by Heather F.
Nathan was the first to react. He dashed forward. The moment he took that first step the others were galvanized into action.
"JD get the horse," Buck directed.
The sheriff stood still and blinked. He almost balked at the order until Chaucer started backing out of the saloon an untrusting look in his eyes. Dunne figured this had to be as much of a shock to the horse as it was to them. With a sense of empathy, the young man cautiously stepped forward speaking soothingly to the retreating horse.
Nathan dropped on his knees beside Chris. Larabee lay curled on his side just as he had fallen.
"Damn is he wearing Ezras clothes?" Buck knelt down next to Standish who lay on his chest with an arm trapped under his torso.
"Sure as Hell looks like it," Vin agreed.
"No boots on either ofem," Josiah pointed out as he helped Jackson roll Larabee onto his back.
Just as Nathan was about to remark about Chriss possible broken arm the oil tarp was thrown back as Teddy Finnegan rushed into the saloon. The young teenager paused stuttering to a stop and stared wide eyed at the scene before him.
Chaucer tossed a gaze over his shoulder at the sudden entrance of a possible new threat. Registering the presence of a child, the horse side stepped Dunne and headed for the bar.
"Whats the matter Teddy?" Vin asked looking up from Larabee.
"There there " The boy stammered staring at Tanner and then Larabee and finally over Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Standish.
"Easy son, slow down and just tell us whats wrong."
The boy swung his wild eyes to the big preacher man.
"Posse posse stopped at Pas place .they weres after Mr. Tanner here, and Mr. Larabee .says they lostim at Possum Crick found the saddle and wet clothes but no sign of Tanner, they say hes hurt though .they wounded im some with a knife .they stopped at our place lookin for a place to rest up .Pa sent me here to warn yall."
Buck rolled Standish over as he looked over toward the bar, "Inez, take care of Teddy will ya?"
The barmaid put down her shotgun and motioned for the gangly teenage to follow her.
The boy tiptoed over and around the men on the floor never letting his eyes stray from the regulators. He even sidetracked the crazy quarter horse that had managed to avoid the sheriff and had sidle up to the bar. The big horse was even resting his muzzle on the marked surface.
Teddy walked backward and tried to keep watch on the whole room at once. He could see the horse snapping his head left and right to keep the Sheriff from grabbing at the one dangling rein, and he could see Mr. Jackson run his hands up and down Mr. Larabee, while Mr. Wilmington tried to get Mr. Standishs hands untwisted from the old horse blanket he held.
The horse whipped his head left and right drawing Teddys full attention. The big horse stomped his back foot in warning as Sheriff Dunne tried to grab the rein again.
Teddy didnt know Mz. Inez real well, but he heard she had a temper and didnt take no guff in her saloon. Guess maybe she likes horses. The boy managed to walk backward all the way to the far side of the bar while keeping his eyes on the frantic surreal scene before him. A gentle hand on his shoulder had him turning and facing the smiling features of Mz. Inez. She led him out of the room just as Mr. Wilmington started speaking.
"Damn Nathan," the tone of Bucks voice had the Healer pausing in his work on Larabee and staring over at the gambler and Wilmington. "Found the knife wounds."
Tanner cursed and made to stand. Josiahs heavy callused hand on his shoulder kept him in place.
"How deep, Buck?" Nathan asked in a no nonsense tone as he ran his hands over Larabees torso and then legs searching for wounds or breaks.
"Looks like skin and maybe muscle, aint bleedin too much right now."
"Probably the cold," Nathan remarked. He focused his attention back on Larabee.
Buck glanced over at Tanner and noticed the harsh, wounded look that seared the Texans visage. "We dont know what happend Vin least ways not the whole story." Wilmington pointed out softly.
Jackson paused meeting the fiery gaze of the Tracker. Nathan leaned forward, "Vin, they aint got time for your guilt or revenge, and right now we need you here with us .I want ya to help Josiah git Chris up to the clinic and when JDs done foolin with Chaucer haveim stoke the fire. Ill need ya to git back down here so ya can git Ezra upstairs next."
There was a pause as Vin stared hard at the two prone men on the floor.
"Come on Brother, times a wasting" Josiah urged quietly prodding the younger man with a gentle push.
That sparked the tracker into moving.
Nathan backed out of the way, circumvented Sanchez and made his way to Buck and Ezra.
"What have we got Buck?"
+ + + + + + +
The first thing Chris came to recognize was the voices. They were softly spoken and laced with light humor.
"I know its cold out, son, but we cant fit another blanket above or below you," There was a deep rumbling laughter and then a quiet add in, "Nathans tea will warm you up soon enough "
Chris tried to move a leg. When it proved too much he tried a foot, when that failed, he tried to move anything that would allow him to shift position.
Every muscle ached.
It was then he realized he lay in a bed, under a blanket. The smell of wood heat finally registered, but he recognized it wasnt from a camp fire.
He fought to wake, to move, but couldnt find the strength to coordinate the effort. The comforting weight of blankets and the smothering warmth of the room seemed to leach him of any strength. He couldnt convince himself to really mind.
Chris tried to open his eyes but it took more strength than he had at the moment.
Instead, he was content to listen to the low heavy tones of Josiah somewhere across the room.
There was another chuckle and then, "No son, you cant be trying to move around just yet...Let me and JD do all the work." There was a slight pause and then someone, it sounded like JD, let out a low whistle.
"JD," Josiahs voice held a warning tone.
"I know Josiah, I know," Dunne paused, "its just .look at " There was a macabre awe within the young sheriffs voice.
"JD, brother Ezra neednt worry about that right now."
"JD, why dont you get Ezra here some more tea," Sanchez patience rolled around the room.
Chris tried moving again. Frustration began to build. He rolled his head in the direction of the voices.
A voice conspicuously close sounded right beside him. It would have startled him if he could have found the strength and coordination to flinch.
"Hey Nathan, I think Chris here, is comin around some," there was another pause, and someone nudged his shoulder, "Cowboy? You in there?"
Larabee moaned when Vin shoved his shoulder. It was then he realized just how much his muscles truly hurt. A groan escaped his lips along with a soft string of curses.
"Gawd damn cowboy, either youve been takin lessons from Ezra or hes been takin lessons from you "
Chris managed to crack open an eye and then the second one. He could feel the lids peel apart as skin stretched and pulled. Nothing focused. He tried to raise a hand to scrub at his face but something blocked his movements.
"Dont go movin ya arm none ya busted it and Nathan wont be too keen iffen ya go messin it up again." Vin leaned down into his field of vision.
Larabee couldnt bring his friends features into focus. Everything had a fuzzy edge to it.
"Vin?" Or he had hoped to ask if that was Vin leaning down over him but somehow his question came out muffled and garbled.
"Ya pard right here." Vin watched as Larabees half hooded eyes slid shut and he barely nodded his head in acknowledgement. "You and Ezra gave us quite a scare aint too smart to go swimmin in the midst of winter ya know."
Vin leaned back in his chair and rubbed his face. A scare wasnt the half of it. The five of them had thought they had lost their friends. They had thought for sure those other two would up and die on them. Wasnt no way they should have survived that kind of cold especially the shape they were in earlier at Inezs.
Chris managed to move a leg. It exhausted him but relieved the tension on his back.
He listened to the sounds in the room.
"Ezra, jist need ya to stay awake a little bit longer," It was Nathans voice, "I know ya cold but I need to peel these blankets off ya and git a look at your side. Jist hold tight."
Chris wondered what was wrong with the gamblers side. Why was Ezra in the clinic? Or himself for that matter? Larabee was about to ask just as Nathan spoke up again but this time his voice was louder, "Vin, see iffen ya cant get Chris to drink some of that tea over by the stove try n git the whole cup downim if ya can warmth will doim good."
Larabee hadnt thought he had dozed off but then he felt someone lift his head from the small pillow, "Come cowboy, ya heard Nathan ya got ta drink some tea." Larabee felt a cup get pressed to his lip and then tepid water dribbled down from the sides of his mouth. Instinctively he parted his lips and swallowed. "Ya doin good Chris," A few more sips had him feeling breathless and exhausted. Then Vin spoke again, "Ok cowboy, lits take a break for a sec."
Larabee opened his eyes and this time they did focused. Not sharp images but at least he could make out Vin sitting on the edge of his bed holding a cup and when he looked to the ceiling he could make out the beams in the roof.
Nathans voice sounded across the room, "Damnit Ezra," Impatience laced Jacksons words, "Josiah keepim on his side and try to keepim from shakin. JD move that arm of his out of the way Ezra its jist gonna take a second .gotta git these bandages changed." Nathan sounded tired worn out with worry.
"Dang Nathan I dont think he can move at all." Dunne pointed out quietly his worry not well disguised.
There was a pause and Chris thought he could hear soft mumbling.
"No Ezra ya aint paralyzed jist cold, ya muscles jist too tired right now to be movin much." Nathan answered kindly, trying to soothe his patients fears, "Josiah sit im up a bit but keepim on his side jist got to git this unwrapped from around im."
There was a mumble and then JDs laughing voice sounded, "Heck Ezra, ya was jist sayin ya were cold, and then hot .and then cold and now ya hot again sure would wish yad make up your mind."
"Stitches are holdin good, aint no puss either, Josiah lets git this fool wrapped back up and covered again Vin hows Chris doin?"
Tanner looked down at the drawn pale features of his friend and read the confused expression. The tracker smirked and then looked up across the room, "I think hes doin alright, a bit dazed maybe. Frostbite on whats he got for a brain." Tanner chuckled at Larabees half witted glare.
"Serves im right for riding all night in nuthin but Ezras clothes and bleedin on top of that what the Hell were those two thinkin?"
"Easy Brother, theyre both home and alive, thanks to you." Josiahs schooling voice echoed with solemn thankfulness.
Chris tried to crane his neck around so he could peer past Vin to the men at the other cot. His neck strained bringing a sharp ache to over worked muscles.
As he relaxed back against his pillow memories finally started falling into place. The shootout in the town. Him and Ezra making a run for their horses and splitting up .his horse stumbling and throwing him and then charging off into the woods. Chris remembered running through the woods and meeting up with Ezra and then the two of them galloping across the desert with a posse on their heels.
Gunning for Ezra. Gawd damn man and his cards. At the river was where he had learned that someone had taken a knife to Standishs flank and chest. Flayed him open nearly to the bone. Standish had slipped from the horse taking Chris with him. They had both ended up in the river.
With a blood thirsty posse on their trail, Chris had bound the gamblers wound the best he could before literally wrestling the man back on the horse and heading for Four Corners.
They must have ridden all night. Chris couldnt remember. He couldnt remember much past the river. The cold, he could recall the burning cold that sliced through his skin like glass shards. He could recall the fierce cold that had clenched his head like an icy fist. He could recall thinking his toes would just fall right off the end of his feet if he were to step down on them. Worse, he could feel the heat of the gamblers blood drip over his arm and the too rapid flutter of the mans heart.
He had tried to knot the reins, because he couldnt feel his fingers enough to keep a grip on them. He remembered trying to knot them but not being able too.
He remembered yelling at Standish to sit up, take a little more of his own weight. Chris feared he would drop the man. Standish had become almost dead weight against him and Larabees muscles shook with bitter cold and exhaustion.
He remember most of all the fear of failing.
Chris refocused his eyes on Tanner. "Got run out of town .Spring Creek Ezra gambling" Larabee shook his head in wonder. No matter how much trouble Standish got into with his cards he could not give them up. No more than Chris would lay down his guns.
Tanner licked his lips and looked away. His face downcast and shame-filled. He ran a hand over his face and then through his hair.
If Chris was feeling more alert, if his mind was not still caught in the groggy haze of hypothermia and exhaustion he would have read the silent self incrimination on the trackers face.
Across the room Josiah spoke again, "There you go brother Ezra, no need to be shivering now, got them blankets up over ya again .JD stoke the fire a little more if you will brother "
There was another mumble. JD laughed again.
"Aint no way were buyin that Ezra, ya no more fine than Chris is over there so jist hush up and git some sleep."
There was another pause and then Josiah spoke up, "Brother Chris is doin just fine." Another pause Josiah chuckled again, "Ill be sure to tell him that .." Wood creaked and walls moaned against the onslaught of the wind. Sanchezs voice sounded again, "Chris is right over there getting himself good and warmed up."
Chriss attention was drawn away from the unseen conversation across the room. Nathan moved in on his other side. "How ya doin Chris?"
Larabee merely dipped his head slightly. The closest he could come to a nod. Gawd but his muscles ached something fierce.
Nathan settled down on the bed and rested a practiced hand on the gunslingers forehead. Chris would have moved out from under the touch if he had the strength.
"He drink all the tea Vin?"
Tanner merely nodded. Chris watched the tracker and couldnt help but notice that it seemed Vin was trying to slip into the background disappear.
Nathan turned his attention back to Larabee, "Ya did a good job Chris real good job in getting Ezra bound and back home aint sure he woulda survived out there with those wounds in this cold especially with nothin to break that wind."
As if on cue a blast of wind buffeted the building. Chris hadnt remembered the wind being that strong. He could still feel it cut across his skin and dig through his coat and shirt. As he lay staring at Nathan he could feel the building shake with each gust.
"Gonna be fine needs a few days rest, lost some blood and is near froze to death not to mention exhausted .not unlike yerself." Nathan smiled and patted Chriss shoulder, "ya need to get some sleep, best thing for the both of ya."
Chris nodded his consent, just too worn out and tired to argue. As he watched Nathan stand to leave Chris muttered quietly to himself about gamblers and their fool ability to get themselves and others around them into more trouble than they could handle.
Nathan paused and stared at Chris, holding the gunslingers eyes, and then Jackson shifted his gaze to Tanner.
Larabee, with half hooded eyes followed Nathans gaze and found himself staring at the tracker.
Across the room Josiahs soft chuckle rumbled with the creaking of the building, "I know ya hot son but ya need to keep the blankets on go to sleep."
Chris kept his eyes on Vin.
Tanner finally sat forward. He stared across the room at Josiah who kept a soothing hand on the top of the gamblers head; his eyes wandered over to JD who gathered up the old bloodied bandages they had just taken off from around Ezra; then over to Nathan who stood by the wood stove preparing more of his herbs.
Vin looked back down at Larabee; Tanner took in the wind burned withdrawn features, the cuts and scratches and could picture the deep bruises that marked Larabees body. Chris had taken a bone jarring fall at some point. Probably where he snapped his arm.
"They weres after Ezra alright." Vin stated and then rubbed at his eyes, "not cuz he cheated anyone out of something," Vin paused and chuckled dryly, "aint sayin he didnt," Vin smiled trying to bring some humor to the situation, "jist sayin that aint why they lit into him like they did."
Chris quirked an eyebrow. It seemed the only muscle on his body that wanted to listen to him.
"They was afterim because he was with you."
Chris furrowed his brow in confusion.
Vin continued, his eyes drifting over to Josiah. The big man leaned back in his chair and rested his feet on the side of Standishs bed. The dark blue mound of wool blankets never moved. Ezra had been too exhausted to even fight Nathan when the healer sewed the him back together.
"Rumor has it, Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner watch each others backs. If you find Chris Larabee then chances are the man with him is Vin Tanner."
Tanner dropped his eyes back down to Chris. With more pain than either man had experienced out in the freezing cold, Tanner added, "They were after the bounty money."
Larabee sighed and closed his eyes, unable to and unwilling to witness the anger and sadness in his friends eyes. He merely nodded his head in agreement.
After a moment Chris struggled to open them and he focused on Tanner who now sat back in his chair with his eyes closed.
Larabee struggled to speak. His voice came out coarse and barely a whisper, "Given enough time, they would have come after us, because either Ezra would have cheatedem at cards," Chris paused and with a small smile added, "or I would have pissed someone off."
Tanner nodded his thanks but the pain had not eased from his expression.
Chris wished he could sit up, wished he could keep his stomach muscles from burning every time he tried to move. "Let it go Vin, aint no ones fault."
Vin merely nodded his head.
"Vin, I aint dead and neither is Ezra," Larabee pointed out needlessly.
"Dont make it right this shouldnt a happened." The self incrimination and loathing fairly dripped from the words.
"Yeah, well it did Tanner, no one got killed, so get over it." Anger singed Larabees voice.
Chriss eyes fluttered shut ending the conversation.
Tanner remained in the rocking chair and watched his friend slip into a sound sleep.
It never should have happened but it did. Vin closed his eyes and listened to the quiet snores that softly echoed from Chris. He heard the building creak as the wind rattled it. His scanned the area. Across the room in the far bunk, Standishs blanketed form lay curled tightly in a ball pressed against Josiahs leg as the big man sat stretched out half on half off the bed, adding a little body heat.
Chris and Ezra should not have survived. Not only should they not have survived they should have suffered from frostbite. Nathan should have been considering chopping off their toes or fingers. Instead, those two had fallen into a river, got back on their one horse and found their way home with broken bones and losing blood.
It shouldnt have happened like that .Tanner slammed his chair back down to all fours in frustration and fury. None of this should have happened. None of it all.
"Brother Vin," Josiahs soft voice had the tracker opening his eyes and looking across the room toward the preacher and the gambler. "I was hoping you could sit with Ezra here, make sure he doesnt go removing his blankets, while I answer natures call."
The tracker nodded and pushed himself wearily from his chair, not sure why Josiah hadnt asked JD or Nathan. The preacher nodded his thanks as he bundled himself into his coat pulled his collar up and headed for the door.
Tanner settled down in Sanchezs chair and watched the gambler for a few seconds. In the periphery of his vision he could see Nathan re-rolling bandages while JD scrubbed the bloodied ones they had just changed from Ezra.
Vin dropped a hand on Standishs covered shoulder. He could have died. Ezra could have died out there simply because someone thought he was Vin Tanner.
Tanner was suppose to be a name to be proud of, a name that Vin carried like a badge of honor, his ma had been a Tanner after all. All his fault .
The door opened and a painful cutting wind sliced through the room. Vin didnt bother turning around. He, kept his eyes on Standish. What if Ezra had died? What if he had died because someone had mistaken him for a Tanner? Cut him down like a cur just because of the last name. Tanner.
Vin closed his eyes and tightened his grip on the blanket, squeezing the shoulder beneath it. Gawd he was so sorry.
A cold hand dropped to Vins shoulder, "Ya aint got nothin to be sorry for Vin They aint dead " Bucks soft voice paused, "Hell those two are the luckiest sons of bitches I know." Wilmington shrugged out of his coat and draped it over the foot of Standishs bed.
He looked up at Vin and matched the Trackers eyes, "And if they knew why they were bein chased those two would still find a way to blame one another .aint your fault " Buck sighed looked as if he had had this very conversation a hundred times over, "iffen ya need to blame someone, ya should blame the dang fools that cut up Ezra and rode down Chris but dont ya dare go blamin yarself."
Bucks voice had taken on a hard edge. "Theres been enough of that shit going on for too long with Chris .ya gut me?" Wilmingtons hard stare fixed on the blonde gunslinger that slept under four wool blankets with just the top of the pillow exposed. Wilmington then turned his attention back to the Texan and dared him to challenge him.
Tanner took a breath and simply nodded. Iffen ya was me pard how would ya be takin it?
Wilmington smiled and stood hipshot, "Hell, pard iffen I was you , gawd forbid cuz Ive seen you with the ladies, and let me tell you, it makes a man shudder .but iffen I was you I would be plannin on takin a few good friends and huntin down them sorry sons of bitches and show them the error of their ways "
Vin looked up at Buck and shook his head, "Bucklin ya unnerving as Hell sometimes, ya know that?"
"Hell pard, ladies tell me that all the time." Wilmington let out a laugh and started toeing is boots off, "Hows ole Ezra doin anyhow? He figure out if hes cold or hot yet?"
Tanner merely shook his head, "Man aint got the sense God gave a mule."
"Shit if that aint the truth .hows Chris?" Wilmington sat himself down on Standishs narrow bed, pushing the gambler a little to the side. He leaned back against the head board, clasping his hands behind his head as he straightened one leg out along the gamblers back. Standish instinctively leaned into it, seeking the add heat and comfort.
"Chris? Ornery as Hell plans on goin out after the bastards that spooked his horse, and knifed Ezra."
Buck and Vin smirked at one another and chuckled. Maybe not tomorrow but when Chris was ready to stand on his own two feet for more than a few hours then maybe they would head back up to Spring Creek.
Wilmington watched as JD settled into the rocker near Chriss bed and continued to work with old soiled bandages.
Standish groaned, his eyes fluttered as he tried to weakly work free of the blankets. He softly mumbled, "Cold its cold."
"Well Hell pard, iffen ya cold keep the damn blankets on," Buck responded, dropping his gaze to the gambler. The big man kept a hand on the covers to keep them in place.
Wilmington peered over to Vin, "When your ready ya let me and the boys n well come with ya. Dont be thinkin about goin out afterem alone Ezra and Chris got digs in this too just remember that." Buck paused as a serious expression suddenly settled across his face, "Those sons of bitches out there probably still have Chriss horse that ornery black hearted beast should have headed for home if he lost Chris damn things worse than a dog but got the attitude of badger." Buck let a low whistle, "The old dog over there is gonna be down right pissed when he finds out that black devil of his is missin."
Tanner nodded and forced a grin. Larabee would be fit to be tied. Least ways Ezra still had Chaucer, wouldnt be no way to keep that knot head from going out into the chill with just nuthin but the stuff his momma brought im into the world with .dang fool gambler had more loyalty to that spoilt stead of his than he had to hisself.
Buck settled against the head board making himself more comfortable. Standishs labored breathing increased slightly as muscles tensed, fighting off a chill his body remembered only too well. "Easy hoss, ya doin alright." Wilmington pulled the top quilt up and partially covered the gamblers face.
Wilmington finally pulled his attention to Vin, "Theyre gonna be fine Vin aint no use fussin over somethin ya cant change. Sides, Nathan aint a bit worried, and neither s Josiah."
Tanner nodded keeping his gaze on Chris. JD had his feet up on Larabees bed and seemed focused on wringing out wet bandages.
Buck followed the trackers line of sight, "Jist dont be thinkin about headin out after that posse without us " Buck let a lecherous smile cross his face, "It might be good to have some company Im thinkin Josiah might make a feller think twice about chasin after someone they dont know, and shit, when Chris finds out who has that dang beast he calls a horse; well be havin to keepim from killin someone."
Buck smiled to himself, "Nathan is jist down right scary iffen hes havin to tend both Chris and Ezra for any amount of time." Wilmington gazed over at JD .and the kid well the kid would stick by them and defend each and everyone of the as if they were his kin. Damn fool kid had more loyalty and guts than the lott of them.
Tanner nodded silently agreeing with the ladies man. Buck was right. The others had a stake in this too. It just didnt seem fair to be dragging everyone into his troubles.
Vin settled back in the chair and listened as Buck started forming plans for the next few days. The tracker couldnt help but wonder who in their right mind would keep a hold of the black monster Chris called a horse. Damn horse was as tough as his owner.
Tanner would wait for the others. He doubted they would get Standish away from the wood stove in the saloon, but that was alright with him. He didnt want to see any more of his friends hurt, and it would be good to keep Nathan from having to tend both Chris and Ezra out on the trail. Nathan could get as mean spirited as Chriss horse at times.
Vin sat back in his chair. Buck had a point. The others were just as involved in this mishap as himself the difference was they werent to blame. No matter what Buck said, no matter what the others would say, Vin felt responsible.
He would heed their wishes. He would wait for them and then help track down the fools who hung onto Chriss horse. Together, they would find the people who took a blade to Ezra in the name of capturing Vin Tanner.
And Vin would extract a proper price for the misdeeds.
Vin closed his eyes and listened to the movement in the room as the wind pushed at the building. Wood creaked and dust fell from cracks in wall. The Tracker listened to the clink of metal and a small splash of water as Nathan cleaned his instruments. He could hear JDs soft voice as he whispered another rotten joke to the sleeping gunslinger, and close by, Ezra breathed through a nightmare with Buck whispering soft assurances of safeguarding him from any danger. The heavy tread of boots on the outside staircase herald the return of Josiah from the privy and saloon.
Tanner took a breath and slowly released it. He silently promised himself he would protect his friends.
He was a Tanner after all.
And one day he would find pride in the name again.
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