Disclaimer: The following is a work of amateur fiction based on the series The Magnificent Seven and not meant to infringe upon the rights of Trilogy, Mirisch, MGM, CBS and TNN. No money is made from this work.
NOTES: Thanks to Deirdre for the Beta!
This story is dedicated to Marcia, for her birthday. She asked for a Christastrophe. Happy Birthday lady!
Rated: PG 13
Chris Larabee smiled as he saw his tiny, one room shack come into view. Then that smile turned into a grimace, and he doubled over with pain. He pressed his hand more tightly against his side, feeling the fresh blood oozing between his fingers. Tightening his hold on the reins, he nudged his black gelding forward. By the time they reached the corral, his vision had shriveled to a narrow tunnel, the blackness threatening to claim him all together. Nudging his boots free of the stirrups, he gripped the saddle horn and took a breath before sliding slowly from the horse's back. For all his care, the contact between boot and earth sent pain shooting through his left side, from toe to shoulder.
Chris moaned softly, leaning tiredly against the gelding, gathering what little strength he had left. He knew he should continue on, get to town and Nathan's attention, but was almost certain he would fall out of the saddle before he made it there. If he was going to die, he'd do it in his own bed, not face down in the dirt. Larabee faced life on his own terms; he was damned if he'd face death any other way. Pushing himself away from Pony's heaving sides, he managed to strip saddle and tack from the exhausted animal before releasing him into the corral. The horseman cursed for not being able to rub the beautiful animal down, but knew he hadn't the strength. As it was, he barely made it to the shack, falling to his knees twice along the way. Managing to stumble to the door, he entered the darkened shack, crossed the small room, and collapsed onto the narrow bed. A sharp intake of breath accompanied his gingerly moving his hand from the bloody hole in his side. With exaggerated slowness, he peeled the blood-soaked black shirt, crying out as it pulled at the wound. Too weak to move from the bed again, he reached into his duster and retrieved his handkerchief. Placing it over the hole in his side, he pressed down, another weak cry escaping his tightly pressed lips.
Closing his eyes, Larabee lay back against the pillow, letting the pain and exhaustion wash over him. It had only been a few hours since he had been attacked, but it seemed much longer. He thought back on the morning, which dawned in peace and quickly spun toward hell.
The blond wasreturning from Eagle Bend, after delivering a package for Judge Travis. He had spent the night there, happy to learn that Sheriff Stains was out of town. There were a few townspeople who still tempted fate by whispering amongst themselves about hard feelings left from Obediah Jackson's trial. They had quickly shut their mouths when a hard-edged hazel glare was pointed in their direction. After delivering the package and securing a room, he spent a few hours in the saloon before turning in. Rising just after dawn, he set out for home. He was just as glad to be on the road, when he saw that Stains had returned during the night.
He was just half an hour or so from the dusty little town, when a shot rang out from nowhere. Sparing a quick look around, he found no signs of his attacker, but a second shot rang out, ending his surveillance. Spurring the big black into a full gallop, he didn't realize he was wounded for several minutes. Reaching a small cluster of trees, he dropped to the ground, gasping when he felt a jolt of pain in his side. Chancing a quick look, he saw the spreading wetness on his dark clothing. "Shit," he muttered, pressing his hand against his throbbing side.
He hadn't moved his hand again, holding it tight to the wound. Watching the terrain closely, he stood, ready to fight, for some time. Finally, satisfied that the shooter had lost interest, or, more likely, had been scared away when his quarry hadn't fallen, the blond managed to pull himself back into the saddle and coax the black forward.
The ride had consisted of growing weakness and excruciating pain. It would have been quicker to return to Eagle Bend, but not safer. They had a telegraph, but no doctor; he had no one to watch his back if he wired the others for help. He didn't fancy the idea of bleeding to death in the midst of strangers. Better to try and make it to Four Corners, where he could rely on the others to keep him safe. Added to that, was an unshakable feeling that he was not completely alone. From time to time, he sensed, rather than saw someone behind him. Larabee tried to shrug it off, to attribute it to his years of life as a gunslinger making him overly cautious. But the feeling continued, growing stronger, even as he grew weaker.
He didn't really recall making the decision to go to his place rather than try for town, only realizing it when the cabin came into view. And now he was home, the first true home he had known in over three years. But, even as he took comfort in that fact, he was once again aware of another presence beyond the walls of his cabin. It would be too much to hope that it was one of his fellow peacekeepers, they wouldn't even be expecting him back before tomorrow morning. With the remainder of his strength, Chris pulled his yellow-handled Colt from its holster, cradling it against his chest. Then, his other hand still pressed tightly against the bullet wound, Chris Larabee succumbed to the darkness.
"Hey, Buck," Tanner gazed warily at the other man over the top of his cards. His attention shifted across the table, settling on the gambler and eliciting a smile.
"I agree, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said as if reading his mind. "That tone of voice never bodes well."
With a chuckle, the Texan said, "ain't takin' yer watch t'morrow Bucklin, I already pulled th' night ride t'night."
His hand splayed across his chest, the big brunet said, "I would never ask so much of a friend, " his voice almost sounded hurt.
"Not when y' know y' ain't gonna get anywhere."
With a sigh, the big man slumped in a seat. "Y'all act like I never done y' a favor. Why I remember that time last month - "
Raising a hand and looking askance at him, Vin said, "save me th' list, Buck, jus' tell me what'cha want."
"Well, ain't really even for me, more like a favor for Chris -"
"Bucklin, so help me, I'm 'bout t' put a hole right in th' middle a yer mustache," the sharpshooter warned.
Chuckling, but not completely certain that the younger man was joking, Wilmington said, "I was s'posed to ride out t' Chris' shack, 'n check on th' horses. But, Miss Marcia, she's free for th' day, an' I wanted t' take her on a picnic."
"Miss Marcia," Ezra interjected. "Isn't she that lovely young friend of Mrs. Travis', who's visiting our fair community?"
"Yep," Vin replied before Buck could say a word. "She's been here a week, 'n shot down ol' Buck 'least five times that I know of."
"Ah yes, " Standish continued in honey-dipped tones. "I believe that she was overheard to say 'not if you were the last man on Earth', on one occasion."
"Well, hell Ezra, if she's goin' out with 'm then, where's that leave us?" Vin said with a feigned look of shock.
"Couple a no-count, smart assed -" Buck grumbled, starting to leave.
Raising a hand to stop the bigger man, Vin said with a chuckle, "ah hell, don't get'cher drawers in a knot. I'll go check on th' horses for y'."
His grin returning, the ex-sheriff said, "always knew y' t' be a true friend, pard. Um, y' might wanna - " He broke off as Vin speared him with a near-perfect imitation of the Larabee Glare.
"Um...yeah, well, I owe y' one, stud."
"Y' owe me more'n one," Tanner replied. He watched the man squirm as he said, "jus' you r'member that, stud."
Vin pulled up at the top of the rise, stretching up in the saddle as he surveyed the landscape. He had ridden out early so that he would have time to tend the horses; the sun only now setting. His gaze shifted to the little cabin he helped Chris build almost a year ago. While denying any plans to make it permanent, the gunman had continued making improvements over the months that followed. Now a stack of lumber sat near the shack, waiting for the blond to addon a second room.
Tanner frowned as something caught his eye. Retrieving his spyglass, he examined his friend's homestead. Shaking his head when he saw a familiar black horse in the corral, he sighed. He couldn't decide if this was one of Buck's pranks, or if Larabee had come back earlier than expected. Deciding to pay his respects either way, and maybe share a drink before he continued his rounds, Vin nudged Peso forward. Besides, if this was one of Wilmington's tricks, he'd enlist Chris' help in getting revenge.
Reaching the shack, he grew concerned. It was still early, but there was no sign that Chris was around. it could be that the gunman was hunting out beyond the trees, but he doubted it. The fact that the man's saddle and tack had been left on the ground outside the corral was something totally out of character. Then, on closer inspection, the sharpshooter saw that Pony had not been rubbed down, his coat dried stiff with sweat. His senses on the alert, Tanner leapt from the saddle, pulling his hogleg as he ran toward the door.
Listening before he entered, he heard no sounds within. Finally he called out, "hello th' house! It's jus' me, Chris."
Nothing. Truly concerned now, he knocked on the door, then eased it open. "Chris?"
When he still failed to get an answer, he moved into the room, unable to make out much in the late evening shadows. Reaching the table, he scratched a match to life and lit the lantern there. As the globe brightened the shack, he heard the distinct click of a pistol's hammer being drawn back. Carefully turning around, he found himself confronting the wrong end of his friend's gun.
"Chris? It's jus' me, pard. It's Vin."
"V...in?" The blond whispered hoarsely.
Quickly crossing the room, ignoring the gun that slowly dropped back to the heaving chest, he knelt next to the injured gunman. "Ah, hell, Larabee. What'cha get yerself int' now?"
"Shot...me," Chris managed to grit out, easing his hand away from his side.
Retrieving the lantern, Vin brought it over so that he could get a better look at the man. Easing the edge of the blood-drenched material away from the wound, he cursed softly. Then, sliding his hand carefully beneath the lean body, he searched for an exit wound. Finding none, he said, "reckon y' got yerself in a peck a trouble, cowboy."
"Well, let me geth'cha patched up best I can, then we'll go on in t' see Nathan."
Larabee nodded, relaxing into the familiarity of Tanner's presence. He heard his friend rustling around the little cabin for several minutes, then finally return to sit on the edge of the bed. Barely conscious, Chris felt himself lifted up, the sodden shirt eased from his body, then he was lowered back to the thin mattress. He felt gentle hands bathe the blood from his side, then the wound was bound.
"That ought 'a hold y' til we c'n get'cha int' town pard," Vin's voice broke the silence. "How y' feelin'?"
"Great," Chris answered with a faint, sarcastic smile.
Tanner chuckled. "Yeah, reckon it was a stupid question. Y' wanna drink?"
"Whi...whiskey," he responded.
Retrieving the silver hip flask the blond carried in his duster, Vin lifted the perspiration-soaked head from the pillow and tipped the flask to the other man's lips. Allowing Larabee a few sips, he pulled it away and said, "that's enough for now, pard. Don't want'cha gettin' sick."
With a sigh, Chris nodded his agreement, letting Vin lower him back to the pillow. "Thanks."
"Yep," Vin responded. He watched the blond settle against the bed, his face pinched with pain. He considered their options, but found none of them really to his liking. Chris needed Jackson's attention; it was clear that he had been bleeding for some time. That in itself was a concern. The man was so weak that he wasn't certain he would be able to ride as far as town, and the fact that the bullet was still lodged inside him was a concern as well. Riding him in on horseback could aggravate the injury, send the lead through his body. Allowing Chris a few hours to rest might give him the strength to get to town, but it might also weaken him even more. He considered leaving Chris alone long enough to ride into town and bring Nathan back out to the cabin, but he quickly dismissed that idea. He wouldn't put it into words, but there was no way he would leave his best friend alone as he was now.
Picking up a rag, Vin dampened it, and bathed the blond's ashen face. Larabee sighed softly as the cool water chased away the heat, his face relaxing just a bit. For that Tanner was grateful, but he also knew it wouldn't last for long. "Chris?"
"Mmmm," the blond mumbled in response.
"Pard, reckon as soon as I can get yer horse saddled, an' get y' in th' saddle, we'll head for town. The quicker Nathan get's to y', the better."
"S' dark?" Chris opened his eyes to a slit, seeing that the room was in deep shadow.
"Yep, but there's a good moon, an' it ain't far."
"W-wait...til morning," Larabee managed.
"Don't think that's gonna help y' none. Y' know 's well 's I do what losin' a lot a blood, an' havin' a bullet in y' ain't good."
Managing to shake his head, Chris said, "h-he's out th-there."
"Who?" Vin asked, then realized who Larabee meant. "Fella that shot y'?"
Nodding, the blond whispered, "c'n f-feel 'm out there," he didn't have the strength to explain any farther. He didn't need to.
Sighing, the sharpshooter said, "we'll wait a bit, then, leave just 'fore dawn."
"...'kay," Larabee sighed,before allowing the darkness to claim him fully.
Vin sat back with a sigh and scrubbed a hand across his face, watching his friend slip away into unconsciousness. He wondered if the shooter's presence was real, or a figment of Larabee's fevered imagination. Either could easily be the case, and he decided that he'd rather face that possibility in the light.
Dousing the small flame in the lantern, he padded to the door, pulling his hogleg as he did. Edging the door open, he slipped out, and searched the terrain for signs of an intruder. With a stealth born of being both hunter and hunted, he made a circuit around the homestead. Finally, satisfied that all was quiet, he returned to the cabin. As he neared the little house, he was surprised by a movement at the edge of the porch. Stopping, he raised his sawed off.
"Vin?" The voice was law and filled with pain.
"Damn it, Larabee, ain'cha got enough holes in y'?" he hurried forward and grabbed the lean body as it began to crumple to the ground. Wrapping an arm carefully around the other man, he half-carried Chris back inside, lowering him back to the bed. "What th' hell'd y' think y's doin', cowboy?"
"Ain't...sh...sure," Chris answered, only half-conscious once more/ "Look'n for...you."
Sighing, Vin shook his head, taking the Colt out of the limp grasp once more. "More'n likely t' die from your shenanigans then whoever shot y' pard. Didn't see no signs of no one out there."
The blond studied the words, but made no comment. He felt the other man placing a clean cloth on his side, then a blanket was draped over him.
"Now, keep yer ass in bed, y' stubborn cuss. I'm goin' t' check on th' horses, then I'll be back in. y' gonna behave, or y' think I oughta tie y' down?"
"Ain't...goin' n'...where," Larabee mumbled.
With a nod at what he took as the man's promise, the younger man hurried out to make certain that the horses were bedded down for the night. He returned to the little home in near-record time, happy to see that Chris was as he had left him. Securing the door, he re-lit the lantern and pulled a chair over next to the wounded man, settling in to keep vigil until morning.
The long night hours were rough on both men. Larabee developed a fever that couldn't be quieted with cool water or soothing words. Despite the tracker's best efforts, he remained trapped in some nightmare corner of his mind. Vin did what he could, his heart aching as the fever's heat caused Chris to envision the deaths of his wife and son. Tanner was frustrated that all he could do was bathe the pale face and talk to his friend.
"Chris, it's all right, pard. Y' need t' lay still, hear? Y' ain't do'n yerself any good frettin' over this now. It was a long time ago, pard, and sad as that is, there ain't a thing t' be done t' make it different. Now, y' lay still 'n save yer strength. We got a ride ahead of us, 'n yer gonna need it."
"Sa...rah, Adam...no...fire...no!" He continued to mutter the words brokenly, the pain raw even now. The blond was lost in the throes of the fever, beyond the comfort offered him by the other man.
Dawn finally colored the Eastern sky, a sight that brought a sigh of relief from Tanner. The gunman had finally worn himself out, and now lay still and pale on the bed. Vin left him there long enough to saddle the horses. He wasn't certain that Chris would be able to sit in the saddle on his own for very long, but he saddled the black gelding anyway. If Chris' shooter was still a threat, they may need to move in a hurry.
Leaving the horses ground reined near the porch, Tanner came back in to tackle the harder job; pulling the injured man back to consciousness and getting him into the saddle. Finding the man a clean shirt, he perched on the side of the bed and gently tapped the ashen cheeks. "Okay, pard, time t' wake up. We need t' git'cha int' town." The blond frowned, then grimaced, but didn't waken.
"Chris, c'mon now, we need t' git'cha fixed up. Can y' hear me pard?"
"Lemme be," Larabee groused, fanning a hand in the air weakly.
"Sorry pard, can't do it. Promise I'll let'cha be once we git t' town. Now c'mon."
One clouded, hazel eye peered up at the other man, and Chris ran his tongue across fever-baked lips. He tried to decide why he was looking up at the tracker, and why he felt so terrible. Finally, the pieces began to slip together, and he recalled the events that had brought him to be here.
"Mmmm?" the gunman managed to respond.
"Daylight, pard. We need t' git'cha int' town so Nathan c'n patch y' up. 'member?"
Considering the other man's words, the gunman finally decided he was making sense, and he nodded. He tried to rise, quickly falling back. He realized that he had the strength of a day old kitten. He felt Vin's arm slip beneath him and he was lifted up. Breathlessly, he slumped against his friend.
Patting the man's arm reassuringly, Vin said, "Y just rest 'n let me take care a things." Holding the blond with one arm, he slid the dark shirt on him, not worrying about buttoning or tucking it in. the day was already warm, and he'd be just as comfortable this way. Tucking the man's Colt inside his own waistband, Vin lifted Chris from the bed. He steadied the man as the movement sapped his strength, talking softly when he saw the pain and nausea taking over the sweat-soaked face.
"You're doin' fine cowboy, just take some deep breaths, okay?" He rubbed the man's back absently as he continued, "now, hang on, 'n I'll get'cha t' th' horses. Ain't gonna be too long til we're in town, 'n Nathan'll get that bullet out. Reckon this time t'morrow, y'all will be fussin' back 'n forth."
The blond managed a grunt, his hands clinging to the other man's slight frame as he fought to come to his senses. Finally, a sense of self-preservation kicked in, and he managed to straighten slightly. Still unfocused and filled with pain, his eyes locked on the blue ones of the other man.
"'bout time," Vin quipped with a broad grin. "Thought maybe y's gonna sleep th' whole way 'n leave me with th' work."
"S...sound like...Ez...ra," Chris managed to gasp out.
With a chuckle, Vin shifted his hold, wincing in sympathy when the gunman gasped in pain. "Sorry cowboy."
The men made their way slowly outside to the horses. It took them both several minutes to get the gunman into the saddle. That accomplished, it was only the injured man's stubbornness that kept him there.
Vin watched Chris for a minute, then frowned. "Reckon y' can stay up there?"
"I'm...fine," the blond wheezed. He was hunched over, his face glistening with sweat and lined with pain, but he held on.
With a nod, Vin decided to let him gauge things for now. They could move a lot quicker this way, and Larabee would need medical attention soon. Although the wound had stopped bleeding, he continued to burn with fever. Taking the man's reins, Tanner mounted his black, and led them off slowly. Keeping an eye on Larabee, he watched the terrain around them as well. If Chris was right, and the shooter was still around, he'd make his move soon. Without really thinking about it, he drew the gelding closer and picked up the pace.
They were less than half way between the cabin and town when Chris' injury got the better of him. He groaned and slumped forward, his voice laced with agony. "Vin."
"Ah hell pard, why'n't y' say somethin'?"
"Just...did," Larabee grumbled through clenched teeth.
"Damn smart ass gunslinger," Tanner groused good naturedly as he tried to mask his concern. With one hand steadying the exhausted man, he guided both mounts to a stand of trees. Hurriedly dismounting, he pulled Chris from the black gelding. The blond slumped weakly against him, his breathing labored. Vin held and supported him, one hand absently massaging the heaving back. When it seemed the older man was steady enough, he half-carried him the few steps to a tree and lowered him to lean against the trunk.
Squatting down next to his friend, Tanner eased back the man's shirt and checked the bandage. Seeing that it was stained with fresh blood, he cursed, sliding a fresh cloth pad against the wound. Trying to ignore the grunt of pain, he gently lifted the other man's head, tilting it back so he could see the blond's face. Larabee's eyes were glassy and unfocused, his face the color of wet adobe. Lines of pain drew his lips into a hard line, and pinched the angular planes of the handsome visage.
Retrieving his canteen, Vin wet his kerchief and stroked it across that pain-ravaged face. Chris relaxed a little, the cool water easing his discomfort for the moment. The tracker held the canteen so Larabee could drink, reluctantly taking it back before the other man became ill. The injured man sighed, but said nothing. Then, Tanner jumped at a faint sound behind him; his hand going for his hogleg.
"Fergit it," a hard, gravely voice warned.
Easing his hand away from his sides, Vin looked at Chris. The older man's eyes were fixed on a spot behind him. He saw the pain and weariness pushed aside by anger.
"Kearny," Larabee growled softly.
"Larabee," the voice answered almost conversationally.
"Never took you...to be such a...coward. Couldn't...e...even face me."
"Ain't no c'ard, I'm smart. Figgered y'd bleed out, 'n I wouldn't have t' risk a bullet."
"Coward," Chris repeated, more strength in his voice now.
"You! Git' 'way from 'm," the man ordered. "Hey, y' deaf 'r somethin'? Move yer sorry ass 'way from Larabee. I'm aimin' t' watch 'm breath 's last."
Tanner and Larabee locked eyes, that unspoken communication of their serving them as always. With a faint nod, Vin moved away from the man in black.
Chris fired, his aim unerring, despite his wound. Kearny fell in a heap just five feet away, a neat little hole appearing in his forehead. Vin stepped over, kicking the man's gun aside. It was unnecessary, the back of the man's head was reduced to so much pulp and gore.
Satisfied that the man no longer posed a threat, Vin returned to where Chris was slumped against the tree trunk. The pistol he slipped to his wounded friend, now was resting in the blond's lap.
"Reckon it was a good thing I brought yer piece along," Tanner said with a broad grin.
"R-reckon so," Chris breathed.
"Well, least I c'n get'cha on int' town without havin' t' be on th' worry. Don't think y' need t' be thinkin' a ridin' alone th' rest a th' way, though."
Hazel eyes glared, but he finally conceded the necessity. He was bleeding again, and wracked with pain and fever. With a weak nod, he allowed Vin to pull him to his feet and help him onto Pony's back. Tanner stepped up behind him, wrapping one arm carefully around the other man's chest before he led them off, with Peso trotting along beside them. he would ask one of the others to retrieve Kearny and his horse.
"Sh-shot him...killed his br...other back in Missouri," Chris mumbled as he leaned back against the man behind him.
"They lookin' t' make names for themselves?" Vin guessed, knowing enough of Larabee's background to know it wasn't unlikely. Nodding, the blond drifted into unconsciousness, secure in the sharpshooter's arms.
They rode as quickly as possible, but it seemed to take days to reach the town. Tanner sighed in relief at the sight of the dusty little cluster of buildings. Shifting his hold slightly, he nudged Chris carefully. "Y' still with me pard?"
"Mmm," Larabee nodded, far too exhausted to do more than that.
"What's the verdict, Doc?" Vin asked Nathan Jackson, as he emerged from his little clinic. The three hours since he called for help outside the clinic, seemed like six, even with the other peacekeepers waiting.Buck appeared at his side before the sound died, reaching up to take Chris from him. A flurry of excitement followed, as they carried Larabee up the stairs and into the clinic. Nathan enlisted Josiah's help and dismissed the others to wait on the landing.
"He'll be flat of his back for the next weekor so, but we got the bullet out and the bleeding stopped. Stubborn cuss'll probably be back on his feet and glarin' in a couple of weeks."
As Nathan began speaking, the others began to relax and smile. By the time he finished, the relief was palpable. Vin Tanner's face was beaming, a broad, if tired, smile on his handsome face.
"Can I see 'm a minute Nathan?" Tanner asked quietly.
Sighing and shaking his head, Jackson said, "don't see it doin' any good to say no. Y'all can poke your heads in and tell him you'll see him tomorrow. I want him sleepin' and it ain't gonna happen if you're all huddled around him."
The men noddedand approached the door. Buck and JD slipped in first, letting Chris know they would go check on his livestock and bring Kearny and his horse back to town. Next, Ezra stepped inside to pay his respects. For once finding himself at a loss for words, he simply promised to keep a watch on the town and visit when Chris was feeling better.
Entering last, a nearly exhausted Tanner perched on the edge of the bed. Chris' eyes opened slowly at the shift of the mattress. He smiled up at the younger man and lifted one hand toward him. Vin Took the proffered hand clasping it in their familiar grip. Chris nodded, saying softly, "thanks pard."
With a broad smile, Vin nodded in return. With a final squeeze, he lowered the blond's arm back to the bed and watched him drift back to sleep.