Main Characters: Chris, Vin, Billy Travis
Notes: This is written for my cybercyb and heartsister, the Muse.
Webmaster Note: This fic was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in June 2012.
Chris Larabee smiled as a childish giggle rang through the air. He looked down at the little boy sitting nearby on the creek bank. Billy Travis looked back up at him, his tiny face alight with a broad grin. Then the child jumped and giggled again. His pants legs were turned up and he was dangling pudgy little feet in the water. He giggled again as minnows once more nibbled at his toes.
Larabee chuckled, allowing the boy’s joy to carry him away from the cares of every day life. He glanced up as he heard someone approaching. With a nod, he acknowledged his friend.
Vin Tanner nodded back as he came to stand on the other side of young Travis. Adopting a thoughtful expression, he rubbed his chin. “Well now, that’s a real interstin’ way of fishin’, Billy. Y’ catchin’ many fish that way?”
Laughing, the little boy said, “No. I was just cooling off my feet. Chris says he used to soak his feet like this when he was a little boy, back in Indiana.”
“That so?” Tanner winked at his friend over the little blond head. Billy Travis had a serious case of hero worship when it came to Chris Larabee. “Well, if yer ‘bout finished soakin’ yer feet like they do back in Indiana, I’ve got lunch ready.”
The child cheered as he climbed quickly to his feet. Tanner had promised to fix the fish he had caught that morning.
“Hold up there, pard,” Chris said before the child took off. “You take off across there barefoot; it’s hard telling what you’ll step on.” Before Billy could respond, Larabee scooped up his shoes and socks in one hand and the little boy in the other. Tossing the child across one broad shoulder, he strode toward their campsite, smiling as the child’s laughter rang through the air once more.
A short time later, three bodies were stretched out beneath the shade of a tree. The two men had praised the fish as the best they had ever eaten during lunch, leading the little boy to smile proudly.
The two peacekeepers had taken advantage of a quiet stretch to take some time off from their duties. Chris had been promising Billy Travis a fishing trip, so he decided to make good on it, while enjoying some time away from town at the same time. Mary Travis had confided in him that her son had barely slept for two nights, the excitement almost overwhelming.
The gunman was pulled from his thoughts as the boy spoke.
“That’s an awful big tree,” Billy proclaimed, looking up into the wide-spread branches of a nearby Juniper.
“Pretty big,” Larabee agreed with a nod.
“Do they have trees in Indiana?”
Stifling a grin, the man said, “Yeah, they have trees in Indiana.”
“Do they get as big as this one?”
Pretending to study the tree, Chris paused, then said, “Imagine so.”
“Did you climb ‘em when you were a little boy like me?”
The gunman inwardly flinched at that innocent comment. He had never been a little boy like Billy Travis. He had grown up with both a mother and father, not to mention brothers and sisters. He hadn’t been forced to witness his father’s murder, nor had he been left as an only child with a working mother. But despite his dark thoughts, all the man said was, “Yeah, I sure did.”
“Really?” Billy’s mouth opened with surprise.
“Really,” Larabee said.
“’Course he couldn’t do it now, him gittin’ along in years and all,” Vin quipped. The words earned him not only a glare from his friend, but a smaller version from the child.
“Chris ain’t old!” young Travis proclaimed indignantly. He knew he could get into trouble for daring to disagree with an adult, but at the moment he didn’t care. Someone was saying mean things about Chris Larabee and he couldn’t stand by and let that happen.
Barely maintaining his composure, Tanner said, “Well now, I didn’t mean t’ say he’s old, Billy. It's jist when a feller gits to a certain time a life, he ain’t quite as spry as he was.”
The child continued to frown at the former bounty hunter. “Chris can do anything he used to do and probably a lot better than you! I’ll bet he could climb all the way to the top of that ol’ tree way quicker than you!” Travis turned to his hero. “Couldn’t you, Chris?”
Not certain of how truthful to be in order not to disappoint the child, Larabee said, “Well, maybe not to the top.”
“Yeah, he might jist be able t’ git half way,” Vin said with a smug expression. “He might look scrawny, but he’s most likely carryin’ a few pounds more than he used to.”
Twin glares were again directed toward the Texan, but he simply returned them with a cocky grin.
“Chris ain’t old, and he ain’t fat!” The little blond translated Tanner’s teasing as only a child could. “I’ll bet you couldn’t even get up to the second limb!”
“Tanner, you do realize that you’re arguing with a seven-year-old… right?” the black clad man said in an attempt to put a halt to things.
“Oh, now, Chris, Billy knows I’m jist joshin’ ‘im. I know yer jist as spry as y’ ever were.” Pausing, he added, “Y’ probably couldn’t climb that good when y’ was a little feller, neither.”
“You’re just an old… an old… an old skunk!” Billy sputtered angrily. “Chris can do anything, and he can climb way up real high in this tree! He can climb higher than you and faster than you!”
Turning to his friend, the child said, “Can’t you Chris? You can climb real good, can’t you?”
“Yeah, Lar’bee,” Tanner drawled. “In fact, why don’t y’ show us both how good you can climb?”
“Yeah, Chris!” Billy said excitedly. “Show Vin you can climb better than him!”
“Damn that jackass Tanner and his big mouth, anyway,” Larabee growled as he surveyed the limb above him for the next handhold. “Blasted fool doesn’t know when to keep his big mouth shut.”
He grunted as he pulled himself up on the next limb, which swayed beneath him. Glancing down, Chris felt his gut tighten. He’d never been especially fond of high places. Then his gaze settled on Tanner’s smug expression, even though the man was a ways below him. With a growl, he turned back to the task at hand.
Looking upward, he found his next handhold. Stretching up, he caught the branch and began to pull himself up. He was oblivious to the crack that ran along the wood, deep and full of rot, along the other side of the limb.
Down below, Vin’s smile disappeared as he heard a distinct crack. That sound was followed by a startled yell and the sound of something… someone… falling. With a shout he grabbed Billy up and moved out of the way, knowing that to stand there would only get them both hurt.
As they reached safety, both the man and the boy watched as debris began to fall to the ground. A heavy limb was followed by smaller branches. And, in the midst of it all, came Chris Larabee.
“Ah, hell,” Vin growled. “Stay here, Billy.” He sprinted back across the little clearing to where the black clad man lay.
Kneeling next to his friend, Tanner reached out tentatively, looking for signs of life. Chris lay in a sprawled tangle of long limbs. He cursed when he saw that the right leg was bent unnaturally just below the knee. Blood was seeping from a gash above his knee as well; it looked as if one of the jagged pieces of wood had ripped through it.
A breathless moan caught his attention and he looked to see his friend’s eyes slowly fluttering open. Vin looked into shock-darkened depths and said softly, “Chris? Y’ with me?”
“… th’ ‘ell hap’nd?” The blond managed to mutter through clenched teeth.
“Chris? Chris!” Unbeknownst to the tracker, Billy had been drawn to his friend’s side by the vague whisper.
“… lly… wha’… where?” Larabee’s voice continued to fade in and out as he struggled toward true consciousness.
Dropping to his knees beside the injured man, the child said, “Chris? Chris, are you okay?”
“Bil… ly? Wha’s wro… wrong?” The father in him grew worried at the sight of tears on the cherubic little face. Then he grimaced, his body jerking as shock gave way to pain. “Oh… sh-shit!”
Carefully laying his hand on the older man’s shoulder, Vin said, “Take it easy, Cowboy. You’re hurt… got a busted leg fer certain, ain’t sure what else.”
“I’m sorry, Chris! I’m sorry!” young Travis cried out.
Larabee tried to focus on the child’s face, squinting into the gathering gloom. “Wha… what?”
Concern for the tall blond making his tone sharper than he meant it to be, Tanner said, “Not now, Billy. You can talk to him later. Now, I need y’ to go sit over yonder, outta the way, so I can tend t’ Chris.”
The child was forgotten for the moment as the tracker did what he could for his injured friend. Taking his knife, Vin carefully slit the seam of the ruined pants from hem to hip along the gunman’s injured leg. With even greater care, he did the same to the long johns beneath.
Going to where their supplies lay, Tanner returned with saddlebags, canteen and a bedroll. He had also retrieved the battered silver flask from his friend’s jacket.
Kneeling beside Larabee, he opened the flask. Tapping one colorless cheek he said, “Chris? Need y’ to drink this.” As the glazed eyes blinked open, he lifted the blond’s head and slowly fed him some of the whiskey.
Settling the gunman back on the ground, the Texan said, “I’m gonna clean out the place on yer leg and try t’ git the bleedin’ stopped first, Chris. Then I’ll look t’ settin’ yer leg.”
“Okay,” the injured man mumbled.
Not certain that his friend was truly aware of what was happening, Vin proceeded cautiously. He removed as much of the dirt and wood from the jagged tear as he could. Then he washed it out with water from the canteen. Following that he folded a piece of boiled cloth and pressed it against the wound. As the bleeding slowed he added another piece of cloth, and then bound the bandage with a strip of cloth.
Vin scavenged around their campsite once the immediate concern of the bleeding wound was taken care of. Finding two serviceable branches that he could use as splints, the man returned to where the other man waited. Taking great care, he eased Chris out of his shirt. The brown garment was ripped from the fall, but could be torn into strips and used to help secure the splint.
But first, he had to set the older man’s broken leg.
Studying the situation, Tanner tried to decide how best to bring the bones into alignment before binding the injured leg with the rough, wood and cloth device.
“Just yank… the damn thing… get it… over with.” The gruff directive was the first indication Chris had given that he was awake.
“Gonna hurt like hell.”
With a snort the blond said, “Already does… GOD DAMN IT!” He screamed as, without warning, the other man grabbed his broken limb and did his best to pull the bones into place.
Holding the man’s leg still, Vin waited for both the cries of pain and the writhing to end. When his friend finally dropped limply to the ground, he said softly, “Sorry ‘bout that… figgered it was the best way.”
Leveling a glare at Tanner that was only slightly dampened by the tears of pain glistening in his eyes, Larabee managed a ragged breath. “Be damn… gl-glad that I didn’t… have my gun… on me.” With that, his eyes closed and he dropped quickly into unconsciousness.
“Oh, believe me, I am,” Vin muttered as he moved to set the splints in place.
Once the Texan had finished binding the coarse splints in place, he moved next to getting his friend closer to their campsite. Spreading out the blanket he had brought over earlier, he gently shifted the blond’s limp body onto it. Even unconscious Chris responded to the pain, moaning wearily.
Taking up the corners of the blanket nearest the other man’s head, Tanner began to pull him across the ground. They were only a few yards from where he had laid the fire, but it seemed to take hours to cross the space. Larabee cried out several times, but didn’t regain consciousness.
Vin settled the injured man near the fire, knowing that shock and blood loss would almost certainly have him shivering cold soon. He pulled the blanket up around the prone form then added a second bedroll atop him.
Vin sat back, stretching his back as he said, “Hey Billy, I – “ He cut himself off as he belatedly realized that he hadn’t seen the little boy for some time. Not since he’d shooed him away in order to tend to Larabee. Looking around him with growing concern, he called out, “Billy?”
“”S wrong?” Chris said groggily.
Not wanting to alarm the injured man until he knew for certain there was reason, the tracker said simply, “Nothin’, go on back t’ sleep.”
“B-Billy?” Chris blinked his eyes open, looking around with an unfocused gaze. “Billy?”
“Lay still and settle down,” Tanner directed. “I’ll be right back. He’s probably yonder at the crick.” Pausing long enough to watch the blond drifting back off, the young Texan pushed to his feet. He began searching the area, calling to the child.
He searched the entire area, looking for signs of young Travis. Treading lightly, he searched the ground for tracks. When he finally found them, he cursed in frustration. The little blond was heading home on foot.
They were a day away on horseback.
Cursing again, Vin headed back toward camp, trying to figure out what to do next, and how to tell Larabee. He knew the older man well enough to be pretty certain of what he’d do. The father in Chris would come out, and he’d demand to help search for Billy. The last thing he needed was to be up and about, but the stubborn fool would sure as hell try.
Arriving back at their camp, he wasn’t surprised to find the blond awake. Larabee was propped up on his elbows, watching his approach. Vin considered just turning around and running after Billy, but knew that the older man would crawl after him if he did.
“Well?” Chris asked without preamble when the sharpshooter came near.
Shaking his head, Vin said straightforwardly, “He’s headin’ toward home.”
“What!? Damn it!” The injured man growled. He cried out as he tried to rise, pain shooting through his leg. He tried to pull himself up twice more before falling back to the ground, panting.
Tanner stood by, waiting. As painful as it was to watch, he knew that to interfere would only increase Larabee’s anger. Better to let the pain make his argument for him. Squatting down beside his friend, he handed over the man’s hip flask. As Chris took a healthy swallow, he said, “If yer through bein’ hard headed, I’m gonna go after him. He cain’t be too far an’ there ain’t many places t’ hide ‘round here. I’ll leave the canteen, yer gun, an’ yer flask close. Reckon you’ll be okay ‘til I git back.”
Looking up at his friend, fear clear in his pain-filled eyes, the gunman said, “Don’t come back without him.”
With a compassionate smile, the man nodded. “I’ll bring ‘im back, Cowboy.”
It took Tanner nearly half an hour to locate the little boy, young Travis was making good time for someone so small. As he caught sight of the tiny form some distance away, he reined his horse in. Pulling out his spyglass, he pulled it open and studied the child. Billy was moving in the general direction of town, but slowing down. He was trudging along with his head down, shoulders slumped and hands shoved into his pockets.
Reaching out to pat the big gelding’s neck, Vin studied the situation. Deciding on a plan of action, he nudged the horse into a canter. Just as he got close enough for his quarry to hear him, he slowed Peso down to a walk. The little blond’s head came up, turning to stare behind him. Before the boy could react further, he simply tipped his hat and continued moving along at a walk.
Billy was thrown off, uncertain of what Tanner was doing. Then, just as he decided that he should run, the rider was beside him.
“Hey, Billy. Where y’ headin’?”
“Ho… home,” the tiny boy stammered as he peered up at the Texan.
Nodding again, Vin drawled, “Thought that might ‘a been where y’s goin’. Gonna take a bit ‘a walkin’ t’ git back t’ town, though.”
“Really?” He frowned. It had taken a day to ride this far, but they had stopped twice and then camped overnight. He figured that if he kept walking without taking a break he could get home by morning. Maybe even sooner if he walked fast. “How long?”
“Reckon three, four days on foot.”
“What!? Oh… no…” The little blond dropped to the ground, hands covering his little face.
Tanner dismounted slowly, not wanting to spook the boy. He walked over and knelt down beside the forlorn child. Carefully reaching out, he laid a hand on one narrow little shoulder. Keeping his voice soft, he said, “Sorry I was short with you back there, Billy. I was real worried ‘bout Chris.”
“Me, too,” the diminutive blond whispered from behind his hands.
“An’ I feel real bad ‘bout teasin’ ‘im like I did. That was real foolish of me.”
Young Travis’ head came up and he frowned at the man. “It wasn’t your fault, Vin.”
Giving the little boy a serious look, the man said, “Wasn’t anybody’s fault, pard, it jist happened. That’s th’ thing ‘bout accidents… they’re jist accidents.”
“But I kept sayin’ he could do it,” Billy whispered.
“Did y’ think he could do it?” Tanner questioned.
“Yeah, ‘cause… ‘cause Chris can do anything!” The hero worship had returned. Then, crestfallen, he added, “I thought he could anyway.”
Smiling, the Texan said, “Well, reckon Chris can do most things but even real special fellers like him can’t do everything.”
Tucking his finger beneath the child’s chin and lifting the round little face toward him, he stared into the dark eyes. “Ain’t none of this yer fault, Billy. I need t’ know y’ believe that.”
With a deep, quivering breath, young Travis said, “Okay.”
“Okay… I believe it.”
With an agitated huff, the little blond said, “That none of this is my fault.”
Deciding that this would be the best he got and hoping that Larabee could convince the child later, Vin said, “Okay. Now, we need t’ git back t’ see how Chris’ doin’, okay? He’s feelin’ a mite poorly, so I reckon I’m gonna need yer help takin’ care of ‘im. Can y’ do that?”
Determination lighting his cherubic face, Billy said, “Yeah, I can do that.”
“Well, all right then. Let’s go make sure he’s all right.”
Chris was anything but all right. They returned to find that he’d tried to pull himself up and was now sprawled, half conscious, against a fallen log near where Vin had left him. Grumbling under his breath, Tanner dismounted, lifting Billy from the saddle. The little blond was staring at his hero with a shocked expression on his pale face. Giving the narrow shoulders a squeeze, the Texan said, “He’s okay, Billy. He’s just a stubborn cuss that don’t know when t’ behave.”
“…heard… that,” came a strangled whisper.
“Too bad y’ didn’t hear me earlier when I told y’ t’ lay still.” Keeping one eye on young Travis to make certain he didn’t run away again, the tracker moved to where his friend lay.
“You were… gone so… so long… got… con… cerned.”
Squatting down beside his friend, Vin said, “Wasn’t gone that long, yer jist bound ‘n determined t’ make this harder ‘n it needs t’ be.” Carefully he began to shift the other man into a more comfortable position. Going to where the rumpled blankets lay, he returned and covered the semi-conscious blond with them, leaving his injured leg exposed. As gently as possible he checked over the bandage and the splint, relieved to see that they had both stayed in place. The bandage was bloodied, however.
Hazel eyes blinked open and searched for the child whose voice had called him back from unconsciousness. When he located the little boy, he raised a trembling hand. “C’mere… please?” He murmured.
Hesitantly little Travis moved closer. After a few long moments he dropped down beside his friend and hero. In a trembling voice, he whispered, “I’m s-sorry, Chris. I didn’t mean for you to… to get hurt.”
Dredging up a smile, the gunslinger said, “Billy, you didn’t… have anything… to do with it… was my… stubborn pride and… a rotten branch… that was to blame. I’m the one that’s… sorry. I didn’t mean t-to scare… you.”
Uncertain of what to say, the child put his hand in the big one that lay open at his friend’s side. He felt the fingers curl around his hand and the corners of his mouth curled in a trembling smile.
“Do you… forgive… me?” Larabee asked.
“You didn’t mean to scare me,” Billy argued, shaking his head. “It wasn’t your fault, either.”
“Well then, since nobody’s to blame how ‘bout we get rid of all the long faces?” Tanner interjected. Turning his attention to the boy, he said, “Billy, Chris ain’t gonna be able t’ sit his horse, so we’re gonna have t’ make a travois. Think you can help me?”
Watching as Larabee’s eyes closed and he settled back into a restless sleep, young Travis managed a nod. He had no idea what it was that Vin wanted him to help with, but if it was for Chris, that was good enough for him.
The next morning found the blond restless, caught in the throes of a growing fever. Vin cursed under his breath when he found the ragged gash showing signs of infection. He did his best to clean it out, but knew they needed to get his friend to town as quickly as possible. Breaking camp, he managed to wrestle the delirious and uncooperative gunman onto the blanket covered contraption he and Billy had made.
The diminutive blond watched the injured man’s restless movements and the frown that seemed to be carved on the fever painted features. With growing concern he called out softly, “Chris?”
Glassy eyes opened a mere slit, the hazel orbs searching the shadows for the source of the call. “Bi… Billy? Stay out… out of… fire. Please… don’t want… you hurt. Please… stay away…”
Little Travis looked up at the tracker standing nearby. “Vin, what’s he talking about? There ain’t no fire.”
Pasting a reassuring smile on his face, Tanner said, “He’s jist dreamin’, Billy. Don’t pay it no mind, all right? Now, let’s git you in the saddle so we can git ‘im home.”
Nodding, Billy looked back at the restless man. A tiny hand gently patted one damp, stubbled cheek. “It’ll be okay, Chris. We’re gonna take you home.”
On the other side of the travois the Texan smiled at the look of determination that filled the boy’s face. Moving around the device that held his friend, he ruffled the thick blond locks and lifted the child up. Setting him on Larabee’s saddle, he said, “Okay, now, you’re in charge of Chris’ horse. Can you handle him?”
Nodding, young Travis said, “I can handle him.”
Patting the tiny leg that stuck almost straight out over the broad, black back, he said, “Good. You jist follow me an’ we’ll get ol’ Chris back home so Nathan c’n take care ‘a his leg.” With that, he moved back to where the older man lay. Leaning over, he straightened the blankets covering the prone form. In a soft voice, he said, “You jist hang on, pard. We’re gonna git’cha home.”
“Oh God…st… stop!”
Vin yanked back on Peso’s reins, bringing the big horse to a quick stop. He reached out and brought Pony to a stop as well before quickly dismounting and going back to where Chris lay. The blond was panting, his face waxen and tight with pain. His eyes were open, his gaze fixed on the sky above. “Cowboy?”
Larabee blinked, his eyes tracking slowly toward the voice. In a voice made rough by pain he rasped out, “Vin… gotta st-stop.”
“All right. Can y’ hold on for a few minutes more? There’s some trees ‘bout quarter of a mile, we can rest there.”
Pain-glazed eyes closed and broad chest heaved but after a moment the injured man whispered, “Yeah.”
Going to his horse, Vin retrieved his canteen and brought it back to the travois. Kneeling, he lifted the sweat-soaked head and helped Chris take a few sips of the tepid water. Lowering him back to the blanket, he said, “We’ve got ‘bout six more hours t’ go ‘fore we git home.”
“How long… we been… moving?”
“’Bout four hours.”
Larabee struggled to consider that bit of information. “Taking… so long.”
“Jist seems that way. We’ll git back home a bit after nightfall I reckon.”
Chris nodded, too exhausted to answer. He heard Vin move away and then groaned as the platform beneath him jerked and began to move. His leg was a sold mass of heat and pain, the entire limb throbbing in time to his heartbeat. He couldn’t keep his mind going in any one direction, the fever and pain muddling his thoughts. At times he couldn’t remember where they were or where they were going. Sometimes it was hard to remember who he was with. From time to time his mind wandered so far that he found himself wondering what Sarah was fixing for dinner or whether Adam was big enough to ride alone. Then visions of flames would erupt in his mind and rip at his heart as they shoved him back into the present. Moments of clarity reminded him that he was with Vin and Billy Travis, that he was busted up and in pain, and that they were trying to get him back home.
And all of it had come about because he let his pride get away from him.
They stopped in the shade of a small stand of trees a short time later. Vin left the gunman on the travois, not wanting to jostle the man around any more than he had to. Checking the bandage around the gash in the blond’s leg, he found it oozing pus once more. And once more he wished they’d brought some carbolic acid with them.
Being as careful as possible, Tanner pressed at the inflamed flesh, forcing the rancid gore from the wound. Larabee cried out and bucked, trying to pull away, but he continued his work. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the blood flowed clear. Taking a clean piece of cloth, he dampened it with a little of their dwindling supply of water. Bathing the wound as clean as he could, he covered it in another piece of cloth. This one had been soaked in whiskey and Chris moaned as it bit into the raw flesh.
“Sorry, pard, but I’ve gotta do ‘t.”
“Drink?” The single word request was grated out through clenched teeth.
Vin knew immediately that the blond wasn’t talking about water. Picking up the man’s flask, he carefully fed him a little of the strong drink. By the time he capped the little container, Chris was once more unconscious.
Tanner settled nearby, sitting cross-legged beneath one of the trees. Billy came to sit beside him, big eyes never leaving the blond. Pulling some dried beef from his saddlebag, Vin offered one to the child and began chewing on the other. After a few minutes, young Travis spoke.
“Is Chris gonna die?”
Shaking his head, Vin said, “I don’t think so. We’ll git ‘im home tonight and Nathan’ll fix ‘im up. He’s probably gonna be feelin’ poorly fer a spell, but that’s t’ be expected. Even fer real special fellers like Chris.”
“I can take care of him,” The little boy offered hopefully.
Stifling a smile, Vin said, “He’s gonna need a lot ‘a lookin’ after and he’s cranky ‘s a grizzly woke up from ‘is nap. Usually takes all of us t’ keep ‘im settled. Would it be all right if we all worked on takin’ care of ‘im?”
With a thoughtful expression, the little boy nodded. He settled back and began to eat the jerky Vin had handed him, barely tasting it as he chewed and swallowed mechanically.
They stayed beneath the trees for close to an hour, Larabee sleeping restlessly the entire time. Before they set out once more, Vin coaxed him to drink a little more of the whiskey and followed it up with a few sips of water. Settling the blond once more, he said, “We’re gonna head out again. You git t’ hurtin’ too bad y’ holler out, all right?”
Nodding shortly, Chris grated out, “Let’s just… get… home.”
Squeezing one of the man’s broad shoulders, Tanner said, “Count on it.”
True to his word, Tanner brought the injured man home. The stars were beginning to show in the night sky as they moved slowly up the street toward the clinic. By the time they arrived at the bottom of the stairs, Josiah and Nathan were there to greet them.
“Can’t you two go anywhere without attractin’ trouble?” Nathan asked in a scolding tone.
“Just had a bit of an accident, Doc,” Vin said, glancing pointedly toward the child slouched atop the black gelding beside him. The other two men saw his look and changed their tone quickly.
“Well, reckon anyone can have an accident,” Josiah said as he lifted young Travis down off Pony’s back.
“Yep, that’s for sure,” Nathan agreed gently, “and ain’t no one to blame for it, neither.”
“I’ll help take care of Chris,” Billy mumbled sleepily from where he lay with his head on Sanchez’s shoulder. “Vin said I could help.”
Patting the tiny back, the silver haired ex-preacher said, “You certainly can, Billy. But right now I think you need some rest so you’ll have lots of energy to help us take care of him. How about we take you to see your mama right now?”
Nodding, young Travis muttered, “’Kay.”
Waiting until Josiah carried the little boy toward home; the other two men gently lifted the injured gunman from the travois. Chris moaned weakly, but otherwise hung limply in their hold. They carried him up the long flight of stairs to the healer’s little clinic.
Lowering Larabee to the bed with Vin’s help, Nathan moved to light the lantern. “What happened?”
Vin quickly relayed the story of what had happened. As he talked he began helping Jackson undress the too-still form on the bed, before turning to the injuries. The others came up as soon as they heard of the trio’s return and the healer put them to work fetching water and whatever else he needed to repair the damaged leg.
Working in an all too familiar routine, they tended the putrid wound and re-set the broken leg. The rough wood was replaced by smooth boards padded with soft cloth before the injured limb was elevated on a pillow. The wound was left open to drain, the ruined flesh having been scrubbed and washed out with carbolic acid. Chris had been fed enough laudanum to deaden the pain of their actions, only reacting with a soft moan a time or two.
By the time they had finished tending to the gunman it was after midnight. Nathan shooed the others out, threatening them with dire consequences if they returned before breakfast time. As the door closed behind a weary Vin Tanner, he settled in beside the bed, ready to sit vigil through the night.
As the sun made itself known with the first tendrils of pale light, the door to the clinic creaked open. Jackson yawned as he looked up from where he had been checking the jagged gash. He smiled as he saw who the first visitor of the day was. “Mornin’ Billy.”
“Morning,” the little boy replied. “How’s Chris?”
“Restin’ pretty well. He’s still got a fever, but his leg’s lookin’ a lot better. You and Vin did a good job of takin’ care of him out there.” Nathan watched the little boy nod absently, his eyes on the listless form on the bed. Softly he asked, “Somethin’ on your mind, son?”
Hesitantly the little blond said, “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean for Chris to get hurt.”
The big man smiled compassionately. Vin had told him the story, describing how guilty Billy had felt since the accident. “You know, this isn’t the first time he’s gotten hurt, son, and it probably won’t be the last. Things like that just have a way of happenin’ to folks. There’s nothing you did that caused him to get hurt.”
Shrugging, the little blond said, “I shouldn’t have said anything about climbing that tree.”
Leaning forward, the healer said, “What if he’d gotten hurt fallin’ off Pony? Or what if he’d fallen in the creek and gotten a cold? What if he got the fishing hook stuck in his hand and it got infected? What if he got too close to Peso and that fool horse had bitten a chunk out of his butt?”
Billy couldn’t help but giggle at that last comment. Nathan smiled, that was what he had hoped to hear. Growing serious, he said, “Billy, would you have brought up climbing the tree if you had known that Chris was going to fall and get hurt?”
“No, ‘course not.”
“Of course not. Now then, if we thought for a minute that you’d have known what was gonna happen to him, and you still talked him into climbing that tree, then that would have been somethin’ all together different. Then we’d have been angry with you for what happened.”
Thinking over the man’s words, Billy frowned up at him. “You’re not angry with me for what happened?”
“Looks to me like you’re the only one that’s angry with you, son,” Nathan said gently. “You know, he’s gonna be all right.”
Hope shone in the child’s eyes for the first time since entering the room. “He will be?”
With a nod the ex-slave said, “Yeah. He’s not gonna feel real good for a while, though, so I’m gonna need your help. Okay?”
Billy managed a small smile. Vin had said almost the same thing. Nodding he said, “Okay.”
Chris looked up as the clinic door opened. A smile lit his face at the sight of the little boy creeping inside on tip-toe. “I’m awake; you don’t have to be quiet.”
With a grin and a giggle the little blond closed the door and hurried across the room. He laid a newspaper and a cloth-wrapped bundle on the edge of the mattress before climbing into the chair sitting near the bed. Sitting down, he retrieved the things and held them out for Larabee to take.
Taking the paper and laying it on his chest to read later, the gunslinger hefted the bundle. “Hmm, what could this be?”
His smile growing wider, the child said, “It’s a cinnamon roll. We had ‘em for breakfast.”
“Oh yeah? Are they good?” He knew from experience that Mary Travis was far better at reporting the news than she was at cooking.
With another giggle, Billy responded, “Mama didn’t make ‘em, we bought ‘em at the restaurant.”
Larabee couldn’t help but smile at the child’s response. “Well, you tell your mama I appreciate it.”
Billy entertained the tall blond with news from town, showing his mother’s skill for gathering information as he related what had happened since his visit the day before. He had come to visit the gunman every morning for over a week. The first two days Chris had barely realized that the child was there, the fever keeping him weak and confused most of the time. But slowly he had become more alert and appreciated the daily visits. He hoped that they were just as beneficial to the little boy. The last thing he wanted was for Billy to continue feeling guilty for the accident.
“Then Mrs. Potter told David that if he didn’t stop teasing Katie, she was gonna send him to work for Miz Inez, cleanin’ out the… um… oh yeah, the spit-oons.” The little blond said as he finished the morning’s report.
Chuckling, Larabee said, “I’ll bet he thinks twice before he hides her doll’s head again.”
“Yeah. He said next time he’s just gonna take the whole doll and drop it down the well.” The little blond announced with another giggle.
Just then the door opened again, and Mary Travis stuck her head inside. She smiled as she saw the gunman awake, talking to her son. “Good morning, Chris. You’re looking better.”
“Morning, Mary, thanks. I’m feeling better. I’ll feel even better when Nathan lets me out of here.” He couldn’t help but sigh.
“He said you’re not going anywhere for another week unless someone comes in more busted up than you are. Then you’re only goin’ as far as your room and he’ll have someone sit on you to keep you in bed there,” Billy explained patiently.
Stifling a laugh, the tall man tried to keep a serious expression on his face. “Nathan’s an old worry wart.”
“He has to be, ‘cause you and the rest of this bunch of yahoos keep getting hurt.”
Sighing, Larabee said, “Just how much did you talk to Nathan when I was sick?”
With a broad grin the boy said, “We talked a whole bunch.”
Laughing softly, Mary said, “Well, you need to come with me, young man. Chris still needs his rest.”
Sobering, the young boy started to complain. “But, Mama…”
Winking at his young friend, Chris said, “That’s okay, Billy. Tell you what. If it’s okay with your mama, as soon as I’m better, me, you and Vin will go on another fishing trip. How does that sound?”
Billy nodded. Turning to his mother he saw her nod in agreement. Settling his gaze back on the gunman he said, “I’d like that, Chris. but… “
“But?” The bed-ridden man prompted.
“No climbing trees!”
Laughing hard now, it took the surprised blond a moment before he could answer. “That’s a deal.”
His smile intact, the little boy climbed off the chair and trotted over to where his mother stood. Taking her hand, he followed her from the room. At the door, he turned, waved and smiled.
Returning the wave, Larabee settled back on the bed as they left the clinic. He was as relieved to see that smile on the child’s face as he was that he would recover from his injuries with his leg intact. Letting his eyes drift closed, the convalescing man allowed sleep to claim him as visions of taking the little boy fishing once more filled his mind.
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