The Last Three Bullets
Larabee leaned against the side of the wagon and took a deep breath. Hurting a friend, even when it was for his own good, was not easy. It was just the kind of thing Nathan did every day, he realized and Chris's respect for the healer increased.
Chris was just getting ready to turn back to the group, when dust on the horizon caught his eye. "Cole!" he called urgently.
"I see it," Cole replied. "Parker," he called. "Drive the wagon."
Mrs. Rawlings opened her mouth to protest, but it died unspoken at the urgency she could see on his face. Instead she tied the reins off and climbed into the back of her wagon. Parker hastily tied his mount behind the wagon and climbed into the driver's seat and took up the reins. "Yah!" he cried and slapped the horses' rumps with the reins to get them moving.
Burke took point and Bent and Cole took up positions on either side of the wagon. Chris brought up the rear. They'd just spotted a small way station that looked to be abandoned, when the renegades burst over the top of a rise, howling and shooting.
"YAH! YAH!" Parker shouted and slapped the horses with the reins madly.
Bent flew backwards off his horse. His eyes stared unseeing at the sky and they knew he was dead. Chris was firing over his shoulder, and Cole dropped back and began shooting with him.
Cole dropped back to where Chris had turned and was firing at the renegades and shouted over the din. "Get to the house. It's our only chance."
Chris nodded and urged his horse on, when a scream from Mrs. Rawlings got his attention. Parker had been hit and dropped the reins, before tumbling off the side. The wagon careened wildly, before flipping onto its side. Larabee hastily reined his horse in and jumped down beside the wagon. Cole stopped short and began firing furiously at the approaching Indians. Mrs. Rawlings climbed woozily to her feet and immediately called out, "Patricia."
"We're alright Ma," the girl called out, somewhat shakily.
Chris reached out and pulled the canvas back and hurriedly pulled Vin to his feet, ignoring the cry of pain his friend gave. Cole reached a hand down and Patricia grabbed it and he quickly hauled the girl up. Chris threw Vin unceremoniously over his shoulder and Mrs. Rawlings hoisted her skirts. They turned and ran blindly towards the safety of the way station. Burke was already inside, firing madly at the howling mob bearing down on them.
Cole reached the house and jumped down off his horse, and quickly pulled Patricia down. "Get my saddle bags," he ordered, the moment the girl was on her feet. He immediately turned and began firing.
Patricia took the saddlebags off Cole's horse, before letting the terrified beast go and hurrying into the house. Mrs. Rawlings and Chris ran into the open doorway, just behind her and Cole dived into the doorway. Mrs. Rawlings slammed the door shut behind him. The Indians abruptly wheeled and galloped away from the shack.
"Have they gone?" Mrs. Rawlings asked hopefully.
"Not likely ma'am," Cole spoke. "More like they're gonna powwow a bit, as to how they're gonna take us."
"Oh," Patricia gasped and began to cry. Her mother immediately hugged her and began whispering to her.
Chris looked around and spotted a dusty cot in the far corner of the room, and laid a softly moaning Vin on it.
"Sorry pard," he said and patted Vin's shoulder. Vin moaned softly and tossed to and fro, seemingly oblivious to Chris's words.
Mrs. Rawlings patted Patricia's cheek and smoothed the girl's hair back and gave her a quick hug, before turning to Chris. "Mr. Larabee, why don't you let me take care of him. I'm sure Mr. Cole could use your assistance." She smiled and laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
"Thank you," Chris said taking her hand and squeezing it. With one final glance at Vin's fevered body, he turned to Cole. "How are you fixed for ammunition?" he inquired.
"Well now, funny you should mention that," Cole said with a grin. "Little lady, I'd be obliged if you'd gimme them saddlebags," he requested of Patricia.
She handed them to him and he laid them on the rough table. Opening one, he took out a bottle of whiskey and took a long swallow and handed it to Chris, with a grin. Chris also took a drink and walked to where Burke was standing guard at a window and handed him the bottle. Whatever misgivings Chris had about Burke, right now they were on the same side. Burke took a healthy swallow and then handed the bottle back to Chris, with a gruff, "Much obliged."
"Gentlemen, I hardly think drinking is the best course of action right now," Mrs. Rawlings spoke up.
"Can't think of a better time for it, ma'am," Chris said and handed her the bottle. "You can clean out his leg with it," he informed her and turned back toward Cole.
"Much as I appreciate a good drink, right now, I'm thinkin' you boys might rather have these," Cole said and pulled two boxes of shells out of his saddlebags. He tossed them to Chris.
"I like the way you think," Chris said with a grin and loaded his rifle from one box. He opened the other and filled his pistol and then stepped over to Burke and clapped him on the back and motioned for him to reload, while he took up the other man's position at the window.
"Do you think they're gone, Mr. Larabee?" Patricia asked hopefully and laid a hand on his arm.
"Huh?" Chris started, not having realized the girl was so close. "Oh, no ma'am. They're parleying some and then they'll come back." He glanced at Mrs. Rawlings helplessly, when he realized Patricia was close to tears.
Mrs. Rawlings smiled at him. "Patricia, be a good girl and see if the pump works," she said smoothly and pointed to the corner where a cobweb-covered pump and sink stood.
"Alright Ma," the girl answered in a trembling voice.
"Thanks," Chris said relieved at her intervention. He could face down an angry lynch mob, or a band of renegades out to separate him from his hair, but a teenaged girl on the verge of tears was beyond him.
"It works!" Patricia called excitedly, fears apparently forgotten, at least for a moment. She reached down and tore a strip off her petticoat and rinsed it out, before handing it to her mother. Mrs. Rawlings immediately began wiping Vin's sweat-soaked face.
"Larabee!" Cole had taken up a position at the window on the opposite side of the door, and Burke was now aiming through the rifle slot in the door.
"Here they come," Chris yelled and began shooting as the horde descended on the tiny house again.
Mrs. Rawlings knelt beside the tracker, holding his hand with Patricia huddled beside her.
The Indians galloped past the firing, before circling around to attack again and again.
The three able-bodied men inside the house defended it valiantly, before Burke cried out and collapsed. Larabee and Cole continued firing, unable to spare even the few seconds needed to check on their fallen companion. Mrs. Rawlings ran hunched over to him. One look at the wound in the center of his chest and his wide-open eyes told her he was beyond help.
"Mr. Burke is dead," she informed them. Patricia gasped and her mother went back to her side.
"They're turning back," Cole shouted over the din.
"Good thing," Chris yelled back and stopped firing. "I'm about out. How many of them shells you got left?"
Cole lowered his own rifle and turned toward Burke's body and took the man's rifle and handgun. He lifted the boxes from the table and dumped out the remaining cartridges. The two men blocked the table's view from the women.
"Eight rifle shells, and twelve for the peacemakers," Cole counted in a low voice. He emptied three more shells from Burke's rifle and two from his handgun. His own handgun was full, but his rifle was down to one shot.
"I got four total," Chris said quietly.
"We can't hold 'em off, next pass," Cole acknowledged glumly.
"You wanna tell 'em?" Chris asked quietly.
"No. If it comes to it, I'll make sure they don't suffer," Cole resolved. He met Chris's gaze steadily.
"Vin too," Chris said softly. The two men glanced at the others before shaking hands solemnly.
Cole carefully loaded three bullets into Burke's handgun and tucked it into the waistband of his pants.
"Mr. Larabee! Mr. Cole!" Mrs. Rawlings called urgently.
"What's wrong ma'am?" Cole asked.
"The Indians, they're pushing the wagon up to the house," she informed them breathlessly and pointed. They could see the wagon, still lying on it's side, but inching closer to the house. They could see the renegades moving behind it.
Cole and Chris exchanged a knowing glance. Their situation had just gone from grave to desperate. Vin began calling out in an Indian dialect and thrashing on the cot. Patricia was trying to calm him, but having little success. Mrs. Rawlings excused herself to help.
"Keep watch?" Cole requested. "Like to have a minute to myself," he said and closed his eyes.
Chris nodded and turned back to the window. He wondered if he'd have the strength to do for Adam what Cole was going to do for his daughter, if he'd gotten there in time to hear the little boy's cries that night? Of all the things he'd wished were different about that night, he'd never wanted that choice. Chris looked over his shoulder at Vin. The tracker had settled some. Mrs. Rawlings was talking to him in soothing tones, and Patricia was holding his hand gently. God, he was grateful he hadn't had to make that choice. He didn't see how Cole was going to be able to do it.
They were only ten yards away now. Chris knew they only had a few minutes left. "Cole!" he called urgently.
"Just a second," Cole called out from where he had sat behind the table on the floor. Chris could tell what he was doing.
"We ain't got a second!" Chris informed him.
Cole climbed to his feet and hurried to Chris's side and looked out the window. Eight yards. A few more feet and they'd be on top of them. "Here," he said and pulled the pistol out of his waist band and handed it to Chris. "Just in case," he said and turned around.
"In case of what?" Chris asked.
"In case I can't make 'em see reason," Cole informed him with a grin. He glanced at Patricia. "Make sure they get where they're goin'" he requested.
Chris saw Cole had a white handkerchief tied around the end of his rifle. "You can't!" he hissed. "They'll kill you."
"Probably," Cole agreed. "See to it, one way or the other?" he requested again.
Chris fingered the revolver Cole had given him. "Either way. If it comes to it, I'll take care of her," he vowed.
Cole nodded and opened the door. The women jumped to their feet protesting. Chris took hold of Mrs. Rawlings shoulder and shook his head. She studied them both for a few seconds and then nodded reluctantly. Patricia simply looked at all three of them confused.
Cole grinned at them all before stepping outside the door, waving the white flag. "Peace. Parley. Peace. Parley," he called out loudly walking slowly toward the wagon.
Chris slammed the door behind him and aimed his rifle through the slot. He'd kill Cole himself, before he let them torture him. Mrs. Rawlings and Patricia watched horrified through one of the windows.
"Parley," Cole called out again and disappeared behind the wagon. They couldn't see him, but they could hear the howls and the sounds of a violent struggle behind the wagon. Mrs. Rawlings pushed Patricia's head down onto her shoulder.
Suddenly the tiny house was rocked with an explosion. Instinctively all three people looking out ducked. When they straightened up, the first thing they noticed was how eerily silent it was. The wagon had been torn in two. Smoke billowed around it and a few flames flickered on small pieces of charred wood lying around. Bodies littered the ground behind what was left of the wagon.
"Stay here," Chris ordered and opened the door, pistol in hand. He peered around cautiously, until he was satisfied that none of the renegades had escaped the blast. He picked his way through the wagon debris. A horrific scene awaited him. Everyone including Cole was obviously horribly dead.
Chris turned to let the women know that they were safe, when something caught his eye. He bent down and retrieved what was left of the rifle Cole had tied his handkerchief to. The barrel had exploded. Chris knew what had happened. Cole had packed it full and then pulled the trigger, sacrificing himself, but saving the people in the house. Chris knew why he'd done it. He would have given anything to be able to trade places with Adam. Chris just regretted that the girl inside would never know why Cole had done what he'd done.
Chris dropped the rifle and went back to the house. Mrs. Rawlings and Patricia looked at him hopefully. He shook his head sadly. He started to speak, to say he didn't know what, when a moan from the cot caught all of their attention. Vin had started tossing restlessly on the bed. He was calling out in what Chris thought was a mix of Spanish and some Indian dialect. He thought he heard the names Henry and Graciella, but he wasn't sure. All he was really sure of was that Vin was hurting badly.
"Mr. Larabee!" With a start, he realized Mrs. Rawlings was calling him. The strain of the last two days was catching up to him, he realized.
"Sorry," he apologized sincerely. When this was over and they were safely back in Four Corners, Chris intended to get himself good and drunk. Right now, Vin needed him and there was the matter of the dead men to deal with.
Mrs. Rawlings felt Vin's forehead. "He's burning up," she informed them needlessly. "Mr. Tanner's got a very difficult battle ahead of him. She pulled a chair over to Vin's bedside. "Mr. Larabee, can you move that table closer please," she requested. "Patricia, I need some water and clean bandages." The woman took charge in a manner that suggested Chris that she would brook no argument in this.
"Yes ma'am," he replied meekly and dragged the heavy table within her reach.
"Thank you," she replied, as she picked up the rag from the bed and began wiping Vin's face and neck down again. She didn't bother to look up before speaking. "Can you please see what you can salvage from the wagon? I need clean bedding, bandages, and soap if you can find it," she requested. "Oh and see if you can find my sewing kit," she added softly and this time she did look up. "We'll need it later," she said, more hopeful than confident that they would indeed need the kit in the days ahead.
Chris resolutely brushed aside the empathy he felt for Vin at the thought of reopening the wound. This was no time to get soft. And, it was better than dying from infection or losing his leg. "I'll see what I can find," he said and laid his rifle and the pistol Cole had given him, "just in case" on the table. Patricia found a battered metal pot and cleaned it as best she could under the pump. When she was satisfied, that she'd removed as much of the dust and cobwebs from it as she could, she filled it half full and carried it to the table. Mrs. Rawlings immediately rinsed the now warm rag in the cool water. She was gratified when Vin sighed softly and calmed some when she laid it on his forehead.
"Thank you dear," she smiled and squeezed the girl's hand.
"I'll go help Mr. Larabee find the bandages," Patricia offered.
"NO!" Mrs. Rawlings spoke sharply and pulled her daughter's hand closer to her. Patricia looked startled and as if she was about to cry. "I'm sorry dear." Her tone softened and she loosened her grip on Patricia's hand. "But you don't need to see what's out there."
It took only a few seconds for Patricia to realize what her mother was talking about. Before Mrs. Rawlings's eyes it seemed, her girl grew up. Patricia gave her mother's hand a squeeze and let it go before drawing herself up to her full height. "There's things in here I don't need to see also, Mother. I've seen more things I never needed to see in the past two days, than I hope to see again. And, I'm very much afraid that if Mr. Tanner's leg gets any worse, I'll see more. I'm not a child. I know what's likely to be outside. But, I won't stand here and let a good man die, because I'm too squeamish to look at men who are already dead." She raised her head and met her mother's eyes, ready to dispel any argument.
Instead she was surprised when Mrs. Rawlings got to her feet and hugged her tightly. "You're a fine woman," the older woman told her emotionally. "Now go on and help Mr. Larabee," she said and wiped away a tear, before turning back to Vin.
+ + + + + + +
Patricia stepped out onto the wooden porch and took a deep breath and steeled herself for the sight she was about to see. Chris heard the door open and looked up from where he was poking about the ruins of the wagon.
"You shouldn't be here, Miss," he told her.
"My mother already tried to tell me that. I'll tell you what I told her. I'm not going to watch Mr. Tanner die when there's things I can do to help." The look of determination she gave him had him grinning in admiration.
"I'll say this, you've got as much grit as your ma." He pointed to a pile of debris a few yards from the wagon. "See what you can find?" he requested. "Look for your ma's sewing kit," he added as an after thought.
Patricia nodded and immediately started poking through the ruins of their belongings. She found a chest that was about a foot high and two feet long and squealed excitedly. "Look, it's not damaged at all." She lifted the lid and drew out some fine linen napkins and a large tablecloth. "Bandages!" she cried excitedly, seemingly unaffected at the loss of their things.
Chris had to smile at her enthusiasm. He only hoped Cole somehow knew what a truly fine daughter he had. He broke off a piece of the wagon side for easier access and was thrilled to find the bedding Patricia had made up for Vin. A narrow mattress, which except for being scorched across the bottom third was relatively clean and undamaged. A jumble of blankets and clothing was lying in a heap and Chris picked out two warm blankets that looked reasonably clean.
"Take these," he said and handed the blankets and a small pillow he'd spotted to Patricia. He closed the lid on the chest and picked it up and carried it into the house, Patricia trailing after him. He went back to the wagon and he was about to take the mattress and go, when Vin's hunting knife in its sheath caught his eye. He picked it up and then grabbed the mattress. Carrying it over his shoulders, he took it into the house. He laid it across the table. Patricia was already back outside, searching through the wagon again.
"I'll get a fire going," Chris informed Mrs. Rawlings, who continued to bathe Vin's face and neck with the cloth.
"I'll need something clean to open the wound," she told him unnecessarily.
Patricia returned with a large pot that had a huge dent in it, but didn't look like it would leak, a cake of lye soap wrapped in a cloth, and the sewing kit. She put the sewing kit aside and then she washed the pot and filled it half full of water and Chris put it on the stove, that was thankfully still functional. He didn't think it had been too long since the place had been abandoned. Finally, he unsheathed Vin's knife and dropped it into the pot.
"Mr. Larabee, could you lift him up please?" Mrs. Rawlings asked, having seen that Chris had finished with the things they were going to need to treat Vin's leg.
Chris lifted Vin off of the dusty cot, as carefully as he could. But Vin still cried out in pain. His eyes opened halfway and he looked at Chris dully. "Hurts," the tracker whispered simply, before his eyes closed again.
Chris had to swallow hard before he was able to answer. "I know pard. We're gonna fix your leg up real soon. Just hang on a little while longer, ok?"
Vin didn't open his eyes, but his mouth worked like he was trying to say something before he went limp in Chris's arms. Chris was terrified for a moment, until he saw the pulse beating much too quickly in Vin's neck.
"You can put him down now Mr. Larabee," Mrs. Rawlings said softly and touched Chris's arm.
She'd spread the linen table cloth down over the old dusty mattress, making a clean bed for Vin to lie on.
"Thanks," Chris said simply. It didn't seem adequate for everything she'd done- and would still do- for Vin, but it was all he had.
"I thought we'd save the mattress for after we- well, for later," she said.
"Good idea," he agreed. "I'm gonna do something about Burke and the others," he said simply and picked up the dead man from where he'd fallen. He knew that come dark, scavengers would be at the bodies, unless he found some way to deal with them. He carried Burke out and looked around. There was a barn across the yard, and he took the man there. He laid the man's body down and pushed on the structure. It was sound, even if it looked as though a strong wind would blow it over. There was a cross beam on the door, that Chris figured would hold out coyotes or anything else likely to be after the bodies.
Chris put Burke into the barn. It took him almost an hour to get the rest of the bodies inside. Eleven men counting Burke and Cole and Chris couldn't help but be angry at the waste of it all. He lowered the bar across the door and hoped it would hold. It would have to do. It was the only thing he could do for them. Chris backtracked, kicking dirt over the grisly trail left behind by the dead men as he went.
Chris reentered the house, wiping his hands on a shirt he'd found. His eyes immediately took in the changes that the women had wrought while he was gone.
Vin was still lying on the bed, but he was deathly still. His clothes were lying in a filthy, bloody, heap on the floor at the end of the bed. Another clean linen tablecloth covered his lower body. Chris looked at Mrs. Rawlings in surprise when he realized that while the clothes were still dirty, Vin wasn't. They'd obviously washed him from head to toe. He only hoped that the tracker never found out.
"Don't look so shocked, Mr. Larabee," Mrs. Rawlings said smiling and hugging Patricia's shoulders. "We're western women. There's a great shortage of doctors in the west and a great many ways for a man to injure himself. Someone has to look after them when they manage to find themselves one of those ways."
"Ma'am, I'm truly amazed," Chris said and tipped his hat to them both. Patricia blushed fiercely and looked completely flustered. Mrs. Rawlings's expression turned serious.
"We've got to clean out the wound. Everything's ready. I didn't want to start without you. I'm afraid Mr. Tanner may be a bit more than Patricia and I can handle, if he wakes," she said. Pointing toward the sink, she spoke crisply. "There's soap over there."
Chris nodded. He'd heard Nathan talking about how important cleanliness was in a sickroom often enough.
They'd filled the metal bowl with steaming hot water and Vin's knife sat cooling on a linen napkin. One of them, probably Patricia had found another metal bowl. Several napkins soaked in whiskey rested in it. The others were piled neatly on a corner of the table that was still damp from the scrubbing it had obviously been given. The nearly empty whiskey bottle sat close by.
Chris pulled up another chair beside the bed, and Mrs. Rawlings sat in the one she'd occupied earlier. "Think you can help?" he questioned Patricia. The dark look she gave him let him know she was clearly annoyed that he even thought he had to ask.
Larabee took a deep breath and muttered, "Stay out, Tanner" before folding the linen back off of Vin's leg. The dirty bandage was still in place. The area just above and below it were the only parts of Vin not clean. He could feel how hot Vin was.
"We thought it best not to remove it until we were ready," Patricia spoke up.
Chris nodded and picked up Vin's hunting knife and carefully cut off the bandage. He tossed the bandage aside. The tracker's head turned and he mumbled something incoherent, but otherwise he didn't move. Vin's leg was even hotter then the rest of him. The smell emanating from the wound was awful, but Chris was grateful to see that it was only red and inflamed. It hadn't turned yet. If they were thorough and very lucky, they'd save his life- and his leg.
"I'm gonna open it up now," he informed them. "Let the poison out. "Then we're gonna have to clean it and pack it good. Can't stop, no matter how much he fights. I'll tie 'im down if I got to, but we gotta get all of the poison or he'll end up losing his leg anyway." He didn't think he needed to add, that Vin might well die if they didn't get all of the poison.
Chris poured some of the precious whiskey on another napkin and then wiped off the hunting knife with it. He took a deep breath and set the knife to the wound. None of them were prepared for the scream that Vin let out when Chris cut into his leg. Vin tried to draw up his leg, but Mrs. Rawlings was leaning hard on his lower body. Patricia hastily laid across his lower legs, keeping him from drawing them up, or kicking Chris. Larabee wasn't sure whether he should be grateful or fearful that the two women were able to hold Vin. While it made his job easier, the tracker's weakness was a bad sign.
Pus and stale blood drained out of the wound and Chris let it flow until it seemed to him that the blood was clear. Vin continued to cry out and moan and try to move, until he finally appeared to pass out. Just in time as far as Chris was concerned. They still had to clean and pack the wound and the whiskey would burn like fire.
"Is he dead?" Patricia asked fearfully, when she felt Vin go limp. "No," Chris answered. "Just passed out."
"That's a relief," Mrs. Rawlings said sympathetically. "It's not right a body having to suffer like that."
"Let's hope he stays out, 'til we're done," Chris said. "Looks like most of the poison's out. Can you clean it good, while I hold it open?" he asked Mrs. Rawlings.
Mrs. Rawlings nodded and took one of the clean cloths and dipped it in hot water. She began washing the area around the wound. When Vin's entire thigh was clean, she dropped the rag onto the floor and took one of the whiskey-soaked rags from the bowl.
"Mr. Larabee, perhaps we should change places," she suggested. "Even unconscious he's quite likely to feel this."
Chris nodded and stood up and let her take his seat. He sat down in the chair she'd vacated and prepared to hold Vin down if it was needed. Patricia was ready to put her weight on his legs again. When they were situated, Chris pulled the ragged edges of the wound apart again. Vin didn't tense or struggle and for that, he was grateful.
Mrs. Rawlings wrung most of the excess whiskey out of the rag and hesitantly touched it to the wound. When Vin didn't move, she applied it more forcefully. All three let out breath they hadn't even realized they'd been holding. Patricia stood up and took the soiled bandages and napkins and put them in the sink. Mrs. Rawlings efficiently cleaned out the wound. When she and Chris were both satisfied that it was as clean as was humanly possible to make it, she dropped the rag into the now tepid bowl of water. The last whiskey-soaked napkin was folded and placed inside the wound. Chris wrapped one of the clean dry napkins around Vin's thigh and then used another one to tie it off.
"Let's get the clean bedding under him, while he's still out," Chris said urgently. Vin could wake at any time and it'd be hell on him to be jostled around, however necessary it might be. He lifted his friend off of the now stained tablecloth and the two women worked together to remove the old soiled and dusty bedding and to get the mattress down. Patricia dug a fine lace tablecloth out of the chest and they folded it in half and covered the mattress with it. Chris carefully laid Vin down. They covered him with one of the blankets from the wagon. They'd done all they could. The rest was up to Vin- and God.
Chris stood on the porch smoking a cheroot. It had been three days. They'd salvaged what they could and Chris had stripped the bodies in the barn of weapons and ammunition. They'd cleaned the place up as much as possible and Vin's horse had wandered in. Chris could only hope his horse had found water and graze. What had become of the wagon team or the other horses, he didn't even spare a thought to. They were stuck here until help came or they got close enough to running out of provisions that he had to chance leaving the women and Vin alone. At least Vin would have his mare's leg if it came to it. It was still tied behind Vin's saddle, where Chris had put it after he'd taken it off of Vin.
Not Chris thought that there was much likelihood of Vin being able to fire it anytime soon. Vin had spent the forty-eight of the last seventy two hours in a haze of fever and pain and torment. Delirium had gripped him hard. He'd stayed out most of the time calling out in at least three languages for Henry and Graciella, whoever they were. When he was awake, he was in intense pain, barely able to sip the water or broth they'd made for him.
Finally he'd gone deathly still and they knew he was at a turning point. Either the fever had broken or he'd lost the fight. Chris hadn't been able to bear it and had turned away. If Vin was dead they'd tell him soon enough. His knees had nearly buckled in relief when he'd heard Patricia's girlish laughter. He turned back and found Patricia hugging him and her mother smiling indulgently. He gave into the girl's enthusiasm and hugged her back.
Vin slept most of the rest of the time, but it was a healing sleep. He'd wake occasionally and Chris would help him with his personal needs, while the women fixed warm broth and cool water for him. He'd actually drunk a full mug of the broth and nearly as much water the last time he'd awakened. That had been a few hours ago and Chris figured he was due to wake up again soon.
He threw the end of the cheroot into the yard and was about to go inside, when a cloud of dust on the horizon caught his eye. Something or someone was moving toward the house. Hastily he moved into the house. He closed the door and bolted it. Then he closed the shutters on the two windows in the house.
"Mr. Larabee, what's wrong?" Patricia asked him worriedly.
"Maybe nothing. Maybe something," he answered cryptically and both women came to look out the cross slot of the door.
All three watched the dust cloud grow larger, as it got closer. Finally they could make out men on horseback, but nothing more. After a few tense minutes, Chris exclaimed, "Well I'll be!" and threw open the door.
The women exchanged relieved smiles and followed him. Five men rode toward them, leading a pack mule and Chris's horse. Chris was smiling and relaxed and they knew the men were no threat. He waved and a big man with a thick bushy mustache spurred his horse into the yard ahead of the other three. He slid off his horse and embraced Chris fervently. The two men laughed and clapped each other on the back, before Chris turned to the Rawlings women.
"Ladies, I'd like you to meet Buck Wilmington. He's a no good dirty dog and my oldest friend." He laughed when Buck feigned insult.
"You wound me!" the ladies' man exclaimed and stepped up to the ladies and removed his hat. He bowed ridiculously and swept his hat to one side. Patricia laughed delightedly and Buck took her hand and kissed it gallantly. "Please ladies, ignore everything he tells you. He's just jealous." Buck let go of Patricia's hand and took her mother's hand and kissed it also.
"Where's Vin?" Buck said straightening up, his face suddenly serious. The other three rode up just as Chris answered.
"He's in the house," Chris said and pointed to the door.
"Hurt?" Nathan questioned and dismounted, as did Josiah, Ezra, and JD.
"Yeah," Chris acknowledged. "He was pretty bad off for a while, but the fever broke a while ago and he's been sleepin' easy. Drinkin' some broth too, when he's awake."
Nathan nodded and took his saddle bags into the house while Chris introduced the women to the other peacekeepers.
+ + + + + + +
"Looks good," Nathan said and stood up from where he'd finished examining Vin's leg. "Ya'll did a real fine job."
"Thank you, Mr. Jackson," Mrs. Rawlings replied with a pleased smile.
Buck was flirting outrageously with Patricia, who saw right through him and was flirting back, just as outrageously. It was good to be safe and young again.
The other four were engaged in planning their return to Four Corners. They could fix a travois for Vin behind the mule and take turns riding double, while Mrs. Rawlings and Patricia rode Vin's horse and one of the others. They'd have to wait a few days, until Vin was stronger. In the meantime, they'd bury the men in the barn.
A weak, "Chris" from the tracker got everyone's attention.
Chris took a seat beside him. "Hey pard," he said and put his hand on Vin's shoulder. "How you feelin'?"
"Like I had an arrow in my leg," Vin quipped weakly, his eyelids already drooping. "Water," he requested.
Buck was already filling a mug and handed it to Chris, who lifted the Texan's head slightly so that he could drink. Vin drank half of it, before turning away. Chris handed the mug back to Buck and gently lowered Vin's head back to the pillow. Vin was asleep before Chris pulled the blanket up over his shoulders.
"Long day ahead of us tomorrow," Nathan spoke up. "Gettin' some sleep seems like a pretty good idea.
They all agreed and they spread their bedrolls on the floor and slept.
THREE DAYS LATER Chris looked around at the house, one final time to be sure they hadn't missed anything. They'd left the dishes, and the freshly washed linen napkins. And Buck had contributed a full bottle of whiskey. One day, the little house might be as much of a refuge for some poor soul as it had been for them.
He closed the door and stepped out into the yard. Vin had been settled onto the travois, Nathan's admonition to speak up if he to hurting to bad ringing in his ears. They'd have to watch him for signs that he was hurting themselves. The tracker disliked being fussed over, even when he needed it.
Chris mounted his horse. "Let's ride!" he called out and together they headed for home.
There will be a sequel some year. I don't promise how long it will take or that anyone but The Tanner Triplets will like the plot.
Feedback to: VinTanner2@aol.com