CHAPTER 10

It hadnít taken long for Vin and Ezra to finish bathing, especially with their friendsí help and encouragement which meant that both men felt the best way to shut their friends up was to get out of the bathhouse as quickly as possible. Ezra knew exactly what Vin had meant earlier when he had stated that Chris and Nathan could be more than disagreeable when enforcing their will on others. Before any of the others would succumb to their desire for a bath and food, they made certain that their two friends had been thoroughly examined by Nathan. The others had waited, watched, given helpful tips and comments, and finally laughed at the two totally ungrateful men. Secretly, all were relieved that the two really looked worse than they were actually injured.

Nathan had sent JD for a bottle of carbolic acid, some bandages, and the jar of herbal cream he used for bruises and had put it on the shoulders of both men. He did allow them to spread the cream all along the rest of their bruises, but he kept a stern eye on them while they followed his orders. Next, after he declared that the only internal injuries he could find were bruised ribs, he examined each swollen eye. He was particularly upset with Vin.

"Itís always the left side, ainít it? You ainít got a lick a sense, aní Iím gettingí real tired of patchiní you up every few months." Vin had borne Nathanís poking and prodding in silence up to this point, but when the healer started poking at his knees, enough was enough.

"I never got hurt every few months till I met yíall. Hell, I hardly got hurt at all. Yíall are just plain bad luck. Ow, Nathan! That burns! I hate that stuff!" Nathan had poured some carbolic acid on Vinís knees. Vin hated carbolic acid. It burned like hell on the raw skin. Ezra reached for his pants only to find them yanked out of his grip by a feral smiling Josiah. Nathan looked over at Ezra before he continued with Vinís scraped and swollen hands.

"You stay right there. Youíre next." He poured some carbolic into a small basin supplied by the ever-helpful Jake, who was supplying information to the crowd who had gathered outside.

The townspeople werenít so worried about the two men since they had turned up alive as they were having a wonderful time listening to their ordeal at the hands of their friends. The general popular feeling was that Tanner and Standish deserved whatever Larabee and the rest of the Seven were dishing out, since both men had scared everyone into thinking they had both been killed. Quite simply, they were all feeding off of the happiness everyone felt that their seven peacekeepers were all present and accounted for. They hadnít lost any of them yet, and that alone was cause for celebration. The other men who had toiled with them digging through all the rubble had already told the crowd how worried and then relieved the others were when no bodies had been found. Ed, the livery owner was particularly fond of the story TJ had told of Tannerís expert marksmanship. So while the general public gossiped and discussed their peacekeepers, Nathan and the others continued torturing Vin and Ezra inside the bathhouse.

Ezra winced as Nathan ordered Vin to put his hands into the basin with the carbolic acid. Vin almost balked at the command until he felt rather than saw the black clad figure move to his side. He turned his disgruntled eye to Larabee but only received a smile and an unspoken promise if he didnít voluntarily stick his scraped hands into the basin. Vin did as he was ordered, and his quickly suppressed hiss only served to make Ezra vow that the next time he had an idea, he would not verbalize it to anyone for any reason. He wasnít surprised when Vin turned looking at Ezra as he spoke.

"I ainít never telliní you any more good ideas I get."

Ezra inhaled sharply as Nathan began pouring carbolic on his scraped knees. "That my dear Mr. Tanner is fine with me. If you never have another good idea again, I for one shall be forever grateful."

He felt rather than saw the unholy grin on Vinís face when he had to plunge his scraped hands into the now cleaned basin filled with the rest of the carbolic acid. The absurdity of sitting wrapped only in a towel while a crowd laughed at their predicament outside and his friends tortured them inside finally hit the gambler. He found himself realizing why Vin Tanner was suddenly grinning at him like an idiot. Trust Vinís odd sense of humor to spring up just when Ezra was feeling his worst. It was contagious as he saw Chris then the others one by one succumb to the happiness that they were still seven in number. The fact that he and Vin had survived the murder attempt with so few injuries was not just pure luck. Ezra was beginning to believe that his new family had a purpose to fulfill, and that a higher power than Lady Luck was somehow responsible. He joined in the amused smiles that had started out quietly and then built into a relieved but raucous laughter. The fact that he and Vin had to hold their bruised ribs while they laughed didnít deter them. They were alive and very happy about it. It was good to be home and surrounded by family, even if that family was intent on killing them slowly by treating all of their injuries.

Nathan wrapped Ezraís hands as he had for Vin earlier. Ezra gladly accepted his pants as Josiah handed them back to him. He also accepted Buckís help in dressing. He looked over and spoke before Chris helped Vin put his shirt on.

"I have an extra silk shirt. Mr. Tanner might feel more comfortable in that fabric instead of his usual attire." Chris grinned at Ezra and accepted the extra shirt Josiah had found with Ezraís other clothes. Vin started to say something, but Chris gave him a look that silenced the tracker.

"Say thank you and put it on." Chris held the white silk shirt out for Vin to put on. The tracker looked at it like it was carbolic acid. Vin didnít want to mention the fact that he didnít know silk from any other fabric Ezra might wear.

"It will feel better and cooler against your bruised back, Vin." Ezra explained his generosity.

"Iíll get somethiní on it for sure."

"I have plenty of silk shirts, but very few friends and even fewer brothers." That part hadnít been as loud, but it was still audible to every one of the men in the room. Buck grinned ear to ear and poked JD in the ribs who ducked to hide the moisture that had gathered in his eyes. Nathan smiled, relaxing for the first time since this whole thing began. Josiah relaxed into a beaming smile as Chris favored the gambler with a very knowing and understanding look.

One blue eye twinkling despite the moisture, he must have gotten some carbolic in it to make it water like that, met the equally watery green one. "Aw hell. Thanks, Ezra."

"Now, ainít that sweet? Chris, you canít kill kin." Buck decided heíd rather have Ezra and Vin alive. Life would certainly get duller if those two werenít around to wreak havoc on the former gunslingerís nerves.

"He ainít worried Ďbout killiní kin, Buck."

"Oh, and what am I worried about, JD?" Chris wasnít quite ready to let those two off the hook so easily. He still had a mind to wire Maude about her sonís foolishness and to ask Vin how his reading lessons were coming. He waited for JD to tell him just why he should show any mercy to the two men who had caused him a hell of a lot of grief and discomfort.

"You promised Miz Nettie and Mary they could help torture Vin and Ezra. They ainít gonna be happy with you if you donít let Ďem get a few licks in."

Chris Larabee burst out laughing. The others joined him, everyone except Vin and Ezra. Both men had forgotten they still had to get past Nettie and Mary. Vin looked for a back door. Ezra looked at the window covered with heavy cloth. Chris was happy to point out there would be no escape.

"Oh, I donít think I have to help Nettie or Mary. They said somethiní Ďbout jail cells, locks, and losiní the keys. Still sounds like a really good idea to me." He smiled as the tracker and the gambler gave him dirty looks. Let them pout over his use of their phrase against them. He reached out and helped Vin pull his suspenders up over his shoulders. The bandaged hands and bruised ribs made the simple act of pulling oneís pants up and adjusting suspenders very difficult. Chris smiled at Vinís disgust of having someone help him with his buttons and such. "Need some help with those socks and boots?"

"Yíall are enjoyiní this too much, Ďspecially you. I told you he had a mean streak in Ďm." Vin turned to look at Ezra. The gambler wasnít in the mood to argue a moot point.

"Just goes to show you," Chris addressed the two men who really looked like they could fall onto a bed without any help. "You shouldnít piss Big Brother off!" He turned and walked to the door as two mouths dropped open in surprise. The others started laughing again at the matching looks of pure astonishment. Vin gave a disgusted snort, and then straightened up as Chris ushered Mary and Nettie into the room. Ezra put on his poker face. Neither man was going to go down without a fight for their dignity. Both women looked incredibly clean and fresh, not like they had been worrying all night over the two of them.

"Well, they donít look much better now than they did before." Chris had clearly placed Nettie in charge of them.

Vin looked over at Mary waiting for her to pounce. Ezra remembered that Vin had said the beautiful blonde widow deserved Larabee because she was just as mean as he was. Ezra had scoffed, but after all of Vinís other warnings had proven correct, the gambler waited for her first words with some trepidation.

"We have their rooms ready. Mr. Parker insisted that we put Ezra and Vin there until Nathan pronounces them fit. We thought adjoining rooms would make it easier on Nathan." She smiled smugly at the two men who had started scowling at the first mention of adjoining rooms. Adjoining rooms were like adjoining cells, just more comfortable. They knew they were going to have put up with a "jailer", namely Nathan, Chris, or Josiah until Nathan declared them healthy. JD could be talked into most anything, and Buck was really too softhearted to make Vin and Ezra do anything they didnít want to do.

"I donít need," Vin started to protest but was cut off by a stern look from Nettie. Ezra sighed, knowing any protest was going to fall on deaf ears. If Vin couldnít get Nettie to show a crack in her armor, Ezra surely wasnít.

Chris added all the incentive they needed. "You two are going to do exactly as youíre told, arenít you?"

"Got along fine all my life on my own, now I got some know-it-all telling me what I get to do." Vin was clearly disgruntled at the news he had to stay confined in a room again until Nathan told him he could leave it. It went against his very nature to be confined anywhere for any length of time. He just couldnít help but protest, and the gambler was getting the idea that it was much more fun to be the one dictating to the injured than being dictated to.

"I do not think we have much choice at this moment my friend. I suggest we go quietly before we find out what big brother is prepared to do to us if we are uncooperative."

"Huh?" JD wished sometimes that Ezra would speak English.

"He said I best shut up and go quietly, or Chrisíll shoot me."

Josiah had some sympathy for the two men as they both looked like they were sacrificial lambs going to the slaughter. "You boys need any help walkiní over there?" He laughed at the two dirty looks he received. So much for sacrificial lambs. More like two angry bees about to be swatted.

The others joined in his good mood as he opened the door with a flourish and watched as Mary and Nettie took Vin and Ezra each by an arm and ushered them out the door. Their audience had any number of helpful souls, but Vin and Ezra managed to thank them for their concern and make the arduous trip to the hotel without mishap. By the time they got to the rooms, Vin silently crawled onto one bed in one room while Ezra took the other bed in the adjoining room. Nettie and Mary didnít have to say much to them. Vin let them help him off with his boots, and Ezra did the same falling asleep almost immediately. Vin had one nagging concern before he would surrender to exhaustion.

"My coatís still at the bathhouse."

"That thing? Son, that coat has seen better days. Best get a new one." Nettie didnít have time for this foolishness.

"I need to get it Ďfore someone throws it away. It can be fixed."

Mary responded to the plea in Vinís voice. "Iíll make sure no one throws it away. Iíll go get it now. Just lie back down."

"Ought to be burned. That coat's so full of dust and dirt it could walk on its own. Boy needs a new one."

"I want my coat."

"She said sheíd go get it. Now hush and get some sleep." Nettie shook her head and pushed Vin onto the bed again. He was so tired it didnít take but a nudge before he sprawled on the bed. She put a gentle hand on the right side of his face and patted it like she would a sick child. He was the closest she came to having a son of her own, and she let him hear the affection in her voice. "Iíll see what can be done to save that danged coat. I donít think nothiní will save it from what I saw, but you know weíll try. Now, go to sleep."

Vin closed his eyes and slept. He didnít wake up until he felt someone put something down on the bedside table near him. It was late afternoon, and Chris was standing by the bed. Heíd brought a tray of food, and Vin responded to his stomachís reaction to it. He was stiff and sore, but the silk shirt really did feel incredibly soft. Heíd never felt anything like it. Then he noticed what was under the tray. The tablet heíd been using in his lessons with Mary. He looked with his right eye suspiciously into the two green ones staring solemnly back at him and waited for Chris to embarrass him by asking about the reading and writing lessons. Instead he got something entirely different.

Chris pulled a chair close to the bed and spoke. "Thought I was gonna have to go to Tascosa with just your body, cowboy. I didnít like the way it made me feel."

"So you sayiní I owe you five hundred dollars?" Vin remembered making Chris promise to take his body and collect the bounty if he ever got killed, so he could have the last laugh when a friend collected. Who better than the man he considered a brother to profit off the lie that had made him a wanted man? It made Vin feel like heíd won if Chris got the money even though he knew his best friend would never use it.

"Iím sayiní you ever make me feel like I lost my best friend again, I just may have to shoot you. When we go to Tascosa, it will be to clear your name. And we all ride out alive, understand?"

Vin thought a moment and smiled. "Iíll do my best to stay alive if you promise to do the same. I got no need to bury anyone else I care about." He knew Chris knew he was referring to the gunmanís habit of walking straight into the bullets daring one of them to hit him. Heíd be damned if heíd watch his friend be so careless with his own life.

The man in black thought for a moment and then looked into Vinís one good eye. "Tell you what. You promise to do your best to stay alive, and Iíll do the same." Vin acted like he was thinking about it, and then he nodded his assent. He and his friend were in complete agreement. Their family meant too much to both to jeopardize any member of it foolishly.

Then Chris looked serious again. There was something that he wasnít telling Vin. "Whatís wrong?"

"Well, pard, I just donít know how to tell you this real bad news."

Vinís heart dropped to his stomach. What had happened while he had been asleep? Vin looked at the open door to Ezraís room. He could see the gamblerís back rise and fall as he slept.

"Whatís happened?"

"Your coat. It died, Vin." Chris couldnít keep the serious look on his face any more. He grinned and kept that stupid self-satisfied smirk on his face even after Vin threw a weak punch with his bandaged hand.

"Yíall threw it away, didnít you?" Chris knew how attached the tracker was to that coat, but he didnít realize how much until he saw Vinís reaction. "I want my coat."

"Now, hold on. Nettie, Mary, Inez, and Miz Potter all tried to work on that coat, but Vin, it really is hopeless. Itís practically shredded. You want to tell me why we just canít get you a new one?"

Vin hated explaining personal stuff to other people. Sharing part of himself made him feel vulnerable. It meant someone else had the ability to hurt him, and he hated that feeling even if it was Chris who was asking. But Chris had found out that Mary was teaching him to read and write, and he hadnít used that to tease him with. Vin realized that Chris wouldnít have teased him about the coat either if he had known why it meant so much to him. He took a deep breath and decided to trust Larabee with just one more piece of himself.

"Remember I told ya when I lived with the Indians my friend taught me to track?" When Chris nodded yes, Vin continued. "The last time we went huntiní, Ďfore the army came to round Ďem up aní force Ďem on the reservation, we killed that buffalo. His wife made the jacket for me. Army killed both of Ďem. Coatís all I got left of Ďem."

Chris knew what it had cost Vin to tell him about that part of his past. "Iíll make sure no one throws the coat away. You might not be able to wear it again, but youíll still have it." He rose to go, but Vin stopped him with a hand on his arm. The touch was light, but it got Chrisís undivided attention. "What?"

"Itís okay. I donít need the coat to remember Ďem. I got Ďem where it counts."

Chris understood that and what it had cost his friend to let part of his past go. Thatís exactly what Chris needed to do. Put one part of his past to rest at last, too. He sat back down and looked at his hands for a while. Vin waited silently knowing that he was going to get something back in return. He hadnít expected it, but Chris Larabee was about to show Vin how much he appreciated that Vin had confided in him.

"When I was a kid, I had a friend. He was a cross between you and Buck. Had a way of gettingí me to do stuff I didnít really want to, but we always ended up haviní a hell of a time. He was the closest I had to a brother."

Vin still remained silent, letting Chris get to the point in his own time. He didnít have to wait long. That was one reason why Chris and Vin were so close. The tracker knew when to push his friend and when to let him have the time he needed. Now, he needed time to tell Vin what was on his mind.

"We joined up together duriní the War, but his pa took him in his unit. They blew up stuff." Now Vin knew why Chris had reacted so strongly to dynamite. Somehow he knew what Chris was going to say next. He saved him from having to.

"He got killed, didnít he?" Chris looked at Vin and nodded.

"Some fool got careless. A bunch of good men died cause one man got cocky. I found him. There wasnít a mark on him, but he was dead."

Vin was silent. Heíd known Chris had lost a large part of himself when heíd lost his wife and child, but he didnít know that Chris had already faced grief before. Vin understood grief and how it made a man want to protect himself from the pain of losing someone by pushing others away. Vin also knew how lonely it was to live like that, and what it cost Chris to tell him this. Both men were silent as they digested what each had confided to the other. Then, finally, the Tanner humor pushed itself out to lighten the mood.

"Hell, me aní Ezra are lucky you didnít shoot us on sight."

Chris appreciated Vinís attempt to lighten the mood. Things had been too close this time, and the pain of nearly losing two people he had come to care for as much as he had his childhood friend was still too fresh in his memory. Actually, talking about his friend's needless death made him feel better. It was easier to remember the good times instead of the one last time he had seen the body.

"You just make sure you stay outa trouble for a while. Iím gettingí too old to be digginí people who donít have a brain between the two of Ďem out of a hill of rocks."

"I donít know, cowboy. Who else is gonna help Ezra make that vein in your forehead throb when you get really pissed?" Chris didnít have to find an answer to that outrageous remark because his short burst of laughter at what Vin had said had been loud enough to wake the man in the next room.

"May I ask what it is that is so amusing that you must interrupt my repose?" A rumpled Ezra stood in the doorway. He still looked like heíd been run over by the same stagecoach that had run over Vin. Chris gave him a companionable smile and indicated the food tray.

"Nathan said he was coming up here to check you two out again. Said you both had better eat a good meal cause heís bringing the carbolic and youíll need your strength." The friendly smile turned feral.

Ezra, however, wasnít really impressed this time. He saw Vin sitting on the bed grinning at him and knew that Larabee was no longer on the warpath, for this infraction at least. "I suggest, Mr. Tanner, that you and I had better feast while we are still able to do so with some modicum of dignity."

Chris set the tray of food on a table in the middle of the room. There was more than enough food for Vin and Ezra. Chris grinned at them. "Oh, did I forget to tell you that the others are coming to celebrate your return to the fold as Josiah would put it?"

"Whatís that mean?" Vin was suspicious of Chris. Heíd gotten that look in his eyes again.

"Nettie, Mary, Inez, Mrs. Potter, the Darcyís, hell just about everyone in town is cominí by this evening to see you boys. Thatís why Nathanís cominí by to check you out. He wants to make sure you boys can come to the party the townís throwing you. Course, itís really a party to congratulate TJ for beiní a hero, but we thought you two might like to come downstairs and thank him. Go ahead, eat up. Oh, I forgot again. Must be gettingí old. Either one of you need your meat cut up? Kinda hard to do that with your hands like they are."

"You are right, Vin. Mr. Larabee does take it as a personal insult when someone he knows has the misfortune to find himself injured."

"I know it. He thinks heís being real cute here. I say we ignore him. Otherwise, heíll just get Nathan to help him make us more miserable."

Chris walked to the door laughing at the two men. He paused a moment before he exited. "By the way. That idea of yours? Might work better if you use one of those things they shoot those clay pigeons into the air with instead of a slingshot. Get more distance with that, and if you got someone whoís a fairly decent marksman, you might just have a really good idea." He shut the door on the two dumbstruck men. He really was enjoying this big brother stuff. It was a pure joy to torture younger brothers and put them in their places. Life was just getting better every day. Sarah and Adam would have liked these two. Chris sure did. He walked down the stairs whistling. Buck was lounging by the stairs waiting on Chris. The leader looked at the scoundrel and grinned. Buck saw the old devil may care Larabee standing before him and returned the feeling to his oldest friend with a matching smile.

"What say I buy you a drink fore we go up and watch Nathan torture them some more."

"Iíd say that was a really good idea, Buck."

The hotel clerk smiled as the infectious laughter drifted over his way. Things sure had changed for the better in Four Corners since the Magnificent Seven had come to town. This was becoming a really nice place to live.

THE END

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