A Test of Friendship--8

Larabee didn't know he'd turned Pony around until he saw the familiar farm in the distance. He breathed deeply trying to rid himself of the foreboding feeling clamped on his heart. 'Please, God, don't let me be too late again,' he thought as he felt Pony's strides lengthening.

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"Don't ya go doin' nothin' stupid and ya might jest live ta see another day, darkie," Warner snarled as he slammed open the door and entered the house.

Jackson turned as the door hit the wall and reached for the Spencer Carbine but wasn't fast enough as he heard the cocking of a pistol. "Who the hell are you?" he snapped, his mind filled with fear for Nettie Wells.

"Not that it's any of yer business but I've come to collect Tanner. Ya see he's got a date with a noose in Tascosa and I got a date with the five hundred dollars on his head. Gonna have me a grand ol' time at Tanner's expense," Warner laughed as he closed the door. Now where is he?"

"Tanner's gone," Jackson lied.

"Like hell he is. Turn around, Darkie," Warner snarled.

Nathan did as he was told and soon felt the butt of the pistol impact with the back of his head. A wall of darkness descended and his last thoughts were for the injured man in Nettie Wells' bedroom.

Warner moved to the bedrooms. The first one turned up nothing but in the second he found the longhaired sharpshooter trying to get off the bed. He'd managed to get his pants and shirt on but left the buttons undone. "That's it, Tanner, get on yer feet and we'll be on our way."

"W...who are y...you?" Tanner asked as he struggled up on shaky legs, perspiration forming on his forehead and chest, pain etched on his face as he stared at the man in the doorway.

"Don't matter who I am. What matters is I know who you are and how much yer worth. Now move yer mangy hide away from the bed and let's get moving before the others come back."

"Go to hell!"

Now, Tanner, ya go givin' me any grief and I'm just gonna have ta kill the darkie and the old woman. Now ya gonna cooperate or do I just shoot em both?"

"D...don't shoot em," Tanner gasped as he straightened up.

"Then let's go," Warner ordered. Moving back to let the swaying man precede him out the door.

Vin ignored the fiery pain in his side as he stumbled out of the room. His eyes went to the prone form of the healer and he worried whether he was alive or not. He moved to check but a vicious fist to the face sent him flying across the floor. He lay on his side waiting for the room to right itself as the bounty hunter moved towards him. "Yer a dead man," he hissed through his split lip, blood running down his chin.

"Not from where I stand. Now get up and move," Warner ordered.

Vin forced his legs to obey his brain's sluggish commands and soon stood before the hated man. His blue eyes flashed icy daggers at the man as he moved towards the door.

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Larabee slowed Pony and tethered the horse on the opposite side of the barn. He turned to head towards the house when he heard a muffled sound from the barn. He slipped around the side and entered the darkened interior, his eyes falling immediately on the bound form. He moved quickly and pulled the gag from her mouth. "Are you alright, Mrs. Wells?" he asked as he moved to untie her bound hands.

"I'm ok, Mr. Larabee but there's a bounty hunter after Mr. Tanner."

"You stay here," he warned her as he moved out of the barn.

"You'll need your gun, Mr. Larabee," she warned as he untied the ropes on her ankles.

"I...I know," he stammered as he headed back towards Pony. He took the gun and holster from his saddlebags and buckled them on again, his hands shaking as he buckled the belt. 'Shit,' he thought as he looked around the corner in time to see Vin Tanner stumble outside. He lifted his gun from his pocket and tried to stop his hands from shaking.

"Get Up," Warner snarled as Tanner stumbled to his knees. He grabbed Tanner by the hair and pulled the gasping man to his feet. "I'll kill ya if'n ya do that again," he said as he gouged his gun into the bandage on his prisoner's left side.

Tanner cried out but managed to stay on his feet.

Larabee swore as he saw the bounty hunter holding Vin in front of him. He moved out of the shadows and started walking towards the two men. Not caring that he was setting himself up as the perfect target. The life of his friend depended on what he was about to do and he'd gladly give up his own life to ensure the younger man didn't hang. "Let him go!" he snarled as Vin's soft moans reached his ears.

"Get away, Larabee," Tanner whispered.

"That's right. Get away, Larabee or I'll just kill ya both. Don't matter whether I bring em in dead or alive."

"You shoot him and you'll be dead before your bullet enters his body," the gunslinger warned.

"Heard ya were fast, but ain't nobody that fast," Warner muttered, his voice losing its confidence.

Larabee smiled, weak as he felt from lack of sleep, worry, and not eating he knew he couldn't let this man see it. "Try me," he hissed.

Warner kept his gun in Tanner's side, he knew the man was bleeding again but needed to keep him as a shield. He smiled as he looked at the blond gunslinger. "Maybe," he pulled his gun away from Tanner's side and pointed it at the gunslinger. "I'll kill you first." He snarled.

Larabee saw the gun turning towards him and fought to keep his hand steady. "Vin, drop!" he yelled and was relieved to see the younger man fall to the ground.

Two shots fired as one and Tanner watched as the Bounty hunter fell to the ground, a dark hole in the center of his forehead. He turned panic-stricken eyes towards the blond gunslinger, relieved to see him still standing. He tried to get to his feet but found he didn't have the strength. His broken arm throbbed and he knew the fall had jarred the bones apart once more. "C...Chris," he cried weakly his left hand pressed against his bleeding side.

Nettie Wells hurried from the barn as she saw two men lying in front of her house. She hurried to Vin Tanner's side, wondering why the blond gunslinger wasn't there. She'd seen him standing a few feet away from the barn as she'd run towards the younger man.

"C...Chris," Tanner hissed as he watched the blond stumbling towards them.

"I'm here, Vin," Larabee hissed as he stood over his friend. "I'm just gonna check on Nathan."

"K," the younger man gasped as Nettie ripped her skirt and placed it over the bleeding wound.

Larabee moved to the house, ignoring the deep pain in his own side as he pushed open the door. "Nate," he called as his eyes fell on the man just getting to his knees.

"Chris...Vin? He's got Vin." Jackson gasped as he stumbled towards the door.

"No he doesn't, Nathan, but Vin needs your help. The son of a bitch made him bleed again."

"Dammit," Jackson hissed as he rubbed the back of his head. "We need to get him back in the bed."

Larabee held the duster closed as he moved out the door with Jackson. He watched as the healer knelt beside the younger man and spoke to Nettie Wells. He shook his head to fight back the dizziness he felt. He knew the bounty hunter's bullet was lodged in his side but all thoughts were for the tracker and making sure he was ok.

"Chris, can you help me get him inside?"

Larabee nodded and descended the steps. He reached down and helped Jackson pull Tanner to his feet. Between the two of them they managed to get the semi conscious man into the house and back in Nettie's bed once more.

Nettie came into the room with a basin of water and clean bandages. "Is he gonna be alright, Mr. Jackson?" she asked as the blood soaked bandages were removed from the inflamed wound.

"I need to get the bleeding stopped and close it up with stitches again. Where's Chris?" he asked.

"I just passed him. He's probably gone to make sure that bounty hunter's dead."

"Mrs. Wells, I need you to put pressure on this," he said as he moved to open his saddlebags and get the instruments he'd need.

"N...Nathan...w...where's C...Chris?"

"Just lay still, Vin. Chris is outside taking care of the body. I gotta get you fixed back up before this gets infected again."

Tanner swallowed with some difficulty and tried to tell the healer of his fears. He'd seen something in Larabee's stance that bothered him and he needed to know he was alright. "N...Nathan...hurt..."

"I know it hurts, Vin. I'm gonna give you some Laudanum to help with it."

"N...not me...hurt...Chris..."

"Chris isn't hurt, Vin." Jackson tried to reassure the younger man.

"I...is...two shots...Chris...hit," Tanner gasped as the pain intensified.

"Mrs. Wells, can you stay with him while I check on Chris?"

"Go, Mr. Jackson," Nettie ordered as she continued to apply pressure to the seeping wound.

Nathan hurried from the room in search of the dark clad gunslinger. He checked Casey's room and finding it empty rushed out the door. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the blond sitting on the step. "Chris?"

"How's Vin?" Larabee asked, his hand held to his side in an effort to stop the nausea.

"He's banged up pretty good. What about you?"

"I'm ok. J...just take care of him," Larabee said as he tried to stand up.

"Dammit, Chris," Jackson hissed as he grabbed the swaying figure, pulling back the duster to reveal the bleeding wound in his right side. "Why the hell didn't you say something?"

"V...Vin n...needed you."

"Stubborn, bull headed, hard assed," Jackson hissed as he wrapped the gunslinger's arm around his shoulder and stumbled into the house.

Larabee couldn't help the tiny laugh that escaped him as the healer ran down the length of names in his vocabulary. He felt the edge of the bed against his legs as Jackson lowered him onto it.

"Now let me take a look at ya," Jackson ordered.

"V...Vin first," Larabee hissed.

"Just let me put something on it to stop the bleeding. Did the bullet go through?" Jackson asked as he pulled back the duster and shirt. He pulled the pillowcase off the pillow, rolled it up and placed it against the wound.

"N...no," Larabee gasped as Jackson pressed against his side.

"Damn, look, Chris, Vin's lost a lot of blood and I need to get him stitched up. I want your word that you'll stay here until I get back."

"I d...don't think I c...could get up if I...I wanted too."

"Good, stay put and try to keep pressure on that wound."

"K," the blond answered weakly as the healer left the room.

Jackson ignored the throbbing pain in the back of his head and moved towards the main bedroom. "How is he?"

"I'm f...fine. C...Chris?"

"He's in the other room."

"He ok?"

Jackson knew he couldn't lie. Vin and Chris had a connection and at times like this it was stronger than ever. "I won't lie to ya, Vin," the healer said as he sat in the chair and signalled for Nettie Wells to take her hand off the wound. "He took one in the side. Now you just lie still so I can get ya fixed up and then go look after him."

"C...Chris first."

"Of all the pig headed...look, Vin, I gotta get this stitched up and then I'll go to Chris. Now stop wasting my time arguing and let me get this finished," Jackson ordered as he cleaned the wound and replaced the broken stitches. He placed a clean bandage over the wound and looked at the misshapen arm again. "I need to set that arm again."

"L...later..."

"Mr. Jackson, someone's coming."

"Please let it be Buck," Jackson muttered as the woman hurried out of the room.

Nettie opened the door just as three riders came into her yard. "Thank the Lord," she said as she recognized Casey, Wilmington, and Dunne.

"Who's that?" Dunne asked as he dismounted.

"Bounty hunter. I'll explain later. Mr. Wilmington, get those supplies in to Nathan," she ordered as the ladies man stared at the body on the ground.

"Where's Chris?"

"He's inside. There's no time for this. Come on. Mr. Jackson needs this stuff now," she ordered as she held the door for the men. "Casey, JD, we'll need as much water as you can carry."

"Yes, ma'am," Dunne said as he hurried to the well.

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Buck shook his head as he watched the healer work on the blond gunslinger. He'd helped Jackson fix Tanner's arm and now they were about to remove the bullet from the second patient.

"Buck, hold him down."

Wilmington held Larabee's shoulders while the healer dug for the bullet. A pair of green eyes opened as soon as Jackson sank the tongs into the wound. "Easy, Chris, Nathan's gonna help ya."

"B...Buck, when'd you g...get back?" Larabee asked in an effort to get his mind off the wound in his side.

"About an hour ago, Stud. Shoot can't seem to leave you boys alone for a minute."

"Got it," Jackson hissed as he pulled the bullet free of the wound.

"T...thank God," Larabee groaned as his eyes slid shut.

"I just need to stitch it up," Jackson said as he cleaned the wound.

"He's out, Nate," Wilmington informed him.

"Good, ok, Buck, go check on Vin. Make sure he's not arguing with JD."

"Sure thing, Nate," Wilmington said as he left the room.

"How is he, Mr. Jackson?"

"I got the bullet out and the bleeding stopped. Now as long as we keep them both in bed they should heal."

"Oh, Lordy, that's gonna be a problem," Nettie Wells laughed as she watched the healer finish putting the stitches in the injured man.

"You're telling me," Jackson smiled at her as he placed the final bandage over the wound. He sat back in the chair and rubbed the lump on the back of his head. He felt exhausted as he stood on shaky legs.

"Mr. Jackson, I think it's time you took your own advice and got some rest. Me, Casey, JD, and Mr. Wilmington can look after these two."

Nathan looked at the woman and knew she was right. His head pounded and he felt weak. He reached for the glass of water on the table and drank it greedily. "I think I'll take you up on that. Wake me if they need anything."

"I assure you we will," Nettie told him as they walked out of the room.

"Drink up, Nate," Dunne said as he handed the healer a cup of his own brew.

"JD," Jackson hissed, wrinkling his nose at the offering.

"Now, Mr. Jackson, you need to show these men that you're willing to take your own medicines."

"Yes, Ma'am," Jackson hissed as he drank the bitter brew. He placed the cup back on the table and headed for the barn and some much needed rest.

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The next three days were spent fighting the fevers ravaging both men. Vin's already weakened condition took its toll and the healer wasn't sure if the younger man had the strength to fight this second wave of infections. As much as he hated doing it he finally gave in to Chris's cajoling and allowed Buck to set up a mattress in Nettie Wells' bedroom.

Chris felt weak as he was helped into the larger room on the morning of the third day. He pleaded with Jackson to be allowed to sit beside the younger man but the healer was having nothing to do with it. "J...just for a few minutes, Nate," Larabee pleaded.

"I told you no, Chris. Now you either lie down there or I'll have Buck and Josiah put you back in the other room."

"Sorry, Brother," Sanchez said as he lowered Larabee to the floor. He'd return to the farm the day after the shooting when JD had rode into Four Corners to tell them what happened and get more supplies.

"Now you stay put, Chris," Jackson ordered as he changed the bandages on the tracker's wound. The raw redness had all but disappeared yet Vin showed no sign of waking up and Nathan was becoming more and more concerned. Shaking his head he stood up and moved to check the wound in Larabee's side.

"It's fine, Nathan," the blond hissed as the healer probed the wound.

"It's far from fine but it's a helluva lot better than it was."

"So I can get...Nathan, dammit, that hurt." Larabee snapped as the healer pressed on a tender spot.

"Thought you said it was fine."

"It was till you w...went at it. Shit, Nathan, stop."

"Mr. Larabee, are you alright."

The blond looked at the woman who'd just entered the room and felt his face burning. "Shoot, sorry, Ma'am, didn't know you were there."

"That's no excuse for bad language, Mr. Larabee."

"Yes, Ma'am," the blond said as he waited for the healer to finish re-bandaging the wound. He liked this woman and valued her opinion. He glared at the smile on Wilmington's and Sanchez's face.

"All done, Chris," Jackson said and turned as a low moan escaped from the man on the bed. He pointed his finger at the older man, "Stay!" he ordered as he moved to the bed. He watched the eyes moving under the still closed lids. "Vin."

"Hmm," came the weak reply.

"Come on, Vin, open your eyes," Jackson said softly.

"N...Nathan?"

"Yeah, Vin, come on now. You've been sleeping long enough."

"T...tired...hurts," he whispered.

"I know it does but I need you to drink something for me."

"N...no...horse p...piss?" Tanner mumbled.

"No, Vin, just some water and broth for now."

"Ok," the tracker whispered.

"Buck, Josiah, help me sit him up." The three men helped the tracker into a sitting position, his arm resting on pillows in order to alleviate the pain.

"T...thanks," Tanner gasped as he waited for the new waves of pain to subside.

"Is he alright, Nathan?"

The tracker heard the blond's voice and tried to sit up. "Chris...Nathan...C...Chris was shot."

"Yeah, he was, Vin, but he's going to be fine."

"W...where is he?"

"I'm here, Vin," the blond said as he struggled to get up.

"I said stay where you are, Chris," Jackson ordered.

"Just let me sit with him for a minute," Larabee pleaded.

Jackson could see there was something on the blond's mind and he nodded to Buck and Josiah. "You two help him over here. Now, Chris, you're gonna stay put aren't you?"

"I will," Larabee said as the two men helped him stand up and walk to the chair. By the time he was seated he was fighting off his own pain and felt a hand reach out to grab onto his. He opened his eyes and looked down at the blue eyes of the tracker.

"Aren't we a great pair?"

"Reckon," Larabee hissed as he struggled to stay in the chair.

"Chris, this ain't gonna work. We'll pull your mattress over here and you can lie back down before we leave," Jackson explained. "That'll give you two a chance to talk with no one else around."

"Ya'd best listen ta him, Cowboy. Yer not lookin' so good," Tanner grinned as the blond nodded slowly.

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Half an hour later the two men were settled in their beds, both tired, dosed with Laudanum, but still needing to talk. Only the almost silent breathing of the two men broke the silence in the room.

"Chris?"

"Yeah."

"We gotta talk."

"I know. I'm sorry, Vin, I didn't..."

"Chris, it wasn't your fault..."

"Yes it was," Larabee snapped, gasping as he turned on his side and used his elbow to lean on. "I nearly killed you out there."

"Ya didn't know it was me, Cowboy. I was supposed to be on the other side."

"Don't matter, Vin. I shoulda made sure who I was shooting at."

"I shoulda made sure you knew where I was. It was gettin' dark Chris and I shoulda known it was hard ta see. Ya had no idea it was me."

Both men were silent again as they thought over what had transpired and how close they'd come to losing their friendship, their brotherhood.

"Vin, are you asleep?"

"N...not yet," the tired voice replied.

"I wasn't running out on you because I was a coward."

"What the hell are ya talkin' bout, Larabee?"

"Something you said when I told you I was leaving. You told me to go ahead and take my cowardly hide with me."

"Ah hell, Chris. Ya know damn well I ain't responsible fer what I said when I had a fever. Ain't Nate always told us not to listen when one of us is sick?"

"Yeah, he has," Larabee smiled as the healer's words came back to him.

"Then why'd ya take it ta heart this time?"

"Guess cause I was feeling guilty. I was leaving because I hurt someone who means more to me than being a friend. You and the rest of the guys are family, Vin, and I don't think I could live through the loss of another one."

"Ya ain't gonna be losin' any of us fer a long, long time, Chris. We're here ta stay and yer stuck with us."

"Thanks, Pard," Larabee said as he let his eyes slide shut.

"Yer welcome, Cowboy. Now ya reckon ya can be quiet or do I ask Nate ta get me a quiet room. Been shot ya know and I'm needin' my sleep."

"Reckon I can if you can. Goodnight, Vin."

"Night Chris."

The five people in the outer room breathed a sigh of relief as Nathan Jackson slipped back into the room. The two injured men were sleeping and he touched their foreheads, smiling when he detected no fever. He quietly closed the door behind him and left the leader and the tracker to sleep and heal together. They hadn't said much but these two didn't need too. The connection between them left little need for talk. The apologies had been said and accepted and the seven were whole once more!

THE END!!