Suffering Fools

by Farad
Author notes: Written for the Mag 7 Bingo Prompt "Horse and Rider"; thanks to the wonderful Dail, Huntersglenn, and the awesome people at WEC for the beta. All mistakes - horse knowledge and otherwise - are my very own.

"Miserable ingrates! How could they possibly - dammit, man, that hurts!"

"Gonna hurt worse if you don't stay still," Chris snarled, and Vin smiled in spite of himself. This wasn't a time for being amused, even though it was easy enough to be. Simon Preston, his face white, his fancy suit ripped and mud-stained, sat on a large rock while Chris tried to wrap strips of cloth around his arm and a tree limb Vin had found nearby. The arm was broken, not much doubt about it, but that didn't worry Vin as much as JD's murmurings. The fall from his horse had landed JD soundly on his head, and if hadn't been for Chris' shot and Vin's own aim, they'd never have kept the angry miners at bay long enough to get all of them out of there.

As it was, they'd had to leave behind the wagon and Preston's horse.

"I cannot believe that those - those - those imbeciles would treat me this way!" Preston ranted, his voice hoarse. "I was looking out for their best interests - which they are obviously too stupid to realize."

"Maybe they thought their best interests were having a job so they could feed their families," Chris said sharply, pulling the cloth tight - too tight, maybe; Preston's face grew even whiter and for a few seconds, Vin thought the man might pass out.

Might have been a blessing if he had. The union organizer had done nothing but grate on almost everyone's nerves since he'd gotten off the stage in town two days ago. And now here they sat in the middle of nowhere, maybe being hunted by a group of angry miners carrying a couple of guns, pick-axes and dynamite, one horse down, and JD out of his head.

"Those mines could collapse on them at any minute," Preston snarled, and Vin gave the man a passing respect for his tenacity, if not his common sense. "What happens to their families if they're killed because of a danger that could have been prevented?"

It was a question Vin had been thinking on himself - a good question, and one that had grown in importance over the last half year or so, with the mines around these parts being bought up and reopened, the new owners looking for copper instead of gold and silver.

But not looking to invest in new timber and other safety measures. Three mines had already collapsed.

Chris tied off the cloth and stood. Preston was muttering but his words were as unclear as

JD's - which was probably a good thing, given Chris' temper and Vin's own worry.

Chris turned, catching Vin's eye and taking the few short steps toward him.

"We need Nathan," Chris said shortly. "Somebody's got to ride back for him."

Vin nodded. He'd already come to that conclusion himself, so he knew the real problem was who was going back.

Preston was nursing a broken arm and possibly broken ribs, and JD was sporting bruises and a head wound that wouldn't stop bleeding He'd come out with Preston because he thought the man from back east knew more than the rest of them did. Chris and Vin had ridden along because they'd figured otherwise - and they'd been right.

It didn't make Vin feel any better, not with JD out of his head and not safe to ride, even if they'd had enough horses.

"Best if I take JD's horse," he said, glancing to where Preston and JD sat on the ground, nursing their wounds, the horses tied off nearby. "If you have to move, best you take my horse - he'll carry more weight and he's good at following along."

Chris nodded. "May need your saddle - I can tie one of them to it if I have to."

Vin had already thought of that. JD's saddle. that flat English thing he liked to use from time to time, was sitting on the ground behind him, propping him up. He'd refused to leave it on the horse, swearing that it was the most important thing he owned. Vin and Chris hadn't argued, more concerned about getting JD off his horse.

As if reading his mind, Chris asked, "Can you ride the horse without it? I don't know that I want to try to get that saddle from JD." Worry lines creased his forehead as he looked over at the younger man. Chris had always kept a worry for him, certain that JD was meant for better - and safer - than riding into the danger the rest of them took for granted. Vin felt sorry for leaving Chris with this, with JD in this state. But of the two of them, he knew he was the better, faster rider, and Chris was the better, faster shot. There wasn't really a choice.

He grinned, trying to lighten the moment. "I'll make do. Hell, ain't like I can't ride bareback."

Chris' eyes widened, and Vin felt his grin grow. In some ways, Chris Larabee was as set in his ways as the fancy-pants Preston from back east. But unlike them, Chris had a sense of humor, which came through now as he, too, grinned. "Watch your back," he said, catching Vin's upper arm in a tight grip. "Might want to bring back one of the others, if there's no trouble back in town. Those miners may come looking to finish what they started."

Vin nodded, already pulling away. The sooner he was on his way, the sooner he'd be back. And he already knew who would be coming back with him. The thought of it made his belly heat warmly.

JD's gelding was on the small side, like JD himself, and like JD, it was given to a certain skittishness. He gave a low whinny as Vin came close, tossing his head as Vin reached for the knotted reins, pulling them from where they were tied to a low tree.

The horse - Gypsy, if Vin recalled right - pulled against him, not fighting so much as wary. Vin shushed it, catching the bridle as he led it away from the camp. Behind him, he heard Chris talking to JD and Preston, then JD's voice came back, the words unclear but the tone higher and worried. The horse heard it and snorted, trying to shake off Vin's hand.

"Come on, now," Vin soothed, putting a little more effort into pulling. "Ain't no need to be ornery. We're headed back to town, come on, boy, stop fighting."

Gypsy snorted again, but as they got a little further away, he stopped pulling as much, letting himself be led.

As they cleared the cover of the small grove of trees, Vin pulled the horse to a stop and reached for his mane. It was short, cropped close against the lower part of his neck in some sort of stylish cut that made Vin wonder what JD thought about living out here. But that wasn't really his concern, more of an inconvenience for this ride, and after a second or two of thinking, he drew a quick breath, bent his knees, and pushed upwards, using his grip and his momentum to mount the horse.

Gypsy bolted, taking several steps forward and snorting, not happy with this unusual mount.

The horse was even more unsettled as Vin's legs braced along its body, not in the familiar stirrups that JD used but wrapping around its belly, applying different pressure as Vin balanced his weight.

Gypsy danced beneath him, his feet prancing as he tried to unseat Vin without actually throwing him. Vin drew back on the reins, trying to get control, but at the same time, he murmured to Gypsy, not wanting to hurt him.

The horse tossed his head, but after a time, he calmed, accepting Vin. When Vin loosened his grip on the reins, the horse jerked its head again but took a careful step forward. Vin balanced his weight with his thighs and gave the horse its head. Gypsy started off at a canter, then when he realized Vin wasn't going to rein him in, he ran full out for time. He was fast horse, and young enough to enjoy the speed, until the ground grew rougher. Gypsy slowed but still held a fast trot.

It had been too long since he'd ridden this way, and his cramping thighs reminded him of that. But he didn't slow Gypsy, knowing that speed was important. The horse knew better than he did what it could stand, and Gypsy also knew that they were heading home, even if they were moving cross-country, the fastest route, and not by way of the road.

By the time the horse dropped into a walk, Vin's knees were hurting too - it had been too long since he'd ridden bareback for any amount of time. He drew his legs forward, tightening his hold on the horse's belly with his knees. Gypsy didn't like the new pressure. He sidestepped several times, as if trying to shake Vin but he didn't rear or bolt. He was better trained than that.

"Whoa, now," Vin said, tugging slightly on the reins but not pulling. "Ain't no call for that."

The horse snorted, as if to argue, but he calmed down, moving forward again. The pace was slower, though, the horse beginning to give out.

"Easy, now," he said, dropping one hand to stroke the horse's neck. "Let's move along. Need to get help for JD."

As if understanding, Gypsy tossed his head but his ears came back up and he made his way carefully across the rocks.

Once they were clear of the rocky hillside, the way was easier. By mid-afternoon, they were in distant sight of the town and Gypsy's speed picked up, the horse once more breaking into a light canter.

Vin had ridden with the Comanche for long enough. He leaned forward over Gypsy's neck, murmuring to the horse. When he was sure of his balance, he pulled his legs back and up, his knees still gripping the horse, but his ankles rising up over Gypsy's back, so that he was almost laying on his stomach on the moving horse. His spurs were safely above the horse, his knees not aching as much in this new position, and his arms were wrapped around the horse's neck. It was a matter of holding his balance - and right now, it was fun, an exercise he hadn't done in too long.

Gypsy startled a little at the new position, as he had when Vin had mounted, but after a couple of mis-steps, the horse blew a long breath, like a sigh, and settled back into his pace.

As they drew near to town, the buildings becoming distinct, people taking on form as they worked around the outlying houses and farms, Gypsy moved faster, knowing it was 'home'. Vin found it harder to hold on, but he didn't slow the horse or sit up. Once, he could have done this all day, just riding across the plains, his hair whipping behind him, he and the horse moving as one. It wasn't quite the same with Gypsy, but it was close.

It was only as they started seeing people clearly enough to recognize them that he reluctantly sat up, catching up the reins as he eased his legs down and turned his ankles out. As his weight shifted, Gypsy slowed. The horse snorted several times, as if irritated, and he eventually settled into a fast walk. His coat was dark with sweat and Vin's hand was damp as he patted the horse's neck.

As they came near the first set of buildings in the town, he started to draw on the reins, thinking that the horse would instinctively head toward the livery. But Gypsy walked straight on toward the center, as if he understood where they were going.


Vin turned, looking over his shoulder to find Josiah standing on the church stairs. His long face was drawn down in a deep frown, his head tilted to one side as he looked at Vin. And at the horse.

Vin brought Gypsy to a halt, though the horse resisted, side-stepping and snorting and head-tossing. Vin did his own snorting as he slid off the horse, landing hard on one foot and holding onto his balance by clutching at the horse's mane until he had both feet on the ground.

And by the big hand that caught his elbow as he staggered.

"Trouble?" Josiah's voice was pleasant in Vin's ear, his large body solid and warm and close.

Vin glanced over his shoulder, nodding his appreciation as he said, "'Bout what we expected. Preston made himself right unpopular at the mine. Got himself hurt pretty bad. So did JD. Chris sent me back to get Nathan."

Josiah sighed, and for a few seconds, his fingers tightened on Vin's arm, a familiar squeeze, before he let go and stepped back. "Figured it was something like that when I saw you stretched out on Gypsy here," he said, a quick grin stretching across his face. "You go get Nathan while I saddle up a few more horses - I'll take Gypsy to Tiny, too. Bet he could use a little rest." As he took the reins from Vin, he asked, "You mind if I ride along?"

"Long as things are quiet here, I'd be right thankful for the help," Vin said, slapping Josiah on the shoulder before heading away. The warm feeling in his belly from earlier grew a little stronger. "Need a wagon, though, the one Tiny keeps. Tell him to bill the Judge for it and the horses. Meet you at the livery as fast as I can get Nathan there."

But as he stepped forward, Gypsy swung his head around, snorting. He nudged Vin in the chest, pushing him back a step, then he tossed his head. Josiah tugged at the reins, trying to get the horse's attention, but Gypsy was staring at Vin.

Vin stroked the horse's nose, his voice low as he said, "You did a good job, boy. I'll bring JD back to you, I promise."

Gypsy blew out a breath, as if challenging him, then he nudged Vin again, this time with less force.

Vin rubbed him under his jaw, then he glanced at Josiah who tugged once more on the reins. This time, the horse followed along.

Hours later, as they rode into town, JD, Preston, and Nathan in the wagon, Vin on his own familiar horse, Gypsy was standing at the corral gate, watching. He jerked his head up, once, eyes sharp on Vin before turning to follow the wagon with his eyes.

"Like he knows," Josiah said softly, riding beside Vin.

Vin glanced at the older man and grinned. "He does. They're smart, smarter than we like to think." As if to prove his point, Vin's horse snorted, jerking at the bit.

Josiah shook his head, but he patted his own horse's neck. Vin knew how much Josiah valued the animal - as much as Vin valued his own. There was little that was more important than a good horse.

A horse that knew you as well as the men who you trusted with your life.

And sometimes, with other parts of you.

"I was thinking about heading over to the saloon for some food," Vin said conversationally.

"I was thinking about food myself," Josiah said. "But I've got a good stew left from last night that I could heat up - some very good venison that someone gave me. Be different from the usual fare we get."

The heat in his belly rose a little more. "Well, if you've got stew, reckon I could rub down the horses while you heat it up. I got some biscuits in my tack - "

"Or I could make fresh," Josiah offered quickly. "If you're rubbing down both horses, I'll have time."

Vin almost laughed, knowing Josiah's dislike of hard tack. "Sounds good to me." They were already at the livery, far enough behind the wagon not to be heard - not that it mattered; Buck was calling out loud enough to JD for the entire town to hear.

Vin dismounted, patting his horse as he did. He reached for the gate, opening it carefully so as not to let Gypsy out. The horse stepped forward, but not in a bid for freedom.

"Here," Josiah said, tossing something toward Vin. Vin caught it deftly and opened his fingers to find a small apple.

Vin shook his head, amused, even as he held out his hand, offering Gypsy the treat. "You feed everyone?" he asked.

Josiah laughed, a rich, full sound that Vin loved. "Only the deserving," he answered. He held his reins out to Vin, who took them and led both horses into the corral. "Don't be too long," Josiah said as he turned away, heading off toward the church. "Biscuits are best when they're fresh out of the oven."

Vin nodded, smiling. Behind him, the two horses pushed at his back, as if they, too, understood. It had been a long day, fun in some ways, worrisome in most others. Now that it was over, all he wanted to do was put the horses to bed and settle himself down with some good food and good company.

As he led the way into the stable, Gypsy followed along, moving into 'his' stall and standing quietly while Vin put food and water in the various troughs. The horses ate as he wiped down his and Josiah's and started the harder work of brushing out the dirt and sweat.

As he finished brushing down his gelding, taking more time than usual as he had had to leave the horse in the hands of others, Chris came stomping into the livery, leading his gelding.

"Preston gonna live?" Vin asked. He knew the wounds weren't deadly, but the man's tongue - well, that could be another thing.

"Only if he leaves town before I see him again," Chris snapped. But his hands on his horse weren't as hard, easing the saddle off and then the bit out of the gelding's mouth with care and putting them away with equal control. "Good thing you got back when you did. Another few minutes of his mouth and I'd have gone looking for those miners myself."

"JD gonna be all right?" Vin asked, even though he was pretty sure he knew the answer. Nathan hadn't been overly concerned about the younger man.

"Hell, he was worried about you riding off on his horse, scared you were gonna turn it into some sort of Indian pony. Maybe his head wasn't as banged up as we thought, worrying about you on his horse." Chris shook his head, then grinned. "I told him that he didn't have to worry - his horse was too well-trained for you."

"That horse has a mind of its own," Vin agreed. "Don't see how JD manages him - but then, maybe JD don't."

Chris chuckled and the tension in his shoulders seemed to ease a little. "Could be," he agreed. "Horses and women - they can figure out a man faster than he can figure out himself." He patted his gelding on the neck then led him into his usual stall, where he filled up the feed trough and checked the water bucket. "You seen Joe around?" he asked as he came back out and closed the door.

"Reckon he's over at the saloon with Tiny, grabbing some dinner," Vin said, finishing up with his horse. It had been a long day, and if he hadn't promised to look after the horses, he might have let Joe, Tiny's night man, do it, too. But he didn't like turning his horse over to most people, not when he could do it himself, and he knew Josiah didn't either.

As if understanding, Josiah's horse nuzzled at Vin's hair, his breath warm and smelling of oats.

"That ain't quite what I had in mind when I said women and horses," Chris said as Vin pushed the horse's nose away.

Vin grinned, glancing at the other man. "Like you said, they figure you out."

Chris arched one eyebrow and his grin twisted just a little in that way that it did when he was teasing. "And their owners do, too."

Then he turned and headed out the door, calling over his shoulder, "I'm headed to the saloon. If you see Joe before I do, ask him to wipe down my horse. He's knows I'm good for it."

Vin watched him walk away, wondering whether he needed to worry. But as he picked up the brush and started working on Josiah's horse, he thought it through. If Chris had a problem, he wouldn't have made it a tease. He'd never had any trouble letting Vin know when he didn't approve of something.

Presupposing he knew that there was something to disapprove of, which Vin wasn't sure there was. But then again, Chris was one of the most observant men he'd ever met. So maybe he had noticed how much time Vin and Josiah had been spending together.

He pondered on that for a while, until he was almost finished up. As his mind chased round in one more circle, still coming up with no answers, he decided he was wasting his time on this. Maybe he was being a dumb as them miners, not wanting to do what they could to make the mine safe. But just like them, it was his life and his right to choose, even the stupid choices. If Chris had something to say to him, Chris would say it. It wasn't like talking to Ezra or even to Josiah himself, either of whom could dance around the point like they were in a Sun Dance. Sure as hell wasn't like trying to talk to Preston.

As he stood up, pulling the horse hair from the brush, his gelding snorted and stepped to the door of his stall, reaching his head over to nudge at Vin's chest. Just as JD's horse had done earlier. The message this time, though, was a little different.

"Yeah, I'm going," he said, stroking his horse between the ears. "And no, I ain't planning on trading you in."

As if understanding, the horse snorted. He lifted his head, nudged Vin once more, then turned back into the stall, twitching his tail as if he'd been insulted. Maybe he had, Vin thought, shaking his head as he put the brush in its place on the shelf on the wall. His horse knew him well enough to know that Gypsy was no substitute.

And as he passed by Gypsy's stall, the horse snorted in his general direction, as if confirming that he, too, knew better.

'Horses and women,' Chris had said.

Maybe he was lucky, then, 'cause he only had to deal with half of that group. Especially since Josiah liked to cook. As he walked out of the stable, he could smell fresh biscuits, just coming out of the oven.