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Thanx to my beta readers, Joyce, Judy S. and Barb G., not only for their astute boo-boo finding skill but for their encouragement and many excellent suggestions, and to Debbi K. for writing the story that inspired it (and Vin's poem at the end).
Thanx also to each and every one of the many kind folks who sent their comments. Your feedback was not only sincerely appreciated, it was vital!
WARNING: It's gruesome in parts. If you are squeamish or not into the h/c thing, it's probably not your kind of story. There's no graphic sex and very little actual violence, but there is some profanity.
Thanx to Jensen for the awesome graphic!
ONEThe malpais - "badlands" - had earned their name. A hundred or so square miles of hardened lava that was just barely negotiable on foot, if you were careful, and on horseback only if you were stupid enough to risk it.
Lon Porter had lead Vin Tanner right into the heart of this Godforsaken place, where not even weeds tried to grow. The sun blazed in a cloudless sky overhead, the black rocks under his feet absorbing its merciless heat. This was the worst kind of hot - no water, no shade, and the heat flowing into you from both above and below.
Vin usually appreciated natural surroundings, no matter how rugged, but he hated this place. Ugly, black and barren as far as the eye could see. Porter had lead him here on purpose, which meant he knew the country. He knew that following a trail where a man could walk without leaving footprints, where there wasn't a twig or blade of grass to be disturbed, was next to impossible.
Still, Vin had managed to find enough evidence of Porter's passing that he'd stuck with the pursuit. A cinder here and there turned so that its unweathered side was exposed, an insect crushed by a foot or hoof, and then, the jackpot - a pile of fresh horse droppings. Porter wasn't far ahead of him.
Buzzards circled in the distance, waiting for something to die. Vin figured it was too much to hope that it was Porter they were waiting on, but the trail did lead in that direction.
He kept a loose rein on his horse, letting the animal find its own footing in the treacherous terrain. But as he neared the spot where the buzzards circled overhead, the gelding balked at following him, and he had to coax it forward. Something had spooked it, probably the scent of whatever was dying up ahead. Vin trained his spyglass on the spot, trying to make out what was there, but the sun was blinding, and the magnifying lens amplified the effect. If he didn't squint, his eyes hurt, if he did, he couldn't see through the damned thing.
No matter, whatever it was would still be there when he reached it.
The unnerving thought occurred to him that no one knew he was out here. He and Chris and Buck had ridden out after Porter when JD had recognized him from a wanted poster and had tried to arrest him. He had resisted, but JD, being JD, hadn't even considered waiting until he had someone backing his play to try and take the outlaw in.
Porter was a brute of a man, tall and heavy set. He'd taken the little guy down with one solid blow, and the fact that there were witnesses was the only thing that had kept him from putting a bullet in the kid. JD's most serious injury had been to his dignity, but Porter had escaped, and had evaded them so successfully that they'd had to split up to cover the possible directions he might have gone.
Vin had picked the trail that most likely would lead to him. He was the best tracker, and so had the best chance of finding him. He'd be more careful than JD had been about confronting Porter if he caught up with him. He wouldn't be able to take the outlaw in a fight any better than JD had, and there were no witnesses out here if Porter decided to put a bullet through his head. He'd already killed a priest - it was what he was wanted for. Nothing would stop him from killing Vin Tanner.
Vin scanned the horizon with his spyglass. He should have been able to see for miles in every direction, but the heat made the air shimmer and distorted his view. At least there were no outcroppings or ridges where Porter could be waiting in ambush.
His horse whinnied plaintively and tried to stand its ground. Vin had to coax it forward with soothing words and a gentle tug on the reins. He was trying to calm the animal when he saw the reason for its distress. The buzzards were circling another horse as it lay on its side on the blistering surface of the lava flow. It had to be Porter's horse, and it probably wasn't dead yet, or the buzzards would have been on it, not circling.
Wariness and a feeling of unease sent a shiver down Vin's spine despite the searing heat. If the horse was Porter's, where the hell was he?
The sense of foreboding intensified as Vin got closer and saw that the horse was still saddled, Porter's meager supplies still lashed to it. He couldn't blame the man for not wanting to lug a heavy saddle in the oppressive heat, but he'd left his canteen and bedroll, too.
A pain-filled snort came from the injured horse. What kind of a man would leave an animal to die slowly like that?
Vin left his horse standing where it was. No point in having it panic and running off on him.
A gruesome sight awaited him, and it took him a few moments to figure out what had happened.
The lava flow appeared to be a continuous sea of rock, but he'd seen spots where the surface had caved in, revealing the hollow pockets covered by a thin crust that could not be distinguished from the more solid surface. One of those pockets had given way under Porter's horse. The animal had either managed to crawl out, or, more likely, hadn't fallen all the way in - the hole looked too small to accommodate the horses' girth. Whatever had happened, the animal had hung itself up on the edge of the resulting crater, where the freshly broken edge was as sharp as glass, and had disemboweled itself. It had dragged its entrails behind it as it had scooted along the surface on its side in a vain attempt to escape its pain. Vin hated Porter for leaving the poor beast in that condition.
He unholstered his sidearm and discharged both barrels into the animal's head, ending its misery, and then stepped carefully around the gutted animal to peer down into the hole.
He hadn't really expected to find Porter there, so it was a jolt when he did. He reckoned that considering the circumstances, he could forgive the man for not putting his horse down, since Porter appeared to be dead, too. He was trying to think of a way to make certain of that fact when a sharp, cracking sound made him flinch. It sounded like gunfire, but he was only allowed an instant to realize that it was the rock beneath his feet snapping apart.
He dropped his gun the instant he felt himself falling, and reached out to grab something - anything - that would stop his descent into the pit that was Porter's grave. He felt the sharp rock slice into his forearm, but there was no pain, not even when he hit the bottom a dozen or so feet down, and his ankles twisted under the impact.
The pain came slowly as he untangled himself after landing in a dazed heap just inches from Porter's corpse.
He knew fairly quickly that he wasn't badly injured. His arm was gashed and bleeding, but it wasn't an excruciatingly painful wound, and binding it closed with his bandana helped. The twinges of pain in his ankles and legs passed quickly, and he didn't think anything was broken or even sprained.
That didn't mean everything was okay, though. He looked upward at the rim of the hole he'd fallen into. If he reached up as far as he could, it was still a couple of feet beyond his reach, and it might as well have been a hundred yards.
He looked around for a foothold - anything he could use to boost himself high enough to reach the edge, but there was nothing. The walls surrounding him had never seen the light of day, and were without the cracks and irregularities that came with weathering.
He wasn't prone to panic. Never had been. So he took his time trying to reason things out. Porter was in an upright sitting position against the sheer wall. If he climbed onto his shoulders, it might make him tall enough to grab the rim and pull himself out. He nudged one of the dead man's hands with his boot. The flesh was stiff and unyielding, still in the stages of rigor mortis. He supposed he had that to be thankful for. Eventually, the body would go limp again, and would not support his weight as easily.
Still, he hesitated before stepping on the dead outlaw. Somehow, that just didn't seem right. The thought of staying down in that hole with him, though, managed to make up for any misgivings he might have had.
He planted his right foot on Porter's left shoulder, and made a vertical leap for the edge of the hole. He missed his target on his first attempt. Then on the second, the third and the fourth. He wasn't even coming close, missing by a good 4 or 5 inches each time, until he was panting from the exertion.
This was not good.
His only hope was to somehow position Porter's body so that it would give him the added reach he needed, but he wasn't sure if even that would work. Just getting his fingers to reach the rim wasn't enough. He'd need to be able to at least get his forearms out so he could pull himself up the rest of the way.
He had avoided really looking at Porter up until then. He'd killed before, but actually looking at the dead had been a problem for him since... well, he wasn't going to start thinking about that right then.
Porter was even more gruesome a sight than his horse. The animal had apparently killed him with its hind hooves in a frantic attempt to get itself out of the hole. There was an imprint of a horse shoe right in the center of Porter's forehead. What Vin had though was long hair turned out to be Porter's scalp, cleanly scraped from his skull so that it rested on one shoulder. His lower jaw had almost been kicked clean off his face and now hung loosely by a strip of cheek, the semi-circle of Porter's teeth dangling above his chest like misplaced dentures. Its supporting structures gone, Porter's tongue was a protruding blob against the background of the mangled flesh of his neck.
Vin had managed to ignore the smell of fresh blood, but when he realized that Porter's clothes were drenched in it, and that the severed jugular vein that had spurted his life out like a fountain was plainly visible amidst the carnage, he almost puked.
He had to force himself to touch Porter, lifting the outlaw's stiffened form by his blood-soaked gunbelt and trying to turn him over. Bent like it was at a 90-degree angle, Vin hoped he could somehow wedge the corpse against the wall so he could climb onto Porter's back.
But there was precious little room to maneuver in the tiny space, and Porter outweighed Vin by at least 50 pounds. Exhausted and dizzy from the heat, and drenched in his own sweat mingled with Porter's blood, Vin was still not ready to concede defeat when he realized that the rigor mortis was wearing off and the corpse was becoming pliable again. Using what was left of Porter to get out just wasn't going to work.
He sat down to rest in what little space wasn't taken up by Porter's body, but that ghastly, mutilated countenance staring at him from just a few inches away sent a sudden rush of terror through him.
It was irrational, he knew. Porter was dead. He couldn't do anything to him.
But, it was going to be dark soon.
Not town dark, where lights burned in the occasional window. Not campfire dark, where you could feel safe in a small circle of reassuring light. But desert dark, where the light of the moon - if there was a moon - would cast a ghostly glow over that bloody, mangled head. He closed his eyes, but that didn't do any good. He could still see it. Still knew it was there.
He thought about screaming for help, but that was just fear talking. No one would hear him, and he'd only be wasting his breath.
It was a funny time to worry about his horse, but he did. There was no water around for miles, and he wondered how long the poor animal would stay nearby before its thirst forced it to go looking for a drink. The thought that he didn't have any water, either, tried to enter his head, but he blocked it out. There was just no point in wasting energy on something he couldn't do anything about.
Besides, the situation was far from hopeless. He was pretty sure Chris would look for him. Buck, too. Hell, all six of the others that he had come to think of as his own personal "we" would notice when he didn't come back. Even a few of the townsfolk might miss him. On the other hand, the Malpais were a forbidding place. It was possible no one would think Porter had been stupid enough to try to cross them, or that Vin Tanner had been stupid enough to follow him.
And it was going to be dark soon.
At least it wouldn't be so hot. With no air circulating down into the hole, it was like an oven, and the dry desert air was sucking the cooling layer of sweat right off of him. He was thirsty, but he was going to have to ignore it. At least hunger wasn't going to be problem. He was distantly aware that he was sitting in a sticky puddle of Porter's dried blood, and the smell of it was everywhere. His stomach wouldn't have been able to handle food even if he'd had any.
He rested his head on his knees, his face turned sideways so he could keep an eye on Porter.
Sometimes, they moved, even if they were dead.
His heart began to pound with an old, long-buried terror, and he struggled so hard to force it back down out of his consciousness that he stopped breathing. He didn't realize he had until he found himself panting for breath, try to replace the stale air in his lungs with the fetid air that smelled and even tasted of Porter's blood.
Sweat-soaked strands of hair fell over his face and he let them cover his eyes. It blurred his vision and let him try to pretend he wasn't looking at That Thing in the hole with him.
But it stared at him with its closed eyes, that gaping maw that had been Porter's mouth screaming silence.
It scared the shit out of him.
There, he'd admitted it.
Now what was he going to do?
TWOHow long could a person go without sleep, Vin wondered? It was a sure bet he wasn't going to do any sleeping as long as he kept company with the remains of Lon Porter.
He'd spent the entire night wide awake, his heart pounding every time he looked at that mangled face, the outlines of its horrendously ripped flesh enhanced by the half moon hanging in a cloudless sky. And if he didn't look at it, a cold, crawly feeling crept over him, along with an overpowering sense that Porter was going to somehow rise up and come for him and...
And what? He was being stupid, Vin knew that. Porter was dead, nothing but meat and bone. He couldn't do anything but sit there and rot.
Funny thing about fear, though. It didn't necessarily need to be based on anything real. Before the night was half over, Vin's guts were tied in a knot with fear. Fear of nothing. That Thing couldn't hurt him. He kept saying that to himself over and over, but it didn't do any good. He was wound up so tight that it physically hurt. His head pounded with fatigue, and there was an achy feeling in his chest and stomach that wouldn't go away.
He wondered what the others would think if they could see him, cowering like the little kid who...
No, he wasn't going to think about that.
Screw the others. If they were in his spot, they'd be just as scared as he was.
Well, maybe not Chris. Buck had told him how Chris had found his family, their bodies burned and twisted so that only the size of what was left made it possible for him to tell which was his wife and which was his child. They'd had to sew the corpses into blankets so they could carry them to their graves without pieces dropping off along the way. Any man who could endure that horror wouldn't be bothered by some decaying outlaw, would he?
Nathan? He'd be studying the process of decomposition. Taking notes. But, when it was dark, he'd be afraid. Stuck in this hole, he'd be afraid. Nathan knew what it was to be imprisoned, even though it hadn't been physical walls that had held him. Vin had seen the scars on his back, the reminder of a savage beating given to a 13-year-old boy who had decided he'd had enough of being trapped. Yeah, Nathan would be scared.
Josiah... maybe he wouldn't be. Hell, Josiah would be talking to Porter's ghost, and maybe not even noticing that the guy's face was falling off. The big difference between Vin and Josiah was that Josiah didn't care if he died. He figured you just went on afterwards, just in a different form. Vin wasn't so sure, and he liked the form he had now just fine Be nice if he was two feet taller, though, he laughed to himself. Dying didn't scare him, but it wasn't something he wanted to do just to see what it was like.
He was cold.
He knew the temperature could drop 30 or 40 degrees at night in the desert, but in the heat of the day, he'd left his jacket tied to his saddle. He pulled his arms close around himself, trying to contain his body heat. It was hard to believe that earlier, when he'd been trying to move Porter's body, he'd felt like his blood was about to boil out of his head. He'd be hot again, tomorrow, too, but for now the night air cut into him, chilling his bones and making his already-tense muscles ache and stiffen.
He'd still be down here, only he'd be more thirsty, and the stench that was beginning to emanate from Porter's body would get worse. For now, it was just the smell of clotted, rotting blood, which was bad enough, but tomorrow, in the heat, the body itself would begin to dissolve. It would darken and bloat with the gases of decomposition. He'd seen buffalo corpses bloat until the hide split, the innards spewing out in a putrid, liquified gush. Buffalo leather was a lot tougher than human skin...
Don't think about that.
Were they looking for him? The others?
Probably not. Not yet, anyway. Buck and Chris would ride back to Four Corners empty-handed and then, when they didn't find him there, would start arguing about where to look for him.
How were they going to find him, anyway?
His horse had probably left a long time ago. Porter's horse would be picked clean by noon the next day, and maybe even the bones would be carried off by coyotes. They'd even eat the saddle and tack if they were hungry enough, and coyotes usually were.
His gun was up there somewhere, but there was no way to know if it was in the open, where someone might see it. And besides, it was relatively small and flat.
Whoever was looking would scan that expanse of black rock and not see a thing that told them he was down in this hole...
He picked up his hat. He hadn't actually been wearing it, because it had fallen off when he fell in and he hadn't seen much point in putting it back on. He stood up, his legs stiff from the cold and from sitting curled up like he had been. Reaching up as high as he could, he tossed the hat out of the pit, and hoped that the wind wouldn't catch it and carry off.
Something touched his leg.
He looked down and saw Porter's bloody head, the white of the flayed skull glistening in the moonlight, leaning against his calf.
His logical mind knew it was nothing more than post-mortem muscle contractions that had caused the upper half of the body to pitch forward. But the sudden wave of panic that washed over him was like a punch in the gut. An involuntary yelp escaped him and he flung the corpse way from him with his foot. Its back smacked the wall of the pit and the head tilted back slightly on the nearly-severed neck, like it was looking up at him. Another muscle contraction caused Porter's left arm and knee to rise slightly, and Vin thought his heart was going to explode in his chest.
Breathe... he told himself. Calm down. It can't hurt you.
But the very air he took in was rank with the smell of decaying blood. It nauseated him and he gagged. Nothing came up - it had been too long since he'd eaten anything. It was just as well. He didn't need to add the smell of his own puke to the stench.
He pressed himself as hard as he could against the wall opposite the body, trying to put as much distance between himself and That Thing as he could. In doing so, he noticed that the rocks were wet with pre-dawn moisture. He needed the water, but he had to force himself to turn his head slowly away from Porter in order to lick the precious dew off the rock walls. The rocks tasted salty and burnt, and the few drops were nowhere near enough to satisfy him, but he'd survived on as little before.
Survived. How long did he want to live if nobody found him? How long would it take him to die if he really wanted to?
He absently toyed with the sawed-off holster still strapped to his hip. Too bad he'd dropped the gun.
Porter was still wearing his piece, but it was saturated with blood and gore. He didn't want to touch it. Not yet.
The sun was coming up, and the rocks began to dry off so quickly he could see the water evaporating before his eyes. He sat down again, feeling a little more relaxed now that it wasn't so dark anymore.
He was so tired, but he fought the urge to close his eyes. If he slept, he knew exactly what he'd dream about. It was clawing at the back of his mind trying to get out, and he couldn't handle that particular demon and Porter both.
They would look for him.
They had to.
THREEThe buzzards wouldn't come down into the hole after Porter. They were stupid birds, but they had enough sense to know that if they dropped down into that small space, they wouldn't have enough wing space to be able to fly out.
They looked down at the feast that was just beyond their reach, as if they resented Vin for not taking advantage of the free meal.
Vin called them names, shouting at them, wanting them to leave and fly in circles in the air above him so that someone would see them and maybe have the sense to investigate. But they just stood there, craning their scrawny necks to look at him like gawkers at a sideshow.
Then, the ants came, and unlike the buzzards, they didn't hesitate to march down the sides of the hole like some miniature raiding party. There were hundreds of them, the big, red ones, the ones that the Mexicans called "hormigas del diablo" -- ants of the devil. Vin tried to sit perfectly still, hoping they'd crawl over him and go away. Most of them did, but some of them crawled into his shirt and up his boots, and, discovering they were trapped in his clothing, stung him.
There was a reason they were called ants of the devil. It was hellishly ironic that their bite, though harmless, resulted in a good two or three hours of excruciating pain, and just one bite was enough to make you willing to sell your soul to the Devil to end the torture.
Vin didn't know how many bit him. By the time they retreated to their mounds to escape the mid-day sun, he was in such agony that despite the heat, his skin had gone cold and clammy, and he was shaking uncontrollably. He must have passed out at some point, because when he found himself curled up on the muck-covered floor of his dungeon, he didn't remember lying down. Most of the blood that had pooled there had long since dried, but the stench of it that close to his nose was next to unbearable. Still, he couldn't bring himself to move. He wouldn't have thought it was possible to be in so much pain and still be conscious.
He tried to stay calm. He'd been stung before. He knew the pain would pass eventually, but God, it hurt. He panted and shivered violently, the responses of his overwhelmed nervous system beyond his control.
Through the haze of torment, he became aware that he could hear something. A voice. Not speaking but humming. A sort of low, droning hum that had no pattern to it, but unmistakably a human voice.
His heartbeat quickened with relief that someone - anyone, because at that point it didn't matter if whoever it was wanted to put a bullet in his head - was so near that he could hear them plainly.
He struggled to his feet, his skin on fire from the ant bites. A small whimper caught in his throat before he could stop it, but the humming continued without interruption. Whoever it was had to be close enough to hear him, but, they hadn't...
He was about to shout for help when he realized the humming was coming from right there in the pit.
What the hell?
Near delirious with pain, he tried to sort that puzzle out. He wasn't humming, He knew that. He knew he wasn't imagining it, either.
He let his ears guide him to the source of the peculiar sound, and his heart sank when he realized it was Porter.
The outlaw was rotting inside, and the resulting gases were escaping through the gaping hole that had been his throat, causing his very dead vocal cords to vibrate.
The corpse was moaning.
Vin covered his ears, but he still heard it.
"SHUT UP!" he shouted at Porter.
The droning whine continued, as Porter looked up at him. His eyelids had shrunk back so that his dead, opaque eyes were visible. The dangling lower jaw formed an obscene caricature of a grin where his mouth would have been, like the outlaw was laughing at him. Laughing at his fear, his pain.
And the moaning went on... and on... and on...
Pain and fear had stimulated Vin's nerves well beyond his threshold of endurance. His heart was pounding so hard, he honestly believed that were it not for his shirt, he'd be able to see it beating.
It was also slowly dawning on his disoriented mind that this meant there was no one else. No one had found him. It was still just him, and Porter.
Porter kept moaning, and grinning at him with those misplaced teeth, like he was proud of this little joke..
"Shut the FUCK UP!" Vin screeched at him, and in a move that stemmed more from reflex than any planning on his part, he swung a kick at the outlaw's head.
The skull flopped to one side, twisting the neck so that it fell against Porter's chest, upside down and still looking at him. The moaning abruptly stopped, but the blow Vin had delivered had opened the windpipe all the way so that a rush of reeking air escaped from the corpse's putrefying lungs.
The pit filled with the horrid, suffocating stink of it. Vin's eyes burned and his empty stomach heaved painfully.
He heard someone screaming and was surprised to realize it was him. Embarrassed, he promptly shut up, only to find himself giggling like a fool. What the hell was so damned funny? He sure as hell didn't know. Maybe he was laughing because if he didn't, he was going to cry. Goddamned sissy.
He tried to force himself to calm down, but it wasn't possible. He was still hurting too much.
Dazed with pain and half-crazy from fear and exhaustion, he was dimly aware of a rustling sound above him.
At least he'd scared the buzzards off.
FOURVin sat against the rough rock wall riding out the pain from the bites. He had discovered that movement of any kind didn't ease it any, and only wasted his energy, so he just lay there, perfectly still, and hurt. At the beginning, the pain was like holding your hand in a pot of scalding water and not being able to pull it out. But gradually, it began to subside, and when it was somewhere around the level of a bad sunburn, he began to think straight again.
This was not necessarily a good thing, because this was the second day they had done this to him and, he realized they ants would be back, and they'd do the same thing to him the next day, and the day after that until he got lucky and died.
How much longer would that be? How long had it been? Three days now? Or four? Two nights. He knew how many nights. Night time was the worst, because he couldn't see Porter that well. He could only hear as a contracting limb shifted slightly, or more of that foul gas escaped, now making a sound that was thin and reedy because his voice box was as rotten as the rest of him.
The smell was probably worse, too, but he didn't know for sure. He was so saturated with it that it had become almost normal.
The one other mercy granted him was that the afternoon sun didn't reach the bottom of the pit, so it wasn't beating down on him. But enough of it hit the walls that the heat absorbed by the black rocks turned the pit into a dark inferno. The dew he'd lapped up on the two mornings was enough to keep him alive, but he was too dehydrated to sweat, and he knew he was dangerously hot. Lying perfectly still was the best thing.
It wasn't hard. What else was there to do?
He squinted at Porter's corpse. It was covered with flies. Where had they come from? There could not be a fly for miles around, but let something die, and they materialized out of thin air. His nerves were so on edge that their monotonous buzzing infuriated him.
A few of them hovered near him, but for the most part, they seemed to know that Porter offered more rewarding possibilities without the danger of being swatted.
His arm hurt. He'd forgotten he'd cut it until he looked down at it and saw his bandana wrapped around it.
He untied the cloth and tried to pull it back, but it was glued to the wound by dried blood and pus, so it was a slow, tortuous process. Pulling the cloth away reopened the wound, and pus began to drain from it. He'd had an infection like that once. And old curandera had put a poultice of moldy bread on it. It had stunk like a son-of-a-bitch, but it had worked.
No bread, moldy or otherwise, in this place.
He hadn't really missed food. The company didn't do much for his appetite. But he felt weak and sick, and he didn't know if it was because he was sick, or because he was just too damned hot, and hadn't eaten in three days.
A couple of flies discovered the draining wound on his arm and landed on it. The little fuckers would lay eggs in the wound that would hatch into maggots in a matter of hours. That would be just lovely, wouldn't it?
At least there hadn't been any flies... that other time...
"NO!" he shouted to himself, forcing that memory back where it belonged, where he didn't have to think about it, or see it in his mind or even know it happened.
He yanked his knife from his boot and scraped it down the length of the wound on his arm, clearing away the pus and the scab and making it bleed again. It hurt like hell, but maybe the blood would wash out the infection. He wiped the knife on his pants and squeezed his arm below the elbow, as if that would stop the pain in his forearm from traveling upward. The blood flowed copiously down over his wrist and hand and he watched, fascinated, as it puddled on the rock in front of him, filling in the little holes in the porous lava with red.
Porter watched, too, his eyelids having fallen completely open on his upside-down head, his rotting eyeballs protruding as they tried to drop from their sockets. He was swelling up like a balloon, the buttons on his shirt threatening to give from the strain, his pants legs stretched tight over spongy, decaying flesh. The gases of decomposition that could n't escape from his chest were staying trapped in his innards.
He should move the body. Turn it so its swollen belly faced away from him.
On his hands and knees, he crawled over to the dead outlaw. It was only 3 or 4 feet, but it seemed further as the sharp rock scraped at his hands and knees like sandpaper.
He grabbed Porter's shoulders, and tugged at them to reposition the body, but the flesh was soft and squishy underneath the outlaw's bloody shirt, and the pressure of his hands caused fermented fluids from the disintegrating corpse to seep through the fabric and cascade over his palms and fingers.
He flung the abomination away from him, and then sat staring at his hands. The foul pink-tinged wetness on them was beyond vile, and all he could think of was getting it off of him. He looked around desperately for the bandana he'd discarded earlier and when he found it, he scrubbed viciously at his hands trying to wipe off every trace of the corruption. But it felt like it had soaked through his skin, and into him, and the very horror of it made him rub harder until his hands were red and burning from the friction. He couldn't get the smell off, that was the worst.
He threw the bandana at Porter and retreated as far as the tiny space allowed. He drew his legs up against his chest and covered his head with his arms, scarcely noticing that the re-opened gash was dripping blood into his hair.
He wanted this to go away.
He'd do whatever it took, just please please please let him be anywhere but here.
Vin, you dumb-ass. You're gonna die here. You're gonna die here, and you're gonna rot just like Porter, and when they find the two of you a hundred years from now, they won't even know which of you is which. They'll just laugh when they wonder at how you could have been stupid enough to have ended up here.
He laughed at that. Laughed until he was sobbing.
Stop that! Crying won't bring her back, and I don't have time for this shit. Quiet now!
Stupid hole. Stupid dead Porter.
He looked up at Porter's swollen body, the head now dangling precariously from a strip of rapidly deteriorating flesh.
"Yeah? Well, you just wait 'til your head falls off, and see how funny that is," he answered Porter's mocking upside down stare. That struck him as amusing, too, and he started laughing again, softly, because his throat was too parched for a real laugh.
He let his head drop back to his knees and rest there. The pain from the ant bites was almost gone, but he was so hot and so tired...
FIVEHow had he gotten out of that hole?
The others. He knew they'd find him. Chris and Buck, they wouldn't leave him and not come back. They said they'd be back in a week, and they would.
It was cold in the cabin. It had snowed during the night, again. The fire was almost out. He'd almost let it go out. Stupid Vin. If it went out, he'd be in trouble because he didn't know how to start a fire, only how to keep it going.
More wood. That's what he needed.
He climbed onto a chair to get his coat down from the hook by the door. The snow had almost covered the cabin's only window, and he saw his refection in it. His hair was blond again. Why was that? He hadn't had blond hair for a long, long time. It had turned brown, like hers.
He looked back at the still figure in the bed. "I'm gonna fetch some wood," he said, and jumped down off the chair with a thud that made her flinch, made her open her eyes. She tried to say something to him, but she couldn't hardly talk any more, and he didn't want to get close enough to try to hear her. It smelled bad. He wished she didn't smell like that.
He pushed up the latch on the door and went outside and forgot to close it. The cold wind whipped at his hair and stung his face and hands. His legs were cold, too, because his pants were wet. He was afraid to go out to the privy alone in the dark. His knew there were big, black snakes in it that came out at night, because his cousin told him that. But there was no one to go with him, so, he didn't go, and he'd wet his pants. Maybe if he didn't say anything, she wouldn't notice and he wouldn't have to sit inside wrapped in a blanket while she washed his clothes and waited for them to dry by the fireplace.
It was hard work hauling the logs back to the cabin. Most of them weighed almost as much as he did. Some of them, he couldn't even pick up. Finally, he was too cold and didn't want to get any more wood. He counted the small stack of logs. One two four five seven. That should be enough.
He picked one up and hefted it onto the waning embers. It fell into the ashes with a loud plop that sent cinders flying everywhere and he jumped back, startled. There was sharp crackling sound as the sap ignited, and a hiss as the remnants of snow melted and fell into the fire. The log was engulfed in flame, but it was just a tiny flame, one that looked like it could go out at any time. He picked up another log, determined to be more careful this time. He lowered the log carefully over the other one, very slowly so he didn't drop it...
Ow ow ow ow ow! He dropped the log and pulled his hand out of the fire.
He wanted to cry, but if he cried, he'd have to admit he'd burned himself, and Grandpa would spank him for messing with the fire.
Except grandpa was gone. He'd be back in a week.
Vin didn't know how long a week was.
He started to cry.
She reached out her arms to him. He wished she would get up, wished she wasn't sick. He wished his grandpa was there, because he didn't know what he was supposed to do.
He walked over to her, but she scared him. Her face was so white, like the snow outside. And there was that awful smell, like something inside her was rotten. Her neck was swollen and red, and there was a sore on it that had eaten its way from the inside out. How bad did that hurt? He bet worse than his hand did, and that made him cry even harder.
He crawled into the bed with her, but he kept his back to her so he didn't have to see that sore, or smell that stinky breath she had now. She wrapped her arms around him, like she had done lots of times before, only now they didn't hug him close. They couldn't. She was too sick. Too sick to hold him, and, he sensed, too sick to stay with him much longer. That scared him, a sharp, empty hurting kind of scared that was the worst thing he'd ever felt.
It was still cold in the cabin, but she was so hot...
He felt her kiss the top of his head, and he stopped crying, even though his hand still hurt so bad. His crying was just making it worse for her, so he had to stop being a baby and shut up.
There was a small pitcher of water beside the bed, and her white, white fingers picked up a corner of the blanket like it was as heavy as iron and dipped it in the water, then placed the wet cloth on his hand. It didn't make all the pain go away, but it felt better.
He'd been awake almost all night, making sure the fire didn't go out, and he knew he should stay awake and watch it, but he couldn't keep his eyes open any more...
But he had to... he had to. If he didn't, he was going to fall back into that hot, dark hole because he wasn't really here...
He forced his eyes open. Something wasn't right. Everything was the same, but something wasn't right.
She was still. The sound of her raspy, labored breathing had stopped.
She was still holding him, but her arms were... funny... now. Cold and hard, like.... he didn't know what.
He tried to wriggle out of them, but she held him and wouldn't let go.
He didn't like this.
He struggled even harder, pushing against her crossed arms that were as stiff as wood, squeezing his head between them and feeling the cold, unyielding flesh against his face when he got stuck there.
He tried twisting, pulling, even kicking his legs as panic overtook him.
I don't like this I don't like this let me go!
He was sobbing with terror when his head finally popped free and he fell to the floor.
He got up slowly. Afraid to look at the bed and afraid not to.
He knew what dead was.
She was dead.
She lay there with her arms positioned as if she were still holding him, like that frozen squirrel he'd found once.
Her eyes were open, like the squirrel's had been, but she couldn't see him, not any more. Not ever again.
He backed away from the bed, his chest thumping like someone was inside it with a hammer.
He had to hide from this, but there was nowhere to hide. The cabin only had one room. Sometimes, he'd hide under the bed, and she'd pretend she didn't know he was there, but she really did... There was no way he was going under that bed, though. Not now.
His grandpa's bed was just a pallet on the floor, but he went to it anyway and pulled the worn blanket around himself.
She was dead.
Grandpa would be back in a week, but he didn't know how long a week was.
He pulled the blanket over his head.
And he wanted this to go away.
SIXVin awoke, his heart racing - again. How long could he be afraid before it just up and gave out on him?.
It was dark, and he couldn't see a thing, but even before he was fully awake, his gut knew he was someplace he didn't want to be, knew he'd awakened from one nightmare to discover he was still trapped in another.
He lay still, panting, terrified by the dark, and the silence, and the returning awareness that he wasn't alone, that just inches from him, That Thing was waiting...
There was no moon, no stars. Overcast nights were rare in the desert, and as black as pitch. He couldn't get his bearings, so he didn't move, except to shiver from the nighttime cold. And fear.
He hated that he was scared. It made him feel childish and helpless and took away any hope that he was ever going to see anything but the inside of that pit again.
It made him feel empty inside, like someone had gutted him and taken his very soul in the process.
He'd felt like that before. A long time ago. After she died.
The image crept back, unbidden and unwanted, the dream of waking up trapped in her cold, dead, stiff arms. He shuddered. It hadn't happened that way. He didn't remember exactly how it had happened - How could he? He was hardly more than a baby.
But it wasn't like that.
He remembered she was sick. His grandpa had gone for a doctor, but it was a long ride, and he was gone a long time. Before he got back, Mrs. Singletary came for him. He stayed with them for eleven years, but it was never really home. They had their own children, and he was never part of their family.
He supposed he had it better than he could have. He never went without food, or proper clothing, or a warm, safe place to sleep. But their children were their children, and he was their Christian Duty. They never spoke harshly to him, or hit him, because they rarely spoke to him and never touched him at all. He was made to earn his keep right from the start, but he was given work that was appropriate to his size and age and they hadn't made a slave out of him. Just the same, he was always afraid that if he didn't work, he'd be sent to an orphanage or worse, just be turned out on his own. So, he worked, and watched their children go to school, have birthdays, and all the things he somehow didn't deserve because he was alone.
Why hadn't he stayed with his grandpa? He didn't know. Couldn't remember. There must have been a reason. He grew up having no idea where his father was, although he had vague memories of him, or someone he thought was him. His mother had told him once he was a Tanner, like it was something to be proud of, but, he honestly didn't know if he carried his mother's name or his father's. Somewhere along the way, he'd lost contact with his grandfather before he could ask him about it. As a very young man, he'd returned to the place where he'd been born. The little cabin was still there, abandoned now. His mother's grave was there, too. The marker read simply, "Tanner 1855". He never even knew his own mother's given name....
Something cold and wet hit him in the face, shaking him out of his thoughts. The sky went white for an instant, followed by the rolling thrum of thunder. It took a moment for his fatigue-clouded mind to realize that it was raining. It usually didn't just rain in the desert. There would be a spectacular lightning show and the sky would open up and water would fall in sheets. He was stuck in a hole, and holes tended to fill up in rainstorms, but his only thought then was of water, and the idea that he was maybe going to get some relief from his gnawing thirst.
He struggled to sit up. He was so weak from hunger and thirst, and the relentless extremes of heat and cold, that he wasn't sure he could stand. He tried to think of something to catch the rain in and save it for later, but all he had were his boots, and he wasn't sure they'd hold water. Still, he had to try. It took a lot more effort to pull them off than it should have, but he managed it an instant before the torrent started.
As the precious water cascaded down his face, he could taste the blood that was being washed out of his hair in it. It was foul, but he drank it anyway, turning his face upward so that the rain fell into his mouth, until it began to come down by the bucketful and threatened to go up his nose and drown him.
He cupped his hands and tried to catch as much as he could, as fast as he could, because he knew the rain wouldn't last long. He also knew it was not a good idea to drink that much water that fast when he had gone so long without, but he had no choice. He hoped he could hold it down, or at least that some of it would soak in before he upchucked it again.
The rain pounded against him, and he forced himself to stand up as it puddled around him. It quickly covered his feet, then his ankles, until he was standing in a sludge of blood and the putrid byproducts of Porter's decay. His stomach churned at the thought, and he could feel the cold water rising in his throat.
He fought it down, and kept drinking, his dehydrated body taking complete control of his senses and demanding to be satisfied, until the inevitable happened and a sharp, cramping pain in his belly doubled him over.
He needed to lie down so he could ride out the pain, but there was no where to do that. He found himself slowly sinking to his knees, unable to straighten out or do more than steady himself so he didn't fall face-first into the cesspool the pit had become.
God, it hurt! Like a hot knife had been shoved right through his guts. He could scarcely breathe, and he begin to wish he would throw up, so he could be rid of the misery.
As he hunched there, incapacitated, another streak of lightning split the darkness, this time illuminating the pit so that for a brief instant, Porter's corpse was plainly visible. The shoulders now sagged on either side of a gaping tear in the flesh and the sheer horror of it was so intense that it amplified Vin's physical pain.
Where was his head?
Vin went completely numb with fear. He wasn't even sure what he was afraid of, but his terror was so consuming that despite the excruciating agony in his belly, he forced himself to stand, his back pressed against the rough rock wall.
Oh God, where was the head?
SEVENAt some point, the rain had stopped. It was pitch black again, and he was soaked from the skin out, but he was trembling more from sheer terror than from the nighttime chill.
The head... Porter's head was somewhere in the water swirling around his feet.
He whimpered from the pain that wracked his insides, but he didn't dare move from where he was.
Cold water dripped from his hair and trickled down his back, and the trembling escalated to near convulsive spasms, but still, he didn't dare leave the scant security that the wall provided. The pressure of it against his back was somehow reassuring. As long as it was there, Porter couldn't come up behind him...
He started to laugh - quietly, but almost hysterically - at how absurd that thought was. He was being comforted by a chunk of rock! How pathetic was that?
But it was good to have something solid to lean on. He would have preferred another person, but almost no one ever touched him, did they? Funny he should care about that right then, and he figureed it was his own fault that they didn't. He didn't really need people around him, usually, and he supposed he pushed most of them away without even thinking about it. It hadn't always been that way, though, had it?
The few memories he had of his mother were more of her touch than of her face. He couldn't really remember what she looked like, except that her hair was soft and curly and brown. She couldn't have been very old, 22 or 23 maybe. Not much older than JD. No, he didn't remember how she looked, but he did remember how she felt. He'd never liked being confined, even as a little guy, so he'd wiggle out of her arms if he had other little-boy things to do. But sometimes, he'd let her wrap her arms around him and he would feel comfortable and safe - and loved.
He never had that after she died. He remembered having measles when he was seven. He'd been so sick he'd thought he was going to die, and he'd cried, not because he felt bad, although he did, but because more than anything, he wanted his mother there to hold him.. Mrs. Singletary had tended to him, but her own kids had it too, so she mostly made sure he was fed, and that was it. Her own kids she soothed and rocked and cuddled, and he was merely an inconvenience that got in the way of all that. Even after all these years, thinking about it still hurt, like a raw wound.
After awhile, he'd learned to just avoid that physical contact. What he didn't have, he didn't miss. He wasn't exactly unhappy about it. He'd learned early on how to be content with his own company, so inside that little wall he built around himself, he felt calm and safe, and he rarely took a chance and let anyone in to upset the order he'd so carefully established.
One of the few he had allowed in had been his friend, Jim Carizozo, the best damned tracker that had ever lived. Vin had been 18 or 19, and Jim had been almost three times his age, but there had been times when he thought - no, when he knew - the old Indian had a certain affection for him. Jim had seen him through hard times, too, nursing him through a nasty fever that had almost killed him. Unlike Mrs. Singletary, who Vin could now admit probably hadn't cared if he'd lived or died, Jim had stayed with him for three days in a sweltering tipi, pouring water on heated rocks so the steam would burn out the fever and clear the congestion in his lungs. He had no doubt that Jim had saved his life, even though when his fever had finally broken, the old Indian had accused him of being weak like a squaw and had scoffed at Vin's attempts to thank him. They'd shared some good times, too, and Vin had grieved for him a long time after he'd died, and still missed him.
But, there hadn't ever really been anyone else he'd been close to. He'd never even been with a woman he hadn't paid for, and there had been embarrassingly few of those. He'd never needed or wanted friends, so, he didn't have any of them, either.
At least, not until that day in Four Corners when those men had tried to string up Nathan Jackson. He'd decided he had to step in even before his eyes caught those of Chris Larabee, but something in the gunfighter's stare told him that this was not only someone he could trust, but also someone he could let inside that wall. Someone who could share his space without crowding him out of it. He'd never understood the feeling, but it had been there. Like he and Chris knew each other on the same level that birds knew which way was north.
He honestly didn't know why Chris Larabee liked him, but he knew he did. Larabee could stare the moss off a rock, and even strong men would wilt under his gaze. But, he never looked at Vin that way. Never challenged him with those steely eyes, or silenced him with that threatening glare he had. He would speak to him softly, easily, with that hint of a wry grin on his face, when the others - even his old friend Buck Wilmington - could sometimes get no more than a terse grunt out of him.
He remembered standing outside the saloon, playing his harmonica - well, not really playing it: he didn't have one lick of musical ability, so he didn't even know why he'd ever bought the damned thing - and Chris had come up behind him and put his arm on his shoulder. It had seemed that to Chris, this was a perfectly natural thing to do, but Vin had been surprised by it, because people just didn't touch him, ever. His first instinct had been to shrug it off, but he hadn't. It felt good, somehow, not like his little space had been invaded, but rather like it had been taken up into a greater one.
It wasn't entirely Chris Larabee, either. He was One of Seven, now, part of a "they" for the first time in his life. The other guys had no problem with his silence, his distance, his wall. He was just one of "them," unique as each of them was in one way or another, but still a part of the whole.
And then there was Nettie Wells. That spunky old gal had gone right to his heart, and, he thought, he'd done the same to her. She not only saw right through his 'tough and dangerous' act, she laughed at it, like he was a kid playacting at being a hired gun, instead of the real thing. He'd tried to tell her about some of the things he'd done that he was really ashamed of, but she wouldn't hear any of it. He was fine with her, just as he was...
Why hadn't they found him?
He realized he was lying on the rock instead of leaning against it now.
When had that happened? How long had he been there? The rock was still wet, but the puddled water was gone, steadily absorbed by the porous lava. He lay still, his insides still hurting from drinking too much water too fast. The pain wrapped all the way around him, and he didn't dare move now that it had at least ebbed to a bearable level, especially since he felt sick to his stomach.
He told himself he just needed to rest, but he knew the truth. He was dying. His body couldn't even handle the water it had needed so badly. He supposed he'd known he was doomed from the moment he looked up and saw how far out of his reach the rim of the pit was, but now, finally, he was accepting it.
He just wished he didn't have to die alone. He'd been alone too much, too long. It didn't seem fair...
Slowly, painfully, he rolled over onto his back and loosened his gun belt. The rock was soft enough that the belt buckle left a mark when he scratched it across the surface.
He'd never been much for letters, but he knew how to make his own name, and painstakingly, he etched it into the rock. When he would sign for supplies at the general store, Mrs. Potter would laugh at him and tell him he made the N's wrong. He'd laugh back and tell her if she could tell they were N's, they'd do. But he tried to do it right, this time.
A man's name should be right on his own tombstone..
EIGHTHe'd slept again. His rude awakening told him that much. The ants were all over him, and it was the pain of yet another onslaught of their vicious bites that had awakened him. He didn't even try to get away from them. He had tried brushing them off once, and they'd only stung his fingers and hands. If he was still, most of them would lose interest and crawl away.
But just as he thought that, he felt a fierce burning at the corner of his right eye. Now, dammit, why did they do that? The little fuckers were just plain cussed mean. He smacked the offending insect, but that didn't help. He could feel his eyelid swelling, and the damned ants were in his hair and down his back. He wanted them to get the hell off and leave him the hell alone and stop biting and hurting him. He wanted to scream from the pain, and then, he realized he was screaming.
In a burst of rage, he sat up and ripped off his shirt and shook the ants out of it, and then started smacking the little red demons with his open hand, crushing their tiny, evil bodies and smearing them across the rough rock. A few more stung him, but he didn't care. He wouldn't stop killing them until they were all dead, even if they stung him a hundred times... None would escape. He'd hunt them into every cranny in the rock...
He spun around to kill the ones behind him, and brought his fist down without even looking.
His breath caught in his throat when his hand connected with the hard, squish-covered mass that was Porter's skull. The blow sent bits of his rotten face flying in all directions, some of them landing on Vin's unprotected chest.
Oh God oh God he forgot about the head....
He didn't move. He sat there with is hand on Porter's skull, liquified skin and muscle oozing through his fingers. All he could do was stare at it, fascinated by the utter horror of it. The skull was literally covered in ants, and the ones that didn't sting him crawled over his hand and began making their way up his arm.
They were everywhere. The skull was covered with ants and full of maggots. He could see their pale, round bodies squirming behind the now paper-thin eyelids. There were maggots on his arm, too, where he'd cut himself. He hadn't even noticed them, wriggling around in the wound, feeding on the infection. On him.
Something deep inside him, in a part of himself he hadn't even known existed until that moment, let go.
And he was screaming again.
He staggered to his feet and picked up the rotten head, unmindful of the smell, the ants, the maggots, the vile, slippery wetness of it.
With what little strength he had left, he hurled it upward, intending to throw it out of the pit and be rid of it forever so he could die in peace.
He heard it splatter on the rock above, and he laughed maniacally at the sound. "How do you like that, Porter, you dumb fuck?!" he shouted.
He used his shirt to wipe the filth from his hands and leaned back against the rock wall. It scraped the tender bare skin on his back and more ants bit him, but he was beyond mere pain by that time, enveloped in an impenetrable shroud of terror and agony.
And he knew he was ready. He wanted to die now. Any time would be fine...
But he didn't die. He only slept again, if it could be called sleep. He suspected he was just periodically losing consciousness by this time, weakened by lack of food and any real rest. But, what did it matter?
He couldn't have slept long. He still ached from the ant bites. His right eye didn't want to open, and his arm throbbed, either from the infection or because he'd damaged it somehow smacking those obscene ants. Had he really seen maggots in the wound? He tried to force himself to look, but he already knew the answer. He could feel them wiggling around, and decided to spare himself the sight.
He squinted up at the opening above him. He knew by how hot it was that it was mid-afternoon. He was already thirsty again, but his boots hadn't been water tight, and all the rain he'd collected in them had leaked out.
Hell, they were almost dry so he put them back on, although what difference it made, he didn't know.
How much longer?
It was just a waiting game now. Maybe a few hours, maybe a couple of days, but soon, this would be over. Or maybe it already was. Maybe he was already in hell. He probably deserved to be. Thou Shalt Not Kill. Mr. Singletary had drilled all ten of those Commandments into him, and he'd broken most of them, including that one. What would Mama think of her little Tanner if she could see him now? He wouldn't blame her if she acted like she didn't even know him. "Send him to hell," she'd say. "It's where he belongs."
A strange, hissing sound caused him to open his good eye. What the hell was that? I sounded like steam coming out of a hot tea kettle.
Safe bet no one was making him tea...
Porter. Porter was making that sound.
He looked at the corpse with less fear than curiosity. At least it couldn't look back at him any more, not since he'd splattered its ugly, scalped head....
The buttons on Porter's shirt had popped off from the pressure of his swelling belly. The skin was black with mortification, and stretched impossibly tight.
The gases collected inside the corpse were trying to force their way out, and the hissing sound was coming from a frothing little hole above his navel where the skin had already split. If the gas couldn't escape fast enough, there could be only one possible outcome....
Vin remembered seeing that buffalo corpse burst. Jim had laughed at him when he'd gotten sick to his stomach. Even he thought it was kind of funny, after he had finished puking his guts out.
He wasn't laughing now, though. He pressed himself into the wall and curled into a tight ball. He was afraid, again. This time of something real. When Porter's belly burst open, and it was going to, his insides were going to come gushing out like a hellish geyser, and Vin had nowhere to hide from the torrent.
No no no no no...
Vin didn't know what was worse, the anticipation or the actual event.
There wasn't much sound, just this faint little pop and it was over in an instant.
Vin wasn't even sure it had happened until he opened his eyes and saw the offal dripping down the wall beside him.
For whatever reason, his body had gone completely and mercifully numb. He saw the stuff was on him, too, but he couldn't feel it at all. He only watched in mute shock as it slid down his skin and soaked into his pants. He couldn't even find his voice to scream that time. He didn't even want to breathe. Porter's liquified innards were on his face, too. If he breathed, they might go inside him somehow. If he opened his mouth to scream, they certainly would...
Acting on its own - because he certainly wasn't conscious of making it do that - his hand picked up his shirt and wiped the stuff way from his eyes and nose and mouth, and off his hair. He worked his way down his shoulders and chest, but by then the shirt was soaked, and he was just smearing the abomination around. He felt like he was floating there, in that sea of decomposed entrails, his body a part of the gruesome reality, but his mind drifting away from it all so he didn't have to understand what had happened, or know where he was.
Then he looked at Porter. This was his fault. This was all his fault. He was trapped and dying amidst the worst filth imaginable, and it was all Porter's fault.
Enough. This was ENOUGH!
The rage that coursed through him was enough to get him to his feet. He pulled out his knife and knelt beside what was left of Porter, but thanks decay and the ants, he didn't need the knife for more than cutting apart the clothing that were all that held the outlaw's remains together..
He picked up Porter piece by piece and flung him out of the pit. Every last hateful scrap of him.
He laughed while he did it, and somewhere along the way, the laughter became tears that died off to harsh sobs of exhaustion and madness.
He was mad, wasn't he? Only a madman would do what he'd was doing.
It didn't matter. He didn't care.
When he had finished, all that mattered was that Porter was gone, and he was alone, the way he'd always been, the way he liked it.
While his body curled protectively around itself, his mind put his little wall back up, this time building it higher, reinforcing it and sealing all the cracks so that nothing could come in and so that he would never have to go outside of it again.
He'd be safe there, now. No matter what else happened, he'd be safe.
NINEBuck would be mad as hell at him, JD Dunne was thinking. Chris, too. He couldn't blame them. They had told him to stay out of the malpais, and now that he had disobeyed, he understood why. It was far more treacherous than he could have imagined, each step accompanied by the fear that his horse would falter on the loose, crumbly rock, or that the surface would give away completely beneath him, as it had done in several spots.
But, it was too late for regrets. He was here, and he still had that hunch that had been nagging at him ever since Vin Tanner's horse had shown up in Four Corners half dead and lame. The farrier had found a rock in his shoe, a black rock full of little bubbles. Josiah had told him it came from the malpais. The others had set out to search the place for Vin, although by now, he'd been missing more than a week and, even though no one said so, they were really looking for the bounty hunter's body.
They'd told JD to stay behind. He suspected it was because finding Vin dead was going to be a tough thing for Chris Larabee to deal with, and Chris Larabee was dangerous when things went bad. JD had seen that for himself, and the less company he had at those times, the better, especially for the company. JD had reluctantly come to realize that he occasionally annoyed Chris. He didn't mean to, but he was too many things that Chris wasn't, and it could be like mixing fire and ice under the best of circumstances.
JD had also seen that Chris had a bond with Vin Tanner that the others didn't have. Sometimes, it seemed that the two men could carry on a conversation by just looking at each other. Vin seemed to fill a blank spot in Chris Larabee's life. Vin didn't seem to have any blank spots, and in his own quiet way was as open and honest as they came, but somehow, he seemed to know he fit into the one Chris had, and it suited him.
JD also suspected that the others thought he wasn't ready to handle Vin's death. They were wrong. He'd watched his own mother die, and while he counted Vin as a friend, losing him could not be harder than that had been. That was partly the reason he had followed. But his other reason was that whether they liked it or not, he could ride better than any of the others, and Buck had told him the malpais was possibly the most rugged country on God's earth. JD just knew that if anyone could cross it on horseback, he could.
Still, he'd been out there three days by then, never losing his bearings, and always knowing which direction would take him safely out of the once-molten hell, but, not finding any trace of Vin Tanner.
When he'd spotted the circling buzzards, he decided that they would be his final option. He was out of food and almost out of water, and both he and his mount were exhausted from negotiating the unforgiving terrain.
When he reached the spot, he was puzzled. There were a few bleached bones scattered about, but nothing that buzzards would be interested in. They had been picked clean.
He could tell even from a distance that the remains were those of a horse, but as he got closer, a cold dread swept over him when he recognized human remains, as well. He spotted the front of a skull staring eyelessly at the sky. Strangely enough, it was shattered, not like something had hit it, but like it had been dropped. Maybe one of the buzzards had tried to fly off with it...
He picked the piece up and examined it. There was no bottom jaw, but the teeth on the top were stained by tobacco and half eaten away by caries. It wasn't Vin.
He had spent a lot of time nervously hoping he wasn't walking over the many places where the rock surface had caved in, so he wouldn't have given much thought to yet another hole a few feet away from the scattered bones were it not for the buzzards. Whatever they were interested in seemed to be down inside it, because they would swoop down occasionally and peer over the edge.
His heart leaped into his throat when he saw the hat and gun near the hold. No matter how hard he might try to tell himself otherwise, he knew they belonged to Vin.
JD stepped carefully around the human bones, dreading what he was about to find.
Vin had no thoughts. It was better that way. If he let himself think, then he'd have to remember. Where he was. What he had done to Porter. What Porter had done to him.
So, he just was.
He was thirst, he was pain, he was sickness and fear, but he couldn't let himself be Vin. Vin was trapped in Hell, covered with ants and flies and lying in putrid squalor.
It might have been two days, or two centuries since the rain had come again and washed some of the filth off of him. But, he'd awakened in a puddle of water, and because he didn't have the strengh to move or sit up or do anything but lie there with his eyes closed, some of it had gotten into his mouth.
There had been pieces in it. Pieces of Porter.
He'd tasted them.
And maybe that had been the worst horror of all.
He'd tried to spit it out, but he was too dried out for that, so that unspeakable taste of decay and rot had spread to all of his senses and one by one, they had simply stopped serving him.
He didn't hurt when the ants bit him, he didn't hear the buzzards fighting over Porter's remains, he didn't smell the stink around him or even taste that horrifying, foul effluvium that had paralyzed what was left of his sanity.
He lay on the floor of his grave, suspended there, inside his wall, while cold, and heat and infection attacked his body. He didn't notice. He didn't care.
He just was.... and he wasn't.
Chris Larabee would look for him....
That one thought tried to force its way into his mind for some reason, but he shoved it back out. He didn't want to think. Didn't want to know. He didn't want to be, because it hurt too damned much...
Was someone saying his name?
JD had anchored one end of his rope to his saddle and had rapelled down into the hole where he'd found Vin. His heart was racing with both elation and fear. Elation that he had found the bounty hunter, and fear that he had found him too late.
He had to get right beside Vin before he was able to tell if he was still alive, but when he discovered that he was still breathing, he almost laughed out loud with relief. He caught himself, though, because he could see Vin's condition was not at all good.
He called out his name and gently patted his cheek. His eyes opened, but there was no sign of recognition in them. Vin didn't even really look at him.
JD gave the rope a tug. It would hold his weight and Vin's combined if he could figure out how to get them both up it. Vin was taller, but he didn't weigh much, and JD was sure he could lift him easily. He couldn't climb and hold onto him at the same time, though.
He spotted Vin's gunbelt lying beside him and it gave him an idea. He took off his own gunbelt and buckled them together, doubling the length. He laid down alongside Vin and grabbed his arm, then rolled over so that the movement pulled Vin onto his back. He lifted himself up on his hands and knees and then slipped the hitched belts around both of their chests, and buckled the ends together tightly.
Vin wasn't dead weight. He seemed to realize what JD was doing, and when JD struggled to stand, Vin managed to get his feet under him and take some of his own weight. He draped his arms around JD's solid shoulders and tried to hold on as JD struggled up the rope, hand over hand, pushing himself with his feet.
When they reached the rim, Vin used his meager reserve of strength to steady them as JD pulled them out of the hole.
JD collapsed on the abrasive rock. It had been a short trip, but he was dripping sweat and panting from the effort. Vin didn't move.
When he'd had a few minutes to recover, JD unbuckled the makeshift harness. He knelt beside Vin and got his first really good look at him.
It didn't take much looking to see he was in sorry shape. He was covered with insect bites and some kind of foul-smelling muck had dried on him and was attracting flies. He appeared to be conscious, but he didn't look at JD, didn't make a sound..
His lips were dry and split open in a couple of places. How long had it been since he'd had any water?
JD hurried to get his canteen. There wasn't much water left, but he figured he could stand to be thirsty for a few hours. He lifted Vin's head and put the canteen to his lips, but he choked on the water and spit it out. JD had expected any reaction but that. He tried again.
"Don't spit it out, Vin. Drink it."
Vin tried to turn his head away, but JD forced him. It wasn't hard. He was too weak to struggle. Once he got the first swallow down, he went for it greedily, and JD had to stop him before he got sick on it.
"You can have a little more in a few minutes," he promised.
Vin looked up at him then, but there was no expression in his eyes or on his face. He didn't even try to speak.
JD looked around for something to make a travois, but it was useless. There wasn't a plant in sight, let alone a tree he could cut two good poles from. He didn't see how Vin could ride like he was, but he was going to have to. The only other option was to carry him, and JD knew they wouldn't get far if they tried that.
"Vin, I'm gonna put you on my horse. Think you can stay up there?"
He thought maybe he saw a nod, but he wasn't sure.
He wrapped his arms around Vin's chest and managed to get him to his feet.
Vin clung to him, he thought for support, but when they reached JD's horse, he didn't release his feeble grip. He made eye contact when JD tried to pry him loose and the look JD saw there was one of pure terror. Vin was afraid to let go.
JD was confused and somewhat embarrassed. He didn't understand why Vin was so desperate to hold onto him. "Let go, Vin," he tried to sound casual. "I aint goin' anywhere without you."
Vin didn't hear a word of it, and finally, JD had to force him back. He leaned him up against the horse and looped his arm around the saddle horn, although Vin made no real effort to hang on.
He vaulted into the saddle and then slid back onto the animal's rump. Leaning over, he pulled Vin up onto the horse. His back and shoulder muscles screamed in protest, because Vin was almost dead weight. JD had to hold onto him with one arm while he used the other to pull Vin's leg across the saddle. His horse was tired and hot and thirsty, and he hated making it carry two riders, not even considering the sad fact that Vin smelled really bad. Whatever that was all over him, it reeked like... like he didn't know what. Riding double with him was not an idea that appealed to JD in the least.
He let Vin's upper body drop across the horse's neck and hoped he could stay in the saddle by himself. As a precaution, he used the gunbelts to hold him in place. The horse balked at the strange sensation of a strap around it's neck, but he settled down once he realized it wasn't going to hurt him.
The sun was beating down on Vin's bare back. The tracker spent most of his time outside, and his face and hands had gotten well-tanned, but his unexposed skin was naturally fair. What had happened to his shirt was anyone's guess. JD had stripped off his own undershirt because he was too hot with it on, and it would fit the other man, but it was going to be a chore to get it on him. He opted instead to undo his bedroll, and tossed the thin blanket over him.
They were almost a two-day ride from Four Corners. JD had no idea how long it was going to take them to get back with one of them on foot.
But he'd found Vin, and he was alive. He intended to keep him that way.
TENWalking out of the Malpais gave JD a new respect for his horse. The jagged little razor-sharp points of volcanic rock literally shredded the soles of his boots, and quickly wore them down. He was able to feel the cinders digging into his feet by the time he finally reached the edge of the lava flow and had real earth underfoot again.
It was close to sunset by this time, and JD hoped like hell he hadn't been going the wrong way, because if he wasn't lost, he would find a spring nearby. It wasn't much, and the water smelled of sulfur, but it was clean and fit to drink. He'd offered Vin sips from his canteen every few minutes until he'd run out, even though the heat and the dry air had made him desperately thirsty himself. At least with the sun gone, the temperature would drop. He'd build a fire and it would be a lot easier for them to stay warm than it had been for them to cool off.
Finally, he spotted what he was looking for. A small copse of dwarfed trees that had sprouted up alongside the spring. JD suspected there was a greater water source underground, and the spring was just a spot where it broke the surface. The spring itself was not enough to sustain even those few scrubby trees. It was maybe a foot across at its widest point and barely deep enough to cover his hand. It flowed out of a crack in some rocks and disappeared into a gravel bed after about twenty feet. But when he got close enough to smell it, and heard it rippling softly against the bedrock, it was as welcome as a cool, blue lake.
He threw himself down on his belly and sucked up the tepid water greedily until his thirst was sated, feeling a little guilty for giving his own needs priority, but unable to resist. His horse did likewise, despite the unaccustomed burden on its neck. JD was careful not to let the gelding drink too much. He didn't need a horse with a belly ache on top of everything else.
Vin hadn't stirred. He appeared to be awake, but he didn't move, didn't even try to compensate for the bobbing of the horse's head, which shifted his weight precariously to one side.
JD undid the strap holding him in place and took him off the horse.
Vin collapsed in the dirt and just lay there like a pile of rags. JD knelt beside him, but really didn't know what else to do. He laid a tentative hand on the other man's shoulder. "I'm going to get some firewood before it's dark," he said. Vin looked at him briefly and then looked away, as if he didn't know - or care - what JD was talking about, and that scared JD a little. Vin had taught him most of what he knew about the outdoors, which he'd never had the freedom to experience until he'd come west. On the rare occasions when Vin had spent any time alone with him, he'd been JD's teacher as well as his friend. It seemed strange to JD to be looking after him instead of the other way around.
When he went to strip the trees of their dead branches, JD discovered a couple of them were dotted with tiny apples. They were the size of plums, bird-pecked and ugly, but when he peeled the scarred skin from one and tasted it, he discovered they were ripe and tasted better than he ever remembered an apple tasting. He took off his hat and filled it with the fruit.
He also found a squirrel's nest full of pinons and helped himself to a pocketful. The first time he'd seen them, he'd thought they were droppings, and Vin had teased him by popping a few in his mouth. Vin had responded to JD's expression of horror and disgust with that look in his eyes that meant he was laughing on the inside, and JD quickly realized he was being made a fool of. He supposed he should have gotten mad, but Vin never teased him to be mean - he just liked to tease him. The tracker had shown him what they were, and had told him where to find them. He'd also explained you'd get a good case of the trots if you ate too many of them raw, but roasted, they were an excellent food source, although JD had found that breaking through their hard little pea-sized shells was more trouble than they were worth.
Vin had told him that the Indians replaced the pinons with corn so that the squirrels didn't starve, and would live to gather more the next year, so JD felt a little guilty for just helping himself, but he was really hungry, and Vin needed food. Besides, he didn't take them all, and the squirrel wasn't home, anyway. For all he knew, something had eaten the squirrel.
He built a fire and placed the pinons on a flat rock near the flames where he hoped the heat would cook them and not burn them. Then he fished his discarded undershirt from his saddlebag. It would get cold enough during the night that he'd probably wish he was wearing it, but Vin needed to stay warm, too. The shirt smelled of sweat, but Vin smelled a lot worse, so he doubted he'd even notice.
Vin hadn't moved from the spot where he'd left him. He hadn't even changed position, other than to occasionally look up and give JD a disinterested glance. JD offered him the shirt. Vin took it, but didn't do anything with it. He just clutched it in his hand like it would escape if he didn't hold it tight.
JD didn't know what he was supposed to think or do. Vin was pretty banged up - scraped raw and bug-bitten, but he didn't see any real sign of serious injury anywhere on him.
He felt his forehead. He was warm, and probably had a fever, but it wasn't anywhere near so high that he'd be delirious from it.
When JD took his hand way, it was scummy from the layer of grime that almost covered Vin. It was on his clothes and skin and in his hair. It looked like mud, but it smelled like rotten meat.
He tore a small piece off the blanket, and wet it in the spring. He knelt down beside Vin, not at all sure how the other man was going to accept this, and gently began to wipe the stuff off of him. Vin didn't seem to mind - in fact, it almost looked like he appreciated it, but he didn't say or do anything one way or another. He just lay there and let JD wash his face, and then his hands. Anything beyond that was a lost cause - he was just too dirty.
"C'mon Vin, sit up so you can get this shirt on," he said softly, trying to sound matter-of-fact about it. He pulled Vin upright and then slipped the shirt over his head. Vin cooperated somewhat in getting his arms in the sleeves, but JD essentially put the shirt on him. It wasn't that Vin was helpless, he just didn't seem to JD to be there with him somehow.
"Vin?" he asked softly. "What's wrong?"
Vin didn't answer. Too weak to remain sitting, he lay on his side again, watching the fire. JD remembered the apples. He picked one up and handed it to Vin. "They don't look too pretty, but if you peel them, they taste good."
Vin took the apple from him, but all he did was roll it around in his hand, looking at it, like he'd never seen one before. JD watched him for a few moments, and then took it back and peeled it himself. When he tried to give it to Vin a second time, Vin ignored him completely.
"Vin, you gotta be hungry..." JD could see that Vin had dropped several pounds, and suddenly it hit him what a complete idiot he'd been.
That hole... Why was he thinking Vin had fallen in just before he'd come along and gotten him out? That wasn't how it had happened, was it? Vin had been down there the whole time, hadn't he? More than a week, without food, maybe without water.
The very idea frightened him. Being trapped like that was bad enough, but how long could a man go without vital sustenance before his brain just quit working? Could that happen, he wondered?
He cut a slice from the apple and moved closer to Vin. "Here, Vin, eat it," he said sternly, and literally shoved in between Vin's lips. Vin began to chew on it, but not like he really gave a damn. Was he so far gone that he didn't even know he needed food?.
JD offered him another piece, but he refused it. When the pinons had had time to roast, he cracked a few and offered him those, too, but he turned his head away when JD tried to force them into his mouth.
JD didn't understand any of this, but he now knew more than ever that it was imperative that he get Vin home as soon as possible. Vin was more capable of taking care of himself than anyone he knew, but right then, he didn't seem to care if he died, and he was dangerously close to doing just that.
He abandoned any thought of resting, and in the rapidly fading light, he went back to the trees and raced against darkness as he searched for branches long enough to make a travois. He finally found them and then realized that even though he'd seen a travois, he'd never actually made one.. Where he came from, if you had to transport someone who was sick or injured, you didn't drag them behind a horse...
He wished Nathan was there. Nathan would know how to do it. Hell, Vin would know how to do it, if he could get him to talk.
He toyed briefly with the idea of putting Vin back on his horse, but stubborn and determined as he was, JD had to admit that he was just too tired to walk all night, and if he collapsed from exhaustion, it was possible neither of them would make it back to Four Corners alive.
He finally came up with the idea of spreading his blanket on the ground and dividing it into three sections with the poles. He then wrapped the end sections over the center. He suspected Vin's weight would hold it in place, but just in case, he cut small strips from the section he'd removed earlier and poked holes through all three layers at the top and bottom and tied them together with the makeshift lacing. He was done with the thing in less than an hour. Attaching it to his horse was no problem. He just cut some notches in the poles and tied the travois to his saddle with a couple of lengths of rope.
By the time he'd finished, Vin had fallen asleep. At least, JD hoped he was sleeping, and not dead...
He approached him carefully, not wanting to startle him, but when he shook Vin's shoulder lightly, the other man's eyes flew open and he uttered a sharp little cry - the first sound JD had heard him make. He stared at JD in mindless, abject terror.
"It's okay..." JD started to say, but in the next instant, Vin was trying to get away from him. He was trying to stand and run even though he was too weak to sit up, and he seemed oblivious to the fact that he was moving dangerously close to the fire.
"Vin, it's okay!" he shouted. "It's just me... It's me, JD!" He grabbed one of Vin's legs and it took no effort at all to hang on to him. He forcefully pulled him back an instant before he crawled right into the fire.
Vin, seeing that he was not going to get away, suddenly became perfectly still, like he was waiting for JD to do God only knew what to him, and had resigned himself to it. He still had that terrified look of a cornered animal trying to hide itself when there was no place to run.
JD smelled something burnt, and with sick dread realized it was probably Vin, even though Vin apparently hadn't even noticed. JD's heart was racing. He didn't know how to deal with this. What if he did the wrong thing?
Slowly, on his hands and knees, he moved closer. Vin literally cowered before him, and it was probably the most painful sight JD had ever witnessed.
One of the sleeves on the shirt Vin wore was charred, and there was no way he hadn't at least singed himself. JD reached cautiously for his arm. "You burned yourself, Vin. Let me take a look at it."
He expected Vin to resist, but he didn't. The burn wasn't too bad, but burns didn't have to be bad to hurt like hell. Vin didn't seem to feel a thing, though.
JD pulled away the burned fabric and noticed the wound on Vin's arm. A good-sized gash, maybe 3 inches long. It didn't look too deep, but it was oozy with pus and...
Oh Jesus! There were maggots in it!
It was all he could do to keep from dropping Vin's arm and pushing him away.
What the holy hell was he going to do about that? He couldn't just leave the hideous things on him, eating away at his arm... He didn't know if Vin was even aware of them, or whether he should point them out. He wasn't sure he'd want to know if he were in Vin's spot.
Maybe he could clean them away by lifting them out with his knife, one at a time.
He tried it, his stomach roiling with revulsion. But even though he did his best to be careful, digging around in the wound like that hurt enough that Vin finally responded. He pulled his arm away and stared directly at JD, the look in his eyes one of defeat and overwhelming despair.
JD reached out and put an arm around Vin's narrow shoulders, just barely touching him. It was not something he was accustomed to doing, for one thing, but for another, he was afraid he'd spook him again if he wasn't gentle.
He drew the other man close, and that felt strange, too. Normally, he'd never get that personal with any of the others. Normally, Vin would probably tease him for doing that, if he didn't just haul off and pop him one.
But this was anything but normal. JD felt Vin relax only slightly as he held him. He supposed the best he could hope for was that Vin wouldn't try to run off on him again.
The damned maggots no longer mattered, even though JD could almost feel them crawling on his own skin. "It's okay, Vin," he said softly. "I ain't gonna hurt you again. Nobody's gonna hurt you... I'm gonna take you home, okay?"
Vin gave him a small hint of a nod, and then allowed JD to lift him onto the travois. With the blanket under him instead of around him, he'd be cold, but JD had a feeling Vin had been through much worse at that point.
He put the fire out and mounted his horse. The poor animal was worn out, but so was he, and Vin... maybe Vin couldn't afford the time it would take for them to rest.
If he rode all night, they'd make it to Four Corners by mid-morning.
ELEVENThey were still a dozen miles from Four Corners when JD's horse pulled up lame. He didn't think it was serious, but it was still dark when he checked the animal over, and he couldn't see much. It was probably just plumb worn out, and even though he would have sacrificed the horse for Vin, the beast just plain refused to go any further. He hated to just leave it, but he knew the odds were that it would probably follow him at its own pace, or at least still be there waiting when he came back for it. There was plenty of forage around, and horses could sniff out water if there was any nearby. If there wasn't, well, it wouldn't matter if he stayed with the animal or not.
If the others were still looking for Vin, then it meant that only Nathan knew he was missing. Nathan didn't dare leave because he might be needed if they brought Vin back, which meant no one was going to be looking for him any time soon.
Of course, they wouldn't bring Vin back, because Vin was with him... Call him loco - and Buck certainly would - but he was damned proud of himself for being the one who had tracked down the tracker. That, and the stalwart sense of optimism that his mama had always said would be his undoing, made his next decision for him. He'd drag the travois himself. He was strong for his size. He could do it....
Like a lot of JD's ideas, this one had seemed like a good one at the time. He'd actually managed to drag Vin a good ten miles in the past six or seven hours. By then the sun was up. It was only mid-morning, but it was already hot enough that JD could feel the strength evaporating out of him along with the gallons of sweat he losing from the exertion.
He'd tied the ropes from the travois around his chest, and they were rubbing him raw, even through his shirt. His shoulders ached from the strain, and his feet had become two little sharply focused points of agony. Ever since he'd learned to ride, he'd never walked any considerable distance, and he'd already been footsore from his trek out of the malpais. Worn thin by the lava cinders, his boots were insufficient protection from rocks and hot sand. He knew he had blisters, and probably bruises, too, but he didn't dare take his boots off to look. For one thing, he didn't want to know for sure. For another, he feared he might not be able to get them back on if he did.
Unfortunately, the sand and the constant tugging had also worn down the poles on the travois, and with just two miles to go, it had fallen apart.
He sat down next to the side of the road and seriously fought the urge to cry.
Vin was asleep, he thought, but he wasn't really resting. Although his eyes were closed, he was twitching and fidgeting. That was odd, because by nature, Vin was just so still that you sometimes forgot he was there. JD was usually the twitchy, fidgety one, although at that moment, he was almost too tired to move.
He opened his canteen and took a generous swallow. He could have finished it off with no problem, but he fought the urge to do so.
He put his hand on the side of Vin's face. Just a light touch, because he didn't want to scare him awake.
"Vin?" he said softly and held the canteen to his lips. "Have some water Vin..." He roused enough to take a few swallows, and when he was done, JD did drink the rest of it and steeled himself for the task ahead. He knew he could do it. It wouldn't be easy, but he could.
And who knew? Maybe he'd get lucky and someone would happen by with an extra horse, or better yet, a wagon.
He smiled to himself. Josiah had once told him that if you spent too much time looking on the bright side, the light would blind you to reality.
Well, screw reality. Who needed it?
"Vin?" He shook Vin's shoulder lightly until he opened his eyes. "You think you can get up on my back, Vin?"
Vin's eyes narrowed, like maybe he was considering this, but, JD didn't know anymore if Vin really understood anything that was said to him.
He grabbed Vin by the arm and pulled him to his feet. He was wobbly, but he did seem to be trying to stand by himself. JD thought it would be nice if he could walk a little, but quickly realized that wasn't going to happen.
Every muscle in his body protested violently as he draped Vin's arms over his shoulders and leaned forward so that the other man's weight was on his back. When he was sure he had his burden balanced properly, he hooked his arms behind Vin's knees and lifted him up. He'd have to walk bent slightly forward, because he couldn't rely on Vin to hang on if he stood upright.
Vin's head dropped onto his left shoulder, so that his filthy hair was against JD's cheek, but it was just a minor discomfort that almost went unnoticed amidst a whole lot of bigger ones.
God, his feet hurt, and with the added weight, he felt like nails were being driven into them with each step. His calf muscles and the back of his thighs began to cramp up almost immediately, and as hot and sweaty as he was already was, the added heat of Vin's feverish body pressed against him added to his discomfort.
On the other hand, Vin was probably the lightest one of his six friends. He was damned lucky it wasn't Nathan or Josiah or Buck he was having to tote around.
He'd make it to Four Corners. Like John Henry in the song, he might drop over dead when he reached his goal, but, he could do it.
Nathan Jackson supposed he'd taken to healing because he hated how it felt when you knew someone was in trouble and you were helpless to do anything. Ironically, it was because he was the "doc" - as Vin insisted on calling him no matter how many times he corrected the man - that he was sitting in Four Corners on his thumbs while the others were out looking for Vin.
Josiah had been the first to return. He hadn't given up hope, but he'd retraced the trail to Ridge City and back via Baker's Pass, and had run out of places to look sooner than the others. Nathan imagined they would all start to come home now, one by one, with Chris Larabee the last one to give up. Hell, if he didn't find Vin, Chris would probably keep looking for him off and on for the rest of his life. Things stuck to Chris like that, and Chris liked Vin. Everybody liked Vin, but he brought something out in Chris that the others didn't. Chris was a hard, cold man. Fate had made him that way. But Vin's quiet, easy presence seemed to calm and soothe him. With Vin, he would smile, even laugh occasionally. It'd be a damned shame for a friendship like that to end in a tragedy.
Josiah sat quietly beside him, sipping coffee as the two of them considered whether or not the preacher should go looking for JD. No question there would be hell to pay when JD's self-appointed guardian rode back into town and discovered the kid was gone, too. Buck Wilmington was like a mother hen with one chick when it came to JD Dunne. The two of them argued with each other constantly, but nobody was fooled.
Nathan tried telling himself that JD was a grown man, albeit a very young grown man. He was long on determination, but occasionally short on common sense, and it wasn't Nathan's fault that he'd slipped out of town in the middle of the night. Hell, he hadn't really expected him to stay there and wait, although he had hoped he would. The real reason he'd been left behind in the first place was because Porter had slugged him in the head and knocked him silly. Nathan didn't think it was a good idea for him to hit the trail so soon after something like that. No one had bothered to tell JD that, though. They had just left without him. Sometimes, he wondered if he was the only one who could see how badly the kid wanted to belong. Maybe he saw it because he'd felt that way himself a time or two, and maybe the others didn't see it because each in his own way had accepted that JD was a part of them, and didn't see the need to let him know it.
The healer sighed. He never thought it was a good idea for any of them to go riding off before they got over being hurt, but damn it, they did it anyway. All six of them. He didn't know why the hell he bothered.
That wasn't true. He did know.
It was because if he were missing, those same six stubborn, pig-headed, no-sense men would be out in that Godforsaken desert looking for him. Maybe no one else in the world cared if he dropped of the edge of the earth, but they did.
He was worried sick about the kid, and he didn't mind admitting that it made his heart ache to think that something might have happened to Vin. The former was a strong possibility, but the latter was almost a certainty. Vin's horse had found its way back to town without him, and it was still carrying almost everything that was essential to Vin's survival in the wilderness. Nathan had left most of it with the hostler, but he'd taken Vin's harmonica for safekeeping. He didn't know why. Vin drove him insane with it sometimes. Nathan didn't think he actually knew how to play it, but that didn't stop him from blowing on the thing whenever the whim struck him.
He swallowed the lump in his throat. If Vin was gone, they were all going to need healing of a different kind than he had to offer....
"Holy Mary and Joseph!" Josiah gasped, rising from his chair.
Nathan looked up at him and then followed his gaze. He had to blink his eyes to make certain he saw what he thought he saw, but he was out of his chair in an instant and running with Josiah on his heels.
Townsfolk stopped in their tracks to stare at the spectacle of little JD Dunne staggering down the street with Vin Tanner on his back. When Nathan and Josiah reached him, he looked up at them, his youthful features etched with pain and fatigue.
"Can you take him, please?" he asked softly. "I'm really tired..."
Nathan was lifting Vin off his back even before he finished the sentence. JD stumbled forward and Josiah caught him and picked him up, too.
"Jesus, Josiah, put me down!" he protested, but only with his mouth. The rest of him was perfectly happy to settle into Josiah's strong arms.
Vin was alive. They were home.
TWELVEThe jail had two beds and no stairs, so they took the two men there. It was closer, anyway, and cut down on the opportunity for curious stares and whispered comments, which Nathan hated. When a man was sick or hurt, the first thing that went was his dignity. No need for him to have an audience on top of it.
Less charitable was Nathan's thought that JD and Vin smelled terrible, and he preferred to keep his sickroom sanitary. If he had to, he'd put them to bed dirt and all, but only if cleaning them up first would kill them.
Mrs. Travis was one on-looker who followed them, though. This was big news. Nathan didn't fault her for wanting to do her job, but he didn't want her there gawking at Vin and JD, either, so he sent her to fetch water for them. It wasn't a simple distraction. JD had been sweating - a lot - and he needed to get some fluids back into him.
JD flopped backwards onto the cot with an audible sigh of relief. The kid was completely exhausted, and didn't protest when Josiah started unlacing his shoes for him.
Nathan was surprised to discover that Vin was conscious. He didn't say anything, though, and he looked away so that he faced the wall.
Nathan knelt beside him and turned his head so they were facing each other. "Vin? Do you know where you are?"
Vin nodded, and turned away again.
JD sat up and turned to them. "He burned his hand, last night, in the fire. And he hurt his arm... there's maggots in it..."
Nathan examined Vin's hands. The right one was blistered and swollen, and under the charred sleeve of his shirt, he found the maggot-infested laceration. Josiah leaned over for a look and grunted in disgust.
Nathan didn't seem the least bit concerned about the creatures. He pulled the shirt sleeve back down and left them there.
"Aren't you going to do anything about them?" JD was appalled.
Nathan was casual. "In time. Fancy docs might tell you otherwise, but ain't no harm in a few maggots..." He started examining Vin for signs of any other injuries. "During the war, I seen men get wounds cleaned and bandaged by the best and still they got gangrene. I also seen men whose wounds were crawling with maggots heal and walk away. Some parts o' the world, they put 'em on a wound on purpose, claimin' that they'll eat away the infection."
"On purpose?" JD asked.
"Yeah," Nathan winked at him. "They pack 'em in real tight."
JD made a face. "Oh God, that's enough to make a man puke... OW!" He was distracted as Josiah pulled a bloody sock from his foot. His feet were raw in places, and now that the damage was revealed, they hurt even worse.
"Thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain," Josiah grinned at him.
Nathan had turned his attention back to Vin. His pulse was weak, but steady, and he was breathing okay. He couldn't find any broken bones or tender spots that would indicate internal injuries, but his stomach felt completely empty. "You give him anything to eat, JD?" He asked.
"I tried," JD said defensively, and then his expression became somber. "When I found him, he was down in a hole. Like a cave, but straight down. He didn't have no food, or water, and he couldn't get out.... I think he was there the whole time... " He gave Nathan a worried look and shook his head. "I gave him some water, but he wouldn't eat anything. He ain't said a word to me, either."
Nathan frowned, and checked Vin's eyes. They looked okay, but he asked JD, "Did it look like he could have hit his head?" Vin did have a slight fever, but that didn't explain why he was so unfocused.
JD shrugged. "I couldn't say. It was a pretty tight space. I guess he could have. But the rock was sharp. I think he would have cut himself or something."
Nathan ran his fingers over Vin's scalp, checking for some sign of a head injury. He didn't find one, but Vin's long hair was matted with something foul and sticky. "What all did you get into, Vin?"
JD answered that, too, when it was obvious Vin wasn't going to. "That stuff was all over him when I found him. I don't know what it is." He sniffed himself. "It sure does stink, though."
"Yeah," Nathan agreed. "Smells like..." Nathan didn't want to finish the sentence. It smelled like a graveyard. The foul smell of rotting death. Vin still had his clothes on. He hoped he wasn't going to find gangrene or an open belly wound on him someplace, although that would only explain the smell, not how he had gotten covered with whatever that muck was.
Mary Travis entered through the unlocked door. She had a ewer and a couple of tin cups. She poured some water for JD, who gulped it down and wanted more. She poured the other cup for Nathan to give Vin. Vin was as thirsty as JD, but Nathan only let him have a cupful. If his belly was empty, he couldn't take too much at one time.
"How is he?" Mary asked. Nathan assumed she meant Vin. He didn't know what to tell her. "I think he's gonna live," was all he said.
She seemed honestly glad to hear that. "Mr. Larabee will be relieved by that news.... and you..." she smiled at JD. "I bet you have a story to tell."
JD actually looked self-conscious, which was not something he did often. Nathan figured the kid had earned a moment of glory, but this wasn't the time. "Right now, the boy needs rest, ma'am," he nodded towards Vin, "and they both gotta get outa these dirty clothes."
Mary took the hint without hard feelings, and to her credit, she hadn't said one word about the dreadful smell. "I'll have some food sent over," she promised.
JD argued that he was fine, but Nathan checked him out, anyway. It was going to be a few days before he could walk comfortably again, but all he really needed was something to eat, a warm bath, and a good, long nap. JD was exhausted, but aware that he smelled almost as bad as Vin. And, he wanted to sleep in his own bed, not the jail, so he opted for the bath first. The bathhouse was almost next door and even though putting his socks and shoes back on was going to be torture, JD insisted he could walk.
Nathan was more concerned about Vin, who wasn't responding to anything even though he seemed aware of what was going on around him. He sat down on the mattress beside him. Vin's head was turned away from him again, and he didn't move, so again, Nathan made the other man look at him. "Vin, did you hit your head? Do you remember?"
Vin shook his head slightly.
"You don't remember, or you didn't hit your head?"
Vin's response was to roll over and turn away from him again.
Nathan slid an arm under his back. "Oh no, you ain't gonna ignore me now.... C'mon, sit up...."
Unexpectedly, Vin lashed out at him. He pushed Nathan way and then took a couple of feeble swings at him before retreating to the corner of the small cot. His eyes were wild, like he was looking for a way to get past Nathan and out of the room, and he was breathing rapidly.
Nathan made a move towards him, but JD cautioned him with an outstretched hand. "He did the same thing to me... Vin?" he said softly, scooting onto the cot in front of Nathan. "Now, Vin, you know Nathan ain't gonna hurt you, don't you?"
"JD, what's goin' on here?" Nathan whispered.
JD shrugged. "I don't know, Nathan.... It's like he's scared of us. I don't know why."
"Come on, Vin," JD said, as though it were perfectly natural for Vin to be cowering in the corner. "We need to get us a bath. We stink, especially you," he laughed softly. Vin didn't even smile, but, he relaxed, and that was something.
"Vin, you need some clean stuff," Nathan said. "Where are your clothes at?"
Vin's response was to stare absently at the burn on his hand while the other three men waited in uncomfortable silence for a response that never came.
Finally, Josiah clapped a hand on Nathan's shoulder. "I'll find him something," he said. "First let me make sure JD here doesn't fall flat on his face somewhere between here and next door."
He placed his hand under JD's elbow and helped him to his feet. The kid headed for the door taking slow, painful steps.
As Josiah prepared to follow him out, Nathan pulled him aside.
"You get everyone out of the bath house and I'll be along with Vin in a few minutes. Ain't no need for anyone to see him like this."
Josiah looked at Vin with a worried expression. "What are you thinking, Nathan?"
Nathan shook his head. "He don't look to be hurt that bad, but... I don't know what to think, Josiah... Maybe if we just get some food and water into him, he'll be fine, but first things first. We gotta get that dirt off of him. No way he can rest easy like that, and it ain't good for him."
Josiah nodded and left to catch up to JD.
THIRTEENPuzzled, Nathan checked Vin over again, this time lifting his shirt. He was unbelievably filthy, though, and it was hard to for him to tell what was injuries and what was just plain dirt, so he finally gave up.
He sat on the cot watching him carefully for a moment - staring at him, actually - to see if that made him uncomfortable. Vin didn't even notice. He just sat there, looking at his injured hand until Nathan gently took it in his own.
"Does it hurt much?" he asked. Vin's response was slow in coming, but eventually, he nodded.
"It'll feel better when I get it cleaned and bandaged... think you can walk over to the bath house?"
Vin didn't answer him that time. He slid his hands under Vin's arms and lifted him off the cot. He was weak and very unsteady, and he clung to Nathan's forearms for support, but he was able to stand. Nathan looped the smaller man's uninjured arm around his shoulder so he could hold him up and walk him the few steps to the next building. He supported Vin's weight easily, and it was less demeaning than carrying him.
Josiah had intercepted Mary with the food, so JD was eating and bathing at the same time. It wasn't a practice Nathan would have recommended, but the boy was starving. In fact, if he kept up at the rate he was going, they were going to have to get more food for Vin.
"Mind you don't make yourself sick, JD," Nathan felt he should admonish him, even though he didn't think that was likely to happen. He hadn't gone without food as long as Vin had. Ironically, Vin didn't even seem to notice the food.
He dispatched Josiah for his medical kit and some blankets and clean clothing for the two men, and then tried to get Vin to take his clothes off. Only when he actually made a move to do it for him did Vin make any effort to comply. But he didn't have the strength to pull his boots off, so Nathan did that for him and then ended up doing the rest. JD's clothes would need to be washed and boiled to get the stink out of them, but the best thing to do with Vin's clothing would be to burn it. Nathan doubted Vin - or anyone else - would ever want to wear them again.
Vin was so dirty that he was going to have to scrub down before he got into a tub, but it didn't take Nathan long to realize that he wasn't going to do that, either.
He sat Vin down and filled a bucket with hot water, then grabbed soap and a sponge and set to work. Whatever it was that was all over him came off easily, but underneath it, Vin was covered with scabs and dozens of insect bites, and the maggots had found their way into more than just the cut on his arm.
Vin didn't resist or seem embarrassed. Nathan would have expected him to have done both. He simply didn't seem to care one way or another, although after a few minutes he started to shiver because he was chilled. Nathan finished up as quickly as possible and then helped him into the tub of hot water and went to work on his hair. It was beyond tangled, so matted that he couldn't easily get his fingers through it without pulling at it, which Vin didn't like. He kept jerking his head away.
Nathan considered just cutting it off. That would have been the easiest thing. But somehow, the idea of doing that without Vin consenting to it seemed like an assault on his person, and whatever Vin had already been through, it was obviously enough. So, he did his best to work the lather through the snarled mass of brown curls.
JD, he noticed, was watching curiously, his own freshly-washed hair slicked back out of his face for as long as it would take to dry and flop back into his eyes. The boy's aversion to barbers was almost as extreme as Vin's.
Nathan returned his stare. "You got a problem of some kind, JD?" he asked him.
JD hadn't realized he was staring. "Uh... no." But Nathan could tell he was uncomfortable with one man doing something so intimate for another.
"JD, sometimes you just gotta do for sick folks. I'd be doin' this for you if it was needed. Ain't nothin' shameful in it."
"I didn't say there was," JD said defensively.
"No, but you were thinkin' it."
JD looked ashamed of himself, but said, "It's just embarrassing, that's all."
Nathan looked at JD sternly. "I owe this man my life, JD. It don't embarrass me none to look after him, so you better find some way to deal with it."
JD nodded. "I'm sorry." And Nathan knew he was. Maybe he'd come down too hard on the kid. The young man had been through his own ordeal, and had saved his friend's life. Nathan was about to apologize, but JD spoke first.
"Nathan?" His voice was soft, subdued. "What's wrong with him?"
Nathan had grabbed a fresh bucket of water to rinse the soap out of Vin's hair. He got the tracker's attention and told him to close his eyes so he wouldn't get soap in them. "I ain't sure, JD. It would help if we knew what happened to him..." He emptied the bucket slowly and then pushed Vin's wet hair back off his forehead. "I reckon he'll tell us when he's ready."
JD didn't say any more, he just looked incredibly sad. Nathan soaped the sponge again and worked the lather over Vin's back, chest and shoulders, careful not to scrub too hard at the places where his skin was scraped and sore. He washed the rest of him, too. It had to be done, and Vin didn't show any inclination to do it himself. When Josiah returned with his supplies, he fished out a razor and shaved the hair off his face so he could more easily see any lesions that were hidden by several days worth of beard. He'd seen Vin clean-shaven before, but it always surprised him how much younger he looked that way, and it somehow made him seem terribly vulnerable.
Some of the injuries he had were inflamed, but they weren't festering. Nathan suspected that the maggots, disgusting though they were, were to thank for that. However, now that he could attend to the wounds and keep them clean, he felt it best to get rid of the abhorrent little creatures. He set to work carefully picking them off with pair of sterilized forceps. While he did that, Josiah confiscated a small bowl of rice and gravy that JD hadn't managed to eat and tried to feed it to Vin. Vin took a couple of mouthfuls, but refused more.
Nathan had been placing the maggots in a small basin, and it didn't escape Josiah's notice that they looked a lot like the rice. He wondered if that's why JD hadn't eaten it. Vin didn't seem to make the connection - Vin didn't seem to be connecting with anything - but Josiah couldn't bring himself to force any more on him. He looked at Nathan with a worried expression. At some point, Vin was going to have to eat, one way or another, and it just didn't seem possible that he wasn't hungry.
He was thinking it would be best not to discuss Vin's condition in front of the boy, but then he looked at JD, and realized perhaps for the first time that he wasn't a child. In fact, he had succeeded where four older, supposedly wiser, men had failed. He was part of this, now - more so than anyone else, perhaps, and there was no excuse for trying to protect him from reality.
This revelation, however, turned out to be completely irrelevant. JD had fallen asleep.
Josiah hated to wake him up, but he couldn't sleep in a bath tub, and he had to dry off so that Nathan could bandage his feet. His strong, young body had finally reached its limit, though, and he somehow managed to get dressed without ever fully waking up, except for a brief moment when Josiah handed him a pair of moccasins to wear.
"Where the hell did these come from?" he frowned.
"You don't like them?"
JD looked at them and blinked his bleary, dark eyes. They were fine moccasins - made of soft deer hide and tall, like boots. They had been a gift, but the woman who had made them had woefully underestimated the size of Josiah's feet. They'd fit JD, though, with room to spare for the bandages. "No, I think they're great," he decided finally.
Nathan expertly wrapped clean, boiled bandages around the blisters and sore spots, and then sent JD on his way with Josiah to make sure he got to his room and bed okay. He was sure the kid would sleep for the rest of the day and maybe even through the night.
He got Vin out of the tub, dried him off, and wrapped a blanket around him. He'd take the bounty hunter back to his place. Physically, Vin was sick - he had a fever, he was certainly in some pain from his injuries, and he desperately needed to get some food into him. But aside from that, Nathan just couldn't see how Vin could care for himself in the state he was in. There was no question that he needed to be looked after, because he either couldn't or wouldn't take care of himself.
It was too far to Nathan's quarters to expect Vin to walk, so he carried him, returning the curious stares of thoughtless townsfolk with a cold, defiant glare that he held until they turned away.
Nathan had meant what he'd told JD. Vin had faced down a mob and saved his life - at great risk to his own. He'd watch over him as long as it was necessary.
FOURTEENNathan got Vin settled into bed without any argument. Vin didn't like being indoors, unless it was a saloon, but he seemed willing to do whatever Nathan wanted him to. Josiah had hunted up a pair of drawers for him to wear, but hadn't been able to find his clothes, so it was just as well he didn't seem to want to go anywhere. Nathan bandaged his injured arm, after first cleaning the infected cut with a carbolic acid solution. It should have hurt like hell, but Vin barely winced.
He'd laid him on his stomach, since most of the more severe abrasions were on his back. What the hell could have motivated him to take his shirt off so he could be eaten alive by bugs and get the hide scratched off him everywhere? He only covered him to the waist. It was warm in the room, and the pressure of a blanket against his raw skin would be more of an irritation than a comfort.
Vin didn't ask for water, but Nathan gave it to him, and he drank it. He'd have to keep him drinking a little every few minutes until he started to pass it. It was the only way to know when he'd had enough to get his body back to a normal state.
He pulled a chair up next to the bed and placed the back of his hand against Vin's forehead. The bath had brought his fever down.
"I think you're gonna be fine," he told him, and tried to sound cheerful. Vin glanced up at him, but said nothing.
Nathan rested his hand lightly on Vin's arm. The bounty hunter was a strange one... he seemed to live in a world that touched the one around him for brief moments, but never really melded with it. Chris Larabee had recognized that soon after the two had met, and it had been clear to Nathan that somehow the tormented gunslinger was fascinated by Vin Tanner, and maybe even envied him somewhat. Vin was his own friend, his own company, and while he didn't really seem to mind others intruding into that world of his, he didn't really seek them out, and didn't mind if he was ignored entirely. Vin liked people, and got along with most of them, but, he simply didn't need them.
This was different, though. Something had happened that had caused him to pull away completely. Nathan had seen it during the war. Men who had seen or done things in combat that their minds couldn't accept. Sometimes, they came out of it. Sometimes, they didn't.
"Vin?" he said softly.
Vin looked at him, his blue eyes alert, yet somehow distant.
"What happened out there, Vin? You wanna talk about it?"
Vin shook his head, and when he looked away, Nathan knew he'd lost him again. He didn't push. Either Vin would let go of whatever it was he was holding inside, or it would drive him mad.Only he could decide which it would be.
Josiah entered without knocking.
"How's JD?" Nathan asked.
"Dead to the world... I don't think he realizes yet what a remarkable thing he did."
Nathan laughed softly. "Boy don't got a lick of sense, sometimes, but he makes up for it in grit."
Josiah nodded, "That he does." He looked at Vin. "How is he?"
"He can hear you, why don't you ask him?" Nathan wasn't being sarcastic. Josiah knew the healer wanted him to see if he could get a response out of Vin. He squatted down beside the bed so he was at eye-level with the tracker.
"How you doin.?" he asked him, and Vin was more or less forced to make eye contact with him. The blank expression on his face changed to what it had been back at the jail. He looked like he wanted to run, but Josiah would not be avoided.
Josiah reached out to touch him, and Vin's entire body tensed in response. He didn't want to be touched, didn't want anyone that close to him.
Josiah touched him anyway, gently laying one of his big hands on Vin's shoulder. Vin wasn't a big man to begin with, and he'd lost enough weight that it was noticeable. Josiah could feel his bones through his pale skin.
He looked at Nathan and shook his head.
"I'm gonna go see if I can get Maggie to make something he'll eat," Nathan said of the owner of the local boarding house. "Ain't no reason I can see why he couldn't just walk outa here, 'cept he just ain't got the strength." He disregarded the fact that Vin apparently had no inclination to do anything except lie there.
Josiah understood that Nathan wanted him to stay with Vin. The younger man watched Nathan leave, then looked at Josiah again like he wanted to say something. But, he didn't.
Josiah sat in the chair Nathan had vacated and leaned back. "I don't know what demons you've locked inside you, Vin, but the time is gonna come when you'll either have to let them out, or let them eat your soul, and that's a fact."
Vin turned his head away. He didn't move except to grip the pillowcase and twist it as if it deserved some sort of punishment. Josiah carefully placed his hand over Vin's until he relaxed again. "All in time, my young friend. All in time..."
Nathan Jackson had learned to sleep in a chair after years of dealing with the result of hot heads, short tempers, too much whiskey and loaded six-guns. He'd gotten used to it. He was a healer. Some people liked fixing things, he liked fixing people. But, it had meant many a long night waiting for a wound to stop bleeding or a fever to break - or maybe for a spirit to pass from this world into the next.
None of those reasons were why he had stayed with Vin Tanner. He had meant to sleep at the boarding house. Vin wasn't in any immediate danger. His fever wasn't high, and his injuries weren't serious. He'd eaten a bit more, although not as much as Nathan would have liked, and he'd finally had enough water that he'd needed to relieve himself. He was pretty much doing okay, at least physically. There was no need to keep a vigil at his bedside through the night.
But when he had tried to turn out the light to leave, Vin had panicked. There was no other word for it. He had grabbed Nathan's shirt sleeve, and with his meager reserve of strength, had forced his hand away from the lamp. Then he wouldn't let go. Nathan hadn't understood, at first, because it seemed so unlikely and unexpected that Vin, who no doubt had slept more nights under open sky than under a roof, would be afraid of the dark. But Nathan soon realized that wasn't the whole of it. Vin didn't want to be left in the dark, and he didn't want to be left alone.
So, Nathan had stayed. He could tell that Vin was embarrassed by his own childish behavior, but Nathan assured him there was no need to be. He wouldn't tell anyone about it. No one needed to know.
There was no conversation between the two men. Vin didn't want to talk, he just wanted someone there. So, Nathan had sat beside the bed with his worn and treasured copy of Grey's anatomy and read until Vin had finally fallen into a light, fitful asleep.
He had slept some, too, at least until his cramped back and legs began to protest and he had to get up and stretch. The sun was coming up by then. Ezra would probably be back sometime that day. Chris, though, would keep looking for Vin, and Buck would stay with Chris. He wished there was some way to get word to them, because he knew Chris was torturing himself with the certainty that Vin was dead. The man didn't have an optimistic bone in his body.
He decided to see about breakfast. The day before, he had asked Maggie to prepare a custard of eggs, milk and molasses. It was nutritious and easy on the stomach, and few of his patients who were able to eat refused it. Vin had eaten substantially more of it than he had of anything else, but it still hadn't been as much as a grown man needed. He'd see if he could get some more of it into him, and maybe something more substantial, too.
Josiah and JD walked into the dining room right behind him and pulled up chairs to join him. JD could hardly walk, but he seemed rested and in good spirits.
"We're gonna have to get you a walkin' stick just like Bat Masterson, now," Nathan said. He was teasing, but for a moment, JD seemed to be considering it.
"Is Vin okay?" the boy asked.
Nathan colored the truth a bit. "Yeah. He's doin' all right. He was sleepin' when I left."
JD, for all his youth and lack of experience, was still keenly perceptive at times. He saw through Nathan's attempt to keep Vin's condition private. "Nathan, how come he won't talk? Has Vin lost his mind?"
"You get right to the point, don't you JD?" Nathan said irritably.
"Well, you've seen how he's actin'. It ain't normal," JD persisted. "There was a madhouse near where I lived as a kid, and I gotta tell you, Vin is actin' like some of the folks they had there."
A couple of other patrons in the dining room turned towards them when they heard what JD had said.
"Son, you might want to shut up now," Josiah said casually.
JD stared back at the onlookers until they turned away. "I was just worried, that's all."
"Well, worry with your head and not your mouth," Nathan admonished him.
JD talked too much. JD knew he talked too much, and that he'd already said more than enough. He sheepishly turned his attention to his breakfast.
Josiah had dropped off JD's dirty clothes with the woman who took in wash, and had asked if she had any of Vin's things, which she did. He had also spent a good part of the evening working on Vin's boots and holster with saddle soap and had gotten them cleaner than Vin would ever need them to be. He handed all of it over to Nathan.
Nathan took the clothing, but he wanted Vin to stay in bed at least until his fever broke. He knew his friends, though. They never cared what was good for them. However, if Vin didn't have his clothes, he wouldn't have a choice, so he'd tuck them away somewhere for a day or so. Besides, he really couldn't see how it was a good idea to let the bounty hunter out on his own in the state he was in. There was a number of good reasons why Judge Travis had hired the regulators, and Nathan wasn't sure Vin could or even would protect himself if there was a confrontation, or what he would do if a situation demanded his attention.
JD wanted to return to where he had left his horse, but Nathan didn't think the boy could ride without considerable pain. That wouldn't stop JD, but then he'd be back later giving him pitiful looks with those big doe-eyes of his because he hurt, expecting him to repair whatever new damage he'd done to himself. "Wait a few hours. Give 'im time to come home on his own. Then if he don't, Josiah will go find him for you."
Josiah didn't mind being volunteered, and JD didn't argue. Instead, he announced that he'd be at the jail checking to see if there was some kind of report he should fill out concerning the human remains he'd left out on the malpais.
This was the first Josiah and Nathan had heard about remains. "Are you sure they were human?" Nathan frowned.
"Well, yeah..." JD hedged, wondering what he had done wrong this time. "Just some bones, but it was a human skull. Looked like whoever it was had his head bashed in.... or something." JD remembered how the skull had looked like it had splattered on the rock. He couldn't figure out how that had happened, but he didn't want to say anything. Half the time, when he said things that he thought were perfectly intelligent, they turned out not to be. He didn't especially mind being laughed at, but, he didn't really like it, either. "I suppose I should have covered them or something, but I had to see to Vin."
Nathan wasn't sure if this new information meant anything or not. Had Vin killed someone? It was certainly possible, but it also didn't seem likely that it would bother him as much as whatever was troubling him. All of them had killed someone, except for JD, and that wasn't because the boy hadn't tried. Still, it might be something to ask Vin about, when the time was right.
Vin's hand hurt. It was burned. He'd burned it in the fireplace.... Stupid. He was so stupid.
She was dead. Her eyes were open, but she was dead.
No. No! He was dreaming again. It hadn't been like that.
Wake up. He needed to wake up....
But he was awake, and his hand hurt, and if he opened his eyes, he'd see her there cold and stiff and dead...
No... not her. It wasn't her. It was that thing. Lon Porter. Dead and rotting and his face dropping off in pieces. Pieces in the water...
On him. In his mouth...
Oh God make it go away!
Nathan cursed his own stupidity. Vin was acting crazy, but it honestly hadn't occurred to him that the man might actually be crazy. If it had, he wouldn't have left him alone....
He found him huddled under his writing desk. A larger man wouldn't have even fit in the small space, and Vin had needed to curl himself up tight to get in there. He'd vomited on the floor, and Nathan had to step around it to get to him.
He was crying like a baby.
No, not a baby. A madman.
Nathan approached him carefully. Vin saw him, but he didn't think he really had his attention. His body was there, but his mind - if he still had one - was somewhere else. In the war, sometimes men who were in this state thought they were back on the battlefield. Later, they'd talk about actually hearing the shells and seeing their comrades fall, and feeling the dirt thrown up into their faces, even though they had been alone in a safe, quiet room.
He said Vin's name softly, but got no response.
His job had been patching up the battlefield casualties. The ones who went mad were someone else's problem further down the road. This was one of those rare occasions where he had no idea what to do. He wasn't even sure if he was right about why Vin was acting like he was. Sometimes, people just went insane, and there was no reason.
A lot of fancy doctors probably had all kinds of ideas about what he should do, but they weren't there. He knew Vin Tanner, though, and he decided that common sense and a direct approach to the problem was the best way to deal with him
"VIN!" he shouted in his most commanding voice. Vin immediately became silent, but didn't move. He just stayed there, curled up like he was trying to make himself as small as possible.
Nathan tried not to sound angry, but his voice was stern. "Stop it, Vin. You're safe. Nobody is going to hurt you, you hear me?"
"VIN! I asked, did you hear me?"
He couldn't see Vin's face - he had covered it with his arms, but his head nodded slightly.
"Come on out from under there, now..." He kept his tone of voice gentle but firm.
Vin looked at him, and then at his surroundings, like he was realizing for the first time where he was.
Nathan didn't wait for him to comply. He reached under the desk and pulled Vin out, and then brought the smaller man to his feet.
Vin raked his fingers through his long hair, looking self-conscious and confused.
"You were havin' a dream or something," Nathan said calmly. He put a reassuring hand on Vin's shoulder, to let him know he was there, that this, and not wherever Vin had just been, was real. "You okay now?"
Vin looked at the floor and wiped the tears from his eyes with the heel of his hand. Nathan didn't even want to imagine how humiliated Vin must have felt, but he wasn't going to let him crawl back into himself and try to hide it.
He put his hand on Vin's chin and lifted his face up. "Look at me, Vin. I said, are you okay now?"
Vin's blue eyes mirrored fear and shame, but he did look at Nathan. "Yeah," he said in a near-inaudible whisper.
Nathan was both relieved and determined. The Vin Tanner he knew was still there, and he was damned if he was going to let him slip away.
FIFTEENEzra Standish did not like the trail. He didn't like the sun in his face, or the wind in his hair or the dirt on his clothes. He also didn't like sitting in the saddle until he smelled like his horse. If he enjoyed any of those things, he would have been a cowboy instead of something... well... more civilized, to say nothing of more lucrative.
Somehow, though, he hadn't dwelled on how miserable he was this time out. He had covered the road to the James spread and beyond, and all of the trails leading off of it for a considerable distance, searching for some trace of a man who was much better at communing with nature than he ever wanted to be. It had frankly surprised him how much he had hoped to find some sign of Vin Tanner. He and the tracker had very little in common, when you came right down to it, but for some unfathomable reason, if anything had happened to the diffident, unkempt and uncultured Mr. Tanner, his regret would have been sincere and profound.
He hated it when he got attached to people.
He sighed, and then smiled. They were still seven. He'd returned to Four Corners to discover Vin Tanner alive, if not exactly well, and now that he'd bathed and rested, the world had become a habitable place again.
He was even looking forward to sitting down with the six others while he cheated them out of their paltry earnings. Pity that none of them could appreciate how much skill it actually took to leave them with enough money to think they had a chance against him.
At that moment, however, he was alone in the saloon. Buck and Chris had yet to return to Four Corners. Nathan was keeping a watchful eye over Vin, and the hobbled JD was pretty much limited to the confines of the jail office. He'd promised to go there later and listen to the boy's epic tale of how he had brought Vin Tanner back from the brink of certain doom. He was certain that the youngster would embellish the saga considerably, but by all accounts, he had earned whatever accolades would be visited upon him as a result of his heroic efforts.
Josiah had been left alone to shoulder the responsibility for keeping order. Ezra doubted that that took any considerable effort. Josiah scared people just by looking at them. He was not overly concerned when the big preacher joined him with a dour look on his face.
"A problem, Mr. Sanchez?" Ezra asked.
Josiah nodded. "Some of James' men are in town asking questions."
"And looking for trouble, no doubt," Ezra said. "I encountered a pair of the miscreants while looking for Mr. Tanner. It does not surprise me that they would avail themselves of an opportunity to take advantage of the situation."
The rancher Stuart James had held a personal vendetta with the seven peacekeepers since they had ridden out to his ranch and apprehended the man's nephew who had escaped being tried for the murder of Mrs. Potters' husband. He thought he'd get away with it. Everyone had thought he'd get away with it. He hadn't. He was in Yuma prison, alive only because his uncle was footing the bill for the appeals that had thus far saved his worthless neck from a noose.
"Well, right now, there's more of them than there is of us."
Ezra smiled. "Since when does that represent a significant obstacle?"
Josiah laughed softly. "It always does. We're just too dumb to see it."
"What do we do?"
Josiah shrugged. "Nothin' for now. Just be prepared for trouble. JD can't get around, but he can still use a gun, and Nathan can pretty much see the comin's and goin's from his place. We just have to keep Vin outa sight for now."
Ezra bristled at that remark. He wasn't exactly sure why. "Putting our skeletons in our closets, are we?"
Josiah didn't understand.
Ezra shuffled his cards. "If Mr. Tanner has taken leave of his senses, do you think it is in his best interest to hide him away? Or would our interest merely be to spare ourselves embarrassment?"
Josiah looked at him, puzzled. "We ain't hidin' him away."
"It certainly appears that way. Nathan won't let him out of that room."
Josiah shrugged. "He hasn't wanted to leave. He... I think he feels safe there, although from what, I don't know." He stretched his long legs out in front of him. "I do know he's not safe on the streets if James' men confront him. He's so damned jumpy and confused, he'd probably shoot one of them for breathin' the wrong way."
Ezra couldn't argue with that. He'd spent only a few brief moments with Vin, but that had been enough to reveal that the man was dealing with some manner of serious emotional turmoil. Vin never talked much, he mostly just seemed to observe from a distance, even when he was sitting next to whoever had his attention. But when Ezra had last seen him, he had been so distant as to not even be there. It had been an unnerving experience for Ezra, who relied on his social skills the way the others relied on their guns. It wasn't something he could understand, and it troubled him to contemplate what could have left him in that state.
Josiah was right. Ezra reluctantly rose from his chair and pocketed his cards. A leisurely afternoon of poker would have to wait for another day. It was time to earn his pay, despite the fact that his peace-keeper's salary was barely enough to subsidize his laundry bill.
Buck Wilmington guided his horse slowly through the dusty street. The animal plodded as if its feet were made of lead, and as heavy as his heart. He rode in silence behind his old friend Chris Larabee. Chris had stopped talking to him two days earlier. It wasn't personal, this time. This time, he couldn't blame Buck for his loss, so, he chose to ignore him.
Buck didn't know why or how or even when Vin Tanner had replaced him as Chris's most trusted friend and confidant, but it had happened. In a way, he was glad to be rid of the burden of Chris's guilt and anger, some of which was often directed at him. Chris never sent the extreme emotions that boiled just below his surface in Vin's direction, though. Buck wondered if Chris sensed, like he did, that Vin would only absorb it and take it into himself. That seemed to be his way. Buck was sure Vin could handle Chris at his worst, but he also sensed that beneath his tough hide, Vin was somehow uncorrupted by the world around him. Chris could see that, too, and maybe he didn't want to spoil it.
But now, Vin was gone. Buck was sure he wouldn't have just dropped out of sight. Whether he had found Porter or not, he would have at least gotten word to them. But after a week had passed, hope of finding him alive had begun to fade. Chris had insisted they keep looking, but now, they had come to accept the likelihood that Vin Tanner was dead.
Buck wanted to reach out to his friend, but he couldn't. He couldn't deal with Chris's grief and his own. He looked forlornly at the horse he was leading behind him. JD's horse. They'd found it abandoned on the mesa, still wearing JD's saddle. The kid would have never just left the animal like that. They had combed the area for him, but hadn't found a trace of him.
It wasn't hard to put the scenario together in his mind. He had told JD to stay in town. Porter had hit him so hard he'd given him a concussion and loosened some of his teeth. When Buck had last seen him, he had been so dosed on laudnum that he wouldn't have been able to find his horse, let alone ride it.
But the kid had apparently recovered quickly, and then damned his scrawny little hide if he hadn't just gone ahead and done exactly what he wanted to, just like he always did. When was that boy ever going to learn that this wasn't play-acting in a dime novel? Pig-headed, little shit-for-brains...
Oh Jesus, how could JD be dead, too? The kid had more life in him than the other six of them combined. He'd miss Vin Tanner, whose quiet strength and easy-going disposition had brought some semblance of balance to Chris Larabee's volatile nature. But, by damn, it was going to rip the heart right outa him to loose that kid. JD - Vin, too, for that matter - was too damned young to be saying good-bye to them. It was just plumb unfair.
He felt a lump catch in his throat. So since when had life - his or anyone else's - been fair?
He and Chris were hot, dirty and hungry, but as he fully expected, the first place Chris headed was the saloon. The gunfighter would likely never say another word about Vin, like he never spoke of Adam and Sarah. But he'd never forget him, even though he'd try to drown the memory in booze.
Maybe that wasn't such a bad idea. He'd probably join him, after he saw to the three horses...
It took him a moment to accustom his eyes to the darkness of the livery, and then he found himself staring numbly at Vin Tanner's horse. The animal stood calmly in one of the stalls, a reminder that Vin really was gone.
"I see you found the Sheriff's horse," the hostler said cheerfully. "He'll be mighty glad ta see the beast. Damnedest thing I ever seen the way that kid..."
"JD's alive?!" Buck interrupted.
The hostler looked at him askance. "Well, yeah, sure. Leastways, he was ten, fifteen minutes ago..."
Buck grabbed the poor man's shoulders harder than he meant to. "Where?! Where is he?'
The hostler, nonplused by Buck's agitation, spit a stream of tobacco juice onto the straw-covered floor. "He was on his way to the jail, I reckon. Headed that way, anyhow..."
Buck left the horses and headed into the street at a full run. He almost broke the jail door off its hinges in his haste to enter.
Startled, JD dropped the book he was reading and drew his gun in one fluid motion. Luckily, he realized it was Buck before he fired off a round.
"Goddamit JD! I found your goddammed horse wandering around out in the tumbleweeds and you nowhere in sight! What the hell was I supposed to think?"
JD looked sheepish. "I went lookin' for Vin. I had to leave my horse because..."
"You went out there after I told you to stay here?! I just spent the last day and a half thinkin' your sorry young ass was lyin' out in the desert somewhere with the ants eatin' your eyes out and..."
"Is my horse okay?" JD interrupted Buck's tirade, not that it was having any effect on him anyway. Buck was always yelling at him for one thing or another. JD wasn't fooled.
Buck heaved a sigh. "Jesus, JD, why didn't you stay in town like I told you to?"
"Because I wanted to help look for Vin, and I knew I could ride where the rest of you couldn't."
Buck shook his head. "We could have lost you both, JD."
"But you didn't."
"That ain't the point. The point, son, is that once in awhile you are going to have to learn to take advice from people who know more than you think you do. And, you have to learn to consider that some folks might not want to see you dead!" He raked a hand through his hair. "Lord knows it's gonna be hard enough puttin' Vin outa our minds now that he's gone..."
"Vin ain't gone."
"... and God only knows what this is gonna do to Chris. He ain't never got over... What?"
"Vin ain't gone. I found him."
Buck hadn't planned on having to respond to that statement, so for a moment he didn't know what to say and finally decided on, "He's alive?"
JD's self-satisfied look faded a bit. "He's alive, but..."
Buck was already heading out the door. "BUCK!" JD called to him.
The urgency in the kid's voice made Buck stop and turn around. The kid never hid his emotions well, and he knew what he was going to tell him wasn't good. "What is it, JD?"
JD didn't know where to start. "I dunno, Buck. Something happened to Vin's head..."
"What? He cracked it or what?"
"No... no... he's not hurt. Not bad anyway. But, he just ain't right anymore."
Buck frowned. "What're you sayin', JD?"
"I'm sayin' don't expect him to act like the Vin we know. He's... kinda crazy now."
"What do you mean, he's crazy?"
"I can't explain it, Buck, but you'll know when you see him... Just please warn Chris. I know Vin's his friend and all, more than the rest of us."
Buck winced inside at the kid's observation. Time was, he was the best friend Chris Larabee had, but those days were passed, much to his sadness. "Where is he?"
"He's stayin' with Nathan."
JD made a move to follow him, and Buck noticed he was limping, badly.
He also noticed the moccasins he was wearing. They looked downright silly with his citified clothes. "What the hell do you got on your feet?"
JD sighed. "Josiah gave them to me. I kinda like them."
"How come you're walkin' funny? Did you go and hurt yourself?"
"It's nothin' Buck. Don't worry about it."
It finally caught up with Buck how totally relieved he was that JD was okay.
He wanted to grab him and give him a hug, but, that would have been awkward, so instead he pointed a finger in the boy's face. "You scared the shit outa me, JD. Don't do that again."
"Okay, Buck," JD agreed and both knew he didn't mean it.
Aw, what the hell... Buck grabbed the kid and hugged him anyway, pulling him so tightly against his chest that he could feel the smaller man's arm and shoulder muscles strain as he attempted to disengage himself from the public display of affection.
"Shit, Buck, cut it out," JD mumbled.
Buck let him go and laughed. Never had he expected this day to turn out like it had.
Sometimes, he reckoned, God even heard the prayers of a no-account rascal like him.
SIXTEENChris Larabee almost smiled when Buck found him at the saloon and told him the good news. It was as close as the man was going to come to showing how relieved and grateful he was.
Together, they headed for the little second-floor room where Nathan cared for the sick and injured who didn't have a proper place to lay their heads while they mended. Buck hadn't really given JD a chance to explain what had happened to Vin and as a result, he'd been frustratingly vague when he'd tried to tell Chris that Vin was hurt.
Neither man really knew what to expect, and for that reason did not just barge into Nathan's quarters. They knocked softly, and Nathan greeted them with a bittersweet smile.
When Nathan was really happy, he couldn't hide it. That grin of his would light up his whole face. He was glad to see them, but something was definitely wrong.
Chris got to the point. "How's Vin?"
Nathan looked cautiously back into the room and then pulled door closed behind him. "You heard he's alive, then?"
"I want to see him," Chris said.
"I don't know if that's a good idea, Chris," Nathan said. "Vin's... not himself."
"What happened to him?"
"That's just it. I don't know. He won't speak more than one or two words at a time, and it's hell even getting that much out of him. All he seems to want to do is lie there. It's like he's just pushed the rest of the world away."
Chris squinted at him, his jaw set. "I want to see him," he repeated.
Nathan acquiesced. "Okay, but just you... No offense Buck, it's just that I don't know that Vin would want you to see him just now."
Nathan was also certain that Vin couldn't handle Buck's loud, boisterous nature. His nerves were so on edge that the slightest disturbance - a loud voice or sudden sound - would cause him visible distress. Nathan couldn't leave him alone. The few times he'd tried, he'd returned to find Vin huddled somewhere, so tensed up he couldn't breathe or so stressed that he'd be sick to his stomach.. Vin wasn't oblivious to the circumstances or Nathan's efforts to deal with them. The second night, he had insisted on sleeping on the floor so Nathan could have the bed and not spend another night in the chair. The hard wooden planks were fine with him, so long as Nathan didn't leave him alone. He seemed fully aware of his bizarre behavior, yet powerless to control it.
Buck was curious, and confused, but he accepted Nathan's judgment.
"And Chris?" Nathan cautioned. "Don't push him. Something happened to him out there in the desert, something that hurt his mind more than his body. I don't think he's ready to deal with it yet. Give him time."
Chris nodded. He understood, far better than Nathan could have known..
He had so steeled himself to grieve for Vin Tanner that at first, he wasn't sure what emotion he felt when he saw him, alive and apparently not suffering from any major injuries.
He lay on his side, uncovered, on Nathan's bed. He was wearing socks, pants, an undershirt... but no splints or bloody dressings, just a bandage on one hand.
"Is he asleep?" Chris whispered.
Nathan shook his head. "Not yet, but I gave him a dose of paregoric to settle his stomach down. He ain't been able to keep much food in him. Might make him drift off on you. He ain't been sleepin' good, either."
Chris tossed his hat aside, approached the bed and sat down on the mattress. Vin's eyes opened beneath a fringe of matted hair. Chris felt a twinge of anger when he reached out and fingered the snarled mess. Why hadn't anyone taken care of it for him?
"Hey pard," he said softly.
Vin looked at him. His face was expressionless, but he lifted a pale, bandaged hand and placed it on Chris's arm. Chris could feel how weak he was and he looked at Nathan, alarmed.
Nathan only shook his head. He didn't know what was going on with Vin any more than Chris did.
Vin said nothing, but his eyes pleaded with Chris. For what, Chris didn't know. He didn't seem to be in physical pain, but he was clearly suffering.
Chris worked his fingers slowly through Vin's tangled hair, loosening some of the twisted strands and taking care not to pull too hard. At first, Vin tensed at his touch, but then relaxed and if not actually enjoying it, at least seemed not to mind. His eyes were heavy from the drug Nathan had given him, but he was fighting it.
Chris knew instinctively what Vin was thinking, feeling. He recognized the signs. Or rather, he remembered them. That blunt ache in your soul when you think your mind is never going to let go of something so terrible that it has left you numb to every other emotion. It was a pain as real and intense as any physical hurt, and there was nothing to be done for it but to endure it until it was eased by the passing of time.
Yeah, he knew. He'd been there himself. The difference was that he'd crawled into a bottle - Vin's body was still here, but his mind had crawled off to be alone like a wounded animal.
He hurt for him, that emotion mingled with the euphoria of knowing that something precious which he had thought lost had been returned to him. His eyes brimmed over, but he didn't give a good goddamn who saw it. No one else mattered, and neither did what anyone thought of his tears. Vin was alive, he was safe, and Chris vowed not to leave him alone in that hell he'd visited himself a time or two.
He smoothed Vin's hair back into place. It felt good to touch him, to feel his warmth and life, to see his slight shoulders rise and fall with each breath. "Go to sleep," he told his friend. "I won't leave."
Vin had the dream again. Different now.
She still lay on the bed, her dead eyes staring at him, but this time there was nowhere to hide. When he crawled into his grandpa's bed, the Thing was there, grinning at him with its torn off jaw as it spurted its rotten guts into his face - his eyes - his nose - his mouth.
He was in the cold cabin and inside the cabin was that hot, wretched hole...
Why didn't somebody come? Why was he all alone? Why couldn't all of this just please please go away...
What had he done that he had to stay there? That nobody wanted to come and take him away from... from her... from that Thing...?
He'd do whatever anyone wanted. Anything... just make it go away.
"Vin? Wake up Vin, you're havin' a bad dream."
The voice was gentle, familiar. He knew that voice.
He didn't want to open his eyes. It was a trick. He knew she was there. Or the Thing was. They wouldn't go away. They just wouldn't go away, no matter how much he wished and begged and prayed for it. That's why he'd had to leave... had to go inside that wall that kept away the terror and the ugliness and the hurting, and he could never, ever come out or it would all still be there.
A hand on his shoulder, shaking him. Porter's dead hand reaching for him, grabbing him... Her dead arms, trapping him... NO!
He opened his eyes. Chris Larabee.
He almost laughed out loud.
You son of a bitch! Rage rose from the pit of his stomach until it exploded into his head.
I'm in this hole. You're supposed to find me.
Grandpa will be home in a week. When? When when when when when...
I'm all alone. When are you going to come and get me out of here?
You son of a bitch. Chris-grandpa-Chris you fucking son of a bitch...
How can you do this to me?!!
Chris was caught completely off guard when Vin lunged at him. He probably could have bested Vin in a fight on Vin's best day, so Vin's feeble grip on his throat and the impotent blows from his fists were not the real challenge.
He didn't know what was happening or what he should do about it, so he just let Vin go on choking him and punching him until Nathan pulled him off.
That didn't subdue Vin, though. As weak as he was, his frenzy gave him the strength to twist, writhe and kick his way out of Nathan's grasp. He didn't go for Chris a second time though. In an unfocused rage he grabbed a weighty volume from Nathan's bookshelf and flung it across the room. He followed it with another and another and then kicked the entire shelf so viciously that the wood splintered. There was no way he could have not hurt himself, but he didn't so much as flinch. He seemed intent on wreaking as much destruction to himself and his surroundings as he was physically able. Nathan tried to get a hold on him, but in his manic state, Vin was just too strong and too fast.
The healer finally managed to get in front of him and grab his wrists. The sudden pressure on his injured arm caused him to cry out with pain and distracted him long enough for Chris to charge him from behind and knock him onto the bed.
Vin resumed his struggle, but couldn't get enough leverage from the soft mattress to throw Chris off his back.
Chris literally lay down on top of him and used his own hands to pin Vin's arms to the bed. He leaned the side of his face hard against the back of Vin's head and forced his face down into the mattress. Vin's hair was damp with sweat - from exertion, from fear. He didn't have the strength to keep up the fight, but he tried to anyway. It made Chris's gut twist in a knot to have to use force on him, but if he didn't, Vin was going to hurt himself.
Abruptly, Vin stopped moving, even though his muscles remained taut, like springs wound too tight. Chris put his mouth against Vin's ear. "Easy now," he said softly. "You need to calm down, Vin."
Trapped. He was trapped again in her cold, dead arms.... Let me go let me go let me go
Oh please I don't like this let me go.
Vin was screaming. Pain, fear, rage, all mixed into it. He wouldn't stop. He couldn't stop, Chris knew that. Vin was always so calm, so quiet that the intensity of his hysteria was frightening, but Chris didn't dare let him go.
He looked at Nathan in desperation. Nathan was trying to get Vin's attention, but it wasn't working.
"You better leave, Chris..." Nathan said, prepared to take over for him.
"No! I can't leave him like this," Chris snapped. "I won't."
"He's afraid of you!" Nathan snapped. "Can't you see that?"
Chris felt like he'd been punched in the throat.
"This is only making it worse," Nathan said more gently. "Just let me see to him for now."
Chris knew Nathan was right. Vin had stopped struggling only because he no longer had any strength left. His screams had faded to harsh, anguished sobs, and he'd buried his face in the mattress to conceal his shame.
It tore Chris apart knowing that he couldn't do anything to ease whatever torment Vin was enduring. He couldn't even offer a gentle word - Vin was beyond hearing him, beyond being reasoned with.
He looked up and Josiah was there. He'd come when he'd heard Vin screaming. God, the whole town had to have heard Vin screaming....
He eased his hold on Vin, expecting him to resume his outburst. But, he didn't. He was completely spent. Only his shoulders moved to the sound of his muffled cries.
What the hell did this to you, Vin?
Josiah lifted Vin slightly and moved him so he was all the way on the bed again. His undershirt was dotted with fresh blood in a couple of places, and Chris's breath caught in his throat when he saw it. He hadn't meant to be that rough with him....hadn't know he was already hurt.
"Go, Chris," Josiah whispered to him.
Chris nodded, but he reached out to touch Vin one last time before he left.
Vin cringed and pulled away from him.
That hurt worst of all.
SEVENTEENJosiah pulled Vin's undershirt over his head so Nathan could see where the blood was coming from. Some of the abrasions on his back had scabbed over, and the scabs had cracked open in the scuffle with Chris.
Nathan found a tin of salve amidst the wreckage left in the wake of Vin's tantrum. Josiah took it from him. "I'll do this," he offered. Nathan had a mess to clean up and Josiah could see he was discouraged not only by that, but also by the fact that he didn't know how to help someone who was so evidently disturbed.
Vin had quieted down. Both his physical and emotional reserves had been depleted by the outburst.
Josiah dampened a cloth in the wash basin beside the bed and wiped off Vin's face and neck, and then cleaned the blood smeared on his back. He generously applied the salve, carefully covering the injured spots and working it into the rest of his back and shoulders with his strong hands.
Vin's muscles were tense and tight at first, but slowly began to relax with the massage.
Josiah didn't look at him when he spoke, because Vin was avoiding any eye contact. He was fully aware of what he had done, and was embarrassed about it. Josiah could tell. No point in making him more uncomfortable by staring him down.
He kept his tone of voice level, conversational. "What were you thinking about Vin? When you attacked Chris?"
Vin only shrugged, but at least it was a response.
Josiah was thinking how sore Vin's back must have been when all the small lesions on it were fresh. But, Nathan hadn't found any injuries other than the obvious ones - scrapes, a few bruises, and dozens of ant bites. The cut on his arm was the most serious, but that was healing, as was the minor burn on his hand. Josiah knew that some of the ugly things one man could do to another didn't always leave visible scars, though. There were ways to break a man's spirit without leaving a mark on him. He wondered if Vin had been deliberately tortured by someone who knew how to inflict pain without injury. Or, maybe he'd been raped. It happened, probably more often than anyone thought. Porter was mean enough. And, he was big. No telling what he would do if he were to get the drop on Vin, who was roughly half his size.
Josiah pressed on, cautiously. "Vin, did someone hurt you?"
Vin's muscles tensed again, and a look of panic clouded his eyes, but then he shook his head. Josiah wasn't sure if the mixed signal meant no one had hurt him, or no one had hurt him intentionally. Obviously, he had been hurt somehow.
A coldness spread through Josiah. Vin wasn't soft. If he had been tortured, it would have had to have been prolonged and agonizing. Why would anyone want to do that to him? There was a bounty on his head, but it was dead or alive. Why torture him and then leave him rather than just kill him?
There was another possibility, one that made Josiah's next question more difficult, because even though Vin was capable of violence, he was not an evil man. "Did you hurt someone, Vin?"
For some reason, Vin thought that was funny.
He laughed, briefly, softly, the sound full of irony rather than humor, and so close to the witless tittering of the insane that Josiah decided not to ask him anything else.
He massaged Vin's upper arms and worked his way to the lower part of his back, because he seemed to appreciate it. It was hard to tell, though. When he fell asleep, Josiah wasn't sure if it was the drug Nathan had given him or if he was just too exhausted to stay awake.
Nathan had rearranged the last of his books on the now-broken shelf. He looked defeated, Josiah thought. He sat in his chair and looked at Vin. "I don't know what to do for him, Josiah. He's not gettin' his strength back like he should be. He can't eat. He's lucky if he sleeps an hour straight... He can't keep on like this."
Josiah nodded sadly. Vin's naturally lean frame already showed visible signs of weight loss. There was a gap in the waistband of his pants, and he was beginning to actually look smaller. He seemed very frail, and it just somehow wasn't right on him.
Nathan sighed and jiggled the loose shelf. "I'm gonna have to check his foot and make sure he didn't bust it up. Like as not in his condition, he wouldn't even notice it."
"Why do you think he went after Chris?"
Nathan shook his head. "Hard to say. Maybe no matter what he says, someone did hurt him, and somehow, Chris reminded him of it. Or..." he lowered his voice "maybe he just don't know what's real and what ain't no more."
Josiah heaved a deep sigh and looked at Vin. "Is there anything we can do that would help?"
Nathan shrugged slightly. "Yeah, but it wouldn't be easy, and he wouldn't like it."
"What is that?"
"Make him talk. Not let up on him until he tells us what happened, and if he really can't remember, then take him back to where JD found him and make him remember."
Josiah winced at the suggestion. Vin's hysterics hadn't been an easy thing to watch. He wasn't sure he wanted to know what horror Vin had been reliving in his mind.
"He'll have to get stronger, first, though," Nathan said. "Right now, he just wants to feel safe from whatever it was that did this to him, and all we can do is try ease his fear, even if it ain't rational. He's like a kid who has to be told there ain't no boogey man gonna come get him in the night. He don't believe it, but if he hears it often enough he will."
Josiah looked at Vin and smiled sadly. "I don't know Nathan... The truth is, sometimes, the boogey man wins."
Chris was drinking. That wasn't a good sign, but it wasn't unusual either.
"How's Vin?" Buck asked him.
Chris didn't answer him. Also not a good sign.
"What was all that hollerin' about?"
Chris stared into his whiskey glass. "You heard him."
Buck nodded. "I reckon everyone did. What was the problem?"
Chris shrugged not taking his eye off his drink. "Vin was just havin' a bad dream, that's all."
Buck knew there was more to it than that, so he let Chris take his time.
"I don't know what was goin' on, Buck," Chris sighed. "I just know that the man in that room ain't the Vin Tanner we know."
Buck frowned. "'Course he is, Chris."
"You didn't see him. He's like an animal that's been hunted into a trap. Nothin' in his eyes but fear and hate. You can't even talk to him."
Buck nodded. He understood. He more than understood - he knew. He remembered. "Time was, you weren't the Chris Larabee I know, either."
Chris tossed back what he had in his glass and poured another. "I was never that bad off, not even during the worst of it."
Buck found that assessment disturbing, especially coming from Chris. The Chris Larabee he had known had never really come all the way back, and if Vin was even worse...
Chris looked at him, his eyes steel and fire. "I need to find out who did that to him."
Buck knew that look. He knew Chris would never let this go, that he would carry it inside him along with all those other hurts that ate at his soul. "Some things it's just better we don't know, Chris," he said softly.
"Man's gotta face up to his fear. It's the only way he can live with it," Chris said without much convicition.
"We don't got the right to make that choice for Vin."
Chris glared at him, his jaw set and determined. "If we don't, who will?" He stared at Buck until Buck turned away, then he tossed his money on the bar and grabbed his bottle. Buck had no idea what he'd do, and he'd learned that no matter what it was, trying to stop him was useless. He'd just have to wait around and pick up the pieces later like he always did.
EIGHTEENChris had intended to just go somewhere quiet - away from Buck Wilmington, anyway - and try to drink away the memory of Vin's fists slamming into him. It hadn't hurt. Vin was as weak as a child. But it had brought some unpleasant recollections of his own into sharp focus for an instant.
Recollections of doing the very same thing to Buck, after Sarah and Adam had died. Buck had just stood there and taken it, too, the same way he had.
He had blamed Buck for the deaths of his wife and child. He had always said he didn't, but deep down he knew that was a lie. He blamed him even though he knew it hadn't been Buck's fault, because he had to blame someone. Someone had to take some of the anger and pain because otherwise, it would have destroyed him. It had destroyed him, in a lot of ways, but if Buck hadn't been there to lean on, he would not have survived. Their friendship was never the same again, but that had been a sacrifice that Buck had made willingly, for him.
Now, Chris had Vin Tanner holding him accountable for whatever had happened to him, not because he was responsible, but because Vin had so much hurt in him that he just couldn't hold it all inside.
Vin wasn't like the others. Hell, he wasn't like anyone Chris Larabee had ever known. He seemed so... whole, so self-contained that he didn't need anyone else.
Something had changed that. He needed someone now, someone strong enough to stand beside him in whatever battle was raging within him....
Chris looked at the bottle of whisky in his hand, and then tossed it at the nearest wall. It was time to put his own pain aside.
Nathan didn't want to let him in, didn't want a repeat of Vin's earlier destructive rage. Chris pushed his way into the room, anyway.
Vin was awake, sitting on the bed with a tray of untouched food in front of him.
"Leave me alone with him," Chris told Nathan.
Nathan shook his head. "That's not a good idea Chris... you seen what he did before."
Chris looked at Vin, who stared back, those blue eyes so dark and full of misery. "You ain't gonna beat me up twice in one day, are you, pard?" he smiled.
Vin looked embarrassed, but Chris noticed that the corners of his mouth turned up just the slightest bit. It was a sad, resigned smile, but, it was a smile.
"Go," he told Nathan.
"Fine," Nathan huffed. "You repair the damage this time." He looked at Vin and tempered his tone of voice. "See if you can get him to eat something."
When Nathan was gone, Chris sat down on the bed, like he had done before. Vin didn't look at him, but Chris knew he had his attention. He picked the spoon up out of the bowl of oatmeal on the tray. It had cinnamon and brown sugar sprinkled over it, and didn't look too unappetizing. He helped himself to a spoonful.
"It ain't bad Vin, try some." He handed him the spoon.
Vin stared at him for a moment and then turned away.
"You ain't gonna make me feed you, are you, Vin? Because don't think I won't do it. I will."
Vin took the spoon and forced a couple of mouthfuls down.
"More," Chris told him.
Vin gave him an angry look. "I don't want it."
"There's six of us, Vin. And only one of you. If we have to force you to eat, we can."
Vin's response was to toss the entire tray onto the floor.
Chris didn't flinch. "Nice move, Vin," he sighed. He picked up the dishes, the tray and the spilled food without further comment. When he was done, he placed a hand on Vin's shoulder. "C'mon. Get up," he told him.
Vin gave him questioning look.
"You ain't sick. You don't need to be here. Get up and get the rest of your clothes on."
He would have welcomed a verbal argument, and Vin knew it, so he stubbornly refused to give him one. Chris tightened his grip on the smaller man to let him know he wasn't going to let him resist physically, either. He pulled him forward and got him on his feet.
Vin could barely stand on his own. He had to hold onto the bedpost for support. Chris pretended not to notice.
Some of Vin's clothes were folded into a neat pile beside the bed. Chris found a shirt and slipped the suspenders down over Vin's shoulders to get it on him. He got his arms through the sleeves, then buttoned it up for him. He readjusted the suspenders while Vin looked at him with eyes that were full of resentment.
"Stop lookin' at me like that, Vin. I know you want to lie here and have me feel sorry for you, but, that ain't gonna do you any damn good..." Their eyes met. "I know that for a fact, and I ain't gonna let you do it."
He guided Vin into Nathan's chair so he could slip his boots on. Vin hissed with pain when he tried the right one. Chris remembered him kicking the book shelf hard enough to break it. He slipped Vin's sock off. The foot was badly bruised, but not too swollen, and he assumed that Nathan would have seen to it that nothing was broken.
He replaced the sock and then slid the boot on with meticulous care. The last thing he wanted to do was cause Vin any more pain than he had to.
Vin's hair was a mess. It was pretty much always a mess, but this was worse than usual. It was clean, but tangled and unruly. Chris never understood why Vin liked it so long. It got in the way, and he rarely bothered to really care about how it looked. Funny thing was, though, he couldn't imagine Vin any other way.
He didn't have a comb, so he used his fingers to smooth out the fine, soft, dark strands the way he had before.
Vin looked up at him while he was doing it. He looked so exposed, like his soul had been torn out and put on display. The look in his eyes was one of total defeat before an enemy he couldn't even give a name.
Chris felt the tears coming to his own eyes. Vin's pain was so much like his own, and almost as hard for him to witness as his own had been to bear.
Chris had never been one to hold back his anger or grief. He often lashed out at those nearest him, but he was able to let it go in torrents of rage and violence. This was not always a good thing, but at least it kept those bitter feelings from consuming him entirely. That wasn't true for Vin Tanner. Vin's tranquil, reticent nature would act like a dam, holding in the tide of black emotions while they ate at him from the inside out.
Chris reached out and placed one hand firmly behind Vin's neck so he couldn't back away. With the other, he forced Vin to look at him.
"Vin, whoever did this to you, they won't win. I won't let them."
Vin closed his eyes, his shoulders sagging as if he bore a heavy weight on them.
Chris pulled him close and held him. Vin didn't resist. He let himself fall into Chris's strong arms, drawing strength from his friend's embrace. Chris took the moment to once again cherish the comforting familiarity of his warmth, the smell of his hair, his sweat.
Vin was alive. No matter what nameless demons needed to be conquered, no matter how long it took or how formidable the odds stacked against them, Chris Larabee had that one reality he could cling to.
"It's gonna be okay, Vin," he whispered to him softly. "Wherever you are, I ain't leavin' you there alone."
NINETEENChris knew it was probably a mistake to take Vin from Nathan's, but the alternatives were no better.
When Adam and Sarah had died, he would have holed up in a saloon and drunk himself to death if Buck hadn't been there to stop him. His memories of those days were still clouded by grief, but he had recognized immediately the similarities between the way he had been then and the way Vin was now. He knew how Vin wanted to just hide somewhere, his emotions so numbed that he wasn't able to feel anything except that unrelenting emptiness.
Buck had the advantage of knowing what had caused Chris's condition, though. Chris didn't know what had happened to Vin, or how he was going to talk him out of that dark, cold, solitary place he'd crawled into. He had to try, though, and his first steps would be to follow Buck's lead and not let Vin shut the rest of the world out, no matter how much he might think he wanted to do that.
But he hadn't considered Vin's physical limitations. By all accounts, the tracker was starving himself to death, and he didn't have the strength to make it from Nathan's second-floor quarters down to the street without faltering.
He was shaking. Chris didn't know if it was from physical exertion or just plain fear.
"You doin' okay?" he asked him.
Vin nodded. He didn't have his hat, and the wind tugged at his long hair. He took a deep breath, either reveling in the fact that he was outside, or steeling himself to face whatever demons lurked in wait beyond the safety of Nathan's little room. Maybe it was a little of both.
Chris continued to support him by holding onto his arm as they walked down the street. He was weak enough to fall if he stumbled, and he was limping because his foot hurt. A few of the townsfolk stopped what they were doing to stare, but Chris turned an icy, threatening gaze at each of them in turn, and they didn't stare long.
He had no idea where he was taking Vin, but he'd have to figure it out soon. Vin was not only tiring quickly, he was also becoming agitated. Chris could feel the muscles in his arm tighten under his grip, and his breathing was too shallow and too fast. His eyes looked warily about him, as though he was suspicious of every person and every thing in his path, and a fine sheen of sweat had broken on his forehead.
They were just a few short steps from Potter's store. It was as good a place as any to get out of the street.
"Take it easy, Vin," Chris whispered to him. "Everything's fine."
But Vin stopped in his tracks on the sidewalk. His hand moved up to cover his face, rubbing his forehead as though he had a headache. "I can't..." he said softly.
"Can't what? What's the matter?" But Chris knew the answer. He could see the answer... Vin's breathing was labored, and his skin was damp and pale. Chris shifted his grip from Vin's upper arm to his forearm, and clasped his hand, both for moral support and because he was afraid Vin was going to pass out. His hand was clammy and cold, and shook even in the confines of his grip.
Vin's knees buckled and he started to go down, but instead of fainting, he just sat down on the wooden slat sidewalk and leaned his back against the wall. He tilted his head back, closed his eyes closed, and took short, panting breaths, like he had been running.
Chris knelt down beside him. "What is it Vin? Tell me."
Vin shook his head. "I don't know," he said softly. "I can't breathe... I feel sick."
Great, Chris thought. How far would it boost Vin's spirits to puke on the sidewalk with half the town watching? What the hell had he been thinking?
"You're fine," he soothed. "You just rest easy. You'll feel better in a minute."
People were staring again. Chris hated them all. No one offered help; they just wanted to gawk. "What're you lookin' at!?" he shouted at no one in particular. Most of the onlookers took the hint and went about their business.
But, two men continued to stare, challenging Chris to do something, anything to them. Chris recognized them as Jim Ramage and Ted Cole. They worked for Stuart James.
Cole shot a stream of tobacco juice that narrowly missed Vin's boots. "Heard yer shooter'd gone loco," he said to Chris. "I see it's true."
Chris seethed. He knew he couldn't start a fight and just leave Vin sitting there. Cole and Ramage knew it, too.
Cole took a few steps closer and bent down so he was eye-level with Vin. He didn't say anything; he just stared.
"Get out of here," Chris warned him.
Cole stood up and spread his arms out, deliberately not making any kind of move that would convey a threat and give Chris an excuse to retaliate. "Hey, I got a right to be on the sidewalk..." He looked back at Ramage. "...even if it is littered with garbage."
Both men laughed and Chris felt his rage rising. He didn't control his temper well under the best of circumstances and these guys were quickly pushing him to the brink.
Ramage stepped even closer than his friend, and looked down at Vin, shaking his head. "'tween this one and that gimpy sheriff, it looks like yer down a couple of men, Larabee." He nudged Vin's leg with his boot.
Vin pulled his leg up and turned his head away. Chris got the feeling that if James' men wanted to beat the hell out of him, Vin would just sit there and take it. He was beginning to understand that he should have asked Nathan more about Vin's condition before he'd jumped to his own conclusions and then acted on them. Nathan had been dealing with Vin for a couple of days now. He'd only seen him once in the past few hours, and that encounter had been an unnerving one. He had thought that whatever was bothering Vin was something that was best dealt with head on, but now, he wasn't so sure.
Vin was helpless. Not only was he physically weak, he seemed unable to connect with his surroundings well enough to realize that Cole and Ramage were publicly ridiculing him.
He didn't open his eyes. He just sat there, trembling, his face ashen and his breath coming in hard gasps. "Please get me outa here, Chris," he pleaded, his voice barely a whisper.
Chris nodded. It went against every conviction he had to turn tail and just walk away from James' men, but he couldn't see that he had any other choice.
He pulled Vin to his feet and draped his arm over his shoulder.
He could feel the eyes on them as they walked the few steps to Potter's store. He was aware that Cole and Ramage were following them, but there wasn't a thing he could do about it.
The store wasn't empty, but there were fewer people in it than there had been out on the street. Mrs. Potter saw that something was wrong and hurried to them.
She fetched a chair and when Chris lowered Vin into it, the three other costumers in the store looked on, concerned. Vin really seemed to be having trouble breathing even though there was absolutely no reason he should be. Mrs. Potter placed her hand softly against the tracker's back. "I heard he was sick," she looked at Chris. "What's he doin' out?"
Chris raked a hand through his short, blond hair. "I don't know. I thought he'd be okay... Vin?" He knelt down beside the other man. "Vin, try to calm down, okay?"
Vin nodded, but he was as aware as Chris that people were staring at him. For a man as private as Vin , that had to add to his discomfort. Mrs. Potter seemed to sense this, too. "Let me take care of these folks and I'll put the closed sign up."
She wasn't fast enough, though. Cole and Ramage pushed their way through the door just as she picked up the sign.
"I'm closed," she said defiantly, but her voice quavered. She had a very real reason to fear James' men, since it was her husband that James' nephew would hang for killing.
Cole just snorted and walked past her. The other customers in the store suddenly looked like they wanted to leave, but Ramage planted himself between them and the exit.
Chris stood to face them. "Get out," he said, his hand hovering above his gun. The threat was a vacant one. If any shooting started in the confined space, innocent bystanders - Vin included - would be in the way of flying lead.
James' men knew that Chris was in a bad situation, and it looked like they planned to take full advantage of the fact.
Even so, Mrs. Potter stood up to them. "What is it you need?" she said coldly.
"You know," Cole said, "Mr. James is still set on buyin' this property."
"It ain't for sale."
"That's what your husband said... before he... passed on."
Cole and Ramage both started laughing.
Vin looked up at them, and Chris saw just a hint of the old Vin there. They were pissing him off, but Vin didn't seem able to gather his wits about him enough to respond..
"What're you lookin' at?" Cole said to Vin. "I seen that little whelp of a sheriff carry you into town. You ain't got the mettle to take on an old lady. Don't pretend to try and scare us."
Chris was furious. His jaw was clenched so tight that the veins stood out on his neck and forehead. And still, there was not a damn thing he could do. Vin wasn't even armed and he couldn't count on him, anyway. He could probably take both of James' men himself - he was fast enough. But if one of them should get off a shot, they'd likely hit Vin, or Mrs. Potter, and rightfully claim they fired in self-defense.
His voice was deceptively calm when he spoke. "Look, why don't you boys just take it somewhere else? We can settle this later."
"Ain't nothin' to settle," Cole drawled. "We're just mindin' our own business, checkin' out the merchandise and chattin' with Mrs. Potter. This don't even involve you, Larabee."
He leaned against a stack of cans, knowing that his weight would upset the pile. The topmost can teetered and then crashed to the floor.
Vin's entire body reacted. He tensed up and pulled away from the sound. For a brief instant, he instinctively covered his ears and squeezed his eyes shut.
Jesus Vin, this isn't the time to lose it, Chris thought.
Vin quickly collected himself as much as he could, but it was too late. Cole and Ramage had seen his reaction.
"Oh, that was right clumsy of me," Cole said, and then deliberately knocked a few more cans over one at a time. Vin reacted to each impact as if it was a physical blow.
Finally, he clenched his fists and yelled "STOP!" but it was more of a plea than a command, and was exactly the kind of response James' men were looking for.
"Mite jumpy, ain't he?" Ramage laughed. He picked up a glass lantern and begin to toss it carelessly into the air.
Nobody said or did anything. Nobody knew what to do, although Chris had been pushed about as far as it was possible to push him. If James' men didn't stop, he was going to draw on them, no matter what the cost. Vin was as raw as a caged cougar - and just as unpredictable. He was shaking with fear and rage at the same time, and probably couldn't just sit there and take this much longer, either.
Cole walked up to Vin and bent down so that his hands were on his knees, his head turned sideways. And he just stared, like Vin was an attraction in a freak show. Vin closed his eyes so he wasn't staring back at him.
Chris tried to keep his voice even. "Leave him alone."
Cole just laughed, and flicked a strand of Vin's hair, just to bait him.
It was enough.
Vin's reaction was quick and violent and caught Cole off-guard and off balance. Vin lunged at him with enough force to knock him to the floor, but he was no match for Cole in his condition, and if Cole got a chance to retaliate, he'd pound the shit out of him. Chris had to make a quick decision - either join the fracas or stop Vin from being hurt. There really was no choice. He pulled Vin off of Cole, encircling his arms and torso.
He expected Vin to struggle, but he didn't expected him to start screaming like a madman, which was what he did. He kicked and fought to break free, and there just wasn't enough room in the store for him to be doing that. Chris had no choice but to take him down and hold him there, pinning him to the floor.
When he saw he wasn't going to get free, Vin became perfectly still, the way he had at Nathan's. He was panting from the exertion, his muscles as tight as cordwood, but he didn't move. "Let me go," he pleaded.
Chris could feel Vin's heart pounding. Being held down clearly terrified him, but Chris feared that if he let him go, he'd do something stupid.
Mrs. Potter and her customers were staring. Chris couldn't blame them, but he resented it. Cole and Ramage were as surprised by Vin's reaction as Chris had been, but they were exchanging smug glances, and Ramage continued to carelessly toss the heavy lamp into the air.
It was a bad situation and looked like it could only get worse when the door suddenly crashed open. Vin was startled and began to struggle again. Chris was torn between sighing with relief and wanting to smack JD Dunne when he saw the young man standing in the doorway with both guns drawn and trained on Cole and Ramage.
JD's small size and youthful face didn't help to make him at all imposing, but there were other reasons for James' men to find him intimidating. The boy's hands were dead steady, and his guns were already drawn. It was also a fairly well-known fact that JD didn't always think things out first - like what would happen if he started a gunfight in a general store - and they knew he might start shooting before considering the consequences.
"Get out." JD's youthful voice didn't quite convey the force he wanted it to, but Cole and Ramage were both staring down the business end of his Colt Lightnings, and that was all the assertiveness JD needed.
Even so Ramage continued to keep a precarious grip on the lantern.
"You drop that mister," JD said, "and I'll drop you where you stand."
Even Chris thought JD meant it. Ramage placed the lamp carefully on the counter and both men left.
Once outside, one of them muttered something and both of them erupted into loud, raucous laughter.
They were laughing at Vin.
Chris knew it, JD knew it, and worst of all, Vin knew it. He buried his face in his arms and Chris didn't know what to say to him.
It was JD who diffused the situation. The kid walked up to them and in a surprisingly commanding voice said "Let him up, Chris."
Chris's first reaction was to bristle at the kid's presumption of authority, but then he realized what JD was doing. He was giving Vin a way out that didn't involve him surrendering what little dignity he had left.
Chris released his hold and backed off as JD reached down and helped Vin up. "Come with me, Vin, okay?" he said softly, again making it appear that Vin had a choice.
Chris stayed a discrete distance behind the two younger men as they walked towards the saloon. JD had gotten hurt getting Vin back to town, and his slow, hobbling gait made it hard for Chris to tell who was actually leaning on whom. But it was JD who was providing the emotional support, that much was clear. Vin carried himself like a man who'd been so badly beaten that he was never going to get up again.
A disconcerting thought came to Chris. What if Vin was crazy? What if this was the real Vin and the one he thought he knew had just been holding on to his sanity by a thread that had finally snapped?
TWENTYWhat were they going to do about Vin?
No one had asked the question, but all of them were thinking it. The sick bounty hunter hadn't lasted long at the saloon. Nathan had admonished Chris for pouring whisky for him and with good reason. Vin had so little food in him that after a mere handful of drinks, he'd passed out at the table.
The other six dealt their cards around him, trying to pretend this was a normal thing - which to a certain extent, it was. It wasn't that unusual for one of them to get that drunk. Except it was never Vin. No one had ever seen Vin drink to excess. He hadn't really done it this time, except that now his body was in no condition to handle even a small amount of liquor.
The sad thing was, it was probably the first real rest he'd had in days.
Nathan reached over periodically and made sure Vin still had a pulse. No reason to think he wouldn't have one, but Nathan was a worrier. It was his nature, and perhaps one of the reasons he had become a healer.
"It's gettin' late," he said to Chris. "He should be in bed."
Vin didn't have an actual place to call his own. He was welcome to bunk with any of them, and often did when the weather was exceptionally bad, but there really wasn't any specific place to take him. Another thing Chris had failed to consider. They couldn't just leave him asleep at a poker table.
"He can have my bed," JD offered. "I can sleep at the jail."
"I think it would be best if he just came on back to my place where I could look after him," Nathan suggested.
"Why don't you just get him a room upstairs?" Buck nodded towards one of the saloon's very few working girls.
Chris shook his head. "I'll give him my room for now." He put his cards down and with Nathan's help hoisted Vin onto his shoulder. It was almost a relief to feel how completely relaxed he was, even if it did make him dead weight.
Nobody stared this time when he carried Vin to his room. A drunk being hauled out of the saloon wasn't noteworthy.
He had to feel his way to the bed in the dark and set Vin down before he could light the room's sole lamp. Vin curled into a comfortable position, but didn't wake up. Chris pulled off his boots and loosened the buttons on his clothing, then covered him with the old Army blanket he kept for cold nights. It wasn't cold, but somehow, the blanket made Vin appear less susceptible.
He pulled up a rickety straight-backed chair so he could sit beside the bed and then blew out the lamp. Moonlight streaming through the window gave him enough light to still see Vin. He lit a cheroot and smoked it while he watched him sleep, wondering what terrible secrets he had locked inside him.
He realized he hardly knew the man, not really. Somehow, from the moment they met, they had shared an unspoken bond that went deeper than mere friendship. Chris couldn't explain it, but he knew it was as intense as the bond he had felt with Sarah, and Adam, although it was not the same. He didn't love Vin, not in the way he had loved his wife and son, anyway, but like his family, Vin had become a part of him.
Still, he didn't really know anything about him. Not where he grew up, not what his life had been like before they'd met. He knew Vin had hunted buffalo and men, and both could have put him in a category of people Chris didn't want to know, so he'd deliberately never asked him about either. He didn't know whether or not Vin had a family somewhere, either the one he came from or one he had made himself. He wouldn't be the first man to run from the obligations that came with kin, but if he had done that, Chris didn't want to know that, either.
All he really knew was that now, Vin was a weak link in their chain. The incident with James' men had demonstrated that. They'd been hired to protect the town, and if that included Vin, so be it. But Vin was one of them, and being incapacitated made him their Achilles' heel. James' men would never have been so brazen if they hadn't known that Chris would protect Vin rather than take them on. If JD hadn't shown up when he had, Chris hated to think how far they would have pushed things.
And what if Vin didn't come back to his senses? What then? He didn't think that any of them could just abandon him, but he doubted that the supposedly decent, moral townsfolk would tolerate a madman roaming the streets, either. They'd insist Vin be confined, and that would be the same as killing him.
The only alternative was still the one he had decided on earlier that day, after he'd first seen Vin. He had to find out what was bothering him, and help him deal with it some other way than... whatever he was doing to himself...
Chris had dozed off in the chair. The stiff muscles in his neck and back would have told him that even if he hadn't awakened to find the room in total darkness save for the occasional flash of lightning coming through the window. Thunderstorms rolled across the desert without warning and usually passed quickly, but it was something else that gave him an uneasy feeling.
He fumbled for the lamp in the darkness and set a match to it.
The dim light was enough for him to see that the door was wide open. And the bed was empty.
He scanned the room with the lantern, but he already knew that Vin was gone. He'd left in such a hurry that his boots were still on the floor beside the bed.
The rain was falling by the bucketful and making so much noise that Chris could barely hear himself as he called out Vin's name. The small fires that substituted for street lamps had been extinguished by the downpour, and the storm had obscured the moon, so the only light he had to guide him was the occasional glow from an uncurtained window or the sporadic burst of lightning.
Vin was physically debilitated, and he didn't have his boots. How far could he have gone?
He was about to head for the saloon to enlist the help of the others when he chanced to look up at the storm clouds overhead and spotted Vin on the roof of the boarding house. It was three stories up - the tallest building in town. It was also the highest spot on the very flat stretch of surrounding mesa, and the best place to be in a storm if you wanted to be struck by lightning. Vin had to know that... What the hell was he doing up there?
Chris had to run almost completely around the building before he found the wooden ladder leading to the roof. It was a tough enough climb for him that he didn't know how Vin had managed it.
Vin was sitting precariously close to the edge, directly over the street, with his back to Chris. Chris moved up on him carefully, not wanting to spook him. He could easily fall or slide off, and 25-30 feet was a long drop.
Luckily, the storm was abating. Maybe he could get Vin down before they were both incinerated.
Vin didn't seem surprised to see him. His face didn't register any emotion at all. He stared forward, his hair soaking wet and clinging to his forehead, partially covering his eyes.
"You can't stay up here, Vin," he said.
Vin shook his head slightly. "Can't go back there."
"Back... down. The water fills it up... and there's... pieces in it..."
"I don't understand...." Chris hoped that the alcohol had something to do with that, but he got the idea that Vin knew perfectly well what he was talking about. He'd just had too much to drink, and couldn't find the words to explain it. "You ain't makin' sense, Vin.".
Vin pushed his wet hair back out of his face. "I know."
Chris reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. Vin tensed. He had put his arm on him once before and had gotten that same reaction. Vin didn't like being touched. Why he was like that was another one of those things he didn't know about him. Even so, he kept his hand where it was. If Vin decided to take a dive off the roof, he'd have some kind of grip on him.
"You can't stay up here. You'll get sick."
Vin squinted at him, then looked away again. Specifically, he looked down at the street so far below. The height afforded a chance Vin might only break both his legs, maybe his back, and still not die in the fall. He couldn't really be thinking of jumping...
Chris couldn't take that chance. He grabbed Vin from behind and pulled him back.
Vin's reaction was the same as before - quick and violent. Chris found himself struggling with him again, and the tighter he held him the more frantic Vin became to get away from him, kicking and screaming like a child having a tantrum. When he had managed to get the two of them a safe distance from certain disaster, he let Vin go and turned him around.
He grabbed Vin's shoulders and shook him. "STOP IT!" he yelled at him. "You're acting like a fuckin' lunatic, Vin! What the hell is the matter with you?"
Vin brought the heel of his hand up into Chris's chin. He didn't have a lot of power behind it, but Chris was momentarily stunned, and Vin managed to land two more solid blows to his head.
Oddly, Chris didn't have the slightest desire to hit him back. He fended off the subsequent blows until Vin finally ran out of steam.
Somewhere along the way, the rain had stopped as abruptly as it had begun. Vin might have been crying, but Chris couldn't tell because his face was wet, anyway. He reached out and clasped Vin's shoulders. "You all done?" he asked him.
Vin dropped down so that he was sitting on the roof. He looked spent and miserable. Chris sat down beside him. "What's this all about, Vin?"
Vin shook his head and looked at him, his eyes appearing larger and deeper in the darkness than they usually were. "I don't know, Chris. I feel like I'm comin' apart."
Chris nodded towards the mesa. "Does it have anything to do with what happened.... out there?"
Vin shrugged. "I don't know what happened. I can't remember it. I know JD found me, but..." he frowned. "The rest is all hazy." He wiped at his eyes with his forearm. "I'm losin' my mind, Chris."
Chris clapped him on the shoulder. "No you ain't. At least, no more than the rest of us. Sometimes, I think we're all of us plumb crazy one way or another."
Vin smiled, briefly, but then got that faraway look in his eyes again, crawling back into that private space of his.
"You ready to come down now?" Chris asked him.
He didn't answer. Chris reached for his hand and pulled him up.
Getting him back down the ladder was tricky. He was shaking, from fatigue, and because he was wet and chilled. Maybe from fear, too. Chris stayed one rung below him all the way down to steady him, and when they reached the bottom, he put his arms around him to keep him from slipping in the mud. Vin immediately tensed again, and Chris sensed another one of his raging fits coming on. He quickly let him go, but not before he noted with interest that it was not so much the touch itself that so alarmed Vin, but the way it was done. Maybe that meant something.
The street had turned into a sea of muck and Vin was wearing only socks. Chris had to resist an oddly paternal urge to pick him up and carry him. "We best get inside," he said. "I don't know about you, but I'm freezin."
Vin said nothing. He was gone again, but those few moments on the roof had let Chris know he could be reached in that dark hiding place he'd created for himself. If he had to do it with Vin kicking and screaming all the way, so be it! But by damn, he would not give up until he pulled him out and brought him back!
TWENTY-ONEChris lit a fire in the wood-burning stove that heated his room. Vin was shivering violently by then, but he just stood there watching the flames.
"You need to get out of those wet clothes," Chris reminded him gently.
Vin nodded and fumbled with the buttons on his shirt. The bandage on his hand was wet and soggy and got in his way. Chris helped him get the shirt off, then pulled off his undershirt. He threw the blanket over Vin's shoulders so he wouldn't be exposed as he slipped off the rest of his clothes and his muddy socks.
Chris pulled the chair up close to the stove so Vin could sit and rest while he warmed up. His first instinct was to offer him a drink, but Vin probably didn't need any more liquor.
"You want some food, Vin? It's late, but maybe I can find you something..."
"NO!" Vin said, too fast and too insistently.
Chris was puzzled, but he smiled. "I wasn't gonna cook it myself, if that's what's worryin' you."
Vin shook his head. He looked directly ahead of him, into the fire. He seemed to be ignoring Chris, but he said, "Don't leave." His voice was even, but Chris detected a hint of panic.
"Okay, then," he nodded. "I won't go nowhere."
He changed out of his own wet clothes and spread Vin's stuff out near the stove so it would dry. Vin's hair was still dripping water, so he gave him a towel. However, Vin didn't seem to understand what he was supposed to do with it.
He took the towel back and started to dry Vin's hair for him. It probably should have felt awkward, but somehow, it didn't. Crazy as it sounded, it felt good to have someone need him again for something other than his fast gun.
He took the wet bandage off of Vin's hand; the injuries underneath it were still ugly enough that he'd need a new bandage. The scabs and surrounding skin were soaked and spongy, though, and it probably wouldn't hurt to let them dry out overnight.
Eventually, Vin was warm enough that he stopped shaking and started to doze off in front of the fire.
Chris nudged him gently. "Get in bed, Vin."
Vin looked at the bed, his eyes half closed, and shook his head. "I'll sleep on the floor."
"No, you won't. Don't argue. Get in bed."
Vin didn't verbally refuse, but he got as far as the bed and then lay down on the floor beside it.
Chris sighed. "Vin..."
"I ain't takin' your bed."
"Suit yourself," Chris shrugged. He stretched out on the soft mattress and leaned over the side where Vin was. The stove heated the room nicely, but the floor was always drafty, and the floor planks weren't even varnished.
He pulled the pillow from behind his back and slid it under Vin's head. Vin was willing to accept that small comfort, at least.
"You can come up here if you want," Chris offered. "I don't mind sharin'."
Vin laughed softly. "And really give folks somethin' to talk about?"
Chris smiled. "Well, don't blame me if you wake up with splinters in your ass then."
"I'll be okay..."
Vin seemed to be almost asleep, but when Chris reached over to turn out the lamp, he was instantly alert.
He sat up and grabbed his wrist.
"Leave it on." The flame from the lamp reflected in his eyes and the effect was frightening. Vin looked like a man possessed by fear.
"You're afraid of the dark?" Chris asked and tried to make it sound conversational instead of judgmental.
"Leave it on," Vin said, his voice a flat, disembodied monotone. He tightened his grip on Chris's wrist.
Chris tapped Vin's clenched fist with his free hand. "Okay, pard. If that's what you want."
Vin released his grip and pulled the blanket around himself. He had to be cold, but Chris didn't see any way to convince him to take the bed.
He touched Vin's shoulder, lightly, just to let him know he was there. He fell asleep that way, and so was awakened when Vin started thrashing around in his sleep.
Chris had heard it wasn't a good thing to wake someone from a nightmare, but Vin had so little physical strength left that moving around like that had to be taking a lot out of him. From the way he was moaning, Chris figured he'd have to be happier awake than enduring whatever was tormenting him in his sleep.
Still, he proceeded cautiously, remembering what had happened the last time he'd tried to wake Vin up. He got down on the floor so that Vin was between him and the bed. He didn't want to make it easy for him to bolt out the door, particularly in his birthday suit. Instead of shaking him, he gently rubbed his hand up and down Vin's upper arm, and used his softest audible voice. "Easy, Vin.... you're dreaming. Wake up..."
Vin's eyes opened, but whatever he saw, it wasn't Chris. He gasped sharply and pulled back from Chris's touch.
"GET IT AWAY!" he screamed.
Chris placed his hands on Vin's shoulders. "What Vin? Get what away?"
Vin frantically slapped Chris's hands, so Chris backed off. Vin curled up on the floor and started beating it with his fist. "Get me out," he sobbed. "Get me out..."
Chris wasn't sure what do. He didn't think Vin was truly awake, but he was definitely frightened and upset. He was going to break his hand if he didn't stop pounding the floor like he was doing.
He tried to put his arms around him, but Vin darted away in a panic and tried to crawl over the bed to escape.
Chris grabbed his ankles and stopped him, and then climbed onto the bed next to him and held him there. Vin erupted in another frenzy, struggling violently to twist free of his grasp. Chris thought of what he had observed earlier that evening. It wasn't so much that Vin didn't like being touched, he didn't like being held a certain way... and somehow, that had something to do with whatever emotional damage he'd suffered.
This time, Chris didn't let go.
Vin screamed and kicked and begged until he was exhausted, but Chris held him fast, held him until he was used up and couldn't fight anymore.
He put his mouth close to Vin's ear, so Vin could hear him even though he barely whispered.
"What is it Vin? What is it about this that scares you?"
Vin didn't answer, and although he didn't move, he continued to take deep, panicked breaths.
"Talk to me, Vin!" Chris said sharply. "What are you afraid of?"
Vin's voice was thin and reedy, like he couldn't breathe in Chris's grasp even though Chris wasn't holding him that tightly. "I don't know... I can't..." He was sobbing now, and that made it mentally difficult for Chris to keep holding him against his will. But he had to get Vin to open up, even if it meant forcing his thoughts out of him. "Let me go..." Vin pleaded. "I don't like this..."
"I know you don't," Chris said gently. "Tell me why."
Funny, Chris thought, how Vin could cry without making any sound, how he did that as quietly as he did everything else. But he was crying. Chris knew that. "Tell me," he whispered.
Vin never said a word, but he didn't have to. Chris knew he was thinking, remembering, even if he wasn't ready to tell him what it was.
Chris released his hold on him so that Vin was free to move away, but he didn't. He lay perfectly still, close enough that his back touched Chris's chest with each breath. Chris adjusted the blanket around him so that he was covered, then made a move to get up, but Vin said "Stay."
Chris settled down again beside him.
Vin sniffed and rubbed at his eyes. "I feel like a damn fool," he said.
Chris rubbed the back of his neck soothingly. "Well, you ain't one. You should have seen me back when..."
He caught himself. He couldn't believe he had been about to mention Sarah and Adam's death so casually.
"You know then," Vin said, as if he was reading Chris's thoughts, "how this feels."
"Yeah, I know.... "
Neither of them spoke for a long while. Chris lay there absorbing the warmth of Vin's body, listening as their breathing fell into a synchronized rhythm. "You sure you want me to stay? I can take the floor."
"Stay with me," Vin said, then added, "Just don't tell anyone."
Chris shook his head. "Nobody needs to know."
Vin nodded even though his face was turned away. Chris squeezed his upper arm gently. "Think you can sleep now?"
With a short, ironic laugh, Vin said, "I don't know if I'll ever really sleep again."
But Chris felt him relax, and in a few minutes, his breathing was calm and even.
Sleep was quickly overtaking him, too. Chris felt like he'd just fought a battle. A small battle in a big war, but somehow, he felt like he'd won.
TWENTY-TWOIt wasn't Chris Larabee's habit to wake up in bed with another man, and he needed a few seconds to orient himself and remember what Vin was doing there next to him.
Vin was still deeply asleep, and he slipped carefully out of bed to avoid waking him. Looking at him, Chris found it hard to believe this was the same man who had attacked him in a manic rage just a few hours earlier. He looked peaceful, and young enough for Chris to wonder exactly how old he was. He'd never asked him. It had never really mattered. Vin was a good man, or had been before this had happened to him.
The army blanket had slipped down to Vin's waist, but he didn't seem to be cold. In fact, lying beside him, Chris had felt the heat radiating from him and wondered if he still had a fever. No reason why it should have gone away. Vin wasn't exactly taking care of himself.
His upper body was covered with scabs and abrasions and dotted with old bug bites. It looked painful, but not like anything that had been done to him deliberately. All Chris could do was wonder, like every one else, what Vin had been through, what had left him so completely shattered that he was hanging on to his sanity by a very thin thread.
No, that wasn't all he could do.
He could ask Vin about it. The others were pussy-footing around, not wanting to upset him, but Vin was stronger than they thought. Chris knew that. And even if he couldn't face whatever had happened on his own, Chris would be there for him.
There was a gentle tapping on the door, so soft Chris barely heard it. It was Nathan. The healer slipped inside without making a sound when he saw Vin was asleep.
"He been sleepin' the whole night?" Nathan asked incredulously.
But if Nathan was anything, it was observant. He noticed Vin's clothes spread out by the stove and picked up a sock caked with mud. "He tried to run off on you."
Chris nodded slightly. "Tried to."
Nathan shook his head sadly. "He ain't got nowhere to run from this."
Chris pursed his lips. "Then I guess he's just gonna have to stand and fight it out."
Nathan nodded. "Ain't gonna be easy, for him or us."
He knelt beside the bed and felt Vin's forehead. Chris knew that if he had done that, Vin would have been instantly awake, but Nathan's touch was practiced and gentle. Vin didn't stir.
Nathan frowned. "This fever is gonna bring him down if he don't get some food into him so he can shake it."
Chris nodded, "I'll see that he eats."
Nathan laughed very softly. "Yeah, I bet you will." He examined Vin's injured hand. "I'll be back in awhile to rewrap this. He don't need an infection, too... Unless you want me to take him back to my place."
Chris shook his head. "I'll see to him."
Nathan looked at him curiously, but didn't question his motives. It would have made Chris uncomfortable, and he thought maybe he already knew why he wanted to be the one to look after Vin. Chris had things in his own past that he had nearly destroyed him. Maybe he just understood what was happening to Vin better than the others did..
He looked back at Vin. "Let him sleep. He needs that, too."
When Nathan was gone, Chris sat on the bed, leaning against the headboard and stretching his long legs out in front of him. Vin didn't seem to mind he was there, and it was more comfortable than the chair. He dozed off as the blazing sun outside took away the morning chill and the room became increasingly warmer. When he awoke again, it was uncomfortably hot.
Vin was moving restlessly, and Chris gently stroked his back to settle him down, careful not to irritate the sores that covered him..
Vin had turned so he was facing him, but because Chris was sitting up, all he could see was the top of Vin's head. He didn't realize Vin was awake until he tilted his head back and looked up at him.
He didn't say anything. He didn't have to. His eyes, normally so alert and alive, were dark with fatigue and that unnameable pain.
"Mornin'," Chris said.
Vin turned his head downward and looked away again.
+ + + + + + +
Vin hated the pity he saw in Chris Larabee's eyes. He hated himself, too.
During the night, he'd stripped himself bare in front of Chris, both literally and spiritually, and now, he didn't want to deal with the aftermath.
He could let Chris inside his wall, he knew that. But right then, he didn't want him there. He wanted to be alone. He wanted all the terrors and hurts of the night before to go away and leave him in peace.
He also knew that wasn't going to happen.
He had remembered.
What he had spent his life thinking was nothing more than a bad dream had come home to his conscience and run him down like a locomotive.
Those cold, dead arms...
It wasn't a dream.
Why hadn't Chris just let him go? Why did he have to hold him like that - the way she had? The way she had been holding him when she had died, trapping him in her unyielding embrace against her lifeless body?
I hate you, Chris Larabee! I don't want this! I don't want to know this!
But he did know it.
He remembered it - all of it...
Waking up and knowing she was dead, knowing he was alone. The three days he'd waited for someone to find him, cold, filthy, sick, and so terrified that he couldn't speak.
He hadn't talked for a long time after that. The words just wouldn't come out of his mouth. He'd blamed the Singletarys for never talking to him, but now he could see that the truth was, they just gave up after awhile. And they never touched him because when they had tried, he'd acted the same way with them as he had with Chris. He'd blamed them for not sending him to school, but they had tried that, too, hadn't they? He hadn't "fit in" was the nice way they'd put it. But his wall had been up even then, and he didn't fit in because he hadn't wanted to let anyone inside it, didn't wanted his secret world to be part of that place where horrifying things happened to little boys.
It was almost funny.
He'd spent his whole life just pretending to be who he was, hadn't he? The Vin Tanner who could face down a mob and not care if he died was a joke. The real Vin Tanner was still that fucked over little kid hiding under a blanket in a freezing cabin, his dead mother watching over him with glassy, vacant, dead eyes.
Oh God, he was mad, wasn't he?
And it wasn't just the cabin and his mother. There was more. There was something fresh in his mind that made all those old hurts seem new and real again. He didn't know what it was, and he didn't want to know.
But Chris wanted to drag that out of him, too, didn't he?
Good ol' Chris, I'll fuckin' kill you before I let you make me remember, pard.
+ + + + + + +
Chris ran his hand through Vin's hair. The dark curls, softened by the rainwater, smoothed out easily, but Vin jerked his head away.
He didn't want to be touched, not yet, not again, but Chris knew it was necessary. He somehow sensed that without that physical contact, Vin would slip back into his own private corner of oblivion. Maybe Vin thought that was where he wanted to be, but Chris knew that the longer he stayed there, the harder it would be to bring him back.
Chris rose from the bed, and as soon as he was on his feet, he pulled Vin to a sitting position. "Time to get up," he told him. "Get dressed. We'll go get something to eat."
Vin shook his head.
Chris ignored him and pulled him to his feet.
Vin was so weak and so shaky it was all he could do to hold the blanket in front of himself.
Chris handed him his clothes. "I don't think yer strong enough to stop me from dressin' you, Vin, so you might as well save us both the embarrassment and do it yourself."
Vin looked at him belligerently, but he took the clothes.
Chris tried to get as much of the mud off the socks as he possibly could, but when Vin finally had everything else on and was ready for them, Chris conceded they were a lost cause and gave Vin a pair of his own.
Vin sat on the bed and raised his foot up, but then just sat there staring at it. It was the one he'd kicked Nathan's shelf with, and the instep was a massive black bruise. His gaze shifted to the burn on his hand. He held it in front of his face, and seemed to notice for the first time that he was hurt.
Finally, he looked up at him, frowning. "What happened to me, Chris?"
He looked too frail, too hurt. Chris felt a lump catch in his throat. "You don't remember?"
Vin shook his head, then raked his hand through his hair. "I can't even think, Chris. Everything's all jumbled up in my head with stuff that happened a long time ago."
Chris sat on the bed next to him. "Want to tell me about it?"
Vin looked like he might be about to answer, but then he just shook his head. "Ain't nothin' can be done about what's passed."
"That's exactly right, Vin. Problem is that sayin' that and acceptin' it are two different things. Hidin' those things inside you won't make them go away. You can mark my word on that. I've been there. I know."
Vin turned to face him, really making eye contact with him this time. "Your family?" he said softly.
Chris nodded. "Vin, something happened to you out there, and somewhere inside you, you know what it was..."
He saw Vin's expression change again, back to that look of mindless panic. He wasn't ready to hear this. Not yet.
He put his arm around him and pulled him close. "You'll get through this," he told him. "I did, and so can you."
Vin tensed, but Chris let him go before he could pull away. He slapped Vin's thigh casually. "Let's eat. I'm starvin' and so are you."
TWENTY-THREEVin followed him as far as the door, but hesitated when he looked out into the sunny street filled with townsfolk going about their business. The same townsfolk who'd stared at him and laughed at him and listened to him screaming in terror because someone had put their arms around him.
"I can't go out there," he said softly.
"Yes, you can," Chris said. "Folks understand you're havin' a bad time. And the ones who don't you don't gotta care about."
Vin closed his eyes and lowered his head. He was taking slow, deep breaths, and even though he didn't appear outwardly anxious, he was trying desperately to calm himself down enough to face the simple task of walking across the street. His fists were clenched at his sides, and Chris knew if he made the wrong move, all that anger Vin had inside him was going to spill over again. So, he just waited, until Vin decided he was ready.
There was a privy about 20 yards from the building, and Chris definitely felt the need for one. But when his turn came up, Vin took one look at the hot, dark interior swarming with flies, and refused to use it.
There was no way Chris was going to debate the point with him in broad daylight and within earshot of anyone who was curious why two men would argue about using an outhouse. Besides, he was too hungry to deal with yet another of Vin's irrational fears. He found a relatively secluded spot behind the building and made sure no one wandered by while Vin relieved himself in the dirt.
"You aren't gonna make a habit of this, are ya, pard?" he asked when Vin had finished.
Vin gave him a wry look that almost evolved into a smile. "Pissin' is a hard habit to break."
Vin knew perfectly well that wasn't what Chris had meant. He'd made a joke. One very small, not-very-good joke, but for a fleeting moment the old Vin was there, and for Chris, for now, that was a small glimmer of hope he could hang onto.
Vin squinted his eyes against the glaring mid-day sun. His hat and gun had probably found their way back to town on JD's horse. They'd stop at the livery and get it back for him, but first they had to eat. Vin had lost enough weight that it was noticeable now. He was slight of build to begin with, and his clothes were starting to look like they belonged to someone else.
The dining room at the boarding house was deserted, like Chris had hoped it would be. Lunch had been over for an hour or so by then, but their positions as town guardians didn't always allow for a regular meal schedule, and Maggie would always feed them no matter what time of day they wandered in, even if it was just cold sandwiches and milk.
She was surprised to see Vin with him.
"How are you feeling, Mr. Tanner?" she asked him, as if he were recovering from a bout of influenza or a gunshot wound. Maggie wasn't a bad woman, but she lived for gossip, both hearing it and passing it on. Chris read the veiled meaning behind her question: Is it really true what everyone is saying about you?
The look on her face confirmed that. She was studying Vin like she was expecting him to do something crazy.
What made Chris nervous was that he was not one bit sure that Vin wouldn't oblige her if she said or did the wrong thing and set him off.
But Vin only gave her the same shy, personable expression he gave everyone who talked to him, and said "Fine, ma'am."
Maggie wasn't going to let it drop, though. "You're lookin' a mite flushed," she said.
"It's hot out," Chris said, trying to convey a warning in his voice. Vin didn't like attempts to draw him into a conversation, even when he was feeling good. He was always happy to just sit and listen, and maybe offer a sentence or two occasionally. He wasn't good at small talk. It got on his nerves, and right then, his nerves were as raw as a rope burn.
But Maggie just kept on chattering, and then, to Chris's dismay, came right out and asked about the incident at Potter's store the day before. She asked Chris, not Vin
I heard he did this, I heard that was done to him.... As if Vin wasn't even sitting there.
She was as casual about a grown man having a raging temper tantrum in public as she would have been if Vin had slammed a door on his finger.
Chris could see the barricades going up, see that Vin was closing himself up as she prattled on. Her point was that something should be done about Ramage and Cole, but she seemed totally unaware that dredging up the humiliation Vin had suffered at their hands would serve no useful purpose. She had no idea what she was doing to him.
Chris wanted to yell at her to shut her big mouth, but instead he calmly interrupted her. "We'd really like some food, Maggie, if it ain't too much trouble." He backed it with a look that he hoped conveyed his displeasure at the turn the conversation had taken.
Maggie was gabby and insensitive, but she wasn't stupid. She took the hint and stopped talking.
But the damage was already done.
Vin had crawled back inside himself, where he was safe from the scrutiny of shallow people like Maggie who didn't understand his pain and how it shamed him.
While she was in the kitchen, Chris reached across the table and clasped Vin's hand. "It okay, Vin. She's just a big bag of wind."
But Vin knew the truth. The town was full of people like Maggie, and he'd given them something to talk about. He was no longer invisible.
He didn't say anything. Didn't look up at Chris or return the pressure on his hand.
Maggie brought the food - soup, bacon sandwiches, milk, pie.
"Thank you," Chris said. "You can go now." His tone of voice made it clear that he expected compliance. Maggie was plainly insulted, but she did leave, although Chris wouldn't have been surprised to find her lurking just beyond the dining room door.
It didn't matter. Unlike some more chivalrous men, it didn't bother him a bit to threaten a woman. If Maggie didn't keep her mouth shut, she'd find out just how unpleasant he could be.
Maggie was lousy at reading other people's feelings, but the woman did know how to cook. Chris dug into his food. He hadn't actually sat down to a meal since before he'd left town to look for Vin.
Vin picked up his sandwich, took a small bite, and then tossed it back on his plate. It took him a long time to get what he had in his mouth down.
"What's wrong Vin?" Chris asked him. "Why won't you eat?"
Vin shrugged, but Chris wouldn't take that for an answer.
"You gotta talk about this Vin. I know you aren't too dumb to know that if you don't eat, you're gonna get worse, not better. Look at you. You're burnin' up with fever and you can barely walk. Why are you doing this to yourself?"
"Leave me alone," Vin muttered.
"You know I can't do that.... Eat some more. Force it down if you have to."
Vin took another bite and looked like he was going to gag on it. "Everything tastes funny," he said finally.
Chris remembered when everything he ate tasted like sawdust. Grief did that to you. It seemed to numb every one of the senses. "Just take your time. Get down what you can."
Vin swallowed the mouthful and leaned back in his chair. His eyes were glassy, staring past the table at something only he could see. "There were pieces in it," he whispered.
"The water... pieces..."
Chris played a hunch. He leaned across the table and touched Vin's hand again, hoping it would keep him in the here and now because it looked like he was drifting off into that dark place again. "Tell me, Vin. What is it? What are you remembering?"
Vin put his face in his hands, shielding his eyes, and sucked in his breath. "I don't know," he managed to choke out. "I can't think..." His shoulders moved in one convulsive sob. That was all. He didn't cry, this time, but when he looked up at Chris, the tears had welled in his eyes, all the anger and self-loathing and helplessness that was inside him wanting to spill out with them. But he held it in, somehow, and shook his head slightly. "I'm afraid I'm crazy, Chris. Just like everyone thinks..."
Chris swung his chair around so he was right next to him. This time, when he put his arms around him, Vin allowed himself to be held. Chris didn't know what else to do for him, and that seemed right somehow.
Vin was destroying himself. As surely as if he'd loaded a gun and was aiming it at his own head.
He's so hot... The fever was getting the best of him just like Nathan had said it would.
Chris knew he'd pushed him far enough, that he had to let him rest, but he needed to make him eat, too.
He took the sandwich apart and dipped the bread in the soup. He held it up to Vin's mouth.
"Eat," he commanded him.
Vin shook his head.
"Vin, you're sick. You're gonna get sicker if you don't cut this crap out. Then, you're gonna die. Is that what you really want?"
Vin tried to pull away from him, but Chris held his shoulders fast. His arms were still free, though, and he made a move to clear the food away like he had at Nathan's. Chris saw it coming and grabbed his wrist. He grabbed it hard enough to hurt, because he wanted Vin to know he was in control.
"Vin, if you throw that food, you're gonna eat it off the floor."
Vin strained to get free. He was angry now, and Chris feared another raging fit was next.
He shook Vin, hard. "NO!" he said sternly. "Stop it, Vin. I ain't gonna let you act crazy."
Vin stopped struggling, but Chris knew if he let him go, he'd start up again. "You hearin' me, Vin? I ain't gonna let you do this to yourself. I know you can't help it, but I can... I'll get you through this, just quit fightin' me. That's all you gotta do."
The transformation was subtle. Anyone watching probably wouldn't have noticed. But Chris felt Vin relax in his grip. He leaned his weight against Chris's chest.
It was more than a truce, it was a surrender. Vin was giving himself up to Chris's will, trusting that Chris would be strong for him.
Chris didn't take time to savor the victory, though. He offered Vin the bread again. "The worst thing that's gonna happen is that you'll upchuck this all over me," he told him. "I can deal with that."
Vin ate - or more precisely, Chris fed him. Two slices of bread, half a bowl of soup and a few swallows of milk. Not anywhere near enough, but it would keep him alive.
Another battle fought and won.
Too bad they still didn't know who the enemy was.
TWENTY-FOURAfter eating, they went to the livery to pick up Vin's belongings. JD was there grooming his horse. Nether the little bay nor Vin's horse looked any the worse for their wanderings alone in the desert.
"Hi Chris, Vin," JD said amiably as he curried his animal.
Vin stood silently, watching JD until the younger man became uncomfortable with the scrutiny.
"Something on your mind, Vin?" he asked, dropping the brush to his side.
Vin couldn't look JD in the eye. He was staring at the ground when he said, "Thanks, JD. For what you did yesterday... For everything."
JD often did things just to get the attention of the others, but somehow, when you gave it to him directly like that, he wasn't comfortable with it. "It was nothin' Vin. You woulda done the same for me."
Most of Vin's gear was hanging near his horse. He pulled on his hat and immediately seemed more at ease. The wide brim hid his face, which was just the way he liked it.
JD had cleaned Vin's gunbelt and his own so they no longer gave off that bad smell that had been everywhere when JD had used them to strap Vin onto his back. Vin didn't seem to notice that, though. He strapped it on and picked up his rifle. JD saw the anxious look on Chris's face and knew what he was thinking, that Vin had no business carrying a weapon. James' men would start in on him again if they saw him, and Vin's behavior was now completely unpredictable. No telling how he would react to the abuse if he was armed.
JD wondered if Chris would say anything, but wasn't surprised when he didn't. Unlike Chris, however, he wasn't worried. Neither the gun nor the rifle was loaded with live ammunition. He'd seen to that, because it had been preying heavily on his mind that Vin might turn a gun on himself. It was bad enough that the rest of the town thought the tracker was crazy, but Vin thought he was, too. JD hated seeing him that way, and he imagined that Vin probably hated being that way even more. He didn't really understand Vin most of the time, but that didn't mean he couldn't put himself in his place. JD wondered what he would do if suddenly found that he had no control over what he said or did, and that everyone was laughing at him. He didn't think he could kill himself, but he didn't know about Vin.
Chris Larabee was thinking similar thoughts as he weighed his options. If he let Vin have the gun, there could be tragic consequences. If he took it away from him, he would be further compromising Vin's dignity and compounding his sense of helplessness.
He let him keep the weapons. He could tell JD didn't think it was a good idea. Hell, he didn't think it was a good idea. But looking at Vin, he realized that being in physical contact with those few material things that were important to him had a calming effect on him. Once he slipped on his coat, he almost looked like the Vin they knew. It was too hot for the heavy garment, but that never seemed to matter to Vin. He often wore it, regardless of the weather, and seemed to like the smell and feel of the supple leather more than he minded the discomfort.
He was rummaging through his saddle bags, looking for something.
"Lose something?" JD asked him.
Vin shook his head, as if whatever he was looking for didn't really matter, but both JD and Chris could tell he was upset at not finding whatever it was.
The next place they stopped was Nathan's so that he could replace the bandage on Vin's arm. Nathan wasn't entirely able to conceal his alarm when he noticed Vin was wearing a gun, but he didn't say anything. Vin looked pale and sick, and Nathan wanted him to stay there so he could rest. But Chris didn't agree to it. Sleep didn't really seem to do much for Vin except bring on nightmares, and staying with Nathan only provided him with a hiding place, which was the one thing he didn't need..
Nathan was happy to hear that Vin had finally eaten something, but he was worried about the fever. When Chris announced they were headed for the saloon, the healer decided he should tag along.
Neither of them asked Vin if he wanted to go, because Vin would have said no. There would be people there who had heard about him, who would stare at him. Chris hated to subject him to that, but at the same time, letting him crawl off into his little private world would only postpone the inevitable. Vin had to return to reality eventually, if he didn't want to end up locked away somewhere, and he might as well start in familiar surroundings and in the company of his friends.
Ezra was sitting at a card table with three townsmen. Normally, he didn't want the others sitting down when he was fleecing someone. He claimed it interfered with his concentration, but Chris suspected that he was really afraid one of them would discover how he cheated as skillfully as he did. They all knew better than to actually play with him.
The gambler looked up when he saw them, a delighted gleam in his pale, green eyes.
"Mr. Tanner, how very good to see you up and about," he addressed Vin, then indicated that he wanted the three of them to join him and the others.
Vin's face didn't betray any emotion whatsoever. He sat in down at the table between Ezra and Nathan but didn't acknowledge that anyone else was there.
The three men stared at him suspiciously. Vin was aware he was being studied, but he had never seemed concerned about what other people thought when they sized him up; and apparently, he still didn't.
Vin didn't produce any money. In fact, Chris didn't think he had any, unless it was in the pockets of his coat. But Ezra slid a stack of chips in front of him, anyway.
Ezra announced the game, and dealt the hand. He passed cards to Vin, who didn't pick them up. Nathan had to reach over and put them in his hand.
"Hey, he didn't ante up," one of the townsmen complained.
"A mere oversight, I'm sure," Ezra said, and nonchalantly removing the ante from Vin's stack of chips, tossed it into the pot. He then stared at each of the three townsmen in turn, challenging them to say anything to the contrary.
The three outsiders grunted in disgust, but an additional look from Chris let them know they'd be best advised to keep their mouths shut.
When Ezra went around the table dealing out cards to replace the ones the other players had discarded, Vin didn't ask for anything. He just stared at the cards he had, even after Ezra asked him if he wanted others. Finally, Ezra leaned over and looked at Vin's hand. He pulled two cards and gave him two others.
One of the townsmen slammed his cards down in disgust. "You can't do that! You can't play for him!"
"My dear sir, I am doing no such thing, I assure you. It is entirely Mr. Tanner's prerogative if he wishes to bet or not."
The townsmen looked at one another, confused, because Ezra was, in fact, playing Vin's hand.
Chris didn't understand that either, especially when, after playing two hands with Ezra blatantly disregarding the rules of the game to give the appearance that Vin was actually involved, the townsmen got disgusted and left. They took a healthy potential pot with them that could easily have been Ezra's, but Ezra seemed uncharacteristically casual about the loss.
He continued to deal cards to the four of them, and he continued the pretense that Vin was a willing participant. Amazingly, after awhile Vin actually did attempt to concentrate on what he was doing. Ezra surprised everyone not only with his patience, but with the fact that he apparently stopped cheating so as not to take unfair advantage of Vin's distracted mental state. He kept the games simple, because even though he was really trying, Vin just couldn't seem to focus his attention on what he was doing.
Eventually, the other three joined them. Nobody cared that Vin slowed the game down. Nobody cared that he threw away perfectly good cards and placed bets on hands that didn't have a hope in hell of winning. Nobody cared that he didn't say one word the entire time, which was unusual even for Vin. They were simply happy he was there, and making a concentrated effort to behave himself.
People stared, and some whispered. Vin noticed, but in the presence of the other six, it didn't seem to bother him. It was as if he instinctively knew he was safe with them, both from those who would torment him, and from himself.
Josiah ordered some sandwiches. Vin didn't want to eat, but he did. Just a few bites here and there, but no one had to coax him. Unfortunately, no one had to coax him to drink, either, and he was consuming more alcohol than he usually did. Eventually, he folded his arms on the table and laid his head down on them. His pale face was flushed and covered with a light sheen of sweat.
Ezra tapped his shoulder affectionately. "It would appear that Mr. Tanner is no longer captivated by the charms of our stimulating camaraderie."
Vin looked up and squinted at him. "Huh?"
Chris got up and took Vin's arm. "Time to go, Vin."
Vin shook his head. "I wanna stay."
Chris hadn't expected that response. Vin liked the others as far as he could tell, but he didn't need their company and, except for himself, never sought any of them out for companionship. The dynamics of their group generally had Vin drifting off to be alone at some point, almost as if too much human contact made him uncomfortable.
But now, he wanted to stay. He didn't seem to be enjoying himself, and it was obvious he wasn't feeling well. But apparently the presence of the others was something he needed right then.
"Suit yourself," Chris shrugged, but he took the opportunity to absent himself long enough to arrange for a hotel room so they didn't end up sharing a bed again that night.
Vin had fallen asleep by the time he got back, but as they had done the night before, the six of them went about their drinking and their card games and their talk as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
Maybe "ordinary" was what Vin needed the most.
TWENTY-FIVEChris declared the evening over about an hour later, even though it was not quite seven o'clock. Vin was shaking with chills and this time, he didn't put up an argument. Nathan followed the two of them to the hotel room. It was on the second floor, and it was an effort for Vin to make it up the stairs, but he did. Despite the fever, his condition had improved from what it had been just a couple of days before, when he'd barely had the strength to stand.
Nathan didn't know what power Chris wielded over Vin, but whatever it was, it had given Vin the incentive to fight whatever was crippling him.
He watched the two of them together. They were nothing alike, and yet they seemed to compliment each other. Chris Larabee was violent and volatile, and sometimes Nathan wondered if he gave a damn if he lived or died. He rarely smiled, and seldom laughed, and when he did either, there was often a sour, mirthless irony about it that made others uncomfortable instead of jovial. He was an almost bitter contrast to Vin Tanner, whose manner was so taciturn it could almost be called complacent. Nathan had seen Vin act angry and vicious, but it had only been an act. He was certain the man was capable of mayhem - all seven of them were - but Vin didn't take anger into himself the way Chris did. Or at least, he hadn't before whatever had happened in the desert, before whatever it was that had driven so much hurt into him that he'd come apart from the inside.
Somehow, Vin's calm pliant nature had meshed with Chris's ragged edges, and the two of them had become asymmetric halves of one whole, with Chris providing the strength and Vin the stability.
It was different now, though, and Nathan observed the curious change that had come about in Chris. He frankly never would have suspected the man was capable of reaching out to anyone with compassion and gentleness, at least, not after the bad hand life had dealt him with his wife and son. But he seemed to be the only one who had actually gotten through the fog of confusion and despair that had wrapped itself around Vin.
He patiently coaxed each garment off of Vin until he was down to his underclothes and then settled him into bed. Vin shivered under the blankets even though the room was warm and his hair was damp with sweat.
Nathan sat on the bed beside him and felt his forehead. He was hot, but it wasn't a raging fever. Still, Nathan didn't feel right about just leaving him.
"How bad you feelin' Vin?" he asked.
Vin had to think about that, which Nathan took as a good sign. "My belly hurts," he said finally.
"That's probably 'cause it ain't had nothin' to do in so long. You'll be okay once nature takes its course... especially if you lay off the whisky.."
"He'll be fine," Chris said, as if that were something he could mandate.
Nathan didn't doubt that Chris would watch over Vin like a hawk, but he pulled him aside and offered advice just the same. "Keep that fever from gettin' too high. Sponge him down if you have to, and make sure he drinks plenty of water. I'll send up some peppermint tea. That'll ease the bellyache. I'll send up some food too. Make him eat five mouthfuls every hour."
Chris frowned. "Why five?"
Nathan shrugged. "No reason. Four or six would be just as good. It's just that I seen men come outa battle in a state like Vin's. Most of them seemed to do better if you planned everything out for 'em." He looked across the room at Vin. "It's almost like the mind can get all jumbled up like a spilled box of matchsticks."
"He's gonna get better, ain't he?" Chris asked.
Nathan nodded. "He already is better. Four days ago, he wouldn't even look at me. He's got a ways to go yet, but he's fightin'. Don't give up on him."
Chris shook his head. "No way I could do that. I promised I'd get him through this, and I will..." His voice became distant, subdued. "Buck didn't give up on me. It's the only reason I'm still here."
Nathan knew it took a lot out of Chris to openly admit that. He clapped a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it lightly, but didn't think it would be a good time to open those old wounds. Chris apparently agreed, because he said no more.
"Get him to talk, if you can Chris. I know it ain't easy, but it'll help him sort things out."
"He doesn't make a lot of sense sometimes, Nathan. You've heard him."
Nathan shook his head. "Just because it don't make sense to us is all the more reason for us to listen to him..." He looked across the room at Vin. "You're gettin' through to wherever it is he's at, Chris. You need to grab onto him and not let go." He gave Chris's shoulder another quick squeeze, then left.
Vin was shaking, and he'd curled himself up in an attempt to get warm. After pulling the blanket off the extra bed and adding it to the one that already covered Vin, Chris stretched out on it and lit a cheroot. He thought about offering Vin one, but he'd never seen him smoke, and now probably wasn't a good time for him to start. Vin looked like shit. His face was drawn and pasty, and his eyes were glassy with fever. But, he seemed alert, for the moment, anyway.
"You wanna talk, Vin?"
Vin turned his head to look up at him. "About what?"
"About whatever it is that's messin' up your head."
Vin shrugged. "I don't know what it is that's doin' that Chris. I wish I did."
"I think you remember some of it, Vin."
Vin pulled the covers around himself and ducked his head back down. He didn't say anything, but Chris knew he wasn't asleep. He was still shaking despite the two blankets. Chris got up and picked Vin's coat up from the chair he'd draped it over. He threw it on top of the blankets.
"Thanks," Vin whispered. "I'm freezin'."
Chris settled himself back on his own bed and took a long drag from the cheroot.
"Talk to me, Vin."
"I got nothin' to tell you."
"You got plenty to tell, Vin. It's all locked up inside you. You can let it out, or you can let it eat at you until you're empty inside. It's up to you. Ain't no one can make the choice for you."
There was another long pause, but Chris was prepared to wait all night if he had to.
"I don't know where to start," Vin said finally.
"Suppose you start with last night. I asked you why it scared you for someone to touch you. You remembered something, Vin. I know you did."
Vin hesitated. "I don't want to talk about that."
Chris sat up and planted his feet on the floor. He rested his elbows on his knees and bent forward so he was almost directly in Vin's face.
"Vin, none of this is gonna be anything you want to talk about. It probably ain't nothin' I want to hear. But it's gotta come out, you understand?"
Vin didn't respond.
"Do you know what happened to my wife and son, Vin?"
Vin looked up and frowned at him. "'Course I do, Chris," he said softly. "They burned in a fire."
Chris's eyes stared directly into Vin's. "You know how long it was before I could say that? It still feels like a kick in the balls to hear those words."
Vin broke the eye contact, but he understood what Chris was getting at. Too well, maybe.
Chris laid his hand on Vin's warm, damp hair. "What is it, Vin? Tell me."
Vin still didn't look at him, but he started to talk. "I had this dream since I was a little feller, about my ma' dyin'. 'Least, I thought it was a dream. I still want to believe it is, but now I know it ain't. It happened. Something made me remember all of it. Somethin' that's gotten in my head and won't get out."
"Something that happened out in the desert?"
Vin nodded. "But I don't know what it is, Chris. I swear to you. I can't remember."
You don't want to remember, Chris was thinking.
"Tell me the dream, Vin."
Vin refused to look at him, but the words started to pour out of him like a fountain. His voice was soft and calm like it always was, but it seemed like once he got started, he had to get it all out.
And as the details of what had happened to a small boy, alone in a cold, isolated cabin unfolded, Chris relived the terror with him..
When Vin finished what he had to say, it was Chris who was shaking.
Vin had been five years old. The same age as his son....
During his worst moments, Chris had tortured himself with the thoughts of what Adam's final moments might have been like. They'd found him wrapped in Sarah's arms, the same way Vin's mother had held him as she lay dying. If God were to grant Chris Larabee an answer to only one prayer, he wanted it to be the one he'd repeated every day since he'd endured the agonizing image of that tiny, charred corpse: That his child hadn't suffered. He'd give up his own soul to know that Adam had suffocated on smoke as he'd slept, or that his murderers had put a bullet in his head before setting the torch... or even that Sarah had killed him herself before the flames got to him - anything but that he'd burned alive, knowing it was happening. No child should know that kind of horror, that kind of pain....
And now he saw before him another terrified little boy, this one fighting his way out after being locked away in a black corner of Vin's mind for almost twenty years, and he couldn't do anything for him either, because Vin wasn't that child anymore. That child, like Adam, was now beyond anyone's reach and always would be.
He thought for a long hard moment about what to say to Vin Tanner the man, before he realized that he wasn't the one who needed to hear his words. He thought of what he would say to Adam, if he could, and hoped that somehow he'd be heard by the child Vin had been so long ago.
He pushed back the stray strands of hair that were sticking to Vin's forehead. "Your ma didn't want that to happen to you, Vin."
Vin looked at him, puzzled. "I know that."
"Do you?" Chris said. He touched Vin's head. "You might know it here..." He put his hand on Vin's chest. "But you gotta know it in here before you can let it go."
Vin nodded slightly, his eyes downcast. "She loved me," he said finally.
Chris nodded. "She didn't want to leave you. There just wasn't anything she could do."
There was a knock on the door and Chris drew his gun out of habit before he opened it. It was just Maggie. She'd brought the food Nathan had asked for herself, no doubt so she could get another opportunity to gawk at Vin. She craned her neck to see past Chris when he opened the door. So, he made a point of casually brandishing his gun in her direction as he took the tray from her.
He slammed the door on her face. "Irritatin' woman," he muttered.
"Better be nice to her," Vin whispered with a hint of a smile. "She's apt to poison us."
Chris examined the contents of the tray. Meatloaf, bread and butter, custard. Chris could have used a strong cup of coffee, but the coffee pot reeked of peppermint. He poured a cupful of the stuff, and sat Vin up so he could drink it.
Vin made a face before he even tasted it. "This is a sissy drink."
Chris puffed on his cheroot. "That it is."
"I ain't drinkin' it."
"Yes, you are. It's good for you."
Vin sipped at the hot liquid. "Chris?"
"I need to know what happened to me out there. It's like I have this lead ball weighin' me down, and I can't see it or touch it... Oh hell, I ain't makin' sense again."
"You don't need to explain it to me, Vin. I been there. I know how it feels. It's like you're underwater, and you can't come up for air, but you can't drown and get it over with, neither."
Vin gave Chris a curious look. "Yeah." He fell back on his pillow. "I really feel like crap, you know that?"
Chris nodded. "You look like crap."
Vin closed his eyes. "Whatever happened out there, it's just like with my ma, ain't it? I made myself forget."
Chris nodded. "Reckon so... But there ain't nothin' to be done for it until you get your strength back." He put a reassuring hand on Vin's shoulder. "Just remember one thing."
Vin opened his eyes. "What's that?"
"This time, you ain't alone."
TWENTY-SIXTelling Chris about the dream seemed to have brought Vin a little peace. He slept after that, and for a few hours, it was a calm, restful, sleep.
Chris slept, too, but around midnight, he was awakened by that sixth sense he'd developed over the years that told him when something was wrong.
Vin had pushed his blankets off and was mumbling in his sleep. When Chris got closer to him, he saw that Vin's undershirt and hair were soaking wet. He tried to wake him up, and became alarmed when he couldn't.
He poured some water into the wash basin and wet the washcloth. He wiped the sweat from Vin's face and neck, and then unbuttoned his undershirt so he could sponge his upper body with the cool water. He kept at it, dabbing the cloth across Vin's chest down to his waist, but after several minutes, he was still frighteningly hot, and Chris wondered if he should fetch Nathan. It would mean leaving Vin alone, though, and there was probably nothing Nathan could do that he couldn't do himself.
Vin was just barely able to cooperate as he sat him up and pulled the sticky undershirt off of him. He laid him back down and dipped the washcloth into the basin, only this time he didn't ring it out. He let the cold water drip from the cloth over Vin's body and face and down his arms. He turned him onto his side so he could get some of it on his back, too. He didn't worry about wetting the bedclothes. They were already damp from Vin's sweat.
He'd noticed the previous night how banged up Vin was. There was no way the injuries weren't somehow connected to his ordeal. JD had found him trapped in a hole. Okay, that was bad, but he really didn't think that would have driven Vin to the brink of madness. He probably would've been pissed as hell with the idea he was going to die there, but once JD found him, everything should have been okay. Happy ending. But Vin only vaguely remembered being found by JD. That event was still linked in his mind to whatever had happened before JD even got there.
Chris couldn't imagine what might have happened to Vin. His back and shoulders and arms were scraped, but not bruised. He hadn't been beaten. He'd taken his shirt off - or it had been taken from him - even though without it, it was certain that the volcanic rock would scrape the hell out of him.
As far as Chris knew, Vin hadn't been afraid of anything, before. Why was he afraid to be alone in the dark now? Even in an outhouse, for crying out loud? And what had made him remember what had happened with his mother all those years ago?
Nathan had said get him to talk. Maybe the best thing would be to just come right out and ask him those questions.
He had to get his fever down, first, though. He dabbed the cloth carefully over the sores on his back. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt him any more.
He held the cloth against the back of Vin's neck, letting it absorb some of the heat from his body.
Vin opened his eyes and frowned at him. "What're you doin', Chris?"
"You're too hot, Vin. I'm just tryin' to cool you down a little."
Vin nodded. He wasn't completely awake. "Feels good," he sighed.
Chris wanted to let him go back to sleep, but he knew that when he was just on the edge of sleep, he often found himself thinking with perfect clarity about things that never entered his mind when he was awake. He'd often remember people and places and events he had long since put from his memory. Vin was in a similar trance-like state brought on by fever and exhaustion. He wondered if he couldn't use it to his advantage....
He very gently traced a finger over one of the healing abrasions on Vin's back, sending a shudder though him. "Vin, how did you get scratched up like this?"
Vin's eyes opened again and darted back and forth. Chris didn't know if he was trying to remember or trying to come up with a way to avoid answering; but either way, Vin didn't say anything, so he tried another question.
"Do you remember where you were when JD found you, Vin?"
Vin heard him, but again, he didn't answer.
"The hole," Vin whispered. "I was in the hole."
"How did you get there?"
Vin frowned. "I dunno."
"Yes, you do, Vin. Think about what you were doing just before you were in the hole."
Vin's voice was scarcely more than a whisper. "I don't remember, Chris..."
"You were looking for Lon Porter, remember?"
Vin's hands immediately covered his ears, as if Chris had just said something he didn't want to hear.
"NO!" Vin yelled at him. "STOP IT!"
Chris knew he'd hit a nerve. He pulled Vin's hands down. "What is it, Vin? Was it Porter? Did he do something to you?"
Vin squeezed his eyes closed and clenched his teeth. "Get him away from me," he begged.
Chris clasped his shoulders. "Who? Porter? What did he do to you, Vin?"
Vin's eyes opened wide, and suddenly, he looked perfectly lucid, and mad as hell.
He pushed Chris away from him and got up from the bed so he was looking down at him. "Just leave it be, Chris! Goddamit, just LEAVE ME ALONE!"
"Take it easy Vin..."
"YOU take it easy. Everyone keeps harpin' at me to remember what happened out there. Why the hell does it matter?"
Chris remained calm. "Because whatever happened made you crazy, Vin."
Vin raked a hand through his wet hair. "I'm not crazy," he whispered, as if he didn't actually believe it.
"Then what is it, Vin? What's the problem? If Porter hurt you somehow..."
Vin shoved Chris hard enough that he fell backwards onto the mattress. "SHUT UP!" He stepped closer. He was shaking with rage. "You don't know nothin', Chris. If you wanna talk about crazy, look in the fuckin' mirror."
"Vin, what's the matter with you?"
"You can't do it, can you Chris? Why not? Is it because when you do, you see the ghost of your son?"
"That's enough, Vin."
"Do you see him screamin' while he burns, wonderin' where the fuck his daddy is?"
Something inside Chris snapped. He wasn't even aware he was moving towards Vin until he felt a sharp pain travel up his right arm from where his fist had connected with Vin's jaw.
There was such force behind the blow, and Vin had lost so much weight, that he literally bounced off the wall behind him and fell in a dazed heap at Chris's feet.
"Oh Jesus," a sob caught in Chris's throat. He sank to the floor beside Vin and took him into his arms. The blow to his face had split his lower lip open and it was bleeding. Vin looked up at him, his eyes glazed and confused. He was burning up. Oh Christ, Vin was frail and weak and out of his head with fever and he'd hit him... he'd hurt him. How could he have done that?
He rested the side of his face against the top of Vin's head. "Vin, I'm sorry...."
"You left him alone," Vin said softly, sadly.
Chris got a strong feeling that Vin wasn't talking about Adam.
"You ain't alone, Vin," Chris whispered. "I'm here. It's over... whatever Porter did...."
Vin jerked in his arms and uttered a sharp little cry as if the name "Porter" itself frightened him. "Shhhh," Chris calmed him. "It's okay, Vin. You don't gotta think about him."
That was it. Porter. Whatever had happened to Vin had something to do with the outlaw. Chris would hunt the son-of-a-bitch down and peel his hide a strip at a time to get it out of him if Vin couldn't tell him what had happened. Whatever it was had hurt Vin bad enough that he'd fought back the only way he could when Chris had tried to force him to remember. He'd struck out at Chris with the memories he knew were most painful to him.
He picked Vin up off the floor and put him back in bed. He wiped the blood away from his lip with the washcloth. Vin didn't flinch, didn't even look at him. He'd gone back into that dark place where he felt safe.
Chris didn't blame him. Vin didn't have any place else. He'd never really had a place where he belonged. Chris had had his home taken from him, Josiah and Buck had left their old lives willingly, and Nathan had made a new one. Ezra had his mother, such as she was, and JD had his memories. But Vin was a solitary creature who circled the pack without ever joining it. He'd become so accustomed to surviving on his own that he didn't know how to lean on anyone else when he had to. And now, when he'd dared to try it, he'd gotten punched in the face for his trouble.
Chris swallowed the lump in his throat. He'd pushed Vin too hard. What difference did it make if it took Vin three days or three weeks or three years to remember what happened out there in the desert?
He stroked Vin's hair, the way he had done with Adam so many times. "Vin? Would you rather have Nathan look after you?"
He didn't think he was going to get an answer, but finally, Vin shook his head.
Vin still trusted him. Adam had trusted him too. Adam had counted on him to be there for him, and he hadn't been. Maybe this was his chance to make it up for it somehow. Vin couldn't replace Adam, of course. Adam had been his son, and there was no other bond between two people quite like the one between a parent and a child.
But Vin filled a large part of that big, empty space that he'd been left with when he'd lost Adam and Sarah. He hadn't been there for them - for Adam. But he'd stand by Vin, as long as he had to.
TWENTY-SEVENChris didn't sleep the rest of the night. He tried to keep Vin's fever down. He made him eat a few bites every hour or so, and made him drink to replace what was sweating out of him.
He had time to think, about what Vin remembered, and what he didn't remember.
Porter was the key. Chris could come up with only one thing that could have happened between Vin and the outlaw that might have left Vin in the state he was in. His gut instincts were telling him he was wrong, but maybe that was only because he wanted to be.
Get him away from me - those had been Vin's exact words when Chris had mentioned Porter to him. Had Porter forced himself on Vin?
The problem he had with that, besides the obvious one, was that he really believed Vin was stronger than that. If the outlaw had taken him that way, Vin would have been sick over it - what man wouldn't be? - but not like this. Vin was too much of a survivor for that. Maybe he would want to track Porter down and kill him, but he wouldn't let it devastate him to the point that he was virtually helpless.
Or would he? Who could say how a man would react to being used that way by another man?
How could he just forget something like that, though? Maybe he was lying. Maybe he did remember and was just so ashamed he couldn't talk about it.
Vin's fever had finally broken about an hour before dawn, and Chris had shifted him to the other bed because it was warm and dry. Vin slept right through the sunrise, which was unusual for him. He was still asleep when Nathan arrived just after six.
"You look like hell," was the first thing he said to Chris.
Chris pushed his short, blond hair back. "It was a long night, but I think he's doin' better."
Nathan bent over Vin and felt his forehead with that practiced hand of his. "Fever's almost gone," he said, but then he noticed Vin's bruised, swollen lip. "What happened to his face?"
When Chris didn't answer, Nathan turned to him with an accusing look that demanded a response.
"I hit him," Chris admitted.
Nathan could not think of any reason to use that kind of physical force on the quiet, even- tempered tracker under any circumstances, and especially not in the shape he was in. His voice was cold. "Why?"
Chris tried to be casual about it. "He got a little wild on me."
Nathan very reluctantly gave Chris the benefit of the doubt. He'd seen Vin's outbursts. Chris didn't really outsize Vin by that much, so maybe that had been the only way to get him under control. "Did he say anything?"
Chris nodded. "But it was between me an' him, Nathan, and it's gotta stay that way."
Nathan understood that, but he could tell there was more Chris wanted to say. "Somethin' on your mind, Chris?"
He motioned Nathan away from the bed, so there would be less chance of waking Vin up.
"Whatever happened to him, Lon Porter was involved," Chris began, and then paused because he wasn't sure about divulging his suspicions, even to Nathan. If he was right, Vin would not want anyone to know.
But Nathan surprised him. "You think Porter took him."
Chris was fumbling for a response when Nathan added, "Josiah thinks the same thing."
"What about you? What do you think?"
Nathan shook his head. "It's possible, but I scrubbed him down after JD brought him back to town, and I didn't see the kind of injuries on him I'd expect to find from something like that." He looked over at Vin with an unreadable expression on his face. "Unless he didn't fight back."
There was no innuendo in Nathan's voice, but Chris bristled at what the statement itself implied. He didn't try to hide the anger in his voice. "What the hell do you mean, Nathan?"
Nathan shrugged. "I don't mean nothin'. I wasn't there. If that's what happened, maybe the only thing Vin could do was just let him."
"Porter's twice Vin's size," Chris protested.
Nathan shrugged. "I ain't passin' judgment on the man."
He was, though. Goddammit, he was. Chris could see it in his eyes. Maybe he wasn't judging Vin directly, but his thoughts about a man who would let another man do that to him were written all over his face. Nathan, of all people...
But then, he thought, why not Nathan? Why should Nathan be different from any other man? They were all going to think less of Vin if any of them found out another man had done him that way.
"Nathan, if you mention this to anyone, I'll kill you."
Nathan didn't seem to doubt for a moment that Chris would carry out the threat. "I wouldn't do that Chris." He shook his head. "You know, though, I'd expect him to have bruises, probably bleed some, even if he went along with it. I really don't think that happened."
That was somewhat of a relief, but it still left Chris with the question of exactly what Porter had done to Vin.
+ + + + + + +
Vin slept until mid-morning. He seemed out of reach again, but he washed and dressed himself with no prodding. He did finger the cut on his lip when he was shaving, but he gave Chris no indication that he remembered how it got there.
Chris let him decide where to go when they left the hotel, and the first place he headed was the livery. This time, he emptied out his saddle bags and unrolled his pack instead of just rifling through everything. Vin owned practically nothing, but contrary to what other people might have thought, Chris knew that didn't mean that material possessions were unimportant to him. Vin's meager belongings were him. They were the furnishings of his own private little world, and they gave him a sense of "home" and who he was. The others would never understand that, but Chris knew it without Vin having to explain it to him.
"What are you looking for, Vin?" he asked him.
Vin slipped on the medicine bag given to him by the Indian Chanu after Vin had cleared him of the murder of Claire Mosely. But that wasn't what he'd come for. It had been one of the first things he'd taken out, and he'd continued to go through his stuff after finding it. "Nothin'," he said softly. "It ain't important."
Chris sighed. "You know, Vin, you need to open yourself up just a little bit more once in awhile."
Vin glared at him. "Why? So you can pop me in the face again?"
The remark stung, but oddly enough, Chris was glad to see Vin reacting with something other than a blank stare. "You had that one comin'," he said.
Vin gave him a dirty look and finished stuffing the rest of his things back in his saddlebag. "Yeah, I reckon I did."
"Wanna get somethin' to eat?"
Vin picked up his rifle. "I'd rather get a drink."
"Lead the way..."
The saloon hadn't gotten crowded yet. Most of the townsmen didn't drink that early in the day, and most of the die-hards who filled the place at night, like Ezra, were still asleep. Buck and JD were there, sitting at a table with the most recent issue of The Clarion spread out before them. Chris wondered if Mary Travis had written anything about Vin. But, he figured if he sat down with Buck and JD, Vin might feel left out. So, he nodded a brief greeting at the two men and then indicated for Vin to follow him to the bar.
One of the town's two whores, Wen, sidled up beside them while they were waiting for their drinks. She wasn't officially working at that time of day, but Wen liked Vin. He'd gone with her a time or two when the mood was on him, but that probably wasn't her reason for approaching him. Vin's natural shyness appealed to her. Chris thought maybe she saw him as a challenge, because Vin didn't really seem to seek out her kind of company any more than he did any other.
Chris felt a pang of guilt that he was actually hoping Vin would go upstairs with her. It was because of what he suspected about Porter, he knew, and that made him angry with himself. Vin didn't have to prove anything.
Wen liked to tease Vin, because it was easy to embarrass him with suggestive remarks. But this time, she did nothing more than put her arm over his and squeeze his hand. "How ya' doin'?" she asked him, and to her credit, she sounded like she really cared.
"Got no complaints," he said softly.
Wen had no doubt heard plenty of gossip to the contrary by that time, but she kept it to herself. Vin pushed his drink in front of her and ordered another one for himself.
Vin seemed okay. Still and quiet, but he was often like that, and Wen's presence didn't seem to be bothering him. He even seemed to enjoy the attention, in his own way. Chris left them at the bar and joined Buck and JD.
Mary Travis had indeed written about Vin in the paper. A scowl formed on Chris's face before he even picked the article up, but as he read it, he relaxed. Mary had reported just the facts, although he was certain she had heard the gossip. JD's name was mentioned more than Vin's.
He tossed the article towards the boy. "Won't be long before they're writin' dime novels about you, JD."
JD blushed, but Chris could tell he was pleased. "She kind of made it sound better than it was," JD said.
Chris shook his head. "Vin would be dead if it wasn't for you, JD."
Buck leaned close to JD and in a conspiratorial voice whispered, "What Chris is tryin' to say is, you done good, kid."
Chris smiled at him and nodded. At that moment, JD felt like he could do anything.
His glory was short-lived, though. "Aw, crap!" His eyes drifted towards the batwing doors, and Chris and Buck followed his gaze.
Cole and Ramage were back, and this time, they had reinforcements. That was bad enough, but they were going to get to the bar - and to Vin - before any of them could.
Vin heard them, but he didn't even turn around. It was as if he didn't care if they did anything to him.
JD started to get up, but Buck stopped him. "Not yet, JD. Don't push 'em into anything."
JD didn't agree with that one bit. For some reason, he felt fiercely protective of Vin now, even though Vin would probably laugh his ass off at that.
JD noticed Chris's hand slide down to the butt of his gun. Suddenly, there was a cold fear in his gut, because he'd replaced the ammunition in Vin's guns with blanks. He'd been worried about Vin walking around with loaded weapons. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but if Vin hadn't noticed that he'd done it, he was literally unarmed.
Not that it mattered. Vin made no move to confront Cole and Ramage. He ignored them completely. It probably wasn't personal. Vin's mind was somewhere else these days. JD knew that, and so did most everyone else. But Cole and Ramage wanted a fight, and it pissed them off that Vin didn't look like he was about to give them one.
Cole pushed his way between Vin and Wen. He shoved Vin roughly aside and grabbed Wen's shoulders. He planted a slobbering kiss on her unwilling lips while she struggled to get away from him.
Vin didn't seem to know what to do. He stood there, frozen. Not by fear, JD didn't think, but because something had his brain so addled that he couldn't take all of this in at once.
Ramage laughed. "She don't want you, Cole. She'd rather have her a half-wit."
Wen jerked her way out of Cole's grasp. "I'd rather bed a pig than either of you."
Wen wasn't stupid. She could see what was coming. "C'mon, Vin, let's go upstairs." She took Vin by the hand, and it almost looked like she had diffused the situation.
But Cole was still between her and Vin, and he stuck out his foot to block Vin's path.
Vin didn't look angry or upset, he just looked so damned confused that JD wasn't sure he even knew that Cole and Ramage were trying to pick a fight with him. "We gotta stop them, Chris..."
The three of them got up, but as soon as they did, the four men backing Cole and Ramage turned to face them.
Without the need to discuss it, Buck, Chris and JD fanned out so that they'd be three separate targets instead of one big one.
JD was the closest one to Vin, but he still hadn't decided what he should do. Vin wasn't fighting back. If he continued to ignore Cole and Ramage, maybe nothing would happen...
Cole grabbed Vin's chin. "What'd you do to your face, pretty boy? Larabee been kissin' you too hard?"
He laughed and pushed his thumb against the sore on Vin's lip. That got a reaction out of Vin because it hurt. He slapped Cole's arm away, but the cut had reopened, filling his mouth with blood.
Vin spit the blood out on the floor and then stood there, transfixed by the small, red puddle.
"Nobody spits on me!" Cole snarled. He went for his gun but didn't draw. He backed away, his eyes trained on Vin. He was daring Vin to make a move, despite the fact that Vin wasn't even looking at him. Vin put his hand to his mouth and wiped more blood off on it, and then just stood there, staring at his hand. His face went so pale that JD thought he was going to faint.
Cole's hand still twitched over his gun. The man was too stupid to see that Vin wasn't even thinking about him.
Chris and Buck were in a bad position. If they opened fire, they could easily hit Vin. JD was the only one in a position to stop Cole. Chris didn't doubt that Vin could outdraw Cole. Hell, Vin moved like lightning with a rifle in his hand; the sawed-off shotgun in his holster would be no problem. But he was just standing there, oblivious to everything but the blood smeared on his fingers.
"Leave him be, Cole," JD said softly. "He ain't done nothin' to you."
"He spit on me," Cole said. But even his friends knew that wasn't true, and they appeared reluctant to go along with him now that they were facing Buck and especially Chris.
Then, in one of those split seconds where the timing couldn't get any worse, Vin looked up and seemed to suddenly realize that Cole was about to draw on him. JD saw what was coming and reflexively dived straight at Vin.
Wen shrieked in terror and JD heard two shots. There might have been more, but all he heard was two. Vin's gun had discharged. He'd seen the flash. The other shot must have come from Cole.
People were shouting. He heard Buck call his name an instant before all of his senses were blotted out by a flood of pain from his right knee that was so intense it made him gag.
He sensed that others were moving around him, but he couldn't see anything except flashes of white light. Oh God, it hurt...
He tried to say Buck's name. He probably should have been thinking about Vin, wondering if he was okay, but his brain was all full of that terrible pain... He would never have thought anything could hurt that bad. He was dimly aware he was praying. Please oh please let me pass out....
+ + + + + + +
It was over in an instant, like gunfights often were. Only it hadn't really been a gunfight. JD had pushed Vin out of the line of fire and before Cole could get off a second shot, Chris and Buck had wrestled him to the floor. Chris held a gun to his head while Buck hurried over to JD. The four men who had come in with Cole and Ramage had beaten a path to the door with their tails between their legs as soon as the shooting had stopped.
Vin was sitting on the floor with that confused somewhere-else look on his face, but much to Chris's surprise, he'd had the presence of mind to pick up JD's Colt and train it on Ramage. He was shaking and needed both hands to steady the weapon, and Chris didn't know if he was actually aware of what he was doing. But Ramage wasn't sure, either, and the coward had dropped his gun.
JD had been hit in the leg. It wasn't a mortal wound, but the kid was writhing on the floor in agony, trying his damnedest not to scream.
Chris brought his gun butt down hard on Cole's head and knocked him out. He snatched up all the loose weapons and then shoved Ramage towards his friend. "Get that piece of shit outa here before I change my mind about lettin' you live."
TWENTY-EIGHTNathan was there in what seemed like seconds, Josiah following close behind him.
JD didn't want to be moved. The kid was half-crazy with pain and didn't want Nathan to even touch him.
Buck was trying to calm him down, but Buck wasn't too good at keeping his own emotions in check, and JD was picking up on the panic in his voice.
"JD, we can't leave you on the floor, you understand?" Josiah said in his firm, gentle voice.
"I don't care. Leave me alone!" He had a vice-like grip on Buck and he tightened it and moaned. "It hurts, Buck..."
"I know, JD, but we can't fix you up here," Buck let some of that easy charm into his voice. "I'll carry you. I'll be real careful..."
JD nodded, conceding defeat. Sweat was pouring down his face, and Nathan knew he was going into in shock. One man could carry JD easily, but despite Buck's promise, it was going to take the five of them to move him without jostling his injured leg any more than was necessary.
Nathan took charge and started giving the orders. "JD, put your arms around me and Josiah... Buck and Chris, slide your hands under his butt and his legs..." He looked uncertainly at Vin. He was pale and stunned, but he seemed aware of what was going on. Nathan nodded to him and said, "Vin, hold onto his foot, and mind that his knee don't bend."
To his relief, Vin quickly moved into position with the others.
"Okay, now, JD... " Nathan instructed, "you take some deep breaths and tell us when you're ready. I ain't gonna tell you it ain't gonna hurt, because I'd be lyin' to you. You can holler if you want. Ain't no one gonna blame you."
"I ain't gonna holler," JD said through clenched teeth. Then, like Nathan had told him, he inhaled deeply three times. "I'm ready," he said uncertainly.
The other five men were as careful and gentle as possible, but as soon as JD's weight was off the floor and in their arms, the mere pressure of their touch on his injured leg increased his pain beyond what he could bear. He didn't scream, but he was gripping Nathan and Josiah so tightly that it became a race to see if they could get him to his bed before one of them was strangled.
Josiah went for Nathan's medical supplies while Buck and Nathan carefully removed JD's pants. He was lucky to be wearing the moccasins Josiah had given him, because pulling a boot off his foot would have been torture.
JD was trembling with shock. Nathan propped his good leg up on a pillow and covered him with a blanket, but seconds later, the kid announced to Buck that he was going to throw up, and then promptly did. He narrowly missed Buck, but not the blanket.
Nathan sent Chris for some clean water and more blankets as he gathered the mess up and tossed it out into the hallway. Maggie would not be pleased to find it there, but he wasn't going to worry about it.
He was looking around for something else to keep JD warm when Vin came up silently behind him and handed him his jacket. Nathan was worried how Vin was coping with this bad situation, but he had to keep JD first in his mind at that moment. Buck had JD on his mind, too, but he turned on Vin with fire in his eyes.
Vin flinched from the look Buck gave him, even before Buck opened his mouth.
"You happy now, Vin!? See what you got us into?" He jabbed a finger at Vin's face. "I don't care what you gotta do, but you better get your fuckin' head back together before you get one of us killed!"
"Take it easy, Buck..." Nathan said softly.
Nathan didn't think Buck was mad at Vin so much as he was just mad and needed someone to take it out on. Still, even JD cringed at his outburst.
"Don't... yell at him.... Buck." the kid gasped. "It ain't... his fault...."
The boy proceeded to explain what he had done to Vin's weapon, and how he'd left Vin unarmed.
But Vin didn't hear that part of it. He'd withdrawn to a corner of the room and sat down on the floor, as if he wanted to keep himself as far out of everyone's way as possible.
Chris felt a certain obligation as the leader of the group, so when he returned, he focused his attention where it was most needed at the moment. JD was frantic with pain by this time, and it was wearing Buck down trying to calm him. Buck was too emotional for the job, and too close to JD. Seeing the kid hurting like that almost seemed to be causing him physical pain.
Chris drew Buck carefully aside and let Nathan get to work.
"JD, I need to touch this wound to clean it and see how bad it is. You can holler or cry if you want, but you can't move. You want someone to hold you down?"
JD shook his head. "I'm okay," he gasped.
Nathan tried not to hurt the kid, but there was no way to avoid it, and JD did scream a couple of times, but he never moved, not once.
Nathan had given him a big swig of laudanum, but after he'd examined him, he said, "Laudanum ain't gonna do him much good. He needs morphine."
"You got any?" Chris asked.
"Yeah. I hope it's enough to see him through the worst of it."
"How bad is it?" Chris wanted to know.
Nathan shook his head. "Looks like the bullet just glanced off the top of his kneecap. Took a little nick outa it, but it ain't busted up too bad. He'll be okay, but it's gonna hurt like hell for two or three days." He removed a hypodermic syringe from a velvet-lined case, and JD eyed the long needle nervously.
"What are you gonna do with that?" he wanted to know.
"I'm gonna stick it in your backside, and you're gonna thank me for it," Nathan told him.
"Is it gonna hurt?" That seemed like such a silly question, considering JD was already in so much pain he was holding back tears.
"Yeah, it's gonna hurt, but it'll make your knee stop hurtin' so much."
"Let's do it then. I can't take this much longer, Nathan..." His voice finally cracked, and he bit down on his lip.
Vin looked up from where he was sitting, saw the pain in JD's hazel eyes.
This was because of him. That stupid, brave, sweet kid was hurting because Vin Tanner's brain was so addled he couldn't even see a gunfight coming at him. He couldn't stand it. Couldn't stand the way JD's breathing was quick and ragged because he was trying not to cry. Couldn't stand all the blood, on JD's clothes piled on the floor, on Buck's shirt... on his own hands.
Blood on his hands...
As he stared at them, they seemed to fade out of his view until he wasn't looking at anything but hot, black darkness. Rocks. A hole. He could see the sky, but it was so far away....
That was stupid. The sky was always far away......
What was happening to him? He'd seen blood before. Had blood on his hands before...
But now, when he looked at it, something deep in the back of his mind tried so hard to push itself out that keeping it at bay left him unable to do anything else - not feel, not think, not even move...
Make it go away....
He rubbed his hands on his pants, trying to get the blood off. NO! Not on my hands... GET IT OFF!
Pictures were flashing in his head, so quick that he couldn't really see them, but slow enough that he knew they were images of something unspeakable... Blood on his hands. More than blood... flesh... bone.... sinew... dripping between his fingers. He was bathed in blood... it covered him... in his eyes, his mouth... Oh God, he could taste the filth!
"Mr. Tanner?... VIN!?"
The sound of his own name cut through the fog, that haze of red that smelled of decay and filled him up inside like he was drowning in it.
Where had Ezra come from?
He looked up at the gambler's green eyes. Ezra was holding his hand out to him.
"Perhaps you would accompany me to less encumbered surroundings?" he said.
Ezra was smiling, so why did he feel so bad? He felt sick to his stomach. He wanted to cry, and he didn't even know what he wanted to cry about.
He let Ezra take his hand. The normally fastidious cardsharp didn't seem to care about the blood on it.
Oh no... JD....
He looked over at the bed as Ezra pulled him to his feet. Nathan was tucking a blanket around the boy. His knee was bandaged and resting on a pillow, and he was breathing easily, his eyelids heavy from the morphine. When had they fixed him up?
He frowned and Ezra put a hand on his shoulder. "He's fine, Vin."
Chris was sitting next to the bed, talking with JD. Telling him things the kid wanted to hear instead of how stupid he'd been to risk his life for... what had Cole called him? A half-wit? That about said it all.
Hell, "half" was probably being generous. He didn't think he had any wits left at all, at least, not any he recognized.
That big whatever-it-was that had gotten into his head was taking up too much room.
Chris turned to him. "Go with Ezra, Vin."
Was Chris pissed off? Vin couldn't tell. No way Chris was happy about the kid getting shot. He wasn't one to show it, but Chris liked JD. Hell, they all did. He was sometimes foolish, but that was because he acted from the heart, sometimes before he thought about what he was doing. He could be like an annoying little pup - got on your nerves, but you didn't have the heart to kick it aside because you knew it would follow you to hell and back.
How could he have let this happen to him?
"Vin?" Chris was talking to him. "Go with Ezra. You don't need to be here."
He looked beyond Chris and saw the look on Buck's face. Disgust, anger. The big man had every right to be both disgusted and angry with him. They all did.
Vin nodded. He understood. He wasn't needed here.
He wasn't needed here or any place else.
TWENTY-NINEEzra Standish loved words, and he never seemed to run out of them, but he walked to his hotel room with Vin Tanner in total silence. He'd never really talked to Vin, because Vin just wasn't a talker. He wasn't the type you could make small talk with, and they didn't really have anything in common beyond the fact that they were part of the group hired to protect the town.
He'd seen the need to get Vin away from JD, though. He'd gone to look in on the young man after he'd gotten word that the lad had been injured. He'd found the tracker huddled in a corner of the room, staring at his hands but not seeming to see or hear anything.
A nod from Chris Larabee had told him that he agreed that Vin probably should be taken somewhere - anywhere - else.
It was a sad and sorry condition that Mr. Tanner was in. Normally, there would have been no way that Vin would have come along with him, but now he seemed to have no will of his own. It had been sucked out of him.
The first thing he did when they reached his room was lead Vin to the wash basin. His hands were covered with blood. He assumed it was JD's, but when he caught a glimpse of Vin in the mirror, he noticed the fresh blood caked on his lip. He still didn't know everything had happened at the saloon, only that JD had been shot by Ted Cole. He'd heard the boy mumbling about putting blanks in Vin's gun. He had surmised that his chivalry was attributable, at least in part, to fear of the possible consequences should Cole draw on Vin, which, unfortunately, he had..
He moistened his handkerchief and handed it to Vin, pointing to the injury on his lip. Vin dabbed at the blood, getting most of it off, but then he stared at the brown stain on the handkerchief until Ezra took it away from him.
"What is it Vin?" he asked. He kept his tone informal. He didn't want Vin to be intimidated, which was the effect he knew he often had on people.
Vin looked at him. "Ezra... I..." But then he shook his head. "Never mind, it don't matter."
"Perhaps if you talked about it?"
"About your thoughts, Mr. Tanner. Clearly they are elsewhere, and it is equally apparent that they are troubling you."
"Ezra, you talk too damn much."
"I know, my friend," Ezra smiled, "but the disclosure of one's innermost contemplations can often lift the heart's heaviest burdens..."
"Ezra...." Vin sighed.
Ezra smiled mischievously. "What I am attempting to suggest is that if you want to talk, I'll listen."
"That would be a switch."
"Touche." He picked up a bottle of fine brandy from the bureau and poured a glass for each of them. Then, he held his tongue when Vin tossed it down his throat like cheap rotgut and set his glass down so it could be refilled.
He poured him another glass. Even though he lacked the fundamental endowments of a cultured gentleman, Vin was a friend. He supposed he was worth it.
"Everybody wants me to talk about what's in my head, Ezra, and I ain't got the words for it."
That was quite possibly the longest string of words Ezra had ever heard Vin put together.
"Perhaps if we start with the essentials and work our way up?"
Ezra sat down on the room's only chair so that Vin would have to sit on the bed. He was still so weak from his ordeal that Ezra fully expected he might collapse, and he didn't fancy the thought of tucking him in.
"What have the others told you?" Ezra asked.
"About what happened to you?"
"Nobody knows what happened, Ezra. That's the problem. Not even I know. It was just something that..." his head dropped and he shook it slightly.
"That what?" Ezra prodded.
"It's something so bad I don't wanna remember it, Ezra." He looked up at the gambler. "I know it is. I seen plenty of ugly things in my time. What could be that bad?"
"I don't know, my friend," Ezra said softly. "I shudder at the possibilities."
Vin studied Ezra's face, his eyes. He wasn't making fun of him. He was acknowledging that whatever had happened to him had to have been as bad as Vin feared. It was Ezra's way of feeling sorry for him.
He supposed he should resent the gambler's pity, but it cost Ezra a lot to be nice on the outside. Funny how they were a lot alike in some ways. What was underneath wasn't what everyone saw on the outside.
"Is JD really okay?" He changed the subject.
Ezra nodded. "He'll be hobbling around awhile longer, but I am certain that will not deter him from yielding to his impetuous nature."
"He wouldn't have been shot if it hadn't been for me."
Ezra sighed. "I have never known young Mr. Dunne to need an excuse to get into trouble. He pushed you out of the way because he had disabled your firearms and knew you were defenseless."
"He did what?"
"He replaced your ammunition with blanks. He meant well, I'm sure. He usually does."
Vin patted his right thigh, but his gun was gone. Someone had taken his gunbelt. How did that happen? How did he drift so far out of touch that he didn't even know when someone was undressing him?
I don't want to be this crazy...
He covered his face with his hands, but he could still smell the blood there, and the scent made him feel weak and dizzy and he had to put one hand on the mattress to keep himself from keeling over.
He felt Ezra's firm hands on his shoulders, pushing him backwards.
"Lie down, Mr. Tanner."
Vin let himself fall sideways, so his head hit the pillow. Ezra picked his feet up and dropped them on the mattress.
He wasn't really sleepy. He'd almost gotten used to the constant feeling of weakness and exhaustion that had been with him since... that hole. That miserable hot stinking hole... He hated to sleep. When he slept, he dreamed he was back there. Or in his dead mother's arms. He wasn't sure which was worse.
But he closed his eyes, anyway. He didn't want to have to talk to Ezra any more, even though Ezra was right. He needed to talk to somebody. He needed to get that thing out of his head, or at least make it smaller so he could function again.
Not with the other six, though. He didn't want to expose himself that way, not to them.
He forced himself to calm down so he wasn't breathing so fast, so his body would relax. It felt better than being all knotted up inside and out, and he wanted Ezra to think he was asleep.
The ruse worked. After a few minutes, he heard Ezra walk softly out of the room and the door click shut behind him.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra had only gone to get a newspaper. He hadn't the slightest inclination to play nursemaid to Vin Tanner, but he knew there would be hell to pay if he left the tracker alone and he did something foolhardy in his present state of discomfiture. So, he resigned himself to the task, and decided some reading material would be a vastly more enlightening way to pass the time than sitting there watching Vin sleep.
He never left the hotel, and was never out of sight of the stairs or the exit. As a result, he was altogether confounded when he returned, less than five minutes after he'd departed, and discovered that Vin was gone.
THIRTYVin knew Ezra wouldn't tell the others he was gone until after he'd tried to find him. Even if he did manage to discover he'd left town, Ezra couldn't track a buffalo herd through a mud puddle. It wouldn't be difficult to stay one - or even two or three - steps ahead of him.
Still, he wasted as little time as possible getting his horse saddled and checking his gear. He wasn't taking any supplies. He didn't plan on needing any. He searched his saddle bag to make sure the little pocket-sized Colt was still there. He had to have a gun, and they had taken his other weapons away from him. Nobody even knew he had this one, though.
He checked to see if it was loaded, even though it always was. He made sure the ammunition was real, this time.
Maneuvering his saddle and mounting up was a lot more work than it normally was. He wasn't sure how far he was going to be able to ride in the piss-poor shape he was in.
No matter. He just had to get away from the town. From the others.
He glanced at the boarding house and thought about JD. Poor kid. He shouldn't just leave without saying something to him. The boy had saved his butt twice now. It didn't seem right to just walk away from him.
But, he didn't want to face Chris and especially Buck again.
He made reasonably sure no one was really paying attention, and quietly rode out of town.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra Standish wasn't prone to panic. It was counterproductive in his line of work.
But if he didn't find Vin Tanner, Hell would be demanding its proverbial reparations. He had erroneously assumed that Vin would stay in town, so the livery was, by unfortunate happenstance, the last place he looked.
"He rode out half an hour ago," the hostler said amiably.
Ezra tried his best to be intimidating. "Which way?"
It didn't work. "Didn't notice. South, I think..."
Ezra was trying to think of what lay to the south of town when the hostler added, "...or maybe west..."
The problem was obvious. Ezra was an expert at cards; Vin was an expert at hiding himself. Both required a certain generous degree of cunning, but that was about all the two of them had in common. Ezra barely knew how to follow a marked trail. He left tracking people to those who cared, and he certainly wasn't going to be able to track the tracker unless Vin wanted to be found.
He had two options, either pick a direction and take a chance on being right (or wrong), or let Chris Larabee know how ridiculously easy it had been for Vin to get away from him. He'd let Larabee down before, more than once. He didn't relish the thought of facing him with the news that he hadn't the slightest idea where Vin was.
He also felt a twinge of guilt for his reluctance to accept even temporary responsibility for Vin. By nature, the tracker was astute and observant, and had no doubt sensed that Ezra viewed keeping company with him as more of a chore than a friendly gesture. Ezra could occasionally be so cold-hearted that even he didn't like himself. Vin Tanner was in pain, as surely as if he'd been shot or broken a bone. Exerting a reasonable modicum of compassion on his part would not have cost him anything, and it might have kept Vin from feeling as if he was somehow in the way.
He hoped the opportunity to make restitution would present itself. Vin and the others were the only friends he had. The only real friends he'd ever had. Sometimes, he wondered if his own mother even liked him. Vin deserved better.
Just as Ezra suspected, Chris was livid when he told him, but he kept his voice down so as not to awaken JD.
"Where the hell did he go? Why would he leave?" Chris demanded of no one in particular. He was mad at Ezra, to be sure, but he also knew that Vin could move like a cat. He had no doubt that had he wanted to, Vin would have given him the slip almost as easily as he did Ezra.
Nathan was looking pointedly at Buck, and Chris noticed. He turned to his friend. "What is it, Buck? What's going on?"
Buck looked embarrassed. "I said some stuff to him I reckon I should've kept to myself."
"What 'stuff'?" Chris glowered.
"I told him it was his fault, what happened to JD."
Chris held his temper for all of about two seconds, during which time his gaze cut through every man in the room except for JD. "What were you thinkin' Buck? Care to tell me?"
Buck squirmed, but Chris's voice only increased in volume. "How the hell could you say somethin' like that to him?!" He turned back to the others. "And where the hell were the rest of you when he was doin' it?!"
JD stirred slightly.
"Take it outside, before you wake him up," Nathan snapped. "Better than that, quit standin' around placin' blame and go look for him. No tellin' what he's got on his mind, the state he's in."
Chris knew Nathan was right. He remembered finding Vin on the roof during the storm. He honestly didn't know what Vin might have done that night if he hadn't come along when he did.
Nathan had to stay with JD, but Chris didn't even question whether Buck, Ezra and Josiah would join him in the search. He assigned each of them a road out of town and told them not to come back until one of them found Vin.
+ + + + + +
Ezra had ridden past the rock formation called the Ship's Prow a dozen times, but he'd never really stopped to contemplate it. Nature did not hold any mystical allure to him, and most likely, when he had passed it on other occasions, he had been counting the steps to the next bastion of civilization.
The formation was aptly named - an outcropping of basalt that gave the appearance of an enormous ship cutting its way through the sea of surrounding rock. The angled sides were almost sheer, and the "deck" was a good hundred feet above the trail.
How the hell Vin had gotten up there was anyone's guess, but that's where Ezra spotted him.
"Mr. Tanner!" he shouted, not even sure Vin could hear him at that height. Vin was precariously close to the edge of the outcropping. His legs dangled on either side of where it came to an almost perfect point. Vin didn't respond to him, or even look down. "VIN!" Ezra shouted as loud as he could.
"Leave me be, Ezra!" Vin shouted back, still not looking down at him.
Ezra considered waiting Vin out, but one look at the sky convinced him otherwise. There was a storm brewing to the east, and Vin's lofty perch was a dangerous one even without the added peril posed by the rock being wet and slippery.
And, Ezra's instincts told him Vin wasn't going to come down. How he had managed the difficult climb to the stony pinnacle was a mystery in and of itself, and it was not beyond the realm of possibility that he simply didn't have the strength to make the descent now that he was up there.
Ezra looked up at the rocky abutment before him. He couldn't climb the Ship's Prow itself, but he might be able to work his way up the rocks along the side of it.
Lord, how he detested physical exertion....
He pulled off his coat because it was expensive, and he entertained no hope of it surviving the climb unscathed. He wished he had a pair of gloves. His hands were accustomed to handling cards, not clinging to craggy rocks.
He began his ascent and didn't look behind him. Ezra hated heights. It wasn't that he was afraid of them, but rather that he was uncomfortable with the vision they inspired of his crumpled remains testifying to one moment of inattentiveness while negotiating them.
It took him twenty minutes to reach the top. By that time, he had come to doubt the veracity of a statement Vin had once made about it not being possible for a man to drown in his own sweat. His clothes stuck to him, and his hair was plastered to his forehead in damp ringlets. In a few minutes, however, his presently sodden state would go unnoticed because he'd be drenched by the imminent downpour signaled by the thickening clouds above.
Unless Vin had been stricken both blind and deaf, he knew Ezra was there, but he didn't turn to acknowledge his presence. He waited until Ezra had worked his way onto the outcropping and was standing just a few feet behind him. "Go away, Ezra," he said flatly.
Ezra dragged his arm across his face to get the sweat out of his eyes. "Mr. Tanner, I did not just accomplish that inadequate impersonation of a mountain goat only to be told it was all for naught. I have no intention of leaving here until my purpose is satisfied."
Vin still didn't turn around. "And what purpose is that, Ezra? Come to take in the freak show?" he said with uncharacteristic bitterness.
He was moving something around in his hands, and as Ezra edged closer, a chill went through him when he realized it was a gun. Not Vin's mare's leg - Josiah had taken that off of him back in JD's room, and Vin hadn't even noticed, much less protested. This was a smaller gun, similar to the one he sometimes wore up his sleeve. Vin could have had it hidden anywhere.
What worried Ezra was that he was sitting out here, alone, with it.
Ezra moved forward slowly a few steps, and then dropped to his hands and knees. The outcropping was very narrow at this point, and lowering his head reduced the possibility of vertigo. It also put him at eye-level with Vin, even though Vin's back was to him.
"Mr. Tanner?" he said softly. "Might I inquire as to your intentions regarding that weapon?"
"Ain't none of your goddammed business, Ezra." Vin tried to keep his voice steady, but he didn't succeed.
"I believe it is my business, Mr. Tanner. I do not for a moment revel in the possibility that you may be contemplating using it."
Vin sniffed and rubbed his forehead. "I can't... So what if I am? What does it matter?"
Ezra didn't know what to say to him other than, "Don't, my friend."
"I ain't no use to anyone like this, Ezra..."
His tone of voice frightened Ezra more than the gun did. He suspected Vin was crying, or on the verge of it. He had never seen the tracker express any kind of intense emotion. It scared him to think that what he did or said next could literally be a life or death decision.
It was another one of those times when words failed him, but he had to say something, and sometimes, words from the heart were the most eloquent of all. "Nobody wants to lose you, Vin. This will pass, like a bad dream. I know you don't see that right now, but time will bear me out. Just give it a chance."
Vin wiped at his eyes. He didn't say anything.
Ezra considered just grabbing him, but the footing was too narrow. If they weren't perfectly balanced, they'd both go over the side.
To his relief, Vin's posture abruptly changed. He seemed to relax, and his right hand dropped to his thigh, still holding the gun.
"Ezra, you talk too much," he said softly.
"You have already pointed that out, Mr. Tanner." Ezra eased himself into a position so that he was sitting on Vin's right side. He let his feet drop over the edge. The height was dizzying, but the view was spectacular.
"One can appreciate an entirely new perspective from this vantage point," he said.
Vin wasn't stupid. He caught Ezra's double meaning. "Yeah, I reckon so."
Ezra considered his options and decided that with Vin Tanner, the direct approach was best. He held out his hand. "Give me the gun, Vin."
Vin looked at him, squinting. The sun was not bright, but Vin often squinted when he looked directly at people. They said that the eyes were the windows to the soul, and it was almost as though Vin was afraid that if he opened his eyes all the way, he'd allow too much of himself to be revealed. "I prob'ly ain't gonna do it, you know."
Vin looked down at the gun, and Ezra wasn't sure if he meant he wasn't going to give him the weapon, or he wasn't going to use it on himself. So, he tailored his response to fit either scenario. "I refuse to consider that possibility." He didn't squint when he looked at Vin. He wanted Vin to see into his soul. He wanted the tracker to see that at that instant, in that place, Ezra Standish cared about nothing else other than Vin Tanner. "Give it to me, Vin."
Vin broke eye contact, and looked out over the vista below them. "Don't reckon I really ever meant to do it. Guess I just had to play with the idea in my head for awhile so I could see that..."
He gave the gun one last, furtive glance and then casually handed it over. Ezra realized he'd been holding his breath.
Vin hung his head, and his shoulders sagged in defeat. "I can't keep goin' like this, Ezra. Buck is right. I'm gonna get someone killed."
Ezra held the gun securely. "This wasn't the answer, my friend."
Vin nodded. "Yeah. I know. The answer is out there somewhere. Back at that hole where JD found me." He looked at Ezra again, not squinting this time. "I gotta go back there, Ezra. I gotta know what this thing inside my head is."
Ezra nodded. "No battle can be waged, nor victory won, until the true nature of the enemy has been revealed."
Vin cocked his head to one side. "You know, Ezra, sometimes you're pretty damned smart."
Ezra tried to look affronted. "Only sometimes?"
Vin smiled slightly, but his face quickly became somber again and he nodded towards the gun Ezra was holding. "Ezra, don't tell Chris about this."
"Mr. Tanner, I can almost assure you that Mr. Larabee has been to the edge of that dark abyss himself. He would understand."
Vin shook his head. "I don't care. I don't want to be addin' to his burdens. One way or another, I ain't gonna be anyone's problem."
Ezra nodded. "I won't mention it, you have my word. Although we are presuming, of course, that Mr. Larabee and I are still on speaking terms when we return."
Vin frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Suffice it to say that he was somewhat less than enchanted by your abrupt departure."
"You sayin' he was pissed?"
"He may still kill me."
Vin managed a hint of a smile.
There was a crack of thunder in the distance and Ezra glanced up at the gathering storm clouds. "Mr. Tanner, it is my heartfelt recommendation that we get the hell down from here."
Vin looked uncertainly at the tortuous route Ezra had taken to get up there. "You fixin' to climb back down them rocks?"
"I harbor no illusion that it will be easy, but I will assist you, should it be necessary."
Vin gave him a mischievous look. "Reckon we could just take the trail."
Vin pointed to his left. If Ezra had bothered to ride as far as the other side of the Ship's Prow, he would have seen the gently winding path leading to the summit.
Ezra heaved a sigh, annoyed with himself.
But he laughed in spite of it, because he saw something else, too. For that brief instant, the cloud of pain and confusion had lifted from Vin's eyes. The Vin he knew was in there, and had decided how he was going to fight this battle that raged within him. Was it that simple? Did he just need to know that someone cared if he came back?
He swung his legs back up onto the deck of the "ship" and maneuvered himself so that he was behind Vin. He grabbed the tracker's arm and steadied him as he moved away from precipice and the many bleak possibilities it represented.
Vin could hardly stand up. Getting this far had taken a toll on his weakened body. Ezra looped Vin's arm around his shoulder to support him.
Vin was his friend. There was no way he was going to let him fall.
THIRTY-ONEThe storm broke, drenching them both as they followed the trail down from the Prow and back to Ezra's horse. Ezra was merely uncomfortable, but Vin had reached the limits of his stamina and, without his jacket, he was rapidly becoming dangerously chilled. He didn't give Ezra an argument when the gambler suggested that they divert their course to Nettie Wells' place, which was two miles closer than town. Chris Larabee would no doubt be wringing his hands and gnashing his teeth fearing the worst had befallen them - or at least, had befallen Vin; Ezra wasn't too optimistic that Chris cared what happened to him at that point - but Vin's immediate need was to be someplace warm and dry.
Nettie was surprised to see them. She waved to them from the doorway, but her smile faded abruptly when Ezra had to help Vin down from his horse and hold onto him so he didn't loose his footing in the mud. Seeing that something was wrong, Casey came rushing out in her slicker to take care of their horses. Ezra realized that if the two women hadn't been into town for a few days, they might not even know what was going on with Vin.
"What happened?" Nettie demanded, as soon as they were up on the porch. "Is he hurt?"
"Hi, Nettie," Vin said softly. "I'm fine."
But the look Ezra exchanged with the older woman told her otherwise, and she could see that Vin was just barely able to stay on his feet. Once inside the front door, his knees buckled, and Ezra would have gone down with him if Nettie hadn't grabbed Vin's other arm. The little lady was stronger than she looked, and between the two of them, they managed to keep Vin from falling.
"Take him to Casey's room," she said, and indicated the direction with a nod of her head.
Like Ezra, Vin was soaking wet, and he was shivering uncontrollably. Nettie started to unbutton his shirt, but Ezra stopped her. Or tried to. She smacked his hand away. "He needs to be out of these wet clothes."
"I'll do it," Ezra assured her, and even though he had no reason to doubt the feisty old woman's assertion that Vin had nothing she hadn't already seen plenty of in her day, he pushed her out the door and closed it behind her.
Vin was so completely spent that he let Ezra do most of the work. The cabin was warm, but he was shivering so violently that he couldn't manage the buttons. He willingly crawled between the blankets and pulled them around himself. Only then did Ezra let Nettie back into the room. She had extra blankets and towels, and she tossed a warm, faded quilt over Vin and then went to work drying the water that was still dripping off of his hair.
She pointed to the other blanket and told Ezra, "You, too, son. I seen fish drier than the two of you."
"Madam, I have no intention of disrobing in your genteel presence."
"Then go in the kitchen and do it, but get outa them wet clothes before you catch your death."
"I assure you, I will not..."
"Stop back-talkin' me, son, and do what yer told."
Ezra was taken aback by her abrupt manner, yet he knew Nettie well enough to know that refusal was not an option. Besides, he had to concede that while it was well outside the bounds of acceptable decorum to entertain the presence of two women clad only in a blanket, he was forced to acknowledge that he'd be far more comfortable out of his cold, sodden clothing.
She looked down at Vin. "How 'bout you? Warmin' up?"
Vin nodded. "Yeah, some." But he was still shaking.
She tucked the blankets around him. "I'll go fix you some hot broth..."
He smiled slightly. "Best wait until Ezra is done peelin' down. You're apt to give him an attack of some kind if you just walk in on him." Talking made him cough, and Nettie felt his forehead.
"You've got yerself a fever," she told him.
Vin nodded. "I ain't been feelin' too good, Nettie."
Something about the way he looked at her told Nettie there was a lot more to it than that. She stroked his arm through the blankets. "You wanna tell Nettie about it?"
Vin shrugged. "Ain't much to tell. I reckon I just need to rest a bit."
"You do that, son," she patted him affectionately, but she knew something wasn't right. Vin Tanner had a calm, gentle nature and he was always quiet, but now, he looked like he'd been beaten and had just given up and taken it. There was a pain and sadness in those deep, blue eyes of his that Nettie had never seen there before, even when he had talked about his mother. "You want me to sit here with you awhile?" she asked him.
Vin shook his head. "You don't gotta do that Nettie. I'm fine, just a little tired."
But he started coughing again and Nettie's brow wrinkled with concern. "You ain't feelin' good at all, are you?"
He hesitated a moment, but then smiled and said, "Nope. I reckon not... But you don't need to fuss over me, really."
She tucked the blankets up around his neck for good measure. "You holler if you need anything."
He nodded. "Thanks, Nettie."
Ezra returned, wrapped in the blanket Nettie had given him and carrying his wet clothes. Nettie took them from him and gathered up Vin's things as well. She ordered Ezra to sit by the fire and warm himself up while she spread their stuff out to dry in front of the hearth. Casey returned while she was doing it, and Ezra pulled his blanket a little tighter, feeling even more self-conscious of the fact that there was nothing underneath it than he had expected he would. The two women, however, seemed to think nothing of it.
"So what's goin' on?" Nettie asked him.
"With Vin. I know when somethin' ain't right."
Ezra snorted. "I wouldn't know where to begin the tale," he said.
"Suppose you start with what you're doing all the way out here," Nettie scolded him. "That boy's sick."
She began to fuss around her stove, heating a steam kettle that she hoped would ease Vin's coughing, but she listened attentively while Ezra filled her in on most of the details. He recounted Vin's disappearance and how JD had found him several days later, trapped and near death, and related how the tracker's health had suffered since the ordeal. However, he knew it would be impossible to give a direct answer to her question without mentioning the episode involving the gun. Nettie would keep it between them, but Casey was also listening, and there was no guarantee she wouldn't let something slip to JD, who in his youthful ebullience would no doubt let it slip to someone else, like Chris Larabee.
Luckily, he never got to that point in his story. Upon his revelation that JD had been injured in the altercation with James' men, Casey was ready to bolt out the door and go to him.
Ezra found that charming, in a way. It amused him that the somewhat distracted and oftentimes befuddled JD represented the pinnacle of all that was masculine in Casey's tender young heart.
He tried to reassure her that the lad was not seriously injured, but she would hear none of it, and to his surprise, Nettie didn't even try to talk her out of heading out into the atrocious weather. Either she knew Casey was too stubborn to listen, or, she had confidence that the young woman could accomplish the journey. He supposed the gallant thing to do would be to offer to accompany her, but he doubted the wisdom of leaving the old woman alone with Vin, given his unstable physical and mental condition.
"I'll be fine," Casey insisted. "A little water ain't gonna hurt me none."
Ezra tried one last time to convince her. "My dear, last I saw our young hero, he was in a drugged stupor. He won't know if you're there, or not."
Casey looked up at him with doe eyes and said, "Yes, he will," in a way that rendered him totally incapable of offering further argument.
After she was gone, Nettie returned to Vin's bedside with the kettle. She placed it carefully and directed the jet of steam so he was inhaling it. He didn't wake up or even stir, and that worried Ezra. There was a lot of the wild in Vin Tanner, and he didn't imagine that it was often that the tracker slept without keeping one ear and one eye open. Either he felt completely safe with Nettie, or he was just too sick and exhausted to care.
The old woman had taken a liking to Vin, Ezra knew, and was perhaps the only person besides Chris Larabee who seemed to put him completely at ease. Ezra felt he should prepare her for the possibility that Vin might behave in a manner different from what she was used to when he woke up, but he wasn't sure what, exactly, to tell her. He didn't think Vin was insane, like some people did, but that didn't preclude the possibility that he would act as though he were. By all accounts, he had been so lost in some distant contemplation at the saloon that he hadn't even realized Ted Cole was calling him out.
Vin had been right about one thing he'd said while they had sat perched on the rock formation. If he continued in this manner, he was going to get someone killed, and it most likely would be himself.
THIRTY-TWONettie had seen the sores healing on Vin's chest and back, but they were minor, and didn't explain why he was so pale and so weak. Vin wasn't a big man, but the last time she'd seen him, he'd looked healthy and strong. He'd lost weight since then, to be sure, but that could be explained by what had happened to him. That haunted look she'd seen in his eyes, though, could not. She returned to the fireside where Ezra had made himself comfortable in her Hepplewhite chair - the same one Vin had stolen back from Guy Royal - and gave the gambler a stern look. "There's more goin' on than what you're tellin' me."
Ezra shook his head sadly. "He just hasn't been the same since whatever happened to him. If there was some way to know what he's been through, it might help, but even he doesn't remember. I fear whatever it is, it's tormenting him to a considerable degree."
Nettie nodded. "Seen that happen to folks... Sad thing is, I don't know what can be done about it, 'cept maybe let it wear itself out over time."
By this time, his clothes had dried and the storm clouds had passed. Ezra considered leaving Vin with Nettie and letting Chris come for him the next day. But as he finished dressing in Casey's room, tucking Vin's little Colt into his vest pocket, his one trepidation about doing that overcame any intentions he might have had in that direction. Nettie didn't have the strength to keep Vin from hurting himself if he were to try anything foolish.
So, he remained at the little homestead the rest of the afternoon, eventually dozing off himself.
When he woke up, Nettie was busy preparing supper, and insisting that they eat before hitting the road again. It would no doubt be simple fare, but Ezra was hungry enough not to be averse to the suggestion.
He gathered up Vin's dry clothes and took them to him. He was awake, but he looked like hell. He had doubts that the tracker was up to even the two-mile ride into town. "We should be heading back soon. Think you can ride?"
Vin nodded, but said, "I don't see where it matters if I go back or not. I don't reckon I'd be missed much, anyway."
"And what, pray tell, brings you to this conclusion?"
"Chris and Buck... they need to be thinkin' about JD for now. I ain't no good to them standin' around where they can trip over me."
"You aren't in the way, Vin. I am sure it was no one's intention to make you feel as if you were," Ezra said, as much in the way of an apology as an actual statement.
Nettie had overheard the last part of their conversation. "He can stay here with me a day or so," she offered from the kitchen
"No ma'am," Vin answered back. "I ain't imposin' on you."
"Don't talk nonsense, Vin Tanner" Nettie scoffed. "You're welcome here any time and you know it."
"Do you want to stay?" Ezra asked him. He still didn't think it was a good idea.
Vin shook his head sadly. "I want to, but I can't go gettin' crazy on her, Ezra. I don't want her to see me like that."
Ezra left him to get dressed, and then told Nettie they'd be leaving as soon as they ate. It was already dark, and it would be late before they got back to town as it was.
She was cleaning a rabbit and Ezra wondered if she'd shot the thing herself. He wasn't fond of rabbit, but then, he had found that this part of the country offered little in the way of cultured cuisine.
She had already stripped the hide off the poor creature when Vin wandered into the kitchen, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
"I hope you're hungry," she told him.
Ezra could see that the mere thought of eating disagreed with Vin, but he thanked her politely, and headed for the door. "I'll be right back, " he told her.
She didn't ask him where he was going. He'd been asleep for 5 or 6 hours, so the answer was obvious.
But he took one look out the back door and seemed to stop in his tracks.
"What's the matter, son?" Nettie asked.
He shook his head slightly and said "It's dark," and then seemed to realize how stupid and childish that sounded.
Nettie, however, didn't seem to think anything of it, "Go with him, Ezra," she said, leaving no room for argument.
Vin actually seemed to be considering this, but when Ezra got up to comply, he laughed the suggestion off. "No. I'll be right back," he told her.
Vin was grateful that there was no one around, and so no need for him to shut himself inside the outhouse. He could leave the door open and still see the lights from the kitchen window. Nonetheless, he was fighting down pure, cold terror by the time he stumbled back into Nettie's kitchen.
He caught his foot on the door jamb and almost went down. Nettie grabbed him to steady him, and he knew she could feel his heart pounding. He was breathing way too fast and just generally making a fool of himself. There was no reason for a grown man to be that scared of nothing.
"You okay?" Nettie asked him. She didn't seem to be giving his panic a second thought.
"Yeah. Just a little winded, I reckon," he lied, and knew that she knew it.
He looked down at her small, gnarled hands holding him. They were bloody from gutting the rabbit. His eyes drifted to where she had piled the entrails on a plate, and his gaze stuck there. He wanted to stop looking at them - had to stop looking at them. But he couldn't.
The small tangle of intestines, the heart which still quivered spasmodically, the tiny lungs still filled with the animal's last breath...
It both fascinated and terrified him.
He had gutted animals before, plenty of times. The sight was nothing new, and yet, somehow, it was.
He could feel his own pulse pounding inside his head and a huge blackness rising up inside of him, squeezing the air out of him. He felt his breathing coming in harsh gasps to compensate for it and he tried to back away from the horror of the wet, glistening abomination, but his feet wouldn't move. Only his eyes could move... to the denuded, eviscerated carcass staring blankly ahead with its cold dead eyes....
He was dimly aware that he wanted to be sick, but his body had gone so numb that even that wasn't possible. All he could do was stare at that dead, mutilated creature while a consuming horror that he didn't understand enveloped him. It spread through him and fused itself with his very soul.
The thing in his head expanded, demanding to be freed, to be remembered, and he was losing the battle to keep the wall around himself so that he didn't have to see it. Didn't have to look into those unseeing eyes, or touch or smell the atrocity of that insurmountable mountain of blood and gore...
The visions came into his head, no matter how hard he tried to keep them on the other side of the wall. Blood on his hands... something unspeakably vile slipping between his fingers... pieces...
There were pieces...
The visions started to fade. Everything he was consciously aware of started to dissolve, and he let it, because if he didn't, that thing was going to rise up and devour his spirit and his sanity...
Make it go away...
Ezra turned and saw Nettie attempting to hold onto Vin. He got there just in time to keep the tracker from hitting the floor with enough force to hurt himself. Vin's face was chalky and glistening with sweat.
"I think he just fainted," Nettie said as she wet a dishrag under the kitchen pump. She didn't sound too sure of herself though, and when she applied the cloth to Vin's forehead and his body reacted with a near-convulsive spasm, she looked at Ezra uncertainly.
Ezra slapped Vin, not enough to sting, but enough to get his attention. "Mr. Tanner? Open your eyes if you can hear me..."
Vin's eyes blinked open, but there was no recognition in them. His breathing was rapid and shallow, and Ezra forced him to sit up, holding him so Vin rested against his chest.
Nettie unbuttoned his shirt and dabbed at his neck and chest with the cool cloth. Vin continued to struggle for breath even though his air passages did not sound obstructed or even congested.
Ezra was no doctor, but his instincts told him there wasn't anything physically wrong with Vin. "Calm down, Mr. Tanner," he said evenly.
Vin closed his eyes and seemed to be making an honest effort to get control of himself, but it was several minutes before he was able to stop shaking and breathe normally.
Finally, he pushed himself free of Ezra's hold on him, but instead of getting to his feet, he slumped to the floor and just lay there, his blue eyes staring at something apparently only he could see.
"Vin?" Nettie spoke to him softly. He didn't acknowledge her, so she stroked his hair. "Can you hear me, son?"
Vin nodded, but when she asked him what was wrong, his voice was barely more than a whisper, and neither Nettie nor Ezra could understand what he said. The words were there - he was mumbling about blood on his hands, again - but they weren't making any sense.
Ezra placed a hand lightly on his shoulder. "What are you trying to tell us, Vin?" he said softly.
Vin quieted down, and seemed to compose himself, but he didn't have an answer for Ezra. He was seized by another coughing fit, and Ezra looked at Nettie with a worried expression. "I should get him back to town."
"I can look after him here," Nettie protested.
Vin put a hand on her arm. "Thanks Nettie. But runnin' away ain't gonna help."
Nettie wanted to object, Ezra could tell, but instead she looked at Vin affectionately and said, "It mostly never does, son." Then she looked at Ezra, "I don't want him to be ridin'. Take my wagon. Casey can drive it back."
When Ezra had left to get the rig ready, Nettie made Vin sit up so that he was leaning against the wall. She sat down beside him and put her arm around him.
He lowered his head and wouldn't look at her. "I'm sorry, Nettie. Didn't mean to make a damn fool outa myself. Seems I been doin' that a lot lately."
"You ain't no damn fool, Vin Tanner." She pulled him close to her. "Now, suppose you tell Nettie what that was all about just now..."
Vin shook his head. "I wish I knew Nettie. Sometimes I see... things. Mostly in dreams, but sometimes when I'm awake too. It just comes outa nowhere and I don't know what it means..." He laughed bitterly. "I reckon my mind is about half gone by now." He lifted his head and looked into the kind, old eyes in that stern, weathered face. "Something real bad happened to me, Nettie, and the hell of it is, I can't remember what it was."
It was easy for him to talk to Nettie. She was a lot like him in many ways. They understood each other, and it wouldn't do any good for him to lie to her because she saw through him like a pane of glass. Just after he'd met her, he'd found himself wondering if his ma would have been like her if she had lived, and no sooner had he thought it than she had asked him who she reminded him of. Like Chris, he could safely let her inside his wall....
The wall he'd built around himself for reasons even he didn't know.
He told her everything he could remember, which wasn't much, up to when JD had gotten hurt. He tried to explain how sometimes, he just felt like he was some place else, and that was why he had just stood there when Ted Cole had called him out. The blood on his hand had been forcing him to think of something, and he was trying so hard to block it out that he had blocked out everything else, including the danger he was in.
"The same thing happened just now," he said softly. "Seein' that gutted rabbit... it messed my head up all of a sudden." He gave her a hint of a smile. "I reckon that all sounds a little crazy, don't it?"
Nettie was never one to mince words just to tell a person what they wanted to hear. "Yes, son, it does."
Vin looked at her, surprised, because for days everyone had been assuring him he wasn't mad.
"What're you fixin' to do about?" She asked him.
She stared at him point blank. Vin had given that question plenty of thought, but hadn't expected anyone to actually ask it of him. Nettie was making him squirm. Maybe he needed that.
"Buck told me I'm gonna get someone killed if I don't get myself back together. He's right. Problem is, only way I know to do that..."
"Is to go back there," Nettie finished his thought for him.
She tossled his hair affectionately. "I ain't never known you to back down from a fight, son. I don't reckon you'll let yerself get outa this one, neither."
He shook his head. "Can't afford to Nettie. I just don't wanna feel bad like this anymore."
The door opened, and Nettie and Vin were surprised to see Chris with Ezra. He'd returned to town after searching unsuccessfully for Vin, and had promptly ridden back out again as soon as Casey had told him where Vin was.
Vin looked up at him. "Hi, Chris."
Ezra had already told Chris what to expect, but even so, it took something out of him when he actually saw Vin. It hurt to see a strong man that helpless, especially when he was a friend.
He squatted down beside him, "What's goin' on, Vin?"
Vin shrugged. "Same old stuff. Just actin' crazy again," he drawled casually. "Got scared by a dead rabbit this time."
Chris frowned and looked at Nettie, but saw that she had no more idea what Vin was talking about than he did.
What he wanted to do was hold Vin and reassure him, because he looked so damed defeated. But he knew from his own experience that it was the worst thing he could do. He didn't want Vin to feel that his behavior was in any way acceptable, because that would make it easier for Vin to accept it, too.
He grabbed the tracker's arm firmly. "Get up off the floor, Vin" he said, and pulled him to his feet. "Nobody needs this crap."
His manner was abrupt to the point of being severe, and gave Vin no opportunity to protest or to challenge him.
Nettie was at first appalled at the harsh treatment, and almost said something to Chris. But then she noticed the way his arm protectively encircled Vin's shoulders once he had him standing, and how Vin actually seemed grateful to Chris for taking control of a bad situation. She realized that although Chris Larabee might have different ways of showing it, he cared for Vin Tanner every bit as much as she did, maybe even more.
Vin's stare once again became affixed on the slaughtered rabbit, and even though Chris didn't know any more than any one else why the sight bothered him, he reached up and forcibly turned Vin's head away from it. "It's okay now, Vin, you hearin' me?" He waited until Vin made eye contact with him. "There ain't nothin' to be scared of, understand?"
Chris drew him close for just an instant, just long enough to let Vin feel his strength, long enough to let him know he could rely on it. "C'mon pard, let's go home."
THIRTY-THREEVin wouldn't discuss what had happened at Nettie's, but Chris knew it bothered him more than the other times when he had lost that calculated control of his.
Nathan had checked him out and ordered him back to bed because of the cough and the fever. The healer didn't think Vin had anything more than a bad cold, but his resistance was so low at that point that it could easily turn into something worse. Vin complied without argument. In fact, he had become so docile he wasn't anything like his former self, and that worried Chris more than the emotional outbursts had, until he realized that Vin hadn't resigned himself to madness. Quite the opposite. He was preparing himself, like a warrior whose singular focus was on the coming battle. He rested when Nathan told him he had to, and he forced himself to eat, because he had to be strong enough to take on what was to come.
Vin was scared, though. Chris could see that. He suspected that Vin now remembered more than he was letting on, and it required all of his effort to keep those thoughts away until he was ready to face them, and the possibility that once he was out there, he might remember something even worse.
They moved a second bed into JD's room so Nathan didn't have to be running all over town. It was cramped, but for the first two days, neither Vin nor JD noticed. Morphine kept JD in a drug-induced haze and Vin slept most of the time.
Chris Larabee sat between the two men, reading aloud from Tennyson's Idylls of the King. Poetry wasn't suited to his western drawl, and he'd intended on reading it to himself, but JD, groggy and still half out of his head from the morphine had spotted the book during one of his lucid moments.
"Read me a story, Chris," he'd muttered.
"This ain't no story book, JD. It's just one big, long poem."
JD was undaunted. "Read it to me, anyway."
And despite the age and size difference, JD at that moment had reminded him so much of Adam that he'd taken a stab at it.
The kid had fallen asleep almost immediately, but Chris pretended not to notice that Vin was listening, too, and kept on reading until he came to a convenient stopping place. He folded the book and whispered, "JD?"
There was no answer from the boy, so he set the book down.
"You reckon any of that stuff is true, Chris?" Vin asked him. He was propped up in bed by several pillows. He coughed less that way.
"King Arthur and Camelot and all that."
Chris shrugged. "I s'pose it could be. I don't know as anyone knows for sure."
"I reckon we're kinda like them knights, the seven of us, ain't we?"
Chris laughed. "Don't tell JD that. He'd get puffed up like a peacock. But, yeah, I guess in a way, we are."
Vin nodded. "Got me a quest, anyway."
He wasn't talking about any Holy Grail, Chris knew. He meant going back to the malpais to confront whatever had happened to him there."You ain't gonna be facin' it alone, Vin. Remember that."
Vin sat upright and shook his head. "Maybe it's best I did."
"Maybe it's best, but you ain't gonna do it. For one thing, JD remembers where he found you. He's the only one who knows. And I sure as hell ain't gonna let you traipse off into the desert with JD for a guide."
Vin smiled at that, but then looked over at JD and said, "I owe him my life. If he hadn't been as pig-headed as he is, I might still be rotting in that hole..."
He looked down at his hands again, and Chris saw the familiar blank expression, the one that meant Vin was about to break off from this world and go back to that dark, hidden place in his own mind. But he'd sworn to Vin he wasn't going to let him act crazy, and he'd meant it.
He grabbed for one of his hands, "Vin?... Look at me, Vin!" The sharpness of his tone was enough to bring Vin back. He tugged on one of the tracker's fingers. "Why your hands, Vin? Why do you keep lookin' at your hands?"
Vin frowned. He apparently hadn't been consciously aware that he stared at his hands during these little episodes when he lost touch with reality.
He shook his head, confused. "I dunno, Chris. I get these pictures in my head, and there's something on my hands, but I don't know what it is... And Porter, it's like he's laughing at me, only he can't laugh because..." Vin's voice trailed off as he lost his train of thought. He pushed his hair back out of his eyes. "I dunno, Chris. I can't remember."
Chris had gotten so used to Vin's disjointed ramblings that this time, he'd almost missed something. When he realized what it was, it hit him like a rock slide. He clasped Vin's shoulders so the tracker would look at him. "Vin! Was Porter there with you?!"
Vin's eyes darted back and forth as he contemplated the question. His face went ashen and suddenly, he looked like a frightened, cornered animal. But Chris couldn't let up on him, not when he was this close. "Take it easy Vin. You don't have to remember what he did," he said in a reassuring voice. "Just tell me if he was there. Yes or no."
Vin took a deep breath to calm himself, then fixed his stare on Chris. "Yeah, Chris, he was there. He was in the hole with me, I think..."
That was as far as Chris dared to push him. Vin quickly broke eye contact and let his head drop into his hands. His voice was no more than a raspy whisper, "Jesus, Chris, what did he do to me?"
Chris rubbed his back through the thin cotton undershirt he was wearing, still damp and warm from his fever. "That's enough for now, Vin. You don't gotta think about it any more just yet."
He made him lie back against the pillows and tossed the covers up around him. "Want me to read to you some more?"
"Suit yerself," Vin said, which Chris knew meant 'yes.'
Eventually, Vin dozed off, too. The one good thing about him being physically ill was that he slept more soundly. Chris hated to bother JD, but he didn't know when another opportunity would present itself. He shook the boy's shoulders gently. "JD? Wake up, kid."
It was a real struggle for JD to get his eyes open, but he tried. As uncomfortable as it made Chris at times, he knew that JD savored any little scrap of personal attention that the older, wiser gunfighter deigned to give him, and he was willing to fight the drug in his system just to hear what Chris had to say.
Chris let him take his time waking up. He gave him a drink of water when he asked for it and waited patiently until those big, hazel eyes were able to stay open.
"Did you need somethin' Chris?" JD asked as if he were hoping the answer was yes. Chris found that amusing, considering JD hadn't even been able to walk for two days.
"I need you to remember somethin' for me," Chris said.
JD frowned. "Remember what?"
"When you found Vin, in the hole, was he there alone?"
JD looked surprised. "Yeah. 'Course he was."
"And you didn't see anyone else?"
"No. Just some bones."
This was news to Chris.
"Human? Where they human bones, JD?"
JD frowned, and Chris knew that in his elation over finding Vin, the boy probably hadn't given any thought to the significance of this question. "Yeah, Chris. They were. At least, I think they were... There was really just a skull, and it was broken... "
Chris raised an eyebrow. "Bashed in?"
JD looked at him thoughtfully. "You know, that's what was funny about it. It was broken, but it was kind of... I dunno... splattered. Like when you drop a glass jar and the pieces go everywhere. It looked like it had... fallen... or been dropped."
"You mean, dropped into the hole?"
"No... No... it wasn't in the hole. It was outside, near the rim. I thought it was Vin at first, but the teeth were all black and yellow...." He yawned and muttered, "Vin has good teeth..."
Chris didn't know if any of this was important, but he told JD, "You should have said something about this before now, JD."
The boy looked up at him, somewhat hurt, but more drowsy than anything else. "In case you ain't noticed, Chris, no one listens to me."
Chris felt a little stab of guilt at that remark. It was true that they often didn't take JD seriously, even though there was no doubt in his mind that the kid would lay down his life for any of them.
He smoothed JD's dark hair affectionately. "I know kid, but we're learnin'...."
JD's eyes had closed, but he opened them again. "Chris?"
"What if we take Vin back there and he..." He seemed to be searching for words.
"He what, JD?"
"You know, how he is sometimes now.... What if that doesn't go away? What if takin' him back there just makes it worse?"
Sometimes, the kid surprised Chris. He had to admit that he hadn't considered this possibility, but he said, "Vin thinks it'll help him if he can remember. I can't think of any other way to do it."
JD sighed. "Neither can I, but you didn't see him, Chris, the way he was when I found him. I don't even know if I want to find out what made him that way."
Chris leaned forward in his chair, forearms resting against his knees. "Were you listenin' to that poem I was readin' you, JD?"
JD thought he was being admonished. "I guess I fell asleep. Sorry."
Chris laughed. "You remember what it was about?"
"Knights and stuff."
"Well, yeah. But it was also about doin' things that might be almost too hard to do."
JD was almost asleep again, but he nodded his head and mumbled, "Courage."
Chris smiled at the boy's insight. Yeah, JD was full of surprises.
He looked at his two sleeping friends. One of them was young and the other was very young, but courage was something neither of them lacked. They could do this, and if they could do it, so could the others.
Vin's demon had thrown down the gauntlet.
The challenge would be met.
THIRTY-FOURBuck watched from a discrete distance as Vin and JD headed to Potter's store to pick up the supplies they'd need for the trek out into the desert. Both of them would have resented it if they'd known that the other five never let them out of their collective sight. Vin didn't need any reminders that he wasn't well and for a fact, they were all overprotective of JD. The kid had every right not to like the idea, but it wasn't easy to watch his unsteady, halting steps and not want to rush to his side to make sure he didn't take a tumble.
Nathan was still certain JD's knee would heal completely, given time, but the boy was obviously in constant pain and his leg was weak and unsteady. Ezra had gotten him a walking stick, just like the one Bat Masterson used, or at least, that's what Ezra said. Buck didn't know how the hell Ezra would know one way or another. Dodge City was full of gamblers - good ones. Ezra would have found the profit potential too slim in a town like that, so Buck doubted he'd ever actually been there and seen the gunfighter-lawman face-to-face. Typical of Ezra, the cane was elaborate beyond what was necessary, with a glossy, black-enamel finish and a real silver lion's head for a handle. JD loved it, though, and it not only made it easier for him to get around, it also made him less self-conscious of his pronounced limp and awkward gait.
Vin took JD's arm and steadied him as they negotiated the steps leading into the store. Funny how that had worked out. The two of them seemed to share some kind of unspoken bond now that they both had to rely on the others to look out for them - JD because he was physically impaired and Vin because he just couldn't handle being on his own.
The tracker had gotten physically stronger once he'd decided to quit starving himself, but he'd still drift away from them and sometimes would just sit there like a dead man. Even his eyes looked dead when he got like that, and during his better times, it still seemed as though he was just going through the motions of living, not really connected to anything or anyone, except maybe Chris. He'd sit with them at the saloon, but was usually unable to concentrate on his cards, or the conversation, and more likely than not drinking more than he usually did. He always looked drawn and tired, and on the rare occasions that he did laugh or smile, it was all play-acting. It was like he just couldn't feel good about anything anymore, no matter how hard he tried.
Vin hadn't suffered anymore violent outbursts in public, but those had already done their damage. People avoided him now, and even of the ones who didn't, some, like Mary Travis and Mrs. Potter, weren't comfortable having him around. Then there were people like Maggie who hovered like vultures waiting for him do something crazy. Vin would no longer eat at her place, so most of the time, Josiah fed him. That was probably for the best, anyway. Josiah was willing to prepare food Vin would eat, and had the patience to wait while he took an hour or more to choke a meal down.
Josiah had been talking with him, too. Preparing him for what he might face when he went back to the malpais. Nathan was gifted at healing the body, but it was Josiah who had knowledge of the wounded spirit. Buck knew that Chris and the preacher had talked about things Vin had done and said during his less lucid moments. They had suspicions, and they hadn't needed to share them with Buck for him to know that whatever had happened to Vin had to have been something no man could endure. Vin wasn't weak, but whatever had been done to him had terrified him so badly that the hurt wouldn't heal.
Buck groaned aloud when he spotted trouble stumbling down the boardwalk in the form of three besotted cowboys. At least they weren't James' or Royale's men, just drifters who'd spent too long at the saloon turning their trail pay into piss. Problem was, the three of them were heading into Potter's store right on the tails of Vin and JD. Mrs. Potter, understandably, was easily shaken by any kind of confrontation since her husband had been gunned down. JD, God love him, had a knack for making that kind of thing worse instead of better, and there was no telling what Vin would do if JD needed help. He'd gotten a little better about not drifting off on them at the slightest provocation, but he still did it, and he was as jumpy as fleas on a jackrabbit.
Buck dared to hope the three cowboys were just blowing off steam, in which case, there was not much to be gained by interfering with their fun unless they actually started breaking things. He decided it was best to just stand back and see if anything actually happened before causing a scene.
Mrs. Potter was discussing some kind of lady thing with her friend. JD wasn't sure what they were talking about, but he'd heard enough that he was sure he didn't want to. He and Vin decided to look around and help themselves rather than interrupt. They only needed enough provisions for 3-4 days at the most, but they had to make sure they had everything. There was no living off the land in the malpais, and the memory of how fiercely hungry he'd been after two days without food was still fresh in JD's mind. He needed new boots, too. He'd taken a liking to the moccasins Josiah had given him, but they weren't practical for the treacherous surface of the lava flow, and now that the swelling in his feet had gone down and his blisters had healed, there was no excuse to avoid conventional footwear.
The pair he fancied were up on a shelf, too high for him to reach. Normally, he would have just jumped up on the counter and reached from there, but his knee was still stiff and painful, and he was pretty sure that would be a dumb thing to do.
He tried knocking them down with his cane, but it was a straight walking stick, not the kind with a hook on the end, and mostly he only succeeded in poking at them.
Vin saw the problem and tried to get the boots down for him, but he was wasn't tall enough, either. JD was about to make a joke about how they needed Buck - whom they both knew was hovering over them at that very moment like some self-appointed guardian angel, even though he thought they hadn't noticed him - but he saw that change in expression on Vin's face that he had learned meant he was thinking about the bad thing that had happened to him, reliving part of it in his head.
Josiah had said to get him to say what he was thinking when that happened, but it wasn't always easy. Sometimes, like now, they just weren't in a place where Vin could share his private thoughts. Besides, JD was pretty sure he knew why it bothered him so much that he couldn't reach. The hole where he had found Vin trapped hadn't been very deep. It was just deep enough that Vin couldn't get out, even though he must have tried like hell.
JD put a hand onVin's shoulder. "It's okay, Vin," he reassured him. "Mrs. Potter probably has a step ladder or some..."
JD flinched as the door to the shop opened with a loud crash. Vin literally jumped. JD had noticed soon after getting to know him that Vin was bothered by loud, unexpected noises, but now, he couldn't stand them. They seemed to set every one of his nerves on edge so as to cause him physical pain, and he'd try to hide it by becoming angry.
JD turned to the three idiots who didn't know any better than to enter a building like a herd of stampeding cattle. All three of them were drunk, and one of them decided to look him up and down like he wanted to start something.
He spit tobacco through his brown teeth, right onto Mrs. Potter's clean-swept floor. "Well, lookit this," he said to his friends as he waved a hand towards JD. "Regular city-slicker."
JD didn't like dressing like everyone else. That wasn't him, and he would have felt stupid. But he sure as hell wasn't no city-slicker. "If you fellers wanna buy something, you best find it and then be on your way," he said. He tried to sound like he meant business, but these guys were bigger than he was - hell, everyone was bigger than he was - and they'd seen the walking stick. It was hard to be a commanding presence.
Vin was still on edge from being startled. He had a funny, wild look in his eyes when he stepped from behind JD. "Better yet," he hissed, "why don't you just get the hell out now?"
JD winced and put a hand on his arm. "Easy, Vin."
The cowboys were too drunk to be reasoned with, but they weren't being openly hostile, just teasing him to see if he'd fight back. He had no intention of doing that and wrecking Mrs. Potter's store, even if he'd thought he stood a chance. With his leg messed up like it was, he was almost certain he didn't.
Still, Vin had apologized to JD a half dozen times for not standing up to Ted Cole that day at the saloon, and now, JD suspected, he was trying to make amends, except this wasn't the time for him to be starting a fight.
Vin wasn't a whole lot bigger than he was, but JD had seen how he could look tough and mean enough that men who considerably out-sized him often backed down rather than fight him. And now Vin was holding in a lot of anger that he didn't know how to get rid of, which made him unpredictable, if not downright dangerous. JD didn't know if the others had noticed it, but to him, Vin seemed like a rattlesnake coiled to strike most of the time, and right then, he looked downright crazy. He was staring at those three cowboys with his teeth clenched and blood in his eyes, like they were all personally responsible for the pain inside him. He was a lot madder than the situation warranted.
JD knew he had to do something to diffuse the situation, but he had no idea what. For once, he wished Buck had followed them.
Mrs. Potter stepped from behind the counter, attempting to calm things down before a fight started. "Can I help you boys find something?" She tried to sound friendly, but she was clearly nervous.
It did distract the cowboys, but not in the way she intended.
One of them was considerably less ugly than the other two, and being drunk, no doubt thought women found him more attractive than they actually did. He eyed Mrs. Potter lasciviously. "Oooooo-eeeee. What do we got here?" he leered, as if Mrs. Potter would be flattered by his attention.
Mrs. Potter, although certainly not uncomely, was a middle-aged woman, and smart enough to recognize disrespect when she saw it, but she nervously turned away from the drunkard.
He slapped her lightly on the bustle, and then made the sort of comment usually reserved for whores, except JD didn't even talk to whores that way.
He took a step forward. "You watch your mouth, mis..."
JD saw Vin only as a blur out of the corner of his eye. An instant later, the cowboy was doubled over by a blow to his mid-section. Vin had his mare's leg trained on the guy's head and was disarming him.
JD was surprised by Vin's move, but he didn't let it show as he quickly disarmed the other two cowboys, both of whom were so drunk they hadn't even thought to go for their guns.
Vin had over-reacted to the situation, but he'd handled it with his former efficiency. JD was thankful that at least they wouldn't have to shoot someone to avoid getting the shit beaten out of them. Still, he hoped like hell that Vin would calm down before things got out of control.
"We was just funnin'," the cowboy Vin had punched whined, still holding his belly. "No need to go gettin' all riled at us."
"You put your dirty hands on a lady, that's reason enough," JD said.
The cowboy tried to straighten up, and winced. "That feller hits plumb hard.... damn..."
Seeing that he and Vin had the upper hand for the moment, JD dared to swagger a bit. "I suggest you boys get whatever you came here for and then find somewhere to sleep it off. You can pick up your guns at the jail when you sober up."
"Who the hell are you guys, anyway?" the third cowboy slurred.
"They're the law in this town," Mrs. Potter said indignantly.
Still not having learned his lesson, the second cowboy looked at JD and snorted. "Law my ass. He ain't nothin' but a crippled boy."
That hurt, but JD wasn't about to show it. He brought his cane up and rammed it the direction of the asshole's crotch, stopping just short of actually bashing him in the balls with it. The cowboy reflexively covered himself and let out a high-pithced yelp even though JD didn't actually touch him.
Vin took the opportunity to get right in his face. "An' I'm so crazy, I might kill you for fun."
"Vin..." JD sighed.
But he was too late. Vin gave the guy a shove.
The man staggered, but he didn't go down. Vin hadn't pushed him in JD's direction, but he turned and then stumbled, and fell right into him, anyway.
JD tried to get out of the way, but he couldn't move that fast. He wrenched his knee, and he hollered as the pain made him see spots before his eyes.
Vin grabbed the guy and tossed him at his friends, knocking them down like duckpins. Mrs. Potter screeched as they narrowly missed a shelf full of canning jars. Before they could disentangle themselves from the heap they landed in, Vin was standing over them, leaving them to decide who he was aiming his gun at.
"You okay, JD?" he asked.
JD felt like someone had stuck a hot knife under his kneecap, but he managed to gasp, "Yeah... Let it go, Vin..."
Vin wasn't listening, though. "Get up," he commanded the trio. "And then get out, while I'm still in a good mood."
The three cowboys got up and dusted themselves off.
Buck, who just had a sixth sense for when trouble was brewing, had tried to stay out of the store, but couldn't stand it any longer. He came through the door just as the drunkards were staggering out.
"You best watch out fer them two fellers," one of them slurred. "Coupla mean little shits."
JD was bent over, holding his throbbing knee. "Was there trouble?" Buck asked him.
Mrs. Potter smiled gently at Vin. "No trouble, thanks to these two."
Vin tried to smile back, but his hands were shaking, and what little color he had these days had drained from his face.
"You okay, Vin?" Buck asked him.
He nodded, but then he bolted out of the store.
THIRTY-FIVEJD looked up at Buck. "Go after him."
The urgency in JD's voice got Buck's feet moving, but by the time he reached the boardwalk, the quick, agile tracker was nowhere to be seen. He even looked up - Vin liked high places and often watched over the town from a rooftop. He didn't see him, though.
JD hobbled up behind him.
"What happened in there?" Buck asked him.
"It was nothin', just some cowboys actin' loco. They really stirred Vin up, though. You know how he is.... We should find him, Buck."
Buck agreed with that, but he didn't know where to start looking. He and JD split off in different directions, and Buck checked the saloon and Josiah's place before he remembered that the last time Vin had run off on them, he'd gotten his horse and left town. He headed for the livery.
It almost seemed too easy when he actually found Vin there. He was beside his horse, but his gear was scattered on the ground. He was clawing through it like he'd misplaced the crown jewels.
"Vin?" Buck said softly when the tracker didn't seem to notice he was there.
Vin continued his search, so Buck squatted down beside him. "You lose somethin'?"
Vin snickered, "You mean besides my mind?"
Buck threw his head back and laughed heartily. Vin, who was obviously intent on wallowing in self-pity, wasn't expecting that reaction. He looked at Buck, confused. "I'm glad you think this is funny."
"Think what's funny? That you lost your mind?"
Vin glowered at him.
"What do you want me to do, Vin? Pat you on the head and tell you I can make it all better? I'll do that if you want, but the way I see it, that ain't what you need."
"Oh yeah? What is it I do need, Buck? Care to tell me?"
"Well, we could start with a kick in the ass to get rid of this attitude you've picked up."
Vin squinted at him, his expression full of resentment. "What attitude?"
Vin gave him a pained look, and Buck knew he'd hit a nerve, but he quickly turned away and started shaking out his bedroll viciously. "You don't know shit, Buck."
"I know you're scared."
Vin visibly winced at that observation.
"You were right when you said I could get somebody killed," he said softly. He patted the unrolled blanket, but didn't find whatever he was looking for.
"An' now you're scared that after you go back... out there... that it ain't gonna fix anything."
Vin hit the flattened blanket even harder. He was no longer looking for something, he was just hitting it. Buck grabbed his forearm and made him stop.
Vin yanked his arm back and got to his feet. He started to kick his stuff away from him, unmindful of breaking or damaging anything. They'd found it best to just let him get it all out when he got like this. Attempting to restrain him only made him worse most of the time. He'd fight and struggle until he hurt himself, or get so mad he'd be physically ill. But his horse skittered away from him, its eyes round with fright, and Vin didn't even seem to notice, much less care. He ripped down the bridle that hung on the wall and flung it hard against the back of the stall, almost hitting the startled animal. Buck grabbed him and pushed him down into the straw on his back. He'd sit on him if he had to, and Vin knew it.
"You're done, Vin," he said gently. "No more of that."
Even though he was lying down, Vin's entire body seemed to sag under that unseen burden he was carrying. "I hate it that I ain't no use to anybody," he said softly.
Buck pulled him into a sitting position. "You done fine back at Potter's from what I heard."
Vin shifted his position so that he leaned his head back against a rough wooden support timber and closed his eyes. "I almost got JD shot again is what I did. I don't even know what I'm doin' half the time."
Buck let himself drop all the way to the floor so that he was sitting beside Vin. "Ain't none of us holdin' any of this against you, Vin."
Vin didn't look at him, but he said, "What if I go out there and I don't remember a damn thing Buck? What if I don't get past this?"
"We can deal with that, if it happens."
Vin shook his head. "You shouldn't have to. I ain't nothin' to any of you."
Buck knew what Vin was thinking. He didn't have anyone else. No family, no place he belonged. He'd probably been on his own since he was much younger than JD. Needing to depend on others to care for him, even if it only meant not leaving him alone, had to be hell.
But he didn't allow any sympathy into his voice when he said, "I guess that means the lot of us don't mean shit to you, either."
Vin looked at him. "I didn't say that."
"You might as well have."
Vin turned away, his eyes downcast.
"Ain't none of us come into this with any guarantees, Vin," Buck said.
Vin frowned. "What do you mean?"
"The life we lead... there ain't no guarantee that one of us ain't gonna end up needing the others at some point. Ain't no shame in it. You'd be there if it was one of us. Hell, you are there for JD right now. I seen how you walk a little slower so he can keep up, how you put yourself in just the right spot to catch him if he should fall. Does it bother you, doin' any of that for him?"
"It's my fault he got hurt."
Buck laughed. "Now you sound like Chris.... It's Ted Cole's fault JD got hurt. And, I reckon JD should take a little of the blame himself. Fool kid, always runnin' off an' doin' stuff two steps ahead of his brain."
That got a hint of a smile out of Vin.
"My point is," Buck continued, "you don't gotta be worryin' about this. If you need us, we're gonna be there. Not just because we're all you got but because... well, hell, because you're all we got, Vin. It's just us, don't you see that? We maybe ain't family, but we're as close as any of us come to havin' one." He put his hand on Vin's shoulder. "You wouldn't turn your back on any of us. We ain't about to leave you to get through this on your own."
"And if I don't get through it?" Vin said bitterly.
"You will. I know that for a fact"
Vin picked at the straw around him. "How can you be sure Buck, when you don't even know...?"
Buck had an idea what Vin was hinting at. He knew what Chris and Josiah suspected. "If you're thinkin' that whatever it is is gonna make us think you any less of a man, Vin, you're wrong."
"No I ain't," Vin said. "You won't say it, but you'll be thinkin' it."
Buck nodded. He wouldn't lie to Vin. Vin was too smart. "Maybe we will, but we'll be in the wrong, and in our hearts, we'll know that. Whatever happened, you didn't want it to, and it could have happened to any of us."
Vin sat perfectly still and didn't respond to him.
"I don't wanna talk about this anymore, Buck."
Buck nodded and stood up. To just leave Vin sitting there alone was not a good idea. No telling what he'd get it into his head to do. So instead, he started to gather up Vin's scattered belongings and after a few seconds, Vin got up to help him.
"Never did get the stuff we needed at the store," he said casually.
Buck hoisted Vin's saddle back into place. "Vin, you sure you wanna go through with this? Goin' back out there?"
Vin looked up at him with tired blue eyes. "I have to Buck. I left a piece of me out there. I need to get it back somehow."
Buck nodded that he understood. "Vin, whatever is out there on that mesa waitin' for you, it ain't bigger than the seven of us together...."
Sometimes, he just got too damned emotional. He only meant to clap Vin on the shoulder, but he ended up hugging him like he'd done with JD.
Funny thing was, Vin didn't seem to mind, although eventually he muttered, "Buck? You pat my head an' I'm gonna have ta kill you."
Buck laughed and let Vin go.
Come morning, they'd ride.
THIRTY-SIXJD's memory of the trail he'd taken with Vin was still sharp enough in his mind that, by late afternoon, they'd reached the spot by the spring where he had stopped to rest before deciding he had to get Vin back to Four Corners. The remains of the campfire he'd made were still there.
Nathan had ridden up alongside Chris. "We should make camp here for the night."
Chris looked toward the western horizon. "There's still plenty of daylight left."
"JD and Vin need to rest, and you know neither of them is gonna say so."
Chris smiled. Nathan was right. JD hadn't once complained, but his knee had to be hurting from all the riding they'd done, and he knew Vin tired easily because he didn't eat or sleep enough.
He dismounted. "We'll camp here tonight," he announced. No one gave him an argument. Not only were they aware that Vin and JD didn't have their usual stamina for the trail, none of them were really looking forward to discovering whatever awful secret Vin had locked inside him. Because none of them knew what it was, none of them knew how they'd deal with it when the time came, and none of them liked the idea of going into something unprepared.
Buck reached up to take JD off his horse. The boy gave him a withering look, but he also knew that his injury would make dismounting the usual way painful, if not difficult. He let Buck take him out of the saddle and leaned on him until he was sure his feet were securely under him.
Vin climbed down from his own horse and looked pensively at the little stream and the blackened earth where the fire had been. The burn on his arm had healed, and he only vaguely remembered doing that to himself, but this was where that had happened. He was sure of it.
Nathan spread out JD's bedroll in front of a smooth boulder near the charred spot of ground. There was a natural indentation in the sandstone there that made it an obvious place for a campfire, so they decided they would make another one in the same spot.
He eased JD down onto the blanket and tucked his saddle under his knee to elevate it. The kid grimaced with pain, so Nathan asked him if he wanted a spoonful of laudanum to take the edge off.
JD shook his head. "Maybe when I'm ready to sleep. I can handle it for now." He looked over at Vin who had sat down in the dirt next to where the fire had been. He was staring at what little trace remained of it, a thoughtful frown wrinkling his brow.
Nathan followed JD's gaze and then went and sat down beside the tracker. "What're you thinkin', Vin?" he said softly.
Vin seemed to suddenly notice Nathan was there. He shook his head. "I dunno know, Nathan. I guess I remember this place." He looked down at his arm. "I burned myself, I think." He looked over at JD for confirmation.
JD nodded. "You crawled right into the fire, Vin."
Vin looked away, confused, embarrassed or frightened - JD couldn't tell which. Maybe a little of all three. He didn't know if he should say anything else. He remembered how Vin had been that night, more like an animal than a man. He wasn't sure if he should try to jog Vin's memory by bringing up more details or if he should keep what he'd seen to himself. Vin didn't seem to know what he wanted or needed, either.
Josiah spread Vin's bedroll out beside JD. "Lie down, Vin," he commanded gently. "Rest a little bit."
Vin didn't argue. He stretched out on the ground and watched without expression as Buck and Chris got a fire started. The others went about the motions of setting up camp, leaving him and JD relatively alone for the moment.
JD didn't think Vin was going to talk to him, and he didn't press him. He thought it was probably best if Vin remembered what he could on his own. Pushing him to remember only made him crazy. He'd seen that. Still, he never had been comfortable with silence and was about to attempt small talk when Vin spoke first.
"You gave me an apple," he stated simply, although it was more of a question.
JD nodded. "Yeah, I did. From those trees over there." He indicated the direction of the wild-growing apple trees. He wondered if they still had any of those tasty little apples on them, and if he should mention them to the others. "You didn't want to eat it, though."
Vin got that far-away look in his eyes that gave JD the creeps, because he knew it meant Vin was about to get strange. "I didn't like it in my mouth. It was like... pieces..."
JD never seemed to know the right thing to say when Vin went all drifty on them like that, and sometimes, he was just too blunt. "I don't know what you're trying to say, Vin. What pieces?"
Vin swallowed hard and got all pasty-looking all of a sudden, and JD just knew that he was going to be sick.
"Nathan!" he called for help.
But Vin got up and ran past the healer as he headed out into the brush, away from the camp. He didn't get far enough away that they couldn't hear him, though.
Chris was the one who went to him, because Vin seemed to resent Chris the least when he was in a vulnerable position like that.
He was on all fours, still heaving into the dirt when Chris reached him. He knelt beside him and stroked his back until he was sure the attack was over. Then he helped Vin to his feet.
The tracker's face was still pale, and there were beads of cold sweat on his forehead, but he belligerently shrugged Chris's hands off. "I'm okay!" he snapped.
Chris, of course, knew that wasn't true, just as he knew Vin's distress wasn't entirely physical. "What brought that on, Vin?"
Vin rubbed the back of his neck and shrugged. "I dunno, Chris. Something JD said made me think... I... aw, shit..."
He bent forward with his hands on his knees and tried to get sick again, but it was only dry heaves this time.
Chris waited for that to pass, too.
Vin shook his head. "I don't know what's makin' me do this," he muttered self-consciously.
Chris tossed down the cheroot he was smoking and ground it out. If Vin's stomach was flip-flopping on him, he'd probably rather not have to deal with the pungent aroma it gave off.
"Are you that scared, Vin?" he said softly.
Vin looked up at him, like he didn't know the answer to that himself.
"We don't have to do this," Chris assured him. "Not now. Not until you know you're ready."
Vin put up a hand to stop him. "I don't know that I'll ever be ready, Chris. And I'd just as soon get it over with." He kicked dirt over the mess he'd made.
Chris eyed the spot, then looked at Vin. "Talk to me, then. Tell me what that was all about."
Vin took a deep breath and nodded, but he looked so weak and shaky that Chris thought it would be better if he wasn't standing. "Let's go get you washed up, first," he said.
Vin followed him to the little spring. He sat down on the smooth rocks beside it and dipped his cupped hands into the warm water to wash his face. Then he tossed a few more handfuls back over his sweaty hair.
He used his bandana to dry his face off, but left the water to trickle in cooling droplets from his dark locks. The others hung back at a respectful distance. They knew Vin would open up to Chris before he would to any of them. The two men seemed to understand each other even though few words ever passed between them.
Chris waited patiently for Vin to talk to him. The tracker raised his knees up and draped his arms around his legs. Normally, the movement would have been a casual one, but he was as tense as new-strung wire, and his hands trembled.
He stared out over the mesa towards the malpais. "JD and I stopped here that first night, after he found me," he began. "He tried to give me somethin' to eat, but I couldn't stand to have nothin' in my mouth. There was a memory there... of something that tasted so bad... something... rotten. But it was even worse than that..."
He squeezed his eyes shut and his body tensed up as a chill went through him.
Chris moved closer to him. "You gonna get sick again?"
Vin answered through clenched teeth. "I dunno. Maybe..."
Chris rubbed his shoulders reassuringly, because he didn't know what else to do for him. Vin let his head fall onto his raised knees. He looked miserable.
Chris had begun to doubt the wisdom of what they were doing out there, and Vin had reinforced his misgivings. Vin had come out there to remember, but at that very moment, Chris could see he was desperately trying to block out some wretched memory that was so horrifying that the mere suggestion of it had made him physically ill. What the hell was going to happen when he faced it head on?
They sat quietly together, Chris not knowing what would be the right or wrong thing to say, and Vin perfectly comfortable with the silence. Just the fact that Chris was sitting there, next to him, was reassuring and somehow comforting. After a few minutes, he was able to calm down and stop shaking.
"You really should get some rest, Vin." Chris took him by the arm. "C'mon. Lie down for awhile." He led him back to his bedroll.
Nathan and Josiah were fixing supper. JD had conned Buck into picking some apples off the two lonesome little apple trees that had sprung up beside the creek. JD mentioned to Vin that there were pinons there, too, but lamented the fact that they didn't have anything to replace them with.
Vin smiled. "You remembered what I told you."
JD nodded. "Most of it, anyway. I don't reckon I'll ever be the tracker you are."
"JD, I hope you ain't never some of the things the rest of us are." He laughed and looked at Ezra, who was relaxing against another boulder with a flask in his hand, perfectly content to let everyone else do the work of setting up camp.
"What?" the gambler replied in response to Vin's stare.
Vin just smiled and shook his head. "Nothin' Ezra."
"I trust you are feeling better, Mr. Tanner?"
Vin nodded, but JD could see that his attention had been diverted to an ant hill on the other side of the narrow little stream. Now that the worst heat of the day had passed, the ants were pouring out of it, spreading out in all directions in their search for food and whatever else ants went looking for. Vin stared at them. At first, JD thought that maybe he just found them interesting. You could drop a biscuit or crust of bread on an ant hill like that and the little creatures would send out an army of extra workers to scurry and pick at it until they had every scrap down in that hole with them, no matter how long it took. JD had to admire their determination, and sometimes he and Casey would put food on an ant hill just to watch them. But, when he realized that Vin's interest in them was less than casual, he thought he knew the reason why. "Vin?" he said cautiously.
Vin kept staring at the ants.
"I don't think they'll cross the water," JD said, and then realized that to anyone else, that statement would have appeared to have come out of the blue and make no sense.
It made sense to Vin, though, just like he thought it might. "They'd come down in that hole after me, those ants." His voice was distant, and he was remembering something , JD was sure.
"I know," he said. "I saw how they bit you up real good."
Vin squeezed his eyes shut and sucked in his breath. "It hurt."
JD had once gotten so enthralled watching the little red devils that he hadn't noticed when one of them had crawled up his pants leg. It had stung him on the back of the calf, and if Casey hadn't been there, he might have considered crying, it had hurt so bad. Nettie had made some kind of paste out of baking soda to put on it, and it had taken some of the worst burning away, but it still ached like the dickens. To have been bitten over and over again with nothing to ease the agony would have to be pure torture. He didn't know if he'd be able to stand pain like that. "Yeah, I bet it hurt like hell," he said, keeping his voice even.
Vin kept staring at the ants. He seemed calm, but JD knew something was getting ready to snap inside him. No sooner did he have that thought than Vin got up and splashed the two or three steps across the little stream.
He destroyed the ant hill with a couple of well-placed kicks, and then started stomping the ants.
The dirt was relatively firm, but those particular ants didn't squash that easily. Most of them would curl up in little balls from the impact and then unwind themselves and be mad as hell and sting the first thing they came into contact with.
"What the hell..."Josiah muttered when he saw what Vin was doing.
The others stopped what they were doing and watched, too, unsure if they should intervene. Vin probably wasn't going to injure himself, and they were only ants, after all. But there was something unsettling about his savage determination to destroy the tiny creatures.
It wasn't until Vin saw he wasn't effectively crushing them with his feet, and got down on his hands and knees and started smashing them with his bare hands, that anyone made a move.
Almost immediately, Vin started screaming with rage and pain as the ants stung him, but even so, Chris had to forcibly pull him away from tangled mass of tiny, crushed bodies.
Chris knew ants were warriors. They made up for their small size with speed, cooperation and a total lack of fear. It didn't matter to them that Vin was a million times bigger. They'd crawled all over him, instinctively knowing that they had to find a way into his clothing to really do some damage, and it would be hard to persuade anyone that they weren't hell-bent on revenge.
He carefully brushed the ants off of Vin's clothes, and by some miracle wasn't stung himself.
Vin sank to his knees and started to rock back and forth. He was someplace else, where there was no reaching him, and he was still screaming. Chris hated that sound. It was so raw and so far from who Vin was that it scared him.
As concerned as he was for Vin, Chris really did not want to get bitten, and he made sure the ants were gone before he knelt down beside Vin and pulled him into his arms. He didn't know if it would help, because at that point, Vin probably couldn't think about anything except making the pain go away. It felt awkward holding him like that in front of the others, but he just couldn't leave him alone to ride out the pain, both in his body and his mind. He didn't care what the others thought, and when he saw them staring, he turned cold eyes on them.
"Find something else to look at!" he snapped.
The others averted their gaze, their embarrassment equally as evident as their concern. Vin was as close to madness as it was possible to get. They all knew it. But knowing that and seeing the evidence were different things. It was hard for all of them to see Vin like he was then.
Chris held him until he stopped screaming, until he was sobbing in that quiet way he cried, without making any real sound.
"Talk to us Vin," he said softly. "Tell us..."
"It hurts," Vin gasped.
"I know," Chris soothed him. "I know it does.... Tell me why you did that Vin."
Vin shrugged his shoulders.
Chris held him a little tighter, a little more securely, and in a low, soft voice said, "Vin, comin' out here is gonna be all for nothin' if you don't let out what's goin' on inside you. Now tell me what's in your head, right now. No matter how crazy it sounds."
Vin wiped at his eyes and nodded, and calmed down enough to speak. "They kept comin'..." he choked. "Every day. All over me. I couldn't make them stop. There were too many of them..."
"The ants?" Chris asked softly.
Vin nodded. "They were comin' into the hole, comin' for him..."
"Who, Vin? Porter?"
Vin grabbed Chris's shirt and buried his face in it like he was trying to hide. For a brief moment, Chris was afraid he'd gone so far into that other place that he wasn't going to come back.
"Vin?" He stroked his wet hair, and made sure the others weren't staring. He didn't care what they thought, but he was afraid Vin might be ashamed or embarrassed when he realized he was carrying on in front of them like that. He took Vin's face in his hands and made him look at him. He stared him in the eye even though Vin tried his damnedest to turn away.
It took him a minute or two, but Vin eventually got control of himself, and began to appear lucid again. The last thing Chris wanted was for him to feel foolish or uncomfortable, so he let him go and moved a slight distance away from him.
Vin's face contorted with pain. Now that he'd regained his senses, he was really feeling the bites.
The others knew Chris didn't want them to interfere, so they had hung back, but Nathan didn't hesitate to step forward when he saw Vin needed his attention. He moved Vin back to his bedroll, next to JD, and had him take a couple of generous swallows from a bottle of laudanum he'd taken from his kit.
He covered Vin with a blanket as the medicine took hold, making him drowsy as it eased his pain. The tracker wouldn't sleep long. He never did, no matter how tired he was. The slightest odd noise, or someone moving too close to him, or his own nightmares would wake him up before he got any real rest.
JD was exhausted, and once the excitement was over, he quickly fell asleep, too.
The other five gathered around the campfire in the growing darkness.
"You think that's all it was?" Josiah asked. "Ants?"
Nathan shook his head. "No. The ants were just part of it. When he remembers what he needs to remember, he'll know it. It'll be like a door openin' up. I don't expect it to be easy."
"You call what just happened 'easy'?" Chris snorted.
"No," Nathan said softly. "But it prob'ly ain't nothin' like what's comin'."
THIRTY-SEVENJosiah tried to be as quiet as possible while pouring himself a cup of coffee. He'd taken over the watch from Ezra, who was much better at staying up late than the rest of them, but who would be in a foul mood if he didn't at least get a couple of hours sleep before dawn.
The gambler had quickly drifted off, leaving the preacher alone with his thoughts. There probably didn't need to be anyone on watch at all. They had no reason to expect trouble. But thanks to the lives they had lead and the people they had crossed, most of his companions slept better knowing someone was watching over them.
He stirred the little fire to keep it going. There wasn't much in the way of real fuel to burn where they were, and starting another fire from scratch would be more trouble than it was worth.
He stared across the flames and saw that Vin was awake and watching him. He'd spent many long hours with the tracker, trying to get him to open his mind and free the hidden thoughts that so tormented him. He'd learned techniques during his studies that he thought would help, and he'd tried to teach Vin that just as there were ways to heal the body, there were ways to heal the mind. But some wounds, be they of the body or the spirit, took a long time to heal, and some never did. He wondered if he alone could see the possibility that Vin might never again be the man he had been.
"You want something to eat, Vin?" he asked, and without waiting for an answer he put some cold bacon in a biscuit and handed it to him. Vin sat up and took the food. He hadn't eaten all day, but Josiah knew he would only nibble at it.
"I reckon I looked pretty silly beatin' up those ants," he said.
"I don't think anyone took any particular notice." Josiah smiled warmly at Vin, who knew he was lying.
Vin laughed softly. "Reckon everyone's used to me bein' crazy by now."
Josiah's smile faded a bit. "It's not a problem, Vin."
Vin took a small bite of bacon. "What ain't? Keepin' me around?"
Josiah nodded. "You have my word on that. I think I can speak for Nathan, too. We won't see you locked away like some... well, we just won't. Not a man among us is without his flaws." He poked at the fire again.
"I seen the way folks in town look at me. I know they're talkin' about me, too. I ain't used to that."
"Folks'll do that, when they don't understand. The ones that matter, it won't make a difference to them. And if it does, then, they don't matter."
Vin smiled. "You talk in circles, Josiah."
Josiah nodded, and they didn't speak for awhile. Vin finished most of his food and then washed it down with some coffee. Buck had filled JD's hat up with the little apples, and Vin reached for one, slowly turning it over in his hands.
"Things are startin' to come back, Josiah."
Josiah looked at him. "Well, that's what we were countin' on , ain't it?"
Vin nodded. "It just ain't easy," he whispered.
"The spot where JD found you ain't far from here, accordin' to him. We should be there sometime tomorrow...."
He looked across the fire at Vin, whose eyes looked very large and dark in the flickering flames. Josiah waited for him to say something else. He could tell he wanted to, but when he didn't, he prodded him. "Put it into words, Vin. That's the only way we can understand."
Vin swallowed hard. Saying what was on his mind wasn't easy for the tracker. Josiah knew that. Vin was one of the most intensely private people he had ever known. If you asked him what he thought, he'd tell you, but otherwise, he was like a closed book with the pages glued together. You could force it open, if you wanted to read it badly enough, but most folks never bothered, and that was fine with Vin.
"You're gonna have to let the wall down, Vin. If you don't, you won't be able to drive away that devil inside you. He'll stay locked in there with you forever."
Vin stared at him, surprised at Josiah's perceptiveness. He had never told him about the imaginary wall he'd started building when he was five years old. That wall that was now so high and so thick, it had imprisoned him. He tried to sound calm, but his voice caught in his throat, belying his fear. "I know that, Josiah....Chris is right. I'm scared."
Josiah could see the torment in Vin's eyes, as well as the fear. "Nothin' to be ashamed of. We've all been scared. Takes courage to admit that."
Josiah waited for him to continue, but it was pointless. Everything had to be dragged out of Vin, he knew that by now. "Keep goin' Vin. I'm listenin'."
"Josiah, I know that Porter was there when... whatever happened. I see his face in my head when the memories try to come back. Only... I don't think he did anything to me. I don't think he hurt me..."
Vin nudged the fire with his boot.
"Go on," Josiah prodded him again.
Vin looked at him, eyes like blackened crystals. "I think I did something to him Josiah." He sucked in his breath and closed his eyes. "Something terrible..."
A visible shudder went through Vin's body. He was shivering now, even though it was a warm night. Josiah moved closer to him. Vin was just too unpredictable when he was upset like this, and he wanted to be able to grab onto him if he had to. He put an arm around the younger man's shoulders.
"Vin, you aren't the kind of man who would do..."
Vin turned to him, his expression suddenly hostile. "How do you know what kind of a man I am, Josiah? I've killed people. I've hunted people like they were animals, just for the money! What kind of man does it take to do that?"
He started staring at his hands again, something they all knew was not a good sign.
"There's blood on my hands, Josiah."
Josiah rested a calming hand on Vin's back. His voice was without emotion when he spoke. "Did you kill Porter, Vin?"
And Vin knew he didn't mean anything as simple as shoot him in the back. If he had killed the outlaw, it had been in a way that Vin had not suspected he was capable of, something he couldn't live with.
Vin looked like he was trying to answer, but finally he shook his head. "Josiah, I think I did something even worse than that. When I see him in my mind... his face... it's... different somehow... and... " He covered his face with his hands.
Josiah knew the tracker had lived with the Comanches, who had been known to visit unspeakable attrocities upon their enemies, guilty and innocent alike Vin probably knew a number of creative ways to torture someone to death..
Josiah gently reached up and pulled his hand down. "And what, Vin?"
"His face is... different... and I'm scared.... I'm so scared that I'd rather be dead than look at him. But I have to look...and he just won't leave me alone!" He emphasized the last three words by pounding his fists against his knees. The blows were forceful enough to leave a bruise, but he kept doing it. "He won't leave me alone...." he choked the words out.
Josiah grabbed his wrists and made him stop hitting himself. "Vin... Vin... take it easy," he soothed. "Take a deep breath... like I taught you..."
Vin was almost too tense to comply, but finally, he did.
"Now let it out, real slow... keep lettin' it out as long as you can..."
The meditation technique was simple, but effective. Vin calmed down before he got too far out of control.
"Better now?" Josiah asked him.
Vin nodded. "A little... It's just that thinking about Porter... tryin' to remember... I see his face, and I don't know why, but it... makes me feel like I did when...."
He hung his head down and looked at the ground.
"When your mother died?"
For an instant, Vin looked like he'd been hit. Josiah hated doing this to him, but sometimes Vin just couldn't or wouldn't say what was bothering him when he needed to.
He lifted his head finally and looked past the fire. "I suppose you think it's silly that that's still with me after all this time."
Josiah didn't look at him. He knew that made Vin uncomfortable. Instead, he looked out over the dark mesa. "Vin, there aren't many grown men who could have come through that. You were five years old. You were left alone with dead body. There was no...."
"SHUT UP!!" Vin screamed, so unexpectedly that it startled Josiah, who hadn't intended to upset him.
Vin folded his arms over his head, hiding himself from God only knew what. "SHUT UP!" he yelled again.
Everyone was instantly awakened. JD was the closest and he scooted up closer to the fire so he was opposite Josiah.
"What is it, Vin?" he said calmly. Josiah had a distant thought about the irony of the usually ebullient JD speaking in quiet tones and trying to calm the normally laconic Vin.
JD looked at Josiah accusingly. "What did you do to him?" he scowled.
Under less intense circumstances, JD's protectiveness might have been comical. "Settle down, JD. No point in both of you getting riled. Vin's just havin' some kind of bad thoughts here, right, Vin?"
Vin didn't answer, so Josiah repeated, "Vin?"
The tracker didn't respond, and to JD, he looked more like a scared animal than a man.
"We can still turn back, Vin," he offered.
Vin took so long to acknowledge him that JD wasn't sure he'd heard him, but finally, he shook his head and said, "No. I'm gonna do this."
Josiah smiled. "You're the boss."
The eastern horizon was glowing with the first rays of dawn. There was no way anyone was going to get any more sleep, so Josiah set to work fixing breakfast.
Vin didn't want any more to eat, and he got up and headed away from the camp. Nobody followed him, assuming he probably had nature's business to take care of. But Chris kept a watchful eye in the direction he'd gone as he poured himself a cup of coffee.
"What was all that about?" he asked Josiah between sips.
"He's startin' to remember."
Chris nodded. "I hope to hell this is a good idea."
"You and me both, brother."
JD was too hungry to wait for the food, and had attacked the hatful of apples. They were so small that he could stuff an entire piece of the fruit into his mouth at once, which was what he did.
"JD, I seen pigs with better manners than that," Buck chided him.
JD was unable to respond because his mouth was so full, and by the time he'd chewed and swallowed everything in it, the time for an appropriately sarcastic response had passed, so he changed the subject. "You know, I was thinkin' about somethin'... That skull I found..."
He had everyone's attention, which was unusual. "If that was Porter's skull, then where was the rest of his body?"
"Dragged off by coyotes, I reckon," Buck said.
"But, a coyote ain't that big. Porter was what? 250 pounds? Not even a whole pack of coyotes could drag off something that big."
"They probably ate it right there," Nathan said.
"But, Nathan, do you remember how... Vin and I smelled when we got back to town?"
Nathan's black eyes narrowed. He'd never voiced his opinion, but obviously JD had made the same connection he had. "Like a graveyard..." he said softly.
JD pushed his long hair back. "Why would Vin smell like that? He wasn't dead. He wasn't even hurt bad, not really...."
Buck sent his cup down. "What are you thinkin', JD?"
JD shrugged. "That's just it Buck. I don't know what to think... Why would someone smell like a graveyard unless..."
"Riders comin' up!" Chris interrupted and stood up, looking in the direction they had come at the two men on horseback silhouetted against the dawn sky.
Vin had seen them, too. He returned to the camp and retrieved his spyglass from his saddle bag. He climbed onto his horse's bare back to give himself the added height he needed to see above the surrounding vegetation.
"Who is it, Vin?" Chris asked him.
Vin squinted through the instrument for several seconds, but then brought it down and shook his head. "Ain't enough light to make out, but I reckon we'll know soon enough."
Everyone knew what he meant. Given the mesa's almost perfectly flat terrain, there was no way the riders hadn't spotted their campfire, and they appeared to be riding towards it.
The seven of them made sure their weapons were loaded and at hand, but then went back to their breakfast. Vin had calmed down, so no one wanted to upset him again by returning to the subject of Porter's body.
By the time the meal was ready, they knew who the approaching riders were. Cole and Ramage, James' men.
JD hadn't liked the pair even before they had hurt him.
"What the hell do they want?" he asked. His knee still ached badly enough that he wouldn't mind shooting one of Cole's toes off. Buck, as usual, seemed to know what he was thinking.
"Easy there, JD. There's seven of us and two of them. It ain't us that has a problem," he said.
The two men approached the camp and dismounted as if they were welcome. JD stood up to face them.
"Howdy, boys," Ramage leered.
Just his tone of voice was enough to make JD's pulse quicken with anger. The others saw that and moved forward to stand beside him, all except Vin, who stayed where he was.
"Don't you fellers ever learn?" the tracker asked.
"What do you want?" JD repeated his earlier question.
"Mr. James wants to know what you're up to," Cole said. He looked at JD, but didn't say anything to him, which pissed JD off even more than if he'd made some remark.
He was an instant away from smacking the guy in the face when Chris stepped in front of him to stand face-to-face with Ramage. "You tell James he can go to hell," the gunfighter said.
Ramage spit into the dirt. "I ain't tellin' him no such thing. He sent us to follow you. It's free range and you can't stop us."
JD drew his gun. "Don't bet money on that...."
Ezra, who was closest to him, snatched the gun from his hand. JD turned an angry, disbelieving look on the gambler, but Ezra's eyes glared coldly at the two intruders. "I believe that what Mr. Dunne is attempting to suggest is that you offer testimony to your misbegotten loyalties in some other fashion."
Cole looked to Ramage as if expecting him to translate what Ezra had just said. Ramage looked down at where Vin sat beside the fire, surrounded by his friends.
"Mr. James wants the seven of you out of town. Your crazy friend is giving the town a reason to get behind him."
"Why can't you just leave him alone?" Nathan said.
Ramage feigned surprise at the question. "Why, because he's a menace. He needs... watchin'..." And to emphasize his last statement, he lowered his head and stared wide-eyed at Vin, mocking him. Vin stared right back, but JD could see the hurt in his eyes. He lost his temper.
He drew the gun from his left-hand holster. "Leave him alone!"
This time, Buck took his weapon away from him. JD was livid. Why didn't the others stand up to these guys?
Chris stared at Cole and Ramage, the slightest hint of a wry grin on his face, which, JD realized, was far more intimidating than threatening them, especially when he didn't say a word.
Finally, Ramage spoke with false bravado. "You won't kill us. We ain't afraid of you."
But JD noticed that Ramage didn't sound too sure of that last statement. JD was amazed at how Chris had taken him down several notches without actually saying or doing anything.
Chris's voice was calm, even - in fact, JD noticed, he sounded bored. "We won't kill you because you ain't worth the bullets." The gunfighter turned his back on them as if he had completely lost interest. "Just stay outa our way."
THIRTY-EIGHTWhen they hit the trail again, Cole and Ramage stayed far enough behind them not to be threatening, but still close enough to be a constant annoyance. All of them knew that whatever was coming wasn't going to be easy for Vin, and having the two troublemakers witness his discomfort was something none of them wanted.
"Can't we get rid of them somehow?" JD asked Buck.
Buck tossed a glance back over his shoulder. "Can't kill a man just fer makin' a nuisance of himself, JD, much as it would please me to do just that."
"Why can't they leave him alone, Buck? Vin never did anything to them."
"JD, Cole and Ramage are the kind who can only feel big by makin' someone else feel small, and they don't got the sand to go after anyone who can fight back."
"We can fight back!" JD protested.
"Yeah, we can, JD," Buck nodded. "But, we ain't gonna. Vin's got enough on his mind right now without us making a stand against them two. They ain't worth it."
JD nodded. He supposed Buck was right. Still, he didn't like people looking at Vin when he was feeling bad. Hell, Vin hadn't liked people paying attention to him even before his trouble started, so doing nothing about Cole and Ramage was like leaving him naked in front of a crowd.
Vin, though, said nothing. He didn't look back at his tormenters, didn't even say anything about them being there.
He just kept staring ahead at the thin line of black on the horizon that marked the edge of the malpais.
They reached the treacherous terrain at mid-morning. It was as if someone had drawn a boundary between the smooth, sandy mesa and the jagged black rocks, the change was so abrupt.
There was no doubt that the rugged, uneven footing would be hell on the horses. Chris dismounted and the others followed, except for JD, who knew he could negotiate his horse around the potholes and broken rocks easier than he could maneuver on his unsteady legs.
Cole and Ramage stayed on their horses, too, but that was because they were too damned lazy to walk, and undoubtedly cared far less about the animals' comfort than their own.
JD scanned the horizon from his saddle. The first time out, he'd followed the circling buzzards which had long since found amusement elsewhere. But, he recalled an outcropping of lava that had dried white instead of black that had been almost in his direct line of sight. He squinted his eyes against the bright sun until he thought he spotted it.
"That way," he pointed towards it. Once they got further out, he'd hoped he would spot something else familiar, although looking at the vast, barren landscape, he began to wonder if they weren't looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. Even he marveled at the fact that he had found Vin at all out there.
Luckily, Vin had lost none of his tracking skills. He began to pick out signs of JD's previous passing, evidence that JD himself hadn't realized he was leaving. JD's horse had carried Vin out of the malpais, and he'd had to walk, leading the animal. Heat, thirst and hunger had drained his strength, so he'd been dragging his feet. He had turned over cinders or even left scuff marks on the soft pumice. The trail was not readily apparent to an untrained eye, but for Vin, it was as easy as following a marked path.
But despite his skill, the others could sense that Vin was growing increasingly uneasy as they moved further into the blackened wasteland. He became edgy and silent, his blue eyes darting back and forth, scanning the bleak landscape. JD didn't think he'd ridden much longer than two hours before he'd found Vin, so they were getting very close when Nathan suggested a break.
Vin needed one, not because he was physically tired, but because the trek was already exacting an emotional toll from him. He'd been holding so tightly to the reins of his horse that his fingernails had cut into the palm of his hand.
Nathan had to make him unclench his fist because he'd drawn blood. The healer looked at the small, crescent-shaped indentations. "I'm gonna put a bandage on that."
"It don't need one," Vin protested.
"It ain't for what you've already done. It's to keep it from gettin' any worse." Nathan refused to hear any argument, and went to retrieve supplies from his saddlebags.
Josiah brought Vin a canteen of water, but even though they were all hot and thirsty, the tracker could only manage small sips. He was almost too tense to swallow anything.
JD's horse also seemed happy to be momentarily relieved of its burden. The heat was sweltering and the horses were feeling it as much as the men were. The boy stretched his legs gratefully, careful not to lose his balance on the rough surface.
Vin watched, amused, as Buck hovered nearby, the two of them arguing and pretending to be annoyed with each other. The harsh realities of a given situation occasionally escaped JD entirely, but not even Vin was immune to the stabilizing effect he somehow had on the entire group.
If nothing else, the kid's animated chatter managed to make the fact that Cole and Ramage were still following them seem unimportant.
Ezra gulped water from his canteen, swished some around in his mouth and spit it out, and then wiped his mouth with his sleeve, all in a manner that was less than dignified. The gambler was hating every minute of the dust, the heat, the sun and the great outdoors in general, and everyone knew it. But to his credit, he hadn't once complained.
He stared at Cole and Ramage in the distance. "If there is justice in this world, those two misanthropes will meet with a fitting misadventure and exterminate themselves."
Josiah chuckled softly.
"What's a misanthrope?" JD wanted to know, but no one answered him.
Chris and Nathan were watching Vin, who seemed frozen to the spot where he stood. Josiah made him take a few more swallows of water and then took the canteen from him.
"What are you remembering, Vin?" the preacher asked.
Vin continued to stare straight ahead.
Josiah sighed and clapped a hand on Vin's shoulder. "Don't hide from it, Vin," he said softly.
Vin's voice was toneless, without emotion. "We're almost there. I remember tracking Porter this way...." He indicated the direction he was facing. "There were buzzards.... They were still circling, so I thought maybe he was alive."
"Was he?" Josiah asked cautiously.
Vin hesitated a moment and then shook his head. "I don't know. I can't remember."
Chris joined them and stood on the other side of Vin. "Everything okay, Vin?" he asked.
Vin only gave him an ironic smile, and even to Josiah, the unspoken communication that passed between the two friends was readable. From here on, Chris was not going to leave Vin's side. Whatever monsters might rear their ugly heads, Chris's strength would be there for Vin to draw upon.
"Let us know when you're ready to push on," Chris said.
"Wasn't my idea to stop." Vin gave him a faint smile.
Chris looked straight ahead instead of at Vin when he spoke. "No point in pretendin' this ain't gettin' to you, Vin."
Vin snorted softly. "It shows, huh?"
Chris turned to him. "That you're scared?"
"I think we all are, a little."
Vin looked at him, puzzled, and Chris explained, "Vin, we know what kind of man you are, and you ain't a coward. Whatever's out there, not one of us is thinkin' right now that he would have come through it any better than you did. We're all a little scared of what we're going to find. I just want you to know that no one is laughing at you, or thinking you're less than they are."
Vin glanced back at Cole and Ramage, who were almost close enough to be within earshot. They wouldn't come any closer, though. They were only there to watch.
"You want us to take care of them?" Chris asked.
Vin met Chris's pale eyes with his own. He wasn't sure what the gunslinger meant, but he did know that Chris Larabee could and would see that Cole and Ramage never bothered him again, if he asked that of him.
Instead, he shook his head. He'd find some other way to pay the two cowboys back for the grief they'd given him, one that wouldn't leave Chris with more blood on his hands.
When the time came to move on, no one spoke, but gradually, the very air around them became charged with anticipation, of what none of them knew. The feeling was not unlike that before a thunderstorm, when forces gathered that would unleash themselves in lightning and thunder.
Except this storm would be dark, and silent, and would rage only inside of Vin Tanner's mind.
THIRTY-NINEThere it was.
Somehow, Vin had expected to feel something when he saw it, but it was just a hole, and all he could do was stare at it, feeling nothing at all. Not anger, not fear. Nothing. He was just numb.
He couldn't bring himself to get close enough to look down into it, though. He would need a little time before he could do that. Maybe he'd never be able to.
The skull JD had found was still there, disregarded by coyotes and buzzards alike since it had been picked clean and was not of a shape and size that could be easily carried off. Vin watched as Nathan placed the largest chunk of it in a piece of burlap, turning it over in his big hands to examine the upper jaw. Vin felt cold to the bone knowing it had once been someone's face. But Nathan examined it with the curious detachment of scientist, noting the healed spaces in the jaw where four teeth that had been missing well before death, and a crack on one cheekbone that had knitted itself back together. The healer voiced the idea that maybe someone knew Porter well enough to match the evidence with the outlaw's past, so that a positive identification could be made.
If it wasn't Porter, it was all that remained of someone who was possibly deserving of a decent burial. But all Vin knew was that he didn't want to look at the thing. He wanted Nathan to pick up all the pieces and wrap it up and take it away somewhere so he didn't have to see it anymore.
A sick, foreboding feeling tugged at him. Somehow, he knew that his mind was holding back a flood of nightmarish images. Somehow, he knew the skull was Porter's. And that somewhere inside him was the knowledge of how it had come to be shattered like a dropped egg.
Vin turned away from Nathan, but he found no escape. The smell of decay still lingered in this place, evoking in Vin a nameless and paralyzing dread that made his stomach churn. The pit had to be the source of it. There was nothing rotting on the surface of the lava.
Vin found that he couldn't move. He couldn't turn and run when he had come this far, but he couldn't go any further, either. His legs simply wouldn't carry him any closer to that hole.
Ezra was the first to actually approach the rim and look down into the tiny, sunless space. He stood there for some time, transfixed by the sight, and then had turned his eyes on Vin, imagining the horror of being trapped there with no hope of escape, no chance for anything but a slow, agonizing death. But the Vin Tanner he knew was strong enough to have survived that without going mad. It was difficult for him to look Vin in the eye knowing that there had to be some other secret even more terrifying that had caused him to come back from this hell a changed man.
No one wanted to force Vin to get close to the hole, but the tracker seemed unable to do anything at all at that point, and they couldn't allow him to just stand there and withdraw into himself. Chris stood quietly beside him. He questioned the wisdom of waiting it out and letting Vin decide for himself what he had to do next, but at the same time, he didn't want to force the tracker into something he wasn't ready for.
JD joined them, and Chris bristled at the intrusion. He wondered if maybe Vin needed this time to himself, to gather his thoughts, but, he didn't say anything to the boy. JD knew better than any of them what Vin had endured, because he'd seen it, and maybe he was the best one to lead Vin to those hidden memories.
JD touched Vin's arm to let him know he was there. He indicated the direction of the hole, just a few steps away. His voice was low and soft when he spoke. "That's where I found you, Vin. Want to go look?"
To Chris, that seemed like a stupid question, at first. Of course Vin didn't want to look. But, he realized that Vin had to face this. There was no other way, and JD seemed to know instinctively that Vin needed someone else to suggest those last few steps to him. This was just too hard for him to do on his own.
Vin was eerily passive, allowing JD to guide him forward. The others followed, but, except for Chris, they were careful to stay back out of the way.
Vin began to breathe rapidly as he approached the rim of the reeking cavity in the rock, but his eyes were almost closed, so they did not belie his fear. When they were near enough for him to look down into the pit, JD spoke calmly again. "You were down in there, Vin. Remember? I came down on a rope, and you got on my back, and we climbed out..."
Vin reacted as if JD had delivered a blow. His body stiffened and his eyes clamped shut as he swayed on his feet.
Chris was behind Vin, and his first instinct was to wrap his arms around him, but he remembered that Vin didn't like being held so that he felt trapped. Instead, he reached under his arms and clamped his fist together against Vin's chest, leaving him free to move, but preventing him from falling. He didn't hold him tightly, but he did draw him close to let him know he was safe, that whatever terror he remembered could not hurt him anymore. Once he had him securely in his grasp, he rested his chin on the smaller man's shoulder, so that he could whisper to him without the others knowing what he said. "Easy, Vin. I'm right here with you. You're okay...."
Vin didn't struggle, and in fact seemed to find some small comfort in Chris's embrace.
Nathan was quickly beside them with a canteen of water. He soaked a piece of cloth and ran it across Vin's face. "You gotta stop breathin' so hard, Vin. You're gonna pass out."
Vin nodded that he understood, and he tried taking slower, deeper breaths, but it wasn't helping.
"We don't have to stay here if you don't want to, Vin," Chris told him.
Vin shook his head. "No... I have to do this."
Chris held him close, and Vin appeared to welcome the security Chris offered even if it did nothing to calm him down. "I know you're rememberin' something, Vin," Chris whispered to him. "Tell me what it is."
Vin shook his head, his voice raspy with anguish. "I don't know...."
"Yes, you do." Chris shook him just hard enough to keep him from withdrawing into the safety of that dark place in his mind. "Was it Porter? Was he here?"
Vin cried out like he was in pain and struggled to get away, but Chris held him fast, keeping his voice calm, as if he were having a normal conversation with his friend.
"Talk to me, Vin. Where was Porter? Just say the words. Let 'em come out."
Vin's legs collapsed and instead of trying to hold him up, Chris sank slowly to the ground with him. Vin curled up on the bare rocks, covering his face with his hands. Chris stroked his back, trying to calm him, knowing that the next step would be for Vin to close himself up. It was the only way he had of protecting what sanity he had left, but Chris feared that the time would come when he would slip so far into that other place that he would never come back.
Like it or not, a firm hand was needed, and Chris was grateful that Josiah was willing to assume that burden because it meant he didn't have to. The preacher sat down beside them on the rough surface. He prodded Vin's shoulder roughly. "Vin? Can you hear me?"
"C'mon, sit up," Josiah said, and to emphasize that it was not a request, he pulled Vin to a sitting position.
Vin looked directly at him without resentment, his eyes begging to be free of the unseen ghosts that haunted him.
Josiah placed his large hands on either side of Vin's face. "Think back... about when you first found Porter. Try to picture it in your mind, and tell me what you see..."
Chris glared at him, thinking that Josiah was asking far more than Vin could give. But Vin had held too much inside for too long. He started to talk. "The horse... I found his horse. It was dying. I had to put it down..."
Josiah smiled. "Good," he said softly, pushing Vin's long hair back from his face. Vin looked at him, only because Josiah refused to let him break eye contact.
"I remember..." Vin sighed, the slightest trace of a smile revealing itself on his face.
"You're doing fine," Josiah reassured him, but didn't hesitate to continue. "Where was Porter, Vin? Where was he when you found the horse?"
Vin's gaze drifted uncertainly, as if he was searching his memory with his eyes. Chris moved close to him, so that they touched, so that Vin would know he could lean on him, literally if he had to.
Vin took a deep breath and looked directly at Josiah. "Porter was already dead. He was in the hole."
Josiah and Chris exchanged frowns. This wasn't what they had expected to hear.
Neither of them said anything about it, though, and Josiah pressed on.
"Vin, why were you in the hole? Do you remember?"
Vin closed his eyes, and let Chris support him. "I fell," he said simply. "I fell in, and then, I couldn't get out..."
He turned his face into Chris's chest, as if he could hide from what had happened that way.
Chris held him there, shielding him from Josiah's persistence. "We can stop now, if you want to, Vin," he said.
Vin sobbed soundlessly in his arms, and then reached up and grabbed the sleeve of Chris's shirt like his life depended on not letting go. "He was dead, Chris. He was dead, and I couldn't get out... I was in there with Porter and he was dead... Oh God, he was dead..."
The others looked on, unable to offer any words of comfort.
Vin had been trapped in Porter's grave.
He'd been trapped for days, and no one needed it spelled out to them what that had meant. The smell of the rotting corpse still lingered, even after all this time.
Chris looked beyond Vin at the hot, confined space, and he had to throw his head back and swallow hard to keep a tear from escaping. "Jesus, Vin," was all he could say. He raked his fingers through the younger man's damp, tangled hair, trying ineffectively to soothe away the terrifying images that were coming back to him.
What was worse was that all of them knew this wasn't the end of it. If Chris hadn't sensed that for himself, he would have seen it in JD's unspoken question. The kid had found the sense to keep his mouth shut, but the others knew what was on his mind.
Vin had been trapped in that hole with the dead outlaw, but JD had found only Vin.
A very large and significant part of Vin's nightmare was still locked inside him.
Chris wasn't sure how much more Vin could endure, but they couldn't stop now. He held Vin tightly against him, and lowered his head next to Vin's so that he could speak in the softest voice possible.
"Vin? What happened to the body?"
FORTYVin went completely still and silent, but he was so tightened up that he felt like stone in Chris's arms.
Chris tried to ease some of the tension, kneading the taut muscles lightly with an out-stretched hand. Vin had lost so much weight that Chris could feel his shoulder blades and the individual bones in his spine through his shirt. Much more of this, and Vin was going to simply waste away.
For one of the very few times in his life, Chris Larabee didn't know what to do. He didn't want to force Vin Tanner to finish what they had come out there to do, but at the same time, if Vin couldn't confront whatever was destroying him here and now, it would eat away at his mind and his soul and his body until there was nothing left of him. Already, the frail, frightened creature in his arms bore as little resemblance to the man he had known as a sparrow did to a hawk.
That thought frightened Chris, at first. Then, it pissed him off. Whatever Vin's demon was, it was seven against one, and the burden was on him to lead the others into a battle in which Vin would either emerge scarred but whole, or be lost to them forever. The only alternative was to leave him to suffer from this festering wound, a walking dead man.
It ended here, or it would never end at all.
The tension of the moment was intensified when the sun disappeared ominously behind a black cloud. There was a storm coming. Vin followed Chris's gaze upward, and as he stared at the threatening sky, his apprehension was obvious to everyone. Something about the clouds was plainly unsettling to him. Nathan had thought to bring a tarp, since there was no other shelter on the malpais, but rain was an added burden they didn't need to deal with just then.
Cole and Ramage had reached them by this time. They were within earshot and reined in their mounts. Apparently, they did not intend to come any closer, but they were close enough, and the leering looks on their faces and their snickered, whispered conversation let the seven of them know that the two cowboys would take advantage of their vulnerable situation the first chance they got.
Chris cast a hard look in their direction and fixed his eyes on the pair, his voice cold and without emotion. "Whatever you have to do, keep them away," he said to the others.
The other five nodded. JD trained his rifle on the two riders, and this time, no one stopped him. His stare was as hard as steel and a stark contrast to his boyish features. The kid would not shoot until he was told to, but he would shoot, and everyone knew it, including Cole and Ramage.
Chris turned his attention back to Vin, who had relaxed only slightly in his arms.
"Vin? I know this is hard," he said, "but you have to remember. What happened to Porter?"
Vin's response was to draw his knees up, as if he were thinking that if he made himself small enough, he'd disappear and not have to deal with this.
Chris shook him. "I'm not gonna let you hide from this, Vin," he said sternly. "What happened to Porter?"
Vin's voice was small, almost childlike. "He died."
Chris hugged him and laughed softly. "Yeah, Vin, we already did that part." He had to twist his head at an awkward angle to do it, but he managed to look Vin in the eye, making it more difficult for him to avoid a direct question. He was gentle, but direct when he repeated himself. "What happened to his body, Vin?"
Chris could feel Vin's heart pounding against his own chest, and his breathing quickened again, but he said nothing.
"Vin?" Chris prodded. "What happened to it?"
Vin's response was almost inaudible. "I got rid of it."
Chris looked at the others, no doubt wearing the same frown they were.
"What do you mean, you got rid of it?"
Vin tried to hide his face again, but Chris was determined to drag this out of him. It would have been easier if he had known exactly what he wanted Vin to tell him. Vin had been trapped in that hole. He couldn't have taken Porter's body any place. He simply wasn't making sense.
"Answer me, Vin!" he said sharply. "Tell me what happened to the body."
Vin threw his head back, his eyes closed, like he was watching whatever had happened all over again.
Then, unexpectedly, he broke free of Chris's arms and bolted to his feet. He ran directly at Cole and Ramage, although he didn't seem to do it deliberately. He was running to get away from Chris, and from the memories Chris was trying to force out of him.
Nathan reacted instantly and ran after him, snagging him by one of the suspenders on his pants. Vin managed to work his arm through it and would have gotten away had Nathan not yanked him back by the leather strap and grabbed him.
Vin was no match for the tall, muscular healer, but he fought him anyway, like a house cat cornered by a bear. Nathan tried to restrain him without hurting him, but Vin was determined to escape, seemingly oblivious to the fact that there was nowhere for him to run. He swung out at Nathan with both his fists and his feet.
Chris reached them quickly, and with two people on him, Vin was helpless, but that only intensified his frenzy. He screamed and struggled until finally, Chris slapped him.
Everyone looked at him in stunned silence, including Vin. The tracker's blue eyes were full of rage and hate, and he turned it all on Chris. Nathan had made the mistake of loosening his hold on him, and Vin slipped easily from his grasp and was on Chris before the older man could blink. He landed a series of solid blows before Chris hit him back, hard enough that he fell on the abrasive surface. Chris was ready to sit on him if he had to but, Vin didn't get up. All the fight had suddenly gone out of him.
Cole and Ramage sat casually in their saddles watching the spectacle. Ramage spit a stream of tobacco juice that just missed Vin, and whispered something to Cole. The two men cackled at their private joke, and Chris turned on them. He drew his gun. "Get out of here!" he shouted at him.
Nathan slapped his gun hand down. "Chris, no..." he said calmly, and then looked at Vin, who was just sitting there, staring at nothing, not even aware that Cole and Ramage were there, let alone that they were laughing at him.
Chris realized Nathan's point. Vin was their concern right then, not James' vermin.
He sat down beside him while the others formed a loose circle around them, forcing Cole and Ramage to back off.
"I'm sorry I had to hit you, Vin."
Vin acknowledged him with a little nod as the clouds overhead rumbled threateningly. He looked upward. "It rained," he said softly.
Chris frowned at Vin's use of the past tense. "You mean when you were in the hole?" he asked.
Vin nodded again. "There were pieces."
"You've said that before, Vin. Pieces of what? Can you tell me?"
Vin shrugged, and almost casually answered, "Porter."
He turned and looked directly at Chris, and for a brief instant, Chris saw the face of a madman. But when Vin spoke, his voice was chillingly detached. "He was dead when I fell in the hole with him. His horse had kicked half his face off. It was hot, so his flesh rotted, and his head just... came apart... a little at a time..." He giggled and looked at his hands. Chris pushed them down to make him stop staring, but his own blood had gone cold in his veins, and his pulse had quickened. Vin was remembering, and it was driving him further away.
Vin stared up at the clouds again. "Then it rained. It was dark, but the lightning... I saw it.... where did his head go? It just fell off, you know? Where was it?" He looked at Chris as if expecting an answer.
Chris didn't have one. He'd seen rotting corpses, smelled them. He could not imagine being side-by-side with one for days on end. No wonder Vin was half-crazy. What man could endure that and stay sane?
Unlike before though, Vin kept talking. "His belly bloated. He got bigger and bigger," Vin made a gesture with his arms to indicate the girth of Porter's swollen corpse, and laughed in a way that was disquietingly inappropriate.
"Oh Jesus," Ezra muttered, knowing what was coming next.
Vin obliged him by continuing. "Then, his innards came sprayin' out, all over that hole," Vin shrugged, and added softly. "Little pieces of him... all over me."
Chris put a trembling hand on Vin's shoulder and took a deep breath. He felt cold and sick inside at the thought of what Vin had suffered. He embraced him again. It was all he could offer.
"I think I'm gonna be sick," JD muttered.
"Wouldn't nobody blame you, kid," Buck replied, his gaze fixed on Vin.
Even Cole and Ramage had shut up.
Vin was staring at his hands again. "He wouldn't leave me alone. He was sitting there with no head, all busted open, and it was like he was laughing at me." He turned back to Chris, and though he looked and sounded perfectly rational, Chris knew better. Vin had gone all the way over the edge. He'd crossed the River Styx from reality into the netherworld of madness. "I had to make him go away, Chris. You see that, right?"
Chris drew him close and rubbed his upper arm reassuringly, even though he felt nothing but utter revulsion. It made his skin crawl to touch Vin, as if he were somehow permanently soiled by Porter's putrid remains. He hated himself for feeling that way, but he couldn't help himself. He couldn't even imagine what it must have been like for Vin, covered in that unspeakable filth. He took one of Vin's hands in his own. "What did you do, Vin?" he asked, trying to keep his voice from quivering.
Vin shrugged nonchalantly. "I took him apart. It was easy, because he was... soft... Like a rabbit been stewed too long. I threw him out a piece at a time..." He looked at Chris again with the hint of a satisfied smile. "I heard his head hit the rocks."
"Aw shit," JD mumbled, and got up and headed away from the rest of the group. Buck got up to follow him, but any sound JD made was drowned out by a rolling clap of thunder.
Vin was startled and his entire body recoiled. His eyes darted about wildly, seeking any avenue of escape from the low-pitched sound that vibrated their very bones. Chris tried to keep him calm, but Vin clearly hated the loud noise, and this was the worst possible time for it.
Large drops of rain began to pelt them and Nathan quickly unpacked the canvas tarp. It was big enough for the seven of them to huddle under, and would have accommodated Cole and Ramage, too, but nobody cared about them. The storm would roll by quickly, and with any luck, they wouldn't even get damp, let alone soaked like their two unwelcome guests.
JD and Buck were the last to crawl into the makeshift tent. Buck nudged the boy in front of him so that he was sheltered from any rain that might find its way under the canvas.
"You okay, JD?" Nathan asked him.
The kid nodded, but he was embarrassed. "Sorry."
"I can assure you that there is not a man among us who did not have a similar inclination," Ezra reassured him.
"I know Ezra," JD said softly. "It's just that when I found him... that stuff that was all over him... I touched him, and I didn't know it was... it was..." He suddenly realized that he was not only babbling, he was making it sound like Vin was a leper, or worse. He looked at the tracker. "I'm sorry Vin, I didn't mean...."
A second thunder clap, even louder than the first, interrupted him. Vin cried out and covered his ears. Chris still held him, and he tried to reassure him. "Take it easy Vin, it's okay."
"It's not okay!" Vin screamed and pulled away from him. "It's not, it's not, it's NOT!"
Chris looked up at the others, not sure what was going on with Vin or what to do about it.
Josiah scooted closer to them. "Is it the rain, Vin?" he asked calmly, thinking back to Vin's earlier reaction to the storm clouds overhead. "Is that what's wrong?"
Vin was rocking back and forth, his head buried under his forearms. "It rained," he sobbed. "It rained and there was too much water... And I woke up, and it was inside me..."
Josiah firmly tugged Vin's arms away from his head and forced him to look up. "Vin, we don't understand. Tell us, so we can."
Vin was past pain, past fear, Josiah saw that in his eyes. But somewhere, he found the strength to speak calmly. "I was lying on the bottom of the hole... after Porter was... gone. It rained, and I didn't wake up until the water came into my mouth."
"Oh, God, no...." JD groaned, but he wasn't sick. He was looking at Vin with more hurt in his eyes than he could hope to hide.
"There were these little pieces in it. Little dead pieces... I could taste them," Vin whispered. "It was like death had crawled inside me..." He covered his head again, and this time Josiah let him hide because no one knew what else to do for him. "He wouldn't leave me alone," he mumbled. "Make him leave me alone...." his voice rose in pitch. "Please make this go away..."
There was more thunder, and he started to scream again, completely incoherent and unreachable this time. Chris and Josiah looked to Nathan for help, but the healer didn't know what to do any more than they did. This wasn't something you could stitch up or bandage, and they were all equally helpless.
Vin made a strange sound that was half choking, half crying and suddenly collapsed in Chris's arms. His entire body was wracked by a spasmodic tremor and his colorless features were covered in a cold sweat.
Nathan reacted more quickly this time, taking Vin from Chris and easing him onto his back so that he was lying flat on the rough rock. He picked up the tracker's feet and shifted them to the nearest lap, which happened to be Ezra's.
"Mr. Jackson?" the gambler frowned.
"He's goin' into shock," Nathan said.
Ezra was the only one who hadn't stripped down to his shirtsleeves when the sun had still been beating down on them. "Give me your jacket, Ezra," Nathan commanded him. "We need to keep him warm."
Ezra quickly complied.
"What's happening, Buck?" JD whispered.
"I don't know kid..."
Nathan tucked Ezra's coat around Vin. "He'll be okay." But he didn't sound sure.
Vin lay quiet and still except for the way he was shivering. His eyes were open, but they weren't looking at anything.
Chris wanted to cry. Why had they done this? Why had they listened to Vin and brought him out here? The man was in no shape to make that kind of decision. They should have protected him from his own instincts. Why, why, why had they been stupid enough to think this was going to help? They had been wrong. So dead wrong...
Vin was gone. Chris could feel it. His essence had folded in on itself until all that remained visible was the shell that surrounded it.
He stroked the tracker's cheek. He was sweating, but he felt cold. "Vin?" he whispered. "I know you can hear me..." He rubbed his own forehead with his hand. "God, I'm sorry Vin. We'll take you home, as soon as the rain stops, okay?"
Vin didn't answer him.
FORTY-ONEThe rain only lasted a few minutes, and then the sun returned to re-heat the barren terrain. It warmed Vin up enough that he stopped shivering, and what little color he still had returned to his gaunt features.
"We need to get him outa here," Nathan said to Chris.
Chris nodded. They'd spread their tack out to dry on the rocks because they wouldn't get back to town until the next day, and no one wanted to sleep in wet blankets when they made camp that night. In little more than an hour, the sun and the dry heat had baked all the dampness out of their gear, and they were getting ready to hit the trail again.
Nathan collected the skull he had wrapped in burlap earlier. Now that they knew for certain who it was, there was no reason to take it back to town.
He was angry with the dead outlaw. That made no sense, because Porter was only in an obscure, indirect way responsible for what had happened to Vin. It was a certainty that he would not have chosen to die where he had and rot in that hole. But, that didn't matter to Nathan.
He took the skull over to the hole and contemplated dropping it in, so that what was left of it would shatter into unrecognizable pieces.
Josiah joined him. "What are you doing, Nathan?"
Nathan shook his head. "I dunno. It just don't seem right to take him away from this place when part of Vin is always gonna be here."
Nathan knew he didn't a have to explain himself to Josiah. The preacher usually understood the thoughts and fears that motivated most men, even when he didn't agree with how they acted upon them. "I reckon the Lord intended for this to be his final resting place. No reason to change that now that I can see."
Nathan turned the skull over in his hands, and then called to JD to bring him some rope. The boy complied, and instead of tossing the skull into the pit, Nathan rigged a makeshift cradle and lowered it gently to the bottom.
Josiah blessed the open grave. "May God have mercy on his soul."
JD snorted. "I hope he rots in hell."
Josiah looked down into the pit. "I think he already did." He flashed a quick grin that made JD giggle. Both of them knew it wasn't a time to be joking, but there was already enough pain and grief to go around. Even Nathan smiled.
Josiah's gaze drifted to the floor of Vin's prison, to the spot where the tracker had scratched his name in the soft rock. Vin was just learning how to write, and Josiah was struck with an aching sadness as he looked at the uneven scrawl. He looked over at Vin, huddled lifelessly under Ezra's coat. Nathan was right. He'd left more than his name in that stinking pit.
Chris had Vin's horse ready, so Nathan went to help get the sick man mounted up.
He knelt beside him with a canteen. "Have some water, Vin," the healer said gently. He had to force him to sit up. He got the feeling that if they didn't make Vin move, he would stay right where he was until he died. He just didn't care anymore.
He held the canteen to the tracker's lips but Vin pushed it away.
"Vin, it's just water," he said softly, and then added, "There ain't nothin' in it. Just water...."
Vin didn't take the canteen, but he was thirsty. He allowed Nathan to pour the water into him a small sip at a time, although it was left up to Nathan to decide when to stop. The state Vin was in, he'd neither ask for more nor say when he'd had enough.
Chris joined them and squatted down beside Vin, trying to make eye contact with him. "Time to go, Vin." He put a hand behind the tracker's neck, and Vin looked at him, but his stare was vacant and soulless. His once vibrant blue eyes looked like clouded crystals. Chris took him carefully by the arm and pulled him to his feet with Nathan's help.
Vin cooperated only marginally. They got him standing, then got him up on his horse, but he sat in the saddle like a man beaten so badly that he was only waiting for the end. Chris shoved his feet into the stirrups and then patted his thigh when he was done. "You okay?" he asked him. Vin gave him a distracted nod. He didn't even attempt to take the reins of his mount. If they were lucky, he'd stay in the saddle without someone holding him there, but they were going to have to lead him.
Chris hated to do it, but he reached up and unfastened Vin's gunbelt and took the weapon from him. Then, he removed his rifle from its scabbard. Vin didn't protest or make any move to stop him.
Ezra walked up carrying his discarded jacket and Vin's hat. The sun was already behind them, so Vin didn't need the protection it offered. Ezra hooked it over his saddle horn where Vin could reach it if he wanted it.
Chris handed him Vin's guns.
The gambler was rarely at a loss for words, but he had no comments to make regarding the present situation. He could see the torment in Chris Larabee's face, and didn't envy the man having to make whatever decisions would be made regarding Vin.
Chris looked past him to where JD and Josiah were standing at the hole's edge. "Aw shit, I'm gonna kill those fuckin' bastards...."
Ezra turned to see Cole and Ramage riding up to the preacher and the boy, their clothes still damp and sticky from being drenched in the downpour.
"You ain't reckonin' on takin' him back to town, are ya?" Ramage said, indicating Vin.
"Of course we are," JD said, "and you'd best not even think of tryin' to get in our way." The boy took a threatening step in their direction.
Josiah pulled him back by his shirt collar. "Make your point, Ramage, so you can leave," the preacher said.
Ramage spit a stream of tobacco juice. "My point is that ain't nobody wants a lunatic walkin' the streets, and Mr. James ain't gonna let it happen."
Cole leaned forward and draped his arm over his saddle horn. "I hear tell they got places to corral folks like that. You know, got no mind left?" he chortled. "Reckon it's best you find him one and take him there."
"Fuck you!" JD's limp hindered him as he charged headlong into the side of Ramage's horse, but although his technique lacked finesse, it was effective. Ramage had to struggle to regain control of the startled animal.
Buck saw the confrontation in the making and hurried over to restrain the kid. He pulled him away from Ramage and encircled him in a bear hug that immobilized him.
"Goddammit, BUCK!" JD struggled and hissed, "LET ME GO!"
Cole laughed. "Larabee, you need to find yourself some new men. I think this whole lot has come down tetched with whatever's ailin' yer bounty hunter."
Chris had busied himself tying the lead to Vin's horse to his saddle horn, not wanting to give Cole and Ramage the satisfaction of immediately acknowledging their intrusion. The pair didn't have the balls to do anything that would get them shot, but they were just begging for a show of force, and there was no point in letting this go on any longer than it had to. He nodded at Ezra and Nathan to follow him, knowing the cowboys' bravado would quickly fade once they were looking down the barrels of six guns.
For Vin's sake, he would try to keep the confrontation at the level of a mere annoyance. Gunplay at that point would wreak too much havoc with the tracker's shattered nerves, and he'd already been through more than enough.
He approached Cole and Ramage and tried to look casual. "Why don't you boys just ride back and tell your boss to come and see me?"
"What if we don't want to?" Cole snorted.
"Yeah," Ramage chimed in. "We was thinkin' maybe we'd hang around a mite longer.... You know..." he spit tobacco juice in Vin's direction, "enjoy the freak show."
Chris's hand went instinctively to his gun, but he stayed calm. "You're gonna regret it if you don't leave. Count on that."
Ramage wiped tobacco from his chin. "You ain't gonna do a thing to us, Larabee."
Chris locked eyes with him. He'd never known a man who could stare him down. The corners of his mouth turned up slightly. "Not yet."
Cole and Ramage were not so stupid that they couldn't tell when they'd pushed things far enough. Cole straightened in his saddle, preparing to leave, but said, "Mr. James ain't gonna stand for havin' him around," he pointed to Vin, "and neither are a lot of other townsfolk, you mark my word."
Chris continued to stare at him, "You done?"
"There ain't no more to say, Larabee," Cole said.
But his words were punctuated by a loud crack and everyone ducked. Chris whipped around to see who had fired, but everyone still had their weapons holstered. Vin had either jumped or fallen from his horse and was cowering on the ground. He didn't have a weapon, anyway, so he hadn't fired either.
"What the hell..." Cole muttered. His horse skittered backwards, its eyes round with fright. Something was spooking the animal, and it reared unexpectedly, throwing him off. The thump of his backside hitting the ground was immediately followed by another sharp burst of sound.
Vin looked up, and Chris saw sudden realization and horror written on his face.
The tracker screamed "NO!" and Chris understood what was happening an instant before he realized it was too late to do anything about it.
He felt himself falling into darkness, dimly aware of the cascade of rock and bodies falling with him.
FORTY-TWOJD, Buck, Josiah, and Nathan stared in disbelief, momentarily paralyzed. Right before their eyes, the black lava had opened up and swallowed Chris and Ezra. Cole had disappeared, too. It was only after several seconds of stunned silence that they realized Ramage was clinging to the rim of a new sinkhole. The thin, porous rock, still laden with water from the storm, had not been able to withstand the additional weight of two horses and four men. Ramage's horse had somehow escaped going down and had trotted off to safety. Except for being badly startled, it appeared unscathed. But the neck of Cole's horse was wedged between two large chunks of rock, and its head lolled to one side, the eyes open and staring. The animal had died instantly.
Chris, Ezra and Cole were nowhere in sight, buried under a pile of volcanic boulders and a large slab of rock that had given way like a trap door.
"Oh, sweet Jesus!" Nathan exclaimed. His healer's instincts pushed his personal sentiments aside and he hurried to where Ramage was dangling precariously above a pile of razor-sharp fragments, holding on only by pressing his right arm hard against the flat surface to keep his shoulder joint at a right angle. A bone protruded from the flesh of his left forearm, so that limb was useless, and it was just a matter of seconds before his shoulder joint gave out and he plummeted to a nasty death.
"One of y'all give me a hand here!" Nathan shouted, grabbing onto Ramage's shirt.
The cowboy looked up at him, horrified and pleading.
"Don't worry," Nathan scoffed. "Much as I'd like to, I ain't gonna let you fall."
Josiah joined him, and together they pulled Ramage to safety. His arm needed to be set, but that would have to wait.
Buck had laid down on his belly so his head and shoulders hung down into the new hole. "CHRIS!!" he shouted. "CHRIS! Can you hear me?"
JD joined Buck. "EZRA!"
There was no sound except for a couple of falling cinders.
"CHRIS!!!" Buck shouted more urgently.
There was a faint grunting noise, and a bloody hand reached out from a craggy opening in the debris. There was no way to tell if it belonged to Chris or Ezra or Cole.
Buck was frantic. "CHRIS!!!" he shouted again.
They heard someone cough, but still could not tell who it was.
Buck ran to his horse to get a rope.
There was no way to lower a man down into the cavity. The cave-in had not taken out the complete ceiling of the hollow in the rock, and the result was an overhanging ledge that went almost completely around the rim. It was perilously thin, and its ability to hold a man's weight was impossible to determine without actually trying it, which was too dangerous. However, the largest slab of rock had fallen in at an angle so that one end of it rested on the floor of the hollow and the other leaned up against the side near the rim. It was positioned at a steep angle, but a strong man could rappel down its surface to reach the bottom. There, another slab had wedged itself against the opposite side of the hole. The hand had reached out from beneath the second slab, so there was a least one man trapped in the pocket formed by the smaller piece.
Buck didn't have to explain what he was going to do. Nathan, Josiah and JD held the top end of the rope while Buck made the quick descent into the rubble.
He pushed away some of the smaller rocks and was able to make an opening big enough to see into the space behind the slab. "It's Chris!" he called back. He peered into the opening. Streamers of light filtered through the crevices in the debris, and it was enough for him to see the knot on Chris's head. The blow that had caused it had left him temporarily disoriented, but he was coming round.
"How ya doin', ol' pard?" Buck tried to sound cheerful.
"I can't move my legs," Chris mumbled.
Buck relayed this information to Nathan, who told him to ask Chris if he could feel his legs.
"Yeah, I can feel 'em, but I'm pinned down. I can't move," Chris said.
Buck poked his arm through the opening. He could just barely reach the top of Chris's head, but he touched him reassuringly. "Don't worry, pard, ol' Buck'll get you outa this fix."
Buck went to work. He could have used some help moving the rocks, but there wasn't room down there for another man.
The sides of the hole quickly absorbed the sun's heat and in minutes, the pit was stifling. Buck struggled out of his shirt, because it had become saturated with sweat and was more of a hindrance that it was worth. It took him several minutes to make the opening big enough that he was able to see Chris clearly and assess his condition.
What he found was not good. Chris didn't appear to be too badly injured, at least, not the upper part of his body. But his legs were pinned under Ezra, and a heavy, flat section of lava was lying across Ezra's back. The gambler was lying in a pool of blood that grew bigger even as Buck watched. He suspected the blood was Ezra's, although he really couldn't tell. Chris was still mildly unfocused, but he didn't seem to be suffering from blood loss. Ezra, however, was pale and unconscious.
There was no way that Buck could get to either of them. He'd moved all the rocks he could, and the opening was still too small.
He tried to squeeze through it, anyway, the sharp edges cutting into his shoulders and back. If his shoulders had been just an inch or so narrower, he could have done it, but he was just too big.
He leaned back, exhausted, and his hand brushed against fabric. Looking down, he spotted the toe of Cole's boot. He wasn't sure why he should bother, but he pulled the rocks off of Cole's legs only to be met with the sickening discovery that the cowboy appeared to have been cut in half by a slice of rock that had fallen perpendicular to the bottom.
But he kept moving the rocks anyway, just out of pure frustration. He was almost relieved to discover his first impression of the situation had been wrong. The vertical piece was wedged snugly up against Cole's chest and abdomen, but it hadn't even crushed him, let alone cut him in two. Cole was conscious, but the rock was pushing on his chest so hard that he couldn't get enough air to speak. He was slowly suffocating, and he looked like he was scared enough to die from sheer fright.
There was no way to remove the piece that had Cole trapped, but Buck was able to wedge another rock under it so that it would at least not compress the cowboy's chest any further. In doing so, he saw that if someone could get on the other side of it, it could be pushed up and out of the way. That would not only free Cole, it would make it possible to get a rope around the rock pinning Ezra.
Unfortunately, the only way to get to it was the small opening that he couldn't fit through.
Reluctantly, he climbed back up to join the others.
"They're all three pinned down there," he reported. "Chris and Cole might be okay if we can get them out...". He shook his head. "Ezra's losin' a lot of blood, Nathan."
The healer took the rope from him. "I'm goin' down there."
Buck held his arm. "It's no good Nathan. There's an opening in the rocks, but it's too small. I couldn't get in and you're bigger than I am."
Nobody had to come right out and say that little JD was their only hope. Proportionally, his shoulders were broader than Buck's, but he was considerably smaller than average. There was a chance he would fit. The problem was, JD would need two good legs to climb down and back up again, and his injured knee was still healing.
"I don't care," JD insisted. "I can put up with a little pain."
"It ain't gonna be a little pain," Nathan told him. "It's gonna hurt like hell. And you start twisting that knee around enough, you're likely not to ever walk on that leg again."
JD contemplated that possibility for only a moment. "There ain't no other way," he said softly.
And everyone knew he was right.
They tied the rope around him and lowered him into the hole. JD tried to steady himself by pressing against the rock with just his good leg, but the effort was too much. He eventually had to use both legs, and the strain on his bad knee quickly took its toll. It buckled under him and he cried out as he slipped and slammed into the slab. The impact scraped the skin off his knuckles and the side of his face, and his knee twisted sharply at an unnatural angle. He screamed with pain, but managed to regain his footing somehow. His face mirrored his effort to withstand the agony, but he gamely declared that he was fine.
They all knew he was lying. His damaged leg looked practically useless and the kid's face had gone chalk white. But, he insisted he could keep going, even after he slipped a second time, this time cutting his forehead. Blood poured down into his eyes from the small wound, making it difficult for him to see, but he still refused to give in.
Buck had other thoughts. "Pull him back up," he ordered.
"NO!" JD insisted. "I can do it!"
The others watched him grit his teeth against the pain, knowing it was no good. Even if the boy could withstand the torture he was inflicting on himself, his knee wasn't going to hold up. Without two legs to steady him, he was swinging back and forth, dragging the rope along the sharp edge of the rim. It wouldn't take much to cut it, and when that happened, he'd tumble head over heels down the incline and be one more injured man to bring out.
They pulled him back up, and JD plopped down forlornly on the ground, tears of frustration and pain streaming down his face along with the blood. "I could have done it!" he snapped, his voice cracking.
Nathan wet a cloth and gave it to him to press against the bleeding cut on his head. The others knew they had to come up with another plan, and quickly.
"We don't got a lot of time, here," Buck snapped at no one in particular. He was ready to write off Cole, who had probably died from lack of air by now. But Ezra needed attention before he bled to death and Chris... What were they going to do? Just leave all three of them trapped there?
He sensed that someone was behind him, and he turned around.
It was Vin.
Without a word to any of them, the tracker took the rope that had been holding JD and slipped it around his chest, even though he was shaking with fear as he peered over the rim of that hellish opening in the earth.
The same questions raced through everyone's mind. Did Vin know what he was doing? And what was going to happen to him once he found himself at the bottom of another hole? Did he even have the physical strength to make it that far?
The answers didn't matter.
Vin was small enough to fit through the opening.
He was the only hope they had.
FORTY-THREEVin managed the descent only with great effort. His thin frame no longer had the strength to cling easily to the rope and push his way down the incline with his legs.
When he got to the bottom, he just stood there, staring at the wall of lava that surrounded him with a dazed expression on his face.
He's remembering Nathan thought to himself. He has to be. When Vin had not moved for several seconds, the healer grabbed another rope. There wasn't really enough room for him, but Vin appeared paralyzed with fear. "I'm goin' down there with him," he said.
Vin looked up at the sound of his voice, and then down at the opening in the fallen rocks. He suddenly seemed to remember why he was there. He got down on his knees and put his head into the opening, but he stopped short of actually crawling into the tiny space. Clearly, it was a problem for him. Nobody could blame him, but they didn't have time to cater to his fear.
Nathan began the descent. God have mercy on them both, he'd shove Vin through the hole if he had to. He hated the very thought, even though he knew that there wasn't much more damage that could be done to Vin. It was their only chance of helping Chris and Ezra.
But as the others watched from above, Vin ducked down and eased his narrow shoulders into the passage. He went through easily, and by the time Nathan reached him, he was all the way inside.
Nathan peered inside and his breath caught in his throat. Vin didn't have room to stand or even get all the way up on all fours, the space was so confined. He had managed to avoid Ezra, but he was virtually on top of Chris, their torsos criss-crossed.
Chris lifted his head and opened his eyes. He frowned in disbelief. "Vin?" Then he looked accusingly at Nathan. "What is he doing here?"
"You hush, now," Nathan commanded him. "We're gonna get you outa here, right, Vin?."
Chris turned back to Vin, who was resting across his chest. He was taking short, panicked breaths and like before, Chris could feel his heart racing with fear. "Vin?"
"I'm okay, Chris," Vin assured him. "How you doin'?"
"I'm fine, I think. I'm just stuck." He sounded more annoyed than anything else which Nathan knew was a good sign.
"Vin, can you take Ezra's pulse? Can you tell me if he's alive?"
Chris felt Vin suddenly go tense with anxiety. He stopped breathing.
Chris was able to reach Ezra's wrist from where he lay. He touched Vin's back lightly. "I'll do it," he told him.
Ezra had a pulse, but it was weak. "He's alive, Nathan," Chris reported, "but he ain't doin' too good."
He moved his hand up to Vin's shoulder. "We gotta take care of Ezra, Vin. Can you do it?"
Vin nodded, but he was breathing too fast again. He was petrified. "Just keep talkin' to me Chris. I don't care about what."
Just so he knows he's not alone in here Chris thought. "I sure as hell ain't goin' anywhere, Vin, so I'm with ya. Just keep yer mind on that."
Nathan had to leave the reassurances to Chris. His priority was to get Vin to move.
"Vin, look around. Can you see what you need to do?"
Vin's turned his head upward and scanned the interior of the tiny space. Cole was unconscious or dead, but he could see the rock that Buck said needed to be moved sitting on his chest.
"I'm gonna try to push up on this rock." He patted it with his hand so Nathan would know which one he meant. "When I do, you're going to have to grab it from your side and hold it in place so I can pull Cole out from under it."
No matter how hard he tried, Vin couldn't keep the fear out of his voice. Nathan couldn't imagine how terrifying it had to be for the tracker to find himself once again in this hell where he had been hurt so badly.
"Vin?" Nathan said gently. "You're gonna have to try and calm down. Stop breathin' so fast. I know you're scared, but it won't do anyone any good if you pass out on me, understand?"
Vin nodded and then said, "Get ready, Nathan."
He shoved his shoulder into the rock, but he didn't have the strength to move it. He tried again, this time putting so much effort into it that he pushed himself backwards. "Aw hell," he sobbed.
"Vin, brace your feet against something," Nathan told him. Vin should have been able to figure that out on his own, but the man was so scared he wasn't thinking straight. "Hurry, Vin, c'mon."
Vin did what he was told. With the added leverage, the boulder moved upward about seven inches when he pushed it the third time.
"I GOT IT!" Nathan yelled.
Vin worked frantically to pull Cole out from beneath the boulder, but there was so little space that he had to kick and shove the cowboy's body to manipulate it out of the way.
Nathan could hear his breathing become harsh, wracking sobs.
"VIN! Calm down!" he yelled.
"HE'S DEAD!" Vin cried out in panic. "HE'S DEAD!"
"Oh Jesus," Nathan muttered, now certain that there was no way Vin was going to be able to see this through, not trapped in a tiny, hot, dark hole with another corpse.
He released the boulder and stuck his head through the opening as far as it would go. "It's okay, Vin," he tried his best to sound comforting, because he knew the only alternative was to let Vin crawl back out, leaving Chris and Ezra still trapped.
Then suddenly, miraculously, Cole started coughing, just a little sputter at first, but as soon as his body realized there was no longer a weight on his chest, he began to suck in greedy gulps of air.
"Hear that, Vin?" Nathan shouted. "He's breathin', understand? He ain't dead."
Vin nodded and managed to compose himself. He looked around, as if determining what to do next. "The boulder, Nathan. If I push it and you pull it, we can get it out of the way and lift this rock off of Ezra."
In minutes, they had the obstruction moved and were ready to lift the weight that was pressing down on the gambler's back. Chris kept up a steady stream of uncharacteristic chatter, encouraging Vin, giving him unnecessary advice, and even goading him.
"That's the most piss-poor job of knot-tying I've seen since the cat got in my granny's crochet basket," he remarked as Vin secured the knot around the slab of rock pinning Ezra down.
Vin tugged on the rope. "Well, you better hope it's good enough, cowboy, 'cause if it ain't, the shitpile don't get any deeper."
The slab was only about three feet wide, but nearly a dozen feet long, so they knew there was a very good chance it would crack in two when it was lifted, if the sharp edges didn't just cut through the rope. The other end would be tied to JD's horse, and there was also no way to keep it from dragging along the fragile, knifelike rim of the pit. It would fray dangerously, and there was a chance the ledge would break off and send piercing shards raining down on Nathan.
It was a bad situation, but they'd have to risk it. There was no alternative.
"You're gonna have to pull yourself free as quickly as you can," Nathan explained to Chris. "Probably ain't much blood in yer legs right now, so you probably ain't gonna be able to use 'em right away. Once that rock is off, you're gonna feel some pain, maybe a lot of it, and then you might pass out. You'll only have a couple of seconds."
Chris nodded that he understood. "I'm ready."
JD had the skill to coach his mount into pulling backwards against the weight of the heavy object. They only hoped the animal was strong enough.
"You all set, Vin?" Nathan asked.
Vin nodded, so Nathan signaled to JD.
At first, nothing happened, but then, the slab began to move slowly upwards.
Chris gasped in pain as the pressure was relieved and the blood suddenly rushed back into his legs, filling them with a fiery tingling sensation that made his eyes water.
"Pull back, Chris!" Vin shouted at him.
Chris pushed back with his palms and pulled his legs out from under Ezra. They were numb and useless, just as Nathan had said they would be, and he had to use his arms to pull them out of Vin's way.
Vin moved quickly to get a grip on Ezra. The rock slab began to make faint popping sounds as the stress caused minute fractures in the brittle lava. Vin realized to his horror that he might not be able to pull Ezra free before the rock collapsed and maybe buried them all.
"EZRA! C'mon!" he yelled hysterically at the unconscious man. "Oh, shit Ezra, MOVE!"
Then suddenly, there was another pair of hands pulling with him. Chris was dizzy and disoriented, but still managed to provide the additional strength needed to pull Ezra free.
Vin had no choice but to roll Ezra almost directly on top of Chris. Seeing this, Chris used his arms to pull the gambler towards him.
Vin hollered at Nathan to lower the slab back into place before it could snap.
There was now almost no room to move in the tiny space. They were packed in so tight that Vin barely had room to turn his head, and the heat was becoming unbearable. Vin's mind began to race with thoughts of the four of them remaining trapped there until they all stewed and rotted like Porter had. They wouldn't get out of his head, and made it impossible for him to think. Escape quickly became his sole thought, and it began to overwhelm him to the point where he forgot that Chris and Ezra still needed him.
Chris touched his arm. "Vin?"
Vin couldn't find his voice. Terror was overpowering him, and he didn't have the strength to fight it.
"Vin, listen to me," Chris said sharply. "Ezra needs your help.... I need your help, Vin. Don't cut out on me now."
Vin took a deep, steady breath and shook his head. "I ain't gonna do that, Chris," he vowed. He tried to sound sure of himself, but it took all his effort to keep his mind focused on what he had to do next...
He had to wriggle and squirm his way into place, but he finally worked himself into a position where he could help ease Ezra though the opening. Both Ezra and Chris were small enough that they would fit through it easily.
Cole hadn't completely regained consciousness so no one had needed to address the fact that he was probably too big to make it, not that anyone, except possibly Ramage, gave a damn.
Nathan worked from the other side, pulling Ezra through as Vin lifted him out. Vin knew he was reaching the limits of his endurance, both physically and mentally, but fear gave him additional strength. The sooner Chris and Ezra were safe, the sooner he could get out of there.
It was going to take both Vin and Nathan to get Ezra to the surface. Chris would have to wait, but a quick glance from Nathan revealed that the gunfighter wasn't seriously injured. His color was good, and the feeling was returning to his legs.
Vin crawled over him, ready to follow Ezra out.
Chris took his arm, and stopped him for a moment. "Vin, I know what it took for you to come down here...."
Vin smiled. "Save it 'til you see if I come back, cowboy."
Chris nodded, even though he knew Vin would be back.
Vin was back. The Vin he knew. This place scared the shit out of him, but the final victory had been won. The demons were still there, but they were no longer in control.
By the time Vin crawled out, Nathan was examining Ezra. The gambler's most serious injury was a small, deep cut on his arm that was spurting a small fountain of blood with each heartbeat. It didn't look like much more than a scratch, but Nathan knew that untended and given enough time, a man could bleed out from a wound like that. He asked Vin for his bandana and used it to tie a tight bandage around the limb that he hoped would staunch the flow. Ezra also had a nasty gash on the back of his head, but he did attempt to respond when Nathan called his name.
Supported by ropes around their chests, the two of them were working their way laboriously up the to the surface, dragging Ezra between them ,when the ledge around the rim gave way.
Vin and Nathan instinctively threw themselves on top of Ezra to protect him from the resulting rockslide. Luckily nothing big enough to do any real damage hit any of them, but now they knew that the ledge would not support the weight of three men at a time. Vin would have to bring Chris up without assistance.
Once they reached the top, Buck took Vin's place supporting Ezra and Vin rested for only a moment before he went back for the gunfighter.
It wasn't any easier to brave the small, dark pocket a second time, but Vin forced himself. Chris was able to use his upper body to crawl out, so all that Vin had to do was ease his legs through.
When Chris was all the way out, Vin looked back at Cole. The cowboy was conscious again, but not moving. He probably had a few busted up ribs. The two men stared at one another, each one's expression unreadable to the other. Neither one of them said a word, and finally, Vin turned and followed Chris out.
Chris was trying to stand up, but the feeling had not completely returned to his legs, and Vin had to steady him to keep him from falling.
"Easy, there, pard," he said. He got behind Chris and pulled him against his chest with his left arm to hold him up while his right arm worked the rope around their bodies. "Just lean on me and hang on...."
Chris grabbed onto the rope, and Vin gave JD the signal to start pulling his horse back. Josiah kept a close eye on the line, ready to grab it if it showed signs of parting.
Chris stumbled and his legs buckled on him a couple of times, but Vin managed to keep them both going. He was dripping with sweat and shaking with fatigue by the time he got Chris to the top, but it was an honest reaction to hard work, not fear.
Josiah pulled both men over the rim and untied them. He held Chris while Vin sat down hard on the rock surface and then lowered Chris down beside him. Vin was out of breath because of the effort, but that empty haunted look was gone from his eyes.
Jim Ramage sat off alone in the distance watching them, nursing his injured arm, and not daring to open his mouth. Vin stared at him, but said nothing, and Ramage kept his mouth shut for a change.
JD handed Chris a canteen and the gunfighter took a few swallows and then handed it to Vin, who took it without hesitation.
Chris watched him drink, noting that he did it eagerly, with no one having to coax him.
Vin noticed him staring. "You did good, Vin," he nodded.
Vin didn't exactly smile, but for the first time in weeks, he looked at peace. "Yeah, I reckon I did."
He wiped his lips with his shirt sleeve and stood up again. He took the ropes from Josiah, who, along with Chris and Buck, gave him a questioning look.
"Cole's still alive," he shrugged. He nodded a signal to JD, and then calmly lowered himself over the edge.
FORTY-FOURCole was not so badly hurt that he hadn't managed to crawl to the opening and realize there was no way he was going to get through it.
The look on his face when he saw Vin peering at him from the other side was a combination of relief, embarrassment, and no doubt a measure of fear that Vin would just laugh at his plight, turn around, and leave him there.
Vin didn't say anything to him. For one thing, he wasn't sure yet exactly how he was going to remedy Cole's predicament. There was no way to enlarge the passage - Buck had already cleared away all the rocks that could be cleared.
He crawled back into the space with Cole and studied the problem. One small boulder appeared to be what was wedging most of the other rocks so tightly they couldn't be moved, and that boulder, in turn, was being held securely in place by the large slab that had pinned Ezra.
JD's rope was still tied to the slab. If it could be lifted far enough, it would release the boulder, and if Vin could crawl under it he could move the obstruction out of the way. Once that was done, enlarging the opening so that Cole would fit through would just be a matter of pushing two or three big rocks aside.
That was the good part. The bad part was that Vin wasn't sure the slab could be lifted high enough for a man Cole's size to fit under it, and if Cole had busted ribs like Vin thought he did, he might not be able to get the job done before the strain on the slab caused it to snap. Vin was going to have to do it himself.
Cole could see that too, and he was watching Vin, not even daring to plead for his life.
It didn't matter since Vin didn't wait for him to say anything else.
He poked his head through the opening. "We need to lift this slab again so I can get under it!" he called to the others.
Chris shook his head vigorously. "NO! It almost gave last time, Vin. It's too dangerous."
"Ain't no other way," Vin said.
"You could just leave him there 'til he's skinny enough to crawl out!" JD suggested, making sure he was loud enough for Cole to hear the remark.
Cole did, and Vin turned and looked at him long enough to make the cowboy wonder if he was actually considering it.
Of course, he wasn't. Although it was entirely possible JD was dead serious, there just wasn't any way Vin could leave Cole trapped and then live with himself afterwards.
He looked back up at the others. "Josiah, you best get to prayin' this thing don't break... JD, slow and easy, got that?"
JD nodded and limped towards his horse.
Chris's balance was still precarious, so he scooted on his belly to check the rope where it had dragged along the sharp edge of the pit. It was frayed about a third of the way through, but there was no way to get another rope around the slab now that it was lying flat.
He showed it to Josiah, who frowned deeply but only said, "I'll pray a little harder."
"VIN! You don't gotta do this!" Chris shouted. "Jus' give me a little time to get my senses back, and I'll come down there."
"Hell, Chris, what does it matter if it's me or you gets killed? It ain't like Heaven wants either one of us." He disappeared back into the opening.
"I'm ready when you are JD," Vin shouted from inside.
JD looked uncertain what to do. Vin had told him to move, but he wasn't about to go against Chris.
"Aw hell," Chris muttered, and then glanced skyward as if he was offering a prayer, too. Maybe he was.
JD took that as his cue that it was okay to proceed. He slowly urged his horse backwards. The animal was tired and resisted the weight, but he coaxed it with gentle words and exactly the right moves to get it to do what he wanted.
Inside the small cavity, the slab groaned and began to move. Vin and Cole both watched it rise from the floor and heard ominous popping sounds as tiny stress fractures weakened it further.
Vin had to force himself to stay close to it. If it buckled while he was under it, it would cut him in half like a knife. If the rope gave way and the whole slab fell on him, he'd be pinned down, maybe even crushed. And even if it missed him completely, there was the chance that it could break into smaller pieces and seal them inside.
He looked at the opening, fighting the urge to just leave.
The rock groaned and rose further. It was almost high enough that he could get under it.
If he could find the nerve.
He was sick with fear.
He could feel a cold sweat trickling down his back, and his stomach felt like he'd been kicked. He was beginning to feel light-headed, and then realized it was because he was breathing too fast, again.
He didn't care about Cole. He'd leave him. Nobody would blame him....
But even as he thought that, he was edging his way under the slab. It was almost as if he were watching someone else's shaking hands grab the little boulder. He tugged on it, but it was still stuck fast.
The slab rose a little further and there were more popping sounds, louder this time.
He tugged at the boulder with all his strength and it moved, but didn't come free.
He was dimly aware that he was shouting obscenities at it, and then he was just screaming. He couldn't get it loose. The slab needed to rise just a little higher....
But it was cracking. He could hear it. Not just little pops, but the sound made by a tree as it slowly toppled towards the ground.
He couldn't do this. He had to get out of there...
Then suddenly, it came free.
He rolled out from under the slab with it, and without pausing, he pushed it aside and bolted through the opening to the outside. He collapsed on his side, waiting for the crash that never came. Eventually, he realized that all he could hear was his own sobbing breath, and that he was lying on the ground like a fool with his arms over his head.
"VIN!" Chris shouted, bringing him out of it.
He opened his eyes and looked around, feeling really stupid. He got up and dusted himself off. "I"m okay," he said with a voice that was not as steady as he would have liked it to be.
The slab was only an inch or so off the ground when it finally broke. It landed with barely more than a soft, thumping sound and a little kicked-up dust. Vin felt his face redden with shame, knowing that panic had gotten the best of him.
But, why the hell shouldn't it have? He could have been buried alive. If that wasn't worth being afraid of, he didn't know what was. To hell with what anyone thought.
He began to pull the now-loosened rocks out of the opening. They came away easily, and he only had to move three to make a space big enough for Cole to get through.
The cowboy crawled out slowly, nursing his broken ribs.
Vin pulled him to his feet, and then slipped the ropes around the two of them so he could climb out while supporting Cole with his own body, the way he had with Chris.
The going was a lot tougher the second time. For one thing, Cole was bigger than Chris and considerably larger than Vin. For another, he had about reached the end of his stamina and was bone tired.
When they got to the top, he flopped face down on the lava, breathing heavily from the exertion.
Chris was next to him in an instant. He clasped his shoulder. "Not bad, Vin."
Vin wiped the sweat out of his eyes. "Damn, I was scared spitless down there."
Chris laughed. "You would've been crazy not to be," he said, and then immediately regretted his choice of words.
Vin didn't seem to mind, though. He raised his head. "How's Ezra?"
"Never better," the gambler mumbled, surprising them all. They had thought he was still unconscious. He tried to sit up, and then immediately thought better of it. "I take that back." He raised his hand to injured side of his head, but Nathan stopped him before he could touch the open gash there.
The size and shape of the wound was such that it looked like a third eye had opened on his scalp, and JD, with his usual talent for bluntness, pointed that out. "That's gonna need stitches," he added knowingly.
"Thank you for that unsolicited and extraneous observation, Mr. Dunne."
"You're welcome," JD said.
Ezra looked at the boy askance. His limp was worse than ever, but for some reason, he seemed inordinately cheerful. He had to close his eyes again. The daylight was piercing through his skull like tiny daggers. "What happened?"
"You had a nasty fall," Nathan explained. "You got yourself a concussion. You're gonna have to rest and stay quiet for awhile."
"You think that's possible for Ezra?" Vin asked.
Ezra was confused by the sound of Vin's voice. The last he could remember, Vin was almost catatonic. He was even more confused when he opened his eyes again and the tracker gave him a gentle smile.
"You hush, now," Nathan admonished him, and then looked at Vin. "Both of you. There'll be time to talk later."
With Buck and Josiah's help, Nathan tended to Ezra, then set Ramage's arm and bound up Cole's broken ribs. The two cowboys bore their pain in sheepish silence, which was just as well, since sympathy for them was in short supply.
With Cole's horse gone, they were one mount short. Ezra couldn't ride, but it didn't seem fair to expect a horse to pull the travois they rigged from the canvas tarp and carry a man on its back, too. No doubt even Ramage wasn't stupid enough to think any of the seven of them would trust him with their horse, never mind the colossal cojones it would have taken for him even to ask. He willingly gave up his horse so Cole could ride, and the seven others watched them leave.
"Strange how slime sinks to the bottom and then sticks together," Josiah observed.
FORTY-FIVEThey made camp that night by the little stream, with Nathan, Josiah and Buck doing most of the work. JD's knee was so swollen and painful that Buck had given him numerous medicinal sips of whiskey, and now the boy was calm and deliriously happy, but completely useless to anyone. His contribution was to supply a steady stream of cheerful background banter without any regard for whether or not anyone was actually listening to him.
Ezra was feverish and slipping in and out of consciousness, but he was lucid when he was awake and despite the fever, he seemed to be improving instead of getting worse. He roused briefly when they stopped, long enough to demand that his bloody shirt be exchanged for the clean one in his saddlebags. Nathan used water from the stream to clean him up, and once that had been done, the gambler drifted off again. It would probably be a day or two before he was completely alert for any length of time, but so long as he kept improving, and the wound on his arm didn't reopen and cause him to lose anymore blood, Nathan was reasonably sure he'd recover completely.
Nathan had insisted that Chris rest, too, but the gunfighter had almost all the strength in his legs back and was feeling fine.
He helped Vin spread out his bedroll beside his own. The tracker was exhausted, but unlike before, he only looked tired, not beaten down and defeated. When he sat cross-legged on his blanket and began methodically going through his belongings with the same disquieting determination Chris had seen before, though, the older man found it disturbing.
"What are you looking for, Vin?" There was an implied warning in his voice that he expected a straight answer this time.
Vin looked up, and then sighed in resignation. Much to Chris's relief, he appeared annoyed, but nothing more. "My damned harmonica. I reckon I musta dropped it somewhere," he indicated the direction of the malpais, "out there. I ain't seen it since... what happened."
Chris nodded, relieved that even though Vin still wasn't comfortable referring to the awful thing that had happened to him, he obviously remembered it now, and it was no longer a nameless pain. "Hate to say it, Vin, but I've heard you play and it's probably better this way."
Vin smiled and shrugged. "Don't matter, I reckon." He folded everything back together and stretched out next to Chris. They lay there without any need for more words to pass between them, Vin watching the stars, and Chris occasionally watching Vin.
The real Vin. The man he knew and could trust with his life.
In a few minutes, the tracker was asleep. Truly asleep, not trapped in some tormented mockery of slumber. Chris knew he still had a little ways to go before he was completely out of that darkness in which he had been so lost for so long. But Vin Tanner had walked through hell and come back again, this time to stay.
* * * * * * *
A fortnight passed and even though the change was gradual, everyone sensed it. Vin, with his quiet courage, had found the strength to look the same townspeople who had ridiculed and doubted him in the eye and refused to sacrifice his dignity to them. He remembered the way he had been, and like a raw wound, facing them again had been painful, but he'd done it.
It didn't hurt his cause any that JD was more than generous with the details of how Vin had risked his life to save Chris, Ezra and Ted Cole, but oddly enough, in his enthusiasm, the boy seemed to completely overlook the fact that he had saved Vin in the first place.
Vin hadn't forgotten though.
Chris watched his two youngest companions from the saloon window as they headed towards the place. JD still needed the walking stick because he'd messed his leg up so bad that it had needed to start healing all over again. He didn't seem to really mind it much, though. There was still just enough child in him that a funny hat, a silver-handled walking stick, and his imagination could whisk him away from his physical discomfort to a world where Four Corners was Dodge City, and he was Bat Masterson. Chris smiled at that thought, but hell, for all he knew, the man JD would become would create his own legend. He could see it happening.
Vin ambled alongside his younger companion, taking shorter, slower steps than his long legs normally would so that the kid could keep up with him. When they reached the steps leading into the saloon, he offered JD his arm for support without hesitation. He was eating again, and even though he was lean by nature, he now had some meat on him and supported JD's weight effortlessly.
The two of them joined Chris at his table, after nodding a greeting to Ezra, who was nearby relieving a couple of newcomers of their worldly assets. Buck was playing, too, but, he wouldn't pay up because he knew Ezra cheated.
Josiah was at the bar, but when he saw the three men at the table, he secured a deck of cards and sat down with them, shuffling the deck without asking if the others wanted to play. They always played cards at this time of day, if they weren't busy. Vin's attention would still drift away from the game occasionally, but it happened less and less often, and for shorter periods of time. If outsiders played with them, they usually didn't even notice it.
Nathan joined them when they were on their second hand. As Chris shuffled the cards, the healer slipped something from his pocket and put it on the table. "I almost forgot I had this," he apologized. "With all that went on, I never thought to give it back to you."
Vin picked his harmonica up off the table. His blue eyes mirrored his delight and relief, even though he tried to sound casual. "Been lookin' for this," he nodded. "Where'd you find it?"
Nathan wasn't ashamed to admit the truth. "I took it for safekeepin' when I thought I'd never see you alive again."
Vin acknowledged the statement with a nod, pleased that Nathan had wanted to remember him, but knowing that neither man saw the need for him to say so.
"'Course, now you got it back, I don't expect you to be blowin' it in my ear until someone teaches you how to play the damn thing," Nathan admonished him.
Vin smiled and turned the harmonica over in his hands a couple of times before tucking it into his shirt pocket.
"Aw shit!" JD blurted out.
They turned to see what he was looking at. Cole and Ramage had just sauntered through the batwing doors. The pair hadn't seen them yet, but they would.
Ramage still carried his splinted, bandaged arm in a sling, but it was a testimony to Nathan's skill that his protruding fingers were a healthy color and he could move them. It wasn't unusual for a fracture like he had suffered to result in a limb that was virtually useless or worse, in need of amputation.
Cole's ribs had healed enough that he had resumed his usual cocky, swaggering gait. They could see that when the pair turned away from the bar and started walking toward their table.
Nobody was actually afraid of them, but they just seemed like such a piss poor excuse to ruin a nice, quiet afternoon.
They pretended to ignore them as they approached, even though at the next table, Buck and Ezra had stopped playing and were waiting to see what their next move would be.
Chris continued to deal the cards, and only when they were right up to the table itself did he look up and acknowledge their presence. "You boys want something?"
Ramage set two silver dollars on the table in front of Nathan. "That's for the doctorin'," he said, as if the words would choke him.
Cole had a full, unopened bottle of whiskey dangling from his left hand. He set it on the table in front of Vin.
Vin looked up questioningly, and their eyes met for just an instant before Cole looked away. The cowboy tipped his hat a fraction of an inch and before he turned to leave said, "See you around, Tanner."
Beyond the river of darkness
In the land of shadows
I gather the pieces of my stolen soul
And return to walk in the light
Of those who know my heart
The keepers of my spirit
[Vin's poem contributed by Debbie Katayna]
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