Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em…damnit!
Characters: Vin, JD, Chris, Buck
Summary: Vin's secret hideaway isn't as private as he thinks
My thanks to Blackraptor for giving my stories a home.
One blue eye opened to steal a look at the golden stratus clouds hovering above a nearby peak and the surrounding prairie. With a smile and a stretch, ex-buffalo hunter, sharpshooter, and skilled tracker Vin Tanner sat up on his bedroll and marveled at the first rays of daybreak. It was still dark enough to see a translucent moon hanging in the endless indigo sky. Vin stood and stretched some more, his striking features bathed in the amber, iridescent haze of sunrise as he gathered together some items for his morning ablutions.
Venturing outside the brushwood-encircled campsite, Vin entered a small copse and followed a leafy, downward trail toward the sound of rushing water. Making use of the verdant brush alongside the riverbank, the Texan slipped out of his boots, pants and union suit and walked naked toward a tumbling waterfall, which fed an inviting plunge pool.
Stepping into the curtain of water momentarily stole Vin's breath, but he quickly recovered to take pleasure in the refreshing spray before soaping his hair and body to get to the task at hand.
Apaches were known for their stealth, but this early in the day, Onawa considered caution unnecessary. During the weeks that her tribe settled in the nearby hills, she came upon this hidden Nirvana, and once or twice a week, would venture down to bathe in the waterfall's plunge pool. Traveling down from the opposite side to Vin's camp, Onawa reached the spot where she would usually disrobe.
She slipped off her jewelry, but stopped and held herself still when her chocolate brown eyes spied the waterfall. It took a moment or two to appreciate what she was seeing, but once over the initial shock, her natural wiliness came into play. Like a ghost, she moved quietly through the brittle undergrowth to get to a better vantage point. When her objective was achieved, Onawa crouched low and watched.
A breath caught in her throat as movement drew her gaze to the tanned stranger within the fall's spray. He was striking to the eye, with a lean and muscular frame. Onawa watched the man's nimble hands travel over soapy skin, and felt a little self-conscious when she saw them slide below his hips, but she did not turn away.
The captivated woman's head tilted and turned with his every move and her eyes shimmered when he faced forward, threw back his head, and allowed the sparkling water to rinse him clean. A small noise escaped her open lips when her mysterious stranger then straightened to his full height before diving into the inviting pool just below.
Onawa's heart was racing, and she actually thought it might burst when the unknown white man's strong arms hoisted him out of the water and onto the grassy bank, where he lay on his back and appeared to relish the soft breeze on his nakedness. Suddenly aware of what she was doing, the young Indian woman retreated to her original position, and with one last glance back she snatched up her belongings and left.
Almost dry, Vin stood and looked over at the waterfall. What a find this place was. He always knew there were waterfalls in the area, but others he'd found were nothing like this one. Up until now, he figured he was the only one from town who knew about it, which was just as well as, on occasion, he enjoyed spending time alone, and this was his third visit here. He picked up his union suit and with the memory of the energizing water on his skin still fresh in his mind, Vin got dressed. While doing so, he decided that it was time to share his special place with someone he felt closer to more than anyone ever before, save for his Ma.
Chris Larabee's lean, dark-clad form strode meaningfully through the town's main street. Folk looked his way to acknowledge the man, but his thoughtful mood ensured he never made the eye contact needed to do so. There was plenty going on to keep him occupied, yet he was finding that his thoughts occasionally drifted to wondering what Vin might be up to, and whether he would be away for his customary two nights, or stay out longer this time. While part of him was convinced he didn't give a hoot, the bigger, softer side that was emerging with the friendships he was forming with six other men, and especially one of them, attested to the fact that he surely did.
Banter from familiar voices greeted him as he pushed open the saloon's batwing doors. With a slight and amused shake of his head, he nodded to the barman for his usual, and then joined his five friends and fellow regulators at their preferred table.
"Kid, you couldn't even find your boot this morning, so how come all of a sudden you want to be a tracker?"
JD made a face at the grins from his friends and then replied. "I didn't say I wanted to be a tracker, Buck, I just said I could do worse than having some tracking skills."
"A fair point," Josiah agreed.
"Definitely a skill to be admired as well as useful," Ezra concurred.
"Where was your boot?" Nathan wondered aloud.
Nods and touches to hats greeted Chris when he joined them. JD watched him sit before turning to Nathan.
"I didn't lose my boot, Nathan, it was..." JD waved off the question. "It doesn't matter, mislaying a boot is a whole lot different to being able to figure out clues, and tracks and stuff out there on the plains...signs that could save your life, or help you catch a robber and such."
"You already bored with being Sheriff, JD?" Chris swigged back a shot of whiskey.
Drinks were quickly being consumed to hide the mirth at JD's reaction. Wide-eyed, the young sheriff stared hard at his hero. His mouth was working, but his brain failed to feed him any words until a reply finally escaped.
"NO!" JD hastily took a swig of milk. "Shoot, Chris, no, never, I could never...no!"
Buck's chuckle erupted. "Yup, sure would be handy to be able to read them signs, huh Kid."
Noting that the others were grinning, even Chris, JD inwardly relaxed on realizing Chris was just teasing. "That ain't funny," he mumbled. "No sir, not funny at all."
"Any one of us can pick up a trail, JD," Chris continued, "but it's Vin you should be talking to about other skills."
JD shrugged. "Aahh, he ain't got time to have me under his feet."
Chris sat back in his chair. "You won't know if you don't ask."
"And as our very own tracker is currently out of town, what say we pass the time until his return with a hand or two of poker, hmm?" With no protests forthcoming, Ezra slickly shuffled the cards in his hand, and then dealt to each man.
Gunfire from the street had five of the six men on their feet and out of the door. Begrudgingly, Ezra stood to follow. He looked toward Heaven. "You couldn't have given me just one game?"
A new morning dawned and, as the previous day, Vin was up and preparing to bathe. Before heading off, he packed up his things. Yesterday had been an enjoyable day of fishing, and hunting, and now the refreshed Texan was ready for home.
Walking down the trail to the waterfall, he couldn't help but smile to himself at the thought of using that expression - home. Previously, the word conjured up images of a house, a hearth, and someone there who loved him, neither of which he'd had for some time, so the word was dropped from Vin's vocabulary. These days, however, the scene the word evoked was less homely, but still heartwarming. It was of surly, yet grateful townsfolk, a street to park up his wagon, and six friends, brothers, who had his back, as he had theirs. It was of a man in black whose healing heart and all that came with letting go of his past, was helping Vin to appreciate that survival was easier with friends who cared.
On reaching the water's edge, Tanner set aside his thoughts of home to allow time to appreciate the next half hour or so he was about to take pleasure in bathing and swimming.
In her place of hiding, Onawa's heart thumped in her chest. Rarely did she come to this place two mornings in a row, but she simply had to know if her handsome stranger was still around. To see him again, and in his unclothed glory caused fluttering in her stomach, and an ache throughout her body that she had never experienced before.
She found herself wanting to be next to him, to speak with him, and learn his name. Onawa wanted him to know hers. Guilt momentarily overwhelmed her. Though unmarried, in the fall she was to be joined with Nahele. Though it was an arrangement, like most Apache marriages, she wanted this union. Most wives grew to love their husbands. Onawa already did.
She saw Vin turn around under the waterfall and all thoughts of marriage temporarily fled from Onawa's mind as he prepared to dive into the pool. She drank in the vision before her, and watched him until Vin climbed out onto the bank. With a soft sigh, Onawa silently bid her handsome company farewell before vanishing into the underbrush.
While dressing, Vin suddenly looked up and toward the opposite bank. The tiniest movement in the ferns caught his eye and he stared, but his cheek dimpled when a bird flew out and away from the brush. With a final check that he had everything, Vin left; his wet, brown tresses hung in sodden ringlets and soaked the shoulders of his union suit as he walked. By the time he rode for home, his hair was almost dry. Riding fast, and with his hat off and hanging from his neck by its stampede string, it took no time at all for the arid breeze to finish the job.
In town, Chris was sitting at a small table on the boardwalk and reading a book. Outside the jail, Buck and JD had taken up chairs either side of the doorway and were talking; while from inside, a drunk was protesting loudly at his incarceration. At the point where his ranting interfered with their conversation, the pair turned, looked back through the door, and hollered.
Chris laughed softly as the pair resumed chatting the instant the scolding was delivered. However, moments later he narrowed his eyes and looked out toward one of the trails in and out of town. The green eyes crinkled from curiosity, to a smile, as a familiar figure rode toward him. He stood and moved to the edge of the boardwalk.
Vin nodded. "Yup."
Chris gestured behind him. "Saloon?"
Vin rode toward the livery, while Chris went inside to line up a couple of beers.
Buck nudged JD and gestured toward Vin. "Now's your chance."
"To ask Vin about tracking."
"He just got back, he ain't gonna wanna go out again so soon."
"Won't know unless you ask."
JD leaned forward in his chair. "Quit talking about asking him. I will, okay."
"Soon enough, now let it go, Buck." JD stood to go into the jail.
"You want for me to ask Vin for you?"
"What? NO! Buck...leave this with me. Promise? Buck? Do-you-promise?"
Buck was waving and smiling to a lady crossing the street. "Hmm? Promise what, Kid?"
JD threw his arms in the air. "Aarrrgghh! I'm gonna go talk to the drunk inside, he's more clear-headed than you are right now."
JD disappeared into the jail. Laughing, Buck leaned his chair on its back legs and rested against the jail wall. "That was fun, but it plum wore me out," He tilted his hat down over his eyes. "Reckon I'll just get me a little shut-eye."
Ezra was the only other regulator inside the saloon, and was enjoying a poker game. Chris and Vin had taken up seats at a back table. Chris poured them both a whiskey to accompany their beers.
Vin nodded. "Real good." He sipped his drink. "Was thinkin' - maybe you'd like to ride out there with me, sometime."
If Chris was surprised, he didn't show it. "Sounds like a plan."
Vin smiled. "Yeah. Maybe in a couple 'a weeks or so." He noted Chris hesitate. "Or...later."
Chris shook his head. "It's not that. JD was talking about learning tracking skills."
"From me?" Larabee's look made Vin grin. "He say when?"
"When he asks, I guess." Larabee pursed his lips in thought.
"Kid just wants to learn, Chris."
"Yeah. You up for it?"
Vin nodded. "Teachin's a good way to sharpen up."
Chris huffed out a laugh. "Yeah, 'cause you sure need to brush up." He looked toward the doors when JD walked in with Buck. "No time like the present."
Vin shook his head. "Has to be on JD's own terms..." His cheek dimpled. "'Course, we could always double up on a patrol sometime."
"Or...you could maybe both ride out to that there place you're partial to right now."
That comment had Vin pausing for thought. "That would work." He looked at Buck and JD and grinned. "How'd you reckon Papa Buck'll feel about his cub bein' out there in the big, bad wilderness without him?"
Chris poured more whiskey. "I guess we'll find out soon enough."
Several weeks later, and JD was sitting close to the waterfall that Vin had discovered. Venturing downhill for water, JD wasn't told what to expect along the trail and what he found completely mesmerized him. Instead of scooping up water, he sat down cross-legged on the bank, to stare at the tumbling water. Sometime later, a presence next to him caused JD to jerk out of his transfixed state.
"Gave me a fright there, Vin."
Tanner grinned and mirrored JD's position. "I'm guessin' you like it here."
"Aww, yeah. I didn't know there could be places like this out here. I mean, I knew there were, just not..."
Vin nodded. "I get your drift, Kid. This sure is a rare find." It was quiet for several moments.
"For teaching me to track, and for bringing me...us...here." JD pointed to the plunge pool. "You reckon we could swim in there?"
"It's a mite cold, but yeah, we could do that." He rose and patted JD's back to encourage him to collect the water. "How about some coffee and breakfast first though, huh?"
The two emerged from the copse and walked toward the campfire. "Figured you'd walked back to town for that there water, Kid."
Too fired up to rise to Buck's teasing, JD glanced between him and Chris and filled them in on what was at the end of the trail. "Vin reckons we could swim there."
Chris took the water, poured it into a coffee pot and placed the pot on the fire. "Be pretty cold this time of year."
"Y-e-a-h, I guess..."
"Hey, knock yourself out, Kid, it's your butt you'll be freezin'," Buck said with a wry smile.
Vin gave JD a friendly push. "I'll swim with you - leave these two old-timers to their warm fire, vittles, and bedrolls."
"Hey, I never said we wouldn't come down and make fun of you, just ain't goin' in, is all," Buck declared.
During the banter, Chris put some ham and beans into a pan. He removed the boiling water and scooped in coffee before pouring each of them a cup, and then stirred the warming food until it was ready to serve. The four sat down together, and Buck passed each of them a hunk of bread to eat with their ham and beans.
While allowing their food to digest, Vin took JD through the copse to look for signs of animal activity, or tracks. By the time they reached the waterfall, Vin considered it safe for them to swim. The pair stripped off and while Vin enjoyed floating on his back in the plunge pool, he chuckled at JD's carefree 'whoops' as the boy ran in and out of the waterfall's chilly spray.
From deep cover, Onawa watched the pair. Since the white man's last visit, she had been to the plunge pool every day for weeks in the hope of him returning. Something about his familiarity and ease with the area told her he would come back, and today, all the waiting proved to be worth it. Her desire to talk to him grew as she crouched low and silently gazed at Vin floating on the water's surface.
Onawa became a little sidetracked at JD's antics and found herself giggling at his noisy sprints through the waterfall. She noted the boy to be paler of skin than her white man was, but could see the beginnings of defined muscle tone. Any older, and she would have been drawn to his wholesome, boyish good looks, dark hair and eyes, and his playful, energetic, and adventurous spirit.
Vin began to take long, easy backstrokes through the water, and the movement recaptured her attention. Though swimming away from her, the parts of Vin's body on display quickened her breathing. He was handsome, though his body showed evidence of injuries suffered. She wondered if his scars were smooth, or coarse to the touch. Were there more of them? Was he a warrior, or a man of peace? How were his eyes so blue? Did his hair uncurl when dry?
The answer to her inquiry on how powerful his toned arms were came when the boy leaped into the water and playfully taunted and splashed her white man. With little effort, he grabbed the youth's waist, lifted him out of the water, and tossed him forward. She giggled again at the boy's squawk, and caught a gasp when her white man's musical laughter reached her ears.
Captivated by the pair's roughhousing, Onawa watched until they climbed out of the water to get dressed, and eventually saw the boy take the lead to leave. Her hand quickly dropped to her chest and lay over her heart when Vin took one last glance around the glade before he followed after JD, and it appeared that, just for a moment, he looked her way. Elated with her visit, the Apache woman stole away to return home.
Hidden eyes watched her pass by until she crested the peak and disappeared. As his betrothed moved out of sight, Nahele stood and looked down toward the plunge pool. His nostrils flared in anger while he stared at the place the one he loved would rather spend time at instead of with him. The Brave left for the encampment with thoughts of confronting her, and as he made his way there, anger and jealousy for her fascination with the white man, steadily grew.
Vin took JD out at sunup the next morning to locate tracks of animals that preferred night to day. Using the peace and quiet the outing presented, Chris headed for the waterfall to enjoy an undisturbed freshen up, and swim.
Icy needles of spray on his bare skin awakened Chris's body and momentarily captured his breath. He soaped himself down before rinsing, and marveled at how re-energized he felt. He looked down at the plunge pool and offered a crooked smile before diving in.
It was around ten minutes later when a familiar howl, followed by a loud and messy splash alerted Chris to Buck's arrival. Before the blond could consider Buck's position, the man's lily-white butt could be seen clambering up onto the ridge under the waterfall. Chris laughed aloud at Buck's stationary star jump position under the cascading water as he relished the spray hitting him. Buck then made fast work of his ablutions before diving back into the pool to enjoy a swim. He surfaced next to Chris.
"Should 'a done this yesterday, Stud. Why'd you go an' put me off?" With a cackle, Buck swam away. Seconds later water bubbled around his submerging head as Chris ducked the brunet underwater, starting up a drenching, battle of wills.
Vin and JD returned to camp to find the fire doused, and a lack of food and coffee available. Vin's head turned toward the copse and its foliage-covered trail to the waterfall, and he smiled.
"Reckon two grouchy risers found a mornin' swim to be to their likin' after all."
Chuckling, the pair jogged down to join Chris and Buck, stripping off as best they could along the way. Hidden by the thicket usually used to undress behind, the pair finished disrobing. With the two in the pool absorbed in their own activities, Vin effortlessly dived into the pool, emerging between the pair, while JD waited for Vin to surface before canon-balling in with his familiar 'whoop'.
Timing her arrival to match Vin's previous visits, Onawa's hidden form gawped at two new, extremely hale and hearty males. While disappointed it wasn't her white man, she wasn't troubled enough not to enjoy the display of attractive physiques fooling around. Her delight grew when the two men from the previous day, which included her white man, entered the plunge pool.
She became fascinated when the younger pair partnered up against the older men, causing the previous battling males to drop their own contest and team up against the newcomers. A cry out from the youngest caused the breath to hitch in her throat.
"Vin! Watch out!"
She saw her white man react. 'Vin'. He was called Vin. Onawa instantly liked the name. It fitted him perfectly, though she had no clue as to why. For what seemed only a minute, her mind drifted to how she envisaged meeting him.>> "Vin?" She saw her naked white man look up as she approached."Uh...howdy.""I am Onawa. I saw you swimming and felt a need to make myself known to you." She got close enough to touch him."Have we met?" He asked.'Only in my dreams', she thought. Her outstretched hand touched his lightly whiskered face, before dropping down to pass over his throat, shoulder, biceps, chest, and abdomen. Vin's blue eyes gazed into hers as she lowered her hand to his hip and they moved in to kiss... <<
Onawa's flushed face reflected guilt as her daydream evaporated and Nahele's trusting features took the place of Vin's. "I must go."
Looking down, she suddenly realized her Vin was no longer in the water, and neither were the others. Movement came from the undergrowth on the bank beneath her position, and she heard two male voices close by, causing panic to intrude where curiosity and admiration once nestled. She hurried away.
The voice was hushed, but Onawa heard it. They were close - too close. Breathlessly, she increased her speed, looking back on realizing those following were faster than she anticipated.
Chris and Buck got out of the water first. Fully dressed, and now ravenous, they left the younger men to it and headed for camp to make breakfast. Not too long after, Vin and JD were also getting dressed. At the point where they were strapping on their gunbelts, but still only in shirtsleeves, Vin grabbed a surprised JD's arm and placed a finger to his own lips before pointing to the opposite bank.
With a series of unspoken gestures that he had only recently taught JD to understand, he guided JD to the back of the waterfall to pass behind the curtain of water and land on the pool's opposite bank. Vin had thought once or twice previously that someone was up there; this time, he was sure. Stealthily, and swiftly, the pair climbed, and was halfway up the banking before something further over, distracted JD.
Despite JD speaking softly, Tanner hushed him instantly. Fearing their prey was now aware of their presence, they doubled their efforts to climb. Vin stopped to examine a circle of crushed undergrowth and snapped branch-ends while, still bothered by what had caught his eye a minute earlier, JD overtook him and consequently became the first to face what he had seen.
Nahele was watching over his betrothed, and seeing her fleeing, dismissed concerns of being spotted to instantly move to defend her. His speedy descent had him close to her in less than a minute and she barely caught a squeak of surprise when his strong hands clamped around her trembling shoulders. He gestured for her to go where he just came from and as she hurried away, Nahele moved to intercept her hunters.
He did not expect to come face to face with one who was not yet a man, but seeing the youth turn to warn his partner, Nahele drew his bow and in a moment had fired an arrow. Onawa heard a young voice cry out and as she turned back, her blood ran cold.
JD went rigid on seeing an Apache Brave facing him. Thoughts of warning Vin snapped him into movement and JD turned.
"Vin! GO! Vin...aaaarrrrggghhh!"
A hard, sharp, blow to his back caused JD to stumble forward, but despite the shock and pain setting in, he somehow kept moving in order to warn Vin. A sudden firm grip had him staring into furious, blue eyes. Vin's voice penetrated JD's agony and somehow he did what he was ordered to do - keep going.
A furious Tanner stepped around JD to head off whoever was chasing him. Vin only had a split second to catch the angry glare of Nahele before another fired arrow found his chest and ripped into the vulnerable flesh. Nahele watched Vin drop to his knees, but before he could unsheathe his hunting knife to finish the job, Onawa's frantic voice was halting his move.
"No! No, Nahele, they meant no harm." She squatted next to Vin and tried to lift his collapsing form. "Help me...HELP ME! I cannot let him die."
Seeing his betrothed trying to lift a near-unconscious Tanner, Nahele stepped in and expertly tugged out the arrow before he took the limp Texan in his powerful arms. He looked around for the younger man but could not see him, and new, urgent voices from way below told him they must go. With a distraught Onawa leading the way, Nahele dutifully carried his unconscious, bleeding burden away from the glade.
Back at camp, two cooling coffees and breakfasts had alarm bells ringing in Chris's head. While he knew JD could be easily distracted when relaxed, Vin rarely was, and Chris was disturbed that the pair were still not back at camp almost forty-plus minutes after he and Buck left the glade. Buck waved off the concern, but his eyes told Chris the true tale of how he was feeling. The tall, gregarious man was troubled.
"Maybe I'll mosey on down there and see what's keeping 'em," Buck suggested, but even as he checked his gun, Chris was already kicking dirt over the fire to douse it.
The two gunmen moved rapidly down to the waterfall, and found two pairs of familiar jackets and hats nestled on the ground near dense underbrush.
Buck's mouth worked a fraction faster than his common sense could kick in. With stealth no longer an option, the two men searched the immediate area before deciding to cross over to the other bank.
Chris's senses were on full alert, now. If all was well, one of them would have returned their calls. Worry fueled their hunt and intensified their speed as the hollering pair separated to follow two separate upward trails.
Shock and pain caught up with JD and he knew he no longer had the energy to do as Vin ordered. He stumbled once again, but this time overbalanced and went face down into the undergrowth-enclosed grass. JD tried to call out when he heard Buck and Chris's shouts, but lacked power and volume, and his diminishing strength added to the problem. His limbs felt like lead, and with a burning sensation in his back, but with the rest of his body chilled enough to make him shiver, JD closed his eyes. His final conscious thoughts were of hoping that Vin was close by.
Chris's duster hampered his strides through the brush when its edges snagged on branches. He impatiently tugged to free it, but the actions didn't slow him down at all as he waded through increasingly taller grass. A sharp gasp escaped his dry throat as he almost stood on JD's prone body.
Chris dropped to his knees, his gaze taking in the arrow protruding from the youngster's back as he did so. "BUCK! OVER HERE!"
He bent over and touched JD's exposed cheek. Despite the boy's soaked hair and heated head, his face was cold to the touch. 'Shock'.
"Kid...JD, can you hear me?"
Pained hazel eyes flickered open and wearily peered at Chris, but before Chris could ask anything, JD's next actions chilled the blond to the bone. He watched the boy point up the trail and ahead of them before clutching at Chris's duster-clad arm.
Buck's arrival startled the stunned gunslinger.
"Awww...Gawd, Kid..." As the brunet dropped to his knees, Chris was straightening. He removed his duster and took out a knife from his boot, before bending back over JD. With a quick apology, he took a firm hold of the arrow's shaft and slowly pushed the knife's blade between one side of the wound and the embedded arrowhead. JD instantly screamed out and tried to wriggle free, but as soon as Buck held JD's shoulders and gave a nod, Chris wiggled the blade and pulled the arrow free.
JD's back arched and he again howled out before going limp. A nervous moment of Buck checking, confirmed the boy was still with them, at which point the two gunslingers packed out the bleeding wound with torn strips of their shirts. Satisfied it was all they could do for now, Chris stood and handed Buck his duster.
"Get him to Nathan, and send help. JD was worried about Vin. I'm afraid he may be hurt, too." He turned to leave.
Buck nodded, but also grabbed Chris's wrist. "Chris?"
"I'm going after Vin."
Buck's eyes closed momentarily as realization of what had likely happened, hit him. "Watch your back." His words caused him to look down at JD's injury.
Chris slapped Buck's shoulder. "You too, Pard." With one last moment of eye contact between the two long-time friends, the gunslinger headed on up the trail.
Buck rubbed a shaky hand over his face before leaning in close to JD's unconscious form. "Gonna be a rough ride, Kid, but you'll be okay, y'hear? You just hold on and let me do the worrying for both of us."
Buck tied Chris's duster around his waist, and squatted. With a hand each holding onto one of JD's arms and legs, he draped JD's limp form over his shoulders and grunted into a standing position. Buck then cautiously picked his way back down the trail.
By the time he reached the camp, Buck was drenched with sweat, partially from the difficult return journey with his injured charge, and to some extent due to the heat generating from JD's body. He eased JD face down onto Chris's still spread out bedroll and hastily packed up his and JD's things. He then spread out Chris's duster and transferred the boy onto it, again face down. Despite the need for urgency, Buck quickly packed away Chris and Vin's belongings and buried the leftover food in a hole in the dirt. The last thing those two would need was to come back to camp and find an animal chowing down on their trash.
He went back to JD and after fully ripping open the boy's bloody shirt he re-bandaged the wound from supplies in his and JD's saddlebags. Buck then wrapped JD up in Chris's duster. The material swallowed the boy up. The brunet then guided his horse to a tree fall, tied JD's Bay on a long rein to his saddle, and then went back for JD. Carefully Buck rolled the swaddled boy over, and scooped him up. He stepped up onto the tree fall, and awkwardly lifted JD up onto his Gray. He then positioned JD's unwrapped legs either side of the horse and on the saddle just behind the horn to sit facing backwards. Buck grabbed onto the horn, and with a shoulder holding JD in place managed to haul himself up onto the middle to rear of the saddle.
JD's breathing was shallow, and raspy. Buck looked into his surrogate kid brother's face and was rewarded by a fleeting glance from JD before the hazel eyes once more closed. "On our way, son, we're on our way."
Buck rested JD's glistening features against his chest and the dark, soaked tresses clung to, and dampened his shirt. The brunet's one hand grabbed the reins, while his other arm wrapped around JD's waist. With a kick to the Gray's flanks, they raced for home.
Without his duster continuously catching, Chris traveled faster up the overgrown trail. While it was clearly a rarely used path, evidence of recent activity was all along it. Something at his feet caught Chris's eye and he stopped to crouch down. His fingers touched droplets of sticky liquid and a cold shudder went through him.
Looking up, his gaze now followed blood droplets caught on grass, leaves, and ferns, all the way to the rise. Standing, Chris jogged to the high point and stopped dead at the sight before him. A dry, open plain lined with escarpments, plateaus, and outcrops stretched out to meet distant rocky peaks. Evidence of two unshod ponies remained outlined in the dirt below his feet, along with more dots of blood. Chris's alarm, confusion and concern at the idea Vin was taken by Indians went off the scale, but he pushed it aside and tried to think like an Indian - and Vin. Chris figured the riders would likely stick to firm ground to avoid leaving a trail. His eyes raked the shimmering vista before him and he knew what he had to do. With one option open to him, the blond turned and ran recklessly down the embankment, and back to their camp.
Time to ride.
Nahele and Onawa's sure-footed ponies climbed a stony, narrow path from rocky terrain to higher ground. Vin remained unconscious, and due to the lack of preparation time to make their escape, and also to accommodate his injury as they traveled, he sat astride Nahele's horse and lay resting back against the Brave's broad chest.
The Apache pair rode in silence, and with purpose. They knew where they were going. It was a place where Onawa recently sheltered from a rainstorm, where it would be safe, as well as a suitable location to care for Vin. On arrival, Nahele nodded approvingly at the choice, and while balancing Vin upright on his horse, the Apache Brave slid to the ground. In seconds, he was carrying Vin into a cave.
Onawa hurried on inside and lay down the horses' blankets for Nahele to set Vin down. The Texan's wound was not bleeding profusely but the flow was steady and needed to be re-bandaged. A glance from Onawa set Nahele on his way to find water. His willing actions belied the anger he was feeling, and his parting expression made it clear that he and Onawa would soon be talking.
Onawa trailed the back of her fingers over Vin's glistening face. He was hot, and coiled, damp tresses clung to his head and brow. The woman stripped off Vin's shirt and he groaned with the movement, but didn't wake. She examined the ragged slit in his chest, close to the shoulder, and smiled when he weakly swatted at the intrusion. Reaching for a pouch, she took out two items and set them down.
After sucking at the injury to remove debris, Onawa took the first item, peyote powder, opened up the tear, and tapped some of the fine particles into the wound. Vin's brow wrinkled in pain and his breathing got a little faster. She then took the honey also removed from the pouch and spread it in, and over the injury. Folding one torn strip of Vin's shirt she covered the damaged area, and then used another, longer one, to bind the wound. While she worked, Nahele returned with a skin pouch filled with water, which he passed to Onawa before building a fire.
When done, he sat cross-legged a short distance from Onawa and her charge and roughly fashioned two bowls from collected Birch bark, which he lined with patches of animal skins from his own pouch. Onawa took the bowls and chose two large, smooth rocks from around the fire, which she placed into the center of the flames. After forcing some water into Vin, she filled one bowl from the water pouch. In the other, she sprinkled yarrow ready to make a tea to treat Vin's fever.
Nahele passed her a part of an antler. Her smile of thanks melted his adoring heart and he returned it. She used the antler's prongs to remove one white-hot stone from the fire, which she put into the bowl containing the water. A hiss and a cloud of steam followed the action, which she repeated with the second stone once the first was returned to the fire. This continued until the water in the bowl boiled, and Onawa used it to make the yarrow tea.
Vin moaned and moved restlessly. He was not awake but caught in the throes of a fever dream. Onawa tested the tea's temperature before lifting it to Vin's lips. He turned away.
"Drink, Vin." She noted Nahele's angry expression return as he stared at her. "I heard the young one call to him," she explained.
The Brave stood. "I will go keep watch."
He left, and Onawa sighed, softly before setting down the bowl and looking at Vin's troubled features. She reached out and fingered his damp curls. "It would seem I have two men to heal."
Dipping back into her pouch, she removed dried hops and lavender. The woman crumbled them together in her hand, and tossed the herbs onto the fire. The flames momentarily flared, and she took hold of a large feather to fan the rising vapors toward Vin in an effort to promote sleep and relief.
Nahele sat cross-legged atop the cave's opening to keep watch. He could see as far back as the rise with the hidden glade beyond, so was confident no one would be sneaking up on them. He was in no doubt someone would come. The urgency of the calls from those seeking the two young men at the waterfall implied family, and of people who took attacks on their kin badly. His own actions this day were living testament to the wrench of protecting loved ones, so he would expect no less than a manhunt.
He rarely regretted decisions made, or actions taken in the defense of his people. However, due to the inability to offer assistance in the way they now could for the white man who Onawa called Vin, Nahele felt self-reproach for the boy he first fired upon, and wished for his family to find him quickly. That thought caused the Brave to stare out to the horizon and reassess his position. This injured man needed his family, too, but could any white man who believed his kin suffered at the hands of a bloodthirsty Apache, ever presume to approach in peace?
Every muscle in Buck's body ached and burned as he rode hard while clinging tightly to his heated, injured charge. He could feel his Gray tiring, but knew the trusty steed would keep going. Buck prayed the effort wouldn't kill the loyal horse. Despite smaller strides, and being attached by a rein, JD's Bay was keeping pace with his running partner. It was almost as if he wanted to keep an eye on his young master.
JD's early pained cries when they first set off had long ago petered out, and he was now completely limp, save for the restrictions of Chris's duster enveloping him. Buck had talked until he was hoarse, but now was silent, and solely focused on getting home before falling out of the saddle from exhaustion. So immersed was he in his mission that Buck was genuinely shocked to see the town appear on the horizon. He rested a cheek on the crown of JD's head.
"We're home, y'hear, boy? Home."
Ezra was standing on the boardwalk and taking a short break after a lengthy and highly profitable run of poker games in the saloon. He was just debating on whether to test his luck further that afternoon when something at the end of town caught his eye. Even before he stepped into the street, gut instinct urged him to call for Nathan. He was mighty grateful the healer and Josiah reacted quickly as when he halted Buck's horse, he feared the man was about to fall out of the saddle.
Josiah took charge of JD, while Ezra and Nathan helped Buck to dismount. The blacksmith appeared from nowhere and took the lathered, blowing horses to the livery, while the group made their way to the clinic steps.
"Buck, what's happened?" Nathan asked. He received a breathy reply.
"Indian...shot the kid, and...maybe...Vin..." He pulled free of the healer to take JD's legs as he and Josiah took the boy up to the clinic.
Ezra looked back toward the edge of town as he climbed the stairs behind them. "Are Chris and Vin behind you?"
Bursting into the clinic, Josiah and Buck set JD face down on the bed. Buck looked at Ezra as he walked through the door.
"No. Goddamn Injun took him."
Nathan stopped unwrapping JD and stared at Buck. "What? Why?"
"Took him where?" Josiah asked.
"Dunno. Chris is tracking 'em. He needs help."
Just as Buck spoke, Nathan exposed JD's bruised and bloody back, causing eyes to well, and hisses of anger to be heard. Josiah clasped the wooden cross around his neck.
Eyes flashing in fury, Nathan stood. "Buck you need to rest, but you can help me with JD first. Josiah, Ezra, go help Chris. Once I've settled JD, we'll follow behind with a buckboard in case Vin, or Chris, needs it."
Nathan's authoritative tone snapped the men into action. Now kneeling next to the bed, Buck looked torn. Josiah rested a hand on the brunet's shoulder.
"You've had a tough ride, brother. Nathan's right. Rest up some, then you'll be up for the task in hand."
Buck reached out and placed a hand on JD's soaked hair. "Yeah, I'll do that."
He knew it made sense, while allowing the devoted man some time to find out how JD was doing before leaving. He glanced between Ezra and Josiah. "Tell Chris we're on our way."
With a nod and a touch to his hat, Ezra left for the livery. Nathan had been busy preparing and collecting. He pushed a bundle into Josiah's arms. "Some supplies you might need."
Josiah offered a tight smile, and with a pat to Nathan's and Buck's shoulders, and a caring touch to JD's head, the preacher left to follow after Ezra.
Nathan poured cold water into a basin and gave it and a cloth, to Buck. "Keep him cool."
Buck did as asked while the healer poured boiled water into another bowl. Despite having bloody bandages peeled from his skin, JD didn't flinch, not even as Nathan cleaned out, and ministered alum powder to the wound for the bleeding, and applied a poultice of crushed garlic. Buck helped to hold JD while Nathan bandaged him. He then force-fed JD a spoonful of an infusion of elder, peppermint & yarrow, followed by several sips of valerian tea. With a tired huff of breath, he sat back.
"Now what?" Buck asked.
"Now, we wait."
Nathan stood. "I'm gonna go get you some food, Buck, and after you've gotten some sleep, and freshened up, we'll check JD, and should be able to head out after the others."
"What if JD ain't doing too well?"
"He's strong, Buck. Let's rest, and see what the morning brings."
Buck agreed and Nathan left. By the time he returned with food, the brunet was in a chair next to the bed and snoring. One hand, however, remained on JD's shoulder.
It had taken Chris a couple of hours to ride around the glade to reach the plains. Knowing there would be none or barely any tracks to follow, he rode fast, and hoped the message scratched in the dirt back at camp would be enough to tell the others where he was going.
If his memory served him well, there were caves and a spring on the high ground some ways out. With an injured man in tow, Chris figured that, even with him traveling the long way around, he'd soon catch up with whoever took Vin. He also figured there was a good chance they would see him coming.
He shrugged off the concern. It was a good day to die, especially for a friend.
"I...don't know you."
Sitting next to her patient, Onawa heard the croaky voice and smiled on seeing pain-narrowed, blue eyes looking at her. She mopped Vin's glistening face. "I am Onawa. I have been tending to you."
Vin's Adam's Apple bobbed as he swallowed against a dry throat. "Why?"
The woman gave him a drink of the earlier brewed tea, and then wrung out a cloth and continued dabbing at his neck and whiskered features. "I owe you a debt. I saw you at the gostahanagunti and when you feared you were under threat and came to look, the man who is to be my husband came to my defense."
Vin frowned while he processed the information. Suddenly his eyes widened and he tried to get up. Onawa's hand rested against his bare chest and she eased him back onto the blanket. With no energy, and feeling sharp pain when he moved, Vin surrendered to his frailty. His demeanor, however, remained agitated.
"JD...he was hurt...an arrow..." Something in his mind clicked and he touched a shaky hand to his bandaged shoulder. "A Brave...Apache...in the brushwood."
Eyes filled with remorse, Onawa nodded. "Nahele feared for my safety, and I am sorry to have caused your pain."
Vin took a breather before weakly nodding his understanding. The action by the Brave was no less than he would expect, but something more pressing needed to be answered. "Whe...where's the kid...where's JD?" He saw Onawa's eyes glisten.
Vin's own eyes grew misty. "Dead?" he whispered, fearfully.
"I know not. Nahele carried you, but could not find the young one." She touched her hand to Vin's bare arm. "There were voices, nearby. I feel sure he was close to help."
Tanner's eyelids grew heavy due to the tea taking effect. All he could manage was a nod, and to offer a raspy whisper before sleep claimed him. "Sure hope so..."
Despite the sizeable distance across the plains, from his lofty position Nahele could see an approaching rider. It would be some time before he reached them, possibly by sundown judging by his urgency. The Brave considered it likely the rider was linked to their injured white man. Maybe the younger one, also.
In the peace of their surroundings, Nahele heard Onawa's soft footfalls draw near, but due to his vigil did not turn to greet her. He felt her sit next to him, and her fingers grasp his arm.
"I have brought you drink and food."
Nahele nodded and took the offerings. "Thank you." He gratefully sipped at the tea. "How fares the white man?"
"He rests. His fever is still high, but I believe the worst has passed."
"A rider approaches."
Onawa looked out across the plains. "The dust trail shows he rides with purpose."
"Yes. I prepare for hostility."
"I believe there will be none."
Nahele stared at her. "Why would you think it so? Your white man is in pain, and cannot be considered a prime example."
"He is different; his companions are different."
She touched a hand to her heart. "I feel it, here. They are carefree, yet vigilant. They interact with affection, and not contempt. They show concern for each other."
Nahele huffed. "You base your findings on stolen moments of recreation."
"Not so. Vin knew his brother was injured, yet did not come after you with his gun drawn."
Nahele pondered her point and nodded at the truth.
"Also, Vin knows the peoples. He speaks as we do, clothes himself in skins; appears as one with nature."
Nahele looked at her, his gaze sad. "You...care for this man."
Onawa smiled. "I do." She saw his reaction and took Nahele's hand.
The Brave's thumb stroked the back of her hand. "Shi khay, Onawa, shi khay."
Onawa's lips curved into a smile to hear her beloved openly declare that he cared for her. "And I...love you, Nahele." The pair's foreheads came together and they stayed that way for a minute or so before he stood, and brought her up with him.
"Go, and prepare for our visitor."
Dust coated Chris's clothes, lips, and eyelashes, and he could really use a drink, and figured his and Vin's horses must, too, but he didn't stop. He only had a few hours to nightfall, and planned to have found Vin by then. He found it odd that the Apaches only took Vin with them, and not JD, and it caused him to ponder as to the strength of the second Apache, and to whether it was a woman. At the outset, Chris couldn't help but be concerned over Vin being taken while injured, and hadn't wanted to consider how Vin might be treated.
Chris also worried whether Buck got himself and JD back to town safely, or how JD was doing. However, the more he rode, at least the less of a concern getting Vin back was becoming. Chris's sixth sense was telling him Vin wasn't in the danger he first feared. Vin knew his way around Indians, and providing he was aware enough to look out for himself, if anyone could survive around them, it would be Tanner. It remained to be seen however, as to whether the Apaches would allow Chris himself to get close.
Onawa returned to the cave's interior with two fir splint bundles in readiness for darkness. Realizing she was being watched, she knelt on the floor, next to Vin.
"You should be resting." Onawa reached across and touched the back of her hand to Vin's brow. "You have less fever."
Vin nodded. "Don't feel so dizzy, now." He smiled. "I uh, I ain't familiar with the term gostahanagunti. What's it mean?" His voice was stronger than earlier, and his eyes sparkled in the firelight.
The woman offered him water before answering. "It is the Apache name for a place akin to where you swim. It means hidden gulch."
There was a glimmer of a smile from the Texan. "I like it."
Onawa nodded. "I too. Do you feel strong enough to sit a little higher and take some food?"
Tanner's brow creased. "Yeah, I am kinda hungry." He allowed her to link her arms carefully around him, and working together Vin sat up and leaned back against one of the cave's walls. He closed his eyes for a few seconds to fight nausea, and the offer of more water was gratefully accepted. By the time he felt settled, a piece of cooked rabbit was handed to him.
"Try a little. There is more if you want it."
"Thank you." Vin placed the food to his mouth and his teeth hungrily ripped at the meat. "Good," he said around a mouthful. By the time he'd finished the chunk, Vin was tiring. He took in more water before slumping back against the cool, rock wall. The Texan looked at his ministering angel.
"Why help me, and not JD?"
She sighed. "I wanted to help you both, but could not. I feared that, had we stayed, your people would not have understood our mistake and fired upon us."
"That ain't Chris an' Buck's way. Even when mad they get their facts straight first."
Onawa nodded. "I know this, now." She smiled at Vin. "He comes."
"He who wears black."
Vin gave a crooked smile. "He just wants to see I'm okay."
"Yes. In a day, you may be strong enough to ride, but it will not come easily."
Tanner shrugged and stifled a yawn. "Don't recall no one promisin' life would be easy. I'll be ready." He gave her an earnest look. "You should go. I'll be fine until Chris gets here."
"Nahele and I have talked, and agreed we would wait. He will not walk away like a coward."
Vin's eyelids flickered closed. "We'd know that ain't so."
"Be that as it may, Nahele will not be moved on this." She watched Vin fall asleep. "Men can behave as a mule once their mind is set."
Back at the campsite, Josiah and Ezra studied the ground. The southerner crouched and pointed to a formation of small rocks.
"A sign from Chris, I gather."
Josiah studied the arrow of stones, but it was the other rock and sand outlines that intrigued him more. He gestured at them. "It looks like Chris is pointing to a trail lined with uplands." He looked at the direction of the arrow. "We have to go around this gully."
Ezra stood. "We should go."
Josiah agreed. "We'll likely have to camp before we reach him."
"Then that's what we will do, my friend."
In town, Nathan was packed and ready to leave. He looked up when Buck walked into the clinic. "All set?"
Buck nodded, but his gaze was on the boy sleeping in the bed. "Wagon's ready to go." He stood next to Nettie Wells, who was caring for JD. Casey was sitting on the opposite side of the bed and holding JD's hand.
"How's he doing?"
Nettie patted Buck's arm. "Fever spiked earlier, he's cooler, now." She saw the hurt in Buck's eyes. "Nathan's done a grand job, so JD'll be fine with us. Chris and Vin need you, son, so go."
Buck nodded and leaned in over Nettie to touch JD's sweaty head. "I'll see you soon, Kid, and we'll bring Vin back with us." He was surprised when he saw JD's eyes open and the boy struggle to awareness. Anguish-filled hazel eyes focused on him.
Buck couldn't contain his elation on seeing and hearing his self-professed little brother conscious and talking. He took up his wrist and squeezed it. "I promise, Kid. Now you promise me something."
Trying hard to stay awake, JD nodded. "Sure. What?"
"That you'll rest up good while we're gone."
JD offered a crooked grin. "Aah, you know I will." He saw Buck raise an eyebrow. "I will, honest," he squeaked, causing Buck to let out one of his deep, rumbling chuckles.
Nathan joined them and went to speak, but Nettie shooed him. "It's all been said, Nathan. Get going and bring our boys home."
Nathan smiled. "Yes, Ma'am, and Ma'am...thanks."
With one final, lingering look back, both men exited the room. Minutes later a buckboard with Nathan's horse tied to its back, left town.
Chris was scanning the high ground for a clue as to where the cave might be. His memory of its location was sketchier than he thought. Movement caught his eye and high up on an outcrop, he could see the outline of an Indian Brave standing spread-eagle. In the hands raised above his head, he held a bow.
Chris nodded to himself. It appeared his most recent thoughts were confirmed. The Apaches wanted to help Vin, and one was guiding Chris in. As the sun began to sink, Larabee made his way toward a narrow and rocky path and while riding up realized that if he had this wrong, then this Apache was luring him in for the kill.
He shrugged off the concern and figured he'd worry about that when the time came.
Inside the cave, the two bundles of fir had been jammed into crevices in the cave wall and now burned brightly, illuminating the cave's interior. Vin was awake and sipping at fresh tea, while Onawa collected up the few things she and Nahele had with them.
"Soon. Once you have fresh bandages, and your brother is here, there will be no more I can do."
Vin went to correct Onawa about Chris's relationship with him, but halted. He liked the idea of being brothers. It was kinda how he felt about Chris - the other fellas, too.
"Thanks for all you've done for me.
"Had I not been in the glade, you and the tahlee, would not have been hurt. My only wish now is that the young one is well, or will be soon." She noted Vin's haunted look return momentarily before he shook it off.
"JD's a strong kid, and if he got back to town okay, he's in good hands." He took another sip of tea and changed the subject. He didn't want to dwell on the idea JD might not be with them any longer.
"Nahele - is he your man?"
Onawa nodded. "He is, as I am his. Have you taken a wife?"
"Nah, I ain't ready to settle down yet."
The woman smiled, knowingly. "You will be a fine prize when the time comes."
"Uh, thanks." He wondered what brought her to that conclusion, and if he ever would know. Movement outside the cave had Vin reaching for a gun he wasn't wearing, and Onawa on her feet, and staring at the dark opening.
Chris dismounted and walked the last several feet to the top of the ridge. He saw the Indian just ahead and looking back at him. Remembering a hand action Vin once showed him, Chris repeated it to declare a peaceful greeting, and was relieved to see Nahele do likewise. The Brave turned and began walking.
At the instruction, Chris led his and Vin's horses and followed after Nahele.
Every sinew in Vin's body quivered from the effort of trying to move. He wasn't sure if he could even do anything once up, but his instincts to protect Onawa swept away any concerns. In the moments she crouched next to Vin to stop him standing, Nahele walked into the cave, followed by Chris. Nahele stepped next to Onawa, and the Apache pair observed the two white men's faces and demeanors as they reunited.
A relieved Chris went straight to Vin's side and placed a calming hand on his bare shoulder. "Easy there, Nathan won't be too pleased if you open up that wound." His concerned gaze locked onto Vin's and moments later he grinned.
"Good to see you, too." He helped Vin get comfortable and watched until the pain in his face slowly eased.
As Vin caught his breath from the earlier activity, he opened his screwed up eyes and looked at Chris in earnest. "JD..." His heart sank to see a lack of recall in the gunslinger's eyes. "Chris?"
Chris moved into a sitting position. "I wish I knew. He was alive when Buck set off for town and...I came after you."
Tanner nodded, knowingly. He suddenly snapped his attention to the Apache pair quietly clearing up around them. "Forgettin' my manners, Nahele, Onawa, this is Chris Larabee..."
Chris heard his name and saw them nod a greeting and touched his hat in return.
"...A man like a brother to me."
Vin watched for Chris's reaction, but the blond's expression was unreadable. His stomach clenched at the thought he had offended his friend, but before he could ask, Onawa spoke.
"Vin, if you intend to ride for home tomorrow, you should rest."
The sharpshooter looked at Chris as he spoke. "Well, we ain't discussed it but, yeah, I'd like to get goin' in the mornin', right, Chris?"
Larabee again seemed uninterested in what Vin said, but looked when he heard his name.
"You gonna get some sleep so's we can head out in the morning?"
Vin nodded and hoped he was hiding his growing concern. "Yeah, sounds good."
The four shared a supper of snake and berries before bedding down for the night. Chris laid out his bedroll next to Vin, while Nahele picked a spot close to the cave's mouth, and Onawa nearby, but not next to him. The fire was given its last bundle of sticks before the four companions finally settled.
An exhausted and contented Chris fell asleep quickly, while Vin's thoughts were conflicted and kept him awake. He was beyond happy to have Chris find him, but was still anxious about Chris's reaction to his earlier comments. With nothing resolved, sleep finally claimed him.
Early the next morning, the noise of rolling wheels across dirt and dry prairie, had Ezra and Josiah on their feet and walking to meet Buck and Nathan. While Nathan pulled on the brake, Buck jumped down off the wagon. All three touched hats in greeting.
"Buck, how's JD?"
The brunet smiled. "Awake when we left."
Ezra looked down for a moment, a smile adorning his face when his head rose. "Well, that is good news. One down, one to go."
Nathan walked toward them. "Anyone know where Chris went?"
Josiah pointed toward their campfire. "He left us a sign to say he went up into the hills, and to wait here."
Buck looked agitated. "How long's he been gone? Maybe we should just..."
All gazes moved to where Nathan was pointing.
Vin awoke to find Chris's bedroll packed up. The blond helped him to sit up and then handed him a cup of coffee. "'Morning. Sleep okay?"
"I've slept better." Vin glanced around. "Nahele and Onawa outside?"
Chris shrugged. "They were gone when I woke up, and I was awake not long after sunup."
Vin sipped his drink and sighed. "I guess that's it, then. Time to go, too."
"You sure you're up for it?"
Vin smiled. "Never thought there'd come a time when I'd say this but, it'll be good to get home." He held out a hand. The pair gripped each other's forearms, and Chris eased the semi-clothed Texan to his feet before digging in one of his saddlebags.
"Thought you could use a fresh shirt."
He helped Vin into it, extinguished the fire and then made sure all carcasses and leftovers had been buried in the dirt beyond the cave. It took some delicate maneuvering to get Vin onto his horse, especially as Chris was keen to ride double, at least for now, but Vin knew these hills and wouldn't put either horse under such a strain, no matter how much easier it would be, or how much growling Larabee did.
As their trusty steeds picked their way down the stone-littered, narrow trail, Vin grit his teeth to ride out the pain the jolting caused. To ease his aches, and his mind, Vin spoke.
"Chris, 'bout calling you brother last night. I sure hope I didn't offend you none."
Larabee halted, which made the Texan ahead of him stop also. "Offend me? I don't recall that conversation, and I reckon that's not one I'd likely forget."
Vin's brow furrowed. "When I introduced you to Nahele and Onawa?"
Chris grinned. "Not sure how out of it you've been, Tanner, but whenever you parleyed with those two, you talked in a tongue I don't speak." He watched Vin's jaw drop.
"I was talkin' Apache?"
Chris shrugged. "I guess. They were answering back."
The two continued on, Vin in shock, and Chris amused that the Texan didn't even know when he spoke in Apache instead of in English.
"Had I understood you...I would have been honored."
Facing forward, Vin's features relaxed into a relieved smile, while the pain seemed a little less intrusive.
Soon, the pair reached the bottom of the hill to be greeted by four equally relieved and happy friends.
"Knew you was too ornery to die, Tanner," Buck said around a huge grin.
Vin's dimpled smile was Buck's reply, but then he went serious. "JD?"
"Talking, and counting the hours 'til we're home," Buck replied, his voice lighter than it had been in a couple of days.
Chris joined in the grinning. "Good to hear, let's get home."
Vin pointed at the wagon. "Nope, no way." Five men, one on horseback, surrounded him. He sighed. "Okay, if you put it like that."
"A wise decision, Mister Tanner," Ezra said as he stepped up onto the buckboard's seat to take the reins. Nathan got up into the wagon and laid out his, Buck's, and Josiah's bedrolls. By the time he was done, Josiah, Buck, and Chris had Vin off his horse and ready to help him up to Ezra and Nathan. Once settled, Vin's saddle was removed and placed into the wagon, and his blanket used to cover the Texan.
"Don't fuss, Nathan," Vin grumbled. He noted the look from the healer that suggested he was *not* fussing. "F-i-n-e."
"Thank you. Now, drink this," Nathan ordered.
"You tryin' to make me sleepy?" Vin asked.
Nathan nodded. "Unless you'd rather feel every bump and furrow along the way, yes."
Noting the grins from the others, Vin drank up and settled back. "Fair point."
Vin and Ezra's horses were secured to the wagon. Nathan climbed up with Ezra, and Buck mounted Nathan's horse. Chris looked on approvingly. "All set?"
One tired and four eager nods were his reply. Larabee grinned and wheeled his impatient horse around. "Let's ride!"
On the clinic's veranda, there was a glare-off. JD caved first. "Aww, come on, Casey, I just wanna sit here and keep a look out, is all."
"Nettie says you should be in bed resting."
"I've been resting, I'm done with resting. I want some fresh air, and to watch..."
The boy's head turned on hearing Nettie's voice. Resigned to his fate he went to stand, but the matriarch gently stopped him and wrapped a blanket around him.
"You got two hours, then back to bed." She couldn't help smiling at JD's beaming grin.
"Yes Ma'am. Thank you."
"Casey, I need to change the bed linen, and then we'll go get some food to bring back."
Casey made a sulky face at JD. "Yes, Nettie."
"Could always use some company, later," JD said as they moved to leave.
The young girl smiled and then flounced off. "We'll see."
Seeing Vin was awake, Chris rode up alongside the buckboard. "Almost home." He saw Vin fighting discomfort, but didn't comment.
"Be good to rest up in a real bed for a while."
From the driver's seat, Nathan looked round. "Good, 'cause that's the plan."
"Been wondering," Buck cut in. "Why were those Injuns there, anyhow? You reckon they were skulking about while we were horsin' around in that pool?"
"We wouldn'a known even if they were," Vin stated. "Judgin' by what happened, I reckon we could've startled the woman, and the Brave was just protectin' her."
Ezra chuckled. "You make it sound as if she might have been spying on you all, Vin."
>>"You will be a fine prize when the time comes."<<
Onawa's words echoed in Vin's mind and a dimpled smile adorned his handsome face. "Sure is somethin' to ponder," he replied.
At Josiah's comment, the five men went quiet as relief and exhaustion vied for first place. They came to the street and made their way down it, nodding to any townsfolk emerging to take a look. Buck's soft tone had the men grinning, and Vin cursing at not knowing what they were seeing in front of them.
"Now if that don't beat all. That's what I call a welcome home." He urged his horse on, dismounting just before reaching his goal.
In the street and just ahead of the returning convoy, JD was half-standing, half propped up by Nettie and Casey standing either side of him. His infectious grin brought smiles to the approaching men, and he watched Buck ride closer before he dismounted and walking toward him.
Buck eyed the boy up and down. "You're up and about. Little early, huh?" He winked at Nettie and took over from her to allow her and Casey to check out the wagon.
"I just wanted to see you were all okay," JD explained as Buck guided him back to the clinic while he strained to glance back. His stomach rolled and JD was grateful for the big man's support, as he felt a bit rough right then.
"If you're looking for Vin - we got him. He's sore, but okay. Whup..."
JD's knees buckled as if hearing the news sapped his strength, and only Buck's sharp catch stopped him from hitting the dirt. "Shoot. Guess I might be overdoing it a mite."
Buck chuckled as he helped JD climb the stairs. "You think?"
"What is it? Whatcha lookin' at?" Vin asked as he tried and failed to sit up higher. His eyes caught sight of a familiar gaze. "Ma'am, Casey."
"Good to see you back, son. Got some nice beef broth ready for our two injured pups."
Vin's blue eyes misted over. "JD?"
"Been watching out for y'all ever since he could pee by himself."
Chris laughed and he dismounted. "Nice to know."
In perfect unison, the group of friends worked together to get horses to the livery and Vin up to the clinic.
Inside the clinic, JD had moved into a smaller cot. With Buck sitting next to him, he watched eagerly as first Ezra and Nathan came in, followed by Josiah and Chris with Vin sagging between them, and lastly Nettie. Vin looked up and hazel and blue gazes met. The injured pair grinned at each other, but no words were spoken. As Vin was eased onto the bed and helped to undress JD just watched, clearly happy to see Vin back.
Nettie and Nathan allowed the men to visit with JD before she shooed them all away so Vin could be tended to, and both boys could be fed. A little later, a full and tired JD hunkered down in his bed.
"Real glad you're okay, Vin," he said around a yawn.
Tanner, equally stuffed and weary, nodded. "You too, Kid. After seein' that arrow in your back I..." Vin's voice quivered and he felt his and JD's ordeal catching up with him. "Seems like a long time aways, now."
JD sighed as sleep overtook him. "Felt like a lifetime to me."
A little later, Nathan opened the clinic door and looked out. "You coming in, or just here to admire the view?"
Chris and Buck moved from leaning against the rail and walked past Nathan and into the clinic. Each took up a chair next to their sleeping charges.
"Gonna get me some food," Nathan said, before leaving them.
The two long-time friends sat quietly for a while before Chris spoke. "Tough going this brother-tie business, huh?"
Buck smiled and stole an opportunity to lay a hand on JD's head. "It grows on you."
Staring at Vin, Chris slowly nodded at Buck's statement. "Yeah, that it does, Pard, that it does."
Despite the niggling pain momentarily stirring him, Vin's heart soared at the overheard declaration. Slipping back into a deep sleep, he silently thanked all that was Holy for the day he came to this town, and found a home...
...And six brothers.
Thanks for riding along.
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