Chris sank wearily down beside the fire and cast an anxious glance over at Vin, who had not stirred or made a sound in more than an hour. "Nathan?"
The healer sighed and shook his head, his lips pursed worriedly. "I dont know, Chris. He needs ta sleep, he needs water, he needs ta eat. But"
"Yeah, I know," he murmured. Not long after Vin had regained consciousness, Nathan had fixed him a plate and bullied him into eating. But he hadnt gotten half of it down before hed bolted from the fire and thrown it all back up again. The broth Josiah had made for him by cooking a bit of pemmican in water had not stayed down any better, and hed had only to smell the tea of herbs Nathan had brewed him to be sick again. But after his latest bout hed drifted into exhausted sleep. "At least hes restin now," Chris said tiredly. "Damn, I need ta figure out what the hell were gonna do."
"It true?" JD asked softly, looking up at Buck and not far from being sick himself. "About there bein women and kids with em?"
The big man sighed, his eyes sad, his spirit subdued. "How elsed that doll get there? And he says there are signs of women. Says there aint but a handful of men. Aint no damn war camp at all. Its a bunch of famlies, runnin fer their lives. Shit," he breathed with a pained grimace, "runnin from us."
JD frowned in confusion. "But Ford said"
"He lied, JD," Chris said in a hard, tight voice. "Just like Vin warned us he would. Told us what we wanted ta hear so wed help him. So wed help him catch and kill his savages."
"But why?" the boy persisted, confounded by such duplicity. "I mean, if theyre not gonna hurt anybody"
"Theyre Indians, JD," Nathan put in quietly, painfully familiar with that kind of hatred. "Ta men like Ford, thats all that matters. They aint people, theys jus animals ta be slaughtered. Cause they aint white like him. Makes em less than him."
JDs bewildered frown only deepened and he shook his head slowly, unable to figure it out. Didnt seem right. He didnt know much at all about Indians, and what little he did know hed only learned since meeting Chanu and his people, but, hell, he didnt have to know much about em to know they were people. Had some almighty strange ways, like sittin around naked in that sweat lodge, but they were still people.
"I just dont understand," he said softly.
Buck smiled sadly at him and fondly ruffled his thick hair with his fingers. "You wouldnt, son," he murmured. "Youre too decent ta understand a man like Ford. Ya got too much heart, too much goodness. And you been learnin too much from Vin."
"Hes gonna be all right, isnt he, Buck?" JD asked softly, stealing another worried glance at the tracker. "Ive never seen him like this. Like everything in hims just dyin."
"We gotta git him outta here," Nathan said firmly, his dark, worried gaze fixed intently on Vins unconscious figure. "Away from Ford, away from Red Stick, away from all this. Jus need ta git him back home, where he cn rest an recover. Cause he aint gon do none a that up here."
"If we leave, though, what happens to Red Stick and his people?" Josiah asked quietly, his gaze sweeping slowly over the men about the fire. "Fords come this far, and hes this close. You think hes gonna give up now?"
"Dont matter," Buck said. "Once were gone, it aint our fight"
"Not ours, perhaps," the preacher agreed, "but what about Vin?" At Bucks puzzled look, he went on, "Vin came up here not only to protect us, but to prevent another massacre. Because, lets face it, thats what Ford has planned all along. And Vin knew that. He couldnt do anything to stop Ford the last time, and it nearly killed him. If we leave now, if Vin leaves now, and Ford gets his way, whats that gonna do ta Vin? Itll be one more massacre he didnt stop. More screams in his ears, more blood on his soul. And, right now, that boy just hasnt got much soul left."
"Youre not sayin we should stay up here and help that bastard find them people, are ya?" Buck asked sharply, incredulously. "Damn it, Josiah, wed be helpin him murder them folks!"
"But if we dont stay and stop him," Chris said softly, staring at Vin, "well be helpin him murder em. Be leavin innocent people ta die at his hands."
JD swept his gaze slowly over the faces of the older men about him, seeing plainly the sick horror in their expressions and knowing it mirrored his own. "Eight years ago he couldnt stop Ford," he murmured softly. "And look what its done to him. What if what if we cant stop him this time, either? I mean, Vin knows Red Stick! What if"
"Aint no what ifs to this, JD," Chris said in a hard, flat voice, his expression permitting no disagreement. "We cant afford em. Vin cant afford em. If those people die, so does he. If any of us die, so does he. We have ta make sure that doesnt happen. Because Im not about ta lose Vin Tanner to the likes of Ford. This is one bargain the Devils gonna lose."
+ + + + + + +
He drifted in and out of consciousness, hearing the familiar voices floating about him, comforting him with their nearness. Throwing up his supper had drained him of what little strength hed had left, so he just lay there in the twilight, never moving, never speaking, just listening.
He wished he could tell em not to worry so, that he was fine, just a mite tired. Hadnt eaten anything because he wasnt hungry. Besides, there wasnt any use eatin when hed only throw it right back up. And he was past feelin thirsty, so that didnt bother him anymore either.
Really, he was fine. Hed drink later, when it didnt choke him to do it.
And how he wanted to smile when he heard JD. All that goddamn innocence again, and all that goddamn goodness. The boy was learnin. And if he could make sure there was one less man in this world who hated folks just because they were different, well, hell, that had to count for somethin. Didnt it?
Honest, he was fine. Head hurt a bit, that was all.
But Josiahs voice was taking care of that, soothing the hurt, smoothing the raw edges off his nerves. A man could float on a voice like that, just let it carry him away, to a place where he didnt hurt so much anymore.
So hed just lay here a while, let em think he was asleep, let em stop worryin for a while. Maybe get his strength back.
Because come dark, when they were all asleep, there was somethin he had to do.
+ + + + + + +
Corporal Powell sat staring into the fire, feeling the chill of coming night seeping into his bones. Sarge was out inspecting the pickets, making sure they were set right before dark. Leaving him here alone. Thinking.
When did it all go ta hell? he wondered. Itd be easy to say it was when those seven had signed on, but he knew if hed only admit it it was really long before that.
It had started out right, though, hadnt it? Red Stick and his bunch had refused the treaty, refused to go on the reservation, and Ford had been sent after him.
Hadnt he? Powell frowned, trying to remember. Hed never really been clear on that point. Sarged said so, said they had a duty, but he didnt recall any clear orders ever being given. They were just off and runnin one day, chasing after Red Stick. And all those people of his
Powell tried not to think about them. Tried not to think about the women hed seen, the children. Sometimes, at night, hed heard babies. But he tried not to think about them, either.
They were just Injuns, after all. Not like white babies. Were they?
But hed seen Injun kids before, on the reservations, around the forts. Darker than white kids, but, otherwise
Did they get scared like white kids? Were they scared now, up in the mountains, away from home? And one of em had dropped her doll
It hadnt hit him until that crazy tracker had brought in that damn doll. Itd been easy up until then. They were Injuns, nothing more. Renegades. Theyd killed some of his friends, had brought him too far from home
They were running for their lives. Hell, wouldnt he fight like they had? And one of em had dropped her goddamn doll
Jesus, when had it all gone wrong?
+ + + + + + +
Vin waited until it was well and truly dark, until the night covered them with its inky blackness, until the fires had burned down to embers. Hed let Nathan rouse him now and then to get some water down him, then had sunk back down into his lethargy. Into his waiting. He hadnt spoken, hadnt moved since theyd laid him here. He would need all his strength, and hed guarded it carefully.
Itd been hard listening to them worry, though. But if he hadnt stayed still, they wouldnt have quit watching him so closely. Theyd have started hovering, trying to choke even more water and food down him. No, he knew em. If he stayed still and quiet long enough, theyd forget about him. They always did.
One day they were gonna learn.
But not today.
Hed listened to all the night noises, memorizing them, figuring out what was where. Knew where the horses were, knew exactly which one was Peso. Could always tell him, especially when he bit one of the others. Damn mule. Didnt have no manners at all.
He knew where Ford had posted his pickets, knew how far apart they were, how often they were relieved, how little watching they really did. They were tired, and they were sloppy. Somebody really needed to talk to them about that before something or somebody happened to them.
But not him. And not tonight.
And he knew Chris hadnt set watches among the seven tonight. Or six, because Vin Tanner was too deep asleep to watch. Except he wasnt. Hed been watching all along so hed know when it was time.
Well, hell, it was time.
He sat up slowly, silently, listening to the various snores coming from the bedrolls around the fire. Yep, there was Josiahs great, ground-shaking rumble and Bucks deep, contented growl. JD, well, he had a sort of a soft purr, and Nathan only snorted now and again. Ezra, hell, Ezra was too fancy to snore, but his deep, even breathing couldnt be missed. Chris, though
He frowned, listening harder. Hell, goddamn gunfighter was too contrary even to snore! Quiet and sneaky even asleep. But
There it was, that soft rasp of his breathing, somewhere between a hitch and a sigh. Only ever made that sound when he was deep asleep. And would stop it in a heartbeat if he knew he was doing it. Made him sound almost human.
Vin smiled slightly, fondly, and rose silently to his feet. Theyd even left his boots close by. Hell, they were slipping. But that was all right. Hed tell em later.
Not tonight, though. He stood on his bedroll and turned slowly around, getting his bearings, letting his eyes adjust fully to the darkness, grateful the moon hadnt yet risen. He studied how the other six were laying, gauged the space around and between them, and licked his lips. Nope, on second thought, hed better leave his boots off. Didnt want em gratin on the rocks. Hed put em on later.
Hed take Peso with just blanket and bridle. Saddling him would take too long and would be too noisy. And he didnt have time to fight with him over that damn belly strap. Wouldnt take his rifle, either. Hopefully, theyd see that, and take some meaning from it.
Hed need the doll, though. Couldnt stand the thought of some little girl cryin for her doll. Hell, he reckoned theyd all cried enough.
The doll was laying on his coat, and he picked it up. He thought for a moment about taking the coat, then decided against it. Hed promised Nathan he wouldnt wear it, and Nathan had trusted him. Hed nearly broken one promise today. He wouldnt break another.
He would, however, have to take something from the healer. Uttering a silent apology, he found Nathans doctoring bag and went through it, taking out some of the cloth strips used for bandages. He couldnt help noticing how many such strips there were, and wondered about Nathans lack of faith in their ability to go anywhere without getting hurt.
Goddamn mother hen
He strapped on his mares leg, held his boots in one hand and the doll in the other, and crept silently toward where Peso had just nipped at another horse that had gotten too close. Wasnt Pony or hed have gotten bitten right back. Probably Bucks gray. Hell, Beavisd take any abuse and keep comin back for more. Kind of like Buck himself.
Two big, good-hearted animals
Damn, he was tired!
He shook his head to clear it and moved carefully among the horses, smiling as Peso tried to nip at him. But he slapped the horses jaw lightly, then slipped him a bit of dried apple. Damn mule was gonna end up a bar of soap yet
He shoved the doll into his pants pocket and sat down to pull on his boots. Then, still crouching, he took the strips hed "borrowed" from Nathan and wrapped Pesos hooves in them, ignoring the horses offended glare. There were too many rocks about, and the damn fool mule could be counted on to hit every one just out of plumb contrariness. And he still had those damn sentries to get by.
When he was confident they could both move silently, he rose and laid the blanket over Pesos broad, muscled back, certain he was gonna miss that saddle before the night was over but knowing he had no choice. Then, untying Peso from the line, he took the reins firmly and led him carefully from the camp, forcing himself not to hold his breath.
Be a hell of a note to go through all this work only to ruin it by passin out!
+ + + + + + +
Taking advantage of whatever light from the full moon rising above managed to trickle down into the pass, he followed the trail he had memorized earlier, knowing with instinctive certainty just where Red Stick had gone. But even if he werent there, Vin would find him wherever he was, because he didnt have any choice. He had to end this now or see it ended in blood.
And he just couldnt take any more blood on his hands, on his soul. He was near drowning in it as it was.
He went ever upward and back, riding Peso when the trail allowed, leading him when it didnt, moving as surely as the mountain goat Chris always accused him of being. Hell, Larabee oughtta be damn glad he had such a feel for the ground. Itd saved all their asses more than once, and would likely save em again!
He passed through a long, narrow tunnel that had been gouged through rock by some long-vanished river, and emerged trembling and gasping for breath, hating the closeness of it. He was all but laying over Pesos neck by now, exhausted, his head pounding mercilessly, his insides beginning to demand water. But he hadnt had a place to hang a damn canteen
He forced himself upright, forced himself awake, knowing he dared not doze. Peso didnt know this trail, and wouldnt keep to it. He had to stay awake.
Besides, if he fell off and broke his neck, Chris and Nathand kill him.
Thinking of them helped. They were the reason he was doing this. It was his fault they were up here. If hed killed Ford eight years ago like he shouldve, if hed seen through the bastards lies like he shouldve, none of this ever wouldve happened. Theyd be back in town, in the saloon, and Red Stick and his people would be back home.
And that little girl would have her doll.
Well, hell, she was gonna have it anyway. She deserved that much, at least.
He shook himself awake again, cursing softly and rubbing a hand over his tired eyes. He was gonna sleep for a week after this, wake up, drink his weight in water, then go back to sleep for another week. And shoot the first sonuvabitch who tried to wake him up.
Only with his luck itd be Chris, and hed get shot instead. His life just seemed to work out that way.
He felt the eyes watching him now, felt it at the back of his neck, in his gut, and knew hed been right. A night bird called and was answered, and he allowed himself a slight, tired smile.
Hed found em.
He relaxed and let his mind go still, soothed by the quiet of the night and Pesos gentle rocking gait. Damn horse was a contrary, no-account mule, but he had the smoothest walk. Riding him was like swinging in a cradle
He jerked awake violently as Peso came to an abrupt halt and snorted nervously.
"Well, hell," he breathed, blinking owlishly and trying to get his eyes to focus. "Ats whatcha git fer sleepin."
Three silent Comanche warriors blocked his path, rifles held loosely in the crooks of their arms. Which meant there were others up higher and with guns a little more at the ready.
And none of em looked real happy.
He dropped Pesos reins and raised his hands slowly. For long, long moments he sat there like that, relaxed and still and as silent as the men before him. He knew they were watching, waiting for him to show some sign of nervousness, and reckoned theyd be disappointed. Wasnt any point bein nervous when hed gotten what he wanted.
Besides, he was just too damn tired to be nervous, anyhow. Even if they shot and killed him, hed feel better than he did right now.
After another long, silent period of waiting, one of the men came forward and took Pesos reins. At that Vin felt a slight twinge of unease, and prayed the big horse behaved himself.
And for once, Lord love him, he did. Went with the silent warrior as meek as a lamb.
Throwing a silent prayer to the gods of two peoples, Vin smiled slightly and, rocked in the cradle that was Pesos gait, allowed himself to doze once more.
+ + + + + + +
He woke with a start and found himself near a fire in the center of a small, temporary Comanche village set up in a broad, shallow basin. It was eerily quiet, but he could feel countless eyes watching him from the shelter of tipis and the cover of rocks. They knew he was alone or theyd never have brought him here. But that still didnt mean they had to trust him.
Well, hell, if he didnt understand about not trustin folks, he reckoned nobody did.
The most intense scrutiny, however, came from the stout, silent figure standing just before the fire. Dark hair worn loose cascaded over wide shoulders and down a broad, powerful chest, and one large, strong hand lightly clasped a brightly-colored blanket over his upper bodys nakedness. He alone of his men held no rifle, was armed only with the large knife sheathed at his waist. Vin felt the power, the authority, radiating from the stern figure, just as he remembered from ten years ago.
Strong puha, indeed.
"Howdy," he drawled softly, knowing Red Sticks English was better than his. "Been a while, dont reckon yad remember me. But Id like ta talk ta ya, if I could."
Red Stick only stared, showing no emotion, no sign of understanding, inscrutable as the stone walls around him.
"Shit," Vin sighed, rubbing his hands tiredly over his face. "Howd I know you was gonna be difficult?" Dropping his hands and straightening with an effort, he repeated his greeting in perfect Comanche. Hell, even that was better than his English!
Still, there was no response.
"All right," Vin said aloud, reverting to English. "Ya wanta be stubborn, hell, I cn be stubborn, too. Got a few friends you cn ask about that." He raised one leg and hooked it over Pesos back, crossing his arms against his chest and meeting Red Sticks stare. "Names Vin Tanner. I know ya understand me cause weve talked bfore. Bout ten years ago, back in Texas. Is livin with Two Eagless people then, saw ya take his daughter ta wife. We talked afterwards, youn me. Had us a right nice palaver."
Red Sticks expression shifted slightly, then, and he took a small step forward. "You were that boy?" he asked with lingering suspicion. "The blue-eyed, quiet one?"
"Reckon so," Vin drawled.
Red Stick stared at him a few moments more. "Get off the horse."
Vin sighed, but did as he was told and prayed he could stay on his feet. Wouldnt do to pass out now.
Lord God, he was thirsty!
Red Stick walked silently to him, his hard, dark gaze sweeping over the unsteady figure before him. Without warning, he reached out and pushed the hat off Vins head to better see his face. He noted that the young man never flinched, never even tensed. "I remember your eyes," he said at last, his voice without inflection, his face without expression. "Why have you come?"
"We need ta talk," Vin said softly, hoping he didnt sound as breathless as he felt. But when he swayed against Peso, he figured he probably did.
"You are leading the soldiers against us," Red Stick accused coldly. "Why should I listen to you?"
"Because I jist want all this ta stop!" he said, more desperately than hed intended. Swallowing hard, he took a small step forward, then stopped abruptly and raised a shaking hand to his head as the throbbing there grew harder. "Please," he rasped, "I need ya ta listen ta me, hear me out. I got enough blood ta answer fer, I dont need ta add yers n yer peoples. This aint right! Yall shouldnt be here. Yall need ta go home. Hell, I need ta go home! But aint nobody leavin here alive lessn ya listen ta me!"
Red Stick studied the young man before him in silence for some time, then frowned slightly. "You are not well."
"Aw, hell, now ya sound like Nathan!" Vin groaned. "Im fine! Im jist tired. N mebbe a lil thirsty. But that dont matter none. What matters is puttin an end ta this fore somebody gits killed!" He reached into his pocket and pulled out the doll. "I found this earlier tday. Figgered mebbe the lil girl who dropped it might want it back. Give it to her, all right? Lil girl needs her doll." He held it out, and noticed just how badly his hand was shaking.
Nathan was gonna kill him
Red Stick took the doll, staring in concern at the young man. His eyes were too bright, his face too pale. Even for a white man. "Something is wrong with you."
Vin exhaled sharply and shook his head, and immediately regretted it as the world began to spin around him. He started to fall, but didnt, and wondered why, never feeling Red Sticks grip on his arm.
"This whole fuckin mess is whats wrong with me," he said hoarsely, his eyes wide and unblinking. "He lied to us, told us yall were renegades, said you had captives. He never mentioned no women or children. I didnt know til I found that doll " His voice broke and he swallowed hard, fighting desperately to hold himself together. "I aint gonna lead soldiers against women n children, n I aint gonna lead my friends inta a fight there aint no wayn hell theyll survive. That crazy bastardll kill us all, your people, my friends, his own men. He dont care. But I do. I let it happen once, I aint gonna let it happen again. Id rather die."
"You should sit down," Red Stick said gently, leading the young man nearer the fire and easing him down upon the ground. "You were too skinny when you were with Two Eagles, you are too skinny now. You have no wife?"
Vin closed his eyes and sighed in relief when he hit the ground. At least now he didnt have so far to fall. "Hell, no, I aint got no goddamn wife," he rasped dazedly. "Got me enough troubles as it is." He stared at the older man, seeing the weariness, the sadness, the worry in his eyes. "Im truly sorry bout all this," he murmured. "If weda known what was goin on " He swallowed hard, hating the way his gaze kept slipping in and out of focus. Made it damn hard to think
"The soldiers knew," Red Stick said in a hard, cold voice, "and still they came. Why should it be any different with you?"
Vin sighed and bowed his head, running a shaking hand over his face and through his hair. "I know I got no call ta ask ya ta trust me," he breathed. "Hell, if ya did, I reckon yad be bout the only one right now. But I swear ta ya, Red Stick," he raised his head and fixed wide, pleading eyes on the older man, "I swear on my mas soul, I aint gonna lead no soldiers against ya. There aint gonna be no bloodshed if I cn help it. I jist want yall gone from here sos I cn git my friends gone, too."
"And this man who chases us, this Ford, what of him? Will you git him gone, too?"
Vin winced and stared down at the ground. "Dont know what Im gonna do bout him," he whispered. "Caint kill him, give my word ta Chris I wouldnt. N I done nearly broke it twicet already " Pain knifed through his soul and tore a hard gasp from him. "Reckon if there aint no other way, though If Im gonna have ta choose whose blood ta git on my hands, reckon Ill have ta choose his. Its gonna hurt like hell breakin my word ta Chris Reckon thats what I git fer bargainin with the Devil."
Red Stick heard the exhaustion, the torment, in that soft, ragged voice and was touched by it. He understood what Tanner had risked, was risking still, in coming to him, and had to admire such conviction. And he had to respect a man who would bring a childs doll all this way just to quiet a little girls tears.
"Bright Flower," he murmured, toying absently with the doll. At Tanners confused frown, he explained, "The child who dropped this, her name is Bright Flower. She is three of your years." He swallowed hard. "She is my youngest child. And she has cried since she lost this. I thank you for bringing it back."
Vin nodded slowly, his throat tightening painfully. "Lil girl like that oughtnt be without her doll. Reckon if I cn stop one of us from cryin, Im doin somethin right." He stared at Red Stick. "Ya gonna listen ta me, help me end this? Cause we aint got much time. If I aint back by dawn, theyre gonna come lookin fer me, an, with the way my lucks been runnin lately, they jist might find me."
Red Stick smiled slightly at the odd words. "You would rather they did not?"
Vin grimaced and ran a hand through his hair. "Got me a friend, hell, six friends, wholl likely beat the shit outta me when they find out I done somethin this stupid. An theys a couple of em awful damn big."
Red Stick chuckled softly. "A man needs such friends." He turned and called over his shoulder for water, then returned his attention, and his smile, to Vin. "All right, my blue-eyed, skinny, stupid friend, let us talk. Tell me how to end this so we can all git gone."
Vin scowled at him. "Aw, hell," he grumbled, "jist my luck Id find Chris Larabees Comanche brother!"
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