"A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity."
Chris Larabee's patrol had been uneventful, the dry heat keeping almost everyone inside. He had started back to Four Corners, looking forward to a drink in the saloon away from the heat and dust. The gunslinger pulled his hat brim further down over his eyes, shielding them from the blinding sun. His head came up when he heard another horse coming up behind him and his hand moved to rest on the butt of his gun.
Chris had no time to react as a bullet suddenly slammed into the back of his shoulder, pushing him forward over his horse's neck. He drew his gun, but the next shot clipped his head, sending him falling from his spooked horse. He landed flat on his back in the dirt and his vision was so blurry that he could just barely make out the shape of his horse running towards Four Corners.
A man dismounted near Chris, a satisfied smile on his face. He pushed back his hat and ran a hand through his black hair. "Well, now. You aren't nearly as high and mighty now, are you, Larabee?" When Chris just glared at him, he drew his booted foot back and kicked the gunslinger sharply in the ribs, smiling when he heard one of them crack.
Chris hissed as he drew in enough air to speak. "Who are you, and what do ya want?"
"That's easy, Larabee. I'm Damian Westbrook, and I want Vin Tanner." He kicked Chris again and frowned in disappointment when all he heard was a small grunt. "Your part in all this, in case you were wondering, is that of bait. Tanner will come for you, and I will kill him."
Chris's mind raced as he tried to think of a way out. He knew that Vin would easily follow Pony's trail and head straight for Westbrook. His only chance would be to kill the bounty hunter before Vin arrived. He turned his head slightly, looking for his gun. He found it only a few feet to his right, lying where it had fallen. He lunged for it, drawing back with a hiss of pain as fire flared in his arm as Westbrook shot him again.
Westbrook clicked his tongue, still smiling as he holstered his gun and knelt next to Chris. "That was most unwise, Larabee. How about we just face up to reality here. Tanner is going to come and I am going to kill him. Things would be much less painful for you if you would just work with me instead of against me."
Chris glared up at Westbrook even as he felt his vision growing fuzzy. He squinted and took careful aim, spitting in the other man's face. "You're not gettin' Vin."
Westbrook calmly wiped his face with his sleeve. "You are quite wrong, Larabee. I am going to kill Vin Tanner and I am going to collect the bounty. And before I kill you, I am going to make what's left of your life a living hell." He didn't give Chris time to reply as he drew his pistol and slammed the butt against the side of Chris's head, sending the gunslinger into unconsciousness.
+ + + + + + +
When Chris awoke, he wasn't sure what hurt more: the throbbing in his head or the knowledge that he had let himself become bait for Vin. He tried to move but quickly realized that he couldn't. He was flat on his back with his arms securely tied over his head to a post. His feet were attached to a similar post so that he was stretched out, pulling painfully on his cracked ribs.
"Well, you're finally awake, Larabee. I would have hated to start the fun without you." Westbrook strolled into Chris's line of sight, something shiny held loosely in his hand. He knelt next to the gunslinger and held up the object in his hand, smiling when he saw Chris's confused frown. "You're probably wondering just what I'm going to do with your spur, Larabee. It's really amazing the amount of damage that can be done to a man with one of these."
Chris stared up at Westbrook, trying to ignore the pain that his position was causing his ribs and his injured arm. He flinched when the other man pulled out a knife and began slicing the buttons off of his black shirt. "What are you doing, Westbrook?" He glared at his captor but remained perfectly still so that the knife wouldn't veer from its path.
"I intend to have a little fun with you before Tanner shows up." He laughed when he saw a hint of fear in the gunslinger's eyes as the blond glanced down at his open shirt. "Don't worry, Larabee, I'm not going to do that to you. I just enjoy getting to see what I'm working with."
Chris didn't have time to wonder what Westbrook meant as a trail of fire suddenly bloomed across his stomach where the teeth of his own spur had raked. His breath hissed past his teeth, putting more pressure on his ribs. Then Westbrook moved the spur higher, pressing it against the bullet hole in Chris's arm until he heard the blond grunt.
"Come now, Larabee. Surely you can do better than that. Would it kill you to scream a little?"
Chris just glared. "Go to hell, Westbrook." His head rocked to the side as the other man's fist connected with his jaw.
"You first, Larabee." Westbrook rose to his feet and aimed another kick at the bound man's side, breaking another rib. He smiled in satisfaction as he walked over to his horse and pulled a canteen from the saddlebags. He took a long pull, then wiped his lips with his wrist. He saw the look of longing in the gunslinger's eyes and grinned as he poured some of the water onto the ground. "Sorry, Larabee, none for you."
Chris turned his head away, silently cursing himself for letting Westbrook get to him. He closed his eyes, the heat from the blazing sun only increasing the heat he felt from his own fever. He tried to twist out of the ropes binding his wrists, wincing when the movement caused the bullet still in his shoulder to scrape against the bone. He stopped when he heard Westbrook approaching.
"It won't do you any good, but you're still welcome to try to escape." Westbrook reached for the spur again and dangled it in front of Chris's face. Then with a malicious smile, he drew it slowly across the gunslinger's left cheek, leaving a thin line of blood in its wake. He drew back for a moment, studying the blond's face critically. "Now that will never do." He quickly jerked the spur across the other side of Chris's face, leaving an identical cut there. "Much better."
Chris felt the blood sliding down his face where it dripped slowly off of his chin. He continued pulling at the ropes on his wrists but only succeeded in tearing the skin, leaving his wrists bloody. He froze when he saw the spur heading for his throat. At first, it barely grazed him, but on the second pass across his throat the pressure increased. On the third pass, the spur broke the skin. Chris closed his eyes, trying desperately not to move. The fourth pass pushed the spur deeper into his throat. He tried to breathe, but the air burned as he inhaled.
The gunslinger barely noticed when the sharp metal was removed from his throat; all of his effort was being put into breathing. He distantly heard the sound of approaching horses, followed closely by gunshots. A heavy weight suddenly fell across his chest, causing him to hiss in pain as his broken ribs ground against each other. He blinked his eyes open long enough to see Vin Tanner standing over him, holding his smoking mare's-leg before he passed out.
+ + + + + + +
The instant that Chris's horse had run into town riderless, Vin had known that something was wrong. With Ezra and Josiah out of town on an errand for the judge and JD needed to guard a prisoner in the jail, Vin had only taken the time to find Nathan before riding out in search of the missing gunslinger. Backtracking Chris's horse had been fairly easy and it only took Vin and Nathan an hour to find him. He caught only a glimpse of the man leaning over Chris before he was forced to duck as a bullet whizzed past his ear.
Vin brought the mare's-leg up almost solely by instinct and fired, striking Westbrook in the chest. He and Nathan both dismounted, only checking Westbrook long enough to make certain that he was dead. They pulled his body up off of Chris, and both men gasped at what they saw. Chris's green eyes blinked up at them blankly before rolling back in his head as he went limp in his bonds.
Nathan quickly knelt next to the gunslinger and placed two fingers against the side of his neck, sighing in relief when he felt a pulse. "Vin, go grab my bag and then cut these ropes off him."
Vin hurried to do as Nathan asked, relieved to have something to do. He brought the bag back and began to gently slice at the ropes binding his friend's bloody wrists. He tried his best not to look at the gash across the blond's throat, but his eyes kept coming back to it. He finally moved away, more for his own peace of mind than to give Nathan room to work. Instead, he began to search Westbrook's body, looking for anything that could be a reason for his kidnapping Chris.
His breath caught when he found the wanted poster with his face on it. He glanced back at Chris, his eyes lingering on the blood covering the blond's throat. He took the poster and shoved it under his coat before walking slowly back to Nathan. "How is he, Nate?"
Nathan didn't look up from where he was bandaging Chris's throat. "I'm not sure yet, Vin. He's still alive, but he's got a bullet still in him that's causin' a fever. If I can keep his throat clean it should heal..." The healer trailed off, not wanting to voice his suspicions aloud.
Nathan sighed. "But, I'm not sure what kind of damage he may have that I can't fix. He may not be able to talk again. And there may be side effects from that graze he took to the head."
Vin could still hear Nathan's voice echoing in his head as he carefully pulled Chris's unresponsive body up into the saddle in front of him. They rode slowly back to town, and while the blond's head would toss feverishly on Vin's shoulder, he never made a sound or opened his eyes.
By the time they finally rode into Four Corners the fever had firmly taken hold of the gunslinger. He shifted restlessly in Vin's arms as the tracker tried to keep him steady in the saddle. Vin slowly pulled Peso to a halt, desperately hoping to hear some sound escape his friend's throat, even if it was only a moan of pain. He was only vaguely aware of Buck racing from the saloon to help Nathan ease Chris down from the saddle and over to the clinic.
Time seemed to pass without the tracker's notice. He found himself standing in Nathan's clinic, holding Chris down as the blond man thrashed in his fever. Even as the gunslinger finally stilled and Nathan began to search for the bullet still lodged in the back of his shoulder, Chris never made a sound. Once Nathan had removed the bullet and stitched the wound, he moved to the identical cuts down the blond's face.
Nathan glanced over at Vin, who looked nearly as pale as Chris. "Vin, sit down before ya fall down. I don't need two patients."
Vin slowly sank into a chair, pushing it back against the far wall. "It's all my fault, Nate. That bastard was after me, an he was just usin' Chris as bait."
Nathan sighed. "Vin, this ain't your fault. Chris would tell ya the same thing."
Vin lowered his head. "Cause of me, he may never get the chance ta tell me anything again."
Nathan turned his attention back to Chris, certain that he wouldn't have any luck in relieving Vin of his guilt. The only man who could was lying still and silent on the bed in front of him. The healer glanced back at Vin for a moment before moving to the slashes in the blond's throat. He gently unwound the bandages, sighing when he saw the damage again. It took everything he had to keep his hands perfectly steady as he stitched, praying that he wouldn't somehow make things worse.
It seemed like hours later that he finally finished and wrapped new bandages around Chris's throat. Nathan looked around the room as he stretched, not surprised to find Vin still sitting exactly as he had been before Nathan started.
"I'm gonna go find Buck and JD, tell 'em how Chris is."
Vin didn't look up, his blue eyes fixed on Chris. "I'll sit with 'em, Nate. Why don't ya go get somethin' ta eat while yer down there?"
Nathan nodded even though the tracker wasn't looking at him. "Okay, but I'll be back in an hour to check on him. Just yell if ya need anything."
"I will. Don't worry, Nate." Vin waited until the door closed behind Nathan to move his chair closer to the bed. His voice cracked as he leaned down so that he could speak directly into Chris's ear. "I'm so sorry, cowboy. And I'm gonna make sure ya get better. I swear to ya, cowboy, yer gonna get better. On my name as a Tanner." As the final words passed his lips, Vin lowered his head and finally let the tears fall.
Vin jerked his head up after only a moment when he noticed Chris moving slightly. He put a hand against the gunslinger's forehead, hissing when he felt the heat from the fever. His heart lurched when he saw the blond's lips moving, silently calling his name over and over. He reached for the damp cloth and bathed Chris's face and neck, carefully avoiding the bandages.
"Yer gonna get through this, cowboy. Ya just gotta take yer time and get better." Vin kept talking softly to Chris as he tried to cool his skin, hoping that his voice would reach the gunslinger and convince him to wake up. He only glanced away for a moment but when he looked back, a pair of confused green eyes were blinking up at him.
Vin felt a smile tugging at his lips when he realized that the blond was awake. "Hey, pard. How're ya feelin'?"
The gunslinger frowned, his lips moving as he tried vainly to speak. He grimaced as pain lanced through his throat, then moved up to pound behind his eyes. He glanced around the clinic for a moment before closing his eyes again, giving in to the exhaustion pulling at him.
Nathan walked through the door only a moment later. "How's he doing, Vin?"
Vin glanced up at the healer, hope shining faintly in his eyes. "He woke up for a minute, Nate. He still couldn't talk, but he was awake."
"That's a good sign, Vin. It means he's got a better chance of getting though this." Nathan walked over to the bed, placing a hand on the gunslinger's forehead. "Feels like his fever's not getting any worse. Once it starts going down, he'll be over the worst of it." He turned his attention back to the tracker. "Why don't ya go down and get a drink, Vin? Maybe somethin' to eat, too."
The tracker shook his head, his eyes never leaving the blond's still form. "No thanks, Nate. I wanna be here when he wakes up again."
Nathan sighed, silently cursing the stubborn tracker. "All right. But when I tell ya to eat, you will. And when I tell ya to get some rest, you will or I'll kick you out and not let ya back in. You got that, Vin?"
The tracker nodded, a small tired smile curling his lips. "Whatever ya say, Nate."
The healer snorted. "Sure, ya say that now. Wait 'til I tell ya to do something."
It was several hours later before the gunslinger slowly opened his eyes again. Vin was sprawled asleep in a chair, his booted feet propped up on the edge of the bed and crossed at the ankles. He suddenly jerked awake, his eyes going immediately to the figure on the bed.
"How ya feelin', cowboy?" Vin pulled his chair closer to the bed, frowning when he saw the confusion in Chris's green eyes. "What's wrong, pard?"
Chris opened his mouth to speak, then closed it when he remembered the pain that had accompanied his last attempt. Instead, he slowly mouthed three words that had Vin's blood running cold.
'Who are you?'
Vin took a deep breath, trying not to panic. "Ya don't remember me, cowboy?" All his hopes crumbled as the blond head slowly shook, an apology in the green eyes. "What do ya remember?"
Chris frowned for a moment, then shook his head again and mouthed a single word.
Vin tried to put his fears and guilt aside and smile reassuringly at Chris. "Try not ta worry about it, cowboy. It's prob'ly just that graze ya took ta the head."
Chris nodded, wincing when the pounding behind his eyes grew worse. He glanced down, finally noticing the bandages around his wrists as well as his upper arm and stomach.
This time Vin couldn't hide the guilt that filled his blue eyes. "Somebody was usin' ya as bait for me. He's the one who messed up yer throat, too."
The blond frowned, trying to remember any of what the younger man was telling him had happened. But all that his mind could come up with was a deep-seated feeling of trust. His eyes blinked tiredly and he mouthed three more words before sliding back into a healing sleep.
'Not your fault.'
The blond had only been asleep for an hour when Nathan entered the clinic with Buck right on his heels. "Nate, I only wanna know how he's doing."
Buck and Nathan both froze when Vin suddenly hissed at them, the finger over his lips warning them to be quiet. "He woke up earlier for a few minutes, but just got back ta sleep."
The healer walked over to the bed and put his hand on the blond's forehead, nodding in satisfaction when he felt the cooler skin. "How was he when he woke up, Vin?"
Vin lowered his head, refusing to meet the healer's eyes. "Still couldn't talk." He paused for a moment, but finally continued. "And he don't remember nothin'."
Buck swore, only remembering at the last minute to keep it quiet. "What do ya mean, he don't remember?" He quickly swallowed anything else he might have said when he saw the stricken look on the tracker's face. "I didn't mean to yell at ya like that, Vin. It ain't your fault."
"He had my wanted poster in his pocket, Buck. He was after me an' Chris paid the price." The tracker finally looked back up, guilt shining in his eyes. "It was my fault."
Nathan sighed in frustration. "Vin, go get somethin' to eat and some sleep. Come back when you ain't feelin' so guilty."
The healer held up a hand and flashed Vin a glare worthy of Larabee. "You ain't gonna do Chris any good if ya collapse next to him. Eat, sleep, and don't come back up here 'til morning." He allowed his lips to curl up in a smile. "Ezra's idea of morning."
Vin dropped his eyes and rose from the chair. "I guess yer right, Nate."
"Course I am. Now get outa here, Vin." Nathan waited for the tracker to leave the clinic before sinking into the chair by the bed, his smile disappearing as if it had never been there. "This ain't good at all, Buck."
Buck threw his arms up in the air and began swearing, making a conscious effort not to wake the blond in the bed. "Course it ain't good, Nathan. Chris can't talk, he can't remember anything, and Vin thinks it's all his fault. How could it be worse?"
Nathan groaned and dropped his head into his hands. "Ya had ta go and say that, didn't ya, Buck? After everything we've been through, why'd ya go and ask how it could be worse?"
"Sorry, Nathan." Buck fell into the other chair, running a hand through his hair. "How is he really?"
The healer sighed. "I don't know, Buck. I'm no doctor. If his throat don't get infected he should get his voice back, but I can't say anything about his memory. That could come back tomorrow, or not at all."
"Chris ain't gonna be much good without his memory, Nathan. There's too many people in his past that'd come after him if they found out."
The healer shook his head. "Ya think I don't know that, Buck? There's nothing I can do, much as I want to." He glanced over at the still figure in the bed. "It's all up ta him now."
Neither man heard the sharp intake of breath from the other side of the closed door. Vin leaned against the wood for a moment, then turned and headed for his wagon, no longer having any desire to eat.
+ + + + + + +
The next morning Buck was on patrol when he saw the stranger ride up. While there was nothing overly suspicious about the man, wary blue eyes followed him until he entered the saloon. And as soon as JD relieved him, Buck headed for the saloon, determined to make sure that whoever the stranger was, he wouldn't cause any problems for the injured gunslinger.
He found the stranger sitting at Ezra's usual table, a glass of whiskey in front of him. Buck sat down across from him and waited for the stranger to speak.
The blond man took a sip of his whiskey, then turned his attention to Buck. "Something I can do for you?"
He nodded. "Yep. You see, I'm part of the law around here, and it's my job to make sure that nobody causes any trouble." He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. "You're not gonna cause any trouble, are you?"
The other man laughed. "No, I'm not gonna cause you any trouble. I'm actually here to see an old friend of mine."
Buck relaxed slightly, but refused to let his guard completely down. "An old friend, huh? Ya mind if I ask who it is?"
The blond shook his head, a smile still twisting his lips. "I'm looking for Chris Larabee."
That was all it took for the ladies' man to tense back up. "Chris really ain't in the mood for visitors right now. Maybe if ya came back around another time."
Something that looked like genuine concern flooded the other man's brown eyes. "He's not sick, is he?"
Buck felt some of his suspicions leave him, but still was cautious. "He's just not quite himself right now."
"Well, I'm probably gonna be in town for a while yet. Maybe he'll be feeling more himself before I have to leave." He stuck out his hand for Buck to shake. "Matthew Cole."
The lawman tried to remember if he'd ever heard Chris mention that name before and came up empty. "Buck Wilmington. Ya know, I don't think Chris has ever talked about you before. Ya mind telling me how ya know him?"
Matthew smiled, leaning back in his chair. "We met not too long ago down in Texas. He helped me out when I was outgunned, let me buy him a drink, and just disappeared. Never got the chance to really thank him."
Buck was about to respond when he saw Vin walk in and head for the bar. "Excuse me for a minute." When Matthew nodded, the lawman rose to his feet and made his way over to the tracker. "I figured you'd be up in the clinic with Chris, Vin."
The tracker shook his head as he reached for a glass of whiskey. "Nathan kicked me out. Said I came back too early, so I couldn't come back 'til after noon."
The ladies' man put a friendly hand on the tracker's shoulder. "Did he say how Chris was doing?"
Vin gulped his drink and nodded. "Yep. Said the fever was goin' down and his throat didn't look infected." He lowered his eyes. "Still don't remember anything, though."
"Give it some time, Vin. Chris is strong; he ain't gonna let something like this keep him down long."
The tracker tried to smile, but it didn't reach his eyes. "It shouldn't have happened, Buck. He shouldn't be goin' though all this cause of me."
Buck sighed. "How many times do we have to tell you that it ain't your fault, Vin? Even Chris said that it ain't your fault."
The tracker chuckled dryly. "How would he know? He can't remember what happened."
The big man slapped Vin on the shoulder and turned towards the door. "He's gonna say the same thing when he does remember. Maybe you'll listen to him then." Then Buck left the saloon, nodding at Matthew Cole as he walked out the door.
Buck had only made it about halfway to the clinic when he ran into Nathan. "I just saw Vin in the saloon and he said Chris was doin' better."
The healer rolled his eyes. "I told that stubborn cuss to go get some more sleep, not go drink cause he felt guilty. He isn't gonna do Chris any good if he goes and gets himself drunk."
"Don't be too hard on him, Nate." He smiled sadly. "Besides, I don't think ya could be any harder on him than he's bein' on himself." The ladies' man took a quick glance around town, making sure that Vin hadn't come out of the saloon. "How is Chris, really?"
Nathan sighed. "He really is doing some better. He still can't talk, but his fever's getting lower. If he keeps up like this, he ought to be able to get up in a few days. I've done all I know to do. It's all up to him now."
Buck gave the healer a light shove towards the saloon when he noticed the other man yawning. "Go get a drink and take your own advice and sleep. I'll go watch Chris for a while."
The healer smiled gratefully. "Thanks, Buck. He's sleeping right now, but it'd be good for someone to be there when he wakes up."
"Don't worry, Nate. Everything's gonna work out just fine." He waited until Nathan entered the saloon to head for the clinic, never noticing the figure leaning against one of the posts on the boardwalk.
Buck walked into the clinic and grinned when he saw that Chris was awake. "How ya feeling, old dog?"
The blond's eyes narrowed as he tried to remember who the big cowboy was. While he couldn't come up with a name, something about the other man just felt familiar. He shrugged, wincing when the movement pulled on his broken ribs.
The ladies' man could read the confusion in the gunslinger's eyes. "It's okay, Chris. You'll remember everything soon. Your throat feelin' any better?"
Chris shook his head slowly, trying to keep it from pounding in protest at the movement. 'Still burns some.' While he hated being unable to remember anything, he hated his inability to speak even more. He tried to push himself up so that he could sit instead of lying down but his ribs throbbed with his first movement.
Buck moved to the side of the bed and gripped the blond's shoulders, helping to ease him up until he could lean back against the wall. He could easily see the frustration in the other man's green eyes and began telling the blond about his latest lady friend. He had only been speaking for a moment when he heard the clinic door open. In an instant, his gun was up and pointed directly between Matthew Cole's eyes.
Matthew slowly raised his empty hands, a slight smile on his face. "Sorry if I startled ya. But I heard you asking that other fella how Chris was, and I had to come see for myself." He turned his attention to the blond in the bed but didn't lower his hands. "You've looked better, Larabee."
The lawman lowered his gun but refused to holster it. "Pard, this here's Matthew Cole. He says he met ya down in Texas a while back." Even though he directed his words to Chris, his blue eyes never moved from the man in the doorway.
Chris frowned, some instinct telling him that he had seen the other man before but not telling him where or when. He suddenly began coughing, the pain lancing up through his throat and radiating from his ribs pushing the other man completely out of his mind. He leaned forward, one arm trying to brace his ribs against the force of his coughs. The other hand clutched at his throat as he tried to suck more air in despite the burning pain it caused. He dimly felt two pairs of hands on his back but all of his attention was being put into trying to stop coughing.
Though it was only a moment, it felt like forever before his breathing began to even out. The gunslinger still had his eyes tightly shut when he felt a cup pressed to his lips. He opened his mouth and slowly drank the cool water, relaxing slightly as it dulled the burn in his abused throat. He cracked his eyes open slightly, trying to blink away the tears caused by his coughing fit.
"You okay now, pard?" Buck was behind Chris on the bed, helping the blond remain upright while he got his breath back.
The blond nodded, flashing a grateful smile over his shoulder before turning to Matthew who still stood holding the cup of water. "Thank you." While his voice was only a very raspy whisper, the two other men grinned when they heard it.
The ladies' man slapped Chris lightly on the back. "Pard, I don't know if you realize it or not, but ya just talked. This oughta pull Vin up outa that hole of guilt he's dug for himself."
An image of downcast blue eyes flashed into Chris's mind and he shook his head. "Isn't his fault."
Buck chuckled dryly. "Yeah, but you try telling him that." He slid off the bed and helped the blond lean back against the wall again. "Maybe one of these days Vin will figure out that everything ain't always his fault."
"Well, if you two will excuse me, I really oughta get myself a room over at the saloon." Matthew smiled as he held the cup back out to Chris. "But you better drink the rest of this before I leave."
The blond reached for the cup, smiling as he took another drink. "Thanks."
Matthew smiled back before he turned to Buck. "Would it be all right if I came back to see him again later? I don't wanna be in the way."
The lawman glanced over at Chris before he answered. When he didn't see any hesitation in the green eyes, he nodded. "Sure, just make sure one of us is here, too. Just for our peace of mind, ya know."
The visitor stopped in the open door, turning back to look at the two lawmen. "I'll be back after I've settled in," continuing with a grin, he added, "and could you let the others know? I'd like to survive my visit."
"Yeah, I'll tell 'em." Buck waited until the door closed behind Matthew to look back at Chris. "Ya feeling any better now, pard?"
"A little." The blond suddenly found himself doubled over coughing again. He tried to bring the cup of water to his lips but his hand was shaking too much. He felt a warm hand covering his and helping him raise the cup. He greedily drank the water, his coughs only fading as he drained the cup. He smiled weakly at Buck. "Thanks."
The ladies' man walked across the room to get the blond some more water in case he needed it. "Guess ya didn't feel as good as you thought ya did, huh Chris?"
"Guess not." He reached for the cup as Buck handed it to him, sipping more of the water to sooth the burn in his throat. "Still not up to talking much yet." His already raspy voice was now almost inaudible.
Buck took the cup back and helped Chris move until he was lying flat on the bed again. "Ya need to get some more rest, pard. Don't overdo it, or Nate will never let ya out of here."
The gunslinger nodded as his eyes slid shut. His coughing fits had taken up all the energy he had. But he frowned as he fell asleep, still trying to remember just where he had seen Matthew Cole before and why something about the man felt slightly wrong.
+ + + + + + +
Two days later Chris was putting his recovering voice to use. He had tried ordering Nathan to let him out of the clinic, but the healer just told him no. He had tried glaring and growling, but the healer simply crossed his arms and glared back. He was actually preparing to swallow his pride and try begging when Matthew entered the clinic whistling tunelessly.
The other man took one look at the frustrated expression on Nathan's face and the desperate one on the gunslinger's and began to laugh. When twin glares turned on him, he managed to stifle his laughter but not his grin.
"Maybe you'd better let me watch him for a while, Nathan. The two of ya look like you're about to kill each other."
The healer glanced over at Chris, wanting to make sure that the gunslinger would be all right being left with Matthew. Buck had finally relented the night before, saying that it was too much trouble for the peacekeepers to try to watch Chris and Matthew both.
The blond nodded even though the slight feeling of unease was still there. He still couldn't remember anything, but he knew that the other man's name sounded familiar. He just couldn't put his finger on what it was about him that felt wrong.
"I'll be fine, Nathan. Besides, Vin said that he'd stop by after his patrol. Don't worry about me." As the healer nodded and turned to go the gunslinger smiled, partly because Nathan was leaving and partly because speaking no longer sent shards of fire through his throat. If he could only regain his memory and get out of this bed, everything would be fine.
Matthew waited until the healer shut the door behind him to turn back to Chris, his grin transforming into a calculating smirk. "I understand that you want out of here."
The gunslinger's eyes narrowed, his instincts working even without the memories that had created them. "Yeah. Why, you gonna help me escape?"
The other man tucked his thumbs into his gunbelt as he leaned back against the doorframe. "I think I could get ya out of here, if you wanted me to. But I'd have to have ya back before they missed ya too much."
The blond swung his legs over the side of the bed and slowly reached down for his boots. By the time he had them on he was breathing heavily from the effort, but he was determined to get out of the bed. He carefully shrugged into his black shirt, only buttoning it half-way up. Once he was on his feet he had to lean against the wall for a moment while he head stopped spinning, but he was soon following Matthew out the door.
The two men eased down the stairs, then headed around the back way to the livery. They snuck inside, both grinning at how easy it had been. Chris was once again forced to lean against the wall while Matthew tacked up his horse. The other man had said that a short ride was just what the blond needed, and the gunslinger had quickly agreed. And he knew a short ride was all it was going to be since his head was spinning and his ribs were throbbing.
Once the horse was saddled Chris pushed himself away from the wall and waved off Matthew's offer of assistance. He was determined to mount the horse without the other man's help, but quickly realized that it wasn't going to work. He just didn't have the strength yet to swing up into the saddle.
The gunslinger grunted as Matthew suddenly came up behind him and boosted him into the saddle. He glared down at the other man, but he just smiled.
"Ya weren't going to ask for help and they're gonna realize you're missing sooner or later. I figured I'd just save you the trouble."
Chris continued to glare at the other man for a moment before silently admitting that he was right. But the glare returned in full force as Matthew swung up behind him. "Get your own horse, Cole."
The other man just reached around the gunslinger and gripped the reins. "This is my horse, Larabee. Besides, this way I won't have to haul your ass back up in the saddle if ya start feeling worse." He tapped his heels to the horse's sides, managing to get them out of town without being seen.
After they had ridden a little further out, Matthew pulled the horse to a halt. "Ya know, you might want to think about getting some new lawmen here. They didn't even notice us leaving. And they're not gonna notice this, either."
Before Chris could ask the other man just what he meant by that, something struck the side of his head. He lost his balance, falling limply to the ground. He managed to roll to his knees but Matthew was suddenly next to him, kicking him in his already sore ribs. The air rushed from his lungs leaving him gasping on the ground. He froze when he felt the barrel of a gun pressed against the back of his neck.
"Say good-bye to your friends, Larabee. You're not going to live to see them again." The gun barrel was removed for an instant and then the butt of the gun connected with his head again, sending him spiraling into darkness.
+ + + + + + +
Vin slowly walked up the stairs to the clinic, not wanting to face Chris while the blond still had no memory. A small voice in his head was constantly telling him that the gunslinger's injuries weren't his fault and that he couldn't have known about Westbrook, but he wouldn't listen to it. The image of Chris when he and Nathan had found him, blood covering the gashes in his throat, plagued him both at night and during the day. Every time the tracker closed his eyes he could see it, until he finally decided that it was nothing more than he deserved. After all, Chris had been forced to live through it. It was only fair that Vin be forced to watch it.
The Texan called out before he opened the door, not wanting whoever was watching Chris to shoot him. He poked his head around, blue eyes taking in the empty bed. A quick glance around showed that the whole room was as empty as the bed. Vin's eyes narrowed when he saw the chair that the blond's clothes had been in earlier. The black shirt and boots were nowhere to be seen.
"Ah, hell." He turned and stormed out the door, calling for Nathan as he descended the stairs.
The healer came running out of the saloon with Buck only a step behind. "What's wrong, Vin? Is Chris...?"
The tracker's voice was a low growl as he spoke. "Chris has up and disappeared. He ain't in there, Nate. Who was 'posed ta be watching him?"
Even with the healer's dark skin, his blush was visible. "I left him with Cole. Chris said it would be okay, and that it'd only be 'til you came by."
"Damn. I knew I didn't like that fella." Vin sighed then instantly took control. "Buck, go check on Cole's horse. If'n he ain't in the livery, then we ride out cause that bastard's prob'ly got Chris."
The ladies' man rushed away, cursing under his breath. He should have known better than to let them leave Chris with somebody they hardly knew, even if the gunslinger had said it was all right. But he had trusted the blond's instincts even though the man was still without his memory, and it looked like that had turned out to be a big mistake.
It only took a moment for Buck to see that Cole's horse was no longer in the livery. He headed back to the others, dreading having to tell Vin that he was right. But the tracker just nodded and set off, tacking up Peso and swinging into the saddle. "The two of ya keep checking 'round here in case we missed something. I'm heading out after 'em, and I ain't coming back without Chris."
+ + + + + + +
Chris groaned as he slowly moved towards consciousness, pain spiking through his head. He blinked his eyes open, wincing as the light made his head pound even more. He shifted, frowning when he heard a clanking coming from the general vicinity of his leg. He managed to push himself up onto one arm and he groaned when he saw the manacle around his left ankle. He followed the chain up, cursing when he realized the other end was locked around a large tree.
"So, you're finally awake. I was afraid I'd hit you too hard."
The gunslinger bit back a grunt as he looked back over his shoulder towards the other man. The sense of familiarity was stronger and as the other man broke into a sly smile, the memories came rushing back. The green eyes narrowed as he glared up at his captor, the man who had been calling himself Matthew Cole. "Morgan, what the hell are you doing?"
The other man grinned delightedly. "Ah, you remember. Good. It wouldn't have been any fun to kill you if you didn't know who I was."
"Oh, I know who you are, Morgan. How the hell did you get out of jail?"
Morgan slowly walked around the gunslinger, always staying just out of reach. "It wasn't too hard. Now finding Matthew, that took a while." His lips twisted up into a mocking smile. "I enjoyed killing him, and you weren't anywhere around to save him that time. Then I started looking for you. You're not an easy man to find, Larabee."
Chris just continued glaring. "If I'd known you were looking for me, I'd have sent you an invitation. Now what do you want, Morgan?"
The other man smoothly pulled his pistol, aiming it right between the blond's eyes. "I want you to die, Larabee."
Chris glanced down at the chain around his ankle then back up at his captor. "You want to kill me when I'm chained to a tree? I always thought you were stupid, Morgan, but I never took you for a coward."
The other man just smiled. "I'm not a fool, Larabee. You bested me once, and even in your condition I'm sure you could do it again." He lowered his gun slightly and fired, striking the blond in the shoulder. "And I do hate to take chances."
"Well, ya took one stopin' here and it backfired on ya."
Morgan glanced over his shoulder and his brown eyes hardened when he saw Vin standing behind him, the mare's leg aimed at his back. He wasn't sure how he had missed hearing the tracker sneaking up on him, but he was determined not to give up the advantage.
"It hasn't backfired on me yet, Tanner. I can still kill Larabee, even if you do manage to shoot me." Then without warning he whirled around, dropping to his knees and firing his gun once again. This time the bullet tore high into the tracker's chest, the force knocking Vin onto his back in the dust.
Chris lunged forward, the chain pulling taut as he reached for Morgan. He managed to hook his fingers in the collar of the other man's shirt and jerked him backwards, silently cursing when the gun dropped just out of his reach. He fell back when Morgan painfully gripped the wound in his shoulder, his breath hissing between his clenched teeth. His vision blurred when he was slammed back against the tree, his head connecting sharply with the trunk.
Then Morgan's hands were around his still-healing throat, cutting off his air. The gunslinger's lungs began to burn and spots began to dance in front of his eyes. Only a moment before he would have blacked out the pressure at his throat suddenly disappeared. He fell forward, landing on hands and knees. As he gasped for breath, he managed to raise his head as he sought out his friend. Despite his wound, Vin lay on his back, trying to fend off the other man's attack. Morgan was choking the sharpshooter, and Tanner was trying to pry the man's hands from his throat.
The blond ignored his still spotty vision and the pain in both his throat and shoulder and lunged, determined to pull Morgan off the tracker. He managed to reach far enough to grab the other man's belt before the chain began to pull painfully on his ankle. Out of the corner of his eye Chris saw the forgotten pistol, almost within his reach. He yanked on Morgan's belt, pulling him off of Vin. Then he reached for the gun.
No matter how far he stretched, his fingers could only barely brush the butt of the gun. He risked a glance over at Vin, quickly realizing that the younger man was unconscious. Then his eyes lit up when he saw the tracker's mare's leg, still within his reach. He threw himself sideways, coming up short when something jerked back on his left leg. A look over his shoulder showed the gunslinger that Morgan had changed tactics and was reeling him backwards by the chain.
Chris dug the heel of his right boot into the dirt, bracing himself as he lunged forward once more. He dimly heard the other man curse as the chain was yanked out of his hands but all the blond's attention was focused on the mare's leg. He grabbed it just as the other man renewed his grip on the chain and began pulling again. The blond flipped onto his back as he slid backwards, an unholy grin on his face as he aimed the gun at Morgan.
The other man glared at him. "I'll see you in hell, Larabee."
Chris pulled the trigger, watching as Morgan fell back against the tree and then slid limply to the ground. "You first, Morgan." The gunslinger started to move to check on Vin, but quickly realized that the chain wouldn't stretch that far. So he gingerly pulled himself to his feet, wincing as the movement sent shards of pain through his head and his shoulder. He walked over to Morgan and knelt, favoring his left ankle. He checked the dead man's pockets, sighing in relief when he found the key to the shackle. He quickly unlocked it, then pushed himself back to his feet and went to check on the unconscious tracker.
Bruises were already starting to form around Vin's throat as Chris knelt on the ground next to him. The blond quickly checked the bullet wound, biting off a curse when he realized that the bullet was still lodged in Vin's chest. He let out a shrill whistle and sighed in relief when he saw Peso trotting up to them. He rose to his feet, ignoring the protests from his ribs and ankle. He reached for the horse's bridle and pulled until he and Peso were nose to nose.
"Listen up, mule. I am in no mood for any of your antics, so just behave 'til we get back home, okay?" He pulled back, smiling slightly when Peso nodded. "I knew you were a smart horse, boy. Now let's get that stubborn master of yours up in the saddle."
He dropped back down to his knees and pulled the limp tracker into his arms. He managed to pull himself upright, almost losing his grip on Vin as his ankle tried to give way under him. He glared down at it for a moment before trying to haul the Texan into Peso's saddle. Even though the black was unusually still, it still took some time for Chris to balance Vin in the saddle long enough to swing up behind him. By the time both men were mounted, the gunslinger's hair was damp with sweat and his shoulder burned where the bullet had entered.
Chris reached around the unconscious tracker to grip the reins as he tapped his heels against Peso's sides. He bit back a groan as the horse's movements made the bullet in his shoulder rub painfully against the bone. He wasn't sure just how far from Four Corners they were, but he knew they needed to get back quickly. He could feel the heat that was already starting to rise from Vin's skin as the fever began to take hold of him.
He kept his eyes fixed on the landscape, not wanting to see the injuries that the tracker had suffered simply because his friend had come after him. A vehement curse passed his lips as he remembered how trustingly he had followed Morgan out of town. The fact that he hadn't been able to remember anything wasn't an excuse that the blond was willing to accept.
He glanced down at the feverish body in his arms. "Sorry, pard. I really did it this time."
Blue eyes blinked up at him, squinting through both the pain and the sun's glare. "Not your fault, cowboy." Vin's voice was low and raspy, and he flinched slightly when his words burned through his throat.
Chris's lips curled up in a small smile. "Seems that I've been hearing that from you recently, pard. If you're not gonna believe me, why should I believe you?"
The tracker was about to respond when exactly what the blond had said registered and his eyes widened. "Ya remember, Chris?" He suddenly leaned forward in the saddle, dry coughs racking his thin frame. He gripped the saddle horn tightly, trying to simply hold on as pain radiated from his chest. After a moment he collapsed back against the blond, exhausted.
Chris shifted in the saddle in an attempt to make Vin more comfortable. He felt the tracker sigh as the blue eyes drifted closed. He caught sight of the town as they crested a small hill and smiled. The smile turned into an outright grin when he recognized the rider that was making its way towards them.
But his grin faded as his own pain and blood loss finally began to catch up with him. He slumped as far in the saddle as he could and still keep Vin mounted in front of him. A quick tap of his heels assured that Peso would continue on towards Four Corners as the other horse came up alongside them.
"What the hell happened to the two of you, Chris? Where's Cole?"
The gunslinger smiled slightly. "That wasn't Matthew Cole. His name was Morgan James, and he's the guy that tried to kill the real Cole back in Texas." He grimaced as the bullet in his shoulder moved again. "As for us, we got shot, Bucklin. What does it look like?"
Buck glanced down at the unconscious Vin, then back up at a very familiar glare that was quickly losing its heat as Chris slumped even further in the saddle. He edged his horse closer so that he could prop the blond up if it became necessary. "Come on, old dog. Let's get you back to Nate before you fall on your ass and then you can tell us how ya got your memory back."
Chris smiled when he felt Buck's steadying hand on his shoulder despite the slight pain it caused. He and Vin were still alive, if a little worse for wear. He lowered his head and his voice, speaking directly into the tracker's ear. "Let's head home, brother. Let's go home."
+ + + + + + +
A few days later Chris was sitting on the boardwalk, his arm still in a sling. He looked up from his book when Vin sat down next to him, smiling when he saw the matching sling on the tracker's arm. "Nate finally let you out of the clinic or did you escape?"
The tracker just grinned as he leaned back in his chair. "He let me out. Said something 'bout being tired of hearin' me gripe." Vin fell silent for a moment and his smile faded, then he looked up to meet the blond's eyes. "I'm sorry, cowboy."
Chris closed his book and turned to face Vin, one eyebrow arched. "I thought we went over this already, Tanner. You have nothing to be sorry for."
Vin smiled, some of the twinkle reappearing in his blue eyes. He raised his good hand, one finger pointing towards his head. "I know that up here. It's just the rest of me ain't quite so sure yet."
The blond leaned back, his own good hand making its way to lightly clasp the tracker's shoulder. "Give it time, Vin. And then we'll both feel better about the whole sorry mess."
Vin glanced up, meeting the green eyes of his best friend. He just looked for a moment in silence, finally smiling at what he saw there. "Thanks, pard." He glanced back down, his smile turning slightly shy. "So, is this what havin' a brother's like?"
Chris smiled back, patting the tracker's shoulder. "Yep, I reckon it is, Vin. I reckon it is."
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