"I've searched every square inch, Ezra, and it ain't here," JD said in exasperation.
"If Vin said there was a weapon, there was a weapon," Ezra stated, struggling to restrain his own frustration.
Buck leaned against the building corner and crossed his arms as he watched Josiah and Nathan continue to look for the gun Woods had supposedly used against Vin. Ezra had told the others what Chris had instructed them to do and the men had attacked their task with enthusiasm. That had been two hours ago.
"Let's say there was one and that Woods had time to hide it before we got here. Could he have gotten back here before he left town and taken it?" Buck asked.
Nathan shook his head. "The mornin' after he was shot, he left town. Told him he should rest for a few days, but he was hell-bent on leavin'. Far as I know, he and his missus rode out of town and didn't come back."
"Nate's right," Josiah said. "He was at his place the whole time they were in town until they left and I watched'em leave. They never looked back."
Mary Travis joined them, her arms crossed against the cool morning. "Did you have any luck finding it?"
"No, ma'am," Buck replied. "We've looked everywhere."
Mary's face fell. "I just can't believe Vin shot an unarmed man."
"You aren't the only one," Josiah said. "But without proof, he's going to be tried for attempted murder."
Raindrops fell from the bloated gray skies as another spring storm began. Mary stepped under the eaves with the five men, and glanced up at the roof. "I'm glad the gutters were put up before the spring rains started."
Ezra nodded politely. "Yes, quite fortunate." He glanced up, and his eyes narrowed. "Could one of you gentlemen please give me a boost?" he asked, excitement threading through his voice.
The others exchanged looks that suggested Ezra had lost whatever sense he'd possessed.
"Please." Impatience sharpened Ezra's tone.
Mary stepped back as Buck made a stirrup with his hands and Ezra stepped up into his cupped palms. He grabbed hold of the roof edge and blinked against the falling rain. "A little higher."
Buck grunted and raised him up. The rivulet of water in the gutter was interrupted by an object, and Ezra's fingers closed around it. "Lower me."
"Would ya make up your mind," Buck muttered, then dropped Ezra none-too-gently back to the boardwalk.
Ezra was too excited to castigate Buck on his rude behavior and instead, held up the revolver. "I believe we have our evidence, gentlemen."
Mary and the men moved closer to stare at the weapon as if it were a consecrated object.
"Vin said there were two shots," Buck said.
Ezra opened the cylinder, and a slow smile curved his lips upward. "There are two empty cartridges, my friends."
Whoops and hollers overwhelmed the sound of the rainstorm, and Ezra's grin grew. Chris would be relieved to learn Vin hadn't shot a man in cold blood, that he had had sufficient cause - self-defense, pure and simple. Another thought struck him. If Woods had shot at Vin first, then Woods was the one guilty of attempted murder.
But Nathan beat him to the announcement. "That means I treated a guilty man like he been the one who'd been wronged, and we chased Vin out of town like he was a criminal, `cause we didn't believe him."
The revelry faded as Nathan's somber words penetrated their jubilation.
"We got to go after Woods, bring him back to face the judge," Buck stated, adjusting his gunbelt.
"He said he was headed for Yuma," Josiah volunteered.
"A hard four day ride, most of it through desert," Buck commented.
"What about Vin? What if Chris doesn't find him?" Mary asked.
"Then we all must continue the search, or Mr. Tanner will believe he is a murderer for the rest of his life," Ezra said quietly.
"And that his friends abandoned him," Josiah said.
A somber pall fell over them, as gloomy as the dreary day.
"You have to leave right away," Mary said.
"We can't leave Four Corners without any protection," JD put in.
Mary shook her head. "We'll be fine for a few days. You have to find Woods, and Chris and Vin."
Ezra glanced at his companions, sensing they were torn between their duty to the town and their concern for Vin and Chris. "Mrs. Travis is correct. It has been quiet here for the last week because of the precipitation, and it doesn't appear the rain will be terminating in the near future. I suggest we leave today."
"The sooner the better," Buck said with a vehement nod. He lowered his hat brim and stepped into the pouring rain. "I'll meet y'all at the livery in fifteen minutes."
The others tipped their hats to Mary, and followed Buck. Only Ezra remained behind for a moment. "We'll bring them back, Mrs. Travis," he assured the worried-looking woman.
She smiled, though it appeared forced. "I know you will, Mr. Standish."
Ezra gave her a small smile and joined his friends.
Chris awakened and lay still in the darkness as his mind tried to figure out where he was. Yuma.hotel.Vin. A cry like a child's scream of terror brought Chris bolt upright in bed. Vin, fully clothed, thrashed about on top of his bedcovers. Chris quickly moved to his side and laid a hand on his shoulder to calm him. He stared down into the man's sweat-coated face and tried to understand his unintelligible mutterings.
"Vin, wake up," Chris said firmly, giving his shoulder a shake.
The tracker awakened with a start, his eyes wild. He grabbed Chris's arms and his fingers dug into his skin, making Chris wince. "Chris?"
"Yeah, it's me," Chris reassured.
Vin's confusion faded and he released Chris quickly, as if embarrassed by his display and lack of control. Vin drew himself back on the bed so he could lean against the headboard, then dragged his shirtsleeve across his damp forehead.
Chris perched on the edge of the mattress in the dim light, and asked softly, "The same nightmare?"
Vin nodded and tilted his head back to stare at the ceiling. "Yep."
Chris rested his forearms on his thighs. "You want to talk about it?"
"Talkin' about it ain't gonna help nobody," Vin stated. "It's just somethin' I got to learn to live with."
Chris scrubbed a restless hand through his sleep-tousled hair. Isn't that what he had told himself, too? Sometimes he and Vin were too damn alike. "It don't sound like somethin' a man learns to live with."
Vin remained silent, his eyes closed, but Chris knew the man wouldn't sleep anymore tonight. Hell, he'd be lucky if he got any more shut-eye himself. "What do you say we head out now?"
Vin's eyes flashed open and he frowned. "It's still a few hours before dawn."
Chris shrugged. "It's cooler, and besides, ain't either one of us gonna get any more sleep."
Vin smiled slightly, a pale caricature of his usual grin. "Sure, why not. The sooner we get back, the sooner I can get thrown in prison."
"Damnit, Vin, I don't want to see you behind bars," Chris said, frustration etched in his tone. "But you got to give me somethin', a reason you hate Woods so much."
Chris studied his friend's face - Vin's cheeks were hollowed by the moon's glow and his eyes were aloof and distant. Dread swept through Chris.
"He killed a friend."
Chris narrowed his eyes. "Murdered him?"
Vin nodded slowly. "Took a gun, put it to his head and pulled the trigger." He squeezed his eyes shut and his shoulders jerked as if seeing the horrific image all over again.
A frisson of empathy shimmied down Chris's spine. "Why?"
Chris could see the effort it took for Vin to pull himself back together. He met Chris's eyes, and the curtains returned.
Chris got to his feet and drew his clothes on over his longjohns. He had to be patient, let Vin tell the story in his own time. Of course, if he had to, he'd give him a shove now and then to help him along. He just hoped Vin was more receptive to a shove from him than he had been when Buck had given him the same.
Fourteen hours later, Chris glanced at his too-silent companion. Vin rode slouched in the saddle, his eyes half-closed, his hat brim shading most of his features. What Chris could see of his pale face told him Vin was hurting, but knew it was an ache nobody but Vin could heal.
Chris took a deep breath and he searched their barren surroundings. They'd filled four canteens each before leaving Yuma, hoping it would last them through the two day trip across the desert. If not, they'd survive but they'd be damn thirsty when they arrived at the other end. Leaving so early this morning had given them a good headstart and they'd traveled nearly forty miles that day - the majority of it desert.
Their path led them through a narrow canyon entrance where the rock walls shot upwards a hundred or more feet above them. Crevices in the walls told Chris there were numerous caves where animals would be sleeping out of the sun's harsh rays until night fell when they'd come out to scavenge for food.
Out of habit, Chris's gaze scoured the canyon rim. A sudden flash of sunlight on metal startled him, but he managed to shout, "Look out!"
A rifle's shot sounded a split second before Chris was knocked out of the saddle, like a mule had kicked him in the chest. He had a moment of lucidity then his head exploded and consciousness abandoned him.
Vin reflexively reached for his mare's leg, then cursed, remembering Chris had taken his weapons from him. Another shot sent rocks flying in Sire's face and the horse reared up, nearly unseating Vin. Sire's hooves narrowly missed Chris's still body and Vin managed to bring the horse under enough control that he could jump out of the saddle. He knelt beside Chris as another bullet plowed into the ground beside his unconscious friend.
Vin pulled one of Chris's Colts from his holster and sent a couple shots in the direction of their ambusher. His heart pounded in his chest and though he was still weak, he managed to sling the larger man over one shoulder. More rifle shots sent him scurrying between the boulders to find protection from the hail of bullets. He wound through a maze until no more shots were fired, then he eased Chris on to the ground as he gasped in the hot desert air.
Vin wiped sweat from his forehead, then cautiously raised himself from behind the cover of the rocks. His gaze raced along the canyon rim, but he couldn't make out any sign of their attacker. There was only way to be certain the man with the rifle was gone. With only a slight hesitation, he stood and awaited the sound of a gunshot, but silence remained, broken only by Chris's raspy breathing.
Vin quickly knelt beside Chris, whose black shirt was made darker by the blood that stained the right side of his chest. "Geezus, Chris," Vin murmured, fear making his hands unsteady. He glanced at Chris's face and saw more blood flowing from a wound on his left temple.
With trembling fingers, he unbuttoned Chris's shirt to reveal a ragged bullet hole a few inches below his shoulder. He carefully rolled Chris slightly to check his back and found the exit hole where the bullet had left his body. He unknotted the bandanna from around his neck, and pressed it against the front wound which was bleeding more heavily. Chris's agonized moan from someplace deep within his subconscious made Vin clench his teeth. After a few minutes, Vin removed the blood-soaked cloth and found the bleeding had slowed to a trickle. He took off his jacket and shirt, then tore a couple pieces of cloth from the shirt, wadding them up against the entry and exit holes. He tore a long strip from his shirt and wrapped it around Chris to hold the two makeshift bandages in place. Tearing the other remaining shirtsleeve off, he wound it around the head wound and tied it snugly, then balled his fringed jacket into a pillow and placed it beneath Chris's head.
Vin leaned back on his heels as he knelt beside Chris in the scorching desert sun. He laid his sweat-dampened palms on his thighs and stared into Chris's pale complexion. God, he wished Nathan were here. He'd know what to do. At least the bullet hadn't remained inside - since it had gone clean through, Chris might have a fighting chance.
Taking a deep breath, Vin pushed himself to his feet and waited a moment until the weakness in his legs eased. Cautiously, he wended his way back the way he'd come. He paused at the edge of the opening where they'd been ambushed, and swept his gaze across the tableau of rocks and sand with a few cacti thrown in for good measure. Nothing moved.
He spotted a canteen and Chris's black hat on the ground, and kept low as he retrieved them. The canteen was full. Vin sighed in tempered relief - it had probably fallen off his saddle when Sire had reared. Their horses had disappeared, more than likely gone back the way they'd come in search of food and water. Vin slipped back to join Chris, the valuable canteen held tightly in one hand. The gunslinger hadn't moved and the cloth around his forehead had become saturated with blood. Vin tore another piece from his shirt and replaced the bandage.
Sweat mingled with blood on Chris's face, and Vin dampened a corner of his tore-up shirt then he gently dabbed away the blood and sweat. He had to get Chris out of the sun. Glancing around, he spotted an opening in the canyon wall. He bent down and, with a low grunt, slung Chris's dead weight over his shoulder again. The badly wounded man moaned once, then fell silent.
Vin's legs, still recovering three months after he'd been shot in the back, trembled with the burden he carried over his shoulder. His muscles threatened to collapse beneath the combined weight of himself and Chris, and Vin struggled to keep himself upright. If he gave in to the weakness and stumbled to the ground, Chris's wounds would re-open and the loss of blood could kill him. No, Vin wouldn't let that happen. He had to be strong, and not give in to the despair and weakness as he'd done in Yuma. Sweat rolled down his cheek to drip on to his undershirt, but Vin's concentration didn't waver from his goal.
A seeming eternity later, Vin carefully lowered Chris to the cave floor. Vin slipped to the ground beside him as he finally allowed his leg muscles to collapse beneath him. He drew in deep draughts of air as he wiped a trembling hand across his damp brow. Swallowing hard, he fought the sickness in his stomach that made him lightheaded and wanting to vomit.
A few minutes later, after his weakness had eased and his muscles quit shuddering like aspen leaves in a stiff breeze, Vin tried to make Chris comfortable on the hard rock. Studying the blond man's pale face, Vin's gut knotted in apprehension. Chris needed more help than he could give him, but he didn't dare leave him alone. Their ambusher was still out there somewhere, maybe thinking of finishing what he started, and Chris wasn't in any shape to defend himself. Of course, if Vin didn't get help for him, he could die anyhow.
If he hadn't come after Vin, Chris wouldn't have been shot. Which brought about another question - who had done it? The answer clamored in Vin's head - Woods. The bastard knew that Vin wouldn't rest until he found him, so he'd decided to make sure that didn't happen. In Four Corners, Woods must have panicked, knowing Vin could expose him, so he'd stupidly ambushed him in town. When that failed, Woods came after him and now he'd either come down to make sure he'd succeeded, or he'd let the desert do his dirty work. Knowing what a coward the man was, Vin suspected he would let the sun kill them.
Either way, Chris was a helluva lot closer to meeting his Maker than Vin, and it was up to Vin to keep that meeting from happening. Even though Chris remained unconscious, Vin laid a hand on his shoulder and said softly, "I'll be right back."
He slipped out into the lengthening shadows of dusk and scouted around. If their attacker - Woods - was near, Vin wanted a chance to get him first. His fingers wrapped tightly around Chris's revolver as he fought another wave of dizziness. Damn, if he hadn't spent the last few days drinking himself into oblivion, none of this would have happened - Chris wouldn't have caught up to him and they wouldn't have been riding through this canyon into a trap.
Glancing back to make sure he still had the cave entrance in his sights, Vin settled in behind a rock to keep an eye out for their attacker. A fly buzzed past him and a vulture circled high in the fading sky. A rattlesnake slithered past, leaving a shallow trail in the sand. The minutes crawled by as Vin's mind kept straying back to Chris, wondering if he'd awakened or.
Vin swallowed hard, and headed back to the cave as the sun dipped behind the western horizon. He could barely make out Chris's form in the darkness of the cave, though he could hear Chris's ragged breathing, and he sighed in heartfelt relief. His eyes adjusted to the near blackness and he lowered himself to Chris's side. He put a hand on Chris's shoulder and where he'd been sweating in the heat, Chris now trembled from the cold air of the desert night.
Using his sense of touch more than sight, Vin examined the two open wounds. The cloths he'd placed against the bullet holes were saturated with blood, and Vin picked up the remains of his shirt to tear a couple more pieces from it. He balled them up and placed them against the chest and back wounds.
Vin shivered slightly as the coolness penetrated his thin underwear shirt, but his discomfort didn't bother him. However, Chris's wounds were bad enough that the frigid air might end up killing him in his weakened condition. He shifted around, raising Chris's head and allowing his friend's neck and shoulders to rest on his thighs. He unrolled his jacket and spread it over Chris's chest. It wasn't much, but it was the best he could manage.
Vin leaned back against the cold stone wall and laid Chris's gun by his side, within easy reach in case of trouble. He stared down into the pale oval that was Chris's face. "Don't you die on me, cowboy," he said in a low voice, though with a hint of fear.
He couldn't ever remember Chris being this badly hurt - oh, sure, they'd all taken their share of wounds being the peacekeepers of Four Corners, but it was rarely Chris who was injured. When he was, it usually wasn't serious.
Except for the time he'd been held prisoner in the chain gang. Vin shifted, uncomfortable with the memory of how he'd found him. Vin had been the first one to reach Chris that night when they'd raided the Jericho prison camp. He'd never forget how weak Chris had been, how he'd collapsed and would've fallen to the ground if Vin hadn't caught him. Then the damnable Larabee pride when the others had shown up and Chris had drawn away from Vin, not wanting Buck, JD, Nathan, Ezra, and Josiah to see how badly hurt he actually was.
"Hell, Chris, you didn't have to do that for us," Vin whispered in the darkness. "We were your friends, and we understood. Me more than I wanted to admit. You see I been weak, too, and I didn't want no one to know neither." He reached out, found Chris's cool hand, and laid his on it, drawing his own comfort from the touch.
"Like when I killed Seth because him and Woods were." The lump in his throat grew, and he swallowed with difficulty. Even now the image of the two of them filled him with sickness and disgust. And Brett was willing to do the same to escape the whip's wrath. Only Vin had fought Woods, and he'd been punished accordingly. One.two.three. four.
"Oh, God," Vin whispered hoarsely, feeling the bile rise in his throat. He didn't know which had been worse, the whipping itself or the look on Seth's face while Woods had brought the leather snapping against Vin's back.
There wouldn't be any sleep tonight. Or if there was, it would be wrought with images of the past - memories Vin wished he could purge from his mind like a gentle rain purged the air, making it fresh and clean again. But nothing could change the past, and nothing could make him forget the tangle of events that ended in tragedy over fifteen years ago.
Vin began to pull his hand away from Chris's, but Chris's fingers curved ever so slightly around his. Vin smiled gently, and allowed both himself and Chris the solace of another person's touch. "It's okay, Chris. I ain't gonna leave ya."
Then he settled in for a long, uncomfortable night.
Vin awakened stiff and groggy as the sun peeped over the horizon. He glanced down, saw that he still held Chris's hand in his, and eased out of the unconscious man's grasp. He watched the shallow rise and fall of Chris's chest, and breathed a sigh of relief. They'd both survived the night.
As he studied Chris's pale features, Chris's eyelids flickered open. "Hey, cowboy," Vin said quietly, relief making his voice husky.
Chris seemed to have trouble focusing. "Wh-what happened?"
"You were shot," Vin replied tightly.
Chris remained silent, his expression telling Vin he was thinking through the succinct words. "How bad?"
"It ain't good. Bullet hit you in the chest, and you been out twelve hours. We ain't got any horses and only one canteen."
Chris shifted his head slightly to stare up at Vin, and managed a crooked grin. "You do know how to cheer a fellah up, don't ya?"
Vin's face warmed. "I reckon I could use some of Nathan's bedside manner."
Chris's smile was replaced by a grimace. "Any ideas?"
"I could see if I could track down the horses, but I ain't so sure it's a good idea to be leavin' you alone."
"If I finally pushed my luck too far, it don't do any good for you to hang around and watch me die," Chris said huskily.
Should the angels call.
Fear brought a metallic taste to Vin's mouth. "Damnit, Chris, you ain't gonna die," he shot back. "You lasted the night - I figger that means you're too damn stubborn to die."
Chris stared up into his friend's face in the dim coral glow of the early dawn. Vin appeared haggard and pale, as if it were him who'd been wounded. Realizing he was lying on Vin's lap and covered with his leather jacket, Chris frowned.
Vin reached for the canteen. "You need to drink some water." He held the container to Chris's lips and the gunslinger managed to swallow a few sips. Vin screwed the top back on the canteen and set it down.
"You'd best have some, too," Chris said hoarsely.
Vin shook his head. "I had some earlier."
A wry smile tilted Chris's lips upward. "No wonder Ezra's always takin' your money - you ain't any good at lyin'."
Vin chuckled. "No, he's just better at it than me." He sobered. "I'm sorry I got you into this mess."
"Wasn't your fault."
"Yeah, it was. I'm sure it was Woods that ambushed us - he missed me and got you instead." Silence hung between the two men for a moment. "I'm gonna look around some, see if I can find the horses."
Vin lifted Chris's head carefully, then eased it on to the remains of his shirt. White lines creased the corners of Chris's lips, telling Vin how much his friend was hurting. He curled his fingers into his tight fists, and his fingernails dug into his palms. He wished he had some whiskey to give Chris, to help deaden some of the pain.
Vin stood and stared down at Chris. "I expect you to be alive when I get back."
Chris smiled weakly. "I'll keep that in mind."
Vin stared into his eyes a long moment, and in them Chris could see his worry. The stranger Chris had found drunk in Yuma had disappeared - Vin Tanner had returned.
"I'll be fine," Chris reassured, hoping he wasn't lying. "You be careful - the shooter might be hangin' `round, just waitin' for you."
Vin sent him a terse nod, then disappeared into the early morning. Chris closed his eyes, and concentrated on ignoring the pain that wracked his chest and the sharp ache in his head. He didn't try to lie to himself - he was hurt bad, worse than he let on to Vin. His chest felt like an anvil lay on it and it was tough to breathe. He had to get Vin to leave him, to go for help. It was the only way to get him to save himself.
He didn't know how long he lay in a semi-stupor before he heard light footsteps approaching. His heart kicked his ribs, and his fingers feebly clawed at his empty holster. Who had taken his gun?
"Take it easy, pard."
"Vin?" Chris hardly recognized his own feeble voice.
"Glad to see you're still alive," Vin said, a familiar easy smile lifting his lips.
Chris tried to concentrate but his thoughts hopped around like grease on a hot skillet. "Where'd you go?"
Vin knelt beside him, and gazed down at him oddly. "Look for the horses."
That's right - Vin had told him that. "Any luck?"
Vin removed his hat and ran a hand through his long, thick hair. "Nope. They're probably back in Yuma by now."
Chris closed his eyes as the pain ebbed and flowed through his body. "You gotta leave me and get help."
"The hell I do." Vin's voice was pitched low, but intensity flowed through his words.
Chris opened his eyes and narrowed his gaze. "Damnit, Vin, there's no reason for both of us to die."
"Neither one of us is goin' to die!" Vin pushed himself to his feet. "I'm gonna go take another look around."
"Vin," Chris called out. But the tracker was gone.
Chris's fingers curled into a tight fist as he muttered, "Stubborn cowboy."
Outside, Vin rubbed his brow as he watched the hot sun rise higher in the eastern sky. No, he wouldn't - couldn't - leave Chris no matter what he said. Vin owed him too much to leave him to die alone. A shock rippled through Vin - did he truly think Chris would die? He took a deep, shaky breath. He had to face facts - nobody would come looking for them out here and without horses or water, Chris had little chance of surviving.
But abandoning a friend went against everything he believed. He glanced back at the cave opening and his stomach lurched. No, he wouldn't leave him alone. With unsteady steps, Vin returned to the cave to find Chris trying to sit up. He hunkered beside him and took hold of Chris's shoulders. "Take it easy, pard. You're gonna start them holes bleedin' again."
Chris smiled faintly. "If I can't get you to leave me, then we both got to go."
"You ain't in any shape to be travelin' across a desert."
Chris stared at him intently with bleak eyes. "And if you wait `til I die, you ain't gonna be in any shape to save yourself."
Vin swore under his breath. "Damnit, Chris, I ain't leavin'."
"Then help me sit up," Chris growled. "I feel as helpless as a newborn foal lyin' on the ground."
Vin shook his head in exasperation but aided Chris to a sitting position, the blond man's back against the stone wall and his long legs stretched out in front of him. Chris's head swam in dizziness, but after a few moments the nausea passed.
"Here, drink some more water." Vin lifted the canteen to Chris's lips, and after Chris swallowed a few times, lowered it. Vin capped the canteen, then remained beside him on one bended knee while he examined Chris's wounds. "Damn lucky you didn't start bleedin' again."
Chris smiled crookedly. "You're soundin' more and more like Nathan."
"I wish he was here, Chris. I know some about doctorin', but this is more'n I can handle."
Chris reached out with a trembling hand and rested it on Vin's knee. Startled, the ex-bounty hunter glanced at him.
"Don't you be frettin' about me, Vin," Chris began. "Ever since I lost my family, I've been ready to die."
Vin's jaw muscle tensed. "Losin' family like that must be about the toughest thing in the world."
"It was." Chris studied Vin intently. "It's like there was nothin' left inside of me, like I couldn't think, couldn't move, couldn't do nothin' `cause everything was gone." His gaze turned inward. "Then the anger, the rage at God and the murderin' bastard for takin' them." Chris blinked, and his breath stuttered in his constricted throat. "I kept askin' `why them? Why not me?'"
"You ever get an answer?" Vin asked softly.
Chris shook his head slowly. "Nope. But every once in a while I get a little glimmer, like when you and me stopped them men from hangin' Nathan. And the time we saved Billy's life. I don't know - maybe it all makes sense in the end."
"And maybe it don't." Vin's familiar sardonic smile brought a mirroring grin to Chris's lips. "Get some rest. I'll keep an eye out."
Vin moved to the cave opening and stationed himself there. He glanced back at Chris to see him studying him, and sent Chris what he hoped was a reassuring look. "Go ahead, it'll be okay."
And Vin wished he could be as certain as he sounded.