DEVIL'S BARGAIN by Sue Necessary

The pace he set was relentless and he spared the men behind him no pity. Onward toward the mountains he pulled them, driven as Josiah had guessed to seek whatever awaited him – be it salvation or damnation – amid those peaks. One way or another he had to end the pain, the guilt, the fear consuming his soul, and that could only be done up there. His need robbed him of any sense of discomfort, of awareness of the hunger or thirst or sore and weary muscles that plagued the others, made him impervious to the scorching heat or stinging sand. In his determination to deaden himself as much as was possible to Ford’s presence, he had numbed himself against all feeling, all sensation, trying desperately to reach that still and silent place inside him where all that existed was himself and the trail he followed.

But that place didn’t seem to exist anymore…

The other six watched him in deepening concern, some understanding what he was doing, some not, but all hurting for him. He had shut himself off completely, withdrawing to a place even Chris couldn’t reach, refusing – or unable – to talk or even tolerate their presence. But they were as stubborn as he and refused to let him go. However frantically he tried to push them away, they stayed with him, not crowding him, but never leaving him. Walking a fine line between what he thought he wanted and what they knew he needed, they gave him just enough room to breathe, yet all the while arranged themselves in a protective barrier between him and the soldiers, determined to keep him from as much hurt as they could, ready to lend him their strength the moment his own faltered.

Chris understood Vin’s desire for solitude, knew a man who had spent so much of his life on his own would instinctively want to isolate himself from others and nurse his wounds alone. It was his nature; it was all he knew.

Larabee didn’t know all the details of his friend’s past, but knew enough to understand that from much too young an age Vin had been given precious little reason to put his hope and trust in people. He had grown up wary of them, too familiar with their ability and quickness to deal the wounds that would once more drive him from their company. And even now, with friends who would kill or die for him, who would watch his back when he would not dream of asking such from them, Vin could think of nothing except escape, hadn’t the strength to rise above the instincts of a lifetime. Not with all that pain raging in the shattered ruins of his soul and the man who’d caused it doing all he could to inflict even more.

Each time Chris caught a glimpse of Vin’s eyes and saw the worsening torment in them, he felt his own hatred for Ford grow stronger, deeper, and knew with an unshakable, instinctive certainty he would kill the son of a bitch before all this was done.

And enjoy every moment of it.


He looked sharply to his left, startled by Nathan’s quiet voice. He hadn’t heard the healer ride up to him, had been too intent on Vin to notice anything or anyone else.

Which was a real good way to get killed.

"I’m worried ’bout Vin," Nathan went on, following the gunfighter’s gaze to the solitary figure ahead.

"Any one thing in particular?" Chris asked bitterly, his green eyes hard, his hands clenching tight about Pony’s reins.

"Right now? Yeah," he answered calmly, refusing to rise to Larabee’s bait. The man wanted an argument, a fight, hell, a blood-letting, but Nathan wasn’t going to give him what he wanted. "It’s hotter’n hell out here, an’ Vin’s still wearin’ that damn coat. We gotta git it off him b’fo’ this heat kills him."

Chris stared at the healer as if he’d lost his mind. "Oh? And just how do we do that? Ride up to him in a bunch, knock him from his horse and hold him down while we pull it off? How many of us d’you reckon he’d kill before we got that coat?"

"Could jus’ ask," Nathan suggested, remaining calm in the face of Chris’s anger. He knew it was only the man’s fear for his friend that was making him like this, and so would tolerate it. Up to a point.

"You volunteerin’?"

"Yeah, I am. I ain’t jus’ gon’ ride back here an’ wait fo’ this heat ta kill him. I aim ta git that coat off him. An’ I aim ta make him drink some water. He ain’t been doin’ near enough a’ that, either."

Chris scowled at him a moment longer, then exhaled slowly and relaxed, his gaze softening somewhat. "I’m sorry," he breathed. "I don’t mean–"

"I know," Nathan said sadly. "We’re all worried about him. Got a powerful hurt festerin’ inside him, poisonin’ him. An’ if he don’ let us help him, if he don’t let us drain that poison, he’s gon’ die, body an’ soul. We’ll be buryin’ him up in them mountains."

"Go get his coat," Chris ordered grimly, his gaze again seeking out the tracker. "Shoot him if you have to, but get it off him. I ain’t losin’ him ta the sun and I ain’t losin’ him ta Ford. And I for goddamn sure ain’t buryin’ him up in those mountains. Whatever it takes, whatever we have ta do, whoever I have ta kill, Vin’s comin’ home with us, and he’s comin’ home alive."

+ + + + + + +

Nathan rode slowly toward Vin, trying to figure out just how the hell he was going to do this. It sounded easy – get a man to take off a damned hide coat when the sun was hot enough to fry eggs in his hand – but he’d been around the other six long enough to know that what might be easy with most folks was rarely easy, or painless, with them.

And Vin Tanner was the absolute worst of a truly mule-headed bunch.

He watched the tracker stop his horse and dismount, and realized it was now or never. While Vin bent over to lift one of Peso’s feet and pry a small stone from the hoof, Nathan rode up to him, careful to make enough noise not to startle him, careful not to make any move that might threaten him. Vin might not be the fastest with a gun he’d ever seen, but no one was as accurate – or as deadly.

"Vin?" he called casually. "I wanna talk ta ya–"

Before the words were completely out of his mouth, Tanner was upright and spinning toward him, pulling his mare’s leg smoothly from its holster and holding it in two very steady hands. Nathan’s stomach tightened and twisted convulsively as one gun barrel and two deadly eyes were aimed unerringly at him.

"Hold on, Vin," he urged with a forced calm, raising his hands shoulder-high. "It’s jus’ me. I wanna talk ta ya, that’s all." He had never realized before just how unnerving Vin’s stare could be. Every bit as bad as Chris’s. "Ain’ gon’ hurt ya, Vin, y’know that," he said quietly. "Y’ain’ gotta hold a gun on me. I jus’ wanna see how ya doin’."

Vin stared hard at the healer, wary for some trick, some trap, every predatory instinct on edge. He knew they were all worried about him, knew Chris was worried, and that made him nervous. A worried Larabee was a dangerous man, not above knocking a friend in the head and sending him back to town tied to his horse to keep him out of trouble.

Though he likely wouldn’t send Nathan to do his dirty work for him…

He thought a few moments longer, running his tongue over his dry lips as he searched Nathan’s eyes. Then, when he saw no threat lurking in them, he lowered the gun and held it down by his leg, nodding. But he never relaxed.

Nathan noticed this. Still moving carefully, Jackson slid down from his horse, willing himself to go slow and easy. Vin reminded him of a wild and frightened animal, ready to attack at any sudden move, any unexpected sound, and he decided his best chance at success lay in treating the tracker accordingly.

But, damn, he just wished Vin didn’t look quite so ready to pounce!

"It’s awful hot out here," he said in a calm, quiet voice, his dark eyes never leaving Vin. Sweat ran in rivulets down the tracker’s face and throat, dripped from his long, sodden hair and soaked his hatband and shirt. "Y’ain’t got no business wearin’ that coat in this heat. I come ta ask ya ta take it off b’fo’ ya git sick."

Vin frowned slightly and glanced down, a puzzled look spreading over his face as if he only now realized he still wore the coat. Then, raising his head and returning his gaze to Nathan’s, he swallowed and said in his soft, raspy drawl, "Reckon I’m used ta the heat–"

"Ain’t nobody used ta this, Vin, not even you," Nathan insisted. "’N you know as well as me what heat c’n do ta folks. Come on, now," he urged gently, taking a step closer, "won’t hurt ya none ta go without it. You’ll feel a whole helluva lot better."

Vin narrowed his eyes and licked his lips, unsure. He was hot, he realized now, awful hot. And thirsty some…

"Y’ain’t gonna try nothin’, are ya?" he asked, unwilling to let go of his suspicions.

Nathan sighed impatiently and set his hands on his hips, concern giving way to exasperation. "What the hell would I be tryin’?" he demanded. "’Cept tryin’ ta save yo’ damn stubborn life? Fo’ a man who knows so damn much about livin’ out here, you c’n be a stupid sonuvabitch! Now, take off the goddamned coat an’ let yo’ body breathe!"

Vin blinked and took a step back, badly startled by the sharp, angry tone. Nathan took another step toward him, still scowling, and Vin looked wildly about him in alarm, instinct urging him to run.

"Settle down, Vin," the healer said softly, regretting his angry outburst. "I ain’t gon’ do nothin’ ta ya, ain’t gon’ hurt ya, I promise. Jus’, please, take off ya coat! I don’ wanta see ya git sick."

Vin shuddered, but forced himself to stand still, though his nerves still ached for flight. At last, reassured by the concern in Nathan’s eyes, he swallowed hard and holstered his mare’s leg. As Nathan nodded and smiled gently, Vin gave in and slowly removed his coat. He held it for long moments, looking at it with some uncertainty, then went to Peso and tied it behind the saddle.

Be a hell of a lot easier just to wear the damn thing…

"Now," Nathan went on as Vin turned back to him, "git that canteen, open it, an’ drink."


"Don’t argue with me, Vin," the healer warned, taking another step forward. "I don’ wanna fight ya, but I will if I have ta. Look at ya’self! Wringin’ wet with sweat! Need ta git some mo’ water inside ya b’fo’ ya lose what you got lef’!"

Vin swallowed, and shifted his weight from his left foot to his right. "Ain’t much water hereabouts," he drawled softly, ducking his head. "Gotta save–"

"Don’ gimme that shit!" Nathan barked, moving closer still. Without warning, he raised a finger and jabbed it into Vin’s chest, clearly startling the tracker, who seemed not to have realized he was so close. "Ya got plenty a’ water ’cause y’ain’t drunk none yet! But you’ll drink now, or I’ll git Josiah ta hold ya while I pour it down ya! An’ you know I will!"

"Yeah," Vin sighed, defeated, "I know ya will. Yer right mean ’bout things like that."

"Mean?" Nathan shouted, startling Vin again and sending him back a step. "Ya call tryin’ ta save yo’ sorry ass ‘mean’? Well, lemme tell ya, Vin Tanner, if ya don’ git that canteen an’ drink right now I’ll show ya a ’mean’ y’ain’ never seen b’fo’! Now, git it, an’ don’ stop drinkin’ ’til I tell ya!"

Vin suddenly realized he was more afraid of Nathan than he would ever be of Chris, knew the healer had a sneaky, underhanded side that Larabee could only envy. "Ain’t right," he muttered darkly, stalking back to Peso and unhooking his canteen from the saddle. "Ain’t got no call ta threaten a man who ain’t botherin’ nobody…" He yanked the stopper out of the canteen and glared at Nathan, who only glared back. "Y’ain’t gotta stare–"

"Yeah, I do or ya won’t drink," Nathan said, planting his fists once more on his hips. "I know ya, Vin. You a stubborn, mule-headed sonuvabitch who looks after ever’body ’cept ya’self, an’ who’d rather catch a bullet than admit you’s sufferin’ the same as us! Got it inta ya’ head ya don’ need water. Shit! I’m here ta tell ya, ya do! Now, drink!"

"Jesus, Nathan, y’ain’t gotta yell," Vin grumbled, raising the canteen to his lips. And the man called him mule-headed…

"Keep drinkin’," Nathan ordered. "That ain’t near enough."

Vin drank more, then lowered the canteen. "There–"


He glared and set his jaw. "I’m gonna drown–"


"Shit. Goddamn bossy healer…" But he drank. He’d never admit to a livin’ soul how good it tasted, how good it felt goin’ down, but he drank. And silently cursed Nathan the whole time.

At last Jackson was satisfied. "All right, that’ll do." He watched as Vin lowered the canteen, saw that he held water in his mouth, and, knowing only too well just how contrary the quiet tracker could be, narrowed his eyes menacingly. "You spit that out an’ I’ll shoot ya," he warned. "Swallow it. Now."

Vin glared harder, but swallowed. Grudgingly. And shoved the stopper back into the canteen. "If I run outta water ’cause a’ this, I’m takin’ yers!" he growled.

Nathan sighed. "Vin, when you run outta water, the rest of us’ll be long dead from thirst. I seen cactuses need mo’ water’n you!" He shook his head slowly, his anger fading. "Ya gotta take care a’ ya’self," he urged quietly. "I know all this is hard on ya, I know ya bein’ torn all diff’rent ways, an’ I know ya got mo’ pain right now than any one man d’serves. But if’n ya gonna be any good ta anybody else, ya gotta take care a’ ya’self first."

Vin bowed his head and nodded slightly. "I know," he whispered, running a hand over his eyes. "Reckon I jist ain’t thinkin’ straight–"

Nathan went to the younger man and set two strong hands on the slumped shoulders. "Don’ let him do this to ya, Vin," he pleaded softly, worriedly. "Yer better’n him, yer stronger’n him. Ya cain’t let him beat ya down. That’s what he wants. Ya cain’t give the bastard what he wants."

"Don’t know that I c’n stop him–"

"Ya don’ have to," Nathan told him. "Not by ya’self. Y’ain’t alone this time, Vin, not like ya was las’ time. Ya got us now. An’ we’ll stand with ya. Whatever comes, whatever happens, we’ll be right here with ya."

Vin looked up at that, and searched Nathan’s eyes with his own. What he saw there reassured him, comforted him, strengthened him. And saddened him. "I’m sorry y’all been dragged inta this," he said softly, bowing his head. "Y’ain’t got no business bein’ out here with him. He’s gonna git y’all killed ’n it’ll be all my fault. If I’da said yes when he asked me–"

Nathan chuckled wryly and shook his head. "Ya don’ think we’da let ya come alone, do ya? I know y’ain’t that stupid, Vin. Like I said b’fo’, y’ain’t alone no mo’. Might’s well stop actin’ an’ thinkin’ like y’are." He smiled warmly, seeing a faint spark of life returning to those tired, dull eyes. "Now, ya keep that coat off, or I’ll take it from ya. An’ drink when ya’ thirsty. Ain’t no sign a’ weakness ta be thirsty."

Vin swallowed and nodded. "I will. Now, we best git goin’. I know a likely place ta make camp fer the night, but we’re gonna have ta ride hard ta git there ’fore dark."

Nathan squeezed the younger man’s shoulders, then released him. "All right. But I’m gon’ be watchin’ ya, y’hear?"

Vin managed a small, crooked smile. "I hear. And, Nathan… thanks."

"Hell," the healer grumbled with a smile, "somebody’s gotta watch out fo’ y’all. Put all a’ y’all tagether, an’ ya still ain’t got the sense God gave a junebug!"

+ + + + + + +

They reached the site for camp just as the sun started to set, and after what had indeed been a hard ride. Vin had been steadily leading them to higher ground, and he stopped them at last on a small plateau strewn with rocks large enough to provide cover should they need it, scrub trees that yielded more firewood than shade, and a small stream that was the most beautiful sight any of them could have imagined.

Immediately bone-weary men, soldiers and civilians, slid from equally exhausted horses and went to work stripping gear from sweat-soaked and dirt-stained animals. A picket line was set up and all the horses cooled down, watered and tied where they could graze. With the animals tended, the men went to work seeing to their own needs.

As could have been predicted, two camps were made – one for the soldiers, one for the seven. Tension hung taut and heavy between the two groups as they regarded each other with a deep uneasiness. The soldiers were plainly aware of their sergeant’s blatant hostility toward the tracker, his bitter distrust of the man, and reckoned they should adopt Ford’s attitude of their own.

At the same time, from all they had seen, Tanner and his six friends offered the best hope they had of catching Red Stick and bringing this whole mess to an end. They knew nothing of what had happened between Ford and Tanner in the past and didn’t really care. True, the tracker did seem every bit as crazy as Sarge said he was. But he also obviously knew what he was doing, as did his friends.

And, for certain, not one of the soldiers wanted to cross the blond-haired gunfighter who watched over Tanner like some dark guardian angel.

As for six of the seven, they watched the soldiers carefully to see if Ford’s poisonous attitude extended to them, to see if they shared their sergeant’s determination to make Vin suffer. So far, they seemed inclined to leave him alone, to keep to themselves. And while that suited Chris and the others just fine, they remained alert for any change in that attitude, ready to deal with it the moment it appeared.

"We’ll set up the usual watches," Chris said quietly as he dropped to the ground beside the fire and watched Josiah make supper. He wiped the back of a grimy hand across an even grimier face. "Figure we’ll be headin’ out pretty early. An hour per man oughtta do it."

Buck passed a cup of coffee to him. "Ford’s gonna set up his own pickets, y’know."

Chris took the cup with a nod of thanks. "Yeah, but I just feel better havin’ our own eyes watchin’." He sipped from the brew and smiled slightly. "At least Vin didn’t make the coffee."

Buck looked around, then spotted a familiar figure crouched atop a mass of boulders equally distant from both camps. He had his back to them, was staring up into the mountains, and the sheer loneliness of that still and silent form tore at Buck’s heart.

"He gonna make it, Chris?" he asked softly, worriedly, his eyes never leaving the tracker’s unmoving silhouette.

Larabee followed his friend’s gaze and sighed heavily, his sunburned features lined with pain. He could feel the agony tearing at Vin’s soul as if it were his own, could almost hear the silent screams coming from that slight, hunched figure.

"I don’t know, Buck," he breathed sadly. "I’ve never seen him so torn. He doesn’t wanta be here, but he’s afraid ta leave. Thinks if he’s not here and somethin’ happens to us, he’ll be responsible. But he doesn’t wanta be responsible for another massacre–"

"He wasn’t responsible for what happened ta them Indians," Buck said firmly. "Hell, he was just a kid who led some soldiers to a village! He didn’t know what Ford had planned–"

"I know that, Buck. But Vin doesn’t." Larabee’s face twisted with pain as he stared at the haunting figure of the man who in so many ways was his other self, as he remembered Vin’s eyes when he had seen them last. All his torment seemed concentrated there, turning the crystal blue depths into chasms of hell. "God, why won’t he talk to us?" he asked harshly. "Why’s he have ta sit up there, alone? Why doesn’t he come down here, where he belongs–"

"Maybe right now he doesn’t know where he belongs," Josiah suggested quietly, sadly. "That seems pretty clear from where he’s sittin’."

Buck frowned and leaned forward, pouring himself another cup of coffee. "Whatta ya mean? He’s sittin’ on a rock–"

"But look at the rock," the preacher said, leaning back on one arm and staring up at Vin. "Look at it, Buck, and tell me where it is."

The big man snorted. "Hell, Josiah, it’s over there!" he answered, pointing. "Any damn fool can see it–"

"Where… is… it?" Sanchez asked again, slowly, deliberately, a teacher prodding an uncomprehending student. "Look at it again, and tell me where Vin has placed himself."

Buck still didn’t understand. But Chris did. "It’s between the mountains, the soldiers, and us," he answered softly.

Josiah nodded sagely. "Exactly. Between three camps – Red Stick’s, Ford’s and ours – and between three worlds. All of them worlds Vin has lived in at one time or another. Worlds he’s often moved between, worlds he’s often been forced to choose between, worlds he’s often seen collide violently. And is about to see collide again. He doesn’t know where he belongs. Our young brother has lost his way."

"Hell!" Buck laughed skeptically. "Vin? Lost? That ain’t possible, Josiah! You could take him out to any place in the world, blindfold him, and he’d still find his way home–"

"If it were terrain of the earth we’re talkin’ about, I’d agree with you," Josiah answered. "But we’re talkin’ about the terrain of the soul, Buck, and Vin has lost his bearings." He frowned slightly, thoughtfully. "Vin has always had a moral compass, a sure knowledge of right and wrong, and that’s given him a peace that he’s used like sailors do a pole star. He’s fixed his whole life by that peace, that star. But his peace is gone. He doesn’t know what’s right anymore, because right now, no matter which choice he makes it’s gonna be the wrong one. Whatever course he follows is gonna end in death." His gaze again sought that lonely figure in the twilight. "He’s been stripped of his compass, Buck, he has no star to steer by. And right now, he is as lost as a man can be."

Buck swallowed hard as the preacher’s words sunk in, his eyes wide, his handsome face somber. "You’re sayin’ we’re killin’ him," he breathed, his soft voice filled with pain.

"No, I’m sayin’ Ford is killin’ him. I’m sayin’ leadin’ Ford to Red Stick is killin’ him. Tryin’ to decide who’ll live and who’ll die is killin’ him. He made his bargain with the Devil, and the price was his peace. He’s buyin’ our lives with his soul. And that, Buck, is what’s killin’ him."


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