Tanner instantly pulled the horses to a stop. They'd been making steady progress for more than six hours, stopping only long enough to give Larabee a drink. He wasn't taking in much but even the small amount he was taking would help for a while. He hurried to the travois and knelt beside his friend, canteen in hand. "Here, Chris," he said as he lifted his friend's head and helped him drink a small amount of liquid. "Are ya alright?"
Tanner looked at his friend, fighting to keep the fear that one word invoked in him. It was hard to get Chris Larabee to admit something was wrong and this admission came as a shock to the younger man. "What's wrong?" he asked.
"C...chest," Larabee answered, moaning deep in his throat.
"Let me take a look," Tanner pulled back the blanket and removed the bandages from the wounds. The raw edges were a little red but otherwise looked the same as when he'd changed them earlier. "I'm gonna clean them again, Chris."
Larabee's answer was a painful groan as he remembered the burning the whiskey would cause. "Wish I could d...drink the damn s...stuff stead a wastin' it," he sighed.
Tanner grinned as he took the whiskey flask and poured a small amount on the new bandages. He knew he'd have to start tearing up his extra shirt soon to keep the wounds clean. "I wouldn't call this wastin' it, Cowboy." Carefully he placed the bandage over the wounds. "All done, Cowboy. It's time we got back on the road."
"K," the blond answered weakly.
"Think ya can drink a little more water for me?"
Larabee nodded his head and drank from the canteen. He managed a couple of small sips before his stomach protested and he turned away.
Tanner took a sip from the canteen and then stood up. "Try'n sleep, Cowboy, we'll be home before ya know it."
The tracker turned back worriedly, "Yeah?"
"I...if I d...don't m...make..."
"I ain't listenin' ta that shit, Larabee. Yer gonna make it and be glarin' at the rest of us in no time. Nathan'll shoot me if'n I don't take care a ya. So ya jest don't talk like that and we'll both live! Ok?"
"Alright, Vin," the injured gunslinger managed only a slight nod as his eyes slid closed and he once more slipped into unconsciousness.
"Yer gonna be alright, Cowboy," Vin promised, wiping the sweat from the fevered man's forehead. He climbed back on his horse and once more started them forward.
Darkness had completely taken over the night sky when he pulled the horses to a stop by a small creek. Larabee remained unconscious the whole time and his fever continued to rise. He knew the water in the creek would be cool and he'd pushed on even when he could barely see anything in front of him.
He ground tied the horses in a patch of grass along the edge of the creek, making sure they were close enough to drink from the stream. Slowly he lowered the travois to the ground and pulled it away from the horses. Larabee still hadn't moved or showed any sign of coming to. Vin wasn't sure if he should be relieved or worried.
The tracker quickly started a fire, and then moved the saddles from the two horses. He turned his attention to the injured man, surprised to see two green eyes watching him. "Hey, Cowboy, how're ya feelin'?"
"Fine," Larabee answered.
"Ya know I'd believe that if it wasn't accompanied by that moan," Tanner told him.
"You don't l...look too good y...yourself, Tanner," Larabee painfully quipped.
"What do ya expect havin' ta carry yer sorry butt all over the place," the tracker laughed in spite of the situation.
"Get some s...sleep, Vin, "I'll take f...first watch," Larabee ground out, a weak grin on his face as he tried to relieve the tension on the younger man's face.
"Sure, Cowboy, I'll tie ya to a tree so's ya can stay awake."
"Thanks for what?"
"You s...saved my life back t...there. If you hadn't s...shot the damn cat I'd be d...dead right now," Larabee coughed.
"I shoulda seen the cat and warned ya before it was too late," Tanner denied. "I shoulda sensed it."
"Not y...your fault."
"Yes it was, Chris. I shoulda known it was there," Tanner said as he shook his head angrily.
"It's ok, Chris. I'm jest cranky like ya said. Here, got ya some cool water," Tanner said as he held a cup to Larabee's mouth. He was surprised as the gunslinger eagerly drank half the water before turning away.
"Thanks," Larabee gasped as pain radiated out from the wounds on his body.
"I'm gonna make ya some more a Nathan's tea, Cowboy."
The tracker put the water on to boil and returned to the injured man. He felt his forehead, biting his lip as he felt the heat radiating there. He ripped his clean shirt into strips and began bathing the fevered brow.
Larabee felt the cool cloth as it slid across his face. He welcomed the touch and moaned softly when the cloth was removed.
"Easy, Cowboy, I'm jest makin' it cool again," Tanner reassured his friend as he placed the cloth on his head once more. "Chris, I gotta look at the wounds again."
Larabee heard the regret in his friends voice and nodded his head slowly. "Go ahead," he muttered.
Once again ignoring the weak cries from the other man, Tanner cleaned and dressed the ragged wounds. By the time he was done Larabee was gasping for breath and fighting to stay conscious.
The tracker poured the steeped willow bark tea into a cup and placed it aside to cool a little. Knowing there was nothing more he could do for his friend he walked to the horses and brushed them down. By the time he was finished the tea was lukewarm and he sat beside his friend. "Chris?"
"I need ya ta drink this," Tanner urged, lifting the man's head so he could sip the tea.
Larabee slowly sipped the offering, grateful for the moisture in his dry mouth. "T...thanks, Vin," sighing as he closed his eyes once more.
"Anytime, Cowboy," Tanner swore. He leaned back against his bedroll and slowly let exhaustion take over.
The tracker came to with a start, unsure what was wrong. He searched the area, trying to figure out what sound woke him. The silence of the predawn was once more interrupted by a pitiful moan from the man beside him. He reached out and touched the man's arm. "Hey, Cowboy, you awake?"
"Y...yeah. S...sorry didn't m...mean to w...wake you."
"It's ok, Chris. Slept too long anyway. Bout time we got started. How're ya feelin'?"
"F...feel like s...shit, Pard," Larabee answered honestly.
"Reckon ya do, Cowboy," Tanner said as he got up, filled the cup from the creek and returned to the injured man. "Drink some of this and I'll get things ready to leave."
Larabee took a couple of tiny sips and then shook his head. "N...no m...more," he gasped as he felt his stomach rebelling.
"Alright, Chris, just relax while I get things ready."
The gunslinger closed his eyes, trying to ride out the pain in his body. He had no idea how much time passed but he was unable to sleep. He coughed and groaned as he felt the agony flare in his chest. "Ah, damn, Vin," he cried, coughing again.
"Easy, Cowboy," Tanner knelt beside his friend, placing a soothing cool cloth on his forehead.
"T...think it's b...bleeding again, V...Vin," Larabee muttered.
"Let me take a look," the tracker carefully pulled back the bandages and swore loudly. Fresh blood welled up from the centre of the furrows. Tanner hurriedly grabbed the last strips of his shirt and the last of the whiskey. He worked steadily and efficiently until he had the blood stopped and bandages wrapped tightly around the wounds. By the time he was finished a glistening sheen of perspiration covered Larabee's body.
The gunslinger tried to be still through the trackers ministrations but finally lost consciousness as Tanner lifted him forward. "I'll get ya back ta Nathan," the younger man swore as he hurried to saddle the horses.
An hour later, with dawn just showing her pale streaks, Tanner had them on the road. He'd managed to get Chris to drink more of the willow bark tea, but the gunslinger quickly lost it again.
Through the long day and well into the night Vin kept a steady pace, knowing his friend's life depended on getting him home. He stopped and checked the blond constantly, relieved to see the chest wounds didn't bleed any more, worried because the fever that racked his body didn't get any better. He forced the gunslinger to take small sips from the canteen, even though he never fully regained consciousness.
He breathed a sigh of relief as he spotted the small fires burning in the streets of the tiny town of Four Corners. "We're almost there, Cowboy," he called over his shoulder, not really expecting an answer and surprised when he heard a mumbled 'K' from the injured man. He stopped the horses and hurried back to his friend's side. "Think you can drink a little more water?"
Larabee nodded and opened dry, cracked lips to take a tiny amount of water. Vin was grateful he was still managing to get the older man to take some. He also knew it wasn't enough as evidenced by the diminished perspiration and the dry lips. "I'll get ya to Nathan's and he'll fix ya right up, Cowboy," Tanner assured his friend.
"T...thanks, Vin," Larabee brightened a little as he realized just how close to home they were.
"Anytime, Cowboy," Tanner said as he remounted and led the horses towards town.
"Might I be of assistance, Mr. Tanner?" Standish asked as he noticed the familiar form riding towards him.
"Ez, get Nathan. Chris is hurt bad," the tracker called, his voice shaky with fear and exhaustion as he realized he'd managed to get them both home alive.
"Right away, Mr. Tanner," Standish rushed towards the saloon where the others gathered for a drink before calling it a night.
Vin continued towards the livery and Nathan's clinic. He pulled to a halt at the hitching post and hurried to the back of Larabee's gelding. "We're home, Chris," he said.
"H...home," Larabee whispered gratefully, a sigh escaping his lips as he heard racing footsteps.
"What happened?" Jackson asked as he knelt beside the Gunslinger.
"Cougar attack two days ago," Tanner answered. "He's got claw marks on his chest and legs, teeth marks on his right arm, broke his left ankle and arm as well."
"Damn, stud, you don't do anything the easy way do you?" Wilmington asked.
"There's time enough for talk later. Josiah, unhook the travois and you and Buck carry him up to my clinic," Jackson ordered. His healer's mind kicked in as he gave orders to the others. "JD, see if Inez has any ice. Ezra, bring me some water. Vin, you look like you're about to fall over."
"I'm fine, Nathan...."
"Vin, you got him here and now you need to let me take care of him. You go get something to eat and then I'll let you spend the night in the clinic but right now I haven't got time to worry about you. Now go."
"G...go, V...Vin. I'll be h...here w...when you get b...back," Larabee assured the younger man.
"Vin, I owe you my l...life," Larabee mumbled as Buck and Josiah lifted the travois. He lifted his right arm, holding back the cry of pain and grasped the younger man's forearm. "Thanks, Cowboy."
"Anytime," Tanner swore as he watched his friend being carried up the stairs. He ran his hands over his tired face as his shoulders slumped with a bone weary tiredness. He sat on the stairs and closed his eyes as the events of the last few days caught up with him.
Tanner looked at the ladies man as he came down the stairs. "Is he ok, Buck?"
"He's still awake. Nathan just gave him some Laudanum to ease the pain. How bout you, Pard? Are you ok?"
"Jest a little tired, Buck."
"More than a little I'd say. I told Nathan you wouldn't leave. Why don't you go on up and sit on the landing while I get Inez to fix you something to eat?"
"Thanks, Buck," Tanner mumbled tiredly. He made his way up the stairs just as JD and Ezra returned.
Morning found four men anxiously waiting for word on the injured man. Sanchez kept them informed from time to time, talking quietly when he noticed the sleeping form of the tracker.
Nathan Jackson finished putting the final stitches in the leg wounds. The Laudanum and the constant pain he'd been in kept Larabee under. The wounds in the chest were clean but he'd lost count of how many stitches it took to close the deep furrows. Finally sitting back in his chair he breathed a sigh of relief before stepping out on the landing.
"Nathan?" Wilmington said as Tanner came to his feet.
"How is our illustrious leader, Mr. Jackson?" Standish asked.
"He's still sleeping. Gonna be doin' a lot of that I expect. Got a lot of healing to do."
"Vin, ya saved his life. Ya kept the wounds clean and stopped them from becoming infected. Ya did a fine job a settin' his arm and leg too."
"Should never have happened. I shoulda known the cat was there," Tanner hissed softly.
"Vin, ya can't know everything. Just be glad he's alive and will be alright. Ya'd all best get some rest cause I'm gonna need ya ta sit with him. We all know what he's like when he's in my clinic. He's gonna fight me every step of the way once he starts to heal."
"Nathan, I'll stay with him," Tanner said.
"Vin, ya look like death warmed over. No, ya need ta get some rest yourself. One of the other's will stay with him."
"Nathan, I'm fine. Slept the night away right here," the tracker indicated the chair.
"Vin, I'll make a deal with ya. Ya can stay in the clinic but ya'd best catch some more sleep on the cot. Otherwise I won't let ya stay."
"Alright, Nathan," Tanner agreed, walking towards the open door, his body aching more than he'd let on.
"I'll stay with them," Wilmington offered.
"Okay, Buck, just make sure ya come get me if either of them needs anything. Chris has a bit of a fever so keep wiping him down."
"I will, Nate, get some rest," the ladies man said with a grin. He stepped into the clinic, his eyes falling on the two men. One lying so still, pale and quiet. The other just as still, pale, and quiet but sitting in the chair beside the bed. "Vin, the cots over there."
"I know, Buck, I jest needed to make sure he's ok."
"I'll stay with him, Vin. Now get over there and lie down."
"Wake me if..."
"Don't worry I'll wake you when he wakes."
"You're welcome. Now get some sleep," Wilmington ordered, smiling as the younger man dropped tiredly onto the narrow cot. It wasn't long before his even breathing joined that of Larabee's and the two men slept.
The next three days passed in a haze for the six lawmen. They divided the time between their patrols and staying with the injured peacekeeper. The bite marks on his arm had shown signs of infection and his body burned with fever. Jackson hadn't left his side except to get some much-needed rest.
Jackson and Tanner took turns sleeping on the tiny cot. The other four stopping by regularly to check on their three friends. They bathed Larabee's sweat soaked, fevered body using cool water, forcing him to drink whenever he opened his eyes.
Chris opened his eyes, glancing around in confusion, wondering why he hurt so much. His eyes fell on the man sitting in the chair beside the bed. "V...Vin."
His voice was barely a whisper but it was all the tracker needed to open his eyes and smile at his friend. "Morning, Cowboy, bout time ya decided to join us," Tanner said as he lifted the blond head and helped him sip water from a glass.
"How l...long?" Larabee asked as he struggled to sit up.
"Easy there, Cowboy. I don't think ya oughta be doin' that right now. Bust any a them stitches and Nathan'll have both our heads."
"Ya got that right, Vin," Jackson said as he entered the room carrying a bucket of fresh water. "How're ya feelin', Chris?"
"F...fine," was the weak reply.
"Sure ya are. Now how are ya feelin'?
"Bout as w...weak as a newborn c...calf," Larabee answered honestly.
"Figured as much. Vin, go see if Miss Inez can make some broth while I check Chris's wounds."
Tanner met Larabee's eyes neither one saying a word as the tracker left the room.
"You're a lucky man, Chris," Jackson said as he sat in the chair by the bed.
"I know, Nate," Larabee groaned as the healer lifted the bandages from his chest.
Jackson finished examining his patient just as Tanner returned with the broth and five other men in tow.
"How ya feelin', Stud?" Wilmington asked.
"F...fine, Buck," Larabee answered automatically.
"Sure you are, Mr. Larabee. You're the picture of health. No one would guess that you went a couple of rounds with a ravenous cougar," Standish grinned, showing his gold tooth in the process.
"Josiah, lift him forward so's I can put some pillows behind him," Jackson ordered.
Larabee groaned as Josiah gently lifted him forward, breathing deeply in an effort to keep the darkness at bay.
"Breathe slow, Chris," Jackson warned as he wiped the beads of sweat from the gunslinger's forehead. When the blond's breathing was under control the healer helped him drink the warm broth.
"Thanks," Larabee said as he emptied the contents of the bowl.
"One more thing to drink, Chris," Jackson said as he hovered over Larabee's pale form.
"What?" the blond grumbled tiredly, his face lined with pain.
"Open up," Jackson placed a cup in front of the injured man's mouth. Larabee opened automatically and swallowed the medicine. "Get some rest now, Chris."
"Thanks, Nathan," Larabee whispered as his eyes grew heavy. He felt the others removing the pillows and settling him under the blankets.
"Get some rest, Brother."
"I'll be back later, Stud."
"Me too, Chris," Dunne said.
"Sleep well, Mr. Larabee."
"Alright you fellas get outta here. He's sleeping and Lord knows he needs it."
"I'll stay with him, Nate."
"Figured as much, Vin," Jackson chuckled as he ushered the others out the door.
Larabee slept most of the time for the next four days, remaining awake long enough to drink whatever offering the healer gave him. The one constant through it all was Vin Tanner, whether sitting by his side or sleeping on the cot across the room.
The gunslinger tried to sit up in the bed, groaning as he felt the pains of his injured body.
"Let me help you, Cowboy."
Chris nodded gratefully as the tracker leaned him forward and placed extra pillows behind him. "T...thanks," he gasped breathlessly.
"Anytime," Tanner assured him. "Can I get you anything?"
The sharpshooter placed a glass in front of the blond's mouth and waited for him to drink his fill. Silence reined supreme over the clinic for the space of ten minutes. Neither man needing words to express their feelings.
"Vin, I owe you my life," Larabee said, breaking the silence.
"I almost cost..."
"Don't say that, Vin. There's no way you could have known that cougar was there."
"I'm a tracker. I shoulda known."
"I'm a gunslinger, Vin, but I don't win every fight. I've lost a few even got the scars to prove it. What I'm trying to say is we all make mistakes. Tracking is hard but you've proven how skilled you are at it time and again. If it wasn't for your skill with that sawed off of yours I'd be dead and that cougar would have a gut full of Larabee hide rather than a head full of Tanner lead."
"I knew I had to make that shot."
"Vin, there's no one else I'd trust to make that shot."
"Thanks, Cowboy," Tanner smiled at Larabee's open admission of his unconditional trust.
Larabee lifted his right arm, ignoring the pain from the bite marks, grasping his friend's forearm tightly. No words were spoken but the friendship the two shared filled the room with its presence. 'I'll watch your back, Pard,' Larabee sent, as his eyes once more grew heavy with sleep.
'I'll watch your back, Cowboy,' Tanner sent back, knowing even in sleep Chris Larabee understood the unspoken vow. He breathed a sigh of relief, content in the knowledge that the gunslinger wouldn't be down for long. He stood and walked to the cot. Sinking down in exhausted relief, he joined his friend in healing sleep.