Disclaimer: Yes, they're mine. I won the Texas Lottery and bought them. Riiiight...
Notes: Missing scene from "Nemesis," takes place after Fowler (boo! hiss!) walks into that burning stable and before Josiah reads from Jock Steele's book. This is for Deb M. and Ladeepat, one who gave and one who offered services above and beyond the call. Thanks, y'all!
Chris dragged Fowler out of the burning livery stable and threw him to the ground, taking a vicious, vengeful pleasure in the man's obvious pain. Fowler landed hard, and Chris stalked slowly toward him, like a black angel of death.
Kneeling at Fowler's side, he grabbed two handfuls of the assassin's once-immaculate coat and hauled him up roughly. "Tell me who hired you!" he spat, shaking Fowler hard. "Tell me!" The man mumbled an answer, and Chris thrust him away and rose to his feet, waiting for the name he had prayed for three long years to hear.
Beaten and bleeding, Cletus Fowler drew himself to his feet and locked gazes with Chris Larabee, who stared back at him with all the wrath and pain of hell unleashed. "I will," he muttered. He turned to glance over his shoulder at the burning livery, then returned his gaze to Larabee. "It was, uh... Lemme think now, it was, uh..." He reached into his vest and pulled out his pocket watch, glanced at it, then fished in a pocket for a cheroot.
Chris watched him, hardly daring to breathe, his need to know who was behind the deaths of his wife and son warring with his almost uncontrollable desire to tear apart the man who had actually done the deed. Rage pounded through him in hard, hot torrents, turning his blood to fire, and every fiber of his being screamed for vengeance. He would kill Fowler, but only after the man had uttered the name of the man Larabee would kill next.
Fowler put the battered cheroot in his mouth and chewed on its end, still staring at Larabee. "His name was, uh..." Something dark and ugly flared in the assassin's eyes, and a faint sneer twisted his bleeding lips. "No, on second thought, go to hell." He turned and walked calmly into the burning stable.
"N----oooo...!" The scream ripped from Chris, from his heart, from his soul, in a wrenching, hideous cry of agony as Fowler committed himself to a fiery death and took the name of his employer, the name on which hinged Chris Larabee's sanity, with him into oblivion. Chris watched in shock, in horror, still screaming, as all he had to live for was devoured once more by flames.
And, suddenly, it was too much. Three long years of hurting, of hell, three long years of being unable to live but denied the solace of death, three long years of searching either for the bastard who had taken his life or for the bullet that would finally, mercifully, end it, abruptly descended upon him with an insupportable weight, crushing the breath from his lungs and the last vestiges of life from his soul. With another harsh cry he lunged forward toward the stable, determined that if he could not avenge Sarah and Adam, he could at least join them.
Strong hands grabbed him, gripped him, held him back and then held him down while other bodies covered his. He fought them wildly, desperately, cursing savagely and screaming out his fury and frustration. Still the hands held him, unrelenting in their strength, and voices swirled about him, trying to calm shattered nerves, trying to comfort a shattered spirit. But Chris Larabee was beyond comfort now.
At last, at long last, exhaustion overcame him, robbing him of the strength to fight. His screams and curses gave way to hoarse, racking sobs, and the hands that only moments ago had held him now tried to soothe him.
Ezra rose to his feet and looked around, surveying the scene about them. Townspeople were now rushing toward the livery from every direction, some already forming a bucket line to keep the fire from spreading.
"Gentlemen," he suggested in a low voice, kneeling once more between Buck and Nathan, "it might be better if we removed Mr. Larabee to a more secluded locale. There are bound to be unpleasant questions regarding this unfortunate turn of events, and I doubt he's in any condition to provide satisfactory answers."
"Ezra's right," Nathan said quietly. "Josiah, Buck, let's git him up to his room." He looked down at Chris, heard the broken sobs still tearing from him, and felt his own sorrow well up in a dark, wrenching wave within him. "I'll see if I cain't git somethin' down him ta help him sleep."
The two big men did as Nathan said, easily getting the unresisting Chris to his feet and holding him there, refusing to let him fall. They started forward, then Buck stopped and glanced over his shoulder.
"You comin', Vin?" he asked, expecting the tracker to fall in immediately.
But Tanner shook his head, his expression unreadable beneath the shade of his hat brim. "Not yet," he answered in his soft, raspy drawl. "Gonna check around here, make sure Fowler didn't find some way outta that fire."
Buck stared hard at the man who was so much younger, yet so much older, than himself, and wondered if he'd ever understand him. "And if he did?"
Suddenly Vin's eyes seemed to glow through the darkness that shadowed his face, like the eyes of a wolf in firelight. "Then I'll find him," he rasped, "'n I'll git Chris that name."
Buck shivered as an icy hand seemed to touch his spine, and part of him hoped Fowler had died in that fire. Only this morning he'd watched as Tanner had coldly and deliberately put a bullet into a man's back to mark him, and he was beginning to suspect the quiet young Texan was capable of far worse. Not really wanting to know exactly what sort of predator lurked under that placid, easy-going surface, Buck turned back around and, with Josiah, led Chris slowly to the boardinghouse, followed closely by Nathan.
"Ezra, JD," Vin called softly, drawing the two to him at once. "Y'all check around, see if you kin find any trace'a them fellers Fowler had with him. If ya do, see if they know anything. 'N find out where he was stayin', search whatever's there. Took in a feller like this once. He kep' a book with the names of all them who hired him 'n how much they paid. Mebbe Fowler done somethin' like that."
If the two had any qualms about taking orders from Tanner, they never showed it. Instead, JD nodded, his young face somber, and Ezra gave a subdued version of his familiar two-fingered salute. Then they moved off to begin their search.
At the last minute, JD turned for one last, sad look at the place where Chris Larabee's hopes had died. From the corner of his eye, he glimpsed a buckskin-clad figure melting silently into the shadows, and, like Buck, was momentarily unnerved by the hunter in their midst.
Buck looked up from his glass as Nathan joined him and Josiah at the table in the saloon. They were almost alone, everyone else still battling the fire across the street.
"Well?" he prompted anxiously.
Nathan sighed and sank tiredly into his chair, giving a weak smile of thanks as Josiah pushed a full glass toward him. "He's sleepin'. With the stuff I gave him, he should sleep through the night." He glanced up at the two men across from him. "Might be best if somebody stays with him, though," he suggested. "He's likely ta have nightmares, 'n I don't want him doin' hisself no harm."
Buck frowned in surprise. "I figured Vin'd already be up there."
Nathan shrugged and emptied his glass in one shot. "Ain't seen him," he rasped as the whiskey burned its path to his gut. "I reckon he's still makin' sure Fowler's dead."
"Interestin' choice of words," Josiah murmured with a grim smile. "'Cause if Fowler ain't dead, I'm sure Vin will quickly make him wish he was."
Buck poured himself another drink and swallowed it hastily, choosing to attribute his shudder to the raw whiskey instead of Vin Tanner. "He does get a mite spooky at times, don't he?" he breathed. "Don't say much, and half the time you'd swear he's asleep. But them damn eyes'a his never miss a thing. And I'd sure as hell hate ta cross him." He shook his head and gave a short laugh. "Hell, I always thought Chris Larabee was the scariest sonuvabitch I'd ever met. But Vin..."
"Chris is like a rattler," Josiah said quietly, frowning into his empty glass. "You know he's dangerous, and why. You can see the danger, and know where it'll come from. And, if you're smart enough to heed it, you usually get some warnin' the danger's comin' and can avoid it. But Vin is silent, a shadow among the shadows. You never hear him, you never see him, until it's too late. You don't get no warnin', and you never know what's comin' or where it's comin' from. And the danger you can't see can be much more terrifyin' than the danger you can."
"Well," Buck sighed, "dangerous or not, he's what Chris needs to see when he wakes up. I don't know what it is, but he can reach Chris when nobody else can. And I figure he's the only one who'll be able ta pull Chris outta this."
"He'll be there when he's needed," Nathan said firmly. "Got a real knack fo' that, too. Turns up when ya leas' expect it." He smiled slightly. "Soft-footed as a cat, an' like ta give a man a heart attack, jes' appearin' outta thin air."
"Then he better turn up soon," Buck said softly, sadly, remembering his friend's anguished screams and sobs. "'Cause Chris needs him now, like he's never needed anybody before."
Keeping to the shadows whenever possible, then slipping unobtrusively among the townsfolk when he had to, Vin made a close, careful, thorough search of the area around the livery, his heart cold and heavy as a stone within him. Chris' screams still rang in his ears, and the hideous pain that for days now had filled the gunfighter's tortured green eyes stabbed like a heated blade into his soul. He could so clearly feel Larabee's torment, felt it as if it were his own, and wanted nothing more from this life than to be granted a chance to put that pain to rest.
So he sought desperately, grimly, for some sign that Fowler had managed to escape his fiery prison. The bastard had brutally murdered a woman and child, and for that alone he deserved to die. But the woman and child had been Chris Larabee's wife and son, and their deaths had killed something vital in the man who'd loved them. And for that, Cletus Fowler deserved to die, but slowly, a breath at a time, an inch at a time, screaming as he'd made Chris scream.
Ignoring the frantic, panicked activity of the people around him, blocking out every sight, every sound that might distract him, Vin buried his humanity as he had so often before, allowed every predatory instinct to surface, transformed himself into the hungry hawk that was his very nature, and went on the hunt.
And though his hunt was guided by hatred for Fowler, that hatred was born from his feelings for Chris Larabee. Fowler had hurt the man Vin loved. And no one ever hurt someone Vin Tanner loved and lived to tell the tale.
Buck made his way down the boardwalk toward the boardinghouse, his hands thrust deep into his pockets, his head bowed, his broad shoulders slumping. He'd been so wrapped up in trying to help Chris through all of this that he'd ignored his own pain, his own grief, and hadn't allowed himself to react yet to this latest blow. Yet now it was hitting him, all the feelings he'd kept pushed down were breaking free, and the ache of it was more than he could bear.
Fowler was dead, and they'd never know who hired him.
"Jesus, Chris," he groaned, sagging against a wall and closing his eyes tightly against the sting of tears, "if only I hadn't kept you down in Mexico--"
"Weren't yer fault," came a soft, raspy drawl from the shadows of the adjacent alley.
"Shit!" Buck shouted, spinning away from the wall and streaking a hand to his gun. At the last moment, though, recognition dawned, and he released the gun, falling back against the wall with a sharp sigh and pressing a shaking hand to his racing heart. "Jesus Christ, Vin!" he gasped as the tracker stepped quietly up onto the boardwalk. "You tryin' ta kill me? Or git yourself killed?"
"Sorry, Buck," he apologized, leaning against a support post and tucking his thumbs into his gunbelt. "Didn't mean ta sneak up on ya."
"Yeah, well, mean it or not, you did a fine job!" Buck said in a rough, unsteady voice. "How the hell can ya wear spurs an' not make a sound when ya walk?" he demanded.
Vin smiled slightly. "Old Indian trick." He reached into the pockets of his buckskin jacket and pulled out two spurs. "I take 'em off."
Buck snorted at that. "Old Indian trick, huh?"
Vin's grin widened. "Yep. Learnt it from an old Indian."
Buck had to laugh, and was surprised at how good it felt. "You're somethin' else, pard," he chuckled.
"Reckon so," Vin said with that same grin. Then he remembered Buck's deep sorrow only moments ago, and the grin faded. "'S true, Buck," he said softly. "What happened ta Chris's family -- it weren't yer fault."
Buck sighed and bowed his head, his good humor fading. "Yeah, it was," he breathed sadly, remembering the lovely woman and lively little boy he'd loved as if they were his own. "If I hadn't talked Chris into another night in Mexico--"
"Then he'da been kilt right alongside 'em," Vin said. "Fowler said he was after Chris. But that don't mean he wouldn'ta kilt Sarah 'n Adam anyway. He wasn't a man ta leave witnesses."
"Wasn't?" Buck raised his head as he picked up on the word. "Then he's--"
"Yeah," Vin sighed, sounding almost disappointed, "he's dead. Wasn't no other way out. 'N even if there had been, he'da left tracks, 'n I'da found 'em." He shrugged heavily. "Weren't none. So when they start siftin' through the ashes, I expect they'll find what's left of him."
"You really would'a done it, wouldn't you?" Buck asked, staring intently at the young man slouching so indolently before him. "If you'da found him alive, you would'a tortured that name right out of him."
Vin's stance never shifted, yet something in his demeanor, in his expression, did, again sending a chill down Wilmington's spine. "Yeah," he rasped, "I woulda." He lifted his chin slightly and cocked his head to one side, regarding Buck through narrowed eyes. "That bother ya?"
"To be honest, I'm not sure," Buck admitted softly, crossing his arms against his chest and frowning. "I know it should bother me, ta think that a friend of mine could so easily do to another man what I've only known so-called 'savages' ta do."
"But?" Vin prompted patiently.
Buck exhaled slowly, the pain again flooding his soul, and he stared past Vin, recalling a sight he'd prayed for three years to forget. "Then I remember what that bastard did," he murmured in a low, shaking voice. "I remember comin' back with Chris to a burned-out house and the charred bodies of his wife and son, I remember his screams, and his tears..." He turned blue eyes filled with pain and rage back to Vin. "And when I remember that," he said harshly, "then I'm not sure you could torture Fowler bad enough for me."
"Reckon we'll never know now," Vin said evenly. "So how you holdin' up?"
Buck was startled by the question, and his face showed it. He laughed sharply and shook his head, then sobered and frowned deeply when that calm blue scrutiny never wavered. "Whatta you mean?"
Again Vin tipped his head to one side as he studied the big man. "They was yer fam'ly, too," he said softly. "'N you lost 'em. Mebbe yer pain ain't the same as Chris's, but that don't make it less. 'N yer carryin' a load'a guilt around on yer shoulders, too. You had ta be pinnin' a lotta hopes on findin' Fowler, 'n learnin' who was behind it." He shrugged slightly, his blue eyes intent on Buck's face. "Jist wondered how you was doin' is all. You bin lookin' after Chris all this time, but ain't really had nobody lookin' after you."
Buck was stunned by the tracker's insight, and wondered yet again if he'd ever really understand this man. He would have sworn that, during this whole ordeal, Tanner had been too focused on and anxious about Chris to notice, much less worry about, anyone else, but now he realized he'd badly underestimated the young man.
Hell, he shoulda known Vin woulda seen. Hadn't he said not two hours ago that Tanner's eyes never missed a thing?
"I don't know, Vin," he said at last, sounding as tired as he felt. "You're right, I did consider Sarah and Adam family. They were the best things that ever happened to Chris, and they were sure as hell the best things that ever happened ta me. And when we found 'em... like that..." His voice broke and he bowed his head, swallowing hard against the knot in his throat. "I ain't got the words ta tell ya how that hurt," he whispered.
"Don't need 'em," Vin said softly. "I kin see it. I'm sorry."
"Yeah, I know," Buck breathed, raising his head and wiping away his tears. "But the worst part has been seein' what losin' them did ta Chris. And now this. I don't know, Vin," he sighed, turning his head toward the boardinghouse. "I don't know how he's gonna get through this. I think findin' Fowler and havin' him die without talkin' is worse than never findin' him at all."
Vin's gaze, too, drifted to the boardinghouse. "At least he's restin' now," he breathed. "Whatever Nathan gave him worked."
Buck turned abruptly back to the tracker. "You've been up there?" he asked sharply. "You've seen him?"
Vin shrugged. "'At's where I's comin' from when I saw you," he said. "Thought I'd look in on him, 'n when there weren't nobody else there, I figgered I'd best stay a while, jist sorta watch over him."
Buck laughed ruefully and shook his head. "Hell, I shoulda known," he chuckled. "I was worried you'd disappeared and wouldn't be there when he needed ya..." He laughed again. "Can't imagine why I'd ever think a thing like that!"
"I cain't either," Vin said softly, solemnly.
Buck stared at the young man, smiling slightly. "So, lemme guess. You already got your bedroll up there so you can spend all night watchin' over him, that right?"
Vin bowed his head as a warm flush crept up through his face. Buck's eyes and words were making him uncomfortable, were coming too close to truths he didn't want revealed, and he dearly wished the big man would direct them somewhere else.
"Uh huh, I thought so," Buck said with a wry smile. "Deadly as a rattler, and as faithful as a 'coon dog. Yup, I was right, pard, you are somethin' else!"
Vin pushed away from the post and straightened to his full height, grown suddenly defensive. "Y'ain't gotta make fun'a me!" he warned in a low, hard voice, staring angrily up at Wilmington as the man's words seemed somehow to make light of his feelings. "I ain't nobody's dawg--"
"Whoa, hold hard there, son!" Buck laughed, holding up both hands in a gesture of peace. "I didn't mean nothin' by that, honest! Believe me, Vin, nobody appreciates the fine traits of a good dog more'n ol' Buck--"
"Now, look, goddamn it!" Vin snarled, taking a menacing step toward the much bigger man. "I ain't--"
"Easy, son, easy," Buck soothed, suddenly realizing how deep a nerve he'd struck. "I'm sorry, Vin, honest. I shouldn'ta teased ya." He smiled ruefully. "I keep forgettin' you ain't exactly used to such. And I sure as hell don't mean ta make fun of your feelin's for Chris."
Vin tensed and swallowed uneasily at that, eyes wide with alarm. Lord God, had Buck seen...?
Buck sighed and shook his head slowly, his face clouding with sorrow. "Lord knows, Chris needs a friend just now, and I reckon you're about the best one he could have. Mebbe at one time it woulda been me, but not anymore." His gaze moved slowly, searchingly over the tracker. "You're the one who gives him what he needs now."
Vin's anger faded, and he returned to slouching against the post. He stared at Buck for long moments, then asked the same question he had earlier. "That bother ya?"
"I don't know. Maybe a little," Buck admitted. "Me and Chris go way back. Had a lotta good times together. But after Sarah and Adam died, that changed. He changed. And I couldn't reach him anymore." He shrugged. "Maybe because I reminded him too much of what he'd lost, I don't know. And after we split up, I'd hear things about him, about what he'd become, that made me glad we weren't ridin' together anymore. I just hated thinkin' of him that way, and was glad I didn't have ta see it. Then I did see it, the day I looked up from that street and saw him standin' there." His voice softened, and the look he gave Vin was infinitely sad. "I saw what he'd become, but I also saw traces of what he'd been, and I wanted that man back again. So I stuck around and told myself I could help bring him back. And, little by little, that seems ta be happenin'. Only it ain't me doin' it. It's you. And, yeah," he breathed, "sometimes it hurts like hell knowin' that. But others..." He shrugged and smiled slightly. "Hell, other times I'm just grateful somebody's pullin' him back." His tired smile broadened into the more familiar bright, teasing grin. "Even if it is a scruffy, scrawny, long-haired, no-account Texan doin' it."
Vin grinned at that and shook his head. He'd long since recognized the generous heart and deeply compassionate nature that lived beneath Wilmington's roguish exterior, and had found himself drawn almost against his will to the big man's warmth and unstinting friendship. More than once, he'd wondered how Chris could ever have pushed them away.
"I'm gonna go on up now," he said quietly, again pulling away from the post. "You gonna be all right?"
"Yeah," Buck breathed. "Just gotta let things sink in. Everything's happened so fast."
"Yeah, I reckon so." He stared at the big man for several moments more, as if pondering something, then licked his lips and said slowly, "Look, Buck, likely I won't go ta sleep fer a while. If... if ya need somethin'... I mean, I know I ain't good at talkin', but I reckon I kin listen."
Buck regarded the tracker warmly. "I'm grateful for that, Vin," he said quietly. "More'n you know. But I think I'll be all right."
Vin nodded. "If you say so. G'night, Buck."
"G'night. And, Vin," he caught the blue gaze just as the tracker started to turn away, "thanks."
Vin frowned in confusion. "Fer what?"
Buck thought a moment, then said quietly, "For listenin'. For worryin'." He smiled slightly. "For leavin' Chris long enough ta fret over me." His smile turned teasing. "Gotta say, pard, I never pictured you as the mother-hen type."
Vin scowled, but his eyes were warm. "Reckon I bin hangin' around you 'n Nathan too long," he drawled. "Nex' thing y'know, I'll be tellin' ya ta change yer hat 'n pourin' tea made from sticks 'n leaves down yer throat." He shook his head slowly. "Y'all're jist a bad influence on me."
"Bad-- Fine," Buck declared, drawing himself up to his full, imposing height and staring down at the tracker, "I'll remember that the next time you want me ta take one of your patrols."
"Uh, Buck," Vin said softly, stepping closer, "if I recall, yer the one always askin' me. 'N usually 'cause you got some woman waitin' on ya."
"Well, hell, son," Buck said with a broad, easy grin, "I'd much rather spend the night in a soft bed than a hard saddle." He winked. "Makes the ride that much more enjoyable."
Vin snorted and rolled his eyes. "G'night, Buck," he groaned, turning and walking away.
"You just wait 'til ya grow up, son," Buck called after the retreating tracker. "You'll see what I mean!"
Vin slipped silently into Chris's room and closed the door softly behind him, his gaze going at once to Larabee and his heart breaking at the sight.
Even in sleep, the lines of torment remained deeply etched in the lean, chiseled features, giving the once-strong face a gaunt and haggard look. His dark golden head moved restlessly against his pillow, and long fingers plucked at the blanket covering him. His lips, too, moved, but the only sounds that escaped him were soft, anguished moans.
Vin moved slowly to the bed and sat down in the chair beside it. Leaning forward, he reached out and gently brushed a lock of blond hair back from Larabee's forehead, his fingers absently stroking the sweat-beaded face.
"Wish I knew how ta help ya through this, cowboy," he breathed sadly, his fingers brushing through the tousled hair. "Jist ain't sure... what I got ta offer... is what ya need. Or want."
Chris stirred and murmured, and Vin quickly drew back his hand, then rose from his chair and went to the window, staring out into the dark street below. What he saw, though, was not the town, but a pair of haunted green eyes so filled with pain that it made his own heart ache. He closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the glass, and a long, weary sigh escaped him.
"Lord God, how do I do this?" he whispered, absently rubbing together the fingers that had touched Chris's hair and remembering the feel of the sweat-damp strands against them. He treasured his friendship with Larabee above anything on earth, even above his own life, yet he'd known for some time -- hell, almost from the first -- that what he felt for the man was much more, and much deeper, than mere friendship. Chris had given him something he'd never even known he was missing -- a sense of belonging, of place, of peace -- and had held out a hand to pull him from the loneliness of his solitary existence. He'd grasped that hand eagerly, and, in that moment, had felt himself connecting with the other half of his soul.
No, it had never been "just" friendship. At least, not on his part.
"What'm I gonna do, cowboy?" he asked softly, his shoulders slumping tiredly. "Buck seems so sure I kin pull ya through this, but I jist don't know. Don't see how I kin git ya past the pain of not knowin' why ya lost the ones ya love, when all's I want is fer you ta love me. Ain't sure I got that kinda strength."
His raspy voice trailed off into silence and he stood there, eyes still closed, head still resting against the window, shoulders bowed. So he never saw the heavy-lidded green eyes staring at his back in drugged and drowsy confusion.
Morning came much too early for the seven drained, exhausted men, yet not even Ezra complained when Buck decided it was time to put distance between themselves and the town where so many hopes had died. In a strained, heavy silence, five of them gathered in the boardinghouse dining room for breakfast, though none had any real desire for food. Sorrow and disappointment were palpable in the air between them.
"Fowler's men just disappeared," JD said quietly, picking disinterestedly at his eggs. "And nobody here knew anything about 'em. Or wouldn't talk, if they did." He grimaced and shook his. "I don't know, maybe Vin could pick up their trail--"
"Vin's got other worries on his mind," Buck said softly.
"You mean Chris?" the boy asked, raising a troubled hazel gaze to Wilmington. When the big man nodded, JD sighed. "I don't know, Buck. I ain't sure even Vin can get him through this. Last night, when Fowler went into that stable..." He shuddered at the memory of the man's scream. "It was like somethin' in Chris just died."
"Yes, well," Ezra put in, staring thoughtfully at the bit of ham skewered on his fork, "it is my belief that if anyone can resurrect Chris, it will be Vin. He has a unique touch where our wounded leader is concerned, and a unique restorative power over that damaged soul. If he should call, then I have no doubt that, like Lazarus, Chris will emerge from the tomb."
Josiah fixed appraising eyes on Standish. "An interesting analogy, brother," he said thoughtfully. "Scripture teaches that Jesus raised Lazarus through faith and love." He arched two graying brows and nodded slightly. "An apt description, I'd say, for the relationship between Chris and Vin. Brothers joined by something far stronger and far deeper than blood."
"Let's just hope it's strong enough," Buck sighed. "I ain't seen Chris like this in a real long time, and, I gotta tell y'all, seein' it now scares the hell outta me." He gazed sadly at Ezra. "I just ain't sure how many more resurrections he's got in him."
Vin crouched on the floor and silently rolled his blankets with quick, economic movements. He'd spread them last night beneath the window, but hadn't slept in them. Instead, he'd spent all night in the chair at Chris's bedside, watching over the sleeping gunman, keeping guard lest any of Fowler's men returned to finish what their boss had started.
And to make sure Chris did not finish it, either.
Now, though, Larabee was awake, and slowly getting dressed. Now and then, Vin was aware of the man's gaze upon him, faintly curious, even confused, but, if Chris had a question, he never voiced it. And Vin, rarely one to start a conversation, didn't ask.
Chris was intensely grateful for that, because he had no idea what he would have said if Vin had asked. He vaguely remembered the tracker's soft words from last night, but couldn't be sure if they had been real, or merely a figment of the dreams that had plagued him.
Those dreams had been horrible, filled with smoke, flames, screams -- his as well as his family's -- and, over it all, Cletus Fowler's mocking, contemptuous voice. Again and again, Chris had beheld his wife and son's charred, almost unrecognizable bodies, had felt the blackened remnants of their flesh, had screamed and sobbed out his agony at the destruction of his family, of his life.
And all the while, Fowler had laughed, while the shadowy form of his employer had looked on in approval...
Yet even through the rage, the pain, the horror, through the screams and hideous, mocking laughter, he'd been aware of another presence, another voice, offering refuge from the agony. He couldn't recall any words, but the sound of the voice had been as familiar as his own, and infinitely comforting. The rough, raspy drawl had flowed through his tortured mind and against his shattered soul like a healing balm, promising that someday, somehow, all would be made right again. A hand had reached for him, yet, rather than clasping his own, the fingers had wandered through his hair, soothing him with feather-light touch as tender and as loving as Sarah's had ever been.
Don't see how I kin git ya past the pain of not knowin' why ya lost the ones ya love, when all's I want is fer you ta love me.
He paused in the act of pulling on a boot and stared across the small room at the tracker, who was tying his bedroll. Then, as he always seemed to do, Vin felt that stare and turned to meet it, his wide, dark blue eyes locking with Chris's green ones and sending a hard jolt through Larabee that drove away his breath and sent his thoughts into a spin.
But Vin seemed to mistake the cause of Chris' sudden confusion and pallor, and gave a slight, sad smile. "Don't worry, cowboy," he drawled softly. "We'll git ya through this somehow. Ya got my word on it."
Chris merely nodded, not at all sure what he was agreeing to, and not really caring. But something in those eyes reached out to him, yet again, and began the long, hard work of knitting the brittle fragments of his broken soul back together.
A knock on the door sounded, and instantly both men were on their feet, guns drawn. They relaxed only when a familiar voice called, "It's me."
"Come on in," Chris invited, never lowering his gun. Vin stepped back so he'd be partially hidden behind the door, and would have a shot at the back of whoever entered, should they prove a threat.
The door opened slowly and Buck stepped in alone. "You can put it away, pard," he said quietly. "Ain't nobody but me." He glanced over his shoulder and smiled. "You, too, Vin," he added, knowing with a certainty Tanner would be there.
When Vin stepped into view, Buck nodded at him, then returned his attention to Chris, who still looked pale and drawn. "We're ready ta ride anytime you are," he said. "Figure the quicker we get away from this place, the better." Chris said nothing, and Buck felt a sharp twinge of fear. "You all right?"
Chris stared at his oldest friend, the man who'd shared the happiest days of his life, and the absolute worst one, the man who'd stuck by him until the task had proved too much even for that strong, bottomless heart and had so often been treated shamefully for it, and suddenly felt old beyond his years. Shaking his head slowly, still staring at Buck but unable to say a word, he merely sat down upon the bed, his whole strength gone.
"Hey, pard!" Buck breathed, kneeling at once before Chris and gazing into his tired, hollow eyes. "Look, Chris, if you ain't up to it, we ain't gotta leave just yet. We can stay for as long as you need--"
"No," Chris said hoarsely. "I can't... I can't stay here. Not without... seein' him, hearin' him... He's still here--"
"No, he ain't, Chris, he's dead," Buck assured him gently. "Vin spent all last night checkin' ta make sure. He looked all around the livery, didn't see any other way out, didn't find any sign'a Fowler. Ain't that right, Vin?"
"He's dead, Chris," Vin said softly, moving to stand just behind Buck. "Heard some folks talkin' this mornin'. They found what's left of him. 'N I went 'n looked ta make sure. Found his watch, 'n what looked ta be the brace he wore on his hand."
Chris stared past Buck to Vin. "What'd they do with the body?" he asked in a low voice full of hatred.
Vin wanted to look away, but Larabee's eyes wouldn't let him. He licked his lips and said softly, "I took care of it. 'S'all ya need ta know." No one would ever know that he'd carved the charred corpse to bits and scattered the pieces for the scavengers to eat.
Buck felt another chill sweep through him at that hint of Tanner's ferocity, and wondered how the pitiless savage before him could be the same soft-spoken young man who'd been so concerned for him last night.
And what kind of life produced such a man...
Chris stared long and hard into Vin's eyes, saw in them that Fowler had gotten what he deserved, and nodded his acceptance. "What about his men?"
Buck sighed. "Them that survived the shoot-out in the saloon are long gone. JD looked for 'em last night, but couldn't find a trace. And Ezra didn't find anything helpful in Fowler's room. The man wasn't big on possessions."
Chris frowned. "Ezra searched his room?"
"I told him to," Vin said. He shrugged. "Some fellers like Fowler keep accounts. But if he did, it was all in his head."
Chris stared at the tracker. "Thorough, ain'tcha?"
Vin shrugged again, his face empty of expression. "Used ta do this fer a livin', remember?"
Chris suspected there was far more than professional precision at play here. "What'd ya do with his things?" The blue eyes did slip away from his, then, and he stiffened. "Vin?"
Buck rose slowly to his feet and turned to the tracker, careful not to look too threatening. Tanner was clearly uneasy, and seemed ready to bolt. "It's all right, pard," he said quietly. "You can tell us. Won't nobody here hold nothin' against ya."
Vin stared at Buck, then back at Chris, and slowly licked his lips. He couldn't say he was ashamed of what he'd done, but feared only that these men wouldn't understand. He'd realized long ago that what he considered proper and what others considered civilized weren't always the same.
Chris rose to his feet and took a step toward Tanner. "What'd you do, Vin?" he asked softly. "I need ta know."
Vin sighed and bowed his head, hiding his eyes beneath the brim of his hat. "Went through 'em m'self early this mornin'," he murmured. "Weren't much. Didn't find nothin' useful." He shrugged, then raised his head, allowing the two men to see his eyes, and the complete lack of remorse in them. "Wrapped 'em in a sheet, took 'em out, burned 'em. 'N what wouldn't burn I smashed 'n buried. So if his spirit ever does find its way back -- which it won't, 'cause I done took care'a that -- it won't have nothin' ta claim."
Chris and Buck stared at the tracker for long moments, each understanding the significance of what Vin had done, and both stunned by the utter ruthlessness behind it.
"Remind me never ta cross you, pard," Buck said with a weak smile when he found his voice.
"Let's get outta here," Chris said softly, eyeing Tanner thoughtfully. "This place ain't healthy for any of us."
The seven mounted and left Eagle Bend with a minimum of conversation, Vin and Buck flanking Chris, the others spread roughly out behind them. They rode at a slow pace, without any sense of the urgency that had driven them for the past five days, all of them still somewhat dazed and drained by the speed and violence of the events that had exploded about them and swept them so helplessly along.
For once, Ezra seemed to have no complaints, no fancy words with which to confound his comrades, and even JD was unusually quiet, his normally ceaseless stream of questions silenced by the pall that hung over them. Josiah was riding with Bible in hand and open, and, now and then, his soft, deep voice murmured the passage before him, as if seeking solace -- as much for Chris as for himself -- in prayer. And Nathan, ever the healer, watched Chris the whole time, dark eyes filled with sorrow and an aching awareness of his own helplessness. Had Larabee been wounded in body, then he would have known what to do. But for wounds to the soul, he had no skills to offer.
And Chris was sunk into a deep, impenetrable silence, a silence that spoke more eloquently of his pain than had his screams last night. The green eyes were dull, hollow, devoid of all anger, empty of everything except his terrible, numbing grief. Blackfox and Fowler had ripped all the old wounds open again, then had poured salt into them by raising and cruelly dashing his hopes of ever knowing why he had lost his wife, his son, at whose orders his life had gone up in flames.
Ashes. Once again, his whole world was in ashes. All that was left of his soul was ashes. And he was damn tired of playing the phoenix.
Of them all, only Buck and Vin retained the presence of mind to be wary of danger, to be alert to the country around them and its possible hazards. They took turns riding ahead or dropping back, took upon themselves the safety of their friends. Neither one had gotten more than an hour of sleep last night, but both had reached that stage of exhaustion where such things as sleep no longer mattered.
And, at the very least, both had something approaching a purpose.
Vin glanced past Chris to Buck, nodded once, and wheeled Peso to take another look around. All at once, though, he stopped. "Aw, hell!" he muttered.
Buck frowned, then turned his gray, and saw what had irritated the tracker. The familiar mule was cantering along the trail behind them, laden with boxes and a small, bothersome rider.
"Shit," Buck breathed, wincing and shaking his head. "I was hopin' we'd seen the last of him."
Vin narrowed his eyes. "Want me ta go send him away?"
Buck glanced at the younger man and smiled slightly. "Don't think so, pard. Don't think the Judge'd look too kindly on your, ah, methods of persuasion."
Vin only shrugged. "Suit yerself. But tell him if I see him anywhere near Chris, he'll learn first-hand how bein' staked to an anthill feels."
Buck winked. "I'll tell him." And he kneed his big gray forward.
Though he gave no sign of it, Chris had heard the whole exchange, and marveled again at the strange guardian angel he seemed to have acquired. When Peso fell in alongside his black, he finally broke his silence.
"You gonna kill ever'body who threatens me?"
If Vin was surprised, or bothered, by the question, he made no show of it. Instead, he shrugged, never looking at Chris. "Only them I kin catch."
Chris blinked, startled by the honesty. But then, he reminded himself, Vin had never been anything less than honest with him, had never hidden anything from him.
Don't see how I kin git ya past the pain of not knowin' why ya lost the ones ya love, when all's I want is fer you ta love me.
Well, almost nothing.
Christ, he was tired!
Vin watched in concern as the broad shoulders slumped, as the proud head bowed, as a visibly unsteady hand ran slowly over a pale, deeply lined face. Frightened for the man who seemed to be crumbling before his eyes, he reached out and grabbed one black-sleeved arm, strong fingers gripping tightly, even cruelly, as if he thought to hold Larabee together by the sheer force of his will alone.
"Y'ain't gotta do this, Chris," he rasped softly, leaning over in his saddle and trying to catch Larabee's gaze with his own. "Ain't no reason you gotta git back ta town jist yet if y'ain't up to it."
Chris stared down at the hand gripping his arm, the long fingers that were so slender, yet so strong, fingers that could handle a rifle or knife with such deadly skill. Or brush through his hair with such tenderness...
Oh, Jesus, what was happening to him?
"Tell me whatcha want, cowboy," Vin pleaded softly, finally catching and gazing into anguished green eyes. "Tell me whatcha need, 'n I'll do it."
Chris stared into those blue eyes, saw the strange mixture of youth and age in them, of the peace and the pain that made up the core of Vin Tanner, and felt a terrible sadness again threatening to crush him.
"Just like that, huh?" he asked bitterly. "Go here, do this, kill him. Is that what you wanta hear?"
Vin never flinched, never released his hold on Larabee's arm. "Is that whatcha wanta say?"
Chris tore his gaze away and closed his eyes, bowing his head. "Christ, Vin, I don't know!" he whispered harshly. "I don't know anything anymore. I just... feel like it's all slippin' away again. And I don't know how much longer I can hang on."
"Then let go," Vin said softly. "I won't letcha fall, I promise."
Chris slowly raised his head, his face paler than ever, his eyes dull and lifeless. "I can't go back ta town," he breathed. "Not yet."
Vin nodded, disguising the relief that relief that swept through him. He released Chris and reined Peso to a stop, then raised his right arm in the familiar cavalry signal to halt. Four men drew up rein behind him, and Buck came galloping up to join them.
When they were all together, it was Vin who spoke. "Chris ain't up ta town yet," he said, seeing -- and grateful for -- the understanding that flared in five pairs of eyes. "I know a place near here, an ol' shack I hole up in sometimes. I'll take him there, stay with him." He saw Buck smile slightly at him, and gave a faint grin in return. "Reckon mebbe there's some hound in me after all," he said wryly.
"Huh?" JD asked, confused by the tracker's words.
Buck elbowed the boy in the ribs. "I'll explain it later, kid." He looked back at Vin. "We'll go on, take care of things at home. You just take care of Chris."
Vin nodded once. "I'll do m' best."
"That's all a man can do," Buck assured him, knowing something of the battle that awaited him. He nodded at Vin, kneed his horse forward and reached out to squeeze Chris' shoulder, then rode off, followed by the others. Not a man said a word, but not one of them went past without touching Chris in some way, offering him a physical sign of comfort and support.
Yet, when Josiah had ridden past, he stopped, turned his horse, and regarded through solemn eyes the two who remained behind. Gazing at them, tracker and gunfighter, two men so different yet so alike, in so many ways one an extension of the other, he quoted softly, "`And Jonathan entered into a bond with David, because he loved him as himself.'"
With that, he raised a big hand in benediction, then wheeled his horse again and rode off to join the others.
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