He didnt have to wait long. The bigger of the two men got up and headed off behind some rocks in order to take care of his needs and thats when he struck. He had one weapon--a stick. And even though it wasnt as sharp as hed have liked it to be, it would have to do. As the two men talked about how they were going to kill him hed been busy pulling bark off the stick and fashioning somewhat of a point on it with his teeth. He needed it just sharp enough to puncture the skin and he didnt think hed have any trouble doing that, not with the anger that ran through him. It was a tempered anger though, anger enough to make him fight but not enough to make him stupid. He was under control, but it was a controlled rage. And so when the man had his pants down he made his move. Leaping down behind the man he quickly thrust his stick into the mans neck right where the pulse was and then just as quickly pulled the stick out. His tormenter fell back on the ground trying to stop the stream of blood that pulsed out with each beat of his heart. His eyes were bugged and his mouth opened in an attempt to cry out but there was no sound. The dying man tried reaching out to him, squirming on the ground, but all that did was make the blood flow faster. It didnt take long before the eyes started to dim and the body began to shudder in its last death throes. As he finally stilled, Vin pulled the dead mans knife from his sheath and headed toward his next unsuspecting victim. This one was going to tell him everything he wanted to know before he died.
"Hey Edward, what are you doing over there? Need some help?" Thomas chuckled. "Probably this diet of jerked beef thats got you so clogged up. Wont be long and well be arggg "
Thomas was jerked up to a standing position, Vin had him from behind, his left arm tight around the bounty hunters neck and the knife in the right hand threateningly close to his throat.
"Now, yer gonna tell me what you know or yer gonna find yerself in a hell of a lot of pain," a quiet raspy voice said to him. "Its up to you."
Thomas tried to turn his head towards where hed last seen Edward hoping his friend would hear the scuffle and come to his aid.
"No need lookin fer yer friend. He aint gonna be any help. Now tell me whos payin you?"
Again the captured man tried to turn and get out of the mans grasp. Damn, he shouldnt be this strong, not after all hes been through, Thomas thought. He tried to think of which leg of the tracker had been injured, if he could just deliver a hit there then
"I asked you a question," he heard the raspy voice say and then he felt the blade of the knife slide along his neck line. Good Lord, was the man going to slit his throat?
"I I dont I dont know," he managed to stammer out. "Never met the person."
"Not a good answer." he heard and then he cried out as his right forearm erupted in pain. He looked down to see not only his shirt sleeve hanging down past his hand but also a slab of his skin. Oh my God, was the man going to skin him?
"Lets try this again," the voice said. "Whos payin ya?"
Think, Thomas, think. Maybe the man could be bought off. Men had prices, they always did. Hell, he did.
"I I dont know but wait wait. Its a lot of money. I can share, hell, you can have it all if thats what you want."
And then there was fire along his left forearm. Oh God, the man was going to peel him like an orange!
"Now we can keep doin this till you have no skin left or you can tell me what I want to know," the man said as the hold on him tightened even more.
"Okay okay Ill tell just dont dont cut me anymore. Ill give you the name."
Vin didnt lessen his hold on the man just in case it was a trick to make him back off some but there was no way he was prepared for what he heard.
"Larabee. Thats the name the name of the person that hired us to kill you. Larabee."
What? NO!! Couldnt be, not Larabee, not HIS Larabee. Not Chris. Chris would never do this.
"Yer wrong!!" Vin spat out vehemently, his knees suddenly feeling weak and his eyes beginning to sting. He took another swipe with his knife this time on the mans right thigh.
OH GOD, OH GOD, YOU"RE KILLING ME!!" Thomas cried out. "I swear I swear, its the truth," he sobbed as he began to sink in Vins arms. "Ten thousand dollars. Five for me and five for Edward. I swear its the truth, oh God, I swear. She just wanted you dead and I wished to God we would have just killed you when we had the chance," Thomas said as he slipped to the ground in a heap.
SHE? Who the hell was SHE? Larabee? There was no SHE Larabee.
Vin grabbed hold of Thomas shirt front pulling him close to his face. "Who the HELL is SHE? Give me her whole name!" He was out of control now. He didnt know who was shaking more, Thomas or himself. Thomas because of his impending death or himself because of the rage that was boiling in him. "TELL ME NOW!"
"Ella. Ella Gaines Larabee. Thats the way she signed her letter. The man was crying now trying to put back the skin on his arms and leg. "Look what youve done to me. How could you do this? What kind of an ANIMAL are you anyway?" he sniveled.
Dammit all to hell. He should have known. He should have killed her when he had the chance . He should have kept looking for her. Shit, shit and double damn.
"Wheres she at?" Vin demanded. "Tell me where shes at or youll lose the skin on your other leg."
"Letter told us to bring your DEAD body to her place outside of Sully Butte," Thomas told him putting added emphasis on the word "dead". Bout five miles west of town. Shit, now I wont only not get my money, shell probably kill me too," he said not even realizing how stupid that sounded.
Ella Gaines Larabee. Vins eyes narrowed and he nodded his head to himself knowing just what he had to do. But first he needed to take care of this business.
"You know," Thomas said softly now looking at Vin with his tear soaked face, after killing you there could have been others, if we, me and Edward that is, wanted to go after them. There was at least five more men and one woman we could have killed for her. She put a price on you all. None was worth as much as you though. You were the high priced one, thats why me and Edward went after you first. We could have retired on what we made off of you." He gave a mirthless chuckle then. "Yeah, we figured youd be the best kill, our first human, ha, who would have ever guessed this was going to be the way it turned out?"
Vin listened to the man talk and could hardly believe what he was hearing. After him, Ella was going to have the rest of the boys except Chris killed. And Mary too. What a heartless bitch. He closed his eyes as he tried to keep the tears at bay thinking of what this would have done to his best friend. It would have killed him! Chris would never go to Ella, hed kill himself with the bottle or pick a fight and lose just to die. He had to finish this, just had to. Had to do it for the protection of the rest of them and mostly for the protection of Chris. The woman had to die!
"I would have guessed it to turn out this way Thomas," Vin said to him in a quiet, deadly voice. "You would neverve gotten away with it. Those five men would have hunted you down and killed you."
"You gonna kill me now, tracker? Ive given you all you asked for. If I promise to just leave, would you let me do that?" the mans eyes pleaded with him.
Vin shook his head. "Caint do that," he said as they heard the wolves howl off in the night air. "But I can do this for you," Vin said as he leaned forward and with his knife cut lengthwise deeply across Thomass belly. "Ill let you bleed out and die before those animals get to you," he said as he cocked his head in the direction of the howling. "Be downright nasty to be ate up whilst you was still breathin'." And with that Vin rose up, picked up the hunters rifles and began to smash them against the rocks until they were in pieces. Then he was gone.
As Thomas held his hands tight across his belly to hold himself in, he couldnt help but think back to yesterday when he had that feeling that something just wasnt right. Yep, he thought. A man should always trust his instincts. His face split into a grin as he realized he still had his pistol holstered at his side. The damn breed didnt even take his gun away from him. What a brazen cocky man that Vin Tanner had turned out to be. Hell, they should have been paid more to bring him in! He awkwardly pulled his pistol from its holster, cocked the hammer and put the gun barrel in his mouth. Yep, a man should always trust his instincts he thought again as the howling sounds grew closer drawn no doubt by the smell of fresh blood and then he pulled the trigger.
As the two peacekeepers made their dry camp they listened to the lonely call of the wolves.
"Somethin sure has em stirred up tonight," Nathan mentioned to the man in black. He was pretty certain Chris was thinking along the same lines as he was. The smell of fresh blood could get a pack of wolves sounding like that. He just hoped and prayed it wasnt Vins blood. He watched as the gunslinger paced back and forth, his body like a tightly coiled rope. No sleep for that man tonight, he mused. Hell, he didnt think hed be able to sleep either, not with the wolves howling nor with his nerves on edge. Tomorrow morning the others would be here and then things would get better. They had to, they couldnt get much worse.
Where the hell are you Vin? Dammit. Chriss thoughts and fears were beginning to wear on him. He was pacing, probably just like those wolves were. His stomach had been all tied up in knots ever since they found the dead horse. Two shells, two riders, two hunters. Vin out there with no protection. None. Nothing. What could he do, what would he do? Shit, but he hoped Tanner had been a model Indian. Hoped he learned everything there ever was to learn about being out alone, naked, hunted down. Damn, but he was shaking. He wasnt sure if it was because he was so angry or so scared or because when was it he had eaten last? He grabbed a biscuit and some jerked meat, took Vins rolled up belongings and told, or barked, to Nathan that hed take first watch. Unrolling his friends things he touched every piece of what he had that was Vins. Here was everything. He had all that was Vin right here in his lap. Now he just needed the flesh and blood that made up his partner. How he wished the clothes and the man were sitting right here next to him. He shook his head, blinked his eyes hard and reached into Vins jacket pocket and pulled out his harmonica. As his fingers gently rubbed over the mouth organ that meant so much to the tracker he sent a plea across the land for whomever to please take care of his friend. Take care of him until he could get to him. Im comin Vin, Im comin. Just hold on.
Before dawn, four riders came thundering in from the southeast. Four men bent on only one thing--finding their friend. The four met with the other two and now there were six headed into the mountains to search for their tracker. And God help anyone that had hurt their companion or had any notion of hurting him. None had slept last night, not the four that rode taking advantage of the bright moonlit sky nor the two that anxiously awaited them. And none had their morning coffee, so tempers were short and conversations almost nil.
As they neared the rocky outcroppings that began the climb into the mountains the men dismounted and began to look for signs. It was Nathan that found the pool of blood behind the rock that had shielded Vin. JD found tracks of the two mens horses and another shell casing. The young sheriff had told the others what Chris had said about Vin being hunted like an animal and what they found now was sure making it look that way.
"Theres a flat about halfway up," JD said. "Vin and I camped there one time coming back from Sully Butte. Might be more signs there."
"Lead the way JD," Buck said as the men parted and let the young man and his mount walk ahead of them.
It wasnt long before a gruesome scene greeted the six peacekeepers. The first man they came upon was Thomas. He was mostly intact, the light from the fire more than likely saving him from being devoured during the night. The other man wasnt so lucky. Since hed been out of range of the campfire the wolves had gotten to him. There was enough left though that the men knew it wasnt Vin. No telling how hed died, but the other man died from a self inflected gun shot to this mouth. They also noted the other injuries on him, grimacing in the knowledge that the man had paid a terrible price for hunting the Texan. Every man knew Vin had lived with the Indians, but it was hard to believe that the quiet, softly spoken man that they knew was capable of doing what they now saw. But Chris knew. Vin had told him one time that he knew a few things about getting the truth out of a man, so Chris knew. And Chriss heart had hardened. These men had been after Vin. They stripped him of everything he had, didnt leave him a thing, wounded him and hunted him like an animal. They deserved what they got. End of story on them. Now they just needed to find Vin.
"What should we do with the bodies?" JD asked as he tried not to look at them.
"Leave em," their leader hissed. "We need to find Vin."
"Chris? I think you should take a look at this," said Ezra as he handed a letter to the angry gunfighter. "I found it in one of the miscreants saddlebags.
The man in black quickly scanned over the letter his face becoming a mask of rage. "God dammit to hell, Ill kill that bitch! She aint getting away this time." He grabbed his horses reins and began making the trek up the mountain.
"Ezra? Care to enlighten us," Buck said.
"One word. Ella."
Buck nodded his head. "I was afraid you were gonna say that. Did it say where shes at?"
"Sully Butte. Has a place outside of town about five miles west."
"Then thats where were headed."
"Do you think thats where Vins headed?" asked JD.
"Be my guess, kid."
"You dont think hed kill Ella without telling Chris do you? Do you think hed kill Ella? Shes a woman."
"She aint no woman JD. She is pure evil."
"I suggest we catch up to our esteemed leader post haste or the town of Sully Butte will be leveled before we get there," said Ezra as the five remaining men took up their horses reins and headed after the man in black.
+ + + + + + +
It took them the better part of the day walking their mounts up the mountain. There were outcroppings of rocks jutting out here and there that the men needed to go around. It all took time. Precious time. They didnt know where Vin was, didnt know how badly he was hurt, although by killing the two bounty hunters they knew he couldnt be in too bad of shape. They could only hope that the man had gotten water and food, although Nathan couldnt find anything rummaged through back at camp. It was as though Vin had killed the men and then left, well, after smashing the rifles to pieces that is. The horses were gone so they knew he at least had a horse, but he hadnt even taken time to saddle up. The consensus among the six was that Vin only had one thing on his mind and that was getting to Ella.
He had to be weak. Blood loss, fatigue, hunger were all against the Texan, but the need to avenge was great and that push could keep him strong for many hours, but when it failed him he was going to crash and Chris wanted to get to him before that happened, before he got to Ella. If she even suspected a weakness in Vin she wouldnt hesitate to kill him. And what Chris was afraid of was that Vin would try and bring Ella to him and he was in no condition to do that. If he thought he was fearful before, now it was even more so, knowing what that woman would do to get to him. Killing Vin and all the rest of his friends and even Mary. Mary? Mary was an innocent in this whole thing. Course so were Sarah and Adam and look what shed done to them. Just thinking about that made his need to see her die even stronger. And thats why he was afraid Vin would try and bring her in. The tracker knew how he felt, knew he wanted to watch her die, either by hanging or by a bullet--didnt matter, as long as she was dead.
Vin had wasted no time in getting to his destination. He skirted the town of Sully Butte not wanting anyone to see him. He headed directly west of town and reined in a few hundred feet shy of the house. Ellas house. He saw only a couple of hired hands moving about and he figured hed have no problem with them. They werent expecting any trouble. As nighttime drew near, he crept closer to the house, keeping low and well hidden. It didnt take long for him to overtake each man, leaving them unconscious and tied up in the bunkhouse. Then he entered the main house.
Ella was performing what had become her nightly ritual of lighting candles, gliding around in her silk nightgown and talking to herself about having the man of her dreams; what it would be like for the both of them living, working, and loving together. She talked as though carrying on a conversation with Larabee himself, like he was sitting right there in the room with her. Vin watched her from a darkened doorway, shaking his head, thinking the woman really was mad.
Finally when Vin had heard enough he straightened up and leaned against the door frame with his arms crossed over his chest.
"He aint never gonna be yours ya know," he said in a his quiet raspy voice. "Hed rather be dead."
Ella spun around grabbing a candle from the table, squinting her eyes at the voice in the doorway and asked, "Whos there?"
Vin pushed off from where he was standing to come inside the room so she could see him.
Holding the candle up to see the intruder, the woman gasped and her free hand fluttered to her throat. "Its YOU!" she hissed. "How the hell did you get in here?" she asked while looking past him and swiveling her head to look out the windows for any signs of her hired men.
"Aint nobody gonna help ya Ella. Yer hired men are fine, jest takin a rest in the bunk house and yer bounty hunters were good, but not good enough. Probably buzzard bait by now ifn the wolves left anything of em." He gave a feral grin as he watched the face in front of him pale. "And now Im takin ya to the man who is gonna pull the lever and watch ya drop."
"Chris could never kill me," the mad woman challenged, pushing her chin up a notch. "He loves me."
"In yer dreams. Once he finds out you were going to kill all his friends, and that includes Mary, he just might not wait for a hangmans noose. Might jest put a bullet in ya first. Chris is real loyal to his friends. He dont take kindly to anybody hurtin em."
"Stay away from me you filthy half-breed. Im not going anywhere with you and if you lay a hand on me Ill tell Chris you tried to violate me."
Vin chuckled at that. "Oh, I think Larabee knows me better than that. You aint quite my type."
He watched as she huffed at him and moved closer to the fireplace.
"Lets go Ella, I hate to keep a good man waiting." Vin made a move toward Ella and then threw up his left arm in defense as she swung the fire poker at him. The blow glanced off his forearm and knocked him backwards to the floor. Then she came at him with her lips curled in a snarl and her eyes wide and glazed. "Ill kill you for interfering between Chris and me!" she raged. Just before reaching him he kicked out his legs and sent her sprawling headfirst into the table with all the lit candles on it. They flew everywhere and instantly flames kicked up from the tablecloth, rugs, draperies, and even Ella herself became engulfed, her silk nightgown going up like a flaming torch. Vin tried to find something, anything to put over her to douse the flames but there was fire everywhere. He heard her screams as she just seemingly melted right before his eyes. The roof was beginning to come down around him and the smoke was so thick it burned his eyes and throat. He HAD to get out NOW! He remembered there was a window to his right and he crawled over to where he thought it was. Standing and using what strength he had left, he kicked at the window, and breaking it, he instantly dove outside before the flames engulfed him. He needed to get away and he needed to get to some water. There was a creek running along the back of her property and thats where he headed.
He sat down on the creek bed with his foot in the water, the foot hed used to break the window. It had a nasty gash on the bottom and that was going to make it hell to walk on. He didnt have anything to stop the bleeding with so he fashioned a grass mud pack and pushed it into the wound. It would just have to do until he could get to Nathan. Nathan. The healer was going to be upset with him for getting so banged up and not taking proper care of his wounds, but hed really had no choice. He just did what he had to do. Now he hoped he would be able to make it to his caring friend. With one last look to the burning house he limped back to where hed left his horse. It was time to head home.
It was nearly daybreak by the time the six peacekeepers headed into Sully Butte. Buck had drawn the short straw and had to cajole Chris into stopping, at least for a hot cup of coffee or in Chriss case, whiskey. The men were tired, dirty and hungry and they werent to their destination yet. Only a few more miles and Ella would be in their grasp, that is providing Vin hadnt already been there. Chris had wanted to push on but the horses needed to rest even worse than the men did. He was hoping that Vin hadnt gotten to Ella yet, that the tracker was resting up some before confronting her, but his gut instinct was telling him differently. It was telling him that his friend wouldnt quit until he had her. The pounding headache hed had for the past day and a half wasnt helping his mood any either. He was so tensed up he felt like wire wound on a spool. If Ella had done anything to Vin he was going to spin out of control and come unwound. Just the "not knowing" was having a profound effect on him and that in turn was rubbing off on his men. Hell, he didnt know how they could stand being around him. Either he said nothing or he was barking at them. Ella. All because of that woman, that bitch. He wanted her dead so much he could taste it.
As the weary men sat around a saloon table sipping on their coffee, the sheriff and two deputies came into the place and headed right for them. He gave them a curt nod and asked who they were and what their business was in town. When hearing they were peacekeepers from Four Corners he visibly relaxed and Buck concocted a story about them looking for some cattle rustlers but they had lost them and decided to head over to town to sate their appetites before heading back home. Fortunately, the man bought the story and didnt ask any more questions.
"Problem sheriff?" asked Buck.
"Had a fire and a murder last night," the sheriff answered.
"Both together or as separate incidents?" Ezra inquired.
"One and the same," the sheriff answered again. "Womans house burned down, with her in it. Hired hands said a man did it."
"Did they perchance see this man?"
"No, he attacked them from behind, but said the man didnt seem to have any clothes on. Were thinkin maybe a rogue Indian did it."
"Was this unfortunate woman from this municipality? We didnt see any smoke as we arrived in town."
Buck grinned under his moustache. Ezra was so smooth. The conman would get all the gossip, theyd just sit back and listen.
"Ah yes, well no not really," the stumped lawman said. "Mrs. Garner didnt live in town, but she did her shopping here, if thats what you meant."
"Mrs. Garner? Mrs. Garner did you say? I believe I know a couple of ladies with that name. Would she be that sweet elderly lady that lives north about two miles from here? I believe Ive had the privilege of meeting "
"No, you must be mistaken. Mrs. Garner lives about five miles west of here and she aint an old lady. She was a nice lookin lady, single, near as I could tell, never saw her with a man Whats that George?" the sheriff turned to one of the deputies and motioned for him to step closer.
"I just said that the woman always told me her husband was coming home to her. She werent sure when, but that he was comin."
"Oh, yes well, the Mrs. Garner Im thinking of must live near another town. "This other Mrs. Garner wouldnt happen to be, oh, about 45, petite in stature, dark hair and have a rather, ah large mouth now would she?" Ezra asked as his interest was now peaked.
Chris shot him a look and a raised eyebrow at that description.
"Yeah, and lots of teeth," the deputy named George put in. "Well, she does," he said and shrugged as the sheriff gave him a sideways look.
"Do you know her?" the sheriff wanted to know.
"Perhaps. I meet a lot of people in my line of work, you see, and for some reason she just sounds so familiar. "Is her first name Ella by any chance?"
"No, Eleanor. "Eleanor Garner."
"Ah I see. Well, I dont know if that is her or not. The description sure fits though. You wouldnt by chance happen to have a picture of her somewhere now would you?"
"Sure," spoke up George. We got one of her over in the hotel lobby. She gave the place lots of money to fix up a big room upstairs, called it the "bridal sweet" I think. Anyway, when a picture taker man came through town the owner of the hotel had Mrs. Garners picture taken just to honor her. I kin show it to you if you want."
"Yes, well, Id be delighted to see it. Gentlemen, if youll excuse me, Ill be right back."
"Say, Four Corners," the sheriff mused as he pulled up a chair to sit near the mens table. "Aint you got that tracker fella over there? I hear hes pretty good. Maybe we can use him to track the man that started the fire."
"Hes not there," JD announced and promptly received a warning glare from Chris.
"What JD means is that the man was called away," Josiah explained. "Circuit Judge Orrin Travis asked him to go to Red Rock and work with an Indian agent there." This, at least, was the truth.
"Whens he comin back?"
"Were not sure. Got a telegram the other day sayin he was gonna be late. Chris has it in his pocket if you need to see it," the big man nodded towards the man dressed all in black. More truths. They wouldnt be caught in any lies here.
"Hmmm " the sheriff said as he nodded his head. No way was he going to ask that man dressed in black anything. If he didnt miss his guess, hed say the man was Chris Larabee and he was notorious for both his gun and his temper. No, if the big gray haired man said Mr. Larabee had a note from the tracker fella, then he believed him. No sense in getting his head bit off.
Footsteps were heard coming into the saloon and the men all looked up as Ezra and George came through the batwing doors.
"No, Im sorry to report sheriff, I do not recognize your Mrs. Garner. Pity though, she is a nice looking woman," he said as he grinned and showed off his golden tooth. He retook his seat and asked the sheriff if they needed any help in tracking down the murderer. For that remark he got five dirty looks thrown his way.
"No, but thank you boys anyway." Im sure whoever done this is long gone, but well keep lookin anyway. Weve looked all over the place this mornin and there isnt a track or a clue anywhere. Really a shame though, such an nice woman. Pity to die that way, burned to a crisp like that." He made some "tsking" noises as he pushed up from his chair. The sheriff nodded to the men at the table and he and his deputies ambled on out the doors.
"Well?" The question asked of Ezra as soon as the lawmen exited.
"Its her. Eleanor Garner is Ella Gaines."
"What do you think happened?" asked JD.
"She died in a fire, JD. Werent you listening?"
"I know, I heard Buck, but do you think Vin had anything to do with that?"
"Could have been an accident," said Josiah.
"Only one man who can tell us that," Ezra put in.
"Damn, I hate to think of what kind of shape Vin is in," Nathan said. "Maybe we ought to head back to town. Im thinkin hell show up there if hes able and I want to be there."
"What do you think Chris?" Buck asked his friend. The man hadnt said a word or showed any emotion throughout the whole morning conversations. Not when they learned that Ella was dead, nor when the sheriff said they thought a naked Indian had started the fire. All the evidence pointed to Vin, and really, in his own mind and he knew in Chriss mind, it didnt matter if it was an accident or not. The evil woman was dead. Now they needed to find Vin, but his instincts told him that Vin would come to them. Come to Chris. Vin would definitely come to Chris.
"Lets go home pard," he said softly to Chris. "Vin will head home. Hell want to talk to you, you know that. Hes hurting and hes probably feeling guilty about Ella, so we need to be there for him, you need to be there for him. Its you hell want Chris, so wed better be on our way."
Chris nodded to Buck acknowledging what he had said, knowing that Buck was right. Vin would want to talk to him but more importantly, Vin needed him and he wanted to be there for his friend.
"Lets head home," Larabee said standing up and five weary men got up and followed him out of the saloon.
It was towards nightfall when the six men drew close to their home town. Theyd stopped back by the dead horse and picked up their friends tack. The stuff was still there so they figured he hadnt come back by that way. Chris decided to head to his place, with strict instructions that someone come and get him right away if Vin were to show up in town. The leader also told JD to head to Netties place come early morning, just to check to see if the tracker might hole up out there. The widowed womans homestead had become like a second home to the Texan and at times he would head there when he needed solitude or a word of advice. Josiah said hed ride out to Chanus Village in the morning, thinking Vin may need a place to heal his soul as well as his body, and Ezra promised to send a wire to Red Rock checking to see if Vin may have picked up his horse Peso. Chris parted company with them content to know that everyone would be keeping their eyes and ears alert for any news on their friend.
After taking care of Ponys needs and washing up at the water pump Chris realized just how tired and strung out he was. He ran his hand across the back of his neck and stretched. Damn, but he was getting too old for this. Before heading into his shack, as Vin called it, his eyes scanned the horizon and he sent out a mind message to his friend. Im here Vin. If youre out there, Im here. Come on home pard. He lingered outside for a few minutes more before finally heading inside and closing the door. What he needed was a good nights sleep, a good meal and a good shot of whiskey. First things first he decided. Going to the cupboard in the kitchen he brought down his cup and grabbed a bottle of Red Eye. Sitting on the edge of his bed he poured himself a drink and pondered on the events of the last couple of days. His mind a jumble of thoughts, most of them concerning Vin. But one came out blaringly clear. Ella was dead. The bitch was finally gone. How he wished he would have been there to see that. And he should really be happy. He should be celebrating. Hell, he should drink this whole bottle. But one fact remained, Vin was still missing. His best friend was out there hurt, maybe dead, no he amended, he wasnt dead, he was sure of that. Hed feel that, feel it in his gut. No, he didnt think Vin was dead but he was still out there somewhere, and until his partner was back with them and healed, hed wait to celebrate. Together theyd all celebrate. He shook his head, tossed back his drink and laid down on his bed, his left arm covering his eyes. He wouldnt get drunk tonight because if no one saw or heard from Vin by tomorrow he would pack up and go looking for him. Retrace their steps. Hed find his friend and bring him home. With that last thought in mind he slipped into a fitful sleep.
+ + + + + + +
He woke with a jerk. Letting his eyes get accustom to the darkness, he lowered his hand to the colt holstered at his hip. Listening intently, he tried to find the noise or sound that had awakened him from the deep sleep he had fallen into. Raising up from his bed he made his way to the front door, gun in hand, he stood and listened one more time before opening it. There it was again. He recognized it this time. It was a horse blowing. Standing off to the side for protection he slowly opened the door and took a quick look outside. A horse was standing impatiently, stamping its feet and tossing its head just a few feet away from his porch. He didnt recognize the horse. He took another longer look at the animal and realized someone was sitting on it. Damn, but it was dark out.
"State your business or get the hell out," he called out in a deadly voice, the cocking of his colts hammer testimony to what he was prepared to do.
"Gonna shoot me, cowboy?" a soft, raspy voice replied.
"Vin? Dammit Vin, where the hell you been? Weve been lookin all over for you!" Chris said as he holstered his gun and started out to his friend.
He stopped short when Vin called out to him to wait.
"Got some things I need to tell ya first. Mebbe ya wont want me ta light when ya know what Is done."
Vins voice sounded so soft and lost, Chris found himself trying to swallow the lump that suddenly came into his throat.
"I know what happened Vin," he said as he slowly approached his friend. "I know all about it. Every last detail. We all do. Its okay. Youre gonna be okay, just let me help," he told the man as he looked up into his eyes. "Its okay, Vin," he said again softly. "Lets get you inside, we can talk another time, well just take care of you right now."
He saw Vin nod his head at him and begin to dismount the horse. He took a second to look at his friends body, noting that he wasnt wearing anything except something that looked like an Indians breechcloth. He was taken out of his musings as Vin hit the ground and almost went down. Grabbing his friend around the waist to keep him from falling he heard his friend mutter something about "hurting his foot." He wrapped his arm around Vins waist and pulled the trackers arm over his shoulder, taking his friends weight upon himself. The mans skin was chilled and he wasnt much above consciousness. They stumbled through the door, Vin limping badly and Chris steered him to his bed.
"No, Chris," the tracker mumbled. "Too too dirty."
"Its okay Vin, dont worry about it, its okay," he repeated knowing how his friend hated to put anybody out.
"Just sit here for now and well get ya looked at and cleaned up," he said as he deposited the weary Texan on the bed.
Vin sat with his head hanging low as Chris lit a couple of lanterns. Bringing one over to set on the nightstand he began his inspection of his hurting friend. There were numerous cuts and scrapes but the most severe ones were the gash in his thigh, the cut on his foot and the damage done near his right eye.
"Looks like youve been through hell," he remarked, knowing full well what "hell" Vin had been through.
"Feel like it too," Vin said as he eyed up the bottle of Red Eye sitting on the nightstand. He glanced at Chris who cocked his head at the bottle.
"Help yourself. Im going to start heating some water, take care of your horse and then well work on cleanin up those wounds.
Vin nodded his head and took a long draw on the bottle. Then letting out a deep sigh, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and whispered, "Hell, I needed that."
Chris grinned at him saying, "Ill just bet you did. Drink as much as you want. I got more."
"Its temptin Chris, mighty temptin, but itll be bad enough you havin to clean me up without me bein drunk to boot." This being said as the bottle again was tipped for another long drink.
Larabee gave his good friend a sideways glance while lighting the stove and another grin formed.
"Least you werent completely naked out there. Whered you get the breechcloth?" He couldnt help but ask, his curiosity getting the best of him.
"Them bounty hunter fellers left it fer me," he said as the whiskey bottle waved around in the air. "Left me a swaller of water and this here clothing. Said they werent without scrotums."
The iron grate dropped with a bang as Chris ducked his head and ran his hand over his mouth to hide the laugh that was threatening to break out. No doubt.
"I think maybe you mean scruples. They probably said they had scruples," he repeated as he rocked back on his heels and grinned at his friend. At this rate Vin wasnt going to be feeling any pain when his wounds were cleaned and bandaged, but he was right--it would be hard to work on him if he was like a rag doll. However, looking at Tanner right now, there was no way he was going to deny him any of the pain reducing "medicine."
"Yeah, thats them scruples." He squinted with his good eye looking at Chris, then put the bottle back on the table. Head down, he asked quietly, "Yer sure you aint mad at me nor disgusted at what I done?" he looked up then at his best friend, tears in his eyes and said, "Wouldnt blame ya iffn ya were, I I mean Id understand iffn ya didnt want me around no more."
Torn between chewing him out for thinking such dumb thoughts or going over and comforting the hurting man, Chris instead settled for squatting down in front of him. Raising the mans chin with his finger to look him in the eyes he saw a lot of things he didnt like in the blue eyes. Hurt, shame, worry, maybe even a flicker of fear. Knowing that a lot of these feelings and anxieties were coming out because Vin was half soused he still wanted to be as gentle with his friend as he knew how.
"Listen to me Vin," he began softly. "I aint mad at you and I sure as hell aint disgusted with you. You did what you had to do to survive and believe me, that is the most important thing. Its important to have you here, to have you with us, thats what matters. Aint none of us without blemish Vin, hell, Ive done things youd be ashamed of me for doing, weve all done things but the thing is Vin, you didnt do anything bad. You were just fighting for survival." He watched as an eyebrow raised questioning his speech.
"Youre not a bad man Vin, hell, youre one of the best men Ive ever known and "
"Dont say much for the company ya keep Larabee," Vin said as a smile began to grace the grimy face and then it faded just as quick replaced by a scowl. "Hell, Im sorry Chris, dont mean to be so melon melacod whatever the hell that word of Ezs is. Dont mean to be so damn depressing. Think I drunk too much, dont pay me no mind," he said as a hand waved in the air in order to brush all that hed said away.
"Its okay Vin," Chris said patting his friend on the leg while standing up. "Well get through this. You just take it easy and Ill be right back." He headed for the door checking the tracker once more before going outside. Vin was playing with the whiskey bottle turning it back and forth seemingly trying to make up his mind whether to have another drink or not. Again a smile played at the gunmans lips as he wondered just what hed find when he came back in after taking care of the horse. Let it go, pard, he thought as he slipped through the door, just let it go.
It took over an hour for the gunman to clean and bandage his friends cuts and bruises, noting that a trip to see Nathan would be needed in order to sew up the two worst wounds. He was concerned about Vins eye but was informed that the sight was getting better and better everyday. He had a dozen questions to ask of his partner but knew hed never do that until Vin was good and ready to talk. The main thing was that he was here, safe and that he was in relatively good shape. Nothing life threatening anyway. Just bone weary and no doubt starved and a little drunk.
"Think you can eat something Vin?" he asked as he finished cleaning everything up.
"Reckon, but Is more tired than hungry. Maybe jest lay down fer a bit first," he looked to Chris to see if thatd be alright with him and grinned at him. He was doing a lot of that--grinning that is.
Chris nodded to him and helped him lay back on the bed. "You just rest awhile, later we can have something to eat." Later would probably be morning. He guessed it to be a couple of hours past midnight.
Vin snuggled down into the blanket and pillow. Chriss scent was everywhere and that gave him the peace of mind that he needed to fall asleep. Knowing the man was near him and watching over him made all the difference in the world. He was safe here and Chris would take care of him. He fell into a deep sleep with a small satisfied grin on his face.
Chris pulled up a chair next to the head of the bed, leaned his head back and put his feet up near his friend. Any movement Vin made hed know. He glanced at the tracker one more time and noticed the grin that graced the handsome face. Wonder what the hell hes thinkin about? He chuckled out loud, crossed his arms over his chest, closed his eyes and leaned his head back once again. Scrotums wait til I tell Buck that one.
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