Main Characters: Chris, Vin, Buck, JD primarily
Notes: As always, the Christastrophes belong to Muse. Thanks to the folks at the Black and Buckskin for their input.
Synopsis: During a foiled jail escape, Chris is injured in a dynamite blast. Vin blames himself for the accident, and Chris must face the possibility of living life without all of his senses. Buck and JD lend support, both emotional and practical.
Webmaster Note: This story was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in May 2012.
The fight was quick. The seven men paid to be guardians of the little New Mexican town dealt with the eighteen men bent on breaking out their two cohorts, with their usual ease and finesse. They were getting better, losing only a couple of storefront windows during this fight. It all seemed to be in hand until five of the peacekeepers jumped to the alert, hearing a muffled explosion from behind the jail.
“Josiah, Ezra, go ‘round that way. JD come with me,” Buck Wilmington barked out the orders when he saw that neither Chris Larabee nor Vin Tanner was in sight. Leaving Nathan watching over the wounded outlaws, the other four men circled the jail. Once there, they all stopped, staring in shock.
Vin, holding his mare's leg on not only the two jailed men, but two of their cohorts, hovered near Chris. The blond was unconscious, his clothing smoldering. He was covered in blood, the others almost certain that he was dead.
“JD,” Vin spoke up. “Go and get Nathan. Tell him Chris is hurt and it looks bad.”
“Vin, I –“
“Go on now, Kid.”
The young sheriff nodded, running quickly to get the healer.
“Vin, is he...” Buck began, his insides going to ice water at the very thought that his oldest friend was dead.
“Still breathin’ Bucklin,” Tanner replied. At first the young sharpshooter sounded almost too calm. It slowly dawned on the others that he was in shock.
Josiah Sanchez knelt next to the sharpshooter. “Vin, are you hurt?”
“Nope,” came the hollow reply.
Buck was kneeling on the other side of Larabee. “Vin, what happened?”
“They blew the wall t’ get Bell ‘n Logan out. Me ‘n Chris had circled t’ get the drop on ‘em. Chris...”
“Chris what?” Wilmington prompted when the Texan’s voice faded.
Visibly pulling himself back from wherever he’d gone, Tanner continued. “Chris saw the dynamite n’ hollered out, but I was too damn slow. Next thing I knew, he shoved me outta the way... got hit...” his blue eyes swimming with tears, the young man looked up at the big brunet. “I’m sorry, Buck.”
“Sorry for what, pard?” Wilmington asked softly.
“It’s my fault.”
Wilmington opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by Nathan. Jackson nudged the ladies man out of the way and began examining the injured gunfighter. “Josiah, Buck, I need you fellas to get me a couple of blankets. Wet ‘m down, but from the well. Need to make certain it’s clean water.”
“We’re on our way,” Josiah said. Gently he squeezed Vin’s shoulder before he moved away, but the young man seemed not to notice.
“Vin? Vin!” Nathan made himself heard through Tanner’s shock. “Are you hurt?”
Tanner shook his head, but didn’t answer.
“I need you to go get my bag... in my clinic. You know where it is? Vin?”
“I’ll gather your things, Nathan,” a smooth Southern voice sang out. Ezra came up to them. “I have secured those miscreants in the undamaged jail cell. One of them has a minor arm wound, but otherwise they seem intact. Is there anything in particular you require?”
Nodding, the former slave said, “Gonna need Laudanum. He comes 'round he’s gonna be in bad pain. Carbolic...salve...” he quickly ticked off the medical supplies he’d need.
“I’ll have it here post haste,” Standish hurried away.
While Jackson’s practiced hands examined Chris Larabee, he chanced a look at Vin Tanner. “Vin, are you hurt anywhere?” He asked the question again, slowly.
“Already said no,” came the monotone reply.
Deciding he would check the tracker later, he turned his full attention back to Chris. Heavy footsteps announced the return of Sanchez and Wilmington. Under his direction, they draped the blankets over the unconscious gunslinger to stop the smoldering that continued in the depths of the ruined black clothing.
“All right, one of you go over to the undertakers and borrow his stretcher,” Jackson continued on despite the looks his request brought from the other men. “Buck, your place is closest and on the street. We’re gonna need to take him there.”
“Sure Doc, of course,” Buck replied.
“I’ll get the stretcher,” Sanchez departed on his new errand.
Soon they were gently loading the bloodied man into the basket-style stretcher and moving him quickly to the big gunman’s rented room. Townspeople were beginning to venture back onto the street now that the gun play had ended, and they gaped at the sight of the gunslinger. JD was watching the three remaining outlaws who had been taken unharmed during the fight; his stricken gaze following his friends. Once at Buck’s room, Nathan enlisted Josiah’s help to remove the ruined clothing, taking care around the burns. That done, they bathed Larabee, cleaning away the dirt and debris so that the healer could investigate the injuries.
Despite the look of things, Chris was actually in fairly good shape. With the exception of a few of the burns, his injuries were relatively minor. Most of the burns were on his hands and arms. The ones that worried Jackson the most were those on his face. While the abrasions weren’t as deep, they seemed concentrated around his forehead and eyes.
“We’re gonna have to wash out his eyes, clean the burns, and cover them,” Nathan said.
“Doc,” Buck managed to get past his fear, “you think he’s gonna be... is he gonna be okay?”
“Too early to tell for certain, Buck. I ain’t gonna lie to y’. He might be fine...but he might not. Let’s talk about it later, okay?”
Nodding, the big gunman watched from the side, wanting nothing more than to give some comfort to his friend; to have the comfort of touching the man’s chest to feel it rise and fall as he breathed. Then he looked across the little room and saw another friend that he could offer some comfort to. Padding quietly across the floor, he came to a stop next to Vin. Tanner barely seemed to notice that he was there. He stood rigidly against the wall, just out of the way, but as close as he could be. Gently Buck reached out and touched a slender arm. “Hey pard, why don’t you come sit down or somethin’? You want a drink?”
His arms wrapped around himself, Tanner didn’t reply.
“Vin? Come on, okay?” Wilmington guided the younger man over to the corner of the room, pressing him down onto the wooden seat. Tanner complied, seeming not to have any will of his own at the moment. With a worried sigh, Buck rubbed a hand across the buckskin covered shoulders, then, without another word, he retrieved a bottle of whiskey and uncorked it. Holding it out in front of Vin, he tried not to be frustrated when the too-quiet man made no move to take it. Finally he pressed the bottle against the quiet man’s lips, relieved when at last Tanner drank the fiery liquid.
For three days the men were in limbo, uncertain as to whether Chris would survive the blast. While the injuries had not been serious, the combination of the explosion with its concussive effect on his body, and the shock that followed, took its toll on him. He developed a fever that took more than a day to ease, and the burns made every attempt to become infected. Only Jackson’s diligence and Larabee’s innate stubbornness, aided by the support that the other men supplied, pulled the blond through the worst of times.
In all that time, Vin hardly left the room. They pulled him away long enough to eat a couple of times, the tracker moving along between the other men as if he were sleep walking. Tanner barely spoke, being quiet even for him. Unless they physically moved him, he simply sat there, next to the bed, watching Chris.
On his part, Chris Larabee lay quietly in the bed, completely unresponsive to anything or anyone most of the time. Then, from time to time, he would rouse enough to register the pain and darkness. The injured man would moan, his perspiration soaked head tossing and turning on the pillow as if he were searching for something. They would try to calm him, talking in soothing tones to reassure him that he would be all right. Chris didn’t seem to understand, at least he didn’t respond to them. The worst was when they touched the semi-conscious man. He would flinch from even Vin’s touch, seeming unaware of who it was that tried to calm him. After a few such instances, Nathan thought he understood the man’s disorientation.
“I think the explosion injured his ears. He’s probably not hearin’ us well, might hear ringing, or our voices and other sounds might be too muffled for him to understand.”
“You mean he might be deaf, too?” Buck asked, defeat in his voice.
Shaking his head, the healer said, “don’t think so, not completely. His ears haven’t bled, that’s a sign that his ear drums ain’t busted. Might have some hearing problems that don’t go away, though.”
“Damn,” Wilmington sighed. “What else does he gotta go through?”
“He’s tough Buck,” JD offered softly from the big man’s elbow. “He’ll come through it fine.”
“I hope you’re right Kid, but...”
The young sheriff put a hand on his friend’s arm. “Hey, everyone’s got to be right once in awhile.” He smiled at the man, trying to lighten the mood.
Allowing himself the luxury of a smile in return, the big ladies man wrapped on arm around his young friend’s shoulder. “Reckon even you’re due once or twice.”
Slipping out from under the former lawman’s grasp, JD went to kneel next to Tanner. “Vin? Why don’t you come with me for a while? Let’s go get something to eat, you haven’t been out of here all day.”
Tanner simply shook his head, his eyes still on Chris.
“Vin,” Buck said now, “you need to get out of here for a little bit. Go on with JD, and I’ll sit here with Chris ‘til you get back. Okay?”
JD nudged the lean tracker from the chair. “Come on Vin. Inez’s fixing her special chili.”
Absently getting to his feet, the sharpshooter waked from the room with his friend. They weren’t certain if it was the promise of Inez’s cooking or simply that he was tired of fighting the others. Not that it mattered, as long as he got away for a little while.
It was only a few minutes after the two youngest members of the troupe left that Chris began moaning softly, his head tossing weakly on the pillow. The big man gently sat on the edge of the bed, holding onto the man in black’s shoulders carefully. “It’s okay pard, it’s okay. Chris, it’s Buck, do y’ understand?”
The tossing and moaning continued unabated; he fought the hold. Recalling Nathan’s observation that he might be having trouble hearing, Wilmington leaned closer and raised him voice. “CHRIS! IT’S BUCK. YOU’RE OKAY PARD.”
The man quieted slowly, his bandaged face turning slightly toward the muffled sounds he finally heard. Running his tongue across dried, cracked lips, he whispered, “Bu... Buck?”
“HEY STUD!” Wilmington called out, “can you hear me now?” When Chris made no indication that he had heard the quieter words, the big man resumed yelling. “CAN YOU HEAR ME?”
Nodding, Larabee said, “wh-what’s wr-ong with me?”
“DYNAMITE, CHRIS, YOU GOT HURT IN A BLAST.”
“Dark,” the blond mumbled. “Where...” his words trailed off as he collapsed back into unconsciousness.
Sighing, the big gunman sat back on his chair, watching as Larabee drifted back to the oblivion he had been in for three days. “Pard, you gotta get better. Don’t think I can stand to lose you a second time.” As he watched the injured man sleep, Wilmington’s mind drifted back through the years. There had been so many changes in his friend since the fist day they had met.
Just entering their twenties, both of them strutting like rosters, they had nearly shaken hands at the wrong end of a gun. Larabee had taken exception to his good-natured exuberance and moved to call him out. It had only been Buck’s glib tongue that had diffused the situation. The two young men had ended up buying one another drinks for several hours, only parting company to spend time with a couple of working girls. That had been the beginning of a relationship that would endure a lot of life’s journey. The two of them had happened to meet up the next morning at the livery. Neither man had a particular direction or job prospect in mind, so they casually fell into company. They had enjoyed many adventures together, some of them on the wrong side of the law, but for the most part their adventures included hard labor. From time to time some comment or other would give the other man some insight into their past. It was how he had learned about Ella Gaines and her hold on him.
It had been four years later when chance led them to a little town named Rocky Trail and found them enjoying a town social. Buck had seen the look in Chris’ eye as he spoke shyly to a dark-haired beauty. He would tease Chris for years that he had known in an instant that the gunman was in love. In the weeks that followed, he helped his love-struck friend woo Sarah Connolly and avoid the wrath of her father Hank. They both found work at a local ranch, Chris quickly establishing himself as an excellent bronc buster. Almost everything he made, the regular pay and the extra for each horse he gentled to the saddle, went in his war chest. Larabee had a single goal in life now, making enough to buy his own place. Their own place. Then he would marry Sarah.
The two men worked at the ranch for an entire year, the longest time either had stayed in one place since being on their own. They weren’t choir boys in any sense of the word, the young stallion in each of them coming out from time to time. But never when Sarah Connolly was present. Buck chuckled even now as he thought of how Chris Larabee’s very essence changed when his chestnut-haired filly was around. Not that he became a polite little schoolboy or anything. But then that wasn’t who Sarah had fallen in love with.
He had helped Chris build their little home, listening to the usually taciturn blond as he talked for hours about his plans for the future. Buck could see them, sitting on the roof as they set the shingles, Chris laying out the next forty years of his life. It all revolved around Sarah and their future... a dozen children, a hundred head of horses, their own land, happiness and contentment. Buck still cursed the fate that had ended those dreams and sent his best friend through hell.
But back then there had only been dreams and the future, rather than nightmares and the past. He had accompanied Chris on his first date with Sarah; propriety calling for their being chaperoned. The fact that the chaperones had been the ones to sneak off to be alone was something only the four of them would ever know. Chris was more of a gentleman around Sarah than Buck would have thought possible considering the man’s wild streak. He also smiled, laughed and even blushed more around her. It seemed that Chris was just more alive when in the young woman’s presence.
Buck could see their wedding day. The only damper on the joy of the day was that Hank Connolly had refused to be a part of his own daughter’s wedding. After some discussion, Chris had asked another friend from their job at the ranch stand up with him. Buck was given the honor of walking Miss Sarah Connolly down the aisle to be given into the care of Mister Chris Larabee. Nothing could have given him more happiness, placing her slender hand into Chris’. Nothing gave him more amusement than the ‘scared shitless’ look on the blond’s ashen face, either. It had taken everything he had not to bust out laughing at the huge green hazel eyes and trembling hands that greeted him as he gave the bride away.
Even more entertaining was the shivery he had instigated and led that night. He was glad that he had hidden Chris’ bullets the night before, as the look he gave his friend this time had none of the earlier fear in it. This one was pure anger that only slightly diffused after they carried him out of their new home with nothing but a sheet to retain his dignity, and appeased him with whiskey. Sarah, on the other hand, had laughed heartily as she was ‘kidnapped’ by her female friends. At length they returned the newlyweds to hearth and home, leaving them to celebrate the rest of their wedding night alone. Chris’ parting words that night were half-joking as he said, “ain’t gonna forget this Buck.”
The days and weeks to come had found Buck visiting often enough to lend Chris a helping hand with his fledgling herd of wild horses, but not so often that he became a nuisance. Even so, Sarah would tease that they should have planned an extra room for the big man. He always knew that he had a place at their table, and spent many happy evenings with the young couple. His friendship with Sarah had been just as strong as the one he had with Chris, although, of course, it was different. Theirs was one rooted in innocent flirting and almost a sibling relationship. She fussed and fretted over him, trying her best to find a woman to match him with. Buck had endured frequent dinners with one single young woman or another, flirting with them fiercely and occasionally seeing them for a few weeks afterward. They never measured up, though, when his yardstick was Sarah Connolly Larabee.
Chris had known without asking that there was a part of Buck that was jealous. Still, Buck had finally admitted one night that he would never find anyone like Sarah. Chris knew, too, that the big man’s loyalty and sense of honor would never allow him to try anything untoward with his bride. Buck Wilmington was a lot of things, but a home-wrecker was not one of them. Chris was even comfortable enough that he had no qualms about leaving them alone. But then, Buck knew that he’d have a bullet between his eyes within an hour if he ever did try to approach Sarah. It wouldn’t have done any good to try to take her away from the blond anyway; Sarah was just as in love with Chris as Chris was with her.
Life had become happily routine. While he had expected Chris to end his hard-living, Buck was shocked when Sarah had insisted otherwise. Although Larabee went out less often, they still had nights of drinking, card playing and fighting. The biggest difference was that as the evening ended, he had gone upstairs with one of the house girls and Chris had ridden home to Sarah.
When she became pregnant, that changed, however. Chris became a complete homebody. Buck would ride out from time to time with a bottle and a deck of cards. The two men would have their own party then, enjoying an easy camaraderie that had been theirs for so long. After dinner, the two men would settle in to play poker and drink, Chris catching up on the gossip Buck happily supplied. When the ‘big day’ had occurred, it had only been Chris and Sarah there. While Buck wasn’t there when Sarah had given birth, he was their first visitor, riding in with gifts for his new godson, flowers for the new mother, and cigars for the new father.
For the next five years, life continued along with a happy monotony. He and Chris began to make trips to nearby ranches and even into Mexico to sell the horses Chris had gentled. Buck loved visiting even more once Adam became old enough to toddle after the big man. His name was the first spoken after “Mama” and “Papa”; Buck was almost in tears to hear “Buck!” crowed from the front porch as he rode in for a visit one day. He and Chris took the tyke riding every chance they got, waving off Sarah’s instructions for caring for the child on the range.
There had been bad times, as well, even before the fire. Sarah had lost two babies during the early months of pregnancy. He had stayed close during those times, lending both Sarah and Chris quiet strength. He wiped away the tears that Sarah refused to shed in front of her grieving husband; he listened as Chris railed against the injustice of life in general as he expressed that grief. But, finally, life would return to normal and the sun would shine again.
Buck remembered the final night they had spent in the little house. He and Sarah had talked for some time while Chris had taken his son for an evening ride. They had enjoyed one another’s company while they washed the dinner dishes. He would cherish that time forever. That night he had slept in Adam’s narrow bed with the little boy curled up against him. Another memory he would hold close in his heart for the rest of his life.
The days, weeks and months that followed were the darkest of his life. Chris had changed once again, becoming someone Buck neither understood nor liked. After a few months of trying to get through to the tortured, grief ridden man, he had finally surrendered. He doubted that Larabee had even noticed when he left. Chris had stopped noticing just about anything and everything around him. His world was filled with grief and hate, and soaked in whiskey. Buck had ridden away from that man, but had never forgotten the friend that had been.
Buck was pulled from his memories by the sound of the door. Vin walked in, stopping when he saw Wilmington sitting next to the bed. For a minute Tanner looked almost confused, as if he couldn’t decide what to do with Buck in ‘his’ chair. The big man said softly, “there’s another chair over in the corner, Vin, pull it on up here.”
Nodding, not making eye contact with the other man, the sharpshooter did just that. He sat down next to the bed, his eyes trained once more on Larabee. He didn’t speak, just sat there, staring. Buck quickly had enough. “Pard, what’s eatin’ you? Chris’ been hurt before, and worse than this. You act like he’s got one foot in the grave, and Nathan’s told us all he’s gonna live.”
At first it didn’t seem that Tanner had heard him, but finally he answered in a soft, pain-filled whisper. “It’s my fault Buck. I should ‘a got outta the way, I don’t know why I didn’t. He shouldn’t a gotten hurt, it’s cause a me that he did.”
“Ah, hell,” Buck grumbled, remembering the younger man’s words as they sat in the alley praying that Chris would live. “Damn it Tanner, it’s not your fault, not at all. It was just the luck a the draw that Chris was standin’ there and not you.”
“But it was Chris. I don’t know how you can sit there and talk to me. He’s been your friend for a long time, Buck, why don’t y’ hate me for what happened?”
“Maybe ‘cause you’re my friend, too, you blame fool. Now, get this nonsense outta your head. You ain’t to blame for what happened, and Chris’ll tell you the same thing when he’s better. Probably while he’s kickin’ your ass. Right now, he needs you stud, so you best get yourself together and be there for him.”
Vin smiled at the words, delivered with a mixture of anger and concern. Sometimes it still amazed him that he had not one, but six friends. Good friends, that wouldn’t banish him for something he’d done... or didn’t do. Friends that simply cared about him, whether he was around or not. Finally he managed, “Thanks, Bucklin.”
Wilmington chuckled. It was the first time he could remember being thanked for chewing someone out.
Vin sat in the darkness, listening to the quiet, steady breathing of the man in the bed. Buck had told him about Chris’ wakening. He was almost jealous that he hadn’t been there when it had happened, but he wasn’t. The thing that mattered was that Chris had awakened, and that he could hear. Maybe it wasn’t the man’s usual sensitive hearing, honed by years of listening for the draw of a gun, but he had heard.
Vin sighed, tilting his chair back and folding his arms across his chest. Buck’s words had gone a long way in helping him to get past the feelings of guilt over the accident, but they still lingered. He believed what the big man had said, that Chris wouldn’t blame him. Hell, for all his glaring and hard-ass attitude, he knew Larabee only too well. The man’s hardness surrounded a big heart, one that had embraced a scruffy, ignorant, wanted man. In a single look, Chris had let him know that he had a friend for life. They had both tested and strained that unspoken promise from time to time, but the bond had held tight.
And he knew, too, that the bond would hold if Chris’ hearing and sight didn’t return completely. Larabee would be an even bigger hard-ass than he was on a good day, but Vin would deal with that; deal with whatever his friend’s anger caused him to throw at him. Knowing the man’s stubborn pride, that anger would be considerable. He’d give the blond whatever help he needed, and learn to give no more. Chris would need a friend, not a nursemaid.
Vin’s eyes drifted closed, visions of the past several months floating through his mind in a Hodge-podge of good and bad, wanted and unwanted thoughts. He wasn’t certain how long it was before a soft noise brought him back to the present. Tilting the chair forward, he watched to see if his friend was waking again. The blond mumbled for a minute, but didn’t seem to be returning to consciousness just yet. With a sigh, the tracker sat back.
Reaching into the jacket that hung on the back of his chair, he pulled out his harmonica. Turning it over and over in his slender hands, Vin finally put it to his mouth, blowing tunelessly for several minutes. It annoyed the others that he didn’t play what they considered ‘real music’, but to Vin it was the sweetest sound. It reminded him of the wind on the prairie, and it brought him comfort. The others never understood, even though Chris nodded as if he did. The proof came when he had blown into the instrument a little too long, and Larabee would grumble about the ‘noise’. He’d welcome that right now. With a single, hard burst of air, he blew a final note and returned the harmonica to his pocket. Leaning forward, his elbows propped on his knees, he watched the unconscious man closely. “Come on now Chris Larabee, wake your ass up.”
The blond continued drifting in the depths of unconsciousness.
Vin sat watching as Nathan deftly changed the bandages on Chris’ hands. The burns were beginning to heal, although they still looked painful. The healer kept rubbing a thick salve over the raw skin, promising that it would keep the man’s hands from becoming too scarred or – worse yet – crippled. The thought of Chris Larabee unable to use his hands was frightening to them all; he would be helpless.
The thick muslin bandages completely encased the normally slim, long-fingered hands. By the time Nathan was finished, Tanner could barely recognize the shape of the hands now hidden. Next came the bandages around the gunslingers eyes. Jackson was almost certain that his vision would be alright after a time. He kept them covered nonetheless, wanting the man’s eyes to have the chance to recover. Vin was glad to see a reaction to the light when the bandages were completely removed. Though he didn’t quite wake, Chris’ face pulled itself into a frown and he muttered soundlessly.
“Don’t seem he’s too happy ‘bout bein’ fussed over, even asleep,” Tanner observed.
Jackson laughed, “Believe me, it’d take a lot more than bein’ asleep to make this stubborn cuss happy about bein’ tended to.”
Vin laughed as well, then teased. “Don’t sound like he makes your life real easy when he’s feelin’ poorly.”
“You can talk,” the ex-slave responded with a snort.
To their shock and relief the two men heard a sleepy, almost inaudible chuckle come from the bed. They both looked to see Larabee’s lips turned up in a smile.
“Chris?” Vin called.
“Chris, can you hear us?” Nathan asked.
“Yeah,” came a tiredly mumbled reply . “Hard to hear... ears buzzin’... what’s wrong?”
The other two men looked at one another, neither wanting to explain things to Chris just yet. It would be unlikely that he would be able to understand that his hearing, vision and sense of touch would be restored with time and attention. Finally, steeling himself for the worst, Nathan explained it all to the injured blond. Finishing his tale, the dark man prepared for the worst. Instead, Larabee lay very quietly, the only indication that he had heard was the quick rise and fall of his chest. Long, tense minutes passed without a word spoken. Finally Tanner leaned close to his friend, laying a hand on the man’s arm.
“Chris? Y’ understand that this ain’t permanent, right? You’ll heal up fine, there’s hardly a doubt that this is all gonna pass.”
Larabee nodded his head, his face turned toward the sound of his friend’s voice. “Yeah, I heard. Nathan?”
Turning his head toward the man’s deep voice now, he said, “How sure are you about this?”
“Sure as I can be – “
“That ain’t an answer.”
“Chris, it’s the best I can give you. Everything I know about this kind a injury tells me that you’ve got a good chance of recovering. You might have some ringin’ in your ears for a while, might have trouble with light, and you’re gonna have a lot of stiffness in your hands. I can’t promise you if, when, or how much any of this is gonna improve. I’m sorry. I wish I could, but –“
“Nathan,” Larabee said softly. “You’ve done your best, I know that. Look... could you both leave me alone for a few minutes? I just need... a little time to myself.”
Nodding, then realizing the futility of the movement, Vin said, “We’ll go get a breath a fresh air.”
Jackson was hesitant. “Chris, I –“
“Nathan,” Vin gave him a look that told him that they needed to respect the man’s wishes for now... at least as far as he knew.
“Yeah,” the healer said, “we’ll get a breath of air.”
The two men stepped out, but only as far as the other side of the door. Vin leaned against the wall on one side of the opening, while Nathan stood rigidly on the other side. For several minutes they heard nothing, and Jackson was getting ready to return to the room. Then they heard it. A low groan emanated from beyond the door, followed by several more minutes of cursing, growling, and guttural muttering. Occasional thumps sounded as well, which worried the former stretcher bearer.
Finally the room became quiet, and Tanner had to practically force the other man away from the door. Waiting a few more minutes, Vin nodded, and led the way back into the room. He walked to the bed and casually picked up the covers that were now strewn on the floor. Straightening up the bedding, he spoke quietly. “I know y’ ain’t wantin’ t’ hear this cowboy, but you’re gonna have t’ be patient and lean on your friends. Ain’t none of us about t’ let y’ go through this alone, and I know y’ know that already. Y’ain’t gotta answer me, don’t matter. But it’s the truth and it needs t’ be said. Now, you’ve had your time alone, so it’s time t’ start workin’ on healin’.”
Nathan stood staring at the younger man, somewhat shocked at Tanner’s calm and casual tone. Then the tracker turned, facing him. He saw the stricken look on the handsome face, and the tears that threatened to spill from the pale blue eyes. Managing a smile, he nodded, letting Vin know that he agreed with every word he said.
Just as the tracker predicted, Chris made no verbal response. His lean body relaxed however, listening to the promises given him by his friend. Allowing Tanner to straighten up the bed and ease him into a more comfortable position, he drank in the support. He heard the scrape of a chair, and knew that Vin was sitting down next to the bed. A second scrape told him that Nathan was sitting nearby as well. With a heavy sigh he allowed himself to tumble back toward the blessed peace of sleep.
The small voice brought Larabee to wakefulness; he turned toward the sound, where he knew the room’s door was. He smiled, and said, “Hi Billy.”
“How’d you know it was me? Are your eyes better?”
“Not yet,” he tried to sound positive, but heard his voice crack. “I recognized your voice. Your mama know you’re here?” He waited, unable to see the child shake his head no. “Billy?”
Realizing suddenly exactly what Josiah had told him earlier about Chris being unable to see, the little blond said softly, “no.”
“She gonna get mad?”
“Maybe, but I wanted t’ come see you. Brought you something!” He held up a small bag, his face split in a broad smile. Then realizing that the gunman couldn’t see the gesture, the smile wavered. Tears welled up in the child’s eyes, but he managed to stutter, “i-it’s lemon d-drops.”
Larabee chuckled, secretly pleased that the child remembered his fondness for the little candies. “Well, why don’t you come on over here and sit down. Reckon we’ll handle your mama later.”
Smiling again, the young boy scampered over and crawled onto the bed beside his friend. Remembering that bandages meant hurts of one kind or another, he refrained from getting too close. “How y’ feelin’, Chris?”
“Better,” the injured man reassured his young friend. “Still got some trouble hearing, so you’ve got to talk a little louder, okay?”
“SURE!” Young Travis crowed. Then, seeing the man wince and put a bandaged hand to his ear, he said, “sorry. Is this better?”
“Perfect.” Chris smiled genuinely now. He had lain aware but in the darkness for three days, his only company well-meaning friends who were so concerned about him that they were driving him crazy with finding ways to cheer him up. The fresh honesty of the young child would be a welcome change. “So, where does your mama think you are?”
“Playin’ with Katie an’ David Potter. She’s busy right now, so she won’t know I’m not there for awhile.”
“Ahhh,” Larabee nodded conspiratorially. Then a thought crossed his mind; a way to get out from under the watchful eye of the others. He hated it, and knew there would be hell to pay. But, while Chris managed to keep his emotions under control around the others, he felt as if he were slowly being drawn into a vast abyss, as if he were slowly being torn apart by fear and anxiety. He tried to remain optimistic; to be patient about the return of his senses, but it was getting harder by the hour. Slowly, reason was being taken over by an overwhelming need to get away, to clear his mind in the peace of his cabin. If he could get away. “Billy, tell me about town. What’s going on out there?”
Truly the child of newspaper reporters, Billy Travis gave a detailed account of the goings on in the dusty little town. By the time he had finished, Chris had formulated a plan. Vin and JD had ridden out at dawn to do some work at the Wells home. Larabee was glad of that; Vin had barely left his side for most of the past week. He could feel the guilt that continued to gnaw at the younger man over the accident. Maybe Nettie could talk some sense into him. Nathan had been called away to one of the nearby homesteads to see to a mother and child with summer complaint. Ezra was preoccupied with a poker game that had been going on since the night before. Josiah was busy at the church as it was Sunday, and Buck was in charge of the jail. That took care of the people who would be most likely to confront him.
“What about Yosemite? He at the livery?”
The tiny Travis considered the question for a minute, then said, “think he’s gone to lunch. Thought I saw him goin’ to the restaurant while ago.”
Chris smiled. Perfect. “Billy, could you help me out here?”
“Sure Chris, what’cha want me to do?”
Fifteen minutes later found Billy leading an out-of-breath and trembling Chris Larabee the back way to the livery. It had taken everything both of them could manage to get the gunslinger into his boots and shirt. He had finally given up on getting the shirt buttoned, he couldn’t manage it, and the young child seemed to be taking forever. He was just glad that they had left him in his jeans, he’d hate to sneak out of town without them. The way he was feeling, however, he would have considered it.
“We’re at the livery,” Billy announced. He looked up at his friend, waiting for his next direction. While he was concerned that he could be in serious trouble about all this, he was also excited that his hero had asked him to help him with such an important errand.
“Is Yosemite around?” Chris asked quietly. He hated involving the child, and hated even more that he had lied to him. He had told Billy that he needed to go check on things at his shack. Young Travis had been concerned that his friend would be in trouble considering the bandages over his face and hands. Chris had reassured him that he would be fine. Pony could find his own way to the shack, and he could maneuver just fine once he got there. While he did rely on the black gelding to deliver him to the familiar corral with only a little coaxing, he wasn’t certain about anything else.
“He’s still gone,” the little boy’s voice broke into the blond’s thoughts. “C’mon, I’ll take you to Pony.”
They made their way slowly to the stall where the man in black kept his horse. He knew that there was no way he could ever get the saddle onto the broad back, so he settled on having Billy help him drape a heavy saddle blanket over Pony. The young boy proved himself quite efficient at getting the bit into the big mouth and fixing the halter and reins for his friend. Using the open slats of the stall wall, Chris slowly managed to pull himself onto the gelding’s back.
“Okay, Billy, you know the big tree out at the edge of town?”
“The one we climbed in on the way back from the fishing hole?”
“Yeah,” he smiled at the memory of teaching the small child how to pull himself up among the branches of the broad old tree. “Can you lead Pony along the back way to that tree?”
“The back way? Chris are we hiding?”
“Sort of,” he paused, wondering how he would explain this. He found he didn’t have to.
“Okay, I’m good at hiding,” the little boy said cheerfully.
Chuckling, Larabee said, “good. I thought I came to the right person for this job.”
Swelling with pride, Billy Travis carefully led the big black horse along the back of the buildings, watching diligently for any sign that they had been found out.
Another ten minutes found them at the old tree. Handing the reins up to the blond, Billy said, “We’re here Chris. You sure you’ll be okay? I could go with you.”
Smiling at the unwavering compassion of the child’s voice. “Appreciate it, pard, but your mama’d be awful worried if you weren’t home for dinner. I’ll be fine, I promise.”
“Okay,” the child said with a sigh. “You be careful, okay? Want me to tell the others where you went?”
“Nah, that’s okay. They’ll figure it out pretty soon. You go on now, before you get into trouble." Judging the child’s whereabouts he nodded, smiled and touched a bandaged hand to his hat brim. “Thanks, pard, I appreciate your help.”
Smiling, the young boy called his own good-bye over his shoulder as he ran back into town.
Sitting there, listening to the young boy’s departure, Chris felt an even stronger sense of guilt over his deception. He could only hope that he could divert any punishment that Mary might consider for her son. Then, he drew in a breath and nudged Pony forward. Giving the animal his head, he trusted the black to take him home.
He had overestimated his strength; Chris was soon slumped forward, sweat pouring from his handsome face. He cursed as the salty perspiration soaked through his bandages, stinging the still painful burns. It seemed as if they had been moving forever, but his sense of the familiar trail told him that they were only about half way between the town and his little home.
Larabee’s senses went on the alert, as his still diminished hearing picked up the close approach of horses. Straightening up on the black’s back, he cursed silently at the thought that he was unarmed. Not that he would have been able to manage his gun right now, but he would have felt less helpless. He prepared to dig his heels into the gelding’s sides, praying for a miracle that would allow him to get away.
“Y’ out fer a ride?”
The familiar drawl relaxed the gunslinger immediately; then he tensed once again as he realized that he had been caught sooner than he had expected. “Thought you and JD were out at Miss Nettie’s.”
“Was, but we finished early. Exactly what did y’ think you were gonna accomplish comin’ out here on your own?”
“Look, Tanner, “ Chris tried to sound his most menacing, but it was hopeless. He had been wrong, and they both knew it. He sighed. “I just needed a chance to get away for a couple of days, Vin. It’s –“
The tracker stopped his friend with a firm grip on his arm. “JD? Why don't y’ go let Buck and them know me ‘n Chris are goin’ out t’ the shack. Tell ‘em he’s okay, and I’m gonna stay with ‘im.”
“Vin –“ the grip on his arm increased, effectively silencing him.
“Okay Vin. I imagine Buck will be out in a little while, though.”
“Reckon. See if he’ll bring us the stuff Nathan’s been givin’ Chris for the pain, the salve and bandages... oh, and some dinner when he does. Ask Nathan if he’ll come out when he gets back, too, okay?”
“Sure Vin.” JD wheeled Milagro around and headed toward town.
Turning back to the man beside him, Tanner’s voice grew quiet, a sure sign he was in danger of losing his estimable patience. “Now, c’mon y’ damn hard-assed, worthless sonofabitch. We’re gonna go out t’ that damn shack, and you’re gonna lay your ass in that bed if I gotta hog-tie y’. Maybe you don’t give a damn ‘bout whether y’ get better or not, but I sure as hell do.”
“Vin, I –“
“Shut up right now, Larabee.” He grabbed the reins from the swaddled hands and headed them both toward the little one room house he had helped Chris build.
Behind the tracker, Chris hung his head, feeling chastised by the younger man’s words. He sighed, but said nothing more.
By the time they reached the shack, Chris was exhausted, barely clinging to the horse. His temper stowed away, Tanner gently helped him from the gelding and half-carried him into the house. Carefully lowering his friend to the narrow bed, Vin tugged off his boots and the opened shirt. Covering the now semi-conscious man, he retrieved a cup of water and helped Chris drink. Afterward, he left him without a word, retracing his steps outside. Laying in the darkness within the darkened room, Chris felt alone and miserable.
Vin sat with his chair tipped back, long legs resting across the corner of the table Chris kept on the porch. He had worked off some of the tension he had felt since finding the stubborn gunslinger on the road, blind and defenseless. The coats of the two horses shone from the currying he had given them, their trough and manger filled to the brim. Now he sat there, still feeling anger over the situation the fool had put them in. Pulling his harmonica out of his pocket, he began blowing into it. The part of him that was angry with Larabee hoped that the sound did annoy him.
As he had expected, it wasn’t long before he spotted a figure moving hell-bent-for-leather toward the little house. Even before he took out his spyglass he knew who it was, and getting a closer look only confirmed that knowledge. The big gray horse was flying over the landscape, no doubt in response to his rider’s mood. Vin had half a mind to slip out into the tall grass, leaving Chris at Buck’s mercy. His sense of loyalty toward the man in black, though, got the better of him, although he almost regretted it. He wouldn’t leave Larabee to defend himself in the shape he was in.
Wilmington reached the shack a short time later, General barely stopping before they reached the door. The big man leapt off the big animal’s back, tossing Vin a basket and a bundle. Tanner caught the stuff, following the bigger man into the dim interior. He considered stopping Buck, but decided against it when he saw the look on the mustached face. A mixture of anger and fear had set hard there, and Vin decided he was not going to go up against that combination.
Chris jumped when the door flew open; tensed at the sound of heavy boots stomping across his floor. “Hey Buck,” he said softly.
“Of all the selfish, stupid, bull-headed, stupid –“
“You already said stupid,” Larabee was not about to back down from the other man’s anger. He knew Wilmington well enough to know that the storm would blow over soon. His old friend was a man of great passions; but those passions faded quickly.
“Shut the hell up!” The big man’s hands clenched and unclenched, his anger now fed by the fear and fueled by relief at seeing for himself that Chris was all right. “I am angry, Chris Larabee... angrier than I’ve been for a long time. You keep mouthin’ off to me and I’m just likely to forget that you’re injured and beat the hell outta you right here and now.”
“Bucklin,” Vin said softly, his tone one of warning.
Turning his gaze to the younger man, Wilmington said, “best you stay outta this Vin. It’s between me and the idiot here.”
“Go to hell, Buck,” Chris said from the bed.
“I told you to shut up,” Wilmington growled.
“This ain’t helpin’ a damn thing,” Vin yelled over the other two as they continued arguing. “Buck, come outside with me for a few minutes. Chris, I find you outta that bed, I’m makin’ good on m’ promise – I’m hogtiein’ y’ to the bed.” With that, he pushed the bigger man with just enough force to make him understand that he was serious. Still cursing under his breath, Wilmington stomped outside, Vin right on his heels.
“Look Buck, I know you’re angry; I am too. But he’s just too damn beat up right now t’ have us whoopin’ on ‘im, too.”
“Oh hell, Vin,” Wilmington said softly. “You know I wouldn’t a hit him or nothin’. Not in the shape he’s in right now anyway. Can’t promise about later when he’s well, though.”
With a faint smile, Vin said, “I can’t either Buck. The man’s got a stubborn streak a mile wide, but this is a helluva lot farther out than that. But, maybe this is what he needs –“
“He needs to be ridin’ ‘cross country blind, half deaf and his hands crippled?”
“No, course not,” Tanner sighed. “But might be he needs t’ get out from under all the folks that’ve been fussin’ over ‘im. Y’ know better than the rest of us what that sorta pryin’ does t’ Chris.”
His head hanging, Wilmington took a deep breath. “Damn it, sure. I know what you’re sayin’ pard, and I can’t say I disagree. But why’d he try it alone?”
Leaning against the porch upright, the tracker said, “would we 'a listened? Me and you both knew it already, without Chris sayin’ anythin’. Did we do anythin’ t’ make it right for ‘im?”
“No, but...hell Vin!” The big man growled.
Laughing now, Tanner said, “look, when he’s well, I’ll hold ‘im down and you kick his ass. When y’ get tired, we’ll switch places. But, for now, we take care of ‘im.”
“How do you suggest we do that?”
“Let me stay out here with ‘im –“
“We’ll both stay out here,” Wilmington countered.
“Buck, do y’ think he needs any more of you stormin’ in and yellin’ at ‘im?”
“That’s over with – “
“You sure?” The pale blue eyes bored into the soul that hid behind the dark blue ones. He already knew the answer before Buck Wilmington begrudgingly gave it.
“Ah, hell Vin. You know as well as I do that it gets the better a me from time to time,” he paused and smiled, “all part of me havin’ such a warm and passionate nature. I ever tell you–“
The younger man cut him off with a wave of his hand, “probably. Look, your ‘warm ‘n passionate nature’ ain’t gonna do any of us any good if it gets outta control again. Why don’t you go look after things in town, and leave babysittin’ that hard-headed fool t’ me.”
Laughing now, Wilmington said, “maybe you’re right.” Then his face softened, and he said, “I can’t help it Vin, I think a how close he’s come to dyin’ or giving up before, and –“
Clapping a hand on the big man’s arm, Vin looked at him compassionately. “I ain’t certain if he’s even got a clue as t’ how good a friend he’s got in you, Buck. I promise I’ll do my best t’ keep the damn fool from doin’ anything more to himself.”
Smiling, Buck said, “oh shut up before you make me get all teary eyed.” With an impish grin, he cuffed the smaller man across the back of the head. “All right, I’ll go play watchdog for th’ town. You get the harder job out here with that damn fool.” With that he returned to his horse, the gray’s sides only having just stopped heaving from his hard ride.
Standing at the edge of the porch, Vin watched Wilmington ride away. He sighed, knowing that Buck was right. He’d much rather have to deal with a dozen drunk cowboys and Mary Travis than with Chris Larabee right now.
“He gone?” Chris’ voice floated out from the little room.
“Yep.” Vin walked to the opened door.
“He’s right you know, you both are.”
“’Bout what cowboy?”
“I’m a fool... a stupid, bull-headed idiot.”
“Well, hell pard, that ain’t news t’ nobody,” Tanner tried to lighten the mood.
“It’s true,” Chris was not in the mood to be detoured. “Now, I’m a blind, half-deaf, crippled fool. Ain’t for certain why any of you even bother worrying about me.”
“Chris,” Vin sighed, coming to stand next to the bed. “Sometimes I wonder that myself. But, the truth of it is, we’re the only ones we can count on t’ watch our backs. We need each other.”
“I won’t be able to watch anyone’s back this way.”
“Chris, it’s temporary – “
“Maybe. As good as Nathan is, and as much as I trust him, he doesn’t know for certain. If he’s wrong...if I don’t get my sight back...what good will I be to anyone? None. I won’t take charity, Vin, and I won’t have you all baby sitting me for the rest of my life.”
The anger returned long enough to flare in the young man’s voice. “Well, Chris Larabee, let me tell y’ somethin’...I don’t turn m’ back on a friend.” His voice ended in a growl, and he stalked back to the other side of the room.
“Yeah, fine. Buck brought us out dinner, I’ll dish it up.”
Chris sighed, feeling the tension continue to careen through the room, beating against both of them. He lay quietly, for once concerned that he had gone too far. Several minutes passed, the only sounds those outside, and of Vin preparing the meal Buck had brought them.
Finally, “y’ know I’m gonna have t’ feed y’. Y’ can’t handle this with your hands the way they are.”
“I know,” the voice was soft and resigned.
“Ain’t gonna be forever. If it makes y’ feel better, you can cuss at me for awhile.”
“Don’t think I’ve got anything left to say.”
“All righty then.” With that, the young tracker began spooning the thick stew Buck had brought out for the injured man. He grew more and more concerned as the meal progressed and Larabee said nothing.
As the sun set, Vin became even more concerned. After he managed to get about half the thick stew into the blond, he had carefully changed the soiled bandages over his eyes and hands. Chris had begun dozing even then, Vin having to roust him enough to allow him to finish his ministrations. When he touched the marred face, he realized that it was warmer than it should be.
“How y’ feelin’?”
“Tired,” his voice drifted off.
“Reckon y’ overdid it with that little stunt y’ pulled. You’ve got a bit of a fever.”
“I’m...kay,” Larabee mumbled.
Patting the bare shoulder, he went out and retrieved a bucket of water. Returning to the little shack, he began bathing the feverish man with the cool water, trying to bring the fever down. He was relieved at least that the fever got no worse as the night progressed. Chris woke a few times, and seemed in his right mind, so Tanner worried less and less as the night wore on. Still, he stayed near, forced out of the hard chair just after dawn to ease the tension in his back. Stepping out onto the porch, he found himself not very surprised to see Nathan approaching on Able. Even from a distance he could see that both horse and rider were tired. The horse’s gait was slow, and both man and beast moved with head and shoulders slumped. Stepping back inside, Vin poured two cups of coffee and returned to the porch with them.
“Mornin’,” he said as Jackson reached the corral.
Nodding, the former slave began to remove the big horse’s tack. Vin took the coffee out to him. “Why don’t y’ go sit down and drink this, I’ll take care of Able.”
“Best go see to Chris,” Nathan said softly.
“He’s okay, he’s sleepin’ right now.”
The big man nodded, took the offered cup, and leaned against the pole fence. Vin took over the task of caring for the man’s horse, but he kept an eye on the healer. “Nathan?”
“There somethin’ botherin’ you ‘sides Chris’ latest fool stunt?”
Nodding once more, Jackson said softly, “lost them both.”
Dropping his head, shoulders slumped, Vin said, “Miz. Naomi and the little one?”
“Yep.” The deep voice was hollow. Nathan Jackson would never be able to face the loss of a patient without great regret and sadness.
Reaching across the fence, Vin squeezed a slumped shoulder. “I’m sorry Nathan. Reckon y’ did all y’ could.”
With a heavy sigh, Jackson said, “it should have been more. Sometimes it don’t seem like it’s ever enough.”
Vin listened to the man, but found nothing to answer him with. Sensing that the former slave didn’t really need him to answer, he only needed to vent his feelings. Tanner listened quietly for several more minutes until Nathan seemed to have run out of steam. Finishing with Able, he exited the corral and put an arm around the bigger man’s shoulders. “C’mon, you come sit down, I’ll get y’ some more coffee. Want somethin’ t’ eat?”
“No, I’m fine Vin, thanks. Appreciate it. I just want to take a look at Chris.”
Nodding, Vin stood aside and let Nathan do his job. The healer approached Chris’ narrow bed with exaggerated care, not wanting his current mood to effect his attention to the blond’s injuries. Larabee roused when the two pairs of footsteps came close. His face turned toward the sound.
“It’s me, Chris.”
“Hey Nathan,” he said tiredly.
“Hey,” Jackson said shortly. “I need to check your burns... see what sort of damage you did with this – “
“Stupid stunt,” Larabee finished. “Heard it all yesterday Nathan.”
“Too bad it didn’t do a damn bit of good,” the dark man retorted.
“I’ve apologized to the others, and I’m trying to apologize to you.”
“Don’t need it, don’t want it. You’re too damn pig-headed to learn from any of this, so don't think any a your speeches will make it right.”
“Damn, you are mad at me, aren’t you?”
Before he thought, Vin tried to give a visual cue for the blond to back off. With a sigh, he put a hand on Jackson’s shoulder and squeezed. He saw a quick nod from the former slave and knew that he understood. Nathan had more patience than anyone he had ever known before, but that patience was already worn thin.
“I’m tired Chris, that’s all. Now, I want to check your burns, I need you to lay still.”
The blond nodded, hearing a defeat that he didn’t understand, in the other man’s voice. He remained quiet, not complaining when Jackson prodded at the too-tender flesh. Both the healer and Tanner were happy to see Chris react to the dim light of a candle, but the blond himself was not yet convinced that the faint break in the darkness meant as much as they thought. He couldn’t help but complain when Nathan began to manipulate his damaged hands.
“Shit! Nathan, that hurts!”
“Sorry Chris, I know it does, but we can’t let ‘m stiffen up too much. We’re gonna have to start doin’ this a few times a day. Can’t promise it’s gonna get any easier, but it’s gotta be done.”
“I-it’s okay. Just took me by...surprise,” the blond said softly.
Replacing the bandages, the former slave patted him on the shoulder. “There, reckon I’m done torturin’ you for now. I don’t want you gettin’ up today, except to go to the privy. That fever you’ve got ain’t bad, but it’s a warnin’ that you pushed it yesterday. You hear me?”
“Yeah,” Chris said, his voice coming suspiciously close to having a contrite tone to it.
Nathan exchanged a look with Vin; his handsome face mirroring the concern Vin had known since the night before. Chris Larabee was acting like a man who was giving up. This was not the Larabee they all knew and had come to respect. “Chris, there somethin’ goin’ on you ain’t tellin’ us?”
The man was silent for a few seconds, then said, “no, I don’t think so.”
Knowing they weren’t going to get anything more from him, if Chris actually knew what was happening, Nathan dropped it. “All right. I’m gonna give Vin instructions on some of the stuff he can do to help keep those hands from stiffenin’ up and such. I’ll be back out in th’ mornin to check on you. All right?”
Chris nodded, seeming to be drifting off to sleep.
The other two men stepped to the table, Nathan showing Vin what he should do to help. Tanner nodded, taking in everything the dark healer told him. Finishing, Vin walked back outside with Jackson. The healer studied the man beside him; taking in the lost look that continued to haunt the pale blue eyes.
“Vin? If you wanna go into town for awhile, I can stay with him.”
“No.” The answer came too quickly.
Frowning, Jackson watched the reaction, far more telling than the single word answer. He knew then that this was Vin’s penance. Tanner continued to blame himself for the accident, and now needed to make up for his self-perceived failure to watch his friend’s back. “Vin, you know none of this is your fault.”
“Ain’t about fault Nathan.”
“Yeah, right,” the healer didn’t hide the fact that he didn’t believe the younger man. “I reckon Chris’ll be able to convince you when he gets batter. You want me to send Josiah out later to relieve you?”
“Nope. I’ve got it covered. Y’all take care of the town. Me and Chris’ll be fine.”
He helped re-saddle the man’s mount, leaning against the pole fence as the other man prepared to leave. “Nathan, y’ know y’ done everything y’ could for them folks, just like y’ been doin’ for Chris.”
Nodding, but not answering, the healer stepped up onto Able’s back. “I’ll be out in th’ morning. Want me to bring anything with me?”
“Food’d be good,” Vin grinned. “Y’ know Chris don’t keep nothin’ hardly out here. Maybe bring me a fresh shirt if it ain’t too much trouble?”
Grinning and shaking his head at the man’s penchant for downplaying his own needs, he said, “I think I can manage it. See you tomorrow, Vin.” Touching his hand to the brim of his hat, the healer rode away.
Chris woke to the sound of tuneless harmonica playing. He turned his head toward the sound, “Vin?”
“Hey cowboy,” Tanner said tiredly.
“What time is it?”
“A bit after noon I reckon. Y’ hungry?”
Noting more was said, Larabee laying in his bed, feeling completely helpless, listening to the sounds of his friend rustling around the little shack. His harmonica playing was replaced by just as tuneless whistling. Chris considered that, for a man that quiet, Vin Tanner could make a lot of noise. He felt a hand on his arm and turned toward his friend.
“Let’s get y’ settled here so we don’t end up with beans all over th’ bed.”
Larabee’s whole body tensed, his passiveness disappearing. “We, hell. Ain’t a damn thing I can do for myself right now,” the words were growled in anger.
“Pard, let’s don’t travel down that road again. Y’ heard Nathan, the fact y’ saw the candle light’s a good sign.” Tanner dropped to the chair next to the bed.
“I’m helpless Vin,” he spit the words out. Then, as quickly as it came, the anger dissipated, replaced by despair. “I’m helpless. “
“Y’ need help for now, Chris, that’s all. I know it’s hard, but –“
“Hard?!” Larabee fairly screamed the word. “This is hard? Hard’s getting back on a horse the first time you’re thrown. This is damned impossible Tanner! Stop trying to make it sound less than it is, damn it.”
Taken aback, the tracker sat silently for several minutes. There was no way the other man could know how deeply those words tore through him; speared his very soul as certain as an arrow. There was no way Chris could see the guilt on his face, or the pain that filled his eyes. Finally, clearing his throat, Vin managed to say only, “I’m sorry, Chris.”
Misunderstanding the reason behind the apology, Larabee continued his trade. “Sorry don’t make it better. You can’t do anything to make it better, so just...just don’t even try. Don’t try to make it all sound like it’s going to be okay. I don’t want your pity.”
“Ain’t got it,” Vin was beginning to grow angry as well. “I ain’t offerin’ y’ pity, y’ stupid fool. Just offerin’ y’ a helpin’ hand. Reckon nothin’ I got’s good enough for the high and mighty Chris Larabee!”
“Go to hell,” came the heated reply.
Standing so quickly that he sent the chair flying backwards, the sharpshooter stormed from the room. “I’ll be back in a minute,” he spit out over his shoulder as he slammed out the door.
Vin strode angrily out into the yard, muttering furiously to himself as he did. Long minutes passed as he fought to tame his emotions before returning to the little shack. Finally the young man managed to calm himself, and was on his way back into the little shack when he heard a distinct thud inside. “Ah, hell,” he growled as he sped up his pace. He nearly stumbled over Chris as he entered the darkened room. The gunfighter was sprawled on the floor, struggling to get up. “Damn it Chris, I told y’ I’d be back in a minute.” He reached down to help the injured man up, but was greeted by a string of curses and flailing arms.
“I don’t need your damn help!” Larabee yelled. “I ain’t a god-damned baby. I can handle things myself. I want you the hell out of here, now!”
Vin sat back on his heels, watching the blond struggle to get to his feet, the bulky bandages on his hands and arms making it difficult at best. After several unsuccessful attempts, Chris made it to his knees, his waxen face glistening with sweat. He was breathing heavily, and tears appeared from beneath the bandages around his eyes. Swinging his arms out and around, he searched for something to pull himself up by. One battered hand hit the back of the nearest chair, eliciting a pain-filled grunt. Pulling the chair closer to him, he wrapped both arms around the wood and fought to gain his feet. With a painful slowness that found Vin fighting the urge to reach out to the other man, Chris Larabee made it to his feet.
Upright now, Chris swayed, the injuries, fever, and disorientation taking their toll on him. He stood there for several minutes, forcing himself to calm down. Only when his breathing had returned to near normal did he move away from the chair. He managed three steps before fatigue and his emotions overcame him sending the blond to the ground in a listless heap.
With a sigh, Vin moved back in. He touched the blond’s quivering shoulder tentatively. “Chris? Pard, you’re gonna have t’ let me –“
“No!” His voice was filled with rage. Once again he pushed the other man away, struggling to decipher where he was, and what he could use to help himself to his feet this time. His hands searching once more, he finally had to realize that there was nothing. He was too far from the chair, too far from the wall. All he could do was lay there helplessly. In despair he collapsed back to the floor.
For the third time, Vin approached his friend, one hand massaging the man’s shoulders. “Chris,” he said softly, “ain’t no one here but you and me. Ain’t no one gonna know about any a this, but y’ gotta realize that there’s a time to reach out for help, and this is one of these times.”
The reaction was instantaneous and frightening. Chris Larabee opened his mouth and released an almost inhuman scream, the sound reverberating from the walls, pounding against the tracker as Vin wrapped his arms around the other man and pulled him to him. It was only when the scream had died down, becoming a pain-filled series of sobs, that Tanner was able to speak to the man.
“Chris, ain’t no one else here, an’ I ain’t lettin’ anyone come out here ‘cept Nathan until y’ tell me otherwise. But, pard, y’ gotta realize that y’ can’t do everything for yourself right now. I’m sorry Chris...so sorry.”
“No,” the voice was a raspy whisper. “No... don’t apologize. Not your fault... it’s not.”
“Shhh, Chris, you just don’t worry about it.”
“Oh... GOD... Vin, what am I gonna do? I can’t live like this Vin... I can’t!” He was sobbing anew, unable to stop the pain from erupting from him, ripping at the other man’s heart as he did. “Vin... I can’t do this... I can’t. Give me my gun, please. Just give me my gun and ride away.”
“NO!” Tanner’s voice rose, he nearly screamed the word. “Y’ ain’t givin’ up on me yet, pard. We got too much livin’ yet t’ do. You just hang on.”
“I can’t... Vin... I’m scared... Vin... I’m scared... scared... scared...” his words trailed off, becoming almost a chant.
Gently Tanner held him carefully, mindful of the man’s injuries. Arms wrapped around the man’s chest, he began rocking, ever so gently. He sat there, rocking, seeming to be unaffected by the events that had only just transpired. Inside, however, he was a storm of emotions. “It’s my fault... my fault... mine...” his internal chant blended with Larabee’s verbal chant. Both men were trapped in their own personal hell.
Vin had managed to get Chris to bed, the blond nearly unconscious from the violent outpouring of emotions. Carefully he replaced the bandages, now soaked with hot, salty tears. The wounded hazel eyes blinked a few times, and Tanner was almost certain that they were tracking the light and shadow flickering through the room from the windows. He took a deep breath, not certain that he wasn’t just seeing what he wanted to see.
Chris was sleeping soon, an occasional shuddering breath indicating that his emotions were still running high, but the man’s injured body couldn’t express those emotions any more; Larabee was exhausted. He made no response when Vin pulled the thin blanket up over him, squeezed his arm gently, and resumed his vigil in the chair next to the bed.
The day passed quietly, Larabee only waking from time to time to take a drink of water or one of the teas that Nathan had left without complaint. Sundown came, and still Chris slept, wrapped in a cocoon of unconsciousness that protected him from facing the darkness . Finally Tanner tried to roust him to eat, but the blond only shook his head, insisting that he wasn’t hungry.
“Gotta eat pard.”
“Later, Vin... okay?”
The younger man sighed, knowing that this was one of those times Buck had spoken of earlier. Chris was giving up. If he couldn’t do so with a bullet, Chris Larabee was going to try and end his life the only way he knew how. Sliding back in the chair, he considered what options he could foresee. He had asked Buck to stay in town to spare his friend the added stress of having to deal with the big man’s unpredictable temper. Now he wondered if that hadn’t been a mistake; maybe that was just what the stubborn blond needed right now. Wilmington knew better than any of them as to how to deal with Chris when the man’s demons made an appearance.
Another morning, finding the two men in the little cabin facing the dawn with raw emotions. Vin had spent the night awake, afraid that Chris would do something to hurt himself; Chris had slept the long hours, only to awake to more darkness. Half awake, he tried to pull himself out of bed, needing to answer natures call. When it dawned on him that the darkness wasn’t disappearing, he moaned, slumping back to the bed. The blond pounded his fists impotently on the mattress beneath him; struggling to continue even when hands unseen grabbed his arms.
“Chris! C’mon pard, you’re gonna hurt yourself.”
“Don’t care... let me go. Thought I told you to get the hell out of here, goddamn worthless, meddling, fool.”
Tanner struggled not to respond in kind, feeling his heart break around those words. At the same time, he embraced them as a sort of penance. He deserved every word Chris Larabee spoke; it was his fault that the man was lying there helpless...
Vin jerked as if he had been slapped. What was he doing? What was he allowing Chris to do? Had his guilt so eaten at him that he could do nothing more than wallow in it, allowing Larabee to likewise wallow in self-pity?
“No. No Chris. Y’ain’t doin’ this any more.”
Larabee stopped, something in the younger man’s voice penetrating the anger and fear that shrouded his typically agile mind. He turned his bandaged face toward the voice, waiting for more, suddenly wanting the calm tones. More than that, he needed them; they provided an anchor as his emotions threatened to spin out of control once more.
“Are you listenin’ t’ me Larabee?”
“Then answer me this. Do y’ wanna give up? Cause if y’ do, then fine, give up. But y’ do it on your own. I ain’t givin’ up on y’, and neither are the others. You’re my friend Chris, and I’d do ‘bout anything for y’, but not this. Ain’t gonna help y’ wallow in self-pity, ain’t gonna watch y’ give up. Y’ wanna do that tell me right now, and I’m out a here. I’ll go back t’ town and get things ready fer your funeral. Don’t reckon a lot a people ‘ll show up, seein’ as they ain’t gonna be much interested in sayin’ good-bye t’ some spineless quitter ‘s been bluffin’ ‘em for months that he’s some bad-ass gunslinger. Reckon Mary’ll write somethin’ nice in the paper, seein’ s she’s got a good heart and all, but don’t reckon most foks’ll buy it.”
Chris lay silently, the words battering him like the blast of dynamite could never have done. His breathing quickened as he fought the storm raging around him in the form of a lanky, unkempt, mule-stubborn hunter. His friend. As Tanner finally wound down, his tirade dissipating as his rage finally drained away, he managed a weak smile. “Damn, Vin. Don’t reckon I’ve ever heard you string that many words together at once before.”
Taken aback by both the tone and the smile, the younger man slumped back in the chair, a relieved chuckle filling the air between them. “Yeah, well I reckon I ain’t had t’ get so pissed off b’fore. Just can’t figure out if I’m angrier at you or me.”
“Maybe layin’ blame ain’t important right now,” a deep voice came to them from the door. “think it’s time to put all that aside and work on gettin’ this man well.”
“Hey, Nathan,” Vin smiled. “Figured you’d be showin’ up here pretty quick.”
“You here to torture me some more?” The blond managed to push his anguish aside for the moment.
“That’s the plan,” Jackson said, letting the smile show in his voice.
“Think I can visit the privy and have some coffee first?”
“I reckon I can wait that long. Why don’t I get some breakfast goin’ and let Vin make sure you get where you’re goin’?”
With a sigh that let them know he wasn’t that far away from the edge yet, Chris managed to say, “yeah.”
“Oh, hell, Chris,” Vin teased to lighten the man’s darkening mood, “I won’t watch or nothin’. ‘Sides, reckon anything you got’s old and wrinkled anyway.”
“Damned, smart ass, worthless...” Larabee’s tirade continued as the two men moved slowly out the door.
Nathan shook his head, smiling as he listened to the gunslinger’s colorful litany. Then he sighed. It was a good sign, but Jackson knew better than to think that all would be well now. There was a long road ahead for Chris Larabee...for them all. And the sun wasn’t shining on that road yet, not by a long shot.
“Jesus! You enjoy this, don’t you?” Chris bellowed as his tender hands were forced through a series of movements.
“Yep,” Vin answered glibly. “Gives me a wonderful feelin’, watchin’ you squirm and holler at me. If y’ wanna hit me while we’re at it, let me know and I’ll ball up your fist.”
They had been at the shack for five days, and each day seemed hours longer than the last. Jackson had shown Vin what to do to keep Chris’ hands from growing stiff and unmoving. The bandages had finally come off that morning during Nathan’s visit, along with those around his eyes, leaving the half-healed burns to the air. It also meant that Larabee was becoming more easily agitated, impatient to be well and whole again. Tanner, intent on keeping the man from falling back into the well of despair, took the frequent and increasing tirades in stride.
“I get my eyes back...get where I can wrap my fingers around my gun again...”
“You’ll shoot me in the ass. Threat’s gettin’ old, Larabee, y’ need t’ come up with somethin’ new. Now, sun’s low enough, Nathan said we could go out on the porch for a bit. You interested? If not, I’ll go on out myself and get some peace ‘n quiet.”
“You ain’t leaving me in here, you damn fool.” Despite his angry words, the blond’s face lit up at the thought of fresh air. “You can finish trying to tear my fingers off out there.”
Laughing, Tanner said, “temptin’, but we’re done for now.” He wrapped a hand carefully around his friend’s arm, helping the older man to his feet. Allowing Larabee to do as much as he could on his own, he guided him to the little porch and a chair.
Settling in, Chris stared out into the wilderness beyond. “So, tell me about it.”
“What?” Vin said from where he leaned against an upright.
“The day. What’s it look like out here?”
Swallowing the painful lump the man’s words brought him, the hunter said, “it’s nice. Ain’t been more than a cloud or two all day, sky’s blue. Sun’s been nice and bright all day, I reckon.”
Chris nodded, “miss it... the sunshine.”
“You’ll see it again, pard.”
“Chris,” Vin said sternly, “y’ ain’t thinkin’ like that. Now, I can understand that you’re worried, but y’ gotta believe that you’re gonna get better. He paused, then said, “tell me what y’ see pard.”
“What? Vin – “
“No, tell me what y’ see. Y’ got th’ bandages off now, and we’re outside. I know y’ can’t see things yet, but I’ve watched y’ whenever th’ bandages come off. Y’ may not recognize it, Chris, but you’re eyes are trackin’ things.”
Larabee considered the words, and focused on his lost sense of sight. After several silent moments, he said softly, “light.”
“I see light. Kind of like a campfire in the distance, but I can see it.” He turned toward his friend, a wistful smile touching his handsome face.
Tears shone in the pale blue eyes, mirroring those in the blond’s injured ones. Unable to answer him, Vin reached out and squeezed the other man’s shoulder.
“Morning fellas,” JD Dunne greeted his fellow peacekeepers as he entered the saloon.
Buck and Josiah returned his greeting as they continued eating breakfast. Buck pushed a chair out with a foot as the young man made his breakfast request of Inez Recillos. The young saloon manager smiled, having already begun preparing his usual.
“So – “ the young sheriff began.
“No, there ain’t any new news on Chris, Kid,” Wilmington said shortly. “Nathan says he’s still havin’ some trouble hearin’, Vin’s workin’ his hands and he could hold a mug yesterday, and the best he can do is tell light from dark.”
“Buck,” Josiah said coolly, “he was only asking.”
His frustration getting the better of him, the ladies man shoved his chair back and stormed away. Watching the big brunet storm out, the former priest turned compassionate blue eyes toward their youngest member.
With uncharacteristic patience, JD said, “it’s okay Josiah. He’s just upset about all of this, and feeling helpless because he can’t make things better for Chris.”
Grinning at the young Easterner, Sanchez said, “there are times, John Dunne, when I do believe you’re the most perceptive of us all.”
Returning the grin, Dunne said, “well, don’t expect anyone else to believe that.” Sobering, the young man said, “I wish they’d let me help, though.”
Frowning, the older man said, “what do you mean?”
Shaking his head, JD said, “ah, I’m sure Vin’s handling things just fine. He’s done so many things in his life that I suppose he’s dealt with a blind person before.”
“JD, make a point,” Josiah said with an exasperated sigh.
“Well, it’s just that, when I lived back East, there was a girl, the daughter of the gardener where we lived. She went blind after a bad fever.”
“Sorry to hear that,” the older man said, resigned to a long story.
“Amy, that was her name, and I, were about the same age, and we were friends. After she got over the fever, she needed to learn how to get around and take care of herself. Now, I just helped out some, but I do know some ways for a blind person to do for themselves.
“Now, I ain’t saying it’s going to be the same as that with Chris,” he added quickly, “but Nathan can’t say for certain when he’s going to get his sight back. I think that he might be a little more comfortable...more like himself...if he could do things without Vin’s help again.”
Josiah sat staring at JD, a fork full of eggs halfway between the plate and his mouth. Slowly, he grinned.
“What?” Dunne tried to figure out what he’d done wrong this time.
“Son, I think that’s a wonderful idea.”
“Yeah?” He beamed.
“Yeah. Let’s go and talk to Nathan and Buck, figure out how best to approach this with Chris.”
Chris heard the approach of several horses, already too near for comfort. Lying on his bed, he tried to orient himself to direction and number. He fumbled beneath the bed for the shotgun Vin had left there, with stiff and tender hands. Rolling from the mattress, he nearly fell forward as a wave of vertigo washed over him. Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to calm down. Turning toward where he knew the door to be, he shuffled forward, one hand before him, the gun resting in the crook of the other arm. Edging to the closed door, he listened for sounds of an impending attack. Instead, he heard a familiar voice.
“We come at a bad time, or are you receivin’ visitors?”
Fumbling for the door handle, the blond inched it open. “Buck? Who’s with you?”
“Just your friends, stud, come for a visit,” the big man said carefully. “Where’s Vin?”
“Right here,” a raspy drawl came from the tall grass nearby. Vin appeared, rifle in one hand and a brace of rabbits in the other. “Thought y’all were stayin’ in town.”
“Ah, hell, it’s quieter than a church,” The ladies man winked at the preacher, “and we wanted to come out here and discuss somthin’ with you two.”
Pulling the door open, the blond said, “come on in.”
The other peacekeepers filed inside, each one greeting Larabee as a way of letting him know exactly who had invaded his sanctuary. The last one to enter, Vin hesitated, unsure as to how much assistance Chris would take in front of the others. Then, reaching for the shotgun, he was surprised to feel the other man’s hand on his arm. Slowly making their way to the table, he eased Chris onto a chair.
“So, Ezra’s watching the store?” The gunman said, his voice quivering only slightly as his heart continued to race.
“Yep, but we locked the cash box,” Josiah quipped.
That elicited a quicksilver smile from the injured man, but he only said, “so to what do I owe the visit?”
The four visitors looked at one another, unsure as to how to begin. Finally Nathan took the lead. “Chris, I’m still bankin’ on your sight comin’ back, I want to make sure you understand that up front.”
Nodding toward the deep voice, Chris said, “you’ve made that clear enough Nathan.”
“It could take some time, though; there’s no way of knowing how long. We wanted to give you something to think about, but hear us out, all right?”
Frowning, his head tilted in the direction of the healer’s voice. “Why is it the hair on the back of my neck stands up when you boys gang up on me like this?”
Laughing, Josiah said, “maybe because you know us too well, brother.”
Chris smiled, but didn’t reply. Instead, he simply waited for the explanation.
When nothing was forthcoming from the older men, JD jumped into the silence. “Chris, we all know that you’re going to get your sight back, like Nathan said, but it might be awhile yet. I’d like to help you, if you’ll let me, but it’s up to you.” He went on to explain his experience with his friend Amy. When he was finished, the men watched the blond for a reaction. Instead, the reaction came from Tanner.
“Why’s he need t' learn all this? Nathan, JD, y’ said yourselves, he’s gonna get better. We’ve gotten along fine so far, and I ain’t leavin’ ‘im alone ‘til he is better.”
Chris surprised them all with his next words. “Actually I think it’s a good idea.” He turned toward where he knew Vin to be and said, “ain’t that I don’t appreciate you taking care of me pard, cause I do. But you can’t do it every hour of every day until I can see, and I don’t want you to. Besides, if JD can help me take some of that burden –“
“Ain’t a burden, Larabee,” Tanner said, a mixture of hurt and frustration in his tone.
The blond considered telling them all about the feelings of helplessness he had experienced earlier, knowing he could do little to defend himself, barely able to hold the shotgun. He wanted those feelings to go away, or at least to lessen. If JD could do that, he’d swallow the last shreds of pride he had left and allow the young man to teach him. He decided finally that he would discuss it all Vin again later, if necessary. He said only, “Vin, if it were you, would you be content to just sit on your ass and let others do everything for you?”
The man’s last words hit Vin hard. He knew that there was nothing the hard headed, independent gunman hated more than feeling that he had no control over a situation. He could understand, he knew that he would feel the same way. At the same time, he felt as if teaching Chris to live as a blind man was akin to saying he would always be blind. That in itself made the man bristle. “Just seems a waste a time, is all.”
“I pray that it is,” Josiah said, “and I know that the others do, too. None of us would be disappointed in that ... to have Chris wake up tomorrow morning and see.”
“It’s my time to waste,” Larabee said evenly. “It’s not like I don’t have a lot of it on my hands right now.”
Feeling foolish for arguing, the young sharpshooter said quietly, “yeah, well I reckon I wouldn’t mind not havin’ y’ trip over me in the middle of the night.”
Chris colored in embarrassment as he recalled trying to go outside to relieve himself the night before. Half asleep and disoriented, he had stumbled over Vin, sleeping near the stove on the floor. Finding himself tangled amongst the other man’s arms, legs and blankets had been discomforting to say the least. Instead he kept that to himself and said instead, “when can we get started JD?”
“Might as well start today,” Dunne said eagerly.
“Well, at least give us a few minutes to catch him up on the happenin’s in town,” Buck insisted. “I mean we did ride all the way out here and all.” He fooled no one. Wilmington had been grouchy and irritable ever since Chris had come to his ‘little shack in the hills’. He needed a few minutes with his old friend. The others settled back to allow him those minutes.
Nathan reluctantly cut short the small talk that followed when he announced his intention to examine the man in black. No one missed the brief stab of pain that crossed the handsome face. They all knew about the daily exercises meant to keep the burned tissue from melding into stiff, unyielding scars. They also knew how painful those exercises were.
‘Well, reckon we’ll get outta the way, then,” Buck said, “we can fill Vin in on how Sadie Watkins’ been keepin’ company with Beau Corey.”
Chris didn’t have to see the tracker’s face to imagine the look on it. They had been teasing the quiet young man for months about the way a certain young redhead looked at him.
“What the hell’s Corey doin’ in town?” Vin growled before he could stop himself. His tone of voice brought laughter from the rest of the men.
Smiling broadly now, Larabee said, “hate to miss the fireworks, but I reckon you’d better go fill him in before he goes and shoots Asa Corey’s little boy.”
With a hardy guffaw, Wilmington slapped the lean young man on the back and said, “c’mon Vin, let ol’ Buck tell you all about it.”
Larabee listened to the two men as they sparred back and forth. Retreating footsteps and the close of his door told him that he was alone with Jackson. The sound of someone rustling around told him that the healer was preparing to clean and exercise his hands. “How much longer Nathan?”
“How much longer on what Chris?” he asked as he came to sit before the blond.
“These,” he raised his hands. “The exercises.”
“Best we do them at least until the burns are healed, maybe even longer. I’d rather do them too long rather than not long enough.”
Nodding, the blond said, “what are the chances that I’ll be able to use my guns again.”
Jackson frowned. Larabee had seemed rather ambivalent about his other injuries so far. Other than complaining about the pain as they massaged his hands, the blond rarely discussed them. Nor did he talk much about the fact that he still had trouble hearing quiet or distant sounds, thanks in part to the incessant ringing in his ears. Nathan was certain how to take the sudden change.
“Oh...uh,” the former slave stuttered as the quiet voice pulled him from his thoughts. “Sorry Chris, yeah, I’m pretty certain of it. You’ll need to stick to a rifle for awhile, but eventually you’ll be drawing from the hip again.”
“Thanks,” came the reply. The blond grunted and grimaced as the other man began his assault on the burn mottled flesh.
Despite the continued pain, Nathan was quite pleased with the gunman’s progress. New pink flesh shone through the scabs, and there was greater movement in both hands. The burns on his face, around the vacant, unfocused eyes, were healing nicely as well. They kept all of the burns clean and coated with thick salve, determined to erase as much of the evidence of the accident as they could.
The muffled sounds of an argument outside the little house drew their attention, and distracted the gunman from the continuing discomfort.
“Sounds like Vin ain’t happy about somethin’,” Jackson observed.
Nodding, the blond man said, “he hasn’t been happy about much since the accident.”
Sighing the stretcher bearer said, “he still feels guilty about what happened to you.”
“Yeah, I know. I wish I could make him understand that it was just a stupid accident.”
“The man is pretty stubborn when it comes to taking on responsibility.”
“Whether it’s his or not,” Chris agreed.
“So, do you remember what happened?”
Shaking his head, the gunman said, “last thing I remember is the two of us going around behind the jail after a couple of those bank robbers. The next thing I remember...” he stopped, trembling as he recalled his first conscious memories after the accident. “The next thing I remember is laying flat on my back, blind, deaf, and unable to use my hands.”
Nathan’s dark countenance fell as he thought about what it must have been like those first few days, before the gunman’s hearing had begun to clear. “Had to be one of the worst things in the world, goin’ through all that -- the loss of all those senses – at the same time. Not certain I could have managed it.”
His voice quivering slightly, Larabee said, “I can only think of one other time in my life that it was worse. It was like –“
Waiting, Jackson realized that the blond wasn’t going to continue without prompting. “It was like what, Chris?”
Sighing, the gunman said, “it was like being buried alive. No light...no sound...couldn’t touch anything. Can’t say that I care to repeat the process.”
“Reckon not – “ the healer was cut off as the other men reappeared.
“Hey Doc, you done?” Wilmington asked as he scuffed into the room.
“Just finishing up.”
“Sounded like you boys were having a lively discussion out there,” Chris said.
“Well, ol’ Vin’s in a bit of a quandary.”
“Shut up, Buck,” Tanner growled. “I ain’t no such thing.”
“You see,” Wilmington continued as if the younger man hadn’t spoken. “He’s of a mind to go into town to stake a claim on the lovely Miss Sadie, but he ain’t certain he wants to leave your charmin’ company.”
Chris knew exactly what his long-time friend was saying. Vin was bent on continuing his self-imposed penance. He was not about to let that happen. “Don’t see that as much of a problem. JD’s going to be playing teacher all afternoon. Reckon the fewer people I’ve got to trip over, the better.”
“Wasn’t gonna be underfoot,” Tanner started.
“Besides, I get the distinct feeling that these yahoos came out empty-handed. I’d appreciate it if you’d bring me out a fresh bottle, a few cheroots, and maybe see if they’ve got anything decent to eat at the restaurant. Tired of tryin' to eat that shoe leather you keep tryin' to pass off as meat.”
“Y’ kick me out, want me t’ tote back a whole passel a stuff, and y’ cast aspersions on my cookin’. Helluva friend y’ turned out t’ be, Chris Larabee.”
“Reckon I’m one ungrateful bastard,” Chris agreed lightly.
“You do have that reputation,” Josiah chimed in.
“He worked hard to earn it, too,” Buck said with a chuckle.
“All right, all right,” JD said with a hint of exasperation in his voice. “Chris and I’ve got a lot of work to do. The quicker you boys get out of here, the better.”
“Friends,” Sanchez said with a hoot, “I do believe we’ve been asked to leave.”
“Think you’re right Josiah,” Nathan agreed as he finished cleaning up his healing materials.
“Look, you fellas go on –“ Vin started.
“Tanner,” Larabee said in his best ‘cold-hearted gunslinger’ voice, “I may not be able to shoot you right now, but Buck’s not a bad shot himself.”
“Why thank you Chris. You want me to wing ‘im?”
“Shoot him wherever it’ll hurt the most,” Larabee growled.
“Fine!” Vin yelled. “I’m leavin’. Ain’t promisin’ I’ll be back, either. Just leave your sorry ass...” his voice faded as he disappeared out the door.
Smiling, the other men said their good-byes and followed quickly, leaving Chris alone with JD.
“So, where do we start, Kid?” Chris asked as he heard the horses riding away.
“Well, that depends – “ Dunne began.
“JD, don’t tell me that you don’t have any idea,” Larabee’s short patience made an appearance.
“If you’d give me a chance to finish,” the young sheriff’s voice was laced with barely restrained irritation. “it depends on what you want to work on first.”
The gunman’s mottled face tinted pink with embarrassment. “Sorry, JD.”
“That’s all right, Chris,” Dunne offered softly. “There’s not one of us that would have any more patience if it was us.”
Smiling ruefully, the gunman said, “doesn’t make it right. I do appreciate your help.”
Fairly glowing with pride, the young man said, “just glad I can help. So, what do you want to work on first?”
The late morning and afternoon grew long and tiresome for both men. JD showed Chris how to count steps from the shack to various parts of the homestead, focusing most on the privy and the corral. Chris had little trouble getting around inside the small, spartan shack, but Dunne could show him how to fill a glass without over-filling it and dealing with other household situations.
There were other things he could help the older man with, but JD could tell how tiring it was becoming for the man in black. Pouring a cup of coffee, he sat it before him, telling him where it was. “I think that’s enough for now Chris. Relax a little bit and we’ll take one last trip outside. I’ll come out with Nathan tomorrow, and we’ll work on things some more.”
“Not that I don’t want the help, JD, but I do hope I won’t need it.”
“Believe me, Chris, I hope that too.” He paused, debating whether or not to ask what was on his mind.
“Just spit it out, whatever it is that's chewing on your mind.”
“I... well, I just wondered how your eyes are? Nathan said you can tell light from dark.”
Grinning, the gunman said, “that’s about the extent of it. If I’ve got enough good light, I can sort of make out big shapes and, once in awhile, some movement.”
“That’s good though!” Dunne’s hazel eyes danced with happiness that faded slowly when Chris’s expression didn’t change. “It is good, Chris.”
“Yeah, Kid, it’s good. It’s just...”
“Just what?” Dunne prompted when Larabee’s voice faded.
“With a frustrated sigh, the blond said softly, “just ain’t enough.”
Josiah and Nathan sat on the boardwalk watching the events that took place along main street. Events that had been dreamed up during the ride back to town, and that were now being carried out by Buck and Vin.
Riding into town, they had seen Cory’s horse tied outside the dressmaker’s. Sadie had taken over the shop after the death of her ill-fated cousin, Irene Dunlap. Vin had happened by the day she prepared to open for business, hanging the new sign, “Dresses mended or made to order. Sarah Katherine Watkins, Proprietress” above the door for her. She had offered to pay him, he had suggested that she accompany him to dinner instead.
The other men had been intrigued and frustrated at how slowly things had progressed from there. Tanner would call on her from time to tie, taking her to dinner or on a picnic. At other times it was almost as if he forgot the young redhead existed.
Buck said that Vin wasn’t certain how to deal with a civilized woman. Josiah speculated that Tanner’s heart hadn’t completely healed after their journey with the wagon train. Nathan felt that the tracker wasn’t quite ready to make a commitment. JD didn’t know what all the talk was about. Vin and Sadie seemed comfortable with how things were going. Ezra simply tried to work out a betting scheme for the situation. Chris, though, though he didn’t share it with the other men, felt he truly understood. While there was something to what each of the others thought, there was one overriding concern that kept the young Texan from going any farther than he did with the young woman. He was simply and irrevocably stopped by the bounty on his head. He had nothing of value to offer a bride by his name, and he couldn’t offer it while it was weighted down by the bounty.
Sanchez and Jackson sat watching as Buck strolled by the post where Corey’s horse was tied. The big ladies man casually reached out and patted the buckskin’s broad nose as he passed. Although they couldn’t see it, they knew Wilmington planned to loosen the reins, leaving the horse free from his tether.
Buck continued on down the street, tipping his hat and grinning broadly at a group of young women on the boardwalk. It was a full five minutes before the next phase of the plan began. A long band of firecrackers flew through the air, landing near the buckskin’s hooves. A series of sharp cracks startled the big animal, sending it bolting down the street. The noisy ribbon had landed strategically; the horse moved away from the busy center of town and was quickly beyond the outskirts.
Beau Corey, having surveyed the area for trouble from the front window of the little shop, dashed to the street. Yelling in impotent anger, directed at the unknown assailant who had sent his horse flying out of town, ran down the dusty street after the frightened animal.
Sadie Watkins stepped tentatively onto the boardwalk, looking after the young man as he ran down the street. It seemed every bit a coincidence when Vin appeared only a minute later. His coat left back at his wagon, he was scrubbed and combed, dressed in his deep blue shirt and dun pants.
“Looks like the plans workin’ so far,” Nathan said with a broad smile.
“ ‘Faint heart never won fair lady’, my friend. Just like Cervantes’ hero, our Vin Tanner may often fight for the lost cause, but he is nothing if not a bold man,” Josiah winked at the healer.
“Amen to that,” Jackson said with a deep chuckle.
They watched as Vin made a show of finding the burned explosives. Shaking his head as he looked out after the retreating Corey. He appeared to contemplate going after his rival, but the appearance of Buck Wilmington, already horseback, caught his attention. With frequent gestures toward the outskirts, a nod or two toward Sadie, the play continued. Scratching his chin and staring after Beau, Buck nodded, tipped his hat to Vin and the young lady, and moved off at a cantor.
The two member audience to the play applauded quietly as Vin offered his arm to Sadie, and escorted her toward the restaurant. On the street side of the boardwalk, Vin looked across to where the other two peacekeepers sat. with a tip of his hat, he smiled victoriously.
JD stood at the corner of Larabee’s cabin, watching. Chris was slowly making his way toward the little privy behind the house. Dunne let out a relieved sigh as the older man’s outstretched hands found the rough wooden door. The gunman turned, a broad smile on his handsome face.
Barely restraining himself from applauding, the young Easterner called out, “that was damn near perfect, Chris. Now, how about the other half of the trip?”
“Reckon I’ll take a short break, first,” Chris replied as he managed to open the door. “Give me about ten minutes,” he said as he disappeared into the little structure.
With a chuckle, JD stepped back inside the cabin to clean up the dishes they had dirtied, feeling not unduly proud of his contribution to the situation.
Alone in the privy, Larabee could allow himself to feel the fear and helplessness that continued to batter his weakened defenses. Since the day he had unleashed those feelings in front of Vin, he fought constantly to keep them under tight control. While he hid his pain and insecurity from the other men, he couldn’t hide them from himself. It didn’t matter what Nathan and the others continued to believe, he was plagued with the fear that he would be permanently blind. The only promising thing he could see in the situation was that a blind, half-deaf gunslinger was guaranteed a short future.
His thoughts were cut short when something hit the side of the privy. Jumping, he cocked his head, trying to decide what the noise was, and where it came from. “JD?”
There was no answer from the young man. Frowning, Chris found the door handle and moved warily from the little structure. Something caught him in the side, and he spun around toward the sound of a high, brittle laugh. “Who’s there!”
Laughter spilled from the nearby trees, followed by a small barrage of stones. Larabee tried to escape the attack, but stumbled and fell. More laughter, and taunts came from the trees.
“Told y’, he’s blinder’n a bat!”
“Chris!” JD yelled as he ran from the shack, both guns drawn. He heard the laughter and recognized the voices of some of the boys from town. Aiming high, he sent two warning shots over the trees. The young man took little satisfaction in hearing the sound of several horses taking off at a gallop. His attention was drawn to the lean figure on hands and knees in the grass. Larabee struggled to his feet, but stood there, his hands waving around him. The fall had disoriented him, fear and embarrassment plain on his flushed face.
Holstering his guns, JD moved carefully across the yard. He approached the gunman as if he were a green colt in need of gentling. “Chris, it’s me, JD. It’s all right now Chris.”
Blond head cocked, Larabee was listening. Slowly he calmed down, the familiar voice cutting through his panic. Focusing on Dunne’s voice, he took a few hesitant stops. Stumbling, he fell to his knees once again.
JD crossed the last few feet and knelt in front of his friend, putting a hand on the quaking shoulder. “Chris, it’s me. It’s all right.”
The last of his defenses crumbled at the young man’s touch. Reaching out, Chris grasped Dunne’s arms. Falling against the smaller man, he held on tightly.
Taken aback, the youngest peacekeeper carefully wrapped his arms around the older man. “I’m sorry, Chris. I just... I just stepped inside a minute. “
“Don’t... JD,” Larabee managed. “Not... your fault.” Mustering the tatters of his dignity, he said, “help me up, Kid. I want to go inside.”
The brunet stood, pulling Chris up after him. He let the older man hold onto him as they started off, looking up at him when he suddenly stopped.
Letting go of the other man, the blond’s face shone once again with determination. Taking a deep, shuddering, breath, he said softly, “you go on ahead JD.”
“Chris – “
“Go ahead.” He squared his shoulders, facing the unseen path before him. “I’ve got something to finish.”
“Yeah, you do.” Admiration shone in the bright hazel eyes. Dunne backed away, returning to the porch to watch his hero make his way toward him.
Chris managed to return to the cabin without further incident. JD just barely restrained himself from going to help each time he faltered. Once in the house, Larabee allowed the young man to assist him in getting cleaned up. Beneath the dirt and grass stained clothing, he had a few fresh bruises, but nothing serious. With a sigh, the man in black dropped to his narrow bed, as tired as if he had been running for days. Then, slumping back onto the bed, he suddenly turned toward where he gauged Dunne to be standing. “JD.”
“Don’t mention what happened... what happened out there... to Vin, all right?”
“Don’t... I don’t understand Chris. Why not?”
“Because you know as well as the rest of us that he’s already carrying a load of guilt over the accident. I’m amazed that he actually left here today. If he knows what happened...”
“He won’t leave again,” JD said in a tone of understanding.
“All right Chris, I’ll keep it quiet, but...”
“I know who they are Chris. I recognized that jackal laugh of one of the boys in town.”
“JD – “
“It’ll be all right, just leave it to me. Those damn little fools will think long and hard before they bother you again,” Dunne swore, adding silently, ‘and they won’t be telling anyone about what they did to you.’
Vin was later than he had expected to be in returning to the shack. After treating Sadie to lunch, she had accompanied him as he went to pick up the things Chris had requested. He had explained why he hadn’t been around while they visited and she had been wonderfully sympathetic. Much to his relief and chagrin, she explained that Beau Corey was having a dress made for his mother. They hadn’t been keeping company, she had been making a new dress for Martha Corey’s birthday next month. After walking the young woman back to her shop, Vin had stopped by the saloon, asking Inez to put Beau’s next three drinks on his tab. He would make his peace with the man face-to-face the next time he saw him. He also made a mental note not to take anything Buck Wilmington said at face value again. The man was worse than two old biddies gossiping over tea and cookies.
His embarrassment was far overshadowed by his sense of relaxation. Being with Sadie had helped him to forget the past weeks for a little while. Now, even though he was returning to the stress of that situation, it didn’t leave him with the stone feeling of guilt in his gut. He had to admit – at least to himself – that maybe Bucklin had been right to con him away from Larabee’s shack for a few hours. Topping the rise, he saw JD sitting on the porch, and waved at the young man. The Kid had been watching, and waved back. Nudging Peso to a cantor, he crossed the rest of the field, reining in at the porch. “Hey Kid, where’s Larabee?”
“Inside. He, uh, overdid it a little today. He’s resting.”
Frowning, Vin asked, “he okay?” He didn’t like the way JD skirted his gaze.
“Sure, he’s fine, just tired.” JD reached up and took the parcels from the sharpshooter’s arms.
“I smell fried chicken?” A voice called from the shadows of the little shack.
Laughing, his concern forgotten, Vin said, “Miss Jenny made it special for you. Got biscuits, fried potatoes and a whole apple pie for dessert. JD, go put ‘em on the back a the stove t’ warm, okay? I’ll take care a this damned mule and then I’ll be in. She sent plenty, so there’s enough for you, too if you’ve a mind t’ stay.”
Staring off toward town, the young man said, “appreciate that Vin, but I’ve got to get into town. I’ve got something I need to take care of.”
“JD,” Chris said from where he had come to stand in the doorway, “why don’t you stay. There’s plenty, and lord knows you’ve put in a lot of work today.”
Blushing, but with determination in his voice, Dunne said, “I’m just glad I could help a little, Chris. I want to take care of this now, though. It’s a new moon tonight, right Vin?”
“Uh, yeah JD, I think it is,” Vin turned a puzzled look at the young man’s cryptic remark. He looked from JD to Chris, whose face was filled with worry and concern. “Somethin’ goin’ on?”
“No,” Chris said a little too quickly.
JD had returned from where he had taken the food into the shack, still avoiding the sharpshooter’s eyes. Clasping a hand on the gunman’s shoulder, he said, “I’ll be back out tomorrow and we’ll work some more. Maybe we’ll take a little ride?”
“JD,” Larabee said in a near whisper, “don’t go doing anything foolish.”
“Don’t worry about me, “ the young sheriff mounted the horse he had saddled earlier, nodded to Tanner, and rode off.
Turning to his friend, Vin said, “what the hell went on out here?”
Keeping his voice light, Larabee said, “well, thanks to JD, I won’t need your help going to the privy now. Probably won’t even fall over you... much.”
Shaking his head, knowing Chris wasn’t going to say any more on the subject, Vin said, “fine, don’t tell me. Want me t’ bring dinner out here? “
By the time JD returned to the little town, he had his plan set. Riding toward Potter’s store, he found the little group of boys he was searching for just as he had hoped. Reining the mare in beside the boardwalk, he watched the three young boys. Just into their teens, they were laughing and gesturing toward a knot of girls across the street. The hair at the nap of his neck prickling, he managed to keep his calm, paste a smile on his face, call to the trio. “Hey, you boys interested in making some money?”
The biggest of the troublemakers frowned, stepping forward. “What’re y’ talkin’ ‘bout JD?”
“We need some help trapping a wolf out by the Wells place. It’s been causing a lot of trouble. She’s offering to pay twenty dollars to whoever kills it. You can use shotguns, can’t you?”
“I was usin’ a shotgun ‘fore you could walk,” Ben Norris boasted, although he was a good five years younger than Dunne.
“This on th’ level, JD?” Jason Allison asked eagerly. He and his brother, Michael, lived on a small, hardscrabble farm outside town with their parents and nine other siblings. The chance to have a few dollars spending money was almost too good to be true.
“Yes,” he answered convincingly, despite the twinge of guilt he suddenly felt as he looked into the three young faces. But then another face filled his vision; haunted eyes searching the near darkness for compassion, and his resolve was fortified. “I’m on the level. Now, are you interested or not? I’ve got to leave right away, so if you’re interested meet me at the livery in fifteen minutes.” Riding away, JD knew they had taken the bait. All he had to do now was set the hook and reel them in.
Twenty minutes later, just as the sun set, they were on the road. The brunet led the way through the countryside, keeping the younger riders preoccupied with stories of life back East, and some of his best jokes. Regret colored his intentions once more as the three young men laughed heartily at his repertoire of three-legged dog tales. But, despite their appreciation of his wit, he was committed to teaching them a lesson.
By the time they reached their destination, the darkness was broken only by the torches they fashioned. Natives of the area, Norris and the two Allison’s knew the area well. It didn’t make them any less nervous, and JD’s darkening tales of murder and mayhem fueled that nervousness. As he called a halt, he noticed that the other three riders were as tightly bunched as they could be. Covering a chuckle, he motioned them to dismount.
“We reckon he holes up in there,” he pointed to a foreboding cave entrance.
“So what?” Ben managed to cover most of his nervousness. “Ain’t in there now, it’d be on the prowl.”
“Sure, but it’ll be coming back before sunup. If we wait for him here, we can shoot him when he comes back to the cave. It’ll be safer, too, seeing as how we think he might have hydrophobia.” The torch light was enough for him to see how pale the three faces were.
“Hydr’phobie? Y’ never said nothin’ ‘bout that JD,” Jason protested in a high-pitched voice.
“Didn’t I?” Dunne feigned innocence. “I could have sworn I did. Well, listen, he’ll probably be tired by the time he gets here. Don’t think we’ll have to worry too much. In the meantime, I’m going to take the horses over the hill, so they won’t spook him.”
Murmured agreement, barely heard over the crickets and katy dids, answered him. As the brunet mounted Milagro and took up the other three sets of reins, he said, “oh. You’d better put out the torches, fellas. Don’t want to scare him off with the fire.”
“W-we gotta sit here in... in the dark?” Michael, the youngest, squeaked.
“Well sure, a wolf will never come near here if we have a fire. Look, let me take them with me, I’ll douse them in the water hole.” He retrieved the torches from three sets of trembling hands, balancing them on one thigh. Nodding to the trio, he said, “all right, you boys sit tight. I’ll be back in a while.”
Amazed at the gullibility of the youngsters, Dunne rode off. He did go to the watering hole, dousing the torch flames as he had said he would. Picketing the horses, he took down his bedroll and slipped quietly back toward where he had left the others. He and Casey had explored this area often enough that he moved easily along, finally coming to a stop several yards from the dark cave. Settling in among the trees and tall grass, he listened as the night breeze brought whispers and snatches of conversation. Caught there, in the heavy darkness of the moonless night, the trio startled at every noise, wondering what had happened to JD. Their frightened chattering continued on through the night hours, becoming more and more high-pitched. Grim thoughts as to where the town sheriff had disappeared to were voiced by one or another of the children while the hours inched past. The long-familiar landscape, hidden from them by the darkness, grew to become the terrain of hell. Never in any true danger, the three young men were ready to sell their souls by night’s end, to be back home in their beds.
At sunrise, Dunne retrieved the horses and rode back to find three very tired, very nervous young men. They looked up at him with wide, frightened eyes, Michael’s filled with tears. Doing his best to imitate one of Chris’ glares, JD tossed their reins down to them. With steel in his voice, he said, “next time you decide to visit Chris Larabee, you make damn sure you’ve got an invitation.” Turning his back on three gaping mouths and stricken faces, JD rode back toward Larabee’s shack.
Vin yawned and stretched, staring out over the countryside beyond Chris’ place, as the sun glistened on the dew-covered grass. The night had been peaceful and without incident. He had heard Chris get up once, shuffling slowly through the house and outside, to disappear around the corner. When he felt enough time had passed, he slipped to the edge of the porch to make certain the blond was all right. After a few minutes, he heard the privy door open, and then the sounds of someone moving slowly through the grass. Moving back inside, he returned to his blankets, relaxing only when Larabee returned to his bed a short time later.
A sound behind him drew the tracker’s attention back to the interior of the little shack. Movement in the narrow bed told him that Chris was waking. Leaning against the door frame, he peered inside and said, “mornin’ cowboy.”
“Morning,” came a somewhat annoyed reply.
“Yeah, shut the door, the light’s giving me a headache.”
The statement struck both men at the same time. In a heartbeat, Vin had closed the door and crossed the room to kneel next to the bed. Looking down, he saw Chris staring, his eyes wide. “Talk to me Chris.”
Turning to face the other man, it was clear that Larabee’s vision wasn’t yet restored, but there was a change. “I can’t say I really see you, Vin, but I can tell where you are. I can tell it’s daylight out, and there’s... I don’t know how to explain it, but there’s a difference. There are more shapes then before. Does that make any sense?”
With a relieved sigh, Tanner said, “makes a lotta sense pard. One hell of a lotta sense.” His hand went to the other man’s shoulder, squeezing it tightly. As feelings of relief and happiness threatened to overwhelm him, the sharpshooter gruffly excused himself and hurried from the little house.
Chris lay, staring toward the ceiling, for several minutes. In part, he was afraid to move. He was afraid that if he moved, he would wake up, discovering that this was all a dream. Finally, pushing those fears aside, he eased himself up to sit on the edge of the narrow bed. When nothing changed, he moved slowly toward the door, opening it to move onto the porch when his eyes adjusted to the light. By the time Vin returned, he was sitting under the overhang, just staring.
“Y’ sure y’ ought t‘ be out here? If the sun’s givin’ y’ a headache –“
“No,” Chris said softly, almost wistfully, “I’m all right. There’s a little headache, but nothing bad.”
Grinning broadly, Tanner said, “all righty then, I’ll go rustle us up some breakfast, let y' sit out here and soak up some sun.”
Chuckling, Larabee said, “thanks pard.” Enjoying the simple act of being able to see the figure of the lean tracker move away into the house, the blond settled back, watching shapes and shadows play across his vision. He felt the relief wash over him, even allowing a tear or two to fall. While he still had some trouble hearing, the incessant ringing was growing less and less noticeable. His hands, thanks to the exercises Nathan designed and Vin pushed him through several times a day, were getting better. He could at least feed himself now, if he took his time. Now, his vision was finally – to him – improving as much as the others had been telling him it was. Drawing a deep, ragged, breath, he sent thanks to whatever powers had sent such good friends to him; that had begun to send him back his senses. He looked out onto the landscape that made up his homestead until his eyes began to burn. Gently kneading the still tender flesh around his eyes, he heard –
“Didn’t think y’ needed t’ be out here in the sun.”
“Don’t lecture, I’m in too good a mood,” Larabee complained.
Vin knelt in front of the older man, taking his hands away from his face. “Y’ ain’t gonna stay that way if y’ don’t stop rubbin’ on yer face. Let me look,” he tilted the pale face up, looking at the still healing burns.
“What’s the verdict, Doctor Tanner?”
“The verdict, y’ smart ass, is that breakfast ‘ll be ready in a minute. Since yer so full of piss ‘n vinegar, why don't y' go wash up?”
Chris smiled, managing to loosely grasp the buckskin-clad shoulder. “Reckon I can manage that Vin... now. Thanks, Pard.”
Smiling in return, though he knew Larabee couldn’t yet see it, he replied, “no problem, Cowboy.”
They were just finishing breakfast there on the porch, when a familiar horse appeared on the hill nearby. As the horse drew near enough for the blond to hear its approach, Chris squinted and said, “who is it?”
“JD,” Vin noted, wondering at the tension that suddenly presented itself in the other man’s voice. He wondered if it had anything to do with the strange conversation between Chris and JD the evening before. He hoped he could get something out of the younger man as to what had happened while he’d been in town courting Sadie.
Chris relaxed to hear that the young Easterner was the visitor; glad to know that the Kid was all right. “Reckon this early, he’ll be hungry.”
“Reckon there ain’t a time a day he ain’t hungry,” Vin quipped, but he heard the dismissal in the other man’s soft voice, and rankled at it. Swallowing any further remarks, he went inside the cabin.
“Hey Chris,” Dunne said, stifling a yawn.
“You’re here awfully early,” Larabee said, the concern coming through in his voice.
“Spent the night out by the fishing hole,” Dunne said obliquely as Vin appeared with a plate and a cup of coffee. Nodding his thanks, he settled into a chair with his breakfast, devouring it hungrily.
“Damn, Kid, when’s the last time y’ ate?” Tanner drawled.
“Kid, you keep an eye on him,” Vin ordered from where he stood, watching Chris slowly mount his black gelding on his own. He still wasn’t comfortable with his friend going for a ride; had tried to get them to wait until Nathan came out for his daily visit. But Larabee had simply ignored his concerns and got JD to help him with Pony’s saddle and tack. Larabee promised they’d only be gone half an hour, but he didn’t trust that estimate. “Stubborn fool ain’t likely t’ tell y’ when he’s feelin’ poorly,” Vin instructed. “Keep to the trees much as possible, or he’s gonna have a bad headache, hat or no hat. And whatever y’ do, don’t let ‘im talk y’ into stayin’ out more than half an hour.”
“Jesus, Tanner,” Larabee growled. “My Mama wasn’t this bossy when I was five.”
“Yeah, well, if you don’t mind, I’ll do worse than take a strap to y’.” The sharpshooter’s concern at watching the still injured gunslinger mount his horse to go for a ride, caused his voice to be rougher than normal.
Chuckling, Dunne said, “as much as I’d like to see that, Vin, I’ll make sure he minds.”
Smiling, despite his worry, Tanner nodded. He stood watching as the two horses moved from the corral at a walk. Although Larabee still had some trouble folding his hands around the reins, he had insisted on taking them. JD rode close by, however, making certain that he didn’t get into trouble.
As they rode from the homestead, Chris turned toward Dunne. “He still watching us?”
Turning casually, JD saw the hunter, leaning against the porch upright, watching their departure. “Yep.”
“How about we give him a scare?” Larabee grinned, preparing to slap his black’s reins.
Dunne chuckled, but placed his hand over the other man’s. “Jesus, Chris, you want him to drop dead from a heart attack?”
Huffing his displeasure, the blond said, “fine. We’ll just drag along here.”
Shaking his head, the young sheriff said, “it’s not going to work.”
Smiling now, the older man said, “can’t blame a man for trying.”
They rode for several minutes in silence. Still in an uncharacteristically vocal mood, the gunslinger said, “tell me what you did.”
He considered feigning ignorance, but knew it wouldn’t wash with the man. JD said, “I took them out and got them lost in the dark. At least they thought they were lost, and that’s what counts. I wanted them to get an idea of... well...”
“Of what it was like to be lost in the dark for real?” Larabee said quietly.
“Yeah,” Dunne said quietly. “Guess it was pretty childish – “
Holding up a hand to stop the younger man, Chris said, “what it was, was one friend looking out for another. I appreciate that JD... thank you.”
Grinning from ear to ear, the Easterner simply replied, “you’re welcome.”
The days that followed found Chris growing stronger, his senses returning until they were promising normalcy in the near future. He continued to suffer headaches when he was in the sun for any length of time, but the pain diminished almost daily.
He still avoided the town, not comfortable yet amongst the crowded streets, the increased motion of so many people in one place over-loading his still fragile sense of vision. The time came, though, when he insisted on getting back to work. He and Vin began riding the evening trails together, making certain that the out-lying areas were peaceful.
Chris had finally gotten Vin to move back to town, where he could pursue his interests in Sadie and, in general, get his life back together. It gave him the day to himself, time to tend to his still bruised psyche in solitude. Then, as evening approached, he would hear the familiar sounds of Peso approaching the little house. Standing on the porch, he would watch the blur in motion as it moved close enough to coalesce into horse and rider. Vin and Peso.
“Evening,” Larabee greeted his friend.
“Howdy. Y’ got any coffee goin’?”
Laughing, he replied, “of course. Couldn’t put up with you all evening if I didn’t.”
“Y’ make it stronger than last night?”
“I made you your own brew...strong enough to eat through the cup if you don’t eat it fast enough.”
Dismounting the big black, the lean tracker said, “reckon that’ll do.”
Settling in at the table, the two men sipped at the hot brews, Chris cringing at the thought of how much extra coffee he’d added to the pot where Vin’s brewed. Not to mention the amount of sugar the younger man added into it. As Tanner reached into his pocket and dripped a piece of molasses candy into the thick beverage, Larabee almost gagged. “Jesus, Tanner! How in the hell can you stand to drink that shit?”
Grinning, the sharpshooter said, “y just don’t know what yer missin’, Cowboy.”
“So, what’s new in town?”
Shrugging, Vin said, “not much. Stage came in on time for once, had three businessmen on it, so Ezra’s happy ‘s a hog in a waller. Also had a couple a ladies travelin’ t’ San Francisco... older lady ‘n her niece. J’siah ‘n Buck’s been after ‘em like hounds on a scent. Nathan ridin’ out t’ th’ reservation in th’ mornin’, for a couple a days t’ see Raine. Course he said he’s goin’ out there t’ see if anyone’s needed a healer. JD went out t’ see Casey this mornin’...”
His smile growing wider, the blond said, “something in the air? How’s Miss Sadie?”
A broad grin that brightened his blue eyes fairly sent the young man glowing. “Miss Sadie’s just fine, thanks fer askin’. We’re goin’ on a picnic tomorrow if the weather holds.”
Larabee was happy to hear that the younger man’s attentions weren’t going unnoticed. Like the others, he hoped the rangy sharpshooter would find happiness with the sweet and pretty young woman. Then his smile wavered slightly. “How’s Mary?”
Sighing, Vin said, “still angry at y' pard, sorry. She says y’ could ‘a caused Billy a lot more nightmares if y’d been killed on yer way out here that day.”
Chris dropped his head. He had sent word to the young widow when he had begun feeling strong enough to deal with a visit. She had sent a curt reply that she didn’t feel they had anything to discuss at the moment. Josiah had tried to intervene on his behalf with the strong-willed woman, but she had simply said she needed time to get over the sense of betrayal Chris’ ‘stunt’ had left her with.
“Well,” he said softly, “suppose I deserve that.”
“Reckon y’ might, but it’s past, ‘n you’re okay. So’s Billy. Hell, she’ll come ‘round pard.”
Shrugging, the older man said softly, “we’ll see. Right now, we’ve got a trail to ride. Ready?”
“Let’s ride,” Vin agreed.
The two friends rode slowly along the dusty road that cut through the rich prairie grass. They had checked in at several of the homesteads under their jurisdiction, finding nothing more exciting than the offer to have dinner at the Williams place. Leaving with napkin wrapped rolls in their pockets and feeling stuffed from the heaping plates of food they had consumed, the two men rode on.
“Oh, damn,” Vin groaned, rubbing the tight stomach beneath his layers of clothing, “think I should ‘a stopped after that first plate.”
“As opposed to the three you wolfed down?” Chris teased.
“Was only two, and you wasn’t far behind.”
“All I know is I counted my fingers twice when my hand got too close to you.”
“Ah hell pard, I wouldn’t a bit y’...not too hard anyway. Never was one fer well-done meat.”
Larabee stopped, staring at the man, the joke aimed at his burned hands rolling around his mind. Then he grinned, howling with laughter. Slapping the younger man on the back, he said, “your sense of humor’s worse than JD’s.”
“OW!” Vin crowed. “There ain’t no call t’ be that mean, Larabee. Y’ – “ his words were cut off as he was thrown from his big black. The crack of a rifle shot echoing through the hilly countryside a second later.
“VIN!” Chris slid from Pony’s back, pulling his rifle from the boot as he did. Dropping the gelding’s reins to the ground, he dropped to the ground next to his fallen friend. Squinting in the gathering darkness, he looked over the younger man. “Vin? Can you hear me?”
“Can’t h-help not...too,” the sharpshooter said, pain in his voice. “Wh-what with y’ bellerin’ ‘n all.”
A smile picked up a corner of the gunman’s mouth at the complaint. It didn’t seem that his friend was badly injured, but it was difficult to know with Tanner. “Where’d they get you?”
“Ah, hell, just took a chunk a meat outta m’ side,” Vin said through gritted teeth. “Help me...u-up.”
“Lay still,” Chris said automatically.
“Lar’bee, we sittin’ here with our ass hangin’ out. Let’s get t’ some cover, and y’ can poke and prod then.”
“You’ve always got to be right, don’t you?” Chris groused as he helped the injured man to his feet.
“D-don’t have t’ be, but... usually am,” Vin retorted. He groaned as Larabee pushed him into the saddle.
Both men lay low over their horses necks, kneeing the animals forward to a gallop. Chris let Vin lead, trusting the younger man’s sharper vision. They were soon dropping down in a shallow gully, surrounded by brush.
“Can you see anything?” Chris asked as he pulled his saddlebags from Pony’s back.
Leaning heavily against the gully wall, biting back the pain, Vin struggled to pull his spyglass from his pocket. He could feel the blood soaking through his shirt and spreading across his side. He’d worry about that later. Pulling the slender glass open, he surveyed the area that he gauged held their attacker. It was a long minute before he spotted movement. “Yep. Looks like four of ‘m, headin’ this way. Damn, pard, who’d you.... piss off now... shit!”
Larabee tried to pull the man’s rough woven shirt from the wound, but it still elicited a hiss of pain from his friend. “Sorry. How long before they get here?”
“’Bout five minutes.”
“Let’s get this bandaged then.”
With a sigh, Vin turned, helping the blond peel of the layers of clothing. Using his sense of touch as well as sight, Chris quickly padded the deep gouge in the lean side, then bound the heavy cloth with a long strip of muslin. He helped Vin pull his shirt on just as they heard the horsemen approach. Hefting the rifle to his shoulder, he lay the barrel atop the gully, angling it upward.
“Can y’ see ‘m?” Vin whispered.
“Nope,” Chris answered honestly.
With an ironic smile, the sharpshooter said, “little t’ the left...up a notch...hold ‘er steady.”
Nodding his thanks as he followed Tanner’s guidance, he called out, “drop the guns. You’re covered.”
Laughter rang out and a voice answered, “we heard ‘bout you Larabee. Reckon y’ ain’t got much t’ back up yer threats anymore. We shot that mangy friend a yers.. saw ‘im fall off ‘is horse. Looks t’ us like it’s you fellers that ought ‘a be droppin’ yer guns.”
Tipping the rifle barrel up slightly, Chris sent a shell whistling over the foursome’s heads. “Drop your guns,” he repeated, not raising his voice. Clearing the chamber, he settled the barrel back where Vin had directed him.
“Was y’ a-aimin’ at anything? Vin asked.
“Clouds,” Chris whispered back.
“Y'... done... good,” Tanner said, as he slid to the ground.
“Shit,” Larabee grumbled. To the men, he said, “Drop your guns. There won’t be another warning.”
Again there was laughter, and the spokesman dismounted. As he started toward the two peacekeepers he said, “yer such a bad-ass, y’ can’t even tell when yer beat.” He cleared his holster. Then he fell to the ground, dead, the rifle’s shell having ripped through his skull.
Chris heard the sound of a body hitting the earth, then the sound of three voices arguing excitedly. Two horses could be heard beating a hurried retreat and then, “this ain’t over Larabee!”
“Yeah, it is,” the blond said wearily. “Pick up your friend and catch up with those other two cowards.” He had re-loaded while he spoke and fired another shot into the air for good measure. He watched the dim outline as the man dismounted, threw his companion over his saddle, and rode off.
Taking a deep breath, leaning heavily against the earthen wall, Chris tried to still the trembling that wracked through his body.
“Y’ all right?”
With a shake of his head, he squatted down next to his fellow peacekeeper. “I’m fine. How are you?”
“Well... ain’t for certain. T-tryin’ t’ figger out... how I got down here.” He groaned as pain flared from his side. He felt Chris’ hand on his arm and took it, gripping it as he rode out the waves of agony. After several minutes he managed to draw a deep breath and released his grip.
“You want to try to get back to town tonight, or would you rather hole up here until sun-up?”
Tanner grunted. “I’m fine.”
“If we get into the saddle and you pass out... I don’t know if I can get us back.” Larabee admitted. “There isn’t enough moon out for me to see more than a shadow or two.”
“We’ll be f-fine,” the stubborn young man replied. Grabbing the black clad shoulder, he said, “c’mon... he... help me up.”
Muttering under his breath, Larabee eased the lithe body off the ground. He held on tightly as Vin’s knees buckled. Rubbing a hand across the tense back, he said quietly, “just breathe, pard.”
Taking a few breaths, Tanner straightened and the two men made it to his horse. With Chris supporting him, he managed to get a foot in the stirrup and mounted the big black horse. He watched to make certain that Chris made it onto his own horse, concentrating on breathing and staying in the saddle himself.
Riding toward where he saw the outline that was Vin and his horse, Chris said, “you ready?”
“Yep.” He knew that if they cut across the prairie they could be back in Four Corners in an hour or so. Going over the route with the blond, using directions Chris could use even with his diminished sight, the hunter made certain his friend would know where they were going.
They had traveled all of twenty minutes when Tanner once again lost consciousness. Reining in both horses, Chris grabbed hold of the limp body, pulling the man up before he fell from horseback, the gunman called, “Vin?”
“Ah... hell,” Tanner pulled himself up, “sorry Cowboy.”
“Let’s stop, let you get some rest.”
“What’s wrong?” The blond asked when the raspy voice trailed off.
“’M still... bleedin’, pard.”
“Damn,” Larabee cursed. Taking up the second set of reins, he quickly repeated the directions Vin had given him earlier.
“Yep, th-that’s th’ trail,” the injured man managed.
“All right then, hang on. We’re going home.” He spurred the animals forward, praying that they got there before Nathan left... or before Vin bled to death.
Vin Tanner groaned as he managed to open first one eye, and then the other. His hand which, he puzzled, seemed to be the only working one he owned at the moment, scrubbed across his face. His tongue made an appearance, trying to sever the bond his lips seemed to have made recently. Suddenly his head lifted, seemingly of its own accord, and a cool metal cup was pressed against his mouth. Finally having severed the dry bond, he opened his mouth and savored the cold water that flowed down his throat. As the worst of his thirst was sated, his head dropped back to the bed.
“You back with us pard?”
Managing to focus his eyes, he saw a familiar pair of green hazel eyes, filled with just as familiar concern. “Hey... Cowboy,” he rasped.
Settling back in the chair, Larabee said, “how’re you feeling?”
“Don’ know... yet,” Vin whispered. “How long?”
“Last night. Nathan’s not too happy with you... he had to put off visiting Raine.”
“Wh-what’s stoppin’ ‘im?”
Chuckling, Chris said, “a stubborn tracker that damn near bled to death in the saddle. He said if you’re okay tonight, he’ll go on out tomorrow.”
“I’m fine... tell ‘im t’ git ‘is ass outta here.”
“I’ll do that. We’ve got some wonderful broth on the stove. Think if you want to convince Nathan of anything like that, you might want to drink some.”
“Anybody ever tell you, y’ play dirty?”
“All the time.” Chris walked over to the stove, poured the broth, and brought it over to the bed. He wasn’t certain how well he kept his excitement at being able to perform that simple activity from showing, but didn’t care. Propping Vin up on the pillows, he handed him the mug of heady dark liquid and watched as the younger man sipped at it. Neither said anything until the mug was handed back to him.
“That good enough?”
“That’ll do it.” Chris set the mug on the nearby table, watching as Vin leaned heavily against the pillows. He slid his hand beneath the shaggy head, easing the extra pillows out from beneath him, lowering him back to the bed.
“Thanks Cowboy,” Vin whispered. “Not... not just for this, but... out there. Y’ saved my life Chris. I’d a... died out there.”
Clasping a hand around the other man’s forearm, Larabee said, “Just glad I could watch your back, pard. Mighty glad.”
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