Main Characters: Chris, Vin, Nathan, Billy Travis, OMC
Webmaster Note: This story was formerly hostead at another website and was moved to blackraptor in June 2012.
Aaron Billings was a very stupid man.
He wasn’t stupid because he had chosen to rob a bank. That wasn’t all that uncommon in a land where laws and lawmen were few and far between. He wasn’t even stupid because he had chosen to rob the bank in Four Corners. That had been tried before, despite the presence of seven peacekeepers. He’d played it smart, Billings and his cohorts. The peacekeeping force was nearly cut in half. Ezra Standish had ridden out the day before, escorting Mary Travis to Bitter Creek to check on Terri and Olivia Greer. Josiah Sanchez and Buck Wilmington had ridden out the day before that to escort a prisoner to Fort Laramie for trial. No, Aaron Billings was a stupid man because he chose to take a hostage in his bid to get out of town when the robbery went bad.
He was very stupid because he chose Billy Travis as his hostage.
Billings managed to get off a single decent shot as he roared out of town atop his horse, the small, blond child held close in front of him. The would-be bank robber saw a fury in black dashing from cover to stop his escape. His bullet tore into Chris Larabee’s left shoulder, knocking the gunman back to sprawl against the boardwalk, semi-conscious and bleeding.
Aaron Billings was a very stupid man. But he rode out of town holding all the cards.
Vin Tanner, JD Dunne and Nathan Jackson came running as soon as they heard the gunshots. Jackson went immediately to their fallen compatriot, while Vin and JD corralled the two men Aaron Billings had ridden into town with. Neither of them had been lucky enough to make it to their horses before some of the townspeople pinned them down in the alley, keeping the men in place with their weapons until the two peacekeepers came to their aid. None of the other unofficial lawmen knew of young Travis’ plight until Billings had gained quite a head-start in his bid for freedom.
As soon as the other two would be bank robbers had been taken into custody and locked away inside the jail, Vin left JD in charge of them and hurried to see to his friend. He sprinted up the stairs to Nathan’s clinic, passing Yosemite along the way. The big livery man had been enlisted by the healer to help carry Larabee to the clinic.
Barely slowing down, Tanner entered the little room. He stopped at the sight before him.
Chris lay on the big bed stripped to the waist, his upper chest covered in blood. The fingers of his right hand were dug, white-knuckled, into the mattress beneath him. Larabee’s body was rigid, his head thrust back against the bed. Moving closer, Vin saw that the man’s eyes and lips were closed tight, the flesh around them white from the tension. The blonde’s jaws were clinched so tightly that the muscles were twitching knots beneath the colorless flesh.
The former stretcher bearer stood over the injured man, quickly washing the blood from the wound. He looked up when he noted the sharpshooter’s presence and handed him a pad of boiled cloth. “Press this against the wound. We need to get the bleeding stopped so I can get that bullet out.”
Taking the cloth, Vin did as told. “You give ‘im somethin’ fer th’ pain yet?”
With an angry frown the dark man said, “Stubborn fool won’t take nothin’. Says he can’t sleep, ‘cos he’s goin’ after th’ bastard that rode out.”
Pressing a little harder, Tanner heard his friend curse under his breath. “Y’ ain’t gonna do no one any good tryin’ t’ ride like this, cowboy. Soon ‘s Nathan gits th’ bullet out, I’ll ride out… see what I c’n find out.”
“Chris – “
“I’m… going… after… him,” Larabee grated out.
“Yer the only one that got hurt, they didn’t git no money, and we got two of the fools in jail. Now, what’s so fired important that you’re gonna risk yerself tryin’ to sit a horse?”
“Billy,” the blond gasped.
Managing a tight nod that was accompanied by a soft moan, Chris said, “bastard took… took B-Billy.”
“Ah hell.” Tanner looked to see his friend’s eyes had opened, staring up at him. He saw not only the reaction to the pain of being shot. He saw the pain of loss. The young sharpshooter would swear to his dying day that he saw the flames that had consumed his friend’s family in those eyes. And he heard the words of Buck Wilmington, recounted by JD Dunne from their first days together in the Seminole Village. That fire had done more than take the lives of Chris Larabee’s family. It had burned away half his soul. And in that split second of eye contact, Vin Tanner knew one thing as well as he knew that he was a Tanner. If they lost Billy Travis, Chris Larabee would lose the rest of his soul.
“I’ll find the sonofabitch – “
“I’ll git Billy – “
“I’ll drag the bastard back here and let’cha shoot ‘im.”
“Vin… I… have to. I can’t… stay ba… back.”
“Damn it Chris – “
“My re… respons… responsibility,” Larabee grated out. While Mary had left Billy with Gloria Potter, he’d promised to look after the boy during the day. The little blond had happily tagged along after his friend and hero.
The slender man dropped his head, heaving a sigh. “Y’ ain’t gonna do Billy a lick a good dyin’ on the trail.”
He looked into his friend’s face, and saw a look of confidence there beneath the lines of pain. And he found himself believing Larabee’s words. The man had no intention of dying before rescuing the young boy.
Three horses stood at the bottom of the clinic stairs, ready for the trail. Nathan Jackson hurried down the wooden staircase, heavy saddlebags over one shoulder. He reached the bottom of the stairs and frowned at the young Texan.
“He’s a fool.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“If we ride out, take Pony with us – “
“He’ll git another horse and follow us.”
“We could tell Yosemite not to let him – “
“And he’ll give ‘im a glare. Better he goes with us then follows after. We can keep an eye on ‘im this way.”
“It’s damn foolish.”
”Th-then I’m a… fool.”
The two men looked up to see Chris Larabee slowly making his way down the long series of stairs. He was still stripped to the waist, his shirt and duster clinched in one hand. Vin hurried up the stairs to help his friend while Nathan, grumbling under his breath, moved to follow. Reaching the trembling blond, they helped him down the final stairs.
Groaning as he reached the dusty street, Chris straightened, pushing away from his friends’ helping hands. He felt his clothes slip from his fingers and looked to see Tanner taking them. The other man flipped the duster over his shoulder and carefully began to dress him. Unable to find the breath to argue, Larabee felt the sleeve of his shirt gently slipped up his left arm. The shirt was draped over his shoulders and then his right arm was coaxed into its sleeve as well. He felt Tanner’s nimble fingers close the buttons over his heaving chest.
Jackson stepped in, a large square of cloth in his hands. Using it to make a sling, he carefully slipped the blond’s injured arm into the supporting cloth. He looked down into the pale face, shaking his head. In a whisper, he said, “You’re a damn fool.”
“I… know,” Chris looked into the dark eyes, managing a faint smile.
They slipped the duster onto his right arm and over the injured left, buttoning it around him to add extra support to his arm. Then, with Vin at his back, Larabee managed to pull himself up into the saddle. With a groan, he settled onto the broad back of his black gelding, eyes closed as he fought off nausea and the encroaching darkness. He was surprised when he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see that Tanner had mounted his own horse.
Larabee managed a nod. “Let’s ride.”
They moved at a mile eating pace, mindful of not only Larabee’s condition, but the horses as well. The other two men found themselves only slightly surprised when Chris managed to keep up. The reins were wrapped loosely around his forearm, his right hand clamped around the saddle horn so tight that the veins along the back stood out in stark relief.
They stopped just as the sun reached the top of the sky, drawing their horses to a halt beside a small spring. Larabee looked to see that both his friends were waiting for him at Pony’s side. With a groan, he managed to pull his foot out of the stirrup and over the broad back, all but falling to the ground. Four strong hands took hold of him, and guided him to stand between them. He felt himself led across the thick prairie grass and settled beneath a big tree.
Blinking back the tears of pain, the blond managed to open his eyes to find that Vin had settled in beside him. The sharpshooter offered him a drink from the canteen, letting him lean against his shoulder as he managed a few sips of water.
Helping Larabee settle back against the tree, Tanner surveyed the bigger man. He shook his head at the pale, pain pinched features, the way the broad chest heaved, the air coming out of slightly parted lips in a wheeze. “Yer a mess.”
“Thanks,” Chris managed as he pushed himself up straighter against the smooth bark.
“Let me take a look at him,” Jackson broke in.
The Texan moved aside, going to take care of the animals, build a fire, and to put together a quick dinner for them. When he returned, Nathan had checked the wound and managed to get the man in black to stretch out beneath the tree. They ate a meal of hardtack and jerky, using the fire to heat coffee and steep one of the healer’s herbal teas. Larabee refused it until both men assured him that it wouldn’t put him out, but only ease the pain.
Chris had gathered a little strength while they rested, and was anxious to return to the trail. The thought of young Billy Travis in danger gave him the resolve to sit his saddle through the long afternoon hours. Both his strength and resolve gave way to an unrelenting weariness by the time the sun touched the Western horizon, however. As they drew to a halt in a little valley, Nathan and Vin all but carried Chris to where they would set up camp.
As twilight gathered, they had a fire going, dinner cooking, and Larabee wrapped in all three of their bedrolls. Vin was settled in beside the fire, stirring beans, when Jackson knelt down on the other side. Tanner grinned as he saw the healer add some laudanum to the mug he was fixing for Chris.
“He needs to rest if we’ve got any hope of him bein’ able to sit the saddle tomorrow,” Jackson said defensively.
“Y’ ain’t gonna git an argument from me,” Vin said simply. Then he said, “I’m gonna head out at moonrise, see what I can find out. Don’t reckon they’re more than ten miles or so ahead of us.”
“What’re you gonna do if you find ‘m?”
Shrugging, Tanner said, “I’ll know that when I git there. If I can git Billy loose, I will. Otherwise, I’ll figger out how we can do it together.”
Taking a deep breath and letting it out before he spoke, Jackson said, “Can’t say I like either option.”
“Well, y’ can thank the bastard that took Billy fer that. If he’d jist rode out, we wouldn’t be out here hopin’ Chris don’t fall over dead.” There was anger and tension in the normally soft drawl.
He woke to darkness, feeling something damp and cool sliding across his forehead and down along his jaw to cool his throat. The tip of his tongue pierced the tight seal that held his lips together, running along the dry flesh as he attempted to ask for water. To his surprise, he felt his head and shoulders lifted up to rest against something at once soft and strong. Cool metal was pressed against his mouth and he greedily drew in the cold water.
Nathan monitored the amount of water the weakened blond took in, pulling the mug away every so often to make certain Larabee didn’t get sick. When he judged that the other man had had enough, he set the mug aside and began to lower the pain-wracked body to the ground. Chris stopped him, grabbing at the healer’s sleeve. He looked down to see fever bright eyes staring up at him.
“We… we… gotta go.”
“Chris, you need to rest. It’s night, we’ve gotta wait for the sun – “
“Gotta… gotta go… please. Can’t let him… die.”
Stroking back the sweat-soaked hair from the pale forehead, Jackson said, “we’re not gonna let him die. You need to rest though, get your strength so you’re ready to go after ‘m in the morning.”
“Now… go now. Can’t wait for… for d-day…light.”
“Vin’s lookin’ for them. He’ll come back soon and tell us where we need to go as soon as it’s light enough.”
Blond brows drawing down in a frown, the gunslinger breathed, “Vin?”
“Yeah, now you rest easy, he’s takin’ care of things.”
“No… I… gotta go… gotta…” Larabee sighed, going limp in the bigger man’s arms.
Jackson’s fingers pressed against the long neck, grimly satisfied that the black clad man was still breathing. Carefully he lowered him back to the bedroll, tucking the blankets around the trembling shoulders. Taking up the kerchief he was using, the former stretcher bearer returned to his job of trying to cool the fevered man down.
Vin rode back into the camp just as the morning sun was washing away the blackness of the night sky. He dropped wearily from the saddle and shuffled over to the fire. He knelt beside the low flames, pouring himself a mug of coffee. A few minutes later he tossed the dregs into the grass and dropped the metal container to the ground. Stretching his arms, fingers woven together, above his head, he tried to ease the ache in his lower back.
Nathan heard a soft grunt, brown eyes snapping open to check the sleeping man beside him. Then he focused on the slender form silhouetted in the pre-dawn light. In a sleepy voice he muttered, “you find him?”
Nodding, Tanner said, “’bout six-seven miles ahead. Hole up in a box canyon. Feller’s horse pulled up lame, so reckon they ain’t goin’ nowhere fer a day or two.”
“You couldn’t get to Billy?”
Shaking his head, the sharpshooter heaved a sigh. “He’s keepin’ him real close. We’re gonna have t’ distract the sum’bitch before we can git Billy away from him.”
“I’ll do… it.”
The other two men looked to see that Chris was awake, trying to push himself off the ground. Resigned, the healer helped him up, leaning the blond back against the tree. Glassy, unfocused eyes blinked in an effort to clear his vision, and his breathing slowly calmed. In a rough whisper, the gunman said, “I’ll c-call him… out. Dis… distract him.”
Nathan was ready to argue when a soft drawl interrupted him. “Thats what I figgered we could do. Y’ keep him busy and give me and Nathan a chance t’ slip in over the side of the canyon and look fer a chance t’ git Billy away.”
“Let’s ride,” Larabee said.
Aaron Billings wasn’t certain of what to do next. He had grabbed the little boy without thinking using him as a shield should they come after him. But here they were a day later, with no sign of pursuit, and he still had the kid.
The kid and a lame horse, he amended. He cursed in the direction of the animal, ready to shoot the damn thing save for the fact that it was the only way out of the empty prairie land. He’d have to hole up in the little canyon he’d been lucky enough to find, and wait for the big animal to heal. In the meantime he’d have to pray that no one came after them, or that they wouldn’t find his trail, or that they wouldn’t even miss the kid. His own childhood experiences led the man to bank on the idea that no one would miss the boy. He himself had walked away from home at the age of twelve, and no one had ever come looking. Kids were unimportant and replaceable.
Watching the little boy, Billings decided that this one certainly wasn’t worth much. He was small and had neither said a word nor responded to the few questions he’d asked. Aaron had decided the child must be deaf and dumb. Even the tears he wept off and on were silent.
Through the wash of tears, Billy Travis watched his kidnapper. The man wasn’t very big and didn’t seem to be especially smart. He didn’t seem to be special in any way. Certainly not important enough to have killed Chris Larabee.
The river of tears flowed faster as the little boy’s mind replayed the events of the day before.
He remembered being grabbed up, forced onto the back of a horse, and held there by this stranger. He remembered seeing Chris leap from behind an upright and head toward them. He had smiled, knowing it would be all right. Then his smile disappeared with an anguished cry, the sound drowned out by the roar of a gun. Time seemed to slow as his friend and hero flew backward, blood spraying into the air as he fell.
The sight of the blond gunman lying still on the boardwalk burned through his young brain. It was accompanied by a voice in his head that cried out over and over again, “it’s your fault. Chris is dead because of you. It’s your fault.”
Billings looked on dispassionately as the little boy curled up into a ball, the silent tears streaming down his face.
They were on the trail before the sun had moved from its perch on the distant hills, Chris clinging gamely to the saddle as he rode between his two friends. From time to time one or the other of them would reach out a hand to steady him as the weariness and blood loss threatened to send him crashing to the ground.
He was surprised when his horse stopped. Opening his eyes, he found Vin standing on the ground before him, one hand holding Pony’s bridle. “Vin… we gotta… go.”
“Jist hold up there, pard. We’re gonna need y’ rested a bit, don’t wan’cha fallin’ outta the saddle before y’ even git there.”
“I’m – “
“Don’cha dare try sayin’ yer fine, 'cause y’ ain’t. Now, git yer ass down off of that horse and git some rest. I’m gonna scout ‘round and see what’s goin’ on in there,” Tanner canted his head toward the nearby canyon mouth.
Surrendering, Larabee allowed himself to be lifted from the saddle and carried between the other two men. He sighed as he was lowered to the ground, the thick grass cool against his fevered body.
Jackson looked up at the tracker, seeing the concern in the wide blue eyes. “You go on and see what you can find out, I’ll take care of him.”
“He gonna…” Tanner wouldn’t finish the sentence.
“Stubborn fool’s hangin’ on… I ain’t sure how. I’ll see to him while you figure out a way to rescue Billy.”
Nodding, Vin touched the brim of his had and moved away. Seconds later he was riding toward the canyon.
Jackson turned from watching the sharpshooter, his attention fully on his friend. He carefully moved aside the duster and the shirt below it, pulling back the thick pad of bloodied cloth. He frowned and shook his head as he saw the redness and swelling that announced an infection. As soon as they got the boy back, he would need to purge the wound. Gently he lifted the semi-conscious man into his arms, helping him to drink from the canteen.
Larabee sighed his pleasure, savoring each drop that rolled down his parched throat. Managing to peel open green hazel eyes, he met the brown ones of the healer. “Thanks.”
“Don’t you go thankin’ me, Chris Larabee. When this is all over, I’m tyin’ you down in a bed for a week and you’re not gonna so much as think about movin’. You got me?”
Managing a wry smile, the blond said, “Got… you.”
They spent the time in near silence, Chris far too tired for conversation and Nathan far too frustrated. He understood the other man’s devotion to the Travis boy, he even applauded it. But for him to put his life on the line like this… Jackson shook his head. Damn stubborn fool. He should be back in town, resting. The last place he needed to be was out here on the prairie.
Tanner returned to where his friends waited just over an hour later. He pulled himself out of the saddle and came to squat on his haunches beside the other two men. “They’re still there. Fella must be feelin’ a bit safer than he did earlier, he’s not hangin’ onto Billy like he was earlier. Reckon y’ might be able t’ coax ‘im out, Chris. I’m thinkin’ we can stay up top and keep a bead on the fella… might get lucky enough t’ git off a shot pretty quick… save us all some wear and tear.”
Larabee managed a nod, reaching out to grab at his friend’s arm. When they saw he was trying to pull himself up, the other two men moved to help, carefully lifting him to his feet. The long, black clad legs buckled and they took all of the slender man’s weight between them. They got him onto Pony’s back, holding onto him as he struggled to gain his balance. They decided to leave their own horses behind, not wanting the sound of several horses to alert the man. Vin and Nathan walked on either side of him as far as they could, leaving him only when they had no choice. Then, with a backward glance to make certain Larabee was still in the saddle, the two men ran full out toward the canyon side.
Chris watched his friends move away, knowing he was truly on his own now. He pulled himself up ramrod straight, gritting his teeth against the pain. With a breathless cluck, he guided the big gelding forward.
It seemed to take an eternity to move that quarter mile alone. He forced himself to sit bolt upright, even though pain shot through him with every step the big animal took. He clamped his teeth down on the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood, but didn’t dare let up for fear of crying out.
Finally the mouth of the canyon came into view. He rode to the edge, and forced enough breath into his lungs to call out, “hello the camp!”
Aaron Billings’ head shot up and he stared wildly toward the entrance to his hiding place. His eyes went wide as he saw the imposing figure of a man all dressed in black, sitting astride a black horse. He had just decided that he was facing the devil, when a little voice cried out behind him.
He turned so see his captive climbing to his feet, a smile pasted across his little face.
“Billy… stay put!” Larabee’s voice was wavering as he pleaded with the child.
Obeying immediately, young Travis stood where he was. His eyes went wide as he saw the man who’d grabbed him wheel around and start in his direction. Then the sound of a bullet rang out, followed closely by the deep boom of a shotgun. He screamed as a large portion of his captor’s head disappeared, replaced by bloody gore.
Aaron Billings dropped to the ground, dead.
Managing to get his Colt back into the holster, the blond urged his horse forward. As he drew near to where the little blond stood, pale and trembling, he found the strength to dismount. In a voice rough with both pain and emotion, he said, “Billy.”
Young Travis registered the voice and turned toward the sound. He smiled, and cried out, “Chris!”
As the child ran to greet him, Larabee’s legs gave out and he sank to the ground. His right arm reached out, gathering the little boy to him. Holding Billy close, Chris felt hot tears threatening to spill, but did nothing to stop them. Rocking slightly, he cried, holding the child tight. “You okay? Billy… did he hurt you?”
“I’m okay. Chris, I s-saw you… saw you get shot. I thought… thought you were d-dead. I’m so sorry… I didn’t mean for you to get hurt.”
“Wh-what? No… no… not your… f-fault.” The big man slumped over, the last of his energy deserting him. Billy tried to hold him, but the heavy weight of the limp body was too much for him. Larabee dropped to the ground, unconscious.
“Chris? Chris? CHRIS!” The little boy cried out.
“Billy… son, it’s okay. Move back and let us tend him.”
The small child was gently moved aside as the other two peacekeepers lifted the injured man into their arms and carried him to where the dead man’s bedroll still lay. Lowering him to the ground, Vin helped Nathan strip him to the waist, then carried water to the fire to warm. It was only then that he moved back to where Billy still stood.
Dropping to his knees, Tanner said, “you okay, Billy?”
He nodded, dark eyes focused on the broad chest that quivered as Larabee fought for each breath. He barely noticed then Vin lifted him up and carried him to the other side of the camp. As the sharpshooter lowered him to the ground, he whimpered and ran across to where the blond lay. Skidding to a stop, he couldn’t help but see the pus speckled blood that was being forced from the awful wound. Crying out, he felt himself lifted into the air.
Tanner lifted the little blond into his arms, turning him away from the gruesome sight. The child’s arms wrapped around his neck, the tousled head pressed against his shoulder. Holding him close, the Texan ran a hand through the thick head of hair, then rubbed the tiny, quivering back. “’S okay, pard. Nathan’s lookin’ after ‘im. He’ll be up ‘n about in no time.”
“My fault… it’s my fault he’s hurt,” Billy whispered, his face still pressed against the wide shoulder.
“What? Nah, it ain't yer fault at tall,” the lanky hunter tried his best to reassure the child. “That bas– that fool that grabbed y’s t’ blame fer Chris bein’ hurt.”
Shaking his head, young Travis said, “No… it’s my fault. He… he was tryin’ to get me… tryin’ to save me. It’s my fault.”
Heaving a sigh, Tanner realized that only one person would ever be able to convince the little boy of his innocence. He just prayed that his friend would recover to do just that.
The day passed without any of them noticing. Nathan spent his time purging the infection from the bullet wound and making poultices to cover the ragged hole. He bathed the blonde’s fevered brow, talking softly to him as he fought to keep the gunman from succumbing to his injury.
Vin disposed of the ruined carcass of one Aaron Billings. Wrapping the man’s own coat around his broken and bloodied head, he dragged the body off. He returned sometime later, digging up the gore soaked earth and turning it so the wildlife in the vicinity wouldn’t catch the scent. That done, he brought Peso and Able in from where they had been ground-tied, moving them to where Pony and the bank robber’s lame mount were eating the rich grass. Leaving once more, he returned in the late afternoon, a brace of dressed out rabbits in hand.
Billy spent the time sitting beside his friend, watching the pale, pain-etched face for signs of the man waking up. He continued to shoulder the burden of guilt for Larabee’s injury, convinced that something he had done was responsible for the fact that the man was fighting for his life.
They fed Chris laudanum-laced herbal teas, Nathan declaring that the more deeply he slept the better it would be for him. They also tried to feed him broth and a few bites of rabbit, but the blond was too weak to manage much of the offered dinner. Finally he succumbed to the effects of the opiate and drifted into a deep sleep.
The chills came, the lean body shivering uncontrollably. They wrapped him in all the bedrolls and built up the fire, but still he felt the cold. Nathan fed him whiskey, warmed by the fire, to try and warm him from the inside.
The two men took turns sitting with the injured man, bathing his face and neck, and feeding him as much liquid as he could manage. The night passed as unnoticed as the day had, as they fought to keep their friend among the living.
Nathan removed the poultices, purged the wound and covered it with a new mixture of herbs every hour or two. He managed to get Vin to stretch out beside the fire to catch a few hours of sleep, but had no such luck with their other companion. Billy refused to do anything but sit beside Chris, watching every move and listening to every fevered sound the man made. He ate a few bites of food, drank a little of the water, but otherwise simply sat there, unmoving.
The following day passed much as the previous one had. They watched the blond struggle for each breath, and tensed until he drew another. They listened to the weak groans that escaped slack lips when the sides of the wound were pressed to force blood to carry the infection from Larabee’s shoulder. They felt the fever that poured from the trembling body, baking the life from the man.
Another night drew near. Jackson breathed a sigh of relief as the blood welled up from the wound clear. Pressing another poultice against Chris’ shoulder, he drew the blankets back up over him. With the infection gone, he hoped the fever would break soon. Looking across to where Billy sat vigil, he said, “You need to get some sleep, son.”
Shaking his head, the child said, “I’m all right.”
“Billy, you haven’t slept hardly at all,” he remembered watching the child simply drop to his side from time to time, sleeping an hour or two at the most before nightmares would bring him awake with a start. “If you’re gonna help out when he wakes up, you’re gonna need your rest.”
There was a hint of hope in the small voice as he said, “When will that be, Nathan? When’s he gonna wake up?”
Unable to lie to the child, the former slave said, “I’m not for certain, Billy, but if we can break the fever and let him get some true rest, it’ll help an awful lot.”
“I can fetch some water,” young Travis offered, pushing himself wearily to his feet.
“No, now you just sit back down. Vin brought us plenty of water from the spring.”
“But… I want to help,” there was a note of pleading in his voice.
Smiling, Jackson said, “best thing you can do is just let him know you’re here and safe.”
The little boy moved closer to his friend and reached out with one hand. Touching the lax palm of the big man, he pressed his hand into it. Looking up at the unconscious man, he said softly, “I’m here, Chris. I’m okay. You just rest now and it’s gonna be all right.”
Jackson could only watch as the long fingers twitched. Then, slowly, they curled up and wrapped themselves around the tiny hand. Billy looked up at him then, an expression of relief etched on his cherubic face.
It was late afternoon the next day before the gunman’s fever broke. As the heat began to leave his body, unfocused eyes blinked open, settling at half-mast. Nathan had given in to his own need for rest, so the blond looked into a pair of wide blue eyes peering down at him.
Vin grinned, “’bout time y’ opened them eyes. We’d ‘bout decided you were gonna sleep like that fella Josiah told us the story ‘bout… Rip Van… um… “
“Winkle,” Larabee rasped out. Then he felt something in pressed against his hand and managed to turn his head. Frowning when he saw Billy lying beside him, huddled inside Tanner’s coat, he managed, “he... okay?”
“Yep, just plum wore out. He’s been sittin’ right there most a the time since y’ rescued ‘im. Wouldn’t move away… wouldn’t hardly eat or sleep.”
With a sigh, the blond turned back. His lids suddenly seemed to weigh a ton each, and he let them droop closed. Running the edge of his tongue along his lips, he asked, “water?”
“Sure enough.” The Texan retrieved a canteen, carefully lifted the blond up to rest against his arm, and slowly fed him the water. Lowering his friend back to the ground, he rested his hand against the slowly cooling forehead.
“Practicing for… Na… Nathan’s job?” The weary eyes slanted open as he teased, their glassy surfaces glittering not only with fever but with mirth.
“Hell no. I ain’t got the patience t’ nursemaid this bunch a mule-headed fools.”
“You remember that next time you get hurt, Vin Tanner.” Jackson had been pulled from sleep by the quiet conversation and had come to check on his patient.
“Ah hell,” the sharpshooter groused, shaking his head as he moved aside to allow the healer to tend the injured man.
Billy blinked open his eyes, surprised to find that it was evening. He realized that something was different. Flexing his hand, he realized that it wasn’t entwined around the blonde’s. Jumping up with a start, he looked around with panic-widened eyes. “Chris?”
“Take it easy, kid, he’s right here.”
Travis saw the tracker then moved his gaze to where he was pointing. He saw Chris a few feet away, his upper body reclining against a pile of saddles and saddle blankets. The blond had been bathed, his hair wet and combed back, and he was wearing a fresh shirt. Billy's shocked gaze traveled upward, and he smiled as he realized that the injured man was looking back at him.
The little boy scurried across the ground, stopping only when Tanner reached out and snagged him. “Whoa there pard. Chris ain’t quite up t’ bein’ wrestled.”
“It’s okay,” the blond said, his voice barely audible. He reached out toward the grinning child. “Come here.”
The little boy moved carefully, mindful of the man’s weakened state. Dropping down beside the pale man, he found himself wrapped in a warm embrace. With a relieved giggle, he settled against the broad chest.
Chris gently rubbed his hand along the tiny arm, dropping his head to rest against the thick blond hair. With a relieve sigh, he whispered, “You’re okay.”
“I’m okay, Chris. I… I’m sorry.” Overcome with emotion, the traumatized child began to sob. “I’m didn’t mean for you… to get hurt.”
“Course you didn’t,” Larabee agreed. “Billy, it’s not your fault. You’ve got to… believe me. It’s not… your… fault.”
“But… you were trying to protect me. You got shot because – “
“Because he was gonna… hurt you.”
“But, he shot you! You could have died, and it’s all my fault!”
Stroking a hand through the thick head of hair, Larabee said, “If I had died… it would be worth it. You’re worth… it, Billy.”
The little boy buried his face into the broad chest, sobbing as he came to terms with the man’s words. Larabee continued to run his hand along the little head and back, doing his best to calm the child. Finally, his already depleted energy spent, he leaned heavily against the saddles. His eyes slid closed and he drifted toward sleep. His arm stayed where it was, however, wrapped comfortingly around the child.
They stayed in the canyon through another day, giving Larabee time to rest and recover some of his strength. As another day dawned, they prepared to leave for home. Larabee was helped in the saddle by the other two peacekeepers, while Billy was lifted into the saddle of the dead man’s horse.
The quartet rode slowly, stopping frequently to allow the gunman a chance to rest. What had taken them two days to travel before, took them three on the return journey. Despite the slow pace and frequent stops, Chris’ was worn out by the time the little town came into view.
As they rode down the dusty street, the young sheriff jogged down the boardwalk toward him. On his heels they saw the pretty young newspaper editor. Mary Travis called out to her son as she came to his side. Reaching up, she pulled her child down into her arms, holding him tight.
With tears in her eyes, she looked up into the drawn and haggard face of the gunman. “Thank you, Chris. Thank you so much!”
Managing a smile, the exhausted man nodded. Then he allowed his friends to help him from the saddle. Slumping between them, he stumbled along toward his room. They guided him up the stairs inside the boarding house, and settled him into his bed. Jackson checked him over, leaving when he was satisfied that the blond was all right. Tanner stayed, slouching in the chair to watch over his friend.
Chris settled into the pillow beneath his head, sighing contentedly. Slowly his eyes closed as the sounds of the little town drifted up to him from below. As he did, he felt the fires of anger and fear finally doused as he fell into a peace-filled sleep.
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