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The seven spent the rest of that day and through the night together, Josiah leaving only long enough to escort Nettie Wells home. The next morning, their five friends left for town, making a promise that one of them would check in every day. Silently, the men agreed that this would be the best way to keep Chris from trying to take off at every turn. They knew without a doubt that the man would not leave Tanner alone in his condition. It was also time for the stubborn blond to understand that the only one who had to forgive him for what had happened was he, himself.
The two of them were left alone to complete the healing process.
Vin was managing more and more on his own. By the second week, he could walk to the corral or the privy and back without even being winded. While he wasn't yet back to normal, and full recover was still months down the road, he looked and sounded more like himself every day, thanks to Nettie's daily delivery - usually via Casey - of all his favorites, Tanner was even gaining weight.
Chris spent most of the time making improvements and additions to his homestead. He enlarged the corral and began to work on a barn. He found that as long as he kept busy, he could banish the guilt and anger that continued to gnaw at him at bay. By nightfall, he was physically exhausted and able to sleep through the night without dreaming.
Most of the time.
Vin was wakened from a deep sleep by a single shout, someone calling his name. Struggling to shake loose the fog of his own dreams, he pushed himself up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He saw that Chris was sitting straight up on the cot he was using. Padding across the room, he reached out, but drew back before touching his friend. "Chris? Chris it's me. It's Vin. Cowboy? Talk to me."
"Vin?" Larabee turned slowly, focusing on his friend, visible in the light of the full moon outside.
Dropping to the edge of the cot, Tanner asked, "Bad dream?"
"You could say that," Chris scrubbed a hand roughly over his face, feeling perspiration and what he feared were tears dampening his flesh. Struggling to take a deep breath, he forced himself to calm as much as he could. It took several minutes to slow his racing heart, slow and deepen his breathing, and stop his body trembling. He watched Tanner covertly, seeing the worry and guilt there and knowing that he could far too easily increase either feeling.
When he saw that the laconic blond wasn't going to offer any more, although the man's demeanor was a strong indicator, Tanner continued. "You called my name."
"Dreamin' about... back there?" No reason to say where, they both knew only too well. The big white house and the demons that populated it still dominated both their dreams.
Larabee sighed. "Doesn't matter." It did matter, it was the only thing he could think about, but he wasn't going to share that with Vin.
"Yeah, it does," Vin disagreed, frowning. Then he added, "Thought we got past all that."
"You know what the hell I'm talkin' about, Cowboy. You...heapin' all the guilt on yerself."
"No more than I deserve, all right? Vin it was my choices that led us down that road. You know that as well as I do." He cursed himself, knowing that his words were enough to begin an argument that neither of them was strong enough to handle right now.
"Don't know any such thing. I know my brains 've been a bit rattled, but I don't recall you forcin' me ta go with you. Seems ta me I made my own decisions." Tanner's face was resolute, even in the near darkness.
Broad shoulders slumping, Chris dropped his face into his hands. His voice muffled, he said, "It's late... I'm fine, all right?"
"Damn it, Larabee, don't ya think it's time we got all this settled once and fer all?!"
No, it wasn't, and he wasn't about to continue this right now. Adopting a nearly blank expression, Larabee said, "I just want to go back to sleep." With that he slid back down onto the cot and turned to face the wall.
"Chris!" Tanner reached out and grabbed hold of the other man's broad shoulder, intent on continuing their discussion, but his friend didn't budge. He sat like that for several long minutes, but still received no response. Finally, sighing, Vin shuffled back across the room, knowing there would be nothing more said this night.
Chris wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. Even though the day was cool, he had been working hard since sunrise, cutting boards for the barn he planned to build. He squinted up at the sun, surprised to see that it had passed that apex. Dropping the saw, he leaned back, listening to his spine cracking in response. Then, glancing toward his home, he saw Vin sitting on the porch.
"Lookin' a bit wrung out there, Cowboy," Tanner called out as the blond approached. He lifted a coffee mug. "Made a fresh pot if yer interested. There's a biscuit 'r two left, too."
Larabee chuckled, "Wasn't there a dozen or so this morning?" He dropped onto the chair across the small table from his friend. Grabbing a biscuit and pouring himself coffee, he lifted the mug and smiled at the other man.
"Yeah, well, y'all keep tellin' me I need ta pick up a few pounds."
"Yeah? Well you keep up like this and you'll make Peso a swayback by the - " He broke off, realizing what he had just said.
Tanner sighed. "Chris, don't go kickin' yerself about that damned mule. You saved my hide, Cowboy, and that' ain't nothin'."
"It's just... just another way... I feel like I let you down in that, too."
"Yeah, well, you didn't. Git that outta that hard head of yers. Hell, knowin' that bitch, either he bit 'er and died 'a poison, or she sold 'im ta some unlucky bastard."
He tried to smile, but couldn't quite pull it off. Leaning forward, crossing his arms atop the table, he said, "I'll make it up to you."
"Damn it, Larabee!"
Dropping his head, Chris sought to break the building tension. With a passive expression, he said, "Let me finish. When you're feeling up to it, we'll go out and tame the biggest, ugliest, orneriest cougar. Then, we'll saddle break it and you'll have a fitting replacement."
"Hey now!" Vin tried to sound furious, but couldn't help but chuckle. Putting his hand out, he said, "Got yerself a deal."
Taking the proffered hand, Larabee smiled. The first real smile he had managed in what seemed a lifetime. He felt something else, too. He felt himself begin to have hope again. He would make things right; for Vin, for Darry, for the other five. He would - finally - make things right for Sarah and Adam.
Ella Gaines would not get away again.
Ezra Standish rode silently beside JD Dunne. They were going out to check in with Chris and Vin. After that, JD was going on to the Wells homestead to visit with the sweet young Casey Wells. However, that meant he was forced to endure the young man's incessant prattle during the endless journey.
Standish, a puzzled expression on his face, turned toward Dunne. "Excuse me?"
"What do you think?"
"Think... about what?"
"Sheesh, Ezra! Weren't you even listening to me?"
The brunet's expression told Standis that he had been asked something important. Swallowing hard, he admitted, "I apologize, Mister Dunne. I must confess that my mind was elsewhere. Please, could you enlighten me?"
With a dramatic sigh, JD slumped in the saddle and muttered, "Never mind."
Guilt brushed across Ezra's face as he watched his compatriot ride several yards ahead. He felt badly for hurting the other man's feelings. On the other hand, it did make for a quiet ride.
Tanner and Larabee looked up at the sound of horses approaching the little homestead. Vin grinned. "Look who they got outta bed 'fore sundown."
With a chuckle, Chris added, "Looks like he managed to piss off the Kid, too."
A few minutes later, JD and Ezra arrived at the corral, dismounted and approached the shack, greeting the other two men.
"Mister Tanner, I must say, you're looking more like yourself each time I see you."
Sliding a frown at the other man, then turning toward Chris, Vin asked, "Ain't certain he means that as a compliment or not."
Chris simply shrugged, while Standish proclaimed, "I assure you, it was a compliment."
"Yeah, at least he listened to you," JD groused as he dropped to the ground and leaned back against the outer wall of the blond's home.
"Forget it, Ezra."
"Dang," Vin exclaimed, looking from one forlorn expression to another, "what happened?"
Twirling his bowler, Dunne replied softly, "Nothing... it's not important."
"JD, you want to come help me out with the horses?"
"Yeah, sure," Dunne pushed to his feet and followed Chris to the corral.
Ezra dropped to the chair, watching after the two men. Nearby, Vin settled back on the other seat. "So, what did you do?"
"Frankly, I'm not certain. I have the impression that I was lost in thought. I mean, you know how our exuberant friend can be..." he trailed off, staring off into the distance. "Evidently he asked a question and I wasn't aware of it. Due to his reaction I believe it must have been of significant importance."
"In other words, he trusted you to help him figger somethin' out and you let 'im down." Vin translated.
While a mixture of emotions danced over his handsome face, Standish said in a level tone, "Precisely."
At the corral, Larabee and Dunne worked in near silence as they cared for the animals. After several long moments, Chris ventured, "Want to talk about it?"
"Ahhh..." The sound was part growl. "It wasn't that important."
"Doubt that." When the other man turned to regard him, Chris continued. "Don't think you'd be this fired up over something that wasn't important."
"I was just... well, I've been thinking about asking... about asking Miz Nettie for permission to... well, to court Casey."
"Thought you already were?" He was puzzled.
With a shocked expression, JD said, "What? No, we're friends... have been friends... I mean... no."
Struggling to suppress a smile, Chris said only, "Sorry, my mistake."
"Anyway, I asked Ezra what he thought about asking Miz Nettie... I... well, Hell, I poured my heart out to him, and he wasn't even listening."
"I'm sure he didn't mean to hurt your feelings."
Dunne shrugged, but didn't respond otherwise.
Chris gave the younger man a few moments, but JD said nothing more. In a soft tone, he offered. "I say go for it, Kid."
Brushing perspiration soaked dark hair out of his eyes, JD said, "Yeah?"
Nodding, Larabee continued. "I know I'm not as good with words as Ezra is, but if you want to practice, I might be able to help you out."
"Thanks, Chris!" Dunne smiled broadly.
Back on the porch, Ezra and Vin watch the other pair. It was Tanner who said, "Reckon he's gonna bend Chris' ear fer a spell, now."
"Well," Larabee said after listening to JD stammer through several variations of virtually the same speech, "knowing Nettie Wells, I'd say the fewer words the better. I'd... well, if it was me, I'd just walk up to her, say my piece, and take my chances."
JD smiled. "You're right. I will... when I go visit... I'll... I'll..." his shoulders slumped. "I'm going to make a fool of myself."
Placing a hand on the younger man's shoulder, Chris smiled as he asked, "Want me to go along for moral support?"
Hazel eyes brightening, the easterner replied hopefully, "Would you?"
"You saddle my horse and I'll go let Vin and Ezra know what we're gonna do. Might as well do it now, before you lose what little courage you've mustered."
Not long after Larabee and Dunne had ridden out, Tanner excused himself and went inside to lie down. Ezra sat at the table, playing solitaire, frowning as the wind kicked up the dust around him. Brushing ineffectively as it settled on his deep red jacket, he silently bemoaned his fate.
A short time later, he heard soft mutterings inside the cabin. Entering the room where Vin lay on the narrow bed, he watched the other man tossing and turning atop the blankets. He couldn't quite make out the words, but the tone was unmistakable. Fear.
"My friend," he whispered softly, "I only wish I could take that pain away."
With a sigh, he returned to the table, splashed a little scotch in his coffee, then took a drink from his flask before re-capping it and tucking it inside his pocket.
Chris sat at the table with Nettie Wells, watching JD and Casey whispering to one another as they sat at the top of the porch steps. Cutting off another piece of apple pie, he savored the sweet taste.
"Land sake, I thought the poor boy was just gonna fall over in a dead faint before he got out what he wanted to say," Nettie observed.
Smiling, Chris said, "You should have heard him earlier, before he got his courage up."
Turning toward the man across from her, Nettie replied in a shocked tone, "That was courage?"
Shaking her head, the widow repeated in and astonished tone, "Land sakes."
The two men left the Wells homestead a short time later, laden down with enough food for an army. JD was in his own world, his mind still reeling with relief and excitement. He had been wearing the same, silly grin since it sank in that he had been given permission to court Casey Wells. So distracted, he didn't even think about the silence that rode along with the two of them.
Nearby, Chris Larabee was deep in thought, but it was far from pleasant. It was time to go after the crazy bitch that had ruined his life. Searching the sky, he saw the darkness approaching. If he could convince Ezra and JD to stay at the homestead, he could get away without leaving Vin alone. The Texan was growing stronger all the time, but he wasn't completely well yet. Chris didn't want to leave him alone at the homestead, and convincing him to go into town would stand too big a chance of tipping his hand.
"Chris?" Dunne's voice called him from his thoughts.
"Yeah?" As he spoke, he realized they were at the corral. Shaking his head at his inattentiveness, he dismounted.
"What you got in the basket, Cowboy?" Vin stepped out onto the porch; blue eyes alight with anticipation of more of Nettie Wells cooking.
"Well, I reckon we've got enough to keep you busy for a while. Now, why don't you stop drooling, and sit yourself down?"
The conversation was light and casual as the four men settled at the table and began eating. Chris and JD shared the bench Larabee had sitting at one side of the little dwelling, leaving the chairs for the other two men.
In the end, it took only a little persuasion to get Ezra and JD to stay. The night sky was black, thick clouds that had begun to gather just before dusk, and the smell of rain was thick on the rising wind. While Standish bemoaned his loss of potential income away from the gaming table, he was only too happy to forgo a wet ride back to town.
The men settled inside, Vin retiring soon after dinner, while the other three passed the evening playing poker by lantern light. Much to Standish's chagrin, they played for matchsticks.
Vin woke twice, crying out when thunder crashed close by. With a sheepish look at his friends, who looked back only with concern, he settled back on the bed, drifting quickly back to sleep as soon as he saw that he was safe.
The storm gave way to a more gentle rain by the time the trio turned in for the night. Chris offered Ezra his cot, receiving thanks for his gratitude. He and JD spread out bedrolls and settled on the floor to sleep. Chris made certain that he was positioned closest to the door. He would leave well before sunup.
Ezra wasn't certain what woke him, and he wasn't certain where he was for a moment. Sitting up on the cot, he looked around; trying to decipher what was amiss. Vin and JD were still sleeping, sprawled beneath their blankets. Larabee, however, was no where to be found. Standish thought at first the blond had simply gone to the privy, until he realized that the other man's bedroll was gone as well.
"Damn it!" he whispered as he rose and padded to the door, opening it as quietly as possible. He peered out, cursing again as he saw the missing man just riding over the nearby rise, nothing but a silhouette in the faint light. He didn't have to think to realize the man's destination.
Closing the door and turning back toward the room, something caught his eye on the table. Moving to it, he picked up a single piece of paper and read it in the dim glow of the lamp.Going after her. Do not follow, no one
else is going to get hurt because of me.
Folding the paper and slipping it into his breast pocket, Ezra rubbed his chin, deeply in thought. If he waited until morning, Larabee would have a much longer head start. More than that, Vin would certainly insist on going after the stubborn blond. That was certainly something the still weakened man did not need to face, both his physical and emotional health too precarious to return to the place of his nightmares. No, someone needed to follow the guilt-ridden gunslinger in hopes of talking some sense into him.
Thinking it over for another few minutes, Standish had his plan in place. He began gathering supplies as stealthily as possible, setting everything out on the porch. Fishing a clean paper from one of his coat pockets, he stood near the lamp and carefully wrote his own note.
I have managed to encourage Chris to go away for a few days.
I feel that he could use a change of pace in order to gain a new
perspective on things. Do not be concerned, I shall keep an eye
on our friend and bring him back after a brief respite from the
current state of affairs.
Taking a final look around him, satisfied that the other two men were still asleep, he left the paper on the table and slipped out the door. Shouldering his things, he moved quickly toward the corral, where his horse awaited him.
As Larabee rode, his mind whirled, replaying over and over all of the ugliness that had entered his life because of the woman he had once called "the prettiest", and now, thought of only as a "sick bitch". Her face, wearing a smile that he now recognized in retrospect as feral, flashed across his mind. He watched her laugh, that image superimposed over the image of his wife and son. Then their bodies, burned so badly that he could scarcely tell one from the other, leered at him, blaming him for their deaths.
He thought he had begun to move past their deaths when he found the town and became the somewhat reluctant leader of six other misfits. He thought he was beginning to heal, thanks in part to their friendship. He had even thought for a time that he could make a life with Mary Travis and her son. But he had known nothing but the touch of whores, like Maria and Lydia, since the last night he shared with Sarah.
For six years he had known the love of a good woman. Not the saint that Buck made her out to be at times, and definitely not the delicate flower her father had considered her. Chris smiled as he thought of the times he had found himself ducking a thrown skillet or whatever else she could grab in the heat of the moment. Sarah Connolly Larabee had been a woman of great passions; she could ride as well as he could, and was nearly as good with a shotgun... like the one he had found the remains of near her body. She could sing like an angel and curse like a devil, her Irish temper standing her in good stead. Her laughter never failed to bring a smile to his face, and her tears would wound him in a heartbeat.
Adam had been the perfect combination of them both. His son had barely reached the age of five the night he died. At times Chris could scarcely recall life without his wife and son and at others he could scarcely recall life with them. That alone caused him the greatest pain. There were moments that his life as a husband and father seemed like nothing more than a dream; like a story he had read once a long time ago and barely remembered at all. But at others, he could recall the smallest detail of their life as a family.
With a long, drawn-out sigh that ended in a trembling hitch, Chris shook himself from his memories. He needed to stay sharp, to be aware of everything around him. Despite the fact that they had seen nothing of Ella or her hired men, he couldn't shake the feeling that someone was watching him.
Ezra wasn't known for his tracking skills, but was known for being very observant. Thanks to the summer sun and a clear sky, the ground held the tracks well, despite the rain of the night before. He followed Larabee's trail with relative ease and, by mid-afternoon, could see his quarry in the distance. He made no effort to catch up; only making certain the other man was in sight. He would choose his time to make his appearance known, but only when he felt the time was right.
Standish knew that his presence wouldn't be welcome. Chris meant to face his demons alone and expected his compatriots... his friends... to comply with those wishes. He had risked that relationship more than a few times during the course of the last two years, and he was willing to challenge it again if it meant doing whatever he could to keep the other man safe. He meant to bring Chris Larabee back to those friends and the life they had established over the past several months. Even if it meant he lost Larabee's trust forever.
Urging his horse forward, Ezra said softly, "Onward into the breech, my friend."
Vin yawned and stretched, waking slowly, his eyes squinting against the bright sun streaming through the windows and the open door. He frowned as he registered just how late in the day it was. Then that frown deepened as he made out quiet voices out on the porch. Stiffly, his body lethargic after long hours prone he slowly shuffled across the room and onto the porch. Expecting to find Chris, Ezra and JD, he was surprised to find instead, JD, Buck and Josiah.
"Y'all jist gonna let me lay in there 'n stave ta death?"
"Well, we figured you needed all the beauty rest you could get," Buck replied with a smile.
"Yer a regular joker," Vin replied with a roll of his eyes. "So, where's Chris 'n Ezra?"
"Went on a little trip, according to the note Ezra left," JD offered.
"Yeah, Ezra left a note saying he'd talked Chris into takin' a trip to... well, to get away from things for a few days." Buck explained.
Vin sighed, turning his gaze away from the others. "Away from his memories, ya mean... away from what I remind 'im of."
"No one's saying that, Vin," Josiah disagreed.
"Don't have to. Y'all know I've had more 'n my share 'a nightmares since... we got back." He turned to regard the three men one at a time. In a voice soft and filled with emotion he continued, "What ya don't know is how often Chris' had ta deal with his own nightmares." He watched as that information registered with each of his friends. Satisfied that they understood, he left the porch and made his way to the tree nearest the cabin, settling on the ground, in the shade.
Back on the porch, Josiah, Buck and JD exchanged pained expressions.
"It shouldn't come as any surprise, I suppose," Josiah said thoughtfully.
"Can't say that Chris ever struck me as a man troubled by such things," JD mused.
"Kid, there's a whole lifetime of things about Chris Larabee you don't know," Buck replied in a saddened tone. With that, he pushed himself away from the upright he was leaning against and strode toward the place where Vin sat.
"Hey, Vin, mind if I join you?"
Tanner simply shrugged. Leaning against the tree he rested his forearms across bent knees, idly twirling a blade of grass between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. His gaze was focused somewhere only he could see; though his expression left little doubt as to the place he was seeing in his mind's eye.
"Seems to me you and Chris are both set on carryin' a powerful load of guilt - "
"I ain't gonna be put off here. You're both so set on feelin' bad... feelin' responsible... for all that's happened, but we all know that it ain't so. There's only one person that needs to carry the guilt for what happened to you two. And I sure as hell hope that whore of Satan is rottin' on the prairie somewhere, feedin' the buzzards."
That brought a hint of a smile to the other man, but it was fleeting. Sorrow filled his face as he turned toward the man beside him. "What if she ain't?"
Three days passed, and they were still on the trail. Ezra stayed back far enough that Chris was little more than a faint silhouette on the landscape. He would gladly give up a month's winnings for a bottle of whiskey and his featherbed, but he put those thoughts aside. Those things would still be there when this journey was complete. He couldn't help but think that, when this was over, Chris Larabee would find some peace in his life. He would do everything in his power to see that their quietly acknowledged leader would survive this excursion to enjoy that peace.
He wasn't for certain how much longer their journey would be, but decided that it was time to announce his presence. There was still a chance Larabee would send him away, but he began to feel that this might not be the case. He had noticed, even at the distance he kept between them, a change in the gunslinger's demeanor. He sat his horse in a slump rather than the easy slouch that denoted a man at home in the saddle. His outline was that of a man beaten down; and it was only too easy to discern the fact that the other man was, himself, the one doing the beating.
Chris Larabee looked like a man in need of a friend.
Chris looked up from the small fire he had built to heat up coffee and some beans, settling an even gaze on the Southerner as he approached the camp. "Wondered how long it was gonna take you to stop skulking around out there."
"Well, it did seem like an opportune moment."
"Thought I made it clear that I didn't want company."
Leaning forward and crossing his wrists over his saddlehorn, Standish said, "Why yes, you did."
"Something about that you didn't understand?" He turned back toward the fire, stirring the beans.
"Not at all." Ezra hoped he wasn't conveying just how uncomfortable he was as he dismounted. He knew the gunman well enough that he wouldn't offer an invitation. The fact that he was still breathing was an indication Chris wasn't going to send him away out of hand. Leading his horse over to join the black that drank from the small watering hole and retrieving his saddlebags, Standish took a chance and joined the other man at the fire.
Turning the handle of both the skillet and the coffee pot in the newcomer's direction, Chris turned to his own meal. Ezra helped himself and leaned back against his saddlebags, content to watch the clouds as they crossed the sky above them.
The two men ate in silence until Standish raised his flask, offering to "sweeten" Larabee's coffee.
"You intend on coming along the rest of the way?"
"That is my intention," Ezra agreed.
Silence spread out over the camp for several moments, until, "Fine, you can wash the dishes."
Josiah yawned and stretched, eyes opening slowly as he woke at a leisurely pace. Looking around, it took him a moment to realize that Vin wasn't in the room. The bed was empty, as were the chairs. Grabbing his pants as he sat up, he pulled them on quickly and stuffed his feet into his boots. Two steps and he was at the door, then he stepped out onto the porch, searching for the Texan. Vin was in the corral, brushing down the horses. Sanchez could see, even from the porch, that the animals were being treated to shining coats, fresh straw on the corral floor, and fresh water in the trough. Tanner had been busy.
"You've been busy," Josiah commented as he strolled to the fence. As the younger man looked up, it was easy to see that he had been at it too long. Fine lines of pain creased the pale face; perspiration had plastered his long hair in loose curls around his face. "Son, you need to come in out of the heat.
"'M fine," Vin murmured as he turned back to his work.
"No, you're not."
"Damn it, J'siah! I said I'm fine!" His body argued that point, causing him to stagger as he moved too fast.
Quickly entering the corral, Sanchez caught his friend by the elbow. In a deep, soft voice he said, "Vin, listen to me. You need to slow down. Come back inside and I'll fix you some breakfast."
Struggling against the other man's grasp, Tanner growled, "I'm so tired 'a bein' coddled! Ain't never gonna git my strength back if I'm lazin' around all the time!"
"You're not lazing around. Your body's trying to tell you that it needs rest. Son, listen to it. You were nearly dead a few weeks ago, would have been dead if Chris hadn't brought you home when he did. If you don't listen to your body and continue pushing yourself, you're gonna make things a whole lot worse and you'll be flat on your back again. That what you want?"
With a soft moan, Tanner shook his head. Shoulders slumped, he allowed Sanchez to guide him back into the cabin. There he slouched in one of the chairs, loose limbed and still, ignoring everything around him while the other man followed through with his offer and made breakfast for them both. He didn't move until a plate of ham and biscuits appeared on the table before him. With a minimum of movement, he turned, lifted up the utensils next to the plate, and began to eat. Across the table from him, Josiah began to eat as well, remaining just as quiet, both men alone with their thoughts within a yard of one another.
When he finished, Vin pushed the plate away, drained the last few drops of coffee from his cup, and stood. "Reckon if I'm 'spected ta take it easy, I'll be out under the tree if ya need me."
With a sigh, Josiah watched the tracker, his posture one of defeat, leave the little cabin. Distractedly, he moved through the motions of cleaning up after the meal as quickly as he could, then poured two cups of coffee. Adding sugar to one, he walked outside, heading for the tree where, Tanner was stretched out, back against the big trunk. Moving in that direction, the big man settled on the ground beside his friend, holding out the sugar laden drink until it was received with a small nod.
"What's going on, Vin?" He knew there was no reason to waste time in dancing around the question with the Texan.
Shrugging, Tanner responded softly, "Jist cain't shake the feelin' that there's somethin' happenin' here that we've been left out on."
"What do you mean?"
"Chris... Ezra... jist think they ain't off fer a relaxin' time, and it's been more'n enough time fer them ta be gone."
Josiah wasn't ready to share with the worried man that the others had begun sending out telegrams, attempting to find out where their two companions had gone. Time enough to share that concern when they had an answer. "Are you certain you're not sensing your own feelings of unrest?"
"Hell, I ain't certain of nothin', Josiah. I jist know that there's more goin' on here than we know about... or, at least more than I know about." He settled an even look on the other man, blue eyes seeming to bore into his friend.
Fighting the urge to shift his gaze, Sanchez said, "You know as much as we do, Vin. We don't have any other information." It wasn't a lie; they only had suspicions, no real information.
Holding the other man's attention for a few more seconds, Tanner finally shifted slightly and nodded. He continued to feel unsettled, but he was satisfied that the others weren't keeping anything from him. They didn't know anything more than he did. It didn't mean, though, that their two friends weren't simply off for a few days of relaxation.
The first thing Ezra noticed was just how similar it all seemed. Although there were obvious differences the overall sense was of "sameness" between this ranch and the other one they had once visited. He glanced at the man beside him, noting the look on Chris' face. There was a darkness there that was horrible to behold. Standish felt his heat skip a beat and his mouth went suddenly dry.
He understood just how much of his already shattered soul Chris Larabee left behind in that place.
Neither of them spoke as they stood in the shadows, watching the ranch. It was overgrown and silent, no sign that there was any one or any thing still living there. Still, they watched for nearly an hour before Chris moved from those shadows, motioning Standish to follow him. Guns drawn, both men moved silently though the tall grass, toward the destination that both repelled and beckoned to them.
By the time they reached the house, Ezra was beginning to relax. Surely they would have been challenged by now. He glanced over at Larabee to find, however, that the other man seemed, if anything, even tenser.
"They're gone," Standish whispered in hopes of quieting the other man's fears.
"Maybe," was the growled response.
"Chris, I under" He stopped as a pair of fiery eyes speared him with a glare. He was right, of course. Ezra had found the recounting of the weeks they had spent in Ella's grasp as haunting as any of the others. None of them could ever begin to truly understand what torture it had been to live through it.
Chris slipped into the house through the back door, Ezra on his heels. With utmost caution they moved from room to room, scouring them for signs that someone still lived there.
Opening a small room off the kitchen, both men found themselves gasping and choking for air. They found a badly decomposed body which Chris felt certain was the cook, Marta. It looked as if her throat had been slashed.
Other rooms showed Larabee that the house had been untouched since that fateful night that he had been able to rescue Vin with the help of Davis and Darry. At the thought of the man who had risked his life and the woman who had met the end of her life with courage and sacrifice. Chris' breath caught. He would track down Darry's remains and give them a proper burial. Those who indulged Ella in her madness could continue to rot and feed the wildlife in the area.
Eventually they came to the room that had been Chris' velvet prison. He paused at the door, one hand gripping the frame. Memories began to assault him, pounding at his brain without remorse. He struggled to breathe, finding it almost impossible to force air into his lungs.
Seeing the other man's reaction to the room, Ezra quickly surmised the cause. Speaking softly before he moved closer to the other man, he said, "Chris, I shall inspect this room. Would you be so kind as to keep watch in the hallway?"
Larabee slowly responded, turning to regard his companion. With a sharp nod he backed away from the door.
Standish quickly looked through the room, noting the disheveled bedding and the wood covered window. How cut off the other man must have felt in here, unable to even watch the sun rise or set, unable to even hear the sound of the birds outside the hidden window.
The room yielded nothing more; no sign that anyone had occupied the room since Chris had escaped. He moved back into the hallway to update the gunman. The look on the other man's face caused him to hesitate.
Larabee's eyes were wide, white showing all around the edges. His body was rigid, planted firmly against the wall, directly across from the room. His chest was heaving as he fought to force air into his lungs, and his hands were balled into fists so tightly that they trembled. Standish could barely recognize the man before him as one he had privately called friend for over a year.
"Chris?... Chris?... Chris!" He found himself repeating the call over and over, his voice rising each time. Then he loosed a relieved sigh when hazel-green eyes finally focused on him. Placing a hand on one tense shoulder, he spoke softly, "Chris, there's no sign of anyone there. Shall we leave this place now - "
"No." Larabee replied, his voice rough, with emotion. He pushed past Standish and strode down the hallway, leaving the other man to hurry after him.
They moved from room to room, Larabee now slamming doors open, gun in hand, ready for anything. Finally they came to the last room on the hallway, Chris nearly ripping the door from its hinges as he slammed it open.
Chris recognized it as soon as the open door revealed it, details awash in late afternoon light. It was the exact same room that he had lain with her before. Before she had turned his world upside down for a second time. Before he truly knew how and why his wife and son had died.
With a wild, guttural scream he stormed into the room, and began to destroy it. Bedding, mattress, lamps, furniture, all were victims of his fury. He yanked open the closet drawers and began pulling out dresses, gowns hats, shoes. If he couldn't rip or tear it, he threw it as hard as he could. Shoes shattered the mirror sitting in the corner and the windows that lined two walls, incongruently bringing in the sun as well as birdsong and the sound of the wind through the trees outside. Anything he could wrap his hands around was rendered to the smallest scrap he could manage.
Ezra stood in the doorway, watching as the chaos continued for over an hour. He kept a watch on the fain chance that there was someone near enough to hear the commotion. No one appeared anywhere along the hallway, nor did he see anyone approach the house as he watched through the window at the end of the hall.
Inside Ella's room, Chris came to the end of his strength. Tossing aside the last bit of the petticoat he had been shredding, he dropped heavily to his knees. Shoulders slumped, quivering as his chest heaved. With a trembling hand he swiped across his eyes as tears he didn't recall shedding.
Carefully maneuvering though the debris, Standish made his way to Larabee's side. ""Why don't we go outside for a bit?" When the other man didn't actively disagree, he reached down and guided him to his feet. Keeping a firm and comforting grip on the other man, he moved them out into the hall, down the stairs, and out onto the porch. There Chris pulled away and continued down the steps onto the lawn. Ezra stood, watching him walk away, uncertain of whether he should follow or not. Finally deciding that, no matter what, the other man needed someone to watch his back, he moved after him.
"Vin, you need to listen to reason."
"Reckon reason's got nothin' ta do with it," Tanner argued, staring up at the other man.
Josiah cursed and pushed away from the table. They had been arguing off and on, Vin becoming more and more adamant that they go looking for their two missing friends.
The sound of riders approaching the shack stalled the argument, and both men moved first to the window and then to the porch when they recognized three of their friends.
"Well, son, reckon you're lookin' more like yourself every time I come out here," Buck greeted in a teasing tone.
"Chris and Ezra back yet?" Nathan asked, cutting off any reply Tanner might make.
"Haven't seen them," Josiah offered. "Trouble in town?"
"Not yet, but there could be soon." JD answered. "Talk is James is on the move again. Thought we'd ride out ad put a stop to things before they get started. Hoped they were back so we could make a bigger show of force."
"Reckon we could make a decent show with five," Tanner put in.
"Vin, now listen - "
"Damn it!" the slender man cursed loudly, leveling a challenging look at each of the others. "Stop it! It ain't but two, three miles or so. If I cain't ride that far then..."
"Five it is," Buck interjected quietly as he responded to the haunted look on the Texan's face. He looked at the others, challenging them to argue the point. No one did.
He found the outbuilding that had been Vin's prison for too long. Standing before it, he brought back the memory of that night, using it to pinpoint the direction Darry had gone. Staring into the stand of trees as if he could see the young woman's path, he strode off. Behind him, Ezra once again followed.
It didn't take long to find her, and there wasn't much left to find. He was saddened but not surprised to see what was left of Davis as well. The animals and other creatures had stripped the bones of flesh; the only way to differentiate between what was left was they way they aligned with clothing and the number of broken bones lying within and around the bloodied and torn gown he had last seen her in.
"Darry..." Larabee breathed, "I am so... so sorry. I wish I could have saved you, too."
"I'm certain she wouldn't blame you for any of this," Ezra spoke softly, giving the other man the only comfort he had to offer.
Not acknowledging the other man's words, Chris said, "Least I can do is give them a decent burial."
Vin felt as if his insides were bouncing together, even though the horse he rode had an easy gait. He held the reins tightly in one hand, while the other was pressed against his middle in the hope that it would quell the nausea boiling through his gut. Blowing a breath out through clenched jaws, he realized he might make it after all.
"You all right there, pard?" Buck asked softly from where he rode beside the smaller man. He received only a nod in return, but it was enough. The Texan was coming back to life after all these long weeks.
Ezra had gone back to the house and retrieved enough bedding to make simple shrouds for the two people that Chris had been able to locate. Bringing them back, he left them with the tortured man while he ventured off in search of a shovel. By the time he found it he was becoming acutely uneasy. The lack of sound and movement was grating on his nerves.
It was nearly half an hour before he returned, two shovels along with a large needle and heavy thread from the tack room in hand. In his absence, Chris had carefully placed the remains inside the blankets. "I believe I've found everything we need," Standish announced as soon as he felt he was within hearing, not wanting to panic the already distraught man.
Larabee turned to face Ezra, the normal mask of calm back in place over his ruddy features. Standing and nodding his approval, he held his hand out, motioning toward the needle and thread. "I'll take care of them."
Ezra's baser nature came to the fore as he thought that the other man meant to have him dig the graves. Larabee continued, though, dispelling that thought.
"You set up camp, find us something to eat. I'm sure there's something up at the house."
"Are you certain you don't need my assistance?"
Seeing that this would be his only answer, Standish simply nodded and moved off, deciding it would be best to bring their horses up to the house first.
It seemed to be hours before they were leaving James place, although he knew it hadn't been nearly that long. Vin wanted nothing more than to get back to Larabee's shack and go to bed. That thought, though enticing, nearly broke his heart; he despaired of ever being well and whole again.
"How you holding up?"
Vin turned to find Nathan riding beside him. He thought about lying but knew the healer would see right through anything but the absolute truth. "Wishin' I was stretched out on that damned narrow, lumpy, spine twister Larabee calls a bed."
With a chuckle, the big man said, "Thought as much. Wish we'd known the whole thing was just a rumor, we could have all just stayed home."
Tanner smiled back, shaking his head at the memory of them riding into the James compound only to find a handfull of men to greet them. Eldred James was on the move, but not in the way they feared. He and the rest of his men were delivering a herd of cattle to San Francisco via the railroad. He had learned one thing, though. The others were right; he wasn't nearly ready to go looking for Chris and Ezra. And, since the others didn't yet seem worried, he would just have to trust that they were right, and there was no cause for concern.
Ezra settled their horses, quickly rummaged through the kitchen for food, and set up camp close by where he had left Chris to his work. That part of him that still responded as his mother's son thought it ridiculous to sleep outside when there was a perfectly fine house and a decent bunkhouse nearby. But the part of him who he recognized as the saner part felt nothing but disgust at the very thought of sleeping beneath the roof where such atrocities had been committed by that odious woman.
He kept himself busy until just before dark, then made his way toward where he heard the sound of a shovel breaking earth. Arriving at the place where he had left Larabee, he saw only the top of the man's head and, from time to time, the blade of the shovel as he continued digging the graves. Standish watched for a few moments, before making his presence known. "I've finished a rather palatable stew." He received nothing but a grunt in response. "You really should come eat while it's hot. I can't guarantee it will be as eatable as it cools."
"I'll be there in a few minutes. I wanna get this finished."
"The sun will be setting soon. You won't be able to finish until the morning, anyway."
"Get me a lantern."
"Mr. Larabee! I did not accompany you here to watch you kill yourself wallowing in a mire of guilt."
"Didn't ask you to come along."
"Yes, but... damn it!" Standish stormed off, recognizing the futility of further argument. He entered the bunkhouse and grabbed the closest lantern he could. Checking the amount of kerosene, he started back out the door. With a start, he saw a hint of movement at one of the windows in the house.
Setting the lantern down and taking his gun out of its holster, he moved swiftly and stealthily toward the house. He hoped to find it was nothing, but couldn't allow it to go by without checking it out.
Entering Gaines' house, he made his way to the stairway, bounding up it in near silence. At the top of the staircase, he stopped long enough to scan the area. It looked no different than it had when they had looked around earlier. Taking a deep breath, he made his way along the hall, checking into each room as he went. None of the rooms revealed any indication that there was anyone up there.
Ella's bedroom was the last one he checked. As with the others, nothing was revealed. Still, he made a thorough sweep, feeling his hackles rise as he scoured the devastated room for any sign of habitation.
Finally, satisfied despite a few, nameless, vague concerns, he left the room, traveled down the hallway, down the stairs, and back out onto the porch. Pausing a few more seconds he finally shook his head and moved back toward the bunkhouse. He would be relieved to leave this place for once and all.
Thump... thump... thump... the sound of soft dirt dropping onto the ground mixed with the sound of his heartbeat. They were the only sounds he heard. He struggled to keep from thinking of anything, fearful that he would become trapped in his thoughts. The violence that had haunted the young woman he was burying was too monstrous to wrap his mind around it.
He wasn't successful in keeping the vision of Darry Wade as he had seen her last. Standing there, broken, bleeding... dying... but determined to give him the chance to get Vin away. Hers was a bravery that deserved more than an unmarked grave in this forsaken place. But it was all he had to offer her.
Another sound broke through his thoughts and he looked up to see a faint glow coming toward him. Ezra coming back with his lantern. He said nothing, just went back to work.
Startled, he jerked, staring up into the brightness of the lantern. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust, although he would wish himself blind at the face that greeted him.
She smiled, giggled like an insane schoolgirl. "I'm so glad you came back, sweetheart. I was beginning to feel very unloved. But you're here, and it's all right now."
"Nothing's gonna be all right until you're dead, you hellspawn bitch!"
"Chris! How could you hurt me so?" Her face changed and she began to cry.
"Shut the hell up! I'm not playing your games anymore, Ella. This stops, here." As he spoke, he moved slowly, preparing to lever himself out of the grave.
"Stop." The demented woman's expression changed again, and she was leveling a handgun on him. "You're going to stay right there until you're ready to show me your love."
"I can show you that right now. I... do... not... love... you. You're insane, Ella, if you can think I could love you after all you've done to me."
In response, she fired the weapon, dirt from the earthen wall beside him spraying over Larabee. He flinched slightly, but otherwise stood firm.
"I don't love you, Ella. I loved Sarah. I loved my son. I don't love you."
"LIAR!" She fired again, this time causing the object of her obsession to grunt as the bullet grazed his shoulder.
"I'm not lying, Ella."
"NO!" She screamed unintelligibly, bringing the gun to bear on the blond, held with both hands that now trembled with rage.
Chris heard another shot, and waited for the pain to spread through his body. But there was nothing. Looking up, he realized that Ella was no longer standing above the grave. But, as he watched, another familiar face appeared.
Nodding, the other man reported, "You seemed to be in need of assistance."
Grinning, sagging, incredibly weary now, against the ground at his back. He tried to find the words, but could only think of, "Thanks.'
Standish moved over to where Ella lay, gasping in pain. He looked down to witness pure hatred in her dark eyes. It was an impotent anger, however; she was covered in blood and wouldn't live for long. Reaching down and retrieving her weapon, he simply stared at her before turning back to the grave.
"She dead?" Larabee asked.
"Not as yet."
"Help me out of here." Chris reached out a hand, gripping the one offered back to him. As soon as he was out of the grave he moved to where the focus of his hatred lay. She was nearly bled out, her lips blue as she struggled to take each breath.
"Ch... ris... he... help... me..."
"No," he replied shortly. "You're dying, Ella. And I'm going to watch you take your last breath. I'm going to take joy in watching you die."
"N... no... I... you... l-love... me..."
"I hate you, Ella Gaines, with every fiber of my being. You destroyed my life. You took the only two people in this world that made it worth living in. If you loved me you'd have killed me instead. My life should have ended that day... that day..."
He looked at the hand on his arm, then up at his companion. He frowned, ready to put Standish in his place for interrupting him, when he saw the other man nod toward the woman lying nearby. Turning, he looked to see that Ella was dead. Tears still glistened on her cheeks, testament to how he was able to finally hurt her as badly as she had hurt him. Her eyes were fixed on some point beyond anything they could see and her gown, once white, was now a darkening red.
Turning now toward the grave he had dug for Darry, he smiled as a thought came to him. "Then let's bury her."
The sun was just coming up as he tamped the last shovel full of dirt over his former lover. Ezra had coaxed him back to the camp and tended his wound, then nearly sat on him to get him to eat. Standish had tried to get him to sleep, but it didn't work. While the other man settled in his bedroll, Chris moved back into the trees. He grabbed her arms, stiffening in death, and pulled her nearer to the grave, unceremoniously dropping her into the hole. Looking down, he imagined he could see her staring back up at him, and smiled just before he spat into the dark pit.
Taking up the shovel, he began to dump mounds of dirt into the hole. The slight wound in his arm protested, but he ignored it. His back protested the hours of digging in the soil, but he ignored it as well. He was soon aware of nothing more than the fact that the years of searching were finally over. The woman he had once loved and came to hate, the woman who had destroyed his world and nearly destroyed him, was dead.
Nothing else mattered.
Standing back, he surveyed his work. The blankets that held the remains of Darry and Davis sat nearby, but he wouldn't bury either of them here. Not now. He would take them back and bury them far away from Ella Gaines. It would be better for Vin this way, anyway, he reasoned. His friend deserved the chance to say good-bye to the young woman who had saved them both.
"Are you ready to take a break now?" Ezra's voice came from behind him.
"Yeah." Turning toward the other man, he said, "You see any other horses while you were roaming around the place? I want to take them back with us."
Deciding it wasn't something he wanted to argue about, Standish said, "I'll see what I can find."
Nodding, suddenly exhausted, Chris shuffled back through the trees to where the camp had been set up. There he dropped to his blankets, asleep immediately.
The sun was nearly straight up in the sky when Larabee woke. With a soft grunt he managed to sit up, every muscle in his body responding with soft protest at the movement. Scratching his chin, he looked for his friend, but didn't see him. Pushing to his feet, he wandered across the grass aimlessly for several minutes, looking for any sign of the smaller man's coat.
"Greetings, Mr. Larabee."
Turning toward the other man's voice, Chris was shocked to see Standish coming toward him, leading a horse. A very familiar horse. "Is that... Peso?"
"Indeed. There was no mistaking Mr. Tanner's mount after the cantankerous animal tried - unsuccessfully - to relieve me of a finger." He held his hand up, a handkerchief wrapped around his finger. There was a small blood stain, but it didn't look as if the wound was serious.
"I'll be damned. Where was he?"
"At the back of the house. It would seem that malicious harlot was riding him."
The gunman chuckled, and then laughed out loud as he recalled his conversation with the animal's owner. When he was finally able to get himself under control, he said, "Well, she always did have questionable taste in horse flesh."
Grinning, Standish tried to admonish him. "Now, now, you know how badly that remark would set with our associate."
Reaching out and scratching between the big animal's ears, he said, "Yeah, well I'll shoot you if you tell him."
Hearing the teasing quality in the blond's voice, Ezra said, "My lips are sealed."
Sobering, Chris said, "Let's get out of here."
Although the sun was beginning its decent, the two men had no desire to stay any longer than they had to. They packed up the camp and secured the remains of Wade and Davis on the newly recovered gelding. Chris took enough time to clean up at the well, adamant that he would never step foot inside that house again.
They rode away, as far as they could manage, before having to set up camp. There they relaxed on either side of a small fire, enjoying whiskey-laced coffee after a meal of beans and salted pork.
Ezra watched the flames dance, his mind drifting back to the night before. In some ways it seemed far longer, in other ways it was if it had only happened. But there was one thing that remained the same. He was glad that he had been able to put an end to the other man's nightmare.
He remembered back to that fateful night he had found Chris drunk, sprawled out in his room. He had seen only a self-pitying drunk then but, now, he had a far better understanding. Their leader had lived through a hell that none of them, save Vin, could ever begin to understand.
"Thank you, Ezra."
Green eyes snapped up, staring across the flames at the other man. "What?"
"Thank you. For killing that bitch. For... for, giving me back my life. Thank you for being here, and for ending the nightmare. Just... thank you, my friend."
Ezra nodded, stunned at what, for Chris Larabee, was a lengthy admission. And he reveled most in that final word. A single syllable that meant more than anything else.
They had finally decided that their friends were taking too long to come home. To a man, they agreed that it was time to go on the hunt. Vin was glad of that, even though he acknowledged that his own health would only slow them down.
In the early morning sun, one man watched as four men were just mounting outside the corral at the Larabee homestead when they looked to see two men riding toward them. Each man smiled as they recognized their friends. The smile on one face grew even wider as he recognized the third horse that trailed behind them.
Buck whooped as he watched Chris and Ezra coming toward them and then he, too, realized that it was Peso trailing behind. With a chuckle he coaxed his horse around and reached out a hand to Vin. Tanner clasped the offered hand and pulled himself up onto General's back. Wilmington could feel the lean tracker's body trembling with excitement. He joined the others, moving at a fast walk toward their returning friends.
Meeting, the seven men dismounted, leaving horses ground reined as they greeted one another, shaking hands and slapping backs, five calling "welcome home" while two others replied "good to be home".
Vin broke away from the group and went to the horse he had privately mourned as gone. He reached out and scratched the white blaze that stood out against the black mane. "Damn," he murmured in a voice choked with emotion, "It's good ta see ya... mule."
"Told you I'd find the orneriest mountain lion I could. Don't think there's anything meaner than this one."
Choking back the tears that threatened to come, Tanner said, "Reckon yer right." Then, noting what Peso carried on his broad back he frowned and turned toward his friend.
His face softening to sorrow, Larabee said, "It's Darry, Vin. I'm sorry. I brought her and Davis here. Just couldn't leave them there in that hell."
As he listened to the explanation, he walked around to the side of his horse. Reverently touching the bundles, he said softly, "It's right, Cowboy."
Nettie Wells stopped by around mid-morning to find the seven men together and - for the first time in weeks - whole again. There was an air about the entire homestead that spoke of joy, relief, and peace. She drove her wagon up, intending to bring whoever was staying there with Vin a hearty lunch of fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, and corn on the cob, along with sweet potato pie for desert. She could only smile to see all of the men that had come together all those months ago, working together.
Chris and Vin were near the porch, both busily working on what she saw were two crosses. They had already been nailed together and Vin was sanding one, while Chris was using a straight iron to burn letters into the other. There were two blanket wrapped bundles nearby that she assumed were the departed those crosses were for. But, despite the somber work, both men seemed to be bearing up well. Tanner looked up as she approached.
"Miz Nettie!" He set his work aside, rose and dusted his hands off on his pants then came toward her, a smile on his face. "Sorry, Miz Nettie, we were jawin' and didn't notice ya 'til jist now."
"We were jawing?" Larabee interjected with a terse tone. "Seems to me I haven't been able to get more than half a dozen words in."
"Hell... sorry, Nettie... that's enough fer two days, so yer ahead." The slender man, laughter in his eyes, helped the older woman down from the buggy, offered his arm, and escorted her to the porch. Blue eyes still glittering, he said, "Chris, reckon there's some vittles in the wagon. Think you could quit glarin' long enough ta fetch 'em?"
"Something wrong with your arms?"
"Ya know there is, ya grouch. I'm still recuperatin'."
Rolling his eyes, though they, too, glittered, Chris rose and offered the widow Wells his seat. Wiping his hands off as well, Larabee moved toward the wagon to retrieve the basket of food. As he did, he whistled loudly and motioned to the others, who were near the edge of the homestead. Buck, JD and Josiah were barely visible as they dug in the earth. Nathan and - with only a minimum of protest and borrowed clothing from Chris' closet - Ezra, were moving the dirt back from the graves. As one, the men dropped what they were doing and came toward the shack.
While their friends washed up at the pump, Chris laid out a blanket under the nearby tree and spread the food out. Vin and Nettie went into the house and came back with every plate, cup and utensil Larabee owned. Soon all eight were settled around the blanket, enjoying their benefactress' good cooking. Nettie, always wise and observant, noted that, while the men were busy keeping things light, there was an underlying tone that told her things weren't as jovial as they seemed at first glance. She left things alone until the meal was over and the men moved back to their jobs. They had carried both the dirty dishes and the leftovers into the shack and she set up dish water to clean them, despite protests from all seven that she was a visitor.
Setting the last plate to dry, she moved to where Chris and Vin were once again working on the crosses. Crossing her arms and leaning against one of the uprights, she asked softly, "Who passed?"
Taking a deep breath, Larabee said, "The two people who helped us escape."
Vin sighed, the sound nearly a sob. It was the tell Nettie had been waiting for. Moving over to stand behind the still-fragile man, she said, "Darry Wade."
"Yes, ma'am. And a man named Davis" Chris explained.
Running her fingers lightly through Tanner's hair, she said, "The man who finally had the courage to defy that... that woman." To Vin she said, "I'm sorry, son. From everything I know of her, she was a fine woman."
"Yes, ma'am, they both were... at least in the end." Chris added, not certain his friend would be able to respond.
"If it weren't fer Darry... I'd never 'a made it," the tracker's voice broke. "She never asked ta live like she did. Them bastards - sorry, Nettie - made her life hell 'til the day she... she died."
"Honey, no reason to apologize. Bastard's too good a name for them. I hope Satan's made pets of both of them."
That comment brought the light back to Vin's face for a brief moment. With a soft chuckle, he leaned against the woman he'd come to love deeply. "Reckon that'd be good fer a start."
The sun was casting long shadows across the land by the time the graves were filled and the crosses set. Josiah opened his ever present Bible and took some time in sharing the Gospel and praying for the eternal souls of both Darry Wade and Al Davis. If the others noticed the tears rolling down Vin's face, they didn't say anything. Chris moved a little closer to his friend on one side and Nettie on the other, though. Chris placed a hand on his friend's shoulder, while Nettie took his hand. After the ceremony, the other five men moved away, giving the two men who had lived through the horror some privacy. Nettie leaned up and kissed Vin's cheek, whispered a few words meant to comfort, and walked back to the shack. JD helped her into the wagon, which he had tied his horse too, and the youngest member of the group left to escort her home.
Back at the graveside, Chris tried to find the words that would ease the pain his friend was experiencing but nothing came to mind. Then Vin spoke and took that need away.
"I'm grateful that ya brought her here, Chris. Think she'd 'a liked it here. Reckon she never knew much but hard rocks and a hard life. She... she deserved a lot more 'n that. She should 'a had time ta enjoy the little things."
"I couldn't leave her... either of them... there. It didn't seem a fitting place to leave folks who gave up their
lives - "
Hearing the pain in his friend's voice, Larabee quickly corrected, "For both of us, Vin. I'd still be there, too, living like that bitch's lapdog. Darry, and Davis, they saved us both."
Tears sparkling in blue eyes once more, Vin said in a choked voice, "They were good people."
"Amen to that." Chris clapped his hand on his friend's shoulder and said softly, "They were. And their lives meant something, right up to their last breath. And you remember this, pard. The pain will diminish over time, but we'll always remember how they saved us. I reckon they're receiving all the best in heaven right now."
Tanner managed a grin as he said, "Sounded like Josiah there, Larabee."
Smiling in reply, Larabee softly cuffed his friend on the back of the head. "Long as you don't say I sound like Ezra, pard." Dropping a hand lightly around his friend's shoulders, he said, "Come on, now, let's get back to the others."
As they walked back toward Chris' cabin, Vin said, wistfully, "There any chicken left? Wouldn't mind another piece. And maybe a biscuit. Wish there was honey."
Beside him, Chris Larabee found himself laughing as the man he'd dragged back from hell went on about the feast Nettie Wells had brought. It was good to be laughing; enjoying life. He never thought he would again.
August 9, 2008