Ford gave the order to break camp and get ready to mount up, and Chris echoed it for his men. JD volunteered to get Peso, determined to spare his friend any more contact than necessary with the soldiers whose presence he obviously found hurtful. Vin was deeply grateful and let the boy see it, yet, at the same time, felt a new ache inside him as he gazed into that young, earnest face.
Where in the hell did all that innocence, all that goddamn goodness, come from, anyway?
He swallowed hard and raised his head, lifting his eyes to the dark mass of the Devils Backbone as he waited for JD to bring his horse. Three days away at a careful, sensible pace; hed get em there in two. Had to be two; he didnt plan on lettin this drag out. Didnt have the strength for that. And once in the mountains, hed find the trail
Red Sticks trail
Why did this hurt so much? Hed hunted men before. Hell, hed been a hunter all his life! Scoutin for the Army, buffalo huntin, bounty huntin, now a so-called "regulator"
Every man was born with talents. His were just huntin and killin, thats all. Wasnt that why the others valued him so much? He was their tracker, their sharpshooter. Go out and track down the bad guys; climb up high and shoot the bad guys. Its what he did; its what he was born to do.
So how come it hurt so goddamn much to do it now?
Hed go up in those mountains, and find Red Stick. Take Chris and the others to him.
Take Ford to him.
Like hed done eight years ago
He tensed suddenly, his hackles rising as he sensed the approach behind him. And though he knew who it was, nothing could stop the hard shudder that went through him, the cold sickness that knotted his gut, when he heard the hated voice behind him.
"Surprised ta see ya in the compny of white men, Tanner," Ford said, his voice hard and grating for all its quietness. "Seeins ya never seemed ta care too much fer em before." He stepped around in front of the tracker and stared coldly at him. "Hell, yer even dressin like one now. Dont look quite so Injun as ya did eight years ago." He chuckled suddenly. "But, then, I guess its hard ta think of yerself as an Injun after whatcha done."
Pain sliced through Vin, hot and sharp, tearing a choked gasp from him. He took a quick step toward Ford, his hand falling to his gun. Yet even as he closed his fingers about its stock, he remembered his word to Chris and spun around, snatching his hand from the mares leg as if it burned.
"Oh, thats right!" Ford sneered, his pale eyes gleaming, his tone of voice a mockery of sympathy. "Ya promised yer friend Larabee ya wouldnt kill me, didntcha, boy? That must be tearin ya up inside."
"Git the hell away!" Vin whispered shakily, tensing hard against the deep, driving ache to kill Ford that gripped him. "Why caintcha leave me be?"
"Now, Tanner," Ford said with mock hurt, "whered be the fun in that?" He stepped closer to Vin, an evil smile creasing his broad face. "Ya still hear em, boy?" he whispered, his fetid breath stirring the hair at the back of the trackers neck. "Their screams? Powerful lot of em died that day. Thought they never would stop their yowlin. Had ta shoot some of em again jist ta make em shut up."
Vin bowed his head with a hoarse, thick cry and clapped shaking hands to his ears as Fords brutal words resurrected the screams hed tried so hard to silence. He was shaking all over, his breath coming in ragged, tearing gasps, and he feared he would be sick.
"Hell, boy," Ford said softly, grinning cruelly and reaching out to grab a handful of Vins long hair, "I never did properly thank ya fer leadin us to em, did I?" He pulled roughly at the hair, jerking Tanners head back. "That wasnt mannerly of me at all. Cause if it hadnta been fer you, we never woulda found em, n all them red sonsabitchesd still be alive today."
Vin tore out of Fords grasp with a thick groan of anguish and stumbled, falling to his knees. Still the screams tore through his mind, and the hideous smell of blood engulfed him, as it had that horrible day.
"Stop it!" JD shouted furiously, dropping Pesos reins and rushing over to the two men, his young face a mask of savage fury. "You get away from him!" he ordered Ford, shoving the man violently back from Vin and thrusting himself between soldier and tracker.
Rage flooded Ford in a hot wave and colored his face, tearing a snarl from him. "Listen, son"
"Im not your son!" JD spat, returning the big mans glare fearlessly. "Now, Im warnin you, get away"
Chris and Buck came running over, both appalled to see Vin huddled in the dust, both shocked and not a little proud to see their youngest standing protectively between him and Ford. The boy was all raw, instinctive courage and blind, unthinking loyalty. Ford could have broken him in half with one hand, but he neither noticed nor cared.
"You wanna tell me just what the hell is goin on here, Ford?" Buck thundered, coming to stand at JDs side and joining his fury to the boys. The blue eyes burned with a deadly anger, and his powerful frame quivered with the desire to beat the sergeant to a pulp. "Some reason ya sunk ta tormentin boys?"
"Aint tormentin me, Buck," JD said grimly, never taking his eyes from Ford. "I was bringin Peso over, and saw him and Vin. Vin fell and I thought Fordd hurt him. Figured I had to stop him before he did anything else."
Chris knelt slowly, carefully at Vins side, close by but not touching him, his rage at Ford subdued for the moment by his fear for his friend. Vin was kneeling there, silent and shaking, his eyes closed tightly, his hands over his ears, his face a mask of unspeakable agony.
"Vin?" he called quietly, forcing himself to sound calm, at least. "Can you hear me, Vin? Did he hurt you?" When he got no answer, he drew a deep breath and reached out slowly to touch his friends shoulder, ready to withdraw his hand if Tanner so much as flinched. He didnt, and Chris let out the breath in a sigh of relief. "He touch you at all? He do anything?"
The screams were subsiding, chased back into the recesses of his mind by Chriss quiet voice, by that gentle touch. Still, the pain within him remained sharp, and it wrung a soft, anguished groan from him.
Chris moved closer still, sliding his hand from Vins shoulder to his back. "Its all right, pard," he soothed, hurting for Tanner and hating the man who had done this to him. "He wont hurt ya anymore, I promise. I wont let him."
"Hell, I never hurt him!" Ford snarled. "Caint help it if hes crazy"
Buck reached out and grabbed the man by the shirtfront, pulling him close and staring furiously into suddenly frightened eyes. "He aint crazy!" he growled, dark blue eyes hard in his savage face. "You hear me? And if you ever lay a hand on him again, Ill tear yer heart out and burn it while ya watch!" The naked ferocity on his face more than backed up the threat.
"I didnt hurt him" the sergeant protested feebly.
"He grabbed Vins hair," JD contradicted, still glaring up at the sergeant, his hazel eyes snapping with fury. "Looked like he was pullin it. Vin cried out, pulled away, and thats when he fell. Ford was goin after him again when I came up."
Bucks rage rose higher and showed clearly in his eyes. "That so?" he spat through clenched teeth. "Well, lemme tell ya, Sergeant Ford, Chris mayve gotten Vin ta promise not ta kill ya, but he never thought about askin the rest of us. So Im tellin ya now leave Vin Tanner alone, or theyll be pickin pieces of you outta the cactus hereabouts for years ta come. You understand?"
"Go ta hell!"
"Likely I will," Buck said with a cold, wolfish grin. "But I reckon youll be there ta meet me!" With that, he shoved the sergeant violently away from him, watching with satisfaction as the man fell backward onto the ground. Then, with a grimace of distaste, he wiped his hands on his pants. "Dirty sonuvabitch," he complained. "Dont the Army make ya bathe?"
JD threw a jaunty grin up at his friend. "Guess that aint animal maggotism on him, is it, Buck?"
Wilmington sighed dramatically and shook his head slowly, fixing aggrieved eyes on the boy. "Son, how many times do I have ta tell ya, its magnetism, not maggotism? Ya gotta start listenin to me, boy, and payin attention if ya wanta learn anything. And, damn it, JD," he added, his voice rising sharply into the lecturing tone that made the boy wince, "how many times I gotta tell ya not to just go rushin inta no fights? Mebbe you didnt notice, son, but that man theres just a little bit biggern you!"
JDs eyes widened and grew hot. "Now, hold on, Buck!" he answered sharply, planting his hands on his hips and glaring up at the bigger man. "I was only protectin Vin! Didnt see anybody else doin it, did I? Was I supposed to just stand by and let Ford hurt him?"
"No, son, ya werent," Buck gave in, smiling and clapping a big hand to the boys shoulder. "Ya done good, JD. Just, next time, call one of us for help, all right?"
Chris had been tempted to make the two be quiet, until he realized their familiar banter was gradually helping Vin relax. The trackers shaking was slowly subsiding, and some color was seeping into his face.
By this time, Ezra, Nathan and Josiah had come up, and they, along with Buck and JD, instinctively formed a protective circle about Vin and Chris, effectively blocking the two from the view of the soldiers. All gazes were intent upon Vin, who was slowly coming around.
"Didnt hurt me none," he rasped at last, his voice soft but steady, his wide blue eyes going slowly to Chris. "Jist pulled my hair a bit " He licked his lips and stared at his friend. "I didnt kill him," he said, needing Chris to know that. "I wanted to, even started ta pull my gun, but I stopped. I kept my word." Pride tinged the soft, tired voice; for the moment, his word still held more power over him than his desire to kill Ford.
Chris smiled slightly, realizing how important that was to Vin right now. "I know. And Im glad. Dont think you need his blood on your hands."
Vin started to run his hands over his face, but stopped abruptly at Larabees words and balled them into fists, thrusting them between his legs. "Got too much on em already," he breathed. Then, collecting himself, he looked up at the circle of faces above him, startled and touched by the deep concern written in them. "Reckon its time we went," he said softly. "Aint no sense draggin this out any longern we gotta."
"You all right, son?" Josiah asked worriedly, still easily able to see the soul-deep pain in those eyes.
"No," Vin answered honestly, too tired to lie. "But Im gittin used ta that." He rose slowly to his feet, noting that Chriss hand never left his back. He glanced up at Larabee, and a look needing no words passed between them. When the hand dropped from his back, he turned around. "JD," he called softly, mustering a ghost of his lopsided grin for the boy, "Im grateful fer what ya done."
"Aw, hell, Vin," the boy said with a grin, his eyes gleaming with pride, "anybody woulda done it!"
Vins own smile faded. "No," he said softly, sadly, "they wouldnt. Aint had many do it fer me bfore. M obliged to ya."
Impulsive as ever, the boy reached out and closed a hand about Vins forearm, clearly startling him. JD knew hell, they all did that Vin didnt always care to be touched, particularly when his nerves were as raw as they were right now. But JD also knew how much a kind hand could mean when you were hurting in any way. And Vin, he knew with terrible certainty, was hurting, desperately and deeply.
"I was glad to do it," he said firmly, gazing up into the trackers bewildered eyes. "Were friends, Vin, and thats what friends do. They help and protect each other. Youve done it for me enough, I figure its my turn to do it for you. One friend to another."
Vin stood very still and stared at the boy through wide eyes, afraid that if he moved that strangely comforting hand would go away. It frightened him to realize how much he needed that hand right now, how much he needed the strength and comfort all the six offered, how much worse he would hurt without it. He wasnt used to this, had gone an entire lifetime without it, and had thought that was simply the way it was supposed to be. A man stood or fell on his own, alone, lived or died on his own, alone; hed always assumed it would be that way with him.
Now, though, looking into this boys eyes and feeling his hand on his arm, feeling the others ringed solid and sure about him, he knew it wasnt that way now. And likely never would be again.
A slight, crooked grin teased his mouth and faintly lit his eyes as a shadow of life returned to them. And only then did JD remove his hand.
"Best git goin," Vin said softly, turning to sweep his gaze over the other five. "If Im gonna haul yer sorry asses over the desert, dont wanta be wastin no time," he murmured with a little of his customary spirit. He pulled his hat down over his eyes, nodded firmly, and walked past them to where Peso waited.
"I, for one, cannot wait," Ezra drawled, suddenly realizing just how long it had been since he had last complained. "I am positively a-quiver with anticipation for the delights we will undoubtedly encounter on yet another trek into the God-forsaken wasteland with our own Torquemada there for a guide."
"Quit yer bitchin, Ezra, and git in the saddle," Vin called, swinging himself onto Pesos back. "Hell, its a right nice day fer a ride!"
"Hell is right," the gambler grumbled, stalking toward his horse and despising the dust he kicked up with every step. "For surely we are ridin into the lower reaches of perdition!"
+ + + + + + +
They set out on a long, hard ride at a punishing pace that soon left even Ezra too hot, too tired and too parched to complain. The blazing sun overhead beat mercilessly down upon the burning ground below, reducing the world about them to a blistering inferno, while the wind whipped up dust devils and flung stinging sand at horses and men until all were covered in grit. Meanwhile, the massive shadow of the Devils Backbone loomed through heat shimmers and across the miles, and Vin dragged them toward it like a man possessed, his own physical suffering long since forgotten amid the worsening torment in his soul.
It hadnt been bad enough that Chris was fighting with Ford; JD, too, had shown himself willing to tangle with the man. Chris, at least, was capable of handling the bastard; hed shoot him down without a second thought, if it came to that. But JD
Lord God, JD was just a kid! Young, impetuous and naive, still prone to look for more good in the world than bad, still rushin blindly into things when he had no earthly idea what hed find. Ford could destroy a boy like that in a heartbeat. Just like hed destroyed Vin Tanner.
And how in the hell could he live with himself if any harm came to JD because of him?
After long, grueling hours spent in the saddle, and with Tanner showing no sign of letting up, Ford gave the order to stop for rest and water. They all complied eagerly, except Vin, who grew tight-lipped and hard-eyed with impatience at the delay. Only a curt order from Chris got him down from his horse, and he stood noticeably apart as he allowed Peso to drink. As for himself, he took only a few sips of water, his eyes fixed all the while on the mountains.
Lord God, they didnt have time for this! They needed to get this done
He needed to get this done.
Ford stared at the tracker through hostile eyes, watching every move the man made with obsessive attention. When Tanner sank to the ground and sat cross-legged in the dirt, he smiled thinly and started toward him, only to be intercepted by that damn gunfighter.
"Dont," Chris ordered simply in a cold, cutting voice.
Fords eyes narrowed and his lips thinned into a scowl, but he did not argue. Instead, he jerked a dirty bandanna out of his pocket and wiped his sweating face with it. "Tanners in a powerful hurry ta git ta them mountains," he said tightly.
Chris stared at the man, green eyes jewel-hard and unforgiving. "Isnt that what were here for?"
Ford stuffed the bandanna back into his pocket. "Were here ta git that murderin savage Red Stick, kill him if we have ta," he said harshly. "Jist dont want Tanner there gittin any other ideas, like he done eight years ago. He turned on us, Larabee, joined them savages against his own kind." He spat into the dirt and watched Larabee from the corner of his eye, certain one way to hurt Tanner would be to bait this man into foolish action. "God knows what hes got planned fer us up in them mountains. Leadin us all inta ambush, mebbe. Or jist gonna kill us all hisself while were sleepin. Caint trust a man who thinks so much like them red devils."
Chris tensed dangerously, but managed to control his temper. "I trust Vin," he said in a low voice. "He hasnt got betrayal in him."
Ford gave a hard, bitter laugh in response to the gunmans assertion. "Ya didnt see him back then! Led us ta that village, told us there wasnt no braves in it. Said it was undefended." He sneered the words. "What he didnt tell us was the braves was jist over the next hill, and comin fer us like the wrath of hell. Tanner didnt give us no warnin. Jist let em sweep down on us. Then started tryin ta kill us right along with em. Crazy bastard put a bullet in my back." His mouth twisted in an ugly grimace, and his flinty eyes filled with rage. "I aint gonna let that happen again. I dont aim ta give him the chance."
Chris said nothing, merely stalked away, fearing hed hit or kill the man if he didnt. He bitterly regretted having agreed to join Ford, felt he and the other five had become trapped in some gruesome dance of vengeance, insanity and death between the tracker and the soldier. He knew he could pull out now, just take his men and ride away. The only thing stopping him was the fear that they wouldnt be taking all of Vin back if they did.
For Vins sake, for Vins soul, this was one dance they were gonna have to finish.
Josiah watched Chris and Ford for several moments, then went slowly over to Vin, his compassion for the young man rising. Tanner was still wearing his coat, and the preacher wondered how he could bear it.
"How you doin, son?" he asked softly, squatting beside the younger man. Vin didnt answer, didnt look at him, didnt move. He could have been asleep, except for the wide blue eyes he kept fixed upon the Devils Backbone. "Its even harder than you thought itd be, isnt it?" he asked softly. He was tempted to reach out and touch Vin, but the trackers tightly-clenched fists warned him against it. "Im sorry, son," he murmured sadly, earnestly. "You never shouldve had to bear this burden. I wish I had it in me to take some of it from you, but I dont. I dont even know what comfort to offer, except to say youre not alone. You have friends here who care about you, and who are willin to help you in any way we can. You only have to ask."
Vin made no response, seemed not even to hear him. Josiah sighed sadly at being unable to comfort his friend, then let his gaze follow Vins to the dark mass of the mountains rising so imposingly from the desert floor. "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help," he quoted softly, seeing Vin stiffen slightly at the words. "Thats it, isnt it, son?" he asked. "The answers you seek, the salvation you seek, are up there, arent they? Or at least thats your hope." He sighed again, his powerful heart aching for the young man before him. "Its my hope, too, Vin," he breathed, rising to his feet. "I pray your help does indeed come from the hills."
With that he walked away, his steps as heavy as his heart.
Chris met him and searched his face intently, seeking some reassurance there. He found none. "He say anything?" he asked, hoping for some comfort anyway.
Josiah shook his head slowly. "No. And Im not sure hes goin to. Hes fightin so many demons right now that if he did open his mouth, all that would come out would be a scream." He paused a moment, shoved his big hands into his pockets and fixed an intent, searching gaze upon Larabee. "I do know one thing, though," he went on quietly, warningly. "Every argument, every confrontation, you have with Ford cuts inta Vin and adds to his pain. Adds to his burdens. And, believe me, that boy dont need any more burdens laid on his soul."
Chris heaved an impatient sigh. "Josiah"
"Hear me out," he said, raising a hand to silence Larabee. "Vin is walkin a precarious line right now, tryin ta hold himself together in the face of his own darkest hell. Make no mistake about this, Chris, Ford is the Devil himself to that boy. Vin hates him, and he fears him. Vin Tanner, who fears nothing and no one, is afraid of that man."
"Then why is he here?" Chris asked sharply, angry at Vin for subjecting himself to this. "I told him not ta come! Damn it, Josiah"
"Hes here because youre here, Chris," the preacher said gently, watching Larabees face for a reaction. "Because were here. He knows what Ford is capable of deceit, treachery, murder and he couldnt bear the thought of us bein up here with Ford without him to protect us. Thats why hes here. Not to find Red Stick, but to protect us from Ford. Just bein here with that man is tearin Vins soul inta pieces. But, for some reason, he considers us more important than his own soul. Now, it seems ta me that when a man offers that kind of sacrifice for his friends, the least they can do is honor it by not making his pain any worse than it has ta be."
Chris stared up at the big man, stunned by his words. But not for a moment did he doubt them. It was exactly the kind of thing Vin would do. "Damn fool tracker," he heard himself muttering.
Josiah smiled slightly. "I never said it was the smart thing to do," he joked quietly. "I only said its what Vin is doin."
Chriss gaze drifted past Josiah to Vin, and his eyes darkened. "I gotta keep Ford away from him, though," he breathed. "The bastards determined ta break him"
"By all means," Josiah said urgently, "do that! Vin thinks he can stand against Fords hatred, but, to be honest, I dont believe he can. Hes too fragile. So keep Ford away. Just do it without fightin the man at every turn. Remember, Fords got one weapon that we gave him ourselves. He knows Vin has sworn to you not to kill him. And I imagine he has some idea of just what that vow means to Vin, how it would shatter him to have to break it. And a man who hates as deeply and as ruthlessly as Ford wouldnt be above doin whatever he could to goad Vin inta breakin his word, especially if he can use you to do it. Because, believe me, if it ever came to a choice between breaking his word or letting you die, Vin would break his word in a minute, even if it cost him his soul."
"It all comes down ta that, doesnt it?" Chris asked softly, staring sadly at the man who sat so completely apart from everyone. "All this, whatever it is were doin here, whatever were gonna do in those mountains, it all comes down ta Vins soul."
Josiah shrugged his massive shoulders. "In the end, brother, anything any of us will ever do comes down to the soul. Because, when everythings all said and done, what else is there that matters?"
Chris hung his head and ran a hand over his neck. Vin was willing to sacrifice his soul for them. It didnt seem so much, then, that Chris should be willing to do whatever he could to save it.
"Ill behave," he said quietly, casting a wry grin up at the preacher. "I may lay waste to the whole goddamn territory when we get back, but, for now, Ill behave."
Josiah nodded, satisfied with the intention, even if not completely convinced Chris would be able to carry it out. The Larabee temper could be a difficult beast to tame.
"All right!" Ford shouted loudly. "Time ta git movin! Were burnin daylight, and them mountains aint gittin closer with us jist sittin here!"
"Now I know why I never joined the Army," Ezra grumbled, rising from the ground and taking his horses reins. "It is a life thoroughly unsuited to a gentleman." He swung into the saddle and glanced at Buck. "I never thought Id say this, but I have been reduced to thinking fondly of that backwater we call home and missing what passes for its creature comforts!"
"Cheer up, Ezra," the big man said with a grin as he mounted his horse. "Mebbe a Comanchell kill ya and put ya outta yer misry!"
The gambler tossed him a sour smile. "Why, Mr. Wilmington, thank you for that lovely and most reassurin sentiment!"
Fords men quickly formed into their customary columns, and six of the seven rode in a far looser formation next to them. Vin pulled himself into the saddle and again positioned himself considerably ahead of the others, unable even to bear the thought of another person near him. He had managed, somehow, to impose a silence upon his mind, his soul, had managed to quiet, for now, the screams that haunted his memory. But that silence was desperately fragile, and he knew that just one voice, a single touch or simply the nearness of another would shatter it forever.
And if that silence shattered, so would his soul.
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