Disclaimer: Okay...okay, I reckon I've gotta do it. They belong to Mirisch, Trilogy, MGM, Watson, CBS, TNN... and anyone else who made the mistake of not treating the fellas right. I don't lay claim to them, and don't make a cent off writing this stuff. Oh, the lady's my creation, don't borrow her without permission.
Warnings: it's H/C... it's Gen... Vin gets the owwie... Chris delivers the comfort... seems to be a common thread in my stories, huh?
Notes: Written for Jo.
It was supposed to be a nice, easy trip. The two men had been enlisted to take a prisoner to Euba Flats for Judge Travis then take a few days off before returning to Four Corners. Taking the prisoner had been simple, the man hardly speaking for the entire trip. The trial had been quick, the man quickly confessing his guilt and accepting his punishment. It had almost been too easy.
The return trip had begun just as easily, the two peacekeepers enjoying the fine weather as much as the other man's company. Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner rarely needed more than a word or two to convey their thoughts to one another, and this trip was no exception.
But when they reached the dirty little cluster of tents and rough timber shacks known as Belson, everything changed.
They entered the town to find a crowd circled in the street, cries and cheers filling the air. From their vantage points atop the big, black horses, the two men quickly saw the reason for the commotion. Five men were in the center of the crowd, roughly tossing a young woman from one to the other. Her clothes were torn and she was bleeding from a variety of minor wounds. She cried out from time to time as she stumbled from one man to the other, only to be slapped, pinched, hit, clawed, or roughly kissed before being sent to stagger across the dusty street to the next man.
"Ah hell," Vin grumbled angrily at the sight. Turning to his companion, he saw similar feelings reflected in the blond's face. "You grab th' lady an' head outta town, I'll watch yer back."
"Vin - " Larabee's protest was cut off as Tanner dropped to the ground and burst through the crowd, men and women scrambling to get out of his way as he entered the center of the action, firing his hogleg into the air. All Chris could do was to spur Pony into the midst of the dumbfounded townspeople, grab up the battered young woman, pull her across the saddle in front of him, and bolt down the street without his black gelding breaking stride.
While the townspeople struggled to comprehend what had happened, Vin called out, "now y'all jist stand easy. Me 'n m' friend don't take kindly t' watchin' a woman bein' man-handled. Y'all jist back off, 'n we'll be on our way."
"Who th' hell do y' think y'are?" One of the men barked angrily. "Y' ain't got any idea a what y' just done. That there bitch - "
"Now, that ain't no way t' talk 'bout a lady," Vin interrupted.
"Lady, hell! That's nothin' but a stone-cold killer. She's an outlaw, 'n d'serves ever bit a what she got!"
Vin opened his mouth to continue the argument, but was surprised to find himself flying through the air to land hard on the ground. While he tried to clear his startled mind and focus his foggy vision, the sharpshooter felt himself being roughly pulled to his feet and pulled along the dirty street. When he could finally gather his thoughts and see beyond the black spots and fuzzy edges, he realized that he had been striped to the waist and roughly bound between two uprights at the edge of the boardwalk
"Now, y' meddlin' fool, yer gonna find out what we do t' folks that put their noses in where it don't b'long," the man he had been arguing with said. He stepped around to look into the sharpshooter's face. "We're gonna give y' somethin' t' think about th' next time y' think about buttin' in on others business."
Vin glared at the man and opened his mouth to deliver another retort. But the only thing he managed to do was scream as fire burned across his back. He arched forward as far as his bonds would allow, trying desperately to get away from the pain, but was rewarded with yet another rip of pain as the lash of a whip was sent across his back. And another. Another. Another. He stopped counting as darkness closed in around him.
Chris slowed and finally stopped a mile outside of town, only then really considering the woman draped across the saddle before him. She was half-conscious, moaning softly as he pulled her from the horse's back. She lay listlessly in his arms as he placed her on the ground.
Straightening, Larabee scanned the horizon for sign of his friend. He cursed under his breath as he saw no one riding toward them. "Where the hell are you, Tanner?"
"No!" The young woman shot up from the ground with a cry, only to drop to the ground again.
Chris knelt beside her, one hand gently cupping her cheek. "You're all right, Miss. You're safe."
"Wh... who are you?" Her tone was cultured, and reminded the gunman of Ezra Standish.
"My name's Chris. Listen, my friend's still back there, and I'm worried something's happened to him. I'll leave you the canteen and bedroll, but I've got to go find him."
"Yes... alright. I... I hope you f-find him... well," she moaned softly, her eyes closing.
"Me, too," the gunman muttered. Not liking the thought of leaving the injured young woman alone, Chris knew he had no other choice. Vin would have caught up with them by now if he could. Something had to have happened. Spreading his bedroll over the battered young woman and leaving his canteen beside her, he re-mounted his gelding and wheeled back toward the town they had just come from.
He hadn't managed to stay unconscious for more than a few minutes. The pain dragged him awake so that he didn't miss a minute of the agony. He felt the whip dig into his flesh again, then felt blood fill his mouth as he bit through his tongue to keep from screaming again. He didn't want to give the men brutalizing him the benefit of hearing him respond to the pain.
Somewhere at the fringes of his mind, he registered a gunshot. Then he registered the fact that there was no fresh pain building on what already tore through him with each bite of the lash. Finally he heard a voice. Chris. Larabee had returned.
"Get away from him. NOW!" The blond barked out his orders, never doubting that he would be obeyed. Stepping down from the saddle, he strode over to where his friend hung. Carefully wrapping an arm around the other man, he growled, "cut him down... no sudden moves."
No one moved for several seconds, leading Chris to fire his Colt into the dust between several sets of boots. The men scattered, but one scuttled closer, drawing a knife and sawing through the thick rope around Tanner's wrists. As he came loose, Vin slumped against his friend, only barely conscious.
"Vin," Larabee muttered against sweat-soaked hair, "you've gotta stay with me, pard. We've gotta get you onto the saddle, and I'm gonna need your help."
"'K... kay," Vin moaned softly.
While the blond held off the townspeople, they managed to get the Texan into the saddle. He slumped forward against the big black's strong neck, barely able to hold onto the reins. Nearby, Chris retrieved the man's clothing from where it had been thrown in a pile at the edge of the boardwalk. Keeping his Colt trained on the man he had settled on as being the leader, he hoped that the others would have enough loyalty to, or fear of, the man not to hinder their escape.
Guiding Peso into the middle of the street, he slapped the horse's rump, sending him out of town at a run. He did his best to ignore the weak cries from the man on the broad back, but they echoed in the sudden quiet. He followed close behind, his gun trained on the milling crowd.
As soon as they were out of range Chris caught up with the other man, grasping at the halter to slow the big animal down. Bringing both horses to a halt, he grabbed at Tanner as the younger man started to fall. "Whoa there, pard."
"Chris... I... I cain't r-ride... much... much... much farther," Vin managed to grit out the words.
"We'll stop as soon as we get to where I left the lady, it's less than a mile. Think you can hold on that long?"
"R-rec... reckon we'll f-find... out."
With a gentle squeeze to one arm, Larabee simply nodded and started both horses off once more. They rode at a slower pace, giving Vin a chance to rest. They arrived at the place where Chris had left the young woman, and he frowned in puzzlement. The blanket was spread neatly on the ground, the canteen lying beside it. As if waiting for Vin.
"What the hell?" He couldn't understand it. If she had been taken by force, things wouldn't be so neatly arranged, but why would she leave on her own? Deciding he would have to ponder the mystery of it later, he pulled up, and helped Vin from the saddle. The sharpshooter leaned heavily against him, a strangled cry sneaking passed half open lips.
Settling the injured man belly down on the blanket, Chris surveyed his injuries. Many of the whip marks were shallow, barely bleeding now. There were a few, though, that had bit deep into the man's flesh. One even showed a hint of bone at Tanner's left shoulder. That one worried him most of all.
Putting aside his worries, Chris set out to clean his friend's injuries and bandage them with the supplies Nathan always made certain were in their saddlebags. While he bound the wounds, he kept an eye out for signs of the woman, and at the same time watched their back trail for signs of pursuit. He couldn't believe that, as angry as the people of Belson had been, they wouldn't come after them.
"Chris," came a soft, pain-filled call.
"Right here. Lay still, you're going to be fine."
"S-sure don't feel... feel like it," came the reply.
With a compassionate smile, Larabee said, "don't imagine it does. Reckon you'll be feeling those cuts for a while, too. Sorry, pard," his smile faded, replaced with a solemn expression. "I should have stayed back there."
"My ch-choice, Chris. We both had... had a job t' do... y' done yers." Tanner's voice faded as the pain threatened to overwhelm him once more.
"I guess," the blond said, not convinced at all. He finished binding Vin's injuries just as he heard a soft footfall. Grabbing his Colt, he turned warily to face their visitor. Then he sighed and put away the weapon as the young woman they had rescued came into view. "Good way to get yourself shot."
She blanched then blushed before replying, "I'm sorry. I became worried... went to see if I could... well, I'm not certain what I... I was looking for. I was just... just..." she stopped then began to fall to the ground. Larabee was at her side in a heartbeat and pulled her into his arms. Carrying her back to where Vin lay, he placed her carefully on the ground beside his friend.
"Thank you," she said in a trembling voice.
Larabee was once more struck by how out of place she seemed. Not only her voice and way of speaking but her clothing spoke of wealth and breeding. At least what there was left of it. "I've got a spare shirt, if you'd like something to put on."
"I am in your debt."
He smiled then retrieved his shirt from his 'bags. Handing it to the woman, he averted his gaze while she removed the tattered remains of her own blouse and replaced it with his gray one.
"I'm decent now," came the soft voice.
Turning, the blond smiled. "Looks better on you."
She giggled softly, then touched her hand to her face. "I hate to t-trouble you, sir, but... could I have a drink?"
He brought the canteen over, handing it to her and then watching to make certain that she was able to handle it alone. She took a long swallow then handed it back to him.
"Might I... I mean... well, you look like a gentleman who... who would have something a bit... stronger?"
Grinning now, Larabee produced his silver hip flask and held it out to her. He watched with awe as she drained off a good amount of the flask's contents. Then he took the flask back from her, taking a drink before recapping it and returning it to the pocket of his duster. He reached out and gently touched her jaw, which was showing a patchwork of colors all ready. "We need to get you to a doctor."
Smiling, she lightly touched the hand on her cheek. "I'm fine, really. It looks much worse than it is." Then tears filled her pale blue eyes as she shot a look toward the injured tracker. "How is your friend?"
"In need of a doctor, too. We need to get under cover someplace quick, to let him rest up. Then we'll get him home so Nathan can tend him."
"I know a place... it's only a few miles away, a small cabin. It's been abandoned for some time. Would that do?"
Nodding, Larabee said, "sounds just fine."
The ride was slow and painful for all of them. While Vin and the young woman, who had introduced herself as Maeve Tanith, suffered physically, Chris suffered mentally. Each time his friend flinched in his arms, or moaned as pain ripped through him, he was wracked with guilt. He should have stayed... should have watched Tanner's back. Literally.
"There it is."
Chris snapped back to reality as the soft voice to his right brought him out of his thoughts. He looked in the direction she indicated, and saw a small, weathered, cabin less than a quarter mile away. It was sheltered and secluded amongst the trees. As long as they were careful, they could stay there for days without being seen.
"Sure no one's around?"
"No one," she responded.
Nodding, Larabee steered Peso toward the little shack. He knew he was placing a lot of faith in a woman he didn't know. Knew that he could be walking right into a trap and taking Vin with him. Knew that he needed to remain on guard. And the entire time he considered the predicament, he was guiding the big black horse toward the shack.
The shack was dusty and rundown, but habitable. Chris managed to get Vin into the little room, laying him belly down on the blanket Maeve spread out. Insisting that she settle on a fairly stable chair, Chris quickly worked to make their presence unknown, and the little hiding place livable. Picketing the horses between the shack and the surrounding trees, he carried their tack inside, depositing it in a corner. Working to build a small, smokeless fire in the long unused fireplace, he warmed water so that he could clean the wounds suffered by not only his friend, but their new traveling companion.
Miss Tanith sat quietly in the chair, watching the gunman without comment. From time to time she rubbed absently at her shoulder, or her face, or at some other place that had suffered an injury. As the blond looked in her direction, she managed a wan smile.
Walking over to kneel before the young woman, Larabee looked into her face and said "how are you feeling?"
"I'll be fine, kind sir. My injuries are really quite superficial, especially in the face of your companion's maladies. Is he... will he be... all right?"
Shrugging slightly, the gunman said, "I think so, but I'm not a healer. As soon as we can get him back to town, I'll know more."
"How soon will you... will we be leaving?"
Surveying his friend's listless form, Chris said, "I want to stay here at least 'til tomorrow. He needs to get some strength for the trip. We're at least a day away from town."
"Do you... we... have enough supplies to make the journey?"
Considering their situation, eyes still on Tanner, Larabee said, "yeah, we ought to be fine. There's a little creek out back, and we can make do with the food and supplies we've got. Don't worry about anything, we'll be fine."
"Oh, I won't worry... I won't worry in the least."
Something in her voice caused the gunman to turn from watching his friend. He found himself looking down the barrel of his own gun. He cursed himself as he looked down to verify that his Colt was missing from his holster. Heaving an angry sigh, he lifted his hands up and away from his body. "What the hell are you planning on doing?"
"Leaving," she said simply.
Suddenly gone was the quiet, confused young lady. In her place was a hard-edged woman who, Chris was certain, would just as soon kill him as look at him. He glared at her, but found that it had little effect. "You're going to kill us?"
"No. Despite what others may say, I'm not a murderess. All I want is a horse and a canteen. I'll take the rest of your weapons, but I'll leave them outside for you. All I want is a chance to get away."
"So... y' d-did th' things... things they said y' done," Tanner's voice was a raspy whisper.
Glancing over at the wounded man, Tanith said, "most of them, I suppose. I'll take the gelding, the other one looks more capable of getting you both to your destination. Now, gentlemen, your weapons."
He let his frustration be known, but Larabee gathered up their guns and turned them over to Maeve.
The young woman smiled, a cold, calculating smile. She hoisted the weapons in her arms and backed quickly out the door, kicking it closed as she moved out into the sunlight, leaving the two peacekeepers in her wake.
Chris stood stock still in the middle of the room, cursing the woman, their luck, and himself. He started toward the door, but Tanner stopped him.
"Wha'cha plannin' on doin'... gittin'... gittin' yerself killed?"
"There's got to be some way," the blond muttered as he turned back toward his friend. "There has to be a way to stop her."
"She's got all th' guns, pard, an' somethin' tells me... she c'n use 'm."
"Guns aren't the only thing she knows how to use," Larabee growled.
Managing a weak smile, the sharpshooter rasped, "she didn't ask us... t' rescue 'er... we done... done that ourselves."
"I know." Deciding that he would have to worry about the woman later, the gunman turned to checking his friend's injuries. With a single exception the gashes caused by the whip had ceased bleeding. The deepest wound, across Tanner's shoulder, continued to seep, blood staining the crude bandage. Chris dug through the supplies Nathan diligently kept them supplied with, searching for something to pack the angry gash with. He grumbled, wishing he had paid more attention to what the healer did when one of them was hurt.
Frowning down at the semiconscious man, the gunman said, "what?"
"Pack 't... with cob... cobwebs. It'll stop th' blee... bleedin'."
Managing a brief nod, Tanner said, "yeah."
Deciding that the younger man probably did know what he was talking about, Chris scoured the little cabin, finding several webs. Carefully pulling them from the walls, he brought them back and knelt beside his friend. Removing the bandage, he wadded the strands up and pressed them into the worst part of the whip mark. Replacing the bandage, he settled back, watching as Vin moved restlessly on the blankets. Lifting the tracker's head, he awkwardly fed him water from the canteen then lowered him back. He watched as his friend drifted toward unconsciousness. Dampening his handkerchief, he stroked it across the feverish face.
They had to move, and soon. They needed to get back to Four Corners, where Nathan could care for Vin's injuries. They needed to go home.
The night seemed an eternity. Chris kept watch for their pursuers, kept watch in case the woman returned, and kept watch over his friend.
On his part, Vin spent the night restless with pain and a growing fever. He muttered from time to time, words unintelligible to his companion. His sweat-soaked head tossed and turned as he fought the horrors brought on by his tortured imagination. Larabee did his best to watch his friend's back, bathing the man's face with a damp rag, feeding him more of the precious water, and talking softly to the unconscious man. He left Tanner's side only long enough to retrieve their weapons and check to see that Maeve had, indeed, left not only their guns, but Peso behind. Relieved to find that she kept her word, at least, he brought their things in, picketing the big black just outside. That accomplished, he found a small spring nearby and refilled the canteen before returning to the little shack.
By morning, neither man was in good shape. The gunman felt as if his eyelids had been painted with sand and a persistent headache pounded behind them. His neck and shoulders ached as well, and he craved a bottle of whiskey and his bed. He went outside to ready the sharpshooter's horse before he roused Tanner. Vin was still feverish, and Chris knew he had to get him to town soon. Helping the injured man to sit up, he let him lean against his shoulder while he assisted him in taking some water.
"Yeah. Figure the quicker we get you back to town the better."
"Been hurt... been hurt worse."
"Judging by the number of scars I've seen on that hide of yours, I imagine you have. You've got a fever, though, so I figure there's infection building up. Nathan can keep it from getting out of hand."
With a sigh, Vin managed, "okay."
Settling for wrapping the blanket around the lean man and draping his own serape over that, Chris helped Tanner to his feet and half carried him out to where Peso stood waiting. As they approached the big horse, he threw his head with an impatient snort.
"Knock... knock 't off, mule," the bounty hunter growled.
Larabee chuckled as the animal snorted again, shook his head, and settled to stand quietly. He helped Vin onto the broad back, then took the reins, starting off walking.
"He c'n... c'n carry 's both," the younger man groused.
"I know, but we've got a way to go. No need to tire him out too early." Behind him, the big horse whickered and butted his head against the man in black's shoulder. "Knock it off, mule, or I'll climb up there with rocks in my pockets."
Vin managed a hoarse laugh, then bit off a groan as the movement of the big horse beneath him jarred his throbbing back. He shifted in the saddle, trying in vain to find a comfortable position, finally holding himself as still as possible and leaning forward over the saddlehorn.
They traveled throughout the morning, stopping as the sun reached its zenith. Helping Vin to the ground, Chris held him upright, half carrying him to sit in the shade of a big tree. The sharpshooter moaned as he settled on the ground, leaning gratefully against his friend as Larabee helped him drink from the canteen. Together the men lowered the lean Texan to his stomach on the ground, where he drifted to a light sleep.
Larabee fixed a small fire, setting the coffee to heat beside it and a skillet of beans to cook as well. While lunch warmed he managed to gain his feet, groaning as he felt several blisters rub and break as he did. He limped to where Peso stood patiently, giving the big animal a drink of water from his hat. As the horse drank he watched the countryside for signs of their being followed. He had been expecting at least a token search party to come after them, but it looked as if he were wrong. He hoped he was at any rate.
Moving gingerly back to where Tanner lay, he checked their lunch. Turning, he found himself being observed. "Thought you were taking a nap."
"Hell... ain't done noth... nothin' t' be sleepy fer."
"Figured being whipped counted for a hard days work."
With a wan smile, the sharpshooter rasped, "reckon."
They lapsed into silence once again, both men more comfortable there than in a conversation. Larabee helped his injured friend sit up long enough to eat and drink, then settled him back to the ground while he hurriedly ate his own meal. That finished, he cleaned up the campsite and readied them to move. As he helped Vin to Peso's back, the semiconscious man clasped his arm.
"Y' ain't walkin'... Chris. We c'n move fa... faster if yer ridin', and I'd... jist 's soon get home. Reckon we c'n... make town by mid... night that way... too." He didn't add the fact that Larabee was going to come up lame if he continued to walk. Boots were not made for long walks on the prairie.
Larabee sighed and contemplated his friend's words. He knew Vin was right. His feet were a constant source of pain, arrows of fire shooting up his legs each time he took a step. It didn't take very much for him to agree with the younger man. Carefully he pulled himself up into the saddle in front of Tanner, letting the injured tracker lay forward against him. Taking up the reins, he said, "come on, mule, let's go home."
They rode the rest of the day and on into the night, stopping only long enough for Vin to gain what little strength he could to continue the journey. By the time the moon rose full in the sky, shedding its silvery light across the landscape, he was out cold, slumped heavily against Larabee's back. The man in black couldn't help but sigh when he saw the faint outline of Four Corners silhouetted in the darkness. Carefully pulling both of Tanner's arms forward and clasping them in on hand, he coaxed the big horse forward as fast as he dared.
They reached the stairs to Nathan's clinic, Peso blowing and heaving as they stopped. Chris slid from the broad back and carefully pulled Vin to the ground. The sharpshooter rallied to the point of being able to stand with his friend's help and, together, the two men made their way up the stairs. As they limped and stumbled across the wide landing, the door opened and a sleepy Jackson stepped out.
"Good Lord, can't you two ever manage to take a trip without gatherin' a whole new set of scars?"
Grinning, the blond managed to grate out, "don't reckon we can."
Shaking his head, the dark healer took Vin, lifting the slender man into his arms as Tanner's strength gave out. Checking to make certain that their leader was able to follow, he returned to his clinic.
"It's his... back," Chris grated out as Nathan neared the bed. He watched as the healer adjusted his hold and lowered Vin face down on the mattress.
Straightening the long limbs and pulling the serape and blankets from his upper body, Jackson left the oblivious man's side and turned to the man in black. "Now, sit down before you fall down, and tell me what happened."
As Larabee gratefully dropped to one of the chairs in the room, he couldn't help but groan as the pain in his feet seemed to grow with less weight on them. "We got into a mess with a mob... Vin ended up getting whipped. Most of them are minor I think, but there's one on his shoulder that's bone deep. It's been close to two days now, and he's fevered. Reckon there's some infection. I cleaned them out as best I could and put cobwebs in the deep one to stop the bleeding."
As the blond talked, Jackson began laying supplies out, preparing to minister to the injured man. As he did, he prompted, "and what about you?"
Waving him off, Chris said, "just blisters from walking."
"Why were you walking?"
Sighing, Larabee contemplated not answering. It was bad enough to acknowledge that the young woman had taken advantage of them, but to admit she had managed to take his horse was down right painful. Finally he told the former slave everything. Other than a smile, the big man said nothing.
Morning found both men sleeping peacefully. Nathan had managed to clear out the infection that was causing Tanner's fever and feed the tracker one of his herbal brews. He had helped Larabee to ease out of his boots and socks, and lowered the abused feet into a tub of hot water and medicinal herbs. Settling the blond into a rocker, he got Chris to drink one of his teas, then covered him with a blanket as the exhausted gunman fell into a deep sleep.
As morning waned, a knock at the clinic door announced company. Buck Wilmington poked his head inside, shaking it when he saw the two patients. "Figured at least one of 'm might be up here since Yosemite said he found Peso on the street while ago. What happened?"
"Ran into some trouble... as usual," Jackson said, shaking his head. "I think maybe we ought to keep these two on a short leash for a while... lettin' 'm go off alone don't seem healthy."
"Don't need a babysitter," the words rang with a soft growl. The two men looked to see Larabee observing them from where he sat.
With a chuckle, Wilmington said, "not from where I stand... and at least I can stand."
"Go t' hell, Bucklin," came a slow drawl from the bed. Vin managed to peer over his shoulder, and the big ladies man found himself the recipient of not one, but two glares.
"Well, you boys just rest. Reckon I'll go see t' takin' care a th' town. Yosemite said to tell y' that th' horses 'll be fine with a little extra care. He wrapped Pony's leg and said - "
"Pony?" Chris sat bolt upright.
Frowning, Wilmington said, "yeah, he was standin' by the door of the livery this mornin' and Peso was over here by the stairs. Yosemite said - "
"But Pony was stolen!"
Wilmington's frown deepend. "Chris, I saw 'im myself, not twenty minutes ago. What are you talking about?"
"That woman... Tanith... she took Pony, day before yesterday. She left Peso because she figured he could get us both back here, but she took Pony. Did Yosemite say whether there was anyone around when he found my horse?"
"Didn't say. I'll go see what he can tell me." With that, the big man left the clinic.
Chris leaned back in his chair, his eyes moving to lock with Tanner's. They shared the same thought.
Maeve Tanith was in town.