DEVIL'S BARGAIN by Sue Necessary

They rode out of town toward the soldiers’ camp some thirty minutes later, after having finally dragged a sleepy, irritable and complaining Ezra from the comfort of his bed. While JD saddled his horse, the others "helped" the gambler – almost at gunpoint – to get dressed, while he cursed them, the Army, the Comanches, and the world in general with a scathing fluency. When he refused to leave the saloon without at least one cup of coffee, Buck feared Chris might actually shoot him.

Shit. First Vin, now Ezra and Chris. This day was goin’ to hell in a hurry!

As they rode out, Ezra stubbornly kept his horse last in line and fell into a sullen silence. He hated morning, hated the spreading light of the sun, hated the sheen of dew on the ground, hated the smell of freshness about him. He had been known to stay up until sunrise, but saw absolutely no reason to get up at sunrise. Hell, what could you do at sunrise that you couldn’t do at the far more civilized hour of ten or eleven o’clock?

Sleep. That’s what you could do. You could sleep. In a feather bed, upon a down pillow, wrapped in the comfort of silk pajamas.

Good Lord, he was consorting with barbarians!

The others let him sulk, accustomed to it by now. They also took advantage of his silence, knowing it would not last. Once he woke up, his tongue would as well, and then they’d be forced to listen to the familiar litany of complaints.

Larabee began to wonder if the Comanches could be persuaded to take one more captive.

"Chris, look."

He was startled out of his grim reverie by Buck’s quiet voice, and he looked up, blinking in surprise. At the crest of the slight rise ahead, a rider sat atop his horse, silent and unmoving, watching and awaiting their approach. Chris was shocked. Even silhouetted by the sun, there was no mistaking the man’s familiar slouch, the shape of his outline, or the stance of the big horse beneath him. Hardly realizing he did so, he spurred Pony and galloped up the hill, staring in frank astonishment at his friend.

What the hell…?

He reined to a stop just before Vin and grew suddenly uneasy. For once, the tracker had no softly-drawled greeting, not even that lopsided grin of welcome. And his face was deeply shadowed by the brim of his hat, which was pulled down far lower than usual. Chris couldn’t see Tanner’s eyes, and that bothered him.

"Figured you’d’ve ridden out another way," he said at last, noticing that Vin fidgeted nervously with his reins.

"Devil’s Backbone’s thataway," Vin answered softly, nodding over his shoulder.

The words took Chris by surprise, and he stared at Vin in deepening confusion as the others joined them.

Vin said nothing, looked at no one. Close as they all were, he nonetheless seemed distant, unapproachable. Buck watched as the tracker pulled himself further into his ever-present coat, as if trying to hide within it. Just like he was hiding under that damned hat.

It was as close as Tanner could come to making himself invisible.

Chris finally found his voice. "You don’t have ta do this, Vin," he said softly, reaching out to grasp the other man’s arm. But Vin backed Peso out of his reach, and Chris let his hand drop. "You don’t have ta come."

"Cain’t find yer way through them mountains without me." It was not a boast, not a slight, not even a joke. It was just a simple statement of fact delivered in a flat, emotionless voice.

Nathan and Buck exchanged worried glances, both troubled by the tracker’s demeanor, and JD stared from Chris to Vin in confusion. He could feel the tension between the two, could see that Chris was worried and that Vin was… remote. He tried to catch the tracker’s eyes, but Vin simply would not let him.

Josiah, too, was staring, both relieved and saddened to see him. It was clear the decision to come had not been made without a price. He only hoped the price would not prove too high.

"Well, well, Mr. Tanner," Ezra greeted, his tongue finally awakening. "I had thought at least one of our merry band would have better sense than to abandon the embrace of sweet Morpheus. Tell me, what brings you out at such a dismal hour?"

Vin was silent for long moments, and licked his lips. When at last he answered, even Chris, closest to him, had to lean forward to hear the softly-drawled words.

"Reckon I made me a bargain with the Devil."

+ + + + + + +

The ride to the soldiers’ camp was made in silence, with the tension so thick and taut even JD refrained from his usual chatter. He cast frequent confused and worried glances at Vin, who rode at Chris’s right. JD knew some grievous hurt afflicted the tracker, could see it in the tighter-than-usual set of his shoulders and the way he sat Peso. There was none of his customary easy, loose-jointed slouch. Instead, to the boy’s anxious eyes, he appeared bowed, as if bent beneath some crushing burden.

Just watching him made JD’s shoulders – and heart – ache.

Chris, too, watched his friend with profound worry. He was well accustomed to Vin’s deep silences, they all were, but this was different. This was not the quiet borne of peace and camaraderie, nor even of concentration upon the trail. This was the silence of withdrawal, of a man walling himself off from everyone around him, a man building barricades between himself and a hostile, hurtful world. And with each mile they rode, Vin only pulled more deeply into himself, ever further away from them, until Chris knew Tanner could not have spoken had he wanted to.

This whole goddamned mess just stank worse by the minute.

At last they reached the pickets guarding the perimeter and, when Chris identified himself, were waved past. As they entered the main body of the camp, Chris looked about through narrowed, appraising eyes, taking stock of the men they had agreed to help. He counted eight soldiers here, and figured at least four were standing guard. They were all lean, hard-eyed men who had obviously been riding a difficult trail for some time. Their uniforms were badly faded, patched and stained beyond cleaning. Only their horses showed signs of having received care and attention, which came as no surprise. A true cavalryman would go naked through the desert before allowing his horse to suffer any privation.

The soldiers, in turn, regarded the seven newcomers with suspicion. They had known the men would be joining them, ostensibly to help them, but placed no confidence in their abilities. They had been chasing these damned Indians for a month now, seeing them only when they had showed themselves to fight, following a trail that didn’t seem to exist, and they were tired. They wanted nothing more than to end this, end it now, but had begun to fear that would never happen. They were being driven by Ford’s determination alone, their own having evaporated into the desert heat long ago.

But, hell, if these seven men could succeed where they had failed, then it was worth a try.

Ford rose to his feet from his seat at the fireside and watched the men approach. He had expected only six, but certainly would not turn down seven. But when he recognized the seventh, an ugly, angry scowl twisted at his wide mouth and lent a vicious glint to his gray eyes.

Tanner. Goddamn it, he wasn’t gonna let that Injun-lovin’ sonuvabitch ruin this for him!

Vin felt Ford’s gaze the moment it settled on him, felt it like a cold shadow falling over his soul, extinguishing what little light and warmth remained there. He felt a painful tightness in his chest, and a hard knot forming in his gut. For a few terrible, blood-chilling moments he heard faint screams, distant shots, and mocking laughter. Then the sounds vanished into the early morning air, leaving only the noises of men and horses. He bowed his head and closed his eyes briefly, running his tongue over dry lips.

"Vin? You all right?" Chris asked softly, anxiously, certain he had seen his friend shudder. "Listen to me!" he hissed, leaning closer. "You don’t have ta do this! You don’t have ta prove anything. Not to me, and not to Ford." He reached out abruptly and grabbed Vin’s arm, holding tightly to it. "Goddamn it, Tanner, listen ta me! You don’t have ta do this!"

Vin turned his head and stared down at the hand gripping his arm, then lifted his face. All morning, Chris had wanted, had tried, to see that face, those eyes, but now wished he could not. Gone from them was their usual twinkle, their warmth, their life. Now the blue eyes were cold, flat, empty. Looking into them, Chris had the sudden impression of fires gone out.

"Ain’t yer call," Vin answered in a raspy, hollow voice. "Now, lemme go."

Chris nodded and removed his hand, aching for his friend. He’d thought the despair he’d glimpsed in Vin just after Eli Joe’s death was the worst sight he could behold; he’d been wrong. Nothing could possibly be worse than the utter desolation he’d just seen in those lifeless blue eyes.

"Why would he subject himself to this?" Ezra wondered aloud. Worry sounded in his voice and shone in his eyes as he watched Vin and Chris. "He doesn’t have to accompany us. Between the six of us, we certainly are capable of traversing these mountains and ferreting out a few wayward natives. Why force himself into what is clearly an excruciating situation?"

Josiah, at the gambler’s left, sighed heavily and shook his head. "When a man strikes a bargain with the Devil," he said in a deep, sorrowful voice, "he is not always free to choose the terms. All he can really know for certain is that those terms will inflict upon him all the torments of hell."

Ezra exhaled sharply and regarded the preacher with impatient irritation. "Would you please be so kind as to enlighten me on the nature of this particular ‘bargain’ which both you and Mr. Tanner have mentioned?"

"It’s very simple, Ezra," Josiah breathed. "Somewhere in the night, Vin decided he had to sacrifice his soul to save ours."

+ + + + + + +

Ford’s scowl deepened as he watched Tanner ride toward him. The tracker never looked at him, never acknowledged his existence. All the same, Ford knew the boy was only too aware of his presence. He just had to look at the menacing blond bastard beside him to know that.

Let his friends glare, Ford thought spitefully. Won’t do Tanner no good in the end!

"All right, we’re here," Chris said tersely, fixing his hard green stare upon the soldier. "What now?"

"That’s it, Chris," Buck breathed behind him. "Show him the Larabee charm!"

Ford ignored the gunfighter and stared at the tracker. "What the hell’re you doin’ here, Tanner?" he demanded, setting big fists on his hips.

"You said you needed a tracker," Chris answered for his friend. "You got one."

Ford spat a brown stream of tobacco juice into the dirt. "Hell, what I need is a tracker who’ll find them Injuns, not warn ’em off! I need a tracker who won’t turn on us and kill us all! Cain’t trust him," he growled, jutting his chin toward Vin. "He’s crazy, y’all saw it in the saloon. He ain’t no more’n a savage hisself!"

A low growl escaped Josiah at that and he started his horse forward. But Nathan reached out and grabbed his arm while Ezra nonchalantly sidled his horse in front of the preacher’s.

"Easy, Josiah," Nathan cautioned. "You cain’t help Vin by bustin’ heads. We ain’t here ta take on the whole damn Army."

"Ain’t here ta see Vin tormented for sport, either!" Josiah ground out, his blue eyes filling with anger. "He’s got enough on his soul. He doesn’t need any more!"

"Perhaps we should allow Mr. Larabee to deal with the blue-belly bastard," Ezra drawled softly, keeping his own anger under tight rein. "I dare say our illustrious leader is more than capable of managing that uncouth desert Napoleon."

Alone of all the seven, Vin seemed to show no reaction, make no response, to Ford’s insult. Only Chris saw the almost imperceptible tightening of his hands upon Peso’s reins. And was infuriated by it.

"Cut it, Ford," he ordered in a hard, cold voice. "You want us, you leave Vin alone. I told you in town – I won’t have you provokin’ him."

Ford cast a merciless glare at the silent tracker. "Ain’t never knowed ya ta need a nursemaid b’fore, Tanner. ’Course," the glare turned into a sneer, "you was in a pretty sorry state when we left ya eight years ago. What’sa matter, boy, ya lose yer nerve back there with ever’thing else?"

Vin swallowed hard and closed his eyes tightly, trying to will away the sound of that hateful voice and the memories it invoked. As Ford laughed, however, he absently raised a shaking hand to the medicine pouch hanging against his chest, then to the ends of his long hair.

"Leave him be, or I’ll take ya down myself!" Chris growled, getting his horse between Ford and Vin. "Now, let’s get on with this!"

Ford scowled at the gunman, but still felt a sense of satisfaction at having gotten to Tanner. The tracker had a lot to pay for, and Ford figured he might as well start paying up now.

"Why’n’t you boys dismount, have some coffee, let yer horses rest a spell?" he invited with a false joviality. "Might’s well let ya know what we’re up against. How things stand."

Chris nodded and swung down from the saddle, followed by the others. All except Vin. He sat still on Peso’s back, as if aware of nothing going on about him.

Chris handed Pony’s reins to Buck and noted the worry in his old friend’s unusually somber face. Wishing he could somehow reassure him – all of them – but knowing he could not, he frowned and shook his head slowly, then walked around to stand at Vin’s leg.

"Come on, pard," he called quietly, gazing up into the face he alone could see, "get down, have some coffee. Let Peso here have a breather."

Vin said nothing, merely swallowed and slid down to join Chris, his head still bowed. A trooper came forward to take the big gelding’s reins, but JD swooped forward and grabbed them himself.

"He don’t like strangers," the boy explained to the startled soldier. "I’ll help you with ’em. There’s a couple more of ’em pretty touchy."

The trooper nodded, and JD showed him which horses he could take and which he shouldn’t. Before the boy could go off with him, though, he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned, looking up into a pair of green eyes.

"Thanks, JD," Chris said softly. "I know Vin appreciates it."

JD looked past Chris to Vin, who never seemed to notice his horse being taken from him. "Take care of him, will ya?" he asked worriedly. "He don’t look too good."

"I’ll do what I can. But I have a feelin’ that before it’s all over, he’s gonna look a whole lot worse. Prob’ly gonna need all of us."

JD nodded, afraid Chris was right. Then, impulsively, he stepped forward and touched Vin’s arm. The tracker stood still, head down, and JD’s generous young heart hurt for him. It was hard for him to remember that these men whom he idolized were mortal, and thus vulnerable, and it was equally difficult to keep in mind that Vin, who sometimes seemed as old as the hills, was much closer to him in age than he was to the others. Now, though, it was almost impossible for him to look at the tracker and see him as anything but young and very much in need of protection.

"Hey, Vin," he said quietly, "don’t worry, I’ll look after Peso for ya. Keep him outta trouble, all right?"

He didn’t expect an answer, and had already turned around to leave when he heard the softly – very softly – drawled, "Thanks, JD."

Chris nodded and smiled slightly at him, Buck positively beamed at him, and JD led his horse, Chris’s black and Peso away, feeling ten feet tall. Vin had finally spoken, and it had been to him!

Chris led the others forward to the fire, careful to keep Vin at his side. He saw that Buck took a protective position at the tracker’s other side, while Josiah hovered formidably at his back. As Ezra and Nathan took flanking positions, Chris allowed himself a small, grim smile.

Mess with one, you got ’em all. It was the first rule of the seven.

They settled themselves at the fire, and cups of coffee were passed around. When Vin made no move to take the one offered him, Chris pressed it into his hands, half wondering if he would hold it or let it drop. To his relief, he felt the strong fingers close about it. But the younger man made no other movement, never raised his head, never spoke, never drank. Chris had the troubling feeling that while Vin’s body was here, the rest of him had pulled far, far away.

Ford laughed harshly, contemptuously, and spat into the dirt. "Hell, I told ya he was crazy! Ya hear me, Tanner?" he called loudly, leering cruelly at the unresponsive man. "What’sa matter, boy? Ain’t fergot how ta talk, have ya? Aw, shit, boy, don’t tell me ya done turned half-wit! What the hell good’s a damn half-wit tracker–"

Chris launched himself at Ford with a bitter curse, grabbing two handfuls of the faded blue shirt and jerking him upright. Murder flared in the green eyes, and Chris drew back a fist to strike the sergeant in the face. Before he could, however, Buck had grabbed him and was pulling him off Ford, while Josiah, Nathan and Ezra kept the furious soldiers from intervening.

"Let him go, Chris," Buck said softly, holding tightly to his struggling friend. "This ain’t gonna help us, and it sure ain’t gonna help Vin–"

"I told him ta lay off!" Chris spat, still fighting to break Buck’s iron hold on him. "Sonuvabitch ain’t got any right tormentin’ him like that–"

"You’re as crazy as that goddamn tracker!" Ford yelled as he was helped to his feet by a trooper. "First he tries ta kill me, then you do! Next time, I’ll have ya shot–"

"You try it, Ford, and I’ll paint the desert with your blood–"

Vin closed his eyes tightly and dropped his coffee with a small, strangled gasp, bowing his head lower and pressing his hands over his ears as Ford and Larabee shouted furiously at one another. Jesus, he shouldn’t have come! Chris was gonna get himself killed because of him, all the boys were, and he’d have to live with that, too! Just like he had to live with those other deaths, the blood he couldn’t wash away, the screams he couldn’t silence–

Something in him snapped.

"STOP IT!" he shouted harshly, lunging to his feet and staring at the two yelling, cursing men through wide, wild eyes. "Goddamn it, why won’t y’all stop?" He turned to Chris, his blue eyes burning in his haggard, ashen face, his lean frame trembling as if from a terrible chill.

Shit, didn’t Chris understand? Didn’t any of ’em understand? He’d spent all morning trying to blind himself to Ford’s hateful face, to deafen himself to that voice and numb himself to that evil, hurtful presence, because he knew if he didn’t, he’d never be able to keep his word to Chris and not kill the bastard where he stood. But they wouldn’t let him. He knew they were only fighting for him, but that wasn’t what he needed! He just needed ’em to let it go, like he was trying to do. Because if they didn’t–

"He’ll kill ya, don’t ya know that?" he cried hoarsely, his blue eyes filled with fear of the danger he saw closing in on his friends. "Murderin’ sonuvabitch’ll shoot ya down where ya stand and call it his ‘duty’. And then what’m I s’posed ta do? Ya think I ain’t got enough blood on my hands that I need ta add yers? Leave him be, y’hear? He ain’t worth it, Chris! Hell, I ain’t worth it!"

Chris pulled out of Buck’s grasp and started slowly forward, stunned by Vin’s outburst. "You’re wrong, Vin," he said softly, soothingly, his earlier rage replaced now by a deep sorrow for his friend. "You are worth it. And I’m not gonna let this piece of trash convince you otherwise. I don’t know what’s goin’ on here–"

"Then leave it be!" Vin pleaded softly, desperately, his eyes and soul begging for Larabee to understand. "Ya cain’t change nothin’, Chris, ya cain’t make it better. All’s ya c’n do is make it worse. Please, jist leave it be. Please!"

Chris stopped just before Vin and swallowed hard, trying to control his fury at Ford for putting that torment in the tracker’s eyes. Worst of all, Ford had reduced a proud, strong, intensely private man to helplessness, to begging. And that he would never forgive.

"You don’t have ta stay here, Vin," he said quietly. "You don’t have ta take this shit from him. I shoulda never let you come, I shoulda stopped you when I had the chance! But it’s not too late. You can just ride out–"

"And let y’all go up there with him alone?" Vin cried wildly, his voice nowhere near steady. "Goddamn it, Larabee, ain’tcha heard a word I said? That bastard’ll get all a’ y’all killed! ’N how’n the goddamn hell am I s’posed ta live with myself after that? Ya still don’t git it, do ya? The Devil ain’t up in them mountains, Chris, he’s right here amongst us! ’N you expect me ta jist ride off and let y’all go up inta them hills with him? Goddamn it, Larabee, I ain’t here ta protect yer ass from no fuckin’ Comanches!" he shouted, grabbing Chris’s shirt and jerking him so close their faces nearly met. "I’m here ta save yer blind, stupid ass from that fuckin’ Army asshole who won’t be happy ’til we’re swimmin’ in our own goddamned blood!"

With that, he shoved Chris backward into Buck, who was almost too shocked by the tracker’s behavior to stop Larabee from falling. But as Buck finally managed to catch Chris, Vin turned sharply on his heel to go back to the fire, and was startled to see Ezra, Nathan and several soldiers backing hurriedly out of his way.

"Shit," he rasped bitterly, scowling at them all, "I ain’t gonna hurt none a’ ya. ’N you," he shifted his seething gaze to Josiah, "y’ain’t gotta look at me like that. I ain’t crazy. Not yet. Not like I’m gonna be ’fore this fuckin’ mess is over!"

Chris pulled himself away from Buck and straightened, shaking his head slowly as he watched Vin sit down at the fire and pour himself another cup of coffee with appallingly unsteady hands. "Handled that real well, didn’t I?" he asked harshly, removing his hat and running a hand through his hair.

Buck chuckled quietly and laid a big, brotherly hand on his shoulder. "Always said you should go inta diplomatic work, pard," he joked. "Ya just got a natural way with folks!" When Chris did not respond to his joke, his smile faded and he sighed, regarding Vin through troubled blue eyes. "I know how ya feel. He’s in a real bad way. Hell, look at ’im. When’s the last time ya saw his hands shake like that?"

Chris sighed and rubbed a hand tiredly over his face. "Jesus, Buck, what’re we gonna do?"

"Well, right now," he answered quietly, calmly, squeezing Chris’s shoulder, "we’re gonna go sit back down, have some more coffee and let Ford tell us what the hell we’ve gotten ourselves into. Then, if Vin don’t kill the bastard or you don’t, I figger we’ll git on our horses ’n do what we came out here ta do. Namely, find us some Comanches, whup ’em good, send ’em home, and get home ourselves."

"Just like that," Chris said with a slight, forced grin.

"Just like that," Buck answered easily. "Now, come on, ol’ son, let’s go and be sociable." He winked. "Mebbe you can show us some more of that famous Larabee charm."

+ + + + + + +

"Renegades we’re after is a bunch a’ Quohadi Comanches," Ford was explaining to the group, his sullen glare rarely leaving Tanner, who steadfastly ignored him. "Broke off from the main band, decided they wasn’t goin’ on no reservation. They’re led by a mean sonuvabitch named Red Stick–"

"Red Stick?" Vin’s head came up sharply at that and he fixed wide, startled blue eyes on the sergeant. "You sure about that?"

"Hell, yeah, I’m sure, Tanner!" Ford spat. "Been chasin’ ’em a month now, all the way from Texas! Reckon I know who the hell they are by now!" His eyes narrowed suddenly, and he scowled suspiciously at the tracker. "You know him?" The boy said nothing, merely slid his gaze to the ground. "Goddamn it, Tanner–"

"You know him, Vin?" Buck asked softly, worriedly, wondering just how much worse all this could get. He suddenly remembered asking a similar question during their pursuit and capture of Chanu, when he had thought Vin’s loyalties a little too uncertain.

Vin turned to look at Buck, saw a shadow of doubt in the big man’s eyes, and felt a dull pain in his soul. It was all startin’ again…

"Come on, pard," Chris prompted gently as Vin closed up on himself once more. "You know this Red Stick?"

He licked his lips and stared fixedly into his coffee. God, why couldn’t they leave him be? Didn’t they know how much this hurt? How tired he was? How hard it was just to talk?

But he could feel Chris’s eyes on him and knew he wasn’t gonna let up. "Met him once," he said at last, his soft voice hoarse, strained. "Few years back. I’s livin’ with the People back then. Quohadi band under Two Eagles. Some a’ the bands had got together fer a buffalo hunt. Red Stick ended up marryin’ Two Eagles’s daughter. I’s at the weddin’ celebration. He saw I’s white, was curious ’bout me, ’n we talked a bit."

"Oh, shit!" Buck breathed. Vin hadn’t known Chanu, and that had been hard enough on him. Now he was being asked to track a man he knew, had celebrated with…

Jesus, wasn’t the boy gonna be spared any pain at all?

"Reckon he’d be ’bout yer age now," Vin went on, raising hollow eyes to Chris. "Tall feller, ’specially fer a Comanche. Smart. Fierce warrior. Was reckoned ta have real strong puha."

"Puha?" JD repeated, leaning forward. He never ceased to be fascinated by the tales Vin told him of Indians and their ways, and was always eager to learn more. "What’s puha?"

Vin blinked, then frowned, startled by the question. "Puha," he repeated, as if the meaning should be clear, as if everyone should understand. But JD only shook his head and shrugged, and Vin exhaled sharply, frustrated that he should have to put a purely Indian concept into white man’s words. "It’s…" He waved a hand absently, taking in the world about him. "Medicine," he said at last, reaching up to finger the leather pouch hanging about his neck. "Spirit power. The young men follered him ’cause he was reckoned ta be favored by the Spirits. Touched by their power."

"And they’re still followin’ the bastard," Ford said harshly. "He’s got mebbe fifteen bucks up there with him now, all as mean as him. But I aim ta put a stop ta his ‘puha’."

"Gonna kill ’em jist like that, huh?" Vin demanded softly, his eyes wide and unblinking beneath the brim of his hat. "Wipe ’em from the face of the earth, without waitin’ ta see whether they’s even a threat."

Ford spat again. "I see y’ain’t changed none, Tanner," he growled. "Still soft on them murderin’ redskins. Figger they’s better’n us–"

"Not better," Vin breathed tiredly. "But not worse. Jist differ’nt. They ain’t animals. Don’t deserve ta be treated as such." He lifted a brittle stare to Ford. "Don’t deserve ta be murdered by no stinkin’ coward who’d rather kill women ’n babies than fight warriors."

Ford loosed a harsh oath and shot to his feet at that, his face twisting into a mask of hatred. "Goddamnit, Tanner–"

"Sit down and shut up," Chris ordered coldly, his eyes like green ice. "Both of you. We’re here ta get those Comanches outta the mountains, not kill each other."

Vin’s eyes glittered with a dangerous light as he stared at Ford, giving him a true look of madness. "Cain’t kill him, Chris," he said in an odd, flat voice. "Remember? Give ya my word I wouldn’t. Cain’t go back on my word."

Ford gave a hard, sharp bark of a laugh. "Yer word, huh? Shame I didn’t think of that eight years ago! Remember how ya turned on me then, boy?" he jeered. "Ya jist went crazy, didn’t ya, Tanner? Lost yer mind and tried ta kill me." He laughed again, a cold, cruel sound, as he beheld the shattered look in Vin’s blue eyes. "But I’m still here, ain’t I, Tanner? All them Injun friends of your’n are dead and gone ta rot, but I’m still here. I reckon you failed all them redskin friends a’ your’n after all."

Vin shuddered and bowed his head, closing his eyes tightly and clenching his jaws and fists as he waged a physical battle against the powerful, painful surge of memories Ford’s mocking words had unleashed. But he had no wish to revisit that time and place, had no wish to go back to that hell, and so fought desperately to keep himself from remembering. Soon his whole body ached from the struggle, but, though it required all his strength, he managed to hold the past at bay, to force it back down into the dark recesses of his tired and hurting soul. And only when he was able to shut out his own silent screams did he speak.

"Reckon I did," he rasped, his eyes wide and unfocused. "’N it’ll haunt me ta my grave."


Comments to: