Chris Larabee sat out in front of the saloon, enjoying a late afternoon beer and the unusual but dearly welcome quiet of the day with Buck Wilmington. No cowboys were shooting up the town, no one had attempted to rob the bank in two weeks, the stage had dropped off and picked up passengers without incident, and what few newcomers there were all seemed peaceable and inoffensive. Hell, the only real trouble they had right now was from a band of horse thieves working between here and Eagle Bend, and, though stealing horses could not, and would not, be tolerated, at least the thieves hadn't hurt anybody.
No one had taken a shot at Larabee or any of his men in over a week, and he was a happy man. Happy enough now to listen with a slight, knowing grin as his oldest friend carried on with his usual bluster about his ongoing effort to woo and win the lovely Inez Recillos.
Secretly, though, Chris suspected that if Inez ever did give in, the shock just might kill Buck.
"I'm tellin' ya, pard, she's comin' around!" Wilmington declared with delight, a broad grin splitting his handsome face. He stood with one foot up on the railing, his twinkling eyes taking in the peaceful street as he pondered his inevitable victory over the feisty barmaid. "Ain't but a matter of time before she succumbs ta ol' Buck's charms. Why, only last night, she- Whoa there!" he said abruptly, interrupting himself. He leaned forward and frowned, staring up the street. "Damn!" he breathed with a wince. "Now there's a sorry picture!"
Chris turned his head to follow Buck's gaze, then let out a snort of laughter and shook his head. "Hell, are they at it again?"
Buck laughed heartily and slapped his thigh, his blue eyes gleaming with mischief, his white teeth shining beneath the glossy darkness of his mustache. "Them two're worse'n any old married couple I ever saw. Well, come on, pard," he dropped his foot from the railing and grinned devilishly, "let's go hear the sorry tale!"
Chris chuckled softly and drained the last of his beer in one swallow. He rose to his feet with a lithe grace and turned to follow Buck along the boardwalk, all the while watching the pair battling its way down the street.
One of the two was Vin Tanner, reckoned to be the best tracker and finest sharpshooter in these parts. Though a good ten or fifteen years younger than either Larabee or Wilmington, he had already led a hard and colorful existence, having been a buffalo hunter, bounty hunter and God knew what else. At present, he was one of the town's seven regulators, helping to keep the peace in the generally lawless area. He was, for the most part, a quiet, soft-spoken, even shy young man whose rugged appearance and rough manners concealed a surprisingly gentle nature. Yet those who knew Tanner knew also that with that gentleness came a will of iron and, as Nathan Jackson repeatedly declared, a head of stone. Any one of the tracker's six friends would gladly swear there was not a more intractable creature on God's earth than Vin Tanner when he dug in his heels.
Except, they would concede, the one now fighting him every step of the way.
That creature was Tanner's horse, a large black, blaze-faced gelding named Peso. He was a magnificent animal - long-legged, deep-chested, powerfully muscled, built for both speed and endurance. Intelligence shone in his large, dark eyes, and spirit revealed itself in every toss of that fine head. Grace and strength were met in him, and the two were wrapped in beauty.
Unfortunately, that beauty did not extend to his character. For Peso was, quite possibly, the most ornery, the most contrary, the most ill-tempered beast ever to wear iron shoes. Wilmington swore he was no true horse at all, but some perverse mixture of sore-toothed grizzly, pissed-off cougar and hungry alligator, with a little Comanche thrown in just for spite. The big man would have added rattlesnake, but, as he said, "Hell, at least a rattler gives ya warnin' before it strikes. Peso won't do that much!"
But strike he would. The gelding was a notorious biter, would lay flat those ears, snake out that long, glossy neck and snap those long, wicked teeth on whatever - or whoever - was handy. He made life hell for any other horse unfortunate enough to come near him, and was so unpredictable in his temper that the hostlers at the livery stable refused to touch him. But anyone who guarded only against being bitten risked getting kicked. Or stepped on. And just getting on him could be a teeth-rattling, bone-jarring, pride- crushing experience, as he seemed to know every way there was to toss, buck or just plain sling an unwanted rider from his back.
He had a mean streak a mile wide, was as stubborn as an Arkansas mule and as wild as the day was long. And Vin Tanner loved him fiercely, as he'd never loved anything else in his life.
When, that is, he wasn't considering shooting him.
As it appeared he was seriously considering doing now. Even from the boardwalk, Buck and Chris could hear the steady, hoarsely drawled stream of filthy curses pouring from the normally taciturn tracker, could almost feel the blistering heat of his anger, and wondered what Peso had done this time.
That he had done something was clear. Tanner wasn't riding him, for one thing, but was walking, limping - hell, hobbling - before him, pulling furiously on the reins and cursing fluently in English, Spanish and several Indian dialects as Peso fought him. The tracker was covered in dirt from head to toe, dried blood was caked over his left temple and around his eye, he had a livid bruise the size of a man's fist along the left side of his face, his hands were badly bruised and scraped, his tan pants were ripped at one knee and stained with blood, and he moved with a stiffness completely unlike his customary loose and fluid ease. And each time Peso fought the reins, Vin's hand snaked down to his mare's leg and another snarled curse tore from him.
The gelding, however, appeared supremely indifferent to his potentially ugly fate. He, too, was coated in dirt, and slightly favored his right foreleg, but was in full possession of his spirit. He would balk every few steps and haul back on the reins, all but jerking the limping tracker off his feet. Then he would apparently change his mind and walk quietly along for a few steps, only to get bored with that and stop again, or butt Tanner in the back with his head, or try to get past the man whose limp was so much worse than his own.
"Goddamn, sonuvabitchin', good-fer-nothin' mule!" Tanner spat as Peso tugged the hat from his head. "Y'ain't worth the price'a yer shoes!" Another sharp nudge between his shoulderblades caused him to stumble. "SHIT!" he yelled, only barely able to keep from falling. Righting himself at the last minute, but only by catching himself on his bad leg, he spun about and lashed out at Peso with both hands, grabbing an ear in one and twisting it hard while seizing with the other upon the animal's sensitive upper lip. "Gonna shoot you yet!" he snarled, glaring into pained, startled eyes. "Skin ya like a goddamn buff 'n turn ya into a winter supply'a jerky! Now, goddamn ya, settle!"
Buck ambled over, grinning broadly, his hands thrust into his front pockets. Chris followed slightly behind, the faintest trace of a smile on his lean face. Vin bristled visibly at their approach, easily able to see their amusement and not appreciating it one damned bit.
"There a problem here, son?" Buck asked smoothly, his laughing gaze sweeping over the dirty, disgruntled tracker.
"Go t' hell!" Vin spat over his shoulder, his blue eyes brimming with fury. "'N don't call me `son.' I ain't JD!"
"No, you ain't," Buck answered with that same infuriating grin. "Hell, even JD knows a man's proper place is on his horse, not in front of it."
Vin snapped. Loosing a curse so foul that even Chris winced to hear it, the tracker released his horse and swung a fist toward Buck. Before he could strike, however, Peso did, his ears going back, his head streaking flat out, his teeth clamping hard about Vin's wrist. "FUCK!" he howled in pain and fury, slamming his other fist into Peso's jaw and ripping his ensnared wrist free. "Goddamn you-"
Buck exploded into laughter as the stern voice rang out across the street, and Chris had to bite his lower lip hard and press a firm hand to his mouth to keep from doing the same. But the look of shock and horror crossing Vin's bruised and dirty face was simply too much, and the gunfighter's whole frame began to shake.
"Aw, shit!" Tanner shouted in helpless frustration, looking wildly about for some means of escape. "Goddamn it all ta hell-"
"You hush up this minute, boy!" Nettie Wells ordered loudly, marching toward him with all the righteous wrath of an avenging angel. "You stop that cussin' this instant, or, as God is my witness, I'll take a strap to ya right here!"
"Shit," Vin swore again, though much more softly, feeling suddenly cornered. He tried to hide behind Peso, but the damn fool horse, contrary as ever, refused to cooperate. "Gonna skin ya, jerk yer meat, 'n boil ya down fer glue!" Vin growled at the horse sidling away from him.
Nettie reached them, then grabbed Peso's bridle and jerked his head around to her, staring into those dark eyes. "You settle down!" she ordered in a firm voice. "Now, git back. I'll deal with you later!" She released the bridle and, meek as a lamb, the big horse stepped back, leaving Tanner exposed and vulnerable.
Buck was, by now, laughing so hard he was almost choking. Tears rolled down his face, and his powerful frame shook convulsively as heavy peals of uncontrollable mirth rolled from him. Larabee's laughter was quieter, more subdued, but he could not have stopped it for the world.
Goddamn, this was priceless! To see Vin Tanner - tracker, marksman, hunter, a wanted man, a dangerous man - grow pale and tremble before the outraged glare of one small, white- haired woman; to see those hands, so capable of killing, shaking and then shoved into pockets as if to hide from her all the grime and blood covering them; to see that proud and stubborn head bowed-
Hell, a man couldn't pay for entertainment like this!
Nettie stepped up to Vin and stared at him long and hard, her hands planted firmly on her hips. Sparks flew from her eyes, and anger showed in every line of her seamed face. She knew him as she did her own heart, knew his darkness as well as his goodness, his flaws as well as his strengths. She knew him in his many guises - sweet, shy boy; wild creature born to fly free; fearsome predator who could kill without qualm or hesitation - and loved them all.
But not for all the love she bore him would she tolerate his sinking so far beneath his raising as to stand on a public street and curse as foully as she had heard him.
"You care ta tell me just what in the name of all that's holy you think yer doin'?" she demanded in a low, throbbing voice, her furious gaze never leaving his down-turned face. "What in the world's got inta you that you'd stand out here and carry on so scandalously before God and all these good people?"
He exhaled sharply and raised his head, flinging an accusing arm toward Peso. "Aw, hell, Nettie, he started it!" he protested in a deeply aggrieved tone. "I's jist tryin' ta git us back ta town, 'n he fought me ever' step! Ya think he'd appreciate that I walked all this way ta spare his hurt leg, but, shit, he don't care! 'N now he done bit me on top'a ever'thing else! He ain't but a no-good, hammer-headed, hellfire- breathin', sonuvabitchin'-"
"I hear that word from you again," she warned in an iron voice, "an' I'll wash yer mouth out with my lye soap. And ya know I'll do it, too."
He swallowed hard and grimaced, not doubting her in the least. "Yes, ma'am," he rasped softly, blue eyes wide and fearful.
She gave a curt nod, satisfied she'd made her point, then looked him over closely. Her sharp gaze fixed at once on the blood-crusted crease at his temple and she reached up, pushing his hat off his head and scowling. Her fingers started toward the wound, but he pulled away.
"Ain't but a scratch," he said curtly.
She frowned and shook her head at his words, but did not press him. "Lemme see yer hands."
Vin scowled and squirmed, but did as she said, dragging his scraped and bruised hands from his pockets and holding them out before her. All the while, he was acutely, painfully, conscious of Buck's laughter, Chris' smirk, and the stares and whispers of countless townsfolk lining the boardwalks to watch. His soul writhed in deep and desperate humiliation, and he bitterly wished he were anywhere but here.
Hell, he hated bein' stared at!
Nettie inspected his hands, his face, his knee, shaking her head all the while. "Land sakes, son," she asked in sharp concern, "what'd that black devil do ta you this time?"
Vin shoved his hands back into his pockets and bowed his head, licking his lips nervously. Suddenly, he was torn between the desire to earn her sympathy instead of her wrath, and the shame of having to explain his sorry state. Desperately uncomfortable, not at all certain that having her fuss over his bruised body was worth the bruising it would cause to his pride, he fell into one of his long, deep silences, refusing to speak until he'd sorted it all out in his head.
Lord God, why couldn't she fix them knowin' eyes somewhere's else?
Nettie stood before him, her piercing gaze pinning him in place, while Buck and Chris stood slightly behind him, their laughter scouring against his raw nerves like salt against an open wound. And as if such misery were not enough, Josiah and Nathan were hurrying upon the scene. Vin winced and swore softly, winning yet another warning glare from Nettie.
"Afternoon, ma'am," Sanchez greeted in his deep voice, touching a finger to the brim of his hat to Nettie, then letting his vivid blue gaze drift toward Vin. The young man was as dirty and ragged as a scarecrow, and Josiah stared at him with frank curiosity. "Is there a problem here, brothers?" he asked, startled to see Chris Larabee laughing when Vin Tanner was so obviously hurt.
"Hell, no, there ain't no problem!" Vin erupted in fury and frustration, his customary calm shattered. "Jist got me a sorry-assed horse 'n some sorry-assed friends, all givin' me grief!" He swept burning blue eyes over the lot of them, his embarrassment sending his anger out of control. "Goddamn it, ain't y'all got somewhere's else ta go? Why the hell cain'tcha git 'n leave me be?"
Nettie lifted her head a fraction at his outburst, but, this time, was inclined to overlook his language. She knew he was where he most hated to be - in the center of attention - and recognized in his fury the instinctive lashing out of a cornered animal. Never saying a word, she reached out and laid a firm but gentle hand against his arm, easily able to feel his tension.
Josiah took in the battered, fuming tracker and his unusually quiet horse, and felt the sudden rush of understanding. "I see," he murmured, his mouth curving into a smile. "You and Peso've had another fallin' out-"
"I didn't fall!" Vin snarled defensively at the preacher's teasing. "Goddamn mule- Sorry, Nettie," he muttered tersely as her grip on his arm tightened warningly. Swallowing uncomfortably, he tried to ignore Buck's strangled laugh and glared up at Josiah. "I didn't fall," he declared again, daring the big man to dispute him. "Fuckin' horse- Aw, shit!" he cried as Nettie's eyes and fingers dug into him. He bowed his head with a hoarse groan and grimaced, almost able to taste that lye soap now.
But her stern gaze relented and she patted his arm tenderly as her anger vanished. "It's all right, son," she assured him, moved to pity by his distress. "Won't be no more fun had at yer expense. Will there, Mr. Wilmington?" she added sharply, her gaze abruptly impaling the big man.
That look sobered Buck as nothing else could have. "Uh, no... no, ma'am," he answered, straightening up and clearing his throat to suppress any remaining laughter. "Won't nobody else here be laughin' at poor Vin."
"Poor Vin" smirked vindictively at the chastened Wilmington, who could only glare helplessly back. Buck had faced - and caused - a lot of trouble in his life, but even he knew better than to push his luck by baiting Tanner in front of Nettie Wells. The woman was as devoted to the tracker as a she-bear to her cub, and could be every bit as fierce in her protection of him.
While the old woman handled the discipline, Nathan Jackson turned his attention upon Tanner. He took in the blood at the tracker's temple, his bruises and scrapes, stiff stance and reluctance to place any real weight on his left leg. A soft, knowing sigh escaped the healer, and he shook his head slowly.
Hell, they didn't need outlaws with guns. These damn fools could get themselves hurt without any help at all!
"All right," he asked with a weary patience, "what'd ya do ta ya'self this time?"
Vin stiffened and narrowed his eyes, instantly on his guard against the healer's attention. Nathan was eyeing him as he would a carcass for skinning, trying to decide where to make the first cut, and Vin stepped back instinctively. He didn't fancy being poked and prodded and fussed at and over, and he sure as hell didn't want Nathan pouring any of his foul-tasting potions down his throat or any of that damn carbolic into his cuts. It was one thing when he was shot or stabbed or fevered and couldn't fight back, but he wasn't helpless now, and didn't need anybody making over him like he was.
"Ain't nothin' wrong with me," he said at last, blithely ignoring all the evidence to the contrary. "I'm f-"
"Ya fine, yeah, I know," Nathan interrupted, waving aside the tracker's familiar words. "What happened, Vin?" he asked again. "Where all ya hurt?"
"He was limpin' down the street," Buck put in helpfully, seizing this as a means of revenge. "Favorin' his left leg. And movin' real stiff-like, too, like maybe he's got hurt ribs or somethin'." He smiled sweetly at Vin's murderous glare.
"Vin," Nathan sighed, "lemme see-"
"Ain't nothin' wrong with me!" Tanner insisted hotly, backing away warily as four men, all bigger than he, began advancing upon him. "Y'all jist leave me be- Goddamn it!" he yelped in pain as Chris abruptly moved in beside him and shoved an elbow into his ribs. Pain knifed through him and, in instinctive reaction, he whirled and threw a fist at Larabee.
Chris caught the fist in his hand and gripped it tightly, his gaze boring into Vin's. "What happened?" he asked in a low voice, all laughter gone from him.
Vin jerked his fist away and drew himself up to his full height, lifting his chin and stubbornly returning that glare. "Ain't none'a yer concern," he drawled, refusing to be intimidated.
Chris frowned and exhaled sharply in irritation at the tracker's intransigence. "Damn it, Vin, if you're hurt-"
"Ain't hurt," the younger man insisted, lifting his chin a fraction further.
Larabee pressed his lips tightly together and drew a slow breath through his nose. From the corner of his eye, he could see Buck grinning, and felt his anger at Tanner rise another notch. "Your ribs say otherwise," he ground out through clenched teeth.
Vin regarded the gunfighter through fearless eyes. "Reckon if I jabbed you in the ribs, you'd yelp some, too," he answered evenly. "Now, leave me be. I gotta see ta my horse."
"Horse bit ya," Chris rasped, wondering how one man could be so impossibly stubborn. "Bite needs ta be checked. Along with them ribs that ain't hurt, that leg you ain't limpin' on and that crease you ain't got in your head. Now," he scowled more deeply still, "you wanta tell us how you got all them hurts you don't have?"
Vin's gaze sharpened to a glare, but he knew by the way the bigger men ringed him there'd be no escape. And even if he could get past them, there was still Nettie, and he'd have to die to get away from her.
Aw, hell, he hated goin' to the clinic!
"Peso threw me," he muttered grudgingly.
Vin sighed sharply. Goddamn gunslinger had ta be the stubbornest son of a bitch alive! "Look here, Larabee-"
"Why?" Chris growled.
"Aw, hell," Tanner spat. "Happened yesterday. We's up in the hills, trackin' them horse thieves, he got spooked, lost his footin', threw me. Satisfied?"
"Wait a minute," Buck cut in. "Peso lost his footin'? Hell, son, that horse can damn near dance on a wire! How the hell did he lose his footin'?"
Vin merely stared at Wilmington, his mouth set tight. There was no way in hell he was admitting everything that had happened. Not with Larabee standin' there and glarin' like he was.
"Jist did," he said at last.
Chris gave an exasperated snort and turned away, and Nathan took up the questioning. "What'd ya hit when ya fell?"
Vin turned to the healer impatiently. "Shit, Nathan, I hit the ground! Whatta ya think I hit?"
Jackson bowed his head and ran a hand slowly over his face while Chris took a menacing step toward the tracker.
"I believe," Josiah put in before gunplay erupted, "that Brother Nathan wants ta know which part or parts of your body hit the ground."
Vin blinked and frowned at the stupidity of the question. "Well, hell, Josiah, all'a me hit," he answered with honest innocence. "Hard not to when Peso throws ya."
Nathan growled in exasperation, while Buck succumbed once more to laughter. Hell, this was the best fun he'd had with his clothes on in a coon's age! Nettie and Josiah merely exchanged amused glances, both inclined to be tolerant with the obstinacy of youth.
Chris, however, was neither amused nor tolerant. "Goddamn it, Tanner," he snarled, taking another step forward, "where... are... you... hurt?"
Vin cocked his head slightly to one side and stuck his thumbs in his gunbelt, standing hip-shot and staring truculently up at Larabee. "Don't see how it's any'a yer concern," he drawled, tired of being prodded by the gunman.
Before Chris could hit Tanner or shoot him, Nettie stepped between them. "That's enough!" she declared firmly. "Both'a ya, pull in yer horns. You," she ordered Chris, startling him and everyone else, "stop naggin' at Vin. You know it only gets his back up. And you," she turned on Tanner in time to see his smirk, "wipe that smile off yer face and march yerself up to Nathan's right now. Yer hurt, any fool can see it, and it ain't but stubborn pride and sheer cussedness that's makin' you deny it."
He blinked at her in astonishment, feeling suddenly betrayed. "Nettie-"
"Don't you turn them blue eyes on me and expect me ta go all weak in the knees, son," she warned, setting her hands on her hips. "You ain't the first stubborn fool I've dealt with, and, as long as the good Lord insists on makin' men, you won't be the last." When he made no move to obey, her eyes narrowed dangerously. "I still got me a strap and a bar'a lye soap just waitin' ta be used. And I don't care what no wanted poster says, Vin Tanner, you ain't big enough or bad enough that I won't use 'em on you! Now, you git on up there. And don't give Nathan no trouble, y'hear?"
He scowled and bowed his head, kicking angrily at the dirt, but nodded. "Yes, ma'am," he agreed softly. "I won't give him no trouble."
She smiled at that and reached out to pat his arm. "That's my boy," she said gently, winning that shy, crooked grin that she so loved. "And when yer done, come see me. I got an apple pie for ya in my wagon. Figgered I'd best bring it ta you, since you ain't been out ta see me in more'n a week."
He winced, his conscience stung by her words. "Ain't had time. Been out lookin' fer them rustlers-"
"I know, son," she assured him, smiling. "That's why I brought it. Figgered you could use it after all that hard, dry ridin'."
His grin returned, warming and lighting his blue eyes. "Thank you, ma'am," he murmured. "I'm obliged-"
"You hush up and go on," she told him. "Get those hurts tended to."
He nodded again, then suddenly remembered the cause of this whole ruckus. "Peso-"
"I'll see he's taken care of," she said firmly, lifting her chin. "I got a few things ta say ta him, as well."
"Mind he don't bite ya-"
"Son," she declared in a hard voice, fixing her steely gaze upon him, "the day that black devil bites me will be the last day he draws breath on God's earth." At his startled look, she arched two gray brows. "Don't fret, son, he'll behave. Else he'll end up another notch on my old Spencer."
In the alley beside the saloon, two men watched the exchange in the street with deep dismay. As the battered tracker was all but dragged to the healer's place by his friends, the smaller of the two turned to the taller and glared up at him.
"Thought you said you got him?" he snarled. "Thought you said he was dead?"
The taller man scowled deeply. "Thought he was! Hell, you saw him fall, same as I did. 'N he sure as hell looked dead, layin' down there amongst all them rocks. You saw it - he never moved. Looked deader'n dead ta me."
"Well, he don't look so dead now, does he?" the smaller man spat. "Shit, Roy ain't gonna like this at all! We's s'posed ta keep that damn tracker off our trail-"
"We'll jist have ta stick close," the taller man mused. "Keep an eye on him. 'N if'n he goes out agin," he smiled thinly, "then I reckon we'll jist hafta go after him. 'N this time, we'll make sure he don't come back."
+ + + + + + +
Nettie gathered Peso's reins and led him toward the livery stable, mindful of his injured leg. A slight smile hovered about her lips, for, just as she'd suspected he would, the big horse followed her without so much as a whicker of defiance, giving not the least bit of trouble. She knew he had more sense than most folks gave him credit for, and understood who would tolerate his antics and who would not.
"You got a mighty jumped-up notion of yerself, even for a horse," she scolded him over her shoulder. "Good thing yer Vin's and not mine, else you'da been a braided rug long before now." Peso nickered softly and gently nudged her shoulder. "Ain't no use you tryin' ta make up ta me," she told him. "I ain't got no apple pieces nor bits'a biscuit for ya. Vin's done gotcha spoiled, but I ain't the soft touch he is."
Peso snorted, as if in agreement, and gave up his attempts to charm her.
"Now I reckon you know who's boss," she said with a smile.
They reached the livery and Nettie looked around for Tiny, wanting to make certain Peso's leg got the attention it needed. Instead of the hostler, though, she saw a young man emerging from the stable, and smiled at the familiar sight of the town suit and the bowler hat that crowned the long, dark hair.
"Afternoon, Miz Nettie," JD Dunne greeted, seeing her at the same moment. A look of surprise crossed his face as he recognized the horse she was leading. "Hey, that's Peso!" He looked around for the horse's owner, and was gripped by sudden concern when he didn't see him. "Vin's all right, ain't he?" he asked sharply, knowing how rare it was for the tracker to entrust his horse to anyone else.
Nettie gave the young sheriff a reassuring smile. "He's fine, son. Tolerably banged up, got more bruises on him than an overripe peach, but he's still growlin' and snappin', so I reckon he'll be all right. He's up with Nathan now."
JD frowned, his worry only slightly relieved. He'd missed the scene in the street, had been tending his own horse after a long ride trying to pick up some sign of the bothersome horse thieves. But one look at Peso made plain that some accident had befallen the horse, and, from Nettie's words, it had befallen the tracker, as well.
She sighed sharply and scowled in vexation. "Well, son, we still ain't exactly clear on that. Vin's some riled, and y'know how close-mouthed he can be when he's outta sorts. And havin' his friends teasin' him didn't help none. All he's said is that Peso here got spooked and threw him. But," her eyes flashed knowingly, "I suspect there's more to it than that. I just hope Chris and Nathan can get it out of him before he shoots somebody."
JD laughed, knowing how prickly the quiet Texan could be. "Well, I guess if anybody can get Vin ta talk, it'll be Chris. They got a way of understandin' each other that's downright spooky sometimes." He stepped forward and let his gaze travel over Peso, frowning when he got to the gashed fetlock. "That needs ta be cleaned," he said softly.
Nettie nodded. "I know, son. I was hopin' Tiny'd be here-"
"No, ma'am. He went out to the Dentons, takin' back those horses he boarded for 'em while they were gone. Won't be back for a few hours yet."
"Tarnation!" she breathed, frowning worriedly. "This horse needs ta be looked at! I'd do it myself, but I got Casey waitin' on me at the mercantile. Still-"
"I can do it," JD suggested with a shrug. "Won't be no trouble at all." He smiled and reached up to stroke Peso's long nose. "He tolerates me about as well as he does Vin, and he'd likely let me doctor him before he would Tiny. I'll look him over real good, make sure he ain't hurt anywhere else." He continued stroking and scratching the big horse until he almost purred. "I'll take real good care of him."
Nettie smiled fondly at the boy, watching as he nearly turned the gelding inside out with pleasure. "I know ya will, son. And I know it'll ease Vin's mind considerably knowin' yer takin' care'a Peso." She snorted quietly. "He's an ornery devil, but you know how much store Vin sets by him."
"Aw, heck, Peso ain't a devil," JD said softly as the horse nuzzled affectionately at his hand. "He's just like Vin - don't trust too many folks, and don't always know how ta act around 'em. You just gotta know how ta handle him. Why, he hardly ever gives me any trouble at all."
"Then you'd be about the only one," she said, arching an iron- gray brow, "because he was more than trouble ta Vin today." She eyed the innocent-looking horse sternly. "It's a true wonder that boy didn't just shoot him."
JD laughed at the very notion. "Vin? Shoot Peso? Now, Miz Nettie, you know Vin'd never do that! He loves Peso. He won't admit it, but he does. And Peso loves him."
"Then I'd surely hate ta be hated by this animal," she retorted. She handed the reins to JD and nodded. "You take care of him, son. And when yer done, come find Casey." She winked. "She baked up a mess of apple fritters and is just dyin' ta have somebody taste 'em."
He blushed and bowed his head, embarrassed by the old woman's knowing gaze. "Yes, ma'am, I will," he murmured, smiling shyly. "I sure love apple fritters."
"Well, of course ya do, son!" Nettie hooted. "Why else would that girl've spent all day yesterday makin' an unholy mess in my kitchen? Land sakes," she sighed sharply, amazed that such a bright boy could be so dull, "if the good Lord insists on makin' men, why can't He at least make 'em with some sense?"
+ + + + + + +
Vin stood in front of the bed in Nathan's clinic, his head bowed, his eyes closed. So far, he'd managed to remove his hat and gunbelt, but nothing more. The mere thought of all the ways he'd have to move to take off his coat hurt almost more than he could bear.
Chris persuaded Buck and Josiah to go on down to the saloon and wait for them there, knowing Vin would submit to an examination far more peacefully without quite so many eyes on him. He knew his friend's pride had already taken a beating, knew his nerves were scoured raw, and wanted to spare Tanner any further embarrassment. And himself and Nathan any further trouble.
"You need any help there, Vin?" Nathan asked quietly, noting the tracker's silence and slumping stance. He figured Tanner had just come to the end of whatever had been holding him up through this day.
But he'd forgotten that the man had reserves none of them could begin to understand.
"Naw," Vin breathed hoarsely. "I kin do it." Drawing on those reserves now, he steeled himself for the pain he knew awaited and began peeling off his coat, setting his jaw and biting back any and every outcry. He had to let Nathan look at him, help him, he knew that. He just wasn't sure he wanted the questions and lectures that were bound to come with that help.
Nathan watched until he was certain Vin was actually stripping, then turned to Larabee. "Stay close," he directed. "He's gonna need a mess'a carbolic, an' I don't aim ta be hit, bit, kicked or shot when I put it on him. And get me a roll'a bandages outta that cabinet there," he added, pointing. "In case them ribs need wrappin'." He turned back to his patient. "Now, Vin, I- Sweet Jesus!" he said sharply when he saw Tanner's naked chest and the huge, dark bruises mottling it. "Turn around," he ordered grimly, all former irritation given way to concern. "Lemme see ya back." Vin obeyed, and Nathan winced at the sight of still more bruises. One started just above the tracker's left hip and disappeared into his pants. "Damn, Vin," he breathed in disbelief. "What the hell did that horse do ta you?"
Vin ducked his head and fidgeted nervously with the shirt he'd removed, made distinctly uncomfortable by the healer's close scrutiny. "Wasn't Peso," he drawled softly, staring fixedly at the floor. "It was them rocks."
"What rocks?" Nathan asked with a forced patience, wondering if he'd ever get a complete explanation from Tanner.
Vin licked his lips, his head still bowed, and absently picked with long, strong fingers at a hole torn into his shirt by his fall. He didn't want to tell Nathan, knew doing so would doom him to even more poking and prodding. But he also knew he'd never leave here until the healer, and the glaring gunslinger at his side, got the answers they wanted.
"What happened, Vin?" Jackson asked softly, worriedly. Every time Tanner shifted his weight to his left side, he quickly shifted it right back off, with a slight, pained tightening of his mouth. In any other man, Nathan knew, that subtle grimace would have been an all out groan.
"Vin?" Chris prompted, seeing the same fleeting signs of pain in his friend, and feeling concern push aside his anger. "What rocks?"
Tanner frowned, staring at the hole he was making worse. "Ones I fell on," he murmured. "Ones I... sorta rolled down."
Chris exhaled slowly and ran a hand through his hair, then over his face. So they were down to this, pulling the words out of Tanner like a damn dentist pulling teeth. "Wanta tell me how you `sorta' rolled down some rocks?" he persisted.
Vin raised his head and frowned at his friend. "Already did. Peso got spooked, stumbled, threw me. I hit the rocks, rolled down 'em, landed on more." He met Chris' stare evenly; it seemed clear enough to him.
Chris rubbed his chin, trying not to clench his teeth. They were starting to hurt from all the clenching he'd already done. Goddamn stubborn tracker was generous to a fault with everything but words. When it came to them, he was miserly as hell.
"Big rocks?" Larabee prodded. "Little rocks? Shit, Tanner, looks like ya fell off a goddamn mountain! Where the hell were ya?"
Vin scowled and shifted his weight unthinkingly to his left hip, and only barely bit back an outcry as the familiar pain shot through him. But his back was beginning to hurt from the strain of keeping his weight off his left side and all on his right, and it didn't help at all that the ribs on his right hurt worse than the ones on his left.
Hell 'n damnation, why couldn't he jist hurt all on the same side?
"Shit," he swore softly, tiredly, his defiance crumbling. He limped to the bed and eased himself carefully down upon it, grimacing and groaning aloud as pain radiated from several points in his battered body. "I's up in Cutter's Pass," he breathed, resigned now to whatever torture Nathan had in store for him. "Trackin' them rustlers. Looked like they been movin' stock through there, prob'ly down inta one'a them canyons 'n on inta Mexico. So I's headed down when... somethin' spooked Peso." Color flooded his cheeks, and he bowed his head quickly, twisting his long fingers together in his lap.
Chris frowned at Tanner's sudden nervousness. "What spooked him?" he asked, knowing he would not like the answer.
Vin swallowed hard, keeping his head down. His mumbled answer was unintelligible.
Larabee's eyes narrowed and hardened. "Can't hear ya, Tanner," he seethed. "Might as well tell me now, 'cause you ain't leavin' here 'til ya do."
Vin's head came up with that, and his blue eyes flashed angrily. "Gunshots!" he spat hoarsely. "Ya happy now? Some sonuvabitch started shootin' at me! 'At's how I got this!" He jerked a finger toward the crease at his temple. "It scared the hell outta Peso, 'n the goddamn mule sent me flyin'. Ain't bad enough I got shot, hell no! My goddamn horse's gotta fling me down into a goddamn ravine! I musta knocked some rocks loose when I fell, 'cause they rolled down the hill with me. 'N I reckon ever' damn one of 'em musta hit me, too."
Chris's anger erupted anew. "You went after 'em alone?" he snapped. "Goddamn it, Vin, you were only supposed ta be lookin' for their tracks-"
"Found 'em, didn't I?"
"AND GOT SHOT!" Larabee bellowed. "Goddamn it, Tanner, they coulda killed you-"
"Didn't, though, did they?"
Chris knotted a fist and stepped forward, and Nathan knew it was time to intervene. "How far'd ya fall?"
Vin shifted uncomfortably on the bed, trying to take his weight off his hurting hip but without aggravating his aching back. "Dunno," he rasped. "Purty fair piece, though. When I come to-"
"COME TO?" Jackson shouted, now sharing Larabee's urge to throttle the tracker. "Ya mean you was knocked out?"
Vin stared wide-eyed at the healer and nervously licked his lips. Damn, he hadn't meant ta tell 'em that! "I-" He lapsed into a long silence, eyeing the two men before him uneasily. They were worried, and they were pissed, and he knew how truly dangerous Larabee and Jackson could be when they were worried and pissed.
Shit, he shoulda just stayed out on the goddamn trail 'n took care of his hurts himself!
"Lemme get this straight," Chris said softly, very softly, staring at the tracker through glittering green eyes narrowed almost to slits. "You and Peso were up in Cutter's Pass, where you were trackin' horse thieves all by yourself." The last words were hissed through clenched teeth. "And one of 'em saw you, and shot you."
"I can understand the feelin'," Nathan put in softly, easily returning Tanner's dirty look.
"The shootin' startles Peso," Chris continued, sounding much calmer than he felt, "he throws you, and that starts a rock slide. So you fall `a purty fair piece' down some hill and into a ravine, bouncin' off rocks as you go, and get knocked out." He closed his eyes and rubbed the long fingers of one hand over his forehead, wondering why he didn't just shoot Tanner now and be done with it. "So you lay there until you wake up, then - and I'm only guessin' this part, but since this is you we're talkin' about, I'm pretty sure I'm right- you drag your sorry ass back up that hill to get to your horse, the same horse that threw you down the hill, you spend the night up in those hills, hurt and alone, and - again, I'm guessin', but, again, I know you - the next day you walk back to town because your horse is hurt, never mind the fact that you're hurt worse'n him. That sound about right?"
Vin sat very still and thought very carefully. It sounded exactly right, but he was fairly certain he shouldn't say so. Chris's voice was just a mite too soft, his lean body a mite too taut. Sorta put Vin in mind of a rattler, buzzin' and coilin' just before he struck.
Larabee dropped his hand from his face and stared into the wary blue eyes, seeing his answer there. "Son of a bitch!" he snarled. "What the hell were you thinkin', Tanner?" he demanded, stalking forward and towering threateningly over the battered, shirtless tracker. "Goddamn it, you coulda been hurt bad-"
"Well, I wasn't!" Vin shot back, rising abruptly to his feet as anger surged hotly through him. "I bin hurt bad before, 'n I know what it feels like, 'n this didn't feel nothin' like that! Goddamn it, Larabee, I ain't no green, helpless kid, 'n I ain't stupid, 'n I won't be treated as such!" Blue eyes burned in the bruised face as he stared furiously up at the older man. "I's takin' care'a myself long 'fore I ever met up with you, 'n I'll be takin' care'a myself long after yer gone," he declared hoarsely, his lean frame taut with anger and pain. "I've hauled my sorry ass up mountains 'n inta the saddle in worse shape than this, I done it with broken bones 'n bullet wounds, I done it beat up, knifed, fevered 'n half starved, 'n I ain't died from it yet! So I don't need you tellin' me what I can or cain't do," he spat, jabbing a forefinger into Larabee's chest, "you hear me? As long as I kin breathe 'n move on my own, I reckon I kin take care'a myself, 'n I don't need yer goddamn permission ta do whatever the hell I've a mind to! You hear me, Larabee?" he demanded, his voice rising as near a shout as his voice ever did. "I don't fuckin' need you!"
Chris stared at Vin, shocked by the uncharacteristic outburst. He couldn't recall ever hearing Vin put together so many words at one time - hell, in one week! - and was startled by the unusual display of raw emotion from the normally restrained man. Slowly, though, his reeling mind wound itself through the barrage of words flung at it, and he gradually understood what the tracker had really said.
A lifetime spent taking care of himself, of having to take care of himself... because there'd been no one else. No one else who could, or would. No one who'd notice, or care, if Vin Tanner were sick, or hurt, or lying injured in some ravine outside of town. No one who'd help him get up, or help him come down. No one...
Who would even have gone looking for him.
Chris sighed and relaxed, frowning slightly as he recognized Tanner's stubbornness for what it was. Hell, of course Vin had gotten himself back up that hill, back to his horse and back to town. Who else had he ever had to do it for him?
"We woulda come lookin' for ya, Vin," he said softly, watching the blue eyes widen as his words hit home. "If you hadn't come back, we'da come after ya. And we'da found ya, because we wouldn'ta stopped lookin' until we did. And no matter how long it took, or what it took, we'da brought ya home. Ain't that right, Nathan?"
"Sho' as I'm standin' here," the healer answered at once, not certain exactly where Larabee's words had come from, but sensing that some uncanny connection had again been made between the two men. "That's what friends do, Vin, they help each other." His dark gaze settled gently on the young man who had so little experience with such things. "Don't mean we think ya helpless or stupid, don't mean we think ya can't take care'a ya'self. Just means we think enough'a you ta worry when somethin's wrong with ya." He stepped forward and reached out, clasping a large, dark hand to one of Tanner's sinewy shoulders, and smiled reassuringly when the tracker tensed beneath the touch and almost pulled away from it. "Ain't no harm in needin' help now'n again, Vin," he said gently. "It ain't a sign'a weakness. Y'ain't alone no more. Ya got friends now ta help ya."
Vin stared down at the hand on his shoulder, forcing himself to stand still beneath it despite the instincts of a lifetime that urged him to avoid such closeness, such intimacy. He knew that hand was stronger even than his own, had the power to hurt him - hell, to rip him apart - if Nathan so desired. But in all the time he'd known the big man, he'd known only kindness from him. The hands that had such tremendous power to harm also had enormous power to heal, and Vin had known that healing touch more times than he cared to remember.
Slowly he raised his head and flicked his thoughtful gaze between the two men before him as his mind sifted through and considered their words. Friends. Home. Lord God, when had he, a man who'd never dared grasp at such things, acquired them? He still wasn't used to such, didn't know what to do with them or how he was supposed to act around them.
But, damn, it was almighty comfortin' knowin' they was there...
He nodded slightly and let himself relax. "Sounds fair enough," he drawled softly, his gaze going back to Larabee. "Reckon I c'd... let y'all help me... now'n again." He licked his lips, then nodded again as he decided. "Reckon mebbe I ain't gotta do fer myself all the time, long as y'all are willin' ta help."
Chris watched the younger man shift his weight to his left side, then wince and shift it back. "Reckon this could be one'a those times?" he asked quietly. "Sit down, Vin, let Nathan have a look at ya." He smiled slightly. "Hell, it's hurtin' me just watchin' ya!"
Vin snorted, then slowly eased himself back onto the bed, sucking in a hissing breath as even that careful movement painfully jarred his stiffening muscles. "Shit," he rasped tightly, "you oughtta try seein' it from this side!"
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