The morning found Chris still breathing and Vin sending a prayer of thanks to whatever god might've been in charge of keeping him alive. Although Chris remained unconscious, there was no fresh blood from his chest wound and his heartbeat was strong.
He gently shifted Chris's upper body to the ground, and climbed to his feet in painfully slow motions. For a moment, he'd experienced brain-numbing panic when he thought he'd lost all feeling in his legs again. Then came the prickly sensation, and he grit his teeth as he waited for the needles to come and go. Once standing, he gazed down at Chris's sleep-slackened features. Telling Chris the horrible secret he'd hidden for fifteen years hadn't been as difficult as he'd imagined it would be. Maybe Chris was right - he'd only been a boy when it happened, and the memory was tainted by his inexperience and innocence. If the tragedy had occurred when he was a man, would he be so torn up over it? Or would he have accepted what fate had handed him, mourned Seth and Brett's death, then moved on?
Vin shook his head. He couldn't answer that. Not yet. He was still trying to sort through his cataclysm of emotions. He'd never felt the need to talk to a preacher before, but at this moment, he wished Josiah was around. Maybe he could help him figure out why things happened like they did.
He took a step, then threw a hand out against the rock wall to steady himself. After the long cold night on the ground and too little food and water in the past couple days, Vin knew his legs would take some time to regain their strength. After a few more minutes, he shuffled out of the small shelter and into the coral-tinged morning.
The sun hinted at the heat that wouldn't be long in coming, and Vin took a look around, hoping against impossible hope that he would spot another human being. But only dust dervishes danced across the desert sand, shunted into motion by the light breeze that would disappear in another hour or so. All around him lay nothing but browns and tans that stretched to the horizon.
A vulture circled high above him and an irrational anger seized Vin. "Not today, you bastard," he muttered to the ugly bird.
His voice echoed across the land broken only by this odd canyon formed by upthrusts of rock from the earth. Three days ago, if Vin hadn't been feeling so sorry for himself, he would've recognized this as a perfect place for an ambush, and maybe Chris wouldn't be lying in the cave seriously wounded, probably dying.
He brushed the edge of his hand across his eyes. Hell, he'd been preparing to die most of his life. All the things he'd done - fighting in the war, hunting buffalo, tracking bounties - all of them had been jobs he'd known could lead to his grave. And he'd recognized that with a quiet acceptance. The only thing he wasn't prepared to accept was the guilt for another friend's death. Anything else he could've lived with, but not this bitterness, this acid eating at his gut from the inside out.
Vin rubbed his brow and ran a hand through his long hair. Was it foolish to hope for a miracle - to expect their five friends to ride to their rescue? He laughed aloud, the raspy sound startling him. Hell, he was thinking like that green kid again, thinking that the seven of them would ride together forever. The truth of the matter was nobody even knew where they were, except for maybe Woods, and he was only waiting for the desert to finish the job he started.
He glanced around one more time - nothing in the scene had changed but the angle of the sun. He closed his eyes momentarily to stave off the helplessness that expanded like a flooding river within him. Breathing deeply, he was able to gather his crumbling composure enough that he could face Chris again.
Turning slowly, he walked back to the small cave and ducked to enter it. Though he couldn't see anything at first, he sensed something. Or someone.
Woods' voice crawled up Vin's back and brought the hairs at the nape of his neck to attention. Vin's eyes adjusted slowly to the dim light and what he saw nearly made his heart stop in his chest. Woods stood above the now-conscious Chris, the barrel of his revolver pressed against Chris's left temple. For a moment, Chris's features blurred and Brett's frightened face took its place. Vin blinked, banished the image from his past, and concentrated on Woods' florid face.
He nodded curtly to the man even as panic clawed at his brain and every muscle in his body urged him to attack, to save Chris like he hadn't been able to save Brett. The boyhood friend had been dead over fifteen years - there was nothing Vin could do about him. But Chris was still alive. Vin had a chance to do it right this time, to redeem his soul, but more importantly, to save his friend's life.
"Drop your gun," Woods ordered.
With a sense of foreboding deja vu, Vin asked, "So you can kill him anyhow?"
"Last time I was angry because you had killed my special friend. Now drop it or so help me God, I'll shoot him!"
Clenching his teeth, Vin eased Chris's gun out of his waistband and dropped it to the ground.
"Just like old times, isn't it?" Woods asked, an evil smile distorting his features.
Vin's gaze flickered to Chris's steady green eyes, and the gunman's calm seemed to telegraph itself to Vin. The tracker dragged in a long steady breath. "'Cept I ain't a kid anymore."
Woods' eyes roamed up and down Vin's body, and a shiver of revulsion swept through him. "If I'd have known you'd grow up so good, I would've kept you for myself."
Vin smiled coldly. "I'd have killed myself first."
Woods shook his head, a mocking smile on his lips. "I do believe you would have, and a damn shame it would've been, too. You were the strong one, not like those two friends of yours who were weak." He shifted slightly and Vin tensed, but the gun remained silent. "I didn't even recognize you back there in that town, at least not until I heard your name. Then I remembered. I also knew you wouldn't stop until you killed me."
"You got that right."
"So I tried to kill you in town, only I missed."
Vin's eyes narrowed. "You did shoot at me first."
Woods shrugged. "I'm actually a peace-loving man, Vin, not at all like this `special' friend of yours." He dug the gun's barrel into Chris's forehead, close to his injury and causing Chris to wince. "But I suppose he does have a certain charm about him - one you obviously couldn't resist."
Vin's body tensed and his fingers curled into his palms. Disgust roiled in his gut. "You got a sick mind."
"Maybe, but I'm the one who's going to leave here alive. Remember that little friend of yours - what was his name, Bill, Bob?"
"Brett," Vin automatically corrected. His expression became feral. "You murdered him in cold blood, you bastard."
"Only because you killed Seth." Woods sighed. "And Seth had so much potential, too."
"You turned him against his friends." All the anger and hatred Vin had bottled up for years threatened to explode. He took a step forward, but froze when Woods tightened his hold around Chris's neck.
"Stay back, Vin, or I'll blow your friend's brains out, just like I did to Brett."
Vin's heart thundered in his chest and the paleness of Chris's face frightened him. He held up his hands in surrender. "Look, it's me you want. Let Chris go."
Woods tsk-tsked. "Begging doesn't become you Vin." He glanced at Chris, then suddenly took a step toward Vin and aimed his revolver at him.
Chris groaned and fell back on the ground, a feeble hand coming up to his chest wound. Vin barely restrained himself from going to Chris's side. Instead, he concentrated on the fury that thrummed through his veins, the hatred that brought everything into tight, clear focus.
"Seems a waste of a bullet to put him out of his misery," Woods said. "He won't last long as bad as he is. You, however, are another matter altogether. I made the mistake of thinking you wouldn't survive last time - I won't make the same mistake twice."
"Yeah, you made a mistake over fifteen years ago," Vin said savagely, "when you forced me to kill Seth and you murdered Brett."
"Nobody forced you to do anything." Woods shifted and he grimaced slightly, then rubbed his wounded shoulder. Vin's eyes narrowed, noting the weakness. "Any last words you want to say before joining Seth and Brett?" Woods asked as if having a conversation with a neighbor.
Vin's lips curled into a sneer. "I'll be waitin' for you in hell."
"You'll be waiting a long time because I don't intend to die until I'm a very old man."
As Woods' finger began to squeeze the trigger, Chris kicked out his long legs, catching Woods behind the knees with his bootheels. The gun discharged and the bullet ripped across Vin's upper arm, but it didn't stop him from charging the big man.
They fell together, barely missing Chris with Vin on top of Woods. Vin grabbed Woods' wrist, forcing the gun's barrel away from him. Woods' face contorted with exertion as he fought to bring the revolver to bear on Vin.
From a few feet away, Chris could only watch helplessly. All his remaining strength had gone into his desperate kick at Woods. Now he lay, sick and dizzy with weakness, and unable to do anything but weather the waves of pain and nausea coursing through him, and hope Vin could overpower the larger man. Knowing Vin's strength was diminished by lack of food and water, Chris hoped Woods' shoulder wound would slow him down.
Chris watched as the revolver disappeared between their bodies, and he saw the sweat pearling Vin's brow as he struggled against Woods. Suddenly a muffled shot sounded, and Chris jerked instinctively. Vin's eyes closed and he sagged over Woods' body.
Fear rifled through Chris, giving him the impetus to pull himself toward the two now-still combatants. He ignored the incessant agony that knotted his chest. His only thought was to reach Vin. Finally he was close enough to reach out and touch Vin's shoulder. The warmth of his skin seeped into his fingertips.
"Vin," he whispered hoarsely.
The tracker opened his eyes, and Chris was rewarded with their familiar twinkle. "I'm okay," Vin said softly. "Woods is dead."
Chris's eyelids fluttered shut in relief, then he felt Vin's comforting grasp on his arm.
"Hey, cowboy, you still with me?" Vin's gentle voice drifted to him.
"Don't call me a cowboy," Chris said, his eyes still closed, but managing a slight smile.
Vin chuckled. "You ain't ever gonna die - you're too damn ornery." He carefully shifted Chris away from Woods' body and settled his leather jacket beneath Chris's head as a pillow. "I'm goin' to get rid of the garbage in here, then go find his horse."
"I ain't goin' nowhere," Chris said with a husky voice.
"You damn well better not."
Fifteen minutes later, Vin led Woods' roan horse to the cave entrance and ground tied him. He'd also found one canteen full of water and another a quarter full attached to the pommel. Vin allowed himself a couple sips, but it wasn't the water that gave his step a new lightness. It was the knowledge that he'd faced his demon in Woods and had been able to keep his promise to Seth.
Maybe Vin shouldn't feel good about the death of another human being. But he did. Maybe that made him a bad person, but he wouldn't allow himself to feel remorse. The bastard had killed Brett and shot Chris, not to mention all the boys' lives Woods had destroyed. No, he didn't feel a damn bit sorry the man was dead.
He entered the cave and hunkered down beside his friend. He touched his shoulder lightly. "Chris?"
The gunman's eyes opened and focused on Vin.
"Think you can get up on a horse with a little help?" Vin asked.
Chris smiled wanly, but there was a sparkle in his eyes that hadn't been there since he'd been shot. "If it means leavin' this damn cave, I could probably manage to get my sorry butt into the saddle myself."
Vin grinned. "I don't doubt it." He leaned over Chris and helped him to a sitting position then wrapped an arm around his waist. Vin drew him to his feet, and together they shuffled out into the desert sunlight.
Chris blinked against the brightness, but his lips quirked upward. "Didn't figger I'd be leavin' that place alive."
"Me neither. Looks like them angels ain't gonna be callin' us today."
"Hopefully not for a while."
"Amen brother," Vin said softly.
He aided Chris into the saddle, then went back into the cave to grab their hats and his coat. Sticking his left foot into the stirrup, Vin pulled himself up to sit behind Chris. He settled Chris's black wide-brimmed hat at a cocky angle because of the bandage around his injured head, then took the reins in his hands, his arms on either side of Chris to keep him from tumbling out of the saddle.
"You ready, pard?" Vin asked.
Chris nodded. "Let's get the hell outta here."
Vin smiled and urged the roan into motion. They weren't out of danger yet - Chris needed medical attention badly and the water wouldn't last long between two men and a thirsty horse. But right now they had a better chance of living than they had an hour ago.
And that was more of a chance than they'd dared hope they'd get.
Josiah's worry grew as the sun slipped closer and closer to the western horizon. They'd left Yuma around midnight and now the day was drawing to its end, and they still hadn't found any sign of Chris, Vin, or Woods. Had Woods already finished off their two friends and was now back in Yuma?
"We oughta spread out," Buck said impatiently. "We can cover more ground that way."
Josiah drew his horse to a halt. "It's getting late. If we don't find them by the time we make camp, we'll split up tomorrow morning."
"Hey, look over there!" JD pointed to the west.
Josiah squinted against the sun's angle, trying to see what the boy had spotted. He could barely make out a dark shape against the sun's bright orb and frowned. "What is it?"
"Looks kinda like a horse," Buck said, shading his eyes with his hand.
"Is it Woods?" Nathan asked.
"Could be," Josiah replied.
"Shall we be neighborly and greet the weary traveler?" Ezra asked dryly.
"Just keep your hand on your gun," Josiah said. He touched his boot heels to his horse's flanks, and the other men moved up beside him to form an unbroken line.
As they closed the distance between them, Josiah's sense of unease grew stronger. With the sun directly behind the nearing figure, Josiah couldn't distinguish anything except a strangely shaped black silhouette. The horse was moving slowly, like it was burdened down, and it appeared the rider was slumped in the saddle.
Josiah pulled back on his horse's reins when there was less than a hundred yards separating them. The other four men, lined up on either side of him, latched their gazes on to the still-indistinguishable man who didn't seem to be in any hurry. The horse's head drooped as the animal plodded toward them, and the person who rode on its back slumped as if exhausted or injured. Maybe both.
"Do you think he sees us?" JD asked, shifting in his creaking saddle.
"Can't help but see us," Buck replied absently. His deep blue eyes were narrowed as he stared at the figure.
Each man's attention was riveted on the odd sight, and their hands hovered close to their pistol butts. The tension stretched taut between them. Nathan's horse nickered, and Ezra's mare stamped and blew noisily. Sweat trickled down Josiah's brow, but his concentration didn't waver.
"There's one man leading the horse," JD announced, standing in his stirrups.
"I believe it's Vin," Ezra said softly.
"Who's on the horse?" Nathan demanded.
"Woods or Chris," Josiah said in a low voice.
The black silhouette began to lighten as the distance separating them diminished and features came into focus.
"It's Vin and Chris," Buck exclaimed, a grin lighting up his face.
Josiah grabbed his arm before he could dismount and hurry over to the two men, and the preacher shook his head as he frowned. "Wait."
Buck's smile faded and his mouth opened to argue, but Josiah's somber expression stilled his objections. Instead, he remained motionless, and his gaze moved back to Vin who looked like hell then shifted to Chris whose hat was worn at an odd angle over a bloody cloth around his head, and a dark stain covered his shirt front. Buck wanted to go help them, but his instincts made him remain mounted, grasping the saddlehorn tightly - what the hell had happened to them?
Vin glanced up and stumbled to a halt, but his features remained determined and glassy, as if he didn't recognize them. He blinked a couple times, then released the exhausted horse's bridle and took a step back to lay a hand on Chris's leg. "They found us, Chris," he said with a raw, raspy voice.
Chris's eyes fluttered open and he looked around with a bleary, unfocused gaze. Then he centered on Buck's face, then the others, and moved back to Buck. "Knew they would," he said hoarsely and even managed a slight smile which cracked his parched lips. His gaze flickered to Vin. "We'll ride again."
Then his eyelids drooped and he sagged in the saddle as he began to slip out of the seat. Vin held up his arms to catch him, but in his weakened condition all he ended up doing was cushioning Chris's fall. The two men landed on the ground, Vin cradling Chris in his arms.
Buck jumped off his horse and the others followed. They gathered around Vin and Chris, who had lost consciousness.
Nathan squatted down close beside them, attempting to determine who had been injured more seriously. "Was Chris shot?"
Vin's arms tightened around Chris. "Them angels ain't callin' him."
Nathan frowned and glanced at Josiah, who appeared puzzled. "The angels?" Josiah prompted gently.
"Should the angels call, only then we pull in the reins." Vin slurred his words.
"What's he talkin' about?" JD asked in confusion.
Josiah shook his head, and studied Vin's pale face. The tracker didn't look like he was aware of his surroundings, and he wouldn't release his hold on Chris. It was almost as if Chris was his lifeline to reality.
"Let me take a look at him, Vin," Nathan said softly.
Vin shook his head and pulled Chris closer. Nathan placed his hands on Vin's wrists, and his compassionate dark eyes stared into Vin's shadowed blue ones. "It's okay, Vin, you done good, but I can take care of him now."
Vin lifted his bewildered gaze to Nathan, studied him for a long moment, and recognition seeped slowly into his expression. Reluctantly he relinquished his grip on the blond gunman and allowed Nathan and Buck to take hold of Chris.
While they examined Chris's wounds, Josiah eyed the crimson stains on Vin's undershirt. "You hurt?"
Vin shook his head. "Chris's blood."
Ezra uncapped his canteen and handed it to Vin. "Here, take a drink."
Vin held the canteen in both his hands and lifted it to his lips, then drank greedily.
"Slow down there," Josiah said. "You don't wanna get sick." He forced Vin to lower the canteen, and the long-haired man grimaced. Josiah took Vin's arm in a gentle hand and raised the bloodied sleeve to see a deep ugly furrow in his forearm. "You're shot, too."
"Ain't nothin'," Vin replied, watching Nathan work on Chris.
"Was it Woods who shot both of you?" JD asked.
Vin dragged his attention from Chris with difficulty and focused on JD's dust-smudged face. He nodded. "Ambushed us three, four days ago. Don't remember."
"Where is the loathsome Woods?" Ezra asked.
"Dead," Vin answered flatly. "I killed him and I ain't sorry." He glared at his friends, daring them to denounce him.
Josiah laid a big hand on Vin's shoulder. "It's all right."
Vin's defiance faltered, and he nodded slightly. He shifted his attention back to Nathan who continued to work on Chris, his dark hands moving gently across the ragged hole in the blond man's chest. "He gonna be okay?"
Nathan glanced at Vin, a reassuring smile lifting his lips. "He lasted this long, I figger he'll make it the rest of the way."
Vin closed his eyes in relief and blackness swirled around him. His last memory was that of his friends catching him and easing him to the ground.
"Ezra found the gun in the rain gutter," JD said.
Chris, lying on Nathan's sick bed, glanced at Vin who leaned against the wall beside him, his fingers curled around his gunbelt. Vin's lips thinned and Chris frowned slightly. He thought Vin would be relieved that all doubt had been removed from the shooting. Chris looked at Ezra who stood at the foot of the bed. "Good thinkin'."
"It was mere deduction," Ezra said off-handedly, but Chris could see a mixture of pride and pleasure in his eyes.
"I thought you just guessed," JD said with a grin.
Everyone but Vin and Ezra laughed.
"He's on to you, Ezra," Buck said, giving Ezra's shoulder a friendly slap.
The gambler's injured expression brought another round of chuckles.
"I'm just glad he's dead," Nathan stated. "A man who did what he done ain't no better than an animal gone bad."
Suddenly Vin pushed away from the wall and strode to the door. He jerked it open and stepped outside on to the second floor balcony. He grasped the rail that ran along the top and drew in long, painful breaths to cool the burning in his chest. He'd lived with Woods and Seth and Brett's faces for so long, there seemed to be an empty hole in him now that his pledge had been fulfilled. Woods had deserved to die - there was no doubt about that. But the attainment of that promise had nearly cost Chris's life, and that price had been too damn high.
He stared down at the bandage Nathan had wrapped around the bullet wound on his forearm. As a boy, Vin had lost his two best friends because of Woods. Over fifteen years later, he'd almost lost Chris, but it had been Vin's quest for vengeance against Woods that bore the guilt this time.
The door clicked behind him, sounding like a thunder crack in the silence. Josiah moved up beside him, and the preacher crossed his arms over his chest. "You want to talk about it?" he asked softly.
Vin didn't turn to look at him, but his grip tightened on the length of wood beneath his palms. "Nope."
Josiah tipped his head slightly and smiled that sad, knowing smile of his. "Doesn't change anything that happened in the past, does it?"
How had Josiah known? Vin knew Chris well enough to know he wouldn't have spoken a word about what Vin had told him. The tracker turned his head to meet Josiah's pale blue eyes. "Maybe not, but at least he ain't gonna hurt any more boys."
Josiah nodded sagely. "Like he hurt you."
Vin glanced at him sharply, but saw only compassion and empathy in the preacher's face. He sucked in a weary breath. "At least I'm still alive. More'n I can say for.other boys." His gaze turned inward. "Why do things happen like they do? Why'd Chris get shot and not me? Why didn't I die instead of--" He scrubbed an impatient hand through his long hair. "Why, Josiah?"
"Why does a child die and not the parent? Why do good folks suffer and bad people die a peaceful death? Why does one man lose his entire family and another lives to a ripe old age to see all his children marry and start their own families? Thousands of holy men and philosophers have attempted to answer those questions since the beginning of time. As far as I know, they've never been answered."
"You sayin' there ain't a reason for anything?"
"No, only that those reasons are sometimes a mite too complicated for us to figure out." A small smile twitched Josiah's lips. "I also think the Lord likes a good riddle, and if He sees fit to give you a second chance, you'd best take him up on that offer."
"Maybe so, but my second chance to get Woods nearly got Chris killed. But I'm glad the sonuvabitch is dead."
"I don't think there's anyone that blames you for killing him. I'm sure he murdered more than just the one poor soul you found."
Moisture burned Vin's eyes and he blinked a few times to banish the weakness. "You don't know the half of it."
Josiah nodded sagely. "I think I can guess."
"Killin' him without feelin' sorry makes me as bad as he was."
"You're nothing like him, Vin," Josiah said sternly. "If you were, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
Startled, Vin gazed at Josiah. Vin had always felt remorse when he'd taken a man's life, even if it had been in self-defense. But Woods' depth of evil had made him less a man, and more an animal. And like an animal gone bad, he had to be put down.
"Thanks, Josiah," Vin said softly.
The door opened again and everyone but Chris trooped out to join them.
Nathan stepped forward and held out his hand. "I'm sorry for thinkin' you would shoot an unarmed man in the back, Vin."
After a moment of startled hesitation, Vin shook his hand firmly. "That's all right, Nathan. Hell, if you'd been actin' as crazy as I was, I'd probably done the same."
"Good to have you home, Vin," JD said sincerely.
"Likewise," Ezra said drolly, but his eyes twinkled with affection.
"Get some sleep. You look like hell," Buck said and winked.
JD, Ezra, and Buck exchanged handshakes with Vin, then thumped down the wooden steps, their voices fading as they walked across the street to the saloon.
"You know where I'll be if you ever wanna talk," Josiah laid a hand on his shoulder, gave it a slight squeeze, then headed down the stairs back to his church.
"Would you mind sittin' with Chris while I get somethin' to eat?" Nathan asked.
Vin nodded and the healer headed to the saloon. Vin's chest felt like a rope was being pulled taut around it, making it hard to breathe. Home and friends - things he'd never take for granted again.
He took a deep, quavering breath then returned to Nathan's room and glanced at Chris, saw his eyes were closed, and with an innate grace, silently lowered himself into the chair beside the bed.
"I'm sorry I let you down," Chris spoke softly, then turned his head on the pillow to gaze at Vin.
"What're you talkin' `bout?" Vin asked, bewildered.
"I know you well enough to know you wouldn't shoot a man in the back, but when the chips were down, I didn't stand by you. Instead, I went after you, planned on bringin' you back no matter what, to stand trial for shootin' an unarmed man."
The tracker removed his hat and worried the brim between his hands. "Reckon you had your reasons. I wasn't exactly actin' right neither."
Chris shook his head, his green eyes filled with remorse. "Maybe not, but that's no reason to be lettin' down a friend."
Vin's smile reflected melancholy. "Seems I let you down, too. If I hadn't been feelin' so sorry for myself, I mighta seen that ambush."
Chris blinked, his long lashes brushing his pale cheeks. "It's all part of the past now, Vin, just like what Woods done to your friends." His voice gentled, "Maybe some day you'll be able to think about them friends of yours and remember when you all rode together."
Vin closed his eyes, his memory taking him back over fifteen years. Brett and Seth rode on either side of him as they raced across the plains, their good-natured gibes echoing across the wide expanse of open land. The boys disappeared, replaced by the six men he now called friends. Chris on one side of him, with the others all lined up beside them.
He opened his eyes to find Chris studying him silently, and he smiled crookedly. "This savin' my life is gettin' to be a habit for you, Chris."
The wounded gunman shrugged, a half smile lifting one corner of his lips. "You can thank me by buyin' me a gutwarmer as soon as Nathan lets me outta here."
"You got it," Vin replied.
Vin extended his hand, then gripped Chris's forearm, while Chris did the same to him. As they shook, the two men gazed at each other with unspoken friendship and respect. The quiet understanding that ran between them had returned unscathed, perhaps even stronger after what they'd experienced in the desert.
Friends. Until the angels called, then riding into eternity. Side by side.
You can't keep horsemen in a cage. Should the angels call,
Well, it's only then
We might pull in the reins.
|-- refrain from "Ride Forever",
written and sung by Paul Gross,
Due South soundtrack
(thanks for the inspiration)