DEVIL'S BARGAIN by Sue Necessary

Chris woke to the smell of coffee and the sounds of soldiers preparing for another day on the trail. Rubbing a hand over his eyes, he sat up and stretched, then glanced anxiously over at Vin’s bedroll. Relief flooded him when he saw the tracker still asleep, curled on his side, his long hair falling across his face.

"Reckon he ain’t moved all night," Buck said quietly, noting where Larabee’s gaze had fallen. "Hate ta wake him. Still looks exhausted."

"Got no choice," Chris said with obvious reluctance. "We gotta put an end ta this one way or another. And the sooner, the better. I want outta these damn mountains, and I want Ford and his boys the hell away from this territory. And I’m pretty much past carin’ how that happens." He glanced again at Vin and shook his head slowly. "He can’t take much more of this. And I can’t take much more of seein’ what it’s doin’ to him."

Buck eyed his friend sadly, easily able to see the toll this was taking on him. Hell, he knew how he’d feel if it was JD…

"Get some coffee, pard. I’ll wake Vin, see if I can’t get somethin’ down him, too."

Chris nodded his thanks, then smiled slightly. "Be careful, Buck. You’re runnin’ outta places for Vin ta hit ya."

Buck laughed lightly. "Well, maybe on second thought I’ll let Josiah do it. That bite mark’s doin’ fine. Reckon it’s time for another."

"Hey, Chris!" JD called, hurrying to the fire. He was frowning deeply, obviously puzzled, and shaking his head as he glanced back over his shoulder at the horses from which he’d just come. "You’re not gonna believe this! It doesn’t make any sense!"

"Sit down, JD," Chris ordered. "It’s too damn early ta be movin’ so fast."

"But it doesn’t make any sense!" the boy repeated, dropping down to the ground at Buck’s side and staring at Chris in confusion. "I mean, he’s fine and all, been watered good, but… I just don’t understand it!"

Larabee bowed his head and rubbed his eyes, breathing deeply to restrain his impatience. "JD, you wanta start at the beginnin’? Some of us aren’t quite awake yet."

"It’s Peso," the boy said quickly, worriedly. "He’s been ridden! And not too long ago, either. He was rubbed down, but not enough that I couldn’t tell. And his saddle blanket’s still damp, too. But it doesn’t make any sense!" he repeated, shaking his head stubbornly and staring up at Buck. "I mean, hell, who coulda ridden him? It’s not like he lets just anybody on him! If any of the soldiers had tried, we’da heard about it. Would’ve had ta be one of us, but we were all asleep… Oh, shit!" he breathed excitedly, his eyes widening. "You don’t suppose a Comanche came down and got him–"

"JD, son," Buck broke in, "if a Comanche had got him, he’d still have him. They don’t usually bring horses back after goin’ through the trouble of stealin’ ’em. ’Sides, I don’t figger even the best Comanche horse thief’d be able ta get his hands on Peso without losin’ an arm."

Chris glanced at Buck, then turned slowly back to Vin, studying the sleeping tracker through narrowed, angry eyes. "Unless this particular Comanche had blue eyes," he muttered through clenched teeth. "Goddamn it, Tanner, why can’t you behave?"

+ + + + + + +

Vin sat by the fire and cradled a cup of coffee in less than steady hands, his head bowed. He was tired beyond words, exhausted in body, mind and soul, yet, even so, felt better than he had since this whole mess had started. He was drained of all anger, all hurt, all rage; even the screams had gone silent. He wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or a bad one, but took some comfort in the fact that he no longer felt brittle enough to break. He was just finally, mercifully numb.

Funny what making a decision would do for a man…

Chris sat across the fire from him and studied him in silence, noting the change in him and frowning at it. He couldn’t say Vin looked at peace; he didn’t. He just looked… empty. Hell, even his eyes, which for days now had held nothing but the raw agony ripping apart his soul, were dull, drained of life, maybe, but also drained of that hellish pain that had torn into Chris each time he saw it. It wasn’t an improvement, but it would do.

"Don’t suppose you’re gonna tell me about it," he said at last, his voice quiet enough to be heard only by the two of them.

Vin took a sip of coffee, idly wondering at the strange feeling that held him. He knew he was here, on solid ground, yet he felt distant, detached, almost as if he were floating outside himself. His body felt like a dry husk, with an odd lightness in his bones and in his head. He decided it probably wasn’t good, and surely wasn’t something he should mention to anyone. Especially Nathan or Chris.

"Tell ya ’bout what?" he asked in that soft, raspy drawl. Hell, even his voice sounded light…

Chris heard no lightness in the tracker’s voice, only the thickness and slight slurring of utter exhaustion. "Takin’ Peso out last night when you were supposed ta be sleepin’."

He lifted his head with some difficulty and narrowed his eyes against the too-bright light that surrounded Larabee. "Jist felt like a ride," he sighed, amazed at how much breath it took just to support his voice.

Nope, this definitely wasn’t good…

Chris swallowed hard against his own fear, not liking at all the look of the man across from him. Vin was breathing too deeply, as if he couldn’t get enough air, and looked bewildered about something. He would narrow his eyes one moment, squinting as if against a bright light, then open them wide the next, as if struggling to hold them open. And with a startled flash of recognition, Chris realized that the sharp, all-seeing hunter’s eyes had lost the ability to focus.

Oh, shit…

"Why don’t you let JD ride up with you this mornin’?" he suggested quietly, working to hold his voice even, to keep the fear from it. "He’s been gettin’ restless, pesterin’ the rest of us with questions about the trail an’ all." It was a lie; JD had been steady as a rock, surprising them all. "Maybe you can keep him busy. Keep him quiet."

Vin nodded slowly. "Reckon I could," he said softly. "Boy’s a good learner. Reckon they’s some things up here I c’d show him. Git him outta y’all’s hair."

Chris exhaled slowly, not sure whether to be pleased or not. Under any other circumstances Vin would have seen right through the request, would have spotted immediately the concern behind it and rejected it in no uncertain terms. That he agreed, however, and seemed not to suspect anything except that they wanted to give him JD for a while worried Chris no end.

Tanner was slippin’ away…

"Don’t suppose you’ve eaten at all?" he asked, steeling himself for the inevitable explosion of that prickly temper.

But none came. Instead, Vin only shrugged slightly, very slightly, and licked his lips. "Ain’t hungry," he rasped softly. "’Sides, ain’t no sense eatin’ if I’m only gonna throw it up again."

Chris sighed and stared at him in exasperation. "What’re you gonna tell Nathan when he asks? And you know he will ask."

Vin shrugged again. "Tell him I ain’t hungry. Tell him there ain’t no sense eatin’ if I’m only gonna throw it up again."

Chris had to chuckle. Typical Tanner answer…

Vin took a sip of coffee, then fixed a steady if less than focused gaze on Chris. "Need ta know somethin’," he said softly, getting Larabee’s whole attention immediately. He licked his lips slowly, trying to keep his thoughts clear. "The other night, up on them rocks, ya said ya trust me." He swallowed hard, half dreading the answer. "Need ta know if it’s true."

Chris met those dull, exhausted eyes, and seemed to hold them up with his own. "It’s as true now as it ever has been, Vin," he said quietly, firmly. "I know you’re bein’ torn six ways from Sunday here, I know your soul’s been peeled raw and left ta bleed in the dust, and I know right now you’re so tired it’s all you can do ta breathe. But," he leaned forward, pinning that lost, bewildered blue gaze with his unwavering green one, "I also know that even in the sorry state you’re in right now, you’re still worth more than any other man alive. Yeah, Vin, I trust ya. I ain’t got a doubt in the world about ya," he said softly. "I’m worried as hell about ya, but I don’t doubt ya. And I can’t imagine I ever will."

Vin shivered as those words, and the feeling behind them, seeped in and found the hollow, aching empty places in him, lending him a strength and steadiness he’d not felt in days. It was a long speech for Larabee, probably one of the longest he’d ever heard the man make. But he needed every word, and gathered them all greedily to him, like a starving man suddenly given an abundance of food. He wasn’t whole yet, not by a long shot, but, with Chris’s faith in him as firm as ever, he at least had some hope of getting there.

"’M obliged ta ya fer that," he rasped softly, his voice shaking. "Ain’t got the words ta tell ya what it means."

Chris nodded slowly. "I’m gonna tell ya somethin’ else, Vin. You gave me your word about not killin’ Ford, and so far you’ve managed ta keep it." He smiled thinly. "It’s been close a couple a times, but you ain’t killed him yet. So now I’m gonna make a promise ta you. We’re gonna get outta this, and we’re goin’ home. All of us." His eyes bored into Tanner, sealing his word. "I don’t care what it takes, Vin, I don’t care what I have ta do, or who or how many I have ta kill, you’re comin’ home with us, and you’re comin’ alive. I’m not gonna bury you up here, and I for damn sure ain’t gonna haul your dead carcass across that goddamn desert."

Vin stared at him for long moments, almost believing him. Then, as it always seemed to do at the unlikeliest times, his wry sense of humor surfaced, and a shadow of the familiar lopsided grin touched his mouth. "Might wanta reconsider that," he drawled quietly. "C’d be five hunnerd dollars richer."

Chris laughed and shook his head. "Shit, Tanner, I don’t care what the sovereign State of Texas says, you ain’t worth five hundred dollars and we both know it! I figure a bounty that high just goes ta show how goddamn good you are at pissin’ people off!"

The grin continued to ghost Vin’s mouth and gave a faint light to his faded blue eyes. "Hell, Larabee, yer one ta talk," he rasped. "I reckon the only reason you’ve lived this long is ’cause God ’n the Devil’re still fightin’ over which one has ta take yer sorry ass when ya die. Shee-it," he drawled, dragging out the word, "you jist might live forever."

Chris tried to scowl, but found it battling with a grin. Unable to do one and unwilling to do the other, he merely shook his head and finished his coffee, intensely grateful for that flash of humor. It cropped up at the strangest times, but it always meant Tanner had some fight left in him.

"Tell you what," he said at last, "you sit here, finish your coffee, take it easy. I’ll get Peso saddled and ready for you."

Vin frowned slightly and narrowed his eyes against the light that still shone too brightly. "Y’ain’t gotta do that–"

"Yeah, I do," Chris said honestly. "You’re exhausted, Vin. Hell, you look like shit! Right now a damn breeze’d blow you over, and you for damn sure ain’t in no state ta wrestle with that cougar you call a horse. So just sit here and rest while you can. ’Cause I know once we hit that trail, I’m gonna have ta shoot you ta get your ass outta the saddle." He saw the old, familiar stubbornness cross the tracker’s face, and sighed. "C’mon, Vin, please?" he asked softly. "If you’re not gonna eat, at least rest! You know you need it, since you didn’t get any sleep last night."

Vin gazed at him, eyes still narrowed and unfocused, then sighed and nodded. "Reckon I am a mite tired," he allowed.

"Yeah," Chris breathed, wondering how the man could even manage to sit up. "I reckon you are." He rose to his feet. "I’ll letcha know when Peso’s ready." He cast a last anxious look down at his friend, then turned and walked away.

Vin closed his eyes and bowed his head, sitting hunched over his coffee cup, and drew the quiet around him like a blanket, knowing it would soon be gone. It would be so easy to stay here, to tell Chris and the others what he had done and bring all this to an end. But he couldn’t. Not yet. Red Stick needed time, and he had to give it to him.

Hell, he owed him that much, at least…

He felt more than saw the shadow that fell over him, the unwelcome presence that shattered what little quiet he had found. He knew without looking up whose shadow it was, knew simply by the change in the air around him.

"Y’ain’t quittin’ on me now, are ya, Tanner?" Ford jeered, shoving his thumbs into his gunbelt and staring down at the younger man. The tracker looked like a pale, empty shell, ready to crumble into dust. "Hell, boy, we still got work ta do! Or have ya fergot about them redskins yer leadin’ us to?"

Vin looked up slowly, and waited for the familiar sick hatred, the crush of pain and the deafening screams to engulf him as he met Ford’s mocking gaze. To his surprise, and relief, none came. He felt only the same odd lightness, the emptiness, the detachment that had been with him all morning, and gave silent thanks. He knew they were signs that something was badly wrong with him, but they were highly preferable to what he had known before.

Ford scowled as Tanner said nothing, merely returned his attention to his coffee and sipped slowly from it, looking for all the world as if he didn’t even know the sergeant was there. "Goddamn it, you are crazy, aren’tcha?" he asked in astonishment. "Well, shit, if this don’t beat all! Stuck up here in these God-fersaken mountains with only a lunatic tracker ta lead us!" He spat into the dirt. "Larabee know yer mind is gone?" he taunted cruelly, waiting for a response. Still Tanner drank his coffee in silence, infuriating the soldier. "Goddamn it, boy, you look at me when I’m talkin’ ta you!" he shouted suddenly.

Vin sighed softly, tiredly, and slowly lifted vacant blue eyes to Ford, finding a strange kind of solace in his utter exhaustion. All feeling, all emotion, was gone from him now, giving him an odd equilibrium. All about him was light – white, bright and shimmering – making Ford’s darkness almost a mercy. He couldn’t even hate the man right now, simply didn’t have the strength. And that, too, was a blessing.

"I ain’t fergot nothin’, Ford," he said at last, his soft voice hoarse. "Ain’t fergot what you done, ain’t fergot what I done, ain’t fergot what I gotta do." He swallowed. "Cain’t fergit when it’s gnawin’ at my soul."

"What the hell’re you talkin’ about?" Ford asked with a short bark of contemptuous laughter. "What’s gnawin’ at yer soul? A few dead Injuns?" He laughed again and shook his head, staring down at the tracker. "Shit, Tanner, ain’t like they’s people!"

Vin closed his eyes and winced as the words sent a dull pain through his chest. They were people. They were Nemenuh, the Human Beings. And their blood was as red as any white man’s. He swallowed again, then drew a slow, deep breath, waiting for the screams.

But they never came.

Ford grinned cruelly and squatted before the tracker, studying him intently. "’Sides," he added quietly, "I know you, son. Killin’s what you do, it’s what yer good at. Ain’t that why yer wanted in Texas?"

If he expected to hit a nerve, to force a reaction, he failed. Vin only opened his eyes and struggled to fix them on the man, almost relieved when the effort failed. He was finally rid of that face…

"I c’d kill ya right now," Ford went on, patting his gun, "an’ couldn’t nobody do a thing ta me. Hell, I’d be five hunnerd dollars richer! I c’d put a bullet in yer brain, haul yer body back ta Texas an’ walk away with all that money in my pocket. How’s that sound?"

Vin frowned as anger stirred within him. "That money b’longs ta Chris Larabee," he said coldly. "Done told him I want him ta claim it. Ain’t nobody but him takin’ me back, ain’t nobody but him gittin’ that bounty. If ya want it, yer gonna have ta kill him, an’ you ain’t nowheres near good enough ta do that. ’Sides," he fixed resigned eyes upon the soldier, "we both know y’ain’t gonna kill me now. Ya cain’t. Ya need me ta find Red Stick fer ya. Kill me, ya lose him. If ya want him, ya gotta let me live." He grinned suddenly, and damn near giggled. "Hell, I reckon you been bargainin’ with the Devil, too!"

Ford rose slowly to his feet, suddenly and deeply uneasy. "Shit, you really are crazy!" he whispered. When Tanner raised those wide, unfocused blue eyes to him, still grinning, Ford swore and turned, walking away as quickly as he could.

Vin watched him leave, then shrugged and went back to his coffee.


He looked up at the quiet voice and squinted, able to make out a tall, dark figure through the white haze of light dancing before him. Nope, this definitely wasn’t right. Nathan wasn’t gonna be happy at all.

"You all right?"

He frowned, considering the question. If he told the truth, they’d have him stripped down, staked to the ground and dosed with laudanum in five minutes. But if he lied, Chris’d see right through him. Hell, Chris could probably tell just by looking at him.

Shit, didn’t seem fair, a man askin’ a question when he already knew the answer jist ta see what a feller’d say…

"Ya got Peso saddled?" he asked instead, deciding to ignore the question entirely. "Didn’t bite ya, did he? Gits a mite fractious in the mornin’."

Chris stared down at his friend, wondering why he hadn’t passed out yet. Damn stubborn tracker…

"Naw, he didn’t bite me. Seemed ta want somethin’, though."

Vin nodded. "Apple. Shoulda sent one with ya." He sighed and dumped the cold remnants of his coffee onto the ground. "Well, reckon it’s time ta go." He braced himself to stand, hoping the ground really was where he thought it should be. Sure as hell wouldn’t pay to fall down in front of Larabee. Man could be downright vicious when he was worried.

Chris held a breath as Vin rose slowly to his feet and reached out quickly to grab his arm when the tracker started to sway. "You all right, pard?" he asked softly, his heart slamming into his throat. Vin was white as a sheet, and those damn eyes…

"Jist git me ta Peso," Vin whispered, leaning heavily against his friend. Breathing was harder than it should’ve been. Hell, everything was harder than it should’ve been! "Cain’t walk too good, but I c’n ride."


"Please, Chris!" he hissed sharply, clutching at the older man’s arm. "I got no choice! We’re runnin’ outta time–" He bowed his head and raised a shaking hand to his eyes, then ran it over his face. "I know I look like shit," he breathed. "Hell, I feel like it, too. But I gotta do this! At least fer a while, jist long enough…" He lifted his head, and fought to focus his eyes on his friend’s face, finally succeeding. "Please! It won’t be fer long, I promise!"

Chris hated it, but knew he had no choice. Vin would get to Peso if he had to crawl; he could see it in the set of his jaw. "You know JD’s gonna be up there with you, right?"

Vin nodded, and wished he hadn’t as dizziness washed through him. "Yeah," he breathed. "I remember. ’N I’ll let him help, I promise."

Chris continued to stare at him, increasingly frightened for him. "The minute you fall off that damn horse," he growled, "we’re stoppin’! If I have ta hog-tie ya. You hear me?" When Vin mumbled an answer, Chris sighed sharply. "Goddamn you, Tanner–"

"Reckon he will," Vin said with a weak grin. He felt his friend’s grip on him shift, grow firmer, and realized he must be nearer falling than he’d thought. "Might better go now," he breathed, "whilst I’m still standin’."

"You ain’t standin’, Vin, I’m holdin’ you up." Nonetheless, Chris began leading him slowly, carefully to the horses. "Can you get up in the saddle?"

Vin managed to look insulted. "I’s crawlin’ inta that saddle long ’fore I ever knew ya, Larabee! Hauled m’self up with bullets, broken bones an’ Lord knows what all. Hell," he straightened as much as he could and glared up at the gunfighter, "half-dead ’n unconscious, I’m still a better rider’n you’ll ever be, ’n don’t you fergit it!"

Chris grinned slightly, knowing he was all that kept the obstinate tracker from sliding to the ground in a heap. "Yeah, sure, Vin," he said, still guiding Tanner forward, "whatever you say. Now, if we could just teach you ta walk!"

+ + + + + + +

True to his word, Vin did ride better than he had walked, though even he had to admit that wasn’t saying much. The light that had bothered him all morning grew steadily worse, searing into his eyes and heightening the unrelenting ache in his head, even with his hat pulled low. His vision continued to swim in and out of focus and dizziness washed through him with a maddening frequency. But he had the consolation of knowing he didn’t need to study the trail too closely; hell, didn’t have to study it at all.

Because he wasn’t following a trail anymore.

JD kept a close, worried eye on his friend, and now and then reached out to steady him in the saddle. Vin assured him he was all right, but the boy knew better, and that knowledge gnawed at him. Still, he had managed to get Vin to drink water when no one else had, and simply by tricking a man he would have sworn could not be tricked. He had delayed drinking himself, and when Vin had noticed and chided him about it, JD had merely shrugged and said he didn’t see any need to drink if Vin didn’t. And what pleading from Nathan and threats from Chris hadn’t accomplished, JD’s guile had. Vin drank, goaded into it by a sense of responsibility for the boy who looked up to him and took his example from him.

And who smiled secretly at succeeding where the older, bigger and more intimidating men had failed.

As they rode on, however, JD’s smug satisfaction with himself gave way to bewilderment. They were entering a part of the mountains he knew, a part he had ridden with Vin several times. He had regained his sense of direction, and the confusing twists and turns that had so unsettled him yesterday gave way to familiar terrain where he felt much more comfortable. And though he was relieved at riding through passes he knew, he could not help feeling puzzled.

Because the trail they were riding now led not up and into the mountains, but down and out of them.

"Uh, Vin," he began hesitantly, unable to stand it any longer, "I know I shouldn’t question you and all, but…" The exhausted, unfocused blue eyes slid to him and he swallowed heavily, wondering how best to put this. "I mean, I’m not doubtin’ ya, but… Well, it’s just…"

Vin reined Peso to a halt and shifted slightly in his saddle, reeling even from that scant movement. He exhaled unsteadily and pushed his hat back, wiping a pale and shaking hand across his brow. "Y’know where we are, JD?" he asked softly, tiredly.

The boy swallowed and nodded, his wide eyes fixed upon the older man. "Horton’s Pass," he answered quietly. "Leads over to Mustang Ridge. Take the switchback down to Gila Canyon, and ya follow that around to the big wash…" He swallowed again, made nervous by that strange, unwavering gaze. "Then down through the foothills and on home," he finished softly.

Vin nodded. "Glad ta see ya remembered. Always said yer a good learner."

"But what’re we doin’ here?" JD asked sharply. "I’ve been watchin’ ya, Vin, and you’re not followin’ Red Stick’s trail! Hell, you’re not followin’ any trail at all! You’re just… leadin’ us outta the mountains!"

Tanner sighed and bowed his head, closing his eyes as exhaustion washed through him. "How long we been ridin’ now?"


"How long, JD?" he asked softly. "I ain’t been keepin’ track."

JD stiffened and his eyes widened as fear took root within him. Vin never kept track of time; he didn’t have to. He had an innate, instinctive sense of it that the boy had always envied. For him not to know…

He edged his horse closer, studying the man before him. Vin was actually holding himself in the saddle now, and shaking visibly from the effort. He was deathly pale, and breathing seemed to be an effort in itself. He wasn’t sweating near enough to JD’s eye, and that sent the boy’s stomach into a slow, sick roll.

"About five, six hours now," he murmured. God, where was Nathan?

Vin nodded faintly. "Long enough, I reckon," he breathed, his eyes still closed. "This seem a likely place ta stop ta you?"

JD glanced about. Good, fairly even ground, rocky ledges above that would provide shade from the sun… His eyes fixed on a familiar rock formation nearby, with a small stand of trees about it. "Angel Spring," he murmured.

Vin sighed in evident relief. "I’s hopin’ I’s right," he whispered. "This is it, then. This is where it ends."

JD leaned over and grabbed the tracker’s arm. "Vin!" he called sharply, his fear growing. "You’re not makin’ any sense! Red Stick didn’t come this way, and you know it!"

Tanner laughed quietly. "I know. Why’n the hell ya think I brung us this way?" He lifted his head and opened his eyes, fixing them on the boy. With an effort, he straightened in the saddle, taking a deep, slow breath and releasing it. "It’s over, JD," he said quietly, calmly. "Or it will be real soon. I ain’t gonna let him kill ’em, ’n I ain’t gonna let him kill y’all. I’m goin’ over ta the spring. You go git the others, bring ’em over. I aim ta tell Ford it’s over."

"He’ll kill you!" the boy spat, digging his fingers into Vin’s arm. "Damn it, Vin–"

"Better me than them!" Vin said harshly, his eyes glittering. "Hell, what else am I s’posed ta do? Let him kill ’em? They got kids, JD! That li’l girl who lost her doll ain’t but three–" He broke off suddenly, but not quickly enough.

JD stared at him, going very still inside. "How’d you know that, Vin?" he asked quietly. When the tracker dropped his gaze, JD blanched, remembering how he had found Peso this morning. "Damn!" he whispered in shock, his eyes wide. "You went to ’em last night–"

"You trust me, JD?" Tanner asked very softly.

The boy swallowed hard and nodded, his chest growing tight. "You know I do, Vin," he said firmly, without a trace of hesitation or doubt.

Vin smiled at that. "Heart as big as Texas ’n good as gold," he breathed. "They don’t come no better’n you, kid, y’know that? Now, you go’n git the others, all right? And don’t tell ’em nothin’ of whatcha know. Don’t want Ford takin’ it out on nobody but me. Don’t want no more innocents sufferin’ ’cause a’ somethin’ I done."

JD shook his head slowly, his eyes wide with fear for his friend. "Vin, don’t–"

"Too late, kid. I already done it. Cain’t undo it now. G’on, bring ’em ta the spring. Reckon we c’d all use a drink." With that, he started Peso forward, leaving JD no choice but to do as he was told.

The boy watched him a few moments, then, with a heavy, fearful heart, turned his horse and rode back to the others. An awful dread was building in his gut and he found himself swallowing against a rising nausea. He didn’t know what Vin had done, but he knew with a terrible certainty that, whatever it was, Ford wouldn’t like it.

Whatever it was, Vin expected to die for it. That was why he’d made sure JD knew where they were. Because Tanner didn’t think he’d be leading them home.

Chris reined to a stop as JD rode up, and Ford signaled his soldiers to a halt. JD guided his horse slowly toward Larabee, ignoring the big sergeant altogether. His nervousness showed plainly on his face, in his expressive eyes, and it sent a cold chill down Chris’s spine. He watched the boy intently, trying to find any clue as to what had happened. Instinctively, all his fear centered upon Vin.

"JD?" he asked quietly when the boy stopped before him.

"There… there’s a spring just ahead," JD said with a slight quiver in his voice. "Vin says we’re stoppin’ here. Says he figures we could all use a drink." He swallowed again, staring into Chris’s eyes and praying the man would know something was wrong. "He’s already there, waitin’."

Chris was on the verge of asking exactly what Vin was waiting for, but something in those eyes stopped him. JD was afraid – no, terrified – and that meant it had something to do with Ford.

Ya said ya trust me. Need ta know if it’s true.

He heard the softly drawled words from this morning again, and very nearly groaned.

Shit, Vin, what’ve you done?

He swallowed hard, then nodded, his face setting with resolution. "Come on, then," he said, spurring his horse forward. "Let’s not keep the man waitin’."


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