The next morning Chris came down the stairs from his rented room above the blacksmith shop and studied the dark clouds with a jaundiced eye. He hoped the thunderclouds weren't indicative of the nature of the day.
He walked down the boardwalk to the jail, but paused before entering. He was looking forward to the conversation with Vin as much as he looked forward to getting a tooth pulled. However, he suspected the pulled tooth would be less painful.
Taking a deep breath, Chris opened the door and entered the office.
"Mornin' Chris," JD greeted with only a shadow of his usual youthful enthusiasm.
"JD," Chris replied with a nod. He looked into Vin's cell and saw the man in the same fetal position he'd been in when he'd left the night before. "He moved at all?"
JD nodded and concern creased his brow. "He had some nightmares," he replied in a low voice. "He was tossin' and turnin' and yellin' a few times."
"What did he say?"
"Couldn't make it out, except for a name - Seth."
Chris thought for a moment but couldn't recall Vin mentioning anyone with that name. "He awake?"
"He was about ten minutes ago when I got him some water."
Though Chris kept his face calm, his stomach roiled with apprehension. What was he going to say to Vin? What could he say that might reach him? He stepped over to the cell and wrapped the fingers of one hand around a steel bar. "Vin, you awake?"
"Vin?" Chris said a little louder. "We got to talk."
The tracker's shoulders moved slightly as he muttered a reply, "Nothin' to talk about."
"I think there is. You want to tell me about it?"
Vin turned onto his back, crossed his ankles, and stacked his hands behind his head as he stared at the filthy ceiling. "Nope."
"Geezus, you're about the most stubborn man I ever seen."
Vin turned his head so he could look at Chris. A hint of his familiar smile touched his lips. "You look in the mirror lately?"
Despite himself, Chris chuckled. "I guess that makes us even." He sobered. "It also means I'm too stubborn to give up."
Vin's expression grew dreary once more and he returned his gaze to the ceiling. "I ain't worth it, Chris."
The blond man straightened as alarm rifled through him. Whatever burdened Vin went soul deep. "Tell me about Woods. How do you know him?"
Vin remained mute for a couple minutes, and Chris forced himself to remain patient.
"He's someone I knew a long time ago, in another lifetime."
"Why'd you try to kill him?" Chris prodded.
Chris' patience wore thin. "What kind of debt? What'd he do?"
Vin's jaw muscle clenched. "When you lettin' me outta here?"
Chris gripped the metal bar so tightly, his knuckles turned white. "Damnit, Vin, you attacked a man who just lost his son." Blindsided by the memory of his own son's face, Chris's eyes filled with damning moisture. He took a deep shaky breath to allay the heart-rending image.
"What if that boy wasn't his son?" Vin demanded.
Shocked by Vin's single-mindedness, Chris leaned closer to the bars and his voice was husky with disappointment and memory's flaying pain. "How the hell can you say that? You saw his grief."
Vin jumped to his feet and stormed to the bars to stare into Chris's eyes. The tracker seemed startled as he studied Chris, then his expression faltered, replaced by embarrassment and regret. "Geezus, Chris, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to--" Vin's voice trailed off, and he glanced down, but not before Chris saw a flush cross his face.
Uncomfortable with Vin's apology, Chris's jaw muscle knotted. "Give me your word you won't try to kill Woods."
Vin raised tortured blue eyes, and for the first time, Chris really noticed his gray complexion and stringy, unkempt hair. He looked as if he hadn't had a bath or a decent night's sleep in weeks, and he appeared to have aged ten years. "I can't promise that."
Chris steeled himself against the compassion his friend's tormented look evoked. "Then you'll be staying in here."
"You got no right to hold me." Some of the steel returned to Vin's voice.
"You look like hell," Chris stated flatly.
"You wouldn't look so good neither after a night in here."
"Or if I had your nightmares."
Vin blinked, taken aback.
"What're they about?" Chris pressed. "Who's Seth?"
Startled anguish flickered through Vin's eyes, only to be replaced by anger, an emotion Chris knew was easier for a man to deal with when faced with an agonizing memory. Oh, yes, Chris knew only too well.
"Let me outta here," Vin demanded.
"Leave Woods alone."
Vin slapped the bars with an open palm and he spun away from Chris. "If I promise I'll leave him be while he's here, can I get out?"
Chris narrowed his eyes, gauging Vin's sincerity. "How do I know I can trust you?"
Vin pivoted back to the bars and met Chris's gaze. "Have I ever gone back on my word?"
Chris shook his head slowly. "Not yet."
Vin kept his eyes steady on Chris. "Trust me."
Chris waged an inner battle. The person before him appeared to be more his friend than the stranger he'd become in the last week. And a week ago, he would've trusted Vin with his life. Without breaking eye contact with Vin, he called to JD, "Bring the key."
Vin let out his pent-up breath. "Thanks, Chris."
Smiling, JD inserted the key in the lock and released Vin, who stepped out with a visible shudder. "Never could stand cages."
Chris smiled slightly, recognizing the old Vin. "What do you say you go to the bathhouse and clean up? Looks like you could use it."
Vin glanced down at himself and grinned ruefully, though the shadows in his eyes remained. "You got a point. Reckon I ain't been actin' like myself lately."
Chris tilted his head in acknowledgment. "After you're done with your bath, you have an apology to make."
Vin frowned, puzzled, then his cheeks reddened. "I'll find Ezra as soon as I ain't smellin' like a ten hole privy."
"I'm sure he'd appreciate that," Chris said dryly.
JD held out his hand. "No hard feelin's?"
"You were just doin' your job, JD." Vin gripped the boy's hand and they shook.
"Come on, I'll walk you to the bathhouse," Chris said, slapping Vin on the back.
JD gave Vin his holster and sawed-off carbine, then Chris and Vin left the jail behind. Vin sniffed the air and looked up at the threatening clouds. "Looks like we're in for a storm."
Chris studied Vin deliberately. "Not nearly as bad a one as I figured on."
Vin nodded, understanding Chris's layered meaning. They stopped in front of the bathhouse.
"See ya later," Chris said.
"Later," Vin echoed and watched Chris head to the saloon.
Vin went inside the bathhouse, his footsteps leaden. He'd given Chris his word that he wouldn't try anything against Woods, or whatever his real name was, in Four Corners. That didn't mean he couldn't take care of the son-of-a-bitch once they were out of town. His conscience twinged, but he shoved the nagging voice aside.
He'd made a promise to Seth and Brett, too. One he could finally fulfill over fifteen years later.
Chris was on his third cup of coffee when Ezra came down the stairs from his room above the saloon. The gambler's nose was swollen, but at least it was in the right place. Ezra straightened his plum-colored jacket lapels and glanced around the room. His gaze lit on Chris and they nodded a greeting to one another. Ezra retrieved a cup of coffee from the bartender and joined Chris at his table.
"Good morning," Ezra said, his raspy voice not yet awake.
"Mornin'. How's your nose feelin'?"
"Like it was struck by a fist."
A corner of Chris's lips lifted in a sardonic grin. "Imagine that."
Amusement lit Ezra's green eyes and he raised his coffee cup in a salute. Comfortable silence - something fairly new between the two men - surrounded them. Ezra had gotten off on the wrong side of Chris early in their acquaintance, but Ezra had made up for that lapse in judgment over and over in the past months. Chris had finally come to trust him as much as he trusted the other men, except for perhaps Vin with whom Chris had had no reservations. Until this past week.
Buck and JD wandered into the saloon, and joined Ezra and Chris. Buck grimaced as he studied Ezra. "Damn, Ezra, looks like you tangled with one of them kanga-roos and lost."
"And what, pray tell, do you know about Australian marsupials?" Ezra asked.
Confusion blanked Buck's face for a moment, then he grinned widely. "Why, hell, Ezra, I read about all sorts of things. Why, I read this thing in a magazine about how some day doctors are gonna find a cure for about every disease and sickness in the world. Can you imagine, just takin' a pill and feelin' all better?"
"They gonna find a cure for that animal maggotism, too?" JD asked innocently, though his dark eyes danced with mischief.
"We can only hope," Ezra interjected.
Buck's glare brought laughter from the other three men.
Nathan and Josiah came in next, and after getting coffee, sat down at a nearby table.
"How's Vin this morning?" Josiah asked.
Chris set his empty coffee cup on the table and glanced up to see Vin framed in the saloon's doorway. "Ask him yourself."
Cautious nods greeted Vin, and the tracker appeared uncomfortable by their wariness. His hair was damp and he'd put on a clean set of clothes. Instead of his usual hide coat, he'd donned the fringed leather jacket he'd bought last month. He moved over to stand beside them, and Chris smelled lye soap rather than stale liquor and sweat, a welcome improvement.
"Howdy," Vin greeted. He hooked his fingers in his gunbelt and shuffled his feet. "I guess I owe you all an apology, but especially Ezra. All I got to say is I drank too much and let the liquor get to me. I'm sorry, Ezra." He extended his hand to the gambler.
Ezra's lips tilted upward as he shook Vin's hand. "Apology accepted, Mr. Tanner."
"Good to have you back," Buck said effusively. "Join us for a drink?"
"As long as it's coffee," Vin replied with a faint smile.
Chris watched as Vin sat with Nathan and Josiah. He seemed to have returned to his usual self, but something didn't feel right. There was an edginess to him, like a deer that knows it's being hunted. After sharing so much in those dark hours when Vin had been shot in the back, Chris thought he knew him as well as a man could know another. But now he wasn't so certain. He wondered if they'd ever again share the companionable silence that had characterized their friendship.
Chris listened half-heartedly to the men's typical bantering conversations. JD and Buck were arguing about who Buck was going to take to the dance the following Saturday, while Ezra watched with an amused expression. Josiah and Nathan were discussing the latest news around town - Karl Johansen's wife giving birth to their seventh child in as many years, the price feud between the two livery owners in town as each tried to undercut the other, and Mrs. Potter's decision to stock the riveted trousers for men that were becoming popular.
The batwing doors swung open and Mr. Woods entered, his scarlet vest and black suit appearing out of place among the dusty shirts and faded trousers of the other patrons. He paused inside and glanced around. His gaze swept over the seven men, then quickly returned to Vin. Chris tensed and he could feel his friends doing the same as each awaited Vin's reaction. The tracker became as still as a statue, with only his narrowed eyes displaying any emotion or movement. He seemed to quit breathing and his hatred was almost tangible.
Josiah stood and put an arm around Woods' shoulders, steering him toward the bar. "Did you and your wife get a new marker made?"
Woods sent one more glance at Vin, then gave his attention to the preacher. "It'll be ready tomorrow, but we're moving on after I have a drink."
Josiah ordered two beers, then asked Woods conversationally. "Where are you headed?"
"That where you're from?"
The bartender delivered the beer and Josiah took a sip of the tepid drink.
"We have business there," Woods replied, then lifted his beer to his lips and took a healthy swallow.
"What kind of business is that?"
Josiah smiled. "Sounds interesting."
"It can be," Woods replied. He darted a glance back at Vin who continued to stare at him. "What's he doing out of jail? He tried to kill me."
"Would you know why he might do that?" Josiah asked casually.
"Maybe he's crazy."
"Vin has been called many things. Crazy isn't one of them."
"That his name - Vin?"
Wood finished his beer and drew his forearm across his mouth. "All I can say is I'm glad we're not settling here. Thanks for the drink and thanks for taking care of Daniel for us."
"It was the least we could do," Josiah said. He shook Woods' hand, and the man left the saloon, ignoring Vin.
Josiah walked back to the table he shared with Nathan and Vin. He studied Vin's pale face and heard his shallow rapid breaths. "Are you all right, Vin?"
"Fine," he replied shortly, then attempted to smile. It didn't fool anybody. "He didn't even recognize me, did he?"
Puzzled, Josiah shook his head. "Didn't seem to."
Lightning lit the bar's dim interior and a thunder clap sounded a few seconds later. The sound of raindrops plopping on the ground and overhanging eaves announced the arrival of the thunderstorm. The new rain gutters seemed to be working - water wasn't streaming off the roofs on to the boardwalk like it used to during a gully washer.
Chris repressed a sigh. He'd hoped to get Vin to take Sire out for some exercise today, but it looked like that plan was shot to hell. Maybe tomorrow.
"I'm goin' to my room to catch some sleep," Vin announced, covering a yawn with his hand. "Haven't had much lately."
"We've noticed," Ezra said wryly.
Vin granted him a sheepish smile, then stood. "See you boys later."
Chris relaxed - Vin sounded like himself. A night in jail might have brought him back to his senses.
"He's doin' a lot better," JD commented after Vin left.
"Seems to be," Nathan said noncommittally.
Chris glanced at the healer. "What do you mean?"
"Did you watch him while Woods was in here?"
"He kept his word - he didn't go after him again," JD defended.
"That's true enough, but if looks coulda killed, Woods would be dead."
"As long as his gun stays in its holster, he can stare at Woods all he wants," Chris said, hoping his judgment of Vin wasn't too colored by the friendship they shared.
Thunder cracked and rumbled, so close it vibrated the bottles on the shelves. Then came another distinct sound - a gunshot. The men jumped to their feet as one and ran out into the pouring rain. They searched the street, trying to pierce the gray curtain to find the source of the shot.
"Down there," Buck shouted, pointing to a shadowy figure down the street, near the alley beside Digger Dan's.
The six men raced down the boardwalk to find Vin standing over a fallen man, Vin's mare's leg in his hands. Nathan knelt down beside the person and turned him over.
"It's Woods," Nathan announced. "He's been shot in the back."
"He shot at me first," Vin stated.
Buck and JD searched the area around them, bending down to see in the damp shadows. Chris watched them, foreboding tightening his chest and spreading like an ugly cancer.
"He don't got no gun, Vin," JD said with a strained voice.
"Damnit, it's got to be there, JD," Vin argued.
"It ain't," Buck stated.
"Then it's on him."
Nathan shook his head. "He ain't got a weapon."
Chris's mouth grew parched as he stared at the ex-bounty hunter and a sick feeling settled in his gut. "You planned on killin' him all along, didn't you?"
Vin couldn't hold Chris's gaze, telling Chris all he needed to know. Bitter disappointment flooded the gunman - no, this wasn't the Vin Tanner he knew. Nathan had been right to remain concerned. If only Chris had listened to him, instead of blindly accepting Vin's reassurances.
"He shot at me first - there were two shots," Vin said, desperation edging his voice as he took a step back.
"We only heard one shot!" Betrayal gave Chris's tone a cutting edge. "You saw your chance to kill him, so you shot him in the back, figuring he'd have a weapon and you could say it was self-defense. Problem is, he didn't carry a gun."
"No!" Vin's eyes were as wild as the storm that pelted rain against them. "I'm tellin' the truth."
Chris stared at him, wanting to believe him with every fiber of his being, but the facts said Vin had shot an unarmed man in the back. Disgust roiled through him. He wouldn't fall for any more of his false declarations. "Throw down your gun, Vin."
Shock stunned the tracker for a moment, then his face became flinty, his lips set in a grim line. He raised his weapon and shook his head. "No, I ain't goin' to jail. I'm leavin' and don't any of you try to stop me."
"Why - you gonna kill us, too?" Chris demanded, his tone dripping with bitterness.
Anguish so real Chris almost believed it glittered in Vin's eyes. "Please, don't try'n stop me," Vin said as he started to back away.
Buck went for his gun, and Vin fired a bullet at his feet. Buck froze, his hand a couple inches from his revolver.
"Don't do it, Buck," Vin said menacingly as the rain poured off his hat brim in a heavy stream.
Buck slowly drew his hand away from the pistol butt. Vin continued his retreat until the rain swallowed him up. The six men remained where they were, unable to believe he had shot at Buck.
"Is he dead?" Chris demanded of Nathan who was still kneeling beside Woods.
The healer shook his head. "It ain't nearly as bad as I thought. Looks like the bullet went through the fleshy part of his shoulder."
"So Vin ain't a murderer?"
"Not yet," Nathan replied soberly.
Chris nodded curtly. "Josiah, help Nathan take care of Woods. Buck, JD, Ezra - let's see if we can catch Vin before he gets out of town."
The four men hurried through the sheet of rain, unable to see more than five or six feet in front of them. As they neared the livery, Chris spotted a large shadowy figure coming out of the double doors. It had to be Vin - no one else would be riding out in this storm. Chris tugged his Colt from its holster as Vin and his horse raced away. He lifted the weapon to take a shot at Vin, but his finger wouldn't pull the trigger. Vin had been his friend - a man who'd saved his life more than once. He didn't deserve to be shot down like a common criminal.
"We goin' after him?" JD yelled to be heard above the storm's increasing fury.
Chris nodded as he deliberately returned his revolver to its holster. "Get your gear and meet back here in ten minutes."
The three men didn't argue and hurried off to do as he said. Chris followed after them, his steps slow and weary. He didn't want to believe it - Vin couldn't shoot a man in the back, much less an unarmed man. Could he? Hell, the proof was right in front of him. Vin wanted to kill Woods, enough to lie to Chris and ambush Woods. Bile rose in his throat. No matter the reason, Vin had to pay for his crime - there was no escaping it. Especially since Chris vowed not to rest until he brought Vin back to face the judge.
The cold rain pelted Vin's shoulders, feeling like small pebbles flung against him. He kept his head down so his hat brim gave some protection to his face. The physical discomfort, however, was trifling compared to the hurt within. Vin had no doubt Woods had shot at him first. Where the hell had the gun gone? More importantly, why hadn't Chris and the others believed him? They'd been so fast to convict him - their eyes had told him that.
The bitter disappointment in Chris's pale green eyes had pounded the nails into Vin's coffin. If he couldn't believe Vin, nobody else would.
Sire stumbled in the mud, and Vin eased back on the reins, allowing his horse to slow to a walk. He turned in the saddle to look back the way he'd come, but the rain continued to fall heavily, becoming Vin's only ally. He had no doubt Chris would be leading his former friends on the mission to capture a murderer. No, not just a murderer - a backshooting killer, the lowest type of vermin in Chris's code of ethics.
Vin's stomach cramped and he nearly lost the coffee he'd drank earlier. Alone again. This is what his life had been like before that fateful day in Four Corners when he met Chris and Nathan and Buck. The addition of Ezra, Josiah, and JD to the select group had given them an invincibility Vin had foolishly come to believe in. Again.
Should the angels call.
The voice of Seth - dead for over fifteen years - haunted Vin. The ex-bounty hunter had lived without hearing those words for years, but the appearance of another boy who had been whipped had brought them back. Now Seth and Brett had returned to him in his nightmares, demanding retribution.
Should the angels call.
Vin shook his head, trying to dispel the words that he and his friends had lived by. At least for a time.
The rain began to lessen, and Vin veered off the main road into the woods to follow a game trail. Where would he go? What should he do? His life with the six men was over - he'd destroyed it when he'd defended himself against a man who didn't deserve to live.
He'd have to ride far away to a place where no one heard of Vin Tanner, where the chances of meeting up with the any of the others would be almost nonexistent. He should go to Tascosa, clear his name there. His temples throbbed - no, that would be one of the first places his friends would look.
Now, instead of one murder charge, he had two on his head. And there was no judge in the world who would believe both were false.
"How in Sam Hill are we supposed to track Vin when there ain't no tracks to follow?" Buck demanded, riding beside Chris.
"Where would he go if he was runnin'?" Chris asked.
"Someplace we couldn't find him," JD replied from the other side of Buck.
The mustached man snorted. "That's pretty obvious."
"What are you attempting to ascertain?" Ezra asked, riding on Chris's right.
Chris adjusted his damp hat brim, glad the rain had finally stopped. "Since we can't trail him, we got to think like him."
"Think he'd go to Tascosa?" JD volunteered, excitement lighting his voice.
Chris thought for a moment, then shook his head. "No, he'd know we'd think of that right off. He's gonna go someplace he wouldn't think we'd think of."
"Chanu." Ezra's quiet voice was almost inaudible above the creaking of leather and the mud sucking at the horses' hooves.
Buck nodded thoughtfully. "Makes sense, Ezra."
Although Chris wasn't so certain, he didn't have any other ideas. "We'll get there in a few hours."
"Maybe Vin was tellin' the truth," JD said, the creases in his brow evidence of his worry for their friend.
"I've been thinkin' the same thing myself," Buck added, leaning back in his saddle and tucking his hand in his waistband. "The Vin we know wouldn't never shoot an unarmed man in the back."
"The problem being that Mr. Tanner has not been the man we know for the past week. Unless there is some elucidation on his part as to why he loathes Woods, we cannot deduce why he has done what he's done," Ezra said.
"Ezra's right," Chris said. "Something about that little boy set him off, but if he ain't going to explain it, then we got no choice."
"He's our friend, Chris," Buck said softly. "All we been through together has to count for something."
The blond man's jaw clenched. "It'll get him a fair trial."
Buck studied his old friend, noting the sharp angles of his cheekbones and the set of his jaw. The man was suffering - Chris had trusted Vin, and Vin had thrown that trust in his face. But Buck still couldn't believe Vin had shot Woods in cold blood - that wasn't Vin's way. Of course, the shot he'd fired at Buck was something else entirely.
Buck shook his head. Maybe Chris was right. Maybe the best thing they could do for Vin was bring him back to face trial and get the whole ugly mess into the opening. And Buck was certain when the truth was told, it would be something no one could even imagine.
Vin shivered from the cold damp as he lay on a ridge, belly down and spyglass to his eye. He had a bird's eye view of Kojay's village. He'd planned on spending the night there, but some survival instinct had warned him not to. Now he could see why.
Chris, Buck, JD, and Ezra rode into the Indian camp shortly before sunset and Vin watched as Kojay welcomed them with open arms. The fact that Buck and Ezra hadn't been that friendly toward the chief during the hunt for Chanu had been laid aside by the old Indian.
Vin's fingers cramped as he held the spyglass, but he didn't want to miss a second of the exchange between them. Kojay used numerous hand motions as he talked, and Vin could see Chris wasn't happy with whatever Kojay told him. Suddenly Chris turned around to gaze up in Vin's direction, and Chris's body seemed to tense. A shiver chased up Vin's spine. Did Chris know he was there? Finally, Chris turned back to Kojay and after a few more minutes of palavering, the four men rode out, headed east.
He lowered the spyglass and raised himself to his knees, resting his trembling hands on his thighs. It would be safe enough to go down to the village now, but Vin decided to stay where he was for the night. He had no right involving Kojay, Chanu, and their people in his problems. Lifting the medicine bag from where it hung around his neck beneath his shirt, Vin studied the leather pouch. He closed his fingers around the bag - without his friends, he only had himself and his spirit medicine. He wondered if that would be enough.
Tucking the pouch back under his shirt, Vin raised his gaze to the growing darkness. Deep violet and magenta streaked across the sky from the western horizon, and the first stars of the night shone high above in the heavens. Was his ma up there somewhere, looking down on him and shaking her head in disappointment? Or did she understand the furious helplessness and shame which had stolen into his soul fifteen years ago? And the reawakened vengeance that keened through him like a wolf's howl in the night's silence?
Vin took a deep, shaky breath and passed a hand across his sweat-beaded brow. He needed some sleep, but was scared to close his eyes.scared to face Seth's ghost in his dreams. Why had that little boy died near town? Why had he been the one to find him?
He pushed himself to his feet slowly and carefully as his legs wobbled beneath him. He waited a few moments until he felt steady enough to walk, then moved off to unsaddle Sire. Between the long hours riding and his exhaustion, his legs weren't cooperating, but he couldn't complain too much. He'd regained the use of them when he truly believed he wouldn't, and only Chris's encouragement and stubbornness had kept Vin from taking his own life prematurely.
That was one more debt of gratitude he owed Chris Larabee.
Shoving aside thoughts of his six friends and his life in Four Corners, Vin managed to get a small fire going as darkness blanketed the earth. After eating some jerky, he wrapped a damp blanket around his shoulders and sat cross-legged in front of the flames, a mug of steaming coffee cupped in his hands.
If he stayed awake throughout the night, the nightmares couldn't torment him.