JD'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'."
Josiah 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."
When 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.
There 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?"
Vin 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.