Chris downed several glasses of whiskey before undertaking an even more unpleasant task than agreeing to help Ford telling Vin hed agreed to help. And that the other five would be going as well. Nathan and Josiah had come in shortly after Chris had "persuaded" Ford to go back to his camp, and had heard the full story. And though they, too, felt for Vin, they knew they had no choice. Tanner would likely be furious, but it had to be done. The folks in this area just werent prepared for the kind of trouble a bunch of angry, desperate Comanches could bring.
And, after a cursory examination of Bucks deep bruises, Nathan agreed whole-heartedly with Wilmington that what the tracker lacked in size, he more than made up for in effectiveness.
Good thing Chris felt it was his job to tell Vin what was happenin
Chris found Tanner right where Josiah said hed left him, up on the roof of the church, hammering down shingles as if his life depended on it. Even from the porch steps Larabee could feel the violence of the blows, and shook his head at the fury and frustration behind each one. While he had always known Vin had his demons, the younger man seemed to have made peace with them in a way Chris envied. Until today, when one of those demons had shown up in the flesh and shattered Vins peace completely.
Chris winced at the hoarse shout and hoped Vin hadnt smashed a finger. "You all right up there?" he called.
More cursing followed; then, as Chris looked up, Vins head appeared over the edge of the roof. "Done broke Josiahs hammer," he reported tersely.
Chris whistled, knowing what kind of force that wouldve required. "Why dontcha come on down, then? We need ta talk."
Vin sighed and wiped the sweat from his face with his bandanna. He didnt particularly want to talk, but Chris had that "its my way or a fight" look about him. And he was just too tired for another fight with a pissed-off Larabee.
"Be right down," he drawled resignedly.
Chris nodded and seated himself on the steps, waiting for Vin but not watching him. He had no desire to see by what means the tracker came down from the roof, figured not knowing would be a hell of a lot easier on his nerves. It never seemed to occur to Tanner that he was as subject as anyone else to the laws of gravity, that he could fall as easily as he could climb or leap. But it occurred to Chris every time he saw the younger man go sailing from rooftop to rooftop just to get a better shot at some sonuvabitch below, every time he saw Vin climb some tree just to get a better look at the trail or scramble up some rockface to perch like a damn mountain cat hunting prey. So, for his own peace of mind, Chris tried not to watch such things any more than he had to.
Having friends like thesed make a man old before his time.
Vin came around the corner of the church and joined Chris on the steps, sinking down onto one without a word, his gaze never meeting Larabees. He had shed his coat and hat, and sweat soaked his hair and drenched his shirt. He had a canteen with him and, when seated, took the stopper out and drank deeply from it.
Chris watched him closely, wondering how best to say what had to be said, and how Vin would take it. Like a pissed-off cougar was his best guess.
Vin wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and stoppered the canteen, feeling the weight of Larabees gaze upon him. "Hows Buck?" he asked softly, his head bowed and his eyes on his feet. He had no clear recollection of exactly what hed done to the big man, but knew hed done something, and was ashamed.
Chris shrugged, his gaze never leaving the tracker. "You bruised his ribs and shin pretty good. Reckon he wont be grabbin you again anytime soon." He smiled slightly. "You got a helluva temper, Tanner."
"Shit," Vin breathed, hanging his head lower as his shame deepened. "Im sorry, Chris," he murmured. "I didnt mean ta hurt him none. But seein Ford n rememberin what he done" He broke off and closed his eyes against that memory. "Reckon I oughtta go find Buck n apologize," he sighed.
"Wait," Chris said quietly. When Tanner looked up at him, the blue eyes tired and troubled, he swore under his breath, hating himself for what he had to do. "Lets go inside," he suggested, not wanting a public repeat of the ugly scene in the saloon. "We gotta talk, and it might be easier without folks watchin."
Vin ran his tongue slowly over his lips, made uneasy by Chriss words. He suspected Ford had found some means of making trouble for him, maybe wanted him locked up for trying to kill him, and only hoped the bastard wouldnt take out his anger on the others.
He surely didnt wanta see them dragged down with him
Chris rose to his feet and went inside, noting that Vin followed without question, without hesitation. And that evidence of the younger mans complete trust in him tied his guts into knots.
Damn it, couldnt he show even a little doubt?
"Sit down, Vin," he directed when they were inside. Again the tracker obeyed with faltering.
Vin slouched in one of the pews, clasping his hands lightly together between his legs, and stared patiently up at his friend. In contrast to his stillness, Chris began to pace restlessly, his soul and stomach churning.
Hell, why didnt he just take a knife and plunge it into Vins heart? And why the hell did Tanner have to look at him with all that trust in his goddamn eyes?
"Shit," he exhaled sharply, running a hand through his blond hair. "Theres just no easy way to say this. Ford needs help findin those renegades and weve agreed ta do it."
The color drained immediately from Vins face and all the air left his lungs in a painful rush as those words slammed into him. Whatever hed expected to hear, this for damn sure wasnt it. He shuddered violently and stared up at Chris in wide-eyed shock and horror as his world exploded about him.
No no no no
Chris couldnt bear to look at him, to see the torment he knew he would find in those eyes, and continued pacing, pressing on ruthlessly with an explanation. "We got no choice!" he said harshly, trying to decide which of them he was really trying to convince. "Those are Comanches, Vin, perched up in the Devils Backbone, ready ta strike! Hell, you know what theyre like"
Vin shot to his feet with a strangled cry, wild-eyed, white-faced, and shaking.
Good choice of words, Larabee! Chris scolded himself bitterly. Of course he knows what theyre like! Hell, he lived with em!
"Its a raidin party, Vin. They got captives"
"No!" Tanner gasped hoarsely, his blue eyes filling with rage and betrayal. He was trembling violently and could barely breathe, was choking on his anger. "Ya caint"
"Vin, listen to me!" Chris pleaded softly, gently, turning to his friend and forcing himself to meet that tortured gaze. "Theyve got captives! If we dont help him, Ford and his menll never find em, and theyll have ta leave"
"Let em!" he rasped in torment, his heart pounding in his ears. But above that sound, he could hear shots, screams, pleas for mercy that never came, and could see everything about him turning red with blood. "Theyre murderers"
"Theyre soldiers!" Chris snapped, needing his friend to see reason and furious that he wouldnt. "Soldiers doin their job! You dont have ta like this, Vin, and you dont have ta help, but you cant expect us ta sit by and do nothin while a band of renegade Comanches threatens the people were sworn ta protect!" He stalked forward and grabbed Tanners shoulders, shaking him violently. "Goddamn it, Vin, think! You know what they can do!"
Vin swore savagely and lashed out instinctively, slamming a hard fist into Chriss jaw. Before Larabee could fall, Vin grabbed his shirtfront and shoved him viciously back into the wall, his own face a white mask of rage. "Dont tell me what they can do, ya sonuvabitch!" he hissed, his eyes glittering dangerously. "I know what they can do, and I know what we can do! I seen it from both sides, remember?" His voice shook terribly as the memories of all he had seen tore his soul into shreds. "I seen butchery by us n them that left me pukin my guts out n cryin like a baby n almost crazy from what I seen! I grew up watchin both sides try ta wipe the other from the face of Gods earth, I learnt how ta kill Indians from whites and how ta kill whites from Indians, so I dont need no lectures from Chris-Almighty-God-Larabee tellin me what anybody cn do!"
Chriss head was ringing and his jaw throbbed, but he ignored them and concentrated on his friend. "Listen to me!" he pleaded urgently, appalled by the madness in Vins eyes. "Goddamn it, Vin, we got no choice! We cant let em stay up there"
"Why not? Aint nobody else up in them mountains! Hell, couldnt nobody else live up in them mountains!" His face twisted into a mask of bitter rage. "Its cause theys Indians, aint it?" he spat, knotting his long, strong fingers into Chriss shirt and slamming him once more into the wall. "Hell, we all know its perfectly all right ta hunt them down wherever they are, cause they aint no moren animals! Savages! Gotta kill them fore they kill us! Aint that it, Chris?" he shouted. "Aint that right? Kill em all, shoot em down whether they done anything or not, whether theys holdin a gun or not, whether theys braves or babies! Aint murder when we do it, cause were white, were decent Christian folk! Its only murder when them red bastards does it ta us!"
"Jesus, Vin, stop!" Chris shouted hoarsely, prying the trackers hands loose from his shirt and shoving him backward, his head aching thunderously. "You know its not like that! Not with us!" He grimaced and raised a shaking hand to his head, trying to think past the pain. "But we got no choice!" he insisted. "If Fords chased those Indians this far, theyre bound ta be pissed. And desperate. And that makes em dangerous! We got no choice!" He sighed and shook his head slowly, trying to understand the raw fury he saw in his friend, and failing utterly. "Look, Vin, I know this isnt easy for you. I know you lived with em, I know you feel a kinship with em We have ta help Ford, but you dont. Stay here, stay out of it. Hell, ride out in the opposite direction if you have to! Go inta the mountains and lose yourself there. But you have ta let us do this!"
Vin was shaking his head slowly, stubbornly, blue eyes glittering darkly in his ashen face as Larabees words drove like spikes through his soul. "Ya dont know him!" he whispered hoarsely, staring at Chris but seeing another face entirely. "Ya dont know what hes like, what hes capable of He dont care bout folks around here, he dont care bout nobody! Alls he cares about is killin em And hell kill yall if ya git in his way " He shuddered hard and groaned harshly as all the bloody possibilities unfolded in his mind. "I caint let him do that!" he whispered, his eyes wide and unseeing. "I couldnt stop him bfore, but I cn stop him now. I cn kill him"
"No!" Chris shouted, grabbing Vins shoulders and shaking him roughly. "Goddamn it, Vin, you cant kill him! Jesus, listen to yourself! Youre talkin about cold-blooded murder!"
Vin tore free with a harsh cry and spun about, then stumbled and fell to his knees. Another cry escaped him and he bowed his head, burying his face in shaking hands as the smell of blood and death engulfed him.
"Vin?" Chris felt sick, was furious at himself and furious at Ford for reducing Tanner to this. But, forcing everything except concern for Vin into the far corners of his mind, he went slowly forward and squatted by the younger man, his green eyes filled with sorrow. "You cant kill him, Vin," he said softly. "Tell me you understand that! Tell me you wont even try!" He flinched as a hard, wrenching groan, almost a sob, tore from the tracker, then reached out to lay a comforting hand on one shoulder. "Vin"
"Dont touch me!" he screamed wildly, leaping to his feet and drawing his knife, gripping it tightly and holding it ready for a killing downward stroke. "Dont ever touch me! Aint none a you bastards ever gonna hurt me again!"
Chris stared at him in shock, his stomach turning over at the madness in those wide and glittering eyes. Raising his hands shoulder-high, he rose slowly, slowly to his feet, forcing himself to hold that insane blue gaze with his even as pain and horror rose through him. Jesus, what had Ford done to him?
"Im not gonna hurt ya, Vin," he said softly, soothingly, careful to make no sudden moves. "You know Id never hurt ya. Look at me, Vin," he urged, appalled to see his friend trembling violently, as if hed fly apart at any moment. "You know me, pard. You know I wouldnt hurt ya for the world."
Vin stared at him, then saw him and dropped the knife as the horror of what hed nearly done engulfed him. Crying out weakly, he fell to his knees and dug his fingers into his hair, his skull, as the screams in his mind mingled with Chriss soothing voice. "Jesus, Im sorry!" he whispered strickenly. "Oh, God, Chris, I coulda killed ya But its him needs killin Too many innocent folks Jesus, why wont they leave me alone?" he cried out, digging his fingers harder into his skull. "I gotta kill him, Chris! Its the only way ta make the screamin stop Hes gotta die!"
"But not at your hand," Chris said gently, his soul aching horribly for his friend. Once more he went to his knees at Vins side, but this time fought his urge to reach out, fearing the softest touch might shatter Tanner entirely. "Youre not a murderer, Vin, and I wont letcha turn yourself inta one just to stop this man from goin after a band of renegades. I dont care how much you feel for those people, hes not worth it. Hes not worth what it would do ta you."
"Ya dont know him!" Vin whispered, nearly sobbing. "Hell kill em, hell kill yall"
"Let us worry about ourselves! Promise me, Vin," Chris insisted, terrified for his friend. "I need ta hear you say the words, and Im not leavin here until you do."
Vin shook his head and groaned sickly. Chris didnt understand, and he didnt have the words to make him. He couldnt think of the words, not with all them damn screams in his head
Chris closed his eyes, drew a deep breath, and, despising himself for it, uttered the one threat he had left. "Ill put you in jail if I have to, Vin," he said harshly, the words tasting like bile in his mouth. "So help me, if I dont get your word, Ill drag you kickin and screamin and lock you in that damn cage and keep you in there until we come back. I figure itd probably kill both of us, but Id rather do that than see you turn murderer over the likes of Ford." He tried not to flinch as Vin moaned strickenly and fixed haunted eyes on him. "Please, Vin, dont make me do that. Just give me your word you wont kill him. Thats all I need."
Vin stared at Larabee for long moments, thrown into a cold, black panic at the thought of being locked up in a cell. He could almost feel the walls closing in on him, could feel the absence of light, of air, of freedom
"Whys he matter so much ta you?" he demanded in a strained and shaking voice.
Chris sighed sadly. "He doesnt matter a lick ta me, Vin. But you do. Maybe he does deserve ta die, I dont know. But you dont deserve what killin him would do ta you. Youre not a murderer; you dont have that in you. And Im not about ta let you turn yourself inta somethin youre not. I wont let you ruin yourself that way."
Vin flinched violently at that, as Chriss faith in him rubbed like sandpaper against the raw wound of his soul. He needed Ford to die; God, he needed it! But he also needed Chris to believe in him
Lord God, he never shouldve come back to town, never shouldve left the pool. Shouldve stayed where he could hold his two worlds in balance. Now they were about to collide, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
"I wont kill him," he groaned at last, the words torn from him against his will. "I give ya my word."
Chris released the breath he had been holding as relief coursed through him. Without thinking, he reached out and pushed the sweat-matted hair out of Vins face, stunned by the deathly pallor and sick despair he saw there. "You understand why we have ta do this, dontcha?" he asked anxiously.
Vin dropped his gaze from his friends face and stared at the floor, seeing only blood-soaked ground in its place. "No," he whispered faintly. "I dont." He swallowed weakly and winced at the pain of making a decision he hated beyond all measure. "But I wont stop ya. I caint fight ya." He closed his eyes and his whole body sagged. "Im too tired ta fight anybody."
"Why dont you go get some rest then?" Chris suggested, deeply worried for the younger man.
"Wanta stay here," Vin murmured, wrapping his arms tightly about himself. "Its quiet."
"You want me ta stay?"
"Dont want nobody. Jist want the quiet."
Pain stabbed into Chris at the hurt in that ragged voice, in the white face, but he didnt argue. He slid his hand to Vins shoulder and squeezed once, then rose to his feet and walked away, leaving his friend alone. At the door, though, he turned and took one last look back, and immediately wished he hadnt.
Vin still sat huddled on the floor, his head bowed, his eyes closed. But now his hands covered his ears as if to block out the screams that only he could hear.
+ + + + + + +
They sat around a table in the boardinghouse dining room while Mrs. Collins, the houses proprietress, bustled about the table, laying before them plates heaping with pot roast in rich gravy, mashed potatoes in butter and fresh green beans. She also set out baskets of fluffy rolls, a small crock of butter and a jar of homemade peach butter. As she poured coffee for each, she looked around the table and counted again, frowning slightly. Six. Only six?
"Will Mr. Tanner be comin?" she asked, thinking of the peach butter she had put out especially for him.
All eyes turned immediately to Chris, who dropped his gaze to his plate. "No," he said quietly, not elaborating.
She nodded, familiar by now with the tensions that could and did arise between such men on occasion. Grown as they were, they still squabbled like boys.
"Ill fix a plate up for him then," she said with a smile. "One of you boys can take it to him when youve finished."
"Shall we draw lots to see which of us will next hazard the storm of Mr. Tanners emotional distress?" Ezra asked with a wry glance at Chriss jaw, which now sported a spectacular bruise.
"He dont mean nothin by it," Buck defended their absent friend, though his ribs reminded him of Vins elbow every time he breathed. "Hes just a little upset, is all."
"A little!" JD exclaimed, shaking his head at the memory of Vins explosion in the saloon. "Ive never seen him like that! The way he went after Ford, and then the way he fought you and Chris" He reached for a roll and tore it open, then slathered it with butter. "I didnt know Vin could get that mad. It was like he was crazy or somethin!" He bit into the roll and shook his head. "Id sure hate for him ever ta be that mad at me," he said around a mouthful of bread.
Josiah gazed across the table at Chris, easily able to see the deep worry in the mans face. "You left him in the church?" he asked quietly.
Chris poked at his food with his fork, unable to muster an appetite. "Yeah. Probably still there." He winced at the memory of that tormented figure huddled on the floor. "Didnt look like he was leavin anytime soon."
Buck heard the pain in his voice and cast him a sympathetic glance. "I know its hard, Chris, but we got no choice. And you know that. Hell be all right. Hes a big boy. When he starts thinkin clear hell understand"
"Im not sure he will, Buck," Chris said softly, raising troubled eyes to his old friend. "You didnt see him in that church. It was like Id betrayed him. The look in his eyes"
"Mr. Tanners regard for the Indian runs very deep," Ezra put in, cutting his meat with genteel precision. "Weve all seen that on numerous occasions. And while such compassion is, no doubt, a commendable sentiment, it also has a tendency to blind him to certain ugly necessities in life. It is inevitable that, in the present unfortunate circumstances, he should feel himself beset by divided loyalties"
"Thats not it," Chris said with instinctive certainty. "Vins fought Indians before, and hed do it again if need be. He knows and respects em, but hes not blind to what they can do. Hed ride against em in a minute if he thought they were threatenin folks around here."
"Brother Vin is nothing if not a practical man," Josiah said thoughtfully, savoring the taste of Mrs. Collinss potatoes. "Hes not one to be blinded by mere sentiment." He turned a knowing gaze upon Chris. "Hatred, perhaps, but not sentiment."
"Josiahs right," Chris sighed, pushing away the plate that held no interest for him. "This isnt about Comanches, its about Ford. Vin hates him like Ive never known him ta hate anybody. Even Eli Joe. Ford did somethin to him, hurt him somehow, hurt somethin vital in him. And its a hurt hes never gotten over."
"Maybe we shouldnt go with Ford, then," JD suggested softly, feeling a deep rush of sympathy for his friend. "I mean, if it hurts Vin so"
"We got no choice, son," Buck told him firmly, having raised all these same questions in his own mind and answered them. "Fords been chasin them renegades a long time, pushed em a long way from home, and theyre likely ta be real riled about that. Probably lookin fer folks ta take their anger out on. And Ive seen what a Comanche war party cn do. It sure as hell aint somethin I care ta see again, specially around here. Believe me, son," he said quietly, turning unusually somber blue eyes upon the young man, "you aint seen death til youve seen it Comanche style."
"Then theres them captives Ford said they got," Nathan put in, his whole sympathy aroused for people taken and held against their will. "We gotta free em, get em back where they blong. They may have families waitin on em, wonderin if theyll ever see em again." He shook his head slowly, knowing that pain only too well. "We caint jus leave em up there, thinkin there aint no hope, thinkin they been abandoned. They deserve ta go home."
"Still dont like hurtin Vin," JD insisted. "I mean, I know why we have to do it, I know we dont really have a choice, but" He swept wide, sorrowful eyes over the men about him. "I just dont like hurtin Vin."
"None of us do, JD," Chris murmured, hating it more than anyone. He doubted hed ever forget the anguish hed seen consuming Vin, and he hated Ford bitterly for putting them in this position. "But, like you said, we dont have a choice. That bastard Ford made sure of that when he chased those Indians inta our territory."
"Ill take a plate over to Vin," Josiah said, drawn by nature to offer what comfort he could to a soul in need. "Gotta go to the church anyway. Maybe hell feel like talkin. Or at least like listenin."
"Just be careful he dont start talkin with them feet and elbows," Buck warned with a wry grin, absently rubbing his sore ribs. "And, whatever ya do, dont grab him from behind. He hates that!"
Chris smiled slightly and raised a hand to his bruised jaw. "Hes not wild about bein grabbed from the front, either." He lifted his eyes to the big preacher. "You may have ta have a word of Old Testament prayer with him ta settle him down first. Like Buck said, hes not thinkin real clear right now, and he throws a mean punch."
Josiah sighed heavily and sat back, shaking his graying head slowly. "Brothers, you disappoint me," he rumbled sadly in his rich baritone. "Vin is in need of help and healin, not violence. His troubled mind and wounded heart require the soothing balm of gentle words and compassion, yet you would have me smite him hip and thigh. It saddens my heart ta hear this."
"Just you be careful, brother," Buck mused, digging into his supper, "or itll be yer hip and thigh gettin smote."
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