Chris and Nathan entered the saloon, joining the men already there. Buck, JD and Josiah were seated at the peacekeepers' customary table, while Ezra Standish was at his usual table, engaging a recently arrived salesman and two men who looked to be cowhands in a game of poker.
Standish noted the gunfighter and healer's arrival without ever lifting his eyes from his cards. "And how fares our injured comrade?" he asked, appraising with apparent indifference what he felt certain was yet another winning hand. "I understand I missed a most amusin' confrontation between Mr. Tanner and his ill-tempered equine. I pray the beast did not savage him too severely?"
"Ain't nothin' broke," Nathan reported as he and Chris seated themselves at the table with the other three men. "Got a concussion, a couple'a ribs cracked, an' he twisted that left knee pretty good, but the rest is jest bruises. Deep bruises, though, so he's gon' be mighty sore fo' some time." He threw a warning stare at Chris. "I don't want him ridin' no patrols fo' at least a week. I wanta be sure he ain't busted up inside."
"Don't worry," Chris said evenly, "I ain't sendin' him out. He can just stay around town and take it easy."
"What a lovely prospect," Ezra drawled wryly, laying down his cards and raking in the small pot. "Mr. Tanner, imprisoned within the confines of civilization against his will." He shuddered at the thought, then gazed pleadingly at the three men sharing his table. "Might I implore one of you gentlemen to shoot me now so that I may avoid the incipient misery?"
"Ain't nobody shootin' nobody," Chris growled. "We're all in this together. And I'll look real close at any sudden, pressin' needs to leave town. I ain't corralin' Tanner on my own."
Grim chuckles met his words, as every man there knew Chris had a cause for his concern. Vin was a difficult man to keep down. More than once he'd dragged himself out of bed when sick or injured and pronounced himself "fine" when he could barely stand. So not one of them doubted that, in his stubborn mind, being able to walk - however much pain it caused him - meant there was no reason in the world he could not do whatever the hell he wanted whenever the hell he wanted to do it.
"Might as well get over here, Ezra," Larabee ordered grimly. "We gotta figure out how we're gonna track them horse thieves without our tracker."
Standish rose to his feet with a rueful smile. "My apologies, gentlemen. While I would much rather stay and pursue my art, I fear duty calls." He arched a chestnut brow hopefully. "Perhaps later this evenin'?"
The two cowhands exchanged interested glances, and the smaller of the two smiled slightly. "I reckon we'll still be around."
Ezra smiled until his gold tooth gleamed. "I am delighted to hear it." And he was. For all their trail-worn appearance, the two had a surprising amount of money, and precious little skill at cards. The combination, in the gambler's eyes, was heaven-sent.
Josiah and JD made room for Ezra, while Chris stared down at the table.
"Ain't gonna be easy without Vin," he said. "Them rustlers ain't leavin' much of a trail as it is. Without his eyes-"
"I'm sorry," Nathan put in firmly, "but we're just gon' hafta make do. He ain't in no shape ta ride. Hell, Chris, you saw him-"
"Yeah," Larabee sighed, grimacing at the memory, "I saw." He raised his gaze to the healer. "But you know Vin ain't gonna like it. It's gonna be hard keepin' him in town when he knows we need him. And bein' hurt ain't gonna make him any easier to get along with, either."
"Oh, yeah," Buck breathed, "it's gonna be a fun week!" He quickly downed a shot of whiskey.
"Well," JD put in, having some consolation to offer, "at least we know he won't try to go anywhere tonight or tomorrow. He might not think he's hurt, but he knows Peso is, and Vin wouldn't dream of takin' him out with a bum leg."
Chris sat back and stared at the boy. "How bad's Peso hurt?" Out of sheer self-preservation, he hoped it was a lot worse than it had appeared in the street. JD was right; Vin would put himself through any abuse he thought necessary, but he'd never willingly harm that goddamn cougar of a horse.
JD frowned in thought. "Well, it looks worse than it is-" He looked up in shock and disapproval at the groans that greeted his words. "Hey," he yelped, "this is Vin's horse-"
"Exactly, son," Josiah said quietly, "this is Vin's horse we're talkin' about. And if Peso's not hurt bad, there won't be any excuse for Vin not to ride him." He looked at Nathan and grinned mischievously. "Don't suppose you could keep him dosed with laudanum for a week?"
"Which one?" Nathan snorted. "Vin, or that horse?"
"Maybe both," the preacher chuckled. "Give us and our horses a few days of peace and quiet."
"Peso ain't that bad," JD defended the horse, while skirting over the issue of the tracker. "You just gotta know how ta handle him-"
"Yeah, I figure a pitchfork and a whip are the best ways," Buck said. "Hell, I've known rabid wolves with sweeter tempers than that damn fool animal!"
"Best be careful, Buck," JD warned with a smirk, picking up his beer. "If Vin hears you talkin' that way about Peso, he's likely ta skin you alive."
"Hell, boy, Vin can't hear me," the big man said confidently, pouring himself another shot of whiskey. "He's bein' fussed over by Miz Nettie, and you know how serious she takes her fussin', 'specially when `her boy's' sick or hurt. I don't reckon we'll see ol' Vin for another couple'a hours yet."
"Ya willin' ta stake yer life on it, Bucklin?"
"JESUS!" the big man shouted, jumping to his feet and spilling his whiskey. Spinning around, he stared into the bruised, grim face of Vin Tanner. "Goddamnit, Vin!" he spat harshly, his heart racing wildly. "How many times I gotta tell ya not ta sneak up on me like that? You could give a man a heart attack!"
Vin glared up at him, completely unrepentant. "Serves ya right," he said coldly. "You's talkin' about Peso agin. Ya don't never hear me runnin' down yer horse."
"That's 'cause my horse ain't no goddamn man-eater!" Buck argued. "'Sides," he crossed his arms against his broad chest and arched two dark brows at the smaller man, "I seem ta recall you talkin' a blue streak about him in the street earlier, and they weren't exactly sweet words of love!"
Tanner scowled up at the big man. "That's 'tween me 'n him. After all he done ta me, I reckon he had it comin'. But he ain't done nothin' ta you, so's you'd best lay off him. Y'hear?"
Buck raised his hands slowly, hearing both the anger and the pain in the gravelly voice, and seeing more than a trace of discomfort in the usually stoic face. Tanner was normally as amiable and even-tempered as they came, but, when in pain, he could be surlier than a sore-footed grizzly. And he was defending his horse, to boot. Wilmington hadn't lived this long by being stupid.
"I hear ya, Vin," he said, offering one of his broad, easy smiles. "Now, why don't you sit down, have a drink, and get off that bed leg before Nathan here has a fit?"
Tanner glanced at the healer and saw the familiar - too familiar - glint in the man's dark eyes and the tightening of his mouth. "I ain't done nothin' 'cept walk from Miz Potter's ta here," he defended himself.
"Don't need ta be walkin' at all," Nathan scolded, glaring up at him. "I tol' ya ta stay off that leg-"
"How'm I s'posed ta git around-"
"Ya don't need ta be gittin' around!" Nathan shouted, infuriated by the man's stubbornness. "Hell, Vin, you oughtta be in bed, restin' all them hurts-"
"Ain't hurt," Tanner insisted, causing Larabee to roll his eyes in disgust. "Jist bruised up a mite is all." He limped slowly around to the empty chair at Chris's left, causing more than one of his friends to wince in sympathy at the painful stiffness of his movements. He lowered himself carefully into the chair and sat back, groaning involuntarily as his hurting body adjusted itself to this new position.
"Yeah, you ain't hurt," Chris scoffed, pouring his friend a drink and pushing it to him.
Vin reached for the shot glass, then swore foully as a black hand snatched it from him. "Goddamn it, Nathan-"
"I tol' ya, Vin," Jackson said grimly, "ya got a concussion. Don't need ta be drinkin' no liquor with a head injury!" He turned and glared at Chris. "An' you should know better than ta give it to him!"
Chris grinned slightly and shrugged. "Figured if we were lucky he might pass out."
"Go ta hell," Vin growled, shooting Larabee a nasty glare. He then turned to JD. "Git me a beer, would ya, kid? Since I ain't s'posed ta walk 'n all?"
JD licked his lips nervously and stared from the unhappy tracker to the even unhappier healer and back again. "Uh, Vin, I don't think-"
"I said no liquor-"
"Beer ain't liquor, it's beer!" Vin snapped at Nathan, irritated as ever by the unwanted coddling. "Now, goddamn it, JD," he drew his mare's leg and slapped it onto the table, well within easy reach, "I said go git me a beer!"
"Yeah, sure, Vin," the boy agreed at once, rising quickly to his feet."Whatever you say!" He hurried to the bar, content to let Vin and Nathan fight it out amongst themselves. Both had guns, both had knives, and both were deadly with either. He'd be happy to go to the bar!
"Put it away, Vin," Chris said quietly. He knew Tanner wouldn't use the sawed-off against them, knew it was just a warning that the tracker had decided he'd been pushed and pulled enough for one day. "Nathan, leave him be. A man's got a right ta settle his nerves after a tryin' day."
Nathan relented, though not happily. Still, he took some reassurance from the fact that Vin was not a big drinker, and likely did just want something to take the edge off his various hurts.
And no doubt the man had survived worse than a beer or two on top of a concussion.
"Here ya go, Vin," JD said, returning a few moments later and setting a glass of beer down before his friend.
"Thanks, kid," Vin rasped, glancing up and smiling crookedly. "Sorry fer snappin'."
JD grinned and dropped into his chair. "Don't worry about it. Hell, I guess you've had a pretty rough couple of days."
Chris watched Tanner raise the beer and drink deeply from it. "Buck was right about one thing," he said. "I figured Nettie'd still be cluckin' over you." He arched a blond brow. "I hope you ain't thinkin' of hidin' from her in here, 'cause I ain't about ta get between you and her."
Vin set the beer down and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then flicked a blue gaze over the gunslinger. "Never reckoned you fer the type ta run from an ol' woman," he drawled insolently, one of the few men alive who could tease Chris Larabee and not get shot for it.
Chris grinned easily. "Nettie Wells ain't just any `old woman,' Tanner, and you know it." The grin widened, and green eyes glinted maliciously. "I seem to recall her threatenin' you with a strap and a bar of soap, and you backin' down like she was armed for bear. Now, why ain't you lettin' her fuss over ya?"
Vin ducked his head and scowled. "She's the one run me outta Miz Potter's store," he admitted softly. "She's still gittin' supplies, 'n when I offered ta help, she liked ta scoured my hide with that tongue'a hers. Then Miz Potter started in, 'n Miz Hanlan was there, too... Shit," he rasped, throwing a glare at Nathan. "Now you see why I wanted that drink? Spent ten minutes gittin' looked over 'n jabbered at by three women... Hell, if I thought y'all wouldn'ta shot me, I'da lit out fer the hills!"
Nathan laughed aloud in delight at the thought of the fierce Nettie Wells, the doting Gloria Potter and the motherly Eliza Hanlan, a woman with six or seven children of her own but who never missed the chance to cluck over one more, all driving the shy tracker to distraction with their fretting over him. So vivid was the picture, and so clearly could he imagine Vin's panic, that he did not raise a single objection as Chris slid his friend another shot of whiskey.
"Speakin' of hills," Larabee said, knowing how raw Tanner's nerves were and not wanting the teasing of him to get too dangerously out of hand, "tell us what you found in Cutter's Pass."
Vin downed his whiskey in a swallow and grimaced as it burned its way down. "Fair amount'a sign," he answered hoarsely. "They's definitely movin' stock through there. Wanted ta see where the trail led, but," he winced at the memory, "I reckon I got distracted."
Chris gave a warning frown, wanting no more discussion of how Tanner had gotten distracted. "JD, you find anything?"
JD sighed and leaned forward, folding his arms on the table. "Not much. I did see some sign of horses out around Blanco Canyon-"
"Hell, son," Buck snorted, "of course ya did! That's mustang country. Them ponies breed like jackrabbits over there. Shit," he laughed, "you'd have ta be blind not to see horse sign around there!"
JD rolled his eyes in disgust at the big man. "But since when did mustangs start wearin' shoes, huh? Jeez, Buck, gimme some credit! I know the difference between shod and unshod tracks."
Vin smiled slightly at the boy and raised his glass in silent salute, and JD beamed at the tracker's gesture.
Chris scowled and rubbed his lower lip with a thumbnail. Cutter's Pass and Blanco Canyon were in opposite directions from each other, and every man at that table knew it. Yet both showed signs of horses having been moved through them, and both offered good routes to Mexico... He breathed a curse. Goddamned thieves weren't gonna make this easy. "So where's that leave us?"
Vin frowned thoughtfully. "Cain't really say. If they ain't takin' 'em the same way ever' time..." He shrugged. "I reckon I c'd ride fer Purgatory in the mornin'. I reckon 'bout the only place these fellers c'd take so many stolen horses is Mexico. Could be somebody down there knows somethin'-"
"You ain't goin' nowhere tomorrow," Chris said flatly. "Peso can't be ridden for another couple'a days, and Nathan says you're not ta ride for at least a week. If anybody goes to Purgatory, it'll be one of us."
"A week?" Vin protested sharply, anger coursing through him at this latest indignity. "Hell, Chris, there ain't nothin' wrong with me-"
"You can barely walk-"
"Wasn't plannin' on walkin'-"
"A week, Vin," Larabee said in a hard, cold voice, his gaze catching and holding his friend's. "You got shot in the head and thrown down into a ravine full'a rocks, remember? Nathan wants to be sure you ain't busted up inside. And the last thing you need right now is ta be jostled around by that hellcat you call a horse. Hell," he swept his glare over Tanner's battered figure, "I doubt you could even get on Peso right now!"
"Goddamn it, Larabee-"
"A week, Vin." He stared into blazing blue eyes. "I see you on a horse before then, I'll shoot your ass outta the saddle and lock you in a cell, you hear me?"
Vin slammed his empty shot glass against the table and rose abruptly to his feet. "You c'd try!" he snarled. Without another word, he turned and limped stiffly away from the table and out of the saloon, shoving his way furiously through the batwing doors.
"My, my," Ezra quipped lightly, pouring himself a drink, "I am positively overwhelmed by so moving a display of fraternal affection. How can I ever thank you gentlemen for allowing me to be a party to such splendid bonhomie?"
+ + + + + + +
Vin saw Nettie's wagon still parked outside Mrs. Potter's store and knew he'd only get another lecture if he walked in and she smelled whiskey on him. Not at all in the mood for that, he turned and limped down the boardwalk, already feeling hemmed in. No matter how he tried to avoid it, he encountered someone he knew, and had to endure still more expressions of concern over his battered appearance. Soon his nerves were stretched taut as rawhide, and the familiar feeling of unbearable pressure was building in his chest, interfering with his ability to breathe. Every wall of every building pressed much too closely against him, and not even stepping out into the street helped.
Lord God, didn't folks have nothin' better ta do than stare a feller ta death?
Instinctively, hardly realizing he was doing it, he headed for the livery, plagued by a worsening headache and feeling every step deep in his knee and hip. At last, breathing hard from the pain and the sheer closeness of the town, he slipped into the livery, seeking the one soul who understood, who shared, his hatred of any kind of restraint.
The big gelding was in his stall, happily munching away at his feed and gleaming like polished silk from JD's grooming. He raised his head and shook it at Vin's approach, then returned to his eating.
Vin opened the stall door and limped inside, sliding a hand and carefully assessing eyes along the horse's flank. As ever, he was pleased with JD's work, and was grateful to him for taking such good care of Peso.
"Ain't sure yer worth it," he drawled softly, patting a powerful shoulder and smiling as the cantankerous animal swung his head around and nudged him hard in his shoulder. "Lucky fer you, though," he said, scratching behind one black ear, "JD thinks y'are." He glimpsed the white bandage wrapped around Peso's right foreleg, then squatted slowly, painfully, to get a closer look. Had it been anyone else's work, he would have unfastened the bandage and made sure the wound had been thoroughly cleaned and doctored. Since JD had done it, however, the thought never crossed his mind. "Hope you was properly grateful fer this," he said, scowling up at the unconcerned horse. "Hope ya minded what passes fer yer manners, too, 'n didn't try ta bite him none."
Reaching out to steady himself against Peso, he struggled to rise, unable to suppress a sharp, hissing breath as pain shot through his left leg, hip and side. He leaned against his horse for long moments, burying his face in that satiny neck and biting back any sound of pain, trying to find some way to stand that did not hurt.
There was none.
With a patience that would have startled countless others, Peso endured the weight of the man leaning against him, stood calmly, quietly, and lent his solid support as if it were an everyday occurrence. He seemed to sense that Vin was in no mood or condition to fight with him, seemed to realize the man needed his strength now instead of his spirit, and, as ever, gave what was needed of him.
Though few would have believed it possible, Peso acted like a decent horse and let pass the perfect chance to stomp someone to bits.
"Goddamn mule," Vin breathed with rough affection, slowly pushing himself from the horse. "Nex' time, gimme some warnin' 'fore ya fling me down a mountain. I surely woulda appreciated a chance ta miss bouncin' off some'a them rocks." Peso nickered softly, and Vin chuckled. "Yeah, I reckon you didn't have much warnin' either, did ya? Still," he threw a mock glare at the horse, who shook his head and ignored it, "yer s'posed ta be steadier'n that, you bein' half mountain goat 'n all. You don't start doin' better, we're gonna have us some words. You kin be replaced, y'know."
If Peso was bothered by the threat - one he heard almost daily - he gave no sign of it, but simply went back to his feed. Now and then a black ear twitched, to show that he was aware of Tanner's presence, but he was otherwise wholly unconcerned. And utterly unimpressed.
Vin scowled at his inattentive horse. "'At's right, ignore me," he scolded. He narrowed his eyes, thrust his thumbs into his gunbelt and leaned on his right hip, taking his weight off his left. "Jist tryin' ta warn ya what kin happen if ya don't mend yer ways, but y'ain't even got the sense ta listen. Got an almighty high idea of yerself, don'tcha?" He nodded firmly. "All right then, jist don't look too surprised some day when I trade ya in fer a mule, 'n you end up a pot'a glue. Or a bunch'a jerked meat dryin' on a rack somewheres."
"You through showin' him who's boss yet?" asked a low, amused voice from the doorway.
Vin immediately reached for his gun, then calmed himself and released it. Scowling more deeply still, he limped out of the stall and watched the lean, black-clad figure approaching. "Good way ta git yerself shot, cowboy," he growled, angry at himself for not having heard the man's entrance.
Larabee smiled slightly, realizing he had actually managed to startle his friend. "Musta hurt your head worse than you thought," he said, noting the tracker's unamused expression. "Usually you can hear a fly buzzin' in the next county." He stopped about a foot from Tanner and swept his gaze over him, then shook his head slowly at the younger man's obviously uncomfortable stance. "Damn it, Vin, go somewhere and lay down!" he breathed in frustration and concern. "Hurts me just ta look at ya!"
Tanner lifted his chin stubbornly. "Ain't nobody askin' ya ta look."
Chris raised his hands in a gesture of surrender, not wanting to have this fight again. "All right, all right," he said quietly, "I won't pester ya. But you can't blame me for just wantin' to make sure you're all right."
Vin exhaled heavily and relaxed, his anger fading. "Reckon not," he agreed softly, no longer bothering to hide his pain. "It's jist... Hell, I don't know," he breathed tiredly.
Larabee nodded, understanding perfectly what Tanner couldn't put into words. "It's somethin' ta get used to," he said quietly. "Don't figure you've had too many folks frettin' over ya; it's somethin' new." He shrugged lightly. "I guess we've all had some adjustments to make. But I think we're doin' all right." A slight smile curved about his wide mouth. "Ain't none of us killed each other, yet."
Vin stared intently at the older man, his blue eyes dark with feeling. "Don't wantcha thinkin' I ain't grateful," he rasped softly. "'N I'm sorry fer givin' you 'n Nathan s' much grief earlier. I know y'all's jist worried..." A faint trace of his familiar lopsided grin curved about his mouth. "Reckon my manners is as bad as Peso's."
Chris chuckled. "You two do bear a strikin' resemblance to each other. 'Specially around the head."
Vin scowled and jerked his chin up again. "Y'ain't got no call t' insult me, Larabee!" he declared. "I ain't so beat up that I cain't kick yer sorry ass, y'know!"
Chris laughed aloud at the very notion. "Shit, Tanner, you couldn't take on Casey Wells right now and you know it! And the way you look, you got no right callin' anybody else `sorry.' Hell," his green eyes, gleaming with laughter, raked over the tracker's badly bruised figure, "that Texas trail boss who died of gangrene didn't look as bad as you!"
"Awful damn funny fer a gunfighter, ain'tcha?" Vin growled, though humor glinted in his blue eyes. "Reckon if I didn't hurt so much, I'd be rollin' on the ground, laughin' my ass off. Haw haw haw!"
Larabee shook his head. "Nope, I was wrong," he said with a grin. "You're worse'n Peso. At least he knows when ta shut up. Now, come on, Nettie's lookin' for ya. She's determined ta feed ya, get some meat on them scrawny bones."
Vin was instantly defensive, and his blue eyes narrowed. "Where's she takin' me?" he asked warily. "I ain't goin' ta no goddamn restaurant where I gotta take a bath 'n change clothes..."
"Easy, pard," Chris soothed, well familiar with his friend's intense dislike of such "fancy" places, "she mentioned somethin' about the Widow's Kitchen. You know, Miz Calhoun's little place. It's real nice, real comfortable. I been there myself a few times, and ain't nobody complained yet about the way I dress."
Vin thought for several moments, then relaxed. "Well, I reckon that'd be all right then," he drawled. "After all," mischief flared in his eyes as he grinned insolently at the gunfighter, "cain't be too fancy if they let `the bad element' in."
Larabee scowled fiercely at the tracker. He wasn't sure how Vin had heard about that description of himself to Mary Travis, but he was certain the man would never let him live it down. Just as he'd never stop calling him "cowboy."
"Goddamn mouthy Texan," he groused, fixing his sharpest, hottest glare upon the tracker. "Gonna shoot you yet."
Any other man would have cringed and slunk away before that glare; Tanner only smirked. "Sure, cowboy," he snorted, limping past his friend and shaking his head. "'N one day, pigs'll grow feathers 'n fly."
Chris followed after Vin, still scowling. One day he was gonna scare Tanner into the proper submission, if it killed them both!
+ + + + + + +
Two men watched from the shadows between buildings as Larabee and Tanner emerged from the livery. Both noted the tracker's stiff, painful movements, and the way Larabee shortened and slowed his stride for his friend's sake. Smiles slowly broke out over two faces.
"See there, Hank, it's jist like they said in the saloon," the smaller one said with enormous satisfaction. "That damn tracker cain't hardly walk, much less ride." He nodded, still grinning. "Hell, I reckon we ain't gotta worry none about him comin' after us no more!"
The taller man's smile gave way to a thoughtful frown. "I don't know, Lem," he said slowly, "he's an awful determined cuss. Them fellers said as much themselves. I cain't see him backin' down jist 'cause he's bruised up a mite."
Lem's smile turned feral. "Well, then, I reckon we'll jist have ta make sure, won't we?" He nodded toward the livery. "That kid sheriff said the tracker won't ride if'n his horse cain't carry him."
Hank's face flooded with consternation. "Now, hold on, Lem!" he said sharply, reaching out to grab the smaller man's arm. "I ain't gonna do nothin' ta that horse! I ain't ever hurt a horse on purpose in my life, 'n I sure as hell ain't about ta start now!" He scowled. "I reckon it'd be better if'n we jist finished what we started 'n kilt that damn tracker."
Lem exhaled sharply and shook his head. "Yer a goddamn fool, Hank, y'know that? Kill the tracker. How the hell we gonna kill that damn tracker without them other six cuttin' us up 'n usin' us fer bait, huh?"
Hank thought a minute, then nodded. "We could stab him. That's nice 'n quiet."
Lem swept a mocking gaze over his partner, then himself. "Usin' what? You got a knife?"
Hank swallowed hard. "Got me a pocket knife," he said softly.
Lem snorted contemptuously. "Oh, yeah, I kin see him bein' all still 'n quiet whilst we carve away at him with yer pocket knife. I mean a real knife, goddamn it!"
Hank swallowed again. He was beginning to see why Lem did all their thinking. "Nope."
"Me neither." The smaller man returned his gaze to the distant figures of Larabee and Tanner. "'Sides, even if'n we did kill that tracker, them other six'd never let us git away. And if they didn't kill us, Roy surely would fer bringin' 'em down on us all. Nope." He shook his head. "We jist gotta make sure he cain't come after us. He's th' only tracker in the bunch. Without him, them others'll never find us."
"I ain't hurtin' no horse," Hank maintained stubbornly. "'Specially that one." He smiled slightly. "He's awful purty. 'N spirited. I surely love a spirited horse!"
Lem jerked his gaze back to his partner, another smile spreading over his unshaved face. "Like him, do ya?" he asked thoughtfully.
Hank heaved a besotted sigh, his close-set eyes glowing as he remembered the way the horse had handled the steep trail and sharp rocks in Cutter's Pass before he'd shot the tracker out of the saddle. That animal had damn near danced over the treacherous ground!
"Oh, yeah," he murmured. "I ain't seen his like b'fore!"
Lem's smile grew as an idea dawned. "Mebbe that's it, then," he mused. "After all, a tracker cain't track if'n he's left afoot!"
+ + + + + + +
Nettie had known supper with Vin would be a quiet affair; anyone who expected conversation from the tracker might as well expect him to sing and dance, too. What she hadn't anticipated, though, and didn't like at all, was the grim, stoic silence in which he ate, and the unfamiliar distance between them that made him about as companionable as a stone. He'd closed himself up tight, withdrawn to that place deep inside himself that no one could reach. And she, by Jove, wasn't gonna tolerate it.
Not from her boy.
"So was it Chris or Nathan that cut out yer tongue?"
He looked up sharply at that stern tone, blue eyes wide and startled. His hand hovered motionless over the steak he'd been absently stabbing with his fork, and he held himself as still as a deer scenting a cougar and preparing to bolt.
She saw that wary look come over him and sighed, shaking her gray head slowly as her anger faded. "Land sakes, son," she murmured sadly, "don't ya know by now you ain't got nothin' ta fear from me?"
He frowned and bowed his head, stung by guilt. "Hell, Nettie, I ain't-" He broke off abruptly, and color flooded his face. "Sorry," he breathed, ducking his head lower, ashamed to meet her gaze. "Don't mean ta keep cussin' in front'a ya." He sighed and put down his fork. "Reckon I jist ain't fit comp'ny fer decent folks," he said tiredly.
She leaned across the table and snared his strong wrist in her callused fingers, gripping it firmly. "Look at me, son," she urged quietly. "C'mon, Vin, look at me." After a few moments, the blue eyes lifted to meet hers, and she smiled gently at the lost little boy she saw in them. "First of all, son, I thank ya for countin' me as `decent folks.' Means a lot, knowin' ya hold me so high in yer mind. And second of all, if you ever tell me you ain't fit comp'ny for me again, I will take that strap to ya." She arched a gray brow. "Ain't nothin' wrong with you, Vin," she assured him. "Mebbe yer some rough around the edges, and I reckon yer as tough as sun-dried leather, but there ain't a thing in the world wrong with what's inside ya. Yer as much `decent folk' as anybody I ever met, and anybody who says otherwise can go straight ta hell." She winked at his startled expression. "Pardon my language."
He chuckled quietly and shook his head, warmed, as always, by the deep affection, the love, he saw in those fierce, sharp eyes. "Reckon yer some tough, too," he drawled.
She lifted her head and raised that brow. "Ya better believe I am, son! Tough enough ta take on a mule-stubborn, close-mouthed, hard-headed Texan any day'a the week. So," she released his wrist and sat back, crossing her arms against her chest, "you gonna tell me why yer so quiet?"
He bowed his head again and scowled, then picked up his biscuit and began shredding it between long, strong fingers. He didn't speak right away - he seldom spoke right away - but turned over his thoughts in his mind and carefully matched them up with the words he would need to give them shape.
Nettie let him think, knowing it was his way. She'd never once rushed him, and wouldn't start now. She didn't always have much patience with others, but, with Vin Tanner, she had an endless store. And when at last she saw his familiar little nod, she knew he was ready.
"Chris 'n Nathan say I cain't ride fer a week."
She knew there was more, and was content to wait for it.
He sensed that, and was grateful. He'd never been one for words, wasn't comfortable with them, and moved as gingerly around them as he would a sleeping bear.
"Thing is, if I cain't ride, I cain't track." He raised his head, and lifted his eyes to hers, his bruised face set along sober lines. "Them horse thieves need findin', Nettie. Ain't sure the boys kin do it without me." He frowned and shook his head slowly. "I'd surely hate ta see any more folks git their stock took 'cause'a me."
She smiled slightly at that. The boy had a sense of responsibility that went bone-deep, and a sense of justice that went even deeper. For someone who'd spent so little of his life among folks, he took his obligations to them as seriously as anyone she'd ever known. It was, she realized, a measure of just how much he felt the folks in this town had given him, and how much he felt he owed them in return.
"If any more stock is stolen," she told him, "it won't be yer fault, son. It'll be the fault of them stealin' it, and them alone. I don't imagine anybody around here'd hold you responsible." She smiled slightly. "Except you." Her smile faded. "Yer hurt, Vin. Ever'body knows that. Time you admitted it, as well."
He scowled, and his eyes flashed. "Ain't hurt," he insisted stubbornly. "Jist bruised up a mite is all. Ain't been shot, ain't been stabbed-"
"You got a bullet crease in yer head," she reminded him primly. "I call that bein' shot."
"Aw, hell, Nettie, that ain't bein' shot!" he snorted. "Shot is... well, shot is when Nathan has ta pull the bullet outta ya with them damn tools'a his 'n when yer bleedin' all over his clinic! Hell, I've cut m'self worse'n this shavin'!"
"Then mebbe you need more practice," she retorted. "Shot is shot, boy, and you've been shot. And thrown down a mountain, ta boot. So-"
"Wasn't no mountain," he grumbled. "Was jist a ravine. 'N I landed wrong is all."
"Mule-stubborn," she said again, a touch of heat in her voice and eyes. "I swear, Vin Tanner, a man could empty his gun inta you, gut ya with a knife and then step on ya, and yer last words on this earth would be, `I'm fine'! You look at me, boy, and you tell me true," she ordered fiercely. "You hurtin' right now?"
He stared at her in alarm, eyes wide, mouth half open. He couldn't lie to her if he tried, and if he did try, she'd know it in a heartbeat. There were two people on earth who could read him like other folks read writin'. He'd already pissed off Chris pretty good today; he wasn't sure he was up to havin' Nettie pissed at him, too.
Still, he tried to convince himself that he wasn't in pain, so he wouldn't have to lie. But it was no use. His head hadn't stopped hurting sense he'd waken up at the bottom of that ravine, and his ribs were aching fit to kill him. His lower back was in agony, and his hip and knee were throbbing somethin' fierce.
Hell, right now he'd be almost grateful for some of that brew of Nathan's that tasted so foul but did wondrous things for a man's aches!
She saw his answer in his eyes and gave an impatient sigh. "Land sakes, son," she breathed with the tenderness so few others ever saw in her, "what am I gonna do with you?" She leaned across the table again and took his hand, holding firmly to it and snaring his gaze with hers. "Chris and Nathan are right," she said firmly. "You got no business ridin', thieves or no thieves. Fact is, you probably should be in bed right now, hurtin' like ya are. And don't tell me I'm wrong," she added quickly as he opened his mouth to protest. "These eyes may be old, but they c'n still see clear." Smiling gently, she patted his hand and released it. "If nothin' else, do this for me," she asked. "Out of respect for an old woman's feelin's, go up ta yer room - not that damn wagon, but up ta that room you don't ever use - and lay yerself down in a real bed."
He swallowed hard, not yet willing to concede that her concern was warranted. "Beds is fer sick folk," he said softly. "I ain't sick."
She sighed sharply and frowned, exasperated by his stubbornness. "I ain't gonna argue with ya, son. But I will say it'd do my heart good ta see ya takin' care'a yerself fer once." She arched an iron-gray brow at him, and the ferocity returned to her eyes. "You ain't gonna make me stay awake all night frettin' over ya, are ya? Frail old woman like me needs her sleep, 'n my weak old heart don't need the strain'a worryin'."
Light flickered in his eyes, and the familiar shy, boyish grin lifted the corners of his mouth. "You got the strongest heart of anybody I ever knowed, Nettie, 'n yer no more a frail ol' woman than I am." He winked. "Anybody who doubts it kin jist ask Guy Royal."
She snorted derisively. "Guy Royal! I've seen toothless ol' dogs with more bite than him! Now," she leaned across the table and grabbed his wrist once more, peering compellingly into his eyes, "you stop changin' the subject, son, 'n you heed what I say! I want you ta give me yer word that you'll do as I ask, that you'll spend tonight in a real bed, 'n that you'll go up now and git the rest ya need." Her fingers tightened about him, and that gray brow shot up again. "And I ain't lettin' ya go 'til I git what I want."
His smile gave way to a frown, and irritation clouded his blue eyes. "You, too?" he asked softly. "Don't know why y'all cain't jist leave me be-"
"Because we care about you, son," she informed him firmly. "Because we know yer hurtin' even though yer too mule-stubborn t' admit it, and we wanta see you taken care of." Her voice and eyes softened. "There's no shame in bein' hurt, son. But there's a powerful lotta stupidity in bein' too proud to admit it when y'are. And yer a lotta things, Vin Tanner, but you ain't ever been stupid."
He gave a wry grin. "I don't reckon Chris'd agree with that."
Her eyes gleamed, and her lips twitched in a knowing smile. "Probably not out loud, no. But he knows it in his heart. Now," she looked up and waved young Dora Calhoun over, "I'm gonna have yer supper wrapped up for you ta take with ya. And I wantcha ta eat ever' bite of it, too. Git some meat on them bones'a yers. Then, when it's gone, I wantcha ta lay down in the bed, not on the floor, and git some rest." She smiled at him. "You do that for me?"
He had to smile at that, the slow, shy grin that eased the wariness from his eyes and the age that had nothing to do with years from his face. "Reckon I got no choice, when ya put it like that," he said softly. He reached for her hand and folded it within his own, curling long, callused fingers about hers, while blue eyes filled with light and love rested on her seamed, weathered face. "Hell, Nettie, y'know I'd do anything fer you."
Her head came up at that, and warmth flooded her tough old soul at the deep, unashamed affection in his voice. "I know ya would, son," she murmured, pitching her voice so only he could hear it. "And I love you for it."
As nothing else could have, those words sealed it for him. For no other reason than that Nettie had asked, Vin Tanner would spend the night within walls. In a bed.
+ + + + + + +
Chris and Buck walked at a leisurely pace along the boardwalk, enjoying an interlude of peace. The fiery red blaze of sunset had given way at last to the muted violet of twilight, and the town rested in that brief lull between the busy bustle of day and the raucous clamor of night. With decent folk getting settled in for the night, and the not-so- decent having yet to emerge from their holes, the darkening streets were practically deserted, and the peacekeepers could catch their breath before going on the alert for trouble.
"I told Vin I'd be takin' his patrol tonight," Buck said, tipping his hat and smiling broadly as Miss Anabelle Heath and her mother - a fine lookin' woman in her own right - went past. "Boy nearly split a gut at the thought'a somebody else doin' his work for him." He chuckled and shook his head. "Hell, I thought for a minute there he was gonna go ahead and saddle up Peso and ride out, just ta see what you'd do!"
Larabee scowled in exasperation. "I'da shot his sorry ass outta the saddle, just like I told him! Shit," he seethed, "I've never seen such a hard-headed, mule-stubborn, infuriatin' sonuvabitch in all my life!"
Buck laughed aloud. "Well then, ol' pard," he answered, slapping a big hand to Larabee's shoulder, "you might try lookin' a little closer into the mirror the next time ya shave!"
Chris' scowl deepened, but his green eyes gleamed with humor. As Buck laughed again, Chris had to chuckle. Wilmington's good humor was as contagious as a cold.
"You two are in a good mood," called a familiar voice from just down the boardwalk. Nathan Jackson met his friends and stopped, a small bag in one hand.
"What ain't ta be happy about on a lovely night like this?" Buck asked, spreading his arms wide to encompass the town. "Seen a few lovely ladies, gonna see a few more in the saloon, and ain't nobody shootin' at me. A man can't ask for more from life than that!" He noted the small bag Jackson was holding and nodded toward it. "Somebody sick?"
The healer snorted. "You mean other than in the head?"
Chris recognized the man's tone and gave a small, knowing grin. "Goin' ta see Vin, are ya?"
"Yep." Nathan shook his head in wonderment. "Don't ask me how she did it, but Nettie convinced him ta sleep in his room - in his bed - instead'a that damn wagon, then got him ta let me fix him somethin' that'll ease his pain 'n let him sleep." He shook his head again, still smiling. "Sho' would like ta know her secret!"
"You ever tried threatenin' him with lye soap and a strap?" Chris asked. "Seems ta work for her."
Nathan snorted. "That's only 'cause he won't shoot her!"
Chris nodded, grinning slightly. "Reckon you're right." He reached into his coat pocket for a cheroot. "Gonna give him some laudanum?"
Nathan shook his head and frowned, his expression growing serious. "He won't take it 'n you know it," he answered quietly. "Not unless he's hurtin' so bad he cain't stand it. Says it makes him sleep too deep."
Chris hesitated a moment before lighting the cheroot, his eyes meeting Nathan's, then nodded and lit the cigar. He understood all too well why Vin couldn't afford to let himself "sleep too deep," knew what it was the tracker feared. And it bothered Chris more than he could say that his friend had to live with such a fear.
"Just remind him that I'm right next door," he told Nathan quietly. "And tell him not ta worry, that I'll sleep light enough for the both of us."
"I'll tell him," Nathan assured the gunman, figuring that knowledge would do more to help the tracker rest than any draught he could give him. "I know it'll make him feel a lot easier." He smiled. "Best be goin' then." He glanced past the two toward the boardinghouse. "Don't pay ta keep Nettie waitin' when Vin's ailin'."
Chris watched him walk away, and silently vowed to thank Nettie Wells for talking - or forcing - sense into Tanner when no one else could. Buck's quiet chuckle broke into his thoughts. "What?"
Buck's teeth flashed white in the deepening darkness. "They're a pair, ain't they? Nettie and Vin, I mean. Anybody else tried fussin' over him like she's done, and he'd throw 'em out on their ass or fill 'em full'a lead. But not her. Hell, he let her take him to a restaurant, for God's sake! And now she's got him sleepin' in a bed and lettin' Nathan dose him." His grin widened and he nudged Chris with an elbow. "It's like I been tellin' ya, pard. Women are truly God's greatest wonders!"
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