Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #16, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Seven Card Stud that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Patricia Grace and Michelle Fortado were the primary authors of this story, they had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Art by Shiloh (email@example.com)
He blinked, eyelids sliding over eyeballs like sandpaper over wood. Lack of sleep had contributed to the situation, along with a too long, too hot ride.
It was coming up on three days now, and while they were getting closer to the men they sought, Chris wasn't at all convinced that they were ever going to actually find them in this maze of canyons and mesas, and certainly not in time.
Vin, however, had no such doubts – about catching them, anyway. He was on their trail, and nothing save a bullet through the heart or the head was going to deter him. And the blond doubted even death would stop Tanner now. His vengeful ghost would continue to hunt the men down if the tracker died before he reached them.
Not that he didn't want to find them too, but Vin had gotten closer to the Brush family than he had; it was more personal for Tanner.
Jeffrey Brush was originally from back east, someplace in Pennsylvania. Larabee had had some serious doubts as to whether Brush had the grit to survive out here when he'd first met the man, but Jeffrey landed himself a job as a bank teller, and that suited him just fine.
Rachel Brush, Jeffrey's wife, stayed out on the small plot of land they'd purchased, working in her ever-growing garden and tending to the small herd of goats they had brought with them – a gift from her family when she'd wed Jeffrey. The cheese she made was becoming quite popular in Mrs. Potter's store, and Larabee had to admit, he'd come to rather enjoy it himself.
But it was Leah Brush, the couple's just-turned-twelve daughter, who had really won the hearts of the peacekeepers. She had a terrible case of puppy love when it came to Vin – much to the tracker's consternation, and their enjoyment.
Even now, dead tired, his body aching, Larabee had to grin slightly as he thought about the girl, her long brunette hair bouncing in a pair of ponytails as she skipped down the boardwalk, always on the lookout for the tracker. And, he had to admit, she had an uncanny ability to ferret Tanner out of whatever hidey-hole he'd climbed into. Buck and Ezra had been making wagers on when she'd propose marriage to the tracker for nearly three months.
And, to be honest, Vin was taking the unwanted attention better than Larabee would have, if her attention had been drawn to the blond gunman, which, thank God, it hadn't.
Whenever she caught up with the tracker, Vin listened to the girl's latest news – usually something about the goats, or what Harrison Grummel was doing to annoy her – then made sure that she found her way back to her mother, or her father. Although, of late, the dark looks Jeffrey had been shooting Tanner's way had meant he'd opted to take the girl back to her mother if at all possible.
Now, chances were, Leah was dead, or worse, just like her mother.
He and the other peacekeepers had all been sitting around their usual table in the saloon, eating breakfast, when Jeffrey had burst through the batwing doors, his face a white as fresh-fallen snow, his clothes covered with bloodstains. He's opened his mouth to speak, but not a single sound had escaped. It shook each of them to their cores.
Nathan reached the man's side first, and Jeffrey had pointed outside.
Their wagon had been left in the middle of the street, the horse pulling it standing, limbs quivering and in a lather. A bloody blanket covered the single body in the wagon bed. Nathan had pulled the blanket back just far enough to expose Rachel's bruised and bloody face. He didn't need to look any farther to know she was already dead; he reached out and gently closed her eyes.
Nathan and Josiah took her body to the undertakers and examined it. Both men, witnesses to untold horrors over the course of their lives, had been visibly shaken when they'd returned to the saloon almost an hour later.
"What happened?" he had asked, casting a sideways glance at Jeffrey, who was sitting at a table close by, Buck and JD keeping him company, trying to get him to talk.
Nathan and Josiah both sat down, reaching immediately for the glasses of whiskey Tanner had poured for them when he'd seen them enter.
They tossed back their drinks, then Nathan said, "Ain't seen anything like that… Whoever killed her…" He shook his head sadly.
"They brutalized her," Josiah said softly, not wanting Jeffrey to hear what he already had to know.
"Raped?" Ezra asked, frowning.
Nathan nodded. "Every way possible," he added. "Cut her up and burned her, too. Then they beat her to death when they were through."
Tanner had paled at those words. "Leah?" he asked thickly.
Nathan and Josiah both shook their heads and shrugged, unable to answer his question.
But that word reached Jeffrey's ears, and he lurched unsteadily to his feet. "Leah!" he cried. "They took Leah! Oh, God, they took my baby girl…" He started to sob, collapsing back into his chair.
Tanner was on his feet and headed out of the saloon before the rest of them even got to their feet. They caught up with him in the livery.
"You think it could be renegades?" Nathan asked the tracker.
Vin thought for a moment, then shook his head. "Ain't sayin' Indians couldn't 'a done it, just that, fer it t' be that mean, it'd be a retaliation, an' them folks ain't done nothin' that would bring down that kind 'a hell on 'em."
"More likely outlaws, or comancheros from over the border. Lord knows there are plenty of them in Purgatory who could do what was done," Ezra speculated.
"Maybe," Vin replied. "Don't matter none. Whoever they are, they're gonna pay fer what they done."
The others had nodded their agreement.
And so they had ridden out – he and Vin, Nathan and Josiah. Ezra, JD, and Buck were left behind to deal with Jeffrey Brush, and to safeguard the town.
Now, nearly three days later, they were finally getting closer to their prey. And only because Vin had pushed them on, day and night, only allowing them to stop to rest and water the horses. They had grabbed whatever food and sleep they could while on the move.
None of them said so, but they all knew that the chances of finding Leah alive dwindled with every hour that passed. The men, whoever they might be, were stopping at night, and that didn't bode well for the girl's survival.
Vin jerked his arm up, signaling them to stop.
Chris edged up to join the tracker. "What is it?" he asked.
Tanner nodded and Chris squinted into the near distance where a small plume of dust was rising into the dry air. They had finally caught up to the men, although why they were headed up one of the mesas he couldn't guess, unless they had seen them and wanted the protection of higher ground.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Chris, look out!"
At the sound of Nathan's voice, Larabee spun, his view immediately filled with the threatening form of an angry comanchero bearing down on him. He raised his gun and fired, but the shot did little to slow the hulking man down.
The blond watched as the man threw the scalp he'd taken from Leah Brush aside, then grabbed for the gunman's throat with bloody fingers.
"Son of a bitch," Larabee growled as he jerked back. The outlaw still managed to snag his shirt and Chris was yanked off his feet and slammed to the ground. The view he had there immediately captured his attention.
"Vin—!" he tried to call, but his voice only rasped out as a whisper, the comanchero squeezing off his air supply.
In the near distance, Vin was struggling with another one of the men.
Chris shoved his gun against his attacker's chest and pulled the trigger twice.
His attacker's eyes widened, his expression more surprise than anything else, as if he had assumed he couldn't be killed like an ordinary man. Then the big comanchero collapsed, pinning Larabee underneath him.
The blond cursed and shoved the dying man off and scrambled to his feet just as another shot rang out, and another comancheros fell and rolled into him, knocking Chris back down again.
Lying on his back, Larabee shook his head to clear it, then gasped in horror as Tanner and one of the last comancheros disappeared over the edge of the mesa.
"Vin!" Larabee yelled, shoving to his feet and bolting forward, but something caught him, holding him back. He jerked his gun up, thinking maybe the comanchero he'd shot hadn't been dead after all, but then he realized who it was holding his arm.
"You all right, brother?" Josiah asked.
Chris gave him a slight nod, then pulled free and lunged across the space, sidestepping bodies and trees until he reached the edge of the mesa.
Looking down he shuddered hard. "Vin," he breathed, fear holding him in a grip far worse than the comanchero's bloody fingers around his throat.
"Whoa, Chris, careful," Nathan warned as they stood, looking over to the rocks below. The mesa was one of the tallest in the area, unreachable from all but one direction, but after a ten foot drop, there was a ledge. Below that, the mesa angled out in broken sections that sloped steeply toward the desert floor, hundreds of feet below them.
Larabee toed the edge, sending small rocks and sand skittering down. "Vin," he forced out through clenched teeth, "I saw him go over."
Nathan looked startled for a moment, then he shook his head, dark brown eyes filling with sympathy. "No earthly way anyone could've lived through that, Chris, not even Vin," he said. "I'm sorry."
"Then where is he?" Larabee snarled. "You see a body down there?"
The healer looked again. "I see… one," he announced. "One of the comancheros, down on that first slope past the ledge… looks like the fall snapped his neck. First rain we get, it's gonna wash his body right down to the desert floor."
"Serves the bastard right," Josiah snarled, glancing around the camp at the bodies – five men, six with the one on the slope, and one small girl.
But Chris wasn't paying any attention to the dead. He was on the move, inching along the edge of the mesa, trying to get a better view over the side to the rocky ledge below.
"Anything?" Nathan called, doing the same in the opposite direction.
"Nothing," Chris replied. "But he has to be down there somewhere."
"All six men are accounted for," Josiah announced, walking around a second time to make extra sure each of them were dead.
Then, from several feet away, Nathan's called, "I found something!" as he stared down into a cleft in the rock formation.
"Where?" Larabee demanded as he reached the healer. He leaned out, heedless of his closeness to the edge.
"There," the healer said, pointing. "See that boot down there on the ledge?"
Josiah joined them as well. "It's a boot alright," he confirmed. "Can't make out anything else; gotta be Vin, though."
Larabee dropped to the ground, scooting his upper body out as far as he could over the lip of the mesa top, trying to find a better angle on the area in question.
"Easy, Chris," Josiah cautioned, kneeling beside him and grabbing the man's gun belt in a firm grip to ensure he didn't fall.
"Give me more slack," Chris ordered, inching out a little farther and staring down the steep side of the mesa, searching for what he desperately didn't want to find. But he did find it. "Pull me up," he ordered and Josiah hauled him back. "I've got to get down there," he stated.
"Maybe we can ride to Arivaca, bring back help," Nathan said.
"Vin don't have that kind 'a time," Chris told them adamantly. "We have to get down there now."
"Chris," Nathan said, shaking his head, "Vin can't—"
"He's alive," Larabee bit out. "I know he is."
"Chris—" Josiah started, but he was cut off as well.
"Shut the hell up, both of you," Larabee snarled. "He's alive." The looks that met his were doubtful. The blond took a deep breath and tried to rein in the panic that was trying to run away with his reason. "If he was dead, I'd know it," he stated, his voice quiet but intense.
Nathan nodded once. "All right, I'll go down," he said quietly.
Chris released the breath he'd been holding. "I'm going with you."
"No," the healer replied, shaking his head. "I'll go first. If I need help, you can come down. Don't look like there's much room down there."
Chris was prepared to argue with the man, but he knew as well as Nathan what might be waiting. He nodded, the three of them making quick preparations for Nathan's descent. There were enough piñon trees at the top of the mesa to serve as an anchor for a rope.
In a relatively short time, which seemed more like an eternity to Larabee, everything was ready, and Nathan was once again standing at the edge of the mesa. "Don't get your hopes up, Chris," the healer said quietly. "It don't look good."
With a nod, Larabee said, "I hear you, Nathan, just do what you can."
"I will," he promised.
Josiah reached over and patted the healer's back. "You call up and tell us how it's going, so we'll know what's going on."
Nathan nodded, testing his rope before maneuvering himself carefully over the edge.
Chris and Josiah watched the man's descent silently, listening to the sounds that reached them – the rope creaking, Nathan's panted breath, and rocks, bouncing down the side of the mesa.
"I'm down to the ledge," Nathan called up to them. "Looks like five, maybe six feet at the widest part. With that slight overhang, how he landed on it's gotta be a miracle."
"Can you see him?" Chris questioned.
"Hang on," the healer told them. "Have t' work m' way over… Vin's lyin' on his back… one arm 'n' leg hangin' off the ledge… Looks like the other leg's broken… That's all I can tell ya 'til I get over there."
Larabee sighed in frustration, listening to more heavy breathing coming from below them. "Nathan!" he finally snapped.
"He's alive!" Nathan called back, reaching out to run his fingers along Tanner's throat, searching for a pulse point. "Like I said, he's hangin' half off this ledge. If he twitches, he'll go over the side."
"Can we bring him up?" Josiah called down.
"Maybe," Nathan replied. "Leg's broke for sure. Can't tell how much his insides have been mixed up…"
"What do you need?" Chris called down to the healer.
"My saddlebags," was Nathan's immediate reply, and he added, "more rope, and a blanket." Glancing around, he realized dusk was fast approaching. "It'll be dark soon. I don't think we can get him up there in time."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Leaving Josiah watching over Nathan's rope, Larabee walked over and grabbed the healer's saddlebags, which he knew were always stocked for trouble, then he untied the extra coil of rope from his own saddle. He also untied Josiah's bedroll from his saddle and carried it all over to where the older man waited.
"You going down there?" the former priest asked.
Larabee just nodded.
Josiah sighed softly. He'd suspected as much. "Don't think it'll be safe to try an' get him up here in the dark," he added, shaking his head. "If you two can keep him safe down there, I'll pull ya all up as soon as it gets light."
Larabee nodded. It was the best they could do.
Josiah helped Chris get ready, the blond tying the bedroll and saddlebags to his rope, and slipped the other coil of rope over his head, bandolier style. Once that was done, Larabee stepped over the edge and started down.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Nathan stood, watching Chris' descent until the blond was almost on top of him. "Whoa, easy, come down slow, this rock's pretty loose," he said as he helped guide Larabee onto the ledge, then removed the saddlebags and bedroll from the knots that held them in place.
When Chris started to untie his rope, Nathan stopped him, saying, "Better t' leave it on. If anything should happen…" He glanced out at the open vista before them.
Chris nodded his understanding. The ropes were all that separated him and Nathan from a deadly fall to the desert below.
"Need ya to help me move Vin," Nathan suggested. "He's too close to the edge, but I didn't want t' try movin' him myself. Ya know how he is when he gets spooked—"
"Damn it, Tanner! Lay still!" Larabee bellowed, lunging forward as he saw the tracker jerk, his arms coming up weakly to fend off some imagined blow. "Yeah, I know," he muttered.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"What's happening?" Josiah barked when he heard Chris yell. Receiving no answer, he yelled, "Nathan, what's wrong?"
The healer's winded voice replied, "Vin damn-near jumped off the side of the ledge. Toss down another coil 'a rope so we can rig a line fo' him, too."
A moment later Josiah called, "Heads up, brothers, here it comes."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Once they had the third rope Chris said, "I'll take care of securing him, you see to his injuries."
"Think you can come up some kind 'a harness usin' the rope you brought down?" Nathan asked. "Think that might be safer fo' him."
Chris nodded. "I'll come up with something." He got to work and, several minutes later, said, "Okay, the harness is ready, but I'll need your help to get him in it."
Nathan nodded, quickly inspecting the makeshift harness. "You raise him up by the arms and I'll slide it under him."
Chris nodded, grabbing the tracker's arms at the wrists. Then, standing close to Vin's head, he lifted him up so his back was off the ground by a few inches.
Nathan did his best to support Vin's neck and still slide the rope harness under him. Once he had it positioned, Chris lowered Tanner back down and, together, they tied the harness in place across the tracker's chest. Then they ran the third rope into the harness and secured it tightly in two places.
"Josiah, tie Vin's rope off!" Chris called up.
"Already, done, brother," came the answering reply. "All three of you are secure."
Those words made both men feel considerably better.
Reaching across the tracker, Nathan grabbed his saddlebags and lifted them up and over Vin, then rummaged. "Chris, cut me off a strip off 'a Josiah's blanket – 'bout a foot wide," he said as he pulled out s couple of rolls of bandages.
Chris used his pocket knife to cut the heavy material, then ripped a strip off. He handed it to Nathan. "What's that for?" he asked.
"Gonna wrap it 'round his neck, keep it from movin' as much as possible 'til he wakes up and we know where he's hurt. I'll hold his head steady, 'n' you slide that under an' wrap it 'round his neck."
"Okay," Larabee agreed, easing the material behind Tanner's neck before curling it up along the man's throat. Nathan deftly tied it in place using several of the cloth strips he employed as bandages. That task completed, Nathan opened the sharpshooter's hide coat to check for other damage.
"Anything broken?" Chris asked.
Nathan quickly moved his hands down Vin's chest. "Couple ribs on his right side feel mushy," he stated. "So, yeah, he's got some broken ribs, too."
"He gonna make it?" Chris asked.
"Hope so," Nathan said. "Just wish I knew how he was doin' on the inside."
"He'll be all right," Chris stated. "He's been through worse."
Glancing over at the gunman, Nathan frowned. "Worse 'n hangin' on the side of a mesa? That's a story I'd like to hear."
"No, you wouldn't," Chris replied, double-checking the ropes around Tanner's upper body. "Man's been through hell more than a few times."
"Yeah, figured as much," Nathan said a little sadly. "Can't tend a man's injuries and not see some of the ghosts he carries."
Chris nodded. Given that the healer had cared for all of them at one time or another, he reckoned Nathan had seen a few of all their ghosts.
"Okay," Nathan said, "let's lift him up, lean him back, and make him a little more comfortable before I set this broken leg."
Sliding one arm beneath Vin's back, the other supporting his neck, Nathan carefully lifted the unconscious man. Larabee quickly checked the rope harness, making sure it stayed in place, then helped shift Tanner over so he was leaning back against the side of the mesa, his legs stretched out in front of him.
"Wait," Nathan muttered, "let me get his Mare's Leg out of the holster. All we need is him comin' to an' shootin' one of us."
Chris twisted around on the small confines of the ledge, raising the sharpshooter's body a few inches off the hard surface so the gun could be slid free. "Can you reach it?" he asked breathlessly.
"Got it," Nathan affirmed, sliding the weapon out of its holster. "Hold him there a second," he instructed, double-checking the ropes around the unconscious man's back and chest, then sliding what was left of Josiah's blanket behind his head and shoulders. "That should cushion this rock a bit," he explained while helping Chris ease Vin back against the folded blanket.
"How's he doing?" Chris asked as Nathan continued to work over the tracker.
"I wish I knew for sure," he replied. "Didn't lose hardly any blood," he added, using the carbolic to clean a jagged cut on Vin's chin. "Don't look like he's havin' any trouble breathin', either, but I'd feel better if he showed some sign of comin' 'round."
"I'll see if I can make us a small fire before it gets dark," Chris said, hunting for any dead wood that had been washed over by the rain onto the ledge. When he couldn't find enough, he called up to the former priest. "Josiah, think ya can gather up some firewood and send it over?"
"Will do, brother," the big man replied, and Chris could hear him walking off. He looked back at the tracker. "You find anything more?" he questioned, watching as the healer unbuttoned Vin's shirt to more closely examine his ribs. In the fading light, he could see the deepening bruises on the man's injured right side.
Nathan once again placed his fingers over the darkened area. "This hide coat cushioned his fall, but I know he's got some broken ribs… might be bleedin' inside, too. The bruises are spreadin' pretty fast." He quickly checked Tanner's left side before re-buttoning Vin's shirt and pulling the heavy hide coat together and buttoning that as well.
Nathan looked out at the landscape and sighed. "Weren't for all that's happened, I'd say it was pretty up here."
Chris nodded his agreement. "Just wish we could've saved the girl. Vin's gonna take that hard."
"Yep," Nathan agreed, his hands going to the tracker's broken leg. "Gonna need some help to set this," he said.
"Firewood comin' down," Josiah called before he lowered a bundle that was tied at the end of a rope."
"Josiah," Nathan called up to him, "see if you can find me two branches I can use for splints."
"I'll go take a look," the big man replied.
Nathan turned to Chris and said, "While we're waitin', we can set this leg," he stated. "Was afraid to try before he was secured; could just see him jerkin' right off the side of this ledge."
"I hear you," Chris replied, moving closer. "Just hope this harness isn't put to the test," he said nervously. "This ain't the best place to be if he goes wild."
Nathan nodded, glancing out at the steep rock face, then shook his head. "Best we don't think too much on where we are."
Larabee grinned. "Hell, Josiah's got the ropes anchored, even if we fall, we won't go far."
"Best pray the knots hold, then," Nathan murmured.
That put a small smile on the blond's face. Vin couldn't be doing too poorly if Nathan was worried about their ropes. He moved over, following the healer's instructions as they went about setting Tanner's broken leg. A sharp cry of pain as the bone was aligned was Vin's only reaction.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris arranged two small fires on the ledge as the last vestiges of the sun's glow disappeared below the western horizon.
Nathan busied himself splinting Vin's leg.
Above them, stars began to dot the sky and they could just make out of the sounds of Josiah, moving around in the camp above them, although they weren't sure what he might be doing – burying the dead, most likely.
Nathan sat back and wiped the sweat from his forehead. "Leg's set. Now I need to see about his ankle." With deft moves, the healer carefully removed Tanner's boot. "Look at that swellin'," he grumbled. Tanner's ankle was badly bruised, but it didn't seem to be broken. "Man's got more lives than a cat," Nathan said quietly. "Must have a parcel of angels watchin' over him."
Chris nodded. "Only thing that's kept him alive this long," he agreed.
"Brothers?" Josiah called from above them. "I have a meal ready. Ain't much, but it'll fill your bellies. I'm packing it in my saddlebags and sending it down."
"Thank you, Josiah," Nathan called back up.
"Wish there was a way to send down the coffee" Chris said.
"Already thought of that," the preacher replied. "If I send the pot down less than half full, it won't spill – much."
Nathan grinned. "Good man, Josiah."
It took a few minutes, but eventually both men had food and coffee.
They sat down on either side of Vin and ate the meal of jerky, warmed biscuits, and an apple each, washing it down with the strong, bitter coffee.
Vin remained unconscious through the meal.
"So," Chris said when he finished, "how bad is it?"
"Ankle ain't broken," Nathan said, "leg was, but not a bad one. To be honest, it's them bruises on his right side that have me worried most; might be bleedin' inside."
"And his head?" Chris asked.
"Might've hit it, but I didn't find any bumps or cuts," Nathan told him.
Chris sighed. "Then why hasn't he woken up?"
"I don't know," Nathan admitted. "Given what he saw when we found 'em… Maybe he don't want to wake up an' face it."
Chris nodded. That made perfect sense to him. He would have preferred to purge the memories from his own mind as well, but he knew that wasn't possible.
As they had neared the top of the mesa they'd heard Leah's screams, but they had died away before they'd reached the camp.
He and Josiah had been the first to reach the camp, and they'd seen the man fling the body of the girl aside after he'd hitched up his pants. Another man then knelt beside the dead girl and started to lift her scalp. Chris hadn't even hesitated, just shot the son of a bitch in the back of the head as Josiah dropped the other one.
But he knew Vin had seen the girl, had known what she'd suffered at their hands. It was hard to imagine that another one of the outlaws had actually finished taking her scalp…
"Don't worry, he'll come 'round," Nathan said, interpreting Chris' silence as worry. "Ain't no blood or other fluids comin' from his ears, and when I checked his eyes, they looked normal."
Chris nodded. He trusted the healer. If Nathan wasn't worried, he wouldn't be, either. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, allowing the muscles in his shoulders to finally loosen. By morning the tracker would be awake and they'd find a way to get him back up to the mesa top, then home.
"It's a funny thing," Nathan said quietly, looking out at the gathering darkness surrounding them, "takin' care of the man ya owe your life to… 'Course I owe both you and Vin that, but it's still a mite odd."
"Don't see that ya owe either of us anything, Nathan," Chris replied, looking down into his nearly empty coffee cup. "Hell, you've patched us up more times than I can count."
The healer smiled, white teeth flashing in the shadows cast by the small fire closest to him. "Don't change the facts, Chris. Weren't for you and Vin, I would've died that day at the end of a rope."
"You don't think anyone else would've helped you?"
Nathan shook his head. "Mrs. Travis would've tried – probably would've gotten herself shot for the effort, too – but, no, I don't reckon anybody else would've risked their life for me. Hell, even my own people turned their backs and walked away that day."
Chris thought about that for a moment before he said, "Fear can turn most any man into a coward."
"That's true enough," Nathan agreed, nodding. "Always meant to ask… Why'd you do it?"
Chris was quiet for a long while before he said, "I'll be honest, Nate, it's because he was going to do it, with or without me."
Nathan chuckled. "Kinda what I figured."
"Not that I'm proud of the fact, but I didn't know you, and I had enough trouble of my own," Chris told him. "Or at least I thought I did."
"Ever regret it?" the healer asked.
"Nope, not even when you were pullin' them cactus thorns out of my backside."
That made the healer laugh, then he quieted and finally said, "Wonder why he did it," as he looked at Vin.
"'Cause he can't stand to see any innocent man, woman, or child suffer," Chris told him. "Ain't in his nature."
"Well, maybe that's why the Good Lord's keeping him asleep," Nathan said. "That leg would be hurtin' him somethin' fierce if he was awake, and he'd be frettin' over the girl."
"Still, I'll be happier when he wakes up."
"Me, too," Nathan agreed quietly. "Too many things could be wrong, and no way for me to know or to fix 'em."
"You worrying won't make it better, either," Chris reminded him.
"I know," Nathan said. "Just…" He shook his head. "…times I really wish I was a doctor."
"Might as well be," Chris reminded him. "Do more doctorin' 'n most, do it better 'n most, too."
"Thanks," Nathan replied. "But there's so much I don't know… I read the books, but I still have questions, and nobody to answer them."
"Maybe you should go to school then."
Nathan shrugged. "Can't believe there's a school that would take a Negro lookin' to be a doctor."
"None?" Chris asked, surprised. "Then they're a bunch a damn fools."
"Brothers," Josiah called down, "is there anything more you need?" he queried. "I'm sending down your blankets."
"Keep mine," Chris called back. "I'll use what's left of yours."
"What's left?" Josiah asked.
Chris grinned. "Looks like we owe you a new blanket, preacher."
"Here comes Nathan's bedroll," Josiah called, and a few moments later the bedroll appeared out of the darkness.
Chris was closer so he untied it and handed it over to Nathan.
"Thanks, Josiah," Nathan called.
"I'm going to say some prayers over Leah's body," he told them.
Neither man replied. There was nothing they could say. They'd take the child back to be buried next to her mother; it was really all they could do.
Chris and Nathan arranged their bedrolls, making sure Vin was also covered. They knew it would get cold overnight, but the blankets and the small fires would keep them comfortable.
The two men fell silent for a time. Above them they could hear the muffled sounds of Josiah's voice as he prayed, although neither of them could hear exactly what he was saying.
Nathan checked Vin again, but he didn't find anything that left him too worried.
"Think he'll sleep the night?" Chris asked.
"Hope so. Best we keep a watch, though, in case he dreams and tries to move."
Chris nodded. "I'll take the first."
"All right, but you wake me up if he starts havin' any trouble breathin'."
"I will," the gunman promised.
Nathan adjusted his blankets and laid down, his back to Vin, but close enough that he could reach the man quickly if he started to move.
Chris stared down at his empty coffee cup and wished he had another.
"You boys awake?" Josiah queried softly.
"I am," Larabee replied.
"Care for another cup of coffee?" the former priest asked.
"You readin' my mind, Josiah?"
A soft chuckle was his reply, then, "I'll have it down in no time."
Chris waited, then saw the coffee pot emerging from the darkness into the light cast by the fire. He stood and took it, filling his cup before saying, "Thanks."
Josiah pulled the pot back up. "I'm gonna call it a night," the older man told him. "But, if you need me, call. I'll be close enough to the edge to hear."
"So long as it's not so close you end up joining us," Larabee warned him.
Another soft chuckle filled the air. "I'll make sure it isn't."
Chris sat back down and sipped on his coffee as he listened to Josiah settling down above them. Nathan was already sound asleep, and Vin was as quiet and still as he had been since they'd found him.
"You better wake up come morning," Chris told the tracker. "No way I'm carrying your sorry hide up the side of this mesa."
He watched, but there was no response from Vin. Chris sighed. Worry was going to make staying awake easier than he'd hoped.
Looking back out at the darkness, the blond considered just how much his life had changed since that day he'd met Vin's eyes, and decided to involve himself in something other than his own selfish grief. If it hadn't been for Vin… well, Chris was sure that he'd already be dead. Just like Nathan would have been.
And if they hadn't saved Nathan, and taken the job to protect the Seminole village, well, Josiah might not have pulled himself out of his own bottle and ended his penance, and JD would have most likely gotten himself killed, and Ezra would most likely be dead thanks to some con he'd pulled. Only Buck hadn't really needed the help their little association had provided them, but then Buck always had been a survivor.
But the rest of them? No, the rest of them had needed what the others offered, and none of it would have happened if Vin hadn't been the man he was.
Larabee finished his coffee and set the cup aside. Reaching out, he rested his hand on Tanner's good leg as he said, "You rest now, Vin. Tomorrow we'll get the hell out of here, head home…"
He shook his head. Yeah, that little town was now home to him, and to the others, too, he knew. And to think it all started with a single look across a dusty street, while a bunch of drunken cowboys tried to lynch a good man.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
A few hours later Nathan stirred and sat up. "Time to switch," he said quietly. "Get some sleep, Chris."
The blond shook his head. "I'm fine. Sleep some more if you want to."
Nathan scowled, but he didn't say anything. No matter what anyone said, Larabee was the most stubborn man among them. He scooted closer to Vin, checking him, and listening to him breathe.
When the healer was satisfied Vin was holding his own, he stopped to warm his hands over the small fire and asked quietly, "Chris, what did ya mean when ya said Vin had been in worse spots than this?"
Chris looked out at the darkness, staying silent long enough that Nathan felt obliged to say, "Hell, ain't none o' my business."
"Long time ago," Chris replied, leaning back against the rocky mesa and staring into the night. "He told me about it when he was trapped in that mine shaft."
Nathan nodded. He remembered the events at the Seminole village quite clearly. Vin had nearly drowned. "Does find himself in some terrible spots, that's for sure."
Larabee laughed softly. "Yeah, he does…" he said, trailing off.
"Reckon that might be what drew my attention t' the man when I first saw him," Nathan added. "You know how it is with some folks, you can see the hard times they've faced in their eyes. Some men, it makes 'em cold and dead inside, others… well, men like Vin, it gives 'em a different look; Josiah calls it wisdom."
"What do you call it?"
"Don't rightly know," the healer admitted. "Wisdom, but it's something more, too."
"Compassion," Chris offered. "Ain't many who have it."
"Maybe so," Nathan agreed.
"You and Vin have more than your share."
That made Nathan laugh a little. "Was a time, not that long ago, I would've resented both you and Vin for savin' my life like ya did."
Larabee turned his head to meet the healer's eyes. "Why?"
Nathan looked down at his hands for a long moment, then said, "I didn't want t' owe another man nothing, especially a white man. Figured if I didn't owe, then they had no say in my life, no ties to me."
Chris thought about that for a while, then nodded. "Reckon I might feel the same if I'd been a slave. Me, I thought if you didn't let anyone get close, then you wouldn't hurt."
Nathan smiled. "Reckon we were both wrong."
Chris nodded his agreement.
"Seein' the two of you takin' on that bunch of drovers…" Nathan shook his head. "It's easy when folks are beholdin' to me for helpin' 'em, not so much when I felt like I owed a pair of white men my life."
"Never held it over ya," Chris reminded him.
"I know," Nathan replied. "I'd already started t' come 'round thanks t' Josiah, but then Mrs. Travis came out with that shotgun, and you and Vin took on those men… Hell, even JD was gonna shoot one of 'em, and him a young white man, too."
"Guess Vin might feel much the same as you, given the time he spent among the tribes. I don't figure there's been many men, white or otherwise, who did much to help him, either."
"Probably not," Nathan agreed. "It's as hard t' be a red man as it is to be a black man. 'Course he don't look red."
The corners of Chris' mouth tucked up in a grin. "Except when he's wearin' that hide coat and he gets that squinty-eye look. You know the one I mean?"
"I do," Nathan replied with a smile. "And, yeah, when he does that, he looks like any one of the warriors from the village, or among Ko-je's people."
"Sometimes I wonder if he wouldn't be happier livin' with Ko-je and his people… 'course sometimes I wonder when you're gonna ask that gal to marry you and move out to the Seminole village, too."
Nathan shook his head. "Thought 'bout it, more 'n a few times, too, but I just don't feel ready t' settle down…"
"She won't wait forever."
"I know," Nathan said, his voice a little sad. He sighed. "Part 'a me wants t' believe that, if she really loves me, she'll wait. But I know her people want t' see her married, and that means a lot to her…"
"What holds you back?"
Nathan thought on that for a while, then said, "Part 'a me wants t' be a doctor more than anything in the world, but how could I do that if I have a wife and children to care for?"
It was a valid point. "Have you talked to her about it?" he asked.
"Mostly afraid to," the healer admitted.
Chris grinned again. "Well, if there's one thing I've learned, it's that they're a lot smarter 'n us. Tell her. I think you might be surprised by what she says."
"Maybe I will," Nathan said thoughtfully.
They lapsed into silence, each man thinking his own thoughts while Vin continued to sleep.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
They talked quietly, on and off, for the better part of the night.
Periodically, Nathan reached out, letting the feel of Vin's chest, rising and falling, reassure him that his friend was still breathing. Every couple of hours he checked the spread of the bruising on his right side, but it seemed to have stopped sometime back. His leg hadn't swelled much, either.
"I'd feel better if he'd show some signs of comin' around," Nathan sighed several hours later.
Chris nodded. It was getting to be a common refrain.
The healer sat back on his heels and said, "'Course, if he was awake, he'd be in pain, and there's nothin' we can do to help that." He scooted down and checked the splint on Vin's leg again. "You have any ideas about how we get him back up there?" Nathan asked.
Chris sighed. "Been thinkin' on it some, but there don't seem to be many options. We're just going to have to haul him up and over the top of the mesa."
"What if he comes around while we're pullin' him up?"
Chris nodded. "Don't think that would be good. It's gonna take him a bit to realize where he is, what's happening."
Nathan pressed his palm to Vin's forehead. "He's a little warm," he said, frowning. "Hope that ain't a problem on the inside."
Chris thought a while longer, then said, "What if you go up first so you can help Josiah, and I tie Vin to me; him and me go up together."
"We should be able to pull you both up at the same time if we use the horses," Nathan agreed. "I'd feel better if I knew he wasn't goin' to hit the rocks, especially on that bruised side." He glanced out that the darkness. "But if he does wake up… could be dangerous for both of you."
"No more than stayin' put," Larabee told him.
They fell into silence again, Nathan's voice breaking it several minutes later. "Can't understand why those men did what they did… She was just a little girl."
Chris shook his head, unable to understand it either. "Sometimes men turn into animals," he said.
"Ain't many animals who'd do that," Nathan muttered. "Shootin' 'em seems too good."
"You believe in Hell, Nate?" Chris asked.
"For men like that… yeah, reckon I do," he replied.
"Makes me wonder how they got that way," Chris said.
"Josiah probably say we all got a bit 'a Hell in us, but we decide if we're gonna try and bring it here or not. They brought Hell down on Mrs. Brush and Leah, no doubt about that."
"And we brought it down on them," Chris added.
"Don't know if I believe it's the same thing, Chris. They did it 'cause they could, and they wanted to. We done it to stop 'em from hurtin' anybody else."
"We did," the blond agreed, then he flashed a smile at the healer, "just not lookin' forward to meetin' 'em again in Hell when I get there."
"You ain't going t' Hell, Chris," Nathan told him so matter-of-factly that Larabee almost believed him.
They both settled back against the stone, lost in their own musings. Before long, both men drifted into a light sleep as they waited for dawn to break.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Pain, in an unending series of waves, washed through him, but he didn't utter a sound. He wasn't sure where he was, or who was holding him prisoner, but he could hear them talking, their voices muffled and distorted inside his head.
A heavy weight pressed down on his body, holding him in place. Something was wrapped around his neck, too, strangling him. Behind his eyes it felt like someone had driven long nails through his skull. And one leg felt like it was being chewed off by a mountain cat. Somewhere near his belly he was sure another cat was feasting on his insides. He was hot and cold. And every time his heart beat it was like red-hot pokers were being stabbed into his head, side, and leg.
The pain rippled through him, swelling and spreading until, with a sudden start, he was fully awake.
He dimly remembered finding the comancheros, sneaking up the backside of the mesa, attacking the camp, and Leah… His memory failed him at that point.
Maybe that was who held him prisoner, the comancheros. They could be killing him slowly for their own pleasure. It would fit with what he knew of them.
The silence surrounding him was deathlike, but he couldn't tell if he was alone or not. He knew he'd never felt more alone in his entire life. His usually well-honed survival instincts were missing, and all he felt was cold and emptiness inside. But that was no more than he deserved for having allowed Leah to die like that.
So he didn't really care if they killed him or not, he just wished they would get on with it and finish it.
Forcing his eyes open to thin slits, he tried to make sense of what he saw, but his mind refused to focus. It was dark, except for a strange, undulating light that twisted in his peripheral vision – maybe the fires of Hell, waiting to consume him when he died. Or maybe he was already dead, and the comancheros had found him in Hell and were torturing him…
Recognition hit with a cool wind that blew across his face. No, not dead yet. There would be no cooling winds in Hell, not for the likes of him.
He tried to remember where he was, what had happened, but he couldn't find the answers. He was reasonably sure that some of the others had been there with him, but he couldn't be sure of that, either. He hoped they weren't. He didn't need their deaths on his conscience along with Leah's, and too many others.
He tried to turn his head, to get a better look at the light, but he couldn't make it happen. All he accomplished was a slight fraction, but it was just enough to make out a still figure next to him in the leaping shadows. He was sure he knew the man, too, but no name came to him.
He closed his eyes, trying to dredge up a name to go with the dark blond hair and the handsome features. Chris, he remembered, and the events came rushing back to him – Jeffrey arriving in town, tracking the comancheros, the mesa, finding the camp, Leah's bloody body as one man knelt to take her scalp… then the echoes of gunfire, and the sounds of fists striking flesh exploded inside his head.
What had happened to Josiah and Nathan? Were they dead?
A sense of desperation forced him to try looking the other direction and he found Nathan. So, only Josiah had been lost… Still, that was too high a price for his mistakes. They should have caught up to the comancheros sooner, and that was his fault.
As the pain slowly lessened, Vin let himself drift. Somehow he could sense the expanse that opened up in front of them and, for a moment, he allowed himself to wonder if they might not be dead after all, and all they had to do to reach Heaven was step into the openness he sensed. But while he could easily see Josiah and Nathan in Heaven, seeing him and Chris there was tougher.
Maybe Sarah's and Adam's love had redeemed Larabee. He hoped so. He'd rather think about the man up in Heaven with his wife and son, than have his company in Hell, but he would miss the man, terribly…
Has his thoughts cleared further, Vin was able to make sense out of more of what little he could see. And then he remembered falling over the edge of the mesa top when one of the comancheros had charged him. So, he must be on a ledge somewhere below the mesa top. But why were Chris and Nathan down here with him?
The continuing throb in his leg gave him one possible answer. With a broken leg there was no way he was climbing out of here. So maybe they had come down to him. But they couldn't stay here until his leg healed. They wouldn't, would they?
Knowing the two men, they just might try…
And he couldn't let that happen.
If he had to, he'd see himself in Hell before he let two of his friends risk life and limb to sit with him while he died. A plan began to form in his mind as he realized his hands weren't tied, just covered by blankets. He carefully tried moving them.
A flare of pain when his right arm moved stopped that experiment. But with his left he was able to push the blankets off his chest. The sky was just beginning to lighten as the sun neared the topped the horizon.
He was definitely on a ledge, the two small fires slowly dying while Nathan and Chris slept. At least, he hoped they were sleeping. They might be hurt as well. What if the comancheros had thrown all of them over? He couldn't leave them if they needed his help…
He pushed the blankets down farther, trying to get a better look at Chris. If he could wake the man, maybe he could find out what was going on… "Chris," he called, but it came out as an almost silent whisper.
Still, it must have been enough, because the man's head turned and he blinked slowly awake. Green eyes immediate went to Vin, and the tracker saw the surprise hit when Larabee realized he was awake.
Chris scooted closer. "Vin?"
Tanner tried to offer the man a small smile, but he was too tired to accomplish it. "What happened?" he asked, his voice still no more than a scratchy whisper.
"You and one of the comancheros went over the edge of the mesa. You broke your leg and a couple 'a ribs."
That explained the throbbing in his leg and side all right. "You?" he asked.
"Came down here to save your sorry hide," Larabee replied.
"Don't seem like y' done much," the tracker grumbled.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
A softly spoken conversation was enough to pull Nathan from his sleep. He yawned and opened his eyes, his head turning to find Vin awake and talking to Chris. He smiled.
After getting a look at the man's injuries, maybe they could get Josiah to rustle up something for breakfast, then they could get Vin up to the mesa top…
The healers thought were on ways to keep Vin from bouncing against the rock face as he reached out to test the tracker's fever.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin's limited attention was on Chris as they spoke. He didn't hear or see Nathan as the healer shifted closer, then reached out and touched him. Tanner jerked, his side and leg exploding with pain. He dimly heard shouts, but had no idea who was speaking, or what they were saying. He felt arms wrapping around him and started to fight until he realized it had to be either Chris or Nathan.
He surrendered to the swirling darkness around him, letting it pull him from the pain into a welcoming nothingness.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris saw what was coming as it unfolded. He saw Nathan wake and straighten. He saw him reach out to check Vin's fever, and he saw the surprise on the tracker's face as he reacted to the healer's touch.
The tracker's eyes rounded and he pushed up off the ledge, but pain flaring in his leg and side had him jerking forward, pitching him toward the edge of the outcrop.
"Vin!" he yelled, reaching out and grabbing Tanner, pulling him back and holding him tightly as that same pain shoved the tracker back into unconsciousness.
Nathan jerked back, eyes rounding with fear as he watched Larabee grab Vin, keeping him from flinging himself over the edge.
"Nathan! Chris! What's happening?" came the distraught call from Josiah.
"It's all right, Josiah," Nathan told the man.
"What happened?" he asked. "I heard Chris yell."
"I surprised Vin and he damn near bolted off the ledge," Nathan told the older man, then he looked at Chris saying, "Let's get him leaning back again," as he reached out and helped the blond return Vin to his earlier position.
Vin remained limp as Nathan quickly checked his broken leg, then his ribs. The bruising hadn't spread from where it was last night and Nathan found himself smiling over that fact.
"Was he making sense earlier?" Nathan asked.
Larabee nodded. "Wasn't too sure how he got down here, but he was askin' the right questions."
Nathan nodded, then reached out and curled his fingers over Vin's shoulder and gave it a good squeeze. "Vin, can you hear me?"
"Come on, Vin," Chris encouraged, his hand on Tanner's good leg.
"Vin," Nathan said again.
Blue eyes fluttered open, but the tracker looked completely confused.
"Easy, Vin," Chris said. "Nathan's just checking you, makin' sure you didn't do yourself any harm."
Vin's head turned so he could look at Nathan. He blinked. "Much obliged."
Nathan chuckled. "So, you know who you are, where you are?"
Vin frowned slightly. "'Course I know who the hell I am. What's got int' ya, Doc?"
"Just makin' sure you didn't scramble your brains when you landed," the healer told him.
Vin snorted. "Not that bad, anyway." He glanced around, getting a better sense of where they were. "How the hell am I gettin' out of here?"
"We'll have to pull you and Chris up," Nathan explained.
"We?" Vin asked, hoping.
"Me an' Josiah, and the horses," Nathan told him.
Vin sighed with relief, grateful Josiah was alive, too. "Better not use Peso, damn cuss is likely t' let me fall after the ride he's been on."
"He's got a point," Larabee agreed.
Nathan grinned. "We'll use Deuteronomy and Franklin," he promised, then he looked at Chris and said, "I'll go up, help Josiah get something fixed for breakfast, then we'll get you two up."
Larabee nodded, standing when Nathan did. When the healer reached him he added softly, "Make sure you add a little something to his coffee.
Nathan nodded, then called, "Josiah?"
"Right here, brother."
"I'm comin' up."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The excruciating pain from earlier had returned, maybe worse than before as his ribs were squeezed by the harness he was fitted with. A low moan escaped his lips.
"Stop!" Chris called up to Josiah and Nathan.
He helped lower Vin back to the ground and stood, his hands on his hips as he watched Vin ride out the agony their experiment had caused.
"What's wrong?" Nathan called down.
"It's pulling too much on his ribs," Chris explained.
"Shame he can't do this lying down," Josiah commented.
"Lying down," Chris repeated, his forehead wrinkling in thought. Then he nodded and called, "Find me two poles 'bout six feet long," he called up to the two men.
"What are you planning?" Josiah asked.
"If it works, you'll see for yourself," Chris replied as he squatted down next to Vin. "You just lean back and rest," he told the tracker.
Vin nodded, still panting too hard to speak, but he watched with interest as Chris set to work.
A little more than an hour later, Chris looked down on his completed work. Between the two poles he'd created a lattice with Nathan's rope. Over the rope he'd laid both Nathan's and Josiah's bedrolls, creating what he hoped was a solid structure on which to lift Vin, while he lay on it.
Glancing over at the tracker, he considered how best to move Vin onto the thing. If he swung Vin around a little, he could just lift him and pull the tracker onto it, although his leg was going to drag.
Vin looked up at him. "Well, what're y' waitin' fer?"
Chris grinned. "Hell if I know."
Walking over the surface of the thing, he carefully took Vin and turned him. Then, sliding his hands under Vin's arms, he lifted the tracker just far enough to move him and walked backward, carrying Vin along with him.
Tanner gasped and groaned as his ribs protested, but he squeezed his eyes shut and forced himself to accept the pain.
Chris was grateful Vin's boot heels slid right onto the blankets, doing little to upset the broken leg. He carefully laid Vin down, then asked, "You okay?"
"Hell, no," Tanner wheezed, eyes still tightly clenched.
Chris knew there was nothing he could do for Vin's pain. The tracker had already gotten a dose of laudanum in his coffee, but it hadn't been enough to put him out, which, the blond thought, was too bad. This would be a whole lot easier on the man if he was asleep while it happened.
Chris checked the ropes at the four ends of the lift, then used strips made from the rest of Josiah's blanket to secure Vin's rope harness to the poles, effectively tying him to the contraption.
"Okay, he's ready," Chris called to the two waiting men. "Take up the slack."
Larabee watched as the ropes were slowly stretched taut, then the lift came up off the ground. It swung slightly, striking the side of the mesa and Vin yelped in pain. "Slower!" Chris yelled, maneuvering between the lift and the wall of the mesa, keeping Vin from hitting the rocks again. The lift was soon above Larabee's reach.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Josiah urged the horse on, one step at a time. Nathan watched as Vin rose slowly toward the top of the mesa. The makeshift stretcher, as the former stretcher bearer thought of it, listed slightly, but Vin was obviously secured to the device, so there was no chance that he could slide off. The closer it got to the top, however, the more it listed.
"Josiah, stop," he called to his friend, frowning. It looked like the litter might catch at the top and flip over, taking Vin with it.
"Wait!" Chris called from below.
Nathan watched as the gunman carefully climbed up the rope Josiah had tied knots into, stopping when he was even with Vin.
Larabee reached out, grabbing hold of the litter with one hand and pulling the side that was coming up back down, so the litter was level once more.
"Hurry," Chris said, knowing he could only hold on like this for a short time.
"Go, Josiah!" Nathan yelled.
Josiah clucked to the horses and they started forward again. This time, with Chris providing a counterweight, the litter lifted straight up until the knot where the four ropes from the four corners were nearly even with the top to the mesa. Then Chris let go and climbed down a couple of knots. He reached into his pocket and took out Vin's knife, carefully cutting the knot holding the corner where Vin's broken leg was. Then, as the litter was drawn up slightly farther, beginning to list again, Chris cut the second rope at Vin's other foot.
The litter dropped and swung straight into Chris, who had just enough time to grab his own rope with both hands before it struck him.
Vin cried out, but that allowed the top of the litter to be pulled over the rim of the mesa where Nathan grabbed the poles and pulled Vin onto the ground.
"Chris!" he hollered, lunging back to the edge of the mesa.
Larabee had just reached the top and the healer grabbed his coat and pulled him up and over. Chris collapsed onto the ground.
"You all right?" Nathan demanded.
Chris nodded. "Vin?"
Nathan turned back to Tanner, but he was unconscious once more. "Damn," he breathed, going to the tracker and checking the man for any additional damage.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin gradually regained consciousness, floating up toward it from what felt like the bottom of a cold, dark lake. One minute he was floating there in darkness, the next he was thrust into a world of pain. He groaned.
He knew someone was calling his name, but he really didn't what to know who, because, if he did, he'd be awake, and that meant the escalating agony in his leg and ribs would only get worse.
"Vin, come on now, son, open your eyes." Josiah, he knew.
"Vin?" And Nathan.
"Damn it, Tanner, after all that work, you sure as hell better not die now." That would be Chris; charming as ever.
"Fuck you, Larabee," he mumbled.
"Well, at least we know he's alive," Josiah said in a rumbling chuckle.
"Verdict ain't in, 'siah," Vin grumbled this time, but his eyes cracked open and he looked up at the three faces staring down at him. "Sure ain't no vision 'a paradise."
The three men smiled. "You look like death warmed over," Larabee told him.
"Feel like it, too," Vin replied.
"That's whyt I want you to take some more 'a this," Nathan told him, carefully lifting his head and holding a tin cup to his lips.
Vin drank the contents – water, with another dose of laudanum. Oh well, at least he'd be able to sleep through whatever they had planned for him next.
"Don't you worry, Vin," Josiah told him. "We'll get you home."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin had no memory of the trip home. In fact, he had absolutely no idea how they'd pulled it off. But now, waking at last, he knew without looking he was in the clinic. He swallowed, finding his throat sore and dry, but he was grateful he could do that much. He listened, catching the sounds of Nathan moving around in the room. Then, next to the bed, he heard Larabee clear his throat, followed by the sound of a page turning. He was reading.
He forced his eyes open and peered out at the blond. "Y' turn that page any louder?" he growled.
Chris snapped the book closed and set it on the small table next to the bed and looked at him. "Vin?"
"I look like somebody else t' you?"
Chris smiled and leaned back in his chair. Tanner sounded feisty; a good sign. "Sound like your usual ornery self," he replied. "Good to see you awake."
"How long?" Vin asked as he watched Chris reach for a cup, then help him up a little so he could drink.
After several long gulps, Vin sighed with relief, then glowered at Larabee. "That better not have any damn laudanum in it."
"Nope," Nathan replied for Chris, "just water. And you can have as much of it as you want. Just not too much at a time; I want it to stay put."
"How am I?" Vin asked.
"Ribs and leg are healing," Nathan told him. "Just thought it best t' keep you sleepin' 'til we got ya home."
"How'd you do that: get me home?" Tanner asked, honestly curious.
"Took ya to Arivaca, then brought you home," Chris told him.
"On my horse?" Vin asked, glad if that was the case he was out.
Nathan and Chris exchanged looks. "Uh, no," Larabee replied.
"Wagon?" Vin asked.
"Close enough," Chris agreed.
Vin's eyes narrowed. "Damn it, Larabee, cain't y' answer a simple question?"
"Uh," Nathan said, and Vin turned his glower on the healer, "it was actually a hearse."
"A what?" Vin yelped.
"Undertaker there just got a new horse-drawn hearse, had this hangin' body basket that we thought would keep them broken ribs and leg safe on the trip back. Worked like a charm, too. Josiah's takin' it back now."
"Y' brung me home in a hearse?" Vin squeaked.
"It's all right," Chris said, "you slept right through the whole thing; looked like ya belonged there when we got here. Poor ol' Buck broke into tears as soon as he saw ya in the back."
Vin looked up at Larabee, contemplating how much it might hurt if he lunged for the man's throat and strangled him on the spot. Too much, he decided. "Well, at least I know I got one friend in this no-account town," he grumbled.
Chris smiled. "You got two. JD did the same thing when he came runnin' up."
"Ezra?" Vin asked.
"He started takin' bets on how long it'd be before the devil threw ya out and we had ya back," Chris replied.
Vin laughed, immediately grabbing for his side and hissing at the blond, "Damn you, Larabee, don't make me laugh."
"Glad you're back," Chris said, a contented smile settling in his eyes.
Tanner grunted. He was too, but he wasn't going to tell Larabee that. Not yet, anyway.
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