He didn't recall waking up, nor did he realize how long he'd been awake. The only part of his weakened body that he was able to move, were his eyes. The darkness had given way gradually to bits of light. Like a shy toddler, it peeked in the tent reluctantly, hiding behind the canvas apron. He drifted awhile, then felt a gentle hand on face. He moaned as a warm cloth washed over his fatigued features. He felt his head lifted and parted his lips instinctively. His reward came in the form of a cool drink of water.
"...nectar of the gods..." he muttered and heard a soft laugh. "Nate?" He managed to peel an eye open and saw the tired healer's face nearby.
"You gave us a good scare, Vin Tanner...but I think you're past the worst of it."
Vin licked his lips and concentrated on breathing. Even that was difficult and he closed his eyes and moaned.
"Ribs botherin' ya?" Nate asked, seeing the painful intakes of air. The damp, curly head made a slight move. "Hold on..."
He moved forward from where he was seated on the edge of Vin's cot and lifted him up slightly. The slack tracker flopped against him, the wet head landing with a soft thump on his shoulder.
Nate chuckled at the frustrated patient's weak curse and held him with one hand, while grabbing the pillows on the small table with the other. Finally, he eased Vin back. He saw the angry blue eyes and chastised him.
"You're lucky you're still breathing...don't go wasting what strength you do have cussin' yourself out. That was a nasty infection...nasty as I've ever seen. Once you get some rest and build your strength back up, you'll be fine."
Vin nodded and noticed the bulky form where his foot should be. He panicked...he recalled Chris shooting the lock...lots of pain..."Oh God..." He choked, fighting to get up.
"It's still there..." Nate grabbed him, reading the panic in the blue eyes. "But you listen to me, Vin Tanner." He sternly addressed the weak man, "That infection went deep...and that foot has a lot of healing to do. You're not gonna be walking on it or putting any weight on it for a good month."
Vin sighed and sank back, he was too tired to argue. The brief exchange wore him out and his eyes started to drift shut. The gentle tap on his face brought a scowl. "...what..."
"Don't you sass me, Boy..." Nate grinned, glad to see the familiar fight back. "You need to eat... got some soup simmering. I'll be right back." He stood and was about to leave when a whisper turned him around.
"...tired?" Vin appraised, eyeing the worn features, dark circles and red-rimmed eyes. "...rest...eat later."
Nate studied the worried pale eyes and shook his head. A warm smile was born and he lifted the limp hand and gripped it. He doubted whether this selfless man every spent a minute worried about himself. Typical Vin, lying on death's door and worrying on him. "I'm okay, Vin." He said gently, and left his gaze linger a moment. "...but thanks...does a body good to know somebody cares."
Vin watched Nathan leave and felt a chill. He shivered from something lurking in the back of his mind. Something horrid...something so painful it caused his heart to clench. Then the images came back...of that fateful night and the brutality the healer has born. His guilt returned, slamming into him so hard he gasped and lost his air. The more he panicked, the worse it became.
"Vin!" Chris jumped up from the floor where he'd fallen asleep. Something woke him up and once on his feet, he saw the sweat-soaked body struggling to breathe. He sat on the cot and grabbed the heaving shoulders. Vin's eyes were wide with shock. "Calm down...you're losing your breath."
He ordered, and saw the eyes blink, aware of his presence. He saw the mouth silently working to form his name. "It was a bad dream...you're fine." He kept his voice even and steady. "Slow down...that's it..." He continued, reassuring the eyes that never left his. Finally, the breathing leveled out and he offered a cup of water. "Better?" he asked and saw the damp head nod over the cup. "Good..."
"...how long?" Vin rasped, sinking back onto the pillows and masking his feelings.
"Long enough...a couple days. Fever broke during the night."
"...get her?" Vin asked, recalling Ella's face looming over him.
"Sorry, Cowboy." Chris said dejectedly, cloaking his anger for Vin's sake. Nathan had returned after midnight, and immediately slathered Vin's foot with herbs and his chest with more of the congestion fighting salve. He seemed pleased, despite Vin's weakened state, that he'd passed the worst of it. With Josiah and Nate to care for him, and with the assurance he felt inside that Vin would recover, Chris was ready to leave. Vin's eyes closed and Chris thought he passed out, until the lips moved.
Chris frowned and hissed in annoyance. How did Vin do that? Even as sick as he was, he could seemingly read his mind. He felt a small touch against his leg and saw one finger brushing him. He swallowed hard, Vin was so weak he couldn't even raise a hand to protest. He saw one eye peel open and plead with him.
"I can't Vin. I have to go. You know that." Chris directed, "She killed my wife and son...she has to pay. She damn near killed you." He paused as the face screwed up and he had to suppress a grin. The finger was now joined by three more...Vin was trying hard to make a fist. He lifted the hand and curled the fingers into a ball. "That better?" he asked and saw the eyes narrow..."Take your best shot." He offered, laying the hand near his chin. The weak tap was perfunctory, but he understood.
"...fool...killed...dammit..." Vin chuffed, wishing the fist would work.
"I ain't gonna let her kill me, Vin." He reassured, placing the fist on top of the sheet and squeezing it. "I'll be back...I got some unfinished business with you." He drilled and saw the blank stare. "You owe me a shirt..."
Vin stared back and then offered a weak triumphant smile. "...never find it..." he said of the well-hidden fortress.
"You think you're smart, don't you?" Chris tossed back, "I reckon she'll find me first, anyhow. Nice try, Pard." He finished and saw the face fall.
Vin studied the face before him and left out a frustrated breath. Chris was going to leave and he couldn't stop him...or blame him. How would it feel to find the person who brutally destroyed the two most precious things in your life? Wouldn't he seek justice? Would he let anyone stop him? How could he expect Chris to act any different? He uncurled his fingers and tapped the top of Chris's hand. He turned his palm out and waited.
Chris saw the offer and took it. He gripped the hand and nodded. "Thanks Vin...I'll be back...I promise."
Vin studied the tension and worry in the face before him. Icy fingers gripped his insides as he struggled with the concept of Chris not coming back. What if Ella won? What if...He shuddered and let a small sigh escape.
"...man's word's only good..." He paused and took a painful breath, "...only good iffen he keeps it."
Chris read the fear clearly in the pale eyes filled with pain. He gripped the limp hand and gave a Herculean grip. He drilled the accusing eyes and sent a silent vow, assuring his return. He wouldn't leave his best friend. Vin sighed and nodded.
"I'm holdin' ya t'that..." He licked his lips and eyed the cup. Chris helped him get another drink and helped him turn when a severe coughing fit left him breathless and teary.
"Easy..." He gentled and flinched at the yellowish phlegm that littered the floor. He wiped the sweaty face and waited until the weaker man was settled.
"...east of Santa Fe...rocks hide it...like arrows...narrow turnoff..." Vin gasped, and began to cough again.
"She got guards in the rocks?"
"...no... don't think so..."
"How long?" Chris asked, and heard the flap open. He saw Josiah, Nate and Buck enter.
"...don't know..." Vin replied, keeping his eyes closed. "...no windows...dungeon...chained like a damn dog...shit..."
"It's all over Vin..." He warned, seeing the scowl. Keeping his feelings in check again, he took a deep breath. The visual image of his best friend chained to a cold stone wall beneath the ground made his blood boil.
"...was comin' by White Rock Canyon...home...comin' home...home..."
Chris winced visibly as the wistful voice laced with longing. Guilt assaulted him. If he hadn't been so blind...Vin wouldn't have had to flee in the middle of the night and wouldn't have been on the road home or tortured.
"...never saw 'im...jumped me...big brute...drugged me..." Vin paused and took a breath. "...I tried hard...too many questions...I didn't tell...Chris...I didn't..."
"I know, Vin." He reassured, gripping the hand in a show of strength. "How'd you get away?"
"...don't know how long...no windows...too many questions..." he slurred.
"Chris, he's had it." Nathan warned, moving closer with a bowl of soup.
"...m'okay Nate..." Vin mumbled, peeling an eye open. He saw Josiah and Buck by the door. "Hey y'all..."
"Hey Vin..." Buck waved.
"Morning, Brother..." Josiah eased.
Turning back to his best friend, he turned his arm over, exposing the brutal bruising her cruel methods caused. "...she stuck me...hurt like hell...damn near killed me...I told her...didn't want to..."
"Shit..." Nathan hissed, examining the tender flesh. "She used a syringe...or misused it I should say. Could have killed him."
"I'm guessin' that was the idea." Buck said, stomach upset.
"No..." Chris shook his head, eyes lingering on the purple and blue streaked arm. "She wanted him to suffer..."
"...snakes...all over...over..." Vin drifted, eyes wide as the horrible sight came back. "...hollerin' at me...crawled in my mouth..." He blinked, and came back, embarrassed that he allowed himself to drift away.
"Hallucinations..." Josiah sighed.
"She wanted to know about that fella...the one from town..."
"Cavendish...he was her father. You cross him before?" Buck asked and saw the head dip once.
"...Red Fork...he didn't like me nosin' around." Vin said and saw Chris flinch. "...s'okay Chris...I understand."
"No, Vin." Chris said, patting Vin's leg and rising. "It's not okay...I'm gonna track her down and send her back to Hell where she belongs. I'm sorry, Cowboy...I was wrong. I should have had the balls you did that night in uh..." He recalled Vin's words from the street the morning the tracker returned "...that whore's dining room. You were right. I was selfish and it nearly got all of you killed. It ends here." He strode out angrily.
"Buck..." Vin pleaded, struggling to rise.
"Get back down there..." Nate barked, forcing the weak chest backwards.
Buck nodded and followed Chris. He caught up to him as he was saddling Caesar. "I'm going alone."
"That makes a lot of sense." Buck said sarcastically.
"Look Buck, I appreciate the offer." He turned and eyed the tent. "But I need you to protect Vin. He's in no shape to fight a fly let alone the likes of her. She's capable of anything. Hell, she might be hiding out close by...She's got Vin in her sights now too..."
"...and she knows he's your Achilles heel." Buck guessed "I don't like it...but I can't argue. Hell, she had the balls to come right into Four Corners..."
"Nathan hasn't slept in three days...Josiah's ready to drop." Chris paused. "Get Vin back to town...he's over the worst of it and it's too wide open out here." Chris ordered, swinging into the saddle. "Don't leave him, Buck..." He asked, and clasped the hand offered.
"You got it, Boss." Buck nodded. "Hey Chris..."
"Yeah...you too." Chris smiled, feeling Buck's worry in the dark blue eyes and reading the silent warning of caution. With that, he took off.
Buck watched him leave and sent a silent prayer with the cloud of dust that trailed behind the raging figure in black. He heard Josiah move beside him. "That's what I call a man with a mission."
"Amen, Brother." Josiah agreed. "Come on, Buck. Might as well eat a good breakfast, we got work to do."
Three days later outside Santa Fe.
"It would appear as if that vile creature has fled her nest." Ezra cantered, eyeing the deserted house.
They'd stopped in several river towns and Ezra used his 'charm' to pry information from a variety of bar patrons. The rumor of a wealthy widow hiring guns for good pay and no questions asked, had been running rampant. The site of the gothic creation came from a clerk in the freight office at Rosedale, a small town close to Santa Fe. They'd delivered some wingback chairs and other expensive furnishings a couple months back. Ezra's generous tip had aided the failing memory of the clerk. He was then glad to draw a crude map. They found the house, but no signs of Ella or anyone for that matter. A dead body in the cellar was the only resident. The room they found him in was Vin Tanner's cell. Ezra's stomach churned and he pushed the thought out of his head. He finished the last of the imported French Cognac and rose. "What now?" J.D. asked, still not recovered from the dungeon they'd found where Vin was held. The site of the chain tomb and bloody mattress gave him the chills.
"Well, there is the matter of that stolen dynamite. Perhaps we should start there." His fingers caressed the rose silk fabric on the settee. "What a waste...all that money..."
"Money isn't everything, Ezra."
"You are so very young..." Ezra snorted and exited into the sunlight. "Now where did you slither off too?" he asked, eyeing the horizon.
"Think the Army can find her?" J.D. asked, mounting his horse.
"I don't think they'll try." He answered. "It wasn't enough to cause a that much of a stir. They're spread too thin already. Too many Forts are short staffed and there is a rise in Indian uprisings. However, it might be wise to offer our assistance..."
"For a small fee?" J.D. concluded, grinning in spite of himself.
"My good young friend...you underestimate my sense of patriotic duty." Ezra sniffed.
"You're full of shit, Ez." J.D. laughed and galloped away.
Meanwhile, back in Four Corners...
"Good Morning, Mr. Jackson."
"Ma'am" the healer nodded to an elderly woman leaving the bank.
"How is that young man?" She asked.
"He's about the same...it'll take some time."
"I'll keep him in my prayers..." She nodded, "Oh, I left some peach tarts with Mrs. Potter. She said she'd drop them off for..."
"Vin?" He input, knowing she was forgetful. She smiled and grabbed his sleeve.
"Yes...My husband was quite fond of him. No job was too much trouble...and he'd never take a cent."
"Bet he made up for that in pies and cakes..." Nate grinned, knowing how Vin always found time to help the Tyler's, who were the oldest residents in the area. Jonas died a few months back and Margaret was selling the house and moving back east.
"It does a heart good to see a boy eat like that." She smiled, then turned to leave. "Such pretty eyes, that one..."
Nathan ambled over towards the Saloon and thought on those eyes. He was worried about the tracker. Vin slept through his arrival back in town and hadn't been awake too much since. On one hand, it was to be expected. He was weak and the infection took all his strength away. Plus the two wounds and injured ribs made him stiff and sore. On the other hand, he was too quiet. He hadn't fussed once about his medicine or confinement. He'd complied with everything the healer told him. But he was avoiding people. Several of the townsfolk stopped by to express their concern and wish the injured man well, but Vin was usually asleep, or pretending to be. The lingering listlessness had Nathan worried. He finished his coffee as Inez entered. She'd brought Vin over some breakfast and gave Nathan the opportunity to get some errands done.
"I think something is wrong with Vin."
"Like what?" Nate's concern was written in his features as he stood.
"He didn't say so...but I think his foot is hurting him...and he's wheezing...seemed to have a slight chill."
"Dammit..." Nate spun and made his way to the clinic.
He paused in the doorway and stared through the room. Vin couldn't see him, but the soulful brown eyes didn't miss the tension lines around his eyes and the bottom lip being bitten. He eyed Vin's hand resting on his knee and the way he was flicking the injured ankle. A small hiss erupted and was followed by a long coughing spell. He didn't miss the slight shivering as Vin returned to his stack of pillows.
"Vin!" He scolded, eyeing the breathless patient who was rubbing his tearing eyes. "Why didn't you tell me you were worse? I can't help you if you don't talk to me..."
"You ain't fine...I seen you just now..." He drew the covers back and sat on the stool by Vin's foot. He went to unwrap it and Vin pulled back.
"NO...please Nate...leave it be."
"Vin, I gotta look at it..." He saw fear and something else in the cloudy blue eyes. Vin laid his head back and closed his eyes. Nathan unwrapped the bandages and gingerly touched the wound. He heard a small grunt and saw the white knuckles clutching the sheet. He bent over and sniffed the open wound and shook his head.
"Don't smell nasty...no signs of inflammation or infection...Still...wouldn't hurt to get more herbs and pack it..." He rewrapped the foot and laid a hand on Vin's forehead. To his relief, it was cool. He moved to the kitchen and poured Vin a cup of herbal tea. He grabbed his stethoscope and returned to the bedside.
"Sit up a minute, Vin." He asked and placed the instrument against the trackers discolored back. "Take a deep breath..." he frowned and listened..."Again...again...." He moved to the chest and continued to listen. "Okay...here, I want you to drink some of this." He eased Vin back and pulled the blanket up. Vin sipped on the tea without a complaint of any kind. This was another sign that all was not well. "You been coughing up any more of that green stuff?"
"Some..." Vin shrugged.
"I'm gonna swap your chest and the ride over to Kojay's. I need more herbs...I'll have Josiah keep an eye on you, 'til I get back tomorrow."
"Ya ain't gotta go..." Vin whispered, handing the empty cup back. "...done enough already..."
"You never mind what I do..." He scolded, and rubbed the last of the chest poultice carefully on Vin. "Don't you give Josiah any trouble...Inez will be back later with your lunch...Vin?" He eyed the slack features.
"...just wanna sleep..." Vin mumbled.
"Okay, Vin." He sighed, upset at the listless body. Ten minutes later, with a long note of instructions left for the preacher, he was ready to leave. Vin was sound asleep, and Nathan's well-trained ear didn't like the rattle in the chest. He spotted Inez carrying a large basket of peppers and ambled over.
"I'm heading to the village, I need more herbs and medicine for Vin. Josiah around?"
"Si, he is at the church. I will tell him he is needed at the clinic. What's wrong with Vin?"
"I'm not sure..." Nathan sighed, "But I don't like it. You update Buck when he gets back."
"Si," The pretty tavern owner agreed. Buck was on patrol and due back shortly. She watched Nathan ride away and placed the basked on the chair outside the Saloon. She hurried to the church, but it was empty.
"That's strange..." She said aloud and looked around. The preacher's horse was missing. She walked over to the livery and spotted the teenage boy who helped out there.
"Timmy, have you seen Josiah?"
"Yeah...Lenny Dickens rode in earlier...trouble at the MacKenzies...something about butchered cows..."
"Thanks Timmy...if you see him or Buck, you send them to the clinic, okay?"
Inez placed the peppers in the kitchen and ladled a good amount of soup into a large tin. Snapping the lid in place, she wrapped it in a towel and made her way to the clinic. She left the steaming liquid on the stove and made her way to Vin's side. She brushed the errant strands of hair from his face. She paused to study his handsome features, which even the beating he endured couldn't mar. He looked so young...and innocent. She'd missed him...his shy smile and nod each morning. He was so polite and mannerly with her and all the women in town, even those who didn't deserve it, like Addie Ford. And he had a wicked sense of humor and she missed his pranks.
"You're a good man, Vin Tanner." She whispered, kissing his forehead and patting his cheek. He deep, even breathing told her he was sound asleep. The Saloon did a great lunch business and she had work to do. Of all times for Mary to be out of town. After the potentially explosive situation at the church, The Judge insisted she and Billy stay with them. Mary protested, but agreed to stay for a few days. She would be back tomorrow. Inez eyed the sleeping body and reluctantly left.
A half-hour later, with her peppers, onions and meat diced and ready for frying, she hurried back to the clinic. She was at the base of the stairs, when she saw Buck Wilmington coming down the steps.
"He's fine...sleepin' like a baby." Buck answered the worried dark eyes. "Hey...I got a hankerin' for fried chicken. Any chance I'll see some for lunch?"
"Si..." She snapped, "When pigs fly...Is that all you think about?"
"Now, you know me better than that Darlin'" Buck teased, grabbing her around the waist.
"You could make an honest man out of me Inez..."
"Huh!" She huffed, feigning indignance. Truth be told, the handsome gunslinger made her heart pound and her mouth go dry. That killer smile and strong hands made her tingle. What would it be like to kiss him? To hold him...to...
"Where's Nate at anyhow?" He looked over the soft, tantalizing shoulders that he gripped. He eased his hand down her back and drew a slow circle. He didn't miss the sharp intake of air.
"On his way to the village..." She said huskily, all to aware of the urges inside "...for medicine."
"...and Josiah?" He whispered, face inches from hers.
"...trouble at MacKenzie's ranch..." She stammered, lost in the dark blue eyes. "I...have...to...go...I..."
He silenced her with a soft kiss and released her. It caught them both by surprise. She saw him furrow his brows and felt the same wave of shock. "I didn't mean...well I did, but didn't expect...aw, hell..." Buck shook his head and leaned against the railing. The strong feeling inside him was different. He suddenly felt shy and uncomfortable. He was all to aware of the pretty girl, the ripe body and the dusty skin. Even the sound of her breathing was making his clothes seem too small. Lord, but it was hot suddenly. He tugged on his collar and heard the rustle of the fabric behind him.
"I better go..." She said, resting a small hand on his back, "You will see to him?"
"Huh? Oh yeah..." He managed, without looking up.
"Buck...it was nice."
Buck flushed and heard the soft laughter as she left. Nice? He didn't want nice...he wanted hot...passionate...smoldering...lingering...nice? He sighed and scratched his head. Then he perched himself in the sun on a chair and leaned back against the wall of the building. The warm day made it too stagnant inside Nate's small clinic. He'd keep an eye on the street and check on Vin at intervals. He glanced at the window in the clinic and thought on his quiet friend.
Army Office on the Plaza in Santa Fe
Ezra entered and appraised the aging military man behind the desk. All spit and polish, no nonsense type. Lean and trim, uniform pressed and buttons shining, not one well-groomed hair out of place.
"I'm Ezra Standish. Sheriff Dunne and myself have traveled here from Four Corners. We came to offer our assistance in apprehending a mutual miscreant."
J.D. suppressed a smile. The Army major read Ezra like a cheap novel. He shifted his hazel eyes to the Gambler, who saw the same thing. Ezra's jade eyes shifted and J.D. could almost hear the wheels spinning in his head.
"What Ezra meant as that the woman who stole the missing dynamite, is wanted for kidnapping and murder. We tracked her to a house outside town. She arrived in Four Corners a few days back and nearly blew up a church full of people." He walked to the desk and held out his hand. "I'm J.D. Dunne."
"James Ellis," He nodded, "You old enough to wear that star?"
"You too old to wear them bars?" J.D. eyed the gold insignias and saw the Major nod and smile.
"Touché." Ezra murmured.
"This is what we found under the church and in the wagon they left behind." the dark-haired youth slid a paper across the desk. "Does that cover it?"
"No...there's still another crate missing. From what the U.S. Marshall wired about Ella Gaines, she's quite dangerous."
"She's quite mad...like a rapid animal." Ezra added. "Aside from the obvious psychosis, delusional tendencies and obsessive nature, she's a cold-hearted murdering bitch."
"Geez, Ezra, but how do you really feel?" J.D. countered.
"The report mentioned an old lover...a target...Chris Larabee. Do you know his whereabouts?" The Major inquired, scanning the papers in front of him.
"The key word there is 'old' as in former." Ezra answered. "Mr. Larabee is back in Four Corners. The she-devil's attack severely injured a good friend of ours."
"She's still hunting for Chris." J.D. answered, eyeing Ezra. "If she's not here..."
"She's licking her wounds and readying for the kill." Ezra answered, reading the youth's mind. She'd return to something familiar, somewhere in her warped mind was their love nest. "To quote or esteemed leader, 'Let's ride'."
"Son-of-a-Bitch" Buck hissed, jumping from the chair as its legs slammed into the boardwalk. He'd been pondering things and they didn't add up. Then it was like a fog lifted. Nathan's orders being carried out to the letter, without one raspy compliant. Medications being taken, soup eaten by the gallon, sleeping round the clock. The subtle wincing, hissing and wet coughs when Buck checked on him. The shivers that conned the foolish older man into putting pants and a shirt on him. Vin was sick, but still, he gave into Chris's departure a little to easily. He took the steps two and a time and burst into the room. The door slamming caused the body, sitting up on the side of the bed hunched over, to jump.
"You knew...you sneaky bastard...how long?" Buck hollered towering over the stricken smaller man.
Vin turned slowly and saw the irate eyes bearing down on him. Buck's face was flushed with anger and the blue eyes darkened in rage. He flinched as the hand shot out, and found his shirt gripped and his body forced back slightly.
"Answer me, Goddammit..."
"Wasn't sure right off...wasn't thinkin' clearly...but it didn't figure." Vin replied, wincing as his ribs protested the movement. Buck's grip didn't budge an inch, nor did the fury subside.
"...and..." the older man seethed.
"...she took the horse I rode in on...he's favorin' a leg. J.D. should have found the trail right off." He had to move...his chest was burning. He closed his eyes and hissed, fisting the fabric on his blanket.
"You think you hurt now...wait until Chris gets back. He's gonna skin you alive. He ain't real fond of snipe hunts. How could you do that to him? Do you have any idea what he feels? How long he's waited?"
"I'll take what's comin'" Vin's voice was barely audible and he stared at Buck, "...and be damn glad he'll be alive to dish it out."
"You can't play God Vin...You shouldn't have lied to him..."
"I DIDN'T LIE..." Vin shoved Buck hard and attempted to stand, only to meet a linen wall of wrath. "I didn't know fer sure...honest Buck..."
"Christ, will you stay off that foot!" Buck growled and shoved Vin hard back onto the bed.
"Quit yellin' at me..." Vin protested, but hung onto the strong arm as the room began to spin a bit. "Aw, hell..."
"On no you don't." Buck ordered, gripping the shoulders, "Don't you pass out on me..."
"I'm fine..." Vin insisted and drilled Buck with a lethal blue stare. "...don't ever call me a liar again."
Vin's steel tone caused the older man to back off. He wandered to the window and gazed at the street outside.
"It didn't figure...her ridin' back there...not with me livin' and knowin' her coop. But I wasn't sure until the wire came."
"What wire?" Buck turned back and saw Vin dissolve into a coughing fit, not missing the quick motion of the hand disposing the yellowish muck into a towel. He handed Vin a mug of cool water and waited. Finally, Vin's breath came back.
"...J.D.'s...come last night...Josiah got it...heard him talkin' t' Nate."
"Why didn't they tell me? What did it say?"
"Ya was tanglin' with that French critter." Vin rasped, clutching his side. "Ya left out early for patrol. Josiah got called away and Nate left..." He paused, "...anyhow...they found the place, but she's not there. Nobody's been there since I left out. Then I knew...felt it in m'bones...we gotta go..." He said, standing on his good leg and bracing himself as Buck's curses flew by. He grabbed the muscular arm and refused to budge.
"Go? You can't even stand, you damn fool..."
"Chris is in trouble..." He said quietly, but his eyes were cold, "...we're wastin' time."
"Chris? He's headin' north...What do mean trouble?" Buck didn't miss the brief glimmer of fear in the sky eyes, before they grew silent. "Shit..." He grunted, knowing the kinetic connection the two men shared. "You can't sit a horse..."
"Annabelle can hold both us..." Vin replied of Wilmington's gray bay, his eyes skimmed the floor. "I need m'boots..."
"Annabelle?" Buck's voice rose, "What the hell makes you think I got a double-death wish?" He grilled, of Nathan and Chris's reactions to his absconding with the rebellious tracker.
"Fine...squat yer ass here...don't need ya no how..." Vin sassed back, clutching the wall and hopping towards his boots in the corner. "I'll find him m'self..." His sentence was cut short by the sharp pain in his wounded side, which caused a cry to slip out.
"You're gonna break your face...Goddammit Vin." Buck hollered grabbing Vin's arm. "I must be losin' my mind." He eyed the shaggy head rising and the small grin forming. "Damn, sorry-assed crazy buffalo hunter..."
"Crazy like a fox..." Vin's eyes glinted and he let Buck sit him on the chair. Buck didn't say a word while he put a single boot on Vin's good foot. Well, not an intelligible word anyway. He grabbed the large white sock Nathan used for Vin's foot and covered it. "You best leave word for Josiah...he'll be back before Nate..."
"Me? Your hand ain't broken." Buck tossed back, grabbing bandages, and shoving them in his pocket.
"My scribin' ain't too good yet...sides I ain't up to writin' just now...feelin' poorly and all..."
Buck wanted to say something but the combination of faked tone and the exaggerated grimace could only lead the big man to chuckle. He saw the blue eyes peep up at him and smacked the loose blue shirt playfully. "You wait here...I'll rustle up some gear and come for you."
"I'll wait out back...no sense ya climbin' the stairs again."
"Out back?" Buck paused and saw the fearful eyes darting. Vin had been avoiding the issue since their return. He rested a hand on the downcast shoulder. "I know it still hurts Vin, but you're gonna have to face them someday." He felt the tension appear and the eyes grow icy. Vin turned away and Buck knew better than pursue the issue. "Okay, Vin...Come on, I'll help you down the back steps..." He wrapped one of Vin's arms around his shoulder, watching that the foot didn't touch the ground. Vin didn't move and Buck saw his head bobbing, the eyes peeling the room, floor and furniture. "What's wrong...you lose something?"
"You got a shirt on...That rag you call a coat is outside...Vin, what..." Buck paused as the weaker body pulled away, and bent over. He felt a warm rush inside and got a lump in his throat. Vin flushed and dropped his head, and his fingers fumbled with the buttons. "Here..." Buck's voice was warm and rich, full of the emotion he felt. "...let me help, Slick." He waited, not daring to touch Vin's prized black rag. But after a hesitation, the hand moved forward and the shaggy head dipped once. Buck carefully unbuttoned the three remaining clasps and felt his chest tighten. Without a word, he held the tattered black sleeve out and slipped Chris Larabee's workshirt onto his best friend's suffering frame. He smiled as Vin seemed to gain a new strength. The shoulder's squared away and the back straightened. The pale eyes were full of a fiery blue luster.
"Guess if I'm headin' on a goosechase, it helps to have the best damn tracker in the Territory with me..." He supported Vin and eased him carefully through the door.
"Ain't no goosechase..." Vin gritted, pain searing through his chest. "I know where she went...can feel it..."
Buck paused as they reached the ground and he eased Vin onto a small barrel. He read the mental map clearly and nodded. It made sense...where else would she go?
"You sure?" he asked and the light blue eyes burned, while the head nodded once. Arguing with the stubborn Texan would be like spitting into the wind. If Vin were right, they had no time to lose. If he forced the injured man to stay, Vin would only ride out after him and break his fool neck falling off his horse.
"She's there alright...ya put that on the note and tack it t'the door." He rasped and waited for Buck to return. He stood and held onto the railing, while Buck strapped his mare's leg on. He eased Vin onto Annabelle and climbed up beside him. "She ain't there fer long...that whore'll will have Lucifer squattin' over her by midnight. I aim to send her there..."
Six p.m. South of Four Corners
The lace curtains fluttered as a gentle breeze lifted them. She moved from the window and smoothed the folds of the expensive green silk dress. It clung to her like a second skin, it's low cut bodice winking boldly. The shimmering sun eased below the horizon and she smiled, feeling a tingle. She ran her hands slowly over her navel and lingered on the hungry breast. She closed her glazed eyes and imagined another pair of hands...callused and rough...twisting and pinching. A hungry gasp left her throat as the recollection of the hands and brutish teeth slapped back. The ache came back, throbbing so much she had to sit down. Finally, it passed and she curled a fist up, thinking on how close she'd come.
"Damn you Vin Tanner...You'll pay..." She hissed, grabbing the champagne flute and downing the import. She eyed the flickering candles and stabbed the helpless meat on the plate in front of her. She slashed at it, hacking it to pieces. She envisioned the chained body...blindfolded and helpless in the dungeon. "You didn't suffer enough..." She growled and speared a piece of rare steak, her eyes glazed over as the blood ran her chin.
"Enjoy it...it's your last meal."
The voice was cold...as if from the grave. The fork dropped from her hand and clattered loudly as it hit the floor. She felt an icy finger run up her spine...her head spun towards the side door leading to the porch. Where were the guards? She jumped up, her heart landed in her throat.
"Took care of 'em. You'll see them a little later...right around the time you saunter through the gates of hell, you Bitch."
"Chris!" She cried out.
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