The pain resurrected him, taking him from one dark abyss into a far worse one. His eyes were opened, yet he couldn't see. He moved his feet and his ankle made contact with wood. A soft tapping on the roof as dirt and stones..no...he reached a hand up and touched wood above his head. Not a roof, a coffin. He was trapped...buried alive...in a coffin. It was larger than a standard box, allowing him to move his arms and legs. Cold air brushed against his left ear and his fingers groped in the dark, finding a pipe. The brief movement sent the now familiar stabbing sensation through him. His panting breaths were short and painful. His first instinct, was primal and instinctive, he used his good arm, the left one to bang on the lid to the box, which was about a foot above his face.
"Enjoying your quarters, Captain Larabee?"
"You're a fuckin' coward..." Chris gasped, running the fingers of his left hand along the seams, looking for a way out, a crack, anything. "...afraid of a real man's fight."
"Now what fun would that be?"
Chris judged the voice to be directly above him, so the grave was a shallow one. He kicked hard with his boot, causing a terrific pain to dance through his ribs. He cried out and dropped his arm, cradling the injured chest.
"An exercise in futility, Captain." Beaumont advised, leaning over and gripping the top of the box. "However, I am not an unfeeling man, perhaps you'd like some company?"
Company? Chris's hand froze on his midsection. His mind's eye conjured up an image of a snake...slithering up his leg in the dark...forked tongue...fangs. The lid opened and a lamp light blinded him, he squinted to avoid it, but his trained eyes took height of the ground above, about three feet away, and Beaumont's leering smile. A rifle was to the right of the mad man's shoulder, aimed at Chris.
"Have a nice chat...We'll be back to check on you two later."
The light was cut off just as Beaumont's arm moved swiftly, dropping something inside. His eyes caught a glimpse, but his brain ruled out what surely was his delirium kicking in. It couldn't have been...no, he pushed the thought away. It was lying on his right shoulder, he stayed perfectly still, barely breathing but the showers of rocks on the lid of the box caused him to jerk. The object moved...he felt hair, long hair and cold lips press onto his throat...No...his mind shook...no...it wasn't ...he shut his eyes despite the darkness and replayed the image of Beaumont's hand dropping in...a head...long hair...
"Nooooo!!!" He screamed, using his free hand to shove the soul-shattering object away, it rolled down his chest and lay idle at his knee. "I'll fuckin' kill you, you sick son-of-a-bitch..."
Vin's execution was burned indelibly into his mind. The pain that raced through him wouldn't be denied. It crested into a molten overflow, ripping the heart right out of him. He screamed and continued to bang on the roof of the tomb, unaware of the damage and pain that lanced through his shoulder. The dizziness followed and the shock set in. He felt himself fading away...the last image was his best friend's unseeing blue eyes...reaching out to him, unaware of the brutality to follow. Those eyes that housed unbreachable faith, deep spirituality and were mirrors to the gentlest of souls, now were lifeless. He welcomed the blackness this time and let it carry him away.
+ + + + + + +
Dan Larabee cleared his throat and followed Buck across the room. He felt the eyes burning into his chest and wondered what his brother must be like to merit such awe.
"Dan," Buck said, with one hand on the wrinkled suit and the other extended to a stunned trio by a simple table laden with mouthwatering food. "This is Nathan Jackson, the town healer, and deadly with a knife."
Dan shook the hand of the dark-skinned man with gentle eyes and then moved slightly, to a tall, bear of a man with graying hair. "Josiah Sanchez, healer of souls." Buck continued, as Dan shook Ezra's hand. "Ezra Standish...card shark, conman and God's knows what else."
"Charming, Mr. Wilmington, as always," Ezra drolled, shaking the blond man's hand. "Uncanny..."
"Same Ma and Pa..." Dan shrugged.
"He even talks like Chris...Man..." J.D. amazed, eyeing the solemn face and serious eyes.
"I'm Mary Travis, Editor of the Clarion, the town paper. Welcome to Four Corners, Dan."
"Thank You, Ma'am." He took the slim hand and dipped his head. Mary introduced him to some of the locals, and Dan's blue eyes continued to search the room. "Where's Vin Tanner?"
"Ah, yes, our ever elusive tracker." Ezra stepped forth, handing the younger Larabee a cup of spiked cider. "He and Mr. Lar...uh, your brother are en route from Cloverdale."
"They had two convicts to drop off at the Prison wagon. It had an accident." J.D. supplied.
"What kind of accident?" Dan frowned.
"They're not sure..." Nate added, swallowed a half of a hard-boiled egg. "Wagon was late and Yuma Prison sent a few wires to the local towns. A posse found them, about ten miles into Arizona."
The newcomer's intense stare caused Nate to pause, a blue glare..."We expected them tonight. But the storm might have held them up."
"Trouble happened after the drop-off." Buck supplied, "They'll be along. How'd you get here, Dan?"
"Stage..." He replied, eyeing the snickering dark haired youth. "Something funny, Son?"
"This is too creepy..." J.D. shivered, "You talk just like him..."
"What brings you to our charming resort?" Ezra inquired.
"Got an invite." He handed the paper to Buck.
"It's from Vin." Buck supplied, "...from Cloverdale...this morning!" Buck eyed Dan. "How the hell did you get here so fast?"
"Wasn't easy." Dan drained his cider and Josiah filled the cup again. "Thanks...ate a pound of dust in that damn coach. Rode about five miles to the next stage stop and got the last one."
"So you came alone?"
"Didn't know what I'd be walking into," The blue eyes were now troubled. Closer inspection saw the younger man was taller and more muscular. "Figured if Chris didn't shoot me, I'd have the family ride over in a few days."
"Family?" J.D. asked, "You're married?"
"Five years...got two boys. Chris remarry?"
"No..." Buck hushed, his tone and painful stare told the young, blond man it was a closed subject.
"Well, it was nice to meet you, Dan." Mary grasped both his hands. "But if I don't get a certain six-year old to bed, Santa won't come. Let's go Billy, say goodnight."
"Where's your gun?" Billy asked, eyeing the stranger's waist.
"Don't have one."
"How do you shoot people?" Billy's voice rose and his eyes widened.
"I try not to. I'm an engineer."
"On a train." Billy gushed, "I love trains..."
"Not that kind of engineer. I measure the land for the railroad."
"Oh." Billy sighed, obviously not impressed. "Chris is about the best gun shooter there is. He fast...he fishes good too...he's teachin' me to whittle better."
"Sounds like he's lucky to have a good friend like you." Dan smiled at the young boy, who obviously cared for his brother.
"Yup." Billy bragged, "Me and him are good friends. He taught me to spit and everything...oops..." He clapped a hand over his mouth.
"Lovely..." Mary rolled her eyes. "Come on..." She tugged the reluctant boy.
"See you Pard," Buck gave the boy a big hug and send him on his way.
"Bye, guys..." Billy waved.
"Nice boy." Dan watched the pair leaving. "She a widow?"
"She wouldn't be, if that brother of yours had any sense." Buck lamented. "Wonder why Vin sent for you? Sure is odd..."
"You can ask Mr. Tanner when he returns." Ezra said, moving away from J.D. who belched loudly.
"Nice, Kid..." Buck chuckled and slapped Ezra's back. "You can ask him, Old Friend. I don't think Vin will be in a real social mood."
"I imagine our fearless leader's ill humor will be only heightened after traveling with Mr. Tanner and his aching back." Ezra agreed.
"Come on, Dan, get some grub, you gotta be hungry."
So the men took chairs at odd angles around the visitor and took turns telling him stories about his older brother. He listened to the warmth and admiration behind their voices and hiding in their eyes. He felt envious and proud at the same time. He got the impression that this Vin Tanner, who wired him, was very special to Chris and he was looking forward to meeting him. He couldn't imagine the tools this man possessed to have such a hold on his troubled sibling.
+ + + + + + +
"Why ain't Rico coming?" Luke Turner asked, eyeing Beaumont approaching him.
The blond had been left to guard their prisoner, who hadn't moved an inch. He sat on a log, hands tied in front of him. The blue eyes were washed with pain and the ragged breaths confirmed it.
"He's watching Larabee." Beaumont replied, pouring something onto a cloth.
"What are you doing?" Turner asked, watching the large man creep behind the silent prisoner.
Vin tensed and shifted, his head cocked and nose went in the air. He narrowed his painful eyes and turned right. The sound of the step told him it was a large person...the heavy breathing giving the body a lot of weight. Tobacco, whiskey and blood...large...beefy...Beaumont.
"Yer a walkin' dead man." The sharpshooter said quietly, turning to face Beaumont.
"...and your far more clever than I gave you credit for. Very Impressive." He said, from where he towered over Tanner from behind. "Turner..." He tossed his head. "Hold his head back..."
"Git away from me..." Vin warned, not sure what direction to move to.
"Don't be difficult." Beaumont replied, gripping the blind man's head as Turner pinned his chest backwards, against the log.
"What's in the glass bottle?" Turner asked, spotting the object in Beaumont's hand.
"Well," he replied, using one beefy hand to flatten Vin's head between his knees, where he clamped it tightly. He pried one eye open, and paused, enjoying the frantic blue orbs darting in fear. He could almost hear the rapid heart beating. "Not to worry...this will take that pain away." After several drops were applied, he applied the liquid to the other eye. Vin blinked and twitched, his body tensing. He gasped in uncertainty and then relaxed as the cooling liquid put the fire out. "There now, that wasn't so bad."
"Go to hell..." Vin hissed, wiping the excess liquid that ran down his windburned cheeks. The night air was extremely cold and his curled up, wrapping his arms around his chest.
"Now where is that rag you were wearing...there...Turner." He nodded to the hide coat. Vin felt the familiar fabric as it landed at his feet. He managed to put it on and continued to blink, unnerved by the inability to see. He lifted his head again and his nose raised, scenting the wind. Horses close by...blood...urine...One horse was restless, neighing and chomping, tapping the ground. It was Diablo, he was certain, the tracker's horse didn't take to anyone on his back, except Vin.
"Ya best tell whoever's on m'horse's back that he'll take a chunk outta 'im, first chance he gits. He ain't fonda strangers."
"Incredible." Beaumont imparted, pulling a small green bottle from his pocket and a cloth. He poured the contents of the small bottle onto the cloth and moved behind the smart prisoner. He saw the head jerk and the nose rise, "...you were taught well...Kiowa?"
"...taught me more'n that..." Vin hissed, the acrid smell causing him to tense. "...y'ell find out just how much skin I can peel offa that hide of yers 'afore ya lose consciousness. I'm right good at it..." Vin growled, pulling away.
"Much as I'd like to stay and challenge you further..."
Vin whole body tensed when he caught the scent near his face. He dropped on his knees and tried to scramble away. Two hands grabbed his arms from behind. He jerked and kicked, grunting in pain, the back of his head exploding.
"Hold him tight, Turner."
Vin moved away from where Beaumont's voice and smell came from. "Don't be difficult." Beaumont warned, gripping the tangled hair on the crown of the trapped prisoner's head and clamping a sodden cloth over the Texan's nose and mouth.
Vin held his breath as long as he could and continued to fight. But the fumes were too powerful and he succumbed, slumping against the ex-commando's legs.
"What is that stuff?" Turner asked, of the acrid smell.
"Chloroform." Beaumont replied, finally easing the cloth away and tossing it to the ground. "Just enough to keep him quiet while we're gone." He finished, pulling the prone body behind a cluster of rocks. They were about five miles from the mine; the cold desert air caused the unconscious man to shiver.
"Let's go, it's a good two hour ride and almost eight o'clock already. The time does tend to fly when you're having fun."
"Where we going?"
"It's Christmas Eve," the leering leader replied, from behind, as he climbed on his horse. He eyed the horse, following his, tied to the pommel. "We're going to deliver a present."
Christmas Eve, 11 p.m.
"I can't thank you enough, young Larabee," Ezra gushed, the childhood antics and teenage pranks that the leader pulled had given the Southerner future ammunition. "...forever in your debt. Are you certain I cannot interest you in a friendly game of poker?"
Dan smiled at the choking sounds and coughing from the group of men. The other townspeople had left and only the peacekeepers remained. He envied the bond they shared, the rivalry and banter only made it deeper. "I'll pass...wouldn't want to deprive you of that wad in your boot."
"Ewww." J.D. gushed. "You're good..."
"How'd you know?" Buck asked, of Ezra's hiding spot.
"He favors that leg when he walks." Dan winked at the impressed Conman, who tipped his head in acknowledgment. "You that good?"
"I daresay I've not sat across from any better." Standish challenged, raising an eyebrow.
"You never sat across from me," The blond replied coolly, rising. "...'Night Gentlemen, and thanks"
"Same here, Dan." Nate shook his hand.
"Pleasure's ours, Son" Josiah added.
"Surely you are not retiring?" Ezra demanded, "You cannot toss the gauntlet and depart. It's not done."
"It's the Lord's birthday...wouldn't be right to commit a crime."
"Crime?" Ezra stood, enjoying the conversation.
"Robbery...highway robbery." Dan smiled; leaving the warm church as the laughter of the others sailed behind him.
"You got bags?" Buck asked, over the wind, which had kicked up, as the crossed toward the hotel.
"They took them up for me."
"Hey, Dan." Buck said as they entered the Hotel. "He's changed. He's not the man who was lost in that bottle in Tombstone. I'm proud to call him friend."
"I guess I owe you this then." Dan turned and extended his hand. Buck shook it, and raked his other hand through his dark hair. "Wish I could take the credit. But that belongs to a scrawny, onry, sorry-assed, no account ex-bounty hunter from Texas." Buck paused. "One look in them blue eyes of his melted that block of ice Chris was cartin' around in his chest." Buck laughed softly, "Of course he'll deny that."
"Shouldn't they be back?" Dan's voice was tinged with worry.
"Not if they got caught in that storm." Nate replied as the group entered the hall where the peacekeeper's rooms were.
"Yeah...and you konw how Chris gets when Vin's hurt..." J.D. added and paused, eyeing the nearly naked redhead who had become a part of Buck's shirt. Buck wasted no time giving her a warm 'holiday greeting'. "ah-hem..." J.D. cleared his throat.
"Mmphh..." was the reply Buck gave, his tongue buried deep in the warm, soft mouth. Finally he pulled free. "Hey Darlin'..." He smacked her backside and turned to the others. "Merry Christmas..." He waved as they entered their rooms. Buck turned the key and entered, frowning at the open window and low lamp. "That's funny...I didn't leave..." The voice died in his throat and he moved his arm backwards, shoving the startled girl from the room.
"What's wrong?" She demanded. "Buck?"
"Hold on a minute, okay?" He directed, leaving her outside a few feet to the right of the door.
It couldn't be...it was probably some gag of J.D.'s. That was it, a damn prank, the Kid was always pulling his leg. He took a deep breath and his trembling hands turned the doorknob. He entered the room and moved towards the bed. The figure upon it remained unnaturally still. As he got closer, he eyed the figure; the slim body, worn boots, tan pants and red shirt were all too familiar. The dim light was across the room as Buck's eyes went past the waist, it got harder to see. He spotted the familiar Mare's Leg and holster on the sideboard.
"Vin?" He whispered, reaching out. "What the hell's going on?" He was about to shake the slumbering tracker, when his eyes traveled north. He staggered backwards, horrified and repelled.
"Go...um...go...Oh God..." Buck croaked to the confused girl. "Just go..."
She shrugged and left, leaving the shaken gunman in the hall. His hand covered his mouth and he dropped to his knees, hanging out in the hall and retching profusely. In between spasms, he tried to call out...speak...scream...get rid of the awful pain in his chest. A pain he'd never felt before...or hoped would ever feel again. He slumped in the doorway, his legs splayed in front of him.
Josiah cleaned up the church and spotted Dan's overcoat. He saw the lights on in several rooms on the second floor and headed over. Ezra was two steps ahead of him. They reached the top of the stairs and saw Buck Wilmington on the floor, dazed and shaken. What caused more alarm was lack of color on his face. Josiah's nose wrinkled as the distinctive scent of vomit filled the air. He saw the puddle between the gunslinger's legs. He hung the overcoat on the doorknob to Vin's seldom used room.
"Buck...You okay?" Josiah called out, but the other man never moved. "Buck..." He frowned and eyed the numbers on the door. He backtracked and pounded on the one behind him. "Nathan, get out here. Something's wrong with Buck."
"It don't surprise me, none. With as many females as he beds down with, I'm surprised it ain't shriveled up and fallen off."
"No...I'm serious Nate, I think he's in shock." He replied, spotting Ezra talking to Buck with no avail. The dark blue eyes never blinked at Ezra's waving hand. The Conman had one hand on Buck's shoulder and was trying to get a response from his ashen friend.
"What?" Nate's voice changed and he flew past Josiah and squatted down beside Buck. "Buck, Can you hear me?" He tapped the white face and saw a slight nod. "What happened?"
Buck noticed Josiah and Ezra for the first time and saw the ex-minister peering in the darkened room. "Vin? What's Vin doing in your bed? He hurt?"
"No..." Buck whispered. "Josiah...he...he..." The tall man swallowed hard and didn't hide the lone tear that fell. "He's dead..."
Christmas Eve, 11 p.m. in the desert away from town
The shrieking filled his head, edging the pain into wakening him. He moaned, releasing a pent up breath and rolled onto his side. He resisted the urge to vomit and sat up, taking deep, long breaths. He felt the ground and carefully sat up. He kept his eyes closed and waited for the dizziness to pass. He peered into the darkness, and realized his eyes didn't hurt as much anymore. He stared sharply and made out shapes, his heart quickened and he eyed the sky, seeing a blurry moon.
"Chris..." He croaked, his throat dry and hoarse. "Chris..."
He crawled on his hands and knees around the area, using his hands to form a mental picture. The shrieking started again, and a fierce gale blew past, sending stones and dust into his face. He curled up and covered his face, as the earlier events filled his head. He closed his eyes and put the pieces together. When Beaumont left, he was with one of the guards...the dumb one. Chris and the other one were missing. He sat and used his other senses to hone in on the scenario.
"Think, Vin..." He goaded himself, taking slow even breaths to combat his queasy stomach and aching head. He heard Beaumont's voice when he returned to camp and turned his head in that direction. He'd been on foot...Vin recalled the twigs snapping under his heavy boots. East...he'd come from that direction. Vin made his way back to the log where he'd been forced to sit and turned, facing the direction where he'd heard the evil man's voice.
"I'm comin' Cowboy..." he whispered, crawling forward, "...hang on."
His path was slow, hindered by the inky black void that was his world. The shapes helped him to define where to go. He had no sense of time and knew not how long he'd been unconscious. A thump caused him to halt, his head rose and the wind blew into his face. Another thump and a moan...his heart quickened, and he forced himself to stand, staggering toward a dark patch in the ground ahead.
Chris woke up, shivering so severely his teeth chattered. His face was slick with sweat as a fever coursed through him. The pain in his head throbbed in time with his shoulder; his ribs added a vocal commentary of their own. He groaned and lifted his left hand, guiding it around the low ceiling in his wooden tomb. He looked for a crease, crack or anything to pull on. He used his feet to kick at the sides and top of the coffin. The motion caused the object entombed with him to roll down towards his ankles. It wasn't a dream...the horrific picture formed again and he began to scream.
Vin froze when the heart-wrenching scream hit his ears. The muffled cry was nearby and he moved closer, nearly toppling into a large pit or hole of somekind. He squinted, his injured eyes making it impossible to see much. It was then the screaming resumed.
"Chris?" He whispered, head jerking and seeking the guard. The only murky images he saw were decidedly not human. "CHRIS! CHRIS!" He screamed over the wind. He sat on the edge of the pit and eased his lean legs into it. He gingerly lowered one leg and hit something solid. There was...debris...rocks maybe...on top of it. He slid his boot sideways, moving the rocks and hit the top of the wood hard. It splintered. He dropped into the pit and used his hands to guide him. He stood over the end of the box and found the small hole his boot made. Oblivious to the wood shredding his hands, he began to claw and pull at the top. "Chris, Can you hear you me? Dammit answer me..."
Chris's scream died in his throat when he felt the box move. Someone or something, an animal maybe, had landed on it. He heard the rocks moving around on top of him and another jarring jolt caused his shoulder to slam painfully into the side. He hissed and covered the sodden shoulder. Then he heard the voice, or so he thought. It was the fever, playing tricks on him. The anxious drawl, more pronounced when upset was screaming his name. The banging began and his heart began to beat again. It wasn't a dream.
"VIN!" he called tentatively, kicking against the box. "Vin..."
"Hold on...I'm almost through."
The reply sent a wave of euphoria through him and he lost his breath. He ran a hand over his face, wiping the sweat away. He heart was pounding so hard; it slammed against every broken rib. It was a sweet pain of release as his twin soul was reunited with its brother. Vin was alive...Vin was alive...the three words became his silent mantra. Suddenly the box popped open and silhouetted against a large silver moon, was the bloody, battered face of his best friend. The prettiest face he'd ever seen. A slow grin formed and he sat up, wondering why Vin wasn't smiling. Then he saw the unblinking eyes and the pain returned. Vin was blind.
"Gimme a hand, Vin..." He gasped, raising his left hand and finding Vin's fumbling arm.
Vin moved and pulled Chris onto his feet. The older man felt against him, the sudden movement giving him a wave of dizziness. He felt the brief embrace and heard the catch in the blond's voice as one hand gripped the back of his neck.
Chris's desperate hold was twofold. He couldn't keep his balance, the fever and blood loss left him weak and unsteady; and he needed to feel Vin...to reassure himself. He pulled the startled man against him and felt the tension. He gripped the back of Vin's neck and squeezed hard.
"Took you long enough." He choked, not relinquishing his hold.
"Takin' to pickin' on the blind now?" Vin rasped, gaining untold strength from the arms that held him.
"Come on, Cowboy, let's go home." Chris said. He managed to pull himself out of the ditch and Vin stumbled behind him. "They took the horses..." Chris shouted over the wind, "Gonna be rough going..."
"Reckon we outta get started." Vin replied, groping towards where Chris's voice was.
"Hold up, Vin." The leader said, watching Vin rub his eyes and wincing. "Sit down here." He said, easing him onto a tree stump. He ripped the tail of the shirt around the entire length and tied it around Vin's head. "Better?" He inquired; knowing the constant blinking wasn't helping.
The slender hand came up and felt for his, gripping it. "Thanks, Chris."
"Jesus, we're a sorry pair." Chris gritted. He was barely able to walk and Vin couldn't see. They supported each other, stumbling along and falling. Then they'd wait, rise and stumble again.
"s'like the blind leading the blind." Vin drawled, and heard Chris's soft laugh.
"WHAT!" Nathan jerked backwards and stood up and attempted to get by the stricken gunslinger. "Are you sure?"
Buck stood and blocked them, preventing entry. "They...somebody..." He looked at Josiah's pale eyes, seeking solace and hope. "He's got no head..." Buck managed as his knees buckled.
"Whoa!" Josiah steadied him. "Sit back down before you fall down. Where's J.D.? I bet he's behind this. Bet him and Vin planned this, it's probably a dummy of somekind..."
"Dead God..." Ezra's stunned voice caused them all to freeze. The Southerner had placed a hand on the red shirt expecting to find it stuffed with hay. He turned to face them, fingers smeared with blood and matter. "It is a body..."
"Vin back?" J.D. called and froze spotting Buck's face. "What's wrong." He peered by the larger man.
"Don't go in, Kid." Buck rasped, pulling him away.
"Why? Is Vin hurt?" The youth demanded. "He's my friend too. Dammit Buck, let me by."
"No..." Buck whispered, "He's gone..."
"Gone?" J.D.'s voice got small. "Dead...no...you're wrong."
"He's right Buck." Josiah said. "You're wrong. This ain't Vin. God help whoever it was. Helluva way to go..."
"What?" Buck choked, not willing to re-enter the macabre room. "You sure?"
"Take a look." Josiah had the shirt unbuttoned, and the chest was covered in a load of dark curly hair.
"Shit..." Buck swallowed, closing his eyes and swaying.
"Somebody grab him and get him in a chair." Nate hollered, and saw Ezra spring into action. He led the dazed lady's man next store to his room and sat him down. He poured a brandy and watched Buck's trembling hands barely lift it to his lips. Buck looked up and nodded once, grateful.
"Sorry about the mess in the hall..." Buck muttered, "I'll get some sawdust and a shovel..."
"Not to worry. I'll notify the staff. Under the circumstances, you're reaction was quite normal."
"You didn't upchuck...nobody else did."
"We didn't discover the gruesome sight. You warned us. Are you alright?" Ezra asked, his own nerves jangled. Buck looked awful.
"I don't know..." Buck admitted, sipping the comfort in his hand. "Yeah...I guess. ..." Buck hissed, covering his face with his hand. "My heart damn near stopped. I couldn't...there was no head..." Buck choked, then his eyes darkened and he swore, "What kind of sick bastard does a thing like that. Jesus Christ..." He threw his body off the chair and pounded a fist against the wall.
"The murderin' kind." Josiah replied. "You okay now? Nate wants to have a look at you."
"I'm okay." Buck replied, turning to face the eldest. "Was there anything...like a note or clue or..." Buck sighed.
"Yeah...' Josiah motioned with his head. "Bodies covered up."
They reentered the room. Buck couldn't get the initial sight of Vin's body from his mind. He rocked back on his heels slightly and felt Josiah's large hand on his shoulder. He relaxed and welcomed the gentle squeeze.
"We found these." Nathan laid the two items on the table. One was a carving of Chris, and the other a sealed envelope.
"What's it say?" Buck asked.
"Don't know...it's addressed to you." J.D. said from the bedside, where he pulled the sheet back.
"Aw, hell, J.D." Buck complained, grimacing, his mind still seeing Vin.
"What's going on?" Dan Larabee asked, from the doorway. He hissed and tensed at the horrid sight. "Who is that?"
"We thought it was Vin." Nate answered. "...they're his clothes. Buck found him."
"This is the Mexican bandit that they were totin'" J.D. supplied, "His chest's got a bad burn on the side of it, I remember seeing it when he got changed yesterday."
"Go on, Buck, open it." Nate tried to hand him the envelope. He saw the pain and something else as Buck's dark eyes were riveted to the bed. Guilt was seeping through them. "Don't go there, Buck. This ain't hardly your fault." He said crossly, placing himself in front of the horrid sight and jerking Buck's shoulder. "Ya hear me?"
"Note's addressed to me..." Buck seethed, anger emerging. "Don't tell me not to feel guilty. Somebody who'd do something as brutal as that, would enjoy hurtin' Vin...and Chris..."
"Open it Buck." Nathan commanded, handing him the envelope. "It's our only clue."
Buck slit the top and took the paper out. He read and frowned, shrugging his shoulders. Then he cocked his head and narrowed his eyes. "...couldn't be...he's dead...Chris said he drowned..."
"Who?" Dan asked, taking the note from Buck.
"Major Beaumont, our C.O. from the war. Last time I saw him was...winter of '65. We got separated during a storm, the Rebs had us outnumbered. We were losing a lot of men, and out of options, and were forced to retreat. Chris, Beaumont, his kid brother and a couple other guys fell into a covered up shaft of a mine. Chris was the only one who came out...river carried him. He damn near froze to death on me. Beaumont was losin' it then; he'd become irrational - was making bad decisions. Chris got us through that, he took over the outfit."
"What's the note say?" Josiah prodded.
"Sergeant at arms...you're still to late. You'll miss him enter Hell's fiery gate. Alas poor tracker, his fate is sealed. Unless you reach that tomb revealed."
"What's that supposed to mean?" He handed the note to Ezra, who read between the lines.
"Bastard's got Vin and Chris...and I'm gonna rip his heart out." Buck swore, turning to go, only to have Nathan stop him.
"Cut that out." He glared. "Goin' off half-cocked ain't gonna solve a thing. We don't know where is he is." He only lessened his grip when he saw the slump of defeat in Buck's shoulders.
"No, but I think we can narrow it down." Ezra said, still studying the note. His finger rested on two words. "Therein lies the answer."
Close to midnight
"He's gone..," Turner said, shielding his eyes against the wind. Beaumont was on his horse, smiling down at the foolish hired help. A walking illustration of fodder. The ditch and the box were empty, of course. He planned it that way.
"Right on time," He smiled, "The witching hour, perfect time Lucifer's chariot to haul Chris Larabee's black soul back to hell."
Turner shrugged and followed. This didn't make any more sense to him than the rest of the evening. But five hundred dollars was a lot of money. He was getting Rico's share too. Funny, the Mexican bandit just up and disappeared. Beaumont said the other man decided to go back to Mexico, and agreed to a paycut. He eyed the clothes he wore, wondering why they had been changed again. Beaumont didn't explain, when Larabee passed out, thinking they'd killed his long-haired friend, they'd put his black outfit back on him. He saw Beaumont's hand raise, indicating to stop. Both slid off their horses.
"Wait here..." the leader issued, indicating for the gullible young man to sit on a rock.
The ex-commander doubled back, and climbed up a small rise. His blue eyes adjusted to the darkness and he used the moon's silvery light as a guide. They were a sad sight...barely upright. He smiled, slid down and rubbed his hands in anticipation. If they continued on course in a matter of five minutes or so, they'd spot Turner.
They were hardly moving, Vin supporting almost all of Chris's weight. He was gasping and grunting and Chris felt guilty, knowing his friend was injured too. It took all of his strength to remain conscious. If he blacked out, they'd be as good as dead. They had no weapons of defense against the deadly prey, two-footed and four-footed. He was about to suggest a short rest, when he saw the moon reflecting on the back of a light head. His hopes picked up. His green eyes darted all around, but he saw no signs of Beaumont. Maybe he wasn't back yet. His fuzzy brain recalled the ex-military leader suggesting a trip. If Turner was there, could be a horse and gun too. Four Corners wasn't that far.
Vin felt the dead weight he'd been supported suddenly lighten. The sagging muscles tightened and tensed. The tracker paused, his nose in the air. "Trouble?"
"Salvation, maybe..." Chris grunted. "You wait here. Turner's a few yards ahead and alone. I can..."
"I can do it!" Vin hissed, "Ain't nothin' wrong with my arms."
"I know that Vin," Chris whispered, "But you can't see him. One flip of his wrist and he'll bury a knife in you. I'm not takin' any chances," Chris decided, eyeing the ground. "There's a large rock near your right boot. Can you get it for me?" Vin supplied the weapon and Chris guided him behind a large cactus. "You wait here. I'm gonna club him and get his gun." He saw the disgruntled face nod once, "Serve you right if your sorry face froze like that." He issued, gripping Vin's shoulder and departing.
It seemed like forever to the shivering ex-bounty hunter. He peered from behind the cactus, following the sounds Chris left. He couldn't see anything and was about to pull the cloth off his eyes, when he heard a grunt and thud. He froze, lifting his head and training his ear on the sounds of the footfall approaching. He relaxed, as Chris's familiar gait staggered over. He reached out and caught the injured man, sending both of them to the ground.
"Chris..." Vin shook the shoulder his hand found and struggled to sit up.
"Here..." Chris coughed, too winded to talk. He pressed the revolver in Vin's hands. "Only one...make it count..." he indicated of the lone bullet.
Vin nodded and gripped the gun, easing himself protectively in front of Chris, who was coughing, panting and moaning in pain. He heard the painful chuckling and turned, scowling.
"Ya got a twisted sense o' humor." He snarled.
"Guess that...de..pends...on...on...the...view..." Chris gasped, taking shallow breaths and trying with all his might not to pass out. He saw Vin's shoulder's slump and the head drop.
"A blind fuckin' sniper..." the soft voice sounded broken.
Chris saw the gun dangling from Vin's hand. He reached out and tapped the soggy shirt on his friend's back. "Hey...I'm gonna rest my eyes." He said, sending his faith full force.
Vin cocked his head as the words came, carrying the heartfelt faith. Chris gave him the gun, without hesitation. He trusted him...his instincts...to protect him, even without his sight.
Chris wasn't resting, but Vin didn't know that. He watched his young friend's back straighten and the strong hands grip the gun firmly. The tangled hair blew off his shoulders and the chin tilted. Chris smiled, watching Vin scent the air, his keen ear taking in sounds no one could. Chris turned back towards where he left Turner's body and the smile left his face. The body was gone. His heart clenched as the wind roared, sending a sage brush at them, herded by dust and debris. Instinctively, Vin turned and tried to cover Chris.
"I'm fine..." Chris gasped, pushing his friend away, and trying to see past him. He saw a large form walking the other way, his back to them. He eased upright, and felt Vin's hand grip his arm.
"Beaumont in the brush somewhere. I'm goin' for him. You stay low and protect that scrawny ass of yours." He ordered, gripping both shoulders. He saw the face screw up and the frown forming. "Don't gimme any shit, Vin. You stay put." He said, slipping away before Vin could protest.
Beaumont heard the footsteps and smiled. He dropped out of sight and waited. He saw Larabee staggering, hunched over, one arm protecting his injured ribs. When the prey was a few feet away, he pounced.
Vin forced an angry breath out and pulled the cloth off his eyes. He had no way to gage the time, but it seemed to his injured mind that Chris was gone quite a while. He'd been counting silently, turning a finger up each time he reached 'sixty'. It was past ten minutes...that was too long. He knelt down behind a squatty cactus and peered into the darkness. His eyes were burning again and he could only see shapes about ten yards away. Two men...one standing, one on the ground. He flattened himself and snaked forward, using the rocks and cactus as cover. He saw a brightness...moving and shimmering...a fire? Just to the side, was a still figure, in tan pants and a bloody blue shirt. Blond hair with a bandage..Chris...His heart sank. The shape over Chris was all in dark clothing. Too lean for Beaumont. He saw the fair hair...Turner. He was kneeling beside Chris, propped against a tree. Vin's burning eyes traveled around the campsite. Beaumont was nowhere in sight. He inched closer and a blurry movement on the arm of the guard. A knife descending at Chris's throat.
"NO!" Vin screamed, pulling his arm up and firing. He dropped the gun and stumbled forward, tripping and falling. He reached the bloody blue shirt and turned the body over carefully.
"Chris?" He called, then his hand froze. He sniffed and bent lower sniffing again. He tugged on the slack jaw and sniffed near the open mouth. "Tobacco..." His frozen fingers moved over the face...not Chris's...a scar from the jaw to the side of the eye. "Shit..." He pulled back. "Chris..." His voice wavered, as he realized his mistake. He crawled over and knelt up, squinting to see wetness or a hole in the dark shirt. His hand searched...he felt the bullet hole, low on the side and moaned loudly, realizing what he'd done. "Oh God...Chris..." he berated, his left hand creeping up until it rested lightly on the blurry, sweat-soaked face. He felt the head nod once and let out an unholy moan. He'd shot his best friend, maybe fatally.
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