Buck shifted Vin's weight to the other arm and switched reins. The shaggy head lolled against his shoulder and the older man bore the burden without complaint. The movement of hoof to hard ground sent waves of pain through the injured man's lean frame. Vin fought hard at first and colorfully demanded Buck pick up the pace.
"Can't ya git this glue bait to move any faster?"
"You watch your mouth you damn ingrate..." Buck retorted, careful of his hold as Vin swayed and gasped softly. "You'll hurt her feelings."
"I'll do more than that iffen ya don't git her ass movin'..." Vin rasped, then coughed violently, sending a burst of color in his vision. He felt Buck rein the horse in until they were trotting. "...fuck's wrong...with..with..." He protested, trying to grab the reins, only to have his hand slapped away.
"You don't settle down and I'll plant you on the next rock." Buck ordered, handing Vin a canteen. He brushed the yellow glob of sputum off his sleeve and didn't miss the deathgrip Vin had on his arm. "That's all I need is for you to poke a hole in your lung...Chris will skin me alive..."
Vin didn't answer and Buck's trained ear caught the struggle in the tracker's throat. He used his free hand in his pocket and pulled out a small section of bandage. "Here," He put the cloth near Vin's mouth. "Spit that shit out before you choke..."
"...quit nursemaidin' me..." Vin protested, "...go...faster..."
"You gonna spit that out or do I do it the hard way?" Buck saw the hand fly up and grab the cloth. It took several tries, but at last Vin disposed of the blockage and fell back against Buck, wheezing weakly as the road began to spin wildly.
"Shut the hell up..." He gasped, sensing Buck's broad grin. Sure enough, the booming laugh followed and he unleashed a few choice words. This only made his friend laugh harder and increased his fury.
The curse-filled drawl gave the mustached man several grins as they bickered while they rode along. But at the same time, he didn't miss the sharp intakes of air as the broken ribs felt every footfall. Then the crusty voice began to slur and the head jerked several times, finally Vin slumped. He nudged the gray steed, as the goal became obtainable.
"Come on Darlin'" He bellowed against the wind, and gripped Vin closer. "I can smell that bitch..."
+ + + + + + +
Ella's heart was pounding wildly as she turned toward the voice lingered in the darkest corner of the room. The glow of the cheroot caught her eye and she moved quickly.
"I knew you would come to your senses..." She whispered, skin tingling as his musky scent filled her. "You love me...you know you do. She wasn't right for you...too soft and naive..."
"Shut your filthy mouth, you fuckin' whore." He hissed, gripping her throat and slamming her hard into the wall.
"God you excite me...ruined me for other men..."
Chris's stomach clenched when he saw the bright lights of lunacy glinting in her eyes. All rational thoughts and reasoning were long gone. She was in a fantasy world. His fingers lessened and he cursed himself.
Desperate for air and fearful of the lifeless, cold eyes glaring at her, Ella's mind jerked into action. Her right arm was pinned to the wall and she needed to free it. The beacon in the hidden pocket at her hip was burning intently. "She screamed for you...the boy did too. Fowler said the brat was screaming 'Pa', it was the last word he heard, before the walls and ceiling fell..."
"SHUT UP!" Chris screamed, flinging her hard to ground. Her head bounced off the floor and her eyes slid shut. The animal inside long dormant easily took control. Sarah and Adam's charred bodies in the morning light came into his head and took all reasoning from him. He ripped the bodice of her dress, exposing the ripe fruit. He used one hand to pin both her hands above her head and groped her savagely with the other. The thunder in his ears was deafening as the echoes of Adam's and Sarah's screams as they burned filled his head. He reached lower, his limbs no longer in his control. He threw her skirt up and grinned ferally...no underclothes...
"Old habits die hard..." He grunted and shoved her legs apart.
Ella felt the familiar weight on top of her and smiled. The Sarah trigger worked beautifully, unleashing the beast. She felt the rough hands attack her and tingled all over. Her breath caught and she swallowed the scream of passion as his hand assaulted her. Playing possum took all the strength she had...almost.
Lost in an unbearable wave of pain and deafened by the screams of his family and the sickening smell of death, Chris left his guard down. She had to die...he released her hands and fumbled with the clasp on his holster. The agony in his head was all encompassing, building to an agonizing crescendo. He realized his mistake too late. The burst of hot pain in his side, halted his efforts. He pushed upwards, hands on the ground at her hips. He saw the evil grin and lunacy dancing in her eyes.
"Shit..." He slurred, as his body went completely numb. He fought a losing battle as pins and needles overtook him, leaving him flop helplessly onto her chest.
She felt his raspy breath on her bare skin and smiled, running her blood-red nails through his hair.
"I've missed you so..." She cooed, caressing his cheek as unintelligible mumbles came from the slack lips. Despite how good his weight felt upon her, she rolled him over and turned the tables. She straddled him, and carefully unbuttoned his shirt. Leaning over, she nibbled on his chest and bit hard, enjoying the weak grunt of either frustration, pain or both. Laughing maniacally, she sat up and held out a small metal object with a miniature arrowhead. "Brand new...all the way from Hong Kong..." She boasted, watching his bright eyes. She leaned over, rubbing her bare wares against his slick chest. "It's not poison, Chris..." She addressed the frightened eyes. "Just something to keep you in line...and all mine." She decided, forcing the limp lips open and ravaging his unprotesting mouth with her nimble tongue. She sat back and smiled, feeling the pressure in her groin. "Don't worry, Darling..." She oozed, unbuttoning his pants. "I can fix that..."
Breathing was about the only thing Chris could do. His body was paralyzed. His eyes shifted and he cursed himself inwardly. The only consolation was that she wouldn't kill him. Whatever she'd done...whatever she stabbed him with...was temporary. He blocked out the lips and teeth that toyed with him. He resisted hard, but his body overruled him. His heart pounded furiously, echoing the powerful dormant force he wanted to release. He closed his eyes and surrendered, trying to evade the hips grinding into him and the mad laughter dancing about the room. He was grateful for the black curtain that fell.
"Ahhhh!" She cried, seeing the head slump. "I used too much...he wasn't supposed to pass out so soon. No matter...it was good ride." She moaned, stretched like a contented cat and rolled off of him. The sight of her lean lover, lying helplessly before her got her blood boiling. A body appeared in the doorway and she looked up.
"Where have you been?" She hissed. "He nearly overpowered me."
"Not to worry, Senora," Ricardo answered, "I heard his harsh words and arrived in time. I didn't want to spoil your fun." He stepped forward and put the gun on the table.
"Very well." She pouted, eyeing her fallen prince. "You know what to do."
"Si, I will need your help...the others are dead."
"Hurry then..." She said, helping him lift the fallen body, "I'm still hungry."
+ + + + + + +
The moon's silver eyes basked the handsome rogue in a favorable light. The sight of the house brought back memories of the last gunbattle. His heart clenched when he thought of Hilda dying in his arms. Chris nearly dying...and that bitch on a horse riding away. He pulled hard with his left hand, and eased Annabelle to a halt.
"Whoa...that's a girl..." He praised. He winced and shifted Vin to his other arm, shaking the painful pins and needles from his right one. He stretched his neck and eyed the ranch below. The full moon showcased the bodies in the front yard. That had to be Chris's work...she'd not be advertising her appearance. His cautious eyes studied the windows in the house, all were darkened.
"We're here Vin," He whispered to the body reclined against him. The head resting against his shoulder moved slightly and a small mumble was heard. Buck tapped Vin's face, "Hey...Sleeping Beauty...get them baby blues open..."
"Huh..." Vin croaked, peeling an eye open. He blinked until his eyes adjusted to the darkness and the familiar shape of the house loomed in front of him. He licked his dry lips and swallowed hard, wincing at the pain that lanced his head like an axe was stuck in it. Suddenly he was all too aware of the fact he was leaning comfortably against Buck. "Git offa me..." he snarled and pushed weakly at the strong arm. "I ain't one of yer bumpy critters..."
"You always this pleasant when you wake up?" Buck chuckled, and continued his hold, feeling Vin swaying. "Listen up, Grumpy...I'm gonna get down. Don't move..." He ordered, "You stay off of that foot. Let me do the work."
"...he's here..." Vin announced, ignoring Buck's list. "...quit pawin' me...and move..." His harried voice preceded his leg swinging.
"Don't fuck with me Vin..." Buck growled, "...or I'll tie you up and leave you here." He supported Vin's weight and saw the foot remain above the ground. He continued his hold and frowned, when no onry voice or snappy retort came forth. Vin swayed and his eyes remained closed for several minutes. Finally a hand made it's way over his shoulder and Vin lifted the bad foot protectively. "You ready?"
"...let's go..." Vin replied, and let Buck help him through the yard.
The first sensation he had was the overpowering sweet smell. His nose repelled and he turned away. His head pounded furiously and he moved his hand to rub his eyes. Something soft was underneath him...a large bed, stuffed with feathers. He moved his hands over the edge. What was that sound? He opened his eyes and saw tiny flickering lights. His head moved and saw more lights...candles...dozens of them. Something was burning in dish by the bed...the source of the smell. He sat up and covered his aching head with his hands.
"What the hell?" He groaned and eyed the glint of gold shimmering in the candlelight. Chains? He looked from his free left hand to his confined right one. "Fuck!" He cried out, realizing he was chained to the bed.
"You're awake..." She purred, kneeling behind him and massaging his naked shoulders. She bit him hard at the joint where his neck met the muscular shoulder and he swung a hand back, clipping her chin.
"Get your fuckin' claws off of me..." He groaned, turning back and facing her. Other than his black pants, he was wearing no clothes. His bare feet lashed out and struck her leg. She was wearing only a chemise and that dopey smile.
"Play nice or I'll hurt you." She threatened, pointing to the various syringes on the bedstand. She saw his face pale and laughed, running her hand up his thigh. "Champagne?" She cooed, reaching over him and brushing her breasts against his mouth as she retrieved the bottle from the floor. She popped the cork and spilled the liquid on him, licking it off with a flick of her tongue. He captured it and bit hard, drawing blood. She slapped him hard and raked his neck with her nails.
"Don't do that again!" She hissed, as he grabbed the bottle.
"Get off of me." He snarled, jerking his body and sending her to the floor. He took a long swig and wiped the taste of her from his lips. While she turned to stand, he glanced around the bedroom, sizing it up. His eyes widened at the golden key, a match to the gilded chains. It was beyond his reach on a hook near the door. Two windows to his right, a table with gaudy candelabra and a bowl of fruit were to his left. If he could get to that chair...the key was within reach. He eyed the long links and nodded. He felt the bed move as she eased back onto it.
Ella crept next to Chris and traced a finger across the bloody welts her nails left on his neck. She felt him flinch and saw his eyes trained on the fruit. "Hungry?" She purred, easing her fingers under the loosened buttons in his pants.
"Don't flatter yourself." He shoved her aside and stood, making his way to the table. He sat down and grabbed a pear. He devoured it easily and waited.
She stood and made her way to the table, sliding onto his lap, facing him. She picked up a bunch of grapes and put one between her teeth. She lowered her face close and offered it.
"I'm not that hungry." He deadpanned, drilling her eyes. He watched her eyes travel to the syringes and the eyebrow arch at him in warning. Again she leaned in and he took the grape reluctantly. Three more followed, each time with a slip of her tongue. With the last one, he kissed her hard, gripping the back of her head. He felt her stiffen in surprise and sprung into action. He jumped up, turned and wrapped the chain around her neck.
"Stupid bitch...I'd sooner fuck a dog..."
"Ricardo...." She screamed, as the black spots danced before her.
Chris dropped her and lunged for the chair as a body flew into the room. He lifted the chair and stared at the gun aimed at him. Deciding she'd never hurt him...he swung his body to strike the man.
"He's an expert shot...hell graze you...just enough to be painful and leave you without the ability to walk." She warned and stood. "...and I would so love that."
His chest heaved in anger, as he took in great gulps of the pungent air. His fingers tensed around the wooden legs and he reluctantly placed it on the floor. The guard waved the gun towards the bed and Chris stood defiantly, not moving.
"Oh really, Chris," She chastised, coming up behind him and hugging him around the waist. "Must you be so difficult."
He saw her hands at his navel, with a small syringe. He stiffened and stood back, biting his lip in anger. Sighing, he walked back to the bed and sat on the edge. His mind raced frantically to figure out a solution to this puzzle. How long before help came? Buck would come...wouldn't he? Once J.D. and Ezra realized the ruse...but how much time would he have?
"That's better," She decided. "You should save your strength for the trip." "Trip?" He repeated, eyeing Ricardo retreating outside the open door.
"Yes, Darling," She said, shedding the chemise and shoving him backwards onto the bed. "Our honeymoon...a private coach to San Francisco and then a boat to the Orient. I have friends there...and it's such a delicious place. I've decided that's where we'll live." She hushed, snaking a hand into his pants. "Of course, you'll be...uh...comfortably unaware until we arrive." She saw his eyes flick to the syringes. "Nothing permanent...the same medicine I gave you earlier. I'll take good care of you." She grunted, grinding into him.
"Never..." Chris snarled, shoving her away and crawling off the other side of the bed.
"Such anger...we must do something to put that energy to better use." She pouted, "I won't have you ruin our honeymoon night. I need to get some sleep before we leave."
"Leave?" He frowned, moving away from and eyeing Ricardo's back in the doorway.
"Yes, Lover...in the morning."
"Shit..." He hissed, hands on his hips. The defeat nearly smothered him. How could he have been so stupid? He let his need for vindication, satisfaction, and ego overrule his common sense. He should have shot her on sight. Instead of pursuing the need to see her squirm...cry for mercy...beg him. "Fuck..." He cried out and threw the table across the room, shattering a window.
"You leave me no choice..." She slid to the table out of his reach and picked up a small syringe.
"You stick me with that and it will be the last thing you do." He warned, holding the bottle upside down and ready to clobber her with it.
"Really, Chris...you're trying my patience." She clicked her tongue. "Ricardo..."
Chris's eyes flicked to the now deserted doorway. His heart flickered as he eyes took in the vacancy and the key. He saw her frown and waited to make his move.
"Ricardo!" She shouted and backed up, eyeing the door.
+ + + + + + +
"You okay?" Buck whispered, leaning over the prone form.
"What the hell happened?" Vin rasped, fingering the broken glass
"I tripped over that table and uh...sorta dropped you."
"There's goes our big surprise." Vin hissed, as Buck drew him up. He eyed the broken lamp and shook his head.
"It wasn't my fault..." Buck protested, "It's dark in here. Hell, I can't even see my hand."
Before Vin could reply, footsteps beat a path down the stairs to the right and a male body appeared in profile.
"Stay down." Buck whispered, shoving Vin hard behind a settee. "I'll get him..."
"Buck...Buck, get back here." Vin whispered, taking out his mare's leg. "Goddammit..." he frowned, squinting into the inky darkness. "Where the hell did he go?"
Buck crawled towards the stilled figure, his eyes barely making out the gun. He bit back a cry of pain as his knee landed on a sharp piece of glass. His groping fingers pried the piece loose and he tossed it across the room. It clinked against the wall and the stranger moved. Buck poised and then bolted, throwing himself at the man.
"Buck..." Vin's head came up and he pushed himself up, using the settee for leverage. Nate's warnings of amputation rang in ears as he eyed the dark room. He sighed, eyeing the gun. If he dropped the gun, he could use his hand to maneuver without using his foot. If he placed the foot down, he'd have the gun, and an agonizing pain..not to mention the other consequence. The grunts of the wrestling bodies gave him no choice. He tucked the gun in his waist and groped blindly, hopping along. He was about ten feet away, when he saw both bodies fighting for control. They did a mad dance across the floor. They tripped and fell, and he saw the larger body down. Vin saw a hand rise, just as the moon shifted and sent a beam of light into the room. A glint of silver...a dagger poised high above Buck's neck.
"Shit..." He balanced on his good foot and fumbled for his gun. A soft grunt and the bodies moved, just as he fired. The force knocked him off balance and he fell to the floor. The dagger sailed away and the smaller body flew backwards.
Ricardo landed hard and pulled the gun from his belt. He eyed the two men and noticed the smaller one was weak. He assumed the man was injured, by the way he was shaking. He smiled as he aimed.
"Get down!" Buck screamed, seeing the gun rise like a cobra at Vin's head. His own gun was lost in the fight. He launched himself at Vin as both guns fired.
The room was deathly silent. Vin's heart was hammering as he sat up. All the pain he felt was too familiar. His ribs and head pounded and his chest hurt. He sighed, relieved that no new bullets left a mark. Then he saw the two bodies not moving. His heart nearly stopped, as he recalled the shape of a dark body flying through the air.
"Buck..." He whispered, crawling towards the unmoving body. His fumbling fingers found the chest first and his shaky hand made a path for the neck. "Bucklin...." he rasped painfully, tapping the still face. "Talk to me ya no account skirt-chaser..." He slumped in relief when his hand moved over the nose and mouth and felt breath. His fingers found the pulse, beating strongly. He carefully knelt up and moved his hands down the arms and legs. The sticky patch on Buck's thigh gave him pause. He untied Buck's kerchief and secured it around the wound.
Vin's head shot up and her voice sailed down from above. He moved over Buck, guarding the unconscious man, oblivious to his own body screaming in pain. He slapped Buck's face hard.
"Wake the hell up...Goddammit Buck." He was about the slap Buck again, when he felt another sticky mess...on Buck's skull. "Aw, shit..." Before he could act, the voice bellowed again and he frantically sent his eyes around the dark room. Where was his gun? He crawled to the other body, and discovered he was dead. He heard a muffled voice from above. A familiar voice, who then cried out in pain.
"Chris!" He hissed and pulled himself over to the stairs. He crawled up at a record pace, and upon arriving on the top floor, saw light from an open door. He knelt and crawled towards the door. He peeked inside and saw her tying a silk robe around her body. Chris was chained to the bed and bleeding from a head wound. Vin saw the broken bottle and the syringe in her hand. His mind flashed to his horrific ordeal.
"Now look what you made me do..." She screamed. "You'll be sorry..."
He pulled himself to his feet and gripped the doorframe. The room spun at a record rate and he saw black spots before him. Taking a deep breath, he eyed the chair nearby and lurched. He missed and crashed to the floor.
Chris blinked in disbelief as Vin toppled to the floor. The blood ran freely down his face, from where she struck him with the bottle. He was extremely dizzy and his stomach was threatening to spill. The room was blurry, as was the body in front of him.
"Vin, get the hell out of here." He screamed and lurched to grab her, but she moved to quickly for the wounded man. "Vin!" He cried out, from where he fell hard on the floor. He must have passed out for a moment. He blinked hard and saw her kneeling by Vin's body. He saw the large syringe and his face paled. As if reading his mind, she turned and smiled.
"Don't worry, Darling, this time I'll make sure there's enough to kill him quickly. The agony will be brief."
Vin blinked, the meeting of the floor to his painful chest was too much. The fire in his chest and in his head left him immobile. He was beyond dizzy and barely able to see. Where was Chris? He turned his eyes and saw her face and the syringe. Then the black box. The memories assaulted him...snakes and pain...unbearable pain.
"No..." He denied, "Chris..." His eyes met the tortured green ones, barely visible through a mask of blood.
"Don't you worry, Mountain Man." She hushed, turning his face back and holding up the overdose, "I'll take good care of him. I hate long good-byes. Don't you?" She brushed the hair away from his neck and saw the juicy vein bulging. "That'll do nicely..." She cooed, drawing the plunger back.
"NO!" Chris screamed.
In a blur of time and space, a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of color and heat seared through his tortured mind. His first sweet kiss with Sarah...their wedding day...the first night after Adam was born when they became a family...Adam's first toothless grin of recognition...his first drunken steps...walking...talking...his first pony...Sarah's last kiss...the charred bodies...Ella laughing at him...that macbre shrine in her room.
The unholy scream that burst forth from his lungs in a hot cloud preceded his flight. Vin's angry eyes on the boardwalk the day he rode back after losing Ella...that loss of trust that severed his psyche...Vin's lost blue eyes in the street the day he was chased from town...those same eyes locked into his and Vin's steady voice 'I believe'. He eyed the prone body of his best friend and leaped like a gazelle.
Ella turned at the unworldy cry and saw the feral look in his eyes. That brief hesitation was all it took. He slammed into her hard, sending both of them on top of Vin's body. She made no sound, but the wide-eyed look of stunned shock that masked her face gave him his answer. He pushed himself up slightly and eyed the syringe now lodged above her naval. Their eyes locked and for the first time in her life, Ella Gaines was scared.
"Please don't hurt me...Chris?" She hissed at the twin green fires of pure hatred burning into her. "...I love you...I did it for us...they had to die...don't you see..."
"Ain't gonna be no next time..." He growled, raising his hand over the extended plunger.
"NO!" she screamed as he slammed the lever downward. She pulled it out but it was too late. "Help me...Chris...please..." She gurgled as an unimaginable pain exploded inside her.
"Burn in hell, Bitch..." He teethed, lifting her body and throwing it across the room, away from Vin.
She landed hard and her eyes grew like saucers. Her heart was racing at a furious pace and the screams of agony died in her throat. She was lying in a deep pool of slimy, squirming snakes. They slithered over her, covering her and lancing their forked tongues in mock accusation. The scorpions came next, like an orange army across her chest. One was on her chin, it's tail raised high. The fangs sunk into her tender flesh first...dozens of them. Then the scorpion made his move as she opened her mouth to scream, he slithered inside.
Chris remained on all fours, trying desperately to remain awake. He blinked back the tidal wave of dizziness that threatened to take him. He closed his eyes and willed away the severe nausea. He covered his face with one hand and forced himself to remain upright, despite the spinning room around him. He swiped the flow of blood running down his face as a painful burst of wet coughing drew his eyes open.
"Vin..." Chris knelt over the tracker's still form and tapped the pale cheek. He raised the younger man and turned him, allowing him to expel a clot of congestive matter. "You're okay...I gotcha..." he offered, gripping the limp hand and hoping his listless friend would hear him. The soft cries of pain from the still unaware sharpshooter cut right through him. The unconscious man's forced, painful wheezing made him flinch. His shaking hand rested briefly on the torn, mangled black rag covering the Texan's chest. There were no words to describe the intense emotions that coursed through him. His heart swelled as his mind's eye recalled the staggering bundle flying through the doorway. He eased Vin upwards again, hoping to give the broken ribs some relief. Vin's head slumped across his forearm. He brushed the unruly curls from the stilled face and noticed the tears of pain the coughing had produced. One hand rested on the black cloth over the brave heart. "Damn interfering Cowboy...what the hell am I gonna do with you?" He choked over the lump in his throat.
"Ya can start by not bleedin' all over m'shirt..." Vin rasped painfully, forcing his heavy eyes to slide open halfway. The pressure in his chest was scored by the painful ribs, making it impossible not to gasp. He locked onto the hand slick with Larabee blood and looked up and saw unmeasurable depth of intensity. It seared through him from the pale green eyes housed in a river of blood. The force nearly took his breath away. He moved his lips to say something but just shook his head, not allowing words to ruin the moment. He squeezed Chris's hand as hard as he could and saw a brief curtain of moisture cloud the green eyes.
"What's with you and this damn shirt?" Chris rasped, inhaling the emotional tide flowing from the blue eyes.
"Don't git any ideas..." Vin gasped, using his free hand to cover the sticky one that rested over his heart. "Ya can't have it back..." He declared boldy, still tingling at the turn of events.
"...back?" Chris said tightly, "Hell, there isn't enough left to make a fuckin' dinner napkin."
"Just so's ya know..." Vin sighed, trying hard to hold onto the moment. Chris's face was getting blurry and the room was fading away. "...I seen ya...seen...ya...eyein' it...up..." He finished as another wave of coughing possessed him. "Aw God..." he curled up, frightened by the lack of air. He heard Chris's frantic voice and felt the hand slamming him on the back.
"Vin...Goddammit don't you die on me," Chris's voice rose in fear when he saw the blue eyes widen and the mouth gaping like a fish out of water."...you inconsiderate, sorry-assed Texan. Don't have the sense to stay in bed when you're sick. Breathe Goddammit...Breathe..." He screamed, folding Vin over his forearm and pounding his back. The loud burst of coughing caused his eyes to close in relief. A large wad of phlegm landed in a splat and Chris pulled Vin upright against his chest.
"Thanks..." Vin gasped, sucking in sweet air painfully.
"I think that's my line..." Chris replied, sighing in relief as Vin slumped against him.
"Dead?" Vin slurred, eyeing the jerking body on the floor.
Both men watched as her eyes rolled in her head and white foam tinged with blood spilled forth in a last colorful burst. Finally she lay still, her unseeing eyes claimed by Lucifer as he carried her soul down to the depths of Hell.
"Yeah...we got her, Cowboy..." Chris answered and fell back, letting the black curtain cover them.
Early Morning, Four Corners
Josiah savored the last remnant of a large stack of buttermilk pancakes and smoked ham. He patted his stomach and rose, heading for the coffee pot. He paused and stuck his head out of the batwing doors and shook his gray head.
"No thanks Inez...you outdid yourself."
"Gracias...will Nathan be eating breakfast?"
Josiah smiled and lumbered to the bar, pouring two cups of coffee. He doused each one liberally with whiskey and eyed the pretty tavern owner.
"Don't think so...never saw a hurricane eat."
"WHERE IS HE?" Nathan hollered, flying through the double doors.
"Morning, Brother. Welcome back." Josiah said calmly, holding out the extra mug. "Coffee?"
"No, I don't want no damn coffee." the healer snapped, closing the distance between them. "I want some answers. Where is that son-of-a-bitch?"
The ex-minister sighed and scratched his head, "Which son-of-a-bitch would you be refering to?"
"Don't fuck with me, Preacher." He snapped, "Where the hell is Vin?"
"Oh, that son-of-a-bitch." Josiah nodded thoughtfully and sipped his spirited brew.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Nathan barked, eyeing the staid face, "How many sons-of-a-bitches are missing?"
"Well?" Josiah gritted. "Now that you ask..."
Nathan narrowed his dark eyes suspiciously and gazed around the room. He knew before he took the paper from Josiah's hand. "I'll kill him...I'll kill both of 'em...Goddammit, Josiah..."
"Don't look at me with those daggers...wasn't my doin'. I was busy at the MacKenzies...poachers set in...took all night to get 'em. Found that when I got back around midnight."
Nathan scanned the note and pounded the bar in anger. He eyed the coffee mug and bypassed it, taking a large swig of Redeye.
"Little early, Nate..."
"Don't preach..." he hissed, "What the hell was Buck thinking? He wasn't thinking...damn fool's gonna get Vin killed. He's in no shape to be ridin'..."
"Don't blame Buck." Inez protested, surprised at the sharp tone in her voice. "You know how stubborn Vin can be...If Buck didn't go with him..."
"Vin would of slithered out on his own anyway...least this way Buck can keep an eye on him. Best get a bite, we got a good four hour ride ahead of us."
"Us?" Nathan scoffed, "What makes you think I have any notion of chasin' after them? Hah." he scoffed, taking the hot coffee to a nearby table.
Inez and Josiah exchanged grins behind the healer's back.
"I don't know why I bother. It ain't like y'all listen to me." Nate scowled, "If he thinks I'll be sympathetic when them blue eyes are full up and them broken ribs are poking at him...huh..."
"I got two horses saddled and ready. I packed your bag and plenty of supplies. Telegraph lines to Eagle's Bend are down...couldn't get the sheriff. " Josiah added, gulping the last bitter drop and nodding to Inez. He headed outside and walked a few feet away, cocking his head. He heard the chair scrape and the string of frustrated curses that preceded the irate medicine man.
"Shut up, Josiah." Nathan hissed, and brushed past the larger man, whose chuckles made him scowl more as they headed for the livery.
+ + + + + + +
It was something stronger than sunlight that forced the pain-washed blue eyes to open. Vin blinked and hissed as the bright rays slammed into his eyes. He tried to turn away, and immediately regretted the action. He couldn't supress the cry as he sailed past his lips. He saw a burst of colors before him and then the concerned face of Chris Larabee.
"Vin!" Chris croaked, his eyes shooting open as the agonizing scream slammed into his throbbing head. He was sprawled across Vin and sat up, staring at the shards of blue distress staring up at him. "What's wrong?" He asked hoarsly, shaking the sleep from his throbbing head.
"Ya puked all over m'shirt..."
Chris's face was drawn into a puzzle and then he saw the scowl and the furrowed eyes.
"What the hell are ya starin' at?" Vin demanded of the blank face, "Git me something to clean it off."
Chris's face broke into a grin at the irate iris's drilling him. The grin evolved into a chuckle and then a full laugh. He sat up and dropped his aching head onto his knees and continued to laugh. He didn't even know why...relief...euphoria...madness...it didn't matter. That Vin Tanner was next to him, breathing and complaining was reason enough.
"Ya think that's funny?" Vin said, smacking Chris's leg weakly. "Let's see how hard ya laugh when I spill my guts all over yer sorry self." He waited but Chris only continued to laugh. "Come on Chris...this stinks...it's making m'stomach churn..." He paused and eyed the back of the wet head, colored red with blood. "Aw, hell. " He feigned, gagging.
"Shit..." Chris turned and scooted away, out of the line of fire. The sudden movement only reinforced his nausea and caused the room to spin.
Vin saw the blanched face and watched Chris swallow back a burst of bile that rose. "Serves ya right fer laughin' at an invalid." He tossed, laying his head flat on the ground and closing his eyes.
"Invalid?" Chris scoffed, slapping Vin's knee. He eyed the body and narrowed his gaze. What was Vin doing here? If anyone had come with him, they would have found them by now. That left only one option. He knelt up and towered over he possum-playing Texan. "Goddammit Vin...You snuck out of town..." He screamed and saw the closed eyes flinch. " Look at me..." He stormed, seeing visions of Vin tetering precariously on a horse with his ribs threatening to poke holes in his lungs, which are full of congestion.
"Shut the hell up..." Vin sassed back, refusing to expose an eye. "...should have left ya here to rot...fuckin' ungrateful goddamn jackass..."
"I smell a rat." The leader said. The wheels in Chris's mind began turning and spinning, spitting out reasoning and logic. Nathan wouldn't let Vin off the cot, let alone out of the clinic, neither would Josiah.
"That'd be yer dinner layin' the hell all over me..." Vin wheezed, stiffling the urge to cough.
The wheels turned faster. That left only one option. Chris smacked a hand hard against the floor, causing Vin to flinch. "Buck!" He growled. "His hands all over this...I'll kill him..."
Vin's eyes shot open at the mention of the mustached-cowboy's name. Images of a burst of bullets and Buck's body falling hit him. "I think...I already...did...." He whispered. "Oh God, Chris..."
"What?" Chris leaned over and what little color Vin had in his face drain away. The blue eyes were wide in pain, but not from the tracker's injuries. The slack jaw fell open and closed again, without utterance. "Talk to me, Vin...Where's Buck?" He turned the face towards him. "Come on..." He intensified the grip on the chin and felt Vin's jaw move. Vin finally blinked and stared hard at him.
"...he heard us...it was dark...I seen a knife...I thought...I tried to shoot...I missed...he was gunning fer me...Bucklin...Bucklin..." He paused, seeing Buck effortlessly sacrifice himself.
"He what?" Chris demanded, insides turning to ice.
"He...he...seen the gunman and threw himself...at the bullet." Vin finished incredulously. "We fired at the same time...it was so fast...Oh God..."
"Who? What gunman? Where did you leave Buck? Is he outside? On the trail?" He hollered, gripping the dazed sharpshooter's collar and lifting him off the ground. He eyed the heavy lids sliding down and shook the body. "Goddammit Vin, Don't you pass out on me!" He shouted as the head fell back.
"Shit!" He swore, easing Vin back down.
"Now that's impressive." A voice weakly called from the doorway. "Your bedside manner leaves a lot to be desired, Pard."
"Buck!" Chris stood on shaky legs and wobbled a few feet, relief surging through his lean frame. He eyed the maroon stains on the wounded thigh and the bloody face that was grinning at him. The dark blue eyes were full of pain and the usually tanned face was pale.
"You look like shit, Buck." Chris grinned, gripping the other man's shoulder.
"Fuck you, Larabee." Buck returned, embracing his oldest friend. He gripped the back of the blond head hard and didn't hide his emotion. "You scared the shit out me, Chris. I woke up downstairs alone and thought..." He choked off the rest.
"Yeah...I hear you, Pard." Chris said tightly, pulling back. "That ugly face of yours never looked so good." He slapped the tan coat and stood back, frowning at the long gold chain. He saw Buck raise his eyebrows and cut off the thought. "Don't go there...Get the key and let's get the hell out of this room."
As Buck unlocked the manacle on Chris's wrist, he spotted the object of Chris's journey to hell, lying nearby. He shuddered and turned his back, dropping on the other side of Vin. He eyed Chris across the tracker's body and shook his head.
"Dead as a doornail and she still gives me the creeps...You okay?" He said quietly, resting a hand on the gunslinger's fallen shoulders. He saw an empty void in Chris's eyes and wondered. Three years of chasing shadows. Endless towns with forgotten names...searching...driving...unfeeling...a souless entity on a death quest. Now it was over. Was it enough?
"I don't know, Buck." Chris said softly, eyeing Vin's pale face. He brushed his hand across the tattered black remnants of cloth and tugged on the end. Vin moved without waking, furrowing his face and pushing the hand away. The weak protest gave both older man a good chuckle.
Buck tousled the damp curls and sighed. "The Boy sure is attached to that rag...wouldn't leave Four Corners without it..."
"We'll talk about you and this idiot later." Chris drilled, "Let's get him downstairs, there's plenty of room in the parlor. It's close to the kitchen..."
"Nathan will appreciate that." Buck agreed, then frowned.
"I saw that..." Chris read the fear in the dark blue eyes. "You best have a relapse before he gets here." he noted of the healer. "He's gonna be pissed off but good."
Chris didn't know if the groan Buck left out was due to the upcoming meeting with Nathan or the added weight of Vin Tanner to the wounded leg. They had Vin between them, one arm slung over each shoulder. Chris held up the tracker's injured foot and they staggered like three drunks on a binge. They did pretty good, for ten feet or so, then Buck's leg gave and and buckled, spilling them all over the carpeted hall. Groans and curses echoed loudly, as the entangled limbs fought pain.
"What the hell are ya doin'?" A raspy drawl inquired. He was on his back with somebody's arm over his face and a heavy leg on his knees.
"Cartin' yer sorry ass downstairs." Chris replied, sitting up and pulling Vin up with him.
"Buck!" Vin's eyes widened. "Yer alive!"
"Barely." The rogue replied, gingerly standing and grabbing the Vin's arm. He saw the emotional release in Vin's eyes and smiled. "Good to see you too, Slick. What do you say we make tracks?"
So they started out again, with Vin's arm's over each shoulder and the Texan hobbling on one foot. Vin eyed each of his battered friends and felt a swell of pride. Both faces were marred with blood, heads scored with a new battle scar. How many years had hid ridden solo? How long had he pushed this away? This feeling now gnawing in his gut...one that gave him the dopey grin that he wore. All of a sudden, he was damn proud to be the friend of Buck Wilmington and Chris Larabee.
"Ya mind not bleedin' on m'coat?" He complained to both. "Dammit Chris...ya walked me right into the wall. S'like the blind leadin' the fuckin blind...Buck, watch them big feet of yers...yer likely to stomp m'bad foot.
Chris and Buck exchanged a strong look over the tracker's drooping head. Chris raised a sandy eyebrow and Buck nodded, grinning broadly. Without a word, the gently lowered the onry sharpshooter at the top of the stairs. Chris took the lead and slowly started down, with Buck gripping the rail heavily, right behind him.
"Hey...ya can't leave me here...I'm gettin' dizzy Chris..." He called after the battered pair.
"Good thing you have a soft head." Buck called back.
"Yeah...reckon that will break your fall..." Chris added reaching the bottom and ducking into the parlor.
"Fine..." Vin sulked, grabbing the railing and easing his backside down onto the next step. "Don't need y'all no how...met snakes with more compassion..." He grunted "Should have stayed on m'damn cot at Nate's...left m'death bed to save yer sorry ass...this is the thanks I git..." He growled, reaching the bottom. "...and another thing..." a large splash of water hit him, soaking his face and front. "What the hell did ya do that fer?" He sputtered, eyeing Buck's laughing form in the doorway and Chris serious face in front of him.
"Cleaned the shirt...just like you asked." The blond said, gripping Vin under the arms. He saw Vin fighting hard not to smile. The lips quivered twice before giving in. Chris's own smile faded when Vin's chuckle turned into a clenched cry and he gripped his forearm hard.
"It's only about ten feet..." Chris puzzled, then saw a trickle of blood where Vin bit his lip. "What..."
"Hurts..." Vin rasped, refusing to budge. He closed his eyes and gripping Chris's arm hard enough to make the blond wince. Buck staggered over and rested a hand lightly on Vin's back. He heard the painful intakes of air and saw the tears running down Vin's face.
"Must hurt like hell..." He said to Chris, each knowing for the tracker to even mention it , it had to be excruciating.
"Yeah..." Chris hushed, eyeing Buck's gentle hand motion that was giving Vin relief. Finally the head rose and eyed them both shyly. Neither missed the slight flush.
"Sorry..." Vin whispered, the effort to talk becoming too painful.
Chris squatted down and met the blue eyes trying to hide. He waited until the eyes finally rose and met his. "That's okay, Vin...I got plenty more shirts without puke you can steal." The slow smile that formed warmed both of them. He felt the tension leave the smaller man and rested a hand on Vin's shoulder. "Okay?" He waited and saw the head dip once. "Good...Buck?"
"We got a real fancy bed waitin' on you, Slick."
As Vin raised an arm around Buck's shoulder, he saw the gaping gash in Buck's thigh. He diverted his eyes away, but not before Buck noticed.
"Cut that out." Buck ordered, tipping the downfallen chin with his free hand. "The pants were shot anyway and besides," He winked and gripped the tracker's neck. "...you know how the ladies love battle scars..."
Vin's soft smile was enough to ease the tension and Chris and Buck carefully brought Vin to his feet. It was a painful ten feet and by the time the reached the oversized, overstuffed backless divan, Vin was unconsious. Buck sat next to him, wincing and stretching his wounded leg. He supported Vin while Chris pulled his boot and coat off. Chris manuevered Vin on the comfortable furnishing, so he was resting in a three-quarter upright position.
"You wait here...I'll get some blankets and boil some water." Chris directed. By the time he returned, Buck was stretched out on the divan, about three feet from Vin. Both were sound asleep. Chris covered Vin with a quilt and cut the pants away. By the time he washed and dressed Buck's leg and head and doused his own head wound, he was seeing double and barely conscious. He eyed the large wing chair and ottoman nearby and collapsed gratefully. The sun was barely up and peeking through the windows. It unfurled its fingers and left warm caressed on the faces of the three slumbering gunslingers; the only sound in the room was the ticking of the grandfather clock.
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