Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner rode in silence along the trail that the tracker had picked up the day before. Both men wore grim expressions, and moved with a single-minded purpose. They were bent on finding the lone member of an outlaw gang that had come to Four Corners, intent on robbing the bank. Instead of getting rich though, five of the nine men had died during a gun battle with the seven peacekeepers and three more were in jail. The final outlaw had managed to escape their guns, but not before sealing his fate as far as the Chris Larabee and the others were concerned.
It was an image that had burned into Larabee’s mind, one that would haunt him for long nights to come. Looking up from where he had taken cover, he watched one of the outlaws riding hell-bent-for-leather down the street. Then, his heart leapt into his throat as he saw a tiny body crouched behind a nearby horse trough. Before he could react, Billy Travis bolted from cover, only to be thrown roughly back against the trough by the fleeing horse. Chris could hear Mary’s screams as she rushed toward her son’s crumpled body. He had been close behind, heedless of any threat of danger. All he saw was Billy lying there, as still as death.
He and Vin had waited just long enough to hear Nathan’s verdict on the child’s health. A concussion, fractured ribs and a broken arm would keep the Billy down for a while, but he would recover. That joyous news had done little to curb the blond’s anger, though. With Tanner at his side, he had ridden out of town, bent on bringing the spineless bastard, who had injured Mary Travis’ only child, to justice.
Jerking at the sharp tone in the sharpshooter’s voice, Larabee turned to his friend. “What?”
“Damn, pard, where were y’? Called y’ four times already.”
Shaking his head, Chris said only, “sorry.” He cursed himself for becoming distracted. Even with Vin watching his back, such a lapse of concentration could be deadly out on the open trial like this.
“There’s a spring right over yonder. We need t’ rest the horses a bit.”
Reluctantly, the gunman nodded, following his friend toward the water. Vin picked up the signs that the outlaw had been at the spring only an hour or two earlier. Chris was immediately ready to return to the trail.
“Hold on there pard. We’re gonna rest th’ horses for a while, and I could use a few minutes outta the saddle myself.” Pausing in the face of the hazel-green glare, Vin continued, “ain’t gonna do y’ no good t’ be pissed off at me, Larabee. We either take a break, or we end up on foot before it’s over . Don’t know about you, but I’d just as soon not keep ridin' in this heat.”
Huffing his displeasure at either alternative, the blond took their canteens and strode off to the other side of the spring. Uncapping the containers, Larabee stepped into the mushy grass at the water’s edge to re-fill the canteens.
Vin jumped at the sound of the pain-filled scream, his mare's leg clearing leather as he turned toward the source of the cry. “Chris!”
Larabee lay on the ground, writhing in pain. He heard Tanner call his name as he hurried toward him, but could do nothing more than moan as lightening bolts of agony shot upward from his right leg.
“Chris?” Tanner knelt next to his friend, one hand on the trembling shoulder, as he surveyed the area for signs of an attack. “What happened?”
“Leg,” Larabee managed to grate out as he grasped the limb just below the knee.
Sliding his hand along the black-clad leg, Vin found the heavy jaws of a steel trap clamped firmly between Chris’ ankle and shin. “Shit.” Laying his shotgun aside, he reached back beneath the water. Finding the heavy chain that tethered the evil device to the muddy bank, he dug the weighted end out, allowing him to lift the trap from the water. Then, grasping the injured leg above and below the metal jaws, he coaxed Chris backwards, swinging the limb onto the grass.
Larabee tasted blood as he bit his tongue to keep from screaming again. Stars danced through his darkening vision as the pain soared through his body. Voicing a single moan, he collapsed back on the ground. Chest heaving, he heard nothing but his own straining breath and his heart pounding in his ears. Feeling a hand on his shoulder, he managed to force his eyes open. Tanner was hovering over him, concern flooding his features.
“Chris, I’ve gotta get this damned thing off y’.” Larabee nodded and he continued, “it’s gonna hurt like hell, pard.”
“A-ain’t...st-stopped...y..et,” he grated out through clenched teeth.
Managing a smile through the worry, the younger man said, “reckon it ain’t. All right, listen to me then. I’m gonna open this damned thing. When I do, I want y' to pull yer leg out. Can y’ do that?”
“Reckon not. Ready?”
“Hell no.” Despite his words, the blond managed to sit up with the other man’s help, and placed his hands on either side of his injured leg. With a nod, he signaled the other man that he was set.
Slipping a heavy tree limb between the metal jaws, Tanner forced the trap open. As he did, the injured man pulled the leg loose, screaming as the mangled limb moved. Even as he eased his broken leg to the ground, Larabee lost consciousness.
Vin hurriedly made an assessment of the injury. He wasn’t a healer, but he had more than a passing acquaintance with traps and the damage they could do to flesh and bone. Blood oozed through the splits in the boot, staining the ruined pants leg. It was bad, but could have been much worse. The heavyweight material and the thick leather of the boot had taken the brunt of the trap’s assault. Bringing the horses around the spring, he retrieved the saddlebags and dropped them next to the unconscious blond.
Taking advantage of the situation while Chris was still out, Vin tended to his wounds. Splitting the ruined pants from hem to knee, he pulled the pants leg out of the way. Then came the task of getting the boot off the injured leg. Glancing up, Vin saw by the laxness of the man’s face, only hinting at feeling much pain, that he was still out. Even unconscious, though, Larabee cried out as his boot was removed, his body arching against the pain. Dropping the bloody thing to the ground, he followed it quickly with the ruined sock.
Vin soaked a kerchief in whiskey and wrapped it around the line of gashes that marked the pale skin. Making a fire near Larabee, then rummaging through the saddlebags, as well the nearby countryside, Tanner found the material to make a splint. As he laid everything out on the rich carpet of grass, he saw a pair of glassy eyes scanning the clouds above them. Moving into his friend’s line of vision, he forced a smile to hide the concern he felt.
“’Bout time you woke up, cowboy.”
Managing a faint smile, the blond started to move, crying out as his right leg shifted painfully. “H-how bad?”
Gripping the broad shoulder gently, Vin answered, “reckon you’ll live. Got some cuts, and the leg’s broken.” He finished with, “I’m gonna clean the cuts and splint your leg. Soon’s you’re feelin’ up to it, we’ll get y' back t’ town so Nathan can take care of it proper.”
“No,” Larabee’s body tensed as a wave of pain passed through him. “Fi...fix it, then we’re goin’ on.”
“Larabee, you’re talkin’ crazy. Even if we went right to the bastard, it’d be nightfall before we come up on ‘im. It’s gonna take us two days t’ get back t’ town now, y’ don’t need t’ be in the saddle as long as that.”
“You go back...if you want to. Sonofabitch could have killed Billy...he...he ain’t gonna get away with it.”
Sighing, Vin sat back on his heels, staring around the countryside before returning a blue-eyed gaze back to his friend. His voice was soft as he said, “look Chris, I know how y’ feel ‘bout the boy. I’m pissed off ‘bout that snake hurtin’ him too, but I ain’t gonna sit by and let y' maim yourself over all this. I’ll get y' back t’ town, then come back out after the bastard.”
Shaking his head, Larabee said, “no. I’m taking him down.”
“Damn it! I’ll bring ‘m back ‘n let y' shoot ‘im down in the middle of town. Will that satisfy y’?” Vin’s voice lowered to a harsh growl.
Larabee glared, but didn’t say any more. In truth he wasn’t certain he could, as the shock of the injury, coupled with the physical damage itself, and sapped his strength.
Tanner saw that the torn and broken leg was winning his argument for him. Heating the water in one of the canteens beside the fire, he gently washed the torn flesh. Grateful that the wounds had stopped bleeding, he carefully covered each with one of Nathan’s salves. Then came the chore he dreaded, setting the broken leg. Readying the things he had set aside for a splint, he touched the blond’s shoulder. Pain-filled eyes flashed open, working to focus on him.
“Chris, I’m gettin’ ready t’ set your leg.” Knotting a kerchief, he offered it to the other man to bite down on.
Taking the cloth, Larabee put it in his mouth with a trembling hand. Eyes focused on his friend, he signaled his readiness with a short nod. As Vin knelt at his feet, he pressed the heel of his left boot against his friend’s knee to anchor himself. Pressing himself against the ground rigidly, he took a deep breath.
Pulling in a deep breath himself, Vin grasped the injured leg and pulled with a quick, precise, movement. The scream that split the air was muffled, but still painful to hear. Looking up, he watched the blond collapse to the ground, eyes rolling back in his head beneath sweat-soaked strands of hair. Quickly wrapping the leg with another whiskey-soaked cloth, he positioned the rough splints and bound them with more cloth. That finished, he moved to sit next to Chris’ shoulder. Removing the knotted cloth from the slack mouth, he dampened another cloth and wiped the perspiration from the blond’s face. Finding the man’s flask among the other items littering their impromptu campsite, he slipped an arm beneath Larabee’s shoulders and lifted him up.
“Chris, can y’ hear me?” Rewarded by a soft groan, he continued, “take a drink pard.” Slowly dribbling the whiskey into the opened mouth, he watched Larabee swallow a few mouths full of the liquor. Taking the flask away, he lowered the blond back to the ground.
Slowly, Larabee’s eyes blinked open, managing to focus on his friend’s face. “You done?”
Shaking his head at the resolve that quickly replaced pain on the handsome face, Tanner said, “yeah, I’m done.”
“Let’s ride then.” He struggled, managing to push himself up onto his elbows. Vertigo threatened to send him crashing back to the ground, but Larabee fought against it and remained upright.
Grousing under his breath, Vin hurriedly re-packed the supplies. “Look, y’ stubborn fool, we’ll ride all right. But, we’re ridin’ back t’ town so Nathan can fix y’ up proper.”
“It’s only a broken leg, Tanner, and I’m not planning to walk after the bastard. I’ll be fine long enough to catch him, then we’ll go straight back to town.” The speech, long-winded for Larabee on a good day, threatened to send the man back to oblivion. Breathing deeply in an effort to fight off the descending darkness, he waited for the other man to continue the argument.
The argument was not forthcoming. Vin stared at the injured blond, knowing in his heart how important it was for Chris to do this. The Travis family had been part of the group of people Larabee had begrudgingly allowed into his wounded heart. Billy Travis had claimed a special place in Chris’ life. A patchwork of images crossed Tanner’s mind; of the little boy and the hardened gunslinger. In each of those memories, Vin saw one thing; the softening of the older man’s features. If it was that important to Larabee...
“All right, y’ blamed fool. We’ll go after the damned bad guy, an’ take ‘m back t’ town. You end up with a crippled leg, though, I don’t ever wanna hear y' complainin’; and I ain’t pickin’ your ass up when y’ fall on yer face.”
Smiling, Chris simply nodded.
Bringing the black gelding right next to his friend, Vin helped Larabee up. He felt the grip on his shoulder intensify, and held onto the other man patiently until the nausea passed. While the older man clung to the saddle and got his left foot into the stirrup, the sharpshooter held the broken leg carefully. Between the two of them, they managed to get the blond into the saddle, where he swayed precariously for a full minute.
Wiping the sweat from his face, Chris took a deep breath and managed to quell the onslaught of shock and pain. Looking up, he saw Tanner beside him, slouched in his big black’s saddle. Hooded blue eyes assessed him as no other could. Straightening himself on the broad black back, Larabee said, “let’s go.
As the day wore on, Chris rallied to a point that it was easy to forget his injury most of the time. Then, a pained look would cross his handsome features, revealing exactly how much pain he was in. The sun was beginning to descend in the afternoon sky when Vin called to him.
“What?” Chris looked around them, assessing for danger.
“Got a town over yonder,” he nodded toward the horizon.
“He heading that way?” Larabee strained his eyes, barely able to make out the small cluster of buildings in the distance.
“Nope, he’s headin’ the other way,” Tanner canted his head toward the single set of tracks. “Reckon he’s either avoidin’ towns, or he didn’t see it.”
“Then, let’s go,” Chris coaxed Pony toward their elusive prey.
“Best we see if there’s a doctor, get y' fixed up proper, head out again in the mornin’.”
Shaking his head no, the other man said, “later. We get him first.”
Cursing, Vin rode forward, taking the lead to track the outlaw. They rode until nightfall, only stopping when he was able to convince the other man that he wouldn’t be able to track him during the coming, moonless night. Promising that they would be on the trail again at first light, Tanner managed to coax him out of the saddle.
Chris groaned as he slid from his horse, kept from crumbling to the ground only by a pair of strong hands. Wrapping an arm around the tracker’s shoulders, he hopped the few steps to where Vin helped him settle on the ground. Leaning back against a tree trunk, he scrubbed a rough hand across his face.
Taking care of the horses quickly, the younger man brought one of the saddles over. Gently lifting Chris’ injured leg, he rested it atop the leather. Carefully probing at the splint, he saw some blood staining the cloth but it was only a small amount, and long dried. Looking up, he caught the unguarded pain in the pale face. Offering up a look of compassion, he said, “want yer flask?”
Retrieving his saddlebags, the ex-bounty hunter produced a bottle of whiskey. “Figgered this‘d cut the chill of the night.”
Accepting the bottle gratefully, the gunman smiled and drained off a healthy amount. Setting it on the ground beside him, he watched as Vin quickly set up camp for the night. Soon the smell of beans and coffee filled the little glade, and Chris found himself dozing as the whiskey worked its magic. It seemed to be only a minute or so before he was awakened by a gentle hand on his shoulder. Looking up, he saw Tanner studying him.
“I’m okay, Vin.”
“Dinner’s ready,” Tanner said, ignoring the man’s disclaimer. He handed his friend a plate, heaped up with beans and dried beef, a thick biscuit perched on the shallow rim. Settling in near by, he took up his own plate and the two men ate in silence. Afterward he helped the blond settle into his blankets, making certain that the bottle of whiskey was close at hand. While Larabee drifted into a weary sleep, he banked the fire and sat watching the darkness.
Morning came too soon for the trail-weary man. Chris groaned and rubbed at the headache forming between his red-rimmed eyes. He stifled a cry as pain shot through his leg when he moved it. The limb felt twice its normal size, throbbing in concert with his heartbeat. He said nothing to his companion, knowing that Tanner would throw him across the saddle and force him back to town if he found out just how much he was hurting. Instead, he forced himself to eat, to take care of other morning concerns, and mount Pony almost as if he were fine. With Vin in the lead, he followed the tracker back to the trail.
It was mid-morning when the caught up with the outlaw. He was walking through the thick prairie grass, leading a limping horse. The two men smiled at their luck, riding slowly toward their quarry with guns in hand. The would be bank robber looked up with a start when he heard their approach. A single shot fired toward the sky sent his hands into the air.
“Take it easy fellas, I ain’t no threat a’tall.”
“Hell no, you’re no threat...not unless we were frightened little boys,” Larabee spit out.
The man blanched, realizing then who he was facing. “Now look, fellas, I didn’t mean t’ hurt no kid. He come outta no where –“
“Shut up,” Chris growled, “don’t need any of you excuses. We’re taking you back and you’re going to face that little boy, and his mama. Then you’ll face the territorial judge, who just happens to be his grandfather.”
If possible, the man’s face paled even more. “L-look, fe-fellas, my horse is lame, and I weren’t nothin’ but a look out. Can’t we work somethin’ out?”
“Sure,” Larabee said softly, with flint in his voice, “you can walk back to town, or – “ he stopped with a muffled groan, his gun wavering.
“Larabee?” Vin took his eyes from their prisoner, looking at his friend.
It was enough of a distraction for the outlaw, who mounted the injured animal and started to ride off. The sound of gunfire echoing through the air stopped him before he started, however. Turning, he saw the two men looking at him, twin glares on their faces. Slowly, he dropped back to the ground. “I-I know who y’are,” he nodded to Larabee. “Know I cain’t take y’ neither.”
“You know who I am?” Chris said lightly, with only a hint of pain in his voice. “Well, reckon you’ve heard of my reputation.” When the outlaw nodded, he continued. “Funny thing ‘bout that. I ain’t nearly as deadly as folks make out. See, if you try to pull a stupid stunt like that again, I will have to shoot you. Thing is, I’d try to just wing you or something, but my aim isn’t real good. I might just put a hole right between your eyes... on accident.”
“True,” Vin chimed in, trying to hide the smile on his face. “Man can’t hit the broad side of a barn with a shovel. And me? Well, hell, reckon I’m even worse. So, if you’ve a mind t’ try and escape again, just best y’ have your prayers said and yer peace made.”
The outlaw made no move. Covered by the man in black, the buffalo hunter climbed from his mount and disarmed the nervous man. Using his own rope, the peacekeeper tied his hands before him, then looped the line twice around the breathless chest. The other end was tied to the white-faced black’s saddlehorn, while the lame horse was tied to the black gelding.
Vin mounted Peso, gave the rope a tug to make certain it was secure, and started back the way they had just ridden. Chris brought up the rear, his focus on their prisoner.
As the day wore on, Vin grew more and more concerned about his friend. While he hid it, Larabee had to be in agony, both from the constant jarring of the ride, and from the way the leg dangled. Finally, despite the man’s glare, he called a halt. Leaving the blond in the saddle, he trussed their prisoner to a tree, then came to stand next to the big black. “C’mon cowboy, let’s git y' on the ground.”
“Damn it Vin, we’re losing daylight.”
“Better daylight than your leg, pard.”
The man in black mulled the words over for a minute, nodded curtly, and allowed himself to be helped from the saddle. He gasped as the injured leg bumped gently on the ground. Digging his fingers into the other man’s shoulders, he took a few trembling breaths before nodding that he was all right.
Rolling his eyes at the older man’s stubbornness, Tanner slipped a shoulder beneath that of the blond, slipping an arm around his narrow waist. Without a word he half-carried his friend to the shade of a tree, lowering him to the cool ground. One look at the swollen, faintly discolored, foot told him that Chris was in far more pain than he was letting on. Retrieving saddlebags and bedrolls, he used them to elevate the injured man’s right leg. Glancing up, he saw the waves of pain that crossed the handsome face. “You been told lately that you’re about the most stubborn s.o.b. t’ ever draw a breath?”
“Today... no,” Chris retorted.
“I must be slippin’ then,” Tanner shook his head mournfully. Leaving the blond to rest, he retrieved the nearly empty bottle of whiskey and brought it to him. Chris just shook his head.
“Bullshit. Way that foot’s lookin’, it’s a wonder y’ ain’t passed out before now.” Sitting the bottle near Larabee’s hand, he moved away to check on the horses and their prisoner. Returning several minutes later, he found the man slumped down with his head leaning back against the tree. “I’m gonna take a look at yer leg.”
Chris nodded, but didn’t move otherwise. He felt Vin carefully investigating the injured limb. He knew Vin was right; he could end up doing serious damage to himself if he didn’t take care of his leg. But, every time he considered that fact, he would see Billy Travis, lying on the ground, blood running from his mouth and from the cut on his head. He would see Mary, screaming in fear and outrage and bent over the tiny body protectively. And while those images battered against him, he would feel his heart pound fiercely, and the tiny voice in his mind saying, ‘no more.’ He wouldn’t fail to protect those he cared about again, and he would make damned certain that those who hurt them paid.
A hand on his shoulder brought him from his musings, and he looked up into Vin’s face. “What’s the verdict?”
“Swellin’s goin’ down a bit, but it’s still not lookin’ real good. Think it’s probably about another hour or two t’ the town we saw. You rest a bit, and we’ll head there fer the night.”
“Vin,” he began.
“We ride there, or we stay here tonight. Those are the options, pard. We can lock him over there up and see if they’ve got a doctor.”
“All right.” The resignation was thick in the soft voice.
They rode into the town just as the sun set, attracting the attention of the townsfolk who loitered along the boardwalk. Visitors were infrequent among them and a cause for scrutiny; the hands full of people found themselves with the fodder for gossip for the fortnight to come.
The man at the front of the dusty entourage, head to toe in black, sat almost too straight in the saddle, shoulders rigid and shadowed eyes staring straight ahead. The other two men behind him were just as curious. One was trussed up like a prize hog, stumbling along behind the man in black. The third man, lean, and dressed in buckskin, sat easily on a spirited black horse. He carried a sawed off shotgun that lay across his lap, keeping a wary eye on the bound man.
Nodding toward one group of bystanders, Vin said, “pardon me folks, but could y’ point us toward the doctor’s and the jail?”
One young woman, beguiled by the calm blue eyes that seemed to look right through her, said, “jail’s over yonder, but there ain’t no sheriff. He died a few months ago with the complaint. Doctor’s office is up at the end a the street, but Doc Wilson’s in the saloon. Cain’t say I’d trust ‘im t’ take out a splinter.”
Sighing, Tanner nonetheless touched the brim of his hat. Leaving Chris sitting on Pony, he quickly released their prisoner, who had finally identified himself as Clete Jessup. The sharpshooter released Jessup from Chris’ saddle and pushed him toward the rundown jail. Inside, he searched the spartan room, finally finding the keys to the single cell, dangling from the door’s lock. Shoving the cursing man into the filthy cage, he slammed the door, checking to make certain it actually locked before he dropped the key into his pocket.
“Y’ ain’t leavin’ me in this damn hog pen!” Jessup screamed.
“Shut up!” Vin growled, venting some of his frustration toward the angry criminal. “I’ll come back and take care of y’ later. I got more important things t’ worry about right now.”
Returning to the boardwalk, he glanced up at his friend. The blond’s face was pinched and waxen, his eyes glassy and filled with unspent tears. “Chris,” he said softly, taking up Pony’s reins, “let’s get y' down t’ the docs and see what we can do ‘bout that leg.”
Larabee nodded, wrapping his hands tightly around the saddle horn as Vin led his horse, along with Peso, toward the little ramshackle building the young woman had pointed out.
Tying the horses reins off, Vin reached up and helped the blond from the saddle. Getting him to the ground, he held onto the injured man while he worked to get his balance. The sharpshooter waited until Chris lifted his head, then helped him into the doctor’s office.
“Jee-sus,” Vin growled as he got his first look at what passed for a medical office. The room was littered with books, papers, and even instruments. Most disturbing was the number of empty whiskey bottles strewn around. A narrow bench, half-covered by a stained sheet, sat to one side. Stripping the sheet from the wood, Tanner eased Larabee to the bench. “Reckon the wood’s gotta be cleaner than that thing.”
“All right,” was the only answer Chris could manage.
Leaving Larabee where he was, Tanner rummaged around the filthy room. He found a small amount of laudanum and an unopened bottle of carbolic acid. There was nothing clean enough to use as fresh bandages; he would have to try and get some cloth from the dry goods store. As he headed toward the door it opened slowly. The young woman who had spoken to him earlier, appeared in the doorway.
“Miss,” he nodded.
Smiling shyly, she came farther into the room. “Name’s Mary Nell. Thought I’d best bring y’all some clean muslin. Knowing Doc, he ain’t got a thing in here fit t’ use if y’ need bandages.” She offered up a neat stack of bleached fabric.
His smile growing, Tanner said, “ Mine’s Vin, and Miss Mary Nell, yer a savior. I’s just wonderin’ where I’d get somethin’ t’ fix Chris up.”
Handing him the cloth, she backed toward the door. “I’ll git y' some water, reckon y’ll need it.”
Nodding, Vin said, “thank ‘y, miss. Hate t’ put y' out, but I could sure use a hand right now.”
Talking to the floor, Mary Nell said, “we ain’t much t’ brag ‘bout, but folks are decent here fer the most part. We’ll take some food int’ yer prisoner if y’ want, ‘n bring you an’ yer friend somethin’ t’ eat, too.”
“Y’all are real kind, Miss. We’re much obliged fer all yer help.”
Blushing furiously under the sincere gaze, the young woman backed out of the door, nearly falling as she stumbled onto the boardwalk.
Still smiling, Tanner turned to matters at hand. Stepping to his friend’s side, he opened the bottle of Laudanum. “Open up, pard,” he said softly. Holding the bottle, he coaxed the blond to swallow a few drops of the liquid. Waiting for the pain killer to take effect, he surveyed the injury.
Taking the cloth and tree branch splint off, Vin saw that the wounds were showing faint signs of infection. The leg itself was swollen, the skin tight and puffy, the color still a grayish-blue. Hearing the door opening again, he saw the young woman entering with a bucket of heated water.
“Got this from the bathhouse...it’s clean,” she added quickly.
“Thank y’ Miss,” Vin took the bucket, sitting it near the bench.
“Billy Mark ‘n Elias said they’d come hold ‘im down if y’ need ‘em to.”
Looking up at the waxen features, he gauged the gunslinger’s strength. “I reckon we’ll be okay. Don’t think he’s got much fight in ‘im right now.”
Mary Nell looked at the worry that was etched in the handsome face. “Reckon yer awful worried ‘bout yer friend.”
“Yes ‘m I am. He’s been in the saddle for a lot a hours like this.”
“Looks t’ me like he run afoul of a trap.”
“Yes ‘m.” He began working as they talked. “Miss, have y’all got a telegraph here?”
Shaking her head, she apologized. “I’m real sorry Vin. Reckon we ain’ got much ‘round here ‘tall.”
Offering the young woman another dazzling smile, Tanner said, “y’all got enough t’ help me keep my friend alive, Miss, I’m obliged.” Turning from the blushing young woman who hurried out the door, Vin saw Chris watching him, the pain pushed aside by a hint of humor. “What y' laughin’ at, Larabee?”
“Just thinking...either Buck’s rubbing...off on you....or he’s got more... competition than he...knows.”
Laughing, Vin fed the blond more Laudanum, and did what he could to set things up for the ordeal to come.
Mary Nell returned a minute later, having sent the two townsmen off. “I asked ‘em, ‘n they said the closest telegraph they know of ‘s in Four Corners. If that’d help y’ Billy Mark said he’d ride over there.”
Smiling at the irony, Tanner said, “reckon not ma’am. That’s where we’re from. ‘Preciate the offer though.”
Hearing the blond’s quick intake of breath as the blue-eyed man dabbed carbolic on the open wounds, Mary Nell stepped up beside him, offering her hand. She winced at the force of his grip, but stood firm, smiling as Vin shot her a grateful look.
Being careful to keep the broken limb as still as possible, Tanner did his best to clean, wrap and splint it. Standing back to survey his work, he decided that it would do. It might not be as neat a job as Nathan would do, but it should serve its purpose. He was so intent on his ministrations that he forgot the young woman was there until she cleared her throat. Looking up, he saw her watching him.
“Vin? You look ‘bout ‘s wore out as yer friend. I’m gonna go git y' a room set up at the hotel,” she stopped him with a wave of her hand and a smile. “My Ma owns it, she’d lay a switch t’ me if I didn’t.”
Vin returned her smile. “Well, wouldn’t wanna be the cause a that. If y’ wouldn’t mind, Miss Mary, could y’ keep track of what we owe? I’ll settle it all up ‘fore we leave.”
Her eyes shown with compassion, looking at the worn out young man. “I’ll do that.”
The young woman returned just as Vin had finished cleaning up the mess he had made taking care of Chris. In truth the doctor’s office was much cleaner than it had been. Tanner was not a man to leave a debt unpaid, and they had used the dubious facilities and meager supplies. Mary Nell brought two men with her, who Vin assumed were the two young men who had offered to help earlier. Picking up the semi-conscious blond, they carried him as carefully as a newborn across the dusty street. Their benefactress led them to a ground floor room, where they lay him on freshly made bed. With a nod to the tracker, they hurried off before Vin could even thank them.
“They’re gonna go take yer prisoner some food and a blanket.”
“I’ve got the key to the cell,” Vin said absently.
“They’ll poke it through the tray slot. Just ‘s well y’ got the key. Them two’s got big hearts, but small brains. If that fella asked real nice they might just let ‘im out.” She grinned, “they’re my brothers.”
Vin chuckled. “Good deeds must run in your family then, Miss Mary Nell.”
Blushing furiously, she said, “Pa was a travelin’ preacher, and we’s raised in the Word.”
“No offense, Miss, but I’ve seen other folks raised t’ the Bible that would ‘a walked right past us without a thought. Y’all have good hearts.”
If possible, her blush deepened. With no reply to that, she said, “hope y’all like roast.”
“Sounds like heaven,” Vin said.
“Especially after eating... his own cooking for three days,” a quiet voice broke into their conversation.
Stepping to the bed, Vin grinned down at his waking friend. “Watch your mouth, or I’ll borrow a fryin’ pan and go cook y’ up a rattler.”
Hazel green eyes flashed open. “You wouldn’t.”
With a giggle, Mary Nell left the two friends to their good-natured argument.
Vin’s gaze softened as he saw a flash of pain cross the blond’s face. Carefully he lifted the splinted leg onto a pair of stacked pillows that the young woman had left at the foot of the bed. Hearing a stifled moan, he offered Chris a drop of Laudanum.
“I’m fine,” Larabee repeated shortly.
With a curt nod, Tanner set the bottle on the nightstand. He would wait a little longer, until the pain took a better hold on the older man. He eased Chris up, propping him against the head of the bed in preparation for the promised dinner. Then something crossed his mind. “Ah, damn.”
“What’s wrong?” The blond asked.
“Forgot about the horses. Reckon I’ll go see to ‘em – “
“All ready taken care of,” the young woman said as she re-entered the room, carrying a tray. “Milt, that’s our livery man, took ‘em over and bedded ‘em down.”
Shaking his head, Vin said, “y’all keep this up, ‘n I might just settle in here.”
Mary Nell’s eyes shone brightly at his words, and a faint flush colored her pretty young face. She placed the tray on Chris’ lap, making certain that everything was within easy reach. Turning to Tanner, she said, “y’all are a curiosity. Cain’t tell y’ the last time we had visitors ‘round here. I can bring yer food in here if y’ want, or y’ can have it at the table.”
Watching as Chris began working on the thick slab of roast, he decided that the older man was fine. “Reckon I’d rather have your company for a bit, Miss Mary.” Offering his arm, he started out the door. Hearing a chuckle behind him, he tossed a look behind him at the blond.
“Reckon Buck ought to be worried.” The gunman smiled over the rim of his mug.
By the time Vin returned to the room, Chris was sleeping. Head tilted back on the stacked pillows, he snored softly through slightly parted lips. Their benefactress had removed the tray while Tanner had gone to check on Jessup. The outlaw had been just as angry as when he had left him, complaining now about the quality of food, the blanket, and his treatment in general. Tanner had threatened him with his mare's leg and left again.
The injured man roused when he felt someone lift him slightly. Blinking sleepily at his friend, he said, “what’s wrong?”
Smiling, Vin said, “nothin', just thought I’d try t’ make y’ a bit more comfortable.” Moving away all but one pillow under the blond head, he settled Chris into the bed. Slipping off the remaining black boot, he helped his friend take off his gunbelt, hanging it from the headboard next to him. Covering the lean body with a quilt, he once again offered the man a drop of Laudanum.
“It’s not bad,” Chris insisted, wincing as he tried to find a more comfortable position.
“Yeah,” Vin gave him a look that told him he didn’t believe him. “You wake me up in the middle of the night yelpin’ cause it hurts, I’m puttin’ y’ outta your misery with a bullet.”
Larabee glared, but said nothing.
Throwing up his hands in defeat, Tanner slipped out of his coat, gunbelt and boots, stretching out on the other narrow bed in the room. Despite being in a strange town, he found himself relaxing. Soon, both men were deep asleep.
Morning light wakened the tracker. Looking over, he found Chris just rousing as well. Padding the few steps between the beds, he placed a hand carefully on the blond’s pale face. There was a hint of fever there, but didn’t seem to be any worse than it had been the night before. He grinned as the other man’s eyes slowly peeled themselves open. “Mornin’.”
“Morning,” Larabee answered in a raspy voice.
“How’d y’ sleep?”
“Fine. Damn, you’re getting to be a bigger ‘mother hen’ than Nathan.”
Chuckling, Tanner said, “yeah, well I’m beginnin’ t’ understand why he loses patience with y’.”
“You’re a fine one to talk.”
“Good mornin’,” Mary Nell called from the doorway. “I brought y’ some breakfast.”
“Thank you, Miss,” Chris said, turning on one of his best Larabee smiles. The effect nearly sent the young woman into a swoon. He eased himself carefully up on the bed, groaning as pain shot up his leg. He felt someone ease him up gently, and nodded briefly to his friend. “Thanks, pard.”
Squeezing the man’s shoulder, the sharpshooter left him to eat, while he went with the young woman to the little kitchen at the back of the hotel. As she had the night before, she kept him company while he ate, her shy presence already feeling familiar to the tracker. Her smile faltered when he spoke of leaving town, but she quickly recovered. After the meal was over, she went to talk to the livery man while Vin went to check on their prisoner.
By mid-morning, they were ready to go. Mary Nell had procured a buckboard and team to transport Larabee home. The blond grumbled and complained, but they soon managed to get him settled in the back, on a thick tic mattress, his broken leg once again propped up on pillows. His gunbelt lay beside him, his yellow-handled Colt in his lap. Jessup was bound hand and foot, secured to the upright at the end of the wagon. He continued to complain loudly about his treatment, but grew quiet when Chris casually aimed the Colt at him.
Vin stood next to the wagon, smiling warmly at the young woman. “I wanna thank y’ again, Miss Mary Nell.”
“It was our pleasure,” she answered. “Although it would have been more of a pleasure if your friend hadn’t been hurt.”
Nodding, Tanner said, “well, reckon it’s time t’ square up with y’all.” He dug into his coat pocket, retrieving his stash of coins. “Reckon if this ain’t enough I’ll –“
Holding a hand up, Mary Nell said, “no. Your money’s no good here, Vin.”
“But, the food, the wagon, all your help – “
Taking two of the coins from the stack, she held it up, “for Milt. The rest...” she shook her head, “no charge.”
He started to argue, but finally just smiled and nodded. In a soft, shy voice, he said, “thank you Miss Mary Nell.”
Standing on tiptoe, she kissed him quickly on the cheek. Blushing deep red, she said, “safe journey.”
“I’ll be back,” Vin promised, adding, “t’ bring back the horses and the wagon.”
Her smile faltered, and a look of disappointment crept into the corners of her eyes.
Smiling once more, Tanner said, “and I wouldn’t mind sharing another meal or two with y’, if you’ve a mind to, my treat this time.”
Her smile returning full force, the young woman said quickly, “I’ve a mind to.”
Tipping his hat, the lanky man stepped up onto the wagon, taking the reins of the team. With a final look, he said, “see y’ soon then,” as he set the team in motion.
“Ah, Mister Larabee, I see you’re once more on the job.”
“Ezra,” Chris said noncommittally. He sat slouched in a chair, his splinted leg propped atop a box before him. He and Vin had been home for only a day, but he was already feeling hemmed in. Nathan had been not unduly impressed with how well Vin had managed to care for the mangled leg on the trail, and informed them that Chris would be fine in a few weeks. He informed them that the infection was clearing, and the fever was normal after the accident. Larabee would have to stay off horseback until the broken bone healed; none of the others were looking forward to his mood after that restriction settled in.
“I understand that young master Travis is expected to be allowed out of bed today.”
The blond nodded, a relieved smile crossing his handsome face. Then both men looked up as a wagon passed by. Chris threw up a hand, while Ezra touched the brim of his hat. They watched as Vin rode past, leaving to return the wagon to the little town; to return to visit the young woman they had met there. Tanner’s grin nearly split his handsome face as he passed by, tipping his hat to the two men.
“My, my. Mister Tanner seems exceedingly pleased to be leaving our fair community. Is there any particular reason?”
Smiling, Chris answered, “just happy to be out on such a nice day, I reckon.”
“I feel there may be something more to it than that,” Standish leaned against the porch upright, his arms folded across his chest as he watched the wagon disappeared down the street. His green gaze slid back toward the laconic blond.
Chris looked up at the prying man, his face unreadable. Reaching for his borrowed crutches, the blond pulled himself up and hobbled past the curious man without a word.
“I take it then, that you’re not going to enlighten me any further Mister Larabee?”
A quicksilver smile lit the handsome face, but all Larabee said was, “buy you a cup of coffee, Standish?”
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