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Vin opened his eyes to the sound of someone moving something heavy outside. As he watched, the door to the clinic opened and the heavy object was pulled in with a variety of grunts, groans and curses by Buck and Nathan. Pushing himself to his elbows, the young tracker watched them, and realized that they were dragging a bathtub in the door. When they finally settled it in the corner of the room, he turned a confused gaze toward Nathan as Buck hurried back out the door. "What're you doin'? Openin' up your own bathhouse?"
"Something like that," the healer said. He offered nothing more.
"You gonna tell me any more, or is this gonna be a surprise?"
"Thought we'd let it be a surprise," the healer turned to him with a broad smile.
"Don't think I like th' sound a that," Tanner eyed the tub suspiciously. "What're y'all plannin'?"
"We're plannin' on scrubbin' you down -"
"Ah, hell Nathan!"
"No arguing pard," Chris said as he entered carrying two buckets, rising steam announcing their contents to be hot water.
"I can go to th' bathhouse if I need a bath for God's sake," he grumbled. "Ain't no inv'lid."
"I know," Nathan assured him. "But with all of those open cuts I don't want you sittin' in a dirty tub, never know who's been in it before you. We got this one scrubbed out and sterilized. We need to get some of the more recent wounds cleaned out better than we can do with a bucket of water. Need ta scrub 'm out so they heal proper, otherwise they're gonna leave some nasty scars."
"Ain't worried 'bout no scars," Vin growled.
"Now, you know you got enough trouble fetchin' them fillies, son." Buck was back, two buckets in hand as well. "You get all scarred up, you'll even have to pay for th' comp'ny a th' ugly ones."
"Go ta hell, Bucklin," the young man retorted. He rolled over, pulling the blankets over his head. It did little good. He felt the bed shift, and hands on his exposed back.
"Vin," Jackson was serious now. "I need to pull some of the scabs loose. It's gonna hurt, but I think it's the best way to do this. I'm gonna put some medicinal herbs in th' water that oughta help th' healin' an' help with your skin all together. It's still awful dry, and the herbs oughta help."
"Besides Tanner, you stink," Chris' voice came to him from the other side of the blankets.
Searching for a retort, Vin's concentration was broken as he felt Nathan pulling at one of the wounds on his back. He cried out, it felt as if he was being skinned alive. "SHIT! Na-Nathan, that hurts!"
Chris knelt beside the bed, pulling back the blankets. Vin had grasped the mattress, his fist shaking with tension as he fought to control his reaction to the pain. The gunman offered his own hand, which the tracker grabbed gratefully with both his own. "Hang on Cowboy, it'll be over soon." Larabee was shocked. His friend had withstood horrible pain and degradation with little more than a twitch at times. It had only been at the end that he had been too weak to remain silent as they had tortured him. Now, simply removing the scabs seemed almost more than he could bear. Then, sudden realization made him understand. Before, he was surrounded by enemies who would be only too happy to exploit his pain. Now? Now he was with his friends, and he could protest; could let his guard down and scream if he wanted to. And, perhaps, it was the old pain that he was feeling now, as much as the new.
Tanner's world shrank down until it contained only his heartbeat, the sound of his friend's voice, and the feel of his friend's hand. The strength of Larabee's grip helped him through the next torturous minutes as Jackson ministered to his injuries. When the nightmare that he had endured tried to force its way back into his mind through the pain in his back, the feel of Chris Larabee's touch and the sound of his voice kept him focused on the here and now.
Finally finished, Nathan patted the young man on the shoulder. "I'm sorry Vin, wish I hadn't had to do it."
"S'okay...Nathan..." Vin replied as he drew a deep breath.
With Larabee's help, Jackson got Tanner out of the bed, stripped, and into the tub that the others had filled with hot water while they had cleaned the injuries on the man's back. He grumbled the entire time they were moving him, and continued as they helped him ease into the water. He tried to bite back the cries when they immersed him, but couldn't quite manage it. Chris was there once again, offering his hand to the younger man. Nathan held him from the other side, allowing him to slowly acclimate to the water. The medicated water slowly numbed his injuries; the other men smiling when he managed a deep sigh of relief.
"Feel better, pard?" Chris asked.
"Mm-hm," he replied softly.
Nathan eased him back so he could soak from the neck down. Letting go of his hand, Larabee took up a sponge and soaked it in the water. "Keep your eyes closed," he said softly as he squeezed the hot water over Tanner's face and neck. Vin turned his face upward with a smile, enjoying the feel of the liquid as it ran over him like a rain shower. "I swear," Chris chuckled, "you're part fish or something."
They allowed him to soak as long as he wanted. Josiah and Nathan changed the bedclothes and turned the mattress in the meantime. When it appeared that Tanner was getting restless and beginning to feel the pain once more, Chris scrubbed his still matted hair, loosening the rest of the tangles as he did. They allowed Vin to use the sponge to bathe, but stayed near. The younger man kept his eyes closed, embarrassed by the attention. When he finished, he endured the others helping him from the tub and back to bed.
"Y'all sure y'ain't got nothin' better ta do?" he asked once he had been settled into a clean bed.
"Getting tired, Vin?" Jackson asked with concern.
"Just feelin' a mite... hemmed in," Tanner replied with as much tact as he could manage.
Smiling knowingly, Chris turned to the other men, who nodded their understanding and departed the clinic, leaving the blond alone with the rather disgruntled young tracker. "You know that they don't mean to -"
Holding up a hand, Vin said quietly, "I know Chris. Hell, it's not anything they done. Pard, I just wanna get away...from all of it. I need ta...stretch...I don't know, I..." He waved his hand dismissively. "Ah hell, forget it."
"No, I'm not going to forget it," Chris said. He squeezed his friend's shoulder and left the room. He would make certain that Vin had what he needed, and it wasn't being trapped in the little clinic.
She smiled as she knelt down next to the two men. Extending her hand, she said, "Name's Darry Wade. Pleased to meet you, officially."
Chris looked at the hand and then back at the woman. It was a trap then; this was one of the people who had kidnapped them, delivered them to the very gates of hell. Under his glare he watched the woman's smile falter as she dropped her hand.
"Reckon I can't blame you, Mr. Larabee. Can't imagine you'd be inclined ta like, or even trust me. I can explain if you'd like, or I can leave, or you can shoot me if it'd help." With that she turned her sidearm, butt first, over to the blond.
Taking the gun, a question clearly etched on his handsome face, Chris checked the chamber and found it loaded. He sighed, still confused by her actions. A quiet voice broke into his thoughts and settled some of his confusion.
"You... you were th' one that came ta help... when... he..." Vin's voice became shaky and thick with emotion.
The mysterious young woman reached out a hand and gently touched the stubble-roughened cheek. "Wasn't enough, Mr. Tanner. I should'a done more 'fore this."
He shook his head, "Reckon you helped ta keep me...alive, miss." He turned to his friend. "She was there... every night, Chris. She'd come... after he... after he'd be there. She'd... she'd... bring me water... blanket..." Worn out, Vin's eyes closed.
Looking across to their visitor, Chris saw tears in her china blue eyes. She looked up, offering a weak smile that disappeared before it fully formed. "What they done, Mr. Larabee, it was wrong. I couldn't just sit by anymore."
"But you didn't stop the others from nearly killing him, from bringing us here. Why?" Larabee's voice was sharp with barely restrained anger.
Bowing her head, Darry said, "I couldn't risk it. 'Shamed as I am of that, Mr. Larabee, I had to consider... other lives." She paused, looking away into the distance. "Hessie, Daniel... they all call him 'Dummy'... even Willy Joe. If I'm gone, they ain't got no one ta keep 'm safe." She laughed; a hard sound. "Safe...hell, ain't none of us safe from what that bitch that wanted you... from Ma and the boys. Ain't sayin' they got th' life they should'a had, but 'least I can keep 'm alive. Reckon that don't make no sense ta someone like you."
"Miss," Chris said with a sad shake of his head, "That makes a lot more sense than you might think." Extending his hand, he said, "Thank you for what you did do for my friend, what you've done for us both now."
Grasping his hand in a firm handshake, she said, "I'll do as much as I can to help you both, Mr. Larabee. I hope you believe that."
"I do, Miss," he said with frank honesty. "I do."
They settled in, putting together a meager camp with what the young woman had brought. Chris pulled on one of the shirts she provided, feeling as if he were being swallowed up. Worried that it would do more harm than good, they settled for wrapping Vin in the blankets she brought, padding the ground beneath him with more of the clothes. While Chris crushed some of the medicinal plants she had brought, Darry busied herself in building a small, smokeless fire and beginning a meal for them all. Tanner drifted in and out of consciousness, reassured that all was well when he focused his eyes on the face of his friend. Sensing his friend's need for that bit of comfort, Larabee stayed nearby. A gentle word, a touch, whatever it seemed Vin needed as he pulled himself back from the nightmares that invaded his sleep. One particularly violent dream chilled the gunman to the bone and gave him an even clearer picture of what had happened to the younger man.
"No... stay 'way from me... I... no! Don't... please," His tone was close to pleading now. "Don't touch... me... don't... no... it... hurts..." With a whimper, Vin was quiet.
Larabee could barely pull himself away when he heard the young woman's voice coming from behind him. "I tried talkin' ta Ma, getting her ta make him stop...Hiram, I mean. She figured long as he did what he's s'posed to, he could do what he wanted with your friend." Coming to sit on the other side of the now sleeping man, she continued, "Hiram didn't do what your face tells me you're thinkin'. Oh, I 'magine he would have, but he can't. He ain't been able ta do that since th' war. But Hiram hurt him in other ways. He enjoys watchin' others in pain...think it makes him feel like a whole man again."
"When I get hold of him, he won't be any kind of man," Chris promised. Looking at the young woman, he was surprised to see a smile.
"If you're lookin' for an argument, Mr. Larabee, you're lookin' in th' wrong direction. Th' only thing I'll ask is you respect my need to protect th' three that's innocent."
Nodding, he said, "I've no interest in hurting those that don't deserve it. Hessie did the best she could to help on the trip out, and I reckon the other two don't know anything better. But when I get the chance, those men, even your ma -"
"She ain't my ma," she said with a hint of anger. "She ain't nothin' to me."
Glancing down to see that Vin was still quiet, Chris looked back at Darry. "Then how'd you end up there?"
"Bad luck, mostly," came the reply. "A whole string of it. Long story, Mr. Larabee -"
"Chris," he corrected her.
Nodding, she said, "Darry, like I said. Anyway, it's a long drawn out story that ain't gonna help get you and Mr. Tanner away from here and safe. Might be best if we talked about that for now."
With a soft chuckle Chris said, "I suppose you're right. Do you know where the others are?"
"I did my best to keep 'm guessin' on where y'all were. Gave 'm wrong information when they got to th' house. Hiram couldn't tell 'em no different. I laid a trail goin' off in another direction 'fore I came out here. Don't know how well I got 'em off th' scent though. A couple a those men Gaines hired are pretty good at trackin'."
"You set the harmonica out there." It wasn't a question.
"Yeah. Needed to give y'all a sign as ta where ta hole up, took a chance you'd be comin' this way since Talson's th' closest town. Figured th' mouth harp'd be th' best way ta signal you about this place. Couldn't think a anything else."
"You did fine," Chris assured her. "I've threatened to break that damn thing over his head a few times; it stood out like a sore thumb." She laughed, a sound both cheerful and tired. Chris realized that he was looking at an exhausted young woman. "Think you could use some rest."
Shaking her head, she said, "No I'm fine. As soon as we figure out the best plan ta get you two outta here, I've got to head out. If I ain't back soon, Ma'll get suspicious."
"Alright," Larabee replied. "Let's figure out what we're going to do."
"Damn it Chris, you can't be serious," Nathan fumed at the man in black, his fists clenched tight. He pounded the railing outside his clinic. "Vin ain't up to this."
"Nathan, he was in a lot worse shape before and he made it here," Larabee said evenly.
"Yeah, and he was as near death as I wanna think about."
"But he didn't die and he's had time to get some of his strength back. Look, you can give me all the horse piss you peddle for medicine to give him, you can come out and check on him every day, whatever else you want. Whatever it takes to make you agree to this."
"What I want is for you to stop tellin' me my business. I want you to leave Vin be, and let him heal up."
"That's what I'm trying to do, damn it. He's feeling suffocated here, can't get comfortable with everyone around all the time. You know how he is, Nathan, he doesn't do real well closed up for too long. Add to that the things he's been through lately, he's in pretty bad shape, here," Chris tapped his head, then his heart, "and here. If I take him out to my shack, he'll be able to get some true rest... get his strength back. He's had everyone's attention, now he needs the peace and quiet of the hills."
Nathan sighed, turned and stared at the blond with only slightly cooling anger. "Damn pretty speech, Larabee, sounds like you practiced it all night. But tell me this... you gonna take on his care day and night?"
"Yes," Chris said simply, one corner of his mouth quirking in a barely suppressed smile.
Jackson breathed out a harsh sigh, turning to look out over the landing at the town beyond. Leaning his hands against the banister, he thought about the man in black's proposal. He said nothing for several minutes, weighing the options. Finally he turned back and stared at Larabee, anger still glowing in his dark eyes. Stabbing a finger at the other man's chest, he said, "You had better make damn good and sure that you do what I tell you, when I tell you ta do it, and how I tell you ta do it. You don't, or if he looks ta be goin' downhill at all, he's right back here. Got me?"
A smile quirking at one corner of his mouth, Larabee said simply, "Got you."
The two men left the landing and entered the clinic. Vin was dozing, but his eyes fluttered open at the sound of two pairs of footsteps came closer. Watching as they came closer, he saw that Chris was smiling slightly, while Nathan looked none to happy. He had heard the two exchanging words for some time, the voices rising and falling with emotion. "You fellas sort out whatever th' hell you had to sort out?"
"Yep," Chris said in a light tone. "How'd you like to get out of here?"
"Th' landin'?" Vin asked, slanting a curious look at his friend.
Shaking his head no, Larabee said "My place."
"Yer place?" Vin's voice took on an excited quality now. Turning to Nathan, who was sorting through his herbs. "Nathan, he foolin' with me?"
"Nope," Jackson said, still not very happy, "But you both better do as you're told, or I'll personally come out to that shack, kick Chris' butt, and drag yours back here. You got me?"
"Yep," Tanner said quietly. He didn't matter what he had to promise, as long as he could get out in the fresh air and away from town for awhile. Although he barely moved, the other men couldn't help but smile. It seemed as if Vin was all but jumping up and down.
Shaking his head, the dark healer continued, "I mean it Vin. I don't want you doin' anything stupid. I'm comin' out every day to check on you. Like I already told Chris, if I don't see you gettin' better, you will be comin' back here. Chris is gettin' his orders from me, and you're gonna do exactly what he tells you to do. Got it?"
Describing a mock salute, the bedridden man said, "Got it. Whatever you tell us ta do, we'll do. Right, Chris?" He turned a smiling face toward his friend.
Returning the smile, the blond said, "I already promised to."
Looking back at the healer, Vin said, "See, we both promise ta do whatever you tell us to. Hell, Nathan, you can trust us!"
With a snort, Jackson said, "Yeah... I just bet I can." The other two men heard him grumbling under his breath as he gathered up the supplies he would be sending with the men. He ignored the chuckles he heard from both Larabee and Tanner.
By the time the moon had risen, Chris and Wade had managed to get some food and water down Tanner, and eased him into a pair of very-oversized overalls. Darry explained as they did that she had not been able to get his own clothing without raising suspicion. The tracker had grumbled about the attention, but complied, his body far too exhausted to listen to his prideful ego. They settled on pulling the straps tight and twisting them around themselves to keep the rough canvas cloth from falling from the narrow shoulders. At least the pants would keep his legs from being rubbed raw in the saddle.
Leaving the nearly-exhausted man to rest, propped up against a rock, Chris walked to where Darry had gone to check the terrain outside their little hiding place. "Anything moving out there?" he asked, quietly.
Shaking her head, the young woman said, "Don't see a thing. Reckon it's still clear at the moment. You and Mr. Tanner head off toward Talson, and I'll see if I can't keep 'em off th' scent." Turning to the blond, she said, "I'll keep 'em as far away as I can, Chris, but I'm not sure - "
Putting a hand on her shoulder, Larabee said, "I don't want you to put yourself at any more risk Darry. If Ella finds out what you've done already, it's hard to tell what she'll do to you and yours."
"As far as I'm concerned, my life's never been worth much, don't reckon I'll miss it a whole lot. I do worry about Hessie and th' boys, though."
"Your life isn't something I'm willing to forfeit for our sake," Chris canted his head toward where Vin lay in the shadows. "I realize I wasn't friendly when you first came - "
"Didn't expect you' to be."
"Well, for whatever it's worth, I don't feel the same now. I realize that you're in a bad place. I had no right to expect you to sacrifice so much for strangers."
Darry sighed; he could see her smile in the moonlight. "You're a good man, Chris Larabee, prob'ly one a th' most decent I've ever known."
"If that's true, then you really have had nothing but bad luck in your life," he scoffed gently.
"Yeah," she said in a sigh.
"I'm...I'm sorry, Darry, I didn't mean to - "
Shaking her head, the young woman said, "Don't apologize. It's not your doin'. Reckon my fate was sealed a long time ago."
"What happened? I mean, if you don't want to talk about it I won't pry, but I'll be more than happy to listen."
Shrugging her shoulders, the woman moved away a step, turning so she could see him more clearly. "Ain't a lot ta tell. Ma and her three boys...that's Hiram, Lafe and Chancy...said they come on me when I was about three 'r four. M' folks were dead...weren't no one else about. They took me in...'bout like a stray dog." Her voice became chillingly bitter. "Don't r'member a time when I felt like anything else. I was their house servant 'til Hessie come along and was old enough ta take over, then I took over a lot a th' outside chores. Least I got away from..."
"The men?" Larabee asked when it didn't seem she would continue.
Nodding, she spoke in a soft tone, "They started on me 'bout as far back 's I can r'call. Kept on, right up 'til I got ta where I could fight 'm on it. They still win sometimes..." she trailed off once more. Then, seeming to shake herself from her thoughts, she continued, "I still ain't got ta the point a bein' able ta keep 'm off Hessie. She ain't blood kin, neither. Lafe just rode in with 'r one day. She's about two or three. He's been real attached to her ever since..."
Chris didn't need much thought to understand her meaning, and it chilled him. Trying to sound much calmer than he felt, he said, "The others... Daniel and Willy Joe?"
"Danny's my son. Had 'm when I was twelve 'r thirteen I think. Don't know for sure which of 'm's his pa, don't really wanna know. They beat on me pretty reg'lar when I was carryin' 'm, think that's why he's like he is. Willy Joe's, Hessie's. When we figured she was in a fam'ly way, I got Ma ta see that if they mistreated 'er, they could end up with another slow 'n like Danny. She kept 'em off."
The look in her eye let Larabee know in no uncertain terms that she had born the brunt of their anger during that time. "I'm sorry, Darry. For what it's worth, we'll do everything in our power to come back here and help the four of you get away from Ma and her boys."
Shaking her head the young woman said, "Don't worry 'bout us Chris. Th' only thing you need ta be worryin' about right now is gettin' you and your friend free a Gaines."
With one of his infrequently expressed smiles, Chris Larabee said, "Not worrying about it, just making you a promise. Once Vin and I get back to town, I'll bring my friends back with me, and we'll clean out that vipers nest. You, Hessie, Daniel and Willy Joe will be free of them."
Nodding, Darry said simply, "I do b'lieve you will, Chris. Right now... reckon there's enough moonlight for y'all ta go."
"Let's go then," Chris agreed. The blond in the lead, they returned to where Vin and the horses waited for them. With Wade's help, he got Vin up and to the waiting mount. As he contemplated the fact that keeping the other man in saddle would quickly drain the energy of them both, an unbidden memory from his short time as a father flashed through his mind, memories of Adam draped against him in sleep. If Vin were leaning toward, rather than away from him, he could hold him with greater ease. Despite the strange look the young woman gave him, they lifted Tanner into the saddle backwards. Larabee pulled himself up onto the horse, resting his friend against him. The tracker mumbled something, but quickly relaxed into Chris' comforting hold.
"I'll go ahead then. Give me five minutes 'r so. If you don't hear gunshots, head on out, okay?"
Nodding, the gunslinger said, "Darry, thank you. And we will be seeing one another again...sooner than you might think."
"Long's you an' him 'r okay, it can't be soon enough," she replied as she mounted her own horse and disappeared through the brush.
Larabee waited for several minutes, more worried than he would admit that he would hear gunshots. The only sound that came to him, however, was that of Vin's slow, even breathing. "Okay, pard, reckon it's our turn." He spurred the borrowed mount forward. Despite the fact that they had not seen or heard any sign of their pursuers, he barely breathed until he had guided the animal through the brush and into the open. Stopping the horse long enough to study the terrain, he only spurred the creature forward when his senses detected nothing.
Tanner stirred a few times, vaguely aware of his strange posture against his friend and the fact that they were in motion. He couldn't focus his thoughts long enough to ask about either, however. Instead he simply settled into the comfort and warmth of his friend's body and the steady rhythm of the other man's steady heartbeat beneath his head.
The moon traversed the ebony sky, shedding its cold light on the landscape and providing the weary men with just enough light to guide their way toward the nearest town. Chris kept on the alert, trying to see and hear in all directions at once, as he coaxed the roan forward. He would be more than happy to give over his friend to the others care and collapse into his own bed. Mentally chastising himself for letting his mind wander, even for a few seconds, Larabee focused all of his attention on keeping them safe. They had to move slowly, both because of the darkness and because of Vin. He didn't want to stop, though, not unless there was no choice. As long as Vin could stand being jostled, he would keep them moving. Once they were safe in town, they could both rest. As dawn began to make itself known, he realized that he could just make out the outline of a cluster of buildings. Talson. Safety. Freedom. He almost laughed aloud, but restrained himself, nudging the man balanced against him gently. "Almost there, Vin. Almost to Talson."
"So near and yet so far."
With a guttural scream that brought his companion forcefully to consciousness, Chris regarded Ella Gaines with a look of homicidal rage. She returned the look with one like nothing so much as an enamored school girl as she appeared out of the pre-dawn shadows of a stand of trees. She was surrounded by several of her men, all of whom had their guns trained on the two men.
"Hello, darling. I decided to come out and meet you, so we could ride home together," his deranged former lover cooed. "I've missed you terribly."
Larabee, his rage threatening to consume him, fought to form words. He shook as his world, already so tenuous because of the woman before him, crashed around him once more. He considered spurring the horse forward, letting them fill both he and Vin full of lead. Better to go out quickly than to return to the pain and degradation of being one another's hostage. His arms tightened around Vin, offering the only security he could. "Don't know if you can hear me or not, pard, but it's been a good ride. Reckon you'd agree that it's better to go out this way."
"Reckon...it is," came a whisper against his neck. As usual, Vin had known what he was thinking.
With a soft chuckle, Chris moved to kick the horse into movement. Then he stopped cold, staring before him with a look of shock. A cry, filled with anger and defeat, was ripped from his throat.
Larabee's heart pounded so hard he expected to see Vin bouncing from its violent actions. No one could tell, however, as he fixed a cold, angry glare on Ella Gaines. "God damn you, you bitch," he growled through clenched teeth.
"Oh, Chris, your language is becoming tiresome, as is your silly male posturing. Eventually, you're going to understand who is in control of the situation." The dark-haired woman's voice was almost regal in tone; the queen dictating policy to her court. Chris' attention, though, was on two of her hired men; they held up a badly beaten Darry Wade.
"I'm sorry... Chris," Wade mumbled through tattered lips. She held her chin high, glaring at her captors, albeit through only one eye. The other was closed, the flesh around it swollen and discolored. Her clothing was ripped and torn, leaving little doubt to just how brutally she had been abused. Dried blood clotted her nostrils, her nose swollen and bruised, leaving her to breathe through her mouth. Blood oozed from a variety of cuts, and she favored her right side and leg.
Nodding shortly, Larabee turned away from her. He wouldn't give Ella the satisfaction of knowing how badly this affected him. He wouldn't give her another hostage in her insane cat-and-mouse game. One was already too many. Turning back to Gaines, he said, "I don't know what sort of sick game you're playing now, Ella, but I'm not taking part any more."
"Why of course you are, darling. You made your bid to stay in the game the second you didn't try to escape. This traitorous bitch told us everything...perhaps if you had known that, you wouldn't have stopped. But - as always - you considered someone else. Just as you did when you so foolishly left me, the first time. That is why you won't win, my darling. You continue to believe that these others," she swept her arm toward Darry and then Vin, "mean anything. What will it take to make you understand that I am the only person that means anything to you, just as you are the only one to mean anything to me."
"You mean nothing to me, Ella," Chris said in a soft growl. "Get it through that sick mind of yours. You aren't worth the dirt beneath either of their feet."
Gaines glared at him for a full minute, hatred flowing from her like a living thing. Then, suddenly, she changed. Her face softened, her lips tugged upward in a smile. "Well, that will all change once we're married. Come along, let's get you home. Davis, relieve my husband of his...cargo -"
"NO! You'll have to kill me first." Chris' hold tightened to the point that he heard Vin grunt in pain. Loosening his hold, he nonetheless continued to keep him secure and glared at the approaching man.
"Oh...fine. Let him carry that wretched creature if he must. Put that," she glared at Darry, "on a horse so she doesn't slow us down. We'll continue her punishment when we return to the ranch."
A variety of grunts signaled agreement. One of them roughly tossed the battered young woman over the back of his horse, and then climbed up into the saddle. The others surrounded Larabee and Tanner, obliterating the last tattered hopes the gunslinger held of making a bid for freedom. Even if that freedom was nothing more than the grave.
"A buggy? Hell, I don't need ta be totted 'round in one a them rigs. I can sit a horse." Tanner protested. He had been arguing with Chris and Nathan for almost an hour. It had taken that long for the stubborn man to get into his clothes, but he wouldn't entertain the idea of help. By the time he had slipped the leather suspenders over his shoulders, he was pale and shaken. Then he argued because he intended to walk downstairs, despite Nathan's concerns. Finally, with one arm looped over Larabee's shoulder and Jackson at his other elbow, he walked on trembling legs to the head of the stairs. Chris was inwardly amazed that the younger man had made it to his rented room alone. And they said that he was stubborn! Vin Tanner was by far the most stubborn man he'd ever known.
"Vin, you got two choices. You ride out to Chris' shack in the buggy, or you go back to bed. Those are the only choices you've got." Nathan stared at the smaller man calmly, but the determination in his eyes was plain to see.
"Ah hell," Vin muttered, realizing that he had pushed the healer to the limit.
They moved slowly down the wooden stairway; by the time they reached the bottom, Chris was taking most of Tanner's weight. He looked up as the others came to join them, each man carrying a parcel.
"Hey Vin!" JD began cheerfully. "Mrs. Potter sent over licorice whips, an apple pie and a whole bunch of oatmeal cookies."
"Yeah," Buck picked up the conversation. "And we've got two roast chickens, biscuits and gravy, potatoes, corn on the cob and fresh churned butter." They packed the food away in the little boot behind the buggy seat.
"We also have two bottles of the saloon's special stock, and a tin of your cheroots, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said, as his parcel joined the others.
"And last but not least," Josiah spoke up, "reading material." He stored a stack of books among the other bundles.
Chris smiled. "Thanks, boys," he said fondly. "Don't reckon we'll have to worry about much now."
Nathan looked up from where he was fussing over Tanner, arranging a blanket around the younger man's legs and slapping his hands as he tried to remove the cover. "Just see that you remember to give him the teas and watch those cuts like I told you." He had already packed away the medicinal supplies.
Pulling a neatly folded paper from his vest pocket, Larabee answered, "Got it all down right here."
Nodding, Jackson looked into Tanner's face. The young man was pale, a thin sheen of perspiration on his face and his eyes closed. "How you doin' Vin?"
Opening his eyes, revealing the glassy quality put there by the near exhaustion of movement, he managed a wan smile. "'M okay, Nathan."
Larabee had climbed into the rig next to Tanner. Taking up the reins, he said, "We'll see you in the morning, Nathan." As the healer nodded, he said to the others, "Boys." With a jiggle of the reins, he set the buggy into motion. He pretended not to notice that Vin pushed the blanket from his legs as soon as they were out of the former slave's sight.
Vin was still embarrassed to be seen riding from town in such a manner. He stared straight ahead, pretending not to see the looks the townspeople gave them as they passed. It wasn't until they were beyond town and on the open road that he began to relax.
Chris watched his friend from the corner of his eye. He had considered using Vin's own wagon for the trip, but had decided against it. With the wagon sitting there, Tanner would be only too tempted to sleep in it rather than in the cabin. Chris could admit, at least to himself, that he didn't feel safe enough yet to risk Vin sleeping out in its bed alone. Not yet. So to lessen temptation, he had opted for a buggy ride.
By the time they were half an hour out of town, Vin's slow, easy breathing signaled the fact that he had drifted off to sleep. Nathan had insisted Tanner drink one of his medicinal teas right before they left. Chris suspected that it had been a natural sedative. A little while later he felt a shaggy head drop to his shoulder. The gunfighter smiled, shifting slightly to allow the tired man to be as comfortable as possible.
Vin was still asleep when they reached Chris' little one room shack. The gunman reined in the horse as close to the front door as he could. Nudging Tanner upright gently, he dropped to the ground and moved around to the other side of the buggy. He helped the groggy younger man out of the rig and into the cabin. The sharpshooter was still so sleepy that he barely seemed to notice the other man's attentions. He allowed Chris to seat him on the bed, pull off his boots, and loosen his suspenders. As the day was warm, he stretched out on top of the covers with a sigh.
Once Tanner was settled, Larabee saw to the horse and unpacked the buggy. It felt good to be doing such mundane things again; felt good to be home. He found himself relaxing for the first time in a very long time. Perhaps it wasn't over yet, but at least they were all together again. He had his friends to sand by him, against whatever came.
He stayed on his guard, hoping beyond hope that he would be offered some slim chance to escape with both Vin and Darry. Chris considered leaving the woman behind, returning for her later in the near-impossible event that they found freedom. He knew he wouldn't though; he couldn't. Neither could Vin, and his friend would never forgive him if he left her to suffer further punishment because of her compassion toward them. Wade had put herself at risk for the two men; their code of honor would never allow them to abandon her. No matter what the cost.
"It's...right," Vin whispered against the man in black's neck. As usual, he had read Chris's mind.
"I know," Larabee replied in a soft tone. "It's just... I made a promise, Vin, to get you back to town and safety. Can't say I'm finding it easy to hand you back over to them. But I swear, I will get you out of this...and I'll get you home."
"Chris... don't beat yourself up... over this. Cain't be helped."
Larabee absently rubbed the other man's back. He thought back on all of the times Vin Tanner had been there for him. Chris was transported across the months, his mind's eye seeing those events in a kaleidoscope of images. Vin stretching up from the tall grass behind his shack, hogleg at the ready as Chris faced off Don Paolo and the gunslinger Rafael. Peering down from the balcony of James' ranch house, covering their escape. Sighting down through the elder Stutz's sophisticated weapon as the dead man's son tried to kill Mary. Balanced above them time and time again, his prowess with a gun saving their lives on countless occasions. And then there were the other times, the quiet moments that found them simply enjoying one another's company. Tanner had quietly and effortlessly filled a void in his life that Ella Gaines had put there.
He would not let Vin down.
"He'll stay here," Ella's voice broke into the blond's thoughts.
Larabee looked to see that they were once again at the little weatherworn farm. "No. He stays with me."
"Chris," Gaines said sternly. "I am really quite tired of your obstinence. You are not the one in charge, nor are you ever to be again. Not unless you come to see things as they truly are... unless you see things as I know them to be." She paused, smiling somewhat demonically at him. "You will learn to see the truth."
"Truth?" Larabee spit the word out angrily. "Lady, you wouldn't know the truth if it came up and bit you in the ass."
Her smile turned to a glare, but rather than reply she turned to the man who carried Darry behind him. "She'll stay here, as well. We must also see to it that she is punished."
"She's already been punished enough!" Chris growled.
"No, she hasn't," the woman said evenly. Turning to the men in her employ, she said, "go and get that thing... that idiot bastard of hers... and bring him out here."
Darry had been pushed from the horse's rump, crumpling to the ground. At the mention of her son, however, she pushed herself to her feet and struggled to get to the little house. Two of the men held her back. The battered young woman looked up at Ella Gaines with raw hatred in her eyes. "You goddamn bitch. If it's the last thing I ever do, I will kill you." The absence of emotion in her voice was chilling.
"All of these high-minded threats coming from low-born creatures," Ella said with exasperation. "However, your idle threats are simply that."
By then, the men had returned, tugging at a frightened and disoriented Daniel between them. When he saw Darry, he cried out and tried to reach her, but one of the men hit him across the shoulders, yelling at him as he did.
"Danny!" Darry cried out. "Baby, I'm right here. Look at me, Danny. It's okay."
The young man calmed, his mother's voice cutting through the panic and fear of being dragged from his home by men he only vaguely recognized. Then, seeing his mother beaten and bloody, his already taxed mind had been overloaded. "Mama?"
"It's okay Danny." she tried to reassure the frightened young man, and then turned to Gaines. "You do whatever you want to me, but you let my son go."
"But, that's exactly what I want to do to you. Hurting you physically may have made you tell me where my husband and that filthy beggar were, but you need to know who is in charge. Hurting you - hurting your body - more won't drive that point any farther home. However, I think I know something that will make all of you," her gaze took in not only Wade, but Chris and Vin as well, "understand once and for all who is in charge."
"Ella!" Larabee stormed. "You let that boy alone. You let all of them alone..." Then his voice dropped, defeated. "Let them all alone, and I'll do whatever you want."
"Chris," Vin grasped at the other man's arm. "Don't."
Squeezing the battered man's arm, Larabee looked at Ella. "You let them all go... let them leave here... I promise I'll stay with you."
"Until he returns to that filthy little town and comes back with the others to take you from me again."
"No. I'll give you my word that if Vin leaves here, he won't come back."
"Like hell -" Vin began, his words stopping when Chris tightened his hold on his arm.
"I give you my word. They'll stay away."
She laughed, the sound bordering on insanity. "I'm sorry darling, but I believe I need more of a guarantee than that. I feel that a lesson is in order - one that both you and that gutter trash will understand."
Turning to the men who held Daniel between them, she said coolly, "Hang him."
"NO!" Darry screamed the words, fighting the men holding her. Despite her injuries, she fought like a wildcat, fear for her son giving her strength enough to nearly break loose from her captors.
"Damn you Ella! Don't you dare!" Chris screamed at the same time, spurring the horse forward. "I swear I'll kill you with my bare hands!"
As Chris' angry cries began, Ella motioned to one of the men who had kept their guns trained on Larabee and Tanner. Before the roan could take more than three steps, one man stepped up and calmly put a bullet into the unwitting animal's brain. She dropped suddenly, with a pain-filled whinny, falling heavily to her side.
The man in black had no time to react. Although he tried to throw both himself and Vin free from the dying animal, things were happening far too fast. While Vin fell free from the animal's weight, Chris was pinned beneath her by his leg. He cried out as he felt 'Shine's dead weight settle on his leg. Despite it all, though, he never let go of Tanner. He knew that if he were to release his hold on the damaged man, that it would be too easy for them to drag Vin off.
"Chris... you...'kay?" Tanner grated out as he tried to draw air into his lungs.
Unable to speak yet, Chris once again squeezed his friend's arm. As the stars in his vision began to clear, he tried to move, gasping as shafts of fiery pain exploded all along his left leg. He was trying to find a way to get free without releasing Vin.
"Chris... let go 'a me," As he did so often, Tanner knew what the blond was attempting. He also knew it was hopeless. "Leggo," he pleaded, pushing against the restraining hold.
Rough hands grabbed at the two men and, despite his valiant efforts, Vin was pulled from Chris' embrace. Two of Ella's hired goons dragged Tanner away, while two others harshly pulled Larabee from beneath the dead animal.
Chris bit back a cry as the trapped leg was yanked free and he was hoisted to his feet. He tried to break loose from his captors, but found himself falling when his injured leg refused to hold him. Roughly, he was pulled back into their grasp, and held there between them. Larabee watched as Vin was dragged away. He felt as if a part of his soul was being ripped from his body.
The tracker looked over his shoulder once, and he mouthed a single word. "Go."
Galvanized to action, Larabee fought against his own captivity. Despite being unable to use his left leg, Chris held his own for several minutes. Then the tide was quickly turned as one of the other men came up behind him and felled the furious man with a gun butt across the back of his head. It wasn't quite enough to knock him out, but he was stunned, and fell numbly to the ground. Two of the men picked him up and threw him across the back of one of the horses.
A single, keening cry assailed Chris' ears. He managed to turn his head toward the sound, and what he saw carved yet another hole in his already tattered soul. Daniel hung from the homestead's single tree, his body still twitching in its death throes. Still held by their attackers, Darry's own body was rigid, her head thrown back. The sound coming from the young woman, the one that had called Larabee from his own stupor, was only barely human.
Chris allowed his head to drop, unwilling to see any more. Abstractly, he was aware that some part of him had given up. Ella was right, she was in charge, and he no longer had any control over his life. Perhaps he had only been fooling himself before; he had never had any control over it.
Vin curled up in the corner of the cage, listening in defeat as the sound of retreating horses came to him. At least they had left him dressed; he wondered how long it would be before they stripped him again. They had stripped his soul already, leaving him to feel raw and bloody inside as well as out. In his mind's eye he could see the look on Chris' face as they had dragged him off. He had told the blond to get away, to get out of his own prison by any means possible. He would be better able to survive the tortures that he knew would be coming if he thought Chris was safe. A sound drew Vin from his thoughts and he looked to see Darry Wade roughly shoved inside the little prison. She fell to the ground, doing nothing to stop herself. As the hardwood and barbed wire door was slammed shut, she didn't even seem to realize where she was.
Vin pulled himself to her, touching the battered young woman tentatively. "Miss? Darry?" She flinched at his touch and tried to move away, stopping with a gasp as her battered back was caught by the barbed wire. "It's okay Miss... it's just me... Vin."
She looked at him, really seeing him now. Pain that went beyond her own physical agony shone in her eyes. "I'm sorry," she said in a hoarse whisper. With that, she curled in on herself and fell into unconsciousness.
Tanner sighed, one hand gently stroking her hair. Carefully, he curled up beside her. Wrapping a hand around one of hers, Vin drifted toward unconsciousness himself.
He felt numb; not physically, because his body ached and his left leg screamed, but emotionally. Chris Larabee felt defeated, hopeless and helpless. The gunslinger hung from the horse, allowing it to carry him away. Away from Vin, from Darry, from any sense of freedom. While every fiber of his will screamed against it, his mind conceded defeat. The raw wounds of being unable to save not only himself, but those he felt responsible for, tore open the only partially healed wounds of the other violent losses in his life. All of them losses because Ella Gaines wanted him. Despair of fathomless depths overwhelmed him, leaving him reeling from the emotional devastation. His personal war claimed its first victim, as his body shut down.
If Ella or her hired men noticed the change in Chris Larabee, they said nothing. As deluded as Gaines had become, she only knew that her long-lost lover had returned to her. Her men had been recruited solely for their ability not to think or question, but to obey. The disposition of their boss' quarry was of little importance to them. He was quiet, and that made their job easier. That was the only thing that the hired thugs found of interest. When they reached the home at the top of the hill, two of the men pulled Chris from the horse, only to have the blond fall bonelessly to the ground.
"How dare you allow him to fall!" Ella screeched from the back of her horse, lashing out at one of the men with a booted foot. "If he's hurt, I'll have the two of you punished!"
Martin, one of her hired men, wiped blood on his cheek. His face shone with pure hatred he felt for the crazed woman, but his greed took hold and shook him. Turning a calm face toward Gaines, he said, "We thought he was awake, ma'am. I'm sure he's fine." He and the other man carefully picked the listless blond up and carried him into the house. Under Ella's watchful eye, they carried him to the bedroom and stretched him out on the bed.
Ordering the men to bring her hot water, rags and towels, the dark-haired woman began to pull off the ragged shirt and filthy pants. Chris wore no boots, and his feet were cut and bruised. Larabee's left leg seemed to be a single bruise, from mid-thigh to his toes. She poked and prodded at the mottled limb until she was satisfied that there was nothing broken. Still, the bruises were no doubt painful, and she would have to make certain they were tended to.
The things she had ordered were brought in, and she began the job of scrubbing the comatose man. Chris was unresisting, allowing her to bathe him without protest. Ella's hands ran over his lean, hard body, enjoying the feel of his flesh beneath her fingers. She smiled as she worked lower along the taut belly, visions of the things they had done causing her smile to grow even wider. Pausing as she reached his hips and groin, she considered re-enacting some of those former pleasures while Larabee was so docile.
"First things first, my love," she said wistfully. "I need to get you cleaned up and your leg tended to. My lord, but you smell like that damned creature you so foolishly tried to save. We can't have that now, can we dearest?"
If Chris heard her, he gave no indication of it. His eyes remained fixed on a spot on the ceiling, giving no reaction to her hands as they moved over him. Once Ella had bathed him, cleaning the cuts on his feet and rubbing salve over them, she called to the men on duty outside the room. Under her direction, they changed the bedding and wrapped his injured leg in warmed towels and heated bricks. Gaines would not consider leaving him in physical pain. Her deranged mind blinded her to the mental agony he was in.
Finally, satisfied that his immediate needs had been seen to, she dismissed the men, ordering them to burn the soiled linen and the filthy clothing. Neither man missed the wanton look on the petite brunette's face as she closed the door.
Locking the door behind the men, Ella turned toward the bed. She had not missed Chris' body's reaction to her touch earlier. She had had long years of experience in using men for her own satisfaction in many ways. She knew how to get them to respond physically, even if they were unwilling. She stripped out of her clothes, washed away the trail dust, and approached the prone blond. Yes, she knew many ways to make an unwilling man respond to her. And she had all of the time in the world to apply that knowledge to the only man who mattered.
Vin felt the woman beside him move, and painfully raised himself to an elbow. "Darry?" She managed to open one eye, looking up at him; grief clear in her face.
"They killed him," she whispered, as if to herself.
"Who?" Vin asked, hoping that the battered woman had only been dreaming.
"Danny...they killed him." She stared at Vin as if hoping he would make it not true. "My son...they hung him."
Vin remembered then, hearing Ella as she ordered the men to bring out the slow boy he had watched around the homestead. He remembered seeing the frightened man-child dragged out of the beaten down old house and toward the gnarled tree. He had been dragged off himself then, to the little cage that had become his home. Looking at the young woman as she continued to stare at him, he could only say, "I'm sorry... Darry. I wish I could make it... not so."
Her face fell, and she began to weep. Tanner reached out to her, but she pulled away, moving to the far corner.
"You got every right ta...hate me," he said quietly. "Weren't for me 'n... Chris, you'd be okay... so'd Danny. I wish I could make... it right, Darry."
She pushed herself to an elbow, her eyes locking on his. "I don't hate... you, Vin. Don't hate Chris... figured y'all hated... me for givin' you up ta... her."
He pulled himself over beside her then, reaching to gently take her hand. "She put you through hell; Darry.... no one knows that better'n me 'n Chris. She's a... cold-hearted bitch."
"I tried, I... tried to be strong," she said through her tears. "I didn't wanna tell 'm... but I-I couldn't stop... after awhile, I couldn't fight 'm anymore. Th-they kept hittin' me... hurtin' me, they... oh god," with great gasping sobs, she collapsed fully to the ground.
Vin reached out and stroked her hair, uncertain as to what else to do. He hesitated when she tensed, "I ain't gonna hurt ya, Darry."
"I... know," she whispered. "It's just that... they took me... Vin, those... bastards, they..." the sobs increased.
"Oh damn," Vin whispered, tears welling up in his eyes. "I am so sorry, Darry." He moved to give her some room, but she grasped his hand. He moved back, and then gently drew her to him. She didn't resist this time, and he awkwardly pulled her against him, holding her gently as she cried. The long hours of torture combined with the horror of watching her only child murdered by Gaines and her men and she sobbed. Vin knew he was hearing the sound of a broken heart... a broken soul. His own heart wanted nothing so much as to be able to take her pain away, but he knew that he never could. He stroked her hair, gingerly cradling her against him. Darry clung to him, her hands clutching at his arms. Both of them quickly reached their limit and fell once more into unconsciousness, Tanner still holding the woman.
With a satisfied smile, Ella pulled her clothes back on, looking down at Chris as she did. "I hope that it was as wonderful for you as it was for me, darling. I must say that you aren't at the top of your game right now, but it is understandable. You're no doubt exhausted from all the running you've been doing. I'm sure we'll have many pleasurable evenings now that you're back home."
The woman didn't even seem to realize how still Larabee was. After she was dressed once again, she took a rag from the washstand and removed any trace of their lovemaking from his body. Kissing him tenderly, she went to the door, instructing the men on guard to see to his leg once more as she left for her own room.
Vin allowed himself to be pulled from the blessed comfort of unconsciousness by the bright morning sun. He was still holding onto Darry, the woman oblivious to the morning light and everything else. Moving as carefully as his stiff and uncooperative body would allow, he eased himself slightly away and managed to pull himself up to his elbows. He surveyed the little homestead, trying to locate their captors. They had not been anywhere near them since the day before, and he saw no one stirring now. A thought, at once terrifying and appealing, crossed the sharpshooter's mind. What if the rest of the 'hiders had been killed as well? While he wouldn't have to worry about fighting off the drunken bastard who came after him every night, they could be in for a slow, agonizing death if no one brought them food and water. As poor as it had been, it had at least kept him from knocking at the pearly gates. He hadn't been able to break out of the wooden cage when he was stronger, there was no way he could manage it now when sitting up was a chore.
A soft noise brought Vin's attention back to the world around him, and he saw Hessie coming across the dusty yard, two plates in her hands. She slid them beneath the door, backing away as quickly as she could.
"Don't leave Miss Hessie, please," he called softly. Wordlessly, she continued to retreat. Her eyes held anger and contempt, something that he was shocked to see. "Miss Hessie, please tell me what's wrong? You know I won't hurt you, and Darry's your friend."
She shook her head frantically. "No. Its cause a you two that Dummy's dead. That woman...she wouldn'a had 'm killed, 'cept she was mad at what'cha done."
"Hessie, you know that's a lie," Darry's quiet voice cut through the morning air. "You know I'd a done anything ta keep my Danny alive. That woman... that Ella Gaines... she's a stone liar and filled with hatred. She killed -" Her voice broke, and it was several moments before she could continue. "She killed my son 'cause she didn't get her way. She's crazy, Hessie, you know that for a fact. Crazy mean... just like Hiram c'n be."
"It's yer fault," the young woman repeated. "An' I don't wanna git killed fer you, too." She turned and ran into the house.
With a sigh, Tanner pulled one of the plates toward himself, and pushed the other toward Darry. They weren't allowed the luxury of spoons, so he tentatively dipped a finger into the watery mush. It wasn't too hot, it was barely warm, and he scraped the miserable meal out of the plate with his fingers. When he had finished he realized that the woman hadn't touched hers at all. "You need ta eat, Darry... reckon it ain't much, but it's better 'n nothin'."
She didn't even react for a span of minutes, the other woman's words having cut through her like a knife. Darry sighed, then finally whispered, "Reckon I'll take nothin'."
"Darry... I... look, I cain't say I know how you're feelin', cause I don't Ain't never had a son ta lose. But you can't give up. You gotta fight on, make 'm pay for what they done to you, and Danny. Reckon revenge ain't 'xactly a good reason ta live, but once it gets you on the road, th' rest a th' reasons ta stay alive'll kick in."
"Ain't no reasons left, Vin." Painfully she turned and faced away, refusing to speak anymore.
Tanner slumped back to the ground on the other side of the cage, pushing his plate back outside the rough bars. He angered himself when he fleetingly thought about eating her mush as well. Even though he knew it would go to waste, he couldn't eat it. Rolling onto his stomach, he studied the house, watching for more movement. None of the 'hiders made another appearance, and soon he returned to the oblivion that had become his only sanctuary.
There was a crack that cut diagonally across his line of sight, dusty black against the whitewash. It had become the focus of his life...it had become the ALL of his existence. Nothing else was real, not even he himself. He was an illusion, just as everything else was an illusion. The only thing that existed was that crack of dusty black. Some part of him had known when she had come in, scrubbing him with rough cloth and strong soap. The soap's odor had burned his nose. After she had bathed him, she tended his leg. He had a memory of it aching, throbbing with pain, but felt nothing now. That was the crux of it; he felt nothing. After tending to him, she had used him...used his body...for her own pleasure. He noted his body's response to her touch with a sense of detachment. He didn't care what she did to his body, she owned it now. Just as she owned his soul. She had talked to him then, her words rambling around and through him, with no more meaning than the rest. Nothing mattered, because nothing was real. Everything had ceased to exist. Everything but that dusty black crack.
Finally she had left him. Then two others had come in, pulling the warmth roughly from his once-pain-wracked leg and replacing it with a heavier warmth. He heard them talking as well, though he didn't sense that they were trying to communicate with him. That was fine; he had no desire to communicate.
"Reckon that crazy bitch had 'r way with 'm?" Davis asked.
"Prob'ly," Lafe answered. "Woman's a loon, pure and simple."
Davis stared down at the man on the bed, nude except for the towels that covered his leg. "Gotta wonder if the money she's payin' us is worth all this."
Lafe just snorted. It didn't matter to him in the least as to what they had to do. He had spent his life scrabbling for a meager existence, and Ella Gaines had offered him enough money to live the way he had always dreamed of. In truth, he'd done worse than hold a gun on a man, or make someone a slave, and had gained little of value from it. For what that crazy bitch offered him, he'd do just about anything she asked, and do it gladly.
Davis realized that his companion didn't share his misgivings. Unlike the crippled man, Al Davis had never done anything to compare with the things he had done since being in Gaines employ. He had grown up the son of a businessman, and had known happier times. But the war had changed all that; left them penniless and scraping to earn a living. He had left home to look for work, and never returned. Hard times had followed him through the years, bringing him to the point he found himself now. In Ella Gaines employ he saw a way back to the wealth he had known; enough to return home and aid his parents. But, looking down at the man in the bed, he knew he would never be able to hold his head up again.
Neither man spoke any more, tending in silence to the man's deeply bruised leg. By the time they had finished, both of them were beginning to feel uncomfortable in the blonde's presence. Just as he had since being returned to the house, he simply stared straight ahead. He didn't blink, didn't twitch; gave no indication that he was aware of anyone around him. The only way they could even be certain that he was alive was the faint rise and fall of his bare chest.
The black crack was obliterated once or twice as a shadow fell across his vision. He waited for the obstruction to pass, and the black crack returned. He heard sounds around him, felt his body being moved about. The warmth returned to obliterate the distant pain in his leg, but nothing could take away the other pain. As long as he focused on the crack in the ceiling and blocked out everything else, he didn't have to acknowledge that pain. As long as he could do that he could hold onto some small vestige of sanity.
He stared up at the ceiling, confused when he didn't recognize it at first. It wasn't the ceiling he had been looking up at for the past several days. Frowning, he looked around, quickly recognizing the room and just as quickly he realized that he was alone. His heart began to pound at the thought of being all alone, his breathing pacing his heart. Struggling to push himself to his elbows, he sought out any sign that he had company. Tired eyes tracking to the open door, he smiled as he saw a black-clad elbow peeking out beyond the doorframe. He dropped back to the pillow with a sigh, content that he was not alone after all.
Outside on the porch, Chris heard the movement inside his little shack. He turned in time to see Vin drop back to the mattress. Leaning inside, he said, "Vin? You awake?"
"Yeah," came the yawned reply.
The blond stepped into the dim, cool room and moved to the narrow bed. He looked down to find the younger man gazing back up at him. "How're you doing?"
"'Kay," Tanner said softly. "Tired a bein'... on m' back."
Larabee smiled. Vin had only been laying down a couple of hours, having slept sitting up in the buggy most of the way from town. However, he knew what his friend was saying. "You wanna go outside?"
His smile lighting up his haggard face, he said only, "Wouldn't mind it."
Nodding, the other man helped him back into his boots, slipping the suspenders over his shoulders. Pulling Vin to his feet, Chris slipped an arm around him, and guided the thin man outside. Settling Tanner on the ladder-back he had just left, he retreated to the cabin and returned with a second chair and a pillow. Propping the long legs up on the chair, he slipped the pillow behind his friend. Finishing, he said, "You okay? Warm enough?"
Frowning, the sharpshooter slanted a look upward and said, "Thought I left my nursemaid back in town."
With a wry grin in answer, Larabee squeezed the frail shoulder and fetched his friend a cup of water. Trying not to look as if he were hovering, he waited until Tanner finished, setting the container on the table at his elbow, before he moved away. Taking a seat on an upturned bucket and leaning back against the porch upright, he kept an eye on the Texan. The two men spoke little, simply enjoying the peace and quiet of the countryside.
"Ya know," Vin said quietly after a time, "Didn't think I'd ever wanna be outside again. Got ta th' point I hated th' sun...couldn't hardly tolerate th' sunrise. Made me angry at first...then sort 'a sad....I always loved th' sunrise."
"I'm sorry, Vin - "
Holding up a hand, the tracker said, "Ya done apol'gized, Chris, an' I done accepted it. Let's don't go through all that again."
The older man chuckled, "You're right... I'm sorry," he apologized now for apologizing.
Tanner smiled, but said nothing. Then he sobered and continued, "I done forgave th' sun, Chris. Ain't its fault for what happened ta me... no more'n what happened is your fault."
Larabee sighed, clasping his hands before he dropped them between his knees. "I reckon. Wonder if the sun wishes it could take the last two months away for all of us?"
"Well, whether it does 'r not, pard, it's back ta work. Doin' its job, what it was meant ta be doin'."
Chris was silent, rolling Vin's words around in his mind. Doing the job. Was Vin saying what he thought those words meant? Weren't they all saying that in one way or another? Chris Larabee needed to stop wallowing in the past and the guilt at what had happened. He needed to get on with life... to start doing his job again.
The only trouble with that was, he wasn't certain what that job was any more; wasn't certain he could get past what had happened. It had taken a long time to get beyond the loss of his family and feel human again. Then life had kicked him in the teeth with the knowledge of why his wife and child had died. His efforts to right that wrong had resulted in yet another nightmare, and cost more lives. Larabee stared off into the distance, wondering just when his life had become such a hot commodity. Why was his continued existence worth all the death and destruction that littered the trail of his past?
He looked up into the other man's face. There was something there, something in that look, and he gasped to realize what it was. A pure, simple look of friendship and brotherhood, given to him freely and openly by his friend. Larabee realized then that despite the bleakness that tainted his view of the good things in his past, there was a much clearer view of hope for his future. It was frankly and clearly offered to him in a pair of smiling blue eyes.
Shaking himself from his reverie, Chris said, "Yeah?"
"Think I might bother you for another drink? Wouldn't mind somethin' a bit stronger than water." The younger man grinned.
Laughing, Larabee pulled himself up off the bucket and strode into the little house. Returning he set a pair of glasses and an unopened bottle on the table. Pouring a healthy portion of whiskey into each glass, he handed one to the Tanner. Then he tapped his glass to the one in his friend's grasp. Although their toast had no words, the two men nodded to one another, knowing exactly what that toast was. Friendship.
If he could trust his fading memory, he had been back in the cage for three days. And throughout most of that time, his companion hadn't moved. He tried his best to coax the young woman, battered both physically and emotionally, to at least take some water. She simply lay there, staring through the wooden bars into the poor fields beyond.
For some time now, there was a growing stench that came to them on the breeze. It was one that he easily recognized and, being among the 'hiders for most of her life, he knew that Darry did as well. It was the stink of death. He knew that a part of it might be the horse, but the sound of predators had filled the air sometime ago and no doubt the poor creature was little more than bones by now.
There was another body, however, kept from most scavengers by the fact that it was suspended in the air. No, he was very afraid that the stench came from the woman's son. He had not seen any of the men since they had returned; it seemed probable that Ella had ordered them to stay at the big house. That left the ancient hag that the others called 'Ma', the simple young Hessie, and the little boy, Willie Joe. It looked as if they were just going to let the young man rot there in the tree.
Vin felt his stomach lurch at the thought of it; if he had anything in his stomach, he would have lost it. If Darry had come to the same conclusion... he wasn't even certain that he could put that pain into words. How could a parent manage to survive being helpless to even give their child a decent burial?
Tanner's faded blue eyes looked up to see the frightened young woman, Hessie, scuttling toward them, two plates and a canteen in hand. Vin pulled himself up with a groan, waiting for the woman to reach the other side of the little prison. He could stand and move about a little, but his body ached from the long captivity and harsh abuse. As she stooped to push the plates beneath the door, following them with the canteen, he said softly, "Thank you, Miss Hessie."
She didn't acknowledge him, simply backed away. The timid woman-child chanced a quick look at the other prisoner. Her eyes shone with tears, but then she seemed to clamp down on her thoughts, and a hardness settled on her face.
"Miss Hessie, Darry's awful sick. I'm afraid she might die if y'all don't let 'r outta here."
Shaking her head vigorously, she replied "She got whut she d'zerved. She ought'n't ta go 'ginst Ma's word. Cause a her, that fancy lady's took th' men folk up ta her place, perm'nent. Me, Ma and Willie's here 'lone now."
"Is that why no one's buried Daniel?" Vin asked quietly.
The woman's face paled, a single cry escaping at the mention of the dead boy. She started away, but Tanner called her back, saying, "Tell yer ma I'll set 'm in th' ground if she's a mind ta let me. Cain't say I c'n 'bide a body not laid ta rest."
"Hiram said we's not ta let'cha out less one a them's around. He says y'all ain't ta be trusted."
"Miss Hessie, I'll give you m' solemn oath not ta do nothin' but put Daniel in th' ground."
"Y'all cain't be trusted," the young woman repeated as she turned and scurried back toward the house.
"Miss Hessie!" Vin called out hoarsely once again. He slumped back to the ground with a sigh.
"Thank you," a faint whisper came from the listless young woman on the other side of the little cell.
Tanner looked to see Wade staring up at him. He had never seen such lifelessness in a body that still breathed. He hoped to never see it again. Gathering himself, he nodded and said, "Least I c'n do."
The tracker picked up the plates and, as always, sat one beside the young woman. She retreated to wherever she had gone since that awful night, no longer acknowledging the man or the pathetic meal. The peacekeeper shook his head when he realized she wasn't eating again. With a helpless sigh, he slowly ate his own meager portion, his eyes never leaving the grief stricken woman.
"Darry, I wish y'd eat," he said softly. When she failed to respond again, he considered his options. Finally, he mopped up the last bit of watery broth in his plate and set it aside. Sliding across the ground between them, he reached out and touched the battered woman's shoulder. Her eyes opened slowly, and she stared up at him blankly.
"Miss, you know, there's things in m' life I ain't proud a doin', but there ain't a way 'n hell I c'n set here 'n watch you die without doin' somethin'."
"Leave me be, Vin, please."
"No, don't reckon I c'n do that." That said, he lifted her head up, resting it against his leg. Wiping his hand on the overalls they had left him in, he scraped up some of the unidentifiable food and pressed it to her lips. At first it was a struggle, the young woman refusing to open her mouth. Vin Tanner was nothing if not a patient man; however, he simply held her and continued to offer the food. Finally she surrendered, and he managed to get at least some of the food into her. This time, when she turned away, he let her, satisfied that she had done her best. The starving man indulged himself, swallowing the bite on his fingers.
Darry didn't struggle as much when he put the canteen to her lips. "Reckon it does cut th' taste a th' food," he joked. Then he sighed when he realized she had once more retreated from the world.
The singular reality of the black crack had not wavered. No matter what shadows and illusions tried to intrude upon his fragile world, he simply ignored them until they left him in peace. From time to time, he felt her there, her hands on his body. It no longer mattered to him what she did to him. It didn't matter that she was there at all. Even when she began to yell at him, he simply lay there, focused on the crack.
"Damn it, Chris! How can you just lay there, ignoring me? After all I've done for you, you treat me so horribly!" The mad woman railed for several moments, unheeding of the fact that he neither moved nor answered her ranting. "You had better get over this foolish snit soon, if you plan to continue living such a comfortable life. You can always return to the less affluent accommodations that we were forced to utilize before."
Her voiced softened then, as she continued. "Is that what you want, my love? Do you want to return to the darkness once again? I can have the men remove you to the cellar for another stay. Then we shall see how long it takes before you come to your senses. Is that what you want?"
Her hands stroked down his belly tauntingly. She smiled as she moved lower on his exposed body. She had left him nude since returning to the house, deciding he would be less likely to try anything again without his clothes. Her disturbed mind saw nothing of his catatonia, never registered the vacant stare in the hazel eyes. "You can make it all up to me, however, my love." Her hand moved even lower, her dark eyes glowing with lust. Ella's tongue appeared, rimming her lips. She trembled as she watched his body react to her touch. Yes, she was well-versed in making men do as she wished.
He stared upward, his focus as always on the long black crack. He felt his body tense as it was touched, but felt neither enjoyment nor pleasure. Then, in the reality of the blackness, he saw flames. Contained within the flames, he saw a face, framed with thick auburn curls. Beside that was another, thick dark hair and eyes like his own. Both faces were filled with terror, both mouths opened to scream. Even though he heard nothing over the sound of the flames, he knew they were both calling to him. Then they faded from view, and all was silence.
She cried out softly... angrily... as she realized that he was no longer aroused. Re-fastening her clothing with trembling fingers, she shed frustrated tears. Then she drew back one well-manicured hand and slapped him across the face. That was followed by a second and then a third strike. Shaking with rage, she stumbled away and ran from the room.
Left behind, his focus never wavered from the crack.