Characters: Vin, Chris, Ezra
The cool wind drifted down the bustling street, coating everything in its path with a layer of dust. Beneath the protection of his duster, Chris shivered. It wouldn't be long before winter drove him inside. He would miss these quiet afternoons, sitting in front of the saloon Vin at his side. The tracker always seemed to know when he needed to talk and when he needed to be quiet.
A slight turn of his head brought the younger man into focus. Calvary hat pulled low, shading expressive blue eyes, Vin sat with his chair tilted against the wall. Anyone looking at him would think he didn't have a care in the world.
Anyone who had learned his background knew differently.
A five hundred dollar bounty on the tracker's head, made every stranger a potential threat. Thanks to the dead or alive stipulation on the wanted poster, Vin Tanner was a valuable target.
After the murders of his wife and son, Chris thought he would never want to live again. The only tie keeping him to this earth was his need to find those responsible for their deaths. Make them suffer as he had suffered, every minute of every day since the fire.
It all changed when he looked across a dusty street into determined blue eyes. Chris felt a spark of life ignite inside him. The flame grew until he cared what happened to Nathan Jackson. Outnumbered with only Vin to assist him, he confronted the cowboys preparing to string up the healer - and won. It was the first time Chris had fretted over anyone since he had found himself alone.
Vin had been at his right hand ever since. Even when depression would reassert itself, throwing him into a drunken stupor and he tried to drive the tracker away, Vin wouldn't go.
The bottom of his coat slapped against his legs. He pulled the heavy fabric across his chest, blocking the cooling breeze and returned his attention to the bustling street.
It was a different town now then the day he rode in. Thanks to the seven men who protected her, Four Corners was safe for women and children to walk her sidewalks. Men could go about their business without fear. New stores were opening monthly. Soon, the railroad would be passing through, bringing more businesses and more people - and more trouble for the men who vowed to keep her peace.
Emerald eyes studied every face, especially the ones they didn't know. What had once been a habit was now a necessity. Not just for the citizens he had sworn to protect, but for the man he called friend. Vin had someone to watch his back.
The sun slipped behind the livery. Whether it was imagined or real, the air immediately became cooler. About to suggestion they go into the saloon, Chris' attention was caught by a lone rider. Haloed in the soft glow of the fading sunlight man and horse were unfamiliar to the gunslinger. An inner voice he had learned to listen to told him trouble was approaching. His hand pushed his duster behind his holster, making his weapon easily accessible.
The legs of Vin's chair landed on the wooden porch with a loud thud.
Alarmed by the unusual action, Chris tensed never taking his eyes off the rider. "Do ya know him, Vin?"
When Vin rose to his feet, Chris followed. Crossing to stand at the tracker's side, he partially drew his gun. "Is he a bounty hunter?"
"Nah." A broad smile lifted the corners of Vin's lips. "It's all right, Chris. He's a friend."
Wondering how his instincts could have been so wrong, Chris warily watched as Vin walked out into the darkening road to greet the newcomer. His right hand continued to hover at his side as he moved to his left, keeping Vin out of his line of fire.
There was a joy in Vin's raspy greeting that made Chris feel a touch of jealousy. Though puzzled by his reaction, he didn't relax his vigilance.
"Do I know you, boy?" The rider pushed back his hat as he stared down at Vin.
Vin's smile dimmed. "Ya did. Ya use ta sneak me bread and water when ol' man Foley locked me in the closet."
"Tanner?" Slanting a cautious glance in Chris' direction the man slowly dismounted. "Ya can't be that scrawny kid, Vin Tanner."
"I reckon I can."
Studying this man Vin had called friend, Chris winced as the smaller man was caught in a hug that had to come close to breaking a couple of ribs. Cole was taller and broader than Josiah. With greasy red ringlets peaking out from under his hat, the round face was covered with freckles.
Aware Vin was addressing him, Larabee shifted his attention, though not his eyes to the tracker.
"I'm gonna show Cole to the livery. We'll meet ya in the saloon when we're done."
Reluctant to allow his friend out of his sight, Chris uneasily agreed. "I'll be waitin'." The acknowledgment was directed at Cole rather than Vin.
Certain the big man had gotten the message, Chris watched until they disappeared inside the stable. A shiver of foreboding, whether caused by a gust of wind or the feeling someone was walking over his grave, followed Chris as he entered the saloon. Crossing to his customary table, he took a seat, keeping his back against the wall. It was a habit born of his gunslinger days when there was no one to watch his back. Here, he had a clear view of the batwing doors and anyone who came through them. Mentally, he unsaddled a horse, brushed and grained it. If Vin didn't appear by the time his imaginary scenario concluded, Chris was going after him.
Vin could feel Chris' eyes on them as he led Cole to the livery. He hadn't lied to the gunslinger when he'd said Cole was a friend. But Cole was so much more, Vin wasn't sure Chris would understand. Could anyone who wasn't there? Who hadn't suffered what they had suffered.
As far as the Army was concerned, they had rescued Vin from ignorant savages. If they had bothered to ask Vin, they would have discovered the Kiowa they had killed were his family. The only family he had known since his mother died when he was five.
But no one cared what a nine-year-old thought. They only knew they were stuck with a half-savage adolescent who had no family to assume custody.
Abilene was the nearest town large enough to contain an orphanage. With no regrets and obvious relief, the commanding officer of Fort Cobb relegated the care of the boy from the military to the state.
More curious than frightened, Vin accompanied Lieutenant Reilly into the large wooden building. He had thought no place could be worse than the fort where he was viewed with disdain by soldiers and civilians. One look around the spartan room, his instincts told him differently. The house was quiet, too quiet for a building sheltering twenty boys. His impulse was to run. He had learned much from the Kiowa. Including the ability to sense the evil spirits possessing the souls of those who resided here.
"Mr. Foley." The officier held out his hand to the man entering the vestibule. "I'm Lieutenant Reilly. Colonel Dean wanted me to thank you for agreeing to take the boy."
Vin tried to pull away when Reilly pushed him forward. The grip on his arm tightened until pain forced him to subside.
"I'm happy to do what I can, Lieutenant."
The effeminate voice sounded odd coming from the short overweight man. Vin had the peculiar impression a woman was inhabiting the man's body.
"I understand you rescued the boy from a tribe of savage Indians," Foley probed.
"So far, he hasn't appreciated what we done fer him."
Tapping the fingertips of his right hand against those on his left, Foley smiled. "He will in good time."
"So long, kid." Reilly shoved Vin towards the orphanage director.
Vin recoiled when the pasty white hands reached out to grab him.
The smile on the chubby face tightened but didn't disappear. "We're going to get along just fine. Aren't we son?"
"I'm not your, son." Vin defiantly hissed.
The door slammed behind Reilly. The sound reverberated through the hallway while another echoed in its wake when Foley backhanded Vin across the face. The force of the blow threw the boy against the far wall.
Tasting blood from a split lip, Vin rebelliously glared at the man as he climbed to his feet. His shoulder ached where it had encountered the unyielding barrier, but he refused to give the man the satisfaction of knowing he was hurt by rubbing it.
"I think we understand each other, son," Foley squeaked. "Come with me and I'll show you to your room."
Vin always wondered what would have happened if he had run out the door after Reilly instead of following Foley. He suspected it wouldn't have changed anything. Even if Reilly would have turned a blind eye, even knowing what type of man Foley was.
"I sure didn't expect to ride into a town in the middle of nowhere and find you, Tanner." Cole slapped Vin on the back, causing the slighter man to stumble.
"Last time I saw ya," Vin countered, "ya said ya was heading for the bright lights of a big city as soon as ya got the chance."
"Twern't all I expected it ta be," Cole simply stated, uncinching his saddle and sliding it off.
Filling a bucket with grain, Vin nodded. "I got a friend who done spent time in places like New Orleans and St. Louie. The way he tells it, them places are like a whole 'nother world."
Long arms pushed a brush across his mount's flank as Cole wistfully noted, "But an exciting world."
"Sounds like ya liked it."
"I wish I'd never left." Cole exited the stall and threw the brush into the wooden grooming box.
Hanging the feed bucket for Cole's horse, Vin checked the water. "They why'd ya leave?"
"Takes a lot of money to live decently."
"Don't they have jobs in them there cities?" Vin carried the half empty pail outside and refilled it in the water trough.
"Nothin' that suited me, where my skills would be efficiently utilized."
Throwing a flake of hay into the stall, Vin patted the contented horse on the neck. "Come on over to the saloon. Lord knows I owe ya a drink or two . . ."
"Or three," smiled Cole, throwing an arm across Vin's shoulders.
"Or three." Vin softly agreed.
The sheriff's hand twisted the collar of Vin's shirt, choking him. "This is the fourth time this here boy done escaped, Foley. I got better things ta do with my time than look fer yer runaways."
"It won't happen again, Sheriff," Foley whined. "I assure you."
"That's what ya said last time."
"I'm too nice." Foley shrugged his shoulders and frowned at Vin. "This time the boy will be punished."
The sheriff pushed a gasping Vin into the director's arms. "Boys need discipline, Mr. Foley. Without it, they're nothin' but hooligans."
"Leniency is a thing of the past. Tanner will be chastised."
Pointing a finger at Vin the sheriff admonished, "Thank yer stars ya got a man like Mr. Foley lookin' after ya, boy. If'n it were me, I'd tan yer hide until ya couldn't sit down fer a week."
A feral smile on his face, Foley hissed, "I'll take your advice under consideration, Sheriff."
Realizing his fate was sealed, Vin stared dispassionately at the officer. Each escape attempt had resulted in gradually more severe retaliation. The first time, Vin had been thrown in a closet for three days. His only food and water a small piece of dried bread and a shallow bowl of water pushed under the door by one of the other boys. Later, he had discovered it was Tom Cole.
The second bid for freedom brought Vin a beating and five days in the closet. He had started to wonder how long the human body could function without nourishment and fluids. He suspected it was knowledge Foley could have provided.
His third session in the closet lasted a week. His hands and feet had been tied behind his back. The cramped space had made it difficult to reach the crust of bread and the water pushed under the door. He'd ended up spilling most of the water. Desperate for the moisture, he licked if off the dirty floor.
"Well, Mr. Tanner," Foley's grip on Vin's left wrist tightened. "You have managed to achieve a notoriety of sorts. No boy has ever attempted to escape four times."
Vin defiantly glared up at this captor, gritting his teeth to keep from crying out as the hand twisted his wrist. A loud crack of a bone breaking was followed by excruciating pain. Nausea welled in Vin's stomach as his strength was sucked from his legs. Collapsing to his knees, he reached up with his free hand to pry Foley's fingers from his throbbing arm.
"You will be the first to test my new toy." Retaining his grip, Foley dragged his errant charge through the large house.
Through the haze of pain blurring his vision, Vin saw the scared faces of the other boys meekly watching from the stairs. No one had the courage to confront Foley or attempt to seek help. Beaten and half-starved any sign of opposition had been crushed from them. Only one nine-year-old boy had the courage and will to keep fighting.
Vin's chin slammed into the top of a step, causing his teeth to bury themselves into his bottom lip. Tasting blood, his body bounced down the short flight of stairs leading into the backyard. He tried to see where he was going but the sun was reflecting off something blinding him.
Metal clanged against metal.
Squinting, Vin saw the noise was caused by an open door, slapping against the side of a small metal box.
"The blacksmith built this to my specifications." Foley proudly surveyed his creation. "In the battle of wills, Tanner there can be only one victor."
Foley released his hold on Vin's wrist. Before he could gather his wits to try to escape, he felt himself lifted and thrown into the box. Foley's giggle accompanying him as the door clanked shut. The sound of wood sliding across the metal followed.
Though he knew it was a futile attempt, Vin pushed against the immovable door with his feet. The heat inside the small box was already suffocating and it was till early in the day. He knew it would only get worse. The top and sides, hot to the touch, would be burning his tender flesh in a few hours.
Vents on either wall provided the only air and light. Unable to stretch to his full length or sit up, he started to panic. Pounding against the ceiling with his fist, he screamed, "Let me out."
"All in good time, Tanner."
Ashamed when he was unable to keep the fear from his voice, Vin begged, "I learned my lesson. I won't never try ta escape again."
"I'm happy to hear you say that. But find it difficult to believe. Enjoy your stay."
Feeling the walls closing in on him, Vin pleaded, "Please, let me out."
When there was no answer to his appeal, he kicked at the door until he could no longer lift his legs and his throat was raw from screaming. The throbbing of his broken wrist reminded him he had another concern. He had seen unaligned bones heal. Once, his tribe had come across an old trapper. One leg was so deformed, he could barely walk or ride. He explained he had been too cowardly to allow anyone to set the broken bone. A mistake he would pay for the rest of his life.
Determined not t make the same error, Vin pulled the belt from his pants. Lying on his back, he layed his injured arm across his chest. Taking his left hand in his right, he took a deep breath and jerked hard. A hoarse wail echoed within the confines of the box. Willing himself not to pass out, he wrapped the thick leather belt around the wrist to keep the bones in place. He would leave the box in one piece. If he left it alive at all.
Glancing at the cards in his hand, Ezra pulled two and discarded them. It wasn't until his fingers left the cardboard backs that he realized one of them was a queen. One of three he had been holding. Picking up the replacements, he had been dealt, he softly growled in disgust. Neither the three nor the seven matched anything in his hand, leaving him with a pair of queens. Normally, he royal ladies would be enough for him to bluff, with a more than even chance of winning. But his mind wasn't on the game. It was on the man dressed in black, sitting alone at the corner table, an untouched glass of whiskey near his hand.
"I fold, gentlemen." Ezra threw his hand down in aversion and rose.
His profession having taught him how to perceive the faces of his opponents, he studied Chris Larabee. Cold, green eyes stared at the entrance to the saloon. The unblinking glare would've driven most men away. Ezra wasn't most men. In the few months since the seven had come together to protect a town and each other, Ezra had learned to interpret his comrades almost as well as he could analyze an adversary. Chris Larabee was concerned. The depth of his distress indicated only one person could be the source - Vin Tanner.
Sometimes, Ezra envied the rapport the two men shared. He had never seen anything like it. And doubted he ever would again. Yet, as enriching as such a relationship must be, he also realized it would be extremely painful if one should die before the other. A prospect that was almost a certainty thanks to the five hundred dollar bounty on Vin's head.
Taking a seat across the table from the gunfighter, Ezra pulled a deck of cards from his coat pocket. "Care for a game, Mr. Larabee?"
There was no sign Chris had heard the suggestion, forcing Ezra to probe harder. "A hand of poker can be a welcome distraction."
"I don't want to be distracted." Chris' words were directed at Ezra, but his gaze remained fixed on the batwing doors.
His curiosity piqued, Ezra tried to decide if he should keep his inquires vague or if the direct approach would be more effective. Chris Larabee was not as easy to read as most men in his experience. Confronted the wrong way, he would clam up so tight high explosives wouldn't open his mouth.
A slight shift in Larabee's position alerted Ezra that the answer to his unspoken question had just entered the saloon. Following Chris' gaze, the gambler saw Vin and another man. Tall with red ringlets and freckles, the stranger had an air of menace that made Ezra check the derringer attached to his arm. If the man was a bounty hunter hoping to collect the five hundred dollar reward, he was in for a big surprise.
"Chris, Ezra," Vin introduced, "this here is a friend of mine, Tom Cole."
As Vin automatically slipped into the empty chair next to Larabee, Ezra continued to study Cole. There were a lot of things he still had trouble accepting, including why he had agreed to become a peace keeper for this small town in the middle of nowhere. But he was certain of one thing, Tom Cole was not a man he would call 'friend'. As Cole took the seat next to Vin, Ezra asked, "How did you gentlemen meet?"
"We was in the same orphanage," Cole replied, smiling broadly at Standish. "Tanner here was always gittin' himself into trouble. I was always tryin' ta git him out."
Ezra glanced at Vin. The tracker showed no emotion, no reaction at all to his friend's explanation. "It appears Mr. Tanner has not changed. It just takes six of us to keep him out of trouble now."
Despite the false ring of interest audible in Cole's inquiry, Ezra was happy to elaborate. "In his infinite wisdom, Judge Travis hired seven of us to keep the peace in this small metropolis. Mr. Larabee, Mr. Tanner and myself are three of our little band." Ezra was surprised when Chris shot him a grateful look, making it clear he understood the transparent warning in Ezra's revelation. Ezra hoped Cole had as well.
"I'm with them," Buck announced, obviously having overheard Ezra's explanation. He circled the table to sit next to the gambler.
A quiet intensity in his voice, making it clear he recognized the implications, Vin interposed, "Buck Wilmington this is Tom Cole, a friend."
Though he heard the emphasis placed on the last word, Ezra continued his sublimated interrogation. Five hundred dollars could make a friend an enemy. "What kind of trouble did Mr. Tanner tend to get into, Mr. Cole?"
"He was always tryin' ta escape." Cole shook his head and laughed. "He spent more time in the broom closet then the brooms."
Finding nothing funny in the image of a little boy locked in a small, dark, airless cubicle, Ezra glanced in sympathy at his young friend. He finally surmised why Vin chose to sleep in his wagon rather than in the room he had been assigned in the boarding house.
Cole slapped Vin on the shoulder. "I always thought the kid was scrawny
'cause we didn't git enough ta eat. But he's still scrawny. 'Lessin' yer starvin' him too."
"I assure you, Mr. Cole," Ezra put a restraining hand on Buck's arm. "Mr. Tanner is provided with three square meals a day."
"He eats more than I do," Buck growled, shaking off Ezra's hand.
Wondering what kind of orphanage would incarcerate and starve its young charges, Ezra asked, "Mr. Tanner, how long were you sentenced to this vile establishment?
As usual, Vin's response was succinct, revealing nothing to anyone who was not listening. Ezra was listening. The two words were enough to tell him every day was a living hell.
"Come on, Tanner," Cole softly chided, "ya gotta admit, ya deserved a lot of Foley's wrath. If'n ya had stopped fightin' him, it wouldn't have been so bad fer ya."
For the first time, when Vin's gaze rested on his old friend there was something other than admiration. Ezra felt a touch of relief upon seeing it. His persist questioning was having the affect he was hoping for. It was opening Vin's eyes , making him see Tom Cole the way Chris Larabee saw him.
"I didn't deserve to be tortured and starved," Vin denied.
"Of course not," Cole hastily agreed, his smile slipping. "I'm jist sayin' ya were too stubborn fer yer own good."
"Now that sounds like the Vin Tanner I know." Nathan pulled out the chair next to Cole and sat down. "I'm Nathan Jackson, a friend of Vin's." A quizzical look in his eye, Nathan offered Cole his right hand.
Cole hesitated before weakly gripping the black limb and shaking it. "I'm Tom Cole, also a friend of Vin's."
This was an honorific Ezra was beginning to doubt. He had no substantial evidence to support his theory. Only the suspicion he saw in Chris Larabee's eyes. It was enough for Ezra. Without saying a word, Chris had made his feelings concerning Tom Cole crystal clear.
"No offense, Vin," Cole's gaze circled the table, "I got the impression I'm not wanted. Is there someplace we could go ta have a drink or two?"
"Or three," Vin whispered. With an unusual hesitation, he rose. "Come on, I gotta bottle in my wagon."
As soon as the two men were out of earshot, Buck pushed aside his untouched mug of beer and leaned towards Larabee. "I don't know 'bout the rest of you fellas but that guy has more wind than a bull in green corn time. What do you want us to do, Chris?"
"Keep an eye on them."
Normally, Ezra would have reasoned a simple surveillance job was beneath his talents and returned to his card game. Tonight was not a normal night. The foreboding in Chris' voice made him fear for Vin Tanner's life. Gambling held no appeal. He would find it impossible to concentrate anyway. A condition that could cost him dearly. In poker all he would lose was money. If he failed to keep track of Tom Cole, he could lose a friend. An irreplaceable commodity.
The sun rose, washing the town in golden colors. Vin squinted against the glare as his eyes searched the awakening town for any sigh of trouble. One side of his brain performed the job he had been hired to do, the other side reviewed the previous evening.
After only one drink in the close confines of his wagon, he had suggested calling it a night. Cole had reluctantly agreed. After installing his friend in the boarding house room provided for him by Judge Travis, Vin had returned to his wagon. But he had not slept. Every time he closed his eyes, memories would assault him, making him relive the fear and shame. His initial joy at Cole's arrival dissipated, making him wish the older man had passed through the town unnoticed.
He would have to be blind and deaf not to realize Chris, Ezra, Buck and Nathan hadn't liked Cole. It seemed to Vin they had made up their minds before Cole had spoken a single word. This had been unusual enough, especially for Buck and Nathan, to make Vin wonder if he was seeing Cole with a child's eyes. Eyes clouded by anger, fear and pain.
But he was seeing clearly now.
And while Cole was a bit more selfish and crass then Vin remembered, he had still saved him from starvation - and much worse.
Vin stared down at the metal box, casting a long shadow in the moonlight. He could still feel the hot air as it scaled his nostrils on its way to inflamed lungs. Sweat coated his skin as it had when he had been locked inside. His wet clothes stuck to the painful patches of burned flesh dotting his arms and legs.
Two other boys had been punished in the five days since Vin's release. One of them had succumbed to the effects of the torture chamber. Vin could still see the face twisted in agony as the body was pulled from the metal tomb. Roger Matthews had been seven years old.
This time, Vin wasn't escaping for himself but to save all the boys. Someone had to stop Foley. Someone had to care, even about orphans. Vin was determined to find that someone.
"Ya sure ya wanna do this, Tanner?"
Vin stared up at the older boy, briefly wondering why Cole had never tried to get away. Cursing himself for his traitorous thoughts, he nodded, "We can't let anyone else die."
"Roger had a bad heart. He woulda died soon anyway."
"Foley tell ya that?" Vin bitterly demanded.
Placing a soothing hand on Vin's shoulder, Cole shook his head. "I saw his records."
"That box kilt him," Vin insisted, pointing out the window. "Not 'is heart."
Cole gently tapped the split on Vin's arm. "Maybe this ain't a good time? Maybe ya should wait 'til yer healed?"
"No. It's the proof I need ta show Foley is mistreating us."
"If there's anythin' ya want me ta do, all ya gotta do is ask."
Take my place, Vin longed to beg. But he kept silent, knowing first hand how anyone who defied Foley was made to suffer. "Ya better go back ta bed, Cole. I'll see ya soon."
"Be careful," Cole offered, before melting away.
Utilizing every trick the Kiowa had taught him, Vin crept down the stairs. Often, his short legs were stretched to dangerous lengths to avoid squeaky boards. He was two steps from freedom with his hand closing around the doorknob when the distinctive odor of kerosene filled the air. Eyes searching the shadows, he was momentarily blinded when a lamp suddenly appeared out of the darkness.
"Going somewhere, Tanner?"
Vin frantically pulled on the locked door as Foley advanced. A hard slap across the back of his head, bounced it off the wooden planks.
"You apparently need to be reminded how I feel when my boys try to leave without my permission."
"Don't need no reminder," Vin hissed.
"You also need a refresher course on manners." Grabbing Vin's broken wrist, Foley tore away the bandages holding the split in place. "Pain seems to be the only method to train you to understand."
The agony as broken bones shifted, made Vin physically ill. He felt himself being dragged up the stairs but was powerless to stop it. Weight, size, strength and a full belly were on Foley's side. The only tool Vin had to fight back with was his stubbornness.
When they entered a bedroom instead of going outside, Vin dazedly looked around. Judging by the plush furnishings, it had to be Foley's. Wondering why he had been brought here, Vin was surprised when his shirt was torn from his back and he was thrown face down on the bed. His hands, then his feet were tied to the bed posts. Turning his head, the only part of his body he could control, he saw Foley retrieve a whip. Dried blood on the tip showed it had been used before. He felt sympathy for the victim, until he realized he was next. A flick of a fat wrist whipped the leather strap across his back.
"You can be broken, Tanner. Every boy has his limits."
A second lash quickly followed. Vin gritted his teeth to suppress a cry of anguish. He was determined not to give his tormenter the satisfaction of vocalizing his misery. A third and fourth stoke weakened his resolve. The fifth forced a hoarse scream from his lips.
"You don't think I enjoy this, do you Tanner?"
Vin wasn't sure how to reply, so he said nothing. To agree could be equally as disastrous as disagreeing. Foley was obviously insane.
The crack of the whip was still resonating around the room when Vin felt a hand touch his shoulder. He flinched puzzled, was this a new method of abuse. Fingers traced the whip's path, their salty sweat adding to Vin's suffering. The hand came to rest on Vin's waist. A fear, greater than any he had ever experienced filled him.
"There are much more pleasurable ways we could be spending our time."
The other hand probed under Vin's stomach and removed his belt.
Terror stealing his voice, Vin desperately tugged at the ropes securing him to the bed. Tender flesh tore under the brutal treatment, staining the sheets red. The agony from his broken wrist took his breath away, threatening to consume him.
"When we're done, you'll thank me, boy."
The hand started to tug Vin's pants over his hips. He closed his eyes, wishing this simple act would banish his fear and shame. Screams trapped inside his throat, he tried to twist away from the caressing hands. Dry heaves contracted his stomach into piercing knots.
His pants had been pulled down to his knees when he heard a soft grunt and the hands disappeared.
Vin opened his eyes to see Tom Cole with a board in his hand, standing over an unconscious Foley.
Vin shuddered as he relived the nightmare that remained so horrifyingly real. Cole had untied him and hastily bandaged his bleeding wrists and ankles. Taking the key from Foley's pocket, he had unlocked the door and advised Vin to run as far and as fast as he could never telling anyone about the unspeakable incident. Vin had never looked back - until today.
"Up early this mornin', cowboy."
The agitation his memories had initiated subsided when Chris Larabee took the seat next to his. Feeling the tension seeping from his body, Vin took a deep quivering breath.
Grateful for the concern in his friend's voice, Vin closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. "Not anymore."
Vin stiffened the contentment disappearing as fast as it emerged. "Sleepin', I reckon."
Silence fell between them, but it wasn't the comfortable tranquility Vin had become accustomed to with this man. Regret filled his heart at the loss.
"Are ya sure ya can trust him?"
"He saved me, Chris."
"That and something far worse."
Chris hastily looked away as an unexpected dread made his stomach churn. He had seen the scars on Vin's back and on his soul. He was sure the younger man was referring to the latter. What could be worse than being whipped?
Anger pushed passed his fear. They were physical scars, testaments to what Vin had been forced to endure in his short life. But it was the mental scars Chris found more disturbing. When starvation hadn't been effective what else had been done to the rebellious youth to force him into submission? Glancing at the haunted expression on his friend's face, Chris wasn't sure he wanted to know. "Have you had breakfast?"
"Ain't hungry." Vin rose. "I best go check on Cole."
Chris waited until the tracker entered the hotel before he stood and crossed to the Clarion. Knocking on the door to warn Mary of his presence, he walked in. Mary looked up from her desk. There was no apprehension in her eyes as there had been the first time he entered the newspaper office. A lot had changed in Four Corners since the seven arrived. Though it was early, Chris knew the newspaperwoman would already be hard at work.
"Mornin', Mary," he absently greeted. "I got a favor ta ask."
"I'm listening." Mary put her pencil behind her ear and gave the gunslinger her full attention.
"Could ya go through yer files and see if ya can find anythin' about a Texas orphanage?"
Retrieving the pencil, Mary prepared to write. "Which one?"
"Don't rightly know. I reckon it would be in the western or southern part of the state."
"Is there a time period?"
"About fourteen or fifteen years ago."
Mary sighed and stopped writing. "I don't know if I'll have much from that far back. But, I'll take a look."
"Thanks." Chris started to leave. At the door, he hesitated before turning to face her again. "I'd rather Vin didn't know what yer doing."
"I won't tell him." Mary agreed.
Ezra ambled towards the church. It's location would give him a good angle to keep an eye on Potter's General Store. He saw Buck hurry down an alley where he would be in position to watch the back door. While Nathan leaned against a post across the street. Certain they had all entrances and exits covered, Ezra allowed himself to relax. The tension of trying to keep an eye on Vin and Tom Cole without their being cognizant of their presence was beginning to get him down, physically and mentally.
"Afternoon, Ezra," Josiah greeted from his perch on the roof of the church he was restoring. "A bit early for you to be out of bed, isn't it?"
Frowning at the remark, while silently acknowledging its accuracy, Ezra asked, "Have you met Mr. Tanner's friend?"
"Can't say I've had the pleasure."
Despite the denial, Ezra noticed Josiah was spending more time watching Potter's store than he was patching the gaping hole in front of him. "Believe me, it was no pleasure."
"He is Vin's friend," Josiah unnecessarily reminded. "How often have you seen Brother Vin misjudge a person?"
"Not often," Ezra reluctantly conceded.
"Most men allow themselves to be blinded by love, greed, hate or compassion. Brother Vin always has his eyes wide open."
Though he agreed with the assessment, Ezra knew Chris felt Vin was blinded by his loyalty. As far as Ezra was concerned, Larabee's instincts were a sure bet. "If memory serves, there is a passage in the Bible which states, though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him."
"Well said, Brother, our way is to remain vigilant to Vin's needs."
"Amen, Mr. Sanchez."
Ezra slipped into the shadow formed by the joining of the building and the porch. His participation in the surveillance was superfluous. Nonetheless, he persevered. The cool breeze cut through his coat, making him shiver. It wasn't so long ago he would've sought to alleviate his misery by sitting at a poker table. To his own surprise, he had no desire to participate in a game of chance. Something else had become far more important than the thrill of victory and its monetary rewards. Maude would be disappointed in him if she discovered her son had come to value a friend's life over wealth. She had been shocked Ezra would call a man like Vin Tanner a friend. Ezra called himself lucky.
At first, Vin had been angry when he realized the others were watching them as he showed Cole around town. It didn't seem like a very friendly thing to do. Making him wonder who they didn't trust, him or Cole. But when Ezra never faltered in his vigilance, Vin was forced to reevaluate his opinion. Standish never did anything that was unnecessary, especially if he suffered while doing it. Though the sun was shining, its heat was barely felt. No one stood outside for pleasure. Ezra would only do so if there was a valid reason, a card game or a high stakes wager.
The door to the small general store opened. A cool breeze burst in along with the compact figure of the town's sheriff. Vin's face flushed an angry red. Apparently even JD thought the tracker incapable of taking care of himself.
The normal enthusiasm was present in JD's voice but his eyes rested on Tom Cole, revealing previous knowledge of Vin's visitor. "I hear ya have an old friend in town."
When it became clear Vin wasn't going to make the introduction, JD held his hand out to Cole. "Welcome to Four Corners. I'm JD Dunne, the sheriff."
Cole leaned back against the counter, disdainfully regarding the smaller man. "Must be pretty desperate to hire a baby to be sheriff."
Vin's anger shifted from JD to Cole. Like a lot of people, Cole was judging JD by his age and size. Vin knew what a mistake that was. In a gun battle, he would rather have JD watching his back than Cole. This revelation made him wonder if the boy Cole had been was real, or distorted by fear and time. Was Vin's loyalty misplaced?
"Mr. Dunne is one of the best sheriff's this town has ever had," Gloria Potter indignantly defended.
"Thank you, Ma'am." JD tipped his hat to the store keeper in appreciation. Two bright spots on his cheeks visibly displaying his irritation, he backed towards the door. "I'll see ya later, Vin."
An uncomfortable silence filled the store as the door closed behind the youth. Feeling as though he would suffocate if he didn't escape, Vin suggested, "Why don't ya fit what ya need Cole, and meet me in the saloon when yer done?"
Without waiting for an acknowledgment to his proposal, Vin hastily exited the building. He felt disloyal as he hurried away. After what Cole had done for him, all he wanted was for the older man to leave. In the years since he had run away from the orphanage, Vin had discovered what friendship truly meant. Cole's insults and conceit were not traits Vin had come to cherish. He knew how a true friend should act. How a true friend should talk. Cole didn't fit those qualifications. Vin was beginning to realize he never had.
Mentally reviewing the cards that had already been played, Ezra checked his hand before laying it face down on the table. "I fold, gentlemen."
"So do I." Buck imitated the gambler's motion.
Ezra prodded the next player. "Mr. Reed?"
Throwing a coin into the small pot, Reed replied, "I'll see yer fifty cents, Mr. Cole and raise ya another fifty."
Though nothing of his pleasure showed on his face, Ezra was delighted by the wager. After hearing what Cole had called JD, he was more than happy to see the man receive his due. If Cole had thought to ask anyone in town, he would have been told not to mess with one of the seven. The other six would make him pay, one way or another.
"I'll see yer fifty and raise ya a dollar," Cole smirked, flipping the coins into the center of the table.
Sliding the requisite payment into the pile, Reed said, "Call."
"Three queens." With a big grin, Cole spread his hand in front of him.
A soft sigh of relief escaping his lips, Reed laid his cards down. "Full house."
Cole's hand slapped Reed's away as the other man attempted to collect his winnings. "Not so fast."
"A full house beats three of a kind, Mr. Cole." Ezra pointed out.
"I know that," snapped Cole, throwing the gambler an angry look. "I'm sayin' he cheated. I done seen that jack of spades played."
His hand resting on his gun, Reed softly warned, "I don't cotton ta bein' called a cheat, mister."
"You can go through the discard pile if you so choose, Mr. Cole." Ezra offered the other man the small stack of used playing cards. "But I can assure you, you won't find the jack of spades in it."
"How kin ya be so sure?" Cole snatched the deck out of Ezra's hand, so fast it left a paper cut on his tender palm.
"I'm a professional gambler, Mr. Cole. I remember every card that's been played."
"No one kin remember every card."
Pushing back his chair, Buck rose. "Ezra can."
Reed raked in his winnings, put them in his pocket and stood to leave. "I don't play wit no one who calls me a cheat."
"You certainly know how to win friends and influence people, Mr. Cole," Ezra disdainfully remarked, watching the rancher and his full pockets walk away. "I suggest we call it a night."
"Kinda early fer ya, ain't it, Ezra?" Buck teased, leaning over the gambler. "Wouldn't have anythin' ta do with havin' an early mornin' patrol, would it?"
A soft sigh emptied Ezra's lungs. "To Mr. Tanner a morning patrol starts as soon as the sun appears above the horizon. I don't believe he appreciates the concept of sleeping late."
"To Vin, that is sleeping late." Buck grinned, slapping the gambler on the shoulder. "He's usually up before the sun."
"In any case, I bid you gentlemen goodnight."
For once, Ezra didn't regret retiring early. The more time he spent in Cole's company the more he disliked the man. And the harder it was to believe he was or ever had been Vin's friend. Or anyone else's for that matter. In the last few months, Ezra had learned what was necessary to be a friend and to have a friend. Friendship was a totally new concept to him. Something he had thought he didn't need or want. His mother claimed it would only be a hindrance to someone in their profession. Maybe she was right. Ezra didn't care. Maude would be appalled if she discovered her son was more concerned with helping his comrades then he was in making money. To be truthful, he was rather mystified himself by the revelation.
Though he rarely drank excessively when he played poker, he had nursed a couple beers. The liquid lay heavy in his bladder. One foot on the stairs leading to his room, he mentally debated whether he should brave the cold wind and go outside or use the chamber pot in the relative warmth of his room. The realization he would have to smell the contents all night as well as empty the bowl in the morning, made him choose the first option.
Pulling his coat tightly around him, he hurried outside. With no moon the only light came from a lantern at the front of the saloon. Swinging violently in the brisk wind the illumination it provided was variable. Shifting from shadow to shadow like a lightening bug. Entering the small outhouse, Ezra found the cold as making it harder to relieve himself. He softly swore, cursing his decision to come to a place with such a climate. Gasping from the stench, he finally finished his business and made his escape.
His thoughts drifting to his nice soft bed, he put his hand on the doorknob, anxious to reenter the warm saloon.
A stirring in the air alerted him to the presence of someone behind him. Before he could turn to discover the person's identity, he felt a hard object smash into the side of his head. He staggered, fighting to stay on his feet, his hand groping for his gun. A second blow drove him to his knees. The third thrust all awareness from his mind and body.
The smoke from his cheroot blew back into Chris' face, blinding him. He shifted position. A man in his position couldn't afford to be obstructed for even a second. He hadn't been surprised when Vin left the saloon early. Though Chris had offered to take the morning patrol, the tracker had curtly refused. Chris hadn't taken offense. Vin was mad but it didn't appear to be with him. Discreet probing had not gained any answers. It had simply given him a pounding headache.
At first, he ignored the soft moan and thump issuing from the alley. It wasn't unusual for Buck or a wondering cowboy to use the narrow passage for a quick tryst. However, the cold breeze blowing his duster open made Chris change his mind. Weather conditions did not favor a successful union.
Cautious, even when there appeared to be no need, he slid his coat behind his holster and rested his hand on the butt of his pistol. Walking slowly towards the back of the saloon, he asked, "Who's there?"
Another moan greeted his inquiry. It was not an exclamation of passion but of pain. Chris drew his weapon and picked up his pace. Light seeping under the back door reflected off a familiar red coat. Crossing to the prone body, he quickly checked Ezra's neck for a pulse. His hand came away sticky with blood.
Opening the door to the tavern, he saw Buck leaning against the bar, sipping a beer. "Buck, git out here and give me a hand."
"Sure, Chris," the ladies man smilingly agreed. The smile disappeared when he saw Ezra's still body. "What the hell happened?"
"I don't know." Chris grabbed the injured man's ankles. "Let's git him to Nathan."
Gently lifting the gambler's shoulders, Buck grunted at the dead weight. "Reckon his pockets must be filled with gold ta make him this heavy."
"Too bad his head wasn't."
By the time they climbed the stairs to Nathan's clinic, Chris was beginning to think Buck might be right. As soon as he was close enough, he kicked the infirmary door with a booted foot. Nathan appeared before he could regain his balance to 'knock' a second time.
Entering without invitation, Chris backed to the single bed and dropped Ezra's legs onto it. Buck was a little more gentle as he released his burden.
"What the hell happened?" Nathan demanded, placing a lantern close to his patient.
"'fraid we'll have ta wait for Ezra ta wake up," Buck panted, "'fore we find out."
Kneeling so he could get a closer look at the injuries, Chris probed,
"Will he be all right?"
"He should be," Nathan soothed.
"He's got a strong heartbeat. But head injuries gotta way of doin' what ya least expect." Dabbing at the gambler's blood matted hair, Nathan muttered, "I'm gonna have ta stitch this up."
"Ezra gonna like that." Buck observed.
"He'd like ta bleed to death even less."
JD bound into the room. His arrival was sudden and unexpected, causing Chris and Buck to draw their weapons. Undaunted by the guns pointing at him, JD breathlessly revealed, "I saw ya carryin' a body." Glancing at the lifeless figure in the bed, he clamored, "Was it Ezra? Is he dead? What happened to him?"
"Dammitt, JD!" Buck growled, sliding his gun back into his holster. "You coulda gotten yer fool head shot off."
"Nah, you an' Chris ain't got itchy trigger fingers."
"Did ya see anyone else out there?" Chris asked the observant young man.
"Jus' Vin's friend, Cole."
"Where was he?"
"Headin' fer Vin's wagon."
Uneasy at the news, Chris decided to check on the tracker. He didn't care how angry Vin got at his perceived mother hen treatment. All he cared about was keeping Vin alive. His initial opinion of Cole hadn't changed in the two days the man had been in town. If anything the distrust had grown stronger. When Vin suddenly appeared in the doorway, Chris didn't try to hide his relief or his dislike of the man at Vin's shoulder.
"See, Vin." Cole pointed to Ezra. "I told ya I saw yer friends carryin' a body."
Tossing a bloodstained rag on the floor, Nathan retrieved a clean one. "Will you all stop callin' Ezra a body. He ain't dead."
"What happened to him?" Vin asked, stepping closer.
"That seems to be the question of the hour." Chris studied Cole's hands certain he would find blood stains - disappointed when he didn't.
"Will he be all right?" Vin pressed.
"I reckon." Nathan qualified, "Won't know fer sure 'til he wakes up."
"One thin' is certain." Buck hooked a chair with his foot and pulled it closer so he could sit down. "He won't be doin' no patrol with Vin in the mornin'."
Cole quickly offered, "I'll do it."
"In kin do it alone." Vin asserted, leaning against the wall.
"No," Chris spoke softly but firmly, "you can't. I'll go with ya."
Straightening, Vin growled, "I don't need no damn babysitter."
"Good. 'Cause I don't sit with no damn babies." Chris returned Vin's glare.
"I really don't mind goin'," Cole meekly implored. "I gotta be leavin' in a few days. It'll give me more time with my friend."
Vin broke the staring contest with Chris. "Fine. If ya insist I ride with someone, I'll ride with Cole."
"Suit yerself." Chris knew better than to argue. Usually a reasonable man, Vin became totally irrational when he thought he was being coddled because of the reward on his head. However, the decision didn't sit well. Chris had a feeling Vin was walking from the frying pan into the fire.
Chris watched as the two riders disappeared in the distance. It had taken every bit of control he had to keep from accompanying Vin and Cole on the patrol. Only the fear that his hovering would drive his friend away kept him from saddling up and joining them. Vin was a smart man. But while he wouldn't take chances with his friends safety, he often ignored his own. The modest trait angered Chris more than anything else about the younger man. What had life thrown at Vin to make him feel he was valueless?
Surprised that Mary Travis had reached his side without his senses announcing her presence, Chris fought to rein in his fury. The newspaper woman didn't deserve his wrath. He would save it for the one who did. Touching his finger to the rim of his hat, he greeted, "Mornin', Mary."
"I looked through Steven's files concerning Texas orphanages."
"And?" Chris anxiously prompted.
Distess clearly visible on her face, Mary recited, "There was a story about an orphanage in Pecos. It was a fairly recent article that detailed the establishment's history. They weren't specific with dates, but at one time the place was run by a man named Foley. Apparently, he was accused of torturing and starving the boys under his care."
"What happened to him?" Chris' jaw worked as he fought to control his temper.
"He was hanged for murder. One of the boys died."
"What did he die of?"
"Foley had a sweatbox he would use to punish his charges." A tear trickled down Mary's cheek. "The boy who died was seven years old."
The information was vague. Chris knew if this was the orphanage where Vin and Cole had met, he should feel compassion for both men, not just Vin. Instead, the alarms in his head ran louder, urging him to follow the tracker. He stepped off the sidewalk, heading for the stable when a hand on his arm stopped him.
"Chris," Mary dropped her gaze. Her tongue whipped out to moisten dry lips. "There were allegations Foley molested some of the boys."
His mind reeling at the revelation, Chris pulled away. Even in his darkest thoughts this possibility had never occurred to him. Had Vin been one of those abused children? Was this the hold Cole had over him? Possession of a secret Vin had hoped would never be exposed.
The small oasis beckoned, offering the only water for miles. Vin layed his left rein on Peso's neck, turning his mount. They would water the horses and take a short break before heading towards the Bar C, the next stop on their patrol.
Cole had started talking the minute they rode out of Four Corners and hadn't stopped once. Vin had long since tuned him out. Instead, his mind replayed the circumstances that had made Cole a hero to him. No longer a boy, he reviewed their encounters through the eyes of a man.
And remembered, how the small hunk of bread shoved under the door had been so stale he had to use some of his precious water to soften it. He remembered, how the bowl containing the water had been half full. He remembered, how Cole's eyes would shine with eager anticipation when Foley would punish a boy for misbehaving.
Yet, even as he organized his distorted memories the most crucial recollection remained unchanged. Cole had saved him from being raped. The magnitude of this action made it possible for him to forgive any other transgressions. Cole would never be his friend. Not by any definition of the word Vin had come to understand since his association with Chris and the others. But he would always feel indebted to the man.
Since their last confrontation, Vin had discovered what true friendship was. The kind that came with willing sacrifices. For the first time in his life, he could trust someone to watch his back, more specifically, six someones. With each sunrise, he had more to look forward to than just surviving. A warmth filled his gut as a reflective smile curved his lips. These men were the closest thing to a family he had known for too many years. While a bit unorthodox by most people standards, they suited him just fine.
The absence of Cole's irritating whine made him lift his eyes. His vision was filled by the large shape of a rifle butt swinging towards his head. Ducking, he received a glancing blow to the forehead, instead of the full impact. His head throbbing, his muscles lost their strength, causing him to slide off his saddle.
Landing hard on his back, all the air was driven from his lungs. Weakly struggling to draw his gun a hard slap across his face made the world spin. Bile rose in his throat. Turning onto his side, he lost his breakfast. As he strained to regain control of his body, he felt his right wrist engulfed in a powerful grip. His arm was twisted until he heard bone crack and the Mare's Leg fell from his hand.
Just as it had fifteen years before in similar circumstances, agonizing pain held him immobile, while nausea tied his stomach into excruciating knots. Vin looked up at his tormentor. Blurred vision working with bitter memories cast Foley's face over Cole's for a brief moment.
A cut lip filling his mouth with blood, Vin spit it out as he defiantly regarded a man he had regarded as his friend. "Why?"
"Five hundred dollars is a lot of money." Cole kicked the Mare's Leg out of reach. "But the reward is jus' a bonus. I've been lookin' fer you fer a long time."
Recognizing the ruffian's tactics from years before, Vin stared silently at the older man. Cole must have been Foley's star pupil.
A tip of a boot slammed into his ribs. Curling into a protective ball, Vin swallowed the groan rising to his throat. He remembered how to torment his tormentor as if it had happened yesterday instead of fifteen years ago. He'd learned under Foley's tutelage, too.
"They hanged him you know?"
"It was better than he deserved," Vin hissed through his teeth afraid to open his mouth incase a groan escaped. "They shoulda let 'im die in 'is own sweat box like Roger Matthews."
His defiance cost him another kick, this time to his unprotected back.
"If it weren't fer you, he wouldn't be dead."
Vin wasn't sure what he had to do with Foley's demise, but he had no regrets.
"When we found Roger dead, I tried ta tell 'im we had ta run. He wouldn't go. He had to have you first."
His shocked gaze resting on the other man, Vin mumbled, "You were jealous. That's why you knocked him out and helped me escape."
"I loved him. That was enough until you came along."
"I'm as sorry as you are I ever stepped foot in that place."
Cole backed away and pulled his gun. "You're about ta be even sorrier. And I'm about ta be five hundred dollars richer."
"I wouldn't count on it. Drop the gun, Cole," a familiar voice ordered.
Spinning his head, Vin tried to catch a glimpse of Chris Larabee. He knew he should have been surprised by the gunslinger's sudden appearance, but he wasn't. Chris was watching his back. Just as he had since the day they met on a dusty street.
"Chris." A wheedling tone entered Cole's voice. "Tanner here is a wanted man. We kin split the bounty. Two hundred and fifty dollars is a lot of money."
"Not interested." Chris' thumb pulled back the hammer of his pistol.
Anger flushed the freckled face. "Fine. I'll keep it all fer myself."
"It's not gonna happen."
"Yer a lawman."
"So is he." Chris nodded towards Vin.
"He can't be. He's a wanted man."
"Ya got two choices, Cole. Ride out of here and never come back, or die."
"I ain't gonna let ya steal my bounty."
Chris lifted his pistol. "Then I guess you've chosen ta die."
"All right. All right." Cole quickly holstered his gun. "I guess I know when ta back away."
"Git on yer horse and git otta here. Next time I see ya , yer dead. Ya won't git a second chance."
Conflicting emotions struggled inside Vin as he watched the man he called a friend mount his horse and rein it around, heading away from Four Corners. Cole's revelation concerning his relationship with Foley hadn't been as much of a shock as he would have expected. His adult awareness was able to interpret the signs he had been unable to understand as a child. He longed to return to the innocence ignorance had bestowed upon him. His heart hadn't been so heavy when Cole had been his friend and savior.
"Come on, cowboy." Chris holstered his weapon and bent to help Vin to his feet. "Let's get you to Nathan."
"Damn." Vin unhappily swore. "Couldn't we jus' set the wrist ourselves and pretend it never happened?"
"I done it once before."
"Then you can tell Nathan how to do it."
"Dammit Chris, he's gonna make me drink that horse piss he calls medicine."
Vin swayed as Chris pulled him to his feet. His wrist wasn't all that ached. Cole knew exactly where to kick to cause the most pain and damage. Wondering if that was something he had learned from Foley, Vin kept his good hand on Chris' arm, waiting for the world to stop spinning.
The first thing he saw when his vision cleared was Cole turning in his saddle and pulling his gun. Without conscious thought, Vin's hand snaked down and drew Larabee's pistol, as he shouldered his friend out of the line of fire.
Two shots echoed in the clearing. Only one found its mark.
Feeling no remorse, Vin watched as Cole lurched in his saddle before toppling off. Wishing he could feel a little regret, Vin stared at the still body.
Chris gently pried his gun from Vin's hand. Keeping it trained on the deceitful man, he checked for a pulse. "He's dead. I'm sorry, Vin."
"He was your friend."
"No, he never really was."
Vin took an unsteady step towards his horse. He wasn't surprised when Chris crossed quickly to his side and helped him mount. With this man, Vin knew he had a real friend. That made him feel better than Nathan's medicine ever could.
Drums beat in his head. Ezra expertly flicked his wrist to release the derringer. He would stop the infernal noise one way or another. When he didn't feel the comforting weight of the small gun in his hand, he repeated the action. The mechanism had been known to malfunction. When this didn't obtain a satisfactory result, he tried a third time.
"Easy, Ez. You're all right. Ya don't need that peashooter."
The soothing words were accompanied by a strong hand encircling his own. Ezra recognized the soft drawl and touch. He immediately relaxed. Vin Tanner was one of the few people he completely trusted with his life. As far as Ezra knew, the tracker was incapable of lying.
Opening his eyes, he instantly recognized Nathan's clinic. The angle was an all to familiar one for someone lying flat on their back in bed. Squinting to decrease the pain in his head, he inquired, "Mr. Tanner, would you mind telling me how I find myself a guest of Mr. Jackson's once again?"
"Ya got bushwhacked."
Ezra frowned. One of Tanner's less sterling qualities was his abbreviated explanations. Stating the bare facts, Vin often left out the more interesting details. In this case, it included why he was sitting next to Ezra's bed with his right arm in a sling and a dark bruise on his forehead. "Would you mind elaborating, Mr. Tanner?"
Rising stiffly from his chair, Vin avoided Ezra's gaze. This unusual response scared the gambler. He pushed up on his elbows, trying to rise. "Has something befallen Mr. Larabee? Mr. Wilmington? . . ."
Vin gently pressed Ezra back onto the bed. "They're all fine."
Relief filled Ezra, only to disappear when his eyes rested on Vin's troubled face. "Let's start again, shall we? Who bushwhacked me?"
The succinct reply was less than sufficient. "May I ask why?"
"He wanted to go on the morning patrol with me."
"I hate to repeat myself, Mr. Tanner," Ezra gritted his teeth, feeling as though he was dealing with a particularly stubborn mule. "But again, why?"
"So he could kill me and collect the bounty."
Though he had never trusted Cole, Ezra was shocked by the revelation. How could anyone who knew Vin Tanner even a short time doubt his innocence? Mor importantly, how could a man who purported to be his friend, value money over friendship? Ezra knew he would give every dollar hidden in his boot and much more to continue to call Vin his friend. "I'm sorry, Mr. Tanner. I know from experience it hurts to discover a friend has feet of clay."
"I don't reckon Cole was ever really my friend," Vin confessed. "Though his motives were personal, he did save me." Vin hesitated, before admitting, "For that, I'll be eternally in his debt. I'm jus' sorry you had ta git hurt, Ez."
Though disappointed when Vin didn't elaborate on what Cole had done to earn such gratitude, Ezra didn't hesitate to forgive a transgression. Vin had no reason to feel repentant. "Mr. Cole's actions were entirely his own. You are not responsible for what he did."
"He wouldn't 've been here if it weren't fer me. An you wouldn't've gotten conked on the head."
"If you persist on blaming yourself, Mr. Tanner, I cannot stop you. However, do not presume to believe I castigate you."
Vin returned to the chair, his trembling body displaying his weakness. "Thanks, Ezra."
"That's what friends do, Mr. Tanner."
The cool wind blew down the dusty street. Dust devils swirled in its wake. Chris leaned his chair back against the saloon. From this vantage point, he could keep an eye on the man sitting beside him. The dark bruise on Vin's forehead had spread to cover most of the right side of his face. The remainder was unusually pale under the deep tan. A soft moan escaped the thin lips when he shifted and accidentally bumped his broken arm.
Three days ago, Chris would have berated his friend for leaving Nathan's attentive care too soon. That was before Tom Cole rode into their lives. Before their comfortable relationship had been jeopardized. Chris wasn't sure where he stood anymore. When an old friend was willing to kill you for a five hundred dollar reward, how could Vin ever trust men he had only known a few weeks?
It gave Chris no satisfaction to realize his instincts had been right about Cole. He just hadn't realized the trouble, radiating from the man like bad perfume would drive a wedge between him and the man who had brought him back to life. If he had, he wouldn't have allowed Cole to dismount. A gun to his head would have persuaded the gold digger to move on.
"Chris, you aint' gotta keep watchin' me. I'm all right."
So much fer subtle observation. Once again, Chris could only marvel at the younger man's skills. He knew everything that was happening around him. So how could he not have known Cole was a backshooter?
"Reckon I always knew Cole was no good," Vin muttered, appearing to read Chris' thoughts. "He still saved me."
Chris wanted to ask from what, but he kept his curiosity in check. Partially because he wasn't sure he wanted to know, or that Vin would tell him. He had read the article Mary found. Even without specific details it had made his stomach turn. The authorities had turned a blind eye to Foley's actions, until a boy died. This was something that could not be buried or explained away. To Chris, those men were as guilty as the man they hired and then snubbed. They should have been strung up along side the orphanage director.
"He had broken my wrist on a previous escape attempt. He used the pain to drag me up to his room."
"Vin," Chris interrupted, bile rising in his throat, "you don't have to . . ."
"He tied me face down on his bed and then whipped me. I guess it was his idea of foreplay."
Closing his eyes, Chris fought to keep the contents of his stomach from splattering onto the porch. He knew he didn't want to hear anymore. Already, it had been far worse than he could ever imagine. He longed to save Vin from the dark memories, but he didn't know how.
"He was pulling my pants down. . ."
Chris swallowed hard, breathing through his mouth.
"When Cole knocked him out. He untied me and told me to run. I never looked back, or told anyone what happened that night."
Though he knew he should feel privileged by the disclosure, Chris could only feel the other man's pain, what he was experiencing now, what he had endured then. "I can see why you felt the way you did about Cole."
When a shudder wracked Vin's thin frame, Chris reached out and layed a comforting hand on his friend's shoulder. He hoped the touch would anchor Vin.
"The funny thing is," Vin snorted with a mocking laugh, "he didn't do it to save me. He did it because he was jealous."
Chris tightened his grip and bowed his head to shield his tears behind the wide brim of his hat. How could Vin ever trust anyone to be his friend again? Even the six men who stood at his back these last few months. Would he think their friendship had anterior motives? Were they biding their time, hoping the five hundred bounty would go up? Would Cole taint Vin's future as he poisoned his past? "Cole was never your friend," Cole tentatively offered, needing to clarify the difference between what Vin thought he had experienced to what he actually possessed.
"I know that. Now."
The last word giving him encouragement, Chris pressed, "We would never shoot you in the back."
"I know that too."
His heart lighter, Chris nodded towards the approaching healer, "Good, because Nathan's comin' and he don't look none to happy."
"Does this mean you left the infirmary without his approval?"
"Yeah," Vin curtly admitted. "Ya gotta help me, Chris."
Larabee released his grip on the tracker's shoulder and sat back in his chair. "I'd take a bullet for you, cowboy, but there are times when friendship has its limits. This is one of those times."
"Ya know what its like to be shut up in a room with Ezra?" Vin grumbled, slouching lower in his seat. "An injured Ezra."
"Can't say as I've had the pleasure."
"Believe me, it ain't no pleasure."
"Vin Tanner!" Nathan's irate voice echoed down the long porch, making his prey cringe. "What do you all think yer doin' out of bed? Ya got a concussion, a broken arm, bruised ribs and kidneys. Do I have ta break yer other arm ta git ya ta stay put?"
"Surrender is the better part of valor, cowboy," Chris whispered.
"Then you surrender."
"I ain't hurt."
"That can be remedied," Vin stated with a dark frown.
Even knowing it would irritate the tracker, Chris couldn't suppress a broad smile. The familiar banter gave him faith. As Josiah would say, faith can move mountains. Nothing appeared to have changed between them. Their present remained uncontaminated by the past. Maybe, That's what Vin had been trying to tell him when he revealed the sordid details of Foley's attack? He was telling Chris he trusted him with more than his life.
I'll keep your trust, Chris silently vowed, as Nathan led Vin back to the infirmary.