The rain clouds which had hung so ominously in the night sky released their contents in a slow steady drizzle as they turned into Nettie’s yard. Shooing the women inside out of the wet, Vin Tanner continued on to the barn to tend the weary horses. At least the rain had held off until after the celebration, he realized as he unhitched the horses and led them to their stalls. Pulling down several pieces of old toweling from the shelf, he began to rub down the animals, unable to prevent the smile which lit his blue eyes as his mind wandered back in time to earlier in the evening. He could not recall his heart being as light as when he held Lucy in his arms and whirled her about the dance floor.
Lucy carried a sleeping Mattie inside, the child wrapped in Vin’s old coat to protect her from the light rain. Totally exhausted by the day’s excitement, the small child had fallen asleep the moment the wagon had begun to move. Laying aside the coat and removing her daughter’s shoes, Lucy settled her in Casey’s bed, covering her with a quilt and placing a soft kiss on her forehead. Gathering the coat, Lucy held it to her for a moment, inhaling the scent of the man who owned it, even as she was remembering the comforting feel of Vin’s arms about her. She returned to the other room as the man who had occupied so many of her thoughts lately came through the door, accompanied by a driving gust of wind and rain. So much for a soft summer shower.
He shook the wetness from his hat. "Comin’ down hard."
"Ya just ferget 'bout ridin’ back ta town t’night. Yer stayin’ right here," Nettie ordered. She could see no need for the bounty hunter to make the long wet ride back to Four Corners in the stormy weather.
"Don’t know bout that, Nettie," he started to protest. "Wouldn’t look proper."
"Hogwash! Spread ya some blankets there on the floor by the fireplace. Don't give me no lip 'bout sleepin' in the barn. You'll drown afore ya get there." Her tone brooked no argument as she nodded toward the chest in the corner of the room. "Ain't nothin’ gonna happen with me right in t’other room and anybody with the guts to say different’ll answer to me. Sides, I’m sure Lucy’d love to fix breakfast for you in the morning." Nettie laughed as the shy young woman’s cheeks flushed a bright pink. "Well, my old body’s plum wore out so I’m off to my bed. See you two in the morning," With a sly grin, she moved to the other bedroom, solidly closing the door between the two rooms.
Realizing she still held his coat, her fingers gently caressing the smooth leather, Lucy flushed again, and held it out to him. "Thank you."
He nodded without speaking, his long fingers brushing hers as he accepted it, staring at her in the golden glow of the lamp.
She nervously crossed her arms over her chest. "I guess I best be turnin’ in too. Thank you for a wonderful day, Vin. I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed myself so much."
"I’m just sorry ‘bout Mattie..." he started, but she shook her head, silencing him.
"There’s nothing to be sorry for. G’night." She turned to enter Casey’s room.
She hesitated, glancing back at him.
Vin laid aside his hat, coat and gun belt before crossing the short distance between them.
"I..I..." He foundered with the words, reaching out to lightly touch her cheek. "If ya ain’t too tired, ya could stay and talk a while."
Again she hesitated. Even through the closed door, she would be able to hear if Mattie called out and the truth was she was too wound up to fall sleep immediately. More importantly, if she was going to be totally honest with herself, she would have to admit she really wanted to spend more time with the bounty hunter. Giving him a slight nod, she agreed. "For a little while."
The crackling of the warm fire he had started against the night’s damp chill was the only sound as she quietly made coffee and following Nettie’s instructions, Vin pulled blankets from the old chest and spread them on the floor making himself a fairly comfortable bed.
Pouring two cups, Lucy handed him one, then sank down on the floor beside him, their backs resting against the warm stones of the fireplace.
"Ya shouldn’t be sittin’ on the floor," he protested softly. "The rocker’s nice and comfortable."
"This is fine. I’m where I want to be." Feeling her cheeks pinking at the bold statement, Lucy averted her eyes and sipped at her coffee. They sat for several long minutes in companionable silence before overwhelmed by curiosity, Lucy voiced the question she had wondered about since talking with Nettie. "Nettie told me how you stepped up and saved this place from Guy Royal when you didn’t even know her. Why would you do that?" She stared into her cup, suddenly embarrassed, wondering when she had turned into such a brazen woman, saying things she’d normally keep to herself and asking questions which were none of her concern. "I’m sorry, it’s none of my business."
Vin took a long swallow of coffee. "Guess she reminded me of someone I once knew." Smiling at her puzzled look, he shook his head, "No, not like that." Swirling the dark liquid around in the cup, his quiet voice became even softer. "She’s a lot like my ma was. At least what I ‘member." His voice was barely a whisper. "I’s just a little tyke when she died but I ‘member her warmth, and her stubbornness, and her eyes...I specially member her eyes."
"How old were you?" The young woman realized he was letting her see a side of him that rarely came to light.
"Touch younger ‘an Mattie...." His expression was bittersweet.
"And your father?" she asked, curious.
"Never had one." He shook his head slightly, a strange regretfulness colored his voice. "Ma just always told me I’s a Tanner."
Watching him in the flickering light, the conversation she had shared when he had lay injured and hurting in her bed, asking about Mattie’s father, flooded her mind. She had sensed something then, but had chosen not to pursue it. Then she had been afraid of getting to know this man. She hadn’t wanted to let him get close.
Now she understood he had been speaking from experience when he said he knew what she was going through raising Mattie alone. His own mother had suffered the same as Lucy had and he understood first hand and all too well what Mattie suffered as a bastard child. Reaching out, Lucy gently laid a comforting hand on his arm.
He brought his eyes up to meet hers, shimmering brightly with unshed tears. "Don’t know why, but I always tried ta honor that name, like I thought she’d want me to. I wanted ta make her proud a what I growed into."
She laid her hand along his cheek, her thumb gently brushing away the one single tear that escaped., "I think she would be very proud, Vin Tanner, very proud indeed."
His expression, one of gratitude at her understanding, softened and he smiled. "Guess maybe that’s why I get caught up in ‘lost causes’ as Ezra calls ‘em."
"Things that ain’t got no chance or hope left..." he trailed off at her look.
"Like me?" she whispered.
His eyes were soft in the light. "Ya never been that."
Lucy laughed softly, shaking her head. "I’ve been lost more times that I care to remember."
He frowned, his forehead furrowing. "How ya mean?"
She took a deep breath, uncertain she was ready to open that part of her soul for examination. "Just take my word for it, Vin. I’ve been lost..."
Reaching out, he gently stroked the hair away from her cheek. "Ya ain’t lost now, are ya?"
As she locked gazes with him, her voice was a breath of a whisper, "Totally and completely....lost..." Whatever else she was going to say was silenced as his soft lips claimed hers...
Nettie heard the sound of a horse entering the yard and grabbing her old Spencer, she moved to the door. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Vin awaken, instantly alert and reaching for his own weapon which was hanging on the back of the chair.
Recognizing the voice, she eased down the hammer on her carbine and leaned it against the wall as boot steps and jingling spurs sounded from the porch. She hastily opened the door, revealing the wet bedraggled figure standing there, water dripping from his hat and long slicker.
"My stars and garters, Chris Larabee, ain’t you got sense enough to stay in outta the rain?" She motioned him inside, turning to dig up some dry towels.
He quickly removed his wet gear and stepped in, slicking back his rain soaked hair. "Sorry, Nettie." he offered, realizing he was still puddling on her floor.
His hazel eyed gaze shifted from Lucy who had hastily exited Casey's room quietly closing the door behind her and settled on Vin who had gained his feet. He nodded to the young woman as he spoke to Tanner. "I need you," he stated bluntly, taking the towel Nettie offered and scrubbing the wetness from his hair.
Vin paused in buckling on his gun belt, his eyes questioning, but before he could voice it, Larabee continued.
"Got an emergency telegram from Marshall Pence, over Red Fork way. They’s holdin’ Taylor Benson for trial and he broke out, killed two deputies. Posse’s trailed them to the river before they lost ‘im. Wanted us to try and pick up his trail on this side."
"Where’s the rest of the boys?" Vin questioned lowly.
"Figure it’d just be a trackin’ job...no need to drag everybody along."
Vin grinned. "Yeah, let ‘em stay warm and dry whilst we do the dirty work."
"In this rain?" Nettie interjected. "Granted, son, you’re a tracker, one of the best I’ve seen, but ya gotta have a trail to follow, not this mud," she pointed out.
"More ta trackin’ a man than just tracks in the mud, Nettie," he told her with a small smile. He turned to Lucy as he gathered his coat from the back of the chair. "Be light by the time we reach the river. Shouldn’t be long. Ya’ll stay here ‘till I get back?"
She nodded." If Nettie doesn’t mind." She glanced at the older woman.
"Hell, child, you can move in if ya want. I might even prefer your company to Casey’s." The older woman teased. "Course she can stay, Vin. Don’t ya be worryin’ about her none."
With a nod, the tracker gathered the rest of his gear and headed for the barn to saddle his horse. Chris was waiting as he led the animal back and hitched it to the porch. Vaulting the railing, he moved to where Lucy stood in the door. "I’ll be back quick as I can ta take ya and Mattie home."
She nodded. "You’ll be careful?"
"Hell, ma’am, careful’s Vin’s middle name," Chris quipped drolly as he swung up into his saddle. "I’ll keep an eye on him for ya."
"Keep an eye out for yourself, Larabee," Nettie warned as Vin vaulted the rail and swung up on his horse. Touching his hat brim, he urged his horse after Larabee’s black, leaving the two woman to stare after them as they disappeared in the drizzling downpour.
At the muffled thump on the porch, Lucy exchanged startled looks with Nettie. She had spent a nervous day in the old woman’s company, worrying and fretting about Vin, trying to keep Mattie occupied and answer the child's questions on Tanner's whereabouts without lying or scaring the little girl. Lucy knew he was just doing his job, but now seeing what he really did concerned her. Now that night was falling, her anxiety was climbing.
The gray haired woman gathered her Spencer from its rack. Jacking a shell into the chamber, she nodded for Lucy to open the door.
Not sure what would be facing, Lucy reached out a hesitant hand and pulled open the door. She gasped aloud as a rain darkened figure stumbled into the room, and as it started to fall, realized it was Tanner.
"Vin!!" She grabbed for him and managed to break his fall, his slight weight dragging both of them to the floor. Lucy cradled his head and shoulders in her lap as she looked up at Nettie.
The old woman was already moving, laying the carbine aside to kneel beside the young man. "Vin... Son....?"
He stirred at her voice and his eyelashes fluttered as he focused not on Lucy, but the older woman.
The emptiness Nettie saw reflected in the blue depths of his eyes scared her and she reached out to gently pat his shoulder.
He flinched from the touch and biting at his lower lip, he choked out the words in a mere whisper, "I...I... l-l-lost C-Ch-Chris...."
Nettie’s face paled, as she looked at Lucy, then back to the young man. "C’mon, son, let’s get you out of them wet things." Closing the door against the wet chill, she eased off the old hide coat and her breath caught in her throat. His entire left shoulder was a bloody mess. Nettie quickly checked, but saw no bullet holes and climbing to her feet, she hurried to get a basin of water and clean cloths.
As she settled back beside him, she kept up a running conversation, trying to avoid his empty eyes as she rambled on. "Shouldn’t a let ya go out in this weather. Stupid marshal coulda sent his own men, rather than drag you boys out. Look what ya done to yourself..."
She washed the blood away from his face and saw the deep ragged gouge along his scalp. Nettie glanced at Lucy and saw her white face and gave her a reassuring small smile. "It’s not serious. Head wounds always bleed bad." She finished and turned her attention to his shoulder.
Vin drew in a deep hissing breath as, with a grimace, she eased his shirt free of the wound. His entire left shoulder was torn and bruised, dirt mixed with the dried blood. Trying to work as gently as she could, Nettie cleaned the wound then motioned for Lucy to hand her the bottle of carbolic. With a sad shake of her head, she softly murmured, "This is gonna hurt, son," and doused his shoulder with the strong liquid.
Tanner arched his back with pain, pushing off Lucy’s lap. She grabbed for him, gently settling him back down as Nettie talked reassuring to him. Breathing through the pain he lay, staring at the ceiling, his face blank, his blue eyes bleak.
Nettie exchanged looks with Lucy and shook her head, as the younger woman gently stroked his hair from his forehead. "Vin, son, what happened?" Nettie questioned softly.
A shudder shook the tracker’s lean body and he captured his lower lip in his teeth as if fighting to hold the words in, and the tears at bay. Then, not looking at either of them, his voice a mere whisper, he spoke, "I ...I lost ‘im.....at the river..." Guilt swamped his words.
"Son, what do ya mean, ya lost him?" Although Nettie knew, she had to hear him say it.
He sucked in a breath as if he had forgotten to breath. "My horse spooked, leaped in ta his....forced it in the river. I tried..." his voice caught and trailed off. "I tried..."
"How did ya get hurt?" Nettie pressed gently, trying to keep him with them, knowing he was desperately trying to withdraw into himself.
"Went in after him, and a log,..limb,...I don’t know, something, crashed into me and I - I lost my hold on him...." He closed his eyes, shaking his head as if trying to deny what he was reliving in his mind.
Nettie caught Lucy’s eye and spoke lowly. "Get that quilt and blanket and we’ll just make him comfortable on the floor. He don't need ta be movin' around."
Lucy nodded as she eased away from the tracker, knowing now he needed Nettie more than her. She quickly gathered the bedding and spread it out in front of the fireplace, stoking the embers and adding another small log. With Nettie’s help and quiet coaxing, they got him settled. Nettie gave her a sympathic glance as the tracker turned away, closing them both out.
Nettie stared at his back, then slowly stood, her face filled with sorrow.
Lucy moved over beside her. "Isn’t there anything we can do?" she questioned lowly.
Nettie brought her gaze around to settle on the younger woman’s face. "Reckon maybe ya don’t know how close them two was. So close Buck swore they could read each other’s minds, but it don’t make no never mind now. I don’t know what a body can do when someone's lost their best friend. You tell me what ta do, child, and I’ll do it."
Lucy shook her head. "I don’t know either, Nettie. But shouldn’t we get word to the others?"
"Can’t. This has been a real gullywasher. Can bet the river's up which means the bridge is impassable and it’s thirty miles around. Just gotta wait for the weather ta clear and the water to go down."
"There has to be something..." Lucy repeated stubbornly.
"Short of bringing Chris Larabee back to life, I’m open to suggestions." When Lucy gave no response, the older woman turned to the stove, keeping one eye on the unmoving young man laying so quietly on the floor.
The following day passed slowly as the rain continued to drone down on the roof. Mattie, sensing something was wrong played quietly on the floor in Casey’s room. Her mother had told her Vin had fallen down and hurt himself. He just needed to rest. With the knowledge beyond her years the six-year-old sensed the overwelming sadness that gripped her new friend and constantly peeked into the outer room wanting to make him feel better.
The older women were subdued as they quietly moved about, their worried gazes more often than not drifting to the unmoving tracker who lay curled on his side on the quilt.
Late in the afternoon, Nettie pulled on her rain gear and headed for the barn to tend the stock. Mattie was taking a nap and Lucy quietly knelt down next the young man, gently laying her had on his uninjured shoulder. "Vin..."
She could feel a shudder course through his lean frame and it was several long moments before he slightly moved his head and focused his eyes on her. Red rimmed, empty, dull, lifeless eyes...
Her own eyes welled. "Oh, Vin, I’m so sorry..." she choked out in a whisper, wanting, needing to do more to ease his pain, but still at a loss. When had this young man become such a vital part of her life, that his pain became hers?
He slowly closed his eyes, dismissing her. With a gentle touch to his scruffy cheek she gained her feet and quietly turned away. As she did, her heart broke and her tears silently fell. She didn’t know which was more heartbreaking, listening to a strong man cry or listening to a strong man trying not to weep.
Nettie and Lucy had turned in and waiting for her mother to finally fall asleep, in the dim glow of the turned down lamp, Mattie made her way to Vin’s side and settled down beside him. She could see his eyes were open so she knew he wasn’t asleep. She reached out and touched his cheek with her small hand. "Momma said you’re hurting and I shouldn’t bother you," she whispered.
Vin’s expression didn’t change.
"Momma said Mr. Chris got lost’d and that’s made you sad."
Vin's breath quickened and he sucked in a deep breath at the child’s words.
"I’m sorry, Vin," she whispered, bending closer to plant a kiss on his cheek. Then softly, she added, "I love you, Vin." With another small kiss she gained her feet not seeing the shudder which shook his slim body, or the tears which silently welled in his eyes as she quietly made her way back to bed.
Lucy stared at Tanner. She knew he and Larabee were friends, but until now she had not known the extent of that friendship and the bond between them. The one thing she did know was she cared about Vin Tanner and he was suffering and she would do anything in her power to ease that pain.
It had been day and a half since the tracker had returned without the shootist, before the rain finally eased. But the young tracker’s pain had not. He refused to eat, and hadn’t spoken since telling them what happened. At a loss as to how to help the man she'd come to care about, Lucy finally realized she could not stand around doing nothing.
Grabbing her hat and coat, she moved for the door. "Keep an eye on Mattie, will ya Nettie?" and without awaiting a response, she ran out the door.
Saddling her horse, she rode out, trying to organize her thoughts and feelings. The rain had stopped, the sky had cleared and a glorious sunrise was beginning a new day, shining down light over the newly washed land.
With no destination in mind, needing only the open spaces to clear her mind she dug her heels into the animals sides and raced from the yard giving the horse its head, letting the mare decide the direction. Finally, pulling back on the reins, Lucy let the animal pick its way along, trying to sort out her emotions.
The horse found its way along the river trail and Lucy automatically looked away not wanting to look at the rushing water that had caused such devastation. When Lucy finally focused on her surroundings, she saw a dark shadow on the land. Something out of place and foreign, huddled on the ground under the trees by the trail. She kneed the horse closer, and draping her leg over the mare’s neck, slipped to the ground cautiously moving closer.
The form was familiar, the bulk and size of a man, a man who had accompanied Vin from Nettie’s cabin. A man with blond hair and somber hazel eyes whose whole face lit when he graced you with a rare smile. A man who was Vin Tanner’s closest friend. A man who had the respect and loyalty of five other men...
Her breath caught as she wondered how those other men would take his loss. Would his untimely death destroy them as it was destroying Vin. She glanced around, wondering where exactly she was and what she was going to do now.
Lucy glanced at the sky surprised to realize it had been at least two hours since she'd rushed from Nettie's. At least she reasoned, she could see to it that Larabee had a decent burial and his friends had a body to mourn over.
Squaring her shoulders, she moved closer. She needed to cover his body and somehow mark this spot until she returned with Nettie's wagon.
Lucy bent down and as she reached out her hand, he moaned. Her heart racing, the young woman jerked to her feet, unsure if she was losing her mind, then stupidly she realized dead bodies didn’t groan.
She knelt back down, resting her knee in the mud beside the man. Reaching out a trembling hand, she brushed the short fair hair off his forehead. A forehead she had expected to be cold as marble was warm to the touch.. alive.
Grabbing the canteen, she dropped to the ground beside him once again.
"Chris?" she spoke his name and got no response. Carefully, she eased him onto his back, eliciting a deeper groan of pain from his lips. She saw his eyelashes flutter and then, softly, "L-Lucy?"
She couldn’t keep the smile from her face. "Yes, Mister Larabee, it’s me."
He blinked several times and tried to look around, stopping short when the movement drew a deep moan of pain from his throat. "V-Vin?"
"He’s at Nettie’s," she reassured him, as she offered him a drink from her canteen. "You hurt?"
He shook his head as he swallowed gratefully, staring at her face." He ‘kay?" His voice was a little stronger.
She hesitated as she recorked the canteen, not meeting his eyes.
"Damnit!" he swore as he struggled to sit up, then thinking better, he sank back down to continue staring at her, awaiting her response. "Is Vin okay?" he repeated, his voice stronger, his tone more demanding.
She sighed and looked him in the face. "He’s blaming himself for your ....death."
"Well, damnit, I ain’t dead!" Larabee snarled, stubbornly pushing into a sitting position without her assistance. His head swam and he nearly nose dived into her shoulder, but he managed to catch himself with a deep painful groan.
Lucy smiled in spite of herself at his words. "No, you’re definitely not dead," she muttered. "I guess we need to let Vin know that, don’t we?" She pushed to her feet and gathering her horse’s reins she drew the mare closer to the gunslinger.
Knowing the well trained mare would stand still, she bent and helped Larabee to his feet. He stood unsteady, his face pale as he clutched at the stirrup leather. "You sure you’re not hurt?" she questioned again, reaching out a hand to steady him.
"Just swallowed half the water in that damn river afore I's able to make it ta shore. Got a knock on the head. Bumps and bruises, a twisted knee. I’m fine." He slowly raised his booted foot and after three tries, he didn't protest when she reached out guided his foot into the stirrup. With a loud groan, he managed to pull himself up into the saddle, where he half sagged over the horn.
Pulling himself from the river, Chris had managed to drag himself away from the flooded banks before finally collapsing. He'd spent a long wet painful night among the trees.
The driving rain, mud, wet leaves and his swollen knee made progress slow and he hadn't managed to travel more than five miles in his qwest for the safety of Nettie's small ranch house before spending another cold uncomfortable night unprotected from the elements.
Lucy eyed him as she removed his foot from the stirrup and lifted herself up behind him. The little mare snorted at the additional weight, and swished her tail, but readily turned back toward Nettie’s without being reined. It was just as well as Lucy had her hands full, trying to keep the semiconscious man in front of her from falling out of the saddle.
The trip back to the ranch seemed to take forever as the little mare slowly made her way through the mud. Chris seemed to float in and out of consciousness, one moment lucid, the next calling for Sarah. As Lucy supported his weight, she could feel the heat of fever through his damp clothes. A fear washed through her that while she might have found him alive, with the dunking in the river and the nights in the rain, the man was on the verge of pneumonia. She prayed Nettie had something beside carbolic at the cabin.
The softly spoken word drew her attention. "Yes?"
"We headed for Nettie’s?" the gunslinger questioned, his voice raspy.
"Yes. Shouldn’t be much longer." She threw a worried glance at the sky. Dark clouds had rolled in again and lightning was flashing in the distance. Damn, she did not want to be caught out in another storm and knew Chris didn’t need another soaking.
Lucy glanced at the surrounding countryside, a little unsure where they were. She knew she was headed in the right direction because of the low bald slope behind Nettie’s cabin.... She had used it to guide her. But she wasn’t sure how close that cabin was.
Chris raised his head and looked around. "We’re still a ways from Nettie’s....." he nodded toward the sky, "and we ain’t gonna beat that rain," he pointed out bluntly.
She reined up the mare. "What do you suggest then?" He seemed lucid enough.
"Ol’ cabin a short ways on up the trail. Nothing fancy, but it’ll be dry."
With a nudge to the mare’s ribs, she headed in the direction he indicated, praying the rain and storm passed quickly. She knew she needed to get Larabee to Nettie’s as quickly as possible, but she wasn’t going to further endanger him. It would have to be a little longer before Vin could see his friend.
The sky opened and the rain poured down in driving sheets, buffeting the old cabin. Lucy looked across the dim area to the man settled on the floor by the fireplace. Thank goodness someone had left firewood for the next visitor and she had a small fire burning to keep the damp chill from the room.
A small smile touched her lips as she explored the rundown shack, digging through a old cabinet. Someone had left behind a battered old pot and a sealed can, of coffee. Obviously some unknown cowboy had used the cabin for refuge and planned to use it again. With a quick prayer of thanks, she washed out the pot and filling it with water from her canteen, she set it near the flames to brew.
Chris had watched quietly, as she worked, clearing a spot for him to rest, starting a fire and making coffee, before assuring him she'd be back shortly, she hurried outside.
Unsaddling the mare, she led the mare to the relative shelter of the trees beside the one room cabin.
Situating the saddle on the floor to support his back, she could see Chris was shivering despite being next to the fire. Shaking out the saddle blanket, she draped it about the gunslinger’s shoulders, then settled down beside him, studying his face, noting the paleness and the sweat beading his forehead.
Fever and chills... She leaned closer, laying the back of her hand against his forehead.
He flinched and ducked away from her familiarity.
Lucy drew back, giving him his space. "You’re running chills and a fever," she pointed out.
He compressed his lips together and scowled. "Survived ‘em before," he muttered.
"I’m sure you did." She stared at him intently and he returned the look with an even fiercer glare. "I’m surprised any illness would latch onto you."
He started. "Whatya mean by that?"
She reached for the pot and poured coffee into the battered tin cup she had found, offering it to the man who slowly accepted it, his somber gaze glued on her face.
"Figure that scowl would scare away anything or anybody," she pointed out.
He studied her over the cup’s rim then a small ghost of a smile flickered across his face. "Didn’t scare you," he pointed out, "or Vin," he added softly.
"Maybe neither of us scare easily."
"Could be." He sipped at the bitter coffee then his voice soft, he questioned, "Ya care for him, dontcha?"
In the face of his direct stare she could not lie and slowly nodded.
"Seen that at the dance. It done him good, ya bein’ there."
It was her turn to frown. "How do you mean?"
He sighed, "Vin ain’t got nobody, no family other ‘an us six and Nettie. Sometimes,...sometimes fella needs more than brotherly or motherly concern."
Lucy flustered, staring down at her hands. "We’re just friends, Mister Larabee. We hardly know each other."
He shrugged. "No matter. You’re good for him."
"How so?" she prodded.
"He needs to care, needs to know there’s more out there than a hang man’s noose in his life. Something hopeful and bright. That’s you and that little girl of yours."
She shook her head. "I-I-I...." Doubt silenced her words.
"Vin Tanner’s a good man, Lucy. Damn near got hisself killed saving Nathan’s life when a mob was out to hang him. Vin didn’t know him from Butterfield’s old mare, but he stepped up, challenged the whole lot of ‘em. That’s when I met him."
He took a swallow of coffee and Lucy held her silence waiting for him to continue.
"When the Seminoles needed help, he was right there beside me, even though he knew odds were we were all gonna die. He’s backed my play too many times, risked his life to save mine, or Ezra, or any one of the others, even the town folks, soldiers.... anyone who needs help. Considering the things he’s said ‘bout his childhood, it was pretty rough and brutal and I don’t know how, but he survived to become one of the kindest, gentlest, givin-est people I’ve ever known." He swirled the coffee left in the cup. "I’ll ride to hell and beyond, face every judge and lawman in Texas to get that murder charge dropped, Lucy. So will the others...I owe him that, and more." He brought his gaze up to meet hers. "But until we do, he needs hope, something to look forward to ... That something might be you."
"I’d like for it to be," she whispered, amazed at the gunfighter’s words. She had come to believe all the Seven were lost souls, perhaps Larabeee most of all.
"Ya sure won’t get no kick from me," Chris offered softly.
"Thanks." Her one word held sincerity, for having his friend’s blessing meant much to her. She knew Larabee could be a formidable adversary. Then embarrassed by all the personal talk, she moved to open the door. The rain had lessened to a steady patter but clear skys beyond the dark clouds indicated it would soon cease altogether.
She turned back. "How far is it to Nettie’s from here?"
"Six-eight miles, I reckon."
She eyed him, taking in the pale face and weary posture. "Why don't ya get some rest. Looks like the rain'll let up soon.
Chris nodded, stretching out and using the saddle for a pillow was asleep as soon as his eyes closed.
It was just under two hours later when Lucy woke Larabee. The rain had finally stopped allowing the sun to shine down on the land once more.
"Rain's let up. Reckon we should head out.Can you make it?"
He gave her a quick flash of a smile as he levered to his feet. "Try and stop me."
Dusk was drawing near when Lucy saw the familiar little cabin nestled under the spreading trees. Knowing Nettie would be worried about her absence but afraid of injuring the horse who plodded steadily through the muck and mire, she had kept the animal at a slow pace allowing it to rest as often as possible. It wouldn't help Chris at all if they ended up afoot.
Urging the little mare forward, she sighed in relief when the animal stopped of its own accord next to the porch railing, the same railing Vin had so happily vaulted over those few days earlier. Days...it seemed like weeks.
"Nettie!" she called out as she tiredly slipped off the horse, keeping one hand on Chris who was half slumped over the saddle horn. At least he was conscious.
The door opened, revealing the older woman and her carbine. She set it aside as she stepped out onto the porch. "My stars and garters!" she whispered in astonishment, her mouth gaping open as Lucy helped the shootist from the saddle.
Gently shaking his head at her quiet offer of assistance, the gunslinger slowly limped across the porch, pausing in the open doorway. His hazel eyes turning aquamarine with worry, Larabee's gaze moved to the still figure of his friend lying on the floor, his face turned away toward the wall.
"Well, hell, iffen he’s dead, Nettie, we might as well split that five hundred dollar bounty," he drawled lazily.
Both women who had moved up behind him saw Vin’s body stiffen, and his head whip around, his blue eyes wide as he stared up at the man who stepped into the cabin and stood just a few feet away from him.
Chris smiled at his stunned look, "Hell, Cowboy, ya look like shit."
Vin’s sharp gasp seemed to echo in the small room as he suddenly remembered to breath. He slowly, awkwardly pushed into a sitting position, his eyes never moving from the blond man. "C-C-Chris?!?" he stammered, still not believing his eyes or his ears.
Chris nodded as he slowly collapsed into one of the straight chairs.
Lucy and Nettie watched as the sharpshooter painfully pushed to his feet and stumbled the distance separating him from his friend. Reaching out, he tentatively grasped the blond man’s arm, a wide smile coming to his face. "Chris!"
"Yep, Cowboy, it’s me." He sighed heavily. "We need to talk, but if you’re done using them quilts, they look mighty invitin'." Bending to remove his boots, he winced, and Lucy rushed to help him, then gently assisted him to the quilts where he gratefully sank down on them. He looked up into her face and gave her a small smile. "Thanks."
She knew there was more behind the one word than simple gratitude for her assitance and she nodded as he closed his eyes.
Nettie moved in and awkwardly began fussing over the older man and Lucy stepped aside to give her room. As she did, she saw Mattie coming out of Casey’s room, sleepily rubbing her eyes.
"Momma! I'm so glad you're back. I thought you'd gotten lost'd too." The child stopped and stared at the blond man then moved over to lean against her mother. Sleepy voiced she looked up, "Momma, there’s Mister Chris. He’s not lost’d anymore."
And as Lucy looked at the long haired tracker who'd moved to sit beside his friend, a look of wonder, surprise and joy on his pale face, his blue eyes sparkling with life again, she nodded. "No he’s not, Mattie. No one’s lost’d anymore."