An Old West Alternate Universe
Main characters: Vin, Ezra, Chris
The trail was still there.
Earlier, when they had traced Gibson's path over the grasslands, the signs left behind were the kind that Vin could show to JD. The slight impression of a boot heel; trampled blades of grass; freshly-turned soil from where Gibson had buried the ashes from his cook-fire. Now, though, he was leading them out through the canyon, and Vin had to follow another kind of trail. JD tried to stay with him. He bent earnestly over the unmarked, sand-swept earth and the time-smoothed stones as if he expected the rocks to heave and throw Archie Gibson back up at him, but four hours of stubbornly unyielding sand and rock and Vin's impatient dismissals was all that he could take. He returned to his horse and rode close to Buck. They all rode close to each other here, this far away from everything. They rode close, and Vin ranged ahead. He knew what he was following even if they couldn't see it; knew that the trail was fresh for now but fading quickly. Might be gone like smoke by morning if he didn't keep close to it.
Gibson was afraid. He didn't know how they had kept so close to him once he had entered the canyon. That was good. His fear was a wide and sickly green ribbon laid out on the rocks. Vin could have followed that terror with his eyes closed.
He had to stop after sundown. The sign was still bright on the ground, but he knew all too well that even if he could convince them that there was still a visible, physical trail to follow, he could not convince them that it was one that could be followed at night. He pulled them to a halt and kept an eye on the edge of that green ribbon as it wound its way around the rocks; tried to memorize the path in case it had disappeared by sunrise.
Suddenly, a hand fell upon his shoulder and he realized that he'd fallen asleep on his feet.
"Come on, Vin." Chris squeezed his shoulder for a moment before he let go. "No watch for you tonight. You're going to need those eyes in the morning."
Chris made his eyes burn more than the lack of sleepthere were times when he could bear the light that shone out of Chris Larabee like the damned sun and times when he couldn't. Most of the times when he couldn't stand it was when that burning looked bad enough to be downright painful, when he just ached for Chris burning like that, but right now, he just wanted Chris to quiet down that light enough for him to get some sleep.
"I'll be good by sunrise," Vin said. He closed his eyes. "You wake me then."
He could afford to get a little tetchy about this. If they'd been chasing after anyone but Archie Gibson, the steel-eyed gunman who had slaughtered the whole of the McKenzie ranch, including little Addie and Tommy, Chris might have insisted that Vin take a longer rest. But they needed to find Gibson and to find Gibson, they needed Vin.
Chris looked him over and finally nodded. "I'll wake you. Go bed down. Ezra has your blanket in his saddlebag."
Softly, from behind them: "Actually, Mr. Larabee, I found it best to bring it with me." Ezra stepped around Chris and held out the well-worn blanket. His face was unreadable but other things about him, fortunately, were not. "I can take a significant number of tonight's watches. I believe I will be more functional tomorrow if I abstain from sleep altogether."
"Not a chance in hell. I'm not having you falling asleep in your saddle tomorrow. One watch, Ezra, same as everybody else."
Ezra sighed and touched two fingers to his hat. "Good night, then, Vin. Mr. Larabee." He walked off into the shadows, shoulders as stiff and squared as if he were walking into a gale.
"He's trying my last nerve," Chris said, shaking his head. "Something's got him riled. And five dollars says right now he's over there getting paid to take their watches, too. Don't know why he's so goddamn determined to not get any sleep"
"Think he knew those kids," Vin said. Ezra's glow had been awfully lowjust a flicker, reallysince he'd heard about the McKenzie murders. Knowing Ezra and kids, it seemed like a safe enough bet. "Seeing those bodies was bad enough without knowing the faces that should've gone with 'em. Reckon that's enough to keep a man up at night."
"Shit," Chris said. He scrubbed a hand across his face. "Wouldn't have made him go out to the damned ranch if I'd known."
"Nope," Vin said. "Too bad you ain't God, cowboy."
Chris cracked a smile, at least. "I know a little something about getting through a bad night. You think he'd get through tomorrow without any sleep?"
It was an honest questionand an important oneso Vin forced his sleep-sluggish mind to give it the consideration it deserved. Ezra's light ordinarily lent a nice kind of metallic sheen to him, something a bit like silver orthough Vin would never dare tell himeven gold. Hearing about the McKenzies had clouded him up some and seeing those children with the bloodied faces and the butchered bodies had dimmed him right down next to nothing. All Vin had seen lately was just the occasional shine when Ezra pulled himself up enough to speak to themsunshine winking off steel. A person's light could do that from time to time, when they were sad or sick, and Ezra's light had never been too showy, anywaynot like Chrisso there hadn't been an awful lot to dim in the first place, but it still wasn't a good sign.
Put to the question, Vin reckoned that Ezra had only faded because of the sadness, but if those little bodies had been haunting him lately, he might be working on a nasty mix of sorrow and sickness. Probably wouldn't be good for him to spend the whole night restless and alone with his thoughts. He could tell Chris that and sleep easy for it, but he didn't think he would.
Vin knew something about what light meant to a man, but he knew more about what the darkness could mean. And if Ezra wanted to skirt those nightmares, Vin wouldn't stop him.
"Reckon he's got some sand under those fancy clothes of his," Vin said. "You let him do what he wants and dammit, Larabee, you shut up and let me get the sleep he don't want."
He found a spot close enough to the fire to steal some warmth away from the night. He kept his feet pointed towards the edge of that wide green ribbonthe living stain of the bastard's fear that writhed snake-like over the rocksand his hand outstretched towards Chris's sun. When everything around him melted together to the same smooth shade, he slept.
He dreamed in color. He always had.
Not the McKenzie childrenthose empty little hands had bothered him, but he'd never reckoned they were reaching out for him, anywaybut Archie Gibson himself.
He had just seen Gibson the once, but it had been enough for the man to take root in his memory. Gibson wasn't a big manand wasn't that a shame, because even the most graceful big ones tended to smash up the wild and make a plain trailnot at all. He was nothing but a sliver of a man. He put Vin in mind of one of Chris's failed carvings. Thing had started out as another horse for Billy Travis, but Chris had worried over it for too long and shaved too much away. He'd wanted to make it perfect, no excess wood at all but just a slim galloping stallion with each hair carved carefully into its mane and tail, and he'd ended up with something truly awful, some hollow-bellied and kneed horse-thing that looked too spindly to stand straight and too sickly to live long. That was Gibson, through and through. Something wrong in the making, something vital scraped away.
Nathan said that he was dying.
Vin had guessed that himself, though. Whatever was in men that gave them their light had completely burned away in Gibson. Not even the barest shimmer was left.
He dreamed Archie Gibson as a hole in the sky. As nothingness. And when that long-clawed hand, that hand-shaped gap in the world, reached out to touch his face, he pulled back with all his strength and found himself falling into the heart of the nothingness. All the way down. His own lightthe light he never saw in the waking hourspeeled away from him as he fell. As it was torn off his skin, he started to scream, because he didn't want to be like Gibson, didn't want to lack what made him human, and he fought to keep the last of it wrapped around his fingertips. He hung suspended from the burning sky, the last of the pure-silver ropes from his fingers clinging to the sun, and waited unendingly for something to snap
"Mr. Tanner! Vin!"
Then something lifted him up again.
He opened his eyes. Ezra was all silver now; polished up and bright with worry.
He rubbed his eyes. "I'm fine, Ez. Just a dream."
"Yes, well," Ezra said. Then he stopped, even though Vin had always thought of "yes, well" as the kind of thing a man said to lead up to something. Then, haltingly, he said, "I've . . . been troubled of late by those myself."
Vin pushed himself up the rest of the way. Hell, it wasn't like he could have made it back to sleep after that, anyway, and he'd missed Ezra's light for the last few days. If talking could make it decide to stick around, he reckoned that he could do that for a spell, if Ezra wanted. And Ezra wanted. That was pretty plain on his facewell, as plain as anything ever got on him, anyway.
"Knew those kids, didn't you?"
Ezra nodded. He eased out of his crouch and sat down on the edge of Vin's blanket. "A very engaging pair. Twins, you know. They were very protective of each other. I can't help but think how it must have been for one to see the otherfor Gibson to" His hand worked compulsively in the ragged fringe at the end of the blanket. "Addie. Little Addie. He tore the ribbons from her hair. I suppose he still has them. Men are known to do that."
Vin hadn't noticed the hair. The children had been hard enough to see without him looking closely. It must have been harder for Ezra to look, then, but he hadwhether out of grief or out of sheer contrariness Vin couldn't tell, but it must have been the looking that had done him in. Hair ribbons would be enough. Maggie McKenzie must have put them in Addie's hair only that morning; probably by the time of the murders, they had already started to unravel. Still, mother-tied knots didn't come out easily. Gibson must have pulled and pulled.
A wire snare tightened in Vin's chest. "If he has them on him when we find him, we'll take 'em back, put 'em with her again."
"Will we find him, Vin? You seem to be the man to ask."
The trail's still there, Ezra. It just ain't one I can show you.
The tail end of the green fear-ribbon still shone on in the moonlight, but it was farther away now then it had been when they'd stopped at sundown. He could imagine the general direction of it, even if it had dissolved by morning, but he still worried. Because of the other ribbons, little Addie's hair ribbons, and because of his dream of the hole in the burning sky. He took a risk in ignoring those signs as much as he would take a risk in ignoring visible signs like scuffed rock or broken brancheslet too much escape his attention or get buried in what he didn't want to notice, and Gibson could slip away no matter how good Vin was at following him.
"I can find him," Vin said, "but it'd be better if we'd get a move on. We shouldn't have stopped. He won't."
"You required rest. Mr. Larabee's insistence was quite understandable. And as inexperienced as I am at tracking, I do know that its difficulty increases significantly after sundown. As much as I am loath to admit a similarity with Gibson, he's flesh and blood as much as the rest of us. Onlyunfortunately for human naturea man. And he will sleep as well."
"Don't reckon there's much about him anymore that you could rightly call a man," Vin said, remembering that dead emptiness. "And anyway, you don't need sleep."
Ezra gave him a tight, pained smile. "It isn't that I lack the need, Mr. Tanner. It's only that there are other things I need more."
"And silence," Ezra said.
Vin looked at the darkening end of the ribbon on the rocks and then at Ezra, at the faint golden glow that clung to him now in the dark, and said, "Maybe we ought to press on. Follow him as far as we can and end things. This is as good a place as any. There's probably been blood spilled here a time or two before we came."
"I never assumed that we wouldn't press on," Ezra said. He sounded tetchy. "As for the blood, I admit that I might enjoy"
"Didn't mean in the morning," Vin said. "I meant right now. He ain't sleeping, Ez, and we shouldn't either." He saw the sudden snap-return of Ezra's unreadable poker face and knew that Ezra thought that he was just exhausted and maybe even a little addled from the weight on his shoulders. "I can track him. Promise. Even now, I can see where we need to go. Could have those hair ribbons in your hand by dawn, maybe, if we leave now."
"If Chris says"
"Ain't much concerned with what Chris says," Vin said.
That wasn't true, not even by half, but the thought of bringing Chris into this made him downright uneasy. He trusted that, particularly when the not-taking-Chris feeling was about as strong as the go-with-Chris feeling that had nudged him forward when he'd stood outside the hardware store two years ago. Taking Ezra felt rightand even if it hadn't, he might have gone and done it anyway, because Ezra was the one that most needed to see justice donebut everything in him bucked at the idea of including Chris, too.
Ezra said, "Vin, what you are suggesting is in some cases classifiable as a mutiny. Treason, perhaps. I do not doubt that our illustrious leader has shot men for doing less."
"Chris ain't gonna shoot you."
"Not to kill, perhaps."
"I'm going," Vin said, because he was clear on that muchhe knew what had to be doneand all the rest was just smoke from that one fire. "You can come or not."
Ezra bit his lower lip. "I'll"
He stopped. The indecision on his face was replaced with a weary regret and whatever he was about to say, Vin knew that he'd been ready to say yesto hell with good sense and self-preservation, go on and ride outbut that now he wouldn't. Now he couldn't.
"I'm on watch. All night. If I leave, they'll have no one." He met Vin's eyes. "I do remember, Mr. Tanner, what regrettable events occurred the last time I abandoned my post for a more agreeable pursuit. I made a promise to Mr. Larabee and I intend to keep it, regardless of how much I might want to . . . run out."
"Good bit of difference between prospecting a gold mine and tracking a killer, Ez. Chris'll know that. He ain't that bull-headed." But he wasn't sure how Chris would react to leaving the camp unprotected. There was no sure trouble out here besides Gibson, and Vin doubted that he'd do much back-tracking, but they had a knack for making trouble out of nothing at all. Leaving them alone rankled but taking Ezra still felt right, so there had to be something
"Chris wasn't too fond of leaving you out all night, even if he knew you were up for it," Vin said. A grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. "What is it, still second watch? Little past midnight, something like that?"
"Son-of-a-bitch has a clock ticking in his head. He'll wake up at one to kick your ass into bed. So he'll catch us gone right quick, but they'll have somebody up and watching them. Up and growling like a pissed-off bear, most likely, but they'll be safe enough. And you can always tell him that I talked you into it. Half-right, anyway."
Ezra smiled. "I suppose I run the risk of incurring more of his ire if I let you go alone."
Vin nodded. "Dangerous out there. Reckon you're doing me a favor."
"Of course, the sensible thing to do would be to wake him up and insist upon his company, but if we're only half an hour on the trail, I imagine you'll have his company within the hour whether you find it agreeable or not."
That was Vin's risk to run, though. He'd be avoiding it if he could, but there was no point in telling Ezra that until they got a little further along.
"You can ride if you want. I ought to be down on the ground."
"The night air is invigorating for a stroll," Ezra said. "Chaucer might not take too kindly to being awakened, in any case, and any noise might disturb them." He spread out an arm as if trying to take hands with the open canyon before them, and said, "Lead on, then, Mr. Tanner. I'm curious to see how one tracks by moonlight."
"Hell, Ez," Vin said, putting his feet to the green ribbon on the ground, "you don't even know what I'm doing when the sun's out."
+ + + + + + +
During the day, Vin had led them along at a goodish clippicking his way over the landscape using only broken blades of grass as landmarksand Ezra had already been impressed. But now, under nothing more than the silver glow from the full moon above, Vin took him through the canyon at something close to a run. Whatever he was examining was not on the ground, because he never bent down as he had during the day, never scooped up handfuls of soil or rubbed traces of ash between his fingersEzra thought that he might have been hedging his bets, seeing one sign and following his own path on the odds that he would soon discover another. Trying to get a sense of Gibson's mind. But surely a man like Vin Tanner had no business in Archie Gibson's mind?
After ten minutes, Vin pulled them up against the canyon wall and stood still with his head cocked back, as if he were listening to the nighttime.
Ezra listened, decided there was nothing at all to hear, and tried his luck. "Mr. Tanner, I must confess that I have no idea what exactly it is that we are following."
"Perhaps I should rephrase my confusion. I have no idea how"
"Can't explain it," Vin said. He met Ezra's eyes. In the near-black of the canyon, his face was nothing but shadows. That put them on unequal footingwhile Vin could see his signs even in this darkness, Ezra needed more light to make sense of his. "I can get you to Gibson, I can do it tonight, and I can get those ribbons in your hand, but I can't tell you how I'm doing it. If that ain't good enough, you'd best go back now. Think we're still close enough for you to find your way. Even in the dark."
His first impulse was to swallow his pride and follow Vin to the ends of the earth, if necessary; not just for the inestimable pleasure of tearing Addie McKenzie's silk ribbons out of Gibson's hands but for the sake of simply going with Vin. Vin had trusted him almost out of hand, in the beginning, and the implied rebuke he'd offered just now stung more than Ezra wanted to admit even to himself. He wanted to go with Vin simply because Vin wanted him to. That was a dangerous way to think; what was worse was that he'd gotten in the habit of it.
His second impulse was to retreat, just as Vin had suggested. It was undoubtedly the sensible course of action. Chris would be furious when he awoke and discovered their absence, and Ezra didn't doubt that the retribution would be awful to witness, especially first-hand. Vin might receive some modicum of mercy, but Chris's charity surely would not extend far enough for him to forgive Ezra for leaving them. Again. If he turned back now, he could pass off the entire adventure as the fit of madness that it almost certainly was. After all, no man, not even the incomparable Mr. Tanner, could follow a trail over rock at midnight.
But Vin had promised that he could.
His third impulse was to reconsider his first two impulses and to remember what a chore it was to have to explain the finer rules of the game to an amateur. What an impossibility. To think that some roughshod greenhorn who had never even shuffled a deck of cards could understand all the invaluable subtleties and minutiae of gambling! There were bluffs, there were tells, there were sleights-of-hand . . . and perhaps Vin could no more explain the trail he followed to Ezra than Ezra could explain a variety of subtle tells to Vin.
Perhaps it was not an impossibility, not some irrational event. Perhaps they simply did not have the required time.
"I'll have an easier time finding my way forward," he said softly. "I would much prefer following you to following my own footsteps."
That was a gamble of his own. He spoke the words into the darkness, when he had no idea of how Vin would receive them, and waited in the cold and the whistling wind for some visible tell. To his surprise, he felt a warm hand grasp his forearm and hold him against the chill and the emptiness of the night.
Ezra surrendered to his first impulse.
+ + + + + + +
The trail had started to thin. Vin had been following it and nothing else for what he figured had to be close to two hours when he noticed that the green ribbon was becoming narrower. After another few minutes, they came upon the first of a series of gaps and patches in that shining band of Gibson's fear; either he had realized that they were far behind him and had stopped for the night or else his fear had finally run out. It was always possible that he'd just stopped leaking fear like blood from a wound, but Vin thought that wasn't likely. What a man did once, he was like to do forever, and for Gibson to bleed fear green on the rocks when he had no light left outside him and probably precious little inside, too, he must have been the kind of man in the habit of doing it. Habits could break, though.
He checked behind him to see how Ezra was doing. Vin was running on a wild mix of excitement and necessity and felt he could do this for hours more, but he could see the trail and Ezra couldn't. To Ez, they were just scrabbling over rocks, maybe at random and maybe not. He could see out here and Ezra was blind. That could take it out of a man on its own, and he hadn't forgotten that he hadn't exactly stolen Ezra away at his best, either.
The rare golden shine that had stuck tight to Ezra since he had first confessed to knowing the children had been polished bright sometime in the dark, when he'd agreed to keep going, and much to Vin's relief, it hadn't tarnished up yet or even faded to silver. But light wasn't necessarily the best way of reading a man, though, just as it wasn't always there to read a trail, so he asked, "You holding up all right?"
"Fine, Mr. Tanner."
He trusted the sound of Ezra's voice a hell of a lot more than he trusted anything Ezra said with it, but even so, Ezra didn't sound too bad. Tired, sure, and a little achy from all the rough travel, but nothing that they'd need Nathanor worse, Christo fix.
He thought that he might owe Ezra something for dragging him out all this way in the dark and hell, he wanted to show Ezra that it wasn't just the blind leading the blind out here.
"Trail's getting faint," he said. "Might move a bit slower now."
"We've covered a considerable distance," Ezra said, "and are undoubtedly closer to Mr. Gibson now than were at the beginning. I fail to see how a fresh trail could grow cold when we are surely within a stone's throw of the man making it."
"Ain't no stone's throw," Vin said. He was sure enough of that. "He'll be farther out. And as for the rest, I told you. I can't"
"explain. Yes, of course." Ezra sighed. "Then may I at least ask why you believe he has been able to come so far in so short an amount of time?"
"Like I said, don't think he's quite like us. Not anymore. Nathan said he's dying."
"Which would, I should think, only weaken whatever physical prowess he may possess."
"Dying doesn't have to be real gentle," Vin said. "I've seen it go wrong before. Sometimes it takes to your head, makes you desperate. A man can do a lot when he's desperate."
"Then we should do quite well," Ezra said. "Leaving our posts in the middle of the night, without informing our compatriots, to pursue a madman through a dangerous canyon while another man, certainly angry if not mad in the most traditional sense, undoubtedly pursues us with less-than-felicitous intentionsthese strike me, Mr. Tanner, as the actions of very desperate men. And so the hunter becomes the hunted."
The actions of very desperate men.
He knew it. He knew well enough that what they were doing didn't make a lick of sense.
Pulling the wool over Ezra's eyes on this nighttime tracking was one thing, but how the hell was he supposed to convince Chris, who knew better, that he'd had a way to follow Gibson even through the dead of night? He could never explain it. He was risking everything. He wasn't safe with the Comanche anymore; men in these parts had been strung up or burned for claiming to see the way Vin saw. His ma hadn't taught him to be this foolish.
And you think they're gonna hang you when they find out? These men?
No. No, he couldn't believe that. They were better than that. They were different.
Vin came back to himself. He'd been miles away and years back, smelling hot oil and feeling the frisson of fear running up along his spine. He wiped a line of fresh sweat off his brow and shivered as a hard bout of wind drove them both back against the canyon wall. "Fine, Ezra. Just thinking. Trying to figure out where to take us. I think he might have gone down."
Ezra lined the toes of his boots up with the crumbly edge of their current position. "That is a dangerously steep descent, Vin. Are you certain he took the risk?"
He shook his head. "Nope. Trail's too faint to tell. But he'd be crazy enough to do it."
"What a delightful piece of reasoning." Ezra walked a few steps ahead of him and then turned back. "If he did descend, this would be the most likely place. It does not appear to be an entirely steady piece of groundyou'll need to watch your footing on that loose gravelbut the descent is slightly less likely to mean our deaths."
"Didn't figure you were scared of heights."
"I assure you, I have no feelings about them one way or the other. It isn't our height relative to the ground below that concerns me but the fact that there is no sure way of ensuring that said relative height doesn't rather quickly become a very small, possibly negative, number. The thought of smearing myself halfway across the territory is rather unappealing."
His voice was level enough, but Vin didn't think that it was the moonlight that was making Ezra look so pasty. He moved to the edge to examine the drop for himself and whistled lowly at the sight: if this was the easiest place to make the descent, he didn't want to see the dangerous route. It wasn't a sheer drop, of course, but it was a bit too close for comfort. And there was little enough to hold onto on the way down. Ezra was right about the gravel, tooone stray rock could slide out of place and send them tumbling down with their shirttails flying up over their necks. Vin had take worse paths in his life, he was sure, but none came to mind right away.
Vin stripped off his jacket and his hat. Cold as he might be by the time they reached the bottom, he didn't much fancy the idea of giving the wind something to take hold of on the way down. He was about to put his foot over the edge when Ezra threw an arm out across his chest and backed him up against the canyon wall again. He wasn't all gold anymore; he'd gone that sort of dark lead color he did when they had a fight. Gold for good and lead for gunfire. Ezra's light was literal when Ezra himself couldn't hope to be.
"If we intend to attempt this suicidal venture, we will do it correctly."
"Took off my hat," Vin said. He nodded at where it lay with his coat at the rim.
Ezra scowled at him. "As much as I dislike admitting incompetence, Mr. Tanner, I am at a loss as to what exactly it is we are following and how exactly we are following it. You're the one in charge herethe general, so to speakand generals are rather discouraged from entering the battle at the front lines. That task falls to others who are not quite as necessary."
"This ain't a war, Ezra. I chose the trail, I took you out here, I'm going first."
"Ordinarily I would not dispute your right to plunge to your death, but there are mitigating"
Vin snorted. "You'd be too scared to go back to Chris and tell him I'm dead is what you mean."
"Damn right," Ezra said. That kind of plain language, coming from Ezra, would have been downright funny, but there was nothing laughable about how it came out of himall snap and anger, like the crack of a whip. "Explaining your demise to Mr. Larabee is a prospect that would make men far braver than me weak at the knees. I would much prefer to face the descent, if you please."
"Ezra, if you think"
"And the rest of your arguments," Ezra continued, as if he had not heard Vin's attempt to interrupt, "are likewise fallible in terms of logic. You did not choose this trail; Gibson left tracks that you are followed and I selected our place of descent. Your sole contribution was to suggest that he went down from this path. Hardly an important decision. If you are the one who took me out here, I chose to goI am hardly a hostage. So, as the person least crucial to our current venture, I will be the one who goes down first, because at least then, should the result not be advantageous, I will at least have the satisfaction of knowing that you can find Gibson to avenge my death. I. Am going. First."
He stood there in the dark, breathing hard, looking only at Vin.
And this was the man they'd found in a saloon two years ago, shooting up a deck of cards with blanks to win a handful of cash.
Vin felt something settle over him, some sweet but aching awareness of Ezra, of all the rest of them, of time. He'd glanced across a street with a broom in his hands and he'd somehow tumbled headlong into this, these men. It was pretty damn incredible.
And Ezra was pretty damn infuriating.
He breathed out through his teeth and reached out; caught Ezra's shoulder in his hand.
"Fine. But if you think I'm gonna just go back and tell Chris you cracked your skull open after I talked him into letting you stay up and talked you into coming out on a midnight goose chase and let you talk me into this kind of thickheaded stunt, you can just forget that right now. You fall, and I'm just gonna leave you down there and save my own skin while I can. Hear Mexico can get right pretty this time of year."
Ezra tipped him a two-fingered salute and, without comment, divested himself of hat and jacketgiving the garment a fond pat before folding it neatly and laying it on the ground.
He walked to the edge and only turned back once. "I'm told I can be graceful," he said. "From time to time."
He started down.
Vin thought he might have held his breath for the whole of it. Half the time, Ezra was nothing more than a dull glow against the rust-colored rocksnot enough moon was out for him to see anything else. There seemed to be handholds enough, at least, and Ezra was smart enough to go as slowly as he could, bad as that was for Vin's peace of mind. From time to time, he heard the soft chinking sound of loose stones clicking together and all that pent-up breath caught in his chest and put a terrible pressure on his heart; but Ezra usually called up to him after that. Once, somewhere in what Vin thought had to be the middle of the descent, he heard Ezra say, "Too damn dark," something he surely was not meant to hear. Vin got down on his belly after that and stretched out with his head stuck out over the edge, trying to keep his eyes on Ezra. After he'd started to get a couple gray hairs from all this, he heard the soft pat of Ezra's feet dropping against the ground, and, better yet, the reassuring call:
"Safe and sound, Mr. Tanner. Proceed as carefully as possible. Near the halfway mark, you'll have to struggle for handholds. Reach to your left."
Vin nodded, though he knew that Ezra couldn't see him, and went to the edge. Vertigo rippled through him unexpectedly as he looked out over the blank emptiness of the horizon; as he glanced down at what a long way there was to fall. He turned backwards as best he could, put his face to the canyon wall, and lowered himself down with his elbows tucked flat against the rocks. When the soles of his boots scraped against a tiny ledge dusted with sand, he eased his grip down to his fingertips and kept going.
Ezra was right, it was too damn dark for this kind of work. Too dark and too quiet. What came through the quiet was troubling in its own way, toothere was nothing out this far but the whistling wind that tugged at the cuffs of his pants and the hem of his shirt, threatening to force him away from the cliff and out into the darkness. Vin could feel it waiting for him. The dark in places like this had a sense to it, a kind of dull animal mind, and Vin was crawling through the center of its empty belly. He wanted to move faster to escape that hunger, but he was acutely aware that the only strong holds on this side were mostly finger-holds, and those were the kind smart men didn't rush. There were a few crumbly ledges, a few sandy crags, but at other times the rock was as smooth as glass . . . but for those few dimples.
Thenthis had to be the halfway point that Ezra had meant. His hands could find no safe purchase in the rock. Reach to your left, Ezra had said. He could do that easily enough if his damned hands would stay still.
He took his left hand away from the wall and started to reach out but something stopped him: a red glimmer on the stones. Not rust-red, like real dried blood, but fresh and bright as paint. And it was everywhere. He took his hand up to his face to examine the uneven splotches of red there on his fingertips and then the wind picked up and howled through. The rumblings of the belly, the hungry night, and Vin reached out for the wall but it wasn't there anymore. He was falling. He screamed, or else Ezra did, and his shirt whipped up around his ribs, around his shoulders, and the blood-red died away on the rocks. Before he hit the ground he knew, with unquestionable surety, what it was that he had seen.
This is where Chris would have fallen.
Falling himself. But Chris
This is why I couldn't bring you, cowboy.
The ground became wide and dark below him. Vin closed his eyes.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra did not think. He ran.
What happened nearly killed them both. If he had been even a second slower to respond, Vin would have landed on him while he was still running, and the whole of Vin's weight would have come crashing down on his bowed shoulders and lowered head, snapping his neck and sending Vin rolling off him with no support. So close to disaster. He saw it all flash up against his mind in a rush of photographs, some flip-illustration in a gruesome Jock Steele novel, and he took a clumsy, impossible ungraceful leap, unwilling to reconcile himself with the sight of all that blood and all those snapped bones.
Then he was there in time, leaning back at the last possible instant so that Vin fell not against him but onto him, his slightly thrust-back body and his open arms.
Vin pushed him down into the dirt and knocked the wind from him in one go. Some awful pain tore up his back and through his mouth and his head knocked soundly against one of the stones, but, still hazily conscious, he knew two very wonderful things.
He was still breathing. And, better yet, so was Vin.
He was tempted to let his act of charity end there, but even through the veil of pain that had fallen over him, he could hear that Vin was breathing wrongit was a shrill whistle, in-and-out, the unmistakable sound of a man riding out the pain by catching his breath with his teeth. Vin might not have died when he had fallen against Ezra, but there was little enough chance that it had been advantageous for his health. Unable to move just yetincapable even of unknotting his hands from where they were laced together across Vin's ribshe swallowed down his own discomfort and said, "Where are you hurting?" The words came out in a slurVin's head had cracked against his mouth and bloodied it, then. Better to know.
In-and-out, Vin breathed. In-and-out. Finally, through those same gritted teeth, "In my leg."
"Yes, it's . . . fucking broken . . . Ezra."
Ezra knew better than to mistake the pain in Vin's voice for anger. With some struggle, he managed to relax his hands and eased up, still doing his best to hold Vin against him and keep his leg in place. A harsh bark of pain caught in Vin's throat told him that he hadn't completely succeeded. He reached down through the dark and felt gingerly around the torn flesh. "Broken" was undoubtedly a correct assessment.
"Your leg must have struck against the rock when we fell," Ezra said softly. "My apologies."
Vin's breathing was evening out. "Shut up, Ezra. You caught me. You hurt?"
Ezra considered it briefly. While the head wound and the rippling pain in his back were of some concern to him, news of these injuries would scarcely help Vin. In any case, as long as Vin remained in front of him, he would notice nothing more than Ezra's busted mouth.
"In your hurry to reach the ground, your head rather soundly collided with my mouth. You may find teeth-marks in your scalp, Mr. Tanner."
It earned him a faint chuckle, at least. "Busted your lip, huh?"
"Indeed. It appears to be an extremely messy injury, but nothing unmanageable." He turned his head and, wrinkling his nose a bit in disgust, spat out a mouthful of blood well to their right. When he was sure that he could speak again, he said, "You stopped. You reached and then you stopped. May I inquire as to your reasons?"
For a moment, he thought that Vin wouldn't answer him, but then he said, "I thought I saw something on the rocks. Blood."
Vin sounded almost cautious, as if he weren't sure how much he could give away. Ezra wasn't sure what to make of that, but he had the uneasy feeling that at some point tonight, Vin had held a full house and had bluffed Ezra into believing it was nothing more than a pair of twos. He had bluffed and Ezra had believed him. And Ezra had always dearly hated losing a high-stakes game. He put his head closer to Vin's ear and said, with some difficulty, "Mr. Tanner, there appears to be something that you aren't telling me."
Vin shook his head. Ezra felt it more than he saw it.
"Maybe a little, but it don't matter much. You gotta keep going."
Oh, now he was absolutely certain that Vin had a winning hand. But no matter what had gone into the pot, Ezra knew better than to risk a sure thing. No matter what Vin knew or didn't know about blood on the rocks or tracking by midnight, Ezra knew Vinknew his quiet voice and his sometimes startlingly loud smile, knew the shape of Vin's broken bone beneath his searching hands, knew the loll of Vin's head against his chest. He knew that he had followed Vin out into the night for no good reason at all, other than a faith in Vin that was blinder than Josiah's faith in God. And he knew, surely enough, the fear that had gone like lightning through his heart when Vin had swayed back from the cliff and started to fall. Vin, though, just Vin, was the surest thing of all. These men and this townhis sure thing, though it had taken him so long to admit it. His ace in the hole.
"I have no intention of leaving you here," he said. He could have added more to make Vin see reasonhe could have told Vin that even if he were willing to leave, there was no way on earth or heaven that he could have continued following Gibson's trail, or could have confessed that he was really in no condition for another stretch of hard travel, but he clamped his mouth shut on the words. This wasn't about reason, not at all.
"Gibson's still out there."
"Then let him rot out there," he said. The missing hair ribbons came to his mind and he pushed them back with as silent apology to little Addie. "Lord knows this place has seen its share of bones and blood over the years. Whatever ghost of blood you saw on the cliff is bad enough, and while I won't compound that by leaving you alone here, I'm perfectly content to do it by letting him go down to his knees from whatever's been eating him from the inside. That sin, Mr. Tanner, I can bear quite easily."
Vin shrugged off all those words as if they meant nothing at all. "I can teach you how to follow him. This kind of tracking . . . it's easy enough once you know how. Once you can see. Nothing to it at all."
"Yes," Ezra said acidly, "nothing easier in the world than what we've been doing tonight."
"I can show you," Vin said. He rolled clumsily onto his good side. "Think so, anyway."
He reached up for Ezra's face and Ezra caught him neatly by the wrist. "Let me make myself very clear. Even if, sitting here right now, I knew precisely where Archie Gibson was hiding himself, I would not leave you to go and find him."
Even with that, Vin did not roll back over and settle down. He stayed in his half-curled position, head tilted back to look earnestly at Ezra. Quietly, he said, "That's easy enough to say when you don't know. Ain't so easy when you do. Just let me tell youlet me show you. Then if you won't go, you won't go. Nothing I can do about it. Ain't like I can fight you."
"I suppose not," Ezra said, thinking less of Vin's broken leg and more of the splitting pain in his back and the thudding ache in his head, "but I assure you, it will make no difference." Because even if he didn't know whatever it was that let Vin track by moonlight, he knew that if their positions were reversedif he were the one that had fallenVin would never even think of leaving. "Do whatever it is you want, Vin, or say whatever you will, but I will not"
Vin touched his eyes. His hand was very warm. Warmer than Ezra had expected. He had only a moment to wonder if Vin had somehow gotten a fever when something pressed against his closed eyes. He tried to pull back but Vin brought his other hand up and trapped Ezra's head between those two outstretched hands. It unbalanced him and he fell back onto Ezra again, a burning weight, and that pain in his back flared up hot and painful once morebut he scarcely noticed it. Not with that pressure on his eyes, not with that sudden awareness of heat and light and color erupting behind his eyes like fireworks on the Fourth.
It wasn't painfulnot precisely, anywaybut pain might have been preferable. It burned through him, burned all around him; everything burned, the very air was fire, and Vin's hands were brighter and stronger than everything else. Not a hurtful. Just bright and fierce and everywhere, inescapable, the whole world lighting up violet and white, crimson and gold, green and turquoise. All those colors and all that heat, all that light, coupled with that strange taking feelingVin giving this to him, creating some river of light through hard rock.
Oh, he thought through the sweet darkness that took him over afterwards, that honey-thick and molasses-slow thought that took all of him to think, the trials and difficulties of explaining a trick to an amateur. But what a trick you have, Vin. Your winning hand.
He thought that he might have said that last bit aloud, because he saw Vinsomehow draped all in white light, like a child's scrawled picture of an angelbend over him. A hand combed unsteadily through his hair. Somewhere far away from him, Vin said, "It ain't winning me much right now. Jesus, Ezra. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
Honey-thick and molasses-slow. There was nothing to be sorry for. He meant to say that, but the honey dripped off his tongue and the taste was so sweet that he had to keep it inside. Selfish. He'd hoarded his share of paper cones of candy as a child, too enraptured by the taste of sugar on his tongue to share with his cousins. But. He could share with Vin. More than a cousin. He struggled to say that, fought tooth-and-claw with the sweetness in the dark, waning to return to that burning light despite the cost. He came back slowly, with Vin's hand on his, and tried to feel that warmth more than he felt the sticky dampness of the blood at the back of his head, more than he felt the awful gouged feeling of the flesh between his shoulder blades. Tried to feel Vin even more than he saw the light, which was
Easier, now. The world was no longer and impossible riot of color and heat. Things had . . . settled, somewhat. Vin still shone as brightly as ever, some God-given torch to light the darkness, but the rest of the world had returned to its usual dull shades. Except for one thing, which he had hardly noticed in the rushan uneven and speckled trail of jade green that wound, snake-like, along the bare rocks.
That curving, surely-not-there snake.
He lifted his hand up as far as it would go and stretched out, dropped his fingers to the dust along the snake's tail. "Your trail." His voice was as scratchy as if he had been swallowing sand. "You followed . . . that. The snake."
"Was calling it a ribbon," Vin said, "but I reckon it's still the same thing." He did not let go of Ezra's hand. "Awful sorry, Ez. Shouldn't have done that. Never tried it before, and I didn't know what it would do to you. I should've thought and I didn't."
"I would tend to blame my unfortunate fainting spell on my head, not my eyes," Ezra said, before he remembered that he hadn't wanted Vin to know about the knock he had taken. Too late for that. He already saw Vin's eyes widen and that light of his shimmer up, like raised hackles. Oh, hell. Before Vin could give it to him for not mentioning his injury, he said, "Youshine. White light. Almost celestial, really. Please do me the favor of immediately telling me whether or not I have lost control of my senses."
A faint smile cracked Vin's mouth at that. "Ain't lost them, just got another one." His smile tucked in around the corners, lips pursed together. "Celestial?"
"Like a star." He didn't think that Vin would take too kindly to being compared to a member of the heavenly host. "How did youhow do you"
Vin shrugged. "Don't know much. I lived with a couple of tribes that knew a spot more about it than I did, but even what they knew wouldn't fill much more than a page or two. Hell, I've had it my whole life and even I can't figure it out. Worked out a couple of things over the years, thought a few more over, but I don't know much of anything for sure. I've heard of a couple of shaman who could do it and a couple of white men who got themselves hanged or burned to crisps for saying that they could, but I've never met anybody else. Maybe there's nobody left anymore, except me. And you, now, I reckon. If it sticks."
"You don't know?"
He offered another shrug. "Told you. I don't know much, and anyway, I never done that before. Just took up what was minewhat felt like mine, anyway, I can't see it anymore than you can see yoursand sort of gave it a little push."
"Not quite a little push." He shoved himself up on his elbows and leaned against Vin's shoulder, the two of them relatively useless down at the bottom of things. Something occurred to him. "I do that, too? Shine?" It was hard to picture himself as surrounded with the purity of white and silver, so he wasn't surprisedbut a little disappointedwhen Vin shook his head.
What did surprise him was when Vin said, "You sort of . . . glimmer. Kinda like metal."
"Metal." He settled for repeating that dumbly, because he had no idea what to make of it.
Vin sighed. "Never thought I'd be telling you, but I should've known you'd be curious." He tucked his head down against Ezra's shoulder, clearly struggling for the right words, and said, "The way you'd see a mine, or get a look at some coins in real strong sun. Changes, too. Awful damn obvious. Tells the truth. Kind of like lead or steel when you're fighting'course, if you're fighting, I'm fighting, so I've never had a lot of time to just hunker down and stare, but that's what it looks like. The silver's nice, too. Good mood, you get that. Too bad you're always in such a damned good mood during a poker game, good hand or bad, or I would've cleaned you out on that one. And you getoh, hell."
He tried to stifle it, but he felt that unmistakable prickle of curiosity. "I get what?"
"Gold. Sometimes, you look like gold."
From most men, he would have thought it to be, at most, a well-meant lie. But not from Vin.
Vin sighed again; moved his head against Ezra's shoulder. "When you know you're doing something right."
"Then it must be a rather infrequent shade." He tried to estimate those appearances in his head, tried to imagine when Vin might ever have seen moral certainty gleam gold around him. Returning to the Seminole, perhapsthough he might then have been tarnished with shamestepping in front of Mary Travis, and . . . there he lost sight of his own deeds. If he were more generous, perhapsriding with them, playing with the children, following Vin into the night on faith alonethen, maybe, he might have turned gold. What strange alchemy.
"More now than you used to be," Vin said. "Been like it most of the night. And now, too." His voice was getting thicker with exhaustion. "It's right pretty, Ez. And me?"
He leaned back, accepted more of Vin's weight onto his own sore body. "Starlight, Mr. Tanner. It makes you look rather angelic."
Vin chuckled and then pushed himself up again, despite Ezra's best efforts to keep him still. The weariness was still writ large on his features but his eyes were clear now, burning with desperate need. "You can see now. You can go. Follow it before it disappears. There's no safe way to go on tracking through this place, we've got nothing else. Just stay on it till you find him. It's fear. He's calming down, getting resignedit used to be strong but now it's gotten splotchy, faded. If you don't stay close, he'll get away."
Yes. Ezra supposed that he would. He would make his escape with Addie's hair ribbons tucked into his pocket or wound around his neck or clenched between his teeth, and there would be no justice for one bloodied little girl beyond what God, in His infinite wisdom and His vast unconcern, would eventually serve. Nothing for Addie and nothing for Tommy. Tommy, with his missing front teeth and his cheerful questions. And nothing for their parents, either.
And, if he intended to be selfish, nothing for him, eithernothing to wash away the memories of blood on the shining wood floor and a plate of cornbread left uneaten on the table.
Should he let that happen? Should he let Gibson slip away into the dark when he could follow? Just let him escape with those hair ribbons, with that precious blood on his hands? Surely not. Surely, that would be a greater sin than any of the ones he had already so cheerfully committed in the name of himself and his mother.
But to leave Vin alone in the dark, still bearing the pain of his broken leg, until Chris and the others stumbled across him? To take Vin's gift, the knowledge of his own gold, and run like a coward? Leave a sure thing to chase after a jackpot?
"I said I wouldn't leave, not even if I knew." He put his hand on Vin's chest. "I meant it."
"Too goddamn stubborn," Vin said. He closed his eyes. "Where's it going now? At least look. Look down it as far as you can."
Ezra did. "No sudden drops, thank Godthe son of a bitch seems to be content to stay on this level for the time being. It winds around the far corner. Little more than a straight line, Vin. A man of your talents could follow it with no trouble at all." He continued to rearrange Vin as he talked, tugging and pushing him until he had his own back resting against the canyon wall and had Vin lying against him. His head was still spinning; the darkness around him was getting thicker. No set watches, not tonight, not for them. And perhaps he wouldn't dream. That would be more than fine. He struggled to get through the last few words. "The canyon narrows to a corridor just a few miles ahead of us. He'll be forced out soon enough. Then, at least, he will leave behind his footprints for us to find."
That warm, honeyed darkness. He forced it out again and spoke through the cloud of smoke pressing in around his vision. "I ought to set your leg. My flask"
"In the morning," Vin said. He sounded as if he were fading, too. "A couple of hours won't matter that much."
Ezra could not have argued with that even if he had tried. The darkness crowded in again, more insistently this time, and he could no longer resist it. He closed his eyes and leaned back, tasting honey and imagining light.
+ + + + + + +
Vin awoke a little after dawn, when he rolled clumsily to his side to avoid the yolk yellow light that fell around them and put pressure onto his bad leg. His mumbled, hoarse series of curses woke up Ezra, who blinked at him fuzzily and said several things that Vin couldn't understand at allhe was used to that, though. Ezra's morning-speak was seldom coherent, which made cooking up his breakfast on a trail a bit of a problem. Vin usually went with flapjacks. His stomach rumbled a little at the thought. Ought to have brought food. Ought not to have fallen halfway down a damn cliff and squashed Ezra, too, thoughhe reckoned there was just a whole host of things he ought to have done or kept from doing.
Something about landing on Ezra reminded him of something else, though. He dragged his canteen out of his pocket and took a few sips, trying to clear his head enough to remember. He was swishing a mouthful of water around to clear the dust from his throat when the knowledge came back with enough fury to make him spit. Swiping a hand across his mouth to clear away the water that had dripped down his chin, he said, "You stupid son of a bitch. You hit your head! What were you thinking?"
"I suppose the thought of catching you had crossed my mind," Ezra said, his voice still muzzy with sleep. "Otherwise, I can't imagine what I was doing standing beneath you."
"Not then." He could have cheerfully strangled Ezra with his bare hands at the moment, whether Ezra had saved his life or not. "When you fell asleep." Nathan had drilled it into all of them that no man slept so soon after nearly cracking his skull opensomething could get rattled and keep him from waking up. The thought was scary enough that Vin hadn't needed a second lesson. It wasn't the kind of thing that was exactly easy to forget.
But he had. Forgotten. He'd forgotten Ezra. Too damned interested in finally getting a chance to talk about the light. Like a couple of words were really worth trading on Ezra's life. If he hadn't woken up . . .
Ezra grabbed his shoulder. "Vin? Is it more than your leg?"
If it hadn't been for the sheer panic in Ezra's voice, Vin might have been tempted to just stay quietlet Ezra get a taste of worry for a change. "Is what more than my leg?"
Ezra flushed. "Youthat is to saythat light. It flared up and then very nearly disappeared. I thought that it might meanbut clearly I was wrong"
"It means that you pissed me off," Vin said. He wanted to leave it at that, because he had been angry and was still, but he knew that Ezra could shrug off anger easily enough. If the truth was harder for him to confess, it would also be harder for Ezra to forget, and if telling the truth meant that Ezra would be less likely to pull that kind of damn fool stunt again, the embarrassment would be worth it.
He squared his shoulders as best he could still leaning against Ezra, and said, "If it flared up, it was because I'm angryeverybody's does that, you ought to see Chris when he's got a burr up his ass." He swallowed and rolled his head back against Ezra, as if working out the stiff muscles in his neck would ease the ones in his tangled tongue. "And it must have gone up like a house-fire, 'cause I don't know how I could be more pissed at you, but that ain't why it shrunk down again after. Down real low, right, hardly there or not at all?"
"Little more than a shade."
Vin nodded. About what he'd expected. "You weren't all wrong. When it gets low, it could mean somebody's sick, somebody's dying, but not always. What it mostly means is hurt. Sadness. You've hardly had more than a flicker on yourself since you saw the McKenzie place all torn up like that." He didn't give Ezra too much time to think about that, he just pressed on, needing to get to what was still left to be said. "You feel low, it gets low. Think about it like that, if it helps you remember."
There. That was enough. He didn't have the patience to spell everything out.
It was enough for Ezra, too. He said, "But surely you weren't"
"You could've died," Vin said evenly. "You do something that stupid again and I'll kill you myself. You think I want to wake up with you not breathing because I forgot you hit your head? That was a damn foolish thing to do, Ezra."
"Oh." Ezra had gone very quiet, not gold anymore but a shimmering, twisty kind of silver. "I suppose it was. I should have considered you." He cleared his throat a little. "And now, in the spirit of honesty, you may be interested in knowing that I appear to have landed on a rock at the time when the two of us found ourselves rather forcibly thrown to the ground." Much too hastily, he added, "I assure you, it stopped bleeding some time ago."
That was it. Light or no light, he was going to choke the life out of Ezra. Or else shoot the hell out of him, he couldn't decide.
"Why the hell didn't you say something when I was asking you to leave?"
"Because," Ezra said, sounding slightly embarrassed but truth-steady, "my injuries had nothing to do with why I refused your repeated demands." He put his hands on Vin's shoulders and squeezed briefly, in a rare gesture of genuine affection, and then pushed himself back against the canyon wall and wriggled out from behind Vin. "Now, Mr. Tanner. That leg of yours, I believe, still requires some attention."
No use arguing with Ezra when he was pure gold like that. Vin had learned that a long time ago. He turned a little, exposing the broken leg, and gritted his teeth, waiting. He hated having a bone set. Like the pain of breaking it in the first place hadn't been bad enough?
Ezra touched Vin's ankle. "Not yet. Perhaps a drinkdamnation."
Vin closed his eyes. He'd remembered that already, even if Ezra hadn't. Their coats were still resting at the top of the slope with only their hats for company, and Ezra had had too much on his mind when they'd started down to think of switching his flask to his vest pocket. Wasn't like he'd known that Vin was going to take his tumble. He screwed his eyes shut even tighter, remembering the fresh crimson stain he'd seen, the what-could-have-been that was Chris's life blood spread out over the stones. He had to remember to tell Ezra that, let him know that he hadn't fallen on him and cracked his head and his back just for the fun of it. Ezra's hand was still on his ankle, hadn't moved up at all, and Vin said through his teeth, "Just go on and do it, Ez. Sooner the better. Quick would be nice."
There was no reply and still no move to set the bone. Vin could take a little hesitation, but not like this. He opened his eyes and straightened, said, "Dammit, Ezra," and then saw what had draw Ezra's attention away from him and held it so solidly.
Chris. Thank God, Larabee had finally found them. Now, if he could just get Ezra doctored up a little, he could have another go at convincing him to light out after Gibson
Light out. Light. Of course. He'd forgotten.
No wonder Ezra couldn't tear his eyes away from Chris. Vin even struggled with the task sometimes and he was used to itused to the light and used to Chris, familiar with the way Larabee could burn near about as bright as the sun in what might have been rage, grief, or some maddened form of self-loathinghe knew the shape of that sun on their horizon, but Ezra did not. Vin figured his own light was probably gentle enoughstarlight and all thatand Ezra had even tied himself up in knots over getting a good look at that. Everybody was going to be startling to him for a while, let alone somebody as showy as Chris. He wanted to tell Ezra all the things he had realized about Chris since the first time he had seen him burning like that, wanted to reassure Ezra that it wasn't always so bad, that Chris could be as warm as the sun, too, and often as kind. There were times when that burning gentled, after all, times when Chris was the sun on the best day of summer, or the only bit of warmth in a cold winter sky. That sun could be mercy, sometimes, or laughter, or maybe even love. More than that, though, he wanted to tell Ezra that the scariest thing about Chris wasn't the fire, it was when the fire went out. Not like shadows passing in front of the sun, not like the sun dimmed down to candlelight, not like sadness or even deathbut like an eclipse. Nothingness where there ought to have been everything. Retreat. Resignation. If Chris burning was bad, the sight of him as only ashes was enough to break Vin's heart.
But he hadn't known the language for saying these things in too many years; he'd spent too much time being the only one in his life who could know. He had no words, not even in poems, for the things that he could see, and he couldn't tear them from his heart to his mind just because he wanted to, or even because Ezra needed him to.
The best he could do was say, "He can't help it. That's just him." He knew his tone was accusatory and he winced at ithe couldn't blame Ezra for getting scared. "I mean"
But he hadn't given Ezra enough credit, it looked like, because Ezra just shook his head, tossing away the accusation that Vin had rested on him, and asked in what was no more than a whisper, "But doesn't it hurt him? I had no idea."
Not fear, not revulsion, not anything of the kind. Concern. Had Ezra really thought those golden moments of his were so few and far-between? A whole host of things caught in Vin's throat and stuck there, freezing him up: shame at misjudging Ezra, shock at the question, pain at not knowing quite how to answer it. He'd always thought that the burning was Chris hurting, not that the burning itself was what caused the pain, but it wasn't like he could ever be sure. He counted so much on guesswork and the answers he'd gotten that way didn't mean much in the face of Ezra's earnest question or his stricken worry. He settled on honesty and did the best he could to be gentle. Poor reparations for snapping like that, though.
"I don't know either, Ez. Don't think so, but I can't know for sure."
Ezra nodded slowly. "His family. I never imaginedthough I suppose I wouldn't have."
Vin wanted to say more and already had his mouth open to do it when he saw the toe of Chris's boot push itself over the edge just a few feet awayand many more feet upfrom where their position at the bottom. The image of blood on the rocks crashed into him again. Chris couldn't see them. Vin didn't know what he was following, aside from maybe some vague idea of where they might have gone, but he did know that he'd seen Chris's blood in the safer place to climb down and now Chris looked as if he were about to start down somewhere even more dangerous.
He couldn't bolt to his feet, though his good leg made an abortive and buckling attempt before he remembered, so he just tilted his head back and hollered for Chris as loudly as he could.
Ezra might not have known about the blood, but he knew what that boot-toe meant, so he added his voice to Vin's.
Chris withdrew his boot and in another second Vin knew that he had gone down to his belly, because his head stuck out low over the edge nowthe expression on his face tight and undefined, as if he had no idea whether to be angry, worried, relieved, or some intense combination of all three at once. When he saw the two of them all bunched up together at the bottom, Vin half-laying on Ezra and Ezra pinned between Vin and the wall, both of them looking pale and drawn, he must have settled on worry, because the first thing he called down wasn't a threat but: "You two still breathing?"
"Breathing and bleeding," Vin said wryly, "but we'll live, all right. You stay up there 'til you can find some rope. Not safe to come down."
"That why you're in such bad shape?"
"I fell. Ezra didn't."
Chris put a hand above his eyes and looked down again, more critically this time. "Ezra doesn't look too good himself."
Vin rolled his head back to get another glimpse. No, Ezra wasn't too fine this morning, but Vin didn't know if it had more to do with the crimped look of pain around his eyes and mouth, his pale face, his blood-tacky hair, or the fact that he was still goggling at Chris like he was the Second Coming or something. Under his scrutiny, Ezra put his attention back on Vin long enough to quietly and somewhat petulantly say that since no one was talking to him anyway, he might as well stare while he could. Vin nodded a bit and went back to craning his neck to see Chris up the canyon-side.
"Well, he ain't too good, cowboy. When I said I fell, just what did you think I landed on? Ezra's the only halfway soft thing down here and even he's a bit on the bony side." The shouting back and forth was beginning to wear on his throat, so after waving his hand at the shocked look on Chris's face, he returned to Ezra.
"They came," he said. "They'll get me fixed up. Now you just go on if you can. Nothing left for you to do here, you're done taking care of me, so you get after him. Can you still see it?" That was a testthe first and hopefully only onebecause he knew that he could see the ribbon still, maybe a little more faded but still plain as ink on the ground. He had to be sure that whatever he had given Ezra would stick around long enough to be useful.
Ezra nodded. "There's less of it now than there was last night, but the remains are visible enough. I could follow it." His eyes had been a little glazed with contemplation but now he tilted his head down to give Vin a sharp look. "When Chris comes down, you'll explainhowever you have toand then I will take my leave. I don't need his permission, Vin. I can leave here with or without that, provided he doesn't take it in his head to put a bullet into me as I make my departure, but I won't leave if he doesn't know where I'm going. Or, more importantly, who I'm going after."
"It's nothing that's easy to explain," Vin said. "You ought to know."
Ezra touched his eyes. "A rather hard-to-forget explanation, I grant you, but an explanation nonetheless. Hell, I suppose he might even go after Gibson himself, could he but follow the right trailthough he ought to remain here with you."
Sending Chris out instead of Ezra had some appeal to it, Vin would admit that. For one thing, Chris wasn't half as finicky about the way things ought to be done, and for another, Chris wasn't bloodied yet. Gibson might be dying, but Vin had no doubt that he could still put up a fight. Even as snake-like as Ezra could be when he put his mind to it, Vin didn't want to send him up against a viper if he didn't have a good chance of coming out on top.
"Why d'you think he should stay? There's nothing here."
"You are here, Vin, and I imagine Mr. Larabee will be a more effective nursemaid." His eyes widened a little. "Dear Lord, I hope he didn't hear me say that."
"Odds are against it," Vin said, a smile quirking at the corners of his mouth from the delight of rebounding one of Ezra's own phrases on him. "And if we're talking loud enough for him to hear, I reckon that's not the worst thing you'll have to worry about. But playing nurse ain't a good enough reason, Ezra. You're still a mite sore to be taking off, and if Chris is going to be getting a good look anyway"
"I have the better claim," Ezra said. His voice was as strong and fine as steel. Vin didn't know what he meant, not right away, but even not knowing, that sound in Ezra's voice was enough to make him shut up and shut up quick.
"I know what they all thinkwhat you might even thinkthat it reminds him of his family. Whatever it is that makes him burn. I know they all think that and perhaps they are even rightno, I'll concede it. Certainly, they are right, I thought the same myself." His mouth stiffened. "But I sat at that kitchen table and I taught those children card tricks. I'm not mourning them for someone else's sake. So he might be angrier, Vin, but I do believe I have the better claim."
He was right, at least as far as Vin could see it. So he knew what had to be done.
It wasn't a dream-feeling, like the one that had urged him out of camp with Ezra close at his heels and Chris far behindhe had no idea, in his head or heart or stomach, of what lay ahead for any of them now. It was just something he knew, that any of the rest of them could've known, if they'd taken the trouble to sit down and figure things outhe knew what had to be done and knew that it had to be done the way a man might know when he had to shoot an ailing horse or when he had to kiss a woman who wanted kissing. It was just there. It made sense, even if he had an idea that that kind of sense might end up hurting all of them before the end. It wasn't a good thing but it was the right thing, he was sure of that much. It was a thing that needed doing because there was no other way it could be done.
"Then you've gotta leave," Vin said. "And you gotta do it now, before they get down here. There's no other way they're gonna let you go."