before Chris could snap at that understatement, J.D. piped up. "Maybe if we turned Peso loose, he'd lead us to Vin."
Buck snorted. "He's a horse, J.D., not Lassie."
"I do think it's time to involve the authorities, Chris," Josiah said. "With more manpower--"
The walkie-talkie at Chris's waist clicked. "Chris, you there?"
He snatched it. "Yeah, Nate, we're all here. Any news?"
"Just had a visit from your neighbor Ken Randall and his son. Appears the boy and his friends were setting off illegal fireworks. Vin showed up to see what was going on and got caught in the middle. Stupid kids panicked and ran."
Chris's heart began to pound. "Where?"
"Over by Cottontail Meadow."
"On it." Not waiting for the rest of the boys, he clapped his heels to Pony's flanks and set off at a dead run, swearing through clenched teeth. He and Buck had passed within a mile of there an hour ago.
As he crossed the gully just before the meadow, he saw movement, then a dark silhouette in the lengthening shadows. His chest tightened with both relief and concern. The figure was familiar--tall and lean, hair brushing the collar. But the gait was far from Vin's easy stroll. Painfully slow and weaving drunkenly, it was obvious his friend could barely remain on his feet, and it was taking all his concentration to do so.
"Vin!" he called, urging Pony to pick up the already breakneck pace.
Vin startled as if struck. Glassy blue eyes fastened on Chris, widened, and filled with a relief so intense that it made Chris's breath catch. He slid from the saddle before Pony stopped moving. Vin's jeans were torn, blood and dirt coated the side of his face, and his tan skin was pasty. But he was on his feet, moving.
And he was the best thing Chris had seen all day.
"You look like shit, Cowboy." He grinned, a little giddy with the release of tension.
Vin glared and flipped him the bird--no small feat since he seemed to be having trouble focusing. "No one ever accused you of winning any beauty contests, Larabee," he snapped, then spoiled the effect by swaying and nearly going down.
Chris caught him, slipping an arm around his waist as he tugged Vin's arm over his shoulder. "Easy. I got you."
To his surprise Vin, always fiercely independent, sagged into the hold. "Always do," he muttered, his voice choked.
"Damn straight." Chris swallowed against the tightness in his own throat. "No more of this 'communing with nature' shit, okay? From now on you carry a cell phone, or I swear to God--"
Pain lined his eyes, but Vin managed a weak grin. "Can we go home now?"
Chris huffed a chuckle, waving reassurance to the rest of the boys as they pounded up as he tightening his grip on his friend. "Yeah, Cowboy. Sounds good."
Finally, he could breathe.
* * * * *
Vin let Chris steer him toward Pony while he concentrated on keeping his feet from tangling. His head felt fit to crack open, and the more he moved, the queasier he got. Riding back to Chris's place was going to be pure misery. Yet relief still had him feeling giddy. He wasn't alone. He could do this.
J.D. was first off his horse. "Vin! You okay?"
The snort was reflexive and immediately regretted. "Do I look okay, kid?" Vin managed a curve of his lips to take the sting from the words.
"You look like ten miles of bad road," Buck chimed in helpfully, but he was at Vin's side in an instant, offering a water bottle. "Sip it slow," he advised. "Don't want it comin' right back up."
"Don't I know it," Vin muttered. "Thanks, Bucklin."
"Nathan's waiting back at the house," Josiah said. "We'll have you fixed up in no time."
"Are you certain you're up to the rigors of traveling on horseback?" Ezra asked. "I'd be happy to secure a less taxing mode of transportation."
Vin blinked stinging eyes, overwhelmed by their concern. Damn, he must've taken a harder hit to the head than he'd realized. "Thanks anyway, Ez. I can ride."
Chris looked at him critically when they reached Pony. "You sure you're going to be able to hang on? Or should I put you up front?"
With a scowl Vin shook his aching head. "I got a concussion, not lady parts. I'll hang on just fine."
Lips twitching in amusement, Chris shrugged. "All right, then." He swung easily into the saddle. "Buck, give him a boost."
Getting up behind Chris damn near caused him to pass out a third time. His vision tunneled to a pinprick and the ringing in his ears drowned out all sounds. Vin fought against it, and gradually, as if someone had adjusted the controls on a television set, sight and sound returned.
He gave a short nod to Buck, who was still holding onto him and probably the only reason he wasn't face down in the dirt. "'M okay. You can let go."
Chris chirped to get Pony moving. "Speak up if you think you're going to get sick," he warned Vin. "Been a helluva day already. Don't need puke down my back too."
"You wanna compare days, Cowboy?" Vin growled. "Pretty sure I got ya beat."
With a huff Chris nodded. "Yeah, I guess you do."
* * * * *
Chris was gratified when both Buck and Ezra flanked him on either side, ready to step in if Vin looked like he was going to fall. He tried to keep Pony's pace slow and steady, but it didn't seem to help much. At his back Vin was rigid, breathing in short, hard puffs. When they finally reached the house, he looked positively gray and soaked with sweat.
Nathan was ready and waiting. He took charge of Vin with his unique brand of efficiency tempered with gentleness, banishing Chris and the others to deal with the horses. In the time it took to unsaddle, rub down, feed, and water the animals, Nate had gotten Vin cleaned up, stitched, and bedded down on the couch.
"How is he?" Buck asked as they came in.
"Pigheaded," Nate grumbled. "He should go to the hospital for an MRI, but he's refusing."
"You see something that's got you worried?" Chris asked.
Nathan shook his head. "From what I can tell it's just a concussion. But like I told the stubborn fool, it's standard precaution to--"
"The fool's sitting right here," Vin said. "And you can take all the pictures of my head you want in the morning. I ain't moving off this couch tonight." He looked at Chris. "If that's all right with you."
Chris raised an eyebrow. "Nathan?"
With a longsuffering sigh, Nate nodded. "But you're going to have to wake him up every couple hours."
Locking eyes with Vin, Chris curled up one corner of his mouth. "Won't be the first time. And I got a feeling it won't be the last."
J. D. snickered. "He's got you there, Vin."
With arms folded, Vin thrust out his jaw. "Hey, this weren't my fault." He frowned. "At least, I don't think it was. Everything's a little scrambled."
"You and Peso interrupted a neighbor boy and his friends while they were playing with fireworks," Nathan explained.
"Juvenile delinquents in the making," Ezra sniffed.
"That's a little harsh," Josiah said. "Boys will be boys. And I'm guessing this must have given them a good scare."
"They were pretty broken up," Nathan told Vin. "And the boy's dad was furious. Got a feeling you'll be receiving a formal apology--and they're going to be paying some serious penance."
As Nathan was speaking, understanding replaced the confusion on Vin's face. "Sounded like gunshots," he said. "When I got there and saw it was just kids foolin' around, I was going to leave. Wasn't expecting one to go off right next to Peso." With a grimace, he closed his eyes and rubbed his head. "Talk about bein' in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Nathan motioned to the others. "We'll head out and let you get some rest." With a warning look at Chris, he added, "Call me if you have any trouble waking him or he stops making sense, or the pain--"
"I know the drill," Chris said patiently as he walked them to the front door.
"The night's still young," Buck observed. "How 'bout a round at The Saloon? I'm buyin'."
"You feeling all right, Buck?" Josiah asked, deadpan. "Maybe Nathan needs to take a look at you too."
"Perhaps Mister Tanner wasn't the only one to receive a blow to the head," Ezra said.
"I've bought plenty of times!" Buck protested, all injured outrage.
"Yeah, but it's usually after you just got laid," J.D. observed, not quite fast enough to avoid a swat from Buck's hat.
"Ha, ha," Buck said. "Y'all are regular comedians. Keep it up and you can buy your own drinks."
They left amidst boisterous laughter and well-wishes called to Vin. Chris shut the door and leaned against it for a moment, enjoying the quiet. When he returned to the living room, at first he thought Vin had dozed off. It was only as he was reaching to turn off the light that Vin opened his eyes and spoke.
"Sorry you're stuck here. Guessing you'd rather be out with the boys."
With a snort, Chris sank into the recliner. "Hell no. J.D. jumping around like the Energizer Bunny, Buck flirting with everything in a skirt, and Ezra complaining about the food? Not to mention Josiah and Nathan getting into some deep philosophical argument." He put his feet up and leaned back. "I'm fine right where I am. Question is, how are you?"
Vin lifted a shoulder. "My head's pounding fit to beat the band, I'm still seeing two of you, and the thought of food . . . Well, I'd best not think of food."
"Sorry. Nathan's probably right. I should let you get some sleep."
"Nah." Vin studied Chris. "You know, I almost forgot something when I was out there today."
Vin was silent for a long moment, and when he began talking his voice was soft and hesitant. "Growing up, I didn't have . . . No one paid me much mind. And to tell you the truth, it was better that way. " Vin dropped his gaze and fiddled with the edge of the afghan. "Folks'll let you down. Better to rely on yourself; you wind up with a lot less disappointment."
Chris nodded to acknowledge he was listening but remained quiet. Vin opening up about his past was a rare and fragile occurrence. The last thing he wanted to do was shut his friend down.
"Joining the team, seeing how you rely on each other--you probably noticed that don't come easy to me." Vin's chuckle was self-deprecating. "'S just not my nature. But y'all made me believe it could work. Even for me."
He looked up at Chris. "Out in that field, hurt and sick, knowing I was miles from the ranch . . . I thought I was on my own. I forgot that isn't true anymore. That it hasn't been true for a long time."
"It was never a matter of if we'd find you, Cowboy," Chris said. "It was only a matter of when."
Vin's mouth curved. "I figured that out. Don't think I'll be forgetting next time."
"Damn well better not be a next time," Chris warned. When Vin yawned, he started to rise. "You need sleep or Nate'll have my hide."
"Don't need quiet to sleep," Vin said quickly. "You could watch television if you want. It won't bother me."
Reading between the lines, Chris nodded and found the remote. Settling on a baseball game, he turned the volume down low. "Get some shuteye," he advised Vin. "Two hours will be up before you know it."
Vin tossed restlessly for a few minutes, then seemed to drift off. Chris was just getting drawn into the game when his friend's soft drawl drew his attention from the screen. "Chris?"
"Thanks for not leaving me alone out there."
He smiled. "Never, Cowboy. You can count on it."