Main Characters: Chris, Vin, OCs
Notes: Written for Joy K, in celebration of her birthday.
Webmaster Note: This story was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in July 2012.
“Jesus, Tanner! Why the hell do you put up with that damned animal?” Chris Larabee knelt down next to his friend, shaking his head at the other man’s plight.
“R-right now... I couldn’t tell... y’,” Vin rasped out between clinched teeth. He lay on his back, staring up at the gunfighter. “G-gimme a... hand.”
Chris reached down and grabbed the slender hunter’s arm, preparing to haul him to his feet. Before he could move the man more than a few inches, though, Tanner screamed in pain. Larabee eased him back to the ground. “Where’s it hurt?”
Gasping, tears of pain rolling down his face, the younger man pointed to his side. Chris gingerly moved layers of clothing to find a large discolored patch over the man’s left side. He carefully probed the area, the slightest touch bringing the young man more pain. Finally he lowered the clothing, shaking his head. “Think that damn mule busted your ribs, pard.”
“Wh-where... is he?”
Chris scanned the surrounding area, finally spotting the big black in the distance, calmly grazing on the long prairie grass. “He’s out there about a quarter mile.”
“L-let’s go... get’m.” Tanner struggled to get up.
Larabee put a hand on the lean shoulder, pressing the other man back to the ground. “Whoa there, pard. You lay still till I can get you patched up. He’s not going anywhere for the time being, we’ll get him later.”
It took very little to convince Tanner, the pain in his side almost overwhelming. He lay staring up into the brilliantly blue afternoon sky, struggling to keep from crying out every time he took a breath. Chris returned to his side, his saddlebags in hand. Then the pain really began.
With the blond’s help he sat up, leaning heavily against his friend for a few minutes while he fought back the pain and the threatening blackness. Larabee helped him strip to the waist, laying the layers of clothing on the ground beside the injured man as he did. Then he began wrapping long strips of bandage, supplied as always by Nathan Jackson, around the man’s lean abdomen. He forced himself to continue, not stopping until he was finished, despite the other man’s pain-filled groans. Finally tying off the bindings, he managed to catch Tanner before the younger man collapsed to the ground. Chris eased him to the grass, gently rubbing the man’s slender arm. “You just rest easy pard. Catch your breath, then we’ll get after that hard-headed sonofabitch.”
Smiling through the pain, Tanner grated out, “might be h-hard... headed, but he keeps life... interestin’.”
Choosing not to respond to that comment, Chris shook his head and went to his own black gelding. Pony stood patiently as ever, waiting. Taking down his canteen from the saddle, he returned to where Vin lay. Dropping to his knees next to the man, he helped him sit up and handed him the canteen.
Vin drank the tepid water slowly, trying hard to gather his thoughts. He and Larabee had been coming back from Devil’s Forge, having delivered a man suspected of shooting and killing a bank teller there during the course of robbing the bank. The man had gotten a total of four hundred dollars for his trouble. While the two men had stopped to rest the horses during the hottest part of the afternoon, Peso had taken it in his head to wander off. He had gone after the hardheaded animal, only to be kicked hard for his trouble.
“Here, take a drink of this. Reckon it’ll take the edge of the pain.” Chris handed his injured friend his flask of whiskey, staying near while Tanner took a long drink. After the sharpshooter returned the flask to him, he once more helped him to sit up and slipped the man’s layers of clothes back on. Then, he continued, “why don’t you rest here, I’ll go drag his sorry ass back here.”
“Not likely,” Tanner said as one side of his mouth turned up in a grin. “Y’ know he ain’t like t’ come to y’. Give me a hand up.”
Shaking his head at the man’s stubborn streak, Chris slid his arms beneath the man’s shoulders and eased him off the ground. As Vin gained his feet, he swayed, only Larabee’s firm hold keeping him from collapsing once more. The gunslinger stood quietly, waiting until his friend nodded to let him know he was all right. Slowly they walked to his black gelding, Chris helping him into the saddle. Once Tanner was steady, he stepped up onto Pony’s back behind him, taking the reins as he did. Without another word, the two men headed off after the ill-tempered animal that had put them in their current predicament.
Irritatingly, the big animal watched them approach, then trotted away before they were within reach. With a muttered curse, Chris slapped the reins, nudging his own horse forward at a canter. The big black sauntered off again, this time with a neigh that sounded like nothing so much as taunting laughter. When he moved out of reach a third time, the blond muttered, “he does that again, I’m shooting his damn ass.”
Chuckling, Tanner replied, “ain’t worth the bullet. He ain’t gonna stay fer y’… let me down, and I’ll go after him myself.”
“You ain’t in any shape to chase that damn horse down,” Larabee argued.
“Don’t aim t’ chase him nowhere.”
Shaking his head, the blond reined in his black and slid from his back. Reaching up, he helped the slim tracker to the ground. Vin groaned and leaned against the blond until the world stopped spinning out of control. Finally lifting his head, he moved slowly away from his friend and let loose with a shrill whistle.
The big black’s head came up, his ears twitching at the familiar sound. He watched his master curiously, but made no move to come to the call. Tanner grumbled under his breath and reached into his pocket and retrieved several molasses candies. He held one out on an open hand. “Y’ want some a these y’ mule, git yer ass over here.”
Peso huffed and snorted, stomping a hoof onto the hard-packed earth. When he saw that none of it was going to provide him with any of the treats, he finally shuffled over to where the tracker stood. As he allowed his mount to lip the candy from his hand, Vin grabbed the reins. “Too bad y’ ain’t as smart as y’ think y’ are.”
They rode for the rest of the afternoon, Chris casting a furtive glance at his friend every few minutes. Vin was pale, a thin sheen of perspiration glistening on his finely chiseled face. He kept his lips pressed tightly closed, but his glistening eyes screamed with pain at nearly every step the horse took. The stubborn fool had dismissed his concern, however, lying that he was fine. They rode in silence most of the day, which wasn’t unusual for the two men.
As evening drew near, the blond said, “reckon we need to find somewhere to make camp.”
A nod was the blond’s only answer. Vin was more than ready to stop for a few hours… for the night… hell, at this point, he just wanted to lie down and die. Pain burned through his spare frame like a wildfire, each step his horse took fanning the flames ever higher. But a look at the sky told him that it wouldn’t be a very comfortable night.
As if reading his friend’s mind, Chris looked up as well, cursing under his breath. “Gonna rain.”
With another nod, Vin pulled Peso to a stop and slowly pulled his spyglass from his pocket. He had to wipe a trembling hand across his eyes twice before his vision cleared enough to allow him to scan the area around them. After a long moment, he lowered the glass and said quietly, “homestead over yonder.”
Larabee took the ‘glass from his friend and trained it in the direction indicated. He saw a small house and barn less than a mile away. Handing the instrument back to Tanner, he said, “might let us bunk in the barn. Think you can last another mile?”
“Better than spendin’ the night wet,” the injured man replied. Kicking his black with more force than usual, he led them off.
Anna Clark frowned as she looked through the open door into the gathering gloom. She watched as a pair of riders drew near the house. Hurriedly throwing the wash water out into the dooryard, she closed the door and called into the home’s second room. “Jacob? Looks like we got visitors.”
Jacob Clark stepped into the big main room, their young daughter settled in the crook of his arm. He had just come in from the field and, as usual, wanted to spend a few minutes with their only child. Joy snuggled against him, a smile on her cherubic young face. He didn’t allow any of the concern he felt at his wife’s announcement to show in his voice as he said, “anyone we know?”
“No, I don’t believe so. Can’t see them real clear yet.”
Handing their daughter to his wife, Jacob said, “you get on back in the other room ‘til I find out what they want.”
Anna nodded and hurried across the room, Joy tucked against her. The little girl whimpered, reaching for her father, but otherwise went quietly. Born in that very house she was used to such precautions when strangers appeared on the prairie.
Clark pulled the shotgun from its roost above the door, which he opened to watch the newcomers approach. Glancing back, he saw Anna in the opposite doorway. She held the baby with one hand while she held the old Colt in the other. He offered her a brief, worried, smile before stepping outside to greet the riders.
Jacob studied the two men as they drew closer. One was all in black, his long duster whipping around him in the growing wind as he rode easy in the saddle. The man beside him was dressed in buckskin, his long hair fluttering around a face hidden by a wide-brimmed hat. Unlike his companion, this man rode ramrod straight. As they reined their horses in, he saw that one of the second man’s hands was clenched around his saddle horn with a death grip. Realizing the man was injured, the young homesteader grew even more concerned, wondering what had happened.
“Evening,” the man in black said, touching the brim of his hat.
“Evenin’,” Clark replied.
Assessing the man in an instant, Chris decided that the truth would be the only way to go with this one. “My friend’s hurt… horse kicked him.”
“Y’all out here on business?”
Nodding, Larabee said, “just coming back from delivering a prisoner for trial at Devil’s Forge.”
“More or less,” Chris said quietly. He would never admit to being an actual officer of the law, no matter how long they kept the peace in Four Corners. “With the storm brewing, we wondered if we could have the use of your barn for the night. We’ll be glad to pay – “
“Nonsense.” All three men looked to find Anna in the doorway, Joy peeking from behind her skirts.
“Anna,” the young man’s voice held a note of warning. “You get on back inside and let me handle this.”
“I’m sorry Jacob, but wasn’t raised to turn away a body in need.”
Chris touched his fingers to the brim of his hat, offering the young woman a smile. Then he returned his attention to her husband. “Like I said, we’ll be glad to pay, and we’ll be out of here first thing in the morning.”
“Jacob,” Anna tried again, “when that storm hits, you know as well as I do that the barn won’t keep the rain out. This man is hurt –“
“Vin, ma’am,” the sharpshooter nodded, touching the bring of his hat as well, “Vin Tanner.”
She nodded in return, smiling pleasantly back at the two handsome strangers. “Have you men eaten?”
“We ate earlier, ma’am,” Chris responded, “and we’ve got enough hard tack to hold us tonight. All we need is a place to bunk.”
Watching the buckskin-clad man as he shifted painfully in the saddle, she shook her head and directed her remark to the blond. “Hard tack won’t keep his strength up. Do you have far to ride?”
“Another couple of days, ma’am,” the gunman replied.
“Jacob,” she said quietly, “we can’t just let them stay out in this when we’ve got a warm hearth and hot food.”
“Anna,” her husband’s voice was tight with frustration now, even though he knew his wife well enough to know she would win the argument eventually. “I told you to get back inside.”
“And I told you I ain’t one to turn away a body in need. Mr. Tanner’s ready to fall out of the saddle, and he sure doesn’t look like a threat.”
Choosing to ignore his wife for the time being, Clark asked, “you say you were delivering a prisoner?”
“Man that robbed the bank up there. We took him there to stand trial before Judge Travis.”
“You answer to Travis?”
Chris nodded, but offered no more.
“You men from Four Corners way?”
“Yes sir,” Vin put in.
Jacob visibly relaxed. He had heard of a bank robbery at Devil’s Forge and everyone in the area had heard tales of the seven men who provided security in the little town where Travis’ daughter in law and grandson lived. “Y’all step down, we’ll share what we’ve got with you.”
“Thank you.” Larabee dropped from the saddle, then moved around to help Tanner to the ground.
Although the only sound from the injured tracker was a sharp intake of breath, it was easy to see that he was in pain. He leaned heavily on his friend for a minute, and didn’t quite straighten up when he stepped away. Tanner didn’t argue when Chris didn’t let go completely, guiding him into the little house behind the young woman. Inside, he shuffled along beside the gunslinger, easing himself slowly down into the big rocking chair Anna indicated. The blond helped him out of his jacket and took his hat.
“Rest easy, I’ll go take care of the horses.”
Vin settled back with a soft groan, nodding shortly in answer.
“And if you hear a gunshot, be ready to look for a new horse,” Larabee quipped as he disappeared out the door.
Vin smiled wanly, leaning his head back against the dark, warm wood. The rocker was sitting at the edge of the hearth and, even though the day was hot, it felt good to soak in the comfort of the fire. He rocked gently, his eyes closed, resting as well as he could. His entire body ached, and his side was a constant source of agony. He knew that he would pay dearly for riding with the broken bones, but wasn’t about to hole up somewhere long enough to heal.
The rootless young man smiled at the thought that there was somewhere so special to him that he was willing to endure the pain in order to return. It was a new feeling, and one he cherished. Moving carefully, he settled more comfortably into the chair. He frowned curiously as he felt something touch his leg lightly. Slowly opening his eyes, he saw the tiny girl he had seen peeking around Mrs. Clark earlier. She looked up at him, her dark brown eyes growing wide when she saw him looking back down at her. Hesitating only a few seconds, she evidently decided that he was safe. Her tiny face lit in a smile.
“Howdy, punkin,” Vin said softly. “What’s yer name?”
She giggled shyly then scurried away to hide behind her mother once more. The tot peered around her mother, one tiny hand clutching Mrs. Clark’s skirts. Giggling once again, she buried her face in the dark material.
Anna looked up from where she was adding vegetables to a big pot hanging in the fireplace. Smiling, she said, “her name’s Joy, Mr. Tanner.”
“Vin, ma’am,” he responded. Peering around at the child from where he sat, he said, “hi there, Miss Joy.”
She scampered away, disappearing into the little house’s other room. Vin looked up at her mother, concerned that he had frightened the little girl. Then he heard the patter of tiny feet, and Joy returned. She dashed right up to him boldly, holding up a lovingly made rag doll.
Tanner was uncertain as to what the gesture meant, and looked to her mother for direction.
“That’s her doll, Hannah, Mr. Ta --, Vin. She’s trusting you with her treasure.”
The sharpshooter grinned, touched by the child’s loving nature. He reached out a hand and accepted the toy when she pressed it toward him. Tucking the little prize against his chest, he said, “Thank y’ Miss Joy. I ‘preciate the company.”
Joy giggled again and returned to her hiding place at her mother’s side.
Chris stripped Peso and began rubbing the big animal down. In the next stall Mr. Clark was doing the same to Pony. Larabee wasn’t about to foist the care of Tanner’s unpredictable mount on their host. So far the black was behaving, allowing him to see to his needs. The blond wasn’t about to be lulled into a sense of trust, however, and kept a watchful eye on the beast.
“Fine lookin’ animal,” Jacob commented as he groomed the black gelding.
“Thanks,” the stoic man in black said evenly.
“Hopin’ t’ make enough off the next harvest t’ buy some good stock myself.”
Nodding, the blond said, “good investment.”
The two men returned to their work, finishing in silence. After the animals were bedded down, they started for the house. By the time they arrived, the storm was there to meet them, pelting them with fat, cold raindrops. The two dashed inside, skidding to a stop at the sight that greeted them. Vin had dozed off in the rocking chair, his head tilted back against the wooden back. Joy was quietly playing at his feet, having piled her meager supply of handmade toys in his lap.
Taking in the sight of Vin Tanner slouched in the chair, dolls and sock puppets decorating his spare lap, Chris found it very difficult not to burst out laughing. Turning to the little girl’s father with a broad grin, he whispered, “looks damned comfortable, don’t he?”
Grinning as well, Jacob Clark nodded. “Think Joy’s taken a shine to him.”
Smiling when she saw where the two men had their attention focused, Anna said quietly, “I started to scold her about it, but there didn’t seem to be any harm.”
“No harm,” Larabee agreed with a wink.
“You two sit down and I’ll bring you some coffee.”
“Don’t go to any bother on my account,” Chris said quickly.
“No bother at all,” Mrs. Clark reassured him.
The men settled in at the table and Jacob’s wife brought them both steaming mugs a few minutes later. Vin continued to doze, seemingly unaware that the little girl continued to play at his feet. On her part, Joy seemed quite content to share her toys. She would take one from his lap, play with it for a time, then return it and take another.
The little house was soon filled with the smell of warm bread and stew. It was a pleasant alternative to the storm they heard howling outside. Chris watched the little girl with amusement as she continued playing at the buckskin-clad man’s feet. He was more and more glad that they had happened on the little homestead. The torrent outside would have done more harm than good to his injured friend.
“Dinner’s ready,” Anna announced, as she carried the heavy kettle to the table. She followed that with the warm bread and fresh butter, then set the coffee pot within easy reach.
Chris stole across the room to where his friend slept. Gently touching the man’s arm, he couldn’t help but chuckle as the blue eyes flashed open and Vin grunted as his body responded with a jerk. “Time to eat, pard.”
Rubbing a hand across his face, Tanner nodded. He looked down curiously to find his lap littered with toys. Grinning, he looked down at the little girl at his feet. “Why thank y’ Miss Joy. It was right nice of y’ t’ share yer play-pretties with me.”
Joy giggled, then scurried away to hide herself behind her mother’s skirts once more.
After handing the toys over and gingerly levering himself off the chair, Vin hardly argued when Chris helped him to stand. He moved stiffly the few steps to the table, leaning against it while Jacob scooted the rocker up behind him. He eased himself onto the seat with a tired sigh. “Reckon I’m gonna have t’ have a few words with that mule in th’ mornin’.”
“Reckon so,” Larabee agreed.
The little group at the table shared the evening meal, their conversation light and friendly. Vin managed to eat most of his meal before the pain in his side grew too intense. He dropped back against the headrest with a soft groan. Closing his eyes, he let the waves of pain and nausea wash over him. A familiar touch on his arm caused him to look up, and he found the gunman looking down at him with concern. “’M alright, cowboy.”
“No, you’re not,” Larabee said quietly.
“Why don’t you take him back to our room,” Anna said decisively. “He’ll rest a lot better than he can laying out here on the floor.”
“No ma’am!” Vin argued. “I ain’t takin’ yer bed, why –“
She raised her hand, stilling the argument. “I won’t hear of it any other way. Jacob and I will be just fine out here, and we’ll bring Joy’s bed out here as well. You men get your rest.”
“Might as well agree with her,” Jacob said with a resigned shake of his head. “She never was one t’ give up easy. She’s right though, we’ll be fine out here.”
Torn between his strong sense of chivalry and his friend’s need for a good night’s sleep, Chris hesitated. Vin’s ashen features made his decision for him quickly, however. Nodding, the blond said, “thank you ma’am.”
“Chris – “ Tanner started to argue.
The gunman quieted his friend with a glare. “Mrs. Clark’s right, Vin. If we’re going to get back on the road in the morning, you’re going to need a lot more rest than you’ll get on the floor. Now come on, let’s get you settled.”
Swallowing his pride when he realized there would be no winning the argument, Tanner nodded shortly at the woman. “Thank you ma’am.”
They made their way slowly into the little bedroom, Vin leaning tiredly against his friend. He barely noticed when Chris settled him on the edge of the bed and started to ease his shirt off. Helping as much as possible, Tanner found himself slowly easing toward sleep. He allowed the gunman to lower him to the bed, slip off his gunbelt and boots, and lift his legs onto the mattress as well.
Chris carefully covered the now sleeping form, tucking the blankets around the lithe frame. He absently brushed the unruly curls from the waxen face, studying the finely chiseled features. Even sleeping the pain didn’t quite leave the sharpshooter’s face. The blond frowned as worry tugged at him. If indeed they left in the morning, he would talk to Jacob about borrowing their wagon.
A tiny giggle caught the man in black’s attention, and he turned to find the little girl peeking around the open door. With a smile, he knelt down so he could look into her dark eyes. “Sorry, little one, he’s sleeping right now.” The tiny child continued to peer into the room as if she didn’t believe the blond’s words. Shaking his head, Larabee held out a hand and said, “come on in and see if you want to.”
Joy toddled into the room, trying very hard to tiptoe. She carried her rag doll in one arm, the yarn-covered head bobbing over her little limb. Creeping toward the man in the bed, she stretched upward, trying to see over the mattress.
Perching carefully on the edge of the bed, Chris reached out tentatively toward her. When she gave no indication of being scared, he lifted her to his lap. Together they watched the sharpshooter sleep. The gunman wasn’t certain as to why the little girl was so infatuated with his friend, but it was clear that she was. He doubted that she had taken her eyes off him since they had arrived.
“Joy,” Anna’s voice came to them from the doorway.
Chris turned and smiled at her. “She’s making certain he doesn’t get too lonely.”
Clucking her tongue, the young mother said, “well, don’t let her be a nuisance.”
Nodding, Chris turned back to resume his vigil, the little body tucked against him comfortably. He couldn’t help but remember times when another small body snuggled against him, and Larabee found himself drifting back through those memories. A sense of bittersweet melancholy settled over the blond. Then he felt a tug and looked down at the little girl. She was looking up at him, concern evident in her dark eyes. He was taken aback at how clearly the worry shown in one so little, and how easily she read his soul. The baby lifted her doll up, once more offering her treasured possession.
The gunman smiled at the gesture and accepted the gift with all the dignity it deserved. “Thank you little one. I guess I could use something to hold onto once in a while.” Joy released her rag doll and settled back in the crook of the black clad arm. Snuggling against the lean man, she returned to watching Vin. A short time later Chris felt her relax and leaned down to find that she had gone to sleep. He smiled wistfully and quietly carried her into the other room to where her parents were sitting near the hearth, listening to the storm.
Anna started to rise, but Chris simply said, “where do you want her?” He carried the tot to the crib that Jacob had brought from the bedroom and gently placed her on the mattress. He slipped off her shoes and pulled the blankets up over her. Last of all, he gently placed the rag doll next to her on the pillow. Before he turned, the blond marshaled the emotions that raced through him, and presented his impassive, gunfighter's face to the couple. Without another word he nodded and returned to where his friend lay.
The storm raged throughout the night, banging against the little house. Chris had pulled off his gunbelt and duster, hat and boots, stretching out on the bed next to Vin. He dozed, listening for signs that the other man was waking or having any sort of pain. The sharpshooter barely moved, the long hours in the saddle and the pain of his injuries keeping him deep asleep. Just before dawn he heard a soft moan and turned to find the younger man stirring.
Sleep dulled blue eyes blinked in his direction, and a rough voice croaked, “mornin’.”
“How’s th’ pain?”
“Pain’s fine… I’ve been in better shape, though.”
Larabee grinned in sympathy. “Thought I’d talk to Jacob about the loan of his wagon to get you home, then I’ll bring it back out to them later. Don’t think you need to try and sit that damn mule for another two days.”
“Ah hell, Chris, I’m –“
“Don’t you try arguing with me Tanner,” Chris growled. “You won’t win.”
“That so?” Vin growled back.
“Yeah, that’s so. Now, the storm’s letting up if you feel the need to visit the privy or anything.”
“Jesus, Chris, I can handle that on my own.”
“Never said you couldn’t.”
“Sure actin’ like it.”
A small sound caught their attention, and both men looked up to find the little cherub of the house standing in the doorway. Her chubby arms were folded across her chest and she was glaring… GLARING… at Chris.
The blond sighed, chuckled, and rubbed his thumb and forefinger across the bridge of his nose. “Damn, pard, looks like I’m outnumbered.”
Vin smiled, and held out his hand toward the little girl. “It’s okay, Miss Joy, his growl’s worse ‘n his bite.”
Although she didn’t really understand his words, Joy relaxed, then toddled to his side. She reached out a hand, and he closed his fingers around it. She tugged, as is she would pull him out of the bed herself. With a broad grin, Vin pushed himself up and to the edge of the bed. Then he moaned, and teetered as pain washed over him. He could see Joy’s face fall, but couldn’t spare the strength to comfort her.
Chris reached over and steadied the other man, then climbed around to sit beside him. Keeping an arm around the broad shoulders, he said quietly, “wanna try that again?”
“N-not at th’ moment.”
Larabee looked down to see the little girl staring up at him questioningly. “He’s a stubborn cuss, honey, but he’ll be okay in a minute. Reckon he’ll listen to me next time.”
Sighing, the gunslinger said, “why ain’t I surprised?”
“Joy!” Jacob came to the open door, frowning at his daughter. Then he looked up at the two men. “Sorry, fellas, she’s been sneakin’ outta her bed lately.”
Grinning, Chris said, “she was just checking to make certain that I was taking care of this fool the way she thought I should be.”
Smiling, Joy’s father came in and scooped her up into his arms. “Guess she’s more like her Mama than I thought… always has to get in the middle of things.”
Larabee smiled, but said nothing. Instead he busied himself in helping the sharpshooter pull his boots on, ignoring the man’s grousing as he did. That done, he reached out a hand and pulled the lean man to his feet. “Come on you blamed fool, let’s get you moving before I get in trouble with your little guardian angel again.”
Jacob and Anna had quickly agreed to allow the two men to take their wagon while they all enjoyed breakfast. Chris offered to pay them for the use, but the Clark’s wouldn’t hear of it. The gunman looked around at the spare, make-do home, and mentally listed some of the things he could see them doing without. While he wasn’t a rich man by any means, he would make certain to return the borrowed rig bearing some of those things.
Soon after breakfast, the rig was readied, and a grumbling Vin Tanner bundled into the straw and blanket covered bed. Turning his back on the grousing sharpshooter, he put out his hand and warmly shook the one Jacob Clark extended. Then he smiled as Anna offered up a covered basket. With a broad grin, the blond said, “we’re in your debt. You folks have been real generous to a couple of trail weary men you could have turned away.”
“No, we couldn’t have,” Anna said softly. “I wasn’t put on this earth to do such a thing.”
Touching his fingers to his hat brim, Larabee said, “no ma’am, I reckon you weren’t.”
Joy peered from around her mother’s skirts, her dark eyes swimming with tears. Feeling her sorrow tugging at his heartstrings, the hardened gunman reached out and pulled her into his arms. He turned so she could see Vin, and felt her tiny body tense in his arms.
Tanner looked up into the little face, a lump in his throat at the sadness he saw there. “Hey, Miss Joy. Now, don’t you go lookin’ so sad, missy. Reckon I’ll be stoppin’ by from time t’ time, t’ play with yer toys.” He reached up and tweaked her nose, smiling when she giggled.
Handing the little girl back to her parents, Chris climbed into the wagon and shook the reins. As they started off, both men waved to the Clark family. Jacob and Anna waved back. Cuddled in her mother’s arms, Joy waved as well. Then all of the adults were stopped in their tracks as a tiny voice called out –
They rode tiredly into town two days later, dusty and weary from the long trip. Chris turned the wagon in toward the clinic and pulled himself off the wagon seat with a groan. Grumbling about being too damn old to be traveling all over hell’s half acre, he went to the back of the wagon. Finding the sharpshooter leaning against the wooden side there, he helped him down. Tanner moved stiffly, but he was in better shape than he had been when they left the Clark homestead. By the time the young man reached the ground, the others were approaching.
“Ah, hell,” Vin grumbled as he saw the others watching him closely.
“Looks like you boys ran into trouble,” Buck said with a grin.
“Nothin’ bad,” Tanner said quickly, hoping that Chris wouldn’t share the details of his misadventure with the big black.
“What happened?” Nathan asked in a serious tone.
“He’s got some busted ribs,” Larabee answered. “We borrowed the wagon a couple of days ago, and I’ve been trying to keep him as quiet as possible.”
“No wonder y’ look like you’re ready to drop,” Wilmington grinned. “What say I buy you a beer after we get the gimp settled in?”
“Go t’ hell, Bucklin,” Tanner growled.
“Come on,” Chris said as he tugged at the buckskin-clad arm. “Let’s get you upstairs so Nathan can look you over.”
“Y’ know why he’s gonna buy th’ beer, he’s gonna be tryin’ his damndest t’ find out all what happened,” the sharpshooter continued to grouse as he shuffled tiredly toward the long staircase.
“Well, hell, I wasn’t gonna tell them about that little seňorita getting so rowdy that she busted your ribs,” the blond said, just loud enough that the others could hear. “I mean, just because you spent the night with that little wildcat –“
“Hey, Vin!” Wilmington called out. When the others turned, he held up the object he had found tucked beneath the blankets. “She give y’ this for a good luck charm then?”
Tanner groaned as he saw what Buck was holding. It was Joy’s rag doll. They had found the little treasure tucked beneath the blankets when they had stopped the first night. Chris had promised to return the toy with the wagon. Looking at his friend, he saw humor glittering in the man’s hazel green eyes. Cursing under his breath, he said, “ain’t gonna live this down any time soon, am I?”
“Nope,” Larabee said evenly. “Don’t think you are.”
Anna and Jacob had heard the wagon pull up just as dawn broke, finally going to the door when no one knocked. They found their wagon just outside, a new pair of horses standing quietly before it. Looking around with confusion, they saw a lone rider just topping the rise nearby, his long duster flapping in the wind behind him. Only when the man disappeared did they go to the wagon. There in the bed they found several parcels, each filled with household goods that they had been doing without for some time. In the last parcel, they found not only Joy’s rag doll, but a new, store bought doll as well. At the bottom of the package they found a note:
“To our little Guardian Angel –
may you have as much ‘Joy’ in your life as you’ve given us.
Chris and Vin.”
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