Wagon Train Epilogue
This story was formerly hosted at another website, and was moved to blackraptor in May 2016.
It was a beautiful area for the sun to leave the harsh day. A green meadow skirted a blue river set under a cerulean sky. A soft breeze caressed his weary face and beckoned him to surrender. On any other day, he would have been silently paying homage to the gift given. Living with the Indians taught him to respect all the gifts given by Mother Nature. She was the mother who'd nutured him and nursed him at her breast. Spending time embracing her beauty was something he enjoyed doing. But today he was just too tired and disoriented to seek out her charm.
"I need to know I can depend on you...let me know when I can...when I can...when I can..."
"Dammit!" he muttered, shaking his head to clear the echo of Chris Larabee's decree still ringing in his ears. He shifted in the saddle and immediately regreted it. The explosion courtesy of Dickie O'Shea's powder man that sent him down the side of a rocky hill didn't leave much of him unmarred. Especially tender was his right hip and he wasn't looking forward to getting down off the horse.
He sighed and felt those damn words jabbing at his brain. Until now, with O'Shea and his men gone for good, he'd not had time to think about it. His head was already throbbing and the reverberation of those words were like tiny pitchforks stabbing within his skull. He scowled at that order. Order? No it wasn't that. It was a question. One the burned a hole right through him. Depend? Where the hell did Larabee get off asking that of him? He'd take a bullet for him, Chris knew that. How could Chris Larabee think he wasn't dependable anymore? He chuffed under his breath and felt his face flush with anger. They were all watching him, had been all day. Oh, they'd look away when he turned to stare at them, but the judging eyes were trained on his back. He peeked sideways from under his floppy hat and saw J.D. was beside him trying not to be noticed.
"Sun's leavin'," Vin rasped turning his eyes ahead. "I'm goin' ahead t'make camp."
"Okay, Vin, I'll ride with..." Dunne started to reply and found himself eating dust. That fast the sullen tracker had ridden off. "...you."
"What was that all about?" Buck asked, riding forward to catch up to the startled Dunne.
"Damned if I know," the Easterner turned to eye his best friend. "He up and decided to scout ahead for a camp. Gonna be a helluva ride home with him moody. He's like a boxed up snake, all coiled up too tight."
"He's got a good reason, J.D." Buck sympathized, eyeing the horizon over which the troubled Texan disappeared.
"It's not our fault," Dunne whined. "We didn't dump him, that woman did." He paused to reflect on the odd pairing of Charlotte Richmond and Vin Tanner. "It's his own fault. Hell, she was married. Carrying on like that right under her husband's nose."
"J.D., sometimes you're so damn green you shine." Buck said, then directed a strong eye to the young man. "You're in no position to judge Vin. What happened between them is done and it stays that way."
"Just like that?" J.D tossed back, "He rode off and left us high and dry."
"And saved our butts and damn near got blown to kingdom come in the process." Buck argued back. "Leave it alone, J.D. You're too young to understand."
"Aw, here it comes," Dunne scoffed, shaking his dark head. "The 'you're only a kid' speech."
"In this case, son, truer words were never spoken," Ezra imparted from slightly behind the pair. "Your tender years are at a great disadvantage when it comes to affairs of the heart."
"And you being the expert when it comes to women," Dunne replied to Standish. "And the Queen of Diamonds doesn't count."
"Touche" Ezra tipped his hat to the youngest of the seven.
"Hell, kid, next to you." Buck reached over and tugged the bowler hat down over the youth's eyes. "Everybody's an expert."
"Ha-ha," J.D. muffled.
Chris was at the rear of the group and saw Vin ride off. He wondered why it took so long. He'd have bet the sharpshooter would have taken off sooner. He knew Vin was brooding by the way he was set in the saddle. He didn't have to see the chisled face to know the eyes were a shade of blue just past hard and that damned jaw was set. He kept himself at the end to give Vin some time and space to come to terms with his feelings. He knew the younger man would get over it, but it was going to hurt.
It didn't take long to separate himself from the others. Vin finally paused when he was out of breath and dizzy. He eyed the landscape; it was a good place to make camp. He gave his horse's sweaty neck a pat and gingerly eased his throbbing body down.
"Gaaad....damn...." He hissed, eyes clenched tight in pain.
He grabbed the saddle and hung on as his right hip exploded in pain. He'd hit every rock on that hill and with each passing hour, his body was reminding him of that. He didn't have much time before the others would arrive. He tied up the horse and got the saddle off, an effort that send him to his knees. He cursed soundly, bit down hard and white-knuckled the edges of the saddle until the wave of pain subsided. He staggered to the water, shucked his coat off and dunked his head. The icy water felt good and he drank until he was out of breath. He stood up and limped to the flat rocks nearby. He tugged his pants down over the sore hip and eased down onto the hot rock.
His respite was short lived; the thundering of hooves told him that the group was approaching. Reluctantly he stood and adjusted his pants, then began hunting for a sharp stick. He found one the right length and pulled his knife out. He returned to the water's edge, sharpening the stick and eyeing the steam. He saw the reflection in the water and the damned words came back, blistering his throbbing head.
"I need to know I can depend on you...let me know when I can...when I can...when I can..."
"You okay?" Chris had seen Vin limping and his eyes were squinted slightly as if in pain.
"I ain't headed over the border," Vin sent back tersely and waded into the water ankle deep. He tried to concentrate on the fish swimming by and the normally easy task of spearing one became nearly impossible.
Chris knew Vin was angry and if they were alone, he'd back off. But there were other people to think about and a few days between here and home. He felt like telling Vin to ride on back alone, but the tracker wouldn't take that advise in the light in which it was given. He glanced backwards and saw the others making camp.
"Look Vin, we got a long way to go and you need to remember Billy and Mary are riding with us. You want to talk about this now, fine. You want to let that shit fester inside until we get to town? Your decision. But don't let it spill over and one of the others is caught in the crossfire."
"...risked m'life, got damn near blowed the hell up," Vin vented, eyes flashing. "If I hadn't rushed that hill..." He saw no compassion or understanding in the green eyes and gave up. "Aw, what the hell's the use. Guess puttin' m'ass on the line fer ya weren't 'dependable enuf'. Maybe if ye'd buried me back there, huh?"
Vin turned away and put his frustrations into his spear. He concentrated hard and nailed two fish quickly. He strode to the bank to take them off the fishing device. Once that was done, he turned his attention back to the river and found a six foot wall of resistance in his way.
"So that's what's stuck in that fool head of yours?" Chris sent back, moving to block Vin's return.
"M'head's fine and it's on straight!" Vin sent back, "I told ya that back yonder. Who the hell are ya t'be pointin' a finger at me. Yer ass ain't hardly that lily white."
"Your head was in her britches, not on the job!" Chris sent back and never saw the fist that shot out and sent him flying.
"Shit!" Buck hissed, dropping the firewood and scrambling for the river with J.D. and Nathan on his heels.
"You'd be best advised to stay here, Mrs. Travis." Ezra grabbed Mary's arm and Billy with his free hand.
"I was afraid this would happen," the widow confessed. "Maybe it's for the best. He needs to talk to somebody."
"Unfortunately for Mister Larabee, he bears the burden of being our misguided tracker's conscience."
"Now that's it," J.D. snarled, ready to head off to the thicket of trees where Vin Tanner disappeared with his catch and his coat.
"Let him go," Chris whispered, putting a hand up to Nathan's concerned face. "I'm okay. My fault, I pushed him too hard."
"You outta know better, pard," Buck eased the injured man to a sitting position. "Could be it's the first time he got got his heart all busted up...got put down hard. That's painful, real painful. " He squatted down to inspect the damage. "You won't be eatin' steaks for awhile. Your jaw's swellin'."
"He's all mixed up inside," Chris wiggled his fingers and took the wet cloth that the healer offered. He held it against his face and let Buck haul him up. "and pissed off."
"At who?" J.D. perplexed. "What did you do to deserve that? How can you defend him?"
"He ain't mad at me, Kid," Chris answered, spitting a wad of blood from his cut lip.
"But..." Dunne eyed the spot where Vin had been last seen and then shifted his gaze back to Chris Larabee. "I don't understand."
"I told you to leave it be, J.D." Buck replied. "You leave Vin alone. He's pride been wounded and that's somethin' he's got to heal on his own." He turned back to the groggy blond who was still shaking his head to clear it "You sure you're okay?" He saw the head dip once and smiled ."You're gettin' old, stud. Your reflexes ain't what they used to be."
"Fuck you, Buck!" Larabee whispered and winced, rubbing his tender jaw. "Nathan, you got any oatmeal left?"
Despite the good-hearted teasing and laughter from Buck and Nathan, Chris's attention was divided. Even as they ate quietly, the others heading to bed early, his green eyes never left that spot where he knew Vin Tanner was hiding. Hiding from himself and from the truth. He'd been there, he knew that place and how hard it was to see the light. But he also know Vin would find his way back. And he'd be there waiting for him.
Vin's slumber was not an easy rest. He tossed fitfully, trying to force the mixed dreams away. Images of the splendor in the grass with Charlotte were interrupted by Chris Larabee's refrain. Then the accusing face of Will Richmond loomed above the lovers by the river's edge. So lost was Vin in his fight to chase the disturbing dream, he didn't hear his visitor. He didn't see the green eyes that checked on him and put a blanket over him. He wasn't aware that the deep sigh he let out was due to the warmth restored by the noctural caretaker bringing the fire back from the dead.
Sunrise came none too early for the stubborn Texan. The fire he'd made the night before died out while he slept. Any attempt at rising was met by an explosion of paralyzing pain that took his breath away. The slightest movement sent ripples of agony through his right side. Especially tender were the ribs, lower back and hip.
"Dammit t'hell..." he chuffed and laid back to catch his breath.
It had been a brutal night. He'd only gotten a few hours sleep. Once the fire died and he couldn't move to stoke it, the night air overpowered him. He shoved the blanket off and frowned, his fingers playing on the edges. He furrowed his brows, trying to recall how or when he'd acquired the blanket. The distinctive sound of branches breaking under heavy boots brought his eyes wide open and his gun up from where it had been resting on his chest..
"Ain't yer best move, sneakin' up on a man," Vin chastised, dropping his gun as Nathan Jackson approached.
"Yuh gonna let me look at that hip now?"
"M'fine," Vin sent back annoyed that the healer read him so easily.
"Yeah, I can see that," Nathan replied, kneeling down next to the slim tracker. If the harsh set of lines around the tell-tale blue eyes weren't enough, the fisted hand and shallow breathing told him Vin Tanner was in a lot of pain.
"How'd ya know?"
"I'm a healer, remember?" Nathan answered. "Yuh favored it when yuh got up from that spill," he assessed, pulling the blanket off and unbuttoning Vin's shirt. "...been flinchin and wincin'
when yuh thought nobody was payin' yuh any mind." He paused and eyed the disturbed younger man. "I been keepin' an eye out."
"So that's yer doin'?" Vin nodded to the blanket.
"Nope, I ain't got green eyes." Nathan removed Vin's shirt and unbuttoned his pants, before attempting to ease them down.
"Don't need no yella-haired, six-foot damned nurse...GODAMMIT NATHAN!" Vin yelled when the tall man eased him up and onto his side.
"Never seen such a mix o'colors," Nathan replied, ignoring the string of curses that now stung his ears. He winced while eyeing the massive black and blue areas on Vin Tanner's back, side and hip. "How bad?"
"Seen the dead fire, didn't ya?" Vin rasped, fisting his hand and clenching his eyes shut in pain.
"Can't move at all?" Nathan saw the head bob in agreement. "Okay, I can douse yuh for the pain. I can make some herbal hot wraps and pack that right side good. But yuh ain't gonna be settin' on a horse none t'soon."
"Weren't plannin' on breakin' any broncs today," Vin whispered, then lifted his arm. "Long as ya got m'drawers off, I gotta tap a kidney."
"Chris, we're ready to head out," J.D. updated the leader who was standing by Vin Tanner's horse.
"Yeah, I know."
Larabee was the only one in the camp not mounted. He looked up sharply when he saw Nathan reappearing from the brush across the way alone. He walked over towards Jackson, then saw the healer stop and take his bag off his horse. Chris's brows furrowed when the dark hands removed the medical sac as well as a large bag of herbs he carried for both poultices and medicinal teas.
"Bad enough," Nathan answered Chris but flicked a gaze to the others who were waiting. "He's sportin' a real rainbow. Ain't a place on him below the neck that ain't at least two colors it shouldn't be. His right hip is bruised bad, he can't move at all. I'm gonna douse 'im with some laudenum."
"Vin don't like laudenum, it makes him sick." Dunne thought on the previous times when the tracker got sick after taking the narcotic.
"J.D., he ain't got any choice. I can't move 'im around t'treat 'im, he's too stiff. Sleepin' next t' that cold river didn't help much." Jackson reported.
"It's always worse the next day," Buck agreed having past experience with bad falls.
"You should have quite the busy day, given how Mister Tanner's stomach tends to react violently," Ezra thought aloud. "A colorful afternoon combination of cursing and retching."
"Part of the job." Nathan dismissed. "And yuh all know Vin ain't the complainin' type. For him
t'ask, yuh know how bad he's hurtin'. I got some poutices that'll help. It'll be a couple o'days before he can ride."
"If you show me what to do..." Chris offered but saw the dark-skinned man shake his head. "He asked me t'stay, Chris."
While the others looked at each other a bit uncomfortably, Chris Larabee nodded, gave Nathan's shoulder a pat and turned away. He finished getting his horse ready, mounted and headed on the road to home. Vin was in good hands and maybe the time alone would give his soul a chance to heal as well as his body.
+ + + + + + +
It had been a long afternoon and Nathan was tired. As Ezra Standish predicted, Vin Tanner had indeed spent the afternoon throwing up and cursing. Nathan had set some rabbit traps and caught two fat rabbits. He put them on spits and was now washing up. The sun was half way into her demise, giving the river a glorious pink and gold shower of ripples. He came back into the camp and saw the previously foggy blue eyes looking back at him with clarity.
"Well, yuhr face ain't quite so green. Just in time, this is my last clean shirt." Nathan teased and got a half-smile.
"Sorry 'bout that, Nate." Vin was on his side with hot compresses from just under his arm to past his lower thigh. A loose blanket covered him and despite the rocky stomach, he did feel better. At least he could move his upper body a bit without colors exploding before his eyes.
"Yuh'll get my bill." Nathan smiled and was glad that the injured man's face was not quite a pinched. "Got a couple rabbit's cookin'. Should get done just 'bout when them packs go cold. Yuh feel like sittin' up a bit, eatin' a little?"
"Mebbe," Vin agreed. He had been lying on his side most of the day and was stiff. He regarded the other man who seemed to give so much back to all of them without a complaint. "Listen Nate, thanks fer stayin'. I don't mean t'turn into a orn'ry jackass...jest kinda sneaks up on me when I'm busted up."
"Breakin' bread with a friend by a river where the sun is takin a dip," Nathan replied in a warm tone, "that ain't work."
"Cleanin' up Tanner puke is." Vin grimaced. "I can't recall much. Spouted good?"
"Which time?" Nathan laughed and saw his patient blanch. "I'm only kiddin' yuh. Ain't the first time, won't be the last. Least it came outta the right end. How're yuh feelin'?"
"Like I got stomped on by a buffalo with a rattler up his ass," Vin rasped, flexing his stiff muscles. "But leastwise I can move a bit. Ya make a mean pot o'cat piss."
"I'll take that as a compliment." Nate settled down next to Vin and held out the mug. He saw the scruffy face screw up and he laughed. "Water, jest plain ol' cold water."
"No." Jackson chuckled and lifted the matted head up so the beverage went down easier. He knew by the way Vin was blinking that he was still not quite awake. "Go on back t'sleep. I'll wake yuh when supper's done."
Vin felt he'd just shut his eyes again, enjoying the heat going through his battered body when a hand shook his shoulder. His eyes adjusted to the now darkening sky and he yawned while trying to sit up. He yelped and his whole body went stiff.
"Easy now," Nate slid his hands under Vin's arms and gently raised him until he was sitting up, leaning against his saddle covered with a blanket. "Better?"
"Yeah." Vin moved and stretched his back. His body was slathered in something green that looked as foul as it smelled. "Smell like rabid polecat though."
"I ain't sharin' yuhr bed, don't matter none t'me." Nathan dished out twin plates and saw the shadows cross the other man's face. He put the plates down and got two mugs of coffee. After dousing Vin's with the usual heavy amount of sugar, he sat down next to the pensive young man. "No sense draggin' yuhr chin on it no more, Vin. It's happened t'more than a few of us, ever since that fool Adam believed them lyin' eyes over that apple."
"I was stupid t'think she'd leave 'im fer me. She used me...got jest what she wanted."
"Could be yuh both did. Yuh knew who she was, she didn't lie t'yuh."
"She looked at me, Nate," Vin spoke quietly, in almost a whisper. He nibbled at the roasted meat and took a small sip of coffee. "She saw me fer who I was, not what I was. Ever see the looks most women gimme? Like I was somethin' that needed scrapin' offa boot. They see the hair, the coat, they don't look no further. She...did..."
Nathan took in the broken sentence and the painful rasp. He nodded and didn't reply. It was good for Vin to talk about the affair. Holding it inside didn't do anything but cause a wound to fester. He knew the quiet Texan didn't usual divulge what he did with his sex life. But this didn't have much to do with that part of the coupling.
"Yuh regret it?"
"No." Vin answered a little too suddenly. He thought for a moment and his mind didn't change. It wasn't the affair he regretted, rather it was the consequences. "It's like when ya toss a pebble inta the river. Long after it sinks, them ripples is still sassin' back at ya'."
"Not forever, they stop and the water is calm again." Nathan replied, finishing his meal. "Ain't none of us lookin' at yuh no different Vin. We ain't in any position t'be castin' no stones."
"Feel like a damned fool." Vin admitted. "Chris was right, I was thinkin' with m'pants."
"Two summers after the war ended, in New Orleans." Nathan recalled with a tinge of regret in his tone. "Miss Simone Marie Chantelle Bouvier."
"Damn," Vin replied, eyebrows rising slightly. "name alone wouldda scared me off."
"She was the most beautiful creature I ever laid eyes on. Tall and regal, skin like cocoa butter and jade green eyes. Lawd, she got my heat t'risin'."
"How'd yuh meet 'er?"
"I was workin' in the hospital for the colored folks. There was a dance t'thank all the rich folks who donated money to the hospital. Her mama was a Creole, her daddy was white. He kept them in a fine house in town with servents and everything. I don't think m'feet were on the ground the whole time we courted. I don't wanna tell yuh what them honey sweet kissed done t'me."
"Been there," Vin chuckled. "Pants get t'shrinkin' right the hell up."
"Then just like that," Nathan snapped his fingers. "After the five finest weeks of my life, she turned me out. Wouldn't have nuthin t'do with me no more. I saw them eyes for the first time, they were cold Vin, damn they were cold." He saw the handsome young man's face puzzle up and shook his dark head. "Andre Marcel Dupont, richer than God with three houses, a plantation and a title. The Marquis of somethin' or other. It was him she was houndin' for all along, I was just the dumb fool who she used t'get him."
"I'm sorry, Nate, didn't mean t'stir that up."
"Yuh didn't Vin," Nathan relieved the contrite tone that matched the emotive blue eyes. Vin Tanner spoke very clear at times without uttering a word. "Been done and gone for years now. I'll tell yuh somethin' else. Save J.D., I'm bettin' yuh'd get four more beer cryers if we got
t'comparin' notes." He spoke of the other men in their group who he felt had similiar experiences.
"All them fancy titles and names don't mean shit," Vin said, easing his body into a different position to relieve the pressure on his delicate hip. "He weren't a Jackon. I wouldn'ta rode with him."
"Thanks Vin." Nathan gave the tracker's shoulder a pat as he stood up. "Think I'll stretch m'legs."
Vin kept sipping his coffee while watching the stars appear for their nightly show. The tall man remained lost in the past for quite some time. Vin pulled his shirt tighter and hitched the blanket up. He was yawning for the third time when he saw Nathan moving back toward the small camp. He paused by his horse and then by the coffee pot. Vin saw what the healer held in his left hand and grinned.
"Where'd ya git them?"
"I look like a fool t'yuh?" Nathan inquired and smiled at the saucer-like blue eyes that were trained on his hand. "Stuck all alone with a short-tempered Tanner pukin' all over me." He held the cookies out and poured more coffee into Vin's mug. "Man's gotta have the right ammunition." He was about the hand the cookies over and pulled back. "Yuh sure yuhr belly is up t'this? I ain't lookin' forward t'cleanin' yuh up in the middle of the night. Yuh ain't exactly friendly."
"I ain't never tossed a cookie back," Vin declared and wiggled his fingers.
"I'm holdin' yuh t'that," Nathan warned, handed the cookies over and cleaned up the dishes.
Vin finished his cookies, dunking them in the coffee and savoring every morsel. He slid back down, pulled his blanket up and let the dancing golden flames lull him into a stupor. He was nearly all the way under when he felt the strong hands turn him, slather herbs on his tender side and put fresh hot towels under him
"I never did care fer apples much," Vin whispered and heard the deep laugh as his eyes closed.
+ + + + + + +
A week later
Chris Larabee learned a long time ago to sleep lightly. So when the soft whinney of a horse sailed on the night breeze into his widow, he was on his feet in a flash. He picked up his watch and squinted, reading the numbers quickly. He tugged his pants on and grabbed his holster from the bedpost. He hauled his gunbelt over his naked shoulder and pulled the colt out. He crept barefoot through the cabin and paused by the door. He pressed his ear to the crack and heard boots on the gravel. He was about to open the door and surprise his visitor, when a distinctive drawl met his ear.
Chris sighed hard, rested his head against the door for a moment, then opened it. Vin Tanner was sitting on the step on the porch. He noticed Vin struggling slightly to get his right boot off. It finally gave but not before a soft gasp of pain. The boot fell and the hand snaked back under the large buckskin coat. Vin bent forward slightly, favoring what appeared to be his still healing right side.
"Evenin' Vin," Chris chirped in a mock-cheerful tone. "Most folks come callin' before two a.m."
"That orn'ry mule o'yers shits the hell all over," Vin complained.
"His yard, his right," Chris replied, moving outside and casting an eye over his younger friend. "Not much of a tracker. You ought to know better than to waltz on that side of the cabin."
Chris waited but Vin didn't move. He just sat there, slightly hunched over and facing the other direction. The blond knew Vin often pondered over things and often did so a bit too long. So he was used to being patient with the Texan. He slipped back inside, hung the gun back on his bedpost and padded to the cupboard. He pulled down a bottle of whiskey and two mugs. He went back outside and sat down on the chair. He put the whiskey and mugs on the small barrel next to him.
And he waited.
Several more minutes went by and the now tired host scrubbed a hand across his weary face . He huffed loudly and then cleared his throat. He sighed hard in annoyance and moved his body a bit to look at the pensive profile. Of course that damned hat was pulled down and all he saw one that stubborn Tanner chin.
"Well?" Chris exasperated.
"Well what?" Vin replied.
"Well what the fuck am I freezin' my ass off for at two a.m. on the Goddamn porch!"
Vin thought for a moment and didn't move. He glanced backwards at his friend and raised a single eyebrow at the lean, tanned torso. He met the incredulous if not slightly irate eyes and then turned back towards the dark night.
"Ain't m'fault iffen yer runnin' around half-nekkid. Why didn't ya put on one'o them scary shirts yer so fonda?"
"Ohhh!" Vin moved his arms out and wiggled them. "The man in black. Struttin' yer ass around town in them Lar'bee rags scarin' folks."
"Rags?" Chris poured two shots and clinked one against the post. A hand came up and took the mug. "I'd hate to think of what that makes your cadavarous totin' ass."
"Don't go Ezra on me, cowboy, it's been a long day."
Chris chuckled at that and downed his drink. He thought on the line again and laughed again. There was something about Vin's dry humor that always brought a smile. He stood, picked up the bottle and moved towards the door.
"We done this part, remember?" Vin answered.
"Fine, squat out there all night and freeze your balls off."
Chris went inside and poured himself a half mug before putting the bottle by the hearth. He picked up a poker and stoked the fire until the amber and orange flames bronzed his chest. He took his mug to the table and waited. A few moments later the door opened and a haggard tracker staggered inside.
"Seen cross-eyed snakes with better manners. Leavin' yer tired guest out on a cold night."
"Vin snakes aren't...can't be cross-eyed," Chris began only to hear Buck Wilmington's laugh echo in his head.
Every time Tanner spouted one of his infamous 'Vinisms', Buck just shook his head and warned them about trying to make sense out of 'Tanner logic'. So he waited until Vin shucked his coat and settled on the floor by the fireplace. The slim fingers wrapped around the bottle and the mug was forgotten. Vin took the cork out with his teeth, placed it on the slate next to him and took a long draw.
"How you doin' Vin?"
"Well," Vin swiped the dribble that ran from the corner of his mouth. He regarded his best friend for a moment and studied the handsome blond man's features. "Got a roof o'er me, ass warmin' by a fire and guzzlin' whiskey I ain't paid fer." He smiled, leaned back and stretched his legs out. "Life don't get much better."
"I reckon it don't," Chris grinned and saluted with his mug, glad to see the old Vin returning. "Nathan got back a few days ago. He said your hip was healin' pretty good."
"Man's got a way about throwin' weeds and mud together and makin' medicine like nobody I ever knowed." Vin paused to consider Nathan and took a thoughtful sip of whiskey. "He's a good man. We talked some."
That was all that Vin spoke on the three days Nathan remained with him. Chris knew that those 'talks' had as much to do with his friends return to normal than the medicine. Maybe over this last week Vin had taken the time to think things through. He knew part of this noctural sojurn was due to the young man wrestling with his conscience over those words spoken the day they left the homestead. He hoped Vin understood why it was necessary for him to voice his concerns. If Vin Tanner hadn't meant so much to him, he would have remained silent. As if sensing his thoughts, Vin looked up from where he'd been gazing at the fire. The blue eyes were full of emotion and bearing down on him so hard it made him sit back a bit.
"I need t'know I can depend on ya, let me know when I can," Vin repeated the question and sat up. He pulled his legs back and rested his arms across his knees. "Been thinkin' alot on them words, Chris. Even when m'eyes close, them letters get t'dancin' in m'head."
"It had to be said," Chris defended. "I had a lot of people I was responsible for, women and children. I had to..." He paused when the Texan's hand came up.
"Ain't sayin' the words weren't true. Jest sayin' I been wrasslin' with 'em quite a bit." Vin nodded slowly, then stood and crossed the room, extending his hand. "Fer awhile, them words ya spouted at me riled me up some. But I got t'ponderin' on it and found the real answer. Truth be told, I think I knew all along ya were right. Jest a bit slow on the uptake."
"Just a bit," Chris eased and bypassed the hand to grab the arm, locking on the brotherhood grip he reserved for Tanner alone.
"I'm sorry, Chris. I want ya t'know no matter what happens, ye'll always have this." He tapped his fist over his heart.
"You skipped over the wallet, huh?" Chris grinned and got the chuckle he aimed for. "I had faith you'd make the right decision Vin. I'm sorry you got hurt, that's never easy."
"Naw, it ain't," Vin agreed, "She looked at me, really saw me. She didn't eye me up like most women do, like I'm some rabid dog. It was good, Chris, them few nights we stole. I ain't gonna lie, it was real good. But, I was foolin' m'self thinkin' it would last."
"It will one day, Vin, she wasn't the right woman for you." Chris thought for a moment.
"I hope you'll find her, Vin. and experience what I had with Sara, because everyone should touch heaven like that."
Vin nodded his thanks for that hope and tucked it away. He settled back by the fire, stretched out and crossed his hands loosly on his lap. He thought for a several moments, his brows furrowed in concentration. He rolled the word 'faith' over and over in his head and then cast a scrutinizing gaze at Chris Larabee. A multitude of images appeared in his head with such a rush it almost made him dizzy. So many times when that 'faith' was given without question. How many times had that alone saved him? Two incidents stuck out and demanded to be heard. His hand moved to his throat as he felt that noose again, the one that would have ended his life had it not been for the man across from him.
"Ya have a knack fer havin' faith in me even when I ain't so sure." Vin rasped. "Jest now I got t'thinkin' 'bout another bunch o'words. They come real soft but they echo in here damn near every day." He tapped his chest. "That damn Yates come huntin' me and damn near strung me up. Weren't fer some interferin' green-eyed Yankee, I'd be worm food now. I was so pissed off, pacin' in that damn cell, runnin' m'mouth about dancin' on the end of a rope." He sighed hard, sat forward and rested his hands over his knees.
"I ain't gonna let that happen," Chris repeated and saw the head rise up and the eyes a startling shade of blue. "not then, not now, not as long as I'm drawin' a breath," he vowed, lifting his mug.
Vin nodded thoughtfully, trying to express just how much that meant to him. How could he find the right words to tell Chris Larabee just how much his unbreakable bond meant? That because of that faith, Vin walked taller and prouder. That he had a freedom now that he'd not had for years. That knowing he had Chris and five other men to 'watch his back' he could .sleep with both eyes closed at night.
"Sometimes..." Vin recalled of the other incident that was clamoring for attention. "Most times ya don't even need them words. Them's the times I feel it more, like when Chanu escaped." He recalled of the Indian youth who had been wrongly accused of murdering a white girl from town. "That whole damn town was tossin' hairy eyeballs m'way. They was gunnin' fer me, liked t'have strung me up along side o'Chanu. He got the jump on me, made a fool o'me. Ya never said a word about that, jest gimme that Lar'bee look. That kept me goin', ya got no idea how much I needed that, Chris."
"I know how much guts it takes for a man to stand alone against a whole town when he knows he's right. That no matter how rough it gets, even when his friends begin to doubt him, he stands tall and defies them. He does that because he's got integrity and a moral compass that's second to none." Chris rose and crossed the room, standing over the now pensive Texan. He knew by the bobbing Adam's apple that Tanner's emotions were working on him. "He does it because he's a Tanner and somebody I'm damned proud to call brother." He saw Vin was really struggling now and he ruffled the shaggy head. "Even if he is a cussin', orn'ry, long-haired river rat."
"Texas variety," Vin managed with a smile
"You bet your ass," Chris agreed, "Not that it's much of an ass."
"Hah," Vin sassed. "Yer jest jealous. Least my boys ain't trussed up in tight-assed scary rags all kinds o'constipated."
"Constipated?" Chris wrinkled his nose and moved as Vin stood up, stretched, yawned and burped. "Nice."
"What? Ya want I should chase it out the other end?"
"Constricted?" Chris guessed of the word Vin used wrong.
"Naw, m' innerds is workin'fine, thanks," Vin replied and turned when Chris began to laugh. "Somethin' I said?" He puzzled and shrugged, then headed for the back of the house.
"Hold it," Chris wheezed, still laughing at Vin's innocent misuse of the words. "Where do you think you're going?"
"T'bed. I had a long ride, I'm whipped."
"Good, there's a real nice spot here in the guest room." Chris physically turned the squirming tracker and pointed to the floor in front of the fire.
"Yer a cold-hearted bastard, Lar'bee, ya know that?" Vin huffed, 'limping' badly back into the cozy parlor as a blanket and pillow sailed by his head, landing just outside the 'guest room'.
Chris's eyes narrowed suspiciously as the 'limping' man ambled by. He almost laughed outloud at the pronounced limp, which wasn't even on the injured hip. But at quarter to three a.m. with cold feet and interrupted sleep, he didn't know when he felt better. Vin was back where he belonged.
"Throwin' a cripple on the floor. Next thing ya know ye'll be pullin' the wings offa spiders."
"Flies." Chris corrected of the analogy.
"Them too," Vin decided and frowned at the loud groan.
"Don't let that fire die out, Lazarus and make sure them Tanner legs limp outside to get some wood in the morning. Breakfast comes early, this is a workin' ranch."
"RANCH!" Vin almost choked. "and I thought I had Texas balls."
Finally both men settled down to sleep. Chris was just dozing off again when he heard noises from the kitchen. He sat up, swallowed his annoyance and turned his bedside lamp up. He moved sideways to see into the other room and saw the Texan in only very ratty longjohns, peering into a cabinet.
"What are you doing?"
"Huntin' up some food. I'm starved." Vin sent back and rummaged through the cans until he pulled out very small box of crackers. His nose wrinkled and he shook the box. "Hell...damn things is most likely left over from the war." He shut the upper door of the cabinet and started to open the lower one, when a warning call was sounded.
"You plant your ass down or I'll nail them saggin', moth-eaten drawers t'the floor."
"They ain't saggin', " Vin defended and hitched the droopy, holey drawers up. "They's just wore out. We all don't have yer money. Reckon ya got yer first dollar stowed up," he complained and fond his arm gripped. He scowled and turned. "What are ya..." His words were cut off when a very ripe pair of socks were shoved in his mouth. He was forced back onto his mat by the fire and spit out the socks.
"..thth..thth..." he spat and made a face. "Yer a Goddamn grump, ya know that? Helluva thing t'do. I probably caught a disease from them socks."
"Well maybe if you start now you'll get to town in time to get some cat piss from Nathan." Chris hissed. "Or maybe he can use that new syringe he ordered to shoot that whinin' ass of yours full of the good shit that'll shut the mouth of yours up!"
Vin's brows furrowed and he tugged his blanket up. He flicked a gaze from the cupboard where he knew there was bread, meat and cheese to the irate face over him. He cocked his head and studied that face carefully.
"Ya know when ya get riled up, yer eyes bug out and there's a vein in yer neck that..."
The unearthly sound that came out of the clenched teeth made the tracker back up a bit. "Could be I can wait 'til mornin'" He decided and waited for the angry host to leave. But the body remained in place, with both arms crossed over the chest. Vin huffed in annoyance, before lying down on the mat. "Cheap-assed bastard," he whispered.
"I heard that," Chris returned and waited for the Texan to fall asleep. "Eight wonder of the world." He thought as he returned to his own bed. Vin Tanner could fall asleep at the drop of a hat.
It wasn't quite dawn when Chris woke up. He tiptoed past Vin and noted the total relaxation on the fine features. He got a mug and went outside to pump some water. He paused as the sun rose, watching the new day unfold. He thought about that word faith and just how true Vin's words were. Sometimes you didn't need to hear the words, it just happened. Like that fateful day where he saw a courageous young man trade a broom for a gun to stand against a whole lynch mob. When those eyes locked onto his, the wave of faith that burned into him changed him forever.
Faith was a powerful tool, one that came in varying degrees during different time in your life. The wave was so powerful that day over the broom on that dusty street in town, he was still feeling the aftershock. His beautiful trip down memory lane was interrupted by the door opening and a stumbing Texan ambling past him heeding to the call of nature. The eyes weren't even slits and Chris just smiled when the groggy body turned the wrong way. He drained his water and waited for the colorful call to split the morning air.
"Mornin' Vin," Chris greeting warmly, peeking around the side of the house. The scowl rising about the tattered drawers over a chest full of now green and yellow bruises was a sight for sore eyes. "You get lost? I know a tracker in these parts who hires out." His smile faded when Vin reached down into the pile of manure he was standing in to get a handful. "Death wish?" Chris warned as the Texan kept his very unsightly weapon and approached. With every limping step the evil smile he wore got wider.
"Vin, put that damn thing down. I'm warnin' you." Chris backpeddled and fell, landing on his ass. He tried to turn as the sharpshooter took aim with an evil glint in eye. "You think you're limping now. Then damn boys of yours will be a sling for a month. Vin...Vin..."
"Whatsamatter, cowboy?" Vin rasped, weighing the 'option' in his hand. "thought ya had faith in me?"
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