The loud music and cheap liquor seemed a fitting finale to the sorry-excuse-for-a-meal. The mystery meat meagerly offered in a stew left the amnesiac's stomach sour. Pete was barely conscious, head lying on the table. Deke was busy with two young girls, both half dressed. Vin downed another shot and felt a warm buzz in his head. He liked the numbing sensation; it killed the pain of J.D.'s death.
Buck left the bath and headed up the street toward the saloon. He got a half dozen lewd offers during his short trip. He laughed at the irony of it. Here were women throwing themselves at him, but his mission was too grave. He ducked into the saloon and got a corner table. A nearly naked waitress informed him of what food was available. The thought of stew or other heavy food soured his stomach. He was glad of the large bowl of chicken and noodles that the aging Chinamen gave him at the bath tent. He asked for a bottle of whiskey and tucked a coin in the girl's amble cleavage. She eyed the good-looking man and threw her gaze toward the door.
"Sorry Darlin,'" He apologized, "Not tonight..."
He sipped the cheap liquor and decided it was a wasted trip. He'd have a quick look around and head out. Strangers riding alone tended to disappear overnight in places like this. He'd be safer sleeping on the trail. He drained a second shot and had a third halfway to his lips when his hand froze. He lowered the glass and focused hard, training his eyes on the table at the other end of the crowded tent. He left his table and skirted the crowd, keeping hidden. He finally stood just behind the busy table and his heart soared. There wasn't two buffalo coats like the one ten feet away. He ducked around the other side, to get a front view.
Vin eyes were glassy and he wore a dopey grin. There was a half-naked girl planted on his lap, her head was on his neck; she whispered something in his ear. He saw the ex-bounty hunter's eyes widen and his face blush. Buck chuckled, knowing how private Vin was and even drunk, was embarrassed by whatever action the girl suggested. He eyed the two men with Vin suspiciously.
One was passed out drunk, the other smart. Buck noticed the clear eyes and no bottle or glasses in front on him. He was actively solving the whims of a redhead, but he was cold sober. He was Cutter's brother, Buck was sure, he saw a resemblance.
A loud crash and a group of brawling bodies interrupted his discovery. He found himself on the bottom of a pile. He had to fight his way through a half dozen brawny miners. By the time he got to his feet, the table was empty and Vin was gone. He ran outside and caught sight of the trio riding out. Only Carson remained upright. Vin was slumped forward and weaving, the other guy was out cold. Buck ran back and got his horse. He soon caught up to them, keeping at a safe distance.
Carson eyed his two companions. Pete was out cold, draped over the saddle. Tanner was drunk and Deke continued to fuel the fire. He kept mentioning 'poor J.D.' and 'damn shame he had to burn like that'.
"It's all my fault," Vin slurred, "he's dead, It should have been me..."
Deke listened to the rambling man and continued to feed him lies. Tanner's weakened condition allowed the lies to take hold. By the time they were halfway back to the hideout, Tanner had blood in his eyes and revenge burned into his brain. Tanner was barely upright when they arrived, and slid off his saddle into a heap. Deke dumped Pete on the porch outside the small cabin. He got Tanner on his feet and inside. Both men were slumbering, when Deke finally turned in.
Buck eased on his mount, several yards from the cabin. He spotted the body on the porch and tiptoed by it. He never encountered Vin drunk. The wanted man never allowed himself so vunerable. Buck was hoping to cart the amnesiac off, while he slept. There was no telling what reaction he'd have if awake and drunk. He peered in the window and saw Carson dozing in a chair, gun in hand. Vin was passed out, slack jawed on the floor. There was no way to Vin without rousing Carson. Buck needed to think. He backtracked into a clump of rocks, several yards from the house.
A loud bang startled the slumbering spy and Buck jumped. He rubbed his eyes as the early morning light peeked over the roof of the cabin. He saw the horses saddled and ready to go. He watched the body on the porch stumble behind the house, clutching his gut. Carson walked carefully the other way to answer the call of nature. Buck waited until he was out of view and sprang. He stuck his head in the open door and swore. It was empty. The unmistakable sounds of retching came from the window across the room. Buck ran along the porch and peeked around the corner. Vin was dousing his head with cold water from a well. The other guy finished throwing up, and staggered to his horse.
Vin couldn't remember ever being so sick and in such pain. His head was in agony, every moment a painful reminder of the previous night's mistake. The cold water jump-started his system. He was about to douse himself again, when his inner alarm sounded. He wheeled, and drew the mare's leg in one motion. There was a tall man with a mustache, about five feet from him.
"Bad habit ya got there, Mister," Vin advised of the sneak, "Gonna get y'all killed one day. What the hell do ya want?"
Buck was so shocked by Vin's cat-like reaction and the cold, blank eyes, without recognition, that he froze. What could he say?
"Listen to me," Buck said very slowly, hands in the air, "You ain't who they say. I can help you, Vin...It's me...Buck."
"Shut up, Mister, " Vin growled, trying to quell the queasy stomach. "Or I'll plant ya right there."
"Who do we have here?" Deke stood at Vin's shoulder, eyeing Buck Wilmington.
"Don't know, claims his name is Buck," Vin stated, "Caught him sneakin' up on me. Called me 'Vin'" The tracker's shaky right hand was trained on the intruder, the other clutching his painful head.
Buck's heart sank when he saw the evil smile play on Carson's lips. He realized that the grinning gunman knew his identity.
"Chris, this is Buck Wilmington, a good friend of Vin Tanners. He was there when Tanner lured your brother into that fire. That poor kid burned alive...screaming for you."
"Nooooo!" Vin cried, the pain in his head reaching an excruciating crescendo. Visions of the dark-haired boy, his youthful face wearing a perennial grin, flashed into his mind. The headache was like none he'd ever known. Deke's voice droned on.
"J.D.'s face was twisted in pain, Chris, calling for you," Deke taunted, seeing the fire in Tanner's eyes, "We tried to get to him, but that wall of fire swallowed him up..."
"He's lying," Buck shouted, "J.D.'s alive, It's a trick, Vin."
"Don't call me that," Vin screamed, hand clutching the crushing pain in his head, "Stop it..."
"He was laughing when J.D. went down..." Deke goaded, causing Vin's eyes to shoot open.
Buck knew he was done for then. He saw the deadly intent and the pain in Vin's face. He eyed the rocky hill to his right. He saw the mare's leg raise...and the anguished blue eyes.
"No, Vin...don't..." He shouted as he moved. The impact of the bullet sent him over the hill. He rolled head over heel until he stopped in a heap at the bottom. He gazed painfully up at Vin's cold face and those dead eyes. Deke's hand was on his shoulder, his face wearing an evil grin.
"You sick bastard," Buck whispered, "I'll find you..."
The dark curtain fell, silencing any further thoughts.
The longer they rode, the worse Chris's mood became. J.D. stopped talking altogether and struggled to keep pace with the determined blond. It was near to noontime and they'd been riding since dawn. J.D. back ached and he was hungry. They weren't far from where Rosalie should be.
"Chris, we need to stop," He shouted ahead.
"What's wrong?" Chris demanded, eye's fiery.
"The horses need a break, and so do I," J.D. slid down and lead his horse to the water's edge.
Chris remained silent, but followed suit. He rummaged in the saddlebag and produced some beef jerky and a couple apples. J.D. was down stream, filling the canteens, when he noticed it.
There was no mistaking the fine gray bay that was grazing in the distance.
"CHRIS!" He shouted, taking off in the direction of the horse.
Chris jumped at the boy's call and scrambled after him. He spotted the object of J.D.'s attention.
By the time he reached them, J.D. had already checked the horse out.
"She's fine," J.D. stated, "She's not sweating, she's been here awhile. They're some tracks..."
"Wait here, I'll get the horses," Chris patted the boy's shoulder, trying to take the fear out of his owlish eyes.
They followed the tracks back up the road to a turnoff. Proceeding ahead they saw a small cabin. They each dismounted. J.D. went inside, while Chris patrolled the perimeter. He was about to return to the house, when he saw Buck's hat. He walked over to the top of a rocky incline, and squatted to pick it up. Then he saw the bloody crumpled form of his oldest friend.
"BUCK!" Chris screamed, half-sliding, half falling down the hill.
He skidding to a halt next to where the tall cowboy was lying in a heap. His heart sank at the pale skin and blood soaked shirt. He cursed himself inwardly for being so hard-hearted. He turned the body over and lifted Buck's upper body. He leaned Buck against his raised knee and felt for a pulse. J.D. appeared topside.
"Buck!" J.D. screamed and started to climb down.
"NO!" Chris hollered, halting the boy's progress, "Ride for Nathan. It's only a couple hours from here. GO!" He commanded, watching the boy scamper off.
"Don't you die on me you stubborn son-of-a-bitch," He cursed, easing the body down.
"Takes...one...to...to...know...wa..wa...one," a weak voice countered.
"What the hell were you thinking riding off by yourself! Getting killed ain't gonna bring Vin back. Dammit Buck!" Chris drilled, while his hands probed for broken bones.
"Chris..." The bloody hand reached up and grabbed his wrist. "I'm sorry," He wanted to say more put the pain in his side and the effort was just too much.
Chris saw the bloody offering and shook the hand. More importantly, he saw such a pain in Buck's eyes, it made him wince. He nodded, sending his acceptance and watched a weight leave the injured man's frame. Buck's sigh of relief was so audible, J.D. probably heard it. Chris lifted the sodden, scarlet shirt and saw a wound in Buck's side.
"I gotta check for an exit wound," He warned, waiting for the dark head to nod, and then rolled the body over. "Good..." He breathed, spotting the small exit hole.
"Let's go," Buck hissed, sitting up.
"You sure?" Chris hedged, concerned about the amount of blood Buck would lose exerting himself.
"Gimme a hand?" Buck asked quietly, raising an arm. He'd seen the concern in the green eyes and renewed his strength.
"Let's get out of here, Pard," Chris grinned, draping Buck's arm over his shoulder.
By the time Chris got to the doorway of the cabin, Buck was passed out and dead weight. He eased the wounded man down on the single bunk on the wall. He rummaged around Buck's saddlebags and found a crumpled shirt. He spent the next few minutes, cutting strips for bandages. He used whiskey and water to clean the wound, wincing as Buck hissed in pain.
He applied pressure, hoping to stop the bleeding.
"What happened?" He asked, spotting the dark blue eyes opening.
"I found Vin last night..." Buck coughed, hitching himself up and reaching for the canteen.
"He okay?" Chris asked, helping Buck get a long drink. He saw the dark head nod and Buck wiped his mouth and took several breaths.
"He's not hurt. But he's changed, Chris. Cutter's brother got a hold of him. He's convinced Vin that he's you, and you killed J.D., while I laughed. Vin thinks the kid burned alive in a fire. He's got that stone-cold-faced killer look, you know, dead eyes. Hell, if he didn't have bad shakes from being hungover, I'd be dead now."
"Vin shot you?" Chris's voice rose in incredulation.
"Without even blinking...I'm telling you, Chris, he's changed. Carson stood there and just kept twisting the knife. Saying J.D. was calling for him when he died, how Vin deserted him. Shit..." Buck seethed, fighting against Chris arm, "Let me up, I'm gonna teach that sick bastard a lesson."
"You're gonna wait for Nate to patch you up. If J.D. rides hard, they should be back in four hours or so. I'll find Vin. There's some tracks headed south."
"You fix this now," Buck's eyes drilled Chris's, "I'm riding with you," Buck grimaced and handed Chris a couple of bullets.
Chris took the offering and looked hard at Buck and saw the determined blue eyes. He took a deep breath and nodded. He uncapped the bullets and lined them up. He crossed the room and picked up a broken piece of board. Busting it over his knee, he retrieved a small piece. Buck took the thick wood between his teeth and nodded, gripping the bedrail. Chris eased his shirt up and doused both wounds liberally with liquor. He never looked at Buck's face as the tall man rolled, so Chris could get to his back. He sprinkled the wound with gunpowder and lit it. Buck cried once and buckled, before his slack hands fell over the bed and he slumped. Chris turned him on his back and repeated the process, sealing the entry point. He gently bathed Buck's face and wrapped a bandage around his lower torso. He eased the bloody shirt back on the body and sat and waited. Two hours later, Buck stirred.
Rosalie was a small town; graying buildings lined either side of the dusty street. The three weary travelers slowly rode past the aging hotel, general store, livery, cafe, assay office, saloon and sheriff's office. The lone occupant of the town, a roving pair of tumbleweeds, skirted by them.
"Let's have a look around," Josiah climbed down, "I'll take this side, Nathan you the other side. Ezra, you check the hotel. We'll meet back at the saloon."
"It's refreshing to know some things never change," Ezra commented on their perpetual meeting place.
Thirty minutes later, Josiah found two bottles of whiskey behind the bar. He dusted off a trio of glasses and took a table by the roulette wheel. He spun the wheel, watching the black and red numbers fly past.
"Black seven," a southern voice drew past him, "Never fails..." Ezra slid into the chair at the same time the dial stopped on black seven.
"Anything?" The ex-preacher asked.
"The usual assortment of vermin lounging about," Standish recounted, "About a dozen rooms, a small kitchen and bath. No signs of any recent activity."
"Same here," Nathan added, "The General store has some stuff on the shelves and I found a rifle in the sheriff's office. What now?"
"We wait for Chris and the Kid," Josiah asked, "Drink's are on the house..." He filled each glass and they downed the dark liquid.
"Actually, that's pretty smooth," Ezra frowned, blowing dust off the bottle, "Tennessee Sipping Whiskey," He approved, pouring himself another shot. "No sense wasting this fine wheel of fortune," Ezra stood beside the wheel, "Care to wager? Double your money...."
"The only way to double your money, Brother," Josiah leaned back, intent on a nap, "Is to fold it and put it back in your pocket."
"Philistine..." Ezra commented, eyeing Nathan who just laughed, "I'll patrol outside, keep an eye out."
Before Nathan had three steps to the door, a fast approaching horse was heard. All three men moved to the doors, guns in hand.
"Nathan! Nathan! You gotta come, I think Buck's dying...Nathan!"
"Slow down, J.D." Josiah grabbed the horse and Ezra caught J.D. as he tumbled off, "What happened? Where's Chris?"
"He's back at the cabin with Buck. He's all covered in blood at the bottom of a hill. Chris sent me for ya. We gotta go, it's a two hour ride back."
"And I was so attached to this charming oasis..." Ezra droned, as they remounted.
An Hour Later
Snake McCall, Cutter Carson and half-dozen men rode into Rosalie. They piled into the saloon.
"Looks like we've got company," McCall said, eyeing the trio of glasses and opened bottle.
"Maybe it's Pete and Deke," Cutter said, "I'll check the livery."
McCall sent the other men about town, posting two on the rooftops and two more at the edge of the street. Cutter returned, indicating that no other horses were in town. Whoever it was, left in a hurry.
"Riders coming," A rooftop gunman shouted.
"Get ready," McCall advised, taking his gun out and ducking behind a large barrel out front of the assay office.
"It's Deke," Cutter said, "I hope you know what the hell you're doing, Snake. My fingers are itching to beat the tar out of Tanner."
"Patience," McCall eased out into the street, "We'll let Tanner take out all his frustrations on Larabee, then you can do whatever you want to Tanner."
"How do you know Larabee will show?" Cutter asked.
"That Texan bastard is like kin to him. He'll show..."
"Cutter," Deke greeted his brother, clapping his back, "Man is it good to see you. Can you believe we found Chris? Turns out he's got amnesia."
"Sorry to hear that Buddy," Carson gritted, holding back his desire to shoot the ex-bounty hunter on site. "Good to see you again, we were worried about you."
Vin nodded, easing off his horse. His head was pounding and all he wanted to do was sleep. He slipped past the group into the saloon. Spotting the open bottle, he took a long swig. He slumped into the nearest chair, slouching down in the seat. He cradled the bottle in the crook of his arm. He blinked and shook his head slightly as a dim roar grew in his ears. Suddenly, it was as if he was dreaming. He saw people at the bar, a pretty Mexican barmaid laughing and pouring drinks. He turned left and saw a young man with green eyes and a gold tooth holding a deck of cards. His gaze traveled to a large man with a mustache and a black man. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder and saw black jeans and a pair of ivory handled revolvers. His gaze traveled up and a shooting pain lanced his head. He saw J.D.'s face and flames.
"Easy, Chris," Deke shook him again, "Damn, you weren't even asleep that time," He amazed at the nightmare. "Here, you need this," He poured a double shot and handed it to the shaky armed man.
"It was so real..." Vin said downing the booze.
"Why don't you get some sleep. There rooms in the hotel or some upstairs."
Vin nodded and slowly made his way upstairs. He flopped into the first bed he found and instantly feel into a troubled sleep. The nightmares continued combining face and places that made no sense. He was riding near a mountain and a storm hit, he's cradling a dead eagle. Then he's in the saloon and the gold-toothed man is holding a King of Hearts with the head cut off. He thrashed in the bed.
Chris slowed up about a mile from town and slid off his mount. Crouching down beside the road, he saw tracks of many horses. He heard the soft swear and turned to see Buck slipping off the horse. He moved quickly, easing the tall man down and onto the ground. He checked the bandages, relieved to find them intact. He didn't have to lay a hand to the flushed face. Buck's wet ruddy skin told him there was a fever.
"This was a mistake," He muttered, kicking the dirt.
"I'm fine," Buck grimaced, "Let's go."
"Yeah, I guess for jackass who's lost blood, not eaten and running a fever," Chris snapped, "You're doing real fine."
Buck hesitated a moment, taking the canteen Chris offered and the beef jerky. He studied the tracks that lead into town and wondered what they would find there. He knew he was slowing Chris up, and he felt bad about that. But he was on a mission. He'd find Vin Tanner or die trying.
He stood painfully and let Chris help him back onto his horse.
"Thanks, Pard," He croaked, "Jackass, huh. Always figured myself more of a bull, them being such studs," Buck wiggled his eyebrows.
Chris gave half a grin at the Old Buck trying to fight his way back. He looked awful and Chris was worried. He should have left Buck back at the cabin. If the Kid found Nathan, he'd have been able to help Buck. He climbed on Destiny and waited for Buck to addle up to him.
"I'm not planning on going anywhere, Chris," Buck said softly, catching the brief flicker of concern.
Chris's face remained neutral. He clicked his tongue and they moved out, "Bull, huh? Heard tell some of them shoot blanks. I should have seen the resemblance sooner."
Buck's pathetic pain-filled laughter gave Chris a guilty grin. He turned to see Buck clutching his side painfully trying not to laugh. The pair slowed up outside town and tethered the horses. Chris had no intention of riding into an ambush. He grabbed his rifle and threw a dozen shells in his pocket. He eased Buck down and steadied him, until Buck nodded. They made their way behind the abandoned stage depot on the outskirts of town.
"You stay put," Chris hissed, easing Buck onto a seat in the depot, "I'll have a look around and be right back." Chris saw Buck nod and blink rapidly, "Dammit Buck, stay awake!"
"Don't worry on me," Buck issued, shoving the blond toward the door, "I'll be fine."
Chris peered around the corner and spotted a head pop up on the roof. He waited until the head disappeared and snuck across the street. He peeked around the side of a large wooden building and nearly ran into a guard. He waited until the man was near the large open door and crept up behind him. He slipped inside the building and got a chokehold on the unsuspecting criminal. He was about to slam the struggling villain with his gun, when the man turned quickly. Chris winced as the neck snapped.
He took a fast glance and discovered he was in the livery.
"Shit..." the curse echoed at the sight of nine horses, "That's great fuckin' odds." He tossed the dead man into the end stall, under hay and out of sight. He heard two voices approaching and slipped into the end stall.
"Gary, grubs ready...Gary? Where the hell is he?" Cutter said.
Chris's blood boiled and he snuck a glance but both men were out of range. He wanted to nail that lousy killer.
"Maybe he went topside, to relieve Andy," a second voice said.
He heard the voices trail away and trotted to the door. They had already disappeared. He was about to sneak back across and check on Buck, when a shot hit the wall behind him. He dove back inside and dropped to his knees.
"We got company!" A voice from above shouted.
Chris saw Buck crawl out the door, and slide behind the water trough. Buck was looking up above Chris head, aiming at the man on the roof. Several shots rang out from three different directions, all aimed at Buck. Chris saw movement of out the corner of his eye.
"Behind you, Buck!"
Buck wheeled and fired on instinct and brought the gunman down. Chris peered around the edge of the barn door. He could see the south side of the street. Three men, each in a doorway, two on the roof, and two down. There were still two missing. He ducked back inside, breathing heavily as he reloaded. Buck seemed to be holding his own, and Chris was a sitting duck in the livery. He spotted a back door and decided to hit the roof. He could take that man out and have a great view of the street.
"Sure could use you now, Cowboy," He thought of the sharpshooter's precision.
He motioned to Buck what his intentions were and saw the dark head nod. Buck held up three fingers and Chris returned the nod. Chris got to his feet and counted, sprinting on three as Buck's shots rang out. He flew through the stable and out the back door. He spotted steps on the hotel next store, leading to the roof. Clutching his rifle, he bolted.
Vin finally found a peaceful dream. His chest rose and fell in quiet slumber. He wore a small smile of contentment, as his mind's eyes played a pretty picture for him. It was a spring day and a gentle breeze kissed his face. He was hammering shingles on a roof. He was laughing and conversing with someone. He glanced over the roof to the figure below. Black boots, black jeans and a black gunbelt with ivory handles peeking out of the holster. The black and white striped shirt led up to...
"NO!" He screamed, jumping out of bed. Something woke him up, and then he heard the gunfire. He saw the men across the street firing toward the livery. He ran out the door and headed for the roof. He didn't understand what the strong force was that compelled him to go topside. He ran to the far corner, nodding to one of the men who rode in. He dropped to his knees and looked over the edge, spotting the man he'd shot earlier that day.
"How the hell did y'all get here?" He wondered outloud, taking aim.
Chris hit the roof, rolling and firing at the crouched shooter. A rifle flew through the air, as the dead man toppled over the edge.
Vin heard the shot behind him and saw the gang member fly over the side. His rifle was only a few feet away. Vin could take out the mustached pest once and for all with that rifle. He holstered his gun and dove for the rifle. Chris spun as a body shot by; its tanned leather blur seemed familiar. He wheeled, prepared to fire.
"VIN!" He screamed, "Jesus, Vin, I could have shot you. What do you..." Chris's voice died as reality set in and he realized he wasn't talking to Vin Tanner.
Vin froze, his heart hammered nearly out of his chest wall. His blue eyes widen in anxiety. He saw the scene in the saloon again. This was the man who was with J.D. at the table. J.D.'s eyes pleading with him, as the fire overcame him. He saw the man shooting with deadly precision.
Chris watched the blue eyes that he'd only known in deep friendship, turn deadly. Buck's description couldn't been better. Vin was looking at him with bloodlust. Buck? Buck was outnumbered. He heard the gunfire and made a decision. He rolled and fired all around Vin, watching the tracker dive for cover. He ran and jumped to the neighboring roof, taking cover behind an eave from the window. He picked off two men who had Buck pinned down. That made four left, including Vin. The street grew quiet. Chris's eyes darted back to where Vin was, the roof was empty. Buck? He couldn't see the dark head moving. Swearing a string of colorful curses, he slid down the rail of the stairs and backtracked.
Buck saw the two gunmen approaching and fumbled with the bullets in his hands. He blinked back the river of sweat running in his eyes. His fingers seemed to be made of rubber and his head hurt like hell. Where was Chris? More shots whizzed by his head and he flattened himself on the ground. His hiss of pain went airborne as the dead men landed about five feet away. He heard the silence and rested his eyes. He jumped when a hand touched his shoulder.
"That was just a little too close, Pard," Buck whispered as Chris helped him up, "We ain't that spry anymore."
"Speak for yourself, Grandpa," Chris muttered, glancing at the roof and street, hoping to catch site of Vin, "There's only four left, including Vin."
"VIN!" Buck gasped, "You saw him? He okay?"
"Damn near blew a hole right through him," Chris related, "Come on, let's go."
"My thoughts exactly, Larabee," A cold voice cut right through Chris, "I don't know how you pulled it off, restores my faith in miracles," Snake McCall laughed, slapping Bucks' bad side, "You should pick better company, Wilmington, you'd live longer."
"Shut the fuck up, you ugly bastard," Buck gritted, howling in pain as a blow to the ribs sent him on his knees.
"Leave him alone," Chris moved to stand in front of Buck, "It's me you want. I'm calling you out. You any kind of a man without you creeps doing your dirty work?"
"Oh, it will be a fair fight," McCall's dark eyes danced and he motioned for them to move, "and one I can't wait to see. Get him moving or I'll shoot him where he's lying." McCall said of Buck.
Chris pulled Buck up and draped an arm over his shoulders. He half carried the semi-conscious man into the saloon. He eased Buck down on the floor, his back against the wall. Buck managed to peel his eyes open long enough to nod back at Chris. Chris gave his oldest friend a deep stare, squeezed his shoulder and stood. He felt his gun being taken and turned around, his gut gripped in an icy grasp. Before him stood the man who knew him like no other. More than a friend or a brother, something much deeper and more profound.
"Ya murderin' son-of-a-bitch, Tanner," Vin's voice was low and deadly, "I'm gonna carve J.D.'s name in that sorry hide of yers."
Buck stole a quick glance at Chris, who seemed numb. Buck got a sick feeling in the pit of his gut, knowing why Cutter and Snake created this ghoulish scenario. They were gonna use Vin in some sick game, to kill Chris.
"J.D.'s not dead," Chris said coolly, trying to penetrate the icy eyes that glared at him, "and you're Vin Tanner. I'm Chris Larabee." Chris scowled then shivered a bit inside, as an unnatural high-pitched laughter emerged from the tracker's lips.
"I was there, ya cold-hearted dog," Vin growled, "I saw ya burn him alive. When I'm done with
ya, yer gonna be beggin' to die."
Buck paled at the feral glow and deadly intent in Vin's eyes. Chris could take any man in a fair fight. But Vin wasn't just any man. He'd spent years with the Commache's and Kiowa's, learning the deadly tricks of the trade. Chris's weakened condition would hurt him. Buck's eyes closed briefly, seeing the tracker's face when Buck told him Chris was dead. God help him, if he succeeds and has to live through that again. His eyes snapped open as a war cry split the air.
Vin launched both feet in a powerful kick that send Chris flying into a table. Chris dove at Vin, and both landed in a heap on the floor. Chris landed on top and straddled Vin, "Vin listen to me..." Chris thought was cut off by a vicious right hook to the jaw. He then pounded the younger man with several shots to the jaw. Vin brought his legs back and gripped Chris around the throat, flinging him backwards.
"Damn!" Cutter cried, slapping Deke's back, "I ain't never seen a move like that."
"That's Indian fightin'" Snake said, "I told you this would be fun."
Chris was fighting for his life. Vin was lost in a nightmare and there was no mistaking the deadly intent in his eyes. They continued to trade blows and use their bodies to break tables. Chris felt himself weakening; the little strength he'd built up was fading fast. Blood ran freely from a cut over his eye. Vin's eyes were like wild, raging blue lightning. Vin's limber feet shot out again, catching Chris under the jaw. The powerful blow sent the blond to all fours, dazed and weak. Vin gripped his neck, squeezing for all it was worth. All he could see was J.D.'s face. Chris saw the blank stare and knew Vin wasn't in the room. The others were drinking, blocked from view several feet away. Vin's deathgrip had spots dancing before Chris eyes. He only had no air left.
Chris reached deep inside and pulled out his deepest feelings for Vin. He used the one weapon he had left, his eyes. He shot every emotion he had through his green eyes and burned a hole into the lost blue ones. He saw Vin's head cock slightly as his face seemed to grow smaller and far away. He realized he was dying. He felt the grip lighten. With his last breath, he sent forth a single message.
Vin's eyes once again saw the unfamiliar saloon scene. All the same faces were laughing at him. The man with the gold tooth, the black man, the large man with graying hair, J.D, the pretty Mexican bar maid and then he saw the black pants, black shirt and the blond man's face. He was smiling and saying a name. Vin? He turned his head to hear better. Looking at the face, he saw the lips move again, and the eyes full of deep feeling. He leaned down as the slack lips moved.
Vin loosened his hands and pulled them back. The deafening roar in his head nearly toppled him. He blinked and looked around the room. He was in a small cabin; curtains blew in the breeze. A body was on the bed, a quilt covering it to the chest. Chris was on the bed. He reached a hand to the throat. Oh God! Chris...He couldn't be..."
"He's dead..." Vin said in a faraway voice, retracting his hand. He rested his hand against the pale cheek and felt an unbearable sadness.
Buck heard Vin's proclamation and felt all his strength leave him. His head was pounding but his body was numb. He slid sideways down the wall and looked up at the blurry figures at a cruel angle. He saw the wave of horror flush over Vin's face. He heard the Snake and the Carson brothers laughing at Vin's pain.
"Get up Tanner," Snake snarled, grabbing the tracker by the hair and hauling him hard.
Vin cried out and struggled, but he was breathless from the fight. Cutter swung the rifle hard into his ribcage, sending the tracker to his knees. He felt the bones snap and the hot searing pain in his chest, as his breath struggled to escape his lungs. He saw Chris's still body; pale skin beneath the blood covered face.
"Oh God," He croaked, "What have I done? Chris....Chris..." He tried to go to his stricken friend, only to cuffed hard across the side of the face.
Buck saw the whole grisly scenario unfold in front of him. He saw them surrounding Vin, striking a blow each time he tried to get to Chris's body. Vin curled up, gasping for breath, his eyes trained on Chris.
"You killed your best friend," Cutter leered, pulling Vin's battered face up by the hair, "How's it feel Tanner?"
Vin sprung up so fast it caught Cutter off guard. The cry that left the tracker's mouth was inhuman. He threw his body into Cutter's knocking him through the railing of the staircase. Cutter looked up just as Vin picked up a broken spoke from the railing and swung it at him. The shot caught both men off guard. Vin fell forward, landing on Cutter.
"Get this piece of trash off of me," Carson's muffled cry came.
Buck's strength was ebbing badly now. He was barely able to keep his eyes open a crack. He saw them tie Vin's hands and gag him. He saw the blood running down Vin's face. They laughed as they used the excess rope to make a noose and loop it around the semi-conscious man's neck. They pulled Tanner along behind them; he staggered and dropped to his knees, causing the rope constrict. For a split second, Vin's eyes met Buck's.
Buck knew by the startled blink, that Vin didn't know he'd been there. He saw Vin mouth his name silently. Buck spoke the words 'I'm sorry' through his eyes. He reached a weak hand up, extending the open side, hoping Vin understood. Before they pulled him savagely through the door, he saw Vin nod. He bit his lip and eyed Chris's body painfully. Losing your oldest friend twice in a week was unbearable. With his last ounce of strength, he crawled painfully over to Chris. He eased himself back against the bar and pulled the blond's head onto his legs. He brushed a hand through the light hair. At least they'd made their peace before...He sighed.
"We sure had a good ride, Pard," He whispered, fighting pain and nausea. His fevered gaze went to the harmonica lying in the middle of the floor. A harsh symbolic end to the desperate trail they'd forged. Was Vin dead too? The image of the tracker's body dangling from a tree was too much to bear. Buck swallowed the lump in his throat. He remembered instead, the brief look of comradeship and blue defiance that Vin departed with. That was the last image he had, before the black curtain took mercy and dropped over him.
Back at the Cabin
"Nobody's here..." Josiah eyed the empty cabin.
"Looks like Buck wasn't as dead as you thought, J.D." Nathan gave the boy a reassuring look, "I guess Chris patched him up and they headed for Rosalie."
"I found some tracks headed south," J.D. informed the pair, his eyes glued to the blood on the bed. "Ezra's seeing where they lead to."
"He was able to ride out, Son," Josiah offered the worried face, "Him and Chris are probably finishing off that fancy booze we found."
"Well let's ride then," J.D. headed out, "They could be headed for trouble if that gang gets there before we do."
Cutter Carson walked behind Snake and Deke, laughing lecherously. He gave the rope a tug and hurled more insults at his bloodied prey. Vin Tanner stumbled behind him; his staggering gait resembled a drunk at a barn dance. Blood ran freely down the left side of his face, from the head wound. The course rope clawed at the soft folds of the tracker's neck, scoring scarlet marks on the noose.
Vin didn't feel any pain. The broken ribs didn't slash him, the weeping head wound didn't throb and the rope around his neck didn't feel like the teeth of a rapid dog. He was cold, icy cold, chilled to the bone. Pins and needles ran up and down his body. Images flowed freely in his tortured brain. Chris's stunned face on the rooftop; Buck's pleading eyes before his bullet sent the tall man, perhaps to his death.
His numb limbs propelled him forward, the noose tugging at his tender neck. It seemed as if the little air that he managed to attain was barely able to get by his ribcage. Buck's haunted face appeared before him, from the floor of the saloon. He never remembered the rogue looking so bad. Pale and gaunt, the tender gaze and bloodied hand of friendship offered as Vin was carted away. Had Buck seen the forgiveness he sent back?
He blinked rapidly, trying to see the men ahead. The three seemed to be in a long tunnel. Vin heard his own ragged breaths, and the loud drumming of his heart. Black spots danced before him, an ebony snowfall that obscured his view. His legs dissolved and his bruised face kissed the soft earth. The hammering heart grew louder and the labored breaths shorter. Chris's voice caressed his face, sliding into his ear. As soft as a baby's breath, it carried the one word that shattered the tracker's heart...cowboy.
"I'm sorry, " He whispered hoarsely, trying to hold onto that voice as the world crashed in.
The object loomed above him, obscured by clouds. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, squinting up at the strange configuration. Then the clouds went away and the red and black squares of a roulette wheel came into view. It took the groggy gunfighter another minute to pull his mind back together. Then the reality slammed into him, with a brutal force.
He sat up, using the edge of the roulette table to haul himself to his feet. His eyes ran around the empty room. He winced as if a knife sliced him, spotting the mouth organ lying on the floor. He managed a small grin, thinking of how poorly Vin used it. He slid it into his pocket and staggered to the batwing door. He hung halfway out, eyeing the empty street. It was late afternoon. How long had he been out cold? Nathan and the others were here yet, so it couldn't have been too long.
"He's gone, Chris," a weak voice offered from behind him.
Chris turned slowly back into the saloon and crossed the floor. He squatted down, pushing the weakened man, who was trying to rise.
"You ought to stay put. You look like shit, Buck," He eyed the waxen face wet with fever and checked the dirty bandages.
"You ain't in no position to be makin' fun," Buck noted of Larabee's battered face. Dried blood covered one eye, the left cheek was swollen and the left eye would be a pretty shade of purple soon.
"These need to be changed," Chris pulled Buck upright and forced him into a chair, "I'll see if that store has anything I can use. Or maybe there's a doctor's office. I'll be back."
"Hey, Chris," Buck nodded to the bottle a table away. Chris tossed it over and picked up his pace.
Buck had his shirt peeled off and the dirty bandages were half off, when Chris returned. He set the box he was carrying on the table and got to work. He used whiskey to clean the area and rewrapped it with clean bandages. He pulled out an empty whiskey bottle that was full of water.
He poured some into a glass and mixed aspirin powder into it. He handed it to Buck.
"You drink this," He ordered, "I found some cans on the shelf at the store. I'm gonna make us some supper."
Buck buttoned his shirt and ambled into the kitchen, finding a stool by the table. He watched Chris dump beans in a pot and waited for him to turn around. He knew Chris was afraid to ask.
"He was still alive when they took him outta here," Buck offered quietly. Chris didn't respond, but Buck saw his shoulder's square back and the head come up a bit.
"But..." Chris turned, hearing the catch in Buck's voice.
Buck sighed deeply, running a weary hand through his hair. "They tied him up and then put a noose on him, made him run behind them."
"Fuck!" Chris screamed, hurling an unfortunate glass pitcher across the room. For a few pregnant moments, the only sound that penetrated the thick air, was Chris's heavy breathing. He saw Buck look away, not meeting his eyes. "Buck...." He drew the name, as he narrowed his suspicious eyes, "What aren't you saying?"
"He...uh..." Buck paused, not sure of how to continue.
"Dammit Buck," Chris covered the distance and loomed over him, with a menacing glare, "Tell me..."
Buck's eyes studied the clenched fists and he braced himself, in case they launched out at him. "He thinks you're dead." Buck closed his eyes and his shoulders jumped, prepared for the explosion. When none came, he opened his eyes. Chris was still standing there. Buck saw the hands were trembling. He ran a furrowed brow up to the leader's face. It was full of remorse.
"It wasn't your fault," Buck placed a tentative hand on the dark blue shirt, only to have it shrugged off. He watched Chris walk from the room. He eased himself up and gingerly walked over to the stove. When Chris returned, with a bottle of booze, two plates of beans were ready. Chris slouched in the doorframe, taking a long gulp. "Best eat these and be quick about it, Pard." Buck nodded, "We got a trail to catch."
"What the hell for?" Chris growled, taking another long gulp.
"You mind sharing the wealth?" Buck tapped an empty glass on the table. "And explaining that comment?"
Chris sauntered over and poured Buck a shot. He slid into a seat and hunched over, resting his elbows on his knees. His hooded eyes weren't as well hidden as he thought. Not to an Old Larabee Veteran named Wilmington. Buck saw fear dancing in the hollow black of Chris's eyes.
Chris felt Buck's penetrating stare and flicked a glance over.
"I hate the trees in this part of the country," Chris said quietly, averting Buck's eyes.
So that was it, Buck sighed. He finished his meager meal and poured another shot. The thought of spotting Vin's lifeless body, swaying from a limb, was too much for Larabee to bear. Buck didn't have the stomach for that either.
"We ain't hardly into Texas, Pard. It's a long way to Tascosa." Buck planted, as he rose. Patting the downcast back, "I'm heading out to find that boy, and bring him home. Enjoy your pity party."
Chris scowled, but didn't look up as Buck left. He pondered the departing words carefully. "I got find me some less stubborn friends." He muttered, stopping in the saloon to retrieve the bandages and other medical supplies he found. He scribbled a hasty note and left it under a bottle "Damn fool will break his neck, riding with a fever."
Buck was hunched over in the saddle, when the black form flew by. He straightened up and broke into a huge grin. Chris never turned around, but made himself known. "Wipe that grin off your face, Buck, or I'll do it for ya!"
A Few Hours Later
"Buck! Buck!" J.D. shouted, jumping from his horse.
He raced into the saloon, with Nathan on his heels. It was past sundown and the bar was dark. Nathan struck a match and spotted a lamp on the wall. He tossed the burnt out match away, and struck another one, lighting the lamp.
"What's it say?" Josiah asked of J.D. who held the note by the lamp.
"Snake and the Carson brothers have Vin. Buck and Chris left out after them. Let's go." J.D. turned, only to have Josiah's hand clamp on his shoulder.
"It's pitch black out there, Son. We'll head out at first light."
"But they could be dead by then..." J.D. protested, "What's the matter with you two? Don't you care?"
"I'm gonna chalk that up to you being tired," Nathan's voice was low. His eyes burned into J.D. until the boy turned away. J.D. remained mute, not used to seeing Nathan in this state.
"What do you got Ez?" Josiah spotted Ezra carrying a box.
"Dinner," Ezra planted the box and removed some cans, a bag of flour, a hunk of ham, a loaf of bread and a jar of jam. "It's not the Ritz, but beggars cannot be choosers."
"Where the hell did you get that?" Nathan gave the Southerner a grin.
"In the saddlebags of the dearly departed, who are scattered all over the street. Shall we?"
"What else did you lift off the dearly departed?" Josiah asked, enjoying Ezra's veiled innocent look.
"Mr. Sanchez, I don't think I like your intonation. Stealing from the dead would be a barbaric undertaking."
"How much did you get?" J.D. nudged him, winking.
"You're still a fraud, Ezra," Nathan laughed, carrying the box into the kitchen.
At a Campsite Further South
"When's he gonna wake up, so's we can have some fun?" Deke asked, eyeing the trussed up bounty.
"We got a long way to Tascosa," Snake said, ripping a flank of roasted rabbit off a stick, "You'll get plenty of chances."
"Go on and wake him up," Cutter said, nodding to the cold creek nearby, "Just don't drown him. I got plans for him."
Vin was lying on his side, his hands tied behind his back. The noose was still around his neck, the loose end trailing in the dirt. Deke wrapped his hands around the end of the rope. He pulled the unprotesting body, down the incline to the water. Sharp stones cut into the already bruised face, causing the stilled man to stir. Without any warning, Deke shoved Vin's head under the cold water. He pulled the sputtering captive up by the hair.
"You look like a drowned rat, Old Buddy," Deke goaded, nudging the coughing victim with his boot.
"Now Deke, where's your manners?" Cutter hollered, "Invite that boy over to the fire."
Vin got to his feet, trying to prevent any more pain to his inflamed throat. He tottered unsteadily, blinking water out of his eyes. He wasn't moving fast enough for Deke, who tugged the rope hard. Vin wasn't able to recover in time and lost his footing. He saw the fire and threw himself sideways, but not far enough.
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