Disclaimer: Don't own 'em, don't profit off 'em, don't mean to infringe.
Synopsis: Chris is injured and he and Vin are left on foot, days from home.
Warnings: Cursing and bloodshed.
Acknowledgements: To Jeanne, who "forced" the plot bunny on me, and then sent me the picture I used for background in the collage.
Dedication: To TT.
Two men, on foot, moved slowly across the dry, late summer prairie. One of the men stumbled, nearly falling. The other caught him, holding him upright. After a few long moments, both men dropped to their knees, one making it as gentle as possible for the other.
Panting, Chris Larabee leaned heavily into the strong embrace of his companion. He moaned softly, pain radiating from the twin wounds in his side.
Keeping his hold. Vin Tanner encouraged, "Take it easy, Cowboy, jist rest a minute."
"N-not sure… minute's gonna be long enough," Chris replied.
"Yeah, I know," Vin sighed as he rubbed the other man's slumped shoulder. They had been on foot for most of a day. Since Larabee had been injured.
It had been a nice, peaceful trip. The two men had been entrusted to deliver a packet of court documents to Fort Laramie for Judge Travis. After they dropped off the materials, they planned on taking a long, leisurely ride back to town.
The trip had gone well; the two men sharing long, comfortable silences that had marked their relationship from the beginning. Then, a day away from home, it had all gone to hell.
They were just preparing to break camp. Vin had gone to fill their canteens when he heard a commotion back at the camp. He moved quickly but cautiously, knowing that running blindly into trouble could get them both killed.
As it was, Chris nearly had been killed. Vin reached the camp in time to see three men riding off on their two horses and the blond slumped over on the ground. Even as he ran to his friend, he fired off his mare's leg, barely registering the fact that the man riding double slumped over and then fell off the back of Tanner's black gelding.
The other two didn't even look back.
Cursing, the Texan dropped to the ground beside the wounded man. Chris was panting, holding his side, and trembling. Reaching out, he laid a hand on one slumped shoulder. "Chris? Cowboy?"
"Su… surprised me… couldn't g-get my gun… couldn't stop them," Larabee murmured, almost apologetically.
"Well, one of 'em didn't get too far," Tanner replied as he tried to see just where Chris was injured and how bad it was. Not like any injury could be considered good. On foot it would have taken them at least two days to reach town. With Chris wounded… who knew?
Luckily for them, they hadn't loaded their bedrolls or saddlebags onto their horses and the thieves had been in too much of a hurry to grab them. He also had their canteens.
He managed to get Chris up and to the little spring where he'd filled their canteens. It was little more than a puddle, but at least it was relatively clean. Helping Larabee to lay down, he began to gently peel the layers of cloth back from the wounds. Finding two knife wounds along the gunman's side, Vin cursed. One was little more than a scratch, but the other one was deep, and bleeding. Badly.
"Well, it ain't too bad," he lied, managing to smile as dazed, hazel-green eyes stared up at him. "Don't think they hit nothin' vital."
With a small, trembling smile, Larabee replied, "Glad to hear it."
"Git'cha cleaned up, let'cha rest a bit – "
"Just patch me u-up. Then we… go."
"Chris – "
"Don't have time to… argue. We head out. Need to get… back to town… gonna take a while to walk… home…" He drifted off, not quite unconscious but not quite conscious, either.
Hoping to anchor his friend to consciousness, Vin began talking while he worked to clean and bandage the wounds. "Cain't leave ya alone for more 'n a minute an' ya git into trouble. 'Least I got one of the bastards. Jist thinkin', next town in th' direction they're goin' is ours. Reckon they end up there, Buck an' the boys'll be on 'em like stink on a dog turd. Then they'll be out here after us. Ya best be ready fer a tongue-lashin'. Nathan ain't had nobody ta fuss over fer near a month."
The corner of the blond's mouth quirked up and his eyes slanted open to stare up at the other man. Than he jerked and hissed as Vin applied pressure to the deeper of the two wounds.
"Sorry, Cowboy. Need ta git the bleedin' stopped. Know it hurts."
"Just do it."
Tanner took care of the wound to the best of his ability. Having nothing to stitch it with, he settled for making a poultice and packing the deep gash. Covering that with one of his bandannas, he ripped two long strips from the tail of his spare shirt to bind it all to the lean body. That finished, he helped Larabee into his spare shirt and washed out the bloodied one. He could use it for bandages later.
Then, despite his best efforts, he couldn't convince the wounded man to stay where they were. And, realistically, he knew that Larabee was right. To stay was a sure death sentence for the blond. Moving toward town would give them a better chance at reaching help, or help reaching them. He wished there was something he could use to make a travois, but there wasn't material enough where they were.
Cursing the bastards who'd taken their horses, the heat of the sun, the length of the walk, and even the injured man, Vin dug through their saddlebags and transferred the things he knew for certain they'd need to one set, while he stashed the other beneath some brush. He had filled all four canteens and now made certain they were all tightly capped. That finished, he loaded himself down, grumbling that he felt like a pack mule. Balancing his load, he reached down to his friend. Pulling Chris carefully to his feet, Vin started them walking in the direction that would take them to town.
If they both made it.
If he didn't bury Chris along the trail.
They had been traveling ever since. At least they traveled as much as possible; the rest of the time was spent getting Chris to rest. Getting Chris to drink some of the water. Getting Chris to eat. Getting Chris to sit still long enough for him to check the wound. Getting Chris to stay conscious long enough to get him under shade.
His internal clock and the sun told him that only hours had passed. But to Vin, it seemed as if "getting Chris" had been his reason for living for years.
"Another five minutes, Larabee, okay?"
The gunman shook his head. "Now… please. Let's get moving. Wanna… wanna go home."
Heaving a sigh, the Texan straightened and then stood, pulling Chris after him. As the blond struggled to stand, Vin said, "Okay, let's git ta gittin'."
The sun traveled steadily upward until it reached the sky right above them, and seemed to hang there for hours, glaring down on them maliciously. Chris was getting weaker by the minute, stumbling every other step it seemed. Vin took more and more of his weight, until he was nearly carrying the other man. He held one of Larabee's arms across his shoulders and kept his other arm wrapped around the injured man's waist. His fingers were wrapped in the man's belt, helping to keep him upright.
"Vin…" The call was nearly inaudible, despite the fact that the blond's head rested on his shoulder now.
"G-Gotta rest… tired…"
Nodding as he looked around them, the tracker noticed a stubby stand of trees, perhaps a quarter mile away. They were by no means healthy, but they'd offer some shade. And, considering the fact that they still showed some green meant that there might just be some water there.
"Got us a place just up the trail a bit. Can ya hold on a bit longer?"
There was a soft sound, somewhere between sigh and whimper. Then Chris managed to nod his head against the buckskin clad shoulder. "'Kay."
Despite the relative closeness of the trees, it took them almost two hours to reach them. Twice the blond's legs gave out, taking them both to the ground. Vin managed to control the short drop enough to limit the pain his friend suffered, but still it jarred Larabee's wounds and caused him to cry out.
Each time they were forced to stop, Tanner kept Chris protectively in his arms, the man's head resting against his chest. He felt the warmth of salty tears soaking into his shirt, recognizing them as tears of pain, but said nothing. His hand rubbed over the trembling shoulders and down the strong back, offering the man silent comfort as he dealt with the agony, caused by his wounds, with dwindling reserves.
Finally they reached their destination. Vin felt like cheering, but the pull of Larabee's falling body tore his attention away. Keeping his arms wrapped around his friend, he lowered them both to the ground. "Take 't easy, Cowboy. Jist rest now, okay?"
No longer conscious enough to respond, Chris simply lay in the other man's arms, his body trembling. Soft moans escaped lax lips, describing the pain in the only way he could now. One eye opened just a sliver, his unfocused gaze searching for the voice that continued to talk to him, anchoring him to life by a tenuous thread.
Seeing that eye, Tanner managed a smile. His drawl deep as he fought his fear of losing this man who was like a brother, he said, "Well, howdy, pard. Yer gonna be able ta rest now. We'll jist wait here fer the fellers ta come git us. Reckon there's some water 'round here, so I'm gonna bed ya down an' go lookin' fer it. I'll change yer bandage then… check ya over. Then all we gotta do's wait fer the boys ta find us." He was babbling, and he knew it. But Chris didn't seem to notice. He could tell that it didn't matter what he said, just so long as he was there, to comfort his friend.
Chris managed a slight nod, eye closing as he slipped into unconsciousness.
Vin took a deep breath to steady himself, then set about making Chris comfortable. Hating to leave the other man's side, he knew he had to find water. They still had three canteens almost full, but Larabee was feverish, and that water wouldn't last more than a day or two at the most, even if they sat tight, right where they were.
He just hoped he was right – that the boys would be coming to look for them. Even though he and Chris had been moving along the most direct route, it was a big country.
Vin began searching the area, his keen senses hyper-vigilant as he looked for water, watched over Chris, and listened for sounds of approaching riders. He moved in widening circles, and had gone about 15 feet, when he found himself at the edge of a narrow arroyo. Looking down 8-10 feet to the bottom, he caught sight of something that brought a tired smile to his face. There, on the floor of the deep pit, were animal signs. The prints of a dozen different species told him clearly that there was water down below.
Following the slash in the land along its edge, keen eyes trained on the bottom of the hole and sharp nose searching the air for a hint of water. Finally, he caught sight of a small, shallow pool. "Well, there ya are," he murmured as he moved to the rim. With cautious grace, he climbed down the steep wall, jumping the last couple of feet to the bottom.
Just three steps and he was at the little pool of water. Squatting down beside it, he cupped his hand, drew a few teaspoons of the tepid liquid and tasted it. He smiled around a mouthful; the water tasted just fine. Tilting his head back, he began to ponder the next hurdle.
Getting Chris closer to the water source.
Climbing back up the arroyo's side was a lot more difficult than climbing down. The sides were steep, nearly vertical in most places. The soil was dry, crumbling with each step he took. Even Tanner's 'mountain goat' agility was hard pressed to keep him from falling back two feet for each one he moved upward.
Panting and wiping sweat out of his eyes, he finally managed to get to the top. Rolling over on his back, he took a few deep breaths before climbing to his feet and moving quickly to where he'd left Larabee.
The blond was still mostly unconscious when he reached him. Dropping to his knees, Tanner gently shook his friend. There was a faint grunt, a mumble, and nothing more. "Chris? Cowboy? Need ya ta wake up."
"Cain't do it. Need ya ta wake up… we're gonna make one more little trip, then you can sleep long's ya want." He grimaced at that thought. He hoped that sleep wouldn't be permanent.
"Please… wanna sleep."
"In a little while, okay? Jist help me get ya down yonder… got us some water down there. Okay? Jist a little longer, pard."
Larabee sighed, and then nodded weakly. He managed to open both eyes, the lids settling at half mast. One hand rose, trembling, waiting to be taken hold of. That hand was grasped and he was carefully helped to his feet. He couldn't keep the cries of pain from escaping, despite tightly set lips. He gasped, trying to draw air into his lungs only to have it escape with the next cry. Tears ran down his face. He didn't have the strength to care any more.
"Sorry, Pard. Know it hurts."
Hurts? Hurt didn't begin to describe the pain he felt. His mind, foggy and sluggish, couldn't remember why it hurt. All that he knew was that he was in pain. Choking off another cry, he managed, "Wh-where we… go'n?"
"There's a little pool of water, just a little way farther on. I'm gonna git ya there, git ya fixed up. We get there; all ya gotta do is rest an' let me take care of ya. That sound good?"
A single nod… once up and once down… was the only answer. But it was enough. It meant that Chris Larabee hadn't given up.
He started them off, moving slowly, taking most of Larabee's weight to make the journey as easy as he could on his friend. Still, it took a long time to get to the rim of the arroyo. Then he had to get the semi-conscious gunman to the place he'd chosen earlier. While it wasn't a gentle slope, he'd found a spot in the wall that would offer the least trouble in getting Chris to the floor, and to water.
"Okay, let's sit ya down here for a minute," Vin said softly, sounding more positive than he felt. He lowered the blond to the ground, supporting him as he did. Keeping Larabee upright, he leaned the other man against his shoulder. "Now, we jist gotta git ya down this little slope here, an' we're home free. Sound easy? We git'cha down there, there's water and a comfortable place ta lay yer head. There's tracks, too… critter sign. I'll be able ta git us somethin' fer dinner."
"Vin…" Chris whispered. "T-too… too tired… let me… sleep… please…"
Rubbing his hand over the shaking arm, Tanner said softly, "It won't be long, Cowboy, I swear it. You're gonna git ta sleep real soon."
Another choked off cry, but Larabee didn't argue. Far too soon, he felt himself lifted up, taking several moments to get his feet under him. He clung to the other man, long fingers knotted into the soft buckskin while his head dropped to a broad shoulder. "Tired."
"I know." Vin turned off that part of his mind that wanted to let Chris rest; wanted to offer him comfort. Right now, he couldn't afford to offer either of those things. Staying strong, he guided Larabee to the arroyo's rim. "Okay, now, we're gonna be headin' down a bit. Ain't gonna be real easy, Pard, but it's only gonna be fer a bit. Jist a little longer, Chris, an' you can lay down."
He continued the narrative, coaxing another step from the older man, then another and another. They took small steps, Vin ever vigilant in keeping those steps from causing his friend any more pain than he possibly could. Not that it mattered much, anyway. Even the smallest jolt caused enough pain to elicit faint cries from the wounded man.
They moved, step by step, inch by inch, Tanner keeping a firm grip on his friend. On his part, Larabee held onto him, slipping and stumbling with each step, each inch.
Finally they made it to the bottom.
Vin loosed a long, relieved sigh. He kept the blond upright, nearly carrying him the last few yards to where the small pool was. Finding a good place to let Chris rest, he eased him to the ground. He could feel Larabee's warm breath on his neck as the man panted through the pain. Keeping his hold, he said softly, "Ya did good, Cowboy. Real good. Gonna settle ya down now… let'cha rest."
"Rest…" Larabee echoed even as he passed out.
Tanner grunted when he felt the other man's full weight lean against him. As gently as possible, he lowered Chris, settling the lean body on the soft sand that made up the floor of the arroyo. As soon as he was certain that Larabee was resting… and breathing… he pushed himself to his feet and moved back toward the place where he'd left the meager supplies they had with them.
Night fell, leaving them in the shadows beside the campfire. Chris had been unconscious most of the time since they'd reached the bottom of the arroyo. Vin set up camp, laid the fire, and set up snares along the paths the animals seemed to take most often. He prepared another poultice, managing to tend the blond's wounds with as little pain to his friend as possible.
The deeper of the two wounds wasn't looking good. It had continued to seep blood, despite the poultice and bandages. It was too deep for him to see just what damage had been done, but he feared it was too much for his limited skills. The best thing he could do right now was keep Chris quiet and comfortable.
And pray to every god and spirit he knew of to send their friends to them while there was still time.
"Jist a little longer," he whispered, watching his friend lying there, too exhausted to even respond to the pain. "Jist a little longer, cowboy."
He struggled to wake up, sleep weighted lids raking sandpaper over dry, gritty eyes. With a shock, he realized that it was daylight. Scrubbing his hands over his face, he tried to orient himself. Then, he sat up straight, with a jolt, when he registered the sound of several approaching horses.
Pulling himself to his feet, Vin clambered up the steep side of the arroyo, stopping just as his eyes reached ground level. Then he smiled as he recognized the five riders coming his way. He pulled himself up, the effort seeming to take much more strength than it should. He dragged himself over the side then crawled to his hands and knees. Gasping now, he fought to get his breathing under control. Finally, he raised his head, only to find that their friends were passing by.
Managing to get to his feet, Tanner cried out, "Buck! J'siah! Over here! Nathan! We're over here! Ezra? JD? We're over here!" He was screaming now, running after the others. This couldn't be happening… it couldn't be.
He managed to cross only a few yards, while the riders continued to lengthen the distance between them. Finally, he dropped to his knees, chest heaving, tears burning his eyes as he could do nothing but watch their only chance for help riding away.
By the time he could find the strength to regain his feet, the others were mere specks on the horizon. Turning, shoulders slumped in defeat, Vin made his way back to the arroyo. All but tumbling down the dirt wall, he slid to the bottom, and then stumbled over to where Chris lay.
"V… Vin?" Larabee was staring up at him through unfocused and pain-filled eyes.
Dropping to his knees, Tanner reassured, "Right here, Cowboy."
"Thought… heard… horses…" He wheezed, each breath seeming to take all of his strength.
The Texan dropped his head, unable and unwilling to tell his friend the truth. "Jist a dream, Cowboy. That's all." He felt the other man's too-cool hand drop limply against his own. It felt like ice, so he took it between his own, rubbing gently. Finally he forced himself to look up, catching Larabee's eye. Then he cried out as he realized the other man's gaze was fixed on some far away spot, and there was no sign that he was breathing.
Vin pressed his hand against his friend's chest, praying to feel a heartbeat. Then he cried out again as there was no movement from within the broad chest.
Chris Larabee was dead…
The former bounty hunter jerked, eyes flying open as he registered the darkness. A dream… it had been nothing but a dream. He pulled himself completely into wakefulness then crawled the short distance to where Larabee lay. He reached out a trembling hand, pressing it lightly against the sleeping man's chest. Only then did he relax; the fact that his friend was still alive allowing him to take the first decent breath since he had wakened.
The injured blond murmured in his sleep, turning slightly toward the younger man. Without opening his eyes, he muttered, "Vin?"
"Yep, it's me. Go on back ta sleep, Pard. I was just checkin'… checkin' ta make certain you're okay."
Nodding, the blond managed, "Just… tired."
"Hurtin'? We've got a little whiskey left." He'd been doling out the small ration of alcohol they had with them, just enough to cut the edge off the pain.
Shaking his head now, Chris rasped out, "Ain't bad."
"Reckon your face is sayin' otherwise, Larabee."
The ghost of a smile floated across the pain-ravaged features. Opening one eye just a crack, he rasped out, "I can handle it."
Nodding, Tanner said softly, "All right."
Morning truly came, finding Vin sitting beside the other man's side. He had taken Larabee's hand at some point during the night, giving Chris something to hold on; to anchor him. Anchor him to life, perhaps.
As the sun touched his sleeping face, Tanner blinked open his eyes. He wondered for a moment, as he chased the cobwebs out of his brain, if the day had truly dawned, or if he was trapped in yet another nightmare. It seemed to be real this time. Chris' hand, tucked in his, had real weight to it. The sun shone on them both, its warmth drawing the chill of the night from his bones.
He looked down at Larabee, watching for long moments while the broad chest trembled, but the blond was still breathing. He felt relief begin to pour through him, the warm light of dawn giving him back a little of his hope.
But, Lord God, Chris was hot.
Reaching for the face that, even in sleep, was twisted in pain, Vin felt the heat pouring off his friend in waves. Slowly disengaging the lax hand, he pulled himself to his feet, his body stiff and slow to respond. Grabbing up one of the empty canteens, he scuffed over to their water supply.
The water still held the chill of night; surely it would help to bring down the fever. He filled the container and carried it back to where Larabee lay. Settling beside his friend, he gently tapped the sleeping face. "Chris? Got'cha water here. Think you can wake up enough to take a drink?"
The only response was a frown and a muttered curse, but the older man didn't fight it when Tanner lifted his head from the ground. Somewhere deep in his fevered mind he registered the taste of cool water as it spread over his tongue. He drank greedily, relishing the taste for as long as it was offered, then grumbled when it was taken away.
"I'll give ya some more in a bit, don't want ya gettin' sick on me… don't cotton wearin' yer mess 'til we git back ta town." He knew he was talking more for his sake than Chris'. The blond was more unconscious than not, the wound steadily draining his strength. "Now, I'm gonna check yer wound and then work on gettin' this fever down. You jist lay there and rest, okay?"
Taking the lack of a response as a positive, Tanner continued. "Good." He carefully opened the bandage and then loosened the poultice with some of the water. Cleaning the wound, he cursed softly when he saw that the infection continued to poison the man.
Using some of the whiskey and a liberal amount of water, Vin cleaned the wound out as well as he could. Chris protested with a whispered groan from time to time, but otherwise lay frighteningly still. Doling a little more of the whiskey into the deep wound, he again applied a poultice and retied the bandage.
Lifting the sweat-soaked head once more, Vin fed his friend a little more of the whiskey, following it up with more water. He had lived in the wild long enough to know that the most important thing to remember was to stay hydrated.
The morning passed slowly, Chris getting warmer despite Tanner's attempts to cool him down. The hope the tracker had wakened with dissipated with every passing hour.
At this point, Larabee wouldn't live to see morning.
He was just filling the canteen again when he heard it. Hoof beats. His heart sped up as he left the canteen at the side of the little pool and hurried to the side of the arroyo. Making certain that his sawed off was loose in its holster, he moved as quickly as possible up the steep, dirt side. Stopping – as he had in his dream – as he came eye level with the ground, he watched as the riders rode closer and closer.
It was the boys.
Grinning like a fool, Vin pulled himself up over the side, his eyes never leaving the welcome sight of the approaching riders. They were near, but he could tell that they were following the trail their attackers had taken, backtracking in hopes of finding their friends.
Drawing his mare's leg, he shot into the air. He watched as the riders drew up a second later, obviously trying to figure the direction. He clambered to the top of the arroyo, ratcheted another shell into the chamber and fired a second shot. Following that, he waved his arms in the air, giving them a target to hone in on.
A short time later, the other five peacekeepers galloped toward him, reining in just a yard or so away. He registered the fact that they had the two, stolen blacks with them. Smiling broadly, he said, "Reckon them bastards weren't any smarter than I took 'em for."
Buck climbed down, chuckling as he recounted, "Idiots rode right down the middle of town and went into the saloon."
Taking up the story, Ezra added, "They had no more intelligence than to offer up the story that the animals were theirs." With a look of distaste, he spat out, "Idiots."
"Where's Chris?" Nathan asked, keen, dark eyes searching the landscape around them.
"Down yonder," Vin motioned with his head toward the arroyo. "Found some water down there, figgered it would be the best place to hole up."
"How is he?"
Taking a deep breath, Tanner said, "Not good. Bastards got 'im with a knife. One ain't more 'n a scratch, but the other one's deep… and infected."
While Buck cursed, Nathan gathered up the supplies he'd brought with him, and headed toward the steep incline. JD and Ezra stayed behind to settle the horses, while the others quickly moved after the healer.
Jackson was already at work, removing the bandage and exposing the poultice covered wound. Carefully removing the earthen mixture, he gently probed the septic wound. Turning to his satchel, he dug through it and removed some of the items he carried.
Looking up to see the others hovering over him, the former slave said, "If y'all want me to tend this man, then you're gonna have to give me some room. Why don't you go on over yonder and fix something to eat… get some coffee brewed. Just stay out of my way and let me work."
"Nathan, I – " Vin began to argue.
Looking into the weary face, Jackson said, "You did a good job at keepin' him goin', Vin. Now it's my turn. Go on over and stretch out for a while, you look about worn to the bone."
Still looking as if he'd argue, Tanner felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned to find Buck beside him. Dropping his gaze, he nodded and moved away with the others.
Josiah stayed behind with Nathan. He had acted as the healer's assistant often enough that he knew he could be of use now. Drawing his attention from the pale, listless body to the dark-skinned man, he said, "What can I do to help?"
Tanner had refused to stretch out, even after the others promised to wake him when they had to food ready, or when Nathan gave them word on Chris. It didn't do any good though; he was just too worn out. One minute he was asking JD about his horse and the next he was blinking awake, Buck leaning down over him, a smile making his mustache twitch.
"Mornin', sunshine. Reckon you could do with some coffee." He held up a steaming mug, bringing it into the younger man's line of sight.
Pushing himself up and resting on one elbow, Vin took the offered drink with a nod and a quiet "obliged". He drank down the dark brew, smiling when he realized they'd made it strong as mud, just like he liked.
"Yeah, that ought ta chase off the fog."
With a chuckle, Tanner nodded. "Reckon I ain't gonna be sleepin' anytime soon." Then he grew serious as he asked, "Chris?"
"Nathan's still workin' on him." Seeing the worried expression dawning on the finely chiseled features, he said, "You've only been out about an hour, Tanner, don't go on the worry."
"Well, ain't done nothin' else fer the last day or so… kind 'a got ta be a habit."
"Reckon it did, but you're not alone, now. You can let us share a part of the burden."
Frowning, Vin slanted a look at the other man. "Ya sound like Josiah."
Laughing heartily now, Wilmington said, "Maybe so. Reckon we've all been hangin' around each other too long."
Tanner shook his head. "Never too long to be around friends."
His laughter fading to a smile now, Buck said, "Now who's soundin' like Josiah?"
Their banter ceased when the two men noticed that Nathan was approaching them. They waited in silent anticipation while the man poured himself a cup of coffee and eased his big frame to the ground.
Patience worn through, Vin cut the silence with a worried, "Nathan?"
Swallowing a drink of the bitter brew, Jackson swept a look over every worried face before he said, "Ain't lyin' to ya… it's bad. Fever's drainin' him and the wound's sour. I got it cleaned out and packed to try and draw out the poison. I'm gonna brew up some medicine to fight the fever, but we gotta keep gettin' water into him. That's gonna be the most important thing right now, keepin' him from gettin' dehydrated." He paused, dropping his eyes to the small fire. As if to himself, he said, "That's all we can do… that and pray."
The setting sun left the arroyo in shadows. Buck had insisted on spelling Josiah for a while, acting in the assistant role. He held Chris in his arms, the man draped limply against him. Nathan knelt beside them, holding Larabee's head still and slowly feeding him some water.
"Come on, stud, stay with us," Wilmington coaxed softly. He watched his friend's pale lids; saw the eyes beneath darting quickly back and forth. Realizing that Chris was more than likely suffering through a nightmare, brought on by the continued fever, he tightened his hold slightly. "Come on, ya old war dog. You've had worse… hell; you've done worse with a razor and a hangover. You can fight this, pard. I know you can."
Jackson listened to the other man in silence, knowing that there were times when the sound of a friend's voice could mean the difference between life and death. Watching the blond lying there, far too still for his taste, he hoped that it would work this time.
Otherwise, they'd be carrying the blond back to town for burial.
Without looking up, the big brunet asked, "he gonna make it?"
Sighing, Jackson replied, "I don't know any more than I did an hour ago."
Dropping his gaze, Buck murmured, "Just thought I'd ask. Thought maybe…"
Reaching out to place his hand comfortingly on the broad shoulder, the healer said, "I know it's hard, Buck, and I wish that I could give you more of an answer. But the truth is, I don't know if he'll pull out of this or not."
"Not… going… an-any… where." It was nothing more than a whisper, faint and raspy, but it was enough. The words replaced a little of the hope that doubt and uncertainty had stolen.
His grin threatening to split his face, Buck replied, "Didn't figure you'd be planning on goin' anywhere, ol' son. You're just too damned ornery."
The wisp of a smile ghosted over the colorless features. Chris struggled to open his eyes, managing to lift them halfway. Unfocused eyes settled on the big brunet. "F-full'a shit," he retorted.
"Yeah, well, you ain't the first to make that remark. Hell, ain't the first time you –"
"Sh-shut up… Buck. Head h-hurts."
Still grinning, Wilmington shifted his hold slightly, so he could look his friend in the eye. Sobering then he asked, "How ya feelin' otherwise?"
"Like shit," Chris replied softly.
"Reckon ya do. Why don'cha rest now, and let us take care of things?"
With a sigh and a faint nod of his head, Larabee drifted off once more, somewhere between consciousness and oblivion. He knew that he was still in his old friend's embrace, but did nothing to protest it. That embrace was familiar and a comfort. Both things he craved at the moment. He had heard Nathan's words, every disheartening syllable. And he was surprised to find that he didn't want to die yet. He wasn't ready.
And he sure as hell wasn't going to give up without a fight.
They built up the fire when night fell, bringing Chris closer to it so they could better monitor him. The others surrounded the dancing flames as well, so quiet that most of the time the pop and crack of the burning wood seemed incredibly loud.
Vin had returned to Larabee's side to give Buck a break. He sat beside the bedroll where the blond lay, wiping down the body that burned from within. Other than the occasional, breathless moan, the injured man hadn't responded to them for some time. He had cried out when they had moved him earlier, but otherwise lay limp on the blanket.
Buck looked around the fire, at the solemn expressions on the faces lit by the flames. Deciding he'd had enough, the big man said, "Damn, boys. It gets any quieter around here, I'm gonna be able to hear my hair grow!"
Catching the other man's intent, Ezra said, "Yes, well, perhaps that will entice you to visit the town barber a bit more frequently." He looked pointedly at the man's thick, shaggy hair.
"Hell, Ezra," JD joined in, "Maybe that's where he gets his animal maggotism." He reached out and teasingly ran his fingers through the ladies man's hair.
Swatting at the younger man, Wilmington growled, "That's magnetism, boy."
The mood began to lighten, the men laughing softly as the banter began. Even Vin, his mind focused on their wounded friend, smiled as Buck dangled JD's hat over the fire, grinning as the smaller man attempted to retrieve the much abused headgear.
The teasing continued, gentle and familiar. It had the desired effect on the six men, relieving some of the anxiety they felt about the seventh. Even Nathan joined in from time to time, from where he sat mixing herbs to make tea for Larabee.
"One of you idiots is gonna get burnt, you don't stay away from that fire!"
Buck and JD paused just long enough to grin at the healer before returning to their horseplay. Buck added a cheerful, "Only things gonna get burnt is this gawd awful hat!"
"As many times as you've attacked that poor, maligned chapo," Ezra mused, "did you ever consider that… perhaps… our Mister Dunne keeps more in reserve?"
Both combatants said in unison, "huh?"
"I believe what Ezra's pointing out is, JD might just have a closet full of bowlers," Josiah clarified.
Wilmington paused, staring at the smaller man. JD grinned and waggled his eyebrows in response. "Good lord… never thought of that," the tall brunet said in a stricken voice.
Vin chuckled, listening as the banter continued. He watched the prone man, watched the weariness and pain displayed on the flushed face. He watched as Larabee's eyes began to move restlessly beneath the lids once more. Wringing the excess water from his rag, he stroked it over his friend's face. Softly he said, "'S okay, Cowboy, rest easy. Yer gonna be okay. Jist rest easy."
"Vin?" Larabee called in a hoarse whisper.
"Right here." How many times had he said those words? Used those same words in an effort to calm and soothe the restless man?
"'S… matter?" Chris slurred. "'S… noisy."
Not hiding his smile, Tanner said, "Nothin' serious. Buck's jist workin' on pissin' JD off again."
Just then, Nathan joined the two men, mug in hand. "He awake?"
"Seems to be," The blond answered, causing his two friends to smile and shake their heads.
"Good. Got something for you."
"Horse piss or boilt skunk?" Tanner quipped, with a cocky grin.
Unfazed, the former stretcher bearer retorted, "It's boiled piss."
Vin couldn't help but laugh aloud at both Jackson's words and Larabee's response. The latter blinked open his eyes and managed a brief glare before letting his lids close once more.
Ignoring Chris' response, Nathan instructed Vin. "Lift his head. Let's get this over with."
Tanner slipped a hand beneath his friend's head and gently lifted the weakened man up. Cradling the gunslinger against him, he watched as Jackson carefully fed him the warm tea. He watched his friend's reaction; furrowed brow and an expression of disgust on his face. While the teasing continued nearby, the men focused on Chris drinking the tea.
By the time the mug was empty, the blond lay heavily in Texan's arms. His face was turned toward his friend, nestled against his shoulder. Vin felt the tense body slowly relax, and knew he was sleeping once more. Chancing a glance at the healer, he dared to be hopeful as he asked, "Nathan?"
Reaching out, Jackson touched the pale features. The corner of his mouth turned up in the barest hint of a smile, and he nodded as he said, "think he might be a bit cooler."
The night passed slowly, the men quieting down and eventually drifting off to sleep. Nathan, Buck, Josiah and Vin each took a turn sitting with Chris. Larabee was caught in a restless sleep most of the night, drifting near true consciousness only when one of the men would rouse him to drink water or more of the tea.
Then, just as the first tendrils of dawn crept over the horizon, the fever broke. Chris sighed, opened his eyes long enough to drink down some broth, and slipped into a deep, healing sleep. He didn't even stir when Nathan checked the wound, satisfied that the plump, white creatures he had packed the infected wound with had done their job. Ignoring the nauseated look that Buck gave him, he cleaned the wound once more, pressed a poultice over the torn flesh, and re-bandaged the injury.
One by one, the other four men rubbed sleep from their eyes and stretched out of their bedrolls. They poured coffee, chewed on jerky and cold biscuits, and drew closer to true wakefulness.
When they were all coherent, Nathan announced, "Fever broke and the wound looks good. Think he's gonna make it."
A celebration, kept quiet so as not to disturb the focus of that joy, filled the arroyo. It was several long moments before anyone thought to ask, "How soon can we get him home?"
"Well, he ain't gonna be strong enough to sit his horse for a few more days. But, I was thinkin' that, if we brought a wagon out here and loaded him up; we should be able to take him home first thing in the morning."
It was early evening when the sound of a wagon rattling over the prairie announced the return of two of the peacekeepers. Buck watched from the edge of the arroyo as JD and Josiah came to a stop nearby. As the two men climbed down off the wagon seat, he asked, "Lose Ezra?"
Nodding, Sanchez said, "Stage was in town… he decided to fleece some likely prospects."
"Yeah, he said one of us should stay in town to make certain things were going smoothly," JD said with a snort.
With a chuckle, Wilmington took the heavy burlap sack from the younger man. They had sent the men into town with a list of supplies to see them through until they got back to town. "Well, it ain't like he's real handy out here, anyway."
The trio shared a laugh as they climbed back down into the arroyo. It had been decided that they would stay put until they were ready to go, to not only give Chris more time to rest, but to reduce the number of times they needed to move him.
"Well, hallelujah," Sanchez crowed. He and Dunne both smiled at the sight of Chris Larabee sitting up, leaning against the dirt wall, drinking from a mug. True, his hands trembled as he lifted it to his mouth, but he was holding it by himself. He was as pale as a man could be, but he was bright eyed as he greeted the returning men with a nod.
Chris didn't stay awake long at a stretch; drifting off still sitting up against the arroyo. He helped Nathan as the healer coaxed him to a prone position, eyes opened to half mast as he settled onto the blanket beneath him. A glare slipped from those half closed eyes when Jackson pressed the back of a hand against his forehead. "Stop hovering," he murmured softly.
"You get the strength to knock my hand away, I'll stop," Nathan challenged, humor glittering in the dark brown eyes.
Huffing, Larabee let his eyes close and was soon asleep once more.
Morning came again, filling the arroyo with light. All but Chris were awake, breaking down the camp and packing everything up the steep incline. It was only when everything else had been taken care of that they turned to the task of getting the blond back up the hill.
"I can do it… my… self," the black clad man argued breathlessly.
"The hell you can," the healer responded.
"Nathan…" Larabee started. Then he found himself fighting off a wave of nausea at the simple act of pushing himself up on his elbows. Surrendering to reality, he dropped back to the ground with a soft, "ah… hell."
"Told you so," the former slave said, not even trying to disguise the gloating tone in his voice.
By the time they got Chris up the side of the arroyo and loaded onto the hay-padded wagon bed, the other five men were drenched and breathless. At some point the blond had given up the pretense of consciousness, leaving them to move the limp body up the steep incline.
While Nathan checked his patient over, the wounded man woke once more. He looked around him with a puzzled frown, finally figuring out just where he was. His eyes roamed from one man to the other, taking in the faces of his friends. He lingered on Vin, their eyes locking on one another, with that wordless communication they had known from the beginning. After a moment, Tanner smiled down at him.
His own lips drawing up in a smile of gratitude for everything his friend had done these past few days, he nodded.
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