Characters: Vin, Ezra, Chris
Chris pulled his hat lower over his eyes. After two weeks of rain, the sun was particularly glaring this morning. Its golden rays touched his black clad body, warming him from the chill of the late fall breeze. In a few short hours the bright yellow glow had washed away the gloom of the gray skies. Four Corners came back to life.
A wagon rolled slowly through the thick mud, stopping in front of Potter's General Store. The hay, stacked to overflowing in its bed, left a trail of stalks marking its passage. One by one, fifteen children were loaded onto the cushioned berth. Fists full of golden missiles flew through the air. Some clung to the children's clothes, most landed on the ground surrounding the wagon in a molten sea of amber.
"Ya gonna let them go ta Stewart's Glen alone?" Waving a hand to where Mary Travis and Gracie McDermott were being helped onto the wagon's seat, Buck took the empty chair next to Larabee.
His eyes searching the bustling street, Chris shook his head. "Nope."
"Who ya sendin' with 'em?" The hint of panic in Buck's voice made it clear he had plans for the day, plans which didn't include children.
"Vin and Ezra." Chris nodded toward the livery where the two men were emerging, leading their mounts.
The puzzlement on Buck's face was clearly visible under the wide brim of his hat. "Why them?"
"Vin needs ta git out of town for a bit." Chris paused, unwilling to reveal the other reason for sending the tracker. Having lost his mother when he was five, Vin had never had a childhood. A picnic on a warm, sunny day would give the younger man a taste of what he had missed.
"He's good with kids," Chris reluctantly admitted, again stopping before he revealed his real motive for choosing the southerner.
A devilish gleam in his eye, Buck finished, "And you need him ta git out of town for a bit."
Chris couldn't deny the truth. A whiny Ezra was an irritating Ezra. Two weeks trapped indoors with nothing to do but play cards should have been heaven on earth to the gambler. Strangely, it appeared to have the opposite effect. He was waspish. The biting remarks, as much a part of the man as his fancy clothes, had become cutting and hurtful, rather than witty.
Watching Ezra tighten his cinch and pull his stirrup off the saddle horn with more force than necessary, Chris began to regret his decision. The children needed this outing. He would hate to see their joy muted by the grumpy gambler.
Beside the gamester, Vin checked his saddle and bridle with ease and grace, making Chris realize he was being a selfish bastard. He wouldn't have to put up with Ezra's snide remarks and unpleasant behavior, but Vin would. The placid tracker had done nothing to deserve the sentence he had received. A few hours in Ezra's company and a bunch of screaming children might find Tascosa looking mighty inviting to the wanted man.
"Vin do somethin' ta piss ya off?"
Buck verbalized Chris' doubt. Angry at himself rather than his old friend, he snapped, "Ya wanna take his place?"
Hands held high in surrender, Buck quickly rose. "No, no, I got my own plans."
His attention returning to the tracker, Chris saw him knock the mud from his boots before slipping his left foot in the stirrup and swinging up onto his saddle. Settling into a comfortable slouch, Vin's eyes met Chris'. There was no resentment in them. To Chris' surprise, he detected a twinkle of amusement as the younger man touched a finger to his hat in a silent farewell. Tapping his heels against Peso's flanks, Vin rocked, unperturbed when the black gelding bunny hopped in protest.
Despite Vin's reassurance, Chris was tempted to saddle up and follow. He felt anxious but there was no logical reason why he should. "Watch yer back, Cowboy," he softly pleaded.
Ezra could hear the children laughing and playing in the wagon behind him. Their little group was certainly in no danger of getting lost. A trail of saffron stalks followed in their wake. Normally, he would be riding alongside the vehicle, telling stories filled with humor and daring. But he resented his assignment. So, he would do nothing that might be construed as docile approbation.
Not for the first time, he wondered why he remained in Four Corners. Why he stayed with these men? Why he obeyed the orders of a man he respected yet feared? What was it about Larabee that unnerved him? It wasn't his lightning draw that had earned the six men's devotion. It was something else. Something Ezra couldn't define. Maybe when he did, he could leave these men and this town without looking back?
"Ya wanna talk about what was in that letter that's got ya so upset?"
Surprised Vin had been able to ride up beside him without making a sound, Ezra snapped, "What makes you suspect I'm perturbed?"
Unlike most men, Vin didn't try to justify his observation with speech. He sat quietly, his hands crossed over his saddle horn, his eyes focused ahead rather than on the man beside him. Ezra had never known a person who could communicate so eloquently without saying a single word. Someone else would try to pressure him for an explanation. Vin's respect for his privacy wouldn't allow him to pry. He would merely offer his support. It was then up to Ezra to accept it or not. The soothing nature of the man riding at his side almost broke through his protective shield. But years of loneliness and rejection stopped the information in his throat.
"If'n ya change yer mind, I'll be willin' ta listen."
Amazed he could be so easily read, Ezra's attitude quickly shifted to concern. His days as a successful gambler were over if he was so transparent.
"It's all right, Ezra," Vin smiled, knowingly. "Silence says a lot ta anyone who cares ta listen. Ain't many who care ta."
A ray of sun flashed off Ezra's gold tooth. "There was a time, Mr. Tanner, when I would have disputed such an observation with eloquence and verbosity. Since making your acquaintance, my perceptions have changed."
Pressing his leg against Peso's side to force him closer to the gambler, Vin lowered his voice. "Ezra, what's a picnic?"
Once, Ezra would have made a snide remark in response to such a query, believing it had been asked in jest. In the few months he had known Vin Tanner, he had never heard the tracker ask a gratuitous question. The more he discovered concerning Vin's lost childhood, the more his heart ached for the man.
His own voice barely above a whisper, Ezra explained, "A picnic is a festive excursion at which a meal is consumed outdoors. Usually, on blankets spread across the grass."
"But the ground is soaked. Them blankets will be wet in no time."
"Mrs. Travis has arranged for that contingency. She borrowed the tarps Mr. Douglas uses to cover his freight wagons. She plans to place them under the blankets."
"I reckon that will work." A puzzled frown visible on his face, Vin verified, "That's all ya do, eat?"
"Considering the class of women Mrs. Travis and Mrs. McDermott are, it's all the adults will do. The children will play."
"Don't rightly think Stewart's Glen is safe fer the children. After all the rain the river will be runnin' high."
"I imagine that is the reason Mr. Larabee sent us along."
Chris studied the bustling sidewalks. Every hitching post was full. Riders had taken to tying their reins to the saddle horns of the horses already secured to the railings. Even Guy Royal had arrived with a couple of his men. From where he sat, Chris had a clear view of the street. If the rancher tried to "collect" anything, Chris would be ready.
"The way everyone's been goin' on, ya'd think it were a holiday or somethin'," Nathan muttered, taking the empty seat next to Larabee.
To his own surprise, Chris found himself resenting the healer's presence, just as he had when Buck sat next to him earlier that morning. Only one person belonged in that chair - Vin Tanner. An irrational fear made his hands tremble. Vin was on a picnic. Nothing could be less dangerous. So why did he want to saddle his horse and ride to Stewart's Glen? "Nathan, do you believe in premonitions?"
Leaning back and stretching his long legs in front of him, Nathan stared at the mud coating the toe of his boot. "I believe there are signs warnin' us of the future. But only a few know how to read them."
"Like Josiah's crows?"
"I reckon." Nathan frowned. "Seems ta me though most signs ain't so clear."
Chris hesitated, wishing once again the occupant of the chair next to him was Vin. He could talk to the tracker about anything without feeling embarrassed. Nathan was a good friend he could trust with his life. His soul he only shared with one man. "Have ya ever had a feelin' somethin' was gonna happen?"
Glancing down the street, Nathan sat up straight prepared for trouble. "Ya think Guy Royal is gonna try somethin'?"
"No," Chris hesitated before amending, "Yes. I don't know. I gotta feelin' somethin' bad is gonna happen."
Though he continued to look concerned, Nathan soothed, "Yer probably jus' feelin' a little low 'cause of the rain and all. Lot of people been feelin' sad these last few days."
"Yer probably right." Despite his verbal acknowledgment, Chris was honest with himself. His heart had not felt this heavy since Sarah and Adam died. And there had been plenty of rainy days in the last three years.
For the first time in the two weeks since he had received the letter, Ezra managed to bury its disturbing contents in a far corner of his brain. Even while he chatted with Mary Travis or showed the children card tricks, he had kept one eye on Vin. He was determined to see that the younger man's first picnic was a memorable experience.
Finishing a trick, he saw Vin trying to catch his eye. The chiseled face tilted upwards. Ezra quickly shifted his gaze. In the distance, he saw some clouds. From his view, they didn't look threatening, but Ezra knew Vin wouldn't have called his attention to them because they were pretty.
With a nod to show he understood, he pocketed his cards. "That's all for today, children, now run along."
Once they had dispersed, he crossed quickly to Mary's side. "Mrs. Travis, Mrs. McDermott, I believe we should return to town as expeditiously as possible."
"It's hours before dark," Mary protested. "And the children are having so much fun."
"Several times on our journey out here, the wagon almost became mired in mud. More rain could make the road impassable."
Mrs. McDermott waved her hands indicating the blue sky. "Look, no clouds, we have nothing to worry about."
"Mr. Tanner believes we do," Ezra succinctly replied.
While Mrs. McDermott continued to look skeptical, Mary was obviously swayed by the simple revelation. "Gracie, start gathering the blankets and tarps. Get some of the older boys to help you."
"Now, Gracie." The expression on the young editor's face made it clear she would not tolerate any further objections.
Mission accomplished, Ezra triumphantly turned to receive the accolades he felt he richly deserved. Although, coming from Vin Tanner it would probably consist of a slight nod of the head. Strangely, Ezra realized, he would rather have that honor bestowed upon him then a medal from anyone else.
However, to his dismay, he saw Vin's attention was centered on a tree. Disappointed, he studied the unassuming plant. A few withered leaves graced its gnarled branches. It creaked softly, though the wind wasn't strong enough to affect the thick limbs. Ezra frowned, wondering why this should worry him. Recognizing who could answer his question, he took a step towards Vin.
The tracker's right hand grabbed his Mare's Leg, pulling it from his holster in one swift motion. Turning the barrel to the sky, he fired a shot and started running at a small group of children near the water's edge. A second shot was followed by a shouted order. "Git out of the way."
Screaming in fear at the wild man bearing down on them the children scattered, most heading to the comfort of the two mothers. All except Billy Travis. He knew Vin Tanner too well to fear him.
Horror-struck, Ezra no longer needed an explanation for the tree's strange behavior. Despite it's age, its roots were not buried deep in the soil. The rain-saturated earth could no longer support it.
Mud sucking at his feet, Vin swung the trusting boy into his arms. Branches from the falling tree were already spearing their hair and clothes.
"Ezra!" Vin screamed, gaining the gambler's full attention. Swinging the child to get momentum, he threw Billy at Ezra.
Unconcerned with placing himself in danger, Ezra shifted closer, wooden spikes poking at the top of his head and neck. Catching Billy in his arms, he pulled the boy close to his chest and ran as far as he could before lowering to the ground where he huddled over the small body.
Sodden wood cracked his shoulders, splintering on contact. Ezra knew he would be black and blue by the time the tree completed its journey - if he was alive at all. A sharp edge stabbed his right shoulder. Unable to suppress a groan, he shifted as the spear scraped across his back down to his left hip. The sound of tearing fabric followed in its wake.
When no more branches poked his aching body, Ezra cautiously lifted his head to see the tree had completed its death throes. It lay flat on the ground, its upper half lying partially in the river.
"Billy!" Mary Travis frantically called.
Breaking through the mesh of branches trapping them, Ezra lifted the boy to his feet. "Are you all right, Master Travis?"
Eyes wide with fear, Billy nodded in the affirmative.
"Go find your mother," Ezra gently suggested, a light tap on the small rear reinforced his request. His gaze shifting to where he had last seen Vin, Ezra broke a path through the ragged branches of the fallen tree. It wasn't hard; even after two weeks of rain the wood was more dead than alive. "Mr. Tanner?"
Ezra heard pain in the succinct reply. But he found it reassuring that he received an answer at all. He had feared Vin had been crushed.
When he spotted the familiar buckskin coat to his right, he quickly shifted in that direction. Twigs snapped his body and scraped across exposed flesh as he pushed aside caution in his haste to reach his friend.
Shock stopped him in his tracks. Torn fingers wiped blood off his cheek from a small scratch under his eye. The trunk of the tree rested across Vin Tanner's chest. A broken branch had driven through the tracker's left shoulder, disappearing into the ground. "Mr. Tanner?" Ezra stuttered, finding it difficult to believe the man was still alive.
"I reckon ya best git some help, Ezra."
Taking off his coat, Ezra ripped it in half, thankful the tree had done most of the work for him as his back protested his actions. Placing one part around the top of the bleeding wound, he tried to push the other underneath the injured shoulder. A moan - - Ezra realized would be an agonizing scream from anyone else - - made him pause. "I need to stop the bleeding, Mr. Tanner."
"Don't mind me, jus' do it."
The plea was easier said than done. Every anguished cry was like a stake through Ezra's heart. To save Vin's life, he had to cause him pain. It was a paradox he didn't appreciate under the circumstances. Not for the first time, he wondered why Nathan Jackson was a healer.
"Ezra, is Vin all right?" Mary demanded.
Putting a hand on Vin's good shoulder, Ezra promised, "I'll be right back."
"I'll be here."
As blue eyes met green, Ezra saw a twinkle behind the suffering. Straightening, he bit his tongue when his back protested the quick movement. Retracing his steps through the trail he'd forged, he reached Mary's side. "Mrs. Travis, take my horse. You need to explain to Mr. Larabee what has happened. Tell him to bring axes and shovels with utmost speed."
"Where's Vin?" Mary started down the path Ezra had just exited.
Putting a hand on her arm, Ezra revealed, "Mr. Tanner is trapped under the trunk of the tree."
"Oh no." Mary's hand fluttered at her throat in distress.
"That is why it's imperative you do as I requested with all due haste."
Kissing her son on the cheek, Mary handed him to Mrs. McDermott. "I'll go as fast as I can."
The pledge was unnecessary. Ezra knew the young woman would willingly risk her own life to accomplish her task. Helping her onto the saddle, he wrapped her skirt around her left leg and handed her the reins. As she turned Chaucer's head towards town, Ezra addressed the other woman and her young charges. "Mrs. McDermott, you should take these children home. You might still make it before the rain arrives."
This time, there was no argument and no golden missiles or screams of laughter as they piled into the wagon and pulled away. Saddened that the children's wonderful day had ended so tragically, Ezra made his way back to his trapped friend. If not for Vin, other bodies would be lying under the dead tree. Such a hero should not face death alone.
A cloud passed over the sun. Immediately, the air felt chilly, making Chris glad he hadn't discarded his duster. Gazing up into the sky, he saw the cloud had friends. Lots of friends and they all looked angry.
Rising from his chair, he stepped out into the street to get a better view. From here it was easy to see another storm was moving in.
"Afternoon, brother." Josiah's arm rose to point to the sky. "It appears the good lord does not believe our sins have been sufficiently cleansed."
Chris shifted his stance to observe Guy Royal as the greedy rancher exited the general store. "I reckon with some folks forty days and forty nights ain't enough."
"Amen, brother." Josiah flashed a rare smile.
"I jus' hope Vin and Ezra have noticed the change in the weather."
"It has been my experience that Brother Tanner misses very little."
Even while the apprehension that had been gnawing at him all day increased, Chris had to agree. "Vin probably saw the clouds before we did."
The wagon disappeared, allowing Ezra to concentrate on the man lying helplessly at his feet. He studied the situation as he would a gambling opponent. The age of the tree and the recent deluge had caused it to fall, burying the branches deep into the mud. But, it was a relatively small tree. Once the others arrived with the proper tools, it should not be too difficult to split the top half from its base. Though the soggy ground had caused the tree to fall, it had also cushioned Vin, preventing him from being crushed. Ezra refused to believe internal injuries could still cost the tracker his life.
To his logical evaluation their greatest obstacle was the branch piercing Vin's shoulder. Every blow from an ax would reverberate down to the protrusion, causing unspeakable agony. Ezra realized he would have to cut it off.
"Mr. Tanner, I require the use of your knife."
Vin stared suspiciously at the gambler. "For?"
Wondering what was going through Vin's mind to cause such a question, Ezra explained, "I need to cut the branch impaling your shoulder."
"You don't use a knife as if it were a saw," Vin indignantly snapped.
"You do if it's the only cutting implement you have on hand," Ezra countered. "How do you think it's going to feel when the boys start hacking away at the trunk?"
With a soft sigh of resignation, Vin mumbled, "Ya know where it is."
Sliding his hand into the mud, Ezra squirmed at the slimy feel as he ran his fingertips along Vin's torso until he found the sheath attached to his belt. Feeling the weight of the tree as it pressed down on his appendage, he marveled at the courage of this man who was more worried about dulling his knife then about being crushed.
"Got it." Pulling the knife free, he wiped the mud off on his pants and started sawing where the branch connected with the trunk.
"It must be rainin' upstream," Vin noted. "The river's risin'."
The revelation made Ezra bend to his task with renewed vigor. Water lapped only a few feet from where Vin lay trapped, making it a very real possibility the tracker could drown before they could free him. A cold drop of water splashed on the back of his head. Creeping down his neck to the small of his back, it made him shiver; not with cold, but with dread.
The road remained empty. A drop of rain splattered underneath Chris' eye and rolled down his cheek. The similarity to a tear made him tremble. Turning to the livery, he walked briskly inside. He would saddle his horse. If the road was still empty when he finished, he would ride out to assist in returning the picnickers safely to town.
Brushing only the areas his saddle and cinch would come into contact with, he picked out the muddy feet. He had just placed his saddle on Pony's broad back when he heard hooves splashing through the mud. Taking a quick hitch to his cinch to hold the saddle in place, he hurried outside.
When he saw the mud liberally covering the chest of Ezra's horse and Mary's skirts, he knew. She didn't have to say a word. Vin was in trouble.
"Chris!" Mary reined in beside the man in black. "Vin's trapped under a fallen tree."
Mary specifically said trapped, not dead. Though it was unusual for him, Chris didn't probe for more information. He needed to keep his hope alive. "Ezra and the children?"
"Ezra stayed with Vin." Tears overflowed the bright green eyes, streaking the mud-splattered face. "Vin saved the children. He saved Billy."
The rain fell heavily, creating a curtain between them. Wishing he had time to soothe her fear, Chris ordered, "Tell the boys to bring axes and shovels, and have Nathan bring whatever medical supplies he thinks he might need. I'll meet them out there."
Chris quickly returned to the stable. Tightening the cinch, he slipped the bit between the yellow teeth and gently slid the bridle over the sensitive ears. Hooking the throatlatch, he threw the reins over Pony's head and mounted. Bending low over the horse's neck, he urged the gelding out the open door of the stable. As soon as they were clear, he pressed his heels to the soft stomach.
The feeling of approaching doom that had plagued him all day had been replaced by the urgent need to go to Vin's side.
Blood trickled down Vin's chin from the gash his teeth had gouged in his lower lip. Distressed by the pain he was forced to inflict, Ezra searched for a topic to refocus the injured man's attention. "The letter was from my mother."
Though Vin didn't say a word, Ezra knew he had the tracker's interest. As usual, Vin wouldn't force him to disclose more than he desired. But the blue eyes, darkened by pain, shone with support. This was a surprise to the gambler. He had expected curiosity, not encouragement. "She's coming to town. She'll be here by the end of next week."
"From the way you been actin', I'm guessin' that ain't good news."
Sweat mixed with rain rolled into Ezra's eyes making them sting. Reluctant to stop sawing at the branch for even a second, he wiped his face on his shoulder. His saturated shirt did little more than smear the salty moisture. "As I have failed to live up to my mother's expectations, her visits tend to be burdensome."
"Are ya livin' up ta yer expectations?" There was hesitancy in Vin's voice as he repeated the unfamiliar word.
"Excuse me?" Despite himself, Ezra's hand stilled as he stared through the streaming rain at his companion.
"Are ya happy?"
It was the first time Ezra had ever had his feelings solicited by another. Or, more precisely, had anyone honestly care enough about him to inquire. His lips parted to mutter an insincere but expected reply. It remained unspoken. With this man, he had to be uncorrupted. To be honest with Vin, he had to be honest with himself.
While he was disappointed he had yet to earn enough money to buy his own saloon, his dream was imminent. When that time came, instead of an anonymous businessman with a shady reputation in an impersonal town, he would be a respected property owner with friends. "Yes, I'm happy," he truthfully confessed.
"Then I reckon ya shouldn't worry none what yer ma thinks."
Despite the accuracy of the observation, Ezra knew following through would be difficult. Old habits were hard to break. He couldn't remember a day in his life when he didn't seek his mother's approval. Yet, even as he acknowledged his need, he realized there were six men whose acceptance meant much more to him. "I will endeavor to comply with your sagacious counsel, Mr. Tanner."
Returning his full attention to the branch, Ezra suggested, "Brace yourself, I should cut through in the next few passes."
"About time," Vin grumbled, through clenched teeth. "I was beginin' ta think ya was tryin' ta cut down a whole forest."
Even knowing when the branch came loose it would vibrate, causing excruciating pain, Ezra wasn't prepared for the hoarse scream of agony that echoed through the rain drenched air. To know he had caused it made it harder to bear.
The scream drilled into Chris' heart, making it ache as it hadn't done since Sarah and Adam died. Putting caution aside, he dug his heels into Pony's stomach, urging the horse to a dangerous speed across the slippery ground. If Vin was dying, he wanted to be with him, as he hadn't been for his wife and son. This time, when his soul shattered, it would accompany his best friend, leaving only the shell of his physical remains behind.
He saw the fallen tree first. Its roots swung in the wind, looking uncomfortably like a hangman's noose. The top rested in the river. Its branches acted like a net, catching the debris caught by the rapidly flowing water. The only color in the stark scene was near the water's edge, pinpointing Vin and Ezra's location.
Dismounting, Chris tied his horse next to Peso, barely swallowing a bleak smile at his mount's obvious displeasure with the arrangement. A squeal of fear followed him, indicating Vin's fractious gelding had already tried to take a bite out of Pony's hide.
Concerned for his friend, he followed a trail of broken branches to where Ezra was kneeling beside Vin. "How is he?"
There was no surprise on Ezra's face as his eyes encountered Larabee's. It was as though he knew Chris would be too impatient to wait for the others. Chris wasn't sure he liked being so predictable.
"I had to separate this branch," Ezra indicated the wood spear piercing Vin's shoulder, "from the trunk. Unfortunately, the process was quite painful for Mr. Tanner."
Chris didn't even want to imagine what it must have felt like as the wood moved inside the wound. Just the thought was enough to make him feel nauseous.
"The river is rising."
Reluctantly tearing his gaze from Vin's pale features, Chris silently acknowledged this new complication. Water lapped at Vin's right side; freeing him had become even more imperative. Still, looking at the heavy tree covering Vin from chest to thigh, Chris asked the question he wasn't sure he wanted answered. "Has he complained about any other pain?"
"No." Ezra's hand gently cupped the injured shoulder. "But as we both know, Mr. Tanner does not remonstrate."
A sad smile on his face, Chris brushed long wet locks of hair off his friend's pale face. "If he was dyin', he'd say he was fine."
"And refuse to drink any of Mr. Jackson's quote, unquote, horse piss."
Chris' soft chuckle ended abruptly when he saw Ezra shiver. Nodding toward Peso, he ordered, "Git Vin's raincoat, Ezra, yer freezin'."
"Vin isn't the only stubborn cowboy."
"Did you just call me a cowboy, Mr. Larabee?" demanded Ezra, in mock indignation.
"I reckon I did." Another shiver fired the gunslinger's anger. "Either you git the coat or I'll git it for ya."
Touched by Larabee's apparent concern for his welfare, Ezra searched for a suitable reply.
"When the boys git here, it's gonna take every one of us ta git this tree off Vin."
The statement made Ezra feel colder than the rain soaking his clothes. Chris' solicitude only went so far as it was relevant to Vin Tanner's well being. Ezra knew he should feel offended by the deception, but all he felt was hurt. While not expecting to be held in the same esteem as the tracker, he thought he had gained a degree of approval from the gunslinger since their inauspicious introduction at the Seminole village. Apparently, he had been wrong. "I'll retrieve the coat."
Rising, Ezra crossed to the contrary gelding. For once, he ignored the sharp teeth, snapping near his arm. Funny how previous incidents, which had seemed portentous at the time, could become inconsequential in the wake of a truly disastrous occurrence. Once, the only person's approval he needed was his mother's. Due to the insight of one man, her opinion of him had become negligible. Now, the only respect he wanted was from the six men who rode at his side. The men who were always there when he needed a friend. He might not be as highly regarded as Vin Tanner at least in Chris Larabee's eyes, but he was still one of them. For now, that was enough.
Releasing the slicker from where it had been tied behind Vin's saddle, Ezra slipped it on. The rough surface scraped against the wound across his back, eliciting an involuntary moan.
"Everythin' all right, Ezra? That damn horse didn't bite ya, did it?"
"I'm fine, Mr. Larabee," Ezra reassured through clenched teeth, finding the coat a blessing for its warmth and a curse as it continued to abrade his torn flesh. He was getting a taste of the suffering he had forced Vin to endure when he cut the tree branch. If it were possible, his respect for the man rose even higher.
"Vin's comin' around."
Though he knew his presence would be superfluous now that Larabee had arrived, Ezra hurried to return to his place at Vin's side. This time, he needed to be there for himself more than for Vin. This selfish attitude was much easier for him to understand than the caring he had exhibited earlier. It was a normal part of him, so more acceptable.
"Hey, cowboy," Vin's weak voice greeted his friend, "when did ya git here?"
"About the time you decided ta take a nap." Chris leaned over Vin's face to protect him from the biting raindrops. "Can't say much fer yer reception."
"It's what ya git when ya drop in unexpected like." It was clearly audible how difficult it was becoming for Vin to talk. The words were breathy, revealing the Texan's slight lisp. Blue lips quivered with cold and pain. "Ezra," his unfocused gaze searched for the gambler, "how ya doin'?"
Blaming his trembling hands on the icy rain, Ezra placed one on Vin's arm. "Much better now that I've availed myself of your slicker."
"Don't say I never gave ya nothin'."
"Actually, Mr. Larabee suggested I procure it."
"Excuse me," Chris interrupted, "you all don't have ta be talkin' like I ain't here. And yes, it was a suggestion."
Vin bit his lip against a stab of pain. "In other words," he groaned, "he didn't pull his gun."
"I believe he would have if I had continued to demur." Ezra revealed, his own aching back giving him a taste of what he believed the tracker was enduring.
"Count on it."
A wall of water washed over them, filling Vin's mouth. Debris rode its crest, striking soft flesh and slamming into the unyielding barrier of the tree.
Ezra almost bumped heads with Larabee as he shifted to offer their fallen comrade what protection he could. Twigs tore at his coat, making him grateful for the buffer, though it could not shield him from the bruising contact.
The hacking cough as the tracker fought to expel the dirty water tore at Chris' already aching heart. Cradling Vin's head, he lifted it as high as he could, resting it against his chest. With his other hand, he gripped the tormented man's balled fist. "Hang on Vin, Nathan and the others will be here soon."
"Speak of the devil," Vin gasped.
Confused, Chris opened his mouth to seek an explanation when he heard the unique sound horses hooves made moving through mud. "Buck, Josiah, start cutting this tree in half," Chris shouted, issuing orders before the men had dismounted. "Nathan, Vin has a branch sticking out of his shoulder."
Chris watched in silent appreciation as the men obeyed with their usual efficiency. JD was off his horse first and quickly collecting his friends' reins to tie them next to Peso and Pony.
Buck and Josiah spared a quick look at their stricken friend before taking up positions on either side of the tree. Bark and wood chips flew through the air as they took turns burying their axes in the soggy trunk.
Two sets of anxious green eyes strayed to Nathan's face as he knelt at Vin's shoulder.
"Whaddya think, Nathan?" Chris nervously demanded.
His voice wavering, Nathan verbalized what Chris already knew. "I'm gonna hafta pull this branch out. I can't stitch it 'til we git back ta town, but I can fill it with carbolic and bandages to try to stop the bleeding and infection."
"Damn," Chris softly swore, realizing the amount of pain the procedure would generate. "Ain't there anythin' else ya can do?"
"Not in these conditions."
A raspy growl ended Chris' indecision. "Git on with it."
"Ezra hold his arm," Nathan instructed, taking a bottle from his bag. Pulling the stopper, he pressed the edge of the vial to Vin's lips. "Drink this, Vin, it'll help with the pain."
Fear sucked the air from Chris' lungs when Vin complied without a word of protest. It wasn't the prospect of the approaching operation that worried him. It was the existing pain Vin wouldn't speak of or admit to that scared him. What kind of internal damage had the weight of the tree inflicted? If it was enough to make the usually irascible tracker so compliant, was it enough to kill him? His hand tightened around Vin's fist, offering his support and strength.
Chris tensed as Nathan's hand closed around the protruding piece of branch. Rain had softened the bark, making it difficult to grasp. A soft moan accompanied each attempt Nathan made to get a firm grip. The sound flayed Chris' soul.
The skilled fingers finally closed around the wood with a firm grasp. Taking a deep breath, Nathan pulled with all his strength. The bloody spear came free, accompanied by a hoarse scream. The fist beneath Chris' hand went limp. He was more scared of what this implied than he had ever been in a gunfight.
Frantic fingers stained with blood gently felt for a pulse in the unconscious man's neck. A soft sigh escaped Nathan's lips.
"Well?" Chris demanded, unable to interpret the sound.
Pulling another bottle from his bag, Nathan poured the contents into the gory wound. "His pulse is uneven and too fast."
"What does that mean?" Chris whispered, watching as Nathan stuffed carbolic soaked bandages into both sides of the gaping hole.
Sad brown eyes rested on the older man's face. "It means we need ta git him back ta my clinic."
"We're through," Buck breathlessly announced, sinking his ax into the base of the tree. "Now what?"
"Now we try ta lift what's left off Vin," Chris replied. "Ezra, you hold Vin's head. Try ta keep it above the water."
Surprised when the gambler took his place without a word, Chris rose so he could use all his strength to help. Nathan joined him, while Buck and JD took the other side and Josiah stood spread legged over the newly cut end. "On the count of three," the gunslinger instructed. "One. Two. Three."
Though he used every muscle he could employ, Chris was disheartened when the tree didn't budge. Sweat dotted his brow and his limbs were quivering with strain before he reluctantly conceded defeat. A fist pounded the grounded trunk. "Hold it, this ain't workin'."
"It's the mud," Ezra pointed out.
The inanimate object under his hands oblivious to his frustrated anger, Chris turned it on the gambler. "What?"
"The branches are buried in the mud, drawing it down as you're trying to pull it up."
A wall of water washed over the men. Chris desperately held onto the tree in danger of being swept away. The branch JD was holding broke. Only Buck's quick intervention saved him from a watery death.
"We'll have to dig Mr. Tanner out," Ezra gasped, tilting Vin's head so his nose and mouth were above the water line. "And we will have to do it quickly."
Chris dropped to his knees and started shoveling the mud from underneath Vin's body with his hands. Nathan, Buck and JD quickly joined him. "Josiah, git a rope and tie us to each other. I don't want anyone gettin' swept away."
"Chris," JD complained, "as soon as I've pulled mud out, more takes its place."
Though he was having the same problem, Chris growled, "Keep diggin'."
A quick glance showed the river had reached Vin's chin. Terrified blue eyes, dazed with pain, rested on Chris' face. Wishing Vin had remained unconscious for just a little longer, Chris realized fear and desperation were giving him an inhuman strength as he scooped the muck from beneath the tree. Even so, his arms were quivering with exhaustion when he felt Vin's torso drop into the hole he and Nathan had dug. Praying Buck and JD had been as successful on their side, he shouted, "Pull him out, Ezra."
Though desperate to comply with the behest, Ezra discovered his numb limbs wouldn't respond to the directive from his brain. Tears of hopelessness and exhaustion, mixed with the rain running down his cheeks. Cursing his weakness, he felt strong arms wrap around his own.
"I've got him, brother," Josiah soothed.
Mud sucked at the limp body as the preacher strained to pull Vin free as the others continued to remove the shifting mud. Offering what little assistance he could, Ezra felt the shaking body in his arms creep back inch by tiny inch.
Without warning, Vin slid clear, throwing all three men into the water. Ezra tightened his hold around his friend; only death would separate them. Desperate hands clutched at his arms as he felt himself being pulled from the river. He coughed, an action that was echoed by Vin as they tried to expel the water they had swallowed.
"Ya kin let Vin go, Ezra," Nathan urged. "We got 'im."
The battle had been so long and so hard, Ezra found it difficult to surrender to the healer's request. He was sure if he released the tracker, his friend would die.
"Let him go, Ezra," Chris harshly directed.
The commanding voice would normally have Ezra obeying immediately. No sane man sought to incur the Larabee wrath. But this wasn't like any other time. There was something inside him, warning Ezra if he eased his grip on Vin the younger man would be lost to him forever.
Hands pried at his arms. Though he tried, he didn't have the strength to fight them. "I'm sorry, Vin." The apology whispered across his frozen lips. "I'm sorry."
His failure making him lethargic, Ezra allowed himself to be led up to the horses. With his own horse back in town, he was forced to ride behind Buck. Not the most comfortable position when one was healthy. It was, however, preferable to attempting to ride Peso. He was dazed, but he didn't have a death wish.
Though he was unable to see Vin cradled in Chris' arms with his eyes, he could see it in his mind. He had been Vin's bastion, now it was time to relinquish his role to Chris Larabee. It was one of the hardest things he had ever done.
It was dark when they finally reached town. As he pulled his horse up to the stairs leading to Nathan's clinic, Chris held the shivering body close to his own, trying to offer what little warmth he could. Mile after mile, he could feel the spirit of his friend slipping away. Now, he wasn't sure there was enough of Vin Tanner left for Nathan to heal.
Josiah and Buck pulled the limp body from his arms and carried it up the steep stairs. Chris' bleak eyes followed their progress before he hastily dismounted and shadowed their steps.
"Git them wet clothes off a 'im," Nathan shouted, lighting a lantern and gathering the supplies he would need.
"I-I ain't a-a b-baby," Vin protested, as Josiah and Buck gently laid him on one of the beds and started to initiate Nathan's instructions. "I-I k-kin undress m-myself."
"And Peso is an obedient horse," Chris muttered sarcastically, relieved to hear his friend's voice, even if it was low and raspy and quaking with pain.
Blushing, Vin tried to pull away from the hands undressing him. "I g-gotta take c-care of P-Peso."
"Ezra and JD are taking care of the horses," Chris soothed, cursing himself for mentioning Vin's beloved mount. The tracker took better care of his horse than he did himself.
Unable to hold his head up any longer, Vin let it rest against Chris' chest. A hacking cough drained him of what little strength he had left. "Ezra . . .?"
"I told ya, cowboy," Chris patiently explained, drying the pale face and long hair with a warm towel. "Ezra's helpin' JD with the horses."
Eyelids closed over the dazed eyes. "Shouldn't . . . hurt."
Kneeling next to the bed, Nathan demanded, "Vin, are ya sayin' Ezra's hurt?"
The reply whispered across blue tinged lips. "Back."
"Damn it!" Nathan cursed. "Why didn't the damn fool say anythin'?"
"Maybe he ain't hurt bad," Chris offered, feeling a touch of guilt. He was the only one to see the gambler without Vin's coat to cover the evidence. He'd been so worried about Vin, he hadn't thought to ask Ezra if he was all right.
Removing the water and blood saturated rags from Vin's shoulder, Nathan growled, "Buck, go--"
"I'm on my way," Buck interrupted, pulling his hat back on his head.
As the door slammed closed behind the ladies' man, Nathan probed, "Vin, do ya hurt anywhere else?"
Fingers weakly waving at his naked torso, Vin confessed, "Chest."
Skilled hands gently inspected the indicated area. "It feels like ya got a couple of cracked ribs, one on each side. I'll tape 'em up when I'm done with yer shoulder." Setting a lantern close to Vin's head, Nathan picked up a pair of forceps. "Chris, Josiah, hold 'im down. I gotta git the pieces of bark and wood out of this wound before it becomes infected."
Chris studied the pain stricken face cradled in his arms. Were there other injuries Vin wasn't revealing because he knew Nathan couldn't do anything for him? Was he holding back to save his friends heartache?
Smell was the first of his senses to return. While the odor making his nose twitch was familiar, it was not one he generally associated with a saloon or the livery stable, the last location Ezra remembered inhabiting. Touch was the second sense to add to his confusion. It appeared he was lying on his stomach in a bed, a position he normally didn't affect, with his head buried in a soft pillow.
Though mildly concerned, he couldn't identify his situation, it was curiosity rather than fear that made him open his eyes, employing a third sense, sight. Blinking rapidly to clear his blurred vision, he saw Vin Tanner lying in a bed across from him. Chris Larabee sat in a chair next to his friend, his gaze fixed on the flushed face. One hand rinsed a rag in a bowl of water before wiping it gently across a sweaty neck and chest.
Tears filled Ezra's eyes. He had never seen one man care for another with such tender regard. He felt privileged to witness the display. But he was also jealous. There was no one who was concerned if he lived or died. Even his mother would only wonder how to use his body to swindle some poor unsuspecting soul. No one would mourn his passing.
"Welcome back, Ezra."
Ezra shifted his gaze to let it rest on Nathan as the healer pulled a chair up to his bed. "Mr. Jackson, I confess, I am at a loss to explain how I find myself in your bed."
"Vin told us you was hurt."
"I wasn't aware he knew."
"If there's one thing I've learned these last few months," Nathan noted, glancing over at his other patient, "never underestimate Vin Tanner."
His voice barely audible, Ezra agreed. "You can say that again, my friend."
"Anyway," Nathan continued, "Buck went to the livery ta bring ya back. I guess you collapsed, practically in his arms."
"I'm surprised he bothered to catch me. I'm not his type."
A smile lighting his tired face, Nathan chuckled, "That's what Buck said. He and JD carried ya up here. I stitched yer back, but ya ain't gonna feel up ta doin' much fer a while."
"You are quite correct in your assessment," Ezra acceded, disliking how weak he felt.
"That cut was pretty deep in places. Ya got some infection."
Surprised at how unconcerned he was with his own medical prognosis, Ezra asked, "And what of Mr. Tanner?"
"Besides the shoulder, he has a couple a cracked ribs." All trace of merriment evaporated from Nathan's face and tone.
"And he has lung fever."
Though this revelation was enough to dampen Ezra's spirits, he still had hope. Unless? "Are there any internal injuries?"
"I can't tell. I ain't got enough trainin'," Nathan angrily hissed, pounding a fist into his thigh.
Returning his gaze to the pale caricature of his friend, Ezra silently prayed. There was a candor in his plea that had never been present in the past. Then, his request for divine intercession had been to draw the fourth king or to hit a target on the first shot. This was the first time he had asked the Lord to intervene for a purely altruistic purpose. Though he silently allowed it wasn't as noble as it appeared. Vin was his friend. He hadn't had enough in his life. He wasn't willing to lose even one. On the outside, theirs seemed to be a most unlikely friendship. A gambler and a tracker had nothing in common. Yet, they shared something Ezra couldn't understand. He only knew he didn't want to lose it.
Chris rinsed the cloth in the cool water. Squeezing out the excess liquid, he gently wiped it across Vin's face. When the weakened man shivered in response, he pulled the blankets up over the thin shoulders, careful not to touch the injured one. He had not expected to play nursemaid again. The last time, the only time, was when Adam had taken ill soon after Sarah became pregnant. Morning sickness being enough for her to cope with, Chris had cared for their son, while Buck looked after the ranch. As hard as it had been to watch Adam suffer, Chris had cherished their time together. Strangely, it was one of his good memories.
A soft moan drew his attention to his present patient. He knew any of the others would be happy to relieve him of his duties. But he was afraid to leave Vin. Afraid that when he returned his friend wouldn't be there to call him "cowboy." A small smile curved his lips. The derogatory remark had almost become a term of affection between them.
Chris winced as a cough heaved the aching chest. Having performed this service numerous times previously, he hastily lifted the limp head. Dropping the wet cloth, he retrieved a clean, dry one. Placing it over Vin's mouth, he caught the sputum the debilitated man managed to expel. Chris ached for his friend, knowing how each hack tore at the seeping wound and damaged rib cage.
When the attack subsided, he gently laid Vin back on the bed. As his hand automatically began to wad the soiled cloth, a bright color caught his eye. Mixed with the green phlegm was the red of blood.
Fear closed his throat, preventing him from screaming his despair. A single word slipped past the constriction. "Nathan!" When the healer appeared at his side, he handed him the bloodstained rag. "What does this mean?"
As Nathan stood silently staring at the befouled cloth, Chris closed his eyes to block out the dismay on the dark face. Behind his eyelids, his mind replayed the moment he met Vin Tanner. It was a memory that usually brought him joy. Today, there was only misery. The look they exchanged across the dusty street had made Chris feel reborn. It was the first time he had cared about anybody or anything since his family had been murdered. Shoulder to shoulder, he walked trustingly at Vin's side, determined to save Nathan from hanging. Though outnumbered two to one, he never doubted they would succeed. From that day to this, he had felt alive. If Vin died, he knew he would crawl inside a bottle again. This time, he wouldn't allow anyone to pull him out. It hurt too much.
"The blood could be caused by the pneumonia," Nathan tentatively offered.
Already knowing the answer, Chris pressed, "Or?"
"Or," Nathan softly conceded, "it could be from internal injuries."
"And there ain't nothin' ya can do?"
Ezra didn't need to see Chris Larabee's face to know this news had devastated the gunslinger. It was doubtful there was any visible indication of his dejection other than what Ezra read into the slumped shoulders and trembling hands. All this, Ezra saw through the blur of his own tear-filled eyes. He knew he wasn't watching the dying of one man, but of two. If Vin Tanner died, to all appearances, Chris Larabee would die as well.
The domino effect would not end there.
While he was jovial and devil may care on the outside, Buck Wilmington's compassionate spirit could not survive Chris's decline a second time. As he had done once before, he would run. This time, it would be far away so he would never chance crossing paths with his old friend again.
Ezra was uncertain whether JD Dunne could recover from the death of one friend, the deterioration of his hero and the desertion of a man who was closer to him than a brother. The youngster had a greater resiliency than those browbeaten by experience. Ezra could only hope JD's joy of life wouldn't be drained from him.
Watching Nathan Jackson return to his chair and cover his face with his hands, Ezra knew Vin's death would claim still another victim. Guilt would gnaw at the healer. Vin had used his skills to save Nathan's life. Nathan would blame himself if he was unable to reciprocate. Would he go so far as to forsake the profession he loved?
Of them all, Ezra thought Josiah would be the least affected by Vin's death. He would find solace in his faith, believing Vin was now safe in God's hands. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away would be the preacher's mantra. Or, would it? Ezra mentally contradicted himself. He had seen Josiah rage against injustice, against his demons. What greater disservice could there be than for a man, who would risk his life to save a child, forced to suffer a painful death?
Nathan's soft voice intruded in his thoughts. A soft sigh of gratitude whispered past his lips. "Yes, Mr. Jackson?"
"I got some tea fer ya ta drink. It'll help clear up that infection."
With the healer's help, Ezra lifted his head. Reluctantly accepting the mug Nathan had prepared, he cautiously sipped. As he expected, the concoction was the foulest tasting he had ever swallowed. "Mr. Jackson, I would not be surprised if this ditch water, as Mr. Tanner would so eloquently describe it, not only killed the infection, but also my taste buds."
Five more rags had been tossed into the basin, each one stained with blood. Despite this, Chris started to hope. The flesh that at one point had almost been too hot to touch had cooled noticeably. The blue tinged nails were starting to turn pink. Nathan had warned him not to read too much into the improvement, but Chris couldn't bank the fires in his heart anymore than he could stop the rain from falling. He knew Nathan's caution was born of concern, not for Vin, but for himself. The healer was afraid if Vin should still slip away it would be harder to bear. Chris didn't even try to make him understand it couldn't get any harder.
Brushing back a sweat soaked lock of light brown hair, he was surprised to see dazed blue eyes staring up at him. "Nathan," he quietly called.
Rising to allow the healer to take his seat, Chris was encouraged when the blue gaze followed him.
"Vin," Nathan gently probed, "do you know where you are?"
Blood flecked lips compressed. "Here."
"Where's here?" Nathan persisted, a smile curving the corners of his mouth.
"That's right. Do you know how you got here?"
A frown wrinkled the sweaty brow. "Ezra?"
"He'll be all right." Nathan pointed to the cot across the room.
Heavy eyelids fluttered. "Tired."
"Go ahead and sleep, cowboy," Chris urged, putting a hand on Vin's good arm. "We'll watch yer back."
Bruised eyelids obediently rolled down to cover the trusting eyes. Chris had a hard time keeping his own from copying the action. Now the danger had lessened, his exhausted body was rebelling. Flopping bonelessly to the floor, he mumbled, "Wake me if Vin wakes up again."
The hand shaking his shoulder failed to arouse him fully. He felt his head lifted and a pillow placed underneath. A blanket was spread across his body, blocking the damp, chill air. Sighing contentedly, he shut down his mind, dismissing Nathan's dire warnings. Vin was going to be all right. Nothing else mattered.
His mother's shrill voice penetrated the clinic door, making Ezra flinch. Though he tried to remember Vin's advice, it was difficult to eradicate feelings that had been a part of him since he was old enough to learn the ways one person could care for another. His continued lack of property would make him unworthy in his mother's eyes. Risking his life to save another would place him on par with an imbecile.
Ezra had to strain to hear Nathan's muted tones.
"Vin and yer son 're sleepin'. I'd rather ya didn't disturb 'em."
Glancing at his fellow patient, Ezra was glad to see Vin was indeed asleep. Awake, his shoulder, chest and raw throat placed him in considerable pain.
"Are you saying," Maude's indignation penetrated the thick wooden door, "I can't see my only baby?"
Resigned, Ezra knew this argument would sway the compassionate healer, despite his better judgment. Strangely, Ezra realized he was actually relieved. It was better to get his mother's condemnation behind him. Waiting was just another form of torture.
The door swung open on silent hinges. The sweet smell of lilac floated in, a scent Ezra found far preferable to the odors generally permeating the clinic. His voice low in deference to the sleeping man in the other bed, he greeted, "Hello, Mother."
"I hear you risked your life to save a child." The growled accusation preceded Maude's angry march across the room.
Stealing himself for the tirade he knew would follow, Ezra shrugged, flinching when the motion aggravated his injury. "I merely assisted Mr. Tanner in his heroic endeavor."
"I thought I taught you better." Maude moved the chair closer to Ezra's bed, sliding it in several different directions before finding the position she desired. "You look out for number one."
"That was exactly what I did." Amazed, Ezra realized he wasn't lying. There would no longer have been any rewards in his life if he had not assisted Billy Travis and Vin Tanner.
Sitting in the chair, Maude snapped, "If you had done as I instructed, you would not be lying in this bed."
"And Mr. Tanner and Mr. Travis would probably be . . . dead." Ezra softly replied, noticing his mother had placed herself carefully out of reach. There would be no comforting hand on his arm. No fingertips gently soothing his aching temple.
"Ezra done good, ma'am."
Vin's raspy voice was beautiful to hear, despite the pain audible in every word. Nathan had tried to pour healing teas down the raw throat, but the cure was proving as torturous as the disease.
"Ya should be right proud of yer son, ma'am."
The praise lifted Ezra's spirits.
"Proud of what? That he almost died?" Maude petulantly countered. "I'd rather have a live son then a dead hero."
"I reckon Mrs. Travis feels the same."
Ezra was surprised when he saw the affect Vin's statement had on his mother. A handkerchief was quickly raised to cover trembling lips. However, she couldn't hide her tear-filled, cornflower eyes.
"I'm sorry, Ezra. I am proud of you."
An apology and praise, two maxims Ezra thought would never cross those lips when addressing him. Both were obviously spoken with sincerity, another first in the conwoman's life.
"It's all right." For once, Ezra meant the platitude he directed at his mother. A first for him as well.
Sliding her chair closer to the bed, Maude stuttered, "I worry about you. Being a lawman isn't a safe profession."
"And gambling is?" When his mother took his hand in hers, Ezra dropped his mocking tone. Looking across at the sick man blinking tiredly back at him, he whispered, "I've got six good men watching my back. I've never been safer."
Maude awkwardly brushed a lock of hair off his brow. "You're my baby boy. I don't want anything to happen to you."
"My future has never looked brighter, Mother," Ezra honestly revealed, turning her hand and kissing her fingers. For the first time in his life, he felt loved.
Chris held Vin's slight weight in his arms, as he helped the convalescing man walk the short distance from his bed to the rocking chair Nathan had placed outside on the porch. The sun shone brightly again. They hoped direct contact with it would raise Vin's spirits. Each day, he grew stronger and more obstinate. Still reliant on his friends for his every need, the independent man was hampering his own recovery with his depression.
By the time he lowered Vin into the chair, sweat was beading on the pale brow, while gasping breaths wheezed from air-starved lungs. Settling against the soft pillows, Vin's right hand gently pressed the bandage plastering his left shoulder. A pink tongue whipped out to wet dry lips.
Kneeling, Chris put comforting hands on his shuddering friend's knees. "I'm sorry, Vin."
"I'll. . . be . . . all right," Vin panted, "in . . . a . . . minute."
"I'm not apologizing for this." Chris dropped his head, using his hat to hide his face. "I'm sorry I sent ya on that picnic."
Angered by the blunt response, Chris shot to his feet. "Why? Isn't it obvious?"
"'Fraid not, cowboy."
Turning his back, Chris leaned against the porch railing. "If I hadn't sent ya, ya wouldn't be suffering like ya are."
"And what woulda happened ta them kids and Ezra?"
Chris rubbed his hands over his tired face. "Ya sayin' yer life is a fair trade fer theirs?"
"I'm sayin', we're all alive." Vin's hand dropped, as his pain wracked body visibly relaxed. "Josiah says we should count our blessings."
"Josiah talks too much."
"Besides," Vin ignored the grumpy comment. "I ain't never been on a picnic. Didn't even know what it was 'til I asked Ezra."
Chris whirled in disbelief. "Ya agreed ta do somethin' without knowin' what it was?"
"I trust ya, cowboy."
"Stop calling me that!" Anger mixed with jealousy roughened Chris' voice. "Ya couldn't asked me what it was?"
It was Vin's turn to avoid his friend's eyes. "Didn't want ya ta think I was stupid."
"When I can't pick up a trail, do you think I'm stupid?" Chris gently probed.
"Nah. Ya ain't ever been trained."
"But, I'm gettin' better?"
"At least ya knows the difference between a horse and a deer."
Biting his lip to keep from laughing at the good-natured insult, Chris took a moment to compose himself. "Life teaches people what they need to survive. There ain't no shame in not knowin' everythin'. The only dishonor is if we don't try ta learn."
His gaze focused on his hands, Vin whispered, "Ya reckon a person kin be too old ta learn?"
"Then, if'n' ya don't mind the next time I don't know somethin', I'll be askin' ya."
"If you don't mind if I ask ya the next time I don't know somethin'."
"Reckon I'd be right proud." A yawn made Vin's reply almost unintelligible.
Sliding a box over, Chris lifted Vin's feet to rest on it. Retrieving a blanket from the empty bed, he spread it across his friend's lap. The lack of protest at his actions told him he had guessed Vin's needs accurately. Something he hoped he could continue to do in the future.
Ezra twisted, trying to find the one angle in the chair that wouldn't put pressure on the gash across his back. The hands shuffling the deck of cards ceased as he sought relief. It was still too early in the afternoon for most patrons of the saloon, but Ezra had hoped to find at least one sucker - one adventurer - willing to engage him in a game of chance. Wincing slightly, he shifted until his left shoulder was flattened against the back of the chair and his right hip in contact with the arm. This put the most sensitive part of his injury in an open space.
"Ya got ants in yer pants, Ezra?"
"Mr. Wilmington." Ezra was dismayed by the animation creeping into his voice. A professional gambler never displayed emotion to a potential mark. "Care for a game?"
Buck shook his head. "Can't, I'm headin' out on patrol." A smile lifting his mustache, the scoundrel snickered, "Besides, I ain't got any money."
"Why doesn't that surprise me?" Ezra's droll reply followed the dark haired man out the batwing doors.
Resigned to playing solitaire, Ezra placed the cards on the table in the proper order. The sound of the doors swinging brought his head up in eager anticipation. When he saw the new arrival was Chris Larabee, he was delighted and dismayed. In the two weeks since Vin's accident this was the first time Chris had been seen anywhere except at his injured friend's side. His presence here, meant Vin was greatly improved. Judging by the scowl on the gunslinger's face, he had been kicked out by either the tired and healing tracker or the man dedicated to his patient's recovery.
Either way, Ezra figured he was the only target for Chris Larabee's wrath. Resigned to his fate, he asked, "How is our Mr. Tanner this fine day?"
Grabbing two shot glasses and a bottle of whiskey from a perceptive bartender, Chris slipped into the chair opposite the gambler's. "Sleepin'. Nathan let 'im sit out on the porch fer a bit. The fresh air knocked him right out."
"The next few weeks will be difficult as he endeavors to do more than his body will tolerate."
Chris poured whiskey into the glasses and pushed one across the table. "We'll be the ones who'll need somethin' ta fortify us."
"Or a baseball bat," Ezra smilingly suggested, taking a sip of his drink.
Fingering his glass, Chris confessed, "I gotta apologize, Ezra."
"I'm sure you've done nothing to Mr. Tanner to require repentance."
"He doesn't think so either." A soft smile dropped years from the hardened gunslinger's face. "But this apology is to you."
Shock held Ezra momentarily speechless. Finding a facsimile of his usually strong voice, he inquired, "May I ask why?"
"First, for not noticin' you were hurt. And then, for not keeping your mother away from your sickbed."
Touched by the former section of the confession, Ezra chose to hide it by commenting on the latter. "The devil himself would quake at any attempt to intervene in my mother's aspirations."
"For what ya did fer Vin, thanks." Chris threw back his drink in one long swallow and poured a refill.
Appreciation and an apology, Ezra felt overwhelmed by the unexpected display of emotion from his usually taciturn companion. This man sitting beside him was not the Chris Larabee he had come to know. Though he couldn't be sure, he had a feeling this was the Chris Larabee Vin knew. Ezra realized he liked this man, while he had only respected the other. "I do believe we are both in need of Mr. Jackson's services."
"What?" Chris looked up in alarm.
"It appears our resident Robin Hood's attributes are contagious. I believe we should seek treatment, immediately."
A soft smile curving his lips, Chris shook his head. "I don't think there is a cure."
"You are indubitably correct in your assessment, Mr. Larabee."
"Indubitably," Chris repeated, holding up his glass.
Moved by the invitation, Ezra clinked his glass against the gunslinger's as they drank a silent toast to the man responsible for their association. Ezra knew he and Larabee had only one thing in common. But it was enough for both of them. Looking after Vin Tanner's welfare was an inviolable bond forging them together.