Chris chuckled and sat up straighter when he heard the raspy whisper.
"No ya don't." Placing one hand lightly on Vin's chest, Chris pushed him back down as he replaced the cloth Vin had pulled off his forehead with the other. "Stay put."
Vin rolled to his side and began a painful bout of coughing as Chris lifted his hand from his chest. Reaching a hand out to the younger man's back, Chris stopped in midair, as if reconsidering. Frowning, he shook his head slightly and pulled his hand back. Leaning forward, he rested his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands, waiting for Vin to settle again. As the cough subsided, Vin weakly raised himself up on one elbow, gasping for air. With a deep shudder, he collapsed back on the pillows. A soft moan escaped his lips as he held his left side. Struggling for control, Chris pretended not to hear the painful moan, or to notice Vin's pale, drawn features.
Swallowing, Chris took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.
"Y'okay Vin?" he asked softly.
Looking down at the haggard face, his eyes met the tracker's fever-glazed eyes. No words needed to be spoken, he already knew the truth, no matter what Vin said.
" 'm fine," he hoarsely drawled, wincing slightly.
With a small grin, Chris nodded his head.
"Yep. I can see that," he answered lightly.
Chris stood, and stretching his back, walked to the stove. He poured himself a cup of coffee before returning to the bedside.
"You know, you keep making a habit of this Tanner, Nathan's gonna have to start charging you board," he teased.
Getting no response, he frowned. As he sat down, he realized that Vin was too exhausted to engage in any verbal sparring with him. Putting the cup down on the table beside him, Chris pulled the quilt up higher over Vin's shivering form.
"Vin, this has to stop."
Vin closed his eyes and turned his head away.
With a sigh, Chris closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. Damn it, don't you ignore me!
"I swear, Vin, I'll tie you in this bed if I have to..."
Vin turned his head and glared at Chris.
"Ain't got no right," the anger was evident in his hoarse whisper.
Frustrated, Chris lowered his head and ran a hand through his hair.
"Vin, what's going on here? This ain't like you. You're too good to believe there's any chance of finding her alive now. For the first time since I met you, I feel like I don't know you."
Sighing, Vin swallowed and licked his parched lips.
"I know she's prob'ly dead, but Chris she deserves to have her body brought home, have a proper burial," he quietly insisted.
"Looking for a corpse isn't worth what it's doing to you."
"Everybody deserves to be looked for, to be important enough to somebody."
His voice was low and barely audible, but Chris had heard. Lifting his head, Chris scowled as he took note of Vin's sad expression. Chris looked away when he saw the normally piercing blue eyes vacant, lost in far off memories.
"Vin..." Chris began.
"No," Vin interrupted, "maybe I woulda had a chance. Maybe I would've been a better man."
Vin closed his eyes and tried to catch his breath. Sighing, Vin drew his legs up and attempted to sit up again, only to be pushed down by Chris.
"I said stay put," he growled. "I meant it. I'll tie you down in this damn bed if I have to."
Vin sank back in the pillows, wheezing. His head was pounding and every breath he drew hurt. Too exhausted to argue or fight to stay awake, he felt his lids became heavy.
"Vin, if you're feeling a bit better in the morning, I'll help you look myself."
Looking up at Chris, Vin solemnly nodded, his expression blank. He wasn't sure how much trust to put in the man who had just a few moments previously threatened him.
Chris walked to the window, and raising an arm, he leaned on the frame as he looked out the window at the darkness.
"Vin, I....I ain't good with words like Ezra," he stammered. "Not comfortable telling people how I feel 'bout them, like Buck." Chris hesitated and cleared his throat before continuing. "I...I want you to know... you're...you're important...important to me. Lots of things in my life I ain't proud of, things I regret...knowing you sure as hell ain't one of them. You're a good man, Vin Tanner. I'm honored to call you my friend, proud to ride with you."
He stopped and waited for some response from the younger man. Any acknowledgment that he felt the same way, that Chris had not just made a fool of himself. Frowning, he wondered if he had said too much. With a sigh, Chris dropped his hand to his side and turned around. A small grin spread on his face when he saw that Vin's eyes were closed.
How much did you hear Vin? Do I need to be embarrassed when you wake up?
+ + + + + + +
Faint sunlight streamed through the window as Chris sat upright and became instantly alert when he heard the door open.
"How's he doing?" Nathan whispered as he touched a hand lightly to Vin's cheek. Frowning slightly, he wrung out a cloth and placed it once again on Vin's forehead.
"Been asleep a few hours." Chris yawned while wiping the sleep from his eyes. With a low groan, he stood stiffly and began to walk about the room while rubbing the back of his neck. Turning around, Chris looked at the healer and frowned.
"Won't try to fool ya, Chris. He's sick. A whole lot sicker than he started out to be, a lot sicker than he needed to be. Same damned stubbornness that made him sick will get him better if we can get him to stay put and rest.
Both men turned when the clinic door opened and Buck quietly entered. After looking at Vin, he eyed Chris appraisingly.
"Have breakfast yet, pard?"
"No, Vin might wake up."
"He's probably going to sleep for a while. He's too plumb wore out to do anything else." Nathan looked at both men.
"Well then, come on, let's all go get a bite to eat." Buck handed Chris his hat.
As they started to leave, Chris hesitated at the door and looked over his shoulder.
"Chris, he'll be fine. He don't need you sitting here watching him sleep."
Nathan lightly nudged Chris out the door.
+ + + + + + +
Raising his hand, Vin blocked the sunlight shining in his eyes. Yawning, he winced as he stretched. Opening his eyes, he glanced about the room. Frowning, he lifted his head slightly and looked around.
"Chrrr......" Interrupted by a bout of coughing, he turned on his side. When the attack subsided, he put his legs over the side of the bed and slowly sat up. With his elbows on his knees, he rested his head in his hands and sighed. He was exhausted from coughing, there was a burning pain in his ribs and his head was pounding as he sat on the edge of the bed, waiting. Waiting to be told to lie back down. He figured Nathan or Chris were somewhere nearby and would soon berate him for sitting up. After a few moments, he realized he was definitely alone. Taking the doll off the table, he held it in his hands and stared sadly at it. Deep in thought while holding it, he unconsciously started rocking slightly. Vin stopped moving, and taking a deep breath, looked up briefly. Looking back down at the doll, he nodded slightly as he made a decision. He swayed slightly as he stood. Walking across the room, he retrieved his clothes and dressed slowly. Picking up his boots, he held them in his hand as he left the clinic barefoot, pulling the door shut behind him.
Gloria Potter stepped out to the boardwalk and began sweeping. Smiling, she shook her head as she watched the three men while she performed her daily task. Like clockwork, one thing's certain, those men eat...
Nathan, Buck, and Chris were met by Josiah and J.D. Josiah placed a hand lightly on Chris's shoulder as they walked.
"How's our young brother this morning?" he smiled.
"Sleeping...I hope," Nathan added as he chuckled.
"Here comes Mrs. Travis," Buck gestured with a nod of his head.
Chris stopped and looked up as the carriage slowly approached. Buck stopped beside his old friend.
"You boys go on, we'll catch up with ya."
Buck held the horse as Chris helped Mary down.
"How is she?" Chris'ss brow furrowed, he didn't really want to hear the answer.
Pushing some stray hairs off her forehead, Mary looked up at the troubled green eyes. Letting out a loud sigh, she put her hands on her hips and looked away. She glanced around the town absently before answering.
"I don't know...she was quite upset last night...finally fell asleep for a little while...at least I think she did...I dozed off and when I woke, she was in her room." Stopping abruptly, she bowed her head and brushed a tear away.
"Mary..." Chris gently put a finger under Mary's chin and lifted her head.
"It's just...so...just so hard...I can't imagine..." she stammered. "I'm sorry, carrying on like this. I..I know it must be difficult for you." Mary looked at Buck pointedly. "For both of you."
Buck cleared his throat uneasily.
"When is her husband coming?" he asked, trying to change the direction of the conversation.
"Next stage. The judge is due then also." Mary stopped and smiled at the two men. "Now, don't let me keep you. I'm on my way to get Billy."
Gloria Potter watched Mary's approach as Buck and Chris headed for the saloon.
"Morning, Mary," Gloria smiled as she reached out to her younger friend.
"Morning," Mary nodded as she lifted her skirt slightly and stepped on to the boardwalk.
Linking arms, the two woman entered the general store.
"I hope Billy wasn't too much trouble."
"Oh, no. None at all. Hardly knew he was here," Gloria smiled.
The two women entered the living quarters and Mary sat at the table. Placing a cup of tea in front of Mary, Gloria sat with one of her own.
"I heard him moving about once, think he went out to use the privy, but then he was quiet after that."
"Well, I appreciate your letting him stay."
The two woman sat for a few moments in companionable silence, each silently wondering when things would return to normal.
"Well?" Gloria quirked an eyebrow as she put her teacup down. Mary let out a long sigh as she put her own cup down tiredly.
"She's quite upset, but you would know that...I'm just so glad her husband is due. I can't begin to imagine what I would do if anything ever happened to Billy."
The two woman sat, slowly drinking and quietly discussing town gossip. Looking at the time, Mary frowned slightly. Standing, she pushed her chair in as she smiled down at the older woman.
"Well, thank you again, now I guess I should go find that son of mine. Wish he'd sleep this late for me sometimes!"
Mary started to clear the table, but stopped when Gloria shooed her away.
"You go on, I'll take care of this..."
Mary left the room as Gloria began clearing away the dishes on the table.
Gloria turned, noting the odd tone of Mary's voice. Mary was standing in the doorway frowning, her hands on her hips.
"Gloria, where's Billy?"
Stopping his horse, Vin frowned as he squinted up at the sun and figured it was about nine o'clock. Guess Chris has noticed I'm gone by now. Memories of Chris's threats the night before echoed in his mind. Swallowing painfully, he winced as he lowered his head and pushed the heel of his hand against his forehead. The bright sunlight had intensified the constant, dull throbbing behind his eyes. He was exhausted, a nagging ache had settled between his shoulder blades. Frustrated, he shifted in his saddle. No matter what he did, he couldn't find a comfortable position. As he rubbed his eyes, he felt a familiar tickle in his nose. Before he could prepare himself, his lean frame was wracked by several loud, consecutive sneezes. Rocking forward, he clutched his left side and groaned as a stabbing pain lanced through him. Sniffling, he shuddered and dragged the back of his hand under his nose. Gingerly, he slowly shrugged out of his coat. That small exertion left him short of breath, and he frowned as he sat still for a few minutes trying to regain control of it. Damn, it sure is hot. Pulling his hat off, Vin hung it from his saddle horn as he pushed his sweat dampened hair back. Reaching up, he wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. Letting out a small cough, he sighed. Although his shirt was soaked with perspiration, he couldn't stop shivering. Okay, just a bit further 'til Sutter's Ridge. Look around where I found the doll and get back to town. He reached down and grabbed his canteen. Pulling the cork out with his teeth, he lifted it to his mouth and slowly drank, wincing as he swallowed.
I swear, Vin, I'll tie you in this bed if I have to... Vin closed his eyes and sighed. He'd let everyone down, they looked to him as the expert tracker. He should have been able to find one lost little girl. He'd failed. He knew that when he returned to town, it would be to face Chris Larabee's wrath. I'll tie you down in this damn bed. Vin took a deep breath and sat up straighter. He ain't got no right...don't need his fussing.
With grim determination, he nudged his horse forward. Chris wasn't serious...just mad...wouldn't tie me up...I think... He rode doggedly on, carrying on a solitary, silent argument with the first people who had cared about him in a long time. Vin let out a long sigh as he put his hand to the back of his neck and moved his head, trying to work the kinks out. As he held the reins loosely, he began to relax and started to nod off in the warm sunlight, only to re-waken with a start that caused another stabbing pain in his side. Taking a deep breath, he let it out slowly and sighed. Reaching down, he pulled the small doll from his saddle bags. As he held the doll in his trembling hand, he closed his eyes and winced as memories of his own lost childhood flooded back. I'm sorry...let you down...
Bracing himself, his thoughts were interrupted by a deep burning pain in his sternum, and he gasped. A painful, congested bout of coughing erupted from his shivering form. When it subsided, he slumped forward in his saddle and vainly tried to catch his breath, wheezing softly. When I get there, I'll rest and wait for Chris...he'll yell some, but then we can ride back together. Vin sat up and rubbed his eyes as he cleared his throat. With grim determination, the ill man rode on, blissfully unaware that he'd never told Chris where he found the doll, blindly trusting that his friend would find him.
+ + + + + + +
"I don't get it," J.D. said between bites. "What makes Vin keep going out looking? He seems sicker than I was, 'n all I felt like doin' was curl up 'n die."
"Stubbornness," Nathan stabbed a piece of meat and shoved it into his mouth. "Just plain stubborn. Don't know when to listen to his body when it's trying to tell him to slow down and rest."
"And don't forget some degree of pride," Ezra lazily drawled. "He knows we look to him for his superior tracking skills. He let us down, a part of him probably feels diminished in our eyes."
"Boys, you are forgetting one very important thing. Of us all, Vin is the one, true child of the west." Josiah took a sip of his coffee and cleared his throat. "We may have all ended up here, got here by different routes, but Vin's always been here...grew up out here. He moves with equal ease in the civilized and uncivilized world. He sees every man as an equal, a brother. He embraces the elements as easily as the creature comforts of the town. I have yet to see him intimidated by any creature, whether two or four legged."
"And who better than him to know what can happen to one lost little girl out there?" Buck interrupted. Buck's eyes met Chris's and both men nodded their heads in silent agreement.
"Reckon he's feeling real alone right now," J.D. added. His brows creased as he frowned while thinking. "We all let him down. Left him looking on his own. We should help him, at least let him know we're behind him," J.D. added. Buck looked at J.D. with a small grin on his face. He may have been the youngest, but at that moment, he was one of the wisest at the table.
Damn Chris closed his eyes and lowered his head, pinching the bridge of his nose. What was I thinking? Threatening to tie him up like that, probably pushed him farther away.
Chris opened his eyes and raised his head when Buck nudged him in the side and gestured toward the saloon doors.
"Mrs. Travis, what is it?" Josiah sat up straighter in his chair when he saw the distraught woman, standing frozen in the doorway.
Frowning, Chris turned and stood. He walked forward, stopping in front of her.
Leaning against the doorway, she tried to gather her strength, anxiously twisting her hands. Panic like she'd never known before welled in her throat, the color drained from her face.
Chris touched his hand lightly to her forearm.
"Mary...what is it?"
"It's...it's Billy," she choked out. "He's gone. I...I went to get him from Potter's...he's gone."
"Now, Mrs. Travis," Buck stood and walked to Chris's side, "you know boys...he's prob'ly just off somewhere playing."
Chris looked over his shoulder at the men remaining at the table. Without a word, they all stood and exited the saloon. Chris leaned down to look in Mary's eyes.
"Now, Mary, are you sure? Sure he's not just off playing?"
As she blinked her eyes before answering, a single tear rolled down her cheek and she slowly nodded.
"I...I've looked Chris...I didn't want to bother you...Gloria and I looked all over town."
Chris turned his head away, and closing his eyes, ground his teeth together. Damn "We'll find him."
Buck turned to Chris as they started to leave the saloon. "Want me to go fetch Vin?"
Buck stopped and looked at Chris questioningly.
"Damn it Buck, he's sick. Let's leave him out of this if we can."
With a silent shrug of his shoulders, Buck nodded.
"Nathan, your horse still saddled?"
"Yeah, right there." Nathan pointed to where he'd left his horse after returning to town earlier. He had been at a nearby ranch, setting a broken arm.
"Okay, I'm going to start off on yours then, the rest of you get saddled and catch up."
Taking hold of the reins of Nathan's horse, Chris quickly climbed up and rode out with no further word.
Frowning, Nathan looked up at the clinic.
"Think I'm gonna look in on Vin first."
A few moments later, J.D. returned with a look of puzzlement on his face, just as Nathan opened the door to the clinic.
"Buck, Vin's horse is..."
"SON OF A BITCH!" Nathan's loud exclamation interrupted J.D.
"Well, that answers the question as to where Mr. Tanner's horse is." Ezra smiled as he mounted his horse.
A still muttering Nathan stomped down the stairs and grabbed the reins Josiah held out to him.
"Buck, should I ride on ahead and tell Chris?"
"Naw, kid," Buck chuckled. "Vin can take care of himself. If he's lucky, we'll come across him before Chris does."
+ + + + + + +
Reaching the ridge, Vin tiredly slid down from his saddle. A soft groan escaped his lips as his feet touched the ground. His normally sharp senses were dull, and he was nearly collapsing from fatigue. Out of habit, he tied his horse. From the corner of his eye, a flutter in the breeze caught his attention. Turning, he noticed a bush near the edge and frowned. No. Cocking his head, he squinted and slowly trudged to the bush. He felt his heart begin to beat rapidly as his breath quickened. No...what?...how did I miss that? Stretching a shaking hand out, he pulled a small piece of torn material off the branch that had snagged it. Rubbing it between his fingers, he closed his eyes and gasped. Shit...she was here and I missed all the signs. Focusing intently on the material in his hand, he failed to notice the nervous flicker of his horse's ears, or the skittish movements of the animal's legs. Shaking his head in frustration, he squinted as he glanced briefly around. His head felt ready to split in two, but he had only one thing on his mind. He silently berated himself for missing the cloth earlier. Walking to the edge, he heard the water rushing below. Warily, he walked closer and peered over the side. Oh...God...no...
His heart was pounding and felt as though it would burst from his chest, his breathing became more rapid. Starting to feel dizzy, he swayed slightly while continuing to stare at the sight below. Oh, please God...no... Lying face down on the rocks below was a small child. He couldn't stop staring as he quickly tried to decide the best way to get down there. From that height, he couldn't tell if the still child was dead or alive. He was quickly trying to decide if he should get a rope and lower himself down, which was the fastest alternative, or take the less risky choice and ride around, which would take much longer. He finally sensed that he was not alone. Good, Chris is here...he can lower me down...that'll be quicker.
"Hey Chris," he began without turning. Before he could continue, he was roughly pushed. Lightheaded, and standing close to the edge, Vin was knocked off balance. Arms flailing, he plunged over the side. Chris, why? was his last thought as he slammed into the rocks below, his unconscious body swept along with the current.
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