Main Characters: Vin, Chris
As always, I claim no medical knowledge that wasn’t covered in M*A*S*H. I did a little research at http://www.back.com. Many thanks to Julie for her medical feedback, as well!
Webmaster Note: This story was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in May 2012.
Chris Larabee looked up as JD Dunne entered the saloon. As usual the Kid was moving like he didn’t know what to do with all his energy and, more than likely, he didn’t. But he had a look on his face that caught the gunfighter’s attention. When the young sheriff approached his table, he asked quietly, “what’s wrong JD?”
“You seen Vin?” His tone was almost distracted, and Dunne continued to scan the saloon as if searching for something, or someone.
“Not since day before yesterday, why?”
“Was he out on patrol?”
With a shake of his head Larabee said, “Hunting. What’s wrong?”
“Do you know where he went?”
“JD, spit it out or I’m putting a bullet between you eyes.”
“Peso’s at the livery.”
“Yosemite said he was standing out front this morning when he came in. Said he didn’t look like Vin had taken care of him for a day or two.”
Before the young man finished his sentence, the man in black had unfolded his lean body from the chair and strode across the dimly lit room in half a dozen steps. By the time JD caught up with him, he was practically running down the dusty street. He didn’t acknowledge the smaller man’s presence, his mind reeling with thoughts brought on by Dunne’s information. There was no way in hell Vin Tanner would abuse his horse, not even to the point of neglecting his care for a day. He had seen the lanky Texan shuffle to the livery from a sick bed just to make certain the big black animal had enough food and water. Something was wrong. Very, very wrong.
“JD, where are the others?”
“Josiah and Nathan rode out to check on the Bartons, Ezra ain’t up yet, and Buck rode out to the Williams place to see Miss Clara. Why – “
“Drag Ezra’s ass out of bed, and the two of you go get the others. Tell them to meet up at Drury’s Crossing.”
“That’s where Vin went hunting.”
“But, if Peso’s here, isn’t Vin here?”
“If that mule came back in bad shape that means something’s happened to Vin. we need to get out there as quick as we can.” As he spoke, he was quickly readying his own black gelding for the journey.
“But, shouldn’t we check – “
“Damn it JD, you’re wasting time! Now go get the others!”
Jumping backward at the anger in the words Larabee yelled at him, the young man bounced off the stall door. Barely catching himself before he fell, Dunne dashed from the building in search of the other four peacekeepers.
Quickly finishing his work, the blond mounted his horse and spurred him from the stall. By the time he hit the edge of town, Chris had the gelding going full out. His mind tortured him with visions of his closest friend dead in a variety of ways. As each version of the end of Tanner’s life came to him, he coaxed the horse beneath him a little faster. He had to find the sharpshooter, and he prayed he’d find him alive.
Vin stared up at the sky, marveling at how beautiful the cloudless blue was. He had always preferred having nothing above him but the heavens. Even when he was being bombarded by rain or snow, he preferred the sky to being sheltered beneath a roof.
He frowned, trying to recall just when it was that he had laid down in the thick prairie grass beneath him. His mind, still sluggish from sleep, worked its way back through time in search of his last memory. He remembered… remembered…
Tanner blinked his eyes opened, realizing that he had drifted off again. That puzzled him, he had never been one to lay about into the morning. Nettie teased that the sun had to rise to meet him, rather than the other way around. But the sun was full up, shedding its light and warmth on him. He felt the warmth soaking into his aching body.
Vin realized that every inch of his body was all but vibrating with a dull, steady ache, as if he were being battered through thick pillows. He tried to move, to discover the cause of the discomfort, but found he couldn’t move. Shouldn’t move. He screamed, a sound echoing the intense pain that ripped through his body.
Then the darkness came again.
Chris rode hard for over an hour, finally slowing to a reasonable pace when it occurred to him that he could have ridden right by the man he was searching for. Pulling the brim of his black hat down to shade his eyes against the late morning sun, he tried to look in every direction at once for sign of Tanner.
The crossing, where Vin had mentioned going to get away for a few days, was three hours away on horseback. Chris made it in two. He had kept his eyes trained on the terrain, at once praying to see the sharpshooter and praying he wouldn’t. As long as Tanner was all right, he wanted to find him quickly. If he wasn’t…
Larabee didn’t finish his thought. Anyone living in the wild, often savage, West knew that life was perilous at best. Any time you said good-bye to someone, it could be for the last time. It didn’t make it any easier, however. Despite his best efforts, the gunslinger had found himself growing close to the six men who considered him both leader and friend. And he was closest of all to Vin Tanner.
The blond shook himself from his thoughts, his attention focusing once again on the search. He hoped to see a foot sore Texan limping toward him, cursing the fates that had paired him with the stubborn black animal. He would give the younger man a ride back to town, not missing an opportunity to taunt him along the way.
There he was.
But Chris wouldn’t be doing any teasing any time soon.
The man in black leapt from the saddle and ran the last few feet to drop next to the too still form. He reached out a tentative hand, pressing his fingers along the man's neck. He relaxed a little when he felt a fairly strong and regular heartbeat, but worried at the unresponsiveness of his friend.
Slowly the other man’s long-lashed lids fluttered opened just enough to show a hint of the blue eyes beneath. His lips parted slightly, and a soft breath of sound touched the air. “…iiiiissss?”
“Hey, pard. Think you can wake up for me?”
Smiling briefly at the answer, Larabee said, “No? Why not?”
“Hu… hur… hurtssss.”
Frowning now, the blond asked, “What hurts, pard?”
“E’r’thin’,” came the mumbled reply.
“Everything?” Chris repeated the slurred word, but got no response. Tanner was once again unconscious.
Sitting back, the gunfighter surveyed the area, looking for anything that might lead him to know what had happened. Vin was near a big tree, which would provide them shelter until Nathan and the others arrived. Several of the smaller limbs had been brought down, laying scattered around the hard ground. They were just dry enough to make a good fire.
Chris frowned, studying the littered ground. Then he looked up into the depths of the big tree. Then he looked back at his friend. Vin lay awkwardly, arms and legs askew, face up in the thick grass. Leaves and twigs were scattered all around, including in the long tangle of loose chestnut curls.
“Ah, hell.” Tanner must have been near the top of the tree for some reason, and had fallen.
With gentle, meticulous movements, Larabee slowly took stock of the other man’s body. As he moved along each long limb, he carefully straightened it. Getting to Tanner’s left arm, he found an unnatural angle just halfway between elbow and wrist. Taking special care, he straightened the broken extremity, placing it next to the man’s body.
Moving to Tanner’s head and neck, then his shoulders and down his torso, Chris found no other signs of breaks or fractures. He carefully brushed the debris from the long, tangled locks and the buckskin jacket, absently rubbing a thumb along the square jaw when Vin moaned softly.
Going to his horse, he returned with his bedroll, canteen and saddlebags. Spreading the blanket over the supine form, he dropped the saddlebags nearby, and knelt next to Tanner’s head. “I’ve got some water for you here, Vin.”
As Chris slipped his hand beneath his friend’s head, Tanner moaned. He lifted the sweat-soaked head so that Vin could drink. Instead, the younger man’s voice cut the air with an agonized scream. As quickly as possible, Larabee lowered the man’s head to the ground.
“Jesus, pard! What’s wrong?”
“D-don’t… don’t move… oh shit… hurts,” Tanner whimpered.
“Okay… okay.” He carefully wiped the tears of pain from the colorless face. Digging into his saddlebags, he found a clean kerchief. Wetting it, he pressed the cloth against the tightly pressed lips. Vin felt the moisture against his mouth and gratefully sucked at the kerchief. They repeated the process twice more before the sharpshooter drifted off once more.
Larabee settled in beside his friend, feeling helpless. Something was very, very wrong with the sharpshooter, but he had no idea as to what. Shading his eyes, he searched the horizon, watching for some sign of the others approach. He sighed when his search revealed nothing.
“Others… c’min’?” Vin mumbled.
“Soon. JD was going after them. They’ll be here. Why don’t you go on back to sleep?”
With a faint smile, Tanner corrected him. “Not… sleep’n. Ke…keep pass’n… out.”
“Awful particular for a man in your condition,” Chris teased. “Why don’t you pass out, then? I know you’re in a lot of pain.”
“Right.” Larabee looked at the man’s face, almost translucent it was so pale. The half-closed eyes were ringed with dark smudges, the finely chiseled features were lined with pain. He pulled his silver flask from the pocket of his duster. The opening was small enough, he might be able to dribble the alcohol into Tanner’s mouth. Quickly he explained his idea to the semi-conscious man, who agreed to it.
Vin opened his mouth and, ever so slowly, Chris dribbled the whiskey into it. It took several minutes to feed the injured man enough to dull the pain. As Larabee lifted the flask away and capped it, he watched the corners of the other man’s broad mouth turned up in a faint smile.
“Ye… yeah.” With that, Tanner slipped back into unconsciousness.
Heaving another sigh, the man in black sat back, his eyes once more scanning the horizon. He had long ago given up on prayer, but he offered silent words to the heavens that the others would arrive soon.
As if in answer to Larabee’s silent plea, he saw the silhouette of five riders in the distance. The blond heaved a sigh of relief, and an almost smile graced his handsome features. Moving quietly so he didn’t disturb the injured man, he left the shadow of the big tree toward the other men. As the sound of horses made its way into the unconscious mind of the sharpshooter, he groaned softly.
“Take it easy pard, it’s the boys. They’ll be here in a minute.”
“Yeah, he’s with them. They’re all here Vin, rest easy.”
“Kay,” he sighed with relief.
As soon as the quartet reached them, Nathan jumped from Able’s back and hurried over to where Vin lay. Dropping to the man’s side, he carefully began to look him over. Larabee nodded a quick greeting to the other men, then began filling the healer in on what he knew of Tanner’s injuries.
Slipping big hands beneath the layers of clothing as best he could, Nathan gently began to examine the sharpshooter’s neck and back without moving him. Vin moaned in response, and Chris knelt above his head.
Carefully, the blond placed a hand on either side of the young man’s head. Bending close, he said quietly, “Lay still. I know it hurts, but you need to lay still so Nathan can look you over.”
Unfocused blue eyes blinked at him, and the pain-wracked man moaned, “make ‘t stop… hur’s Chris.”
Knowing that his friend was only semi-conscious, the blond replied, “I know it does cowboy, I know. Close your eyes, Vin, and just listen to my voice. Keep listening, and don’t think about the pain.”
Larabee continued talking softly to the confused man, keeping his mind from dwelling on the pain that continued to pulse through his body. The pillows had disappeared, and raw pain shot through him with growing intensity. He wanted to scream, to beg for an end to the agony, but the pain robbed him of the strength to do more than moan pitifully while his friend held onto him.
It was almost an hour before Jackson sat back on his heels. The others sat quietly, barely breathing while they waited to hear his verdict. He looked around him to find five sets of eyes staring intently at him.
“I don’t know. I don’t think his back is broken but I can’t tell for certain. It is damaged though. That much I do know.”
“What do we do?” Josiah asked quietly.
“Keep him as still as possible. I need a couple of you to go back into town and pick up some supplies. We’re gonna need a wagon, and a board big enough to lay him on. Gonna have to tie him down to it – “
“No!” Tanner’s voice was weak with pain, but filled with panic.
Chris leaned forward once more. “Vin, we have to do it. It’s going to be all right. Nothing’s going to happen to you. We need to do it to get you well.”
The blond looked up at Nathan, a question clear in his face. Would they be able to get Vin back on his feet? To his dismay, the healer shrugged and shook his head. He didn’t have the answers Larabee needed to hear.
“No… please,” Vin begged.
“Sh. It’s gonna be all right,” Larabee promised.
“I’ll make a list of what we’re gonna need,” Jackson said quietly, wanting to spare his friend any more emotional pain on top of the physical.
“You tell us what we’re gonna need, me and the Kid’ll go get it,” Wilmington promised. His eyes remained glued to the bounty hunter. He had seen how worried JD looked, and knew the young man would do best if he were busy. The last thing Tanner needed was a nervous JD hovering over him trying to make things better.
“I’m gonna give you some Laudanum now, Vin,” Nathan explained. “It’ll help you to relax.”
Beyond words now, Tanner didn’t respond. The healer went to his horse and returned with his saddlebags. Setting them nearby, he retrieved a small amber bottle and, with Chris’ help, carefully fed Vin enough to keep him unconscious for several hours. Then, finding a scrap of paper and the nub of a pencil, he wrote down the supplies they would need to transport the Texan home. Buck took the paper from him, looked it over, and nodded. With JD on his heels, he returned to his horse and they were riding out a minute later.
“Ezra, let’s you and me set up camp,” Josiah suggested. The gambler made no snide comments about manual labor, but moved to gather up the scattered twigs and branches to make a fire.
The men settled in, knowing that they would be there for some time. They didn’t expect Wilmington and Dunne to be able to gather all the things they would need in time to return any time soon. Chances were that it would be morning before they could move the injured man. In the meantime they moved quietly, trying not to disturb their friend. With Chris’ help, Nathan carefully split the seams of Vin’s coat, shirt and undershirt to expose his broken arm. While Larabee held the unconscious man still, Jackson set and splinted the long limb. Deeply unconscious thanks to the effects of the opiate, Tanner moaned softly but didn’t awake.
That done, all they could do was wait.
He swam from the darkness, only to find more darkness awaiting him. Slowly Vin’s mind cleared enough that he realized that it was night, only a low fire offering a break in the inky blackness. He sighed, a sound that turned into a moan as the pain began to awake as well. Then a familiar form swam into his vision, leading him to smile. “Y’ hov’rin’?”
Chuckling at the mumbled jibe, Larabee said, “I don’t hover. I’m on watch, and thought I heard you waking up. Nathan said you might not sleep through the night. I’ll wake him up so we can get some more Laudanum in you.”
“Chris… don’ wan’ 't. Hate h… hate how ‘t makes me… makes me feel.”
Nodding his understanding, Larabee said, “I know you hate it, cowboy. But right now it’s the best thing for you.”
“Wait… please?” He hated handing over control to the drug. He would rather suffer the pain than drift through the darkness, unaware of what was going on around him.
“Vin, there are four men here to watch your back. You’ll be all right.”
With a sigh, Larabee finally said, “I’ll let it go for a little while. You have to lay completely still, though Vin. Nathan said we’re going to have to immobilize you for the time being, until he can figure out how bad your injuries are.”
At first he thought it was a response to the pain, but then Larabee realized that Vin was protesting the thought of being tied down. He couldn’t imagine dealing with it himself, and knew Tanner was in a near-panic over it. Sitting cross-legged beside his friend, he carefully took his hand, closing long fingers around it in a gesture of comfort. Brushing a lock of sweat-soaked brown hair back, he said, “Vin, I know this is a lot to bear. But you have to know that me and the others will be there for you. We’ll see you through this, you don’t have to worry about it.”
“Know… I kn-know that. S’just I don’t… I can’t… oh l-lord, Chris.”
Placing a hand along the square jaw, and feeling how tightly it was clinched, Larabee said, “it’s bound to be a hard road, Vin. I think we all know that, and I don’t think any of us could face it without feeling like you are right now. But you’re gonna get through it. I swear that to you, Tanner.”
Vin couldn’t help but relax a little. This might not be a rowdy cowboy or hired gunman that Chris Larabee could glare down or shoot. But the black clad man didn’t seem to know the difference. The sharpshooter felt himself relax even more. As frightening as it all was, Chris and the others would be there for him. He had no doubt of that.
Larabee sat beside his friend for some time, comforting him and doing everything he could to keep the pain-wracked man’s mind off the pain. But, after almost an hour, he could see by the set of the square jaw and feel by the pressure of Vin’s grip that the pain was beginning to overwhelm him. Reluctantly he called to the former stretcher bearer.
Nathan was instantly awake, long years of listening for the groan or cry of a patient leading him to be able to move from deepest sleep to full wakefulness immediately. He checked Vin over carefully and then he fed him more of the pain-killer. They watched as Tanner drifted back into the darkness, his hand still wrapped in Chris’.
Morning came, the blue skies and sunshine blissfully unaware of the drama unfolding below. Four men stirred, moved around the campsite as they met the new day with somber moods. The fifth man lay unconscious, kept still by painkillers and injuries. Soon after the sun cleared the horizon, the sound of a wagon caught their attention and announced the arrival of the other two members of their group. All four watched as Buck and JD rode to the edge of the camp, jumping from the wagon seat as quickly as possible.
“How is he?” Buck asked quietly.
“Holdin’ his own,” Nathan answered. “Did you get everything on the list?”
“Yeah. Got half the town askin’ questions, though.”
“They can keep their damn noses out of it,” Larabee growled.
With his mustache twitching to keep from smiling, Wilmington said, “Figured you’d say that. Y’ know as well as I do that the gossips ‘r gonna be watchin’ for us to come back.”
The blond frowned, but didn’t respond. Instead he returned to where Vin lay unconscious, sitting beside him to watch for signs that Tanner was waking. Around him, the others unloaded the wagon and, under Jackson’s direction, readied things to transport the sharpshooter.
They lay the backboard right next to Vin, covered with a single blanket. Cloth straps had been threaded through holes cut in the board at regular intervals so that they could be used to keep the injured man from moving.
“All right. I need y’all to grab hold of him just like I tell you, and move him just like I say. The laudanum’s only gonna do so much, so if we don’t do this just right he’s gonna let the whole territory know.” Nathan warned. He positioned them along Vin’s supine form, instructing them each individually as to what they would need to do. Then he addressed the entire group, warning them again of the need to move just as he said.
Despite their best efforts, Tanner cried out as they lifted him and placed him on the board. Settled on the hard surface, he quickly settled once again. while Chris sat at his head, once again talking to him softly, Nathan, along with Buck and Josiah, began the distasteful task of immobilizing Vin. The cloth restraints were tied across his body from head to foot. A set also wrapped beneath his chin to keep him from moving his head, another holding his ankles to keep him from moving his legs.
“Oh… Je… Jesus!”
They all looked up, startled, to find Vin awake. His blue eyes were wide opened, fear reflected in their depths. Chris leaned forward, capturing the frightened man’s eye.
“Vin, calm down. We have to do this, pard, there’s no other way around it. You have to trust that we’ll take care of you. Vin, calm down now, you’re only gonna hurt yourself.” His hand went to the younger man’s jaw, rubbing over the coarse stubble as he spoke.
While Larabee coaxed Tanner to calm, Nathan moved in and fed him more Laudanum. They all watched as, lulled by both the man in black and the drug, Vin drifted back into oblivion.
Together, the other six carried the backboard, with Vin strapped to it, to the wagon and settled him into the bed. Chris and Nathan climbed in, sitting on either side of the sharpshooter. It was only when they were all mounted and ready to ride that the blond spoke.
“We’ll take him to my place.”
“Chris, you can’t be serious.”
“Nathan, is there anything you can’t do for him out there that you can in town as long as we get the supplies we need?”
Frowning, the bigger man said, “no I suppose not, but it’ll take almost another hour to get him to your place.”
“Can we keep him unconscious that long?”
“Yes, I’ve got plenty of Laudanum, but – “
“If carrying him this way is gonna do anything to him, would it be more likely to do it in that last hour?”
“I don’t suppose so, but – “
“Then we take him to my place.” Looking around at the other men, Chris shook his head and focused his gaze on his closest friend. “It’s going to be hard enough on him to deal with being tied down like this. The last thing he needs is to have to deal with a whole town full of folks wanting to know what happened and how he is.”
The others looked at Chris. They looked at Vin. They looked at one another. Then, in silent agreement, they nodded. They would take Tanner to Larabee’s little shack in the hills.
It took most of the day to move the injured man to Chris’ one room home, stopping as they did, any time Vin reacted to the slow movement of the wagon. Chris sat to his left, outwardly calm, his hand once more intertwined with Tanner’s. Each time the younger man threatened to awake, he would squeeze the limp hand and talk softly to his friend for a few minutes. If he was aware of the others watching the uncommon display with something akin to amazement, he gave no indication.
Buck and JD rode into town to pick up even more supplies, and to let Mary Travis know where the peacekeepers were going to be. They were still responsible for the town’s welfare, after all, so the gunslinger wanted to make certain that the newspaper woman knew where to find them if need be.
The wagon pulled up next to Larabee’s home as the sun was approaching the Western horizon. Wilmington and Dunne had arrived well ahead of them. They had moved the table and chairs out of the house, setting them up on the porch. In their place sat two sawhorses, atop which they placed the backboard. It looked strange, having the young man balanced on the wooden supports in such a way, but it made sense. It would be easier to care for the younger man away from the corner Chris had built his bed in.
Vin began to rouse just as they settled him in the dimly lit room. Nathan gave him just a drop of the opiate to put him back to sleep. Once there, he turned to the others.
“I was hopin’ he’d sleep a little longer without another dose. I don’t want him havin’ much more of this if we can help it. But, we need to get him undressed, and that’s gonna be hard even with him asleep.”
“Undressed?” JD asked.
Jackson nodded, adding, “I’m gonna have to take a better look at him in a day or two. Hopefully some of the swelling will be down by then and I can get a better idea as to what’s wrong. It’ll just be easier to take care of him without all them damn layers of clothes. Besides… he’s gonna have other needs pretty soon… call of nature and such. And seein’ as he’s gonna have to stay flat on his back… well, it’d be better if we didn’t have to change his clothes when those things happen.”
Dunne stared at Nathan for a full minute before he realized what the healer was talking about. They all knew when the man’s meaning sank in however, just by the shade of red JD was suddenly wearing.
Moving Tanner no more than necessary, they undid the restraints, then removed his gunbelt, boots and socks. His belt and suspenders were slipped from his lean frame as well, leaving them to contemplate his clothes. Finally Nathan used one of his knives and carefully split the seams, first of his coat, then of shirt, undershirt, pants and drawers. That done, they were better able to slip the clothes off without moving him. By the time they finished, leaving Vin laying there, naked and vulnerable, night had fallen. They re-fastened the cloth bindings and covered him with a thick quilt. It was only then that Chris noticed the hard set of the younger man’s jaw.
Watery eyes opened, showing only too well that he had endured far more pain than they had intended. Unable to move his head, Tanner’s eyes shifted toward the familiar voice. Chris moved closer, pulling his kerchief from his pocket to wipe at the tears that rolled down the pale, finely chiseled features.
“Why didn’t you let us know you were awake?”
“D-didn’t want no… no more a that… st-stuff.”
“Is the pain too bad?” Nathan stepped up at Vin’s other side, brown eyes full of worry and compassion.
“I c’n han… handle ‘t,” he muttered.
Nodding, Jackson said, “I’ll give you some ‘horsepiss’ then. It’ll take the edge off the pain, but it’s not addictive and won’t put you to sleep.”
“’Bliged,” Tanner managed. Forcing his mouth open against the cloth holding his head still was draining his fragile strength.
“Nathan, are you sure?” Chris’ looked at him with concern.
“If he can handle it, it’s better this way. Like I said, that stuff’s addictive and I’d rather not put him through that if we can help it. If it gets so bad he can’t tolerate it, I’ll give him another drop or two.”
The gunslinger nodded, but still wasn’t happy with the healer’s answer. Biting back an argument, he picked up a cloth and dampened it in the bowl of water someone had brought in. Wringing out the cloth, he carefully bathed the perspiration soaked face. Vin’s eyes fluttered open, held his gaze for a second, then closed once more. But the blond could tell he wasn’t sleeping. He was just simply exhausted from fighting the pain. Not knowing what else to do, he began talking to the injured man. He wasn’t even certain what he said, he just rambled. It didn’t seem to matter to Vin though, he relaxed as the words kept his mind from focusing on the pain.
Still, it was going to be a long night.
The long night turned into a longer day, turned to night, day, and night again. Chris barely noticed the passage of time, despite its slow pace, so wrapped up was he in his friend’s care. After the first night passed, the others rode back into town, leaving the blond and the healer to care for Tanner’s needs. One or another of them rode out every day after that, checking to see if the men needed anything.
Vin managed to take a little broth from time to time, and could swallow water or the herbal brews Jackson gave him. He wasn’t able to manage anything solid, the effort of working against the cloth bindings too tiring. He slept most of the time, his body conserving what little strength he had as well as taking him away from the agonizing pain.
During those times that the pain won out, drawing him from the comforting oblivion, Chris was there. Larabee seemed to know instinctively when Vin was waking, and would be at his side, not leaving until exhaustion once again claimed him. Even when the others could swear that the injured man was beyond hearing him Chris would talk to him. He only stopped when those instincts told him his friend was truly asleep.
By the third day, Vin’s pain seemed to be lessening a little, although it continued to be intense. He refused all offers for Laudanum, suffering the bitter teas Nathan brewed to relieve the worst of the pain. And he begged to be released from his bonds.
“Nathan, th’ pain’s eased up some. Cain’t see why bein’ trussed up like a turkey’s gonna make things better.”
“Vin, I know you hate being tied down, but this is the best thing I know to do for you. I can’t be certain of the injuries, and lettin’ you up now could make things a helluva lot worse. Damn it Vin, you could end up a cripple!”
The tracker blinked hard at the healer’s blunt remark, a sharp hiss of shock escaping his tightly pressed lips. “Ah hell,” was all he said.
“Look, I know it’s not what you want to here, but I need you to understand how important it is for you to stay still. I understand how hard this is on you, believe me.”
“No, you don’t,” Tanner said in a tone of anger and defeat.
“Yeah… I do,” Jackson said quietly. “Vin, I’ve been where you are right now.”
Tanner frowned, studying the man towering above him. “Y’ have?”
Nodding, the dark healer said, “it was durin’ the war. I fell about 20 feet and landed on my back. If it hadn’t been for a field surgeon who could look past the color of my skin, I’d probably be dead right now. This is how he treated me, so I figure it’s the best way to go.”
“How long? How long’d y’ have t’ lay like this?”
Taking a deep breath and stealing himself against Vin’s reaction, he said, “tied down for a week, then stayin’ in bed another week after that. Couldn’t do much for a couple of months.”
“Nathan – “
“I’m sorry Vin, I know it’s gonna be hell for you – “
“Hell ain’t even close,” Tanner groaned. “Cain’t even see th’ sky, ‘r feel th’ sun on my face. Don’t think I c’n take this Nathan.”
The former slave looked at the open door nearby, then back down at the injured tracker. Allowing a small smile to form, he said, “well, maybe we can do something about that.”
Vin could hear the grunts and groans of two men, could feel the rock and sway of the makeshift torture device that masqueraded as his bed, even if he couldn’t see the two men transporting him. Chris was at his feet and Nathan at his head, and they were moving him out of the shadowy shack out into the sun. While the movement sent pain flaring through his back, he could endure the flames of hell if it meant seeing the sky.
They moved him under the nearest tree, settling him in the sweet grass in such a way that he could see the late morning sky, while shaded by the thick foliage above him. By the time they lowered the board on the ground, he was tight-lipped and gray with pain. He felt the sun soaking through the thin blanket they had over him, and managed a faint smile through the pain. When he finally managed to pry open his eyes, he saw Larabee hovering over him, a look of concern on his face.
“Don’t go fussin’, ‘m fine,” he muttered.
“You don’t look fine.”
Managing a glare, the younger man said, “ain’t nothin’ that won’t pass in a minute ‘r two.”
“All right,” Larabee said, not convinced. He pulled out his kerchief, wiping the thin layer of sweat covering the man’s face.
“Yer fussin’,” Tanner growled.
“Damn, you’re like a grizzly with a sore tooth,” Chris commented as he moved away to allow the younger man some space.
The injured man sighed, closing his eyes, then opening them once again. “’M sorry. Ain’t no call fer me t’ be growlin’ at’cha. Y’ done put’ yerself out fer me more’n y’ ought’a.”
“Oh hell, don’t apologize, Vin. God only knows what I’d do in your… place.” He grimaced, having nearly said ‘shoes’. “Don’t know if I could be as civil as you are.”
Managing a wry grin, the younger man said, “Y’ain’t managed it so far.”
With a chuckle, Chris said, “Smart ass tracker.”
“You two finished cacklin’ like a couple of old hens?” Nathan broke in to their conversation. He knelt next to the trussed up man, a mug in one hand.
“Ah, hell. More skunk juice?” Tanner groaned.
“Yep,” Jackson said simply.
“Reckon I could do fine without it.”
“Reckon I ain’t gonna test that thought. You know as well as I do, Vin, that once the pain sets in, it’s just gonna take more to get rid of it.”
“But, Nathan – “
“This now, or Laudanum later,” the dark healer threatened softly.
“Ah, hell,” Vin groused. Any further comments were cut off when the former stretcher bearer maneuvered the mug around and slipped the rye grass straw into his mouth. Tanner frowned as the hollow tube poked against the roof of his mouth. It wasn’t as if he had never chewed grass, leaves, or other bits of nature before. It was simply the fact that he was forced to use the damn things to get any sort of sustenance that grated on the young man. Just another reminder of his helplessness.
Jackson watched as his patient slowly took the bitter brew, trying not to smile at some of the faces the Texan made in the process. He knew that Vin was closer to the breaking point than he was allowing to show. Memories of his days and nights bound in a similar way all those years ago, shoved into a corner of the big hospital tent, came to mind. He was grateful, at least, that his friend wasn’t going through the ordeal alone.
Just as Tanner finished the tea, the straw wilting against the mug as he pushed it out of his mouth, they heard the sound of an approaching horse. Chris pushed to his feet, scanning the countryside in search of their visitor. He was damned if any of the busy bodies from town were going to come out and gawk at the injured and vulnerable young man.
“He’s fussin’ ag'in,” Tanner quipped, blue eyes glittering with laughter as he caught Nathan’s eye.
Chris managed a glare aimed at his friend, then turned his attention back toward the incoming rider. He relaxed when he recognized JD. Stepping forward, he met the young sheriff at the corral. “What’s up, Kid?”
Dunne grinned broadly when he saw the tracker. “Hey Vin!”
Managing a smile, the slender man said, “Hey, Kid.”
“JD,” Larabee said, with only a hint of the impatience he felt when the young man didn’t answer him.
“Hi Chris, sorry. I came out to get Nathan. Katie Potter fell off a ladder in the store and cut her arm up pretty bad. It looks like she’s going to need some stitches.”
Heaving a sigh, the big healer nodded. Turning to Chris, he said, “I shouldn’t be long, but I’ll send Buck out in case you need to get Vin back inside. He can have more of the tea if he starts hurtin’.”
“We’ll be fine, Nathan,” the blond assured him. “Go take care of Katie.”
Jackson was soon saddled, and the two men tipped their hats to their friends before riding away quickly. As they disappeared over the hill, Chris settled in next to his friend. Tanner regarded him quietly for a minute before saying in a near whisper, “Still fussin’, Larabee.”
Morning moved toward afternoon, and the sun continued to smile down at the two men. Chris made certain that his injured friend was as comfortable as possible, enduring more of Tanner’s frustrated jibes with uncommon patience. He fed the immobilized man more of the tea, and pulled the wooden contraption around the base of the tree whenever the sun moved the shade around. As noon approached, he knew they would have a problem. The blond began to search the landscape for signs that Buck or one of the others was coming out, so they could get Vin out of the midday sun.
“What’re y’ worryin’ on now,” the sharpshooter asked sleepily.
“You’re gonna roast if we don’t get you moved in a while. Nathan was supposed to send Buck out.”
“Mebbe he wasn’t in town.”
“Then he could have sent one of the others.”
“Ain’t some little school girl, ‘fraid a gittin’ a sunburn, pard.”
“Maybe you ain’t, but I’m not gonna rub aloe all over your sorry body, that’s for sure,” Larabee teased.
Larabee turned from scanning the horizon, frowning at the tone in his friend’s voice. “It was only a joke, pard.”
Vin grimaced, his voice rising as he said, “wasn’t funny. Y’ think I’m enjoyin’ all this? Think I like layin’ here, not even able t’ piss without help? Think I’m havin’ th’ time a m’ life tied t’ this fuckin’ board?”
Kneeling beside the younger man, Larabee said softly, “Vin, I know you hate every minute of this. I know that this is probably one of the hardest things you’ve ever had to deal with. And, if it makes you feel a little better, you can yell at me all you want.”
Glaring up at his friend, Tanner said solemnly, “it won’t.”
“Well, the offer still stands.” He looked up as the sound of a horse galloping in their direction drew his attention. Recognizing his oldest friend, he looked from the approaching horseman to the sky and back again. Wilmington was going to beat the sun to its zenith, but not by a lot. As the ladies man dismounted and strode in their direction, Larabee nailed him with a hard look. “About damn time.”
“Sorry,” Buck said breathlessly. “I was outta town when Nathan and JD came in.”
“Out tom cattin' around?” The anger was like an icy blade in the air.
Taking the other man’s raw show of emotion in stride, Buck said, “nope. Casey came into town lookin’ for Nathan. Miss Nettie – “
“What’s wrong with Nettie?” Tanner strained against the bindings, fear shining in the blue eyes that stared up at the big man.
Holding out a hand, Wilmington said, “Easy stud. Miss Nettie needed salve for one of her horses. It’s got a gash on its leg from tryin’ to go through the fence. I found the salve and rode out with her to see if I could lend a hand. I came out here as soon as I got back into town, sorry it took so long. Oh, I also filled Nettie in on what happened. She’ll be out tomorrow to check up on you.”
Smiling now, Tanner said, “wonder she didn’t come out with y’.”
Grinning, the big man responded, “She wanted to, but I figured you’d like a little warnin’.”
Managing a chuckle, Vin said, “’preciate it.”
“Buck – “ Larabee began.
Cutting his friend off with a wink, Wilmington said, “hell, Chris, with you and Vin holed up out here, I’ve gotta keep all my cattin’ in town… I was just leavin’ Virginia’s when Casey rode in.”
The blond smiled and shook his head. Accepting the fact that he had apologized and been forgiven as could only happen with the mustached Lothario, he said, “Well, if you’ve got the strength left, we need to move Vin before the sun bakes him.”
Nodding, Buck looked around. Canting his head in that direction, he said, “We could take him over there. I’ll keep him company if you want.”
“Might take you up on that. Pony could use a good run I imagine.”
“Y’ know, I ain’t deaf ‘r dumb… jist crippled. I c’n answer for myself.” Tanner broke into the conversation, his voice again edged with anger and frustration.
“You ain’t crippled,” Wilmington answered sharply before Larabee could even form a response. “That’s sure as hell what we’re tryin’ to avoid here, boy. Now ain’t none a the rest of us given up on you getting better, so best you don’t, either.”
Looking properly chastised, the younger man said in a shaken whisper, “ain’t givin’ up… jist tired a layin’ here Bucklin.”
The big ladies man knelt down beside the tracker, laying a hand on the bare shoulder peeking above the blanket. In a soft voice filled with emotion, he said, “I know you are, son, I know you are. But it’s gonna be fine, Vin, you've just gotta hang on a bit longer.”
“’M tryin’, but it’s damned hard,” he sighed.
“I know,” Wilmington repeated. Then, pasting a broad smile on his handsome face, he said, “But for now, let’s just worry about getting you over in the shade, before you burn up.”
As Buck straightened, he locked eyes with his old friend. Larabee smiled at him, saying with a look just how much he appreciated the man’s words. Then, they nodded to one another, lifted the wooden bed from the ground, and moved the sharpshooter to better shade.
“This cain’t be good,” Vin sighed as he opened his eyes to see not only Chris and Buck, but Josiah and Nathan standing around him. He had finally been carried back inside a couple of hours earlier, after Chris had returned from a long ride atop his beautiful black gelding, and dozed off in the cool shadows of the shack.
“Well, it ain’t gonna be easy, but good or bad’s another thing,” Nathan replied. “I want to take a look at your back, reckon the swelling ought to be down enough now. I’m gonna give you some Laudanum, but just enough to cut the pain a bit. I’m gonna be checking to see where it hurts worse, and if you’ve got any numbness.”
Taking a deep breath, the younger man said, “All righty then, let’s get it over with.”
Under the former slave’s direction they loosened the bindings, letting the straps hang from the backboard. Each of the hardened men grimaced at the reddened flesh beneath the bindings. Then, with Jackson guiding them, they slowly began to move Vin from his back to his stomach.
“Vin,” Nathan said sternly as Tanner began trying to move, “you lay still and let us do the work. Don’t you undo what I’ve been trying to do the past few days.”
The injured man couldn’t find the breath to reply, so he simply nodded shortly. He endured the pain, incredible even though it was buffered with the opiate, as they shifted him on the board. Once on his belly, he groaned softly as Nathan and Josiah slowly drew his arms over his head.
If the sight of the strap marks brought grimaces, the sight of Tanner’s back, bruised and chaffed, with sores beginning to form from being pressed against the board, brought out expressions of shock.
The dark healer took in the faces around him and said, “It’s a lot better than it looks. Now, I need y’all to help him keep from movin’ while I examine him.”
Chris moved to his friend’s head, stroking the long hair out of his face. That done, he offered the man his hands, squeezing them gently. “Hang on tight, pard.”
Buck moved to the younger man’s legs, one thumb rubbing along a tensed calf. Nearby, Josiah draped a towel strategically over the nude man, standing near his hip. All three men looked expectantly at the dark man, waiting in silence.
Nathan began his examination, big fingers gently running over the bruised and swollen flesh with practiced ease. Despite the gentle touch, Vin moaned softly from time to time as the examination continued. At other times he didn’t react at all to the big man’s probing, even when he applied more pressure. Each time he did, the others turned worried eyes toward him. Focused only on his patient, Jackson didn’t answer their unspoken questions.
Finally, after what seemed to be hours, the former slave straightened and looked around at the others. “Like I said earlier, it’s better than it looks. I ain’t sayin’ it’s good, but I’m more certain now that, with care, he’s gonna make a full recovery.
“I’m pretty certain he’s got a couple of fractures to his spine – “
“But you said his back wasn’t broken,” Wilmington argued.
Holding up a hand, the other man said, “ain’t broken, just fractured, there’s a difference. There’s a crack in th’ bone, but it ain’t busted clean through. Now, the thing that’s causin’ the pain as well as the numbness is the fact that he’s done some damage to the soft tissue around his spine – the muscles and ligaments.”
“So what do we do now?” Chris asked, his hand gently massaging the shoulders that were tensed below him. While he wasn’t saying anything, Vin was listening to every word, and the blond wanted his friend to hear that things would be all right.
“We’ll clean him up and put some salve on the sores. They ain’t bad a’tall right now, so the quicker we get to ‘m the better. Then, I’ve got a backbrace t’ put on ‘m. Yosemite an’ Gloria Potter made it up for me from some pictures I’ve got in one of my books. We’ll put him in it so we can get him off this damn board.”
“Off?” Vin managed to croak through the pain.
Smiling, Jackson said, “Now, don’t be getting no ideas Vin Tanner. You’re still not gonna be runnin’ around. You’re gonna stay in bed for a time yet. We’ve got to take this nice and slow, so you make a full recovery. I ain’t tryin’ to scare you, Vin, I just need you to understand how important it is for you to do as I say.”
“He will,” Larabee vowed.
“C’n talk fer m’self,” Tanner mumbled against the blanket covered board. “Ain’t gonna do… nothin’ stupid.”
With a smile, the healer said, “All right, let’s get to it, then.”
They carefully bathed the mottled back, then spread salve over it with a gentleness unexpected in four hard men. That done, they once again moved Vin, shifting him to his back. Blue eyes blinked through the pain to look at his friends. Keeping him as still as possible, they lifted him up so that Nathan could fit a contraption of stiff canvas, leather, and bone, over his head. It dropped to his waist, front and back, with laces on each side to close the brace over the injured man.
Laying him back down, they tightened the bindings. Tanner grunted as the strange contraption squeezed at him, but found he could take a decent breath after a fashion. He grimaced as he felt them cleaning him up from the waist down, but suffered through it when Nathan explained that they’d be putting his pants back on.
Finally, with Vin bound, bathed and clothed, they left him to rest for a few minutes. The weary man heard his friends talking, and knew the conversation was about him, but was too tired to listen. He heard them carrying things into the little shack, then he felt his head lifted slightly and something pressed against his lips. Opening his eyes, he saw Larabee standing above him, holding a mug to his mouth. He drank greedily, grimacing as the taste of one of Nathan’s brews hit his palate.
“Drink up,” the blond said quietly. “Nathan’s gonna let us take you outside to sit in the chair while we move things around in here a bit. Now you’re just gonna sit still and let us do the work, okay?”
He didn’t care what he had to promise. He was free of the hated backboard, and that was all that mattered. With a broad smile on his handsome face, he nodded.
Lifted between Josiah and Buck, Vin was carried carefully out the door and placed in one of the straight back chairs. They lifted his legs onto another chair, draping a blanket over the shivering body. Despite the excitement of finally being anywhere other than the hated board, he grimaced as his body protested the shift. Nausea swept over him, leaving him shaken and bathed in a cold sweat. He felt a cool cloth brushed across his face and looked to see Chris hitched on the corner of the table, bending over him.
“Lord, y’ ever git tired a fussin’?”
He sighed and leaned back in the chair, giving in to the fact that his friend was going to continue his ministrations until he felt they weren’t needed.
There was enough noise coming from inside the shack that Vin began to worry. Looking at his friend, who remained by his side, he finally said, “ain’cha worried ‘bout what they’re up to in there?”
“Know what they’re up to,” Larabee said in a strained voice.
“Don’cha think y’ ought ’a go check on ‘m?”
“No. The less I’m a witness to, the more I can overlook later.”
What the three peacekeepers were up to was revealed a short time later. They had brought in a second bed, setting it up in the corner opposite Chris’. The narrow bed was equipped with a simple device, scavenged from the backboard that had been Vin’s prison the past few days, that could be quickly raised or lowered so that Tanner could lay flat or recline, as the need arose. It was attached to the bed in such a way that one man could adjust it.
Satisfied that the bed was ready, Nathan stepped out onto the porch. He shook his head to see Chris sitting on one corner of the table, supporting a dozing Vin so that he wouldn’t jar his injured back. “You could have hollered.”
“Figured you’d be out here as soon as the dust settled in there. Anyway, he just dropped off a few minutes ago.”
Nodding, the dark man said, “Well, let’s get him inside to try out the new bed.”
With Larabee’s help, Jackson lifted the sleeping man and carried him into the little shack. They settled him onto the new bed, mindful of keeping him as straight as possible. Placing pillows beneath Vin’s knees to alleviate some of the pressure of lying flat on the softer surface, they covered him and left him to sleep.
Stepping out onto the porch, the four men dropped wearily to any available surface. Weariest of all, Chris slumped into a chair, leaning his head back against the outside wall of his house. He heard the one of the others moving away, but didn’t have the energy to open his eyes and see who it was. A minute later he heard more movement, and finally peeled open an eye when a curious aroma peaked his curiosity. Josiah was laying out dinner on the table, including blackberry dumplings and lemonade.
“This one of those loaves and fishes miracles?” Chris asked through a broad yawn.
“Nope,” Sanchez answered with a chuckle. “This is the work of a couple of angels, Gloria Potter and Mary Travis.”
“Yeah? Well, give them both a kiss for me next time you see them, all right?” Larabee grinned hungrily as he sat up in the chair and took in the contents of each bowl or platter.
The others let the blond serve himself first, Josiah heaping a plate full and taking it in to sit on the warmer of Larabee’s stove for Vin when he awoke. The four men ate their fill, making small talk and giving Chris news of the little town of Four Corners. The other three knew that he needed a distraction; a chance to get his mind off Tanner and his injuries. It would be a brief respite, but at least he could relax for a few minutes.
Eating his fill, Nathan went in to check on his patient. The sharpshooter still slept, the activities of the day, coupled with the medication, had sent him finally into a deep sleep. Jackson checked the laces on each side of the homemade brace, checked the splint on the man’s broken arm, and checked for any signs of fever.
“Thought y’s Larabee fer a minute there,” a raspy voice, thick with sleep, chastised him.
Grinning, the bigger man said, “Reckon I could take that as a compliment.”
“Could,” Tanner said with a skeptical look.
“D’pends on what yer offerin’.”
“Brought out some dinner from Gloria Potter and Mary Travis.” He chuckled as the big blue eyes grew even wider as he spoke. Child like excitement glittered in their depths.
“What’d they send?”
He stepped over to the stove and returned with the plate. Tanner licked his lips at the sight of fried chicken, potatoes, biscuits and green beans heaped as high as the plate would hold. Setting it aside, he carefully adjusted the bed so that Vin was at a slant, though still as straight as possible. Josiah had appeared, handing him a bed tray, which Nathan settled on the young man’s lap. They positioned the plate, as well as a glass of lemonade, so that Vin could handle everything with his uninjured hand.
“Would you like some company, or privacy?”
Looking up at Sanchez suspiciously, the tracker said, “D’pends. Y’ gonna try ‘n feed me?”
With a deep chuckle, the older man said, “No. I just thought perhaps you’d like some news of town, or someone to sit with while you eat.”
Nodding, his eyes slanted as he considered the man’s words, he said, “Reckon I’d like that J’siah. Thanks.”
Just as morning was fully underway, the two residents of the little cabin heard the approach of a wagon. Josiah, Nathan and Buck had left soon after dinner the night before, and none of them were expected back until around noon. Tanner had conspired with Sanchez during his meal, and the big preacher was going to be back to spend a day or two with him, while they sent Chris into town for an honest to goodness break. That left only one person that would be coming out at such an early hour.
Nodding, Chris adjusted the bed so that Vin was more or less sitting up, straightening the blankets before giving the single room the once over. The chamber pot had been emptied and was out of sight beneath Tanner’s bed. Larabee had helped him shave and wash up, and they had already eaten breakfast. Leaving the younger man to wait, the gunman set the table so they could have coffee, bringing out the remaining blackberry dumplings as well.
“D’ I look all right?”
Chris frowned at the question, turning to his friend. “You look fine, why?”
“Don’t want her t’ worry… know she’s gonna anyway, soon ‘s she sees me in this contraption… but, I don’t want her gittin’ in a fret.”
Grinning, the blond says, “Don’t see Nettie Wells going overboard on such matters, but for what it’s worth, you look fine.”
The conversation halted as a familiar voice called from outside, “Hello the house!”
Larabee winked at his friend, then strode from the little house. A few minutes later he re-entered, the feisty widow on one arm, and a heavy basket swinging from the other.
As soon as she saw Tanner, Nettie released her hold on the older man and hurried over to his bedside. She perched on the edge of the nearby chair, clucking her tongue as she surveyed the lean man. Reaching out one gnarled hand, she stroked back a wayward chestnut curl from his forehead. “Land sakes, Vin Tanner, what did you do to yourself this time?”
Blushing under her scrutiny, the young man said, “Ah hell, Miss Nettie, I managed t’ mess m’self up good this time.”
Shaking her head, she responded, “I guess so. Are you in a lot of pain?”
“It’s tolerable,” he answered truthfully. “A lot better ‘n it was a couple a days ago.”
Looking from Vin to Chris and back again, she asked softly, “What does… what does Nathan think? Will you… are you… will your back heal?”
Reaching for her hand, he pulled it to his lips and brushed her knuckles with a feathery kiss. “’M gonna be fine, Miss Nettie. Nathan says, long ‘s I do ‘s he says, I’ll heal. Gonna take some time, but I’ll be back t’ normal.”
Wiping her eyes brusquely, she said in a trembling voice, “That’s good news, son, that surely is.”
Vin smiled up at the woman who had, from the moment he met her, shown him what his mother would have been like had she lived. He squeezed the hand he held, before releasing it.
Clearing her throat, the elderly woman said, “Is that coffee I smell, Mr. Larabee?”
“Yes ma’am, it is,” Chris replied, stepping up to hand her a mug. He handed one to Vin as well, having doctored it as he knew the younger man liked. Knowing that the two other people in the room could use some time alone, he excused himself and left to care for the animals.
The two friends chatted for several minutes, sipping their coffee and catching up on one another’s lives. Finishing his coffee, Vin set the cup on the little table the others had brought in the day before, and struggled to push himself up one handed.
“Vin Tanner, what in the world do you think you’re doing?”
“Jist thought I’d sit on th’ edge a th’ bed fer a spell, Miss Nettie. Don’t seem proper, me layin’ abed while yer sittin’ here.”
Pressing him back against the raised mattress, the widow scolded, “Young man, if you so much as look like you’re going to get up again, I’ll walk out of here, and won’t come back ‘til you’re completely healed!”
Chagrined, Tanner said, “’M sorry ma’am.”
“You’d better be sorry, son, because I won’t sit by and let you hurt yourself. I’m fine where I am, and so are you. Is that understood?”
“Mrs. Wells?” A voice came to them from the door. The two people turned to find Chris Larabee in the doorway. “Can I call on you if he tries something like that again?”
With a devious glint in her eyes, the widow said, “Any time, Mr. Larabee. Any time.”
With a groan, Vin tried to sink deeper into the pillows. He turned a long suffering look at both the others before growling softly, “Ah hell.”
The following three weeks consisted of a grueling regimen of exercises and confinement for the young sharpshooter. Each morning, Nathan would arrive shortly after Vin and Chris had finished breakfast and, while Larabee took his coffee to the front porch, Nathan would begin ‘torturing’ the Texan. Keeping Vin in the bed and ordering him to do as little as possible, Nathan would begin bending and stretching the long, and long immobile, limbs. The farthest the young man was allowed to go was one of the chairs, set next to the narrow cot, where he sat while Jackson did yet more exercises.
After an hour or more of the treatment, Jackson would lower a now exhausted Tanner back to the bed. Loosening the ties on what Vin had come to call his ‘corset’, the healer would check for signs that the material was rubbing against the mottled flesh, then he sprinkled corn starch along the younger man’s back and chest. By the time he finished, Vin lay in a half sleep, kept awake only by the dull pain awakened by the other man’s actions.
The former slave would help him to drink one of his teas, watching him settle to sleep for a couple of hours. Unless his services were needed elsewhere, Jackson would send Larabee off for awhile, sitting with Vin until Chris returned to the little shack. By that time the sharpshooter was rousing from his nap, and they would carry him out to the porch. Mary had sent a more comfortable chair out for the convalescing man, and they would settle him into it. Like a lame prince, Tanner would spend the afternoon surveying the land around him. He spoke little, which didn’t escape anyone’s notice. Never one to talk a lot, Vin was beginning to withdraw. Something needed to happen, to keep him from falling into a depression.
“Maybe we should take him in to town,” JD said one evening as all six sat discussing the situation on Larabee’s porch, voices low so as not to disturb the sleeping man just inside. “The activity could take his mind off worrying about getting better.”
“Thought about that, Kid,” Chris said with a nod of his head. “But I’m worried that all those folks staring at him, gossiping about the shape he’s in, would just make things harder on him.”
The other five looked up to stare at the Southerner. Ezra stood at the corner of the porch, green eyes traveling across Larabee’s homestead. One hand rubbed absently along his chin as he studied the terrain.
“Freedom?” Sanchez asked what they were all thinking. “What the hell are you talking about, Ezra?”
“We’re all aware at how much Mr. Tanner values his freedom. Perhaps if we were to afford him as much of it as possible, his mood would improve.”
“How do we do that?” Buck leaned forward, frowning at the gambler.
“Let me ask this, first, “ Standish said. “Mr. Larabee, how much do you value the current state of your homestead?”
Tanner couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear as he propelled himself along the ground under his own power. He barely registered the answering smiles of the men and women around him as he moved from his friend’s porch to the big shade tree, then to the corral. By the time he returned to the porch he was exhausted and out of breath, but infinitely happier than he had been for weeks.
His six friends, along with Yosemite and others that could be trusted to respect Tanner’s privacy enough not to gossip about his condition, had made paths all around Chris Larabee’s property, from the porch to any place that the young man might want to visit. Nathan brought out the big wheelchair and worked with Vin on how to use it. His broken arm caused some problems, but they overcame each one as it came. By the time the packed pathways were finished, Vin could get in and out of the chair alone, with only a little discomfort. Maneuvering the chair was awkward, but he found that, with only a little effort, he could use his still healing limb to help guide the special chair.
And he had freedom. The young man’s heart sang with happiness at the prospect of being able to do for himself once again.
The day turned into a celebration. Some of the women from town, along with Nettie and Casey Wells, brought out enough food to feed two armies, setting it up beneath the trees while the men put the finishing touches on the paths. They watched, eagle-eyed, for any problems Tanner encountered as he moved the chair along the packed dirt, and quickly corrected them. When Vin’s arms trembled from the effort of moving the big chair, JD pushed him along. Finally they settled him in near the laden tables, sharing a laugh as he tried his best to sneak some of the cookies off a nearby plate.
Slapping at his hand, Nettie scolded, “Vin Tanner, you are not going to spoil your dinner. Now, sit back there and behave yourself before I cut a switch.”
Properly chastised, something only Nettie Wells could do to the former bounty hunter, Tanner sat back and said meekly, “Yes ma’am.”
Looking into the sky blue eyes, the widow felt her heart melt. Shaking her head at her own weakness, she plucked the largest cookie off the plate and handed it to ‘her boy’. Looking as stern as she could as she watched a boyish smile spread across the handsome features, she said gruffly, “Reckon you earned one, seeing as you’ve been working as hard as anyone today.”
As the sun moved toward the Western horizon, the impromptu party began to break up. People began drifting away, saying their good-byes to Tanner and Larabee as they headed toward town. Finally the two friends were alone once more.
Chris helped the exhausted, but happy, younger man into his bed. He pulled the blankets up over the lean body, chuckling as he noticed Tanner had hidden more than one cookie in the pockets of his buckskin pants. Retrieving the treats, he wrapped them in a napkin and left them on the bedside table.
“Don’t be takin’ m’ cookies,” Vin said sleepily. He was so tired that even keeping his eyes open was beyond his abilities. He was not about to let his friend take off with his pilfered goodies, however.
Still smiling, Larabee said, “they’re right here on the table. Don’t worry, I’ve eaten enough to last me a week, I’m not about to take your cookies.”
“Best not,” he yawned, “hate t’ have t’ shoot y’.”
Chris watched as, for the first time in over four weeks, Vin Tanner drifted to sleep without the aid of Laudanum or herbal teas.
It became a familiar sight to those welcome at the little homestead, Vin Tanner wheeling himself around the property with more and more agility. Once the splint was removed from his arm, he was even better able to maneuver the big chair along the ground. Each morning would find him wheeling himself out to the corral, where he would visit Peso and Pony. Both animals began to put on weight, thanks to the treats the young man would slip them.
The little house was soon cluttered with wooden figures, as Vin spent the hottest part of the day beneath the big tree, whittling. His expertise, always formidable, began to render exquisite creations, horses and totems, as well as imaginative representations of some of the creatures populating the books Chris read from aloud in the evenings.
And so the days were full, and settled in a comfortable routine. Mornings were devoted to strengthening his body, afternoons to strengthening his mind and mood, and evenings to feeding his soul. And then, just as it became rote, life changed once more.
“Do you think it’s safe?” Chris watched Nathan’s face for signs of concern.
“It’s been two months. If it’s not safe for him now, it probably never will be. We’ll keep the brace on for a while yet, but it’s time he started walking again.”
“When do we start?” A combination of excitement and fear filled the Texan’s voice.
“Tomorrow. I want either Josiah or Buck here, too, so they can help. Now, don’t think you’re gonna get out of that chair and start walkin’ on your own, Vin. You haven’t set a foot on the ground for two months. ‘Bout all we’re gonna do is stand you up and see if you can take a step or two before we sit you back down. It’s probably gonna be another two or three weeks before you’re gonna be able to go it alone, and that’s gonna be with crutches. We’re not there yet, Vin, but you’re on the road to a full recovery. But understand this… I’m still in charge. You’re gonna have to do as I say. Understood?”
“Yep,” Tanner said through a broad smile.
The sun shown the brightest he’d ever seen it. Vin had wheeled himself out onto the porch just before dawn, too excited to sleep another minute. He pulled himself into what they all referred to as ‘his’ chair, and settled in to watch the sun rise. Looking down the length of his buckskin clad legs, he studied the long limbs. He remembered walking, running, jumping and even dancing, but they were all becoming vague memories. It seemed to him that he had been confined and unable to do any of those things for most of his life.
The thought that it would change today was almost too much to take.
He turned to find a sleepy-eyed gunslinger regarding him from the open doorway. “Mornin’.”
“Slept some, but m’ mind’s too busy.”
“You remember what Nathan said… this doesn’t mean you’re going to just get up and start running around again. It’s gonna be a while yet.”
“You all right with that?”
A hard laugh erupted from the younger man. “Hell, I ain’t been all right with none a this, Chris, why should I start now? I know what I’m gonna have t’ do, though, and I’ll do it.”
Larabee knew that nothing he could say would calm the frustration in the other man’s voice. With a nod, he excused himself to fix breakfast.
Vin’s good mood had returned by the time Nathan and Josiah rode out later that morning. He greeted them like a child greeting Christmas morning, practically bouncing in his chair.
They slipped soft moccasins on his feet, deciding they would be easier for him to move in than the heavy boots. With Nathan on one side of him and Josiah on the other, they slipped their arms beneath his and lifted him carefully to his feet. He stood with his weight on his own legs for the first time since the accident, grunting when they buckled under him. The two men on either side of him held him firm, waiting patiently until he was able to straighten his legs again. By the time he managed that feat, his face was pale and covered with a fine sheen of perspiration.
He had never imagined that standing could be this difficult.
“You all right?”
He managed to nod, only vaguely recognizing that it had been Josiah asking the question. Everything seemed slightly out of kilter, as if he were dreaming. Taking a deep breath, he stood once more on his feet.
“Okay Vin, I want you to try moving one foot, your right foot, and let’s see what happens. Don’t force it, and don’t lift it. Just sort of slide it along a few inches. Okay?”
Nodding, the sharpshooter, followed the healer’s instructions. Slowly his right foot slid forward a few inches, though each one felt like a mile.
“That’s good, now do the same thing with your left foot,” Nathan’s voice was calm and encouraging.
The left foot was more sluggish, the numbness still evident along the limb. But, with infinite concentration, the young sharpshooter brought his left foot forward to stand beside the right one. Between the two bigger men, he managed to pull himself to his full height, grinning drunkenly at the blond who stood before them.
On his part, Chris smiled just as widely back.
As Nathan had warned, the road to recovery was long, and that day on Larabee’s front porch was much closer to the beginning than Tanner dreamed. For many mornings to come, his day began between two of his friends. He would feel them lift him from the chair until he was standing. Each time he stood a fraction straighter. Each day he managed one more step.
After his walk, Chris would come up behind him, pushing the wheelchair. The two men holding him would lower him, often trembling and breathless, to the seat. He would be pushed back to the shack and helped into bed, resting from his ordeal.
Within the week, though, he began to show greater progress. With his friends holding him, he could manage walking to the corral, reaching forward to deliver a treat to his black horse. Lowered back to the wheelchair, he could wheel himself back to the shack, or somewhere else he could manage to push the chair. Chris and the others were hard pressed to keep the paths free of ruts from the sharpshooter’s frequent trips around the homestead.
Not even the privy was beyond Tanner’s reach now, the little outhouse a beacon of freedom. He was forced to rely less and less on his friends, and more and more on himself.
As soon as he was released from the wheelchair and allowed to maneuver on his own with the help of crutches, Chris arranged his first trip since the accident. Borrowing a buggy from town, the two men rode to Nettie Wells homestead. The white-haired widow stood on her porch, tears flowing freely, as Vin pulled himself slowly from the buggy seat and walked toward her. Needing to rely on his friend to get up the stairs, he shrugged off the gunman’s hand as soon as he could, following Mrs. Wells into the house.
They spent the afternoon in the company of Nettie and Casey Wells. Nettie fussed around Vin with an uncharacteristic giddiness. She fixed a dinner of all of Vin’s favorite foods, sending the men off with a hamper filled with leftovers.
Finally then, he ventured back into town. The townsfolk, having spent weeks speculating about the absence of two of their hired guns, watched as Vin climbed down from the buggy and maneuvered along the boardwalk. With his friends clearing a path, he walked to the saloon. He and Chris visited several places in the little town, including Mary Travis’ newspaper and Gloria Potter’s store. Before they left, Vin stopped by his wagon, watched over in his absence by his friends. Everything was as he left it, and he ran a hand along the frayed and weathered canvas top as if it were the finest silk.
It would be another three months before Nathan would allow him on a horse. Even when he began to walk unaided, he was kept off Peso’s back. He moved back into town, needing to feel more useful than he could in the quiet of Chris’ homestead. He took on more and more of the town duties, making hourly rounds that doubled as a way to exercise his legs. He was banned from participating in any of the fights that broke out, and could only climb to his usual perches on the town’s rooftops if there was an available stairway, but he managed to accommodate with his usual quiet good grace.
They could all tell that he was struggling to follow Nathan’s instructions, though. More and more he could be found at the livery, grooming the big black horse. More and more he stared longingly at the far horizon, watching the others ride out on one mission or another.
Tanner sat on the ladder-back chair outside the saloon, ramrod straight in his brace, sipping a cup of coffee. He looked up at the sound of footsteps in the early morning stillness. Smiling, he said, “Mornin’ Nathan.”
“Morning. Thought I might find you here.”
“Y’ lookin’ fer me?”
Nodding, the healer said, “Got a favor to ask you.”
“Could you ride out and ask Chris to come into town? Yancey Pritchard came in last night and said they’ve been seeing signs that some of Royal’s men are snoopin’ around his place.”
“Sure,” Tanner responded with a frown. The other man hadn’t said ‘drive’. “Ride?”
“Yeah. I’ve got to get back to the clinic, but I’ll ask Yosemite to saddle your horse.”
Vin’s breath caught as he looked up at the broad face. He saw the merriment glittering in the deep brown eyes. All he could manage was to repeat, “Ride?”
“You got something else better to do?”
“N-no, I… ride?”
Unable to hide it anymore, the bigger man grinned. “You’re doin’ well, Vin. Now, I don’t want you to think you can do anything crazy, okay? And all you’re to do is ride out to Chris’ place. If it wears you out, or gives you too much pain, you rest there. If not, you ride back here with him. Nothin’ fancy, and don’t you let that animal get faster than a walk. Not yet.”
Nodding, Tanner pushed himself up from the chair, “I’ll tell Yosemite m’self… hell, I’ll jist go saddle th’ mule, ain’t no need t’ bother him.”
Laughing outright at the excitement shining in the handsome face, Nathan said, “Well, you just be careful how you lift the saddle, hear?”
Chris Larabee heard his black gelding whicker a greeting, and the answering call of another animal. He heard the sound of a single horse walking steadily toward his shack. Pulling his Colt from his holster, he stepped to the door, looking out into the morning light. He nearly dropped the sidearm as he recognized the familiar horse and rider.
Stepping out onto his porch, Larabee leaned against the upright, crossing his arms over his chest. As Tanner neared the little shack, he said as calmly as possible, “Out for a ride?”
It had been over six months since Tanner’s accident. As the two men approached the familiar terrain of Drury’s Crossing, Chris couldn’t help but shudder as they neared the spot where he had found Vin. He looked up at the tree Vin had fallen from, surprised to see new growth along the path the tracker’s falling body had taken. It seemed at once just yesterday, and a lifetime ago since he found the unconscious man at the base of the trunk.
Suddenly, the blond frowned. He looked beside him at the sharpshooter, noting the ramrod straight posture as he pondered something. As they drew closer to the big tree, he finally asked, “Vin, you never did tell us what happened here that day. Why were you in that tree in the first place?”
To Chris’ surprise, Tanner blushed, unable to meet his gaze suddenly. Looking out across the prairie, he mumbled something under his breath.
“Said, it was a long time ago, ain’t no point a discussin’ it.”
“Tanner, it was only a few months ago, and it certainly is worth discussing. What are you hiding?”
“Ain’t hidin’ nothin’!” Tanner growled, spurring his horse forward.
Larabee caught up with him quickly, pacing his friend. “If you’re not hiding anything, why are you avoiding answering me? I mean, it’s not a difficult question. Why were you in the tree?”
“Ain’t really none a yer business, Larabee,” he was getting angrier and more defensive by the minute.
“You’re talking to the man who took care of you for weeks after you fell out of that tree. I don’t think I’m asking a lot here.” The gunman was growing angry as well.
Glaring at the older man, Vin growled, “Didn’t think helpin’ a friend come with strings attached.”
Taking a deep breath, Larabee said, “it doesn’t.”
“Fine, then drop it.”
“Vin! What are you hiding?”
“Fine… y’ wanna know why? I’ll tell y’ why… b’cause.”
“B’cause it was there.” Sighing, the younger man said in a somewhat calmer tone, “I was out here, ‘n there weren’t no sign a game. I was gittin’ bored, ‘n got t’ thinkin’ maybe I could see somethin’ up yonder. So, I climbed up t’ look around. Well, there wasn’t nothin’, so I kept climbin’. ‘Fore I knew it, I was up at th’ top. Then, somethin’ gave ‘way, ‘n th’ next thing I r’member clear is you talkin’ t’ me.”
Larabee reined in his black. Tanner stopped, turning to look at his friend. Chris was staring at him, a look of shock and disbelief on his handsome face. “Because. You were in the tree because.”
“That’s what I said,” Vin retorted defensively.
“Damn it Larabee, you asked!!”
Suddenly the blond began to laugh, harder and harder, until tears flowed down his ruddy face. The sharpshooter stared at him, frowning at the man’s display. Then, suddenly, it hit him too. And Tanner began to laugh as well. Just because.
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