Main Characters: Vin, Chris
Notes: While this does conclude, there is a sequel...The Pledge
Warnings: a bit a violence, a smattering of ‘cussin’, that’s about it
This was for Jacquie’s birthday, a Vinjury (set in the OW), from back in the day.
Webmaster Note: This story was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in May 2012.
A friend may be reckoned the masterpiece of nature. ~~Ralph Waldo Emerson~~
Friendship in Essays: First Series, 1841
The four horsemen rode through the tall grass, one rider slightly ahead of the others. They were an eclectic bunch; a crazy quilt of humanity thrown together by circumstance. The one in the lead wore buckskin, dressed in dun colored clothing head to foot. He rode a black horse, high-spirited but well trained. Riding directly behind him, horse and rider both seemed to have been carved from a single piece of ebony, dark and still. Flanking him were two men similar only in the fact that they were far more animated than their companions. To his right rode a man smaller in stature than the others, wearing a bowler atop a thick thatch of black hair. He looked around the man in black time and again, as he argued with the fourth member of the group. This one looked most like the cowboys depicted in dime novels and penny dreadfuls. He was tall and lanky, sported a thick mustache, and his clothing a hodge-podge of colors and textures. Like his smaller counterpart, he moved back and forth, dodging the man between them. His arms flailed as he conveyed some point of dissention with the younger man.
Chris Larabee, drawing in a deep breath, growled, “if you two don’t shut the hell up, you’re not gonna have to worry about dodging the bad guys’ bullets. I’m going to shoot you myself.”
“Well hell, Chris,” Buck Wilmington complained. “Help me knock some sense int’ th’ kid’s head, and we’ll both have some peace and quiet.”
“Buck!” JD Dunne yelled, “none of this is your business. It’s between me and Casey!”
A shrill whistle put a halt to the argument, and three pairs of eyes glued themselves to the back of the man in front of them. Vin Tanner held up a hand and dismounted his horse. Squatting down, he studied the ground, one hand gracefully nudging bits of information from the earth. Straightening, he pulled out a slender spyglass, training it on the horizon. The other three men were silent as he surveyed the area, looking at him expectantly when he turned to them.
“What is it, Vin?” Wilmington asked.
“Damn confusin’,” Tanner replied absently, as he climbed back into the saddle. “Tracks ‘r gone. Reckon at least one of ‘m’s pretty damn good at coverin’ tracks.” He spoke of the band of outlaws that had sprung up in the territory, attacking outlying homesteads and unprotected travelers.
“How far back do you think they lost us?” JD asked.
“Well Kid, if I was certain a that, we wouldn’t a lost ‘m.” There was nothing condescending in the man’s tone as he answered the question, it was a simple statement of fact. Scanning the trail they had just traveled, Tanner shook his head. “Reckon we’ll go back t’ Widow’s Post, see what I can pick up there.”
“That’s almost half a day,” Larabee said evenly.
Nodding, the lean man said, “I know, but it’s the most logical place to start. They can disappear into the hills, ford the river, or slip into Mexico from there.”
“Let’s go,” the blond said.
The quartet reversed course, Vin once more taking the lead. They had traveled less than a mile when a volley of shots rang out. With well-honed reflexes, all four dropped low against their horses, retrieving their side arms as they did. While they couldn’t see their attackers, they saw a clear path before them and, to a man, galloped forward. The shooting continued, the four peacekeepers returning fire as they rode. The first hint of protective cover was nearly a quarter mile away. By the time they reached it, the bullets sounded with less frequency, but continued.
Larabee dropped from Pony’s back, using the black gelding for cover as he retrieved the extra ammunition from his saddlebags. He located Buck and JD, relieved to see them both firing at the outlaws with no sign of being injured. Then he realized he hadn’t heard the deep report of Vin’s hogleg. Sparing a look around he scanned the area for his friend. Finally he was rewarded with the sight of the familiar black horse, but saw no sign of Tanner.
“Can you see Vin?”
Just then they heard the familiar shotgun blast. Buck grinned at Chris’ sheepish smile, and both men returned to the fight. After several more long minutes, they saw a handful of men vault from a hidden hollow on horseback, riding hell-bent-for-leather south. Firing a few parting shots, the men quickly disappeared.
“Let’s get after them!” Larabee called.
The peacekeepers hurriedly mounted and rode after the band. As they came to the spot where the outlaws had been hidden, they saw several bloody bodies half obscured by the thick prairie grass. One wore the long blue sash that had been reported to distinguish their leader.
“Looks like we cut off the snake’s head,” Chris observed. “Vin, see if you – “ the blond reined his horse in.
“Where is he?” JD asked.
With a stricken look paling his handsome face, Larabee wheeled his horse around and rode back the way they had come at a headlong gallop.
“Ah, hell,” Buck groaned as he and Dunne spurred their horses after the blond.
Chris hit the ground running before the black could stop, falling to his knees beside his friend. Vin Tanner lay sprawled on the ground, his back against a rough boulder. His familiar sawed off shotgun lay in his lap, one finger still wrapped around the trigger. Blood coated the left side of his chest. As the gunslinger’s hand, trembling faintly, reached out to the fallen man, pain-filled blue eyes fluttered open.
“W-wondered if y’d miss...me,” he quipped.
Managing a brief smile, the other man said, “took a few minutes. Reckon I don’t notice things as quick as I used to.”
“Gettin’ old...cowboy,” the words ended in a gasp, as pain shot through the lean frame. His body went rigid; reaching out a hand, he gripped his friend’s arm.
Taking hold of the injured man’s hand, Chris said, “take it easy pard, we’ll get you patched up.”
Vin smiled wanly, then his eyes rolled back in his head, and he fell back limply. The blond moved quickly, checking for a pulse. Finding one so rapid he could barely distinguish one beat from the next, he fought back his fears. At least his friend was alive.
“Chris?” JD’s voice quivered as he spoke.
“He’s alive, Kid,” the gunman reassured him. Sounding as if he were ordering drinks at the saloon, he said, “Buck, bring my bedroll over here, and get whatever supplies Nathan shoved in our saddlebags. JD, get a fire started, and heat water in whatever you can find.”
With sounds of agreement, the two men set to their tasks. Chris bent to his own, carefully removing the injured man’s multiple layers of clothing. By the time he had Vin stripped to the waist, JD had the fire going and Buck had gathered bandages and other things they might need. The bullet had torn through Tanner’s left shoulder, burying itself against his shoulder blade.
“Think we can get the bleeding stopped?” Wilmington asked quietly.
“Don’t know,” the blond still sounded far calmer than he felt inside. Folding his kerchief, he pressed it against the wounded shoulder. Vin managed a soft groan of protest, but didn’t wake. “You and JD go check those others, make sure none of them are playing ‘possum.”
“All right,” Wilmington said softly. “C’mon Kid.”
The sound of retreating horses barely entered Larabee’s consciousness, his full attention was on his friend. He felt the material beneath his hand grow wet with the other man’s blood, then watched as the blood stained his hand. By the time the other two men returned, he knew that they would have to do more if they had even a faint chance of saving the tracker’s life.
“They’re all dead,” Buck reported as he and JD dismounted and re-joined their leader. “Couple horses, too. Brought their bedrolls and saddlebags back, might come in handy.”
Larabee nodded, turning to look at the other two peacekeepers. “He’s still bleeding,” was all he could manage to say.
Shoulders slumping, Buck said, “I’ll take the bullet out.”
Chris seemed to turn the offer over in his mind, as if he might reject it. Then, noting the fact that his hands were still trembling, he nodded.
“Chris,” JD’s voice was little more than a whisper. “I found this.”
Looking up, Larabee saw the younger man holding out a bottle of whiskey. With a faint smile, he took it. “Thanks, JD.”
“C’mon Kid,” Wilmington said, “help me get things ready.”
Shifting around, Chris lifted the unconscious man up, resting him against his chest. Pressing the cloth against the wound once more, he gently tapped the slack face with the other. “Vin? Can you hear me?”
A frown formed on the ashen face, and Tanner struggled toward consciousness. Finally managing to open his eyes to slits, he murmured, “yeah?”
Pulling the cork out of the bottle with his teeth and spitting it out, Larabee coaxed, “need you to drink this pard.” He began feeding the whiskey to the semi-conscious man, talking softly as he did. “We’re going to have to take the bullet out, get the bleeding to stop. Drink as much of this as you can, it’ll help.”
After several swallows, the sharpshooter’s head dropped back against the other man’s shoulder, lolling there as he lost consciousness once more.
Easing his friend back to the ground, Chris looked up to find the others waiting for him. “Are we ready?”
“Yeah,” Buck said. “You hold him still. JD, hold his legs. If he feels any a this, he’s likely t’ buck like a bronc.”
The following endless moments seemed like something out of a nightmare. While Chris restrained the deceptively strong man at the shoulder and chest, JD resorted to sitting across the long legs to keep Vin from thrashing. Between them, Buck worked with single-minded purpose as he fought to remove the piece of metal from his friend’s body. Despite Tanner’s reflexive thrashing about, the big ladies man finally managed to draw the bullet through the torn flesh, tossing it to the ground with unwarranted force, releasing only a fraction of the anger he felt. Using a healthy dose of the whiskey, he cleaned the wound, then glanced up at Larabee.
“Ain’t got the stuff t’ stitch it up. Reckon we can try packin’ it – “
Shaking his head, Chris said, “it’s bleeding too bad. We’ll have to cauterize it.”
Nodding in agreement, Buck turned to the fire, turning back with knife in hand. Glancing up, he said, “thought we might.”
A faint smile quirking one corner of his mouth up through the worry and concern, Larabee managed, "“always did think ahead, stud.”
With a wink, Wilmington said, “had to t’ stay your friend.” Nodding, he waited until the other two men were back in place before he moved to cauterize the wound. Even unconscious and weakened by the blood loss, they were hard put to keep Tanner from thrusting upward against the knife blade. He only relaxed after the blade was withdrawn, collapsing deep into unconsciousness.
They bound the wound then, taking care to wrap the entire shoulder and securing the man’s left arm to his body. While they couldn’t be certain, there was a chance the bullet had fractured the bone. Better to keep him as immobilized as possible until Nathan could check him out. That finished, they moved him to the bedroll near the fire, wrapping him in blankets as shock settled in and he began to shiver. Lifting his head, Chris coaxed him to take a few more sips of whiskey. Lowering Vin back to the blankets, he gently stroked the damp brown curls back from the perspiration soaked forehead. “He’s burning up.”
Handing him a cool cloth, Buck said, “y’ know it’s not gonna be easy, pard. Between takin’ th’ shot, the blood loss, the shock of what we just had t’ do – “
“He’s strong,” Chris said shortly.
“No doubt about it, pard,” the big man agreed quickly. “But even a strong man can only take so much.”
Larabee glared, but the gesture faltered under the even blue-eyed stare that met his. It was Chris who broke the exchange, his eyes dropping to the too-still body beside him. “Buck, I –“
Clasping a big hand on his old friend, Wilmington said, “if anyone can make it through this, Chris, it’s this stubborn fool. Look, me an’ JD’ll start workin’ on a travois t’ get him back t’ town.”
Nodding, the blond returned his attention to Vin. He barely noticed the passage of time through the rest of the day and into the night. Buck and JD moved around the camp quietly, taking care of setting things up for the night. The rough structure of wood, branches, and woolen blankets that had been taken from the dead outlaws tack, lay at the ready nearby, to carry Vin home.
Feeling a hand on his shoulder, the blond looked up to see Dunne kneeling next to him, offering a plate. Taking it, he said, “thanks JD.”
“Want me to sit with him a bit?”
Shaking his head, Larabee said only, “no, I’m fine.”
The look the young Easterner gave him said quite clearly that he didn’t believe the older man, but he said nothing. Gripping the black-clad shoulder once more, he nodded and returned to the fire.
As the night wore on, the fever gripped Vin ever tighter. Chris sat beside the wounded man, bathing the too-warm flesh and talking gently to the man. While he was never truly conscious, Vin seemed to respond to his friend’s words. When the fever drove him toward delirious nightmares, the gunman’s voice called him back.
“Shh, it’s okay cowboy. You’re going to be fine. Just take it easy,” Larabee coaxed. Vin’s right arm, freed from the blankets, moved weakly through the air, seeking contact. Chris took it, holding it securely against his chest. Stroking his thumb gently across the back, he continued, “you hold on, pard, I ain’t ready to cash in that bounty yet. We’ll get you back to town and Nathan will get you on your feet in no time. Besides, if I recall, you promised a certain little lady you’d take her to the social next month.”
He wasn’t certain, but he could swear he saw the sharpshooter smile.
By sunrise, Chris’ nerves were raw. He had refused the others offers to sit with Tanner. As much as he tried to deny it, he was afraid to leave the other man’s side. Although he wanted to think otherwise, there continued to be a very real possibility that Vin Tanner would not survive his injuries. Their best hope was Nathan Jackson’s self-taught and innate skill as a healer. And Nathan was a good two days away.
“Mornin’ stud,” Buck yawned as he stretched up out of his blankets. “How’s he doin’?”
“About the same,” Chris acknowledged.
“Well, that’s a good sign, means he’s holdin’ his own.” When his friend didn’t respond, Wilmington continued. “I’ll get us some breakfast goin’ and then we’ll get on th’ road.”
“How many do you think got away yesterday?”
“Well, looked t’ me like no more’n three, maybe four. Why?”
“You and JD go after them.”
“Chris – “
Shaking his head, the gunman said, “I want you to get them Buck...whatever it takes. I’ll get Vin home.”
He started to argue, to point out how unlikely it would be that he and JD could track men that had managed to throw the tracker off the trail, but the haunted look in the hazel eyes stopped him. They had to try. “All right.”
The sun had barely cleared the horizon when they were ready to part company. Both JD and Buck knelt next to the travois, each one speaking softly to the unconscious man. Chris mounted Pony, taking up Peso’s reins as well. The travois was fixed to the black; for once the headstrong animal stood waiting, as docile as a plow horse.
Stepping up where the blond waited, Wilmington put out a hand. Gripping Chris’ hand, the big man said, “you get ‘m home ol’ son, me ‘n the Kid’ll take care a them sons a bitches.”
Nodding, slanting a look back to where the sharpshooter lay, the gunslinger coaxed both horses forward.
Moving back to stand beside the younger man, Buck lay an arm across his shoulders. He looked at him, seeing the grief etched on the pale face, and gripped the teenager in a one-armed hug. “Hey Kid, ready t’ go catch some bad guys?”
Taking a deep breath, the young sheriff nodded. Turning pain-filled eyes to his friend and mentor, he said, “what if, when we get back, Vin’s –“
“When we get back, Vin’s gonna be vexin’ Nathan, sneakin’ outta th’ clinic, an’ flirtin’ with that Miss Jacqueline that’s caught his eye,” Buck’s voice was firm, but he managed a smile and wink.
JD couldn’t help but smile at the big man’s words, and the pictures they painted. “Well, reckon he’ll have to fight off Ezra. I saw him escorting her to the restaurant the night before we left.”
“Oh oh. We better catch the bad guys in a hurry, then, I don’t wanna miss the fireworks when Vin finds out.” Clapping the smaller man on the back, he pushed him toward their waiting horses. “C’mon Kid, we’re wastin’ daylight.”
Going was slow. Chris stopped at least once an hour, if not earlier, checking on the seriously wounded peacekeeper. Vin remained unconscious, but it became easier to tell each time they stopped that the movement was wearing him out. By mid-morning Larabee knew they were going to have to take a longer break; Tanner couldn’t tolerate any more.
Kneeling next to the travois, Chris dampened his kerchief and stroked it across the gray features. Vin’s mouth hung open slightly, his breathing coming in labored pants. Beneath the closed lids, his eyes flitted back and forth rapidly, as if he were searching for something. “Hey pard. You need to relax, I’m gonna get you back to town as soon as I can. You don’t need to worry about a thing.” Again a hand reached out to him, and he grasped it carefully. “Feel that, Tanner? I’ve got you, and I’m not letting go. You just keep breathing, that’s all you’ve got to do. I’ll take care of the rest.”
“...iiiisss?” One blue centered slit appeared, searching for his friend.
Gently turning the other man’s face toward him, Larabee said, “right here cowboy. “I’m right here with you, and I ain’t leavin’. You hang on, Vin Tanner, I ain’t letting you go. Understand?”
“N-not...go’n...’n...where,” Tanner managed. His head lolled against the blond’s hand as he once more returned to unconsciousness.
“You’d better not,” Larabee whispered, tenderly returned the limp hand to the blankets. He rubbed a callused hand across his face, wiping away the tears he had fought back for so many hours. He retrieved the whiskey bottle, managing to get a sip down the injured man. Checking the thick bandages, he found them dry; the wound had sealed well. Checking Tanner’s fingers, he found them slightly discolored, but a gentle shift to move the injured arm and a few minutes rubbing the long fingers brought the color back. Tucking the blankets carefully around the thin body, the black clad man returned to his horse and started them off once more.
Just before nightfall, he found a spring to set up camp near. Deciding the younger man would be more comfortable staying on the travois, he moved it near the spring, then stripped saddle and tack from the two animals. Ground reining them, he returned to Tanner’s side. Still unconscious, the wounded man mumbled softly, the words unintelligible. Soaking his kerchief in the cold spring water, Larabee did his best to cool the fever-wracked body.
“You’re going to be okay, Vin, just calm down,” he coaxed quietly. After several long moments he was rewarded by a quieting in the slim body. Leaving his side long enough to build a fire and begin a meal, Chris kept a close eye on his friend. As he did all this, memories kept nudging the edges of his attention. He watched in his mind’s eye as he locked eyes with the other man across the dusty street; looked him over as they marched along that street toward the cemetery where they would rescue Nathan Jackson. So many memories from the past months flowed through him, all with a common theme; Vin Tanner’s unfailing loyalty, strength and quiet humor. The thought of being left once more with fading memories tore at the gunman’s battered heart.
“Chris?” The voice was so soft, he wasn’t certain he had heard his name. Turning from the fire, he smiled as a familiar pair of eyes greeted him.
“Hey pard, how’re you feeling?”
“Lousy. Drink?” Even the single word sentences were quickly tiring the injured man.
Nodding, Larabee brought a canteen to him, lifting his friend up and pressing the mouth of the container to his mouth. As he shifted the weakened man back to the blankets, he ran his fingers through the long hair, brushing it back. “Better?”
“Yeah.” Vin looked around, he eyes glazed and unfocused. “Buck? JD?”
“They’re following the gang, think they’re headed for Mexico.”
Tanner’s face paled even more, pain even more evident than before. He felt a hand take his and gripped it with what little strength he had. The pain shot through him, bringing disorientation and nausea with it. As it all reached a crescendo, the hand tightened comfortingly, his friend’s presence offering him strength. Finally he relaxed, the onslaught dulling to a manageable level. He felt himself lifted up once more, and the smell of whiskey announced the liquid he was offered.
“No problem pard.” Chris watched as his friend returned to the darkness that had been his haven so much of the past day. He settled Vin once more to the blankets and returned to fixing dinner. Eating his own meal of beans and dried beef, he waited until the other man showed signs of waking again before coaxing him awake.
“Vin, wake up now. I want you to try and drink some of this.” He held up a tin mug filled with broth he had made from some of the beef.
“Tired,” Tanner protested.
“I know. You don’t have to drink much, just a sip or two.”
“’kay,” the response was little more than a sigh. He felt Chris once more lift him up, felt himself supported against the muscular chest, and the warm mug was pressed against his lips. Sipping slowly, he grimaced at the strong brew. “Tastes...bad.”
“Well, it’s about all you’re going to get right now, so deal with it.”
“Been called worse. Drink.”
Managing a faint imitation of a glare, he nonetheless followed orders and drank the broth. By the time the mug was empty, the sharpshooter was leaning heavily against the gunslinger. Vin felt the older man’s heart beating against his cheek, letting it lull him back to sleep. In the twilight, he felt Chris bathe his face with cool water, stroking the cloth along his throat and across his chest wherever it was free of bandages. As he moved steadily toward oblivion, he felt himself lowered to the blankets, and the other man’s hand rested across his forehead.
Watching the injured man sleeping once more, Larabee considered his options. Traveling as slowly as they were forced to, it could take an additional day to get his injured friend back to Four Corners. He could carry Vin on horseback, returning quicker, but at what risk to his life? He was barely able to tolerate the trip secured to the travois, horseback would almost certainly kill him. Their other option would be to travel steadily, stopping only a few minutes at a time through day and night. He wasn’t certain that the wounded man could tolerate that either. With a resigned sigh, he realized that the additional time would be their best option.
The night passed in a series of feverish episodes, the young sharpshooter only vaguely aware of the comfort offered him by his friend. He was consumed by hallucinations, visions of hell formed from his deepest fears. When he fought those unseen horrors, he also fought the restraining arms that forced him back; forced him down.
Larabee hated his role in Vin’s delirium; hated that he had to fend off the single, flailing arm that fought him. He tried talking to the injured man, but too often it didn’t seem to get through to him. “Vin, come on pard, you need to settle down. Take it easy now, come on. You’re going to hurt yourself.”
Somewhere in the distance, Tanner heard a voice. It was a voice he recognized, one that meant safety. However, the exhausted young man couldn’t manage to connect that soothing voice with the restraining hands. He continued fighting as long as his depleted strength would allow. Between these frightening episodes, Vin lay as still as death. Only the slight rise and fall of his bound chest, and the occasional breathless moan let Larabee know he was alive. As the bright moon sat right above them, Chris stripped off his black duster and soaked it in the spring. Letting the excess run from the heavy material, he draped it over the fever-wracked body. As the cool water drew some of the heat from him, Vin grew quiet. In the depths of unconsciousness, the wounded man felt the change. Rescued from the unrelenting heat at last, he drifted peacefully away from the nightmares and settled into true sleep.
Another morning, dawning with cloudless skies and bright sunlight. It was a beauty lost on two men who would have otherwise reveled in the beauty. One continued to fight for his life with strength he pulled from some unknown reserve, while the other fought to keep that life with every ounce of courage he had.
Chris knelt beside the wooden frame, stroking the ashen features with a damp cloth, just as he had for hours. Vin had grown quiet during the night, lying still beneath the cooling cloth of his duster. He had soaked the coat over and over again, working to keep the fever from rising. Now that he could truly see his friend, he wondered if it had all been in vain. “All right, you stubborn fool, I know you’ve got more fight in you than this.”
Several long minutes passed, as Chris continued to speak softly, bathing the finely chiseled features as he did. Then, against all odds, the blue of the skies above was reflected in the eyes that opened and looked up at him. Larabee’s handsome face split in a broad grin. “I’ll be damned.”
“Ain’t...we all?” the wit came through, despite the lack of strength in the raspy whisper.
“Reckon so,” Chris grabbed up a canteen and gently lifted the damp head from the blankets, helping the younger man to drink. Lowering him back, he continued, “better?”
Nodding, Tanner sighed, then frowned. “It rain?”
“What?” The blond worried for a minute that his friend was slipping back to delirium, but then he realized that Vin’s right hand was weakly picking at the damp cloth that covered him. With a chuckle, he said, “no, just trying to keep your skinny ass from cooking in your own juices.”
“What?” The tired man blinked at his friend in confusion.
Gently pulling the duster from the prone figure, he said seriously, “you’ve been feverish since you got shot, pard.”
Turning back to the slender man, Larabee said, “you’re beginning to sound more like me than I do. Don’t remember getting shot?”
Tanner shook his head, the confusion leading to agitation. “Wh...what happened?” He lifted his head from the travois; attempted to rise from his makeshift bed.
Laying a hand against the man’s uninjured shoulder, Chris easily pressed him back to the blankets. Catching Vin’s chin, he locked eyes with him. Seeing the worry in the blue depths, Larabee spoke softly but firmly. “Take it easy, all right? Lay still, Vin, you’re going to be okay. Don’t worry about anything, if you don’t remember getting shot, then we’ll fill you in on it later. You’re safe, we got the bullet out, and the bleeding’s stopped. But you lost a lot of blood, so you need to lay still and rest.”
Slowly the sharpshooter began to relax as that familiar voice once more filled him with a sense of safety. Finally realizing that one arm was restrained, he moved his other hand to explore the situation. Feeling the thick material wrapped around his shoulder and covered his entire left arm, he sought the hazel eyes once more. “Bad?”
“Could have been worse,” the gunman assured him, “the bullet might have busted your shoulder though, so we figured we’d better keep it still until Nathan looks at it.”
Nodding, Vin let his eyes slide closed once more. Drifting between wakefulness and sleep, he felt Chris run a cool cloth across his face once more. He listened to the sounds as the other man rustled around their campsite.
The blond heated more of the broth he had made from the dried beef, carrying it back to where Vin lay. Tapping the square jaw lightly, he coaxed his friend to wake and helped him drink the broth. Getting the full mug down the injured man, he followed it with more of the whiskey. He was relieved that Tanner’s eyes opened more and more frequently, and seemed clearer. It gave the black clad man some sense of hope that he would reach Four Corners with a live companion. Readying the horses, he moved to fasten the travois back onto Peso’s back.
“C’n ride,” Vin protested, trying once again to move off the rough construction.
“Try to get off there and I’m putting a bullet between your eyes,” Larabee growled lightly. Clasping the bare shoulder, he said, “we’ll make better time if you stay where you are, Tanner. I ain’t in the mood to pick your stubborn ass up off the ground every fifteen minutes.”
The sharpshooter attempted a glare, but didn’t have the energy to keep hi eyes open. As they slid shut, he sighed. “Fine,” he grumbled.
The day passed much as the previous one had. Chris stopped from time to time, checking on his friend. As long as Vin could tolerate the movement, they moved. When Vin needed rest, they rested. The man in black wasn’t even aware of his own needs to rest or eat, his entire focus was on the lanky sharpshooter. His self neglect did not go unnoticed, however. They were stopped under a tree, when a pair of blue eyes flashed with anger and concern. Looking down at the pale mane curiously, he asked, “what’s wrong, Pard?”
Frowning, Larabee said, “did I eat?” As Vin nodded, he said, “yesterday.”
“Ain’t hungry,” he dismissed the man’s concern. “Let’s get you settled and I’ll warm up some more of that broth.”
“Eat,” the raspy whisper became insistent.
Exasperated, the blond said, “fine. I’ll fix something to eat.” He didn’t miss the cocky glint in the fever-bright eyes. “You’re a pain in the ass, you know that?”
They rode through the afternoon, Vin slipping in and out of consciousness as the travois bounced along the ground. By evening, Chris was quickly reaching the end of his endurance. Pulling the travois from the black’s back and caring for the horses, he found himself stumbling as he moved to build a fire.
With a sigh, he turned to his friend, finding the sharpshooter pushing himself to a sitting position on the blankets. “Damn it Vin! Lay your skinny ass down.”
“Me too what?”
“Lay...down,” the lean man trembled, trying to draw a deep breath against the pain.
“Vin, when you’re strong enough to say more than two words at a time without getting out of breath, you can try to order me around, okay?” He dropped wearily to the ground as he lit the small campfire.
The concerned sharpshooter ignored the flip comments. Gamely maintaining his balance, he glared at his friend the entire time Chris worked on the fire. As Larabee set a skillet of beans beside the fire, he pulled himself forward, bent on getting off the travois. Instead, he nearly fell on his face, caught by a pair of black clad arms. Cursing himself for his continued weakness, the younger man couldn’t find the strength to fight those arms as they lay him back down on the blankets.
“Tanner, if you’re so all fired set on me getting some rest, you’re going at it the wrong way. Now, lay down, or I’m going to nail your ass to this thing. Hear me?”
“Sorry,” the wounded man managed.
With a grin, Chris said, “you’re a sorry one alright. Vin, I appreciate the concern, and I know you don’t like to be coddled. Right now, though, neither of us has a choice. Now, if you promise to be good, I’ll help you sit up against the tree we’re under and let you try drinking the broth on your own. Deal?”
“Not...a baby.” Tanner grumbled.
“Couldn’t prove it by me right now, cowboy.” Larabee’s smile was broad and genuine.
Vin couldn’t help but smile back, but he affected a ‘put upon’ look as he surrendered. The young sharpshooter managed to stay awake, watching his friend tend the fire and their dinner. When Chris kept his word and helped him to move from the contraption of wood and wool, he was able to take some of his own weight. By the time they had crossed the three or four feet to the big tree trunk, however, he could no longer pretend that it was only Larabee that had kept him on the travois. He slid gratefully to the ground, collapsing against the rough bark of the tree with a groan. Vin hadn’t even realized Chris had left his side until he opened his eyes to find the blond offering him the mug of broth.
“Thanks, cowboy,” he whispered as he took the mug in both hands.
Settling next to his friend with a plate of beans, Larabee kept an eye on the injured man. Vin was still terribly pale, but he saw a hint of something that hadn’t been there earlier. For lack of a better term, Chris decided that it was a spark of life. He couldn’t help but smile, deciding that this was another good sign that the former bounty hunter would survive the trip.
Tanner managed to drink the broth, and even ate part of a biscuit before his eyes drifted shut. Larabee got him back to the relative comfort of the travois, offered him a few sips of whiskey, and watched him for a bit. While Vin’s flesh was still warm to the touch, it wasn’t the hell-fire of before. The younger man was sleeping easier, seeming to be in a restful sleep. Chris scrubbed a callused hand over his face and offered thanks to whatever powers had interceded on the hunter’s behalf. Pulling his poncho closer around him, his heavy duster still damp, the older man drew his knees up and dropped his head to them. Keeping one ear open for danger, a skill learned through long years as a gunfighter, he allowed himself to drift to a light sleep.
The third day dawned with heavy clouds and a gray cast to the very air. Chris surveyed the horizon with concern, cursing over his coffee mug as he smelled rain on the wind. The last thing the injured man needed was to be caught in what promised to be a violent prairie storm. Cleaning up the camp quickly, he turned to the sharpshooter, who had been watching the sky as well. “Truth, Vin. You think you can sit your horse?”
“Looks like I’d better. Don’t know of a decent...place t’ hole up, ‘n don’t fancy spendin’....th’ day soaked to th’ bone.”
Nodding, the older man readied the horses. Pulling his poncho off, he slipped it over the injured man. Easing Vin to his feet, he kept a firm grip on the man while Tanner fought off the wave of nausea and dizziness he felt at the change of position. As soon as the tracker was ready, he helped him up onto the big black, holding the lean body when it threatened to slip from the other side. “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.”
“I’ll...be fine,” Vin insisted. “Let’s go.”
Shaking his head at the man’s dogged determination, the gunman mounted his horse, coaxing the animal as close to his friend as he could. Peso snorted, butting his head against the smaller Pony. Vin cuffed the stubborn animal’s ear. Chris chuckled, as the two men started off.
The ride was tense, as they stayed just ahead of the impending storm. Looking over their shoulders, Larabee and Tanner could see the sharp report of lightening and hear the deep rumble of distant thunder. Looking at one another, they knew the fast walk they had set the animals to would not keep them dry for long. With a lop-sided grin and a one shouldered shrug, the tracker kneed his horse to a gallop.
“Damn it Vin!” Chris spurred Pony forward as well, pushing the gelding to catch up with the bigger horse. By the time he did, Larabee could see the pain clearly written on the wounded man’ pale face. Reaching out, he pulled Peso to a halt, along with his own horse. “Stubborn fool, there’s a better way to do this.”
“Don’t...need y’ ho...holdin’ me,” Tanner grated out.
“Too damn bad,” Chris growled. With that, he dismounted, tied Pony’s reins to Peso’s saddle, and climbed onto the blaze-faced horse behind the weakening man. As he wrapped an arm around the slender form, the tousled head dropped back to his shoulder. With a shake of his head, he settled the younger man against him and started them off once more.
They switched horses twice before Chris spotted the familiar cluster of buildings on the horizon. The rain was edging closer by the minute, like a pack of hounds after a tiring fox. Drawing both animals to a halt, the blond woke the dozing Tanner. “Hey pard, we’re almost there. Want to try sitting this blamed mule on your own for a while?”
With a faint smile, Vin nodded, shifting forward away from the comforting body. He took a deep breath, steadying himself in the saddle as he took up the reins. With Chris beside him on Pony, he kicked the big black to a gallop. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he endured the pounding gait of his horse. Twice he nearly slipped from the saddle, overcome by the shear agony. Each time, Chris reached out, holding him until he could right himself. Finally, just as the storm caught them, they reached the little town.
The storm raged through the night, but was barely noticed by the two friends. Vin had collapsed into Chris’ arms at the foot of Nathan’s stairway. Calling to Yosemite to tend the horses, the gunman helped his friend up the stairs. Beckoned by Larabee’s voice, the healer met them before they had managed a quarter of the stairs. Slipping an arm around the stumbling man, the former slave took most of his weight, and the trio moved quickly up the stairs and into the little clinic. Once there, Larabee helped Jackson strip the wet clothing from the semi-conscious man and slip him beneath the warm quilt, filling him in on Vin’s injury as they did.
“Okay, I’ll take it from here,” Nathan took in the dark smudges beneath the dull hazel eyes and the slight tremble that seemed to run throughout the lean frame. “You get yourself to your room, get outta them wet clothes, and get some sleep.”
“I’m fine, Nathan – “
“Git outta...here,” a faint, raspy voice issued the order from the depths of the heavy coverings.
“Stay out of this, Tanner,” Chris groused.
“Kick...yer ass,” came the retort.
With a deep chuckle, Jackson said, “sounds like your outnumbered.”
The clinic door opened just then, and Josiah stepped inside. “Just ran into Yosemite and he told me Vin was hurt.”
“ ‘M f...fine.”
“Glad to hear it brother,” the preacher said with a deep chuckle. Turning to the blond, who was swaying on his feet, the big man said, “I suppose you’re fine as well.”
“Don’t you start, Josiah,” Larabee protested. “Two ‘hens’ pecking at me are enough.”
Smiling compassionately, the big man said, “is that so? Well then, how about I escort you to the saloon for dinner and a drink so you can get away from the coop?”
Chuckling, Chris said, “I give up. Okay, I’ll go.” Tossing a salute toward the bed, he said, “I’ll see you – “
“T’morrow,” came the muffled voice once again.
Throwing his arms up in defeat, the gunman said, “fine. Tomorrow.”
Clapping a big arm around the blond’s shoulders, the oldest member of the group chuckled. “Come along brother.”
Chris rapped lightly on the clinic door and entered quietly. He found Nathan sleeping in the chair that the healer spent far too many nights in. Smiling as the dark face raised from the broad chest, he said, “morning.”
“Mornin’,” Jackson said with a yawn.
“How is he?”
Looking over at the still figure in the bed, he said, “fever’s still on him, but it ain’t gettin’ any worse. He slept pretty well all night, just had a couple a bad spells. Gonna take him a couple a months to get back to full strength I reckon, but he’ll make it all right.”
Slumping in relief as the good news sank in, Chris smiled. “That’s good news, Nathan. Think he’s up to eating?”
“Reckon he could manage some oatmeal, a biscuit, maybe some milk.”
Nodding, Chris said, “I’ll go get him some, come back and give you a break.” Not waiting for a response, he retraced his steps out of the clinic and down the stairs. As he reached the street, he saw a familiar pair of horses walking up the muddy street. As they neared the livery, he greeted them.
“You two all right?”
“We’re fine, stud, just tired. How’s Vin?” Wilmington responded.
“Nathan said it’s going to take time, but he’ll be all right.”
Both men grinned tiredly at the news as they dismounted. Yosemite appeared, taking the weary horses from the two peacekeepers.
Losing his smile, Buck said, “sorry, Chris, we couldn’t catch ‘m.”
Nodding, Larabee clasped the bigger man’s hand, “thanks for trying.” Turning to JD, he gripped the young sheriff’s hand as well. “You too, Kid. Look, I was just on my way to get some breakfast for Vin. Why don’t you two come with me, fill me in?”
The three men walked down the boardwalk, toward the restaurant. Flanked once more by the other two, Chris listened to their account of their search. He had one thought in mind; he would gather all of the information the others could offer, and use it to form a plan. There were still three or four outlaws out there, one of who could very well have nearly ended his best friend’s life.
It wasn’t over yet.
Continues in The Pledge
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