"What do you have, Ez?" Josiah asked, reading the cryptic note again. "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."
"There is our clue, what he intended us to find." Ezra indicated, pointing to two words.
"...that tomb?" J.D. read, "I don't get it..."
"He didn't say...a tomb...or the tomb...he used 'that'." Ezra stipulated. "It's a specific reference. Buck, anything come to mind?"
"'That tomb'" Buck repeated, scratching his chin. "Could mean another mine, like he was trapped in." He sighed, trying to recall the mines in the area.
"Couldn't be too far." Nate guessed. "I was up here just after eight and Maria was cleaning the rooms. " he noted of the housekeeper. "Whoever did this came and left in a span of a couple hours."
"Which means Chris and Vin are only about two or three hours away." J.D. nodded. "Only a couple mines that close, that are abandoned but not caved in. Rosebud and Eden."
"We can split up." Josiah offered, "Eden's near the river, gonna be rough riding. Three hours anyway. If we're on a goosechase and they're hurt...needin' Nate."
"A risk we will have to take," Ezra provided.
"Unless..." Buck paused.
"What?" Nate cocked his head, seeing the dark blue eyes searching.
"Unless he's talking about another tomb." Buck huffed.
"Sarah and Adam's graves?" Josiah guessed and saw the dark head nod. "Yeah...they're in perimeter too. Damn...we're going be stretched thin. With five of us...somebody's ridin' alone."
"Six..." A voice from the doorway said.
"Dan, we can't ask you to take that risk." J.D. moved forward, "We're the peacekeepers here, we get paid to risk our necks."
"I'm not asking." Dan said. "and I'm going. Chris's room?"
"I'll show you." Ezra offered, "You'll want more appropriate clothing. I hope you're partial to black." He said as they disappeared.
"Okay, J.D. let's get the horses ready." Josiah said. "You and I will head to Eden. Nate and the rest can head the other way, towards Rosebud and the old Larabee place."
"Good enough." Nate nodded, "We'll see you in ten minutes at the livery."
J.D. had rifles and ammunition waiting when they others arrived. He eyed the street carefully.
"Where's Ez and Dan?"
Buck's chuckle answered that question.
"Let's ride." the figure in black said, hands on his hips over a black holster.
"Poor choice of words on Christmas, Son." Josiah grinned, as J.D. slack jawed, doe-eyed gaze at Dan Larabee, head to foot in Chris's black garb.
"Pay up..." Ezra said, wiggling his fingers to the newcomer.
"He told me to say that." Dan grinned, squeezing J.D.'s shoulder. "He was right, scared a good year off you."
"I updated Mary," Nate said, "She's expecting the judge on the morning stage. If we're not back, he'll get the army to help."
"A moment, gentlemen." Josiah said quietly, bowing his head and using his deep voice to call on the Lord for some help. Prayer completed, the six rode out. A chilling Christmas journey in search of their lost brothers.
+ + + + + + +
Vin dropped his head in shame, his shaking hands pressing against the wet wound, trying to stop the bleeding. He dropped to the dead body and felt around for the knife he'd seen. He gripped it and used his right hand to find the ropes binding Chris's hands.
"This rifle will take his head clear off." A voice warned. "Drop that knife and move away and I'll give you a fighting chance. Seventeen minutes, on for every hour I was buried in that watery grave. That's what time you'll have...to find me. I won't shoot. You find me and the horse is yours."
Vin tossed the knife and wheeled his body towards the voice. A hissing sound caused him to jerk the other way as dirt was thrown on the fire. Total darkness...clouds covering the moon. His hand wavered as he backed up...without knowing what direction to go.
Chris watched from where he was tied to a tree. He was in a kneeling position. He now understood why Beaumont had changed his clothes twice. He'd let Vin see him in the bloody shirt and tan pants. Now he was in his own black clothes...the ones Turner had been wearing...the one's on the body Vin shot at. Beaumont jumped him and tied him above Turner's already dead body, throat slit. Setting up the grim stage that Vin walked right into. Beaumont was behind Chris, using his body to block the view. All Vin's obscured vision saw was a flash of the knife. The gag prevented him from crying out, but his eyes watched the confident look on Vin's face when he fired. The pain in his side couldn't compare to the one in Vin's eyes. He'd been close enough to see the wide-eyed fear as the horror of what happened sank in. Nobody wore guilt as well as Vin Tanner, and now it was wrapped around his slender frame, like a heavy shroud. He still felt the trembling fingers against his face when Vin realized what he'd done. The rage he felt inside, swelled to a record height, matching the pain, mental and physical, that racked his body.
He felt blood and sweat mingling and racing down his face. Vin was like a trapped deer, he couldn't see his eyes, but knew they were like blue saucers. He couldn't see Beaumont. The one thing he could do was work at getting the gag free. He dropped his head and worked his jaw, rubbing it against his aching shoulder.
"...if I lose?" Vin finally found his voice, using more to track where the reply came from.
"You and that coward will be buried alive in that mine. Fifteen minutes, you're wasting time."
Vin dropped down and went left, scrambling towards the blurry outline of a group of rocks. He flattened his back and let his ears and nose find Beaumont. Tobacco again and body odor...coming on the wind...southeast. He crept catlike, not making a sound. Once again he paused and waited on the wind.
Beaumont frowned; the tracker was smarter than he'd given him credit for. He couldn't see him and the only sound was the shrieking wind. He looked back at Larabee, who was lying limp against the ropes. He turned back, his eyes searching the cold night.
Chris waited for Beaumont to turn away and continued to work on the gag. How long had it been...five minutes...maybe ten? Finally, the cloth dropped below his lower lip. He took several deep breaths, and fought his heavy eyes.
Vin saw the blurry image of a large body about fifteen feet away. He was turned sideways, and there was no cover between them. That meant if Beaumont turned before he got to him, he and Chris were as good as dead. His fumbling, frozen fingers found the small wooden cross on his neck. It was an early gift from Josiah. Vin had helped him for ten days, getting the church ready for the Christmas Eve Service and party. He'd brought a small tree and decorated it with bits of cloth. There was a roof to fix, pews to varnish, and a window to put in. He listened every day as Josiah read about Mary and Joseph's trip to Bethlehem. It was a story he never got tired of. Josiah caught him one day, staring transfixed as he recited. The booming laughter startled and embarrassed Vin, who told the kind preacher that he'd never really had a real Christmas, not with Church Service, surrounded by family. Josiah saw the shine in his eyes and moved his large hand under his shirt. It reappeared with the small cross. He took the cross off his neck and placed it on Vin's. Vin was humbled, knowing how much it meant to the larger man, who said he made it while on a pilgrimage. He'd never taken it off. He needed Josiah's strength now and slipped the cross beneath his shirt. Taking a deep breath, he took off.
Chris saw Vin sprinting and opened his eyes in alarm. He almost made it. As graceful as a cat, he sprung at Beaumont, just as the larger man turned. His beefy hands gripped together and formed a meaty club. It connected with the side on Vin's head, snapping back as the tracker's momentum carried them backwards and out of Chris's line of sight.
"Vin...Vin..." He called weakly, feeling the life ebb out of him. He licked his dry lips, every breath an effort. His head raised in hope as he heard movement from behind the rocks obscuring his view.
Christmas, 1 a.m.
"You come up dry, you head back to town." Buck advised J.D. and Josiah at the fork in the road. "Get some help in town, it'll be daylight by then."
"Good enough," Josiah nodded, "God go with you."
"You too, Brother." Nathan called out, glad of the large full moon, which provided them with some light.
The quartet followed the road for about an hour when it was time to part ways again. The Larabee ruins were to the east; Ezra and Dan headed that way. Buck and Nathan continued on towards the Rosebud. Nate was riding behind Buck and about an hour later, he saw the tall man rise in his saddle.
"Nate?" He jerked his head and the dark-skinned healer followed the motion. Two horses were tied up about twenty yards ahead.
"Could be..." Nate peered, urging his steed forward. Buck was already off horse and running when Nate arrived.
"It's Caesar and Diablo." He said of Chris and Vin's horses. "They've been here awhile."
"Let's have a look around." Nate said, and drew a gun.
They skirted the side of the mine and found a clearing with signs of recent life. "I'll see if there's an old torch inside," Buck said as he jogged into the entrance.
Nathan eyed what he could under the moonlight. He walked around, eyeing the remnants of rope and pausing at a large, darkened spot on the ground. He knelt down and fingered the sticky mess, sniffing it, and determined his fear. Blood...lots of it. He spotted a rag on the ground and made his way over. He identified the harsh smell before he even picked the cloth up. A beam of light, from the torch Buck lit, confirmed it.
"Chloroform." Nate sighed, scratching his head. "Throw it that way." He asked of the light.
"Damn..." Buck hissed at the large blood spill. "That's where he did it...the guy with no head..."
"Yeah..." Nate agreed, "Anything inside?"
"Somebody was here tonight. Food, an empty liquor bottle, some ropes...signs of a struggle. I found these." He held out some ripped pink fabric stained with blood. "One of 'em was hurt."
"Tracks lead that way." Nate pointed.
Ten minutes later, they found the ditch and the missing head. Neither said it; they both saw the reason. The long hair in a dark tomb, Chris's broken heart. "That sick son-of-a-bitch..." Buck hissed, spotting a silver spur from Chris's boot. "He buried Chris alive in there with that...that..." Buck screamed and clenched his fists in frustration. "...fuckin' animal...I'm gonna hurt him slow...I'm gonna..." He shuddered and walked off, his frame wrought with pain.
Nathan winced at the horrid chamber not able to conceive the grief their friend must have felt when he woke up and found himself with what he thought was his best friend's head.
"Enough to break a man...even a Larabee." He muttered, turning away. "Any more tracks?"
"Yeah...leading back towards town." Buck said jumping on his horse. "They're uneven...one of 'em's hurt...not walking right."
"Can't be far." Nate prayed.
"Vin." Chris breathed a long sigh as the bloody Texan staggered towards him. "Thank God..."
"Just did..." Vin replied, dropping at Chris's feet. "Bastard went off the edge of a cliff. Ain't sure why I didn't..." He gasped, rubbing his aching head. His hands began searching the ground.
"It's two feet ahead of your left hand." Chris hissed over the pain, spotting the knife.
Chris tried to hold himself up, but once the ropes were cut, he collapsed. He felt Vin pull him upright and his soggy blond head fell on the other's shoulder. He felt Vin's violent trembling and heard the painful intakes of air.
"s'okay, Cowboy, I ain't dead..." He whispered.
"Good thing." Vin replied, voice shaking. He held Chris close and felt along his back for an exit wound. "Ya still owe me three dollars from dinner last night."
"Cheap...bas...bas...bastard." Chris rasped, owl-eyed trying to stake awake. "It go through?"
"Yeah..." Vin sighed.
"Good, guess I'll bleed to death before lead poisoning sets in."
"That ain't funny." Vin growled, pulling back and looking at where Chris's face should be. "Ya ain't gonna die..ya can't...I..."
Chris looked up and blinked lazily, the pain in the eyes above him enough to make the strongest man cry. He reached a bloody hand up and placed it over the lost, grieving eyes washed with guilt. "Get that fuckin' look off your face or I'll leave you here. I mean it."
" Tell me how..." Vin choked, swallowed hard, but making no move to remove the cold fingers on his eyes.
"I'll let you know when I figure it out."
"Ya didn't do...?" Vin jerked, pulling the hand away. The burning eyes were causing him to blink rapidly. "Ya didn't do...anythin'to be guilty fer."
"He changed the clothes...let us escape, let me take out Turner. He did that just for this moment. I had to watch you raise that gun, knowing..." Chris paused, sucking in a painful breath. "He used both of us Vin. I'm still seeing your face when you realized..."
Vin didn't respond, his head shifted in the wind. "Git yer eyes over that way." the Texan directed pointing into the wind.
"Why?" Chris gasped, "Ahh..."
"Easy..." Vin took the slick hand and winced at the grip of pain. Finally it passed. "Come on, Cowboy, earn yer keep." He ordered, standing and pulling Chris upright. Both the gunslinger's legs buckled. "Dammit, I can't carry ya." Vin said crossly. "Git yer legs workin'..."
"You bark at me again and I'm gonna..."
"Can't...ya got no gun..." Vin interrupted.
"...hate that..." Chris grunted of Vin finishing his thoughts. He saw the bounty hunter's nose in the wind again. "What?"
"Horse...close by...see it?" Vin's eyes were really hurting and his head throbbed. He felt dizzy and Chris's added weight didn't help.
Chris gritted against the pain and staggered with Vin. He knew the smaller man was supporting him and didn't miss the sharp intakes of breath. His back must be killing him...A chestnut stallion appeared in the foreground. "Ten o'clock...ten feet or so...go..." He whispered, and felt Vin gently let him fall. He watched Vin approach the horse, talking in Native American dialect. The horse paced restlessly, then paused, and allowed Vin to grab his reins. He watched Vin lean heavily against the horse and grab his eyes. The tracker tried to suppress the cry, but the gunslinger heard it.
"Hold on, Vin...I'm coming." He sucked in his chest and stood, as the razor-like jaws of pain bit through his chest.
"Stay there..." Vin ordered, trying to figure out how to get up on the horse. "I'll lift ya on..."
"Shut up Tanner." Chris rasped, his drunken gait sending him off course. He should have made Vin stay in town. He'd taken the injured back too lightly. If Vin had stayed in Four Corners...his eyes...the bruises...bloody head.
"Where the hell ya goin'?" Vin hollered, spotting Chris wandering away.
"Huh...Oh..." Chris righted himself and tried to turn. The last thing he heard was Vin's voice as he dropped into a dark abyss.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra reined the horse in as the charred ruins of the Larabee house stood out. He slipped off Deuce and handed the reins up to Dan. The Conman drew his gun and walked around the perimeter, searching the ruins of the house, corral and then the graves.
"Someone was here earlier," He felt the impressions of knees in the dirt. He saw Dan kneel and bow his head, touching his fingers to his lips and then to each cross. "I'm sorry...Chris...I'm so...sorry..." He whispered, feeling the unbearable sadness. He thought of his wife Beth and their two boys. He couldn't imagine finding the strength to go on. He misunderstood his brother and wasted three years in anger.
Ezra didn't rush the young man, whose head remained bowed for some time, lost in prayer or in the past.
"He's a remarkable man." Ezra finally said. "That courage he exudes is unlike any I've ever encountered."
"Thank you, Ezra." Dan said, rising and extending his hand. "I hope I have the chance to tell him that."
"You will, Son." Ezra said quietly, over his own fear. "We should go. It's a long ride back to the Rosebud. Perhaps Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Jackson have fared better."
+ + + + + + +
A scream penetrated the quiet sanctity that the wounded man had been residing in. His green eyes shot open and he realized the voice had been his. Someone was talking, so hoarsely he could barely hear the voice. A harsh slap to his face brought him fully back into the world of the living.
"Git yer eyes open."
The young man winced at the weak voice. He couldn't see the face; it was just a blur. But he knew how pale it was. The sticky substance that ran freely through his frozen fingers told him something needed to be done.
"Did you...slug me...again?" Chris eyed the worried face hovering over him. Even in the moonlight he could how wide-eyed the tracker was. The bobbing Adam's Apple also relayed the message of fear.
"Ya passed out."
"Must be the company I'm keeping."
"Chris...yer bleedin' bad. I need yer help. I'm gonna seal 'em."
"Okay..." Chris nodded. "Not here..." He racked his brain, thinking of the area. "Trapper's cabin...yeah...." He thought aloud.
"How far?" Vin asked, pulling the last bandage, from his now half-missing shirt, tight.
"Quit bellyachin'...Ya think this is easy fer me?" Vin snapped, his nerves on edge.
Chris heard the break in the raspy voice and saw the trembling hands. He grabbed one and grasped it. "Sorry...Get me up..."
Chris wrapped an arm around Vin's waist and Vin gripped him under his shoulders. He bit back his cry as the tracker's hands squeezed against the shoulder wound. They collapsed against the horse. He felt Vin's fingers running down his leg and raised it. Once in the stirrup, he paused, gripped the saddlehorn and waited.
"Ya ready?" Vin asked, one hand gripping Chris's waist and the other on his other leg.
"Vin you can't...your back."
"On three." Vin ordered, "One...two...three."
Chris was vaulted into the saddle and fell forward grabbing the neck of the animal as the world spun around. This time his scream of pain was echoed. He turned his face sideways and saw Vin writhing on the ground. "Shit..." The guilt gnawed at him. If Vin had only stayed in town, "Get up..." He barked, but the body didn't move. "I can't hold on Vin..." He gasped, guilt riding his face. Sure enough that worked, Vin sprung up, pain scoring his face. It took several minutes and some strong Texan cursing, but he felt the body slide in behind him. He relaxed as one strong arm wrapped around him.
"Don't leave me..."
Chris heard the soft plea his ear. The tight arm that gripped him was as much for the younger man as it was for himself. "Got no...no...place...to...go..." He managed, fighting to stay conscious.
"I can't see Chris...Iffen ya go out on me..."
"Let's ride." Chris said, pulling himself up as best he could. "I'll be your eyes..." He turned back, "You got that?"
It took a long minute, both knew that Chris didn't mean just for this night. He felt responsible for the loss of sight. Finally, Chris saw a slight nod. "Good..."
"Helluva Christmas." Vin muttered, and felt the body pulling away. "Chris..."
"Sorry..." The blond slurred, "Talk to me...helps."
"Aw, hell..." Vin complained, "Ya shoudda hitched a ride with Ez. The prattle of his could git a corpse to dancin'" Vin decided and heard the soft chuckle in front of him. "Reckon Jesus ever got birthday presents?"
"What?" Chris winced as a chuckle escaped at a man's voice bearing child's question. "Dunno...maybe."
"I's helpin' Josiah at the church last couple weeks, heard him practicin' his speech...uh gospel." He corrected, feeling Chris pull away. "Aw, hell, I ain't even started yet and yer fallin' asleep." He blinked rapidly, trying to make out the blurry shadows.
Chris jerked and sat up, forcing his eyes open. "Guess we missed it...would have been nice. He's got a powerful delivery."
Vin remained silent for a moment, recalling how moved he was by the story Josiah told. He cast his burning eyes heavenward and found a lone star...or a blurry object that he hoped was a star. He heard Chris's soft grunts of pain and felt the small river of blood running over his frozen fingers, which held his best friend tightly. What if this was their first and last Christmas together? What if Chris...No, he pushed the thought away, it was too painful to realize. But still, the warm feeling he got inside at Josiah's stirring tale of the Birth of Jesus swirled in his head. He thought of two other travelers who journeyed in the darkness, following a star and riding on a prayer. They rode to Bethlehem and found salvation. He suddenly felt a need inside to share that story, of such faith, with the one person he felt close to.
"Vin?" Chris's head came up suddenly and clipped the tracker's chin.
"Sorry." Chris whispered.
"It ain't gonna be pretty and proper like 'siah's talk...but..." Vin stammered. "I could tell ya...about Jesus bein' born."
"I'd like that." Chris replied, suddenly feeling a surge of stamina fill him. He sat taller and eyed the road ahead, wary of Vin's poor sight.
"There was this feller named Caesar, who's the governor. He needed to make up a list of all the folks that was in his territory. So's he'd know who to collect taxes from. Hmmph." Vin huffed, "Some things never change...anyhow, Joseph, he was a carpenter, a real good one...like Josiah...him and Mary, his wife, was livin' in a fishing town named Galilee. Mary was ready to have a baby and Joseph was worried about her travelin' like that...but she had faith...that the Lord would keep 'em safe. So Joseph trusted her and felt that faith...so they left on a donkey...and that was real hard for her. Can't imagine that...had to hurt like hell. Josiah said it took 'em about ten days to get there on accounta they had to ride so slow, her expectin' and all."
"Strong woman..." Chris commented.
"Ya got that right." Vin agreed, "Anyhows, when they finally got there, all the inns were full up. Joseph tried all of 'em...and Mary started having pains...So this last feller who's inn they's near...he said to use his barn. So Joseph cleaned out a feedin' crib the animals used, put clean hay in it, so's the baby would have a bed. Then he laid his coat down. He put her on the coat and she give birth to Jesus. While this was goin' on...in the fields around that area, they was lots of shepherds with their flocks. A whole bunch o'angels appeared in the sky...they's beautiful Chris...had lights shinin' all over 'em...some of 'em was singin', some of 'em was jest flyin' about and the head angel come down to talk to the shepherds." Vin paused, cocking his head and then chuckled softly, giving Chris a small smile. "How'd ya like to be that feller, tellin' his friends that story when he got home. Reckon, they thought he was drinkin'." Vin continued, "Well these poor shepherds was all shook up...what with seeing a mess of angels flyin' overhead...so the head angel, she come down to straightened 'em out. She told 'em to calm down and quit runnin' away, that she had good news fer 'em. She told 'em that Christ the Lord was bein' born...and she give 'em directions on how to git there, to follow the star...it was big star...ain't been another one like it." He paused, and wrinkled his face. "What's a swaddle?"
Chris chuckled, and didn't respond right away. "A swaddle?" He repeated, playing along.
"Yeah...I didn't get to ask Josiah 'bout that...he said the baby was swaddlin'...swaddled..."
"...wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." Chris recalled of the momentous story.
"Clothes?" Vin scoffed. "Fer a brand new baby? He weren't big enough fer clothes."
"...means he was wrapped up good, safe, warm and protected."
"Oh...makes sense..." Vin agreed. "Oh, I fergot a part...when there's a whole mess o' angels, singing and flyin about. That head angel she seen how scared they was and she said...uh.. Glory be to...no, that ain't it...Glorious day...no...aw, hell..." He hissed, annoyed that he couldn't remember.
"Glory to God..." Chris started and waited, feeling Vin's grip tighten.
"Glory to God in the highest..." Vin repeated, then found Chris's voice joining in, and they finished together. "and on earth peace and goodwill towards men."
"Thanks, Cowboy..." Vin released, with a gratified sigh.
"Glad to help..." Chris returned, "So what happened?"
"Well, them shepherds, they's all mixed up. Some on 'em wanted to stay put, some of 'em was actin' crazy, some wanted to follow the star. They's fightin' amongst themselves, till the head shepherd, he's the one dressed all in black," Vin paused, grinning behind the blurry body in front of him. "...had black sheep too."
"Really?" Chris grinned. "I must have missed that part in Bible school. I don't remember him."
"Yup...he's there alright...stood on the top o' the hill and stared 'em all down. They all shut up and followed the star."
"Sounds like this guy was pretty smart." Chris tossed back, shivering and feeling a fever set in.
"Nah...most likely he had his eye on that angel...her bein' a good looker and all." Vin decided.
"I heard about one of them shepherds too." Chris rasped, fighting hard to stay upright. He felt Vin's arms pull him back as he swayed. "kinda scrawny...don't talk much...skulks about the back of the flock...long hair...takes to wearin' animal skins...you know the type...wild and ...uh..."
"Ya's jest anglin' on a way to work 'wooly' inta this..." Vin laughed and pulled Chris closer, feeling his strength ebbing. He reined the swaying body in and held tight. "Where ya goin'? I ain't done yet."
"What's left...Jesus was born..." Chris slurred, head dropping and hitting his chest. He felt the arms tightened around him again and a tinge of worry in the drawl crawling into his ear.
"The most important part..." Vin said, furrowing his eyebrows. "I been thinkin' on some things...'specially Mary. I mean, 'siah said she was young...like fourteen or so. She's engaged to this carpenter feller, Joseph. Then she's gotta tell him she's havin' a baby and it ain't his...it's from a ghost. Good thing he weren't named Larabee...ya wouldda hunted that ghost down."
"I can be diplomatic..." Chris rasped, biting back a wave of pain and chuckling softly at Vin's snort of protest at his statement.
"So Joseph, he ain't so sure...then he gets a dream and the Lord tells 'em about Jesus bein' the savior of the world and the King of Kings and all...and then he has faith in her. So when she's gonna give birth and they have take a hard trip across tough land...he was afraid fer her and the baby, no knowin' what they's ridin' into."
"...sounds like they needed a good tracker." Chris whispered, taking slow breaths, against the painful ribs.
"...hah..." Vin tossed, smiling. "But she had such faith Chris...put all her trust in the Lord. She weren't afraid at all...trusted what her heart told her. He felt that faith and took her hand and they followed her heart and set in under that star."
"That's beautiful, Vin..." Chris sighed, "It takes someone special like that, with a heart like that, to see it that way." the blond complimented, in awe of the poet's soul that inspired him. He could almost feel the humble man blushing. "...and..." He prompted, knowing Vin wasn't done.
"Josiah said that they was so filled with love and joy...they's glowin'. Imagine how that must have felt?" Vin's voice was tinged with awe. "Yer first child...born in barn, with animals and hay and all...would grow up and save all of mankind. Him bein' the Son of...the son of..."
"Son of God." Chris finished, his slick fingers sticky with blood from the wound he pressed on.
"No." Vin shook his head, "...the son of a carpenter." He rasped in a quiet voice, but one with such admiration it made Chris lean back and take notice. "He's a lucky little feller...havin' Joseph...those strong hands to teach 'im...'bout bein' a carpenter and fishin' and maybe helpin' him with his cipherin' and scribin'...he's a good man, Joseph. He done a right good job raisin' that boy. Yeah...he sure was lucky..."
Chris was instantly humbled. He felt his throat tighten and for a minute, couldn't produce a single word. Suddenly he felt like the luckiest bastard in the world. To have a man so fine as this, as his friend...brother...the other half of his soul, was a privilege; someone with a warrior's heart cloaked in a poet's soul. "I know how he feels." Chris said, reaching a bloody hand up and squeezing Vin's forearm. "Vin...your story...it moved me..." He said thickly, taking a shuddering breath.
"Aw, hell, Chris." Vin swallowed hard, embarrassed, and finally found his voice. "Next thing...y'ell take to wearin' regular clothes and smilin' even."
"...there it is..." Chris gasped, eyeing the outline of the cabin under the brightest moon he could ever recall. "...see...it...?"
"Sorta..." Vin hissed, his grip on Chris and the reins prevented him from rubbing his burning eyes.
Chris heard the soft cry and felt Vin pushing his face against his shoulder. He glanced at the strong hands, that despite their own pain, never wavered. "Go on and rub 'em...I won't fall."
"...s'okay...ain't to bad..." Vin replied in a forced breath.
"You tell a fine story, Tanner." Chris grunted, "but you can't lie worth a damn."
It was the longest, hardest short distance either ever rode. Chris fought with everything he had to remain conscious. He couldn't let Vin down...he had to help him. Finally, they arrived.
"We're here..." Chris whispered, swaying as Vin slid off. He felt the hand groping and managed to lean into it, and not fall off the horse. He eyed the porch and the pile of wood outside the door.
"Can you see the cabin?" He asked, watching Vin rubbing his eyes again. "Vin?"
They made it inside and Chris eyed the small cabin. A bed was against one wall. He staggered forward, his legs completely numb, just working on will. "Quilt back...hurry!" He hissed, feeling the curtain falling. Finally he was down. He felt Vin fumbling with his shirt buttons. "Just rip it, Vin..."
"Roll fer me." Vin ordered, kneeling by the side of the bed. Chris rolled towards him, placing a hand on Vin's shoulder. Vin pulled the shirt aside "Here...and here?" He guessed.
"Yeah...hip pocket...matches...hurry" He felt Vin's deft fingers and sighed.
"Aw, hell...we got no bullets." Vin panicked.
"Side of the horse...rifle...check bags...cartridges..."
He remained on his side shivering in the cold. He heard only a few curses, meaning Vin was having only little difficulty. Sure enough, finally the body appeared in the doorway, sporting a limp. "What happened?"
"He kicked me..." Vin answered, limping over. "Nate's gonna kill me, Chris."
The serious face and tone gave the gunslinger he first relieved laugh. "Not on my shift." He promised, ruffling the brown hair.
"Ow..." Vin hissed.
"Sorry...damn you're a mess, Tanner." He grunted, eyeing the battered man and then the fireplace. "Vin, get a fire going...wood outside...to the right of the door...hurry..." He issued, and watched Vin's short trip. "Straight ahead and to the left...count your steps...so you remember."
Vin started from the door and counted. He heard Chris shout and dropped down. He felt around the floor and placed the wood inside, stacking it carefully. The fire roared to life, giving the room much needed warmth.
"Uh...uh..." Chris shook his head. "Go back and count...I'm not gonna be awake ...You need to know...go on..."
So Vin retraced his steps. He stared ahead, but the burning was worse with his eyes open. Closed, the pain lessened considerably. He counted and felt his leg brush the bed. Satisfied, he dropped down and got his job started. Both had cauterized wounds before and neither spoke. Chris directed Vin, impressed by the nimble fingers moving gracefully. Finally the uncapped bullets were lined up and the match ready. Vin pulled off the bloody bandages and froze; his hand began to tremble violently.
Chris saw the hand and eyed Vin's face; his swollen red eyes were blinking rapidly and tearing. A large bruise from Beaumont's fierce clubbing left one side swollen and discolored. The back of his head was matted and bloody. The chin was wavering...he grabbed the trembling hand and gripped it hard. "Trust me..." He said, and felt the fear lift and saw the head bob once. He knew he was in a bad way, the fever and blood loss could be a potentially dangerous mix. He thought of his trek to Sarah and Adam. "Vin...favor..." he whispered, his glazed eyes bearing into the painful, blank ones above.
"Ya even gotta ask?" Vin blinked, still gripping the weak hand.
"My breast pocket...pouch...you see to it." He said, eyes starting to slide shut.
"Ya see to it yerself when yer back on yer feet, back to bein' a bossy cuss." Vin drilled, fearing the final tone in the voice.
"...s'important..." Chris pleaded, using his free hand to grab Vin's shoulder. "Please Cowboy..."
Vin Tanner could do most anything. Deadly sniper...fearless fighter...crusader against injustice...tracker and bounty hunter. Few things could defeat him without a fight. Two of them just broke through every defense system. Two words and the cracked voice that pleaded. He couldn't deny Chris.
"Okay..." He sighed, fumbling for the velvet pouch. He slipped it inside the pocket of his buffalo coat and heard the audible sigh. The weak hand moved from the shoulder and tapped his cheek.
"I'm grateful..." Chris whispered, "Do it..." He nodded, glanced at the true blue eyes, laced with pain, and slipped away.
Vin rubbed his eyes and leaned over Chris's bare side, feeling the wounds front and back. They weren't deep, and most likely just found muscle. He wasted no more time. He blocked out the room and pushed the heavy burden of guilt away. He focused on the mission. He didn't hear the scream of pain. He didn't feel the tears that ran down his face as he eased the sleeping body onto the bed and covered it. His burning eyes and throbbing head defeated him and his spirit was shredded. He sank to the floor, resting his head against the side of the bed. He felt the warmth of the fire basking his face and let himself go. He was unconscious when the limp hand moved, seeking him. It continued to move until it felt his wet face, it slipped to the troubled neck, and then it rested.
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