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"What in the hell are you talkin' about?!" Buck Wilmington, never one to hide his feelings, fairly screamed the words in red-faced anger. "Ya act like they're dead! They ain't dead, you damn fool, they'll be back!"
As Wilmington advanced on his much smaller friend, Sanchez and Jackson each grabbed one of his arms.
"Boy, if you value your life, I suggest you come to a point if you've got one," Nathan ordered shortly as he continued to struggle with the volatile ladies man.
"Buck! I never said they were dead! I'm just saying that... that they were our l-leaders," Dunne stammered. "Since we don't know how long they'll be gone, we need to form a new chain of command. Otherwise, we're going to come apart. Do you want Chris and Vin to come back to a big mess, to find us at each others throats instead of taking care of the town?"
Chest still heaving, Wilmington slowly began to calm down. By the time JD had finished his little speech, he stood quietly between the other two men. Frowning down at the younger man, he said, "Well hell, Kid. Why didn't you say so?"
Slumping against the desk, the youngest peacekeeper ran his hand nervously through his long black hair. With a sigh, he said softly, "I thought that's what I was doing."
With a compassionate smile, Sanchez said, "I think Buck just wanted you to make your point a little quicker, son. I agree with you, we do need to find away to keep our little band together until Chris and Vin return. But, how do we do that?"
"Yeah," Nathan agreed. "It just sort of came natural with the two of them. If it was gonna happen with us, it would a done so by now. So that means we've got to find a way of assigning those roles to one or two of us. We gonna draw straws or hold a vote?"
Shaking his head, Ezra said, "Well, I for one have no desire to take on the duties of either Mr. Larabee or Mr. Tanner."
With a broad grin that belied his words, Jackson said, "Don't worry, Ezra, I don't think any of us would 'a voted for you, anyway."
"I doubt that any of us has the desire to take on their jobs willingly," Sanchez offered. "Perhaps we should consider delegating different aspects of their duties amongst the rest of us."
Nodding in agreement, Buck said, "Sounds like a plan to me, pard. I mean, I don't wanna take on so much that it cuts int' visitin' with Miss Lou an' th' other ladies 'round here."
The other men rolled their eyes at the big man's declaration, but chose not to comment.
"So, how do we decide who's going to do what, then?" JD asked, drawing them back to the issue at hand.
"Perhaps I can be of assistance there."
The five men turned to find a familiar figure framed in the doorway. Each of them smiled and greeted the man. "Judge Travis."
Vin roused slowly from a dreamless sleep, his nose wrinkling as he tried to discern what he smelled. Slowly opening his eyes, he looked around the shadowy room, his still recovering vision fighting to make out the shape nearby. "Miz. Nettie?"
Nettie Wells looked up from where she stood over the big pot of chicken and dumplings she was carefully stirring. Smiling, she said, "It's about time you woke up, Vin Tanner. I thought I was going to have to eat these all by myself."
"Chicken 'n dumplin's?"
"Of course. Think you're ready to eat?"
"Yes 'm." He pushed himself up and swung his legs over the edge of the narrow bed.
Stepping across the little room, Nettie said, "You can eat right here, I'll bring over a plate."
Shaking his head, the young man said, "I'll take m' dinner at th' table, if you don't mind, ma'am. I'm awful tired a bein' a'bed so much a th' time."
Nodding, the old woman said, "All right then, let's get you settled in, and I'll dish it up."
Biting back an argument, Tanner allowed her to help him to his feet. Leaning on the surprisingly strong woman, he shuffled the few feet to the table, dropping to chair with a sigh. "Thank you, ma'am."
"It's no problem, son. Now, let me get your dinner dished up. I warmed some of the rolls Gloria sent out, and there's fresh butter, too." As she spoke, she bustled around the little room, trying very hard to fight the pain she felt at his weakened state. This was not the man she had come to know and love, and she feared that man could be lost forever.
She smiled. "I ran him off."
"What?" Panic caused his voice to quiver.
Hurriedly, she explained, "I sent him into town for the night to get some rest. Poor man looked done in. I figure you know better than any of us how much guilt he's carrying, Vin. I thought he could use a few hours in town, relaxing. I spoke to Buck before I came out here, and they're going to take care of him. That leaves me to take care of you. Think you can suffer through that?"
With a chuckle, the sharpshooter said, "Yes, ma'am, I reckon I can."
They said little during the course of the meal. Nettie made certain that he didn't eat too much, but didn't allow him to leave the table hungry. She wrapped her arm around the too-thin body and led him back to bed under protest after watching him struggle to keep his eyes opened. Settling him back in Larabee's bed, she said, "There, now. You get a little sleep, and I'll clean up. If you're up to it later, we'll visit for awhile."
He started to answer, but yawned broadly instead. Sated, he folded his hands over his taut belly and let the sounds of her bustling around the room lull him back to sleep. The weary man didn't sleep long, however. He suddenly found himself back in his prison, trapped without hope behind wood and barbed wire. Looking through the roughhewn bars, he watched the trio of violent 'hiders coming closer and closer, matching looks of perverse amusement on their faces. He scuttled back into the corner of the cage, trying to make himself invisible to the human monsters. It was to no avail, they reached in, dragging him through the bars themselves.
"NO! OH GOD, NO!"
Nettie jumped up from where she sat doing needlework, rushing to the terrified man's side. Perching on the edge of the narrow bed, she gently took hold of Vin's shoulders, calling to him as he flailed weakly on the mattress. "Vin! Vin, honey, it's all right. Vin, it's just a dream, son, you're all right. Vin!"
Slowly the struggle ended, leaving Tanner to lie panting on the mattress. He moaned softly, still trapped between the nightmare and reality. Then he felt a gentle caress on the clammy skin of his face, the touch bringing him a sense of peace and calm. Slowly his eyes blinked open, searching for the source of that touch.
"Ms. Nettie," his voice was little more than a croaking whisper.
"I'm right here, son. You were having a nightmare, but you're safe now. You're safe." She started to get up, to find something to bath the perspiration from his fine features, but he grabbed her arm. Looking down into the panic-stricken face, she said softly, "Honey, it's all right. I just want to make you a little more comfortable."
He blinked rapidly, fighting back the hot tears that threatened to spill down his ashen cheeks. Slowly he relaxed his hold, allowing her to move. His eyes never left her, however, following her to the water bucket and back to sit beside him. As she sank to the bed beside him, he breathed a heavy sigh and lay limply against the mattress.
Nettie gently bathed Tanner's face then ran the cool cloth over his arms and chest. She couldn't help but notice the patchwork of injuries that covered the spare frame of flesh. She continued stroking the cloth over his upper body for several minutes, her actions slowly relaxing him enough to return to sleep. It was only then that she gave vent to her own feelings, hot tears streaming down her weathered features.
"Dear lord, child, what happened to you?"
Inside the house, Larabee's angry shouts rang out. "Goddamn you, you son of a bitch, leave him alone!"
The door behind him crashed open and Ella flew in, followed by two of the guards. She hurried to the enraged man's side, grabbing onto him. She tried to pull him away from the window, calling out to him. "Chris! Chris, darling, what is it?"
Eyes focused on the scene below, the gunman continued screaming at the 'hider holding his friend. "Goddamn you, let him alone! Get the hell away from him!"
Peering around the rigid body of the man she called husband, Gaines smiled as she took in the drama unfolding in her front yard. "Ah, I see. I must admit, that unkempt bastard had more brains than I've ever given him credit for. I believe he's trying to drive home the point I've been attempting to make over and over again. You have no control over things any more, my love... none at all."
"Damn you, you bitch, make him leave Vin alone. Now." His voice was terrible in its chillingly quiet tones.
"No, I don't believe I will. I believe that I'll just go enjoy the show." Tuning to her hired men, she continued blithely, "You two make certain that my darling husband doesn't miss a second of the... entertainment. I'll be downstairs."
The two men nodded, taking up positions on either side of the angry man, their guns at the ready. As Ella reached the door, she tuned and delivered a final warning. "And Chris, my love, if you make any attempt to get to that... that filthy creature... I'll have him hung in the front yard, where you can watch him rot."
Below, in the broad yard, Hiram was enjoying himself. He had ripped the clothes from the thin, battered body, leaving Tanner lying naked in the mud. Disappointed when the tracker had yet to respond to him in any way, he leaned down and began slapping the lax face. "Git up, you worthless bastard. This ain't gonna be much fun iffen you ain't awake ta enjoy m' 'ttentions. Now, c'mon, git up!"
Vin groaned and tried to fend off the attack with trembling hands. "Stop... lemme be."
"Wake up!" Hiram kicked the man in the side, grinning when he cried out weakly and curled up on his side. Reaching down, he pulled the man up by his hair, until the beaten man was drawn up t his knees. He pulled Tanner's head back, aiming him toward the window where Chris stood, watching helplessly.
"Lookee here, boy. Yer friend, he's right up yonder, watchin' us. Wanna give 'im a wave? Maybe blow 'm a kiss," the big man crowed with laughter as he watched the unfocused eyes fill with tears.
The laughter continued cruelly as Vin reached out a hand, and cried out weakly, "Chris! Chris... need you... need your... help... help me... Chris!"
Above, Larabee screamed, pounding at the window until the glass broke. He tried to push himself through the jagged opening, but was pulled back and held firmly by his guards. Two more men had come from somewhere, and it took all of them to restrain him. Even when he felt his strength waning, he continued to fight until one of the men hit him hard in the chest. With a pain filled groan, he slumped between the guards, struggling to catch his breath.
Finally, raising a tear-stained face toward the broken window, he watched in silence as his friend was brutalized by the savage 'hider.
"Chris... Chris..." Tanner continued to plead with his friend for help. He couldn't understand why Larabee had abandoned him. His fevered and confused mind called up the image of the blond walking away from him, and he cried out. "Don't... leave... Chris."
On the porch, where she sat like a queen, a plan formed in the cruel mind of Ella Gaines. She could have even more fun than she had expected. While she awaited the impending demise of the vile creature her misguided lover insisted on caring about, she would make certain that he suffered as much as possible. It was only right. He had been the cause of Chris leaving her. Had he kept his nose out of things, she and her husband would be enjoying the life they had been destined to have.
"I'm bored," she called out petulantly. "Get on with it."
Hiram looked up at her, anger flashing in his cold eyes. He had wanted this to be his show, every move orchestrated by him. Then he swallowed the anger and even managed a cold smile. Letting the semi-conscious man drop back to the ground, he nodded. "Yes 'm."
Above them, helpless to do any more than curse the fates that had set his path to cross that of Ella Gaines, Chris watched. And what he watched tore at his soul, leaving it to lie bloody and dying at Ella's feet.
Vin lay on his stomach on the muddy ground, barely aware of what was going on. Then reality came crashing in on him, riding on burning pain. He cried out as he was touched in ways too horrible for his mind to comprehend. Pain tore through his mind, his soul and his body, ripping away what little dignity he still held onto. Then agony seared through his mind as the half-healed wounds on his back were torn open. Long fingers clawed at the sodden earth, he arched up, a scream filling the air. Then he collapsed, panting heavily. "Please... please... Chris help... help me! Dear God... help me!"
The big 'hider, his ugly face filled with bliss as he tortured the helpless young man, pulled Tanner over, settling him on his back. With on knee pressed against the heaving chest, he forced the bleeding body into the sodden earth. Chuckling as Vin responded with a breathless moan, he leaned more of his weight against that one leg. Then he removed it, only to shift it to the man's groin. With a sadistic leer, he pressed down until the sharpshooter screamed. Tanner's back arched, his fingers dug furrows in the earth, and his head pressed down against the muddy ground. As the pain seared through his traumatized body, his eyes rolled back in his head and he vomited what little his stomach had to offer up. He choked on the gore, coughing and gagging until he was rolled to his side.
"Cain't have you checkin' out on me yet, you purty little thing," Hiram whispered to the shivering man. "Ain't had this much fun fer a long time."
Chris was once more struggling to fight off his captors. He landed a solid punch to one, sending the man flailing through the air to land half way across the room. Retribution was swift, though, and he found himself on his knees, once more gasping for air. They had discovered the effectiveness of his only recently healed wound, using the still weak muscles to bring him back under their control.
Larabee slumped to the floor, his attention split between his own damnable weakness and the horrific display of violence below. Blinking back tears of rage, he forced himself to look down into the yard. "Vin."
Below, in the mud, Tanner's mind struggled through the mire of pain. The memory of being told his friend was near, in the big house, filled him with delirious hope. Rolling to his stomach, he whimpered as pain welled up from that simple movement. Forcing the pain out of his consciousness, he reached out and clawed at the muddy ground, struggling to pull himself forward. He was no longer working with a plan, but on instinct alone. He had to get to Chris. An iron grip stopped him, but he continued to try and move.
"No, let him go," the madwoman on the porch ordered. The big man in her employ looked up sharply, considering an argument, but then simply nodded and released his hold.
Mindlessly, the battered man moved along the ground, an inch at a time. Waves of pain battered him, threatening to rip him apart each time he struggled to draw a breath.
Gaines watched the spectacle, dark eyes glittering with absolute joy. Throughout the endless moments that followed as she watched the dying man struggle forward, her mind formulated a plan. Finally, as Tanner reached a place out of view from above, she stepped off the porch, coming to kneel beside him. Reaching out, she pushed the battered man to the ground, his body collapsing into the mud once again. Pulling the matted, filthy hair out of his face, she managed to catch one blue eye.
"He's mine now. He doesn't want you anymore. You're worthless to him. He'll never have anything to do with you now, not after he just saw what you allowed that other man to do. You're filth... trash. The only thing you can do for him now is to die."
With a final, heartrending sob, Vin let go of the last vestige of hope.
"Boys. I'm sorry I couldn't get here sooner. Let's start at the beginning, shall we? Someone want to fill me in on what the hell's been going on around here?"
It took them over an hour, Travis stopping disagreements before they could become full-blown arguments every few minutes. Finally threatening to hang the next man who seemed bent of fighting, he ordered Josiah to handle the narrative. When the big man finished, the Judge leaned back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest and glaring at each of the five members of his peacekeeping force.
"Now, I know that Chris has been the glue holding this bunch together... has been from the first day. And I know that Vin has been just as important to the group as Chris. However, you men were hired to protect this town, and I aim to see that you do just that. If that means I have to officially assign duties and make a chain of command to keep you from killing each other, than that's what I'll do."
They looked at one another then five pairs of eyes dropped to the floor. Travis suddenly felt as if he were facing his grandson's class rather than a group of highly skilled, remarkably able lawmen. Because, badges or not, that was just what they were. He realized then just how much they had come to rely on one another, and how easily things crumbled without the strong leadership of Larabee and Tanner. Shaking his head and looking from one submissive man to the next, he sighed.
"All right, then, let's get to it."
It took two more hours for the men to hammer out an agreement. Tempers flared, accusations flew, and heated words were exchanged. But then, finally, a course of action was laid out. Josiah would have the final word on any decisions that involved the town, his age and wisdom going far to ensure the best possible outcome. It would also be his responsibility to report to the Judge. Buck would coordinate the schedule that sent each man riding out on rounds, while Nathan would oversee that duty for the town. Ezra would be in charge of checking out the incoming and outgoing stages for any signs of trouble. JD would remain in charge of the jail, coordinating watches when they had prisoners in the cells. All of them agreed to work with one another with as few arguments as possible. Josiah was given the Judge's blessing to lock up any of the others should they fail to cooperate.
JD sighed as he looked around at the other men. He was still to be stuck with jailhouse duty. Now, however, there was some hope that they would still be together when their two friends came home.
The little widow sat watching the frail young man as he slept. While he slept more deeply than before, she could still see the fear and worry on his handsome face. From time to time, Nettie watched as Vin's eyes darted back and forth beneath the pale lids, as if he were looking for something... or someone. Then he began to talk, mumbling in his sleep. The words he spoke caused a flash of anger in the old woman.
"Chris... where... where are you pard? Chris... need... need you... help Chris... help me. Don't... d-don't leave me... please... don't let 'm... hurt... hurt me... Chris..."
What had happened out there? Where had Chris Larabee been while Vin had suffered all the injuries the crazy quilt of scars told her he had suffered? Had she been wrong to think that the gunman wasn't to blame for what had happened? Her mind raced with questions that she knew could only be answered by the man sleeping before her.
By the time Vin woke from his nap, Nettie was fit to be tied. Several times he had called out to his friend, begging him for help. She knew that, somehow, she needed to get the story of their time away from town from her surrogate son. Somehow, she would find out exactly what role Larabee had played in Vin's being mistreated so badly. Somehow, she would know what happened.
And, the Good Lord help Chris Larabee, if he had failed her boy.
"Miss Nettie?" He peered up at her wearily from the bed. He rubbed a hand across his face as he studied the hard set of the old biddy's jaw. "Miss Nettie, there somethin' troublin' you?"
"Yes, there is, son. But I'm not gonna ask you quite yet. Are you hungry?"
Smiling he answered, "Didn't we just eat?"
"That was a few hours ago, and you ate about half of what you... what you used to eat at my table."
Sadness crossed his face, and Tanner said, "Reckon so. Seems like I'm always hungry, but after three, four bites, I start hurtin' from bein' full."
Perching on the edge of the bed, she stroked a gnarled hand down the handsome face, noting the hollows and sharp angles that hadn't been there before he left town. Tentatively she said, "That happens when a body's starved."
Nodding, Vin replied, "Reckon it does."
"Then I reckon you need to eat a little bit at a time, and eat more often. Everything's still on the stove, let's get you to the table and get you fed." Standing away from the bed, she watched him push himself stiffly from the mattress, slipping her arm around him as he stood. He leaned against her, one arm draped over her narrow shoulders, as they made their way across to the table.
He dropped to the chair with a soft groan, leaning back and looking up at her with a smile. "Thank you ma'am."
She couldn't help but smile at him in return, the gratitude that shown so plainly in his bright blue eyes causing her heart to ache. Vin Tanner didn't give of himself easily she had learned that a long time ago, but when he did it was with his whole heart and soul. It was that way with Chris Larabee, as well as it was with the other men. He would offer up himself to protect any of the people who were important to him. She couldn't help but wonder if that that willingness to give himself wasn't misplaced when it came to the man in black.
She looked up at the call, surprised to find him watching her with a look of concern. "What is it honey, you need something else?"
"No ma'am, I'm fine. It's just... well, ma'am, I've heard that frettin' plays the devil with a person's digestion."
She blushed like a schoolgirl, which caused the young man to smile. "I'm sorry, Vin, I just... I... "
He reached out and took her hand in his, rubbing his thumb across her knuckles. "Nettie, ask your questions. I'll answer 'm th' best I can."
With a sigh, she shook her head. "I've only got one, son... what happened?"
She watched the play of emotions that crossed the pale face. He nodded, staring down at the table as if the past lay there amongst the chips and scratches. The hand that rose to rub across his face shook and the one that embraced hers held on tightly. For several long moments they sat like that, as if they had each been carved in stone. Then he heaved a weary sigh, slumping in the seat as if her question was too heavy to bear. Cursing herself Mrs. Wells jumped up from her chair, coming around the table to him, never letting go of his hand. Without a word the little widow pulled the fragile young man out of his seat and nearly carried him to the bed.
Settling him on the mattress, Nettie covered him, tucking the blankets close around him. She stroked back his hair then found herself caught in his haunted, wide-eyed gaze. "I'm sorry, son, I shouldn't have asked you... not yet."
He shook his head. "Nah, it's all right, ma'am. Reckon you ain't th' only one with that question gnawin' at you."
"No, I'm just the foolish old woman who asked it when it's obvious you're not strong enough - "
He cut her off with a hand on her weathered cheek. "I don't 'preciate you callin' my friend a foolish ol' woman," he scolded lightly.
She attempted a smile, but failed miserably. Taking his hand in hers, she gently kissed the palm then tucked his arm back under the blanket. "You know I'm a plain talker, Vin Tanner. You'll tell you story when you're ready, and not before. Now, why don't you go on back to sleep - "
"Been sleepin' so much as it is, I'm startin' ta feel like that feller in this story J'siah read once... feller that went ta sleep for a hun'erd years." He paused, taking a deep breath before he continued. "I ain't for certain how much I can tell you without gettin' things muddled, but reckon I wanna give it a try... if you wanna hear it."
Nettie nodded, reaching forward to plant a tender kiss on his cheek. "You tell as much as you want to son, and take as long as you want to. I'm not going anywhere."
Chris Larabee was trying very hard to relax, and failing miserably. The only thing on his mind was returning to his little cabin and to Vin Tanner's side. He had outright refused to entertain staying until JD and Ezra offered to set up a watch around his shack, to watch for any signs of danger. Even that did little to ease his mind, but at least he took comfort in the fact that Vin was being watched over. With continued reluctance, he joined Buck, Nathan and Josiah for dinner in the saloon, washing down the chicken stew and tortillas with several beers. His rigid posture spoke eloquently of his tension.
"Damn, Chris, it's a wonder you could even bend enough to sit down," Buck protested.
Pale brows furrowing, Larabee said only, "What?"
"I think what Buck means is, you're stretched tighter than a new drum," Josiah added.
Larabee simply stared at the two men. He was far too tired to solve the riddles the other two men seemed determined to vex him with.
Seeing the blond's growing frustration, Nathan stepped in. "The whole reason for you coming into town was to get some rest. You look as tense now as you looked back at your place."
"Oh." Chris heaved a sigh, one long finger tracing a design in the wet ring left by his bottle.
When nothing more was forthcoming, Buck tried again. "Might help if you opened up a bit, told us what's been weighing you down... what happened out there."
Shaking his head, the gunman said softly, "Nothing's gonna help ease what I'm feeling. I let him down. When he needed me the most, I let him down."
No one asked who he spoke of, there was no need. The other three men sat quietly, waiting to see if there would be more. Finally, after several minutes of silence, Sanchez said, "I'm sure you did your best, Chris. The Good Lord knows you've done everything you could to bring Vin home."
Larabee leveled a cold look on the man, the icy gaze spreading to the other two. His tone just as cold, he said, "You don't know a damn thing, Preacher."
Days and nights passed with little acknowledgement. She came to him from time to time, using his body for her own pleasures. Three times a day someone brought him a tray. Three times a day they carried it away, untouched. Other than that, he was left alone with his thoughts.
They had boarded up the window he'd broken, nailing heavy planks on the outside to keep him from pulling them off. For good measure, they had boarded up the other windows in the room as well, leaving him to swelter in the stagnant air. He noticed that no more than he noted the passage of time. He even refused to leave the lantern lit, preferring to dwell in the darkness.
It seemed right; fitting. It was nothing less than he deserved and nothing more than he wanted. No, that wasn't true; there was one thing that he wanted. Ella Gaines had taken it away from him, though.
Vin Tanner was dead.
He hadn't seen him die, but had felt it. He had felt the younger man give into the inevitable, surrendering to the darkness.
And he had every intention of joining his friend just as soon as he could.
Larabee lay across the bed, staring upward into the gloom. His mind was filled with images that refused to leave his consciousness. Memories of Sarah and Adam; mixed with those of Vin Tanner. The three people who meant the most to him in the world, and they were all gone. Torn from his life by the bitch who swore she loved him.
His attention was drawn from his thoughts by a sound outside his door. It was the middle of the night as far as he could tell. The maid had brought up his dinner tray several hours ago. The scrape of a key inside the lock told him that someone was paying a call.
The awkward, uneven gait gave Chris the only clue he needed as to who his visitor was. The blond didn't move, just continued staring into the darkness. He knew that darkness would soon be compromised when he heard the soft scratch of a match. The tiny flame erupted like a wild fire, causing him to turn his head, squinting against the light.
"What do you want, Fowler?"
"I thought I'd just come to see how the mighty have fallen."
"Now you've seen... get out."
"Come, come, Mr. Larabee. You wouldn't deprive me of this small joy in my otherwise wretched existence, would you?"
"Don't give a damn what you want. Get out."
"I thought perhaps I could entertain you with a story," Fowler settled his mangled body onto a chair, his eyes never leaving the prone man. "I thought perhaps a little tale about a fire I once... witnessed... might be in order."
In a hollow voice, Chris said, "There's not a thing you can tell me that could be worse than I've already imagined."
"We shall see, my friend... we shall see."
Al Davis crept through the darkness as he had the last several nights. While he wasn't strong enough to openly defy Ella Gaines, he found that he couldn't just stand by and allow Tanner to die. Not like that. No man deserved to waste away, alone and in pain. He knew that the pain went beyond the physical hurts, too. The agony she had branded on his soul was far more devastating. He heard it in the weak, helpless cries of the dying man every waking moment. Hell, he heard them in his sleep; the breathless pleas for help from a man who had given up any hope of being able to give that help.
That was a legacy he couldn't live with, that of two dying men.
Stopping outside the little shed, Davis paused long enough to make sure he hadn't been seen. Finally, satisfied that none of the other men knew he was there. It was a testament to both Ella's delusion and Tanner's weakness that the shed wasn't even locked.
Pulling the flimsy door open, Al slipped into the tiny, airless building. Relying on the light of the full moon outside, he knelt beside the huddled, miserable figure. Setting aside the things he'd brought with him, he reached out and gently nudged the battered man. He was amazed every time Tanner responded, half expecting to find the man cold each time he visited.
Vin moved slightly in response to that touch. In the faintest whisper, he called out, "Ch... ris?"
"Sh," Davis coaxed. Carefully he lifted the filthy, matted head, awkwardly feeding the delirious man a little water. Tanner took the liquid with frail greediness, drinking as long as it was offered. When the blessed coolness was taken away, he whimpered, tongue running over his dry, cracked lips. After what seemed like years, it returned and he sucked it down as fast as he could.
"Take it easy, we don't want you gettin' sick," Al whispered, not certain his words registered at all. After the cup was emptied, he lowered the trembling body back onto the dirty straw. He had managed to bring the rough bedding in the first night, recognizing that it would at least insulate the dying man from the cold earth. The second night he'd managed to smuggle out a blanket to cover the nude man with. It was meager comfort, but the best he had been able to manage. Even doing this much was a risk. No one had noticed the accommodation yet, or if they did they stayed silent. Gaines herself seemed to have forgotten the man all together; forgotten him in her deluded attempts to woo Larabee.
Each night, after the others had gone to bed, he snuck out to the shed. There was still the night guard to get past but, for the most part, they were stretched out beneath a tree or lounging on the porch, drinking. Davis brought whatever he could sneak from the kitchen to help sustain the prisoner. That was what Tanner was, after all, a prisoner of Ella Gaines madness.
Vin wasn't able to eat anything solid, Al had tried that once, only to spend half an hour cleaning the man up after he had gotten sick. After that he concentrated on getting things like broth, gravy, mush or the like. Tonight's offering was a cup of chicken broth he'd managed to warm on the cook stove before bringing it out.
After Tanner had rested a little, the water staying put, Al lifted him once more. Slowly he fed the other man the broth, stopping from time to time to make certain he was all right. Once that mug, too, was empty, Davis once more settled the man on the makeshift bed.
Al Davis stayed as long as he dared, tending to the man as well as he could. It was rough care at best, little better than nothing, but all he could risk. Finally, preparing to leave the shed, he reached out and patted a bare shoulder. Without a word, he slipped out the door, reluctantly closing the door behind him. Glancing furtively around for signs that his presence had been noted, he hurried away.
Behind him, in the vile little box, Tanner's eyes fluttered open. Dull blue, unfocused, they stared into the darkness. Tattered lips parted as he moaned softly.
"It was an all together pleasant evening. Enough moonlight to ride by, but not enough to be readily identified by any but the most astute observer. And lord knows there were few of those. It was a good thing, too, considering the less than intelligent men I had been forced to make do with. They were adequate for the job, that's all I can say for them."
Chris simply lay there, not caring what the man said. He had dreamed that night over and over through the years. The nightmares had changed in details, but never in intensity. After all, how could you imagine the violent murder of your family in anything less than the vilest terms?
"Blackfox turned coward when he recognized the true nature of our mission. That was truly a shame for your wife and son; I believe he was the best shot of the bunch. However, I persevered with the two fools who remained with me.
"It was rather entertaining, trying to predict where your wife would show up next. First the door, then one of the windows... then another. Even after we'd hit her at least four times.
"And your son. He was quite young, wasn't he? He only appeared at the window once... after your wife had disappeared from view. So tiny... I nearly felt pity for him and put him out of his misery... almost." He stopped speaking then, as if waiting for a reaction. There was nothing, Larabee didn't move a muscle.
Chris laid there, the madman's words holding him immobile as if each one was an anvil dropped on his chest. He had imagined worse, but to hear it from this monster's mouth... to know the truth... it was inescapable.
Cletus Fowler, smiling smugly, had no warning. One second the blond lay on the bed, as passively as a shadow. The next second, he launched himself off the bed as if possessed by all the demons of Hell.
Fowler struggled, but had little chance to recover his wits. He fell hard on the floor, the air ripped from his lungs. Larabee's hands closed tighter around his throat, ending any hope of taking a breath. He fought with his one good arm, doing his best to push the other man off him.
Chris stared down into that monstrously deformed face, watching as the other man recognized his impending death. He could have wished for more from the other man, but what he saw in those last seconds of life would do. As Fowler gave in to fate, he growled, "How does it feel, Cletus? How does it feel to be helpless? How does it feel to die, knowing that you were the pawn in a demented whore's game? You're going to Hell, Fowler, and the flames you'll endure will last for eternity."
Even after the man's eyes unfocused and his body went lax, the blond continued to strangle him. He scarcely realized that he was being pulled off the dead man's body until he found himself shoved onto the bed. His vision cleared slowly, and he realized that the room was filled with Ella and her men.
Looking down at the corpse, the woman nudged her former henchman with her foot. With an emotionless tone she said, "The poor creature. At least he's out of his misery." Turning to the man who sat on the bed, chest heaving, she said, "I suppose you did him a favor, and it was nothing less than he deserved for killing your family."
"And it's far less than you deserve, you whore of Satan," Larabee growled.
"Chris!" She staggered back as if he'd shot her, stumbling against one of her hired men. It didn't escape Larabee's notice that the man did nothing to steady her.
Al Davis stood stock still as Ella fell against him, doing nothing more than bracing himself to keep from falling himself.
Chris was numb. Cletus Fowler laid dead on the floor, the man who had populated his nightmares long before they'd met.
And he felt nothing.
Darry stood in the middle of the room, weaving like a sapling in a windstorm. She wore nothing but an old nightshirt that was torn and tattered to mid-thigh. It was bloodstained from the days and nights of violence since Lafe had tired of torturing her inside the barn and she had been dragged into the house.
Wild-eyed in her madness, she looked around her. In the far corner of the old shack sat the remnants of her 'family'. Ma sat in the old, battered, cane rocking chair, while Hessie and Willie Joe sat on the floor on either side of her, like sentinels. None of them moved none of them ever would again. Each of them was hideously decorated in their own blood.
She looked down at her hands, each clenched around a bloodied object. In one was a knife, the other held a pistol. She was a good shot, and made certain that none of them had suffered much. She did regret killing Willie Joe; he was nothing more than a child. But she had looked into those dark, cold eyes and saw the soul of a monster. He had been raised in depravity and seemed destined to perpetuate that legacy. She had no choice; she would not see him succumb to those demons. Hessie had the mind of a child as well, but had chosen to protect the other two, leaving Darry with no choice.
A soft moan caught her attention and she turned toward that sound. Lafe lay on the old cot, the mattress soaked in the blood of them both. She hadn't seen the others for days, but knew they were no farther than Gaines' ranch.
She'd find them, though.
Darry stumbled over to the bunk, feeling the things inside that had been ripped, torn and broken, protest the movement. She looked down at the man who had tortured her for so long. She had finally gotten her revenge a short time ago. Waiting until he passed out, she struck. Now he lay, gutted and castrated, his life's blood oozing and dripping from the horrendous wounds she had inflicted on him. He stared up at her, a mixture of hatred, fear and resignation on his ugly, colorless face. He tried to speak, but could only cough, blood spraying the air.
Leaning forward, she caught that fading gaze and, in a voice dripping with venom, she growled, "I'll see you in hell, you worthless bastard." She spit n his fact before straightening and turning away. She managed to make her way from the shack. Darry that she was dying, but there was one more thing she would do before she took her last breath.
Chris lay on the bed, arms folded beneath his head, staring at the ceiling. He had spent hours replaying those last hours with Fowler, hearing the madman's description of Sarah and Adam's last hours of life. He had been wrong all along, believing that nothing could match his imagination. If Fowler told the truth, it was far more horrific than he had imagined.
Tears rolled from the hazel-green eyes, down his pale features, unnoticed. He kept hearing his wife's cries, his son's screams. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw them... bloodied... dying... calling to him. Then they began to burn, their bodies turning to ash as the flames consumed them.
Finally, he stopped sleeping.
He heard the door to his room open and close. Vaguely he wondered who it was. He could see the barest sliver of light at the edge of the window, where the wood was warped. He hadn't seen the sun for several hours, and figured it must be close to midnight.
Frowning, he turned toward the voice. The lamp had been lit at some point, illuminating the figure standing in the middle of the room. He recognized him as one of Ella's hired goons, but had no idea who he was. Pushing himself up on his elbows, he said in a scratchy voice, "What do you want?"
"I want to help you... I can take you to your friend. I can get you away from this place."
With a snort, Larabee said, "Yeah, right."
"Yeah... right." He echoed. "I can't do this any more... can't let her do this any more. Look, I realize you don't have any reason to believe me, but I am being truthful."
Dropping back to the pillow, Larabee muttered, "So, you're Ella's latest trick, huh? You come to lure me out of here? She wanna see if I'll run off or stay here... her lap dog?"
Shoulders slumping, Al said, "Mr. Larabee, believe me, if I had known how far she was going to go... I would never have hired on."
Something in the other man's voice caused Chris to turn toward him. "So, why now? Why turn against the bitch now?"
"Because of him... your friend... what she's doing to him. I can't stand by any longer and let him suffer."
Frowning, the blond said, "He's alive?"
Nodding, Davis said, "For now at least. But I'm not certain how much longer he'll stay that way."
Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, Larabee sat up, staring intently at the other man. "Are you telling me you can get us out of here? What about the other men?"
"I offered them some... libations after dinner. She don't like the men drinking', but... well, they don't always listen to her."
"Only when it suits them?"
Davis could hear the cold laughter of some of the men as they recounted the tortures Tanner had endured. Angrily, he replied, "Yeah... when it suits them."
Chris sat still, staring at the man for several minutes. Then he asked, "You're certain you can get me to him?"
"As certain as I can be."
Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly as he considered things, Chris said, "All right... take me to him."
Vin Tanner smiled up at the feisty widow who seemed to have adopted him as her son. Then he frowned and shook his head slightly. As his eyelids began to flutter, he muttered, "Damn." Then, blushing slightly, he murmured, "Sorry, Miz Nettie."
Smiling, the widow Wells said, "Honey, that's all right. I've heard worse. What's the matter?"
His eyelids growing steadily heavier, Tanner replied, "Don't reckon I'm gonna..." he paused, yawning, "be able ta stay awake... after all."
Stroking her hands through his long hair, Nettie watched as he lost the battle to stay awake. "That's all right, son, we've got all the time in the world."
Dinner ended in tense silence. Finally, Larabee said, "This is ridiculous. I know you boys wanted to give me a break, and I appreciate it. But I can't let him down again. I wasn't there when he needed me most. I won't let that happen again." That said, Larabee stood and left the table, leaving three friends behind him, shaking their heads in dismay.
"Where do you think he's goin'?" Nathan asked.
Shaking his head, Buck replied softly, "Only one place he can go right now."
Three men pushed away from the table and moved to follow their friend.
They were nearing the little shack that Chris had built. They still followed Larabee, who was reining in at the corral. Suddenly they found themselves flanked by JD and Ezra. The five men exchanged nods as a way of greeting.
"Brothers." Sanchez said in a determined tone. "I believe we've come to a crossroad."
Frowning, JD asked, "What do you mean?"
"We're all here together. Vin is growing stronger, but Chris is coming apart at the seams. The best thing we can do to help him, is to listen. And the best thing he... and Vin... can do is to share their burdens with their friends."
The other men nodded their agreement and nudged their horses forward. Larabee was standing on his porch, arms crossed over his chest when they rode up, a frown on his face. "Where do you boys imagine you're going?"
Smiling, Josiah replied, "Just thought maybe it was time that we got that story you two've been promising since you got back."
Larabee's frown deepened, then he turned at the sound of the door opening behind him. He managed a smile in greeting when Nettie Wells stepped out the door. "Ma'am."
Nettie nodded, then turned to the other five men. "If you men intend to stay out here, you be quiet. Vin wore himself out and he's sleeping. I don't fancy having him woke up before he's ready. Take care of those horses and find yourselves a seat... out here. I'll bring you some coffee in a bit." With that she disappeared back into the little shack. Behind her the men did as they were told.
Chris moved silently behind the man who'd promised to help them escape. He didn't know why he was trusting Davis but he had little choice. Now that he knew that Vin was alive, he would take even the faintest chance to get to him and get him away from this hell.
As long at Tanner was alive, there was a reason to keep moving.
They slipped through the dark house, only the faint sounds of the men outside keeping the silence from being complete. He had no idea where Ella was; probably in her room. If he thought he could spare the time, he'd find her and slit her throat.
But right now, Vin needed him, and that was what was important.
The two men moved through the shadows, Al moving along the hallways by memory and Chris right behind him. Davis had brought Larabee his belongings, allowing him to feel more 'normal' than he had in weeks. They reached the back staircase, steep and narrow. If anyone found them out now, they'd be easy to kill.
Good fortune smiled on them, the first time Larabee had seen her face for as long as he could remember. They made it to the bottom of the stairs without incident, hurrying through the kitchen and out the back door. The sounds of the drunken men were clearer now, although still in the distance. They kept to the shadows and moved quickly across the yard.
Davis slowed as they neared the shed where Vin had been left the last several days. Taking a quick look around, he pulled the door open, hearing Larabee cursing softly behind him when it was evident that there wasn't even a lock on the old building. Pulling it open, he stood aside and canted his head, motioning for Chris to enter the shed.
Hesitating now, knowing how easily it would be for him to be ambushed, Chris drew his Colt. Ducking down slightly, he entered the dark building. He stood still long enough for his eyes to adjust enough to find something in the shadows. A slight movement caught his attention, and he moved forward unconsciously, knowing that it was Tanner. Kneeling beside the huddled shape, he whispered, "Vin?"
The battered shape moved again, a soft moan reaching the other man's ears. Tentatively Larabee reached out, touching the chilled body. "Oh God... Vin."
Holstering his Colt, he carefully lifted the battered body into his arms. His breath caught in his throat and with a hitch in his voice he said, "Oh God... I am so, so sorry. So sorry, Vin. This should never have happened."
A hand slowly made its way to the broad chest of the man holding him. In a weak, raspy voice, Tanner murmured, "Ch... ris?"
Smiling at the sound of his friend's voice, Larabee whispered, "Yeah, it's me. It's me, pard. You ready to go home?"
Too tired to speak, the sharpshooter nodded, his head brushing against the Chris' shoulder.
Without another word, Chris pulled the body - far too light - deeper into his embrace, and managed to get them both out the door.
She moved along the edge of the trees that surrounded the big house. The moon was full, shining down on the broad yard. She could count at least half a dozen men scattered around the yard. Most of them seemed to be sleeping or passed out, she didn't know for sure, and she didn't care.
Darry slipped away from the protective shadows and started toward the nearest man. Weaving like a drunken sailor on the high sea, she dropped to her knees beside him. Raising her knife, she slashed it across his throat, opening the arteries buried beneath the flesh. She watched as his eyes flashed open just as he gasped his final breath. As his eyes darkened and unfocussed, she smiled coldly. One less bastard in the world. Pushing herself to her feet, she moved toward the next man.
The six peacekeepers were settled beneath the big tree near Larabee's shack. Five of them were drinking coffee and talking, sharing stories and information about the little town they kept the peace in. Chris Larabee sat, as he so often had since returning, silent and staring off into the distance.
"... No, I'm tellin' you, that girl could bend in ways that just ain't natural," Buck said, grinning like a loon at JD.
"You're so full of crap!" Dunne grumbled.
Rolling his eyes dramatically, the bigger man retorted. "You need a new line, boy. That one's about as lame as your jokes."
"Well, at least I..." Dunne trailed off, smiling as he saw Nettie Wells approaching the little group. Taking off his bowler, he greeted, "Ma'am."
Giving the men a nod, the widow said, "I thought I'd tell you that he's awake. I told him you're all here and why. I also told him that I didn't think it was a good idea." She paused, taking in the looks of protest on five of the faces and the look of relief on the sixth. Then she continued. "He said he'd just as soon get it over and done with. He was going to tell me what happened earlier, but wore himself out."
Before any of the men could respond, she held up a hand and added, "You know now that I'm not happy with his decision, but I'll abide by it. However, if he gets too wrought up or worn out, I will put a stop to it. Understood?"
Looking like six scolded school boys, the rough hewn peacekeepers nodded contritely. One by one they stood and followed the feisty little widow back toward the shack.
Entering the relative coolness of Larabee's home, they found Vin sitting up in bed. He greeted his friends with a tired smile. Nettie came to sit beside him, taking his hand in both of hers. Ezra and Josiah took the chairs on either side of the table, while JD, Buck and Nathan settled on the hard-packed, dirt floor.
Chris sat down tentatively on the foot of the bed. He looked into the weary, blue eyes that watched him. "You sure about this?"
Nodding, Tanner replied softly, "About as sure as I'll ever be. Reckon you c'n tell it better 'n me, and I promised the whole tale to Miz Nettie earlier. Reckon all our friends deserve ta know the whole story."
Chris closed his eyes and took a long, slow breath to try and steel himself for what was to come. Opening his eyes he looked once more into his friends eyes. If it was true that they were the windows to the soul, Vin Tanner's soul was about as torn and threadbare as they came.
"All right then," Chris said softly as he began to share the horror of those long, vile weeks.
Just as Larabee exited the little shed, a gunshot rang out. He turned to where Davis had been, only to find the space empty. Shifting his burden in his arms, he cursed, certain now that it had all been a trap. He'd be damned if he'd give up to them again. If they put a bullet in his brain, so be it. Anything would be better than returning into Ella Gaines special brand of hell.
And Vin was as good as dead as it was.
The gunfire continued, rapid and - from the sounds of it - most of it came from the same weapon. He tried to decide where the best place to make a stand might be, but there seemed to be very little sign of cover anywhere near.
"Maybe we'll just make our stand right here," he muttered, in a resigned tone.
Darry drew up short at the sight before her. Chris Larabee was cradling Vin Tanner to him, the sharpshooter hanging limply in his friend's arms. Still holding her now empty gun and her gore covered knife, she staggered toward them. She knew she wasn't long for this world, but she also knew that she would see this through. She would make certain that these two brave men got free of the harpy bitch responsible for so much.
Chris looked at her, shock showing on his face. "Darry... my God."
Another man approached them, leading a horse. She raised her knife, glaring at him as she prepared to fight... to defend these men.
"No!" Larabee warned sharply, relieved when she responded to him, her knife lowering. "It's alright, Darry. He's helping us. It's alright."
Nodding her understanding, Darry looked at the fragile being in Chris' arms. "He alive?"
Just then the sound of men approaching reached their ears. Darry turned, her growing weakness causing her to stagger and nearly fall. Glancing back, she said, "Get him outta here."
"Come with us," Chris all but begged.
With a bittersweet smile, the woman said, "I ain't much longer for this world. We both know that." Looking at the unconscious Texan, she said, "He done more for me than any man's ever done before. Please, Chris... take care of 'im."
"Darry..." Larabee looked at the young woman. She was right, he could see that. She was dying. There was so much he wanted to tell her, so much to say. But the only thing that he could say was, "Thank you."
"Here." Davis moved forward, holding out one of his guns, butt first. The woman dropped the one she carried and reached for his. Looking into her eyes, he saw the resignation and determination there. Sucking in a breath at the intensity, he whispered, "Good luck."
Smiling, Darry replied, "Y'all go on now." With that, she turned, melting into the shadows once more.
"Good luck," Chris said, echoing the other man. Then, shifting Vin, he moved to where Davis stood, holding Pony's reins. Handing Tanner over to him, he mounted quickly. With the other man's help, he pulled his friend onto the saddle, before him. Gently wrapping his arms around the blanketed figure, he nodded toward the other man. "I'm in your debt - "
"No sir, you're not," Al interrupted, his words hurried. "The debt was mine to pay."
Jut then they both heard the gunfire, closer than it had been. Both knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt that Darry was on the attack. With a solemn smile, the man said, "Best you get out of here." Before Larabee could respond, he touched the brim of his hat and disappeared in the same direction Darry had gone.
Left alone there in the darkness, Chris made certain that Vin was situated. Then he turned his horse, and rode away.
"Chris," Nathan spoke loud enough to interrupt the man. "I think we could all use a break."
Larabee looked shocked for a few seconds. He had been so wrapped up in finally telling their tale; he had forgotten that the others were there. He let his gaze travel around the room, noticing just how distraught his audience looked. His gaze fell, lastly, on his companion through that hellish experience. Vin's face had lost all hint of color, his eyes all but black as pupil obliterated iris.
Reaching out to rest his hand on Tanner's leg, Chris said gently, "I'm sorry, Pard. I"
"S'okay, Cowboy," Vin interrupted in a raspy whisper. "I... I needed ta r'member."
"But you don't need to remember it all right now," Nettie insisted, combing her fingers through the Texan's hair. "I'm going to fix us all something to eat and it would help if most of you mean cleared out of here so I can work."
The relief was almost palpable. Buck and JD moved out the door quickly, Ezra right behind them. Josiah left next, opening closed eyes as he finished a prayer for strength.
Nathan was the last to leave. He fussed over the weary tracker, checking for signs that the younger man was withdrawing once more. When he was satisfied that Vin wasn't in any worse shape than he had been, he turned to leave.
Locking eyes with Larabee, his brown eyes read the pain and guilt only too easily. He had seen signs of the damage that the gunman had described, and had wanted to ask about it all. But the injuries were already healing, and from the looks of the two men, neither of them had been ready to face just what had been done. So he had kept it from the others, carrying that secret alone.
Chris nodded, reading the healer's thoughts that were displayed so openly in those dark, brown eyes. He watched Jackson leave before he turned to matters at hand, helping his friend settle onto the bed. Tanner seemed too exhausted to move. Pulling the blankets up over the younger man, he watched Vin drift off to sleep. Straightening, he turned and started out the door.
Turning, he found himself the subject of Nettie Wells scrutiny. "Ma'am?"
"I was wrong. I judged you hurriedly... I heard him calling out to you in his sleep and I thought... I thought you'd somehow betrayed his trust. The Good Lord forgive me, I thought you were responsible for what happened to him."
Shaking his head, unable to meet her gaze, Chris replied, "I am responsible for what happened, Mrs. Wells. Nothing would have happened at all if it weren't for me."
Before the widow could form a reply, she watched him turn on his heel and leave the little shack.
Chris moved through the darkness as quickly as he could, given the unfamiliarity of the terrain and the fragility of his burden. Vin lay against him in a boneless heap. He took heart in that weight; it meant everything to him. Despite the raggedness of each breath, the tremors that seemed ready to shake Tanner apart, and the frightening lightness of his body, he was alive. And as long as Vin Tanner lived he would have the chance to make it right.
As long as he lived, he would do everything in his power to make things up to his friend.
A soft moan coming from the depths of the blankets drew Larabee's attention from his thoughts. He shifted his hold slightly and rubbed a hand over Tanner's shoulder. "Sh, it's alright, pard... it's alright."
Vin settled back in silence, resting against the gunslinger. Chris felt his throat tighten at the ease which seemed to flow through his friend's body. He wasn't worthy of that trust and he dreaded the day that Vin recognized that fact.
Darry heard someone coming up behind her. She turned; both gun and knife at the ready. Then she lowered both marginally as she found herself facing the man who had helped Vin and Chris escape. She had no idea what his name was, but if Chris trusted him, so would she.
Al Davis nodded and offered the young woman a smile as he crept closer in the darkness. They were quickly crouched, shoulder to shoulder, in the trees that bordered Gaines holding. The last surviving men in Ella's employ were moving closer, the sounds of heavy boots treading over the ground, announcing their approach.
In silence they knelt there, awaiting the men. Awaiting their fate.
Seeing a movement in the shadows, Darry raised her gun and fired. A startled grunt was her reward.
Davis fired, hitting another man. His reward came in a flame of pain, spreading from his belly outward in every direction. He responded with a gasp of pain, but refused to allow it to control him. He fired a second time, and the man fell.
Darry was gasping for breath now; she could no longer feel most of her body and knew that the next few minutes would be her last. Needing both hands to raise the gun now, she lifted it and fired, hearing another exclamation of pain.
The man and woman continued firing, only stopping when there didn't seem to be anything to fire at. Davis felt Darry slump against him. Lowering the weapon, he instinctively wrapped an arm around the dying woman, his own death creeping up on him more quickly than he would hope, but slower than he had wished for at times. The woman's head dropped to his shoulder and he leaned his own head atop hers. He felt her body tremble; heard her take a single, long breath. As she exhaled he heard the final rattle that told him it would be her last. He hugged her a bit closer, letting her know that she wasn't alone. He knew that his own death rattle would announce his passing soon.
A faint sound called him from his final thoughts. He looked up slowly, movement taking the last of his strength. As sight faded and his own death rattle swelled in his chest, he saw a vague shadow passing by.
Darkness reached from horizon to horizon, giving the landscape a dangerous, alien appearance. Chris gave the gelding his head, letting the big animal pick his own trail. He prayed the black's surefootedness kept them all safe.
As the first tendrils of dawn crept over the distant mountains, Larabee took his first deep breath in what seemed like years. In his arms, Vin shifted, moaning softly. Chris tightened his hold, letting his friend know that he wasn't alone any more.
"It's all right, pard. We're going home now. I swear it, Vin, we're going home."
Smiling at that whisper of sound, Larabee answered, "Right here. You're safe now, Vin. I'm gonna get you home."
"Yeah, you're safe now." Chris frowned as he felt the too-thin body in his arms begin to tremble. "Vin? Vin it's all right. You're safe now."
"No, it's the truth. I swear it." He felt the other man begin to struggle with more strength than he should have. He wrapped his arms more tightly around his friend, doing his best not to injure the man any more than he was already hurt. "Take it easy, pard, take it easy."
"No... lie... lies..." Tanner continued to struggle until, butting his head against Larabee's jaw, he loosened the man's hold.
Seeing stars, Chris lost his grip and scrambled to hold onto the Texan. Unable to keep the other man in his arms, he felt Vin wriggle loose and fall from the horse's back.
"Vin!" he cried out, vaulting from the saddle and dropping to his knees. He grabbed the still struggling form. "Vin, stop! Take it easy, pard. Come on, you stubborn fool, calm down. Vin!"
"Liar... you... lie... liar..." The words were nothing more than a hoarse whisper, delivered in a breathless voice.
Chris couldn't bring himself to argue with the battered man. He'd sworn to protect his friend; to get him away from the viciousness that Ella Gaines visited on anyone that got close to him. Instead, he'd allowed the Texan to suffer at the hands of those in her employ, while he'd been treated like some pampered pet.
Pulling the younger man against him, struggling to keep him from further harm, Larabee said, "Vin, I'm sorry... sorrier than I can say. I never wanted this; never wanted you to be hurt because of me. Never. Please, Vin, believe me."
There was no response, and Chris quickly realized that the other man was once again unconscious. "Vin, believe me... I never meant for any of this to happen. Never." Bitterness and anger colored his words.
Deciding to make camp where they had stopped, Chris set about making the other man as comfortable as possible. With a gentleness that most people would find impossible to relate to the gunman, he cared for the badly injured man. Making Vin comfortable, wrapping him in the bedroll their benefactor had supplied, he turned to exploring the saddlebags he found hanging across his horse's back.
The bags were surprisingly well-stocked, including a few medicinal herbs that he recognized. The man had truly been trying to make up for his part in the man-made... no, woman-made... hell the two of them had been subjected to for so long. Perhaps he and Vin weren't the only two inhabitants of that hell.
Making a tea from some of the herbs, Chris coaxed Vin to drink. Tanner turned his head, making a face at the taste, but he persevered. Too weak to continue his fight from earlier, the Texan allowed himself to be taken care of.
Getting the medicinal tea into his friend, Chris turned to the broth he was making from some of the jerky they'd been supplied with. He knew that Vin wouldn't be able to manage anything more than that. Gently slipping his hand beneath the younger man's head, he lifted him enough to sip the broth. Vin managed a few sips, then began to cough.
Setting the mug aside, Larabee lifted the slight body, settling the coughing man against him. He rubbed the heaving back, coaxing his friend to calm down as he did. "Come on, take it easy. It's okay, Vin, drink it slow."
Despite his best efforts, Chris ended up cleaning most of the broth from Vin's chest, feeling it soak into his shirt as well. He tried to get the semi-conscious man to drink more, but found it a losing battle. Finally he set the mug aside, bathed Tanner's face, and allowed his companion to slip deeper into unconsciousness.
Larabee looked up into the lightening sky, tears glittering in hazel-green eyes. Lord God, what a celestial joke! Finally he had gotten them both free of that bitch's grasp, only to have his friend hate him. "Damn you!" He growled toward the heavens, "Why didn't you just kill us both!"
Josiah approached the gunman, studying the tense set of the broad shoulders and stiffness of the well-muscled back. The others had left him to his thoughts for some time, but now they needed to draw him back into their number.
Chris was saddling his horse.
"Going for a ride?" Sanchez asked as way of starting a conversation. His only answer was a taut nod. "Want some company?"
Shaking his head, Larabee added, "You boys stay here... watch over Vin for me."
Risking sure and sudden death, the older man reached out and grabbed a black-clad sleeve. "Chris, where are you going?"
Larabee fired a killing shot, twin flames from cold set eyes. "I'm going away, preacher. That's all you need to know."
"You can't leave... you haven't finished the tale..."
"Tale?! You think this is a tale?" Larabee turned toward the older man. In a low, cold voice, he said, "You want to know what happened next?" Turning to each of the others who had come up behind Josiah, he repeated, "You want to know what happened next? I'll tell you what happened next. I spent days... every one of them feeling like a year... with my friend..." his voice broke as he continued, "dying in my arms. My friend who had only wanted to help me. My friend who I betrayed - "
"Chris, you didn't betray -" Buck argued.
As if he hadn't heard the other man, he continued, turning from them, unwilling to face any of them. He leaned against the fence, his entire body trembling with rage. "Betrayed by my arrogance. My stubborn pride. He suffered so much. Every day, every night... every minute. Even after we left that hellhole, he suffered. And he knew the truth... He. Knew. That. It. Was. All. My. Fault." Each word was emphasized by a balled fist, pounding on the fence rail.
"Chris, listen - " Josiah tried to interrupt the tirade.
"No, you listen. All of you. I watched him wither and fail every moment of every hour of every day and it was for one reason. Me. He was dying because of me. Because of my selfishness. He was -" Larabee's voice cracked. When he began again it was in a soft, trembling voice. "He was a pawn. He didn't deserve to be hurt like that. Didn't..."
"Chris," Buck tried to get the other man's attention to no avail.
"Didn't deserve to be thrown into the nightmare he endured. And there's only one thing for me to do."
"What're you planning, Chris?" Nathan asked; a concerned expression on his face.
"I've got to set things right... gotta make them right for him."
"And what might that entail?" Ezra asked.
"Enough questions!" The blond barked. "I know what I've got to do, so back off and let me
do - " He fell, unconscious, to the ground.
Rubbing his reddened knuckles, Buck shrugged as he looked around at the others. "He was gettin' a little out of hand, there."
Bending low, Nathan and Josiah picked up the insensate blond and carried him across the yard to the big shade tree. Making him as comfortable as possible, the healer looked up at the others. "You know, this won't keep him down long."
"No... we'll have to keep an eye on him. Otherwise, he will take off the next time." Josiah observed.
"But... where was he going?" JD asked; a puzzled expression on his pale face.
"The only place he can go," Ezra said in a resigned voice, "Back there."
Chris came to a short time later, glaring at his old friend as he rubbed his sore jaw. He said nothing to either Buck or the others. He had been out long enough for Nettie to prepare a meal, the other five eating out in the yard while, he suspected, she was helping Vin inside.
Leave it to Josiah to break the silence. "There's ham, beans and cornbread waiting for you inside. Want me to bring you a plate?"
"Yeah, jaw's probably a little sore," Buck teased gently.
"Go to hell," was Larabee's reply.
Wilmington's grin faded slightly; didn't Chris realize, yet, just how long he had been in hell, trying to save the stubborn man from his headlong flight to destruction? Beneath that cocky grin was a very real fear that they would be traveling there again.
The men looked up, surprised to see Nettie Wells standing there, arms crossed in front of her.
"Vin's awake, and chompin' at the bit to finish the tale. I feel it's a bad idea, even more so than before, but he's a stubborn cuss."
"He is that, ma'am... I suspect that's all that kept him alive all that time."
"No, Chris, it's not all." Nettie's voice had grown soft, as had her lined face. When she had the man's attention, she said, "He had you there, takin' care of him."
With a harsh bark of a laugh, Larabee said, "And I did such a fine job of it, too."
Her voice hardening once more, Mrs. Wells said, "If you want to sit here, feelin' sorry for yourself, by all means, don't let me stop you. But if you're the friend that Vin sees you as, you'll get up off your backside and go back in there. If the tale needs tellin' then let's tell it and be done. So both of you can finish healin'."
The glare that cowed some of the most desperate men, seeking a name for themselves, had absolutely no affect on the tiny woman. Her back ramrod straight, Nettie Wells turned and walked back to the cabin, showing no doubt that the gunman would follow.
Cursing under his breath, Chris Larabee gained his feet and followed close behind, the other five men, trying to hide expressions of amusement, were only a few feet behind.
They filed back into the little cabin, finding Vin sitting up in the bed once more. He still looked shaken and spent, but there was a glint of determination in those haunted blue eyes that told them clearly that he was ready to face the rest of the painful tail.
He skirted any town they came near, fearful of meeting up with someone she'd paid to be loyal to her. There was only one way to be safe... to keep Vin safe. They had to get home. The terrain was looking more and more familiar and he knew that they were getting close to town. That was, when he knew anything at all. Larabee had had little to no sleep since they'd been freed from Ella's clutches; minutes snatched at the fireside before waking once more to tend to his friend.
Vin was fading away. He barely had the strength to open his eyes, but still he fought every chance he had. In the only way he could. He refused to drink more than a few sips of tea or broth, managing to open his eyes enough to communicate anger and betrayal to the other man.
Chris couldn't help but recoil from those looks, unable to banish them with weak words like 'sorry' or 'I tried'. They were excuses. He should have been able to save his friend; to get them both free from Ella Gaines and her madness. Before she had turned those monsters loose to violate and torture Tanner. He should have been able to free them both before Vin had to undergo... everything.
He should have given in. Done her bidding. Perhaps that would have allowed him to negotiate for the Texan's freedom. It disgusted him.
"There's not much more to tell. We just kept moving, coming back this way as quick as we could. Vin... well... he just..." Chris ducked his head, unable to fight the tears any longer. Covering his face with his hands, his entire body shook with the grief he had cloaked himself in for so many weeks. He made no sound, his pain too great to give voice to.
Suddenly he felt arms around him, the warmth of another body beside him. He tried to pull away, but they held tight. "Don't... I don't..."
"Sh," Nettie Wells gently admonished. "Son, you lived a nightmare... more than any of us could stand up beneath. But you came through... and you brought Vin right along with you."
"But... that's the... problem. It was my nightmare... not his. My hell..."
"Chris." Vin's voice, soft and filled with emotion, cut through the other man's grief. "None 'a this is yer fault. The only thing you did was ta try ta help me. That bitch... she's ta blame. Not you. She filled yer head with so much bullshit, that it's got you all twisted up inside."
Slowly Larabee raised his head, staring at his friend with an astonished expression. "But, on the trail... you were so angry."
"Hell, Lar'bee," Tanner drawled, "I was outta my mind... been havin' dreams, nightmares..." He gave them all a brief look into the horror that had been his internal hell, created by the external. Sharing the tale of his hallucinations of Chris leaving him behind had an effect on all of them, as they tried to imagine Vin's fear at being left alone by his friend.
"Vin, I'm sorry, I didn't..." Chris murmured, still held close in Nettie's arms.
"Damn it, Chris... sorry Miz Nettie... stop apologizin'. Don't you see? It was in my mind, it wasn't real. If I'd been in my right mind, I never would 'a acted like that."
"Mr. Larabee," Ezra interjected, "I believe that you've forgotten how things were, when the two of you first returned. Mr. Tanner would never have survived, had it not been for your presence."
"Much as I hate it, I've got to agree with Ezra," Nathan added his voice to the conversation. "I didn't have a lot of hope that Vin was gonna make it, but when you came back... when you were there for him, Chris, that was all it took."
Chris looked around him, looking into each face that was watching him. Finally he turned and looked at Vin. All he saw in every face was reflected there; worry, concern, fear... but overriding it all, he saw friendship. The tears welled up once more. He knew he should be embarrassed at the show of weakness, but then he realized that perhaps it wasn't weakness after all. Maybe those tears were there for a purpose; to wash away some of the pain so that he could focus on today and tomorrow. The first thing he needed to do was to make certain Vin was going to be okay.
The second thing he needed to do was to kill Ella Gaines.