"Little Britches" Universe
Disclaimer: No infringement is intended in regard to The Magnificent Seven, owned by MGM and Trilogy. No profit is being made from this activity.
Thanks: To J. K. Poffenberger and S Berry, the originators of the Little Britches Universe, who have kindly opened it for all of us to play.
Size: Approx 150K
The shot echoed along the canyon walls shattering the early morning silence, leaving Chris Larabee laying face down in the hot New Mexico sand. His shirt was shiny wet and he lay absolutely still. Kneeling beside him, Vin Tanner looked in horror at his blood covered hands, tears running down his face. Voices drifted past him unnoticed. "Is he dead?"
"If he ain't he will be. You want I should kill the kid too?"
"Nah, he ain't going no where by himself, he's too little. They'll both be dead before anyone finds them."
Vin didnt hear the voices around him.
He didnt hear the callous laughter.
He didnt see the men as they took Peso and Pony.
He saw only the crimson blood staining the back of the shirt, seeping from under his fingers where he resolutely pushed the palms of his hands against the ugly wound. He cringed as the man beneath him groaned, uncertain of what he should do. Chris hadnt moved since the blast that had thrown him to the ground.
Vin turned his head at the sound of horses departing, confused and stunned to see the attackers riding away on Peso and Pony. He loved Peso but he would have gladly given him up to save Chris. They didnt have to do this. Tears flowed faster, splattering on to the back of his hands, washing the blood into rivers. He wanted to scream in anger, wanted to scream in fear but only sobs bubbled out.
The wounded man groaned again, dragged to awareness by the quavering voice. He tried to spit the grit from his mouth uncertain at first of why he lay here. The fire in his back was all too familiar. Dizzy and nauseous he tried to roll.
Please, Pa? Vin sobbed.
Chris responded to the choked cry. V...Vin.
Vin crouched down low to view Chris face. The wounded man tried to focus but his attention was diverted to the blood covering Vins sleeves and hands.
Vin. He tried to reach out to the boy but neither limb would obey him, his right arm flopping uselessly far from its intended target. He forced himself over on to his side and tried again, levering himself up awkwardly from the ground.
Dont move, Vin warned. Small hands tried to guide him until Chris finally achieved his aim, leaning back against the rocks hoping the position would apply pressure to the wound. He saw Vins worried gaze swirl before him but the agony in his back exploded and his vision dissolved into darkness once more.
Vin sucked in his breath as Chris head lolled forward. He reached out to touch him, to try to make him comfortable but blood lay wet and glistening all over his hands. He snatched them back unwilling to touch the still face. His face unmarred by blood, Chris merely appeared to be asleep. Swallowing hard, Vin wiped his hands off on his trousers then slowly tilted Chris head to rest more comfortably to the side.
Vin moved away to fetch water, only to remember the horses had been taken along with all their gear. He tried to take slow breaths, settling himself and blinking away another rush of tears. He would have to hope that Peso and Pony were all right but Chris needed him now, only he didnt know what to do. There was no one around, no water and no sound but the feint rustling of insects in the heat. He stared up at the canyon walls, hating himself for wanting to see this place. When the sheriff in Caulder had mentioned the old Indian drawings high on the canyon walls he had begged Chris to take this side trip. His curiosity had caused Chris to be hurt.
Chris remained unmoving so Vin picked up the black hat, dusted it off and settled it on the mans head to ward off the morning sun. He settled against the rock and picked up Chriss hand, weaving his fingers between the larger lax ones. He didnt know what else to do but wait.
The canyon walls provided a strip of shade but as the sun moved high overhead the narrow line of protection drew closer. Soon they would be exposed to the bright sun. The rising heat disturbed Chris, finally causing him to stir restlessly. Vin tightened his grip as fingers slowly moved within his grasp, brushing his palm. Vin sighed in relief at the movement but turned anxiously at the sounds of pain.
Chris knew only heat and agony, groaning as bright light invaded at his first attempt to open his eyes.
The shaky voice called him, awareness flooding in to push back the waves of pain.
Vin covered in blood.
Green eyes snapped open, startled at the proximity of the wide blue eyes as Vin pressed close, staring anxiously.
V...Vin. His tongue felt thick and sticky, moving slowly to form the words he needed. Hurt?
No, Vin reassured him.
They took Peso and Pony. They took the canteens. Vin felt guilty for doing nothing as the men had stolen from them. Im sorry.
Not...your fault. Chris tugged at the bloody sleeve, frowning at the dark discolorations on Vins shirt. Hurt?
No. Its yours. I tried to help.
Slowly Chris pieced together the earlier events. He knew hed been shot in the back but he could see no exit wound. That would mean the bullet was still in there but the fact that he could still take a breath confused him. He could only hope that the bullet was lodged away from his lungs. He hadnt bled to death yet or collapsed a lung so he knew they had to risk moving on to the spring. They couldnt stay here without supplies
Gotta move Vin. Chris attempt to stand only caused the fire to spread and threatened to engulf him in darkness again. That spring is at the canyon end...a mile or so. We need...water.
The sheriff had described the canyon and the marker to the fresh water spring. This had seemed like an ideal journey, stopping at the spring over night then pushing on to the McGinty Ranch the next day. It wasnt so ideal now.
Chris moved slowly to the side, sliding his knees up under him until he could pull himself up on the rocks. Vin tried to help, steadying him and supporting until he was vertical on shaking legs. Chris could already feel the affects of the blood loss, a chill sweeping through him even in this heat. He needed to get Vin to water, to some form of safety.
Chris pulled his hand away as Vin tried to slip in close for support. I wont lean on you. I can manage.
Vin ignored the man, taking Chris hand and placing it on his shoulder, tightening his grip when it moved again. Chris decided to save his energy and let his hand remain there, more for the comfort of touching than to take any weight. He would not lean on this child no matter how strong Vin thought he was. They were a-foot with no water and miles from town. Vin would need all the strength he had to survive so Chris would not take from him. He swayed, straightening again and slowly moved on, one foot in front of the other. He couldnt afford to stumble and fall.
The heat sapped his strength, setting up a pounding rhythm in his head and causing his stomach to roll. He didnt know if it was heat exhaustion, thirst or blood loss but blackness continued to creep in to the edges of his vision, shapes swam in and out of focus. He could see Vins little feet dragging, the sun already coloring pink across his nose and cheekbones. Chris began to doubt the directions as they moved slowly on with no sign of water.
The pair made slow progress, Vin shuffling close beside the wounded man, wary of disrupting their precarious balance. Shifting rocks under unsteady feet finally sent the pair tumbling down to the ground. Chris cried out at the impact, breathing heavily to try to control the pain, to hide what he could from Vin. He didnt know how much further the canyon went, or how much further he could go.
No. We go together.
Chris knew he had to be bleeding as weakness continued to seep through him. Moving slowly, he finally drew himself back to his knees, assisted by Vin to his feet. He didnt think hed be able to do this many more times.
Vin if I fall n you cant wake me go on to the spring.
The spring was off the main trail but the Sheriff had assured him its location was well known. Surely in this arid area any spring would be well visited. Vin would have some chance of surviving and being found if he was near water.
I wont leave you.
Please Vin .promise youll leave me.
Dont fall. Vins solution seemed so simple.
Chris chest tightened and another pain greater than the wound in his back took hold at the dark possibilities. If the worst occurred then he had to be sure that Vin wouldnt try to stay with him. He would not have Vin die out here when the spring was in reach.
Vin...go to the spring...someone will find you.
Vin remained intractable. I wont leave you.
Vin continued with his stubborn refusal. He knew Chris was sick. He knew how bad it was to have spilled so much blood. He stared down at his stained hands. If he left then there would be no one to help Chris. Chris needed water too and he had nothing to carry it back with. They both would get to the spring.
Chris stopped arguing. He knew this child to be stubborn, obstinate and loyal so he focused on the ground before him and took another step. They were in the middle of nowhere, off the trail with no supplies and no horses. If Vin stayed by his side he would surely die in this heat. He had no choice but to continue.
The pair shuffled on. Finally the deep crack in the canyon wall was visible. There, Vin, he pointed shakily.
The canyon walls widened, the crack drawing eyes down to the hollowed out arches that protected the low burbling spring. Vin helped Chris to balance as he eased down against the rocks with a grateful sigh. Both took mouthfuls of the water, splashing handfuls over heated skin.
Chris fumbled with the knot on his bandana and Vin quickly shifted to untie it for him. Chris shuddered and trembled as he lay on his side beside the small rock pool. Vin seemed to understand what was intended, dipping the cloth in the water and squeezing it over the exposed wound. Vin cringed at the groan he brought forth, unsure if he should continue. He couldnt bear the thought of hurting Chris but Nathan always cleaned and bandaged any cuts to make them better. The bandana was too small for a bandage so Vin pulled his shirt over his head.
Chris? The wounded man barely moved and Vin fretted at how hot he was to touch. He knew Chris was getting worse, now barely awake. He folded the shirt over and tied it as best he could to cover the wound, slowly easing the exhausted man onto his back. He wet the bandana again and started to reach once more for Chris, stopping when he saw his own hands, the dark ugly stains clinging in the creases of his knuckles and around his nails.
Chris blood spilled on him.
Chris blood spilled on the ground.
Wiping them harder seemed to make no difference. He tried to ignore it and concentrated on his task, wiping the damp bandana over the heated face.
Chris stirred and opened heavy eyes. His vision was blurred but he could still see the worried frown drawing Vins brows together, teeth gnawing at the bottom lip. Safe here, he tried to reassure the boy.
Youre sick, Vin denied. You need a doctor. Vin knew how little distance theyd actually traveled to reach this spring. Chris couldnt walk back to town.
Chris knew what was coming. No.
I can do it.
I can do it. You need me to.
Chris would not risk this boy walking off into nowhere with nothing. Too far...no water....wait. It was a risk, but Vin could afford to wait here. The Sheriff said that this spring was used by those traveling between the ranches and town. Vin would have a better chance waiting here for help.
Someone might not, Vin argued, kneeling at Chris side.
Chris was torn. He knew he would not survive simply waiting. Fever was taking hold and although the bullet didnt seem to have damaged his lungs he knew hed lost blood, the chills and heat taking their toll. He didnt want to hold Vin to his side only to have him witness his death, perhaps trapped here. But how could he let this little boy head off into nothing, with no protection? No, Vin was strong and resourceful but his best chance was to wait for help. He would just have to hold on.
You cant wait. Vin whispered, bowing his head to rest gently on Chris shoulder.
A hand moved unsteadily to cradle the back of Vins head. Please wait, son. There was no sound but Chris felt the hitched breath of a sob. He didnt intend it for bribe or reward. The word was always due, owed for the faithful love this boy had given him. He returned that love in full but so often he had refused to acknowledge it. Chris understood the reality of his situation and swallowed hard against his own tears, his own regrets. Vin deserved to hear that word more than once. He had deserved to hear it from the beginning.
Please son, its too far. Help will come if you wait.
Vin pulled back to look at this man, to be sure of what he had heard. Son. Vin snuffled and tried to wipe at the tears not realising hed only managed to smear dirt and blood across his cheek. They hadnt been doing anything but looking at the rock pictures. Theyd been having a fun trip and now Chris lay hurt. It wasnt fair. He would not lose again.
Chris swallowed hard, sickness rising in his throat, the heat or wound causing his head to pound. Promise...wait.
Vin wouldnt lie to Chris so he remained silent and formed his own plan. People didnt get better if you waited. He knew all that blood was very bad and now Chris was so hot. Vin crawled in close and pressed dry chapped lips to the heated cheek.
I promise Ill come back.
Chris felt the warm breath across his cheek and tried to open his eyes to reassure Vin but they were weighted too heavily. The touch to his face was so light that it took a moment for it to register, then the whispered words filtered through.
No. Dont do this.
Fear surged through bringing with it enough power to force his eyes open and turn his head. But it was too late as all he could see was the retreating figure.
No...Vin... He needed to shout, he needed to stop Vin in his tracks but the only sound he made was a dry, cracked whisper. He forced himself up to follow but his own wounded body betrayed him, refusing to function as he slumped back to the hard ground.
Determined, Vin turned and began his journey walking confidently back along the canyon floor retracing their previous path. He covered the ground quickly but the sun was high overhead baking the rocks and sending up heat from the ground in waves. He continued on as sweat trickled down his unprotected back to dampen the waistband of his trousers. Finally he reached the canyon entrance only to hesitate. He knew the direction that Caulder lay, nestled at the foot of the distant bluff. But beyond this point the land lay arid, open and daunting. One glance back along the canyon length, knowing Chris waited, strengthened his resolve and he pushed onward. Locating the main trail was simple and Vin moved steadily, confident that the bluff didnt appear to be too far away.
The walk back out of the canyon took longer than expected and soon the sunlight faded. Vin stumbled on in the darkness trying to keep the distant shadow of the bluff before him but finally he gave in to his exhaustion after his third fall. Sleep came slowly as thirst and hunger nagged at him, providing only a brief rest before the grays and pinks of pre-dawn light saw him rise stiffly to his feet to continue his journey.
The confident step of yesterday had slowed to a tired shuffle, the bluff seeming to never draw closer, his feet hot, aching and sweaty in his boots. It felt like hed walked forever but Vin knew the sun was only approaching midday. Squinting against the glare from the red rocks, he trudged on. His head soon pounded and thirst clawed at him. He knew he should rest in the midday sun but Chris was sick and waiting on him.
Vin stumbled again, too tired to lift his feet, scuffing at the loose sandy ground. Hed never been so thirsty. Hed felt hunger before, the gnawing emptiness that could eventually be put aside but thirst like this was new. His dry sticky tongue ran over cracked lips unable to raise any spit. The demand for water just wouldnt go away leaving him unwilling to delay.
Vin looked about him in confusion. He blinked as the landscape faded, suddenly drained of color. Another blink and the sepia browns were replaced with blue skies and red earth. His faltering steps stopped as the landscape washed in and out of color twice more. The horizon spun slowly causing the boy to reel, collapsing to his hands and knees. He wretched painfully onto the dust, no fluids available to even spill on the earth. The pain in his head exploded and he slumped to the ground panting softly.
Bill and Henry had broken horses and ridden fence for the McGintys for more years than either could recollect. This day was the same as any other, scorching sun and dry earth. They traveled back to the ranch from town, well used to moving slowly in the heat of the day.
You see a critter over there? Henry pointed.
Bill squinted into the sun and shrugged. The misshapen pile on the trail was not clear at this distance. Aint movin what ever it is.
Both ambled their mounts closer, neither moving fast under the sweltering sun. Henry had ten years on his companion, his vision identifying the unknown critter first.
Holy mother! he exclaimed, surging forward and dropping down to the dusty pile. Bill, git on over here. Its a boy.
Alive? Bill asked in shock, eyeing the sunburned skin and dried blood.
Henry rolled the boy over carefully but could find no source for the dried blood. Hed obviously been out in the sun for hours, his skin dry, red and parched. Henry upended his canteen on his bandana and wiped down the small face, waking the boy gently to try to get him to drink. He cradled the slight body against his chest, trying to sit him upright.
Come on son, just a few sips. Vin heard the voice but caught only a few words. Son? It was the word he longed for but this wasnt the right voice. This was deep and gruff. He licked his lips, searching for more of the moisture hed felt a few moments ago.
Son? Open those eyes boy.
Vin was exhausted but beneath that lay a slow burning anger at the casual use of that title. He would be a son to only one man. He forced heavy lids upward, a blurry face above him cleared slowly with wide-eyed blinking.
Pa...canyon, Vin tried to explain, stumbling over the words. He felt a dizzying sensation as he was lifted and hoisted high into another set of arms. No...my Pa. His desperate yell was no more than a weak cry, the swirling horizon caused his throbbing head to explode and he slumped into darkness in the strangers sturdy arms.
Bill tightened his hold at the weak thrashing, taking a look at the newcomer. Never seen him. You know him Henry?
Hes a long way out if hes from town. You think hes with others? Maybe a wagon?
Bill glanced around the landscape. A youngun like this wouldnt be out alone. Ill take him back into town and you take a look around.
Henry nodded his agreement, hating to leave anyone stranded out here, especially if they were traveling with children.
Bill didnt travel far on his return journey before help appeared. The plight of Caulders recent visitors had already come to the attention of Sheriff Brady, sending him out onto the trail toward the canyon. The pair of horse thieves had ridden into town confident and careless. Although they had dumped Vins small saddle from Pesos back they had ignored the bridle, not noticing the carefully scribed name across the headband. The hostler recognised it and the cantankerous beast from its previous visit and quickly informed the sheriff of his suspicions. Brady knew the path that Larabee and his son would have taken, having provided the directions himself. He knew Larabee only by reputation but he doubted the man would be parted from his horses without serious trouble having occurred. The addition of a child in the mix only urged the Sheriff onward.
His worst fears were realised as he came upon Bill, the boy still cradled in his arms. Bill waved him on to where hed separated from Henry, the sheriff spurring his horse to move faster in the oppressive heat. The journey through the canyon finally brought its reward. Chris Larabee was found, unconscious, fevered and dehydrated at the spring. His rescuers tried to get at least some precious water down the unconscious mans throat before carefully loading him with Henry for the uncomfortable ride back to town.
Vin didnt remember much between leaving Chris and waking up in a soft bed. He couldnt identify his surrounds and began to struggle against the restraining bedclothes, only to be quieted by soothing words and a spoonful of foul tasting liquid. He fought against the drowsiness to locate Chris but soft hands kept holding him down until the darkness overtook him.
Vin woke slowly and bleary blue eyes roamed the room trying to identify his location. Finally his eyes landed on a familiar sight. Chris lay in the next bed and all thoughts of their location flew from his mind. Chris was alive.
Here you go, young man.
Vin turned to find the owner of the gentle voice was a gray haired, gray eyed woman. Vin took the cup that was offered and sipped at the sweet fluid. Elizabeth Martin had acted as nurse to her husband for over three decades now. She always dreaded to hear that a child was ill but it gladdened her heart to find this one recovering so quickly. The lemon barley water was being quickly drained and she took the empty cup.
Thank you, Maam, he replied politely, just as he had on her previous appearances.
Vin waited until they were alone again until slipping from his bed. Although still listless and drained from the heatstroke he found the bed linens uncomfortable and was determined to rest closer to Chris. The nice old couple had told him a number of times that Chris would be better soon but Vin would wait until Chris could say that for himself. Until then he would try to ignore his headache and the sting from sunburn and remain in the chair by Chris bed. His bed wasnt very comfortable as his reddened skin stung at the pressure so he preferred this arrangement, slumped forward onto the mattress to doze.
The doctor and his wife had returned the child to his own bed a number of times but eventually gave up, surprised at the boys patience and endurance.
Vin was finally rewarded for his vigil as Chris stirred, groaning as he slowly awakened. Doctor Martin moved to his side but Chris turned away from the stranger searching his new surrounds. His eyes alighted on the small face, relieved to find they were both safe and uncaring for the moment of how this had been achieved. Vin inched in closer, knotting a hand in Chris bed sheets almost as if expecting to be dragged away from the man.
The doctor left Vin where he was, working around him to check on his patient. Larabee answered the questions, groggy and barely alert, his attention still held by Vin. Satisfied his patient was on the mend with only a mild fever still to battle the doctor stepped back and allowed them their reunion. He smiled gently as the boy stretched carefully over the bed to nestle close against the mans shoulder, who in turn rested his cheek on the bent head. The silence was filled with relief, joy, comfort and love without a word being uttered.
Doctor Martin turned at the insistent touch to his shoulder, his wife discreetly drawing him from the room.
The first few days passed in a daze for Chris with only blurred recollections of the doctor but the reassuring constant of Vin whenever he woke. Eventually he returned to his senses sufficiently enough for introductions to be made. Chris found he was in the care of Dr Thomas Martin and his wife Elizabeth, both residents of Caulder for many years. The doctor congratulated him, declaring him a lucky man. The bullet had struck his back as he turned, skidding along ribs and lodging between them, tearing flesh and breaking bone but deflected from its original deadly path.
Chris considered himself more than lucky, the bullet being the least of his concerns. Resting comfortably and propped up against pillows, Chris was content to thank luck, God or another higher power for the boy who sat close by his side.
The Sheriff had been waiting anxiously for the Doctor to allow visitors and was finally given permission to take a statement. Mr Larabee
Sheriff, first off, Chris interrupted, his voice dry and cracking from disuse. Thank you for your help. I hear you were already on your way.
Well, thank Joss in the Livery and that black monster of yours. Cant say I did that much. Sheriff Brady waved off the thanks. Now, I wanted to know if you could take a look at these two. Maybe it was personal and they were just too cowardly to face a man such as yourself.
I can look, but I didnt hear them or see them, Chris warned him.
Vin had moved away from the bed when the Sheriff entered but now his curiosity was roused. Why would they hurt you if you knew em? Vin asked from his chair in the corner. Didnt ya arrest em for hurtin my Pa? Vin persisted at the silence.
Theyre charge with horse theft at the moment. No question about that. The sheriff was uncomfortable explaining to this boy. Backshot like ya are is proof enough that it werent no fair fight, he confirmed to Larabee.
How could it be fair? Vin persisted. Aint fair to hurt Chris.
No its not. Hes lucky he had you there to watch his back. The Sheriff looked helplessly to Larabee, uncertain if he should continue to answer the boy.
Vin, how about you get some fresh air. Go on outside while the Sheriff and I talk.
Vin looked suspiciously between the men, certain he was being shuffled off. Begrudgingly he slid from the chair and left the room.
Hell of a thing for a family man. Guess you just cant choose to lay down that gun now, the Sheriff commiserated as the young boy closed the door.
Theres no going back, Chris declared bitterly. Chris knew better than most the price that accompanied some decisions. However, others always seemed to be paying for him.
The sheriff completed his visit, reassuring Chris that their horses and possessions were recovered and delivered telegrams from anxious friends.
Bored and stifled Chris decided to leave his bed and stood carefully, the sharp pull from damaged muscles still severely limiting him. He wanted to walk, even if it was just a short distance. He finally convinced the doctor that a trip to the porch wouldnt hurt and was assisted slowly outside, Vin close by in support. Chris was carefully lowered down onto one of the chairs, sunshine and fresh air a welcome change.
Those two horse thieves are being shifted tomorrow, the doctor informed him, nodding to the small crowd gathering down the street. Guess you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, Mr Larabee.
Chris felt Vin flinch under his hand but he restrained himself from rubbing the shoulder in comfort, mindful of the still tender skin. Seems to be too many of those places lately.
The doctor nodded in agreement before continuing on down the steps and along the street to other patients.
Chris tugged Vin in close and brushed a long strand of hair from the pink face. The worst of the color was receding, the skin beginning to blister and peel leaving a handful of freckles across his nose. Sometimes bad things just happen, Vin. Its no ones fault.
Vin dropped his gaze and clenched his jaw trying to stop the tell-tale quiver. I jus want it to stop. It aint fair. He wasnt sure if he was angry or scared but he didnt want any tears to fall out here in view of the street.
Chris didnt know how to comfort the boy. How did you explain that life was filled with good and bad when in seven short years Vin had seen more bad things than most people would see in a lifetime?
Vin had his own solution. Are we gonna go home soon? Vin then remembered the original reason for the trip. Or do we have to go out again for them horses?
The mares were only being held for a week, another offer already made on them. No, were a bit late for that. Chris heard the worried sigh. Therell be other horses, Vin. Thats just business, its not important.
Then were goin home?
Chris had intended to rest and recover for another week and make the trip home slowly. He had declined offers of assistance from Four Corners for the same reason that he and Vin had originally traveled together. Everyone had very busy schedules this month and Chris had taken the opportunity for some time alone with Vin. The trip hadnt turned out quite as planned.
Ill have to rest up before I travel, so it will still be at least a week before we leave. Chris was concerned by Vins question and thought he may want to move on from the area. Do you want to go on ahead? He could arrange an escort for Vin but was reluctant to separate.
Vin turned shocked eyes on him at the suggestion. No. We go home together, Vin declared firmly.
Wouldnt have it any other way, Cowboy. Chris smiled reassuringly.
The week passed very slowly for Vin. He was more than happy to fetch and carry for Chris, concerned that the man seemed to suddenly tire. Chris had scared him when hed just up and stopped right on the boardwalk before dropping down onto a packing box by one of the stores. Vin had tried to go for the doctor but Chris had held him at his side, insisting he was just a little tired. They had immediately turned back and Vin had watched with trepidation as Chris willingly returned to his bed in the daylight, only to sleep for many long hours.
Finally Chris was feeling strong enough so the pair began to make plans for their trip home. Chris was carrying most of the bankroll for the mares, so paying the doctor and buying some additional supplies for the return journey posed no problem.
Vin wasnt aware of the fame he and Chris had brought to the town, the shooting only fanning the flames of gossip about the legendary man. Vin caught snatches of conversations as he ran errands for Chris. Gunslinger and fast draw were all mentioned with the name Larabee but Vin could see no reason for it. Vin was aware of those words in the same way he knew of Indians and stage robbers before his train ride west. These were the things of legend and adventure, but what did they have to do with his Pa?
Vin was wary of asking questions of strangers but the old men who loitered near the livery seemed inoffensive. Scuse me, mister?
What can I help you with youngun?
Vin watched, impressed as a wad of tobacco was spat from the corner of the old mans mouth to land in an increasing soggy pile at the corner of the building. Hed managed the feat barely turning his head.
Seeing the interest, the elderly man removed a leather pouch from his pocket and offered it. Welcome to try my makins.
Curious, Vin pulled some of the tobacco out and popped it in his mouth. He immediately realised why everyone spat it out as the dark bitter flavor filled his mouth and his eyes watered. Uncertain what to do he looked to the old man but found he was chewing on his new wad contentedly, so apparently the spitting wasnt to occur immediately. Hoping to appear mature and polite he shoved it into his cheek with his tongue and courageously pressed on.
I was wonderin if you know about bein a fast draw?
The old man guffawed and slapped his thigh. He held out misshapen hands, fingers curled tightly and knuckles swollen. Even when these old fingers were straight I werent much of a fast draw.
But you know about em, Vin prompted.
Whats to know? They draw their gun fast. Theyre men best to avoid boy. Dont want to cross paths with the likes of them.
But some folk do, some call out, Vin persisted. He needed to know what this was all about. Do they yell bad things?
Vin stepped back a little as another sudden laugh became a choking congested cough. No, no, the old man finally wheezed out. Ya get called out into the street to fight cause youve been challenged. Ya got a lot of questions boy.
Ya got a lot of questions, Vin. Ya interested because that gunslinger is back in town?
Vins ears pricked at the opportunity to see one. Maybe.
Larabees not a man you should be interested in. Go find a hard workin cowhand, thats what you should be learning.
Chris Larabees a cowboy, Vin corrected. Chris had horses and spurs, ropes and cowboy boots. They only had two cows on the ranch, both for milk but wasnt that still enough to be a cowboy?
Larabee? He aint no cowboy. No siree.
But he... Vin tried to find out what he meant but was ignored.
Abe! The man slapped the other gent snoozing beside him. Abe, give me that book ya showed me.
Abe pulled a slim tattered book from his pocket and passed it over without opening his eyes, willing to allow the disturbance to pass as quickly as possible.
Here, boy. Take this and learn all ya need. Best not to be askin questions of the man. Tell ya everythin you need to know. Live by the gun, die by the gun, just like it says, he explained, pointing to the short description on the back cover.
Thank you, sir. Vin accepted the item graciously but frowned at the idea of book learning. He flicked through the pages a little concerned at the small print. One word caught his eye as it appeared over and over. Larabee. The cover was grubby and smudged but the picture was still easily identified. Two men facing each other, guns drawn, one dressed all in black. The bold print emblazoned on the cover was easier to read. Live by the gun, die by the gun.
Not knowing what to make of this, Vin tucked the book under his shirt and continued on into the stable to see to Pony and Peso. Both horses were becoming fractious at the lack of exercise and Vins distracted attention did little to appease either of the animals.
Vin returned to their shared room and shuffled in quietly to wait. Chris continued to pack items neatly into the saddlebags and responded to Vins entrance without turning.
Vin, well be ready n the morning. How are the horses?
The odd reply made Chris turn. If there was one thing Vin was always ready to talk about it was horses. Larabee had been around the town a little more in the last few days and had become aware of the talk. While there had been no trouble, his reception had definitely been a little cool in some places. Larabee was accustomed to it and ignore it, his own glare sufficient to deter anyone whose eyes lingered too long. Now he wondered it hed been wrong to allow Vin to roam alone.
Chris, are you a cowboy?
Cowboy? Of all the titles or accusations Chris had expected Vin might have heard this wasnt one of them.
No Vin, Im no cowboy.
Vin hadnt wanted the old mans words to be confirmed. Ya sure?
We dont raise cattle, Vin. Chris was confused but Vin didnt seem to want to continue his questions. What? Chris prompted, as Vin didnt seem happy with his first response.
Nuthin, Vin denied. He knew hed have to take a look at the book.
Vin? Whats wrong?
Nuthin. I fergot somethin. Vin ducked back out the door before Chris could ask anything further. He wanted to ask Chris what people were talking about but it felt wrong. Vin had become accustomed to the layout of the doctors home after the couple had kindly offered to let them stay during Larabees recuperation. Vin ducked through the doorway that led to the back sewing room, scooting down beside the chair and tucking his knees up. He pulled the old book from his pocket and flipped it open.
Vin struggled with the confusing words and became frustrated that he held the answer in his hands but was too dumb to read it. He knew some of the words but it wasnt like any reader hed ever seen. Even though some of the sentences were short, they had little short curved ticks around them and other words Vin was sure were missing letters, again with little ticks through them. The only words that he was sure of were Chris Larabee. Hed carefully studied that spelling, along with Wilmington wanting to be sure he could spell his familys names.
Vin slammed the book shut and folded it into his shirt again. Hed have to wait until he got home and could ask someone there. Someone he trusted to know the answer, someone who wouldnt tell Chris if he was being stupid. Hed ask Ezra.
Until he knew for sure what this was about, hed do what the Sheriff said. Hed watch Chris back. If people were supposed to call Chris and face him, then obviously Chris was at risk if someone tried to shoot him in the back. Hed watch everyone who had a gun and make sure no one could sneak up and hurt his Pa again.
The pair had made good time on their journey home, Four Corners now within reach. Chris watched in sympathy as Vin squirmed, his back itching fiercely as dry, flaky sunburned skin peeled away to reveal a new delicate pink surface beneath. He stepped in as Vin tried once more to relieve the irritation. He tugged the boy firmly away from the tree as Vin backed up, the squirming becoming a serious scrubbing against the rough bark.
Lemme, it itches, Vin complained.
Chris rubbed the offending area lightly in consolation having stolen Vin away from his scratching post but then he had to pull his hand away as Vin leaned back into the rub, trying to increase the friction.
I know it itches Vin but rubbing and scratching like that will only hurt the new skin, he sympathised. His own wound was healing with a slight itch that the days heat only seemed to highlight. Well be home tomorrow. Im sure Nathan will have something to help.
Larabee was looking forward to home. Theyd travelled slowly but still he was exhausted, the ache in his back almost constant. Theyd only stayed in one other town on the way home, the last two nights having been spent sleeping on the hard ground which did little to ease his damaged ribs. He didnt think there was an infection and hed not raised a fever. He was simply tired and feeling very old.
Larabee groaned as he raised the saddle up onto Ponys back and rested against the horses black flank for a moment to catch his breath. He regretted the lapse as worried blue eyes fastened on him. He smiled encouragingly, putting more energy that he actually felt into the rest of his preparations. He wasnt very convincing as Vin stayed close for the remainder of the morning. These were the times he appreciated what a patient and quiet child Vin was. Chris knew hed been poor company today but still Vin didnt bother him with questions or comments, not even to ask how much further. Instead Chris felt Vins gaze continue to rest on him
Youre going to hurt your neck if you keep it twisted like that, Chris warned with a smile. He broke into an exasperated laugh as Vin simply moved Peso behind up the other side of Pony, apparently to relieve any strain by turning his head the other way.
Im fine Vin. Im just a little tired.
As they approached Four Corners, Chris stopped and considered swinging wide to bypass the town and ride directly to the ranch.
Ya said ya would see Nathan, Vin reminded him. Vin easily read this mans expression and moved Peso past, ambling slowly down the trail to town. Nathans waitin, he called over his shoulder.
Chris had to smile and shake his head ruefully at his determined little keeper.
As attractive as home was at the moment, he knew that Nathan would only follow them out if he didnt stop. Chris quickly regretted his decision as their horses meandered slowly into the main street only to be stopped by a large gathering, two entangled wagons, spilled barrels and arguments.
Chris had no patience for this. There was no serious threat here just a frustrating jam in the street. No one was paying any attention so Chris drew his gun and fired one shot in the air.
A stunned hush settled over the crowd. Clear this street, Larabee ordered, his tone both command and warning. A gap appeared in the crowd as everyone made room for the new arrivals. Chris inclined his head for Vin to proceed. Vin hated to be the centre of attention and kept his eyes aimed between Pesos ears, ignoring the wary looks of others around him until the reached the steps of the clinic.
Vin, arent you coming up to see Nathan? Chris prompted as Vin continued to stand near the horses.
Vin looked over suspiciously at the question. Seeing Nathan was one thing, voluntarily going up to the clinic was something else. Ill just say hello, he finally agreed.
The soft knock brought Nathans head up from his work, the faces in the open doorway brought a wide welcoming smile to his face. Rising, he shook his head at the pair, taking in their travel-worn condition. Just cant keep you two out of trouble.
Just bad luck, Nathan, Chris corrected quickly as he felt Vins eyes on him again. Hows everyone here, Chris asked not really wanting small talk but needing to change the subject.
Nothing serious here. How about you two? Youve got a little extra color there, Vin.
Im fine Nathan. Vin realised he was gaining attention and tried to escape. Maybe I should see to the horses, Chris? Vin suggested, knowing Chirs would be safe here with friends.
Vin? Chris smiled as Vin backed away at Nathans interest, seemingly forgetting about his earlier itching.
Theyll be thirsty.
Chris nodded in understanding, letting Vin scamper away out the door.
Nathan raised an eyebrow at the departing figure. Should I round him up again? he offered, as Chris seemed concerned at Vins departure.
No. Chris wasnt concerned by Vins action but rather his words. Hed reverted to calling him by name. Hes done enough. He helped originally Nathan and hes been changing the bandage for me.
Hows he doing? This must have been hard on him.
He seems fine, just a little quiet. Heatstroke, a nasty sunburn and a very bad scare. Chris explained. The doctor and his wife took good care of him but if youve got something to relieve the itching itd be appreciated.
Nathan carefully inspected the healing wound on Larabees back. Youre back is healing fine. That Doctor did some fine work on you. How are you really doing? Nathan asked again, the new lines at the corners of Chris eyes and mouth a sure sign of pain and fatigue.
Just tired, Nathan .and before you start, I know I rushed coming home but we both need to be here. Ill rest better here.
Well, see that you do, even if you have to get some help out there to do it. Nathan suggested.
We cant afford wages, Nathan. They didnt have the sort of stock needed to really bring in any big income yet, and hed missed those mares this trip. It would take time to build up the ranch, time he and Buck expected to have over the next five years. That had disappeared now under the demands of supporting an unexpected family. It would be more difficult but Chris wouldnt trade them for anything. He just planned to be a lot more tired in the future.
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