Comments: This is for Nancy R. who begs for Vin torture. Such allegiance cannot be ignored. Shamelessly sappy h/c with a twist of angst for Chris because he suffers so well on Vin's behalf. The other guys have their turn, too.
Vin didn't mean it. That's what Chris told himself, anyway. But he'd stopped arguing when Vin said he'd rather be dead. After all his friend had gone through, it was a natural reaction. Any man would feel the same.
He didn't believe Vin, but he didn't patronize him, either; didn't fill him up with hollow hopes or shallow reassurances. He couldn't promise tomorrow would be better because he didn't know that. There were some good days mixed in with the bad, but the bad ones were so much worse - and so much more frequent - that to pretend otherwise would have been nothing short of a lie.
Vin groaned then and shuddered. His fever was climbing again, and Chris repressed a groan of his own as the cool cloth he held quickly absorbed the heat of Vin's skin.
"Shhh, you'll feel better in a minute," he whispered. Dull eyes met his own, silently reprimanding him for the deception. He backed up, tried again, "I mean, try to rest now, and maybe . . . maybe when you wake up . . ."
The sentence remained unfinished when Vin's eyes slid closed, though Chris knew that he wasn't asleep, not really. Only a hefty dose of laudanum gave Vin any real rest, but he had refused the drug for days now, saying it left him too muddled. The bigger concern, however, was how it unsettled the injured man's already mutilated digestive system. And Vin couldn't afford to lose what little nourishment he managed to retain.
His friend was slowly starving to death; Chris saw it in the jut of sharp bone, the black shadows on pasty skin. He'd seen it before, though he tried to push those terrible memories of war and waste far from his mind . . . men who were gut-shot, dying by inches from infection, dehydration, malnutrition.
He'd almost told Nathan not to try, that horrible day three weeks ago. Only his desperate need to keep Vin in his life had stilled his tongue. And then there was Vin, pleading with Nathan to let him go even as he struggled valiantly to hang on. It had been like that ever since. Vin had one foot in two worlds - fighting to live, begging to die.
"I don't wanna live like this," he'd moaned to Chris again just moments ago.
Chris had only replied, "I know." There was no point in saying more. Vin wouldn't have to live like this - wouldn't be able to even if he wanted. Either he'd get better, or he'd die.
Life without Vin was a notion Chris had slowly worked himself into contemplating, though acceptance was a long way off. In some ways that was easier than admitting his true feelings for the man. Immediate respect and understanding had blossomed into affection and an almost desperate dependency. It wasn't physical, although it could have been, he supposed. Neither he nor Vin lived by the rules of society. But the intimacy they shared was something deeper, and it wasn't worth the risk.
As he stood and stretched his legs, his gaze drifted towards the window of his room. Dusk was approaching, and a cool northern breeze swept the curtains from the sill. It felt good, the fresh movement of air fording a narrow stream through the thick mire of despair and pain that lingered in the room. But the chill wouldn't be good for Vin, so he navigated around the pallet on the floor and regretfully reached over to pull down the wooden frame.
Chris had given up his bed to Vin when it became apparent that the clinic was too busy, too noisy, far too intrusive a place for the wounded man to recover. Tanner craved solitude more than most, though only death would provide him any kind of aloneness for the foreseeable future. Vin accepted his presence, however; required it, even. And even though that realization set something warm and indefinable in his heart, there was an accompanying sadness that the most independent man he knew should be so weakened, so in need.
Nathan came by several times a day, as did the other men. But once the healer had removed the bullet, stitched up Vin's insides, and sewn his skin back together, there was little more he could do. It was enough or it wasn't; Vin would mend or he wouldn't. In a world that was generally far too gray for Chris's taste, this was one time when he dreaded that it would all come down to black or white in the end: Vin would live or he would die. And nothing much any of them could do about it.
Just like there was nothing they could do about what had happened twenty-one days ago. Chris bent his knees and sat on the edge of the pallet, dropping his head to his arms as the terrible day replayed in his mind. He and Vin had just left their mounts in the livery after a quick trip to Eagle Bend, had just exited the barn when Vin was caught by a stray bullet. Two damn kids were goofing off with their father's pistol in the alley when the weapon discharged. It was one of those stupid things that happens sometimes. No reason, no call for it. Wrong place, wrong time.
Vin was thrown back a few feet, his back hitting the wall of the livery before he slowly slid to the ground in a crumpled heap. It took Chris several seconds to catch up, to equate the sound of the shot with the vision of Vin on the ground. He'd rushed to his friend's side, pulled him into his arms, and grimaced at the slow spread of blood across his belly. He still wasn't clear on what happened after that; he could only recall someone taking Vin from him and Vin's guttural groan at the movement. There seemed to be a lot of shouting and frantic motion in the street, which only made the hushed reassurances and quiet, deliberate actions in Nathan's clinic all the more striking. No amicable, good-natured grumbling by Vin this time, no broad smile lighting Nathan's face as he gently but surely put his patient in his place.
Chris had swallowed the fear that choked him and tuned out the pitiful sounds of Vin's agony. Josiah was there, cursing God in one breath and seeking his help in the other. Nathan had the knife in hand within minutes, mumbling under his breath how he'd recently read that an abdominal wound had to be taken care of in less than an hour or there was no point in trying at all.
"As long as there is life, there is a reason to try," Josiah had argued softly.
Vin had caught Nathan's hand then and stuttered in a halting, haunted voice, "No - no. I don't - wanna die - like that. Gut-shot - I know - how - I know - just - let me be - "
Chris stepped in then and took Vin's square jaw in his hands. "He's gotta do this, Vin. Do you understand me? Nathan has to do this." It was selfish, he knew that, to put his needs before Vin's. But that was exactly what he was doing, and by the dawning recognition in the blue eyes, Vin knew it, too.
There was a spark of light amidst the darkness, maybe even a hint of amusement when Vin moaned, "Aw hell, Larabee."
His memories were once again mercifully hazy after that. Since Nathan was convinced that time was a factor, the healer didn't wait for the laudanum to take hold before he began cutting on Vin. It was up to Josiah to hold Vin still until the drug or maybe the pain knocked him out since Chris himself was pretty much useless. Those long, desperate hours when he could do nothing except watch Vin writhe in pain and vomit blood might be a sort of blur, but the feeling of utter helplessness would stay with him a long, long time.
It was better now, he reminded himself, fixing his gaze on the man in the bed just to be certain. Vin had made progress. He was no longer caught in the grips of delirium that left him ranting in indecipherable tongues. He wasn't throwing up blood anymore, though lukewarm mint-flavored tea proved to be the only thing his ravaged stomach would consistently accept. But the sluggishly healing wound and the persistent fever were evidence that the infection still thrived. And after three weeks of no solid food, Vin could hardly hold his head up to sip the damn tea.
A sharp gasp followed by a soft moan brought him up off the pallet. "Easy now," Chris said, as he dipped the cloth in the cool water once more and gently bathed Vin's neck and bare chest.
Vin swallowed and met his eyes, and for the first time since the nightmare had begun, Chris wanted to turn away. He and Vin had never needed words, and now was no different. But he refused to accept the truth in his friend's unspoken request. "You don't mean it," he whispered. "You're just tired."
But Vin gripped his arm with more strength than he'd believed possible and stammered, "Chris - Chris - I -"
His words were left hanging as Buck burst through the door. "Chris! I got somethin' you need t' hear, Pard."
The pressure eased on his arm as Vin relaxed his hold, but neither man averted his gaze, even when Chris replied to Buck, "What is it?"
Suddenly reticent, Buck cleared his throat. "It's - uh - it's Ella. I think I know where she is."
His stomach lurched, and it was several seconds before he realized that he and Vin had somehow switched positions, with him now holding Vin's forearm tightly in his grip. A myriad of emotions rendered him mute and motionless as Buck's statement filtered through his mind.
It was Vin who broke the spell with one word. "Go," he said hoarsely.
It was ludicrous, just the thought of it. He couldn't leave Vin - not now, not like this. But neither could he ignore any news regarding his own personal devil. "Are you sure? How? How did you find her?" he asked as he finally rose to his feet and faced Buck.
Buck looked at Vin for a long moment, as if reconsidering the impact of his revelation, before he answered Chris. "I - well, we - tracked her down after that last letter she sent you. Mary was able to figure out that it was mailed from Santa Fe."
"That's where you went a few weeks back. But it wasn't to see your aunt, I presume," Chris said flatly.
"Yeah. I mean, no. I went there, yeah, but not to see my aunt. I, uh, I offered a reward t' anyone who could tell me where she was. Sort of under the table, y' know? And I got a telegram today."
"A reward? What kind of reward?"
"That's not important, Stud."
"It damn well is important, Buck! What kind of reward?"
"We all pitched in, Chris. Hell, you can pay us back if it pans out, alright?"
Chris shook his head as he tried to decide if he was touched by his men's generosity or furious that they were intruding in his personal business - behind his back, no less. "It's a lie. Someone's playin' you for a fool," Chris argued.
"Maybe, but I don't think so. From the information we got today, it adds up. It's worth checking out, anyway."
"So why didn't you just do it? Why involve me now?" Chris spat. He was livid that Buck would put him in such an impossible situation. How could he expect him to choose between justice for his family and Vin?
It was Vin's soft voice that replied, "You know why, Chris. You know you have to do this."
Ignoring Vin for the time-being, he leveled his gaze at Buck. "You know what you're asking?"
After staring at Vin for another long moment, Buck nodded. "I know."
Bastard, Chris thought. His oldest friend had purposely brought up the conversation in Vin's presence because he knew exactly what Vin would say. He could hardly speak, but he managed to grunt, "Get the hell out of here, Buck."
"Alright," Buck agreed. But he added before he left, "I'm sorry, Vin."
"Ain't no call t' be mad at him." Vin's weak voice seemed to echo disproportionately in the small room after Buck had gone.
Chris said nothing as he poured more tea into a mug and moved to Vin's bedside. After weeks of practice, it took little thought or effort to lift Vin's head and shoulders just enough to avoid choking him with the liquid.
Vin took the offered tea begrudgingly, his pale eyes never leaving Chris's face. "You gotta go," he said after he'd taken a few swallows.
"More," Chris ordered, placing the cup at Vin's lips again.
Vin rolled his eyes, but he complied and drained the cup before growling, "It's Ella, for God's sake! You gotta take care of this."
"I'm takin' care of you," Chris answered equally emphatically.
"Would you do it, Vin? If I was layin' in that bed right now and you had the chance to finally clear your name, would you take it? Would you leave me?"
Vin sighed. "No, I wouldn't."
Chris smiled, thinking he'd won a victory, even if it didn't quite feel that way; any other time, under any other circumstance, he'd go after Ella with everything he had.
But his smugness was premature because Vin wasn't finished. "But I'd leave you to get her," he said.
He didn't have to see the glint in Vin's eyes to know it was the truth. Tanner had never forgiven himself for missing Ella that day, or for not finding her in the days that followed.
"You ain't the only one that can feed me tea, y' know," Vin added in a coarse whisper.
"I don't trust you to behave for the others," Chris quipped. But the heart of the matter came out before he could stop himself. "Will you promise to be here when I get back?"
With a soft snicker, Vin replied, "Yeah, and I can make it rain on Sundays, too."
Chris swallowed the lump in his throat. "Vin, I can't leave if I think - if you -"
"I'm sick, Chris," Vin stated bluntly. "Can't promise I'll be here even if you stay."
The words were on the tip of his tongue . . . Then I'm not going. But he didn't get the chance to say them because they were interrupted once again, this time by a knock on the door and a soft voice. "Chris? Can I come in? I got somethin' for Vin."
It was Nathan, of course. The man showed up every evening like clockwork to look at Vin's wound and ply him with soup. Jackson would fret a bit about the fever and fuss at Vin to eat more, rest more, move about in the bed more to avoid getting sores on his backside and water in his lungs. When he was finally through, he'd pat Vin on the shoulder and tell him that he was doing "just fine" and he'd be "feelin' better any time now." All the while he'd be throwing concerned glances at Chris from the corner of his eye.
Chris's legs felt like lead as he walked to the door, as if even now he was walking out on Vin. It was at that very moment that he knew he'd go. Oddly enough, it wasn't as much for Sarah and Adam - or himself - as it was for Vin. In spite of his friend's reluctance to guarantee he'd keep on fighting, Chris knew him well enough to be certain that Vin wouldn't rest until he knew the outcome of the investigation. Vin would likely fret about his inability to help with the hunt, but the frustration and worry just might work in their favor and give him a reason to hang on. Conversely, if he told Vin he wasn't going, Tanner was likely to do something stupid like up and die during the night just so he wouldn't have an excuse to stay behind, to let Ella slip through their fingers once again.
As he opened the door, he quickly noted that Nathan's face held the usual questions, plus one more. Chris couldn't seem to find a single answer, though, which was probably what prompted Nathan to shift the tray he carried to one arm, while he gently squeezed Chris's shoulder with his free hand.
Vin seemed to have drifted off in those few moments between their last words and Nathan's entrance, so Chris took the opportunity to slip out. "I'm gonna see Buck," he muttered sullenly.
Nathan nodded, and though his tone was soft, there was a clear edge to it when he said, "Take your time. Inez has supper for you, too. Don't come back 'til you eat it."
Only Nathan could get away with such a demand, and that was only because he owed the healer too much to give him any trouble. But just the thought of food right then made his throat swell up.
Buck was waiting for him at the saloon, a bottle and an extra glass on the table in front of him. "Figure it'll take us about a week," he said, before Chris had hardly sat down in the chair beside him. "Countin' two days going and two comin' back. Me and you'll go. Ezra and JD will take care of the town, Josiah and Nathan will take care of Vin."
It wasn't like Buck to take charge like this, to make decisions for him. He didn't like it much. "You got it all planned out, do y'?" Chris asked, tipping the bottle towards the glass, filling it to the brim.
"Yep," Buck replied.
Chris took a long drink, relishing the burn in his throat and his stomach. "I don't like it," he said at last. "Vin . . ."
"I know." Buck put his hand on Chris's shoulder and leaned in close. "I know, Chris. But you can't let this opportunity get away - you can't let her get away this time. Vin knows, he understands. Hell, he wants her almost as bad as you do."
"And if he dies while we're gone?" He didn't have to add just like Sarah and Adam did.
Buck shook his head. "You got no control over that, Pard. Just like you had no control over those kids in that alley three weeks ago. But I reckon if Vin held on this long, he'll make it another week."
Not liking the perceived indifference in Buck's tone, Chris snapped, "It's that easy for you, Buck? Maybe he will, maybe he won't? Don't much matter as long as you get your way, right?"
With a long sigh, Buck lowered his voice and replied, "That ain't so and you know it. We all - hell, Chris, we all been sufferin' along with Vin. A man can't see him in the bed or look you in the eye without feelin' like the world's slowly bein' drained of everything good and right. But you got a chance to end this thing with Ella, and you gotta take it."
As much as he hated it, Buck was right. And so with no more than ten sentences between them, the plans were made. They'd leave at first light.
It was dark when he made his way back to his room. Nathan was still there, reading in the dim light at Vin's bedside. No words were exchanged, other than Nathan's quick promise to return at dawn.
Vin was asleep, or pretending to be, so Chris slipped off his boots, laid down on the straw mat, and pretended to do the same. At least until a few hours later, when he heard Vin gagging. Tanner was trying hard not to be sick; probably partly not to disturb him, but mostly because he didn't want him to change his mind and stay.
Damn fool, Chris thought, as he wordlessly grabbed the basin. Vin would choke to death before he'd admit that he needed help - that he needed him. But neither man said a word as he cleaned Vin up and then returned to his make-shift bed.
A short time later, exhaustion finally began to claim him, and his final emotion was one of intense guilt mixed with bitter relief. Because as much as he wanted to deny it, he was glad to be leaving in the morning; he didn't think he could do this another night.
Nathan thought nothing could be harder to witness than what he'd seen over the last three weeks, but he might have been wrong. Chris was struggling mightily to say good-bye to Vin. He wondered if he should turn away, maybe leave the room entirely, but he feared that would make the situation even worse. At least with him present, the two men were forced to hold their emotions in check.
"I'll be back in a week, maybe less," Chris said softly. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, one hand resting lightly on Vin's arm.
"Take as long as you need t' get the job done," Vin returned. His voice was weak, almost breathless, and Nathan cringed at the sound of it. It had been a bad night, he guessed, for both men, though neither admitted as much.
"Seven days. No more," Chris promised. "I'll bring back good news, alright? It will be over, and then we can finally work on clearing on your name."
Vin smiled thinly. "I reckon the folks that matter know my name is good."
Chris pulled in a shaky breath and moved his hand to rest gently on the side of Vin's face. "We're gonna take care of it, Pard, soon as you're well. Now you do what Nathan says, hear me?"
Vin bit his lip and nodded, but didn't speak again.
Neither did Chris as he stood and faced Nathan in stony silence.
"I'll take care of him, Chris. I swear I will," Nathan said, more out of a need to say something rather than the belief that his vow was required.
Chris made a sound in his throat of gratitude or sorrow or regret - Nathan wasn't sure which - but no words came out, and he didn't look back when he left the room.
Nathan immediately turned to Vin, but the man had closed his eyes. Moisture clung to his dark lashes but no tears fell, and Nathan was selfishly glad of that. He didn't think he could keep from crying himself if Vin broke down.
In an attempt to give Vin a bit of privacy, he moved a chair next to the window and picked up the dime novel that JD had lent him. But he couldn't concentrate on the words. Instead, the events from three weeks ago imposed their images on the pages in front of him. There was shouting in the street that day, and he'd barely had time to peer out of his window when Josiah came crashing through his door, carrying Vin in his arms like he was little more than a child. He thought he might have gotten out the question of what had happened, but by the time Josiah dropped Vin to the bed, there wasn't a need for an answer. Vin's blue shirt was stained red from hip to chest, and Nathan's first thought was that Vin was going to die. Only a shot through the heart or head was worse and even then, at least death came quickly.
He tried again to focus on the words on the page, rather than the vision of his hands swimming in blood as he removed the bullet and sewed Vin's insides back together. He pushed away his feelings of inadequacy and tamped down the memories of Vin's agonizing pleas, of Chris's anguish, of Josiah's solemn prayers. It was over. There was no point in replaying the same old story again and again. He'd done the best he could; was doing it still and would keep on doing it as long as Vin drew breath. But he'd seen men in the war linger painfully - and futilely - for weeks or even months with a belly wound, and Vin wasn't progressing like he'd hoped he would. Maybe this would help, Nathan told himself. Maybe Chris setting off on a mission to destroy that mad woman once and for all would be just the thing to turn Vin around. But when he turned just enough to view Vin's face, pale and drawn in the soft glow of the early morning sun, he had the opposite thought. Without Chris there to prod him to take every drink and every breath, maybe Vin would finally let go.
The day passed slowly, with Vin drifting in and out of a restless sleep. Nathan thought he should probably wake him up to check the wound, but he didn't have the heart to disturb him. And he already knew what he would find: foul, yellow drainage leaking between the gaps where black thread just barely held the incision together. The different poultices he'd tried hadn't helped much, which left him with the option of reopening the wound, cleaning it out, and trying again. But the very idea made his stomach roll - he wasn't that desperate yet. It wasn't that he'd suddenly gotten squeamish; unfortunately, he'd dug enough bullets out of his friends' bodies for it to be almost commonplace by now. The problem wasn't the actual act of purging the wound, it was the suffering he'd be putting his friend through once again. Needless suffering, a small voice in his head whispered.
He'd been plagued with doubts since that first day, not about his abilities, but about his decisions. Maybe he shouldn't have tried at all, he thought with deep remorse. Vin would have bled out within the hour had he followed his initial wishes and left him alone. It would have been painful, no doubt, but far less miserable than what their friend had experienced over the last three weeks. And it could be that the worst what was yet to come, because even if by some miracle the wound started to heal, it wouldn't matter if Vin couldn't keep food in his stomach. It took a long time for a man to starve, but the end result was the same.
Josiah arrived then to relieve him of his duties, and Nathan was ashamedly grateful for the reprieve from his dark thoughts and bitter regrets. As Josiah gently shook Vin awake, Nathan watched his friend's unfocused gaze drift lazily around the room, searching, and he knew the exact moment that Vin remembered Chris was gone. Nathan's breath caught at the shadows in the blue eyes. It would be a long week.
As always, Josiah spoke in a voice as calm and casual as if Vin had just returned from a fishing trip. "How y' doing today, Vin?" he asked.
Vin swallowed and nodded, then roused enough to ask, "Have you heard from them?"
Josiah turned a sad gaze towards Nathan before bending down close to Vin and replying, "No, Vin. They just left this morning."
Unable to bear the disappointment on Vin's face, Nathan quickly made his good-byes and escaped. He passed JD on the street and tried to avoid him - the kid's never-ending exuberance was the last thing he needed at the moment. But JD was on his heels in a heartbeat, asking about Vin.
"He's the same," Nathan answered shortly, resuming his trek to the saloon for a bit of dinner. Maybe Ezra would play a hand with him, take his mind off things for a spell.
"What? Still? I mean, shouldn't he be getting better? Or - or worse? Or something? I mean how long -"
"I don't know, JD," Nathan snapped irritably, wondering why was he expected to have all the answers.
"Oh," JD replied, his face falling.
Nathan kept walking as JD's dashed hope landed squarely on his shoulders. He wanted to shout at his young friend that plenty of decent people suffered a damn long time for no good reason at all. How a person lived had nothing to do with how they died. The best a man could hope for was to have those he cared about at his side when the end came. And maybe that was all that was left for Vin, he thought sadly.
But it hadn't worked out that way, had it? The person Vin was closest to wasn't at his side and wouldn't be for another week, at least. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Chris had to take a chance that Vin would hang on until he returned from the quest that had driven him unmercifully for three years.
And just who was Chris counting on to keep Vin going for the next seven days?
Shaking his head, Nathan turned on his heels and headed back the way he'd come. Surely there was something else he could try . . . another tea, another poultice. If he couldn't save Vin, maybe he could at least keep him with them until Chris returned.
Buck figured Chris would be in a mood so he didn't plan on much conversation. A little would have been nice, though. He didn't push at first; the look on Chris's face when they climbed on their horses and rode out of town was enough to curb his tongue - not to mention his appetite - for the entire day.
He understood. Or anyway, he tried to understand. When it came right down to it, he didn't figure anyone really had a handle on how it was between Chris and Vin. Maybe they didn't know themselves. It didn't really matter to him. He'd been around long enough to know that life was made up of cloudy contradictions and messy complications. Nothing was really simple, except maybe a good loving between a willing woman and a man.
And he'd learned long ago to accept the black moods of his oldest friend. But by the time they made camp, Buck had grown weary of the silence. They sat near the fire after eating a quick meal of beans and cornbread. Chris sipped his coffee and kept his gaze glued to the burning embers.
"It'll be alright, Chris," Buck offered after he could stand it no longer. It was probably the wrong thing to say, and Chris would call him on it, but at least some words might be exchanged, some emotions dealt with.
Chris shifted his weight a bit and took another drink of his coffee before speaking in a low voice, "I wanted to leave him."
Of all the things he expected to come out of Larabee's mouth when he finally got around to saying his three words for the day, that sure wasn't it. "What? What do you mean?" he asked.
Finally meeting his eyes, Chris admitted, "I couldn't take another night, another long day. I'm a selfish bastard. You know that better than anyone." He sighed then and repeated in a hoarse whisper, "I wanted to leave him."
"No, you didn't," Buck argued. "You're just tired."
And now that he really looked, Buck could see just how exhausted Chris truly was. Why hadn't he noticed before? Deep lines scored his friend's face, and it looked like Vin wasn't the only one losing weight.
Chris surprised him again by agreeing. "I am. I just - I just wanna sleep."
It was more than that - far more. Buck knew that what Chris really meant was that he wanted it all to go away; he wanted to wake up and find out Ella was just a nightmare. And if he couldn't have that, then at least he wanted to wake up and have Vin at his side when he went after her.
"You'll sleep tonight," Buck promised. "I got your back and Nathan's got Vin's. And you know ain't neither one of y' could be in better hands."
His statement had the desired affect. Chris rolled his eyes and shook his head, but his lips turned up a little. And thirty minutes later, Buck knew by the quiet, even breathing that his companion had fallen into a deep, restful sleep.
Stretching out on his bedroll, Buck propped his hands behind his head and peered up at the night sky. But he didn't see the stars or the half moon, only the grim expression on Ezra's face when he'd met Buck at the livery a few weeks before.
"Vin's been shot," Ezra had said. "It happened two days ago. It's bad."
Three short sentences, so unlike Ezra, and Buck's heart had plummeted. He asked the first thing that came to mind. "Chris?"
Ezra raised a brow, but he replied, "With him, of course. Don't you want to know how it happened?"
Of course he did, but there was time for that. What he really needed to know was not where Chris was, but how he was.
It took Ezra only minutes to catch him up on the events that occurred as they hurried to the clinic. It took even less time for Buck to get the answer to his question when he opened the door and peered inside. He'd seen corpses with more color than Vin, and Chris was only a shade better. But Larabee was holding it together for now and that was about all he could expect of his old friend.
None of his friends looked good that day; Josiah appeared to have gone ten rounds with the devil, and Nathan was stooped with exhaustion. Buck felt guilty for a moment that he'd run off to Santa Fe, never mind that it was for a damn good reason and Chris would thank him later. At first, he thought his timing couldn't have been worse. But as the days stretched on and Vin barely hung on, he had a different thought. If Vin died, Chris would need something to take his mind off the loss, and Buck couldn't think of anything that would fill that bill better than the chance to go after Ella.
It had been nearly six months since the evil woman had disappeared in the landscape, though her letters continued to arrive every month like clockwork. Buck and Mary Travis had secretly joined forces to determine where the letters came from, though he suspected their motives were very different. It was Mary's relentless digging that finally led to Santa Fe, and largely Ezra's donation that made the offer of payment for information enticing. Buck wasn't surprised that it worked; the only way Ella could get a man to fall for her schemes was with sex or money, and he bet on the latter. And a greedy man's loyalty - or disloyalty - could easily be bought. Someone would turn on the bitch.
And someone had, he was sure of it. They would find Ella and put her in the ground or put her in a cell. Hell, he didn't care which, so long as Chris got what he needed.
Buck drifted off to a light sleep then and awoke the next morning to find Chris ready to ride and more focused than he had seen him a long time. The rest had done him good, or maybe it was the distance.
They rode long and hard all day, and yet again, few words were exchanged between them. But the suffocating feeling of impending loss was replaced with renewed energy and purpose. For the moment anyway, Chris had truly left Vin behind. It was self-preservation, Buck knew that. He'd seen Chris build a wall around himself many times in the past in order to do what had to be done. Vin was tucked safely away, frozen in time until Chris could return to him and pick up where they'd left off. Or maybe, God willing, Vin would be better. Buck's naturally optimistic mind chose to think that way, rather than consider the alternative. Besides, he'd meant what he said to Chris back in town - Vin had held on this long, he'd make it another week. But even as he thought that, a memory came unbidden to his mind of a friend he'd had once. The man had been gut-shot like Vin, and his death was about as slow and miserable as any Buck had ever seen. And Vin had that same look of a man dying piece by piece.
He managed to push that thought to the back of his mind as they rode into Santa Fe at twilight. After a quick meal, they retired to their rooms in the local hotel with plans to meet up again early in the morning. To Buck's relief, Chris had held himself to one drink. He'd held himself to one sentence, too, but that was fine; nothing more needed to be said. They'd meet their informant in the afternoon at a designated place outside of town and from then on, well, they'd play it by ear.
Buck was exhausted after two days of hard riding, and he slept well that night. But when Chris joined him in the dining room of the hotel for breakfast, he quickly surmised that the same couldn't be said for his friend.
"You have trouble sleepin'?" he asked between mouthfuls of scrambled eggs and ham.
Chris shrugged as he reached for the steaming mug of coffee on the table in front of him.
"Bad dreams?" Buck pressed.
Chris didn't respond at first, and he didn't make a move to pick up his fork after the pretty waitress set a plate in front of him. Instead, he practically inhaled the rest of the coffee in his cup before murmuring, "Something like that."
Buck had nearly forgotten his question by that time, but it quickly came back to him. Of course, Chris would have horrible dreams again. Larabee's violent nightmares were common in the months after Sarah and Adam were killed. It was only natural that this search for their murderer would stir up all those old feelings again.
He was about to say just that when Chris spoke again. "We should stop by the telegraph office. Let someone know we're here . . . in case . . ."
It hit Buck as sort of a slap in the face then that Chris wasn't thinking about his dead family at all - he was thinking about Vin. He didn't know why that bothered him, but he did know that this wasn't the time to ponder it, so he quickly agreed, "Alright. I'll take care of that while you eat."
"Okay. But you'll just slow us down if you're runnin' on empty. Take us longer to get back." He didn't add, "to Vin."
Buck got up then and did what he said he'd do - left word at the telegraph office that they were in town, though he didn't think they'd hear from the boys in Four Corners. All of them knew that this was too important to Chris. In fact, it seemed that the only person unconvinced was Chris himself. Resentment clogged his throat, but he swallowed it and reminded himself again that he understood how it was between Chris and Vin. Never mind that it was a lie. Vin was a good man and a good friend, no doubt about it, but Larabee wasn't exactly the type to spend his days wiping another man's fevered brow. It didn't add up, especially now with so much at stake. In fact, it almost seemed that his own anger was the driving force in this quest, that he cared more about settling the score than Chris. How could that be? Had Chris forgotten?
No. He didn't believe that. Chris could never forget his family. He was just - distracted - by Vin's accident. Surely the moment Larabee laid eyes on Ella, he'd realize that his moment had finally come, and they could both put the past behind them once and for all.
Of course, nothing was ever that simple, although their informant did show up at the remote location, as promised. He was a weasel of a man with a shiny bald head and wire rim glasses; Buck knew immediately that sex hadn't gotten him into Ella's fold so it had to have been something else. It turned out the little guy, who went by the name of Bart Johnson, was a financial genius who'd made some investments for their nemesis.
Chris stood as still and silent as the barren hills that surrounded them while Johnson told them how he'd met Ella and how he'd come to work for her. But after ten minutes of what seemed to be endless jawing, Chris suddenly interrupted, "So where the hell is she?"
"I, uh, I made an arrangement," Johnson stuttered. "A purchase of a ranch - in - in - Mexico. Small town named Monterrey. She's on her way there. Three days ago now. I wrote you as soon as I heard you were looking for her."
"Why should we believe you?" Buck asked, his heart sinking at the notion that vengeance would be postponed yet again.
"I've got - I've got papers. Mrs. Larabee's signature-"
"Don't call her that!" Chris spat.
The man sputtered some more as he quickly moved to his horse and pulled out an envelope, stuffed with papers. "Look for yourself," he said, handing the bundle to Buck.
Buck tried to meet Chris's eyes, but his friend looked away. "These papers look legitimate, Chris," he finally said after examining a handful of documents. "I'd say he knows her, at least."
"Yes, I know her!" the man sputtered indignantly. "And I've told you where she is, or at least, her intended destination. Now about that reward . . ."
"If she's where you say she is, you'll get it," Buck returned.
"But it could be weeks before you get there and back! I upheld my part of the -"
"Give it to him, Buck," Chris demanded.
"What? No. Not yet. After we -"
"I said give it to him."
He attempted to argue a bit more after that, but it was clear by the set of Larabee's jaw that the discussion was over. Buck shook off resentment again at the way Chris took over when it suited him, just like he was known to walk away when it didn't. But he gave in, mostly because there was nothing to be gained at that point by arguing. And the longer they dawdled, the longer it would take to get Chris back up on his horse - and riding in the opposite direction of Vin.
It was dusk again by the time they returned to town. Buck had wanted to immediately turn south and forego the stop, but Chris quickly reminded him they weren't prepared for a long journey. There was more to it than that, though. Chris was clearly torn. He even walked wrong, as if his legs had conflicting ideas about which way to go: one heading south, the other high-tailing it back to his dying friend. Split down the middle.
Buck knew the only way to give Chris a little peace was to find out how Vin was faring; he'd have to send a telegram, though he'd do it without informing Chris. If the news was bad, he'd need time to figure out how to break it to his old friend gently.
In the meantime, Chris had given in - or perhaps given up - and headed for the saloon. Whiskey wouldn't clear Larabee's head or make him feel better in the long run, but it would numb his senses for the short term, and that was all the time Buck needed to get an idea how to play the next hand. With a little luck, he'd get a reply that said Vin was better, and they could continue on. Or maybe Vin was already gone and there would be no point in going back . . .
He really was a bastard to even think something like that. But he consoled himself with the thought that Vin would feel exactly the same if their positions were reversed. In fact, Tanner would have started out for Mexico already - with or without Chris. Still, it would be real nice if he got word from Four Corners that would push Chris in the right direction and soon. Ella had a head start, and they couldn't let get her away this time. He was determined that justice would finally be served for Sarah and Adam.
It was Ezra who got the message. Mary came running out of the telegraph office, waving a slip of paper and calling his name. He wanted to turn the other way, but it was too late. Mary breathlessly slapped the message in his hands and it became his problem.
He'd manage to avoid their sick comrade for weeks now. Well, not entirely, but close enough. At least, when he'd made his obligatory visits, he'd had Buck at his side to lighten the mood. Or, when the opportunity presented itself, he'd tagged along with Josiah. Unlike Buck, the former preacher left any attempts at humor at the door, but he always managed to take Vin's mind off his troubles with an interesting tale or two. All that was required of Ezra during the visit was an awkward smile and a few stammered words of encouragement.
Ezra took a moment to peer up at the window of the room that had effectively become Vin's prison. He was quite certain the man would have died weeks ago if he'd had his way about it. It was all there in Vin's eyes, a sort of hopeless desperation that soured Ezra's stomach. It was difficult to see a man so full of life suddenly drained of such; difficult and painful in part because Vin himself was obviously torn. Ezra had never seen a man so willing to die, yet so determined to live. He was quite certain that was Chris Larabee's fault. The man had a dangerous pull about him - like a huge, sucking pool of quicksand - and once he got his hooks in a man, it was nearly impossible to break free.
Chris had his hooks in all of them, in fact, but none more so than Vin. It was no mystery why Vin had his feet in the grave while his hands clawed desperately to find the purchase that would halt his descent - he didn't want to leave a broken Chris Larabee behind. And it was no mystery why Ezra himself was too cowardly to witness the battle. It just wasn't in his nature to play the concerned friend, the caring teammate. He had very little experience, after all. Besides, there was nothing he could do to help, and it wasn't his company that Vin desired.
But now the telegram had come, thrust into his unwilling hand, forcing him to act. He remained rooted, staring at the message, reading between the lines, or rather, between the sparse words. Ella had moved south; Chris and Buck's trip would be prolonged, perhaps indefinitely, if in fact, they proceeded at all. It depended on Vin's condition, the unspoken question hanging in the space between, "Ella in Mexico," and "Will wait for word."-
He knew what Vin would say, if he was allowed to weigh in on the decision. But he also knew from Nathan's and Josiah's somber expressions that things were not going well in the small room on the second floor. So the dilemma now was whether to rush in and forthrightly blurt out the contents of the telegram, or to wait for a better time when he could discuss the matter with his colleagues privately. There was no time to lose, however, that certainty also unspoken in the brief communication. Buck was no doubt waiting for an answer as Ezra pondered his options in the street. Nothing to be done then except to face the matter head-on.
He was in luck, he quickly deduced as he reluctantly entered the hotel room where Vin lay recovering or dying - depending on the moment. Both Nathan and Josiah were present, and their patient appeared to be asleep. Ezra entered quietly and wordlessly handed the telegram to Josiah for his perusal.
"Damn," the preacher whispered with a shake of his head.
"What?" Nathan quickly asked. "Let me see it." There was another shake of the head followed by a round of collective sighs.
Finally Ezra whispered, "Well? What should I tell him?"
Josiah tipped his head towards the door and they all paraded out in the hall.
"I don't like it," Nathan spoke first.
Ezra wasn't surprised by the healer's response - to say Nathan tended to be overly cautious would be a vast understatement. It was Josiah's response that would likely shed the most light on the current situation. "Josiah?" he asked.
"Vin needs Chris."
Succinct and obvious, but not really an answer, so Ezra prodded, "Yes, but?"
"On the other hand," Josiah continued, "he would be furious if Chris returned without accomplishing what he set out to do. Even more so if he discovered that we called Chris and Buck back because of his illness."
"Is that what we are calling it now?" Ezra responded bitterly. "An illness?"
He had no patience for poor mannered, in-bred ruffians on a good day. And as far as he was concerned, the two lads who had harmed - albeit accidentally -his friend deserved to be hung by their toenails until they bled out through their noses. The fact that the boys were allowed to roam freely on the streets while Vin suffered was an atrocity. Illness? Not hardly.
"Those boys looked up to Vin, Ezra. They're suffering, too," Josiah said, reading his mind.
Ezra rolled his eyes. "Oh, please-"
But Nathan interrupted, "Are we gonna talk about Chris and Buck? Because I gotta tell you, I can't go along with this. I know how much Chris needs t' end this with that Gaines woman, but this ain't the time. I was wrong t' let him go in the first place."
"Why? What's happened?" Ezra asked, suddenly alarmed. Had Vin's condition deteriorated? He was suddenly plagued with guilt that he hadn't made the effort to visit their teammate since Chris and Buck had left town three days earlier.
Nathan remained silent and sullen, so Josiah answered for him. "The wound isn't healing. Nathan had to clean it out."
Ezra cringed. "That sounds - uncomfortable."
Josiah nodded and continued, "Gave Vin a pretty hefty dose of laudanum to get him through it, so what little we managed to get into him today came right back up."
With that disturbing image in mind, Ezra swallowed to keep his own unruly stomach in place and thanked his lucky stars that he hadn't been obligated to enter the room a few hours earlier. "Well then," he said, attempting to glean something positive from the situation, "perhaps we'll see some improvement now that the offending poisons have been purged from his system."
Shaking his head, Nathan grumbled, "Might've stirred things up - made him worse."
Choosing to ignore the healer's negativity for the moment, Ezra reminded them of the question that remained on the table. "So do we tell them to come back?"
"Yes," Nathan replied, at the exact moment Josiah said, "No."
Ezra rubbed his aching neck and grimaced; they were getting nowhere. "Perhaps we should just ask Vin how he feels about it," he suggested.
On this the two men apparently agreed because Nathan shook his head while Josiah quickly replied, "No. At least, not now. He's finally asleep. And besides, with the laudanum Nathan gave him, he's not likely to be thinking too clearly."
"That's the point!" Nathan exclaimed. "Vin ain't in any condition t' understand what he needs right now. I'm tellin' you both, he's runnin' out of time and I'm runnin' out of options. He needs Chris or he's gonna quit on us."
"Or maybe the opposite is true," Josiah contradicted. "Maybe he'll fight harder waiting for Chris's return."
It all sounded absurd to Ezra. Of course Chris and Vin were close friends, no one could argue that point. But to think that one's life depended solely on the presence of the other was ludicrous.
"In any case," Josiah added, "Vin made his feelings perfectly clear before Chris left."
"This is probably a pointless discussion, anyway," Ezra finally chimed in. "Mr. Larabee will do whatever he sees fit, regardless of what we advise."
Josiah nodded. "I'll send the reply."
"Fine," Nathan snapped. "Go on then. You two take care of it." He stormed off down the hall without a backward glance.
"But - but - who's going to care for Vin?" Ezra stammered.
"I won't be gone long, Ezra," Josiah replied.
"I can send the response!" Ezra quickly volunteered. "It was I who received the message after all."
But the last was aimed at Josiah's retreating back, and Ezra had no choice but to return to the room where his sick comrade lay. Fortunately, Vin was still asleep, he quickly surmised as he quietly opened the door and tiptoed across the room. All he had to do was sit silently for a few moments until Josiah returned or Nathan got over his snit.
For the first few moments, he was actually able to avoid looking at Vin. But soon guilt - combined with a sort of perverse curiosity - won out, and he found himself studying the pale features of his injured friend. Vin's color was ashen, his face almost skeletal, but he seemed to be breathing fair enough. And really, what could anyone do? Even Chris couldn't remove the toxins in his friend's body or restore his digestive system to its former health.
No, it wouldn't be right to call Chris back from this final chapter in his long-fought saga to avenge his family's death. And yet, Ezra couldn't discount his memories from the last few weeks; he was certain the vision of Chris's agony was permanently etched in his brain.
Ezra was in the saloon that awful afternoon, minding his own business when he heard a shot, followed by someone shouting for Nathan. He'd sighed as he'd wondered with only vague concern what stupid calamity had befallen one of the hapless townsfolk this time. It never occurred to him that one of his fellow peacekeepers could be the victim. As far as he knew, Buck was visiting a relative in Santa Fe, JD was on patrol, Josiah was busy redecorating his mission, and Chris and Vin were out of town.
One glance out the batwing doors quickly informed him otherwise, however. Vin was dangling limply from Josiah's arms, blood dripping freely from his torso. Even from a distance, Ezra could see that the man was in considerable pain. But when he thought back on the last three weeks, it wasn't Vin's suffering that stood out in his mind, it was Chris Larabee's. Perhaps that was because he hadn't seen Vin much in those early days when their injured colleague was much too ill to be visited by anyone. Chris, however, ghosted in and out of the saloon, though from Ezra's observation, he rarely partook of food or beverage. He didn't speak much, either, and although that wasn't unusual for the man, there was something distinctly different in his manner. It was almost as if Chris had already detached himself from any semblance of normal life in anticipation of the wrenching loss to come.
He studied Vin again. Yes, it would be dreadful for Chris, should Vin succumb to this misfortune; perhaps for the others, as well. And if his own heart skipped a beat, his stomach flipped, and his breath caught in his throat at the idea that Vin might no longer be part of his life . . . it was best just not to think about it.
Vin moaned softly then, as if the weight of scrutiny had disturbed him, and Ezra quickly looked away. What would be required of him if the man awoke? Would a few soft words of encouragement suffice? Or, God forbid, would he be expected to actually care for him in some way? He rose quickly and walked to the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of Josiah or Nathan returning, but they were no where in sight. And Vin was groaning more urgently now.
Before he could turn away from the window and decide what to do next, he heard Vin rasp, "Chris?"
Ezra took a deep breath as he slowly made his way back to the bedside. "No. It's Ezra. Go back to sleep."
But Vin's blue eyes were wide open. "Ezra? Where's Chris?"
"He's, uh, he's gone after Mrs. Gaines, remember?"
"Oh, yeah," Vin said dully. He took a moment to gather himself before adding, "But - but you're here."
He winced. So Vin had noticed his absence after all, and he was calling him on it. Ezra stammered his excuse, "Well, you see, Nathan, uh, he needed some nourishment. And Josiah had to, uh -"
"No," Vin interrupted him, "I mean, why aren't you with Chris? Who went with Chris?"
"Buck." Maybe if he kept their conversation short and simple, Vin would go back to sleep.
"Just Buck? Why? What - what - how did that happen?" Vin gasped as the white skin of his cheeks flushed an alarming shade of red.
Ezra wasn't entirely certain what was going on in Vin's head, but he sensed some reassurance was in order. "It's alright, Vin. They'll be fine."
"No, they won't!" Vin argued with an astonishing surge of strength. "That witch will kill 'em both! Why didn't you go? You should be with 'em. You're the only one who understands."
Ezra had been on the defensive more times than he could count in his life, but this was one time when he wasn't sure what exactly he was defending himself from. "What are you implying?"
"She's a snake!" Vin cried, breathing heavily now as he struggled unsuccessfully to prop himself up on his elbows. "She'll find some way t' twist up Chris's thinking. He can't - can't help it. And Buck, hell, she just puts a pretty girl in front of him and he'll - he'll forget what they're there for! You're the only one who knows how a - how a -"
"Snake?" Ezra supplied.
"Yeah. You're the only one who knows how a slippery, conniving, self-serving snake like her thinks."
He tried not to take offense; Vin was quite ill after all and obviously not entirely in his right mind. "I appreciate your confidence in me - I suppose - but truly, Buck and Chris can handle the situation just fine."
But instead of taking heart in Ezra's words, Vin became increasingly agitated as he struggled once again to pull himself up in the bed. "Get me up, damn it!" he finally demanded in growing frustration.
"What? But you can't. I mean - you shouldn't. Really, it is completely unnecessary and you need - you need to -"
"Damn it, Ezra! Y'all didn't handle it so I'm gonna do it myself. Now get me up!"
To Ezra's dismay, Vin actually managed to jerk his legs off the bed and manipulate himself into a rather shoddy representation of a semi-standing position. The motion was short-lived, however; before Ezra could even think to take action, Vin had curled in on himself and collapsed back to the mattress with a deep groan.
"Dear Lord," Ezra murmured under his breath as realization dawned. He wondered if it was too late to call Josiah back, to send a different message. "Please just relax now, Vin. It's alright," he soothed ineffectually.
"No, no," Vin moaned, "it's not alright. She'll kill him this time."
Vin trembled as he spoke, so Ezra reached down and pulled up the blankets to cover the wounded man. Several minutes passed as he stood awkwardly at the bedside trying to ascertain his next course of action. Surely he should do something, offer comfort in some way. At the very least, he should say something, but nothing suitable came to mind. After all, Mrs. Gaines had already proven herself to be a deadly opponent; Vin's fear was not unreasonable.
"I'm sorry," Vin finally choked, peering up at him with pale, watery eyes. Before Ezra could assure him that no apology was necessary, he continued, "I know you don't like t' be here."
There were times when he'd felt worse in his life, when he'd felt as low as the slimy snake Vin referred to earlier, times when he'd felt even lower than that. Chris Larabee's reprimand for running out on him quickly came to mind. But he couldn't recall ever feeling so incredibly sorry. "Vin - I - it's just that - I don't know how exactly to - to . . . I mean, I'm uncomfortable because - well, you see -"
"You're a lot better friend than you give yourself credit for, Ezra."
The irony that Vin was attempting to comfort him did not escape Ezra, nor did the realization that the man knew him far better than he'd ever considered. "Thank you, Vin," he responded softly. He left it at that, though he wanted to say more. Promises to do better in the future, to be the friend Vin thought him to be, lay on his tongue, but he couldn't determine how to give weight to his words.
"You don't have t' stay. I don't need nothing'. And I sure ain't goin' anywhere," Vin replied miserably as he curled onto his side and huddled under the covers. Regret colored every word, and Ezra suddenly understood far too well how difficult it was for Vin to lie and wait while Chris rode off to face his worst enemy without him.
Ezra leaned closer and said gently, "He's alright, I assure you. We got a message earlier today. He's on her trail as we speak." That much, at least, he could offer.
The hope in Vin's eyes was heart wrenching. "You ain't lyin'?"
"No. Chris and Buck are fine." He didn't share that the trip had been prolonged, or would be if Buck convinced Chris that finding Ella took precedence over everything else - the everything else being Vin, of course. He hoped now, though, that Chris would make a different choice.
Vin sighed, but it seemed to be more from relief than pain or exhaustion. Still, it was obvious the man was uncomfortable.
"I'll send for Nathan," Ezra offered.
"No need. Nothin' he can do. You don't have t' stay. Just gonna sleep . . ." Vin offered faintly as his eyes slid closed.
"You do that," Ezra agreed, though strangely enough, he regretted that their conversation would end. He tried to remember the times when he and Vin had truly talked to each other, one-on-one, and he came up sadly short.
Josiah came back a few minutes later with a disgruntled Nathan on his tail.
"I figured he'd sleep while we were gone," Josiah replied smugly as he took in Vin's still form. "See? You had nothing to worry about."
With a raised brow, Ezra shot back, "I assure you Vin did not sleep while you took your sweet time delivering your message. In fact, he just went back to sleep after having an - an episode."
"What? What kind of episode?" Nathan's voice raised in alarm.
Ezra ushered both men from the room and quickly described Vin's desperate attempts to go after Chris. Nathan fumed, though he never uttered the words, "I told you so," or the even more disheartening, "I knew I shouldn't have left him alone with you, Ezra" - opting instead to huff his way back to Vin's bedside for a closer examination.
Josiah merely shook his head and muttered, "I hope we did the right thing."
Ezra wanted to argue that we hadn't done anything - he wasn't even exactly sure how Josiah replied to the telegram. But it seemed irrelevant at the moment. The only thing that mattered was that Vin was miserable, and the only man who could provide him any real comfort or relief was far away.
And quite possibly heading in the wrong direction.
They were hiding something. Chris didn't buy the telegram Buck waved in front of his nose for a second. The words throbbed in his aching forehead and burned like fire behind his eyelids: "All is well. Proceed." The lie infuriated him because he knew without a doubt that all was definitely not well; Vin had not miraculously recovered in three days.
He thought maybe Vin was dead. That might have been the three glasses of whiskey he'd consumed in far too short a time, however; alcohol always played to his inherent paranoia. Or it could have been the nightmare he'd had for the last two nights, the one where he returned to town only to find a cross with "Vin Tanner" carved across the front.
The bastards wouldn't tell him if it was so. Hadn't they gone and hunted down Ella behind his back? Hadn't they decided where his priorities lay for him? Hadn't they made him feel like it was wrong for him to think about Vin first? Like he was somehow diminishing the memory of his dead wife and child if he chose to stay behind and care for a sick friend? A dying friend . . .
No, they wouldn't tell him. He was sure of it.
"Chris? Talk t' me, Pard. Tell me what you wanna do."
Buck. He was behind it all. Chris kept his gaze plastered to the gold liquid in the glass before him and ignored his old friend. He couldn't answer the man's question, even if he was inclined to do so - which he wasn't. Let Buck stew in it awhile. Let him think about what he'd done; forced him to choose and now Vin was dead. There'd be no second chances, no more opportunities to tell Vin all the things he should have said during those long days and endless nights when he'd sat by and watched his best friend suffer.
All is well . . . Proceed.
Buck's hand was on his shoulder. He shook it off.
"-we can end this. Another week, that's all. Ten days at the most. Vin will hold on. Nathan would have told us if-"
Chris stood and turned away. Buck was full of shit. It would take a good five days to get to Monterrey; they were looking at another two weeks before they could possibly make it back home. But if Vin was dead, what difference did it make? Two weeks, two months, two years - it just didn't matter anymore.
Buck called after him, but he didn't answer as he made his way up the stairway and down the hall to his room. The rented space was cold, dark, and foreign, a perfect match for the bitter isolation that suddenly gripped him. He hadn't felt so alone since he'd come to Four Corners, when he'd first met Vin and Nathan. His life had changed dramatically that day.
And in spite of all he'd done to try and stop it, his life was set to change again, he thought as he reached for the bottle he kept tucked away in his saddle bag. Nothing like overwhelming helplessness and total lack of control to stoke a man's thirst. He knew he was being maudlin at best, grossly over-reacting at worst, but he couldn't help himself. He didn't want Vin to be dead. He needed him. It was as simple and as complicated as that.
But maybe Vin wasn't dead, he argued with himself as he slipped off his boots and laid across the bed, bottle in hand. Maybe Vin really was holding on, waiting for him to return. Tanner was just stubborn enough to do something like that. Hadn't he held on for him this long? Put off death for no other reason than that Chris had asked him to?
Chris pulled his head up to take a swig from the bottle, setting it on the table beside him before leaning back on the bed once more. He could head back in the morning and find out for sure if Vin was alive or dead, but if Vin was still breathing, he'd be mad as hell at him for returning to town without finishing this. Tanner likely wouldn't think too highly of him drowning his troubles in a bottle, either. That just wasn't Vin's way. No, Vin might stomp around a bit, cuss up a storm in several different languages - shoot a man in the back if properly motivated - but he never lost himself in a bottle.
He could picture Vin in his mind, only it wasn't like he'd last seen him - washed clean of color and drained of life. He pushed that vision aside and instead he remembered Vin like he was that day when they'd tricked Wickes into believing his working girls were dead. "Boys," Vin had said after his grueling ride, "this job gets better every day!" Like nearly killing himself to dump a wagon-load of dummies over a cliff was just the most fun ever. Would he ever see that Vin again?
He sat up, took another drink, and laid back down. He should go home, to hell with what Buck or the rest of them thought. Let Vin pretend to be disgruntled and disappointed that he'd returned, it would all be an act. Vin needed him and everybody knew it. He should never have left him in the first place. He'd go home in the morning. There would be another day to go after Ella, and it was too late for his family anyway. In the battle of life and death, only Vin still had a shot.
She'd likely take off again, though. That weasel Johnson would tip their hand and Ella would move on. She probably had it planned that way, draw out the chase for as long as she could. Bitch. He took another drink as Sarah's eyes and Adam's smile flashed through his mind. It was getting harder to see them as the years passed, however. How much longer could he hold onto the bitter anger and raging hatred that fueled him to continue? Would he get complacent as their memories softened with time? Had that happened already? Why else would he feel the need to nurse a sick friend rather than take what might be his last chance to avenge the deaths of his beloved family?
He'd go to Mexico in the morning. Of course he would. This was the opportunity he'd been waiting years for. Vin understood; he wanted him to do this. Vin would hold on a little longer. Unless he was already dead, in which case there was no point in going back to town at all. But what if he wasn't? What if Vin needed him right now, this very minute?
The whisky called to him, but he was suddenly too weary to reach for it. Drifting into a light doze, his mind continued to struggle with his ambivalence. But when morning finally dawned, he knew what he had to do.
He might have made a mistake. Josiah truly believed he'd done the right thing when he'd responded to the telegram three days ago, but now he wasn't so sure. Vin had grown increasingly restless and confused as the hours passed, and nothing he said or did seemed to help much.
"You - you promise you'll tell 'im, Josiah?" Vin pleaded breathlessly. "He don't - he don't believe me."
"I will. Don't worry now, Vin. Please don't worry anymore."
"But - but - I tried. And he didn't believe me. He said - he said - she didn't hire Jack. But she did. I know she did."
"I know. I know. Rest now. It's alright."
Vin's response was a soft groan, but he finally relaxed the death grip he'd had on Josiah's sleeve as he fell back against the pillow and closed his eyes. Sleep would come, but only for a brief time, and then it would start over again.
Vin seemed to have gone back six months to that fateful evening when he'd tried to set Chris straight about Ella. Josiah wasn't involved in what had transpired between the two men that night, but he knew by the expression on Vin's face when he'd left the party that it wasn't good.
It wasn't until Chris lay recovering from the gunshot wound that the truth came out. Josiah was spelling Nathan in the clinic when Chris apparently felt the need to confess. He told Josiah about his conversation with Vin; how Vin had taken it on himself to do some digging into Ella's affairs, and how badly he'd treated his friend when he'd come to him that night.
Josiah remembered thinking how they had all been so wrapped up in the glitz of Ella's wealth and in the attraction of her friends, that they'd failed to notice the inconsistencies of her lies. Only Vin had thought to investigate the woman, and thank God he had. Where would Chris be now if Vin hadn't stepped in and forced him to open his eyes? Married to the murdering witch, most likely, and still clueless about her wicked ways.
The soft voice coming from the doorway startled him from his thoughts. "Come in, JD," he said warmly after a quick glance verified the identity of the visitor.
JD swallowed nervously as he looked towards the bed. "But . . . he's asleep, isn't he?"
"I don't wanna disturb him," JD mumbled, studying his feet.
"Don't seem to matter much. He can't stay awake when he wants to, can't sleep when he needs to."
Josiah peered at JD's somber face through shadows cast by the setting sun. "Come in, Son, sit a spell. I haven't seen you in several days, have I?"
Shaking his head, JD continued to look down as he sat self-consciously in the chair next to Josiah. "No. I guess not. Guess I've been . . . busy."
"That all there is to it?" He knew there was more, much more; the kid had been even more successful than Ezra at avoiding Vin. Although Standish had recently begun checking in on their sick friend several times a day.
JD licked his lips and finally met Josiah's eyes. "It's four weeks tomorrow, Josiah. How can he be -? Why ain't he -? I mean, it's been a long time and well, it ain't right, y' know? It just ain't right. Vin, he's a good man. He don't deserve to go out like this. Shot in the gut by two stupid kids, layin' here in pain for weeks, just waitin' t' die. Hell, Josiah, I just don't - I don't - oh, hell, never mind."
"Can't say I understand it either, JD. But regardless of whether it's right or whether Vin deserves this, we have to deal with it. We have to let things play out as they will."
JD narrowed his eyes, and Josiah could see that he hadn't convinced the young man of anything. "Seems like Chris and Buck didn't think about that," JD muttered under his breath.
"I don't follow you," Josiah replied.
"They couldn't wait to let things play out, could they? They took off and left Vin like - like this." JD tipped his head towards the bed, though he still didn't really look at Vin.
Well now, this was an unexpected turn of affairs, Josiah thought. JD's anger wasn't surprising, but the fact that he'd chosen to lay it at the feet of Chris and Buck was. He wasn't sure he could explain the two men's actions, but he felt he needed to try, if for no other reason than that Chris didn't need any more raw emotion to deal with when he returned. "JD, this was too important to wait. You know that. You know -"
"What I know is that Chris's family is already dead and there's nothing he can do t' bring them back. But Vin's still here. And he needs him. If Buck had left me when I was shot - well, I just couldn't have - I mean, damn it, Josiah, you know what I mean."
"You have to know how hard this decision was for Chris. Did you see him before he left?"
"Yeah. I watched him and Buck ride out and neither one of 'em looked back."
"JD -" he started.
But the young man was already on his feet and heading for the door. "Forget about it," he huffed. "Just tell Vin - tell him - I don't know."
"I'll tell him you were here. And JD? Try again tomorrow, alright? Vin's asked about you." That wasn't true. Vin hadn't really asked about anyone other than Chris. But the deception was warranted more for JD's sake than Vin's. Josiah didn't want JD harboring any lingering guilt and regret if Vin died.
JD nodded and exited the room in silence, leaving Josiah to his thoughts once more. Dusk had settled during the brief visit, so he leaned over and lit the lamp, turning the flame down low. To his relief, Vin didn't stir, which allowed him a few moments to sort out his feelings, to untangle the knot that JD had unwittingly pulled just a little tighter with his words.
Was it wrong for Chris to leave Vin? He hadn't thought so at the time. Life never came in neat little packages, after all. A man rarely had the luxury of completing one task, solving one problem before being confronted with another. There were always priorities to be weighed. And normally, he had to admit, the priority would surely be a desperately ill friend.
But Ella Gaines had proven to be a slippery, elusive devil who had continued to torture Chris for months. Her letters were like oil to a flame, and just when Chris seemed to get a handle on the fire, another note would arrive to stoke him up again. The woman was pure evil and she needed to be taken care of before Chris could truly move on. The timing wasn't good, but that was hardly Buck's fault. He couldn't have known that Vin would be wounded while he was sowing the seeds down in Santa Fe.
Yes, the timing was bad, but it could have been worse, Vin simply walking out of the livery when he did was proof of that. One second Vin was healthy and whole, and the next . . .
Josiah rubbed his weary eyes with his fist, but it didn't make the memory of that fateful day disappear. He'd just left the newspaper office when he heard the shot. A quick glance towards the livery told him that Vin was wounded, and he whispered a prayer that it had been a glancing blow. But that wasn't the case, he quickly realized as he approached the scene. Chris had pulled Vin into his arms but apparently he was in shock because he didn't even attempt to staunch the blood that flowed from Vin's abdomen. With no time to lose, Josiah leaned down and scooped Vin into his arms and rushed for the clinic.
It had taken him days to forget the sound Vin made as he'd lifted him from the ground. But even now, he couldn't erase the dark vision of those terrible days and nights as he, Nathan, and Chris battled for Vin's life. It was a selfish thing to do; they all knew it wasn't what Vin truly wanted. The permission to give up and let go would have to come from Chris, however. And Chris wouldn't - or more likely couldn't - make that call.
He understood how it was between Chris and Vin; scripture had provided the perfect example in Jonathon and David. The bonding of souls between two men was not new, but it was exceptional. Which was exactly why he'd encouraged Chris to pursue Ella. Because even though Vin was hurt by Chris's rejection that evening, he never let it come between them - instead he took Chris's torment as his own. And because with every letter the bitch sent, Chris climbed deeper inside himself and Vin became more desperate to find an answer - to the point that Josiah was convinced Vin had been only weeks away from taking off to hunt her on his own. But mostly it was because Vin was tired, and Josiah was certain he'd give up the fight before he'd allow Chris to let Ella get away again.
So Chris had to go after the woman, not in spite of Vin, but for Vin.
At least it seemed that way, but he might have been wrong. He'd thought nothing could be harder to endure than watching a friend suffer like Vin had that first week, but the last three days were proving to be equally difficult. He couldn't decide which was worse: the moments when Vin couldn't remember where Chris was, or the times when he begged for news and counted the days until Chris promised he'd return. It was heartbreaking to observe, in part because such blatant dependence was so unlike the man they all admired and respected. Josiah was certain that Vin would be mortified if he knew how desperate he sounded when he reminded them over and over that Chris had promised to return in seven days.
Well, seven days were up tomorrow. And Chris would not return, thanks in large part to his response to Buck's telegram. "All is well." What the hell was he thinking?
He rubbed his eyes again. He was exhausted, though it was still early in the evening. He'd just rest for a few minutes, he told himself as he stiffly moved to the pallet. With Nathan gone to assist in a difficult birth several miles from town, and JD and Ezra tied up with a group of rowdy trail hands, he'd basically been left alone to care for Vin for the last twenty-four hours. And his age was quickly making itself known in aching joints and heavy eyelids.
In spite of his intentions, he soon fell into a deep sleep. Hours later, a bright shaft of sunlight woke him, and he laid still for a moment to gather his thoughts. He thought he'd heard Vin moan a few times in the night, but he might have been dreaming, for all was silent and still now. Having finally achieved a full night's sleep, Josiah felt refreshed and hopeful for the first time in weeks. If Vin slept as well as he had, it could only be for the good. Unless . . .
He sprang from the bed in sheer panic, certain Vin had died during the night while he'd blissfully slept on. But a quick glance at the bed told him otherwise. Vin lay quietly, his wide blue eyes open and watching him.
"Good morning, Vin," he choked, hoping his friend wouldn't notice the tremor in his voice.
Vin nodded and held his gaze.
There was something odd, something not right, Josiah realized as he moved closer. Vin's eyes were bright and clearer than they'd been in days. And yet . . .
"Did you sleep well?" Josiah asked.
A soft sigh was his answer. But then Vin took a deeper breath and asked, "It's today, right? Chris - he's - he'll be home today?"
He should have known this moment would come, he should have been prepared. But he wasn't. What could he say anyway? He couldn't lie, not now with Vin so obviously of sound mind, if only for the moment. "No, Vin. I'm sorry. It's gonna take a little longer, I'm afraid."
"How much longer?"
He could hardly say the words. "Another week . . . maybe two."
Vin closed his eyes and turned his head ever so slightly, but he didn't respond for a long time. Josiah might have thought he'd gone back to sleep, if he didn't know what a blow he'd just delivered. He was wrong, damn it, he should have told Chris to come back. The verses raced unbidden through his head: Jonathon was killed in battle and David wept bitterly. It didn't have to be that way for Chris and Vin. Maybe Chris couldn't save Vin, but he could be there if and when the end came.
He felt Vin's gaze on him again, but he found it difficult to look his young friend in the eye when he replied, "Yes, Vin?"
"I need y' t' do somethin' fer me."
"Alright. I'll do my best." The words sounded hollow to his ears, like a lie being born, even though he was long past that point. Though it was Chris he'd lied to, he reminded himself, not Vin.
"I need y' t' tell Chris . . . t' make sure he knows he did the right thing."
He played ignorant. "The right thing?"
"Goin' after Ella. Tell him it was right. Tell him . . . tell him it was what I wanted."
It wasn't the right thing, he knew that now, but that wasn't what Vin wanted to hear, and his sick friend deserved at least some small measure of comfort. He finally held Vin's gaze and reassured him, "He knows that, Vin. But you can tell him yourself when he gets home."
"I need y' to do this, Josiah. You know how it is 'tween him and me. I reckon yer the only one who - who really understands."
He did know, he did understand. Which made his crime all the worse. But he tried to deny the unspoken message in Vin's words. "What are you trying to tell me, my brother?"
Vin swallowed and said softly, "Just tell him it was what I wanted. And it wouldn't have made a difference, him stayin' behind. You'll tell him?"
"Vin, please -"
"Do this for me, Josiah . . . and for him."
I'm an expert at prayers for the dying, Josiah had once claimed. But not today. Today he couldn't squeeze a single word past the lump in his throat, so he took Vin's hand in his and nodded. And when Vin's eyes closed, he wept.
Three days had passed since they'd left Santa Fe to head for Mexico when it hit him that maybe this wasn't about Chris after all. Maybe, Buck realized with a jolt, he wanted Ella taken care of for himself. Maybe he was just plain tired of feeling guilty over Sarah and Adam. Maybe only by vanquishing Chris's demons, could he vanquish his own.
It was a terrible thought, and he was deeply disappointed in himself; he had a lot of a faults, after all, but selfishness wasn't one of them. And truly, as badly as he'd felt all these years for his role in the deaths of the Larabee family, he knew deep down it wasn't his fault. He couldn't know that delaying their arrival another night would result in tragedy. But he knew this time. He knew exactly how much this trip might cost Vin. He knew, but he pushed for it anyway. Told himself it was exactly what Chris needed and precisely what Vin wanted. But all along, he wanted it for himself.
And as he peered at his friend who sat slumped in the saddle beside him, he suddenly realized something else: killing Ella wouldn't solve anything. If Vin died, Chris would only exchange one demon for another.
Chris finally met his eyes for the first time that day, and he offered his first attempt at conversation, as well. "I can't do this, Buck. I'm sorry."
It was odd how that worked. Here Buck had just been thinking that very same thing, and wondering if or how he should approach the subject. Leave it to Chris to beat him to it. "I know," he said softly. "Let's go home."
If he had any doubt that it was the right thing to do, it was quickly erased by the pure gratitude that graced his old friend's face.
It seemed incredibly stupid to turn around now; they were just a day's ride from Monterrey. But neither of them said as much. Buck figured by by-passing Santa Fe and riding hard, they could maybe shave a day off their trip home. It would still take them four days, though, and the weight in the pit of his stomach told him that might not be soon enough.
It didn't help when events conspired against them. A thunderstorm seemingly rose up from nowhere, and they were forced to seek shelter two hours before sunset. Chris paced the width of the overhang under which they were camped, smoking one cheroot after another. After a solid hour of the relentless movement, Buck could take it no longer and he snapped, "Might just as well pack it in for the night. Even you can't part the clouds by glarin' at 'em."
"You're not funny, Buck," Chris huffed back at him. But he finally stopped walking and leaned stiffly against a tall boulder.
"Get comfortable, Chris. We're not goin' anywhere 'til morning."
"You think I don't know that?"
Buck was tired, hungry, and depressed; somehow he'd managed to let down Sarah, Vin, and Chris all in one blow. So he had very little control when the words tripped over his tongue before he could pull them back, "I think you believe you can save him. But you can't. I wish you could, but it just ain't up to you. What's gonna happen is gonna happen."
Chris peered at him in the waning light before sliding off the rock to finally sit on the ground. He pulled his hat off his head, took a swig from his canteen, and finally spoke. "I know that, too. But I can be there this time. I just . . . need t' be there this time. For him."
Leaning back against the rocky face of the wall he was propped against, Buck blinked away a tear. He couldn't put his finger on why he felt like crying, but it might have been because Vin deserved to have his closest friend at his side all along, and precious days had been lost that could never be regained. Or maybe it was because he feared they were already too late - Chris wouldn't get what he needed and that would be his fault. Or maybe it was because he knew that his old friend was lying to himself - Chris didn't just need to be there, and it wasn't just for Vin.
He didn't figure on this. Oh sure, JD knew that one day one of them would die - probably him, at the rate he was racking up injuries. But he didn't plan on being so damn angry about the way it went down. And he never, ever, in a million years dreamed he'd be so furious with the two men he admired most. In fact, he wasn't sure he could ever speak to either one of them again.
"JD, you get your feelings under control before you set foot in that room. You understand?"
It was Josiah's warm voice in his ear, because of course the older man would know. It seemed like JD couldn't keep nothing from nobody, but especially not from Josiah. The man was like his conscience, he guessed, crawling inside him and reading his emotions like a book.
Well, it didn't matter anyway, and he said so. "Why? Vin won't know. From what Nathan says, he hasn't spoken and he's barely opened his eyes for days now." He swallowed and took a breath. "He's dyin', Josiah. Why's it matter if I see him at all?"
Josiah shook his head, pretty much like he'd done for the last three days when they'd had nearly identical conversations outside this door. "We don't know what he hears. We don't know what he knows. But he sure don't need t' feel all that anger you got spillin' out of you, Son. Fact is, none of us need it. And that includes you most of all. Let it go, JD. What's done is done. Make it right with Vin, or you'll regret it the rest of your life. Trust me, I've been there."
"You got it all wrong. I ain't mad at Vin."
"Aren't you? Think on it a minute. Then get yourself in that room and tell him how you feel."
"You ain't my pa. You can't tell me what to do."
Josiah glared at him for a moment and then smiled, he wasn't fooled.
Damn if that preacher didn't know he'd walk across fire if the older man told him to. And he'd walk in that room, too, just like he'd done for the last three days. Every time, he'd hear the way Vin breathed real shallow or he'd see the way his face twitched just the tiniest little bit, JD would remember how it was when his ma died. So he'd pat Vin on the arm and say, "See ya later, Vin," and he'd walk out. And Josiah would shake his head in disappointment.
JD didn't care. There was nothing he could do, anyway. Only Chris had a shot at changing things, and Larabee was obviously too busy worrying about himself to stand by Vin. But maybe this time he'd let Vin know how much he respected him and cared about him. It couldn't hurt, and maybe it would get Josiah off his back. Maybe he'd sleep a little better, too.
When he entered the room, his first thought was that things hadn't changed much, if at all. He'd never seen a man take so long to die. Of course, he hadn't seen all that many men die in his short lifetime, outside of the battles they'd fought, and he reckoned those didn't count. It was completely different watching a man take a quick bullet and fall down dead, though he couldn't say why exactly. Dead was dead, no matter how long it took to get there.
He put aside his morbid thoughts and ignored the glum look on Nathan's face as he pushed past him to get to the bedside. Ezra was there, too, which made him think maybe it really was going to happen, maybe Vin really was going to die this time.
And if that just wasn't the stupidest thing ever.
Because it was completely unnecessary. Vin was getting better before Chris took off. Maybe not quickly or easily, but he was getting better - far better than he'd been that first week when JD had walked into the clinic and seen Vin throwing up blood and whimpering in pain. That sight had made him sick for days afterward and he thought surely his friend was going to die then. But he didn't. He got better, with Chris helping him. He'd be getting better still if Buck hadn't interfered and Chris hadn't taken off. Vin should have told him, damn it. Vin should have said that he needed Chris and it could wait - she could wait. But he didn't and now it didn't matter.
And hell yes, he was mad at Vin, too. Everything was going to change with Vin's death. Everything. And all because his friends were just too damn stubborn to admit what they really needed.
"Why didn't you just tell him, Vin? Huh? Why didn't you tell Chris you needed him to stay?" he muttered as he neared the bed.
He thought he'd said it under his breath, but apparently not because Ezra growled at him, "JD, this is not the time to berate our injured comrade."
"I'm not beratin' him! Hell, I ain't even sure I know what that is. I'm just speakin' the truth since nobody else around here seems t' be able to do it. Chris shouldn't have gone and we all know it." He turned away from Ezra and leaned over close to Vin and said softly, "I'm sorry, Vin, but I don't want you t' die. You're my friend . . . and well, you're a whole lot of other things, too, but I reckon that's most important. And I can't make peace with this because - because - "
"Neither can I."
The soft voice startled him and he stood up with a gasp. He couldn't believe what he was seeing - Chris was standing in the doorway.
There was absolute silence until Chris breathed, "Nathan?"
Nathan didn't reply. No one did. But from what JD could see, Chris wasn't listening anyway as he slowly made his way across the room to Vin. JD quickly scooted aside, nearly tripping over his own two feet in his haste to make way for their leader.
"His hands are cold," Chris mumbled as he sat down on the side of the bed and pulled Vin's hands between his own.
Ezra cleared his throat. "Perhaps we should take our leave, Gentlemen."
JD heard Ezra's suggestion, and he wanted to do what he said, but he couldn't seem to move and he couldn't take his eyes off Chris's face. He might have been wrong about how Chris felt . . .
There was a strong hand on his back, gently pushing him out the door. Not surprisingly, Josiah's voice sounded again in his ear, "You got your wish. He's back. Let's give him some time alone with Vin."
JD wanted to say that he was too damn late, but when he looked back, he thought maybe Vin was breathing a little differently and maybe his color was a shade better, too. So maybe it wasn't too late. But if Vin did somehow manage to pull through, it would be no thanks to Buck. The steam he'd held inside erupted as he barreled down the stairs of the hotel, out the door, and over to the livery. So maybe he couldn't be mad at Vin, and maybe he'd underestimated Chris's feelings. But Buck was fair game - Buck knew.
He found Buck in the livery, putting up his and Chris's gear. Before the other man even had a chance to turn around, he snarled, "How could you? What the hell were you thinking, Buck?"
Buck's spine stiffened, but he didn't turn to face JD and he didn't reply. So JD continued, "You knew what would happen. What almost happened. What could have happened. Hell, it might still happen, I don't know."
When Buck finally turned towards him, JD was stunned to see that his friend's eyes were red-rimmed and there was an odd tremor in his voice when he asked, "He's still alive then? We aren't too late?"
JD shook his head. "No. I mean, you aren't too late, he's still alive - barely."
"Barely is enough," Buck said. He lowered his voice and added, "at least this time, Chris will be there when it happens."
"That's all you got t' say?"
Buck sighed and rubbed a hand across his face. "JD, we just cut a five day trip in half. I can hardly stay on my feet, so if there's somethin' you need from me, just say it."
"Alright. Tell me why finding that woman was more important than Vin's life. Tell me why you and Chris rode off and left Vin layin' up there dyin'. I need to understand, Buck," JD choked, and damn if his own eyes weren't filling up.
"Then you've come to the wrong man. I can't tell you why a good man is dyin'. I can't explain why the kindest woman and the sweetest boy God ever put on this earth were killed by a murderin' witch. I don't get what's between Chris and Vin - what's between any of us, for that matter. I don't know why I had to find Ella now, or why it seemed so damned important to go after her. I don't understand any of it, JD. You've come to the wrong man." Buck lowered his head then and walked away.
JD remained standing in the shadows of the livery, more confused than ever in light of Buck's uncharacteristic uncertainty. But the anger drained out of him as Buck's words slowly settled in his brain, although it wasn't what his friend said, but how he said it that mattered. So maybe this wasn't so easy for Buck, after all.
And it had to have been hell for Chris, choosing between his former family and the family he had now. But JD suspected that in his heart, Chris had never really left Vin behind at all. He just couldn't be in two places at once, so he'd gambled that Vin would hold on while he took care of Ella. He was still wrong, but maybe his intentions were good. Of course, there was that saying about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. It sure seemed to have worked out that way for his friends - the hell part, anyway.
But maybe now that Chris was back, Vin would perk up again and start heading in the right direction. It wasn't too late. He had no doubt that if Vin woke up and saw Chris there, he'd forget all about the fact that Chris left him in the first place. Vin was just like that, the forgiving sort.
Maybe, he thought with more than little remorse, he should take his cue from Vin and be a little more understanding himself. And maybe he should start with Buck.
Chris knew the moment he hit the edge of town that Vin was still alive, the light in his hotel room window told him so. He'd flown off his horse then and raced up the stairs, but he'd paused a moment in the hall. Something told him that he wouldn't find Vin sitting up in bed, chatting with Nathan or Josiah. Still, he didn't expect to find all of his men holding what appeared to be a death vigil when he finally opened the door and stepped inside.
Vin would hate all the fuss, was his first thought. It wasn't going to happen, was his second. Vin wasn't going to die. Forget about his translucent skin, his cold, cold hands - forget his own words to Buck that he just needed to get there in time to send Vin off to wherever men like them ended up. It wasn't going to happen. He could save him.
As he sat there at Vin's side, rubbing warmth into the chilled fingers and palms of his friend's hands, he couldn't help wondering what might have happened if he'd never left. Would Vin still be in this condition? He had to believe that Nathan and Josiah had done their best with Vin; had coaxed and encouraged and pleaded with him to eat and drink and just hang on, damn it. Don't let a stupid stray bullet fired by two stupid kids get you, Vin. Chris had said that every day, sometimes with words, sometimes not, but it was always there between them. But maybe he'd forgotten to let Nathan in on that secret. And maybe he should have reminded Josiah that Vin needed to be told now and then that he mattered to them, that he wasn't riding alone anymore.
It was too late now, though, he thought as he took in his friend's shallow breaths, cracked lips, hollow cheeks and sunken eyes. He'd imagined this, hadn't he? As he and Buck rode for home like the hounds of hell were on their tails, the pictures had played incessantly in his mind.
In the best version, he'd come home and find Vin sitting on the boardwalk, weak and pale, but upright. Vin would give him a flinty grin until he found out that they'd let Ella get away, then he'd curse up a storm. Chris would let him fuss and carry on, and he'd even let Buck shake his head and say, "I told you we should have kept going". But he wouldn't care a bit because Vin would be better and that would be all that mattered.
But there was another version, one where he was too late. It was always Josiah who told him. He and Buck would ride into town and Josiah would meet them at the livery. The tears in Josiah's eyes would give it a way long before his words . . . "I'm sorry, Chris, Vin died two minutes/two hours/two days/two weeks ago." He could never quite imagine what happened after that. Would he shout out his denial, shed tears of grief, or simply ride out to his cabin and drown in a bottle for the next month or two?
The reality was something like the third option, he thought as he gently pulled two fingers through Vin's limp hair, although the scenes in his mind had varied considerably. Sometimes, he'd pictured Vin laying in the bed with his eyes closed, but Tanner would quickly open them and greet him with a bright smile and firm grip to his forearm. Other times, he would visualize Nathan greeting him at the door and the healer would say, "Well, he's no better, but he's no worse, either." But most times, he imagined that he'd arrive just in time to watch Vin die. He'd come in the door and Vin would look like this - exactly like this.
This was ridiculous, he reminded himself. There was no longer any reason to imagine, hope, or dream how he'd find Vin because he was finally home and he finally knew the truth. He couldn't rewind time to recapture the days he'd lost, and he couldn't change the outcome now that he was there.
Or could he? Had he turned his back on Ella only to make it home in time to watch Vin die? No. He couldn't accept that, wouldn't accept that.
"I'm thinkin' I don't want t' give up here, Pard," he whispered softly. "You might hate me for it, but now that I'm here - and you're here - I don't think I can let go without a fight."
Vin didn't respond at all, or even show a sign that he knew anyone was there, but Chris didn't let that deter him. He got to his feet and headed for the tea, but to his chagrin, there was none prepared. It was probably a good thing that Nathan had left the room; the healer would have gotten an earful at that moment. When had the man decided to give up on Vin? What gave him the right? Those were questions for later - and they would be asked, Chris vowed.
Water would have to do for now, but he was certain Vin could never handle a cup, so he reached for the spoon that sat on the bedside dresser instead. A bottle was on the dresser, as well, and Chris quickly identified that it contained laudanum. It was a different bottle than the one Nathan had been using when he'd left to go after Ella, though . . . and this one was nearly empty. Chris paused a moment to peer at his friend in the bed; Vin had to have been suffering for Nathan to resort to using so much of the drug.
Was he wrong? Was it time to let him go?
He dipped the teaspoon into the pitcher of water, then slowly slid it between Vin's slack lips. "Swallow, Vin," he coaxed as he gently stroked Vin's cheek. A voice in the back of his head despaired that it would all be over if Vin could no longer swallow; there would no longer be a question of letting go, but of finally accepting.
But Vin could swallow and he did.
"Alright, alright then," Chris said soothingly, his lips turning up in a half smile. "We'll take this one swallow at a time."
That was the way it would have to go, and the way it did go for the next twenty-four hours. In spite of being exhausted from his return home, Chris only allowed himself to doze for brief periods of time. In between, his men drifted in and out of the room, offering their comfort and support, though it was clear to Chris that they thought he was fighting a losing battle. But they'd thought the same when Vin was first shot, he reminded himself, and they were wrong.
He'd nearly come to blows with Nathan over the laudanum and the tea, or the lack thereof. Josiah had tried to step in and plead Nathan's case, but Chris was having none of it. "I left him with you - I trusted you," he'd said accusingly. "And you gave up on him. Gave him so much of that damn drug he couldn't open his eyes if he wanted to."
"You don't understand. You weren't here," Nathan had argued - or tried to.
"You think I don't know that? You think you need to throw that in my face?"
That was when Josiah had come between them, literally, and reminded them that they both only wanted was best for Vin, and they were also both too tired to think straight. That was true enough, and Chris let it go, but he suspected the subject would rear its ugly head again.
And it did. It was nightfall again, a full night and day had passed since he'd returned, when Vin began to stir. It was nothing at first but a twitch, a soft moan. But as the sun lowered in the sky, the moans came more frequently as Vin grew more restless. Chris saw it as a good sign; Vin was coming around.
But Nathan saw it differently, though he tried to be subtle about it at first. "He's hurtin, Chris."
Chris knew he was beyond exhausted, but he couldn't believe the stupidity of that statement. "He's been hurting for what? Five weeks now?"
"That's long enough, don't y' think? He don't need to hurt anymore."
Now that just made him mad. He stood up and put his hands on his hips as he stared down at Nathan across the bed. "You think I want this? You think I like seeing him like this?"
Nathan stood then, too, and said, "I think you can't let him go. And I'm sorry about that. But I won't let you hurt him anymore."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
There were tears in his eyes when Nathan quietly sighed and replied, "We should have listened t' him from the start. He never wanted this. We were wrong, Chris"
As if to make Nathan's point, Vin whimpered softly at just that moment. But Nathan held Chris's gaze and added, "He only hung on for you. All along, it was for you. Is this what you want for him?"
Tears stung his eyes, as well, but Chris blinked them away and stated, "You don't understand."
"You're wrong, Chris. We all understand. We know what it cost you to leave here - and we know what it cost you t' come back. You were a man torn clean in half, I reckon. But it don't change how this is gonna go. It's been too long now."
One stubborn tear caught on his lashes, and he quickly brushed it away. Nathan's words brought home once again all the guilt and ambivalence he'd struggled with for the last few weeks. But he had not walked away from Ella to quit while Vin still held life in his body. "Another day, Nathan, give me - give us - another day."
It must have been enough, because Nathan just shook his head as he bent close to the bed and said in a low voice, "He is one stubborn son of a bitch, Vin. I reckon you know better than anyone that he's damn near impossible to argue with."
No more words were exchanged after that, except when Nathan offered to take over for a bit so Chris could rest. It was only because Jackson promised to continue forcing fluids down Vin that Chris gave in. Nathan might not agree with him, but he wasn't a liar. If he said he'd do it, he would.
It turned out that he didn't need another full day - Vin came back from whatever dark place he'd disappeared to with the rising of the sun. And Chris almost missed it. He'd gone to get fresh coffee while Nathan slept on the pallet next to Vin's bed. The minute he came back through the door, he noted that Vin's eyes were open. His heart sped up as if it knew that the defining moment had come, the proverbial turning of the corner.
"Hey, Vin," he said as he took a seat on the side of the bed. "It's good to see you." It was amazing how casual he managed to sound, considering how short of breath he'd suddenly become. When Vin's gaze tracked to his face, he continued, "You kept your word, hung on until I came back. I'm a little late, and I'm sorry about that. But I'm here now, and I'm not going anywhere."
Vin's eyes were unfocused, but somehow Chris knew that he heard him, and more importantly, that he understood. And that was when he knew exactly what he had to say to keep Vin with them.
"But I lost her, Vin," he said, only inches from Vin's pale face. "She got away again and I won't find her without your help. You hear me, Pard? She got away."
He supposed he should have felt guilty about lying to his friend, but he didn't. It was a small sin, by comparison. After all, he was now convinced that Vin wouldn't be in the shape he was in had he just continued to care for him and let Ella wait. And it wasn't completely untrue; they hadn't caught Ella and he would need Vin's help to go after her the next time.
Vin groaned softly in response, and Chris imagined he could hear his friend muttering, "Aw hell, Larabee, how did you manage to screw it up this time?"
He thought that small sound was probably all he was going to get, but then Vin moved his lips and breathed, "Al--right." It was as good as a promise that he would survive.
Chris grinned and nodded as he cupped Vin's jaw and sealed the deal, "Alright."
"Just a few more minutes, Vin. You can do it."
No, he couldn't. But saying as much was impossible.
"He's ready now, Nathan."
"I've told you before, Chris, he'll never get his strength back if . . ."
Vin didn't hear the rest of Nathan's sentence because he was too busy focusing on breathing as Chris wrapped his arms around his waist and hoisted him to his feet. Four steps to the bed - talk about impossible.
"You can do it," Chris said, his breath hot on Vin's neck. "Just like yesterday. Slow and easy, one step at a -"
"You're a real bastard, you know that?" Vin gasped.
Chris chuckled softly. "Yeah. You've mentioned it a time or two."
And then, somehow, he was on the bed, and Chris was pulling the blankets up around him. "Sleep now," he said.
He must have done just that because the sun was streaming through the window when he closed his eyes, but Chris was sitting in the shadows of the oil lamp when he opened them.
Chris didn't see him, though. He was sitting in the corner of the room, facing Josiah. Both men were leaning forward, their heads nearly touching as they whispered between them. Vin strained to hear their words, certain they were discussing him again. Apparently, he was the most interesting subject in town, which was both funny and pathetic.
"Nathan wants to push him, but . . . it was just too close this time. If I hadn't come back when I did . . ."
"I know. Believe me, Chris, I've replayed those terrible days in my mind, as well. I should never have sent that telegram."
"I made the choice to go, Josiah. And I made the choice to continue. It wasn't your fault."
Vin's back was starting to ache, he needed to move. But that just wasn't doable without groaning and the second he did that, his two friends would stop talking just when it was starting to get interesting. He shouldn't have been surprised that Josiah and Chris would find something to feel guilty about in all of this, he just wasn't sure what they were talking about. Ever since he'd started to come around a week or so ago, they'd acted like he was as fragile as spun glass. That might have been true physically - Lord knew every movement was a calculated effort and eating took every ounce of determination he possessed - but mentally he thought he was okay. Things got muddled up sometimes; he forgot what time it was or what he was supposed to be doing, and he couldn't even begin to guess what day it was. But he wasn't altogether stupid, he hadn't gotten shot in the head, after all.
He didn't have a clue what they were talking about, though. What telegram?
"You and Buck rode day and night to get back here, Chris. And you didn't leave his side for two straight days. He's only here because you held onto him. The important thing is that he's getting better. Nathan says the wound is beginning to heal and the fever's nearly gone."
"He can't even walk, Josiah. Six weeks have gone by and look at him. What if he never fully recovers?"
"Stop thinking like that. We had him dead and buried that night that you and Buck came back."
Chris shook his head. "I shouldn't have gone in the first place."
Vin furrowed his brows as he listened to the guilt dragging Chris's voice lower and lower. It just didn't make sense. Chris had done exactly what he needed to. It was only too bad Larabee hadn't caught the bitch. If only he'd been able to ride with his friend, he might have made the difference. But he was just too damn sick and weak.
It was a blessing, he supposed, that most of his memories from the last six weeks were hazy, although the pain and misery were clear enough. There was a point when he'd almost given up. He'd been trying for weeks to hang on like Chris wanted, but he was tired and miserable, and when it came down to it, it just wasn't worth it. With no way to clear his name and no end in sight to the agony of his wounds, he didn't want to fight anymore. There was no shame in giving up; far more dignity in that than in living how he had since the day he'd walked out of the livery and caught a bullet in his belly.
But then Buck had come in and told them about Ella, and everything had changed. Seven days, Chris had said, had promised, and he could hold on that long. It would be worth it to know that the bitch had been taken care of and Chris was finally free. He could die in peace then.
Something happened, though; for some reason, Chris didn't come back. He'd prayed that he'd get to see his friend's face one more time, but when Chris was delayed, he was certain he couldn't hold out any longer. He'd run out of time. The worst of it was knowing how Chris would react. His friend hadn't been there when his wife and child died, and although Vin didn't put himself in the same category as family, he knew Chris would feel bitter regret when he came back and found him dead.
But he always was a stubborn fool, and for some reason well beyond his understanding, he didn't die. He'd opened his eyes and there was no going back after seeing the look of relief and pure joy on Chris's face. Hell, he'd just have to live on broth for the rest of his life if need be.
"So when do I tell him that I lied to him?"
Vin's ears perked up again. Chris lied to him?
"I'm not sure," Josiah replied. "But I think you'll know when the time is right."
Chris lowered his voice even more, but Vin caught the words, "He hasn't even asked what happened. He's still so sick. I'm not sure he even remembers what I told him."
"You lied to me?" Vin surprised even himself by asking the question aloud.
Chris turned abruptly in his chair, while Josiah got to his feet. The preacher put his hand on Chris's shoulder and stated evenly, "It appears the time has come." And then he nodded at Vin and left the room.
"Chris? What's goin' on?"
There was no answer. Instead, Chris picked up his chair and moved it next to the bed, then leaned over and placed his hand on Vin's brow.
Vin had grown accustomed to his friend's touch - he didn't even want to think about the intimate ways Chris had been forced to care for him in the last six weeks - but right now he wanted an answer to his question. He gripped Chris's wrist and asked again, "What happened?"
"I came back."
"I know that. But why? You said she got away."
"I lied," Christ stated flat out.
"What? What do you mean?"
After a sigh and a long pause, Chris finally answered, "We found out Ella bought a place in Monterey, Mexico. So Buck and I started out for there, but . . ."
Chris stood up and walked to the window, turning his back on him. "But I couldn't go through with it."
Vin never considered himself the smartest man in their group, but he wasn't normally this slow. Maybe that bullet had affected his brain. "Couldn't go through with what? Chris, I don't understand what you're talkin' about."
"I couldn't stand being away from you," Chris replied as he turned back to face him. "It was driving me crazy, wondering if you were still holding on. So I turned around and came back."
He thought he should consider that, ponder on what that statement truly meant, but he couldn't get past the fact that Chris and Buck had deliberately let Ella Gaines get away again. "How far did you get?"
"What's it matter? I'll go after her later. We'll go after her later."
Well, it did matter - it mattered a whole hell of a lot. Because if Chris walked away from Ella to come back, it meant . . .
"You put me before your family," Vin murmured in awe.
"Something like that," Chris replied with a shrug. Like it was no big deal, even though they both knew better.
"You're my family now, Vin. I'm sorry I didn't figure it out sooner."
"You - you're sorry? The only thing you got t' be sorry for is that you didn't end it with that bitch when you had the chance! What the hell were you thinking?"
Chris didn't bat an eyelash at Vin's outburst, and he didn't answer the question, either. In fact, to Vin's chagrin, he merely smiled and said, "The others think you're only alive because I came back."
Vin blushed. "Aw, hell, that don't mean nothin'. Josiah thinks every tenth person he meets might be an angel in disguise. Ezra thinks he's gonna buy the bank and the hotel and then they're gonna name the town after him. JD thinks -"
"Alright, I hear you," Chris cut in, laughing now. "So maybe I didn't save your life. But you can't say you weren't glad t' see me."
"No, I can't," Vin gave in with a shake of his head. No, he couldn't deny that seeing Chris again was the best gift he'd been given since the ordeal began. But he suspected it would be a long time before he could wrap his head around his feelings, let alone put them in to words.
"And you can't say that you weren't just a little bit fired up when I told you that Ella got away again. That maybe, just maybe, you were motivated to get better."
No arguing that, either. He'd have climbed up on his horse at that very minute, except that he didn't have the energy at the time to say it, never mind actually doing it. "Maybe so. But damn, Chris, I really hoped you had her this time."
"We'll have her next time."
"I reckon," Vin reluctantly agreed. "And I reckon I might still be here because of your fussin'." It was as close as he could come to admitting that Chris was right about saving his life without blubbering stupidly and embarrassing them both.
Chris knew how to play it, of course. "I don't fuss," he said flatly.
"You don't fuss?" Vin asked, incredulous. "Hell, Larabee, you're worse than Nathan." Vin continued with a raspy imitation of his best friend, "'Just two more bites, Vin' . . . 'Keep the blanket on, Vin, or you'll catch a cold' . . . 'Four steps, Vin, you can do it' . . ."
"That's not fussing," Chris argued.
"Then what the hell do you call it?" Vin asked.
"Encouraging, huh? Well that's good, I guess, because I hate fussin'."
"I know you do. That's why I don't fuss. I encourage." Chris smiled briefly, but then he grew serious. "I shouldn't have left you, Vin. It wasn't the right time, and because of my selfishness, we almost lost you."
"Well, that's the biggest bunch of bull I've heard in a long time. And believe me, I've heard a lot of bull after all these weeks cooped up here with Ezra and Josiah and Buck takin' turns entertainin' me."
"I mean it, Vin. I'm sorry."
"I know you are, but I'll say it only once more and then we're done with this: you have nothing' t' be sorry for. You did what I wanted you to do. Well, except for the part where you came back without killin' that evil, conniving, dirty sack of -"
"I am grateful, though. And I - uh, I'm honored t' be what you said."
Chris cocked his head and raised his brow.
"Family," Vin clarified as he stretched out his hand to grip Chris's forearm. "I'm honored."
They held onto each other for several moments before Chris cleared his throat and said, "You need to eat something before you fall back asleep."
"I ain't goin' back to sleep." He wasn't hungry either, but he didn't want to ruin the moment by admitting it.
"Yes, you are. I can tell that our conversation wore you out. But you have to eat first."
"Now, Vin, you've got to eat a little something every few hours, that's the only way we'll get your stomach back on track. And why do you keep kicking off this blanket? You have to stay warm, how many times have I told you that?"
"Sounds like fussin' t' me," Vin muttered.
"I told you-"
"Yeah, I know. You don't fuss."
Vin took the broth without further complaint, and ten minutes later when his eyes closed against his will, he was grateful that Chris tucked him in without saying "I told you so."
Buck had never asked who the kids were that shot Vin. Or maybe he had, but with all that happened with Ella and the disbanded chase, he hadn't given it much thought. But their identity was very clear to him that afternoon. He was sitting on the boardwalk with Chris when they happened to walk by. The knife Chris had been holding as he carved a small block of wood suddenly flew like fire from his hands and splintered the wood at Buck's feet.
Buck flitted his gaze to Chris's face, but Chris never looked up as the two boys continued to trek past them. Only after they were long gone did Chris move his head, turning his eyes towards the livery.
Eight weeks, Buck realized, it was exactly eight weeks since Vin had begun the struggle to regain his life. And it had all started there, at the livery.
"How's he doin' this morning?" Buck asked gently.
Chris nodded. "He walked to the privy. I damn near had t' carry him back but . . ."
"But every day he's getting a little stronger."
"Never should have happened in the first place. It was so goddamn stupid."
"Well, Chris, you know sometimes things just hap-"
"Never mind, Buck."
Buck let it drop. Nothing he could say would make a difference, anyway. He supposed he should just be happy that Chris hadn't bitten his head off for a change. None of them could figure it out; with Vin finally on the mend, they'd thought Chris's mood would've improved. But it hadn't. And everyone, including Vin, was suffering because of it.
So maybe he wouldn't drop it this time. "You wanna tell me what's got you more riled than a grizzly with a toothache?"
Buck figured it was a toss-up whether Chris would holler at him, ignore him, or pull out his gun, so he was surprised when Chris dipped his head and muttered in a low voice, "Got another letter."
"Ten days ago."
Yeah, that was about right, Buck thought as he counted back to when Chris's dark mood first surfaced.
"You can't let her get to you, Chris," Buck said softly.
"Two seconds," Chris returned, "if Vin had stepped out of that barn two seconds later or two seconds earlier, none of this would have happened."
"And Ella would be part of the past - that what you're thinkin'?"
"I don't know what I'm thinking," Chris replied with a shake of his head. But he pulled off his hat and ran his hands through his hair and continued, "Hell yes, I'm thinking she'd be done with. Dead, hopefully, but done with one way or another."
"Well, that's obvious, isn't it? Vin would be - he'd be - Vin."
Buck nodded his understanding. Chris felt like he'd lost his best friend even though the man was standing - well, laying or sitting mostly - right in front of him. "He's still the same man. He's still your friend."
"I know that, but I keep picturing him the way he was. Never knew a man who got more livin' out of life, in spite of the raw hand he's been dealt. And now . . . "
With a soft chuckle, Buck finished the sentence, "And now he's got more time to rile up Ezra. You watched them two lately? They play poker together every day, and trust me, Vin's still got a way of making the most of every moment. He ain't lost his sense of humor or his spirit."
Chris looked at him doubtfully. "I guess not."
"At least, not with us," Buck added, wincing when he said it. He hadn't intended to have this conversation at this moment, but he saw an opening and took it.
"What do you mean by that?" Chris asked, genuinely puzzled.
Taking a deep breath, Buck continued, "Vin thinks you're sick of caring for him. He asked Josiah if he could stay with him at the church until he was up to being on his own. Nathan thinks it will be another month yet before he's-"
"That ain't so," Chris said, whipping his head up to met Buck's eyes.
"None of it. Vin's not staying with Josiah - it's too cold and drafty in that damn place. And we're not talkin' about a month. Nathan said it's gonna take a long time - that Vin's insides were so tore up, it's likely he'll always have some trouble, probably always have to watch what he eats."
"So it might be awhile before he tackles Josiah's chili or Inez' tamales. But he'll live, and knowing Vin, he'll make do without once complainin' about it."
"And I am not sick of taking care of him. Where the hell did he get that idea? Damn fool. Wait til I-"
Buck put his hand on Chris's arm. "No. You'll say nothing to him. At least not about that. Last thing he needs right now is to think we're all talkin' about him."
Chris glared at him, but he didn't argue. He just turned away and said, "I just can't get it straight in my head. I'm not sure I was right to hang onto Vin - not sure what kind of life I've sentenced him to. And Ella . . . my family . . . did I do right by them? It seems like no matter what I did, it was wrong. Do you know how many times I've wished that I'd walked out of that livery before Vin?"
"Oh, so you could sentence Vin to the same kind of hell you've been going through? Because that's what would have happened. He'd have held on to you just as tight - and he'd have tried to go after Ella and come back. Just like he did the first time."
"What do you mean, just like he did the first time?"
Did Chris really not know? Had Vin never told him? He wasn't sure it was his place, but maybe it was time Chris knew the truth. "Vin was on Ella's trail after the shoot-out at the ranch, but he was too worried about you to keep on. He came back to make sure you hadn't up and died from that bullet she put in you. I tell you, you and Vin are two peas in a pod, alright."
There was silence for a long moment as Chris considered what Buck had shared. Finally, he said, "If Vin had stuck it out and taken care of her then . . . That's what's been on his mind, that's why he was so adamant about me going after her."
"Yeah," Buck agreed. He'd known that all along and it never occurred to him that Chris didn't know. But he figured the letters had a lot to do with Vin's feelings, too, considering how much they upset Chris. "So what did this last letter say?"
Chris shrugged. "Same as the others. Pretty much."
"She knew, Buck," Chris replied, looking at him grimly. "She knew we were on her trail and she knew we turned back. How does she do it? It's like she's got eyes everywhere."
"Maybe not everywhere," Buck replied softly as his gaze slowly perused the town. Could it be possible that Ella had a spy right there under their noses? Could they have been followed to Santa Fe and Mexico without knowing it? It seemed incredible, and yet, everything the witch had done had been almost unbelievable.
"We have to get rid of her, Chris," Buck stated with renewed conviction. "As soon as Vin can ride."
Chris looked at him, gratitude that he'd thought to include Vin evident in his shining eyes. "I don't know, Buck. It could be months before Vin even -"
"He'll ride," Buck interrupted, "long before you and Nathan want him to. But first, you'd better get up there and set him straight that he ain't the cause of your sour mood."
Chris got to his feet and nodded. But before he left, he looked down at Buck. "Speaking of setting things straight, you and JD okay?"
"JD? Hell, Chris, he ain't rode with you long enough t' figure out how t' stay mad at ol' Buck."
Spine stiffening, Chris looked out into the street and said in a low voice, "I was never mad at you, Buck. Not about Sarah and Adam, anyway. And I was wrong to be mad about Vin - you were just trying to help. Like always."
Buck stood and put his hand on Chris's shoulder. "Me and JD are fine. And so are me and you. Now go see Vin."
His smile faded as Chris walked off, and a shudder swept over him. The devil was still among them, but next time, nothing would keep him from sending her straight to hell.
He found Vin sitting in the dining room of the hotel, nursing what looked to be a cup of coffee while he shared conversation with Josiah. From a distance, he looked almost normal. His hair was longer than usual, his beard thicker, in an attempt, Chris suspected, to hide how much weight he'd lost. It wasn't a very successful disguise, except maybe to those who didn't know the man well.
Still, just seeing Vin engaged in some sort of normal activity settled the ache in his heart a bit. Buck was probably right, Vin wouldn't let this hold him down for long. Even if he threw up every day for the rest of his life, he'd never think to whine about it. Long as he could ride, settle himself under the stars now and then, he'd be alright.
Josiah spotted Chris first, and he made a motion to Vin. It hurt the way something in Vin's face grew still and watchful - as if he needed to prepare himself for whatever Chris might be approaching them about. Just the idea that Vin might be wary of him was so wrong, it was laughable. Except that it wasn't the least bit funny. For the thousandth time, he cursed Ella under his breath.
"Chris." Josiah greeted him first with a nod.
Chris nodded back and cut to the chase, "Josiah, you mind if I talk to Vin alone for a minute?"
"Not at all," Josiah replied, getting to his feet. But before he left, he ordered Vin, "You tell him how you feel."
Grateful for the opening, Chris sat down across from Vin and asked, "So? You wanna tell me what's goin' on in your head?"
"You wanna tell me what's goin' on in yours?" Vin shot back.
"Ella sent me another letter," Chris replied simply.
Vin sat up and his eyes flashed. "What?"
"Yeah. Ten days ago. I should have told you. My acting like an ass has nothing to do with you - well, mostly it doesn't."
Vin smirked. "Hell, Larabee, I know that. You act like an ass half the time and it's mostly never my fault."
"Mostly never, huh?" Chris clarified with a smile.
"Damn it, Chris, we've got t' go after her. I think I could ride if -"
"Whoa. Hold on, Cowboy. You're a long way from getting on a horse."
There was a long sigh as Vin let the reality of that statement settle between them. "Sure wish I could go along," he finally said wistfully.
Chris raised his brow. "You think that's what I'm here about? You think I'm leaving again?"
"Aren't you? I mean - of course you are! She's probably still in Mexico. If you and Buck leave now, you-"
"No, Vin. I'm not going after her without you. And that's my final say on the matter."
He couldn't decide by Vin's expression if he was relieved, angry, or both.
Apparently Vin couldn't decide either, because he said, "Dammit, Chris. I want you to go so bad - and I don't want you to go at all. That make any sense?"
"Split down the middle, huh?"
"Yeah, kinda like my feet are goin' in opposite directions."
"Actually Vin, it makes a whole lot of sense. And by the way, you're not staying with Josiah at the church. If you're tired of my room, we'll go out to my cabin until you're ready."
"Can't tell nobody nothin' around here, I see," Vin said with a frown. But he looked up at Chris and smiled when he added, "I reckon someone's got t' put up with your bad moods."
"Now, Vin, you know I'm mostly never in a bad mood."
Chris didn't think it was all that funny, although Vin got a good chuckle out of his statement. But Vin grew serious then and said, "We're gonna get her, and we're gonna put an end to her and her damn letters."
"You got that right, Pard," Chris agreed as he linked arms with Vin in their familiar way.
The vow went unspoken between them: they'd get her next time. It wouldn't be easy, and he and Vin would likely have more tough choices along the way. But in a life filled with cruel uncertainties, messy complications, and contradictory intentions, their friendship was one constant they could bank on.
The End - for now.