Main Characters: Chris, Vin, Buck and Nathan
Notes: this is written for Annie, in celebration of her birthday. She requested that Vin get the owwie. Actually they both get an owwie this time, but Vin’s is much bigger!
Webmaster Note: This fic was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in June 2012.
Vin Tanner reined in his spirited black horse, surveying the little valley he was riding through. A pack of wolves were causing problems for the outlying areas, and he had come out to see if he could locate them. The original plan had been that he and Chris Larabee would go after the predators, but things had changed following a ruckus in the saloon the day before. The seven peacekeepers had gone in to quiet things down when several men had ridden in from a trail herd. The cowboys hadn’t been interested in listening to Chris and the others, and all hell had broken loose. Before it was over, half the tables in the saloon were broken and three of the visitors weren’t in much better shape.
None of them realized that Larabee had been injured until the blond, in the midst of ordering the other trouble-makers out of town, had gone white as a sheet and crumbled in a heap on the floor. It turned out that he had been hit with a table leg during the dust up. Nathan diagnosed a concussion and ordered bed rest. The gunman had been a little fuzzy when he’d come by to check on him before riding out, but was otherwise all right.
Truth be told, Vin was just as happy to be out on his own. As close as he and the other six men had become in the past several months, sometimes he just felt crowded. After several years on his own, the former bounty hunter liked his freedom.
While he had often ridden through the valley, he had yet to truly investigate it. Riding into a small grove of trees, he found the fallen down ruins of a little cabin. About the size of the one Larabee had built outside town, it was little more than a tumbledown pile of wood now. Nature had almost reclaimed the area, thick grasses growing up all around the little structure.
More out of curiosity than in hope of finding signs of the pack, Tanner dismounted. Tying Peso up under one of the trees to keep the strong-headed animal from wandering around in the event the pack was nearby, he tread through the heavy vegetation, toward the little abode.
Sometimes, curiosity was a good thing. You learned a lot about the world around you if you explored and investigated. Sometimes, however, curiosity was a curse. As he suddenly found himself falling through the air, Vin decided this was one of those times. As he landed some fifteen or twenty feet below, squarely on both legs, he cursed the owner who had left behind an open well. As he felt both legs buckle painfully, at odd angles, he wished heartily that Chris had come along after all. As he landed in a heap, sloshing in half a foot of fetid water, he gave up thought in favor of unconsciousness.
Chris Larabee woke with a start, perspiration stinging his slowly opening eyes. His heart was pounding as he tried to recall what had wakened him. Staring out the window of his little rented room, he slowly pulled his thoughts together. Nathan had proclaimed him well enough to leave the clinic after he had eaten breakfast, as long as he took it easy in his room for the rest of the day. He had complied, only leaving long enough to join the others for lunch. Returning a couple of hours ago, he had stretched out on his bed to read, but was soon asleep.
The blond tried to decipher what in all that had led to his awaking, covered in sweat and trembling, his heart pounding as if he’d been running for hours. Then he did remember. Something was wrong...something had happened to Vin. Pulling himself up, Chris stumbled across to his washstand, pouring some of the tepid water into the bowl and washing his face. Leaning heavily against the wood, he spent several minutes trying to get himself under control.
Vin was out on the prairie, looking for the pack of wolves several of the homesteaders had reported as having attacked their livestock. It was little more than a scouting expedition, the young hunter would return with information as to the pack’s whereabouts. Why then was he so certain that there was something terribly wrong with his friend?
Try as he might, Larabee couldn’t shake the foreboding feeling. Scant minutes later, he had changed his sweat-soaked shirt and was heading downstairs. Locating Buck and Nathan sitting outside the jail talking, he hurried over to them. Just as he stepped up onto the boardwalk, a wave of dizziness hit, causing the man to stumble. When his mind cleared, his two friends had him sitting in a chair. Nathan was squatting down before him, talking to him.
“Chris, what’s wrong? Is it your head, is the headache worse? You’re supposed to be resting today, you promised you wouldn’t come out of your room til dinner. Look at me, how’s your vision? How many fingers do you see?”
Looking at the dark, extended digits, the blond said, “three. I’m fine, Nathan, I just got a little dizzy. Something’s wrong though, just not with me.”
“What are you talking about, Stud?” Buck asked.
Shaking his head, a frown drawing down the blond brows, the gunman said, “I know you’re going to think I’m crazy, but something’s happened to Vin.”
“Chris, Vin’s out scoutin’ for those wolves –“
“I know what he’s doing Buck,” Larabee said shortly.
“All right then, you know he’s gonna be back tomorrow, day after at the latest.”
More adamant now, Chris said, “if we don’t go after him, he won’t be coming back. Something’s happened to him.”
“Chris,” Nathan joined the argument now, “what makes you so sure something’s happened to Vin?”
Pressing his fingers against the bridge of his nose to stop the ache, Larabee said, “I feel it, Nathan, I woke up while ago and I knew it.” Looking at the other two men, he sighed. “I knew you wouldn’t believe me.”
“You had a bad dream is all,” Jackson tried to reason with him. “Concussion does strange things to folks. You had a bad dream, and bein’ hurt made it seem real to you. Now, go on back and lay down. I’m gonna –“
“Chris,” the former slave began.
“I said no, Nathan. Something’s happened to Vin, I know that as well as I know my own name. You boys don’t want to believe me, fine, just stay out of my way. I’m gonna go look for him.” He stood to go, the world swaying once more.
“You’re goin’ back to bed, pard,” Wilmington said. He grabbed one of the man in black’s arms while Nathan took the other. With the smaller blond still fighting the effects of his head injury, they were able to get him back to his room with little trouble. While Buck stayed with his old fiend, the healer went to his clinic, returning with an herbal tea. Getting Larabee to drink it was difficult at best, but finally the cup was emptied and Chris was dozing on the bed.
“That’ll keep him sleeping for awhile. I’ll check on him after dinner,” the healer said.
Consciousness came with a nauseating wave of pain. The young tracker opened his eyes, disoriented in the dark pit. It took several minutes for him to sort things out, realizing where he was, and that he was in serious trouble. As he tried to move, arrows of pain shot up from his legs and reminded Vin of the pain as he had landed. “Shit,” he groaned.
Slowly pulling himself up, he spit out a series of curses in a variety of languages as he sought out the sources of pain. From the looks and feel of it, his left leg was broken just below the knee, while the right was broken just above the ankle. Carefully straightening the damaged limbs as well as he could, he slumped back against the earthen wall. Panting in pain by this time, he simply sat there, too exhausted to move, or even cry out any more. Running a trembling hand over his sweat drenched face, he tried to figure out his next move. Feeling the weight of his sawed off on his hip, he pulled it out of the water and lay it across his chest.
“Well, Tanner,” he mumbled wearily to himself, “y’ got yerself in a purty fix here. Ain’t no way ‘n hell yer gonna climb outta this hole, ‘n ain’t nobody gonna be lookin’ fer y’ t’ show up fer a day ‘r two. Ah...hell!”
Chris rubbed a hand across his face, blinking tiredly into the semi-darkness. It took a minute for him to remember where he was and why he was sleeping so early. Then memory returned with a jarring urgency, sending the blond from the bed, to his feet. He moved quickly, gathering up his gunbelt, duster and hat. Checking his saddlebags and finding them, as always, packed for an emergency, he swung them over his shoulder and left the dark room. He moved quietly down the back way, deciding that he would go in search of his friend alone. Larabee didn’t blame Nathan and Buck for not believing him; he was questioning his sanity himself. But there was something driving him from the boarding house, into the late evening. That something was telling him in no uncertain terms that Vin Tanner needed his help, and soon.
Going down the back way, he made it to the livery without seeing any of the other peacekeepers. Yosemite had gone to dinner, so he saddled his black gelding himself. His head was aching, but the pain was lessening. Climbing up into the saddle, he rode from the livery, letting his gut tell him which direction to ride in. Larabee made it out of town without incident, and was soon on the road.
Vin wasn’t certain how long he had been sitting in the muddy water at the bottom of the old abandoned well. He didn’t think it had been more than a few hours, but he had been drifting in and out of consciousness. He felt a heaviness in his chest, and coughed with more and more frequency. Each time he did, he was left trembling, sprawled weakly against the earthen wall. The trembling had caused the pain to shoot from his broken legs at first, but now the cold water he sat in had left them blessedly numb for some time.
His energy was draining with a growing persistence, and his thirst was increasing just as steadily. Finally he was thirsty enough to cup a hand into the muddy liquid he was sitting in. The water was brackish, the aftertaste bitter, but it was water. He had seen men dead from thirst before, and it was an ugly way to go. Vin sipped at another handful, then lay back against the well’s wall.
“S-s-sorry s-s-state... affairs,” he mumbled to himself, shivering as the cold water seemed to seep into his very marrow. “N-never th-thought... end up b... b-buried... ’live.”
He moved carefully, reaching his hands up as far as he could along the wall. If he could find handholds, maybe he could pull himself out. Tanner knew it was a long shot, but it was the only one he could see right now. A slow search of the earth around him, however, uncovered nothing strong enough to hold his weight. Exhausted by his ordeal, Vin slumped dejectedly against the dirt. For once he cursed his tendency to go off by himself.
Visions of laying here, slowly starving to death, began to enter his tiring mind. Unconsciously he began to stroke the wooden stock of his mare's leg. If the time came when he knew that all hope was lost, he would put the short barrel in his mouth and pull the trigger. He flinched at the thought, but knew that it would be preferable to the other possibility. “Y’ got... a while,” he mumbled tiredly, “man c’n go... days on... w-w-water.”
Nathan and Buck kept the earlier episode with Chris to themselves, simply telling the other three peacekeepers that Larabee was in need of rest. They met up for dinner, sitting at the back table in the saloon. Afterward, the two men walked out to the boardwalk together.
“Reckon I’ll go check on Chris,” Nathan said, staring out at the evening sky.
With a chuckle, Buck said, “you wouldn’t be puttin’ it off now, would you?”
Smiling, Jackson replied, “sometimes it gets a mite old, nursemaidin’ you boys. He’s the worst of the bunch, though.”
“Yeah, well, he wouldn’t be Chris Larabee if he wasn’t a royal pain in the ass. Want me to go with you?”
Knowing that Wilmington was scheduled to ride the evening patrol, Jackson shook his head. “Nah, you go ahead. Quicker you go, quicker you can come back. Reckon the ladies over at Virginia’s ‘ll be waitin’.” He clapped the other man on the back and started toward the boarding house.
Laughing, the dark-haired rogue grabbed his horses reins, stepped up into the saddle and rode leisurely out of town.
The dark healer turned at the sound of his name to find Gloria Potter hurrying toward him. “Ma’am.”
“Nathan, could you come to my place? David isn’t feeling well at all. He’s complaining of stomach cramps and a headache, and he’s so dizzy that he can’t sit up on his own.”
Chancing a single look toward the window of Chris’ room, Jackson saw that it was dark. Hoping that it meant the blond was still sleeping, he nodded agreement and followed the widowed shopkeeper toward her store.
The two friends spent the long night hours alone, each haunted by thoughts of the other. Vin dozed fitfully, his body trembling more and more as the water stole any body heat he was able to produce. Each time his eyes closed, though, a pair of soul-searching, green-hazel eyes met his. He knew that his death wouldn’t be as difficult for the man in black as other losses he had suffered, but he had no doubt that Chris would grieve. He also knew his friend well enough to know that the blond would carry yet more guilt over his death. That being the case, Vin prayed that the others never found him if it came to that. Better the gunman think he had simply ridden off, rather than to feel guilty that he hadn’t been able to save his life.
Several miles away, Chris Larabee saw a pair of pale blue, smiling eyes. Although he was awake, he saw them time and again just ahead on the horizon. After a while, he felt as if he were following them, letting them lead him to their owner. Perhaps he was.
Waking from yet another feverish nap, Vin jumped painfully as he saw a pair of glowing red eyes staring at him from across the well. While he wondered how a critter had gotten down there without him knowing it, he watched as the eyes continued to stare, unblinking, at him. Lifting his mare's leg, he prepared to shoot whatever it was if it moved.
“Puny human, that toy cannot harm me.”
“What the hell?!”
“An appropriate comment,” the strange voice replied.
He could tell that the sound was coming from the same vicinity as the eyes, but none of it made any sense. The chances of someone else stumbling on the old well now, of all times, were slim at best. That they had climbed down here without him waking even slimmer. “Wh...who are... y'?”
“Does it really matter?”
“How’d y’ ge...get down h-here?”
“Does it matter?”
“N-not m-m-mu-much of a t-talker, are y’?”
“Does it – “
“M-matter...already g-got that m-m-much.” He leaned forward, intent on seeing the other’s face. The red eyes continued to stare, and suddenly the person lurched from the shadows, pinning him back against the earthen wall.
“Is this better? Can you see me now, human?”
Laughter, the sound like a death knell, rang through the tiny area. Vin screamed, not even knowing he had made as sound. He shoved himself back against the wall, as the thing pressed against him. When he could finally speak, he whispered, “E...Eli J-j-joe?”
Howling maniacally, the thing with the dead murderer’s face bounced back across the hole. Once more, all that shone were the red eyes. “I wear many faces, human. I speak with many voices. You see in me what you hate most.”
“G-g-great,” Vin growled. Not bad enough he die like a trapped animal; he was going to be tormented by the bastard who had cost him the only thing he had of value. His name.
“I only came because you called.”
“Didn’t...c-c-call,” he managed to argue.
“Ah but you did. You called when you made the decision to take your own life.”
“What is a matter of a few days... a week. Before your physical body is ready, your mind will have already died. You will be quite mad, sitting here in the cold, the darkness. As that time approaches, I will be here to help you make the decision.”
“Yes. The decision to end your miserable existence.”
The laughter came again, echoing in the small space until he was forced to hold his ears. It did nothing to block the horrible sound, however.
David Potter was finally resting, his pain and nausea easing thanks to Nathan’s medicinal herbs. It was nearly midnight, however, before the healer was able to leave the young boy’s bedside. He walked up the stairs to Chris’ room with trepidation. If the gunman was still asleep, he would not take kindly to being wakened in the middle of the night. However, he needed to know for certain that Larabee was all right.
Knocking at the wooden door, Jackson waited for a response. After knocking for the third time with no answer, he tried the door. Easing it open, he slipped inside, calling softly, “Chris?”
Moving into the room, he approached the bed. The faint light from the moon shone on an empty bed. “Damn it,” the dark man cursed. Finding and lighting the lantern, he made certain that the room was empty. Blowing out the flame, he hurried from the room and down the stairs. As he reached the boardwalk, he saw Buck coming back into town. Hailing the other man, he told him quickly what had occurred. Wilmington’s temper flared with characteristic zeal.
“That damned, hard headed son of a bitch! What the hell is he tryin’ to do, wanderin’ around out there on his own?”
By the time his temper was back under control, Nathan had gone to the livery, saddled his horse, gathered his medical bag, and was back along side the angry man. Leaving word for the others, they rode out of town.
As dawn neared, Chris realized that he was no longer alone on the prairie. At first he thought perhaps Tanner had somehow seen his approach, but as he drew closer to the stand of trees, he saw a long, white dress ruffling gently in the breeze. The figure beckoned to him, one hand waving urgently in the air. without realizing he had made the decision, Larabee kneed the horse forward, riding toward the woman.
Reining in near the woman, Chris gasped. “Sarah?”
“You need to hurry.” The voice seemed to come to him from miles away, as soft as the breeze that continued to tug at her long gown. Every word was understandable, however.
“Hurry? Where Sarah? What are you talking about?” He leapt from the horse, striding across the last few feet to stand before her. The blond gazed lovingly at the apparition of his wife. He knew there was no way she could actually be standing there, but it didn’t matter. One trembling hand reached out to touch the beautiful face, but felt only the breeze. Tears sprang to the gunman’s eyes.
“Hurry Chris...there...he’s there...” the vision motioned toward the nearby stand of trees.
Shaking her head, she said, “your friend...Vin...there...Chris, help him.”
She was gone. Larabee dropped to his knees, one pain-filled sob escaping his lips. “I miss you sweet woman,” he whispered. He felt the breeze caress his cheek, and smiled. Then, her words sinking in, he pushed himself to his feet, took up the black gelding’s reins, and walked quickly toward the trees.
Not even the presence of the red-eyed demon could keep Vin from drifting off from time to time. Even when he was awake, he simply stared at the crimson orbs, too exhausted to argue. The thing hadn’t moved for a long time, simply sitting there waiting. Waiting for him to be ready to die. Well, the damn thing would have a long wait, Tanner decided. He wasn’t ready to give up yet, not by a long shot.
“Shut up,” he growled in a whisper, glaring at the red eyes.
“CHRIS!” He dredged the strength from somewhere, crying out to his friend. He turned his gaze triumphantly back toward the red eyed demon. It was gone.
“Vin! Where are you?” Larabee called from far above.
“Care...careful Ch-chris,” he warned. “H-h-hole.”
Above the deep pit, Chris Larabee had found the sharpshooter’s big black horse. Peso whinnied his annoyance at being neglected, he still wore saddle and tack. Even Vin’s bedroll and saddlebags still sat perched on the broad back. Untying the reins, he walked both horses behind him, leaving them ground reined in the thickest grass while he sought his friend. “Vin!”
“C-careful...h-ho-hole,” Tanner’s voice warned.
“A hole? Vin, are you in a hole?”
“Y-yeah...wa-wa-well,” came the answer.
Larabee scanned the clearing. There was an old, broken down shack, but other than that nature had reclaimed her place here. He couldn’t see any sign of a well.
“Vin, where is the well?”
“Here,” the voice sounded closer.
“Keep calling me, pard, I’ll find you.” He walked slowly forward, his eyes scanning the ground around him. “Vin?”
“H-here...here...here...” the single word repeated over and over again, a beacon for him to hone in on. He wouldn’t do the young man much good if he followed him into the hole. “Here...here...here...”
Vin kept his eyes riveted on the vaguely outlined hole above him. It seemed so much farther away with the morning sun highlighting its rim. In too much pain to think clearly, he simply repeated the same word over and over again. “Here...here...here...” and finally, “Chris!”
Larabee dropped to his knees next to the hole, staring down into the darkness. “Vin?”
“Y-yeah,” Tanner said, his voice fading once more.
Finally the gunman's eyes adjusted to the blackness and saw the faint outline of his best friend far below. “Damn it Vin, can’t we even trust you to do something as simple as finding some damn wolves without you getting into trouble?” Relief was clear in his voice.
Chuckling weakly, the injured man said, “s-s-s...orry.”
“Vin, what’s wrong?”
“C’ld,” he mumbled.
He nodded, then mumbled, “w-wa...ter.”
Deciphering the single word explanations, he realized the problem. The well had caught the recent rains in its depths. “All right pard, you hold on. I’ll send a rope down to you.”
Hurrying back to the horses, Chris led them to where his friend was trapped. Tying off a rope on the rested Peso’s saddle horn, he tossed it down into the hole. Dropping to his belly, he could see movement. “There’s the rope, Vin, grab hold of it.”
Reaching out, Tanner realized that he could just barely reach the end of the rope. Struggling to stretch as far as he could, the young man grunted with pain as his chilled muscles protested. “Sh-short.”
Thinking that perhaps the sharpshooter was dazed from the fall, Larabee said, “stand up Vin, you can reach it easy if you stand up.”
“Can’t? Vin what’s wrong?”
“Ah, hell. All right, hang on. I’ll get the other rope.” Retrieving the lariat from his own saddle, he tied the two together. Testing their strength, he dropped the lengthened line down into the hole. “There Vin, you can reach it now. Tie it around you, and I’ll pull you up.”
His movements slowed by pain and coldness, Tanner did as his friend instructed. Finally he said, “o...okay.”
“All right, Vin, listen. I’m going to pull you up now. It’s gonna hurt like hell, I imagine. Just hold on, and it’ll be over as soon as possible.”
Too tired to comment, Tanner simply grasped the rope and waited. Slowly, very slowly, the rope went taut. Then he felt himself slowly lifted upward toward the opening. The pain grew worse with each passing second, until he could no longer hold back the cries.
Above, Larabee cringed at the weak sounds coming from the well. He hated that what he was doing was causing his friend’s discomfort, but knew that it couldn’t be helped. From the sounds of it, Vin was in bad shape. He needed to get the sharpshooter out of the hole as soon as possible.
After what seemed like hours, he saw a tousled head of chestnut curls. Stopping Peso, he ran back to where Tanner hung, suspended, over the deep pit. Dropping his knees, Chris leaned over to look into the handsome face. “How y’ doing pard?”
Smiling weakly, Vin simply nodded.
“Okay, I’m going to drag you the rest of the way out. Ready?” Another nod was all the injured man could manage. Chris slipped his hands beneath the other man’s arms and pulled, bringing the lean body out of the place that had almost become his friend’s grave. He was glad when he saw the blue eyes close and felt the slender form go slack. It would be easier to deal with the man’s injuries if he weren’t awake.
Larabee pulled them both backwards until he was certain that Tanner was away from the edge of the hole. Vin lay limply against his chest, and he stroked the curls back from the pale face. Pressing his hand against the long neck, he was rewarded by a faint, fluttering, heartbeat. Gently laying the unconscious man on the ground, he got his first good look at Vin. The hunter was soaked to the waist, and damp the rest of the way. Carefully straightening the man’s injured legs, he frowned when even unconscious Vin moaned from the pain.
The first thing he would have to do was get the wet clothes off Tanner. Stripping him to the waist was difficult, reminding Chris of undressing his sleeping son. Laying the younger man back on the grass, he moved to remove the soaked boots and pants. He worked as carefully and quickly as possible, trying to block out the weak cries that bubbled up from time to time, to escape the otherwise slack lips. When he finally stopped, Tanner lay nude upon the grass. He surveyed the knots that appeared on both legs, one just below his left knee, the other just above his right ankle.
Going to the horses, he returned with a bedroll, covering the shivering body on the ground. That done, he rummaged around the old homestead, finding wood to make temporary splints. Retrieving his saddlebags, he knelt down beside his friend. To his dismay, he saw the blue eyes fluttering open, he had hoped to splint the man’s legs before he woke up. Watching as Vin’s eyes opened, searching the sky above them, he leaned forward and said quietly, “You back with me?”
Slowly Tanner’s eyes tracked toward the voice, finally settling on his friend’s face. With a weak smile, he said, “reckon.”
Nodding, Larabee said, “was kind of hoping you’d sleep til I got the splints on your legs.”
“Don’t... matter none, Chris,” Vin said, the words coming out in a wheeze, “th-they’re ‘bout... half n-numb.”
“Cold?” As Tanner nodded, he said, “all right. I’m going to splint them, then. You hold on.”
Nothing else was said for some time. Chris readied the things he would need to bind the other man’s injured legs, then pulled the blanket back to expose them. As quickly and carefully as possible, he splinted the limbs. Despite Vin’s reassurance that his legs were fairly numb, he had to block out several pain-filled moans. By the time he had both legs splinted, his friend was covered in perspiration, his body clammy to the touch.
“D...done?” Tanner rasped.
“Done,” Larabee reassured him. Covering the bound legs again, he dampened a cloth from his canteen and wiped the waxen face. Then, lifting the shivering man to rest against his arm, he held the canteen to Vin’s lips.
Sipping the tepid water, Tanner sighed with pleasure at the sweet taste of the clean liquid. When he had taken his fill, he leaned heavily against the warm embrace. “Wa...wasn’t lookin’...fer...y’ yet.”
Chris wondered at how to reply to that statement. How would it sound to his practical friend to hear the explanation of his presence? Shrugging, he simply said, “just had a feeling.”
Vin seemed to consider the statement, then simply nodded and slipped back into the darkness of unconsciousness.
The blond settled the injured man back on the ground and considered their predicament. With both legs broken and the painful wheeze that rattled through the narrow chest with each breath, Vin would need Nathan’s attention as soon as possible. The problem was that, while the broken legs called for a trip home on a travois or wagon, the deepening congestion called for a quicker ride home.
Rubbing at the headache that was forcing itself back to the forefront of his attention, Chris moved to the old cabin once more. He searched its littered interior for anything that might make Vin more comfortable. Beneath one partially caved in wall, he found an old, canvas covered mattress. It had seen far better days, and had been used as more than one creatures nest, but it would do for the moment. Pulling it back out into the daylight, he shook it then lay it near Vin. Covering it with the other bedroll, he bent and lifted Tanner just enough to get him onto the mattress. The younger man cried out, but didn’t wake completely and settled back to sleep quickly.
Tucking the blankets closer to the shivering body, Chris added his duster as well. That done, he built a fire nearby and started a pot of coffee, hoping to warm the young man from the inside as well. Returning to Vin’s side, he studied the ashen features and listened to the breathing that seemed even more labored than before. Scrubbing a hand across his face, he returned to the problem of transportation. Tanner tipped the scales himself when he started coughing, his body jerking as it fought to dispel the congestion building in his lungs.
Slipping an arm beneath the trembling shoulders, Chris settled Vin against his chest. Slowly the coughing subsided, Tanner finally drawing a breath. The blond retrieved his flask and gently tapped the other man’s face. “Vin? Take a drink of this, it should help.”
The sharpshooter mumbled something, sounding unhappy at being awakened, but he swallowed the offered whiskey. Another coughing fit was the result. Drawing on his too brief a time as a father, Chris leaned the heaving man forward and delivered a series of sharp raps to the taut back. He turned the semi-conscious man to the side just as he began bringing up the thick phlegm. The gunman repeated the process several times, until he was trembling almost as much as Tanner.
Vin was trapped in a twilight state, exhausted from the events of the past several hours, but unable to rest during the painful regimen that he was being forced to endure. Finally, unable to bear anymore, he cried out faintly, “st...stop.”
Rubbing a hand soothingly across the bare shoulders, Chris said, “sorry pard.” He leaned Vin back against his chest, wiping the wet remnants of the episode from his mouth. Tanner lay limply against him, his chest heaving from exertion. Grabbing up his canteen, he slowly fed his friend the water, not stopping until Vin’s head lolled against his cheek. Capping the canteen and setting it aside, he shifted the young man slightly, putting his ear to his chest. Satisfied that at least for the moment Vin was breathing easier, he lay him back on the mattress.
Stretching his cramped muscles, Larabee was surprised to see that the sun was almost directly overhead. Pushing himself to his feet, he rummaged through Vin’s saddlebags for something to make lunch for them both. After the spell his friend had just gone through, his decision was made. They would eat, and then he would get the injured man on horseback. He needed to get Vin back to town as quickly as possible.
Nathan and Buck had ridden slowly in the direction they all knew Vin had headed out in. They found the gelding’s tracks just after dawn, and followed them as quickly as they could. Both men wished more than once that Vin Tanner was riding with them rather than inadvertently being the cause of the entire episode.
“Vin?” Blue eyes fluttered open at Larabee’s call, and the younger man stared up at him. “Think you can drink some broth?”
Wrinkling his nose, the sharpshooter said, “I...got t- too?”
Chuckling, Chris said, “I know you’re not wild about it, but we need to warm you up a bit. Soon as you drink some, we’re gonna head for town.”
With a sigh, Vin nodded and allowed Larabee to lift him up once more. Leaning heavily against the broad chest, he managed to hold the offered mug of dark broth and slowly sip the liquid. By the time he had emptied half the cup, he was nearly asleep once more. He didn’t even notice when Chris took the mug and continued feeding him the warm brew.
When Vin finished the broth, Larabee set the cup aside and said, “Vin? I need you to stay with me for a few minutes. We’re gonna have to work together to get you in the saddle.” With a nod telling him that he had gotten through to the younger man, he lifted him up, blankets and all. Having thought ahead, he had cleared their camp and readied the horses before giving Tanner the liquid lunch. As soon as he could get the injured man into the saddle, they would be on the road home.
Stepping up beside Peso, he said, “Vin, listen to me. I need you to grab hold of the saddle-horn and help me get you in the saddle, understand?”
Managing another nod, Tanner lifted his head enough to locate the saddle. Grasping the horn, he managed to pull himself up as Chris lifted him. He held on tightly, feeling the saddle shift slightly beneath him. Then his friend was there beside him again and pulling him into his arms once more.
With Vin sideways in the saddle, Chris settled him back against him. He tucked the blankets close around the lithe form, tucked the curly head under his chin, and led the horses from the clearing.
Jackson and Wilmington reined in their horses, staring open-mouthed at the specters that approached. They looked at one another, shaking their heads, then spurred their animals forward. As they drew up before the other two men, they could only gape at them.
Returning their look, Chris nodded. Shifting Vin slightly, he said simply, “let’s go home.”
The four men returned to town in the dark of night. Buck had finally gotten Larabee to give up his bundle for awhile, and was carrying the blanket-wrapped hunter before him on his horse. Reaching the clinic, they carried Vin upstairs and settled him in bed. Josiah, having watched for his friends throughout the day, joined them in the little room just as Nathan began organizing things to tend Tanner’s injuries. While Chris helped the healer, Sanchez and Buck went to the bathhouse to bring up as much hot water as they could. The four men soon turned the clinic into a steam room, draping blankets over the bed to concentrate the heated air around Vin.
The day that followed found the other peacekeepers focused on the task of keeping Tanner from developing pneumonia. Even Ezra Standish rolled up his fine linen sleeves and toted buckets of boiling water from the bathhouse to the clinic.
Each bucket of water was doctored with some of Nathan’s herbs, the air in the room soon saturated with the strong odor. By breakfast, Jackson and Larabee were striped to the waist, but neither left Vin's side for more than a minute or two.
On his part, the young tracker lay limply in the bed most of the day. From time to time, however, he would rouse as the congestion would begin to break up. Chris would slide in behind him, holding him up as he coughed to bring up the phlegm. While the spasms were as difficult for Larabee to witness as they were painful for Tanner, Nathan wasn’t overly concerned. He promised the blond that the more Vin discharged, the better it would be.
By nightfall, Vin seemed much better, and seemed to be rallying. They stopped the steam, letting it slowly dissipate from the closed room. By morning, the blue eyes that greeted the six other men were clear.
Over the next several days Tanner made a slow but steady recovery from the cough. By the end of the week he was hard at work, trying to convince Nathan that he was fine. The fact that both legs had been set and firmly splinted didn’t seem to faze the young man that he wasn’t yet able to move around independently.
“Ah, c’mon Nathan. At least let me go out t’ the landin’.” Vin had pulled himself up in the bed to rest his back against the headboard.
“Vin Tanner, if you don’t shut up, I’m gonna break both your arms and make it a complete set,” Jackson growled in reply.
The two men stopped their argument at the sound of laughter. Looking toward the door, they saw the blond gunman leaning against the frame. “Think you better shut up while you’re ahead, pard. Think Nathan’s got you over a barrel.”
Glaring at his friend, the sharpshooter said, “you’re a lotta help, Larabee.”
Raising his hands, palm outward, Chris said, “I’m just making an observation, not taking sides.”
“Been layin’ here for days,” Tanner grumbled. “My ass is growin’ t’ the bed. Don’t think sittin’ on the landin’s too much t’ ask, me havin’ been so sick and all.”
Coming to stand next to the bed, Larabee looked from Vin to Nathan, trying to decide who seemed angrier. “I’ll sit with him if you want to get away from him for awhile.”
Grinning broadly, the former slave said, “thanks. I’ve got to go check on a couple of folks, but I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Take your time. I want a chance to win back some of the money the grouch took me for yesterday.” Larabee pulled a deck of cards out of his pocket, and dropped to the chair next to the bed. Retrieving the piece of paper he was keeping score on, he noticed that Vin was regarding him oddly. Laying the things aside, he leaned forward and said, “something on your mind?”
Tanner considered denying it, but finally he nodded and said, “been ponderin’ on the other day.”
“What about it?”
Staring into the other man's eyes, he asked, “how’d y’ know Chris?”
It was Larabee’s turn to consider evading the question. He had spent the last few days dodging the questioning looks of the other men as they tried to decipher his actions in rescuing the young hunter. How could he explain it to the others when he couldn’t explain it to himself. Finally he shook his head and said, “I can’t explain it, but I just knew that something was wrong.”
Slowly he told the tale of his ride that night, the overwhelming urge to search for the other man. He fought back tears as he told of the vision of his dead wife and her role in rescuing Tanner. When he had finished his story, Vin added that of his own visitor that night. Anger flared in his voice as he spoke of the creature that taunted him with his dead nemesis’ face. Then both men simply sat in silence for some time, attempting to make sense of the events that had saved Vin’s life. Finally, shaking his blond head, the gunman broke the silence.
“Long time ago, this man named Shakespeare wrote a story about a Prince named Hamlet. In it, Hamlet is talking to a friend of his and he says, ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.”
Vin puzzled the words for a few minutes, his brows knitted together. Finally he smiled and said, “reckon that Shakespeare was a pretty smart feller...Hamlet.”
With a laugh, Chris picked up the deck of cards and tossed them to his friend. “Reckon it’s your deal...Horatio.”
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