Seeming not to hear, the younger man slowly continued to pull on his boots.
Running his hand through his hair in frustration, Chris put both hands on his hips and sighed. Crouching on the floor in front of Vin, he placed a hand on his arm to demand his attention.
"Vin, you've got to listen to reason."
Pulling his arm away, Vin turned his head away as he began coughing.
With a heavy sigh, Chris dropped his head.
"Vin, we looked for four days. Four days with no trace."
Vin stood and began buckling his gunbelt. His movements were slow and Chris could hear the faint wheezing. Swaying as he started to take a step, Vin stopped and closed his eyes. Frowning, he took a deep breath and gulped, his eyes squinting from the intense pain behind them.
"Damn it Vin, we went all the way to Rio Plata and back. Searched every hole and creek bed from here to there..." Chris stopped, frustrated that Vin was ignoring him.
Slipping his arms into the sleeves of his coat, a barely audible moan escaped Vin's lips as he shrugged into the garment. Picking up his hat, he slapped it against his thigh to shake off the dust and slowly started for the door.
"Vin, I ain't gonna let you keep this up. You're sick."
"Let me?" Vin looked down at the restraining hand and jerked from its grasp. Looking up with flaring nostrils and blazing eyes, he was breathing rapidly as he glared at Chris. "Let me? Larabee, I don't answer to you...you don't 'let' me do nothing..." Stepping back, Vin turned and reaching for the doorknob, resumed his attempt to leave.
Furious, Chris grabbed Vin again and spun him around.
"Listen, it's over. You're too sick. I ain't lettin' ya keep this up."
Several long, tense moments passed as the two strong-willed men glared at each other. The stalemate was broken when Chris closed his eyes and shook his head. Rubbing the back of his neck tiredly, he let out a long sigh as he turned and started to walk away.
"Fine. Go. The hell with it. Do whatever you want. I ain't stopping you. I don't care. You go on looking for the kid, you're on your own. I'm not running after ya, picking you up every time ya fall."
Vin started to speak, but thinking better of it, clamped his mouth shut. Swallowing painfully, he sadly noted the slump of Chris's shoulders. Turning slowly, he started to leave.
The gentleness of the tone surprised him, so soon after the angry outburst. Sighing, he hesitated.
Taking a deep breath, Vin closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the door, never releasing his hold on the doorknob.
"Don't know Chris, maybe 'cause no one never looked for me," he hoarsely whispered. His voice was barely audible, and Chris strained to hear him. But Chris had heard.
Turning quickly, Chris started for the ill tracker, but he was not fast enough. Before he could cross the room, Vin was out the door and standing at the top of the stairs.
"Don't need you fussin' 'bout me, you ain't keepin' me here," he firmly insisted when he sensed that Chris was standing behind him.
"Fine. Do it your way, you stubborn son-of-a-bitch." But I mean it, I'm not running after ya, picking up your sorry ass every time ya fall.
Clutching the hand rail, Vin blinked rapidly, attempting to clear his vision. Closing his eyes, he frowned as he took a deep breath. His chest felt on fire as another cough threatened to erupt. Keeping his mouth closed, he vainly fought to hold back as pain tore through his left side. Opening his eyes, he tried to focus on the stairs before him. He briefly considered turning around and returning to bed. Dragging his hand under his nose, he wiped away the fine perspiration on his upper lip. Just take it one step at a time Tanner. Shivering slightly, he reached back and pulled his hat up on his head. Grasping the rail tighter, he took a deep breath. With his jaw set in grim determination and concentration, he slowly started down the stairs.
That's it Tanner... You're doing it... Nice and slow...One step at a time... Don't turn around... Don't look at him... You'll be fine... Don't let him think he can tell ya what to do... Just keep going.
Chris didn't know whether to feel relief or anger when Vin finally reached the bottom of the stairs. He regretted the heated exchange with the younger man. Stubborn pride kept him from apologizing for his bullying. A similar stubborn pride kept Vin from turning back. Sighing, Chris sadly pulled the clinic door shut and started to go down the stairs also. Stopping to watch Vin wearily head into the livery, he thoughtfully chewed his bottom lip. Giving one final look, he shook his head. Turning, he stalked to the saloon.
"Chris..." Mary Travis reached out and attempted to stop Chris as he passed.
"Not now, Mary."
"Chris, Mrs. Spencer..."
The black clad man stopped abruptly and turned.
"I don't want to hear about Mrs. Spencer, I've had it up to here with that woman!" Chris angrily spat out as he gestured at his neck.
Mary's brow furrowed as she looked at Chris in disbelief.
"How can you be so cold? You, of all people, should understand. That poor woman just lost her daughter."
Several bystanders stopped to witness the exchange as Mary stood in the street berating Chris.
"Her heart is broken. Her husband isn't with her, she's here alone. She believed that Vin and the rest of you would bring Amanda home safely."
Chris took a deep breath and looked away as he let it out slowly, attempting to control his temper. Turning his attention back to Mary, he looked down at her.
"I've been where she is," he said quietly. "I know what it is to lose a child. But you weren't there Mary. You didn't see the look in Vin's eyes. She's got him feeling responsible for it all."
Noticing the group that had gathered, Chris looked around irritably.
"Haven't you people got anything better to do?"
Taking Mary's elbow, he started to lead her away.
"Chris, it was an unfortunate accident. I know Vin did his best...he shouldn't be blaming himself. He did all he could, probably more than he should. Buck told me how sick he's been."
Shaking his head, Chris snorted and looked down at Mary with a wry grin.
"Well, Vin don't think so, he just rode out to keep looking."
"Chris," Mary's voice raised slightly, "he's too sick. How could you let him?"
Stopping in front of the saloon, Chris released Mary's elbow and walked to the doors. Sighing, he looked over his shoulder at her.
"Well, like Vin told me, I don't 'let' him do anything."
Without giving Mary a chance to respond, he pushed through the doors.
+ + + + + + +
Pushing through the doors, Chris hesitated as he glanced quickly about the room, sizing up the occupants. Seeing the five men, he headed towards their table and sat without speaking.
"Mr. Larabee..." Ezra cocked an eyebrow as he raised his mug of coffee to his mouth.
"Where's Vin?" Buck asked cheerfully before taking a bite.
Buck's fork clattered loudly as it fell on the plate.
"G...G...Gone?" J.D. sputtered and gasped as he choked on a mouthful of coffee.
Chuckling, Josiah stood and began hitting J.D. on the back.
"Easy there, son, I don't think Vin's gone to meet his Maker."
Buck sat back in his chair, speechless. He silently prayed that Josiah was right.
"What do you mean 'gone', Chris? He's too sick to be up and out." Nathan made no attempt to hide his annoyance.
Sighing, Chris pinched the bridge of his nose. Opening his eyes, he dragged his hand down over his jaw as he glared at Nathan.
"He's gone Nathan...rode out just a bit ago...wants to keep searching."
"You let him?" Nathan pushed his chair back and stood abruptly.
"He's a grown man Nathan. He can take care of himself. I don't aim to chase him around like he's some sick kid. And I think it's best if you don't either."
Putting his hands on his hips, Nathan looked down at Chris and shook his head. Pulling his napkin from the collar of his shirt, he tossed it on his plate and angrily left the saloon.
"So pard, want me and J.D. to saddle up the horses?" Buck asked hopefully.
"Nope. I told him. He's on his own."
Leaning back on the hitching rail, Buck folded his arms across his chest as he crossed his legs,and regarded Chris with amusement. He patiently waited for his oldest friend to notice him. Clearing his throat, he nudged the leg that was stretched up on the rail.
Staring intently at the road into town, Chris hadn't acknowledged Buck's arrival.
"How long you gonna sit here waitin' for him, pard?"
Turning his attention to Buck, Chris rested his elbow on the arm of the chair and cupped his chin in his hand. Looking up at Buck, he scowled.
"I'm not waitin' for him."
Buck chuckled cynically as he shook his head.
"Right. And Ezra 'abhors' gambling."
"Buck, he won't stop looking until he either finds the girl or makes himself too sick to go on."
Buck sighed as he looked out at the distance. Frowning, he returned his gaze to Chris.
"Yep, and him blaming himself for not finding her makes about as much sense as you feeling responsible for him being out there looking."
Pulling up a chair, Buck sat down beside Chris. Stretching his legs up to the rail, he tipped his chair back with a satisfied sigh.
"What are you doin'?"
Chris turned to glare at Buck, the annoyance evident in his voice.
"Well, I thought I'd sit here with ya, and not wait for Vin."
Chris chuckled softly as he shook his head.
"He's a grown man, Chris. Not some green kid ya can run around looking out for. Hell, even though he's more than a few years younger than you, he's prob'ly been on his own, takin' care of himself longer than you. Can't smother him with worrying, you back him in a corner, he'll get stubborn and go against anything you say just to do it. He makes himself sicker, he'll suffer for it, and learn his limits too. You ain't his keeper, let him learn from his own mistakes."
"Like you do with J.D.?"
Taking no offense with the sarcastic remark, Buck smiled.
"Vin ain't J.D., and you know it."
The two men sat in companionable silence as the sun slowly dipped below the horizon. Dropping his feet down, Buck sighed and rubbed his stomach as he felt it begin to rumble. Stretching as he stood, he looked down at Chris.
"What do you say? It's getting late, 'bout time we grabbed a bite to eat?"
Chris stood slowly, and rubbing the tired muscles in his lower back, nodded in agreement. Looking at Buck seriously, he started to grin.
"Yeah, it's about time you got J.D. fed and tucked in bed, ain't it?"
As the two men stepped off the boardwalk and started to cross the street, Buck threw his arm across Chris's shoulder. Tossing his head back, he broke into loud laughter. In spite of himself, Chris's attempt to maintain his sour mood failed, and he soon found himself joining Buck's contagious laughter. As they neared the saloon doors, they stopped and wiped the tears from the corners of their eyes. Taking deep breaths, they each put on a serious expression and started through the doors.
"Hey Buck, Chris!" J.D. garbled around a mouth full of food, a milk mustache on his upper lip.
Buck bit his lip as he stared, unblinking, at the napkin tucked into J.D.'s collar. Chris couldn't help himself, and burst out laughing when he felt Buck's shoulders begin to twitch. J.D. sat motionless, his eyes wide with innocence.
"What? What's so funny?"
"N..N..Noo....Nothing..." Chris gasped as he tried to regain control. Wiping at his eyes with his hand, he sighed noisily and looked away. The pent up frustration over Vin had made J.D. look more absurd than he really was. The four men seated at the table exchanged confused glances. As Chris's shoulders began to twitch again, he turned away.
"Chris? Are you alright?" Nathan started to rise from his chair. I think he's done lost his mind.
"J.D. wipe yer mouth and get that damn napkin out of your collar." Buck softened his growl with a wink in the younger man's direction.
"Just tired, Nathan." Chris pulled out a chair and sat down heavily. Placing his hands over his face, he dragged them down tiredly.
"Tired and frustrated. That damn fool's been out all day, don't know when to give up. I know I told him he's on his own, but he ain't back yet and I'm getting worried. Maybe I shoulda gone with him." Sighing deeply, he leaned back in the chair and slouched down with his head resting in his hand.
Ezra stopped shuffling his cards and arched his eyebrows mischievously.
"Mr. Larabee, if you're referring to Mr. Tanner, the 'damn fool' just stumbled in."
Standing just inside the doors, Vin squinted, peering around the room. Straightening his shoulders, he slowly started towards the bar. Chris stood up and turned, silently staring at Vin. Looking up, Buck noticed the muscles working on the sides of Chris's clenched jaw. Vin stopped and looked at Chris, fatigue evident in his pale features, his blue eyes piercing the distance between them. Without a word, he continued towards the bar.
"Nathan, you got room at the clinic tonight?"
"Yeah, but Chris, you know he ain't gonna want to be fussed over."
As he passed by them, the others could see the slight shiver in spite of the fine layer of perspiration on Vin's forehead. Chris put out a hand and stopped him.
"Vin, you okay?"
Wincing as he swallowed, Vin slowly nodded his head.
"Yeah," he whispered unconvincingly, while looking down at the floor. "Yeah, just cold."
Both men turned at the sound of the woman's voice.
"Mr. Larabee," Mary continued as she walked towards the men. "I was hoping I'd find you."
Letting go of Vin, Chris turned to Mary, hands on his hips. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Vin continue on to the bar.
"What is it?"
"It's Mrs. Spencer. She insists on going back to her home...tonight."
Mary watched as Chris frowned in exasperation, a shadow of annoyance crossed his face as he clenched his jaw.
"Now?" He said impatiently. "Tonight?"
"Yes, she insists." Mary's voice rose to be heard over the raucous sounds of laughter and snatches of conversation. "Says she'll go alone if someone doesn't take her."
Chris let out a long, audible breath as he sighed in exasperation. He looked over his shoulder at his ill friend and back at Mary while rubbing the back of his neck.
"When's her husband due? Can't she wait for him to arrive?" His voice was stern, with no signs of sympathy.
Shocked anger lit Mary's eyes as she looked up at Chris.
"Well, if you feel that way, I'll take her myself!"
Turning on her heel, she started for the door, but was stopped abruptly by a hand on her elbow.
"Mary, no...," his voice was low and resigned.
"Chris, you see to Vin. Ezra and I will take Mrs. Spencer home."
Chris smiled gratefully at Josiah. Ezra's lips parted in surprise.
"I don't recall volunteering for any such thing, Mr. Sanchez."
Smiling benignly at Ezra, Josiah added, "We'll even stay the night to settle her, come back in the morning."
Buck's mouth twitched with amusement at Ezra's reaction, and in spite of himself, he began chuckling.
After Josiah and Ezra had left with Mary, Chris turned his attention back to Vin. Purposely, he and Buck strode to the bar and stood on either side of Vin. There was a slight tremor in Vin's hand as he lifted the glass of water. He shivered with chill and fatigue. Chris placed his hand lightly on the younger man's shoulder.
"Vin? No arguing. You need to get some rest before you fall down. Tomorrow, we'll all go and help you."
"Chris," Vin hoarsely interrupted. His voice barely above a whisper. "I found somethin'."
"What?" Chris's voice was incredulous as he watched Vin slowly reach into his pocket.
Buck moved to Chris's side and let out a low whistle as Vin pulled out a small doll.
"See?" Vin held the doll out.
Taking the doll, Chris looked at it appraisingly. Although damp and dirty, it was obvious it hadn't been outside long.
"Where did you find this?"
Vin began to respond, but began coughing. Leaning forward, he vainly tried to control his ragged breathing. Closing his eyes, he winced as he took a deep breath, his right hand hand clutched instinctively to his left side.
"Vin, I want you to come to the clinic."
The men had not noticed Nathan standing with them also.
Vin straightened with a long, exhausted sigh, weary of the argument. There were deep shadows under his eyes, his face was pale and he felt achy and exhausted. He knew he didn't have the energy to disagree. The room began spinning as the edges of his sight began to blur.
"Vin? Vin? You okay?"
Chris's voice sounded so far away as he fell forward, unconscious into Chris's arms.
"Mrs. Spencer, now you hold on, ma'am. I'll go inside and light a lamp."
Josiah climbed off his horse and quickly went inside the dark house. Ezra had been uncharacteristically quiet for the entire ride and Lillian found his implacable expression unnerving. Her hands twisted nervously in her lap as she became increasingly uneasy under his scrutiny.
"Ladies?" Ezra reached up to assist the two women down from the carriage.
Taking a deep, unsteady breath, Lillian brushed away all assistance and walked with stiff dignity up the steps and across the threshold. Hesitating as she entered, she stopped and sank to her knees and wept aloud, rocking back and forth. Josiah knelt beside the distraught woman, and gathering her into his arms, began to gently rock her.
Finding the tortured sight before her more than she could bear, Mary smothered a sob and fled, with Ezra close behind. As she stood on the porch, Mary hugged a post and allowed the pent up sorrow and frustration to spill forth.
"Mrs. Travis?" Ezra asked gently. Taking a tentative step forward, he placed a hand lightly on the small of her back. "Is there anything, anything I can do for you?"
Mary shook her head as she dabbed the corners of her eyes and smiled weakly at the gambler.
"No, but thank you for asking."
"Shall we go inside?"
Placing a hand on her elbow, Ezra guided Mary back inside. Sitting stiffly, Lillian clutched a small photograph of Amanda to her chest, she didn't look up when Ezra and Mary entered.
"Mrs. Spencer, Ezra and I will stay tonight with Mrs. Travis, in case you need anything."
"No, I want you to leave, now."
Mary sat beside the older woman and placed an arm around her shoulder.
"Lillian, they only want to help..."
"HELP?" Lillian stood suddenly, her eyes wild. "I asked those men and that friend of theirs for help and I got nothing! I want them to leave! I don't need anything from them now."
"Lillian, you're upset," Mary attempted to soothe.
"Ma'am, Vin tried, he did the best he could. As sick as he is, he's still looking...Chris can't get him to stop."
"NO!" Lillian shouted. Closing her eyes, she put her hands over her ears. "No! I hate him! I hate them both! He didn't try hard enough, he should have brought my baby home! Your Mr. Larabee is more concerned with his sick friend than he is about my daughter...I shall never forgive either of them!"
"Lillian..." Mary stood and put her arm around the upset woman's shoulders.
"I want them to leave, now," Lillian calmly stated in an even tone.
Mary's eyes met Josiah's, and she nodded slightly.
"It's okay, Billy is staying with Gloria Potter, we'll be fine...I'll head back in the morning."
Ezra and Josiah reluctantly left the two woman. Settling in the saddle, Ezra turned and looked at the house.
"It does appear that Mrs. Spencer harbors a great deal of resentment for Mr. Tanner and Mr. Larabee."
"Yes, brother, she does now, but that is grief talking. As time passes, she will come to understand and appreciate that they did all they could.
+ + + + + + +
"Lillian, can I get you something? Some tea perhaps?"
Mrs. Spencer sat unblinking, and slowly shook her head.
"Can we contact your son? Maybe he could come and be some comfort to you until your husband arrives."
"No. No. Robert will take care of everything." Lillian sat, staring at the fire, her tone dull and flat. "He always does," she added quietly. "He will make those men sorry they didn't find my Amanda."
"Lillian, I know how upset you are,but..."
"YOU know?" Lillian interrupted, her checks flushed with anger. "You know nothing! Until you lose a child like I have, you know nothing! How dare you even think you know how I feel?"
Mary stood speechless as the woman continued her tirade. Closing her eyes, and taking a deep breath, she began to regret sending the men away.
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