Main Characters: Vin, Chris, Buck, JD, Nathan
Warnings: Violence and language… food of the h/c gods. And smarm. Lots ‘n lots of smarm. And THE BOND. If you don’t believe in it, you probably won’t like this.
Notes: Written for Tammy W., she who shares a birthday with our own Blue-Eyed One. She asked for a young, vulnerable Vin and a caring, nurturing Chris. Hence the smarm alert.
Webmaster Note: This story was previously hosted at another website. This is an updated version, posted in May 2012.
They had been looking for Vin Tanner for three weeks. He had left just over a month ago, taking some time off to go into the hills. The quiet Texan claimed to be going hunting, but they knew better. The fast growing town of Four Corners had begun to close in on him, leaving him craving the wide open spaces and peace of the wilderness. None of them could blame him and, with few exceptions, they envied him the time alone.
But then he hadn’t returned. They gave him an extra couple of days, the longest amount of time they’d allow one another to disappear before looking for them. It had been different before Chris had been nearly killed in the prison camp outside Jericho. They were all independent and self-sufficient men, prone to going on their way when the mood struck. But things had changed over the last few months, and now they all knew that their absence would be noted and investigated. While it gave most of them a taste of frustration at not being able to just pick up and move away, it also gave them a sense of comfort. They had people who cared that they were around.
They packed for the journey, leaving only Nathan and Ezra behind to keep their presence known in town. The other four peacekeepers rode out at dawn, heading toward the hills. They kept a comfortable pace, not wanting to wear out their mounts. The first day passed, and they spent the night around a low campfire. The second day was almost a twin of the first, and they set up camp as evening fell. Each day came and went in much the same way. Twice they returned to town, hoping to find Vin had returned. Each time they left a day later, carrying provisions for another search. The second time they left, Nathan joined them, while Josiah remained behind with the Southerner.
Chris sat just outside the circle of light thrown by the campfire, enjoying a cheroot while he watched clouds drift across the moon’s face. He loved being outside, but the peace and tranquility had been replaced by an ominous feeling of dread. He had ceased to feel the presence of Vin Tanner on the earth. It was something he would never share with the others, would not even mention to the Texan should he be given a chance. Larabee had become aware some time earlier that he always sensed the other man, knew he was around. But, suddenly, that sense of the other man had disappeared. And Chris Larabee grew more and more afraid that they would find nothing more than a corpse.
“Chris? Can’t sleep?”
“Just watching,” he replied quietly, not wanting to disturb the others. He turned to contemplate the silhouette of his oldest friend. “Why aren’t you asleep, too hard to sleep without a woman around?”
Grinning beneath his mustache at the man’s double meaning, Wilmington said, “Just miss the smell of perfume I reckon.”
Larabee smiled, but didn’t respond. Instead, he took another draw on his cheroot, expelling the heady smoke toward the fire.
Buck watched his friend for a minute before continuing. “Reckon we’ll find him in another day or two.”
“You don’t think so.” It wasn’t a question.
Shaking his head, the blond said, “No, I don’t think so. This isn’t like Vin.”
“It’s completely like Vin, stud, and you know it. He’s the rootless kind, and town’s been growin’ up around him. Reckon he just found the peace and quiet too enjoyable to come back from. He’ll probably laugh at us when we do find him.”
Larabee wanted to believe that, but knew better. Shaking his head, he said softly, “That’s how he used to be, but not any more. He’s changed, just like the rest of us. He’d at least say good-bye.”
Another day of searching. They had almost all given up hope of ever finding anything, of finding any sign of Vin Tanner. Almost all of them. Chris continued each morning with the same strong resolve that this would be the day they found the sharpshooter. And each night he sat, sullen and unresponsive to the other men, when that resolve was destroyed by the setting sun. He struggled to ignore the growing sense of dread, to mark it down to something else. Long hours in the saddle. Long days on the trail. Anything but what his gut kept telling him. Vin was not dead.
The day was only a few hours old when the four men heard a sound that brought them up short. It was the sound of pain and fear. Reining in the horses they dismounted, pulling their sidearms cautiously as they spread out and began looking for the source of the sound.
Chris crept through the thick underbrush, peering into the shadows. He moved slowly, alert for attack from any direction. Pushing through tightly packed pine branches, he found himself in a clearing half the size of his rented room. And it was already inhabited.
The other men heard the blond’s call, and hurried toward his voice. As they pushed their way into the tiny clearing they stopped abruptly, staring before them in shock. Chris sat on his knees, beside the man they had been searching for. Vin was curled up on the ground, but he was tensed as if he would run at any given chance. He was staring up at Larabee, swollen blue eyes shining with fear. More than fear; abject terror. The gunman was watching him, a mixture of relief and shock on his handsome face.
“Vin? Vin, it’s all right. It’s me… it’s Chris. Do you understand?”
The other three continued to stare, unable to believe the sight before them. There was hardly an inch of Tanner’s body that wasn’t sporting a cut or bruise. The usually tanned flesh was mottled; blue, black, green, yellow, purple and red vying for residence on the spare frame. And the man did not have a stitch of clothing on. It took them a minute to realize that fact, due to the signs of abuse.
“Oh my God,” JD whispered hoarsely. “What happened to him?”
Nathan stepped past the young sheriff and Buck Wilmington, padding the few steps it took for him to reach the other men. He leaned down, reaching out to touch the tortured young man. Then he moved back quickly, shocked at Tanner’s response.
Vin cried out, a weak, pitiful sound, and struggled to get away from the big healer’s touch. He managed only a few inches before he slumped to the ground once more. Larabee moved back into his line of sight, dropping his voice in hopes that he could calm the younger man down.
“Vin, it’s all right. You’re all right now. You’re safe. Do you understand?” Tanner looked up, a faint glimmer of recognition lighting his eyes. He seemed to calm a little, giving no sign of trying to run away. The blond slowly reached out, tentatively laying his hand on the fragile, beaten shoulder. The other man drew a sharp breath, but didn’t pull away.
“That’s it, you’re all right pard. You’re safe. Now, can Nathan take a look at you?”
Taking his cue from the gunslinger, the healer moved to touch their frightened friend once more. This time, rather than trying to crawl away, Vin crawled toward the blond, coming to rest against a startled Larabee. Instinctively the gunman wrapped an arm around his friend, protecting him against whatever fear had the Texan in such a state. He felt the battered frame shivering and the rapid flutter of the other man’s heart against his own chest as Tanner huddled in his arms.
“Oh, Jesus,” Dunne gasped from where he stood with Wilmington, watching the drama unfold in the little clearing.
“JD,” Chris said, his voice soft and even so he wouldn’t startle the man he held. “If you can’t keep quiet, get out of here.”
“C’mon Kid,” Buck said, barely above a whisper, “Let’s go take care of the horses.”
As the two men disappeared, Larabee looked at the healer. “Nathan, what’s wrong with him?”
Shaking his head, the healer said quietly, “Ain’t for sure. Something, or someone, beat the hell out of him. This could be a result of that. Or… I saw similar during the war. Men carried in off the field, all curled up on themselves, covered in blood and gore. Some of them would be screaming their heads off, and others would be as quiet as… as Vin. But then we’d find there wasn’t much of anything wrong with ‘em. Not their body anyway. Their mind was a different story.”
“What are you saying?” Chris knew what he was saying. Knew it as well as he knew his own name. But he wouldn’t accept it. Couldn’t accept it.
“They got pushed past their limits… saw more than they could take. They’d just sort of go away, draw in on themselves. I’ve seen ‘em sittin’ all wrapped up on themselves, rocking and staring like they were watchin’ the gates of Hell openin’ up right in front of ‘em. One man – “
“No,” Larabee stopped him, not wanting to hear any more. “Vin’s strong. It’s got to be something else. It’s got to be.”
Jackson looked into the set face and flaring eyes, seeing the determination there. If pure grit and stubbornness could bring Tanner back around, then Chris Larabee held the key to his recovery. Nodding, the former slave said, “I hope you’re right. But I can’t tell anything if I can’t touch him.”
Nodding, the blond looked down at the man he held. “Vin? You need to let Nathan take a look at you.”
Once more the big man reached out to the fragile being wearing Vin Tanner’s face. The pitiful creature only pressed himself tighter into Larabee’s embrace, and a tiny whimper escaped battered lips.
Sitting back with a sigh, Jackson shook his head. “I’m gonna go get my satchel. I hate to do it, but I’m gonna have to give him a little Laudanum.”
The black clad man looked up into the dark eyes, startled. Nathan seldom dolled out the opiate, not trusting its ability to become the user’s sole reason for living. “Are you sure it’s safe?”
Sighing, the big man said, “Chris, I ain’t sure of a damn thing. I don’t know of any other way for me to get close enough to him to see what’s wrong.”
Resigned, the gunman nodded, dropping his head to study the man he supported. He barely registered the healer’s departure, his mind swimming with disjointed thoughts brought on by his concern for his friend’s current state. And his fear of what had happened to bring him to that state.
Larabee looked up, startled at the call of his name. At first he thought Vin had recovered, but then realized that the younger man hadn’t moved or made a sound. His hopes fell when he saw that it was Jackson who had spoken. The big man edged quietly toward the two men and held out a small amber vial. Chris frowned.
“He ain’t gonna let me give it to him. You’ll have to feed it to him. just a few drops, all right?”
With a heavy sigh, the blond took the amber bottle. Tilting the handsome face back gently, he whispered, “Vin? Take a sip for me.”
The sharpshooter opened panicked eyes as wide as he could, silently pleading with his friend not to harm him. Chris Larabee knew that, if he lived to be a thousand, he would never forget that look. ‘Oh Jesus, Vin,’ his mind screamed, ‘what in the hell happened to you?’
Aloud, he said, “It’s all right, pard, it’ll take some of the pain away. You’re safe… I’ve got your back.”
Slowly, obediently, the traumatized man sipped at the bottle. Handing the little vial to the healer, the gunman forced himself to appear unaffected by it all. As if holding his best friend in his arms and feeding him like an infant was the most natural thing in the world. He stroked back dull, matted hair, watching as the medicine slowly took effect and sent the exhausted man into a deep sleep.
They lay him out on one of the bedrolls so that Nathan could get a better look at him. JD and Buck stayed busy, carrying water from a nearby stream and heating it at the fire so that the former slave could wash the filth from the thin body. It took over two pain-staking hours for him to examine the injured man. Finally, he sat back, worry etched deeply on his dark face.
“Well?” Larabee’s patience was at an end. He wanted answers. Now.
Scrubbing the back of his hand across his face, he shook his head. “Don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this. There’s an old head wound, looks like someone grazed him with a bullet. Other than that… well, there ain’t an inch of this man’s body that doesn’t have a bruise or cut… or bite… on it.”
“Bite?” Chris asked, shocked.
Nodding, he motioned in the air above one of the marks. “See this here? It’s a human bite.”
“Good Lord,” JD gasped from where he stood nearby, nearly dropping the canteen he carried. “Someone bit him?”
“More than once. Some of the shallow cuts are actually deep scratches, too.”
“Nathan, did they… was he,” Buck’s voice shook, and he couldn’t finish the thought.
Shaking his head, the big man said, “No sign of anyone raping him.” The other three men suddenly found it impossible to look at one another.
Taking a deep breath, Nathan turned from their shocked and haunted expressions and back to his patient. Tanner lay almost too still, the Laudanum taking him someplace beyond the pain and fear. He dug salve out of his satchel and began to gently cover the worst of the open wounds. Finishing some time later, he directed the men in helping him lift the limp form from the stained and soiled blanket and settle him on a fresh one. Carefully they wrapped him in a second blanket, mindful of the weight of even the light cover on Vin’s traumatized body.
The other four men settled in on the ground, sipping the strong coffee Buck had made. Larabee sat beside Tanner, one hand on the man’s shoulder. The others sat around the low fire, taking comfort in it, even though the warm afternoon made its heat unnecessary. As always, they looked to the blond gunfighter for leadership. Chris’ eyes settled on Nathan.
“Is he strong enough to ride double with one of us?”
“He could, but I don’t know that I’d advise it. None of the wounds are serious, the head wound’s the worst, and it’s pretty well healed. But all of them together, added to dehydration and starvation… well, he’s about as weak as I’ve seen a livin’ body.”
“Then we’ll need a wagon to carry him back home in.”
Nodding, the former slave said, “And we’re gonna need plenty of supplies to nurse him along the way. It’s gonna take us three or four days to get him to town.”
Buck studied the terrain thoughtfully, “Briarson’s only a day North. We could take him there.”
Larabee looked down at the sleeping form beside him. “If we have to, but if he can make it, I’d rather take him home. He doesn’t need strangers gawking at him right now.”
Nodding in agreement, the ladies man said, “Well, me and the Kid can go get the wagon and supplies from Briarson anyway. Maybe… maybe things’ll change by the time we get back here.”
“Maybe,” Chris said quietly.
Jackson frowned, something weighing on his mind. “I think I’d better go to Briarson with JD. There’s nothing I can do for Vin that the two of you can’t.”
Staring at the dark man, Larabee said, “Not like you to leave a patient, Nathan. What’s on your mind?”
“Whoever did this to Vin is probably still out there. I’d rather you and Buck were watching his back.”
The gunman turned the words over in his mind, nodded, and said, “All right.”
Another night. Another campfire. Another cheroot. Chris sat, as he had for several hours, beside his best friend. The opiate was beginning to wear off finally, leaving Vin to moan and toss fitfully beneath the blanket. Larabee carefully stroked a hand along the side of the battered face, doing his best to calm the younger man.
The sound of someone in pain woke the healer, and he stole softly across the camp to their side. He held out a warm mug. “This’ll help him settle, and it won’t poison his system like Laudanum can.”
Nodding gratefully, the blond carefully lifted Tanner, cradling him against his shoulder. Taking the mug, he pressed it against the slightly parted lips. “Vin, can you drink this for me?”
Slowly blue eyes drifted open, closed, then opened once more. Fear shown bright in them, but slipped to the edges as his gaze settled on the older man. Visibly relaxing, he dutifully sipped the bitter brew, not even reacting to its taste. Larabee patiently fed him the tea, watching as it began to ease the pain in the finely chiseled features. After the mug was emptied, he started to lower the lean body to the blankets, but the fear flared in Tanner’s eyes, and he clutched at Chris’ shirtfront.
“Hey, it’s okay pard,” the blond whispered in a voice hoarse with emotion. “It’s okay, I won’t let go.”
Vin sighed, collapsing weakly in the other man’s arms, his hand still wound through the dark material. Slowly he drifted back into the comforting darkness of sleep, calmed by Larabee’s presence as no medication could do. The gunman settled back, using a tree trunk for support, and cradled his friend in his arms once more.
Shaking his head at the gunman’s gentleness toward the traumatized man, Jackson carefully pulled the blanket up over Vin’s lean frame. Nodding to Larabee, he returned to his own blankets.
Jackson and Dunne left just as the sun made its appearance on the horizon. Wilmington watched them leave from the edge of the little grove of trees, then returned to the clearing where Larabee and Tanner were. Chris had finally been forced to lay Vin down, his body aching from holding the man for several hours. He settled the shaggy head on his thigh, and kept one hand draped gingerly across the lean chest.
Looking up when the big man re-entered the clearing, the blond nodded in greeting. Holding up a mug, he asked, “Any more of that mud you claim is coffee?”
“You insult me, and then expect me to fetch and carry for you?”
“Yep,” Larabee treated the other man to a brief smile.
Shaking his head and grumbling under his breath, the former lawman nonetheless took the mug and filled it. Handing it back to the gunman, he said, “Hate to tell you this, stud, but you look like hell.”
With a smirk, Chris said, “Imagine I do.”
“Want me to take over for awhile, let you stretch your legs?”
“No,” Larabee said quickly. “He’s quiet right now, I don’t want to disturb him. I’m all right.”
Wilmington could read the worry in every haggard feature of the other man’s handsome face and knew the man was lying. He also saw the grim determination and dogged dedication there, and knew that Chris wouldn’t be moved by anything until he was ready. Picking up the discarded trail kits, he said, “All right then, I’ll take these to the creek and wash ‘em up.”
Larabee acknowledged him with another nod, his attention returning to the man laying against him.
With a last look over his shoulder, the big man carried the tinware through the trees to the little creek he and JD had found the day before. Reaching the running water, he dropped to his knees and began rinsing the things out.
He was scared. Plain, gut-wrenching, scared. They had been through a lot of things in the two years they had been together; had come far too close to losing one or the other of them during that time. But this time things were different. They could very well lose Vin forever, while his body remained in their midst.
Just as Nathan had, Buck had seen the effects of massive trauma on a human being. He had visited an asylum once, and had seen the shuffling, screaming scarecrows that had once been men and women. He couldn’t imagine what horrors caused them to get to that point, or what their minds conjured up to continue the torture.
And it was happening to Vin, right before their eyes.
And there was nothing they could do.
Well, nothing most of them could do, at any rate. His mind called up the image of Vin Tanner clinging to Larabee, and shook his head. This was not the man who had donned black just over four years ago. That man wouldn’t have spent the night holding the injured man. That man couldn’t have, because he didn’t have the strength to face anyone’s pain but his own.
But, the Chris Larabee he had met almost fourteen years ago… that man would have responded to Tanner’s pain. The Larabee he had thought lost to fire and death had somehow been reborn in their midst, thanks to a fate that had brought them together to protect a ragged band of Indians and, later, a dusty little backwater town.
And he sent a silent thank you to the heavens for that rebirth.
The big man was so wrapped up in his thoughts, that he didn’t hear the nearly silent footfalls behind him. His only response was a soft grunt as something heavy crashed against the back of his head. Wilmington dropped bonelessly to the ground, unconscious.
Back in the clearing, Chris lay his head back against the trunk, sighing as he tried to banish the headache that had made its presence known as the morning dawned. He yawned, rubbing the tips of his fingers along the bridge of his nose. He wanted nothing more than to sleep. Wanted nothing more then to wake and find this was all a nightmare. But he knew it wasn’t going to happen.
Along with the headache, he had known a gut-wrenching fear since they had found Vin the day before. The thought that his best friend could be reduced to a mindless, frightened creature for the rest of his life was almost too much to bear. The thought that Tanner would never again be the strong, self-reliant man he had come to know so well was far too horrible to consider.
Vin had to get better. He had to. There was no other future he could imagine. No other future he would imagine.
Fatigue and worry had dulled the gunman’s normally superhuman senses, and he drifted in a light doze. Until something exploded against his jaw dropping him, stunned, to the ground. Dazed, he looked up to see a large, hulking figure towering over him.
“Y’ ain’t takin’ ‘im from me,” came a graveling, rasping voice. Then, as easily as if he were picking up a child’s doll, the stranger picked Vin up, holding him in one arm. With a final growl, the intruder lumbered off with Vin hanging limply from his grasp.
Chris struggled against the pain, trying to overcome the blow and go after his friend. His mind screamed out to him, pleading with him to rescue Vin from danger. His body, though, was unable to respond to those orders. Instead, he groaned and fell back to the ground.
Hazel eyes blinked open, unfocused and staring into a blurred world. Slowly the blond managed to focus, the face of his old friend becoming recognizable above him. After several tries, he managed to croak out, “Buck?”
“Hey stud,” the big man said hoarsely. He sank down beside the gunman, one hand holding a kerchief to the back of his head. “What happened?”
Larabee searched his memory, trying to decide what it might be that Wilmington was asking. Then, suddenly, the shadowy image of someone big and menacing came to mind. “He… he took him.”
“He took him… someone… someone took Vin.”
“Oh, sweet Jesus.”
Wilmington picked up the trail of Tanner’s captor, and the two men rode after them. Buck’s head pounded and Chris’ jaw ached, but they ignored their own pain. The only thing on their minds was the pain their friend was in.
It took more than an hour for them to locate the hiding place where the big man had taken Vin. They found Peso hobbled and looking far more misused than they had ever seen him, confined to a small corral. There were other horses there as well, the animals looking miserable and half starved. The two horsemen growled in anger at the sight of the creatures. They would take care of the animals soon, but they had even more important things to handle.
Creeping through the overgrown area, they searched for Tanner. It was only when they heard a weak outburst from beyond the trees that they had a direction. Pushing through the tightly packed vegetation, they came upon a crude camp… and a nightmare.
They found a filth-littered clearing, populated not only by Vin and his captor, but by two other men. Or at least they had been men at one time. As abused as the Texan was, the other two captives looked far worse. All three were chained to heavy logs with thick chains, each in another area of the vile habitat. The man responsible for their predicament was cursing and kicking at Tanner. He was huge, he was dressed in skins and filthy rags, and he was insane.
“Git up y’ lazy basturd! Yer gonna pay fer cost’n me s’much time. Yer gonna pay!” He punctuated each word with a kick. Sometimes he connected, at others his foot met nothing but air. That seemed to make him even angrier, and he would lash out with more vehemence.
“Stop it! Get away from him, you son of a bitch!” Larabee barked out the words, storming from the shadows with Buck at his heels. “Leave him alone!”
The mountain of a man stumbled backwards as he jerked around at the blond’s angry words. He growled, screaming back, “Git th’ hell outta here! This ain’t none a yer concern, y’ basturd!”
“That’s my friend you’re kicking, so that makes it my business. Back away, and back away now!”
“No!” The big man lunged forward, screaming in rage even as Larabee fired three shots into his massive bulk. Propelled by his momentum, the monster didn’t seem to register the injuries, even though one was squarely in his heart. Chris fired a fourth time and, like taking down a charging bull, he watched as the big man dropped to the ground.
“Sweet Jesus,” Buck moaned as he looked around him at the vile scene.
“You go check those two, I’ll tend to Vin,” the gunman said with a calm he didn’t feel. He walked slowly toward his friend, worried he would frighten the young man. Coming as close as he dared, he knelt and held out a hand. “Vin? It’s all right, understand? Do you recognize me? It’s Chris. Me and Buck are here, and we’re going to take you home. Understand?”
Haunted blue eyes looked up at him, wide and frightened. At first there was nothing more but, finally, a hint of recognition shown in their depths. A trembling hand rose shakily, reaching toward the one offered him.
Larabee smiled, taking the hand. “Yeah, that’s it. It’s just me, okay? No one here to hurt you. I’m gonna take care of you, pard. It’s all right now, that bastard can’t hurt you any more.”
Whether he understood what his friend was saying or not, Tanner slowly relaxed. He allowed the bigger man to pull him up and settle against his chest without a fight. Once there, he sighed and dropped his head to Chris’ shoulder.
Wrapping his arms around his friend’s battered body, the blond looked up when he heard his other friend approach. He looked up into the pale face of the usually jovial ladies man. “Buck?”
“They’re both dead, pard. One’s been gone for at least a day, but the other one’s still warm. Looks like that son of a bitch choked him to death.”
Chris drew a shuddering breath, unconsciously tightening his hold on Tanner until the injured man whimpered. Loosening his grip, he whispered, “Sorry.”
“I’ll go get a blanket so we can cover him up,” the bigger man offered.
“Get them all, he’s freezing,” the blond replied.
Nodding, Wilmington moved away quickly, returning with both their bedrolls. Opening them, he spread the blankets over the shivering frame in his old friend’s arms. He watched as Vin clung to Chris with sorrow plainly written on his roguish face.
“Buck,” Larabee’s voice was calm and even, “Stop it right now. He’s gonna need us to be strong for him until he gets his own strength back.”
Nodding again, the big man said, “You’re right, I’m sorry. I’ll go leave sign for Nathan and JD to find us, then take care of those poor souls. Do you need anything?”
Pulling his hip flask from his pocket, he shook his head, “I think this will do for now.”
As Buck walked away, the gunman shifted his friend slightly, tilting his head back. “Vin? You want a drink?” It was little enough to offer the traumatized man, but it was all he had at the moment. Pressing the mouth of the flask to the slack lips, he was thankful to see Tanner suck at the liquor. He allowed him several swallows before pulling it away, smiling grimly as the man whimpered pitifully.
“I know, but I don’t want you getting sick on me. Let’s see how this goes down… if it stays down… and we’ll go from there. Okay?” Red-rimmed eyes looked up at him, silently pleading. He knew it was for far more than the drink, Vin was pleading for him to rescue him from wherever his ordeal had sent him.
“It’s gonna be all right, Vin, I swear it. That bastard can’t hurt you any more, and I’m going to make certain you know it’s safe to come back out of there.” He brushed back the tousled curls and gently stroked the bruised forehead. “I know you’re in there, Vin Tanner. I’ve just got to find you and bring you back out.”
Buck busied himself digging graves for the two men they had found chained as their friend was. A shallow cave had been used as a home by the mad kidnapper, and was filled with all manner of things. He found blankets and brought two of them out, using them as shrouds to wrap the men in. Dropping them into the cold earth, he covered the bodies, mumbling a few words over the lonely graves.
As for the man who had been their torturer, he dragged him roughly across the ground and dumped him into the cave. As he was turning to leave the dead man to the fate he deserved, something caught his eye. Stepping over the body, he found Vin’s clothes and weapons. Gathering the things up, he kicked Tanner’s abuser as he left.
Approaching the other two peacekeepers carefully, he saw that neither man had moved. Chris sat stoically, cradling a sleeping Vin. He held up the belongings, watching as his old friend nodded once, but otherwise didn’t react. Kneeling nearby, he spread the tracker’s belongings out on the ground. Softly, he said, “Looks like everything’s here but his tack. I’ll check out where the horses are. I’m gonna go take care of them, unless you need me here.”
Shaking his head, Larabee said, “We’re fine. He’s warmed up some and sleeping good. Watch for Nathan and JD.”
“I will, and I’ll check back in a little while.”
Again the big man strode off, leaving Chris to contemplate the nightmare they had walked into. He had studied the ghoulish camp, green-hazel eyes settling on signs that Vin and the other two men had not been the first held prisoner by the madman. There were two other logs, complete with heavy chains, in the camp and, half hidden by dirt and leaves, he saw what he feared were bones. Human bones.
Suddenly he wished he hadn’t killed the man. The sick bastard deserved to suffer far more than he did.
Wilmington looked up as he heard his name called, to find their two friends approaching cautiously. “Glad you found us.”
“What happened? Why did you fellas move?”
Glancing from Nathan to JD and back again, the big ladies man took a deep breath and explained what had happened. By the time he finished, Jackson’s jaw was clenched and fire burned in the brown depths of his eyes. Dunne, as quick tempered at the former sheriff, was in a rage.
“God Damn it! We should never have left! We should have gone looking for the bastard! I knew it! I knew it, didn’t I say – “
“Kid, shut the hell up!” Wilmington understood the young man’s rage, but knew they couldn’t afford such an outburst right now. “The son of a bitch is dead, he can’t hurt Vin or anybody else now. We’ve got to worry about Vin, JD, that’s the only thing important right now. If you can’t help us, then you head on back to town and get things ready for us.”
Chest heaving with unspent anger, the young sheriff stood rigidly before his friend and mentor for several minutes before finally taking a deep breath. “What do you need me to do?”
They crept into the filthy camp as if stalking the enemy. They saw that their two friends still sat as they had for some hours. Nathan approached carefully, while Buck and JD stayed busy getting a fire built and dinner started. The dark healer knelt beside the two men, studying the injured tracker.
“Looks like he picked up a few new wounds,” Jackson said quietly.
“Bastard was beating him when me and Buck found them. Don’t know that there’s anything bad, not that he needs any more pain to deal with.”
Nathan knew that the other man wasn’t speaking just of physical pain. “Has he said anything?”
Shaking his head, Chris answered, “Made a few sounds, but no words. He’s been sleeping pretty deep for a while.”
“Want me to give him something to keep him that way, so we can lay him down? Not just for you,” he hurried on, knowing that Larabee would hold the injured man until his arms simply fell off if he thought that was what Tanner needed. “I need to check him out again, and he’ll rest better if we can make him comfortable.”
“Seem comfortable right where he is,” the blond argued.
With a rueful grin, the former slave said, “Looks to be. It gonna do any good for me to keep arguin’?”
“How about we make you both a little more comfortable, then?”
Smiling, the gunslinger said, “I’d appreciate it.”
They dug through the clutter in the dead man’s cave and brought out some of the contents. Stacking saddlebags, blankets and furs behind Chris, they gave him something to lean back against. Taking care not to disturb the sleeping Tanner, they spread furs out beneath him, leaving him partially nestled against Larabee and partially on the ground. Taking on the odious task of going through the dead kidnapper’s clothes, Buck had found the key to the shackles, and they managed to free him from his bonds.
The blond leaned back against the makeshift backrest gratefully, shifting Vin just enough to make them both a little more comfortable. His body throbbed painfully from the long period of immobility, his jaw leading the concert as it ached from the blow he had suffered. He took a mug from Buck, smiling his thanks to his long time friend and drinking the hot, whiskey-laced, coffee slowly.
Squatting on his haunches beside the two men, Wilmington spoke softly. “If you think he’s up to it, we’ll start off in the morning. Nathan says that, as long as we take it good and slow, he should be all right to ride in the wagon. I found some letters and such in the cave, reckon I’ll take them back with us. Figure we might put some minds at rest, lettin’ the families a these men know what happened to them.”
Chris nodded, his eyes closing against the thought that Vin’s remains could have very well rested with the others. “I count at least two others by the looks of it.”
Nodding sadly, the bigger man said, “more like five, from the number a saddlebags in there. I’ll gather up the bones I can find later… give ‘em a proper burial.”
“I can help.”
They looked up with twin expressions of surprise to find that JD had come to stand beside them without their noticing. Either the ‘Kid’ was getting more savvy to life in the West, or they were losing their edge.
Leaning down to hand Chris a plate of beans and jerky, Dunne said, “If we both gather up the remains, we can get it taken care of a lot quicker.”
“Kid, I’ll take care of it, you – “
“I ain’t a kid, Buck.” Despite his efforts to keep his voice even, the emotions were clear. Vin gasped, clinging to Larabee even in sleep. He blanched at the painful display of fear in his always fearless friend. “I’m sorry Chris, I didn’t mean –“
Shaking his head, Larabee said, “I know you didn’t JD. And you’re right, you’re not a kid any more.” His mind screamed that he could only handle one helpless ‘child’ at a time, and right now Vin fit that bill. He wouldn’t voice that thought though, and only said, “You and Buck get that taken care of so we can leave at first light.”
Grimly the youngest member of their fellowship nodded and moved back to the campfire.
Behind him, the two old friends shared a look that said he had, indeed, grown out of the term ‘Kid’.
Morning dawned to find all but one of the peacekeepers stirring slowly, their moods matching the gray clouds above them. The other three men shook their heads as they saw that Chris was still holding Tanner. For his part, it didn’t look as if Vin had moved a muscle through the long, dark hours.
Larabee knew he had a problem, but wasn’t certain how to go about solving it. He needed to make a trip to the nearby trees, and soon. But he worried about Vin’s reaction to his moving… and moving away.
As if reading his mind, Wilmington padded over and knelt beside the two men. “I’ll keep an eye on Vin if you wanna take little walk now.”
Grinning, Larabee said, “Just hope I can get up… been a lot of hours.” Then turning serious, pain and rage-filled eyes to his friend, he said softly, “I’m afraid to move, Buck. Isn’t that crazy? I’m afraid that he’ll wake up and be afraid. This is a nightmare… he’s one of the bravest men I’ve ever met, and I’m afraid he’s gonna get scared if he wakes up and I’m not holding on to him. What kind of monster was that bastard, that he can do that to him?”
Putting a big hand firmly on his oldest friend’s shoulder, Buck said quietly, “I ain’t sure, but he sure as hell won’t do it again. Not to Vin, and not to anyone else. You said it yourself, pard, we’ve gotta be strong for him, til he can be strong for himself. You’ll get him through this, Chris… and we’ll be there to help you through it. I promise you that, ol’ dog.”
With a grim expression, Larabee said, “But what if we can’t get him through this?”
An angry frown darkened the big man’s features, “We will. That fucking bastard won’t win, Chris, we won’t let him. Vin’s gonna get better.”
Seeing the frank conviction in the bigger man’s face, Larabee could only smile. “Well, I can’t help anyone until I take me a little walk.”
The gunman eased out from under the lean body with his old friend’s help, moving slowly in an effort not to rouse the injured man. Successful, he pulled himself stiffly to his feet and shuffled across the clearing to the nearest trees. Answering the call of nature that was nearing a scream, he was gone a few minutes. By the time he returned to the camp, however, Tanner was awake. He saw that the younger man wasn’t cowering from the ladies man, but was very still, staring up at Wilmington. Dropping carefully down beside the tracker, Chris made certain not to move too quickly. Keeping his voice level, he said, “It’s just Buck, pard, do you recognize him?”
Haunted blue eyes tracked from the mustached man and settled on the blond. Relief filled the pale face, and he edged toward Larabee. As soon as he was near enough to touch Chris, he sighed and closed his eyes. Larabee lay a hand on the shivering shoulder, making certain his friend knew he was still there.
Nathan stepped over and gently checked Vin over. The injured man didn’t react as violently this time, but opened tired eyes to watch him warily. He smiled and said as calmly as possible, “it’s okay Vin, I just want to check and make certain you don’t have any infection, or a fever comin’ on. I’ll try real hard not to hurt you.”
As the dark man continued to talk, he and Chris watched Tanner relax. He allowed Jackson to examine him, doing nothing more than flinching from time to time. Larabee’s hand remained on his shoulder, and Vin’s hand knotted itself into the black sleeve. They managed not only to clean the multitude of injuries, but to dress him.
Sitting back, the former slave nodded in satisfaction. “There’s not much infection to speak of, so the salve is doin’ it’s job. He’s got a little fever, but not bad. All in all… physically… he’s in amazingly good shape.”
‘Physically’, the meaning of the other man’s words struck Chris like no bullet could. He looked down at the man clinging to him, barely able to keep from groaning.
Reading the questions in the haggard face, Jackson said, “I wish I could be as sure about his mind, Chris, but I can’t. I’m sorry.” Pain laced his deep voice as he saw the blonds shoulders slump.
The gunman sat beside his friend in the back of the wagon, the shaggy head resting on his thigh. He had fed the traumatized man enough Laudanum to send him to sleep before they carefully loaded Vin into the wagon. Nathan and JD had filled the bed with fresh straw and blankets to make certain he would be as comfortable as possible during the long trip. Larabee had climbed in beside him, while JD climbed onto the seat and took the reins. Nathan and Buck rode on either side of the bed, sentinels protecting the two men.
It was nearly noon when Chris saw that Tanner’s eyes were opened. The younger man wasn’t making a sound or moving at all. Instead he simply stared straight forward, not seeming to be looking at anything. Pulling the loose, tousled curls back from the ashen face, he called quietly, “Vin?”
The younger man turned slightly, slowly, finally meeting his gaze. The azure depths were filled with agony far beyond anything the physical injuries had caused. Once again, he pleaded with the man in black, begging Larabee for help. Chris felt his heart pound against his chest at that look, wishing he knew how to answer that silent cry.
“Just tell him it’s all right, stud,” Wilmington’s soft voice broke into his thoughts. Looking at the bigger man, he nodded as Buck finished, “That’s all he needs to know, pard, that he’d gonna be all right and that you’re with him.”
Turning back to the man beside him, he said, “It’s all right, Vin. You’re safe now, we’ve got your back. You just hang onto me, you hear? Hang onto me, and I’m gonna show you the way back. The others are right behind me, Tanner, so you don’t have to be afraid now. We’re gonna take care of you, Vin, you’re gonna be fine.”
Big eyes blinked, and blinked again. As before, they didn’t know how much… if anything… the injured man understood. Something seemed to sink in, though. The tracker relaxed against the black-clad leg, eyes fluttering closed once more.
They rode slowly through the day, stopping when Chris sensed that Vin needed to rest. The signs were difficult to read, as Tanner barely seemed to be breathing. The only time he moved was when the blond spoke to him or shifted beneath him.
As the sun dropped toward the Western horizon, they made camp in the shelter of a small grove of trees. Larabee once more shouldered the burden of caring for Tanner. He seemed a little more alert now, and the blond helped him to the open gate at the back of the wagon bed. “Think you can try walking a little? I’ll be right beside you, Vin, just lean on me. Just to the trees, all right?”
Vin reached out tentatively and let the older man help him to the ground. His legs quivered and nearly buckled, but he stood with his friend’s help. Together, walking at a snail’s pace, the two men walked to the nearest trunk, where JD had already made a soft palate in the evening shade. Chris lowered the younger man, now trembling from the simple exertion of the walk, to the makeshift bed. As soon as his head dropped to the blankets, the sharpshooter’s eyes closed. He drifted in a light doze while the other men set about making dinner and settling in for the night. Larabee roused him a little later, lifting him to lean back against a saddle. The younger man was content to let the blond feed him a plate of stew and mug of coffee, followed by a mug of one of Jackson’s bitter herbal brews.
Managing a grin as Tanner grimaced over the edge of the coffee mug, Chris said, “I know, we played dirty. It’s some of Nathan’s boiled skunk, but it’ll help you rest.”
The blue eyes communicated quite clearly that he thought the other man was seven kinds of fool, Vin nevertheless drank the concoction. A short time later, he slipped off to sleep.
Once again, the gunman stayed close by.
The next day, Vin seemed more alert than he had since they found him. With Chris’ help he managed to walk back to the wagon. Allowing the blond to help him into the bed, he settled on the thick straw. As he had for two days now, he relaxed only when the blond was beside him.
Another day passed in a grim monotony as the men moved slowly toward the horizon. They would see home in another day or two, a thought that brought relief to the fatigued men.
As evening approached, they once more made camp. Vin moved under his own steam, only needing his friend to be near as he shuffled toward a nearby tree. When dinner was ready, he frowned up at Larabee when the man prepared to feed him the food.
“You want to do it yourself?” When the big eyes held steady on his face, he read the affirmative in their depths. “All right then, let’s make you a little more comfortable.”
With Vin helping as much as possible, Chris sat him up to lean against the tree. Making certain the younger man was settled, the blond handed over the plate. He stayed near while Tanner slowly ate the trail stew, washing it down with a mug of coffee. When the blond started to hand him more of the herbal medicine, he frowned and refused to take the mug.
“Don’t get stubborn on me now, cowboy. You need to drink it, so you can rest.” As the blue eyes continued to stare at him, he continued, “I don’t care if you do get angry, Vin Tanner. You’re gonna drink this, if I’ve got to pour it down your throat myself. Understand?”
Again, his words were answered with a silent stare.
“I mean it, Tanner. You’re gonna drink this, so you can rest and heal.”
With a heavy sigh, the battered man reached out and took the mug, still glaring in protest as he slowly downed the contents.
The three men sharing their camp couldn’t help but laugh at the exchange. Even though he didn’t say a word, Vin made himself quite clear.
“Good Lord, he’s better at arguin’ without sayin’ a word than Chris is,” Buck said in awe.
The third day on the trail found Vin moving even more on his own, but still needing the black clad man near. He had yet to speak, but seemed to understand a little more of what was going on around him. Nathan, Buck and JD still could not get too close to him, however, without his clinging to Larabee.
“It’s okay, pard,” Chris said quietly as Nathan climbed into the wagon bed to check a bandage that was showing signs of a bleeding wound. Tanner held still, but his haunted eyes never left the healer as he checked the injury.
Sitting back on his heels, the bigger man said softly, “I’m done, Vin. Looks like you busted the scab open is all… probably hit it against the wagon or something. It should be fine. Now, can I look at the rest of your wounds?”
The Texan stared at him, then turned to look at the gunslinger. He stared patiently, waiting for the older man to respond.
“It’s up to you, cowboy. Do you want Nathan to look at your wounds?” Chris spoke softly, keeping his emotions in check.
Frowning as the decision was placed back with him, the traumatized man turned back to the healer. Staring at the dark man for a long minute, he finally nodded.
Jackson grinned at him, then winked at the blond as he began his examination. He moved carefully, not wanting to cause the injured man any more pain than he had to. With exaggerated tenderness, he looked over the battered body. Finally satisfied, he looked into the vigilant eyes. “You’re doin’ real good, Vin. you’re gonna need a couple weeks rest once we get you back into town, but you’ll be fine soon.”
Looking up at Chris as if he needed confirmation from the blond, he relaxed when Larabee smiled and nodded. “’Kay,” he said softly, oblivious to the shocked expressions on either side of him as he settled back into the hay and drifted toward sleep.
The gunman stared at the healer who, in turn, stared at him. Then both men stared at the dozing man. Staring at Jackson again, Chris began to grin. “I’ll be damned.”
He woke to darkness, staring around him with mounting fear as he tried to make out his surroundings. HE was there… somewhere… hiding in the shadows. HE would be waiting to pounce as soon as he made a move. He would have to stay quiet… when he stayed quiet HE didn’t come. Didn’t hurt him. Starve him. Force him to fight with the others. Make them fight him. As long as he stayed quiet and didn’t move, he would be safe. Movement in the shadows caused him to stop breathing, listening for his kidnapper to appear. Waiting for the pain to begin. HE always brought pain.
“Vin? You awake?”
He blinked, trying to figure out when HE learned his name. HE had never asked it… never used it…
“Vin? It’s just me… just JD… do you understand? Chris is sleeping, he’s right over there on the other side of you. Do you need something? Do you need Chris?”
JD… he knew that name… knew the pale face that emerged from the darkness. HE was big with an ugly face made uglier by a scowl and a variety of scars. This face was much younger, barely touched by age, with big hazel eyes that stared at him with nothing more than compassion and friendship. JD… he remembered. “Jay… Dee,” he drug out the name, his voice low and timid.
The Kid grinned broadly, excited that his friend understood enough to repeat his name. Taking a deep breath so that his excitement wouldn’t frighten the traumatized man, he said as calmly as possible, “Hey, Vin. Do you need something?”
Frowning at the question, Tanner finally nodded and asked, “water?”
“Sure thing!” Dunne moved cautiously, retrieved a canteen, and brought it back to where the sharpshooter lay. He knelt near enough to hand him the container, but not close enough to frighten him. Holding the canteen out, he waited patiently while Tanner worked out what he needed to do next.
Slowly he pushed himself up, then reached out and took the container. Raising it to his lips, he drank until he was sated, handing it back to his friend. With a bright smile, he said, “th-thanks.”
“Sure. Just let me know if you need anything else, all right?”
With a wide yawn, the Texan settled back into his blankets, turning his head so that he could see the form of his sleeping friend. With a sigh, he drifted back to sleep. He couldn’t see the blond well enough to realize that Chris was watching him.
The gunman had witnessed the entire exchange, relieved when Tanner was able to deal with things without him. For the first time in days he felt that his conviction was warranted. Vin Tanner would recover.
The next day tested Larabee’s convictions just as the exchange the night before had confirmed them. As they drew nearer to town, they began to meet more and more people on the road. The longer they rode, the more nervous Vin became. He huddled next to the gunman, hiding his face beneath his arm. His hands were clenched, and his breathing became more and more ragged. As the sounds of Four Corners drifted toward them on the wind, he curled up in a ball, pressed tight against the gunman.
“JD, stop the wagon,” Chris ordered.
Dunne reined in the team, looking back into the bed. “What’s wrong?”
Larabee looked at the man trembling beside him, then at each of the other men. “We can’t do this to him, he’s not ready for a crowd. We’ll take him to my place.”
The other men took in the sight of their fearless friend, huddled against the black clad man like a frightened child, and knew he was right.
“I’ll go into town and tell Josiah and Ezra where we are,” Buck offered.
Shaking his head, Chris said, “Go ahead and stay in town. They’re sure to need you… all of you… by now. JD, as soon as you drive us out there, you get on into town, too.”
“I’ll drive the wagon,” Nathan disagreed. “I’ll make sure you’ve got everything you’ll need for the time being.”
Nodding, the blond gently squeezed on shivering shoulder as be watched JD and Jackson trade places. They parted, Dunne and Wilmington heading into town, trailing Nathan's horse, Able, as well as the abused horses they had found at the madman’s camp. They left only Peso and Pony, the two blacks tied to the back of the wagon. Moving off the road onto a less traveled path, Nathan headed the wagon toward the little shack Chris had built.
As they moved farther and farther from town, the traumatized Texan slowly relaxed. Finally he lay peacefully beside the gunman, his breathing eased, and he lowered his arm from his face. Peering upward, he found a pair of green-hazel eyes staring down at him compassionately. He managed a fragile, embarrassed smile.
“It’s okay,” Larabee said softly. “I know it’s hard for you to deal with all those folks at the best of times, and this sure as hell ain’t the best of times, is it?”
“No,” he agreed, his voice still trembling slightly.
They rode in silence the rest of the way. Vin settled into a light sleep, one hand resting against Chris’ leg. The blond watched him closely, seeing the play of emotions on the handsome face. Whatever had happened to his friend was coming closer and closer to the surface, he was certain of it. Just as he knew he’d be there for the battered man to hold onto when it did.
The three men arrived at Larabee’s little homestead as the sun dipped toward the Western horizon. The healer pulled the wagon up next to the cabin, dropping to the ground just as Chris helped Vin from the bed. The sharpshooter looked around him, slowly recognizing his surroundings. He turned toward Larabee with a smile
“My home,” Larabee corrected, although he grinned at the faint twinkle he saw in the blue eyes. Tanner and Wilmington loved to tease him about his home, although both had made use of the ‘shack’ when the need arose.
Pulling himself up and away from the older man, Vin shuffled slowly toward the door, he stopped as he reached the dirt floored porch and said over his shoulder, “shack.”
With a sigh, the gunman shook his head and followed, grumbling, “Good-for-nothing, long-haired, smart-assed Texan.”
Behind the two friends, Jackson erupted in deep laughter before following them inside.
Over the course of the next three days, the two peacekeepers stayed close to the homestead, traveling no farther than the corral or the little stream that ran along the edge of the yard. Tanner gained strength, his wounds healing without incident. Nathan came out each day to check the injuries and change the bandages over the worst of them. Each time he did, he recognized the significance of the fact that Vin allowed him near while Chris was farther and farther away. On the third morning, the sharpshooter allowed himself to be examined while Larabee was at the corral.
He continued to communicate in a slow, halted speech, often seeming unable to bring forth the words he needed. When that happened, he would frown, seeming to grow angry at himself for his inability to voice his thoughts.
And he was growing restless.
The gunman found him outside, prowling the property, several times during the night. He would call to the tracker, standing in the moonlight until Vin recognized him. The younger man would slink around him like a scolded cat, edging into the house. There he would drop to the tic mattress the others had brought out when he refused to take Chris’ bed. Larabee would follow him in and try to talk to him.
“Vin, did you hear something? Was there something outside?”
“What were you looking for then?”
He’d get nothing more from the traumatized man, and would finally give up and return to his bed. They replayed the same scene over and over, night after night. Until the forth night.
Larabee sat straight up in bed, staring quickly around him as his heart beat a violent tattoo in his chest. He finally calmed down enough to realize that the cry had come from across the room, where Vin now huddled in one corner of the mattress. Chris pulled himself to his feet and padded carefully toward the young man, speaking slowly as he did.
“Vin, it’s just me… just Chris. Understand pard? Just me. It’s okay… you’re safe. It was a dream. Vin?”
Wild and haunted blue eyes peered at him from behind a curtain of loose brown curls. The frightened man was pressed into the corner as far as he could, long arms wrapped tightly around his chest, knees drawn up as close as they could. He didn’t seem to know where he was, and that scared the gunman.
“Vin? It’s me… Chris. We’re at my place, remember? My shack. It’s okay, pard, there’s nobody here but you and me. It’s okay. Do you know me? Vin? Can you tell me who I am?”
Smiling, the blond said, “Yeah, that’s right, Chris. Do you know where we are?”
“Yer… yer sh-shack.”
Two for two. “Yeah, that’s right.”
“Wh-where is… where is HE?”
“Who? Vin, where’s who? There’s no one here but you and me. You had a dream… a nightmare. Whoever you thought you saw… they’re not here. It was a dream.”
“No… HE… HE was… here.”
Suddenly, realization dawned. “Shit. Vin, the bastard who did this, he’s dead. I killed him. He’s back in that… that hellhole… rotting. He can’t come for you ever again, pard, he’s dead.”
“No… n-no… HE was here… saw ‘im.”
Reaching out gently and brushing the tangled locks from the pale face, Larabee tried again. “It was just a nightmare, Vin. He’s been dead for days. Can you remember me and Buck coming into that camp… do you remember gunshots? He was kicking you, Vin, yelling at you. I yelled at him to stop, and he wouldn’t. So I shot him.”
“Yeah, I shot him. He’ll never hurt you… or anyone else… again. He’s dead.”
“Yes Vin, he’s dead.”
“No… no, HE was.. was… nightmare?”
Allowing himself a small smile, the blond said, “Yeah, a nightmare.”
“But… but I saw… no. No, it was a… nightmare.” He slumped forward, caught up by a pair of strong arms that held onto him as the tremors began once more.
“A nightmare,” Larabee promised in a whisper. He rubbed the shivering shoulder, rocking slightly as the other man calmed slowly. It was nearly a half an hour before he felt sleep overtake Tanner once more, but continued to rock a while longer before settling his friend back beneath the blankets.
There would be no more sleep for the blond that night. He sat with his back against the wall, watching the restless movements of his best friend. From time to time Vin would mutter a word or two, but nothing that made sense. As dawn broke through the dusty windows of the shack, he pushed himself to his feet, stretching to ease the ache of his back. Going to the stove, he built up the fire and put on coffee, digging through his stores to find something to make for breakfast. He was pouring himself his first cup of the morning when he realized that Tanner was awake. The slender man was sitting up, leaning against the wall, watching him.
“Breakfast will be ready soon. Do you want some coffee?”
Nodding, the tracker said, “’S jist coffee?”
Leaning over to hand the younger man a mug, he smiled. “Yeah, it’s just coffee. Nathan says you’ve had enough boiled skunk and horsepiss for now.”
A small smile spread across the handsome face, and he sipped the hot drink. Vin had nearly finished before he spoke again. “Sorry.”
Frowning, Larabee regarded him from the stove as he filled two plates with bacon, eggs and fried potatoes. “Sorry for what?”
Setting the food on the table, he motioned the sharpshooter over. Taking his mug and refilling it, he sat across from Tanner and said, “It was a nightmare, Vin. You can’t control that, and you sure don’t have to apologize for it.”
“Saw y’… sittin’ up with… with me.”
Coloring slightly at being caught in such a nurturing action, Chris said softly, “You were afraid, and confused. I didn’t want you to wake up again and be alone.”
“Ain’t been alone… since y’… since y’ found me.”
Confused, the blond thought his friend was complaining about the lack of privacy. “If you need some time alone, I’ll let you have the cabin for a few – “
Shaking his head vigorously, Tanner said, “No… no, that’s not what I… mean. I ‘member y’ bein’ there, Chris… even when I wasn’t sure wh-who y’ was. I knew y’s there… ‘n I knew I’s safe. Knew I could… could come out… a here.” He tapped his forehead.
Larabee felt his throat tighten at the man’s frank disclosure. Reaching out, he squeezed the lean forearm. “I’m glad you did, pard. Missed you.”
Grinning shyly, the Texan said, “thanks. Thanks fer ever’thin’… Chris.”
It would be several more days before Vin could bring himself to speak the horrors he had been subjected to during his imprisonment. During that time, the others had come to visit, even bringing out more company with them. Nettie and Casey Wells visited, the ‘old biddy’ clucking over Tanner for hours. Mary and Billy Travis visited, the young boy testing the quiet man’s nerves with his energetic ramblings. Inez Recillos visited, as did Gloria Potter. He continued to be more nervous than usual when each visitor arrived, but Chris would stay close until he calmed.
The two men were sitting on the porch, enjoying the peace of sundown, sharing a bottle of whiskey that Ezra had brought out. Larabee struck a match to light his cheroot, puffing until smoke circled his head.
Frowning, the blond said, “Who?”
“HIM… th’ bastard that… that had me.”
‘Oh Jesus’, Larabee thought to himself. He didn’t know if he was ready to hear any of this. Didn’t know if he’d ever be ready. But all he said was, “He did?”
“Yeah. Could tell when he’s ‘round… could smell th’ tobacco.”
“I’ll put it out,” he moved to do just that.
“No… no, don’t. S’okay, Chris.” He was silent for several minutes, it looking as if he wouldn’t say more. Then, just as the sun dipped behind the mountains, he said, “Wish I’d a known th’ others… known their names. HE wouldn’t let us talk though. If we talked, he’d beat on us… ‘r not feed us. That’s what th’ one died from I think… he talked too much, ‘n HE wouldn’t feed ‘im.
“I learned quick though… kept m’ mouth shut. HE still hit me, but not ‘s much.”
“Why did he hit you?”
Shrugging, Vin said, “Never knew fer sure. Sometimes I don’t think there was a reason. Other times… it was us’lly 'cause I wouldn’t fight.”
Nodding, the younger man said, “S’ why we ‘s there. HE said it was th’ only thing we ‘s good fer. HE’d hit us… yell at us… make us fight each other. Never did quite understand it. Jist didn’t make sense.”
“He was insane, cowboy… crazy. That was where all those cuts and scratches… and bites… came from?”
“Yeah. HE’d make us fight ‘til one ‘r two of us passed out. Took less an’ less time, cos we didn’t have much strength after… after a while. ‘S why HE kilt that one feller… cos he couldn’t fight no more. Jist laid there, moanin’. HE said he’s gonna have t’ go git s’ more fighters.
“I’s scared, Chris… so scared. Part a me knew y’s there… you ‘n Buck was there. I’s scared y’d git caught.”
“He could have taken us… don’t know why he didn’t. He got the drop on both of us,” Larabee pondered.
“Mebbe y’ glared at ‘im and HE figgered y’d be more trouble ‘n y’s worth,” the younger man drawled.
Chuckling, the blond said, “Maybe so.”
Growing serious, the tracker said, “Wish I could understand ‘t. It’d make it easier t’ git past if I could.”
With a sigh, the gunman said, “He was crazy, Vin, I don’t think we’ll ever understand why he did what he did. Maybe he didn’t understand it himself. I wish I could help you understand – “
Tanner reached over and cut him off with a hand on his arm. He looked up, the last hint of the sun shining in the wide blue eyes.
“Y’ helped me, Chris, more ‘n y’ll ever know. I ‘s so lost… scared ‘n alone. Hid m’self th’ only place I could… in here,” he tapped his forehead. “S’ like I’s lookin’ up outta a hole… ‘n I knew I’s safe when I saw you. Knew I c’d come out, ‘n it’d be okay.”
Larabee was grateful for the shadows, they hid the blush that colored his face. “I’m just glad I was there, Vin.”
Tanner nodded, then fell quiet for several more minutes. Then, out of the darkness, the gunman heard, “Was sure a scary sight… seein’ yer ugly face.”
Laughter rang out in the darkness.
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