"You all right, Vin?"
"She belongs here. It's the life she's always wanted..." Vin answered sadly.
Chris turned his head and looked at the trail ahead.
Damn it Vin,that's not what I was asking, but if that's the way you want it.....
As the horses crossed the water,Vin listened to Buck and J.D.'s easy banter and laughter. With a heavy heart, he wondered when he would feel like laughing again. Sighing, he shifted in the saddle and winced as he massaged his lower back with his left hand. He didn't know why he let the incident with Charlotte happen, but he knew that he had had disappointed Chris. Now that he thought about it, he was disappointed in himself. Charlotte had acted annoyed with him when they first met, but paid more attention to him whenever her husband fussed. Vin let out a short snort and shook his head.
Boy Tanner, you are one stupid son of a bitch, you didn't even know she was using you to get her husband's attention.....
He'd let Chris down, he was painfully aware of that, he'd damaged their friendship. Chris didn't know he could depend on him. Pushing his hat back off his head, he ran his hand through his hair and squinted up at the sky.
Damn, it's getting hot.....
As he began pulling his coat off, he didn't notice that Buck had ridden up along his left side.
Buck waited patiently for Vin to acknowledge him, but Vin was lost in thought as he tugged at the sleeves of his coat. Buck frowned and became concerned when he took in the pale features and the fine perspiration on Vin's upper lip. He reached out and put his hand on Vin's left arm.
Vin gasped and caught his breath as he twisted around and looked at Buck. Reflexively, he put his hand to his back as pain shot through his left side.
"Wh....What?" he gasped.
"Hey, take it easy there. You okay Vin?"
" 'm fine."
"You're looking a mite pale." Buck's eyes narrowed as he studied Vin.
" 'm jus' fine,Buck."
Vin nudged his horse and moved away from Buck. As he rode slightly ahead of the others, Vin absently rubbed his lower back.
Ache just won't go away.........
Chris frowned when he noticed Vin's hand slide once again to his back.
That's the third time he's done that.....
+ + + + + + +
Buck quietly edged his horse beside Chris'. Generally, Chris enjoyed silence, but today, Buck's unsettled him. What Buck wasn't saying grated on Chris' remaining unfrayed nerves.
"Didn't say a thing pard."
"You know what I mean."
Vin turned his horse and returned to Chris' side. Buck felt the tension as they rode for a few moments in silence.
"Uh, there's a little clearin' up ahead, if'n ya wanna stop there for the night...stream runs through it..."
Vin winced as he shifted slightly in his saddle.
Buck leaned forward to see Vin riding on the other side of Chris and grinned.
"Sounds good to me, Vin."
Chris stared at the trail ahead, never turning to speak to Vin.
"Well okay then, lead us in."
Looking at Chris, Vin opened his mouth to say something, but with a sigh, he closed it and nodded silently. Without a word, he spurred his horse ahead and once again rode alone.
Buck looked ahead at the tracker, riding alone, and then to his side, at his oldest friend.
"How long is this gonna go on Chris?" he asked quietly.
"Nothin' going on Buck."
Buck snorted in disgust and started to ride away.
Chris reached out and grabbed Buck's arm.
"Buck, he ran out on us....'
"What? NO. The way I remember it, Richmond told Vin to leave and you went along with it. Once Vin figured we'd be in trouble, he came back to us."
Buck shook his arm from Chris' grasp and moved away.
Chris glanced around, and seeing Mary, rode over and carefully passed Billy to her. He then went back to Buck's side.
"Buck, I thought I knew him......thought I could depend on him. She's a married woman," he whispered harshly.
"Is that it?" Buck stared at Chris in disbelief. "Vin fell for a woman and now you think you can't depend on him?"
Chris shook his head in frustration and looked away.
"Damn it Chris! She went after him, he didn't take her. I'm sure as hell not one to judge what another man does with a woman and you know you ain't either. And if you give it some thought, you'd see he acted the way you'd expect him. He started out just trying to help her. She saw how much that bothered her husband and used it. All Vin saw was a woman needing help, he didn't start out planning to fall in love. Soon as he knew we were in trouble he came back. Came back and faced Richmond's gun. Risked his life against O'Shea's men. Not for a wagon train full of people who don't care about him, but for us....for you. If you ask me, it's Vin who can't depend on you...or us for that matter."
Chris sighed and looked at Buck.
"I don't know Buck."
"You know I'm right, pard," Buck said quietly. "Don't let that woman ruin your friendship with Vin."
The others rode, listening to Buck in silent agreement.
+ + + + + + +
Vin sighed as they finally reached the clearing. He was exhausted, and not a part of him wasn't aching. He slowly swung his leg over the saddle and started to dismount.As his feet touched the ground, he gasped as pain shot throughout his body."Ugh...," he moaned as he started to fall against his horse. Startled, the horse sidestepped away. Without support, Vin fell to his hands and knees.
Nathan and Buck reached Vin at the same time. Nathan frowned as Vin gasped and flinched when he placed his hand on his lower back.
"Vin, is your back hurtin'?"
Without looking up, Vin slowly nodded.
Nathan took a deep breath and looked at Vin. He knew it was not unusual for Vin to feel some discomfort in his back, but never this severe.
"Vin...Vin, is it the usual hurtin'?"
Vin's nostrils flared as he breathed rapidly. When he saw the black clad legs stop before him, he hung his head and struggled to catch his breath.
Chris squatted beside Vin and placed his hand on the back of Vin's neck.
"Vin, are you hurt?" he asked gently.
As Vin slowly nodded his head and raised his eyes to look at him, Chris saw the mixture of pain and fatigue.
"Where?" he asked quietly.
"M..my b...back," Vin gasped.
"Nathan?" Chris looked up at Nathan.
"He must've been hurt in that fall yesterday, Chris."
"One hell of a fall," Buck added.
"Damn!" Chris pulled off his hat and ran his hand through his hair.
Nathan motioned to the others.
"Let's get him moved over to the shade and comfortable so I can take a better look at him."
Buck and Josiah moved to either side of Vin and took his arms.
"Vin, me and Josiah are gonna help you up. You think you can walk on over there?"
With a low groan, Vin was pulled to his feet and dragged over to the bedroll that Ezra had spread out.
"Vin, I need to get your shirt off, so I can look at you."
Nathan knelt beside Vin, released his suspenders and began to unbutton his shirt. He carefully pulled Vin's arms out of the sleeves before gently pushing Vin down on his back. Noticing the bruising on the lower left side of Vin's chest, Nathan began to gently probe. Inhaling sharply, Vin drew his knees up and turned on his right side with a soft moan.
J.D.'s eyes grew wide and Ezra let out a soft whistle when they saw Vin's exposed back.
Vin closed his eyes and bit his lip as Nathan began to touch the dark bruising on his left flank. Nathan leaned down and whispered into Vin's ear.
"Vin...Vin, you been passin' blood?"
Vin winced and sighed without opening his eyes.
"Vin, come on now, ya need to tell me."
Vin opened his eyes and sadly looked up at Nathan. With a barely perceptible nod, he indicated he had.
Nathan sighed and leaned back on his heels.
"Damn," he softly cursed.
Chris stood with his hands on his hips, unable to hide his worry.
Nathan stood, and placing a hand on Chris' back, led him away from the others.
"I don't know, he's busted three, maybe four ribs. What has me worried is his kidney."
"His kidney?" Chris turned and looked at Nathan.
Nathan sadly nodded.
"If it's just bruised, we keep an eye on him. He'll be sore, but in a few weeks, he should be fine."
"And if it's not 'just bruised'? "
Nathan sighed and looked at Vin.
"It could be lacerated," he sadly answered.
Chris waited for Nathan to continue. The air was thick with tension as Nathan started back to join the others. Chris reached out and grabbed Nathan's arm.
"And if it's lacerated?"
Nathan lowered his head and sighed.
"Nathan! WHAT if it's lacerated?"
Chris was unable to control the alarm in his voice.
"Chris, I'm no surgeon," Nathan answered quietly.
Nathan sadly walked over to Vin as Chris turned away.
NO! Damn it Vin, why didn't you say you were hurt? Did we get that far apart?
Nathan knelt beside Vin. He smiled gratefully when he noticed that Josiah had anticipated his needs. Beside the injured tracker sat a pile of neatly torn strips of cloth to bind his broken ribs.
Vin's eyes were closed, his breathing even.
Nathan lightly touched Vin's shoulder.
"Vin, come on now, open your eyes. I need you with me here..."
Vin licked his parched lips and slowly turned his head towards Nathan. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes and scowled.
"Aw, Nathan, don't be fussin'. I'm jus' tired, I'll be alright," he softly drawled.
"N...no...Nathan...ju...just...leave...leave me b...be...'m jus' t..tired."
Vin slowly turned his head away and closed his eyes again.
"Vin, you're hurt."
Nathan stopped, looked up at the sky and took a deep breath before continuing.
"You're hurt, and I don't know if I can help you," he said gently.
Vin opened his eyes and silently looked at Nathan.
Taking Vin's hand, Nathan continued.
"Vin, you've got some broken ribs, but what's troubling me is your kidney. I'm afraid...afraid it might be lacerated, and if it is..." Nathan broke off, unable to continue. He hung his head and closed his eyes.
Feeling Vin's grasp tighten in his hand, Nathan opened his eyes and looked into the tired, pain filled blue ones gazing at him. In that instant, the healer was being comforted by the one needing the comfort.
"Vin, I promise I'll make sure you're comfortable."
" S'okay Nathan."
Nathan bit his lip and cleared his throat as he nodded.
"Okay, then, let's get those ribs bound."
As Vin drew his elbows back and attempted to sit up, he gasped and fell back.
"Whoa, easy there Vin, let me help ya..."
Chris quickly slid his hand under Vin's back and carefully sat him up. He felt the tension in the younger man's shoulders as he held him.
When Nathan finished binding Vin's injured ribs, Chris gently placed him back down. Vin sighed and closed his eyes.
"Thanks," he hoarsely whispered.
Chris walked away slowly with his hands on his hips. Buck followed and put his hand on Chris' shoulder.
"Hey, pard, don't worry, he's tough... he's gonna be okay."
"Okay Vin, open your mouth, I got some laudanum here for you."
"No...don't want it."
"Now you listen here. That man," Nathan gestured towards Chris, " is already tearing himself up that you're hurt. I'm not gonna have him suffering 'cause you're in pain."
Vin scowled and reluctantly opened his mouth.
+ + + + + + +
"Hey, Chris, J.D. and me caught some rabbit. Come on over, have some stew."
Buck knelt beside Chris, who was sitting, staring at Vin. Vin was asleep, and hadn't moved since shortly after Nathan had given him the dose of laudanum.
"Shoulda known he was hurt, Buck."
"Chris he thought he was alright, he said he was alright."
"But he wasn't."
"No, he wasn't. You can't sit here blaming yourself. He's gonna be okay."
"What if we lose him, Buck?"
"What if he dies before we set things straight? Make them right again?"
"And you think sitting here, blaming yourself for something that's not your fault is gonna help?"
"Guess you're right."
"You know I am," Buck cheerfully grinned.
The two old friends slowly walked over to the campfire and began eating from the plates offered to them.
+ + + + + + +
"Chris, get some rest."
Chris jumped when Nathan's hand rested on his shoulder. Sitting by Vin's side, he had not heard the healer come up behind him.
Nathan chuckled as he shook his head.
"Lord, Chris, now you sound like him."
Chris leaned forward and pushed the hair back from Vin's forehead as he scowled at Nathan.
"Nathan? What did you mean when you asked him if it was the 'usual hurtin'? "
Nathan looked at Chris with a puzzled expression.
"You don't know?"
Nathan sighed and knelt beside Vin and felt his forehead before answering.
"Vin's back ain't exactly straight..."
"And the more he's leanin' or slouchin'...," Buck interrupted.
"the more it's hurtin' him," Josiah added.
"And if he's feelin' real poorly, he's just plain grouchy," J.D. offered.
"While growling that he's 'just fine'," Ezra lazily drawled.
Chris stared in disbelief at each of the five men and then down at Vin.
"He's told you all this?"
"Oh, no, on the contrary, it was merely by observation," Ezra grinned as the others nodded in agreement.
Chris dropped his head and ran a hand through his hair. When he looked up, he saw Mary smiling sadly at him.
"I never realized," he said quietly.
+ + + + + + +
Chris sat staring into the campfire as the flames danced and crackled. A movement in the corner of his vision caught his attention. Vin's eyes were open and he was attempting to sit up. Chris was at his side in an instant and placed a restraining hand on his chest.
"Hey, easy there, Vin."
"Ain't goin' no where, just gotta go," Vin snapped.
Chris sighed and shook his head as he closed his eyes when he heard J.D. softly mutter,"grouchy".
He turned and fixed Ezra with a glare when the gambler added, "growling".
Chuckling softly, Josiah put his hand under Vin's elbow and helped him to his feet.
"Let me help you."
"No," Vin pulled his arm free. " 'm fine."
As he swayed from exhaustion and the lingering effects of the laudanum, it was obvious that he was anything but. Shirtless, barefoot, and with his suspenders hanging, he began to take a few tentative steps. Gasping, he closed his eyes and sighed. Gulping, his nostrils flared as he frowned and tried to hold back the bile rising in his throat. Opening his eyes, he blinked rapidly in a futile attempt to clear his blurred vision. His eyes rolled back as he fell back, unconscious, in Chris' arms with a soft moan.
"Vin." Chris gently placed his hand on the side of Vin's face.
Nathan knelt by Vin's side and frowned as he felt the weak, rapid pulse.
"Vin, come on, open your eyes," Chris softly urged.
His eyelids fluttered slightly and then Vin looked up at Chris with pain filled blue eyes. Shivering, he closed his eyes again.
" 'm cold," he softly mumbled.
Grabbing Vin's shirt, Nathan started to carefully place his arm in the sleeve.
"Chris, lean him forward so I can slip this behind him."
Nathan sighed as Vin moaned when he was moved.
"Vin, me an Josiah are gonna help you up and walk you over behind those rocks, " Buck gently whispered.
Vin opened his eyes, and with a frown gave a small nod. Chris stood with his hands on his hips and frowned as he watched Buck and Josiah help Vin walk away, led by Nathan. He wanted desperately to follow, but held back. Vin was stubborn, independent and private. Seeing Vin allow himself to be helped this way made Chris realize how serious the situation was. Chris was startled from his contemplation when he felt a light touch at his elbow.
"I'm sorry Mary, didn't know you were there."
He looked down at her, distractedly,before looking back to where the others had disappeared.
"I...I made some broth, if Vin's up to it when he comes back."
Chris gave her a tired smile as he placed his arm across her shoulders and pulled her close.
Further conversation was halted when Chris saw Buck walking back, frowning, led by Nathan. Josiah followed in the rear, carrying a once again unconscious Vin.
"No change," was the short reply.
"He passed out again. Think the walk was too much for him," Buck sadly answered.
"I wanna get some food and water in him before dosing him with more laudanum," Nathan stated.
"Okay, then. Chris you sit down so Josiah can prop him up against ya," Buck directed.
Chris sat on Vin's bedroll and spread his legs as Josiah gently placed Vin down between them. Wrapping his arms protectively around Vin, he turned his head and sighed into the sweat dampened head resting on his shoulder.
"Buck? Is Vin gonna die?" J.D. stammered.
Buck could hear the fear in the youth's voice. This morning's laughter had been long forgotten. Placing a hand on the back of J.D.'s neck, he pulled him closer.
"I don't know, J.D., I'm sorry, I just don't know."
Releasing J.D., he sat beside Vin and gently tapped his cheek as he forced a smile.
"Come on, Vin, give me that baby blue glare," he attempted to tease.
He chuckled softly as he was rewarded with a curt, "No" and a scowl.
Nathan knelt opposite Buck and thanked Mary as she passed him the bowl of broth.
"Okay Vin, time to eat."
Chris turned his head and whispered into Vin's ear.
"She made it just for you, cowboy. Don't hurt her feelings."
Vin let out a sigh of resignation as he opened his mouth.
Mary looked at the six men, protectively surrounding their stricken friend. Not wanting to further intrude on this time for them, she decided to retreat to her bedroll. Forcing a smile, she held her hair back as she leaned down, and with her eyes brimming, kissed Vin's forehead. Closing her eyes, a tear fell on Vin as she lingered for a moment and lightly stroked his hair.
"I'll see you in the morning," she softly murmured.
With a small smile, Vin slightly nodded.
Standing, Mary turned and wiped her eyes as she walked away without looking back.
"Okay Vin, here ya go, take some of this water. Easy...easy there...just go slow...take small sips."
Holding the cup to Vin's mouth, Nathan reached for the bottle of laudanum. Seeing the hated bottle, Vin's eyes widened in recognition before he clamped his mouth shut.
Nathan sighed in frustration. "Vin, you're in pain."
"Don't need no horse piss."
Josiah hid a grin behind his hand.
"Now Vin, you're gonna open your mouth and drink that. And if Nathan says that real horse piss will help ya, you'll drink that too.And I'm not in the mood for your arguing," Chris stated firmly.
With a sigh, Vin closed his eyes and reluctantly opened his mouth.
Gagging slightly, he swallowed the offered medication.
As Vin's breathing slowed and his body relaxed against Chris, the men sat in silence. Still strangers in many ways, the bonds they had forged became stronger when tragedy threatened. Chris broke the silence when he cleared his throat.
"Ezra, in the morning, you and J.D. take Mary and Billy back to town and come back with a wagon."
J.D. opened his mouth to protest but stopped when Chris continued.
"Vin's too weak to ride back on a horse."
J.D. closed his eyes, grateful that Chris hadn't intended the wagon to take Vin's body home.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan looked at each of the tired men.
"We best all get some rest."
"I'm gonna sit here with him for a bit."
Nathan smiled tiredly. He'd expected that Chris would say that.
"And I shall sleep later, I haven't retired this early since I was in knickers."
The gambler smiled as he looked at the others.
Ezra leaned back on his bedroll and put his arms behind his head, the only sounds to be heard were the soft snores of the other men and the quiet murmuring of Chris and Vin. Across the campfire, he couldn't hear all that was said. He smiled, thankful that the rift between Chris and Vin appeared to be narrowing.
"Chris, I'm sorry, I let ya down."
"No, you didn't...I shouldn't have said what I did."
"Wasn't doing my job...know that's why you were mad..."
"No, Vin, that wasn't it..."
"Gotta be useful, so's I can stay."
Vin's speech was becoming slurred as the laudanum was taking effect.
"No Vin, you could do better than her," Chris held Vin tightly. "You deserve better," he quietly added before realizing that Vin was once again unconscious.
Easing Vin down gently, he covered him before walking over to the campfire. Looking up, he saw Ezra staring at him and sighed.
"Mr. Larabee, you're exhausted. Get some rest. I will stay awake. I won't let any harm come to him. If he so much as winces, I'll wake you. But get some rest now, or you won't be of any help to him later."
Reluctantly, Chris took Ezra's advice and stretched out. He was sleeping a few moments later.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra sat quietly, engrossed in a game of solitaire. Sensing a presence, he stood with his gun drawn and looked around. His eyes focused on movement in the shadows. He scowled when she stepped forth.
She hesitated when she saw Ezra staring at her with a gun drawn. Looking around, she noticed Vin and quickly moved to his side. Reaching Vin before Ezra could catch her, she shook his shoulder.
"Vin, honey, it's me, Charlotte."
She attempted to pull herself free from Ezra as he grabbed her roughly. She held on to Vin's arm and pulled it as Ezra dragged her to her feet. Vin's arm dropped limply to the ground.
"Get your hands off me," she hissed.
"Vin, honey...," she called out as Ezra pulled her from Vin's side.
"Mrs. Richmond, I've never harmed a woman, but in your case, I'd be more than willing to make an exception." Ezra flashed a hate filled grin. "Now lower your voice," he ordered.
"Vin loves me, he'll make you sorry you're treating me this way," she answered confidently.
Ezra smiled as he cocked his head and flashed his gold tooth.
"Loves you?" Ezra shook his head and placing his hand up, rubbed his forehead. He closed his eyes. Frowning, he opened his eyes and stared at the woman before him.
"How much do you love him?"
Frowning, she folded her arms across her body and stared at him defiantly.
"Do you love him so much, you couldn't inquire how he was after he fell?"
"He was alright...he got up... I heard him say he was alright."
She turned and attempted to step away before Ezra could grab her again.
"Now you stay away from me. I'm getting his horse and we're both leaving. Maybe, just maybe, I won't have to tell him you hurt me," she threatened.
Ezra had promised that no harm would come to Vin and he intended to keep that promise.
"How much, Mrs. Richmond?"
He roughly pulled Charlotte back. Leaning down, he pulled up his pant leg.
"How much do you love him?"
Reaching into his boot, he pulled out a thick wad of bills.
"How much? Five hundred dollars?"
Charlotte's eyes widened as she looked at the money and then at Ezra's hate filled eyes. Five hundred dollars could take her far. She wouldn't need Vin. Although he is nice to look at. She smiled. Licking her lips greedily, she reached for the money.
Shaking his head, Ezra pulled the money back and grinned.
"You take the money and you go. I never want to see or hear from you again...you forget about Vin."
Charlotte looked down at Vin's still form and back at Ezra with a shrug. Smiling, she nodded and once again reached for the money. Taking it, she stepped back into the shadows and left as silently as she had come.
Chris sat up sadly. He had been awake for the entire altercation, and had struggled to not become involved. He knew that if he had faced her, he would have hurt her, woman or not. Standing, he walked over to Ezra and put his hand on his shoulder.
"Mr. Larabee, I value the friends I have." He looked at the others, who were all now awake and sitting up. "I told you I would let no harm come to him. Thankfully, we've seen the last of her and Mr, Tanner is spared, he is blissfully unaware."
Chris nodded in agreement until he realized that Vin had moved his arm. Watching closely,he saw Vin shudder slightly as he turned his head away.
Aw, shit, he heard the whole thing......
Going to Vin's side, he picked up his hand and gently squeezed it.
"Vin," he said gently, "I'm sorry."
Vin turned his head and looked up at Chris with sad blue eyes.
"Five hundred dollars," he hoarsely whispered. "That's all I am."
Chris dropped his head in in resignation. He knew that right now, there was np reaching Vin. Pushing the sweat soaked hair off Vin's forehead, he sighed.
"No, cowboy, you mean a hell of a lot more than that to us..." He looked up at the concerned faces of his friends. "to me..." he softly whispered.
Thank God that five hundred dollars will mean that's the last we hear from her...
THE END ?
Comments to: CamaroTBar@aol.com