They started down, the soldiers following silently with Powell now in command. There was still some resentment among the detachment over the crude dumping of Fords body, but not one of them was prepared to make an issue of it. Not when they were constantly confronted with the evidence of the mans brutality, not when there was still every reason to believe Tanner would die, not when the remaining six were still looking to exact retribution for the injuries done to their friend.
Some things just werent worth dying for, and Ford was one of em.
JD took seriously his responsibility and the trust Vin had placed in him. Though he was confident he knew Hortons Pass, he never took an inch of it for granted, never relaxed his vigilance, never stopped thinking about where they were and where they needed to be and what they had to do to get there. And all the while he marvelled at how much Vin had taught him in that patient, simple, straight-forward way of his, never lecturing, never patronizing, never making fun, and never once seeming to think less of the boy for not always understanding what, to him, came as naturally as breathing.
Oh, God, Vin was still breathin, wasnt he? Surely he was, or Chris wouldve said somethin
It was a long, fraught ride for them all, charged with tension and a fear that never left them. Though everyone kept their eyes on the trail and the rocky crags about them, ever alert for danger, still each waited with clenched gut and tight shoulders for some word, some warning, that Vin would not be going any farther.
It was like waiting for some over-stretched rope to snap
Of them all, however, the ordeal was hardest on Chris. Cradled against him, Vin lapsed in and out of consciousness, but was never out of pain. The younger mans breathless groans tore at his heart, as did the harsh coughs that racked him and the difficulty of his breathing. The laudanum had long since worn off, and Chris could not imagine how Vin kept from screaming each time his battered body was jarred by the rough terrain.
Probably just didnt have the strength for it
They rode until noon, when Nathan ordered a halt to see to Vin. The wound had bled more than he liked, but less than he expected, and he cleaned it again and changed the bandage. He gave Vin another dose of laudanum, and in an hour they were on their way again. Both Josiah and Buck had tried to persuade Chris to let one of them take the injured man for a while, but Larabee would not agree.
He had given Vin his word he would get him home. It was up to him to do it.
By the time they reached Mustang Ridge, they had, as near as anyone could guess, less than three hours of daylight left. JD told them honestly that, while he thought they could make it down in that time, theyd be cutting it close. The switchback was tricky, but not nearly as treacherous as the one Vin had led them up two days before. And the more they did today, the less they would have to do tomorrow.
They did it, though not without difficulty. And because no horse would have been able to manage it with two riders, they had to lash Vin into the saddle and trust that Peso would be on his best behavior, while Chris changed back to Pony. He rode ahead of Vin, holding Pesos reins, while Josiah rode behind, ready to rush up and catch Vin should he somehow fall.
That night, exhausted in body, mind and spirit, they camped on the floor of Gila Canyon, knowing another day of riding awaited them before they were free of these mountains. And after that, they still had to make it back to town. They knew they could not even attempt the brutal pace Vin had set to get them here, knew he would never survive such, but knew also they hadnt the time to make a slow and leisurely ride of it. He wouldnt survive that, either.
It was a fine line theyd have to walk, riding hard enough to get home soon but not so hard theyd kill him.
"JD, git me his coat," Nathan ordered quietly from his place at Vins side.
As the sun had gone down, the temperature in the canyon had dropped considerably, and, while it was welcome relief to the rest of them, Vin was shivering violently. Nathan had put a clean shirt on him and another blanket over him, but still it was not enough. Chilled as Vin now was, the hide coat the healer had once considered the enemy had become an ally.
Once it was on, Vin seemed to rest easier, though whether from the coats warmth or merely its familiarity was anyones guess. They managed to get more water down him, and even some broth Josiah had made from jerked venison he found in Vins saddlebags. But Nathan could also feel the fever rising in him, and felt his own hope dissolve.
They had too far to go, too many days of hard riding over merciless ground. And Vin was too weak. Hed used up all his strength just surviving Ford; he had nothing in reserve. He wouldnt make it. Hell, it was a wonder hed made it this long.
No matter what Chris Larabee said or promised, Vin wouldnt make it home.
But he did, though no one, and certainly not Nathan, would ever be able to explain how. Gripped by a rising fever, racked by ceaseless pain and struggling just to breathe, so weak he could barely swallow and so fragile it seemed to Chris he might break with even the gentlest handling, he survived the trip down the mountains, survived the hellish trek across the desert. At Nathans insistence, they had gotten him out of the saddle and onto a travois constructed from boughs theyd cut in the foothills in the hope it might offer him some small comfort. But he seemed beyond that now. Time and again, Nathan had found himself at Vins side, cleaning the wound that still bled stubbornly and waiting for him to die, only to be amazed as the tracker clung tenaciously to whatever thin thread held him to this life.
It defied reason, it defied logic, it defied belief. It defied everything. Except faith.
It was an exhausted, dirty and grim-faced bunch that rode into Four Corners after three days spent pushing themselves across the flat waste. The soldiers had parted from them and gone back to Texas somewhere along the way. No one really remembered when, because it hadnt mattered. Nothing had mattered except getting Vin home. And now, as spent horses carrying spent riders moved slowly down the main street, the citizens gathered along the boardwalks to witness the return of their protectors. Out of habit, they began to count, and, as one, they all stopped when their eyes found that riderless horse, when they saw the burden the familiar black gelding pulled.
Tanner, this time. And by the look of him and the other six, it wasnt good
The men never stopped, nor even looked around, until they had reached the clinic. And with all the energy he could muster, JD swung his aching, exhausted body from his horse and forced himself to take the stairs two at a time so he could open the door and have the bed ready for Vin.
With the eyes of townsfolk still upon them, they unlaced Vin from the travois and carefully lifted him, Chris and Josiah at one side, Buck and Ezra on the other, and, under Nathans watchful eye and sharp direction, carried him up the stairs and inside. JD had turned down the bed and they lowered him gently onto it, each trying not to feel the frightful heat coming from his inert body.
"Need them boots n his shirt off," Nathan said curtly, already moving about to collect the precious medicinal treasures whose worth would be sorely tested now. "Gonna need water, too, some hot, some cold. Gotta clean that wound an start bathin him, see if we cant cool him down."
Unthinkingly, almost instinctively, they divided the tasks among themselves without discussion and set about them. Ezra, with his quick, deft hands, would help strip Tanner of all unnecessary clothing, while Josiah would lend his soothing voice for comfort and bear-like strength for restraint should Vin struggle in his pain and delirium. Buck and JD went for water, as much to get JD out from underfoot as to give him time to collect his uncertain composure under the gentle care of his "big brother."
And Chris Chris planted himself in the chair at Vins bedside and reclaimed his grip on the younger mans too-hot hand, unmoving as a stone, forcing the others to work around him. He never spoke, but did not need to. The others around that bed could feel the silent words pouring from him.
They only prayed Vin heard them, as well.
Nathan watched through eyes red-rimmed with fatigue and worry, hurting for both men. For all of them. They had gotten Vin home, but he wasnt sure how much that meant. Could be they had done no more than bring him home to die. In a bed, in a closed-up room, instead of on the mountain.
Would Vin consider that a kindness?
The healer sighed, trying to frame some argument that would budge Larabee, who was stretched almost to breaking himself. Josiah appeared at his side, knowing what his friend intended, and laid a big hand on his shoulder, shaking his graying head as Nathan looked helplessly up at him.
"Let him stay for now," the preacher said softly. "He needs this as much as Vin. The boys and Ill get him down later, dont worry."
Nathans eyes shifted back to the tracker. "Dont know how much longer he cn hang on, Josiah," he breathed. "Jus cause he made it this far don mean hes gon live. He aint got no strength, that fevers burnin him up, an if them ribs did any mo damage"
Josiah squeezed his friends shoulder comfortingly. "Youve done all you can, Nathan," he assured him. "Hell, probably more than any of us figured could be done. Just keep tendin him and leave the rest up to God. Its all in His hands anyway." He glanced around the small room at the ragged, dirty, exhausted men filling it and smiled slightly. "Vins got strength, got it here all around him. Its gotten him this far, maybe itll be enough ta keep carryin him along until his own comes back."
+ + + + + + +
Sometimes he drifted gently, easily, sometimes he was buffeted violently by the fierce torrents of pain that left him wanting to scream. At those times, he wanted desperately to break free, to let go, to escape the awful hurt that raged inside him. But he couldnt. Even when he cried from the wanting, always something held him here, anchored him, caught at him just as he thought he had found the way out and brought him back to endure still more.
Lord God, why couldnt he let him be?
He knew that restraint, knew what bound him, knew it as surely as he knew his own pain. The grip on his hand, the grip on his soul, was as familiar as it was unrelenting, and he knew he couldnt have broken it if he had tried.
Sometimes he heard him, sometimes even understood him. But mostly he just heard him, the voice running like a cool river through his hot, tired mind, soothing as a breeze on a summers day. And sometimes he only felt him, the hand holding his, the fingers moving through his hair, the hold on his soul that kept him here even when the pain was at its worst. And at those times, unable to do more, he simply let himself curl into the hand, the voice, and took refuge in them even when they denied him the escape he sought.
And he heard other voices, felt other hands, and knew their hold on him was almost as strong. They tied him here, bound him here, kept him here, and, while it hurt like hell, there was something strangely healing in it, too. They were fighting for him now, as surely and as stubbornly as they had fought Ford for him in the hills, were lending him their strength when he had none of his own.
They made it damn hard on a man to leave.
And the longer he stayed, the less he fought against that staying, the less he wanted to go. Even when the pain surged hard and heavy through him, even when the very act of breathing required all the strength and will he had, he clung to the hands that held him, praying they would hold him just a little while longer.
As if he had to fear that such men as these would ever waver.
And slowly, ever so slowly, he stopped floating and let their hands guide him back to where he belonged.
+ + + + + + +
Larabee snapped awake in the darkness as he had countless times before, sitting up sharply and looking about for whatever it was that had shattered his sleep. He had grown accustomed by now to Vins pained cries and delirious ravings, but he knew at once this was something different. Hurrying to the trackers bedside, he fumbled clumsily to raise the light in the lantern on the table there, and gasped out loud to see two blue eyes, soft and infinitely tired but free of fever, staring up at him.
"Jesus, Vin!" he whispered shakily, immediately taking one pale and wonderfully cool hand in his own. He reached out and laid his other hand against a whiskered cheek, exhaling harshly as relief swept through him in wrenching waves. "Goddamn it, you stubborn son of a bitch, you scared the shit out of us! If Nathan wouldnt kill me for spoilin all his hard work, Id shoot you myself!"
"Sorry," Vin breathed faintly, his voice like the rustling of dead leaves.
Chris winced at the rough sound of that weak voice and turned to get the cup of water Nathan had left on the table. Releasing Vins hand, he slid his own beneath the younger mans head and lifted it just enough to allow him to drink, then pressed the cup to his lips. "Slowly," he directed. "Dont wantcha gettin sick on me."
Vin sipped the water gratefully, savoring the feel of its wetness in his dry mouth and against his parched throat. Lord God, had anything ever felt so good?
Chris eased his friend back onto his pillows and stared down at him, his throat tightening painfully at the sight. Vins long hair badly needed washing and he was paler than Larabee had ever seen him, his eyes ringed by black circles, his cheeks sunken and drawn. And the lean, spare frame was now so thin he was certain one strong gust of wind would blow the tracker away.
But he was alive!
He swallowed hard and turned away to replace the cup on the table and to wipe quickly at treacherously wet eyes. Clearing his throat, he turned back to Vin and took his hand once more, smiling when he felt the younger mans fingers curling weakly about his own.
"How ya feelin?"
Vin let his eyes fall closed, the lids grown too heavy to hold open any longer. Clinging to Chris with what little strength he could muster, he slid his other hand to his chest and held it there as he breathed. "Like I been rode hard n put up wet," he murmured with that bizarre humor that was his alone.
Chris chuckled and squeezed Vins hand. "Yeah, I guess you would," he agreed. "You been real sick. There were more than a coupla times we thought you were gone for good. But you just kept comin back."
"Sorry," he breathed again, with a faint shadow of his familiar grin. "Dont mean ta hang about where I aint wanted."
Chris could hear the pain, the weariness, in that soft, strained voice and winced. "I can wake Nathan if ya need"
"Dont," he sighed. "Aint so bad." He forced his eyes open again and fixed them upon Larabee, though he could barely focus them. Sleep was pulling hard at him and he could feel himself sinking into it. But he could not let it claim him just yet. "Thanks, cowboy," he whispered.
Chris frowned in puzzlement. "For what?"
He swallowed and licked his lips, feeling the pain of every breath, but no longer needing to escape it. "Kep yer word," he rasped faintly. "Brung brung me home." He swallowed again, his eyes closing helplessly. "Brung me back where I blong "
Chris watched in silence as Vin drifted into sleep, as the weak, pain-ridden body slowly relaxed into restful oblivion. Yet never once did Vin release his hold on him, nor did he release his on Vin.
He stuck his head out the door of the livery and looked carefully up and down the quiet, deserted street, fairly certain no one would be up and about at this hour, but needing to be sure nonetheless.
Chris and Nathand skin him alive if they knew what he was doing.
Satisfied that there was no one about to call unwanted attention to him, he ducked back into the livery and walked to his saddled horse.
"Behave yerself, ya damn mule, ya hear?" he warned, slipping a bit of apple into the waiting mouth even as he scowled. "I dont aim ta fight ta git on ya, n I sure as hell dont aim ta be throwed off once Im up!" He reached up and scratched a glossy black cheek. "JD said ya been real fractious of late, but you know I aint near as tolerant of such goins-on as him. So, mind yer manners else Ill trade ya in fer the first likely mule I see!"
Peso nickered softly and thrust his head against Vin, nuzzling at the trackers hair. Vin grinned and leaned into him, holding a loving hand to the big blacks powerful neck. "Damn mule," he whispered. "Gonna end up a bar a soap yet!"
He gave Peso another bit of apple, then walked around to his side, where he had placed a crate. He hated having to do this, and wouldnt have done it had anyone been watching, but knew he just wasnt ready to climb up in the saddle any other way just yet. Not after what putting that saddle on had done to him. Then, taking one last glance about to make sure no one saw, he stepped up onto the crate and mounted from there. Giving Peso one last pat, he turned him and spurred him gently out of the livery and into the open air.
Yep, Chris and Nathand kill him sure!
He guided the big horse at a walk through the empty street, breathing deeply as he rode. Still wasnt as easy as it shouldve been, but, hell, it was a lot easier than it had been! At least it didnt cut through him like a heated knife anymore
Once out of town, he spurred Peso to a gentle lope, laughing to himself as the town fell away and the world opened up. The tension of the past weeks left his shoulders and back and he relaxed, settling once more into the easy, loose-limbed grace that seemed his alone. Too long hed spent cooped up, first in the clinic, then allowed outside only by degrees
"Jus ta the porch!" Nathan had warned sternly, fixing him with a stare like he was probing for a bullet. "Go one step pas that n Ill have ya back in bed an hide yo pants an boots where you won never find em!"
And hed have done it, too. Man could get plumb mean sometimes
From the porch, hed been released to the stairs, though no farther than the bottom one. Then to the chair on the boardwalk, then to the saloon, but only if someone was with him and he didnt have more than one drink. The healer had gone so far as to threaten to tie a tether to him if he went even one step farther than allowed.
And he sure didnt want to think about the time Nathan caught him trying to sneak out of the clinic window. What the man was doing up at that hour hed never know, but hed been madder than a sore-tailed cat when hed caught his patient half-in, half-out
Thought he never would get his damn gun, pants and boots back from Larabee!
But he was free now and they wouldnt see him til he was ready to be seen. Hed been waiting for this too long now, been needing it something fierce. It had started calling to him two weeks ago, and hed behaved himself ever since, doing everything Nathan told him, meek and mindful as a lamb
Saving his strength.
Yep, Nathan and Chrisd be downright pissed when they learnt he was gone. But that was too damn bad, because he needed this.
Needed to get his balance back.
+ + + + + + +
Healer and gunman met on the stairs outside the clinic, sharing early morning coffee. Larabee settled his long, lean frame on the step below Nathan and stared out over the empty street.
Nathan sipped from his coffee, appreciating its strength, and nodded. "Yep. Went out the window soft an silent as smoke. I reckon he lef about dawn."
Chris sighed and shook his head. "I knew hed been behavin himself too much. Shoulda kept them damn boots!"
Nathan grinned crookedly. "Think that woulda stopped him? Heda jus gone barefoot an you know it."
Chris sighed again, then glanced over his shoulder at the healer. "Think hell be all right?" he asked worriedly. "Still aint got all his strength back, yknow. Still coughs when he over-does it"
"Caint keep him tied ta the bed fever, Chris," Nathan said quietly. "He needs this, you know that. Hell, hes been cooped up in town over a month now. If we don let him do this, were gon find him tmorrow up on Netties roof hammerin shingles. Sides," he frowned thoughtfully, "he knows what he can an caint do. Vin aint stupid, hes jus stubborn." His thoughtful gaze settled on Larabee. "Hes like a wild thing, Chris. Cage him an hell die. An I put in way too much work on him ta see that happen now!"
Chris gave a quiet chuckle at that and nodded. Hed let Vin spread his wings then, give him his time in the sun.
And then track him down and drag his stubborn ass back if he stayed gone too long.
+ + + + + + +
Vin wrestled the saddle off Pesos back and let it fall to the ground a little faster than hed intended as another cough tore from him, then sank onto the grass beside it and sat there for a long, unmeasured spell as his breathing righted itself. The horse nickered softly, and Vin cast a glare up at him.
"Tell Larabee bout this n yer soap fer sure!" he growled.
Peso tossed his head disdainfully and went back to grazing.
Vin stretched out on the grass, resting against his saddle, and let the peace of this place seep into his bones. His place, the shaded little pool between Chanus village and the town, between red folks and white, between his past and his future.
His eyes wanted to close, and he let them. It was so still here, so quiet, yet even amid the quiet he could hear so much. The birds, the bugs, Pesos chewing, the wind through leaves and the lapping of water against rocks. His own heartbeat, his own breathing, his own thoughts. Everything.
Except the screams.
He hadnt heard them since the night hed gone to Red Stick. Hed thought at first hed simply been too tired to hear them, that theyd come back when he was stronger.
But they hadnt. Not even when hed lain delirious in Nathans clinic. And he knew they wouldnt.
Hed silenced them, finally. Gotten the blood off his hands and silenced the screams, laid the dead finally to rest in those mountains. Given them peace when hed given Red Sticks people life. And washed their blood from his hands with his own.
Those people were dead. Red Sticks people were alive.
He was alive. Ford was dead.
Hed saved his soul. The Devil had lost his bargain.
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