Chris bit the skin off his bottom lip and eyed the dusty street below. He didn't want to leave until he knew Billy was okay. He needed to see the trusting blue eyes and hear Billy's voice. Trusting blue eyes...his mind rebelled and an image of Vin Tanner appeared. Laughing blue eyes outside the saloon, after the Texan had stolen Buck's clothes while the Lady's Man was swimming outside town. The irate Wilmington had arrived back in town, wearing the pink bloomers Vin had left by the water. A brief smile lingered as he recalled even Buck was helpless at the tracker's infectious laugher and the devilish delight in his eyes. He sighed deeply and his eyes furrowed when he saw Ezra fly by on Deuce, headed out of town. He turned as the door slammed and Nathan's hot eyes bore into him.
"He's gone..." Nate spat, "Proud of yourself, Chris?"
"I didn't ride him out of town..." Chris defended weakly.
"The hell you didn't" Nate bellowed, eyeing Mary Travis as well. "You don't know how that feels...to have a lynch mod surround you. How is tears your guts out...hearing them filthy names and looking for someone- anyone - to help you. How could you...both of you...do that to him?"
"I...I...He was wrong Nathan." Mary drilled, her voice wavering. "He shouldn't have taken Billy fishing. Not with a gang on the loose, gunning for him. It's his own fault..."
"Are you listening to what you're saying?" Nathan countered incredulously, "Do you have any idea what you said to him...Well I do, I heard every filthy word. There's no excuse for what you did. Addy Ford, Conklin and Thomas was just waiting on something like this." He turned back to Chris Larabee, who green eyes were clouding with guilt. "...and you...he's your best friend, hell you're closer than brothers. You threw him to the wolves..."
"Enough!" Chris shouted, "He hasn't been the same since you two were attacked. I tried talking to him, you tried, hell we all tried to talk to him. He didn't open up...HIS choice. He pulled away from us...HIS choice. Spending more hours gone then here...HIS choice. " Chris directed hotly, as if trying to convince himself. "He had no right taking that boy outside town...not with killers so close by."
"Billy?" Nathan turned and dropped at the small boy's side as his eyelids fluttered. They scanned the room and found his mother's face.
"Ma? I'm sorry...for...for...puttin' the worry on you...Vin said..." he drifted off and then opened his eyes again.
"How you feeling, Billy?" Nate asked, lifting Billy upright and letting Mary give him a little water.
"My head hurts and my belly's got frogs jumpin' around inside."
"You feel sick?"
"Billy, how many fingers am I holding up?"
"Uh....three?" Billy guessed correctly.
"Good boy." Nathan nodded, "You seeing blurry or clear?"
"Clear...but my head hurts."
"You hit real good on a display rack. You got a nice lump there. You get some rest and before you know it, that headache will be gone." the healer reassured.
"Ma...where's Vin...He's awful mad at me...I was bad." Billy pleaded. "Vin isn't here now...he's out catching some bad men." Mary stumbled, "Billy, you know better than to leave town without telling me. You shouldn't have gone fishing with Vin today."
"Vin didn't take me fishing." Billy replied, dropping his head. "He's awful mad...when he seen me sneak up on him by the river. I almost got shot...he plucked me out just in time and ..."
"Shot?" Chris sat on the bed and tipped the small head up. "Start at the beginning, Son."
Billy took another drink and a deep breath. "I seen Vin this morning in the livery. I had my poles and asked him to take me fishing...'cause he promised me." Billy paused and took a small breath ."But Vin said he had some bad men to catch and for me to stay put."
"But you didn't..." Nate prodded and saw the blond head shake.
"No, Sir...I waited a few minutes and followed him. It was easy, he wasn't riding right."
"Why did you go, Billy?" Mary squeezed the small hand, "When you knew it was dangerous?"
"I'm sorry, Ma...I know it was wrong...but he's so sad all the time. Somebody had to get his happy eyes back. I was gonna try..."
"You're a good friend, Billy." Nate smiled, "and that was a good idea. But you know you're not big enough to let out of town by yourself. It's too dangerous."
"Yes Sir...that's what Vin said." Billy shook his head. "He was awful mad...I seen him by the river, I didn't see the bad men...and he hollered at me and pulled me down, just as the bullets came by."
"Oh My God..." Mary choked, covering her mouth.
"I didn't get shot..." Billy wrinkled his face, seeing his mother's distress. "Vin made sure of that. He pulled me under him...I was all squooshed up." "Vin got all the bad men?" Nate asked, recalling J.D. saying there were three on the loose. "How many men Billy?"
"Three. We left him by J.D.'s office." Billy reported. "Vin said I put the worry on you, Ma...I'm sorry. I gave my word I'd tell you and Vin made me promise not to do that ever again."
"Vin's right." Chris finally spoke, wondering like the healer did, who the mystery shooter in town was. "I hope you learned your lesson."
"Yeah...I sure did." Billy reached up and touched his mother's face, and rubbed the tears away. She reached in to hug him. "Aw, Ma...cut it out...I'm fine." He squirmed loose but kept hold on her hand. "Vin said you were the finest woman he'd ever met and a real Lady. He said I was never to be disrespectful to you." Billy repeated and saw his mother's face flush red. "Did you know his Ma died when he was littler that me? He still misses her...told me how lucky I was. He said not to forget that your mother is your best friend. Ain't that right?" He cocked his head, wondering why his mother was so sad.
"That sure is, Billy." Nathan gritted, glaring at Mary and Chris.
"So who's the shooter?" Chris asked, patting Billy's leg and going to the window. He tried to control the overwhelming guilt that was bearing down on him. How could he have let his temper blind him? He glanced at the horizon and shook his head.
Where are you Cowboy?
Meanwhile, down the street
"I'll go update Chris and check on Billy." J.D. announced.
"Buck and me will check the hotel and the bank. We'll catch up to you at Nathan's."
"Looks like Vin was busy this morning." J.D. said., lifting the blanket on the nearest body, on the horses in front of the jail.
"Damn...all three..." Josiah remarked, Buck remained silent, still angry at Vin's lapse the day before.
J.D. left his two friends at the hotel and jogged over to the clinic. He heard the last part of the conversation and Chris's question about the dead man.
"We'll find out soon enough." he announced "Hey, Billy. How you doing?" He dropped to the bedside and eyed the bandage.
"I'm okay J.D." Billy answered, his heavy eyes closing. There was silence for a moment as the boy drifted into a sound sleep.
"Did you catch him?" Mary asked.
"Yeah, one more body to add to the three Vin caught."
"Who is he?" Chris asked, preparing to leave.
"I'm not sure...he's wearing expensive clothes and has soft hands. Saddlebags were empty." J.D. noted.
"He's at the hotel...wasn't planning on leaving so soon." Nathan mused.
"Yeah, that's what we figured. Buck and Josiah are checking his room and then they'll check the bank."
"The bank?" Mary wondered.
"The only thing on him was a receipt from the bank. It was a receipt for a deposit in the safe for five thousand dollars."
Chris whistled and stroked his chin, his eyes furrowed in thought. "Something doesn't add up...that's not money on Vin's head. Who was he after? That's a good size payoff."
"What the hell difference does it make now?" Nate's hostile voice rose up. "He's dead and you best get a horse moving out to back up Ezra."
"Ezra?" J.D. asked, "He was supposed to be watching Vin. Is Vin okay?" "Other than being creased by a bullet and hit by a flying bottle ..." Nate replied sarcastically, "Oh and let's not forget the mouths of the lynch mob shouting that filth at him..."
"Goddammit Nathan." Chris glared, his guilt washing over him like a tidal wave.
"Will somebody tell me where Vin is?" J.D. glanced between the two angry faces.
"He ran from the mob and collapsed in the church. Ezra found him ...said he got hit in the head by a bottle and a bullet creased his hip."
"And..." J.D. urged
"...and he believes that shit the crowd was sayin' about him...he let out of town when Ezra came to get me. Ezra's went after him."
"What didn't you help him?" J.D. demanded of Chris.
Chris started to say something but had no answer. His lips opened and closed without response. He dropped his head and flinched as Vin's wide-eyed frantic face came into view. He saw the silent plea in the tortured blue eyes. He'd not only allowed his best friend to be assaulted by group of bigots; he'd been in the front line, firing along side them. "I'll find him..." He muttered and started to leave, only to have Josiah's face stop his flight.
"What?" the blond asked, spotting the somber expression on Buck's face as well.
"You get his name?" J.D. asked and saw Josiah nod. The preacher motioned for them to go outside. Leaving Billy sleeping in the bed, the others converged on the boardwalk outside.
"Elliott James Cavendish." Josiah said.
"Cavendish?" Chris screwed his face up. "Doesn't ring a bell."
"This might." Buck handed over the wanted posted they found in J.D.'s office.
Chris scanned the page and saw the alias listed underneath..."The Phantom..." His voice rose in amazement. "The government's been looking for him for years."
"Who's The Phantom?" J.D. asked.
"The bogeyman come to life, Kid. He's been slipping though the Fed's fingers for years..." Buck responded. "Hell, I heard stories about him when I was kid. I figured by now he was dead. He's gotta be over sixty."
"Kidnapper and murderer from back East..." Chris supplied, "He's left a trail of bodies from Boston to San Francisco. He'd pick a wealthy family, grab a victim, collect the money and be gone within a few days."
"Didn't he leave some kind of uh...calling card?" Buck mused, scratching his chin.
"Yeah...a red rose within the victim's arms, crossed across their chest." Josiah recalled, shaking his head. "...real monster."
"He was so good, it took years for them to get a description of him. Nobody ever saw him." Chris sighed.
"What's he doing here?" J.D. poked Buck. "Anything in his room?"
Buck and Josiah exchanged a wary glance before Josiah spoke. "Expensive suits and shirts, shaving gear, imported cigars and French Brandy." Josiah paused, "Man had style..."
"...and..." Chris prompted seeing Buck's eyes flinch.
"This..." The mustached man handed Chris a slip of paper.
Chris scanned the information given him and paled. His hand trembled slightly and he ran it through his fair hair. "Maybe it's a coincidence..." he attempted, not believing the words as they left his lips.
"Chris, you know better than that." Josiah responded.
"Hello?" Nathan waved. "Are the rest of us here?"
"Sorry, Nate." Buck said, "That's a receipt from the Hotel Royale in Red Fork. He's was living there for the last three months."
"Red Fork...He's hooked up with Ella or the mine?" Nathan guessed.
"I'm gonna wire Red Fork and get the county clerk to send us a list. I'll bet Mr. Elliott Cavendish is a silent partner in that mine." Josiah replied.
"I can't believe it..." Chris muttered, his gut wrenching.
"Up here Tommy." Josiah answered the clerk from the bank. He'd asked the young man to look up the information about the deposit.
"Mr. Parker, well, he said that fella left these in the safe...Him being dead and a crime being commited." He paused and handed the sealed envelope and a notebook to Josiah. "Well, he figured you might need these."
"Thanks Son." Josiah nodded and tipped the boy. He slit the envelope and took out a slip of paper, it was an uncashed draft for five thousand dollars. Buck read the note over Josiah's shoulder and paled when he read the name. He shook his head and sank onto a crate nearby.
Chris saw the twin looks of fear and tapped Buck's leg. "Well?"
"You ain't gonna like it..." Josiah said, handing the paper over. "I'm sorry Chris..."
Chris stared at the name on the draft in disbelief. He felt like a mule kicked him in the gut. All the color drained out of his face. The numbing shock was quickly replaced by hostile anger bordering on malice. His body buckled with rage and he threw his head back. The unholy scream was followed by a pounding on the side of the building. He was totally numb, his mind was still in shock but every fiber of his body screamed.
J.D. picked up the paper and scanned it. He gazed at the dollar amount, a memo in the corner with 'final payment' and then the signature, that's when his stomach dropped. "Ella Gaines..."
"I'm gonna rip her heart out..." Chris seethed, eyes hot.
"He was coming for you?" Mary guessed
"No..." Josiah sighed, thinking of their missing comrade. "He was after Billy."
"BILLY!" Mary gasped. "Why?"
"To lure Chris into a trap. These notes...he's been following Billy all week, getting to know his schedule."
"But how did Vin recognize him?" J.D. asked.
"Who studies them wanted posters harder than him?" Buck supplied, thinking on Vin sprawled in the chair behind the desk, flipping through the yellowed sheets.
"He's was the only one who saw the Culpepper Mining Company records in Red Fork..." Nathan added.
"I'll bet Cavendish's name is on those Mine deeds." Buck thought aloud. "Or maybe Vin saw him in town when he was there."
"...and when Vin saw him in town this morning, he remembered the face from the poster." Josiah agreed.
"That bullet that creased him...saved your son's life." Nathan drilled into Mary's pale eyes, struggling to divert from his gaze.
"Oh My God..." Mary choked, seeing Vin's tortured face and hearing the echoes of her brutal verbal attack. "What have I done?"
"You weren't alone..." Chris lamented, thinking on his own inexcusable conduct.
Nathan bit his tongue, he didn't want to hear that now. He shook his head and glared openly at both of them. "You better pray Ezra caught up to him."
"Vin ain't here?" Buck guessed and saw Nathan nod. "Are you sure?"
"His horse is gone...I'll fill you in on the way to the livery" Nathan added.
"Livery?" Buck questioned and stood up, preparing to follow.
"Wait a minute," Mary hollered, "What about Billy? What if she sends somebody else after him?"
"He was paid through the end of the week at the hotel." Buck said, "So I'm guessing he wasn't planning on taking Billy until after that."
"His notes confirm that." Josiah nodded, "He was planning on leaving to meet Ella next week. That buys us some time."
"What if she waiting for him to contact her and he doesn't come through..." Mary fretted.
"That's a good point," J.D. thought. "Billy and you would be safer with the judge. I'll wire him and with any luck, he can be here by morning. I'll stay here and keep an eye out." He said to Chris who nodded.
"I'll take these back to the bank and have the manager lock them up." Josiah said of the evidence. "Maybe with this, the judge can send the U.S. Marshal's to pick her up."
"From where?" Chris spat. "We don't even know where the hell she is."
"She'll surface." Buck added, "She's still on the hunt. She'll slip up and we'll get her this time."
"Let's find Vin and bring him home." Chris gritted, his long strides giving his lean legs the same muscle flex as the vein throbbing in his head. "...and then I'm gonna find that fuckin' bitch and send her straight to hell."
A loud bang woke him up. Startled, he turned too fast and hissed in pain as the raw wound on his hip bellowed at him. He grabbed his gun and eyed the dark cabin; a second bang brought him to his feet. He limped slowly to the door and sighed in relief. Putting the gun down, he went outside and secured the loose shutter. He eyed the dark sky and wondered how late it was. He made his way back inside and groped in the dark until he found the lamp. He knew his way around the small abode, having spent some time within its cozy walls. He struck a match and lit the lamp, placing it on the table.
He was surprisingly calm as the events that sent him fleeing began to appear. Hissing in pain, he took a basin of water outside to the pump and filled it. He placed the basin on the ground and pumped some additional water, spashing his face. As his unsteady legs made their way back, he tried to recall his journey from town. Everything after bottle striking him was a blur. He settled gingerly into the hard chair and dipped a tea towel into the basin of water. He dabbed at the cut on his head and his eyes darted seeking to find the missing pieces. The further away from Four Corners he got, the more the pain in his chest eased up. Finally he found himself at a crossroads and knowing the shack would be deserted, he made his choice. After securing Diablo, he'd stumbled to the bed and collapsed in exhaustion.
He went to the cold fireplace and took the bottle of whiskey from the mantle. Limping back to the table, he dropped his pants and began tending to the wound on his hip. He eyed the linen cloth, now stuck firmly to the wound and frowned. How had that gotten there? Trying to pry it off only caused a wave of pain as the sticky, healing wound clung to the cloth. Warm water would help to soften the stuck skin. He eyed the fireplace with a cautious gaze. Lighting a fire might draw attention, so he dipped a mug in the basin and began to soak the stubborn cloth. With a little effort and several soft curses, it finally gave way. He washed the wound and then uncorked the liquor. Holding his loosened pants with one hand, and the bottle with the other, he limped back to the bed. Lying on his side, he braced himself and poured liquor over the raw wound.
Nobody heard his piercing scream. There was no cranky healer's voice to soothe him or a black-clothed arm to grip his shoulder. As the fire in his side retreated, he wiped the pain-wrought moisture from his eyes. He kicked the pants off and eyed the small bedroom. Limping to the lone chest of drawers, he fished around and found a thermal undershirt. He found his knife and cut enough to form a crude bandage. Satisfied, he put his pants on and rummaged around the dry sink for some food. He found a tin of beans and one of peaches. He cut them open and ate his meager meal in silence. As he ate, he thought on the divided road in his heart. He needed time to think and to heal his shattered soul. He thought of the magnificent mountains far north and recalled his brief time there working as a trapper. The pristine air, deep blue sky and rugged wilderness was calling him like a lusty lover. He longed to sink in her arms...but not until he checked on Billy.
It would be a few days yet, before the owner returned to the cozy cabin. Vin limped over to the cabinet over the stove, where the discarded mail and paperwork were kept. He found a long piece of paper and grabbed a pencil from the cup near the stove. He limped to the table, and read the paper, which was an old receipt for some lumber. He tore it in half and stuck one half in his pocket. Picking up the pencil, he began to write.
"Easy fella," He cooed, as he packed the whiskey into his saddlebag. He shivered in the cold night air and eyed the corner of the porch. He hobbled over and found the familiar object right away. His fingers slid down the soft flannel, and his heart ached. He lifted the workshirt from the peg and shucked his coat off. Sliding the soft shirt on, he felt instantly warmer; relishing the scent that clung to it. With his coat back on, he retraced his steps and mounted his steed. With a weary eye on the full moon draped in the dark sky, his began his trek. He glanced at the little shack that was always a welcomed harbor for him. He felt a brief pain of longing as the owner's green eyes penetrated his heart. With a last sigh, he turned the reins and left Chris Larabee's cabin and headed for Four Corners.
On the road outside town
Caesar's head tossed in displeasure, as if sensing his master's reluctance to return home. Chris didn't know how long he'd been out, and didn't care. His own exhaustion and hunger didn't matter, but his horse needed rest and care. He regretted the promise he'd made to Josiah, that they all meet back at the Saloon before midnight. That way they could compare notes and if one of them didn't find their lost comrade, they could form a new plan.
He eyed the silver moon and shifted in the saddle. With every additional empty mile, the coldness in his gut increased. His face screwed up as he once again cursed himself. What his blindness didn't do to destroy his best friend's soul, his complacency did. He'd assumed whatever was troubling Vin would go away, in it's own time. Knowing the younger man's penchant for withdrawing, he didn't want to push too hard. So the days turned into weeks and he'd gotten lazy. He'd assumed Vin's withdrawl was part of the healing process. Stupid...he berated himself again. He couldn't imagine the pain Vin Tanner was in, but felt a shadow of it inside himself. The dull ache in his chest persisted, the relentless throbbing a befitting punishment. The echoes of the catcalls in town wouldn't leave him, and the headache that now pounded furiously wouldn't be quelled with aspirin powder or whiskey. He felt a coldness inside, similar to the one he'd felt in the long months after his wife and child's death. Would those dark days be revisited? He shuddered and tried to dispel that thought. No matter how far the road took him, he'd find Vin Tanner. He'd reach out and seek forgiveness and listen to the troubled tracker's soul. Until those blue eyes took hold again, he'd live with the unbearable pain.
Back in town
"Mary, How's he doing?" J.D. asked, from the doorway of the Travis home.
"Much better, thanks J.D." Mary nodded to the sheriff. "He ate some soup and it stayed down. He'll sleep right through." She hedged, feeling uncomfortable. Try as she might, she couldn't get Vin's face from her mind. "Anybody back yet?"
"No...but it's after ten," he noted of the late hour. "I expect it won't be much longer. Oh, I got a wire from the Judge." He handed her the note. "He'll be here by noon. He's checking on Cavendish and sending a couple Pinkerton guys to Red Fork. Just so you know to get packed and all..."
"Thanks, J.D., I'll do that." She nodded and closed the door.
J.D. made his way back to the sheriff's office. He'd eaten dinner and checked every nook and cranny in town. He'd checked the roof twice. A flickering hope lingered, as he heard the distinctive sound of hooves approaching. Two cowhands from a local ranch rode by and the youth relaxed again. In his heart, he had a nagging fear that Vin was gone. If the world class tracker wanted to disappear, nobody would find him. He quickened his steps and made his way to the Saloon, where he waited on his friends.
+ + + + + + +
Vin tied Diablo at the back of the darkened church. The edge of town was a perfect spot to leave his mount. Nobody would be at the outskirts this late at night. He limped towards the backend of Nathan's clinic and eyed the stack of crates. With a little shifting and a grunt of pain, he scaled the boxes and slid over the rails. He peered in the darkened room and tried the door. Surprised as it gave way, he entered.
"Nate?" He whispered, eyeing the cot the healer usually slept in. Nobody was home. He limped to the twin beds that usually held one of the recovering peacekeepers. They were empty. For a minute, his heart nearly stopped. What if the wound was fatal? The room began to swim and he collapsed on one of the beds. Taking great gulps of air, he managed to ward off the black curtain that threatened to fall. He saw a note tacked to the wall over the bed. He struck a match and was able to read the brief message.
"Thank God..." He sighed and shook the match. Mary's note was short. Billy was fine and she'd taken him home. He eyed the long blank section of space under Mary's note and struck another match, lighting the candle that sat in a pewter holder. He rummaged in his pocket and found the pencil and began to write. Satisfied, he tacked the note back up and left a few coins. He took the candle and hobbled to the shelf where the healer kept his medicine and bandages. He eyed his scalp wound in the small mirror and reached for the carbolic. After washing the dried blood off, and dabbing carbolic on it, he covered it with a bandage. He grabbed a small burlap sack from a shelf under Nathan's medicine cabinet. He dropped the Carbolic in his bag, along with some bandages, willow bark tea and some tins of food. He blew out the candle and left as silently as he came.
He shuffled around the corner and glanced at the deserted street. Keeping in the shadows, he hobbled to the Saloon. Peering in the window, he was surprised to find none of his friends there. Where was everyone? He was tired and still had two more stops to make. He made his way to his wagon and glanced inside. The light from the nearby street torch was enough to pack his meager belongings. He took only what was necessary. Heavy socks, a sweater, gloves and his shaving gear. An extra pair of pants and a couple shirts completed his list. He rolled a bedroll carefully and tied each end. He opened the large burlap sack and placed his other belongings inside. The last item he lingered on. He lifted the lid of the small music box and tried to imagine the tinkling sounds. He traced a finger over the faded roses that once graced the front. He lifted the tiny gold heart suspended on a chain and tried to imagine what it must of looked like on her neck. His mother was more of a mystery to him. Closing his eyes, he saw flashes of light brown curls, a wonderful laugh and a smell of lilacs and soap. That was all he had of her and this music box. He shut the lid and eyed the now empty wagon. He shook his head in amazement, that his whole life would fit in a single sack. He limped to the church, left the bag and the scratched a note on the back of one of Josiah's Bible study papers. After securing the small bag and his bedroll to his horse, he took a deep breath.
His last stop was the hardest. He made his way to the back of the Travis house. He climbed onto the short roof over the kitchen in the back and slid down to sit. His hip was burning and he knew he'd pay the price for his actions later. Finally, he regained his breath and stood, finding the window. He peered inside and saw the small blond head, complete with a lumpy bandage. His heart clenched as his mind flashed to the bloody boy in the street. His Adam's apple bobbed and the pain overwhelmed him. That this innocent child had nearly been killed.... He swayed and felt the black curtain calling and fought it off. He fingered the package in his pocket and opened the window. He slid in carefully, as silent as a shadow. He left the bundle and brushed the hair from the boy's face. Two eyes opened and a smile formed. Vin put his fingers over the boy's lips and issued him to be quiet. He knelt and leaned close to the boy's ear.
"Ya alright?" He whispered and the head nodded. "Good...I'm sorry Billy. I'll find that man who hurt ya, I promise."
"He's dead." Billy whispered. "Buck and them got 'im. My Ma told me. Ya ain't still mad at me are ya Vin?"
Vin swallowed hard at the tender words and the soft hand that touched his stubbled face. It took him a minute to get his composure and he shook his head. He covered the small hand with his own, savoring the sensation and then replaced it under the quilt. "Nah, I ain't mad at ya. We're Pards, right?"
"Good. Listen, Billy. I gotta go away fer awhile."
"No...please...don't go Vin."
Vin winced at the pain in the small voice and forced his breath out. "There's somethin' I need t'do..." He winced and his hand slid to his chest.
"You hurt your heart? Can't Nathan fix it?"
"No...it's not that kind of pain. We'll go fishin' when I come back, okay?" He stuck his hand out and shook the small one.
"Ya mind yer Ma...and ya keep this fer me." Vin said, placing the package on the boy's chest. "Go on back t'sleep now." Vin hushed, rubbing the boy's back. As he turned to stand, he felt the boy's hands around him and a face buried in his neck.
"Vin...I...I..." The soft voice wavered.
Vin's heart tightened and he swallowed hard, embracing the small boy. "Yeah...me too, Kid..." He offered, kissing the side of the blond head. "Git to sleep..." He covered up the blond boy and slid out as effortlessly as he entered.
Diablo was waiting impatiently when he returned. He stroked the silken neck before swinging painfully into the saddle. With a final glance at the place that he'd thought was home, he turned and headed north.
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