Vin Tanner glanced nervously around the narrow canyon walls. Something didn't feel right but he couldn't put his hands on what it was. He turned his head, looking over his shoulder at his companion.
"Something wrong, Vin?" Larabee asked as he followed the trackers gaze up the steep incline. The sun was nearly down and lengthening shadows made it difficult to see.
"Not sure," Tanner said softly, his eyes once more raking over the upper edges of the canyon wall. A small movement on a ledge approximately fifteen feet above and to the right of him caught and held his attention. He felt his horse tremble as it tried to move faster. "Easy, boy," he whispered calmly, his eyes never leaving the ridge.
"What is it, Vin?" Larabee asked as his own horse's skittishness made him glance around.
Tanner caught site of the large cat just as it readied itself to pounce. The low growl a warning that it was about to do just that. "We gotta get outta here!" he shouted as he spurred his horse forward.
Chris trusted the tracker's instincts. Hearing the nervous tension in the man's voice he drove his heels into the horse and followed the younger man. He looked up at the ledge as he passed it, his eyes meeting those of a snarling Cougar.
Tanner reached the outer rim of the canyon wall, stopping as he heard the ferocious growl echoing around him. He turned back to see where his friend was, just in time to see the cat leap at him. "Chris!" Tanner cried, pulling his mare's leg from the saddle and turning it on the scene before him. 'Please, God, don't let me miss,' he prayed as he slowly depressed the trigger.
Larabee knew he wasn't going to make it. He tried to pull his gun from it's holster but one hundred pounds of cat impacted with his body, knocking him from the saddle. The world around him disappeared as he struggled to keep the gnashing teeth from sinking into his neck. He held his right arm up and screamed as the jaws locked around his forearm. He fought with everything he had to keep the cat from sinking its teeth into his neck, but was unable to move his left arm. He felt the animal's claws as they raked along his legs and chest. The cougar's face was close enough to his own that the gunslinger could smell the fetid breath. It reminded him of rotting meat left in the sun too long.
It felt like an eternity but was actually less than a minute, when Chris heard the sharp crack of Vin's mare's leg, and the animal went slack above him. The head dropped to his chest and Chris stared into the lifeless feline eyes.
Larabee tried to breath but the heavy weight on his chest made it almost impossible. Dark spots flashed before his eyes as he struggled to move the dead animal.
Tanner grabbed the cougar and pulled it off his friend. He gasped at the ragged tears in the gunslingers dark clothing, glimpsing blood covered wounds underneath. "Ah, Hell, Larabee," he said as he noticed the lines of pain on the handsome face.
"Hell's r...right," the injured man groaned as he tried to sit up.
"Take it easy, Cowboy. Ya ain't goin' nowhere right now," the tracker soothed as he began removing the gunslinger's duster.
"Oh, shit, Vin," Larabee gasped as the younger man lifted him to a sitting position in order to remove the long black duster.
A cry from the injured man made the tracker stop as he realized the elbow was bent at an awkward angle. "Sorry, Pard, looks like ya broke yer elbow when ya fell and I know this hurts but I need ta see how much damage it did to the rest a ya," Tanner explained as he pulled the duster from the injured man's left arm, gently placing the broken limb back on the ground. Blood soaked through the right sleeve of the dark shirt.
"L...lotta d...damage by the f...feel of things,' the gunslinger said through gritted teeth. His eyes clenched tight as sweat beaded on his forehead.
"Yeah, I bet it feels pretty bad, Pard," Tanner agreed as he gently placed Larabee back on the ground. "I'm just gonna get one a the blankets to put ya on. Ya jest lie still till I get things ready," Tanner felt the trembling in the older man's body.
"Damn, h...hurts," Larabee gasped as pain flared from the wounds on his chest, arms and legs.
"I know. You jest hang on and I'll get ya fixed up in no time."
"K," Larabee whispered. The mind numbing pain in his chest terrified the gunslinger. He could feel the burning deep inside as if someone had made him swallow a white-hot poker. He turned onto his side and tried to curl into a ball, crying out as pain radiated from his left ankle up to his thigh. He wrapped his right arm protectively around his chest as he tried to stave off the agony. Every move he made caused his breath to catch in his throat as waves of pain washed over his body. "Get a g...grip, Larabee, it ain't that b...bad," he gasped, not realizing he'd muttered the words aloud.
"Who ya tryin' ta convince, Cowboy?" Tanner asked as he spread the blanket next to the injured man.
"N...not s...sure," Larabee's body trembled as he felt Tanner's hands on his shoulders. "D...don't,' he cried softly.
"Come on, Chris, I know it hurts but I gotta clean ya up. Lord only knows what that cat's been into. Ya get an infection in there and it's gonna get a whole lot worse real fast. Now let me take a look," Tanner ordered as he continued to pull the gunslinger onto his back. Vin could see the spreading bloodstain on his friend's chest and knew he had to get the bleeding stopped and the wounds cleaned and covered. "Gonna have ta get yer shirt and pants off, Cowboy," he explained.
"Ya ain't my type, T...Tanner," Larabee gasped, trying to ease the tension he felt emanating from the younger man.
"Ain't that the truth," Tanner laughed. 'Damn,' he thought as he got his first glimpse of the damage done to his friend's chest. Two deep furrows, one on each side, ran down the gunslingers chest, from his shoulder to just above the navel. Smaller marks were present but most of the blood seemed to be oozing from these two wounds. The area around the wounds already showed signs of swelling and a raw redness was evident at the edges. Tanner knew he had to stop the bleeding but he also needed to see how bad the wounds in the gunslinger's arms and leg were. He finished removing the shirt and could see the damage done by the animal's teeth tearing at Larabee's forearm. He took a clean bandage from his saddlebag and pressed it to the wounds on his chest.
"Ah! V...Vin!" Larabee tried desperately to get away from the pressure being exerted on his ravaged chest. "S...stop," he said as he tried in vain to flick the younger man's hands away.
"Can't stop, Chris. Gotta fix ya up," the tracker said worriedly. He left the bandage in place and turned his attention to the puncture marks on the right arm. Once more he took a bandage and wrapped it tightly around the wounds, putting as much pressure as he could on them.
"V...Vin, stop. G...God, that h...hurts," the pale form struggled weakly but Tanner kept the pressure on the wounds.
"Got a lot more ta do yet, Larabee. Yer jest gonna have ta take it till it gets done," the tracker said as he placed the gunslingers arm back down on the blanket. Slowly moving down to the man's waist Vin began pulling off the dust and blood covered jeans. The cries of protest and pain from the injured man fell on deaf ears as Tanner assessed the damage done to the blond's legs. The heavy denim jeans protected the man's legs to some extent and Vin was grateful. Both legs were covered in small shallow claw marks. His only real worries being a deep four-inch gash just above the gunslinger's right knee and the awkward angle of his left ankle.
Vin covered the gash with another bandage, once more putting pressure on it to stop the bleeding. "How ya doin', Cowboy?"
"F...fine," the blond ground out.
"Ain't much of a liar, Larabee," Tanner told him as he tore a strip from his blanket and wrapped it around the leg wounds.
"B...been told t...that more'n once," Larabee's weak voice rasped. He licked his lips in an effort to moisten them.
"Here," the younger man said. He lifted the gunslingers head and helped him drink from the canteen.
Chris gratefully swallowed the warm water, relishing the returning moisture to his arid throat. "T...thanks, whiskey'd be b...better," he said, his voice laced with pain.
"I bet it would, Pard, but I'm gonna need the whiskey to clean the wounds. Ain't got enough fer ya ta drink," Tanner informed him.
"Shit, T...Tanner, ain't ya got any g...good news?"
Worried blue eyes gazed deeply into dazed green ones. A small smile adorned the face of the younger man as he spoke. "The cat won't be botherin' ya no more."
Larabee couldn't stop the laugh that spilled from his throat at the trackers serious expression as he pointed to the dead animal. "Don't spose it will," he said, groaning as his chest came to life and the pain seemed to double. He tried once more to turn onto his side and curl into a ball but was prevented from doing so by Tanner's strong hands.
"Chris, I know it hurts, Pard and I wish the hell Nathan was here but he's not and I gotta clean out those wounds and set yer arm and ankle. Looks like ya broke em both when ya fell. Think ya can stay still a little longer?"
"Don't s...seem to h...have much choice."
Tanner removed the bandage that lay across the blond's chest. He poured water from his canteen directly unto the wounds, closing his ears to the almost inaudible cries of pain emanating from the blond. Once the blood was washed away he looked directly at the gunslinger's face. "This is gonna hurt like a son of a bitch, Cowboy."
"Just get it over with," Larabee grated out.
"Try and hold still, Pard," Tanner said as he poured whiskey onto a clean bandage and placed it over the wound.
Chris couldn't take his eyes off the cloth as Tanner lowered it towards the wounds on his chest. He knew the agony this was gonna cause but his body reacted instinctively and he tried to push the burning cloth away. "Godammit, Vin," he screamed as Tanner held the whiskey soaked material in place. "H...hurts," Larabee mumbled as he finally lost consciousness.
"Gotta be done, Pard," Tanner said as he lifted the now un-protesting body. He wrapped a strip of blanket around the blond's chest to keep the whiskey soaked bandage in place. Grateful that the other man had finally succumbed to unconsciousness he quickly and methodically cleaned the remainder of the wounds.
The tracker searched the area until he found four good sizes sticks to use for splints. "Sorry, Cowboy. Looks like I'm gonna cause ya a little more pain," he apologized as he began setting and splinting the broken limbs. Finally finished, he sat back on his heels and looked at the pale figure before him. "Damn, Pard, wish ta hell I could do somethin' bout the pain yer gonna feel," he whispered.
Reaching down he took the remainder of his blanket and draped it over the almost nude body of his friend, tucking the ends underneath in an effort to keep him warm.
Tanner stood up and looked around the area. Darkness had nearly taken over and he realized he had to get a fire started. He knew how quickly the temperature could drop out here and he had to make sure Chris was kept warm.
He looked at the dead carcass of the cougar and knew he'd have to get rid of it before other predators caught scent of it. He tied a rope around its hindquarters and climbed on his own horse. He dragged the animal a short distance from where he and Larabee would be spending the night and left it by a pile of small rocks. He swung his horse around and hurried back to his friend.
He knelt beside the injured man and placed his hand to his forehead. He felt a little heat and knew a fever was building. "Ya gotta hang on, Cowboy," he ordered.
"Vin?" green eyes opened to narrowed slots.
"Yeah, it's me, Chris. How're ya feelin'?"
"Not feelin' too good right now, Pard," Larabee's voice gave credence to his words as he closed his eyes once more.
"I'm gonna get a fire goin', Cowboy. Ya jest lie there and let me take care a things, Ok?"
"D...don't seem ta have much c...choice," the gunslinger groaned. "T...tired."
"I'll let ya sleep as soon as ya drink a little more a this water, Chris," Tanner said as he once more lifted the blond's head.
Chris swallowed a small amount of the liquid before turning away as his nauseas stomach rebelled. "Enough," he mumbled as he drifted off.
"Ya go ahead an sleep, Cowboy. Gonna be a long road back ta Four Corners but I'll get ya there," Tanner swore as he searched the area for firewood.
By the time Chris Larabee opened his eyes again a fire was burning before him. The sickly odor that permeated the dessert air told him that Vin was steeping one of Nathan's teas. He tried to lift his head, groaning as the world around him tilted wildly.
"How ya doin', Pard?" Tanner asked from beside him.
"N...not too damn good, Vin," he answered honestly.
"Got somethin' here that should help ya with the pain," Tanner told him.
"Nathan's s...skunk juice?"
Tanner laughed at the rebellious tone in the older man's voice. "Fraid so, Cowboy, and ya ain't gonna give me no grief bout drinkin' it. Now open up," the tracker ordered as he lifted the sweat soaked blond head.
Chris swallowed as much of the tea as he could before turning away. He clutched weakly at his chest as a deep burning pain seemed to come to life. He gasped and laid his head back against the trackers arm. His nauseas stomach suddenly rebelled against the warm tea and he bent across Tanner's body, losing the contents in a thin stream.
The tracker held the injured man close as his fevered body shivered against the chilly night air. "Easy, Cowboy, I got ya," he said calmly as the other man shuddered and lay still.
"Gonna have ta tote yer sorry ass back ta town, Larabee. Ya sure as hell ain't gonna be ridin' yer horse tomorrow," Tanner said as he held the injured man, desperately searching for any sign of life in the too still body. He held his hand against the gunslinger's chest, relieved to feel the shallow rise and fall as he took air into his lungs. "Don't ya worry none, Chris, I'll get ya back to Nathan."
"Hey, Buck, any idea when Chris and Vin'll be back?"
"Should be back sometime late tomorrow," Wilmington answered as he smiled at the two women walking past the jail.
"Think they had any trouble in Kettleston?"
"Yer kiddn'! Right, Kid? All they had to do was drop off some papers for the judge. Ain't nothin' in that tiny town that could give them trouble."
"Ah, Mr. Wilmington. I beg to differ. This is Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner we're talking about. They seem to attract the wrong element," Ezra Standish declared as he shuffled a new deck of cards, his eyes searching for a new mark.
"You're one to talk, Ez. I hate to cut this short but I see Miss Blossom and she's all alone," Wilmington grinned.
"Oh, Lord, and you said I'm one to talk about trouble," Standish declared.
"Miss Blossom's no trouble. No trouble at all," the ladies man laughed as he walked away, thoughts of Larabee and Tanner quickly left him as he smiled at the pretty woman across the street.
Vin Tanner secured the travois to the back of Larabee's gelding. He'd spent the night building the conveyance and holding Larabee as he became increasingly restless and cried out in his sleep. He'd managed to get some water and a small amount of Nathan's tea into the injured man but he knew it wasn't enough. The fever continued to rise during the night and the tracker knew it would soon reach dangerous levels.
The raspy voice sounded lost and alone, something Vin Tanner never expected to hear from the older man. He hurriedly knelt beside Larabee brushing back the hair from his forehead, "Mornin', Cowboy, Ya ready ta go home?"
"T...think so. G...gonna need help g...gettin' on my horse though."
"Ya ain't ridin' no horse, Larabee, yer gonna be lyin' on a travois. Don't even think about arguin', specially after I stayed up all night to make the damn thing."
"K...kinda grouchy a...aren't ya?" Larabee asked.
"Comes from buttin' heads with a stubborn gunslinger," Tanner grinned. "Now I gotta check yer wounds. Think ya can stay still again?"
"N...not much c...choice," Larabee groaned as the tracker removed the bandages from his right arm. "How's it look?" he asked.
"Not as bad as I thought," Tanner answered honestly. Pleased with the small amount of blood that showed on the bandage. He cleaned the puncture marks with water, placing another whiskey-covered bandage over the top. He continued down to the wounds on Larabee's legs and repeated the process there. He knew the long gash needed stitches but didn't want to do it unless he had to. The wounds from an animal such as a cougar could fester quickly because of the dead meat the animals consumed. He left the broken limbs alone as there was nothing more he could do about them.
Chris held his breath in an effort to ride out the agony caused by the cleaning and the whiskey covered bandages. His right hand was clenched in a tight fist as the tracker turned his attention to the wounds on his chest. "Arg, V...Vin, h...hurts," he groaned as the bandages were removed.
'Oh, damn, Larabee, wish the hell Nathan was here,' he thought as he saw the blood begin to well up around the furrows again. "Chris, I'm gonna need ta clean this real good, Pard."
"T...thought as much. Damn t...things burnin', Vin. F...feels like my c...chests on f...fire," Larabee gasped as he felt the water run over his wounds.
"Hold on, Pard. I gotta pour the whiskey directly on here."
"K," the blond rasped as Tanner poured the whiskey over the long wounds. He cried out as the liquor worked it's magic, cleaning the dirt and grime from the open claw marks. "Shit, t...that hurt," he cried as Tanner finished his ministrations and replace the old bandages with new.
"Ya still with me, Cowboy?" Tanner asked.
"I t...think so," the blond answered, his voice once more edged with pain.
"I need ya ta drink this for me," Tanner ordered as he lifted the blond head and forced the noxious liquid past his lips.
Larabee swallowed automatically, coughing as the tea hit the back of his parched throat. "Enough, Vin," he groaned as his injured body protested the coughing.
"Alright, Cowboy, ya jest rest fer a minute while I bring the horses over," Tanner ordered. He didn't wait for an answer as he hurried to bring the travois closer. "Chris?"
"I'm gonna lift ya now and I need ya to let me do all the work. Ya hear me?"
"I h...hear you, V...Vin."
"Jest hold on a little longer," Tanner told him as he pulled the blanket off his friends battered and torn body. He gently reached under the lean gunslinger and lifted with a strength he didn't realize he possessed. Tears of frustration welled up in his eyes as he tried unsuccessfully to ignore the gasping moans coming from the blond. He carefully placed the man on the conveyance and gently patted his right shoulder. "All done, Chris."
"V...Vin, I...I'm gonna b...be sick," Larabee gasped as the younger man helped him lean over the side.
Tanner shook his head, knowing how dangerous dehydration was for someone in Chris's condition. He reached around and picked up the cup with the remainder of the willow bark tea. "Here, Chris, drink this and we'll get moving."
"No," Larabee groaned.
"Ya don't have a choice, Cowboy. Now open up and take it," the tracker ordered as he placed the cup in front of the gunslinger's mouth.
Larabee stared at his friend through hooded eyes. He sipped at the tea, knowing the younger man was right and he didn't have much choice. He knew from experience the tea would help ease the pain and even help him sleep. He was surprised when Tanner removed the cup and tucked a blanket around him.
"Chris," I'm gonna have ta tie you on here so's ya don't go falling off."
"K," the blond moaned, closing his eyes and waiting for the tea to take affect, wishing instead he had some of Nathan's laudanum. He felt a gentle hand on his right shoulder and opened his eyes.
"Chris, ya need anything jest call out."
"I w...will," Larabee said and let his eyes slide shut before the younger man could read the pain in them.
Tanner stood up and climbed on his own horse. Taking the reins from Larabee's horse he slowly started forward knowing every bump in the road was going to be pure agony on his friend.