Josiah quietly entered the church and found it dark. Setting down the plate sent by Mrs. Collins, he fumbled in his pocket for a match, then struck it and lit the lamp by the door. He assumed Vin had left already, and wondered how he would go about tracking down a tracker should said tracker not wish to be tracked.
The boy could disappear like a puff of smoke in the night.
He picked up the plate and walked through the silent church, lighting lamps as he went, his heart heavy with worry for the younger man. He remembered Vins agitation when he had come to the church that afternoon, his usual stillness given way to constant, restless movement, his face a mask of torment. He had all but begged for something to do, some bit of work in which to lose himself, and the raw agony in his voice and eyes had torn at Josiahs soul. So the big man had sent him up on the roof to loose his demons on the shingles. And then had gone with Nathan to the saloon to find out what had shattered Vin Tanners world.
He had always admired hell, envied the younger mans serenity, and would not look kindly upon whatever devil had destroyed it.
As he lit another lamp near the pulpit, he saw him in the far corner, curled on his side with his back against one wall, asleep, his head pillowed upon his rolled-up coat. Josiah sighed and shook his head, knowing how rare it was for Vin to sleep inside, and wondering again what torment had driven him to seek refuge within these walls. What was it outside he couldnt face? He went slowly forward, careful not to make any sound, avoiding the boards he knew creaked, not wanting to awaken the sleeping man. Reaching the still and silent form, he knelt slowly and set the plate on the floor, resting his big hands on his thighs and studying Vin in the flickering lamp light.
The boy looked worn out.
His long hair, tangled by dried sweat, fell over his face and throat, and Josiah gently pushed it back. Even in this dim light, he could see the lines of exhaustion etched into Vins features, lines sleep had done nothing to ease. He could also see the tracks now-dried tears had made down his unwashed, unshaven face, and winced at this further evidence of Tanners suffering.
What hell had Ford plunged him back into? What demons had the man unleashed?
He settled himself on the floor, close by Vin, and leaned against the adjoining wall, content to watch over the younger man while he slept, determined that nothing, and no one, would disturb him. He figured this sleep had not come easily to so tortured a soul, and knew that made it all the more needed. He made not a sound and closed his eyes, willing his own calm to spill over his friend and give him whatever peace it could.
But, with instincts born of a lifetime of surviving on his own in a dangerous land, Vin seemed to sense the presence nearby. All at once he was awake, sitting up abruptly with a low hiss and drawing his mares leg without thought, swinging the barrel unerringly into line with the intruders chest.
"Easy, son," Josiah soothed, leaning forward and placing a big hand on the gun to push the barrel away. "No need for that. Im not gonna hurt ya."
Vin blinked, then swallowed, the sudden tension draining from him as if it had never been. "Jsiah," he mumbled sleepily, holstering the gun and leaning back against the wall as if unable to sit up on his own. He closed his eyes and drew his knees up to his chest, wrapping his arms about them.
Josiah watched him for long moments, startled to see how young, how vulnerable, the tracker now looked. And, without his hat and damned coat, how small. Every one of the big mans protective instincts came surging to the fore as he beheld the wounded soul beside him.
"You cold, Vin?" he asked softly, certain he saw the young man shaking.
"Dont rightly know," he murmured in that soft, raspy drawl. "It seem cold in here ta you?"
"Not really. But youre shivering."
Vin pulled his knees more closely to him and tightened his arms about them. "Sorry."
Josiah chuckled quietly, a rich, soothing sound that rumbled deep in his chest. "You dont have to apologize for shiverin, Vin, theres nothin wrong with that." He reached over and picked up the plate again, removing the cloth napkin that covered it. "Miz Collins sent this for you. She got worried when you didnt come to supper."
Vin opened his eyes and stared disinterestedly at the food. "Aint hungry."
Josiah arched two heavy brows in surprise. "Then something is surely wrong, brother," he teased lightly. "Ive never known you not to be hungry."
Vins eyes closed once more, as if he couldnt hold them open. "Aint hungry," he mumbled again.
Josiah sighed and set down the plate, more concerned than ever. The fight Buck and Chris had seen in Vin earlier was gone without a trace, leaving him drained and weak. The indomitable spirit was defeated, broken. "A man needs his strength if hes gonna wrestle with demons," he said gently. "Might be easier on a full stomach."
"Chris send ya?" Vin asked in a flat, toneless voice.
"Nope. Decided ta come myself. Wanted ta see how you were doin." He paused for long moments, then asked, "So, how ya doin?"
Vin opened his eyes again and turned his head slightly to fix them on the big mans face. In the lamplight, they appeared dull, empty. "Yaint gotta worry none," he drawled tiredly. "Promised Chris I wouldnt kill the bastard."
Josiah pursed his lips and nodded thoughtfully, stretching his long legs out before him and crossing his arms against his broad chest. "Well, thats good. Real reassurin. But I cant imagine it was an easy promise for you to make. You seem to carry an awful lot of anger for this man."
Vin turned his head away and grimaced tightly. "I hate im," he said softly, simply.
Josiah studied the young mans profile. "Surprises me to hear that, Vin," he admitted quietly. "I never figured you for the hatin kind." He noted the young mans exhaustion, his lifelessness. "Doesnt seem to be sittin well with you, either. You sure hatin him is worth what its doin to you?"
"He aint doin nothin ta me he aint done before," Vin said flatly, staring out into the shadows of the church. "Bastards evil," he murmured, his voice hoarse with the ache that lived in his soul. "I tried ta tell Chris, tried ta warn him, but he dont blieve me. Thinks I aint thinkin straight. Hell," he sighed exhaustedly, "I know I aint thinkin straight. Sonuvabitch twists my mind til I cn barely member my own name. He made me crazy, Jsiah. Thought Is better, but I guess I aint. Guess I wont ever be." He exhaled unsteadily and shivered again, drawing his knees up closer and wrapping his arms as tightly about himself as he could to ward off the black chill of the Devils nearness. "N now hes got yall, n hell do ta yall what he done ta me, git ya so twisted up ya wont ever be straight again. Only one way ta stop him, but Chris wont lemme do it. So now Fords gotcha. Got yall smellin blood. But its a lie, Josiah, its always a lie with him. Only yall wont see it til its too late. Til yall are drownin in that blood."
Josiah frowned deeply and listened intently to the disjointed, irrational words, trying to pick through them and glean some meaning from them. At his best, though, the quiet tracker wasnt comfortable with words, even seemed to regard them as the enemy, and now exhaustion had rendered him almost incoherent. The preacher knew it was all Vin could do just to speak, and could clearly see the toll the effort was taking on him.
"What dyou mean hes lyin, son?" he asked gently, needing to understand what the young man was trying to tell him. Vin had said hed tried to warn Chris, and that Chris hadnt believed him. But if Vin had made as little sense then as he was making now, Josiah figured Larabee had simply been more confused than disbelieving, and he knew the gunslinger was simply not a man who dealt well with confusion. In his present state, Vin required patience, something Larabee lacked but which the preacher had in abundance. "You sayin there arent any renegades up there, that Fords leadin us off inta somethin else?"
"Hell, yeah, theres Comanches up there," Vin sighed. "He wouldnt be here elsewise. N if they wasnt renegades fore he started chasin em, I reckon theys surely renegades now. Likely theres a string of dead soldiers from here ta Texas, all sent ta their Maker by them savages. But thats what he does, Josiah," he said softly, tiredly, turning his head to fix hollow eyes on the big man. "He tells ya whatever ya need ta hear ta getcha on his side. Tells ya he needs ya, tells ya yer the only one cn help him." His hoarse voice broke, and he shuddered violently, bowing his head and closing his eyes tightly. "N it aint til its too late that ya see hes the Devil, n hes come ta take ya ta hell!"
Josiah leaned over, laying a big, gentle hand on one of Vins knees. "What did he do to you, Vin?" he asked quietly, his blue eyes intent on the trackers pain-twisted face. "What hell did he drag you into?"
Vin shuddered again and suddenly clapped his hands over his ears, pushing himself as tightly into the corner as he could. Shots rang out around him, accompanied by angry shouts, screams of fear and pain, and laughter.
Oh, God, the bastard had laughed!
"Vin?" Josiah called worriedly as the young man flinched and pulled away. "Vin, what is? What are you hearin"
"NO!" he screamed, lunging to his feet and kicking away the hand that held him. "Git away"
"Vin!" Josiah rose slowly and frowned worriedly as the young man pressed himself against the wall, staring at him through wild, terrified eyes. "Vin, please" He stepped forward and reached out to him. "Come on, son"
With a wild, wordless cry the tracker launched himself at the big man, spitting curses and clawing at him, trying to get past him. But Josiah caught him and wrapped powerful arms about him, easily imprisoning the smaller man against his chest. "Its all right, Vin!" he called as Tanner cursed and fought wildly. "Its all right! Im not gonna hurt ya!"
"Lemme go!" Vin snarled, trying to fight free. But the arms holding him were too strong, their grip unbreakable, and his own limbs were leaden and clumsy from exhaustion. His kicks were easily avoided, and even the few he managed to land lacked any real force. "Lemme go!" he howled in fury and frustration.
"Vin, stop it!" Josiah shouted.
As Tanner continued to struggle, Josiah swore and bore him to the floor, straddling his back and trapping Vins legs beneath his own, pinning the trackers arms against his back with large hands. Good Lord, how could the boy fight so, exhausted as he was? A moment ago, it had seemed all he could do to sit up straight. Now
"Settle down, son," the preacher soothed, pitching his deep voice low, as if talking to a frightened child. Or animal. "Its all right. I wont hurt you. And Im not gonna let you hurt yourself. Just settle down, now."
Vin closed his eyes tightly and panted harshly, heavily through clenched teeth. He was shaking violently, gripped by a cold, black panic at his helplessness. His heart was hammering furiously, painfully against his ribs, and he pressed his face into the floor, tensing his body against the pain he knew would soon come.
As it had before
But Josiah had no intention of inflicting any pain. "Ssh, hush, Vin, hush," he chanted softly, comfortingly. "Its all right, son, I wont hurt you. Dyou hear me, Vin? I dont mean you any harm. I just want you ta settle down before you hurt yourself."
Vin kept his eyes closed, his jaws clenched; his breathing was fast and ragged. But slowly, slowly, that deep, melodic voice began reaching into his tired, confused mind, gradually parting the black mists of fear. The hands holding him were strong, but had not hurt him yet. This time, the pain didnt come.
Josiah felt the taut, lean body beneath him shudder, heard the soft, stricken cry escape Vins throat, and hurt deeply for his friend. "Youre safe now, Vin, I promise!" he whispered. Taking a chance, he lifted one hand from the arm it held and laid it lightly on the back of Vins head, then slowly stroked the trackers long, tangled hair.
Vin stiffened and gasped at that, expecting at any moment to feel those fingers gripping his hair. Again in his mind he heard cruel, mocking laughter, felt hands pulling cruelly at his hair, felt the knife blade working through it.
"No!" he whispered as tears seeped from between his closed eyelids. "Dont dont " Impulsively, he pulled his free hand between his chest and the floor and closed his fingers tightly, protectively about the medicine pouch he wore, knowing it, too, would soon be taken from him.
But Josiah kept stroking Vins hair, murmuring all the while to him in that rich, resonant voice. He also stroked Vins shoulders and back, and gradually felt the tense body relaxing under his touch. Vins breathing was slowing, growing less frantic, and he stopped shaking. Josiah continued talking and stroking, wanting his friend to know he was safe, that no one would hurt him while in his care.
He was not, however, prepared for the sobs that tore from Vin as sanity returned.
"I led him to em, Jsiah!" Vin wept. "I found em fer that bastard, led him n his men right to em They wasnt hurtin nobody I shoulda known what he was gonna do, I shoulda stopped him Oh, God, I cn still hear their screams!"
Josiah got off Vin and sat beside him, watching in helpless pain and sorrow as the tracker curled once more onto his side, away from him. Not knowing what else to do, what to say, he simply reached out and laid a big, gentle hand on Vins shaking shoulder, his heart breaking for his friend.
"Its my fault!" Vin rasped as the guilt again tore through him. "My fault theyre dead! I took him to em I cn still smell the blood " He suddenly jerked upright and stared down at his hands in horror. "I caint git it off me!" he cried, rubbing his shaking hands frantically against his thighs. "I try n try, but no matter what I do, its still there!" He held his shaking hands out to Josiah and stared pleadingly up at the older man. "Help me!" he whispered desperately, his eyes wide and wild. "Help me git the blood off my hands!"
Josiah took the rough, callused hands and enfolded them protectively in his larger ones, holding tightly to them. "I dont see any blood, Vin," he said, his soft voice shaking slightly, his eyes wet. "Its all been washed off"
"I led em there," Vin whispered brokenly as tears slid down his face. "Took the soldiers right in Oh, God, he killed em all! There was blood everwhere, because of me! Because they trusted me. He killed em all, and I helped!" he cried, jerking his hands away from Josiah and dropping his head into them.
"Did you?" Josiah asked quietly, unable to reconcile Vins words with what he knew of the man. "Are you sure? I cant believe youd lead soldiers against innocent people." He thought again about Vins words. "You said you helped him, but if you didnt know what you were really helping him to do"
"That dont matter"
"Yes, son, it does," the preacher said softly, eyeing Vin sadly. "You cant hold yourself accountable for the sins of another, and you cant blame yourself for a tragedy when someone else is responsible. What happened to those poor people was horrible, but it wasnt your fault."
"I shoulda known what he was gonna do!" Vin insisted hoarsely.
Josiah thought a moment. Chris had said it happened eight years ago "How old were you then, son?"
Vin lifted his head and frowned at the older man, confused. "What?"
"How old were you when it happened?"
Vin narrowed his eyes warily and ran his tongue slowly over his lips, still not certain he understood. "Is seventeen, eighteen, mebbe. Why?"
Josiah sighed and regarded him sadly. "Seventeen or eighteen is a little young to know everything, isnt it?" he asked quietly. "A little young to be able to see into the hearts and minds of men older and more experienced than yourself and know what theyre gonna do before they do it?" He frowned thoughtfully. "I reckon JDs not much more than eighteen right now. You expect him ta know everything?"
"Course not!" Vin retorted. "Hell, he aint but a kid! Dont know half what he thinks he does!"
Josiah smothered a smile at that. "Yeah, I reckon he makes his share of mistakes. Sometimes just doesnt see things the way we do, doesnt know everything we do." He sighed heavily and shook his head slowly. "All those mistakes, when he shoulda known better. Reckon hes got a lot ta answer for."
"He dont either!" Vin said hotly. "Hes jist a kid, Josiah! He caint help it if he dont know everthing! Hell, you know as good as I do that he wouldnt never do nothin ta hurt nobody on purpose, wouldnt do a thing if he knew it ta be wrong! Whatever he does, its only cause he thinks its right! Ya caint blame him fer bein a kid n not knowin any better!"
Josiah fixed a level gaze upon the angry tracker. "Then why would you blame Vin Tanner for it?" he asked pointedly, leaning forward and capturing those suddenly confused eyes with his own. "He was just a kid, too. And I cant believe hed do something he knew to be wrong. Whatever he did, he mustve thought it was right at the time."
Vin sat back and blinked rapidly, frowning and shaking his head sharply, flustered by the preachers logic. It made sense, he had to admit. And it sounded good. It was awful tempting to believe
He shook his head again, dismissing the foolish notion. He couldnt believe it. It was too easy, it sounded too good. He knew life didnt work that way.
And he knew what hed done.
"I shoulda known better," he repeated stubbornly. "I shoulda known what he was gonna do. I shoulda found a way ta stop him."
Josiah sighed in defeat. The boy could forgive anyone for anything. Except Vin Tanner.
Vin bowed his head and rubbed his hands over his face, feeling the full weight of his failure settling upon him. "N now cause of me, hes got all a yall," he breathed exhaustedly. "Hes gonna use yall like he used me, git yall so twisted ya wont know whats what. Gonna make yall as crazy as he made me, leave ya bleedin in the dust like he done me. Best thingd be fer yall ta tell him ta go ta hell n let him find his own damn renegades."
Josiah shook his head slowly. "Chris wont do that, and you know it."
Vins mouth twisted in bitterness. "Hell, yeah, I know it! Fords got him seein Comanches behind ever rock n white folks layin dead everwhere All Chris cn think about now is protectin folks hereabouts. He wont be watchin Ford like he oughtta n he wont see no signs of what the bastard really wants til its too late ta stop him. Wont see hes the Devil til hes been dragged down ta hell."
Josiah raised his head at that, as defeat gave way to triumph. "Then maybe what we need," he said slowly, "is someone expert in readin sign, maybe a tracker whos followed this particular trail before. And if Chris is thinkin only of protectin others, its possible hell need someone whos thinkin only of protectin him."
Vin sat up straight and stared at Josiah as sick, wrenching horror washed through him. "No," he moaned, shaking his head strickenly at the thought of what Josiah wanted of him. "No, ya caint ask me"
"Im not askin anything, Vin," the preacher said softly, his eyes boring into the younger mans. "Im only thinkin aloud. You know Ford, you know Comanches, you know Chris. You know those mountains. You know whats happened before and what might happen again. In fact, you know more about all of this than anyone else among us. And knowledge is a powerful weapon, especially when youre fightin the Devil."
Vin still stared at Josiah, his soul gone cold, his stomach in knots. "Yer askin me ta track fer that bastard again!" he exhaled, sickened, his eyes glittering with pain. "Yer askin me ta lead him on another blood-hunt"
"Or on a quest to save blood from bein spilled"
"No!" he cried, staggering again to his feet and shaking uncontrollably. "No, ya dont know what yer askin! You didnt see em, Josiah, you didnt hear their screams! But I did! And I still hear em now! I took him to em an he killed em! N now yer askin me ta do it again! Goddamn it," he cried harshly, staring at the preacher through accusing eyes, "how much blood dya think I cn carry on my soul?"
Josiah rose slowly to his feet and stepped close to Vin, his sad eyes catching and holding the younger mans tortured ones. Sighing heavily, he reached out and cupped a large hand around the back of Vins neck, closing his eyes tightly as the tracker collapsed against him with a wrenching sob and buried his face in his chest.
"Its the Devils own bargain, aint it, son?" he asked sorrowfully, wrapping a strong arm about the smaller man and cradling him to his broad chest like a child. "To join a man you hate against people you respect to protect the brothers you love. To be forced to take sides in a fight you know is wrong. To revisit your own hell to spare your friends the journey. No one has the right to lay such burdens upon your soul," he murmured, resting a cheek against Vins bowed head. "Yet there they are. And only you can decide what your answer must be."
Vin clung tightly, desperately to Josiah and leaned heavily against him, his own strength gone. "If I track fer Ford, Ill find them people, cause I know them mountains like the back of my hand," he whispered miserably. "N if I find em, hell kill em like he done bfore, n itll be my fault. But if I dont track fer him, you n Chris n the othersll go up anyways, and Fordll likely git yall killed. N thatll be my fault. Either way, I got fresh blood on my hands." A hard shudder racked his lean frame, and a stricken gasp escaped him. "S all my fault! If Id killed him I thought I did!" he whispered. "But, God forgive me, I was wrong!"
"Didnt do it then, caint do it now," he murmured exhaustedly. "Promised Chris I wouldnt. Give him my word, n I caint break my word ta Chris. N now the Devils got yall like he had me, n hes gonna drag yall ta hell, too."
Josiah gently led Vin back to where he had been sleeping and eased him down onto the floor. "Lay down, son," he urged in his deep, quiet voice, pushing the young man back. "You rest here." He brushed the hair out of Vins face and watched his eyes slowly close. "Ill be right back," he assured him, then rose to his feet and walked away.
He was gone for long, long moments, and, even as sleep lapped at his tired mind, Vin heard Chriss voice again.
Goddamn it, Vin, think! You know what they can do!
He knew. Because hed lived among them, had lived as one of them, and theyd taught him to do the same. He knew all the ways they could kill a man, and the ways of not killing him but making him wish they had. He knew.
But he also knew all the things thatd been done to them, by folks who called the People "savages" and themselves "decent God-fearin folk." He knew because hed seen it, had lived through it. When so many of the "savages" he called family had not.
And hed seen it when hed led Ford and his soldiers into that village
He jerked awake as something fell on him, then lay back when he realized Josiah had spread a blanket over him. His eyes slowly closed as a big, fatherly hand descended upon his head once more to stroke his long hair.
"Thought I had it, Jsiah," he breathed sleepily, his drawl thickening, his words slurring. "Thought Id found it, back at the crick. But I done lost it again."
"M balance," he sighed, giving in to sleep. "I done los m balance, n I aint ever gonna git it back."
Josiah bowed his head and shook it at the despair and loss in that soft, tired voice, and his heart hurt for the pain he felt in his friend. Determined to protect Vin as best he could, aching for the trackers wounded soul, he spread some blankets for himself and lay down beside his sleeping friend, placing his big body like a shield between the smaller man and the world that seemed intent on doing him such harm.
+ + + + + + +
The sun was just peeking over the horizon when Chris and the others began gathering in the appointed place, outside the saloon. The blond-haired gunman nodded amiably to Nathan as the healer approached, then smiled slightly as Buck and JD announced their arrival with yet another spirited argument. He had no idea what this one was about; he had long since stopped listening to them.
Josiah was the next to arrive and Chris stared pointedly at him, seeing the big preacher looking around and frowning. Having a good idea what who he was looking for, Chris asked quietly, "Vin gone?"
Josiah sighed deeply and hitched his horse to the rail, his face lined with worry. "He spent the night, or at least part of it, in the church. Im not sure when he left"
"Hell, thats Vin," Buck said good-naturedly. "If he dont wanta be heard, aint nobody gonna hear him. Id swear he can walk on air."
"He all right?" Chris asked softly, not liking the worry in the big mans eyes.
"No," Josiah answered bluntly. "Hes carryin a world of hurt and guilt on his soul."
"Guilt?" JD asked sharply, coming up to join the older men. "For what?"
Josiah shrugged his thick shoulders. "Dont know exactly. He wasnt makin much sense last night. All I know is that eight years ago he scouted for Ford, led him to a band of Comanches." He winced and bowed his head, remembering Vins almost incoherent rage and grief at what hed done. "He never did say exactly what happened when they got there" He lifted his head and stared at Chris. "But he kept goin on about not bein able ta get their blood off his hands."
"Shit," Chris breathed, closing his eyes.
"A massacre," Buck breathed grimly, his blue eyes hardening. "In the saloon, he said Ford killed em all."
"But why?" JD gasped in horror, his shocked gaze going from Chris to Buck and back. "Why would Vin lead a massacre"
"He didnt know thats what he was doin, JD," Josiah cut in sternly, though his eyes remained fixed on Larabee. He set one foot on the boardwalk and leaned forward, resting his forearms on his thigh. "Vin was only seventeen or eighteen then. A boy. And Ford used him, used his gifts, for his own evil ends."
Chriss eyes narrowed and held Josiahs, defiance in the green depths. "Were still goin," he said coldly, daring the big man to argue. "If Fords right, weve got a world of trouble up in those mountains. If hes wrong, or if hes lyin, well take care of it and apologize to Vin. But we are goin. Im not willin to gamble with the lives of folks who look to us to protect em."
"I understand that, Chris," Josiah said softly, earnestly. "But I need ta make sure you understand somethin, too. Were not just gamblin with these peoples lives. Were also gamblin with Vins soul. Whatever happens, I want you to remember that. To Vin, Ford is the Devil himself, and he dragged that boy inta hell eight years ago. Now the Devil is back and Vins soul is hanging above the darkness by a very thin thread. One mistake," his eyes bored ruthlessly into Larabees, "and that precious, fragile soul will be lost forever."
Chris held Josiahs stare, but found he had to struggle to do so. He remembered Vin huddled on the church floor, his hands over his ears, and knew the big man spoke the ugly, frightening truth. Vins soul battered and nearly broken was in his hands.
But he did not intend to lose it.
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