The six sat by the pool, sullen and taut, their anxiety a palpable presence. Chris had had to forcibly restrain both Nathan and Josiah from going after Vin, and he still wasnt certain they wouldnt bolt at the first opportune moment. His own patience was worn dangerously thin, and he had scared more than one of Fords soldiers away from the pool with a glare that nearly burned holes in their hides. He had never felt more helpless, and helplessness was not a feeling that sat well with him.
"Still caint blieve ya let him go," Nathan ground out, his anger barely leashed. "I tol ya hes near droppin"
"Hes also near breakin," Chris snarled, fixing glittering eyes upon the healer, "and I didnt figure on lettin Ford see that happen!"
"He did come appallingly near ridding us all of that mans foul presence," Ezra said quietly, toying idly with a deck of cards. "I must say, for a moment I actually thought hed shoot."
"Put any money on it?" Chris growled.
Ezra lifted solemn eyes to the man. "Mr. Larabee," he said quietly, "while I enjoy a game of chance as much as the next man, I assure you I would never be so callous as to wager on the state of Vins soul."
Chris accepted the subtle rebuke with a rare grace. "Im sorry," he breathed, dropping his gaze from the gamblers. "I just Shit!" he swore, rising abruptly to his feet and stalking away, furious at himself and almost sick with worry over Vin.
"Im not sure its Vin killin Ford we have to worry about," JD breathed softly, his eyes following Larabees dark figure.
"Vins too busy killin hissef!" Nathan muttered angrily. "An the rest of us are helpin!"
Buck sighed and pulled himself to his feet, his handsome face lined with weariness and worry. "JD, Ezra, see if yall cant keep the peace here. An keep these two," he gestured at the preacher and the healer, "from goin after Vin. Tie em up if ya have to."
"And what, pray, will you be doing, Mr. Wilmington?"
Buck squared his broad shoulders and steeled himself. "Hell," he breathed, "probly gettin myself shot."
+ + + + + + +
Chris heard the crunch of boots on the rocks behind him, not at all surprised by the sound. "Josiah was right, Buck," he said softly, knowing instinctively who was joining him. "This is killin Vin. Were gonna be buryin him in these mountains."
Buck lowered himself to the ground next to Chris, feeling for the man. He knew of the deep bond that existed between Chris and Vin what had Josiah called it, a "spiritual communion"? and knew it went far beyond even the close friendship he and Chris had known for so many years. At first, he had been a little jealous that the tracker had so easily gotten to a place in Chris he had never managed to reach, had resented Chriss growing reliance on Vin for the companionship and understanding Larabee had once sought in him. And, because of that jealously, that resentment, he had been a bit grudging in his acceptance of the younger man, hesitant to trust him.
Soon, though, he had come to see the healing Vin brought to Chriss ravaged soul, the steadiness he lent to Larabees shattered life, and had felt his resistance, and his distrust, fade away. And, if he were truly honest with himself, he would have to admit to some relief at being able to hand over to Vin the responsibility for caging Larabees demons when they broke loose, for dragging the man out of the darkness that now and then still threatened to claim him.
He had his hands full just keepin JD from gettin himself killed, he thought ruefully. Let Vin wrestle with Chris for a while.
"He thinks we dont trust him," Chris went on in that same soft, pained voice. "Not where Indians are concerned. Because of what happened with Chanu."
Buck nodded, remembering the words he and Vin had exchanged that night. "I can understand that. Hell, I didnt trust him then. Not like I shouldve. I thought he was too close to them people ta see the truth. But Id like ta think I learned my lesson. He was seein truths the rest of us wouldnt. I shoulda taken the time ta listen."
"You trust him now?"
"Im here, aint I?" Buck answered. Then, realizing it was no true answer at all, he said softly, seriously, "Yeah, I trust him. Dont always understand him, but I trust him. Hell, I reckon he knows more about this than any of us ever will. Ive fought Comanches, but I dont know enough about em ta spit. I thought I knew soldiers, til I met up with this bunch. But I do know Vin, and since Ive gotta put my trust somewhere, well, hell, I figure I cant go wrong if I put it in him."
Chris pulled up his knees and folded his arms atop them, squinting into the distance. "I never shoulda listened ta Ford, never shoulda got us inta this. I shoulda listened ta Vin"
"Vin wasnt makin much sense then, as I recall," Buck said softly. "Ya cant blame yerself, Chris. Ford made it sound too good, gave us ever reason we needed ta hear"
"Thats just it," he said grimly. "He gave us every reason to do this, and not one reason not to. Played us like Ezra does those cards of his, dealin every ace we needed. I shoulda seen what he was doin, shoulda known the hand he was dealin was too perfect And now hes got us trapped," he said bitterly. "Just like Vin said he would. I shoulda seen it comin."
"And I reckon those are the very words Vin said ta himself eight years ago," Buck said quietly. "Hell, I know they are, cause hes still sayin em now. There anything else you twod like ta take the blame for while youre at it? Mebbe original sin? That little dust-up tween North an South? Wanna tell me where ya were when that mess started?"
"Listen to me, Chris," the big man insisted, staring intently at his old friend. "Now, I know this is gonna come as a shock ta you, but you aint perfect, ol son, and you dont know everything in the world! Last I heard, God was still God and Chris Larabee wasnt. Youre a man. Smartern most, I grant ya, but still just a man. And ya make mistakes. Same goes for Vin. Neither one of yall walks on water, and I know for damn sure caint neither of ya turn water inta wine, else wed all be a helluva lot happier right now. Shit like this is gonna happen, specially with bastards like Ford around. And not even you and Vinre gonna be able ta stop it all. And I hate ta tell ya this, Chris, but you are not responsible for everything that happens in this world. You just aint that goddamned important!"
Chris stared at him in surprise, then chuckled quietly and shook his head. "Sure know how ta make a man feel good about himself, dont you, Buck?" he said wryly.
"This aint your fault, pard," Wilmington said with a quiet force. "And it aint Vins fault, any more than what happened eight years ago was his fault. Its all Fords fault, and I dont see any reason why you and Vin should take his guilt onta yourselves. I reckon too many folksve done that already, and I say its high time the bastard bore his own sins for a while. Im tired of watchin you and Vin buryin yourselves under what oughtta be his load and whippin yourselves raw cause yall werent there ta strangle him at birth."
Chris nodded. "Sounds fair." A small, wicked grin tugged at his mouth. "You gonna tell Vin?"
Buck grimaced and rubbed his jaw, then his ribs and his shin. "I dont know, pard," he answered hesitantly. "Im kinda runnin outta places ta get hit!"
+ + + + + + +
He clambered over rocks, fought through brush and all but crawled through the dirt, searching every inch of the ground about him with a tightly focused intensity. Red Stick and his people were good, they were very good, but he was better. He had to be; too many lives were at stake for him not to be. He easily picked up their almost invisible trail, and understood at once where they were heading.
He dropped to his haunches and squatted there for a considerable time, closing his eyes and studying the terrain in his mind.
Red Stick was desperate. Had to be to go where he was going. He wasnt hunting war, he was just trying to get away. Comanches from the plains of Texas, holing up in these damn mountains. Just to get away.
He settled himself on the ground and willed himself to relax, to listen.
Lord, it was quiet here! His soul sighed in relief. It had been a while since hed heard a quiet like this. Been a while since he could think.
So think. Dammit, Tanner, what the hells goin on?
Instinct told him Red Stick was no threat. If the man had wanted to lead a raid out of these hills, he wouldve done it already.
Hell, if heda wanted ta go raidin, he never woulda come up here ta begin with!
Comanches werent like Apaches, didnt strike from the mountains and high-tail it back up into them. These were Quohadi Comanches, at home on the High Plains of Texas. Theyd have been far more comfortable down on the flat desert floor, wouldve done whatever they intended to do down there.
And the tracks hed found didnt belong to any raiding party. These people were carrying too much, moving too slow. The tracks showed the horses were loaded, some pulling travois.
An Red Stick fer damn sure aint got no fifteen warriors, either. Hell, he dont have moren a handful.
His practical mind easily accepted the obvious truth. Red Stick hadnt come up here to cause trouble, hed come up here to get away from it.
Why didnt he fight, though? The tracker closed his eyes, thought of the trail hed been studying, the man he remembered, the people he knew. Red Stick would fight, if cornered; there wasnt any doubt about that. But he was trying not to be cornered, trying his best not to have to fight, and not just because he didnt have many warriors
No, it aint because a the men he dont have, but the folks he does have. Hes tryin ta protect somebody. Caint fight cause he caint afford to. Cause they aint all warriors.
Sparing his captives, then? He almost laughed aloud at the ridiculous thought. Hell, no! If the captives had become a burden, Red Stick and his people would already have killed them. Besides, in all the tracks hed found, he hadnt seen a single sign of a white womans shoe, nothing torn from a white womans dress.
Aint nobody bein dragged, aint nobody bein forced. Theys jist runnin.
His eyes flew open and he shot to his feet, turning slowly around and sweeping his gaze carefully over the ground about him. They were good, but he was better. It wasnt a boast; it was just simple truth.
He stepped off the obvious trail, walked up into the rock and brush that littered the higher, uneven ground that wouldve been harder for people carrying their belongings to walk. But damned if they hadnt tried. He searched the ground thoroughly, using his eyes and hands, his mind working furiously. Half a moccasin track here, a patch torn from a garment there, a bit of dried blood where exposed skin had scraped against a sharp projection of rock
A small, brightly colored object lay beneath the projection, half-hidden in the brush. But he saw it, recognized it, and went to his knees as his legs crumpled beneath him. His gaze constricted sharply, blinding him to all but that object. With a shaking hand he reached for it, and his world exploded into blood and screams about him.
A doll. A childs doll.
Sickness hit him hard and fast, and he doubled over with a harsh, stricken cry and began to retch violently into the dirt.
+ + + + + + +
"Rider comin in, Sarge!"
Chris looked up sharply at the sentrys warning, his gaze going at once to the far rim. Moments later, the big black gelding appeared, topped by the rider who sat in that familiar damned slouch. With Vin in sight, he allowed himself to breathe easily again.
Goddamn tracker was cuttin more years off his life every day!
Vin rode Peso into the middle of camp, then slid slowly from the saddle. A powerful wave of dizziness hit him and he reeled heavily, almost going to his knees. But he clutched desperately at his saddle and clung tightly to it, closing his eyes and leaning, exhausted and shaking, against Peso, grateful for the big horses strength and solidness.
Chris was on his feet and running for the tracker the moment he stumbled. "Nathan!" he called over his shoulder. "Somethins wrong with Vin!"
"Hell, aint I been tryin ta tell yall that?" the healer grumbled, scrambling to his feet. "Heads like stone, all of ya!"
With an effort, Vin steadied himself and released the saddle, managing somehow to stand on his own two feet. A dark shadow approached him, reached out to him, but he only pushed past it, never recognizing it, never hearing the voice that called his name. He felt something someone? brush against him, try to stop him, but he thrust it away with a low growl, conscious of nothing save the man who was leading them all to ruin.
"Vin!" Chris shouted at his friend, tried to stop him, was surprised by the fierce strength with which the tracker shoved him away. His hat had fallen back from his head, and Chris shivered as he saw his face deathly pale, hard and grim as granite, all youth gone from it. But his eyes were the worst. Like blue pits of hell, they burned with a rage and pain that seared Chriss soul, and with a hatred that turned the gunsfighter cold. Vin clutched something in his hand, but Chris could not see what it was. "Nathan, stop him!"
The big healer tried, but the lean tracker struck out and quickly sent him crashing into Chris. "Shit!" Jackson cried as he and Larabee went tumbling into the dirt.
"Josiah, Buck, Ezra!" Chris all but screamed in fury and frustration as he tried to untangle himself from Nathan, as he realized what was about to happen. "Get over here! We got a murder ta stop!"
Vin stalked forward with that silent, cat-like tread, never seeing his friends rushing toward him, his whole attention focused on the relaxing group of soldiers and the big sergeant who sat in their midst. Then, as it always did when he was hunting, his gaze narrowed to that one figure, to his prey, his target, and his mind grew still, taking on a perfect clarity. He saw every movement Ford made, saw every expression that crossed his hard, blunt-featured face, noted how the slight breeze ruffled his hair and moved faint clouds of dust about him. He could hear him, was so close now he could smell him, could almost hear the beating of his heart and the humming of his blood. Vin let his hunters mind fill with those sights, those smells, those sounds, and let his predatory nature rise, let his killing instincts take over.
At his approach, one of the soldiers scrambled to his feet and raised his rifle across his body to block the trackers path. But Vin grabbed him by that rifle and flung him viciously aside without breaking stride. Another rose, but shuddered and slunk away when those cold killers eyes turned upon him.
Vin strode through the circle of soldiers, ruthlessly kicking two out of his way. At last only Ford was before him and Vin stared down at him, his eyes glittering in his bloodless face. Staring up at him, awash in rising terror, Ford suddenly understood exactly what kind of savage lurked in Vin Tanners soul.
"Red Stick," Vin hissed in a deadly whisper, towering over the man. "How many warriors he got?"
Ford swallowed, his blood turning to cold water in his veins. "Fif fifteen," he croaked. "Mebbe twenty"
The big man cleared his throat and looked around. To his relief, Larabee and his men were hurrying toward them. "Now, look, Tanner"
"How many women?" Vin asked in that same soft, deadly voice.
"Five," he rasped. "Cap captives"
Fords eyes widened, and the color drained from his face. The soldiers about him exchanged fearful glances and began to back away. "Aint none"
"Liar!" Vin screamed, going in a heartbeat from perfect immobility into a cat-like lunge, hitting Ford square in the chest and knocking him back into the dirt. Landing atop the big man, Vin pulled his knife from its sheath and drew it back to gut him. "Youll die"
Chris and Buck lunged for the tracker at the same time, both colliding with him and knocking him off Ford. But they also collided with each other and Vin managed to roll away from them, his knife still clenched tightly in his hand. With a howl of fury, he launched himself again at Ford, only to be grabbed from behind by Josiah.
"Lemme go!" he shouted, clawing frantically at the huge arms holding him and kicking at the mans legs. Wild screams and filthy curses tore from him as Josiah wrestled him backward, and, blinded by rage, he shifted the knife in his grip, pointed the blade downward and slashed back.
"Goddamn it, Vin, stop!" Chris cried, grabbing Tanners wrist in both hands only inches from Josiahs side. "Drop it!"
"Sonuvabitch, lemme go!" Vin screamed, still struggling wildly. He kicked again at Josiah and connected, heard the big man cry out, and felt himself slip down in that suddenly-loosened grasp. Before Josiah could recover, Vin twisted and bent himself and sank his teeth deep into the big mans wrist.
"Shit!" Josiah howled, dropping the tracker and falling back, cradling his injured wrist to his chest.
Vin loosed a Comanche curse and flung himself at Ford again, only to have Buck and Chris intercept him. They knocked him to the ground and pounced atop him, each pinning an arm and a leg to the ground. Vin howled and shrieked curses as he fought against them, but they managed to hold him until his struggles at last began to weaken and his screams gave way to hoarse, choking sobs.
"Vin?" Buck called, his voice as gentle as his hands were unrelenting in their hold. "Vin, what is it, son, whats wrong?" he asked, his heart wrung by the sounds of anguish coming from the younger man. "Come on, now, son, talk ta ol Buck," he urged, using the voice he normally reserved for an agitated JD. "What happened out there, Vin?"
"Ill tell ya what happened!" Ford spat, rising to his feet and staring down at the restrained tracker. "He went crazy, thats what happened! Hell, I told ya he would! His mind is gone"
"Do us all a favor, and close that pestilential hole you call a mouth!" Ezra said softly, coldly, suddenly materializing, derringer in hand, between Ford and the others. "Go join your comrades at the fireside and leave Mr. Tanner to us. Your foul presence seems to exert an unhealthy influence upon him, and I would not have him further upset by your continued proximity to his person."
Ford leaned closer to the smaller man and sneered. "Now, you listen to me, gambler"
"No, you listen." Ezra smiled, and cocked the derringer. "Hear that? I believe its called the winning hand. Now, go. I would hate to add to the myriad of stains already soiling my wardrobe, but, I assure you, Yankee blood would most definitely be a badge worth wearin."
Ford swore bitterly, but turned and stalked back to the fire, throwing himself to the ground. He glared up at Ezra, who only smiled and offered him a jaunty two-fingered salute.
"Vin, talk to us," Chris pleaded softly, gently stroking his friends sweat-soaked hair with one hand while pinning his arm to the ground with the other. "You gave me your word, remember? Back in the church, you promised me you wouldnt kill him. You gave me your word, Vin, and youve never broken your word ta me before. I need to know what happened."
Through his tears, Vin stared up at Chris, his eyes filled with unspeakable pain. "Saw tracks," he rasped in torment, "found a doll. Aint no war party. They got women n children. Jist like eight years ago!"
"Jesus!" Buck breathed, bowing his head and closing his eyes as sick horror swept through him.
Chriss gut clenched hard and he fought the urge to tell Vin he could take his word back, that he had his permission to kill Ford, hell, that hed help him do it. But he knew adding a cold-blooded murder to his conscience was not what his friend needed.
"Gonna letcha go now," he said quietly, still stroking Vins hair. "You gonna behave?" He nodded, and Chris believed him. "Let him go, Buck."
The big man complied, and, when he was freed, Vin rolled over onto his side, his lean frame shaking from the force of his now-silent sobs. Chris sat beside him, laying a hand on his back and talking softly, soothingly to him, carefully controlling his own mounting rage.
Buck rose to his feet and walked over to Josiah, whose wrist was being tended by Nathan. Heedless of his injury, the preacher was staring down at Vin in sympathy and sorrow.
"How bad he get ya?" Buck asked.
Nathan glanced up from the wound. "Bit deep. Drew blood."
"Better it was with his teeth than his knife," Josiah murmured. "My God, that poor boy!" He grimaced deeply and shook his head, shaken to his soul by the extent of Vins suffering. "Is there to be no mercy for him at all?"
Ezra came up to them, holding the doll Vin had dropped. His face was white and his green eyes were filled with a cold and deadly anger. "I believe this is what drove Mr. Tanner into his present emotional upheaval," he said in a clipped, tight voice. "A childs toy, dropped, no doubt, in the rush to escape us" His voice broke, and he bowed his head, staring fixedly at the doll.
"This changes nothin!" Ford growled from his place at the fire, determined not to let these men rob him of the prize he sought. "They"
"This changes everything!" Chris shouted, lunging to his feet, his long, lean frame taut with a barely-leashed fury. "You lied to us, Ford, you said they were renegades, warriors! You never mentioned women and children"
"They dont count!" the soldier spat with bitter contempt. "Theys savages, animals! They aint like us, Larabee, they aint people! Comanches is Comanches, an we gotta root em out!"
Chris turned away from the man with a snarled curse, the urge to kill Ford almost more than he could bear. They were being used to hunt women and children
God, no wonder Vin was half-crazy!
Alls he cares about is killin em A wrenching wave of sick guilt wrung at Chriss soul as he remembered Tanners words during their fight in the church. Vin had tried to warn him, but he hadnt listened. And now Vin was being forced to relive his own worst hell because the man he trusted above all others had been so ready to believe Fords lies hed ignored the one man who had never lied to him.
The Devil aint up in them mountains, Chris, hes right here amongst us!
And Larabee had delivered them all had delivered Vin and those women and children into the Devils hands.
Biting back a curse, he knelt once more beside Tanner, who was lying quietly. "Hey, pard, you with us again?"
He reached for Chriss hand and held tightly to it, then slowly sat up. Still clinging to Chriss hand, he crossed his legs and bowed his head, wiping his free hand across his face. "Is gonna kill him this time," he whispered, his voice filled with shame. "I knew what Is doin, knew Is goin back on my word, but I couldnt stop " He closed his eyes and ran a shaking hand through his tangled hair. "Im sorry, Chris! Reckon I really am crazy."
"Figure you got a right ta be." Chris looked carefully at his friend, and winced at the sight. Dark circles ringed the trackers eyes like bruises, and lines of exhaustion were etched deeply into his pale, haggard face. The madness had fled the blue eyes, but so had every other sign of life. "Can you walk?"
Vin shrugged, his head still bowed. "Dunno," he mumbled.
Ezra, JD and Buck stood like a barrier between Vin and the soldiers, and Nathan knelt in front of Tanner, wanting to be certain he was unharmed. Josiah squatted at Vins side, his eyes searching the younger mans face. "You all right, son?"
Vin cringed at the concern in that deep, gentle voice and turned away from the big man, vaguely remembering what he had done, what he had tried to do. A soft, breathless cry escaped him and he wrapped his arms tightly about himself as his soul writhed in humiliation.
"Vin?" Josiah called worriedly. He reached out and closed a big hand about the trackers arm, turning the smaller man back toward him. "Look at me, Vin," he commanded in that rich voice. "Open your eyes and look at me."
Against his will, his eyes opened, and shame filled the blue depths. "I almost killed ya!" he rasped, his voice breaking.
"Ssh." Josiah gathered Vin gently to him, holding a strong arm about him. "When the demons rage, its hard to tell friend from foe," he murmured. "Were blinded by the darkness within us, and by the pain nothin can ease. You werent seein me, son, you were seein ghosts, specters from your own deepest hell. Its a terrible blindness, but one we all know. Especially me. And so I forgive you."
"I dont dserve it"
"Thats for me to decide, Vin, not you. I choose whom to forgive for wrongs done to me, and I choose to forgive you. Only you, however, can choose to forgive yourself."
Vin pulled away from the big man and saw the torn flesh and blood at his wrist. "I do this?" he asked softly, absently touching it with a shaking finger.
"You bit me," Josiah said with a slight smile. "You have a powerful dislike of bein held against your will."
Vin stared down at the red on his finger. "More blood on my hands," he murmured dazedly. "I heard screamin."
"That was you," Chris told him. "You were a little pissed."
"Reckon I was," he sighed tiredly. "Alls I could see was that doll. Reckon some little girl dropped it, mebbe shes cryin fer it right now Theyre jist tryin ta git away!" he rasped softly, his voice shaking terribly. "They aint after nobody, they aint out fer blood. Theyre jist tryin ta git away!"
"Come on, Vin," Chris said, "lets get you where you can rest." He took his friends arm and helped him slowly, carefully to his feet, then circled a strong arm about Tanners waist as he felt the smaller man reel heavily against him. "Aint far, just over there."
Vin tried to see where Chris wanted him to go, but could not get his eyes to focus. The world about him was beginning to dissolve into a grainy gray mist and Chris suddenly seemed a mile away. He nodded slightly and took a step forward, wondering idly where the ground had gone. "Aw, hell," he breathed, falling helplessly into a swirling darkness.
"Shit," Chris sighed as Vin slumped bonelessly to the ground. "Josiah"
"I know," the big man answered, squatting and scooping the unconscious tracker into his arms. "Its getting to be our little ritual."
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