TYPE OF FANFIC: gen hurt/comfort (vin-jury)
MAIN CHARACTERS: Vin and Chris
OC'S: Grandma and Laura Ellen Brush, Al Timmons, Ed and Cal Peterson, Zeb Harper
RATING OR WARNINGS: PG-17 for violence
SYNOPSIS: Chris seeks shelter when Vin is shot and gets more than he expected.
This story was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in July 2011
Chris Larabee slid from his saddle and ran to the closed barn doors, pulling them open with a single strong heave. Leading Pony and Peso inside, he was comforted a little by the welcoming nickers from the other horses standing in their stalls. Hurrying back to the doors, he watched the short, rapid puffs of white that formed as he panted in the cold night air and hoped it would warm up a little once they were closed.
That done, he hurried back to Peso. "Can you get down?" he asked the rider.
Vin Tanner nodded once, then tried to ease his leg over so he could dismount, but a sudden fiery stab of agony in his side put an end to that. "Guess I cain't after all," he gasped.
Larabee reached up and pulled the trembling man off his winded gelding with as much care as he could, but the tracker still groaned as he slumped in the gunslinger's arms, too weak to even get his feet under himself.
"Easy, easy," Chris soothed as he held the younger man, keeping him from collapsing to the ground. He shivered, although he wasn't sure if it was from the cold or from fear, and felt Vin do the same. They were damned lucky it hadn't started to snow earlier, or the bounty hunters tracking them would have caught them long before now.
Half-carrying and half-dragging Vin across the barn, Chris settled the barely-conscious tracker in the soft, fresh hay he found piled in an empty stall. The barn had looked like the best place to hole up while he changed the makeshift bandages he'd applied earlier to stop Vin's bleeding. He just hoped no one had noticed their arrival. But it was late, and no lights had been visible at the homestead close by.
Chris' cold-numbed fingers shook slightly as he untied the blood-sodden strips of cloth. He knew Vin wouldn't be able to ride alone any farther in his current condition.
I'll tie him onto the saddle, or to me, the gunslinger thought. Whatever was necessary, as long as they kept moving.
Vin grimaced and swallowed a groan while Larabee worked, his teeth occasionally chattering. "Where?" he managed to ask, peering skittishly around the well-used structure.
"Don't know for sure," Chris admitted. He stood and fetched his canteen from his saddle, then held it for Vin to take a few sips. "Some farmer's barn. I was hoping to find a doctor, but the town's small from the looks of it and those bounty hunters are only a few hours behind us. I'll do what I can here, then we'll see if we can't get to town without being noticed."
"It's no good, Chris. Get me back on Peso 'n' let's get outta here."
"You can't ride, the shape you're in," the gunslinger mumbled as he worked. "This wound's come open again. I've got to stop the bleeding or you'll be in real trouble."
Vin gave his friend a tired but knowing grin. "'M in trouble now. Y' better leave me here; head fer the hills. If Timmons 'n' his men catch me, they'll count themselves lucky, an' you'll have a chance t' get safe. Y' c'n come back an' bust me out. Local jail shouldn't be a problem if the town's as small as y' think. An' they won't be able t' move me far like this."
"Quit talkin' so much, will ya?" Chris reached up and tugged the bandanna Vin wore around his neck free. The tracker's condition was dire, and Larabee was scared, more than he expected. The old familiar emptiness was filling his heart.
But the gunslinger knew if he left Vin behind, he might as well kill him himself. Rumor was now a proven fact – Al Timmons didn't bother bringing a man in alive if he could get the same money for him dead. And Vin knew it, too. He was giving Chris a chance to save himself.
The only way we're going, is together, Larabee silently told the man. Aloud he said, "We have to find someplace for you to rest, and a doctor. You're not ready for another six or eight hours on the back of a horse."
"Well, I should say not."
Larabee spun, drawing his gun.
An older woman looked back at him. She chuckled kindly, shaking her head. "Lands sake, boy, you're one of the fastest I've seen, and I've seen a few fast ones in my day."
Nettie Wells. That was who she sounded like – even looked a little like her – and something told Larabee he could trust her like he would Nettie. She must live in the homestead. He eased the revolver back into his holster, a slight blush coloring his already wind-reddened cheeks. "Sorry," he said.
The woman walked over to Vin and knelt down beside him, peering critically at the two bleeding wounds. She looked back to Chris, saying, "Bring him inside. It's too dirty out here for me to do anything."
Larabee hesitated, torn between his immediate trust for the woman and the knowledge that it was only a matter of time before the bounty hunters narrowed down the barns he and Vin could have stopped at and found them.
"Ma'am, I need to bind him up so we can be on our way," he said.
"Son, you move this boy before we stop his bleeding good and proper, and you stop next t' bury him," she scolded, studying the indecision on Larabee's face.
"She's right," Vin said, his airy voice ringing with defeat. "Now, will y' listen t' me 'n' get outta here while y' still c'n?"
"I'm not leaving you here alone," Chris snapped angrily.
Vin sighed heavily. He could tell by Larabee's tone that there was no use arguing with the older man – he'd lose.
The woman eyed them curiously. "You boys on the lam?"
The two peacekeepers exchanged glances. Chris shook his head, but Vin's expression turned stubborn.
"'M wanted in Texas fer a murder I didn't do," Vin told her honestly.
"That's the God's honest truth," Chris added. "A real outlaw pinned it on him."
"Are the men looking for you close by?" she asked them.
"Yes, ma'am, they are," Vin said, trying to sit up, but only getting as far as his elbows before his strength deserted him. "We don't want t' put y' in any danger. You or yer family. If y' could just tell us where the doc–"
"Don't have a doctor in town. The nearest one's in Animas, but I know for a fact Doc Harbor's out with the Indians right now. Had an outbreak of typhoid on the reservation," she explained. "Look, boys, I don't care if you're wanted or not, guilty or not. If somethin' isn't done about these wounds, this young man's going to die, and I hate to see a life wasted before it's really started." She directed her comments to Larabee, who she knew would make the decision for both of them. "You take him to the house, let me have a look. The two of you can decide what to do while I work."
Larabee thought a moment, then met Vin's eyes and said, "We've got no choice."
Chris gently helped Vin to his feet, supporting most of the smaller man's weight as they slowly followed the older woman back to the squat adobe farmhouse that was bigger than they expected. Warmth enveloped the two men as soon as they entered the house, and for the first time since Vin had been shot, Chris allowed himself to hope for a miracle.
The woman removed her long blue shawl, allowing Larabee his first good look at her. In her fifties, she possessed that special kind of beauty that didn't fade, no matter how old she grew. Years of hard work had left their marks on her, but they were badges of courage, perseverance and wisdom. He knew he'd made the right decision.
"Get him up on the table," she instructed.
"Ma'am?" Chris asked her.
"Ya heard me right – the table. I have to get those pieces of lead out of him, and that's the best place for me to work." She smiled at the dubious expression on the gunslinger's face. "Don't you worry, I've done my share of doctorin' over the years; helped Doc Harbor too many times to count, so do as you're told, son."
"Yes, ma'am," Chris said, unable to keep from grinning a little. It had been many years since he'd been scolded like that by a woman.
He lifted Vin onto the large, hand-hewn table. As he did, he realized that there must be, or have been, a sizable family living here. The fact that some or all of those people might still be in the house gave him a momentary start, and his gaze wandered nervously over the darkened doorways leading out of the kitchen.
No, he decided, her children are probably all grown and married by now.
He watched her smooth back her gray-streaked brown hair, which was held up in a full twist at the back of her head; definitely a handsome woman. He tried to imagine what she would have looked like in her youth and found it a pleasant picture. Walking over to a basin, she washed her hands, then turned pale blue eyes on Larabee and told him to do the same.
While Chris washed up, the woman used a large pair of scissors to cut Vin's pants off. "Sorry 'bout your clothes, son," she told him as she worked. "I have some of Ben's old things 'round here; should fit you when you're up to puttin' 'em on."
"Yer son, ma'am?" Tanner asked with a grimace as she slowly peeled the blood-soaked pant leg off his thigh. His long johns went the same way, and he blushed a deep red when she peeled them off as well, ashamed of his nakedness.
"Sakes no, Ben was my first husband," she said, ignoring his embarrassment – five sons, four daughters and numerous grandchildren left nothing for the imagination. "Ben died . . . five years ago now."
"Sorry t' hear that, ma'am," Vin said as she started investigating the wounds more closely, and the tone of his voice told her he meant it.
"Thank you, son. Ben was a fine man . . . you favor him a little yourself." She smiled and reached out to push the chestnut hair off Vin's sweat-damp forehead.
The tracker blushed again, this time right down to his toes.
"You live alone here?" Chris asked as he dried his hands.
"You're a worrier, that's for certain," she told Larabee as she moved away from her patient to set a kettle of water on the wood stove to heat. "I've remarried. Went from Trousdale to Brush – I'm Rachel Brush now. Jim Brush is my husband . . . I'm sure Ben would've approved, if he'd the chance to meet him."
"Where's your husband?" Chris asked casually, his hand dropping slightly toward his gun.
"Jim's on a cattle drive, so you can quit bein' so all-fired jumpy," she scolded him as she brushed past. "He and my boys won't be back for a few more days."
Vin groaned, reaching for the wound just above the point of his right hip. Mrs. Brush intercepted him, holding his hand firmly in hers as he squeezed and tossed on the table. Chris quickly stepped up to the table, taking Vin's other hand in his. He could feel the fear that rippled through the tracker.
As Vin quieted, the large teakettle began to whistle.
"Make sure he doesn't touch either of those wounds," Mrs. Brush said. "And see that you don't either."
She grabbed a cloth and expertly wrapped it around the kettle handle with a flick of her wrist, then carried it and a bowl back to the table. She filled the bowl with hot water, then returned the kettle to the other side of stove.
"Get him out of that wet jacket and shirt," she instructed Chris, then left them alone, disappearing into one of the rooms off the kitchen.
"Chris, y' gotta git outta here 'fore Timmons finds us," Vin panted. "Yer nothin' but a sittin' duck here."
"Damn it, Vin, you cain't expect me to leave you like this," Larabee replied, helping the man out of his jacket and shirt. His ruined long johns came off last. "Save your strength; quit tryin' to talk me into leaving."
Vin grunted his acquiesce, knowing Chris wouldn't budge until he was certain Tanner would be all right. But the way he felt, Vin was afraid that might be after they'd buried him. "Damned stubborn cowboy," he hissed through gritted teeth.
"You're callin' me stubborn?" Chris replied, hoping some of that stubbornness would pull the tracker though this. If they hadn't gotten careless. . .
He shook his head. There was no sense in looking back and wishing things were different. The past several days had become nothing more than an endless nightmare of exhaustion and fear. He needed to think ahead, but it was hard not to go over the events that had brought them to the homestead.
He and Vin had been tracking an outlaw gang that was holding up the stagecoaches coming into and out of Four Corners, and several other small towns in the Territory. Two days in, the gang had split up, so the peacekeepers had done so as well. Chris and Vin had headed northeast.
It took them a few days, but they finally caught up with the three bandits they had been following, and got the drop on them. They took their prisoners into San Simon and turned them over to the sheriff there, then sent a telegram to Four Corners to let the others know they had been successful and were on their way back.
But a day out of San Simon they ran into the bounty hunters, who must have spotted Vin in San Simon and recognized him from the wanted poster that had been put out for him.
The three hunters had hounded them steadily, determined to collect on Vin's five hundred dollar bounty. And every time they thought they had shaken their pursuers, the men reappeared again. When Vin managed a good look at the lead rider through his spyglass, he identified the man as Al Timmons, and two Indian trackers.
Chris and Vin decided to try heading up into the mountains, hoping to lose the three men in the rugged country around Chiricahua Peak. But the hunters outguessed them, forcing them back toward the east.
They hadn't slept – except what they could steal on horseback – since they had left San Simon five days ago. And it was the lack of food and sleep that had made them careless, letting Timmons and the two trackers get the drop on them that morning.
Timmons didn't seem interested in Chris at all, but Vin was another matter, and the tracker had taken two bullets before they could escape.
They spent all morning using every trick Tanner knew to shake the three men off their trail. By late afternoon it was snowing, and Vin could barely hold himself in the saddle. Chris had to admit that he had already been getting scared by then.
An hour earlier, when they had topped a hill and spotted the small town and the outlying farms, Chris had been desperate. He knew he had to find help somewhere among the residents, or his friend was going to die.
He had picked one of the nearest barns at random and led Vin down to it, determined to locate a doctor if there was one hereabouts. And while there might not be a doctor, but he knew now he'd picked the right barn. If anyone could pull Vin through this, it was Mrs. Brush. She had determination to share, and that was just what he and Vin both needed right now.
The woman re-entered the kitchen carrying a blanket and a small box that had obviously been made by inexperienced hands. She set the box down and opened it, removing a small pair of scissors, a large needle and some stout thread, which she laid on the table next to the bowl of cooling water. Then she closed the box and set it aside. Turning back, she covered Vin with the blanket. Next was a stop at the handmade china cabinet setting against one wall of the room. She brought back a pair of tweezers and a small knife.
"You boys mind if I ask your names? I like to know who I'm sharin' my roof with. If ya don't want to, though, I'm not demandin'."
"Chris Larabee," the gunslinger offered. "And my friend's Vin Tanner. Probably best if you don't know any more than that."
She nodded. It was hard to imagine that either of these men were outlaws, so she guessed the story she'd heard earlier was probably true – a good man accused of a crime he hadn't committed, and his friend. Although she had to admit, Chris Larabee had an air of danger about him that made her think he lived dangerously, even if it was on the right side of the law.
"Mr. Larabee, if you'd go pull down that big jug of corn whiskey and bring it over here," she instructed, nodding to a shelf near the stove.
"It's Chris," he said, then went for the jug while she washed her hands again.
"Pour a heavy dose of that whiskey in the bowl, then bring it over here to me," she called after him.
Larabee did what she had asked.
"Pour some over my hands," she told him when he joined her. He gave her a questioning look, but did as she'd asked. "Good. Now, you wash your hands again, and pour some of the whisky over them, too, then come help me."
"Sounds like a waste of good whiskey," he said under his breath.
"A trick Doc Harbor showed me," she told him in a no nonsense tone. "Don't know why it helps, but seems to keep the infection down."
Accepting her word, Chris washed his hands, then poured the whiskey over them before drying them on a towel.
At the table where Vin lay, Mrs. Brush placed the instruments she had gathered into the hot water and whisky solution, even the thread, leaving them to soak while she took a cloth from her apron pocket and dipped it into the mixture.
"This is gonna bite a bit, I'm afraid," she told Vin before she began to clean the blood away from around the entrance of the thigh wound first.
The tracker sucked in a sharp breath, but after a while the biting sting of the whiskey seemed to numb the throbbing pain in his leg and he allowed himself to breathe again.
"Lucky ya didn't break your leg," she told him as Chris stepped up to join her.
"How're you doin', Cowboy?" he asked Vin.
"How do I look?"
"Like it hurts," Larabee replied dryly.
"Yer right," Tanner said, offering his friend a tight smile.
"Chris, take hold of Vin's legs and hold him as still as ya can. And you," she said to the tracker, "you try t' stay still. I don't mind some yellin' or swearin', but ya start squirmin' and I'll have to have your friend here knock ya out so I can work."
Vin smiled weakly. "Do m' best, ma'am. Been shot b'fore, so I cain't make promises."
She smiled. "You're doin' fine, son." Reaching into the water, she took the small knife out and set to work digging the bullet out of Vin's thigh.
The tracker moaned, panted, and tossed his head, clenching his jaw and eyes shut, but he somehow managed to lie mostly still while the older woman worked.
Once she found the fragment of metal and teased it out, she stopped and allowed the wound to bleed for a while before pouring whiskey over the open gash.
Tanner groaned loudly and clutched the sides of the table, his short fingernails digging up splinters.
"I know it hurts, son, but it's for the best – or so the doc tells me."
Vin fought back a sob that made its way into his throat. "If ya say so, ma'am," he gasped.
She carefully stitched the wound closed with the well-soaked thread, then studied the second wound for a moment. "You're doin' just fine," she soothed.
Vin nodded, but he was unable to stop the tears that filled his eyes and flowed down the sides of his face – a product of pain, fear and sheer exhaustion.
Mopping the tracker's ashen face with a damp cloth, she let him rest a moment longer. Then, after she wiped his face once more, she picked up the small knife and the tweezers and set to work on the wound just above the point of Tanner's hip.
Chris had to work much harder this time to keep Vin from jerking so much he fell right off the table while she probed for the slug.
The tracker cried out, his lips curling back off his teeth, but he held on to the sides of the table and endured it better then Chris imagined he would have in the man's place.
After what felt like an eternity to the gunslinger, Mrs. Brush found and carefully extracted the second slug.
When she was through, Vin released the low moan he had been holding in during the last of the procedure, the agonized sound sending chills rippling down Larabee's spine. Fight it out, Vin, he pleaded silently. You're strong. I know you are – I've seen it. You can make it through this.
The second wound didn't bleed as well as the first to cleanse itself, so Mrs. Brush poured more whiskey over it to make up for the lack. Vin's stomach muscles jumped and rippled, and he gulped in great heaving sobs that frightened Larabee almost as much as the wounds themselves did. He'd never seen Vin in such pain before and, he admitted to himself, he'd never really allowed himself to think about losing the man. But now, for the first time since they had met, Larabee realized just how important the tracker's friendship had become to him. It was his anchor now; it defined his new life and filled up some of the emptiness in his heart.
And he wasn't at all sure he could survive losing it.
Mrs. Brush set the whiskey bottle aside and began to stitch the second wound closed. Tanner finally lay still, too exhausted to react any longer, although the tears continued to flow down the sides of his face.
Chris wasn't sure what he could do to help, and Vin's pain kept him frozen at the foot of the table. The tracker was ghostly pale.
When she finished, she cleaned Vin up, then carefully bandaged the wounds.
"Bring him into the bedroom here," was her direction to Larabee as she pointed to the doorway she had disappeared through earlier.
Chris forced himself to move from where he stood. He lifted Vin into his arms as carefully as he could, the gentle movement still wringing a sharp cry of pain from the half-conscious man. Larabee winced. "Sorry, Vin," he whispered as he carried the tracker to the large bed that occupied one wall. "Don't mean to hurt you."
"Ain't yer fault," was the softly slurred reply.
Mrs. Brush turned back the covers and Chris laid his friend down, watching as Vin sank into the feather mattress, looking terribly small and child-like.
Vin tried to give his worried companion a reassuring smile, but Chris could see the fear in the tracker's blue eyes, and frowned in reply.
The old woman took over, tucking the blankets up around the tracker's shoulders, then wiping his face once more with a damp cloth. "You did fine, just fine," she told him. "You get some sleep now, son. I'll wake you in a few hours and have ya take some broth."
Vin looked at her and tried to speak, but his lower lip just trembled and the words froze in his throat.
"Save your strength," she told him kindly. "And don't you worry, we'll be here if you need us." She patted his cheek and Vin relaxed, letting exhaustion draw his eyes shut a moment before he was sound asleep.
Turning back to Chris, Mrs. Brush caught the older man trying to wipe away his tears before she saw them. "He's lost a lot of blood, but he looks to be a fighter, that much is clear. The two of you look like you haven't slept in days, and I won't ask how long it's been since either of you've eaten . . . Still, he's young and strong. He'll pull through with rest, and God's help."
"I hope you're right," Larabee whispered. "I want to thank you for your help."
"Don't thank me just yet," she cautioned him. "Now, come let me put some food in your belly before you faint away yourself."
Chris reluctantly followed her back into the kitchen and helped her clean up. That done, he sat down at the table to work on a cup of coffee while he watched her fixing him a meal. For a moment the world around him seemed to waver and, suddenly, he wasn't sure what he was seeing was real or a dream. But then he glanced down and saw the damage Vin's nails had inflicted on the wooden table and he knew with certainty that it was real.
It had been years since he'd allowed someone close enough that their possible death could affect him. Not since he'd lost Sarah and Adam. But all that had changed the day he'd met the tracker's eyes across the dusty main street in Four Corners.
Chris still wasn't sure what it was about Tanner that allowed him to skirt the walls Larabee usually kept between himself and others he met, but skirt them he had. Their friendship was instantaneous, a bond that felt like it had been years, a lifetime, in the making. But it had happened in a single glance.
Maybe it was the fact that Vin had planned to take on the cowboys single-handed to save Nathan from hanging. Or maybe it was just the man's grit, or his lack of fear, or his willingness to die for a just cause. But whatever it was, it had drawn Chris back into the land of the living – a place he had sworn to himself he would never visit after losing his family. But here he was.
And now he might face another loss. . . .
Every sound outside made the gunslinger jump and he fidgeted anxiously while he waited for the promised meal, thinking about how close the bounty hunters must be getting. As soon as it was light they would have no trouble following the blood trail right to the barn, and then he and Vin would be as good as caught.
Mrs. Brush set a plate down in front of him and watched while Chris wolfed the food down.
They hadn't eaten a real meal the whole time they were being tracked, and the gunslinger hadn't allowed himself to think about how hungry he was until he saw the ham and eggs sitting in front of him. Once he did, though, he was ravenous.
"We have to move on before daybreak. Those men are going to follow Vin's blood right to your barn," he said when he was done, the food and warmth mixing with exhaustion to slur his words slightly.
"Who are these men who'd hunt you down like a pair of rabid wolves?"
"Bounty hunters," Chris told her, shaking his head to force himself awake. "Like Vin told you, he's wanted in Texas, but the charge was pinned on him."
"Well, bounty hunters or no, you can't leave, not for a couple of days, maybe more. If he tears those stitches open, or gets an infection on the trail, it'll kill him sure. And to be honest, Mr. Larabee, it's plain you're in no condition to ride yourself. Why, you're falling asleep at my table, so get on in there and get some sleep. I'll keep an eye out for those hunters. And don't you worry, I know how to use a rifle if need be."
"I appreciate everything you've done, but–"
"Sakes but you're an ornery one," she admonished, a twinkle in her eye. "Son, most everybody in these parts knows better than to argue with Grandma Brush. Now, get your fanny in there and get some sleep."
Larabee rose from the table. He knew he was beyond riding, and Vin couldn't sit a horse now to save his life. If the bounty hunters did show up, he'd deal with them, somehow, but for the moment all he wanted was a few hours sleep in that soft bed.
"Get out of those dirty clothes before you get in there with him. There's one of Jim's clean nightshirts on top the dresser – put that on first."
As Chris headed off to join Vin, she watched him go, shaking her head, a small smile on her face. Where Vin reminded her of her first husband, Chris reminded her of her first suitor – same blue eyes and honey-blond hair, same hard edge and worrying nature, too. They were both good men, of that she was sure, and she decided they would get the chance they needed, even if she had to shoot herself a bounty hunter to see to it.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Mrs. Brush woke Vin twice during the night to have him take a cup of tea, and both times Chris slept right through it.
"He's worn down," Vin whispered during her second visit. "Don't recall ever seein' Chris sleep through anythin'."
"He's sick too."
Vin flashed her a questioning, worried look.
"Oh, I don't mean he's got a sickness. He's just sick in the heart from worryin' 'bout you." She shook her head. "I still can't fathom men makin' a living, huntin' other men."
Vin smiled thinly, wondering what she would think if she knew he had been a bounty hunter himself once, what felt like a long time ago. "They think they's helpin' all the decent folks out there, gettin' rid 'a the . . . bad elements."
"Heaven knows that might not be a bad thing, in some cases, but I've noticed that most men I'd like to see the good Lord remove from our midst aren't outlaws."
"Yes, ma'am," he whispered with a weak smile as she laid a cool cloth on his forehead, then tucked the blankets up around his shoulders. "We got t' be movin' on. Those men find us, we'll end up dead fer sure."
"Timmons don't take a man in breathin' if he c'n get paid the same fer a body."
She shook her head sadly. "Don't ya worry, son, ya have a few hours to rest."
Vin took a deep breath and said, "Told y' the truth before, ma'am. Didn't kill the man they say I did . . . was a bounty hunter m'self then. Man I's after killed a farmer, made it look like I done it, jist t' shake me off his trail."
She nodded. "This Timmons fella don't know that?"
"Ya still a bounty hunter?" she asked him.
"No, ma'am. Me an' Chris an' five others are peacekeepers over in Four Corners. Judge Travis pays us a dollar a day t' see the town's kept safe."
"A worthy calling," she said, nodding. "Guess that makes you two lawmen of sorts."
Vin tried to smile. "Not official, ma'am. An' it won't stop them hunters. That's why we got t' go."
"You're in no shape for a hard ride, son. Ya need some rest and some good cookin' . . . and maybe a little peace for your soul. How old are ya, Vin Tanner?"
"Don't rightly know fer sure, ma'am," he admitted. "M' ma died when I's five or so. Kiowa found an' raised me 'til the Army killed 'em an' put me in an orphanage. I lost track along the way."
"Well, I'd guess twenty-two or so. An' I have to tell ya, you're too old." She removed the cloth from his forehead. "In here," she added, touching his chest just above his heart. "Guess ya ain't had an easy life, but it sounds like you're building a good one now."
Chris stirred next to him, moving to bury himself a little deeper into the soft mattress, but he still didn't wake. The tracker looked over at him and Mrs. Brush could see the concern in the young man's blue eyes.
"He ain't wanted," Vin told her, "but Timmons'll think he is since he's ridin' with me. He'll kill him if he gets the chance. Maybe you can talk him int' leavin'. I'd sure appreciate it if y' could. Might be too late fer me, but Chris. . ." He paused, looking back at the woman. "He already lost a wife an' a son, don't want him t' watch a friend get shot down."
Mrs. Brush leaned over and pressed her hand to Vin's forehead. "We'll just have to make sure neither of you boys get himself killed. Now, ya get some more rest. Your fever's building, and I want ya rested when it gets 'round to burnin' that infection out."
Vin nodded, shutting his eyes and letting Larabee's steady breathing lull him back to sleep.
Mrs. Brush left the two sleeping men and headed for the kitchen. Elizabeth would be there soon, and probably the bounty hunters as well. The horses would have to be moved, the bloody clothes hidden.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris was sure he'd heard a voice. He froze under the covers and opened his eyes, waiting, but nothing followed but silence. A few moments later, the aromas of fresh coffee, bacon and buttermilk biscuits drifted in from the kitchen, causing him to shiver in the warmth under the covers as he remembered the last time he'd smelled all those things together – the morning he'd left his ranch, only to return to a burned out homestead. The last morning he'd seen Sarah and Adam alive.
His breath caught in his throat and he pushed the familiar pain away as he climbed carefully from the bed, and pulled his clothes on.
Once he was dressed, gunbelt in place, he checked on Vin. The tracker was sleeping peacefully, and Chris didn't have the heart to wake him. If the bounty hunters showed up, he would just lead them away.
Probably get caught, but at least you won't be dead, too. I'm not losing anyone else I care about.
How long Timmons would keep him alive wasn't a pleasant second thought, so he pushed it away and pulled the blankets back up from where Vin had pushed them down, noting that Grandma Brush had tied a breechcloth of sorts around the tracker's hips to protect his privacy. Both of the bandages were bloodstained, but they were nowhere near sodden, and for that he was grateful to the old woman.
If they could stay clear of Timmons, maybe they could both get out of this alive. He hoped so. But if Vin died, Chris knew he'd spend whatever was left of his life hunting Timmons down and killing him – slowly.
He gently tucked the blankets behind Vin's shoulders and then headed for the kitchen.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Morning," said the pretty young woman, standing at the stove.
Larabee stood in the doorway, speechless. She had thick red-brown hair, large green eyes, and a smile that told him he was staring. He looked away, feeling the blood surge to his cheeks. She could have been Sarah's younger sister.
"Mama said the cookin' might pull ya out of bed. This'll be ready in a few minutes if you'd like a cup of coffee and a shave first."
Chris's hand rose to his chin and the bristly trail growth. She was right, he did need a shave. "Thanks, think I will," he mumbled, accepting the coffee she poured for him.
"If you open the curtains in Mama's room, you'll find everything you need. I fixed it up earlier when I shaved Mr. Tanner."
The gunslinger blushed again, realizing that she'd been in the room while he'd been sleeping, and he hadn't even heard her. "Gonna get myself killed, I keep this up," he muttered to himself.
She smiled and turned back to her cooking.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris shaved quickly, the smells from the other room drawing him like an iron shaving to a lodestone. But when he returned the kitchen he found Grandma Brush standing at the stove.
"Good morning, Mr. Larabee. Sit down, son, your breakfast's ready."
"Thanks," he said, sliding into a chair and looking around for the younger woman. "When I woke up, there was a–?"
"My youngest, Laura Ellen."
"Mama, there's four men coming down the creek," Laura said as she entered the house, her worried gaze shifting from the older woman to Larabee. "Looks like they're following some sort of tracks."
"Come with me," Grandma Brush told Chris, heading back into the bedroom where Vin was still sleeping soundly.
Laura removed the gunslinger's half-finished plate from the table.
Grandma Brush went to a hand-made rag-rug that covered a good portion of the floor and stooped down, tossing it back to expose a door set into the floor. Chris eyed it curiously. Reaching down, the old woman pulled it open.
"Bring Vin down here," she instructed, going down first with a lit lamp.
The gunslinger went to the bed, tossed back the covers, and scooped up the smaller man, who grunted softly, but didn't seem to be in much pain. Carrying him to the opening, he saw the steps and started down.
In the small room below the house, the older woman pointed to a narrow bed in one corner. Chris carried the tracker over and laid him down on the bare mattress.
"Laura, bring me a couple of blankets," she called up to her daughter, then turned to face the blond. "Bolt the door when I'm gone, and stay down here with Vin," she told him. "Laura and I will see to those men. As soon as it's safe, we'll come for ya."
Chris nodded, but he had to admit he was scared. Every instinct screamed that this could be a trap, that he was allowing the women to cage him down here. He wanted to be out in the open so he could protect Vin. Still, his gut told him he could trust the old woman, and he really had no choice but to place their lives in her hands.
"Keep him quiet if he wakes," she added as she climbed back up the stairs.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Al Timmons, a square-jawed, red-haired man in his late-forties, swung stiffly from his saddle and knelt down to study the drops of blood that led right into the large barn. It had been a long chase, but the hunt was almost over.
Looking up at the two other men who still sat wearily on their horses, he nodded. "We have 'em, boys.
The Peterson brothers, Ed and Cal, swung out of their saddles, drawing their rifles from their scabbards as they did.
The three men approached the barn doors together, their guns held at the ready. "Tanner! Come out here, Tanner!" Timmons called.
There was no answer, nor any movement from inside the barn.
The three bounty hunters moved to the doors, finally pulling them open and entering the barn. After a quick search, Ed, the elder of the two brothers, yanked his hat off and slapped it against his leg, saying, "Damn it, Timmons, I told ya they were long gone!"
The bounty hunter rubbed his square jaw with his finger and thumb. "I don't think so. There's only one blood trail. There'd be two if they'd ridden out again."
"His friend probably stopped here t' bind Tanner up," Cal argued.
"They're gone, I tell ya," Ed repeated, shaking his head. "Five hundred dollars – gone!"
"I don't think so," Timmons repeated. "I say we go have a visit with the people in the house."
"You think they're in there?" Cal asked him, his tone hopeful. Five hundred dollars, even split three ways, could buy plenty of whiskey and whores.
"What I know is this," Timmons growled, "Tanner couldn't have traveled any farther than this with all the blood he was losing, not and still be in the saddle. And there were no tracks of men riding double. They had to have stopped here, or in town, and I don't think they made it as far as Paradise. I think they're in there." He nodded at the house. "Probably holding the family hostage – if they haven't already killed them – and wondering what they're going to do now."
"If Tanner ain't dead," Ed grumbled, "in which case that friend of his'll be halfway t' Mexico by now."
Cal nodded his agreement, saying, "Never did see an outlaw stick 'round long enough to bury another of their kind."
"If he's dead, we need the body to collect the bounty," Timmons said. "And if he isn't, then he's in that house, so that's where we're going."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The knock was loud and clipped. Grandma Brush opened the door just far enough to look out at the three men she'd been watching from her window. "Can I help you, gentlemen?"
"Ma'am," the bounty hunter said, touching the brim of his hat in greeting. "Name's Al Timmons. My men and I are searching for a wanted man, a murderer named Vin Tanner. He was ridin' with a man dressed all in black. We tracked them as far as your barn. We'd like to come and have a look around if you wouldn't mind."
"Well, I would mind, Mr. Timmons," she told the bounty hunter. "I've never turned a stranger away from my door, but I won't open my home so ya can go snoopin' 'round like hogs in the woods. You and your men want some breakfast and coffee, you're welcome to it – looks like y'all could use it – but I won't have ya searching though my home. There aren't any murderers under my roof."
"Ma'am, we're concerned those men might be holding some of your family hostage to make you say that."
"There's no one here holding anyone against their will. Now, I'll only ask once more, would you like some breakfast?"
Timmons nodded. "We'd be much obliged, ma'am."
Grandma Brush opened the door and the three men stepped into the house, although only Timmons continued to hold his gun ready in case he should need it.
Laura Ellen stood next to the stove, holding a shotgun by the barrel, the stock resting on her toe. She nodded at the men as they entered, the brothers moving immediately to sit down at the table.
"Hold on, boys," Timmons said, raising his gun and pointing it at the young woman. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but we've just got to take a look around. It's for your own safety, and ours."
Laura Ellen's eyes flashed, but she leaned the shotgun against the wall, then went back to the eggs she was scrambling. The three men fanned out, giving the house a thorough search.
Grandma Brush followed Timmons into her and Jim's bedroom as he began his search, taking a seat in her rocking chair, which sat on top of the rag-rug.
"Mighty poor way to repay my hospitality, Mr. Timmons. If I was you, I'd make it a point to be out of the Territory before my husband and sons come home. They won't take kindly to men holding me and my daughter at gunpoint, or prowlin' through our home like common thieves. And mind ya, I want all your pockets turned out before ya leave."
"Yes, ma'am," Timmons replied, frowning when he found no evidence that Tanner or his friend had been there. Where else could they be?
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris stood at the bottom of the stairs, his gun drawn. He listened to the rhythmic squeak of the old rocker above his head, and the heavy thump of boots as one of the bounty hunters moved slowly around the room. He glanced over at Vin, who was resting quietly, and hoped Tanner wouldn't wake up or make any noises that might give them away.
Larabee took a deep breath and let it out slowly, wishing the man upstairs would move on. The gunslinger could feel the sweat rolling down his back as he waited for the heavy footfalls to finally fade from the room. Once they did, the rocking stopped, and a lighter footfall followed the boots out.
"C-Chris?" Vin called weakly.
Larabee turned back to find the tracker staring groggily around the room. "Quiet," he said softly, moving quickly to squat down at the man's bedside.
"Where am I? The doc's?" Vin asked him in a raspy whisper.
"Grandma Brush's cellar," Chris whispered back. "Timmons and his men are upstairs."
Tanner's eyes flew open wide. "Hell, Chris, why didn't ya go when ya had the chance?"
"I didn't have the chance," Chris told him, then added, "Already told you, I'm not leavin' 'til you're ready to ride."
Vin scowled at the older man, but he was very glad Larabee was there. "What're they doin' up there?"
"Think they searched the house," Chris said. "Would Timmons hurt an old woman?"
Vin stared intently at the top of the stairs, brow furrowed. "Don't think so. Timmons don't have a reputation fer meanness, 'cept with outlaws."
"How're you feeling?"
"Hot 'n' sore . . . like I got m'self caught in a buffalo stampede."
Chris appreciated the honest answer. "I'll ask Mrs. Brush if she has anything that might help," he offered.
Vin shrugged one shoulder. "Pain tells me 'm still alive."
"So long as you stay that way."
"Gonna try." And with that Tanner fell back to sleep, or passed out, Larabee wasn't sure which.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
It felt like a week had passed before Chris heard the light footfalls return, then the sound of the rocker being dragged away. A few moments later, the door opened above him and Grandma Brush's voice called down, "It's all right now, ya can bring 'im back up."
Larabee walked over to the bed and gathered his unconscious friend into his arms. The tracker whimpered softly, but he didn't wake. A fine film of sweat covered Vin's body, the heat from his building fever burning through Chris's shirt-sleeves. "Damn," he breathed, hoping the fever wouldn't get too bad.
Laura Ellen had the bed turned down by the time the gunslinger made it to the top of the stairs and he took Vin straight over and laid him back in the large feather bed. Grandma Brush pressed a wrinkled hand to the injured man's cheek, then to his chest, testing the progress of the fever. When she finished, she pulled the blankets up to cover the tracker and motioned for Chris to follow her into the kitchen.
Larabee took a seat at the kitchen table and Laura Ellen quickly had a plate of breakfast sitting in front of him. He studied the food for a moment, knowing he was hungry, but his stomach still felt like it had been tied into a tight knot. He took a deep breath and forced himself to take the first bite . . . then a second, and a third.
Grandma sat down across the table from him, and Laura Ellen left them alone, going in to sit with Vin.
Chris glanced around the room between bites as if he expected the bounty hunters to step out of the walls.
"Don't ya worry, son," Mrs. Brush said. "They rode off to town. I made sure ol' Jack saw 'em off the property. He wouldn't've come home if they were still on the ranch."
"The dog. Smart dog," she explained, rising to go and fill the coffee cup Larabee had already drained.
"They'll be back as soon as they find out we're not in town, you can count on that."
"Maybe, but they won't be coming back inside this house. You and Vin will be safe. When Jim and the boys get home, they'll see to it those bounty hunters are escorted out of the Territory."
Chris swallowed the last of his eggs and looked up at the old woman. "Where are we, exactly?"
She smiled. "Paradise."
A shiver ran down the gunslinger's back. It was easy to imagine both he and Vin were already dead, gone on to their final rewards – he could easily imagine Hell being one long pursuit by bounty hunters. "Paradise?"
"That's what they called the town. Portal's a mite bigger, ya know it?"
Chris nodded, recognizing that name. "What's that room down there for?" he asked her.
"Years ago we had some problems with uprisings among the Apache, back before the Army came in and set up Fort Bowie. My first husband dug that out so the kids could hide down there and not feel so scared. Don't reckon it would've stopped 'em if they'd been determined, but it served us well enough."
Larabee nodded as he finished the last of his meal.
"Things 've quieted down since then . . . even made us some friends among the Chiricahua and the Pueblos."
Laura Ellen leaned around the door, saying, "Mama, his fever's climbin' and he's in some pain."
Damn, Chris thought. "He said he felt like he'd been caught in a stampede."
Grandma Brush rose and headed back to the bedroom, Chris following on her heels.
Vin tossed restlessly under the quilts, his face flushed, his jaw clenched tightly.
The old woman frowned. "Daughter, go get the laudanum, and a glass of water, then brew up some of that Indian tea."
Laura Ellen brushed past Chris, giving him a reassuring smile that didn't work.
Grandma pulled the covers down to Vin's hips, then sat down on the edge of the bed so she could removed the bandage from his side wound and inspect the injury. It was draining, but the skin around the wound an angry red. Vin fretted and moaned as she touched and probed.
When she finished, she redressed the wound with fresh bandages, then checked his leg, which was doing better. She had just pulled the covers up again when Laura Ellen came back with the items her mother had asked for.
"How is he?" she asked the old woman.
"Not good; fever's buildin'. That side wound's worse 'n I thought. We have to make sure he gets plenty of water, and keep him comfortable as we can. The fever will burn the infection out, but . . . well, that might be just as dangerous as the infection." She looked at Chris, who had gone a little pale. "Sorry, son, but you have to know the truth. Things could go bad for Vin, and I want ya ready if it does."
"He'll make it," Larabee said softly, his heart pounding in his chest. Vin couldn't die, not like this – not before he'd even had a chance to clear his name.
Laura Ellen set the bottle of laudanum down on the bedside table, then filled a glass with water from the pitcher on the dresser. She added a few drops of the medicine to the liquid and handed it to her mother.
Grandma Brush took the glass, instructing, "Bring in a big bowl of cold water so we can wipe him down, Daughter. Mr. Larabee, you come help me sit Vin up and get this into him. Might be the only dose we can give him, but it'll help the pain for a little while."
Larabee gently took his friend under the arms and lifted Vin up while the older woman arranged the pillows behind his back. He lowered the tracker back against them, noting that Vin felt unnaturally light.
Tanner groaned, but he didn't open his eyes.
Then, walking around to the other side of the bed, Chris sat down, leaning one shoulder against the hand-carved headboard.
Grandma Brush took Vin's face in her hands, saying, "Son, can ya hear me? Come on now, Vin, wake up."
The tracker ground his eyes shut, scowling. He started to pant.
She shook Vin's shoulder. "Ya have to wake up, Vin. Come on now, son."
The tracker could almost hear the words as they filtered into his thoughts past the roar echoing in his mind, the roar that was pushing his consciousness down into a black abyss of pain and fear. But he couldn't understand the words. Still, the voice seemed familiar, like his mother calling to him.
He forced his eyes open, and asked with a frightened whisper, "Ma?"
Chris reached out, squeezing the tracker's bare shoulder, "Easy, Vin," he said softly. "Open your eyes."
Chris. Vin rolled his head to the side until he caught sight of the gunslinger, then he smiled weakly. "Still here, Cowboy?"
"Still here," Larabee assured him. "How're you feelin'?" he asked, knowing it was perfectly obvious that Tanner felt like hell.
"Hot," Vin said, trying to swallow, but his throat was too dry. "Funny. . ." he rasped out in a whisper, ". . . thought it was winter."
"Just the fever," Grandma Brush said.
Vin looked from Larabee to the older woman, and for a moment he thought he was seeing Nettie Wells, but then his vision cleared and he remembered where they were, and who the woman was.
"I want ya to drink this, son," she told him. "There's some laudanum in it that'll help ease the pain. Then I want ya to try and take some tea. Indians 'round here use it for fevers." She handed the glass to Chris, who carefully held it to the injured man's lips.
Vin finished the water in a few thirsty gulps, even though he grimaced at the taste of the medicine.
Grandma Brush took the empty glass and handed Chris a cup of the tea. The smell that rose from the surface made the gunslinger's stomach churn, but Vin didn't seem to notice it after he took his first sip. It took a little longer, but the tracker finished all of the tea as well.
Laura Ellen carried in a bowl of water and set it down on the bedside table, then took several cloths out of her apron pocket and set them next to the bowl. "Do you need me, Mama?" she asked, watching Vin worriedly. "I should go tend the animals."
"No, Daughter, you go on now; we'll do just fine."
Grandma took one of the cloths, dipped it into the water, wrung it out, and placed it on Vin's forehead. She used another to wipe the sweat from his face, neck and chest.
Chris just waited and watched, unsure what he could, or should, do to help.
Vin shuddered as she worked, his fingers curling into the covers as he moaned softly. "Hurts."
"Easy, Vin, easy," Larabee soothed, lightly rubbing Tanner's shoulder.
"Aw hell, Chris . . . 'm scared."
Larabee reached out instinctively, letting his hand cover one of the tracker's. "You're going to be fine, you hear me?"
Without looking at the older man, Vin released his grip on the quilts and inserted his hand into the gunslinger's grasp. "'M glad y' stayed," he whispered.
Chris gave the trembling hand a careful squeeze as he watched Vin's eyes slide shut again. "You're gonna be fine, Vin," he said determinedly. I won't lose you, too.
Grandma Brush watched the pair, her concern carefully hidden behind a neutral expression.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
A scream brought Larabee wide awake, but the sight that met his eyes made him wish it was all just a nightmare: Vin was curled into a ball on the bed, Grandma Brush holding his head in her lap, one of her arms wrapped around his shoulders as she rocked him from side to side.
Chris shoved himself out of the rocking chair he'd fallen asleep in near the fireplace, joining them on the bed.
Vin twisted and fought on the bed, trying to escape the burning agony that gripped his midsection and spread out to set his entire body on fire. All that filtered through was the pain, moment after endless moment of anguish.
Chris. Where's Chris? I want this t' end. I just want it t' end.
The gunslinger looked to the older woman, who was frowning. She lifted her chin and met Larabee's worried gaze. "Put a bit of whiskey in a full glass of water and bring it to me," she told him.
Chris had just started to prepare the drink when the bedroom door opened and Laura Ellen rushed in. "Mama, two of those men are comin' back."
"Get the rifle, girl, keep 'em out of the house."
Chris brought the glass to her.
"Help me sit him up," the old woman told him.
The two worked to unfold Vin, maneuvering him so Chris could hold him propped up against his chest in a seated position.
Grandma Brush set the glass on the bedside table, then gripped Vin's shoulders, shaking him. "Wake up, boy. Come on now."
The tracker's eyes blinked sluggishly open, but they remained unfocused and unseeing. She raised the glass to his lips and he gulped thirstily, the coolness of the water helping to ease the fire in his stomach.
"Hang on, Vin. Just a little longer," Chris said quietly as the man drank.
Chris? He thought he could hear Larabee's voice, but it was so far away. He struggled to reach it, but he couldn't find his way through the maze that sprang up in his thoughts. "Chris!" he cried.
The gunslinger felt Vin begin to shake uncontrollably. "Easy, Vin, easy."
Tanner tried to speak, but the pain seemed to separate his mind from his body, making it impossible for him to force the words out. He whimpered, scared and confused. But then the fog in his mind lifted and he finally managed to ask, "Wha's . . . happenin' . . . t' me?"
"Hang on, Vin. You have to hang on," he heard Larabee whisper in his ear. "I don't want to lose–" Chris moved to lay the injured man back down on the bed, but the tracker's panicked expression and soft squeal stopped him.
"He's scared," Grandma Brush said. "He don't really understand what's happening. Ya just sit there and hold him; hold him tight as ya can. You're his link to this world, right now, son. Ya let go, he just might too."
The older woman moved off the bed. She soaked several cloths in the water and draped them over Vin's torso and legs, trying to lower his fever.
Chris continued to sit, cradling the younger man in his arms, trying to quiet him as best he could. He was afraid to say anything, knowing that if he tried, his own fears would become obvious, so he hushed Vin quietly, like he would a new mustang, while he rocked him slowly from side to side.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Everything shifted. The terrible pain that had gripped him a few moments before slipped away like the fog of a bad dream and Vin suddenly felt light and free.
The world shimmered with colors and feelings the tracker had never known before. And, looking down, he could hear himself gasping for breath as he watched as Chris rocking him, cradled, in his arms.
It was like a dream, all far away and slightly unreal, but the raw anguish he saw on his friend's face cut painfully into his being.
Aw hell, Chris, y' shoulda left. No reason y' had t' see this. Never wanted t' be another nightmare hauntin' ya.
More than a little confused, Vin glanced around him and realized that he was floating several feet off the floor in one corner of the small bedroom.
Must be crazy with fever, he thought as he continued to watch the two people working over him. That, or 'm dead.
He watched Chris reach up to touch his face, the words the gunslinger spoke reaching him like a distant whisper. "You're the best friend I've ever had, Vin Tanner. You're family, and I don't want to lose you. You hear me? You can't die on me, Vin. Hang on, damn you, just hang on."
I hear y', Chris, Vin said, but there were no words, no sounds. He glanced around the room again, searching for answers that were beyond his grasp. Just don't look like I got a whole lot t' say 'bout it.
Vin watched as his body's chest rose and fell in a frantic effort to force more air into his lungs. Guess I ain't dead yet, but I sure as hell don't understand what's happenin'.
He looked up at the ceiling, expecting to see angels, or something. Then felt ashamed.
Guess it won't be angels, he thought. Chris?
He knew Larabee was there, his strong arms wrapped around him, and Vin wanted to reach out and grab hold of the man, cling to him and refuse to give into death, but he couldn't force his arms to rise.
I think 'm gonna die, Chris, he said, hoping his friend might somehow hear him. After all, they had shared an unusually close bond since the moment they'd met. Don't wanna leave y' like this, Cowboy, but I don't know what t' do. Y' got friends now, family. I know they'll watch out fer y' when 'm gone. . .
A commotion in the kitchen caught his attention. Laura Ellen was calling out a warning and he saw Grandma Brush grab his Mare's Leg from his holster, which was hanging on the bedpost.
Timmons and one of his men entered the room.
"That's far enough," Grandma Brush said, leveling the weapon on the men. She sounded like an angry mama bear protecting her cubs, and Vin grinned at her grit. She and Nettie Wells had been cut from the same cloth.
Timmons stared at the two men on the bed, his rifle lowering.
"Put your guns on the floor – now," the older woman snapped.
The two men complied.
Vin saw his body gasp and arch back into Chris, who was glaring at the men, the hatred burning in his eyes as fierce as the tracker's fever burning against his skin. Larabee reached for his gun and Vin realized Chris was about to shoot the men who had killed him.
"Move out of the way," Larabee growled at Grandma Brush.
No! Chris, don't kill 'em! You'll be on the run the rest 'a yer life, an' I won't be there t' watch yer back!
The older woman stepped to one side, glancing back long enough to see the expression on Chris's face. Laura Ellen stepped in behind the two men, her shotgun held on them as well.
"Here, see what you've done? It make you happy, Timmons?" Larabee growled ominously.
"Don't do anything foolish, Mister," the bounty hunter said.
"Foolish? Look at him!" Chris roared. "Vin Tanner never murdered anyone ya sonuvabitch! Eli Joe framed him for Kincaid's killin', to get Vin off his trail! He was a bounty hunter then, just like you! You've damn near killed an innocent man!"
Don't shoot 'im, Chris!
Knowing the gunslinger was a moment away from shooting Timmons where he stood, Vin scrambled to reach his friend before Larabee did something he would have to live with for the rest of his life.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin began to fight weakly in Larabee's arms.
"You get back to Vin," Grandma Brush said sternly, adding when he hesitated, "Mind what I tell you, boy!"
But Chris was still fighting the impulse to kill the two men where they stood. Then Vin cried out, breaking through Larabee's rage.
The gunslinger shoved his revolver back into his holster and wrapped both arms around Vin, trying to calm him down. "Easy, Vin, take it easy. That's it. Easy. . ."
"You two, in the kitchen," Grandma Brush directed with a slight wave of the tracker's Mare's Leg.
The two men backed out of the room as Chris reached over to place another cold cloth on the tracker's chest.
"Sit," she told the pair when they reached the kitchen.
Timmons and Cal sat down at the table, Grandma Brush holding the Mare's Leg on them while Laura tied their hands behind their backs.
"Where's the other one?" the older woman asked them.
"Covering the trail out of town," Timmons said, Cal shooting him an angry look when he did.
Vin cried out again in the other room and Chris's voice echoed out behind it, full of fear. "Mrs. Brush!"
Grandma left Laura Ellen with the men and went back to the bedroom where Chris was trying to hold Vin down while the tracker tried to fight his way up off the mattress, his eyes open wide but unseeing. Struggling to draw the rasping breaths, his hands flailed weakly against Larabee's arms.
"Vin, take it easy. It's me. It's Chris. You're safe. Take it easy."
Vin could hear Chris's voice, and he was trying to find him, groping vainly in the pain and confusion that ruled his mind, but that only seemed to make Larabee mad. Why was Chris mad?
"Lady!" Timmons yelled from the kitchen. "Lady, I can help him!"
"Shut up, Timmons!" Larabee shouted. "Shut up, or so help me I will kill you!" His green eyes locked on Grandma Brush's. "He's dying. What do we do?"
Vin cried out again, this time weakly, and collapsed back onto the bed.
Grandma Brush slipped her arm around Chris's shaking shoulders. "I don't know, son. I just don't know what else to do."
"You stay with him," she instructed, before returning to the kitchen. "What the devil do you want? I've a mind to shoot ya myself for what you've done to that boy!"
"I can help him," Timmons repeated.
"You crazy, Timmons?" Cal demanded.
"Look," the bounty hunter continued, his gaze locked on the older woman's, "my father was a doctor, in Boston, I grew up helping him . . . I'm a doctor!"
Grandma Brush hesitated until she heard Chris's choked cry. "Damn it, Vin, don't you die on me you sonuvabitch!"
Laying the Mare's Leg down, Mrs. Brush took a knife from the rack Ben had made for her and cut Timmons free. He rose, following her into the bedroom.
Chris was cradling Vin in his arms again, rocking the man's limp body. "You stay the hell away from him," he growled at the bounty hunter. "Haven't you done enough?"
Timmons ignored the comment, going to the bedside and holding out his hands. "Let me have him. Hurry."
Larabee's eyes blazed, one hand dropping toward his gun again.
"Do it, Chris," Grandma Brush snapped, breaking through the hatred that consumed the gunslinger's soul. He looked at her. "Give Vin to him. Hurry, son, he's dyin'."
Chris looked down at the still form of his best friend, then let Timmons lift the tracker from his arms.
"Your trough?" the bounty hunter asked Mrs. Brush.
"Follow me," she said.
Larabee climbed off the bed, following the pair out of the house.
Grandma Brush trotted to one of the small corrals, swinging open the gate.
Timmons carried Vin to the full trough and, using his boot heel, broke through the thin layer of ice that had built up on the surface of the water, then lowered the unconscious man into the frigid liquid.
Vin whimpered and struggled weakly.
Chris lunged forward, but Grandma Brush woman caught his arm. "Let him work, son. He's the only chance Vin has."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin fought viciously as he felt himself being drawn closer to a greater pain. Agony closed in on him like he was drowning and he clawed for the place he'd been in moments before – a place where there was no pain, no horror – but he was unable to stop the demanding pull that kept sucking him down into pure agony.
Finally, unable to fight any longer, he surrendered, falling back into the blinding torture of his own body.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Larabee stood, watching as Vin's chest arched so far back it looked like he might break in half. He froze there for a moment, then went completely limp.
"He dies, and so help me, I'll kill 'em both," Chris swore through gritted teeth.
Grandma Brush met his gaze and shook her head. "No, you won't, son. You're not a cold-blooded killer. And you know that's not what Vin would want."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Ice sliced through the fire that had burned within him, hot and cold warring for his soul. Vin couldn't tell how long the battle lasted, only that strong arms were finally lifting him out of his private hell.
He managed to get his eyes open long enough to see an older man lowering him onto a bed. The pale red hair and dark shirt shifted under the tracker's unfocused vision.
"C . . . Chris?" he managed to gasp out.
"Easy, boy," Timmons said as he gently laid Tanner down. The bounty hunter pulled the quilts up and sighed heavily. "I don't know if that broke the fever, but at least we lowered it for the time being."
Larabee shoved the man out of the way, sitting down on the edge of the bed and reaching out to cup Tanner's face in his palm. "Vin?"
The tracker's eyes fluttered weakly open and he slowly focused on Chris. "Guess I . . . ain't dead yet . . . huh?"
"No," Chris said, his throat tightening as his eyes filled with tears. "And you're not gonna die, either. You hear me?"
"I . . . hear ya," the tracker breathed.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris sat on the bed, watching Vin as he slept. The fever, back to a manageable level, allowed the tracker to finally rest.
Timmons stood by the fireplace in the bedroom, staring into the flames.
"Why?" Larabee asked quietly, without turning to face the man.
"Why save his life now? You've been trying to kill us for a week."
Timmons hesitated, then cleared his throat and walked over to sit in the rocking chair. He draped one booted foot over his knee and began to rock. "Believe it or not, Mr. Larabee, six years ago I was an ordinary doctor, working in Denver," he began.
Chris reached out, resting his hand on Vin's shoulder and gently rubbing.
"My wife had died two years earlier, but we had a son, Able. He was my world. I was so proud of that boy. . ." Timmons sighed, placing both feet on the floor and leaning forward. "He was about Tanner's age – early twenties – and he'd been back east, studying medicine. He was traveling to visit me when the train he was on was held up. He was killed trying to stop one of the robbers from soiling a young woman . . . She died a few days later."
Chris remained silent, considering the man's words.
"I went . . . I went crazy after that . . . started to drink. I eventually lost my practice. I hated any man I thought might have been the one who killed Able. I hated outlaws, all outlaws – murderers, rapists, train robbers, gunfighters . . . I thought I could avenge my son's death by killing the men who might've been responsible."
Larabee removed the damp cloth from Vin's forehead and placed it in the bowl of water. He turned on the bed to face Timmons. "Vin never murdered anyone. What I told you is the truth. Eli Joe – ever heard of him? – killed Jess Kincaid and pinned it on Vin to get him off his trail."
"Yes, I've heard of Eli Joe," Timmons acknowledged, studying Larabee's eyes. "And I believe he'd do exactly what you said he did. But you have to understand, I couldn't allow myself to think about the men I hunted as human beings. I'd dedicated my life to helping men, not hurting them. I didn't come by it naturally, but I surrounded myself with others who did . . . others who hated more than I did. And I let their hate poison me." He stood and walked over so he could look down at Vin. "When I saw him lying there earlier, all I could see was Able. I knew then that I was wrong."
"I had assumed that outlaws couldn't care about one another. I refused to think that they could be human beings with honor and . . . kindness."
"We're not outlaws," Chris said simply. "Not saints either. And I still don't like you, Timmons, but I do thank you for saving his life. I owe you for that."
The man smiled thinly. "I don't blame you, Mr. Larabee. I don't like myself much right now either." He left the two men and headed for the kitchen. "It isn't over yet," he said from the doorway. "My other man will come back to look for Cal and me. He won't let five hundred dollars ride away – guilty or not."
Chris turned back to Vin. "We'll handle it."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
There was a warm hand on his shoulder, someone rubbing the tension out of his aching muscles, sore from the fever and bad dreams.
"C . . . Chris?"
"Right here, pard," was the soft reply.
The tracker forced his heavy eyelids open and looked up at his friend. He smiled at the expression the older man wore. "Hell, Chris . . . way yer lookin' at me . . . might as well be that Lazarus fella Josiah talks 'bout."
"Might as well be," Larabee agreed. "You rose from the dead yourself."
"Going on four days."
"Since I got shot?"
"No," Chris said softly, his gaze dropping, "since you almost died. Timmons got your fever down, and it finally broke last night."
The tracker's eyes widened. "Timmons?"
"Seems he's changed his mind about you."
Vin looked dubious.
"Don't worry, I'm keepin' an eye on him just in case he has another change of heart," Larabee assured him. "Miss Brush went to town and sent a telegraph to Four Corners. The others are on their way."
Grandma Brush appeared over Chris's shoulder, smiling down at the tracker. "Welcome back, son," she said.
"'Preciate . . . all . . . y' done," he told her.
She reached out and tenderly patted his cheek. "Go on back to sleep, Vin. Ya need to rest, but you're gonna be fine."
Tanner nodded, then looked back to Chris, asking a little sheepishly, "Y' gonna be here?"
Larabee nodded, a small smile curling the corners of his mouth. For a long time, pard.
Then, closing his eyes, Vin slipped back to the healing embrace of sleep.
"Never seen a man trust someone so much," the older woman said.
"It's mutual," Chris replied simply.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin lay in bed, listening to the rhythmic ring of an ax on wood as Chris increased Grandma Brush's winter woodpile. Three days had passed since his fever had broken and the tracker was getting restless.
Grandma Brush's husband, sons, and grandsons were home and there had been names and faces to put together for a couple of days, but he'd gotten them all straight. Lani had been the easiest one. He sighed and closed his eyes. Now there was a reason to consider settling down and becoming a farmer.
Twenty-two, with long chestnut hair, gray eyes and a wild streak that Vin found irresistible, she had captured his attention immediately – not to mention his breath. Lani was a rebel, riding with her brothers, roping, shooting and generally upsetting the natural order of things wherever she went, including the kitchen.
Vin grinned; a reason indeed. But she was already spoken for and he silently wished her husband the best of luck; he was definitely going to need all he could get.
Things were good here, he thought. It was the kind of community the folks in Four Corners were trying to build. And, given time, it was the kind of community they would eventually have.
He was even glad when he'd heard that Timmons had decided to stay on after his men were escorted out of the Territory by the returning men. With Doc Harbor still gone, the former bounty hunter had taken it upon himself to act as Paradise's resident physician until the man returned. And he'd been kept busy, too, delivering two babies, setting a broken leg and treating a bruised skull when Mrs. Peters applied her skillet to Mr. Peters' head.
The hypnotic ring of the ax stopped and Vin opened his eyes, listening while Chris exchanged a few words with someone. Then the sound of boots echoed thorough the house and Timmons entered the bedroom.
"Mornin'," the tracker greeted, still a little wary of the man.
"Morning," Timmons returned, walking over to stand next to the fireplace. Pulling off his riding gloves, he thrust his hands closer to the flames to warm them. "It's coolin' off a bit."
Vin's brow furrowed. "Been coolin' off fer some time now. Y' come out here jist t' tell me 'bout the weather?"
Timmons shook his head. "I've been watching the comings and goings in town," he said, his back still turned.
"I think Ed and Cal are back." He crossed to the rocker and sank down into it. "Your friends should be here in a couple of days. You might want to think about leaving as soon as you can."
Vin nodded. "Already planned on it."
"I just wanted to say that I'm sorry about what happened," he added. "You and your friend have given me back my life."
"Y' did that yerself," Vin replied. "Jist hope I c'n clear m' name one day."
"I'd be happy to help you track Eli Joe down."
"He's dead," Vin said flatly.
"Damn. That's going to make it a mite harder."
"Yep. Been tryin' t' find Eli Joe's half-brother Zeb Harper. He and his cousin's rode with 'im. They must've been with 'im when he killed that farmer. If I c'n find him, I c'n still clear m' name."
"I'll see what I can find out for you. It's the least I can do, given the situation. And I honestly would like to make this up to you in some small way."
"Obliged. Y' know where t' find me."
Timmons nodded. "Four Corners. I might even deliver the news in person – if I can find anything."
Vin thought for a moment, then said, "Y' really want t' make this up t' me?"
"Yes, I do," Timmons replied sincerely.
"Got a friend in Four Corners, he's a healer, but he's got a lotta questions only a real doctor c'n answer. Y' spend some time with him, answer his questions, show him what he needs t' know, an' that'll square us."
"I'd be happy to do that. Certainly," Timmons said. "In fact, I'll ride back with you, if you'd like."
"Guess that depends on if y' c'n get away. These folks already come t' depend on ya."
Timmons nodded. "I think I'll come back here. It's a fine community, and they need a doctor here year 'round, but I want to set things right between us, too. I need to."
"Then yer welcome t' ride along."
Timmons stood and stepped up to the side of the bed. Sticking out his hand, he was grateful when the tracker didn't hesitate to take it.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
A few days later, Chris and Vin said goodbye to Grandma Brush and her family, climbed onto their horses, and turned them toward home. Buck and Josiah were there to escort the two men, keeping a close watch out for the Peterson brothers. Al Timmons also rode along with them as well, but he'd promised Mrs. Brush that he'd be back as soon as he'd spent a few days with Vin's friend.
That first night on the trail they stopped in small clearing, ringed with pine. Timmons had Vin lay down so he could check his wounds, but they were both healing well, the ride apparently doing no damage to the man.
"You feel all right?" the physician asked him.
Vin nodded, "Feel fine, Doc."
Timmons nodded with satisfaction and smiled. "Looks like you'll be able to make this trip just fine."
The tracker grinned. "Coulda told y' that, saved y' all this work, if y' asked."
The older man smiled and shook his head. "I look forward to meeting another one of your interesting friends." And with that he moved off to lay out his bedroll.
Josiah continued to work near the fire he'd built, fixing supper for them while Chris tended to the horses.
Vin leaned back against the fallen tree trunk and allowed himself to enjoy the crisp night air, the stars, and the warmth of good friends. All in all, he was glad to be alive, and still slightly giddy about it. He looked up when Buck approached through the trees and sat down next to him.
"No sign of anyone doggin' us. How ya feelin', stud?" Wilmington asked him.
"Fine," Vin replied, hoping Buck didn't plan to look him over the way Timmons had; he might just have to hurt the ladies' man if he tried.
"I, uh . . . well, I just wanted to tell ya. . ." Buck trailed off, glancing around to ensure that they were alone, and he wouldn't be overheard. "I just wanted to say I was glad you pulled through this, Vin. Hear it was pretty bad there for a while."
Vin's eyes rounded slightly. "Reckon so," he replied, the corners of his mouth twitching. "Hell, Buck, didn't know y' cared so much. . ."
Buck started to reply, then blushed fiercely. He glanced away, cursing softly under his breath. When he looked back he was grinning with honest amusement. "I meant I'm glad for Chris's sake," he clarified. "I'd hate for him to lose someone else he cares about."
"Think he might be stronger 'n you're sayin'."
"Maybe," Buck agreed. "But I saw what he was like after Sarah and Adam died, and I know he thinks on you like family. No man should have to lose that much in his life, so I'm real glad you're too damned ornery ta die, Vin Tanner. And next time? Be a little more careful, will ya?"
Vin dipped his head, his own cheeks coloring. "Yeah, I'll do that."
"I'd appreciate it." And with that Buck stood, patted Vin's shoulder with brotherly affection, then walked over to join Josiah at the fire.
"Hey, Chris!" Wilmington called. "Suppertime!"
"Comin'," was the man's reply.
Vin watched Larabee step into the circle of light cast by the fire, the gunslinger's gaze immediately seeking him out.
Chris flashed the tracker a half-worried, half-questioning look and Vin nodded in reply, letting the man know that he was fine. He watched as Larabee immediately relaxed.
Family . . . that's got a nice ring t' it, the tracker thought as he pushed himself up and walked over to join the others at the fire.
Chris made a space for him to sit down and Vin did, accepting a plate from Josiah and digging in as soon as he was settled.