DEVIL'S BARGAIN by Sue Necessary

Four men looked up from their seats on the rocks surrounding the spring as Nathan approached, their faces all deeply lined with worry. Beyond him, they could see Chris sitting at Vin’s side, still holding his hand, and their hearts clenched with fear.

"How is he?" Buck asked softly, startled to hear his own voice sounding so strained.

Nathan sighed and shook his head slowly. "Can’t really say yet," he breathed tiredly. "Bullet missed his lung, didn’t damage any a’ them broke ribs… I got it out all right."

Buck shuddered, remembering Vin’s scream as Nathan had probed for the bullet. All right, hell…

"But he’s lost a lot of blood," the healer went on, knowing they deserved to understand exactly how things stood. "An’ he was already weak from not eatin’, not drinkin’, not sleepin’." He gazed about their surroundings. "An’ bein’ up here insteada back home, in the clinic, sure don’ help none."

"But… but he’s gonna be all right, right?" JD asked nervously, staring from Buck to Nathan and back to Buck for reassurance. "I mean, hell, Vin’s strong, we all know that! And–"

"JD, son," Buck said quietly, reaching out to place a brotherly hand on the boy’s shoulder, his blue eyes dark and subdued, "Vin’s been a lotta things these last few days, but strong ain’t been one of ’em. You saw him just before Ford shot him. He was all but droppin’ then. This whole mess wrung him out real good. I don’t know that there’s any strength left in him."

JD stared at the big man in horror, shocked to hear such words from him. Immediately, refusal to believe them rose sharply within him and he shook his head, setting his jaw stubbornly and blinking back the tears that stung his eyes. "Vin’s not gonna die!" he insisted, his voice shaking. "Not after all he’s been through! It wouldn’t be right! You’ll see," he said fiercely, unable to stop a tear from sliding free, "he’s gonna be just fine! He’s not gonna die. ’Cause that would mean Ford won!" He shoved Buck’s hand off his shoulder and stood up, stalking angrily away from them.

"Speakin’ of Ford," Nathan said tightly as anger flared within him, "I don’ see him." He stared at Josiah. "Tell me y’all didn’t give him a decent burial."

The preacher snorted. "And waste fine words on such an unrepentant soul? Not hardly."

"Never fear, Mr. Jackson," Ezra said with a cold, thin smile, looking up from the cards he so easily manipulated with long, almost boneless fingers. "The late but certainly not lamented Sergeant Ford has been interred as suits his less than distinguished character, and with precious little exertion spent on the final disposition of his remains."

"What Ezra’s tryin’ ta say," Buck put in with a contemptuous sneer, "is that Josiah and I took the bastard and shoved his fat, dirty carcass off the edge of a cliff. And last I saw, even the buzzards were havin’ second thoughts about dinin’ on him."

Nathan smirked. "Soldiers couldn’ta been none too happy with that."

"No, Brother Nate, they weren’t," Josiah sighed, shaking his head in mock sorrow. "But we told ’em any grievance they had with the final arrangements could be taken up with Mr. Larabee." He grinned wickedly. "That seemed ta settle ’em right down."

Nathan glanced over his shoulder and sighed at the sight of the dark figure seated immovably at Vin’s side. "Yeah, I reckon it would," he murmured, recalling the ragged hell that had been Chris Larabee’s gaze as he had drawn Ford’s bullet from Vin’s chest. "Damn good thing a man c’n only die once," he breathed, "or Chris’d still be shootin’."

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat with Vin, his head bowed, his hand still closed about his friend’s. He had relinquished that hold only when Nathan had needed him to do something else and had taken it up again as soon as he could, wanting – hell, needing – Vin to know he was here.

He had hated every minute of helping Nathan, had hated holding Vin down while Nathan probed for and then removed that bullet, had hated hearing his friend’s cries, subduing his struggles, inflicting more pain and fear on a man who had already suffered far too much of both. But he had insisted on doing those things himself, would not let anyone else shoulder the burden. Vin had taken that bullet for him, was suffering in his stead. The very least he could do was swallow his own pain and give his friend what comfort he could.

He should never have turned his back on Ford…

"Hell, Tanner, what were you thinkin’?" he whispered harshly, staring down into the unconscious tracker’s bruised face. "Hadn’t the bastard done enough to ya already? Why’d you have ta let him do this, as well?"

Goddamn it, Larabee, I ain’t here ta protect yer ass from no fuckin’ Comanches! I’m here ta save yer blind, stupid ass from that fuckin’ Army asshole who won’t be happy ’til we’re swimmin’ in our own goddamned blood!

A harsh, bitter laugh escaped him as he remembered Vin’s words, his warning. The only reason Vin was up here at all was because he was here, they all were. He had thrown himself back into his own blackest hell just to protect friends who had no idea what evil they had gotten themselves into. He had agreed to lead Ford on another blood-hunt knowing full well that’s what he was doing, simply because he considered his friends’ safety more important than his own sanity.

Reckon I made me a bargain with the Devil.

"I ain’t so sure we’re worth it, pard," he murmured, bowing his head again and closing his eyes. He thought of the boy – wounded in body, spirit and mind – who had exiled himself from both his worlds, because he felt he’d betrayed one and been betrayed by the other. "You fought long and hard to get your soul back after what happened eight years ago. I wish I could be sure we’re all worth the risk of losin’ it again."

"Y’are," came the soft answer, the raspy voice little more than a breathless sigh. "Trust me… y’are."

Chris turned his head and opened his eyes, smiling slightly into that pained, unfocused gaze. "Sneak up on a man even when you’re layin’ down," he scolded gently. "Ain’t you got no manners at all?"

Vin licked his dry lips and stared up, trying to see his friend, trying to breathe, trying not to scream. He hurt terribly, felt he could die from the pain alone. "Chris–"

"Ssh, don’t talk," Chris urged, leaning over him and gently brushing the sweat-damp hair back from his face. "You just rest now. You’re gonna be all right–"

"Nathan… ain’t… s’ sure."

Chris forced himself to hold his smile, not certain Vin could see it, but not wanting to take any chances. "You know Nathan," he said. "Worries too much. But he ain’t lost one of us yet. Don’t figure you wanta piss him off by bein’ the first."

Vin closed his eyes and clung to Chris with what little strength he possessed, his every muscle straining against the pain, the screams. Despite his efforts, though, a thick, wrenching cry escaped him, and he clutched with his other hand at his tortured chest, trying desperately not to breathe.

Chris clenched his jaws and suffered with Vin, holding the tracker’s hand tightly and leaning over him, clasping his other hand about Vin’s neck. "C’mon, Tanner, you gotta breathe!" he said firmly. "Bad things happen when you don’t!"

"Hurts!" Vin hissed, drawing a breath unwillingly and arching his back as the pain of it sliced through him.

"I’ll get Nathan–"

"No!" he gasped, opening his eyes and staring up at Chris. "Only… only… you. Please?"

Chris swallowed and nodded. "All right. But promise me you’ll tell me when you need Nathan, all right? Promise me, Vin, or I’ll call him now."

"I p… I promise," he whispered, relaxing as the pain receded to a more bearable level. But breathing was as hard as ever, seemed to require all his concentration. "Chris?"

"I’m here," Larabee assured him. "I’m right here."

His eyes closed, but he forced them open again and fixed them upon the indistinct shadow that was his friend. "JD… knows… th’ way home," he rasped. "’S why I… picked… this way." He closed his eyes and tensed, tightening his fingers about Chris, fighting against the pain that rose through him in crushing waves. "Wanted… t’ be sure… y’all… c’d git down… without me."

Pain stabbed into Chris at that and he shook his head sharply. "You’re comin’ down with us, Vin," he said with a quiet ferocity. "I promised you, remember? Seven of us came up, seven of us go down, and every one of us alive. I gave you my word, Vin, and I ain’t about ta let you make a liar outta me."

"Ain’t yer call–"

"Goddamn it, Tanner, don’t you quit on me!" Chris snarled, tightening his hold on Vin’s hand. "Don’t you let that bastard win!" He tried not to hear his friend’s labored, painful breathing, tried not to see the lines of agony carved so deeply into that ashen face. "You saved Red Stick’s people, you saved me, now it’s time you saved yourself! You’re comin’ home with us, Tanner, you hear me? Goddamn it, you’re comin’ home!"

Vin stared up at Chris, gasping for breath that never fully came, consumed in that hellish pain, his strength gone. He knew Nathan wasn’t sure he’d make it, wasn’t sure himself. Hell, he felt more than half gone already. But Chris believed. And if a man who believed in so little else believed this…

But he was so tired… and it hurt so…

"Oh, shit… Chris? I need Nathan!" he gasped, curling onto his side in agony.

"Nathan!" Chris yelled harshly, desperately. "Nathan!" As his shout echoed over the camp, he leaned close over Vin, still holding his hand and stroking his back, tortured by his soft, breathless cries as he fought just to breathe.

Within moments, the healer appeared and dropped to his knees at Vin’s side, across from Chris. "What happened?" he demanded more sharply than he intended.

Chris shook his head helplessly, his green eyes glittering with fear. "I don’t know. He’s in a lotta pain, and he’s havin’ trouble breathin’. He was talkin’–"

"Well, he’s gon’ hafta stop that!" Nathan snapped. "It’s hard enough fo’ him ta breathe as it is without tryin’ ta carry on a conversation! Look in my bag there, git me the laudanum an’ some water." He watched Chris struggle to twist his body around and reach the bag while still holding onto Vin, and sighed sharply in vexation. "You gon’ hafta let go of him, Chris!" Then, at the gunfighter’s startled and stricken look, Nathan swallowed his anger and softened his tone. "It’s all right, Chris, he ain’t goin’ nowhere. But right now he needs that laudanum more’n he needs you holdin’ his hand. He’s wearin’ hisse’f out fightin’ the pain an’ he ain’t got the strength ta spare."

Chris would have argued, but another anguished cry from Vin settled the matter as nothing else could have. Releasing the tracker’s hand, he turned and hurriedly dug out the familiar bottle of laudanum, gave it to Nathan, then opened a canteen and poured a cup of water with shaking hands.

Jesus, he wished Ford were here right now so he could shoot him again!

Together, they got Vin up, got the laudanum and water down him, then eased him back onto his bedding. Nathan kept him on his uninjured side in the hope that taking pressure off his injured lung would help his breathing.

"Nathan?" Chris asked at last, when Vin was sleeping again.

The healer sighed heavily and wiped a hand across his forehead. "Like I said befo’, looks like one a’ them ribs nicked his lung." He raised tired, uncertain eyes to Chris and shrugged. "An’ there ain’t nothin’ I c’n do fo’ that. It’ll either heal, or it won’t. All we c’n do is wait."

Chris slumped and bowed his head, his fear for Vin like a knife in his gut. "How did this happen, Nathan?" he asked softly, tiredly. "Why wasn’t I able ta stop it?"

Nathan regarded the man with sad and gentle eyes. "I reckon ’cause you ain’t God."

Chris laughed without humor. "Buck told me the same thing."

Nathan smiled wryly. "Yeah, well, I guess ever’ now an’ then even Buck’s bound ta make sense." He reached out and touched Larabee’s shoulder. "This ain’t yo’ fault, Chris," he said firmly. "This ain’t nobody’s fault but Ford’s. Only thing you coulda done differ’nt was take that bullet yo’se’f, an’ that woulda killed Vin sure as anything. State he’s in right now, watchin’ you die’d be worse than dyin’ hisse’f."

"He ain’t gonna die!" Chris growled, fixing a determined stare upon the healer. "I don’t care how big a hole he’s got in his lung, Nathan, I told him I’d get him home alive and I aim ta do just that!"

"You tol’ him that?"


Nathan snorted softly and shook his head. "Then I guess there ain’t nothin’ else lef’ ta say. ’Cause if you say it, Vin’ll b’lieve it. An’ I reckon a faith like that’s better’n any medicine I got."

+ + + + + + +

That faith, though, was to be sorely tested.

Vin survived the night, much to Nathan’s unspoken surprise, and, with the aid of laudanum, even seemed to rest. When morning came and he seemed no worse than he had been the night before, the decision was made to start for home. It was not a decision that was made easily or that sat well with any of them, for it was only too clear how frightfully weak the tracker was. And taking a man in his condition down this mountain – even along the relatively easy way he had already chosen for them – and across that dry, harsh expanse back to town was not a proposition any of them relished.

But Nathan, who hated the thought as bitterly as anyone else, knew they had no choice. He simply did not have the supplies with him to care for Vin as he was and would be able to do almost nothing at all for him should his condition worsen. He needed to get the man to his clinic. Vin might well die on the way, but he would certainly die if they stayed.

In the end, as always, the decision was Chris’s to make and he wasted no time making it. He had already spent more than half the night wrestling with the question, had raised and refuted all the arguments for and against, had laid it out as clear and as objectively as his tired, worried mind would allow, had forced himself to face the very real possibility that Vin might die no matter what course he chose.

But he had promised to take him home…

And that promise settled the matter. With a firm voice, and showing not the slightest hesitation, he ordered them to break camp, to get ready to travel. Breakfast was made and eaten, the horses were fed and watered thoroughly, and everything was packed.

While the horses were being saddled, Nathan took a few minutes to see to Vin once more. He had already cleaned the wound, and now made sure all the bandages were secure. He wanted to make sure the injured man’s ribs were wrapped tightly enough to endure the coming jostling without punching another, even larger hole into his lung, and prayed he could keep any bleeding from the bullet wound under control. He also gave Vin water and another dose of laudanum, though he knew it would not be enough to kill completely the pain the tracker would feel on the way down.

Hell, nothin’ was strong enough for that.

Chris brought his horse over, accompanied by Josiah, and swung up into the saddle. Vin would be riding with him, and they would alternate between Pony and Peso to keep from over-tiring either mount. The trail down would not allow a travois, and they all knew there was no way the tracker could even begin to sit a horse by himself. Chris could also make sure he drank water and could keep an eye on his injuries.

Though God alone knew what could be done if any of them broke loose…

Josiah knelt down and gathered Vin into his arms, lifting him gently. With Nathan’s help he handed him up to Chris and the three of them got him on Pony, trying not to hear the soft cries of pain that tore from him. Only when he was satisfied that Vin was securely seated and propped against Chris did Nathan turn away and see to packing Vin’s bedroll and his own medical bag.

As they waited for the healer, Buck rode up to JD, who was looking all around, hazel eyes huge, and fidgeting nervously with his reins. "You all right, son?" he asked softly.

JD swallowed hard and swung his gaze around to meet Buck’s. "It’s just… I mean… Hell, Buck!" he breathed in a rush, his eyes frantic. "Vin’s usually the one leadin’ us outta places like this! But now he can’t, and I’ve gotta do it… Vin picked this way because he knew I knew it… or thought I knew it… What if he’s wrong?" he asked sharply, fearfully. "What if I get us all lost–"

"Easy, son, just settle down," the big man soothed, moving his horse closer to the boy’s and reaching out, laying a comforting hand on JD’s tense shoulder. "Now, I know Vin, and I know he ain’t in the habit of judgin’ a man’s abilities lightly. And if he trusts you enough ta get us down, then, hell, that’s good enough fer me." He held the boy’s gaze with his own. "Vin’s got faith in ya, son," he said quietly, earnestly. "And we all know Vin don’t place his faith just anywhere."

JD swallowed again, struck now by another fear. "Buck, what if he doesn’t… He’s hurt awful bad, and it’s a long way home…"

Buck sighed and dropped his gaze to his hands, shaking his head slowly. "I don’t know, son," he murmured, unable to silence that fear in himself. "Reckon we’ll just hafta hope fer the best, maybe do a little prayin’ on the way down. Might not help, but it sure as hell never hurts."


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