DEVIL'S BARGAIN by Sue Necessary

"He said what?!" Ford bellowed, lunging to his feet with such force that the corporal fell back several steps before his fury.

Powell shuddered and licked his lips, deeply grateful for Sanchez’s presence at his side. Ford was a towering mass of boiling rage, his huge frame shaking visibly, his wild eyes filled with murder. Powell had never feared a man more in his life.

"Larabee said we’re all goin’ down t’gether," he repeated in a tight, unsteady voice, his stomach churning. "Said he ain’t leavin’ you ta go after Red Stick. Said Tanner gave ’em his word they’ll be safe, an’ he aims ta see that word honored. Said it’s time you realized this is over."

"Goddamn it, Powell!" Ford roared, raising clenched fists in fury. "Ain’t over ’til I say! We don’t take our orders from no goddamn gunfighter!"

"I beg to differ, brother," Josiah contradicted, his deep voice quiet but filled with warning. His eyes never wavered from the sergeant and his hand never left his gun. "If you’d look around, you’d see your men’re no longer takin’ orders from you. They know you for what you are, Ford, and so do we. You’re goin’ down with us, then we’re turnin’ you over to the closest Army authorities, see if they can’t find a way ta help you atone for your sins."

Ford swore harshly, bitterly, his soul seething. "He cain’t do this ta me!" he snarled viciously.

Josiah smiled, though that smile never reached his eyes. "Perhaps you’d care to tell him that yourself?"

+ + + + + + +

"Here they come," JD warned quietly, seeing the three approaching.

He and Buck stood behind Vin, who was still sitting up, braced against his saddle. Dark bruises at his right browbone, left cheekbone and jawline discolored his face, as did various cuts, emphasizing his pallor. Nathan sat at the tracker’s left, Chris at his right. Ezra hovered farther off to the left, ready with Josiah to take a position close to Ford. Six pairs of eyes fixed themselves upon the big sergeant and followed his every movement, studied his expression, his bearing, and six minds coldly plotted where best to place a bullet.

Of them all, Vin appeared the most relaxed, his hand nowhere near his gun. He knew Ford would never go quietly, would never go willingly, would never admit defeat. The sergeant had been humiliated, exposed for what he was and, in his own eyes anyway, betrayed by his men. Such things never sat well on a soul as twisted as his, and he would be looking for revenge.

No, it wasn’t nearly over yet.

Ford stopped several feet before the tracker and stared down at him, focusing his entire, burning hatred upon him. Tanner was bareheaded, his long brown hair stirring lightly in the faint afternoon breeze, and wore no shirt, his lean torso swathed in white bandages, the medicine pouch still hanging around his neck. He slowly lifted his wide blue gaze, and, in that moment, he looked so much like the boy he had been eight years ago that Ford felt bitter bile rise sharply into his throat, almost choking him.

"Goddamn you, Tanner!" he spat, paying no heed to the dark-clad man at the tracker’s side, nor to any of the other gunmen hovering about. "I ain’t gonna letcha git away with this!"

Vin stared up at him calmly. "Don’t reckon ya got much choice," he drawled softly, determined not to let the man see how much he hurt. "It’s over, Ford. I done what I couldn’t do eight years ago. Red Stick ’n his folks’re safe, my friends are safe ’n yer men ain’t takin’ no more of yer lies as orders. Devil ain’t gonna win this time, Ford. You ain’t draggin’ nobody else down ta hell."

A choking howl of rage tore from Ford and he lunged again at the tracker. But this time he never reached him. As Chris shot to his feet and put himself between Vin and Ford, Josiah grabbed the big sergeant and wrapped thick arms about him, lifting him off his feet and flinging him away from Vin, throwing him down into the dirt. With a growl, Ford started to his feet, but was stopped by the sound of several guns cocking. Sweeping a glittering gray gaze about, he counted seven barrels pointed at him. Including Powell’s. Ford gave a vicious snarl and settled back on his knees, fixing his unforgiving stare upon Tanner.

"You sonuvabitch!" he growled in a low, thick voice, his hands knotting into fists. "Y’ain’t no more’n a damn savage yerself, Tanner. Turned yer back on yer own kind fer them redskins, jist like ya did eight years ago. What’s next? Ya gonna put another bullet in my back?"

Chris holstered his gun and sank back down onto the ground at his friend’s side, concern replacing his anger when he saw what little color Tanner had left drain from his bruised face. "Don’t listen to him, Vin," he said quietly, reaching out to grasp his friend’s arm. "He’s just spewin’ poison. You know we don’t believe him–"

"But it’s true," Vin whispered. When his friends swung startled gazes to him, he swallowed hard and licked his lips, knowing he owed them some explanation but not certain he could go back to that time without it tearing him apart. "I did try ta kill him. ’N since all’s I c’d see was his back… Didn’t seem ta matter where I put the bullet… I jist knew he had ta die."

Josiah stepped forward and knelt before the young man, regarding him sadly. "You don’t have to do this, son," he said quietly, watching as the pain from the tracker’s soul flooded his eyes. "You don’t have to tell us–"

"Yer always sayin’ confession’s good fer the soul," Vin breathed brokenly, his tortured blue gaze fixed upon the preacher’s face. "Y’all’ve tolerated a lotta craziness in me these last few days, put up with mebbe more’n ya should’ve. I hurt Buck, damn near knifed you… Reckon the least I c’n do is try an’ tell y’all why."

Josiah reached out and patted Tanner’s knee with a big, gentle hand. "Tell us only what you feel you have to, brother," he said. "If it leads to your healin’, we’ll be glad ta listen. But if it only hurts you more, well, you don’t owe us any more of your soul than you’ve already given for us."

Vin stared at the preacher, looking every bit as young and as vulnerable as he had that night in the church. "I’s seventeen, mebbe eighteen," he began softly, his voice hoarse and unsteady, "don’t rightly know. Been away from Two Eagles’s band fer a few months ’n was jist driftin’, tryin’ ta find some way of keepin’ m’self in food an’ cartridges." He shrugged tiredly. "Sometimes farmers ’n ranchers’d pay me ta track ’n kill cats what was killin’ their stock, sometimes they’d pay me ta track down two-legged varmints what was stealin’ from ’em." He frowned slightly and bowed his head. "Always seemed like it come down ta trackin’ ’n killin’. Reckon I’s always good at that."

He winced and pressed a hand to his ribs, trying to draw a breath with as little pain as possible. But the air just didn’t seem to want to come. "’Bout six months ’fore I hooked up with Ford, I met another feller, Sergeant Martin Vance. I’s in a little town jist outside Fort Scott, in the store, needin’ provisions. But I didn’t have no money ’n they wasn’t takin’ trade. Vance was there an’ he come over, looked me over an’ asked if I knew anythin’ ’bout scoutin’." He shrugged slightly. "Reckon I musta looked like I did–"

"Hell, ya looked like a damn Injun!" Ford spat, remembering that boy vividly. "Hair down yer back, dressed in a damn beaded shirt, buckskin britches an’ moccasins, an’ spoke more Comanche than English. You were a damn disgrace ta yer blood!"

Vin closed his eyes briefly, but again felt Josiah’s large, comforting hand on his knee and willed the pain away. "Vance took me on as scout ’n sorta looked after me. Never lied ta me, never made me do nothin’ I felt I couldn’t, ’n never looked down on me. He was always askin’ me questions ’bout the Indians in them parts, said a feller did better if he knew the people he might have ta fight. Also said knowin’ ’em might one day bring the fightin’ to an end. I’s always glad ta scout fer him, ’cause I knew if he was after somebody, they had ta d’serve it. He didn’t b’lieve in killin’ jist ta be killin’, not even Indians." Bitterness and regret shaded his soft voice. "I’s stupid enough ta think all soldiers was like him. ’Til I met Ford."

"How’d you hook up with the likes of him?" Chris asked in real confusion. "Seems like your friend Vance woulda warned you about him."

Vin winced and bowed his head as this forgotten pain snuck up on him. "He died ’fore I met Ford," he whispered. "Some bandits stole the Army payroll, Vance was sent out after ’em. I tracked ’em, we found ’em, but they put up a fight. We got ’em, got the payroll, but Vance was killed…" He shuddered as Chris’s hand found its way to his shoulder. "Ford was his replacement," he spat bitterly. "Like that piece a’ trash could ever replace a man like Vance! But I didn’t know that then." He raised his head and gazed sadly at Chris. "I’s young, stupid. Figgered the man who replaced Vance had ta be as good as Vance." His mouth twisted into a grimace. "I’d fergot all I’d learnt about the Army whilst livin’ with the People. Fergot there’s as many murderers in that uniform as there is anywheres else." His gaze drifted to Ford and hardened. "But I ain’t fergot it since," he rasped. "’N I ain’t ever gonna fergit again."

"Yer soft, Tanner," Ford sneered. "Livin’ with them savages ruined ya."

"Yer what ruined me, Ford," Vin answered softly. "I’s near dead ’n all but crazy when ya finished with me. Reckon mebbe I’m some crazy still."

"You’re not crazy, Vin," Josiah assured him gently, hurting for him. "Wounded, but not crazy."

Vin smiled slightly, sadly at him and nodded. "I thank ya fer that, Josiah. ’N I hope ta God it’s true." He sighed tiredly, wanting only to lie down, to sleep until his body stopped hurting, until his soul stopped aching, until he could breathe again without pain. But he had to go on. He had to finish this, and the telling was part of that finishing.

"’Member when I told y’all how I come ta meet Red Stick?" he asked quietly, his exhausted gaze touching briefly on each of his six friends. "Well, there’s another band there, led by a feller named Night Horse." He sighed, feeling tired almost to death and far older than his years. "Word musta got around that I knew him, ’cause Ford come ta me, said he needed me ta find Night Horse and his folks fer him. Government was havin’ treaty talks – more promises, more lies – ’n wanted all the chiefs there. Ford said his job was ta find Night Horse, git him ta come in fer the talks. Said they’d trust me when I told ’em the Army didn’t mean ’em no harm. He said it was important they knew the soldiers wasn’t there ta fight ’em, jist wanted ta talk. Said I’s the only one…" His voice broke and he bowed his head, closing his eyes tightly and feeling again the terrible pain in his chest that had nothing to do with his ribs. "Bastard said he needed me!" he whispered harshly. "’N I b’lieved him ’cause I’s too young ’n stupid not to!"

Chris kept his hand on Vin’s shoulder, but his murderous green glare found its way to Ford’s face and stayed there, staring holes in him while he wished desperately they were bullet holes instead. The bastard had taken a boy’s trust and used it as a weapon to tear apart his soul. He deserved to die for that alone.

"I found ’em fer him," Vin went on, refusing to spare himself this agony. He remembered the days of riding, the certainty that he was doing right, doing good, that he’d be helping Night Horse and his people by persuading them to seek peace. He’d trusted Ford as he would’ve trusted Vance, and it had never occurred to him that he’d placed that trust in the Devil’s hands. "Found ’em near a little stream. It was called Sandy Creek then." He lifted tired, pained eyes to Chris. "Called Blood Creek now." A harsh, choked laugh escaped him. "Hell, I ain’t never had no hand in namin’ a river b’fore!"

Chris winced at that and looked away, wishing Vin would stop. He didn’t want to hear any more, couldn’t stand the hideous pain in that soft, breathless voice, in those tortured eyes. Just listening was hell enough. He didn’t want to think about how it must be hurting Vin to tell it.

But Vin wouldn’t stop, couldn’t stop. The wall had been torn down, the dam smashed. Once started, the torrent of memories, of words, could not be halted. "They was camped there fer a hunt," he went on, his eyes wide and unblinking as he looked back and saw it all again. "Night Horse ’n the young men was out, had been fer days. But they was expected back directly. I went in, talked t’an old man I knew, a camp chief named Strikes Standin’. Told him why I’s there, what Ford wanted. He said we should wait fer Night Horse ’n the men so’s they could all discuss it. Then he had me eat with him." He licked his lips and looked up at JD, who was standing close, listening. "Y’know what it means ta be asked ta eat with ’em?" he asked urgently, needing the boy, hell, all of them, to understand this.

JD frowned and thought, trying to remember what Vin had told him about this. "It… it’s a sign of trust, right?" he asked hesitantly. "You said they got a real deep sense of hospitality. Won’t kill a man while he’s eatin’ with ’em, won’t kill him after he’s shared their food." He swallowed hard. "It’s not considered good manners ta kill a man when he’s sat across the fire from you and shared a meal."

Vin nodded, proud of the boy. "That’s real good. Yer right. Whilst yer in the village, yer an honored guest; yer safe." He sighed unsteadily. "Lord, it felt so good ta be with ’em again! Like bein’ home… They knew me. So when I give ’em my word they was safe, that the soldiers didn’t mean ’em no harm, they knew they was safe. At least," his soft voice broke and a wrenching wave of pain twisted through him, "they thought they was."

He tore his eyes from JD’s, not wanting to see the look in them when he told how he had violated that trust. The faith in those eyes was too important to him; he didn’t want to see it shattered. "After we ate ’n talked a while, I went back ta Ford, told him he’d have ta wait. I told him the men was gone, Night Horse was gone, said there’s only old folks, women ’n kids in the village." His gaze drifted to the big sergeant. "He asked me if they’d b’lieved me, if they b’lieved we wasn’t there fer no trouble. ’N I said yes." His voice began to tremble, and he could not control it. "Told him I give my word, ’n Strikes Standin’ knew me well enough t’ accept it… ’N that’s when he give the order to attack!" he whispered, his voice breaking.

"Merciful God!" Ezra breathed in horror, his green eyes dark in his white face.

"No wonder that boy’s in hell," Buck murmured in sick horror. "That bastard had him set them people up for slaughter."

Ford laughed coldly, cruelly. "Ya done real good fer me, Tanner," he sneered. "I knew they’d trust ya. Hell, ya were damn near one of ’em! An’ thanks ta what you done, them savages–"

"They were people!" Vin shouted in torment, lurching to his feet and swaying there, his soul racked by a suffering worse even than that which gripped his body. "They were women ’n children ’n old folks, waitin’ fer their menfolks ta come back from the hunt… Ya sent me in there, got me ta tell ’em it was all right, tell ’em they wasn’t in no danger…" He bowed his aching head and pressed a shaking hand to it, holding the other to his chest as every breath, every word, sent fresh spasms of pain stabbing through him. "I told ya there wasn’t no men there, figgered ya’d wait fer ’em. But I only told ya what ya wanted ta hear, didn’t I? When ya knew them people couldn’t defend themselves, when ya knew they wasn’t expectin’ trouble ’cause I’d told ’em there wouldn’t be any, ya took yer soldiers in ’n ya killed ’em all! They all died ’cause I told ’em they c’d trust ya!" he cried in agony.

"Jesus!" Chris breathed, bowing his head and closing his eyes. He tried not to imagine what Vin had suffered then, what Ford’s betrayal had done to him, but couldn’t help it. He could see it too clearly in the man that boy had become.

"They was clubbin’ babies!" he whispered, his whole body shaking. He was staring at Ford, but seeing the hideous scene from eight years ago, the bodies, the blood, the brutal, unceasing carnage. "Raped the women ’n shot ’em, run their bayonets through the old men ’n kids an’, merciful Jesus, ripped babies outta their mothers’ arms ’n clubbed ’em while their mamas watched… And it was me who led y’all there!" He shook his head slowly, dazedly, his eyes wide and unblinking, unseeing, his face streaked with tears. "I tried ta stop it," he breathed, "tried ta stop y’all, but I couldn’t. Y’all were out fer blood ’n ya got it. But I had ta do somethin’…"

"An’ that’s when ya turned on us," Ford spat, rising to his feet and staring at the tracker with an implacable, burning hatred. "Grabbed that damn rifle an’ started shootin’. Shootin’ American soldiers!" he shouted furiously, taking a step forward, his gray eyes blazing. "How many of ’em ya git, boy?" he asked through clenched teeth. "Five? Six?" He swept his scathing gaze over the young man before him, seeing him as he was then, a damned blue-eyed Comanche shooting soldiers like they were rabbits. "Goddamn you, Tanner, you turned on yer own kind fer a bunch a’ stinkin’, filthy savages!"

"I had ta do it," Vin breathed as a shudder went through him. He raised shaking hands before his eyes and stared at them. "Had their blood all over me, was slippin’ in it… Couldn’t go nowheres without steppin’ on a body… When I fell, I could smell it in the ground… Got some a’ yer men, but it’s you I needed ta kill," he said softly, with an odd, frightening calm. He took a step forward, frowning slightly. "I thought I did. Thought I saw you was hit… But I couldn’t be sure of nothin’. Was hit a time ’r two m’self, kep’ fallin’…" He slowly raised a hand to his right shoulder and rubbed it absently, as if feeling some invisible wound. "Got ta where I couldn’t hardly hold the rifle up…"

JD turned and fell against Buck as Vin’s soft, shaking voice brought the sickening scene to life, and buried his head in the big man’s chest, unable to stop the flow of his tears. He felt the strong arms close protectively about him, but knew Buck for once had no comfort to offer. The man’s own pain and horror ran far too deep for that. Ezra turned away with a sick groan and bowed his head, covering his eyes with a hand and wishing desperately that Tanner would stop. Nathan stared at Vin, his compassionate healer’s soul in shreds, his dark cheeks streaked with tears, while Josiah hung his head and prayed. He prayed for the souls of those dead for eight years now, and for the soul that was dying before him. He prayed so hard and so fervently he began to ache from it, prayed until he was empty, until all his words had run dry.

Chris had no prayers, had no tears, had nothing but endless pain for Vin and a bottomless hatred for Ford. What the bastard had done hit excruciatingly close to home, resurrected the anguish of his own family’s murder. And that the man had used Vin to carry out his butchery, that he had taken that young soul and plunged it into blood, into hell–

"Soldiers was mighty pissed at me," Vin whispered in that ragged, breathless voice. "Guess they didn’t take kindly ta me shootin’ down their friends." He frowned slightly, suddenly confused. "Don’t ’member it too clear," he murmured, exhaustion and pain slurring his words. "Seem ta recall bein’ shot, fallin’, then they’s all on me. One or two of ’em had knives…" He swallowed and blinked dazedly. "They was hurtin’ me, cuttin’ ’n hittin’ me… I fought ’em best I could, but they’s so many of ’em, ’n I’s hurt…" His hand wandered up to his long hair. "They’s cussin’ me, said I’d fergot I’s white, said I needed remindin’… Cut my hair off…" Tears were running down his face, but he never felt them, never felt anything except the hard hands pulling at his hair, the sharp knife working viciously through it. "Had me a medicine bag then, too, from when I’s livin’ with Two Eagles. But they took that, cut it open and dumped ever’thing out, ground it inta the dirt… Even took my shirt, my moccasins, cut ’em up whilst they held me down ’n made me watch. An’ they’s laughin’ all the while."

Nathan swallowed hard and bowed his head, wiping at his tears with a shaking hand as he remembered Vin clutching that damn coat to him like a priceless treasure. I know it ain’t much. But it’s mine. May not mean nothin’ ta y’all…

And, sweet merciful Jesus, he’d taken it from him. Just one more person taking one more thing from a man who’d had so much, too much, taken from him already…

"Tell ’em the rest of it, Tanner!" Ford demanded, staring contemptuously at the pale and swaying tracker. "Tell ’em how Night Horse an’ his boys come back an’ damn near killed us all ’cause you never told us how close they was! Tell ’em how you gutted two of my men with that damn knife of your’n, along with the others ya shot! An’ I still got yer goddamn bullet in me from where ya shot me in the back–"

"Lord God, how I prayed I’d killed ya!" Vin groaned in anguish. "But I reckon ya cain’t kill the Devil. I wanted ta go after ya, see if you was dead, kill ya if you wasn’t, but I’s near dead myself. Night Horse an’ them, what few of ’em were left, took me in, took care a’ me. They’d seen me fightin’ y’all ’n figgered they owed me. But I couldn’t stay. Not after what I done. I lit out soon as I’s able…" He closed his eyes and bowed his head, pressing a badly shaking hand to it as the throbbing inside it grew harder. "Couldn’t go back ta the fort neither, couldn’t go near no towns…" He swallowed hard and slowly lifted his head, his face deathly white beneath the bruises. "I jist couldn’t bear bein’ with white folks again," he whispered. "Couldn’t take bein’ lied to again, didn’t know who among ’em I c’d trust. So I jist stayed on my own fer a while, healin’ up an’ learnin’ ta live with what I done." He grimaced in pain. "Or at least I thought I’d learnt. ’Til I saw the Devil again in the saloon. Then it all come rushin’ back."

"An’ that’s when ya tried ta kill me again!" Ford sneered. "Goddamn crazy sonuvabitch–"

"Shut up, Ford!" Chris growled, rising slowly to his feet, his lean, dark frame uncoiling with a dangerous purpose. "You’ve tortured him enough. Like I said before, this is over. You can either ride down the mountain with us, or we can bury your sorry ass here. Believe me, nothin’d give me more pleasure than plantin’ a bullet beside the one Vin left in you." He strode forward and stopped at Tanner’s side, waiting for him to fall and ready to catch him when he did. "Ain’t nothin’ I’d like more than sendin’ the Devil back to hell." He closed a hand about Vin’s arm to hold him up just as the tracker’s knees began to buckle. "Come on, pard," he said softly, "let’s get you back to bed before you fall over."

"Chris?" Vin breathed, raising soft, unfocused eyes to his friend. The painful white light was glaring about him again, all but blinding him. He couldn’t feel the ground at his feet, couldn’t see through the light, couldn’t breathe through the pain in his chest. "Y’understand, don’tcha? I had ta let Red Stick go, had ta help him git away. Only way I c’d make up fer what I done b’fore."

Chris tightened his grip on Tanner, knowing he was all that was holding the tracker up. "I understand, Vin," he assured him. "You did the right thing. Now, come on, I can’t hold you up much longer."

Ford watched in outraged disbelief as the gunfighter turned his back on him and started walking Tanner back to his bedroll. "Goddamn you, Larabee, look at me!" he shouted, his eyes wild in his darkly flushed face. "That goddamn tracker betrayed us, nearly got us killed… Sonuvabitch, you look at me!"

But Chris didn’t. His whole attention was focused on Vin, who could barely walk on his own. Nathan was on his feet and coming toward him, his dark face lined with concern, and JD was hastily moving Vin’s saddle away from his blankets. To them all, helping their injured, exhausted friend was far more important than listening to the rantings of a hate-blinded Army sergeant who had caused the deaths of innocent people and plunged Vin into hell.

Ford saw this and was infuriated by it. That Tanner, half-crazy and no better than a redskin himself, should be shown such regard while he was treated with scorn and contempt, was an insult he would not bear. Without thinking, without once considering the stupidity of what he was doing, he jabbed a hand to his gun and jerked it from its holster, thinking only of revenge.

"Goddamn it, Larabee," he howled, "don’t nobody turn their back on me!"

Tired as he was and hurting as he did, something in Ford’s shout caught in Vin’s mind and dredged forth an instinctive response. Sending a leaden hand down for his mare’s leg, he jerked out of Chris’s grasp and turned, only barely able to make out the glint of sunlight off metal. Still, instinct screamed at him and he lunged forward, his fingers fumbling much too clumsily at his gun.

Chris, too, was alerted by that voice, and, releasing Vin, he spun and dropped into a crouch, his hand snaking toward his gun. Even as he pulled it free and raised it, he saw Ford’s gun aiming at him, then was knocked aside as he heard it fire. But he was shooting as he went down, saw Ford’s big body stiffen, and knew at least one of his shots had gone home. The bastard didn’t fall though, so Chris rolled to his knees and fired again, pumping bullets into him until the soldier finally crumpled to the ground. And only when he was certain Ford would never harm Vin or anyone else again did he thrust his gun into its holster with a savage satisfaction.

Goddamn his black soul to hell…


Buck’s soft voice cut through his killing rage, bringing him back to reason. Struck by the odd note in it, he turned away from Ford’s body and glanced down, then went still and cold at the sight before him.


Vin had knocked him aside, was the reason he hadn’t been killed. And now he lay in Buck’s arms, across JD’s legs, the bandages about his chest turning red with blood, his body arched in pain. More blood seeped through the fingers of the hand he clutched to the hole Ford’s bullet had torn in him, and soft, breathless cries escaped him with every breath.


He flung himself to the ground at Buck’s side and laid a hand over Vin’s blood-covered fingers, his heart in his throat. As Vin stiffened and cried out again, Chris took his friend’s hand in his own and closed his fingers tightly about it, then reached out and curled his other hand around Vin’s neck, staring strickenly into the pain-filled blue eyes.

"Hold on, pard!" he pleaded through clenched teeth. "Just hold on. We’ll take care of ya. Nathan!" he cried frantically.

But the healer was already there, easing JD out from under Vin. "You hurt, boy?" he asked absently.

JD shook his head, his eyes spilling tears. "No," he whispered softly, staring at Vin, mesmerized by the sight of the blood. "He fell against me, knocked me down… Jesus, Nathan, help him!" he begged strickenly.

The healer nodded slowly, his dark eyes somber. "Aim to," he said softly, grimly.

Vin clutched at his chest with one hand and clung to Chris with the other, breathing in short, shallow gasps and arching his back against the white-hot agony searing through him. Screams beat against his throat for release, but he fought them down, uttering only thick, breathless groans as the pain consumed him.

"Ch… Chris?" he gasped through tightly-clenched teeth, staring fixedly up at his friend. "You… others… all right?"

Chris swallowed hard and tightened his grip on Vin’s hand, as if he meant to hold him to this life by the force of that grip alone. "We’re fine," he assured him. "All except you." He forced a thin, tight smile. "Never figured you ta be so clumsy."

Vin tensed as another wave swept through him, and held as tightly as he could to Chris, trying to ride it out. "Couldn’t… let him… kill ya," he whispered. "Had… had… ta save ya… Jesus!" he hissed in torment as Nathan moved his hand and began examining the wound.

"Easy, Vin," Josiah soothed, settling himself at Nathan’s side and taking the tracker’s blood-covered hand in one of his while stroking his hair with the other. "We’re all right here with you, you know that, don’t you?"

Vin closed his eyes and nodded weakly, his breath hissing from him as Nathan’s hands tortured him endlessly. "Ford?" he whispered, needing distraction from the pain.

"He’s dead," the preacher said gently. "Brother Chris here is as good as his word, sent the Devil back to hell. He won’t be comin’ back to hurt you ever again."

Vin tensed and groaned again, racked by that searing pain. "J’siah," he gasped, "tell… tell me… ’bout lookin’… at… th’ mountains."

The preacher frowned for a moment in confusion, then nodded in understanding. Infusing his voice with its richest, most resonant tones, he recited quietly, "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber. Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep."

He could feel Vin’s struggles weakening, his anguished breathing slowing, and felt a sharp stab of fear. Nonetheless, he kept his deep voice calm and low, kept stroking Vin’s hair, hoping to bring what solace he could. "The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul. The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore."

Vin forced his eyes open once more and tried to lift them to the big preacher. But his gaze stopped at their joined hands, and, as he stared at his own red-stained fingers, a faint smile curved about his pale lips. "’S gone," he breathed, his eyes closing again.

Josiah frowned and leaned closer to him. "What’s gone, Vin?"

"Their blood," he sighed, his tense body slowly relaxing. "’S gone… from… my hands."


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