Main Characters: Vin, Nettie, Chris, Nathan
Webmaster Note: This story was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2012.
Author Note: Written on the occasion of Anne Haney’s birthday, a little bit of H/C fluff to celebrate the amazing creation of Nettie Wells.
March 4, 1934 – May 26, 2001
It was all ruined.
They had been planning it for weeks, and had spent several days working to carry out their plans. And now it was ruined. He’d ruined it.
Vin Tanner grimaced as he attempted to move, finding it difficult at best to find a comfortable position. His left arm was tight against his chest, protecting the painful bullet wound he had suffered just over a week ago. The memory of riding alone for almost a day with his blood dotting the landscape came to him with painful clarity. So did the memory of Chris and Ezra finding him, draped over the neck of his horse as his strength left him. The pictures became fuzzy then, dark and out of focus. His friends had bound his wound and carried him back to town. It had taken them two days, and he was delirious with fever by then. He remembered the dreams, crazy and disjointed visions of demons and hideous creatures, but little else. Nathan had filled him in when he’d finally come back to himself, weak and unable to even lift his hand to take hold of the water glass the healer had offered him. It had taken them more than two days to get his fever down and purge the poison from his system. In all that time he had known only that he was safe, and that he could rest in the knowledge that his friends were nearby. The fever had been steadily decreasing for more than a day now, leaving him weak and groggy, but alive. Nathan told him that it would be another week at least before he could leave the clinic.
And by that time it would be far too late.
He had ruined it.
Jackson had let the date slip as he had cleaned him up a couple of hours ago. The big healer had come in with a bucket of hot water, soap, towels and fresh clothes. As Nathan carefully bathed him, washed his hair, and shaved him, he made small talk. Among the tidbits of news about the town and townspeople, he mentioned that it was Nettie Wells' birthday. The dark man stopped himself, looking worried about letting that bit of information slip, but there was nothing he could do about it. It was too late.
He would miss it. Miss the surprise party they had been planning for so long. Miss the chance to help Nettie celebrate turning 69 with cake and punch. Miss the chance to give the ‘old biddy’ the gift he had worked so long on.
He would miss it all.
Stifling a groan, the sharpshooter looked up at the sound of the clinic door opening. He managed a weak smile as the blond gunslinger he called friend entered.
"Hey, pard. Nice to see you awake. You are awake, aren’t you?"
"Yeah." He winced at the faint, breathless voice he answered in.
Chris Larabee moved to sit beside the bed. Reaching out, he took the strong chin between his thumb and fingers. Turning the pale face one way and then the other, he adopted an expression of intense concentration.
"What?" Vin asked when the other man didn’t say anything.
"Always wondered what you looked like under all that scruff."
Offering one of his too infrequent smiles, the man in black said, "So how are you feeling?"
"Okay," he hedged.
Watching the fragile looking man lying in the bed, Larabee almost changed his mind about what he had come to the clinic for. But then he stared into the big, sad blue eyes and changed it back. Settling back in the chair, he said, "Well, the saloon’s all ready. Mary and Inez had all of us in there at dawn, putting up streamers, cleaning the floor and putting tablecloths on all the tables. Even Ezra worked up a sweat."
Tanner couldn’t help but chuckle at the thought of Standish engaging in menial labor. Finding himself quickly out of breath, he leaned back against the pillows, closing his eyes against the pain. At a touch on his face he managed to open them again, finding a pair of worried hazel green eyes looking back at him.
Chris slipped a hand beneath the sharpshooter’s head and raised him slightly, helping him take a drink of water. Settling Vin back on the bed, he took a damp cloth from the bowl on the bedside table, wiping the perspiration from the colorless features. Watching Tanner for a few minutes, he finally said, "You okay?"
Managing a brief nod, the Texan said, "S… sorry."
"My fault." Pausing, he once more debated his plan of action. Deciding to abbreviate it, he said, "Well, everyone’s down there, just waiting for Casey to bring Miss Nettie into town."
What had he been thinking? Why would he think that the party wouldn’t go on without him? It wasn’t for him, it was for Nettie Wells. The plans had been to celebrate her birthday, not his. Of course they would carry on with those plans, whether he was there or not. "Reckon y’ best… go on, then."
"Reckon I’d better. I just had to come get one last necessity for the party."
Frowning up at the other man, Vin waited for him to finish. When Larabee didn’t continue, he said, "Which is?"
"The man who planned all this."
It took a minute to register. When it did, the slender man’s eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. "But… I… Nathan – "
"Ain’t real happy about it, but he agreed to let you come down for a little while. You’ve got to let us do all the work, and you have to do everything Nathan says. Think you can manage that?"
Broad mouth turning up in a smile, the injured man said, "Reckon so."
"Well then, let’s get you dressed."
The bounty hunter was already clad in his light tan pants, so Larabee helped him into boots and a shirt, draping it over his left shoulder and buttoning it over his arm. Looking to see that the young man was struggling, he lifted Tanner’s legs back up onto the bed and draped a blanket over the trembling form. Then he dabbed once more at the pale face and stepped out onto the landing. Letting loose a sharp whistle, he called Buck and JD from the far end of the staircase.
Vin looked up to see Chris return to the room, followed by Wilmington and Dunne. He was lifted up between the two bigger men, gasping as the world spun around him. His uninjured hand was clutching at Larabee’s arm, his head on the blond’s shoulder as he fought down the nausea.
"Easy there, stud," the big ladies’ man said gently. "Don’t go disgracin’ yourself."
They carried him from the room, JD bringing up the rear so he could close up the clinic. The trip down the stairway was a blur as he fought to keep the pain from overwhelming him.
At the bottom of the wooden steps sat the big wheelchair they used when one of them was too badly injured, or sick to move on their own. The young sheriff slipped around the trio, putting pillows in the seat and against the back of the chair. They settled him in, wrapping blankets around him to stave off the chill that was threatening to engulf him, despite the warm day.
Wilmington pushed the big chair down the hard packed street, Larabee and Dunne flanking the weakened man slumped down in the seat. At the entrance of the saloon they worked together to lift the contraption up onto the boardwalk, the other two men going ahead to hold open the batwing doors as Buck pushed the wheelchair through.
He heard several voices welcoming him, recognizing a few as he moved through the room like some sort of invalid. He hated having people see him like this, but it was worth it if it meant being here to celebrate with the woman he looked on as a surrogate mother.
They carefully moved him to a place somewhat out of the way, but where he would be able to enjoy the festivities. To the tracker’s surprise he saw they had brought in a cot, placing it with the head backed up on the wall. There were several pillows stacked on the mattress, and he was carefully lifted from the wheelchair and ensconced in a nest of sorts, made up of pillows and quilts. They wrapped him up snug, then moved away and let him catch his breath. All but Nathan, that was. The big healer perched on the side of the bed, checking the thick bandages for signs of bleeding, taking his pulse, and generally looking him over.
"Quit fussin’," he groused.
Frowning down at the injured man, the dark healer said, "I don’t fuss. Now, you listen to me, Vin Tanner. I’m not real happy about you bein’ down here, even if you didn’t walk on your own. If I didn’t know how important bein’ here is to you, you’d still be up in the clinic. You ain’t to get up from this bed, you ain’t to do nothin’ but maybe drink a little punch and talk to Mrs. Wells for a bit. As soon as you start feelin’ tired, you let me know. If I see you feelin’ tired, I’ll know. When that happens… and it will… we’re takin’ you upstairs and puttin’ you to bed."
"I’m in a… bed. Ain’t I?"
Glaring at the smaller man, Jackson said, "Watch your mouth, or you’ll be goin’ upstairs right now, hear?"
Eyes still glittering, the injured man tried to sound properly chastised. "Yes… sir."
Grinning now, the big man patted his shoulder and said, "You remember that."
Just then the room grew quiet, and the sound of the bells hanging in the church steeple could be heard. The pre-arranged signal told them the guest of honor was approaching, and everyone took up position.
The wait only seemed long, and finally they could hear the sound of a wagon coming up the street. Vin joined the others in watching the door, his eyes shining with excitement now, rather than fever. They heard the wagon pull up outside, and then the unmistakable voice of the feisty widow rang out in the stillness.
"Land sakes, child. Don’t tell me he’s in here!"
"They’ve got him upstairs, Aunt Nettie." Casey answered.
The entire crowd seemed to hold its breath as footsteps came closer. Then the batwing doors swung open and, bathed in the glow of the afternoon sun, stood the reason for celebration.
That single word filled the room, bouncing off the walls and rattling the windows. The townspeople stepped from their hiding places, greeting the white haired lady. They couldn’t help but smile as she stood, speechless, in their midst for several minutes.
Tanner watched from where he lay, searching for some sign that the little widow was still there. Then, as if sensing his need, the crowd parted and he was facing the woman who had come to quickly mean so much to him.
"Vin." Her hand flew to her mouth as she beheld the sight before her. Her “boy” lay propped up and bundled in so many quilts she could see nothing more of him than his head. On trembling legs she hurried across the room, immediately forgetting that anyone else was in the saloon. She dropped carefully to the mattress, reaching out to take his face in her hands.
Nuzzling against the calloused hand, Vin smiled. "Happy Birthday… Miz Nettie."
Tears coursed down her weathered cheeks, but she didn’t notice them. It took a few minutes but she finally found her voice. "Vin Tanner, what are you doing down here. Two days ago you didn’t even know who or where you were. I’m gonna have to go have a talk with Nathan, young man. You should be in bed, getting your rest."
With a tired chuckle, the sharpshooter said softly, "Miz Nettie, if y’ ain’t noticed… I’m in a bed, and I got… strict orders not t’ move an inch."
"But, you shouldn’t – "
Pressing a finger to her lips, Vin said, "S’ important. I wasn’t gonna… miss this fer the… world."
"Oh… honey," she choked on a sob, her fingers stroking through the long tangle of loose curls. Then she leaned down and kissed him gently on the forehead.
The party was soon in full swing, and Vin found himself right in the middle of it all. For, once she settled in beside him, Nettie Wells would not be moved. They brought over a chair, and she sat down right next to the young peacekeeper, her hands wrapped around his right one when she wasn’t helping him drink some punch or feeding him a few bites of cake when no one was looking.
When the time came for the guest of honor to open gifts, Vin sighed as he realized that the gift he had worked on for several weeks was in his wagon. Then he chuckled as his friend slipped silently up beside him and settled a roughly wrapped package in his lap.
Presented with the gift, Nettie carefully opened the paper to reveal the special present that had been made by the young man’s own hands. She smiled through another shower of tears as she beheld the intricate wood carvings the quiet Texan had made. Three grizzlies, a mother and her two cubs, greeted her from a base carved to look like stone. The mother stood protectively over her babies, watching as they played at her feet. Looking up into the expressive blue eyes, she could only say, "its beautiful."
Smiling shyly, Tanner didn’t speak, but the meaning of his gift spoke clearly. Nettie Wells had taken him into her heart, just as she had her niece, Casey. And, just as the mother bear did with her cubs, the old woman guarded his heart, keeping it close. Keeping him close.
Just as they all knew he would, Nathan recognized Vin’s need to get some true rest long before Tanner could admit it. While the other peacekeepers got the merry-makers to move away, Nathan and Chris lifted the exhausted man between them. Carrying him upstairs, neither man was surprised to hear Nettie following behind.
Settling Vin in bed, they made sure he was all right before moving away. Nettie leaned over him, looking deep into the half-closed eyes. Her finger traced the line of his lips, then she tenderly kissed each cheek.
"Happy birthday… Nettie," he murmured, his eyes sliding closed.
"It is honey, it surely is," she whispered. Kissing him once more, she waited until she was satisfied that he was sleeping before she slipped silently from the room.
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