Warnings: Some language, a little blood, lots of smarmy angst ahead… prepare.
Notes: Written for Stubby. Mentions some of the events of several episodes. Many thanks to the Muse, who suggested the plot and helped me to hash it out. Love y’ heart-sister!!
Webmaster Note: This story was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in September 2012.
Vin Tanner slumped against the saloon wall, sliding slowly to the floor as his legs gave out. He frowned in confusion as he tried to figure out what had happened; why he suddenly found himself without the strength to stand. The sharpshooter watched the continued commotion around him with detached bemusement. Chris was crouched behind a table, shooting rapidly in several directions. Nearby, Buck was hiding behind one of the heavy pillars positioned around the saloon, shooting as well. The others were doing the same, having found a variety of hiding places around the big room.
So why was he sitting here, doing nothing?
Then pain shot through him, radiating from his chest. Managing to look downward, he saw a crimson stain quickly spreading across his shirt. Damn it! He had just bought it with his last pay. He tried to draw a deep breath, but found it impossible. Ah hell, he’d been shot.
The fighting continued for another several minutes, only ceasing when the men they had been trying to get out of town were either caught or killed. Vin watched as the other peacekeepers corralled those still able to walk and started marching them toward the jail. He started to call out to them, but couldn’t seem to force the words through numbing lips. Buck, JD, Josiah, Ezra, one by one moved toward the door, escorting their prisoners through the bat-wing doors. Nathan was going from body to stilled body, checking for survivors.
His dimming vision settled on the man in black and he managed to sigh when the blond’s gaze settled on him.
“Nathan!” Larabee's voice was filled with concern at the sight of his friend sprawled out on the floor of the saloon, blood spreading across his upper body.
The two peacekeepers sprinted across the wooden floor, slipping on still warm patches of blood in their hurry. One knelt on each side of him, both wore masks of shock and disbelief.
“Ah hell, pard,” Larabee groaned.
“Inez! Can you bring me some clean cloths? As many as you can,” Nathan called. Turning back to the bleeding man, he said, “You just take it easy Vin, we’ll take care of you.”
He watched the flurry of activity as the dark healer tore open his clothes to investigate the gunshot wound. He blinked rapidly as darkness tried to claim him, his eyes seeking out his best friend. Finally settling on the gunslinger’s marshaled features, he tried to smile. He shakily raised a hand, grasping at the black clad arm.
The blond’s hand covered the cold, clammy one with friendly firmness. “Rest easy, pard, you’re gonna be fine.”
He smiled then, needing Chris to know that it was all right. He felt a sudden stab of sadness at the thought of leaving his friends, but knew that – indeed – he was doing just that. With each sluggish beat of his heart, he felt his life draining away slowly. Given his druthers, he would have faced this moment beneath a tree or on a hilltop somewhere. He really hated the idea of his blood mixing with the sawdust covered floor rather than the warm earth.
Inez brought armloads of cloths, setting them on a chair next to Nathan. Vin looked up to see tears streaming down the woman’s beautiful face. He tried to tell her not to cry, that he wasn’t worth her tears, but the only sound he managed to make was a soft moan.
“Inez, could you go get Josiah? Tell him I’m gonna need some supplies from my clinic.”
“Sí, of course,” she gathered her skirts up and ran from the room.
“Chris, I need you to press down on this,” Nathan instructed Larabee. He placed the blond’s hand over the chest wound and pressed down on it firmly.
Shaken from his lethargy, the gunman nodded, and did as instructed. He fought back the overwhelming urge to scream, needing to vent the feelings of suffocating panic tearing at his soul. He struggled not to gather Vin up in an effort to lend him his own strength. Instead he sat in stoic silence, feeling the other man’s warm blood seep between his fingers.
“Nathan! What do you need me to bring?” It was Josiah’s voice, booming through the silent room.
The healer quickly gave him a list of medical supplies to gather up, and the sound of heavy footsteps retreated quickly from the room.
“Nathan, what can we do?” It was Ezra’s voice now, stripped of its typical honey-dipped tones.
Under the former slave's instructions, they righted one of the tables and scrubbed it down quickly. That done, they lifted Vin carefully, stretching him out on the cleaned surface. He cried out then, the pain searing through him. As the sound died, he collapsed into the gentle grasp of his friends.
They all hovered near in case they were needed. Nathan worked with his usual efficiency, quickly locating and removing the bullet that had invaded the lean body. With Josiah’s help, he cleaned and stitched the wound then, making certain that the bleeding had stopped before he closed the torn flesh. Bathing the bloodied flesh as gently as possible, he bound the lean, muscled chest with heavy, bleached muslin.
Satisfied that he had done everything he could, Jackson oversaw the others as they lifted the limp body into their arms and carried him upstairs. There they lowered him to Ezra’s own feather bed, the gambler giving up his room so that they wouldn’t need to carry the injured man any farther. There they stripped him down to his drawers and covered him to the chin with layers of blankets.
Nathan sat at one side of the bed, Chris at the other. The others settled in around the room as well. None of them spoke more than a word or two at a time. None of them wanted to risk saying what they were thinking.
Vin Tanner was dying.
He was drifting in the warm comforting darkness of nothingness. There was no pain there, no worries or concerns to vex him. He was enjoying the peace; looked forward to staying there for as long as possible.
But something was nagging at him.
Was the peace of the dark nothingness worth leaving behind the only men he had called friend for years? Was it worth losing the brotherhood they had forged over the past months? Was it worth leaving behind the brother of his soul that he had found in Chris Larabee?
He took a deep breath, letting it out in a sigh.
“I don’t know Chris.”
“But – “
“I don’t know. I’m sorry, but I’ve done everything I can for him. If Vin’s gonna get better, it’s gonna to be up to him. “
“But we can’t just sit by and – “ Buck couldn’t finish the thought. Couldn’t stand the thought of the scruffy young buffalo hunter leaving them. Not now. Not ever.
“I’ve read some theories… folks sometimes fight harder to stay alive if they know folks are there for them.”
“We could take turns!” JD broke in excitedly. “Each of us could stay with him for awhile and talk to him.”
The others stared at the young Easterner, who returned their looks with one of worry and confusion. Then they began to smile and he relaxed.
“That’s a good idea, Kid,” Buck said, slapping the young man on the back so hard that he nearly fell over.
“I concur,” Standish said with a smile.
“I’ll stay,” Larabee said quietly, “the rest of you – “
“No, I’ll stay for now,” Nathan said firmly. “I need to keep an eye on that wound for awhile and look for the beginning of a fever. The rest of you go get something to eat and some rest. Come back in the morning.”
“The morning?” Chris started to argue.
“It’s only a few hours away,” Josiah interceded quietly.
Chris found himself without anything to argue about, so he went quietly with the others.
"Damn it Vin Tanner, you’re forcing me to face the very thing I’ve dreaded for months. Watching one of my friends die."
“Well pard, it looks like it’s just you and me for awhile. The others will be back later, I got them to go get some rest. Even managed to get Chris to get outta here for a few hours.
“Maybe I’m being selfish, but I wanted some time to talk to you alone. Don’t think we’ve had a chance to do that for a while, and even then I never said the thing I should have the first time we met.
“Thank you Vin Tanner. Thank you for looking past the color of my skin the first time we met. I didn’t show it, but that first day, in the saloon, I was forever in your debt.”
**One for the Doc here.**
“I could here the anger in your voice, saw it in your face. You didn’t care if I was red, white, black or yellow. All you saw was a man. And you’ve never seen anyone else…
“No, that’s wrong. At least I hope it is. I hope you see a friend. ‘Cause that’s what you are Vin, and that’s what you’ll always be. My friend.”
Fighting back the tears that threatened to fall, the dark healer busied himself with caring for the gravely injured man. He checked the wound for signs of bleeding, ran a trembling hand over the colorless face to check for fever. He straightened the blankets time and again, even though the body beneath them didn’t move.
“I guess I never really thanked you for saving my life. It ain’t often a man can say that and mean it literally. But in this case it’s true. If you hadn’t been the shot you were… you are, damn it!… I’d have strangled at the end of that rope. It wasn’t enough that you and Chris were the only ones ready to come to my rescue, but you had to dodge that yahoo’s bullets to cut me down.
“So I’ll say it now, Vin, and I pray to the Almighty that I can say it to you later when you’re awake…
"Vin, you have to fight, son. The world needs men of strength and courage and you, my friend, embody both."
“You know son, I’ve set vigil over folks for more years than you’ve been alive. I don’t know that any of them were as difficult as this, though. I’ve questioned the presence of a higher power for many years, but, if whatever powers that be see fit to take you from our presence now I’ll know that there is truly no justice in their divine soul.
“I don’t believe that I have ever known anyone with such a wide open, giving heart as you Vin. Hell, the simple fact that you put up with that damn horse of yours is proof of that.
“And no one has more faith than you. You believed in me even when I couldn’t believe in myself. If not for your stubbornness, I would have gone to serve my penance without a struggle. But you believed in me Vin, and for that I’m forever grateful.
“Even beyond the fact that you saved my life, your faith led us all to the true killer. Although they’ll never know it, you saved the lives of every woman Poplar would have murdered.”
Sanchez watched the still body for signs of life but, other than the occasional rise and fall of the lean chest, there was nothing. He dampened a cloth, wrung it out, and bathed the ashen face. Fever was growing, warming the limp body. He saw the oft-smiling lips part as the unconscious man struggled to bring air into his lungs. Gently he lifted the tousled head and slipped another pillow beneath it.
“You know, back a couple of hundred years ago, someone wrote, ‘a true friend is the most precious of possessions and the one we take the least thought about acquiring’. The day you fellas rode to take me away from my work, I had no idea that you would ever mean anything special to me. I was a blind fool, I didn’t see the first glimpse of how precious you would all become to me.
“I'm not giving up on you son, but the road you’re traveling is going to be long and rough. I hope you don’t, Vin, but if you choose to leave this world you’ll take part of me along for the ride. A piece of my heart… my soul, if there is such a thing. I need you to know that, Vin Tanner. You’re a good friend, one well deserving of the title.
“Thank you, my friend.”
"Vin, you’ve done something I never had the strength to do. If you leave now, I don’t know if I’ll be strong enough to pick up the pieces."
“Damn, stud, can’t say as I’ve seen you lookin’ so pale before. Reckon the girls over at Virginia’s will eat that up when you start feelin’ better. Hell, I’ll have to stand in line waitin’ for them to stop makin’ over you. Think I’ll see if Chris will take you out to his shack til you start lookin’ healthy. Ol’ Buck does just fine, but can’t say I wanna have that competition.
“Ah, hell Vin. Reckon I’d give up every one of them ladies if it meant you’d be well. Reckon I’d give up about everything for that to happen. It’d be worth it, pard, because you gave me back the one thing it just about killed me to lose.
“You gave me back my best friend.
“Reckon he’d come around eventually, but damned if you didn’t hurry things along. You’ve seen glimpses of who he was, Vin, you know what he was doing to himself.”
He felt the heat radiating from the pale body and bathed the perspiration-soaked flesh. They had brought ice up from the ice house, half-filling the washtub sitting beside the bed. He wrapped a chunk in a thick towel and rubbed it gently along the trembling arms that hung limply from his grip. He watched the blue eyes, glazed and unfocused, open and close without seeing him. The young man lay, panting, on the bed.
“I doubt that I’ll ever be able to explain the connection you two have and, honestly, I don’t care to. It’s enough that it’s there. When I see him with you, I see the man I used to know… the man that loved life and lived every day for all it was worth.
“After… well, after… I figured that man had died along with the rest of his family. The man that rode away from that homestead, well, there wasn’t much of my friend left in that man. In the year that followed, I don’t think I saw him smile even once. Not a real smile.
“Not til the day he met you.
“As silly as it sounds, pard, you gave my friend back to me. That’s the pure and simple truth. Chris Larabee is here today because he saw something in you that made him want to be here.
“Thank you, Vin, for giving me back my friend.”
Fever rose, burning through the already traumatized body. The other six men gathered, working under Nathan’s direction to bring the fever down. They wrapped ice in blankets; wrapping him in their chill. An entire day came and went without their really noticing as they fought to keep their number seven. Finally, the ice bath won out, and Tanner’s fever broke. He lay so still that each man found reason to touch him, needing to feel for themselves that life remained in the lean body.
He lay limply in Chris’ arms, wrapped in a sheet, while the others stripped, dried and changed the bed. Larabee’s hand strayed to the damp curls, gently brushing them away from the pale face. He searched the lax features for signs of life, smiling when the dark-ringed eyes fluttered open.
“I’m right here. So are the others. How are you feeling?”
“I don’t doubt it. You’ve been fighting awfully hard for a couple days now. Nathan says the longer you hang on, the better things look.” He didn’t say what those ‘things’ were. He didn’t have to. “You rest now, and let us take care of you pard. Go on to sleep, we’ll be right here.”
He wanted to tell Chris that he already knew that. He knew that the others had been nearby the entire time, looking after him and buoying him up through his struggle. But all he could do was sigh as his eyes closed once again.
"Vin, there are many small men in this world who do not have the capacity to care for others. We need men of your caliber."
“Well, Mister Tanner, are you enjoying my humble accommodations? I suppose that, to your more rustic and provincial sensibilities they are nearly palatial. I shall never understand how you can maintain any sense of happiness living in that vile, dilapidated wagon you insist upon calling ‘home’.
“I must say this for our association, sir, you have done a great deal to make me look even more sophisticated and desirable to the fairer sex than ever before. I am forever in your debt for that alone…
“My apologies my friend. I hide my true feelings just as I always have. I envy you the fact that you are able to express yours so eloquently. Vin, I apologize for laughing at you the night… the night you entrusted me with your gift of words. I was, to say the least, a vile and oafish bore.
“Oh hell, Vin, I was an ass.”
He sat on the edge of the bed, plucking at the coverings. “I have done very little to earn the right to call myself your friend, I’m afraid. I have questioned and ridiculed your honesty… your kindness… your generosity and heart. I have treated lightly those things you have taken seriously. In short, I have no right to ask you this, but I will anyway.
“Don’t leave us Vin Tanner. Please do everything you can to fight those forces that would take you from us. Our world is in dire need of people of your caliber, my friend, do not deny us that.
“Don’t leave me, Vin. I had always considered myself a student of human nature. I thought that I could read others as easily as I can read the cards. Until I met you, that is. I find that I have learned more of the human condition in a single look from you than I was able to ascertain in all the years before. If I am truly a student of human nature than you, sir, are a scholar.
“I need your tutelage, sir. More than that, I need your friendship.”
He brushed the tears that spilled down his face, and nervously tugged at his sleeves. He looked to see a pair of azure orbs peering owlishly up at him, but they closed once more. He didn’t know if Tanner had seen his uncharacteristic display of emotion. He was shocked when he realized that he didn’t care.
“I suppose I should allow you some quiet, so you can rest. After all, you are one more accustomed to the solitude of nature than the chatter of civilization. I’ll be right here though, Vin, be assured that you aren’t alone.
“You have always been ready to give me your hand as a friend, despite the fool I have too often been. I shall endeavor to earn that friendship now.”
"Vin, you’ve learned so much from life, things that you can share. I can be a good student, if you’ll only teach me."
“Hey Vin! I’ve been wanting to come stay with you for days, but the others kept finding reasons to keep me away. I think that they wanted to make sure that… well, I guess they didn’t want to trust me here with you until you were getting better.
“You are getting better, you know. Nathan said so, just this morning. He said that the fever’s gone and there’s no sign of infection. He said that you’re gonna be pretty weak for awhile, and sleep a lot, but that you’ll be okay.
“I guess that sounds pretty boring, huh? I know that – for someone like you – lying around, even sitting around, must sound awful. Would it help if you had someone to talk to? I could come visit you… a lot.
“I’m being selfish Vin. I want you to tell me stories… stories of your life. You’ve lived so much, done so many things. Buck’s always teasing me about never being more than a kid to him. Kid. That used to make me so angry, when he called me that. I know I never let it show, but it did. Then, after a while I realized that it was his way of keeping me sharp. As long as I was trying to prove to him that I wasn’t a kid, then I really wasn’t.
“Hell, that even sounds stupid to me.
“That’s not the reason I want you to tell me stories, though. I want to learn… learn about living in this world without it beating me down. You see, I never told anyone this, but I came out here because there wasn’t anything for me back East. The only person who ever gave a damn about me was my Mother. The people we worked for treated us both like dirt, we were as much slaves as Nathan or any other Negro. The only kids I ever saw were either beaten down servants or children of the people we worked for. If they were servants they were only interested in proving themselves so that they could be good servants for the rest of their lives. The others treated me just like their parents – like a slave.
“I started figuring that this was the way it was going to be for the rest of my life. But it got even worse when Mama died. I tried to get into school because they kicked me out of the house the day we buried her. I lived on the streets for weeks while I tried to find a school that would take me.
“After that, coming West didn’t sound so scary.
“Damn, I guess Buck is right… I am long-winded.
“What I want from you, Vin, is to know how to go on without feeling all the anger and resentment toward those people back there. I see you pick yourself up time and again when someone treats you bad, and you barely seem to notice how they’ve acted.
“How do you do it? How do you wake up every morning able to care about people who would just as soon spit on you as talk to you?
“You have to stay around Vin… you have to show me how to do that.”
He frowned as the words of the other men floated around him in the void. He had considered them each friends, but had never stopped to think that they considered him a friend as well.
He felt their friendship surround him.
Felt their concern buoy him up.
There was something missing, though.
An important piece of the puzzle.
"Vin Tanner, you are a part of me, a part of my soul. I thought that I had learned to live with loneliness. But I can’t. I need you Vin."
“Hey pard. You’ve been awful damn busy for a man that hasn’t even had his eyes open for days. Thought I was gonna have to start shooting people to get a chance to keep you company.
“It’s sure as hell been quiet without your scrawny ass around. Sounds strange to say that about you… sometimes I forget what your voice sounds like… but it’s true.
“I shouldn’t complain, though. I’ve got to say, you had me – us – worried for a while.
“No. You had me worried.
“I couldn’t stand the thought that you might… might not be around.”
Larabee stopped, taking a deep breath as he fought to get his emotions back under control. He wasn’t certain why, there was no one in the room to see the single tear that trickled down his face.
“Look, I reckon you know that I’ll have to put another hole in you if you ever bring any of this up…
“Ah, hell, Tanner. We’ve never needed a lot of words before, I don’t know why they seem so important now. It’s just… well… I need you, pard. I need you here.
“I never thought I’d have to bring this up, but… you remember when we split up after Bryce came to town? Hell, what am I saying, of course you do. Anyway, it seemed so easy… just ride away. But it wasn’t. The entire time I was down in Purgatorio I was thinking about all of you, this town, these people. I missed all of it. I missed you.
“There haven’t been a lot of people in my life who accepted me for who I am, who didn’t want something from me, or want to change me. I’ve never had to hide myself from you, Vin. Never had to apologize or explain myself. You just accepted it… accepted me.”
He settled into the chair next to the bed, his elbows rested on his knees and he clasped his hands. Staring at the sleeping man in the bed, he said, “I need you, Vin. I need your quiet strength… your wisdom. I don’t want to go back to what… who I was before. I’m afraid that’s exactly what will happen if you’re not here to keep me in line.
“So see, you’ve got to stick around. Buck’s tried it before, but he’s lousy at it. The only other person who was up to the job was Sarah…
“I need you pard.”
A soft sound drew the gunman’s attention. He looked up to see a wide pair of eyes blinking at him, slowly clearing and brightening with recognition. He smiled, a broad, warm, relieved smile. “Hey, about time you woke up.”
Vin smiled in return, reaching a hand out to clasp his friend’s arm in a weak grip. He blinked wearily, wondering for a minute where he was. Then things began to pick their way through the fog. Voices. Feelings. Pain. He frowned.
“You’re all right, Vin. Do you remember what happened?”
He processed the words slowly, finally recognizing the question. “Shot?” He couldn't believe the amount of energy it took just to say that one word.
“Yeah, you were shot. But you’re going to be fine, it’s just going to take some time. I won’t lie to you, it was bad. You’ve been out of it for several days. But you’re going to be fine.” He realized he was repeating himself.
“Yeah, you’re going to be fine,” Larabee reassured him.
“Tired,” the injured man admitted. His eyes closed again and he returned to the darkness.
For the first time in over a week, six of the seven gunmen relaxed together in the saloon. Vin, out of danger and becoming difficult as he convalesced, was in the company of Nettie Wells. They were going to move him out of Ezra’s room in the morning, having found a room that would allow him to at least watch the comings and goings of town.
They had toasted their friend several times, each offering their own perspective on what Vin Tanner brought to their company. None of them said as much as they had while sitting with the injured man, though. They were men of action, after all, not words.
The most important thing, though, was that they were still seven.
"I've got a family, made of six of the best men it's ever been my luck to know. If I look for a thousand years, I could never hope to find better than them."
He sat at the corner table, having been allowed out of his room for the first time in two weeks. They had fussed over him while trying not to, trundling him down the stairs and settling him, wrapped in blankets, in the rocker Ezra had brought from his room. His legs were propped up on pillow-topped crates, more blankets draped over them. He was beginning to feel like one of the mummies that Ezra had told him about when the Southerner had run out of other things to discuss.
The others were gathered around as well, each of them trying hard not to stare at him. They were though, he knew. For once he didn’t mind being the center of attention. Not with these men. Not with his friends.
Inez brought over bowls and platters, each piled with one of his favorite foods. Nathan, seated on one side of him, oversaw the filling of his plate, not wanting him to over do on his first night out. Chris, on his other side, slipped more on his plate when the healer wasn’t looking. He tried not to laugh, but it was hard.
Buck and JD sat across from him, providing the evening’s entertainment. At the moment they were arguing over Buck’s comment that JD was going to lose Casey Wells if he didn’t start treating her like a lady, which triggered JD’s comment that Buck wouldn’t know true love if it bit him in the butt. The argument ended when Chris was forced to deflect a drumstick before it hit him.
“God damn it you two, if you’re going to act like two-year olds then take it outside!”
The two men stared at him, their faces quickly draining of any hint of color. Buck managed to find his voice first.
“Ah hell, Vin, I’m sorry! I… we didn’t mean – “
He waved off the man’s apology. “It’s okay, Bucklin.” He grimaced slightly when he heard how weak his voice still sounded.
“No, it wasn’t,” Chris growled. “The last thing you need is to tear open that wound dodging things these two idiots start throwing.
“Chris,” he said quietly, turning to look the man right in the glare, “it’s all right.”
Larabee continued to glare at the other men for several more minutes, but didn’t say anything more.
Vin settled back in his chair, watching as the show began again a short time later. This time the men kept their hands away from the food as they sparred about JD’s choice of headgear.
He opened his eyes, trying to remember when he had closed them. “Yeah?”
Chris’ eyes smiled as he looked into the confused blue ones. “Think it’s time you called it a night, pard.”
“’M okay,” he mumbled in protest.
“Let’s keep you that way,” Nathan chimed in. “If you want to go sit on the boardwalk tomorrow afternoon, you get some rest.”
He sighed, but didn’t argue. He couldn’t, because they were right. While he was lifted up between Nathan and Chris, he watched the others at the table. Ezra and Josiah were deep in discussion across the table, dodging the elbows that flailed around during Buck and JD’s less philosophical debate. He smiled as he was carried upstairs, couched in more than the other men’s arms.
Couched in the comfort and warmth of friendship.