DEVIL'S BARGAIN by Sue Necessary

They were up at dawn, which Ezra commented on at some bitter length.

"I will never understand why it is necessary that we rise at such an uncivilized hour merely to ride across the barren wastes in hopes of finding some blood-thirsty renegades," he grumbled, taking up his green coat and shaking the dust from it. "It seems to me that if we are to be killed, we could at least find a more amenable hour to meet our demise!"

"Shut up, Ezra, and have some coffee," Chris growled, his green eyes hard in his beard-stubbled face. "It’s cooler at this hour, you know as well as me. We wait much longer and you’ll be bitchin’ about the heat."

"I do not ‘bitch’," Mr. Larabee," the gambler pointed out primly. "I merely observe and comment upon the absurdities of whatever asinine situation we find ourselves in at the time." Green eyes slashed his way, and he swallowed. "Well, not that I would infer you are an ass," he amended weakly.

"I ain’t in the mood, Ezra."

"No, I can see that." He was silent a moment, then, allowing his façade to drop, said quietly, "We’re all concerned for him, Chris. He’s suffering in a way none of us has ever seen him do before, and it cuts into all of us. Believe me," he took a chance, and reached out to touch the gunfighter’s arm, "you’re not alone in your concern, or your vigilance. We all want only what is best for Vin. And whatever you decide that to be, we will all be with you."

Chris’s anger faded and he regarded Standish with something approaching warmth. "Thanks, Ezra." He suddenly laughed. "Hell, this is a fine turn of events, isn’t it? I’m stretchin’ myself ta breakin’ ta hold Vin together when normally it’s him keepin’ me in one piece, JD’s bein’ so quiet and careful Buck’s got nothin’ ta worry over, and suddenly you’ve become the voice of reason. What the hell is happenin’ here?"

Ezra regarded the man thoughtfully. "Our balance is gone, Mr. Larabee," he said quietly. "For so long, Vin has been our steady center, our grounding force, that we’ve come to take it for granted. Those silences of his tend to make us forget he’s there, make us forget exactly what a calming influence he has upon us. His peace counteracts our chaos, helps keep our demons in check. Now, however," he shook his head slightly, his green eyes sad, "his own peace is gone, his own demons rage, and the rest of us are left scrambling to find some means of helping him. Unfortunately," he smiled ruefully, "we are not as proficient at taming the tigers among us as our quiet, amiable tracker."

"Then we’re gonna have ta get proficient," Chris growled. "Because Vin needs us, he needs us whole, and I’m not gonna disappoint him!"

"No, Mr. Larabee, I dare say you will not. Now," he shook his jacket one last time, and wrinkled his nose at its sorry state, "if you will excuse me, I am going to partake in a cup of coffee and try to prepare myself for yet another sojourn into hell." He cocked an eyebrow at Larabee and held up his stained jacket. "I don’t suppose it would be citizenlike of me to present the United States Army with my cleaning bill at the conclusion of our little adventure?"

To his own surprise, Chris laughed aloud. "I tell ya what, Ezra," he chuckled, "you do that, and I’ll back ya all the way. Might’s well see what we can get for all our trouble!"

+ + + + + + +

Vin let Peso have one last, long drink, then led the big gelding back to where his gear waited and began tacking him, his hands working independently of his mind. He was exhausted and still deeply shaken by what had happened last night. No matter how he tried not to think of it, it kept crowding in upon him, reminding him of just how close to the edge he was.

He could’ve killed one of the boys, and never known he was doing it.

He hooked a stirrup over the horn and tugged on the cinches, scowling when Peso pulled his usual morning trick of filling his lungs and inflating his powerful chest to interfere with his rider’s attempt to tighten the strap.

"Stop it, ya damn mule!" he chided irritably, jabbing an elbow into the horse’s ribs. "I ain’t gonna fall off ya in the middle of the damn desert jist ’cause yer bein’ stubborn. Now, let it out!" As if sensing his impatience, Peso blew out, and behaved thereafter. "Good. You c’n always be replaced, y’know," he growled warningly.

Peso appeared unmoved by the threat. It was one he heard at least once a day, had heard at least once a day for years. If he understood it, he had long since ceased fretting over it. As if to prove this, he snaked his long, glossy neck back and nuzzled gently at the tracker’s hair.

"Ain’t no use tryin’ ta make up now," Vin said quietly, smiling despite his words. As the soft nose rubbed against his cheek, he leaned into the caress a moment, then reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a bit of shrivelled apple. "This what yer huntin’?" he asked, slipping it into the waiting mouth. "Horse o’n’ry as you don’t d’serve no treats, y’know," he said softly, scratching behind Peso’s ear as the horse chewed contentedly. "Gonna trade ya in first chance I git."

Nathan slipped up quietly on horse and master, watching with a slight smile the familiar by-play between the two. Vin had been threatening to get rid of Peso ever since Nathan had known him, cussed the horse on a regular basis and swore one day he was gonna sell him for soap. But the healer knew he’d never do it, knew Vin loved that horse as he did few other things in life, knew the obstinate horse and obstinate tracker were perfectly suited to each other, were practically one spirit.

"Ya gon’ spoil that animal," he said quietly, watching as Vin slipped Peso another bit of apple. To his surprise – and relief – Vin didn’t flinch at his voice, didn’t seem startled. He supposed not even the man’s seeming distraction with his horse had dulled those keen instincts.

And he was right. Vin had sensed someone’s approach and seen the slight reaction in Peso. But because the horse had never paused in eating his apple, Vin had known the intruder was a friend.

"Jist tryin’ ta sweeten him up," he answered. "Though I reckon it’s a lost cause. Damn mule ain’t got no sweetness in him." This said as Peso nuzzled his cheek again. "S’pose ya come ta see if I done ate anything yet." He made one last check of the cinches, straps and buckles, finally satisfied that Peso would not find a way to dump him on the ground. "Had me a biscuit ’n some coffee."

Nathan sighed and shook his head. That wasn’t enough, not nearly enough, but he knew arguing would be useless. "Glad ta see ya eatin’ somethin’," he allowed. Then, quietly, he added, "But that ain’t why I’m here." He stepped closer and held out a rolled bundle. "Brought ya this."

Vin turned, then stiffened and gasped softly, his eyes widening as he saw what Nathan held. "My coat?" he breathed, standing completely still, not daring to reach for it, suspecting some trick.

Sorrow flooded Nathan at that reaction, at the fear and longing he saw in those eyes. Lord, what all had been done to this boy in the past that being given his own damn coat back could make him look like this?

"I’m sorry, Vin," he said softly, sadly. "I had no call ta take it from ya." He suddenly remembered last night, Tanner’s frantic clutching of the medicine pouch to him, his fingering of his long hair. "I reckon ya’ve had too much took from ya in yo’ life already. I should never’ve added to it." He held the coat out farther. "Come on, take it. It’s yo’s. I won’t take it away again."

Vin swallowed hard, still staring at Nathan, then slowly, slowly reached out and took his coat, forcing himself not to snatch it. Instinctively, though, once he had it, he held it close against his chest, both arms wrapped around it.

And that sight broke Nathan’s heart.

Vin stared down at the coat, absently fingering one of the fringes that adorned it. "I know it ain’t much," he whispered. "But it’s mine. May not mean nothin’ ta y’all–"

"It does, Vin," Nathan assured him softly. "I know what it’s like not ta have much, an’ then ta have what little ya got took from ya whenever somebody else thinks they got the right. But I forgot that yeste’day, an’ I’m real sorry ’bout that. I hope you c’n fo’give me."

Vin looked up at him, searched the dark eyes with his blue ones, and nodded. "’Course I can," he rasped. "’N I thank ya fer givin’ it back."

"Hell, Vin, it’s yo’s."

He nodded again, and licked his lips. "I won’t put it on, Nathan, I promise," he said solemnly, willing to promise anything just to keep it. "I’ll keep it tied behind my saddle. Won’t even touch it ’r look at it. I swear."

Nathan smiled sadly at those quiet, heartfelt words, and ached for the desperation behind them. "Y’ain’t gotta swear ta me, Vin. I know ya won’t put it on. I trust ya."

Vin drew himself up a little straighter at that, seeing that trust in the other man’s eyes and deeply gratified by it. "Nathan–"

The healer cut him off. "You got any mo’ of them apple pieces lef’, ya might save some fo’ ya’self. Ain’t no sense that damn horse gittin’ ’em all. Do him good ta realize he ain’t the only creature on God’s earth."

Vin smiled slightly. "Hell, Nathan, he won’t never believe that. Reckons the world turns ’round him. Cain’t convince him otherwise."

"That’s because you ain’t tried real hard," Nathan said with mock-sternness. "You the one got him convinced he’s king. Now you gon’ have ta live with that."

Vin shrugged. "Reckon ever’body needs ta feel special now’n again," he drawled. "Even a damn no-account mule who’s gonna end up a bar of soap if he don’t mend his ways."

Nathan watched as Peso thrust his nose once more into the tracker’s hair and nuzzled at the back of his neck. "Yeah, Vin. I c’n see he’s real scared a’ that."

+ + + + + + +

Chris lit a cheroot and watched as his men broke camp, listened as Buck badgered JD about making sure he filled his canteens, as Ezra complained about the dust and Josiah lectured him on the beauty of all God’s creation, and nodded approvingly as he saw Nathan giving Vin back his coat. And seeing Vin clutch the damn thing to him only confirmed what he had suspected last night – that the tracker’s complaints up on that rock had sprung from a real hurt, a true sense of betrayal at having something of his taken from him, even if it was for his own good. Normally, Tanner might have understood Nathan’s actions, but things were a long way from normal right now.

And they were all gonna have to step a lot more carefully around the usually easy-going tracker.


Chris swore foully under his breath as Ford approached. The bastard could drive a saint to murder. And Chris Larabee was nobody’s idea of a saint.

Ford joined Chris, but his eyes sought out Vin and a thin, cruel smile split his hard face. "Heard Tanner went crazy last night," he jeered. "Nearly gutted y’all with that knife." He spat into the dirt. "Reckon mebbe we’re gonna have ta start tyin’ him up, like the animal he is. Jist ain’t safe lettin’ him roam loose."

Chris puffed at his cheroot, his green eyes going hard and cold. Everything in him ached for this man’s blood. "Touch him and I’ll kill ya, Ford," he said in a low, even voice, entirely forgetting his promise to Josiah that he would restrain his anger. "This is hard enough on him without you makin’ it worse."

"Yer so worried about protectin’ Tanner, but ya oughtta be worried about protectin’ the rest of us from him!" Ford growled. "I know him, Larabee, I knew him b’fore you did, an’ I know what he c’n do. Hell, I seen him! Killed some of my men with that damn knife eight years ago, jist hacked ’em ta bits! He’s a goddamn savage when he wants ta be, don’t think twice about killin’." A sudden sneer twisted about his mouth. "Leastwise, that’s what they say in Texas."

Chris stiffened at that and had to force his hand away from his gun. "What the hell are you talkin’ about?" he rasped, his soul going cold with a sudden terror.

Ford laughed. "Ya know, don’tcha? Tanner’s wanted back home. Fer murder. Shot down some damn farmer, then tried ta claim a bounty on the body." He winked evilly. "I make it a point ta keep up with old friends, see what they git inta. Heard he was a bounty hunter fer a while, then got a price on his own head." He frowned and spat again. "Huntin’ an’ killin’ – hell, it’s all a savage like him knows."

Chris could barely breathe, could barely think past the fear of what this might mean for Vin. Hating him as he did, Ford would not hesitate–

Ford read the fear in those green eyes and delighted in it, in the power it gave him over this man. "Five hunnerd dollars is a powerful lotta money to a man like me," he said softly. "An’ I hear Tanner’s wanted dead or alive. Guess we both know which’d be easier."

A low, furious growl escaped Chris and he reached out, grabbing Ford by the shirt and hauling him close, fixing a killer’s eyes upon him. "Just you remember," he warned in a low, throbbing voice, "Vin Tanner’s my friend, and I don’t intend ta let a murderin’ sack a’ shit like you collect a cent of that bounty! This desert and those mountains’ve claimed a lotta bodies in their time, and I reckon they’ll claim yours just as well. Vin’s no killer, Ford, but I am. And if it ever comes to a choice between your life or his, I’ll gun you down with no more thought than I’d give shootin’ a mad dog in the street!" He thrust the soldier away hard and turned, glaring at his staring men. "Mount up!" he shouted. "I wanta be in the mountains tonight!"

+ + + + + + +

But, by continuing the same hard, punishing pace from the day before, they were in the mountains by late afternoon. And as they penetrated ever deeper into them, all save one began to miss the merciless, burning desert they had left behind, found its open expanse strangely less frightening than the imposing fortress of rock that now rose about them on every side.

The Devil’s Backbone was aptly named – the main range a long, jagged spine that was a series of sharp peaks, with sloping ridges running from it like ribs. Between the "ribs" were deep draws and twisting gorges that snaked around in confusing mazes where ancient rivers and centuries of rainfall had gouged winding paths through the rock. Towering spires jutted up like stark bones, and stone arches curved overhead in imitation of a gaunt, fleshless skeleton. Passes cut off in every direction, curling and coiling like some huge, mad serpent, some ending in box canyons, some leading only to the edge of sheer cliffs, and some actually cutting a path ever deeper, ever higher into the recesses of the mountains. It was a treacherous, forbidding landscape, hostile to all and deadly to those who entered it unprepared.

To Vin Tanner, however, it was merely an interesting challenge. When first he had ridden hell-bent-for-leather out of Texas with that bounty hanging over his head like a death sentence, he had taken refuge in these mountains, had holed up in them and made them his sanctuary. He had spent weeks up here, eking out a living when others would have starved, or themselves been made a meal by the wildcats that prowled the heights, and had learned as many of the mountains’ secrets as one man ever would. He knew where among the bleak bones of this earth the Devil kept his water hidden, knew which passes were trustworthy and which were cruelly deceptive, knew which ledges were solid and which only waited to send man and horse plunging to their deaths. He could read that ground as well as Chris Larabee could read words on a printed page. Better, perhaps, because the wildness of the lonely terrain spoke to the wildness of his own lonely heart.

He didn’t fear these mountains. He respected them, but didn’t fear them. And he loved them as few others could.

Corporal Powell told him where Carson had lost Red Stick’s trail, and Vin almost sneered as he found it with ease. The other tracker had either been blind, lazy or stupid, he decided as he set out upon it, because to him it was as plain as day. With no rain in weeks to wash them clear, he could easily make out the faint but telling imprints of moccasins in the dry dirt, the scuffing of hooves against the rock, the over-turned and loosened stones that marked a people’s hasty flight from pursuit. He found a few beads, some quills torn loose from clothing, strands of hair – horse and human – caught on sharp, jutting rocks or the grasping branches of the hardy brush that thrived in this perpetually thirsty world. His eyes were never still, saw everything, missed nothing. Not even crushed beetles escaped his notice.

Chris watched with rapt fascination as he always did when the tracker was at work. The man was a damn marvel! The blue eyes seemed to see in every direction; they swept the ground below, the walls around, hell, even the sky, as if he half-expected his quarry might have taken wing. He’d stand in the stirrups and ride like that for incredible distances, seemingly never tiring, and sometimes Chris would swear he saw him sniffing the wind. When something on the ground caught his eye, he’d slither almost bonelessly from the saddle and crouch for periods so long it made Larabee’s knees ache just to watch. Dirt, rocks or brush, Tanner studied them all with that same rapt attention, using eyes and hands, seeming to memorize every grain of sand, every groove in every stone. "Communin’ with the bugs," Buck had once called it, and Chris half-believed the big man was right. Even when Tanner again took to his horse, he was constantly searching, leaning one way or the other in his saddle or bending over Peso’s neck to sweep the ground with that sharp hawk’s gaze. And everything he saw was stored away in a brain that already must’ve held ten thousand details or more.

Yet what most intrigued Chris were the intuitive leaps Vin was able to make, the way he not only saw but actually sensed where a trail would lead. Larabee had seen him stop cold countless times before, stare down, then up and around, his eyes narrowing as his mind worked furiously. Then he would smile ever so slightly and nod, and lead them off in some completely different direction, only to pick up the trail at another point, at the very point he had known he would.

And seem surprised that they were surprised by what he’d done.

"Aw, hell," he’d drawl, shaking his head at their mystification, "it jist made sense. Any fool c’d do it."

Chris had begun to think there might have been some bloodhound mixed in with the mountain goat he had always suspected was in Tanner’s lineage.

Nathan, too, watched Vin, but with far more worry than fascination. He hadn’t seen the tracker eat all day, not even when they stopped to let the horses rest, hadn’t seen him take more than a few bare swallows of water. Tanner had let Peso rest but not himself, and while everyone else sat or lay sprawled on the ground, he kept going, walking the trail to make certain he still had it, hoisting himself onto rocks and scaling the walls like some damn spider just to find a place where he could see. He was in constant, restless, edgy motion, and Nathan could see it taking its toll.

Beneath grime and beard, his face was alarmingly pale and haggard, the hollows of his drawn cheeks made more pronounced by the sunburned ridges of high, hard cheekbones over which his parched flesh was tightly stretched. Vin Tanner had never had an ounce of excess flesh or fat anywhere on him, was all muscle, bone and gristle, yet Nathan could see the lean frame was sparer now than ever, as if what little he did carry upon it were being burned away from within. And he was tight, always tight, like a watch wound too far. Gone without a trace was the long-limbed looseness Nathan had always associated with him, the fluid, flowing ease and grace that seemed his alone. Instead, the air about him now almost vibrated with his tension.

Much more of this, and the boy would fly apart into a million pieces. He had to get Tanner to eat, to drink, to sleep, even if he had to hog-tie him and douse him with laudanum to make him behave.

But first they had to get him off that damn horse, get him to stop for a while…

Vin, however, had no intention of stopping yet. The trail, while still plain to him, was too old, too cold; they still had too far to go, and not nearly enough daylight left. He wanted to be much farther along before they were finally forced to stop for the night. Had it been only himself, he wouldn’t have worried about such niceties as finding a likely spot for a camp. He could keep going even after dark, for time of day meant little to him. But not for anything would he take the other six, trail-wise as they were, through these unforgiving passes at night.

Even so, he railed silently against the pace they forced him to adopt. Lord God, couldn’t they go any faster? He seethed inwardly, frustrated by the cautious slowness with which the men behind him rode, made impatient by his own need to get this whole ugly business over with as soon as possible. He was like a hawk needing to fly and straining furiously at the tether that held him back.

He pulled them almost by force of stubborn will alone ever higher into the mountains, dismaying them all by following the trail to a dizzying switchback that wound and wove its way up what seemed an impossibly vertical incline. Never stopping – hell, never pausing – he spurred Peso doggedly onward, controlling the horse with an iron hand when even he would balk, having mercifully lost awareness long since of any of his own discomfort.

They’d get to the top before nightfall, if he had to drag ’em with his own teeth!

JD swallowed and reminded himself repeatedly not to look down as he guided his horse carefully over ground that seemed to rise straight up. He had long since lost all sense of direction, had lost count of the knots forming in his stomach and the aches growing in his bones. Hunger and thirst gnawed at him and he was more tired than he could ever remember being. And still they rode on, still they rode up, as if Vin intended to lead them through the very gates of heaven.

But, Lord, all he wanted to do was stop, and drop, and sleep…

"Just once," Ezra grumbled from behind JD, "would it be too much to ask for the miscreants we seek to take refuge in pleasant, comfortable environs where there are trees, water and perhaps a saloon or two? Or for Mr. Tanner to find a trail to said miscreants that does not require our having to carry our horses on our backs while clawing our way over ground that even the snakes and scorpions deem inhospitable?"

"Hell, Ezra, you know Vin," Buck said tiredly from ahead of JD. "He don’t consider it a real trail if anybody but him c’n see it. And if it don’t go straight up, he ain’t interested. Shit, he prob’ly considers this takin’ the easy way over."

"If the man would simply carry a map–"

"Map’s in his head, Ezra," JD pointed out.

"Yes, and that is what disconcerts me," the gambler muttered. "Mr. Tanner’s head is an impenetrable labyrinth unto itself, and I, for one, have no desire to get lost traversing its serpentine chasms."

JD turned in his saddle and frowned at Ezra. "Huh?"

"I don’t particularly want to understand how Mr. Tanner’s mind works!" Standish explained impatiently.

"Oh." JD turned back around and shook his head. "And he thinks Vin is hard ta understand! Hell, at least Vin speaks English."

"No," Ezra corrected archly, "Mr. Tanner speaks some charming dialect of his own. English, he routinely butchers as if it were his enemy. The man would drive a linguist to suicide."

"You boys wanta keep it down up there?" Ford called angrily. "Ain’t no need ta let Red Stick know we’re comin’ with yer endless jawin’."

"He knows we’re comin’, Ford," Josiah said, his deep voice ringing off stone walls. "You’re the one who chased him up here, remember? Besides, Vin hasn’t given us any sign to be quiet. If he reckons it’s safe, then so do I."

"Tanner ain’t in charge–"

"He’s in charge of gettin’ us to Red Stick," the preacher said coldly, turning to stare at the sergeant. "And you’re the one who put him there. Now you just have ta live with that, just like Vin is doin’."

At the head of the column, Vin could hear the arguing behind him and bowed his head, closing his eyes and clenching his jaws. Goddamn it, why couldn’t they stop? He knew it was all because of him – Ford hated him, his six friends were only trying to defend him – and he wasn’t sure how much more of it he could take. He had thought, had hoped, that having the boys with him might somehow insulate him against Ford’s evil, his hatred, or at least make them easier to bear. But he needed their strength, their silence for that. Instead, all he felt was their fear, their bitterness, their rage. And he had enough of that inside himself.

He had to get away, if only for a little while, to breathe, to think…

At last, the switchback led him over the crest of the rise, taking him onto even, easy ground. Loosening his hold on Peso, allowing the horse to pick his own pace now, he swept the trail with his gaze once more, then looked up at the sky.

Maybe three hours of light left. Once the sun dipped behind these hills, that’d be it. Night would be on ’em fast and dark. And he had to get away.

Waiting for the others to reach him, and silently cursing their slowness, he dismounted and ground-hitched the weary black, then scouted ahead on foot to see where the trail led. He also found what he’d been hoping he remembered right – a more than likely place to make camp. The ground rose again slightly, then dipped down into a shallow basin, probably at one time the bed of a small lake. Sheltered by the much higher hills that rose on all sides, the site offered grass enough for grazing, stunted but sturdy trees for firewood, and, best of all, a small, clear pool that bubbled up from a source far underground, all that remained of the long-gone lake.

It would have to do.

He walked back and noted with grim satisfaction that the last of the soldiers had finally straggled up over the rise. Before anyone could dismount, however, he took Peso’s reins and swung back up into the saddle, sweeping a flat, cold gaze over them all.

"No use gittin’ comfortable jist yet," he drawled. "Still got a little piece ta ride."

"Vin," Chris warned, leaning exhaustedly upon his wide saddle pommel, "let be. We’re tired–"

"Think I cain’t tell by lookin’ at ya?" he asked tightly. "There’s a likely spot fer a camp over yonder," he jerked his head back over his shoulder. "Plenty a’ wood ’n water. Y’all c’n ride or y’all c’n walk, don’t make no nevermind ta me. But there ain’t no water here, an’ y’all’re lookin’ a mite parched."

Chris sighed heavily and forced himself to sit up, casting a steely glare over the tracker. Tanner looked as exhausted as any of them, hell, more so, gone tight and drawn in the face, the blue eyes almost dead. Unlike them, however, he seemed not to know how bad a shape he was in. Or to care.

"Hell, lead on," Larabee sighed. "We come this far, another few minutes won’t kill us."

Vin nodded silently, turned Peso, and was off, never once glancing back to see if anyone followed. Let ’em stay or let ’em come, it was up to them. He wasn’t gonna drag ’em.

Nathan rode up to Chris’s side, his dark eyes never leaving Vin. "Gotta git him off that damn horse b’fo’ he falls off," he said in a low voice.

"Whadda ya want me ta do," Chris growled, "shoot him? You wanta try grabbin’ him again? Hell, Nathan, how much more fight d’you think he’s got in him? He’s hangin’ on by his fingernails now!"

"I know that, Chris," the healer said with a forced calm. "An’ I know if we try ta force anything on him, it’ll likely only end in his gittin’ hurt. But he ain’t eatin’, he ain’t drinkin’ an’ we all know he ain’t sleepin’! He keeps ridin’ himself like he’s doin’, we gon’ be pickin’ his body up off one a’ these canyon floors!"

Chris bowed his head and rubbed a hand over tired, gritty eyes. "I know, Nathan, I know," he breathed. "Maybe when we get stopped for the night…" He lifted his head and sighed at the healer’s scowl. "I’ll talk to him!" he said harshly. "I promise!"

Nathan nodded, knowing he would have to be satisfied with that.

Vin reached the site a good five minutes ahead of the others and gave Peso his head, knowing the black would go for the water. Once there, he slid out of the saddle and then to his knees as his legs buckled beneath him.

Startled by the extent of his exhaustion, only now feeling its crushing weight settling upon him, he sat there for long moments, all the strength gone from his trembling limbs. When he could, he took off his hat and lay on his stomach, submerging his head in the pool. Yet not even the shock of the cool water was able to completely clear his mind or bring much comfort to him. He felt now the aching tightness at his center, the painful rawness of his nerves. Needing suddenly, desperately, to breathe, he pulled out of the water and settled himself cross-legged on the grass, deeply missing the calm that eluded his grasp.

Lord, he had to get away!

At last they appeared over the rim of the basin, and, as he had known he would, Chris rode straight to him. Vin reached for his hat and began fidgeting with its brim, his eyes fixed upon his friend.

"Like I told ya," he rasped as Larabee dismounted and dropped to the ground beside him, "good place ta stop fer the night. Been pushin’ the horses awful hard, ’n the boys, too. Reckon they’s all ready fer a rest. Gonna be dark in another few hours, ain’t no sense goin’ on."

Chris eyed him intently. "And you?" he asked quietly, knowing Tanner had not been including himself in that rest.

Vin swallowed hard, feeling the closeness of the men about him pressing upon him with a crushing weight, robbing him of the ability to breathe, their stares pricking his skin like hot needles. He was pulling tightly on his hatbrim, he knew that, but couldn’t make himself loosen his grip. And he knew Chris could see it.

"I… I gotta go… look around," he rasped, praying he didn’t sound as desperate to Chris as he did to himself. "Make sure I c’n find the trail come mornin’… Make sure I ain’t lost it already."

Chris wondered if Tanner could even see the trail right now. His breathing was ragged, his eyes wild and slightly unfocused. Larabee knotted his hands into fists, wanting to reach out to the younger man but not daring to. Vin was only barely holding himself together, and Chris didn’t want any part of shattering him.

"I’d really like it if you ate somethin’ first," he said quietly, trying to catch Vin’s gaze with his. But the blue eyes were as unsettled as the man himself and moved all over, taking in everything. And nothing. "Nathan says you haven’t eaten all day–"

"Nathan needs ta mind his own damn business!" Vin snapped. Abruptly, he closed his eyes and bowed his head, clenching his jaws and breathing slowly, deeply. His nerves were too raw, his emotions too close to the surface. He could feel his heart hammering in every part of himself and half feared it would split his skin at any moment. "I gotta go!" he whispered frantically, speaking as much to himself as to Chris.

Larabee frowned deeply and shook his head, hating it, but knowing he had no choice. Vin was too close to breaking, and he would never force upon his friend the humiliation of doing so in front of others. He had borne too much already.

"Need anything?" he asked softly, consent and concern in the question.

Vin shook his head, unable to force words through the painful tightness in his chest.

"Be gone long?"

He shook his head again.

"Watch your back."

He nodded and rose slowly, carefully to his feet, praying his legs would hold. They did, if only barely, and he made his way to Peso, taking the reins and managing to swing into the saddle, though with nothing like his usual ease.

"Hold it!"

He shuddered violently at the harsh voice behind him and only barely kept himself from screaming.

"Where’s he goin’?" Ford demanded, stalking up to the two.

"To scout the trail ahead," Chris answered. "Go on, Vin."

"Not alone, he ain’t." Ford turned and shouted, "Colby, front an’ center!"

Chris watched, furious, as Vin slumped in the saddle and bowed his head, covering his face with a shaking hand. "Goddamn you, Ford, leave him be!" he demanded harshly. "You said you needed a tracker, let him do his job!"

"He ain’t goin’ up there alone," Ford insisted belligerently. "I don’t like him so eager ta be out there with night comin’ on. Hell," he spat, casting a bitter glare at Tanner, "who knows what he’s plannin’? Mebbe he knows where they are already an’ he’s gonna lead ’em here, so they c’n jump us–"

"Them’s yer tactics, not mine," Vin grated, his eyes narrowing dangerously. "I ain’t no murderer."

"Goddamn you, Tanner!" Ford growled, taking a menacing step toward the tracker and raising a huge, menacing arm as if to jerk him from the saddle.

But Peso, every bit as tired and edgy as his rider, started at the sudden movement and snaked his head around, snapping at the offending hand with long, vicious teeth. Ford howled and gestured as if to strike the horse, but was stopped short as the barrel of Tanner’s gun came level with his face.

"Touch him ’n they’ll be buryin’ you here," Vin warned very softly, his eyes alight with the burning desire for Ford’s blood. "Y’ain’t fit ta scrape his hooves."

Ford swallowed hard with sudden fear as he stared into the gaping mouth of the sawed-off. "Thought ya swore not ta kill me–"

"But I’m crazy," Vin rasped, "remember? Hell, ever’body knows ya cain’t take the word of a crazy man."

"Vin," Chris said quietly, not liking the wild light in those eyes. "Put it away. He won’t hurt Peso, won’t even touch him. But he’s right – you did promise me." He stepped carefully forward, not wanting to do anything that would startle his friend. "You’re not gonna break your word to me, are ya, pard?"

Vin stiffened at that, his eyes widening, his face showing plainly the pain that flooded his soul. "Oh, Lord, Chris," he whispered in shame, "I’d never… Ya know I wouldn’t, not even fer him!"

"Then put away the gun," Chris urged gently. "Go on out like you wanted. He won’t send anybody after you, I promise. I’ll hold ’em all here at gunpoint if I have to."

"Damn it, Larabee–"

"Shut up, Ford!" Chris spat, never looking at the man. "I’m tryin’ ta save your sorry hide!"

Vin swallowed and shook his head. "He ain’t worth it, Chris–"

"No," Chris agreed softly, "but you are. And you’re the one I’m doin’ it for. Now, put away the gun."

Vin stared at his friend for long moments, saw the concern for him in the green eyes and nodded slightly. Without a word, he slid the mare’s leg back into his holster.

And Chris breathed again.

"Sarge?" A young trooper had joined them, unnoticed, and now stared nervously at Ford.

"Go on, Vin," Chris said gently. "He won’t follow, I promise."

Tanner turned hollow, aching eyes upon him, wanting to say something, but unable to speak. Fighting now just to hold himself together, he legged Peso forward, his soul racked by a pain he could not describe at having come so near breaking his word to Chris.

And the look in those eyes, on that pale, unshaven face, sent a chill through Larabee and caused his heart to skip a beat. It was like being stared at by a dead man.


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