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Chris stood at the window, looking out at the dusty street below. He had been watching the townspeople coming and going for awhile, turning occasionally when a sound from his bed would tell him that Vin was stirring. The tracker had not regained consciousness, and seemed content to stay where he was. Larabee continued to watch the street until he was finally rewarded with what he had been waiting for. Buck Wilmington ran first down one side of the street, and then up the other. He stopped in every doorway, peered into every nook and cranny. He was looking for Tanner. Chris could only hope that he was feeling the sense of panic that he should; his inattentiveness could have cost the young sharpshooter his life. The man in black wanted his oldest friend to dwell on that for a time; he was in no hurry to let him know that the man he sought was safe and sound.
A knock on the door drew Chris' attention away. He stopped at the bed long enough to pat the frail shoulder as Vin reacted to the strange sound. Going to the door, he opened it a crack to find Josiah in the hallway. "You looking for Vin by any chance?" he said with a cold gleam in his eye. He stepped back and allowed the startled preacher to enter the room.
Sanchez went to the bed, leaning over to see for himself that Tanner was alright. "How long's he been here?"
"Buck's about to go crazy -"
"Good. Damn fool wasn't paying attention. Vin could have collapsed and died and Buck wouldn't have known it 'til it was too late. He needs to sweat this a while."
Josiah almost asked the angry man if he were being too hard on his friend, but one look in the handsome face told him the answer. Chris and Vin had gone through hell, and Chris had fought hard to bring Vin back to them. The fact that Buck had allowed the ailing young man to slip away in the middle of the night was almost a slap in the face to the gunfighter. That simple act of carelessness could have made whatever it was that he had gone through come to nothing. Josiah nodded.
"He's been sleeping pretty sound, but reckon he'd be better off at Nathan's where he can get the care he needs. Could you take him back?"
"Of course." The big man leaned over and scooped the insubstantial form off the bed, quilt and all. "I'll go the back way; don't think Buck's thinkin' clear enough to check there yet."
Chris grinned faintly then sobered. Looking down at himself and then around the disheveled room, he said, "If he wakes up, tell him I'll be over in a bit. Reckon I ought to make myself fit to be among humans again."
With a broad grin, the preacher nodded. "I'll tell him." With that he swept from the room, the quilt-covered figure huddled in his arms like an over-sized doll.
Larabee sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. What had he been thinking? Why had he been so selfish, thinking only of his own need to escape? The answer was clear to him; it was what he did, what he always did. Staring angrily around, the blond picked up one of the bottles he had emptied and slammed it into the brick wall of his room. Growling wordlessly, he vented some of the rage he had tried to drown with whiskey. No more.
Pulling a set of clothing from his bureau, Chris Larabee strode angrily, yet purposefully, from the room. He was through hiding; he was going to return to the world, to their problems, and to his best friend's side. It was time to put his own feelings aside and tend to the business of living.
"Damn it...EZRA!" Buck yelled the name across the saloon. "Get your sorry butt up an' out here, NOW!"
"Excuse me, MISTER Wilmington?" Standish said coldly. "Are you by chance addressing me?"
"You know damn good 'n well you were supposed to relieve me nearly an hour ago. What th' hell are you doin' in here?"
"As one might ascertain from the obvious fact that I am sitting at a table with three other gentlemen, holding a small number of cards -"
By this time, the gunman had strode across the saloon, and now stood towering over the gambler. "I ain't in the mood to listen to your smart mouth right now. Get yourself over to the jail. Them cowboys need watchin' -"
"I shall be along shortly, Mister Wilmington." Standish's Southern drawl became more pronounced, despite the fact that his jaw was clinched tightly in anger.
"You'll 'be along' right now." Buck grabbed the man by the collar, hauling him out of the chair. Cards went flying everywhere and the other players bolted from the table.
The smaller man responded quickly, jerking himself out of the other man's grasp, he delivered a series of blows to the big gunman's midsection. Buck retaliated, punching the gambler so hard that his head snapped back. They were quickly brawling in the middle of the saloon, sending the other patrons scurrying to the corners of the big room or out the door. Inez hurried out the door as well, searching for one of the other peacekeepers.
A few minutes later the young saloon manager returned, Josiah Sanchez quick on her heels. The big man quickly located the combatants and crossed to where they rolled on the hardwood floor. "You two knock it off!" Josiah bellowed. His words made no impact; they continued fighting. Finally, seeing an opening, the older man grabbed each of the other men by an arm and physically separated them. They both turned on him, ready to deliver a punch to the preacher as readily as they had to one another. Something in the big man's face stopped them; the anger they each saw there told them very quickly that he would break every bone in their bodies. Still seething, they backed away, each glaring at the other with anger. "Now, that's better brothers. I don't know what this is all about, but I do know that the last thing we need right now is the two of you acting stupider than those three trail bums in the jail. Now what happened?"
The two younger men glared at the third man, seeming to consider their next move. Neither lifted a fist, however. Then as one they both stood with heads hanging low as the preacher chastised them. Finally Wilmington said softly, "Nothin'," he spoke like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
"A simple misunderstanding," Ezra contributed.
"Yeah, right," Sanchez was buying none of it. Nevertheless he released the two, glaring at them as he said, "another misunderstanding like that and you two will be the ones coolin' your heels in jail." He turned and stormed back out the door. As he passed through the batwing doors, he nearly collided with JD Dunne stared inside at the two men, a look of sadness on his young face.
"Two weeks...two weeks and we're at one another's throats," the sheriff said to himself. "If Chris and Vin don't get back soon, they're gonna come back to a full-fledged war."
Vin didn't hear the footsteps coming near him, a sure sign that he was failing. When something banged hard against one of the poles, he jerked awake with a strangled gasp. Falling limply back against his cage wall, he tried to focus on what had wakened him. It was Lafe; the man glared down at him from his single eye, a rifle cradled in the crook of his single arm.
"Git up," the man said gruffly.
Tanner struggled to obey. Weakly pulling himself to his knees, he crawled the few feet to the door of his prison, and waited as the maimed man unlocked the door. Once that was done, the young tracker dragged himself out and pulled himself to his feet. Standing for a moment, waiting for the world to stop spinning, Vin gripped the wooden frame of the door. As always, it felt as hard as iron. He had tested the poles almost constantly when he had first been locked inside. Even when he had most of his strength he couldn't get the bars to move. Now, he could no longer even scratch the surface with the small stones he found enough to tally the endless days as they slowly passed.
"Git movin'," the man ordered, nudging Tanner with the butt of his rifle.
Vin staggered, barely righting himself before he fell back to his knees. Glaring at the other man, he kept his feet under him, and shuffled slowly away from his little prison. They moved toward the sparse plot of ground that the family had set aside to be farmed. Vin had been working steadily on the patch, clearing it of brush and other debris. He had spent the first few days clearing the stumps that dotted the property, and now worked to clear the scrub brush and small stones. As quickly as he was weakening, it took as much effort to move this as it had when he had moved the stumps.
He was going to die. He knew that now; there would be no escape or rescue, no return to the little town and his friends. His friends. Vin sighed, chancing a look over his shoulder toward the hill. Chris was somewhere up there. He had no idea as to what was happening to the man. Vin hoped that the man was okay, that Ella was treating him alright. What was going to happen when Chris found out he had died? If he found out, that is. Would that cold-hearted bitch lie to him, keeping him from finding out that Vin was dead? He wouldn't put it past her. With a second, tired sigh, Tanner turned back to his job. Chris would know. He had to believe that. Somehow Chris Larabee would know if Vin were dead.
"Don't you go blamin' yourself for this, pard," he whispered softly. "I ain't about ta let you carry the guilt 'a my death on your shoulders."
Chris stood staring out the window at the trees beyond. Somewhere below the tree line was Vin, their hostage against his possible escape. He spent most of his waking hours standing at the window, trying to find any means to get away...to rescue Tanner. He faintly hoped that the younger man had found his own way to freedom, but knew better. Had he managed an escape, there was only one place his friend would go, he would be up the hill and facing off against the men who stood guard at the house. Larabee had seen them prowling the grounds, rifles in hand. Typically, he would recognize one of them, one of the men who had captured them. What had it been...two weeks? Three? He couldn't remember anymore, the long days and nights blended into one endless nightmare.
A key jiggling in the door's lock caught the man in black's attention. Turning, he watched passively as Marta brought a tray into the room. Looking beyond her, Chris saw one of the guards in the hallway, rifle at the ready. This was one of the strangers, not one of their original captors. The man looked vaguely familiar, and Larabee wondered for a minute if he had seen him somewhere before. Perhaps one of the men who had ridden with Averill? It would make sense, Ella had bought them off once, why not keep them in her employ?
The woman left the tray and exited the room, locking the door behind her. He could smell the food that sat beneath the cloth covering and wondered briefly if he should indulge. He had barely eaten since coming there, only consuming enough to keep his strength. Just in case. If he saw an opening he would take it, heading directly to the little farm where Vin was being held.
Turning back to the window, Chris leaned against the glass. He had only felt this helpless one other time. The feeling ate through him like a disease, making him almost physically ill. He had to find a way to escape, to get to Vin. Something told him that time was running out on them both. A single tear escaped, rolling down his cheek. He felt it, but did nothing to stop it. It didn't matter now...only one thing mattered; getting away. With a heavy sigh he splayed one hand against the glass, as if he could touch his friend somehow.
"Just hang on, pard," he whispered. "Hang on."
He turned as he heard the key turn in the lock once more. He knew who it was, and he steeled himself for her entrance. He wondered which Ella he would be facing this time...
Josiah felt a slight movement beneath the blankets as he made his way down the stairs. By the time he had reached the landing at the bottom, he realized that the young man he carried was awake. "Vin?"
"Josiah... that... you?" The voice was soft and tired.
"Welcome back, brother. How are you feeling?"
"Okay. You... you carryin' me?"
With a soft chuckle, the big preacher said, "yep."
"Chris thought you'd be happier back at Nathan's. Said he'd be over as soon as he cleans up a bit."
"I...I walked...over here," his voice took on a sharp edge.
"Yes you did. Would you prefer to walk back?" He knew the young tracker's independent streak as well as the others did.
"All right then." Josiah gently lowered the lean body to the ground. Vin wore nothing but pants, so he kept the quilt wrapped around Tanner. He kept one arm wrapped protectively around the other man's shoulders, walking slowly beside him. The tracker's steps were tentative and unsteady, his knees buckling from time to time. Sanchez marveled at the fact that he had made his way here from the clinic alone. He would have to ask Vin about that later. For now, he provided a steady source of comfort and support to the other man. True to his word, he escorted him through the back way to the healer's clinic. The steps almost proved the young man's undoing, a daunting tower of wood leading back to the room.
"You want me to get you up there?" Sanchez asked quietly.
"I can do it," Vin said stubbornly.
"Never doubted it for a minute," the preacher chuckled. He carefully guided Vin's hand to the banister, holding the other with one hand, while he wrapped his other arm around Tanner's back. Slowly they made their way up the stairs one at a time. The two men stopped every three or four steps so the younger man could rest. His chest heaved, his body trembled, and he took gasping breath after gasping breath as he tried to force air into his aching lungs. Halfway to the top, he was forced to slump to the step. Josiah sat down beside him, holding him comfortably in one arm while the hunter fought to keep from collapsing completely.
"I...c...can...do't..." he whispered hoarsely.
Squeezing his shoulder, Josiah didn't argue. Sometimes you simply had to watch a friend's struggles. When it seemed Vin had regained enough strength to stand once more, Josiah helped him to his feet and they resumed their journey. By the time they reached the landing, Tanner was leaning heavily on the bigger man. As they reached the door, Vin finally gave in, collapsing against Sanchez's chest. Easily lifting Vin into his arms once more, the big man started into the clinic. Just as he reached for the handle, footsteps behind him drew his attention. Turning, he saw the blond gunslinger step up onto the landing. Chris still looked drawn and haggard, but he had cleaned himself up and looked more like the man he had met just over a year before.
Somehow the gunslinger knew as soon as he took in the scene before him. Or perhaps it was the bond he shared with the tracker that told him what had happened. Whatever it was, Chris shook his head and said simply "stubborn fool woke up."
"Yep," Sanchez replied with a grin. "Think you could get the door for me?"
Stepping around the two men, Chris pushed the door open and stood aside to let Josiah pass with his burden. The big man carried Tanner to the bed and gently lowered him to the mattress. Pulling the quilt from around Vin's shoulders, he made him as comfortable as possible. Turning around, he said, "I'll go see if Buck's collapsed yet."
With a sarcastic smirk, Larabee said, "Why don't you tell him I want to see him up here?"
"Lord, Chris, you want to just drive that last coffin nail in tight, don't you?" Josiah pretended shock, but gave a conspiratorial wink to the other man as he turned to leave.
"Josiah," Larabee said softly as he sat on the edge of the bed next to Vin.
Turning back, Sanchez simply waited for him to continue.
"Thanks," he said with a nod, "for all of it."
Smiling again, the big preacher said, "No problem brother." With that he left the two men in the clinic to tend to his errand.
Chris watched him leave, and then turned his attention back to the man in the bed. Vin looked peaceful enough at the moment. He slept deeply, not even the feel of Larabee's hand on his forehead woke him. Relieved to find that Tanner wasn't feverish, the man in black wiped the perspiration from the finely chiseled face, and then settled back in the chair next to the bed. In only a few minutes he heard the sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs. Swiveling in the chair, he waited for the door to open. When it did, it creaked slowly to reveal Buck Wilmington standing there with a hangdog look. As it registered with the big man that Vin was laying in the bed, safe and relatively sound, he slumped against the doorframe in relief.
"Hello, Chris," Ella said the words calmly. Larabee knew then that she was in one of her saner moods. That thought gave him little comfort, however.
"Ella," he replied evenly.
"What exactly is it that you find so interesting outside that window?"
He did not reply, choosing instead to simply turn back to the glass. He heard her approach and tensed as she drew near. It took everything he had to stand still as her hands ran down his back. Then she leaned against him, her cheek snuggled against his back and her arms wrapped around his chest. He continued to refuse further acknowledgement of her presence.
"You're punishing me again," she said softly. "Your petty games will do little to make his life easier you know."
"Is he even still alive?"
"Yes," she replied sharply, turning away and marching to the center of the room. There she turned to face his back once more. "The unwashed, ignorant creature is still alive."
"He's done no more to you than... than Sarah... and Adam. All three have been innocent of anything but being a part of my life." He was surprised at how calm he sounded.
"But I AM your life, Chris Larabee! Just as you are mine. We belong together, away from those who want to meddle in our affairs. That's why I brought you here. We can live together as we should have all this time. You have no more need for anyone else in your life than I do in mine."
"You're wrong, Ella."
"NO!" she screamed, launching herself at him. He felt her slender fists pounding at his back, but ignored the attack. He couldn't care less what she did to him now, nothing mattered. As far as he was concerned, Ella Gaines could kill him here and now. In fact he almost wished that she would do so and get it over. The only thing that he wanted to live for was to get Vin away and to watch her die. Nothing else mattered any more.
"Chris... Chris, I'm sorry... I'm sorry. If you wouldn't make me so angry I wouldn't do these things. I wish you would realize that, my love. None of this is my fault after all. Why can't you admit to that... you make me angry...make me need to do these things. If it weren't for you, she would still be alive. If it weren't for you, he would be running free like the savage he is. I don't enjoy doing these things. If you would only do as you're supposed to, I wouldn't have to do them."
She rambled on for several long minutes, berating him for every sick and demented thing she had ever done in the past twelve years. He was secretly appalled at how long the list was, but kept his feelings to himself. Marshalling every ounce of inner strength he possessed, he remained standing impassively at the window.
"...ANSWER ME!" Ella's voice cut through his thoughts. She returned to where he stood and grabbed his arm as hard as she could. He didn't resist her, allowing the petite woman to turn him around. Staring at a spot over her shoulder, he didn't respond to her, either. She slapped him hard across the face and, when that didn't make an impact, slapped him again and again. Other than the snap of his head as her open palm landed full force on his face, he made no move against her. Soon he felt the metallic taste of blood in his mouth, and knew she had split his lip.
"Now look what you've made me do!" She screeched shrilly. "Why do you insist on making me lose my patience like this? We could have something so perfect, but you just have to spoil it. Fine, if that's the way you want it..." She stepped to the door, pulling it open she called out "Davis!"
One of her hired men came quickly at her call. "Yes ma'am?"
"I want you to tell Lafe to go back down to the farm and tell Hiram to punish Tanner. Tell him that I want him to make him hurt for awhile." Her face turned cold, the smile she favored the man with that of pure evil. "Then I want you to take Mr. Larabee to the cellar. He needs some time to consider his behavior."
"Uh... yes ma'am." It was clear that Davis was having trouble with the logistics of what she wanted. Finally he motioned Chris forward with his shotgun, stepping back when the glaring gunslinger got close to him. Nervously the hired gun escorted the blond down the stairs. At the bottom he called to another of Ella's hired guns who stood near the front door.
"Mace, where's Lafe?"
"Down yonder to th' barn I reckon," the other man drawled.
"Well go git 'm. Miz. Larabee has somethin' for him ta do."
Chris bristled at the name these men attributed to the bitch, but he said nothing. He watched intently, hoping that perhaps this close to the front door he would be able to make a bid for freedom. It had to be done right, though; the slightest misstep on his part could end in Vin's death. He watched as the one named Mace left the house. Looking through the open door, Chris was able to see enough to know that he had a clear shot to the woods. Getting to the front door was the biggest question in his mind, though. Davis kept his gun trained on him, never taking his attention completely away no matter what. Larabee felt his heart sink as the hired man instructed him to start moving once more. Slowly he complied, holding onto a faint hope of escape until they reached the cellar door. Opening it, Davis motioned him down the stairs. There was no light and Chris nearly fell more than once as he stumbled down the stairs. Reaching the bottom, he shuffled forward slowly, feeling his way into the darkness. Reaching the nearest earthen wall, he slid to the ground, leaning against the cool clay. Above him, he heard the door shut and the bolt shoved into place. The darkness now complete, he allowed himself to relax and feel the pain and frustration that he had held back. He pounded his fists and head against the wall until he saw stars and felt the pain of growing bruises.
"Damn it...damn it...damn it!!!" he growled through clenched teeth. "I'm sorry Vin...I'm sorry. I don't know what that bitch has in mind, but I'm sorry. This is all my fault...I'm to blame. I'm sorry." He continued his litany of self-recrimination until he finally slumped back against the wall and allowed sleep to claim him.
Vin watched listlessly as Lafe rode up to the little house and called out to Hiram. The big man walked out, glaring at the smaller one. From where he lay huddled in the wooden cage, the tracker couldn't tell what they were saying but, considering how often they looked over at him, he knew what they were talking about. He wondered what they had in store for him now. Not that it mattered. It had ceased to matter...all of it. The only thing that mattered was that Chris not take on the guilt of his death.
A cold laugh reached his ears, and he saw Hiram starting toward him. With a sigh he steeled himself for whatever was to come. The giant of a man came to the wooden pen and unlocked the door. Crooking a big sausage-like finger, the man beckoned him forward. Slowly he crawled toward the opening, drawing his knees under him to sit in a huddled ball, he waited. The wait was short; Hiram reached down and pulled him to his feet by his hair. Vin grunted, but otherwise made no protest.
"Well, my purty little boy," the bear-man growled, "I just got me permission to play with you fer awhile." The laugh that followed was as ugly as any human sound could possibly be.
Vin made no response, simply stood on trembling legs waiting for the pain to begin. It was only pain, it barely fazed him anymore. He felt the broad fingers twist themselves through his hair tighter, yanking his head back. He tried to avoid looking into the man's face, but had no choice, as Hiram glared at him from mere inches. Tanner knew this was a face that would haunt him for as long as he lived. There were dozens of tiny scars across the man's face, which was broad and fleshy. It looked as if something had blown up in his face at some point, and the tracker reasoned that this member of the hiders had been in the war. Hiram's face was permanently dirty, he probably never got wet unless he fell into water or got caught in the rain. Dirt filled the many creases in the face, making his complexion appear striped. The big man's eyes were as black as night, and seemed to reach up from the gates of hell. And those gates couldn't be any viler than the man's mouth. It was a broad slit that had only the merest hint of lips. The teeth inside were black, broken and missing, his breath worse than a sun-broiled carcass that had been dead for days. Vin tasted bile as the man spoke to him.
"C'mon purty boy...let's go have us some fun." Hiram dragged him forward by the hair, unheeding of the fact that Vin's legs were barely able to support him. They traveled only a matter of yards, but the weakened young man was near collapse by the time they stopped. Hiram released his hold, and watched in amusement as Vin struggled to remain on his feet. "Whut's th' matter, purty boy...tired?"
The big man hardly expended any energy as he followed Ella Gaines' orders. He cuffed the smaller man several times, drawing blood from his lips and nose. Tanner slumped to his knees, his chest heaving as he fought to remain in control of his emotions. Hiram might do things to his body that no one had ever done before...might degrade him as no one ever could before...but he would not allow the man the satisfaction of seeing him break. With a deep breath, he raised his head and glared at his torturer.
Laughing once more, Hiram said, "Damned if you ain't 'bout th' toughest purty little thing I ever seen b'fore. Reckon I'm gonna have ta git a little tougher on you." Pulling Vin back to his feet, he dragged him toward the little barn. Looking over his shoulder, the big man called, "Lafe, bring me some rope...and the whip."
As the man's words forced themselves into his tortured mind, Vin struggled to free himself from the iron grip. His movements did nothing more than anger his captor. Still holding onto the thin tracker, Hiram began slapping him open handed across the face. When that didn't seem to satisfy the man, he doubled up his big fist and punched him hard in the face. The smaller man fell backwards, not going to the ground simply because he was still held by the ugly 'hider.
When Tanner next came awake, it was in reaction to a bucket of stale water being thrown on him. Choking on the foul liquid, he struggled to catch a breath. Looking up, he found himself tied to the big doorframe of the barn. His arms were stretched taut, a noose tied around his neck, just tight enough to keep him from moving far or breathing deeply. He fought down the panic as his mind screamed that he was choking to death, making himself breathe in even shallow breaths. When he had calmed down, he focused on his surroundings. Hiram stood before him an evil smile on his face and a long whip in his hand.
"'Bout time you woke up, boy. I's getting' worried that y'd miss all th' fun." He walked slowly toward Vin, slapping the whip against his leg. "I'd a been real disappointed if y'd spoilt m' fun." Now standing before the bound man, he stroked the butt of the whip along his lean chest. "But now we can have us a real good time." Smiling once more, Hiram strolled leisurely around, until he was behind Tanner.
Vin took a breath, as deep as his bonds would allow, and waited for what was to come. Seconds drug by like hours, until he was ready to scream for the big man to get it over with. But when it came, it took every ounce of strength he possessed not to scream from the pain. Lash after lash, each one harder as Hiram built up a momentum, fell across his back, shoulders, and legs. Several of the strokes sent the whip wrapping around to dig along his ribs and stomach. He felt the blackness come to claim him once more, felt the noose tighten around his throat, and realized that he no longer cared.
Chris wasn't certain how long he had been locked away in the cellar. It had to have been days; his body told him that. The hunger didn't really bother him, but the thirst was becoming a problem. He had crept around the windowless, airless, dug-out earthen hole, searching for anything he could use to get away, or use as a weapon. He found nothing of any worth. He did find that moss of some sort clung to the walls however. It wasn't much, but he could draw a little moisture from it. When the thirst became too much, he sucked the bitter plants until he thought that he would vomit from the taste.
He thought he was hearing things when the bolt was thrown on the door at the top of the stairs. The faintest of lights flared like the midday sun, causing Larabee to grimace and close his eyes tightly. Other than that, he did not move, waiting to see what happened next. It wasn't a long wait.
"Are you ready to behave yourself?" Ella's voice called down to him. "Chris?"
He did not answer.
"Chris? Are you all right? CHRIS!" she called out, a hint of fear in her voice.
He heard footsteps on the wooden stairs, too heavy to be hers. The light became brighter, keeping him virtually blinded by a single lantern. He still made no move. When the steps came closer, he continued to keep his eyes tightly shut. The light found its way beneath his lids, forcing him to put a hand over them. He felt a rough hand grab his arm, hauling him to his feet, and he was pulled across the cellar floor and up the steps. He knew how many there were; he had been up and down them often enough. Several times he had gone up, trying the door and finding it locked. He had pushed against it, trying to force it opened. He had tried to remove the hinges, only to find them impossible to budge. He moved up the stairs easily now, not needing sight to make it to the doorway.
Once out of the cellar, his hand was forced away from his face. He blinked back the tears that the daylight caused, and managed to focus on his surroundings. Ella stood before him with a smile. Reaching out to touch his unshaven face, she stroked down his cheek. Standing on tiptoe, she kissed him gently, then stepped back to look him over.
"You're a mess. I had Marta draw a bath, and I've laid out clean clothes." Turning to the man who had brought him out of the cellar, she ordered, "Mace, escort Mr. Larabee to clean up. And stay with him." Looking back at Chris, she said, "When you're ready, we're going to take a little trip." With a curt nod, she dismissed the men. Mace pushed him forward, keeping his gun trained on the gunslinger.
A short time later, Ella joined them in the little room, watching as Chris finished shaving the several days of growth. He felt a chill run down his spine as he thought of another time she had watched him shave. He wished now that he had used the razor she requested to slit her throat then. He considered it now, but knew only too well that Mace would respond with a bullet. He was damned if he would cause Vin's death now.
"You look very handsome, my love," Ella cooed. Her hand ran down his side, stopping at the ugly red scar on his chest. She traced it, raising gooseflesh beneath her touch. "I'm glad Jack's dead. He should never have shot you. I would have killed him myself for disobeying my orders like that. Your...friend...did me a favor."
He caught her in a hazel-eyed glare that caused her to step back several steps. "You've got a hell of a way to repay a favor."
Sighing dramatically, she said, "Chris, when are you going to understand? He isn't important...no one is but you and I. If you would only come to realize that, things would be so much better. I wouldn't have to do things to punish you...we could live happily. Why don't you understand that?" She waited for an answer and, when she didn't receive one, she said, "fine. I believe that I know a way that will help you to understand. Let's go on that little trip." She smiled at him, and he felt his blood run cold. But it was nothing compared to what was in store.
"Howdy, Chris," Buck said tentatively as he entered the little clinic. "Is he... how's he doin'?"
"How the hell do you think he's doing? He wandered off while you were supposed to be watching over him. He's too stubborn to stay put... that's why you were supposed to look out for him. Were you too tired from chasing half the women in town to stay awake? Would it even have made a difference to you if he'd fallen down the stairs and broken his neck?"
Throughout the man's tirade, Buck said nothing. When he saw that Chris was finished, he said, "Reckon I deserve most of that, pard. It was a stupid mistake and you've got every right to be pissed at me. But one thing you ain't got a right to think, and that's that I wouldn't a cared if he'd gotten hurt. Damn it, Chris, if you only knew what I've been through in the past few hours -"
"YOU! What you've been through in the past few hours?" Chris' voice didn't rise, but his tone was harder than any yell. He jumped from the chair and advanced on the bigger man. "You've got no idea what it means to go through something -"
"Cowboy," a quiet voice broke in, causing both men to look at the figure in the bed. Vin's expression was stricken, his eyes wide with concern. "Don't, Chris...wasn't B-Buck's...fault."
Larabee gave his oldest friend a fiery look, letting him know that it wasn't over, and then turned to his other friend. "Don't worry about it, Vin, you don't need to be worrying about anything." He resumed his seat, dismissing Buck's presence.
Wilmington stood helplessly at the foot of the bed, unable to take his eyes from the frail form that barely seemed to crease the blankets that covered him. "Vin... I'm sorry pard, I'm really sorry. I should a done a better job a takin' care a you."
Smiling tiredly, Tanner said, "Ain't a baby... Bucklin. Y'ain't... r'spons'ble for me..." With a sigh, he returned to sleep.
Wilmington's look of relief lasted only until he turned around and caught Larabee's hard-set profile. "For what it's worth Chris, I'd do anything ta make this up to you, but I can't. So, you go on bein' mad at me. I'm still glad you both made it back from wherever you were. I missed you." With that he turned on his heel and left the clinic. Behind him, Chris sighed and slumped into the chair with one hand lying gently on the tracker's arm. He watched the younger man as he settled deeper into sleep, trying to remember how things had been before Ella Gaines had returned to his life. He found it difficult to believe such a time even existed.
Dressed in the too-fancy suit she had provided him with, Chris was escorted from the house for the first time since entering it some three weeks ago. Three of the hired men held guns on him as the group marched to where the horses waited. As soon as he mounted his animal, one of the men tied his hands behind his back. Another of the men tied a rope around his neck, to detour any thought of riding away. Riding between his guards, Larabee watched for even the slimmest chance to get away. They rode down the hill, retracing his last ride. The man in black felt his heart begin to pound as they came nearer to the little farm. This close to Vin, surely they would be able to affect an escape.
Coming on the little house, he watched with greater anticipation for a sign of his friend. He nearly forgot the rope around his neck, nudging the horse with his knees he urged it to go faster. His memory was jogged when the man holding the other end of the rope tugged it hard enough to jerk him back. With a strangled curse he stopped coaxing the horse forward, even as he heard Ella berate the man behind him.
"Davis! I told you that you were not to hurt him unless there was no other option!"
Chris heard the sounds of her hitting the hired man, but didn't turn to watch. He had no interest in anything other than finding Vin Tanner. As they rode around the corner of the house, he barely managed to keep from screaming in pure rage. He saw Vin, or what had once been the proud young tracker.
The cage was about six by six by six, made of roughhewn wooden poles about the size of a grown man's arm. The poles were less than half a foot apart and driven into the ground. Barbed wire was laced through the poles, and made up the roof of the cage. They stopped several yards from the little structure, Chris straining to move closer.
"I'm sorry my love, but this is as far as we're going. I can't afford to let you get too close to him; you might get ideas of leaving me again. I only wanted to bring you here so that you can understand what your stubbornness has caused."
The brunette motioned to the third rider, who took something from her and moved ahead to the cage. Dismounting, he unlocked the door and spoke to the man inside. It took nearly five minutes before Tanner emerged, his battered and abused body barely able to support itself. When he managed to exit his prison, the other man pulled him roughly to his feet. Once there, he swayed dangerously, forced to grasp the door to stay on his feet.
"VIN!" Chris screamed the name, struggling once more to get to his friend.
The injured man slowly turned his head in their direction. His face was battered and bruised, as was his bare chest. On Ella's command the hired gun turned Tanner around. Chris could see the whip marks along his back in a gruesome pattern. They were cleaner than the rest of his emaciated body, as if someone had tried to tend to him, but it was clear that he hadn't been tended well. He might survive his injuries, but they had certainly weakened him. He was allowed to turn back around, and Larabee saw his mouth moving. He couldn't hear a sound, but knew that he was repeating a single word. Vin was calling to him.
"Vin, it's going to be all right. Just hold on, pard, just hold on." He turned to search for Ella's face for the first time since they had left the house on the hill. "As soon as I get free, I'm going to kill you."
"You'll never be free of me my love, and if that means I kill everyone else who has ever meant anything to you, then I am willing to have that done. There are enough men willing to do whatever I ask...for the right fee...that I can do just that. If you force me to, I will do just that. This is all your fault, you must understand that. He would be fine if you had only stayed with me my sweet husband -"
"I am not your husband," Chris growled.
She nodded, and he watched as the man next to Vin hit him across the back with his gun. With a weak cry Vin fell to his knees, and then collapsed to the ground. He struggled to get back up, but slumped to the ground once more.
"Do you understand yet, Chris?" Ella's voice was cold now. "You have no choice in this, not if you want him to live. As long as you stay with me...do as you're told...he'll live. But if you continue to disobey me, he will suffer." Another nod and the man kicked Tanner in the ribs.
"STOP IT!" Chris' tone was a mixture of anger and fear. "All right...I understand. Please don't hurt him anymore. Whatever you want, I'll do it."
He could hear the smile in her voice, even though he didn't look at her. "Good. I always knew you were a smart man, Chris Larabee."
"What...what can I do to get him cleaned up... get his injuries tended to?" The blond was begging now, but he didn't care. Nothing mattered to him but the broken man that was suffering in his place. "Anything you ask, Ella, I'll do it if you'll have him tended to."
She coaxed her horse up next to his and stroked his hair. "I knew you'd see it my way, Chris."
"What do I do, Ella?"
"Well...let me see." She thought for a few minutes, and then giggled coyly. "Make love to me, Chris. Tonight and tomorrow night, just as we made love before. If you do that, I'll have him cared for."
"I'm not going to do anything until I see him cared for," he growled.
"You still don't understand. There is no negotiation in this, you have no cards to play, but I'm willing to do you this favor. I'll do it because I love you, Chris, and I want to make you happy. Just as I've always done, I do everything for you...it is all for you. If you would only stop doing such hateful things to me, making me do the things that I have to do, things would go much easier for him."
"I'm not going to do anything until I see him cared for," the gunman repeated.
She sighed heavily and called out, "Hessie!"
The younger woman that had been part of the group that kidnapped them came hurrying from the house. "Yes 'm," she said timidly.
"Get some soap and water and clean him up," she nodded toward Vin.
Looking from Ella to the cage and back again, she hurried back toward the house. The others sat in silence for the long minutes it took her to gather up the things she needed and return. Going to where Vin still sat, she began to bathe him. Tanner moved slightly but didn't react otherwise. It took the young woman some time to clean the multitude of cuts. When she finished she looked back up toward Ella.
"I want him fed and clothed. I want - "
"Enough! I told you there were no negotiations." The woman called to the man by the cage, "Put him back."
"NO!" Chris tried once more to move forward. He felt the noose tighten around his neck, but ignored it. He failed to hear the other man ride up beside him, the gun butt across the back of his head took him by surprise. As he slumped forward, choking against the noose, he moaned, "Vin..."
"Chris?" The voice was soft, but managed to push itself into his thoughts. Looking up, Larabee found a pair of worried and haunted blue eyes staring at him.
"Hey pard, what are you doing awake?"
"I'm fine, you want a drink?"
Nodding, the man in the bed said, "You sure...you're okay?"
"Ya didn't answer me...while ago..." he stopped to take a sip of the water the blond offered him, then continued, "I said your name 'bout a dozen times 'fore you answered."
Looking confused, Chris said, "Sorry Vin. Reckon my mind was somewhere else."
Nodding, the gunslinger said, "Yeah. Vin, I am so sorry. You never should have been involved in this. It's all my fault...all of it."
"We gotta go down that... road... again, pard?" Tanner's expression was turning to one of exasperation. "Thought we tra...traveled it already."
"Don't pretend that everything's alright Tanner. We both know it ain't. That bitch put you through hell just to get to me. How can you look at me without wanting to kill me...or at least spit in my face? How can it ever be the same between us?"
"Chris, you're pissin' me off." Vin pushed himself up in the bed, then collapsed against the pillows. "Now... if I's mad at you... wouldn't I tell... you? Ain't never... been one ta pussy... foot 'round when somethin's... chewin' on me."
Laughing, the older man said, "Reckon diplomacy ain't ever been your strong suit, Cowboy." Sobering, he said, "Look, Vin, maybe you're not angry at me as much as I'm angry at myself. I don't know...If I'd thought it out...we'd have held off...done it different..."
"Waited for her ta come after you? She'd a sent those 'hiders ... or someone else... after you. Seems ta me you done th' best you could."
Pacing in frustration, Chris stormed, "Then I should have gone myself. I shouldn't have involved anyone else in my problems."
"There you go, bein' God a' mighty. Don't 'member you puttin' a gun ta m' head. Way I 'member it, I went with you cause you're m' friend."
Stopping in his pacing, the man in black rubbed a hand across his face. "Some friend I've been. I don't deserve your friendship Vin Tanner...don't deserve anyone's."
"Bullshit," the younger man growled. "Look, if you're gonna feel sorry for yourself, Larabee, then why don't you go crawl... back in that... bottle?"
The blond looked at him, an expression of pain on his handsome face. Then he turned and left the clinic. On the landing outside, he paused, struggling to push his emotions aside. He couldn't allow the townsfolk to see him with his emotions so clearly expressed. They were used to the hard-edged gunman, and he'd give them nothing less. Taking a deep breath he scrubbed a hand across his face once more. Gathering his dark persona around him, he walked determinedly toward the stairway. He was halfway down the stairs when he saw the townsfolk walking nearby looking upward. Just as he realized they were looking past him, he heard a sound behind him. Turning, he was greeted by the sight of Vin Tanner standing at the top of the stairs, wrapped in a blanket. The young man was weaving dangerously, one hand holding tightly onto the banister.
"Shit," Chris growled as he retraced his steps, bounding up the stairs two at a time. He reached the top just as Vin's knees buckled. Wrapping his arms around the younger man, he got him back from the edge of the stairway and half-carried him back to the little room. Settling the trembling man back onto the bed, he said, "What in the hell do you think you're doing?"
"C-c-called... m'... bluff..." Tanner said with a weak smile.
Tucking his friend in, Chris dampened a rag and bathed Tanner's perspiration-soaked face. He felt hot tears well up in his eyes, choked them back, but couldn't stop the trembling in his hands. "Damn you," he whispered. "You're gonna be the death of me...of both of us Vin. I don't deserve your friendship."
"Y-yeah... well... you g-got... it..." Tanner gasped.
Chuckling despite himself, Larabee squeezed the narrow shoulder peeking from beneath the blankets. "Guess I've got to learn to live with it then." He sighed, "But you're gonna have to deal with my apology pard. Like it or not, I am responsible for you're being there."
"If... I do will... you let it drop?"
Considering for a minute, Vin said, "Alrighty then. I... ac-accept yer...apology... Chris Larabee," he said formally. Pulling his right arm from beneath the blankets, he grabbed the black-clad arm of his best friend. The two men stared into one another's eyes, each reading the commitment and friendship there. With a sigh and a nod, the slender tracker allowed sleep to claim him once more. Tucking the now limp arm back beneath the blankets, Chris settled back in the chair and watched the young man slip deeper into sleep. He brushed away a single tear that he allowed to fall from a hazel eye.
Chris sat in the tub of soapy water she had allowed him finally. He had done her bidding, begrudgingly bedding her twice in as many days. It had taken everything he had to allow her to touch him; to touch her. They had done some of the things they had done before...when he had thought of her with other than hatred...but now those things made him physically ill. Only the thought of Vin Tanner being held hostage helped him focus. And each time he did think of his friend, his actions with the brunette became more and more violent. His skin crawled when he realized that it seemed only to excite the woman.
He had set in the hot tub for some time, getting out only to get another bucket of water from the nearby cook stove to warm the water. He had scrubbed himself over and over, but still felt dirty, feeling her hands on him, her body pressed against his. The memory made his flesh crawl, and he added still more hot water to the tub. Getting inside, he briefly considered simply slipping beneath the water, ending it all. Only a pair of trusting blue eyes kept him above the water line. A gentle tap on the door ended his reverie.
"My goodness, darling," Ella twittered as she entered the room, "you're going to shrivel up if you stay in that tub any longer. Come along now, and get out. It's late and you should get your rest."
"Why?" he answered shortly.
"Because tomorrow is a big day, silly. We're going to be married tomorrow afternoon. "
The water suddenly seemed to turn to ice. He stared at her open-mouthed. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"Oh, silly, don't tell me you've forgotten?" By her tone, he could tell that she was in one of her more deluded moods. "Tomorrow is our wedding day. The priest is coming in from San Francisco just to perform the ceremony. Now, I went to a lot of effort to get him here. Don't tell me that you're getting cold feet at this late date."
"Ella," Chris tried to keep his voice even. "You need to understand. I am not going to marry you. You murdered the only woman I ever loved. You -"
"NO!" She screamed the word, lunging at him as she did. With strength he didn't expect, she banged his head against the high back of the tub, and then pushed him below the water's surface.
Dazed by the attack, Chris considered just allowing her to drown him, but self-preservation and concern for his friend took over. He pushed her back and away, coming up out of the tub. Heedless of his state of undress, he shoved her hard against the nearest wall. Delivering a blow to her jaw, he took only a second's satisfaction in watching her fall bonelessly to the floor before he grabbed his pants and made his way from the room. Once in the hall he slowed enough to listen for her hired guards. Hearing no one, he made his way through the house, stopping only long enough to pull the black pants on. The gunman could not believe his luck in making it to the back door without detection. Opening the door, he pressed himself against the wall as he exited. Quietly pushing the door closed, he slipped along the house, keeping a keen ear open for any sound of pursuit.
He had managed to get to the nearby woods before he heard anything. Ella's cry alerted her hired men that there was trouble. Larabee cursed, knowing his chances of getting to one of the horses would be nil now. With a sigh, he turned toward the trees and slipped among them. He would have to go on foot and hope that he could get a horse when he arrived at the little place at the bottom of the hill. Vin would never make it more than a mile in the shape they had left him. He'd have to get at least one horse to get him back to town.
Moving as quickly as possible, unheeding of the stones, sticks and other debris that gouged at his bare feet, he made his way in the direction of the hardscrabble ranch where Vin was being held. The chances were that he would have some time, while his captors searched around the big house. If luck was on his side he'd have time to reach the 'hiders place and get away with Tanner. If luck was on his side he'd be able to get them back to town, where they would have the added protection of the other five peacekeepers. If luck was on his side...he sighed. He wasn't certain that he had luck anymore; not of the good variety at any rate.
Chris made the little ranch and quietly moved around it until he could see the little makeshift prison. He watched and was soon rewarded with a slight movement that told him Vin was inside. Holding himself in check, he forced himself to watch the cage long enough to make fairly certain that his captors hadn't set a trap. Just as he was edging into the clearing, a sound brought him up short. Larabee watched as one of the big men that had brought them here came from the house and unsteadily made his way toward the cage. As the man fumbled with the lock, Chris was certain that he heard a weak cry of protest from the other side of the wooden cage. He wasn't certain what was going to happen, but knew that it couldn't be good. He slipped from the shadows and made his way soundlessly across the space that separated him from Tanner.
Coming up behind the big man, Chris doubled his fists and swung hard across the bear's shoulders. The man grunted and fell to his knees, but didn't go out. Knowing that he had a very small window of opportunity to manage his rescue, Chris picked up the earthen jug the man had dropped, and hit him hard across the back of the head. He heard a satisfying grunt and watched the mountain of a man fall face first onto the ground. Pushing him far enough away to get the door open, he pulled the lock from the door. Thankful that the man had unlocked it before he cold-cocked him, he eased it open. Crouching to keep from scraping his head against the barbed-wire roof, he looked at his friend. Vin lay curled in a corner, his body trembling with exhaustion, dehydration and abuse. He didn't acknowledge the fact that someone was in the prison with him.
Chris knelt next to him, laying a hand gently on the thin shoulder. "Vin?" he called quietly. "Vin, can you hear me? It's Chris. Pard, I need you to wake up."
A stirring, then a strangled whisper, "Ch-Ch-Chrissssss?"
A smile split the handsome face as he said, "Yeah, Cowboy, it's me. Think you can get up if I help you?"
Nodding, the injured man pushed himself up on an elbow. Chris wrapped an arm around him, mindful of the wounds that marred the lean body. Gently he helped Tanner up and out of the cage. Once outside, the gunman pulled the other man into a quick hug, then helped him to sit down outside. Returning to the unconscious man, Larabee pushed him inside the prison, re-locking the door. As he made his way back to the tracker, he saw a smile on the beaten face. Pulling Vin to his feet once more, he started across the open space between the cage and the small barn. They moved slowly, Vin barely able to keep his feet under him.
Just as they reached the door, a voice spoke out softly, "Take the roan; she'll carry double the longest."
Pulling up short, Chris looked toward the direction the voice had come from. A shadow disengaged itself from the barn wall and came closer. Still blanketed in darkness, they continued. "She's in the third stall, tacks hangin' up right outside. You treat her good; I raised her from a colt."
"Who -" Larabee started.
"Her name's Moonshine, but she perks ta 'Shine. Now y'all better hurry, cause I 'magine they'll be comin' for you soon. I'll try ta head 'm off in th' other direction." Returning to the shadows, their visitor disappeared into the darkness.
Chris watched for another moment, but decided that it wasn't a trap. Pulling Vin along with him, he entered the barn. Moving stealthily he arrived at the third stall. Easing Tanner to the ground once more, he entered the stall, mindful that this too could be a trap. Satisfied that it wasn't, he led the roan out of the stall and quickly saddled her. Once the horse was ready to travel, he returned to where the tracker sat slumped against the wall. Squatting down next to him, Chris said softly, "Ready to leave this place pard?"
With a tired nod, the abused man allowed himself to be pulled to his feet and led to the horse. With Larabee's help, he managed to get into the saddle. Slumping forward toward the horse's neck, he felt his foot removed from the stirrup and the shift and creak of the saddle as Chris stepped up onto the horse's back behind him. Strong arms wrapped around him, holding him tightly as Chris led the horse out of the door.
Chris cursed under his breath as he heard the distant thunder of hooves. Tightening his hold on his companion, he wheeled the horse away from the sound and kicked the animal into a gallop. "Hold on, pard," he instructed the semi-conscious man. Keeping one arm around Vin, he used the other to guide the reins, coaxing the roan away from the nightmare they had been trapped in for far too long.
"Hey... JD," Vin greeted the youngest member of their group when he next opened his eyes.
"Hey, Vin," the Kid responded over the top of a dime novel. "How are you? Can I get you a drink of water? There's broth on the stove." He stopped and smiled as he saw that Tanner was having trouble following his rapid speech. "Sorry."
"'S'okay," the tracker whispered. "Water?"
"Sure." The young sheriff leapt to his feet and retrieved a mug of cool water and helped his friend drink. Lowering Vin back to the pillow, he continued, "Want some broth? Nathan said that you need to drink as much of it as you can."
"Man can't... get his strength up... on that shit..." Vin grumbled.
With a chuckle, Dunne said, "I told him you'd say that. He said if you drink it and hold it down okay, he'll see about getting you something a little more filling tomorrow."
"Mush..." he continued to grumble.
"Sorry, he said you couldn't hold down anything solid for awhile. Reckon you'll have to get by on it for a few days."
"Well, reckon it's better'n...what I've had...lately." He sighed.
"You want to sit up?"
"Yeah...reckon," he allowed the younger man to help him up. Dunne stacked pillows behind the other man and eased him back against them. Looking around he asked, "Where's Chris?"
"Buck and Josiah drug him off for some dinner. He argued, but Nathan threatened to lock him out of the clinic for awhile if he didn't. Gave all of them a dirty look, but he went quiet."
Smiling, the tracker said, "Man's about as stubborn 's... anyone I ever met before." He stopped, his blue eyes filling with unshed tears. "Reckon that's why we got back here a' tall, though."
That was all it took. The questions that had built up for days began to surface. "Where were you Vin? What happened? How come you're so...so beat up, and Chris' hardly got a mark on him?"
Closing his eyes against the whirlwind of words, Vin said, "Later JD, okay? Ain't certain...I can...rec'lect much right...now."
He nodded, although he was disappointed. "Okay, Vin, no problem. I didn't mean to pry; I just thought...maybe you'd want to talk a bit."
"Don't mind talkin'...Kid...just not on that." He rubbed a trembling hand across his face. "Reckon I'll take some a that damn broth now."
Grinning, the younger man hurried to retrieve a warm mug of the brew Nathan had left for him. He sat on the edge of the bed, allowing Vin to drink from the mug alone, but keeping a watchful eye on his still weakened friend. The questions still railed against his mind, demanding that he seek answers, but he forced them back and remained quiet. He watched the worn and beaten man before him, amazed that someone as thin as Vin Tanner had always been could be even thinner. He wondered at the deeply burned skin that they still rubbed salve on it several times a day. He watched the haunted look in the blue eyes that had been dulled by weeks of pain and deprivation.
"JD," the object of his inspection said softly over the battered mug. "You're wearin' a hole in me lookin' at...me so close."
Coloring with embarrassment the young sheriff said, "Sorry Vin."
"I promise ta set the... record straight... if you give... me some time ta sort it all... out," Vin said.
Ducking his head, Dunne repeated, "Sorry. It's just all such a puzzle...I'm sorry."
"Kid, don't need ta 'poligize... ta me, okay? It's okay." Tanner handed him the now empty mug. "Think Nathan'll be satisfied?"
"Should be. He didn't figure you'd drink but half of it. You want some more?"
"Not 'less you can slip some...meat in it this time," he said wistfully.
"Well..." the young man winked conspiratorially, "long as you don't tell... and don't get sick on me..." He moved back to the stove and returned with both a second mug of broth and a neatly folded napkin. Unfolding the napkin, he produced a small chunk of ham. Offering it to Vin, he smiled to see the light return to his friend's eyes. "Sorry it ain't all that big, but I couldn't sneak much more off the platter."
"Hell, Kid," Vin said around a small bite of the tender meat, "looks like a feast...ta me." He savored the contraband food, washing it down with more of the broth. With a sigh, he handed both the mug and the napkin back to Dunne and settled back against the pillows. "Oh, that was good," his voice trembled, but he smiled sleepily at the other man. "I'm beholden, JD."
Swelling with pride, but still worried that his actions would cause problems, JD shoved the napkin into his pocket. He sat the mug on the little table next to the bed, and eased off the bed.
Vin jerked, his eyes flashing opened. "Where you goin'?"
Concern replaced pride in the younger man's face. "Just thought I'd give you some room so you can go back to sleep. I'm just gonna go back to the chair. You okay?"
"Yeah," Vin said with an embarrassed smile. "Reckon I'm still a bit jumpy."
Dunne nodded, "If anyone has the right to be jumpy, I guess it's you Vin. Just don't worry about it. After that stunt you pulled, sneaking off, Nathan and Chris both threatened the rest of us with a world full of hurt if you're left alone 'til you're better."
Rubbing a hand over his face, the former bounty hunter said, "Don't know which a them two's th' worst. Neither one of 'm acts like I can handle m' own affairs."
"Yeah, well, you did scare a few years off both of them, and I know I saw at least a dozen new gray hairs on Buck's head. Don't know if he was more worried about you or himself."
Chuckling Tanner said, "'Tween you an' me it's a...wonder ol' Bucklin ain't plum... gray-headed from worryin'."
"Well, you know how these old men are...can't take much of a scare," Dunne said with a smile and a wink.
Vin laughed; a full belly laugh that made his ribs ache. He had almost given up ever laughing like that again, it had been so long. "Kid, I been needin' that...thanks."
JD beamed, happy to have been able to help his friend once more. He settled back in the chair, picking up his dime novel. Thumbing through it, he asked, "If you want, I can read this to you for awhile. Take your mind off...things."
Looking at the book, he saw a drawing of a man holding two others at bay with a pistol. His fledgling reading skills could make out 'the' and 'fight', but the letters between made no sense yet. With a yawn, he said, "Sure, Kid, thanks."
Getting comfortable, JD flipped back to the beginning of the book and began reading. He had read only a few pages when he heard soft, easy breathing. Looking up, he saw that Vin had slipped back to sleep. Smiling, he continued reading nonetheless.
They rode through the night, using every trick Chris had learned to disguise and hide their tracks from Ella Gaines' hired men. He knew that Vin would know many more, but the young hunter was in no shape to do any more than maintain his hold on the saddle horn. Larabee did his best to keep them away from their pursuers, knowing that if they were captured things would only be worse for Vin. From time to time he would hear the drum of hoof beats in the distance, his heart pounding at the thought of having to return to that bitch and her hired goons. Deciding on the direction the sounds were coming from, he would adjust their course until he could no longer hear their pursuers.
As the sun began to color the sky, the gunslinger began searching for somewhere to hide. They couldn't risk the chance of being caught in the open during the daylight. Their best bet would be to travel under cover of darkness, even though it would take much longer to return to town. With no weapons, a single horse and Vin in bad shape, Larabee knew they couldn't risk traveling openly right now.
Chris caught sight of something that reflected the early morning light along the hills in the nearby brush. Unsure as to why, it drew him to it. Coaxing the roan toward the brush, he continued to maintain a watch on the landscape around them. Anything could be a trap; he couldn't allow his guard to drop as yet. Pulling up next to the object that had captured his attention, Chris immediately recognized it. Vin's harmonica. It had been secured in the heavy scrub; someone had left it deliberately. Cautiously Larabee investigated the area but could find nothing amiss; grasping the little instrument he tucked it away in his pocket. As he did, he noticed a gap in the brush. Looking around, still expecting a trap to be sprung, he turned back and realized that he was looking at an opening. Among the scrub brush and stones there was an opening that hid a ragged gap in the hilly landscape. Kneeing the horse forward, he took them through the gap, traveling its length and finally coming out in a small opening that was surrounded by trees, stone, hill and brush. It was a glen large enough for them to hide in comfortably but small enough to go undetected for some time.
Again he worried that it was all a trap, but something told him that it wasn't. Maintaining a vigil, he ground tied the horse and pulled Tanner from the saddle. Vin moaned softly, nearly unconscious. "It's okay, pard," he said softly, "you're okay. Just let me take care of things." He cradled the tortured man into his arms then settled him on the ground. Kneeling next to Tanner he rubbed the back of his neck and studied the landscape. He didn't understand what was going on. Who was helping them? He supposed it was the person who had spoken to him last night. He couldn't tell for certain, but he suspected it was the enigmatic figure he had begun calling the ghost. Why would he help them? Perhaps Ella Gaines' money couldn't buy everyone she sought to control.
But, he thought to himself, it could buy quite a bit. He knew from her journal that she had managed to amass quite a fortune...and all of it tainted with the blood of innocents. She had shown no sense of remorse in any of it; had recited the cost in human life as dispassionately as the amount of money gained in each venture. All of it a means to an end...and Chris Larabee was that end.
A soft groan brought him from his thoughts. Looking down, he watched as Vin struggled with some nightmare, no doubt brought on by what had happened to him during the past three weeks. Reaching down, he stroked the square jaw beneath the beard that had grown in during his captivity. "Take it easy Vin, it's just you and me here, no one else. You're safe. Hear me? You're safe." For now, he amended silently. He could only promise his friend safety for the moment.
He couldn't even promise his friend the comfort of a drink of water, or a blanket to fight off the chill when night came. "Hell of a deal, huh pard?" he spoke softly. Neither of us even have a pair of boots, no canteen...not even a hunk of jerky. Don't know that I can promise you safety for more than a few more hours...hell, even that's a big question. If those hired bastards of Ella's find us, I'm not certain I'll be able to bargain for much. I swear to you though, I'll do whatever it takes to get you out of this. Whatever it takes."
"Chris..." the hoarse whisper drew Larabee's gaze back to the other man.
"Hey, pard, you awake?"
Nodding, Tanner managed to open his eyes and fought to focus on the man beside him. "Wh-where...?" he asked.
"We're hiding out for a bit, waiting for it to get dark. Then we'll head out for home, get you cleaned up...put some meat on that skinny carcass of yours." He tried to keep his tone light, but wasn't quite convincing.
Vin smiled, but said nothing. Instead, he reached out, clasping his friend's forearm. His gaze locked with Chris', saying quite clearly that he trusted the man implicitly to do his best in making things right.
Larabee was humbled at the look of frank trust being given him by the younger man. He also felt undeserving of the honor bestowed on him by that look. He was solely to blame for not only what was going on now, but the devastation Ella Gaines had brought to so many over the course of the past several years. Her journal told a deranged and violent story that had begun just months after they had parted company. To think that he could make her stop now, when her long years of planning were nearing her goal - becoming his wife - was unrealistic. She had yet to allow anything to stop her, and he had little to bargain with.
But he had to try.
Squeezing Vin's arm in return, Chris watched the younger man drift back toward sleep. Resting the slender limb back on the ground, he resumed his vigil, both over Tanner and for any sign of their being overtaken. And that was how he remained for most of the day. He left the tracker's side only a few times to go to the well-concealed opening of their hide-away or check the surroundings for anything he could utilize. There was nothing. As the day wore on thirst and hunger began to make themselves known with more persistence, and he knew they were taking an even greater toll on the young tracker. Finding a source of water would have to be their first priority as soon as they were on their way, food would have to wait. If he was right, they could be at Talson in less than a day. There, he could get Tanner some medical attention and wire the other men. It would be a long two day wait for them to arrive, especially if Ella had anyone there in her employ. But if he had to stand over Vin Tanner with a gun in hand the entire time, he would do it.
Just as night was teasing the landscape with its evening colors, Vin again roused from sleep. Chris smiled to see the blue eyes looking more focused this time. "Hey, cowboy, you finally decide to open those eyes for me?"
"Chhhrrrriiiisssss..." he said with a tired smile. "Wasn't a... dream."
Chuckling, Larabee said, "Don't think I've ever been accused of being anyone's dream pard. Now, how you feeling?"
Brushing a curling wisp of brown hair from the battered face, he replied, "Don't doubt it. Well, it's going to be dark soon, reckon you'll be ready to ride?"
Vin thought of several replies, but settled on a simple nod. He struggled to sit up, but Larabee pressed him back to the ground.
"You lay still till we're ready to go. I don't want you using your energy up until you need to, okay?"
"...bossy..." the tracker managed, a smile lighting his eyes.
"And don't you forget it," the blond replied. His hand lingered on Tanner's shoulder, savoring the physical contact with the other man. The friend whose life was in danger because of him. "Stop it, you damn fool," he mumbled to himself. There would be time for self- recrimination later. Right now he had to keep his mind focused on matters of hand.
The soft voice caused him to jump, jostling Vin as he did. Tanner jerked, a faint cry escaping his lips. As he turned to Chris, Larabee turned toward the voice. From the shadows came a vaguely familiar figure. Chris stood, placing himself between their visitor and his friend. He relaxed only marginally when he realized it was the silent member of the party that had captured them. The man's motives were still unknown.
"Mister Larabee, I ain't here to cause you harm. I was the one that met you at the barn last night." Giving a quick whistle, the newcomer offered the horse's obedience as proof of his words. The handsome roan trotted quickly to her owner, nuzzling a gloved hand. "Looks like 'shine ain't much the worse for wear. Appreciate that."
Dismounting and walking slowly, arms outstretched signaling no intention to harm; 'The Ghost' approached the two men. Coming to stand only a few feet away, their benefactor dropped a heavy set of saddlebags to the ground. "Brought you some clothes...doubt they'll fit well, but they'll have to do. Got some food and herbs that should help Mister Tanner. Brought some water, too."
Chris was barely aware of the words; he was staring at the visitor with something akin to shock now that he was able to see their benefactor clearly for the first time. "You're a woman," he said in an amazed tone.