Main Characters: Chris, Vin, Nettie, Casey
Webmaster Note: This story was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2012.
Author Note:Written for Holly upon the occasion of her birth. She requested a Vinjury, heavy on the comfort segment of the H/C.
Lightning split the night sky, illuminating the path before the two men. Only one of the two reacted to the sudden change in their surroundings. The second man was slumped in the saddle atop the horse they shared, deeply unconscious.
Chris Larabee shifted his hold on the man in the saddle before him. Vin Tanner’s only reaction to the movement was a soft grunt of pain. Once he was settled back against the blond he sighed, relaxing into the security of his friend’s embrace.
They had been on the trail for nearly a week, having taken some time away from their duties as peacekeepers in the growing frontier town of Four Corners. Then two days ago, as they started back to town and duty, disaster struck in the form of Mother Nature at her worst.
Rain had been falling off and on for days, leaving the creeks and rivers swollen and treacherous. As the two men carefully forded one fast moving creek, spilled well past its banks, Peso stumbled. Caught off-guard, the usually nimble rider disappeared into the torrent.
Larabee spent a heart-stopping three hours searching for his friend. While his big black managed to re-gain his footing, climbing laboriously to solid ground, Vin was nowhere to be seen. Finally, after a painstaking search, the man in black found his friend, half in and half out of the water. Tanner was unconscious, blood running down the side of his head from a long gash at the hairline.
Chris carefully pulled the unconscious man from the water, mindful that there could be other – unseen – injuries as well. Carrying the lean man away from the water, he found sheltered and relatively dry ground to stretch the insensate younger man out on. He checked the long limbs and probed any bruises he found on the spare frame. Finally satisfied that other than contusions and abrasions, Tanner seemed to be in fair shape. Larabee set about cleaning the man’s head wound, but before he finished, the tracker’s blue eyes were open to slits, and raspy protests met his attention.
“Take it easy, pard,” Chris said softly. “Just lay still and let me get you patched up.”
“Chris?” The voice was thin and raspy.
Smiling down at the confused eyes that blinked owlishly up at him, the blond said, “Yep, just me. Rest easy, hear?”
“Wh… what h-h-happened?” The sharpshooter’s teeth chattered as the cold and shock of being in the water settled in.
“Peso dumped you in the creek.”
Frowning, the Texan tried to rise, struggling against his friend’s restraining hand. “Wh-where is h… he?”
“Take it easy, he’s right over there with Pony.”
The words slowly sank in, and Vin relaxed. His eyes slid shut, but he continued to frown. “’M I hurt bad?”
Now it was the blond’s turn to frown. “Don’t appear to be… you hurtin’ anywhere in particular?”
Shaking his head, Tanner said, “dunno… ca… cain’t really f-feel nothin’.”
“What do you mean?” Larabee said in alarm.
Sighing in relief that it wasn’t anything more serious, Chris nodded in sympathy. “Imagine you are. Let me get a fire going and we’ll try and get you warmed up.”
The gunman managed to find enough dry wood to make a fire, then helped his friend change out of his soaked clothing and into the spare outfit from his saddlebag. It was damp, but would be more comfortable than what he had on. Wrapping his friend in both bedrolls, Chris settled him back onto the ground, then set about fixing a pot of coffee. Once the brew was hot, he helped the sharpshooter sit up and handed him a mug. He stayed close, keeping an eye on the drowsy man.
Vin held the heated mug in both hands, feeling as if he were trying to hold up the side of a barn. He trembled both from the cold and the simple exertion. When he finally managed to down the coffee, he felt exhausted. The young man frowned when he found the other man lifting the mug from his hands. “Wh… what?”
“You’re going to dump hot coffee in your lap. Why don’t you rest for a while, the coffee ain’t going anywhere and neither are we til morning.”
“Still daylight, w-we could… be a mite closer t’… home.” He was suddenly anxious to see the dusty little town.
“You’re going to rest for a while and I’m not gonna argue,” Larabee said firmly.
Vin tried to glare the other man into submission, but found his eyelids too heavy. He allowed the blond to help him lay down, then dropped off to sleep.
Chris watched Tanner drift off, and then spent the hours between the late afternoon and the next day’s sunrise keeping an eye on the other man. Vin was restless, and by morning the slender body was wracked with tremors. He was feverish, a deep cough rattling his very soul. When the dawn brought the promise of more rain, Chris knew he needed to get the injured man to town.
Vin roused enough to sit his own horse, and managed to ride alone most of the first day. By late afternoon, though, he was slumped over the pommel, and unable to stay awake for more than a few minutes at a time. He coughed often, each bark hard and dry and threatening to pull the lanky frame apart. Finally Chris pulled himself up behind the semi-conscious man to keep him in the saddle. They changed horses every few hours to keep the animals from becoming too exhausted.
The second night found Tanner unable to hold anything down, and at times delirious with the fever that continued to burn through him. Finally, that morning, the fever had retreated, but there was little to celebrate. Vin was failing before his eyes, and there was little the man in black could do to keep his friend alive. In the end, he simply kept riding.
As evening came once more, lightning filled the sky, threatening yet another storm. Chris cursed under his breath, knowing that Tanner couldn’t survive another night in the elements. Then, as a particularly brilliant bolt of lightening shot through the sky, he saw something that brought him some small measure of hope. The little home of Nettie and Casey Wells appeared in the flash of light, barely visible in the bitter night. With a sound of relief, Larabee kicked the horse to a gallop, the second black animal following his lead. He kept his arm tight around Vin’s chest, bent on keeping the injured man in the saddle.
Nettie Wells looked up from her mending, a frown on her weathered face. She listened for a few minutes before rising from her chair and picking up her Spencer. Casey, sitting near the hearth, looked up from her whittling, a question on her young face. Her aunt pressed a finger to her lips, instructing the young girl to stay quiet. Pointing to the little bedroom beyond the door, she ordered the brunette to go to her room. Her dark eyes pleaded, but Casey quickly complied.
Going to the window, Nettie peered out into the evening gloom, trying to decide if their visitors were friend or foe. She didn’t move a muscle, not calling attention to herself, but studied the darkness outside carefully. Another bright flash of lightning made the identity of the newcomers known, and she bolted into action.
“Casey, get out here and take care of these horses,” she ordered as she flung open the door and strode across the narrow porch. “Mr. Larabee? What’s happened?”
”We had a bit of an accident, Mrs. Wells. Peso lost his footing during a crossing and Vin ended up in the water for several hours.” As he spoke, Chris dismounted, then reached up and helped his semi-conscious friend from the saddle. He wrapped his arms around the lean frame, holding Tanner upright.
Vin clutched his friend’s arm tightly as he fought to steady himself. The world was spinning around him, and he was afraid he would be sick. Vaguely he realized that they were at the Wells homestead, and he didn’t want to make a mess of himself in front of the ladies. His shaggy head found its way to Larabee’s shoulder, and he leaned heavily on his friend. Then another bout of coughing hit him; when it passed it left him weak and shaken.
One hand gently rubbing the heaving back, Chris said, “Take it easy Pard, try and relax. I’ve got you, and I ain’t gonna let go. Let me know when you’re ready.”
Finally Vin nodded, and he allowed his friend to guide him up the steps and across the porch. By the time they entered the familiar little cabin, he was struggling to keep his feet beneath him. It seemed to take an eternity to move across the little main room and back into Nettie’s tiny bedroom.
They settled Vin on the edge of the bed, and Chris began removing the damp clothing. He looked up with an expression of surprise when the older woman began helping him.
“This boy ain’t got a thing I ain’t seen before, Mr. Larabee. Don’t think this is the time for decorum, we need to get him out of these clothes and get him warm and dry.”
Smiling, the blond said, “Yes ma’am, you’re right.”
They said nothing more as they worked in tandem to strip the buckskin from the limp body and tuck him in the little bed. Larabee stepped back and allowed Nettie to smooth the coverings over the ill man. He watched as she tenderly smoothed the wrinkles and tucked the bedding around the young man.
Nettie looked up with concern as another bout of coughing wracked the lithe frame. “He been bringing anything up?”
Shaking his head, Chris said, “No ma’am, it’s been a dry cough. I can hear the congestion in there, but he’s not bringing it up.”
“We’ll get some water heated and get steam going in here, that should help.”
Nodding, Larabee said, “Yes ma’am. I’ll help you get things started, then I’ll ride for town and bring Nathan out here as soon as I can get him.”
“He’s gone to Landsport with Josiah,” Nettie explained. “They left yesterday morning and aren’t expected back for three days.”
Chris cursed under his breath, then looked apologetically at the older woman. “Sorry ma’am.”
“I’ve heard worse, and the name’s Nettie,” she said with a smile. “Now, you go strip out of those wet clothes you’re wearing. If I know you, Mr. Larabee, you’ve ignored your own needs to take care of him. I’ll get Casey to start the water, and I’ll keep an eye on Vin.”
He hesitated, but finally nodded and started out of the room. As he reached the door, Casey came bounding inside, nearly knocking him into the wall. The fact that she was carrying both sets of saddlebags did nothing to slow the little tomboy down.
“Sorry, Mr. Larabee,” the young woman said, suddenly shy.
“No harm done,” he said, smiling as she blushed under his scrutiny.
“Casey, you calm yourself down, young lady. Now I want you to get some water heating, we need to get some steam going in here. But first, show Mr. Larabee where your room is so he can change out of those wet things.”
“Chris,” Larabee said quietly over his shoulder as he followed the woman’s niece from the room.
The gunman quickly changed, carrying his wet things as he padded, barefoot, into the warm main room. The younger woman was just finishing bringing water to the fireplace in anything that would hold it. Vin’s wet clothing had been draped over a straight-back chair, and a second one stood empty beside it.
“Just put your things on that chair, Mr. Larabee,” Casey said, “They’ll dry pretty quick. Aunt Nettie wants me to get the fire going as hot as I can to warm up the house real good. Vin been sick long?”
“Couple of days,” Larabee replied as he spread his sodden garments out on the chair. That done, he moved to the back room. There he found Nettie talking softly to the sharpshooter. On his part, Vin was looking up with half-closed eyes, a smile on his face.
“Hey, Cowboy,” Tanner said in a raspy whisper when he saw his friend standing in the doorway.
“Hey,” the gunman said as he came farther into the room. “How're you feeling?”
“Hell, a bump on the head and a swim ain’t nothin’,” he joked. Coughing overtook him again, and when he finally stopped, he collapsed against the bed with a groan.
“Well, I’ll feel better when we can get that cough cleared up,” Nettie said gently.
“I’m fine… Mz. Ne… Nettie,” he wheezed.
“Yeah, you sound it,” she scolded.
“Tanner, I’m thinking you’re gonna lose this argument,” Chris teased.
Vin started to reply, but instead he began coughing again. This bout continued for several minutes. Larabee slipped up beside the head of the bed and eased the man up to rest against him. The sick man lay against his shoulder, his body tensed against the attack from within. Finally the tracker dropped limply against him. The blond held him there for a few more minutes, making certain he was breathing all right.
Nettie brought in a damp cloth from the other room and tenderly wiped the perspiration soaked face. When the watery blue eyes locked with hers she smiled, but as they fluttered closed she looked at the other man with concern. That concern was reflected in Larabee’s handsome face as well.
“S-sorry, Mz. Nettie,” Vin muttered, half conscious once more.
“Whatever for, son?” She asked.
“Bustin’ in here… like this.”
“Well my goodness Vin Tanner, where else is there to go if you can’t turn to a friend when you’re in need?”
He smiled, and whispered, “Reckon… yer right,” as he drifted deeper into a restless sleep.
“He’s getting worse,” Chris observed as he settled the sleeping man back onto the bed.
“That’s the way of things, though, they tend to get worse before they get better,” Nettie countered.
Smiling at her resolve, the blond said only, “Yes ma’am.”
The storm raged through the night, but seemed of little consequence to the people inside the tiny cabin. Chris and Nettie kept a vigil at Vin’s bedside, while Casey worked hard to keep hot water coming into the room. They hung blankets around the bed, tucking the steaming buckets and kettles under the edge. Chris would sit at the foot of the bed to keep an eye on his friend until he couldn’t take the saturated air any longer. Then he would escape beyond the blankets, and Nettie would take his place. They continued their game of tag throughout the long hours.
Vin tossed and turned beneath the sweat-soaked blankets, his long hair drawing up into tight ringlets around his flushed face. The fever once again claimed him; sometimes he was aware of what was happening, while at other times he stared around him in confusion, muttering about things long past. At times he spoke in Kiowa, Comanche, or Spanish.
The worst times were those that found him angry. If Chris was outside the makeshift sweat lodge and heard the raspy voice rising, he would immediately displace the old woman at his friend’s bedside. Perched on the edge of the bed, he placed his hands on the tensed shoulders, speaking in a firm voice to make himself heard through the other man’s delirium.
“Vin! You’re okay… you’re safe Tanner, lay still. Come on Pard, calm down.” The tireless litany would continue until the slender body stilled once more. Larabee would sit there a few minutes longer, making certain that the younger man had quieted. Then he would emerge from beyond the blankets to find Miss Nettie standing just outside, her eyes searching his. They would both simply stand there, the silence binding them with their concern for Tanner.
After several hours of lying in the steam, the congestion began to break up and the young hunter began to cough. Chris lifted him, keeping his friend from choking on the thick fluid that he was expelling. Vin lay limply against the gunman between the bouts of violent coughing fits. Then, as they began, his body would tense, every muscle coming into use to get through the episode.
Nettie sat in front of the weakening young man, a heavy bowl in her hands. As he brought up the life-threatening gore, she would keep it near. As he slumped back against the other man’s shoulder, she would exchange to bowl for a heavy cloth. Gently, with a loving touch, the old woman would bathe the remnants of the attack from the finely chiseled face.
Between each attack, she would search the gunman’s face, her eyes seeming to bore into his soul. Chris wasn’t certain what she wanted from him, or what he could give her. He wanted very much to tell her that Vin would be fine as much as he wanted to hear that same thing from her. But neither of them could give the other that reassurance.
Just before dawn, the young man’s fever broke, leaving him to lie on the bed listlessly. Chris lay an ear against the gently rising chest, smiling when he realized that the man’s lungs were clearing. Exhausted from the hard battle fought and – they hoped – won, Vin fell into a deep sleep. Working together, gunfighter and homesteader changed the soaked bedding and allowed the steam to dissipate. They pulled down the blankets, but kept them close by. In case.
“I believe we could both do with a cup of coffee,” Nettie said with a yawn.
Smiling, the blond said, “Sounds good.”
Returning the smile, the woman said, “I’ll chase Casey off to bed, then put on a pot. Think I’ve got the makin’s of a decent breakfast if you’re interested.”
“Don’t want to put you out.”
“Wouldn’t offer if it was an inconvenience.”
Laughing now, Chris nodded, “Thank you then.”
As the lady of the house disappeared into the next room, the man in black dropped tiredly to the chair near the sleeping man. He watched Vin, still concerned that the fever could return. By the time Nettie returned with a steaming mug, he was struggling to keep his eyes open.
“Reckon you could use some sleep,” Miss Nettie observed. “You had any sleep at all since the accident happened?”
He considered lying, knowing from Vin how she could fuss, but finally just shook his head. The tired man ducked, hiding behind the mug of coffee. He slid a glance her way, and found Nettie Wells watching him, hands on her hips. “I’m fine, ma’am,” he assured her.
“Lord all mighty, don’t tell me you’re as stubborn as that one,” she nodded toward the long-haired man.
“Worse I’m afraid.”
She huffed out an irritated sigh, shook her head, and strode from the room. Behind her, Chris winced at the thought that he would now be made a second chick for the mother hen.
He winced as fire burned through his lungs, and tried not to breathe at all. When that proved impossible, he forced himself to draw in more embers to stoke the inferno that raged within him. He groaned painfully, and blinked the tears from his eyes as he opened them. Looking around him, he found that he was in a vaguely familiar room, lying on a narrow bed. Then his eyes settled on a very familiar figure sitting in the rocking chair beside him.
“Mz. Nettie?” His voice was little more than a croak, and painful to hear.
The white-haired woman looked up from her needlework at the sound of his voice. She smiled and settled her hand on his cheek. “You’re cooler at least, although you’re still a bit warm for my liking.”
He smiled, but didn’t have the energy to answer. Instead, he put his hand over hers and squeezed gently. Looking up into her eyes, he saw something he had missed throughout most of his life… the gentle, all consuming love of a mother. That was what he considered her, he had come to realize, a second mother. Not since his own mother died when he was little more than a baby had he known such emotion from another. He hadn’t even realized that he missed it, or had simply learned to do without it. But the day Nettie Wells had walked into his life at the Clarion Newspaper, he had felt a part of him come back to life. Just as she looked on him as a son, he looked on her as a mother.
Stroking the stubbled jaw, Nettie said softly, “reckon I’ll have to take this opportunity to fatten you up, son. Lands sake I’ll never know how a body can be so skinny and live. Seems to me riding that fool horse would just rattle your bones apart.”
His grin widened, and he pressed her hand to his lips. She never failed to fuss over him, although he had to admit that he loved every minute of it. Swallowing painfully, he whispered, “Reckon.”
Shaking her head, the ‘old biddy’ said, “Let me go get you some tea, all right? It should help with the pain in your throat.” As she rose, she looked down at the glittering blue eyes, “And I’ll make sure to put plenty of honey in it.”
A few minutes later, Nettie returned to find the young man struggling to lift himself from the bed. “Now just what in blazes do you think you’re doing Vin Tanner?” Setting the mug she carried on the dresser, she hurried over to where he was tiring himself out in his fight to get up. The elderly woman pressed him back to the pillow easily, frowning as she did.
“Young man, Mr. Larabee and I didn’t spend this entire night sitting with you for you to undo all our work by being stubborn. Now you lay yourself back there and be quiet.”
“’M… ‘kay,” Tanner gasped out hoarsely.
“No you’re not, now you lay down there and be quiet or I’ll have Chris come in here and help me tie you down. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes ‘m,” Vin lay back, his eyes begging her forgiveness even if he couldn’t managed the words. He felt badly at the thought of both Nettie and Chris losing a night’s sleep on his account. The young man didn’t like the idea of being a burden on anyone, least of all his friends.
The widow picked up the steaming mug and returned to where Vin lay quietly now. She set it on the bedside table long enough to gently lift him up to sit against the headboard, tucking the blankets around him. She held the mug for him to drink, not letting go when he tried to take it from her. “You just drink, son, I’ll hold onto it.”
“I… c’n do ‘t,” he grumbled.
“Maybe so, but I’m not going to change the bedding because your stubborn pride leads you to dumping a hot mug of tea in your lap when you get tired.”
Grimacing, Vin settled back and allowed her to feed him the tea. He had to admit, to himself at least, that she was right. Before he had finished half the mug he felt himself growing weary, his limbs and head suddenly feeling as if they were made of lead. His eyelids drooped, mere slits by the time he finished the hot drink. The young man barely knew when the woman settled him back down in the bed, once more tucking the blankets close around him.
Nettie set on the bed for several minutes, simply watching the shuddering rise and fall of the well-muscled chest. He was not out of the woods yet, and she wasn’t about to allow herself to be lulled by the signs that he might be. She had buried her husband, three babies, and Casey’s parents; she was not one to believe that everything had a happy ending. But, she thought as she fought back tears, she never stopped praying that they would.
Vin sighed softly, and she stroked a hand gently down his face. “Shh, it’s alright son. You just rest and let us take care of you.” She carefully brushed the loose auburn curls back from his face, taking care not to touch the deep cut in his forehead. She was at least grateful that it didn’t seem to be causing him any real trouble. Not as yet, at any rate.
“Y’ blamed fool,” she grumbled to herself, “don’t start crape hanging now. This boy’s stronger than most, you know that. If anyone can get through this, it’s him.”
“Aunt Nettie, is he awake?”
She turned to find her niece standing in the door, her arms filled with vegetables from their garden. “Just went back to sleep. What are you up to child?”
“Thought I’d make some stew. Think he’ll be able to eat any?”
“The broth at least. And the Good Lord knows Mr. Larabee could use a decent meal. Thank you Casey.”
Smiling, the girl simply nodded and returned to the kitchen to begin preparations for the noon meal.
The little house was filling with the heady aroma of Casey’s stew before Chris reappeared. He had refused to take the young girl’s bed, insisting on bunking in the barn with the horses. The blond still looked tired when he entered the house, but life shone in the hazel green eyes at least. He nodded to the younger Wells woman and hurried in to check on his friend.
Inside the little room, Nettie was sitting on the edge of the bed, gently bathing the sharpshooter’s face. He watched as she finished, then moved to his neck and chest. Slowly, tenderly, she began to bathe his arms next. The entire time she worked, she was singing softly to the unconscious man. Chris found that she was slowly lulling him to sleep as well, but hated to disturb the scene before him. Then he found that he needn’t have worried.
“You gonna stand there all day, Mr. Larabee?”
“Didn’t want to intrude.”
“Nonsense,” she scolded softly. “Come on in if you’re a mind to.”
“How is he?”
“Woke up earlier and took some tea. Casey’s fixing some stew, reckon you’ve already figured that out. Think we can try him on a bit of it… at least the broth… when it’s done.”
“Appreciate it, ma’am.”
“Land’s sake, son, there’s nothing to appreciate. I’m only doing what anyone would do.”
“No, you’re not,” Chris said simply. Then he smiled and continued as she looked up at him sharply. “Miss Nettie, none of us have missed the fact that there’s something special between you and Vin. He’s even put some meat on that scrawny carcass of his since he’s been coming out here. Don’t know who’s got the softer spot in their heart for the other one, you or him.”
“Chris Larabee, you’re talkin’ through your sock. I’d do the same for any of you.” Her words were gruff, but they were seen for the lies they were as she blushed furiously.
“Yes ma’am,” Chris said with a grin.
Vin blinked owlishly as someone shook him roughly. Then he realized that his body was shaking on its own, as he suffered through another bout of coughing. Someone was holding him up, and he slowly recognized the black-clad arm that encircled his chest. A second pair of hands held a bowl before him, and he finally realized that they belonged to Miss Nettie. Finally the coughing subsided and he dropped back against the gunman. A cool cloth wiped his face, and he managed to focus on Nettie’s face. “Th-thanks,” he rasped.
“Hush now, you just lay quiet,” the lady of the house ordered. She finished cleaning him up and brushed the unruly locks back from the pale face. “I know it’s tiring, Vin, but this is the best thing for you right now. The quicker we can get all that crud out of you, the quicker you’ll get well.”
He nodded, his eyes drifting closed once more. Tanner allowed the other man to support him for a while, taking comfort in his friend's presence. The two people most important to him in the world were seeing to his healing, caring for him as he never expected anyone to do in his life. He sighed, a small smile turning up the corners of his lips.
“Looks like someone’s getting awfully comfortable here,” Chris teased.
“Think we’ll have a spoiled Tanner on our hands if this keeps up,” Nettie returned.
“Don’t know that I want to face that sort of future.”
“Wouldn’t be a world I’d care to live in, that’s for certain.”
He opened his eyes, looking first at Nettie and then turning his head to look up at Chris. Finally satisfied that they were teasing, he allowed his smile to grow and settled back into the comfort of their company.
“Aunt Nettie,” Casey called from the door. “The stew's ready, and I set aside a bowl to cool for Vin. If you think he can eat it right now, I’ll bring it in.”
“I c’n… go… table,” Tanner’s voice rattled, fading in and out. He struggled to push himself away from Chris’ hold.
“You’ll sit right there, young man. You’ll get out of that bed only when Chris and I say you can, do I make myself clear?”
“I ain’t arguin’ here,” she continued.
“Give in now, Pard, she’ll win in the end,” Chris said with a chuckle.
With a put-upon look, Tanner ceased his struggling and allowed the still amused man to buoy him up. He drifted in and out, surprised to find Nettie ‘suddenly’ feeding him the broth from Casey’s stew. Chris continued to hold him, lending him silent support as he endured the trial of being held and fed like an infant. He had to admit that the broth was good, though, thick and rich. It was still warm, but not hot enough to bother his raw throat.
“Think you’ve had enough,” Nettie said softly, dropping the spoon into the near-empty bowl. She watched as the young man once more drifted off into a deep sleep. Wiping his mouth, she nodded to Larabee, who carefully settled his friend onto the pillows. Leaving Tanner to sleep, they joined Casey in the main room to eat their own meals.
For another three days they took turns caring for the ill man. Casey was sent into town for supplies and to leave word as to what was going on. Buck promised to send Nathan out as soon as he returned, and sent a message to Chris that he would keep an eye on things.
As he grew stronger, the sharpshooter grew restless as well. Neither Chris nor Casey could help but overhear the exchange the morning Nettie found Vin once more trying to get out of bed.
“Young man, I thought I told you to stay in that bed!”
“Aw… Mz. Nettie, I’m… fine.”
“No you’re not! Look at you, hanging onto the bed like that! You can't even get to your feet, and you call yourself fine? Now get back under those covers before I smack that skinny, bare rear end.”
“Aw hell! Wh-where’s my clothes!?”
“You’re not getting them for now. Lord knows what you’d do if you had your drawers.”
Barely able to stand, tears of laughter streaming down his face, Chris stumbled into the room to rescue his friend. He found Vin in the bed, the blankets pulled up to his eyes, doing his best to glare up at the older woman. On her part, Nettie was standing beside the bed, a fist settled on each hip.
“C – cowboy,” the blond choked as laughter shook his lithe frame, “best y… you lay still and d-do as you’re told.”
“Chris! You stop laughin’ and give me my pants! “
“Hell no! I’m not going up against her, she’d have my hide nailed to the barn by lunch time.”
“Y’ ain’t… fair,” the sharpshooter rasped. “The both a y’… gangin’ up on… me. Ain’t fair!”
“Sorry pard,” Chris held up his hands in a gesture of defeat, “I’ll only go so far to help a friend, and crossing Nettie Wells is a lot farther than I’m willing to go.”
Vin shot them both an angry look, but knew he was defeated. Still grumbling about being ganged up on, he dropped back against the pillows. The convalescing man’s blue eyes still shot lightning bolts at the two people he had considered his friends. On their part, Larabee and Nettie Wells simply smiled at the fact that he was well enough to cause a ruckus.
Nathan Jackson arrived the next day, finding it difficult to decide who had been ill. Both Chris and Nettie looked exhausted, having spent the past several days caring for Vin. As for the former bounty hunter, he was regaining his color, and his lungs were clear of the crippling fluid.
“Reckon he’s well enough, we can take him back to town if we can borrow your wagon Miss Nettie,” Nathan’s deep voice announced.
“You’re more than welcome to use the wagon Nathan, if you’re certain he’s well enough for the trip,” the white-haired woman replied.
“Miss Nettie, I keep tellin’ y’ I’m fine,” Vin chimed in from where he lay.
“I didn’t say you were fine, Vin, don’t go puttin’ words in my mouth,” Jackson chided. “I said you’re well enough to ride into town. By the looks of Chris and Miss Nettie, you’ve been vexin’ them for days. Figure back in town there’ll be more of us around to sit on you when you try getting stubborn on us.”
“Aw, hell, Nathan – “
“Ain’t any use, Vin,” Chris said from where he was leaning against the doorjamb. “You know as well as I do that he’s as stubborn as she is.”
“And don’t you forget it,” the healer said with a broad grin.
Once more, Vin found himself glaring up at the people he had come to call friends, wondering if that was such a good thing after all. Then he recalled those times when he had been ill or hurt, and all alone. Being fussed over could wear on a body, but at the same time, it was pretty nice.
They had the Texan bundled up in the back of the wagon a short time later, Chris riding next to him to keep his friend from being jostled too badly. Nathan climbed up onto the wagon seat, and gathered up the reins.
Nettie came to stand next to the wagon bed, grinning warmly at the young man who had stolen a piece of her heart. “You mind yourself, Vin Tanner. I’ll be coming into town in a few days to check up on you, and I’d better not hear that you’ve been misbehaving.”
“Yes ma’am,” Tanner said quietly. He reached out a hand, capturing hers in a loving grip. “Don’t know how t’ thank y’ Miss Nettie – “
“Oh, go on with you. The only thanks I want is you’re getting better. As soon as you’re well enough, I’ll have you out for dinner… I’ll even make a whole apple pie for you.”
A grin spread across the handsome face. “Well shoot, I’ll be out here on Sunday after– “
“You’ll be out here when Nathan says you’re well enough to sit your horse,” Larabee growled in warning.
Smiling at the other men, Nettie said, “In fact, I’ll have you all out for dinner.”
“Much obliged ma’am,” Nathan said as he coaxed the horses to a walk.
“I’ll be looking forward to it ma’am,” the blond said, “And thank you for your hospitality.”
“But, Miss Nettie,” Vin called, “if y’ have ‘em all out here, there might not be enough fer all of us. How ‘bout y’ wait fer a spell on that idea, and go with the first?”
The widow shook her head, laughing as she watched the wagon left her homestead. Waving, she continued watching until they were out of sight.
Back in the wagon, Vin was settled in the thick binding of blankets, his head comfortably propped against Chris’ shoulder. Once more he felt the warmth that flowed through his soul as he watched the little, white-haired ‘old biddy’ slowly disappear as they made their way toward Four Corners. He felt the quiet strength that flowed through him from the man who was supporting him; not only physically, but with his friendship as well.
A man couldn’t get richer than Vin Tanner felt at that moment.
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