TYPE OF FANFIC: gen
MAIN CHARACTERS: Vin, Chris, Seven
RATING AND/OR WARNINGS: R, violence and language
This story was previously hosted at another website, and was moved to blackraptor in July 2011.
Ten days after their return from guiding the wagon train…
Buck walked into the saloon, his gaze sweeping over the patrons before settling on Vin, who leaned against the bar, talking softly to Inez, or rather, he realized, she was talking to the tracker, who looked more than a little unhappy.
The ladies' man glanced over at an equally unhappy lone figure seated at a corner table, his back to the wall. Buck frowned. It was a little early to be drinking, even for Chris Larabee. He walked over to the table and sat down without an invitation.
The sullen gunslinger didn't bother looking up from his shot glass, which was still full, Buck noted with some satisfaction.
The two men shared a companionable silence for a while, Wilmington watching when Vin finally turned away to leave. The tracker met Buck's eyes and touched his finger to the brim of his hat.
The big ladies' man nodded, his head cocking slightly to the side as he watched Tanner push out past the batwing doors. With a sigh he looked back to his long-time friend and asked, "Thought you and Vin made your peace on the way back ta town."
"We did," Larabee replied dully, still not looking up from the whiskey.
"Well, it sure as hell don't look like it, stud. Ya both look like ya lost your best gals."
Chris glanced up for the first time and Buck could see the anger dancing in the gunman's green eyes. He shook his head. "Sorry, Chris, poor choice of words on my part," he apologized, but Larabee jumped in.
"He's leavin' again today. You know about that?"
"Nope," Buck said and sighed softly to himself. Since their return to Four Corners, Vin had already taken two trips out of town, each of them lasting for three days. He and the other regulators assumed the tracker was using the time and distance to work through the knot his feelings had gotten tied into while escorting the wagon train to its destination, but it was clear to the ladies' man that Chris had reached a different conclusion.
"Ya think he's sneakin' off to go see her?" he asked Larabee.
Chris cast him a sharp glance and scowled. "I don't know where the fuck he's going. Ain't none of my business – or yours."
"No, it ain't, but that's what you're thinkin'."
"She's a married woman, Buck," Chris growled softly, not wanting to draw any attention their direction. "It ain't right."
Buck nodded slowly, trying not to smile. He had a long history of secret, and not-so-secret, trysts with married ladies, and Larabee was well aware of many of them. He doubted the man was really pissed that Vin might still be sparking Charlotte Richmond, although what really had the gunslinger so riled eluded him. "If it means anythin' at all, I don't think he's slippin' off to see her," he offered quietly. "He's just working his way though the hurt, that's all. She gave him the little end of the horn, Chris, even if she didn't mean to, and he knows it."
Larabee snorted and shook his head. "Tanner's no innocent, Buck," he argued.
"No, I know he's not, but he still got the raw end of that deal, and you know he did."
"What I know is: he ain't been here six days out of the last ten," was the annoyed reply.
"You sayin' he ain't been pullin' his share?" Buck asked him, wondering if that might not be what was eating at his friend.
"Do you think he is?"
Buck sighed again, this time out loud. There were times Larabee could out-stubborn a damned mule. "What I think is: we've all needed the rest of us ta pick up some of the slack while we settled our hash . . . Ain't nothin' wrong with that . . . Ya ain't soured on him, have ya?"
Chris looked up sharply, but considered the question. "No," he finally replied, glancing away. "You see how he looks?"
Buck settled back in his chair, stretching out his long legs and crossing them at the ankles. He nodded. "Like he ain't gettin' much sleep? Lost a little weight, too, I think. Hard ta tell with that damned hide coat 'a his."
"He could ask for help – wouldn't kill him," the blond grumbled, the muscles bunching at his jaw.
Buck grinned. "Hell, Chris, ain't a one of us finds that easy, an' you know it."
Chris took a deep breath and pushed the glass of whiskey toward Wilmington. Standing, he looked down at Buck like he wanted to say more, but then he turned and headed for the doors.
Buck watched him go, wondering what was really bothering his friend and wishing he knew a way to find out. There were times he regretted no longer being able to read Larabee the way Vin could. He could try talking to the tracker, but doubted he'd get anything out of the man; Tanner was as closed lipped as Larabee.
He shook his head and reached out, scooping up the shot glass. He tipped it back and swallowed the whiskey in a single gulp, grimacing as it burned a path to his belly. It would all come to a head, sooner or later, and when it did, the fur would probably fly. He just hoped Larabee didn't chase the tracker away.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Three days later
Chris sat in a chair on the boardwalk, just outside the saloon. The chair was tipped back onto the two rear legs and his hat was pulled low to shield his eyes from the late afternoon sun, but he could still see the legs of the tracker's handsome black gelding as Tanner rode past him without a word.
Vin stopped outside Potter's store and dismounted, heading inside. He returned to his horse a few minutes later and began stuffing the meager supplies he had purchased into his saddle bags.
With a half-angry, half-frustrated sigh, Chris let the chair drop forward onto all four legs, then stood and crossed the street. Vin's hand was on his saddle horn, ready to mount, when Larabee called, "Tanner."
The tracker stopped, turning to face the blond. His expression gave away nothing of what he was thinking or feeling, and that neutrality made Larabee's blood sing with frustration and mounting anger. Tanner looked like hell, his cheeks hollow, his features pale, dark smudges ringing his eyes, which were bloodshot.
"Got some news," Chris told him, trying not to sound short. "James's boys are going to be finishin' up a drive in three or four days – brought some stock over from Texas – then they'll be gettin' paid and probably heading into town. . ."
The tracker nodded. "Reckon there'll be some trouble then."
"Expect so," the gunslinger hissed, noticing how Vin seemed to be a little unsteady on his feet. Had he been drinking?
Vin seemed to think a moment, then gave a single nod. "I'll be back 'fore then."
"Why don't you stay in town," Chris suggested as reasonably as he could. "They might get done a day or so early. Maybe you ought to see Nathan – you look like shit."
"'M fine. An' I'll keep 'n eye out, come back if'n they do," Vin promised him without meeting his eyes.
Chris felt his anger flare in the pit of his stomach, but there was nothing he could do about it. He couldn't order the man to stay, and he'd asked as clearly and as nicely as he could. "Fine, have it your way," he growled and turned away, stalking back across the street.
Vin hesitated a moment, then shook his head sadly and swung into his saddle, heading north out of town, his shoulders slumped and his head down.
Chris watched him leave, wishing he had demanded Tanner stay in Four Corners, but it was the damned tracker's choice. If Vin wanted to cat around with that cunt, it was none of his damned business. But if he kept it up, Chris was going to have to do something. Vin wasn't getting paid to spark some married bitch until he made himself sick while the rest of them sat around, waiting for something to happen in town.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Two days later
Sitting with Buck out in front of the jail, Chris continued to scan the street for any sign of Vin. Up and down the dusty thoroughfare, business owners hurried to board up their windows, knowing there would, in all likelihood, be trouble when the cowboys rode into town after their long cattle drive.
"Goddamn sonuvabitch," Larabee growled, staring down the still empty street.
Buck glanced over at him. "He said he'd be here; he'll be here."
"Wouldn't count on it," Larabee replied, looking back down at the checkerboard.
The big ladies' man shook his head, but held his tongue. There was no use arguing with Chris when he was in this kind of mood. He sighed silently. Whatever trouble lay between Chris and Vin, it had forced Larabee back into his shell. And, while Buck would have been one of the first to admit he didn't understand the bond that had sprung up between the two men the moment they'd caught sight of each other, he knew it had been good for Chris – until now.
Hell, the last time he'd seen Larabee before the morning he'd fallen at the gunslinger's feet in Four Corners, the blond had been driving himself as hard and as fast as he could into an early grave. Between the hard drinking and the gunplay, the ladies' man considered it nothing less than a miracle Larabee wasn't dead already. But once Chris had hooked up with Vin, things changed, and for the better. Chris drank less, took fewer reckless chances, and he'd started to turn more introspective.
Buck wasn't sure that last was necessarily a good thing, but at least Larabee was thinking again, not just surviving on the pain that had been eating him alive from the inside out.
What it was about the tracker that had prompted the changes was a complete mystery to Buck, but that it had happened was a certainty and, as a result, Wilmington felt like he owed Tanner; owed him for saving Chris's life, in spite of Larabee's best efforts to the contrary. So now, with the tension between the two men rubbing them all raw, he wasn't sure how to proceed.
"He'll get past this, Chris," Wilmington tried again. "Things'll get back to usual in no time, you'll see."
Larabee looked up. "You finished?" he snapped.
"Yep," Buck said with a silent sigh. Damn, Larabee, sometimes you're nothing but a goddamned stubborn fool. If it was me, I'd ride out after that damned tracker and make him tell me what's got him so worked up. But not you. Oh, hell no. You're just gonna sit there and stew in your own damned juice 'til one of ya does or says something we're all gonna regret. And when that happens, I'm just gonna have to beat some sense into both of ya . . . and, God forgive me, I'm goin' to enjoy doing it. . . . hell, we all are.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Late that same day
It was well after dark when Vin rode into Four Corners and he was relieved to find the street empty, although he had more than half-expected to find Larabee sitting outside the jail, or the saloon, waiting for him, ready to demand a good reason why he'd been running away ever since they'd gotten back to town. And one of the reasons Vin was glad Larabee wasn't waiting for him was that he didn't have a good enough answer for the man.
Oh, he had an answer, just not one he thought Larabee would accept. And, he knew, Chris shouldn't. It wasn't the answer. That – damn it all to hell – had been dodging even him since they're returned.
But he damn well planned to find it for the gunslinger, and for himself, even if it took another three-day fast while he waited for the elusive visions that would explain his tangled, confused feelings. But after three tries with no luck, he had to admit that he was close to giving up. Maybe he wasn't supposed to understand it. Maybe it didn't matter. Maybe he should just forget about it and try to rebuild some of the fences that had gotten torn down since he'd met Charlotte before it was too late.
But something inside of him refused to give up. He needed to know the truth. He needed to understand what it was about that particular woman that had made him willing to toss aside the friendships that had come to mean more to him than his own life. But nothing he'd tried had brought him the visions he'd sought.
And not eating for nine of the last twelve days while he forced himself to stay awake for three days and three nights running had left him lightheaded and more than a little unsteady on his feet. He needed a few good meals and some time to sleep if he was going to be any help at all to the others when those trail rowdies rode into town. Once that was over, he would try one last time to find the answers he was seeking for himself, and for Larabee. Because without a good explanation, Vin knew his friend would never forgive him his betrayal, and he couldn't really blame the man.
The usual, fires that illuminated the street had burned down low, casting more shadows than light on his ride down the thoroughfare. He headed straight for the livery, deciding not to wake Tiny. He could take care of Peso himself, and then he'd grab a couple hours of sleep before facing Chris and the others.
He just hoped getting back a day early would smooth down some of Larabee's ruffled feathers. He'd known the blond was pissed at him the day he'd left, but he'd needed the time and the solitude for his visions to work – if they had worked. It was the only way he knew to find out and explain his feelings for Charlotte and, more importantly to him, understand why he'd hurt the men he counted among his friends. And, especially, why he'd hurt Chris Larabee.
His head bobbed and Vin jerked, cursing himself softly for almost falling asleep in the saddle. But he was tired, bone tired.
Shifting and sorting through his thoughts and feelings, many of them ones he'd hoped he'd buried many years before, was damned hard work. But he knew he owed Chris an explanation. Hell, he owed all of them an explanation, and by God he was going to find it, no matter what it took.
Not that an explanation would ever excuse him for running out on the men he had come to think of as family, he knew, but at least they deserved to understand why it had happened.
He wouldn't ask for their forgiveness; he didn't feel he deserved it, but he owed them the explanation. Then, he figured, they could decide if they wanted him to stay or to go. And whatever they decided, he'd abide by it.
Reaching the livery, he swung down lethargically and took the reins, leading Peso to his usual stall, grateful the usually cantankerous gelding had behaved himself on the ride home. He unsaddled the black and removed his bridle, then tossed hay and some grain into the feeding trough and groomed the big horse while Peso munched contentedly.
When the gelding's coat was dry and shining, and his hooves were cleaned and checked for cracks, Vin gathered his bedroll, saddlebags, and rifle and headed for his wagon. He stumbled once along the way and silently cursed himself. He should have stayed in town like Larabee had suggested the last time. The lack of food and sleep had finally caught up to him, and he might not have time to get himself back into condition. And if he couldn't, he wouldn't be much help to them when it came to the cowboys. If someone got hurt because he was too slow, or his mind too muddled, he knew he'd never forgive himself.
Yer a damned stupid fool, Tanner, he berated himself. Yer thinkin' more 'bout yer own problems 'n' not 'nough 'bout doin' what's gotta be done.
Reaching his wagon, he flung the bedroll and saddlebags inside, angry and disgusted with himself for letting his own needs get in the way of protecting his friends. "Stupid," he muttered to himself. "'M a damned stupid, stupid fool."
He set his rifle into the corner of the wagon and reached for the handle he used to pull himself up, but the soft crunch of boot heels in the dirt stopped him from actually climbing up.
"Damn, Larabee, can't this wait 'til mornin'?" he sighed tiredly.
There was no immediate reply and Vin's reactions, made sluggish from the lack of food and sleep, meant he'd lost any edge he might otherwise have had. Before he could let go, turn and draw his Mare's Leg, he heard the rush of air and felt an explosion of fiery pain erupt inside his skull. He dropped to his knees with a soft grunt.
Clasped fists pounded him hard between the shoulder blades, sending him sprawling face-first into the dusty street. Booted feet savagely kicked him, forcing him to draw up into a tight ball in order to protect himself. Finally, one boot tip caught him behind the ear and the world exploded into shards of white-hot agony and blinding yellow stars before everything went dark and still.
Vin's last thoughts were of the men he'd come back to help protect, and their black-clad leader. And he knew he'd just let them all down – again.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The next day
Chris stood on the boardwalk outside the saloon, the muscles in his jaw twitching. With his hands on his hips, the man in black looked angry and dangerous, and the men and women who passed by him did so with their gazes averted and as quickly as they could possibly manage. No one dared utter a single word to the man. But Chris was oblivious to the nervous townsfolk; he was waiting for Tanner.
Josiah, walking up from the church, saw Larabee's stony expression and sighed softly. He paused when he reached the blond, asking as casually as he could manage, "Any sign?"
"No," Chris replied, knowing Sanchez was asking about Vin and not the anticipated drovers.
"He mentioned he was riding out to Apache Creek. . ."
Chris flashed the former preacher an angry glare. "You suggesting I ride out there and ask him to come back?"
"Wouldn't think of it, brother," Josiah replied quickly, his hands coming up in a gesture of capitulation. "Just think this is unlike Vin, don't you?"
"Yeah?" Chris questioned, his voice laced with more than a little sarcasm. "If you ask me, Vin hasn't been acting much like Vin for a while now." Larabee turned on his boot heel and stalked off, disappearing into the saloon.
Josiah shook his head. He had seen the concern, hidden behind the anger in the man's eyes and despite what Chris said he knew their leader was worried about the tracker. Hell, they all were. Vin hadn't looked well the last time they had seen him and he'd definitely withdrawn from their company since that trip with the settlers. He glanced up and down the street, wishing Tanner would make an appearance. They were going to sorely miss the cover the sharpshooter always provided from the rooftops if he didn't make it back before the cowboys arrived.
Josiah smiled to himself and shook his head, remembering the times he'd seen Vin running fearlessly over the rooftops, firing his rifle or his Mare's Leg as he went. It was an amazing sight to see, especially when Tanner leaped across the open spaces between the buildings like he thought he had wings. An avenging angel couldn't look more deadly, or more welcome to the men who counted on him to watch their backs from on high.
"Man's part hawk, Lord," the preacher mumbled to himself, continuing on into the saloon to break his fast with the others. They would need to plan some strategy for when the drovers arrived. He just hoped that whatever was troubling Vin, he worked his way through it, and soon. They needed him.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The same morning
Vin gasped and jerked violently when the bucketful of water struck him full in the face. He choked and coughed and shook his head, blinking rapidly to try and clear his vision but, before he could, someone grabbed his hair and jerked his head back roughly, sending stabs of red-hot agony slicing though his skull and making his stomach churn dangerously.
He tried to fight the rough treatment, but his arms were tied – open wide and pulled up slightly over his head. And, although he was resting on his knees instead of standing on his feet, a few quick jerks told him his ankles had been tied together and bound to a stake driven into the ground behind him. He was also stripped of clothes and weapons, helpless before him tormentors.
Ah hell, he moaned silently, wondering what part of his past had finally caught up to him this time.
He saw the flash of sunlight on a knife, then felt the cold blade pressing against his exposed neck. "What th' hell d' y' want?" he rasped, blinking to clear the water still dripping into his eyes. He heard two men chuckle.
The one holding the tracker's hair shoved Vin's head forward forcefully as he released him, sending another flash of pure agony slashing through the sharpshooter's skull. Vin moaned softly in spite of his best efforts not to. He glowered up at the big man.
"Ya r'member us, bounty hunter?" the smaller of the pair asked, stepping up closer to the tracker, his face just inches from Vin's.
Tanner squinted at the man for a moment, the smell of his foul breath nearly making the tracker gag, then he growled lowly, "Met a couple 'a mangy fice dawgs like y' over in Silver City couple 'a years back. . ."
The older, larger man stepped forward and slapped Vin hard across the face. "Y' can do better 'n that, ya little bastard."
The tracker spat out the blood that filled his mouth. It landed on the big man's boots.
"You're gonna pay for that, y' sonuvabitch," he snarled. He kneed Vin hard in the stomach, making the tracker retch. "I'll tell y' who we are, boy. We're kin of Eli Joe's. Cousins. But he was more like a brother t' the two of us. We heard what y' did t' him, you an' that damn pack a dawgs yer runnin' with now."
"Earned it," Vin wheezed, lifting his chin defiantly. "Killed an innocent man, framed me fer it jus' t' throw me off his scent."
The smaller of the two men laughed, saying, "Hell, we know 'bout that, y' damned fool. We was there when he done it. But he's our kin, and we come t' take a life fer a life."
"But y' ain't gonna go quick, y' bastard, not like Eli Joe," the big man growled menacingly. "You're gonna die slow, Tanner . . . real slow." He kneed Vin again, doubling the tracker over as far as the restraints would allow, and then punching him in the face, snapping Vin's head back and splattering blood across the ground.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The following day
The quiet of late morning was broken by the wild whoops of the drovers as they descended upon Four Corners at a full gallop, their horses kicking up clouds of dust and sending the few townsfolk still out on the street scurrying for the safety of their homes and businesses.
Chris and the others remained where they were, their guns and rifles plainly visible to the rambunctious men, who pulled up their mounts outside the two saloons.
"You come for a drink and some poker, you can get off your horses," Chris told them, standing between the Standish Tavern and Digger Dave's, his thumbs tucked under his gunbelt. "You come for trouble, gonna get more than you bargained for."
"Don't want no trouble, Larabee," one of the men snarled. "Just some whiskey and a little fun – been a long drive."
"Well, if it's whiskey and entertainment you're seeking, you've come to the right place, gentlemen," Ezra said, his gold tooth flashing as he gestured toward the Standish Tavern. "Please, do come in."
The cowboys dismounted, tied their horses to hitching posts and headed into the saloons, shooting the regulators sour looks as they passed.
"Well, that went much easier than I expected," Josiah rumbled softly from where he leaned against the side of the hardware store.
"Just you wait 'til them boys get liquored up," Nathan warned the former preacher. "Then things'll change. Believe me, I know. Least they ain't got no wounded with 'em this time. . ."
"Count on things changin'," Chris said, casting a glance up at the empty rooftops. "Josiah, you and Nathan are out here, but stay close; keep an eye on these cowboys. Buck, take JD and move their horses down to the livery corral."
"And I believe I will help the lovely Inez serve these, uh . . . paying customers," Ezra said before Larabee could find something else for him to do.
Chris nodded. "Ezra," he called before the gambler could step inside. "Watch your back," he cautioned.
"Oh, I plan to, Mr. Larabee," he said, grinning. "While making a killing at the poker table."
"What're you goin' ta do?" Buck asked Chris.
"Watch Ezra's back – for the moment."
Wilmington nodded, wondering how long their luck would hold.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Later that day
No one was exactly sure when the trouble started, or how, but it spread like a grass fire in front of a strong wind. Fights broke out in both saloons, knives flashed, guns were fired, and more than a few pieces of furniture were reduced to kindling.
The six peacekeepers did their best to contain the damage to the two saloons, but the chaos spilled out onto the boardwalk and into the streets.
The townsfolk, lulled by the fact that the drovers were behaving themselves, and were contained inside the saloons, had ventured out from hiding, picking up with their lives. Many found themselves caught up in the raucous fights that broke along the boardwalks and in the street.
Nathan and Josiah managed to round up four drovers toting pieces of burning wood they had pulled from the street fires. They were headed for Miss Maggie's, determined to see the girls – all of them – or burn them out.
"You know what the wages of sin are, don't you, son?" Josiah asked, clouting one of the men on the back of his head as he escorted him to the jail.
Buck and JD broke up several fights, then disarmed three cowboys who had started shooting at the various business signs, although not before the Gem Hotel's placard had been utterly destroyed.
Ezra got the drop on the two trailhands responsible for most of the damage to the Standish Tavern, and Chris drew down on another three who had cornered Mary after she had come out of the Clarion office to stop the men from harassing the new dressmaker, a widow who didn't understand what was happening, or the danger she was in, getting caught out alone on her way from the dress shop to the boarding house.
The regulators forced all of their prisoners to the jail and locked them up, which set off the rest of the hands, who were determined to free their friends. The resulting gun-battle left two of the remaining cowboys wounded – "Just winged, you'll live," Nathan told them – and the rest crammed into cells along with the others.
Buck grinned and shook his head when it was finally over, just past midnight, saying, "Hell, ain't seen it this crowded in here in a long spell!"
"What're we gonna do with all of 'em?" JD asked, looking more than a little worried. The cells were all packed full of grumbling, hungover men.
"Pick one of 'em who ain't so drunk he can't still sit a horse and send 'im back to James. Tell that old man if he wants his hands back, he's gonna have to pay for the trouble they've caused," Chris said, reloading his Colt. He looked up. "It's that or we just shoot the lot of 'em where they stand."
The men in the cells instantly fell silent.
Ezra smiled. "I would be more than happy to calculate the damages incurred by the hard-working business owners of Four Corners, myself among them," he volunteered graciously.
"Means he gonna hitch the price up, high as he can," Nathan mumbled, teasing the gambler.
Ezra flashed the healer a smile, replying, "Why, Mr. Jackson, you wound me."
"Not as much as you're gonna wound ol' Stewart James's pocketbook," Buck added, poking the gambler in the ribs with his elbow.
"We're just lucky it didn't turn ugly," Larabee said, slipping his Colt back into his holster.
"Amen to that, brother," Josiah concluded, walking over to the cells to find the messenger among the inebriated cowboys.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The next day
Seated around the largest undamaged table in the saloon, the six peacekeepers ate their breakfast in strained Gazes were exchanged across the table, and from man to man, but no one dared raise the question haunting all of their thoughts: Where was Vin Tanner?
Finally, Buck sighed, set his fork down and asked, "Chris, don't ya think we should go lookin' for Vin? It's been four days since he left the last time. He's been back after three ever' other time before. Just not like him to miss a fight."
Larabee looked up from his plate, meeting Wilmington's eyes. "The man's made his choices, Buck."
The big ladies' man frowned. "We don't know that, Chris. He might've got himself hurt, or–" The look Larabee gave him stopped Wilmington cold.
"Brother Buck's right," Josiah said softly, taking up the fight for their missing member without meeting Larabee's flashing green eyes. "Just ain't like Vin to run out on us when he knew there was trouble comin'."
"We could split up, check some of his usual spots," Nathan suggested without looking up from his plate. "Wouldn't take too long."
JD nodded enthusiastically. He was sitting next to Larabee – Vin's empty chair on the other side of the gunslinger – and he didn't quite dare put voice his agreement, being in such close proximity to the explosive man in black.
"He knew when those drovers were goin' to be here," Chris snapped at the group. "Leave him be. He needs his privacy that bad, we ought to give it to him." And with that he pushed his chair back and, leaving the majority of his breakfast on his plate, stood and left the saloon.
"Think we should do what he says?" Nathan asked the others when the batwings doors swung shut again.
Ezra, who had wisely remained silent during the exchange, leaned forward, saying, "Perhaps we should leave Mr. Larabee to watch over this godforsaken excuse for a town and go searching for our wayward tracker on our own."
Buck leaned back in his chair. "Chris's got a point, boys. Vin knew when them drovers were due in town."
"Which is why we should go lookin' for him," JD argued. "Vin's never let any of us down, not when he knew we needed him."
Buck met the young man's gaze. "Except out there on that wagon train when he let us all down, runnin' off with that woman and leaving us ta face Dickey O'Shea and his boys without him. Ain't a man at this table can say they weren't a little hurt or mad 'bout that."
JD looked away, unable to argue; it was true.
Buck cursed softly and pushed back from the table. He folded his arms over his chest and sighed loudly. "Vin was wrong, runnin' off like that, and Chris took it hard," he said, his words meant for all of them. "I figure Vin had his reasons, and maybe he'll get around to tellin' us what they were one of these days. But I also figure Chris has got a reason to be mad." He paused and shook his head. "But this just don't feel right. Tell ya what, if Vin ain't back by tomorrow, we'll go lookin' for him, with or without Chris."
The others nodded their agreement.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Leaving the saloon, Chris crossed the street, heading for the jail. His stomach churned and he gritted his teeth, trying to push the anger away.
Reaching the jail, he sat down on the chair sitting outside and sighed heavily. His gut and his head were telling him, loudly and clearly, that they needed to go find Vin – now – but his head refused to listen. Worry and anger warred in his soul and, against his better judgment, he let the anger win.
"Damn you, Tanner," he hissed softly, already regretting it.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The same day
Vin slumped forward, oblivious to the pain that scorched through his shoulders as they were forced to bear the majority of his weight. Not for the first time since he'd been captured, the tracker was grateful he was on his knees. He knew his legs wouldn't be able to support him any longer if he'd been standing. The flogging had been excruciatingly painful, but at least it hadn't done much real damage to his sunburned back. Sweat dripped into his eyes, making them burn, and he longed for some water, but he knew he couldn't expect any from the two men who tortured him.
He distracted himself from the pain by worrying about the other peacekeepers. The drovers should have arrived the day before, and there was no telling what kind of damage they might have inflicted on Four Corners, or on the six men left there to defend it – alone.
But what worried him the most was Larabee. Given the mood the man had been in the last time he'd seen him, Chris had probably assumed that Vin had run out on them, again. And it felt like he had to Tanner as well.
Stupid, he rebuked himself, damn stupid fool, lettin' myself get caught like some no account greenhorn.
"Looks like he's comin' 'round, Lyman," the tracker heard the smaller man say.
"'Bout damned time."
Then Vin felt the tip of a smoldering stick being pressed against the bare skin of his lower back. He howled and struggled, but there was no escape from the pain. No escape except the oblivion of unconsciousness, and he prayed to every god and spirit he knew to take him to that place, but none seemed to be listening.
Served him right, he figured.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The next morning
Chris heard them coming before he saw them. He had been expecting something like this and, if he was honest with himself, he was surprised it had taken them this long. And, if he was being completely honest, he was getting more than a little worried himself.
They stopped in the street, in front of the jail, Buck swinging down out of his saddle and stepping up onto the boardwalk, no doubt to try and talk some sense into him.
"You're not gonna find him," Larabee said from under the brim of his hat. "Not if he don't want to be found."
"Maybe. But we've gotta look, Chris, and you know it well as I do. This just ain't right," the ladies' man said, his tone somewhere between reasonable and pleading.
The gunslinger sighed softly. Buck was right, and he did know it. They should have started looking yesterday. His gut had said so, but he'd ignored it, somehow thinking he was punishing the tracker for the hurt he'd done him. Now, however, the gunslinger wondered if he'd only been punishing himself for not confronting Tanner and clearing the air between them.
Larabee sighed again, heavier this time, and nodded. "All right. I'll get my horse."
Buck grinned, casting an "I told you so" look over his shoulder at the rest of the regulators. "Figured you'd see it that way, pard. He's ready and waiting for ya at the livery."
"Thanks," Chris said, sharing the ghost of a smile with his long-time friend. Larabee could be a stubborn, pig-headed man, and he knew it. He just hoped it wasn't going to cost him his friendship with Vin. He'd had a bad feeling about the tracker for the past two days, but he'd been too angry to listen to it. Now it flared in his gut, making it hard for him to breathe as he walked down to the livery.
The others waited while Chris got his horse, then they headed out of town, breaking off in pairs to check Vin's most common camps close to town. When each pair came up empty, they fired off a pair of shots into the air to let the others know.
By mid-day six shots had echoed over the desert landscape and they all knew finding the tracker wasn't going to be as easy as they had hoped it would be. Vin wasn't at any of his usual places.
Having agreed to meet back in town once they'd checked their spots, the six men all turned back to Four Corners, their worry climbing steadily as they rode for home.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The same day
"Damn, Lyman, I think y' killed 'im!"
"Naw, he ain't dead – yet. He's jus' playin' possum."
Vin slumped against the restraints, holding himself as still as he could and hoping he could keep them away from him for just a little while longer. He was actually surprised to find himself awake again after the last beating, sure that they'd finally killed him when he'd passed out.
They were inventive, he had to give them that much. They'd showed him more ways to pain than he'd thought possible for a pair of white men who hadn't spent time living in the Comanche camps. It looked like some of the more southern tribes had taught them almost as well as the People had taught him. But he was far past caring what they would come up with next. All he wanted to do was survive long enough to be found. But a nagging voice kept whispering that no one was coming this time. He was on his own, just like he'd always been.
His friends had abandoned him, just like he had abandoned them. And it was his own damn fault.
He was alone, because, if they were coming, they would've found him by now. He'd left enough signs that even JD should've been able to find him.
They weren't coming, and he was going to die – very slowly and very painfully.
But it was nothing more than what he deserved. He had let them down – his friends, his family – and now he was reaping his just reward. Any or all of his friends could already be dead or dying because he'd allowed himself to get caught. He'd run out on them once, and he hadn't been there to help them with the drovers.
He deserved whatever these two could dish out.
But when the pain came again, as he knew it would, he still prayed that they came for him, found him – and the sooner the better.
But he no longer believed his prayers would be answered.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The same day
As Chris and Ezra passed Vin's wagon on the way back into town, the gambler commented, "At least Mr. Tanner's rolling abode is still here, and his mule is still in the livery. He must still be planning to return at some future time."
Chris nodded, but he didn't bother with a reply. He was scared. More scared than he had been since he'd seen the gray tendrils of smoke rising over his homestead years earlier. Vin was in trouble and he had no way of finding the tracker.
Ezra pulled up his gelding. "You don't think Mr. Tanner might have left us some clue as to his whereabouts within his wagon, do you?"
Chris glanced over at the man, a small smile lifting some of the worry from his expression. "Ezra, every once in a while you have a damned fine idea."
The gambler flashed his gold tooth, replying, "I do at that, Mr. Larabee, I do at that." They turned their horses and approached the wagon. Ezra frowned. "Although, I find I must confess, I have no idea what we should look for."
"I do," Chris said, swinging down from his gelding and pulling back the canvas flap to get a look inside the wagon Vin called "home." And what he saw turned his guts icy with fear. Damn, he cursed silent. We were fools! Why didn't we look here first?
Vin's holster and Mare's Leg lay on the bed of the wagon, along with his bedroll and saddlebags. And his rifle was leaning in the corner. "Peso wasn't in the livery, right?" Chris asked, sure he would have noticed if the big black had been there earlier.
"No," Ezra replied. "Mr. Wilmington checked, and that cantankerous excuse for a horse was gone, along with Mr. Tanner's tack."
"Vin wouldn't go anywhere without his guns," Chris snarled. "Not willingly, anyway. He was here," he said aloud, his tone a self-chastising groan. "And probably before those drovers showed up."
"Come on," Chris snapped, "we have to find the others."
They mounted and hurried the rest of the way into town, finding the others at the livery.
"Nope, that don't make sense," Buck agreed when Chris told them what he and Ezra had found in Vin's wagon. "Someone must've grabbed him when he got back."
"Damn," Larabee hissed, shaking his head.
The big ladies' man reached out and squeezed his friend's shoulder. "It ain't your fault, Chris. We all thought he was just– Well, Vin ain't been himself since that wagon train trip."
Larabee shot Wilmington a cold glare, but he didn't say anything.
"What're we gonna do?" JD asked Chris.
"It's gettin' dark," the blond replied. "Tomorrow we see if we can pick up a trail. If someone has Vin, he'll find a way to leave signs for us to follow." It was the best they could do, and as much as he didn't want to wait, he knew they didn't have a choice now.
* ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The next day, a Sunday morning
"Damn it, Tom, ain't y' finished yet?" the big man asked his brother.
"Hell, Lyman, why ya makin' me do all the work? Ya could come down here and help me; get done faster that way."
"I didn't ask for yer lip, damn it, I asked if y' were done!"
"Well, it ain't deep, but it's deep enough t' bury his sorry carcass," was the reply as the man tossed his shovel aside and stepped out of the shallow grave.
The two men walked over to where Vin lay on the ground, his naked, battered body still and unmoving.
"Think he's dead?" Tom asked, nudging Tanner's shoulder with the tip of his boot.
"Don't make no never mind t' me," Lyman replied, reaching down to grab the bloody tracker by an arm, dragging him over to the edge of the shallow grave. He used his foot to roll Vin over into the hole, the tracker landing face down at the bottom with a soft moan.
The big man walked over and picked up the discarded shovel, then started tossing piles of dirt into the hole as Vin struggled to make it to his hands and knees.
"Help me, damn it!" Lymon snapped.
Tom looked at his older brother, his eyes wide and his face slightly pale. "But he's alive."
"I said help me, damn you!" Lymon snapped harshly and his brother began pushing in more of the loose earth with his hands.
Vin dropped, unable to bear the weight of the dirt on his back, and lay still.
When they finished, the two brothers mounted their horses and, taking Peso, rode out of the bloody camp without looking back.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin regained consciousness slowly. He hurt, everywhere, and it was hard to breathe. The musky smell of dirt filled his nostrils and he opened his eyes to darkness. A heavy weight on his back kept him from rising and he tried to turn his head, but couldn't even manage that.
Then he realized where he was, and why he couldn't breathe.
Buried. He was buried alive.
A surge of mindless panic raced through his veins, taking control of his body and forcing him to push himself up like some raging animal. He broke though the surface of the loose ground and gasped in a breath of live-giving air. Then he saw them: Eli Joe's cousins, riding off.
He dropped back onto the dirt and waited until they were out of sight before he crawled free of his grave and lay on the hard ground, panting for breath.
He shivered, more from fear than cold, as he forced himself onto his feet. He swayed and staggered drunkenly as the landscape titled violently around him. He closed his eyes for a moment and then opened them again, finding the world looking more or less like normal.
Naked, he took a moment to check the camp in case they had left his clothes behind, but they had taken even those with them.
Glancing around, trying to get his bearings, he wished for water and something to cover himself with, but there was none and nothing. He turned to the only thing he had. Kneeling in the circle of sweat- and blood-dampened dirt, he scooped up handfuls, smearing it over as much of his exposed skin as he could reach. Then, determining where he was by landmarks along the horizons, he turned west and took his first steps toward Four Corners – toward home.
As he stumbled along, his feet slowly bruising and then beginning to bleed as rocks and cactus thorns cut into his soles, he thought about Chris, hoping the man eventually found his body. He wanted Larabee to know he hadn't run out on him a second time. It was important to him Larabee knew that, more important than getting back to town alive, but he would try. He owed Larabee that much.
Tanner set his mind to the task of keeping his feet moving. Nothing else mattered – not pain, not thirst, not the late winter sun, shining down on his naked body, weak, but still powerful enough to turn his exposed skin a brilliant red.
And he kept walking through daylight and dark, one painful step after another, each one carrying him a little bit closer to home.
The tracker finally stumbled to a stop at the top of a short rise, out of breath and shaking so hard he could barely stay on his feet. He gazed out into the distance for the first time in many hours and, on the edge of the horizon, could just make out the tallest buildings in Four Corners in the glow of the sunrise.
The ghost of a smile tugged at the corners of his cracked and bleeding lips and he heaved a soft sigh. It wasn't far now.
It took him a moment, but he finally managed to convince his body to take another step forward. But his trembling legs could no longer support his weight and he fell to the ground, tumbling down the slope and landing in a shallow wash with an anguished, defeated cry.
Three times he tried to pull himself up, and three times his body refused to obey. His fist weakly pounded the dirt. Ah, hell, I ain't gonna make it. Damn . . . 'm sorry, Chris. I tried . . . I really tried, 'm jus' too damned weak . . . 'm sorry, pard. . .
And then he saw her, young and beautiful, just like he remembered. She reached out to him, smiling, but her eyes were so sad, also just like he remembered.
He knew then that he was dying. There was no other explanation. But he was close, so close to home, he couldn't die, not now. Not before Larabee knew the truth. He finally had his long-sought answer, but he didn't think he'd ever get the chance to tell Chris, and that, more than anything Eli Joe's kin had done to him, made him hurt, deep inside.
He looked up into her sad black eyes. "Please, Little Deer . . . don't take me . . . not yet," he begged her. "Please . . . I got . . . t' set things right . . . with Chris . . . please." Please.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris and the others started at Vin's wagon, Buck finding the scuff mark from the tracker's boot heel near one of the rear wheels. There was another just like it in the livery, near the wall where Vin usually kept his tack. Both marks ran east-west, the narrow end pointed toward the east. They rode out of town, heading east.
The morning passed, the six men finding an occasional sign left by the tracker. But then mid-day came and went, and the signs stopped and they had nothing to tell them if they were still headed in the right direction.
"Maybe whoever has him knocked him unconscious," Nathan ventured when they stopped to rest their horses.
"Maybe," Chris said, knowing it could just as easily be that whoever had taken Vin had simply killed the tracker. Or they could have missed a sign, telling them to take another direction, but he didn't think so.
"We should split up," Buck said. "We can cover more ground, and we don't know if we're headed in the right way anymore."
"Hey, over here!"
The men turned, finding JD kneeling, studying something on the ground.
"What d'ya got, JD?" Buck asked the young man, hurrying over to join him.
"Another of those scuff marks," he said, "and lots of hoofprints."
The others went over. "They must've made camp here," Chris said, looking down at the marks and wishing he had even half the tracker's skill at reading signs. But at least one thing was clear to Larabee. "They're still headed east . . . probably taking him back to Tascosa to collect on that five hundred dollar reward." He glanced around at the others. "If they're headed east, then the next good campsite would be around . . . Mule Creek?"
Nathan, Buck, and Josiah all nodded.
"We could make that by nightfall, if we push the horses," Buck said, seeing the fear Larabee was trying hard to hide.
Chris nodded. "We'll push 'em." He didn't know how he knew it, but he was sure they had to hurry; Vin's life depended on it.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Later that day
"Good Lord in Heaven, what in hell did they do to him?" Buck whispered as he peered around at the camp they had found just north of Mule Creek. Blood was soaked into the ground between two trees, and two blood-stained leather thongs still hung around the narrow trunks. A stake was set securely into the ground, which had been badly scraped up.
"He put up one helluva fight," Nathan said softly.
"Chris!" Josiah called, his deep voice breaking uncharacteristically.
The others hurried over to where the former preacher stood next to what could only be a shallow grave.
"Ohmygod," JD gasped, turning away abruptly before he got sick. Buck stayed with the young sheriff, but the others joined Josiah.
Larabee approached the pile of loose dirt like it was a rattlesnake, poised to strike. It was clearly a grave, but the pile of dirt had been . . . disturbed.
"Scavengers?" Ezra asked, swallowing hard as he imagined coyotes digging up the recently deceased body of their friend and dragging him off to feast on.
Chris frowned. "I don't think so," he said watching as Josiah knelt and dug into the loose earth, searching for a body.
Nathan started searching around the grave. "Here," he called a few moment s later. "Look's like he's walkin' . . . an' he's bleedin'."
"What? Who?" JD asked, turning an even lighter shade of gray as he approached, Buck at his side, a hand on his shoulder in a welcomed show of support.
"I knew Vin could whip his weight in wildcats, but damn, this. . ." The big ladies' man shook his head.
"Would someone care to enlighten me as to what we're talking about?" Ezra asked, sounding more than a little frustrated by the incomprehensible conversation.
"Looks like Vin dug his way out of his own grave," Chris said, his voice tight with worry and guilt, and more than a little admiration.
JD gasped. "What? How? I mean–"
"The grave's empty," Josiah said.
"They must've buried him alive," Nathan told the youngest member of their group. "And from the looks of this blood trail, he's headed back to Four Corners."
"We ride," Chris said, turning to get his horse.
"Chris, it's damn near dark," Buck argued, grabbing the blond's arm to stop him from mounting.
"He ain't goin' far," Chris said softly, his eyes pleading with Buck to back him up on this one.
Nathan stood and shook his head. "This blood's already hard, Chris; got to be several hours old."
"We'll have a better chance of findin' him come daylight," Buck said softly, his worried gaze begging Chris to be reasonable. "We go out there now, we could ride right past him and not even see him, pard."
Larabee cursed softly, anger nearly closing his throat, but he nodded. "All right, but tomorrow Nathan and I are goin' after Vin. The rest of you find the men who did this. And I want 'em brought back to Four Corners, alive. I've got plans for 'em."
Buck nodded his agreement, the others doing the same.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The next day
The six men were up before sunrise and ready to ride as soon as there was light enough for them to see the trails they needed to follow. Buck led the others off to the east, Chris and Nathan heading west.
The blood trail the two men followed, which grew even easier to see once the tracker's feet began to bleed, allowed them to cover the ground at a fast lope. And they followed the unwavering path as it proceeded unerringly back toward Four Corners over the course of the morning.
And, with each mile closer to home, Chris cursed himself again for not looking for the tracker sooner. If Vin died, it would be his fault, as surely as if he'd put a gun to the man's head and pulled the trigger himself.
But what haunted him the most was why he hadn't gone looking for the tracker sooner: pride – simple, arrogant pride.
He'd been angry that Vin could cast aside their friendship so easily. And for what, a married woman?
No, he corrected himself. For love. And love was never easy. It was complicated and dear, something he knew better than many men.
Pulling himself from the increasingly depressing thoughts that were quickly turning toward his other losses, Chris knew they would soon see the small community of Four Corners appear on the horizon. How in Heaven's name had Vin managed to get this far?
"Man's got more grit than ten others put t'gether," Nathan said softly, and Chris realized he must have asked the question out loud. "Bone, muscle an' grit . . . held t'gether by pure mule-headed stubbornness."
Chris allowed himself a small smile. It was true, too true, sometimes. He just hoped this was one of them.
Then, in front of them, a small rise appeared and they followed the blood trail to the top where it suddenly stopped. Both men scanned the bottom of the elevation.
"There!" Nathan cried, urging his gelding down the slope to the wash below where Vin lay sprawled on the ground.
Chris tried to start his horse forward as well, but he was unable to urge the black into motion. He stared at the unmoving man, his skin sunburned where it wasn't covered with bruises, dirt or blood, and knew the tracker had given all he had to get back home; to get back to him.
Nathan jumped down from his horse and scrambled over to Vin. With trembling fingers he reached out and felt along the man's neck, searching for a heartbeat. "I don't know how, but he's alive!" the healer called up to Larabee, his voice breaking.
The words lanced through Chris like knives, cutting the invisible bonds that had held him motionless and he gigged the gelding's flanks, the animal hurrying to the bottom of the rise. The blond was off his horse before the gelding stopped moving.
"I don't know how, but he's alive," Nathan repeated, shaking his head, his hands gently touching the tracker's back, arm, shoulder, head.
Larabee reached out, gently touching the tracker's shoulder as well. "Hell! His skin feels like hot ice," he hissed, jerking his hand away from the unnatural sensation.
"Cool night last night, got ta get him warmed up," Nathan agreed, nodding. "Start me a fire, and grab both our bedrolls. Do it quick."
Chris nodded and hurried to carry out the healer's instructions. While he worked, Nathan examined Vin, trying to determine the extent of his many injuries. "Damn, feels like he's got a couple 'a busted ribs," the healer muttered aloud. "Bruises all over . . . burned some, too . . . he took a helluva beatin' . . . and a good hit t' the head, too . . . damn, some of these cuts are infected pretty bad. . ."
"Bedrolls are ready," Chris interrupted the stomach-churning litany.
"Help me lift him up and turn him over, but go easy. He wakes up and starts ta fight us, them ribs might stab his lung."
Chris nodded, his hands starting to shake before he even reached for the tracker.
Together they carefully lifted Vin, turned him, and laid him on the bedrolls. Chris shivered when there was no reaction from Tanner at all. "Nathan?" he asked hoarsely, fear making his heart pound so hard he wasn't sure he could hear the healer's answer.
"I'll do all I can," he promised him, checking injuries on the man's chest.
Larabee went back to work, building up the small fire he'd already started while Nathan moved to the tracker's feet.
Larabee looked over sharply. "What?"
"His feet are a real mess," the healer said, shaking his head. "Got a helluva sunburn, too . . . wrists and ankles are all torn up. . ."
"What next?" Chris asked him when the fire was burning well.
Nathan looked up at the gunslinger and saw the fear in the man's eyes. He knew he had to give Larabee something to do. "Sit two of the canteens close to the fire and warm me up some water. I want ta get him washed up so I can see these wounds better. Some are gonna need ta be cleaned out and stitched befo' the infection gets worse."
Larabee nodded and went back to work, setting the canteen close to the flames, then gathering up more fuel for the fire from the stunted trees scattered along the edge of the wash.
Nathan hurried to his horse and untied his saddlebags, carrying them over to Vin and sitting down on the ground next to the injured man. Digging into the pouches, he removed bandages, ointment, powders and other items.
Once the water warmed, Chris and Nathan gently and thoroughly washed the dirt off Vin's skin, which they found was covered by welts, bruises, cuts, and several burn marks. Nathan treated the worst of the cuts and burns, then bandaged them. Next he bound the man's ribs, saving his feet for last.
After carefully cleaning and debriding the tracker's soles, Nathan treated them with carbolic and wrapped them in bandages. As the healer worked, Vin moaned softly, trying weakly to fight him, but that stopped as soon as Chris began talking to the unconscious man, his hand resting gently on Vin's shoulder as he spoke.
"Can we get him into town?" Larabee asked the healer when Nathan finished and sat back on his heels.
"Not 'til he warms and gets some color back."
Larabee glanced up at the sky. They had found Vin a couple hours after noon, but that had been several hours ago and it was already going on dark. And, with the darkness, the temperatures would surely fall.
"I know it ain't the best, but it's better 'n him turnin' cold and dyin' on us," Nathan said. "I'll build up a couple mo' small fires 'round him so we can keep him warm though the night. If that don't work, we'll use our bodies. I'm hoping he'll wake up an' take some water and medicine once he's warmed up some."
Chris nodded, staring out at the distant outline of Four Corners – so close, and yet so impossibly far away. Then, glancing back at the healer, he swallowed hard and asked, "Will he live?"
"Don't know," Nathan answered softly. "He took a helluva beating–"
"This was more than a beating," Chris interrupted, his voice cold with fury.
Nathan nodded. "Yeah . . . yeah, it was . . . and he's been out in the sun and the cold fo' a few days; probably ain't had much ta eat or drink . . . I'd be lyin' if I didn't tell ya he's in a bad way, Chris, I can't say no different, but he ain't got a bad fever yet, and his lungs still sound clear; that's in his favor. If he wakes up and takes some water an' herbs, that'll help, too. We got to get some water into him quick."
Chris nodded, willing to grasp whatever thread of hope the healer could give him.
"I'll tell ya this, too," Nathan added. "We're gonna have ta build us a travois, rig it up so we can carry it 'tween the horses t' keep him from gettin' bumped along on the ground."
"He can ride with me," Chris offered.
"Thought 'bout that, and it might come to it, but it'll be best if we can keep him lyin' down flat; keep the blood from poolin' in his feet and hurtin' him like hellfire the way they's all torn up."
"We'll build the litter then," Larabee stated determinedly. "What do you want me to do?"
"Ain't nothing ta do now 'cept wait. I'm gonna mix up some herbs, then we'll see if we can't get him to drink some down."
Larabee found as comfortable a position as he could next to the injured man and began his vigil. You have to live, he silently told the tracker. I want the chance to set things right between us. You die on me now– . . . Just don't do it, Vin. Please. You're stronger than any man I've ever met, you can beat this . . . you have to.
He reached out and brushed his knuckles over the tracker's stubble-covered cheek. The skin below his touch was still oddly hot and cold at the same time, but the cold wasn't as icy as it had been earlier, and there was a slight flush of color on the man's cheeks now that wasn't due to the sunburn.
"You just rest, pard," Chris told Vin softly. "We'll get you home. I promise you that."
Vin stirred restlessly under the blankets, but he didn't open his eyes.
"Let's see if he'll take a little water from ya," Nathan said, handing Chris a cup. "Just a few sips will help him."
Larabee set the cup down, then cradled the back of Vin's head and gently lifted him up. With Nathan's help they positioned Vin so he was leaning against Chris's chest. That done, Larabee reached for the cup and pressed it to the man's lips, saying, "Come on, Vin, take a little water."
The tracker jerked slightly and moaned, trying to turn his head away.
Chris tipped the cup up, letting a little of the liquid dribble into Vin's mouth. Most of it ran right back over his lips, but he swallowed some of it as well. That seemed to bring the tracker around a little and, while he didn't open his eyes, he moaned softly, sucking the drops off the lip of the tin cup.
Chris kept tilting tiny amounts of water into the injured man's mouth until Vin had finished off the entire cup of water, then, with Nathan's help, he lowered him back down again and tucked the blankets up around his shoulders.
Taking up his vigil again, Chris bowed his head and silently prayed for the first time in nearly four years.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The same afternoon
"What kind of a man buries someone alive?" JD asked softly, breaking the silence the four men had ridden in for most of the day.
"The worst kind," Buck replied, his tone cold.
"I can't believe Vin's ever done anything that would. . ." JD trailed off, not sure what it was he wanted to say.
"Sometimes a man doesn't have to do evil to have evil visited on him, son," Josiah said, his deep voice soft.
"What do you think Chris is gonna do to these men when we catch 'em?" JD asked the others.
"I believe we're better off not knowing the answer to that particular question," Ezra offered.
"Prob'ly right," Buck replied, the touch of a feral grin on his lips. "But God help 'em if Chris and Nathan find Vin dead . . . God help us all," he added quietly.
"It's gettin' on to sunset," Josiah cut in, not wanting the conversation to take that turn for fear it might become true. "We should think about finding a camp for the night."
"I do not believe that will be necessary, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra said, pulling his gelding up and gesturing toward a small stand of trees. Between the trunks they could just catch glimpses of a fire, and two men moving around the camp. "I do believe Lady Luck is with us," he said. "And we have found our quarry."
The four peacekeepers rode off the trail and sat on their horses, watching the pair for while. When it was clear that they hadn't heard their approach, Buck said, "All right, boys, let's split up an' come up on 'em from two sides."
"Why not four sides?" JD asked him.
Buck thought for a moment, then shrugged and grinned. "Hell, why not make it four."
JD grinned back. "I'll take the side where the horses are. Peso likes me better than he does the rest of you."
"Fine," Buck agreed. "I'll take the far side. Ezra, you and Josiah go east and west."
The two men nodded.
"We'll wait 'til JD's get to the horses, then take 'em." He looked at the younger man, asking, "Ya remember that call I taught ya?"
"All right then," Buck said, "move careful, an' watch your backs, boys."
They each faded into the gathering shadows as the sun slipped behind the line of broken hills.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
JD walked slowly toward the three horses, whispering softly. The animals flicked their ears forward, watching him intently as he drew closer.
Peso nickered softly and tossed his head, recognizing him.
"Shh, easy, boy," JD said quietly.
About ten feet away from the geldings, he stopped and squatted down, pulling up a handful of green grass, then continued on, waving the grass at the horses.
The three animals waited until he reached them, and then Peso stretched out his neck, nibbling on the tender shoots while the other two watched. JD patted the black's neck and scratched between his ears. "We're here to take ya home, boy," he told the horse softly. "You just have to be quiet for a little while, all right?"
Peso rubbed his head against JD's shoulder.
"That's a boy," the young man said, grinning at the big black. "Okay, I've got to go now. You just stay here and be good."
Then, with careful movements, he found a spot where he could fire into the camp and still have sufficient cover to protect himself, if it came to that. When he was ready he used the soft call Buck had taught him, one that mimicked an owl.
Vin had told him that many of the tribes in these parts saw the owl as a harbinger of death and, in this case, he decided they might just be right. A moment later he heard the ladies' man.
"Easy boys, you're surrounded," Buck called into the camp. He stepped out from the shadows just far enough for the men to see him, and the gun he was holding on them.
"He is correct, gentlemen," Ezra said, appearing and then disappearing from sight.
"Better listen," JD called, but he stayed behind the tree trunk, leaning against it.
"Amen, to that," Josiah rumbled from the shadows. "Hell's full enough as it is."
The two brothers glanced nervously around. They had drawn their guns as soon as Buck had spoken, but the realization that they were, indeed, surrounded, and outgunned, left them frozen with indecision.
"Who are ya?" Lyman snarled angrily.
"Friends of the man ya tried to kill," Buck replied, his tone matching the hard edge of his expression and the anger in his eyes.
"Ya talkin' 'bout Tanner?"
"I am," Buck said.
Lyman snorted and spat a stream of tobacco juice into his campfire. "Didn't try, friend; done it."
"You, sir, are the one mistaken," Ezra replied, his stomach cramping at the nonchalant tone of the man's voice.
"Buried 'im myself," Lyman growled. "He's dead. Got five hundred dollar waitin' fer me back in Texas fer doin' it, too."
"The grave was empty," Buck told them. "Some other friends of ours went after him."
"Tanner's alive?" Tom gasped, looking to his brother, who shook his head sharply.
"Ain't possible," the older of the two siblings insisted.
"It was a blessed miracle, that's true. Brother Vin dug himself right out of his own grave," Josiah told them. "Don't think he's going to be real happy to see you boys, do you?"
"Toss your guns over here," Buck said. "And don't try nothin' funny. What ya done to Vin, we ought to shoot you where you stand."
"Don't see how it's any skin off yer back. Man's wanted for murder in Texas."
"In case ya hadn't noticed," Buck growled, "this ain't Texas. Now, do what I told ya."
Lyman glowered and thought for a long moment before he cursed softly and tossed his gun away. Tom did the same immediately afterward.
"If Tanner's a friend of yers, why didn't y' jist shoot us?" Lyman asked when Buck and the others emerged out of the shadows.
Wilmington smiled, the cold hatred in his blue eyes adding impact to his words. "Ever heard of a man named Larabee? Chris Larabee?"
Lyman nodded. "Gunslinger. Got himself a purty good reputation."
"That he does," Buck agreed. "He's also a good friend of Vin's. And he's got his own plans for you boys. We figured it'd be more fun ta see what he's got in mind for ya than to kill ya ourselves."
Tom went pale and swallowed hard. Lyman just chuckled softly and shook his head. "We done what we had t' do. Guess you boys'll do the same."
"Guess we will at that," Buck agreed. He looked to the others, saying, "JD, bring the horses in. Josiah, you and me'll tie these two up."
"And what shall I do?" Ezra asked the ladies' man.
"See what they're havin' for supper," Buck told him. "Don't know 'bout you, but I'm hungry."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Middle of the night
Vin moaned softly as he lay, shivering under the blankets from both Chris's and Nathan's bedrolls. The healer had built up the fires as much as he dared, and still the tracker trembled, his teeth sometimes chattering in the quiet stillness of predawn. The scattered fires were more than enough to keep him and Chris warm, but they hadn't seemed to do much for Vin.
Desperate to warm the tracker so his already abused muscles would stop seizing up with chills, Chris stretched out alongside the younger man and carefully inched near him, offering him the only help he could in the from of his own body heat. He was too afraid to actually reach out and pull the tracker close enough to touch, sure any pressure on the dark, purpling bruises would only be additional agony for the man. He spoke softly, muttering encouragement without really realizing what, exactly, he was saying.
A few moments later, Vin shifted closer to the offered warmth, nestling into it with a soft sigh and Chris allowed himself a small, grateful smile.
That's it, he silently told the tracker, I'm not going to hurt you, Vin . . . Not any more than I already have . . . Bastards . . . When Buck and the others bring 'em back, I swear they'll pay for this. He sighed softly, wondering what he himself should have to pay for his part in Tanner's suffering. I should've gone looking for you the day before those drovers rode in . . . Christ, Vin, I'm sorry . . . not that it makes a damned bit of difference . . . Christ.
Several long minutes later, the tracker finally began to relax and, slowly, the chills subsided and his half-grunted pants faded at last into long, deep breaths.
"I think he's just sleepin' now," Nathan said softly from where he sat close by, keeping the fires burning strong.
Chris started to pull away from the tracker, but the healer's hand on his shoulder stopped him.
"No, Chris, you stay right there. I want Vin ta stay calm and sleep. Want him ta stay warm, too. This arrangement seems ta be workin' just fine."
Chris nodded, strangely content to remain right where he was. He closed his eyes and listened to the soft sound of the tracker's breath, letting it slowly lull him to sleep as well. Live . . . you have to live, Vin . . . Please . . . Just keep fighting a little while longer. . . .
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris woke with the dawn, immediately aware of two things, the need to relieve himself and the stillness of the man lying next to him. The first was forgotten as the implications of the second asserted themselves in his still sleep-numbed mind.
"Nathan!" Chris cried, scrambling up and back so he could look down at Vin.
The quiet desperation in Larabee's voice jolted the healer awake and he quickly maneuvered to the tracker's side. Reaching out, he pressed his fingertips to Vin's throat, feeling a steady, albeit weaker bet than he'd hoped to find. He glanced up, meeting Chris's worried gaze and said, "He's just sleepin'."
Larabee dipped his head and scrubbed a hand over his face. "He's so . . . still."
Nathan nodded, taking the opportunity to check the injured man's wounds. "Man been hurt this bad, sometimes his sleep can be deep. We'll let him sleep some longer, then I want ya to try and get some more tea into him."
Chris nodded. "I'll get started on that litter," he said, his voice sounding raw in his ears.
Nathan nodded. "Made some coffee. Get yo'self a cup."
Larabee nodded, stumbling off to take care of his own needs, and then find some wood he could use to rig up the litter. It took him a while, but he finally found what he needed, and carried them back to the camp, sitting down on the ground and, after pouring a cup of the coffee, set to work on the travois. He watched Nathan as he did, the healer working over Vin, cleaning a few of the infected wounds again and then checking the man's feet. He saw Jackson frown.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Infection. It's getting' worse. His fever's building. I ain't got enough supplies here fo' him."
Chris sighed softly. "Buck and the others will probably show up this afternoon."
Nathan nodded. "Hope so," was all he said, and it sent a chill snaking down Larabee's back. He looked away from Tanner, determined to get the travois finished as quickly as he could, cursing himself the entire time.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
That same afternoon
Vin's fever climbed slowly. Nathan made a lean-to in order to protect the tracker from the worst of the sun, and he and Larabee had dressed the tracker in spare clothes from their bedrolls – Larabee's pants and Nathan's shirt – which also helped protect him from the sun, but the healer glanced out at Four Corners and said, "We waited long 'nough, Chris. We got ta head fo' town now. Don't think he'll make it though another night like the last one."
Larabee nodded, standing and breaking their camp, then walking over to get the horses ready. Once their gear was loaded and the litter was hitched up between the two geldings, neither of which were too happy about the situation, he walked back to where Nathan was wiping Vin's face with a damp cloth.
"Damn near out 'a water, too," the healer said with a tired sigh.
"Horses are ready."
Nathan nodded and stood. Together they lifted Vin, carrying him to the travois and settling him on it. Chris waited with him while the healer went back for a blanket, covering the injured man with it and then tying him down on the litter with leather straps from his saddlebags.
"You mount first," Chris instructed, waiting for Nathan before gathering his own reins and swinging into his saddle.
The headed for home, keeping the horses to a walk. Between them the travois jerked a little and Vin moaned.
"He gonna be able to take this?" Chris called out.
Nathan looked back over his shoulder, studying the injured man for a moment. "Ain't sure. If it gets too bad, I'll dose him with laudanum and let him ride with one of us."
"Just say the word," Chris replied, wishing the others had gotten back. Buck's big gray could easily carry two people the rest of the way home.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris's gun was in his hand before he realized who had ridden up on them.
"Whoa, easy there, pard," Buck said, flashing the gunman a grin, but it faded the moment he saw Vin. "How's he doin'?"
"Not good," Larabee replied, his gaze locked on the two strangers, their hands lashed to their saddlehorns and being led by Josiah and JD. "These the bastards?"
Larabee lifted his Colt, aiming at Tom, who flinched and turned his head away.
"Chris," Buck said, reining his gray in closer, putting himself between Larabee and the two men, "this ain't the way. Least, not here, not now. Let's get Vin home, then we'll worry 'bout what t' do with these two."
Chris fought the desire to just shoot the two men and be done with it, but reason finally won out. He slammed the Colt back into his holster and looked away from the men, snarling, "We stop here. Ezra, you and Buck take Vin next. Make damned sure he don't get bumped around too much."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
They reached Four Corners just after dark. Josiah carried Vin, cradled in his arms, up to the clinic, Nathan following behind them, looking worried. Buck and JD took Tom and Lyman to the jail. And Ezra followed Chris to the saloon where the gunslinger ordered a glass of whiskey, gulped it down, and immediately ordered another.
Inez glanced over Larabee shoulder to Ezra, who gave her a signal from behind the gunslinger's back that she understood. She smiled at Chris, saying, "Go sit down, Señor, I will bring you your drink, and some supper."
"Ain't hungry," he said, then added, "but I appreciate the offer, Inez."
She nodded. "Go. Sit. I will bring it."
Chris headed for his usual table in the corner and she turned back, pouring a shot glass half full with whiskey, then adding water to fill it the rest of the way. She stirred it and took it over to him.
"Might as well bring me the bottle," he told her as soon as he tossed the second shot back.
She nodded, saying, "Si, Señor," before she turned and walked back to the bar. She took down a bottle and poured half the contents into an empty bottle, filling Larabee's with water. She shook it and handed it to Ezra when he said, "Allow me to take that to Mr. Larabee, my dear."
"Is Vin all right?" she asked him, glancing at the worn-out looking gunman.
"I'm afraid our Mr. Tanner is not doing well. Mr. Jackson is doing all he can for him, however, and Nathan does seem to be able to perform miracles. I just pray this will be another one."
Taking the watered down whiskey, the gambler delivered it to Larabee's table, setting it in front of the man before joining an ongoing poker game, sitting so he could keep an eye on the blond while he played.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
In the clinic, Nathan and Josiah laid Vin on a narrow bed and carefully undressed him so Nathan could check his wounds. He cleaned some, adding slaves and powders to others.
While not truly awake, the tracker still tried to fight the treatment, and Josiah captured the younger man's hands in his own, holding them and praying softly. He could feel the tracker's fever burning through his skin.
Almost an hour later, Vin still lay naked on the narrow bed, weakly tossing as that same fever continued to ravage his already brutalized body. Josiah continued to speak softly to the injured tracker while he bathed his chest, neck and face with a damp cloth, trying to keep him cool.
"Wish Chris was here," Nathan said softly as he cleaned Tanner's feet again, trying to get the upper hand on the infection. "Vin quieted right down when he was with him out there."
"I have a hunch Brother Larabee's fighting his own demons right about now," Josiah replied, taking in the extent of the younger man's injuries yet again and wishing they had just killed the two men responsible when they had found them.
The door to the clinic opened and Buck came in, walking over to the bedside. He looked down at Vin and paled, glancing quickly away. "Lord God but he's catawamptiously chawed up," he said thickly, turning greenish-gray.
Nathan stood and sighed heavily. He shook his head. "It just ain't lookin' good fo' him," he said softly. "Infections still hangin' on strong, fever's climbin' . . . and he ain't really woke up since we found him. Can't get water or medicine into him like this."
"You send Chris out?" Buck asked, glancing around the clinic.
Nathan shook his head, saying, "Figured he was helpin' you and JD with the two who done this."
"Damn," the ladies' man sighed, jaw muscle popping. "I'll send him over in a little while . . . might have ta sober him up first," he said, then turned and headed out.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Buck found Chris right where he expected to – in the saloon. Seated at his corner table, Larabee was just tipping out the last shot from a bottle of whiskey.
Buck glowered at the gunman and started over, only to be intercepted by Ezra, who steered him to the bar, greeting loudly, "Ah, Mr. Wilmington, I see you've taken care of those two miscreants. . ." When they reached the bar he added in a much softer voice, "I had Inez water down the bottle, but Mr. Larabee has still made amazing progress in the short time since we have returned."
Buck glanced over at Chris, who was staring off into the shadows, lost in his own recriminations. The ladies' man was familiar with the expression and it sent a chill snaking down his back to curl up heavily in his guts. If they lost Vin he was sure they would lose Chris as well.
"I'll take care of it," he said softly.
"If you require any assistance, you need only ask, my friend."
Buck looked back at the gambler, a little surprised by the offer, and grinned. "Thanks, Ez, but I'm hoping he'll listen ta reason."
"Well, they say there's a first time for everything," Ezra muttered under his breath and Wilmington started over to Chris's table.
* ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin thrashed, crying out in what Josiah thought must be Kiowa or Comanche. It sounded like he was talking to someone, but whatever they were arguing about, Vin seemed to be on the losing end.
He wrung out another cloth and laid it over the tracker's chest, Nathan doing the same with others across Tanner's legs.
"Easy, son, easy," Josiah said softly, reaching up to push the tangled, sweat sodden hair off the tracker's forehead and face. "Fever feels like it's come down some," he commented to Nathan.
The healer nodded. "Wounds are drainin' a little less too, last time I checked. Nothing more we can do fo' him now, 'cept wait and keep him cool."
"Then that's what we'll do, brother."
"Wish there was more . . . maybe when Chris gets here. . ."
Josiah nodded. "I can try and see if he'll take some more water."
Nathan shook his head. "Spilled mo' than he drank. Don't want ta waste the medicine. I'll get Chris to try when he gets here."
"You're assuming he will."
Nathan paused, his hand in the basin of water. "You don't think he'll come?"
Josiah thought a moment, then said, "Oh, he'll come. Just not sure how much help he's going to be."
Nathan nodded, understanding.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin felt like he was running through an endless night, unable to stop and unsure where he was, or where he was supposed to be going. Pain was his constant companion, dogging his heels every step of the way, clawing through his body with red-hot talons that shredded his body and his soul.
In the far distance he could hear voices, sometimes one, sometimes more than one, but he couldn't make out who was speaking, or what was being said.
The voices were oddly comforting, and they gave him hope, but something seemed to be missing.
He continued on, running through the darkness, fighting the agony that gripped him, struggling to reach the voices, but never getting any closer.
He stumbled to a stop, his hands braced just above his knees as he bent over, gasping for breath. Sweat rolled off his body.
Where the hell was he?
He looked around, squinting, trying to find some feature in the blackness, but there was nothing.
How had he gotten there? Wherever the hell there was? He couldn't remember. He forced himself on, trying to outrun the agony that threatened to overwhelm him.
The voices continued. But now a new voice seemed familiar somehow, and he felt like he should know who it was.
He slowed, trying to listen, but the agony flared again and he picked up his pace, pushing on doggedly.
But the voice sounded so familiar . . . sounded like the promise of relief, of hope, if he could only reach it . . . but it was so far away . . . impossibly far away.
From time to time, Little Deer appeared next to him, reaching out, trying to help him when he stumbled, but he refused to let her. He had to keep running. He had to escape this place. There was something he was supposed to do. And, if he reached for her, he knew he'd die.
He couldn't die. Not yet. Not until he did whatever it was he had to do . . . whenever he got out of this place . . . wherever it was . . . God, he was tired, and he hurt. He wanted to stop. He wanted to take her hand and be done with it, but he couldn't. He just couldn't.
And then he remembered why: Larabee.
He had to get back to Four Corners. He had to get back to Chris and the others.
But where was it? Where was he? Had it gotten dark again? Was he still walking across the desert?
He glanced around, but he still couldn't make out any shapes in the landscape, and there were no stars in the endless sky above him.
He stumbled to a halt. Where the hell was he?
The voice sounded louder now . . . and it was calling to him.
He turned, trying to decide which direction Larabee's voice was coming from, but he couldn't tell. Still, it was getting louder.
He concentrated on his friend's voice and started running again, running toward the voice.
Keep, talkin', Chris. I'll find ya. I swear I will. I won't let y' down again. I give y' m' word, Cowboy. Just keep talkin'. . . .
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Stalking over to Larabee's table, Buck stopped his hands on his hips. "What the hell do y' think you're doing, stud?"
Chris looked up at the ladies' man, his eyes full of pain and remorse. "He's dyin', Buck," he choked.
"Last I saw, he was still fightin' . . . unlike you. He was still tryin' to live . . . Can you say the same, Chris?"
That got the blond's attention and Larabee looked up at the ladies' man, green eyes narrowing.
"No. Don't tell me. Let me tell you," Buck continued, heedless of the danger flashing in those green eyes. "Chris-Almighty-Larabee isn't fightin'. Oh, hell no! Chris-Almighty-Larabee is sittin' in the saloon, drinkin' himself blind while his best friend's over in the clinic, fightin' for his life! Alone!"
"That's enough, Buck," Larabee hissed, his shoulders drawing up.
"I don't think it is enough, Chris," Wilmington said, pulling out a chair and sitting down across the table from his long-time friend. Blue gaze locked on green, neither man willing to look away first, which suited Buck just fine. He wanted Larabee's complete attention, and he had it. "You listen to me, Chris, and you listen good. I watched you damn near kill yourself after Sarah and Adam died, and I'm not about to sit here and watch it happen all over again. And I sure as hell ain't goin' to let you do it when Vin's still alive.
"What the hell are you doin'? You should be over there in that clinic, talkin' to him, keepin' him fightin' when he's too damned tired to fight any more. You should be there, damn you, helping Nathan and Josiah take care of that boy. But no, oh hell no, here you are, drinkin' your misery from a glass when your soul's already drunk with it. It ain't right, Chris, and by God you know it ain't right."
Larabee opened his mouth to speak, but Buck cut him off, adding, "What Vin did out there with that wagon train was wrong. You know it and I know it, but we've all made mistakes. You made one when you didn't go lookin' for him when you should've. We all make mistakes, Chris, but damn it, he was tryin' to make up for his. You know he was. He was tryin' to get back to us, to you, so you'd know–" His voice caught and he stopped, tears standing in his eyes, jaw muscles twitching.
"Ain't your funeral, Buck," the gunman slurred. "Leave off."
"Like hell I will," the ladies' man managed, his voice breaking. "He deserves better from you, Chris, and by God you're goin' to that clinic if I have to carry you there myself."
"You can try," the blond hissed, his eyes narrowing dangerously.
"What're ya goin' ta do, Chris? Shoot me?"
"Then go ahead," Buck snapped, standing, the force of if turning his chair over behind him. He stepped around the table, reached out and grabbed Larabee's arms, jerking the gunslinger to his feet. A moment later Chris's gun was pressed hard against his ribs.
"Get your hands off me," Larabee growled lowly.
"Just because you were too damned stubborn to go looking for Vin while he still had a chance don't mean he ought to die alone, ya bastard. Why do ya think he was comin' back here?" Buck demanded, knowing he was pushing Chris as hard as he'd ever dared – harder. But he knew he had to do it. He wasn't going to lose two friends tonight. "It was for you, ya damned ass," he said, just loud enough for Larabee to hear him. "He killed himself tryin' to get back so you wouldn't think he'd run out on us again. Least you can do is tell him you know that before he's gone, damn it. He deserves that much from the man who once called him his friend."
Chris went pale and staggered back like he'd been slapped. His eyes rounded with terror. "He's dying?" he gulped.
"He's bad, Chris, real bad. . ." Buck took a step closer to Larabee. "Nate ain't sure he's goin' ta pull though this one."
"Oh fuck," Chris gasped, lurching for the bat-wing doors, roughly shoving aside a patron who was just coming in. Buck followed closely on his heels, muttering a brief apology to the cowboy.
Ezra, ordered a round for the man, on the house, and hurried to the doors, watching his friends out on the boardwalk.
Outside, Chris grabbed one of the four by four that held up the overhang, his stomach turning over violently. He had killed his friend. He had killed Vin.
He heaved into the street, again and again, until his stomach was empty and it was just dry heaves assaulting him.
Ezra stepped out onto the boardwalk, but Buck looked back and shook his head. He gestured at the saloon, and the gambler nodded his understanding. He would see to it they were given their privacy, or at least as much as he could manage.
Buck turned back to his friend, waiting until Chris was through, then he took the blond by the arm and led him slowly down to the clinic. They stopped in the livery, Buck giving Chris some water to wash his face and rinse his mouth out with. And with that done, he guided him up the stairs and to the door.
"I'll do it with you," Buck said softly, his hand on Larabee's shoulder.
Chris glanced at his long-time friend and offered the man a small, sad smile as he shook his head. "In case I haven't ever said it, you're a damned fine friend."
Buck blushed and dipped his head. "Come on," he said softly, "let's get this over with before we're both bawlin' like a couple 'a old widows." Gonna be doin' that soon enough, he thought, remembering the look in the healer's eyes.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Nathan looked up from the cup of hot water he was stirring herds into, his brow furrowing with worry. "Chris?" But the blond didn't hear him, he was staring across the room at the towel-draped man. The healer looked to Buck, asking, "What happened to him."
"Met up with a bottle . . . and the truth," he said sadly.
Larabee stepped away from Buck's grasp and shuffled to the bed, dropping into the empty chair he found there. He looked across at Josiah, who was praying softly as he bathed Vin's face with a damp cloth. "What can I do?" he rasped.
Josiah stopped praying and looked up, meeting Larabee's eyes and smiling tiredly. "Still tryin' to keep his fever down, why don't you change those towels on his chest."
Chris nodded, his trembling hands making the work hard, but not impossible.
Buck stepped up to next to Nathan, asking softly, "He doin' any better?"
The healer sighed heavily, telling him, "Fever's down some, infection's doin' some better, too, but if he don't wake up soon, don't think he'll be wakin' up at all."
"He'll wake up," Chris snapped, looking down at the swollen, miss-colored flesh on the tracker's face. "You hear me, Tanner? You're goin' to wake up, damn you. You aren't goin' to die on me. I'm not going to let you . . . I don't need that damned five hundred dollar bounty yet. Fight, you stubborn bastard, fight, damn it."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Late that night/the following morning
The six regulators worked throughout the night, JD and Ezra joining the others a few minutes after Buck and Chris got there. They kept the tracker as cool as they could while his fever raged. They held him up, dribbling small amounts of water into his mouth in the hopes that he might swallow some. They cleaned his draining wounds and redressed them. And they talked to him.
By late morning, against all expectations, Vin's fever had finally broken and Nathan sent the rest of them off to get some rest. Larabee, however, refused to be budged.
"Fine," the healer said, "you stay with him then. I'm goin' ta get me somethin' ta eat, then sleep fo' a couple hours. You come fo' me if he needs me, y'hear?"
Nathan rested his hand on the gunslinger's shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. "He's doing better, Chris. He's got a chance now."
Larabee nodded, knowing it wasn't much of a chance if Vin didn't wake up soon. When Nathan was gone, he pulled his chair closer to the bed and reached out, taking the tracker's hand in his own and saying, "Vin, I'm hoping you can hear me . . . there's something that needs sayin'. . ."
He paused, running a hand over his hair and taking a deep breath, unsure if he could say the words he wanted to say. But he had to, just in case.
"Hell, Tanner, you know I'm not good with words . . . but I want you to know . . . I know you didn't run out on us . . . you were here, before those damned drovers rode in; I'm sure of it . . . and as for what happened on that wagon train . . . well, a man'll act like a damned fool when he's in love . . . and I guess you loved her. I still ain't sayin' it was right, but I understand love . . . and what it can lead a man to do." He reached out and pressed his palm to Vin's cheek, finding it cool at last. "Come on, Vin. You have to wake up and take some broth and medicine so you can fight this . . . you can't let those bastards beat you . . . I– . . . I can't– . . . Ah, hell, Vin, I can't lose you, too," he said softly, his voice catching and choking him. "I just can't do it, pard . . . not like this . . . please. . ."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin continued running though the darkness, but he was reaching the end of his endurance.
The voice grew steadily louder and louder, but he still couldn't make out what Larabee was saying to him, but he was certain it was Chris who was calling him home. If only he could find it before his strength was finally gone.
Catching sight of Little Deer, he glanced over at her, saying in Comanche, "I have t' go back, Sister. I have t' set things right with Chris an' the others. They're m' family, an' I let 'em down. I have t' make that right. But t' do it, I got t' leave y' . . . but you'll live in m' heart forever. I swear it, Sister. Help me, please. Help me find m' way home."
She gazed at him for a long moment, and then she smiled and nodded, her love for him clear in her eyes.
With a graceful wave of her hand she showed him a path through the darkness.
He gave her one last smile and forced himself to press on just a little farther. He prayed he had the strength to make it. And then he heard Chris's voice.
Come on, Vin. You have to wake up and get some broth and medicine into you so you can fight this. . .
"'M tryin', Cowboy." And, in the distance he saw the first glow of some kind of light penetrating the darkness that held him prisoner.
I– . . . I can't– . . . Ah, hell, Vin, I can't lose you, too . . . I just can't do it, pard . . . not like this . . . please. . . .
The man's voice was close, so close. Vin stopped, trying to figure out how to reach it, how to reach Chris. He had to reach Chris. He would not disappoint the man again . . . never again.
And then, suddenly, it felt as if he were floating in a huge tub of cool water, rising up from the bottom of some black lake. He flailed, trying to find the surface, but he wasn't sure where it was. He surrendered to the voice calling him home, trusting it to guide him the rest of the way.
And he rose farther and farther, the light growing brighter until he broke through the surface of consciousness and felt the first powerful wave of pain crash over him, stripping his breath away and leaving him caught in a storm of sensations that all seemed determined to subdue him and kill him on the spot. But, as he adjusted slowly to the aches and pains that assailed him, he heard Chris begin to speak again.
He rolled his head to the side and commanded his heavy eyelids to open. They obeyed, albeit slowly.
"I don't know if you can ever forgive me for leavin' you out there . . . but I swear to you, Vin, I–"
"C'ris. . ." he breathed airily, the bowed head of the gunslinger swimming into view as his eyes opened wider.
Larabee's head jerked up and he stared into the half-opened blue eyes of the tracker. "Vin?" He laughed shakily. "You awake?"
"I know. . ." he breathed, his voice so weak he was surprised when Larabee heard him.
"Know? Know what?" he asked, leaning closer, worry and happiness mixing on his face.
"I know . . . why I . . . done it."
"Vin, don't try to talk," Chris said, unsure if he'd even heard the man's words right. Knew why he'd done what? He reached over for the tin cup filled with water and medicinal powder he was supposed to get into the injured man as soon as Tanner woke. "Here, can you drink some of this?"
"C'ris. . ."
"Not now, damn it," Larabee snapped, fear making his heart beat so fast it left him lightheaded. He reached under Vin's head and lifted it, pressing the cup to the man's lips.
After the first taste of the concoction Vin rolled his head away. "Taste's like . . . horse piss," he grimaced, coughing softly.
"I don't care if it is horse piss, you're gonna drink this," Chris told him.
Vin looked back at the gunslinger, the fear in Larabee's voice and eyes clear enough to tell the tracker he was hurt pretty badly. He sighed and let the blond guide the cup to his lips again, and this time he drank all of the medicine without complaint. Anything to erase the pain and fear he saw in the man's green eyes.
Chris settled him back against his pillow and asked, "Think you can eat some broth?"
"Give me . . . l'tl bit . . . don't feel right . . . in m' belly," Vin said, his eyes already closing despite his best efforts.
"Rest for a while, then. I'll keep it warm for you," Larabee promised him.
"Mmm," Vin replied, slipping into the welcome arms of sleep.
Chris reached out, lightly pressing his hand to the tracker's chest, taking comfort in the slow rise and fall, taking strength in the steady beat of the man's heart beneath his palm.
His eyes closed. "Lord, thank you," he whispered thickly. "I truly do thank you. . ."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
An hour later
"C'ris. . ."
Larabee woke with a start and, for a terrifyingly long moment he wasn't sure where he was, or why his back felt like it was on fire. But, as he sat up in the chair he'd fallen asleep in earlier, he remembered.
"Vin?" he asked, concerned. He leaned forward toward the man, still lying in the narrow bed. The tracker's blue eyes were open again.
"Wa . . . er?" Tanner rasped thickly, trying to swallow.
Chris stood and quickly fetched a full cup, helping Vin to drink it. Then the gunslinger went for the still warm broth, bringing a bowl back to the bed. And, after helping Vin sit up a little, he ladled spoonfuls into the man's mouth, ignoring the annoyed glower prompted by the action.
"I c'n do it," Vin grumbled, trying to push himself up a little more, but his muscles immediately seized painfully and he was forced to stop. Groaning, he sagged back against the pillows, his battered body telling him in no uncertain terms that he wasn't going anywhere, anytime soon.
"Sure you can, but why don't you humor me and let me help," Chris said, muttering under his breath, "Damned mule-headed Texan."
Vin sighed and scowled, but he nodded. Then, after several more spoonful, asked, "Y' find 'em?"
"The men who did this to you?" Larabee guessed.
Vin nodded as he swallowed another spoonful. It tasted so good and he was so hungry.
Chris nodded, his expression turning stony.
"They dead?" Vin asked, his voice just above a whisper. He was too afraid to hope.
"Will be soon enough," Chris promised, feeding the man another spoonful.
Vin swallowed, his eyes rounding. "They're alive?"
"Have 'em over in the jail. I wired the Judge. He'll be here for a trial in a week or so."
Vin's eyes closed and he slumped bonelessly against pillows and mattress. His chest jerked, although from a sob or laughter, Chris wasn't sure.
"What?" Larabee asked gently, reaching out to rest his hand on the top of the man's head. "Vin, what's wrong? Should I get Nathan? Vin?" He set the bowl on the bedside table and started to stand.
"No," Tanner said, stopping Larabee before he reached his feet. "Don't need Nathan." He lay for a moment, catching his breath, then said, "Those men . . . they c'n . . . clear m' name, Chris . . . they's with . . . Eli Joe . . . when he killed . . . that farmer . . . Jess Kincaid."
Chris's eyes went wide. "They tell you that?"
Vin nodded. "They's kin . . . 'a Eli Joe's . . . cousins . . . was ridin' . . . with 'im . . . when he framed me."
Larabee's eyes narrowed and the smile that turned the corners of his mouth up was decidedly feral. "Don't worry, Vin, they'll tell the Judge everything they know. I swear it."
"The big one," Vin said, his eyes beginning to close again, "y' ain't goin' . . . t' get 'im . . . t' talk . . . easy."
"You leave that to us, pard," Chris said, reaching out to pull the blanket up, covering the sleeping tracker's chest.
The gunslinger turned at the sound of the voice, eyes swimming with tears as he smiled at the healer, who walked over to join him. "He woke up, Nate, twice. He drank that cup of medicine the first time, and I just got half a bowl of broth into him."
Nathan smiled broadly, clapping Larabee on the shoulder. The man's excitement made him sound more like Billy Travis than the feared gunman he was. "Thank God! Here, let me have a look at him."
Chris stepped aside to give Nathan the room he needed, then walked over to the stove and poured himself a cup of coffee. He noted the plate of food that was sitting on the small table. It looked good, which surprised him.
"That's fo' you," Nathan called softly. "Ya won't be any use ta Vin if you don't keep yo'r strength up. You sit and eat that while I see how he's doin'."
Chris nodded, sitting down and making his way though the meal Nathan had brought from Inez's kitchen. Nathan joined him just as he finished.
"So?" Larabee asked, looking up at the healer, hope shining in his eyes for the first time in a long while.
"Fever's gone down, and the infection looks like it's clearin'. Gonna be a while befo' he's ready to leave that bed, though. And his feet still look pretty bad, but if he keeps eatin' now, I think he'll make it." He shook his head. "Don't believe it, Chris. The man should've been dead . . . never seen anyone fight like that boy."
Chris nodded, glancing over at the injured man. "Stubborn as an Arkansas mule."
Nathan chuckled and nodded. "And I thank God fo' it, too."
"Amen, to that," Chris agreed, his chin trembling slightly.
"I want ta treat his feet an' clean up a couple of them other wounds. Why don't you go get some sleep? Josiah's comin' back in a few hours to spell me, and I want ta sit with him t'night, in case that fever comes up again. You can take over after breakfast tomorrow, if ya want."
Chris wanted to say no, that he would spend the night with Vin again, but he knew he needed the sleep, badly. He nodded. "But come get me if anything changes."
Nathan nodded. "I'll do that." He saw Larabee glance at the injured man again. "I promise. He's just gonna sleep t'day, except when I wake 'im up to give him mo' medicine or some mo' broth."
"Good luck," Chris said, a small smile lifting the corners of his mouth. "And if he gives you any trouble, just tell him you're gonna get me up and have me do it. I think that might make him a little more cooperative . . . and believe me, you're going to need any advantage you can get."
Nathan grinned. "Sounds good. I might just do it, too, if he gives me too much trouble."
Larabee nodded, a part of him hoping Vin did. He wasn't sure he'd be able to stay away until the following morning.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The next morning
Buck and the others, except Josiah, who was still sitting with Vin, gathered in the saloon to break fast together the next morning.
"Vin's awake?" JD asked, looking at the healer, excited.
Nathan nodded. "Doin' a whole lot better 'n I expected, that's fo' damn sure. Been good 'bout eatin' and drinkin' what I give him, too." He grinned at Larabee across the table and added, "But I don't expect that'll last too much longer."
"I'll be damned," Buck said, leaning back and shaking his head, enjoying the happiness he saw in Chris's eyes. "That boy's got more lives 'n a damned cat! And thank God for each an' ever'one of 'em."
"He's gonna get a new start for the ones he's got left," Chris said, the others all looking at him, waiting for him to explain. "Yesterday, Vin told me the two men we've got locked up can clear him. They were with Eli Joe when he killed that farmer and framed him."
"Then he won't be wanted anymore!" JD said, grinning widely.
"Ah, but only if those two villains will confess to their participation in a crime that could put them on the end of a noose," Ezra warned them.
"We're going to see to it they do," Chris said, the tone of his voice stating clearly nothing less would be considered. "The Judge is going to hear their confessions soon as he gets here – one way or another."
"I think we can take care of that for ya, stud," Buck said, his grin telling Larabee the big ladies' man was going to enjoy this particular assignment.
The others nodded as well.
"I'll fill Josiah in," Chris said, standing.
"I'll be over in a couple of hours ta take a look at Vin," Nathan called as Chris left. "Tell 'im I'll bring him somethin' to eat."
Larabee nodded, his glance grateful as he left, heading for the clinic.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Josiah glanced up and smiled as Chris entered the clinic.
The blond crossed the room and looked down at the sleeping tracker, then at the preacher. "How's he doin'?"
"Well," Josiah replied, "been taking whatever I give him without a single word of complaint so I figure he must be sick . . . in the head. Never seen him so cooperative."
A small grin lifted the corners of Chris's mouth. "Sure he ain't really dead?"
That made Josiah smile. "Very sure."
Chris pulled up a chair and sat down next to the older man. "Nathan said he was being good about the medicine. Don't know why he's being so cooperative . . . expect it can't last long."
Josiah studied the man for a moment, then said softly. "You."
Larabee looked at the preacher. "Me? I threatened him, sure, but–"
"He saw the fear in your eyes, heard it in your voice when he first woke, and knew he was close to death. He's been taking whatever we give him to make sure he doesn't die before he sets things right, with you. After that, well, I'll wager he'll get a little more ornery."
Chris looked away, his cheeks coloring. "He tell you that?"
"Not straight out but, well, that's what he was sayin', yeah."
The gunslinger thought for a moment, then nodded. He looked at Josiah and said, "He told me yesterday that those two sonsuvbitches were riding with Eli Joe when he killed that farmer. They can clear his name, if we can convince them to talk to the Judge, tell him the truth."
Josiah smiled, but the predatory gleam in his eye robbed the expression of any joviality. "Confession is good for the soul, brother."
Larabee nodded. "For their sakes, I hope so . . . Buck's headin' up the charge, and Nathan's coming over in a couple of hours to check on Vin; bring him something to eat. I'll sit with him until them. You go get some rest."
"I'm sure brother Vin will be very glad to move on from broth," Josiah said with a slight grin. Then he stood and stretched, saying, "And I'll be more than happy to visit the blessed arms of slumber for a few hours. But first I have to see a couple of men about a confession." He looked down at Vin, adding, "Sleep well, brother."
And with that he departed, leaving Chris alone to think.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The five remaining regulators met in front of the jail, discussing amongst themselves what their next step should be to ensure the two men inside talked to the Judge. Several minutes later they had finalized their plan and set it in motion, Buck entering the jail first.
The big ladies' man sauntered over to the two cells and looked in at the brothers. "You boys are in one helluva fix. But then, I guess you already know that, don'tcha."
"Don't need y' yammerin' in our ears," Lyman growled from under his hat. The man was stretched out on his cot, legs crossed at the ankles, arms folded over his chest, and his hat sitting over his face.
Tom, on the other hand, had been pacing restlessly in his cell, but had stopped when Buck entered, taking a seat on the edge of his cot. He looked skittish and Buck played to that.
"Well you better listen, friend," Buck warned him, "'cause the Judge'll be here in a few days, and whether or not you're alive to hear the charges is goin' ta depend on how well ya decide to cooperate."
"Cooperate?" Tom asked the ladies' man.
"Shut up, Tom," Lyman snarled from under his hat.
"That's right," Buck said, walking over and grabbing the bars of Tom's cell. He gave them a hard shake. "You two are gonna tell the Judge how Vin was framed by ol' Eli Joe."
"Like hell we are," Lyman replied.
Buck's angry blue gaze pierced Tom's brown and he saw the man tremble with fear. "Oh, you will," he promised. "Because if ya don't, what ya done to poor Vin is goin' ta look like he's been to a Sunday Social. And my word's good as gold, boys. You just think on that for a spell."
Buck gave Tom a fiendish grin, then turned and left.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris was reading when Vin woke with a soft cough. He set the book aside and picked up a cup of water, helping the tracker as he drank almost all of it.
"Think y' can help me sit up?" Vin asked, his voice still rough and dry. "Gettin' damned tired of starin' at the ceilin'."
"Sure," Chris said, helping the man to sit up so he could rearrange the pillows to support him.
Vin gasped as the muscles over his ribs pulled on the broken bones, sending fiery shards of pure agony slicing through his middle.
"You all right?" Chris said, holding the tracker still.
Vin nodded, but the color drained from his face and sweat broke out on his upper lip.
Using one hand to hold the tracker in place, Chris quickly arranged pillows with the other so Vin could lean back against them. "Easy, pard, let me do the work now . . . I've got ya." He carefully eased the man back, asking, "Better?" once he was settled.
Vin nodded, too winded by the ordeal to speak yet. He closed his eyes and panted, trying to regain his breath. When he could breathe and the room stopped spinning, and his stomach didn't feel like it was trying to worm its way up his gullet, he opened his eyes again, only to find Larabee waiting with the cup of doctored water. He finished all of it and tried not to look ill-tempered when Larabee pulled up his blankets for him.
"Need anything else?"
Vin's cheeks colored.
Chris grinned. "Yeah, I know it's hell, but it's better 'n sitting there wishin'," he said understandingly. He retrieved the chamber pot, helping Vin as best he could, then fetching the tracker a cup of the medicinal tea Nathan used.
"Y' know what this damned stuff tastes like," Vin grouched, accepting the cup from Larabee.
"I told you I didn't care."
Vin sighed softly, unable to do any better with his broken ribs. He started sipping on the brew. While he worked on the contents, he watched Larabee from the corner of his eyes. There was something supremely humbling about being watched the way the gunman watched him, something humbling and comforting.
The tea smelled at least as bad as it tasted, and Chris leaned back in his chair to escape the foul odor. "How're you feelin'?" he asked Tanner when the man was almost finished.
Vin thought for a moment, then replied, "Reckon I'll live."
Chris smiled thinly. "Glad to hear you and Nathan are in agreement on that."
Vin stared down into his cup and muttered, "'Less this damned horse piss kills me. . ."
Larabee grinned. "Nathan's bringing you something a little later."
"Swear t' God, Larabee, if it's mush 'm goin' t' crawl out 'a this bed and hunt m'self some real food."
Chris fought hard not to smile as he growled, "You'll eat whatever the hell he gives you and be glad you're here to enjoy it, you hear me?"
Vin cocked his head to the side, meeting Larabee's eyes. He grinned just slightly. "I hate them damned boiled oats, y' know I do."
Chris grinned. "Yeah, I know. But I figure he knows better what your stomach can take right now."
Vin sighed. "It c'n take a plate 'a eggs 'n' some 'a Inez's biscuits."
"I'll see what I can do," the gunman promised. "Maybe for supper."
"The Judge'll be here day after tomorrow."
The tracker looked up, meeting the gunslinger's eyes. "Them two ain't gonna talk, Chris. It'll put their necks in a noose fer sure."
"Things worse 'n haning," Larabee told him.
Vin's eyes narrowed slightly.
"Look, you don't need to worry about anything, except healin' up."
"Chris–" Vin started to argue, but Larabee held up his hand to stop him.
"Let us help you, damn it."
Vin thought for a moment, then met Larabee's eyes, saying, "Judge ain't goin' t' believe a word if'n they're beat bloody."
A grin and a nod from the man in black. "Other ways to make a man talk."
Vin nodded. "Could tell y' 'bout a couple, if y' need some ideas."
"I'll let you know." Chris took the empty cup from the tracker and asked, "You want some broth or some tea without the medicine?"
Vin shook his head. "Maybe just some water – plain water."
Chris nodded and fetched a cup for him, then settled back in his chair, his hands clasped between his knees, his head hanging down. "Vin, got some things that need saying between us."
"Reckon so," the tracker agreed with a single nod.
"You up to hearin' me out?"
Tanner considered the question for a moment, trying to honestly assess his condition. "I'll try 'n' keep my eyes open," he said, "but I can't promise I'll be able t' keep it up fer long; sneaks up on me."
"Don't need long," Chris told him.
"Reckon I might."
Chris turned his head to meet the tracker's eyes, a small smile on his lips. "I just want you to know . . . I was a damned fool, Vin, a damn fool, and it almost cost you your life . . . Hell, Vin, I'm sorry. I never meant for any of this to happen."
Vin nodded. "I know that. An' I figure y' had cause t' be mad at me. Wasn't like I've been pullin' m' share 'round here . . . an' I sure as hell didn't out on that wagon train."
"Sarah always said I had a bad streak of pride, and she was right. I let it twist my thoughts up. I should've come looking for you sooner. But you'd been away so much . . . First I thought you were sneakin' off to see her, but I knew that wasn't true . . . Guess I thought you'd soured on us . . . on me . . . Where did you go, Vin?"
He sighed softly. "Out t' the desert, tryin' t' find a vision."
He nodded. "Learned it from the Indians – fast fer three days, stay awake . . . I needed t' understand why I done what I done . . . why I ran out on y'all . . . why I ran out on the man I swore I'd ride the river with. . ."
Chris dipped his head, saying softly, "I have to admit, I wondered the same thing . . . but I figured you must've loved her."
"Hell, I don't know," Vin replied, his voice thick. "Maybe I did, maybe not . . . but I when y' said y'd ride with me . . . I never meant fer that t' change, Chris . . . not in m' heart."
Chris nodded. "I know. I knew it even then. . ." He looked up again, meeting the tracker's eyes and asking, "And did you? Find a vision?"
Vin shook his head. "No, not 'til I was walkin' back t' town . . . then I saw her."
"No," Vin said, his voice catching. He fought, trying to stay awake so he could explain, but he was losing the battle.
"Why don't you get some rest," Chris said. "I'll be here. You can tell me when you wake up."
Vin glanced at the man, grateful. Reaching out his hand weakly, he felt Chris grab it in his own and squeeze. "Still want t' ride with y', pard," he said, eyes closing. "If y'll still have me. . ."
"I'll have you," Chris replied. "Now, get some sleep."
"Damned . . . bossy . . . cowboy. . ."
Larabee grinned still holding the man's hand in his own. "Damned stubborn tracker," he replied.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Well?" Buck asked when JD left the jail, grinning like fox. "What happened?"
"I think ol' Tom's ready to talk to anyone who'll listen, any time we want him to," the young sheriff replied. Then he frowned. "But the other one . . . he's just plain mean, Buck. Mean to the bone."
The ladies' man sighed. "He'll come 'round," he predicted. "I heard part of the speech Josiah's goin' t' be givin' the two of 'em."
"You really think we can make him talk?"
"I'm afraid we don't have an option, gentlemen," Ezra said from where he sat outside the jail, waiting for his turn at the two men. "Mr. Tanner's future depends upon our . . . creativeness."
"Well, everybody knows how creative you can be," Buck teased the gambler, "'specially at the poker table. Whatdaya have in mind for these two?"
"I was remembering a story my uncle told me once, when I was but a tender lad of five or six . . . a tale of an ancestor, from France, as I recall, who fought in a battle to free Jerusalem. It was full of descriptions about what those foreign men did to the French soldiers they captured – descriptions full of knives and their creative uses."
"Sounds like that'll make an impression," Buck said, smiling and nodding.
"Let us hope so," Ezra said, standing. "I know it gave me nightmares for months upon hearing the gruesome details, and I plan to embellish upon my uncle's meager storytelling skills."
"Good luck," Buck said.
Ezra stood, straightened his jacket and stepped inside the jail, closing the door behind him.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris was reading when Vin woke again a couple of hours later. The first thing he did was give the tracker some more water with the medicinal powder stirred in. While he watched the younger man drink it down, his face pinched in response to the bitter taste, he decided Vin was starting to look better.
Tanner handed back the empty cup, shaking his head. "Damned stuff could kill a buff."
"Or cure a buffalo hunter," Chris countered.
"Never wanted t' hunt buff," Vin said, his tone sad. "Army handed me over t' some hunters after they caught me ridin' with the Comanche. . . I had t' work t' buy m' way out 'a their camp . . . took me too long t' do it, too."
"You don't talk much about that time . . . about your past."
Vin shrugged. "Ain't much t' say . . . 'cept what I need t' tell y' now."
"You sure you're ready for that?" Chris asked, looking for the signs the tracker was fighting sleep, but there were none.
"Reckon I've waited long 'nough." Vin took as deep a breath as he dared and glanced over at the window and the sunlight beyond that. "After the war, I headed back t' only family I really knew."
Vin nodded. "But the Kiowa had already been rounded up an' put on reservations, or killed . . . mostly killed . . . I fell in with Comanche."
"Lucky you didn't end up dead."
"Not luck," Vin corrected, "I knew some 'a them. They took me in, but I wasn't much more 'n a slave . . . had t' prove m'self 'fore they made me one of 'em."
"And, knowing you, you did."
A single nod. "They made me ol' Red Flower's son. She'd lost her other sons t' the Army."
"They adopted you?"
"Reckon that's as good a way t' say it as any." Vin fell silent, finding it more difficult to tell Chris the truth than he'd imagined.
"What happened?" Larabee asked him softly.
"Red Flower had a daughter, her youngest . . . she was a year or two older 'n me . . . most beautiful thing I'd ev'r seen. . ."
Chris smiled a little, remembering his reaction the first time he'd seen Sarah.
"But seein' as I's her brother, weren't no way I could court 'n' marry her. Would've, too, if I could've."
"She must have been something special."
Vin nodded. "She kind, Chris 'n' full of life . . . her laughter sounded like music."
Larabee nodded, dipping his head. Sarah's laughter had always sounded like music to his ears as well.
"She was being courted by a' Comanche warrior . . . Black Knife. He was older 'n her, a lot older, but he was respected and he'd beat the Army a few times . . . but he was mean. Mean in his heart and in his soul . . . when they married . . . she changed." Tanner stopped, scrubbing a hand over his face. "I knew he's beatin' her, but there weren't a damned thing I could do 'bout it. I tried talkin' t' Red Flower, an' the chief, but the times . . . the Army was crowdin' in, tryin' t' round the People up an' move 'em onto reservations . . . warriors was dyin' . . . weren't no time. . ."
"One young girl wasn't important to them," Chris said when he heard Vin's voice catch.
"Reckon not . . . She got so's she looked so sad, so scared . . . I didn't know what t' do. I's ridin' with one of the warrior societies, learnin' how t' track 'n' hunt. It took me away from the camp . . . when I got back one time, I– I found her . . . He'd broke her neck . . . I'll never ferget those black eyes, lookin' up at me, still sad . . . I took her back t' Red Flower."
Chris shook his head. "It wasn't your fault, Vin."
The tracker shook his head. "Maybe, maybe not . . . but when I saw Charlotte . . . She had them same eyes, Chris . . . I knew just lookin' at her, her husband was hurtin' her. I jist– . . . I jist wanted t' do fer her what I couldn't do fer– . . . I jist wanted t' help her . . . Don't know if I loved her, or the memory of– . . . But what I done was wrong, I know that . . . an' ridin' out on y'all– On you– Hell, that was more wrong."
Chris looked at the tracker, understanding making his heart ache for the man. "You did what y' had to, to honor the memory of that girl. Nothing wrong with that, Vin."
"Runnin' out on y'all was wrong."
"I would've agreed with you, but not now. Hell, if I'd met a woman who reminded me of Sarah on that train, don't you think I would've done the same thing? Done anything to protect her?"
"But it weren't you," Vin corrected. "I broke m' word, an' that's all a man's got, 'sides his name, an' I ain't even got that 'til I'm cleared of that murder charge."
"Ain't got it back yet," Chris told him. "You'll be cleared, Vin. I swear it."
"Don't promise what y' can't deliver, pard."
"Still, broke m' word."
"Maybe so, but it was for a good reason. Guess I broke mine, too, when I didn't come looking for you sooner. So what do you say we call it even? We both made a mistake, but it's over and done."
"I jist want y' t' know 'm sorry 'bout what I done, an' that's why I done it."
"And I was a damned fool not to trust you," Chris said softly. "I damned near got you killed. You sure you still want to ride with me?"
"Reckon so," Vin said, his eyelids starting to droop. "Can't think of none better. . ."
Chris watched the younger man fall back to sleep and reached out, giving his shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Neither can I, pard, neither can I."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Buck laughed and slapped the big preacher on the back. "Hell, Josiah, I don't know which had me shakin' in m' boots worse – your stories 'bout what them Huns done to them Chinamen, or Nathan's ideas 'bout how he could cut a man up and still keep 'im alive while he done it."
"They were both pretty bad," JD cut in, then shivered. "But where you'd come up with hangin' a man upside down and boilin' his brains over a fire?" he asked the big ladies' man. "That's terrible!"
"Somethin' Vin told me 'bout once," Buck admitted. "Sounded damned painful."
"No doubt," Ezra mumbled.
"And your stories, brother," Josiah said to the gambler as he placed his hand over his heart, "they were inspirational, truly inspirational."
"Why, thank you, Mr. Sanchez, that is most kind," Ezra replied, grinning. "I do believe our friend Tom wet himself in the course of one of my little tales."
"What do you think 'bout Lyman?" Nathan asked the others. "I could see he was getting' scared, but he's a damned stubborn man."
"I think he knows he'd better talk," Buck said. "And if he don't, he's gonna wish he had."
"Hope you're right," JD said. "Sure be nice to get that bounty off Vin's head."
"Amen to that," Josiah said and the others nodded their agreement. "Perhaps we ought to go back and remind them what will happen if they don't help us do just that."
The others nodded.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Two days later
The Judge stepped down off the stagecoach and was immediately greeted by his daughter-in-law and his grandson. Chris watched the family exchange hugs, then slipped inside the jail, leaving the other regulators outside.
He walked over to the desk and took out his Colt, setting it on the desktop and then walked over to the cells and stopped, saying, "Judge is here."
"Ain't that nice fer him," Lyman snarled.
Tom looked ready to throw himself on the man's mercy at the first opportunity, but without his brother backing him up, Travis would have to assume they'd just frightened Tom into talking.
Chris met and held Lyman's gaze, saying softly, "I know the others have been in here, telling you stories about what they're going to do to you if you don't tell the Judge the truth about the murder of Jess Kincaid. And I'm guessing you know as well as I do that they won't actually do any of it." Larabee's lips curled back off his teeth. "Me, I'm another matter all together. Let me tell you what's going to happen . . . You tell the Judge the truth, you'll probably hang. You don't tell him, he's going to sentence you to a few years over in Yuma prison. And he's gonna ask me to see to it you get there."
The gunslinger walked over to Tom's cell, peering in at the man. "You," he snapped, watching the man jerk and cower, "you're going to die trying to escape. Shot in the back of the head. Too bad, Judge, we tried."
The outlaw sat, huddled in the corner of his cot, trembling. Of all of the men to come in, terrorizing them, this one Tom believed. He was a dead man, whether or not he talked.
Chris walked back to Lyman's cell, capturing the man's gaze again. "But you . . . running isn't your way, is it."
"Nope," the older man spat, looking defiant.
"Nope, didn't think so. But I'll bet the Judge'll believe you tried to help your brother. And he'll believe you got away from us . . . Too bad the Apaches are goin' to find you before we do. We've been having trouble with them on and off – renegades from off the reservation, or ones that slip over the border from Mexico. Locals tell me they have a special way of killing their enemies, Lyman, and that's how they're gonna find you. That way they'll know it was renegades who caught you. And you know what that way is?"
"Don't know. Don't care," the man growled standing and moving up to the bars to stare Larabee down, but the gunslinger was more than a match for the outlaw.
Chris shrugged, then, with his lightning quick reflexes, reached between the bars and grabbed the outlaw's shirt, jerking him up tight against the bars and hissing, "I think it's only fair to tell you. Give you a chance to die quick, at the end of a rope."
"Don't do me no favors, Larabee," Lyman said, buut he was afraid for the first time.
"These renegades, they take their prisoners and tie 'em to a tree. Then they cut their bellies open and pull their guts out, nice and slow. They hang 'em up in the branches so the crows'll come and eat 'em. Then they leave 'em there to die. And it'll take a while, I promise you that. And the whole time you can stand there, watching the birds eat your fuckin' guts while ya bleed to death."
Chris smiled, the gesture so cold, so predatory Lyman knew that that was exactly what was going to happen to him if he didn't tell the Judge what Larabee wanted him to. He swallowed hard. "Go t' hell," he said, but it came out sounding scared, even to his ears.
"Plan to," the gunslinger replied casually, the smile turning even colder. "But you're gonna get there a whole lot sooner, you worthless bag of shit." He released the man and walked back to the desk, sliding his Colt into his holster before he looked back to the two men one last time. "It's your choice, boys."
And then he was gone.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Judge Travis stood at Vin's bedside, looking down at the injured man while Nathan explained everything that had been done to him by the two brothers. The older man shook his head and sighed heavily, glad the young tracker had slept though the list.
"He going to make it?" he asked when Nathan was finally finished.
"Yes, sir, he is."
The Judge nodded. "Can't say the same for the two men responsible for this brutality." He turned and left, shaking his head. Larabee and the others met him outside the clinic. He glanced from man to man, wondering how they had convinced the Long brothers to confess and deciding he might not want to know, but his curiosity, he knew, would demand he at least ask. "Gentlemen," he greeted them.
"Well, Judge, what's goin' ta happen to those boys?" Buck asked, his hands on his hips, his stance demanding justice for his friend.
"Given that they confessed to being participants in a murder, they'll hang, although I would've been hard pressed not to order the same punishment if they hadn't, given what I just saw in there. Is he really going to be all right?" he asked Chris.
Larabee nodded. "Nathan thinks so, that's good enough for me. What about getting that bounty off his head?"
"I'll wire the law in Tascosa and start things moving. Eventually Mr. Tanner will have to return and see the local or circuit Judge in Tascosa, but I think the confessions will be all he needs to clear his name. I'll see to it that happens. No one should have to suffer like that; it's the least I can do."
The assembled peacekeepers erupted into cheers, JD pounding Buck on the back, Buck punching Chris's shoulder.
The door to the clinic opened and Nathan leaned out, scowling and scolding, "I've got an injured man in here who's tryin' ta get some sleep. Take yo'r celebratin' someplace else."
"We were just leavin', Nathan," JD assured the healer. "But the Judge just said he can clear Vin's name."
The healer smiled. "Well, now, that's gonna be some powerful medicine for him, that's fo' sure." He stuck his hand out to the Judge, saying, "Thank you, sir."
"And thank you, Mr. Jackson," Travis said, shaking the healer's hand, "for another demonstration of your amazing skills."
Nathan nodded and dipped his head, a little embarrassed. He disappeared back inside the clinic.
"Gentlemen, I suggest we take this budding celebration to the saloon, for a proper fête," Ezra suggested.
"No, not me, thank you anyway, Mr. Standish," the Judge said. "I'll be dining with my grandson and his mother." He looked to Chris, asking, "Would you like to join us, Mr. Larabee?"
"Thanks anyway, Judge," Chris said, "but I've got some good news to deliver when Vin wakes up. Don't figure he should be kept waiting."
Travis nodded, impressed as he always had been by the loyalty these men showed to one another. He looked at the others, asking, "How about you boys?"
The others considered for a moment and then agreed.
"I'll send Nathan along," Chris said, then watched them head down the stairs, following the Judge down the steps, the older man saying, "Never had a couple of hardened outlaws like the Long brothers just up and confess to a crime, let alone murder. Any of you boys want to tell me how you managed it?"
"Well, now, Judge, that's a long story," Buck said, "and I don't think it's one we ought to be tellin' you over the dinner table."
Travis laughed. "That bad, huh?"
"You have no idea," Ezra replied, their voices fading.
Chris shook his head. Whatever they'd told the two men, it had Tom ready to talk, if not his brother. But the gunslinger had known Lyman would realize none of the others could carry though on their threats. But he could, and would have done it gladly. And that much Lyman also knew to be true.
He turned and went inside the clinic. "The Judge is buyin' dinner for everyone. You go on and join 'em. I'll sit with Vin."
"You sure?" Nathan asked him.
Larabee nodded, taking a seat in the bedside chair and reaching for his book.
"I'll bring you back something," Nathan promised. "Vin, too."
"Long as it ain't mush," Chris called with a grin.
Nathan chuckled as he grabbed his coat and ducked out the door.
Chris watched the door close, then paused before he opened his book, looking down at the sleeping tracker and allowing himself a small smile. "It's over, Vin. It's almost over."