Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #16, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Seven Card Stud that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Mary Fallon Zane and Lorin Zane were the primary authors of this story, they had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Art by Shiloh (email@example.com)
Stupid. How had he been so stupid? Living in town, riding with men who watched his back, it had made him soft; turned his brains to mush. That was the only explanation. How else could he find himself in this predicament?
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Hell, Larabee would probably take one look at his sorry hide and shoot him dead on the spot for being so damn stupid. Wouldn't blame him, either.
He sighed heavily, wincing as the action sent a bolt of pain lancing through the cut running along his rib. Stupid.
He should have listened to his gut. He'd learned to trust it; trust the feelings, the softly whispered cautions that had helped keep him alive over the years, but not this time. No. This time he had ignored the soft growl of danger when he had seen those tracks. He'd followed them, thinking more about getting back to town than why his gut was suddenly abuzz.
And he'd paid dearly for his stupidity.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid," he muttered to himself.
Gaspar Aznar was a wanted man in New Mexico and Arizona Territories, as well as in Mexico. Aznar was also a smart man. He cultivated loyal friendships among those who could help or hide him, and he used all others mercilessly, to get whatever it was he wanted. And what Aznar wanted most was cash money, or gold, if it could be had, and he had no problem killing man, woman, or child unfortunate enough to stand in his way.
He'd tracked the bandito for over two weeks once, back before he'd ever ridden into Four Corners, before he'd ever locked eyes with Chris Larabee and found himself drawn into a world he'd never expected to know.
A world that included a home… a family.
The words had been more dream than reality for him, until he'd met a man who simply stepped into his life and refused to leave. Not that he would have let Chris go anyway. He'd known as soon as he'd stared into those intense green eyes that he'd met the man he'd ride with the rest of his days. He just hadn't expected to have his own feelings returned. But they had been.
He still wasn't sure how, but he'd gained a brother that day, someone closer than a brother. And, not for the first, time he wished that there was a white man's word for the bond he shared with Larabee. As he was shaking his head, he wondered what had just struck the brim of his hat. Whatever it was, it was also hitting his back.
Peso snorted and tossed his head.
Vin shook his head to clear away the thoughts that seemed to be chasing circles in his mind and blinked, glancing around at the desert landscape that spread out around him. Something was wrong.
It was dark. Too dark. Surely he hadn't been that far out when he'd crossed paths with Aznar. It couldn't be getting dark already… could it? He'd been knocked out… had walked for a bit before finding the gelding… maybe more time had passed than he'd thought.
Another toss of his head and Peso wrenched his neck around, nipping at his rider's knee.
Tanner jerked, the gelding's teeth just missing him. "Damn mule," he growled.
Whatever was hitting him, it was beginning to strike his back with greater force, like someone was throwing rocks at him. He blinked again, realization finally settling in. Raindrops, big and fat, were falling to beat against his back.
He forced himself to look up and study the sky, sharp points of lights dancing in front of his eyes for a moment when he did. The clouds overhead were dark grey, and shot through with black. Lightning leaped from one to another, thunder beginning to rumble louder. A crooked bolt reached down to the ground in the distance.
This wasn't good.
Peso snorted and stamped a hoof, wanting to escape the downpour that the intelligent horse knew was coming.
And Tanner knew they needed to hurry as well but, for a moment, he wasn't sure where he was supposed to be going. Then he remembered. He was heading back to town, back to Four Corners. He was headed home.
He could get help there; six men would look out for him, take care of him… if he could just get there in time.
He frowned, trying to remember the way back. The landscape appeared familiar, but he wasn't exactly sure where he was, or which way he had to go to find the help he needed. The confusion frustrated him. He always knew where he was, which way to go.
Then it became clear in his mind: Chris.
If he needed help, he needed to find Chris.
But where was Chris?
He looked around again, brows pinching above the bridge of his nose. Which way? How did he find Chris?
Then his hands were moving without conscious thought. He reined Peso to the southwest, and the big gelding snorted and tossed his head, glad that they were on their way again. He just hoped he and the horse knew where the hell they were going.
Letting Peso have his head, Tanner gripped the saddle horn and held on as the sky opened up and the deluge swept down upon them. He could feel the rain soaking his pants first, turning his legs icy. It took longer for it to soak through his coat and shirt, reaching his back and sides, making the still-seeping cut sting furiously. But he gritted his teeth and tried to forget about the pain. It didn't do to dwell on something he couldn't control.
He just had to find Chris. Once he did, everything would be all right. Chris would know what to do; he would take care of him.
The realization brought a flare of warmth to his chest. Chris would take care of him.
All he had to do was find the man.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris glanced around his cabin, taking in all of the changes that had happened to it over the last few months. Hell, if he didn't know any better, he'd think he was settling down again.
The tiny, one room shack he'd built first was gone now, replaced by a sturdy, three room cabin. And the rooms were all good-sized, too. He was standing in the largest of the three now, which included a cooking and living space. A blanket hung in the doorway leading into his bedroom. And, also off of the main room, was another, smaller bedroom with a loft above it for the rare occasion when all of the peacekeepers were over, and needed to bed down for the night.
There were chairs aplenty in the main room, enough for seven men, and the table was large enough to accommodate all of them as well. The hearth was small, but it and the cook stove were more than enough to warm the entire space on a cold night. And there were plenty of windows that could be opened to keep the place cool on the more common warm and hot nights. Real curtains hung over those lead glass panes, and he had dishes, pots and pans, even an old chest of drawers for his clothes, which had, of late, included more colors than black.
He shook his head, wondering when he'd become so damn domestic.
Outside, his new barn stood next to the expanded corral. And in that corral were several mares he planned to breed. They were all mustangs he'd caught out in the desert, with some help from Vin. They were good-looking animals, too, their Spanish Barb ancestry clear in the lines of their heads, chests, and legs. Now all he needed was a worthy stud he could afford – easier said than found – or catch. He hadn't given up on that black he'd seen, but now that the rains had come, he and Vin would have to wait a month or so before they made another attempt to capture the stallion.
He snorted softly and shook his head. When had he decided to make this little backwater town his home? Why had he?
But he knew the single answer to both questions.
He'd found his home when he'd found Vin Tanner. And it just so happened that he and Tanner were both in this place, now. That made it home. And, as long as Tanner remained, so would he. If the tracker decided to pick up and leave, well, he'd do the same, following the tracker to wherever he went next. And he knew Vin would do the same if the wanderlust should strike him first.
It was both a comforting and a confusing thought.
He'd had friends before, good friends, men he would have ridden into Hell with, and for, but he'd never had a friend like Tanner. Vin was family, or he might as well be. But that word didn't seem to encompass all of his feelings about the man.
Vin had told him a story a month or more ago, about two Kiowa warriors who lived alone, until they met each other. They were men who walked through life shoulder to shoulder, and he thought that summed up him and Vin rather well, but it wasn't something he could use to describe his relationship with Vin. White folks wouldn't understand it, and he couldn't retell the story the way Vin had, to make them understand.
After finishing his dinner dishes, he put them away, then fixed himself some fresh coffee and set it on the stove to brew. He crossed the room and sat down in one of the two rocking chairs he now had, and picked up the book he'd been reading – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Opening it, he hoped to lose himself within the pages with Tom. But he couldn't. Something kept niggling at the edges of his thoughts, like something important he'd forgotten to do that wouldn't stop haunting him.
He stopped, going over all the things that might be distracting him, but there was nothing that he'd left undone. And he wouldn't be heading back to town for another day, so it couldn't be anything there. He'd made sure everything was in order before he'd left, and if there had been any trouble, one of the others would have ridden out to tell him.
So what had him on edge? He couldn't come up with an answer.
He sighed and forced his attention back to the story, laboriously reading another couple of pages before he finally gave up and set the book aside. It was too good to be wasted when he was in a mood like this.
He pushed to his feet and crossed to the cook stove, checking on the coffee. It smelled ready, so he poured himself a cup.
Sipping at the hot brew, he listened.
The cicada buzzed outside, and thunder rumbled in the distance, but both were to be expected this time of year. He could also hear the horses, moving restlessly around in the corral.
He frowned and set his cup down on the table. His hand reached automatically for the butt of his Colt, fingertips just lightly touching the cool stag handle as he started for the door.
He stepped out onto the long porch that ran the entire length of the cabin. The overhang protected him from the scattered raindrops that fell, striking the ground with enough force to send up small puffs of dust.
He looked up, quickly judging from the color and shape of the clouds that they were in for a downpour. The horses had gathered at the far end of the corral, pressing together under the lean-to that usually provided additional shade. Now, however, it would keep them out of the worst of the storm.
Chris trotted across the open yard to the barn, slipping inside to check on Pony. The black gelding nickered a greeting and moved to the side of his stall, hoping Larabee might have brought him a carrot, or a slice of apple.
"Sorry, boy," Chris said, reaching up to scratch the horse's forehead. "I'm just taking a look around."
The black blew softly through his nostrils and nudged the man, still looking for something.
Chris shook his head, feeling a little foolish about not wanting to disappoint the sturdy horse. He walked over to the barrel where he kept the oats, opened it, and scooped up a handful. After fitting the top back on, he returned to the stall to let Pony lip the treat off of his open palm.
"Happy now?" he asked the horse, affectionately rubbing Pony's neck while he ate.
The black finished off the grain, then lifted his head, the hairs on his soft nose tickling Larabee's cheek as he blew softly against the man's skin.
"You're welcome," Chris said, lightly swatting the inquisitive nose, forcing it away before the horse could lip at his blond hair. Chuckling softly, he finished checking the barn, then turned to go back to the house.
As he reached the barn door, a flash of lightning nearly blinded him. It was followed by a loud crack and an echoing peal of thunder that rumbled over the landscape and rattled the boards of the structure. The skies opened up, rain falling so hard be couldn't even see the cabin any longer.
He stopped, watching the downpour, knowing he'd be soaked clean through if he made a run for the cabin. Better to just wait it out. Monsoons passed quickly in the desert, and he had nothing better he needed to do.
Walking over to one of the bales of hay stacked inside the barn, he sat down and continued to watch the rain fall. A few minutes later, it began to ease.
He stood and walked to the door again. Looking out, he guessed it would be past them in a few more minutes. Then he heard one of the horses in the corral call a welcome. But who would be crazy enough to be out riding in this?
Frowning, he leaned out and glanced around. Just coming into his yard was Peso, his rider slumped over the saddle horn.
Tanner didn't move, and Larabee bolted out into the lessening rain. He slowed almost immediately though, not wanting to spook the four-footed demon the tracker called a horse. Good thing he had, too. Peso tossed his head, the whites of his eyes showing as he flared his nostrils and curled his lip up in warning.
"Whoa there, boy, take it easy," Chris said as soothingly as he could. "I just want to help Vin, okay?"
The big black gelding picked up one front leg and slammed his hoof into the muddy water standing in the yard.
"Easy, fella, easy," Larabee crooned, moving in slowly, carefully, until he was able to take hold of the horse's reins and lead him into the barn. Rainwater dripped off the brim of the tracker's hat, dribbling onto his saddle, but Vin still made no move.
Once inside, Chris reached out, lightly touching Tanner's arm, knowing the tracker was almost as unpredictable as Peso when spooked. "Vin," he called softly at the same time. "Vin, what happened?"
It took a moment, but the younger man's head slowly lifted and turned. Unfocused blue eyes looked down into worried green ones. "Chris?" he rasped softly, then frowned as if he was unsure what he was seeing was real.
"Yeah, it's me. Are you hurt? Can you get down?"
Tanner looked even more confused for a moment, apparently unsure he was sitting astride his horse. But then he nodded, gripped the saddle horn with both hands, and laboriously swung his leg up and over Peso's back. A moment later his grip gave way, and he was falling.
Larabee caught the man, but almost dropped him when the tracker cried out, biting back the sound almost as soon as it escaped his lips. Peso snorted and shied away, trotting over to stand next to Pony's stall.
"Whoa, easy, Vin, I've got ya," Chris said softly, lowering the man to the ground. The tracker was sopping wet and shaking all over, but it was the way he sucked in short gasps of air, like he couldn't breathe, that had Larabee worried the most. "Vin, what's wrong? Where are ya hurt?"
Tanner shook his head, unable to speak. He reached up and pawed at his eyes, Larabee guessing that he was probably seeing an explosion of lights dancing in front of them. That was what usually happened to Larabee, just before he passed out. And, sure enough, a few moments later the tracker slumped to the side and would have fallen over if Chris hadn't been holding him.
"Damn, Tanner, what've you gotten yourself into this time?" Chris asked, gathering the unconscious man more tightly into his arms.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Back inside the cabin, Chris carried Tanner over to the hearth and sat him down on one of the chairs, the tracker just awake enough to stay where he was put, for which the shootist was grateful.
"Vin," Larabee called, cupping his hand under the tracker's chin. "Vin, come on, pard, wake up."
Tanner groaned and tried to pull his head away, but Chris kept hold of the man's chin until he saw the blue eyes slowly open.
The tracker's eyes moved sluggishly, and they were glazed and unfocused, but they finally came to a stop, looking straight at Larabee. The blond saw the flare of recognition, then something else he thought might be relief, or maybe gratitude.
"Chris," the younger man breathed, then he moaned softly and closed his eyes again.
"Oh, no, stay with me, Tanner. We've got to get you out of these clothes. You're soaking wet, pard."
The tracker mumbled something Larabee was sure couldn't be repeated in polite society, but he forced his eyes back open. Chris watched as Vin tried to reach up and remove the rain-soaked coat, but he couldn't get his fingers to cooperate well enough to accomplish the task.
"Here, let me help you," Chris said, reaching out to unbutton and carefully draw the heavy hide coat off Tanner's shoulders and down his arms. That was when he saw the bloodstain. "Vin?"
But the tracker was in no condition to respond, his teeth were chattering, and his body was shaking as he sat, huddled against the cold that had crept into his bones.
Chris continued, pulling the suspenders down over Vin's shoulders and then removing the tracker's shirt and the top of his long johns, which were also bloody. Then he saw the cut running along Tanner's side and frowned. Boots and socks went next, and then he grabbed a dry towel and rubbed the tracker's hair dry as best he could.
"Vin, can you stand up?" he asked, already reaching to help the tracker to his feet, noticing the bruises that were beginning to darken on the man's back and chest as he did. Once Tanner was on his feet, Chris swiftly pulled the man's pants and long johns down, having the tracker step out of them, and then guiding him into the smaller bedroom.
He helped Vin into the bed, then covered him with a light blanket. "You just rest a little, I'm going to go see what Nathan left me," Chris told him.
Vin nodded, his teeth still chattering too much to speak comfortably.
The shootist turned and hurried to the larger bedroom. In one corner was a large chest that Nathan had brought out for him. He opened it, finding it well-stocked with bandages, medicines, and other items the healer might need. He picked out thread and needle, bandages, carbolic, and two of the medicinal powders that were stored in small glass jars. Carrying the items into the main room, he set them on the table, then put water on the cook stove to warm. With that done, he gathered most of the items up again and carried them back to the spare bedroom.
It was obvious that Tanner hadn't moved, but it sounded like the chills were beginning to ease a little. Chris walked over and set the items out on the bedside table, then reached out and gave Vin's shoulder a light squeeze, saying, "I'm going to go get some water, then we'll get that cut cleaned up, okay?"
The tracker nodded, his eyes sliding closed as exhaustion swept over him.
Chris hesitated a moment, not wanting to leave the man alone, but then he turned and headed back to the stove, pouring some of the warm water into a pan. He pulled a few towels off the shelf nearby and headed back to the injured man, who had turned onto his good side, making the cut easier for Chris to reach.
Larabee shook his head. Leave it to Tanner to try and make sure he wasn't a bother.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, the gunman leaned over and placed the pan on the floor, then dipped one of the cloths into it, soaked it, and wrung it out. Going as gently as he could, Chris cleaned the skin around the cut. When he was done, he dropped the bloody cloth on the floor and reached for the carbolic and a clean, dry cloth. He pressed the material to Tanner's side, just below the cut, and poured the carbolic over the wound, catching the bloodstained runoff with the towel.
That brought Tanner wide awake, and he tried to twist away, but the sharp stab of pain from the cut stopped the movement.
"Easy," Larabee soothed. "I know it hurts, but it's better than getting an infection."
"Y' think so?" Tanner asked through clenched teeth.
Chris smiled thinly. "Yeah, I do. But not usually at the time." He leaned in, getting his first good look at the cut. It was shallower than he'd first suspected, and he breathed a sigh of relief, thankful that he didn't need to stitch it closed. A bandage should suffice.
He helped Tanner sit up, then smeared a slave around, but not on the wound, and pressed a folded piece of clean cloth over it. Strips of cloth were then wound around the tracker's chest to hold the bandage securely in place. When he was done, he eased Vin back down and covered him with the blanket again, saying, "I'm going to go take care of that horse of yours. You just rest 'til I get back."
Vin nodded, his eyes closing as he listened to Larabee's footfalls leaving. He was safe. He was home. Chris would take care of him.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"You want to tell me what happened?" Chris asked when he returned from the barn to find Tanner awake.
"Got some water?" the tracker asked him, his voice more raspy than usual.
Chris nodded. "Got some coffee, too, want some of that?"
Larabee stood, gathered up the pan and bloody cloths he'd discarded earlier, and left the room. He quickly cleaned up, then poured Vin a cup of water and a cup of coffee, to which he added some of Nathan's medicinal powder, and enough whiskey and sugar to sweeten the bitter brew and hide the taste of the medicine.
He carried the cups back to the tracker, setting them on the small bedside table near the lamp.
"Here, let me do the work," Chris said, lifting Tanner and arranging the two pillows behind him so the tracker could lean back comfortably. He handed the man the water first, then the coffee. Once the water was gone, and the tracker was sipping on the coffee, he grabbed the chair from the small writing desk in the room and sat down next to the bed.
Vin took several sips of the hot coffee, then looked up and met Larabee's eyes. "Crossed paths with Gaspar Aznar… seems he knows 'm wanted these days. He took a shot at me."
"Looks like he missed," Larabee said, his expression deadpan.
Tanner snorted softly. "Yeah, he missed. But I hit m' head tryin' not t' get dead. He found me; thought he'd have an easy five hundred t' line his pockets with."
"He was wrong."
Tanner nodded. "Ol' Gaspar won't be robbin' no more banks or trains or stagecoaches, but he cut me pretty good b'fore he died."
Larabee moved from the chair to the edge of the bed again, this time checking over Tanner's scalp. It wasn't hard to find the small, hard lump where the tracker had hit his head. Vin winced when he touched it. "It's not too big."
"Feels big enough," Tanner countered grumpily.
Chris switched back to the chair, a small grin on his lips.
"Don't r'member much after I got cut… walked fer a spell, found the mule 'n' convinced him t' let me ride… We's headed fer home when that damn storm blew in."
Chris nodded. "Good thing you came here," he said quietly. "Warmin' up?"
Vin nodded, his eyes beginning to droop as he finished off the last of the coffee. Larabee reached out and took the empty cup.
"Reckon so," the tracker said and tried to squirm down, but he stopped suddenly when a hot fire flared in his side.
Chris stood, rearranged the pillows and lowered Vin down. "You rest now."
"Ain't sleepy," the contrary tracker mumbled, but his blue eyes were already sliding closed. "Hurts too much…"
Chris sat down on the edge of the bed, then reached out and started to pull the blanket up, but he changed his mind and began to lightly rub the tracker's arm and shoulder.
A soft groan of pleasure escaped Tanner's lips, but the man's eyes remained closed.
Larabee smiled slightly and continued, rubbing lightly over Vin's chest where it wasn't covered by the bandages. As he worked he watched the man's breaths even out as the younger man slipped into a healing sleep. He stopped, the light touch having accomplished what he'd wanted it to.
It was then that Chris realized how close he'd come to losing this man, brother, companion. He shivered himself, feeling his anger rise at Aznar, followed quickly by smugness at knowing the man who'd done this to Vin was dead.
Watching the slow rise and fall of Vin's chest, Larabee relaxed. It wasn't a deep wound, and as long as it didn't get infected, the tracker ought to be a swift recovery. He tugged the blanket up to cover the tracker's chest and shoulders.
What Vin needed most right now was rest.
So, taking a deep breath, Chris forced himself to his feet. And when Vin didn't stir, he reached down and pulled the blanket back up a little more, then forced himself to turn and leave the bedroom.
Back near the hearth, Chris sat down in his rocking chair and let the breath he had been holding escape as a sigh. What the hell had he been thinking, getting this close to someone again? Vin was his friend, his brother, and he'd walk this life shoulder to shoulder with the man, but that came with a high price, he knew.
But he couldn't deny the feelings rushing through him. He cared about Vin, he loved him like a brother, like family. And when you loved, you opened yourself to the potential of losing it.
Oh, Jesus. He'd lost a wife and son already, and it had nearly killed him. Now he was setting himself up for the same thing again. Tanner was a wanted man, and the lives they lived were nowhere near anything he'd call safe… But it was already too late. The bond was made. He had family once more, like it or not.
He recognized the feelings then; he'd felt them before – as a child, when he had a mother and father, brothers and sisters; and when he'd been a husband and father. Neither were exactly the same as what he felt for Vin, but both were close.
He swallowed hard and forced himself to lean back. Shoulder to shoulder… He knew it was true. And the others were family as well.
That was why he'd rebuilt the cabin. He had put down roots. No so much with the place, but with the men he'd allowed to become his family.
He had to be crazy.
Standing, he walked over to the stove, banked the fire, and put on fresh water to warm in case he needed it during the night.
He slept in his own bed, his dreams haunted by the images of an injured tracker, forever just beyond his reach.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris woke just before dawn the following day. Climbing from the bed, he pulled his pants on over his long johns and headed for the spare bedroom, and the injured man lying in the bed.
The tracker was still sleeping, so Chris returned to the stove, added wood, and set about making the two of them some breakfast.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin heard Chris enter the room, walking over to stand next to the bed. He wanted to open his eyes, but the dream and the lethargy both tugged him farther away.
He remembered… something… something he wanted to talk to Larabee about, but he couldn't remember what it was. But it was important.
He cursed silently as he was carried still farther away.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Vin?" Chris called. "Vin, you awake?"
Tanner's eyes blinked open and he looked up at Chris, hair tousled, blue eyes clear but a little unfocused.
Damn, Larabee thought, he looks like a boy. "Hungry?" he asked the man.
Vin nodded, his stomach rumbling at the same time. He carefully pushed himself up so he was sitting up in the bed and Chris stepped up behind him and arranged the pillows so he could lean back. Then Larabee picked up the plate he'd set on the bedside table and handed it to Vin.
"Smells good," the tracker said, accepting a fork from Larabee and setting to work on the eggs, bacon, and biscuits.
"You're eatin' like a healthy man," Chris observed, a smile just lifting the corners of the man's mouth.
"Don't feel too bad," Vin replied, clearly a little surprised by the fact.
"That cut hurtin' you?"
Tanner paused, chewing on his food as he considered the question. "Hurts some," he admitted. "Ain't too bad."
Larabee nodded. "I'll take a look at it when you're done."
Vin nodded and the two men finished their meals in companionable silence. Then Chris took Vin's empty plate away, bringing back a cup of coffee for the tracker – this time he'd laced it with medicine and lots of sugar, but without the whiskey. He set the cup on the small table and sat down on the edge of the bed.
After carefully removing the strips of cloth that held the bandage in place, he teased the cloth away from the wound. The skin around the cut was already beginning to close, but it was also red, although not too red, and it wasn't draining much.
"Better clean this up again," Larabee said, knowing Tanner wouldn't be happy about the idea. But Vin surprised him, nodding his acceptance.
Chris set to work, using warm water first, then he poured more carbolic over the wound, wincing in sympathy when he heard the sharp hiss that came from the tracker. "Sorry," he said.
"Gotta be done," Tanner replied, his voice still tight.
"Got some powder Nathan left. You lay still and I'll go get it."
Vin nodded, in too much pain to argue.
Larabee returned shortly with a small jar. He opened it and poured out some of the powder inside, lightly coating the wound with it. Then he added the salve around the wound again and used a fresh cloth to cover it. Using the same strips of cloth, he wound them back around Vin's chest and tied them off again.
By the time he was done Tanner was pale, shaking, and a sweat had broken out on his face.
Chris made him as comfortable as possible, then handed him the coffee. "You want me to add some whiskey to that?"
Vin shook his head, settling back and slowly relaxing as the pain began to subside. He eventually grinned at Chris and said, "Make a pretty good mama, Cowboy."
Larabee shot the man a glare. "You just drink that and get some rest." Mama, indeed.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin's fever slowly built over the course of the day. Chris knew it wasn't dangerously high, but it was bad enough to leave the tracker uncomfortable and restless. He did what he could to help, fixing soup, some of Nathan's willow bark tea, and bathing the tracker's skin with water to keep him cool.
He opened the windows, too, the cross breeze helping make Vin a little more comfortable during the heat of the day. He wished it wasn't quite so humid, but that was normal for late summer.
By evening the clouds had built up again and thunder was beginning to rumble in the near distance. Chris finished wiping off Vin's chest and stared down at the man. He seemed to be resting easier at last.
Reaching out, he pushed the damp chestnut hair off Tanner's forehead and pressed his palm to the exposed skin. He smiled thinly. "Think your fever's broke."
Vin nodded weakly, knowing Larabee was right. He'd been lucky, damn lucky.
"I'm going to get some more water and bring you some more tea."
Tanner made a face, but he didn't argue, drinking the bitter-tasting brew when Larabee returned with it. Outside, a bright flash of lightning was immediately followed by a deafening crack of thunder. One of the horses in the corral squealed, and a moment later the rain was falling so hard the two men couldn't have heard each other speak, even if they'd raised their voices to a shout.
The deafening deluge only lasted a few minutes, then eased, but didn't stop. Thunder continued to echo over the land, and lightning flashed, illuminating the cabin when it did.
The friends listened to the storm for a while longer, then Chris asked, "How're you doing?"
Vin nodded. "Reckon I'll live," he said, then tried to find a more comfortable position as he added, "Thanks t' you."
Larabee blushed slightly at the words, but he ignored the comment. "Why don't you sit for a bit, and I'll change the bedding," he said, knowing that it had to be wet from sweat and water when he'd cleaned the wound.
Tanner nodded again, letting Chris help him up. He made use of a piss pot, then sat down, enjoying the feel of the rain-cooled air blowing over his naked body through the half-opened windows. He watched as Chris removed the sheets, turned the mattress and put fresh, dry sheets back on the bed.
When Larabee was finished, he checked Vin's cut, cleaned it once more, and then helped Tanner back into bed.
The tracker lay, looking a little grey again. Outside, the rain continued to fall, giving the desert a gentle, deep soaking.
Chris sat down next to him. "You hurting? What can I do?" he asked worriedly. He didn't want Tanner suffering any more than necessary, but he wasn't sure what he could do to help the man now. Vin usually refused any help that wasn't absolutely necessary to keep himself alive.
Vin looked up, meeting the man's eyes and smiling weakly. "Could ya do what ya done last night?" he asked him softly.
"Last night?" Chris asked.
"Felt real good," Tanner added, blue eyes full of hope.
Larabee grinned. "Sure," he said, then reached out and began to rub the tracker's arm and shoulder, watching the blue eyes soften with pleasure, the pupils slowly widening until they almost erased the blue.
Chris continued, rubbing lightly over the man's upper chest and leaning over and rubbing down the other arm.
Vin sighed heavily, the sound soft and contented. "Ain't never felt anythin' 's good," he breathed.
"Get some more sleep," Chris suggested, "you'll feel better tomorrow."
Vin's eyes were closed, a relaxed, almost silly smile on his face. "Sleep sounds good," he slurred.
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The next day Chris decided that Vin was strong enough for the ride into town. The trip passed in silence, both men enjoying the coolness of the morning.
In Four Corners, Larabee took the tracker straight to Nathan's clinic, the healer making a careful examination of the cut, and the lump on Tanner's head.
"Well, looks like both are healin' up good," he said, then looked up at Larabee. "You did a real good job, Chris."
The shootist nodded his thanks, adding, "Had a good teacher."
The former slave grinned and turned back to Tanner. "You'll be jus' fine in a few days, Vin. I jus' want you to get plenty of rest, and kept takin' the willow bark tea for another day or two."
The tracker nodded, although he didn't look too happy about the tea.
"I'll take him back out to the cabin tomorrow," Chris told the healer. "He'll get plenty of rest there."
"Hell, I stay out there much longer, might as well start workin' and get paid," Vin grumbled.
"Could use some help with those mares," Chris told him.
"Not 'til that cut's healed up completely," Nathan cautioned.
Chris nodded and Vin grinned up at the blond. "Reckon we need to get us that black, too."
"Definitely not 'til you're healed," Nathan warned.
"Damn, Doc, you're worse 'n a mother hen that's down to one chick," Vin argued.
"He'll wait," Chris assured the healer. "I'll see to that."
"Don't need no damn babysitter, Larabee," Vin grumbled, but he knew he was truly home. And his family would watch over him, no matter how hard he tried to push them away. And, to be honest, he didn't want to push them away.
Oh, it might make his life harder in some ways, but it also made it easier in others. It was more than he'd ever expected, and he planned to make the most of every moment of it he was given.
The look in Larabee's green eyes told him the older man was thinking exactly the same thing, and that made Tanner smile.
"Think he can sit outside, if I make sure he don't move around too much?" Chris asked the healer.
"Should be fine," Nathan replied.
Chris helped him to his feet and they made their way to the chairs out in front of the jail, sinking into them to watch the coming and goings in town. Vin glanced over the Chris, and the blond flashed him a grin. "Shoulder to shoulder, right?" he asked.
Vin nodded. "Yep, y' got that right, Cowboy." So, maybe he hadn't been so stupid after all.
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