DISCLAIMER: They aren't mine, but I'm trying to take better care of them than the Alphabet Folk, who only care about the money.
Author's note: This story was written for my pard and beta-reader, Sue, who was suffering the throes of a summer virus. I decided to give her some company in her misery.
Feedback is welcome!
Whatever It Takes
He'd been ambushed, shot down, beaten, and defeated. And he hadn't even set foot outside. Vin Tanner lay flat on his back and looked up at the iron ribs and canvas roof of his wagon. Shit. He'd been hit but good.
Every bone in his body ached. His head felt like it was filled with wet sand and set on a neck that seemed disconnected from his spine, it was that wobbly. His throat as on fire, and his eyes were an itchy, runny misery. He hadn't even tried out his voice. Hell, it was raspy at best, but right then he was pretty sure that if he had to raise an alarm the only sound that would come out would be a pathetic squeak.
He was a mess.
Maybe he'd just hunker down in his covers and hope that nobody would notice that he was in town ... him and whatever was making him sick.
He must have drifted a bit, because the rap on the side of his wagon just about sent him through the canvas roof. He sat up, gasping. "W-what?" His hand went to his mare's leg. "Go 'way. Ain't nobody welcome here ..." At least that's what he tried to say. The sounds that came from his swollen throat bore no resemblance to a human voice at all.
Larabee. Vin fell back on his pillows. "Go 'way," he croaked.
A moment of silence that led him to think that he had succeeded in driving the gunslinger away. Then the canvas flap rustled as it was pushed aside. The invading sunlight made Vin cry out and cover his eyes. He huddled deeper into the covers like he could hide from that green glare. A cornered mouse had a better chance of hiding from a cat than he had hiding from Chris Larabee. He felt the wagon bed give on its struts as Chris hauled himself up, and heard the solid thump of his boot heels on the bed of the wagon as he entered and came closer to the pile of blankets that was Vin's bed.
Chris's duster whispered softly as he crouched down. "Too much Red-Eye?" he asked.
"Mebbe," Vin managed to reply.
"I don't think so, pard. I ain't never seen you drink enough to get hung over like this." Chris's voice was curiously gentle. He tugged slightly at the covers, pulling them down far enough to expose Vin's head. He brushed his knuckles against Vin's feverish cheek. "Think we'd better get you to Nathan's, Vin."
"No!" Vin choked and caught Chris's wrist in a tight grip. "No. I ain't that sick. Nate'll jist brew up them horse piss concoctions a' his and I cain't swallow 'em. I swear, Chris, they'd jist come right back up. Cain't stand bein' fussed over. I jist cain't. Want ya t'go 'way an' don't tell Nate."
The last was a squeaky sob that sent Chris reeling back to his past: to Adam begging Chris not to tell Sarah he was sick because they'd miss that fishing trip, or that ride, or that trip to town for sweets. But Adam had been a child. Vin Tanner was a man; deadly as any Chris had known, stubborn and fiercely independent. However, he was also sick and hurting. Chris stood slowly. "You got any water around here?"
Chris took it from the peg. It was light, and the water would be warm and metallic-tasting. "I'll get you some fresh. Be right back." He jumped from the wagon step and went to the pump by the water trough. He emptied the stale water and filled the canteen with fresh. He paused, thinking back to Adam and studying Vin's wagon for a long minute. Sure, Vin Tanner was a grown man and maybe he would rather be left to sweat out this illness. Lord knows, he'd probably done it enough in the past. But there was no reason for it now. No reason to suffer alone, to huddle tight against pain and think that was the only way to bear it.
Chris corked up the canteen and went into the Standish Tavern where Inez was stocking the bar. She gave him a half-smile, like she was testing the waters of his temper before speaking.
"A drink, Senor Chris?"
"No. You got that pot of chicken soup on the boil yet?"
"Si." She gave him a puzzled look. "You want soup?"
"I do. In one of those tins you use to carry food to the jail."
She raised a brow. "All right."
"De nada." She went into the kitchen and returned with the soup and a covered basket. "Soup, and bread." She smiled up at him. "I hope Senor Tanner feels better soon."
Chris's gaze narrowed. "How did you know?"
"A woman can see it, when someone is not well. You know this, si?"
Chris laughed, thinking of Sarah's ability to know when he or Adam were not feeling their best. "Si. My - my wife said she could see it around the eyes."
Inez shrugged. "It's true. If you need more soup - anything. Let me know."
Chris nodded. He took the tin and the basket from her and returned to Vin's wagon. The tracker was still huddled beneath the covers, shivering. Chris knelt down. "Brought you some water and some soup."
"Jist leave it."
"No. Not this time." Chris poured water into a tin mug and eventually found a spoon in Vin's kit. "Can you sit up a bit?"
When Vin struggled upright, Chris slipped behind him so his back was to the wagon's wooden side. He took hold of Vin's shoulder. "C'mon, lean back. I've got you." Tanner settled gingerly against Chris's chest.
"Y'don't hafta do this," he rasped. "I's fine by myself."
"Don't argue. Drink." He held the canteen to Vin's lips. The water was sweet, cool, and Vin's hands came up around Chris's to hold the canteen steady as he drank. When he pushed it aside, Chris offered a spoon of the broth. Vin tasted it reluctantly. His throat still felt twice its normal size, but the soup went down easily and tasted good. He sipped at it, and when he was ready Chris spooned out more patiently, never faster than Vin could take.
He couldn't swallow much, but he forced down a bit extra, unwilling to lose the comfort of Chris's presence. His chest was hard and warm, his voice soothing. Vin could feel his heart beating reassuringly against his back. It felt good to have him there, to feel safe. He wanted Chris to stay, but asking was beyond his pride. Vin finally had to stop eating, though. "Sorry," he said, pushing the spoon aside. "Cain't take no more."
"Don't apologize," Chris said. "No reason."
"Reckon y'ought t' be be on yer way."
Chris heard the faint reluctance and smiled. "Don't have anywhere to be. Mind if I stay?"
He'd stay? Vin wondered if his relief showed in his eyes. He tried to bluff through it, hoping Larabee would take the flush on his cheeks for fever. "I don't got the strength t'throw ya out, Larabee." Vin yawned. "'M'sleepy."
"Then sleep. I'll be here."
He made it sound so easy. Vin's eyes opened wide. "Why're ya doin' this, Chris? I ain't nuthin' to ya."
"Is that what you think?" Chris asked, anger edging his voice. "Seems like we determined a while ago that you are something to me ... seems like we got ourselves tangled up in this friendship and ain't neither one of us going to let go easily. So get used to it, Tanner. You hear me?"
The anger, the fierce look of pride and protection on Larabee's face made Vin shiver, but not with the chill of fever. He tilted his head against Chris's shoulder. "I hear ya," he said. "And I ain't gonna fight it. Jist is hard fer me, Chris. Been a long time alone. Ya git used to it."
Chris softened. "Yeah, you do. But once in a while you get lucky and find a friend to watch your back."
"S'that what yer doin'?" Vin asked, a bit of wonder in his voice. "Watchin' my back so's I c'n sleep?"
"You think I'd only do it in a gunfight?" Chris chuckled. "Hell, that's the hard part. This ... this being here is easy, partner." He settled his spine more comfortably and wrapped his arms around Vin's slim frame. Vin stiffened, unused to the comfort and warmth of being held close, but he couldn't keep his eyes open or his body from releasing its tension.
"Thanks fer the soup," he mumbled. "Tell Inez I 'preciate it. My ma used t'give me chicken soup when I's a little feller and didn't feel good. Used t'tell me stories, too."
Chris laughed. "I'll get you the soup, but forget the stories."
"Yer a mean bastard, Larabee," Vin yawned again and sighed.
"So shoot me." But the sharpshooter's head had drooped against his shoulder, and Chris smiled, brushing strands of hair away from Vin's face. He looked like a tired boy even beneath the stubble of beard. Vulnerable now, lethal tomorrow. Sometimes you backed up a friend with bullets, sometimes with chicken soup and comfort. It was a hell of a life, but once in a while, Chris figured, you got it right.