Disclaimer: I do not own any of the characters of the television show The Magnificent Seven. I am making no profit from the writing of this story. In truth I make no profit from anything I do .all I have is the personal satisfaction of a job well,,,,wait! I aint so sure I have that either .
Size: Approx 155K
Hey! Buddy! Dont even think about it!
The voice was loud, and hard, and he looked up to find the driver staring at him in obvious distaste.
I got the right fare.
Vin held out his hand - suddenly mesmerized by flashing sliver of the coins on his palm. He had never noticed the ridged edges of a quarter before - he had been handling them all his life and they had entirely escaped his notice. Wait. There was the voice again .oh, yeah, the bus.
Are you listening to me? I got the right to refuse access even if youve got the money - says so right there.
The driver jerked his head in the direction of a water - stained sign above the door, and when Vins eyes refused to focus, he decided he would have to take the mans word for it.
Get out! Now!
There was a line forming on the sidewalk, a sea of blurred faces staring up at him expectantly. Waiting for him to move. He felt something grab at his arm, and the next thing he knew, the waters parted and he landed on the wet pavement in an untidy heap. The human tide reassembled and flowed past him as they made their way aboard, stepping around him like he was no more than a greasy spot on the walk. He heard the hiss of closing doors as the bus pulled away from the curb, leaving him in its watery wake.
It didnt mater much - he was already wet.
And getting wetter. He could see the grey of the five oclock sky from his resting place on the street, and much as the interplay of cloud and shower lashing between the buildings called for his contemplation, he knew he had to move. The vague recollection of something that had to be done nibbled with little mouse teeth at the back of his mind, and he squeezed his eyes shut tight and willed that thought to gnaw its way further into his consciousness.There we are, Vin. Just like old times, eh? I bet you thought Id forgotten all about you.
He felt the weight of a hand on his forehead as it brushed away the strands of hair hanging in his eyes. He had wanted to do that himself, but he could not move. He felt like a puppet whose strings had been cut, whod been left in a tangle of wooden limbs somewhere on a drafty floor. It was chilly, lying there, and he shivered when that hand ran over his face once more and the voice sent icy echoes rippling all along his spine.
Thats it, boy. You relax now. Just relax.
He had to get home.
He dragged himself to his feet and started walking - not homeward yet. He had no idea where he was. He resolved to proceed until something looked familiar, and take his bearings from there. He was fairly certain he was still in Denver, so it was just a matter of soldiering on until something shouted at him, til he found some point of reference, a You Are Here notation that would send him in the right direction.
It was cold, he noted, but the cold felt good. Sharpened everything - the cut of the wind on his cheek, the prick of the rain on his skin. He liked days like this - especially in the city - when nature took the reins and let the world know who was in charge. She was quiet too often here, and controlled, a submissive creature who gave in too easily to the will of man.
He stopped for a moment and tilted his face to the sky. He knew her little secrets, could feel her hidden power-
Get the hell out of the street, ya moron!
Vin was startled back to awareness by the blare of motor and horns, and he jumped as a car whooshed past, inches away. It was raining harder now - pelting down in great fat drops that made it impossible to see, and he felt himself suddenly overwhelmed by the assault of noise and movement and confusion. He stumbled into the glass paneled doorway of a newly closed shop, and found himself face to face with a filthy, haggard, wild eyed creature that it took him a moment to recognize.
He knew that face.
It was his.
Chris leaned back in his chair and stretched. Thank God it was Friday. There were times this week that he thought he would never live to see the day arrive. It had been a week that had tried his patience to the limit, a span of five days fraught with drama and conflict like none he had experienced in a long while. A week that had seen each member of the team brought to the very brink of their skill and endurance. It had definitely taken a toll on them, and had left them with more than their fair share of casualties. JDs computer had crashed, Ezra had to be sent home from the office early on Wednesday because his insufferable haranguing had driven Buck to the edge of madness, Josiah had not even put in an appearance on Thursday, and had explained his absence with a weakly concocted and barely believable malady which prevented his attendance at work.
Yes, annual performance review.
Definitely the week from hell.
If he had never needed a drink in his life, Chris decided, he needed one now. He could hear the usually even - tempered Nathan clattering away at his keyboard with a vengeance that bordered on the manic, and he found himself thinking, not for the first time that week, that Vin was the only smart one among them. He had wondered at first why their sharpshooter, or anyone at all for that matter, would want to take vacation time in February. If one was headed south - well that made sense - but Vin only had plans strike out to his camp in the mountains, to the cramped tin can of a trailer that was his refuge from the rest of the world.
Just what are you going to do to amuse yourself all alone out in the woods in that broken - down-
A glare from Chris ended Bucks intended critique of Vins less than comfortable accommodations. His secluded retreat was no more than the carcass of a once sumptuous Winnebago, but one did not speak harshly of Vins treasured piece of heaven without nasty repercussions.
Gonna do some readin, take some pictures, hike up into the hills and spend a night or two. You should try it, Bucklin - a bit of time on yer own might do ya a world a good.
Vin had let the near slur slide, and grinned at his friend.
Id go crazy all by my lonesome like that.
Ya know, on second thought, I kin see yer point. Id go crazy too iffen I had t spend a week with no one else t talk to but you.
JD snorted in agreement without looking away from his computer screen.
Just be glad you dont live with him.
Buck threw a wadded up piece of paper at his young roommates head as Vin shrugged into his coat and turned to look at Chris.
Well, Cowboy, Im outta here. See yall in a week or so.
Take it easy out there, and take care.
Vin quirked an amused eyebrow at him as he came up, hand outstretched. Chris grasped the younger mans arm and gave it a shake.
Have a good time.
Thats the plan.
Thinking back, Chris was convinced the plan had been to avoid the week from hell. Vin was many things, but stupid was not among them. He knew what he was doing when he scheduled this little escape. And now that the week was finally at an end, Chris figured he could do with a little escaping himself. Hed go home early, pack up his things and head on out for a surprise visit. Hed call in Tommy Potter to look after the horses, and pick up some steak and beers. After a week of roughing it Vin would likely be low on food, and just might be in the mood for company. It would be good to get away from the phone, the paperwork, the pall of the city, if only for a couple of days.
Yeah. That definitely sounded like a plan.
Vin wasnt exactly sure how hed managed, but he made it. He finally found his way to Weatherfield Park, and after failing once more to gain access to the bus, had trudged through the darkening streets to his place in Purgatorio. It had taken longer than he thought it should have - must have had something to do with the fact that hed gotten lost briefly. Vin wasnt sure how that could have happened - he knew these streets better than most. He had come to himself at one point, sitting on a low stone wall in front of a library with the sudden realization that he was freezing and his head ached and he hurt right down to his bones.Dont fight it boy. Itll make you feel better. Remember how good it was, back then? You cant tell me you havent missed me you know you have.
It was the voice again - the voice that had no face. A light bulb was suspended in the air above him, swinging back and forth, back and forth, so brilliant he could scarcely bear to look at it, hypnotizing him with the precision of its arcing path. It was blinding, and it struck him how terribly absurd that was. He could not see because of the light. And suddenly he was laughing, and that was absurd too, to be laughing when nothing was funny.
He hadnt expected it to start this soon.
Time was growing short - Vin knew he had to get what he needed from his apartment, call and leave a message on Chriss machine, and get out of the city as fast as he could. It was Friday, and the guys usually took off early and met up at Inezs for a beer. Hed just cross his fingers and hope that no one was at the office. He wasnt sure what he was going to do if someone actually picked up the phone.
Even though he was in now in familiar territory, it seemed to take forever to travel those last few blocks. What had been rain was now feeling suspiciously like sleet, and Vin was sure he could hear the tinny clink of ice on the cars parked along the street. He quickened his pace and prayed that the temperature would dip no further - the trip out to his camp in the mountains was not going to be an easy one in his present condition, and he certainly didnt need any further challenges to his driving skills. He was relieved to finally see the familiar tower of St. Josephs off to his left and the outline of his building above the market just down the street. Vin pulled his jacket closer around him and clamped his jaw tight against the rattle of his teeth. He crossed the parking lot and was heartened to see his Jeep looking none the worse for wear after a week of being neglected. They had taken his wallet and his keys, but he was sure there were a few dollars stuffed in the pocket of his other coat, and he had to pick up the water. He made his way into the lobby and allowed himself a moment to curse the fact that the elevator wasnt working. He wasnt sure at this point that he was capable of dragging his weary bones past the many floors to his apartment, but he groaned in quiet resignation and headed for the steps.
Quiet there was something about quiet oh, he remembered now. That was what he had to be.For the first time in this time that had no beginning - at least none that he could remember - it was quiet. There had always been noise - footfalls and voices and music and creaking and moaning - muffled and incomprehensible, like a radio that was constantly on, but not quite in tune with the station. He thought he was alone now too, and this was odd, because even though his brain was thick with fog and seemed to know very little, he had always felt as if there was someone there with him and now there was no one. This was important, his being alone, a gift of sorts, if only he could remember why Something was going to happen - he had a vague recollection of discussion and debate that seemed to centre on him. And all of a sudden his nebulous thoughts and meanderings marched themselves toward the one conclusion that this meant nothing good for him, and something in his head was screaming.
Get up! Get up! Go! Hurry! Be quiet
It wasnt easy for him to slip into his place unnoticed - the kids - his own personal fan club - were always about, and Mrs. Martinez, in number twenty- seven, had some sort of early warning system that allowed her to track him as soon as he stepped through the front door. Lucky for him she spent Friday evenings with her daughter, and his young admirers were thankfully absent. He forced himself up the steep staircase and stopped, panting, on the landing before tackling the second set of risers. He found himself wondering about his supplies - they should still be in the vehicle - he had packed most of them last Thursday night and had only stopped off home on Friday to pick up his mail and get the water and perishables out of the fridge. He hadnt made it inside - they were waiting for him in the parking lot. Two of them if he remembered rightly, and he had just shut the Jeeps door and taken no more than three steps toward the building when something swift and heavy connected with the back of his head and everything went black.You didnt have to hit him so hard.
I didnt mean to. He turned his head and it caught him right here
He couldnt hold back the moan that escaped. Thick fingers were parting his hair and touching a spot just above his ear.
Hes OK-youre OK arent you Vin? Wake up - thats a good lad. Might as well get started - times a wasting, and we want to be sure you dont miss a minute of your trip.
Someone laughed then and the echo of that voice hit a familiar note in his rattled brain. He had barely formed the thought when he felt something plucking at his sleeve and pricking in his arm. Yes, this was familiar too, this rising sweep of euphoria racing through his body, filling all the corners of his head, twisting in his stomach. He could feel himself being held up as he vomited, every spasm sending a spike of steel through his shattered skull. And then it faded all away, the dark, the noise, the pain, and he was light with the fullness of it all and it was beautiful.
Keep going, keep going - he staggered onward and finally reached his door. It wasnt locked - the kids came to use his computer most days after school, and even though he hadnt been able to leave a note for Raul last week, he knew the boy would have kept an eye on things in his absence. He walked unsteadily into the living room and collapsed on the couch. It was so good to just sit - he felt as if he had just run a marathon, and wasnt surprised to find a small part of his brain was trying to seduce him with thoughts of a hot shower and the comfort of his own bed. He couldnt, though, stay here. Even if Wallace wasnt prepared to come after him or chase him to the ends of the earth to see his little scheme to its proper conclusion, he didnt want his friends to find him either.
The keys - his second set - where had he put them? The coffee table? He scrabbled through the pile of papers and magazines there, sending them sliding to the floor. He pushed himself upright and made his way from the sofa to the kitchen. On the hook beside the phone? No. The bedroom? He rooted in the drawer of the night table, shook the blankets off his bed, went through the pockets of his clothes, leaving them in a heap in the middle of the room. Where were the damn keys? He stormed back to the kitchen and wrenched open the cupboards, sending dishes crashing. He slammed his fist on the counter, his heart racing.
Wait. He had to get a grip. Maybe he should call Chris now, before he lost it completely. He didnt want anything in his voice to make the older man think there was anything amiss, and it was clear that he wasnt going to be coherent much longer. He found the phone and dialed the number with a shaky hand.
Vin cleared his throat when he heard it ring and gave a silent prayer of thanks as the machine picked up.
Chris? Chris. This heres Vin - its, Im, I jist came out to the highway t pick up a few more things - thought I best give ya a call - let ya know Is still up here at the camp - I gotta .
God. Slow down. Take a breath. He cleared his throat once more and began again.
Im jist callin t tell ya Ill be takin a few more days off .I got - sorry its short notice - I got, I need-
Damn. Another deep breath.
Is jist dcided I need a few more days - I got em comin and Is jist realaxin here and see yall the middle a the week. Thanks. Sorry. Everythins fine.
Now why did he have to go and say that.
Talk about a dead give away.
He had thought about calling in sick but decided against it, knowing it would have just set the whole crew of them on his trail. And then he had to go and make a point of saying that everything was fine.
God. How could he be so stupid?
Oh, well, nothing he could do about it now. Once he got past the first bit he was sure he had managed to sound sane and rational. He was pretty certain he didnt have anything pressing on his calendar for the upcoming week, and even though it definitely wasnt like him to book time off without Chriss prior approval, hed deal with the fallout once he got the next few days behind him.
Now where was he? Oh yeah, the keys. Vin laid the phone on the couch and straightened up. It took him by surprise when the room suddenly tilted and the next moment found him lying on the floor. He had just come to the conclusion that he must have fainted when his felt his insides twist and he scrambled for the bathroom. He wasnt sure how long he spent hanging over the porcelain - there was nothing on his stomach in any event - and when the spasms finally ebbed away he managed to haul himself to the sink where he splashed his face with cold water. He got a good look then - at eyes red rimmed and bloodshot, hair lank and greasy, the dark circles, the week long growth of beard. He was certain he would feel better if he could only have a shower, but he didnt have the time. He had to leave, and fast, before he was no longer able to drive. God, he hated being sick! The only good that could be said about this latest indisposition was that while he was on the floor, he thought he had seen the glint of something silver underneath the couch. Sure enough, when he made his unsteady way back out to the living room and got down onto his knees to check, there they were.
Vin retrieved them and got slowly to his feet. OK the keys were taken care of. What next? Everything he would need for the next few days was already packed up in the Jeep. He had no idea what the weather had been like this last week. He could only hope that it hadnt been too cold and that nothing essential had frozen while it had been sitting outside. He found himself wishing he could just stay put - he really didnt have the energy to be heading out to the camp right now the keys! Where were the - right, he had found the keys and they were in his hand ..what about water? Check the water - check the water - another blanket - he went into his room and pulled the comforter off his bed - it was down and would be a real pain to wash - he had to get going, get going......
He stuffed the quilt under his arm, grabbed the water out of the fridge and a watch cap from the shelf in the closet, had another momentary panic over the whereabouts of the keys, then went out into the hall and shut the door behind him. He met no one on the stairs or on the landing, but he had no sooner stepped out into the lobby than he heard the unmistakable creak of Mrs. Martinezs door. Vin kept his head down, and kept going, but it was too late. She had seen him.
Vincent! Youre back. Did you have a nice week?
In truth, Vin could barely recall the week - and no matter whether that was a big deal or a small one, he rather doubted it had been nice. He paused a moment while his elderly neighbour came up to him and peered into his face over the rim of her glasses. He pulled his toque further down on his forehead and bared his teeth in what he hoped would pass for a smile.
I jist came back to get a few things - plannin on spendin a coupla extra days out there- he had a sudden picture of strangers hanging around, asking questions about his whereabouts - at a friends place - guess I should get on the road bfore it gits much later.
Vin tried to pull away from the womans affectionate grip.
Have you eaten yet? I have some soup left from lunch - I thought you were on vacation. You dont look well.
Is fine - really. Ended up called outta town fer work fer a couple days - kinda ate inta m time off, so now I got a few extra days t make up fer it..
I was worried when I saw your Jeep out there all week, then I thought to myself Vincent has probably gone away with one of his friends. Well, you go along now, rest up and eat well. I think that Mr. Larabee of yours works you too hard.
Yeah, th - that he does. Well, I g-gotta go. B - back next week some time.
Vin was out the door before she even turned toward her apartment. He could have done without that little encounter, but all in all it hadnt gone too badly. Mrs. Martinez had no idea where his camp was anyway, but he thought it was better that he left her misinformed about his plans. They would likely come here, and Mrs. Martinez would happily share the details of his life with anyone who seemed in the least interested. Her curiosity about him and his comings and goings was completely innocuous, but he found himself wishing that he hadnt become one of her hobbies. He stepped out onto the sidewalk and scanned the street, and seeing no one out of the ordinary, made his way across the lot and climbed into his truck. Whatever had been holding him together through his encounter with Mrs. Martinez suddenly deserted him, and he felt the tremors coursing through his body as he gripped the steering wheel in an attempt to get himself back under control. Vin found himself wondering not for the first time how he was going to drive. It was bad enough that by taking a seat behind the wheel he was putting himself in jeopardy, but that was a risk he was prepared to take. It was the endangering innocent lives that bothered him, but he reasoned that once he got through Denver traffic and out into the country, he would be on the lesser traveled by ways. He felt he was cogent enough to get himself at least to the turn off to his land, at which point it was an hour to his place. There would be no one at all on that stretch - his place was half way up the mountain and well in the woods. Vin had bought the property when he was still hunting bounty. It had been the one of the luckiest days in his life when he showed up at the sheriffs office just in time to overhear one of the secretaries complaining that her father was now in a nursing home and the family were trying to convince him that his hideaway in the woods had to be sold. Vin spoke with her and went to visit the old man - they had become instant friends- and he agreed to sell his piece of heaven to him on Vins promise that he would take him up to his spot one last time. That one last time had been a long time coming - Vin and Jack Cullen spent many pleasant hours in those woods and in that rusty old trailer - which Jack had dubbed the Vinnebago - to the point that when the old man finally passed on, Vin was sure he missed him more than Jacks own family. He would live up there full time if it wasnt such a drive to the city. But then perhaps he wouldnt appreciate the place so much, if he no longer had the dirt and crush and noise of life in Denver to compare it to .Vin came to himself with a jolt. What was he doing, sitting here with his head in his hands, reminiscing about Jack and the camp when he really had to get this show on the road? His hand shook as he fitted the key into the ignition, and he held his breath, praying to hear the sound of an engine turning over.
Cmon, cmon, thats a girl
He was finally rewarded as his girl gave a consumptive cough, cleared her lungs and finally lapsed into a throaty purr. Vin eased his way cautiously out into the darkening street and breathed a sigh of relief. So far so good, even though he knew this was the easy part.
Things were going to get a whole lot worse before they got better.
This, he knew, was certain.
Damn that mangy ornery cuss of a Texan anyway!
Chris was not a happy person. He had just driven on iffy roads all the way up to Vins place in the mountains, only to find that he wasnt there. And not only that he wasnt there, but as far as Chris could tell, it didnt look as if he had ever been there. Not in the last week, at least.
No tire tracks marked the driveway, no footprints marred the expanse of snow that blanketed the yard. Chris decided a quick tour of the place was in order, before the last of the light faded, and he headed down the path to the creek first.
Nothing, and no one.
He made his way back to the clearing and stuck his head in the trailer - it was never locked - to find that everything was neat and ordered - just the way his friend always left things after a visit. Vin knew that the Vinnebago was one day going to melt away into a puddle of rust, and last fall had made a start on a cabin on the far side of the property. The frame had been boarded in and the Queen stove was holding court in her wilderness home already- a ready supply of wood piled neatly in the woodbox - but Chris found himself reluctant to spend the night there on his own. The whole point of this had been to kick back with Vin for a couple of days - have a few beers, eat some good food - Chris had brought whiskey and steak and potatoes for baking. Most of all he had been looking forward to de - pressurizing - complaining loud and long about what a hellish week it had been. Cursing the higher - ups, regaling Vin with tales of bureaucratic stupidity, tales his friend would take in with rapt attention, interrupting with that half smile on his lips at just the right moment and with just the right comment to make Chris laugh in spite of himself. There was no one who could defuse the time bomb that was Chris Larabee like Vin Tanner.
How could that so - called friend have the nerve to not be there when Chris so obviously needed him?
He wondered if he should be worried. He sat in the Ram under the frozen pines and fingered his cell phone. There wasnt much point in calling - Vin rarely carried his phone with him even when work required it, let alone on his days off. Where could he be? Vin was pretty independent, infuriatingly so by times, and perhaps he had changed his plans and gone elsewhere. Maybe he had gone skiing, but even though he was an accomplished skier, the crowds and the lineups and the enforced sociability of downhill skiing were not exactly Vins style. He preferred cross country, but Chris had done a quick look around and saw that his skis were standing idly in an unfinished corner of the cabin. He had the fleeting thought that Vin had perhaps made last minute plans with friends, but as far as Chris knew, Vins only friends were himself and the guys at work. Maybe he had changed his mind about what really constituted a vacation and had gone south. Buck had spent the last month riding Vin about the stupidity of taking time off in February to go into the woods, and had been leaving brochures of fabulous tropical getaways with little cut - out pictures of Vin - provided by JD no doubt - glued into the sparkling scenery. It hadnt seemed to bother Buck that Vin looked sadly out of place in his tiny collages, decked out as he was in jeans and hiking boots and flannel shirts. But it was all to no avail. Much as the cold gnawed right through those scrawny Texas bones of his, Vin was a creature of the North American landscape.
No, Chris mused, he highly doubted Vin had gone too far afield.
He decided he wouldnt panic yet. Hed head back to the city and check out Vins place.
After that he wasnt sure.
Well, this definitely was a puzzle.
Chris frowned as he stood in front of the door to Vins apartment. He had pulled up to the curb about fifteen minutes ago and walked into the lobby where he was greeted by one of Vins assorted mother hens - Mrs. Martinez, he thought. He was surprised when she said she had seen Vin no more than an hour ago, here in this very spot. She repeated the conversation she had with the younger man, word for word Chris was sure, and finished with a polite but tart rebuke for Chris.
I tried to get him to come in for a cup of something hot. I told him I thought he must have gone away with someone else, because his vehicle was in the parking lot all week and I wasnt sure whether I should have been worried about that. He said he had been called back to work, and that he was just now getting started on his vacation - that he was going to be spending some time with a friend. he didnt say where. He had a quilt under one arm and three jugs of water. And he had a grocery bag with him, but I couldnt see what was in it. Her gaze darkened and Chris could feel himself wanting to squirm. That boy doesnt take proper care of himself. I told him he was looking much too pale and thin- I think he has been working too hard.
Chris found himself wondering where the Mrs. Martinezs of the world were when there was a crime to be solved. They would have a one hundred per cent success rate if they had witnesses this thorough come forward every time.
Im just going to go have a look around Vins apartment.
Most of the tenants in the building knew Chris, by sight if nothing else. He knew that Mrs. Martinez acted as unofficial superintendent - the keeper of the keys so to speak. Vin did a lot of the repairs around the place, as most of the inhabitants were elderly widows and single mothers with children to raise. Some of the older boys helped out, and although the building was run down and shabby, it was relatively clean and safe. And Chris knew that had a lot to do with Vin.
He finished his replay of the conversation in the lobby, pushed open the door and went inside.
Vin was generally a tidy person - Chris figured it stemmed from the fact that Vin had grown up with nothing, and he therefore appreciated all those things most other people took for granted. While he didnt seem to be the sort of person who was overly concerned about material things, he took care of everything he had - well with the exception of himself perhaps.
But one would never have guessed that at this moment.
The place was a mess.
He followed the trail of muddy footprints into the living room where books and magazines littered the floor. A quick look around the kitchen revealed the cupboards standing open and the drawers askew, and he could feel the crunch of a broken plate beneath his boot. The bedroom hadnt fared much better - there were clothes strewn about and the bed looked as if it had been attacked by a rogue tornado. It didnt appear to Chriss eyes as if a struggle had taken place - well, not a struggle between two or more persons - and the still wet puddles of dirt and melted snow suggested that whoever had run amok in Vins apartment had been there recently. And according to Mrs. Martinez, that person had been Vin. He was on his way out of the room when he noticed that mud wasnt the only noxious substance staining the wood in the hallway. He followed this trail into the bathroom and snapped on the light.
Just as he thought.
Someone had been sick, and not quite made it.
It had to have been Vin.
Chris had seen some strange things in his day, but he had never seen a break and enter where the sole purpose of the forced entry was to make a mess of the premises and vomit all over its floors.
What did that fool think he was doing? And what should he do now? It was late, and Chris really wasnt in the mood to turn around and drive all the way back out to the camp. Especially when he wasnt sure that Vin would even be there. Perhaps Vin had tried to contact him, but he would have known, for he had left his cell phone on even after he left work. He decided to check his messages, flipped open his phone and waited while it rang through to the ranch. As he expected, there was nothing there, but when he called in to pick up his voice mail at the office, he hit the jackpot.
There were a couple of unimportant blips - one from Team Fives secretary and a note from Orrin Travis asking Chris to call him first thing Monday morning. These were followed by a completely incomprehensible missive from someone he finally determined to be Vin. It took Chris several replays to make any kind of sense of what the Texan was saying, and if Chris hadnt known better, he would have sworn Vin was drunk. He was talking faster than Chris had ever heard anyone talk, let alone Vin, and he repeated everything he had to say at least three times. He was pretty sure the gist of Vins ramblings was that he was having such a great time on vacation that he had decided to take a few extra days holiday. That he didnt think he had a busy week ahead on his calendar, that he would check in later, and he didnt see how his absence would be a problem. And that he was sorry.
Well, this message had red flags all over it. Vin would never have forgotten that the Butler case had been scheduled to go to trial starting on Monday and that the whole team was to be testifying that first day. They had been advised on Tuesday that the matter had been adjourned, but since he had been out of the office, Vin had no way of knowing that. And there was no way, if everything was as all right as he tried to claim, that this would have escaped his memory. Vin was the only member of Chriss team who, in the past year, had never missed a single day. Not even when a particularly nasty flu bug was making the rounds in the middle of the Nelson case, and every one of them had been sick. Vin had dragged himself in to work the day of the bust and spent the hour before the deal went down with his head in his wastebasket. When the order came to move out, he was the first one in the van, the first one in position and carried out his duties with his usual exceptional degree of skill and intelligence. As miserable as he was, he came back to the office and sat at his desk trying to write up reports until Chris and Nathan practically carried him down to his Jeep an hour before quitting time and drove him home. Vin rarely took time off work, and he never failed to give Chris ample notice when he did so.
Yes, something was wrong for sure.
But what to do about it .Chris looked at his watch. Almost eight oclock. Should he head back out there in the dark? Should he wait until tomorrow? After the week hed had, every bone and nerve ending in his body was telling him to wait til morning. If it had been anyone but Vin, he probably would. Vin was without a doubt the most self reliant and undemanding person Chris had ever known, and it was this very reluctance to impose his wants or needs on the rest of the world that had Chris worried. Vin would rather crawl away on his own and die quietly than run the risk of inconveniencing anyone else. Never mind the fact that if the shoe were on the other foot, Vin would be on the road at the first hint of something not quite right, for Chris or any other person he thought might need him.
Chris stepped into the hallway and pulled the door shut behind him.
Yes, this was exactly how he liked to spend his Friday nights. Driving for hours to hook up with people who didnt have the decency to be where they said theyd be. Running all over hells half acre looking for stubborn fools who probably didnt even want to be found. Worrying on mule - headed Texans who didnt have the sense to worry on themselves.
Let the good times roll.
Well, hed made it.
He wasnt sure how, and when he could make his jittery brain focus on it at all, Vin was dismayed that he couldnt remember much about the drive. He must have made all the right turns, but he could have sworn he hadnt passed Camerons Store out on the highway, and there was a long stretch between Denver and the number twenty - seven exit that he couldnt picture in his head no matter how hard he tried. He supposed he should just be thankful he had arrived in one piece, and that he hadnt been the cause of any destruction or mayhem on the freeway.
God but it was cold!
Not more than a minute ago the heater was blasting out thick clots of scorching air, and now he could see his breath congealing in front of his face. How had it turned so cold so quickly? He looked at he clock on the dash. That couldnt be right. It had read nine fourteen just seconds ago, and now it was insisting it was nine fifty - one. Had he really been here half an hour, just sitting there, slowly freezing?
He was definitely losing it.
He supposed he should get out and get a fire going. There was a propane heater in the trailer, and it would no doubt be warmer in the long run, but there was no way he could bear to be cooped up inside those walls. He opted instead to make his way into the half - finished cabin to set a fire in the stove. There was plastic sheeting nailed over the windows, and even though the door had not yet been hung, a weathered canvas tarp helped to keep most of the chill away. At least in the rough little building he could get up and move around, and he didnt think hed be doing much sleeping tonight.
He fumbled in the glove box for his flashlight, then stumbled out into the lane. There was nothing falling from the heavens at the moment, but clouds crowded the swatch of sky above the trees, and the wind was sharp and clawed through his coat as he made his way up the path. It was much colder here than it had been in the city, and Vin cursed himself and his luck when suddenly the light fell from his frozen fingers and blinked out as it hit the ground. It didnt matter much - there were candles, and matches in the tin above .one of the windows. He ducked under the tarp, made his way inside, and bit back a snarl as he barked his shin on the cast iron of the stove. Hed have to light a lantern first, before he could start a fire, and he reached up and felt along the lintel in search of the small hinged can. Nothing. He tried every sill and ran his fingers over every flat surface he could find, with nothing to show at the end of it except a hand full of splinters. Vin was usually an extraordinarily patient person, but he really had no time for this foolishness right now. He was cold, his head was pounding and he could feel frustration eating away at his wavering self - control with every minute that passed. He stopped and forced himself to take several deep breaths. It was OK. There were matches in the Jeep. In his gear. Somewhere. If only he could remember .
There had to be matches. He couldnt possibly have been so stupid as to forget matches but he had gone through everything. Hed even emptied the cooler, although he hadnt seriously expected to find them there. Oh well, he could always bunk down in the trailer - without the benefit of heat of course - but his sleeping bag was warm and the quilt would provide some extra protection against the cold. He really was tired, right down to the very middle of his bones, but his brain seemed determined to defy his body and even though he found himself wishing he could stop, here he was going through his pack once again.
There were still no matches. Vin picked up the bag and gave it a mighty heave, watching with grim satisfaction as it went skittering off across the frozen snow. He pawed through a bag of groceries that had the misfortune to be lying at his feet. When it too failed to yield the Holy Grail, he took great pleasure in hurling each item with all his might out into the inky void. Suddenly spent, he dropped to his knees on the frozen ground and was appalled to find himself close to tears.
He had to get a grip.
Just make it through tonight, he told himself - tomorrow will be better.
He knew that wasnt true, but he chose to ignore that certainty for now. It made him feel better ..didnt it?
He found himself saying it again, and again. It would be his mantra .
Just make it through tonight .make it through tonight, make it through tomorrow, make it through tonight, tomorrow, tomorrow just make it.
Chris was not prepared for the scene that met his eyes when he made the final turn at the bottom of Vins road and lurched cautiously up the rutted lane. His headlights revealed Vins Jeep in the middle of the drive, all four doors standing open, with what he presumed to be its contents littering the yard. There were no lights in the trailer, or in the cabin, and he found himself reaching for his gun as he coasted to a halt and switched off the ignition. Chris thought he could just discern the outline of a body by the front right tire, and he unlatched the door as quietly as he could and slipped silently out. He moved along the length of Vins vehicle, ears open for any suspicious noise or movement. There was nothing but the wind soughing in the trees and the creak of wood on wood, and he felt a chill run up his spine as he recognized Vins jacket and reached a shaking hand to turn the form in front of him. He jumped back when, at his touch, the figure jerked and scuttled away, sliding several feet across the ice before coming to rest in a tangle of brush at the edge of the wood.
Jesus! Vin! You just about gave me a heart attack!
For it was indeed Vin.
He said nothing for a minute, just stared, eyes wide and unfocussed.
Chris gentled his voice as Vin blinked and slowly came back to himself.
Its me. You OK?
Yeah. Good. Fine.
What the hell happened here?
Chris straightened up, flicked on his flashlight and scanned the mess in its arcing beam.
Vin didnt answer right away. Just sat, looking around, as if trying to figure out for himself how he came to be sitting in the middle of the night, on the side of a mountain, in the centre of this sea of confusion.
He looked up at Chris once in the midst of his silent appraisal, turned his gaze back to the jumble that surrounded him, then sought out Chriss face once more.
You got a match?
Yeah. Is lookin fer a match. You know. T light a fire. I caint think what I done with em.
Chris reached down then and hauled Vin to his feet. He stood, swaying, and Chris grabbed at him once more to steady him. Vins arm felt thin and brittle through the sleeve of his coat, but that observation had no sooner flashed in Chriss head when Vin was pulling away from his touch and wrapping those arms around himself. Chris noticed that Vins teeth had begun to chatter and decided that definitely a fire should be the first thing on the agenda. He walked back to the Ram, turned out the lights and swung his bag out of the back seat.
Lets go on inside and get warm.
Vin merely stood as Chris stepped past him and started along the path. He turned when he reached the doorway and saw that Vin hadnt moved.
Vin. Cmon, well start a fire, and once the coals have burned down some, well get the steaks on the go. You havent eaten yet, have you?
Nah. SOK though. I aint real hungry.
Chris pushed the canvas aside and shone his light into the corners of the room. He noticed that the skis and poles had toppled away from the wall and come to rest against the stove, and the wood, which had been stacked in a neat pile against the far wall, was now scattered across the floor. Chris was crouched in front of the stove when he realized he would have to find some paper and split some kindling before there would be anything soon happening in the way of comfort or food. His flickering suspicions that Vin had spent the week elsewhere were becoming harder and harder to ignore. He ran his hand over the ledge of the window closest to the stove - where Vin normally kept the matches - and frowned when his fingers brushed the top of the tin in its usual spot. He drew his hand away when he heard Vins foot on the porch.
You must have been taking it pretty easy up here. What did you do, spend the whole week sitting in the Jeep? Chris watched as his friend made his way inside and leaned against the frame of the bunk. Hows your vacation been, by the way?
Good, real good ..
Chris took the matches out of his pocket and proceeded to light the candles, then took the kerosene lamp down from the nail in the cross beam.
You got any newspaper around?
I, uh . There must be some .
Vin stayed where he was and scanned the room.
I might have some in the truck - I think todays is still there from this morning, on the front seat. You want to go find it while I split up some small stuff?
Vin shifted his weight slightly and cleared his throat.
I know ya come all the way up here . I hate t do this to ya .really - but I aint feelin the best and Is thinkin I might jist turn in. Yall kin settle out here iffen ya want, and Ill bunk down in the trailer.
Chris straightened from the chore at hand and took a step closer to his friend.
I think ..I think I might be comin down with somethin.
As if on cue, the tremors that Vin had been trying so hard to hide suddenly took over. His legs gave way beneath him and he sank to the floor in a miserable heap.
How long has this been going on?
Not long - it aint nothin - probly the flu. Ill be fine, though, jist need t get some sleep.
Chris knelt in front of Vin and looked at him carefully for the first time since he arrived.
You look like crap, Tanner.
A smile ghosted on Vins lips as Chris rocked back on his heels.
Thanks there, Cowboy. Yalways did know how t make a feller feel good.
Well, theres no way youre sleeping in that tin can of yours. You sit right here and Ill round up your stuff - what was all that about by the way? I thought when I first pulled up youd been attacked by grizzlies.
Aint no grizzlies round here Chris.
You know what I mean. And while youre explaining that little mystery, you can tell me what youve really been up to this week.
Vin sighed and closed his eyes.
Dont know iffen I rightly can. Its . I caint Ill be OK Chris .but I really gotta have some time t m self.
Chris sat a moment and studied his friend in the uneven light. Vin had lost weight - Chris could see it in his face - his cheeks were hollow, his eyes dull, and he was clearly exhausted.
Well, Chris decided, hed let things go til morning and perhaps by then Vin would be more forthcoming about what was going on. Right now, hed get the place warmed up, cook some supper and get them both settled for the night.
He tapped Vins knee and got to his feet.
You just take it easy for a bit. Ill get things organized. Well be fixed right up in no time.
Chris was as good as his word. He laid the fire, and ventured into the yard and gathered up as many of Vins scattered possessions as he could find in the dark. He got the steaks in the frying pan and spread out the sleeping bags and got Vin situated in one of the bunks. He made up a pot of coffee, put it on the back of the stove, and went down to the trailer to fetch the dishes and silverware. He collected the battered cooler from its resting place at the foot of a wind - carved pine and managed to at least salvage the butter and cream from their temporary home amongst the chunks of snow and ice. When he finally made his way back inside, Vin hadnt moved an inch since Chris parked him in his bed, but he could tell the younger man wasnt yet asleep. The steaks were just about done, and as he unwrapped a loaf of bread to go with the meal, he turned to Vin once again.
You sure you arent hungry?
You want some coffee? Ive got beer, and a bottle of Jack, if your stomachs up for a drink.
The silence then stretched out so long that Chris was surprised when Vin finally replied.
Praps I could do with a shot of whiskey.
Vin usually didnt drink much at all, and Chris hadnt really expected him to take him up on his offer.
Vin swung his feet over the side of the bunk and sat forward with the quilt around his shoulders. Chris poured out two fingers of the amber liquid and handed him the cup, then poured one for himself and held it up for a toast.
Heres to .vacation.
Vin took a long swallow without returning the salute. He stared into his mug, raised it to his lips again, and downed the rest.
I could use another one a those.
Chris obliged and was surprised when that one disappeared just as quickly and Vin held his cup out for a third.
I think it might be a good idea for you to eat something before you go having any more.
Vin shook his head.
I jist want enough t put me t sleep. I aint feelin sleepy yet.
Chris acquiesced, against his better judgement. Vin was a grown man and even though he worried about the present state of his friends health, it really wasnt any of his business if he wanted to tie one on.
He placed the bottle on an upended crate within easy reach and turned back to the task of taking up his dinner. He perched on the edge of the second bunk and for the next ten minutes the only sounds to break the silence were the scrape of Chriss fork on his plate and the clink of glass on glass as Vin drank his way into the arms of Morpheus. The meal finished, Chris poured himself another drink and watched his friend closely for the moment when the glass would slip from between those deadened fingers to the floor. It took longer than he would have guessed, and it wasnt until Vin sat, eyes closed, wavering in place, that Chris dared go to his side and help him to lie back. He covered the younger man with the extra quilt and decided to turn in as well. It had been a long week, and he found that he too was now relaxed in a whiskey - hued torpor. Bed was looking mighty good right now. He just hoped that he and Vin would both pass a peaceful night. God knew they could both use it.
Although it didnt truly feel that way, Chris figured he must have gotten some rest. He was squinting at the glowing green of his watch face and saw that it read almost six oclock. The sun would be rising soon, and although it was the muttered groans and twitches coming from his friends bunk that had awakened him, he breathed a silent thank you that they had made it mostly through the night without .. wait a minute ..that didnt say six ..it said twelve- thirty Damn! Hed only nodded off for an hour and a half! And from what he could see of the state of Vins bed by the light of the fire, the young Texan had been tossing and turning for most of that. Chris slid out of the warmth of his cocoon and padded in sock feet to kneel at the sharpshooters head. Vin had kicked the sleeping bag aside and was curled on the mattress shivering, but Chris could see that his face was flushed. He put out a hand to touch the young mans forehead and drew back when he felt the sticky film of cold sweat. He managed to disentangle Vin from the bedclothes without rousing him, and tiptoed back to his own bed where he lay and watched the play of the shadows on the ceiling. Sleep was impossible now, as Vin continued his restless muttering and writhing, and Chris found himself worrying once again about his friend. Tomorrow hed pack him up and head for the ranch. If Vin was truly ill, there was no way he wanted to be stuck out in the middle of nowhere with him. Vin had the most disturbing propensity to attract every virus that came within twenty miles of him, and if he hadnt known better, Chris would have sworn that Vin had lived his early life in a bubble. In addition to having no immunity to anything, every malady, no matter what the degree of severity, necessitated a trip to the Emergency Room. So he lay there, counting the minutes and praying that Vin wouldnt wake and that the night would somehow pass.
He must have dozed off again, for he came to this time to find Vin on his feet with his hand on his stomach and staggering for the door. Chris was up and had him by the elbow, propelling him onto the porch just as the heaving started. He dropped to his knees along with Vin, one arm around his friends waist as he vomited into the darkness beyond the steps, the other on his shoulder where his hand could hold back the tangle of Vins hair. Chris had spent a lot of time in just this very position during the long and lonely days after Sarah and Adam died, but he didnt remember ever being so violently ill. As Vins stomach convulsed over and over, Chris found himself soon cringing in sympathy with each new spasm, wishing he could do something to ease his friends misery. Finally Vin slumped, panting, in Chriss arms, and began to shake. Chris slung an arm over his shoulder and stood, taking Vin with him.
Lets get back inside where its warm. Youll feel better once you get back in bed.
Cant lie down - t - too dizzy .Ill j - jist sit up awhile- oh God, m leg!
Vin lurched from Chriss grasp and grabbed at his thigh.
When Chris bent to help him Vin waved him away.
SOK, he gritted between clenched teeth, jist a charley horse. But God! Does it hurt!
If Vin hadnt been fully awake before, he was now, white - faced and tight - lipped and in excruciating agony. It was a good five minutes before Vin relaxed even a little and the worst of it seemed past. Chris got him settled once again, propped in his bed with his back to the wall, and then turned to stir the fire back to life.
Thought Id brew up a pot of coffee. Or would you rather have tea? Might help settle you r stomach.
Im good. What time is it?
Chris shook his watch out from under his sleeve.
Four twenty. Thought maybe in the morning we should head on out to the ranch. Youve obviously caught a bug of some sort, and I think youd be more comfortable in a real bed.
Ill be OK. Jist drop me off at m place.
Vin was rubbing at his arms now, and stopped when he caught Chris watching him.
I aint feelin the best, but -
Which is exactly why I am not leaving you anywhere by yourself.
Chris held up his hand when Vins mouth opened in protest once more.
You arent in any shape to fight me on this Tanner, so dont even try.
Vin leaned back and bounced his head against the wall behind him. Once. Twice. Three times.
Thwack, thwack, thwack.
It went on and on.
Chris thought about telling him to stop, but the motion seemed to have halted Vins tremors and twitches.
It was definitely a lesser of two evils scenario, so he said nothing, just sat and drank his coffee and waited for the night to pass.