Main Characters: Seven
Notes: This is a companion-piece for Bonds, but can stand alone. This piece of fic is written for Renee, for her birthday. The owwies are a little spread out, but Chris bears the brunt. Likewise, there’s a delegation of comforting, but Vin gets the last word there;)
Webmaster Note: This fic was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in June 2012.
Love is all we have, the only way that each can help the other.
~~Euripides, Orestes, 408 BC~~
Chris Larabee glared out on the muddy street, angry at the heavy clouds that were threatening yet another rain storm. Since he had brought a seriously injured Vin Tanner into town three days ago, the town had been awash. He was sick of worrying about his friend, tired of being cooped up by the weather, and anxious to hunt down the men who had nearly killed Vin.
The younger man was making a slow but steady recovery, still bedded down in Nathan Jackson’s clinic and grousing about that fact. He was still suffering from the effects of severe blood lost, the fact that they had been forced to cauterize the wound, and a three day trip to get to town. The bullet had torn up his shoulder and fractured the bone. He complained whenever he was awake about the fact that he was ‘trussed up like a turkey on Thanksgiving’, and his waking time was increasing. Chris mused that, as Vin’s time awake increased, Nathan’s patience decreased.
Well, it didn’t seem like any of them were long on patience at the minute. He watched as Buck and JD engaged in what had to be their tenth argument of the day. Practically jumping up and down with frustration, Dunne bounced on the boardwalk, arms flailing. Only a couple of feet away, Buck Wilmington was leaning against an upright, arms folded across his chest. His appearance was deceiving, however, the big man was anything but relaxed. Chris wondered how long it would be before the volcano erupted.
The sound of heavy footsteps approaching along the boardwalk drew Larabee’s attention. Turning, he saw the dark healer storming toward him. “Nathan,” he said quietly.
“Chris,” Jackson acknowledged in a seething tone.
“I take it he’s acting up, again.”
“Actin’ up and workin’ on gettin’ himself shot again.”
The blond couldn’t help but chuckle. “Trying to sneak out?”
Taking a deep breath to calm himself, the former slave managed a smile, “Made it to the livery this time. I swear I’m turnin’ the clinic into a cell one of these days, lock y’all up when you get hurt.”
Settling his chair down on four legs, Larabee said, “Want me to go sit on him for a while?”
Shrugging, the big man said, “Suit yourself. He’s wore out and sleepin’ right now. Thought I’d get some lunch.”
Stretching to his feet, the gunman said, “You take your time, I’ll go make certain he stays put.”
Grinning broadly, Jackson said, “Thanks Chris.”
“Nathan send y’ t’ nail me to th’ bed?” Tanner mumbled sleepily from the old bed that dominated the main room of the little clinic.
“Nah, thought I’d just shoot you in the leg for now, save us all a lot of worry,” Chris teased.
Pushing himself up against the headboard awkwardly with one arm, Vin glowered in response. “Damn man could just let me outta here ‘n let me be. I’d just ‘s soon go back to m’ own bed, I’d sleep better.”
“Vin, it’s been raining since we got back. You’d have pneumonia after the first night in that damn wagon of yours.”
“I’d get a room at Virginia’s, or the saloon, then. Just feelin’ crowded here.”
“Ain’t never been a liar, Larabee,” Tanner said defensively.
“No, but you do tend to bend things to suit you,” Chris replied evenly. “You might get a room, but still sneak off and sleep in your wagon.”
Vin tried to hold onto his bad mood, but couldn’t help but smile a little at his friend’s assessment. “I ain’t sure I like havin’ someone knowin’ me so well.”
Any further banter was ended when Josiah Sanchez bounded into the room. “Chris, Frank Martin just rode in. Those outlaws are on the move again, they attacked the stage.”
“Damn it,” the gunman growled. “You go get Buck and JD, I’ll let Nathan and Ezra know we’re leaving.” As, the big man nodded and disappeared out the door, Larabee turned back to find Tanner struggling to get to his feet. “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”
“Y’ ain’t gonna...be able t’ tra...track ‘em without me.”
Stomping across the room, the man in black grabbed the worn boots from the tracker’s trembling grasp with one hand. With the other he pushed the wounded man back on the bed. “We’ll manage, Vin. You try and get out of this bed again and I will shoot you in the leg.”
“Chris – “
“Forget it, Vin,” the older man insisted. His voice softening, he continued, “look pard, I’m not about to let these bastards go free. I made a promise the day they shot you, that I will make them pay for ever bit of pain they’ve caused. I want your word that you’ll let me take care of things.”
Under the even, hazel gaze, the blue eyes dropped. “Y’ got m’ word.”
With a smile, Larabee extended his hand. The two men clasped forearms, then the blond strode from the room.
While Ezra Standish stayed behind to tend to the business of the town, and Nathan Jackson to keep the stubborn ex-bounty hunter from trying to follow them, the other four peacekeepers followed Martin out of town. It took a little over an hour to reach the stagecoach, where they found the driver, the shotgun rider, and three passengers murdered. Settling the bodies inside the coach, they sent it back with Martin while they followed the tracks. While the earlier rains left it more difficult for them to hide their trail, the heavy clouds overhead threatened more rain to obliterate those signs. Time was short if they were to have any hope of capturing the men.
By the time they had followed the tracks a few miles, the clouds opened and yet another storm drenched the land. The quartet huddled into their coats, the horses slowed to a walk, but they continued on. The rainstorm was brief but efficient, destroying any indication as to where the outlaws had gone. Riding along the same direction the tracks had been heading, they tried in vain to pick up more signs. Coming to a point where two options presented themselves, Chris called a halt.
“Buck, JD, you take the left trail. Josiah, you and I’ll take the right.”
Touching the brim of his hat, the former preacher turned to Dunne and Wilmington, saying, “The Good Lord keep you safe brothers.”
“Too bad Ezra ain’t here,” Buck quipped, “We could get a bet goin’ as t’ who gets to ‘m first.”
Tipping his hat, the young sheriff rode off, leaving the big ladies man to catch up with him. Watching the unlikely friends, Chris shook his head. “The Good Lord’s gonna have a full time job keeping those two fools safe.”
With a hearty laugh, Sanchez responded, “Hopefully He’s up to the task.” The two men started off along their chosen trail.
“Ah, c’mon Nathan,” Tanner groused. While he was relieved that the healer had consented to let him leave the clinic, he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t just stop by the livery for a few minutes.
“Vin, I swear, if I see you anywhere near the livery I’m gonna bust your head. Now, I told you, you can leave as long as you do what I tell you. Buck said you can use his room, and since it’s on the ground floor I think that’s a good idea. Least I won’t have to worry ‘bout you fallin’ down the stairs and breakin’ your neck. You can go to the saloon or the restaurant as long as me or Ezra’ with you. You can sit on the ‘walk as long as it ain’t rainin’, and if you’re real good I’ll let you go visit that stubborn mule a yours in a day or two, as long as I’m with you.”
Sighing, the young man tried glaring at the healer, to little effect. “All right.” He knew he had pushed the bigger man to the limit.
Jackson wasn’t happy about the change of plans, and Vin’s early release. However, he wasn’t certain what the attack on the coach might have entailed, and he could very well have need of his clinic for newly wounded. Glaring at the smaller man for good measure, he said, “And, if you’re thinking otherwise, I told Yosemite to sit on you if you sneak over there and even look like you wanna take Peso out.”
Cursing under his breath, the injured man moved gingerly across the clinic. Jackson walked behind him, taking his uninjured arm when he faltered at the head of the stairs. Carefully they made their way down the stairway.
“Nathan, y’ know...how Buck keeps...his room...may-maybe I shouldn’t...” Tanner tried to protest, although he was out of breath from the simple task of walking down the wooden steps.
“I took care of it, it’s all cleaned up, just for you. Even dirty it’d be better than that raggedy, canvas hovel of yours,” the former slave countered.
“Hey!” The tiring man said breathlessly. “Th-that’s my...home!”
Chuckling, Nathan said, “sorry,” as he tightened his grip on his friend.
They rode until shortly before nightfall, finding shelter from the foul weather in a glade of trees. Managing to find enough dry wood to build a fire, Josiah set up camp while Chris caught their dinner in a nearby stream. As it had been since they left the company of the other two men, things were quiet. Josiah had no problem with the silence, he was adaptable to any of the others moods. With Chris and Vin, he knew that conversation would be sparse unless he initiated it. With the young tracker, he could typically elicit stories of his time with the Indians, trading them for stories of his own travels.
With Chris, though, he typically didn’t expect more than a word or two from time to time, and little not pertaining to the business at hand. So, he spent his time in quiet contemplation. This time was no exception. Catching and cleaning the fish, the blond handed them over to him for cooking while he wandered off into the deepening shadows. Called back by the dinner’s aroma, he ate, asked Josiah which watch he would prefer, and retired to his bedroll when he agreed to take the second.
Sanchez pulled back into the shadows and contemplated the enigma that was Chris Larabee. He knew most of what he did from observation, or second hand from Buck. They all knew, of course, of his loss... had ridden with, and stood by him as he hunted down some of those responsible for that loss. But, beyond that, he knew very little about the man who had become their leader as easily as most men breathe.
Josiah had decided some time ago that Larabee was, without a doubt, one of the most intelligent men he had ever known. He often spent hours on the boardwalks of Four Corners, with one eye on the town, and the other on a book. Josiah had chanced to see the authors of some of them...Dickens, Byron, Cervantes and Spinoza... not one by Jock Steele or others prone to fanciful tales. Beyond a knowledge born of books, Chris was well-versed in life, and humanity. He had watched the blond read a man as easily as Vin read a trail, assessing their worth in the blink of an eye. Or the draw of a gun. And he had yet to see the gunman read the signs wrong.
And Larabee could unerringly see and fill an unmet need. He had drawn the other six of them together, blending their unique gifts to form a strong, solid brotherhood. Josiah wondered if Chris Larabee was even aware of how pivotal his role had been in what they had built over the past several months. But, trained as a tender of souls almost since birth, the former preacher saw something else when he looked into the gunslinger’s face. He saw a being far more fragile, more vulnerable, than any might think. The granite-hard facade surrounded and protected a soul that, despite its grievous wounds, sought out others; sought to care for and to be cared for by those few he allowed into his life.
He hid it well, or thought he did. The first to walk away when Bryce had made his attempt to run the town, he had been the first to ride back. That in itself, to Josiah, told him how much Chris cared. Yes, he could argue that it had only been the luck of the draw; Mary Travis had sought him out in Purgatorio. But Sanchez knew, they all knew, the truth of it. Chris had bee specific in telling them where he was heading, something he probably hadn’t done since bidding Sarah and Adam good-bye that final, fateful, time. And that, he knew, was Chris Larabee’s way of saying ‘I’ll be right here if you need me’.
Chris yawned and stretched the stiffness from his back and shoulders, as he took the watch from the big preacher. He grudgingly admitted to himself that he was no longer the young bull who could ride three horses into the ground, face down a pair of yahoos bent on making their reputation, bed a woman, and still play a game of poker before rolling into his blankets.
The gunman chuckled. He wasn’t certain he had ever been that man. Deciding that he had listened to JD recite too many tales from those dog-eared excuses for books he read, he lit a cheroot and settled back to keep the watch.
Larabee kept his senses sharp, and focused on any sign of unwanted visitors. Even so, a small portion of his mind drifted toward the little town he had come to consider home. It settled on one inhabitant in particular; he wondered how Vin was doing. He couldn’t dismiss his concern for the younger man, Tanner could have easily died, out on the prairie, from his injuries. As usual, though, the scruffy tracker had the grit and determination to see him through. The long years of struggle just to survive, coupled with his own indomitable spirit, gave the young man an edge that even a writer like Jock Steele couldn’t fabricate.
The gunman was drawn from his thoughts by a soft wicker. He listened, focusing on the horses. Just as he decided that it was nothing, the sound came again. It could be nothing more than a mouse scurrying around the horses hooves, but he decided to see for certain.
With an unconscious grace, the black clad man eased soundlessly through the shadows to where they had picketed the horses. Sharp eyes searched the darkness, but found nothing out of the ordinary. Stroking the silky black coat of his gelding, he checked the animal over. Moving to Josiah’s chestnut, he found nothing wrong with either animal. Then, just as he stepped back from Apostle, the world exploded in pain. He saw and felt lightning bolts of shear agony that only faded when he dropped senselessly to the ground.
Vin stared up at the ceiling, trying to decipher what had called him from the depths of sleep. Predator sharp senses reached out to search the town, but found nothing out of the ordinary. Groaning as he pushed himself up from the bed, he padded unsteadily to the window. There was no movement in the street at this time of night, which he judged to be a couple of hours before dawn.
Turning away from the window, he felt a chill run down his spine. Something was wrong, and suddenly four faces sprang into his tired mind. Cursing under his breath, he struggled one-handed into his boots.
Josiah rubbed a callused hand across his face, and stared through the trees at the early morning. sky. He frowned as he realized how high the sun was. It was very unlike their leader to waste this much daylight, and he wondered where Chris was. Rolling out of his blankets, he settled back on his heels and scanned the area. The blond was no where to be found.
“Chris?” He called, frowning at the silence.
Then, “You lookin’ fer someone?”
The gruff voice was accompanied by the click of a hammer, and the feel of metal against the side of his head. Raising his hands, the big man climbed to his feet. While his height caused the gun to be lowered from his head to his back, it didn’t waver. With a sigh, the former preacher glanced down to see his gun and holster laying tauntingly on the ground.
“Git movin’,” the voice behind him ordered.
Josiah began walking, his path guided by rough shoves and the feel of the gun against his spine. They traveled to the end of a sheltered hollow. “Dear Lord,” Sanchez gasped. He nearly went to his knees as he gazed in shock at the sight before him.
Striped to nothing but his black jeans, Chris Larabee was bound hand and foot, spread-eagle between two trees. As Sanchez’s voice reached him, the blond raised his head. Pain-filled hazel eyes locked with shock-filled blue ones, and he managed to force his battered lips into a weak smile.
Josiah understood the message, but didn’t believe it. Chris Larabee was anything but all right. Cuts and bruises covered the blond’s handsome face; blood oozing from his nose, lips and one particularly nasty cut above his left eye. The bruises and cuts continued down the length of the well-muscled body. At some point he must have really angered one of this attackers; three bone-deep gashes ran along his ribs, a trio of notches carved by one of the sadistic bastards who had beaten him for hours.
One of those men turned toward the ex-preacher. He sported a long blue sash, designating, Josiah assumed, that he was the new outlaw leader. “Well, glad y’ fin’ly come t’ join us,” the man’s grin was one of the most evil things Sanchez had witnessed in a very long time.
“Cut him down.” The big man knew he had no leverage, but he had to try something. Chris Larabee was dying before his eyes.
Blue Sash laughed coldly. “Yeah, sure, we’ll cut ‘m down. You gonna take ‘is place?”
“Yes,” Josiah answered easily. He had no qualms as to dying in place of any of his friends.
Something flashed through the cruel black eyes, something very much like shock, or fear, or perhaps it was a look of admiration.
Willy Cole had never known a friendship that would lead a man to stare unblinkingly into the face of death in order to save another’s life. But Willy was not impressed for long. “Well, that’s good. Yessir, that’s a good thing. This ‘n,” he canted his head toward the gunman, who hung limply from the ropes once more, “he’s ‘bout had ‘t. Me ‘n th’ boys, we’s gittin’ bored poundin’ ‘r fists on ‘m, whut with him hardly even grunt’n any more.”
Pulling himself to his full height, the silver-haired man said again, “then cut him down.”
“Nathan!’ Ezra called as he left the livery. He met the big healer on the street. “Have you perchance relented and allowed our Mr. Tanner to resume his riding?”
“Of course not, why?” Nathan all ready knew the answer, and was moving toward the big building even as he spoke.
“I was just on my way to commence rounds, and found that Peso has disappeared.,” Standish said as he trailed the bigger man.
“Damn it! Didn’t Yosemite see him leave?”
“Our large groomsman was not even aware as yet that the disagreeable creature was missing.”
“That means he probably left before sun-up. We’d better go after the damn fool.”
“I assume that you have some inkling as to which compass point he chose to follow?”
Giving the smaller man a withering look, the former slave said, “you know as well as I do that he’s gone after Chris and the others.”
Sighing, the gambler said only, “Yes, of course.” It was far too early for him to engage in verbal sparing with the other man.
“Buck, are you sure we shouldn’t keep going? I mean, Chris is set on getting those outlaws, and – “
“JD,” Wilmington’s voice was soft and low, a sure sign that he was in a serious mood. “There isn’t a track to be had back along that way, which mean’s Chris and Josiah ‘ll be needin’ back-up.”
Dunne nodded and coaxed his horse up beside the bigger man. He wasn’t certain why one thing necessarily meant the other, but he trusted the older man’s judgment, at least as far as something like this was concerned. He had been rousted from his nice, warm blankets just as the sun touched the sky by the bigger man. Buck had been impatient to get on the trail, and announced that they would re-trace their path of the day before and go find the other two men. JD couldn’t understand what had led to the change in plans. Sure, they hadn’t found any sign of their quarry, but the lack of tracks could have just been caused by the rain. Obviously, though, his friend was aware of something he had missed.
“Y’ blamed mule, settle yerself down,” Vin growled through a clenched jaw. The big black had managed to restrain himself for awhile, but then began resorting to his true nature. He was bored with their slow pace, and eager to make his rider aware of his displeasure.
The tracker had come to regret his decision to strike out on his own. The world slid in and out of focus around him, nearly sending him crashing to the ground several times. Pain shot through his slender body with each step the horse took. Gagging, he leaned precariously to one side, vomiting as the pain and nausea overcame him. Reining the horse to a stop, he gripped the saddle horn until his hand was white-knuckled. Drawing long, slow breaths as he fought to regain control, he loosened his hand and fumbled for the canteen. Spitting out the first mouthful to rid himself of the taste of bile, he took several long drinks. Scanning the countryside as well as his blurring vision would allow, he tried to decide which direction he should continue in. He knew he had been a fool to attempt this, but he had never denied being a fool.
Josiah Sanchez wondered exactly how stupid the trio that had managed to capture them were, which lead to a second, more disturbing, question. If this inept band had managed to capture them, what did that say about he and Chris? Not that it mattered at the moment, as long as it worked. He continued staring evenly at the blue-sashed man. “Look, he’s as good as dead. I’ll take his place, and you’ll have another victim for your...revenge?”
Willy considered the man’s proposition, staring at the battered man he had indeed sought revenge on. Cole didn’t actually want the man to die. He wanted the high and mighty Chris Larabee to live a long time with the knowledge that he had been caught easily, and beaten badly, by Will Cole. And he wanted the man to understand that it was because of his callous murder of Anson Cole. His brother had been the only person on the face of the earth who had given him any sort of respect. Sure, Ans’ hit him and yelled at him, but he supposed he deserved it. Other wise, Ans’ trusted him, trusted him, brought him into the gang, and made certain the other men gave him respect as his brother.
Then, that bastard Larabee and his trained dogs had set on them, backed them into a corner, and murdered Anson. Killed Charlie, Roy, Davy, and Bart, too. Now he had taken charge of the gang, although it only consisted of Wats and Sam now. Jeb had gotten away with them as well, but then said he would never “follow Anson’s fool of a brother”, and tried to take over himself. He found out who the fool was, when Willy Cole put a bullet between his eyes.
No, he wanted god-almighty Chris Larabee to live a long time, regretting the day he had come up against the Cole brothers. What better way to do that, then to kill one of his men in front of him? Smiling, he said, “Cut him down.”
Sam and Wats stared at the man with the blue sash. Neither man really thought Willy could ever be a leader, not like Anson had been. But, Willy was fast with a gun, proving that when he killed Jeb. They were only bidding their time until they could leave the stupid bastard. If they could have some fun along the way, so be it. Looking from Cole, to the battered blond, to the big man asking to take his place, they shrugged to one another. Might as well have a little more fun.
Taking their knives out, they cut the knotted rope around the black clad legs, then moved to his arms. The gray-haired man moved to intercept Larabee as the supporting ropes were removed, but Willy stopped him.
Pointing his six shooter toward the bigger man, he said, “You stay right there.”
Nodding, Sanchez bit his tongue as he watched Chris dropped to a crumpled heap on the ground. He cursed as the other two men carelessly pushed the unconscious man away from the trees, then stood ready to tie up their next victim.
“Let’s go,” Cole ordered, waving the gun at the former preacher.
Sanchez walked forward a few steps, stopping next to the mangled body. He dropped his head, closing his eyes as he did.
“What th’ hell?” Willy growled. “C’mon, let’s go.”
Not moving, Josiah said, “I’m only saying a few words of prayer for my brother.”
Frowning, Cole moved in, shoving the bigger man. It was a mistake he would not live to regret. With a single, fluid motion, the holy man wrapped an arm around the man’s neck and pulled the gun from his hand. Turning quickly, using the surprised man as a shield, he pointed his gun at the other two. Just as quickly, both threw the knives still in their hands. While one caught Willy in the throat, the other slashed a gash through the big man’s arm. Reflexively, he pulled the trigger, the bullet drilling through Wats’ forehead. Turning the gun toward the remaining outlaw, he watched the man’s arms reach upward in surrender.
Dropping Cole’s still twitching, but lifeless, body to the ground, Josiah moved to his prisoner. Quickly he disarmed him, tying him to one of the trees with the bloodied rope that had only recently bound his friend.
That done, he shoved the gun into his waistband and knelt to the ground next to Chris. His actions gentle now, he rolled the battered man to his back, straightening his limbs carefully. One big hand tenderly stroked the bloodied blond hair back from the perspiration-soaked forehead. He was grateful to see the shallow rise and fall of the muscular chest, and to hear the raspy breaths coming through the slightly parted lips. He smiled broadly as the pale lids forced their way upward, and unfocused eyes stared upward toward him.
“It’s all right, Chris. It’s over, they won’t hurt you any more. I’m going to get you cleaned up now, understand?”
The pain-dimmed eyes continued to stare, but the injured man gave little indication that he understood.
Buck and JD moved swiftly along the trail Chris and Josiah had taken the day before. With each passing minute, the big man had become more anxious to find their friends. Something spurred him on, and Dunne followed close behind. Then they pulled up quickly as a familiar figure on horseback came into view.
“Ah hell,” Wilmington growled as he spurred General forward. JD and Milagro were quick on their heels. Several minutes later they pulled up next to Vin and Peso. “Son, what’re you doin’ out here?”
“Good t’ see y’all, too,” Vin said, pain sharpening his tone.
Reaching out a hand to steady the smaller man as he rocked in the saddle, Buck said sternly, “damn it, Vin, you’re supposed to be back in town, in bed.”
Shaking his sweat-soaked head, Tanner said, “’M fine, Buck. J’st gotta sense...somethin’s wrong. Wh...where’s Chris ‘n J’siah?”
“We split up yesterday afternoon, to cover two trails. Me ‘n JD’s just goin’ to find them. Look, we’ll settle you in someplace – “
“Ain’t set’lin’ no place.” Vin insisted.
“Vin,” Buck said with a pleading tone. “Look, if there is somethin’ wrong, we need to get to them quick as we can. Now, we can’t be doin’ that if we’re stoppin’ to pick you up off the ground every fifteen minutes.”
Looking through narrowed eyes, the sharpshooter said, “then don’t.” With that, he nudged the big horse forward, leaving the other two men to catch up.
Josiah bathed the gunman’s face gently, cleaning the blood – both dried and wet – from the battered features. Chris lay unmoving, as he had since Sanchez had rescued him. The big man watched for signs of waking, but the pale lids remained sealed. He spoke softly to the younger man, telling him everything he was doing, banking on his words managing to find their way into Larabee’s mind.
“Your arms are bruised, but I don’t find any evidence of any breaks. Your wrists are pretty badly chaffed from the ropes, but nothing that won’t mend pretty quick. You’ve got a bad cut over your left eye, think it might need some stitches when we get you back to town. Your pants and boots kept your legs from any damage, you’re lucky there. Looks like your chest, back and sides took the worst of it. Those cuts are going to need stitches for certain, and I think that you may have at least three broken ribs. That’s going to keep you off your feet for a few days... if you pay attention to what Nathan says. Which you won’t.” He smiled, watching again for any sign that Chris was returning to consciousness. With a sigh, he continued talking quietly to the other man.
“I’m going to finish cleaning you up, then...” his voice trailed off as Larabee frowned. “Chris?”
“Chris, can you hear me?”
Another faint murmur, and his eyes began to move beneath their lids. “J...J’s...iah?”
Smiling broadly, the big man said, “Yes, it’s me. Can you open your eyes for me?”
Another frown pulled the pale brows together. Very slowly, the man forced his eyes opened. He stared blankly, the deep hazel hidden by shock-widened black pupils. Exhausted, he let them fall closed once more.
Gingerly brushing the long blond strands back, the former preacher said, “I’m going to take you back to our camp now, understand?” Larabee opened his eyes, then slowly closed them again.
Taking that as an affirmative, Josiah folded the beaten arms across the battered chest. Carefully he lifted the injured man into his arms and started back toward their campsite. Chris moaned softly, losing consciousness once more. His head fell backward, over the heavy arm that supported him, lolling against the thick bicep. His right arm slid from his chest to hang limply from his side.
For all of his care of the blond’s injuries, Josiah had ignored his own. He was only vaguely aware of the blood that rolled down his arm, dropping from his elbow to mark their retreat. The only thing on his mind was getting Chris to their camp so he could bind his ribs and the various cuts. He hoped, in the meantime, that JD and Buck would come looking for them soon, that they had realized that they had drawn the dead end.
The familiar cluster of trees, marking their campsite of the night before, finally came into view. He hadn’t remembered it being such a long walk. Then, as he neared his destination, he saw three riders descending on him. The older man sighed as he recognized the men on horseback. While he had expected two, he chuckled and shook his head as he realized who the third was. “Looks like Nathan’s gonna be spitting nails, Vin’s riding up with Buck and JD.”
Another frown creased the handsome but battered face and the bloodied lips moved. “Vin?”
“Yes brother, your soul mate has arrived,” Sanchez said softly. Then he wondered at the way the world began to swim. Just as the three horsemen drew to a stop before them, he dropped to his knees, still holding the blond protectively in his arms.
Buck leapt from General’s back, crossing to the two men in three strides. Reaching down, he carefully lifted Chris from Josiah’s arms. “I’ve got him, pard,” he said.
“Thanks Buck,” Sanchez said as he slumped back onto his heels. Pointing toward the trees, he said, “We’ve got a camp set up over there.” Nodding, Wilmington carried Larabee toward the trees.
“Josiah?” JD leaned down to look into the bigger man’s face. “You okay?”
Nodding, the ex-preacher said, “just a little tired son. I could use a hand up.” Using his right hand to steady himself, he re-gained his feet with the youngest peacekeeper’s help. He looked up to see Vin staring worriedly down from Peso’s back. “Didn’t expect to see you here, brother.”
Smiling, Tanner said, “Never was the predictable sort.” He rocked dangerously in the saddle, but righted himself and pointed the big black toward the retreating Wilmington.
“Come on Josiah, let’s get you over there with the rest of them,” Dunne said, leading the big man after the others.
“Looks like a hospital ward,” JD shook his head as he re-entered the little clearing. Josiah leaned tiredly against a fallen log, his left arm cradled against his broad chest. They had cleaned and bandaged the deep cut, but it was still seeping enough blood to garner a little concern. Vin lay nearby on a bedroll, his eyes fluttering closed from time to time as he fought to remain conscious. As they all were, he was concerned for Chris Larabee.
Buck had been working over Chris since placing him on the blankets near the burnt out campfire. JD had worked to build the fire back up, placing their canteens around it in the event they needed warm water. Larabee had remained ominously quiet for some time, only the occasional groan or grimace telling them he was feeling pain. Wilmington had finished cleaning the blood from his face and upper body and had wrapped rough bandages around the marred wrists. With Dunne holding the limp body up, he managed to bind the battered abdomen, adding extra pads of cloth to the deep cuts on the man’s side. Now he was working to cool the blond’s fevered face.
“How’s he doin’?” Tanner asked.
“Ain’t for sure, pard. Don’t think he’s got anything life-threatenin’, but I’d feel a whole lot better if Nathan was here.”
“I do believe your wish has been granted,” a familiar Southern drawl said from the trees.
Four pairs of eyes turned to see Ezra Standish and Nathan Jackson enter the clearing. Nathan carried his medical bag, and sighed when he took in the number of injured bodies. He settled with a frown on one in particular, who in turn dropped his blue-eyed gaze to the ground.
“Yeah, you better be lookin’ guilty Vin Tanner. I ain’t got the time to fuss with you right now, but we are gonna have us a talk.”
“But Nathan,” Tanner said carefully. “If I wasn’t so blasted bull-headed, y’ wouldn’t be out here with your healer’s bag, would y’?”
“Don’t try to change the subject, Vin. We will have that talk,” He grumbled as he knelt next to the blond gunslinger.
The other five men waited expectantly as Nathan surveyed Larabee’s injuries. Taking advantage of the man’s unconsciousness, he stitched the wounds on his side and the one on his forehead. Buck carefully held Chris’ shoulders, keeping him from fighting the feel of the needle and thread. Re-binding the ribs, and checking the man’s pupils, heartbeat and breathing, he finally turned to the others.
“Long as we can keep him quiet, keep him from actin’ foolish for the next week or so, he should be fine. Don’t see any sign of concussion, other than his ribs, nothing's broken. The gashes on his side are deep, but they’re clean. He’s lost a good amount of blood, but not life-threatening.”
“Reckon we’ll get to work on another travois,” Buck said with a shake of his head, winking at JD. “Or, maybe we’d better make it two.”
“Unnecessary, Mister Wilmington,” Ezra said with a golden-edged smile. “We came prepared.”
Nodding, Nathan added, “figured this one,” he nodded toward Tanner, “would be hurtin’, so we brought a wagon.”
Looking around at the unconscious gunslinger, the ashen-faced hunter, and the bloodied preacher, JD observed, “Hope it’s a big one.”
Wilmington chuckled, then a thought crossed his mind. Turning to Josiah, he said, “Where’s the sons a bitches that did this?”
“Two of them are dead, the third is tied up at their campsite,” Sanchez answered, giving him the directions to where he and Larabee had been held.
The big ladies man leapt to his feet. “I’ll go take care of him.” there was fire in his deep blue eyes.
“Brother, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Josiah said.
“Buck, settle down first,” Nathan added.
“Bucklin!” Vin called as they watched Wilmington storm away.
Ezra bounded to his feet. “I shall accompany our overly emotional friend.” With that he hurried after the bigger man.
“He won’t be able to stop him alone,” Dunne said as he ran to catch up with the others.
Nathan sighed, locking eyes with Josiah and shaking his head. He wondered if he would soon be patching up more injured bodies.
By the time Buck reached the site of his friend’s torture, he had expended some of his anger, but not all of it. Ezra and JD had been on his heels, but his longer strides kept him just far enough ahead of them. He didn’t want anyone talking him out of whatever he decided to do to the surviving member of the gang.
The tied up outlaw looked up at the approaching fury with a look of raw fear. The big man was glaring at him with such hatred that he was certain he was going to just explode from that gaze. His big hands were clenching and unclenching in beefy fists, and every muscle in his body seemed to declare an intent to kill.
Sam Tully pressed himself back against the tree he had been bound to by the other man, trying to will himself inside the bark. He drew his bound hands before his face in surrender. “L-look, I ain’t sayin’ I’m innocent, but I ain’t – “
“Do yourself a favor, and shut the hell up,” Buck growled softly.
“Mister, I’ll –“ he closed his mouth with an audible snap under the enraged stare.
Buck was nearly standing on the man’s tied feet, he was so close. Bending down, he stared directly into the pale, rheumy eyes. “Here’s the deal, you worthless piece a shit. You keep your mouth shut, do’s you’re told, and I’ll let you live. You say a word or try to escape and I’ll take my time in killin’ you. You and your worthless partners hurt my friends, and I don’t take things like that lightly.” With that, he rose and turned to the other peacekeepers.
“JD, Ezra, take him back over where he can be watched. I’ll take care a the others.”
“I can deliver this felon alone, if you’d like Mister Dunne to assist you,” Ezra said quietly.
Shaking his head, the bigger man said, “That’s okay, I’ll handle it myself.”
Nathan looked up to see Ezra and JD entering the clearing, a stranger walking before them with his hands tied behind his back. “Where’s Buck?”
“Mister Wilmington insisted on handling the preparations for those deceased felons final journey.”
“Is he all right?” Josiah asked in concern.
Nodding, JD said, “I think he managed to walk off a lot of his anger.”
“Never... lasts,” a rough whisper entered the conversation.
“Chris!” The youngest peacekeeper cried.
“He came around a few minutes ago,” Jackson told him.
Squatting down next to the gunslinger, the Easterner said, “How are you, Chris?”
“Been better,” Larabee grimaced as the pain washed over him.
Tentatively offering the injured man his hand, JD was surprised to feel the long fingers wrap around his, gripping tightly. He sat quietly, offering his friend his strength. After several minutes the grip relaxed and Chris took a breath.
“Th-thanks,” Larabee said softly.
Nodding, Dunne patted his hand softly.
Jackson knelt at the injured man’s other side. “Chris? I want you to drink this,” He slid his hand beneath the blond head, lifting it enough to swallow the pungent herbal brew he had fixed for him.
Making a face, the gunslinger drank, murmured something about ‘horse piss’, and allowed himself to be lowered back to the blanket. Under the watchful eye of his friends, he drifted off to sleep.
The night passed with only a few incidents. Chris tossed in the throes of a pain-induced nightmare from time to time, but otherwise passed the hours in a restful oblivion. Vin managed to pull his bedroll close to his friend, responding to the man’s pain-filled cries with a soft, calming voice.
While Nathan kept a watch over his three patients, Ezra and JD took turns watching over their single, surviving prisoner. Buck finally returned with the other outlaws horses, having left their owners residing in shallow graves. He remained across the camp from the remaining outlaws, something the others were just as happy to see. Josiah had offered to help, but the others refused him. Stretching out on his bedroll, the big man was soon sleeping. While his wound had not been serious, his neglect had resulted in a significant blood loss.
The morning sun was peering through the trees, shining down on five men hunkered around the fire, hands wrapped around cups of coffee. Their prisoner sat alone, bound once more to a tree, silently sipping from a cup as well. The men at the fire spoke softly, not wanting to disturb their two sleeping friends.
Vin groaned softly as his injured arm protested its treatment. Moving to find a more comfortable position, he turned toward the bedroll beside him. His grimace turned to a broad smile as he saw that Larabee’s eyes were opening. “Hey cowboy.”
Frowning at the term, then recognizing the voice, Chris slowly moved his head toward the other man. “What the hell are you...doing here?”
Chuckling, Tanner said, “Good t’ see you too, cowboy. How y’ feelin’?”
“Great,” came the reply.
“Yeah, I’ll bet. Nathan says you’ll be fine in a couple a weeks.”
“You promised to...st-stay put,” Larabee scolded.
“Well, sometimes a fella’s gotta go back on his word, if it’s important.” Vin’s eyes held Chris’, saying with them what he couldn’t say with his words.
Nodding, Larabee let his eyes close, then ground out a soft moan as the pain once more overwhelmed him. He felt a hand take his, gripping it firmly. As the agony dropped to a point that allowed him to breathe once more, he whispered, “Thanks.”
“S’okay,” the tracker replied softly. He relaxed his hold, but didn’t let go.
Night had long ago fallen before the seven peacekeepers entered Four Corners. Josiah had recovered enough to ride his horse home, while Vin and Chris were relegated to the wagon bed. The rangy sharpshooter had positioned himself so that the gunslinger could rest against him. With his good arm wrapped around the battered man, Tanner was there each time the darkness parted.
“Take it easy cowboy,” he said softly as Chris woke with a start. “You’re safe now, ain’t nobody here t’ hurt y’.”
Nodding, the blond leaned heavily against the lean, muscular chest. He took comfort in the presence of his friends around him, and most especially the one who held him close against the pain.
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