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- M7 -
Dawn broke, bringing with it blue skies and warm breezes; a stark contrast to the ugliness of the previous night. Nathan and Josiah had kept vigil throughout the long hours. Occasional noises from inside the wagon told them that their prisoners had regained consciousness. Inside the cabin, everything was quiet. Chris had indeed slept without dreaming. The other two men, worn out and drugged up, had slept as well.
The sound of running horses called the two peacekeepers attention toward the road nearby. Ezra and Buck came galloping up, Buck jumping from the saddle before General even stopped. "Everything okay? Chris? What happened?" The questions came rapid-fire.
"I believe that what Mr. Wilmington is attempting to convey is that when we came to relieve you, we were somewhat concerned to find the camp empty. Is everyone all right?" Ezra said in his usual cool tones. His green eyes belied his nonchalance, however.
"We had a little dust-up last night," Josiah volunteered. "Nothin' too serious. Couple of bruises, headache or two. Managed to convince a couple of Chris' former hosts to spend the night."
"Where? Where are the bastards?" Buck's eyes flashed with barely restrained fury.
"Vin's wagon. But, Buck," the former preacher stopped the man. "Remember that they won't lead us to the others if they're dead."
"Oh, they'll be alive, alright...they'll just wish they's dead." With that the big man stormed toward the wagon; Nathan and Ezra trailing in his wake.
"Thought you's just comin' fer a visit last night," Vin's voice came from inside the cabin.
Turning, Josiah regarded the hunter. Vin squinted at him from the edge of the shadows. "I reckon I don't need to come up with a better story anymore."
"Reckon not. You fellas been out there th' whole time?"
"Just about." He paused, smiling at the younger man. "Considering the fact that it was the best way to keep Buck from trying to kill you and carry Chris back to town against his will... not to mention the fact that it was a good thing we were nearby... I'd think you'd be happy about the way things turned out."
"Oh, I'm happier 'n a bee in a flower patch. But why'd ya keep it a secret?
"Chris needed some space... time to gather his thoughts. We figured it was best to give him some room. But, until we have all of those maniacs dead or caught, we didn't want your lives in danger."
Vin nodded and slid a little farther into the sun. Josiah watched as the young man looked a little puzzled, then smiled.
"Don't hurt... not much anyway."
"Yep," his smile grew wider.
"How's the' vision?"
He frowned as he considered his answer. "Seems a bit clearer. Can't make out that ugly face a yers, but I can see ya sittin' there. Buck... Ezra... Nathan... that them out at m' wagon?"
"Yep," Sanchez couldn't keep the excitement out of his voice. If their sharpshooter was beginning to regain his vision, it was truly a reason to rejoice. Then a soft groan startled both men; they turned to find JD slumped against the cabin wall, staring blearily at them. "What the hell hit me?"
"One a them bastards after Chris," Vin proceeded to fill the young man in on the happenings of the night before. By the time he finished, Dunne was obviously agitated.
"Damn them!" He spit the words out. "We need to find out where the rest of those sonsabitches are and go kill every last one of 'm! Let's go beat it out of those two in the wagon now!" He started toward the wagon, but Josiah blocked his way.
"Son, let the others question them. You need to relax... recover from last night." He hoped the boy would buy the reasoning. Josiah knew that Ezra and Nathan had their hands full with Buck at the wagon. The volatile member of their group could be clearly heard, threatening their prisoners with every conceivable type of punishment. Two hot heads would ruin any chance of their getting information from the cult members.
"I'm fine, Josiah," JD tried again to get past the big man, but Sanchez didn't move.
"JD," Vin said quietly. "Why'n't you go check on Chris...maybe get some coffee goin'?"
Flashing an angry look at the hunter, he simply stood for a moment, his anger strong enough to be felt by the other men. Then, with a deep breath, he willed himself to calm down. Turning, he went to check on the still sleeping Larabee. Chris lay quite still in the bed. JD realized just how small the man looked. He knew, of course, that while Chris always seemed bigger than life, he was actually almost as lean as Vin. But now he looked thin... almost frail. The burns and cuts were half-healed, the bullet wounds were still bandaged - the white material only slightly paler than the man himself. All of the injuries done to Larabee by the cultists made a macabre design across his chest, down his arms, nearly everywhere on the near-emaciated body.
JD felt all of the anger, the frustration, and the impotence well up in his throat. He feared that if he opened his mouth, it would all escape in a scream.
Suddenly a pair of haunted hazel eyes met his own. "JD?"
"Morning, Chris. I... just wanted to see how you were doing... if you needed anything."
"I'm okay," the gunslinger said with a shake of his head.
"Okay. I'm going to get some coffee started." He turned, needing to escape the look in those eyes. He couldn't stand the sight of his hero so helpless; couldn't cope with the thought of what had happened to him. He would find a way to exact some measure of revenge on the monsters that had done those things to his friend.
Vin slowly edged farther and farther into the sun. He felt the faint beginning of a headache, but it didn't seem to be getting any worse. His heartbeat quickened in excitement; perhaps things were going to turn around finally. Maybe they'd be able to get back to some sort of normal soon.
"Vin?" Nathan had seen the hunter moving by inches farther into the morning sun. Leaving Ezra to keep Buck from attacking the captured cult members, the healer hurried to the porch. "Vin, what are you doing?"
"It's okay, Doc, I'm fine."
"I can take the sun. It hurts a bit, but not near 's bad as it did." Unable to quite believe what the hunter was saying, Nathan looked to Josiah for confirmation.
"He's been standing there a good ten minutes, Nathan," the ex-preacher said quietly.
A broad smile graced the man's handsome dark face. Then the healer inside him took over and he began asking questions. "There's some headache?"
"Little bit, but ain't near 's bad," he repeated.
"Still real blurry, but seems ta be a little clearer," Vin patiently answered the other man's questions.
"All right, I don't want you over-doing it. I want you to go back inside."
"Aw, Nathan," the outdoorsman groaned. He had hoped that he would finally be allowed to go outside again; feel the sun, the wind, get out of the shadows. "C'mon... I'm feelin' like a damn mushroom here."
"Look, I know you're gettin' antsy bein' stuck inside," he paused, looking at the anxious expression on Tanner's face. "Look, make me a deal. Go back inside and give it a little while. If your headache clears up, or at least doesn't get any worse, you can go sit in the shade for a while."
"An hour?" Tanner's voice was almost boyish with excitement. The other men could truly see the man's youth as he smiled hopefully. "An hour should be enough, right?"
His deep laugh booming, the healer slapped the hunter on the arm. "Alright, man, an hour. Now get that skinny butt inside."
Still grinning, Vin slipped back inside. Not even the fact that he stumbled into the table completely dismissed either the smile or his mood.
"You're disgustingly cheerful this morning," Chris quipped.
"Just plannin' a trip out yonder, soon's Nathan lets me outta this damn shack."
"You're going outside in the daytime?"
"Pert near. Eyes 'r gettin' better, too," Tanner supplied.
"That is good news," Chris smiled, a genuine smile, and relief washed over him. Since he had been strong enough to be aware of what was going on, he had feared for the future of his young friend if his sight did not return. Perhaps this was the beginning of Vin's road to recovery. Now, if he could only find that road himself...
- M7 -
As if he had counted off the seconds - and perhaps he had - Vin was at the cabin door in an hour. "Nathan, m' head's fine. It been long enough?"
The healer turned from where he was tending to Chris' wounds. "Would it make much difference if I said no?"
"We agreed on an hour," Vin hedged.
Rolling his eyes and giving Chris a look that elicited a hearty chuckle from the gunman, Jackson said, "All right, Vin Tanner. JD, can you make sure that he gets to that big tree over yonder," he nodded his head in the general direction of the nearest tree, "and no farther."
"Yeah, sure...fine," the young man grumbled, causing the others to look at him.
"I'll accompany Vin to the tree," Josiah put in quickly. "I could use some fresh air myself."
"Ya all don't need ta pass me 'round like a rag doll," Vin said, his mood quickly spiraling downward.
"Nonsense, son," Josiah stepped over and clapped a big hand on the young man's shoulder. "I'd like some time away from these yahoos. Come on, let's get some sun."
Allowing Sanchez's cheerful tone to lift his spirits once more, Vin's smile returned.
As the two men left the cabin, Josiah's stride shortened to keep pace with Vin, the others turned their attention back to JD Dunne.
"JD, are you okay?" Chris asked quietly.
"I'm fine, Chris," he answered, but his tone told a different story. The young man was at the end of his rope, and the end was fraying.
Then Ezra Standish stepped in. "Mr. Dunne, might I request a favor of you?"
"Yeah, sure, why not?" JD slumped in a chair.
"I have been in need of a brief respite from town. There are two gentlemen who have been frequenting my gaming table and - quite honestly - they are becoming something of a nuisance. I feel that a night or two away from town may be just the thing. Hopefully they will be on their way with the next stage."
"Ezra, my head hurts, could you -"
"Ezra wants to stay out here for a couple of days, and he'd like you to trade places with him," Chris came to the young man's rescue.
"But, Chris -"
"JD, Ezra won't do it as well... but he can help out around here. You go back to town; get a beer, see if Casey's around."
He hesitated only a moment, his allegiance to his friends, especially to Chris Larabee, gave way to a more personal need. JD Dunne needed a break from the pressures of the past few days.
"Yeah, okay, Chris. But, if you need anything -"
"I'll bribe Standish, he'll do it," Chris said with a wink. "Why don't you and Buck take those... men... to jail, and then go get that beer?"
"Chris?" Nathan interrupted, "might not be such a good idea to send the two of them in with those fellas. You know how Buck can be."
"You could say that. Better description might be madder 'n hell. JD'd probably have to tie him up, too."
"Yeah... should have thought about that. Ol' Buck does get his dander up when it comes to one of us getting hurt." A smile tugged at one corner of the gunman's mouth.
"That, Mister Larabee," the conman said, "is a vast understatement."
"JD," Nathan said, "I'm about through here. I'll go with you to take the prisoners to town. Between me an' you I figure we can sit on Buck if need be."
"Ain't no one sittin' on me," Wilmington's voice came to them from the cabin door. "I'm staying out here."
"Buck, we're short-handed as it is in town. Judge ain't paying you to baby-sit me."
"Town be damned and Travis be hanged, Chris, "Buck said softly. "They ain't done with you... and I ain't even started with them."
- M7 -
For once in his life, Chris Larabee found himself unable to win an argument with Buck Wilmington. The big gunman simply dug in his heels and refused to budge. In the end, Josiah, Nathan and JD took the prisoners to town, while Buck and Ezra remained at the cabin with Chris and Vin.
The tracker had - to no one's surprise - pushed himself too far, insisting that he was fine and staying under the tree most of the afternoon. Chris went as far as the porch once again, satisfied to sit in the chair, watching the clouds float across the sky... and watching his younger friend under the tree.
Ezra had taken Josiah's place, sitting with Vin in the shade. Chris had to chuckle more than once as he watched the typically laconic hunter. Vin had never been so animated before; he seemed to talk non-stop, broad gestures punctuating his words. On his part, Ezra was at the very least making a good show of being interested.
"What on earth do you think he's talkin' about?" Buck said from where he sat with Chris.
"Hard telling. Probably Indian lore, or maybe stories from his bounty hunting days. Sure is giving Ezra an earful, though, ain't he?"
"I'm surprised the' man ain't snapped an' shoved his cards down Vin's throat," Buck quipped.
Chris laughed, and then regarded his long-time friend for a few minutes. "Buck?"
Wilmington looked at him quizzically, "I'm fine. Why?"
"I mean about Vin." He had heard some of what had happened while the others talked. They had thought he was asleep, and talked freely of Buck's anger toward the young hunter over his bringing Chris to the cabin.
"Am I still pissed at 'im, you mean? A little I reckon. He risked your life, Chris. Ain't sure I can completely forget that anytime soon. But," he trailed off, and then favored his friend with a patented Buck Wilmington smile, "ya don't seem the worse for wear, so reckon I can work on forgivin' 'm."
Chris smiled. "Good. Can't say as I enjoy my two best friends fighting over me. " He winked at the other man.
That Chris even openly admitted to a friendship was something that did not escape Buck's notice. To be referred to as a best friend nearly floored the man. Once again the big man found himself speechless, but his smile grew even broader.
"Looks like they're coming back," Chris nodded toward the tree. Buck looked to see Ezra walking slowly beside Vin, his hand on the man's arm. Vin was looking toward the ground, one hand shading his eyes.
"Looks like he overdid it," Wilmington said as he rose and hurried toward the two men. Putting an arm protectively around Tanner's back, he helped him into the house.
Reaching the cool shadows of the cabin, Vin dropped his hand and sighed. "Damn it, I was feelin' fine 'til jist a few minutes ago. Don't know what happened."
"What happened, Mr. Tanner, is that you've been sitting out there for a good four hours, and that is perhaps too much for your first sojourn into the out of doors. I suggest you repair to your bed and I'll bring you some of the medicinal drink that Nathan left for you."
"Naw, I'll be okay in a bit," Vin argued. Then he swayed on his feet, nearly falling to the floor.
Buck caught him, and hustled the lean man toward his mattress. "Bed, pard, now."
"Bucklin, c'mon. I'm okay, honest."
"You already ducked one ass-whoopin' on account a Chris is doin' so well, " Buck feigned anger, "don't push your luck on another one. Now, lay down." He pressed the man to the mattress, pulling off his coat and boots.
Despite his protests, the bed felt good, and he suddenly realized how tired he was. Ezra stepped over a few minutes later with the medicine, and Vin simply accepted it and drank the mixture. Lying back down, he closed his eyes wearily.
Just as Vin started to drift toward sleep, a heavy thud snapped the attention of the other two men toward the porch.
"Good Lord," Ezra grimaced as he saw Chris Larabee sprawled across the open door.
"Damn it! Buck yelled as both men hurried to their leader's side. He was trying to rise on shaking arms, a look of pain on his handsome face. "Son, what are you tryin' to do, scare me outta ten years growth?"
"No, j-just. . . try. . . trying to get u. . .up," Chris said breathlessly.
"Perhaps you should have mentioned this fact to one of us, Mr. Larabee, " Ezra chided.
Buck and Ezra, expecting a cutting reply, were not prepared for the simple agreement. They exchanged a look of concern as they helped their companion to his feet. Gently leading him to the bed, they were both acutely aware of how unsteady Chris was on his feet. Had they expected too much of him? Perhaps Chris Larabee wasn't as well as they had thought.
- M7 -
"Nooooo! God, noooo!!!"
Ezra Standish felt the hair on the back of his neck stand rigid as the blood-curdling cry rang through the little cabin. Before he could come fully awake and decide exactly when the banshee had gotten into the room, the screams had become panicked cries.
"Chris?" He stumbled from where he had been dozing at the table, to where the gunslinger huddled, trapped in yet another nightmare. The gambler knelt at the bedside. "Chris, what is it?"
Wild eyes stared at him without seeing the young gambler. Ezra reached out to touch one quaking shoulder, and found himself deflecting a series of weak blows. Protecting himself easily, he finally managed to break the spell; Chris slumped tiredly against the sweat-soaked pillow, gulping for air.
"Chris, are you alright?" They had been warned about the nightmares, but nothing the others could have said would have prepared him for the actual experience.
"He okay?" Buck's voice came from the door.
"I believe so, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra answered.
"One a them dreams JD told us about?"
"I believe so."
With a nod, the big gunman closed the door and returned to the porch where he had been on sentinel duty.
Turning his attention back to the injured man, Standish saw that Chris was still struggling to breathe. Hesitantly he touched the man's shoulder. Larabee tensed, but did not fight the touch this time.
"It's alright, Chris, " Ezra said softly. "Let's see if we can make you a bit more comfortable." He helped Larabee up, propping him against the wall and pulling the blanket closer around the shivering form.
Chris continued to gulp air, his eyes pleading silently with the conman for help. His face was paling, the flesh around his lips turning blue. His anxiety was slowly suffocating him.
The gambler did the only thing he could. Forcing himself to remain calm, he continued talking. "Chris Larabee, listen to me. You're safe. There's no one here that means you harm. Buck is outside watching for any sign of trouble, and Vin and I are both right here with you. I want you to listen to me. You have to calm down. Just take a deep breath... slower... deep breath... that's it." Inwardly he sighed as Chris slowly relaxed. "Now another... good."
Suddenly someone was handing him a cool cloth and a glass of water. Turning, he found the tracker standing next to them. Taking the items, Standish helped the gunman drink. That done, he began to cool the man's still-pale face. A shaking hand touched his and Ezra allowed Chris to take the cloth.
"You're looking a little better now," the gambler said with a grin.
Larabee favored him with a weak smile. "You usually... lie better than... that."
"Well, I fear I'm not at the top of my game at this hour." He turned to where Vin was leaning heavily against the wall. "Mister Tanner, please lie back down before you fall in an undignified heap."
"I'm okay," Tanner responded tiredly.
"Vin, go on back to bed. I'm okay now," Chris said evenly.
Hesitating, knowing that his friend was lying, Vin finally decided that there was nothing he could do that the gambler wasn't capable of doing. With a curt nod, he returned to his mattress.
"Would you like something a little stronger than water?" Ezra asked.
"The stronger the better, " Chris said, still breathless.
Retrieving his flask, he opened it and handed it to the blond. Larabee took a long draw, savoring the bite of the scotch whiskey. Nodding his thanks, he handed the container back to Standish. Making certain that Chris could see that it was readily available for another drink, Ezra said, "Are you in pain anywhere? Was the cause of your spell physical?" He wasn't comfortable prying, but they would need to know if this was something that Nathan should be apprized of.
"No... nothing hurts more than it has hurt."
"If you want to talk about it -"
"No!" Chris said the word sharply. Calming a little, he said, "Thanks, but I don't want to talk about it. Not sure I can."
"It could only help. I know a little of dreams... nightmares... they tend to dissipate in the telling. If it helps, I promise not to divulge any of what you tell me -"
"Ezra, I said no. Please... drop it." Chris was becoming agitated once more. His breathing began to sound irregular.
Backing down, the gambler held out his flask once more. Taking it, Larabee took yet another long drink. Slowly his breathing returned to normal. He leaned back against the wall, his eyes drifting shut as the whiskey began to work its magic. Finally he was calmed enough that, with Standish's help, he lay back down. Ezra sat beside him until he was sleeping soundly once more. Then he crept quietly away, stealing out the door.
Buck was sitting in the shadows, feet propped up against the porch support. Standish took the second chair; putting himself in a position to watch the men inside should another nightmare awaken the blond.
"He sleepin'?" Wilmington asked after a few moments.
"Yes, finally." Ezra answered. "Buck, I'm concerned."
"The nightmares. I don't believe that I've ever witnessed anything so devastating."
"Man goes through somethin' like that...no tellin' what it'll do to his mind."
"That's just it, Mr. Wilmington, we don't know exactly what it was that he went through. All we have to judge from are the wounds on his body. We cannot see what it has done to his mind... his spirit."
"What are you gettin' at, Ezra?"
"What I am getting at, Buck, is that unless we know what he went through, it's going to be extremely difficult to assist him in his full recovery."
"Maybe, but y'all know Chris. He's about the most private fella I've ever known. He don't share much with other folks. 'Sides, I ain't even sure he knows what happened back there. Seen this kinda stuff before. Man tends to put the worst things outta his mind, just so he can get on with life."
"That's just it, Buck. He's repressed the memories, but they are still there. And as long as he holds onto them so tightly, they're going to consume him. We need to help him to release them."
"All right, say you're right. How do we do that, if he ain't ready to face them memories?"
"I've learned many rather obscure talents during my life," Ezra said thoughtfully. "And I believe that I have a skill that can be of service here. Have you ever heard of hypnotism, Mr. Wilmington?"
- M7 -
"Ezra, this is crazy. I told you three hours ago it was crazy..." Chris Larabee grumbled tiredly. They had argued for half the morning until, feeling ganged up on by Standish and Tanner, and with very little support from Wilmington, he agreed to be hypnotized.
But nothing had happened. With Chris resting on his bed, Vin sitting nearby and Buck watching from his sentinel post on the front porch, Ezra had tried over and over to relax the gunman enough to allow the gambler to hypnotize him.
"Chris, unless you give over some semblance of control to me, I will be unable to affect any margin of success in this mesmerization."
"Ezra, frankly, I thing this is all a load of shit. I told you... it's not going to happen."
"Chris, listen, pard," Vin came to sit next to his friend. "I cain't say for sure this is gonna work. Ain't seen this hypno-tism thing before, ain't even sure what it is. But I'm thinkin' it's about time we tried anythin' we can ta get ya on yer feet. If what Josiah figured out is true, them fellas is gonna be comin' back here ta collect ya and finish th' job awful soon. I don't fancy lettin' that happen. Reckon we get you fixed up anyway we can, it'll only help us protect ya. An, if ya remember what happened, ya could give us clues as ta what we're goin' up against." The young hunter had positioned himself to face the wounded gunman; only Chris saw the fear that welled up in the crystal-blue eyes.
For several moments Larabee simply sat there, fighting his warring emotions. He was angry with Tanner, putting him on the spot like this. He could tell the younger man no. He had done it before. Vin had no right asking him to do something so stupid. The usually level-headed hunter could not truly expect him to simply agree on the strength of their friendship. At the same time, it was a strong friendship...a bond that he shared with no one else.
"Yeah...all right," the gunman said finally. But still there was no success.
"Chris, ya gotta try harder."
"Vin, I fear that it is not really his fault, but my own shortcomings that are hindering our progress."
"Ezra, you sayin' you ain't good enuff ta do this hypno-tism thing?"
"No, I have had a great deal of success in this process. However there is one thing I am unable to secure from our leader."
"Trust. I fear that Mr. Larabee is unable to trust me enough to give me control of what happens to him."
"Then let's make it so he don't worry 'bout trustin' ya," Tanner drawled. He turned to the blond. "Chris, you ain't ready ta trust Ezra with control over ya. Reckon it ain't been easy for ya ta trust anyone for quite a spell," he paused, returning once more to sit next to his friend. "I know I been askin' a lot of ya t'day, but I'm gonna ask ya ta do one more thing for me."
"What?" Chris asked warily.
"Trust me. Can ya trust me ta watch your back, pard? Trust me ta make sure you're okay while Ezra does this hypno-tism thing a his?"
The gunman sighed, rubbing at the headache between his eyes. Vin was asking so much of their friendship. But could he deny that he would trust Vin Tanner in anything? Sighing, he said "You know I trust you, Pard. But I don't know if even that's enough."
"It'll have ta be. You're m' friend, and I ain't gonna stop 'til we've done ever'thing we can ta get you better." That said, he stood and lifted Chris up. Moving the gunslinger away from the wall, Tanner slid behind him. Easing the man in black back, he settled Chris against his chest. Larabee was rigid, unable or unwilling to relax in such an awkward embrace. Wrapping his arms loosely around the still-healing chest, Vin propped a leg up on either side of the slim body he had now effectively encircled. "All right, " he whispered against Chris' ear. "Now, ya said ya could trust me. Now's th' time ta prove it. Relax and lean on me, Chris. Just relax and trust me ta not let anythin' happen ta you."
Closing his eyes and slowly willing himself to relax and accept the situation, Larabee managed to comply with the tracker's request. Finally he rested against Tanner.
"All right shall we try once more?" Ezra said evenly.
Slowly, very slowly, aided by the bond between the other two men, Ezra Standish managed to hypnotize the wounded and troubled gunman. "Chris... can you hear me?"
"Yes," came the soft reply.
"Chris, I want you to listen to me... concentrate on my voice. We are going to move back in time, to the point just before you were captured." Ezra watched as Larabee's breathing quickened at the mere anticipation of revisiting that time. "Now, Chris, you must remain calm. You cannot be injured by those men now; they are only memories, nothing more. You are safe here, know that. You can feel Vin right behind you. Vin is with you...he will keep you safe. I will travel back to that time with you. You and I and Vin will explore what happened to you in the time you were held captive. But these are only memories, Chris...only memories. They cannot harm you. You are safe... you are in Vin's arms... he will protect you. If you become too uncomfortable... too concerned... or frightened... feel Vin's presence and know that you are safe."
Slowly, the man relaxed once more. His eyes, opened and staring at the man whose honey-dipped voice was suddenly the center of his world, slowly lost much of their fear.
"Chris, are you ready to explore what happened?"
"Yes." He nodded softly.
"Good. We shall begin at the point of your departure from town. Vin had sent a telegraph requesting that you meet him in Eagle Bend. You rode from town... away from your friends.... we would not see you again for several days."
"Can you tell me what happened after you left town?"
"Riding... I'm riding... toward Eagle Bend."
"Are you alone?"
"All right, now I want you to move forward in time to the point at which you are no longer alone. What's happening now?"
"I hurt... bleeding."
"Been... shot... my shoulder. . . my side... hurts like hell."
"Is that how they were able to capture you, Chris? By shooting you?"
"All right. The men shot and wounded you. You are in pain... bleeding. What happened next?"
"They're all around me... can't get away. One of them... takes my guns... they tie me... to the saddle. I... ask them what they want."
"What do they reply?"
"What occurs next?"
"They take me with them... I start feeling light-headed... dizzy... sleepy... losin' too much blood."
"Wore him down so he wouldn't give 'm so much trouble," Vin whispered with a nod.
"Indeed," Standish agreed. Then turning back to the gunman, he continued his gentle questioning. "Do you know where they're taking you?"
"Not sure... they keep changing directions. . . making false trails... backtracking. One of them slices his hand with a knife... changes horses with me... then rides off with part of the group. They... stop me bleeding... ride in a different direction."
Over the blond head, Vin and Ezra exchanged angry looks at the thought of how they had been tricked. They had no idea as to how long they had followed a false trail. They could have found Chris much sooner... saved him from the nightmare he was now reliving.
"What occurred next?" Ezra asked softly.
"In a grove of trees... got a camp already set up... more men there..."
"They were right there all along... in that same camp." Tanner couldn't keep the anger out of his voice.
"We had no way of knowing that we were following a false trail, Vin," Ezra replied.
"Should'a known," Tanner was blaming himself.
Ezra knew he would have to try and talk to the tracker about this later. At the moment he had to keep his focus on their injured leader. Turning back to Larabee he said, "all right, Chris... you are in the camp now. Remember, these are nothing more than memories. They cannot harm you. You are safe... Vin, Buck and I are here... we will not allow you to come to any harm. Do you understand?"
"What happened in the camp?"
"No... I can't." He was trembling Vin pulled him closer, one hand gently rubbing a quivering arm. Ezra moved closer to the pair.
"Chris, listen to me. Focus on my voice. You are safe. You are in your cabin. You are among friends who will protect you. The rest is only memory... the shadows of the past. You are safe." He paused, looking into the tear-filled hazel eyes. "Trust us, Chris. We will not let you down."
"It hurts." Larabee said. The other men were unsure if he was describing memory or fact.
"What hurts, Chris?" Ezra asked.
"The... the things... they did."
"What did they do, Chris?"
"No... GOD! Oh no... Stop!" Larabee was crying out, his voice ripping through the souls of the other men.
"Chris! Listen to me... you're safe!"
"Ezra, ya gotta stop this," Buck spoke for the first time.
"Buck, we may never get another chance," the young gambler said evenly. "Chris may never get another chance."
"Ezra's right, Bucklin," Vin added.
With an anguished sound, the gunman left the doorway and returned to his seat on the porch.
Trying another tack, the conman said, "Chris, you are not there in the clearing. You are in the trees, safe from harm. You are only observing what is happening. None of it can touch you now... it is all in the past. You cannot feel any of the pain... or fear... or helplessness. You are simply an observer, and you can describe what is happening without experiencing any of it here and now. Do you understand?"
"But it hurts."
"No. You only remember the pain. It is not happening to you now. It is in the past. You are safe and protected. You are safe, Chris. Know that as you relate what happened in that clearing."
"Alright." He released a trembling sigh and began a tale so horrible that the other men found themselves hard-pressed to be able to picture any of it.
"In the clearing... I'm being held by four of them. I've lost a lot of blood... can't stand on my own no more. They've striped me to my drawers... one of them is cutting the legs off them... another is shoving moss and webs into the bullet holes. He says that they don't want me dying too fast. He laughs then... all I can do is stand there and try not to scream. I don't want them to have the satisfaction of hearing me scream. Don't want to give them the power." He trailed off, his body quivering from the trauma of his memories. Vin held him a little closer, one hand stroking the blond head as if he were comforting a child.
As the tremors subsided, Ezra spoke to him softly. "Chris, you're safe, in your cabin. You can tell us the story without feeling the pain."
"I... told them to let me go... that I had six friends who'd come for me. They... just laughed. Said I'd never know when... my friends showed up... I'd be dead a long time... before then. I told them they... were wrong."
"Yeah, they were wrong, pard," Vin said softly as the gunman stopped to gather his waning strength.
"Then... they dragged me over next to the fire...there was a big... frame next to it... made of iron. They shackled me... hand and foot... to that frame. I felt the bullet wounds pulling open... start to bleed again. They shoved more moss in the holes.
"The whole bunch of them... gathered around me in a circle. Each of them had an iron that they stuck in the fire. They started this chant while the irons heated... they were passing bottles around... chanting and drinking... waiting for the irons to heat." He took a deep breath and then continued. "Each of the irons... had a symbol on it... like a brand."
Instinctively the two other men looked at the burns, only now beginning to really heal. They had all noticed the variety of designs and wondered at the meaning.
"Right before... they'd b-burn me... each one would say something."
"Ezra," Vin said worriedly, " he's startin' ta shiver again."
"Chris, you are alright. You're safe," the Southerner reassured him.
If he heard, he gave no indication. Chris Larabee was lost in the memories now. "I couldn't tell what they were saying... it was a different language. B-but before it was over... I knew what pattern the burn was going to take... by the words they said...
P-pretty soon... I-I was saying the words with them... cruonita... crunita... shatruex... quodpipax... tuulenux...gero...pallex... verox... bibox.. cruo... hatanoceo... marana... malax... marana... marana... hatanoceo... infirmux."
Vin turned stricken blue eyes in Ezra's direction as they listened to the injured man recite the chant without emotion.
"Sweet Jesus." They turned to find Buck Wilmington at the door once more. He stood stiffly, only his shoulders moved... quivering and shaking as he cried for his friend. "Jesus, Ezra, he don't need to remember any of this."
"He does remember them, Buck, he's only buried them. We have to help him deal with those memories."
"Ezra, he needs to rest... look at him."
"Bucklin, go back outside. You're only draggin' things out standin' there arguin'," Vin said in a quietly firm voice.
"Goddamn it! He's my friend!" He took a step passed the threshold as he spoke.
"I know, Buck," Tanner's voice did not change. "Why'n't you go out... close th' door, 'n get far 'nough away you don't hear."
He looked as if he were going to argue, but then took a better look at the other men. They were as affected by what was happening as he was. He could not sway them by emotions; they were in just as much turmoil. And, deep down, he knew that they were right. It made it no easier to stand by and watch his oldest friend go through hell, however.
Finally swallowing enough of his anger, he left the cabin, pulling the door closed behind him.
Ezra's eyes had remained on the gunslinger; Chris' attention remained focused inward. "Chris, what happened next?"
"It was a long time before... before they finished... they finished burning me. Every one of them took a turn. Then..." he moaned as the memories caught up with him once more.
"Chris, you're safe, " Standish repeated. "They can't hurt you here. What happened then?"
"They went round the circle again... with knives this time. They chanted... a different pattern cut for each chant... I-I couldn't keep up with it any more... hurt too much." Larabee's eyes closed and he slumped back against Tanner's shoulder. His breathing harshened as his weakened body fought to sustain him through the energy draining experience. Once again, Vin wrapped himself a little tighter around his friend.
Wetting a cloth, Ezra cooled the man's face. "Chris," he said quietly. "I know that this is difficult, but you must get through it...when you can, tell us what happened next."
"The knives... they cut... not too deeply... one of them said that... don't cut him too deep... he'll die too quick. Once each of them had cut their pattern... they formed up the circle again... then... then four of them... they came forward... each one had a bucket... it was salt water."
"Aw, hell," Tanner groaned, anticipating what was coming next.
"They took turns... pouring a little of the water at a time... on the wounds..."
Ezra dropped his head, covering his face with trembling hands. Vin realized as he watched the gambler just how this was effecting the man. "Ezra?"
Attempting a smile, Standish said, "Just a bit weary, Mr. Tanner." Then he spoke to Chris, his voice deceptively calm. "What came next, Chris?"
"They poured out... all four buckets... soaked me down... I... I couldn't help it... anymore... I yelled... I... yelled."
"Chris, you are a strong man... much stronger than most. No one could have gone through even the beginning of this without crying out. My god, man," then he realized that the words meant little to the injured man at the moment. Regaining his composure, Ezra said, "Did they respond when you... yelled?"
"When I yelled," Chris said tonelessly, "they laughed. Then one of them came up to me and poured something in my mouth... at first I though it was more salt water... but then I realized... it was blood. When I tried to spit it out... they forced more down my throat. I finally had to swallow it... couldn't keep from it... I'm sorry... I'm sorry."
"Chris, you had no control over these things. You don't have to apologize. What happened next?"
"I swallowed it... I couldn't keep it down though...puked it back up," he sighed, then groaned. "The one feeding it to me... he said... I had wasted it... and they'd need more...he said, 'bring her out here, we'll have to milk her some'... one of them... came carrying this little bundle out from the wagon... he came over and opened the blanket and....
"OH GOD!!!!" The gunman reared back with a cry, his back arched and his arms curled tightly against his chest.
"Damn. . . it's another one a them seizures," Vin said as he fought simply to keep his friend from hurting himself.
"Chris! Chris, listen to me!" Ezra fought to make himself heard. "When I count to three you will awaken. One... two... three!"
Chris slowly relaxed, his seizure dissipating as he returned to consciousness. He lay back against the tracker. Then suddenly he tensed once again and a sound like nothing so much as a wounded and dying animal escaped him. Another scream, and then he began to cry... great heartbroken sobs. "Oh... God," he moaned the words. "It was... it was... a... a BABY!!" As he finished, he curled up in Vin's arms.
Tanner held him, gently rocking his friend, although he himself could barely breathe as the words burned themselves into his brain. The man's words ripped through him, and tears rolled down his face. Somehow he managed to find his voice and keep it calm; he spoke softly as he stroked the blond head reassuringly. "It's okay, pard... it's okay... you cry now... we're gonna see ya through this... you're gonna be okay."
Standish had slipped from the bed, crumpled in a heap on the floor, his entire body shivering as he fought to keep from screaming as well. He wept as 'a baby' echoed over and over in his mind. Beyond him Buck was in the doorway once more. He, too, had heard the horrifying account in its entirety. He had slumped to his knees, and was lying against the door jamb. The big man seemed beyond tears; his mouth moving soundlessly. Buck Wilmington was praying.
- M7 -
It was over an hour before Chris calmed down. Vin never wavered; holding the man, rocking him gently and talking softly to the gunman. He wasn't certain that Chris could hear or understand him, but still he spoke. "Chris... yer safe now. All that stuff's in th' past. You got me an' th' other fellas ta watch your back. Ain't nobody nor nothin' gonna hurt ya now. What them bastards done... that were damn awful... but ya ain't ta blame. None a this's your fault. None of it. Them son's-a-bitches that hurt ya... they are ta blame. They hurt that baby -"
"No," something pulled the man in black back from the darkness, "no..."
"No? No what, pard?"
"They... didn't hurt th' baby... didn't hurt her."
Vin was becoming concerned that his friend was slipping into the dark well of madness, brought on by the horrors visited on the gunman. "Chris... talk ta me, pard. What happened? What happened ta th' baby?"
"Died... bled...to death." His words drifted off into an incoherent mumble. Tanner's grip on him tightened as the young hunter grappled with the words, and the pain they conveyed.
- M7 -
"How's he doin'?" Buck asked later as Vin scuffed to the porch.
"Sleepin', finally. Got some a that potion a Nathan's in 'm. Took damn near a double dose. Figured we'd better get him settled down for a bit. Got a feelin' we ain't come to th' worst yet."
"Don't say that," Buck replied. "Damn it, Vin!" A mixture of anger and anguish rang in the big man's voice. "What kinda dirty, monstrous bastards are we dealin' with here? My God...killin' a baby? Jesus!"
"I don't know, Buck," Vin's voice quivered, full of exhaustion, sadness and pain. "Can't rightly figure a mind that'd do any a this... ta Chris... ta that baby... hard tellin' what else they done, an' who they done it to. Can't rightly even think of 'm as human. Just don't know," dropping into a chair, he slumped against its back. The weight of this new knowledge stacked itself onto the burden of the ugliness they had already gone through and it suddenly seemed to the young man that it had been a lifetime since things had made sense. A touch on his shoulder brought Vin's attention back to the moment. Looking up, he found himself staring into Buck's face.
"You look 'bout 's worn down's I've ever seen a body, pard," Wilmington said softly. "You ain't had a break in all a this. Look, Nathan'll be here about any time. I want you ta go back into town with 'im."
"Ain't leavin' Chris," Vin said resolutely.
Kneeling before the tracker, Buck put a hand firmly on the young man's neck, forcing him to look at him. Vin's sight had returned enough that he could just make out the tight expression on his friend's face. His voice matched that expression. "You stubborn, hard-headed, self-centered bastard! There's six of us ta look out for him! You so goddamn self-righteous you think you're the only one who can do for 'm?"
Blinking rapidly at the words, Tanner said, "No... I... Buck? Why 'r ya mad at me this time?"
Releasing his hold on the other man, Wilmington replied, "I'm sorry, son. Ain't mad at you. Just so damn mad at this... this whole thing. Can't think straight."
Nodding in agreement, Tanner said, "None of us are. But... if we stick t'gether we'll figure somethin' out... won't we?"
Hearing the concern - almost fear - that rang clearly in the other man's voice, Wilmington adopted a smile. "Course we will, Vin... course we will. Now I mean it, when Nathan gets here you're gonna go back ta town when he goes. Imagine me and Ezra can take care of things for a bit."
"No, Buck, done tol' ya -"
"You're goin' into town, Vin Tanner. You're gonna have dinner without coaxin' someone else to eat. You're gonna have a whiskey or two without tendin' to someone else. You're gonna get a night's sleep without someone else waking you up with a nightmare. You're gonna spend a whole 24 hours away from here." He moved even closer to the younger man. "I ain't arguin' with you, Vin. Like ya said, we're in this together. 'Bout time you listened to your own words. You gotta trust the rest of us to be able ta take care of Chris... just as well as you can."
Chucking in embarrassment, Vin said, "Bein' a stubborn, hard-headed, self-centered bastard again?"
Laughing, Buck said, "Somethin' like that." Turning toward a nearing sound, he saw Nathan Jackson approaching the cabin.
- M7 -
"Well, can't says I'm happy 'bout what you put my patient through, but don't appear to be no permanent physical damage from what you did." Jackson qualified his diagnosis. He had been surprised to find Chris sleeping upon his arrival, and insisted on checking the man over closely after finding out about the hypnotism. "I'd appreciate it if you'd wait 'til I can be here if you decide to do this again."
"It is my fervent hope that we will not have to repeat our earlier exercise... at least not to the same extent." Ezra voiced his concerns tiredly from where he sat at the table. He had barely moved since they had taken Chris into the dark nightmares that his mind had fought to repress. The gambler looked worn out, and nursed his silver flask quietly.
"Ezra, you go into town, too. Josiah can come back out here I reckon," Buck said.
"I'm fine, Mr. Wilmington, there's no need to concern yourself with my welfare."
"Ezra, that bullet wound ain't completely healed yet, " Nathan put in. "You ought to be takin' it easy yet."
"Mr. Jackson, I... unlike our stalwart Mr. Tanner... have a highly refined sense of self-preservation. Rest assured that I shall not over-extend myself."
"Seems to me ya already done that. But, truth be told, I'm tired a fightin' y'all every time you get hurt or sick. Figure I'd be better off if I just wait for ya to fall on your face. Make my job a whole lot simpler."
"We got a job to finish." A quiet voice came to them from the bed. Turning, they found Chris Larabee awake and staring at them through haunted eyes.
"Chris, it'll wait," Buck said.
"No. No, it won't wait, Buck... I've got to know all of it... now."
"NO! I mean it. I've got to see this through," he sank into the pillow, but gave no indication of giving up. "It's eating me up inside, Buck, I can't live like this... I won't live like this." His expression told them quite clearly what he meant.
While the two old friends were arguing, Tanner stole quietly over to the bed and stepped in beside Buck. Lifting Chris up gently, he once again slipped in behind the blond. Chris was less hesitant this time, relaxing against his friend. The scrape of a chair on the rough wooden floor announced that Standish was coming to join them. Throwing his hands up, Buck retreated to the porch once again, closing the door firmly behind him. Nathan sat tentatively on one of the chairs, waiting to jump to Larabee's assistance if need be.
The process took less time now, Chris more familiar with what was happening. Standish gently proceeded, taking the gunman back into the hellish memories. Bringing Larabee hesitantly to the point at which the baby girl had been brought before him, the gambler began questioning him once more.
"All right, Chris, remember, these are only memories. They cannot harm you... they have already happened, and nothing done now can change them. But they cannot harm you. Do you understand?"
"Good. Now, I want you to tell us what happened next. Take all the time you need Chris, we are in no hurry. Just remember that nothing you are experiencing is real. It is all in the past."
"They had... the baby girl... all wrapped up in this white sheet... bloody white. She couldn't have been more than a few days old... so tiny... so pale... the one holding her... took her by her feet and held her up. Looked at me... pure evil... said 'the blood of the innocent is on your hands'." Chris moaned, the memories battering at his weakened defenses once more.
"Chris, it is all right. Remember, these are but shadows of what has gone before. They can not harm you. Do you understand?"
Nodding, Larabee took a deep breath and then continued. "He slit... her throat... little thing just jerked and twitched... all I could think about... was Adam... what had he felt when the fire... oh God!" he cried out.
"This ain't gonna work, he's too weak," Nathan argued.
"It'll work, Nathan." Vin returned. "If you wanna go out an' sit with Buck, we'll holler if we need ya."
Simply shaking his head, the healer sat back in the chair.
"Chris, listen to me!" Standish spoke loud enough to pull the man's attention back from the memories. "You're all right. These things are long over. You can remember them without feeling the pain. You are alright. Do you understand me?"
"Yes." Larabee replied.
"Now, what happened... after he killed the baby?"
"Her blood," Chris stumbled through the words, "he drained her blood into this big mug. When it was full... he... he dropped her body... I can't... no."
"He's gettin' all tightened up again," Vin reported.
"Chris!" Ezra fairly yelled. "It is all right. Remember, you are only watching this... it is not happening to you now. It is in the past. What did he do with her body?"
"Dropped her... in the fire."
"Sweet Jesus," Jackson mumbled. The other two men gave him sympathetic looks.
When he could find his voice, Ezra said, "What... what happened then, Chris?" He had the feeling that they were running out of time. If they were to take Larabee through the entire event, they needed to push on. Otherwise he was not certain that the man would survive the ordeal.
"Next... they held onto me... two of them... forced my mouth open. The leader... the one with the mug... he poured it into my mouth. Made me drink it. Wanted... wanted to puke it back up so bad... couldn't... afraid."
"Afraid of what, Chris?"
"Afraid that... they might have another baby... kill another one if I puked up... the blood."
His voice surprisingly steady, Standish continued. "After you drank... what happened then?"
"They brought out... barbed wire... one of them... started unreeling it. The others they... they moved the circle over and surrounded us. The chanting began again... then they started wrapping the wire around my arms... slow... tight... couldn't even holler anymore. Just hung there... felt the damn stuff digging into me... felt that blood tearing up my guts inside... started... started. . ."
"Started praying. Ain't prayed for a long time... but... just started praying... asking to die... begging to die. But I didn't."
"No, you didn't, pard. Weren't meant ta be," Vin said softly. He was holding his friend gently but tightly once more.
"What next, Chris?" Standish pushed on.
"Wrapped the wire... both arms... both legs... chanting the whole time. Finally realized it was quiet. Then realized I was moving. They were carrying me. Managed to get an eye open... they were carrying me across the clearing... took me to a tree... hung me by my heels from a limb."
"That's how we found him," Tanner said softly, to himself as much as to anyone else. Perhaps they were nearing the end of the traumatic tale.
"Indeed," Ezra agreed. "Chris. They hung you from the limb. What happened after that?"
He sat for several minutes in silence, then finally, "Don't remember for certain. Just bits and pieces... chanting... people poking at me... then... darkness."
Grimly satisfied that their leader had given them everything he could, Ezra brought him back out of the trance. There were no cries, no seizures this time. In fact Larabee seemed far too passive now. He lay limply in Vin's embrace, allowing his younger friend to support and comfort him. Tanner cradled Chris in his arms, wrapping them around the sweat-soaked and scarred chest. "You done good, pard," the sharpshooter said. "You done good. Why'n't you g' on ta sleep for awhile now. I'll stay right here."
Nodding, Larabee did just that. His eyes drooped closed, his breathing grew deep and even as he allowed the peace of sleep to claim him.
- M7 -
The men had spent most of the day in or near the cabin, as if reluctant to stray very far from their friend. Chris had slept a deep and - they hoped - healing sleep. It had taken the others some time to convince Vin to leave his friend. The tracker sat quietly, Larabee curled against him, until he could convince himself that Larabee was alright. With Nathan's help he lowered the gunman to the bed and walked outside to stretch his legs. Finding Buck near the corral, he shuffled out to the fence.
"Hey, pard. "
"What're ya up ta out here, Buck?"
"Gettin' Peso and Diamond saddled up so you can both go back into town with Nathan this evening."
"Boy, if I gotta hit ya both over the head and throw ya over your saddle...I'll do it. I ain't arguin', you an' Ezra need some rest. We'll be alright out here tonight, and Josiah can come out in the mornin'."
"Who's bein' hard-headed now, Wilmington?" Tanner said, with an edge to his voice.
"Me. Now, I'm bigger, meaner 'n better lookin'... so that makes me boss," he said with a hint of the old Wilmington humor in his voice. "You 'n Ezra ain't got much say in this. Figure Chris will sleep most a the time, and if them fellas come back... well, I'll deal with 'm."
"It ain't safe for ya ta be out here without back-up."
"Ain't safe no where I imagine, son," he came to stand before Vin, looking very large and very menacing. "Ain't arguin' with ya I said. You're both goin' in and gettin' some rest. I'll make do 'til mornin'."
- M7 -
After threatening both of the younger men with great bodily harm, Buck managed to convince them of their need for rest. With Nathan's help he ushered them both outside and onto their horses. "Nathan, I don't wanna see either of these ugly mugs out here for at least 24 hours."
"I'll see to it," Jackson replied.
"Good... JD doin' okay?"
"Yeah. Got drunk, passed out, and slept for about 16 hours. Figure he'll be chompin' at the bit to come back out here by tomorrow morning. Think Mary's plannin' a visit, too."
Stealing a look inside the cabin, Buck said, "Do me a favor, Nathan, don't let no one but Josiah come out here tomorrow. Think the fewer people Chris has to deal with right now, the better it'll be.
"You're probably right. I'll let 'em know. Imagine Josiah'll be here soon as he can in the mornin'... if he even waits that long."
"Tell 'm to. Don't want him gettin' waylaid on his way out here or somethin'."
Turning to the young hunter, Wilmington said, "Don't you try and get fancy, Tanner. You stay close to Nathan and Ezra. And neither of you," he included Standish now, "even think about comin' back out here for 24 hours. I mean it now."
"Yes... Pa," Vin said with a wry smile. Beside him Ezra chuckled.
"You get better, son, we're gonna discuss that little comment." His only answer was laughter as the three men rode off.