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 Fords 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 didnt 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 couldnt 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 Vins 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 didnt know all the details of his friends 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, hadnt 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 whod caused it doing all he could to inflict even more.
Each time Chris caught a glimpse of Vins 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 Nathans quiet voice. He hadnt 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.
"Im worried bout Vin," Nathan went on, following the gunfighters gaze to the solitary figure ahead.
"Any one thing in particular?" Chris asked bitterly, his green eyes hard, his hands clenching tight about Ponys reins.
"Right now? Yeah," he answered calmly, refusing to rise to Larabees bait. The man wanted an argument, a fight, hell, a blood-letting, but Nathan wasnt going to give him what he wanted. "Its hottern hell out here, an Vins still wearin that damn coat. We gotta git it off him bfo this heat kills him."
Chris stared at the healer as if hed 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 dyou reckon hed kill before we got that coat?"
"Could jus ask," Nathan suggested, remaining calm in the face of Chriss anger. He knew it was only the mans fear for his friend that was making him like this, and so would tolerate it. Up to a point.
"Yeah, I am. I aint 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 aint been doin near enough a that, either."
Chris scowled at him a moment longer, then exhaled slowly and relaxed, his gaze softening somewhat. "Im sorry," he breathed. "I dont mean"
"I know," Nathan said sadly. "Were all worried about him. Got a powerful hurt festerin inside him, poisonin him. An if he don let us help him, if he dont let us drain that poison, hes gon die, body an soul. Well 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 aint losin him ta the sun and I aint losin him ta Ford. And I for goddamn sure aint buryin him up in those mountains. Whatever it takes, whatever we have ta do, whoever I have ta kill, Vins comin home with us, and hes 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 hed 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 Pesos 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 hed 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 mares leg smoothly from its holster and holding it in two very steady hands. Nathans 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. "Its jus me. I wanna talk ta ya, thats all." He had never realized before just how unnerving Vins stare could be. Every bit as bad as Chriss. "Ain gon hurt ya, Vin, yknow that," he said quietly. "Yain 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 wouldnt 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 Nathans 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 didnt look quite so ready to pounce!
"Its awful hot out here," he said in a calm, quiet voice, his dark eyes never leaving Vin. Sweat ran in rivulets down the trackers face and throat, dripped from his long, sodden hair and soaked his hatband and shirt. "Yaint got no business wearin that coat in this heat. I come ta ask ya ta take it off bfo 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 Nathans, he swallowed and said in his soft, raspy drawl, "Reckon Im used ta the heat"
"Aint nobody used ta this, Vin, not even you," Nathan insisted. "N you know as well as me what heat cn do ta folks. Come on, now," he urged gently, taking a step closer, "wont hurt ya none ta go without it. Youll 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
"Yaint 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 cn 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 aint gon do nothin ta ya, aint 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 Nathans eyes, he swallowed hard and holstered his mares 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."
"Dont 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 yaself! Wringin wet with sweat! Need ta git some mo water inside ya bfo ya lose what you got lef!"
Vin swallowed, and shifted his weight from his left foot to his right. "Aint 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 Vins chest, clearly startling the tracker, who seemed not to have realized he was so close. "Ya got plenty a water cause yaint drunk none yet! But youll drink now, or Ill 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 Ill show ya a mean yain never seen bfo! 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. "Aint right," he muttered darkly, stalking back to Peso and unhooking his canteen from the saddle. "Aint got no call ta threaten a man who aint botherin nobody " He yanked the stopper out of the canteen and glared at Nathan, who only glared back. "Yaint gotta stare"
"Yeah, I do or ya wont drink," Nathan said, planting his fists once more on his hips. "I know ya, Vin. You a stubborn, mule-headed sonuvabitch who looks after everbody cept yaself, an whod rather catch a bullet than admit yous sufferin the same as us! Got it inta ya head ya don need water. Shit! Im here ta tell ya, ya do! Now, drink!"
"Jesus, Nathan, yaint gotta yell," Vin grumbled, raising the canteen to his lips. And the man called him mule-headed
"Keep drinkin," Nathan ordered. "That aint near enough."
Vin drank more, then lowered the canteen. "There"
He glared and set his jaw. "Im gonna drown"
"Shit. Goddamn bossy healer " But he drank. Hed 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, thatll 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 Ill 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, Im takin yers!" he growled.
Nathan sighed. "Vin, when you run outta water, the rest of usll be long dead from thirst. I seen cactuses need mo watern you!" He shook his head slowly, his anger fading. "Ya gotta take care a yaself," he urged quietly. "I know all this is hard on ya, I know ya bein torn all diffrent ways, an I know ya got mo pain right now than any one man dserves. But ifn ya gonna be any good ta anybody else, ya gotta take care a yaself first."
Vin bowed his head and nodded slightly. "I know," he whispered, running a hand over his eyes. "Reckon I jist aint 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 bettern him, yer strongern him. Ya caint let him beat ya down. Thats what he wants. Ya caint give the bastard what he wants."
"Dont know that I cn stop him"
"Ya don have to," Nathan told him. "Not by yaself. Yaint alone this time, Vin, not like ya was las time. Ya got us now. An well stand with ya. Whatever comes, whatever happens, well be right here with ya."
Vin looked up at that, and searched Nathans eyes with his own. What he saw there reassured him, comforted him, strengthened him. And saddened him. "Im sorry yall been dragged inta this," he said softly, bowing his head. "Yaint got no business bein out here with him. Hes gonna git yall killed n itll be all my fault. If Ida said yes when he asked me"
Nathan chuckled wryly and shook his head. "Ya don think weda let ya come alone, do ya? I know yaint that stupid, Vin. Like I said bfo, yaint alone no mo. Mights well stop actin an thinkin like yare." He smiled warmly, seeing a faint spark of life returning to those tired, dull eyes. "Now, ya keep that coat off, or Ill take it from ya. An drink when ya thirsty. Aint 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 were gonna have ta ride hard ta git there fore dark."
Nathan squeezed the younger mans shoulders, then released him. "All right. But Im gon be watchin ya, yhear?"
Vin managed a small, crooked smile. "I hear. And, Nathan thanks."
"Hell," the healer grumbled with a smile, "somebodys gotta watch out fo yall. Put all a yall tagether, an ya still aint 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 sergeants blatant hostility toward the tracker, his bitter distrust of the man, and reckoned they should adopt Fords 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 didnt 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 Fords poisonous attitude extended to them, to see if they shared their sergeants 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.
"Well 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 well be headin out pretty early. An hour per man oughtta do it."
Buck passed a cup of coffee to him. "Fords gonna set up his own pickets, yknow."
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 didnt 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 Bucks heart.
"He gonna make it, Chris?" he asked softly, worriedly, his eyes never leaving the trackers unmoving silhouette.
Larabee followed his friends gaze and sighed heavily, his sunburned features lined with pain. He could feel the agony tearing at Vins soul as if it were his own, could almost hear the silent screams coming from that slight, hunched figure.
"I dont know, Buck," he breathed sadly. "Ive never seen him so torn. He doesnt wanta be here, but hes afraid ta leave. Thinks if hes not here and somethin happens to us, hell be responsible. But he doesnt wanta be responsible for another massacre"
"He wasnt responsible for what happened ta them Indians," Buck said firmly. "Hell, he was just a kid who led some soldiers to a village! He didnt know what Ford had planned"
"I know that, Buck. But Vin doesnt." Larabees 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 Vins eyes when he had seen them last. All his torment seemed concentrated there, turning the crystal blue depths into chasms of hell. "God, why wont he talk to us?" he asked harshly. "Whys he have ta sit up there, alone? Why doesnt he come down here, where he belongs"
"Maybe right now he doesnt know where he belongs," Josiah suggested quietly, sadly. "That seems pretty clear from where hes sittin."
Buck frowned and leaned forward, pouring himself another cup of coffee. "Whatta ya mean? Hes 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, its 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 didnt understand. But Chris did. "Its between the mountains, the soldiers, and us," he answered softly.
Josiah nodded sagely. "Exactly. Between three camps Red Sticks, Fords and ours and between three worlds. All of them worlds Vin has lived in at one time or another. Worlds hes often moved between, worlds hes often been forced to choose between, worlds hes often seen collide violently. And is about to see collide again. He doesnt know where he belongs. Our young brother has lost his way."
"Hell!" Buck laughed skeptically. "Vin? Lost? That aint possible, Josiah! You could take him out to any place in the world, blindfold him, and hed still find his way home"
"If it were terrain of the earth were talkin about, Id agree with you," Josiah answered. "But were 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 thats given him a peace that hes used like sailors do a pole star. Hes fixed his whole life by that peace, that star. But his peace is gone. He doesnt know whats right anymore, because right now, no matter which choice he makes its gonna be the wrong one. Whatever course he follows is gonna end in death." His gaze again sought that lonely figure in the twilight. "Hes 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 preachers words sunk in, his eyes wide, his handsome face somber. "Youre sayin were killin him," he breathed, his soft voice filled with pain.
"No, Im sayin Ford is killin him. Im sayin leadin Ford to Red Stick is killin him. Tryin to decide wholl live and wholl die is killin him. He made his bargain with the Devil, and the price was his peace. Hes buyin our lives with his soul. And that, Buck, is whats killin him."
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