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They'd been driving for a couple of hours when Chris noticed the girl was getting tired. Once Mindy began to fall asleep he stopped the stage and had Tanner bring the prisoner outside. He made sure the girl could not see the murderer, before bringing her down and placing her inside the coach. He covered her with one of the blankets under the seats before turning towards the tracker.
"How are you doing, Vin?"
"Jest fuckin' fine!" the sharpshooter snapped as he shoved the prisoner towards the front of the stage. "Ya git in there, Lar'bee and take care of the girl!"
"I don't think so, Tanner. You'll fall out of that seat before we get half a mile..."
"A mess. Anyone with two eyes can see your back's hurting you. Now get back in there before I tie you up!"
"What about the girl?"
"What about her?"
"She don't know me!"
"I told her who you were," he said as he looked inside once more. He smiled at the brown eyes looking at him. "Mindy, you remember me telling you about my friend Vin?"
"Yes," she said tiredly.
"Is it okay if he rides in here with you?"
"O...okay," she said as her eyes closed and she slept.
"You heard her, Pard. Get in!"
"Ain'tcha tired of bein' out in the heat?"
"No! Now you're wasting daylight, Tanner!"
Vin climbed reluctantly inside and Chris closed the door before he could protest further. He leaned heavily against the back of his seat and glared at his best friend.
"Next stop, Farmington," Larabee told him, ignoring the blue ice staring at him. He pulled the prisoner to the front of the coach and told him to climb aboard, smiling as the man looked at his bound hands. The blond helped him up and waited for him to grab onto the seat before he let go. Once the man was seated, the gunslinger tied his ankles and wrapped the excess rope around the sidebar of the stage, before climbing up beside him. A simple flick of the rope and they were headed towards Farmington once more.
Darkness had completely taken over as Chris drove the stage through the center of town. Few people were in the street, but he could see light in what he knew was the jail. He pulled the stage to a stop in front of it and heard a shout from behind him.
"Hey, Tom, what the hell happened? Yer four hours late!"
Chris turned his weary gaze on a white haired man in a business suit and asked. "Your sheriff in?"
"You ain't Tom..." the man said as the door of the jail opened and a middle aged man stepped outside. The light from the street fire shone off the badge on his chest.
"No, I'm not. Tom's dead. This man did it," Larabee said, nodding his head to the man beside him. "Killed a woman too."
"You see it happen?" the sheriff asked.
"No, but my friend did."
"Where is he?"
"In the back," Larabee said as he climbed down from the seat and stretched the kinks from his back. He blocked the sheriff and the other man by standing in front of the door.
"Look, Sheriff, the girl's scared. She saw what that animal did to the driver. I'll bring her out once you got that piece of trash inside a cell."
"Larabee. Chris Larabee."
"The gunslinger?" the white haired man asked.
"Some say that's what I am. Does it matter?"
"No. Guess not. All right, you stay right here while I take care of the prisoner."
"Not going anywhere," Larabee said as he turned and opened the door, letting his worried gaze rest on the tracker. The fact that Vin had yet to move told him just how much he was hurt. He saw the younger man's white knuckles grasping the side of the seat and knew the he was hurt more than he'd let on. He reached in and touched the younger man's arm.
"Vin, we're here," he said softly.
"Huh," the long-haired man muttered and gasped as he moved on the seat. "Sonofabitch!"
"Easy, Tanner, just lie still and I'll see if there's a doctor here."
"No doctor! I'm okay!"
"Sure you are," Larabee shook his head as the stubborn man sat forward and eased out of the stage. "Hi, Mindy," he said when he saw a pair of scared brown eyes open and look at him. "It's okay, Honey, no one's gonna hurt you here. We're in Farmington."
"We...we made it?" the girl asked as she sat up.
"You can bring her out now, Mr. Larabee," the sheriff ordered.
"Are you okay, Mindy?"
"W...will you stay w...with me?"
The gunslinger knew she'd latched onto him as her protector and for now he would let her think that way. The girl had been through so much and he didn't want to see her hurt further, "I'm not going anywhere right now," he assured her as he helped her from the coach.
"Sheriff, this is Mindy Lawrence."
The sheriff knelt in front of the girl and smiled warmly. His own daughter was ten and this child was around that age, maybe a little younger..
"Hi, Mindy. My name is Hank Thompson and I'm the sheriff here in Farmington. I know you're scared right now."
"Not scared anymore...hungry!" the girl said.
"Sheriff, can't this wait until tomorrow?" Larabee asked as he watched Tanner lean heavily against the stage.
"Yeah, that's fine, Mr. Larabee. Why don't you take her down to Molly's, that's the place at the end of the street and get something to eat. She makes the best roast in these parts and I bet she's baked some of her cookies too. Would you like that, Mindy?"
"Can we go, Chris?" Mindy asked excitedly.
"Yeah," Larabee said as she grabbed his hand. "Sheriff, can you get someone to take care of our horses?"
Thompson nodded and said softly. "I'll have Jacobs take care of them after I drop the bodies off at the undertakers. They'll be in the livery across the street. By the way Mr. Larabee, Molly's got some rooms she rents out if you're a mind to."
"Thanks, Sheriff. Vin you ready to go?"
"Yeah," the sharpshooter said tiredly, hoping for a soft bed and something warm to fill his belly.
Chris watched out of the corner of his eye as his friend moved away from the stage. He knew the tracker was in pain and he was going to make sure he saw the doctor, if it meant knocking him out and tying him to a bed. He smiled as he felt Mindy tug on his arm and pull him towards the house at the end of the street. They walked through the dark street until they came to the house the sheriff indicated. Chris opened the tiny gate and held it as the tracker walked through. He knew things would only get worse by morning, especially once tired muscles had a chance to rest and stiffen further.
Mindy held tightly to Larabee's hand as they reached the door and he knocked lightly. A soft voice told them to hold on and he watched as Tanner leaned heavily against the railing. The door opened and soft white light spilled out on the landing.
Molly Richmond shook her head at the three weary looking newcomers and opened the door further. "Well you two look worse than what my cat dragged in last night!" She said as she looked from one man to the other, before letting her eyes come to rest on the child holding tightly to Larabee's hand.
"But you look as pretty as the marigolds in springtime. What's your name, Honey?" she asked.
The child looked up at Larabee and he nodded that it was okay.
"Well, Mindy why don't you bring your Pa and your friend inside and we'll get you something to eat?"
"He's not my Pa, Ma'am. My Pa and Ma are dead and so is Aunt Fran." As she said the words, tears filled her eyes and the sobs began anew.
Chris reached down and picked the child up in his arms, holding her against him as she wrapped her arms around his neck and cried into his shoulder. He saw the sympathy in the woman's blue gray eyes and knew she could be trusted.
"Oh, Dear, I'm so sorry," Molly said as she ran her hands through her silver streaked black hair. "Why don't you bring her in and..." she stopped as she saw the second man sway and reached out for his arm. "Do you need to lie down?" she asked, shaking her head at the sorry threesome that had just entered her home.
"I'm fine, Ma'am."
"Sure you are," she said and turned back to the man in black. "Have you got rooms yet?"
"No, Ma'am, we were hoping you'd be able to put us up for a few days," Larabee told her, knowing they'd need to stick around in order for Vin Tanner to not only testify, but give him a chance to rest and heal.
"I have three beds. Two of em are in one room. If the little lady doesn't mind sharing a room with me there's a nice bed in there just for her."
"Thank you, Ma'am, that's fine," Larabee said gratefully, his hand rubbing the sobbing child's back.
"Have you eaten yet?" the woman asked.
"No, Ma'am, Sheriff said you might have something..." The gunslinger started, but the woman's raised hands stopped him.
"You three go sit at the table and I'll bring in what's left from supper. Won't take me long to warm it up."
Larabee smiled, knowing this woman would do anything for her guests. "You don't need to go through any trouble, Ma'am..."
"No trouble. Now shoo. Go on, get into the kitchen and sit down. That child may not weigh much, but you look like you're ready to fall down and your friend's even worse."
"Thanks, Mrs..." Tanner drawled.
"Molly Richmond, but you just go ahead and call me Molly."
"Thanks, Molly. I'm Chris and that's Vin," he said, nodding towards the tracker as they made their way to the kitchen. A large table dominated one wall of the kitchen and was surrounded by eight chairs. A basket of wildflowers sat on a white lace cloth in the center, surrounded by upturned glasses and folded napkins. Chris eased the little girl into one of the chairs and sat in the one next to her. Once more he watched his friend without his knowledge.
Vin held the sides of the chair as he sank down on the hard surface. His back grew continuously worse with each movement and he silently cursed his malady. 'Ain't fuckin' gettin' ol' Larabee,' he thought and winced as pain shot up into his shoulders. He lifted his head and met Larabee's worried gaze as just as the woman placed a pot of coffee and two cups on the table between them.
Molly set a glass of milk in front of the child and smiled at the tear stained face. "Everything's going to be okay, Honey. You just drink that milk and Molly will have you fed in no time."
"Thank you, Ma'am," Larabee said as the child picked up the glass and drank greedily.
"You're welcome, Chris. Now help yourself to the coffee. Dinner won't be long and you can get those two to bed," she said as she hurried back to the stove.
The gunslinger watched his friend for a reaction to the woman's words, but fear filled him as no protest was forthcoming. 'Have to ask Molly about a doctor,' he thought and saw the shaggy head come up and glare at him.
"We'll let the doctor..."
"I don't need a damn doctor. Jest need some of Nathan's rub."
"Lar'bee!" Tanner hissed, but there was more pain in his words than anger.
The gunslinger reached for the pot and filled both cups with the strong brew. He shoved one across to his friend and smiled at the barely audible 'thanks'.
Molly quickly filled three plates with the thick beef stew and reheated biscuits and placed one in front of each of her guests. She sat beside the girl and smiled as Mindy dipped her spoon into the simple, yet flavorful meal.
"When you're done with that I've got some sugar cookies," the woman told her and was delighted to see a real smile on the tired face.
Chris listened to the woman talking, but his eyes continued to study the ailing tracker. He knew by the unsteady movements that Vin was barely able to sit in the chair. Chris had to force himself not to say anything, knowing the quiet man hated being hurt, truth be told he did too. He ate his own meal and was glad when the sharpshooter finally finished his meal and yawned tiredly.
"Sounds like you need to get to bed," Molly said. "Come on and I'll show you where to bunk."
"Go on, Vin. I won't be far behind you."
Molly showed the younger man where the room was at the end of the hall. Vin was pleasantly surprised by the size of the beds and the breeze wafting through the curtains.
"If you need anything just let me know," the woman said as she closed the door behind her and returned to the kitchen.
Larabee looked up from his second cup of coffee as the woman came back. "Can you take care of Mindy for a few minutes. I'd like to go get her bag off the stage and check on our horses."
"Sure thing. Me and Mindy are gonna have some cookies. Aren't we Mindy?"
Chris was glad to see the child nod her head enthusiastically.
"Make sure you save one for me, Mindy!"
"I will," the girl agreed as she drank the last of her milk.
"You don't need to knock when you come back, Chris, just come right on in."
"Thanks, Molly. Is there a doctor in this town?"
"Dr. O'Malley. His office is at the end of the street opposite the general store. Just knock on the door and tell him you and your friend are staying here. He's a good man, Chris, and he'll be able to help your friend," she assured him.
Larabee nodded, turned and smiled at the little girl and walked towards the door. He heard Molly talking softly to the child and was relieved to know he was leaving her in good hands. He walked out the door and hurried out of the yard, making sure he barred the gate as he left. He frowned and his body tensed as a figure, outlined by the light of the street fire hurried towards him. Years of being a gunslinger in strange towns kept him on alert, but he slowly relaxed as he recognized the sheriff.
"Everything okay, Sheriff?"
"Yeah, fine, just thought you might be needin' these," he said as he passed Larabee the saddlebags.
"Thanks, I was just coming to get them."
"Also got the girl's bag here. Figured it was hers because it's full of little dresses and things."
"Yeah, guess it is hers," the gunslinger said as he threw the two saddlebags over his shoulder and continued down the street.
"Where are you headed?" Thompson asked.
Larabee knew the man was just trying to be friendly, but again his instincts were to give as little information as possible to strangers in unknown towns. He shook himself knowing this man would find out anyway. "Just have to check with your sawbones."
"Why? Is the little girl hurt?"
"No, she's fine, well as fine as any child would be after going through what she did."
"Well you don't seem to be ailin'. Must be your friend. Hope it's nothing serious."
'Me too,' Larabee thought as he walked beside Thompson.
"I'm sure he'll be fine. Just want to get the doc to take a look at him."
"Well, you let me know what Doc O'Malley says. Don't want to lose one of my witnesses before the judge gets here."
"When will that be?"
"He should be here Thursday. That gives your friend three days to rest up."
"You got a telegraph office, Sheriff?"
"Sure do. Just check with Tilly at the hotel. She runs the telegraph and the post office. She'll be able to help you out. But she's closed right now."
"Nothing to thank me for, Mr. Larabee. Just take care of my two witnesses," Thompson said as he walked towards the jail.
Chris smiled as he continued towards the house at the end of the street. He looked at the general store and smiled at the tiny doll in the window. He wondered why the store would be open at such a late hour, but hurried towards it. He pushed open the door and saw an elderly couple stocking shelves.
The woman stood up and smiled at the newcomer. "I'm sorry, Sir, but we're closed."
"Oh, sorry, Ma'am, saw the light and was hoping you were still open."
"Hey, ain't you one of the ones came in with the stage. You the one who saved that little girl?" the man said as he stood up and came forward.
Larabee nodded. "Came in on the stage..."
"Well in that case we're open. My name's Julia Winters and this is my husband Frank," the woman said. "Now what can I get for you, Mr. Larabee?"
Chris frowned, wondering how this women knew his name, and remembered how news travelled in small towns.
"How much is that doll you have in the window?"
"This one?" Julia asked as she picked up the tiny figurine.
"Yes, Ma'am," Larabee answered. The doll wore a fancy white lace dress with matching bonnet over dark hair.
"One dollar. I know it's a little costly, but it comes from France and is of the highest quality."
Larabee reached into his pocket and pulled out a coin. He knew he could find a cheaper doll, but something about this one seemed perfect for Mindy Lawrence and he handed the woman the money.
"Would you like me to wrap it for you?"
"No, thank you, Ma'am," he said as he took the doll from her.
"You're a kind hearted soul, Mr. Larabee," Julia Winters said of his gift for the little girl.
'Not many would agree with you, Ma'am. Most think my soul is as dark as the clothes I wear,' he thought as he nodded his thanks and left the store. He walked across the street and was stopped as the whispered words sounded on the breeze once more.
Chris turned in the street, gazing up and down the darkened rows of buildings, frowning as he realized he was completely alone.
'You're hearing things again, Larabee,' he thought as he hurried towards the small house. He knocked at the door and waited for it to be opened. When it did he was surprised to find a man not much older than Vin Tanner standing there. The hair was much shorter, the eyes a darker shade of blue, the hair almost rusty in color, and Chris wondered if this man could possibly be a doctor.
"Can I help you?"
"Hope so. I'm looking for Dr. O'Malley."
"Well then you can quit looking. I'm Jack O'Malley. What can I do for you?"
"It's not me. My friend hurt his back and I wanted the doctor."
O'Malley was used to this reaction from newcomers. He'd graduated at an early age, but the papers on his wall didn't mean much to people in the west. They wanted experience and experience came with age. This town had given him that chance without question when he'd come in on the stage five years ago. Now his home and his patients were here.
"Where is your friend? Can he come here?"
"He's at Molly Richmond's place and I'd rather not make him have to come down here."
"Is he in pain?"
"He won't admit it, but yeah he is."
"Oh, Hell, one of the stubborn types."
Larabee had to laugh at the doctor's choice of words.
"You could say that."
"Will he shoot me if I just show up."
"No, you'll be safe, but you might end up treating two patients."
"Ah, so he'll take it out on you, will he?"
"Alright. Just wait here 'til I get my bag. Might take a couple of minutes while I get some extra bandages just in case your friend does decide to shoot you," O'Malley told him.
Larabee watched the doctor step back inside the house and knew this was a man he could very well grow to like. He looked up and down the quiet street, enjoying the solitude of the evening. It wasn't long before O'Malley rejoined him and they walked out into the street.
"Never did get your name."
"And your friend?"
"How was he hurt?"
"Tangled with the man your sheriff has in his jail."
"The one that killed Tom and the woman?"
"Yeah. Vin found him just as he killed her and they fought."
"Where is he hurt?"
"His back. Think he probably twisted it during the fight."
"You know you boys are heroes."
"Not a hero, Doc, just doing what anyone else would've done if they'd been there."
"Not everyone, Mr. Larabee. Most folks are too scared to interfere in things they feel are none of their business. I wish that wasn't so, but I've seen it all too often."
"Who knows, maybe some day people will help each other without needing a reason."
"I hope you're right, but I don't expect to see it anytime soon. Although I must say it is refreshing to see it when it does happen. Well, here we are. Let's go see how your friend is doing."
Larabee moved through the gate as O'Malley held it open for him. Once they reached the door he eased it open and held it for the doctor.
"Chris," Mindy said excitedly as she spotted her new friend.
"Hi, Honey," Larabee said, dropping the saddlebags and her tiny suitcase on the floor beside the table.
"Evening, Molly, hear you have a guest who's in need of my services."
"I do, but he's a mite ornery." Molly looked towards the table, smiling at how gentle the man in black was with the child.
"I saved you a cookie, Chris," Mindy said and passed him the sugar cookie.
"Thank you, Mindy," Larabee said, accepting the offering form the small hand. "I've got something for you too," he said.
"For me?" she asked, excitement driving some of the fear from her face.
"That's right," The blond said and handed her the doll.
"As long as you want her," Larabee assured her.
"Then she's mine forever 'cause that's how long I want her. Can I take her to bed with me?" She asked, her eyes filled with hope.
"Of course you can and I think it's time for you to get ready for bed."
"I'll look after her, Chris," Molly said, reaching for the child's hand.
Mindy's arms wrapped tightly around Larabee's neck and he felt the slight tremble of the child's body against his own.
"I want to stay with Chris," she sobbed against him.
Molly held her hand up as Larabee went to speak. She knelt beside the little girl and waited for the small head to turn her way.
"Mindy, I know you want to stay with Chris, but he needs to help his friend. Remember I told you Vin was hurt?"
"He hurt h...his ba...back."
"That's right, and he needs his friend to help him feel better," the woman explained.
"Vin ne...needs y...you?" Mindy asked as she looked into Larabee's green eyes.
"Yes, Honey, he does. I won't be far away. Molly can help you get ready for bed and when you're ready I'll come tuck you in."
"Course I will," Chris said as he hugged her once more.
"Now, Little Lady, let's get you ready for bed," Molly said as the gunslinger passed her the child's bag. "Vin is in the room at the end of the hall on the right."
"Thanks, Molly," Larabee said, picking up a lamp and leading the doctor towards the room. He readied himself for the blow up he knew was about to come and shoved open the door. His eyes roamed over the darkened interior until they lit on the prone figure lying fully clothed under the window.
"Ya wanna take that fuckin' light outta here, Lar'bee?" Tanner asked without opening his eyes. He knew by the heavy tread that it wasn't the woman or the child.
"Can't do that yet, Tanner, got someone who's gonna take a look at you."
"What the fuck are ya talkin' 'bout?" The sharpshooter sat up and slid his legs over the side of the bed, wincing as shards of pain ripped threw his back, up into his shoulders.
"Brought the town's doctor to take a look at your back."
"Nuthin' wrong with my back."
"Well now, Mr. Tanner, I'd say there's something wrong with it."
"What the hell do ya know about it?"
"Guess Molly was right about you being a mite ornery," O'Malley said as he entered the room, but stood a little behind the gunslinger.
"Ain't orn'ry. Jest don't cotton ta folks stickin' their nose in my business. Goes fer..."
"Vin, shut up for a while will you? Look, let the doc take a look at you and we can both get some rest!" Larabee was used to the tracker's stubborn cussedness, but lack of sleep was making him a little short tempered as well.
"Was restin' 'til ya come bargin' the hell in!"
"That's not the way I saw it! You looked like you were in a shitload of pain!"
"Mr. Tanner, why don't you let me take a look at you and set your friend's mind at ease. He's been worried about you."
"Hell, Doc, ain't nuthin wrong with me!" Tanner snapped and stood up.
Chris moved to the tracker's side as he gasped in pain. He grabbed his arms and eased him back on the bed, ignoring the muttered curses and threats of being shot.
"We need to get his shirt off," O'Malley said, staying slightly back from the irate man.
"Vin, I'm gonna take off your coat and shirt and..."
"Do it m'self," Tanner hissed.
"Sure you can, but we ain't got all night! Now shut up and let me help you!" Larabee knew his friend was in more pain then he was letting on as the younger man grew quiet and let him ease him out of his clothes.
"Sorry, Vin," the blond whispered as he pulled the shirt from under the prone form.
"It's o...kay, Chris, not yer fault!"
"Are you ready to admit you need help?" Larabee asked.
"Not fuckin' likely," the tracker hissed, smiling at the look on his friend's face.
"Yeah, well, you're getting it whether you want it or not. He's all yours, Doc, and Vin," he waited until the sharpshooter looked at him. "Don't shoot the doctor."
"Don't plan on, b...but th...there's a gun...slinger m...might just get a ba...backside full of l....lead!" the Texan hissed.
Larabee smiled and turned to the doctor as Molly knocked on the door.
"You're safe, Doc, he won't do anything to you."
"Chris, Molly wants to know if you're ready to tuck her in?"
"Yeah, I'm ready," Larabee said. "I'll be back in a few minutes, Vin."
"Seems like I fu...ain't goin' nowhere," the tracker snapped, barely able to contain the curse from escaping his mouth.
Chris walked out of the room and Molly pointed to the room across the hall.
"She's in there, Chris, and she's certainly taken a shine to you."
"Yeah, I noticed that. It's gonna be hard when the time comes to say goodbye."
"Hard for both of you, I'm thinkin," she mumbled as he walked into the room.
"Hi, Mindy," Larabee said as he sat on the edge of the bed. She smiled as the child reached up and wrapped her arms around his neck. He rubbed her back and gently eased her down on the bed, wiping the tears from her eyes as he did so.
"I m...miss Aunt Fran, C...Chris," she sniffed.
"I know you do, Honey, but things are gonna be okay."
"Who's gonna take care of me now?"
"Me and Vin and Molly and lots of folks will take care of you until we can get you to your Nana and Papa."
"I can still go to Nana and Papa?" she asked, eyes bright with hope as she looked at the gunslinger.
"Of course you can, Honey. I'll send them a telegram tomorrow and we'll make arrangements to have you brought to them."
The little girl cried as her eyes closed and Chris rubbed her shoulder as she pulled the doll close to her chest. Memories of Adam brought a sad smile to his face, as he remembered soothing his son's fears in much the same way, only Adam had been holding a small calico horse.
"I can look after her now, Chris," Molly said as she came into the room.
Larabee looked down at the bed as to see a pair of frightened eyes looking up at him.
"It's okay, Mindy, I'll be right next door. Okay?"
"O...kay," the child said softly as her eyes closed.
Chris wiped the tears from her cheeks and stood up slowly. With a weary sigh he stretched the kinks out of his back and turned to the woman who'd given her home so freely.
"Thanks, Molly, come get me if she needs anything."
"I will. Now you go see to your friend and make sure you get some sleep when Jack leaves. There's coffee on the table in the kitchen if you want some."
Larabee nodded and moved across the hall to the second bedroom. He heard O'Malley giving Tanner instructions and moved towards the kitchen. He grabbed a cup and poured himself a fresh brew and walked back to the bedroom. He waited by the door, listening as the doctor made a thorough examination of his friend's back.
"Mr. Tanner, you're gonna need to lie still for a few days, maybe as long as a week..."
"Can't Doc, I got thin's ta do that don't include layin' on m'back..."
"You don't have a choice..."
"Always got a choice, Doc, jest don't tell Lar'bee...."
"Too late, Tanner," Larabee said, the hot cup held tightly in his grasp.
"Ah, fuck, how long ya been there?"
"Long enough..." He raised a single sandy brow and unleashed a knowing half-grin.
"Shit, Chris, we's goin ta Jasper! Gonna have some fun with Buck and Ez."
"We can go to Jasper when you're feeling better..."
"Feelin' fine, Lar'bee! Be ready to ride out at first light..." Tanner tried and pushed his body upwards, crying out as pain raced through his back.
"Sure you are, Mr. Tanner," O'Malley said as the lean body dropped back on the bed. He smiled as Larabee knelt beside him, concern written across the tired face.
"Sorry, Pard, right now we do as the doc says."
"Ah, hell!" the tracker gasped as the doctor's hands ran along his lower back.
"Sorry, Mr. Tanner, but you won't be able to move around much come morning anyway. I'm gonna give you a little Laudanum to help you sleep."
"Vin, I know you hate the stuff, but maybe it'll help you get some sleep," Larabee said sympathetically.
"...not much choice, Lar'bee..." The tracker accepted the dose of medicine from the doctor and tried to hide the pain from his friend.
O'Malley and Larabee watched until the medicine began to take hold of the injured man, easing him towards a restful sleep.
"Good night, Vin," Larabee said as the younger man finally grew quiet.
"Nigh', Ch...riss...Tha...nks....Doc," the sharpshooter slurred as the nagging pain ebbed away with his consciousness.
"Doc, is there anything I can do to make this easier for him?"
"Yes, Mr. Larabee..."
"Chris, first thing you need to do is get some sleep. You look almost as bad as your friend..."
"Sure you are. Just as fine as he is. Look, get a good night's sleep. When you wake up maybe you can apply hot towels to his back to ease the pain some. There's not much you can do, but let him rest. I don't think there's anything permanent, but if he goes moving around before his back had a chance to heal, well things could get a lot worse."
"How long should I keep him down?" Larabee inquired with concern. "
"A week should do it..."
"A week, ah hell, doc, give me something easy," the blond mumbled tiredly.
"He doesn't seem to like being cooped up," the doctor observed.
"Vin is a man who likes to do things himself...likes being in the thick of the action, so to speak, and there's not a better man to have watching your back."
"Well, right now, Chris, he needs you to watch his back, and I mean just that. You're gonna have to watch for any more swelling than what's already there. You're gonna need to find out from him if he's in more or less pain..."
"I'll do what needs to be done, Doc."
"I know you will. Now he should sleep through the night and I think you'd better take advantage of that bed over there. If he wakes through the night give him a little more of the laudanum. I'll send over some herbs for Molly to make him a tea with. It'll also help with the pain and maybe let him rest a little easier." O'Malley closed his bag and stood up, moving away from the bed.
"Rest really is the best thing for him, Chris," he said.
"Thanks, Doc," Larabee said, walking the physician to the door.
"You're welcome, Chris. I left the laudanum on the table in the room. Just make sure you don't give him too much. You saw how much I gave him?"
"Yeah," the blond said.
"Good, I'll come by sometime around noon."
Larabee nodded as the man moved out into the darkened street. He stood in the open door, framed by the dim light from inside the house. The fires had nearly died down now, and darkness swept across the town with the light breeze. The aroma of honey suckle and roses tickled his senses, but was quickly replaced by another, more cloying scent. Chris frowned as he moved down the narrow path, searching for the source of the nearly debilitating odor that seemed to move with him. His stomach churned at the strong nausea that forced bile into his throat. He leaned heavily against the fence, waiting for whatever it was to pass, feeling his legs grow weak as he tried to maintain his stance. His eyes clenched tightly as he fought to quell his rebelling stomach as the scent seemed to cut off his air, squeezing his chest until his lungs felt ready to burst. His head snapped up at the sound of two familiar words, whispered on the wind.
"Godammit, who the hell's there?" he shouted and everything stopped as suddenly as it started. The breeze that carried the sickening stench no longer moved the branches on the trees or flowers on the brush. The sound of laughter and music from the saloon made him frown. He realized there had been a total absence of sound when he walked out of the house with the doctor. The fires that were almost non-existent blazed in the center of the street, casting shadows across the buildings and alleys.
"Jesus!" Larabee hissed as he moved back towards the house. He felt a tingle of fear race down his spine, but fought it off. Chris extinguished the lamp in the kitchen. Then making sure everything was okay and headed for the room he'd share with his best friend.
He stood beside Tanner's bed for a moment, watching the slow rise and fall of his friend's body. Vin lay on his stomach. Soft snores were the only assurance that he was having a relatively peaceful sleep. Larabee lifted the blanket over the lean body, shaking his head at the whispered 'thanks' that issued from the slack lips.
Chris sank wearily onto of the small cot, sliding his boots off before lifting his legs onto the mattress. He blew out the lamp and lay awake, listening to the soft breathing from across the room. His eyes slowly closed and sleep soon wrapped him in a soft cloak, before dreams took over and his voice joined the snoring of his partner.
Larabee's sea green eyes opened, but didn't see the room he was in. Instead he saw things he didn't understand, heard things he didn't want to hear. His breathing was haggard as terror threatened to send him deeper into the nightmare realm he was already trapped in.
"Help us!" the words left his mouth as fear shone in his eyes, yet Larabee was still sleeping, unaware that he was speaking aloud in the darkened room.
Chris gasped for air, sucking it deep into his lungs as he sat upright in the bed. His heart pounded against his ribs, sending ripples of pain into his skull. His body shook with his heaving chest and drums beat behind the closed lids of his eyes. Sweat rolled off his forehead, making a trail of moisture down his cheeks and onto his chest. Fear seemed to be the only memory he had, but fear of what, of who, was out of his reach. The darkness only fueled his fear, and there didn't seem to be any oxygen in the room. He stood on unsteady legs and staggered to the window. He grabbed the bottom and shoved upwards, gasping the air as fast as his starving lungs could take it in. He hung out the window, trying to satisfy his body's sudden need for air, hoping to quell the fire burning in his chest.
The blond had no idea how long he stayed where he was, but as suddenly as the attack happened it left, leaving him nauseous and exhausted. He stood up and moved away from the window. With shaky hands he reached for the cloth in the basin, on the table between the two beds and quickly washed the evidence of fear from his face.
'God, where the hell did that come from?' he thought and moved towards the tracker, sinking into the chair beside Tanner's bed. He could see the younger man was still sleeping and he sighed heavily, closing his eyes. He lifted a shaky hand and cupped his lips in it, fighting to stay awake. He couldn't remember what was so terrifying about his dreams, but he knew he didn't want to return to it.
Time has a way of defeating a man's resolve. Chris Larabee spent the day, riding, helping a small child, toting a prisoner across the Bisti Badlands, and driving a stage into Farmington. He'd also had the added worry of an injured friend, all of this fought to make his attempts to stay awake a lost cause and his soft snores soon joined those of his friend.
As dawn attempted to cover the lands with the wondrous awakening of a new day, Chris' voice cried out in the semi dark room.
Vin heard the terrified voice from beside him and frowned.
"Mu...must be some...dr...dream, Cow...boy," he mumbled before the laudanum threatened to pull him back under. He sighed heavily, hoping whatever was bothering Larabee was over. 'Have to find out what it is,' he thought. By the time he woke the next morning, any memories of dreams and questions were gone, in the wake of the pain and stiffness in his body.
+ + + + + + +
Chris awoke before the sun had completely risen and shifted his stiff body in the chair. He opened his eyes and looked at the still sleeping form on the bed. Vin's face was relaxed and he was unaware of showing the pain he was feeling. The blond knew his friend tried to hide how much pain he was in, but he could see it on the haggard face.
Wincing as his back protested the night spent in the chair, Chris looked out at the town. The first streaks of the Dawn had just started to spread her wings over the horizon. Bringing with her the promise of another wondrous day, and beating back the horrors that sometimes came with the darkness. A shiver ran through his body as he tried to remember the dreams from the night before, but they stayed on the edge of his vision. There, yet not there, and he forced a smile to his face as he felt a soft breeze caress his face.
The gunslinger heard someone moving around in the kitchen. He knew the sounds of someone preparing a meal. He could hear bacon sizzling on a hot skillet and pots being placed on a stove. He smiled as the aroma of biscuits, bacon, and coffee assaulted his senses, and turned away from the window. Before leaving the room, Chris checked on the sleeping man. Satisfied that his friend would be okay he walked into the kitchen, just as Molly Richmond took a tray of biscuits from the oven.
"Well good morning, Chris. Did ya sleep well?"
"Yes, Ma'am," he lied as he moved towards the table.
"Would you like some coffee?"
"Told you to call me, Molly, Chris."
Larabee couldn't help, but smile at the friendly woman as she placed a cup of steaming black liquid before him.
"Thanks, Ma...Molly," he corrected.
"You're welcome. Is your friend still sleeping?" she asked, cracking two eggs into a cast iron skillet.
Chris smiled at the sizzling sound of the eggs hitting the butter and knew he could get used to this woman's cooking.
"Yeah, he's still sleeping, but not for long if he gets a whiff of those biscuits. How's Mindy?"
"She's still sleeping. The poor thing's been through so much."
"Yes, she has. She's seen things children her age shouldn't even know about."
"Sometimes there are things even adults shouldn't have to see," Molly told him. She flipped the eggs onto a plate and placed it in front of the lean gunslinger. The bacon and biscuits were already in the center of the table.
The blond smiled as the muffled, but familiar, 'Ah, hell!' came from the room he shared with the tracker.
"Just like clockwork," he said, standing up to check on his friend.
"Well, now, you just tell him to stay in that bed and I'll bring his breakfast to him. No sense in him aggravating that back of his," the woman ordered and cracked two more eggs into the skillet.
"I'll tell him, but..."
"No buts, Chris. You just tell him it's Molly's orders if he wants bacon, biscuits and eggs. If he gets outta that bed I'll just fix him up some real thick mush."
Chris laughed as the woman threatened Tanner with the one thing that might keep him in the bed. The younger man loved to eat, but there were limits to what he considered good food. Mush was on the bottom of his list.
'Hell, it's on the bottom of mine too,' he thought as he hurried to check on his friends.
He pushed open the door and walked to the bed as his friend tried to sit up. "Easy there, Vin."
"Ain't nothin' easy 'bout it!" the tracker winced as he forced his body to obey his commands.
"Just lie still..."
"Can't!" the sharpshooter hissed and gingerly sat up, rubbing his hand along his lower back.
"Why the hell not?" the blond asked, shaking his head at the stubborn man.
"Why did ya think?" Tanner said sheepishly of his full bladder.
"Ah, shit, sorry, Pard!" the gunslinger said with a grin.
"Not funny, Lar'bee. Just help me git the fuck outta here for I..."
"Alright, just hang on to me and we'll..."
"We'll nothin', Lar'bee! Been takin' care've business on my own since I's able ta walk. Just git me outside!"
"No need to go outside. Chamber pot's in the corner there."
"Git!" Vin drilled, "Man needs a little privacy...wouldn't wantcha gettin' all jealous or nothin'."
"Funny, Tanner," Larabee grinned and helped the younger man stand up.
"Can you handle it from here?"
"Ain't down there I got a problem wit', Lar'bee," the tracker winced as he walked the short distance to the dry sink and lifted the lid. "Git out will ya?"
"I'll be just outside the door," the blond told is friend.
Vin knew the gunslinger was worried about him, but he hated being watched over. He nodded his head and heard the door close behind him. He hated not being able to do things for himself, yet there were times when he had little choice.
Chris waited a few minutes before knocking on the door. A muffled curse told him to enter and he shook his head at the stubborn sharpshooter. The younger man sat on the edge of the bed, tugging on his pants. The face screwed up in a tight grimace of pain as the long-haired man tried to bend far enough to pull them on. Chris was quickly at his side, catching the tracker before he hit the floor.
"Son of a bitch!" the injured man snarled as he was helped back to the bed.
"Yeah, just need ta git me some of that food I keep smellin'." Tanner stood up and headed for the door, smiling weakly at the woman standing there.
Molly folded her arms across her chest, blocking the exit. She frowned at the young man swaying beside the bed.
"Guess the stubborn man must like mush. Funny he didn't seem the type," she said.
"Mush, Ah shi...shoot, Ma'am," the tracker corrected as he leaned heavily on the blond.
Larabee smiled as the tracker looked disgusted. Taking pity on his friend he explained.
"Molly, Vin's gonna go right back to bed, aren't you, Pard?"
"Not if'n I gotta eat mush!"
"Well, Vin," Molly said. "If you go back to bed I'll bring you a tray of bacon, eggs, and biscuits."
"Coffee?" the tracker asked hopefully.
Tanner smiled as Larabee eased him back no the bed. "Lots of sugar?"
Molly laughed as she looked at the two friends. "You're a man after my own heart, Vin...lots of sugar it is." She turned and walked away from the room.
"Least now I know why you can drink that shit you call coffee," the blond laughed.
"Wha' the fuck's that mean?"
"You drown the taste with sugar."
"Fuck'n ungrateful...see if'n I make ya anymore..."
Larabee just smiled at his friend, as the younger man glared at him from the stack of pillows he now rested against.
Chris smiled as the woman came back into the room and placed a tray on the tracker's lap.
"Thank you, Ma'am," the Texan drawled softly.
"It's Molly, and you're welcome, Vin. Now you eat up and go on back to sleep," the woman said, humming as she left the room.
"Slept 'nough." Vin winced as he moved on the bed.
"Got something for you," Larabee said and offered his friend the laudanum. "No point in arguing, Vin, I can see you need it."
"Ain't arguin'...just hate needin' it."
"I know," Larabee said as the tracker reluctantly took the medication.
"Git yer scrawny ass out there and eat yer breakfast," the sharpshooter smiled as he dug into the meal, ignoring Larabee's indignant answer.
+ + + + + + +
Chris checked on the tracker before heading for the hotel. He knew the sheriff would be over to talk to Vin and Molly around noon. He wanted to get a wire off to Buck and Ezra before the two men heard from the others. He knew the men in Four Corners would be wondering if they made it safe and sound. When they didn't hear from them, they'd send a wire to find out if he and Vin made it. He didn't want the two men in Jasper, and the three in Four Corners to worry about them. He walked into the hotel, and made his way to the desk. A man stood behind it and looked up over a pair of black rimmed glasses. His hair was silver, eyes grey, and the smile reminded Chris of Josiah Sanchez.
"What can I do fer ya, young fella?"
Chris bit back a laugh at being called young fella, smiling as the elderly man stood up.
"I need to send a telegram to Jasper and Four Corners."
The man turned towards the back room and shouted, "Tilly!"
"What the heck are ya shoutin' 'bout, Burt?"
Chris smiled at the woman who stepped through the door. She couldn't be much younger than the man behind the desk and Chris knew these two were married.
"Oh, why didn't ya say we had company. Are you lookin' for a room?"
"Hell, Tilly, rooms are my job. If he wanted one I'd'a taken care of 'im."
"Well what's he want, ya ol' coot."
Chris tried not to laugh at the antics of the elderly couple, but was unable to keep the twinkle from his eyes. These two must've had a hell of a marriage if their actions were any indication.
"Yer still as sassy as ya ever were and I'm bettin' I can still haul ya across my knee."
"Now don't be talkin' 'bout our...Oh never mind," she smiled and looked towards the newcomer.
"What can I do for ya?"
"Well, Ma'am, the sheriff said you were the lady...."
"Lady? Hank called Tilly a lady? Hell, man's gettin' soft," Burt said as he turned back to his paper.
Chris didn't miss the affectionate tap he gave his wife's behind, and he felt at ease in their presence.
"Don't pay him no never mind, Mr..."
"Larabee, Ma'am, Chris Larabee."
"Well, Mr. Larabee, what can I do for you?"
"I'd like to send a couple of telegrams. One to Jasper, one to Four Corners."
"Four Corners," Molly said wistfully. "Passed through there once, never went back. There were more guns there than ol' Burt there's got wrinkles. Who do ya want them sent to?"
"Buck Wilmington and Ezra Standish in Jasper."
"Must be poker players if they're in that town, "she leaned across the desk and whispered. "Or else they's visiting that fancy massage parlor Burt likes ta visit. Ol' coot thinks I don't know," she cackled as she wrote the names Larabee gave her.
"Yes, ma'am," Larabee said with a knowing smile.
"Who do I send it to in Four Corners?"
"JD Dunne," Larabee answered, knowing the young sheriff would make a daily run to the telegraph office.
"Okay, now whatcha want me ta tell 'em?"
"Also need to send one to St. Louis?"
"Rupert Lawrence," Larabee answered.
"Alright, now why don'tcha tell me what ya want me ta say to 'im?"
While she was sending the messages, his mind returned to the horrible night's events. Once more he tried to grasp the nightmares, but without success. He left the hotel and looked out over the town of Farmington, wondering why he suddenly wished they'd never left Four Corners.
A feeling of foreboding shrouded him as he hurried along the street. His mind turned to the two people who were depending on him. One his best friend; the other an innocent child who'd been forced to watch as her beloved aunt was murdered. He looked towards the house, smiling as the soft breeze carried the sweet scent of honeysuckle to him again. A frown formed as quickly as the smile and he remembered a strong sense of nausea the night before. He tried to remember why this scent would make him nauseous. Then the sheriff's voice caught his attention and he turned towards the older man.
Chris turned towards the jail and saw the sheriff standing in the doorway. He changed direction and slowly walked over to him.
"How's your friend?"
"Better. The doc says he needs to stay off his feet for a while."
The sheriff frowned as he looked at the gunslinger.
"Will he be able to testify when the circuit judge gets here?"
"Vin'll be there."
"Good. You look like you could use a coffee...got plenty." Thompson offered.
Larabee looked at the other man and knew he could trust him. He nodded once and followed the sheriff into the jail. He pulled a second chair up to the desk and watched as Thompson poured him a cup of coffee. The door to the back room that housed the cells was closed, but Chris could hear the sound of shuffling feet as Clark paced back and forth.
"Thanks," the blond said and sipped the strong black liquid. "Not bad."
"Carolyn makes the best coffee around." His eyes lifted to meet those of his guest and he smiled. "Say, have you had breakfast, Mr. Larabee? My wife has a tendency to make too much..."
"It's Chris, Sheriff, " the blond returned with a small smile, "and thanks, but I've eaten."
"Well, Chris, you're missing out on a treat, but I'm sure whatever Molly fed ya was up to her usual standards."
"That she is," the sheriff agreed and knew it was time to get down to the real reason he'd wanted to speak with the gunslinger. "What about the little girl, Chris? Will she be ready to testify?"
"She's frightened...misses her aunt." He noted, sipping on the fine brew.
"Think she'll be able to tell the judge what she saw?"
"It'll be hard for her, but I think she's okay to identify Clark. Just hope the judge doesn't want her goin' into detail about what she saw." The gunslinger couldn't help but feel angry at what the child would have to go through. He knew it would be like living the whole horrifying experience over again.
"Judge Spencer is a fair man. He won't let any harm come to the child, but he will want to know everything."
"Vin can tell him what happened."
"Did he see Clark murder the woman?" Thompson asked hoping they could spare the little girl having to testify.
"Haven't really had a chance to ask him what he saw."
The sheriff looked at the man seated across from him. Something about Larabee oozed danger, and he sensed the man would do anything to protect his friend. He picked up the coffee pot and refilled his cup before asking.
"Think he's up to talking to me?"
"Not sure. Doc says he needs to rest. Laudanum is helping some."
"Well, I'd like to talk to him while things are still fresh in his mind."
"Alright," Larabee said, resigned to the fact this man did need to talk to Vin Tanner sooner or later. He just wished it could have been later rather than sooner. The two men finished the coffee and stood up. They walked out of the office and Chris waited for the other man to close the door.
"What about Clark?"
"Jamie is sitting over there. He likes to call himself my deputy and keeps an eye on things whenever I leave."
"He's 24 and knows what he's doing...just don't tell him I said that," Thompson said with a grin.
"Jamie, I'll be at Molly's if you need me!"
"All right, Sheriff!" the young man said, turning his attention back to the jail.
Each lost in thought, the pair walked towards the home at the end of the street.
Thompson nodded at the town's people and called greetings to them as they passed. He kept glancing at the gunslinger, knowing the people of the town would be asking questions about the newcomers. Most of them already knew about the murders, but not the details, and he needed to keep those secret until the judge arrived and the trial began.
+ + + + + + +
Molly Richmond heard the door open and walked out of the kitchen. She smiled at the blond haired man and the sheriff.
"How's Mindy?" Larabee asked.
"She's doing just fine. Aren't ya Mindy?" she asked as the little girl joined her in the doorway.
"Chris, I'm helping Molly make cookies," the child said as she moved past the woman and wrapped her arms around the blond's leg.
"I can see that," the blond laughed as he easily lifted the child. He used his finger to wipe away the dough from her mouth.
"Oh, that's 'cause Molly says we need to taste it to make sure it got the right 'gredients. " Mindy said and smiled at him.
"I believe Molly is right," Larabee said and placed her back on the floor.
"Me and Molly are gonna make lots of cookies for you and Vin."
"That's great, Mindy. Now how about you finishing those cookies. I know I would love some and I bet they'd make Vin feel better too."
"Ya think so?" the child asked.
"Oh, I know he will," he looked at the owner of the boarding house and smiled as she took the little girl by the hand.
"Come on, Mindy, let's see if we can get some of them cookies in the oven."
"Can I taste the dough again?"
"Course ya can, but only if I can too," she smiled at the chuckle from the child as she led her into the kitchen.
"This way, Sheriff," Larabee said as he walked down the hall towards the room he shared with the tracker. He pushed open the door and smiled as he saw the almost serene look on the sleeping man's face. Vin was on his stomach, his hands under his head and his face turned slightly down and to the right. The gunslinger could see the towel still in place across the younger man's back. He turned to face the sheriff before easing the door partially closed. Chris was intent on asking him to come back later in the day when the soft Texan drawl met his ears.
Larabee frowned as he pushed the door open. Vin Tanner was a man who rarely slept deeply, but the laudanum should have kept him out for a while longer. The fact that he was awake now, was testament to how much his back was bothering him.
"How are you feeling, Vin?" the worried gunman asked.
"Don't look fine."
"Still look better'n...yer...sorry...old...ass..." the tracker said, trying to lighten the worry on his friend's face.
Larabee couldn't help but smile at the softly spoken words. He walked over to his friend and sat in the chair by the bed so the younger man would not have to strain in order to see him.
"Feel like talking to the sheriff?" Larabee asked.
"...'kay...," the tracker hissed.
"Sheriff," Larabee said, nodding to the bedside chair. He was glad to see the lawman had sense enough to close the door so the conversation wouldn't reach the child's ears.
Hank Thompson sat in the chair and studied the pale face looking sideways at him. Something about this young man struck him instantly. The accent and broken English spoke of an uneducated man, but there was an intelligence in the blue orbs. The sheriff realized there was more to the tracker than met the eye.
"What can I do fer ya, Sheriff?"
"Well, Mr. Tanner, I'd like you to tell me everything that happened when you caught up with the stage."
"Saw Clark draggin' somethin' inta the bushes...didn't know it was a woman at the time. The driver hangin' o'er the side and knew he's dead. Thar's a girl in the stage and she was cryin' and sayin' somethin' about her aunt," the tracker frowned as he tried to remember everything.
Chris could tell the sharpshooter was thinking about the dead woman and whether he could've done something to save her life. His eyes sent a silent message to the younger man. A message he hoped the tracker would understand and grab on to. 'You did everything you could, Vin.'
"Go on," the sheriff said as the silence seemed to go on indefinitely.
"Knew Chris was comin' so I left the girl on the stage and chased Clark. Bastard had already stabbed the woman...she's dead," his voice was soft and filled with sadness as he remembered the image of the knife embedded in the woman's chest. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes to ward off the image and the on coming pain. He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked gratefully into a pair of tired sea green eyes. A new memory came to his mind, an image of the gunslinger sitting beside his bed, moaning as if caught in a nightmare.
"Here, Vin," Larabee said as he held a cup in front of his friend.
The sharpshooter eased painfully up on his elbows, wincing at the pain that spread through his back. He drank the offered liquid gratefully, glaring at the blond as the bitter taste of laudanum registered in his mind.
"You need it, Pard."
"Ain't argu'n...but ya coulda warned me." The tracker sank back onto the bed and waited for the discomfort to pass.
"I'll remember that next time," the blond said and moved out of the way in order for the sheriff to finish his questions.
"Did you actually see Clark stab the woman?" Thompson asked.
"Yeah, but I couldn't stop 'im. He pulled the knife back out an' we fought...tha's how I hurt my back. Twisted it the wrong way takin' that sonofabitch down...only he didn't stay down. Tha's when Chris showed up. Stopped Clark from usin' the blade on me." The tracker turned to Larabee and nodded his thanks.
"What happened then?"
"Chris can tell ya better'n I can."
The sheriff turned to the gunslinger and waited for him to continue the tale.
"I arrived at the stage, but couldn't see Vin or Clark. The child was screaming and I knew I needed to take care of her. She was hysterical and fought me at first, but I finally got her calmed down enough to find out what happened. She fainted a few minutes later and I left her there while I went to help Vin. Pushed through the brush and knew there was nothing I could do to help the woman. Clark had a knife and was about to use it on in. I couldn't get a clear shot of anything but his arm and I short the knife from his hand."
"Wondered why you didn't shoot to kill," the sheriff said.
"It crossed my mind, but there was no chance with him being so close to Vin and the two of them fighting."
"Okay, so you shot the knife out of his hand. What happened next?"
The blond looked at the injured man and they both smiled as they remembered what the murderer tried to do.
"Clark tried to blame the murder on Vin, said Vin attacked him. Bastard didn't know we rode together."
"Guess he was surprised," the sheriff said with a grin.
"Y...yeah....he...s...sure...was," the tracker said, fighting to keep his eyes open.
"I think that's all for today. You go on and get some rest, Mr. Tanner," the sheriff said sympathetically.
"Not much ch...oice," the Texan drawled as his eyes slid closed. He didn't feel the gunslinger ease the blanket up over him or hear the two men leave him alone in the room once more. A soft sigh issued form his lips as a final thought entered his mind before he slipped into a laudanum induced sleep. Instantly he was thrown into a nightmare. Visions of Chris Larabee's face locked in pain, his voice calling for help, yet receiving no answer.
The dreams would plague his subconscious upon awakening, yet remain locked elusively beyond his reach.
Larabee and Thompson stood in front of the closed bedroom door and spoke softly, again keeping their voices low.
"Do you think Mindy could answer a couple of questions, Larabee?"
"Is it really necessary, Sheriff?"
"Well she's gonna have to answer them sooner or later."
"Later," he issued tersely, the 'father' in him coming out. "She's been through hell and I'd hate to see her upset again."
"Alright, guess we can put it off until the judge gets here, but she's gonna have to talk about it at the trial."
"Wish there was some way we could spare her that."
"I do too, Chris. A child should not have to be put through that, but we need her testimony to remove any doubt that Clark did murder Tom and the woman."
"When did you say the judge will get here?"
"Should be here in a few days."
Larabee nodded as he turned his gaze on the closed bedroom door.
"Least that'll give Vin a chance to rest his back."
"He seems like a good man."
"He is. Saved my life a time or two."
Thompson heard the undertone of pride in the gunslinger's voice. "I hear you boys have done a fine job of cleaning up Four Corners."
"We did what had to be done."
"Yeah, well I'm sure Steven Travis would've been glad the place was cleaned up."
Larabee looked at the other man and frowned at the his words.
"You knew Travis?"
"Yeah, I knew him when he first started the Clarion. Was there on business for Judge Spencer. Me and Carolyn visited there a time or two after that. Wasn't often enough though because of the distance." He knew Larabee was only partially listening to him and studied the face for a few seconds before continuing.
"We didn't keep in contact much, but I knew Steven and Mary went through some tough times with that paper. I'm glad she's kept it running. Heard you saved their boy's life and brought Steven's murderer to justice."
"We caught the bastards, but it was Billy who brought them to justice, least it was his testimony that did it. He's a tough little kid."
"What about Tanner?"
"What about him?" Larabee's glare turned deadly.
"Just wondered how you two became friends. I know he's got a price on his head..."
"This isn't Texas!" he snarled, his voice changing from cool to glacial as he glared at the man standing before him. 'It's my fault we can't prove it,' he thought as a picture of Eli Joe raising a knife to Vin Tanner came to mind. He swallowed painfully as he realized that was the one time he wished he hadn't shot to kill, but Vin's life hung in the balance.
"I believe you, Chris, and if there's anything I can do to help just let me know."
"We'll handle it," he warned softly, as they walked towards the door.
Larabee's voice may have been soft, but there was no mistaking the underlying warning in it. Thompson realized he was better off leaving it alone for now. "I'll let you know when I hear from the judge, Chris."
"Alright, Sheriff. Thanks for not pushing it with Mindy," the blond said as he watched the man leave.
Thompson stood outside the door and wondered how a man's reputation could possibly be so wrong. He'd heard that Chris Larabee was a man with a black heart who didn't give a damn about anything or anyone. That was not the case, at least not from what he'd seen. The gunslinger's concern for the injured tracker and the child were perfect examples of a man whose soul was still intact in spite of his brief stint in darkness.
+ + + + + + +
It was just past three p.m. the following day. Chris sat in the porch swing, nursing an ice cold glass of lemonade. Vin was still sleeping and he knew that was what his friend needed right now. O'Malley seemed like he knew what he was doing, but Chris wished Nathan Jackson was here. The former slave didn't have a certificate on his wall, but he did have what was needed to be a natural healer. Sometimes Jackson felt inadequate about his abilities, but the six men he rode with saw nothing inadequate in the kind-hearted man.
He took another sip of the tangy liquid and smiled as the door to the boarding house opened and Mindy Lawrence hurried out. Her brown hair was pulled back in a pony tail and her eyes were wide with excitement as she held out a plate with four misshaped cookies.
"Look what I made for you and Vin, Chris," she said, bouncing on her feet in delight as he reached out and took one of the golden brown sugar cookies. She watched expectantly as he bit into the still warm offering.
"...best cookie I ever tasted," the handsome blond praised with a wide smile, giving the pint-sized chef's eyes a sparkle.
"I made them especially for you and Vin. Molly says I'm a real good helper. She says she'll teach me how to make a cake tomorrow."
The child's words were spoken in a hurry and reminded Chris of a time when Sarah let Adam help her bake. His son had been just as excited by his accomplishment as Mindy, and Chris had forced down the burnt cookies, thinking they were the best he'd ever had. He faltered as the memory gained momentum and he realized that was the day before he'd lost his wife and son to the whims of a madwoman. The smile returned as he thought of the happiness he'd shared with his family in the few short years they'd been granted. He felt a hand touch his arm and looked into the child's soft brown eyes.
"Chris, why are you sad?"
He pulled her down beside him and took a deep breath before speaking, and watched as she placed the plate of cookies on floor beside them.
"I'm not sad, Mindy. I was just remembering something that happened."
"It must've been sad, 'cause your eyes got all wet and your mouth wasn't like it is now. I'm sad 'cause I lost my Ma and Pa and my auntie Fran," she said, tears filling her eyes as she looked at him.
"Well, Mindy, it's okay to feel sad, but you know your Pa and Ma wouldn't want you to be sad, would they?"
"N...No," she sniffed.
"And neither would your Auntie Fran, right?" Larabee held her close to him as soft sobs reached his ears.
"R...right," she hiccupped.
"Then we need to do as they would want us to. We need to smile and be happy because they'll always be with you."
"They will?" she asked, big brown eyes widening even further.
"Of course," he said lifting her up on his knee.
"When you think of them does it feel funny here?" He asked as he touched her chest.
"Feels all warm."
"That's because they are in your heart and that warm feeling is them telling you they love you."
"Really?" she asked excitedly.
"Really," Larabee nodded and felt her small arms wrap around his neck. Again he remembered Adam and the hugs he'd shared with his son. Hugs that would stay with him forever and he smiled as he felt a warmth surround his own heart.
"Who were you thinking about, Chris?" Mindy asked as she looked into the sea green eyes.
Larabee smiled as he placed a finger under her chin and answered honestly.
"I was thinking of my little boy. He was a lot like you...and loved baking cookies with his Ma."
"Where is he?" Mindy asked with childlike innocence.
"Him and his mother died a long time ago," Larabee answered, knowing the four years since their death wasn't long, yet it felt like he'd been without them forever.
"Do you get all warm here when you think about them?" Mindy asked, placing her hand over Chris' heart.
"Yes, I do," he said, a single tear forming in each eye and slipping out unnoticed.
The child smiled and wiped the moisture off his face as excited words tumbled from her mouth.
"Then they're with you too! So me and you don't need to cry no more! Right?"
"Right," the gunslinger laughed as he picked her up and swung her around. "Now why don't we see if Molly has any more lemonade and see if Vin's awake. I'm sure he'd love one of your yummy cookies."
"Vin's got a real sweet tooth and he's gonna love these cookies," the blond assured her as he set her on the ground.