Vin 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?
At 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..
He'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.
Buck 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.
Walking 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.