Webmaster Note: This fic was formerly archived on another website and was moved to blackraptor in October 2008
- 1 -
JD swung into the saloon late in the afternoon, having been fishing with Casey for the better part of the day. He got himself a beer and joined Buck, Ezra and Nathan at the table where they were playing poker.
'Hey, fellas. No sign of Chris and Vin?'
'Not yet,' Nathan replied.
'Must be some lovely ladies over in Caxton,' Buck speculated.
Ezra declared his hand and looked up wryly while gathering in his winnings. 'Since when, with one notable exception, has Mr Tanner been diverted by the temptations of the flesh?'
'Well,' Buck grinned, 'If he ain't, he'll be getting mighty bored waiting on Chris.'
The men's loyalty to their absent companions knew no bounds but it would take more than them being a day overdue to give cause for concern.
- 2 -
A day earlier, in the cliffs southeast of Four Corners, Patrick Byrne had been swinging a pickaxe with gusto. Having heard rumors of silver, he was extending a promising cave. Outside, his eight-year-old son Jake was playing with the wooden soldiers Patrick had whittled for him. The poor infantrymen were under a steady bombardment of small rocks against which they stood no chance.
Patrick emerged from the cave at noon, dripping in sweat and blinking in the bright sunlight. He smiled at the battered soldiers strewn in the dust. Jake was a good boy, always occupying himself while his father made their living in whatever way he could. It was hard for a boy to lose his mother so young. Patrick caught that thought as it passed: it was hard for a man to lose a wife as lovely as Amy at any age. Still, if the loss brought him closer to his son, perhaps even yellow fever had a silver lining. They sat side by side on a rock and dug into dinner.
'Reckon you will find silver, Pa?'
'Don't know, son. Folks have found it lots of places, so why not here? Ain't looking for a big strike, just enough to set us up for a while. Like your Ma used to say, enough's as good as a feast.'
- 3 -
Meanwhile, not far from where Patrick and Jake ate dinner, Chris and Vin were on schedule as they rode back across the plain towards Four Corners, the town that was as close as either of them expected to get to a home. The fair man gave his long-haired companion a sidelong glance.
'What?' Vin asked.
After the pair had delivered a witness safely to the Judge's trial at Caxton, Chris spent an enjoyable evening, and later night, in the company of a buxom hostess from the saloon. Vin whiled his time away playing cards, much as he would have done in Four Corners.
'Wondering why you didn't sample the delights offered in Caxton. Now I think about it, you never do.'
Vin was surprised by the personal nature of the remark. He shrugged.
Smiling to himself, Chris reflected that it was more than eighteen months since he first met Vin, when bad elements they had long since driven out were trying to hang Nathan. Sometimes he felt he knew little more about the man now than he had then. With one exception, when Vin had fallen hard for a married woman, Chris couldn't recall him ever showing interest in personal relationships beyond the loose bonds of their group.
Despite his preference for privacy, Chris's own past had gradually become common knowledge in the group. Even with his loss, or perhaps because of it, Chris still needed both friends and female company. Vin was self-contained to an exceptional degree. Chris smiled again. That was his friend's choice to make.
- 4 -
By noon on the day after JD had asked about their friends, Buck began to feel uneasy. He found Ezra in the saloon as usual, now with Josiah.
'Billy's birthday today,' he remarked. 'Surprised Chris'd miss that. He was working on a present for the boy.'
Josiah inclined his head to one side thoughtfully. 'Coulda hit some trouble.'
Ezra shuffled a deck of cards fluently. 'Life is scarcely a thrill a minute here right now, gentlemen. What say we go take a look?'
'I'll get JD and Nathan,' Buck agreed. Twenty minutes later, five men rode out towards Caxton.
- 5 -
After dinner, Patrick returned to his excavation while Jake set about digging a cougar trap in the dirt. The man had lost count of how many pits the boy had dug in his quest for cougars and had long since given up trying to reason with him. Fascinated by the idea of catching a cougar, the son was totally impervious to the father's assertions that there were none in the vicinity and that they didn't just fall into holes in the ground.
A couple of hours had passed when Jake froze. He detected a rumble, though he couldn't have said whether he heard it in the air or felt it in the ground. Within seconds, the source became clear as he heard rocks crashing down inside the cave. The boy ran to the back and peered into the passage his father had opened up.
'Pa! Pa!' he shouted.
There was no reply, only the clatter of smaller stones settling in the debris. Jake hurried to the end of the passage and clawed desperately at the pile of rocks but most were bigger than he was.
'Pa!' he was crying more than shouting by now.
Still there was no reply. After ten minutes of shouting and trying to dig, Jake knew he must get help.
'I'll ride back to town, Pa,' he assured the rockpile. 'You wait here. I won't be long.'
When the father and son had arrived at the cliffs the day before, Patrick identified the landmarks they could see from their vantage point. Now Jake saddled up his pony, filled his canteen from a pool inside the cave and set off confidently towards Four Corners.
- 6 -
An hour or so after Chris's question to Vin about the delights of Caxton, the long-haired man reined back his bay and scanned the horizon. He shaded his eyes with one hand and peered at where he had seen movement.
'What is it?' Chris asked.
'One rider up on the ridge.'
Chris saw nothing himself but knew his friend too well to doubt his word. If Vin said with such certainty that he'd seen it, it was there.
'Looked small,' Vin added, bemused.
'Wanna take a look?'
The man shrugged but seconds later turned his horse off the trail and up the slope. When they reached the crest, there were small hoofprints.
'Shod,' Vin said succinctly. 'Little guy?'
'Or a child.'
'What would a kid be doing up here alone?'
'Let's find out.'
They had been following the tracks for only a few minutes when they saw a small boy on a paint pony. He sat square across the trail, tearstains on his grubby cheeks and fear in his eyes.
Chris edged his horse forward gently. 'What you doing up here, son?'
'Don't shoot me, Mister. I gotta get help for my Pa.'
'Ain't gonna shoot you, kid. What's your name?'
'Hello, Jake. I'm Chris. This is Vin. Where's your Pa?'
'There was a rockfall.' His lip trembled. 'I'm afeared he's dead.'
'Can you take us there?'
The boy nodded and turned his pony round. He trotted quickly ahead, looking back now and then to check they were still behind him. The two men looked at each other curiously. A rockfall sounded like mining but they knew of no such activity in the area. What was a man doing up in the mountains alone with a small boy?
They reached the cave within half an hour. Jake showed them the blocked passage. They exchanged subdued glances in the dim light. The rocks were packed solid and they doubted a man could have survived the fall.
'Pa,' the boy called hopefully. 'Pa. I brung two fellas to help. Pa!'
There was no sound apart from the slight reverberations of his words on the damp walls.
'Byrne,' Chris called as loud as he dared. Thinking that the man might be able to hear but not reply, he continued, 'Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner. We'll see if we can shift some of these rocks.' He turned to Jake. 'Need you to wait outside, son. No telling what'll happen when we starting moving this lot.'
The boy stood silhouetted in the cave mouth while the two men spent the next hour clearing rocks. They carried, rolled and levered the debris to the side of the passage. As they lifted a boulder between them, they saw a crushed arm in the space below. Predictable as the discovery was, it still startled them and they dropped the boulder too heavily against the wall in their haste to check for signs of life. As the rocks around them shifted and rumbled, Jake cried out. Whether his cry was the final straw or not, more rocks began to tumble. The men squatted and covered their heads with their arms to make as small a target as possible.
The minute or two it took for silence to return seemed fifty times that to Chris and Vin. When the movement stopped, they straightened cautiously and found themselves in total blackness.
'You okay?' Chris asked.
'Seem to be.' He cast around cautiously, feeling his way along the cut walls of the passage and the irregular contours of the rockfalls. 'Came down behind us,' he confirmed. 'About ten feet of passage.'
Vin had not moved.
'Yeah?' There was something adrift in the man's voice.
'Sure you're okay?'
Chris knew his friend was lying and wondered how badly he was hurt. Deciding to start with how they could get out of their predicament, he called to Jake and then listened.
The boy's voice was distant and filled with the sobs that had preceded his reply. 'Chris? You alive?'
Chris smiled in the darkness. No, he was a ghost. 'We're fine, Jake. Can you see how much has come down?'
There was a pause while the boy investigated.
'A lot. Passage is about half full.'
'Hell,' Chris muttered. 'Jake, you're gonna have to go for help again. Do you know where Four Corners is?'
'That's right. Good boy. You ride now, find Buck Wilmington. You got that?'
'Tell him where we are. Chris and Vin. Got that?'
'Yeah. Is Pa in there?'
'Ain't found him yet, Jake,' Chris lied. 'Bring the others and they'll get us all out.'
'A-all right. I'll be back soon as I can.'
- 7 -
Buck looked up from where he was examining tracks in the dust.
'Shod pony. Seems odd.'
'Are you suggesting our colleagues have been abducted by a dwarf, Mr Wilmington?' Ezra enquired laconically.
'Ain't suggesting nothing, Ezra. Thought we were looking for odd. I'd say this is odd.'
'Won't hurt to take a look,' Nathan ventured. 'Fresh tracks?'
Buck shrugged. 'Time like this, we could use Vin. I ain't much of a tracker.' He wandered along the tracks for a way. 'Coyote's walked over 'em here. Guess that was most likely last night.'
The statement was more of a question. His companions considered it.
'Sounds like the sort of thing Vin'd say,' JD said with a half-smile. 'Better do something than nothing, eh?'
They set out to follow the tracks.
- 8 -
Chris listened carefully, barely able to hear Jake ride away. He peered into the velvety blackness, unable to see even the faintest shapes. His eyes would be accustomed to the dark by now so he didn't expect the situation to improve. He felt a finger of dread as he wondered if he could be blind but then discounted that as hysteria.
Vin had still not moved.
This time his friend did not reply. Chris could hear fast shallow breathing. He held his breath for a moment, wondering if the hysteria was making him mistake his own breathing for someone else's. He could still hear the panting. He moved closer and extended his hand, feeling around until he touched the man's arm. He felt it trembling but Vin was standing, apparently uninjured.
'What's up, Vin? You hurt?'
There was a long pause before his friend spoke in a strangled voice, nothing like his normal soft drawl. 'Ain't gonna be no use to you in here, Chris. Ain't so good being shut in.'
Chris ran his hand down Vin's arm and took his hand. It was cold, clammy and shaking. 'C'mon, Vin. Ain't scared of the dark, are you?'
'Am when it's inside.'
Chris frowned, never having known Vin to be afraid of anything. Not that he was reckless but he had a healthy respect for danger, rather than a fear of it. He moved Vin back against the wall and placed his hand on it.
'Same passage we came into. Got a fair bit of air. Too soon to be worrying yet.' He didn't feel as confident as his words implied but his was rational fear of dying from lack of air or water not horror of their predicament.
Vin pressed himself against the rock, fighting to control the terror mounting inside him. He slid into a sitting position at the base of the wall and buried his face in his arms.
Chris worked his way around their prison again, checking its limits carefully. He found Patrick's cold wrist. As expected, there was no pulse. He explored the rocks at the far end of their cell. The boulders were even larger than those they had spent the last hour moving. He would be hard put to move them with Vin's help, let alone without it. And, even stacked tightly, they would soon fill the space available.
The only good news was that a trickle of water ran down one side of the passage: they wouldn't be dying of thirst anytime soon. Chris searched through his pockets in search of something he could use to collect the water but found nothing.
'Vin?' he waited a moment. 'Vin!'
'You got anything we can use to collect water off the wall?'
It took Vin a minute to understand the question in his distracted state of mind. He patted his body with wet hands then went though his pockets as best he could. He passed something to Chris. His friend felt the object, judged it suitable and propped it against the base of the damp wall. Seeking to calm the man and needing to know how big a problem they faced, Chris settled himself beside Vin and tried a little harmless conversation.
'What was that?'
'Ashtray. Picked it up in the saloon.'
'Why? You don't smoke.'
'Don't rightly know.'
'What's this about being shut in?'
Vin was silent for so long that his friend wondered whether he intended to answer at all. He had never discussed the matter with anyone and he never intended to. He felt a stab of anger at being trapped into doing so, as well as being trapped in a more literal way, but understood why Chris was asking. He wouldn't want to be stuck with someone on whom he could not depend either.
Chris took Vin's cold, damp hand in his own warm, dry palm again. 'Known each other quite a while, Vin. Reckon you seen most of my skeletons.'
Vin considered that. He had liked Chris from the first time they met and his respect for him had grown during their acquaintance. If he had to discuss the miseries of his youth with anyone, he knew of no better listener than the man beside him. Still it was hard to break a twenty-year silence and recall events that rarely even troubled his dreams any more.
Eventually, he asked, 'Ain't you ever wondered why I'm such a dead duck, wandering round doing nothing much? You had your family, Josiah's got his ministering, Nathan's got his healing, JD's got Casey and Buck's got his women. Hell, even Ezra's got his money.'
'Well, there was the Eli Joe thing,' Chris ventured. 'And it seemed like you like to travel light.'
'Ain't so much whether I do or don't. Just can't stand being closed in or tied down.' There was another long pause. 'You know my Ma died when I was five?'
'No, don't remember you ever talking about family.'
'She was wonderful but after I got sent to some relation. Son-of-a-bitch didn't want me.' Even now he had started, it took a supreme effort to go on. When he finally continued, the words came out fast and harsh. 'All I know about family is being locked in a pitch-black cellar for years.'
The bitter revelation took Chris aback. He struggled with his disgust that someone would do such a thing to a small boy and a sudden realization of why their entrapment had affected Vin as it had.
Vin pulled his hand away and sat shaking in the darkness. 'I can't be back in there again, Chris. I can't.' He stood and fumbled with his gunbelt, unbuckling it and dropping it onto the seated man.
'Believe me, when this gets bad, you ain't gonna want me to have that.'
Chris scrambled to his feet and put his hands on his friend's shoulders. 'C'mon, Vin. You know we been in worse than this. I never expected all of us to walk away from that Bryce business or the O'Shea thing either.'
Vin put his right hand on Chris's left. 'Ain't the same. I'm a liability in here. Shoot me if you have to.'
'What and bring the rest down on top of me?' He patted Vin's shoulder. 'Let's see if we can shift some of this.'
Their labors over the next few hours kept Vin's fears at bay, simmering under the surface but within his control. Progress was frighteningly slow, with the hollow they made in the blockage seeming far smaller than the pile of rocks they amassed along one side of the passage.
- 9 -
'Fella's lost,' Buck pronounced.
They had followed the shod pony in a meandering course for several hours, until two sets of tracks crossed. It was clear that the rider was aware of his mistake. He had dismounted and moved around quite a bit, sitting and standing at various points, before eventually heading west. There was nothing in that direction for several days' ride so Buck's conclusion was inescapable.
'Do we continue our pursuit?' Ezra enquired.
'Somebody's got to,' Nathan said. 'He'll die of thirst afore he finds anything out that way.'
'Might as well stick together,' Josiah suggested. 'Could have something to do with Chris and Vin. Unless anyone's got a better idea.'
No one had so they rode quickly after the pony.
- 10 -
Exhausted, Chris finally faced the fact they'd have to take a break from their efforts. He'd put it off as long as he could out of concern at how Vin would hold up without the activity to occupy him. They now sat side by side at the base of the wall and took turns to sip the meager contents of the ashtray.
'Least it was clean when you lifted it,' Chris remarked.
Vin sat in silence.
'Hey, Vin. Bad enough sitting in the dark. Least you can do is talk to me.'
It was another minute or two before Vin said, 'Must be a disappointment to find I'm yellow.'
'You ain't yellow. Never known a man who was less yellow.'
Vin clasped his hands to stop them shaking. A trickle of sweat ran down the side of his face.
With nothing to see or hear, and tired to the bone, Chris slowly dozed off. As his friend's breathing became slower and deeper, Vin's became faster and shallower. Feeling totally alone, he began to lose his grip on who he was and where he was.
Vin lived at the center of a world that moved around him, always knowing where everything was relative to himself. It was a skill that served him well in the wilderness, making it impossible for him to get lost in even the most barren landscape. The same curious gift controlled his perception of rooms. He always knew precisely where every door, window and piece of furniture was so that he could shut his eyes and navigate perfectly.
He now experienced a sudden and unnerving shift. One moment, the rock around him was as it should be, the next, he was back in the cellar. He could sense the shelves around the earth walls, smell the dusty old jars and bottles from which he had eaten and drunk when his mother's cousin forgot to put a tray through the hatch. He tasted their often foul contents anew. He had compiled his map of the cellar mainly by touch, supplemented by a thousand fleeting glimpses when the hatch opened for a few seconds here, a few minutes there.
Feeling an urgent need to relieve himself, he now walked over to the bucket in which he'd taken care of his bodily functions throughout those dismal years. He felt for it but nothing was there. The mismatch between his image of his surroundings and the evidence of his fingertips agitated him.
'Where's the bucket?' he asked, talking to himself as he had done so often. 'Can't go on the floor.'
His words woke Chris, who said nothing and listened.
'I won't go on the floor. I'm not an animal.'
'Where's the bucket?'
'What bucket? Vin?'
'He musta moved it when I was asleep.' Vin felt his way around the passage, looking for a bucket that was five hundred miles and twenty years away.
Realizing his friend couldn't hear him, Chris got to his feet. He moved towards the sound of shuffling footsteps. When he put a hand on Vin's back, the man shrank from the contact.
'Don't beat me. I ain't done nothing.' His voice was plaintive.
Chris shook him. 'Vin! Vin!'
The man started. 'Eh? What?'
'It's me. Chris.'
'Chris Chris Larabee?'
'That's right. You okay now?'
Vin put a hand to his head in confusion. 'I was right back there. It was so real.'
'Well, you're back here now.' Chris tried to make light of it but he was as alarmed by the episode as Vin had been while experiencing it. He wasn't thinking of his own safety confined with his friend, though that might become an issue, but he was concerned whether Vin's mind would survive his incarceration.
Vin gave a hollow laugh. 'Not just yellow but nuts too. Hell, I need a piss, with or without the goddamned bucket.' He worked his way to a far corner of their dungeon and took care of it. Dropping back heavily beside Chris, he sighed. 'This is gonna get a lot worse afore we're through, Chris. I I can't stop it.'
Chris put an arm round his shoulders. 'Ain't a big deal. If you'd stopped a bullet, I'd look after you. Whatever it takes.' He hoped he sounded more confident than he felt.
- 11 -
Jake sat on a low rise in the prairie, sniffing miserably. He had made steady progress towards Four Corners until the sun went down. Afraid to stop for the night when more rocks might fall at any moment, he rode on in the dark. It wasn't until soon after dawn, confronted by a familiar view and his pony's hoofprints in the dirt, that he realized that he had been travelling in circles. He had no idea where he was so the position of the sun was no help in deciding which way he should go. He spent the morning wandering aimlessly, hoping to find someone or recognize something eventually. In the heat of the noonday sun, he eventually gave in to his tears.
He had been crying intermittently for an hour or so when he saw movement far across the prairie. He stood on the hillock and waved his arms desperately. The riders were too distant to see him but naturally his tracks brought them steadily closer.
It was JD who reined back and shaded his eyes to get a better look at the landscape ahead.
'There's someone standing on a rise waving,' he informed his companions, his tone a mixture of amusement and surprise.
It wasn't long before they could all see the someone.
'A dwarf or a child,' Ezra remarked as they drew nearer still.
Any trace of amusement faded when they finally saw the forlorn, tear-stained little boy. They all dismounted and Nathan went forward on foot.
'Hello. I'm Nathan. What's your name?'
'What are you doing all the way out here, Jake?' He looked the boy over but saw no sign of injury.
'Buck Wilmington,' the boy repeated carefully. 'Find Buck Wilmington.'
Buck squatted in front of the lad. 'I'm Buck Wilmington, kid. Who told you to look for me?'
The men looked at each other. Nathan gave the boy a water bottle. Buck waited while he drank, then asked, 'Tell us what happened. From the beginning.'
'Pa was looking for silver in the cliffs. The rocks fell down on him. I went for help. Chris and Vin moved the rocks but then more fell down. Chris said to get help from town. But I got lost when it got dark.'
'They were all right when you left?' Josiah prompted gently.
'Chris said they were fine but they hadn't found Pa.'
'What cliffs, son?' Ezra asked.
'South-east of Four Corners.'
'Carver's Bluff,' Nathan said. 'Folk used to say there was silver up there, though I never knew anyone find any.'
They looked at the boy, wondering whether to take him with them or split up and take him back to town.
'I'm coming with you,' he said firmly. 'I told my Pa I'd be back.'
Buck smiled. 'Okay. Let's ride.'
- 12 -
Chris sat in the blackness, wondering how much time had passed. He thought they had been imprisoned for most of twenty-four hours but knew that his estimate could be way off. Even his most optimistic calculations put rescue at least twelve hours away. His most pessimistic recognized that the rock over which they had ridden the last few miles would take no tracks - there might be no rescue and they were not going to get out alone.
He listened to the steady breathing of the man beside him. Vin had finally fallen asleep, after sitting shaking for what seemed like hours. Chris would never have guessed at the torments that his friend had buried so deep. As he considered that, Vin began to stir again. He became restless, tossing from side to side as he muttered.
'Want to play Want to go to school I'm not an animal.'
Chris picked up on the last phrase. They were the same words the man had used earlier. A little boy trying to hold on to his humanity, alone in the darkness with nothing to do, no one to talk to, food pushed through a hatch if he was lucky and a bucket as a latrine. Chris remembered Mary telling him about Vin's anger when she discovered he couldn't read. The kindly woman could have had no idea of what lay below that revelation.
Vin started into wakefulness. He sat tense in the blackness, straining to hear.
'He's coming. He knows. But it was worth it.' There was satisfaction in his voice. Waiting for a beating, he was still glad he'd done whatever it was he'd done.
This time, the hallucination was more vivid. Try as he might, Chris could not rouse Vin, who writhed under blows that had fallen so long before. The experience took almost as much out of Chris as it did out of Vin. He breathed a sigh of relief when Vin collapsed into silent tears, resting a comforting hand on his shoulder and wondering again whether there would be anything left of the Vin he had known if they ever escaped.
- 13 -
'How far you reckon it is, Nathan?' JD asked.
'Four or five hours.'
Buck looked across at the boy. 'Hell of a ride for a little kid like that, after all he's been through.'
Jake clung to the pommel of his saddle, concentrating solely on staying awake and staying on the pony.
- 14 -
As Vin's episodes became more frequent and intense, Chris detected another change. The boy living through them was growing older and more rebellious. There were fewer tears, more arguments and sullen silences.
While Vin was in one of his lucid phases, they had another go at moving the rocks. Progress was slower than ever as they had to hoist the rubble higher and higher onto the pile. The impact on the barrier seemed negligible and Chris continued more from a need to do something than out of any hope of success.
'What happened in the end? In the cellar.'
There was a long silence, longer than any that had yet followed one of the increasingly personal questions Chris had needed to ask.
'Ain't so sure. Reckon I probably killed him. Never went back to find out.'
Watching the rising violence of his friend's memories, Chris was not surprised by the answer. He had no wish to be mistaken for the oppressor if Vin relived that experience with the others.
Vin gave another of the bitter laughs that had punctuated conversations since their imprisonment.
'Said you wouldn't want me to have a gun.'
'Hell, Vin. You been bottling this up all these years?'
'Don't reckon it'd make no difference what I'd done with it.' Unable to look at his friend as he would normally, he rested a hand on his sleeve. 'It don't go away, Chris. Nearly five years I was down there. You can't imagine.'
'No,' Chris admitted. 'I can't. Life was good for me till Sarah and Adam Can't even say I've dealt with that.'
'I think about it sometimes,' Vin said slowly, 'When stuff comes up, like schooling or manners. Stuff I shoulda learned. Took care of myself afterwards, learned how to live in the wilderness, but I ain't got no book learning.'
'When you're back there you often say you're not an animal.'
'Yeah. I used to tell myself that over and over. Son-of-a-bitch used to say I was.' The slight exhalation Chris heard in the darkness was reassuringly recognizable as one of Vin's normal half-laughs. 'Old Ezra don't know how close he's come to a broke nose. Sometimes he sounds just like that sack of dirt.'
'You know why he did it?' Chris asked.
Vin had often wondered about that himself. The man had lived as a virtual hermit so it seemed unlikely anyone had even known about the boy who came to live with him. Why not just kill him?
'Reckon he thought I wouldn't last long. Plenty of glass - maybe he thought I'd slit my throat. Seemed like he didn't have the guts to kill me. I could see him getting afraid when I got bigger. He was yellow right through.'
They returned to their rock-shifting until fatigue forced them to stop. Once again they sipped at their paltry water rations. Still painfully thirsty, Chris tried to play down their deprivations.
'Least we're keeping the place clean. A mouthful of water and no food don't make for many calls of nature.'
'Damn, I'm hungry,' Vin said, knowing it was a mistake to dwell on it but unable to control his thoughts. 'Got cut off in a blizzard once with a Kiowa friend. Winds didn't drop for four days. I swear the man looked like a walking side of beef to me by the end of it.'
'Reckon you already would, if I could see you.'
Vin smiled in the darkness. 'You're a good friend, Chris.'
'You too, Vin. This don't change nothing.'
They slept for a while but thirst, hunger, worry and aching muscles conspired to make real rest impossible. Chris had been awake for some time when he heard the warning signs of another impending hallucination. Vin's breathing always became faster and shallower as the anxiety built.
Chris had hidden the gunbelt in a niche in the rocks. It wasn't particularly secure but he'd have trouble finding it himself in the darkness so he thought the hiding place was good enough. After further consideration, he found a similar spot for his own weapon. He had no intention of using it on Vin so it only represented a risk if it fell into his friend's hands.
- 15 -
Vin peered into the darkness, trying to distinguish the hatch in the ceiling above him. He had heard his jailer come in a while before and now waited to implement a plan he'd been working on for some time. It began when he discovered an old saw blade on the floor under some shelves. When he was consigned to the cellar, all the tools that could be used as weapons or to engineer escape had been removed. As he'd grown older and more resentful, his guardian had begun to doubt the adequacy of those early measures. He now covered the boy with a gun when he opened the hatch to pass down food and swap the used bucket for an empty one.
Vin had considered the problem for months. Any attempt to accost his captor was likely to end in his own death, striking up from floor level, blind from the darkness and with a heavy boarded hatch ready to slam down at the slightest provocation. When the boy was younger, the man had required him to come to the top of the stairs, place the bucket and tray on the floor and take the replacements. Later, concerned the boy would attack him, he insisted Vin place the used items on the stairs and wait below.
Discovering the blade opened up a new possibility. Over three days, Vin painstakingly cut through strategic points on the staircase. On the last day, he put the bucket and tray in place and tied a piece of cord to the hatch before completing his sabotage of the stairs. When the hatch opened, Vin averted his gaze to avoid being blinded by the light. In the periphery of his vision, he watched the man lean into the cellar, hand on the top step, and then pulled sharply on the cord. The hatch made contact with the man's head in a satisfying thud, sending him sprawling down the stairs, which disintegrated into a pile of matchwood.
- 16 -
Chris felt Vin watching something in the void, muscles tensed. Suddenly he leapt forward. Chris remained motionless, hoping that Vin would enact the assault on an imaginary assailant rather than seek him out. He listened as his friend smashed a rock into the ground over and over again. There seemed little doubt that the original recipient of the onslaught had not survived to tell the tale.
- 17 -
The weapon in Vin's hand was a log not a rock. He pummeled the body beneath him until he was exhausted. With the hatch in place, he couldn't see if the man was dead. He smelled the iron tinge of blood and felt its stickiness on his fingertips. He hastily built a makeshift staircase from a motley collection of items he had gathered. Minutes later, he crawled cautiously through the hatch and bolted it behind him. He hid behind a sofa until his breathing was steady and his eyes could bear the dim lamplight.
Vin's plans had not extended beyond escaping the cellar. Now he considered his filthy rags, greasy hair past his waist and bare feet. He would need clothes, transport, supplies and protection if he was to survive. He checked the shack over carefully. Above the front door hung a rifle. He stood on a chair to take the weapon down and then riffled through drawers and cupboards until he found boxes of ammunition. There were two types and it took him several minutes to discover how to load the weapon. There were three boxes of bullets for it.
Keeping a firm grip on his fear, Vin selected the food he thought would keep longest and took anything else that seemed useful. He picked out the best of a poor assortment of clothes from a trunk against one wall and used a hunting knife to shorten the legs and sleeves. Using the same knife, he hacked his hair to shoulder length. Finding a jar of soap on the kitchen windowsill, he went outside and drew a bucket of water from the well. He scrubbed himself until the soap had gone, trying to remove every trace of his incarceration.
Returning to the kitchen, he dressed in the oversized clothes, cinched with a belt, then folded a cloth around his provisions, tying the corners together to form a secure bundle. He went to the stable and spent quarter of an hour working out how to tack up the mule, complete with saddlebags for his provisions and holster for his rifle. When he was done, he embarked on the course he would follow for the next twenty years, living outdoors and travelling light.
- 18 -
In the cave, Vin's re-enactment ended with his concealment behind the sofa. He pressed himself into a corner of their prison and moved no more. When Chris felt his face, he found the eyes open. When he closed them, they remained closed. He had no idea of the nature of the state in which his friend had been left or how long it was likely to last. Several hours later, Vin was still silent and motionless. Eventually, Chris dozed off.
When the rescuers eventually approached the cave, the light was beginning to fade. Seeing the two horses tethered outside, they hurried in.
'This how you left it?' Buck asked Jake. 'No more falls?'
The boy looked carefully, then nodded. 'Think so.'
'Chris!' Buck called. He waited for a minute or so but there was no answer. 'Chris!'
Chris started into wakefulness and listened. He was sure a sound had woken him. His name!
'Buck! That you?'
'Yeah. You okay?'
Chris hesitated, not knowing the answer. He went over to Vin and shook him, telling him that the others had come. There was no response.
'Vin hurt?' Buck asked.
'He ain't so good but he's alive,' Chris called back. 'How's it look out there?'
There was a delay while the men assessed the situation.
'Hell of a lot of rock,' Buck called. 'We'll get going.'
'How long's it been? Is it day or night?' Chris asked.
'Dusk now. Reckon you been in there maybe a day and a half.'
Chris resumed his efforts to clear the blockage from his side while the other five men worked theirs. After settling the horses, they labored through the night by firelight, while Jake slept on a bedroll in the cavemouth, shattered by his exertions. It was back-breaking work but every time they exchanged a few words, they heard each other a little more clearly.
Daybreak saw their task nearing completion. They expected each rock they shifted to be the breakthrough and, finally, the moment came. First they glimpsed Chris's hand through a small gap. He moved another boulder on his side to create an opening that a man might just have squeezed through. Two more on their side saw a small but passable arch. Chris stepped through, looking filthy and drained but otherwise fit. He took a long drink from the canteen Josiah offered.
'Am I glad to see you fellas,' he told them. 'I was beginning to wonder if that was gonna be my tomb.' He looked over at Jake, still asleep. 'He get back to town?'
Buck shook his head. 'We found him wandering, lost, after we came looking for you. His Pa?'
Chris chewed his lip and spoke in a low voice. 'We'd just uncovered his arm when the rocks came down. He was dead before we even got here.'
'And Mr Tanner?' Ezra looked uneasy as he asked after the casualty they weren't discussing.
There had been plenty of time for Chris to consider how much he would tell the others of Vin's ordeal but he still hadn't made up his mind. He had put off the decision, hoping that Vin would return to life when the others arrived, but it was now clear that wasn't going to happen.
'He's all right physically but he's been through hell.' Chris looked at Nathan. 'Turns out he spent five years locked in a pitch-black cellar when he was a kid and this brought it back. Half the time, he's been there like it was happening now and not even hearing me. It ended hours before you got here, when he killed the fella who did it. He ain't spoken or moved since. You seen anything like that, Nathan?'
Nathan didn't answer immediately, swamped as long-suppressed memories surfaced unbidden. When he spoke, the news was not so good. 'Yeah. Can take ages. Some don't ever come out of it.'
'Five years?' JD expressed the incredulity they all felt. 'But he never said anything.'
'Would you?' Buck asked him. 'Don't reckon it's the kind of thing you want to think on too often. No wonder he likes being outdoors. Can't lock a man in a wagon.'
Nathan and Chris stepped back into the passage and managed between them to manipulate Vin out through the gap. He did not resist or cooperate, being somewhat self-supporting but incapable of voluntary movement. The two men propped him up in the mouth of the cave, where he would be able to see across the open land if he stirred, and got some water into him.
Buck and JD squeezed through the gap with torches and assessed the task of extricating Patrick's body. With help from Josiah and Ezra, they had him out in an hour. Chris collected his and Vin's gunbelts, noting his friends' curious looks but declining to comment on the precautions he had taken.
The men sat round, drinking coffee and waiting for Jake or Vin to stir. Ezra looked uncomfortable.
'One's words come back to haunt one at a time like this. In the light of this disclosure, I regret mocking certain aspects of Mr Tanner's character.'
In spite of everything, Chris grinned at that. 'Don't reckon he'll want folks getting twitchy round him because of this but he did say you don't know how close you've come to a broken nose.'
It wasn't long before Jake woke. Chris broke the news to him, then watched sadly as the boy tried to be brave but was soon overwhelmed by his tears. They sat together by his father's body.
Chris waited until the boy was more settled before speaking again. 'You got anyone else to take care of you?'
'My Ma died of the fever,' Jake told him, holding on to his composure. 'There's Uncle Bob and Aunt Lily.'
'They good people?' Chris asked, unnerved by Vin's experience.
The boy nodded. 'I sometimes stay with them if Pa's working somewhere I can't go.'
The thought of his father brought the tears back for a while. Overall though, he coped well. They would take him back to town and get him to his family somehow.
The men grabbed a few hours sleep after their night's labors before setting out for town. They weren't sure how they would manage Vin but found that riding was about as second nature to him as breathing. He made no effort to guide his horse but sat as firmly in his saddle as he always did.
As they rode, Buck asked Nathan, 'What do they do to get people back to normal then?'
Nathan shrugged. 'Don't know much about it but I guess familiar people and things are the best bet. With Vin, if riding out in the open with us don't help, I'm kinda short on ideas.'
It was late by the time they rode into Four Corners. Chris took Jake to the newspaper office, intending to prevail on Mary to help care for him and find his family. Josiah and Ezra took the body of Patrick Byrne to the undertaker. The other three steered Vin back to his wagon, Nathan and Buck making him comfortable in his cot and JD putting his horse away.
- 20 -
Over the next week, the men took turns in caring for their friend, keeping him clean and watching for signs of recovery. They kept people away, telling no one the nature of his illness and letting them concoct their own ideas as to his injuries in the rockfall.
On the sixth day, Buck was draped across the end of the bed reading a newspaper when he felt Vin's leg move. The tall man tossed his paper aside and looked eagerly into his friend's face for signs of consciousness. It was another forty minutes before his vigil was rewarded. Vin stirred and then opened his eyes.
'Hey, Buck,' he said hoarsely. 'You dead too?'
'Nobody's dead,' Buck told him, his voice shaking with emotion at his friend's return.
'We got out of there?' Vin asked, the astonishment clear in his voice. 'Chris?'
'He's fine.' Buck helped Vin to sip some water. 'You okay?'
'Not sure. How long?'
'Reckon two days in the passage by the time we got you out. Been back here six days.'
Vin's brow furrowed. 'You all know what happened?'
Buck nodded. 'Just glad you're back.'
'I was like a kid, no use to Chris, no use to myself.' He made no secret of his shame.
'We all got our weak spots, Vin. Hell, mine's right out there for all to see. Sounds like you had it pretty bad.'
Vin appreciated the reassurance but wondered how long it would take to reconcile himself to the experience. He struggled to sit up. Buck tried to help but, seeing how light-headed his friend was, propped him up with pillows instead.
'You ain't had much to eat lately. We been getting soup into you but a man can't live on that.' He leaned out of the wagon, saw Chris on the far side of the street, held up a thumb and called out, 'Need some grub over here.'
Chris's grin was a mile wide. He was back with eggs, bread and coffee within minutes. He examined Vin's face, trying to see whether he was himself or a changed man, but said only, 'Good to see you again.'
'You too. Truth be told, I wasn't expecting us to get out alive.' His downcast expression was not what one might expect from a man who had cheated death. 'I'm real sorry-'
'I don't wanna hear it,' Chris said firmly. 'Reckon you done well to handle it at all. 'Sides, we might not have made it without you.'
Chris tossed something onto the bed: it was the small bent metal ashtray. Vin picked it up and turned it over contemplatively. After a long pause, a broad smile spread over his face as gratitude spread through his heart. Time had finally given him the friends he had longed for during those endless bleak days.
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