Main Characters: Chris, Vin
Notes: this was originally written for Ninheve, as a birthday gift. I've just got to say that we miss you, girl!
Webmaster Note: This fic was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in June 2012.
The two men had been on the trail for over a week, and it would be another three days before they reached home. Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner had ridden out to identify a man wanted for the murder of the Willis family, farmers on the outskirts of Four Corners. The trip had been in vain, however, as the man incarcerated in the jail of Morris Gap wasn’t the murderer of Carl and Eve Willis and their three children. Chris had been in high hopes of finding the monster responsible for the gruesome deaths, and had grown sullen and quiet when they discovered the man was still on the run.
He had also begun showing signs of a fever, his breathing sounding funny to his companion. Vin had tried to get the man in black to stay over in the little town to rest up, but Larabee had insisted on leaving at once. When the sharpshooter suggested that they could both use a day to rest, Chris had simply told him he’d meet him back in town. Three children and their parents lay cold in the earth, and the blond was damned if he wouldn’t do everything in his power to avenge those lost lives. In the end, Vin had slipped into the general store to pick up what supplies he could find that would help him tend the stubborn man, should he fall out of the saddle before they got home.
For two days, the older man stubbornly denied that he was ill, despite the fact that his breathing had dwindled to little more than a wheezing rasp. He ignored the fever, despite the fact that he layered on every article of clothing he had brought along, buttoned his duster to his chin, wrapped his blanket around him, and continued to shiver. He refused to acknowledge that he was sick, despite the fact that he couldn’t hold down even the few swallows of tepid water he forced past his swollen throat. He would admit only that he was tired, allowing Vin to take on the larger share of the work in setting up camp, rolling into his bedroll and drifting into an uneasy rest. The blond tossed and turned through the night, muttering incoherently, waking looking more tired than when he lay down.
On the third day of their home-bound trip, they were moving through the hills when the clouds opened up, and rain began to pour down on the travelers. Tanner quickly scanned the landscape around them, cursing when he found no likely shelter. The two men spurred their horses forward, searching for somewhere to hole up as they flew along, riding low on their horses backs.
Slightly ahead of the other man, Vin spotted a cave opening, squatting in the hills to their right. Moving to come along side the man in black, he called above the noise of the storm, “over there!”
Without acknowledging his friend, Chris turned his elegant black gelding and moved toward the hills. Vin paced the fever-racked man, knowing that the last thing Larabee needed was this wild ride. The two men arrived at the cave together, reining in the two black horses right before the dark opening.
As he dismounted, the gunslinger’s knees buckled, leaving him clinging to his saddle. He felt a pair of strong hands grabbing his arms. Looking up, he saw a pair of concerned blue eyes peering at him. “I’m okay.”
Barely able to hear the rasping words, Tanner shook his head. “Y’ ain’t neither. Git yerself into the cave, I’ll take care a the horses.”
Larabee felt himself pushed forward, and he stumbled toward the cave, far too weary to argue with his friend. His legs felt like rubber, his head was spinning, and he couldn’t focus his eyes. Finally, he had to admit… at least to himself… that he was sick.
Tanner quickly found an overhang nearby, made of rock and scrub, and picketed the horses there. Stripping them of their saddle and tack, he staggered toward the cave under their weight as he slipped along the already muddy ground. Entering the makeshift shelter, he found the blond huddled near a pile of dry wood, trying to start a fire. Dropping their gear to one side Vin moved across the small space, squatting across from Larabee. Watching the gunman’s hands shake out a second match, he retrieved his own, sealed in a tin, and quickly lit the wood.
Wheezing a sigh, the older man dropped to the ground, sitting cross-legged as close to the growing fire as he could. His entire body trembled and shook, every muscle ached, and his lungs felt as if they were filled with oatmeal mush. Someone had stabbed him with a few dozen knives in the back, each breath a searing flame that threatened to rip him apart.
With a groan, Chris dropped his head into his hands, fire to ice. Every movement made him nauseous, and he would have thrown up if he’d had anything in his churning stomach to expel. A cough tore through his ravaged throat, and his chest tightened in pain.
“Ah… damn.” He was sick.
Tanner moved beside his friend, carefully placing a hand on the slumped shoulder. “We need t’ git y' outta these wet clothes, cowboy.”
“I can… do it… my… self,” Larabee managed to grate out between coughs. Slowly he began to pull at his sodden clothing, the heavy layers of cloth seeming to cling even harder to his shivering frame. It seemed to take a year to get the duster off and, in the end, he was nearly unconscious from the effort.
Seeing his chance, Tanner slipped back up beside the ill man, and began to remove the multiple layers of soaked clothing. By the time he had stripped Larabee, his friend was leaning heavily against him, exhausted by illness and the hard ride. The sharpshooter wrapped both their blankets around the trembling man and coaxed him to lay down beside the fire. Bringing one of the saddles over, he draped a saddle blanket over it and lifted the semi-conscious man’s head and shoulders onto it.
“Th… thanks,” Chris wheezed. His eyes were mere slits of watery green hazel, which disappeared as he gave into exhaustion.
“Yer welcome,” Tanner whispered softly. He gently brushed back strands of dripping hair, then settled back to watch his friend as he drifted deeper into sleep. Satisfied that the blond was oblivious to what was happening, he wrung out his bandana and wiped the flushed features with it. The only response was a soft breath of a sigh.
Deciding he had done everything he could for the sick man for the moment, the tracker moved away, going to his saddlebags. Retrieving the carefully wrapped packets he had bought at the store, along with a mug and his canteen, Vin set to work. A short time later, he had mixed an herbal tea and set it beside the fire to heat. While it warmed, he spread Larabee’s clothes out on the rocks to dry then changed into his own spare set and setting his wet boots by the fire.
When the herbal brew had steeped, he carried it to where Chris lay, lightly tapping a slack jaw. “Larabee? C’mon, cowboy… need you t’ wake up and drink this.”
The wide mouth opened, a scattering of displeased sounds escaping in a hissing breath. The blond turned his head, trying to move away from the sounds and touches trying to pull him from the blessed peace of nothingness. The irritation continued, intent on dragging him away from that comfort. He struggled to bring a hand up, but found it trapped. The delirious blond growled his frustration.
“Yer wrapped up tighter ‘n one a them mummies Josiah told us about, so jist lay still and be quiet. Now I got y' somethin’ t’ drink here… ought t' make y’ feel a bit better and help y’ sleep.”
Blond brows furrowed as the words caught his attention with promises of what he had already found. Then he felt something warm and hard touch his lip. Automatically they opened, and he nearly choked as something hot and bitter filled his mouth. Swallowing in an effort to keep from drowning, he groaned deep in his throat as the foul taste seemed to take over his very being. The liquid burned his raw throat, causing the fire to erupt there.
Vin watched as his friend struggled to swallow, knowing that that simple act had to be extremely painful. Slowly he fed the entire cup of tea to the fevered man. Setting it aside, he gently lowered Larabee back to his makeshift bed. Straightening the blankets and tucking them back around the prone form, he once more bathed the flushed face. With a sigh, he said only, “damn stubborn cowboy.”
The night passed slowly. Vin spent the long hours feeding the fire, mixing more of the herbal medicine, and tending to his friend. Chris didn’t completely regain consciousness, although his eyes opened from time to time, lips parting to mumble a few words in response to his ministrations.
As the dawn made its appearance, the sun rose to brighten a rain-washed sky. Inside the cave Larabee’s fever broke, leaving him to lie limply in the twisted, sweat-soaked blankets. His blond hair was plastered to his forehead, and dark smudges appeared to circle his closed eyes. His breathing remained ragged, and his body jerked with wet coughs each time he inhaled too deeply.
Carefully, Tanner opened the blankets, rubbing down the sweaty body with the towel Larabee carried in his saddlebags. Drying the lean form, he rousted his friend enough that Chris could help in getting his clothes on. Finishing that, he covered the ill man with his duster, spreading the blankets out to dry now. Then, seeing that the blond was sleeping once more, he went to care for the horses.
Returning a short time later, he was surprised to see that the gunman had wakened, and was struggling to sit up. Going to him, he pressed the lean body back to the ground, gently admonishing him as he did. “Y’ ain’t got a need t’ be tryin’ t’ git up yet.”
“I’m… fine,” the stubborn man argued.
“No, y’ ain’t. Now, I didn’t lose a night’s sleep tendin’ y’ jist so y’ could push yerself some more. Y’ lay still, Chris Larabee, or I’m gonna tie y’ up.”
“You’re awful… grouchy.”
“Damn right I am. Now, y’ lay still and I’m gonna make y’ some more tea.”
“Nope, reckon this one’s more like horsepiss.”
“Ha… ha,” the weakened man managed to rasp out.
“Well, at least y’ ain’t lost that sparklin’ sense a humor a yers.”
“You just gonna stand there… harassing me, or are… you… gonna fix me something to… drink?” His words were punctuated by wheezing coughs.
“Talk about grouchy,” Tanner quipped as he moved to fix more of the herbal brew. A short time later, he carried the mug back to where Larabee had pushed himself up to lean against the saddle. Squatting down beside his friend, he handed him the tea, staying close until he was sure that Chris could handle the task of drinking the hot brew alone. Then he moved back to the fire, fixing the two of them something to eat. After the blond had finished the bitter drink, his face screwing up in distaste each time he swallowed a mouthful, Tanner handed him a plate.
“Not hungry,” Larabee said crossly as he eyed the mush Vin had handed him.
“Well, if y’ wanna git the strength t’ git up outta here, y’ best be eatin’ it. Reckon that’s ‘bout all y’ can manage right now, but ‘least it’s somethin’.”
“What did I do… to piss you off,” Chris managed around a mouthful of the weak tasting meal.
Smiling, the Texan said, “Y’ jist be glad y’ didn’t piss me off, or I’d a fed y’ hardtack ‘n beans. Reckon that would 'a felt good on that sore throat a yers. Best y’ be rememberin’ that.”
A corner of his mouth turning up imperceptibly, the gunman said, “I’ll try.”
As the sun climbed half way toward its zenith, the two men climbed into the saddle. Tanner wasn’t overly happy about the fact that Larabee wanted to leave so soon after his fever broke, but he could tell by the set of the blond’s jaw that his disagreement wouldn’t carry much weight. Chris wanted to go, and Chris would go, whether or not he accompanied him on the ride.
Larabee sat easy in the saddle and seemed to be fine… for about four hours. Then his posture slowly deteriorated, leaving him slumped on his horse's back by the time they found a place to stop for the night. Vin reached out and tugged at the man's sleeve when it seemed like Chris would continue on through the glade of trees the sharpshooter had chosen for their night camp.
“Chris, pull up, we’re gonna stay here tonight.”
Blinking owlishly around the blond said, “what? We’re stopping? Why?”
Nodding toward the evening sky, the bounty hunter said, “gittin’ dark.”
Larabee didn’t respond, just reined in his big, black gelding. By the time he had gathered up the strength to climb out of the saddle, Vin was standing there, waiting to help him. He tried a glare, but his friend seemed immune to it. Growling breathlessly, the ill man allowed himself to be helped off the horse and guided to sit beneath a large tree. In truth, by the time he settled on the ground, he was light headed and trembling.
Tanner watched his friend for a minute, worrying over the gray pallor that was cast over the haggard features. Then he shook himself from his thoughts and moved to set up camp. Taking care of the horses first, he brought over their saddlebags and bedrolls. Spreading one of the blankets on the ground, he coaxed the semi-conscious gunslinger to lay down on it. Covering Chris with the second blanket, he moved on, building a fire and then starting dinner.
Larabee knew nothing for some time, falling into a deep sleep as soon as he stretched out on the blanket. The next thing he was aware of was being nudged by the other man. Squinting open one eye, he muttered “what?”
“Y’ hungry? I got some beans and biscuits. Think y’ can hold it down?”
“I’m fine,” Chris groused, pushing himself up to sit back against the tree trunk. He accepted the plate and mug Vin handed him. He managed to eat several bites before slumping back against the tree tiredly. He felt the plate taken off his lap, muttering tiredly as it was taken away. Then the mug was pressed against his lips, and he drank the contents, nearly choking as he registered the fact that it was one of the herbal concoctions Nathan kept them all supplied with. Grumbling his displeasure, he said, “you fight dirty.”
“Don’t know what yer talkin’ about, Larabee. Never told y’ there was coffee in the mug, now did I?”
“Think you’re funny, don’t you?” Chris managed to mutter as he slid back down to lie on the blanket. He felt the other blanket pulled back up over him, and he settled beneath it with a sigh.
“Reckon we should hole up here tomorrow,” Vin said, thinking aloud.
Huffing a sigh, the slender man said, “Because yer about as weak as a day ol’ kitten, Chris. Y’ need t’ rest.”
“We can be in town by nightfall.”
“Yeah,” he knew he should just surrender. The stubborn blond had already made his decision. Still, he had to try. “That’s another twelve hours in the saddle, Cowboy. Don’t think you’ve got it in y’.”
“I can sleep in my own bed tomorrow night. Has to be better for me than laying here on the ground.”
Rubbing a hand across his face, Tanner said only, “fine. Git some sleep. I’ll wake yer sorry ass at sunrise.”
Larabee nodded as he drifted off to sleep, a small smile on his face.
Vin was rousted from a light doze by the faint mutterings of the other man. He eased across the camp and settled on his knees beside the gunman. Reaching out, he touched the pale forehead, brushing back sweat soaked strands of hair before pressing the back of his hand against Chris’ flesh. He growled under his breath as he felt the heat building beneath his touch, already hotter than the original fever had been. “Gawd damn it, y’ , stubborn, mule-headed, sonofa- “
“Vin?” The blond’s voice was faint, little more than a whisper.
Placing his hand on the trembling shoulder, Tanner said, “I’m right here.”
“Hot… could I have some… water?”
“Yeah, hang on.” He quickly retrieved one of the canteens, returning to find the fever ravaged man struggling to sit up. Slipping in behind Larabee, he supported him, holding him snugly while he helped the ill man drink from the canteen.
Signaling that he couldn’t drink any more, Larabee lay limply in his friend’s embrace. He felt his stomach roll as the tepid water threatened to come back up, but forced himself to fight the sensation. He knew the signs of dehydration and, even half delirious, he knew he needed to take in all the liquid he could manage.
Tanner held his friend, feeling the slender body tense and tremble. Grabbing his kerchief, he gently wiped the man’s face dry. As he waited for Chris to relax, he looked up at the sky, frowning when he realized how dark it was. The moon peeked momentarily through the pitch black canopy, seeming to mock the plight of the two men it shone down on. Sniffing the air, he smelled the rain and knew they wouldn’t be able to stay put for long.
Dropping his head, the tracker closed his eyes, mentally scanning the landscape that lay between their camp and the little town of Four Corners. He came up with nothing that would offer them decent shelter, and knew they had only one choice.
“We… we need to ri… ride,” Larabee muttered, reading his friend with startling clarity.
“Yeah. I’m gonna put y’ on the horse with me, we’ll switch off as we need to. We’re gonna have t’ move steady if we hope t’ keep ahead a the storm. Ain’t gonna listen t’ any arguments from y’, neither. Y’ ain’t got the strength t’ sit a horse another twelve hours, pard. Yer gonna have t’ put up with me holdin’ y’.”
“Should have stayed… put,” Chris said, admonishing himself for his stubbornness.
Shrugging, Vin offered, “that’s in the past, Pard. Ain’t gonna do no good t’ look back and fuss over what should a been. Now, I’m gonna lay y’ back down while I git the horses ready. You git what rest y’ can til I come fer y’.”
As Tanner lowered him back to the ground, the blond slipped into a half sleep, populated by faint images that flickered at the edges of his mind’s eye. Even though he couldn’t make them out, he knew who they were. The Wills family. They stood there, staring at him. They were waiting for him to do something… to avenge their deaths.
Reaching out toward them, Larabee mumbled, “I’m sorry.”
Coming to where his friend lay, Vin heard the heartbroken admission and could guess at what Chris was apologizing for. There were times that Vin figured the older man’s penchant for wearing so much black had more to do with mourning all the evils done to innocent people than simply the dress of a widower. Most people didn’t see past that, but in their months together, he had come to know that there was a deeply caring man hiding behind the stern, almost cold façade the gunman presented to the world.
Squatting down beside his companion, Tanner took that reaching hand. Quietly he said, “sh, it’s okay. They don’t blame y’ none, Cowboy. It's jist the fever.”
Glassy hazel eyes blinked open once more, and Chris said hoarsely, “Vin?”
“Yeah. Now, I’ve got the horses ready, so lets git y' in the saddle. Y’ let me do most a the work, hear? Yer gonna need t’ save yer strength, Pard.”
Moaning softly, Larabee allowed himself to be pulled upright. He struggled to get his feet under him, leaning heavily against the lean tracker. For several long minutes the world consisted of nothing more than searing heat and a pair of strong arms holding him securely. Slowly he became aware of the cool night air and darkness, and remembered what they needed to be doing. Unable to gather enough strength to speak, he managed a weak nod and felt Tanner all but carry him to where his horse stood, waiting patiently.
It took the two of them several minutes to get the weakened blond into the saddle. As soon as he was certain his friend wasn’t going to fall back to the ground, Vin stepped up onto the big gelding’s back, settling behind the other man. He wrapped the blankets around the lean, shivering frame then gently coaxed Chris to lean back against him. As soon as Larabee was situated, he took up Pony’s reins and started them off. Peso snorted his displeasure at being led, but followed behind as peacefully as the big black could manage.
Tanner kept them at a steady pace, picking it up as the first rays of the sun cast a gray light over the landscape. He looked over his shoulder from time to time, gauging how well they were managing to stay ahead of the storm. When the dark clouds seemed to be coming nearer, he nudged the animal beneath him to an even faster pace, trying to ignore the protesting moans that came from the man lying heavily against him.
Chris remained in that hazy state, halfway between wakefulness and sleep, throughout the day. He took the water Vin fed him, finding it harder each time to keep it down. He had some sense of when they stopped, Tanner helping him down and settling him on the ground for a few precious moments rest. He huddled in the blankets, shivering even in the heat of the day. Miserable, he could do nothing but moan softly as his body weakened under the constant attack of the fever.
Vin watched his friend grow weaker by the hour, and feared he wouldn’t be able to get his friend to town in time. Larabee wasn’t even coughing now, and his breathing was painful to hear. Shallow, rasping gasps drew what little air into his lungs that they could manage, then a harsh rattle accompanied each exhale. He searched the horizon desperately for signs of Four Corners, even though his common sense told him that they were still too far away to see the little town.
The hours stretched on and on, worry and concern riding on either side of the two men, pacing Tanner tauntingly. He knew the gunman’s only hope was to get to town, where Nathan Jackson could care for him in the comfort of the little clinic.
Just as the little town came into view, Vin heard the roll of thunder behind him. Turning, he saw the clouds moving toward them quickly and knew that the storm that had threatened all day was finally coming. Wrapping his arm more closely around the shivering body he held, he whispered in Larabee’s ear. “Chris?”
Bloodless lips moved faintly, as the gunman fought to speak. Finally he managed, “Viiiiin?”
“Yep. Look, the storm’s about here, and we’re about a mile outside of town. I’m gonna kick the horses int a run so we can try and beat the rain. I need y’ t’ hang on tight, okay?”
Without a word, the older man slipped a trembling hand from beneath the blankets and took hold of the arm wrapped securely around him. With a frail squeeze he signaled his readiness.
Digging his heels into Peso’s side and slapping the reins, Tanner sent them speeding across the open ground. He felt Chris’ grip tighten and knew the hard ride was sapping what little strength the blond had. All he could do was hold onto the trembling body in his arms and pray that they made it to Nathan in time.
Josiah Sanchez climbed the stairs leading to his friend’s little clinic, reaching the landing only slightly out of breath. He was feeling restless, and decided to see what the healer was up to. Sanchez found the former slave leaning against the railing, smoking a cigar and staring out across the darkening sky.
Turning to greet the older man, Jackson said, “evening’. What brings you up here?”
Shrugging, Josiah said, “just thought I’d come by and see if you wanted to go get a drink.”
Nodding toward the clinic door behind him, the dark man said, “can’t. Just finished settin’ Milt Wallace’s left arm and leg. He fell off the roof of his barn this mornin’. Bone came through the skin on his leg… he’s gonna be laid up a spell.”
Shaking his head, the former preacher asked, “Grace in there with him?”
“No. Carl Amos brought him in. Grace has her hands full with the farm and their six little ones.”
“I’ll go out there in the morning, see if I can give her a hand.”
“Reckon she’d be grateful,” Nathan said, then he frowned and squinted toward the road leading into town.
“What is it?” Sanchez asked, looking in that direction as well.
“Riders comin’ this way at a hard clip, tryin’ to beat the storm. Looks like two of ‘em on one horse… ahhhh, hell.”
“Looks like Chris an’ Vin. Can you stay here with Milt? I’d better go see what’s up.”
“Whatever you need, brother.” Josiah clapped the other man on the shoulder. “I only hope it’s something minor.”
With a snort, the former stretcher bearer said, “with them two? I wouldn’t bet on it.”
Vin kept up the hard pace, even after Chris went completely limp in his arms. He struggled to keep the other man in the saddle as he rode hard through town, not slowing until he reached the bottom of the stairs that led to Jackson’s place. To his surprise the big man was waiting for him, along with Buck Wilmington, Ezra Standish, and JD Dunne.
With a relieved sigh, the young bounty hunter said, “damned if y’all ain’t a welcome sight. Chris come down with a fever on the trail, and he’s in bad shape.”
Nathan came up beside the horse, reaching up to take the limp body from Vin’s arms. He could hear the labored breathing and saw the sheen of perspiration on the colorless face. “Least he’s still sweatin’, that’s a good sign. Don’t like the sound of his breathin’, though. We’ll take him to Buck’s place. It’s close to the bathhouse, and we’re gonna need a steady supply of hot water to break up the congestion. JD, go let Mr. Tan know we’re gonna be usin’ up whatever he’s got heatin’ up in there. Buck, knowin’ you that room’s a sty. Go on ahead and see how much you can clean up. Ezra, bring us several bottles of whiskey and ‘bout half a dozen pillows. Some fresh bedding would be good, too. Vin, Josiah’s upstairs at my place, tendin’ to Milt Wallace for me. Let him know what’s goin’ on and get me my fever potion. He knows where it is.”
The entire time the big man was delivering his orders, he was carrying Chris toward Buck’s room as easily as if the big gunfighter were a child. Around him, each man broke off as they received their instructions, sprinting away to carry them out.
They stripped the blond down, using thick towels to dry him off before swaddling him in a cool sheet. Then they lay him on the bed, his upper body propped up on several pillows. The healer placed a pillow beneath each arm and another under the man’s knees in an effort to keep him as comfortable as possible.
They covered the windows and door with heavy blankets, then filled the room with steam. The men stripped to the waist while they were tending to the ill blond, sweat dripping from their upper bodies in rivulets. The air was quickly saturated as the steam from several buckets of hot water increased the humidity intensely.
The storm that Vin had raced in his effort to bring his friend home passed with little notice for the seven men. One lay limp and unresponsive on the bed, his six friends working feverishly to keep him alive.
Long hours later the warm heat began to work its magic, and Larabee began to cough. The sound was music to the ears of the other men in the room, and they moved to help him. Rolling Chris to one side, Buck held him still while Nathan pounded on the broad back with blows only hard enough to break up the congestion. As the coughing grew harder, Wilmington lifted his friend up to lean against him, head dropping forward slightly as hard barking sounds erupted from deep within him. Vin held a bowl before him, turning his head slightly as the heavy congestion was expelled.
The scenario was repeated every hour or so over the course of the following two days, only the faces changed as the men took turns caring for their friend. Larabee’s back was bruised and his entire body ached as the abuse from within as well as without began to take its toll. During those times he drew near consciousness, he cried out weakly, all but begging them to leave him alone. Each of the men relied on the strength of their feelings for the man who was their leader, and turned a deaf but compassionate ear to the pleas.
Between coughing spells, they fed him as much whiskey and water as he could take. The liquor burned his ravaged throat, but helped in easing the tightness of his chest. The water caused him to become nauseous, and at times he lost the battle to keep it down. He lay limply against whichever of his friends held him, drawing strength from them as he struggled to stay among the living.
During the course of the third day, things began to turn around. Larabee’s breathing began to ease and his fever broke. They allowed him to sleep at longer and longer intervals, having to help him rid himself of the foul, yellow mass less and less often.
By the middle of the fourth day, Chris fell into a deep, healing sleep. They allowed the steam to slowly dissipate, keeping watch over the blond for signs that he was having trouble breathing again. To their relief, he was able to draw deeper and deeper breaths with no signs of trouble.
Larabee blinked open his eyes, slowly focusing on his surroundings. He registered the fact that he was in a room, than recognized it as Buck’s. He realized he was lying in bed, reclining on a stack of soft pillows. He recognized the fact that he felt clean and dry. His body still ached, chest and back vying for the bulk of his attention. Pushing his tongue out between closed lips, he ran it slowly along the edge, wetting them as he did.
Registering the fact that he was no longer wrapped snugly, he slowly stretched his arms and legs, groaning softly as his muscles protested being wakened. A soft sound drew his attention, and he turned to find Vin settled in a chair nearby. As he watched, blue eyes opened slowly, recognition lighting them as his friend realized he was awake.
“Well, howdy there, Cowboy,” the Texan said with a cocky grin.
“Howdy,” Chris returned, surprised at how weak his voice sounded.
“Figgered you’d be wakin’ up sometime this mornin’. How y’ feelin’?”
Several wordy descriptions came to mind, but the only thing he said was, “tired.”
Nodding, Tanner went to the dresser, pouring a glass half full of water. Moving to the bed, he said, “reckon y’ could use some of this.”
Larabee started to reach for the glass, only to find he didn’t have the strength to lift his hand. He had no choice but to let Vin lift him slightly and feed him the water. Savoring several long swallows, he sighed when the glass was empty, feeling himself settled back on the pillows. He looked up into the face of the man who had so easily become his closest friend. Managing a wan smile, he said, “thanks, Pard.”
Vin could see the true meaning shining from the bright, clear eyes. With a broad grin he said only, “anytime, cowboy.”
Chris shuffled along, taking short, uneven steps. It had been over a week since Tanner had brought him into town, and he still felt as if a gentle breeze would knock him down. But he was up, and he was moving, and that gladdened his heart.
He walked slowly from the room, Josiah on one side and Nathan on the other. They took their time moving out onto the boardwalk, where Ezra’s borrowed rocking chair awaited him. The two men helped him settle himself onto the blanket and pillow covered seat, and he leaned against the back with an exhausted sigh. Larabee felt his long legs lifted and placed across the top of a pillow topped crate, then felt blankets tucked in around him. He wanted to complain that he wasn’t an invalid but, at the moment, he didn’t have the strength.
The two men studied their friend for several minutes. Nathan watched the rise and fall of the broad chest slow to a normal level and watched the faint hint of color return to the normally ruddy cheeks with tentative relief. Beside him, Josiah rejoiced in the sight of Chris Larabee sitting there, still a part of their little brotherhood.
Reaching down, Nathan clamped a hand over the blanket covered shoulder, waiting until Larabee opened his eyes, before speaking. “ All right now, you remember our deal. Me and Josiah are gonna go air out the room and change the bedding. You’re not to get out of that chair until we get back, y’ hear?”
Managing a wan smile, the gunfighter said, “don’t even think dynamite could move me off here, Nathan.” He grimaced, hating the fact that he still sounded weak and frail.
Nodding, his face still serious, Jackson said, “all right then. If you do okay today, we’ll let y' walk to the restaurant for dinner tomorrow. Then, if you behave, we’ll move y’ back to your own room in a couple of days.”
“Good… tired of having all those women knocking on the door… all hours of the day… looking for Buck.”
Accompanied by laughter, the two big men left the blond alone as they moved back toward the scoundrel’s room.
Larabee allowed himself to drift, leaning back in the chair and closing his eyes. After a few minutes, he roused at the sound of horses drawing near. Blinking open his eyes, he recognized Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington riding up the street, a third horse trailing along behind them. The two men had left town as soon as he was out of danger, but no one seemed to know where they had gone. Frowning as the men drew up at the edge of the boardwalk, he said, “where have you boys been?”
“Huntin’,” Vin said in a tired drawl. Along with Wilmington, he dismounted, the two of them moving toward the third horse.
Chris realized that there was a blanket covered bundle hanging over the saddle. He watched as his friends untied it, dragging it unceremoniously from the horse’s back. They carried it toward him, dropping the burden onto the boardwalk. Larabee’s mouth dropped open as the blanket dropped back to reveal a body. A very dead body. He looked up at the two men, a question etched on his face.
Nodding toward the corpse, Vin said, “It's him… the one that murdered the Wills. We got word he’d been in the saloon in Red Fork, braggin’ about killin’ ‘em. Me and Bucklin went lookin’.”
Taking up the narrative, Wilmington said, “damn fool wasn’t even tryin’ to hide, so he was pretty easy to find. We met up with him yesterday morning, still in his bedroll.”
Nodding toward the dead man, Vin offered a short explanation as to the man’s condition. “He put up a fight.”
Chris looked from the corpse to his two friends, seeing the relief he felt mirrored in their faces. This was one cold-hearted murderer that wouldn’t kill again. He fancied that he could feel the souls of the Wills family breathe a collective sigh of relief as well. With gratitude in his expression, the gunslinger locked eyes with first Buck and then Vin. With a smile, he said quietly, “thanks, boys.”
It was as simple as that.
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