Webmaster Note: This fic was formerly archived on another website and was moved to blackraptor in October 2008
The title comes from Ye Wearie Wayfarer written in 1866 by Adam Lindsay Gordon:
Life is mostly froth and bubble, Two things stand like stone, Kindness in another's trouble, Courage in your own.
- 1 -
Vin watched as Chris set his counter down on a square. The slender fingers held the black wooden disk as firmly as any pincers, while the move was made with the same decisiveness as every other action the man took. Thinking on it, Vin could not recall a single occasion when he had seen his friend hesitate and yet he had rarely seen him make a bad call either. There were many reasons for Vin's extended sojourn in Four Corners, a town that he had intended to be no more than a rest-stop a year and a half earlier, but his regard for Chris Larabee was high on that list. A Tanner through and through, Vin had no more interest in taking orders than in giving them and yet, time after time, he did as Chris decreed, not through obedience but through respect for the man's judgment and, more often than not, because he agreed with the plan.
He considered the pieces on the board. They were on their way to yet another stalemate, too well matched to make for an exciting game. He felt his lips try to twist into a smile at the thought but kept his expression impassive. Chris resented a draw, saying nothing but letting the firm set of his jaw speak for him, declaring his dissatisfaction at a game not won. Philosophical inside his taciturn shell, Vin saw it more as a game not lost. His gaze traced paths between the pieces, weighing up the possibilities, seeing no strategy likely to evade his opponent's intense scrutiny for long. Eventually he took a piece at the right of the board. Chris retaliated in kind. Their moves took on the ritualistic quality of a dance, as they eradicated one another's forces until only two remained, facing one another across the squares in an eternal face-off that would never be resolved.
It was symbolic of the men they were. They played differently and yet, almost invariably, reached the same conclusion. On days when the outcome changed, it was less that one man won and more that the other lost. Their rare defeats testified either to preoccupation or distraction. Were they ever to fall out, Vin suspected that the dispute would be determined in the same way. Chris could outdraw him any day of the week-if he could find him. Vin could shoot Chris from a hundred yards further with the assassin's rifle that was hidden inside a crate in his wagon. The man who lost would be the man whose concentration failed first. He genuinely did not know who that would be but their record at checkers suggested that it would be a close-run contest.
He sat back and met Chris's irritated stare.
'You should play Bucklin if you wanna win,' he pointed out. 'His mind's been on the wander all week.'
Chris's expression lifted, his eyes lighting up with the humor that came to the surface a lot more often than it had when Vin first knew him. 'Make that two weeks.'
Vin smiled. Twelve days, if anyone was counting. Since Louisa left town. 'Can't blame a man for missin' his woman.'
'You see that lasting?'
There was no malice in the question, just mild curiosity.
Vin shrugged. 'First time for everythin'.'
Chris conceded the point with an almost imperceptible gesture of one hand.
Vin grinned before adding skeptically, 'Leastwise, that's what they tell me.'
Chris matched the grin for a second but then sobered. Vin frowned, sorry that the lighthearted conversation had raised a ghost from the past, but then, gauging Chris's shift in position and minute pause, suddenly certain that it was not memories of wife and son that troubled his friend now. He raised an eyebrow enquiringly, putting no boundaries on the friendship that had come to mean so much to him.
'You ever regret ?'
The words might have seemed diffident from another man but Chris Larabee scarcely knew the meaning of diffident. His gaze was as penetrating as ever, leaving his question unfinished only to allow Vin to interpret it as he chose. Vin restored the checkers to their starting positions methodically, pondering his reply.
'Naw,' he said eventually. 'It was a darned fool notion anyhow. You said it yourself.'
Chris gave a slight shake of his head, in another of the understated gestures that said so much so economically. 'I was out of line.'
That's what Vin had thought at the time, and whenever he recalled it in the weeks afterwards, but now he said, 'Naw, you were right. Ain't none so blind as them that don't wanna see.'
'If you hadn't come back to help out, who knows?'
'It'da gone bad, sooner or later.'
'Maybe,' Chris conceded with a shrug. 'Maybe another time.'
'Hell, Chris. What use am I to a woman? She'd wake up every day wonderin' iffin it was gonna be the last.'
'Is that how you wake up?'
Vin considered the question. 'Not as often as I used to,' he admitted.
'I reckon you'd be more use than most, bounty or no.'
The statement took Vin by surprise, not so much for the sentiment it conveyed as for the fact that Chris had chosen to voice it. A flippant reply ran through his mind but didn't make it past his lips. Instead he said softly, 'Cain't say I wanna spend the rest o' my days on my lonesome. A man ain't made to be by hisself.'
He had been looking at the checker board when he spoke but looked up as he finished. When his eyes locked onto Chris's, he felt a renewal of the powerful connection between them that sometimes seemed more solid than the world beyond it. His words embodied their shared loneliness, whether for family lost or family never found, from spiritual solitude to physical frustration all things they understood and yet left unexpressed.
Then the moment passed and Chris smiled. They had each other. They had five friends worth their weight in gold. They had the respect of the townsfolk, even the most stubborn of whom had slowly come to value their protection. Two years ago, Vin hadn't believed he would ever know companionship again but he'd been wrong. Who could say what might happen in another two years? He was about to return the smile when a movement at the western end of Main Street caught his eye.
It was Sunday afternoon and the peace of the Sabbath hung over the town. Most folk were at home with their families, hymns sung and dinner eaten. There were a few men inside the saloon behind them and no doubt a few patrons inside the hotel at the northern end of town but there was precious little activity anywhere, certainly nothing to distract Vin's attention from the mare and mule walking down the centre of the street.
As his gaze flitted over the new arrivals, Vin knew that Chris was making the same examination and assessment. It took no conscious thought for him to evaluate the mare, her good blood as clear to him as her poor condition, and the mule, a gelding that was far too tired to show the typical orneriness of his kind. It pained Vin to see animals so ill-used but one look at the rider quelled any thoughts of a reckoning.
The visitor was a woman. On anything more than that, age or even race, Vin would have been reluctant to commit himself. Perhaps her bearing, every muscle slack, might be explained by fatigue but he would find it difficult to push himself hard enough to reach that state and had not yet met the woman to match his self-discipline. Besides, tiredness, however extreme, did not drain a body of all color. Both her hair and face were ashen, although her unlined skin made him wonder if she was younger than the rest of her suggested.
'Hell,' he said softly.
Beside him, Chris said nothing but leaned forward by an inch or two.
The mare slumped to a halt in front of the hotel, head drooping almost to the ground. The woman slithered from the saddle, her legs folding as her feet touched the ground and only her white-knuckled grip on the pommel keeping her upright. Vin watched without moving, noting that her clothes had been made for a boy of about twelve and yet hung loose as if there was no flesh on her bones. She straightened her attire feebly but, if there was any improvement, he couldn't see it.
At that moment, the livery owner came forward from the side street that led to his stable. There was nothing unusual in that-the man was entitled to try to make a living-but he had clearly not examined his prospective customer carefully before making his approach. When, hearing his heavy tread, she turned to face him, he came to a sudden stop. Vin saw his mouth gape soundlessly, robbed of words by her spectral appearance. Seconds passed before he recovered enough to gesture at the horse and mule, then back at the side street.
The woman offered no apparent response, hurrying instead to the mare's side and pulling at a square leather case fastened behind her saddle. Only when she had wrenched it from its mooring, did she stand to one side, clasping it tight to her body, and let the man lead the animals away. Vin knew from the woman's stance that the bag was heavy. He was at a loss to imagine what could be so important that a woman who was plainly close to collapse would not allow the stableman to bring it to the hotel with her other luggage.
Only when the new arrival had disappeared inside the hotel did Vin finally turn to Chris. In their roles as the town's protectors, part of their job was to know when things didn't look right. Although he could see no obvious threat at present, he wondered what could be following the woman to explain the look of her. He shuddered, his unease running far deeper than any logical explanation justified. An abusive husband in pursuit might be unpleasant but was unlikely to present a challenge to him alone, let alone with six friends at his side.
- 2 -
Later, when afternoon had almost given way to evening, Vin lay sprawled across the steps outside the church. There was nothing unusual in his presence there. It was a spot where he often loitered when he had nothing better to do, sometimes as a prelude to paying Josiah a visit but more often for no reason at all. He felt no particular attachment to the church but its steps caught the late sun and offered a prime view down Main Street.
To the left behind him, Josiah was fixing a sticky window. Vin had given no offer of help, confident his friend would ask if he wanted it, and the low whistling that accompanied the scrape of the plane testified to the former preacher's liking for his labor. Vin had no aversion to hard work, often putting himself out for others when the occasion required it, and yet he did not throw himself into it in the same way that Josiah and Nathan did. He turned that idea over reflectively, wondering if it made him lazy or selfish. Considering it dispassionately, he doubted that a man who would spend days meticulously tracking an abducted woman for the same dollar a day that he got paid for sitting on his ass in town could rightly be called either lazy or selfish. It was more that, with a nomad's heart beating in his breast, he was hard pressed to see the need for houses and churches. If he had a woman, his home would be wherever she lay by his side. If he had a faith, his God would travel with him.
His watchful eye spotted the new woman the moment that she emerged from the hotel. A less observant man would surely have missed her, as she flowed wraithlike through the shadows of the storefronts, but it would take more than stealth for her to escape his attention. Abandoning his previous train of thought, he monitored her progress. In his experience, women rarely aimed to pass unnoticed. There were some, Ezra's mother Maud for one, who took a perverse delight in causing as much chaos as possible. There were a few, like Mary and Inez, who were determined to carve a niche in a land where a woman without a man had no natural place. And there were many, like most of Buck's conquests, who devoted their lives first to catching a man and then to caring for the young'uns that followed in his wake. But one thing that they all had in common, whatever the reason, was that they intended to be noticed. This woman was different: there was no doubt in his mind that she would prefer to be invisible and, again, he wondered why. She still carried the heavy leather case over her shoulder, setting him pondering on that too.
Only when she passed the last store was Vin sure of her destination. She scurried across the side street that led to where the townsfolk were building their new school, clearly unnerved at traversing the open expanse of rutted dirt, and then returned to the shadows for the last fifty paces that brought her to the church steps. She stopped about ten feet short, a conflict raging across her peaked features. The pose she adopted as she stared wildly past him at the door of the church was familiar and yet out of place; it took him a moment to realize that she reminded him of a young child waiting on the use of an outhouse, her desperation so intense that it took on a physical presence all its own. When her eyes skipped over him, taking no risk of meeting his gaze, he saw something that he had never seen directed at him before. Her terror of him was almost palpable, sending a faint shudder of reflected horror through him. He had never so much as raised a hand to a woman in his life and had certainly never given one cause to react as this one did. She hung back, as if he might pounce on her when she passed, then returned those frantic eyes to the split pine of the church door. He rose slowly to his feet, making no sudden move that might startle her, and stepped backwards, away from the steps until he stood below the spot where Josiah had been working. The window was still open but there was no sign of his friend.
The seconds dragged slowly by.
The woman glanced again at the door, hanging just ajar, back at him, and finally at the steps. It was as if she were weighing up the chances of him grabbing her between her present position and the sanctuary. It took an effort to keep a puzzled frown from his face. Why would he have moved to one side if he intended to obstruct her path? Why would he stop at the threshold if he was of a mind to interfere with her? And why, though he felt cruel for thinking it, would he possibly want to avail himself of such a pathetic bundle of bones anyway?
When she made her move, it was like a hunted animal breaking cover. She might almost have flown up the steps, so lightly did her feet graze the treads. She pulled the door fiercely shut behind her, although Vin knew that she would find no locks or bolts inside to secure it. Curiosity piqued, he stepped silently closer to the open window and looked inside. The woman stood just inside the door, apparently no longer afraid that he might follow her inside, gazing up at the cross on the far wall of the church. The dying rays of the sun flooded through the western windows, lighting her features and giving the illusion of a healthy color in her cheeks.
She walked towards the altar, her steps slow and steady, then knelt before it and began to pray. At least, Vin assumed from the rapid movements of her silent lips that she was praying, not a subject on which he saw himself as an expert. Josiah appeared in the doorway to the room out back of the church. He watched her for a minute or two before he noticed Vin at the window. In response to his friend's raised eyebrows, Vin shrugged and moved on. If the woman's needs were of a spiritual nature, Josiah would be a good deal more help to her than he would. Besides, there was a certain lack of dignity in spying on someone's prayers through a church window. Turning slowly away, troubled by what he'd witnessed, he wandered aimlessly down the street.
- 3 -
Later, Vin paused outside the saloon, looking over the top of the doors to ascertain whether the clientele suited his mood. He mostly liked Sunday evenings, brisk enough but free of the rowdy cowboys and railroad workers that plagued Inez on Friday and Saturday nights; they were usually broke, in jail or both by the Sabbath. Not being much of a drinker or card player, he often passed his time by idly watching his fellow men at their pursuits and enjoying the indirect companionship of their presence. Stepping inside, he nodded to Buck and JD playing cards at a table in the centre of the room and made his way to the bar.
'Buenos tardes, Señor.'
He touched the brim of his hat in response to Inez's greeting and accepted a glass of beer.
'Is there trouble?' she asked softly, concern filling her vivacious brown eyes as she examined him.
He let a smile chase away his pensive frown before answering, 'If there is, I ain't seen it.' That was the truth; although some part of him sensed trouble, he had not seen it. Yet.
He had been staring into his beer for a good while when he felt a change in the mood of the crowd around him. There was no sudden silence, nothing so dramatic as that, but a wave of stares and whispers alerted him to a new presence in the room. He glanced up at the mirror behind the bar, catching Inez's expression as he did so. She was staring ahead, shock and sympathy in equal measure on her face. He knew before his eyes reached the reflection that the new woman had come into the bar. It was just one more thing to add to his catalogue of oddities: most women did not go into saloons alone and fewer still visited the church first. He followed her progress in the mirror.
She crossed the bar quickly, taking the shortest route from the door to Inez in the same scurrying gait he had seen in the street. Her eyes flickered frantically from face to face, in a way that made him question her sanity. Then she was at the bar, a yard or so to his right, speaking to Inez in a whisper so faint that he would not have caught the words had he not been watching her lips in the reflection.
'A b-bottle of w-whiskey p-please.'
Looking closely, he saw that her hands were trembling as well as her lips. Vin would not have believed that a body could sustain such unremitting terror had he not seen it with his own eyes. Inez glanced at him, as if asking whether she should fill the order. He dropped his head by the merest fraction of an inch. If a bottle of whiskey could calm the woman's fears, he'd be the last to deny her that relief. The crumpled dollar bill that she held out shook like a leaf in a capricious breeze and Inez held the bottle just a moment longer than usual, as if waiting for some assurance that the woman's grip on its neck would not fail.
The whole transaction took only seconds but it was long enough for Vin to get a good look at the leather case that the woman rested on the edge of a stool not two feet from his hip. It was strong, scuffed and locked. The fact that she set it down for so short a visit confirmed its weight but he could detect no clue to its content. She swayed as she shouldered the burden again and then set off across the saloon at the same hurried pace.
Vin returned to the reflection in the mirror just in time to see Buck step into the woman's path. For once, he was sure his friend harbored no desire for the woman. His certainty sprang not from any feelings he believed Buck might have for his absent fiancée but rather from the condition of the creature in front of him now. Vin could imagine no sane man feeling lust for such a pitiful wretch.
Buck raised his right hand to his hat and then extended it as if to take the case.
'Let me carry that for you, ma'am.'
The effect of his offer was dramatic. The woman cowered from him, as if he had threatened her, then ran for the door. Buck stared after her, stunned into silence. Vin peered into his beer, as if an explanation might be lurking at the bottom of the glass. He'd seen horses beaten into such a state but never a human being. Not even Josiah's sister, crushed as she was, had showed such abject terror when he confronted her.
'What the hell ?' JD said uneasily.
Buck dropped back into his seat, still looking shaken by the encounter. Vin guessed that his friend's reaction had much in common with his own. Any decent man felt uncomfortable putting the fear of God into a woman, even accidentally. He picked up his glass and joined his friends.
'You see that?' Buck asked.
'I was jus' being neighborly I didn't mean nothing by it. I mean, it's not like '
Vin nodded again, saving Buck the need to put his revulsion into words, and said, 'Don't like to think what puts a look that that on a woman's face.'
When Buck frowned, Vin guessed that his words had stirred memories that he would sooner forget.
'I seen plenty of scared girls but none of 'em ever looked at me like that. Didn't look like she was scared 'cause I was a man. Looked more like ' he thought for a moment, 'More like she was scared I was something else.'
Vin glanced up sharply, recognizing the feeling that Buck described from when the woman had braved him to enter the church. He cleared his throat apprehensively. 'Somethin' else? What d'ya mean, Bucklin?'
Buck shuddered and then shrugged. 'Damned if I know but I hope she's not planning on sticking around. Creepy.'
Ezra chose that moment to join them, his arrival in the saloon unusually late in the day even for him. 'Good evening, Gentl'men,' he began breezily, then paused to study them more closely. 'Is something amiss? Your demeanor puts me in mind of children in fear of a haunted house.'
'You seen that new lady in town, Ezra?' JD asked bluntly.
'No, son, I don't believe I've had the pleasure. Indeed, after a somewhat challenging night of play, I confess that I have not long since forsaken the comfort of my featherbed.'
'Hell, Ezra,' Vin snorted. 'It's nigh on time t'get back to it now.'
Ezra let a flash of his gold tooth speak for him on the subject of their contrasting lifestyles, filling a glass from the bottle of the whiskey on the table.
'Help yourself,' Buck muttered.
Ignoring the gibe, Ezra returned to JD's question. 'Why? What, may I ask, is so remarkable about this visitor?'
'She don't look ' Vin cast around for some word that might convey what they had seen but finally settled for one that was wholly inadequate. ' right.'
JD chipped in to repeat Buck's interpretation. 'She looks scared, Ezra. Buck said it didn't look like she was scared of him because he was a man but more like she was scared that he was something else.'
He had barely finished speaking when the doors swung open to admit Josiah's broad frame. The big man looked troubled as he dropped heavily into the chair next to Vin's and helped himself from the bottle.
'Have a party, why don't you?' Buck growled, as he watched more of his liquor flow down another throat.
His complaint once again went unanswered, Josiah asking instead, 'You seen that new woman, boys?'
'Not you too?' Ezra asked incredulously. 'And what flight of fancy are you about to embark upon?'
The big man glanced around the table for clarification.
Buck gave the short version. 'We was just saying she don't look right. Ezra ain't seen her yet.'
Josiah nodded. 'She was in the church praying for nearly two hours this afternoon. I ain't seen too many prayers take that long. She don't seem to wanna talk about it though. I tried but she '
Ezra raised an eyebrow. 'Looked like she was scared that you might be something other than a man?'
Josiah looked intently at Ezra for a few seconds, as if debating whether to argue the point. Finally he said, 'Wait till you see her, Ezra. I've seen plenty of fear, we all have. I ain't seen too much terror. There's a difference.'
Vin scratched his chin thoughtfully. 'I'd like t'know what's in that bag. Why haul a heavy bag around town all day, then panic when a man offers to carry it?'
Josiah nodded slowly. 'Good question, Vin. Why indeed?'
Vin drained his glass of beer but the shiver that ran through his body when he stood to leave had nothing to do with the lukewarm liquid. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt a sensation like it but suspected that he'd been a boy, not a man, when it happened. Buck was right-the woman was creepy.
- 4 -
'Aw, shit,' Vin moaned as he lurched into wakefulness.
Every morning, as regular as clockwork, his eyes flickered open when the first pale rays of the sun filtered through the canvas over his head. His sleep was always the same-shallow but peaceful, poised to face an unknown adversary but untroubled by the prospect-until the night just past. Plagued for the first time since childhood by nightmares, he had woken half a dozen times and then lain sleepless until shortly before the dawn. Only then, when he would normally be ready to rise, had he fallen into a deeper sleep. Now, with the sun already well up in the sky, he felt worse than if he had not slept at all.
He rolled clumsily from his cot and practically fell out of the back of his wagon, without any of his customary checks before beginning another day. Rubbing his face, he registered the fact that it was a couple of hours past time for his morning piss and his bladder was complaining about it. He stumbled along the side street leading to the back of the saloon, gun belt draped over his shoulder. He hated the stinking holes that were the white man's mark of civilization, much preferring the Indian custom of using an open area outside their settlements, but his options were limited now that he lived in a town. Finding it distasteful to foul other people's property and unworkable to ride right out of town every time nature called, he forced himself to do as they did. When a cursory glance to left and right revealed no one in sight, he stepped into the sickening gloom of the outhouse and braced the door open with his shoulder. Lips firmly closed against the flies that would rise in a cloud when his urine disturbed them, he unbuttoned his fly and freed his piss-hard cock in one swift move-practice had perfected the maneuver to minimize his time beside the foul pit. His flow began as soon as his flesh cleared his pants, urgent and full, emptying his bladder in less than quarter of a minute. It stopped abruptly, rather than tailing off as it did in more conducive settings, with just a single short spurt to empty the last few drops. Relieved in more ways than one, he stepped back into the street before he had even fastened the last button of his fly.
He stood there for a moment, collecting his wits and trying to remember what he'd intended to do with his day. The town's seven guardians followed a relaxed schedule most of the time, having reached an informal division of duties that assigned each man the role best suited to his character and routine. Vin's life had settled into a round of jail watches and patrols of the vicinity. He accepted the guard duty as inevitable and welcomed the riding and tracking. In truth, he doubted that he could survive life in town without his regular forays outside it.
To the best of his recall, that day was a free day. He had a vague idea that he'd been planning to pay a call on Nettie Wells, something he did every once in a while. Her balance of down-to-earth common sense and maternal warmth made him feel both relaxed and valued, and he reckoned she probably got near as much comfort from his company as he did from hers. The visit would have to wait, he decided, knowing that the only cure for his worrying was to face up to the reason for it. He wanted to know more about the new woman.
He strode back onto Main Street and glanced up at the clock outside the dry goods store. He couldn't exactly tell the time, in a conventional sense, and always avoided having to read it out from the dial but he understood in a more immediate way how the position of the hands related to the events in his life. The long hand was on its way up towards the vertical, while the short one was stuck out on the left horizontal. That meant it was somewhere close to Josiah's breakfast time. Vin usually ate earlier than that but sometimes drifted by with the aim of catching any leftover ham or sausage. He set off purposefully for the church, hoping it was his lucky day.
He rapped his knuckles softly on a side door at the back of the building. There was no need, given that Josiah always kept the church unlocked and welcomed all that passed through its doors, but Vin preferred to respect the man's privacy. When the door swung open, Josiah stood on the threshold, a finger lifted to his lips. It was a measure of how much the newcomer was on Vin's mind that he instantly assumed the gesture was connected with her. He stepped silently inside and joined his friend in looking through the gap between the hinges on the door into the church itself. There she knelt, in the same pose and on the same spot as he'd seen her the day before. He looked up at Josiah and let the tiny lines between his eyebrows speak for him.
Josiah shrugged, his shoulders barely managing to move under the weight of his concern, and resumed his vigil. Seconds stretched into minutes and still the woman's silent prayers flowed on. Vin settled himself for a long haul, knowing that his friend's preacherly patience matched his own hunter's endurance. By his reckoning of the sun's position, most of an hour had passed when his stomach growled softly. He glanced at the remnants of Josiah's breakfast on the table and, getting a nod in response, picked up a piece of cold bacon and chewed noiselessly. He had worked through all the leftovers, even the soggy fried bread, when the woman rested a hand on the altar rail and rose to her feet, her knees crunching as she did so. Vin turned sharply towards Josiah but, finding him already halfway through the doorway, kept out of sight. He did not expect a lone man to have much success in approaching the woman and could see nothing to be gained by doubling the threat.
Josiah walked forward, slowly but openly, letting the woman see him before he spoke. To Vin's surprise, she seemed quite calm when she did, staring up at him with uncertainty but none of the wild panic with which she'd greeted Buck's offer to carry the bag that was still slung over her shoulder. All in all, she looked less alarming that she had the day before, presumably the result of a sounder night's sleep than she'd had on the trail.
'Good morning, ma'am. My name is Josiah Sanchez.'
'P-please leave me alone.' Her tone made the words more a plea than a rebuff.
'I'd like to help.' Josiah's voice was low and reassuring. Vin had no doubt that both the offer and the manner in which it was made were a true reflection of the sincerity of his friend's concern for the visitor.
'You can't.' Her certainty stirred pity in Vin's heart, as he recognized the utter hopelessness in her reply.
'It couldn't hurt to let me try.' Gentle but insistent, Josiah leaned forward, daring her to trust him.
Her face clouded over and Vin could almost see the memories of others who had tried to help her. Perhaps she had somehow fallen foul of someone with the means to make her life a living hell, snuffing out the lives of those who tried to alleviate her misery. Perhaps they were not merely facing some heavy-handed brute as he had first thought. It made little difference to him, influencing his strategy certainly but not affecting his willingness to intervene. The bleak melancholy of her reply might shake his confidence but not his resolve.
'It might hurt you.'
'I'm willing to take that risk.'
Vin thought he heard the faintest trace of his own unease in Josiah's words but perhaps that was just his courage wavering. He wasn't in the habit of giving in to fear but this woman seemed to resurrect in everyone she met the long-forgotten horrors of childhood. He studied her, wondering if she would accept Josiah's offer of help. Her guileless face betrayed the battle raging inside her; she was torn between her reluctance to bring harm on others and her despair at tackling her predicament alone.
In a tiny voice, she finally asked, 'Do you have faith?'
Without hesitation, Josiah nodded.
The woman stared up at him for a long time. It felt long to Vin and must have felt longer to Josiah, bearing her intense scrutiny, but, if it did, he gave no sign of it. Eventually, she sat down in the first pew, shifting the bag onto her lap and settling it more comfortably. Vin could scarcely breathe, as he waited for her to reveal what could drive a body into such a wretched state.
'Do you believe in God and Satan?' It was as if her first question opened the floodgates on a dam, with more pouring out immediately after it. 'Or do you believe good and evil are within ourselves? Or are you one of the new clerics who thinks there can be good without evil?'
Vin suspected that Josiah was as startled as he was by the sudden deluge but would never have know it from his kind but gently mocking reply.
'Do you always start with such big questions?'
'It matters,' she said firmly.
'All right,' he said slowly, 'I figure I'm old-fashioned. I believe there's a god so there has to be a satan.'
'A god? A satan?' For the first time, there was something other than fear and misery in her fierce demand.
Josiah's answer was placid. 'One God. One Satan. Why?'
She stared at her hands and, when she spoke, the resignation had returned to her voice. 'If I tell you my troubles, you will think me insane. I have found people's faith to be somewhat limited when put to the test.'
She hesitated again but, this time, the argument inside her went the other way. Vin knew that before she spoke from the set of her thin, pale lips.
'No,' she muttered as if to herself. 'I won't bring harm on anyone else.'
With that she scurried out of the church without a backward glance at Josiah. Vin went quietly out to join his friend, frowning up at him as he ran through the exchange again in his mind.
'What d'you make of that, Vin?'
Vin pushed his hat back and kneaded the bridge of his nose thoughtfully. 'Darned if I know.'
'Chances are she's unstable but '
Vin felt the same. The woman was probably too overwrought to perceive her circumstances realistically and yet there was something about her that communicated her horror so vividly that it could not readily be dismissed. If she was out of her mind, he was pretty sure that somebody had played their part in sending her there.
- 5 -
That evening in the saloon, he listened while Josiah reported the conversation to Chris and Nathan. The account was word for word, to the best of his recollection, so he added nothing.
'Maybe she is insane,' Chris said.
His tone was hard to gauge, dispassionate and harsh on the one hand but contemplative and far from dismissive on the other. He was merely stating a fact: the woman might be insane.
Josiah twirled a shot glass between his fingers, accepting the observation in the spirit in which it was made.
Nathan cleared his throat. He'd already told them that, like Ezra, he had yet to see the visitor but Vin knew he had a more open mind than most. He'd seen with his own eyes how many of the old Indian medicinal beliefs were based on solid facts when you looked into them and he did not share the common prejudice that unfamiliar automatically meant unreliable.
'Could just be the fear,' he said thoughtfully. 'Folk come up with strange ways of dealin' with things. I seen women beaten to the edge of their lives who'd rather believe anythin' than admit their husbands are pigs, always makin' excuses for 'em or sayin' how it'll be different next time. Maybe she's got good cause to be scared.'
Chris looked at Josiah and drummed his fingers on the table for a few seconds before shifting his gaze to Vin. He said nothing but the question was there all the same: did Vin think there was something amiss? Knowing Chris could pick up a muscle movement at thirty paces, Vin gave his answer in a faint frown and the shadow of a shrug: he didn't know what he thought but wasn't about to say that they should stand by and do nothing.
Chris addressed his next question, aloud, to Josiah. 'So she's still spending a lot of time in the church?'
Josiah nodded. 'She was back this afternoon, same routine as Vin saw this morning but even longer.'
'Maybe, come morning, me and Vin should take a look in her room. If she ain't gonna tell us what's wrong, we better see if we can figure it out for ourselves.'
Vin felt a slight easing of the tension that had been twisting his gut all day, glad that they were going to do something, and saw his relief mirrored in Josiah's posture. He took a pull at his beer and nodded when Josiah picked up a deck of cards that had sat ignored on the table through their discussion. Josiah began to deal four hands and Vin put the matter out of his mind for the time being.
- 6 -
Vin's guts were back in turmoil by the time Chris joined him at a table outside the saloon the next morning. He'd been up for hours, so that even a bath and a heavy breakfast had left him with too much time to think. Mixed emotions swilled around inside him but the two he recognized with surprise were anticipation and dread. He was shocked at how curious the whole affair had made him and at the eagerness with which he now awaited an explanation; he'd trickled a few drops of nervous piss into the pit half a dozen times that morning, as if it were his wedding day or something akin to that. Underneath the veneer of excitement stirred a far more unpleasant sensation; it was the same visceral fear that renders a mouse helpless in the shadow of an owl and it had emptied Vin's bowels in a bitter rush during one of his repeated visits to the outhouse.
Chris had brought JD with him and even the usually irrepressible youth was uncharacteristically quiet. They sat in silence, waiting for the woman to pass them on her way to her morning prayers. Vin breathed an audible sigh of relief when she finally opened the hotel door. He was disappointed, although far from surprised, that she once again carried the shoulder bag. He had yet to see her without it and was convinced that its contents would go a long way towards explaining her strange behavior.
The woman covered the length of Main Street with her customary haste so they did not have long to wait before she disappeared inside the church. Vin was on his feet before the door had closed, headed towards the hotel with Chris beside him and JD slightly behind.
'Keep watch, JD,' Chris said when they stepped onto the sidewalk.
The lad did as he was told, without comment. That wasn't so surprising, given that they needed a lookout and searching a room was hardly a thrilling mission, but it was unusual for JD to be so subdued. They all seemed to be infected by the visitor's eerie presence.
Vin followed Chris inside, letting him speak to the hotelier about the woman, whom the register recorded as Miss Watkins, and then led the way to the landing onto which her room opened. They had no right to riffle through an innocent citizen's possessions and he wondered if it was a mark of the hotelier's respect for them or his unease with his guest that made the man permit it. He felt a flash of grim humor when he realized that the Colt at Chris's hip might have a lot to do with it: Larabee was a just man inside his hard shell but there were still plenty of people stupid enough to think that he would gun them down on the slightest pretext.
Vin lengthened his stride when they reached the landing, keen to be the first at the door even though Chris held the key. Chris was a pace behind when he wrapped his hand around the knob. To his astonishment, the door was not locked. He pushed it open, gazed slowly around the darkened room and then gave a low whistle.
'May have to go with the insane vote after all.'
Given that its occupant had arrived with only the possessions that she could load onto a mule, the room must have been littered with most of them. Crucifixes hung on every wall and on strings across the window, with Bible pages tacked up between them for good measure. Vin pushed the door shut behind them, revealing a large pine crucifix hanging from the hook there.
'Looks like Buck was right,' Chris said. 'She don't think whatever she's afraid of is a man. Don't expect a lock to stop it either.'
With a vague sense of guilt at the intrusion, Vin began to rummage through the top drawer of the commode. The underclothes that he pushed aside were as functional as the top clothes he'd seen and carried a pattern of wear and discoloration that was all too familiar-they had been washed countless times in streams without the benefit of soap or hot water. His heart ached for the sad figure, who had clearly spent as long on the run from her demons as he had from the more earthly prospect of an unjust hanging. He found nothing hidden among the meager contents of the drawers and turned to find Chris looking equally blank beside the wardrobe.
'Figure we're wasting our time here.'
Only someone who knew Chris as well as Vin did could have picked up the sorrow beneath that bald conclusion. He no more liked to see a woman in such straits than Vin did. After returning the unused room key to the hotelier with an assurance that it had all been a misunderstanding, they went outside in silence. JD fell in behind them but seemed content to wait until they joined Buck in the saloon to hear their report.
'Well?' Buck prompted, when they seemed reluctant to volunteer the information.
Chris shook his head. 'Nothing but crosses and Bible pages. Looks like she must be out of her mind.'
They let the matter drop after that, doing no more than keep an eye on their visitor. As the weeks passed, regular food and sleep improved her appearance. Her nerves seemed steadier and she murmured greetings to some of the townswomen in her modest dealings for the essentials of life, although she was still withdrawn and never spent less than three hours at her daily prayers. Throughout, she never let the shoulder bag out of her sight. Vin became ever more curious what it contained and ever more determined to get a look inside.
- 7 -
'May I join you?'
Vin looked up sharply, surprised to be caught unawares by the speaker's approach. Glancing around his fellow card-players, he saw the same unpreparedness on their faces: it was as if the man had come out of thin air. He was new in town but the last stagecoach had come in two days before and there was not so much as a speck of dust on his person or his attire. Handsome, likely in his mid-thirties, he had black hair and a neatly trimmed beard to match; his eyes were so dark that they too seemed black. Something about those reptilian eyes made Vin's blood run cold and he had a sudden unnerving flashback to a conversation about men not being men.
He was about to refuse the man's request, not in words but with the freezing presence that he and Chris both wielded to such effect, when Chris waved the man to take a chair. In Vin's experience, the invitation was without precedent; Chris had little interest in company and none in that of strangers about whom he knew nothing. Perhaps he knew the man but Vin could swear that he'd shown no sign of recognition a few seconds earlier.
The man gave a slight bow as he introduced himself.
'Lawrence Sheldon, at your service.'
Vin watched, perplexed, while Ezra dealt the man in on the next hand and Chris introduced them and Buck. He felt a deep dislike for the intruder, a loathing that made it hard even to look at him. Composing himself with difficulty, he glanced up only to meet a penetrating stare. For the first time in his memory, he couldn't hold a man's gaze. It felt as if his stomach physically rolled over and then a wave of nausea hit him. He folded his unplayed hand, nigh on ran for the door and, even so, was barely fast enough. He spewed several mouthfuls of sour vomit into the dust, too repulsed to be embarrassed at acting like a drunk on a glass and a half of beer.
As the cool night air fanned away the nausea, he cursed himself. He was at a loss to explain what had come over him and yet he felt an overwhelming dread of going back into the saloon. Yet there was nothing else to do in the evening except turn in and he was certainly not ready for sleep. It was a minute or two before he settled on another plan. He did not think of it in such terms but followed an age-old tradition when he decided to seek sanctuary in the church. If he had known what the word meant, Vin would probably have described himself as an agnostic. Until that moment, he'd had no spiritual needs that couldn't be met by a few days alone in the wilderness but now he strode swiftly across the street, without knowing whether he sought Josiah or his God.
When he entered the place of worship, he found Miss Watkins at her evening prayers and Josiah watching from a chair beside a window. Josiah's surprise at his visit was clear but he simply nodded towards the back room. Vin joined him there and closed the door soundlessly.
'Something wrong?' Josiah asked.
Vin shifted from one foot to the other, feeling the embarrassment that he had been spared in the street outside the saloon. Standing in Josiah's comfortable room, the feelings that had overwhelmed him a few minutes earlier began to fade. Eventually, he said, 'Hell, I don't know, Josiah. Maybe she's jus' gettin' to me.'
Josiah raised an eyebrow enquiringly, his expression saying clearly that he wanted to hear what had brought Vin practically running into the church at an hour when he was invariably ensconced in the saloon if he was in town. After a moment of inner debate, Vin told him exactly what had happened. He kept it brief, with no embellishments, but he was frank about his feelings and his lack of control over them.
'Makes me sound like a darned fool,' he concluded honestly.
Josiah looked at him for several seconds. It was an intense look but Vin felt that he was being appraised more as a confidant than a lunatic. When Josiah spoke, his words were low and earnest.
'I've watched her day in, day out. I ain't so sure she is mad and, if she ain't, then something got her this scared. I ain't said anything 'cause I know the rest of you don't believe but she was right in what she said: if you believe in the good, you gotta believe in the evil.'
'You sayin' you reckon this Sheldon fella ain't a man?'
Josiah shrugged. 'Maybe he's got nothing to do with her anyhow I don't know. But think on it: if he's here for her, and he ain't a man, that may not do much good.' He nodded at Vin's gun. 'I'm sure she believes something of that sort-that's what's got her so scared. How could she fight it? How could anyone fight it?'
Part of Vin's mind protested that the notion was ridiculous but there was something deep inside him that couldn't let it go so easily. He'd spent years with Indians, knew their beliefs better than those of his own people, and he'd always shown them respect. Now he could do no less for Josiah. Respect wasn't faith but it told him he should listen, if nothing else. Besides, he had the evidence of his own reaction. In the end, it was his concern over a repetition of his earlier experience that decided him.
'I'm gonna talk to her. If I ain't losin' my grip, I wanna know everythin' she knows about this fella.'
He went back into the church and was relieved to find Miss Watkins still kneeling at the altar. When he approached her, she rose and faced him apprehensively. He guessed that she'd grown accustomed to Josiah's unintrusive presence but his own appearance fuelled her fear again. Yet she did not exhibit the terror that he'd seen in her so often; she never seemed so frightened when she was inside the church. Josiah stepped forward, murmuring reassurances but using a firm grip on her arm to force her onto the pew closest to the altar. He sat on her right and Vin on her left, trying to block any escape route without coming on too strong.
Vin wasn't sure where to begin but settled on his usual frankness.
'You know a man called Lawrence Sheldon?'
The effect of his question was dramatic. Her eyes flew open, as if the lids were pinned back to her skull.
'H-he's n-not h-here, is h-he?'
The tremor in her voice tore at Vin's heart but he nodded grimly. When she tried to run, he did not let his pity stop him from pinning her firmly to the pew.
'Who is he?' he asked, his voice as gentle as it was insistent.
Her breathing came in fast, shallow gasps. He knew it wouldn't take much to push her into a faint.
'D-does h-he know I'm h-here?'
'Not yet,' he said. 'I don't reckon the others'll say nothin'.'
She shook her head violently. 'They m-may have no choice. Let m-me go.' She fought against his grip. 'You m-must let m-me go.'
'Who is he?' Vin repeated.
'You wouldn't b-believe m-me.'
Still restraining her, Vin looked directly into her eyes and spoke with such force and candor that she stopped struggling against him. 'Till today, I never met the man I couldn't face. I'm listenin'.'
She examined him for perhaps half a minute, her eyes flickering over his features as if in search of some guarantee of his sincerity, then slowly nodded. Her expression was as open as he had made his own and Vin knew that her surrender was genuine. Somehow, she understood what he had seen better than he understood it himself. He released her cautiously and lowered his butt slowly onto the pew beside her.
She directed her first question at Josiah, her voice calmer now that her initial shock had passed. 'Do you know w-what an incubus is?'
He nodded but explained anyway, 'A spirit that takes advantage of women while they're asleep.'
'Yes, that's what the old stories say,' she agreed. 'But they're wrong. I've read everything I can find but there's nothing like him.'
She fumbled with the catches on the bag that had fascinated Vin so much. He leaned forward eagerly, only to slump back in disappointment when he saw that it contained four large, battered books. To describe that as an anti-climax did not do justice to Vin's imagination, which had swept from gold bars to mummified heads and back again through a dozen other lurid possibilities. The well-thumbed pages of the tomes testified to the time that she had spent scouring them and she stroked them now, offering them as her evidence but also drawing some poor comfort from their physical presence in her arms.
'There's so much more to him. A night wasn't enough. He seduced me and I married him. He won't let me leave, he won't let me die. He seems to thrive on my fear. I've lived like this for nearly five years. But other people can die, have died. I don't want to be responsible for any more.'
Despite his reassurances to her, Vin was wrestling with the revelation. He was as tolerant of other people's beliefs as a man could be but that was largely because they were all equally improbable to him. Yet he was unable to explain his reaction to the man, which came before he knew that there was any connection between the two visitors. He considered the rapid departure from the saloon that had brought him into the church that night. His three friends had not followed him, playing on with Sheldon as far as he knew. Wanting to understand, to give her a chance to explain, he put his doubts into words.
'Why couldn't I face him? The others didn't seem bothered none.'
'What are they like?'
Vin glanced at Josiah, figuring a former preacher could probably give a better answer. 'Chris, Buck and Ezra.'
'They're all good men.' Josiah said, loath to criticize. 'Chris's family was murdered-he's a mite bitter. Buck's a one for the ladies and Ezra's a crook when it comes to money.'
'And you?' she asked him. 'Why are you with them?'
'Framed for a murder,' Vin gave up the information without hesitation. 'Nowhere better to be.'
'Hate, lust, greed,' she said simply. 'Lawrence will be at home.'
'You sayin' we can't depend on the others?' Vin asked sharply, surprised at how naked the thought of being without his friends made him feel after all they'd endured and overcome together.
'You can't depend on anyone,' she said bleakly. 'We all have our weak spots and he's very good at finding them.'
'What about Nathan and JD?' Vin asked.
She looked at Josiah.
'Nothing springs to mind. Nathan's one of the best men I know,' he said. After further thought, he added, 'JD's young, easily led, might be better to try to keep him out of it.'
And what exactly was it, Vin wondered. 'So,' he began slowly, 'If all this is true, you're sayin' there's three of us and we probably can't even look him in the eye. What can we do?'
The look she gave him was pure desperation. 'If I knew, I'd have done it. I'll move on. That's all I can do.'
Vin stared somberly at Josiah. They didn't suddenly stop caring about people when the odds were bad. In a way, this was just a different kind of bad odds. He bit his lip.
'Okay, look at it the other way around. What can he do?'
She nodded wearily. 'He has limitations. He's a demon, not Satan himself. As far as I can understand it, I'm just a hobby for his own amusement when he's not following other orders. He can't make people do very much, he can only tempt and manipulate. That sounds promising until you discover how easily people are tempted and manipulated. And of course, no one will believe what he is. Perhaps that's his biggest weapon.'
Josiah asked, 'What about God and the church?'
'God gave us the path to grace through his Son. It's our own failings that make us vulnerable to evil. Lawrence can't enter a church, but he can persuade other people to make us come out. And we can't hide forever.'
Vin gave a hollow laugh. 'I ain't plannin' on hidin'. But cover's another thing all together. You stay here with Josiah, Miss Watkins. I'll go get Nathan.'
'C-Clara.' Now the tremor in her voice seemed to owe more to shyness than to fear. 'P-please.'
Vin wondered if she offered the name in friendship or because Watkins was not her real name, not that it mattered. He smiled, trying to inject a confidence into his expression that he did not truly feel. As he went out through the back, he heard Clara say, 'I wish you wouldn't put yourselves at risk.' He paused, out of sight, to hear what Josiah would say, wanting to understand where everyone stood when facing such a strange situation.
'I've spent my life thinking on God, one way and another,' Josiah replied. 'I couldn't turn my back on something like this.'
'And Vin?' she asked.
'I've never seen him turn his back on anyone. To say he's kind hardly does him justice.'
'But he has no faith?' Josiah must have shaken his head because she went on, 'Then you and I must try to have enough faith for him. We shall get nowhere without the Lord's help.'
Peering through the crack between the door hinges again, Vin saw Josiah nod, take her hand and bow his head. He left them to their silent communion.
Outside, the street was quiet and the town peaceful. The conviction that he felt in the company of a frightened woman and a spiritual man faded in the face of the normality all around him but he was bound by his promise to help. There was no lamplight in Nathan's rooms but he knocked on the door anyway, bold enough to be sure it could not pass unnoticed. When there was no answer, Vin went on to his next port of call: the saloon. Nathan was even less of a drinker and card-player than Vin himself was but entertainment was so limited in Four Corners that he spent a fair amount of time in the saloon anyway.
Nearing the saloon reminded Vin of his nausea. He felt the same reluctance to enter as had assailed him earlier on the same spot and the sight of his vomit in the dust brought more bile to his throat. He stepped onto the sidewalk and peered through the window, secure in the knowledge that the lamplight inside and darkness outside made him all but invisible. The room had a cheery glow as men contentedly frittered away their time and money. Sheldon was exactly where Vin had left him, playing cards with Chris, Buck and Ezra. One look at him renewed Vin's certainty that something was wrong. His heart sank when he saw who had taken his place.
He strode back to the church, shocked and disappointed by his discovery. Josiah and Clara had retired to the back room to brew coffee. They both turned hopefully towards him, their faces falling when he shook his head.
'Saw Nathan playin' cards with 'em through the saloon window. Didn't seem to have no problem.' Trying to make the best of it, he added something that he had remembered during his errand. 'One bit of good news-far as I recall, JD's out at Nettie's with Casey. That'll keep him out of it for a ways yet.'
Josiah was clearly puzzled by the news about Nathan but, after a few seconds, he looked at Clara. 'Nathan has some pretty bad memories from the plantations. Wrath?'
She nodded sadly.
'Well,' Vin said, trying to put a businesslike face on a most unbusinesslike problem. 'Seems like the only thing is for you two to go through them books again. If the answer ain't there, I don't rate our chances. I'll stand guard.'
He settled himself by a window with a good view of the approach to the church. Given that he had not yet tested the effect of a bullet on Sheldon, he was more than a little surprised by his belief that they faced an other-worldly danger against which his trusty mare's leg would prove lacking. As he shifted to get more comfortable, he saw Clara frown at Josiah and guessed that she was wondering why he did not take a more active role in their quest. Josiah mouthed the words 'can't read' to her. Vin had never admitted the shortcoming but knew Josiah didn't miss much. Clara's plight was the first time in his life that his lack of learning had been more than an embarrassment, the first time that he had faced a threat to which books might hold the key, but he wasted no energy on regrets, trusting that Josiah was equal to the task and judging it prudent to watch for trouble.
The church was silent, apart from the turning of pages and the soft thump of Vin's boots as he made his patrols. He never wore spurs, preferring to pass as near silently as possible and choosing mounts on which he did not need them. Eventually, after a couple of hours, Josiah reached a passage that seemed to strike a chord.
'Look at this,' he said to Clara.
She followed the line of his finger but then admitted, 'I can't read Latin very well.'
'Mine's pretty rusty,' Josiah said, smiling ruefully to Vin before adding, 'You better hope it's not as rusty as my Chinese was.'
Vin gave a tense smile in return. They were all on edge but his friend needed his support not his doubts. Josiah re-read the passage and seemed to be deep in thought for some minutes before he spoke again.
'Seems to me like this incubus-succubus thing has to do with original sin.'
Vin assumed that his face must be as blank as his mind on that point because Josiah went on to explain.
'The theory is, we're all born with sinful natures, carrying the burden of the original sin in the Garden of Eden. These spirits are given permission to exploit our base desires, to prevent us returning to a state of grace.' He looked at Clara. 'How did Sheldon seduce you in the first place?'
She looked ashamed. 'Through my greed. I didn't love him. I'm not sure if I even liked him. But I grew up very poor and he offered me the comfort and security I wanted.'
'What do you think he gets from you now?'
'Fear,' she answered simply. 'It's all I have left. I have no desire for anything but to be rid of him.'
'So he doesn't tempt you or manipulate your sin. He seems to be outside his remit.'
Vin looked back to the window then said, 'Uh-oh. Chris and Buck comin' in.'
He had been pondering for a while what he would do when someone came. He certainly wasn't planning to shoot his friends and explaining his reasoning didn't seem like much of an option either. He let them in, since to do otherwise would be hard to justify.
On the face of it, Chris seemed like his normal self. 'You okay, Vin? You took off a bit hasty earlier.'
'Wasn't feeling so good,' Vin told him truthfully.
Chris nodded towards Clara and then turned to hide his muttered words from her. 'That man's her husband. Says she's been having some problems. Wants to take her back to her doctor.'
'That ain't the way she tells it,' Vin replied.
Buck leaned forward and tapped his temple. 'Those kind of problems.'
'Well,' Vin said. 'It's pretty late now. How about we look into it in the mornin'?' He was curious to see how his friends responded. He reckoned, if the situation were a normal one, they'd agree readily enough. Handing over frightened women, even deranged ones, in the middle of the night wasn't their normal way of operating.
Chris looked irritated. 'Hell, Vin. She's his wife. I'm sure he knows what's best for her.'
That settled any doubts Vin might still have had. Chris wasn't naïve and nor was he given to trying to push his friends around. He knew that Josiah had reached the same opinion when he moved closer and said, 'I gave her my word she could stay here tonight. Tomorrow'll be plenty soon enough.'
Together, they faced Chris and Buck, waiting to see how far Sheldon's influence extended. Suddenly, Chris backed off.
'Have it your own way,' he said curtly and left with Buck close behind.
Vin turned back to Clara. 'You better get some sleep. Me and Josiah'll take turns to keep watch.'
He returned to the window, ready to stand guard all night if necessary.
- 8 -
In fact, they all managed some rest but were up with the sun. Vin didn't have long to wait before his friends returned with Sheldon. He went out to face them, Josiah at his side. It was the first time that Josiah had seen Sheldon and Vin was relieved to feel him recoil from the man. Despite his faith in his friend, he had been prepared for the possibility that he might stand alone against not only Sheldon but all his friends as well.
Chris came forward, with Buck, Ezra and Nathan close behind him.
'Okay, it's morning. Hand her over.'
His voice was filled with suppressed fury. Vin had seen the emotion before, when Chris faced the man who had killed his wife and son, but he had never expected it to be turned on him. He told himself grimly that his friend was not acting of his own free will, ignored the legendary Larabee glare and spoke through clenched teeth.
'Why don't we let Mr Sheldon go in and talk to his wife in the church, nice and civilized?'
He braced himself as those dead eyes turned on him, making a supreme effort to look through Sheldon rather than at him.
'What the hell's the matter with you?' Chris demanded. 'If you won't bring her out, we'll go in and get her.'
Vin raised his gun, seeing Josiah do the same just behind him.
'You gonna shoot us?'
The hatred in Chris's contemptuous growl shook Vin to the core, showing him a side of his friend that he would rather not have seen, but he steeled himself to reply without revealing any emotion.
'If I have to. You gonna shoot me 'cause he says so?' He nodded towards Sheldon.
'This has nothing to do with him. It's about you and me.'
Vin glanced at Sheldon, careful again not to look into his eyes. 'Why don't you just go on in and get your wife, Sheldon? Why do you need them to do it for you?'
For an instant, the man in front of him shimmered as if he stood in a heat haze. Vin squinted, as he had countless times when riding through dusty landscapes in search of water, shelter or fugitives, but he could make no sense of what he glimpsed behind the distortion. Even so, it sent a primitive fear coursing through his body. A shudder rippled down his spine and his bowels lurched ominously. Taut as bowstrings, his muscles froze in the conflict between his instinct to flee and his determination to stand his ground. As he fought for control, he heard hooves behind him. Without conscious thought, he knew that there were two ridden horses and that one was a good deal lighter than the other. It was possible that Sheldon had summoned reinforcements but far more likely that JD had picked the darnedest moment to ride in with Casey.
Vin wasn't sure that things could get much worse than they already were but JD coming in on Sheldon's side certainly wouldn't help any. He glanced apprehensively over his shoulder, hoping that events would take a turn in his favor. He exhaled in silent relief when he saw a greenish tinge to JD's skin, unmistakable evidence of how he perceived Sheldon. Both horses were fighting for their heads, behaving as if a wolf or bear stood in front of them instead of a man. Casey looked dazed and Vin wondered if she would stay in her saddle.
JD shook his head, as if to clear it, and then remembered the girl beside him.
'Get the hell out of here,' he hissed, without taking his eyes off Sheldon.
Casey was staring at Sheldon too. She made no move to obey JD.
'Run, Casey,' JD snapped. 'Run!'
The urgency in those words stirred her into action but then she faltered, wide-eyed in her fear for him.
When she finally complied, Casey had no need to urge her mare. The moment she eased her grip on the reins, the horse spun away from Sheldon and did its best to get to a gallop in the length of Main Street. Recovered from the initial shock of facing Sheldon, JD held his gelding back firmly. He was one of the finest horsemen Vin had known, the equal of the best among the Kiowa and Comanche people, and the way in which he bent the beast to his will seemed effortless. The gelding danced around to the rear of Vin and Josiah, where JD held it steady with his left hand and drew one of his guns with the right.
Deep inside, Vin knew that numbers had nothing to do with the scene they were acting out. Somehow, everything rested on him, even though he still did not understand what was required of him. Nonetheless, he thanked God, or whoever was on his side, for giving him some backup. It felt a lot better to have two of his friends with him, even with four against, than the six-to-one odds that he might have faced. He returned his attention to Sheldon who, though unarmed, was surely the key to victory and drew himself up as tall as he could. Hoping that his next move would not be his last, he spoke out clearly and calmly.
'You got nothin' I want and I ain't doing nothin' for you. You wanna make 'em shoot me, you go right ahead.'
He lowered his gun and watched his friends raise theirs.
Chris's reply was snarled so savagely that it hardly sounded like a man speaking. 'I don't know what the hell's got into you, Vin, but this stops now.'
Vin watched the man's finger curl around the trigger. He'd spent a bit of time pondering on what it was like to hang, it was true, but he'd never expected to die from a bullet that he'd watched being fired and done nothing to stop. Yet something told him that he must accept this fate, that everything depended on him accepting it. Maybe the end of his life would be the end of Sheldon's too. Yes, he thought, that was probably how it worked.
At that moment, the church door flew open and Clara ran out. She threw herself directly in front of him, between his body and the barrel of Chris's gun, but looked at Sheldon as she spoke. Vin wanted to sweep her to safety but his arms would not move.
'You were wrong, Josiah, he wasn't outside his remit,' she said, a strength in her words that had not been there before. 'This was never about greed-it was about cowardice. I was afraid to be poor, afraid to be hurt, afraid of everything. I let people die on my behalf, too afraid to stop him. I only realized just now-watching Vin.' She turned to look up at him, wonder in her eyes. 'Vin doesn't even need faith to stand up to that thing.'
Vin held her gaze for a moment, slowly understanding that she had finally discovered her own truth, and then looked back at Sheldon. The reptilian eyes were no longer black: instead they burned crimson with rage. As any pretense of humanity dissolved, the fiend grew in size. His scorched skin was a mass of weeping sores and the stench from them was overwhelming. Vin watched in fascination, fighting not fear but instead a violent urge to retch. He felt as if he was just about to lose that battle when the horror evaporated, leaving nothing but the bright morning sun and the songs of the birds. It was as if Sheldon had never been there.
Vin saw Chris slowly tear his eyes from the spot, then look at the gun in his hand and wipe his forehead. Buck, Ezra and Nathan all looked just as shaken. He breathed a sigh of relief and holstered the gun that he still held limply at his side, freeing his hand just in time to catch Clara as she fainted.
'What the hell was that?' JD demanded as he dismounted.
Vin let Josiah try to explain the inexplicable, while he tried to revive Clara.
'How come you knew and we didn't?' Chris asked, still staring at his gun.
'It manipulates people through their sinful natures.' Josiah paused and cleared his throat uneasily. 'Hate. Lust. Greed. Wrath.' As he spoke, he looked at each man in turn and it was they who then began to look uneasy.
Thinking back on his own immobility, Vin began to understand how they had been controlled. Somehow, some force for good had told him that everything depended on his inaction. It was probably not so hard for a force for evil to plant the seeds of destruction in his friends' minds. Perhaps it had seemed that he was to blame for Sarah and Adam's deaths? Or that he had been stepping out with Louisa behind Buck's back? Or stealing from some secret hoard of Ezra's? Or responsible for some barbaric act of slavery? He didn't want to know.
Chris shook his head. 'I remember it all but I can't seem to understand what I was thinking.' He looked at Vin. 'I really hated you-I wouldn't have thought twice about blowing your head off.'
Vin grinned. 'You ain't the first to feel that way. Doubt you'll be the last neither.'
He gently slapped Clara's face, trying to get some response from her.
JD took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair. 'You think that was the first time she'd seen what it really looked like? And she'd she'd ' The thought of what Clara had let the thing do to her was more than he could put into words.
Buck shuddered. 'It's gonna take me a while to deal with one night of this.' He looked at Josiah. 'You say it's been toying with her for five years? She must be right on the edge.'
However, when Clara finally opened her eyes, they were suffused with a new tranquility. She smiled at Vin and clasped his hand earnestly in hers.
'You're an amazing man. I never knew that anyone could be so brave.'
Vin looked down at her pityingly, smoothing her gray hair back from her pale face. She was old before her time, worn out by suffering that no one who had not seen Sheldon's transformation with their own eyes would believe, but there was now peace where there had been dread. He did not consider himself brave and yet he had never felt fear like hers. He had accepted that he might die in her defense and, somewhere at the back of his mind, he had accepted that he might be found lacking when he reached whatever followed death, if indeed anything did. If he had courage, it stemmed only from a belief that he'd always tried to do the right thing and he couldn't see how a body could do more. Embarrassed to be singled out for praise, he brushed her words aside.
'Naw, just too darned stupid to know what I was doin'.'
But that was a lie. He had known, in the instant before he committed himself to standing against Sheldon, exactly what he was doing. If Clara had not run out from the church, he knew that he would be dead. He had not wanted to die, and he rejoiced that her newly found courage had saved his life as well as her sanity, but he had been prepared for death. He'd made that decision before and expected to make it again before his time came. Perhaps it was his belief that there were worse things in life than its end that gave him what she saw as bravery. One thing was certain: for him, a long life spent despising himself would be no life at all.
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