DEVIL'S BARGAIN by Sue Necessary

Vin drank his fill from the spring, which admittedly was not nearly as much as it should have been, then sat cross-legged on the ground and watched while the others approached. Again he felt that peculiar lightness, the odd sense of detachment, almost of floating, and gave thanks for it, however wrong it was. It gave him a calm he would never have found otherwise, and that was in itself a blessing.

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.

He’d have to get Josiah to read him the rest of that one day…

He saw them coming, two lines of soldiers, led by Ford. His eyes skipped over them and went immediately to the six for whom all this had been done, and a soft sigh escaped him. Whatever the cost, they were worth it. Whether he paid with his soul or his life, or both, the price would not be too high. Not for them.

And not for that little girl with her doll…

Chris stared at the seated tracker, and, as Vin’s eyes lifted to and met his, he felt the same instantaneous flash he had one morning in a small town two or three days from here, when those same eyes had locked with his across a crowded, dusty street down which another man was being hauled to his death. A strange, immediate sense of knowing, of purpose, of trust. Eyes both younger than his and older, eyes that had looked upon unspeakable horrors, but had not forgotten the wonders they had also beheld. Eyes that could measure a man for killing. Or measure a man for saving.

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

Goddamn it, there’d never been anything any truer!

He stopped, dismounted, and gave JD his horse for watering. Without a word, he went to Vin and eased himself to the ground at his side, sitting with the tracker in a deep, comfortable silence as they’d so often sat together outside the saloon. He knew there were a thousand things he should say; he also knew he didn’t have to say a single one.

One by one, as the other five finished drinking they joined the tracker and the gunfighter, settling themselves on the ground and joining the silence, each man finding and taking his place in the bond, until the seven were complete. Even in his fragile, floating state Vin could feel the power of it, the strength that came to him through these men, and knew with a sudden and unshakable certainty that his help, his salvation, didn’t lie in the hills at all. It lay right here, with these men.

Only Chris heard the soft, almost soundless sigh that escaped the tracker, and he turned worried eyes upon his friend, studying him for any sign of imminent collapse. Instead, he saw the slight smile, the shadow of the familiar crooked grin, curving about Tanner’s mouth. He saw the faint light in the faded blue eyes, felt the peace descending upon the slouched, exhausted body, and knew as he’d rarely known anything in his life that this whole ugly mess was over.

Vin had found a way out of his bargain with the Devil.

Ford, however, knew no such thing. He waited for men and horses to be watered, waited for horses to be cooled down, waited for tired, sore muscles to unkink. He waited for men to eat a quick meal, to indulge in coffee, to wash some of the layers of dirt from their bodies. He waited for Tanner to show his customary impatience, to start chomping at the bit and driving them once more out of their rest and into the saddle.

He waited until he simply could not wait any longer.

Snarling a curse, he lunged to his feet and stalked over to where the seven sat taking their goddamned ease. Six pairs of eyes snapped immediately to him. But the only eyes that mattered, the wide blue ones that now seemed to hold only madness, remained downcast, fixed upon the ground.

"What the hell’re we waitin’ on?" he snapped, planting himself in front of Tanner and defying the crazy bastard to ignore him now. "We’re wastin’ time jist sittin’ here! We got renegades ta find, or have ya fergot?"

Six men bristled and six hands inched toward guns. Vin, however, remained completely relaxed.

"Like I said b’fore," he drawled, his soft voice hoarse with exhaustion, "I ain’t fergot nothin’. ’N it’s because I ain’t fergot that we’re sittin’ here." He straightened slightly and lifted his eyes to Ford. The blue depths were empty of any madness, any hatred, any pain. They were as clear and as tranquil as the cloudless summer sky. "It’s over, Ford," he said quietly, calmly. "This is as far as we go."

The big man stiffened and uttered a low, warning growl, his face twisting into a dark mask of fury. "What the hell’re you talkin’ about, Tanner?" he seethed, clenching his jaws and his fists. About the spring, soldiers began sitting up and glancing at each other in nervous uncertainty. "It ain’t over ’til I say–"

"There ain’t no renegades in these mountains," Vin interrupted, his voice never rising above its soft, smoky rasp. Those who could not hear his words found themselves coming closer to do so. "Never was, ’n you know it." He continued to stare up at Ford. "Red Stick ’n his folks weren’t causin’ no trouble in Texas, were they? They weren’t runnin’ from the reservation at all. They’s headed for it when you stopped ’em."

Powell and several soldiers exchanged confused glances, then the corporal rose to his feet and stepped forward, frowning as he went over it all again in his mind. "No, that ain’t right, is it, Sarge?" he asked, not sounding at all certain. "We had orders. Red Stick’d broke off from the main band, took his captives–"

"Ain’t no captives," Vin interrupted softly. "Leastways, not none who wants ta be set free."

Nathan stirred at that. "What d’ya mean, Vin? If they’s holdin’ women–"

Vin turned to him, knowing how the former slave ached at the thought of anyone being held in captivity. "Ain’t none, Nathan," he said quietly. "They got some women with ’em who was took when they was kids. But they’re all grown now. They’re wives, mothers. One of ’em’s Red Stick’s younger wife, mother of that li’l girl who lost her doll. They don’t wanta be took back. They’re Comanche now. ’N they’re ready ta fight an’ die ta stay that way." He reached out and gripped Nathan’s arm tightly, staring intently into the man’s dark eyes. "I swear on my ma’s soul, Nathan, ain’t nobody up there who’s bein’ held against her will. Ain’t no captives. They’re all Comanches, and they all jist wanta go home."

Ford’s eyes narrowed as he stared down at the tracker, as his rage began to boil. "An’ jist how’n the hell do you know all this?" he demanded harshly.

Vin didn’t answer at once, but sat in silence and considered his words. He was having trouble thinking straight, and knew he had to answer every question just right. But, Lord, if only his head didn’t hurt so…

Leaning forward slightly, Chris studied his friend, saw the exhaustion and determination struggling for dominance in him, and wondered how much longer he could hold out. "That ride you took last night," he said quietly. "That’s it, isn’t it? You went lookin’ for ’em, found ’em."

Vin turned his head and met that green gaze evenly. "Didn’t have ta find ’em," he rasped quietly, insulted by the notion that he had just stumbled upon them. "I knew where they was. Figgered it out yesterday afternoon. Hell, if any a’ y’all c’d half read sign, you’da known it, too."

Chris had to smile at Tanner’s sass. "All right," he amended, "you knew where they were. But why didn’t you tell us–"

"Would you a’ let me go?"

Chris sighed. "No," he admitted quietly. "Not without takin’ one of us–"

"Couldn’ta done that," Vin said softly. "Couldn’ta risked any a’ y’all like that. I had no reason ta believe Red Stick wouldn’t kill me on sight. Didn’t have no right askin’ anybody else ta come with me ’n mebbe git shot down fer the trouble."

"But you thought it was perfectly all right ta risk yourself," Chris said, a hint of anger creeping into his voice. "Thought it’d somehow be all right if you went and got killed on your own. Damn it, Tanner–"

"I had to, Chris," he said more softly still, needing his friend to understand. "They knew we was comin’ after ’em. Red Stick was tryin’ ta git his women ’n children ta safety, then him ’n his braves was gonna fight." The old pain again filled his eyes, showed on his face. "Hell, look around ya, Chris!" he pleaded hoarsely. "How many places are there up here fer them braves ta hide ’n pick us off? You seen mountain fights! Y’know they ain’t purty! You think I’s lookin’ forward ta leadin’ y’all inta that?"

Chris bowed his head and closed his eyes, easily able to envision what Vin had feared. Comanche warriors, hidden away in these rocks, armed with rifles and desperate to protect their families…

"We was closin’ in on ’em," Vin went on, his voice growing steadily more ragged, his eyes again haunted. "Red Stick’s people was tryin’, but they was tired. ’N this is hard ground. Hard enough fer a man, much less women ’n children. We was gonna catch ’em," he whispered, knowing it with an awful certainty. "Wasn’t more’n a day away. ’N then what was I s’posed ta do? Let Ford ’n his boys git ’em? Let you all try ta stop Ford ’n git killed fer tryin’? Or let Red Stick fight the lot of ya whilst I watched? Who was I s’posed ta watch die this time? ’N who was I s’posed ta help kill? ’Sides," his voice broke and he bowed his head, staring down at his hands, "I wanted ta give that li’l girl her doll back. Couldn’t stand the thought of her cryin’ fer it."

Chris reached out and laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder, understanding his dilemma, his pain. "That’s why you wanted to know this mornin’ if I still trusted you," he said.

Vin swallowed and nodded, trying to steady his ragged emotions. "Couldn’t tell ya then what I done," he said softly. "I had ta give ’em time."

Chris frowned. "Time for what?"

"Hell, ain’t it clear?" Ford spat, unable to believe what he was hearing. "Time ta come down an’ find us, time ta git set up in these hills so’s they c’n kill us! Ain’t that what we’re sittin’ here waitin’ fer, Tanner? Your Injun friends ta start shootin’ at us from these damn hills?"

Soldiers immediately began darting nervous glances around the crags overlooking them, waiting for the ambush to start. None of his friends did so, though, much to Vin’s relief.

"They ain’t comin’ this way," he rasped, lifting his eyes to Ford. "But yer right, they ain’t where they was no more. I put an end ta this," he said, his quiet words carrying easily to all. "Made sure won’t no more babies die by yer dirty hand. Ain’t gonna letcha do ta my friends whatcha done ta me, ain’t gonna letcha do ta Red Stick’s folk whatcha done ta Night Horse’s. I sent them people away, made ’em a map, showed ’em how ta git the hell outta these mountains ’n git home."

"That’s why you took us through Horton’s Pass!" JD said brightly as understanding dawned. "Takin’ us away from Red Stick, takin’ us home by a different way, givin’ him and his people time to get away!"

Vin nodded slightly. "Hell, y’all don’t know these mountains. I reckoned ya wouldn’t notice it fer a while." He looked up, then, and cast a scornful glare at Ford. "’N it’s fer damn sure them soldiers wouldn’ta noticed, seein’s they couldn’t find their own asses with both hands ’n a mirror!"

Chris laughed at Tanner’s prickly humor. "And Buck calls me a diplomat!" he chuckled.

Vin swallowed, and returned his gaze to Larabee. "Chris," he said softly, urgently, "I had ta do this! Mebbe I shoulda told ya, I don’t know, but I had ta do it!" His eyes searched Larabee’s for understanding. "Eight years ago I led that bastard ta people who wasn’t botherin’ nobody and he killed ’em. ’N he was gonna do the same with Red Stick. Only I couldn’t let him. Them people wasn’t no threat ta folks hereabouts. Hell, they didn’t even wanta be here! They been chased clear from Texas fer no other reason than they’re Comanches ’n that bastard there wants ’em dead. All’s they want is ta go home, ta join up with their kin ’n be left alone." He shook his head slowly, his blue eyes soft and tired. "So I decided I’d help ’em. Figgered I owed it ta Red Stick. Figgered I owed it ta all them people I couldn’t help eight years ago. Reckoned mebbe it’d go some toward gittin’ their blood off my hands." He nodded slightly, satisfied with the rightness of his decision. "Figgered the best thing fer all of us’d jist be fer me ta let ’em go."

A choking howl of rage tore from Ford and he lunged at the tracker. Before anyone could stop him, could even react, he jerked Vin to his feet and smashed a huge fist into his face, then drove it brutally into his gut.

"Ford!" Chris thundered, leaping to his feet. Swept by white-hot rage, he lunged for the big man, a hand upon his gun. But he couldn’t take the risk of shooting Vin instead. "Goddamn it, Ford!" he shouted. "Leave him be!"

But Ford turned and drove a fist into Larabee’s jaw, sending him sprawling into Buck and Josiah. Before anyone else could reach him, he grabbed Vin again and slammed merciless fists into him, cursing and screaming at him in rage.

"Goddamn you!" he shouted, ramming his fist again into the tracker’s stomach.

Vin doubled over with a breathless, tortured croak as the blow drove all the breath from his body. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see, couldn’t think, was awash in a hideous pain and heavy, rising waves of nausea. Blood filled his mouth, and the taste of it made him sick.

Nathan and Ezra rushed the sergeant, but he beat them back easily, felling them both with his heavy fists. When JD flew at him, he simply grabbed the boy and flung him into Josiah, then went for Vin again, battering him to the ground and then kicking him viciously in the ribs and stomach.

"Git up, Tanner!" he seethed, bending down and grabbing the tracker, hauling him again to his feet. "I’m gonna do what I shoulda done eight years ago!" He drew back his fist to strike again, but was stopped by the sound of a pistol cocking and the cold press of steel into the back of his neck.

"Let him go, Sarge!" Corporal Powell ordered in a strained, shaking voice, made almost sick by the sight before him. "He ain’t done nothin’ ta you an’ I figger he’s suffered enough. Let him go, or, God forgive me, I’ll shoot."

Buck and the others pulled themselves to their feet, their fury giving way to stunned disbelief at the sorry spectacle before them. Vin hung limp and bloody in Ford’s grip and Powell stood at the sergeant’s broad back, his gun pressed into the man’s neck. The six could feel the corporal’s tension, his terror, and feared that if he were startled he might just shoot Vin instead.

Chris raised a shaking hand to his throbbing jaw, tasting blood from biting his tongue. But his gaze was riveted to Vin, who looked like a torn rag doll in Ford’s huge, killing hands.

"Put him down, Sarge," Powell said again, his whole body shaking now, his heart hammering like a herd of horses in his chest. "I ain’t gonna letcha kill him. Ain’t gonna letcha kill nobody. There’s been too much a’ that already."

Fury swept red-hot through Ford. "I’ll see you hang fer this, Powell!" he snarled. "Tanner’s wanted in Texas, dead’r alive–"

"We ain’t in Texas," the smaller man spat bitterly. "We ain’t been in Texas fer a month now! Hang me if ya want, I don’t care no more! But I ain’t watchin’ nobody else die because of you! Not Tanner, an’ not no women ’n kids! Now," he said grimly, collecting himself and shoving the gun harder into Ford’s neck, "let him go! I ain’t tellin’ ya again."

Ford spat filthy curses but released Tanner, who dropped bonelessly to the ground. The tracker coughed harshly, then rolled over and began retching.

"Chris!" Nathan called sharply, fear for his injured friend rioting within him.

"Corporal," Chris said quietly, forcing aside his own rage and keeping his voice calm. "I’d like Nathan here ta take a look at Vin. He won’t try anything, I promise. None of us will. But if you could get Sergeant Ford back some distance, I’d be grateful. Don’t want him tryin’ anything, either."

Powell nodded, growing steadily calmer now that his decision was made. "All right," he breathed, "you heard him, Sarge. We’re jist gonna back away, nice an’ slow, let the colored feller see ta Tanner."

"I’ll kill you–"

Powell nodded, beyond caring at this point. "Reckon ya might. But I figger even if ya do, Tanner’s friends here’ll fill you so fulla holes they’ll be usin’ you fer a sieve. An’ I jist don’t think yer that ready ta die."

Ford growled savagely but knew Powell was right. He could snap the man’s neck in a minute, but he’d be dead himself the next. Still cursing bitterly, he allowed Powell to lead him away from the fallen tracker.

Nathan rushed immediately to Vin and threw himself onto the ground at his side, reaching out to try and turn him over. But Tanner, blinded and confused by pain, cried out weakly and tried to fight him off.

"Ssh, easy, Vin, easy," the healer soothed, refusing to relinquish his hold on the injured man’s shoulder. "It’s me, Vin, it’s Nathan. Ya’ hurt now, I gotta take a look." He winced and tightened his hold as Vin tried to breathe and cried out in pain. "Shit, he musta broke a rib! Vin," he leaned closer and stroked the tracker’s hair with a big, gentle hand, "lemme look atcha, all right? See where ya’ hurt."

"H… hurt… ever’where!" he gasped weakly, tensing and groaning thickly against another rush of pain and nausea. "Nathan?"

"Yeah, I’m here, Vin," the healer soothed. "I’m right here. Gonna turn ya on yo’ back now, all right? Likely it’s gon’ hurt, but I need ta see where he gotcha. Ain’t gon’ fight me, are ya?"

Vin clenched his jaws and shook his head slightly. Desperately, he tried not to breathe; each time he did, he felt the pain rip through his chest like the heated blade of a knife. "Ch… Chris?" he gasped, reaching blindly for Nathan’s hand and clinging to it. "Where… where’s Chris?"

"I’m right here," Larabee assured him, kneeling at his other side, across from Nathan. "Come on now, pard, just relax and let Nathan work. Here," he pried Vin’s hand loose from Nathan’s and took it in his own, biting back his pain as those long, strong fingers closed about his in a death-grip.

"Gotta git him on his back," Nathan directed, looking up at Larabee. "An’ I’m gon’ need you ta keep him from fightin’ me. I don’t aim ta be kicked, hit o’ bit like the rest a’ y’all, y’hear?"

Chris nodded wordlessly, his jaw so tight he could hear the grinding of his teeth. Working with all the care and gentleness he could muster, he helped Nathan get Vin onto his back, trying desperately not to hear the anguished sounds torn from his friend by the movement.

Vin clung to Chris and tried to breathe around the agony in his chest. But as Chris shifted on his knees, accidentally jarring him, the pain of it sent his nausea again spiralling out of control, plunging him once more into sickness.

"Shit, git him on his side b’fo’ he chokes!" Nathan ordered.

Vin wrung at Chris’s hand as the heaving of his stomach sent waves of hellfire stabbing through him. "Jesus!" he whispered in torment, tears wetting his face.

"JD, git my bag!" Nathan called sharply. "Easy, Vin, easy!" he soothed, his voice changing at once to a deep gentleness as he leaned over the tracker and stroked his back. "Try not ta move too much. Don’ wantcha punchin’ a hole in yo’ lung."

"Gentlemen," Ezra said quietly to his companions, "I fear Mr. Jackson will require our assistance in procurin’ Mr. Tanner’s cooperation. Shall we proceed into the lion’s den?"

"You an’ Josiah go on ahead," Buck said wryly, rubbing his bruised jaw. "I got a few places Vin ain’t punched or kicked yet an’ I’d kinda like ta keep it that way. Reckon it’s somebody else’s turn ta bust that particular bronc."

"Fools rush in where angels fear ta tread," Josiah sighed resignedly. "Shall we, Brother Ezra?"

Standish frowned suspiciously up at the big preacher. "I’m not at all certain I appreciate your inference, Mr. Sanchez," he groused. "But, in the spirit of camaraderie, I shall ignore it–"

"Get your asses over here now before I start shootin’!" Chris yelled. "We ain’t got all day, and I for damn sure ain’t holdin’ no pain-crazed Tanner down by myself!"

Ezra cleared his throat and started quickly forward. "Speaking of frightening angels…" he murmured to no one in particular.

When his sickness subsided, they got Vin once more onto his back, ignoring his sharp cry of pain at the movement. "Gotta git these suspenders down, git this shirt off," Nathan said quietly.

Chris took Vin’s head in his lap and carefully worked a suspender strap down over his arm while Nathan quickly unbuttoned his shirt. The other strap followed, and, holding their collective breaths, healer and gunfighter gingerly removed the tracker’s blood-stained shirt.

"Good Lord!" Ezra muttered in horror as he saw the hideous contusions darkening Tanner’s abdomen and chest and imagined the bruises to come. He felt a comforting hand at his shoulder and glanced up into Josiah’s eyes. The raw anger burning in them was at odds with the gentleness of the preacher’s touch, and Ezra began to wonder exactly how many of the seven would have a hand in Ford’s inevitable death.

For the moment, however, Chris was not thinking at all of Ford, was concerned only with Vin, who was already trying to resist Nathan’s efforts to examine him. As Vin lashed out with an arm to knock Nathan away, Chris grabbed it and pinned it securely beneath his legs, while Ezra knelt and took the other, holding it firmly just below the armpit and preparing to hold down his shoulder as well. Josiah spread Vin’s legs and knelt between them, clamping big hands down firmly on the tracker’s thighs.

Momentary panic surged through Vin at being held down, and everyone felt it go through him. Every muscle in the lean body tensed and he tried instinctively to fight free of the hands gripping him.

"Ssh, easy, Vin, easy," Chris soothed, leaning forward and catching the fear-wild eyes with his own. "We gotta do this, you know that." He spoke softly, slowly, stroking Vin’s hair all the while. "Can’t have you hurtin’ Nathan and we don’t want you hurtin’ yourself. Figure it’s either this or I cold-cock ya. You just lie still, all right? Just relax, and let Nathan work."

"Here ya go, Nathan," JD said, laying the bag at the healer’s side, then kneeling beside Vin. "How ya doin’?" he asked worriedly, his eyes wide as saucers.

Vin licked his bloody lips and tried to lay as still as he could, tried to breathe as little as he could. "’M fine," he rasped weakly.

Nathan snorted in exasperation. "Fine, my ass! Could have ten bullets in ya, an’ all ya’d say is, ‘I’m fine.’ Gonna carve that on yo’ tombstone! Damn mule-headed tracker, ain’t got no mo’ sense’n that horse of yor’n, ’n both of ya’s jus’ plumb crazy!"

Vin swallowed and stared up at Chris. "I’ll give ya… a dollar… if ya cold-cock... him," he breathed through clenched teeth.

Chris chuckled. "Sorry, pard, we need him. ’Sides, we all know you ain’t got a dollar. You never have and you never will. All your money goes inta cartridges, bandannas and Ezra’s pockets."

"And I assure you," the gambler joined in, recognizing Larabee’s attempts to keep Vin distracted while Nathan began his work, "my apportioned lot of Mr. Tanner’s meager fortune is paltry, indeed. How a man who never purchases anything of substance or of value remains constantly destitute is a fathomless mystery to me. Lord knows, he’s not investing his wages in decent habiliments!"

"Decent what?" JD asked, his face screwed up in confusion.

Ezra sighed. "Habiliments. Raiment. Apparel. Attire. Oh, good Lord," he said sharply at the boy’s persistent bewilderment, "clothing, son! A wardrobe consisting of something other than the reeking, disreputable hides of long-dead prairie vermin!"

"That’s… m’ coat… yer talkin’ ’bout," Vin rasped, tensing as Nathan’s hands moved painfully over his red and tender abdomen, where Ford’s fists and boot had driven into him. "Shit!" he hissed, arching his back and trying to free his arms to push the healer away.

"Easy, Vin," Chris soothed, pinning the tracker more securely. "Nathan?"

"Bruise is real deep, bastard caught him good," the healer said with a quiet anger. "Don’ feel like he’s bleedin’, though I’ll have ta keep checkin’. But even if he ain’t, it’s gon’ hurt like hell fo’ a while. Now, fo’ them ribs." He slid his gaze, and his hand, up to Tanner’s chest, knowing he would find at least one, and likely more, broken. That much he could see. He only hoped none had pierced his lung. "Hold him, now," he said quietly, his hand nearing the edge of the vicious contusion. "JD, start gettin’ bandages out. Gonna need ta wrap–"

Vin’s wordless howl of agony ripped through them all as Nathan found the broken ribs. The tracker arched his back and fought wildly to escape the hands that tortured him, but could not break free. Breathless curses tore from him and tears streamed from his eyes as the hideous pain exploded through him. Mercifully, however, lack of sleep, food and water intervened, and his body, weakened by all it had been denied, chose the only escape available. A thick, wrenching groan fell from him as he surrendered to oblivion.

"Thank God," Josiah whispered as Tanner finally passed out.

Chris, left white-faced and hard-eyed by his friend’s suffering, continued to stroke Vin’s hair, though his thoughts were no longer on him. They, and his glare, were now fixed firmly upon the man who had done this, and so much else, to the tracker. He let his rage and hatred grow, nursed them carefully, savored the bitter taste of them in his mouth and the burn of them in his soul. He had known their like many, many times before, knew only one thing would cleanse him of them.

Vin was bound by his word not to kill the bastard. Chris Larabee had made no such promise.

"Got some broke ribs, all right," Nathan pronounced grimly. "Way he’s breathin’, I’d say one of ’em’s nicked his lung. But they gotta be wrapped. Chris, you an’ Ezra sit him up an’ hold him straight as ya can. Josiah, you be ready ta hold him if he wakes. ’Cause he ain’t gon’ like this one bit."

But Vin’s exhaustion held, and though he struggled weakly it was nothing like the all-out assault he would have launched had he been conscious. Nathan was able to wrap his chest securely, and prayed any damage the broken ribs had done was minor. They’d just have to wait and see…

The healer also took the opportunity to clean the deep cuts torn into Vin’s face by Ford’s beating. The sharp bite of the carbolic brought the tracker around with a start, and he managed to tear his arm from Ezra’s lapsed hold and lash out blindly toward the healer. Chris caught his wrist just before his fist connected, however, which brought a snort from Buck.

"Sure, now y’all learn ta corral him!"

As Chris imprisoned Vin’s arm against the ground, Nathan leaned forward and gripped Tanner’s chin firmly in one strong hand, his dark eyes boring into dazed blue ones. "Behave, now," he warned softly, "or I will have Chris col’-cock ya!"

Vin blinked and licked his lips, knowing the healer – and Larabee – would do it. "I’ll behave," he whispered.

"See that ya do," Nathan said grimly. "Now," he looked around at the men surrounding them, "y’all might’s well unload ever’thing, ’cause we ain’t goin’ nowhere. Vin," he turned his formidable stare back to the tracker, who shrank against Chris in uncertainty, "you gon’ rest, you gon’ eat an’ you gon’ drink, an’ I’m gon’ see that ya do. Feed ya myse’f if I hafta, po’ the water down ya throat, an’ stake ya down ta the ground, if that’s what it takes. But you gon’ do as I say, an’ you gon’ do it without fightin’, or I’ll dose ya down with laudanum fo’ a week!" When the tracker swallowed and nodded meekly, his eyes wide, Nathan smiled triumphantly. "’Bout time ya saw some sense. One of ya go spread out his bedroll. Chris, he’p him sit up."

At that, Vin’s spirit surfaced. "I c’n do it m’self!"

Nathan frowned deeply, all too familiar with the tracker’s stubbornness. "Now, look here, Vin," he warned, "you jus’ had the shit beat outta ya! You go doin’ too much–"

"Ain’t gonna do nothin’ but sit up ’n walk ta my bedroll," Vin insisted, hoping he sounded stronger than he felt.

He didn’t. Nathan stared at him in deep irritation, but knew Tanner would not be swayed by argument. "All right, you so sure a’ yo’se’f, let’s see ya sit up."

Vin narrowed his eyes thoughtfully and licked his split lips, made suddenly uneasy by the healer’s tone and expression. Though he would never admit it, pain screamed through his head, chest and stomach, and he was not looking forward at all to moving. But bad as that would undoubtedly be, he knew being treated like a baby would be even worse.

Man had to have some dignity…

He cast a defiant glare at Nathan, then, mindful of his hurts, moved slowly and with great care to sit up. Despite such caution, though, he was caught completely unaware by the sickening pain that gripped his bruised abdominal muscles, by the cruel agony that ripped through his battered chest as the movement jarred his broken ribs. A sharp cry tore from him and he collapsed onto the ground in torment, curling onto his side and clutching at his stomach and chest. Again the nausea gripped him and, though it had already emptied itself, his stomach heaved violently. Tears streamed down his face as the dry retching only heightened the pain that assailed him.

Nathan leaned over him and gently stroked his back, his own face a mask of pain. He hated suffering of any kind, hated it especially in any of his friends, and wished bitterly he could have prevented this. But he was too familiar with the tracker’s stubborn nature and knew that for such as him experience was the only teacher.

But, Lord, how the man’s soft, anguished cries wrung at his heart…

"JD, son, go spread Vin’s bedroll," Buck directed quietly, seeing the boy’s stricken expression. "Go on, now, we’ll take care of Vin."

JD swallowed against his own threatening sickness and nodded, then hurried off to do as told, ashamed of himself for being glad to get away. But he just hated seeing Vin like this…

At last, when the sickness had passed, Vin lay deathly pale and silent upon the ground, shivering as if from a terrible chill. His long hair, damp with sweat and matted with blood, clung to his face and throat and his eyes were closed. He was breathing in short, labored gasps, and his hands still clutched weakly at his stomach. Nathan immediately went back to tending him, pouring water onto a cloth and bathing his face, throat and hands, then gently urging a drink between his pale lips.

When the healer was finished, Josiah stepped forward silently and gently gathered Vin into his arms, lifting him carefully and carrying him to his waiting blankets. The others followed just as silently, their concern for their friend like a living thing between them.

In their wake, soldiers stood and stared, stunned into a deep silence by the awful spectacle of Ford’s brutality and by the revelation of his deceit. And for the first time they recognized that, somewhere in all this mess, they had been dragged across the line from duty into evil.

+ + + + + + +

A few hours later, Corporal Powell finally screwed up enough courage to make his way toward the informal but protective circle the six had made about their injured seventh. He had been watching them intently, studying them carefully, confused, admiring and more than a little afraid all at the same time. They were hard, dangerous men without a doubt, unquestionably capable and as tough a bunch as he had ever seen. Yet here they sat, tending the tracker with a care and devotion that, quite frankly, astounded him.

Never seen their like before…

As one, the six looked up as the corporal approached, and he noted several hands sliding toward guns. But, swallowing hard, he continued to make his way forward, knowing such distrust, such hostility, was no less than he deserved.

Chris watched him come, green eyes narrowed and coldly appraising, his every nerve on edge. But something in Powell’s expression quieted his killing instincts and he swallowed his desire for blood. The man had kept Ford from killing Vin, and for that alone he deserved a chance.

But just one.

Powell stopped just outside the circle, his gaze going to Larabee. He watched the man uncoil his long, lean frame like a black serpent and rise to his feet, and felt an icy breath tingling along his spine. The man was all cold death.

Chris fixed that merciless stare upon the soldier. "Need somethin’?" he asked tersely.

Powell swallowed and licked his lips, wishing those eyes would light anywhere but on him. "Few of us jist wanted…" Unconsciously, his eyes strayed to Tanner’s sleeping, or unconscious, form. "He all right?"

Chris saw true concern in the man’s eyes, heard it in his voice, and was puzzled by it. "You care?" he demanded.

Powell sighed deeply and dropped his gaze to the ground beneath his feet. "I couldn’t let Sarge kill him," he said softly. "Not after all he’d already done to him." Against his will, his gaze crept back to Tanner. "Seems like he’s suffered enough," he murmured, shaking his head slowly. "Couldn’t jist stand by an’ let Sarge kill him, when he’d done nothin’ ta deserve it…"

"Why don’tcha come over and have some coffee," Chris invited quietly, surprising even himself. "Looks like you could use it."

Powell stared at the gunman for long moments, startled by the invitation. Then, oddly grateful for it, he went slowly forward, into the circle that opened to admit him.

Buck slid closer to JD, making a place for the soldier between himself and Josiah. The big preacher poured a cup of coffee and handed to the man as he settled himself on the ground.

"That was a mighty courageous thing you did for Vin," he said quietly. "And we’re mighty grateful. Ford meant ta kill our young brother. We’re obliged ta you for stoppin’ him."

Powell stared into his cup. "Only seemed right," he answered softly.

"But that doesn’t make it any easier, does it?" Josiah asked gently, his eyes searching Powell’s. "Fact is, the right thing ta do is almost always the hardest thing ta do. Seen a lotta men falter when given the choice between ‘right’ and ‘easy.’ Hell, I’ve faltered myself; we all have. We’re just glad you chose the way ya did this time."

Powell lifted his head and swept his gaze slowly over the men about them, studying them thoughtfully, recognizing their worth. And wondering why he hadn’t recognized it before.

"He lied ta us as much as he lied ta y’all," he said tiredly. "We didn’t know. He told us we had orders and we believed him. He said Red Stick was a renegade, had ta be stopped and took back, and we believed him. Said it was our duty…" The words suddenly tasted bitter in his mouth and he hung his head, racked by a shame he had never known before.

"But you knew he had women and children with him, knew Ford was lyin’ to us about that, and you never said anything," Chris said softly, scathingly, his cold eyes boring mercilessly into the soldier. "You were just gonna go along with him, let him murder those people, when they hadn’t done anything except try ta get away from a madman. What the hell kinda duty is that?"

Powell shook his head slowly, still struggling with that question himself. "You don’t know Sarge," he said in a low, bitter voice. "He makes a powerful argument fer somethin’ when he wants it. And he wanted them Injuns dead. Hates ’em all. His folks was killed by ’em when he was young, ’n that poisoned his mind against ’em. Only reason he joined the Army was ta kill Injuns."

Nathan fixed dark eyes on the corporal. "These the same ones that killed his family?"

"Hell, no!" Powell snorted.

"Killin’ these folks gonna bring his family back?" the healer persisted.

Powell sighed, his shoulders drooping. "You know it won’t," he murmured.

"Then what makes him any better than the savages he says he hates?" Nathan asked coldly. "What makes what they do wrong an’ what he does right? What makes any of what he’s done ta Vin right? Hell, what makes what he’s doin’ ta you right now right? Y’know he’s gon’ kill you firs’ chance he gits, won’t even think twice about it. It’s too bad his folks was killed, but that don’t even begin ta make none a’ this nowhere near right!"

Powell grimaced miserably. "Kinda figgered that myself," he whispered. "Took me a while…" He laughed harshly, bitterly. "Hell, took me until yesterday, when Tanner showed up with that damn doll! Wouldn’t let myself think on it before. Jist told myself I was doin’ my duty, that Red Stick was the enemy." He shook his head sharply. "Well, Red Stick may be my enemy, I don’t know. But I know fer damn sure the little girl who dropped that doll ain’t! An’ if she ain’t, then I figgered there could be others with her who ain’t either. An’ all at once I wasn’t even so sure about Red Stick."

"From such simple seeds as a child’s toy is a man’s conscience born," Josiah said gravely, gazing kindly upon the troubled soldier. "Doubt can be a powerful instrument for good, for change, for faith, brother. When we doubt, we question. And it is only when we question that we are open to answers. If we can accept that not everyone who is like us is always right, then maybe we can learn to accept that not everyone who is unlike us is always wrong. Not even a Comanche."

"I jist spent so many years fightin’ ’em, it seemed like the natural thing ta do," Powell sighed tiredly. "Red Stick’s a war chief. When Sarge told us we had ta go after him, I didn’t ask no questions. An’ him an’ his bucks killed three of our men–"

"And how many of his did you all kill?" JD asked. "I haven’t heard anybody mention that yet."

"Seven," answered a soft, raspy voice. "’N two of them weren’t more’n boys."

Chris sighed and shook his head, and Nathan swore sharply. "Damn it, Vin, ain’t you ever gon’ sleep? You gon’ make me force laudanum down ya?"

"Been sleepin’," he drawled. "But y’all’s jawin’d wake the dead. Ain’t ever known such a bunch fer talkin’." He opened his eyes and fixed them on Nathan. "Mind helpin’ me sit up a mite?" he asked softly. "Kinda hard ta breathe, layin’ flat like this."

Nathan was instantly all concern. "Hard ta breathe?" he asked sharply, moving at once to Vin’s side and laying a carefully probing hand on his bandaged chest. "Whatta ya mean? It hurt any?"

"Hell, yeah, it hurts!" Vin snarled, swatting the hand away and glaring up at the healer. "Got broke ribs, remember? ’N you pushin’ on ’em sure as hell don’t help none!"

"Ain’t pushin’ on ’em," Nathan corrected primly, replacing his hand. "Now, breathe fo’ me, lemme see fo’ myse’f." He scowled at the tracker, who was doing his best not to comply. "Damn it, Vin, I said breathe!"

Vin glared harder, but couldn’t stop the breath that came, or the soft gasp of pain that followed. Nonetheless, he angrily pushed Nathan’s hand again off his chest. "There, I done breathed!" he rasped, his voice still tight with pain. "Ya happy now?"

"Nathan?" Chris asked softly, worriedly.

"I was afraid a’ that," the healer sighed. "One a’ them ribs musta nicked his lung. Don’t seem too bad, though." He stared down into the glaring blue eyes. "Not enough ta ease his bite."

Chris smiled slightly and relaxed, hearing the relief behind Nathan’s words. "Be all right ta sit him up some?"

Nathan nodded. "Should help. Mebbe we c’n git some food an’ water down him, too. Long as he’s awake, we might’s well put it ta use."

They set to work immediately, sitting him up and bringing his saddle, and getting blankets rolled to support his back. Powell watched in fascination as they fussed over him, and as he snapped back with a spirit they seemed to welcome. Yet he noted also the way Tanner reached for them, clung to them, when the pain overwhelmed him, and read in such things a trust far deeper than any he had ever known. And when at last Tanner lay against his saddle, pale, sweating, and taking careful, shallow breaths, the corporal again resented bitterly all the wrongs that had been done him.

Hell, been done all of them.

"Sarge says this ain’t over yet," he sighed tiredly, wondering yet again how events had ever come to this. "He says long as Red Stick’s around he’ll hunt him down, whatever it takes. But," he frowned deeply and shook his head, staring down at the ground, "I won’t be with him. I’m goin’ back ta Texas, back ta Fort Scott. An’ I know a few – hell, most – of the boys’ll go with me." He forced himself to meet Larabee’s frankly disbelieving gaze. "I never signed on ta murder kids!" he said ferociously. "All a’ this… It jist don’t sit right no more."

A deep silence fell as six men studied the soldier sitting at their fire. Then, slowly, a pair of blue eyes opened, and a soft, tired drawl broke the quiet.

"He’s right, it ain’t over," Vin rasped, holding a hand to his chest and simply trying to breathe. "Long as Ford’s alive, long as he’s left ta run free, Red Stick an’ his people ain’t safe. Ain’t nobody safe. We gotta end this now."


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