A Life Worth Living
The Muse 77
Rating: PG 13 for violence
Long shadows stretched out in front of the two riders as they rode silently into the late afternoon. It had been a long four days for Vin Tanner and Chris Larabee. Judge Travis had arranged for the two men to escort an army payroll delivery to an outpost a few days ride from Four Corners. There had been talk; rumours really that a gang of outlaws were after the money and would be attempting a robbery of the cash. The judge wasn’t expecting any trouble, but thought it better to err on the side of safety in this instance, feeling confident that Tanner and Larabee would be equal to any threat that was posed. The delivery turned out to be uneventful and the two men were looking forward to returning to Four Corners and the familiarity of the other five.
As they nudged their tired horses over a small rise they noticed four riders approaching, dust flying behind the group as they thundered toward the two men.
"They’re in an awful hurry." Stated Vin
"Ah ha. " nodded Chris as he checked his gun.
"Have a feelin’ they aint out for an afternoon gallop." Added Tanner as a sudden burst of gunfire confirmed that fact.
"Let’s ride." Larabee commanded.
Both men turned their horses, spurring them into a full gallop as bullets whistled past them. Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were no cowards, but even they knew when to stand and fight and when to retreat from an awkward situation. Being outnumbered on an open plain in the late afternoon with no cover certainly qualified for the later.
They rode hard. Both men laying low against their horses necks, trusting the animals to find a safe passage along the dusty ground. Suddenly Pony stumbled forward. His head arched downward and he grunted loudly. Chris tried valiantly to hold on to the horse. Unfortunately the animal could not regain his balance and the two tumbled helplessly over each other; the gunslinger hitting the ground hard just ahead of the black.
Vin heard the thud as the black gelding collided with the ground. Pulling Peso up hard, he turned back toward where Chris lay dazed but otherwise unhurt. Larabee groggily raised his head and looked, first at Tanner riding back toward him and then at the gunmen rapidly approaching them both.
"Vin." He said through gritted teeth. "Get the hell.. outta here."
"I aint leavin’ y’" the tracker yelled back at his friend.
"I said I aint leavin’ y cowboy."
The gang rode up to the two men. Two of them immediately jumped from their horses and dragged the man in black to his feet, while the others kept their guns trained on the Texan. Chris groaned inwardly, then tried to steady himself. Retrieving the gun from the gunslingers holster, the leader of the motley group of outlaws pointed it at the Tracker.
"Throw ya gun down now Mister. Real easy like and ya friend won’t get hurt."
Vin looked from the leader of the gang to Chris. Seeing that Larabee would be unable to offer any resistance at the present time, he did the only thing he could. His gun landed with a thud on the hard dry ground in front of him, he dismounted from Peso and walked around toward his friend. He was stopped by one of the gang.
"What do.. you want?" hissed the man in black as he struggled to stay upright.
"We want the money you’re carrying." Replied the man holding him up. He was an ugly man. A large scar crossed his face from the top of his left eye to below his ear. He was missing two front teeth and his hair was matted down against his skull.
"What money?" asked Vin.
A tall man dressed in a red shirt with what looked like an evening jacket that had obviously seen better days, walked up to Tanner. Smiling at the smaller man he suddenly backhanded him across the face.
"You will answer my questions, breed. You understand?"
Vin’s head snapped sideways with the force of the blow. Slowly he raised his hand and wiped away the blood from the split lip he had just received. "Aint no breed." He replied quietly.
"You sure do look like one. All that long hair and them buff’lo clothes." Stated another of the men; an Indian himself.
"You might be a bit more helpful after we’ve worked a bit on your … manners, boy"
"Leave him… alone." Chris ground out.
"Well thank you cowboy." Ben, the leader spat out sarcastically. He grabbed Chris harder by the neck and jerked him so that they were facing each other.
"Think we might start with you Mr ‘High and Mighty’. Let’s see just how tough you really are. I’m bettin’ it won’t take long for you to be tellin’ us everythin’ we want to know."
The two peacekeepers were led over to an area not far from where they had been captured. Larabee was tied between two dead trees, both hands bound tightly, his arms stretched taut. Tanner was bound and thrown to the ground not far from his friend.
"Alright gunslinger", spat the leader. "Let’s see what ya made of."
<^ <^ <^ <^ <^
Ben delivered another blow to the abdomen of the man in black. Chris had endured a sustained beating that had gone on for a couple of hours now, each punch or kick delivered with enthusiasm from the gang; each blow causing the man to cry out with the savagery with which it was delivered. He had lost all sense of time, all sense of everything. He just wished it would stop, wished the pain would go away. He had long ago ceased denying the existence of the payroll, the men didn’t believe him anyway. Maybe if he just closed his eyes; just gave in to it all, maybe he would be free from this at last. He groaned loudly as another blow found it’s mark on his already traumatised body.
"Bastards!" Vin cried. "He’s had enough, can’t you see that." The outlaws only laughed and continued their barrage, obviously enjoying their work.
Tanner knew that time was running out for his friend. Chris would not be able to take much more punishment, his body already showing the signs of the continued barrage. Blood trickled from his mouth, his rib area had long ago turned a deep shade of purple and black and was now rubbed raw from each new attack on him. Fresh blood oozed from the newly opened wounds in his side and chest. His left arm was bent at an impossible angle, obviously broken with a previous blow from the outlaws. What worried Tanner the most now was that fact that the gunslinger had ceased any reaction to the continued assault. His head hung low between outstretched arms. His wrists torn and bleeding from the rough tied ropes binding him to the large trees.
"Please." begged Tanner, "Please stop. I told y’ there aint no money."
"Don’t lie to me. Tell us where the money is, and we’ll let y friend go." Spat Carter.
"I don’t know what you’re talking about." Screamed the Tracker. "I told y’ we aint got no money." Vin pulled against the ropes that bound him on the other side of the tiny camp trying desperately to free himself.
"That aint what we heard. Now tell us or your friend here keeps gettin’ it."
The Texan was desperate now. He could see the black clad man’s resistance slowly ebbing away, at a loss how the man had put up with the treatment he had already received. But he knew that if Chris was to get out of this he would have to be the one to save him.
Vin Tanner stopped pulling against his restraints. He looked at his friend hanging helplessly not 10 feet from him. Taking a deep breath he said, "I know where you can get $500.00."
Ben stopped mid punch and turned surprised eyes to the Texan. "What did y’ say boy?"
The Tracker never took his eyes of Larabee. "I can get you $500.00, but you let m’ friend go."
"You aint in no position to bargain with us. Now where’s the money?" Carter said as he approached Tanner.
"You let him go." Vin had not moved, but his voice suddenly took on a deadly edge.
"Now Carter," began Ben. "If ‘n this one can give us the money, I’s sure we can cut his friend down. Now where’s it at?"
"You’ll leave him be?"
"Sure, sure we will. Now where’s the money." Said the leader of the small group of outlaws.
Vin closed his eyes, then almost in a whisper stated flatly. "There’s a small town outside of Texas called Tuscosa…"
"Tuscosa!" cried White Feather. "That’s nearly three days ride from here."
"If you take me there, I can get you the $500.00."
Ben thought for a moment. He stepped away from the limp form bound between the trees, walking toward the younger man who had just spoken. Looking toward the tracker and then back to the gunslinger, his gaze finally settled on the beaten man. "You better be tellin’ me the truth breed."
"I am." Vin said softly. "But I’m the only one who can get it for you. You don’t need Chris. Please, I’ll do whatever you say.. just cut him down."
"You got a point there boy"
Chris slowly came back to awareness. His body ached from top to bottom. Breathing was so hard.. so very hard. He felt the grind from his broken arm and tasted the blood from the corner of his mouth. Raising his head slightly, he could just make out the outlaws standing around Vin. Then, he heard it….’Tuscosa’
"No!" came the weak, pain filled cry. "Viiiin… no ….they’ll … hang … you."
"Ah, thank you gunslinger." Smiled Carter and slapped Chris hard across the face. The man in black let out a groan and surrendered back to unconsciousness.
"Well Vin," he said sarcastically. "If they’s gonna hang you there, it means you’s a wanted man, and if we take you there we get the reward. $500.00 wasn’t it?"
"What we waitin’ for?" asked Johnny. "Let’s get goin’".
"Ah yes, but what should we do with that one over there? I mean he obviously can’t ride, what with the little accidents he’s had. Let me think…." Ben walked over to stand shoulder to shoulder with Tanner. Placing an arm on the bound man’s shoulder he asked. "What do you think Vin?"
"Leave him… please." the Texan said through gritted teeth.
"No, I think not." Without warning the outlaw leader pulled his gun and shot Chris Larabee in the stomach. The man in black’s body jerked as the bullet entered him, then ….. nothing.
"NOOOOOO!" screamed Vin pulling frantically at his ropes. "Chriiiis!!!! Nooooo!!!! …… You bastards!!!"
Carter grabbed a handful of Chris’ hair and savagely yanked his head up as he laughed loudly. "Well that takes care a that problem. Let’s get outta here."
"Chriiiis!" yelled Tanner again. Almost hysterical now, the tracker strained at the ropes that were keeping him from his friend.
"He’s dead Mr. Vin." Johnny hissed. "You can’t do nuthin’ to help him now."
The Texan slumped to his knees. He stared at the man strung up in front of him. His friend’s head hung low between his arms, blood seeped from the hole in his stomach. This isn’t happening, this couldn’t be happening. There was some sort of mistake, please let this be some sort of mistake.
Vin was yanked to his feet and dragged over to Peso. Two of the men roughly threw him up into the saddle and bound him to the saddle horn. Vin Tanner did nothing. There was no fight left in the man, no reason to fight anymore. Chris Larabee was dead and he soon would be. His pained expression turned once again to his friend. ‘You’re dead now.’ He thought, ‘And I soon will be. Well pard, at least I’ll be with you again soon.’
<^ <^ <^ <^ <^
"Aw, c’mon Buck, what did he say?" asked J.D.
"He says it’s O.K. with him. The town should be fine for a couple of days." Replied Buck.
"Alright." Enthused Dunne. "Let’s go. If we leave now we should be able to meet up with Vin and Chris in about a day or so."
Josiah and Nathan smiled to each other.
"Ah, the joys of youth Mr. Dunne." Sighed Ezra. "Perhaps I could wait here for your return. I’m afraid I do not feel the need to venture out of our little municipality at the present time."
"You’re comin’ Ezra. The Judge said we could all have a break for a couple of days and you are one of us, aren’t you?" Nathan asked raising a questioning eyebrow.
Standish smiled to himself. Yes, he was one of them and that amazed him more than anything ever had. "Well Mr. Jackson, I suppose I could keep the rest of you company on your adventure. Where exactly are we going?"
"There and back to see how far it is." Buck answered, winking at the smaller man.
The gambler sighed. Obviously no more information would be forthcoming at the present time. Sometimes he felt like he was dealing with a group of children…. sometimes.
The five men gathered their hats, checked their guns and mounted their horses. Laughing and teasing could be heard as they rode out of town.
<^ <^ <^ <^ <^
The five peacekeepers had ridden for just over a day. Everybody was in a jovial mood. Groans could be heard as J.D. recited his endless supply of jokes and rhymes to the other men.
"J.D. I swear you must have the worst collection of jokes I’ve ever heard. None of them are funny." Groused Wilmington.
"Aw c’mon Buck, they are funny. It’s just cos you’re, well, older.. you just don’t get ‘em."
"Older!" the big gunmen cried swiping at the your sheriff. "Older! I’ll give you older." With a loud whoop, Dunne spurred his horse forward followed closely by Wilmington.
"I swear those two are gonna kill each other one day." Laughed Josiah. Even Ezra chuckled at that.
"What’s that?" asked Nathan pointing ahead to a dark outline. "Somethin’s caught up in those dead trees over there."
Buck and J.D. were pulled from their laughter by the statement from the other man.
"Something or someone." Said the gambler. Each man looked at the other, suddenly very afraid of who that someone might be.
Urging their horses forward, they tentatively approached the sight before them. As the got closer they were finally able to make out the grizzly scene that appeared.
Larabee was strung up between two trees. His head hung low between his outstretched arms. Blood, both fresh and dry, could be seen from various injuries, including the bullet wound in his stomach. His rib area, exposed through his torn and bloodied shirt, was nearly black now from the continued punishment he had endured. Long blond hair swayed in time with a breeze that also gently tugged at his long duster, allowing it to billow out behind the injured man.
"Sweet mother of….." Wilmington trailed off. "It’s Chris!! Oh good Lord, it’s Chris!" Jumping from his horse the ex-sheriff rushed up to his old friend.
"Nathan!" he screamed in near panic now. "NATHAN!!!"
Turning back to the man in black, Buck lifted his body up, holding it as gently as he could. "Hell Stud" he said softly as he rested the gunslinger’s head against his shoulder. "What the hell happened to you?"
"Bu—uck" came the raspy reply.
Nathan slid to a stop in front of both men. "Ezra, Josiah cut them ropes. Buck, can you hold him?"
"I got him, hurry up. Cut him down!"
"What happened" asked J.D., he’s voice breaking. "Where’s Vin?"
Nathan directed the gunman to lower Larabee to the ground. Then he began his examination of the various wounds on the lean body. Gently probing the tortured flesh elicited low groans and cries from the man. He tried in vain to push away the intruding hands that, with every touch, renewed the agony.
After a long silence, Jackson declared "Don’t know how he survived this, I just don’t know."
"But he has so far." Sanchez whispered as he raised his head skyward.
"Thank you Lord."
"He’s been worked over real good. Busted ribs both sides. Broken arm… I’ll need some help to set that… it’s a bad one." As Nathan probed again at the various injuries a pain filled groan escaped the fallen leader.
"Damn Nathan, anything that aint been beat on or busted?"
Jackson raised a hand. "The main problem is the bullet wound in his gut." He continued. "He’s lost a lot of blood and that’s made him real weak, I’m sure there’s some internal damage as well. If he doesn’t get an infection and if he can recover from the internal injuries……." Nathan paused shaking his head. ‘If… if ….if’ he thought, but said instead "Josiah, can you help me with this?"
"Brother," the preacher replied. "Whatever you want. I’ll move Heaven and earth if I have to."
Nathan and Josiah worked steadily removing his duster and torn shirt first. Then Chris was given a small amount of laudanum to ease the discomfort while the two men tried to repair the damage inflicted on their leader. The bleeding from the bullet wound had ceased; Jackson had removed that, not without some difficulty though, but it had come out clean. Larabee could only muster a pitifully weak cry as he fought the intrusion into his body. The other men held their breath as only the occasional cry from the injured man re-assured them that he was still alive. The next task was to set and immobilise the broken arm. Once that was accomplished the injured limb was wrapped up gently around his broken ribs. After nearly two hours of unending attention, as the last of the cuts and grazes were cleaned and dressed, a soft sound escaped the injured man.
"Vii…iin" it was no more than a tortured whisper.
"Hey stud, it’s ol’ Buck. You’re safe, pard. We’ve got you now." Wilmington raised Larabee’s head and allowed him to drink from his canteen.
"Buck?… how…. "
"Thought we’d come and check up on you two. Can’t have you havin’ all the fun now can we." The gunman tried to keep his voice light.
"Viiiin….. Buck…. taking….. Vin….Tus…Tuscosa." Larabee groaned loudly, gripping his friend’s hand against the pain.
"Tuscosa?… Bounty Hunters!" Wilmington spat. "Don’t worry pard, we’ll get him back. We gotta get you fixed up first."
"No… now… we – we leave… now."
"Now c’mon stud, you aint goin’ nowhere. You’re busted up too bad to be chasing bad guys."
The blonde man tried to rise but collapsed back to the ground breathing heavily. "I aint… stayin’… here." he continued breathlessly clutching his hand to his stomach. "I’ll walk… if I… have to."
"Damn it Chris, you tryin’ to kill yourself? You stubborn son-of-a-bitch!" Wilmington declared angrily.
"Buck." said Nathan. "Buck, we can’t leave him out here. There’s no shelter or water, and you know that if we take him back to town he’s just gonna injure himself worse tryin’ to get out there. Either way it’s at least a days ride."
"Nathan’s right Buck." offered Sanchez "We’ll take him with us."
"But how Josiah?" asked Ezra. "How will we manage to carry Mr. Larabee without doing further injury to him?"
"Aint nothin’ around here you can make into anything half decent to carry him on, ‘sides it’d bounce him around too much and he’ll be lucky to survive if that bullet wound opens up again. Not sure he’s gonna survive anyway." Nathan said quietly.
Four sets of eyes turned, unbelievingly toward the ex-slave.
"I’ll carry him." There was a finality to the big preacher’s words. "You pass him up him to me."
"Josiah, you’re goin’ to need both arms around Chris. I don’t want those ribs movin’ about or that bullet wound openin’ up. You’re gonna have to carry him on the saddle sideways to protect that broken arm as well." decided the healer. "But first I’m going to give him a dose of morphine. It’ll knock him out for awhile."
Jackson went to his medical bag. Retrieving a small bottle and a syringe, the healer knelt down next to Larabee. He manoeuvred the gunslingers uninjured arm so that it was laying on his lap and carefully tied a bandanna around it before inserting the needle deep beneath the skin.
"Nat – Nathan…. what.." Larabee tried to ask. "Don’t… leave me…. here."
"Take it easy Chris, this is gonna make the pain go away, alright? We’re taking you with us, I promise." The man in black nodded as he let out a sigh and then fell into the welcome arms of oblivion. Carefully manoeuvring the injured man, Buck and Nathan wrapped him in a blanket until only the top of his blonde head was visible.
Sanchez mounted his horse. Ezra steadied the animal as Nathan and Buck carefully – tentatively raised the black clad gunslinger into the arms of Josiah. Larabee moaned once but was limp as he was nestled against the big man carrying him. A large hand was placed against his cheek and his face was gently turned in against the big preacher’s shoulder. Josiah looked down at his precious cargo. Chris looked so helpless, so vulnerable at that moment.
"I won’t let you die Chris Larabee." He said, "We … we won’t let you die." He lowered his head and placed a gentle kiss on the top of the blonde gunslinger’s head, a fatherly gesture from a gentle loving man determined not to loose one of his own. The gunslinger was one of Josiah’s flock, part of his family, all of the seven were. The other four men looked with tear filled eyes at the two on the horse in front of them.
"Let’s go." Said Buck softly, his hand still resting on his tortured friend’s leg. "Let’s find Vin."
"And the bastards who did this to Chris." Added Ezra.
Four men silently mounted their horses determined to find the missing member of their group and keep the other one alive.
<^ <^ <^ <^ <^
Vin Tanner’s head snapped upward. He had been lost in thought. Remembering… reliving. Good times with a good friend. That first meeting, he knew then as he knew now that he had met another man who shared his very soul. The two of them walking shoulder to shoulder together. Knowing, some unexplainable confidence that was just there, some connection he had never shared with anybody before; would never share again.
Slow motion. His eyes slammed shut. The vision…. if only he could clear his mind of the vision. Watching the bullet slam into the already tortured body. Jerking forward. Blood flowing freely. Nothing. Screaming, then silence. One memory running into the next into the next. His throat tightened; the hot sting of tears in his eyes.
He blinked. Please, somebody make it stop. Please… Chris. But no, Chris is dead. He’d seen it himself. It wasn’t enough that they had beaten him, tried to break him, they had killed him as well. But soon, very soon now he would be dead too. He didn’t fear dying. At this point in time he would embrace it with open arms. He knew he couldn’t live with the pain he felt now, the constant ache in his very soul that was worse than anything he had ever experienced before. For Vin Tanner death would be eagerly welcomed. For Vin Tanner, death could not come fast enough.
<^ <^ <^ <^ <^
"We stop now." Declared the gang leader. Gesturing toward the buckskin clad man he continued, "Get that one off his horse."
The Texan was dragged from his saddle and unceremoniously dumped to the ground. He grunted, but other than that made no objection to his treatment.
Vin pulled his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. Lowering his head, he closed his eyes and willed his mind to stop replaying over and over the events from earlier in the day.
"Well Vinny," laughed White Feather. "You’s goin’ to Texas and you’s goin’ ta hang." There was no reaction from the Texan.
"Hey boy, I’s talkin’ t’ya." The indian yelled again as he kicked his prisoner. Still there was silence.
White Feather drew his gun and pointed it at the tracker. "Answer me boy, or I’s gonna scatter ya brains all over this here ground."
"Get away from him!" yelled Carter. "You stupid injun, you shoot him now and we gotta drag his mangy carcass all the way to Texas and if that happens I’m tyin’ it to the back a your horse."
White Feather kept his gun levelled at Tanner. Vin looked up from under his hat at the man in front of him.
"Y’ can’t kill me" he said, his voice devoid of any emotion. "I’m already dead." Vin lowered his head once again.
The two outlaws looked at each other then turned and walked away.
<^ <^ <^ <^ <^
It had been 4 hours since the six men had left the area where they had found Larabee. J.D., to everybody’s surprise had announced that he would track the men they were following. He had easily recognised the trail left by Peso and decided there were at least four other men riding with him. The young sheriff had spent time with Tanner learning some of the skills necessary to survive in the west. Now it was time to see just how good a teacher Vin was.
"Josiah, you look about worn out. Think we best stop for awhile." Nathan had ridden next to the preacher monitoring him and the man he was carrying. For his part Sanchez had never wavered. His arms and back ached mercilessly from carrying the man in black, but now his hands began to shake from the pressure.
"I could use the break Nathan." he answered tiredly.
Chris had layed quietly in the big man’s arms. The opiate he had been given had done it’s job well, but was beginning to wear off. The gunslinger groaned against the muscular shoulder. His head began to move back and forth as he became more aware of his surroundings and with that came pain. Suddenly he arched back against the arms that held him, and a pitifully weak cry escaped him.
"Nathan! quickly, it’s Chris." declared Sanchez.
"Buck… Ezra.. help me get him down. Now… hurry. J.D. get some blankets. Put them over there near that big tree."
Carefully the men lowered the injured man to the ground. Carrying him as carefully as they could, they placed him on the blankets in the shade of a large tree. Nathan unwrapped him and began examining his patient.
"Damn." He cursed. "He’s bleedin’ again."
Chris began moving his head and moaning, a fine sheen of sweat had formed on the too pale face.
"Chris, it’s alright we’re here. We’re all here." assured the healer. He gently lifted the blonde head and allowed Larabee to drink from his canteen.
"He’ll be here soon stud." Answered Buck quietly. Chris continued to moan softly.
"Josiah, Buck.. Chris can’t go any further. The bullet wound is bleeding again, and that aint good. Not to mention what’s goin’ on inside a him."
"But Nathan we said we’d take him." Said J.D. sadly.
"I know, but if we move him again….. well…. I don’t think he’ll survive it."
"I’m stayin’" declared Buck emphatically. "I aint leavin’ Chris."
"Buck…. save… Vin." The man in black clutched at the ex-sheriff’s arm. "Buck ….Pleeease."
"Look Buck, we don’t know for sure how many men have Vin. I have to stay here with Chris, I’m the only one who can really. You lot go and get Vin. Bring him back here, Chris is gonna need him… soon."
"Buck….." begged Larabee again struggling to remain awake.
Wilmington looked to each of the men in turn, then looked down at his long time friend. He was afraid to leave Chris the way he was, afraid that he wouldn’t be alive when he got back. But he knew he couldn’t refuse what Larabee was asking of him.
Coming to a decision the gunmen said, "Alright stud, but you gotta promise me you’ll be here when I get back."
"P-Promise." The injured man managed.
The men set up a temporary camp for Nathan and Chris. Buck had managed to shoot a brace of rabbits while the others made a small fire. Using some of the blankets, they erected a shelter for the two men they would leave behind.
"We’ll be back ‘fore y’ know it." Said Wilmington, tipping his hat and mounting his horse.
"With Mr. Tanner." Added Standish.
The peacekeepers took one last look at the injured man lying helplessly on the ground. Each man tipped his hat to the healer and spurred their horses away.
Jackson watched them ride out. A faint noise behind him interrupted his musings. The gunslinger was crying out softly against the new wave of pain that was beginning to assault his body again. Turning his attention back to the black clad man the ex-slave retrieved the medical bag from his horse, rustling through it until he found what he needed. Jackson once again took out the small glass phial, noticing that there was only enough of the clear liquid left for one more dose. After that he would have to rely on the small amount of laudanum and whiskey that he had to try and keep the immense pain from overwhelming the injured man. Nathan sighed as he filled his syringe, then plunged the needle into the man in black’s arm. Chris would rest now, pain a distant memory as he floated in the warm grasp of unconsciousness.
<^ <^ <^ <^ <^
It had been a long silent ride for four of ‘The Magnificent Seven.’ Each knew what the other was thinking, thoughts drifting between one man, their leader so badly injured none of them were sure he would be alive when they returned, and the other being held by men not worthy of being called animals.
To everyone’s surprise Dunne had in fact been able to track the renegades. At first disbelieving, the others soon found that the younger man could do as he had suggested he could. Buck was quietly amazed at the way the young man had performed his task, showing maturity beyond his years. His was the hardest job, dismounting on several occasions; walking for long distances leading his horse while the others followed behind him. Wilmington felt a sudden feeling of pride in the youngest member of the peacekeepers as his raised his hand halting the group.
"They’re not far now." He whispered. "Just up ahead. "
"Are you sure Mr. Dunne?" asked Standish.
"If he said they’re up ahead, then they’re up ahead." Said Wilmington glaring at the southerner.
"I meant no offence Mr. Wilmington, I assure you. Mr. Dunne, I apologise for seeming to doubt your capabilities as a tracker. I believe you have more that proved your worth in that regard." The gambler offered. "Mr. Tanner would be very proud."
J.D. looked at the gambler and smiled. "Thank you Ezra, but to be truthful, I wasn’t real sure myself for a while there." The young sheriff admitted. Standish patted the young man on the back.
"Alright then, first we locate Vin. Once we find him we get him out." The preacher’s voice rumbled as he checked the chamber of his gun. He continued, "Then we bring Hell fire and retribution to them all, for Chris ….. and for us." Each man nodded they’re understanding; each man pictured the beaten and broken body of their leader. The unspoken message was clear, there would be no prisoners taken today.
"Right then," announced the gambler. "Let’s go."
<^ <^ <^ <^ <^
Silently the four men crept up to the camp. They spotted the tracker slumped near a log on the left side. The other men were sitting around the fire drinking and eating.
"Right," declared Buck. "We take ‘em out before they get a chance to know what hit ‘em."
Each of the men nodded their agreement. They edged closer to the camp, spotting their targets, and taking careful aim at their quarry. Johnny looked up suddenly noticing a reflection from the sun. "Look out!" he yelled. Then all hell broke out. Ezra fired taking down Carter, the bullet entering his forehead as he tried to take cover. Josiah managed to take down Johnny, while Ben had taken a hit in the leg. Buck’s bullet hit White Feather, but it did not stop the man from continuing on toward Tanner.
Raising his gun, the Indian outlaw shot at the Texan, but only managed to hit his upper thigh. Tanner grunted at the impact, but did not try to take cover from the man coming toward him.
‘I’ll kill ya! Ya hear me?? I’s gonna kill ya!" The Indian screamed as he lunged toward Vin. Tanner didn’t move, seemingly uncaring of the fate that awaited him. As he was taking his final steps toward the other man, a bullet rang out and the outlaw stopped in his tracks. Behind him J.D. stood, smoke still coming from his gun.
White Feather fell not three feet from Tanner. His knife landing at his feet. Vin picked it up and stared down at the object.
All of the gang were now dead, shot down in a bloody battle, except for the leader. Ben threw his now empty gun on the ground and hobbled toward the Texan. Raising his arms in surrender he continued toward the sharpshooter.
"Ya aint gonna kill me Vin," smiled the outlaw. "Ya aint got it in ya."
Emotionless blue eyes looked deeply into the eyes of the man before him. With a wild growl Vin Tanner plunged the knife up into Ben’s ribs. "See y’ in Hell y’ bastard." said the Texan through clenched teeth. He thrust the knife further in and up into the man’s body. The outlaw blinked, his body jerked against the weapon now embedded in him as it slowly drained his life away. Blood, at first a trickle became a flood from his mouth. He grunted, staring but not seeing the wild angry man in front of him, then his eyes closed and he dropped to the ground.. dead. "Bastard!" screamed Tanner again.
"Vin?" asked J.D. tentatively.
The tracker turned suddenly, knife still in his hand toward the voice. Dunne backed away from the man, his arms held up to signify that he was no threat.
"Vin Tanner." Came the deep voice of Josiah, "you put that down now son. It’s me, Josiah. We’re here to take you back to Chris. Do you hear me?"
Tanner frowned at the voice. ‘Chris’ he thought. ‘No … Chris is dead.’ He looked at the bloodied knife in his hand, marvelling at the red liquid as it dripped down his fingers. Turning it first one way, then the other. Sanchez slowly moved toward the traumatised man.
"Son." He said quietly, "It’s alright now, we’re all here; Buck, Ezra, J.D… we’re all here. Come on now, Vin, it’s gonna be alright."
"Chris needs you." Offered Ezra. "We have to take you back to him now."
Josiah reached him first, gently but firmly removing the knife from his hand. Tanner offered no resistance now, his head spinning from all that had happened to him, to Chris. If he could just stop hearing the gun, if he could just stop seeing Chris’ body jerk from the impact. His leg suddenly began to throb and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stand much longer. Sanchez grabbed him as he legs began to buckle. "Ssshhh." He said as he took the knife and sliced open the ropes around his wrists, "Everything’s gonna be alright now."
"Nothin’ is ever gonna be alright!" the buckskin clad man screamed as he pushed himself away from the big man. "Chris… Chris is dead… I .. I saw it. I saw the blood. I saw them shoot him. Oh God… I keep seeing it!"
"Vin…brother… come sit over here, we need to tend to you. Then -- then we’ll take you to see Chris. I swear it Vin, he’s alive." said Josiah solemnly.
"NO! Get away from me. I can see it in your eyes. I can see it damn you."
"Now Mr. Tanner, we need to clean up your wound." Ezra tried to wipe up the blood seeping through the buckskin pants.
"No!" cried Vin as he pushed the gambler aside. "I said don’t touch me!"
"But Mr. Tanner… Vin…."
"No, I said. Keep away from me." The tracker limped painfully toward Peso.
"Vin, where y’ goin’?" asked Dunne.
Tanner paused. He groaned as he gingerly pulled himself up into the saddle and then announced quietly, "Tuscosa". With that he roughly pulled his white faced black around and headed away from his friends.
"C’mon," declared Sanchez. "I figure he won’t get more than a mile or two before the blood he’s loosing makes him fall right out of that saddle."
"Aw hell." Declared Buck, "Let’s get after the durn fool."
<^ <^ <^ <^ <^
They followed as closely as they could, watching for any signs that Tanner was about to tumble from his seat. After nearly 2 miles of trailing the man, Vin suddenly, silently tumbled to the ground.
"Mr. Tanner is certainly adept at endurance." Said Ezra.
"Let’s go get the stupid son of a bitch." Sighed Wilmington.
Reaching their fallen friend, Josiah and Ezra carefully rolled him over. Tanner groaned and tried to push them away, but was no match for the other two in his weakened state.
"Now Mr. Tanner, if you do not desist from your current action against us, we shall have no recourse but to restrain you forcibly." announced the gambler.
J.D. turned a quizzical look to the other men.
"He said he’s gonna tie him up J.D." smiled Sanchez.
Luckily the bullet had gone straight through the tracker’s leg and although it had bled quite a lot, it appeared to have stopped. After cleaning and bandaging it, Josiah lifted the now nearly unconscious younger man onto the front of Buck’s big grey.
"Your turn brother." He said as he adjusted the sharpshooter in the saddle.
"They’re both the same aint they Josiah." Said the gunmen sadly.
"Yep, Buck… and thank the good Lord for giving us two men like them." He smiled warmly at the other man.
"Amen to that brother." Said Wilmington returning the smile. "Let’s get back and see how Chris ‘s doin’. Then he turned his horse back toward where they had left Larabee and Jackson.
<^ <^ <^ <^ <^
Nathan Jackson was loosing the battle. He felt so helpless at this moment, so inadequate in his ability to save the man before him. Fever had set in and, he suspected, there had been more internal bleeding as well. Larabee had awoken in intolerable pain. Even a heavy dose of laudanum was only able to lessen his ordeal slightly.
"Can’t take … anymore …..just want …..it to ….stop."
Jackson continued to wipe the wet cloth across Larabee’s fevered brow as he tossed restlessly.
"C’mon Chris, fight for me…fight for all of us." Pleaded Nathan. The healer had never felt so helpless in his entire life. Talking to the man; encouraging him, reassuring him, was the only tool he had left to try to keep his friend alive.
"Can’t Nat-than… too tired."
"It’s gonna take more strength than you thought you ever had Chris, but you can’t give up. " continued the ex-slave. "Just hold on, you’re gonna have to reach deep down inside of yourself to get through this, but I know you can." Nathan was begging now.
"Viiinn?" Larabee whimpered.
"Yes Chris, Vin will be back soon. The others, they went to get him and bring him back. Just hold on… just hold on for Vin." He clasped the injured man’s hand offering his own as a buffer against the pain. The gunslinger nodded as Jackson continued to battle to keep the man alive.
"Hurry" Nathan whispered as he looked to where he had last seen the other men ride off. "Dear God, please hurry."
<^ <^ <^ <^ <^
They had made good time considering Tanner’s condition. While not life threatening, it was still a serious injury, and the Texan was not in the most co-operative of moods.
"Buck.. let me go." The sharpshooter demanded brushing away Wilmington’s hold.
"Shut up you stupid son of a bitch!" replied Buck angrily. "I done told ya we’re takin’ you to Chris. HE….IS… ALIVE! Now…I’m about fed up to here with your bullshit. Just sit on this damn horse with me and STAY STILL!"
"Buck?" Tanner asked as it finally began to sink in that maybe, just maybe they were telling the truth about Larabee. "Chris IS alive?"
Josiah edged his horse next to Wilmington’s grey. "Brother, we wouldn’t lie to you… not about Chris. He was alive when we left him. Nathan’s with him, and you soon will be."
"But…but I saw them shoot him. I saw them." Vin said shakily. His eyes staring widely up at the Preacher. "I keep seeing them."
"Vin.." began Ezra riding on the other side of the grey, "He is alive."
Tanner was silent for a long moment. He closed his eyes and drew in a long breath. "Take me to Chris." He whispered.
<^ <^ <^ <^ <^
Nathan looked up to see five weary men heading towards the little camp that contained himself and Larabee. Buck and Tanner rode together on the back of the gunmen’s grey. They were followed by Josiah and Ezra, with J.D. taking up the back trailing Peso behind him. The healer shook his head sadly. He didn’t envy telling the group the situation of their leader. Stretching tired muscles he raised himself from where he had spent the last few hours talking and holding the injured man. Groaning quietly, Jackson looked down at the pale and deathly still figure before him.
"They’re back Chris." He whispered. He knew the man in black could no longer hear him, he was amazed that the man still breathed. Slowly taking two steps toward the men, he met their questioning eyes with his own saddened ones.
"Nathan?" asked Josiah.
The healer began to open his mouth but choked back the words. Taking a breath to steady himself he looked at Tanner sitting unsteadily in the saddle with Buck.
"He’s alive." he whispered lowering his head. "Just"
"Get me down." Tanner said in a quiet commanding tone.
Josiah dismounted first, circling around Buck’s horse he carefully lowered the sharpshooter to the ground. Tanner hissed as his injured leg touched earth.
"You better let me take a look at that." Said the healer.
Tanner ignored the dark man. Pushing away the arms that held him, he slowly made his way to the prone figure lying before him. Reaching him, he collapsed next to Larabee.
"Hey Cowboy." He said leaning down next to his friend. There was no response. Tanner looked at the blood covered bandages that enveloped the man in blacks stomach and arm. Once again the memories threatened to overwhelm him. He squeezed his eyes closed, willing himself to push the visions of the vicious beating and shooting from his mind. Tentatively, he moved his hand forward until it was resting on the black clad man’s chest, reassuring himself that he was in fact still alive. He was rewarded with the faintest rise and fall of Chris’ chest and the quiet drumming of his heart.
"How bad?" asked Josiah quietly, not taking his eyes off the scene before him.
"Don’t expect him to make it." Jackson said sadly. "I done all I can. The rest is up to Chris."
The silence was broken by quiet curses and denials from the other men.
"But Nathan.." began Wilmington. "There’s got to be something?"
"Buck, I aint got any medical supplies left out here. Even if I did, I don’t think I can do anymore, the injuries are just too severe." He paused and rubbed his tired eyes. "We need to get him back to town, but horse-back is out of the question for him now."
"But there is nothing else available to us in this god-forsaken place." Stated Ezra, his voice a mixture of anger and fear.
"Perhaps God has not forsaken us.. or Chris after all." Said Josiah as he pointed to the horizon. It was truly a miracle. There in the distance were two wagons slowly travelling along where the sky met the earth. The men stood stunned for what seemed like an eternity.
"Ezra, J.D. go get that wagon." Commanded Buck. "I don’t care what you gotta do, just bring it back."
Standish and Dunne nodded their understanding. They quickly mounted their horses and disappeared in a cloud of dust toward the horizon.
A short time later saw them slowly approaching the wagons. Standish tipped his hat when he was close enough for the travellers to see him. He could see a rifle protruding through a small opening in the canvas on the first wagon. "Morning, sir" he said, touching his hat. "Have you been travelling long?"
The man seated on the first wagon stared warily at the Southerner. Slowly his gaze drifted to the younger man beside him.
"What you want?" he asked.
"Well sir, we need the use of one of your wagons."
"You here to rob me?"
J.D. and Ezra heard the unmistakable click from the hammer of a rifle being pulled back.
"No!" Standish stated, "absolutely not. We have an injured man over there.." he continued pointed to where they had just come from, "and we need to get him back to town."
"That aint no concern of mine." The man said flatly.
"Please mister," begged Dunne. "We have to have one of your wagons."
"Aint interested." The wagon owner said again. He slapped the reins against the horses and the wagon began to slowly move.
Ezra and J.D. looked to each other, concern etched on their faces. They could not allow the only chance to get Chris back to town to disappear, but they did not want the situation to escalate into violence if they could possible find some other way.
"Ezra?" Dunne asked.
Standish sighed, then looking back at the retreating wagon before him, urged his horse in front of it bringing it to an abrupt halt.
"Sir, perhaps we could come to some sort of monetary agreement on the temporary use of your transportation."
The man turned puzzled eyes to the gambler.
"I mean," began the gambler. "Perhaps I could buy your wagon and team from you….. Name your price." Ezra reached down into his boot and pulled out a handful of notes.
The man’s eyes widened. He’d never seen so much money before. He’s eyes narrowed again and he called out to the occupant in the back of the wagon.
"Martha!" he shouted. "Martha, get yourself up here."
"What?" came a craggy voice.
"This here fella wants to buy our wagon."
By this time the second wagon had pulled alongside the first. It was driven by a younger man who had also seen the roll of money being clutched by the gambler.
"Two hundred dollars." Yelled the second man. "Yer can ‘ave me wagon ‘n horses fer two hundred."
"Hey!" called the first man. "He was talkin’ to us. Weren’t ya Mister?"
"Well I…." Began Standish.
"I was ‘ere first!"
"But I said he could have mine first!"
"Well Ezra." Started J.D. "We’ve gone from no wagon to two wagons. What now?"
The occupants of both wagons had now met up on the ground, yelling abuse and scuffling between themselves.
"J.D." whispered Ezra. "Grab one of those wagons and let’s get out of here."
"But we can’t just take it!"
The gambler sighed. "Put this money in the other wagon. They’ll find it soon enough."
Dunne quietly dismounted. Sneaking over to the first wagon he placed the roll of notes on the seat, then tying his horse to the back of the second wagon he carefully climbed into the seat and turned the team toward where they had left Chris and the others. They could still hear the arguing behind them as they rode away.
Arriving back at their campsite a short time later, Dunne manoeuvred the team to a stop just before the camp. Jumping from the seat, both he and Standish hurried over to the others.
"Your carriage awaits." Announced the gambler with a sweep of his hat.
"I don’t know how you done it.." began Buck, "But I’m sure glad you did."
"Alright." Smiled Jackson. "Let’s get the hell out of here."
<^ <^ <^ <^ <^
Blankets had been arranged in the back of the wagon bed for the two injured men. Josiah and Buck came to lift the Texan into the wagon first. Vin didn’t want to leave Chris’ side but knew that he could not afford to delay anything longer than was necessary. Leaning heavily on the other two, he was taken to the wagon, constantly turning back to check on the gunslinger.
Nathan then directed the other four to lift Chris; Buck and Josiah taking his lower body, J.D. and Ezra his shoulders. The healer had emphasised the fact that the injured man was to be kept as level as possible so as to not inflict any more damage than was absolutely necessary. Once there, he was covered with the remaining blankets in a bid to buffer him against the bouncing that would undoubtedly ensue.
Vin moved himself gingerly so that he was positioned next to the man in black. "Chris," he whispered. "You died once on me, I aint gonna let that happen again you hear me? You aint leavin’ here just yet." The Texan raised the gunslinger’s head and rested it across his legs ignoring the shooting pain from the bullet wound in his thigh. Larabee’s head lolled sideways against the sharpshooter, as he gently bathed the too pale face and continued to talk quietly to the man, convinced that he could hear him.
The wagon rolled slowly onward surrounded by four of the peacekeepers, determination and fear etched on their faces. They would get Chris Larabee back to Four Corners alive, no matter what.
<^ <^ <^ <^ <^
They had travelled for several miles into the late afternoon. Progress was slow, allowing for the injured men not being bounced around too much. It was decided to stop for awhile to give Nathan a chance to check in on his patients
Josiah and J.D. gathered some wood and started a small camp fire while Ezra commenced putting together the ingredients for coffee.
"Vin, how’s the leg?" asked Jackson.
Tanner didn’t take his eyes of Larabee, but nodded "Fine."
"Vin, I’ll need to check that out in a minute but first I need you to move out of the way so I can check on Chris."
The Texan raised his gaze to take in the healer.
"Vin," continued Nathan gently. "I need to check him over."
"Nathan?" asked Tanner. "He’s not going to die." His tone was quiet, but there was a confident determination to it. The ex-slave placed his hand on the sharpshooter’s shoulder and squeezed it reassuringly.
"Hey Cowboy," Vin said wiping a stray lock of hair from the gunslinger’s forehead, "Nathan’s gonna check you out now, alright? I’m just gonna move out of the way."
Tanner placed his hand on the man in blacks’ and gently tightened his hold on his friend. Chris returned the pressure and with a pain filled nod rasped "’k".
Nathan and Vin looked at each other open-mouthed. Then looked back at the injured man. "Chris?" exclaimed Jackson. "Chris, can you hear me?"
Larabee sighed gently and nodded again. Tanner and Jackson raised tear-filled eyes to each other and smiled.
"I told ‘y" The Texan managed to say. "I knew it."
"Knew what?" asked Wilmington. He had finished settling the horses and had come to the back of the wagon to check on Jackson’s ministrations.
"It’s Chris," the healer smiled. "He…he can hear us."
"That’s a good sign… right?" asked Buck cautiously.
"Buck, he’s not gonna die, I know he’s not gonna die." Said Tanner as he once again squeezed the injured man’s hand.
"Nathan?" asked Standish who, along with Josiah and J.D. had gathered at the back of the wagon now.
"Earlier today, I would have said no chance at all. But now…." He paused. "Now…. I think we have a chance."
"Hallelujah brother." Smiled Josiah, clutching J.D. to him in a fatherly hug.
The dark mood that had surrounded the peacekeepers for several days now, seemed to suddenly lift. Nathan finished checking Chris, then re-dressed Vin’s injured leg. After a short while they were on there way home again, this time a little more confident of them all getting there alive.
<^ <^ <^ <^ <^
It had been five long days since the seven peacekeepers had arrived back in Four Corners.. It had been touch and go for quite awhile. Larabee had survived the trip, barely, but after a few close calls was now fully on the way to recovery. Nathan had worked tirelessly on the man in black; his fever raged for three days before, on the third morning, it finally broke. Now he slept most of the time and still couldn’t hold down much of his food, but Nathan was confident he would, after a long, slow recuperation period, make a full recovery from his physical injuries.
Josiah called it a miracle, Buck said the man had nine lives, Vin didn’t care what had caused Chris to fight to stay alive, he was just grateful that the man in black was too stubborn to die.
Nathan had allowed the Texan to stay in the clinic with the gunslinger, the younger man still recovering himself from both physical and emotional injuries, while the rest of the peacekeepers had divided their time between watching the town and checking on their two injured friends.
Finally on the fifth day back he had declared Larabee able to have all of the men come to see him. One by one they gathered in the tiny room, filling Chris in on the goings on in the town. Stories ranging from drunk cowboys being arrested to Ezra’s latest accomplishment on the gambling table went round the room along with a bottle of Inez’s finest whiskey
Chris had enjoyed the sound of his friend’s laughter. He smiled at one of J.D.’s jokes even though it really wasn’t that funny. He felt contented, at peace, knowing they were all together again. It felt good to be alive.
"Aw come on Buck, even Chris smiled at that joke." Cried J.D.
"Yeah kid, but he’s so full a laudanum he aint no judge a what’s funny."
"Mr Dunne, you may wish to replenish you repertoire with some more amusing commentary in the future."
"Huh?" said J.D.
"He said your jokes stink." Laughed Sanchez.
Dunne sighed. "As I said before, you are all too old to appreciate my talents."
"Too old!" cried Wilmington as he swiped at the back of the young sheriff’s head. "I’ll give you too old."
The others laughed, while Chris smiled contently to himself. He was enjoying the atmosphere, but was becoming tired. He let out a deep sigh as his eyes began to drift shut. Vin pushed himself from the wall where he had been leaning and eased himself by Larabee’s side. He had smiled occasionally but didn’t really join in the festivities, still trapped in the nightmare from the previous week.
Nathan was immediately there as well, feeling his forehead for any signs of fever. "Alright you lot, that’s enough for today."
"But Nathan…." the men said collectively.
"No! Don’t you ‘but Nathan’ me. I want you all out…. now!" he declared.
Grumbled threats could be heard as Jackson herded the other men out of the room, promising all sorts of retribution if they didn’t allow Larabee the necessary time to recover from his ordeal. Laughter could be heard as the men made their way down the stairs toward the saloon.
Tanner gently pulled the blanket up around the sleeping man’s shoulders and absently brushed a stray lock of hair from the gunslinger’s forehead. Sighing, he limped to the other side of the clinic to stare out the window. Visions of his friend hanging bruised and bloodied whirled around in his head. The sound of flesh hitting flesh growing louder and louder as he relived the beating. Then …… BANG… a gun going off…. the bullet hitting Chris…. his body jerking. Silence followed, only broken by the pounding of his own heart drowning out everything else. He blinked and tried to re-focus on the small town around him.
It was several long minutes before a voice, still raw with pain broke the silence, "I hear you were… headin’ back to Tuscosa."
The Texan turned and took a tentative step toward his friend. "Seemed to be the place to go." He shrugged
"Vin, they would have…. hung you there. What were…. you thinkin.?’ Larabee moved in the bed trying to find some position that would allow him some respite from his injuries. Finally giving up any idea of accomplishing that feat, he closed his eyes and slumped back against the pillows.
"I was thinkin’…. I don’t know…… I mean…. I thought you were dead. I… I didn’t want to ….. it just seemed… aw hell Chris. " Tanner turned his face away from the man in black.
The blonde was silent, turning over in his mind the words the tracker had just spoken, and the words that he had not. Suddenly his ribs and stomach ached again and a wave of nausea began to overtake him. He drew in a long shuddering breath and said quietly, "That’s a heavy burden to place on me Vin."
The Texan turned startled eyes to the black clad man.
Larabee continued, sensing the younger mans lack of understanding. "It’s a hard enough job keeping myself alive, pard.. it’s a hell of a responsibility keepin’ you alive…too."
"Chris I didn’t mean that."
"What you meant Vin." Larabee closed his eyes trying to stop the room from spinning, "was that if I die …… you die."
"No… I didn’t mean… " Tanner lowered his head. "When I thought that you were dead a part of me died as well."
"Pard, I need to know that…. that you’d go on.…that there’d be somebody to….to keep the others…. together. Vin …. I need to know …. I can count …. on you." The gunslingers eyes drifted shut.
"You can always count on me Cowboy." Whispered Vin. "Never doubt that."