Main Character(s) Chris and Vin
Author’s Note: This is one of the stories I wrote back in the day when I was a newbie and just getting started in my obsession for the boys. Nothing much to it, it’s pretty straight forward h/c with just enough plot to hold it together.
Webmaster's Note: This story was formerly hosted at another website, and was moved to blackraptor in September 2010.
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They travelled together in companionable silence, each man as comfortable as the other with the lack of words. The one in black was older not only in years but in the living of them. The other, in buckskin, younger and less careworn than his companion, was crouched in front of the two stopped horses.
Vin Tanner looked at the tell-tale broken grass stems, tracing the elusive path several yards ahead. Without taking his eyes off the trail, he spoke to his companion. "Reckon they’re on their way South."
"Figures. Think they’re heading for Purgatorio?" Chris Larabee followed Vin’s gaze toward the horizon.
" ‘Magine so. Reckon a bunch a renegades ‘ll have trouble blendin’ in most places. They stand a better chance a fittin’ in down there." It was the longest conversation the two men had engaged in since leaving Four Corners three days earlier. Leaving the other five members of their peacekeeping force to look after the town, they had gone scouting. Several of the families that had settled beyond town had complained of raids on their livestock and crops. So far it had amounted to nothing more than nuisance and inconvenience. They couldn’t bank on it staying that way thought, especially when they discovered who the culprits were. A group of renegades from the Apache Nation reservation were making their way across the territory. If Vin had read the signs correctly, they were on their way into Mexico. Vin rarely misread signs. Tanner straightened up, rubbing a hand absently across his lower back.
"What’s the matter, Tanner, you getting old?" Larabee teased.
Smiling, the younger man replied, "Getting’ too used t’ city livin’ I reckon." As he turned to re-mount his big black, he stopped suddenly.
Seeing his companion’s face, Chris’ hand drifted toward his yellow-handled colt. "Vin?"
"Caught a glimpse a light on metal up yonder," he replied quietly. "Reckon we best – " he cut himself off, yelling out, "Chris!"
The warning was too late before it was even issued. An arrow, deadly silent, ploughed into the gunman’s back, just below his left shoulder blade. He cried out, propelled almost over Pony’s head. Catching himself, the blond grasped the saddle horn.
"Hang on!" Tanner vaulted onto Peso’s back, grasping the other horse’s reins as he did. Keeping low, he kicked the big black to a dead run. Beside him the gelding jerked forward, recovered, and paced the bigger animal. Precariously balanced on the animal’s back, Larabee cried out sharply, but bit off the sound. There was no time to give in to the pain; there would be time for that later.
Vin cursed under his breath. They were both helpless as far as returning fire. The only thing they could do was keep going full out, and pray they could out-run their attackers. As they raced ahead of the renegades, the shots came fewer and farther between; no more arrows were loosed in their direction. Nothing more hit either man and the young bounty hunter looked behind him, trying to gauge their lead. It was a movement he would quickly come to regret. He turned back just in time to see a gap in the landscape suddenly appear, its presence disguised by the curve of the terrain. Instinctively he pulled back on the reins, but the damage was done. The two horses shot to the side, instinctively tossing their heads downward. Vin lunged to the right, trying to grab the semi-conscious blond beside him, and both men went flying over the horses. Two bodies flew in a horrifyingly graceful arc through the air.
Tanner wondered in morbid amazement at the view as he pitched head-long over the edge of the shallow gully that had once been a river bed. He registered the fact that Chris was flying nearby, the feathers of the arrow trembling in the wind as the shaft protruded absurdly from his back. Vin would have laughed if he had found the time. Unfortunately, only a few seconds after leaving the saddle, he came painfully into contact with something very hard and unforgiving. Then there was nothing.
How long had he been asleep? He tried to open his eyes, but found it too difficult. Damn it, had he tried to keep up with Chris and Buck at the saloon last night? The way his head felt, he must have, and if so, it was one of the stupidest things he’d ever done. His brain was woolly and his mouth tasted like he’d been kissing the south end of a north bound mule. He hoped Wilmington and Larabee were feeling just as lousy, and –
Trying once more, he managed to get his eyes opened, but found it didn’t help matters. It was nearly dark out, and what he could see was spinning out of control. Rolling gingerly to one side, the young man managed to get to his hands and knees. Things didn’t improve. He found himself heaving the contents of his stomach onto the ground, overcome by nausea.
Nearby, Chris Larabee heard the distinctive sounds of someone being sick. Managing to track the sounds, he saw his friend hunched over, trembling from exertion. "Vin?" He managed to grate out hoarsely. Pulling himself along with his right arm, dragging the left uselessly beside him, the gunman crawled toward his friend. There was something wrong with the younger man and he needed to see what it was. "Vin?"
Pausing, forcing himself to take a deep breath, Tanner was shocked to hear a familiar voice calling to him. Unable to see the other man clearly in the gloom, Vin recognized what was happening. Chris was pulling himself forward, inches at a time, trying to reach him. "No, Chris, lay still. I’m okay, you lay still, hear?"
"Vin?" Chris slumped to the ground, still keeping the other man in sight. "Wh-what’s wrong?"
"Just dizzy pard, that’s all. You lay still; I’ll come over there in a minute." Swallowing a few more gulps of air, Tanner forced himself to calm down, to quell the sickness that threatened to overcome him again. That accomplished, he crawled toward the vague outline he knew was the gunman. It seemed to take forever to cross the space between them. Finally he could touch the blond head. The long strands of perspiration soaked hair were glued to his head with perspiration, and Vin could hear the ragged sound of Chris’ breathing, punctuated with an occasional soft groan. Carefully, his nimble fingers explored the trembling body. The thing he feared most became quickly evident; there was no arrow shaft protruding from the lean back.
"Damn it," the bounty hunter growled.
"What?" Larabee mumbled.
"Arrow broke off inside your shoulder pard," he replied reluctantly.
"Damn," Chris concurred.
The younger man was aware of something else, too. The wound was continuing to bleed, a steady pulse of blood seeping from the torn flesh. He had to get the bleeding to stop and the sooner the better. Pulling his kerchief from his neck, Vin folded it and pressed it firmly against the wound.
"GOD-DAMN-IT" Chris cried loudly.
"Sorry pard," the tracker said with genuine remorse. "We gotta stop the bleedin’."
"S’okay," Larabee mumbled in a pain-filled tone of voice.
Several long minutes passed; the kerchief was sodden with Chris Larabee’s blood. The sharpshooter realized that they were alone, the surrounding silence telling him that the renegades were gone. The gunman, having not been blessed with unconsciousness in the fall, filled him in, stopping every few words to take a painfully shallow breath. "They thought we were good as dead. Reckon we both looked it already, and you weren’t moving. They took our guns... horses... headed on South."
"Damn it. If they think I’m gonna sit here and take it, they’ve got another think comin’. Ain’t no man gonna carry off m’ horse an’ gun." That said, he pushed his anger aside and returned to more important matter. In an awkward one-handed move, Vin retrieved Chris’ handkerchief from his pocket, adding it to his. By the time it too was soaked through, he knew he had to do something different. If he had any hope of Chris making it, he would have to remove the arrow. Gently, he informed his friend of the conclusion he had come to.
"Ohhhh… kay," Larabee breathed.
"Wish we could wait for mornin’ pard, I can’t see much a nothin’ as dark as it’s gettin’."
"What?" Chris asked, listening as Tanner started to repeat himself. As the young man began to explain once more, Larabee cut him off. "Ain’t dark, Vin."
The sharpshooter’s head jerked upward, a move he quickly regretted as the world began to spin once more. It took everything he had not to fall over or pass out. "Ain’t evenin’?" He asked softly.
"Daylight... afternoon," Chris informed him, looking quizzically at his friend. "Only been a couple of hours... since they attacked."
"Ah hell," the lean shoulders slumped.
"Vin...what is it?"
"Can’t see real well, cowboy. Hit m’ head before, when we fell I reckon. Ever’thing’s foggy."
"Let me see... your head," the blond instructed.
"Later. We gotta work on gettin’ you t’ stop bleedin’. I can keep."
"Don’t think so... pard. You ain’t... poking a knife... into me half... blind. Now, let me see... your head."
With a sigh, Vin allowed Chris to gently probe the gash on his forehead. He winced as the trembling fingers touched too harshly on the jagged tear in his flesh, but managed to bite down on any complaints. Finally Larabee fell back to the ground, groaning as he did.
"You need to be laying down, Vin, not trying to tend me. That’s a bad gash on your head."
"Chris, it hurts, I ain’t gonna lie that it don’t. But if we don’t get your wound t’ stop bleedin’, you’re gonna bleed out ‘fore th’ others find us. Now, you quit bein’ bossy and let me do what I gotta do."
"What you’ve got to do is poke a... knife into my back and cut out an arrow head," Chris said in a tone that suggested amazement and a touch of fear. "Don’t... think I fancy having that... happen."
"Too damn bad, pard, y’ ain’t got a choice. Now, shut up an’ lay still. You can boss me ‘round later when we get back t’ town." When he heard no more complaints, Tanner continued, "First thing we gotta do’s get your shirt an’ coat off. That ain’t gonna be much fun, pard."
"Reckon not, but...go ahead," Larabee said in resignation.
Gently the tracker lifted the wounded man, letting Chris rest against him as he unbuttoned and slid the bloodied clothing from the lean body, apologizing to his friend as he carefully peeled the material from the wound. He winced in sympathy as the drying blood pulled at the brutalized flesh. Larabee’s breath caught and he cried out once, then dug his fingers into the younger man’s arm. Tanner allowed himself a quicksilver smile as he felt Larabee’s familiar silver flask in the pocket of his coat. Retrieving it, he wadded the clothing up and lay Chris against it after he helped him take a long drink.
The blond swallowed the biting liquid gratefully, smiling his thanks. Realizing that the other man might not be able to see the motion, he said, "thanks."
"Don’t thank me yet, pard. Still gotta get th’ arrow out."
Hearing the pain and concern in his friend’s voice, Chris whispered, "you’ll do... fine, pard."
"Glad you think so, cause I ain’t so sure. I know I said we gotta do this, but I’m just as likely t’ stab y’ rather’n fix y’," Vin voiced his fears.
A sound, half laugh, half groan, was his answer.
Tanner set about doing his best to save the other man’s life. Turning Larabee so that he could get to the wound easier, he tried to block out the stifled cries so that he could concentrate on the task at hand. Cleaning the blade of his knife, which the bandits had thankfully missed, he leaned over Chris and whispered, "Ready cowboy?"
"Wait," the blond whispered, "above me... root."
"What?" the younger man reached out, trying to figure out what the blond was talking about. Searching, not willing to rely on his eyesight, his hand found an exposed root in the gully wall, part of the low brush above that had helped disguise the drop off. Helping Chris maneuver around so that he could reach it, Vin felt the blond’s long fingers wrap around the living wood. That accomplished, giving his friend some sense of support, Tanner moved back to straddle the narrow waist. Positioned there, he could hold the wounded man down while he probed for and – he prayed – removed the arrow.
"Okay pard, this is gonna hurt like hell, but I need y’ to lay as still as possible."
Feeding the other man more of the whiskey, Tanner took a long, steadying breath and began. The gunman cried out as he pressed the blade into the already tortured flesh, but he remained still. "Sorry Chris, I’m sorry."
"Do it," Larabee said through gritted teeth.
Slicing deeper into the flesh, he probed for the arrow. It seemed to take forever, as he moved millimeter by millimeter. It felt as if he should have reached the broken arrow, or muscle, or bone... or the other side of the other man’s body.
The blond groaned. He felt as if his best friend was slicing him in half, using a butter knife as an instrument. It took every ounce of willpower he had and more not to scream until his lungs burst. Instead, he clenched his jaw until it ached almost as much as his back. His right hand was molded around the tree root to the point that he felt the thick wood giving from the pressure.
Finally. "Got it," Vin sighed as he eased the arrowhead and a fragment of the shaft from his friend’s back. It seemed to both men to take at least as long to retrieve the offending object as it had to find it. Pouring a bit of the whiskey on the wound, the sharpshooter winced as Chris finally gave in and allowed himself to react. His body going rigid, the blond cried out, then collapsed to the ground once more. Vin sighed when he felt the body beneath him relax. At least the man wouldn’t feel any more of the pain he would have to endure. Pulling off his own shirt, Tanner tore it into strips. He searched through his pockets and found another handkerchief that was, at least, cleaner than his shirt. Folding it, he doused it with whiskey, and then pressed it against the wound. Easing Chris into a better position, he bound the wound with the makeshift bandage.
There was little more that he could do at the moment. Making Larabee as comfortable as possible, he covered him with his own buckskin coat. Shuffling around in the gloom that only he experienced, he gathered up brush from nearby. Adding twigs and branches, he managed to construct a decent fire. Searching through Chris’ coat, he found the man’s tin of matches and lit the fire. The sudden burst of light hurt his eyes, causing a responding burst of pain. Suddenly he felt the throbbing and intense pain that he had managed to put aside for some time. Groaning loudly, he held his head.
"S’okay, cowboy, just a headache." He was amazed that the blond was conscious again so quickly.
"More than... headache," the man’s voice was painfully weak.
"I’m okay, Chris," he forced himself to straighten and turn with a smile toward Larabee’s vague outline. "How you feelin’?"
With a snort, Larabee managed, "fine" with only a margin of sarcasm.
"You lie lousy, pard," he moved over to sit next to the blond. Reaching out, he touched his face, feeling the cold clammy skin beneath his hand. He knew enough to tell that Larabee was in danger of going into shock. Pulling the buckskin closer, he said, "we need t’ keep y’ warm, cowboy."
There was a mumbled comment in response; Chris had slipped back into unconsciousness.
Vin sighed and slumped back against the earthen wall of the gully that had nearly cost them both their lives. For the first time since this had all begun, he completely gave into the pain of his own injuries. He rubbed an arm across his eyes, then grew frustrated anew when the fog of his vision did not lift. He leaned his head back against the cool earth. He moaned softly as the contact only seemed to increase the pain that pounded through his skull like a thousand head of buffalo across the plain. The young man found himself without the energy to lift his head though, and he simply endured. He pushed himself to think through the pain, to try and form a plan to get the two of them out of their current predicament. Whether or not it was his own injuries, or the hopelessness of the situation, Tanner could not come up with a realistic plan. Unless they were found, he doubted that either of them would make it out of this alive.
The sharpshooter tried to calculate how long it would be before the other peacekeepers would come looking for them. If he had the day right, they would only start looking for them back tonight. They had been on their way back when Vin had found the tracks. If he and Chris didn’t show up by breakfast, Buck would probably start getting antsy to come looking for them. Fortunately, they had all gotten into the habit of letting the other know their route if they were out on business. The others would have some idea as to where to begin looking, but he and Chris were at least half an hour off the trail if he remembered their ride correctly. Buck and the other men could ride right past them and never know it.
Suddenly the gruesome image of he and Chris being found months from now; their bleached bones covered in the tattered remains of their clothing, came unbidden to his mind. Cursing, the tracker chided himself. "Ain’t no call t’ get so low on things. Buck an’ th boys ‘ll never quit til they find us."
He knew that he could probably manage to get back to Four Corners on his own, but that wasn’t an option. By the time he managed to make it to town on foot, then lead the others back here, Chris would be dead. He wouldn’t leave his friend, even if it resulted in both of them dying. "Damn, I’m gettin’ dark on things in m’ old age," he grumbled. Easing himself up, trying not to move his throbbing head any more than necessary, he decided it was time for some sort of action. Checking to make certain that Chris was quiet, Vin set out to search the area. Shuffling along, he found nothing but dry prairie grass and the occasional stone. Knowing he could make use of the stones, he began gathering them up. Taking them back to their erstwhile camp, he set off again. It took some time for him to find what he had been praying for. His sense of smell told him there was water nearby. A few minutes later he almost literally stumbled into a spring.
Drinking a few handfuls of the cool water, Vin dipped his hat in and carefully carried it back to where Chris lay. Kneeling down next to the blond, he touched his chest, relieved to feel it gently rise and fall. "Hey pard, I need y’ to wake up here for me. Got some water for y’."
"Leave me be," the groggy man complained, swatting weakly at the offender. Water sloshed over the brim, but Tanner managed to keep enough of it contained.
"Damn it cowboy, settle down," he said with exasperation. "I ain’t makin’ a dozen trips for water ‘cause you’re in a bad mood."
Something in the hunter’s tone sank in, and Larabee struggled to open and focus his hazel eyes. "Vin?" He tried to decipher why his friend was angry with him.
Tanner sighed, softening at the sound of confusion in Chris’ voice. "Sorry pard, reckon I’m th’ one outta sorts here. I found some water, you need t’ take a drink." He gently lifted the gunman up with one arm, cupping his hand and feeding him some of the water. After Larabee had his fill, he stroked the back of his still wet hand across the fever-heated face. He smiled when he heard a sigh from the other man. "Reckon that feels pretty good. I need t’ check your shoulder pard, okay?"
The sigh became a groan. "Okay."
A quick examination gave Vin information he had hoped not to find. The wound was still bleeding. "Damn."
"Still... blee... ding," Larabee grated out.
"Yeah." He stalled; not wanting to say what they both knew was coming. "Gonna have t’ cauterize it pard."
"Figured... as... much." The blond lapsed back into unconsciousness.
Propping his knife up with the blade in the fire, he unwrapped the soiled bandages and scrubbed them out in the remaining water in his hat. Finishing, the tracker brought the stones closer to the fire and laid the remnants of his shirt across them to dry. There was finally nothing more he could do; he would have to invade the injured shoulder once again, burning the wound so that it would no longer bleed. He knew that Larabee would be a long time in regaining the use of the arm, and he worried about that. Chris could use his left arm as agilely as his right when it came to a gunfight. He hated the thought of effectively disabling that ability.
Pulling the knife blade from the fire, he maneuvered the still-unconscious man into position. Holding him down as best he could, Tanner pressed the white-hot metal into the wound before he lost his nerve. He barely managed to restrain Larabee and keep him from running the knife deeper into his body.
Chris Larabee was jerked mercilessly from the dark comfort of oblivion by a pain he had never before known. His mouth opened wide, he screamed, a sound like nothing other than that of a soul being ripped from its very life. His upper body rose rigidly from the ground stiffly, every muscle tautly strained to its limit. He screamed until he had no breath; his lungs nearly collapsed with the force. Then, spent and once more unconscious, he fell bonelessly to the ground. Only the weak, trembling rise of his chest indicated that he was still alive.
Dropping the knife as if it alone were responsible for the gunman’s pain, Vin allowed a few hot tears to fall as he fought to gain control over his emotions. Forcing himself to calm down; to curb his emotions and stop the trembling of his hands, he set about re-wrapping the other man’s wounds with the fire-dried rags. He was grateful that Chris remained unconscious, although he imagined that it was rather like tending a big rag doll. The blond lulled against his shoulder as he tried to maneuver the bindings around his chest.
By the time Vin lay Chris back against the ground, he was sweating and edgy. "Damn, ol’ man. Least y’ could stiffen up a bit for me." The words struck the young man as funny and he began laughing. Finding it harder to stop the laughter than it had the earlier tears, Tanner pushed himself away until his back hit the coolness of the gully wall. Wrapping his arms around his knees, he finally succumbed to his own injuries and collapsed into the darkness of sleep.
"Hey Buck," JD greeted his friend as the bigger man entered the saloon.
"Salutations, Mister Wilmington," Ezra added. "How are things in our sleepy little berg?"
"Boring, truth be told," the ladies’ man said with a sigh. "Ain’t hardly a soul stirrin’ out there. I’d be happy to have a drunk cowboy to deal with right about now."
"Yeah, I wish we’d gone with Chris and Vin," JD said wistfully. "At least we would’ve been doing something."
"I dare say things could very well liven up when they do return," Ezra said with a sly smirk. "Action does seem to follow our compatriots much like a stray dog begging a meal."
"Shouldn’t they be back by now?" The young sheriff asked.
Nodding, Buck answered, "they ought to be ridin’ in about any time."
"Good. Maybe I’ll just go make certain we’ve got the supplies ready so we can head out after those renegades when they do get back here." JD squared his bowler on his head and left the saloon.
Watching him leave, the two men shook their heads.
"Ah, the exuberance of youth," Standish said.
"Damned annoyin’, ain’t it?" the bigger man answered.
He woke with a start, grabbing his head as a hot poker of pain stabbed through it. It took a minute to get his head to clear; opening his eyes he saw...nothing. The young tracker fought down a growing sense of panic. Had he completely lost his vision now? Then, tilting his head back, he was rewarded with the vague, slightly blurry pinpoints of light that he deciphered were the stars. "Only night time, Tanner," he reassured himself. Then a sound came to him, one he came to recognize as the twin to the one that had wakened him. He slid to where the other man lay. "Chris?" he touched the blond’s shoulder, drawing back in shock at the baked dry feel of the hot flesh. "Ah, shit. I’m sorry pard. I should’a took better care of y’."
Moving with slow deliberateness, the tracker set a plan in motion before he was fully aware of making one. Lifting the weak, panting man up, he half-carried, half-dragged Chris through the little gully to where the spring was. Settling Larabee on the ground, he hurried back to retrieve the few things the renegades had left them with. Carrying them back to the spring, Vin knelt beside the blond. Larabee’s breathing was shallow and rapid, a soft wheeze announcing each breath. Vin nearly succumbed to thoughts of losing his best friend there in the wilderness, but put up a wall that held those fears in check. He couldn’t allow himself to give in now; he was the only thing standing between Chris and the specter of death.
Slicing through the sleeve of Chris’ shirt, he dipped the dark material into the water and dripped the cool liquid across the blond’s face, running it down his neck and across his chest. Larabee reacted only in a short gasp as the water first touched his overly heated flesh. Tanner spent the long, dark hours doing everything he could to bring the raging fever down. The water seemed to dry almost as soon as it touched Larabee, which brought forth visions of burying the blond there in the river bed. Vin hadn’t felt so alone for a very long time.
"Chris, you listen t’ me pard. You need t’ keep fightin’, y’ hear?" He spoke quietly, praying the other man could hear him. "Ain’t time for y’ t’ be leavin’ here, there’s too much t’ do. Y’ might not think so, but if you was t’...t’ go, that’d be th’ end of things. Don’t reckon th’ rest of us could find it in ourselves t’ stay there in town without’cha. Now, I reckon there’s a pull on y’ t’ be headin’ on through them pearly gates. Reckon y’ might be wantin’ t’ go find Sarah an’ Adam. Can’t say I blame y’, but y’ listen up t’ what I’m sayin’. Y’ can’t be leavin’ here just yet, cause y’ got too much left t’ do. If I recall, y’ got a date t’ take Billy Travis fishin’ when he comes back from his gran’pa’s. An’ we both promised t’ go out an’ work on Miz Nettie’s roof. I figured we’d be headin’ out t’ the hills after that was all over an’ done with for some huntin’, too." He continued his monologue, talking tirelessly as he bathed the man with the cool water. Time passed without his even noticing, and the sky colored with the morning sun. It took some time before Tanner recognized that, while it continued to be blurry, the world around him was coming back into focus. His relief was tempered by his concern that each shallow, labored breath would be Chris’ last.
"Y’all up for a ride?" Buck said as way of greeting when he entered the saloon.
"Where to?" Nathan asked.
"Reckon it’s about time to go lookin’ for our wanderin’ friends. They should’a been back before now."
"You think they ran into trouble?"
"Well, as it’s Messieurs Larabee and Tanner, I would say that is quite possible," Ezra chimed in from the stairway. The others looked up with shocked expressions at the sight of the late rising gambler up and moving without complaint just after the sun had risen. He was dressed for travel in his tan plainsman.
"Mornin’ Ezra," Buck said. Turning to the others, he said, "He’s right. Y’all know them two tend to get into trouble anytime they wander off by their selves."
"Brothers, I feel that it is indeed time to go looking for our missing sheep."
As he picked up a biscuit and some sausages from the platter in the middle of the table, Wilmington shook his head, "reckon you better not let Chris hear you callin’ him a ‘sheep’ Josiah." He led the others from the saloon to prepare for the upcoming trip.
His back and neck ached; his throat felt raw and his head pounded to the point that he expected it to explode at any moment. His hands trembled from exhaustion; his entire body shivered. Vin couldn’t remember feeling so lousy before, and he hoped he never would again. Still, he sat vigil over his friend, using the spring water to try and fight the fever that had raged for so long. He didn’t have the energy to talk to Chris any more, he hoped that touch would communicate as well to the unconscious man.
Larabee lay listlessly on the sweat-and-water sodden ground, unmoving and pale. His breathing seemed a little easier, but it was still shallow and ragged. His eyes had opened a few times, but he didn’t seem to see anything. His fingers clutched weakly at the grass that surrounded him until he had pulled much of it. From time to time Vin would capture one of the wayward hands, closing his own around it. After a few minutes, however, the blond would pull away and his hands would return to their wandering. He muttered incoherently from time to time, but otherwise was deathly still.
Morning passed as the night had, until Vin feared he would simply lose his mind from the frightening sameness of minute after minute. It finally came to the point that he couldn’t take another second sitting there on his heels, one hand and arm soaked and cold, the other trying to keep Chris’ hands still. Soaking the rest of the blond’s shirt in the spring, he squeezed out the water and lay it over the unconscious man. Stretching up slowly, his body complaining at the movement after so many hours, Vin walked in a slow circle around his friend. Tracking the route, still fuzzy, but clearer, back the way they had come, he remembered the stones he had gathered. Going back to where Chris lay, he checked the man and walked back quickly toward the place they had been until the night before. Trying to avoid looking at the blood soaked ground where he had cut into Larabee’s back, he started gathering up the stones. As he stood back up, he caught a faint glimmer above him. Dropping the stones, he made ready to do battle if the men had returned. After a few moments he was able to make out what it was. "I’ll be damned."
Climbing quickly to the top of the shallow gully, he found a set of battered saddlebags, the buckle of one side catching the light. They were his, evidently torn lose and thrown along with him and left behind unnoticed by the renegades. He could scarcely believe that the men had been so stupid, but he wasn’t about to question providence. Throwing the heavy bags over his shoulder, he ventured a look around, but could make out no sign of movement. Climbing back down into the gully, he left the stones behind, hurrying to the spring and Chris. There he opened the bags and began looking through the contents. Pulling out the packet of healing supplies that Nathan insisted they carry, he set them out to use. Setting up a small fire, he retrieved the small metal cup he carried as well, filling it with water and crushing the herbs into it. Sitting it next to the fire to warm, he carefully removed the make-shift bandages from his friend. The blond moaned softly and tried to move away from him, but hadn’t the strength.
"Settle down, cowboy, Y’ ain’t got a reason t’ try and get away. I’m just tryin’ t’ help y’ out here, okay? Now, settle down an’ let me do what I gotta do."
"Vin?" The voice was weak, barely a sound at all.
"Hey pard, you awake?"
"Think so," he whispered. As Tanner lowered him to his side, the arrow wound exposed, he managed to open his eyes. They were little more than slits, unfocused and watery.
"’Bout time. I was gettin’ tired a talkin’ t’ m’self."
"No," Larabee disagreed. "You were t... talking to me."
Shaking his head in disbelief, the tracker said, "Didn’t think you were listenin’. Yeah, I was talkin’ to y’." His voice held a worried tone, wondering if Chris remembered the words or just the tone. Some of the things he had said he wasn’t in a hurry for the man in black to acknowledge. He wasn’t certain how the other man would respond to the more emotional words he had uttered during his ramblings to keep the man anchored to life.
"Kept hear... ing you talking to me... help... helped me to stay," he stopped trying to sort out his thoughts. "Alive," he finally decided.
"Good t’ know I’m good for somethin’," Tanner joked.
A brief smile graced the pale and handsome face, replaced by a grimace. Slowly the hazel eyes fluttered closed, and Chris returned to unconsciousness. "Thanks," he whispered as the darkness surrounded him once again.
Gently squeezing the man’s shoulder, Vin said, "no problem pard." He sat about finishing his work, and soon Larabee’s wounds had been cleaned and covered with salve and fresh bandages. Lifting the sleeping man up, Tanner urged him to drink the herbal tea. As usual, Chris tried to avoid the foul taste of the drink, but Vin managed to get him to drink it with the help of the addition of a taste of whiskey. Settling him back on the ground, the tracker made certain he was as comfortable as possible. If not satisfied with the state of things, Vin was at least resigned. Leaving the wounded man where he was, he hurried off for the chore he knew he had to do now. As much as he hated to leave Chris for even a minute, the others would be looking for them by now. If he didn’t do everything he could to point out their whereabouts now, they might never be found.
They knew the route the other two men had expected to travel, but couldn’t be certain where they were. While Ezra and Josiah rode east, Buck, Nathan and JD went west. They had begun right after sunrise, and rode as hard as they dared. They had all spent enough time in the outdoors to read sign, although none as well as Vin.
"How soon do you think we’ll catch up to them?" JD asked.
"I imagine we’ll know when it happens, kid," Buck said absently as he scanned the surrounding area for signs of the missing men.
"Well, I could’ve figured that out," Dunne said with exasperation.
"Well, you didn’t now, did you’?"
"Buck, why can’t you ever just answer my questions?"
"I give your questions the answer they deserve."
"Buck," the sheriff began.
"JD," Nathan interrupted, "they’ve been gone over four days. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover. It’s hard to tell how soon we’ll find them."
JD sighed, but said nothing more.
"I wish we had a looking glass such as Vin carries," Ezra lamented. He and Josiah had spotted five horses, two without riders, in the distance. They were too far away to tell who it was.
"Do you think it’s them?" Josiah asked.
"I suppose our best recourse would be to approach and discover the identity of the mysterious travelers."
"Keep your guard up, brother," Josiah said.
"I assure you, it’s never down," Standish replied as he kicked his horse to a canter.
It had taken him longer than he had expected. His head pounded each time he leaned over, only barely relenting when he stood up. Vin had managed to finish his errand, setting out markers for the others to follow. They would be indistinguishable to most, but he had taught the others what to look for. To any of the other five men they worked with, those signs would be as easy to spot as arrows pointing the way.
Two markers; one at the trail and a second half way between that one and the gully. It was still a long shot that they would come this exact way, but it was all the young man could hope for. That finished, he returned as quickly as his ailing vision and pounding head would allow. Climbing down the steep slope, he hurried back to the spring and Chris. Larabee lay staring around him, seemingly dazed and confused. Squatting down next to him, Vin lay a hand on his shoulder. At least the man’s temperature seemed lower. "How y’ doin’ pard?"
"Where... where were you?" Larabee asked in a tone that Tanner barely recognized. It was something frighteningly close to fear.
"Went t’ leave markers for th’ others so they can come give us a ride home. Y’ okay?"
"Yeah," Chris breathed shakily, "yeah."
Dampening the cloth once more, Vin started bathing the man with the cool water. Larabee’s hazel eyes closed once again, but he didn’t sleep. Sensing the man’s continued consciousness, Tanner continued talking to him. "Durndest thing, cowboy. Them lowlifes left m’ saddlebags b’hind. Found ‘m on top a th’ holler back where we fell. Got some a Nathan’s horse piss down y’, an’ changed your bandage. Reckon we’ll be okay til th’ others find us."
"That’s good," Chris mumbled tiredly. "How’s your... head, pard?"
Chuckling, Tanner said, "’bout as hard as yours. I’m okay. How you feelin’?"
"Awful," Larabee said honestly.
""Magine. Y’ been pretty sick since last night. Think you’re gettin’ better now though. Y’ don’t seem quite ‘s hot as y’ did earlier."
"Mmm," the man mumbled as he slid back to sleep.
"Josiah, do those riderless horses look familiar?"
"If it isn’t Peso and Pony, they’re incredibly similar." Sanchez loosened his sidearm in its holster.
Placing a hand on the bigger man’s arm, Ezra said, "Perhaps we should proceed without the preconceived notion that they are members of the band that Chris and Vin left to investigate."
"Well, since they’re leading Pony and Peso, I would think that the possibility of their being responsible for whatever has happened," the big preacher responded, "is pretty high."
"I concur," the gambler said evenly. "However, if we don’t proceed as if we know that, we may be able to ascertain exactly what did happen."
"Ah, I see where you’re heading brother, and I’ll be glad to follow."
The two men rode forward, looking like nothing more than a pair of travelers on the road to somewhere else.
It was late afternoon, and the trio of peacekeepers were tired, dusty and hot from the long hours of searching. JD wiped the back of his neck, removing a layer of something very close to mud from his skin. Looking at Buck, who was studying the terrain, he said, "anything yet?"
"Don’t you think I’d have said so if there was somethin’ Kid?" Wilmington growled.
"Buck," Dunne yelped.
"JD, there’s too many tracks around here to really tell much. We might just have to hope we run on to them."
"But – "
"Kid, why don’t you close your mouth and open your eyes. Help look for signs that Vin might have left."
"Fine," the young man grumbled.
"Right here pard," the younger man reassured his friend. He eased down next to the groggy gunslinger. "How ‘bout some water?"
Nodding, Chris started to lift his head. Vin caught him lifting him to rest against his arm while he fed the blond water from the cup. He followed that with a sip of whiskey from Larabee’s flask. Easing the weakened man back to the ground, Tanner again bathed the handsome face.
"Gonna make a good... mama," Larabee teased as he felt the cool water on his face, neck and chest.
"Always favored gingham, pard," Tanner joined in the joke, "but reckon it’s best I keep m’ buckskin. Now, quit flappin’ your gums an’ rest."
Smiling wanly, the older man settled back into the comfort of sleep. Vin sat down, drawing his legs up and crossing his arms on them. Dropping his head to his arms, he tried to keep things in focus. It was becoming harder and harder to stay awake as the day passed. He knew it was the head injury he’d suffered, coupled with days of long hours in the saddle and taking care of the gunman since the attack. He decided that he’d allow himself to sleep for a few minutes...
"Hey Buck, is that what I think it is?" Nathan said, pointing toward a cluster of stones near the edge of the trail.
Getting closer, the big ladies’ man said, "yep. Seems Tanner left us a note, boys." Following the direction the stones pointed to, the three men rode hell-bent-for-leather toward where they hoped their friends would be awaiting them.
Vin jumped as he felt someone touch his shoulder. Hand reaching automatically for his missing mare’s leg, he fought to keep the nausea of the sudden movement from over taking him. He looked to see someone hovering over Chris, "leave ‘m alone," he warned.
"Take it easy pard," came a familiar voice.
Finally coming completely awake, the tracker realized that his long-hoped for rescue had become reality. "Buck?"
"Nice you finally recognized me," Wilmington chuckled. "Looks like you been rode hard and put away wet, son."
"I’m okay, Chris’ in bad shape, though."
"That he is," Nathan agreed, "but reckon you did real good at keepin’ him going, Vin. Think if we can get him back to town he’ll be fine in a few weeks."
"Y’ sure, Nathan?" Vin’s voice had a tired, lost quality to it.
"Sure as I can be," Jackson reassured him. Looking closer at the young man, he said, "Looks like you’ve ignored your own injuries though, pard."
"I’m fine," Vin argued.
"No, you’re not fine. Looks like that head injury’s infected. Now, I want you to lay down and let Buck clean you up, then I’ll see what I can do as soon as I’m done with Chris."
"Nathan – "
"Boy, you let us take care of things now. You been fightin’ hard to keep Chris with us, but reckon you need to give in to things and let us look over you both." Wilmington was adamant in his tone. Not allowing any more argument from the younger, smaller man, he lifted Tanner to his feet and led him to a nearby spot where he could lay the lean tracker down. With a gentleness that belied his usual style, the former sheriff carefully cleaned up the infected gash as best he could. "Nathan," he said quietly.
"Reckon you’re gonna need to practice your stitchin’ over here soon as you’re done with Chris."
"’Bout as deep as it can be," he informed him. His mustache twitched as he tried to hide his shock. Almost an inch of white showed of Tanner’s skull through the ragged gash.
"Make sure you get it clean as possible. I’ll tend it as soon as I’m done here."
"You got it Doc," Wilmington declared.
The two men were quiet then, as they settled to work. Nathan had little more to do with Chris’ injuries, only cleaning up the work that Vin had done earlier. When he had finished, he moved over to where Buck had settled Tanner onto the ground. Wilmington moved away and allowed their medico to take over. Jackson finished the cleaning with just enough carbolic to cause the tracker to let loose with a string of curses in a variety of languages. That finished, he fed the man just enough laudanum to take the edge of the stitching that came next.
By the time Jackson had finished his work with both men, JD and Buck had set up a camp. The other two had sent Dunne off to catch some dinner, the youngest member of their group had returned with rabbits. They supplemented the game with beans and hardtack from their supplies. Darkness surrounded the men as they began to eat, Buck helping Vin and Nathan feeding Chris. Bundled into bedrolls, the two injured men drifted to sleep, their ordeal nearly over now. Tanner’s head still throbbed, his vision still clouded, but at least he could now relax. For his part, Chris had wakened long enough to argue over his ability to feed himself, finally giving in and allowing Nathan to take care of his hunger for him. After that he slid toward sleep, not even aware of their placing him inside Buck’s blankets.
Sitting around the small fire, the other three men relaxed, content that their number would be whole again soon. They talked in quiet tones about nothing in particular. Getting a brief version of what had happened from Tanner, they kept the fire low and made provision for setting a guard throughout the night. JD, on first watch, settled back in the darkness, watching for signs of an attack. Buck and Nathan snuggled down inside their coats, Buck near Vin and Nathan near Chris in case something happened to either man during the night.
"At least he can’t set my nerves on edge while he’s asleep," JD grumbled as he watched the big ladies man fall asleep nearby.
"So brother, any idea how we’re going to pull this off?" Josiah looked over at his smaller companion.
"I do believe this will require cunning and guile Josiah," the conman replied.
"So we’re going to…?"
"We’ll improvise brother, we’ll improvise." Standish nudged his horse into motion and the two men rode toward the little camp where the small group of renegades was settling in.
"Hello friends!" Ezra used his smoothest tones, riding boldly toward the three men. They glared at him so that he expected to suddenly burst into flames. One flashed a very large and menacing pistol in their direction. "Please, friends, we’re peaceful and harmless. I couldn’t help noticing the fine steeds you have there…the black gelding and the one with the blaze. My associate and I are looking for new livestock, and animals such those are precisely what we’re looking for."
"Mr. Sanchez, I am attempting to conduct business here."
"Yeah, I know, but you might want to consider something."
"I doubt that our red brethren understand much English, and certainly not enough to understand what you’re pontificating about."
Looking at the three men, and noting the confusion hidden below the angry looks, Standish resorted to more direct terms. He pulled out his ever-present cards slowly, fanned them with a flourish, and pointed to Peso and Pony. The trio considered his proposition, smiled, and waved the men from their mounts.
Less than an hour later found Ezra the proud "owner" of Peso and Pony. Shortly after they sat down, one of the renegades brought out an oiled skin and began passing it around to the others. The skin made its way to Ezra, and the young man managed to conceal the fact that he did not imbibe. Taking his cue from the grifter, Josiah, too, only pretended to drink. A few circuits of the liquor began to loosen tongues. Standish began asking seemingly vague questions, monitoring his language so that the others could follow his words. Two of the men were as close mouthed as they had ever seen Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner, but their companion was more ready to answer the smooth-talking Southerners queries.
Despite Standish’s cautious maneuvering, the peacekeepers managed to ascertain only a little information from the three renegades; not enough to decipher where the rest of the band had gone. Soon it became evident that two of the men were not growing any friendlier as they became more inebriated. The two peacekeepers made a hasty retreat with their friends’ horses, their hands staying close to their side-arms. As they made it out of earshot, Ezra turned to the bigger man. He was surprised to find something suspiciously close to a smirk on the preacher’s face.
"What, pray tell, is going through that ecclesiastical mind of yours Mister Sanchez?"
"Just grateful you’re on our side, son."
Smiling, the gambler said, "Are you certain of that, sir?"
Clapping the Southerner on the shoulder, Sanchez said, "more certain every day, Ezra, more certain every day."
Morning brought with it a new set of problems. Although Nathan was more and more certain that Chris would recover from his wound, he was far too weak to ride back to town. Even if they doubled the injured Larabee with one of them, the trip would quickly exhaust his already depleted strength. After some discussion, Buck and JD went to find material to construct a travois while Nathan tended the other two men.
"Mornin’ Vin," he greeted the groggy tracker. Jackson smiled as the younger man stared around him and yawned loudly. "Sounds like you could do with some more sleep."
"Mornin’ Nathan. Hell, feel like I already slept a month."
"How’s your vision?"
"Still foggy," he said then, with a tremble in his voice he added, "it gonna get any better y’ think?"
"Can’t say for certain," the healer said with quiet honesty. "But I think the fact that it’s already improved some is a good sign. I want you takin’ it easy even after we get back to town; give yourself a chance to heal proper. We’ll know more then."
"Okay," was the only answer the young man could muster.
"Vin?" A single word, delivered in a whisper, brought relieved smiles to both Tanner and Jackson. They converged on the bedroll where Chris lay.
"Hey cowboy," Vin greeted his friend. "’Bout time you woke up."
"Chris," Nathan said softly.
Eyes opening wider in surprise, Larabee’s voice betrayed his relief as he focused on the dark man. "Nathan. I wasn’t... dreaming."
"Hope your dreams are better than that. How’re you feelin’?" The former stretcher-bearer asked, becoming all business. His gentle hands were checking the blond over as he spoke.
"Like hell... but alive," Chris replied. Looking toward Vin, he said, "thanks to you."
With a snort, the sharpshooter said, "Don’t reckon I expected thanks for shovin’ a knife in your back not once, but twice."
Chuckling weakly, the gunfighter said, "maybe not, but you... deserve it. You saved... my life." A quivering hand came from the blankets and clasped Tanner’s forearm.
"Ah hell," he said, embarrassed, "just did what had t’ be done."
"And if you hadn’t, he’d be dead by now," Nathan added to the conversation.
Pain flashed through Vin’s eyes at the other man’s honest interpretation of the outcome that could have been. He had no choice but to face the fact that he had been far too close to losing his best friend. Mumbling something to the other men, he pushed himself to his feet and walked away.
"Vin?" Larabee called after him. Turning to Jackson he said, "He okay?"
"Think he just realized how close we came to losin’ you," the dark man said. "He’s been so busy keepin’ you alive and tryin’ to ignore his own injuries that he wasn’t thinkin’ about anything else."
Shaking his head, the blond said, "Hell, I’m too stubborn to die. If I weren’t I’d have been dead a long time ago."
Chuckling warmly, Nathan said, "reckon we’d all been gone to dust before now if we didn’t share that trait. Think that’s what keeps us together."
Laughing, Chris said, "I had been wondering about that."
Returning to his role as healer, Jackson said, "Your fever’s comin’ down. If we can keep it down and stop you from gettin’ an infection, you ought to be up and scarin’ people in a week or so."
"A week?" Larabee sighed.
"Or so," Nathan emphasized. "Now, I know how hard headed you are Chris Larabee, lord knows I’ve had enough practice at buttin’ heads with you. But I’m tellin’ you right now, if you don’t follow orders and let yourself heal, you’re gonna lose the use of that arm at the very least."
"And at the worst?"
"You ain’t outta the woods yet. You don’t take it easy for a couple a weeks and you could die. Buck and JD are workin’ on puttin’ a travois together –"
"Ah hell, Nathan –"
"And you’re gonna ride on it without hollerin’. If y’ don’t I’m gonna tie you up and gag y’. That clear?"
"Damn Nathan," Larabee said with a tone of shock. "I ain’t even complained yet."
"Yeah but you were gettin’ ready to. Just don’t and we’ll all get through this without any more injuries."
"Any signs that we’re being followed?" Ezra asked his companion.
"Nope. I think they had enough liquor in them that they’re probably still sleeping off its effects."
"One can only hope. I do wish we had been able to discover what it was that they had done to Chris and Vin."
Sobering, Josiah said, "Well, the fact that they had the horses in the first place isn’t a good sign. Add to that the blood we found on Pony’s saddle, and I don’t know that we’re going to find our friends in the best of health."
Pain flashing through emerald eyes, Standish said softly, "I only hope we find them alive."
"Amen, brother," Sanchez replied, the pain in his own vibrant blue eyes matching Ezra’s. They had started off just as dawn brought a pink hue to the horizon. They had doubled back and were following the tracks of the three renegades, hoping that they would come on sign of Tanner and Larabee soon. They also hoped that they would avoid any of the trio’s companions.
"Well, howdy there, sunshine," Buck said when he saw that Chris was awake. He and JD had finally managed to construct a travois, and he was coming back to the camp for some of the blankets to pad it with.
"Buck," Larabee said. Nathan had propped him up against a boulder, and was helping him eat some broth.
"How’re you feelin’?"
"Yeah? Well good lord knows you look like hell."
"Thanks," he said with a faint imitation of a glare. Wilmington only laughed.
"Buck, y’all got things ready to go?" Nathan asked.
"Yep. Just need to put some blankets on top so somebody’s delicate butt won’t get any more calluses." His smile broadened.
"Go to hell," Larabee growled.
Laughing once more, the big ladies’ man gathered up some of the blankets and started to return to the top of the gully. Stopping, he looked around, a frown crossing his handsome face. Turning back to Jackson, he said, "where’d Vin get off to?"
"Think he just needed some time to himself. We’ll round him up when we’re ready to go."
"That’ll be in about five minutes. I’ll be back to help get Chris up topside as soon as I finish. You wanna gather up the stuff down here, I’ll have JD come down and pick it up. I’ll holler for Tanner while I’m up on top, see if I can’t see him."
"All right," Nathan replied.
"Don’t suppose it’ll do me any good to argue that I don’t need help getting up to the horses." Chris said; his tone somewhere between annoyed and defeated.
"Now, I already told you about arguin’."
"Ain’t arguing, was just asking a question."
"Yeah, and I ain’t a Negro, I’ve just got a dark tan," Nathan grumbled under his breath as he stalked away.
"Nathan," Chris called after him. Getting no answer, he leaned back against the stone. A small smile graced his handsome face; he couldn’t let them think he was going to give up so easily. Truth be told, he knew he wouldn’t be able to get to his feet right now, let alone crawl up the side of the little gully. The blond had almost dozed off once more when he heard the jingle of a pair of spurs. Opening his eyes to slits, he surveyed the area. When the spurs’ owner came into view, he opened them wider and smiled. "Hey pard."
"Chris," the younger man squatted next to the spring and washed his face. When he turned his face toward the other man, it was easy to see that he had been upset. Larabee knew he wouldn’t say anything, and would make certain that the others didn’t either.
"Reckon we’ll be leaving in just a bit."
Nearby, Nathan shook his head. No more than those two spoke; he imagined that you could hear the breeze blowing in the next county when you rode with them.
Buck and JD returned to the spring; JD to take the supplies and Buck to help Nathan move Chris. Vin helped JD with the supplies, but he never strayed far from his friend. Nathan and Buck lifted Chris into their arms and carried him to the steep incline. While Jackson held the blond upright, Wilmington climbed to the top and reached over the edge, lying on his stomach. Trying his best to ignore the barely stifled cries, he took Larabee under the arms and hoisted him to the top. Holding him there, he waited until Jackson reached the top as well before attempting to lift him. Together the men pulled the once more semi-conscious man over the edge and carried him to the travois. There they made him as comfortable as possible, Nathan checking the wound as they did.
Chris laid as still as stone, his face devoid of color. His eyes were squeezed closed; his lips pressed so tightly together that they quivered. He was breathing shallowly through his nose, and an errant tear escaped from one closed eye.
Patting his friend on the shoulder, Buck said, "sorry stud. Reckon that had to hurt like blazes. It’s over now, and we’ll be home sometime tomorrow. You just lay still and rest... let us take care of things."
Not trusting himself to speak, Chris nodded shortly.
They quickly readied the horses, and Vin climbed up behind JD on Milagro. General pulled the travois, Buck keeping the white horse to a walk to lessen the jarring on the wounded man. Nathan rode behind him, keeping an eye on Chris for signs that the man was in trouble.
They made their way along the trail, stopping every hour or so to allow Chris to rest. Larabee dozed fretfully on the construction of wood and wool, the movement of the horse keeping him from sleeping as deeply as he could, even with a light dose of Laudanum.
Tanner dozed as well, his head dropping to rest on JD’s shoulder finally. The younger man looked over at the older gunman, expecting Wilmington to have something to say about their position. He found Buck smiling, the ladies’ man winked at the young sheriff.
"Reckon he’s finally comfortable," Buck said softly, nodding at the younger man.
Night fell, the rest of the day having passed without incident. They set up camp, JD cooking up beans and a brace of rabbits they had managed to get from the trail. While Buck went to set up a watch over the trail, Nathan checked over both Larabee and Tanner. Vin withstood Nathan’s probing hands with stoic silence, focusing on the thought that the healer was his best bet at regaining his sight. Although he didn’t voice it, the thought of living out his days with diminished sight frightened the young man as much – if not more – than that of losing his best friend.
Larabee was another matter. "Damn it Nathan, you want me to rest, then you poke and prod at me. Wish the hell you’d make up your mind."
"I knew it wouldn’t do any good t’ tell you no arguin’. Like tryin’ to tell the sun to rise in the South. Now shut up and lay still so I can tend your wound."
"Chris," Vin joined the conversation, "you lay still an’ let Nathan do ‘is job or I’m gonna come sit on your ornery ass."
"Try it, Tanner."
"You boys wanna holler a little louder? Reckon y’ might wanna settle down a bit. We got riders comin’ this way," Wilmington broke in as he entered the camp.
"Riders? How many?" Chris struggled to rise, cursing when he couldn’t muster the strength.
"Looks to be two riders, an’ four horses, comin’ this way."
"Think it’s the renegades?" Nathan asked.
"Could be. Me an’ JD are gonna go check it out. Y’all stay here and be quiet," the big man said as he started back the way he’d come. Dunne was quick on his heels, his hands wrapped around his gun butts in preparation.
"Watch your back," Larabee said quietly.
"Nathan, loan me a gun?" Tanner asked.
"Your eyesight good enough t’ shoot?"
"Not at th’ moment, but I’d feel a mite bit better with one in m’ hand. I won’t shoot ‘less I got no choice."
Handing the younger man a sidearm, Jackson settled in next to the two men, watching the area for signs of trouble. They were all quiet, listening for gunfire and hoping it didn’t come. The minutes crawled by without a sound to tell them what was happening. Finally, after fifteen eternities, they heard hoof beats. They were followed by the sounds of familiar voices, and the threesome smiled and relaxed.
"I assure you, Mr. Wilmington," came Ezra’s voice, "that you would not have been able to gain any more information from those miscreants than I was. They were by no means fluent in the English language, and had little interest in divulging their plans to us."
"Hell, Ezra, I wasn’t thinkin’ about talkin’ to them. I’d a just beat it outta the devils."
They entered the clearing to find the other three men smiling at the exchange. Standish and Sanchez filled them in on their own little adventure, including the fact that they had seen no sign of the other renegades. Larabee and Tanner thanked the two men for retrieving their horses, only a little disappointed that they hadn’t managed to get their weapons as well. Once more reunited, the seven relaxed around the fire, feeling the strength of their group being whole once more. Nathan allowed Chris to sit at the fire, propped up on saddles and blankets. Vin sat near him, finally appearing to be the same self-assured young man he usually was. The others stole glances from time to time, each one more thankful than they could share the evening together.
A second morning on the trail. Chris was frustrated, angry that no one seemed to believe him when he told them that he was well enough to ride. Instead he found himself bundled onto the travois once more. The only change was that Pony was pulling the hated contraption now, Buck leading the black. Vin rode nearby, allowed to ride alone only if he stayed near one of the others. He had wakened to find the world a much clearer place, the fog nearly dissipated. He had shared his news by waking the others with an excited whoop.
"Jesus, Vin, scare a man out of a year’s growth," JD hollered at the man.
"Vin, what is it?" Nathan asked cautiously.
"Sorry, fellas, didn’t mean t’ stir y’all up. M’ eyes’re better’s all." He tried, but couldn’t stop the broad grin from nearly splitting his face.
The others shared his good news with a variety of congratulatory sounds. Jackson checked him over, and the sharpshooter informed them that while things continued to be a little fuzzy, he could distinguish them, rather than their being shadowy blobs without clear color.
The day once more passed without incident. They men discussed their options for going after the renegades, but finally had to admit that there was no way they could handle the situation for now. At best they could only send four of their number after the gang, and Vin estimated that there were at least two dozen men in the group. Finally, the scenario grating at the nerves of each man, they decided that they would have to have the Judge contact the Army to deal with the men who had left Larabee and Tanner for dead.
As the sun descended to the Western horizon, Four Corners appeared on the horizon. Nathan called a halt, and dismounted Able. Going to where Chris lay, he knelt down beside the blond. He made a proposition that he had been contemplating throughout the day. Larabee was a strong presence in the little town, one that garnered both respect and fear. It was a reputation that would suffer if he were seen coming into town carried behind his horse. The gunslinger, too, would suffer if he were seen riding through town flat of his back; at least his pride would. "Chris, I’m gonna make you a deal. We’re about ten minutes or so out a town. If I let you get on Pony ‘til we get there, you promise to behave and let me get you well?"
Relief lighting up his hazel eyes, letting Jackson know he was on the right trail; Larabee nodded his head, whispering, "thanks, Nathan."
Removing the travois poles from the gelding’s back, Nathan and Buck helped Chris to his feet. With JD steadying the black, and Josiah sitting astride Apostle next to Pony, they managed to get him into the saddle. Sanchez steadied the blond, holding him until Larabee managed to ride out the sudden wave of nausea. It took several minutes, but finally the gunman was ready to go. He straightened in the saddle, nudging the former preacher to let him go. Ramrod straight, his black duster wrapped around him, the man in black looked for all the world as if he were in perfect health. With the others flanking both he and Vin, they rode slowly toward home, together.