Part 3 of 3 in the Pieces Series.
MAIN CHARACTERS: Vin, Chris, Seven
Warning: This story includes adult themes, including the threat (only) of rape and non-consensual sexual acts with the same and the opposite sex.
Editors' Note: A post-"Obsession" story. This is the gen version of a previously published slash story, "Ashes to Ashes." The original version of the gen story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #18, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than 6 months, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Erica Michaels was the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 1-2-2015. Art by Shiloh.
Chris watched, admiring Vin's talent as he checked the trail for signs of a mountain cat that had been pestering some of the local farmers. The younger man looked up and nodded. "Been through here in the last couple 'a hours."
"Think we can catch 'im before dark?"
Tanner nodded. "Reckon so."
The tracker swung up onto his horse and they continued on.
Less than an hour later they had the big cat in their sights. And in less than two they were headed back to town with the dead animal tied behind Chris' saddle.
When they reached the edge of town, three men rode out from a stand of tall brush, their guns drawn.
"Get your hands up!" one of the men barked.
"What the hell's goin' on here?" Chris snarled.
"You Chris Larabee?" one of the men asked him.
The gunslinger nodded, demanding, "Who wants to know?"
"You're comin' with us," the same man replied.
Chris cursed under his breath.
"Now, you listen up, breed," the leader said, speaking directly to Vin, "we got orders to deliver Larabee, but they didn't say nothin' 'bout him being hurt or not. So, you do what I tell you, or I'll have the boys here put a hole in your friend, you understand?"
"Good," the leader said, then reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a long strip of leather. "You tie his hands up real good. We check and see ya did a poor job, I'll shoot ya dead myself. Understand?" he asked, tossing the leather to Tanner.
Vin edged Peso closer and reached out, tying Larabee's wrists securely. When that was done, one of the other men edged in and removed Larabee's Colt.
"You want me, you've got me, let's get this the hell over with," Larabee growled, knowing that Ella had caught up to them once more.
One of the two men now flanking Chris drew his gun and pistol-whipped the blond. Chris grunted and nearly fell from the saddle.
"Both 'a ya keep your mouths shut," the leader snarled.
Chris wanted to argue, but he could read Vin's gaze far too easily – the tracker was begging him not to get himself killed.
"All right, Larabee, time to go," the leader said, then drew his gun and shot Tanner in the face. The tracker was knocked off his horse and fell into the dirt.
"Vin!" Chris yelled.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris bolted upright, drenched with sweat. His chin jerked from side to side as he peered frantically around the darkness that disorientated him, looking for the horror he'd seen in his dream.
Where was Vin? Where was his body? Then the realization of where he really was struck him: his cabin. He was in his cabin. Chris swallowed hard and relaxed against the mattress.
Damn, Chris sighed to himself, closing his eyes for a split second. There might be no way to talk himself out of this one, not without telling the tracker at least a little of the truth: that he'd been plagued by the same nightmare every night for almost a week now – and he just didn't want to do that. Not yet.
"Chris?" Vin called softly from in near the stove.
Larabee gulped in a deep breath and ran trembling hands over his hair. "Sorry, didn't mean to wake you."
"Yeah," Chris replied, wiping his dripping face with his palms, which were also damp with sweat. His skin smelled sour from the fear, and he silently cursed himself for the weakness.
"Y' gonna tell me 'bout it this time?" the tracker asked softly, moving to stand in the doorway to the room here Larabee slept.
Chris thought for a moment, then said, "No. And I'd really appreciate it if you'd respect that – for now, anyway. I'll tell you about it, I swear I will, just… not right now."
Tanner wanted to argue the point, but he knew it would be useless. "Alrighty then," he said and went and lay back down.
Chris had been having the bad dreams for days, which was why he'd retreated out here to his cabin. But ever since Ella had grabbed him, and Chris had had to come after him, none of them went anywhere alone, and none of the others dared to accompany Larabee out here. So Vin had come with the blond.
All he could do was wait until Chris was ready to tell him what he was seeing in his dreams.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris watched Vin from the corner of his eye as they both worked on the cabin. Despite the warmth of the late spring day, the tracker still wore his shirt over his long johns. Chris had abandoned his an hour or more earlier.
Not for the first time Larabee wondered where the man's sense of modesty had come from. Vin had scars, true, but nothing so ugly that he needed to keep his shirt on, especially not when they were out in the middle of nowhere, and Chris was the only other soul around.
He watched as Vin pulled off his hat and use his shirtsleeve to wipe the sweat off his forehead before tossing his head, shaking the sweat-soaked hair out of his eyes.
Chris sighed. The tracker was getting more than a little frustrated with him, and he really couldn't blame Tanner. He puffed out a breath and shook his head. Hell, it wasn't like Vin would belittle him for the dreams. He of all people knew just how dangerous Ella was, and Chris was sure she was the one behind the men from his dreams.
A flare of anger welled up in the gunslinger. He was letting a damned dream spook him. A dream, and he'd be damned if he'd let that happen.
He promised himself that as soon as they were done for the day, he'd tell the tracker about the dream, about his fear Ella was on the move again, and they were in her sights.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Y' gonna lay there the rest 'a the day?"
Chris cracked one eye open and stared up at Vin, who was standing half-naked on the bank of the creek, having just finished talking a bath in the cool water, his hands on his hips.
"What if I do?" he asked the tracker out loud.
"Guess I'm gonna have t' go find me some dinner on m' own then," Tanner replied almost petulantly, donning the rest of his clothes. "Hell, Chris, 'm hungry. Reckon m' gut's gonna think I cut m' throat 'fore too long."
The gunslinger smiled and shook his head. Vin and JD were almost always hungry. Growing boys, he reminded himself. "Why didn't you say so?" he asked, standing up from where he'd been relaxing in the slow-moving water and sloshed over to join Tanner, who handed him his shirt to dry off with.
Chris dried and dressed, deciding that they'd spend the night in town, where the safety of the other peacekeepers might help him relax enough to get some decent sleep.
"You mind ridin' into town to eat?" he asked the tracker.
Vin shook his head. "Nope. No offense, but hardtack and beans wear a little thin after a spell."
Chris grinned and nodded. "I was thinkin' the same thing. Steak dinner sounds a damn sight better."
The tracker grinned hungrily. "Now yer talkin'."
"Think we'll stay in town tonight, too, pick up some more supplies from Mrs. Potter in the morning."
Vin's brow furrowed slightly. "Alrighty."
Chris bent over to pull on his boots, but straightened, movement in the brush growing under the mesquite trees that dotted the sandy creek-side capturing his attention. He frowned, his hand reaching automatically for his Colt.
Vin saw the gunslinger's hand move, his Mare's Leg sliding effortlessly into his own hands in response. He dropped into a crouch, his gaze sweeping over the land, looking for the trouble Chris was reacting to, but he didn't see or hear anything. But a soft buzz in his gut told him trouble was out there.
"You see anything?" Chris asked softly.
"Nope," Vin replied. "Don't mean it ain't there."
"Yeah," Chris said and quickly pulled on his boots.
Together the two men moved closer to a rocky outcrop they could use for cover, but there were no more sounds, and no movement to indicate trouble.
After a short while they made a quick search of the area, Vin failing to turn up any signs that they had been watched.
The danger past – if it was ever really there – they packed up their gear, mounted their horses, then rode into town. But the entire way Chris' stomach was knotted with worry, the images from his nightmares escaping his control and haunting him on the trip.
By the time they reached Four Corners, the blond's appetite was gone.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin watched Chris push a piece of his stake around and around on his plate. He sighed. "Larabee, y' plannin' t' eat that damn steer, or just hunt it 'round yer plate 'til it drops from exhaustion?"
The gunslinger glanced up, looking confused until the tracker's words sank in, then he grinned. Setting his fork down he shook his head and sighed, saying, "Guess I wasn't as hungry as I thought."
"Hell, y' ain't ate 'nough this last week t' keep a damned bird alive," Vin groused, worry keeping his voice soft. "It's them nightmares, ain't it."
It wasn't a question, and Chris didn't want to admit it, but he nodded. "Just got a nasty ghost doggin' my heels thanks to Ella. It'll pass."
"Since it don't look like it's gonna pass t'night, force yerself t' eat that damned beef. Don't want y' fallin' off the roof 'cause y' dropped from hunger."
Chris glanced down at the food on his plate, his stomach threatening to rebel when he realized the juice on his plate look a little like the blood he'd seen running down Vin's face in his dream. He shook his head and pushed the plate away, swallowing several times to keep from being sick.
"If y' ain't gonna eat that, I am," Vin threatened softly.
"Go ahead," Chris told him.
Tanner wasn't happy about it, but he went ahead and finished off Larabee's meal. That done, the two men walked over to the saloon for a drink and a few hands of cards, the rest of the peacekeepers catching them up with all the news in town.
"How's that cabin comin' along?" Buck asked, flashing a smile at Inez, who ignored him – just like always.
"Got most of the new roof on today," Chris replied absently. "Probably get that finished tomorrow."
The conversation turned to the cabin and Chris' plans to start raising a few horses again. Josiah said he'd talk to Ko-Je about Chris buying a stallion the ex-preacher had seen out on the reservation, and JD offered to help break any mustangs Chris and Vin rounded up.
Buck laughed at the young man and teased, "Mustangs ain't like those fancy eastern horses, JD."
Dunne rolled his eyes and the two were off, arguing – again.
After a couple of hours, Chris stood and walked outside to sit in one of the chairs on the boardwalk, smoking one of his cheroots and enjoying the cool night air. A few minutes later Vin joined him.
"Y' gonna tell me what's been hauntin' y'?" the tracker asked softly.
Chris shook his head.
"Alrighty then," the tracker said, starting to turn away.
"Vin," Chris called to the sharpshooter.
Tanner stopped, turning back to look at the blond.
Larabee gestured to the tracker and Vin came back. "Stay in the boarding house tonight," he said softly. "You can spread your bedroll in my room."
Vin's eyes narrowed. "So them dreams are about me?"
Chris sighed. "Yes, damn it."
Vin studied him for a moment, then nodded. "I'll be there shortly."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris felt Vin enter the room, but he didn't hear him, or see him, and he wondered how it was the man could move so damned stealthily.
"Told y' I'd be along shortly," came the tracker's soft whisper as he unrolled his blankets and settled down.
Chris allowed himself to breathe again. "Never doubted it," he replied softly.
A moment later, the younger man said, "Chris, y' asked me not t' prod y', but y' gotta know I'm worried 'bout ya."
"I know," Larabee whispered. "Soon. I swear. Soon. I'll tell you."
Vin nodded, resigning himself to holding out a little longer.
They both drifted off to sleep.
Just before dawn, the tracker left the same way he'd come, no one the wiser that he had spent the night sleeping in Larabee's room. It wouldn't do to have the townsfolk talking.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The day was cooler, a promise of rain hanging in the air, made more real by the distant rumble of thunder. Chris and Vin worked side by side on the roof of the cabin, nailing down shingles in a race with the approaching weather.
"Runnin' short on nails," the tracker said, lying his hammer down and starting for the ladder. "Y' want 'nother bucket-full?"
Chris nodded. "Might as well."
Vin stopped and wiped his face with his shirtsleeve, then smiled. "Think a swim in the creek might be a good idea later. Storm won't last long."
"You do, huh?"
The tracker nodded. "That or I got t' sit up wind 'a y' the rest 'a the day."
That prompted a snort of amusement from Larabee. "Guess we could both use a bath. But let's get this roof finished before that storm hits."
"Slave driver," Vin grumbled, heading down the ladder.
When the tracker still hadn't returned a few minutes later, Chris called down, "Hey, Vin, you makin' those nails?"
There was no reply.
A chill snaked down his back and Chris stopped and set his hammer aside. Standing, he looked out over the property, but nothing seemed out of place or wrong. "Vin?" he called.
Heart suddenly slamming against his breastbone, Larabee walked to the edge of the roof, calling more loudly, "Vin!" The ensuing silence felt like it might strangle him.
With a softly muttered curse, Chris turned and climbed down the ladder. On the ground he glanced around again, but he still couldn't see anything out of place. Nothing to explain why Vin hadn't returned. He stared at the horses in the corral, but both Pony and Peso were standing quietly head to butt, tails swishing to chase the flies from the other horse's face.
"Vin!" he called a third time, his voice sounding desperate, even to his own ears. He rubbed his sweat-damp palms down the front of his pants before stepping into the house. He stopped abruptly just inside the door, eyes going wide.
Vin lay sprawled on the wooden floor, blood running down one cheek and soaking into his hair.
Everything went black.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Consciousness returned slowly to the gunslinger, accompanied by pain pounding in his skull and a creeping coldness that seemed rooted in his bones. He groaned softly, forcing his eyes open as a flair of panic raced along his consciousness: Vin.
He blinked several times before his foggy vision cleared enough for him to make out his surroundings. He was in a cellar, a large cellar, and laying in a bed – a large feather bed. And he was tied, hand and foot, to the brass bars of the head-and foot-boards.
He tested the bonds securing him, but the leather thongs refused to give. Lifting his head, he confirmed what he already knew. He was lying naked on top of the bedspread. Red lines decorated his chest where someone had scratched him, but the skin remained unbroken.
It took him a moment to make out the letters the lines created, but then the pattern became clear: Mine.
His head dropped back onto the pillow and he groaned softly. Ella. Fuck.
He sighed and opened his eyes again, glaring as he glanced around until he finally found the woman, seated in a dark corner. She was dressed in a fancy white chemise, a white lace shawl draped over her shoulders.
She stood and walked over to the bed, her hips swaying seductively with each step. Sitting down on the edge of the bed, she reached out and ran her fingernails lightly over his chest and ribs, prickling his skin as they passed like ghosts.
"I'm so glad you're awake," she said, her hand still moving. "I was afraid they had hurt you." Her hand strayed lower, her fingers tangling in the short hairs at his groin.
Chris jerked away from the touch and hissed, "What do you want, Ella?"
"What I've always wanted, darlin'… you. I want you to remember how much you love me."
"I don't love you," Larabee snarled. "And nothing you can say or do is gonna change that."
"Yes, you do, Chris, you always have; you've just forgotten. But I have you back now, and I'm going to show you. I'll help you remember, I promise."
Larabee fought back the words he wanted to say to the woman, knowing she wouldn't hear them, couldn't, in her madness. "Where am I?" he asked instead.
"One of my husband's haciendas," she replied, her fingers reaching out to caress his cheek.
Chris laughed hollowly. "Ella, you're a married woman, what do you want with me?"
She smiled, tilting her head to the side and watching her hand as she lightly ran her palm over Larabee's chest, stroking his nipples until they turned hard despite his revulsion. "I'm a widow, Chris, not a married woman."
"Widow?" he echoed, trying to lie still as she lightly touched his sides, hips, and thighs.
"Yes, a widow – again. Sadly, I had to kill my husband. Edward was a good man, but he was so… jealous." She looked up, smiling at him. "I talked about you, all the time, you see, and he'd decided he needed to have you killed. I couldn't allow that to happen, now could I? I killed him to save you, Chris, to save our love." Her hand continued to wander, touching, caressing.
Larabee's eyes narrowed. "What did you do to Vin? You kill him, too?"
She shook her head. "No, he's still alive. Here."
"Vin's here?" Chris asked, his mouth going dry. He remembered all too well what Ella had threatened to do to the tracker the last time she'd had him.
"Yes, he's here. Would you like to see him?" she asked, fondling him.
"Yes," Chris said through clenched teeth. "Now."
"Very well," she replied with a sigh. She stood and walked over to a door rapping on it sharply with her knuckles. It opened a moment later and a man stepped inside, his gaze going immediately to Chris, his eyes narrowing with distaste.
"Diego, Mr. Larabee would like to see his friend. I want you to cut him loose and let him dress. Meet me outside when he's ready."
The man nodded once.
Ella glanced back over her shoulder and smiled at Chris. "You'll see your Nancy-boy, Chris, I promise."
"What've you done to him?" Larabee growled, the icy wash of fear filling his belly.
Ella laughed. "Nothing, darlin', nothing at all. Don't worry. I haven't done a thing to him; you'll see."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Outside, Chris squinted against the bright sunlight. Diego and two other men held him, but the shackles on his wrists and ankles made it impossible for him to fight, or to run.
"Where is he?" he demanded when Ella walked over to join them, dressed in what looked like a scarlet ball gown. "Where's Vin?"
She reached out, cupping the side of Chris' face. "I don't understand it. How can you love him?" she questioned, the confusion in her eyes real. "Has he corrupted you with his sodomite ways?"
"Hell no!" Chris yelped. "He's my friend, Ella. He's like a brother to me. Where is he?"
Ella sighed sadly, then took a step away and called, "Roberto!"
A man stepped out of a small shack across the yard.
"Bring him out," she called.
A moment later, three men escorted Vin out of the small wooden shack. His hands were tied in front of him, but he was dressed the same as he had been the last time Chris had seen him, lying face-down on the floor in the house, although the blood had dried to the side of his face and in his hair.
"Let him go," Chris said, his voice not quite pleading. His gaze never left the tracker. He could see the concern in Tanner's blue eyes, and an assurance that he was unharmed – for the moment.
Ella smiled. "Oh, don't worry, darlin', he's leaving."
Larabee frowned and forced himself to look at the mad woman. "Ella, what the hell are you playing at?" he asked, the icy fingers of fear beginning to squeeze his heart.
She waved at the men and they dragged Vin back into the shack.
Chris fought back his rage, managing to say calmly, "You have me. That's what you want, isn't it? Let him go. Ella, please."
She sighed, the sound sad and more than a little frustrated. "Oh, Chris," she breathed, "I'll never have you, not completely. Not as long as he's there to come between us – him and the others… that cursed town…"
"That's not true," Larabee lied. And this time he didn't care if he sounded like he was begging or not, as long as it got Vin away from the madwoman, kept the others safe.
"Yes, I'm afraid it is," she said, shaking her head sadly. "There's only one way to purge his poison from you, Chris… just one."
The gunslinger's brow furrowed, trying to guess what she might have in mind, but movement near the shack distracted him and he saw the three men walking away. He looked back to Ella, pleading this time, "Please, Ella. If you truly love me, you'll let him go."
She smiled, tears standing in her eyes. "I do love you, Chris, more than anything on this earth. That's why I have to do this. Why I have to purify you. So we can finally be together, like we're supposed to be."
The faint odor of burning wood reached Chris and he jerked like he'd been punched in the gut. His head snapped around and he stared in horror as the first flames began to lick hungrily at the small shack.
"What're you doing?" he roared at Ella.
She gazed serenely at the shack, her expression half-sad, half-excited. "I'm saving you, Chris. I'm saving our love the only way I know how. You'll thank me one day."
Larabee gaped at her for a moment, then turned to stare at the shack as the flames grew, leaping and twisting in the light breeze that blew. "No!" he cried. "Vin!" He rounded on Ella. "You fucking bitch!" He threw himself at her, but Diego and the other two men grabbed him, holding him back. Chris fought like a wild man, but the shackles made it impossible for him to break free.
With the shack fully engulfed in flames, Chris tilted his head back and wailed, the sound ripping out of his throat as his will to live was ripped from his soul.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin met Chris' gaze across the space between them, trying to determine if the gunslinger was all right. Larabee was shackled, and the three men holding him looked capable of anything, but there was no blood, no bruises. And the look he got in return put his mind fully at ease. Ella hadn't done anything to him, not yet anyway. Chris was worried, but he was whole.
And it appeared Ella didn't have any plans for him this time. None like the last time, in any case.
After a few moments – just long enough for Chris to get a good look at him – the tracker was roughly escorted back into the empty shack and forced into a chair, the only piece of furniture in the whole place. They tied his feet, wrapped a couple of coils around his shoulders, securing him, then two of the lackeys left. The last, a man Vin recognized from his months spent as a Union prisoner of war, paused on his way out.
Stepping up to Tanner, he checked the ropes one last time and growled, loud enough for the other two to hear, "You're a dead man. We're gonna burn y' up in here. Best make what peace you can with your God." The other two chuckled, but they couldn't see the man slipping Vin back his knife before he turned and left, saying, "Let's get the hell out of here. I need a drink."
A few moments later, the tracker heard the sounds of matches being struck, and the unmistakable smell of burning wood filled the small structure.
Tanner wasted no time, immediately going to work to cut himself free as the flames grew stronger, spreading around him. He worked faster, knowing the old, dry wood would burn fast.
Sweat dripped into his eyes, nearly blinding him, but finally he cleaved the ropes at his wrists free. The ones around his chest and at his ankles were severed much faster.
"No!" Chris cried, the sound reaching him over the roar of the flames. He cringed, the pain in the gunslinger's voice like a knife twisting in the tracker's guts. "Vin! You fucking bitch!"
Making his way to the back of the shack, Vin looked for cover, finding it in the form of an old wagon sitting next to a long-unused well. He checked for the guards, and when he didn't see them, he stepped back, then launched himself through the window of the shack, the glass shattering.
He rolled through the dirt, coming to a stop under the wagon. He waited for someone to raise an alarm, or start shooting, but there was nothing, just the sound of the flames growling and snapping as the wood was quickly devoured.
A grim, almost feral smile curled his lips. He'd made it. Now he had to get Chris back.
Then he heard it, a sound that would haunt his dreams until the day he died – a cry, wrenched from Chris Larabee's throat in a primal scream. Vin swallowed hard and squeezed his eyes shut until the wail finally trailed off and died in desperation. I'm sorry, Chris. God 'm sorry, but there's nothin' I c'n do t' help y' right now.
He scrambled on his belly to the far side of an old well where he could see Chris fighting his guards, throwing himself at Ella again and again, his hands clawing for her throat in a hate-filled rage. But three men quickly subdued the shackled gunslinger, beating him until he collapsed into the dirt. They stood over Larabee, kicking him, but Ella stopped them, snapping something Vin couldn't hear.
The men reached down and jerked Larabee back onto his feet, but the gunslinger's head and shoulders sagged, and they had to half-drag him back to the big house, his legs clearly refusing to support his weight.
Vin could read Larabee's posture as easily as he read signs on the trail – Chris was defeated.
The tracker cursed softly, wishing desperately there was some way he could let Chris know he was still alive, but there wasn't one. Y' gotta fight, Chris. Y' gotta stay alive 'til we c'n get y' outta there. Y' just gotta use that heart 'a yers. If y' listen, it'll tell y' I ain't dead. Please, Chris, listen 'n' don't go an get yerself killed.
Using every ounce of willpower he had, Vin forced himself to stay right where he was until night finally fell. Then, in the quiet darkness, he slipped away and headed for town where help was a telegraph message, and a two-day ride, away.
And those two days, he knew, would be spent hiding and worrying about what the madwoman might be doing to his best friend.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Back in the cellar, stripped and bound, Chris lay on the feather bed, staring up at the ceiling, but all he could see were the flames, leaping and jumping, consuming his friend, his brother. Vin Tanner was dead. Those words echoed in his mind, robbing him of breath and any concern over his situation. Time passed, but it was like a dream. Ella appeared from time to time, talking to him, but he didn't hear a word she said, and cared even less, but still she hounded him.
"I know you're all alone, Chris, and I'm sorry, but you still have me. It's just you and me now, Chris. I'll make the pain go away. I'll show you the love you've forgotten. I love you, Chris. I'll make you remember how much you love me. I promise."
Her hands touched him, but he didn't feel them, the pain in his heart too great for it to penetrate. Minutes stretched to hours, hours into days. She petted him, stroked him. She scratched, and kissed, and suckled, but it all meant nothing to the gunslinger. He was already dead inside; it was just taking his body a little longer to catch up.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris wasn't sure how he knew that it had been two days since Vin had burned alive, but he was sure it had been two days.
Two days since he'd eaten anything, or drank anything.
Two days since he'd slept.
Two days over which Ella had tried to rouse him from the living hell he was enduring until he could join Vin, and Sarah and Adam, across that great divide.
Two days to die a slow death.
Ella was begging him to eat, to drink, to make love to her, but her words couldn't touch him, couldn't goad him to any action. She screamed, her fists pounding against his chest, but he only stared past her to the ceiling, watching the flames that constantly haunted his memory.
"Chris, please," she whimpered, "you have to eat. You have to drink something. I need you. You have to live, for me. You have to love me, Chris."
Desperate, Ella scrambled off the bed and hurried across the room, returning a few moments later with a knife that she used to cut the leather thongs, freeing Larabee for the first time.
Taking one of his arms, she tugged and pulled until he finally sat up on the edge of the bed.
"There, that's good, Chris," she said, smiling encouragingly at him. "Now, you've got to eat something, darlin'. You have to love me," she added, her tone begging, then petulant.
Stepping up between his legs, she wrapped her arms around his neck, cradling his head to her breasts, the knife still held in one hand. "I love you so much, Chris. You have to love me, too. You have to remember what we meant to one another, you just have to."
Her words were like the drone of a desert wind, but one fact reached though the numbing pain that had held him in its grip: he was free.
Standing, his legs trembling, Chris stared down at the woman who had taken everything he'd loved from him.
Ella tilted her head back, staring up into his eyes and pleading, "Please, Chris, you have to love me. You have to."
Without thinking, his hands came up, his fingers fitting around her neck. His touch was gentle at first, but then he squeezed – hard.
Ella's eyes rounded, her mouth forming a perfect surprised "O" as she fought for a breathe. "Chris," she gasped, "I love you… so much… I know… you love me… too."
He could see the love in her eyes, and the madness.
With a violent shove he hurled her away from him, the numbness he'd felt since Vin's death crashing into raw anger like the first clap of thunder setting off a raging summer storm. "You fucking bitch!" he snarled, lips curling off his teeth. "I'll never love you. Never!"
Opening her mouth, Ella tried to say "No," but no sound came out. She shook her head, her eyes pleading with him.
"You destroyed everything I've ever cared about!" Chris continued, voice as icy as an open grave. "I hate you. I can't stand the sight of you. You make me sick!"
Ella's eyes rounded as if he'd slapped her. "No," she gasped. "No. You don't mean that. You love me, Chris. You've always loved me."
"No, goddamn it!" Chris yelled. "You were nothing but a damn whore! I never loved you, and I never will. Fucking slut!"
Ella screamed and lifted the knife over her head, charging toward him.
A single shot rang out in the cellar and Ella stumbled to a stop, the knife slipping from her fingers to clatter across the stone floor. She looked down at the gaping hole in her chest, realizing her death was eminent even as her life slipped out of her body. She started to fall, landing on the stone floor, eyes open, staring sightlessly at Larabee.
Chris watched her fall, too, his gaze finally lifting to see who had denied him the revenge he so desperately craved.
It was a ghost. That was the only possibility. But how could a ghost fire a Mare's Leg?
If any ghost could do it, it would be Vin Tanner's.
His eyes beginning to blur, Chris watched the specter walk into the cellar, stopping beside Ella's body. Using the toe of his boot, he rolled her over and bent to feel for a pulse at her throat.
Looking up at him, the phantom said, "She's dead this time."
Larabee nodded. Had Vin come to take him to the other side?
"Come on, Cowboy, we've gotta get outta here. Her men ain't gonna be happy their meal ticket's dead."
"You're dead," Chris choked out.
Vin stood, a smile quirking the corners of his mouth. "Not yet, but we stay here much longer 'n' that might change. Get yer clothes on, Larabee."
Chris moaned, squeezing his eyes closed, confusion and fear making the room spin and his legs quake. But then the tracker was beside him, holding him up, guiding him to the bed, helping him to sit down.
"Easy, Cowboy. It's really me."
Chris opened his eyes, peering up at the phantom, willing himself to know the truth. "How?" he demanded, starting to shake all over.
"I'll tell y' when we're outta this damned hellhole," Vin said, grabbing Chris' clothes from the chair where they lay, neatly folded.
Larabee was able to dress himself, but the buttons were too much for his trembling hands, so Vin fastened them for him, saying, "Hang on, Chris. I'll get y' out a here," he promised. "Are y' hurt?"
Larabee shook his head.
"Come on then," Vin said, pressing the man's gun belt into his hands before he led him to the door. He checked to see if the stairs were clear, then grabbed Larabee's arm and led him up and out of the house. They passed three dead men on the way out, each of them still bleeding from knife wounds.
Vin, Chris knew. Vin had killed them all to reach him; to rescue him. Vin was alive.
By the time they got outside, the shock of seeing the supposed dead man had begun to wear off and Chris drew his Colt, ready to fight to keep both of them alive long enough to find out how the tracker had cheated death this time. But he didn't have to do it alone. The others were there as well, on horseback, shooting, covering their escape.
"This way," Vin said, leading Chris to where two horses waited, held by JD.
"Chris, you all right?" the young sheriff asked as the blond mounted.
"Am now," Larabee replied, taking up the reins.
"Let's go!" Buck called, then fired off another shot at one of Ella's men and led the way out of the yard.
The others followed the big ladies' man, gunfire and the screams of dying men echoing after them.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
They rode hard, knowing some of Ella's men would follow, and they did. Shots flew past them, one digging a chunk of cloth out of the sleeve of Ezra's red velvet jacket. Another nicked the edge of Josiah's hat.
They pushed their horses harder, racing for the cover of a short hill in the near distance.
As they reached the edge, the horses leaned sharply into turns that carried them out of harm's way. At the back of the pack with Chris, Vin's borrowed roan leaned into the turn, but then stumbled, going down hard on its front legs. The tracker was sent flying over the horse's head, handing hard and bouncing once on the rocky ground.
"Vin!" Chris cried, but a bullet passing close to his cheek kept him from pulling up his own borrowed horse and racing back to check on the fallen man. Instead, he wheeled the big sorrel gelding around, Colt in his hand, and fired at their pursuers. One of the men fell off his horse, bouncing off the ground and sending up a plume of dust.
And then the others were firing as well, the hillside giving them the cover they needed, and the advantage of higher ground.
A few moments later, two more of Ella's men lay sprawled on the ground and the other three were riding hard, back toward the hacienda.
Nathan scrambled down the hillside and ran over to Vin. "Ya all right?" he asked the tracker, who was desperately trying to suck air into his empty lungs.
Eyes watering, ribs aching, Tanner nodded, unable to speak.
"Easy," the healer said, resting his hand on the smaller man's shoulder and waiting until Tanner finally managed a couple of wheezing gasps before he started looking for broken bones.
"Vin?" Chris asked, jumping down off his horse next to the fallen man.
Tanner looked up at the gunslinger, a sheepish smile on his face despite the pain and the lack of air. "Damn… roans… never… liked 'em."
Nathan and the others chuckled, but Chris reached out and rested his hand on the tracker's shoulder, asking, "You sure you're not a damned ghost?"
"Hurts too damned much t' be a ghost," Tanner replied, finally beginning to fill his lungs again.
"Let me have a look at yer head," Nathan said, starting with the old wound and then the newest lump. A few minutes later he said, "Gonna have some bad bruises, but nothing's broke. Ya hit yo'r head again?"
"Don't think so," Vin said, winching when Nathan's fingers pressed on his scalp, finding a tender spot. "Ow! Damn, Nate, y' gonna do more damage 'n the fall, y' keep that up."
The healer sighed and shook his head. "Lucky for you you're so damned hard-headed. Ya let me know if your vision gets blurred, or your head starts to hurt, y'hear?"
Vin nodded, knowing the man was honestly worried about him. "Got somethin' that needs doin'," he said, nodding at the fallen roan.
Chris and Nathan helped Vin to his feet, and the tracker walked over to where the gelding lay, moaning and twitching, both its front legs broken. Taking out his Mare's Leg, Vin put the animal out of its misery. Then, looking down at the still animal, he said, "Guess I'll be walkin' home, less one of y' is willin' t' double up."
"Get your scrawny ass up here," Chris half-growled, his heart still racing from having watched the tracker go flying. "This mule's big enough; he's not gonna notice you."
Vin climbed up behind the gunslinger, his head already beginning to pound.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Vin?" Chris called softly when he felt the tracker's full weight slump against his back a few hours later. He pulled the big gelding up, the others stopping as well.
Nathan reined his horse in for a closer look at the tracker. "Damn, stubborn fool," he cured softly, seeing the bruise spreading down Vin's forehead and cheek. "Took more of a hit on the head 'n he let on," the healer sighed.
Chris swallowed hard and asked, "He going to be all right?"
"Yeah," Nathan said, "I think so. But head wounds can be tricky. We ought t' stop in the next town so I can look him over, just to be sure. Good night's rest probably set him to rights."
Chris nodded. "He can stay where he is 'til we get to Blue Springs. We can spend the night there."
Nathan nodded, a small smile on his face. "Don't see why not; looks comfortable enough."
Buck grinned and started to tease Larabee, but the honest worry in the man's eyes stopped him. "He'll be fine," he told his oldest friend instead. "Only man I know who's got a harder head than you do."
Chris nodded in reply, but the fear didn't leave his eyes.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Vin? Vin, can ya hear me?" Nathan waited a moment, then gently patted the tracker's cheeks.
"Wha—? What?" Tanner asked, his brow furrowing with confusion and more than a little annoyance.
"Vin, ya gotta wake up now."
"'M 'wake," he mumbled in reply.
"Got a couple a saloon gals here who want to spend the night with you," Nathan tested.
"Mmm, nice," was the only response.
"Come on, Vin," Nathan said, reaching under the tracker's shoulders and pulling him up so he was sitting up in the bed.
"Damn, Nathan, cain't a man get some rest 'round y' without y' pesterin' him t' death?"
The healer smiled, watching as the blue eyes blinked open, looking clear. "Need to make sure that fall didn't rattle your brain any more 'n usual."
"Didn't hit m' head. I already told y' that."
"I found a tender spot,' Nathan reminded him.
"From when I got hit out at Chris' cabin."
"Ah," Nathan replied, still doing a careful examination of the tracker's skull. He found the small lump again and parted the thick chestnut hair to get a better look. "Must've bled pretty good at the time," he commented, noting the scab.
"Pull up your shirt; I want to check your back."
Vin sighed, but he did as he'd been asked, waiting while the healer poked and prodded.
"Nothin' broke, but you have some nasty bruises startin'. I'll give you some liniment to rub on 'em when we get back."
"Got a headache?"
"Little bit," Vin admitted.
Nathan pulled the shirt and long john back down. "All right, guess it ain't as bad as I was thinkin', but that fall kicked up that earlier head injury; that's why ya passed out."
"Didn't pass out," Vin argued. "Just fell asleep is all."
"Yeah, well, I want ya to get some sleep tonight. Maybe that headache'll be gone come mornin'."
Vin nodded, carefully.
Nathan headed for the door. "I'm just next door, if ya need me," he said.
Vin nodded. "Thanks, Nathan."
The healer grinned. "It's my job, and you boys keep me plenty busy."
Vin wasn't sure if he should grin or frown, so he just lay back down and closed his eyes, glad the ordeal was over and everyone was fine. Sleep swept him up just as Chris entered the room.
The gunslinger crossed to the bed and stared down at the sleeping man, a small smile forming on his lips. Vin was alive. He carefully sat down on the bed next to the sleeping tracker, leaning back against the headboard and stretching his legs out along the mattress. Reaching out, he patted Vin's shoulder, letting the feel of the solid muscles under his hand reassure him Vin was, indeed, alive and well.
Tanner grumbled softly, but he didn't wake.
Chris spent the rest of the night watching the younger man, telling himself again and again: Vin's alive. Ella's dead.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris sighed softly with relief when he saw the small town of Four Corners on the horizon. Vin still rode behind him, but he was awake and apparently none the worse for his fall. The night in Blue Springs had restored the tracker's health and he hadn't shown any signs that he was sore or in pain since.
The conversation turned to what everyone planned to do once they got back, but Chris let it wash over him. All he wanted was to get back to his cabin and drink the whole damn bottle of the red-eye he knew was there.
"Chris, you ridin' into town with us?" Nathan asked him.
"Nope," Larabee answered. "Gotta see if the cabin is still standin'."
"Hell, Chris, that'll wait for a day or two," Buck argued.
Larabee shook his head. "Didn't have the roof finished. If it rained…"
"Ya want us ta come out t'morrow and lend ya a hand?" Buck asked his long-time friend.
"I'd appreciate it."
"Always ready to lend a hand, brother," Josiah assured the gunslinger with a smile.
"I know, Josiah, and I appreciate it," Chris replied. "We'll see you tomorrow," he added, then reined the big gelding off the trail into town.
Vin slid off the horse's butt and gave it a light swat.
Chris looked back over his shoulder.
"I'll see y' tomorrow, Cowboy," Vin called.
"Keep callin' me a cowboy and you won't live to see tomorrow."
"Vin, ya come see me if your head starts hurtin' again," Nathan instructed as Vin climbed up behind Josiah.
"I will," the tracker agreed.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Four days later, the two men rode along the trail to the finished cabin, no words exchanged until they were almost there.
"Hard to believe it's finally over," Chris finally said, breaking the comfortable silence.
"Yep," Vin replied. "Yer just damned lucky she didn't kill ya."
"Like her husbands…"
"All but the last."
"The last?" Chris echoed. "She said she killed him, too."
"Tried," Vin told him. "Heard the men at the hacienda talkin' while I was layin' low, waitin' fer the others t' get there. She stabbed him, but she didn't kill him. They's all a little disappointed 'bout it. Sounded like he's a hard man t' work for; got a mean streak, and temper worth steppin' careful 'round."
"She said she had to do it; he wanted to see me dead," Chris said with a frown.
"Then this might not be over after all," Vin warned him.
Chris shook his head. "A pissed-off Mexican I can handle, but Ella…" He shook his head.
"Madness is powerful magic," Vin said softly.
Reaching the cabin, they took time to feed and groom their horses, then turned them loose in the corral and headed into the house.
"Gonna have t' replace a few floorboards," Vin commented, reaching up to gingerly rub the fading knot on his scalp when he spotted the blood stains.
"Could leave it," Chris replied, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Make for interesting conversation when company drops by."
"Hell, Larabee, what makes y' think anybody's gonna ride all the way out here to see ya? Ain't worth the effort."
The gunslinger chuckled softly. "That suits me just fine," he replied.
"And how do y' plan on spendin' all that time? Lazin' in the creek, or breakin' mustangs fer the Army?"
"Some of both," Larabee admitted.
"Well, guess I'll have t' come on out… give y' a hand… y' being an ol' man and all."
Larabee growled. "I'll show you old, ya damn cuss." He swatted Vin on the shoulder. "Now, get out there and haul in some water for this old man."
Vin grinned and nodded.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
After supper the two men sat out on the porch, listening to the coyotes singing in the darkness.
"You never did tell me how you're not dead," Chris said.
Vin sighed softly. "One of Ella's men… I knew him, a long time ago. He slipped me m' knife on his way out t' set the fire."
"He must've owed you one hell of a debt," Larabee said.
Vin shrugged one shoulder. "From a time that still haunts m' own dreams from time t' time. We's prisoners together, during the war. Hellmira."
"Christ," Chris breathed. "I heard about that place…"
"Guess he figured I saved his life there, so he owed me mine."
"Guess Josiah's right."
"There must be a God up there, watchin' over us," the gunslinger replied. "How else can you explain that man being there?"
Vin thought for a moment, then said, "Might have a point."
They fell back into the comfortable silence that marked their relationship, content that they were both alive and whole. Tomorrow would take care of itself, and they'd be there to face it, together, for as long as they could.
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