He rode slowly down the street to the saloon, alert for any trouble despite his deceptively easy slouch. Hed seen the soldiers camp outside town and had felt an instinctive uneasiness settle upon him, shaking the peace he had found by the pool. Soldiers troubled him, put him guard.
Destroyed his balance.
He knew they werent all bad; hell, hed known some real fine ones, men who did their uniform proud. They were doing a hard job that needed doing. And hed helped them do that job occasionally, scouting for them when it was needed. Folks depended on the Army to keep them safe in an unsettled territory like this, where there wasnt any law to speak of. And most times the Army did a real good job.
But other times
Hed seen some of those other times, seen hard and hateful men sweep down on sleeping villages, burning all they could and shooting whoever moved, never caring whether it was man, woman or child. Hed heard the cries, the screams, hed smelled the blood
Hed even laid among the bodies once, wounded himself, and felt rough hands jerk him up, ready to kill him like all the others. Til theyd noticed his brown hair and blue eyes.
Hell, he aint one a them! Hes white!
And the rough, hurtful hands had torn him out of the world hed chosen and dragged him kicking, screaming, fighting and bleeding back to the world hed left.
The world where hed never belonged
He jerked himself back to the present with a curse, forcing the painful memories back into the darkness where they belonged. Not all soldiers were bad, he knew that. There were a lot of good ones among them. It was all a question of balance.
But the reminder did nothing to loosen the anxious tightening of his gut or to settle his rising hackles. Soldiers meant trouble in one form or another, sure as the world. And any trouble in these parts invariably involved the Seven.
He saw the two big bay geldings with all the unmistakable trappings of the U.S. Cavalry hitched in front of the saloon and sighed heavily, giving a slow, resigned shake of his head. It figured the soldiers would be where he wanted to be. Things were always like that in his life.
He glanced up at the vast expanse of cloudless blue sky above him. "Yaint got anybody else ta play with?" he demanded angrily.
Sometimes the God of his people was a bigger trickster than the Coyote of Chanus folks.
He legged Peso on toward the saloon, then stopped before it and swung easily down from the saddle, refusing to be kept from his refreshment by mere soldiers. He tied the big black gelding well away from the Army mounts, knowing his horse didnt always appreciate the company of others anymore than he did.
And he for damn sure didnt want the fool animal gettin him in any trouble with the Army.
Taking a deep breath and pulling his hat down low over his eyes, he stepped up onto the boardwalk and went with his customary cat-like tread to the saloon doors. He stopped a moment at them, swallowed hard and braced himself, then quietly pushed them open and slipped silently inside. He stopped again at the sight of the two soldiers at the bar.
Hell, mebbe theys jist passin through
Chris saw JD sit up straight, eyes and mouth open wide, and turned in the direction of the boys stare, surprised himself by the dusty apparition standing so still and silent just inside the saloon.
Damn, howd he do that? Out in the hills one minute, right here the next Spookier than a goddamn ghost!
"My, my," Ezra drawled, his eyes, too, going to the doors. "Speak of the Devil, and he shall appear. Might we consider puttin a bell around his neck to alert us to his approach?"
Chris grinned slightly at the thought. "Only if youre volunteerin to hold him down while we do it."
Ezra swallowed and quickly reconsidered. "On second thought, perhaps not. Mr. Tanner has a rather disheartening tendency to fight dirty."
Chris declined to answer, was too intent upon watching Vin. The tracker stood absolutely still and gazed fixedly at the two soldiers, his face hidden in the shadows beneath his hat. Though he appeared as loose and relaxed as ever, Chris could feel the tension radiating from him. All at once, Vin bore a striking resemblance to a wary wild animal standing downwind from a predator. Chris half expected to see him sniff the air.
Vin stared at the broad back of the big sergeant, studied the hard face turned in profile to him, and felt himself go cold and sick as darkness engulfed his world. He wanted to leave, to turn and run, but stood rooted helplessly in place, his body refusing to move, his mind refusing to accept the evidence before his eyes.
No no, it couldnt be The Devil couldnt have come for him again!
Concern rippled through Chris as he watched Vin pull himself further into his coat. Without a word, he rose to his feet and went down to the younger man, careful to let his steps be heard, careful not to move or touch the tracker unexpectedly.
Just didnt pay to startle Tanner when he was like this.
"Hey, pard," he greeted quietly. "Glad youre back. Everything quiet in the village?"
"What the hell are they doin here?" Vin demanded, his soft voice unusually harsh.
Chris was startled by the hostility no, the hatred in that voice, and by the menace emanating from the younger man. Vin was usually so quiet, so easy-going, that Chris tended to forget about the dark and dangerous side of his nature that had made him an expert hunter of men.
"Theyre chasin renegades," he explained, frowning when Vin flinched at the words. "They need a tracker. Heard about you. Came to see if you were interested."
"I aint!" Vin snarled, his lean body tense, his hand going to his mares leg. "Tell em ta go ta hell!" He turned and took a step toward the doors, but stopped abruptly and looked down as Chriss hand closed firmly about his arm. He stiffened instinctively as anger coursed through him, but managed to keep from doing anything stupid, like taking a swing at his friend.
Nonetheless, Chris was almost certain he heard a low growl from the tracker, and knew he was treading on dangerous ground. Keeping his hand on Vins arm, forcing himself to relax, he sought the younger mans eyes with his own and tried to will calm upon him.
Tanner was tight as stretched leather.
"Wanta talk about it?" he asked softly, not liking at all the fact that the mere sight of two soldiers so deeply upset Tanner when so little else ever did. "Aint like you to take on so."
Vin scowled, baring his teeth, and stared up at Chris through burning eyes. "Ya dont know nothin about this," he hissed. "Best ya jist keep it thataway."
"Cant," Chris said with a slight smile. "Im the law hereabouts, remember?" When the words failed to tease forth Tanners familiar humor, Larabee sighed and frowned, deeply puzzled by the younger mans hostility. He knew something of the trackers history with Indians, knew that history could explain a certain amount of wariness where soldiers were concerned. But he also knew Vin had scouted for the Army on occasion, so he clearly did not hate all soldiers simply because they were soldiers.
But there was no denying the deep, black hatred he now felt pouring from his friend. And that worried Chris to no end, because Vin was not a man who nursed grudges, not a man to brood over past wrongs and hurts done him to keep the pain of them alive. Instead, he seemed to take his strength from accepting what could not be changed, from letting go of burdens he had no wish to bear. Yet now to see this evidence that there was something he could not let go, some wound that still festered, sent a dark chill of foreboding through the gunfighter.
"Its all right, Vin," he said quietly, "Nobodys gonna make you do somethin you dont want to. Now, why dont you come have a drink, calm down some. Maybe tell us what it is about this fella gets your hackles up."
Vin gazed up at Larabee and saw the concern in the green eyes. He licked his lips, sorely tempted, but slowly shook his head. That dark presence at the bar seemed now to be spreading all about him, shutting out all light, cutting off all air. "Sorry, cowboy," he rasped, the tightness in his chest and gut too painful to endure. "Caint drink with that bastard here. Hell, I caint hardly breathe with him s close."
Chris sighed, but nodded and let his hand fall away. "All right. Maybe later."
"Yeah," he whispered hoarsely, ducking his head slightly. "Mebbe so." He started forward again.
"You the tracker?"
The harsh voice tore through Vin like a blade, ripping him open and wrenching a thick groan from him. He staggered forward and likely wouldve fallen had Chris not grabbed his arm again.
"I asked if yer the tracker!" Ford called more loudly, and with obvious impatience.
Vin bowed his head and closed his eyes tightly as a wave of pain and white-hot hatred swept through him. He tried to will away that voice, and the horrible memories it evoked, tried to reclaim the peace and quiet he had found at the pool.
Lord, where had they gone?
"Turn around!" Ford demanded, staring angrily at the mans back. "Like ta see a mans eyes when Im talkin to him."
"Hes not interested, Ford," Chris said coldly, still holding Vins arm. The younger man was shaking, and Chris could hear his hard, rapid breathing.
He was like a cornered animal
"I wanta hear it from him. He can talk, cant he?" Ford stared hard at the unresponsive figure, knowing this had to be the man Carson had described to him. "You, tracker! Ya got a tongue?" Fury welled through the sergeant as the man continued to ignore him. "Im talkin to ya!" he shouted.
Vin tore his arm out of Chris grasp and spun around, hissing out a curse. "I got a tongue!" he spat hoarsely, his slim frame taut with rage and hatred. "N Im usin it ta tell ya ta go ta hell!" He glared at the sergeant through burning eyes, his mind and soul on fire. "Chase yer own damn renegades, you sonuvabitch! I aint doin yer dirty work ever again!"
The harsh words exploded through the air like the flat crack of a rifle shot, and the saloon went absolutely silent. At the table, JD stared at Vin in wide-eyed, open-mouthed surprise, stunned to hear such fury, such venom, in that usually soft voice. Beside him, Ezra masked his own astonishment and rose slowly to his feet, easily able to feel the dangerous currents flowing about him and determined to be ready for whatever trouble arose from them. At the far end of the bar, Buck turned his back to Violet and kept both Ford and Vin in sight, his relaxed air concealing his own watchful wariness. Chris moved slightly away from Vin, but only so he would have easy access to his own gun and a clear shot should he need it.
For his part, Ford ignored every man in the saloon save the hostile tracker, whom he regarded with a rising fury. Nobody talked to him that way, and he certainly wasnt about to take it from this hide-wearin, dirty sonuvabitch who looked more like a savage than a decent white man
His thoughts took a contemptuous turn as he studied the tracker. Man? Hell, he wasnt much more than a boy! A skinny, long-haired, soft-voiced boy
"Tanner!" he barked suddenly as recognition dawned. "Hell, I shoulda knowed it was you when Carson said the tracker was Comanche-taught." He smiled thinly and stepped away from the bar, going slowly toward the younger, smaller man. He took in the long hair, the hide coat, and the small pouch hanging from a leather thong about his neck. "Shit, boy, ya never was moren a savage yerself, n I see you aint changed none." He stopped just before the tracker and reached out, brushing thick fingers over the medicine pouch. "Still prefer them heathen ways ta those of yer own kind, I see!" he sneered.
Vin snapped. With a harsh, wordless howl of blind rage, he hurled himself into the much larger Ford, sending the startled man crashing backward into and across a table. As Ford landed hard, Vin pounced atop him with another furious cry, drawing his knife in a smooth motion and thrusting the deadly blade against the soldiers throat.
"You ever touch me again," he snarled, his blue eyes glittering with murder, "n Ill slit ya open n feed ya yer own goddamn innards!"
Ford swore and thrust out a hand, grabbing Vins hair and pulling hard even as the knife bit into his throat. "I see ya let them purty locks grow out again, boy!" he spat. "Reckon mebbe its time fer another haircut!"
Vin hissed in pain as Ford yanked at his hair, and brought back his knife for a killing stroke. Before he could sink the blade into the mans inviting gut, however, he was grabbed from behind by several hands. "Lemme go!" he screamed, fighting wildly against the men who held him. "Lemme go, goddamn it! Lemme kill im"
"Stop it, Vin!" Buck shouted as the wiry tracker tried to twist out of his grasp. "Goddamn it, boy, I said stop!" He clamped strong arms about the smaller mans waist and pulled him off Ford as Chris stripped him of his knife. "Ya cant kill him, Vin!"
"He needs killin!" Vin spat, struggling desperately against the big man. He snarled out a curse and smashed a boot heel into Bucks shin, then slammed an elbow into his ribs and dropped to his knees on the floor as the big man released him and fell back with a howl. "Murderin bastard!" he yelled, hurling himself once more at Ford.
"VIN!" This time Chris caught him, wrapped him in an iron embrace and dragged him away.
Corporal Powell started forward to help his sergeant, his hand falling to the flap of his holster. All at once, however, Ezra materialized at his side and laid a restraining hand on his arm, his derringer snapping into his palm. "My dear sir," he said with a smile, "I must ask you not to interfere. Mr. Larabee is more than capable of restraining Mr. Tanner. Your presence would only exacerbate an already volatile situation."
As Vin screamed curses and fought like a madman, Chris slammed him into the wall and stood on his feet to keep him from kicking, pinning his right hand against the wall above his head and thrusting a forearm across his throat. "Listen to me!" he ordered through clenched teeth, staring furiously into blue eyes gone insane with rage. "Goddamn it, Tanner!" he shouted as Vin continued to fight and curse. "Shut up and listen to me! Youre gonna get yourself killed"
"Hes a goddamn murderer!" Vin rasped, trying to gulp in air past Chriss unrelenting arm. "He killed em"
"They was Injuns!" Ford spat contemptuously, staring furiously at Tanner and rubbing his throat where that blade had bitten into his flesh. "Savages"
"You were the savage!" Vin cried, remembering the bloody scene with soul-searing vividness. "They werent hurtin nobody! And you killed em"
"Jist clearin away the trash," Ford sneered hatefully.
"Bastard!" Vin shouted, renewing his struggles against Chris.
"Shut up, both of you!" Chris ordered. All at once, he felt the trackers free hand going for his Colt. "Try it, Vin," he whispered through clenched teeth, pressing his forearm harder into his friends throat, "and itll take Nathan a month ta sew you back together!"
Vin was gasping for air and trying to see through the spots dancing before his eyes. As Chris continued cutting off his air, the fight drained from him and he slumped against the wall. The murder left his eyes, replaced by unspeakable pain. "He killed em, Chris," he whispered brokenly, his voice shaking. "Killed em like they was nothin. N Im the one led him to em."
"Shit!" Chris breathed, relaxing his hold on his friend, understanding now some of the reason for his rage. "Vin"
"Hell, I thought ya was crazy then, Tanner!" Ford taunted, studying the tracker through cold, cruel eyes. "But yer even worse now!"
Vin stared past Chriss shoulder to the sergeant, his chest heaving as he gasped for breath. "If I am," he rasped, "its you that made me this way." He swallowed and raised a hand to his aching throat, then held the other out to Chris. "Ill take my knife back now."
"Dont give it to him!" Ford objected in sudden alarm. "Sonuvabitch tried ta kill me! Yall saw him!"
"Yer lucky they was here," Vin said softly, calmly, taking his knife back from Chris and slipping it into its sheath. He walked forward a step and knelt down to retrieve his fallen hat from the floor, then rose gracefully and stared at Ford, his fury gone, yet replaced by something infinitely more frightening. "Wont be nobody ta stop me next time, though."
Chris reached out and grabbed Tanners arm, jerking the smaller man around to face him. "Aint gonna be a next time, Vin," he growled, glaring into those strangely calm blue eyes. "You hear me? Whats done is done. You kill him, and the Armyll see you hang for sure!" He lifted his hand from Tanners arm and clasped it around the back of the trackers neck, holding him firmly and staring into his eyes, willing him to understand. "Let it go," he urged softly, fervently, unnerved by the depth of the hatred he sensed in his friend. "Hes not worth your life. Whats done is done, and you cant change it. You cant bring those people back."
"Dont you think I know that?" Vin ground out bitterly through gritted teeth. "But knowin it dont make their screams go away, Chris. N it dont make what I done any easier ta bear. Only killin himll do that. Only sendin him back ta hell will put them souls ta rest." He reached up and pried Larabees hand away, then donned his hat and walked out of the saloon.
Chris bowed his head and closed his eyes, breathing deeply and trying to get himself under control. For long, terrible moments, he had seen the killer that lurked in Vin Tanners soul, and the sight had chilled him to his. He didnt like being reminded of the predator that lay hidden beneath that tranquil, impassive surface.
Didnt like thinking Vin was so much like him.
Forcing away those thoughts and pointedly ignoring the angry Ford, he turned and opened his eyes to study Buck. "You all right?"
The big man was seated in a chair and being fussed over by JD. He forced a weak grin for his old friends sake, though his shin and ribs hurt like hell. "Guess I forgot Vin dont like bein grabbed from behind," he joked. "That boy aint big, but whats there is pure muscle!"
"Maybe you should have Nathan take a look."
Bucks smile faded. "Hell, Chris, I wouldnt wanta do that ta Vin," he said quietly. "Hes gonna feel bad enough about it when his head clears without thinkin he done me any real harm. I been hurt worsen this and survived, I reckon Ill survive this, too."
"I see Tanner aint changed none in eight years," Ford said scornfully, his tone dripping with disgust. "Attackin me, turnin on yall He never could be trusted. Comes from livin too long with them red devils. Thinks like em, acts like em, kills like em." He scowled, his pale eyes hard. "Hell, he oughtta be tossed onta the reservation with em, kep away from decent Christian folk!"
Chris turned slowly toward the man and settled an icy green glare upon him, his lean frame straight and taut. He hadnt forgotten the hideous pain he had seen in Vins eyes, and knew with a cold certainty this man bore the blame.
"Sergeant," he said softly, his temper barely under control, "I dont know what happened between you and Vin back then, and I dont really give a damn. But I will tell you this." He stalked toward the big man, his entire being exuding deadly menace. "If you do or say anything ta provoke him, or hurt him, or even mildly annoy him, Ill give you a whole new understandin of savage."
"Ya dont scare me, gunfighter!"
Chris smiled thinly, and his eyes burned with a cold fire. "Maybe not yet. Just remember what I said. You stay the hell away from Tanner, or there wont be enough of you left for the ants ta carry away."
"I still need a tracker!" Ford spat, furious that the gunman should side with that damn renegade against him.
"Single-minded, isnt he?" Ezra sighed in annoyance, returning his derringer to its hideout and carefully straightening his sleeve. "I wonder which part of Mr. Tanners simple yet eloquent go to hell he failed to comprehend?"
"Dont have ta be Tanner," Ford seethed. "I jist need somebody who knows the Devils Backbone." He narrowed his eyes and stared intently at the man before him, appraising his usefulness. "Look, mister"
"Larabee," Chris returned tersely.
"Larabee, theres a band of Comanche renegades in them mountains," Ford said with a forced evenness. "Blood-thirsty bastards, hate whites andre hell-bent on killin as many of em as they can. If this was my town, Id want em gone, want the folks round here safe. And me and my men cn take care a that. But this aint my country, and I dont know them mountains. I need somebody who does." He stepped forward, knowing this was the man he needed to convince. "Ive chased them bastards ta hell and gone, and I aint givin up now. Sides," his eyes took on a hard glint and his powerful frame tensed, "they got captives with em, white women they stole"
"Jesus," Buck muttered sickly, knowing what hell Comanches could inflict.
"You dont help me now, theyll be takin women from around here, too," Ford said in a low voice, never taking his eyes from Larabee, making certain his words hit home. "Killin the men and takin the women and kids. Them they dont kill, that is. And if protectin folks here is yer responsibility, then I reckon helpin me clear them Injuns outta them mountains is yer responsibility, too."
Chris sighed tiredly and bowed his head. This wasnt what he wanted to hear.
"But lets say you aint inclined ta help," Ford went on, watching the play of emotions over the gunmans face and framing his arguments carefully. "I caint take my men inta them mountains without somebody who knows em. Wouldnt be no use. Wed git lost, or git picked off by them red bastards. If I dont find a tracker, well jist have ta leave." A thin, cruel grin split his broad, blunt-featured face and he moved in for the kill. "How long dya think them devilsll stay up there once were gone?" he asked softly, coldly. "Aint no Army presence nowheres close enough ta protect yall from em. You know it, I know it, and them damn Injuns know it. Without us, wont be nothin ta keep em from swarmin down here and declarin war on this territory. Ya ever seen what them bastards cn do when they got their blood up?"
Chris swallowed and grimaced. He had seen it. Too many times.
Buck had, too. "Hes right, Chris," he said quietly, his blue eyes somber. "The ranches and farms around hered be too temptin a target. And we cant protect em all."
"And Vin?" Chris asked softly, casting a sidelong gaze at Wilmington.
Sympathy for Tanner washed through Buck, but he knew what his answer had to be. "He wont like it, I know that, and likely he wont want no part of it," he said quietly, his blue gaze sad but steady. "Hell, I reckon hell be maddern a stepped-on rattlesnake. But that dont change what has ta be done, pard. If we got renegade Comanches in the Devils Backbone, then we got renegade Comanches in our back yard." He shook his head slowly. "Its just too close for comfort, Chris. Folks around here depend on us ta keep em safe. But if these soldiers leave, we all know the seven of us aint gonna be near enough ta hold off trouble like that."
Chris knew. He hated it, but he knew. And if Vin would just settle down and think, hed know it, too.
"Were not Vin," JD put in quietly, "but we all know some of those mountains. Weve all been up there before. Maybe between us we know enough to find em." He only knew of Comanche raids from what hed read in the papers, but that had been harrowing enough to convince him this had to be done. "We cant just leave em up there if it puts folks around here in danger."
Chris rubbed a hand slowly over his face, his heart sinking. They were right. Damn em all, they were right. Ford was a mean son of a bitch and had brought this hell down on them. Right now, he was sorely tempted to let Vin have the bastard. But, goddamn it all to hell, they had no choice but to help him.
Because it was either Ford or Comanches. And, right now, Ford was the lesser of two evils.
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