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- M7 -
"Ezra, that the ridge?" Josiah asked from where he sat astride Apostle.
The gambler, adrift in a half-sleep, roused and peered below the wagon seat. "Yes, I believe we need to... proceed... toward that area there," he motioned with his left hand toward a specific spot on the ridge.
Nodding, Josiah spurred his chestnut forward. "JD, time ta leave the road."
Looking at the uneven landscape, then back to the pale and injured southerner propped up in the wagon bed, JD sighed.
Smiling, Mary positioned herself so that she could support Standish. She looked up at the young sheriff. "Go ahead, JD, we'll manage back here."
"Yes, ma'am," Dunne nodded resolutely and coaxed the team to follow Nathan and Josiah. Behind him he heard Ezra groan softly.
- M7 -
Buck Wilmington stood up slowly, trying not to aggravate the deeper gouges in his chest and back. He looked down at the man he had just dragged out of the cave. Somehow he had managed to kill all three of the cultists, suffering only a minor flesh wound in the process. He still wasn't certain how he had managed it, and finally chalked it up to a blind rage. But, by all rights he should be lying dead on the floor of the cave. Instead he had just dragged the third body from the cave and deposited next to the other two.
Looking around, he stopped; his breath expelled in a loud "whoop!" of excitement. In the near distance he saw a little group of travelers, coming steadily closer. The sight put a spring in his step and he hurried back up the incline to the cave.
Inside, Vin was lying next to Chris. Buck had moved the other bedroll close to Chris and made the younger man as comfortable as possible on it. He was still unconscious, but making noises and movements that indicated he was beginning to return to consciousness. Tapping the tracker lightly on the cheek, Buck said quietly, "Vin? You hear me? Vin?"
"Yeah..." the word was nearly delivered as a moan. Pale blue eyes fluttered open slowly, but with a cry Tanner shut them again, tightly, and covered his face with a trembling hand.
Buck had seen that reaction before; men who could not bear even the faintest light after taking a bad hit to the head. Rinsing one of the kerchiefs in water from the canteen, he squeezed it out and folded it over Vin's eyes.
The hunter relaxed visibly. "Thanks..."
"I just spotted the others comin' this way --" Buck began.
Jerking, the tracker made to rise. Wilmington laid a restraining hand on him. "Hey, pard, take it easy now."
"But, th' others... comin'..."
Buck realized then what the other man was thinking. "Hold on now, I mean Ezra and the others." He let go of the hunter. "They oughta be here 'bout anytime."
"Better... go watch... their... backs..." Again he struggled to rise.
""Whoa now son, you lay still. I'll get you and Chris looked after, then I'll go watch out for 'em." Moving swiftly to do just that, the former lawman reached carefully into the hunter's coat. "Vin? I'm gonna borrow your spyglass. Okay?"
Not trusting himself to move his head without screaming or vomiting, Vin whispered, "Yeah."
- M7 -
"There," Standish said in a voice so quiet that Mary barely heard him.
Raising a trembling hand, he pointed to a non-descript area of the ridge, "There," he repeated.
"Josiah," Mary called, "Ezra says it's there."
Following the woman's outstretched hand, Sanchez surveyed the area with meticulous care. Suddenly he grinned and waved.
JD looked at the preacher as if he had lost his mind. "Josiah, what are you doing?"
Turning the broad smile toward their youngest member, the former preacher said, "Glint of light in glass up there. Imagine Vin's up there, watchin' over us." Then, gauging the open expanse of ground, he said, "We ought to be there in less than half an hour."
"Yeah, and what if it's one a them crazy men that took Chris? How can you be sure, Josiah?" Nathan leveled a gaze on his friend.
"Faith, brother, faith."
"How's Ezra holdin' up, Mrs. Travis?" Nathan asked from the other side of the wagon, shaking his head at his friend's comment.
Taking in the injured man's pale face, trembling hands and pained expression, Mary looked back at the healer with a worried expression. "He could use some rest-- somewhere where the bed isn't on the move."
"I'm... f-fine..." Ezra said through clenched teeth. "I'll r-rest... when we... get there..."
"Ezra," Nathan said, "that your pride and stubbornness talkin', or the truth?"
"T-the... truth, Mr... Jackson." He looked as if he would say more, but the pain caused him to change his mind. Instead, he clenched his jaw to keep from crying out.
Taking a long look at the other man, Nathan turned his gaze toward Mary. His eyes told her that he hardly believed Standish's words, but he said, "Reckon he'll hold up 'til we get to where Chris and th' others are."
- M7 -
"Buck?" Vin spoke softly at the sound of footsteps.
"Yeah, it's me, Vin," Wilmington said. "Ezra and the rest of 'm ought to be here pretty soon. How you feelin'?"
"Like hell... ain't never had... a h-headache... this bad... b'fore..."
"Yeah, whatever they hit ya with, they hit ya hard. Nathan will be able ta help, I'm sure. Just hold on 'til he gets here, okay?"
"Ain't nothin' else...to do." Vin said, managing a small smile through the pain.
Gently patting the man's shoulder, he moved to sit between him and Larabee. Dampening the kerchief again, he began bathing Chris' face. He started slightly when his friend's eyes opened. "Chris?"
Hazel eyes slowly tracking in the dim light, the gunslinger finally settled on the smiling face next to him.
"Hey! How ya feelin' cowboy?"
"Not...c-cow...boy..." Chris whispered.
With a hearty laugh, Buck said, "Yes sir, I'll remember that."
Favoring him with the shadow of a smile, the gunslinger closed his eyes once more.
- M7 -
"Ezra, it's gonna be a long, hard walk," Josiah said to the gambler. "There's no shame in havin' me and Nathan help you."
"Helping... fine... but not... carrying," Standish said, pushing himself off the wagon bed. He promptly folded up on the ground with a pain-filled moaned.
Looking across the writhing man, Josiah sighed, "Reckon he's changed his mind?"
"Anything's possible... even for a stubborn Reb," Nathan said quietly. Along with Sanchez, he bent down and picked up the smaller man. Together they carried him toward the cave that held their wounded leader and the others of the group. Mary and JD, loaded down with blankets and medical supplies, followed them.
Just as they reached the little plateau outside the cave, Buck greeted them from above. He had been watching their ascent and making certain that no one else was doing the same. "You boys get confused? We needed you ta come pick up an injured man, not deliver one!" Hopping down from his perch, he took in the semi-conscious man's pale features. "What happened?"
"He caught a bullet on the way into town. The wound itself isn't bad, but he lost a lot of blood," Nathan informed him. "He was afraid ta stop long enough ta tend it, said he couldn't be sure it wouldn't be too long ta help Chris."
"Damn," Buck muttered and silently took back everything he had thought about the gambler during the past several hours. Finally, he truly believed that Ezra was worthy of the trust and friendship of the rest of the group known as the Magnificent Seven. Ezra was a member of their number.
"Am I to... remain here in this rather...awkward...position or could we...perchance go inside?" The question came from the man couched between the healer and the holy man.
Glancing worriedly at Mary and JD, Wilmington said, "It ain't pretty in there."
"Chris?" The worry rang clearly in the newspaper woman's voice.
"He woke up a couple a times," Buck tried to reassure her, "seems ta know us an' all. But... Mary they did some...pretty nasty things ta him."
"Brother Standish filled us in on what happened," Josiah said.
"Good sign, him knowin' you," Nathan said. Then his handsome face wrinkled in a frown. "Where's Vin?"
"Inside, " Buck paused and then added. "We had some trouble earlier."
"What kind of trouble?" Josiah asked.
"Got himself cold-cocked. I'll fill ya in later. Let's go ahead inside," leading the way, Wilmington took them into the cave.
Once inside, their eyes adjusting to the dim light, the others stopped cold. They each realized that despite Ezra's graphic description, they were not prepared for what they saw. Nathan cursed under his breath; Josiah muttered something that sounded suspiciously like a prayer. Mary's hand flew to her mouth in an effort to stifle a cry at the sight of the man's battered body. JD, having only second-hand information from Josiah, could only stare mutely at his hero.
If anything, Larabee looked worse than he had, Ezra decided. The burns and cuts were beginning to show signs of infection. His face was dark with bruises and flushed with fever. He tossed his head back and forth weakly, caught in the grip of another fever dream.
"Gentlemen...might I request that you put me...down?" The gambler's voice, as quiet as if they were in a church, shocked them back into reality.
Having JD spread a blanket on the cave floor, Nathan and Josiah carefully lowered the southerner to it. Leaving Standish in Sanchez's care, Jackson moved to examine the other two men. Josiah set out to clean and re-bandage the man's wound.
Mary moved to sit next to Chris, careful to stay out of the healer's way. Reaching out a trembling hand, she touched Chris' face.
Buck, taking in the young sheriff's pale face and reluctance to move unless directed, said, "JD, why don't you 'n me go bring the horses up from the wagon, put 'em with General and Peso?"
"Buck, you don't look in too good a shape, yourself. Best you stay so I can patch you up, too."
"Ain't nothin' but a few scratches, Nathan. You're gonna have your hands full for awhile. I'll be fine 'til then." Moving quickly, Wilmington was out of the cave before the ex-slave could answer. Shaking his head, the youngest member of their group followed close behind.
"Nathan?" Mary asked all of her questions in a single word.
Not sparing her a look as he carefully unwrapped the bloody bandage on Chris' arm, he said, "Don't know anything yet, Mrs. Travis. I've gotta get to the wounds before I can tell you anything."
"Can I help?"
"Yes, ma'am...if you want. You could start unwrapping his other arm."
Taking a deep breath, she nodded and began the task. Chris' eyes fluttered open and he groaned softly as she worked at a particularly difficult place where blood had dried the material hard to a deep gouge. "Oh, Chris, I'm sorry."
"Hurts..." was once again the best he could manage.
Cradling his arm in her lap, she leaned forward and stroked his hair. "I'm sorry," she repeated, "but we have to remove the bandages. Chris? Do you understand me?"
With failing strength, he nodded a single time. He looked up at the woman peering down at him. "Sarah..." He said softly.
Mary ducked her head to hide the disappointment she felt at his seeing her as his dead wife. The feeling passed quickly; how could she be angry with him for words spoken from the throes of a fever? Pushing the damp bangs from his face, she settled back down and returned to uncovering his wounds.
- M7 -
He knew only that something was causing him pain. It was confusing...the pain came with each touch, but it did not come from each touch. The touch was gentle, comforting. He sighed. Thought was still difficult to maintain for more than a few seconds. He heard voices above him. Like the other one before, he did not fear these voices. Like the touch, they brought him a sense of comfort. He only wished he could remember who the voices belonged to.
- M7 -
They worked as quickly as they could, doing all they could to minister to the man's injuries. It took them over an hour. Finally Nathan sat back and surveyed their work. "Not much more we can do for him here. We'll just have ta keep him comfortable until we get back ta town."
Mary nodded. Then her attention shifted to a place behind the healer. Turning, Jackson saw that Vin Tanner was struggling to get up; to shield his eyes from the dim light. Scooting around, Nathan took hold of the tracker. "Vin, it's Nathan. You need to lay still, hear me?"
Slowly relaxing, Tanner whispered, "Nathan?"
"Yeah, it's me. Now I'm gettin' ready to tend your wound. I need you to lay still. Okay?"
"Wound? What happened?"
"Don't know for sure. Buck said you got cold-cocked by some of the fellas that had Chris."
"I... yeah... kinda 'member... somethin'..." Vin groaned as pain shot through his skull. He felt hands at the cloth over his eyes. Grabbing at them, he gasped out, "NO!"
"Take it easy, Vin. I'm gonna put a fresh cloth over your eyes, that's all. Keep 'm closed... ready?" Without waiting for an answer, the ex-slave deftly changed the cloth.
Vin sighed as the coolness eased a bit of the pain. "Feels... better."
"Wish I could say it's gonna stay that way, but I've gotta move you ta see what happened." He lifted Vin's head enough to pass a cloth beneath it and tied the cloth around the hunter's eyes. That done, Nathan slowly and as gently as possible, rolled Tanner to one side.
Vin cried out with pain; reaching out, he grasped for something to hold on to. Unfortunately, that something happened to be Chris' damaged arm. Now the gunslinger cried out as well.
Acting quickly, Mary reached across and carefully pried Tanner's hand loose. She offered her hand as a substitute. Stifling a groan as the strong hand crushed hers, she stoically withstood the pain.
Jackson found a broad gash at the back of the young man's head. Moving the long, blood matted hair; he tended the tracker's wound. It wasn't until he had finished with Vin that he realized that Buck and JD had returned to the cave and, along with Josiah, had set up a proper camp inside the earthen shelter.
Easing the now nearly unconscious tracker to his back, the former slave looked meaningfully toward Buck. The gunman was moving with an unusual slowness and stiffness. "You're next, Buck," Nathan's deep voice boomed across the small space.
"Nathan, I'm o-OW!" Buck yelped as JD poked none too gently at his injured arm. Glaring at the young man, Wilmington nodded to the other man. "Yeah, all right."
Buck's wounds were minor in comparison to the others, but they did need attention. The flesh wound would be sore for awhile, but shouldn't hinder him.
"Well, lucky enough for you, Buck, you'll be fit to bedevil any lady you set your mind on by the end of the week."
"Never doubted it," the gunman said with a charismatic smile.
"Mr. Jackson, surely you must realize that our gregarious Mr. Wilmington will be doing that five years after he goes to his eternal reward," Ezra quipped from where he lay propped against a stack of blankets and saddles.
Laughing, Jackson said, "I figure it's more like ten."
"You're both wrong," the big man responded, "'cause I ain't never gonna die." He joined the laughter that filled the cave.
- M7 -
Nathan stepped out onto the small plateau, breathing in the fresh air deeply. The healer stood for several minutes, simply staring, needing a chance to gather his thoughts after tending to his wounded friends. He doubted that he'd ever be able to forget how Larabee looked right now. Turning, he found Josiah sitting on a boulder, scanning the night for signs of life. "Anything out there?"
"Anything? Probably. Anybody? Haven't seen any sign. How is everybody?"
"All right for now. Laudanum's keepin' Chris an' Vin sleepin', but it'll wear' off pretty soon. Figured I'd stretch my legs in the meantime. Ezra's nursin' that flask of his, and Buck's passin' a bottle with JD. Mrs. Travis is sittin' with Chris and Vin. Said she'd let me know when they start wakin' up."
"How's her hand?" They had all seen the darkening bruises.
"Don't think it's broken, but it's bruised pretty good. She's keepin' a cold cloth on it right now."
"Good. Hope Vin never finds out about it."
Nodding, Nathan said, "Imagine it would wear at him pretty bad... better make sure JD knows not ta say nothin' around him."
"I already figured that out, all by myself," a quiet voice behind them caused both men to turn. JD Dunne had left the cave and come to stand nearby.
"Sorry, JD, we just -"
"Figured since I'm still wet behind the ears, someone better tell me what to do." There was no anger in his voice; only frustration and resignation. "I'll always be younger than the rest of you... but that don't necessarily mean I'm a kid."
Exchanging looks that were a mixture of shock and amusement, Sanchez and Jackson smiled.
"JD," Josiah said quietly, "you're right."
"Thank you, Josiah," the boy said with a proud smile. Then turning to the healer, he said, "I came out to let you know that Chris seems to be hurting again, and Vin's awake."
With a nod, the black man moved toward the cave. Watching him go, JD moved closer to the big preacher. Arms wrapped around himself against the cool evening air, Dunne said, "I can take a turn at watch, Josiah, you can go back inside by the fire for awhile."
"I'm fine, JD, " Josiah saw a protest coming, so he added, "it's a little close in there. I'd rather face the elements out here where I've got room to move."
With a sympathetic chuckle, the young sheriff said, "Can't say that I blame you there. Buck had an itch while ago, and I scratched."
His laughter booming in the darkness, Sanchez shook his head and slapped the young man on the shoulder. They slipped into a companionable silence, broken occasionally when JD asked a question and Josiah answered. The young man didn't feel awkward asking the former preacher questions. He rarely felt that the big man was giving him a verbal pat on the head. He also knew that Sanchez was less likely to give him an answer that was colored by his own view of the world. Josiah gave him the answers that he could use in his own life.
"You think those men are gonna come back?"
"Don't really know, JD. Could be they gave up, but maybe not. Could be the three Buck killed were the only one's around here, but maybe not -"
"You could have just stopped after 'I don't know'," Dunne said in exasperation.
With another chuckle, Sanchez said, "Sorry. Sometimes the preacher in me takes over... have to take the longest route to make the simplest statement." Then he stopped, turning his attention toward the cave.
Following his gaze, JD could see nothing out of order. "What is it, Josiah?"
"Preacher... religion... JD, can you keep an eye on things for a minute? I'll be right back."
"Sure, Josiah," Dunne said in confusion as he watched the other man disappear into the cave.
- M7 -
Nathan had entered the cave to find it relatively quiet. Buck, finally giving in to the lack of sleep and his body's need to heal, was snoring softly in one corner. Ezra, still nursing his flask, was alternating between drinking and practicing a one-handed shuffle. Turning to the back of the cave, the healer found Mary trying to calm Chris. The gunslinger was mutely fighting whatever demons his nightmares were bringing him. Beyond Larabee, the young hunter was awake and obviously in pain, huddled on his side, holding his head. Going to sit between the two men, Jackson produced his bottle of Laudanum. "Mrs. Travis, think you can help me get some of this down Chris?"
Nodding, she stroked the blond head beside her. "Chris? Chris, you need to lie still. Nathan wants to give you something for the pain." Trapping his head between her arm and body, she tried to keep him still as he continued to struggle. Delirious, the injured man fought against the restraint.
"Chris, lay still, ya hear?" Nathan tried to get through to him. Still Larabee fought to get free.
"Chris Larabee!" A voice barked. "You lay still - NOW!"
Reacting to the firm tone, if not the words, Chris stopped his struggle long enough to allow Jackson to feed him the medication. Releasing him, Mary sat back with a sigh. She and the healer both looked over to where the tracker lay.
"Thanks, Vin," Nathan said.
"Weren't helpin' ma headache none," Vin said with a groan.
Laughing, the healer lifted Tanner's head and pressed the bottle against his lips. Taking a few sips, the hunter nodded. Easing him back down, Nathan said, "Vin, I'm gonna change the cloth over your eyes, okay?"
"Yeah..." Tanner said slowly. "Just do me a favor an' do it quick, okay?"
With a sympathetic smile the former slave did his best, but lightening could not have been quick enough to spare the young hunter pain. As he sat back on his heels, Jackson saw that Josiah had come into the cave. The big man was standing near Chris, staring intently at the wounded man.
"Nathan," the former preacher said in a non-committal tone .
"What are you lookin' at?"
"Those designs...the pattern of the cuts and burns. I think I may have seen something similar."
"While I was doing the Lord's work back East. There was a sect... zealots... hell, they were a cult. Part of their ritual involved a specific pattern...'drawn in blood and flame', on the body of a human sacrifice."
"Sacrifice?!" Mary cried. "Do you mean that if Vin, Buck and Ezra hadn't found him..."
"He would have died a very slow and painful death," Josiah said softly, turning a sorrow filled face toward the young woman.
Mary blanched and fought to keep from crying at the thought of the man lying beside her losing his life in such a way.
"The good news - if there's any in all this - is that they can only sacrifice during the first night of the full moon."
"So Chris is safe?"
"For now anyway. But I imagine they came after him to make certain he couldn't identify any of them. We can't be sure they won't try again. Secret societies tend to take a dim view of outsiders being able to recognize them."
"Then they may be after Vin, Buck and Ezra, too."
"Maybe, but Chris is the one they're gonna worry most about."
"Well, I for one shall be quite happy to return to the relative safety and comfort of town," Ezra joined the conversation from where he lay. "Where we can be on our own battlefield if they wish to come for Mr. Larabee again."
"How 'bout it Doc?" Josiah said. "When do you think this gaggle of invalids will be ready to travel?"
"Well, travelin' ain't gonna do any of 'm any good, especially these two," he nodded toward Vin and Chris. "But we do need ta get everybody back ta town so I can tend to them proper. Reckon we ought to be able ta start out tomorrow, long as we take it slow and easy."
"Good," Josiah said, "like Ezra, I'll feel a lot better when we get everyone home."
- M7 -
Morning found them all tired, but ready to be on the way back to town. After breakfast and feeding the wounded, the first order of business was getting everyone to the wagon. Josiah and JD left to get the horses ready for the trip while Nathan got his patients ready for the trip. Coming to Chris, he found the man's eyes open and looking at him. "Chris?"
"Nathan?" He looked confused.
"Yeah, it's Nathan. How are you feeling?"
"Tired," he said with a sigh.
"We're gonna head out for home in a while."
"Good," he said with a slight nod. Feeling a hand on his shoulder, Chris slowly turned his head, finding the young blond woman beside him. "Mary?"
"Good morning," she said, managing a smile. "Are you ready to go home?"
"Home..." Chris said the word slowly, as if to savor every sound. Then he smiled and closed his eyes.
- M7 -
They managed to get everyone from the cave to the wagon without incident, although it took patience and strategy. While Josiah helped Ezra walk down the trail, Buck slung his good arm across JD's shoulder. "Well come on, son, you can just help this wounded soldier down the hill," he said with a broad grin.
"Buck, I imagine you feel worse from the whiskey than you do from the other stuff," JD said with a shake of his head. But then he put an arm around Wilmington's waist. "Come on... old man."
Mary and Nathan couldn't help laughing as Buck's voice rang out in feigned anger at the younger man's comments.
Returning a short time later, Josiah bent down next to Larabee. "Chris? Can you hear me?"
"Probably not," Nathan said, squatting at the other side of their leader. "I made sure to give him and Vin both a strong dose of Laudanum while ago."
Nodding, Sanchez nonetheless spoke to the unconscious man again. "Chris, Nathan and I are going to take you down to the wagon now. Don't be afraid, alright? You're safe. You're with friends." That said, they scooped him up, blankets and all. Chris moaned softly, but then laid quiet, cradled in his friends embrace; his head nestled against Josiah's shoulder. They made their way slowly from the cave, leaving Mary with Vin.
A few minutes later, JD returned to find Mary having a devil of a time, trying to argue with the ever obstinate Tanner. Barely conscious, the man still insisted that he could make it to the wagon if she would just point him in the right direction.
"Vin, listen to me, " Mary said, exasperated. "You need to lie still and wait for Josiah and Nathan to return. They've taken Chris to the wagon, and then they'll help you."
"No offense, Ms. Travis, " Vin said, as he struggled to sit up. "But I know I can make it on my own. I don't need no help."
Coming to her aid, Dunne put his hand on Mary's shoulder. "Vin, Mrs. Travis is right. You can't see, and you've got a bad head injury. You've also had a big dose of Laudanum. You try and get down the hill like you are, you're gonna fall and break a bunch a bones or something."
"JD, I'm fine, honest -"
"No, you ain't," came Nathan's deep voice from the mouth of the cave. "Knew we should have taken you down first."
"Nathan, I c'n walk," Tanner said. He made a valiant effort to sit up, but fell back with a groan.
"You done?" Nathan asked.
"Just... gotta get ma... bearin's," the hunter gritted out. Taking a deep breath, he tried again. And again he failed.
With a sigh of self-loathing, Tanner said, "Yeah... I'm done."
"Good, because we'd like to get out of here." Gently Nathan and Josiah helped Tanner to his feet. His knees promptly buckled; only their strong grip kept him from collapsing to the ground once again.
Once on his feet, though, Vin was adamant that he stay there. "Y'all... just help me a... bit... I ... c'n make it."
Knowing that the opiate had already begun working, Jackson decided that he would let the Laudanum win his argument for him.
As Vin slumped between them, Nathan and Josiah half-carried the semi-conscious man from the cave. His eyes still covered, Tanner had to trust that they would not allow him to misstep.
A few yards down the trail, the hunter's legs gave out. He struggled to right himself, but couldn't. With a mumbled, "Sorry," he gave in to the medication. The two men lifted him into their arms and continued on their way.
- M7 -
"I was about ready ta come lookin' for ya all," Buck said as they neared the wagon, Nathan and Josiah with Vin and Mary and JD behind them with the remainder of their camp equipment. The gunman was sitting astride General, his pistol lying in his lap.
"Well, you know how it is...some of us like to enjoy the scenery when we go for a walk," the former slave quipped. He held Vin while Josiah climbed into the wagon bed and lifted him up to lay between Ezra and Chris.
Being careful not to jostle the wagon any more than necessary, Nathan climbed into the bed and gave each man a quick examination. Satisfied that they were as prepared as possible, he left the wagon bed and climbed up on Able. The eight weary travelers began the journey back toward home.
- M7 -
They had been back in town for three days. The wagon had pulled into town after nightfall, allowing them to get Chris into Nathan's clinic without an abundance of prying eyes. Carrying him upstairs quickly, Nathan and Josiah were trailed by JD and Buck. Settling their leader into bed, they left Buck to sit with him and returned for the other two men. A few minutes later, Josiah and JD came back into the tiny room with Ezra supported between them. They were followed by Nathan, helping a groggy and stumbling Vin Tanner.
Setting up a makeshift ward for the night, the seven men spent their first hours back in town together. With a final look at the still unconscious Larabee, Mary Travis reluctantly departed for her little apartment behind the newspaper.
By morning Nathan had been satisfied that both Ezra and Buck could return to their own rooms. He also knew that there would be no peace until they did. The men were badgering him almost constantly, doing their best to convince him that they were fine. Finally, charging JD with seeing that the two men went to their rooms, and to bed, Nathan sent them off.
"I'll go check on 'm later," he said to Josiah.
"Think they're actually gonna do as they're told and go to bed?"
"Buck'll go ta bed, but probably won't be his bed. Ezra'll probably be hustlin' cards one-handed by tonight. Figure I'll look for 'm both in the saloon."
Despite his own protestations, Vin Tanner was kept at the clinic along with Larabee. While his vision was very slowly beginning to recover, he had a long road ahead. By the third day, he could tolerate the removal of the coverings over his eyes, but could only tolerate the dim light of evening and candlelight. He spent the daylight hours in the shadows.
As for Chris Larabee, there seemed little change. He would wake for only a few moments at a time, coaxed from the darkness by one or another of the men who considered him part of their family. He would open his eyes, staring at whoever had pulled him from the safety of oblivion. The gunslinger would answer their questions, eat, drink, or take care of whatever other needs presented themselves. But as soon as he could, he slipped back into the darkness of sleep.
"Nathan, is he going to recover?" Mary asked as she watched him do just that once again.
"Physically, Mrs. Travis, his body's already startin' to heal. He's got a long way ta go, but as tough and strong as Chris is, I'm pretty sure he'll make it."
Nathan hesitated, looking at the floor. Finally he said, "Ma'am, I can't tell you that for sure. The things them men did to him... can't nobody say how it affected his mind. No way of knowin' when he's gonna get over them things, or even..."
"Or... or if... if he'll get over them?" Mary stumbled over the words.
The healer nodded. "Yes, ma'am," he practically whispered the words.
She slumped into the chair, her hands folded in her lap, twisting and untwisting a handkerchief.
"Mary," Vin said quietly from his place in the shadows, "he'll make it okay. He done took the hell a losin' his family and come out th' other side. Maybe not the same, but he made it. He's got us now... another family... long's any a us got the strength ta stand up for him, he'll make it through this, too."
With a smile, the young blonde rose from the chair and stepped over to Tanner's side. Sitting on the edge of the narrow bed, she reached out and touched his face. "Thank you, Vin, " she said softly. Kissing him lightly on the forehead, she went back to the chair, pretending not to notice the crimson that quickly burned across the gentle man's face.
- M7 -
"Hey, cowboy," Vin said as he saw the shape under the blankets stir. He had taken a turn sitting with Chris for a few hours so the others could sleep. Still unable to bear much light, he could do very little during the day, but he argued that he could probably see as much as the rest of them during the night. Although Nathan went only as far as the other bed, he finally consented to allowing Tanner to do this much to provide support for his friend. Relying on his other senses more than sight, Vin sat with one hand on the bed. He felt Larabee begin to move, waking from the deep sleep.
"Where are we?" Chris said softly.
"Nathan's. Been here 'bout five days now I reckon."
"Yep. You wanna drink a water 'r anything?"
The hunter managed to find his way to the table and pour a little water into a mug. Shuffling back to the bed, he edged his way toward the head, knelt, and helped Chris lift his head from the pillow. Drinking the cool liquid, Chris didn't take his eyes from the other man's face. Something was wrong. Vin wasn't looking at him, not exactly. It was like he was focusing on something nearby.
Easing his friend to the pillow once more, the hunter found the little bedstand and left the mug there. Scooting back along the bed, he found the chair and sat back down with an audible moan.
Something was definitely wrong with him. Chris frowned. "Vin?"
"I'm fine. You need anything else?" Tanner tried to divert the attention from himself.
"No, you're not. What's wrong?"
He sighed. "I got a bump on th' head th' other day's all. I'll be right as rain soon. You worry 'bout gittin' yerself well."
Chris wanted to pursue the questions, but found himself lacking the strength.
"Chris, you want anything else?"
"Yeah," he said softly, hardly aware that he said it, "I wanna go home." He drifted back into the comforting darkness again.
Vin sat quietly, listening to the rhythm of Larabee's breathing. A plan began to form in his mind...
- M7 -
"Vin, that's crazy! Chris can't even walk to the door without help. He can't even get to the privy, or stay awake for more than a few minutes at a time!" Nathan was staring down at the hunter, shaking his head at the craziness the other man had just suggested.
"Nathan, it's been a week now, and you said it yourself, he ain't gettin' no better. His body's healin', but not his mind. Th' other night the last thing he told me was that he wanted ta go home."
"He is home," Josiah said softly. "Just as we all are."
"No, this ain't where Chris considers home. He needs ta be away from folks for a little while. He ain't gonna get better surrounded by a bunch a folks fussin' over 'im." It had been almost a circus. The other peacekeepers had found countless reasons to come into the clinic, always with the intention of checking on Chris. It they weren't there then Mary Travis or Gloria Potter or Nettie Wells would stop in. By the end of the day Vin, Chris' most constant companion, could feel the energy drain out of the man. Often Larabee wouldn't even wake while his well-wishers visited. He would lie there, seemingly oblivious to their attention. But often, just after they left, he would stir with a heavy sigh.
"Where exactly do you think he needs to be, Vin?" Sanchez asked.
"I think he'd do a helluva lot better out at his cabin."
"That's crazy!" Nathan bellowed. "All the way out there, takes nearly an hour to reach the place, and you want me to send out someone that can't even sit up alone out there... by himself?"
"No," Vin said evenly. "I'd go with him."
"Oh, even better! You can't see hardly a lick, you're still gettin' headaches anytime the light get's too bright, and you're gonna take care a Chris? Lord, help me, you must have done a lot more damage to your head then I thought."
"Nathan, it's the best thing for him. He needs ta start sortin' through all the things them bastards done ta him. He ain't gonna be able ta do that layin' here with ever'body treatin' him like an invalid."
"Vin, he is an invalid," Jackson said heavily. "Right now, he's an invalid. Now, when he's gotten a little stronger; where he can get around on his own a little; you get to where you can see; well that's different. Then we can talk about Chris goin' out to the cabin."
"Nathan, he ain't gonna get better in here, that's the problem!"
"No, Vin Tanner. That's my final word on this. No." Nathan turned from him and stomped out onto the porch.
"Josiah," Vin turned toward where the ex-preacher sat. "Cain't ya make 'im listen ta reason?"
"Vin, frankly, I don't think he's the one that needs to listen to reason."
With a muttered curse, the lanky tracker moved slowly back toward his bed and the shadows. His head was pounding, but he didn't think it had anything to do with the sunlight that filtered into the room.
- M7 -
Vin Tanner took it as a sign of providence. Four of the peacekeepers had been called out of town on business for at least two days, leaving JD as the soul able-bodied member of their force to take care of things in town. Vin was left to tend to Chris' needs most of the time, while JD or Mary would look in on them every hour or so. Vin knew that he could not manage to get Chris away by himself, so he was banking on the kid's trust in him and his admiration of Larabee to get him to help. Waiting until JD came in just after sundown he set his plan in motion.
"JD, you'd do 'bout anything ta help Chris, wouldn't ya?"
"Hell yeah, Vin, what makes you even ask?"
"I... no, we... need a favor."
"What is it?" Dunne's voice took on a wary quality.
"Well, ya know Chris ain't been gettin' better. Not like he oughta."
"Nathan said he was healing just fine."
"His body, JD, his body. But... well, you can see 'im. His mind's what's in need a healing now."
"What can I do to help out with that?"
"Help me... help me get him out ta th' cabin... his cabin --"
"VIN! No, I can't... I... that's crazy! He can't travel out there without Nathan around to make sure he's okay! There's no way I could get him out there, not like he is. And I've got to come back into town - I'm the only one who can watch out for the town. We've got to wait 'til the other's come back, Vin."
"Can't, kid. Look, I'll stay out there with Chris, all you gotta do's get us out there. We can use my wagon; borrow a team a mules from th' livery."
"No, huh-uh, no way. I'm sorry, Vin, but... no way."
With a sigh, Tanner found his way to the head of Chris' bed. Kneeling beside his friend, he nudged him gently. "Chris? Can' ya hear me? Chris, I need ya ta wake up."
"What?" Larabee asked groggily, his hazel eyes tracking from JD to Vin and back again.
"Chris, if we could do anything fer ya right now, what would it be?" He was banking on a long shot that Chris would even understand what was going on, let along respond to the question as he had before.
"Yeah, tell JD here what ya want... what'd make ya feel better?"
Looking their youngest member directly in the face, Larabee did indeed understand what Vin was doing. "JD, I... I wanna go home," his eyes widened, pleading with the boy, then he closed them and drifted back into the darkness.
Dunne's face blanched, his hazel eyes filled with a mixture of concern and fear. It was true; he would do anything Chris asked him to. With very few exceptions he had never questioned Larabee's orders. But this? How could he do this? Take Chris away from the care and concern of the town and deposit him in the rustic shack in the hills that he called home. Put Chris at risk of relapsing or even dying from further strain on his weakened body; even worse, leave him out there, far away from the little town, with only a man who could barely see his hand in front of his face to care for him. There was no way he could do that.
But then he saw Chris again, in his mind's eye; saw the pain in his eyes, like a caged tiger he had seen once in the circus. The animal had wanted nothing more than to be free; to live and die on his own terms. That was the look he had seen in Chris' eyes. With a sigh that was almost a moan, he dropped his head, shoulders slumped in defeat.
"I'll go get a team and your wagon," he said. "You gather up what you need here; herbs, medicine, bandages, whatever. I'll be back as quick as I can." 'Before I lose my nerve', he thought to himself.
"Thanks, JD" Tanner said simply.
"He lives through this, that's all the thanks I need," JD shot over his shoulder as he hurried from the room.
- M7 -
"Hey, Mrs. Travis." He jumped at the sound of her voice.
"What are you doing with Vin's wagon?"
"Uhhhh...well, Vin wanted me to bring it over closer to Nathan's, so he... could move out there in a couple of days. He figured that it was about time he got out of Nathan's, but he ain't well enough to be completely on his own yet." JD hated lying. He wasn't good at it. He ducked his head, intent on hooking up the borrowed team, hoping that Mary Travis couldn't see the crimson that was spreading across his face.
"JD, that doesn't make any sense."
Nodding, he said, "Yeah, I didn't think so either, ma'am, but that's what Vin wanted. Figured I'd just humor him and go along with it." He could feel the knot in his stomach tightening, and hoped that he didn't deposit the remains of his dinner at the pretty newspaper woman's feet.
"Maybe I should go over and try to talk to him. This seems like a big waste of your time."
"No, ma'am!" He practically grabbed her to stop her from leaving to confront Tanner. If she saw him gathering up supplies she'd know something was up. "I mean, he's sleeping right now. It's no bother, really, I don't mind. When he's well again, he can bring the wagon back over here."
"Well..." Mary regarded him for what seemed an eternity. Finally she nodded and said, "All right. As long as it's not hurting anything, I'll stay out of it." Giving him a smile, she turned back toward the street.
"Night, Mrs. Travis," the young sheriff called after her. When she disappeared into the evening gloom he heaved a sigh and leaned his head against the flank of one of the mules. He would be lucky if anyone ever trusted him again.
- M7 -
"Careful, JD!" Vin hissed in a harsh whisper. They had loaded the supplies into Vin's wagon, and were trying to maneuver the half-conscious gunslinger out of the clinic.
"I'm trying!" JD hissed in return.
"Why don't you two just put me down? Hell, I could crawl out of here faster than this." Chris said tiredly.
"Chris, the last thing we need is for you ta tear open them stitches."
"Hell, Vin, you bang me up against the door jamb again, that's going to be the least of my worries!"
With a sigh, the two younger men realized that he was right. They were probably doing more harm than good. "Okay, JD, let's put 'im down and go from there." Lowering Chris' legs to the floor, the young sheriff moved to help Vin support him at the shoulders. They had managed to get Chris in a pair of Josiah's pants, the only ones that would fit over the bulky bandages. A sheet sufficed to cover his upper body, though. They were not about to irritate the burns on his chest and back with any thing more than they had to.
Pulling the gunfighter's arms across their shoulders, Tanner and Dunne tried once again to escort their leader and friend from the clinic to the wagon. JD managed the task of guiding both men through the door and down the stairs, Vin still relying very little on his vision. Chris shuffled along between them, his legs quaking with the effort. They had to stop several times to allow the gunfighter to rest against one of them, to gather his energy for another journey of yards. By the time they had managed the last step the two young men were ready to come to blows; tension shortening their tempers.
"Damn it, JD, you durn near plowed me inta that wall!" Vin hissed.
"I told you to come to your left, damn it!"
"I'm gonna bang your heads together in about two minutes," Chris said softly, his even tones contrasting with his threat. "Now both of you calm down. Alright?"
Mumbling sounds that vaguely resembled agreement or apology; the two men grew silent and resumed their task. Carefully they helped Chris into the wagon bed. Nearly getting into another fight, they managed to agree that Vin would ride in the back with him. Climbing onto the wooden seat, JD slapped the reins and coaxed the mules into action. The trio made their escape through the darkened streets without incident, reaching the edge of town before either JD or Vin took a deep breath.
In the wagon bed, Vin kept a hand on his friend's chest; a sign of comfort for them both. The blond had slumped back into unconsciousness as soon as they had settled him in the wagon. Although the tracker couldn't explain it, this time it seemed different. Larabee seemed more relaxed, almost happy. If he had any doubts before, he did no longer. Chris needed this; needed to go home.
- M7 -
JD drove the team as quickly as he could, still afraid that they were going to be caught. Behind him he could hear the muttered curses of the tracker as he was left to keep Chris from bouncing around in the cluttered wagon bed.
"Damn it, JD! Slow down a little! You'd think Satan was on our trail 'r somethin'!"
"If Buck and Nathan get back into town, we're gonna wish it was just Satan," the young man shot back over his shoulder.
Something in Tanner's voice brought Dunne up short. Pulling on the reins, he said, "Okay, okay. I'm slowing down."
"JD, I need you to come back here. Now."
With a chill running down his spine, the young man brought the mules to a halt, set the brake, and bounded off the seat. Running to the tailgate he yanked it open, and peered inside. "Oh, damn."
Vin was holding on to Chris with everything he had. The gunfighter's body was rigid, quivering. His legs stretched out stiffly, his back arched. His arms were drawn in against his chest, his head thrown back. Crawling inside, JD went to Larabee's side, looking across him at Vin, he said, "What should I do?"
"Just make sure he don't hurt himself, Kid. Ain't much else ta do."
Looking down into Chris' face, he saw that the hazel eyes were opened wide, as was his mouth. It looked for all the world as if Chris Larabee was screaming in rage, but there was only a soft gurgle. Turning away from the frightening sight, he concentrated on keeping the man from banging into the stacks of who knew what Tanner kept squirreled away in the wagon. After several long minutes, the taut body relaxed and grew quiet. Almost too quiet. JD and Vin found themselves catching their breath, waiting for the gunslinger to breathe. Finally he did then followed it with the soft snore of deep sleep.
"What the hell happened?" JD asked quietly.
"Don't know. All of a sudden he was buckin'."
"Are you okay?" He saw Vin rubbing his forehead, his eyes squinted even in the moonlight.
"Yeah, just got another one 'a them headaches."
"You bring the powders Nathan fixed up for you?"
"Yeah, they're somewhere. Let's just get on out ta Chris' place. Take care of it then."
"Yeah, come on. Let's go," he said impatiently.
Without another word the young man slid back out of the wagon and moved around to take his place on the seat. Releasing the brake, he clucked and slapped the reins to begin the mules once more.
- M7 -
Finally the little cabin that Chris had built came into view, and JD hurried the team forward. He pulled up in front of the tiny building and hurried around to the rear of the wagon. When he looked inside he knew once more that he was going to be in serious trouble with the older members of their little group. Vin was huddled along side Chris, his arms cradling his head. He moaned softly once, taking a deep breath as he tried to ease the pain. It only made it worse.
"Vin?" The young sheriff called softly.
"Yeah. Come on, I'll get you inside and mix up some of those powders."
"No, let's get Chris in ta bed. You go on in an' light the lantern, okay?"
"Yeah," JD answered solemnly as he moved to the cabin. Moving slowly around inside, he finally located a lamp on the little table and got it lit. Out of habit he looked around the room, just in case there were any unwanted visitors. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, he turned down the blankets on the narrow bed set in one corner, and returned to the wagon. Vin had managed to move Chris near the tailgate, and was sitting slumped against the side, holding on to the unconscious man.
"You ready?" Dunne asked as he reached up to take Chris' arm.
Nodding slowly, Vin eased off the wagon, staggered and nearly fell. Catching himself, he straightened and helped maneuver Larabee from the wagon bed. He slumped between them, not even seeming to register that they were there. Supporting his dead weight, they carried him into the cabin, Vin guided not only by JD, but by the painful glow of the lamp inside.
Getting Chris into the bed, they stripped the heavy pants from him and covered him with the blanket. Guiding Vin to the table, JD went to mix some of the herbal medicines that Nathan used. By the time he had managed that task, he found Tanner slumped in the chair, his face turned away from the lamp. Nudging the hunter gently, JD said, "Vin? Here's some of that headache medicine."
"I'll take it in a bit, JD. Go mind Chris for me, would ya?"
"Vin, please. I'd feel a whole lot better if I saw you take the medicine." Dunne was young, but not stupid. He knew that the stubborn man would deny his own pain in order to care for his friend.
"Later, JD, " Vin meant the words to be firm so the damn kid would let him alone, but they came out in a tired whisper.
The tracker's head snapped up, a move he immediately regretted. JD Dunne stood over him, holding the cup, anger etched across his young face. Suddenly JD looked a lot older... and a lot bigger... then he ever thought of him being. Vin wasn't afraid of the kid, exactly. But as bad as he felt at the moment, he knew JD could more than likely take him if it came to that.
"All right," he accepted the cup and tipped it up, drinking the concoction. He kept one eye on the other man, hoping that he would be satisfied, turn, and allow Vin to spit the medication out. He didn't. 'Damn kid's been 'round us too long... he knows better'n ta trust me.' he swallowed the bitter drink and handed the mug back to the other man, knowing that JD was going to inspect it anyway.
Satisfied that Tanner had followed his instructions, JD felt a bit full of himself at the moment now that he had gotten one of his 'older brothers' to listen to him. That feeling lasted about ten seconds, then he had to contend with the dark stubbornness that was Chris Larabee. Kneeling next to the narrow cot, he moved to lift Chris' head from the pillow. "Chris? You need to drink this."
"Leave me be, boy," the gunslinger's voice was as dark as the face that turned toward the young man.
"I said, leave me be!" Larabee swung an arm out, knocking the mug from J.D.'s hand.
Backing up, actually fearing for his life at that moment, Dunne turned to Tanner.
Squinting to try and make out exactly what was going on, Vin turned toward the shape he knew to be the kid. "What happened?"
"He looked like he wanted ta take my head off, then he knocked the mug out of my hand," JD said in a voice hurried with fear.
"Prob'ly ain't awake all th' way. He can be kinda grouchy first thing in th' mornin'," Vin said with a nod. He had been the recipient of more than one tongue-lashing in the months they had been together. Chris was not an easy person to be around when he first opened his eyes. And as bad as he was hurting, it was no wonder he was out of sorts.
"I've seen him in a bad mood," JD replied, "but this was more than being grouchy. Vin, I swear, if he'd had his gun, I'd be dead right now!"
"All right, look. Mix some more a that medicine, and I'll get it ta him."
A few minutes later, Vin was kneeling next to his best friend. He had left JD to hold the mug, until he could get Chris awake and alert to what was happening. "Chris, wake up, pard."
"What?" The voice wasn't angry now, just tired.
"I need you ta wake up. Time ta take some medicine."
Opening one eye a slit, Larabee said, "I'm fine."
"Ain't neither. Now c'mon an' wake up. Ya don't want me feeding ya like a damn baby, do ya?"
Mumbling things that Vin was pretty certain he was better off not understanding, Chris complied and they managed to get the entire contents of the mug into him. Laying the blond head back on the pillow, Vin leaned back on his heels, nearly toppling when the medicine he had taken gave him a sense of detachment, as if he were trying to move through syrup.
A hand on his shoulder steadied him, and he turned toward the young brunet. "Thanks, JD."
"Yeah, well just remember, when the others go to kick my ass for helping you out, you'd better back me up," Dunne grumbled. Before Vin could answer him, he said, "I'm going to go get your bedding and bring it in here, so I can get you to bed. Come on, come sit at the table." He helped the tracker to his feet, and led him to the straight back chair. That accomplished he brought in the tracker's tic mattress and blankets, depositing them on the floor near Chris. Hoisting a still-complaining Tanner to his feet, he put him to bed, helping him out of his coat and boots and depositing them nearby. Pulling the blankets up over the groggy tracker, he brought the man's mare's leg over and laid it next to him.
Putting Vin's hand on the sawed off rifle, he said, "Don't know if you can even use this, but here's your gun."
"Thanks, JD," Vin said, stifling a yawn. "Look, I know I put ya in a hard spot, kid, but I knew that I could make you understand - "
"You knew you could buffalo me!" The hurt was evident in his voice. Tanner could hear it, even if he couldn't see the boy's face clearly.
"Kid, I'm sorry. It's just...dammit...I needed someone ta help me." His voice was filled with barely restrained emotion. For the first time, JD could see just how worried Vin was for Chris' life. Hell, he wasn't just worried, he was plain, out and out scared... out of his mind with fear that Chris wouldn't recover. That his best friend was slipping away, even as his body healed.
"It's okay, Vin," JD lay a hand on the other man. It registered with him that Vin was actually closer to his own age than Chris'. How would he have felt if it had been Buck laying there? 'As helpless as Vin's been feeling', came the answer. He would have begged one of the others to help him do whatever it took to make Buck well. And it dawned on him that Vin would have been the first one to listen. "It's okay. We're going ta make this right for Chris. And if I have to listen to the others yelling to high heaven, so be it."
Vin nodded slowly, but didn't reply. He didn't think he could right then. Not without making a worse fool of himself than he already had.