Big Lie, Small World

by JIN

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Part Three: Chris
I wish I could make it easier on him.

Vin won’t last two weeks in prison. They won’t care that he’s already hurt – they won’t give him time to heal.

I think his ribs might be broke again, the way he’s hunched over. Buck and I had to practically throw him in this cell. He bounced off the walls like a rag doll.

About made me sick.

But we didn’t have a choice. Those men were beating him in places he’d already been hurt, and adding a few more to the mix. We had to get to him. It was like swimming upstream to do it, but we finally pulled him free and slammed him behind bars.

He hasn’t really moved from where he fell.

He won’t make it in prison.

If they don’t kill him working him to death when he’s half dead already, they’ll kill him when he steps in to defend someone else.

That’s exactly what he’ll do. I know because I’ve been there. Vin won’t be in the same prison I was, but it won’t matter. They’re all the same. Some poor sap will be at the mercy of some cruel, inhuman guard and Vin will do exactly what I did – he’ll step in to stop it.

He’s that kind of man.

And if they don’t kill him that way – well, then it will happen when he finally decides he can’t take it anymore and he tries to get out. He’d rather take a bullet in the back than rot away in a cell.

I know him. And I know he won’t make it there. And he knows it, too.

God, there is so much to say, and I don’t know how to say any of it.

He’s been avoiding my eyes most of the night now, but the few times he has looked at me, I can see the worry there . . . the fear.

For me as much as for him.

I find myself up pacing again – can’t seem to sit still for long, even though I’m dead tired.

The sheriff is mostly asleep, his feet propped up on his desk, his rifle resting in his lap. I don’t want to admit it, but he’s a better man than I initially thought.

Now would be the time for me to get some things said, the most important of which is that I’m not giving up. Buck is sure Mrs. Kincaid is lying, and he aims to get the truth out of her. I’m still thinking somebody somewhere in this town knows the real story – if I can just find him.

Maybe if Vin knows that, maybe he’ll bide his time in prison . . . maybe he’ll hold on long enough for us to get him out.


I will get him out. Come hell or high water . . . legally or . . . not. I’ll get him out. But he’s got to hold on until I can do that.

Of course, that’s assuming these crazy people don’t kill us all before we even get out of town.

He looks so tired. He’s got his head leaning against the wall, but he hasn’t closed his eyes. He should get up on that cot and try to get some rest while he can.

He probably can’t even make it to the cot . . . the way he looks.

Hell, what am I thinking? The sheriff’s asleep – I’ll just go on in and help him.

I could just go on in and help him right on out of here. I wonder if we could get away with it. I wonder if he’d let me try.

Probably not. And either way, I have to tell him. No matter what happens, I have to be sure he knows . . .

"Vin," I say, and I find I can hardly choke out his name. "I’m not giving up . . ."

I want to say more, but suddenly the door bursts open and I know trouble has arrived.

+ + + + + + +

Buck and JD stayed in the jailhouse until dusk descended on the volatile town. At that point, Chris suggested they try to keep an eye on things from the outside. The men believed that if trouble were brewing, it was likely to occur as the sheriff attempted to transport Vin to the prison. It seemed unlikely anyone would come for him during the night.

JD wasn’t so sure, and he said so to Buck as they briskly trotted out of town. Several people watched warily from the boardwalk, but to their relief, no one said a word.

"I don’t think anything will happen tonight, JD, but I do agree that we need t’ be sure. And that’s why you’re gonna sit just outside of town and keep watch. You reckon you can do that?"

"Sure I can, Buck – but what are you gonna be doing?"

"I’ve got me a little lady t’ talk to," Wilmington answered.

JD shook his head. "Tonight? You’re crazy, Buck. She’s not gonna talk to you – and she’s not gonna change her story."

"She’s gonna do both," Buck replied with conviction. "In the meantime, you keep an eye on things from here. You see anything that looks like trouble, you hightail it back to Chris. You got that? Don’t be tryin’ to handle it on your own. These folks are past crazy about now."

"I don’t like it, Buck. I think we should stick together – I think we should go back to the jail," JD argued.

"Now listen, JD – I’ve got a hunch Vin ain’t gonna live long enough to make it to that prison. I’ve got to take care of this tonight. And you can be Chris’s eyes and ears – keep watch from the outside, like he said."

JD nodded. "All right, Buck. I’ll do it."

With a sound pat on the youth’s back, Wilmington responded, "I know you will, Kid. I’ll see you back here in the morning."

JD watched Buck ride off and heaved a heavy sigh. Everything felt wrong. He should be back at the jail. Or he should be riding with Buck – who knew what kind of trouble his friend might get himself into? Then again, folks in this town were crazy – he should probably keep watch.

It sure would be helpful if the other three were there. JD decided he’d never argue with Josiah again. And even if he didn’t quite understand what the preacher said half the time – he’d never doubt him again, either.

He should have spoken to Vin. He should have worked it all out. Now he was out of time, and by the time they got Vin back, this thing between them would be so huge that they wouldn’t even know each other. The judge was right – it was a hell of a mess.

The sun finally sank low, and JD leaned back to rest his back against a tree. It had been the longest weeks of his entire life. He couldn’t wait until he could just lie down in a real bed and sleep for a week. But not tonight . . . tonight he’d keep watch, because he knew in his gut that something was going to happen.

And a few hours later, he knew he was right.

The air felt heavy, as if the weight of the emotions flooding the town had somehow spilled over into atmosphere itself. JD didn’t have Vin’s sixth sense about nature, but even he could feel the storm building. And that was only appropriate, under the circumstances. A clear, star-lit night would have been strangely incongruent in the face of the rising tide of anger and hatred that threatened to sweep them all away.

It was no surprise then when JD noted a flash of lightening streak across the black sky, followed by another. He crouched lower to the earth. Tascosa was just as Vin had described – flatter than a felt covered poker table – and he didn’t relish sitting out in the open in a lightening storm. Might be best if he moved away from the tree, too.

He’d just stood to make that move, when he noted a different glow coming from the streets in the town ahead. It took him only seconds to comprehend what he was seeing – torches, maybe a dozen or more – all heading for the jail.

They weren’t waiting until morning.

JD ran to his mount, pausing when he gripped the reins to consider his next move. Storming in with guns blazing might not be the best way to go. Then again, what were his choices?

Any other time, the adrenalin pumping through his veins would have filled him with the kind of excitement he lived for. But as he pressed his knees against the flanks of his horse and leaned forward into the rising wind, his heart raced with fear instead. His friends faced certain death, with only him to back them up. If only they’d listened to Josiah . . .

It took maybe ten minutes for him to reach the town’s borders, but as the growing storm lit up the sky once more, he could see that it was too long and he was too late. The cluster of torches moved like a fiery cloud out from the jail, and in the golden light, he could make out the forms of two men being dragged limply along. Not moving – neither one of them, and his heart sank.

It was all up to him. And now his choices were even more limited – he could only follow behind and wait.

+ + + + + + +

This isn’t happening.

I’ve said that phrase so many times; I’m surprised it’s not ingrained across my forehead.

The first time was when Buck and I came back that day endless years ago. This isn’t my land; this isn’t my home; this isn’t my family.

This isn’t happening.

And again - in Ella’s house, when I saw and I knew. This isn’t happening.

I try again to loosen the ropes that bind my hands and chest to a tree. Half a dozen damn trees in the entire state, and they manage to find one big enough to wrap me around, and one tall enough to . . .

I ignore the throbbing in my head and try to get a grip on where we are and what has happened. I should have known they’d come during the night. I kick myself for sending Buck and JD off – but then again, maybe they can do us more good this way. It’s doubtful that even the four of us, the sheriff included, could have fended off the angry mob that stormed through the doors.

Williams went down with a blow to the head so quick, he probably wasn’t even awake yet. I must have went right after, because the next thing I knew – I woke up tied to this tree, fat drops of rain pelting my face.

I twist my body a little more to get a better view of Vin.

He’s lying on the ground twenty feet or so away from me, with five or six men just watching him while the others string up the rope.

His face is bloody. With all he’d been through, he’d somehow avoided messing up that perfect face of his. Not that I’m the kind of man to notice if another’s man face is perfect – but Vin’s face . . . hell, it doesn’t matter. His face is beaten up; blood coming from his nose or his mouth or both, mixing with the rain and running in a little stream into the dirt beneath his head. The lightening is flashing all over the place – all the more reason to get away from this damn tree – and between that and the torches, I can see him clearly.

His eyes are open. I want to tell him to just close ‘em – just give in for awhile. I don’t want him to see this – don’t want him to know what they’re planning to do here.

Where the hell are Buck and JD?

He turns his head just a little, just enough to meet my eyes. I don’t want to see what he’s trying show me . . . I don’t want to see it or hear it or know it.

I won’t say goodbye.

This isn’t happening.

+ + + + + + +

Her eyes were cold as ice and Buck shivered in spite of his steel resolve to get to the bottom of things. She’d let him in without any kind of fuss at all – maybe because she knew he was coming in anyway.

Or maybe she liked the game. The deeper he looked, the more certain he was that Rachel Kincaid liked nothing better than to manipulate those around her. She’d met her match in Buck Wilmington, though.

"It’s late, Mr. Wilmington. Speak your peace and leave."

Buck forced a smile. "I don’t think you’re in such a big hurry for me to leave. If you didn’t want me here, you wouldn’t have let me in. Admit it; all of this . . . excites you."

He moved closer to her now; so close he could smell the light scent of flowery perfume in her hair. Close enough to see her breath quicken just a tad as she licked her lips and turned her eyes to meet his.

"I will say that you have a certain air about you . . . Buck, is it?"

He nodded and moved closer to very lightly touch her hair.

She swallowed and said, "But I’m not stupid. I know why you are here, and you won’t get what you came for."

He kept his warm, blue eyes trained on hers as he responded, "We both know you’re lying. The only one you could be lying for is dead – so why bother? What kind of hold does Eli Joe have over you, Rachel?"

Anger flared in her eyes then as she turned away, but she said nothing.

"You loved him – or at least you believe you did. He made you feel alive." Buck spoke it as fact, not a question, and when she didn’t deny it, he continued. "Vin said you left town after your husband was killed. You went with Eli Joe, didn’t you? What happened?"

She turned back in a fury and spat, "Vin Tanner happened! Eli went to end it with him . . . and he never came back."

"So you were forced to come back here. Must be damn near suffocating for a smart, spirited woman like you . . . stuck in a dead-end town surrounded by kin watching everything you do and say."

She looked down and sighed before stating bitterly, "You have no idea."

He moved his hand to grip her arm and she tilted her face towards him. In a soft, low voice, Buck asked, "Then why lie about Vin? What difference does it make now?"

She shook her head and quirked her lips up in a sneer. "You saw what they did to your friend. Just what do you think they’ll do to me if they find out I had a hand in Jess’ death? I’ll never speak out for Vin Tanner, so unless you have some other . . . idea for what you’d like to do with me – you may as well leave."

So old Eli had managed to kill two birds with one stone; get Tanner off his back and get the girl. And it all went to hell from there. Buck shook his head as he asked, "What about the others . . . your brothers, your kin? Men who died for a lie . . . who died for you. How many more innocent men will lose their lives before this is said and done?"

Her voice never wavered as she answered coldly, "Just one."

Buck let go of her arm and stepped back. "This isn’t over," he promised.

Turning away from him, her shoulders stiff and her back rigid, the young widow responded softly, "You’re right. It won’t be over until Tanner’s dead – which should be any minute now."

+ + + + + + +

The flat land made it nearly impossible to keep out of sight as JD followed the mob to their destination. On the other hand, it was nearly impossible to lose them, too. The young man dismounted and tied off his horse a good distance from where it appeared the men were stopping. On foot, he crept as close as he dared and tried to get the lay of things.

With some relief, he watched as they tied Chris to a tree. Obviously they planned to keep the gunman alive for the time being or they wouldn’t have bothered to restrain him. He bit his lip as he observed the harsh treatment they lavished upon Vin. The tracker couldn’t take much more, but then again, from the looks of the rope they were hanging on the nearby tree limb – he wouldn’t have to take much more.

They were going to hang Vin. JD knew it from the first sign of the glimmering torches – but seeing it play out in front of him caused his heart to leap out of his chest. Dear God, what was he going to do?

With sudden clarity, he recalled his first day in Four Corners. He remembered every detail of the shoot-out; had told the story a hundred times – always ending with Vin shooting the rope that Nathan hung from. He’d never seen a shot like it – never dreamed he’d have to repeat it.

But that is exactly what he would have to do. He couldn’t possibly take on a dozen men by himself. And were he to ride in now, there was no way he could grab Vin and Chris and ride off without bullets riddling one of their bodies – if not all of them.

He’d have to make that shot.

But then what? Even if he got lucky and hit the rope – would it buy enough time? Where the hell was Buck? Could he get to Chris first and untie him?

There was no time. They had Vin up off the ground now; dragging his unresisting body over towards the tree. Was Vin aware? Did he know?

The rain started coming down harder, extinguishing several of the torches and casting eerie shadows on the tragic scene.

It was too dark, JD thought. He could hardly make out the limb, let alone the rope. He could just start firing, but how many bullets did he have? He had no cover to speak of, it would take only one decent shot to stop him, and then it would be all over for all of them.

His heart pounded ferociously in his chest and his breath came in short, hard pants as his head began to spin. Vin was up on the horse now, the noose slipped around his neck. JD couldn’t see his face, couldn’t see his eyes, and he knew he was a coward because he was glad of that.

He heard Chris calling frantically for him and Buck. "Buck! JD!" Nothing more than that – just their names over and over, and even from the distance in the dark, JD could make out the gunslinger’s desperate struggle against the ropes that bound him.

Moving closer as the mob congregated around the tree, JD pulled out his gun and prepared to aim. The rain fell and the thunder roared, and angry voices filled the night – but he still heard it. Chris’s voice; raw and anguished and grief-stricken as he now called Vin’s name. JD saw Vin’s head turn towards Chris, just as one of the men swatted the rump of the horse on which Vin sat and it bolted.

Vin’s body jerked as he was pulled from the saddle to sway from the rope that encircled his neck.

Now. Or never.

The rain and wind slapped against his face, and he couldn’t see - he couldn’t see. Until the lightening lit the sky once more, and in those brief seconds – the blond rope stood out in vivid contrast to the black limb on which it was looped.

He took the shot, just as the thunder crashed - and just as Chris finally broke free from his bonds.

+ + + + + + +

This isn’t happening, this isn’t happening, this isn’t happening.

I have to get to him. There has to be a way.

Where the hell are Buck and JD?

Why didn’t I listen to Josiah? He said we all needed to be here. He warned us.

Oh God, Vin.

I hear myself calling out to him, and he turns towards me. But it’s raining and it’s dark and I can’t see his eyes and it’s too late anyway. It’s too damn late. There’s no more time.

Oh God, Vin.

How many things didn’t I say? How many times did he watch my back and I never so much as thanked him? How many more people will I lose before I learn to appreciate them while I have the chance?

The horse bolts and he’s just . . . please God, let me get to him!

I’m jerking on the ropes now, pulling and twisting and then . . . I think I hear a shot. I look up, but the thunder is so loud and the lightening so bright that it’s impossible to be sure.

And somehow, Vin’s on the ground.

And somehow, I’m free. I never felt the ropes give way . . . can’t feel my legs, either, but I know I’m running.

The men are standing in a circle around him – quiet and dazed. I see them glance towards the lightening filled sky, and then back down at Vin.

Oh God, Vin.

I feel water flowing down my face – could be tears or could be rain. I don’t care. I push my way through the crowd and kneel on the muddy ground to pick up my friend’s limp body in my arms. They don’t stop me.

The rope is tight around his neck, and I’ll be damned if it will stay there. I’m trying to pull the knot apart, trying to get the goddamn wet twine to give a little – when I feel it.

A pulse.


It’s JD. He’s here. He’s got his gun in his hand, and he’s shaking all over. He must have made the shot.

I turn away from him. I can’t see his face or I’ll never be able to do this.

I look at the men surrounding me, trying to read their faces. They have no idea what happened, but in minutes, they won’t care. They’ll remember why they’re here.

"He’s dead," I say. My voice is shaking as much as JD’s hands because it’s so damn close to being true. "You got what you wanted."

I gently lay Vin back on the ground and I stand to face them. "Let us take our friend home."

I hear JD choke back a sob, but still I keep my eyes from his. It has to be this way.

I see that a few of the men want to argue – want to keep Vin’s ‘body’. But it’s still storming like crazy, and most of them were spooked by what they saw. I’m not sure myself if it was JD’s bullet that brought Vin down.

Kincaid’s uncle nods at me and throws a last look at Vin before he leaves, and soon the others follow.

JD’s still standing back, and I finally turn to look at him, but his eyes are fixed on Vin. I can see his shoulders heaving – like he’s trying to hold it all in but failing miserably.

I squat down next to Vin and I say, "JD – come help me."

He makes his way over beside me, and his hands are still shaking as he kneels down in the wet dirt. He still doesn’t look at me, so very gently, I cover his hands with my own and I whisper, "He’s not dead, JD."

He looks at me with impossibly wide eyes and opens his mouth, but I cut him off by squeezing his hands tightly and saying in a low voice, "But he will be if those men find out the truth."

He swallows and nods, and it’s like a damn has broken loose as the tears pour from his eyes. I grip his arm – as much to anchor myself as to comfort him.

"Help me get this rope off," I say with renewed urgency. The rain seems to have stopped, but the lightening is still flashing and I can see now that Vin’s lips are blue. Now that I really look, I’m not sure he’s breathing. Now that I really look, I wonder if I did lie and to whom. Maybe I imagined that I felt a pulse beneath the thick rope that I . . . can’t . . . get . . . off.

My hands are shaking now, too, as I suddenly realize that Vin still isn’t getting enough air and I can’t seem to loosen the rope enough to even slip a finger between it and his bruised skin. JD gasps and then, out of nowhere, he hands me Vin’s knife. I give him a quick look of wonder and gratitude as I start sawing through the heavy cord. I’m worried about cutting him, but not much . . . that would be the least of his problems.

When the rope finally severs, I lift up Vin’s shoulders and slide behind him, leaning him against my chest. His head falls limply back down on his shoulder, but I pull it back up, trying to get some air into him – wishing with all I have that Nathan was here.

I still can’t feel him breathing.

This isn’t happening.

"JD?" I ask. The lightening has stopped, and it’s so damn dark, I can’t tell if . . .

JD gets my unspoken question, though. He reaches out his hand to feel Vin’s neck and leans in closer to feel for his breath. After what seems like hours, he looks up at me and nods, "He’s still with us."

I’ve never heard four sweeter words.

I try to catch my breath – not wanting to sound as out of control as I feel in front of the kid.

"Where’s Buck?" I finally manage to ask.

"He went to see that woman," JD answers, and I can hear him cringe even if I can’t see it. He thinks I’m gonna yell about that.

I’m not.

"How did you get Vin’s knife?" Probably not the most important issue we have right now, but I’m thinking we both need a minute to . . . regroup.

"He gave it to me this morning . . . or yesterday morning . . . whatever morning it was that we headed for town. Gave me his gun, too."

I nod. I wonder if JD knows the significance of that gesture. Later, I’ll tell him.

But right now, we can’t stay here. We’ve got to make some plans.

And I will – after I hold Vin a little tighter, a little longer. I push the wet hair out of his face and try not to think on how cold and limp and silent he is. Lifeless, by all indications . . . and as unsettling and disconcerting and just plain terrifying as that is, I can’t help but think it would be best if he stayed that way just a while longer; long enough for us to get away from here . . . long enough for the lie to take root . . . long enough for Vin Tanner to no longer exist in the eyes of Texas.

If I have it my way, the lie will live on forever. I even delude myself with this brief moment of fantasy, that Vin would change his name, cut his hair, become someone else and it would all be over.

Of course, he’s made it pretty clear he’d die for that name . . . and he couldn’t go home, not with idiots like Conklin on the loose. Hell, the man would probably send a wire to Tascosa and invite the whole town to Vin’s resurrection party.

So we’re back at a dead end . . . but at least we’ve got time. And he’s alive. That’s the most important part about the lie . . . it’s not true. It’s not happening.

And as long as I have breath in my own body – it won’t happen.

I won’t lose him.

+ + + + + + +

It was odd how her words didn’t really sink in until he was half way back to town. Buck had been so irritated and frustrated and just plain furious with the selfish woman that he almost looked past the last thing she said – that Vin would be dead "any minute now". Not any time now – any minute now.

Which meant no one was waiting for morning. Which meant he’d left Chris and JD on their own. Which meant he could already be too late.

The storm started up when he left her house, and kept up for the entire ride. The lightening was a little too close for comfort, but he talked himself into believing he was moving way too fast for it to strike his moving target.

The frenzied wind and rain had passed by the time he reached the dark and dismal town, but the improvement in the weather did little to lift his spirits. He knew the moment he entered the jail that he was too late, and he nearly howled in despair at that. Stooping low to the stone floor, he quickly felt for a pulse on the unconscious sheriff. The man groaned then and slowly came to, with less than gentle prodding by Buck.

"What . . . what happened?" Williams asked as his cloudy eyes met Buck’s.

"I was hoping you could tell me," Wilmington answered tersely.

The young sheriff groaned as he sat up, "Damn fools," he muttered.

Buck roughly grabbed the man by the shoulders. "Which way did they go?"

"How the hell should I know? I haven’t exactly been included in their plans!" Williams exclaimed indignantly.

"You know the area and you know these men. Where would they go to . . . to hang a man?" Buck swallowed as he spoke.

The sheriff pressed his hand to the knot on the back of his head, and pondered the question. With a look that spoke of deep regret, he answered, "I imagine you’re right. That’s what they’ve set out to do. And I figure I know about where they’d go to do it."

It was almost an afterthought that Buck took his friends’ horses with him. Somehow he knew they wouldn’t be returning to Tascosa any time soon. He would be returning later, though – to drag one sorry, scrawny woman off to see the judge. No matter how this came out, Vin’s name would be in the clear if he had to hogtie the woman to a saddle to make it happen.

They’d ridden less than hour when the early morning light revealed a rider galloping towards them. Buck sighed in relief when he recognized the mop of black hair flapping beneath the bowler hat. At least JD was alright.

So focused was the young rider, that he might have gone straight on past, had Buck not let out a whistle. JD turned then, and even from the distance, Buck could see his shoulders sag in relief. It wasn’t until they got closer and the rogue caught his friend’s eyes that he knew the news wasn’t good.

JD swallowed hard and tried to steady his breath. Chris had told him to hightail it to town – get the horses and get out without speaking to anyone. Seeing Buck was sweet relief, but Sheriff Williams was another story. How was he going to keep the man from following them back to Chris and Vin . . . from finding out the truth?

"JD," Buck called out as he approached, "do you know where they are?"

Dunne nodded and avoided his friends’ eyes as he spoke. "They’re . . . they already . . . you’re too late," he stammered. With a hitch in his voice, he managed to choke out the rest, "Vin . . . he’s dead."

"Oh no . . . oh God . . . no," Buck said softly, his voice breaking. Dropping his head, he closed his eyes and fought the sting of tears. The kid would need him to be strong . . . Chris would need him to be strong.

He was too late – again. And Chris would be riding through hell – again. Buck thought he’d done the right thing in going to talk with the widow, but once more, he’d been wrong . . . and Vin had paid the price. "I’m so sorry, Vin," he whispered.

Remembering how he had felt when Chris first uttered those words, and feeling absolutely terrible for putting his best friend through the gut-wrenching experience, JD hurried to get the lawman on his way so he could set the rogue straight.

"Me and Chris are taking him back t’ Four Corners – gonna bury him at home . . . where people know what kind of man he is . . . was," JD said with a pointed glare at Williams.

To his surprise, the sheriff actually appeared distressed by the news. Williams caught and held JD’s eye, and for a brief moment, the youth was afraid he’d given it all away. But the sheriff only said, "Tell Larabee . . . tell him I’m sorry."

JD managed a slight nod as he watched the man turn and ride away.

Buck remained silent, his head bowed and his shoulders curled in – like a deep, crushing pain weighed him down so far he couldn’t possibly move. JD moved his steed closer to Buck’s and took a steadying breath.

"He ain’t really dead, Buck. Least, not yet," Dunne spoke gently.

Wilmington looked up sharply. "What? Why the hell did you say that? What’s going on here, JD?"

JD blinked away the moisture that simply would not go away, and bit his lip. "God, Buck – it was so awful. They hung him . . . and I tried to make the shot, but it was so dark . . . and the lightening . . . and then he was on the ground, and I don’t know if . . . but Chris said he was dead . . . and they believed it, and so did I . . . and I thought I’d failed . . ."

"Whoa . . . hold on there, JD. It sounds like we’ve got a lot t’ talk about, but how about we find Chris and Vin first?" Buck really hoped he sounded calmer than he felt, because it was apparent JD was walking a fine line right about now.

And he could see why when he got a look at his friends a short time later. Chris sat on the muddy ground, his back against a tree with Vin held tight against him. Both men had lost their coats and hats somewhere along the way, and both were soaked to the skin.

"Good Lord, Chris," Buck muttered as he quickly dismounted and knelt near the two men.

Larabee turned to his old friend and mumbled, "He’s still with us, Buck, but I reckon we’d better be moving along."

Buck didn’t like the dazed look in the blond’s eyes. "You all right, Chris?"

With a shake of his head, the gunman answered, "Tired as hell." He looked up at Wilmington then and spoke very softly, "I don’t ever want to live through anything like that again, Buck. He was . . ." Chris swallowed as his eyes drifted to the limb of the tree above them. "I can’t do this again," he finished.

"You’re not gonna have to. I’m gonna see t’ that, Pard. I’m gonna see t’ both of you. Let me have a look at Vin now, all right?"

Chris nodded as Buck set about looking Vin over, even though they both knew there was little he could do. All that was left was for them to mount up – and get out of Texas.

+ + + + + + +

I could tell that Buck thought Vin would die. He avoided my eyes the entire time he looked him over.

Probably didn’t help that Vin sounded like he was breathing through quicksand. It was more like a high-pitched wheeze than an actual breath, and you had to be practically on top of him to hear even that. We all wondered just what damage had been done to his throat. I wasn’t all that sure – having only known one man who’d survived a hanging. I remembered that Nathan didn’t seem to have any residual effects, other than a dark bruise for a few days.

But the rope wasn’t as tight and it wasn’t wet, and I don’t remember Nathan having the ugly raw burn that’s stretched across Vin’s throat. I wonder if he’ll have a scar? God, I hope not. None of us need a reminder of that night – least of all Vin.

After Buck took a look at Vin, which seemed to me to mostly consist of muttering and cursing and a lot of head shaking – he and JD took him from me and set about getting him in some dry clothes. My arms and legs felt like lead, but I knew I had to move and do the same. JD found our coats and hats, soaked of course. Buck commented that it would take a week for Vin’s buckskin coat to dry out, and it was no wonder Tanner leaned the way he did – the damn thing must weigh fifty pounds. I tried to smile at that, but Vin looking so still and gray in the morning light pretty much put a stop to any lightheartedness.

Vin’s arm was broken again – or maybe still. He never would keep the sling on. Buck splinted it again, and wrapped his ribs. We didn’t think he’d broken anything else, although he was bruised up good pretty much everywhere, and there was that hip to think about. I didn’t even want to consider what the fall from that limb had contributed to that problem.

I didn’t want to think about the other things that could be broken down deep inside, either. He’s been coughing up some blood, though, so it’s getting harder not to think about it. The first time was when we hoisted him up onto the horse in front of Buck. It was the first sound he’d made – a sort of weak imitation of a choking gasp that left a trail of blood dribbling down his chin.

I’m embarrassed to say that I almost passed out when I saw it. After all the god awful things I’ve witnessed in this life, a tiny little trickle of blood made me so weak in the knees and light in the head that I had to sit down . . . in a hurry . . . on my – hell, it doesn’t matter.

That was two days ago. And he’s still with us. That is, as always, the important thing. The lie is still a lie, and apparently believable enough that no one has come after us.

Of course, if anyone had the notion, it wouldn’t be all that hard to convince them that the lie was the truth. Vin looks dead most of the time. He’s opened his eyes just a slit maybe three times, counting that first time – again when we first lifted him up on Buck’s horse – which lasted all of three seconds.

JD keeps asking Buck what’s wrong, why doesn’t Vin come around? Buck, being Buck, just tells him not to worry; that we all know how tired Vin’s been – just plain wrung out and used up and needing to make up for all of it. Then he looks at me to see if I’m buying it.

Am I buying it? I know how used up, bruised up, and broken up he is. But I also know I’m not losing him – so yeah, Buck is right. Vin will be all right . . . at least until he catches on to what happened.

The problem with telling a lie is that it always leads to another. And the second is easier than the first. So it actually occurs to me that as far as Vin knows, he could have been freed. That woman, and I use that term loosely, could have come forward and cleared his name at the last minute. Who would know the difference? Buck and JD. Texas will say Vin is dead – will essentially wipe his name off the books. So unless someone gets the notion to look into it, he’ll be forgotten.

And until someone comes along who knows otherwise . . . who knows the truth of what happened in Tascosa . . . it could just be that Vin was let off. Saved at the last minute.

In a way, it’d be no different than if he had gotten off. We talked about it, Vin and I, before all of this. Even if he was totally exonerated, it would take awhile for the news to spread. Bounty hunters could still come looking for a long time to come. I reckon it will be the same with him being ‘dead’. It will take awhile for word to spread.

It could take a long while before Vin found out the truth, too – before he knew that he hadn’t gotten off at all. That he’d just . . . died.

Hopefully, it will never spread that he’s not dead at all. And in the meantime, what would be the harm of everyone in town believing he was no longer wanted? It would . . . sort of be true. He is no longer wanted in Texas.

How long do you suppose we could get away with it?

I look down at him. His face is a mess now, blue and purple along his jaw and cheekbones; his nose is swollen and his lips are split and they still bleed whenever we try to force some water into his swollen throat. Why did they have to do that? Mess up his face? Hell, they were already gonna kill him – what was the point of messing up his face? What was the goddamn point?

I should have taken JD’s gun and started shooting. I wonder if I could have gotten them all. I would have tried, if I hadn’t realized there was still a chance to save Vin.

Buck’s been carrying most of the load these past two days. We can’t risk pulling a travois - tracks like that would definitely point to an injured man as opposed to a dead one. So Buck and I take turns holding onto Vin, but Buck’s taking most of it since I can’t seem to keep myself in the saddle about half the time. Guess those days, or maybe weeks, of not sleeping are catching up with me, too. As slow as we have to move, it’ll be a month before we reach town.

Of course, we’re gonna need about that much time to figure out how we’re gonna play this. The last thing we need is Conklin stirring up more trouble.

I reach for the canteen and squat next to Vin. If we don’t get more water down him, all this pondering will be for nothing. He groans a little as I pull him up, and I’m grateful for that. At least he’s able to make a real sound now, and he seems to be pulling in a little more air, too.

His eyes flutter and grow wide, confusion and something like fear setting in, until he sees my face and hears me speak in the most soothing tone I can drum up, "It’s just me, Vin. You’re safe now."

He whimpers a little and I cringe at the sound, but at least he takes the water better this time. He still gags on it, though - pain written clearly in those pale, blue eyes. I lower his head back to the saddle we’ve got him propped up against, and stroke his hair until he drifts off again.

And that’s when I remember . . . I could never look in those eyes and lie. Never.

I can lie to myself. I’ve gotten pretty damn good at that, in fact.

But I can’t lie to Vin.

So now all I have to do is convince Vin to let Conklin and his cronies believe this is all over . . . resolved . . . taken care of . . . finished. Just for a little while. Just long enough for Buck and me to drag one spoiled, redheaded, little bitch to see the judge.

It may all be a big lie – but it’s only temporary. Vin will see that. He’ll understand.