DEVIL'S BARGAIN by Sue Necessary

Vin heard boots scraping against the rock, and even before he heard the muttered curse he knew who was coming. Truth to tell, he was surprised he hadn’t come sooner. Wasn’t like him just to sit by the fire and bide his time, waiting for somethin’ he knew wasn’t gonna happen.

The man didn’t have that kind of patience.

"You picked a hell of a spot!" Chris grumbled, finally managing to drag himself to the top. "You sprouted wings that I ain’t seen yet?"

"Don’t need wings," Vin murmured, never turning toward his friend.

"Not if you’re a damned mountain goat!" He made his way to Vin and sat down beside him, then held out the small bundle he had shoved into his shirt. "Josiah sent supper. Some of that rabbit you got, and the biscuits we were able to save from JD." He stared pointedly at his friend and couldn’t resist adding, "Since you didn’t seem inclined to join us."

Vin sighed tiredly. He was even more slouched than usual, head and shoulders bowed, hands laying limply between his crossed legs. His whole body felt heavy as lead. And his soul felt even heavier.

"Didn’t want comp’ny," he drawled softly. "Jist wanted ta be where it’s quiet."

Chris winced in pain, hating the flat, desolate tone of that voice. Vin may have found the quiet, but Larabee knew without a doubt there was no healing in it.

Vin continued to stare out at the black bulk of the mountains and slowly licked his lips. "Soldiers don’t trust me," he breathed. "C’n see it in their eyes when they look at me. Ford’s got ’em thinkin’ I’m gonna slit their throats whilst they’re sleepin’." He swallowed. "Reckon mebbe y’all don’t quite trust me neither. Reckon mebbe I won’t be able ta fight a man I know. ’N I know fer damn sure Red Stick ain’t gonna trust me once he knows I’m leadin’ soldiers to him." He sighed wearily and shook his head slowly. "’S a helluva thing knowin’ I got so many folks don’t trust me when all’s I’m tryin’ ta do is keep as many of ’em from dyin’ as I can."

Chris looked closely at his friend, and wondered how the man could still sit upright when he looked so completely exhausted. "You know we trust ya, Vin," he said quietly.

Tanner looked up at the stars now appearing in the darkening sky and squinted, as if trying to make something out. "I know y’all think ya do," he allowed. "But I heard Buck when I said I knew Red Stick. Heard the tone of his voice. Sounded like he did when he’s askin’ me ’bout Chanu. Didn’t trust me then neither. Funny thing, that," he said, a question in his soft voice. He lowered his gaze from the sky to his hands and stared at his motionless fingers. "Y’all reckon that since I lived with Indians, since I know ’em, I cain’t be trusted ta do what’s right. Cain’t be trusted ta bring in one who needs bringin’ in, or ta fight them what needs ta be fought. But, an’ here’s what puzzles me, I’m a white man, lived with white folks more’n I have Indians, know ’em bout’s well as I do Indians. An’ when it comes time ta bring one in or fight ’em or whatever, y’all don’t seem ta question me then." He turned a confused blue gaze upon his friend. "How come, Chris? How come I c’n be trusted ta know the differ’nce with white folks but not Indians? Been tryin’ ta puzzle it out, but I cain’t. I need ya t’explain it ta me."

Chris exhaled slowly and bowed his head, rubbing a hand over his tired eyes. Damn, how did a man Vin Tanner’s age, who’d lived through everything Tanner had, manage to sound like he was eight years old? And why the hell did Vin think he knew all the answers?

And what the hell would Vin say or do if he admitted he didn’t?

He sighed again and scrubbed both hands over his face, wishing he’d never come up here. He peered through his fingers at Vin, and cursed silently when he saw the younger man still staring at him with those goddamn blue eyes, expecting him, Chris Larabee, to explain the whys and wherefores of the world to him.

Shoulda brought a bottle of whiskey.

"Vin," he began hesitantly, "ya gotta know… folks’re just… jittery when it comes ta Indians. They’re different, and most folks are afraid of what they don’t understand."

"Aw, hell, Chris, I know they’re differ’nt," Vin said. "But they’re people, jist like us. Some’re good, some’re bad." He shrugged. "Figgered that out a long time ago." He kept his gaze on Larabee. "Seems like since I know that, y’all should trust me. But ya don’t. How come?"

How come. How come. Like a goddamn eight-year-old. Shit, why hadn’t he brought whiskey?

"We trust ya, Vin," he said firmly, suddenly recognizing the tone as one he’d taken with Adam countless times in the past.

How come the sky’s blue, Papa?

Because it IS.

"No, y’all don’t. I c’n tell."

Hell, it’d never worked with Adam either.

"We’re just worried about ya, Vin," he finally said, rubbing his forehead. Shit, he was gonna rub his whole damn face off if Tanner didn’t let up soon! "Just worried that Ford might have ya so mixed up, you might not be thinkin’ straight–"

"I won’t lead y’all wrong," Vin said softly, dropping his stare back to his hands. "Y’ain’t gotta worry none ’bout that. ’N I fer damn sure ain’t gonna lead y’all inta no ambush. I jist–" He suddenly shoved his hands under his legs, unable to bear the sight of them any longer. "I jist don’t want no more blood on my soul!" he whispered, closing his eyes tightly. "Don’t wanta hear no more screams in my sleep… I know what Comanches c’n do, Chris," he whispered in torment. "But that don’t mean I gotta wanta see ’em butchered!"

"I know that, Vin," Chris said quietly, tiredly. He glanced over at the younger man and hurt deeply for him. "What happened eight years ago wasn’t your fault. You gotta know that."

"I led Ford to ’em–"

"If you hadn’t, someone else would’ve. And Ford still would’ve killed ’em."

"I b’lieved him." He raised his head and turned that raw blue gaze on his friend. "I’d scouted fer the Army b’fore, hadn’t never been lied to by ’em. So I b’lieved Ford, ’cause he’s one of ’em." Bitterness crept into his tired voice. "Hell, I’s jist a kid then. Too stupid ta know better. ’N he knew it. All them people died ’cause I’s too stupid ta see what he was!"

Chris winced at the self-loathing in that soft voice. "You weren’t stupid, Vin, you were young. You trusted a man because you thought you could–"

"Jist cain’t trust folks," Vin breathed, hanging his head. "Shoulda remembered that. Trust ’em an’ they turn on ya. Or use ya." He was too tired to think straight, too tired even to see straight. "All’s ya git fer trustin’ folks is a lotta hurt. Ain’t worth it."

"We trust you, Vin," Chris said evenly, his whole heart behind the simple words. "Whatever happens, we trust you. I want you to believe that. Hell, I need you to believe that!"

"’M so tired, Chris," he sighed. With an effort, he raised his head and opened his eyes, squinting and frowning at the older man. "Nathan took my coat, y’know that? Whilst I’s rubbin’ down Peso. Jist come up on me ’n took it. Hell, I wasn’t gonna wear it!" he protested hoarsely. "Jist had it over my shoulder." He glared at Chris, the eight-year-old showing again. "Got my harmonica in the pocket. I want it back."

Chris smiled slightly. "You come on down, eat somethin’, I’ll make him give the harmonica back."

"’N my coat?"

He shook his head. "Nope. He gets ta keep that. Don’t want you puttin’ it back on."

"It’s my coat. C’d shoot him fer stealin’ it. A man’s stuff is sacred."

Chris sighed with a forced patience. A goddamn stubborn eight-year-old. "He didn’t steal it, Vin. He only wants ta make sure you don’t put it back on. He’s just lookin’ out for ya."

"Don’t need nobody lookin’ out fer me," Vin sulked. "Doin’ jist fine on my own."

"I can see that," Chris said dryly, staring into his friend’s exhausted face.

"Ain’t never had my coat stole b’fore," he declared, glaring fiercely at Larabee. "Not ’til I had friends. What’d I tell ya? Trust folks an’ they turn on ya. Ever’ time. ’N I helped save his life, y’know," he said petulantly. "Think he’d remember that ’n be grateful, ’stead a’ stealin’ my coat."

"Vin?" Chris said softly, pleasantly.

The wide blue eyes blinked. "Yeah?"

"Shut up, or I’m gonna slug ya. Now, get yer ass up, and git down there and eat like a good boy, or, so help me God, I’m gonna let Nathan have ya."

Vin stared at him in betrayal, then scowled in outrage. "Shit!" Obligingly, however, he got to his feet. "Jist like I said," he muttered, going to the edge of the rock. "Cain’t trust nobody. ’Specially not no goddamn gunfighter stupid enough ta wear black in the desert. Don’t see Nathan takin’ his stuff, though! Too scared a’ pissin’ off the gunfighter, too scared a’ gittin’ his ass shot off. But don’t nobody worry ’bout pissin’ off the tracker…"

Chris watched Vin descend the rock, half-wishing he would fall and bust his head and be quiet, and thoroughly envying a man who could climb that nimbly while dead on his feet. And bitch the whole way down.

He rubbed a hand over his face again. He didn’t care who Red Stick was, what kind of puha he had. No Comanche could be worse than an exhausted Texas tracker with a goddamned burr up his butt!

+ + + + + + +

Corporal Powell sat around the fire with several of the men, picking disinterestedly at his food and listening to their conversation.

"Damn crazy tracker…"

"… Injun-lover…"

"Sarge said he’s a killer…"

"Sarge said he was raised by renegades…"

"Sarge said he turned on him once before…"

Sarge said… Sarge said…

And Sarge hadn’t said. Powell picked up a biscuit and frowned at it. He’d been there in the saloon when Sarge had gotten those men to help. He’d heard what Sarge had told ’em. And what Sarge hadn’t told ’em. He’d been there at the fire this morning, listening to what Sarge had told ’em about Red Stick. And what Sarge hadn’t.

And had wondered.

Did it matter? He took a bite of the biscuit and chewed it slowly, never noticing its dryness. Would knowin’ the rest change anything?

He looked up, saw the tracker and gunfighter perched up on that rock, and remembered the tracker’s eyes. Maybe he was crazy. But Powell had seen that kind of crazy before in soldiers just come from the front, shaking and covered in blood. That kind of crazy didn’t come from the mind, it came from the soul. From a hurt to the soul so deep it never stopped hurting. Never stopped bleeding. A hurt so deep it was mortal. He’d seen men like that, men whose souls were dead though their bodies still moved.

Tanner had that hurt in him, Powell knew. And somehow Sarge had done it.

He finished his biscuits and dried beef, never tasting a bite. Sarge had a powerful hate inside him, a hate that didn’t know any wrong or right, any friend or foe. All it knew was hate. And more hate. The hate had devoured Sarge’s soul and now was forced to feed on others. Had fed on the tracker’s. Was feeding on it still.

All a man had to do was look in those blue eyes to see his soul dying in him.

So much Sarge hadn’t told ’em. Said it wasn’t important. Except it was. Because it would change things, Powell knew that. Knew that, and hated it.

He sighed and closed his eyes. Lord, he wanted to go home! This wasn’t what he’d signed on for. He was tired of the chase. Tired of the blood.

He just wanted to go home, where he’d never have to hear what Sarge said or didn’t say again.

Or look in a man’s eyes and see his soul dying.

+ + + + + + +

The screams were deafening. Louder even than the constant thunder of gunfire. And mingled with the screams were the high-pitched wails of grief as those who still lived mourned the dead and dying. The hideous sounds pierced his mind and shattered his soul, ripping from him screams of his own.

No! Oh, God, God, no!

He curled tightly into himself and slammed his hands over his ears, huddling as close to the ground as he could, but still the screams reached him. Women, children, babies–

Lord God, they were babies! Couldn’t the bastards see they were just babies?

He screamed again and rolled over, burying his face in the grass. And felt something hard, cold, metallic against his cheek.

His rifle.

He never knew when he grabbed it, never knew when he started shooting. All he knew was he had to kill the man who had started this. The Devil who had unleashed this hell.

Jesus, the bastard was laughin’! Shootin’ ’em down an’ laughin’!

He screamed out his fury and frustration, and sent bullet after bullet toward the big soldier, praying at least one of them found its mark. Tears blinded him, pain blinded him. And he was getting weaker…

All at once he was buried under a crush of bodies and falling hard to the ground, his rifle wrenched from his grasp. Heavy fists pummelled him, pounded him, and cruel hands clawed at his hair, his throat, his eyes. He fought wildly, savagely, and Comanche curses tore from him in a stream. He could taste blood, dirt and tears, could hear the harsh shouts of his attackers, could feel a knife slashing at him, into him–

His medicine bag was torn away, and still the hard hands grabbed at him, hurt him, held him–


He screamed and sat up, still fighting desperately against the hands that held him down. He lashed out blindly with a fist, felt it connect. Still more hands grabbed him and he fought them, cursing, kicking and striking out furiously.

"Vin! Goddamn it, son– Shit!"

Twisting out of one grip, he rolled to his side and rose into a crouch, drawing his knife and levelling the deadly blade–


He shuddered violently and blinked, looking around uncertainly as the voice – his name – registered in his reeling brain. The screams were silent, the dead vanished. Daylight had given way to darkness, and the only men about him now were–


The name escaped him in a strangled croak as he saw the face of his closest friend. He stared at Chris, uncertain of his reality, uncertain of anything. Except the memory of screams.

"Oh, God." He swallowed hard and looked around, into six anxious, frightened faces. Another shudder shook him and he sank to his knees, dropping the knife and burying his face in badly shaking hands. "Oh, Jesus!"

Moving slowly, carefully, Chris made his way to the younger man, his eyes never leaving him. "It’s all right, Vin," he soothed, keeping his voice low and steady despite the frantic pounding of his heart. He could still feel the pain of the tracker’s elbow plunging hard into his side and didn’t want to risk setting him off again. "It’s all right. You’re safe. It was just a dream. It’s all right, Vin, it’s all right." Stopping at Tanner’s side, he reached out and drew him into his arms, cradling the badly shaking man close against him. "You’re all right," he murmured. "Ain’t nobody gonna hurt ya now."

The others slowly relaxed, and Buck carefully worked the jaw that still throbbed from where Vin’s fist had caught it. "One a’ these days," he murmured, "I’m gonna learn ta stop grabbin’ that boy!"

"You all right, Buck?" JD asked worriedly, having heard the very audible "crack" of the blow landing. "It’s not broken, is it?"

"If he c’n talk, it ain’t broke," Nathan said, moving closer to the big man. "Best lemme look at it, anyway."

"I’m all right," Buck assured him, waving him off. "Vin needs ya more’n I do. Hell, I been hit before, I’ll git hit again." He peered past Nathan worriedly. "Chris, he all right?"

Larabee frowned deeply and shook his head. "I’m not sure." Vin was clutching tightly at him, digging long, strong fingers into his shirt, refusing to let go. He was still shaking violently, but made not a sound. And that worried Chris most of all. "Come on, pard, talk ta me," he urged, running gentle fingers through Vin’s sweat-damp hair. "Lemme know–"

"Don’t!" Vin spat, reaching up suddenly to grab Chris’s hand and tear it out of his hair. His eyes snapped open, glittering in the low firelight, and he pulled abruptly away from Chris, his face a mask of wild fear. Moving away, he raised a hand to his hair and moved his own fingers through it, pulling at it, reassuring himself of its length. Then, with a low hiss, he dropped the hand to his chest, groping frantically for the medicine bag Chanu had given him. "Where… What’ve ya done with it?" he snarled.

"Vin." Josiah moved slowly forward, holding the bag and its broken thong in a large hand. "It broke when you were fightin’ us," he said in his deep, soothing voice. "It broke, Vin, we didn’t take it. You know we’d never take it."

Vin stared at him, tense and wary, his eyes narrowed. Without warning, he reached out and snatched back the bag, clutching it in his hand and cradling it to his chest. When Josiah ceased moving toward him, he opened his hand and studied the little pouch frantically, then clutched it once more to him, staring savagely, accusingly, at the faces before him.

"Y’ain’t got no right–"

"Vin." Ezra’s lazy drawl floated across the night, as sweet and smooth as honey, and wide, unfocused blue eyes immediately searched out and met guileless green ones. "I assure you, Josiah spoke the truth. We would never willingly take so cherished a possession from you. While I do not pretend to understand its significance, still I believe I speak for all of us when I say we do appreciate its singular worth to you, and would never deprive you of something you hold so dear. Surely, you believe that?"

Vin stared hard at the gambler and swallowed even harder, then slowly licked his lips, his mind a tangle of confused and exhausted thoughts. He wanted to believe, knew he should believe. Ezra was his friend, and wouldn’t lie to him. But he’d thought that before about others, and they’d lied. Shit, so many who’d lied… And Ezra made a living off lying, off cheating. What if he was lying now?

But Ezra was his friend, and a friend wouldn’t lie…

Lord God, I’m so tired!

Chris watched in concern as Vin sank cross-legged onto the ground, his strength draining visibly from him. Earlier this evening the tracker had fallen asleep at the fire while eating, had just slumped against Josiah, who had then picked him up and carried him to his bedroll. He knew that Tanner, at his best, could go for long stretches without sleeping, had frequently astounded them all with his stubborn endurance on the trail.

But he was far from his best right now.

"Vin," he called softly, wincing as exhausted and bewildered blue eyes were fixed with some difficulty upon him. He was still clutching that damn bag to him, looking for all the world like he expected them to rip it from him, and Chris suddenly remembered the coat. Hell, why should Vin trust them not to take anything from him, when they’d already proven they would? "You’re exhausted," he said. "Why don’tcha just lay back down, go back ta sleep?"

Vin blinked, struggling just to hold his eyes open. But he shook his head stubbornly. "Cain’t," he rasped hoarsely. "If I sleep, I’ll jist see ’em die again. Don’t wanna see ’em die no more." He peered harder at Chris, a worried frown pulling down his eyebrows. "I… I didn’t hurt nobody… did I?"

Chris sighed and rubbed the back of his neck tiredly, again hearing the eight-year-old. "Well, you got me pretty good with an elbow, damn near broke Buck’s jaw, and I think you managed ta kick just about ever’ one of us. But it’s nothin’ that won’t mend."

"Hell!" Vin whispered strickenly, bowing his head. His eyes fell on his knife, and his distress grew even worse. "I coulda killed y’all–"

"But ya didn’t, son," Buck said gently. "We’re all fine–"

"No." With what little strength remained to him, he pulled himself sluggishly to his feet and stood, swaying slightly, staring almost feverishly at them. "I coulda hurt y’all, coulda killed ya…" He ran a shaking hand through his hair. "I gotta git away–"

"Vin!" Chris said sharply, rising abruptly to his feet. The tracker’s soft words sent a pang of alarm through him, and he moved quickly to Tanner’s side, taking his arm in a hard grip. "You’re not goin’ anywhere! You’re gonna stay right here, where you belong–"

Vin frowned slightly and shook his head, staring dazedly into the older man’s eyes. "Don’t rightly know where I belong," he said hoarsely. "But I ain’t gonna chance hurtin’ one a’ y’all. I’ll find me a place where I cain’t hurt nobody."

Chris scowled and tightened his hold on Vin’s arm. "I won’t letcha–"

"Ya gonna stand guard over me all night?"

"Damn it, Vin," Chris breathed worriedly, "you belong with us. You’re one of us! Hell, it was just a nightmare–"

Vin wrenched out of his friend’s grasp and knelt down, retrieving his long knife and forcing himself to stand once more. Holding the blade before Chris’s eyes, he asked softly, "This look like jist a nightmare ta you? Looks awful real ta me. Now, think how close I came ta usin’ this, remember how good I am with it, ’n tell me again it’s jist a nightmare!"

With that, he sheathed the knife and stepped past Chris, going to his bedroll. In the deep, stunned silence that had fallen, he knelt and quickly rolled up his blankets, then picked them up and carried them into the darkness beyond the fire.

"Chris, you ain’t gonna let him go?" Buck protested, rushing to Larabee’s side and glaring at him in angry disbelief. "He don’t need ta be alone–"

"How we gonna stop him, Buck?" he asked softly, tiredly, meeting that glare with weary resignation. "We gonna stake him to the ground, like a dog? You tell me how we can do it without hurtin’ him any more than he’s already been hurt, and I’ll gladly help. But I’m not layin’ another hand on him. I figure there’s been enough of that already."

Buck’s anger faded to sorrow. And hurt. "I just don’t think he needs ta be alone," he insisted softly. "Not now, not with all the hurt he’s carryin’." His eyes flashed defiantly at Chris. "I figger there’s been enough a’ that already, too!"

Chris said nothing, merely turned and stared past Buck to where Vin could vaguely be seen spreading his bed apart from theirs. His heart ached like an open wound at the sight of that lonely figure, but he knew there was nothing he could do.

And the knowledge almost made him sick.

+ + + + + + +

Vin made his bed, then sat down upon it, crossing his legs and bowing his head. Though tired to the bone, he did not want to go to sleep, did not trust sleep, knew what horrors it would bring. Despite his determination, though, his exhausted body betrayed him. His head dropped ever lower and he repeatedly had to jerk himself awake. At last, unable to help himself, he lay down on his side and prayed for the dead to stay dead.

And as each of the other six took his turn at watch, he made it a point to wander quietly over and check on the tracker. And each had to shake his head in sorrow and pain at the tormented thrashings of the haunted man.


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