Main Characters: Vin, Chris
Author's note: This was finished... I thought... way back in '02. Then someone pointed out that I hadn't really wrapped up one of the main story points. So, it's finally been tweaked and republished online.
Webmaster Note: This story was previously hosted at another website. This is an updated version, posted in May 2012.
It was a scene that had become only too familiar in the past six months. Two men hovered over a third, who lay bloody and unconscious in the cluttered room above the livery that served as the town’s only medical facility.
Chris Larabee sat on the edge of the mattress, holding the lean but deceptively strong arms of the injured man. He looked across the bed to where Nathan Jackson sat on the other side of the bed, carefully bathing the blood from their friend’s head injury. Then he looked down, studying the finely chiseled features of the man who had quickly become his best friend.
Vin Tanner’s eyes were closed, no sign of pain on his face. His complexion had gone from its usual bronze to adobe, a thin sheen of perspiration adding an unhealthy glisten to it. He released his hold on the quiet man, belatedly realizing that there was no longer a cause to pin him to the mattress. Tanner had fought them in a delirium earlier, soon after he had been grazed by a bullet during yet another gun battle. Semi-conscious and confused, he had fought them, cursing them in a mixture of English, Spanish, Kiowa and Comanche. Then, soon after bringing him up to Nathan’s clinic, Tanner had quieted, only an occasional groan telling them that he had retained some level of consciousness.
And now he was quiet. Very, very, quiet.
Jackson looked up from his work, regarding the fear only barely hidden on their leader’s face. “It took a hunk of skin, but I don’t think it’s bad.”
“But the blood.”
“Head wounds tend to bleed pretty bad. Don’t take it as a sign that the wound is serious. “
“But the way he was carrying on earlier, he didn’t seem to know us at all.”
“Head wounds can rattle a man’s brains, Chris, you know that from the other times one or the other of you fella’s have taken a bad hit to the head. We’ll just have to take it one step at a time, see how things are when he wakes up next time.”
Larabee sighed and nodded, not happy with the diagnosis at all. He had never been one to handle not having answers to his questions. “So, what do we do?”
“Like I said, we wait for him to wake up. If he don’t wake up on his own in an hour or two, we’ll wake him up. We ask him some questions to see if he’s rational, then let him sleep some more. Now, I’m assuming that you’re gonna stay here for awhile. I need to go check on Silas Wilson.”
“Silas? What’s going on?” Chris pictured the man, stooped with age and riddled with wrinkles and age spots. He had lived in the territory even longer than Nettie Wells, and was even more stubborn and opinionated than the old woman could ever be.
“Just old age. He’s been havin’ more and more spells. His son and daughter in law moved him into their house south of town a couple of months ago. It’s just a matter of time before he passes, but I wanna try and make it as comfortable on him as possible.”
“Could be tonight, he could hang on another week. Don’t think it’s gonna be much longer than that, though, he can’t even get outta bed on his own now. If you’re staying here, I’ll head on out there and check on him.”
“Of course, you go. We know where you’ll be if we need you. I’m sure Buck or one of the others will be up here as soon as they finish with what’s left of that bunch of trail trash.”
With a nod, the healer went to clean up, then left on his errand of mercy.
For all their concern for Tanner, neither man noticed when his brows pulled together in a frown, partially from pain and partially from confusion.
…matter of time before he passes… try and make it as comfortable on him as possible… he could hang on another week. Don’t think it’s gonna be much longer than that… can’t even get outta bed on his own. The words rolled around in his muddled mind, then came together to form one frightening thought that battered against him with frightening clarity.
I’m gonna die.
Chris leaned back in the chair, regarding his friend. Other than a minute or two after Nathan left, Vin hadn’t shown any signs of waking up. He carried no timepiece, but judged that it would soon be an hour since Vin had settled into unconsciousness. Leaning forward, he gently shook the narrow shoulder that peeked above the quilts.
“Vin? Pard, I need you to wake up. C’mon, Tanner, open them blue eyes for me.”
He felt himself dragged reluctantly toward that voice, knowing that someone important to him was attached to it. He wasn’t for certain who that person was at the moment, but he trusted his instincts, and swam toward that voice through the thick fog that had taken up residence in his mind. With a soft groan he cracked open one eye, then the other, trying to figure out the shadows that met his gaze.
Coming upon a shadow that instinct told him was the owner of that voice, he stilled his movements. “Ch… Chris?”
“Hey Pard,” Larabee’s smile spoke eloquently of his relief. Then, remembering Nathan’s instructions, he asked, “can you tell me who you are?”
Frowning, the younger man said, “Y’ don’t… y’ don’t know?”
With a chuckle, the blond said,“Yeah I know who you are, but I need you to tell me.”
“Names… Tanner… Vin… Vin Tanner.”
“Do you know where you are?”
“In… inna bed?” He couldn’t understand why he was suddenly so tired.
Smiling compassionately, Larabee said, “Yeah, you’re in a bed. Do you know what town you’re in?”
“F-four… Four Corners.”
“Good, sounds like you’re gonna be all right. Are you thirsty? Do you want a drink?”
“Yeah,” he managed through a mouth that suddenly seemed to be filled with cotton.
The gunman stepped across the room to the table where Nathan kept a pitcher of water. Cursing softly when he found it empty, he looked around for a second pitcher. Finding nothing, he said, “Sorry, pard, looks like we’re out for now. Buck or one of the others will be here soon, though, I’ll have them get you some fresh.”
“Th-thirsty,” the injured man repeated, one trembling hand appearing to rub at his parched throat.
Larabee wasn’t certain as to what he should do, something that very rarely happened. Looking at his friend, obviously in need of water, he judged the risk of leaving the young sharpshooter alone for the few minutes it would take to fetch some. Looking at the pale blue eyes, he knew what he had to do.
“All right, I’ll go get you some. You have to promise to stay put though.”
The shaggy head bounced up and down one single time, accompanied by a soft moan.
Retrieving the empty pitcher, Chris stepped to the door. With one more glance at the other man to assure him that Vin would be okay, he hurried away from the clinic.
Behind him, the injured man slowly pulled the blankets back, and laboriously rose to sit on the side of the mattress. He sat very still for a minute, forcing himself to take slow, deep breaths until the nausea went away. that done, he forced his sluggish body upward until he managed to get his feet on the floor. swaying dangerously, he put one hand to his head while the other found support by clutching at the headboard. Forcing himself to move away, he staggered across the room, leaning heavily against the wall as soon as he reached it. His legs threatened to give way, but he made them obey him. The sharpshooter managed to open the door, stagger onto the landing beyond, and stumble across the landing to the stairway. There, he made the mistake of looking down. The stairs quivered and spun before him, without rhyme or reason, threatening to send him spiraling down them. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, he closed his eyes. He had traveled these stairs more times than he cared to remember, he didn’t need sight to get himself down them now.
Clutching at the rail, he staggered down the stairs, one halting step at a time. He was barely aware that darkness had closed in on the town, earlier than usual. Clouds scuttled across the sky, dark and foreboding. Just as he managed to reach the ground, knees almost buckling as he landed, distant thunder rumbled and lightening lit the sky. Unfortunately, there was no one around to witness the sharpshooter’s passage. If they had, he would have made quite the spectacle. Shirtless and bootless, clad only in his buckskin pants, he wore nothing else but the bleached muslin wrapped around his head. His long, always wild, loose, curls stuck out around the bandage, clumped in places by dried blood. In his confusion, Vin had even forgotten to grab his shotgun.
Managing to reach the big doors of the livery, Tanner shuffled and stumbled through the dirt-matted straw to reach the familiar stall. Peso’s stall. As he wrangled the door open, he heard the big black nicker questioningly. “S’okay… s’okay,” he mumbled as he dropped his pounding head against the heavy black side. He trembled as pain shot through him, groaned as he waited for his head to simply explode. His breathing turning to a wheezing, rattling gasp, the young man managed to grasp the horse and pull himself onto the broad back. Using his knees, fingers braided through the thick black mane, he urged the horse from the stall and out of the stable.
The darkness hid them, not even moonlight or street fire accented the pale frame slumped over the black body. Barely aware of what he was doing, Vin Tanner guided the horse from town. As the disjointed words spun randomly through his foggy mind, a single thought formed. He had a week to live. Just enough time to clear his name, or die trying. The injured man snorted. Die trying… die a free man or a prisoner. It didn’t really matter. Only one thing mattered. His name. He would fight with his last breath to clear his name.
He would die a Tanner. And proud of it.
Chris cursed as fat drops of rain splashed down, beating a tattoo against the wide brim of his hat. Holding the pitcher away from his side, he sprinted up the dark street, cursing even more as he felt the water splashing out of the pitcher. Reaching the staircase, he hurried upward, and entered the clinic. “Vin, I – “
The room was empty.
“Tanner, where the hell’d you go?” He whispered the words under his breath as he searched the room, then moved to the smaller one at the back where Nathan slept when someone was staying at the clinic. Knowing that Vin had been confused, he worried that the young man had crawled off somewhere to hide. He noted the pile of discarded clothing still on the chair near the bed; the sharpshooter was in nothing but his pants.
The entire floor was empty.
“Damn it!” He ran from the clinic, splashing across the landing and down the stairs, heedless of the storm that was building fast. Turning quickly when he reached the ground, he bolted inside the livery. If Peso was still there, he’d know to concentrate on searching the town.
The stall was empty.
With a growl, Larabee saw that the black’s tack was still in the stall and realized now that Vin was out there in the darkness, practically naked, unarmed, injured, carrying nothing at all, and half out of his mind. He moved to the stall where his own black was housed and quickly readied the gelding. He knew that he should track down the others and have them help, but with every second that passed, his friend moved farther and farther a way.
A few minutes later Chris rode out of the livery, trying to see into the darkness. He glanced around to see if any of the others were nearby, but saw nothing. He knew that Vin hadn’t passed him on the street earlier, which told him there was only one way the injured man could have gone. He turned Pony North, spurring the animal forward.
On some level, he knew that it was raining and that he was shivering to the point of nearly falling from his horse’s back. Some part of him knew that what he was doing was foolish, that he should turn back. But he continued onward, the need to clear his name as soon as possible dominating his tortured mind.
He was slumped over the bowed neck, his fingers white-knuckled where they clung to the thick mane. The bandage grew wetter and heavier, finally slipping down his face and half covering his eyes. Frustrated, he pulled it loose, tossing it aside.
Moaning softly, the young man slumped even farther forward, his tenuous hold on consciousness nearly failing. “Gonna… gonna clear m’ name. Gonna… Mama, gonna clear ’t. M-make y’… make y’ proud a me… Mama… make y’…”
His mind wandered, touching on a hodgepodge of memories that he could barely recognize. Men, as different as possible, standing shoulder to shoulder. One particular man, black-clad and quiet, standing beside him… their arms clasped in brotherhood.
“Chris… gonna clear m’ name. W-wish y’ c’d be h-here. D-don’t wanna… wanna hang… alone.”
The clouds broke just as the sun peered over the horizon. Chris sighed, happy for that at least. That was the only thing he was happy about. The darkness and the rain kept him from finding any sign of Tanner’s passage. He was moving on instinct alone, just as he figured Vin was. He was almost certain as to where they were both heading, though. Tascossa.
“What the hell are you thinking, you damn fool?” The words rang out in the stillness of dawn, even though he barely whispered them.
Chris pulled off his black duster, the cloth water-soaked and far heavier than normal, draping it across Pony’s back. Pushing the drooping hat back to hang down his back, he pushed back thick blond hair as he scanned the distance. A deep, relieved sigh escaped him as he saw movement in the distance. Squinting, he stared hard until he could finally make out…
With a low-throated growl, he spurred the gelding forward to a gallop. Despite the deep mud, Pony moved forward with sure-footed speed. Still, Tanner had quite a lead on him, and it took nearly half an hour to catch up to the sharpshooter. Just as he reached the other horse and rider, Vin slid bonelessly from Peso’s back. Reining in his black, Chris leapt from the saddle and dropped to his knees next to the other man. Gently he rolled the limp body over, looking for signs of life.
Slowly, the lax face drew together in a frown, and unfocused blue eyes stared upward. They darted back and forth, fear taking over as the young bounty hunter tried to decipher where he was.
“Take it easy, pard, you’re safe.”
“Yeah, it’s me. How’s your head?”
“Hurts,” he admitted with a grimace. Even blinking his eyes sent waves of pain through his skull.
“Yeah, I imagine it does. Let’s get you somewhere a little drier so I can clean up that wound, then we’ll get back to town – “
“No! Cain’t… cain’t go b-back. Gotta… gotta git t’ Tascossa. Gotta c-clear m’ name.”
Holding down the suddenly struggling man, Larabee said softly, “Vin, take it easy. We’ll take care of that later. Right now you need to rest, get your strength back.”
Continuing to fight the strong arms pinning him down, Tanner said, “no… gotta do ‘t … now… no… no time.” With a moan, his eyes rolled back in his head, and he dropped limply to the ground.
Chris sighed and shook his head. Looking around, he finally spotted a clump of trees that might offer them a drier place to stop. He would clean up the younger man’s head wound, then as soon as both Tanner and the horses were rested, they’d head back to town.
Lifting the unconscious man into his arms, Larabee managed to get him onto Pony’s back. Dropping his lariat over Peso’s head, he lashed the big black to his saddle. The last thing he would have time for right now was chasing the stubborn, uncooperative animal down.
Stepping up onto the gelding’s back, he pulled Vin up against him, grabbed the reins, and coaxed both horses forward. A few minutes later they were at the trees, and he found the ground much drier there. Dismounting and pulling Tanner down into his arms, he carried his friend into the natural shelter and stretched him out on the ground. It was damp, but much more solid, and a thick carpet of grass made a decent bed.
Like all of them, his saddlebags were always packed. He retrieved a bottle of whiskey and a clean kerchief, cleaning up the ragged wound. Vin moaned softly and weakly tried to get away from the pain, but he managed to clean the mud from the torn flesh. Digging into his supplies again, he found a tight roll of muslin, smiling his thanks for Nathan’s diligence. Supporting the sharpshooter’s head against his chest, he slowly bound the head wound.
Nothing on Pony’s back was dry, including the bedroll. Untacking the gelding, he spread the blankets out in the sun and left the two animals to graze nearby. That done, he moved back to where Vin lay, sat down behind the younger man, and lifted his head and shoulders up into his lap. Leaning back against a tree trunk, he lit a cheroot and settled in to wait until Tanner was strong enough to make the trip home.
The darkness had him, surrounding him so completely that he couldn’t even tell up from down, let alone left from right. He fought down the panic as he struggled to find his way. Time was precious, he didn’t have any to waste in the dark. He had to get to Tascossa and clear his name as soon as possible. Clear his name or accept his fate at the end of a rope. Either way, he’d leave this world with his pride and dignity intact.
He felt frustration well up from the center of his soul. It seemed as if any time he came close to clearing things up, something stopped him. he had pretty much lost hope after Eli Joe had died, but there was still a tiny spark. A voice continued to whisper to him faintly that he would still have an opportunity to set things right.
“You’re a fool.”
He recognized the voice, but couldn’t find the speaker. “Where you at, Eli Joe?”
“In hell, where do you think?”
“Fittin’ place fer y’.”
“For us both.”
His mind spun at those words. Was he dead? He couldn’t be certain, but something told him that he wasn’t. Not yet, at any rate. He turned, still trying to find his way out of the darkness. He growled in frustration when the blackness proved to be complete.
Larabee roused at the feel of the body in his lap moving weakly. A sound escaped the tightly pressed lips, something between a moan and a cry. He lay a hand on one trembling shoulder in an effort to calm the other man. “Lay still, Vin, you’re all right. Just take it easy, hear me? Soon as you’re rested, we’ll head back to town.”
Tanner continued to struggle, fighting to free himself and return to his mission. Soft, disjointed words escaped him, punctuated by groans and cries of pain. Once more his eyes opened, staring unseeing toward the sky.
Chris tried to move into his line of sight, fear gripping him when Vin didn’t react to him in any way. “Vin? Can you hear me? Can you see me? Tanner, I need you to answer me pard. Come on, damn it!”
“Wh-where’d E… where’d Eli Joe go? Where… where’s he at?” Vin mumbled.
“Eli Joe? Vin, he’s been dead for almost a year. Remember?”
“Where y’ at, y’ filthy… oh, damn,” one trembling hand came up to grab at his head, fresh pain lancing through his skull as he moved.
Pulling at the clawing hand, Chris pulled it away before his friend could do any damage. “Take it easy, pard. Lay still, all right? You’re hurt Vin, you need to relax. We’ll leave for town in a little while.”
“Hurts… what… what happened t’ me?” He blinked, blue eyes clearing slightly.
“You got shot in the head, do you remember?”
“Eli… Eli shot me?” Confusion returned, and he looked around, searching for the dead bandit.
Barely able to restrain his growing frustration, the blond said calmly, “it wasn’t Eli Joe, Vin. He’s been dead for months. A bunch of trail bums came into town, causing trouble. One of them clipped you along the side of the head with a bullet. That’s why your head hurts so bad, and why things are confused. Just lay still, and rest. We’ll go back to town soon – “
“No! Gotta go… gotta get ‘m. Take ‘m back t’ Tascossa. Gotta cl-clear m’ name.”
“Damn it Tanner, would you listen to me?!” His patience spent, Chris growled at the confused man.
Flinching at the tone, the sharpshooter’s struggles resumed. “Le’ go!”
“Vin, settle down. “
“Lemme go, damn… it. D-don’t hold ont’ me! Lemme go!” He fought hard, despite how weak he was.
Hard put to keep the younger man down, the gunman struggled to keep Tanner from getting up and complicating his injuries even more. The two men fought for several minutes, Larabee trying to restrain the delirious Tanner without injuring him even more. Only when the younger man collapsed once more into unconsciousness did he relax his hold.
With a sigh, Chris leaned back against the tree once more, absently rubbing the slowly relaxing shoulders. He wished he had taken time to contact the others now, to let them know where he was heading at least. Now he was out here alone, and Vin could very well be dying.
Nathan rode into town, bone-weary and miserable. Silas had died during the night, and he had stayed long enough to console the man’s family. Promising to send Josiah and the undertaker out to take care of the man's body, he left as soon as the storm ended.
Riding Able into the livery, he nodded to Yosemite and handed over the reins as he dismounted. As he turned to leave for his clinic, he noticed that neither Peso nor Pony were in their stalls. “You got some of the horses out in the corral?”
“No sir, too muddy for that.”
Frowning, he said, “Then where’s Chris and Vin’s horses?”
Shaking his head, the big man said, “they were gone when I came in this mornin'. Figured they must have gone out of town.”
“Damn it!” Jackson growled as he headed toward the door. “Have you seen the others?”
Nodding, Yosemite said, “Buck and JD were by earlier and I saw Josiah at the church. Too early for Ezra to be up.”
With a relieved grin, despite the circumstances, the former slave had to agree. Standish rarely appeared before noon unless someone dragged him out of bed, or they were on the trail. Thanking the livery man, Nathan left, going first to his clinic. Not surprised when he found it empty, he went through town, searching out the other peacekeepers.
Vin looked around him, surprised to find that the darkness had cleared. He was looking out over a green, flat landscape, empty as far as the eye could see. Turning slowly, he drank in the scene before him, smiling at the familiarity of it.
He was home.
As he finished his circuit, though, he was shocked to see something completely and utterly foreign to the landscape. A gallows. “What th’ hell?”
He watched as the shadow of the wooden structure reached toward him, slowly leeching the light from the air as it moved. It was moving toward him with the unerring actions of an arrow. As it touched him, he felt the air around him charge with electricity. He couldn’t move. His legs refused to follow his directions, leaving him no choice but to let the shadow consume him.
As the shadow enveloped him, it took with it any warmth, and he gasped at the icy touch of the darkness. Oh lord, if only he could feel the warmth of the sun again. “Ain’t gonna stop, Eli Joe. Don’t matter none wha’cha send my way, I’m gonna keep comin’ no matter what. Even if I gotta crawl on m’ belly. Gonna clear m’ name.”
The air around him turned colder, until he could feel the breath burn his throat. Breathing became more and more of a chore, until he almost stopped doing it. He clawed at the shadows that surrounded him, fighting to free himself of their hold. But the cold sapped his strength and soon he could only stand there, gasping for breath, as the shadow of the gallows stole his life from him.
Larabee heard the rattle in the bare chest and lay his hand along the chilled flesh. He lifted the shivering young man, holding him against his own broad chest. Wrapping his arms around Vin, he began to rub his chest and arms, trying to keep the circulation going. He had to get him back to town, quickly.
Propping Tanner up against the tree trunk, he hurried over and saddled Pony. Tugging at the rope still tied around Peso’s neck, he fastened the big animal to his saddle. Turning back to retrieve Vin, he found the young man on his feet, stumbling away from him. With a muttered curse, he sprinted across the ground toward the delirious man.
He wasn’t certain what had happened, but the shadows had retreated and he was free. He forced his weary body to move and began to shuffle through the thick grass of the plains. He wasn’t certain where he was going, other than away from the gallows.
He searched the land around him, seeking… what? Something… no, someone, should be there. Chris. His friend. Larabee was somewhere nearby, he could sense it. Just as he had since the day they had first locked eyes across that dusty street, he could sense his presence.
But where was he?
Larabee quickly reached the injured man, but hesitated before he touched him. Tanner’s confusion made it hard to tell what would happen if he grabbed the man. He moved carefully around, until he was in front of Vin, then tried to get the man’s attention. “Vin?”
At first there was no response, the blue eyes clouded over with pain and bewilderment staring around him in near panic. He managed a few more steps, each one threatening to send him back to the ground. Then, the sound barely audible, he said, “Chris?”
“I’m right here, pard. Take it easy, all right? I’m right here.”
With a weak smile, the injured man collapsed into his arms.
Larabee was there, standing tall and proud in the grass, his black duster whipping around his legs in the breeze. Vin smiled as he started toward his friend, forcing his exhausted body to move forward. Then he was right in front of the blond, who smiled at him and reached out a hand.
“I’m right here, pard. Take it easy, all right? I’m right here.” Chris took his hand, then pulled him into a quick hug.
With a grateful sigh, Vin collapsed into that embrace, not questioning the unfamiliar gesture. Larabee was here now. He wouldn’t die alone.
Nathan had quickly gathered the other men. After a quick discussion, they broke into two groups and rode out of town in opposite directions. They would ride in a sweeping arch in search of the missing men, then meet up. If they found no sign of them, they would widen their search area and start over again.
Chris had Vin wrapped up in the sun-dried blankets until nothing but the man’s face was visible. He held the unconscious man in front of him on the saddle, the lean body slumped sideways on Pony’s back. Tanner’s head was cradled against his shoulder, and he could hear the raspy rattle of his labored breathing. They needed to get back to Nathan and let the healer work his magic with brewed herbs and foul-smelling potions.
He pondered on the man’s sudden need to go to Tascossa and clear his name. Maybe it was simply the head injury. Like Nathan said, injuries like Vin’s made men do strange things. He had seen it before himself, rational men suddenly doing irrational things. But he sensed something deeper than that with Tanner. Perhaps it was time that they did something about the price on his head.
He heard a sound, almost a sigh, and felt the body in his arms shift slightly. Stroking his thumb along the blanketed shoulder, he quietly comforted the other man. “Sh, it’s all right Vin. You’re all right. Rest now, I’ll take care of you. Sh, lay quiet, pard, it’s all right.”
“Yeah, it’s me. Sh, lay still Vin, you’re hurt… sick. I need to get you back to town so Nathan can look after you.”
“N-no… Tas… Tascossa… gotta… “
“Sh, it’s okay Vin, I understand. All right, you lay still, I’ll get you to Tascossa. Okay? You hear me? We’re going to Tascossa.” He would explain the lie later, if Tanner remembered and questioned it.
Tanner relaxed against the broad chest and one hand found its way out of the blanket to grip weakly at the black shirt front. “’Kay… thanks, cowboy.”
Larabee couldn’t help but chuckle at Vin’s choice of words. He rankled at the term cowboy if it came from anyone else. But, when Tanner was the speaker it had the same ring to it as ‘friend’.
Then the blond’s smile widened as he saw two riders heading toward them, horses at a dead run. Help had arrived.
The ride back to town seemed anticlimactic, Vin rested quietly in Chris’s arms, on Pony’s back. They stopped long enough for Buck to help Larabee get some water and then some whiskey down the semi-conscious man, then they added Buck and JD’s bedrolls to those already wrapped around the sharpshooter. That done, they sent Dunne ahead to find Josiah, Nathan and Ezra, and continued on the shortest route back to town.
As they rode, Chris filled his old friend in on what had happened, including the presence of Eli Joe in Vin’s fevered mind. As usual, the former lawman’s response was volatile. “Goddamn it! That sonofabitch can’t even leave him alone a year after he’s dead! I got half a mind to dig the bastard up and tear him apart! Well, soon as Vin’s up and around, we’ll all ride to Tascossa and get this all cleared up.”
He couldn’t help but smile at the big man’s words, and knew that Wilmington meant every one of them. He knew, too, that he could count on the others to ride with them as well. During the past months they had formed a strong bond, a brotherhood.
Perhaps it was time, then, that they helped one of their brothers regain his most valued possession. His name.
Nathan and the others met them just outside of town. The healer checked Vin quickly, leaving the slender tracker couched in the gunman’s arms as he did. Giving the injured man a few drops of Laudanum to send him into a deeper sleep, he wrapped Tanner up once more and the seven headed toward Four Corners.
Reaching the clinic as quickly as possible, they bundled him into bed. Throughout the entire trip, Vin’s fingers had remained wrapped around Chris’ shirtfront. Rather than pulling it loose, Larabee simply positioned himself beside his friend, allowing Tanner to cling to him as long as he needed to.
Working around the manifestation of their bond, Nathan and Josiah managed to clean Tanner up, feed him a strong-smelling tea, and coat his chest with an even stronger smelling salve. While they worked, the others carried up buckets of steaming water from the bathhouse, until the entire room was filled with humid, misty air. They kept it that way throughout the rest of the day and on into the night.
Finally, just as the next morning dawned, Tanner’s breathing eased, and his eyes blinked open owlishly in the dim light. The first thing he saw was Chris Larabee sitting beside him. The blond head was bent, chin resting on his chest, eyes closed in sleep. Then he saw his own hand, long fingers clenched around the man’s sweat-soaked black shirt. Carefully he opened his hand, letting it fall to his chest.
Larabee’s eyes opened, the loss of contact registering immediately in his sleeping mind. Seeing the blue eyes clear and focused on him, he said, “About time you woke up.”
Managing a smile in response to the one that spread across his friend’s face, Tanner simply nodded. Hearing the sounds of movement, his eyes tracked around the room until he saw five other familiar figures. All of his friends were there, watching over him. Each of them smiled as his gaze focused on them, then Nathan reached down and lay a big hand against his chest.
“Think we caught the congestion early enough, sounds clear in there now. Let’s air the room out and let him get some sleep. Y’all can come back and visit in a few hours.”
“Hell, Nathan, don’t seem like we’re taking up much room,” Buck argued.
“Yeah, come on. Vin just woke up,” JD added.
“Look, he needs his rest right now rather than a bunch of folks hoverin’ over him.
At least let him be ‘til noon, “ Jackson responded.
“Well, all right,” Wilmington agreed reluctantly. Turning back to the bedridden man, he said, “we’ll let you sleep, pard. Soon as you’re feelin’ better, we’re all gonna sit down and talk about ridin’ on up to Tascossa and clearin’ your name.”
Almost overwhelmed, Vin sought to find words to convey what he felt for the men. The only thing he manage, though, was “thanks.” He knew the words for what they were, though, meant to keep him calm until he breathed his last breath. Exhausted, he wanted nothing more than to sleep, but forced himself to stay awake while he explained his need to head out for Tascosa immediately. “I appreciate the words, but y'all know I've gotta go now.”
With a frown, Chris asked, “Why right now, Vin. There's time.”
“Know that ain't true, Chris.”
“What do you mean?”
“Heard ya earlier... you and Nathan.” Turning toward the dark healer, he said, “Heard what ya said... that I'm dyin'.”
The confusion was clear on the other men's faces for a moment, then faded when Nathan asked, “Vin, did you hear me talking to Chris about someone dyin' soon?”
With a frown, Vin nodded. “Said I had no more'n a week.”
“We weren't talking about you, Vin.” Chris explained softly.
“Chris, ya don't have t' lie fer me, ain't a child.”
“He's not, Vin,” Nathan corrected. “You heard us, but only part of what we said. We were talkin' about Silas Wilson. He passed last night.”
“It's true, Vin,” Josiah added. “While we were looking for you, Nathan told me about the poor man's passing. “Undertaker and I went out yesterday and brought his body in for burial.”
Looking from one man to another, Vin sought some sign that he was being lied to. He saw nothing but honesty and friendship. “I was wrong.” It was a statement.
“You were confused, my friend,” Ezra chimed in on he conversation. “A head wound is bound to rattle even your brains... despite the thickness of your skull.”
There was silence for several seconds, as the comment slowly registered with all six of the other men. Then laughter filled the room; friendly laughter meant only to dispel the dark mood of the room.
Tascosa would be there another day.
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April 3, 2002
tweaked April 22, 2012