by The Buffalo Gals (Sue Diver & Colleen Newton)
By the time Nathan was ready to tend to his patient, Vin was once more gripped by the fever and Chris was frantic with worry. Mary mopped Vin's brow while Nathan prepared a tonic. He handed it to Mary, and Chris watched on in fascination as she gathered the unconscious man to her lap, feeding him the draught slowly and rubbing his throat to make sure the fluid reached his stomach. Once the bottle was empty, she settled Vin onto his side, just in case the liquid refused to stay down.
Nathan had made a poultice of herbs to draw the infection from Vin's wounds and this was applied all over his torso. They worked in silence, speaking only when necessary. Soon the young man was bandaged and resting, occasionally muttering incoherent words under his breath.
Mary settled in the chair next to the bed, "I'll stay with him for a while, Nathan. You've still got other injuries to deal with."
"Thank you Mrs. Travis, much appreciated. Come on Chris, I want to check your wound out , and then there's Ezra .... "
Chris frowned deeply; he still wasn't sure what had happened earlier, but he'd been shocked by Ezra's appearance and knew something bad had happened to him, probably at the hands of kidnappers. JD had mentioned something about Victoria, which didn't surprise him in the least.
Once Nathan had attended to Larabees injury he gathered together a few medical supplies, informing the gunslinger he was going to check in on Ezra.
"I'll be with you shortly, Nathan, once I've gathered some fresh clothes to change into." Chris felt it crucial to check up on Standishs welfare himself.
"Been meanin' to ask yChris. Why were you both wet through?"
Chris explained about Vin's burning fever and how he didn't think the sick man would have made it, "The lake seemed a good idea."
"It was ... you did the right thing. Vin probably wouldve died...." Nathan didn't like to add that he still might; Chris couldn't take on anymore worries. "Go get your gear, Ezrall take some fixin. I'll be in his room."
"When we've got more time, you'll have to tell me exactly what happened while I was gone."
Nathan found a smile, "Hope you got an hour or two to spare."
Twenty minutes later, Chris walked into the gamblers room and was met by Nathan, poised, ready to throw his knife.
"Sorry, I should have knocked first." Chris went and stood by the bed, looking down on the forlorn figure.
"Ezra?" He called softly, reaching down to cup the southerner's jaw.
The southerner moaned faintly and opened his pain filled eyes, "Ah'm fine, just give me a minute."
"No, you stay where you are." Larabee stroked Ezra's sweat soaked hair then looked across at Nathan, his eyes filled with concern. Nathan's eyes mirrored his own.
Ezra wrapped his arms around his burning stomach and asked, "How is Mr. Tanner?"
Chris felt his chest tighten with guilt, "He's sleepin' " he answered dully.
"Did she...." Ezra swallowed hard, ".... hurt him?" He felt his anger rise at the thought of them both suffering her twisted torture.
"Yeah," Chris whispered, closing his eyes against the rising pain.
Nathan stepped up to the bed, leaning down over Ezra, and spoke softly, but firmly to him, "You must rest now," He placed Ezra's bloodied coat over him.
Chris picked up the whisky flask sitting on the bedside table and took a swig from it, then leaning over he placed it in Ezra's hand. The young gambler opened it and drank it where he lay, dropping the empty flask on the floor.
To the other two men's surprise, he then heaved himself back into a sitting position and pulled his holster back on. Nathan walked around the bed and crouched before him.
"Ezra, what are you doin?" He admonished.
"Ah need some air," Ezra replied, putting the green coat on before standing shakily. He glanced across at Chris.
"You should rest," Chris told him in his sing song lilt he usually reserved for the ladies.
Ezra shook his head and limped towards the door. "Ah've done that. Look where it got me last time." He opened the door and left.
Chris made to follow him, but Nathan held him back, a hand on his arm, "Let him be. He'll only go as far as Josiah,"
he said wisely.
Chris turned and looked out of the window. Youre right, he told the healer when Ezra limped out of the hotel and shuffled slowly towards the church.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah was lighting candles when Ezra limped into the church. He quickly doused the flame and went to his friend's side. Ezra was trying to sit on one of the hard seats but Josiah stopped him. Supporting his weight, he moved the younger man towards his own living quarters.
"There's a little place out back, I call it my sanctuary," he said, careful not to touch the bandaged flesh.
"Sounds good to me," Ezra croaked, his hands wrapped in Josiah's jacket.
The two men entered the small room, making straight for the bed that ran along the far wall. Josiah eased Ezra onto the mattress, helping him out of his blood stained coat before lying him down. His boots were removed, and as Josiah bent down to place them next to the bed, Ezra curled onto his side, his arms wrapped around his middle.
The preacher gathered up the quilt and placed it over the shivering man. Then he left him to rest, staying close to the open door so that Ezra would know he was near.
When he came back into the room he was surprised to see Ezra sitting hunched over the bed, his feet on the floor.
"Can't you sleep?" he asked, sitting by Ezra's side.
Ezra's defences were worn thin by his nightmare of a day; he answered the priest honestly. "It hurts less when Ah sit like this." He looked up at Josiah, his eyes heavy," Ah'm so tired."
Josiah moved around to the gamblers other side and eased onto the bed until he had the wall at his back, "Come here." he said, guiding the injured man to lie on his side against his chest. Ezra badly wanted to curl into the warmth, but couldn't, his manners wouldn't allow it. Josiah gathered the discarded quilt and pulled it around the young man.
"Why don't you rest, let me take the burden for a while."
The tension leaked from Ezra, replaced by a bone deep weariness. He sighed and curled into Josiah's chest, a lone tear trickling down his cheek to rest over the preachers heart.
Josiah cradled Ezra as he slept, saddened by the plight of his friends.
'How can I rejoice, Lord?' he asked silently, "When you have returned them to me, broken.' Sighing heavily, he closed his eyes and dozed, one ear tuned to the slightest movement.
+ + + + + + +
Victoria had disappeared without trace, along with her paid thug, Cassidy. Whether they were still together, Chris neither knew nor cared. The damage she'd inflicted on them all would take a long time to heal.
Ezra had suffered nearly as badly as Vin, and JD was still shocked by the torture she'd put Ezra through.
They'd searched her room at the hotel, Mary sifting through the belongings that had been abandoned. She found a photograph of Colonel Anderson, his arms wrapped around a young, auburn haired woman; Victoria. On the back of the photograph were the words,
"Daddy I love you
Buck, more than anyone, was angry that she'd escaped unpunished. His own injuries were nothing compared to the wounds inflicted on Vin and Ezra. It was only right she pay for the hurt she'd caused.
"At least she won't come back," JD had said hopefully, before noticing the uncertainty in Chris' eyes.
"Don't be so sure, kid. Her Daddy never gave up. I don't think she will." Chris pointed a warning finger at the others, "We can't let our guard down. Not yet, 'specially around Vin. I don't think he can take another dose of her southern hospitality."
Ezra had slumped deeper into his chair; he certainly couldn't.
+ + + + + + +
In the eerie silence of the night, Chris sat quietly in the chair next to Vin's bed. The injured man slept fitfully, turning over and mumbling in his sleep. Larabee was exhausted and his side still ached from the flesh wound given to him by Victoria.
Buck and Josiah had offered to do a night shift, but Chris always negated the idea. Nights were the worst time for Vin, he often woke up two or three times, usually caught in a nightmare.
Every night Chris would hear his own name being called out as Vin cried out to him for help. The guilt Chris bore was heavy and although Buck and the others had constantly told him there was nothing to feel guilty about, he still found it difficult to look Vin in the eye, certain he'd find contempt there. However, in the dark he could be there for his friend without having to face him.
Theyd moved Vin, on Nathans advice, into a room at the hotel. At least there it would be more comfortable for whoever watched over the sick tracker.
The clock in the hotel lobby chimed two a.m. Nathan would be making his first visit of the day around six a.m. just when Vin was settling into a deep sleep.
Chris sat up. His friend was drowning in another nightmare.
"No!" Louder this time. ".... please don't..." Vin was getting caught up in the bedclothes as he thrashed around. Chris carefully pulled them away, noticing the thin sheen of sweat covering the Texans bare chest.
He took a clean towel off the bedside table and began to dab the perspiration away, talking quietly to his friend as he did so, " No one's goin to hurt you. You're safe now."
Lost in his own personal horror, Vin's thrashing became more agitated and a flying arm caught Chris in the face.
"Hey partner," the gunslinger soothed, "I'm not the enemy."
Then the tears came, huge agonising sobs, each tear more painful to Chris than Victoria's knife wound.
"Chris," Vin whispered, "Find me... find me."
"Oh God," Larabee groaned, despising himself for his failure. How could he ever truly comprehend what Vin had gone through?
Afraid that the injured man might hurt himself more with his frantic movement, Chris sat down on the edge of the bed and carefully gathered Vin into his arms.
Vin was shivering violently as the fever wracked him, and Chris could feel the heat pouring from him.
Slowly, he began to rock Vin, remembering how his son, Adam had been soothed by the movement when he'd been lost in a nightmare.
He smiled when he realised Vin was calming and he whispered, "I found you Vin. But I'm sorry it took so long." The smile faded as the misery returned. "How will you ever forgive me.... I let you down." He continued to rock the young man, relieved that he'd quieted him down.
After a while the fever passed and Vin's body began to cool rapidly. As Chris started to lay him back down on the bed, he said quietly, " I guess you wish you'd never hooked up with me."
Presuming Vin was asleep, he was surprised when a faint voice replied, "Best thing I ever did."
"Sorry Vin, didn't mean to wake you."
"Time for you to lie down and go back to sleep." Chris felt awkward having a conversation with Vin, it was something he'd avoided since bringing him home.
"Kinda liked it where I was."
"Maybe, but you'll catch a chill if I don't get the covers over you soon."
"Please Chris ... a little longer."
Melted by Vin's desperate plea, Chris acquiesced, but complained, "If you catch a cold, Nathan's gonna kill us both!"
The trackers slight chuckle turned into a coughing bout. It was five minutes before Vin settled down in Chris' arms again.
There was silence for a while before Vin suddenly asked, "Why don't I see ya durin the day?"
"Have to take my turn at watchin' the jail," Chris replied feebly.
"How many prisoners we got?
"Chris, are ya ashamed of me?"
"What?" Chris caught hold of Vin's shoulders and pushed him away; "What are you talkin' about?
"Hurtin' m arms."
"Sorry." Chris urged Vin back onto the pillows, "I ain't ashamed of you Vin, it's the other way around.
The darkness of the room was frustrating Vin, he wanted to see Chris' face, to understand, "Light the lamp."
"I cain't talk to ya like this." Becoming agitated, Vin struggled to sit up, " ... do it mself."
"I never knew you could be so stubborn," Chris growled good humouredly as he struck a match and lit the oil lamp, "That better?"
"Thanks." Vin caught hold of Chris' hand, "I aint blamin ya fer what happened," he said with great insight.
"You called for me, begged me to find you."
"Yeah, I did.... " Vin's eyes watered up, "Ise scared, Chris.... never been so scared." He wiped his eyes, "You were the only one I could call fer ... the only ever cared enough about me.
"I wish I could have taken your place, Vin ...every day I wish that."
"I aint wantin anyone else to go through that."
Chris stared at the flickering lamp, lost in his own thoughts for a moment, before continuing, " I wasn't there ... when my wife and child needed me I wasn't there. Buck always blamed himself. I never did, never will. They were my responsibility, I should have been there for them ... you called for me.... I failed again.
"No Chris, you didn't ... ynever could. Please stop hurtin' yerself." Vin collapsed back against the pillows, "Yer here now." he yawned, " s'all that matters. Feel safe." He closed his eyes, still damp with tears, and within minutes was in a relaxed sleep.
Chris pulled the bedclothes over him, then settled back in the chair. The lamp stayed lit, there was no need to hide in the dark anymore.
+ + + + + + +
Vin pushed the heavy blankets away and gingerly pulled himself into a sitting position, gritting his teeth as a multitude of scars across his back and belly screamed out in pain.
He'd promised Nathan he'd stay in bed until the black man returned, but he couldn't stand the claustrophobic loneliness off the hotel room any longer, plus he wanted to check for himself that JD, Buck and Ezra were well.
Chris and Nathan had continually guaranteed him that the men were fine but Vin wouldn't settle until he'd seen them for himself. But first he had to get dressed, not an easy feat when ninety per cent of his body was in agony.
Finally standing on his own two feet, Vin wobbled unsteadily as he walked over to the dresser where fresh new clothes awaited him, but he stopped short when he saw his reflection the mirror.
"Oh God," he gasped, swallowing thickly as he tried to quell the rising emotion. His fingers began to trace over the marks on his chest and belly, and he remembered each painful crack of the whip, wishing to God that he didn't.
Gently turning, he saw the criss-cross pattern across his back and buttocks.
Nathan, having personal, horrifying experiences of whippings, had told him that the scars would eventually fade, but he'd have to live with faint marks for the rest of his life. A small price to pay; at least he was still alive.
Checking over his body again he was shocked to see how much weight he'd lost; weight he could ill afford to lose. No wonder Nathan was force feeding him thick broth and gruel.
Then Vin's eyes fell upon the brand; VA. Victoria Anderson; the crazed daughter of Colonel Anderson.
It didn't really matter to Vin who she was or why she'd brutalised him and tormented his friends; it did matter that she'd disappeared without trace. He hated to admit it, but he was terrified she'd come back to complete the act of vengeance she'd started.
He knew he'd never be free of her while he carried her brand, even if she was caught and put away. He'd spoken briefly to Nathan about somehow having the brand eradicated. But the only suggestion his friend could make was burning the scars so that the letters became part of a larger wound. It wasn't a pleasant suggestion, but Vin was seriously considering it.
Staring down at his pathetic, brutalised body, Vin didn't hear the door open and nearly stumbled over when Chris walked up to him.
"Hey, partner." Chris caught hold of the falling man, saddened that Vin was shaking, and not from the cold. "What you doin' out of bed?"
"I " Aware of his nakedness and the sorry state of his body, Vin grabbed hold of the clothes. "Gonna get dressed."
"Nathan say it's okay?"
"Dammit Chris! I aint a kid. I wanna get dressed."
Larabee smiled; Vin was denying childishness, yet was acting like a petulant brat. "Okay.... want any help?"
"No ... I don't." the younger man stumbled back to the bed, refusing to admit the exhaustion he felt, and embarrassed by his unwarranted fear of Chris.
"Fine." Larabee turned to go.
"Chris don't ... hate it here ... alone. Please stay."
Chris shrugged, then settled into the chair next to the bed, pretending not to notice Vin struggle with his clothing.
"I came to talk to you 'bout Victoria."
"What about her?" Vin stared wildly at his friend, "Is ... is she ... has someone seen her?"
"No, but she ain't gonna rest Vin. You know that, don't you?"
Vin nodded, his expression bleak, "I know I got to face her Chris, but..." He twisted the clean shirt in his hands,
" ... never felt like this before ... am I a coward?"
"No. You're scared, nothin wrong in that. She hurt you bad Vin... hell, she hurt all of us to some degree." Chris moved to sit on the bed, "Give me the shirt." Slowly he eased Vin into the garment, still horrified by the wounds inflicted upon him by Victoria. "This punishment should have been mine, It was my bullet that killed her father."
"You did suffer Chris. Josiah told me how you wouldn't rest 'til you found me. How she drugged you and played upon your guilt." Vin's face was hidden by his long hair. Freshly washed, it shone, as did his well scrubbed face.
Mary Travis had offered to trim his hair once he was ready.
"Vin, look at me."
"Don't let her win. Don't give her that satisfaction. I wouldn't have stopped searching for you."
"Thank you." Vin smiled up at Chris, "Never had a friend; friends like you and the others."
"Josiah says we're all lost lambs, looking for a family." Chris finished buttoning up the shirt and gently pulled a stray curl out from under Vin's collar. "Anything else you need help with?"
Vin blushed deeply. He'd been worse than useless up to yet and he hated to ask, "My pants and boots ... or is that too much to ask?"
Larabee chuckled, "Nothin's too much trouble," then turning serious again, he reminded Vin, "We still have to talk about Victoria."
"Sure ... come on, step into the pants."
"I want to see the others.... everyone."
"I know. You're goin to, but not until you're decent!"
A few moments later, Vin stood looking into the mirror again. This time he was fully dressed; he knew the scars were still there, but if he couldn't see them he wouldn't think about them.
"Want somethin to eat?"
Vin's eyes brightened. " Real food. Not that stuff Nathan's been forcin down me?"
"Real food ... Mary's in the hotel kitchen, preparing you something."
"She's a fine woman, Chris."
"I know. And if things were different..." Larabee wasn't willing to continue that line of conversation. "Are you ready for this?" he asked as he wrapped an arm around Vin's neck, his fingers working the tense muscles there.
Vin's eyes smiled back at him, he said with bravado, "I'm starvin', let's go.
Chris nodded, his eyes searching Vin's face. The younger man looked down; despite his words, he was shaking. Chris fingered Vin's long hair back off his face, watching as he turned away, the hurt surfacing.
"You don't have to do this."
Vin looked back at Chris, his eyes dark with pain. "No, I need this." He squeezed Chris' arm, "Come on," He leaned heavily on the gunslinger as they left the room and walked slowly down the corridor to the stairs.
Chris moved his hand lower, winding it around Vin's waist to support him during their descent. He heard the sharp intake of breath when the invalid took his first step downwards. Knowing Vin wouldn't thank him for commenting on it, Chris kept his silence and together they made their way down into the lobby.
Chris could feel the tension mount in Vin as he saw his friends below. The five men gathered together to welcome him back, looked as bad as Vin. The young man shivered and received a comforting squeeze in return. Chris stopped at the bottom of the stairs to give the injured man a breather but Vin walked out of his arms and into the midst of his friends.
Standing alone at the bottom of the stairs, Larabee watched Vin hold each man in turn. Eventually he could watch no more, he walked to the bar and turned his back on the proceedings, drowning his sudden depression with whisky.
Vin had stepped away from Chris and straight into Buck's embrace. The big man had taken a beating but still managed to squeeze the breath out of his friend.
"Sorry about yer jacket," Vin said, making Buck laugh.
"Ferget it, kid." Buck smiled, hugging him again, "It's good to have ya back."
Vin patted him on the back and found himself hugged by JD as soon as Buck let go.
"We were so worried," JD told him, "This is the happiest day of my life," he added, his voice small and strangled as lump formed in his throat.
Vin chuckled softly, running a hand over JD's head as the kid brushed a hand across his eyes.
"I preciate that, JD," he said, adding, "But save your happiest days for the ladies!"
JD grinned ruefully and the others laughed fondly, clapping the youngster on the back.
Then Vin turned to Nathan; the healer looked grey with exhaustion but greeted his friend by wrapping an arm around his shoulder and giving him a squeeze, "I missed you," he said, clasping Vin's right hand in a handshake.
The Texan nodded, "I'm goin' to be yer shadow fer a while, Doc," he said, "Will ya help me?"
Nathan smiled sadly, "Of course.
Vin patted his arm then turned to Ezra and stopped. The gambler was hunched over, holding his stomach. Chris had told him Ezra had suffered horribly at Victoria's hands but Vin wasn't prepared for the sight that greeted him. As Ezra looked up, Vin saw the bruising around his neck and was about to speak when he was taken into the southerner's arms and very gingerly, hugged. Vin stroked Ezra's back until they parted.
Ezra swallowed dryly, then rasped in no more than a whisper, "Welcome back." His green eyes mirrored Vin's pain.
"Thanks," Vin whispered, holding onto Ezra's sleeve as his friend stepped back, "When this is over, we'll talk."
Ezra nodded, looking back over his shoulder when Josiah approached.
The priest took Vin gently in his embrace and held him to his chest, "My lost lamb has returned," he whispered in Vin's ear.
Vin chuckled, "Lost lamb, huh?" He looked up into Josiah's gentle eyes and smiled fondly.
Josiah returned the gesture. "There's not a man amongst us that didn't feel your loss." He nodded towards the hunched figure at the bar, "But none more so than him. He's been like a man possessed."
Vin nodded grimly. He detached himself from Josiah and addressed his friends, "I aint big on speeches, so I'll make this short and sweet." He smiled sadly "It's real good to see yall again. " He accepted the pats that came his way, "And it's good to be home."
"I'll drink to that," Buck said wrapping his arms around JD and Vin, he initiated a group hug that ended in laughter.
Vin let the men settle down to drink then moved away to the lone figure at the bar, sitting by his side, "I missed you back there," he said, watching Chris' fingers tighten around the glass.
"Look at them," Chris told Vin, eyeing the young man as he looked over at the group. "I let all of you down..."
Vin groaned; he thought they'd eradicated Chris' sense of guilt. "We're all responsible for our own lives," he said wisely, "No one blames you for any of this." He gripped Chris' forearm, forcing him to make eye contact, "The only one findin fault with you, is you."
"Maybe that's the way I am," Chris drawled, pulling free of Vin's grasp.
"Maybe so." Vin smiled, his eyes lighting up as Mary approached with a tray full of sandwiches. "But whatever you think, I know I'd trust you with my life, every time."
Chris raised his eyes to the heavens then said fondly, "Eat your food and shut up!"
Although battle weary, the seven men were determined to enjoy themselves. It was a relaxed gathering. Mary enjoyed mothering the injured men. She needed to prove to them and herself that most women were not as cruel as Victoria Anderson.
Vin quietly revelled in the attention given him and although receiving warning looks from Nathan he wolfed down an amazing amount of food.
But, as the evening continued, the food and drink took its toll on all of them, especially Ezra and Vin.
Buck and JD helped Ezra upstairs, the three of them propping each other up. Chris, Josiah and Nathan talked quietly, while Vin just sat, tired, but delighting in the company around him.
It wasn't until his head began to droop onto Chris' shoulder that the others realised he'd fallen asleep.
Josiah smiled affectionately at the scene. "Time for little lambs to go to bed.
"Aint surprised," Nathan said, "I told him he was overdoin' it." He tried to sound angry, but it didn't work.
Chris was about to wake Vin when Josiah stopped him, "Let him sleep while he can. Nightmares'll probably ambush him later." He walked around the table, stooped down and effortlessly gathered Vin into his arms, "Let's put him to bed." He carefully carried the sleeping man upstairs, preceded by Chris and Nathan who readied the bed.
Vin never roused, even when they were pulling his boots off.
Nathan stripped him of his vest and shirt, checking the healing wounds as he did so. They left Vin's pants on, not wanting to disturb him.
"You stayin' with him tonight?" Josiah asked Chris as he turned to leave the room.
"Was goin' to."
"Don't think it'll be necessary Chris. Vin's exhausted. He should sleep 'til mornin," Nathan said, ushering them out.
Chris hovered near the door. He'd grown used to his nightly vigil and the quiet conversations they had during Vin's lucid moments. But it was taking its toll on him and as Nathan had said earlier on in the evening, they all needed to get back to their regular routine.
"He'll be fine, Chris."
Still doubtful, Chris acceded to Nathan's demand.
+ + + + + + +
Vin woke up with a jolt when a hand was placed over his mouth. Staring into the darkness, he vaguely made out the silhouettes of two people; a man and woman. Before he could react, the man's fist connected with his jaw, knocking him into oblivion.
+ + + + + + +
Chris hurriedly saddled the horse. It was vital he leave town before anyone saw him. He'd woken up early and noticed the note pushed under his door. His blood had turned cold when he read the letter; the writing, delicate, feminine and smelling of lavender, said,
"Do you really think I'd disappear from your lives? I will have my vengeance.
Mr. Tanner and I will be waiting for you.
This time, come alone.
As he rode out of town, Chris could only wonder at Vin's mental state.
+ + + + + + +
There were three horses tethered outside the homestead. Quiet and content with their lives, dozing in the morning sun.
Inside there was quiet but no peace. Vin was gagged and tied to a chair. His eyes wide with uncontrolled fear as Victoria, dressed in riding apparel, strutted around the small room, slapping the riding whip against her boots. Each time the whip cracked, he visibly flinched.
She enjoyed his terror and moved closer to him, "What's wrong, darlin'. Afraid I'm going to hurt you, again?"
It humiliated Vin to admit his fear of Victoria, but he was beginning to doubt that she was female, more a demon in disguise. Her hatred to him and the others was eternal. Her life revolved around avenging her dead father: but who was to blame for that? She hadn't killed him, they had. Maybe Vin deserved his punishment.
He turned away from her glance, subjugated. The whip stung his face, cutting his lip.
"Don't turn away from me, ever," she snarled, her stance reminding him of a cobra ready to strike.
When she walked behind him he expected some terrible violence to befall him; it surprised him when she gently untied the gag and threw it to the floor, "There my darling. That's much better."
Blood trickled down Vin's chin and spilled onto his bare chest, "Why are ... you doin' this ... to me?" he gasped.
"I told you darlin. To avenge my Daddy," Victoria replied sweetly as she combed her fingers through his hair, "I wanted to do this before. But you were so dirty.... who bathed you?" Her fingers tightened on the curls in the nape of his neck, "Did Mary Travis get her hands on you? I bet she did!"
Vin winced as his head was yanked back, but he remained silent; the less he said, the less he was likely to antagonise her.
"I could have bathed you ... bathed with you, if that's what you wanted." Victoria released her grip, moving around him. Her fingers trailed down his face, catching hold of his chin she bent down and forcibly kissed him.
Refusing to react to her attention, Vin sat placidly, even when her hands began to roam his naked chest and belly. But when she began to unfasten his pants he started to struggle. His lips escaped her kiss and he growled, "No."
Victoria stopped and looked into his troubled eyes. He was angry now, not afraid.
"Is this what your daddy taught you?" he asked, more than prepared for the stinging slap across his face.
"My Daddy was a gentleman!" Victoria replied haughtily as she walked away from him, "He wouldn't have approved of me dallying with trash like you."
"My Momma told me never to tease a rattle snake."
The insinuation wasn't lost on Victoria and she raised the whip, ready to strike Vin, ceasing her actions when Cassidy walked in, "What!" she snarled at him.
"Larabee's ridin in now."
"Far as I can see," Cassidy answered, suddenly wondering why he still followed Victoria and her madness. Larabee would kill them both the first chance he got. And although she'd paid him well, Cassidy wasn't ready to die. "Why don't I shoot him now, 'fore he gets any closer."
"No!" Victoria pointed towards Vin, "He dies first, in front of his beloved leader."
"It won't get that far. Larabee won't let it happen. I'm sorry lady, but I'm out of here..." Cassidy turned his back on her; a fatal mistake. Before Vin could call out a word of warning, Victoria had produced a gun from out of her jacket pocket and shot Cassidy twice between the shoulder blades. He stumbled and fell into the open doorway, dead.
"He was beginning to irritate me anyway. And I don't want any witnesses." Victoria examined the weapon, it was a Derringer like the one Ezra hid away up his shirt sleeve.
"They fit so well into a pocket or purse. I never go out without mine."
"You are crazy."
"Eccentric, darlin'. There's a difference. Now we wait for your friend to come and rescue you." She walked behind Vin, placing the muzzle of the gun against his temple, "We make a lovely couple, don't you think?"
"Cassidy was right. Chris'll kill you. Go now, before he gets here."
"No. Youre concerned for him, not me, but don't be," she whispered, close to his ear, "I'm not going to kill him. I want him to suffer. Your dying in front of him will suffice."
"You're wrong. Chris lost his wife and child. No hurt compares to that."
Victoria chuckled, "If you think that, you don't know Larabee as well as I do."
Vin wondered what she meant. He considered forcing her into killing him; anything to save Chris. But then he dismissed the thought when he recognised that he trusted Chris, had done from the first time they met. If he stayed silent, they might both get out alive.
+ + + + + + +
The two gunshots, in quick succession, startled Chris. He pulled the black horse to a standstill and studied the homestead carefully. Something lay in the doorway; a body. His heart lurched for a moment. Was he too late to save his friend? Then he dismissed the thought. If Victoria ran true to form, she'd not kill Vin until Chris was there to witness it. Her ego wouldn't accept it any other way.
He clicked the horse forward into a steady trot, keeping a wary eye on the outbuildings, just in case she'd planned an ambush. Sliding from the saddle, he left the horse untethered, next to it equine companions. Then he climbed the steps up to the porch and strode over Cassidy's body. Guns drawn as he entered the room.
The image that greeted him stopped him dead. Vin was sitting at the table, facing him. Victoria stood behind Vin, gun in hand, pointed at Vin's head.
"So glad you accepted my invitation, Mr. Larabee. Would you please place your guns upon the table."
"Couldn't resist the invite, Miss. Anderson," Chris replied as he put the guns down. "I expected you to offer me a drink. A special brew wasn't it?"
"Ah yes. I would have, but in my haste to leave town, I had to abandon all my possessions. I hope the hotel is taking good care of them." While she spoke, Victoria, still holding the gun steadily with one hand, began to stroke Vin's hair with the other. "Are you jealous, Mr. Larabee, that I chose Mr. Tanner over you?"
"Oh, I think I'll get over it." Chris cast a glance at his friend, a surge of anger sweeping over him when he saw fresh wounds on Vin's face, "Why do you keep hurtin him?"
"It amuses me."
During the verbal battle, Vin stayed still, trusting in Chris and controlling the urge to avoid her touch as his skin crawled every time she stroked him.
Chris could see the trust in Vin's eyes. He could also see the growing panic. It was time to act; no more mind games.
"Victoria, I'm the one who killed your father. I'm the one you want. Let Vin go"
"Let him go..." Victoria's smile held no warmth as she pondered his request. She glanced down at her captive, her attention slipping for a moment.
It was the opening Chris was looking for. He snatched up the gun and fired. It was a clean shot, through the heart. The look of shock on her face would haunt him forever.
Larabee turned, gun in hand.
"Whoa! It's us Chris." Buck walked in, followed by Nathan and Josiah.
The black man knelt by Cassidy for a moment, but found no sign of life. Then he walked over to Josiah who was freeing Vin.
Reaction had set in and Vin was shaking uncontrollably.
Josiah pulled him into an embrace, "She's gone Vin. She cain't hurt you again." He helped him to his feet; the surroundings were affecting Vin as much as anything. "Hey Doc, let's get him out of here."
While Vin was being tended to, Buck castigated Chris, loudly, "Why didn't ya tell us ywere comin' here?"
"The letter said alone," Chris replied angrily.
"You've tried cuttin' us out, all along. Why, is it because ya wanted to play the big hero in front of Vin?"
"Don't push me, Buck!" Chris growled as he slumped into the chair just vacated by Vin. His eyes lingering on the dead woman.
"Then answer me!" Buck spat back, "Dammit Chris, ya could have got the both of ykilled. Did ya ever think about Vin? Ywere risking his life, comin' here alone."
"I don't have to answer to you ... anyone.
" 'cept yourself," Buck answered, raising an eyebrow, waiting for Chris' retort.
It didn't come. Chris sighed, bowing his head in silence. "I just wanted to get him back."
Buck laid a hand on Chris' shoulder, squeezing the bunched muscles under the shirt. "We all did."
Chris nodded, his composure almost unravelling when Buck squeezed his shoulder again. "You took my place last time and visited Vin in his hell. You got hurt. I couldn't allow that to happen again."
"Shouldn't be arguin with ya. Vin's safe ... she's dead. Sall that matters."
They both looked towards the door when Nathan walked in.
"Josiah is takin Vin back to town. You go with them Chris. Men Buck'll bring the bodies back."
"Sure." Chris was glad of the escape and he wanted to be close to Vin.
"Judge Travis arrived on the mornin' stage. I think it's best you tell him what happened here. "
Chris nodded; he'd killed Victoria, he'd have to answer for that.
Once they were alone, Buck and Nathan began preparing the distasteful task of readying the bodies for transporting back to town.
+ + + + + + +
Chris soon caught up with the two riders. They were travelling at a steady pace because Vin was struggling to stay balanced on the horse. Thankfully it wasn't his own headstrong, creature. He looked small and frail, swamped in Josiah's large coat.
"Vin ... you okay?"
"Yeah ... thanks. I know how much it cost you to shoot her."
"Price would have been more if I'd have lost you," Chris admitted honestly.
"She knew you'd come. Said I meant a lot to ya." Vin glanced at his companion.
"Why sound so surprised?"
Vin pulled the horse to a stop and regarded his friend seriously, "Never had anyone care enough about me to risk their lives."
"Well you do now."
Josiah, who'd been listening to the conversation, mused, "There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother."
The younger men frowned.
"Proverbs," replied the preacher, smiling broadly at them, "Come on, let's get Vin home fore he falls off the damn nag and breaks somethin'. That would really piss Nathan off."
The journey continued in silence. Each man struggling with his own thoughts.
+ + + + + + +
The judge listened intently while Chris gave his account as to what had occurred at the McKinley homestead. He knew about Victoria Anderson and the trouble she'd caused. Mary had informed him about her, the minute he'd stepped off the stage. And when he'd seen the pitiful sight that was Vin Tanner riding back into town, clinging desperately onto his horse to stop from falling off, the judge had been shocked to the core.
Once he'd spoken to Chris, Nathan and Buck he was satisfied that Chris' actions had saved Vin from certain death and that Victoria Anderson, had she lived, would have been arrested for kidnapping and attempted murder.
+ + + + + + +
The following day, Victoria along with three of her cohorts, was buried. The only mourners were the judge, Mary and the seven men.
Josiah tried to find a few good words to say over her coffin but found it difficult to forgive her. "Vengeance is a lethal game. One does not respect the dead by playing it. "
Chris hovered around Vin when he stared down at the coffin and was surprised when his friend said sadly, "I'm sorry, Victoria Anderson. I know ya loved yer father."
As they walked away from the grave, Josiah placed an arm on Vin's shoulder, saying, "You are a good man, Vin Tanner. It is an honour to know you."
+ + + + + + +
Chris chuckled to himself as he hurried to keep up with Vin's half walk, half lame run, as he headed for the stables. .
Nathan had finally given Vin permission to ride out, as long as he had company.
They'd all secretly wanted to be chaperone, but accepted that Chris would be the one to accompany him.
When the two men reached the corral, their horses were saddled and ready, with Buck and JD holding onto them. While Nathan, Josiah and Ezra sat on the fence, watching.
"Ah advised Buck to harness up the buggy, because Ah thought a more gentler kind of transport would be suitable for you in your fragile condition," Ezra teased, grinning impishly at Vin.
Vin squinted his eyes at Ezra, pointing a finger at him, "I'se fit enough to best you." he joked.
"What at, shadow boxing?"
The others laughed at their childish banter.
The two men mounted their horses and sped out of town as if their tails were on fire.
+ + + + + + +
The big, white faced gelding was enjoying the moment as much as its rider. Galloping across the plains, its hooves pounding onto the ground, racing the other black horse at its side.
Both riders were whooping and yelling, urging their animals on. There was a surge of adrenaline sweeping through the four of them. Eventually they slowed, the horses easing down at their own pace.
Chris turned to Vin and smiled, "Lookin' good," he said warmly.
"Yeah, he sure is," Vin patted his horse's neck. They'd both been injured, but were now getting back to full fitness.
Chris howled with laughter as he fussed around his own animal, "I meant you!"
"Oh..." Vin blushed. He did look good and felt even better. He'd put some weight back, the scars were beginning to heal and more importantly, he was recovering his self esteem after much cajoling from the others. He finally realised he wasn't less of a man for allowing a woman to beat and terrorise him.
"Didn't think I'd ever feel as free as this, ever again. Don't like being hemmed in Chris."
"You were sick, Vin. Nathan wasn't goin' to let you leave his care until he was sure you were strong enough."
"I know. How about you Chris ... how ya doin'?" Vin struggled with the horse. Always on its toes, the animal, like its rider was enjoying its freedom and wanted to set off again. Vin wasn't quite ready for another session.
"Me? I'm fine," Larabee said defensively, refusing to admit to his friend how desperate he'd been during Vin's captivity and how useless.
"Never blamed ya Chris ... only mself"
"Why?" Chris shook his head, "Neither of us was at fault. We were the victims."
Vin, finally getting full control of the horse, explained, "Josiah said we were shattered spirits, and needed some tendin.... guess he was right."
"Guess he was." Chris remembered his own conversation with the preacher, thankful for the man's insight and presence. Then he grinned mischievously at his companion as he turned for home and kicked his horse forward, and knowing that Vin's horse would easily out gallop his own, he said, "First one home has to clean out the stables!"
"Wha...?" Was all Vin could say before his horse half reared then sped past Chris at full gallop.