Disclaimer: Well, damn it all, if you haven’t figured it out by now, what can I say to help you understand? The Alphabet Brigade holds the deed, which makes as much sense as JD’s jokes. I don’t have any claim on anything to do with the concept of the Magnificent Seven and its characters. I make no money off these things, either.
Warnings: Blood… cursing… pain… comfort… angst. Consider yourself warned.
Notes: Written for Jan, who asked that the sharpshooter been given the pain in her name. Happiest of birthdays and a magnificent year ahead my dear!
Thanks to SueN for the loan of the plot bunny when mine decided to take a vacation. I twisted it a bit, but you certainly got me jumpstarted! THANKS, PARD!
Ezra Standish grinned, flashing his gold tooth, as he looked across the table at his opponent. The man, dressed in a woolen suit despite the heat, returned the Southerner’s look, but his expression was far from happy.
"I assure you, sir, I never cheat. One does not need to resort to such tactics if they are blessed with talent."
"Y’ damn redbird, y’ cheated!" The man growled as he shoved his chair back and lurched to his feet. "Y’ cheated, ‘n I want m’ money back. Now!"
"Problem here, Ezra?"
Standish looked up to see his traveling companion, Vin Tanner, standing slightly behind and to the right of his opponent. The other man, one Ellis Lyle by name, blanched as he turned to find the sharpshooter behind him. His eyes were focused on the man’s sawed off shotgun, dangling almost casually from his hand.
"I believe that Mr. Lyle was just leaving," the gambler said in a congenial tone.
"That right?" Vin squinted a look at the other man.
"Uh… ye-yeah, that’s r-right," Ellis stammered. "Just… I was just leavin’."
Lifting the man’s hat from the back of a nearby chair, Tanner handed it to him. He nodded, saying nothing more as Lyle hurried from the saloon. Turning from the departing figure to his friend, Vin shook his head, a smile spreading across his handsome face. "Jesus, Ezra, cain’t y’ stay outta trouble ‘til we git home?"
Unable to stop the smile that spread across his own striking features, the smaller man said, "believe me, it was not my desire to begin the evening with an altercation."
"Uh huh," Tanner’s smile widened, he winked at the other man, and returned to where he had left his beer. Stepping up to the bar, he leaned against the rough, wooden plank, hoisting the heavy glass mug and taking a long draw of the bitter liquid. He had positioned himself at the end of the bar, with only a few inches between his back and the wall. Wary as always, he watched the room, looking for signs of trouble.
Trouble wasn’t long in coming.
Tanner looked up to see Ellis Lyle stomping back into the saloon, a shotgun in his hands. "Ah, hell," he growled under his breath as he pushed away from the bar. He stepped casually away from the wood, keeping his pace almost leisurely as he crossed to stand in front of the angry man.
"Pard, ain’cha had enuff fer th’ ev’nin’?"
"You stay out of this! This is none of your concern, it’s between me ‘n th’ cheater," Lyle nodded toward Ezra. On his part, the gambler had not moved. Standish simply sat at the table, still holding the deck of cards. His green eyes stared disdainfully at the foolish townsman, however.
"Well, y’ see, that’s where yer wrong. Ezra’s a friend a mine, so things like this sort ‘a draw m’ attention. Now, hand over th’ shotgun, ‘n back off nice ‘n slow. Okay?"
"NO!" Ellis yelled, red faced. He raised the weapon, aiming at the still unmoving man.
As calmly as if he were taking a beer from another’s hand, Vin slipped up and took hold of the shotgun, pointing it to the ground and then pulling it from Lyle’s trembling grasp. "Now, go home ‘n be glad y’ didn’t do nothin’ foolish," Tanner said softly.
"NO!" There was less conviction this time.
"Sir, if the money is all keeping you in this highly agitated state, I will be glad to reimburse your funds," Standish, choking on the bitter words, began counting out bills.
"NO! You cheated me! You gotta pay!" The man was beyond rational thought, his entire focus was on the embarrassment of losing to the gambler.
"Look, I know y’ don’t know either of us, so y’ don’t’ gotta b’lieve me, but Ezra here don’t cheat."
"Thank you, mister Tanner," the Southerner said in a sincere tone.
"NO! He did! He had too! I… I’m th’ best poker player ‘round these parts! He had t’ cheat!"
There it was. A sad little man trying to make a reputation for himself in a sad little town. The gambler exchanged a knowing look with the sharpshooter, shrugging his shoulders slightly. He finished counting out the bills and pushed them across the table. "Here is your money, sir. I believe that you’ll find it all there. Now, I’ll bid you good evening."
Standish rose slowly and walked with feigned calm around the table to join Vin. Together, the two men moved toward the door. They saw the faces of the few other occupants of the dusty room and knew that they would get neither resistance nor help should it be needed. They stared back at the two strangers as if watching a fly walking along the rim of a milk bucket.
Tanner felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle, and knew that something was happening. He glanced sideways into the dirty, cracked, mirror nearby. He growled as he saw the flash of metal and silently shoved Standish sideways. He didn’t have time to remark on the startled look in the other man’s eyes, and could only grunt as he felt the knife bury itself to the hilt in his back.
"Vin!" Ezra cried out to the falling man even as he whirled, dislodged his derringer from its hiding place, and drilled a neat hole in the forehead of the disgruntled card player. As Lyle dropped stiffly to the floor, he knelt beside his companion. He looked into the hooded blue eyes, reading the pain and shock in their depths. "Vin, can you hear me? We need to get out of here, we need to go find Chris and Buck."
"Yeah, you best be on yer way," one of the patrons drawled. "Y’all don’t know ‘t, but that there’s th’ son a Kelsey Lyle."
"And that would be?" Ezra asked in a chilly tone.
"That ‘d be th’ man that purty well runs this town… hell, he owns jist ‘bout anything an’ ever’thin’ fer a days ride in any d’rection."
"S-sure know how… how t’ pick ‘m, Ez… ra." Vin smiled wanly.
"Yes, well, I assure you, mister Tanner, irritating anyone with wealth and power was never my intention. Can you stand?"
"Reckon… I ain’t got a… a choice," Tanner grasped hold of the other man’s jacket with trembling hands and felt himself lifted to his feet.
Not taking his eyes from the patrons of the saloon, Standish maneuvered them both through the door, glancing quickly around for any signs that their retreat would be stopped from outside. Relieved to see no one had come to check on the single gunshot, he led Vin to his horse and helped him into the saddle.
Tanner slumped on his big black’s back, groaning softly as he felt the knife blade scrape against bone. He knew he wouldn’t last long in the saddle, he just hoped they could find the other men before he collapsed.
Stepping up onto his chestnut’s back, Standish kept his gun trained on the door. He reached over and took hold of Peso’s reins, instructing the other man to, "hold on."
With one last look around them, the Southerner spurred his horse away from the building, leading the other horse as he did. They raced from the little town, the gambler keeping an eye out in all directions for signs of either attack or pursuit.
The four peacekeepers had come looking for a trio of men who had caused a great deal of trouble in the town of Four Corners. The men had arrived while the group, known in polite circles as ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and by other titles elsewhere, had been out of town. The men had returned to find Inez Recillos fighting for her life after the men had attacked her. The three of them had also broken into several of the businesses and stolen money and goods, set fire to the dry good store, and shot four of the townsmen as they rode out.
It had been the attack on the lovely Senorita that had spurred them to action quickest.
Leaving Nathan Jackson, Josiah Sanchez, and JD Dunne behind to take care of things in town, Chris, Vin, Buck and Ezra had ridden out to find the men. They had split up a few hours earlier, when two little towns appeared on the horizon within just a few miles of one another. Chris and Buck had gone to investigate one, while Ezra and Vin the other. None of them had expected even more trouble to hamper the search for their quarry.
Keeping an eye on his companion, Standish banished any thought not dealing directly with a successful escape. He urged the animals to go even faster, praying that he would find Larabee and Wilmington on the trail soon. They had made plans to meet midway between the two towns at sundown, hopefully with some news on the men they sought.
Vin clung to the saddle, the fingers of one hand wrapped around the saddle horn tight enough to bleed his knuckles white. The other arm hung loosely at his side, the knife buried in his shoulder causing the entire limb to be almost numb. But not numb enough. Each step his horse took brought another shock of pain through that entire side of his body. He bit down in an effort to keep from crying out, biting so hard that he tasted blood.
Standish looked over, grimacing as he saw the colorless features of the sharpshooter staring back at him. "Hold on, Vin, it won’t be long now."
Unable to answer, the Texan nodded.
Ezra saw a much welcome sight a short time later – the silhouettes of Buck and Chris riding casually in their direction. Taking another look over at his companion, the gambler spurred his horse even faster, pulling on the reins of the bigger black. Both animals answered with an additional burst of speed as they aimed for the other peacekeepers.
Chris Larabee looked out at the landscape before them from beneath the wide brim of his black hat. He frowned as he saw a pair of riders coming in their direction at a full out run. Taking the cheroot from his mouth, he said, "is that who I think it is?"
Squinting at the fast approaching riders, Buck Wilmington said, "it’s them, ridin’ hell bent for leather. Somethin’s wrong."
Nodding, the blond spurred his big gelding forward, knowing that the other man would be right beside him. They rode to intercept the other men.
"Thank God," Standish breathed as he saw the two riders coming their way. He considered slowing, but couldn’t be certain they weren’t being followed. He kept the horses full out. It was a handful of very long minutes later that the four men met up.
Vin Tanner marked the occasion by slipping limply from the saddle, falling to the ground before the other men even registered his movement.
"What the hell?" Larabee bounded from his horse’s back and was at Tanner’s side in three strides. Wilmington and Standish were right behind him.
"Be careful!" Ezra cried out in warning. Then, more calmly, he continued, "he has a knife in his back."
"Oh, shit," Buck muttered as he saw the spreading stain over the buckskin jacket. "What the hell happened?"
"We… we had some trouble in town," the gambler stammered. How could he tell them that the hunter had been injured because of him?
"Why didn’t you stay put?" Chris asked, even though he was fairly certain he knew the answer.
"The townspeople were less than hospitable, I thought it best to depart as soon as possible.
"Were you followed?"
Shrugging his shoulders, the Southerner said, "it is a definite possibility, I – "
Cutting the man off, Larabee said, "Buck, backtrack and see. We’ll get Vin back to Kilmont."
"Chris, we can’t," Standish argued.
Turning a puzzled gaze toward the other man, Larabee said, "why the hell not?"
"The… the man who attacked Vin… I was forced to shoot him. He… his father owns most of this territory according to the townspeople."
"Shit," the blond growled under his breath. Studying the terrain, he said, "there’s cover to the north. We’ll get him there and patch him up. Meet us there."
Nodding, Wilmington said, "take care of ‘m, I’ll be back as quick as I can."
"Watch your back," the gunman said.
As the big ladies man mounted his gray and rode away, the other two lifted their unconscious friend from the ground. As carefully as possible, they got him onto Pony’s back, Larabee stepping up behind him. They had put Vin backwards in the saddle, the knife’s position in his back making it impossible for Larabee to keep him in the saddle otherwise. Pulling Tanner toward him, Chris settled him against his chest, the sharpshooter’s head nestled against his shoulder. As the injured man groaned softly, the blond said quietly, "take it easy, pard, I’ve got you."
The men rode hard, bent on getting to cover. Both Chris and Ezra knew that the ride was the last thing Vin needed, but there wasn’t any way to avoid it. Both of them heard the pain-filled moans that came from the injured man, but blocked them out as best they could.
It seemed to be hours before they reached the cover Larabee had pointed them toward. Finally they reined in the horses in the shelter provided by both hills and trees. Ezra dismounted, moving quickly to assist Chris in getting Vin down. Pulling him from the saddle, they carried him to a place of deepest shelter. While the blond held the semi-conscious man, the gambler spread out a bedroll. Carefully they sat him on the ground, removing the jacket and shirt as far as they could before laying him belly down on the blankets.
"We’ve got to get the knife out," Larabee said softly, as if he were talking to himself. "Get a fire going, Ezra, and heat some water."
Nodding, Standish hurried to do just that. While his body responded to the other man’s orders, his mind continued to focus only on what had happened. It had been completely his fault that Vin had been injured. If not for his arrogance, the sharpshooter would be fine. If not for Tanner’s ongoing penchant for being Robin Hood, he would have been the one with a knife in his back.
Instead of the one that was twisting in his heart.
Sitting beside the younger man, Chris managed to lift his head enough to awkwardly feed him some whiskey. Vin sipped at the fiery liquid, managing a few mouths full before slumping against the other man’s arm. Lowering him back to the blanket, Larabee dampened a kerchief and bathed the pale features. "Hang on, pard, you’re gonna be fine. We’re gonna get you patched up and, as soon as you’re up to it, we’ll go home. Imagine Sadie will enjoy the chance to fuss over you for a while."
Half hidden by the long, chestnut locks, Tanner managed a weak smile at the mention of the young seamstress he often squired around town.
With a chuckle, the gunman continued his distracting dialogue. As he did, he bathed the pain-filled face, silently fretting over the amount of blood staining the back of the buckskin jacket. He looked up when he heard the third member of their party approach.
"The water is warming and I’ve laid out the medical supplies Nathan sent along. What do you need me to do next?"
"Hold him down," Chris said with a decisive nod. "I’ll get the knife out."
The Southerner paled, but simply nodded. He watched as the bounty hunter flinched, realizing that Tanner was at least partially aware of what was going on. Taking a deep breath, Ezra knelt above his friend and held him firmly at the shoulders.
Not seeing any other way, Chris straddled the slim hips to keep Vin still. Taking a deep breath as well, he wrapped long fingers around the knife handle, pressed his other hand against the warm flesh near the embedded blade, and pulled.
Vin cried out, his body growing rigid as pain seared through every fiber of his being. He fought the restraining hands for a few seconds, wanting nothing more than to get away from the pain. Then he collapsed limply against the ground with a whimpered moan, finally releasing the last vestiges of consciousness and entering the dark void of nothingness.
Looking up at the sound of worry in the southern tones, Larabee said, "he’s just unconscious."
They removed the layers of clothes the rest of the way, bathed the blood from the wound, and covered it with a poultice and pad of bleached cloth. Working together, they bound the knife wound and secured the long limb to the narrow, muscular chest. That done, they covered him with another blanket and let him rest.
The gunman settled in next to his friend, bathing the fevered man with cool water. He watched as the grifter seemed unable to sit still, pacing around, watching in every direction at once for signs that they had unwanted company. "Damn it Ezra, would you settle somewhere?"
Looking over with a start, the younger man said, "my apologies. I… I… I’m sorry."
Frowning at the usually glib man’s sudden speech problem, the gunman wondered at what was going on in that steel trap mind. Not one to pry into someone else’s business, he simply watched as Standish tried, unsuccessfully, to calm down. Finally, he returned to caring for his friend.
A short time later, they heard the sounds of a single horse approaching their hiding place. Wary as ever, they drew their weapons, holding them at the ready until the rider made himself known. It was only then that they lay the weapons aside.
Grinning at the armed greeting, the big ladies man said, "howdy, boys."
"What did you find out?" The blond asked.
"Ended up going all th’ way int’ town, ‘n went to th’ saloon. They’re gettin’ ready t’ come after them… us," he replied. "That Lyle fella, him and his men are in town, and he’s fit t’ be tied. Never heard so many ways of killin’ a man, but he’s got plans for Vin, and you too, Ezra."
A strange look came over the young gambler. "It’s me they want. I’m the one that killed his son. I’ll go back and turn myself in, the two of you can get Mr. Tanner back to Four Corners – "
"Now hold on there pard," Wilmington interrupted. "We don’t give up one of our own without a fight."
"But it’s the only way. Vin is seriously injured, you and Chris need to get him to safety. I’ve faced angry mobs before… there’s always a chance that I can talk my way out of this."
"They’ll hang you," Larabee stated evenly.
"There is always that possibility, but – "
They all looked at Vin. His eyes were still closed, his voice nothing more than a whisper, but he continued to speak quietly. "Y’… y’ ain’t gonna do ‘t… Ezra."
"Vin, listen to reason. You’re hurt… you need medical attention."
"I’ll git ‘t… but y’ ain’t… ain’t gonna g-give yerself… up t’ that… that... bunch." He collapsed back into unconsciousness.
Nodding, the blond said, "he’s right. You’re staying with us if I have to tie you to your saddle." Looking the other man squarely in the eye, he said, "you’re not running out on us again."
With a lopsided grin the former lawman slapped the smaller gambler on the back, and said, "sounds to me like you’re outvoted, son."
Watching the Southerner struggle with his emotions, Larabee turned to Wilmington. "What should we do… stay here, or ride?"
Rubbing his chin thoughtfully, Buck said, "it’s nearly dark, and I think It’s gonna be a full moon t’night, so I think we ought ‘a ride. We can put some distance ‘tween us an’ them by sunup… find a new place t’ hole up."
Nodding at his oldest friend’s suggestion, Larabee said, "we’ll leave in an hour, then."
Searing through his body from head to toe.
He groaned, protesting the pain that threatened to tear him apart. Then he heard a soft voice, offering words of comfort.
"It’s all right, Vin. Just hang on, we’ll let you rest in a bit."
"Hurts," he muttered from the hazy, twilight world between consciousness and oblivion.
"I know. As soon as we can find a good place, we’ll pull up and let you rest."
"Tell… tell ‘im… not… not his f-fault."
Pale brows knitting at the other man’s words, Larabee’s mind quickly found a connection between them and Standish’s agitated state. He would have to find out more later, but for now he simply said, "all right."
The moon was making its decent in preparation for the dawn when they finally stopped. Chris could feel blood beginning to seep through the blanket they had wrapped Vin in, and knew he wouldn’t last much longer in the saddle. Calling to the other men, they found cover in the form of a thick stand of trees.
Easing Tanner from the saddle once more, they made him as comfortable as possible. They carefully changed the bandage, knowing that he couldn’t afford to lose any more blood. Wrapping him in all their bedrolls, they tried to still the tremors that had begun to course through the lean body.
"We’re gonna have to do something pretty quick. He’s still bleeding," Larabee said softly. His hand lay gently on the trembling shoulder beside him, lending his strength to his injured friend.
Running a hand over his rugged features, the big ladies man said, "cauterization?"
"If we have to. There’s gotta be something else we can try first."
"Another poultice?" Standish looked at the other two men, haunted eyes searching assurance that they wouldn’t have to seal the wound with heated metal.
"We can try," the blond said. He had no desire to cauterize the knife wound, either.
They mixed up a new batch of medicinal herbs and pressed it into the jagged tear in the sharpshooter’s shoulder. Chris knelt beside the man, keeping pressure on the wound. The trio sat without moving for countless moments, waiting for signs that the blood flow had been staunched.
Finally, "still bleeding."
"Damn it," Wilmington growled.
"Perhaps we – " Standish began.
Shaking his head, the gunman cut him off. "Buck, get a fire started. Keep is low and clean so we don’t call attention to it." Taking his flask from his duster pocked, he continued, "Ezra, clean up a knife. Use this, then put it in the flame – "
"I am well aware of the procedure for cauterization," the Southerner said through gritted teeth. He pulled the flask from the blond’s hand and lifted the big knife from Vin’s own belt before he stormed to the other side of the little clearing. In his wake, the two old friends stared at one another in confusion.
A short time later they were ready. Buck pressed big hands against the younger man’s back, sitting across his legs. Ezra held the lean shoulders down, squeezing them gently in compassion. He had wrapped a thick stick in a kerchief and pressed it into the injured man’s mouth. Between them, Chris once more knelt beside his friend. In his hand was the knife, its blade throwing off waves of heat. Holding it until it had cooled just enough, the gunman took a deep breath and pressed the knife into the bleeding wound.
Despite the three men pressing him to the ground, the weakness of blood loss and injury, the former bounty hunter bucked upward, his body going rigid. He bit through the stick and into his lip, screaming as fresh pain seared through his body. It seemed an eternity before he once more lost consciousness and slumped limply to the ground.
Larabee tossed the bloodied knife aside roughly, as if it were the cause of his young friend’s misery. He sat watching the ragged rise and fall of the scorched back for several minutes, waiting to see if the bleeding had ceased. Finally, satisfied that it had, he sat back on his heels with a deep sigh.
Wilmington and Standish both took deep breaths as relief flowed through the little clearing. Carefully they took over the tracker’s care, lifting him enough to bind the wound once again. before they covered the injury, they gently spread salve over the burnt flesh. Through it all, Tanner lay limply in their grasp, responding to their touch with nothing more than the occasional weak moan. They settled him back on the ground, near the low fire, covering him with all their bedrolls. None of it did much to ease his trembling.
Chris settled himself beside the unconscious man, bathing the ashen features in an effort to cool the fever. He watched as Ezra hovered near by, looking as if he wanted to take up the task. Pushing himself off the ground, he handed the canteen and kerchief to the gambler. "Take over for a while, Ezra."
Nodding, the younger man couldn’t help but turn a grateful expression to the man in black. He took the things and settled in beside Tanner, gently pressing the damp cloth against the sweat covered face.
Stepping over to where Buck leaned against a tree, watching the countryside, the gunslinger said, "anything?"
Shaking his head, Wilmington said, "not yet. Y’ know it won’t last, pard. We’re gonna have to get outta here."
Nodding in agreement, the gunman said, "I know. We’ve got to give him some time to rest, though. He won’t last ten miles right now."
"Chris, I don’t mean t’ sound like a crepe hanger, but – "
"Don’t say it, Buck. He’ll make it. He’s strong."
Wilmington started to point out the reality of the situation, but one look of the barely contained rage and fear in his oldest friends face stopped him. Instead, he only nodded. "All right. I’ll double back a mile or so, see what’s going on."
"Watch your back… worrying about one friend is enough," Larabee admitted.
Offering a broad, cocky smile to the somber man, the big man said, "ah hell, stud, I ain’t gonna get any new holes in this big ol’ handsome, manly – "
Attempting a glare, but with a glint of humor in his hazel eyes, the blond said, "I should just shoot you myself."
With a chuckle, the big man slapped his friend on the back and strode off toward the horses.
Larabee watched until he disappeared, then turned back to where the other two peacekeepers were. Squatting on his haunches beside the fire, he poured two mugs of coffee, carrying them both to where Ezra sat beside Vin. Holding one out to the gambler, he said, "he told me to tell you that this wasn’t your fault."
The auburn head snapped up and green eyes bored into him. "What?"
"Vin asked me to tell you that it isn’t your fault."
Standish looked away, blinking rapidly as he sought to regain the composure he was swiftly losing. "I.. I’m grateful for the sentiments, however – "
"However, if Vin says it’s not your fault…" He paused, then looked into the stricken face. "it’s not your fault, Ezra."
The Southerner’s adams apple worked furiously as he fought the emotions that welled up from the sense of trust he felt in the gunman’s words. He knew that, if Vin had said otherwise, Chris would be just as likely to shoot him. And he wouldn’t blame the man. His foolish actions could still very well cost the quiet young tracker his life. But then, looking back at the gunman, all he could say was, "thank you, Chris."
Buck kept his horse in the dwindling morning shadows of the hills and under the cover of the trees as he searched the landscape for signs that they were in danger of being found. Finding a good vantage point, he reined General in and simply watched.
But, while his attention was on the open plains before him, his mind was a mile back, in the little clearing. He knew that if pure grit meant anything, Vin would be up and about in no time. However, the more realistic part of his mind was sure that Tanner wouldn’t make it back to town alive.
The gunfighter had gone off to watch for signs of pursuit, leaving him alone with Vin. Ezra watched waves of pain course through the lean frame in the form of harsh shivers, causing Tanner to grimace and moan, even though he didn’t awaken. He continued to bathe the ashen features, doing his best to keep the sharpshooter from succumbing to his injury.
Suddenly Vin cried out weakly and began to struggle. He pressed his hands against the man’s shoulders, but the Texan continued to fight against something that only he could see. "Mr. Tanner… Vin. You need to calm down… you’re all right. You’re all right, Vin."
His words had no effect, and the sharpshooter continued to toss and turn in pain-filled delirium. He was at a loss as to what to say or do to get through to the injured man. Then, suddenly, the answer came in the form of a black clad figure. Standish watched as Chris knelt beside Tanner, lightly resting a hand on the ashen forehead.
"It’s all right, Vin. You’re safe." Almost magically, the thin frame stilled and Tanner slipped into a peace-filled sleep with a sigh.
Ezra sat back, watching the brief exchange with something akin to amazement. Then his heart sank as it all became clear. Of course he wouldn’t be able to get through to the feverish man. It was all his fault that he had been injured in the first place, and Vin surely hated him for it. Standish groaned softly, covering his eyes with one hand. Scrubbing roughly over his face, the gambler pushed himself to his feet and stumbled away from the scene before him.
Behind him, Larabee watched the younger man bolt away, confusion filling his handsome face. He had no idea what had gone on between Tanner and Standish in that town, but it couldn’t have been good. Then he heard a soft mumble and his attention turned back to the slender body on the ground beside him. He saw a thin edge of pale blue appear in slightly parted lids. "Vin?"
"Yeah, it’s me. How you doin’?"
Nodding, Chris said in soft but straightforward terms, "you got a knife in the back, and you’ve got a fever. Think you can take a little water?"
The tip of the man’s tongue appeared, trying in vain to wet parched lips. All he could manage was, "mmm".
Carefully the black clad man lifted his friend’s head up enough to allow him to drink. He pressed the lip of the canteen against bloodless lips and coaxed his friend to sip slowly. After a few sips, he took the canteen away and lowered the sweat-soaked head back to the blanket.
Tanner was nearly unconscious, but moaned softly, "thanks."
With a smile that didn’t reach his worried eyes, Larabee responded, "you’re welcome."
A frown furrowed the dark brows, and Vin managed, "Ezra?"
"Nearby. He’s fine," Chris said, anticipating the next question.
"Watching to see if we need to ride."
"Not gonna argue the point, y’ damn scrawny Texan," Larabee growled, not certain who he was angry at. "We leave together or we stand together. I’ve got your back, Tanner, I’m not leaving you here."
"I… but," Vin gave up, knowing he didn’t have the strength to continue the argument. Finally sighing, he lay quietly, too tired to do more than groan occasionally as fever and pain coursed through his body.
Gently wiping the perspiration from the pale face, Larabee said, "that’s better. Rest. You’re gonna need your strength for later. Think you could handle some broth?"
Again the brow furrowed over closed eyes, and Vin considered the question. Finally, "don’t… know."
"Well, let’s try and see how it goes," the older man said soothingly. He picked up a half-filled mug that had been left to steep for the injured tracker. Once more lifting his friend up enough to drink, he coaxed the semi-conscious man to sip some of the strong brew. After a few sips, Tanner succumbed to the darkness, his head lolling limply against the dark-clad arm. Setting the mug aside, the blond once more lowered the younger man to the ground.
Sitting back, he watched Vin for several minutes, grateful for each rise and fall of the lean, muscular chest. Finally, satisfied that the younger man was still with them, he allowed himself to begin to relax.
It wasn’t meant to be.
Ezra slid into the clearing, his gambler’s face replaced with one expressing only too well his sense of worry and concern. "Chris. Buck’s coming in, riding hard."
"Damn," the blond muttered as he rose and began gathering up the few things scattered around the camp. If Wilmington was moving fast, it could mean only one thing. Tossing a pair of saddlebags to the smaller man, he ordered, "get the horses, I’ll get Vin ready."
His emerald eyes slid toward the unconscious man, the Southerner nodded as he hurried toward where their animals were tethered.
Chris knelt back beside the sharpshooter. Reaching out a hand to carefully touch his friend, he nearly whispered, "Vin?"
"Gotta… go," Tanner mumbled, his eyes opening to slits, then closing once more.
"Yeah. Sorry. Ezra’s getting the horses, and Buck will be here in a few minutes. You’re gonna ride with me," he finished firmly.
"Ain’t… argu’n," the Texan slurred. "Too… too damn… damn t’red."
Although he tried to hide it, knew the younger man didn’t see him, Chris’ face fell as he heard that admission. Vin Tanner never gave up the chance to try and get his way, and would try and argue the claws off a grizzly. For him to simply allow his friend to make the decisions was too far out of character to go unnoticed. Larabee prayed that the sharpshooter wasn’t giving up and slipping away. Fighting the fear that tied his gut into a thousand knots, the gunman rose and lifted his friend into his arms. Tanner hung there limply, his head dropping to rest on a black-clad shoulder.
By the time Buck rode into the clearing, the other two men were settling Vin before Chris in the saddle. They were atop Peso, the big black rested and ready to go. Wilmington reined in abreast of his friends, nodding solemnly. "We need t’ ride hard. Ain’t gonna be easy on ‘m."
"Don’t think anything will be right now," Larabee said softly, shaking his head. Adjusting his hold slightly, he took up the reins and nodded to the men on either side of him. "Let’s ride."
They rode as quickly as the tracker’s injuries could stand throughout much of the morning and on into the afternoon. The man they were trying to save lay limply in his best friend’s arms, the occasional moan or breathless cry the only sounds he made. Chris did his best to keep Vin still and safe, holding him close to his chest. But the limp limbs dangled and the sweat-soaked head shifted suddenly to crash against his jaw, and time and again he nearly lost his hold on the other man. Finally he knew they needed to stop, and called to the other men. They slowed, looking for a new hiding place.
Settling on a shallow hollow among the hills, they drew the horses to a halt just as the sun moved steadily toward its evening perch on the horizon. Handing Vin down to Buck’s waiting arms, Chris stifled a groan and stretched his arms to relieve the tension of literally holding his friend’s life in them.
After Ezra quickly spread a blanket out, Buck carefully lay the unconscious form on it, gently straightening the long, listless limbs. Straightening, he put voice to what Chris had realized some time earlier. "He’s burnin’ up."
Nodding, Larabee said, "we’ve got to stay put for a while… let him rest. He can’t stand another ride like that."
"Mister Larabee," Standish began.
"You’re not giving yourself over to them," Chris said, not looking at the younger man. "We’ll stay out of sight and hope they ride past."
"And if they don’t?"
Locking eyes with the Southerner, he said, "then we stand and fight… together."
Kelsey Lyle was not particularly a large man, but he seemed that way to most everyone he met. And surrounding himself with very large men who did his bidding only made him seem larger. He commanded respect and loyalty, and knew only too well how to surround himself with people who would give him both without question. All it usually took was money. And Kelsey Lyle had plenty of that.
"Anything?" Lyle looked down from his large, pure white, mount. He watched the two men before him shifting uncomfortably, and knew that they weren’t delivering good news.
"N-no, sir," Bob Watson stammered. "Cain’t find h-hide ‘ner hair a them f-fellas."
Frowning, the man who was intent on building an empire that encompassed much of the territory said, "how hard is it to find a fancy man and a half-dead saddle tramp?"
Shrugging, Watson looked at his friend, hoping that Simmons would speak up. To his dismay, Carl Simmons simply grimaced and found something interesting to study on the toe of his boot. With a shuddering sigh, Watson filled the silence. "They picked up a c-couple a friends, Mr. Lyle. Reckon th’… th’ others must ‘a helped ‘m h-hide. We f-followed th’ trail for awhile… found where they holed up… but they’re gone. Grounds too rocky… we… we lost ‘m."
Cursing and spitting a wad of tobacco that landed in the middle of Watson’s chest, Kelsey Lyle barked out, "we’re gonna find ‘m, and all four a them men are gonna die. Get your mangy hides on your horses, and lets go!"
Wiping at the brown mass on his shirt and flinching at Lyle’s growled orders, Watson and his silent companion hurried to where their horses stood, heads down and exhausted. A few seconds later, the posse was once more on the hunt.
They hadn’t found water, so had to make do with what they had in their canteens. Larabee was grateful that Ezra had thought ahead and filled them before they were forced to leave. He poured a little of the cool liquid into his kerchief and ran it over the tracker’s ashen features. Vin moaned, then sighed as he registered the touch of cool against his skin.
"Take it easy, pard," Chris said softly. He forced a smile as twin slivers of blue appeared. "welcome back."
The tip of his tongue appeared, parting his dry lips. Finally Tanner managed, "mmm."
Lifting the younger man’s head, the gunman fed him a little of the water. Pulling the canteen away after a few sips, he responded to the furrowed brow and muttered protest. "Last thing you need is to get sick. I’ll give you some more in a few minutes."
"Wh-where… where we… at?"
"About halfway home, holed up for now. "
"Cause… cause a… me," Tanner managed. "N-need t’… ride."
"We’re fine and you’re not calling the shots. We’ll leave when I figure it’s time, not before."
Again the younger man frowned. He opened his mouth to protest, but discovered he didn’t have the energy. He lay limply as Chris lifted him farther up, prodding at his shoulder. He felt cool air against his skin and realized that he was stripped to the waist. He lay against his friend’s chest, comforted by the sound of the other man’s steady heartbeat. Comforted because he knew that, if the wound was sour, Larabee would respond. While his companion might be able to keep his concern from registering in his face, the beat of his heart would be a sure give away. Strong and steady, Chris Larabee’s heart told him that he would be all right.
The blond felt his friend relax against him, one corner of his mouth quirking up in a brief smile. He knew Vin didn’t allow himself to relax around others as a rule, and took it as a sign of trust that Tanner did so with him. He checked the wound carefully, relieved that it wasn’t bleeding or showing signs of infection. The battle was by no means over. Fever, blood loss and shock could still win out. But, for now, Vin seemed out of the woods.
Allowing himself a brief show of emotion, the gunman held his friend, gently rubbing a hand across the lean back. Carefully lowering Tanner to the ground, he made certain that the injured man was as comfortable as possible. Pulling another blanket up over the rangy form, he once more bathed the ashen face. Watching the Texan for a few minutes, he was satisfied that Vin was sleeping. Leaning back to stretch still aching muscles, he was surprised to find that Ezra and Buck had set up a meager camp.
"How is he?" Wilmington asked from where he sat beside the small fire.
"Feverish, but no sign of bleeding or infection. If we can just stay put until tomorrow, I think he’ll be fine."
Nodding, Buck said, "hope we managed to keep our tracks hidden well enough, and it’ll be dark in an hour or so."
"Did you see how many were coming after us?"
"Looked like ten… fifteen maybe."
"We need to check ammunition… see if we can hold off that many."
"Chris," Standish entered the conversation. "There is no reason for any more lives to be put at risk. I’ll ride back there, give myself up – "
"Damn it Ezra!" Even Vin flinched at the anger in Larabee’s tone. "We’ve covered this all ready. You’re not going to sacrifice yourself."
"But it is me they’re after!"
"It doesn’t matter. We’re not gonna ride off and leave you to face them alone. We’ll hide out here… fight them if we need to – "
"But it’s my fault!"
Chris and Buck looked at the angry young gambler. He stood ramrod straight, facing the other two men, fisted arms rigid at his sides. He fairly trembled with the emotions that roared through him. he couldn’t continue to stand by, watching Vin fight for his life, when he could do something about it. He was in no rush to meet his maker, but if anyone was worth it, Vin Tanner was. Looking down at the still form, he repeated in a fervent whisper, "it’s my fault."
Any argument that was going to come from his riding companions was stifled, though. None of them moved as they heard the sound of horses approaching. Wilmington quickly kicked dirt over the small fire, dousing the low flames that shown in the early evening shadows. Chris stayed where he was, kneeling beside Tanner, in case the fever caused his usually quiet friend to cry out. Ezra turned on his heel, ready to give himself up, but stopped. Too late. It was too late to do the right thing. All that he could do now was to fight beside the other men.
Fear was a good tool in keeping men in line. Kelsey Lyle had learned that many years ago at his father’s knee. He had tried to instill the same lesson in his own son, but Ellis had been a disappointment from birth. Taking his mother’s life as he came into the world, Ellis had failed to do anything right from that moment on. Right up until the day he died.
Fear was about to provide him with the revenge he sought. Not for his son’s life… no, that was a minor inconvenience. He had other sons from his last two wives that were far more deserving of the Lyle name. No, he sought revenge on the men who had been so bold as to think they could make a fool of him.
They would pay. And soon.
"You sure we’re following the right tracks?"
"Yes sir, Mr. Lyle. Ain’t no others fresh enough t’ be th’ men we’re lookin’ for," Watson replied. He was calmer now, less worried that his life would be forfeit to the old man’s anger. Watson had managed to find the trail in the hard, rocky earth, redeeming himself to his employer.
Lyle studied the man riding slightly before him, looked into the evening sky, then finally nodded. "All right then, let’s get after them."
They barely breathed, each man praying their pursuers would ride past their hiding place without finding them. Larabee heard a soft sound and spared a quick look down to where Vin lay. The sharpshooter was stirring, eyes opening to half-mast, searching the landscape around him. Chris put a hand on the other man’s shoulder, silently urging him to stay quiet.
Tanner knew immediately what was going on, and nodded his understanding. His hand moved to his hip, reaching for his hogleg. He struggled to loosen the thong and pull the weapon free.
Larabee saw what the other man was doing and silently cursed. He knew Vin didn’t have the strength to even pull the trigger, but also knew that he would try. Moving silently, he released the sawed off shotgun and placed it in Tanner’s grasp. He watched as the sharpshooter relaxed, smiling his thanks as he closed his hand over the stock.
Buck and Ezra took up positions on either side of the entrance to the little hollow. Wilmington watched the Southerner with concern, knowing that the man was weighed down with guilt. He wondered as to what had happened to bring on the pain he saw darkening the green eyes. He just hoped that he would have the chance to ask the man about it when this was all over.
Ezra felt the bigger man’s eyes on him, but refused to return the look. He doubted very much that he would ever be able to look any of the men he had learned to call ‘friend’ in the eye again. He didn’t deserve to… didn’t deserve the honor of being in their number. When this was all over he would ride away… before they sent him packing.
The sound of approaching riders became louder.
They held their guns at the ready.
They held their breath.
The sound slowed. Stopped.
"I have twelve men… there are four of you. All I want is justice for what the fancy man and that saddle tramp he was with did. Send them out and you other two can go."
"Don’t think so," Buck replied, a wry grin making his mustache twitch.
"Perhaps you don’t know who I am."
"We know," Larabee said, his soft voice carrying across the distance. "We just don’t care."
"I can kill all four of you just as easily," Lyle’s voice was harsh now, the conversational tone gone.
"Reckon you can try," Buck responded.
"Buck," Ezra hissed, "if I give myself up – "
"They’ll still want Vin. You heard ‘im, stud. You ready t’ give him over to that bastard?"
"I’ll talk to them, tell them Vin’s dead."
"No," Wilmington said simply, turning away from the smaller man.
"You have one minute to give them over, or we come in after them," came the next threat.
"Come on in now," Chris called, "let’s just get this over with."
A shot rang out from the hill to their right, spitting the earth into the air only inches from the blond’s foot. He wheeled and fired in the same second, and they were rewarded with a startled cry. "Now you’ve got eleven men."
"We have you surrounded. Send them out and you can ride away."
"Don’t think so," Chris thumbed another bullet into the empty chamber. He scanned the hills on either side of them, looking for more of Lyle’s men. He caught the glint of the dying sun on metal to his left and quickly dispatched another man. "Now you’ve got ten men."
"Get ‘m boys!" Kelsey Lyle screamed in anger, sending his men into a charge.
Chris reached down and grabbed Vin’s good arm, pulling the injured man farther into the shadows. He heard the sharpshooter’s startled cry of surprise and pain, but ignored it. Settling Tanner back on the ground, he stood in front of him, doing everything he could to protect his friend.
The first two men entering the hollow fell quickly, Buck’s bullet in one and Ezra’s in the other. With Lyle, that left them with nine men to fight off. Three more entered and one fell immediately, felled by Larabee’s bullet. Buck clubbed one with the but of his gun when the fool ran right passed him. Ezra shot the third in the shoulder, the man’s ability to fight rendered useless. He fell to the ground, crying out as blood poured through his fingers.
The next man fell with Chris’ bullet in his chest and Buck’s in his leg. His cries rang out for a long minute before he fell silent.
No one else entered the hollow. Lyle had finally realized that his frontal assault was going to be no more successful than sending men to surprise them from the hills. Chris squatted down beside Vin, working to make his friend more comfortable.
"He…help me… up," Tanner ordered through gritted teeth.
"You stay put, we’ve got them cut by more than half all ready." He frowned as Vin struggled to push himself up with one arm. Cursing the hard headed Texan, he helped him ease up to sit against a tree. "You fall over, I ain’t pickin’ you up."
Tanner glared at him through watery eyes, but didn’t have the strength to retort. He managed to pull his hogleg into his lap, then leaned back and closed his eyes to gather what little strength he had left.
Shots rang out from both sides of their hiding place, sending the men into action. Chris straddled Vin’s outstretched legs, firing with deadly accuracy to fell another of their attackers. Then he felt fire burn along the edge of his scalp, pain erupting in its wake. With a grunt he staggered forward a step, turned, and fired. While his own bullet went wide, Ezra’s found its mark and sent another man to hell.
Chris slumped to the ground, falling sideways as the world went black. He vaguely heard Vin call his name, but couldn’t find his tongue to respond.
Buck saw his old friend fall, cursing at the sight of blood pouring from the side of his head. Then gunfire pulled his attention away, as bullets rained down on them from two different directions. He was forced to take cover as the gunfire pushed them away from the opening of their hiding place.
Ezra saw Chris fall, and saw the blood flowing freely from his head wound. Another injury to one of his compatriots because of him. Because of him. Ignoring his own well-being, he dashed across the open ground toward the two fallen men.
"Ezra!" Buck cried out.
Ignoring the ladies man’s call, the Southerner skidded to a stop, then dropped down beside the man in black. He placed his hand on the broad, black-covered chest and was quickly rewarded with a strong heartbeat. Carefully, he pulled Larabee close to Vin, then positioned himself to guard them from further attack.
Heaving a sigh, Wilmington turned his full attention back to the battle. He sighted another of their attackers and fired.
From where he knelt in front of his two wounded comrades, Standish fired into the hills.
Lyle. It had to be Lyle.
They heard the sound of a single horse. Riding away.
Buck stood away from his hiding place, grinning widely at the gambler. "Reckon revenge didn’t have the same appeal without anyone to do his dirty work."
Ezra sighed and nodded. Holstering his gun, he turned back to the two injured men. To his relief, Larabee’s eyes fluttered open, staring unfocused in his direction. "Mr. Larabee? Chris?"
"Wh-what…ha… happened?" He managed to ask.
"One of Lyle’s men decided to take off a chunk of your scalp, ol’ son," Buck supplied as he came to stand over his friends. Turning to Standish, he said, "if you can handle patchin’ him up, I’ll go check on Lyle’s men. Hate to have one of ‘m play ‘possum on us."
"I’m f-fine," Larabee growled weakly, trying unsuccessfully to lift his throbbing head from the ground.
"You lay still, hoss, let Ezra take care a y’," Buck ordered. Satisfied that his friend had no choice but to comply, he hurried away to check on their attackers.
Standish quickly set to work, and soon had Chris’ wound cleaned and bound in boiled muslin. The gunman drifted in and out of consciousness, but was able to respond to the grifter’s questions when he was awake. Ezra was quickly less worried about a concussion than he was blood loss. He watched the wound closely, leaving Larabee’s side only when he was satisfied that the bleeding had stopped.
He moved to Vin’s side, then, checking on the sharpshooter. Tanner had lost consciousness at some point, and lay slumped awkwardly against the tree. Ezra managed to ease him back to the ground, making him as comfortable as possible.
Wilmington returned to find the Southerner rebuilding the fire and mixing up two mugs of Nathan’s ‘boiled skunk’ for their injured friends. Both men were covered to the chin with blankets, and looked for all the world as if they were only peacefully sleeping now. He grinned, "looks like you’ve got it all taken care of here, stud."
"Yes, well no thanks to you," Standish managed to tease.
"Well hell, I was up there in the hills, riskin’ life an’ limb, makin’ sure Lyle’s boys ‘re all taken care of!"
"And are they?"
Growing serious now, Wilmington nodded, "ain’t gonna have any problems with them boys, now. Couple of ‘m are still kickin’, so I kept their guns an’ sent ‘m packin’ tied to their saddles. We’ve got enough on our hands right now."
Blue eyes growing dark with contained rage, the big ex-lawman said, "there’s something else too. Found this on one a them sons a bitches."
Staring up into the blue eyes, Standish saw pain in the dark depths. Then he saw a flash of silver dangling from the big man’s hand. He quickly recognized the tiny, silver crucifix as Inez’s. It had been a gift from Wilmington to the lovely young senorita just a few weeks earlier, for her birthday. He had helped the mustached romantic pick it out personally, and had even ‘allowed’ the big man to win several games of poker in order to have the price of the fine piece of jewelry. "It would seem that we have… literally… killed two birds with one stone so to speak."
"Looks that way."
"There’s still Lyle."
Nodding, Buck said, "don’t think he’ll come back alone. We’ll have to keep our look out for him though. Don’t see him just lettin’ this all go."
"They can’t ride yet."
"I know. We’ll stay here ‘til mornin’. Don’t think he’ll be able to get a new posse up ‘til sometime tomorrow. We’ll head out at first light, get back to town as quick as we can."
Chris’ periods of consciousness and lucidity lengthened throughout the hours to come. Nearby, Vin fought the fever that had wracked his thin frame for hours until, just as another dawn arrived, it broke. They bathed the slowly cooling body and helped him into fresh clothes. He helped as much as he could, but was able to do little other than grumble at their attentions and his continued weakness. While Buck saw to Chris, Ezra helped Vin take care of his body’s long neglected needs. Then, settling him against a tree trunk, he helped him with breakfast. Finished with getting their friends ready, Wilmington and Standish readied the horses. Larabee insisted on riding Pony, but Vin was outnumbered, and lifted into the saddle in front of Buck.
They rode slow and steady throughout the day, stopping often to allow Buck and Vin to change horses, to allow both Tanner and Larabee a chance to rest, and to watch their back trail. Relief flowed each time they were certain that they weren’t being followed.
Their last day on the trail was uneventful, the moon shedding its light on the little town as they entered it. Reining in at the foot of the long staircase leading to the clinic, Buck stayed with the injured men while Ezra dashed up the stairs. He returned with Nathan a few minutes later, and together they got Chris and Vin out of the saddle and up the stairs.
The rest of the night passed peacefully enough. Buck left for his own bed… or at least that was his story… but Ezra insisted on remaining to help watch over Larabee and Tanner. By the next morning, the exhausted gambler left only after Jackson assured him that both men would be well enough to leave the clinic for their own rooms by evening.
Stepping out onto the landing, Ezra Standish struggled to answer one question. Should he ride out now, or wait until he had gotten a little sleep? Doubting he would find sleep
easy to come by any time soon, the gambler left for his room to pack.
A few minutes later, Standish slumped against the closed door, exhausted. He scrubbed a hand across aching eyes, and stared blearily around his room. Sighing, he started toward his closet to grab his bag. Then his attention turned toward his big feather bed, and he sighed, longingly this time. He hadn’t slept in days, and felt every muscle screaming for rest. Looking from closet to bed and back again indecisively. Finally, his body’s needs won out over his desire to get as far away as possible, as quickly as possible, and he pulled off his filthy jacket and dropped it to the rocking chair. His hat, holster, and hide-out rig followed. Toeing off his boots he collapsed on the bed, asleep before his head settled on the pillow.
Vin sighed as he finally returned to wakefulness. Pushing heavy eyelids open, he stared unfocused around him. His gaze settled on a fuzzy figure that he decided must be Nathan. The deep voice that greeted him confirmed it.
"’Bout time you opened them eyes for me."
"How… long?" He rasped in little more than a whisper.
"You been in town since last night. Buck said y’ got hurt a couple a days ‘fore they got y’ here."
Groaning softly, he rubbed a hand over his face, letting it drop back to lay across the pillow above his head. He frowned as a muddled vision of his best friend falling before him came to mind. "Chris?"
"Sleepin’ over yonder," Jackson nodded toward the far corner of the little clinic as he helped Tanner up enough to slip a second pillow under his head. Handing the young man a tin cup of cool water, he stayed close to make sure his patient was up to the task of drinking by himself.
Finishing the cup, Tanner handed the mug back to the healer, and leaned back on the pillows. "How is he?"
"Better than you at th’ moment. Got a crease along th’ side of his head, but he’s not muddled in his thinkin’ or anything. Now, how are you feelin’?"
"Been better," the Texan admitted. "How long ‘m I in fer this time?"
With a deep chuckle, the dark man said, "if you’re feelin’ up to it I’ll let you go this evening… long ‘s you take a room at th’ hotel."
"M’ wagon’s – "
"Drafty and out on th’ street. I want you t’ get some true rest, and I know y’ don’t sleep deep out there."
"Y’ been spyin’ on me?" Blue eyes slanted toward the other man beneath furrowed brows.
Shaking his head, the bigger man said, "only when you’re hurt. Now, we got a deal?"
Huffing, the injured man said, "yeah, I reckon."
Patting the man’s uninjured shoulder he said, "good, cos I already had ‘m put one in your name for th’ next two weeks."
Glaring down at the Texan, Jackson said, "want me to make it three?"
Glaring back, but without the strength to sustain it, Vin said, "fine… two weeks. I ain’t stayin’ cooped up there all th’ time, though."
Stretching himself up from the edge of the bed, Nathan said, "we’ll talk about it later. I’m gonna go get you ‘n Chris some breakfast. Stay put."
"I’ll make sure he does," a quiet voice came from the cot on the other side of the room.
Turning toward his other patient, the former stretcher bearer said, "you do th’ same, Chris Larabee."
"I’m fine, Nathan."
"You’re fine when I say you’re fine. Stay put."
Larabee’s indignant cry was answered only by the sound of the door slamming shut.
He blinked his eyes open, groaning as it felt as if his lids were made of sandpaper. Standish frowned as he realized that the sun shining into his room was not that of the morning, but the afternoon. With a muttered curse, he pushed himself up on the bed, swinging his feet over the side. He had meant to be long gone by now, far away from the town. Far away from his friends.
Far away from his guilt.
With a harsh bark of laughter, Ezra shook his head. ‘As if I can ever leave that behind.’ Struggling to force his sleep fogged mind to function, he went to his closet and began stuffing his belongings into a bag.
Larabee sat on one of the bottom steps that led to Nathan’s clinic, leaning against an upright as he drew deeply on a cheroot. Jackson had released him just after lunch, after securing his promise that he would take it easy and retire early to his own room. The healer had needed to go check on Inez, who was slowly recovering. She had been moved to Mary’s apartment behind the newspaper, where the young editor was helping to care for her. The seriously injured saloon manager would need another few weeks to convalesce.
Both Nathan and Chris knew that they could rely on Vin to try and slip out of the clinic early, so the blond had agreed to post himself as sentry while the former slave was gone.
He frowned when he saw Ezra, carrying a heavy bag in one hand, his saddlebags slung over a shoulder, rushed by without noticing him.
"Where’s he… go’n?"
Larabee spared a look behind him, shaking his head as Tanner… barefoot and shirtless… shuffled down the last few steps to join him. "You’re supposed to be in bed."
"Quit ch-changin’ th’ subject," he said breathlessly. "Where’s Ez…Ezra goin’?"
"Don’t remember being appointed his keeper this week."
Shaking his head, the gunman said, "I don’t know."
"Reckon… reckon we ought’a go check… ‘t out?"
Knowing that Tanner would go with or without him, the gunman rose from the step and nodded. "I reckon so."
They moved around the big building, going to the wide door of the livery, Chris moving slowly to accommodate his still-weakened friend. By the time they moved inside to where Standish was readying his chestnut, Vin was trembling, his steps unsteady. Larabee led him to a stool and guided him to its seat. Settling the sharpshooter, the blond turned to his other friend.
Standish’s head snapped up and he stared at the two men in shock. "I… uh… that is… I was – "
"Running out on us?"
"No! No, I was simply… taking a… a little trip."
"Where to?" Tanner entered the conversation.
Green eyes flashed as the gambler said defensively, "I don’t believe that is any of your business."
Looking up at his co-interrogator, the Texan nodded, "runnin’ out on us."
"Thought we’d all gotten past waiting for you to skip out on us."
"I am not running out on you!"
"Then you must have important business somewhere. Big game someplace? When you gonna be back?"
"I’m not… I won’t… damn it!" The gambler growled as he looked from the smug looking man in black and the open expression of concern on their wounded Robin Hood. Suddenly all the feelings he had been struggling with for days welled to the surface. Dropping the bag he had just begun to secure to his horse, the Southerner advanced on the two men, anger flushing his face. "I thought it best to leave now, before you saw to it that I departed. Please do not insult me by trying to say I’m not right!"
With a sigh, Vin pushed himself up from the stool, groaning softly as his injured arm protested the movement. He swayed slightly, thankful for Larabee’s strong hand steadying him. Blinking tears of pain from his eyes, he said softly, "y’ damn fool. Ain’t no one blamin’ y’ fer what happened but you. Now if it’ll make y’ feel better, I’ll say I’m mad at y’."
"And I suppose that’s supposed to make me see how wrong I am?"
"Damn it Vin, how can you stand there and expect me to believe that you’re not angry at me for what happened?"
"What did happen, Ezra?" Larabee prompted.
"What happened? What happened?" The gambler growled. "I nearly got Vin killed, that Is what happened!"
"Reckon I’ve looked better… but I ain’t dead," Tanner said quietly.
"Thanks to Chris and Buck. They kept you from death’s clutches."
"You were right there with us," Chris said with a shake of his head.
"An’ they weren’t even there t’… t’ git me outta town." Tanner knew he was going to have to make his point soon as the world began to grow dark at the edges.
"Yes, well if they had been with you, you wouldn’t have been in the predicament at all."
"Yeah, maybe he’d have been with me, and I could have gotten him in the middle of a gunfight. Or maybe he’d have had to rescue Buck from some woman’s husband."
"No, you listen to me, Standish. None of us can be sure our past or our lifestyle won’t cause problems for one of the others."
"Damn it, listen! We’re trying to make you understand that it was an accident. Pure and simple – "
Larabee watched as the gambler leapt past him and grabbed hold of Tanner as he started to slump toward the ground. The blond helped settle his friend back on the stool. "Shit, Tanner, why didn’t you say something?"
"Couldn’t… git a wo…word in," Vin grimaced as pain shot through his shoulder.
"We need to get you back to bed," Ezra said, kneeling beside the injured man.
"You sayin’ y-y’d rather… ride off a… alone… feelin’ g-guilty fer… fer no… no reason?" He slumped sideways, Chris steadying him against his shoulder. Both men stared expectantly toward the Southerner.
With a wry grin the gambler shook his head. "I have the feeling that, if I did leave, I’d have six consciences riding after me." He looked first at Chris, the fresh bandage wrapped around his head, then at Vin, pale but determined to right the wrong he saw. He fought back tears, swallowed the lump in his throat, and realized that they were right. Whether or not it was his fault that Vin had been injured, he was the only one that blamed him for it.
Standing, he offered his hand to the tracker. He watched a smile spread across the handsome features as Tanner took his hand and allowed himself to be lifted up. With Chris on Vin’s other side, the three men started from the livery. As they reached the street, the afternoon sun caused the blond to groan and hold his head.
"Ah, hell," Standish muttered. Shifting his hold from the Texan’s injured side, he moved around to stand between Tanner and Larabee. Wrapping his arm around the gunman, shifting his hold on the tracker, he began muttering as he led both injured men back toward the clinic.
"Heaven knows I’d better stay. It would seem that someone with common sense needs to keep the two of you in line. It doesn’t look as if you can manage on your own…" his words continued as they moved slowly along.
Kelsey Lyle looked up from where he sat hunched over a bottle of whiskey. He had been soaking his injured ego in bottle after bottle for two weeks. Since he had returned to town with his tail between his legs, followed a few hours later by two of his men, half dead, tied to their saddles. He had sent men out into the surrounding area searching for the men who had escaped his wrath. One of those men stood before him now.
"We found ‘m. Them four are part a that bunch a hired guns over in Four Corners."
"Travis’ hired dogs," Lyle growled.
"Yes sir. One of ‘m… Chris Larabee… he’s got a reputation – "
"I’ve heard of him," the man said impatiently. "Damn, no wonder they managed to take out my men. I won’t make the same mistake twice."
Lyle fell quiet, as he considered his next step. He would have to gather more men… men who could go up against the likes of the gunslinger and his six men. The next time he met up with the men who had scarred his reputation, he would make certain that he would come out the winner. He could wait, because next time he would not be the one riding away with his tail between his legs. The next time it would be Larabee and his men who would be left bleeding into the dirt.
The next time.
The End… for now