Disclaimer - I don't own any of the Magnificent Seven. CBS and their production companies do. I don't plan on making any money off this bit of fic. Don't bother to sue me, I'm broke.
Chris and Vin were sitting in the saloon, watching as Ezra played an amicable game of poker with JD and Buck. Things had been relatively quiet in Four Corners for a week or so. The most trouble they'd had was a couple of rowdy drunks. Chris looked at Buck again, saw him wince as he tried to readjust the cards he held in his hand. His other hand and arm were held in a sling, his arm broken by one of those rowdy drunks. Buck seemed to take it in stride, 'part of the job,' and all. Chris looked back at his drink. He was feeling uneasy. He couldn't quite put a name to his feelings, but dread and foreboding were in the running. He threw back the shot of whiskey Vin had poured him.
Vin, too, had similar feelings. Not born out of his own mind, though, but of the emotions he saw fighting in Chris's eyes. And he knew, without question, that if Chris felt something was amiss, then something usually was.
"What's up, Cowboy?" he asked, hoping Chris would voice his thoughts.
"I don't know," Chris answered with a sigh. "Storms brewin'," he added after a minute or so of silence, looking toward the window.
"Maybe just the rain kind," Vin offered, hoping that the dark thunderclouds were indeed the cause of Chris's unease.
"I hope you're right," Chris replied.
"Gentlemen!" Ezra called out, interrupting Chris and Vin's dark thoughts. "Seems our youngest member has called it an evening. I have an opening here, if one of you would care to partake in a friendly game of chance," he offered.
"Only if you want to 'partake' in losing," JD muttered.
Chris was about to agree to the game, despite JD's remark and Vin's warning look, when Mary Travis entered the saloon.
"Chris?" she called.
"Yes, Mary," he replied with a welcoming smile. "What can I do for you?"
"The mail came in on the stage this afternoon," she started.
"And?" Chris said, urging her to continue.
"Well, there's a letter addressed to someone I don't know. I was wondering if one of you might know him," she explained.
"What's the name?" Buck asked.
"Wil Tyler," she stated.
Chris and the others gave her puzzled looks, shaking their heads. All except Vin. He slowly stood and faced Mary.
"That'd be me," he said, simply.
Ignoring the questioning looks from Mary and the others, he extended his hand toward her, to receive the letter.
When Mary hesitated, he explained, "Can't be having my real name goin' across the country to here, now, can I?" and took the letter from her hand.
Mary, still a bit confused, replied, "No, I guess not," and excused herself. "Gentlemen."
Vin again ignored the questioning looks from the others and sat back down, opening the envelope as he did. Chris watched the younger man read the letter, curious. He'd never known Vin to get any mail, let alone any under an assumed name. He watched as Vin quickly placed the letter back into the envelope and put it into his coat pocket. He also saw the subtle change in Vin's demeanor. Before Mary had shown up, the tracker seemed relaxed and at ease, even trying to get him to relax. Now, Chris saw tenseness in Vin's features. The others may not have noticed, but he did. He watched as Vin tried to casually return to his drink. But the tracker didn't sip it as he normally would, he threw back the shot. 'Maybe that storm has already arrived,' Chris thought.
"Everything okay?" he asked quietly.
Vin just nodded his head quickly, dismissing Chris's concern. Chris didn't believe him for a second, but he wouldn't push him. If Vin wanted to let him in, he would. About ten minutes of silence later, Vin pushed his chair back and rose from the table.
"I'll be out of town for a day or two," he said, not looking at Chris.
"Where ya headed?" Chris asked.
"West," Vin replied, adjusting his hat.
Vin considered his offer. He knew Chris was offering not only his own company, but that of the others, as well.
"Nah, I'll be fine," he finally replied, still avoiding Chris's gaze.
"Okay, how 'bout this. Do you want company?" Chris asked, deliberately stepping in front of Vin, to make him look at him.
"No, thanks," he replied, looking up with a half smile. "I just gotta get somethin' taken care of, is all. Won't take much."
"When are you leaving?" the gunslinger inquired.
"Now," Vin responded easily, stepping around him.
Chris's eyes narrowed. "You can't wait 'til mornin'?" he asked.
"I'll be back in a day or two," Vin repeated and left the saloon, pulling up his collar against the rising winds.
Chris looked back at the others, who he knew had been listening, despite their efforts at pretending to continue their game.
"Man's gotta right to his own business," Buck replied to Chris's wordless question.
Ezra nodded in agreement as he shuffled the cards.
JD looked about as perplexed as Chris was. "I'd sure like to know what was in that letter and who sent it," he mused.
Chris turned around and headed toward the doors. He looked down the street toward the livery. He felt the first few raindrops hit his face as he saw Vin leading his horse out. Determined to get Vin to talk to him, he headed to the tracker's wagon, figuring he'd stop there for some supplies. But he stopped short as he watched Vin mount up and head out of town at a full gallop.
+ + + + + + +
Once out of town, Vin slowed his horse down to a trot. He tried to convince himself that he didn't know why he'd shot out of the livery as quick as he did. He really wasn't in a hurry. But deep down, he did know. He'd seen Chris heading his way. He didn't want to confront him again. Not after he'd barely made it out of the saloon with his emotions in check. He didn't think he could lie to Chris.
"Shit," he muttered to himself, cursing his cowardice.
He put his hand in his coat pocket and felt the letter folded inside. He didn't have to reread it to know what it said. The message was short and to the point. "Meet me. River Fork Ridge. Janie." Signed, as it had been addressed, with an assumed name. The outside of the envelope had an Eagle Bend mark on it, so he knew she was nearby when she sent it. He knew she'd be waiting for him. He just didn't know why.
The last time he'd seen her was just before he became wanted in Tuscosa. She'd wanted to talk to him. She'd had something important to tell him. He knew what it was about, but he wasn't ready to talk. So he told her that he'd had a bounty to go after, and that he'd be back soon enough. But he never did come back. He managed to get a letter to her, though. Told her that he was sorry. That it was just too dangerous for her to be with him. He'd given her her out. Now, he wondered how she'd found him, and why.
Vin pulled up his collar again, and pulled down on his hat. The rain had picked up along with the wind. He again cursed himself for not facing Chris. At least he could have gotten his rain poncho and another blanket from the wagon. He urged the horse onward.
+ + + + + + +
When Chris finally headed back to the saloon, Josiah was waiting on the porch out front.
"Trouble, Brother Larabee?" he asked.
"None that he'd admit to," Chris replied absently.
"The worst kind, then," Josiah sighed.
Chris looked up sharply, eyeing the former preacher. He slowly nodded his head and let out a sigh of his own. He knew personally how one's own demons were the hardest to admit to having. It was even harder to ask for help to fight them.
"I just hope the storm inside him isn't worse than the one we're getting," the big man said, looking at the dark sky.
"If he's not back in two days, we ride," Chris said, entering the saloon.
+ + + + + + +
Vin pulled up on the reins. He looked up into the early morning sky, saw a few stars poking through the rain clouds that were breaking up. The rain had finally let up, and he decided to take a short rest, maybe even sleep a bit. He was soaked to the bone, as it was, having been rained on all night. He found a small stand of trees, near the base of a plateau and dismounted, ground tying the horse and stretching his legs. Building a small fire was difficult without too much dry wood around, but he succeeded. He took off his coat and hat, shook them out and hung them on some branches by the fire. Squeezing the water from the ends of his hair, he sat next to the fire, drinking in its warmth. His thoughts returned, as they had all night, to the woman who wrote the letter. What could she possibly want? Thoughts of her were nothing new to him. He often wondered how she fared without him. And whether or not he was better without her. And that's why he was going to meet her. He had to remind himself that he was.
After a few hours rest for him and his horse, Vin mounted up and continued his journey. He knew he wasn't far from her when he had stopped, but he figured he'd better get some rest, both physically and emotionally, before meeting her. At the top of the plateau he took out his spyglass and scanned the area. Sure enough, he made out the smoke from a small camp in the distance. He urged his horse onward down the side of the plateau and wondered if the Spirits were sending him a sign when the rain started up again, a large clap of thunder marking the storm's onset.
A while later he came to the edge of the camp. A lone horse was tethered to a tree. A lean-to had been set up near a now, rain soaked, smoldering fire. She stood outside the lean-to, hands on her hips, a smile on her face, despite the rain soaking her.
"I knew you'd come," she said to him.
"Always did have a hard time refusin' you," Vin replied, dismounting.
She walked to him, closing distance quickly and gave him a hug.
"I've missed you so much," she said, burying her face into his chest.
Vin heard differently, though. He believed her to some extent. Hell, he missed her a little bit, too. But he was still suspicious. He pulled her back and looked into her eyes. He had the answer he'd come for.
"What do you want, Ellie?" he asked, flatly, pushing her away from him.
"No 'I missed you, too?' just 'What do you want, Ellie?'" she asked, taken aback by Vin's abruptness. But then she saw the hurt in his eyes, the hurt she had put there, all those years ago. "I... I, um...I want to get married," she stammered.
Vin shook his head in disgust. "So, what? You've come to ask for my blessings?" he asked, incredulous. "Go ahead, ruin somebody else's life," he spat and started to turn back towards his horse.
"Vin! Wait!" she cried. "There's more," she added.
Vin stopped and waited, closing his eyes as he tilted his head back. Ellie walked to him and turned him around to face her.
"My fiancé is a bounty hunter -" she started.
"Yeah, and he's after me," Vin finished, dryly. "What else is new?" he added, shrugging from her grip.
"It's not just you he's after," she implored.
Vin had stopped and turned again, ready to question her, when he felt a sharp pain explode in his hip. As he actually heard the gun shot, he realized he was no longer standing. The tracker was rolling to his side in pain and trying to draw his mare's leg, not realizing he couldn't do both at the same time. He thought he heard Ellie yelling at someone, but the shooting pain from his right hip down to his toes was the only thing his body could comprehend.
"You said you wouldn't hurt him!" Ellie yelled at the man approaching the camp.
She was kneeling at Vin's side now, hands on his shoulder and back.
"I said I wouldn't kill him," the man corrected.
He put his boot to Vin's back and gave it a shove, forcing him onto his stomach. Vin let out a loud, painful cry. The man held him down with the same boot and grabbed the mare's leg, barely out of its holster, from Vin's weakened grasp. He ignored the glare Ellie gave him and shoved the gun under his belt.
"Fix him up," he ordered and went to try to rekindle the fire.
Ellie glanced down at Vin, who was glaring at her, his quick and heavy breathing holding back his pain.
"You set me up!" he managed through gritted teeth.
Ellie was taken back by the sheer hatred she heard in his voice and saw in his eyes.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, as the rain began to fall again.
+ + + + + +
JD, Nathan, Buck and Josiah sat outside the small jailhouse, watching as Chris walked down the boardwalk for the fifth time that hour.
"How much longer you think he'll wait?" JD asked.
"Now, if it was you, JD, he'd have been gone already," Buck teased.
"Only to be right on your heels, Buck," Nathan added with a laugh.
"No, Brothers," Josiah interrupted. "With Vin, Chris is ever respectful and usually, patient. He'll give him the full two days."
"Yeah, but at two days and one minute, he'll be leaving at a full gallop," Buck finished.
"With the rest of us right with him," JD added.
They all nodded in agreement. Thunder sounded in the distance.
"Sounds like another storm coming this way," Nathan noted, looking to the west.
"You talkin' rain or Chris?" Buck asked, nodding toward the gunslinger's approaching form.
+ + + + + + +
Vin let out a small gasp as Ellie pressed a cloth to his hip, hoping to stop the bleeding. She had cut up one of the dresses she'd brought along to use for bandages. Now she was readjusting Vin's empty gunbelt to hold the dressings in place. He cried out again as she cinched it tight.
"You enjoying this?" Vin asked, teeth clenched.
"No, Vin, I'm not," she began. "This wasn't supposed to happen. Cobb didn't tell me you were going to get hurt. He said he'd let you go after he was done."
"Ellie, in case you forgot, I'm worth five hundred dollars, dead or alive. What'd you think he was gonna to do?" he asked bitterly.
"He said he was just going to use you to get to your friend," she explained.
"Yup," the man interrupted. "Figured I'd get you and Larabee, both," he said.
Vin looked up at the man. "What do you want with Larabee?" he asked, his voice giving away as pain and now fear for Chris took over.
"Me and Larabee go way back. That's all you need to know," Cobb said. Then he looked at Ellie. "You done with him?"
"Yes," she answered, checking Vin's wound again.
"Good," Cobb snarled as he grabbed Vin's wrists and tied them together.
He dragged him over to one of the nearby trees and secured him to it.
"Rest up now, Tanner. It might be a while before Larabee comes to try to rescue you," the man warned.
Vin, still trying to catch his breath, watched through half closed eyes as Cobb grabbed Ellie and brought her to the lean-to. He cursed silently to himself. He should have known better than to meet her. She'd long ago lost his trust. But he had to remind himself of that fact over and over. He did love her, once. Didn't he?
'Oh, God, Vin,' he thought to himself. 'She's still doing it to you. And now Chris is in danger, too, and you can't do a thing about it.'
That last thought was confirmed as he tugged at the ropes around his wrists and the pain in his hip erupted again. He tried to curl up into a ball to try to lessen the pain, but his right leg wouldn't cooperate. It just lay there, twitching, as sharp stabs of pins and needles shot up and down its length. As he lay his head down on the wet ground, the pouring rain drowned out the sounds of Cobb having his way with Ellie.
+ + + + + + +
Buck entered the saloon and looked around. He didn't know why. He knew exactly where Chris would be and what he'd be doing. He approached the table and straddled a chair, resting his good arm on the chair's back. He looked at Chris and waited for him to acknowledge his presence. Finally, the other man turned to him and met his gaze.
"Why don't you just go?" Buck asked plainly.
"He said he'd be back," Chris replied. "He's fine," he added.
"Now why do I get the feelin' you don't really believe that?" Buck asked.
Chris eyed him.
"Come on, Chris, we're all a little worried about Vin. We saw what that letter did to him, too," Buck admonished.
"So why aren't you all riding out after him?" Chris asked, taking a drink.
"Well," Buck started. "You know Vin the best. We figured you'd know when it was time to go. Maybe even know what this is all about," he finished.
Chris thought about Buck's assumption. Gave his drink a swirl before downing it.
"Alright. If he's not back by morning, we'll ride," he said.
+ + + + + + +
Vin woke up choking on the rainwater pouring into his mouth. He lifted his head out of the mud and tried to get his hair out of his eyes. Dizziness swept over him and he was forced to put his head back down. At the moment, the pain in his hip was a dull ache. He knew that that would change the moment he tried to move, so he tried not to. His shivering muscles had other ideas, though, and the dull ache started to hone. His clothing and hair were soaked through and he felt chilled to the bone. He looked up at the sky. It looked to be late afternoon, but with the darkness of the stormy sky, he realized that it could just as easily been high noon. A movement caught his eye and he looked toward the lean-to.
Ellie emerged, a serape wrapped around her head and shoulders. Vin watched warily as she crossed the small camp and approached him. She knelt and quickly reached for his right boot. She withdrew the knife she remembered he kept hidden there.
"Gonna hurt me some more?" Vin croaked, bitterness in his voice.
She didn't reply, but wordlessly cut his bonds and replaced his knife.
"I can keep him occupied for a little while after he wakes up," she said, trying to avoid his gaze. "Your horse is still saddled."
Vin grabbed her wrist before she could get up to leave. He wondered if this was some sort of trick. Then he saw her eyes. They were sad, begging him for forgiveness. He nodded silently to her and let go of her wrist.
He tried to get up then, pushing himself upward with his hands. But the pain was too great and his right leg still would not move for him. Ellie saw his struggle. After a quick glance at the lean-to, she looped his arm around her shoulder, grabbed him around the waist and hauled him up. She guided him to his horse. Vin was breathing heavily from the effort and reached out blindly for the horse. He had been holding his breath the whole time, trying to prevent himself from crying out and waking Cobb. Ellie held onto the tracker as he put his left foot into the stirrup, and tried to ignore the audible gasp he let out. He grabbed the saddlehorn and pulled as hard as he could as the woman helped heave his other leg up and over the saddle. The effort exhausted Vin and he nearly slipped out of the rain-slicked saddle. She saw him catch himself and realized that he'd never be able to keep himself on the horse for the ride back to Four Corners. She got the rope from the tree and tied it around Vin's waist and the saddle. She debated going with him, but knew Cobb would be onto them in no time. If she stayed back, and distracted Cobb, then Vin might have a chance. With one last look, Ellie slapped Vin's horse on its rump, sending it eastward.
+ + + + + + +
Between the cold rain chilling him and the blood loss from his wound, Vin figured he should have passed out a long time ago. But he managed to stay conscious. Not quite alert, just awake enough to know he had to keep going. Every step the horse took sent bone-jarring pain through his hip. That was one thing that kept him awake. But something else was driving him. Something more enduring than his pain. Chris. He had to get back to warn Chris about Cobb. His friend's life took precedence over any rain or gunshot wound. Vin would not stop. That and the simple fact that if he stopped to rest, he knew he'd never be able to remount his horse. He urged the horse on in the downpour. Just a little further and he can warn Chris. Not get warm. Not get healed. Just warn Chris.
+ + + + + + +
Chris sat inside the saloon, waiting for Buck to join him.
"Where's everybody else?" Buck asked, when he did arrive, shaking the rain off his coat and hat.
"JD's helping Nathan pack some supplies," Chris began. "Ezra's gone to bed - he's not used to getting up early, you know," he continued, with a glint in his eye. "Hell, by that reasonin' you should be in bed, yourself," Chris chided.
"Oh, I plan on it," the ladies' man replied. "I just haven't found the right one yet," he added, eyeing some of the women in the saloon.
Chris just shook his head, amused. Even with a busted arm, there was no stopping Buck.
Buck saw the look Chris gave him and knew what he was thinking.
"They feel sorry for me," he said with a shrug. "Want to make all the hurts go away," he added, giving Chris a practiced sad puppy dog look.
Chris shook his head as he watched Buck head to the bar. Now that they had planned to go after Vin, he felt a little better. He was no longer fighting with himself, trying to decide whether to go after the tracker or not. He didn't want to ruin the trust between Vin and himself. He didn't want Vin thinking he didn't have faith in his abilities. But at the same time, he remembered the look in his eyes. He knew he was headed into some trouble. And, his business or not, as a friend, he didn't want to let him go alone. But that is what Vin wanted, and he had to respect that. His thoughts were interrupted by shouts from outside.
"Chris! Buck!" Josiah shouted. "Vin's back!"
But they heard the tone of Josiah's voice. It would not be a joyful homecoming. As Chris and Buck got outside, their gazes followed Josiah as he ran down the street. They soon followed, quickly getting drenched in the downpour, and met up with him as Vin's horse came to a stop in the middle of the street.
"Vin?" Josiah called. "Vin?" he repeated. When he got no response, he looked at Chris.
Chris approached Vin's left side. "Vin? Can you hear me?" he asked, placing his hand on Vin's leg.
At the sound of Chris's voice, Vin opened his eyes. He looked around, noticing that he and his horse were no longer moving. But he didn't say anything.
"He's been hurt," Buck said. "Blood down his leg."
"Vin?" Chris repeated, starting to untie the rope holding him into the saddle.
Vin blinked, finally realizing that he was back in Four Corners and that he was not alone. He looked down at the hands at the saddlehorn. Then he looked at their owner.
"Chris," he whispered, before collapsing, sliding out of the saddle and into Chris's arms.
"Let's get him up to Nathan's, now!" Chris ordered.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan looked up as the door to his room burst open, with Chris and Josiah carrying Vin's limp form through the door. Nathan met them quickly, putting his practiced fingers to Vin's throat.
"Looks like a gunshot wound to his hip," Buck reported, closing the door behind them.
"He's freezin', too," Nathan said. "Get him outta those wet clothes and dry him off before you put him in the bed," he ordered Chris and Josiah. "JD, get your clothes off and get into the bed first," he added as he started to gather supplies.
"What?!" JD balked, confused.
"Just do it, JD!" Chris warned, pulling Vin's boots off.
"Body heat, JD. You got it, Vin needs it," Nathan explained quickly.
JD began taking his clothes off, and looking at Vin's shivering form, realized the urgency of the situation. His awkward feelings could wait. He climbed into the bed and got under the covers, before he himself, got cold. A few minutes later, Josiah and Chris carried Vin to the bed. JD held up the blankets and moved over. Before he knew it, Vin was curling up next to him, his unconscious body instinctively searching for heat. JD put his arms around him, embarrassing thoughts completely gone, his own protective instincts taking over to care for his friend.
Nathan drew the blankets back from Vin's injured side, so he could get to the wound. He took a washcloth from a nearby basin and began to clean Vin's hip, to get a better look at the wound.
"How bad?" Chris asked.
"Bad enough," Nathan muttered, dropping the bloody washcloth back into the basin.
Chris paced the floor. "Who the hell did this?" he asked no one in particular.
"Maybe if we could read that letter of his, we'd find out," Buck responded.
Chris looked at Buck, then went to Vin's coat. He checked the pockets and found the letter. It was soaking wet and he had to be careful not to tear it as he opened it. Buck and Josiah leaned over his shoulders and read it with him.
"Who do you think Janie is?" Buck asked.
Chris shook his head and replied, "Don't know."
They looked up quickly at the sound of Vin crying out, saw him fighting JD's grip on him.
"Easy, Vin, it's alright," Nathan soothed. "Just hold him tight, JD," Nathan instructed, as he picked up the scalpel Vin had knocked out of his hand.
"Chris?!" Vin called out urgently.
Chris went to the head of the bed, being careful to stay out of Nathan's way.
"I'm right here, Vin," he answered, smoothing the hair back off Vin's brow.
Vin looked toward Chris, but his eyes were unfocused, clouded by pain and cold.
"D-don't... g-g-go.... S-ss-set up," he managed through chattering teeth.
"Who set you up, Vin?" Chris asked, leaning closer. "Janie?" he added, holding up the letter.
But Vin only squeezed his eyes shut tight and moaned loudly as he tried again to get out of JD's tight grip. Nathan had started the task of trying to find the bullet in Vin's hip.
"Josiah," Nathan called, knowing Josiah would know what he needed, and he did.
The big man added his own strength to JD's and held onto Vin's legs, keeping him still.
Chris, concerned about Vin's pain, looked at Nathan.
"Can't you give him something for the pain, first?" he asked.
"Normally, I would," the healer said with a sigh, continuing to probe the wound, looking for the bullet, trying to ignore Vin's continued cries of pain. "But time is of the essence now. I'm usin' him bein' cold to my advantage. He won't bleed as much this way," he explained.
Chris closed his eyes, nodding in agreement to Nathan's reasoning, but still wishing there was something he could do to ease Vin's pain. He looked at the letter in his hand again.
"Almost there, Vin," he heard Nathan soothe. "Got it!" he exclaimed, pulling the bloody bullet out.
As Nathan let go of him, Vin's body sagged back down against the mattress. JD readjusted his grip on him, his job back to keeping Vin warm.
"Vin? Vin, who did this?" Chris asked quietly.
But the tracker only repeated his earlier statement, whispering, "Don't go. Set up," before losing consciousness.
Chris stroked Vin's forehead once again, before heading for the door.
"Where you headed, Chris?" Buck asked.
He held up the letter and said, "West."
"I'll go with you," the mustached man said, putting his hat on.
"No," Chris replied putting his hand on Buck's shoulder. "No offense, Buck, but considering what we might find, I want someone with two guns with me."
Buck nodded, inwardly cursing the rowdy drunk from last week.
"Josiah, you're with me," Chris ordered. "Go wake up Ezra, too."
After waking the gambler up, Josiah had quickly gotten Ezra up to date on Vin's condition and their current mission west of town. They rode silently out into the rain, about half an hour later.
"So, any speculations on this woman from Mr. Tanner's past?" Ezra asked.
It had been the question on everyone's mind since Chris had first opened the letter in Nathan's room, and continued to be such as the three men rode.
"Lots of speculations, Ezra," Josiah replied. "Just no answers," he added.
"Vin never mentioned her name before, least not to me," Chris responded.
"Mr. Tanner never did seem to be the kiss and tell type," Ezra remarked, a slight smile on his face.
"The question is," Chris began, "Did Janie set him up? Or did someone else, using Janie to get to Vin?"
"I guess we'll find out when we get there," Josiah responded, pulling his coat closed.