Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
I wish I could make it easier on him.
Vin wont last two weeks in prison. They wont care that hes already hurt they wont give him time to heal.
I think his ribs might be broke again, the way hes hunched over. Buck and I had to practically throw him in this cell. He bounced off the walls like a rag doll.
About made me sick.
But we didnt have a choice. Those men were beating him in places hed already been hurt, and adding a few more to the mix. We had to get to him. It was like swimming upstream to do it, but we finally pulled him free and slammed him behind bars.
He hasnt really moved from where he fell.
He wont make it in prison.
If they dont kill him working him to death when hes half dead already, theyll kill him when he steps in to defend someone else.
Thats exactly what hell do. I know because Ive been there. Vin wont be in the same prison I was, but it wont matter. Theyre all the same. Some poor sap will be at the mercy of some cruel, inhuman guard and Vin will do exactly what I did hell step in to stop it.
Hes that kind of man.
And if they dont kill him that way well, then it will happen when he finally decides he cant take it anymore and he tries to get out. Hed rather take a bullet in the back than rot away in a cell.
I know him. And I know he wont make it there. And he knows it, too.
God, there is so much to say, and I dont know how to say any of it.
Hes been avoiding my eyes most of the night now, but the few times he has looked at me, I can see the worry there . . . the fear.
For me as much as for him.
I find myself up pacing again cant seem to sit still for long, even though Im dead tired.
The sheriff is mostly asleep, his feet propped up on his desk, his rifle resting in his lap. I dont want to admit it, but hes a better man than I initially thought.
Now would be the time for me to get some things said, the most important of which is that Im not giving up. Buck is sure Mrs. Kincaid is lying, and he aims to get the truth out of her. Im still thinking somebody somewhere in this town knows the real story if I can just find him.
Maybe if Vin knows that, maybe hell bide his time in prison . . . maybe hell hold on long enough for us to get him out.
I will get him out. Come hell or high water . . . legally or . . . not. Ill get him out. But hes got to hold on until I can do that.
Of course, thats assuming these crazy people dont kill us all before we even get out of town.
He looks so tired. Hes got his head leaning against the wall, but he hasnt closed his eyes. He should get up on that cot and try to get some rest while he can.
He probably cant even make it to the cot . . . the way he looks.
Hell, what am I thinking? The sheriffs asleep Ill just go on in and help him.
I could just go on in and help him right on out of here. I wonder if we could get away with it. I wonder if hed let me try.
Probably not. And either way, I have to tell him. No matter what happens, I have to be sure he knows . . .
"Vin," I say, and I find I can hardly choke out his name. "Im not giving up . . ."
I want to say more, but suddenly the door bursts open and I know trouble has arrived.
+ + + + + + +
Buck and JD stayed in the jailhouse until dusk descended on the volatile town. At that point, Chris suggested they try to keep an eye on things from the outside. The men believed that if trouble were brewing, it was likely to occur as the sheriff attempted to transport Vin to the prison. It seemed unlikely anyone would come for him during the night.
JD wasnt so sure, and he said so to Buck as they briskly trotted out of town. Several people watched warily from the boardwalk, but to their relief, no one said a word.
"I dont think anything will happen tonight, JD, but I do agree that we need t be sure. And thats why youre gonna sit just outside of town and keep watch. You reckon you can do that?"
"Sure I can, Buck but what are you gonna be doing?"
"Ive got me a little lady t talk to," Wilmington answered.
JD shook his head. "Tonight? Youre crazy, Buck. Shes not gonna talk to you and shes not gonna change her story."
"Shes gonna do both," Buck replied with conviction. "In the meantime, you keep an eye on things from here. You see anything that looks like trouble, you hightail it back to Chris. You got that? Dont be tryin to handle it on your own. These folks are past crazy about now."
"I dont like it, Buck. I think we should stick together I think we should go back to the jail," JD argued.
"Now listen, JD Ive got a hunch Vin aint gonna live long enough to make it to that prison. Ive got to take care of this tonight. And you can be Chriss eyes and ears keep watch from the outside, like he said."
JD nodded. "All right, Buck. Ill do it."
With a sound pat on the youths back, Wilmington responded, "I know you will, Kid. Ill see you back here in the morning."
JD watched Buck ride off and heaved a heavy sigh. Everything felt wrong. He should be back at the jail. Or he should be riding with Buck who knew what kind of trouble his friend might get himself into? Then again, folks in this town were crazy he should probably keep watch.
It sure would be helpful if the other three were there. JD decided hed never argue with Josiah again. And even if he didnt quite understand what the preacher said half the time hed never doubt him again, either.
He should have spoken to Vin. He should have worked it all out. Now he was out of time, and by the time they got Vin back, this thing between them would be so huge that they wouldnt even know each other. The judge was right it was a hell of a mess.
The sun finally sank low, and JD leaned back to rest his back against a tree. It had been the longest weeks of his entire life. He couldnt wait until he could just lie down in a real bed and sleep for a week. But not tonight . . . tonight hed keep watch, because he knew in his gut that something was going to happen.
And a few hours later, he knew he was right.
The air felt heavy, as if the weight of the emotions flooding the town had somehow spilled over into atmosphere itself. JD didnt have Vins sixth sense about nature, but even he could feel the storm building. And that was only appropriate, under the circumstances. A clear, star-lit night would have been strangely incongruent in the face of the rising tide of anger and hatred that threatened to sweep them all away.
It was no surprise then when JD noted a flash of lightening streak across the black sky, followed by another. He crouched lower to the earth. Tascosa was just as Vin had described flatter than a felt covered poker table and he didnt relish sitting out in the open in a lightening storm. Might be best if he moved away from the tree, too.
Hed just stood to make that move, when he noted a different glow coming from the streets in the town ahead. It took him only seconds to comprehend what he was seeing torches, maybe a dozen or more all heading for the jail.
They werent waiting until morning.
JD ran to his mount, pausing when he gripped the reins to consider his next move. Storming in with guns blazing might not be the best way to go. Then again, what were his choices?
Any other time, the adrenalin pumping through his veins would have filled him with the kind of excitement he lived for. But as he pressed his knees against the flanks of his horse and leaned forward into the rising wind, his heart raced with fear instead. His friends faced certain death, with only him to back them up. If only theyd listened to Josiah . . .
It took maybe ten minutes for him to reach the towns borders, but as the growing storm lit up the sky once more, he could see that it was too long and he was too late. The cluster of torches moved like a fiery cloud out from the jail, and in the golden light, he could make out the forms of two men being dragged limply along. Not moving neither one of them, and his heart sank.
It was all up to him. And now his choices were even more limited he could only follow behind and wait.
+ + + + + + +
This isnt happening.
Ive said that phrase so many times; Im surprised its not ingrained across my forehead.
The first time was when Buck and I came back that day endless years ago. This isnt my land; this isnt my home; this isnt my family.
This isnt happening.
And again - in Ellas house, when I saw and I knew. This isnt happening.
I try again to loosen the ropes that bind my hands and chest to a tree. Half a dozen damn trees in the entire state, and they manage to find one big enough to wrap me around, and one tall enough to . . .
I ignore the throbbing in my head and try to get a grip on where we are and what has happened. I should have known theyd come during the night. I kick myself for sending Buck and JD off but then again, maybe they can do us more good this way. Its doubtful that even the four of us, the sheriff included, could have fended off the angry mob that stormed through the doors.
Williams went down with a blow to the head so quick, he probably wasnt even awake yet. I must have went right after, because the next thing I knew I woke up tied to this tree, fat drops of rain pelting my face.
I twist my body a little more to get a better view of Vin.
Hes lying on the ground twenty feet or so away from me, with five or six men just watching him while the others string up the rope.
His face is bloody. With all hed been through, hed somehow avoided messing up that perfect face of his. Not that Im the kind of man to notice if anothers man face is perfect but Vins face . . . hell, it doesnt matter. His face is beaten up; blood coming from his nose or his mouth or both, mixing with the rain and running in a little stream into the dirt beneath his head. The lightening is flashing all over the place all the more reason to get away from this damn tree and between that and the torches, I can see him clearly.
His eyes are open. I want to tell him to just close em just give in for awhile. I dont want him to see this dont want him to know what theyre planning to do here.
Where the hell are Buck and JD?
He turns his head just a little, just enough to meet my eyes. I dont want to see what hes trying show me . . . I dont want to see it or hear it or know it.
I wont say goodbye.
This isnt happening.
+ + + + + + +
Her eyes were cold as ice and Buck shivered in spite of his steel resolve to get to the bottom of things. Shed let him in without any kind of fuss at all maybe because she knew he was coming in anyway.
Or maybe she liked the game. The deeper he looked, the more certain he was that Rachel Kincaid liked nothing better than to manipulate those around her. Shed met her match in Buck Wilmington, though.
"Its late, Mr. Wilmington. Speak your peace and leave."
Buck forced a smile. "I dont think youre in such a big hurry for me to leave. If you didnt want me here, you wouldnt have let me in. Admit it; all of this . . . excites you."
He moved closer to her now; so close he could smell the light scent of flowery perfume in her hair. Close enough to see her breath quicken just a tad as she licked her lips and turned her eyes to meet his.
"I will say that you have a certain air about you . . . Buck, is it?"
He nodded and moved closer to very lightly touch her hair.
She swallowed and said, "But Im not stupid. I know why you are here, and you wont get what you came for."
He kept his warm, blue eyes trained on hers as he responded, "We both know youre lying. The only one you could be lying for is dead so why bother? What kind of hold does Eli Joe have over you, Rachel?"
Anger flared in her eyes then as she turned away, but she said nothing.
"You loved him or at least you believe you did. He made you feel alive." Buck spoke it as fact, not a question, and when she didnt deny it, he continued. "Vin said you left town after your husband was killed. You went with Eli Joe, didnt you? What happened?"
She turned back in a fury and spat, "Vin Tanner happened! Eli went to end it with him . . . and he never came back."
"So you were forced to come back here. Must be damn near suffocating for a smart, spirited woman like you . . . stuck in a dead-end town surrounded by kin watching everything you do and say."
She looked down and sighed before stating bitterly, "You have no idea."
He moved his hand to grip her arm and she tilted her face towards him. In a soft, low voice, Buck asked, "Then why lie about Vin? What difference does it make now?"
She shook her head and quirked her lips up in a sneer. "You saw what they did to your friend. Just what do you think theyll do to me if they find out I had a hand in Jess death? Ill never speak out for Vin Tanner, so unless you have some other . . . idea for what youd like to do with me you may as well leave."
So old Eli had managed to kill two birds with one stone; get Tanner off his back and get the girl. And it all went to hell from there. Buck shook his head as he asked, "What about the others . . . your brothers, your kin? Men who died for a lie . . . who died for you. How many more innocent men will lose their lives before this is said and done?"
Her voice never wavered as she answered coldly, "Just one."
Buck let go of her arm and stepped back. "This isnt over," he promised.
Turning away from him, her shoulders stiff and her back rigid, the young widow responded softly, "Youre right. It wont be over until Tanners dead which should be any minute now."
+ + + + + + +
The flat land made it nearly impossible to keep out of sight as JD followed the mob to their destination. On the other hand, it was nearly impossible to lose them, too. The young man dismounted and tied off his horse a good distance from where it appeared the men were stopping. On foot, he crept as close as he dared and tried to get the lay of things.
With some relief, he watched as they tied Chris to a tree. Obviously they planned to keep the gunman alive for the time being or they wouldnt have bothered to restrain him. He bit his lip as he observed the harsh treatment they lavished upon Vin. The tracker couldnt take much more, but then again, from the looks of the rope they were hanging on the nearby tree limb he wouldnt have to take much more.
They were going to hang Vin. JD knew it from the first sign of the glimmering torches but seeing it play out in front of him caused his heart to leap out of his chest. Dear God, what was he going to do?
With sudden clarity, he recalled his first day in Four Corners. He remembered every detail of the shoot-out; had told the story a hundred times always ending with Vin shooting the rope that Nathan hung from. Hed never seen a shot like it never dreamed hed have to repeat it.
But that is exactly what he would have to do. He couldnt possibly take on a dozen men by himself. And were he to ride in now, there was no way he could grab Vin and Chris and ride off without bullets riddling one of their bodies if not all of them.
Hed have to make that shot.
But then what? Even if he got lucky and hit the rope would it buy enough time? Where the hell was Buck? Could he get to Chris first and untie him?
There was no time. They had Vin up off the ground now; dragging his unresisting body over towards the tree. Was Vin aware? Did he know?
The rain started coming down harder, extinguishing several of the torches and casting eerie shadows on the tragic scene.
It was too dark, JD thought. He could hardly make out the limb, let alone the rope. He could just start firing, but how many bullets did he have? He had no cover to speak of, it would take only one decent shot to stop him, and then it would be all over for all of them.
His heart pounded ferociously in his chest and his breath came in short, hard pants as his head began to spin. Vin was up on the horse now, the noose slipped around his neck. JD couldnt see his face, couldnt see his eyes, and he knew he was a coward because he was glad of that.
He heard Chris calling frantically for him and Buck. "Buck! JD!" Nothing more than that just their names over and over, and even from the distance in the dark, JD could make out the gunslingers desperate struggle against the ropes that bound him.
Moving closer as the mob congregated around the tree, JD pulled out his gun and prepared to aim. The rain fell and the thunder roared, and angry voices filled the night but he still heard it. Chriss voice; raw and anguished and grief-stricken as he now called Vins name. JD saw Vins head turn towards Chris, just as one of the men swatted the rump of the horse on which Vin sat and it bolted.
Vins body jerked as he was pulled from the saddle to sway from the rope that encircled his neck.
Now. Or never.
The rain and wind slapped against his face, and he couldnt see - he couldnt see. Until the lightening lit the sky once more, and in those brief seconds the blond rope stood out in vivid contrast to the black limb on which it was looped.
He took the shot, just as the thunder crashed - and just as Chris finally broke free from his bonds.
+ + + + + + +
This isnt happening, this isnt happening, this isnt happening.
I have to get to him. There has to be a way.
Where the hell are Buck and JD?
Why didnt I listen to Josiah? He said we all needed to be here. He warned us.
Oh God, Vin.
I hear myself calling out to him, and he turns towards me. But its raining and its dark and I cant see his eyes and its too late anyway. Its too damn late. Theres no more time.
Oh God, Vin.
How many things didnt I say? How many times did he watch my back and I never so much as thanked him? How many more people will I lose before I learn to appreciate them while I have the chance?
The horse bolts and hes just . . . please God, let me get to him!
Im jerking on the ropes now, pulling and twisting and then . . . I think I hear a shot. I look up, but the thunder is so loud and the lightening so bright that its impossible to be sure.
And somehow, Vins on the ground.
And somehow, Im free. I never felt the ropes give way . . . cant feel my legs, either, but I know Im running.
The men are standing in a circle around him quiet and dazed. I see them glance towards the lightening filled sky, and then back down at Vin.
Oh God, Vin.
I feel water flowing down my face could be tears or could be rain. I dont care. I push my way through the crowd and kneel on the muddy ground to pick up my friends limp body in my arms. They dont stop me.
The rope is tight around his neck, and Ill be damned if it will stay there. Im trying to pull the knot apart, trying to get the goddamn wet twine to give a little when I feel it.
Its JD. Hes here. Hes got his gun in his hand, and hes shaking all over. He must have made the shot.
I turn away from him. I cant see his face or Ill never be able to do this.
I look at the men surrounding me, trying to read their faces. They have no idea what happened, but in minutes, they wont care. Theyll remember why theyre here.
"Hes dead," I say. My voice is shaking as much as JDs hands because its so damn close to being true. "You got what you wanted."
I gently lay Vin back on the ground and I stand to face them. "Let us take our friend home."
I hear JD choke back a sob, but still I keep my eyes from his. It has to be this way.
I see that a few of the men want to argue want to keep Vins body. But its still storming like crazy, and most of them were spooked by what they saw. Im not sure myself if it was JDs bullet that brought Vin down.
Kincaids uncle nods at me and throws a last look at Vin before he leaves, and soon the others follow.
JDs still standing back, and I finally turn to look at him, but his eyes are fixed on Vin. I can see his shoulders heaving like hes trying to hold it all in but failing miserably.
I squat down next to Vin and I say, "JD come help me."
He makes his way over beside me, and his hands are still shaking as he kneels down in the wet dirt. He still doesnt look at me, so very gently, I cover his hands with my own and I whisper, "Hes not dead, JD."
He looks at me with impossibly wide eyes and opens his mouth, but I cut him off by squeezing his hands tightly and saying in a low voice, "But he will be if those men find out the truth."
He swallows and nods, and its like a damn has broken loose as the tears pour from his eyes. I grip his arm as much to anchor myself as to comfort him.
"Help me get this rope off," I say with renewed urgency. The rain seems to have stopped, but the lightening is still flashing and I can see now that Vins lips are blue. Now that I really look, Im not sure hes breathing. Now that I really look, I wonder if I did lie and to whom. Maybe I imagined that I felt a pulse beneath the thick rope that I . . . cant . . . get . . . off.
My hands are shaking now, too, as I suddenly realize that Vin still isnt getting enough air and I cant seem to loosen the rope enough to even slip a finger between it and his bruised skin. JD gasps and then, out of nowhere, he hands me Vins knife. I give him a quick look of wonder and gratitude as I start sawing through the heavy cord. Im worried about cutting him, but not much . . . that would be the least of his problems.
When the rope finally severs, I lift up Vins shoulders and slide behind him, leaning him against my chest. His head falls limply back down on his shoulder, but I pull it back up, trying to get some air into him wishing with all I have that Nathan was here.
I still cant feel him breathing.
This isnt happening.
"JD?" I ask. The lightening has stopped, and its so damn dark, I cant tell if . . .
JD gets my unspoken question, though. He reaches out his hand to feel Vins neck and leans in closer to feel for his breath. After what seems like hours, he looks up at me and nods, "Hes still with us."
Ive never heard four sweeter words.
I try to catch my breath not wanting to sound as out of control as I feel in front of the kid.
"Wheres Buck?" I finally manage to ask.
"He went to see that woman," JD answers, and I can hear him cringe even if I cant see it. He thinks Im gonna yell about that.
"How did you get Vins knife?" Probably not the most important issue we have right now, but Im thinking we both need a minute to . . . regroup.
"He gave it to me this morning . . . or yesterday morning . . . whatever morning it was that we headed for town. Gave me his gun, too."
I nod. I wonder if JD knows the significance of that gesture. Later, Ill tell him.
But right now, we cant stay here. Weve got to make some plans.
And I will after I hold Vin a little tighter, a little longer. I push the wet hair out of his face and try not to think on how cold and limp and silent he is. Lifeless, by all indications . . . and as unsettling and disconcerting and just plain terrifying as that is, I cant help but think it would be best if he stayed that way just a while longer; long enough for us to get away from here . . . long enough for the lie to take root . . . long enough for Vin Tanner to no longer exist in the eyes of Texas.
If I have it my way, the lie will live on forever. I even delude myself with this brief moment of fantasy, that Vin would change his name, cut his hair, become someone else and it would all be over.
Of course, hes made it pretty clear hed die for that name . . . and he couldnt go home, not with idiots like Conklin on the loose. Hell, the man would probably send a wire to Tascosa and invite the whole town to Vins resurrection party.
So were back at a dead end . . . but at least weve got time. And hes alive. Thats the most important part about the lie . . . its not true. Its not happening.
And as long as I have breath in my own body it wont happen.
I wont lose him.
+ + + + + + +
It was odd how her words didnt really sink in until he was half way back to town. Buck had been so irritated and frustrated and just plain furious with the selfish woman that he almost looked past the last thing she said that Vin would be dead "any minute now". Not any time now any minute now.
Which meant no one was waiting for morning. Which meant hed left Chris and JD on their own. Which meant he could already be too late.
The storm started up when he left her house, and kept up for the entire ride. The lightening was a little too close for comfort, but he talked himself into believing he was moving way too fast for it to strike his moving target.
The frenzied wind and rain had passed by the time he reached the dark and dismal town, but the improvement in the weather did little to lift his spirits. He knew the moment he entered the jail that he was too late, and he nearly howled in despair at that. Stooping low to the stone floor, he quickly felt for a pulse on the unconscious sheriff. The man groaned then and slowly came to, with less than gentle prodding by Buck.
"What . . . what happened?" Williams asked as his cloudy eyes met Bucks.
"I was hoping you could tell me," Wilmington answered tersely.
The young sheriff groaned as he sat up, "Damn fools," he muttered.
Buck roughly grabbed the man by the shoulders. "Which way did they go?"
"How the hell should I know? I havent exactly been included in their plans!" Williams exclaimed indignantly.
"You know the area and you know these men. Where would they go to . . . to hang a man?" Buck swallowed as he spoke.
The sheriff pressed his hand to the knot on the back of his head, and pondered the question. With a look that spoke of deep regret, he answered, "I imagine youre right. Thats what theyve set out to do. And I figure I know about where theyd go to do it."
It was almost an afterthought that Buck took his friends horses with him. Somehow he knew they wouldnt be returning to Tascosa any time soon. He would be returning later, though to drag one sorry, scrawny woman off to see the judge. No matter how this came out, Vins name would be in the clear if he had to hogtie the woman to a saddle to make it happen.
Theyd ridden less than hour when the early morning light revealed a rider galloping towards them. Buck sighed in relief when he recognized the mop of black hair flapping beneath the bowler hat. At least JD was alright.
So focused was the young rider, that he might have gone straight on past, had Buck not let out a whistle. JD turned then, and even from the distance, Buck could see his shoulders sag in relief. It wasnt until they got closer and the rogue caught his friends eyes that he knew the news wasnt good.
JD swallowed hard and tried to steady his breath. Chris had told him to hightail it to town get the horses and get out without speaking to anyone. Seeing Buck was sweet relief, but Sheriff Williams was another story. How was he going to keep the man from following them back to Chris and Vin . . . from finding out the truth?
"JD," Buck called out as he approached, "do you know where they are?"
Dunne nodded and avoided his friends eyes as he spoke. "Theyre . . . they already . . . youre too late," he stammered. With a hitch in his voice, he managed to choke out the rest, "Vin . . . hes dead."
"Oh no . . . oh God . . . no," Buck said softly, his voice breaking. Dropping his head, he closed his eyes and fought the sting of tears. The kid would need him to be strong . . . Chris would need him to be strong.
He was too late again. And Chris would be riding through hell again. Buck thought hed done the right thing in going to talk with the widow, but once more, hed been wrong . . . and Vin had paid the price. "Im so sorry, Vin," he whispered.
Remembering how he had felt when Chris first uttered those words, and feeling absolutely terrible for putting his best friend through the gut-wrenching experience, JD hurried to get the lawman on his way so he could set the rogue straight.
"Me and Chris are taking him back t Four Corners gonna bury him at home . . . where people know what kind of man he is . . . was," JD said with a pointed glare at Williams.
To his surprise, the sheriff actually appeared distressed by the news. Williams caught and held JDs eye, and for a brief moment, the youth was afraid hed given it all away. But the sheriff only said, "Tell Larabee . . . tell him Im sorry."
JD managed a slight nod as he watched the man turn and ride away.
Buck remained silent, his head bowed and his shoulders curled in like a deep, crushing pain weighed him down so far he couldnt possibly move. JD moved his steed closer to Bucks and took a steadying breath.
"He aint really dead, Buck. Least, not yet," Dunne spoke gently.
Wilmington looked up sharply. "What? Why the hell did you say that? Whats going on here, JD?"
JD blinked away the moisture that simply would not go away, and bit his lip. "God, Buck it was so awful. They hung him . . . and I tried to make the shot, but it was so dark . . . and the lightening . . . and then he was on the ground, and I dont know if . . . but Chris said he was dead . . . and they believed it, and so did I . . . and I thought Id failed . . ."
"Whoa . . . hold on there, JD. It sounds like weve got a lot t talk about, but how about we find Chris and Vin first?" Buck really hoped he sounded calmer than he felt, because it was apparent JD was walking a fine line right about now.
And he could see why when he got a look at his friends a short time later. Chris sat on the muddy ground, his back against a tree with Vin held tight against him. Both men had lost their coats and hats somewhere along the way, and both were soaked to the skin.
"Good Lord, Chris," Buck muttered as he quickly dismounted and knelt near the two men.
Larabee turned to his old friend and mumbled, "Hes still with us, Buck, but I reckon wed better be moving along."
Buck didnt like the dazed look in the blonds eyes. "You all right, Chris?"
With a shake of his head, the gunman answered, "Tired as hell." He looked up at Wilmington then and spoke very softly, "I dont ever want to live through anything like that again, Buck. He was . . ." Chris swallowed as his eyes drifted to the limb of the tree above them. "I cant do this again," he finished.
"Youre not gonna have to. Im gonna see t that, Pard. Im gonna see t both of you. Let me have a look at Vin now, all right?"
Chris nodded as Buck set about looking Vin over, even though they both knew there was little he could do. All that was left was for them to mount up and get out of Texas.
+ + + + + + +
I could tell that Buck thought Vin would die. He avoided my eyes the entire time he looked him over.
Probably didnt help that Vin sounded like he was breathing through quicksand. It was more like a high-pitched wheeze than an actual breath, and you had to be practically on top of him to hear even that. We all wondered just what damage had been done to his throat. I wasnt all that sure having only known one man whod survived a hanging. I remembered that Nathan didnt seem to have any residual effects, other than a dark bruise for a few days.
But the rope wasnt as tight and it wasnt wet, and I dont remember Nathan having the ugly raw burn thats stretched across Vins throat. I wonder if hell have a scar? God, I hope not. None of us need a reminder of that night least of all Vin.
After Buck took a look at Vin, which seemed to me to mostly consist of muttering and cursing and a lot of head shaking he and JD took him from me and set about getting him in some dry clothes. My arms and legs felt like lead, but I knew I had to move and do the same. JD found our coats and hats, soaked of course. Buck commented that it would take a week for Vins buckskin coat to dry out, and it was no wonder Tanner leaned the way he did the damn thing must weigh fifty pounds. I tried to smile at that, but Vin looking so still and gray in the morning light pretty much put a stop to any lightheartedness.
Vins arm was broken again or maybe still. He never would keep the sling on. Buck splinted it again, and wrapped his ribs. We didnt think hed broken anything else, although he was bruised up good pretty much everywhere, and there was that hip to think about. I didnt even want to consider what the fall from that limb had contributed to that problem.
I didnt want to think about the other things that could be broken down deep inside, either. Hes been coughing up some blood, though, so its getting harder not to think about it. The first time was when we hoisted him up onto the horse in front of Buck. It was the first sound hed made a sort of weak imitation of a choking gasp that left a trail of blood dribbling down his chin.
Im embarrassed to say that I almost passed out when I saw it. After all the god awful things Ive witnessed in this life, a tiny little trickle of blood made me so weak in the knees and light in the head that I had to sit down . . . in a hurry . . . on my hell, it doesnt matter.
That was two days ago. And hes still with us. That is, as always, the important thing. The lie is still a lie, and apparently believable enough that no one has come after us.
Of course, if anyone had the notion, it wouldnt be all that hard to convince them that the lie was the truth. Vin looks dead most of the time. Hes opened his eyes just a slit maybe three times, counting that first time again when we first lifted him up on Bucks horse which lasted all of three seconds.
JD keeps asking Buck whats wrong, why doesnt Vin come around? Buck, being Buck, just tells him not to worry; that we all know how tired Vins been just plain wrung out and used up and needing to make up for all of it. Then he looks at me to see if Im buying it.
Am I buying it? I know how used up, bruised up, and broken up he is. But I also know Im not losing him so yeah, Buck is right. Vin will be all right . . . at least until he catches on to what happened.
The problem with telling a lie is that it always leads to another. And the second is easier than the first. So it actually occurs to me that as far as Vin knows, he could have been freed. That woman, and I use that term loosely, could have come forward and cleared his name at the last minute. Who would know the difference? Buck and JD. Texas will say Vin is dead will essentially wipe his name off the books. So unless someone gets the notion to look into it, hell be forgotten.
And until someone comes along who knows otherwise . . . who knows the truth of what happened in Tascosa . . . it could just be that Vin was let off. Saved at the last minute.
In a way, itd be no different than if he had gotten off. We talked about it, Vin and I, before all of this. Even if he was totally exonerated, it would take awhile for the news to spread. Bounty hunters could still come looking for a long time to come. I reckon it will be the same with him being dead. It will take awhile for word to spread.
It could take a long while before Vin found out the truth, too before he knew that he hadnt gotten off at all. That hed just . . . died.
Hopefully, it will never spread that hes not dead at all. And in the meantime, what would be the harm of everyone in town believing he was no longer wanted? It would . . . sort of be true. He is no longer wanted in Texas.
How long do you suppose we could get away with it?
I look down at him. His face is a mess now, blue and purple along his jaw and cheekbones; his nose is swollen and his lips are split and they still bleed whenever we try to force some water into his swollen throat. Why did they have to do that? Mess up his face? Hell, they were already gonna kill him what was the point of messing up his face? What was the goddamn point?
I should have taken JDs gun and started shooting. I wonder if I could have gotten them all. I would have tried, if I hadnt realized there was still a chance to save Vin.
Bucks been carrying most of the load these past two days. We cant risk pulling a travois - tracks like that would definitely point to an injured man as opposed to a dead one. So Buck and I take turns holding onto Vin, but Bucks taking most of it since I cant seem to keep myself in the saddle about half the time. Guess those days, or maybe weeks, of not sleeping are catching up with me, too. As slow as we have to move, itll be a month before we reach town.
Of course, were gonna need about that much time to figure out how were gonna play this. The last thing we need is Conklin stirring up more trouble.
I reach for the canteen and squat next to Vin. If we dont get more water down him, all this pondering will be for nothing. He groans a little as I pull him up, and Im grateful for that. At least hes able to make a real sound now, and he seems to be pulling in a little more air, too.
His eyes flutter and grow wide, confusion and something like fear setting in, until he sees my face and hears me speak in the most soothing tone I can drum up, "Its just me, Vin. Youre safe now."
He whimpers a little and I cringe at the sound, but at least he takes the water better this time. He still gags on it, though - pain written clearly in those pale, blue eyes. I lower his head back to the saddle weve got him propped up against, and stroke his hair until he drifts off again.
And thats when I remember . . . I could never look in those eyes and lie. Never.
I can lie to myself. Ive gotten pretty damn good at that, in fact.
But I cant lie to Vin.
So now all I have to do is convince Vin to let Conklin and his cronies believe this is all over . . . resolved . . . taken care of . . . finished. Just for a little while. Just long enough for Buck and me to drag one spoiled, redheaded, little bitch to see the judge.
It may all be a big lie but its only temporary. Vin will see that. Hell understand.