Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em - damnit!
Characters: Chris, Vin, JD
Ratings/Warnings: Some violence
Summary: Two lives hang in the balance and it's all about money.
This grew from a word prompt by Bountyhunter'slady
My thanks to Nancy for giving my stories a home.
Four men sat around a table in the gloomy interior of one of the town's saloons. Two of their compadres were overdue from a trip to Blackhorse Falls to collect documents for a soon-to-arrive Judge Travis. Traveling there would have added days to the Judge's already tight schedule, so it was decided Chris and Vin would head on over there to pick up the papers and bring them back to Four Corners, which would allow the Judge time to visit with his family, before a simple return journey.
No one was concerned that the pair was running a day over, until, while on duty in the jailhouse, JD was handed a leather portfolio by the town's telegraph operator. The man didn't know where it came from; just that it was left on his desk with a note attached. It quickly became clear the leather case contained the documents Chris and Vin were meant to collect. An exchange of telegrams with Blackhorse Falls established their friends had picked up the package, lending credence to the note they had received.
With the case open on the tabletop, Ezra read the note and relayed its message to three other peacekeepers.
"It says that at sunup tomorrow, we are to place one thousand dollars about 5 miles outside of town, under the old oak tree, near the small creek in Shadow Canyon. Once the money is retrieved, 'our leader and his side kick' . . . " he looked up. "I am quoting the note, not offering an opinion." Ezra continued." "Will be released."
A grim-faced Josiah touched JD's arm. "Better go get Buck from Miss Blossom's room, son."
Hat in hand, JD stood, a little stunned by Ezra's words. "Shoot, that's a lot of money. Where we gonna get one thousand dollars from?" He fingered his hat thoughtfully.
"Who do you think kidnapped them? I mean, why them? Dumb luck? Was it planned? And why ask for money?"
Ezra waited for JD to take a breath. "The question Mister Dunne, is, who in their right mind would kidnap them?"
Nathan nodded. "Yeah. They won't know what hit 'em. Them two are gonna to be madder than a cornered rattler when they get loose."
JD agreed, commenting once more before heading out to get Buck. "And deadlier, too."
As JD left, Nathan leaned in. "Why don't we all just go lookin' for `em? They can't be too far from the drop-off place."
"We could," Josiah replied, but what if we don't find them?"
Ezra nodded. "Indeed. We will be no nearer to ensuring their safety, and would have wasted the opportunity to secure the necessary funds to see this through." Each man knocked back a shot of whiskey. This was a tricky one.
Buck was in Heaven. With the musical laughter from his current bedmate dancing around his ears, his face nestled deep between two bare, heaving bosoms, and their hot, sweaty bodies primed for the pinnacle of an enjoyable half hour, the last thing he wanted to hear right now was a knock on his door.
Scratch that. The last thing he wanted to hear was a knock on his door, and JD's voice calling out to him. Anyone else, he could just about ignore, but JD . . . Buck sighed. 'Damnit!'
"Need a minute here, Kid!"
"Don't got one. Chris and Vin are in a heap of trouble." Figuring that would do it, JD leaned back against the wall and waited.
"Crap!" If there was one thing guaranteed to reverse the blood flow from Buck's favorite body part, it was hearing that one or more of his friends needed help. Blossom looked up at him, and nodded her understanding. Buck kissed her, and while stomping on his boots, speedily dressed, and leaned in to offer an apology and a quick kiss goodbye.
She smiled. "You'll be gettin' a 'Blossom special' next time, honey."
Buck chuckled. "I'll be counting the minutes, sweet lady." Adjusting his jeans to ease his slight discomfort, Buck waved goodbye, and headed out the door.
JD straightened when Buck exited his room. "'Bout time."
As they walked, Buck dropped an arm onto the boy's shoulders. "I pray you never get called away in the heat of passion, son, I'd sure hate for you to feel that kinda agony." He grinned widely on seeing JD's 'don't go there' expression, and then sobered on recalling why the kid was here.
"Just how big is this trouble heap that's got you all fired up?"
"About a thousand dollars big."
Figuring it best to wait until they joined the others for more, all traces of humor evaporated as the pair allowed the seriousness of the situation to take over.
Blinking to clear the effects of what felt like swelling cotton in his brain, it took Chris Larabee all of five seconds, and the bite of rope on his body and wrists, to remember he was tied to a tree. Just as well really, he pondered; without the ropes, he doubted he could stay upright after the beating he just took.
Glancing toward Vin Tanner, who was hatless and in a similar position, he could see the Texan's chin resting on his chest, a clear indication the tracker was out cold. Not surprising; they had both taken a pounding before, and then again, after being trussed up like turkeys.
Larabee felt his anger surfacing. Lily-livered cattle shit hadn't even explained what this was all about. Sensing he might learn more if he stayed quiet, Chris faked unconsciousness and listened.
Santos Ramirez put Chris and Vin's saddlebags next to his own. Dead men didn't need saddlebags, or saddles and horses, so these were a bonus once their use for the two lawdogs was over. He and his gang had come for the bounty on Tanner, but quickly realized there were easier ways to make money than haul his dead butt back to Texas to collect it. A few days and nights spent in town by several of Ramirez's men had revealed the bond between Tanner and his friends, and Santos decided holding the tracker for a payoff was much less work and a whole lot more likely to collect than the alternative.
Capturing more than one of the so-called Los Magnificos had been an unexpected bonus, so they simply doubled their demands. Killing two men instead of one would be no trouble - it wasn't like they were gonna bury 'em.
He glanced across at their captives, unable to hold back the sneer. He could just kill 'em now, and earlier almost did, but there hadn't been much in the way of entertainment lately for his boys. There sure was plenty of entertainment value in these two. His only hitch was which one to leave to watch the other die, before he too became buzzard food.
Tanner groaned and all in the camp turned their heads toward him and laughed. A nod from Ramirez set things in motion and, showing no concern for his condition, several men cut the struggling tracker down.
Beating on him for his efforts to fend them off, they stripped off his shirt and union suit vest, and tied him spread-eagled to the wagon wheel of an abandoned, broken-down cart. Chris cussed and howled himself hoarse throughout the ordeal, which earned him a rifle butt across the jaw for his trouble. Through a pain-filled haze, and grateful for some form of moisture, Chris swallowed the blood welling up inside his mouth and watched in horror as Vin became the entertainment for the day.
"No! Not gonna happen! Ain't having two men out there, and already in a heap of trouble enough?" Buck pointed accusingly at the note and its instructions.
Compassionate looks were exchanged. JD dropped a hand on Buck's shoulder. "Buck, but if it'll save Chris and Vin, I gotta do what they're asking."
Buck was in hell. His oldest, newest, and closest friends under threat, and his hands tied to physically help them. "Kid, I couldn't be more proud of you for wanting to go through with this, but you riding in there all alone . . . "
JD offered a tight smile. "Then let that be enough. They must've been watching us; and they see me as the weakest." He squeezed Buck's shoulder when he saw the man about to comment. "And they're right, and I can live with that. 'Sides, we ain't even got the money yet. Have to get that before I can make the drop."
"And therein lies the dilemma," Ezra interjected. He glanced around at the men gathered in the jailhouse. "I have some money, but it is woefully short of the sum demanded."
"I got hardly any," Nathan admitted.
"Nor I," Josiah added, his heart heavy. Buck's expression showed his position to be the same.
"I got a little. I'm saving for some new boots and a bridle," JD offered. "With Ezra's, we'll be closer."
"Would the Judge help?" Buck wondered aloud, knowing even if he could, he wouldn't get here in time, and would still have to wire the money through.
"What if we approach the town council?" Josiah asked. The looks he received made it painfully clear that was not an option unless a last resort.
JD sighed. "Shoot, we'd have to have our own bank to fix this." Each one jolted when Ezra's hand slammed down on the desk. To everyone's surprise, he snatched up JD and held him at arm's length.
"My young friend, you may have just answered our prayers."
JD frowned as he tried to recall how. "Huh?"
Ezra gestured to the others to head for the door. "Put on your most intimidating demeanors, my friends, we are about to approach the keeper of the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow."
For what seemed like a lifetime, drunken gang members snatched up missiles and hurled them at Vin's body. Rocks, mugs, plates, cutlery, whatever lay loose, was tossed at the human target. Vin held out for as long as he could, but the next rock thrown hit his ribs and caused him to release a small, restrained grunt, producing a cheer from his antagonists.
From where he was tied, and with his vision slowly clearing, Chris could see a fork embedded just above Vin's right hip, trickles of red streaking the pale skin. Dark splotches dotted Vin's body from where the projectiles had hit, along with huge bruises, with some bleeding from the weight and force at which objects had made contact.
He inhaled sharply when Ramirez picked up a rock and threw it. The jagged stone bounced off Vin's brow, and the Texan's eyes rolled back in his head as blood oozed from the cut.
"YOU BASTARDS!" Chris tugged at his ropes in fury, his blond hair falling in damp, spiked tendrils over his eyes as he screamed out abuse.
"You're dead men, you hear me? DEAD!"
He looked at Tanner. The Texan's hair was soaked with sweat, and in tight curls to his scalp. His head lolled, but he succeeded to raise it enough to make eye contact. Chris knew that look, it was the one that said 'let it go'; but that was the last thing Chris would do. He needed to distract the attention away from Tanner, or his friend would die. He turned from Vin to watch Ramirez stagger over in his direction. Hocking out bloody spittle at the ground just in front of Ramirez's boots, Chris glared at the Mexican.
"You and me, right here, right now! Untie me you bastard, or are you only brave enough to throw rocks at a helpless man?"
Ramirez laughed then took a long pull from the whiskey bottle in his hand, draining it of its fiery contents. "Rocks? You worry about rocks, gringo?" He removed a large knife from a sheath on his belt. "We have only just begun."
With a strength that belied his drunken state, Santos punched Chris in the face with the bottle, hitting the gunslinger so hard he was unconscious even before his head stopped moving from the force. The Mexican looked around the camp. The effect of the alcohol being consumed was taking its toll. Their 'game' forgotten, the men were dropping onto their bedrolls to sleep.
Deciding tomorrow was another day in which to continue their sport, he joined his men, and soon the only sounds in the darkening camp were the crackling fire, drunken snores, and the raspy breaths of a shivering Texan in pain.
Vin swallowed hard against the dryness in his throat. His head ached something fierce, as did his ribs. One rock had hit a sensitive area, bringing tears to his eyes, but he remained steadfast, giving his assailants very little satisfaction. Now, in the silence of the darkening camp, one solitary tear escaped, but it was not shed for himself. Chris hung unconscious against his bonds, oblivious to the blood dripping from his nose and cheek, and it made Vin's heart ache.
What made things worse, was that neither man knew why this was happening. The documents taken from them were worthless to all but the Judge. They had been ambushed, beaten, tied, and tortured, with not one word of explanation spoken. As the welcome, beckoning blackness took over, Vin slipped into unconsciousness with one word playing in his mind on a loop.
Townsfolk stared as five somber men walked in a line down the street and stopped at the bank. Business was over for the day, but the peacekeepers knew that bank manager, Henry Possett, remained behind for several hours to balance the books and ensure that the safe and the premises were secure. Each day, until that man left, at least one of the regulators would keep watch over the place.
Hearing pounding on the door of the bank, Henry shut the safe, closed his books and cautiously moved toward the front of the store. Peeking around the door's heavy, drawn blind, he called to the familiar men through the glass. "We're closed, gentlemen."
"We know," Buck assured. "We wanna talk to you. Open up."
For a moment, they feared Henry would say no. Blinking owlishly back at them through his glasses, the man sighed and unlocked the door, stepping back to let the five men inside.
"What is it you could possibly want from me?" he asked.
"One thousand dollars as quickly as possible," Josiah replied, a little amused as Henry's glasses slipped to the end of his nose around the same time his jaw dropped.
"Excuse me? I," he laughed, nervously. "I could have sworn you just asked me for one thousand dollars."
"We did," Nathan confirmed.
"Are, are you insane?"
"I assure you," Ezra answered, "we have never been more rational. Our young sheriff is to take it to an assigned destination in order to procure the release of two of our compadres; so your swift cooperation in this matter is greatly appreciated."
Taking out a kerchief to pat at the sweat forming on his brow, Possett cleared his throat. "Let me fully understand. You want me to hand over one thousand of our good citizens' dollars to a bunch of desperados, in order to free . . . " he glanced around the group to establish who was missing, " . . . Misters Larabee and Tanner?"
JD nodded. "Yeah. You'll get it straight back."
Henry half coughed, half choked. "How? Am I to assume they will simply hand it back at your request?"
Buck grinned. "We can be real persuasive."
"We, and Misters Larabee and Tanner have ensured your business remain safe and as stress-free as possible throughout our time here. You have our word your money will be returned within the day," Ezra assured.
"I can't, I simply can't."
Buck leaned in. "Can't, or won't?"
Josiah drew himself up to his full height. "I ask you to pray with me, brother. Pray our two friends remain safe during your deliberations, pray for our Lord and Father to steady his powerful hands around your delicate soul during your moments of indecision. Pray that . . . "
Possett raised trembling hands. "WAIT!"
As dusk drew in, five men exited the bank, Josiah triumphantly holding a gunnysack close to his chest. Stopping close to Nathan's clinic, Ezra pulled out his pocket watch and checked the time. "Shall we meet here, at sunrise?"
They all nodded.
"JD, you'll ride to the spot alone, but we'll be close behind, okay?"
JD nodded at Josiah. "Sure."
"We could all sleep in the church," Josiah offered. "The money would be safer, and none of us would sleep in."
"A delightful idea," Standish said, his dismayed expression revealing his true thoughts, for once.
"Do you think they're keeping Chris and Vin far from the old oak?" JD wondered aloud.
"That's what we aim to find out, Kid," Buck replied. "It's a box canyon, and there's only one way in and outta that place so we can't miss 'em. Those fellas'll be wary, but they'll never see us coming."
Nodding his understanding, JD sighed. "Sure hope Chris and Vin are okay." The silence that greeted him spoke more than any words could, right then.
Groggy, Chris raised his aching head, confused for a moment as to where he was. The campfire was low, but still casting light, and through the gloom, he could just make out Vin's pale body pinned against the side of the wagon. Larabee ached and throbbed all over, especially his face, and he was so thirsty. He dread the thought of how Vin must be feeling right now.
Chris had gleaned information from snatches of conversation. There was talk about a payoff. Could they mean for them? Surely no one believed the fellas would pay money to get their ornery hides outta this mess?
One word he had heard clearly though - bounty. Chris feared these men knew about Vin, maybe that was the payoff they were referring to; but then, if that was the case, why go through all this?
Feeling eyes on him, he looked back at Vin. Tanner's gaze was focused, and Chris instinctively knew Vin was ordering him to back down. Larabee shook his head, relieved to see Vin relax. They were at an understanding. This would be a fight both of them would see through to the end.
JD yawned as he sat atop his horse. In the gray tinge of pre-dawn, he and Buck watched as Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan emerged from the livery. Josiah handed JD the brown leather bag the money had been transferred to.
"I'll be right on your heels, Kid," Buck promised. JD smiled and nodded.
"We will wait at the pass until the brigands emerge from the drop-off place and follow from there." Ezra smiled at JD and Buck. "Good luck."
"You too," Buck replied. "Just remember, unless you got no options, wait for us." With parting nods, JD headed out. Five minutes later, Buck followed, and a similar interval after that, the three remaining peacekeepers did likewise, breaking off a few miles out, to head to their plotted destination.
Dawn, and the outlaw's camp was stirring and both captives stiffened. Bladders relieved, and breakfast and coffee started, there was renewed interest in the battered Texan. Ramirez walked over to Vin and laughed.
"Sleep well, gringo?" His smile slipped when Vin didn't answer, and he punched the tracker hard in the gut. "I asked you a question, que cochino!"
Unable to double over, all Vin could do was ride out the pain. When his breath returned, he glared at Santos. "Ir al infierno!"
With a roar, Ramirez unsheathed his knife, picked his spot, and plunged it into Vin's side with so much force it went clean through his flank. Vin's intake of breath was harsh and jagged, his blue eyes widening in shock, before closing in agony.
Ramirez watched the man's suffering with a satisfied smile. "I think it is you that will be going to hell. I need to eat, but soon, we will be back. My men are in great need of target practice."
With little voice from his earlier ranting, and dry from lack of water, Chris's liquid eyes could only watch in horror as a stripe of blood ran from the knife buried in Vin's side, down his pants and to the ground. Vin's assistance was lost to him now. In that much pain, he was ruled out of any attempts to end this.
It was down to Chris, or hopefully, him and the boys, to get them out of this, but for the first time since their capture he had doubts as to whether it would be in time to save Tanner. While his normally sharp, but currently drained mind worked through every functioning recess for options, Chris barely registered the two men riding out from the camp.
From the ridge overlooking the creek and old oak, Buck watched his brave little brother ride into the unknown. The outlaws had chosen well. Dressed in his Dude clothes and being so small and young, JD appeared to pose no threat. But all six peacekeepers knew that, while sometimes being his downfall if left to his own devices, JD's loyalty and fearlessness, along with his ability to shoot true, and with both hands, meant he was no pushover in a tight spot.
However, right now, with JD riding alone into a place with only one way in and out, and carrying all that money, Buck's heart was somewhere up near his throat in a bid to escape his churning gut. Being unable to shoot anyone at the payoff spot for fear of not finding Chris and Vin in time, Buck was seriously hoping all JD needed to do was drop the bag, and leave. Arriving at a place he could see everything clearly, and unsheathing his rifle, Buck watched and waited.
Settling into a position a little way ahead of the blind canyon, Ezra, Josiah and Nathan prepared to wait for as long as it took. They watched two riders approach, noting from which direction they came. If all else failed, they had something to work from. But failing meant JD would have suffered some difficulty, so they dwelled on the positive, and waited for the two riders to make their return journey and lead them to their friends.
JD was nervous. He wasn't ashamed to be, Buck had told him being nervous was good, it kept him sharp. However, it wasn't for himself he was edgy. He wanted to get this right. Chris and Vin's lives likely depended on it, not to mention the safety of the bank's money. Dismounting, JD approached the old oak and, glancing around, placed the bag on the ground. Blowing out a shaky breath, he scooped up water in his hand from the creek to ease his parched throat. Just as he was wondering if he should go, or wait to learn where the outlaws were holding their friends, two riders came in and dismounted a few feet away from him.
"You'll live longer iffen you keep your hands away from your side irons."
JD nodded to the approaching man, moving his hands from his sides, palms outwards to show good faith. "Where are our friends?"
"All in good time." The second man had JD covered with his gun, watching with interest as his companion picked up the bag and opened it.
"Whoo-whee! Look at all them greenbacks!"
JD was getting antsy. "Okay fellas, you got what you came for. When do we get our friends back?"
The first man stared at the boy. "You thinking straight with that headache?"
JD frowned. "Huh? I ain't got no . . . "
When picking up the bag, the man had also picked up a large rock and with a sharp move, he smacked JD across the back of his head. As the stunned youth fell to the ground, the men slapped JD's bay on the rump to send him on his way, mounted up and rode hell bent for leather out of the canyon.
From atop the ridge, Buck watched JD dismount. He raised the rifle scope as he tracked the boy's movements. "Come on, Kid, get the hell outta there." When riders entered the canyon, Buck moved the rifle to track them instead. He watched the man pick up the money, and was just thinking this might just go without a hitch, when JD went down hard to the ground.
Buck hollered out his dismay. Pointing the rifle at the retreating outlaws he squeezed his finger around the trigger, barely stopping himself from firing. It killed him to let them go, but he had to, Vin and Chris's lives depended on it. Instead, he sheathed his rifle, waited until the men cleared the gully, then raced down to where JD lay.
Josiah pointed, not that he needed to. All three concealed peacekeepers watched until the speeding riders passed by, and then followed, deciding it may be wise to keep up, rather than wait on Buck and JD. Ezra smiled, a little more optimistic. "I may be no tracker, but the dust those two are kicking up would be easy to follow if I were as blind as a bat and hopping on one leg."
"One leg?" Nathan asked.
Standish grinned. "It seemed to make the idiom more - colorful."
Josiah and Nathan couldn't help laughing. It eased the tension and helped them focus on the job in hand, retrieving their friends, and returning the bank's money.
"JD!" Tearing into the gully, Buck was relieved to see JD trying to get to his feet. The ladies' man was off his big gray long before she stopped. "Kid, easy, don't try to get up just yet, boy."
"Uuuhhh . . . "
Buck cussed as the kid got to his knees. "Shoulda just said 'get up'. fool kid woulda done the opposite, then." With a gentle touch, he sat down in the dirt, and eased JD back against him. "Give yourself a minute."
"Chrissss . . . Vinnnn . . . " JD breathed, fighting the hand stopping him from touching the sore spot on his head.
"The others are on it, and so will we be, I just gotta check out this here lump." Taking off his bandana, Buck dabbed at the blood, relieved to see a goose egg, but not too deep a cut. "Always said you had a hard head." He raised a hand and waved it in front of JD's eyes. "How many fingers am I holdin' up?"
JD squinted. "Six?"
Buck chuckled at the two fingers he was currently waving in front of JD's eyes. "Close enough. Come on." He eased the swaying youth to his feet. "Can you ride?" Again he chuckled at the indignant look. God he loved this kid.
"Just, get me up," JD ordered.
"Wait, one thing." With great tenderness, Buck tied his bandana around JD's head. "Just makin' sure your head don't fall off."
"Funny! Aaahhh, ouch," JD hissed and gingerly touched his head. With a little effort, and a few soft cusses, he was up and riding double on Buck's horse. Fighting the threatening nausea, and ache in his skull, he looked defiantly back at Buck. "Let's go!"
Buck steadied his partner before they rode off. "You're gettin' real bossy."
"Got me a good teacher," JD said, grinning back.
Chris inhaled, sharply, his eyes clenched, as the hot coffee tossed at his chest soaked through his shirt and into his skin. "I wanted to make sure you were awake for the finale," Ramirez taunted.
Larabee pulled at his bonds. "I swear, you touch him and I'll . . . "
"You'll WHAT?" You are in no position to bargain with me. Once your amigo is dead," Santos grinned and ran a finger from one side of his neck to the other. "I intend to slit your throat from ear to ear."
"You'd better," Chris threatened, his voice as hard as flint. "'Cause you sure as hell don't want me alive when you're done." An ounce of satisfaction entered his heart to see the first signs of fear.
The cry through gritted teeth from Vin, and the guffaws of laughter from the mob in front of him, drew Chris's attention. A new game was taking place, and a knife's blade had pierced the Texan's body, this time through his left arm. Several more thrown knives missed, until another entered his right thigh. Groans of disappointment followed by a cheer from his attackers, suggested their new game was going well - too well, and Chris lunged out at Ramirez, his forehead successfully connecting with the unsuspecting man's jaw.
Staggering back, Santos touched fingers to the split, bleeding lip Chris had given him. "Bastardo!" He drew a fresh knife from its sheath, grabbed the blond's hair, and was about to cut Chris's now exposed throat when the sound of hooves caused his men and himself to turn. He grinned broadly at the bag held aloft by familiar incoming riders.
"You have it?"
"Bursting at the seams with money," one man called, shaking the bag. "Took care of that little runt sheriff, too."
Chris's heart sank to his boots. A friend lost. He glanced at Vin. The tracker was barely conscious, his body losing precious blood, and him with no way to stop it. He glared at the outlaws. So that really was what this was all about, money?
Ramirez laughed, a harsh, deep sound that echoed around them. He drew his gun and pointed it at Tanner's head. "We are done, here."
Despite his frailty, Vin tilted his chin in defiance and looked his executioner in the eye. "See you in Hell!"
Chris screamed out. "Nooo!" A shot was fired and Larabee watched in horror as the head he was focused on burst open, scattering blood and gore in all directions.
For a moment, the torso remained frozen in place, until it dropped to the ground into a puddle of Ramirez's blood. Panicked, the gang scattered, soon halting and raising their hands when they realized it was stay still, or die.
The pair on horseback with the bag of money drew their guns. One pointed his at Vin, the other at Chris. "Stop firing now and come forward or we shoot 'em!"
From behind nearby rocks, Josiah, Ezra, and Nathan cursed, but their frustration only lasted a second.
"Don't think so, mister, drop it!"
The man holding the bag stared at the bandaged youth standing before him and pointing a rifle right at his head.
"Do it!" Buck urged as he ambled in, his own rifle aimed at the other man. "I got no problem shootin' off the tops of your heads."
While Buck, JD, Josiah, and Ezra held bead on the outlaws, Nathan first cut Chris free, then with his help, carefully released Vin. Tanner collapsed into Chris's arms and he and Nathan eased him to the ground. In minutes, while what few of the remaining gang were bound, Nathan removed the small fork and not so small knives from Vin's ravaged body and was already cleaning and dressing the wounds.
With the gang secured, and leaving the peacekeepers free to help, JD was left to cover the outlaws while the others recovered the money, and helped set up a camp so Nathan could work more comfortably on Vin.
"Nathan?" Chris asked, anxiously, still holding the unconscious Texan against his chest.
"I think we got here in time," the healer replied. "He's bled out some, but the knives held back a lot of it. Without 'em, he'd 'a bled to death long ago. Once he's stitched up, he's gonna need to rest up for a good while." Nathan eyed, Larabee. "I need to check you over, too."
"Later." Running trembling fingers through Vin's sweat-dampened curls, Chris lingered for a few moments and then, before he stood, rested his friend down on the freshly laid out bedroll. From the gunbelt that Buck had just handed him, he cleared his gun from its holster, walked over to Ramirez and emptied the chamber into the prone body.
Buck watched, and raised an eyebrow. "I think ya got him, Stud." For the first time in two days, Chris offered a semblance of a smile.
Chris glanced toward JD. "Assholes made out they'd killed the kid."
Buck's expression reflected the memory of watching JD go down. He offered a wistful smile. "Nah, wishful thinking on their part. Kid's got a lotta living to do." Something caught his eye and Buck turned toward JD. "'Scuse me, Pard."
Chris watched Buck leave and walk toward a swaying JD.
JD's ears were buzzing, and he felt hot, and awful strange, but he held his position. From behind, strong arms took hold of him, and JD saw Ezra take his rifle just as Buck spoke softly into his ear. "Time to let go, son."
On his mentor's say-so, JD's body folded and Buck took control of the dropping youth. No one had missed the bandana around the kid's head, but were still troubled at his collapse. While Ezra took over guarding the outlaws, Buck eased JD down close to Vin and an exhausted Chris, who was now back sitting beside the Texan.
"Been expectin' that since we left the crick, he's been runnin' on adrenaline this whole time," Buck explained. Seeing the healer had his hands full, the ladies' man settled down next to the boy. "I got him, Nathan, you take care of Chris and Vin."
Just then, Tanner groaned and dark lashes fluttered open. His pain-filled gaze met Chris's anxious one, and he hissed when he tried to move. "Shoot, that smarts."
"No shit?" As he took the cloth Nathan handed him and dabbed it to his own bloody nose, Larabee couldn't help grinning.
There was a pause as Vin seemed to be working through something in his mind. "My clothes?" he mumbled.
"Close by," Chris assured. "Nathan's still patching you up." He watched the healer offer Vin some water, scolding him lightly when the tracker tried to gulp it back. Chris smiled inwardly, no matter how much a man knew not to do that, have him parched, and all sense vanished.
Vin turned on hearing a groan next to him. He frowned on seeing JD with Buck. When did JD get hurt? For that matter, when did he and the fellas arrive?
"Shush, got a headache." It was clear JD's mumbling was reaction more than interaction.
Vin cast tired eyes at Chris, and back to Buck, amusement dancing in the weary, blue orbs.
"'Scuse me for bleedin' too loud."
Despite not being fully awake, JD giggled, and it caused a ripple effect amongst the relieved men.
Vin swallowed, his throat working hard against the dryness as his gaze again fixed on Chris. He knew he wasn't fooling the man in black.
"You okay?" he drawled.
Chris adjusted the cold cloth he was holding against his swollen, aching jaw. "I'll live," Chris assured.
"'M sorry, Cowboy."
"I heard 'em," Vin was fading. "After the bounty . . . "
Chris leaned in. "Nope, just after money, and they didn't care how they went about getting it." He squeezed Tanner's bare shoulder. "No matter what, I got your back." He looked around at the others and smiled. "We got your back. Now rest easy."
The look Chris received was one of mutual respect and like-mindedness. It felt good. He kept eye contact until Vin closed his eyes.
"I'm heading back to town for a wagon," Josiah told the group before departing. He knew the drill; he would also bring blankets back with him.
Settling JD and leaving him to Nathan's ministrations, Buck stood and stretched. JD stirred, muttering softly, but audibly in his slumber. "What's a Blossom special, Buck?"
"Hush, boy." Despite JD being out of it, Buck squatted down, clamped a hand over his mouth and laughed uneasily at his friends' amused expressions. "Kid's delirious."
Fighting sleep, Vin couldn't help releasing a small, tired grin. That was one comment from JD that Buck wasn't gonna get away with when he felt up to it. Tanner's eyes closed again. He was exhausted, and in pain, though the laudanum was working nicely.
For the first time since his and Chris's ordeal began, he had no doubt that if he slept now, he would wake up again, and with that thought, and the warmth of having friends to watch his back no matter what, he relaxed into the peace of blessed sleep.
Over the next few days, Chris spent most of his time at the clinic. Initially, it was to heal his own injuries, and he offered no argument. It suited him to stick close to Vin. Tanner developed an infection in two of his wounds, and was fighting a fever, but his heart was strong, and the other wounds were healing slowly, so Nathan was concerned, but not overly worried. Chris took turns with the healer to wipe Vin down to keep him cool and settled. The blond had no doubt the sharpshooter sensed he was there.
JD was ordered to rest in his room for a day. Nathan would have preferred two, but the kid was so hyped up on adrenalin after the previous events that the healer quickly realized he had about as much chance of keeping JD contained as a bush fire in a dry wood.
The day Vin's fever broke coincided with Orin Travis's arrival. Chris, along with the other regulators, met the Judge in the jailhouse. Orin shook each man's hand, taking note of Chris's battered features. "Sorry to hear you had so much trouble, gentlemen. It was meant to be a reasonably simple trip, but clearly someone else decided otherwise."
He glanced at the four disgruntled men inside the cells. "I'll have a Marshall here within the week to collect them. Is Ramirez in there?"
Chris shook his head. "He didn't make it."
Travis nodded. "How is Mister Tanner doing?"
"Better," Nathan answered, looking at Chris, then JD. "They all are."
"And the bankroll you borrowed?"
Chris smiled at Ezra's grunt and the others' grins. "Safely returned."
"Excellent." Orin's eyes danced with mischief as he looked at his young sheriff. "JD, good to see you've recovered."
Perched on the corner of the desk, JD seemed a little surprised at the comment. He'd only had a concussion and two stitches, "Uh, thanks Judge."
Orin leaned in. "So, tell me, did Buck explain what a Blossom special is? Buck, would you care to elaborate?"
Buck spat out the coffee he was drinking. JD squeaked at the incoming liquid, and while trying to dodge it, fell clean off the desk. Both men stared at each other, one sitting on the floor of the jailhouse in sheer bemusement, but with an odd memory tickling at his brain, and the other glancing awkwardly around, until choosing to grin and go with it.
The others were laughing, their gazes resting anywhere but on Buck's and JD's expressions. Satisfied with the reactions from his teasing; and with his requested documents in hand, Travis turned to go.
"I'm leaving on tomorrow's stage, so I'll check in with Vin before I head out. For now, I'm off to visit with Billy and Mary. Gentlemen, it's been a pleasure to see you all."
Leaving the others debating Orin's comment to Buck and JD, Chris walked over to the clinic. Pushing open the door, he smiled at the beat-up, pale, but healing Texan staring back at him. After clasping forearms in greeting, Chris offered his friend a drink, and then took a seat next to his bed.
Vin eyed him up and down. "What's gotten you so tickled?"
Chris chuckled, which amused the Texan even more. "I just witnessed a conversation that's gonna give you a line of teasing lasting weeks."
Vin grinned and got comfortable. "Carry on, I got nothin' but time to kill."
The hearty laughter from the clinic a few minutes later drifted down to the busy street, causing several heads to look up as they passed by. The town was back into its daily routine of going about their business, while safe in the knowledge that, trouble came and went, but despite the danger, and the hardships, they were still protected by seven honorable, courageous, and righteous men.
Thanks for riding along.
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