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Part Three | Part
Part Two: Cold Day in Hell
It was hard enough to look at Vin; Chris couldn't even imagine what it felt like to be Vin.
On second thought, maybe he could imagine too well. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe that was why he allowed this to go on when he knew he should call a halt. But for the second time in weeks, they were caught between a rock and a hard place, with a young life in the balance.
Chris frowned as he took in their surroundings and noted that the rock and hard place analogy could be taken quite literally. They were on high, rocky ground, surrounded by steep mountains and treacherous canyons. No easy path, no easy answer in sight.
The wind had picked up, adding insult to injury, as stinging sleet continued to fall from charcoal clouds. The temperature dipped proportionately with the descent of the obscured sun, and Chris shivered as he pulled his coat tighter around him. It was eerily similar to the first hunt, although just enough colder to make it even more miserable.
Vin rose and turned then, enough for Chris to make out his profile through the shadows and the ice. His shoulders were slumped, his head tilted down, but it was only moments before he crouched awkwardly to the ground once more.
"Put a stop to this, Chris. Do it now, or I will." Nathan's demand was sharp in his ear; unexpected in its intensity, though predictable in words and sentiment.
"How can I, Nathan? He's searching for a child, for God's sake."
Enough said, in Chris's mind, though apparently not in Nathan's since he continued to argue. "I know that. But if we let it go on much longer, he won't be able to think, let alone move, and then who's gonna find that boy? He's gotta rest. And we've gotta get out of this weather."
Chris turned his head to meet the healer's deep brown gaze, but he kept silent.
Gripping the gunman's arm tightly, Nathan lowered his voice and added, "We almost lost him, Chris. I shouldn't have to remind you of that. He'll run himself straight t' the grave if we let this go on."
Larabee's eyes moved to Tanner once again. The tracker seemed intent on some obscure markings on the ground, though Chris wondered what he could possibly make out in the dim light. The sleet fell in sheets over the brim of his hat, ignored, as Vin had ignored all other obstacles. He couldn't be too late this time. The words went unspoken, but Chris knew and understood. They'd already lost one boy to this unknown demon, losing a second would be intolerable.
Just as losing Vin would be intolerable.
"We'll lose him anyway, if we don't find this boy alive," Larabee muttered, expressing his dark thoughts out loud.
Nathan huffed and strode purposefully to Vin's side. "We need to find shelter now, Vin. We'll pick up the trail again in the mornin'."
Vin rose to his feet with a grimace, shifting his weight to his good leg. His blue eyes were puzzled as he looked at Jackson and asked, "Why? There's still a good hour of light left."
Light? Only in Vin's mind could the dismal gray-black sky hold any illusion of clarity. They could hardly see each other, let alone anything or anyone in the distance.
But it wasn't the encroaching darkness or the cold rain that finally forced Chris to side with Nathan. Stark white skin, from what he could see under Vin's hat, brought back with alarming clarity the memory of how Tanner had looked months ago. They had almost lost him.
"Nathan's right, Vin," Chris said slowly. "It's getting too dark and if we miss something . . ."
Shaking his head, Vin replied simply, "No. You two can stop if y' want."
It was like reliving a nightmare. It was the same feeling of desperation as, once again, everything worked against them: wind, rain, darkness, and hard, rocky ground. Even the words were the same, though spoken with even more urgency and more fear; the memory of Michael's lifeless body still fresh in their minds.
Tanner limped ahead a few feet and stared at the ground, his shoulders sagging with exhaustion. Chris moved up behind him and put his hand on the tracker's back. He wanted to say it again, that they needed to stop, but he couldn't seem to form the words. Nathan was glaring at him now, waiting, and Chris should just make it happen . . . like he had the last time.
The last time . . . when he had been wrong and they had found Michael an hour too late.
"Vin says there's an hour of light left, Nathan. We'll keep on."
Vin looked at him gratefully as he mounted up again, while Nathan's eyes sent an entirely different message. Chris turned away and followed after Vin. An hour could mean the difference between life and death. They couldn't take the chance. They had to keep moving.
+ + + + + + +
They couldn't take the chance. They had to stop. The weather and the darkness endangered not just their chances of finding the child, but also of their physical well-being. One misstep on a rocky hillside in an icy storm could have tragic consequences.
Nathan shook his head as he followed along behind his friends. Vin just wasn't thinking rationally, and Chris wasn't helping.
It was achingly familiar. All through that first journey, Nathan and Chris had watched Vin carefully, neither one certain that Tanner was up to the task. Usually confident and self-assured, Vin had seemed distracted, tense, and hesitant. But the stakes were high, and the search for Michael was the first real test Vin had endured since he'd more or less recovered from the tragic accident. The pressure and the expectations were horrendous, and Nathan sadly--and belatedly--recognized that his doubts only added to the tracker's burden. But he'd kept quiet then. He'd let Vin take control and when that didn't seem to be the right course, he let Chris take over.
This time would be different. This time he would speak up and say what was on his mind. This time he would take care of the two stubborn men whether they liked it or not. Starting with right now: they had to stop. He opened his mouth to say the words, but just then Chris's horse slid on a patch of ice, nearly sending man and beast into what appeared to be a bottomless cavern, though it was difficult to tell in the darkness.
It turned out that Vin stopped it. He finally acknowledged that he couldn't see and he wasn't sure, and although Nathan wanted to be relieved, the catch in Tanner's voice made him feel anything but. If the ride didn't kill his friend, the wrong ending to this saga surely would.
Nathan raised his arm and pointed at a wide overhang maybe a hundred yards up the mountain. "Looks like as good a place as any," he said, and Vin nodded in agreement.
The rocky shelf did offer some protection against the elements, but the ground was cold, hard, and wet; it would be another night without a fire. The muted glow of a dim lantern gave the illusion of warmth, but still the men shivered under damp blankets. They'd all be sick before this was over . . . if they didn't tumble head first off a cliff.
It was a tangible thing now, the worry; a part of him as real--and as aggravating--as a thorn stuck just under his skin. And no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't dig it out and make it go away. He'd come to care too much about all of them, and now Nathan was just plain stuck.
But he wasn't the only one, he noted as he peered through hooded eyes at his traveling companions. Chris feigned sleep, but he fooled no one. Nathan saw the green eyes drift repeatedly to the restless form of Vin Tanner. The tough gunman was worried sick about his friend and well he should be. With less than a full day of rest, Vin had no business leading them on a second, desperate chase through unforgiving country.
Jackson turned his head towards Tanner now. Vin's face still sported the bruises from Spencer's attack, with more undoubtedly hidden beneath his shirt and coat. His eyes were closed, but it didn't take a healer to know that Vin wasn't sleeping, either. The tracker shifted a bit and moaned so softly that Nathan wasn't entirely sure if he'd imagined it.
"You need somethin', Vin?" he asked, recognizing the ridiculousness of the question. Obviously, Vin needed all kinds of things that he couldn't provide at the moment - soft bed, hot meal, and laudanum, topping the list.
Vin opened his eyes just a slit and shook his head.
Nathan bit his tongue and held himself back. He'd badly wanted to get a good look at Tanner, but the man had resisted, and with the poor lighting and miserable conditions, he hadn't pushed. There was so little he could do anyway.
A strong gust of wind swept through their meager shelter and the lantern flickered and waned. Vin pulled his head up at the exact same moment as Chris. The two exchanged a glance, and Nathan knew then that there would be no turning back or giving up, no matter who was hurt or how badly. He could worry all he liked, but he'd never change their minds.
Stuck . . . they were just plain stuck. Harsh land, uncooperative weather, a devious killer, a town half-crazed with fear, and a boy's life . . . there was no room in that equation for exhaustion or discomfort or sickness.
+ + + + + + +
Morning dawned, or at least the black sky shifted to a pale gray, and they were off again. But it was impossible to catch up, and the murdering bastard knew it. He just kept taking them higher, over rough ground that gave absolutely nothing away. Vin was going by sheer instinct and practicality; even the smartest, most diabolical killer couldn't climb straight up slippery granite rock. The possibilities were limited, and thank God for that.
As he negotiated Peso through a narrow crevice, Vin scanned the rough terrain ahead. The likely path, the only path, led through what appeared to be a deep crack in the mountain's surface . . . and what was the point? Why would he bring the boy up here? Suddenly Vin was seized with doubt so deep and terrifying that it literally took his breath away.
What if he was wrong? What if he wasn't even close?
He pulled back on the reins and gasped, but he couldn't force the thin air into his lungs. The harder he tried to take a breath, the more impossible it became, until he was overcome with near panic. The world tipped, and he gripped the saddle horn with all of his strength, trying to keep his balance and stay mounted.
He heard Chris calling, but he couldn't find the breath to answer.
Somehow Chris was beside him, on foot, wedged in the narrow crease of rock where Vin and Peso were stalled. Larabee had a hold of his leg, the only part of him that he could easily reach, and he looked up at Vin with about as much terror as Vin felt.
"What the hell's wrong, Vin? Take a breath . . . take it easy," Chris demanded, his voice strained.
Easy for him to say . . . Chris hadn't led them all on a wild goose chase up a mountain to nowhere, to nothing, to no one. Oh God. It would be too late. If they had to go back down and start over, it would be too late.
"Talk to me, Vin," Chris asked, more gently this time, though no less insistently.
Vin tipped his head down to see his friend's eyes as he fought for air, choking on his words, "Why would he . . .? I don't know if . . . we're on the right trail . . . I don't know . . . I could be wrong . . . and then . . ."
"You're not wrong, Vin. It's alright."
But it wasn't alright and Chris knew it. Vin shook his head and looked down at his hands; concentrated on holding on, on taking in air, on finding words. He didn't want to play the game anymore - acting like he knew what he was doing, acting like nothing had changed, acting like Chris wasn't lying through his teeth.
Chris sighed, his breath crystallizing in the chilled air. He seemed to be at a loss for a few moments, but when he finally spoke, the edge in his words was clear enough. "Get moving, Tanner. We don't have time for this."
Two short sentences were all Larabee needed to give him a swift kick. Chris was right. There was no time. An hour was all it took; an hour meant a young boy grew up . . . or he didn't.
Michael would never grow up.
But there was still a chance for Jacob.
Chris slapped Peso's rump before remounting Pony and they were off again; through the narrow pass, up the icy slopes. The bitter wind seared their faces and the damp cold pierced their bones. The sleet started up again, turning to snow as the day wore on and another night approached.
They'd have to stop again. Nathan would be harping soon, going on about slippery rock and exhaustion and thinking straight . . . as if that was even a possibility anymore.
Chris let Vin take the lead, not because he trusted him, but because Larabee felt guilty for a whole lot of things, none of which were really his fault. Vin would never be able to convince his friend of that, though, so no matter what, Chris wouldn't hold him back. He wouldn't make him stop this time; he'd let Vin go on all night if that was what he wanted, and it was. He had wanted to keep going the night before, too, but then Chris nearly fell into a canyon. They had to stop because he couldn't take it if they lost Chris.
It crossed his mind that he wouldn't have minded so much if they'd lost him though; if he had just slipped on over the edge and escaped from all of this. And that wasn't a good thing. Vin wasn't so far gone that he didn't know there was a serious problem with yearning so desperately for oblivion - be it from a mind destroying drug or a long, slow fall off a tall cliff.
In the space of what seemed like seconds rather than minutes or hours, the sky darkened again. Snow began to fall heavily, clinging to Vin's lashes and obscuring his vision. Disorientated, he pulled back on the reins and his heart stopped when he suddenly realized that he had no idea where he was or why he was there. He shook his head, fighting to assemble his thoughts and determine a direction, but something had happened to him . . . his mind didn't work the way it was supposed to.
"This way," Chris directed, his voice wind blown and far away as he tugged on Vin's arm and nudged Peso's belly.
Vin followed, or rather Peso did, taking Vin along whether he wanted to go or not. That was for the best because Vin was pretty certain he was incapable of making the decision. Moments later, Nathan was literally pulling him off his horse; mumbling words that were lost in the soft silence of the white snow, before being swallowed up in the suffocating blackness of the dark cave into which he was led. Or maybe he'd just stopped hearing - his senses shutting down completely along with his brain. That would make sense, in the twisted, confusing sort of way where the only thing that made sense anymore was that nothing made sense anymore.
His hearing came back, though; soft whispers floated around him as he slowly slid his back down the rough rock wall until he was sitting on damp, hard ground.
"My God, Chris! This is going from bad to worse . . ."
It was Nathan, sounding distraught and desperate, but he was like that sometimes. He was one of those people who - how had Josiah put it? Saw the glass as half empty?
"He'll be fine. He just needs to rest," Chris responded irritably.
They were talking about him like he wasn't there again. Vin knew he should be used to it by now but it still pissed him off. "No . . . he's just . . . c-cold," Vin stuttered, referring to himself in the third person and wondering if they'd catch on.
"Then let me give him something to help him sleep," Nathan said to Chris, as if Vin hadn't spoken at all, and maybe he hadn't. Maybe he just thought he had.
"No," Chris answered emphatically.
Larabee was still making decisions for him and Vin was pissed about that, too. He should pipe up and tell him so, but his teeth were chattering too hard to make another attempt at speaking. Not like it mattered - the stubborn cowboy wouldn't listen anyway.
Minutes later, a fire was crackling and Chris was handing him a cup of coffee. So maybe he was tired; he must have drifted off for a bit anyway. He couldn't figure out how the two men had managed to find dry timber for the blaze, but he didn't care enough to pose the question. The fire gave off superficial warmth, flushing his face with crimson heat, but never really filtering beneath his skin to his aching bones. He caught Nathan eyeing him suspiciously as he shivered and drew closer to the embers.
"Try to eat something, Vin. Please." Nathan added the last word as an afterthought, probably to make him feel guilty, and it worked.
It was far easier to give in than to fight that earnest expression in the deep brown eyes, so Vin took the dry biscuit that Jackson offered and choked it down. He got the impression the healer still wasn't satisfied, but it would have to do. Nathan didn't say anything more. He just shook his head and moved out of his line of sight, prompting Vin to pull himself up a little straighter and take a better look at their surroundings. Between the fire and the lantern, there was enough light to make out the dismal, but fairly large cave they were sheltered in. That had to have been pure luck, finding the dwelling, but even that miracle seemed strangely unimportant at the moment.
Everything was unimportant at the moment, until he allowed his eyes to slide closed and an image pushed its way through his brain. A body, lying still and broken in the mud . . . Jacob this time, and he opened his eyes with a gasp. How could he let himself forget for even two seconds why they were there and what they had to do?
"Vin?" Chris's hand was suddenly on his shoulder, and he jerked his head up to meet the concerned gaze of his friend.
"I'm fine, Chris." More of a sigh than actual words, but at least he'd gotten the message across.
It was a lie, of course. He wasn't fine; he couldn't think right. Thoughts all jumbled together in his head, flitting about with as little weight and direction as the flakes of snow that caught the updraft inside the cave. He hurt, too. His aching body felt like it had been hit by a stagecoach yesterday, rather than months ago. And he just couldn't get warm as violent shivers shook him from the inside out.
He tried to shift closer to the fire, but just that small movement triggered a spasm in his abused leg. The muscles tightened, gripping the tortured bones and tendons in a hot vice, as the knot of pain intensified from calf to thigh. He threw his head back with a strangled groan and tried to knead away the misery, but he couldn't do it. He couldn't coordinate his frozen hands and his fractured mind, so all that was left was to fall back and writhe in agony.
But apparently Chris could still move and still think, because in seconds his hands were traveling in deep, soothing circles up and down Vin's leg. It helped, but not enough, and Vin felt the hot sting of tears as a sob slipped past his dry throat.
And then it was Nathan at his back, his firm grip easing Vin's shoulders up off the rocky ground as he thrust a cup into the tracker's shaking hands. "Drink it," Nathan said, and his voice was calm and soft, though his eyes shone with hard-edged determination.
Vin swallowed the hot liquid, unthinking and uncaring about anything except the fire in his leg, but still he caught on right away. Nathan had laced the coffee with laudanum.
And finally, slowly, the pain lessened to a dull throb. He remembered this, it was instantly clear in his mind: the excruciating pain when his leg was crushed and the one thing, the only thing that made it bearable. It was a weakness to need it and want it, he knew that. He knew it clouded his mind when now, more than ever before, he needed to think clearly. But he was so cold and so tired, and as Nathan eased him back to the ground and his eyes slid closed in blessed relief, he forgot why it mattered so much.
+ + + + + + +
Vin had been having trouble all day. He'd scared Chris half to death earlier in the morning when he'd come to a grinding halt in that crevice. The man was shaking so hard, Chris worried he'd throw himself right out of the saddle. The worst of it was, there didn't seem to be a reason. Nothing had changed, except in Vin's mind.
Vin's mind . . . there was the puzzle. And deciding how to proceed when he wasn't sure what Tanner was thinking was even more of a mystery. He'd played it right that morning when he told Vin they were wasting time and to just get on with it. Being rough on Vin didn't sit well with him, but he had a hunch that sympathy and compassion wouldn't work, and he was right. Vin struggled on throughout the day without another episode, until the snow fell so thick that they were all having trouble thinking straight.
Chris had watched as Nathan guided Vin off his horse and into the cave, ignoring all the while the vacant look in Tanner's eyes. He told himself that his friend was just tired. Hurting, too, and that was to be expected. After all, Chris was pretty damn sore himself and even Nathan wasn't moving too swiftly. Of course it was more than that for Vin, always and forever would be, and the cramp that gripped Vin so suddenly just drove that point home one more time.
He'd never get used to it--seeing Vin's face contorted in pain--and for one terrible moment, he slipped back in time by four long months. The accident was fresh and new with consequences to awful to contemplate, and he was powerless to change it. And he was useless to Vin because he couldn't get past his own anger to lead Tanner towards any sort of acceptance. No, Vin had gotten there on his own, in spite of Chris rather than because of him.
Chris had expertly massaged Vin's tight muscles but it didn't help much. Nothing seemed to help until Vin took the drink Nathan offered. After Tanner swallowed the bitter brew, his breathing eased and he was asleep . . . deeply asleep by the looks of him, for the first time in days.
Something not quite right about that, and Chris threw a suspicious glance in Nathan's direction. Nathan met his eyes, but said nothing. Surely Jackson wouldn't resort to drugging Vin's coffee? Then again, if Nathan was half as concerned over Vin's condition as he was, he might be tempted to empty the whole damn bottle into the small mug.
Too tired for a confrontation, Chris decided to let his suspicions lie as he joined Nathan by the fire. Jackson refilled his tin cup with coffee and Chris nodded his thanks. They remained silent for several minutes until, as one, their gazes drifted over to their sleeping partner.
Nathan cleared his throat and returned his eyes to the flames. "He wasn't with us twice today, Chris," he said, his voice just above a whisper.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"I don't know where he was--where his head was--and the worst of it is, I don't think he knew either."
Nathan was looking at him now, challenging him to disagree. Chris thought he ought to put a fist in the man's face, but then he noted the profound sadness in Jackson's eyes. Nathan didn't want to believe that Vin was incapable of doing this, but he was too honest to hide his doubts.
"He's just . . . tired," Chris said, denying his own uncertainty.
Nathan shook his head and looked at Vin again, before turning back to Chris. "I don't want to think it, either, Chris. But look at us. Look where we are."
"He found Michael," Chris said deliberately, and how odd that he just remembered that. All this time, it was like Vin had failed because they'd found the boy dead, but Vin had been on the right trail all along.
Nathan nodded. "Yeah. But a lot has happened since then. He's . . . he's not strong."
Chris snorted. "He's stronger than you and I put together, Nathan. If the past months haven't proven that, I don't know what will."
"Chris." Nathan's voice was low and solemn, and Chris didn't want to look at him. He didn't want to hear whatever Jackson had to say, either, but something inside made him lift his eyes to the healer anyway.
"Chris," Nathan said again when he knew he had the gunman's attention. "Vin's a man; flesh and blood, just like you and me. And he's got his limitations like any man. I know I've said this before, but I don't think you're hearing me . . . we could lose him." Nathan lowered his voice and leaned in closer, "He's your best friend, Chris."
And? So? What the hell did Nathan expect him to do? Chris bit his tongue and lowered his voice to a whisper. "In case you haven't noticed, Nathan, we don't have a hell of a lot of choices here . . . unless you think you can find Jacob?"
"Of course not. But you can help me out some. Make him stop and rest. Make him eat. And for God's sake, if he needs a little something to ease the pain for a few hours, let him have it."
Chris chewed on his words for a minute, but it all amounted to one thing in the end. "Vin's an adult. He makes his own decisions. I'll not take that away from him."
"You took the morphine away from him. Was that his decision? Or yours?"
Heat flushed his face and Chris had to hold himself back as he responded hoarsely, "That wasn't the same thing and you know it!"
Nathan's voice rose as he squared off against the gunman. "Wasn't it? You made the choice for him because he was incapable of making it for himself. You've been making decisions for him for months and now ain't the time t' quit!"
Had he? No. That was ridiculous. No one could make Vin Tanner do something he didn't want to do. But even as the weight of that statement settled in, he remembered how many times he'd coerced Vin into doing what he thought was best for him . . . "Put your hat on, Vin," . . . "Rest, Vin," . . . "We're going back to town if I have to cold-cock you, Vin," . . . "We have to stop, Vin."
Nathan was right. Somewhere along the way, he'd taken up thinking for Vin. And if he wasn't careful, he could destroy the proud, independent man he called his best friend. It seemed there was more than one way he could lose Vin.
Chris turned his head to peer at the man in question once more. He hadn't even moved, and as grateful as Chris was for that small gift, he knew it came at a price.
"You put something in that coffee didn't you?"
Nathan looked away sheepishly for a moment, but when he turned back he had fire in his eyes. "It won't hurt him. Least not near as much as it will help him."
"You decided for him," Chris accused, but there was no malice in his tone. He couldn't deny his relief that Tanner was truly resting for a change.
"I gave it to him just like I would any of you. And it won't hurt him no worse than it does you when you throw yourself in front of a bullet, or Buck when he gets stupid defending a woman, or JD when he falls off his damn horse. Laudanum ain't the same as morphine. And even if it was, just because he had a problem once doesn't mean it will happen again."
Kind of like one drink won't lead to another for a man who can't seem to know when to quit? Chris shook his head. He was getting ahead of himself. One problem at a time, and right now they had a boy to find. Maybe if Vin got a good night's sleep, he'd be back on track tomorrow, literally and figuratively. And maybe, once this was all over, they wouldn't have to make decisions for their friend anymore.
Maybe if they found Jacob, they'd find Vin, too.
+ + + + + + +
A foot of snow blanketed the ground by the time the first rays of light filtered through the cave. It was bitterly cold, but the mere promise of the elusive sun made it seem less so. The snow would make it easier for Vin to track, too . . . if there were tracks to be found . . . if he was on the right trail . . . or even the right mountain.
Vin shook his head as he saddled Peso; he had to stop thinking like that. Doubting himself would only unsettle Chris and confirm Nathan's skepticism. Worse, it could keep him from finding Jacob in time. He had to think positive . . . starting with how the hell he was going to climb up on his horse.
He'd awakened that morning to the curious stares of his two friends. They expected something to have changed, he guessed. Nathan probably hoped the laudanum was a miracle cure, while Chris worried that Vin would once again be reduced to a crying, begging cripple. He didn't really remember it much--that time when Chris and Josiah had locked him in Chris's cabin and withdrawn the morphine--but he was sure it wasn't one of his finer moments.
It wouldn't happen again. Maybe he had practically begged Nathan for it when he had a weak moment back in Chris's room after Spencer's attack. And maybe he had knowingly and willingly swallowed the bitter brew Nathan had offered the previous night. But as much as he yearned for escape from the sheer agony of the circumstances he now found himself in, he really wouldn't become dependent on the drug again. Chris should know that, should have a little more faith in him than that.
Or should he? What the hell had he done to inspire that faith lately?
God, he had to stop thinking like that; he was going in circles again. Apparently sleeping for six whole hours hadn't helped his mental state much . . . nor his physical state, considering he still hadn't found the strength or coordination to just lift his leg and get up on his horse.
"I'll give you a hand, Vin," Chris said softly behind him.
How could it be so incredibly difficult to just stretch and bend the tight muscles of his legs and back? He wanted to scream in pure frustration, but he bit his lip instead as Larabee hoisted him up. Vin shifted back in the saddle like it was nothing, but he knew the flush of embarrassment colored his cheeks. Chris wouldn't acknowledge it; he probably thought it was no big deal at all that he had to help Vin get on his horse.
But it was. The day he became helpless and useless was the day he really did take that long fall. Not today, though. Today there was work to be done; today there was still time and still hope, and as long as he could still see and still ride, ride he would.
They'd only traveled a short distance when he saw fresh tracks. The frigid breeze was enough to chill his bones, but not enough to dust over the imprint of a horse's hooves. Vin wasn't sure if that was good or bad. He was on the right track, but the murderer had to know his hours were numbered. Would he get desperate?
The knot in Vin's stomach tightened; so close yet so far. An hour too late . . .
Not this time, and he pushed Peso harder over the loose flakes that covered icy rock, ignoring Nathan's call to please, please slow down. Larabee kept up with him; silent and determined, a rock solid presence at his back. He still hadn't figured out what he'd done to deserve such a friendship; that thought always in the back of his mind but pressing to the forefront now as they raced together over the treacherous ground. He couldn't have made it through the last four months without Chris, and Nathan, too. And suddenly he knew that it had to be the three of them seeing this through together. It was meant to be, it had to be, and Vin pressed his knees tighter against Peso's flank as he sped on.
He could read the signs of the land as easily as the signs of men, yet he was surprised when they topped a cliff and spotted a partially frozen river below. Further proof of his distraction, and doubt seized him again, momentarily paralyzing him as he abruptly pulled back on the reins.
He saw something then, or thought he did. There on the crystal bank . . . a spot of red that didn't belong . . . a smudge of gray and a mop of black . . .
No. He rubbed his eyes and willed his brain to somehow make it a mistake, a dream; he hadn't seen what he thought he had. It couldn't be. It could not be happening again. Shutting his eyes to block out the image, he could almost believe that he had imagined it, until he heard Nathan's voice echoing in the wind, reverberating off icy tree limbs and snow covered rock . . . "Dear God, will it never end?"
The answer was 'no'. This course had been set years and years ago when Vin had stupidly let one man get away, and he would pay for that mistake for the rest of his life . . . or rather Michael and Jacob and countless other young boys would pay.
He opened his eyes to witness Chris racing frantically down the hillside. But why? For what? It was too late. He was too late.
Nathan quickly took off after Chris, but Vin didn't track his movements and he didn't follow along. He couldn't move, anymore than the gnarled oak tree that blocked his path. Frozen, his blood turned to ice, and he couldn't draw breath or summon the will to care.
But something caught the edge of his vision; high up on a cliff adjacent to where he remained rooted, a movement. It took all of his concentration just to move his head a fraction and turn his eyes to the source.
The bastard was watching.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan didn't really believe they'd find the boy. It made absolutely no sense to bring him out to this God forsaken place and Vin was . . . well, he just wasn't right.
He'd wanted to believe for Vin's sake, as well as for Jacob's. Being labeled the pessimist in the group didn't sit well with him, and he was pretty certain it was unjustified. Call him a realist instead; practical and pragmatic. All he ever really wanted was for everyone to be safe and was that such a bad thing?
But safety was obviously the last thing on his partners' minds as they raced over icy rock. And in spite of the fact that his heart was pounding out of his chest and he could hardly pull in a breath of the arctic air, Nathan still had the presence of mind to note that Vin was riding like nothing was wrong with him. Tanner had barely been able to get up on his horse only hours before, but when the tracks in the snow verified they really were on the right trail, Vin took off without a single sign of doubt or pain . . . or fear.
Until they spotted Jacob, lying still and alone along the ice covered river's edge. Vin froze then; ominously still and silent.
Nathan pushed it all to the back of his mind as he hurriedly followed after Chris. He couldn't think about it . . . couldn't reason it out or make it bearable for any of them. Vin didn't come behind him, he had sense enough to know that, but even the knowledge that there was something profoundly wrong with that didn't penetrate.
Chris was at the water's edge in what seemed like seconds, scooping the boy up in his arms, which was no easy feat. Jacob was nearly twice the size of Michael, but Chris barely struggled as he carried the body up and away from the unstable ice and onto the snowy bank. No; the boy - not the body. There was still hope, even though Nathan could see bright blood gushing from the back of the child's head.
"Hurry, Nathan! He's alive!" Chris shouted.
Unbelievable; the word turned over and over in Nathan's head. Unbelievable that the man had brought an innocent boy up this mountain; unbelievable that Vin had been able to track him when everything was against him; unbelievable that Jacob was alive. Vin had found him in time . . .
"Vin!" Nathan shouted. "Vin, he's alive!"
There was no answer and no time for him to consider why. It was his turn now; Vin and Chris had done their parts. Yanking his bedroll off his horse, he quickly spread it over the ground and ordered, "Lay him down. Let me see."
The boy was definitely breathing, though not responsive. Gingerly examining the wound on the back of Jacob's head, Nathan mumbled, "Get this sewn up, get him warm, and he just might be okay."
"Might?" Chris asked with a grimace.
"Ain't hardly had a chance to look him over yet, Chris."
Larabee nodded, his intense gaze glued to the healer. Almost as an afterthought, his focus drifted just over Nathan's shoulder. "Where the hell is Vin?" he asked.
Nathan looked up from the boy long enough to peer at the place they'd left their tracker, but he wasn't there. He still hadn't spotted Tanner when he heard Chris curse, "Damn it, Vin!"
+ + + + + + +
Chris knew Jacob was alive; knew it the second he saw him from the ridge above. What he didn't know was that Vin hadn't followed after him. In fact, he had no clue what had happened to Tanner until he stood and turned in a complete circle to scan the land around them. And that's when he saw him . . . or rather, he saw them. What the hell? Vin was wrestling with a man some fifty feet up above the river!
A stream of curse words flowed from his lips as he flew to his horse and headed up the craggy cliffs. Vin could have waited, he could have called for help, but of course that was bull shit. Chris would have done exactly the same had he been the one to spot the killer, and he wasn't skating the thin ice that Vin was emotionally.
Thin ice . . . the river was covered in layers of it, solid where the water was shallow, but thin and treacherous where it was not. He kept his eyes peeled on the two men that twisted and fought so dangerously close to the mountain's edge. The river below, the thin ice . . .
Vin was holding his own, he had to be or he would have been down by now; unmoving on the stony ground, or God forbid, in the icy river below. But for how much longer? Nathan had said Vin wasn't strong and it was true. Tanner couldn't even mount up that morning without help. And he'd had the laudanum the night before - would it affect him now? Irrational panic colored that thought, but Chris choked it back as he moved closer to the scene of the struggle.
One good shot would do it. Why hadn't Vin taken that shot? Why did he choose to go to hand to hand with the man? Chris noted the knife in Vin's hand as he approached the pair. He also saw the fire in Vin's eyes, and he knew that a bullet just wasn't personal enough this time around. But it would have to do whether Vin liked it or not, because Chris wasn't taking any chances.
Vin's opponent had a good fifty pounds on him, and he used it to his advantage as he pressed the smaller man down onto the snowy ground. He sat on Vin's legs and used one hand to fend off the knife that Tanner wielded, while the other circled Vin's neck. The tracker was fighting back, though, twisting and using his one good leg to try and throw the killer off.
Now would be the time to take that shot. Chris could put a bullet right between the bastard's eyes with minimal risk to Vin. He took aim, but before he could get off the shot, Vin bucked up and rammed his head against his assailant's chin. The man fell back, stunned, but maintained his grip on Vin's right arm. It was a matter of momentum then, both men rolling back on the slick rock.
He couldn't get there in time. No matter if it was dry, flat ground instead of slippery rock, Chris couldn't get there in time. He watched as both men slid over the mountain's edge, and even with his own cry of denial, "No!" echoing in his ears, he could hear the ominous crack when they hit the ice below.
His feet slid as he rushed to peer over the ledge, and he gasped as he took in the gaping hole in the white ice below. No movement, no sound, no chance that Vin wasn't somewhere beneath the frigid water. Chris had never been caught under ice, had never had the misfortune of falling through, but he knew about the darkness and the disorientation; about not being able to find the way up and out of the pitch blackness of the arctic water.
Vin would be too cold to swim, his coat too heavy even if he could . . . even at his best, his healthiest, he couldn't save himself. And Chris was too far away, he'd never get there in time, even if by some miracle he could find Vin under the ice. But Nathan was closer and maybe, just maybe he'd seen Vin go under. He called for Nathan repeatedly, his throat raw in the cold wind, as he slipped and slid down the rocky hill, nearly falling in the river himself.
He couldn't tear his eyes away from the hole in the river's surface, and he nearly cried out when finally a shaggy head pulled up from beneath the water: Vin . . . thank God. Tanner gasped, taking in a great gulp of cold, cold air, as he tried to move. But like a fish flopping boneless on dry land, the movements were disjointed, useless, impossible. Even from several yards up, Chris saw the resignation in his friend's eyes as he once again started to slip below the surface.
"No! Hang on, Vin!" It was Nathan's voice, joining his own in desperation as both men raced to their fallen friend.
Nathan got there first, eyeing the twelve feet of brittle ice that lay between the bank and Vin. Nathan was a big man; it would never hold him, so he quickly reached for a rope and lassoed it out over the ice. "Grab it, Vin! Come on, you can do it!"
But he couldn't. Vin's strength was gone long before he'd even hit the water. And wasn't this what Nathan had been warning him about over and over? "We could lose him, Chris."
He tried, though; God knew Vin was giving it all he had to reach for that rope and keep his head up out of the water. And at the very least, he bought enough time for Chris to reach the shore and scrabble out on the ice after him. Laying himself flat to distribute his weight, Chris was able to reach out and almost grab a hold of Vin's coat. He could just touch him, could just hear the painful hitch in Vin's breath as he struggled in vain to lift his heavy arm and hold on.
Chris stretched his thin frame and inched out further on the ice, fighting the urge to just jump in and grab his friend and be done with it. The ice cracked around him and he knew it would never hold their combined weight when he finally latched onto Vin anyway. But he also knew the icy water would slow his movements and dull his mind, and twelve feet would feel more like twelve miles. He needed to get a hold of Vin and pull him as close to shore as he possibly could.
"Come on, Vin," he whispered into the sudden, eerie stillness. It was as if nothing existed anymore save the ice and the water and Vin's small, white face just out of reach.
And then he was gone. Just like that, he slid under the water. No goodbye, no apology, no last, longing look . . . just gone. Chris threw the upper half of his body into the river in a desperate attempt to reach Vin. The lower part of his body remained precariously perched on the ice, and he knew it wouldn't be long before he slid completely in or the ice broke around him.
The chill was unbearable; it had to have been pure torture for Vin to have held on as long as he had. Coordination was already becoming a problem, yet Chris managed to latch onto what he could only guess was Vin's sodden buckskin coat. The weight of it, the weight of Vin, nearly dragged him under, but Nathan must have scrabbled out partway on to the ice and grabbed hold of his boots. The anchor enabled him to pull up Vin's limp body just as a loud crack shook the stillness, and he found himself completely submerged in the icy water.
"Chris! Chris! Grab on!" Nathan called out to him from where he safely remained on frozen ground or thick ice, Chris wasn't sure which. Jackson held one end of the rope in his hands and directed Chris towards the other, but holding onto Vin took both arms and all of his strength.
"Come on, Chris. Wrap your arm around Vin's neck and hold on. I'll pull you both in!"
Nathan was obviously alarmed, bordering on panic-stricken, while Chris, on the other hand, felt strangely calm. Frozen, numb . . . his brain sluggish already, but still he managed to do what Nathan had told him. He hooked an arm around Vin and twisted the rope around his other hand.
Nathan grunted as he strained to pull them both ashore, and Chris thought he should be helping more. Surely he could swim a dozen feet, but Vin was dead weight and it was all he could do to hold him up. Fortunately, they'd only gone a few yards when Chris recognized ground below his feet. Stiff and cold as he was, he could still maneuver his heavy legs enough to push himself up and stagger those last few feet to the solid ice that lined the shore, awkwardly dragging Vin along behind him.
Nathan was right there then, pulling Vin from his arms and laying him on the snowy bank. Chris collapsed beside him, fighting to pull in a breath between chattering teeth and icy lungs that refused to expand.
"Don't!" Nathan yelled sharply, forcing him to open eyes he didn't realize he'd closed and peer at the cranky healer. "Get up and out of them clothes now, Chris!"
It sounded reasonable, but Chris needed a few minutes to gather his strength and . . .
"Now, Chris!" Nathan dropped to his knees in front of him, gripped him by his coat, and shook him as he repeated, "Get out of them wet things. I can't have you sick, too. I got to take care of that boy and you got to take care of Vin!"
The boy? Jacob . . . how could he have forgotten?
Chris pushed himself up onto shaking legs and glanced down to where Nathan hovered over Vin. Jackson had turned their friend on his side and was pounding on his back, encouraging Tanner to cough up the water that likely filled his lungs. Chris watched mesmerized, unable to move even as he felt his clothes freezing solid to his skin, until finally Vin made a weak, gurgling sound. Water poured in a slow steady stream from the tracker's mouth, but he barely coughed and barely breathed, and Chris wasn't all that sure it wasn't just a reflexive action. Vin appeared lifeless to him; white skin and blue lips and a stillness that was completely unnatural, even for Tanner.
"Damn it, Chris! Do as I told you!" Nathan suddenly barked, tossing a glance at Chris that held almost enough heat to melt his frozen limbs.
Maybe it was the shock of the icy water or maybe he had finally reached his limit of endurance, but Chris found it nearly impossible to focus. He followed Nathan's command though, and stiffly made his way up the bank to where his horse stood waiting. The animal snorted white smoke that curled in a subtle wisp into the arctic air; an oddly peaceful sight in shocking contrast to the violent events that had preceded the moment. His mind couldn't make the transition and for another long minute, Chris stood confused and uncertain, until Nathan's strong shout to "Hurry the hell up!" broke the spell.
His fingers shook as he grappled with the saddle bag, but finally the leather string came loose and he fumbled for the clean clothing. But getting from wet to dry would take far more concentration and effort than he could possibly drum up, and his gaze was once again drawn to where Nathan still hunched over Vin's inert form.
"Come on, Vin," Nathan pleaded softly, but his eyes roamed downstream to where Jacob lay unmoving and alone.
Alone; Jacob was alone and he needed Nathan.
Vin would never accept that Nathan had spent time working on him rather than the boy, and that realization brought sudden clarity to Chris's muddled brain as he fumbled to rid himself of his wet clothing. There was nothing to be done for his sodden coat, however, so he left it on the ground and threw on an extra shirt instead. After that, he grabbed a few things from his bag for Vin, not wanting to take the time to hunt down Peso, and none too sure that Tanner had brought anything to spare anyway.
By the time he made it back to the bank, he was thinking clearly again, and Nathan's relief at that was palpable. "Take everything off him and wrap him up good," Jackson clipped before he raced back to the injured boy's side.
It was a simple enough directive, but just wrestling the fifty pound jacket off the limp tracker was a formidable task. The soaked buckskin was so heavy, it was amazing Tanner hadn't sunk like a stone. More like a miracle, if he really thought about it - and it was about damn time something went their way.
Except Vin still hadn't moved or spoken, so maybe the miracle declaration was premature. Maybe they'd lose him anyway. Maybe all he'd done by pulling Vin out of the river was recover a body to bury. For a few brief seconds, Chris allowed his gaze to linger on the icy river. Already the hole was beginning to glaze over with a thin layer of ice. The horrible image of Vin trapped below that ice formed in his brain, and a hard shiver coursed through him. He couldn't have lived with that. He'd have dived in over and over just to bring Tanner out. Even if he'd known in his head that Vin was dead, his heart would not have allowed him to leave this place without him.
But Vin wasn't dead. A soft moan quickly reminded him of that fact, and Chris looked down to find Vin's deep blue eyes wide open and amazingly clear. His breath caught in his throat at seeing it; Vin not only breathing and awake, but of sound mind, too. A miracle . . .
His hands lingered there on Vin's chest where he'd started to manipulate icy buttons with clumsy fingers, but he couldn't move to the finish the job. Vin was licking his lips, trying to speak, and Chris waited for it, knowing time was of the essence and Vin needed to be rid of his wet clothing, but even more certain that whatever Vin needed to say took precedence.
"He . . . dead?" The words finally escaped the blue-tinged lips.
Chris looked over at the frozen body of water once more. Only one head had come up out of the blackness - thank God it was the right one.
Meeting the blue eyes, he nodded once. "Yeah. He's gone, Vin."
He expected relief. He expected a muttered curse regarding the burning afterlife the murdering bastard had been sent to. He didn't count on the half sob, "Oh God," that Vin mumbled in obvious agony. Tanner started coughing then, painful heaves wracking his frame as Chris scooped him up in his arms and held him upright. Water poured from his mouth and nose, though whether it originated from his friend's stomach or lungs he wasn't sure and he didn't care. Ridding Vin's body of the cold, dirty water had to be a good thing, though it made his stomach clench just to watch it.
The spell passed and Vin shuddered, his whole body shaking now and urgently calling Chris back to the task at hand. Easing the tracker back to the snowy ground, he continued to undress him, murmuring soft words of encouragement, "I'll get you taken care of, Pard. You'll be warm soon. Just hang on."
But with strength Chris couldn't believe he possessed, Vin gripped his arm to stop him. Meeting his eyes once more, Chris asked, "Vin? What is it?"
"I . . . tried," Vin choked through chattering teeth.
"I know. It's alright now," Chris answered softly.
But Vin was looking at him like it wasn't alright at all; like nothing would ever be alright again. Tanner's eyes filled with tears and he mumbled something incoherently, before his grip loosened and he grew limp once again.
+ + + + + + +
He knew something like this was going to happen; he just knew it. Someone was going to go careening off a cliff. Someone was going to get hurt. Someone was going to get sick. Of course it was Vin who had managed to do all of the those things and he just knew it would be. Hadn't he said as much to Chris? Hadn't he warned him over and over and over that they could lose Vin? Of course he had.
Shit. Why couldn't he have been wrong? It wouldn't have bothered Nathan in the least to just be wrong.
Then again he was kind of wrong, in a way. Vin had found Jacob . . . in time, thank you, Jesus. When it came down to it, Tanner knew exactly what he was doing after all. Probably knew it when he attacked the bastard on the cliff, too. Probably knew he could end up half drowned and frozen in the river below and he just didn't care. And damn it, that made Nathan mad.
It didn't help that Vin wasn't the only one he had to worry about. Jacob's head wound had stopped bleeding, and he didn't seem to have other injuries, but he was still unconscious.
And then there was Chris. Larabee had practically dived head first into the icy river. He would have, if Nathan hadn't latched onto his feet at the last possible moment. Not that it made a difference; Chris ended up completely drenched anyway, and it was just a matter of time until he was sick as well. Nathan really wanted to be mad about that, too, but he couldn't be. Vin would be dead if Chris hadn't gone in after him. But hell, Chris would have gone in after Vin even if he was dead; there was no way he would have left the river without his friend.
All of which left Nathan as the only relatively dry, relatively healthy, relatively clear-headed man among them, and that made him mad, too. But bitterness was a dangerous thing--as well as a waste of time--so with a deep sigh, he shifted in the saddle and gripped Jacob a bit tighter as they traveled on towards the cave where they'd held up the previous night. The rocky dwelling would hardly provide adequate shelter for two injured people, but it was their only option.
They were following their own tracks back; Nathan holding Jacob and Chris holding Vin. Both victims were limp in their arms, dead weights that threatened to topple them and left their arms and backs aching. The effort was enough to almost work up a sweat, in spite of the frigid temperatures, and at least that was a positive; might even be enough to keep Chris from freezing to death since his wet coat lay uselessly draped over the rear of his saddle.
At least Larabee was cocooned in blankets, him and Tanner both. It was hard to see where one man ended and the other began, and somehow that was fitting. Every once in awhile, Nathan would hear Vin moan softly and Chris would shift a bit and murmur something back, but mostly the ride was made in silence. It was another long and treacherous journey with a changed mission, but no less fear or urgency.
It was nightfall by the time they made it back to the cave. Nathan couldn't believe how relieved he was when the long shadows finally revealed the opening in the craggy cliff; he never imagined a rocky hole could look so good. He took a deep breath before he dismounted, keeping one hand on Jacob until he could find his footing. His legs trembled with fatigue, but he ignored the sensation as he reached up to pull the boy off his horse and carry him into the cave. He figured on coming back to help Chris with Vin, but he needn't have worried; Chris was right behind him, carrying Vin like he weighed next to nothing. Chris had to have been exhausted himself, but it didn't hold him up.
They laid their charges on bedrolls, and Chris immediately set to work building a fire. Past travelers had left behind enough dry wood to get them through another night, but no more than that. Come morning, decisions would have to be made, but Nathan couldn't think past the night ahead.
Kneeling next to the injured boy, he pressed a gentle hand to the bandage that encircled Jacob's head. No bleeding, and he was shivering some, a good sign that brought a brief smile to Nathan's lips as he pulled the blanket up tighter around the teen. There was no telling with a bad knock to the head, but he was cautiously optimistic that the boy would make a full recovery.
Vin was another story. His skin was still too cold, his face too pale, and his breathing too shallow. And why was that? For what good reason? They'd found Jacob; Vin could have waited to go after his kidnapper. He could have asked for help. He could have just shot the bastard and been done with it.
But no, it didn't happen that way because Vin acted without thinking. Put himself in the path of danger again and put Nathan in the position of trying to save him again, and he was getting damn tired of trying to save a man who clearly didn't care if he was saved or not.
"Uh . . . Nathan?" Chris asked hesitantly, his eyes puzzled as he watched Nathan yank the blankets off Vin in an effort to determine how much damage the tracker had managed to do to himself this time.
"What?" He responded, his tone sharp and angry, and he knew it was unreasonable but he couldn't help it.
Chris didn't say anything more, just met his eyes and put a hand to his arm.
Nathan lowered his eyes and mumbled, "What the hell was he thinking? Why does he keep doing shit like this?"
"Why do you?" Chris asked softly . . . and what the hell was he getting at?
"What? What do you mean? This ain't about me."
"Isn't it? No matter how many times we do something dangerous or careless or just plain stupid, you do everything within your power to take care of us and make it turn out right. It's got to make you angry sometimes, make you feel like you just want to give up on us and walk away, but you don't. You keep on. Why?"
Why indeed . . .
"Be . . . because," Nathan stuttered. "I do it because . . . it's who I am, I reckon. Can't do no less."
Chris gave him a grim smile before returning his gaze to Vin.
Ah. He got it . . . he didn't want to, but he did. Nathan shook his head as if to push away the understanding that suddenly swept over him. He didn't want it to be that simple; he didn't want to feel better about what Vin had done. He liked it far better when he was angry because some small part of him thought it just might hurt less if he failed this time around and Vin didn't make it.
Well damn, maybe he really was one of those people Josiah had talked about once - the kind that always saw the glass as half empty. After all, Vin wasn't near dead yet and he wouldn't be if Nathan had any say in it. Running a practiced hand over the injured man's lean torso and chest, the healer checked for broken bones and internal injuries. He hadn't taken the time back at the bank, warmth and protection from the harsh environment being the first concern. But with the fire warming the air and casting a golden light, he took a breath and braced himself for what he might find.
Patience not being Larabee's strong suit, he predictably expected Nathan's assessment in two seconds or less. Rewrapping the blanket around Vin's shoulders and upper body, Nathan shrugged as he moved lower. "Don't seem to have any new bruises but . . ."
He didn't finish the sentence; the image of Vin falling off the cliff and crashing through the ice stealing his breath. No way, no possible way Tanner had taken that fall and not hurt something else, something more . . . something again. Bitter bile rose up in his throat as he glanced up at Chris before removing the blanket that covered Vin's legs.
Closing his eyes for a moment, he swallowed and asked, "He say anything, Chris? He say if he was hurting?"
Chris narrowed his eyes and shook his head. "No. He asked about the outlaw, that's all."
Nathan grimaced as he ran his hands down along the long bones of Vin's legs. When he came to the lower part of Tanner's right leg, his good leg, Vin moaned and arched his back off the ground.
And Nathan wanted to throw up.
Twice . . . Vin had broken the same leg twice not four months ago. First there was the accident, and then he'd fallen out of bed gunning down outlaws in Chris's cabin. And that second time was Nathan's fault. He'd left Vin alone, and maybe it was for a good reason but still, he'd left Tanner alone and he'd re-injured the leg before it had a chance to heal completely and it had set him back, and now . . .
"Oh God, Nathan," Chris groaned, "please don't tell me . . ."
"He fell off a damn cliff onto solid ice, what the hell did you expect?" Nathan replied, and he was angry again; furious and bitter and exhausted. He was just so tired of dead children and broken friends and being cold and scared all the damn time.
Chris didn't answer. He barely breathed as the color slowly leached out of his face, though the bad news remained unspoken. Nathan didn't have to say that Vin likely wouldn't be walking again for a long time . . . or maybe never this time. The tracker already had a weak back and one bad leg; he'd have to work to get the good one healed and functioning again, and how many times could he keep fighting that same battle?
If he survived at all, which was definitely in question considering Vin still wasn't coherent and his body was still too cold, and what was the likelihood that he'd escape pneumonia after all of this? About zero to none, by Nathan's calculations, and maybe he should just let his friend go this time. That was what Vin wanted, or so it seemed.
Nathan was barely aware that he'd risen and gone for the laudanum until he caught a glimpse of Larabee's face. It took his breath away - the look of indecision and pure agony that graced the blond's features. Chris didn't say anything, though, not until Nathan poured the potent pain reliever into a cup of water and pulled Vin's head up into his lap. Tanner moaned and made a feeble attempt to struggle against the arms that held him, but he kept his eyes shut.
"He's not even awake, Nathan," Chris said lowly, with just a hint of disapproval.
"He will be, once I get to settin' that leg," Nathan replied gruffly, though he didn't owe the gunslinger an explanation as far as he was concerned. Hell, it was half Larabee's fault that Vin was in the state he was in.
Chris must have made up his mind just then, because he gripped Nathan's arm just as the liquid hit Vin's lips. "Don't," he said. "Vin doesn't want it. He can't . . . he doesn't want to go through that again."
"Want it? Vin doesn't want it? How the hell do you know what he wants?" Nathan was shouting now. And he didn't give Chris a chance to answer before he went on, "He asked me for it, back in town. He doesn't care what happens to him, haven't you figured that out? And he's done it real good this time--he's probably not gonna make it anyway--and I'll be damned if I'll sit here and watch him spend his last days in pain. You got that?"
Shocked silence ensued, and Nathan was glad of it as he poured the medicated water into Vin's slack mouth because he really didn't have anything more to say and he wasn't in the mood to argue. Tanner swallowed the liquid and moaned again; coming alive at the worst moment, like always.
Chris grimaced as he took Vin's hand and told him what Nathan was about to do, but he didn't say another word about the laudanum. He didn't look at Nathan, either, and Jackson couldn't exactly blame him for that.
Nathan was pretty sure he couldn't stand to look at himself at that moment.
+ + + + + + +
It didn't matter how many times a man broke a bone, it still hurt like hell putting it back in place. Chris knew that and he didn't want to see Vin suffer any more than Nathan did. He could have argued harder, could have put Nathan in his place, but he didn't have the energy or the heart. Nathan pretty much wrenched that out of him with his harsh words.
Vin didn't care what happened to him . . . did Jackson really believe that?
Was it true?
He didn't have time to process it, to reason it through, before Nathan was jerking on Vin's leg and Vin was writhing in his arms. Tanner didn't cry out though, or scream like the devil; he just whimpered a little and passed out again, and Chris was pretty sure he'd have done that with or without a drug to help him along.
They couldn't start it up again, no matter what Nathan said or thought. It would be too easy for Vin--for all of them--to fall into that trap. Drug Vin just enough so he wouldn't know what he was up against; cover it up so his friends wouldn't have to see it and know it and deal with it.
Except Nathan said Vin didn't care anymore and that he wasn't going to make it anyway. He had said that, right? Chris knew his brain was half frozen or maybe just water logged, but either way, he was confused. He didn't recall a single moment when he got the impression that Vin didn't care to go on. No, that wasn't true. There was that one time in his cabin when Vin was finally lucid again after days of the miserable withdrawal. Tanner had looked at him with such hopelessness and despair and--oh God--it was the same look Vin wore down by the river, when Chris told him the killer was dead.
Maybe Nathan was right. Maybe now that Vin had finished this, he didn't care to fight any longer. Who would blame him, after all? Half the town had lost it's faith in him; hell, half of his friends had lost faith in him.
And maybe his leg would heal up in a month or so and he'd be up walking again--or maybe not. Maybe Vin would face an entirely different life and maybe he just didn't want that.
Or maybe Nathan was right and it would all prove too much and Vin would die anyway, regardless of what he wanted or what the future held.
Just . . . no. Chris didn't believe that; couldn't believe that. After all that had happened, Vin wouldn't go out like that. Nathan was just being pessimistic. He had that problem - seeing Josiah's metaphorical glass as half empty. Half full, half empty, Chris didn't give a damn as long as there was something in the glass. As long as Vin was still breathing, he'd keep hoping, keep believing, and keep watching out for him.
Which meant that no matter what Nathan said or did or thought, he wasn't filling Vin with drugs again.
That conviction was a whole lot easier to stick with when Vin was resting quietly, oblivious to pain and uncertainty. But by the next morning, Vin was moaning softly, growing more restless and uncomfortable by the minute, and Chris wasn't so sure. They had to move on, regardless of the fact that in addition to both Jacob and Vin being hurt, Jacob was already showing signs of fever. Vin, on the other hand, remained unnaturally cool to touch, and even though deep, painful tremors periodically shook him, he couldn't seem to generate much heat.
Chris didn't feel so good himself; heaviness deep in his chest told him he'd have a nasty cold before they made it back to town, if not something worse. Hopefully, he could hide it from Nathan.
"You're feelin' sick already, ain't y'?" Nathan asked, breaking the stillness of the cold morning. The man was saddling his horse with his back to Chris, which only confirmed Larabee's long held conviction that Jackson had eyes in the back of his head.
It wasn't a lie. He really wasn't feeling sick yet. Not exactly. Besides, there were greater concerns. And Chris didn't need to be on the receiving end of Nathan's increasingly bad attitude. Jackson had been almost rough with Vin--anger radiating in his eyes and his touch--and Chris ached to tell him to just back off and get the hell away. He would have, if he had any idea how to help Vin himself. But it would be a cold day in hell before Chris would admit to needing the healer again.
Nathan sighed, but he didn't argue further. Instead he fixed Chris with a long gaze that started out hard but ended up soft and sad. It confused him, the way Nathan's emotions kept shifting like that, until he saw Jackson turn his head and peer at Vin. He knew right then what was going on in the healer's head.
Nathan had mentioned once that he always seem to lose the people he was closest to. Nathan was afraid, flat out. He'd gotten attached to Vin--attached to all of them--and that was why he did what he did. That was why he kept trying to save their lives and why he got so mad when it got so hard.
Chris thought he should say something reassuring to the man, but nothing came to mind. He couldn't promise they'd all come through this because he wasn't so sure. The icy wind was brutal, the sun had gone back into hiding, and they had a good three day ride ahead of them.
It really was a cold day in hell.